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It's Nelly's World

Reading Light

alec vanderboom

I sit in bed, at night, reading. I should be working. But self-doubt pulls at me. I pick up a friend's book, a memoir about having written a memoir. (Is this the start of a new genre?) I am pulled in. I know the players, the places. I know her. I know her voice. In fact, I long to hear her kind and generous voice, in real life, at this hour, because I am pulled by self-doubt. It's stretching my skin. I know, because a sick sensation in my gut is telling me that nothing I do will ever amount to much.

Or maybe the problem is that I will never allow myself to feel that it's enough. --My mind, you see, is currently saturated with a rereading of Alice Miller's The Drama of the Gifted Child, her chilling anatomy of the wages of narcissism.

I first read this book almost twenty years ago. The only thing from it that stuck with me was the unbearably painful description of two adults enjoying ice cream bars in the face of their toddler, who wanted one of his own so badly--and they laughed. "But he's only a child" is the way Miller describes the unempathic grown-up's dismissal of a child's distress. Yes, he's only a child. But ignore his necessarily narcissistic needs, and you are custom-building your very own narcissist, who will grow up and be unable to see or fulfill his own child's needs, because the loss of his must go unmourned, so painful are they. And the cycle begins anew. Is there anything more depressing?
The gruesomeness of that image--two big people, standing like a wall in front of a child's anguish--stayed with me, a burn on the skin. It was like the equally unforgettable image of the dog who submits (because he must) to a beating, then licks the hand of his tormentor (because he must). He says thereby: Please don't hurt me. Later, the hateful person returns, and is greeted with a wagging tail.

I want to puke.

Instead, I return to my friend's book, saving Alice Miller for later--I can only digest so much of it at once, since it is ringing bells, causing flashbacks. I can't stop reading, even if the summer childcare schedule has caused serious sleep-deprivation. I can't stop reading, even if the 500-page biography of Shakespeare's mind (yes, people: his mind. The man himself has been done, so many times before) is calling out for my red pencil. We have hidden several typos in these pages. Can you find them all?

I try to tear myself away, only to pick up a magazine--I am a master procrastinator. In an article I come across a reference to something Schopenhauer once wrote, and suddenly I realize it's something that Karen Pryor, grande dame of clicker training, has absconded with and called her own. I remember sitting in a large conference room in a Cleveland hotel, Nelly whining at my feet (she had become afraid of the sound of people clapping), fervently writing in my notebook "her" brilliant quote about the progress of all radically new ideas: from ridicule and hatred, finally to acceptance that even goes so far as to claim ownership. (Maybe Pryor took it literally.) I had been looking for, and here found, an explanation for the bizarre vituperativeness of those who felt threatened by the scientific--and, let's face it, moral--idea that inflicting pain on animals is not necessary to training them. Once this has been proved, as it has, why would you not only countenance the use of fear and aversion in your teaching, but attack those who have shown it to be the wrong choice?

This reminded me that I have to stop reading others and get back to writing my own book, which will seek to answer this question (though I suspect I won't, and will merely repeat the question several different ways).

And then a moth lights on the edge of the page. His wings stop beating, so I can look closely at him. He is a dozen shades of gray, from gleam to pewter. The edges of his wings are ragged; I can see the very warp and woof of him. Then he exerts his great energies once more, beating, throwing himself against all objects. Will I ever have such passion again myself? Or must I now be consigned only to tiredness, and self-doubt?

I should throw myself against all objects.