Friends in Low Places
I got home from Wichita to find that my copy of Charles Featherstone’s The Love That Matters had arrived. If you’v e bought a copy, you might notice the blurb I wrote for the back cover, which says, in part, “Charles Featherstone has written an American spiritual classic. I have never read a book like this — one that’s so ragged, raw, and real.”
Here is an example of what I’m talking about. CF got knocked around a lot by bullies in school. He grew up
working class, with a dad who was abusive. Here he writes about his closest friend in high school, a kid named Adam. CF says that later, he discovered that Adam had suffered “a great deal of horrific abuse as a child” growing up in “a real chamber of horrors.” But CF didn’t know that during their school years. CF writes:
Adam’s politics were very conservative, but it wasn’t a law-and-order conservatism as much as it was a reaction to a kind of thoughtless, mindless liberalism of sunshine and hope that we found ourselves dealing with, a view of the world that believed people were inherently good and the world inherently reformable (“People are bad because systems are bad”). Such a view, held by a couple of my favorite high school teachers, failed to appreciate the depths of human brutality and cruelty. Systems were bad because people were bad. And that you couldn’t change.
What we shared, Adam and I, was a cynical and wary (to the point of paranoia at times) worldview that saw power as cruel, capricious, and beautiful, something wielded against us. People in power could simply not be trusted. And few could be expected to understand.
Most of my closest friendships have been with people who have been, in some way, abused. There is a chasm, a profound gap, between those who have lived in a world where they can expect to be loved and accepted and even cared for, and those who have found themselves brutalized, molested, or abused. Negotiating that chasm is difficult under the best of conditions, and virtually impossible under the worst. It’s like you live in another world, just slightly off-center from the one everyone else around you lives in, in which colors are just different enough that you cannot agree on simple things, like the hue of the sky or the tint of the grass. It is to hear sounds no one else can hear, and not hear sounds others hear clearly. It is to constantly have that difference held against you, and to know that it will be held against you whenever possible. That what you see, and hear, and feel don’t amount to anything.
To find someone who sees the same colors as you, who smells the same smells, hears all the same sounds, who has grown to assume many of the same things you do, that’s exhilarating! A kindred spirit in a cruel world! Suddenly not so alone! I don’t know how I’ve found so many such people, or how they have found me, or how we even know.
We just do.
This passage makes me think of a number of things, among them Eve Tushnet’s great piece from TAC the other day in which she talked about how sociologists often think they’re taking the side of the poor and oppressed, but in fact are projecting their own biases onto the poor, considering them to be people just like themselves, only without money. This is not exactly what CF is talking about, but the connection I see is how difficult it is to see the world as people much differently from ourselves do. This is true for everyone. I grew up in a small town where there were people of all income levels, and almost all of us went to the same school. I grew up in the lower-middle class to middle-class demographic. I recall being so mystified by why many poor people did the things they did — things that undermined their stability and prospects. Why were they so impulsive? Didn’t they see cause and effect?
But wealthy people (of whom there were many fewer) also mystified me. Any behavior or practices of theirs that I didn’t understand I assumed must in some way be a manifestation of their snobbery. My sister, as I’ve said before, held on to this prejudice, and ended up thinking that I had become a rich snob, simply because I didn’t see the world as she did. It didn’t matter that there was no evidence that I was rich (because I wasn’t!); it was a culture thing. The culture in which we were raised taught her to read the tastes I had developed as a sign of money, which, in her view, morally tainted us.
One thing we didn’t imagine back then is the pain that some of the rich kids in our town were going through, despite their wealth. People who don’t have money assume that it works like magic to absorb suffering. That’s a partial truth, I guess, but only partial. You can be lost and broken despite your money. I remember having a talk on Court Street in Brooklyn one day with a woman who stopped to admire our baby Matthew. She said her son was a student at a nearby private school, a place that only the wealthy could afford to send their kids. She shared with us some of the things the kid was going through there, and I tell you, it sounded like a truly decadent, awful place, filled with rich kids in despair — and for this, they were paying $14,000 a year. Were these kids privileged? In a way. But they were also deprived in a way that was no easy to see from the outside.
The point is that the child is the father to the man. I’m not saying that everyone’s views are equally true. They can’t possibly be. There are things men like CF have endured that give them a perspective on reality that we who grew up in more comfortable homes — materially comfortable, or emotionally stable — do not have. I think one reason I am so shaken by serious injustice is because I grew up on a home where my father was a strong authority figure, and for most of my childhood, a scrupulously just one. I trusted authority because I expected it to be rational and just. This has been a difficult lesson for me to unlearn. I’m not nearly as jaundiced about power and those who wield it as Charles is — but then, even my bad experiences with power and its abuse have been balanced by many good ones. I don’t think people in power are destined to abuse it — nor do I think that people who lack power become virtuous by that fact.
To use an extreme example: Nicolae Ceausescu was born into a poor farming family in Romania, and ran away from home to get away from his father, a drunkard who beat him. Ceausescu became one of the great tyrants of the 20th century. I can think of a couple of working class or even poor men I knew growing up who would have been just as tyrannical had you given them power. It could have been their nature, or it could have been their nurture: having seen all power used ruthlessly, not for justice but for the sake of manipulation, they had no way of imagining that it could be used otherwise.
I’m reading Gary Shteyngart’s hilarious, melancholy memoir Little Failure, about his early childhood in Leningrad, and then growing up in America as a Soviet Jewish immigrant. It’s a window onto a world I can scarcely imagine. The way life in the Soviet Union warped people, making them grasping and suspicious and so forth, is striking to me. There’s an anecdote set in Queens, where the Shteyngarts settled. Gary’s father, I think it was, finds a valuable watch in the stairwell of their apartment complex. They’re a poor family, but honest; Mr. Shteyngart correctly figures out the owner of the watch, returns it, and refuses the big reward. For him, honesty was its own reward. But Shteyngart catches hell from his Soviet immigrant stepfather for his deed. Was the stepfather a bad man? On Gary Shteyngart’s account, he was. But at the same time, you could see how having been formed by the Soviet system took bad character traits and exacerbated them.
Anyway, I’m rambling, as usual. The point here is that Charles Featherstone’s abusive childhood made him the man he is — for worse (at first; we’ll get to that) and very much for better. The other point here is that it’s so easy to imagine that the rest of the world is just like us, and that our differences are only superficial. Eve Tushnet’s sociologists have the narrative they unconsciously impose; the poor black and Hispanic kids my Dallas pal Trey works in Dallas with impose their own ghetto-derived narrative onto the white world. I know I do it too — but what I don’t know is when I’m doing it. Neither do you about yourself, if you think about it.