the hazard of self-knowledge

One of the unexpected consequences of the Milgram studies on obedience, and a consequence that led eventually to the creation of Human Subjects Commissions, was that people learned unpleasant truths about themselves. They learned that they would administer what they believed were likely fatal levels of shock to a complete stranger just because someone told them to do it. And of course, they only way that study could’ve produced real evidence was to put people in the actual setting, right? Because if you ask someone, “Would you administer a fatal level of shock to a complete stranger if someone asked you to do it?” people would immediately say no way, and that would be wrong for a frighteningly large number of people (but not all! Some people refused, and we have to remember that part, too.).

After the experiment, participants had to face this truth about themselves. Of course they hadn’t actually been administering shock, but they believed they had. The experiment was so clever, and so well-done, that they listened to the ‘shocked person’ scream and beg and then go silent, and still they administered stronger levels of shock. Sure, they may have sweated and felt miserable and asked not to do it, but then they went on. And so they had to know that about themselves.

I was thinking about this when I watched the documentary Tower, about the mass shooting at the University of Texas on August 1, 1966. It’s very good, and as of this moment it’s streaming on your local PBS channel/website. I remember that day very well; we lived in Austin, I was still 7 years old, and summer was nearing its end. My dad was working at the state capitol building that day. My mother was probably watching Password, her favorite game show, but I remember the news breaking in to tell us to stay away from the campus, and I remember seeing it all unfold on television back before anything like that had ever happened in this country. I remember feeling pure panic that the bad man might shoot my dad; back then, the UT Tower and the capitol were the tallest buildings in town, and visible from each other. Austin was such a small town then.

Not everyone was a coward, though — there were many extraordinary selfless people

One moving scene in the documentary is when a woman confesses that she learned that day that she’s a coward. She was afraid to go help the wounded because she didn’t want to get shot. She had to face that, she said, and that’s the day she learned that lesson about herself.

One of the real heroes of the day, aside from the men who were responsible for killing Whitman, was a young woman named Rita Starpattern. The first student shot was a very young 8-months-pregnant woman named Claire. As Claire lay on the burning hot concrete for an hour, with bullets whizzing past her and her baby shot to death inside her, and her boyfriend lying shot dead next to her, Rita ran towards her and lay crouched at her feet, talking to her and keeping her conscious. Finally three brave young men raced out onto the mall and grabbed Claire by the hands and feet, and picked up her dead boyfriend, and carried them out of harm’s way. Rita risked her life in the truest way just to be there with Claire, so she didn’t have to be there all alone, and those boys risked their lives too, because they couldn’t bear having that young woman lying there one minute longer.

And so of course you ask yourself the question, knowing that the real answer might be very different than what you imagine. Would I run out, in danger, to help a stranger? I know two things about myself that lead to contradictory answers:

  • I’m extremely impulsive and emotional, and my absolute impulse would be to run out there and not care about the danger I might be in — it would feel like a moral imperative, and my impulsivity would trump my thought.
  • But I have PTSD and am profoundly scared by a number of things, so if any of those elements were in play (and gunfire is one) I might well dissociate and disappear inside myself.

One thing I’m very curious about, though, is the effect of that unhappy self-knowledge. It’s not like you learn something about yourself and that’s that! COWARD! Now and forevermore, coward. OR now and forevermore, I will shock someone to death if I’m told to do so. Can’t you learn something about yourself and use that information to change, if you don’t like what you learn? Of course I don’t know what happened with each participant in the Milgram studies, but the woman in the Tower documentary was still saying that about herself fifty years after that terrible day. It’s the same thing as learning from a mistake, isn’t it? Of all the mistakes I’ve made in my life, there is one that I deeply regret and boy did I learn something about myself, and boy did I make vows to myself, which I’ve honored for 25 years.

Live and learn, and do better.


What a remarkable and original mind

This morning I listened to Terry Gross’s Fresh Air interview with Raoul Peck, director of the truly marvelous documentary I Am Not Your Negro I wrote about this a couple of posts ago, and continue to recommend that every person go see it. Raoul Peck is a very interesting man with his own fascinating history, and his interview gave me additional insights into James Baldwin, and also gave me another chance to hear Baldwin speak, since the interview included a bit of Gross’s interview with Baldwin in 1987. It’s astonishing to listen to someone with an original mind, it’s like breathing the freshest air (no pun intended there, really) after being in a stale, enclosed room of ordinary objects. Here’s the interview to make it easy for you to listen:

Baldwin had to leave America to learn who he was outside of the labels that were attached to him from birth, and the way he talked about that in the older interview, that he had to learn who he was, not what he was, gave me a new perspective. He was a genius at that; when he lived in Paris, and saw the photograph of Dorothy Counts walking to school, integrating the school in North Carolina, his thought was shame and anger — we should have been there with her, he thought. She should not have had to do that alone. That’s not what I think when I look at it, and in part that’s because I’m white and feel the shame of those reactions and unimaginable awe at her ability to be so composed.

She held her head so high, Dorothy Counts.

Raoul Peck said that no one thought Baldwin’s thought when they saw the picture, and that was his gift, his ability to see what others don’t see even though it’s right there, obvious when he says what had not been obvious before. He had such clarity and sight and then an extraordinary gift to convey it with eloquence and unflinching, direct power.

Peck was born in Haiti, and lived in the Congo, and then all over the world. His experiences as a kid with dictators and the cruelty of power gave him an insatiable need to fight against abuse of authority. He said he simply cannot accept it. That struck me, because whether one can or cannot accept it, authority will continue to be abused and so this sets you up to be tilting at windmills, fighting an endless battle. And it struck me because I have my own version of it, as I’ve learned lately.

My friend Nancy often says to me, “I’m glad I’m not burdened with empathy the way you are.” Not just because she happily voted for Trump, but she keeps telling me to just let things be, not to be so absorbed by the protesting and the despair I feel, I have my own work I need to be doing and I should just do that and let the world be. I keep trying to explain to her that I cannot do that. I would like to! I would. I’d like to let it be, whether because I trust that others will protest and march and fight, or whether because I just allow that the world will ebb and flow and things will go as they will and it’s beyond my personal ability to change it anyway. But I can’t. Probably because of my own experiences in childhood, I just cannot accept abuse of authority. I cannot accept basic human rights being stripped away from human beings. I just cannot. It’s not a choice, it’s not even a value, it’s much more fundamental than that. It’s not even about my empathy, which I do have in deep stores. This is who I have always been, and because the fight was never so stark, my experience of it was never so strong.

Recently a varied number of people have told me that they think I am very brave, or fierce, and it always surprises me because I think those things include some aspect of choice and I’m not at all choosing my response. It isn’t even a response, really. But I am learning more about who I am, underneath the labels and descriptions. Even underneath my own labels and descriptions, I guess. It can take a long time to see a pattern; for the longest time, it’s just a number of data points. On a nice piece of empty graph paper with that neat and axis, when you are learning geometry, it’s easy to see that two points determine a line. But in the messy noise of living a life, with labels and confusion and conflict (even/especially inside yourself), that line can take a long time to see. As awful as it is, what is happening to my country, it has snapped my understanding into sharp relief: THIS IS WHO I AM. This is always who I have been, always. From rescuing pillbugs, to being bewildered that my best friend couldn’t come to my birthday party just because she was black, to my undisciplined thrashing in response to unfairness of all kinds, it’s always been this. It’s a line, from my feet through my core to my mind, and it just is.

In the most perfect world, each person in this world would be focused the most on being exactly who they are — to seeing the world as they see it, to flowering themselves out into the world. To singing their songs, saying their poems, engineering their creations, fighting the injustices they see that others don’t — and we would all do our best to encourage each other in that. I certainly didn’t have that, and I think when I was raising my kids, I was more focused on keeping them alive and on the path toward education and making “good” choices for themselves instead of listening to them and helping them flower. I can do that with my grandchildren of course, and I think my daughters will be better at that than I was. For me, at age 58, I continue to excavate, to shine lights in the corners, and to see who I am so I can flower outwards. And I add James Baldwin to my own pantheon (which includes Mister Rogers, Hillary Clinton, and John Lewis) for models for how to be a person in this world. I have an impulse to say that I’m changing right now, it feels that way, but I think a better way to say it is that layers are falling away that have hidden me from myself — and maybe they didn’t hide me from you, maybe you saw through them.

Be you. Let me see you. I want to see exactly who you are, I really do. I am feeling cheated by the world. I feel cheated by the oppressive white culture that hides so much from me. I feel cheated by the labels and boxes we are defined by whether they fit or not. Please be you, it’s the most important thing you can do, and it’s probably true that you will have to figure out what that means, first. xoxxo

on not being a monster

There is a psychological theory that says people sometimes incorporate another person into themselves — a kind of psychic possession. It goes far beyond just feeling merged or bonded with another person, it’s deeper and more all-encompassing than that. It’s probably a psychoanalytic theory, and I tend to be very dismissive of them, so my tendency would otherwise be to toss this one on the pyre, good riddance to bad rubbish.

But I can’t. For so so long, decades, I had incorporated my father into me. I was him, he was me. It probably began, as things sometimes do, with my being told over and over as a little kid, “You look just like your father, you disgust me, go to your room.” “You are exactly like him, that sorry son-of-a-bitch, get away from me.” Etc. And there were some ways we were alike; we shared a deep love of reading, and old movies, and an easy sentimentality that left us touched very deeply by the world. I wasn’t old enough then to parse the characteristics, to see that we only shared a few things, not everything. To see that while I may have looked a bit like him, and shared some preferences and a couple of small quirky behaviors and a soft heart, the ways we were different were much greater — and critically different.

So I took my mother’s words to heart and believed her . . . not my first mistake, but perhaps my worst. I grew to believe that I was a monster. That I was fully and literally a monster, and wore a very thin sheen of something else on top that fooled people. A very thin mask, just a couple of layers of skin cells thick, so thin that sometimes you could see through it if the light was right. Sometimes a glimmer of a monster expression would flit across my face, I felt, betraying what lay beneath. When I met Jerry back in 1978, as we were falling in love I warned him over and over: “I’m very bad, you’ll see, very bad, you should stay away.” He’d ask, “But Pete, what’s so bad?” I couldn’t articulate it, I could give no examples, it just was true. It was so true and pervasive and all-encompassing, all I could do was smile sadly for him, shake my head, and say, “You’ll see.”

When I felt all the rage inside me — and it was all justifiable — I was terrified by it, believed it was the monster, and if I let it out a tiny bit it would kill everyone around me. And so, like my father, I often shimmered with rage, but I held mine very tightly. Every time I felt it, I took that as proof of the truth: I am a monster.

I sincerely believed that the entire time I was raising my children. I felt such great relief seeing that they were not monsters, that they were not like me.

When she was a young teenager, Marnie and I read John Gardner’s Grendel aloud to each other, a time I remember with such joy. But when I first saw the cover of the book, my stomach dropped away. It was a painting of me.


It was exactly a painting of me, even the way the head was tipped up and rage was pouring out of the mouth. That lived inside me, that was me. I wore a pale skin suit over it, but that was me. How did that artist know me?

When I was in my very early 50s — so not very long ago at all — I finally exorcised him. The better way to say it, obviously, is that I finally realized I am not him. I made this image, in the final agonizing throes of that exorcism, to show how it felt:


That’s my own real shadow, and superimposed is a ghostly silhouette of a photo of him. I added a whip in his hand. I felt utterly haunted by him, and tormented. It was such a relief to finally be able to see the truth of who I was all along: not a monster, never a monster (among a lot of other wonderfuller things).

But what’s heartbreaking and true is that tiny little surprise pockets are still alive, tiny little landmines, and can ambush me. Yesterday I went swimming and wore my two-piece bathing suit. I walked tall, and I was happy to be there, and didn’t feel ashamed or embarrassed. I was going to swim in the sun, feel the cold water on my tummy for the first time ever. It was going to feel wonderful. I spread out my towel in the sun, looked around at all the young moms with their little children splashing in the shallow end and the lap swimmers back-and-forthing at the far end, and as I started to take off my wrap, I was instantly paralyzed with the thought that the mothers would be horrified because I was scaring their children. That they would grab up their children and run away in fear.

It wasn’t that anyone would look at me and judge my body, my soft tummy a delta of silvered stretch marks. It’s that they would see me as a monster. Exposed.

My eyes filled with tears and I wrapped my arms around myself, rocked myself a little, felt sorry for that little hidden bit that is still afraid that’s true. That’s not true, honey, and it never was. You are wonderful. Come on, let’s go swimming. So I stood up, dropped my wrap, held my own hand and walked into the water with a great big smile. A little boy with blue, shivering lips walked past me in the chilly water and said, “It’s so cold!” and I laughed and said, “It is, but look up at the beautiful blue sky, and those amazing clouds.” He and I stopped and tipped our heads upward, and the only thing that came out of my mouth was a laugh.

grim beliefs

this guy knew a thing or two about suffering
this guy knew a thing or two about suffering

I’m returning again to a topic I’ve become focused on, and that’s the ways in which we are so wrong about things. Buddhism teaches that certainty is impossible and that clinging to certainty is the source of suffering. I must be heading toward enlightenment because I’m certain about fewer and fewer things, the older I get. One critical point in Buddhist thought is that  clinging to our own identities is a deep source of our suffering. Here’s a big east-west difference, right? Because what are we after: Self-discovery. Self-knowledge. Self-fulfillment. Self-this, self-that, self-the-other-thing.  We grow to think we know ourselves, the longer we live — and why shouldn’t we think that? By now we’ve had all that experience, we’ve lived with ourselves so long, we watched our sweet little selves grow and flourish, suffer and triumph, so who knows us better than we know our own selves?

HA! Ha, I say. I’ve written so many times about how wrong I have been about who I am (and I think it’s true for everyone, at least to some degree, it’s just a question of willingness to have self-doubt and openness to uncertainty. And it goes in both directions, thinking you’re worse than you are and thinking you’re better!). When I was in New York last week, Marc and I were talking about something, can’t remember what exactly, and I piped up with some belief about myself and then paused a second and said, “You know, even I know that’s not true.”

A dear woman I used to know called these grim beliefs. I don’t know where she came up with that phrase, whether it’s original to her or she read it elsewhere, but the moment she said it, little explosions went off in me. YES, grim beliefs, I know what that means instantly. Grim is the most perfect word. We clutch our little grim beliefs — about ourselves, maybe, or about others, or about the way life works, despite evidence to the contrary. Perhaps despite a LOT of evidence to the contrary. Last night (and earlier in the day) a beautiful friend expressed the wish that I never feel unwanted again. I felt like she was telling me a truth, and also caring for me. The way she said it, the very wholehearted and earnest way she said it to me, the serious look on her face, it kind of shook me. Why should I feel unwanted any longer? I shouldn’t! I have so very many people who love me and want me in their lives, and I have my marvelous children who love me and want me in their lives. I’m a wanted woman. 🙂 So what do I get from clutching my grim belief so very tightly? What do you get from clutching yours?

Well, the obvious thing get, anyway, is safety. The devil you know, you know? I’ll be safe with the grim belief that I’m unwanted, so I won’t be caught off guard when it becomes ‘true.’ Ha, it’s in my control, you can’t hurt me! I imagine that safety is the main thing we all get from clutching our grim beliefs. And there’s also the terrible possibility that we cause to happen the very thing we fear; by refusing to ever accept that I’m wanted, I push away the  person who wants me. How long can a person keep saying and showing, “I want you, I want you, I want you,” and get back “no you don’t, no you don’t, no you don’t” before he finally says OK. I give. You’re right. (Of course that just proves the point! SEE?! Told you. And so sad.)

wantedAnother thing that happens when we cling so tightly to our grim beliefs is that we miss seeing all the evidence to the contrary! And what a shame that is. By continuing to expect that I’m unwanted, and insisting so strongly that uh-huh, is too true, I’m dismissing all the glorious instances of people showing me, telling me, making it so plain that I am wanted. Just gloss right over them, dismiss them in my mind as exceptions, or untrustworthy, or temporary. (Hey, newsflash, me: everything is temporary.)

Perhaps you’re especially lucky and drift off to sleep at night wholly content with who you are, with your place in the world, with everything that’s important in life, and you in relationship to it. If that’s true, lucky you, and I mean that. Me, I have these little bad thoughts, little recriminations, little whispers, little wounds that leave me “knowing” something. Even something small, something I say without thinking — “I’m such a klutz.” If you ever say something about yourself in that tone of voice, I’d wager it’s a grim belief. I’m ready, I think, to take all those little grim beliefs I have and bring them into the light, test them, take a chance. Well, maybe not all of them, at least just yet.  I think I’ll start with this “unwanted” grim belief. It’s just a habit of thought — even know it’s not true. You’d be hard pressed to meet a luckier person than I am, in terms of having so much love all around me. It’s partly a habit of thought, and then it’s about taking a deep breath when the fear pokes me, taking a look around, and moving forward. Action. At some point it’s no longer an inside job.

Happy Wednesday, y’all. Love all around.

on the limits of self-awareness

selfawareOne crazy little thing I say about myself is that I’m — relatively speaking — pretty darn self-aware. I know the little games I play with others and with myself (the harder trick to acknowledge), I know my weaknesses, I secretly know my strengths, I have a sense of the parts of me that are kind of mysterious to me.

And yet I have been SO surprised by how little I know myself in so many ways, but how well others know me. There are so many examples, from funny little things to some of the most central things.

You know how your children watch you so closely, and Katie has taught me a couple of really funny things about myself that I was entirely unaware of — the strange way I hold a coffee cup (she was so right!) and the fact that I frequently dress like a sailor (no idea!). But there have been a couple of really big things that surprised the hell out of me, but were kind of “duh” to others, when I reported.

Marc told me, when we first met, that I was controlling as a mother. Well! How dare he! (Not least because there was a lot of pot calling the kettle black there…..) So I immediately told my daughters about this shocking accusation, and they were like, “Um, of course?” So everyone knew this but me?? Apparently. And there I thought I was just trying hard to keep everyone alive all those years. Which, of course, doesn’t mean I wasn’t being controlling, it’s just how I was thinking about it. But I have to tell you, the most shocking thing was how much and how quickly people agreed with what shocked me, and saw it as obvious. In this case, it’s about having a different definition of the word ‘controlling,’ which — for me — meant a kind of sadistic cruelty, and that’s not what I was about. I look into the definition, and gulp. Yep. I was controlling. Coulda knocked me over with a feather.

And then yesterday I was telling my friend Wayne this realization that I’m a delicate flower. And he sat there looking at me, waiting for the rest because he couldn’t believe that was it, it was so obvious. He thought there had to be something else, something that was surprising me, because it couldn’t be that. Duh, the most obvious thing in the world. I asked him about it and he said, “But delicate flower, you cry EVERY SINGLE DAY. At least once.”

How is it that people can know these big things about me and I just have no clue! (I really know the answer, my question is rhetorical, born out of shock.) Shocking. It’s actually quite hard to think about yourself or others without preconceived notions, without old stories getting in the way, without interpretation. My singular definition of ‘controlling’ kept me from understanding something about myself that probably made my life (and my kids’ lives) more difficult than they needed to be. My old need to think of myself as tough and so invulnerable to psychopaths kept me from seeing that I was almost all exceptions.

And why does any of this matter, anyway?! Isn’t it all navel-gazing and solipsism, maybe even narcissism? I don’t think so. I think it does matter. In these two examples from my own life, if I’d had a better grasp on who I actually am, I could’ve had so much more compassion for myself, which spreads out like waves, to others. People are so often afraid of self-compassion, thinking they’ll just indulge themselves in every bad habit, but real self-compassion isn’t like that. When I can be kind to myself, it’s SO much easier to be kind to others. My old controlling self, for instance: Had I been able to just know that I was scared, and understood that a little bit, I think I’d have been able to open my hands and give my kids a little more space, and that would’ve been better for them.

But then this is the truly great thing about aging. If you hang around long enough, you get to find out all sorts of things. I love the way life can continue to surprise me, even if the joke is often on me.