David Foster Wallace is, in the end, proof that outside affirmation is nothing in the face of our actual need for it to come from elsewhere. Like, within. (Why do I feel so defensive for saying something like that, something that is literally a matter of life, death, and/or fundamental happiness? Nothing more profound than that, eh? Yet it's impossible to speak of things like "affirmation" or "self-esteem" in this culture without emanating the horrid odor of triviality: "pop psychology," nothing more despicable than that. Now I realize I have just quickly given away the whole point here: we are so afraid of certain kinds of truth that we do a number on them in order to dispose of them quickly. So through projection the critical becomes the unimportant, and poof--literate intellectuals need not bother.)
Back to this particular literate intellectual. He gathered awards as easily as one might heap a basket with windfall apples in October. Um, darn easily, I'll tell you from experience just yesterday. His writing was so fluid and self-assured, smart and fluid (yes, I know I said that twice). You'd think he would wake up every morning and immediately start laughing, a robust acknowledgment that the world was in his hand.
Instead, he woke up one day and felt so hopeless and irrevocably shitty he killed himself.
I didn't know him. I don't know his true story. (You are aware that nonfiction writers tell you only so much of their true debilities as to make you like them in all their frail humanness, even to the revelation of partial but never entire shame, right? Just so we're clear.) But I know that his death had to do with a deep, deep fissure right through the center of his being. The hopelessness of ever tacking it together--of having to keep on living without anyone ever knowing how deep it was, riven through the place where a sense of self might have gone--had to have been what got him in the end.
I sit in the den of the house I grew up in, the cozy womb of bookshelves, dark paneling, and television. I am, I seem to recall, a teenager, though I might be older. I am watching a show on PBS. What I see makes me remember forever this moment and its setting, although now, the minute I write these words, a worry steals over me: Are you sure? Sure you didn't in fact watch this on the little black-and-white set in your less cozy, but even smaller and darker, bedroom in your second apartment in Hoboken, when you were 23?
A man on the screen is pulling on one element of a hanging mobile. When he does, the whole thing goes out of balance; it can no longer move freely, harmoniously connected yet also discrete. This is a model of the family, he is saying. One member of the family falls, or leans, and every other member must scramble to pull backward, contort themselves to cover the void.
This notion was so radical to me, it stopped time almost. It began, at that moment, to do nothing less than alter my worldview. And after beginning psychotherapy, this reconfiguration continued until I could no longer understand any motivation, whether of individual or society, the same way I used to.
The man, I am so unfashionable as to admit, was John Bradshaw. A world-shaker. Galileo, Bach, Melville, Einstein, and John Bradshaw. Oh, how funny you are, Melissa!
(Later in the series, he said something else that struck and stayed with me, an image frozen on the internal screen: Proportionally speaking, the adult is an eighteen-foot-tall being to the child, fearsome and formidable and otherworldly. [Use that power wisely, gently, parents.] It made me realize how afraid of my mother and father I had been.)
Every time someone assures me how happy their childhood was, I think of the tenuousness of that mobile. And because they have gone out of their way to voice this assurance, it becomes suspect to me. There is the truth, and then there is the self-protective turning away from it. Again and again. On the basis alone of what I hear when I chance to meet other dog owners on the trail--strangely convoluted stories about how their dogs are evincing "guilt," or their purported ability to know something they've done in the strictly human realm is "wrong," or is not bothered or or unafraid or "just playing" when their body language is fairly screaming that none of these is true, or is not being hurt by the zaps on the two (yes, I saw this on a beagle yesterday, and was sick) shock collars the dog is wearing when he is actually yelping in pain and redirecting the aggression that arises to the other dogs he meets on the path--I know our far greatest talent as people is the turning of reality into fiction.
I've been reading Bradshaw again, demeaning of my status as a literate intellectual as this admission is. I know David Foster Wallace would have found something laughable in it. It would have looked so pathetic to him, and in that, fair game for his ever-trenchant observation. But I offer this bit from Bradshaw, without shame:
Our culture does not handle emotions well. We like folks to be happy and fine. We learn rituals of acting happy and fine at an early age. I can remember many times telling people "I'm fine" when I felt like the world was caving in on me. I often think of Senator Muskie who cried on the campaign trail when running for president. From that moment on he was history. . . . True expression of any emotions that are not "positive" are met with disdain. . . . Playing roles and acting are forms of lying as a cultural way of life. Living this way causes an inner split. It teaches us to hide and cover up our toxic shame. This sends us deeper into isolation and loneliness.It's too late for him. But maybe not for some of the rest of us, who in hearing it may suddenly not feel so alone with the truth, so damn deathly alone.