Poof. It’s a gentle sound, not alarming, and it’s accompanied by a modest puff of pearly smoke. It’s me seeing a pattern that’s been there forever, a pattern that suddenly shifted like a kaleidoscope and settled into something distinct, and distinctly different. Poof. Look at this again.
In high school I began to find an affinity for acting through the Drama Club, whose initial attraction was that it rehearsed at 7:30 AM and got me out of the house soon after my father left for work: anything to cut down alone-time with my mother. To begin with, it was the experience of getting the parts that the cute girls wouldn’t touch, like Lady Bracknell in The Importance of Being Earnest. She was outrageous and bossy and had comic lines crafted to land like mortar shells. I didn’t remotely have the craft to support this, but I could feel the potential. Not for a moment did I comprehend that this had been the center of my mother’s profession.
She’d been a vaudeville comedienne for ten years, touring all over the country and earning very nice money once she got established. In vaudeville comedy you’d better be able to land zingers, and she knew how. It’s how she could reduce me to tears and snot in thirty seconds flat.
When I was a senior, the German teacher I had a huge crush on decided that the junior class should do a play, and it would be Our Town. I wasn’t in it, but I did some support work, and I saw the cast come together to become the beating heart that is the center of this play. I had no way of knowing that at the same time an Iowa high school actor was seeing part of this same play at a state contest, and that it would change his life forever. I only knew that I loved what John Deethardt had directed and given to the junior class. It was not at all what I’d been doing in the Drama Club, and it was what I wanted.
I graduated and went to the University of Michigan as a pre-med honors student, a goal I’d fixated on for four years, and then I got deeply involved with theatre. My mother was not supportive of this idea. “You have no heart, no looks, no voice, and no sense of humor. Forget it.” It was a pretty strong assault, but it wasn’t effective. I’ve lived my life in the theatre and I’ve been good at it.
Here’s what I didn’t realize. Theatre was her world. She’d fled a damaging childhood, made her way through elite theatre training in New York, and had become a self-supporting respected performer in a very harsh world. It was her world, and she’d paid her dues. Who was I to try to gate-crash? She’d voluntarily left that world to become a wife, possibly a mother, but I was a Hail-Mary adoption when that didn’t happen. I should be her fulfillment, not her competitor.
I never quite understood her vicious attacks on my attraction to theatre. I thought of it as an attack on me, but I never thought of it as a defense of what had been hers. Her image of me had been created by her own parenting, and it was the image of an unattractive weakling suited only for quiet intellectual activity. But in the Chinese zodiac, I wasn’t just a dragon, I was a Golden Dragon. In time, I realized that and claimed a world that was rightfully mine.
I came long ago to the point where I could forgive her abuse. Now, realizing that she was defending her private territory, the arena where she herself had come to power, gives me a new insight into forgiveness.
I’m reading an interesting book right now called Humankind—pop science, breezy, but well written—that explores the old question, whether man is inherently savage and in need of restraint (Hobbes) or only made so by so-called civilization (Rousseau). The writer draws historians, anthropologists, archaeologists, observers of apes, and novelists into the fray, in search of our core nature.
Does our undeniable penchant for violence, exploitation, etc., stem from a base animal nature that laws and police must hold in check, or have we constructed systems that induce it?
My own unscientific instinct is to disbelieve in original sin—that we are born evil and kept in line only by the whip or by being taught that it’s bad to hit our baby sister. It’s hard to believe that the species would survive without an intrinsic talent for cooperation, or that small killer bands evolved into million-man armies and thus survived by murder and rape. Guys sticking up convenience stores don’t often have long lives, and death tends to hamper reproduction. I can’t prove it: it’s just a hunch.
Nevertheless, there’s an element in the original-sin myth that I feel to be true. They ate from the forbidden tree of knowledge, it says. But what if they were expelled from the Garden not for disobedience but for getting too smart? Specifically, for acquiring a trait at the core of being human: symbolic thinking.
Animals eat when they’re hungry or when there’s food. We eat when it’s time for the meal. Animals have sex when they can. We do as well, but also build movies, ads for lipstick and automobiles, whole industries around it. Animals fight for survival. We fight for anything that symbolizes survival—be it flag, honor, or billions of bucks.
It’s natural, then, that we set up vast systems that require even yet vaster systems to protect them, leading usually to violence. Bullets are concrete.
In high school, in my depressed cynical year, I read a popular book on semantics. It suggested this: whenever you hear a speech, count the number of words or phrases for which there’s no defined referent—exactly what does “liberty” refer to? If you can’t understand it from the context, substitute the word “blah.”
Shortly after, we had a school assembly. I enjoyed assemblies, as a break of routine. Once we had a classical violinist, another time a magician, another time a woman who told the boys how to shave. This one was patriotism, and I counted the “blahs.” I made the mistake of announcing it in my subsequent class, and the teacher was not thrilled.
But I’ve persisted in counting the “blahs.” The downside is that the folks I agree with tend to score as high as the folks whose notions I hate. The upside is only to know that what you value has a solid referent: you want people to have a roof over their heads, to have food, to have a voice, to have respect.
In the long run, which is what we’re talking about, it makes little difference from what we’re evolved. I have many similarities to my dad, but I’ve lived my life in a very different way. The essential question is Who are we now?
What is truth? And why does it matter?
I was a liar for the first 21 years of my life. At the age of 22 (I don’t count my first year, when I wasn’t talking yet) I ran so hard into the massive shit-pile of these lies that it knocked me flat and if I was going to survive, I had to learn another way of being. It took a while to feel and appreciate the lifting of that intolerable weight, to adjust to being free from that rat in the belly, having to weave the next lie to sustain the last one. So it affects me deeply to realize that we have become a country where, for millions of people, truth is an unknown quantity, and admiration is lavished on the most extravagant liars.
I think that what confounds and disturbs me most deeply is that they seem to have fun doing it. While I detest the idea, the game of “owning the libs” looks like any other game, it’s fun to win, and I can hate that but understand the kick. It’s the more elemental and profound lying that makes my gut hurt.
I didn’t have fun lying. When I was a toddler, I didn’t know anything about “lying.” I just did and said whatever I thought would keep me safe. I learned very early what would get approval and what would provoke flame-thrower rage, and I was smart.
I also had a psyche that was primed to interpret anything as criticism, denigration, even if that might not have been the intent. Those things were acid on thin skin, and I did whatever I could to bury them, shove them deep, and avoid running into them again. I dodged and weaved and lied and somehow always came up humiliated, but I kept trying. I lied for survival.
These folk are having what looks like a wonderful time doing this. They’re not lying for survival, they’re lying for power and they’re looking at the applause meter. I hate to say it, but they’re performers.
And I’m a performer. I stand on stage and embody someone who is not me but who lives through me and speaks to the audience. The character works through me to reveal truth, and I hope that those who see it can feel it resonate in their own beings. In the decade that I performed the child-abuse play Dessie, I heard from many who felt that resonance and reclaimed their own lives. That’s not lying.
Performers who seek to create a self-serving world that aggrandizes their own power are another thing, and it is far more seductive than I had thought possible. A cult attracts those who have a sad diminished center, those who need a strong assertive figure to be their leader-figure, to go boldly forth and tell them how to follow. We need to find ways to empower people, to make them comfortable in their own true skins. There is so much built into our own nation’s structure that prepetrates abuse; we need to see it and reject it and counter it.
The hurting people need community. We need to make it happen.
A weekly view of the world we
wake into every morning.
Books and Media by
Bishop & Fuller
a historical fantasy
AKEDAH: THE BINDING
a novel of promises broken or kept
a novel of blue-collar ghosts
a novel of puppets & renewal
50 Years in the Making
A Memoir of the Creative Life
35 Snapshots for the Stage
A Novel of Dystopian Optimism
From Inanna to Frankenstein