Exiled By Success
Reader Liam sent me this essay about homecoming by Ta-Nehisi Coates. Coates makes himself startlingly vulnerable, and I’m sure a lot of people are going to make fun of him, saying that he’s got First World Problems. But what he writes about is real, and it’s a little bit heartbreaking.
Coates writes about how shocked he was by the celebrity he suddenly had when Between The World And Me was published, and became a huge bestseller. As you may recall, he, his wife, and their son moved to Paris for a while. Now they’re back, and decided they wanted to move to a neighborhood they lived in when they were poor and he was a struggling writer:
My partner—now my wife—loved our old Brooklyn neighborhood. We eventually had to leave after a dispute with our landlord, but we dreamed of moving back. We’d return to visit friends, and gentrification would always be Topic A. Prospect-Lefferts Garden was still black. But most of the young couples moving in were not. We didn’t have the money to move in back then, but that didn’t stop us from fantasizing. We imagined ourselves as aiding in the preservation of a black presence. But there more personal reasons, too. We wanted to be closer to our friends in the neighborhood. And I wanted, in some tangible way, to reward my partner’s investment in me. I think that had a lot more to do with my insecurities than with her stated desires. We all carry our stories.
With a small fortune in the bank, the Coateses bought a $2.1 million brownstone in the neighborhood. They were finally coming home, in quiet triumph. And they had earned it. But because property transactions are public, and because he is a famous author now, the media got wind of it, and suddenly there were articles everywhere about where they were going to live.
Some of my acquaintances went on Facebook and shared these articles. Other people called up my actual friends and joked about the purchase. Very little of this conversation was negative. Much of it was of the congratulatory “Nigga, we made it” variety. But all of it was premised on a kind of obliviousness, an inability to imagine how horrifying it would be to see all the details of your new life out there for the world to see. It is true what they say about celebrity—people come suddenly don’t quite see you. You walk into a room and you are not a person, so much as symbol of whatever someone needs you to be.
But the world is real. And you can’t really be a black writer in this country, take certain positions, and not think about your personal safety. That’s just the history. And you can’t really be a human being and not want some place to retreat into yourself, some place to collapse, some place to be at peace. That’s just neurology. One shouldn’t get in the habit of crying about having a best-selling book. But you can’t really sell enough books to become superhuman, to salve that longing for home.
They decided that it would be too risky to live there. And he is struggling mightily with his success:
I want you to know that I have been struggling, these past few months, to write about politics. I feel people, all around me, uninterested in questions and enthralled with prophecy. The best part of writing is the constant searching, the twisting, the turning, the back-and-forth, the things you think you understand, the things you understand more than you know. Prophecy has no real use for writing as discovery. And when people want prophets, they will make you into one, no matter your strenuous objections. If the world wants a “Writer Moves to Brooklyn Brownstone” story, it’s going to have one, no matter your thoughts. You are their symbol. This is all a very poor excuse for not writing. I find myself stuck in the past, pining for another time, blinded by nostalgia, longing for my old horde, longing for my old home.
Read the whole thing. Try not to be the person who sneers at the problems of a man who is a best-selling author, and now rich enough to buy a $2.1 million house. On one level, it’s ridiculous. On another, there’s a lot of pathos there.
Here’s what I think is eye-rolling about this account. Worrying about safety to the degree he expresses here is overwrought, to put it mildly. Are people really killing black writers? Are people killing any writers over the positions they take? In my Brooklyn neighborhood, Martin Amis lived a few blocks away. Jonathan Safran Foer lives in Brooklyn. So does Jhumpa Lahiri. Manhattan is stuffed to the gills with writers and media people much more famous than TNC. It’s hard to understand how he fears for his safety. If anybody is going to shoot Ta-Nehisi Coates in Brooklyn, it’s going to be over his wallet, not his politics.
It sounds like he’s seriously rattled by the loss of privacy he had when he was much less well known, and I don’t blame him. But I wonder if he’s suffering from a bad case of Impostor Syndrome: the condition in which high-achieving individuals struggle to accept their success, and live in fear of being found out as a fraud. Is it really the case that the media reporting Ta-Nehisi Coates’s address made him fear for his safety there? Or is it more the case that he couldn’t deal with the anxiety of being a writer, born and raised in the inner city, who wrote a massive, widely-acclaimed bestseller, won a MacArthur Genius Grant, and is able to afford a $2.1 million house in the same neighborhood he lived in when he was poor and struggling, and so was the neighborhood.
So: is Ta-Nehisi Coates becoming gentrified? Well, yes, he is. And he probably feels like he’s faking it. Hey, so would I — and boy oh boy, like 99.9 percent of the writers in America, I sure like the opportunity to know what that feels like. But here’s the thing: I am far too confessional for my own good, right here on this blog, but I know enough not to complain that I can’t move into my $2.1 million brownstone because the newspapers told everybody where I’m going to be living. That is something that is just not done. Even if you think it, don’t say it. Nobody wants to hear it.
In Between The World And Me, Coates implausibly blamed white racism for the bullying he, as a teenage comic-book nerd, got from black thugs in his West Baltimore neighborhood. The idea that white hoodlums who hate his racial politics might find their way to the Coates manor in gentrified Flatbush in 2016 and set upon the prophetic and beloved black MacArthur Genius to pay him back for winning the National Book Award for his … well, it’s more than a little self-important and delusional.
OK, fine. But don’t you see the pathos here? He’s hit the big time, beyond any reasonable expectation of any writer, anywhere. But now he can’t enjoy it. He wants a quiet place to live with his wife and son, which is totally reasonable, but again, more than a few writers with more fame than TNC live in New York, and go about their daily lives without fear. Yes, there’s always the prospect of a freaky fan, but people manage. Whatever the reasons for his anxiety, it is sad that TNC can’t enjoy his great success. It’s a writerly version of the person who wins the big jackpot, and suddenly has the means to fulfill their dream, but finds that all that money has made it impossible to be at peace.
This is why he has writer’s block too. He’s lost his nerve. I think I get that. For most of my professional life, I have had Impostor’s Syndrome, and sometimes would get paralyzed by the fear that I would write something so incredibly stupid that it would ruin my career. I’ve never really gotten over it — I still have the recurrent dream where somebody from my high school or college contacts me to say there’s been a mistake, and I got my diploma by mistake — but nothing can cure you of that like having to make a daily deadline at a newspaper. I didn’t have a choice but to keep writing, not if I wanted to keep a job. And that’s what got me over the worst of the anxiety: just writing because I had to. I’m sure that TNC has it in him to write good stuff, but then again, if I ever wrote a book that was as massively praised as his was, and that sold as many copies, I might go into the same kind of paralysis that he confesses in the essay has stymied him.
Again, I sure would like to find out someday what that’s like. But I don’t think this is something to laugh at. Back in 2002, I was out in Silicon Valley on a reporting trip, and talked to a tech industry guy who said that the culture of the Valley was insane for families. He told me that he knew people who were taking classes, and putting their kids in classes, to learn how to cope psychologically with great wealth. Turns out this was not an exaggeration, as this story from 2000 reveals. Excerpt:
Some internet moguls are becoming so rich, so fast, so young, that the psychological stresses they face are often as big as their bank balances. Money makes them feel guilty and nervous. And they fret about the impact of their massive wealth on their children. But whatever got them on the treadmill in the first place – compounded by the fear of losing what landed unexpectedly in their laps – makes it impossible for some to get off it. They continue to work absurdly long hours and spend days away from home on business, leaving their children to cope with the challenges of living in a fast-paced, competitive world.
The fellow I talked to gave me stories that sounded like something satirical, until he got into the nitty-gritty of a few of the family tragedies, involving people he knew personally or worked with. In every case, the afflicted families were people who had gotten very successful, very fast, and didn’t know how to handle it without losing their equilibrium.
You might remember my telling you that we had out of town visitors here last week. They are old friends of ours from Europe, back in the US visiting friends. He started his own company in Silicon Valley from the ground up, and has built it steadily for about 12 years or so. He and his wife made the decision a few years back to return to Europe to be closer to aging and ill family members who needed their presence. By that point, he was able to do his job online, with some flying back and forth to the Bay Area.
These are wonderful people, the salt of the earth. Their kids are great too. We are so lucky to have them as friends. After they left, I was curious about his company, and Googled to see how it was doing. The thing is worth hundreds of millions of dollars! I was impressed by that, knowing that he is a middle-class guy who started with nothing but a dream. Both of them are as genuine and unpretentious as they always were. You would never in a million years guess they were so prosperous. I’ve been to their house in Europe, which is quite nice, but in no way indicative of their financial worth. Even more impressive to me than what my friend and his team have built is how they have maintained their equilibrium, and the normality of their kids. These kids don’t go to a prep school in their home country. They attend the village school with all the other kids. I think maybe the best decision our friends made was to return home while their kids were still little, and to raise them outside of Silicon Valley.
But I digress. Seems to me, with my armchair psychologizing, that the mistake TNC made was to move back to the old neighborhood. It’s just too much pressure on someone of his sensibility. He might have to move somewhere else, to a part of the country where he wouldn’t be as recognizable, and not have any reputation to live up to among the locals. You can get a hell of a house in uptown New Orleans for half of what he paid for his Brooklyn brownstone, which he’s now apparently going to sell. But that’s not where he wants to be. He wants to be at his idea of home. But there may be no home for him to go to, not the home of his dreams. Not to the home he thought he would be able to have one day, if he made it as a writer.
And that’s sad. I think it’s sad, anyway. If you listened to the “Status Update” episode of This American Life a few months back, you would have heard a fascinating segment with one of the show’s producers, who is a longtime best friend of TNC, talking with him about his amazing success. Here’s the transcript; the segment is the second on the list. Coates is deeply conflicted over his money and fame, and fears that it’s turned him fake. I found that very human, frankly, which is why I’m more sympathetic to this essay than a couple of people I’ve heard from are.
He sounds like a shy guy. Me, the older I’ve gotten, the more reclusive I have become. I don’t know why, I just have. If, inshallah, I write a book one day that becomes the monster hit TNC’s was, I’ll stay right here in the country, in my man cave, well off the beaten path (but I’ll buy a small apartment in Paris). This is great place to write. Walker Percy, who lived in a small Louisiana town, on a bayou not far from the shores of Lake Pontchartrain, said his town was also a very good place to be a writer. In the South, nobody cares much about writers. They think of writers as idlers. This is pretty much true, and it’s great. Because it gives you time and space to read and to write and to think about all the things that come between the world and you.
I recommend that TNC move to the South. New Orleans might be just the place.
UPDATE: Readers, I’m not sure which version of this post you read. I wrote it early Monday afternoon, and scheduled it to post on Tuesday. But I kept thinking about TNC’s story all day, and developed a more critical view of his account. I rewrote the post heavily, and thought I had saved the changes. When I woke up this morning, there was an indication on the software that I had not saved the changes. I hit the update button, but now I can’t tell whether I had presented you with the final version, or the earlier, much more sympathetic one. In any case, what you see now is what I wrote late Monday night, and the version I wanted you to see. If that’s the one you saw, great. If not, I apologize for the error.