Demons are intensely personal, created in a dark place and individually crafted to do the most damage. What is terrifying to one person may be a matter of indifference to another. It’s very hard to understand a terror if you’ve never felt it. Fear of public speaking is said to be a very common terror, many people would rather be in the coffin, it is said, than standing next to it called on to give a eulogy. My father had many demons, but public speaking was not one of them. He was an excellent eulogist, delivering his eulogies like a jazz soloist.
He’d improvise from a minimalist lead sheet, five or six words in his small, meticulous handwriting, on an index card or the back of an envelope, indicating a few points to remember to bring out. The rest he’d just let fly, speaking from his heart, faltering without any show of discomfort, hitting some good notes, getting a laugh, making the tears flow, another laugh, more tears, laugh. Nothing came easier to him than delivering a eulogy, and he was a master of the form. He was also not shy about appearing on TV, or addressing large groups anywhere, even the hostile crowds he spoke to about the need for desegregation of the New York City schools in the years after the Supreme Court ruling. That said, he was the furtherest thing from a show-off.
Demons tailor themselves to our individual lives. I can only dimly imagine the horrors my father encountered in that tenement kitchen on the Lower East Side of Manhattan where he was first whipped in the face by his mother. I cannot imagine a more terrible thing, though there are things as bad. Parents killed in front of you, or children, I think is as horrible. Watching people marched to their deaths, blown up, burned alive, decapitated– about as bad. Think of the worst thing you can imagine; can you think of something worse than being whipped in the face by your mother from the time you could stand?
I can’t picture how one survives that particular assault on one’s tiny soul. Whatever my mother’s faults and weaknesses, I never doubted her love. Even my father, most often appearing in his dreaded, highly defensive, adversarial aspect, I knew loved me, in his twisted way. I could see it sometimes, revealed at odd moments, between the plates of his armor.
Demons, continuing to assemble themselves as my two or three year-old father was driven up to Peekskill with his parents and baby brother. They arrived in the small town, his parents in a miserable, arranged marriage, as the wards of his Uncle Aren. Aren was his mother’s much older brother, the man who had sent for her in Belarus, rescued her from the muddy hamlet where everyone would be murdered thirty years later. They were soon the poorest family in Peekskill. Then, as my father started kindergarten, terribly nearsighted and without glasses, speaking only Yiddish, the Depression hit. It is virtually impossible to imagine these effects on the psyche of a kid, and all this happened before he was even able to see the world with his 20/400 vision corrected.
Demonology is complicated terrain. My father referred to his demons on a few occasions over the years, in the context of talking about everyone having their demons. His demons were never discussed with anyone, as far as I know. My sister concluded, after he died, that his morality was shame-based. This is not an unreasonable summary. He was….
“You are writing blindly and without focus,” says the imagined psychiatrist, eyes beady, calmly critical. “You have been over all this terrain before. In fact, this may be one of the most recursive tales ever told. Back and forth over the same finite set of facts. This rumination is mere brooding. No wonder it’s nine hundred pages long. Why only a mention of the family slaughtered in the old country, the plowing of the entire community into the marsh? Certainly you must be eager to rake all that up for the tenth time.”
OK, doc, let me focus this for you.
I have noticed this particular trait in people consumed by shame, by self-hatred. They are ruthless and desperate. They often become expert manipulators, it is the only way they can survive. They argue, they cajole, they minimize their own bad acts, they bully, they attack, when confronted they rage and in an extreme situation may even threaten to kill. Even if the murder threat is made only once, it is hard to forget.
“You are veering into terrain you vowed not to go into in this ms,” says the shrink, making a note on a legal pad with an expensive fountain pen.
There was one relationship in my father’s life, an involuntary one at that, that would illuminate more about the way he was than any single relationship I can think of. It is one I must not write about directly, it is taboo. Which presents a maddening dilemma to me, as the person trying to tell the complete story of what my father faced, how he was driven to be the way he was.
I once heard my father’s millionaire first cousin Dave, Eli’s younger half brother, laughingly chide my father for wanting to control his money from beyond the grave. Dave was a pleasant man with a big smile my father always referred to as Dave’s Cheshire Cat smile. My father was concerned about not leaving money to a relative who flushed huge sums of money down the toilet regularly. He agonized at the near impossibility of protecting his life’s savings from this relative.
“What are you doing?” says the shrink, acting as some kind of guardian of decency, real or imagined.
Your demons will make you tolerate evils that will make other people shudder. You will defend someone who only threatened to kill you and your children once. You will be silent as the truth is made taboo, an alternate false set of facts is forced on everybody, fake smiles all around, rage ready to blow at any second underneath.
“You truly can’t keep your mouth shut about this, can you?” says the shrink.
My most goading demon, doctor, is a powerfully amplified voice that says, in a dozen dialects, even if you are completely right, shut the fuck up, especially if you are completely right. One of my main demons. I think that bastard is the main one. A lie will suffice to explain everything, your search for the truth is an affectation, arrogance, hubris. There is no truth, smiles the demon, nothing that can’t be twisted and used against you as long as enough desperate determination is applied.
The demon laughs, pointing out how brief the periods in human history have been where this has sometimes not been the case. Invites me to write about one such time, after the riot in a Brooklyn high school in the 1970s when the study conducted after it was an earnest search for causes and solutions rather than the usual fixing of blame. The demon keeps asking why I continue to perversely struggle against the way the world of humans has always been?
I’ve seen the damage lies do, felt it in my tissues. Lies justify every atrocity. They cover every imaginable shame, obscure every criminal enterprise while creating greater shame, hatching motives for other crimes. We simply do not speak of things that cause the deepest pain. So it was with the worst of my father’s behavior. So it is whenever humans act in rage. So it is for every human burdened with shame, humiliation, painful experiences that are impossible to carry. What is left to that person is to manipulate others, to defend themselves at all costs. Such was the terrible burden my father carried for his eighty years, with the high costs it continually extracted from his loved ones.
“Fairly adroit pivot, there,” said the shrink, filling in another line on his New York Times crossword puzzle. “Under the circumstances.”