Tyrannical types are prone to zero tolerance of anybody who crosses them. Nixon, an ambitious man who lost a close presidential election in 1960 and a 1962 run for governor of California, was known, in the end, for his obsession with winning. He famously maintained an Enemies List. The list had the names of everyone who had slighted him, insulted him, threatened him, opposed him or his policies in any meaningful way. Our current president, a man whose brand is winning at any cost, seems unable to forget anyone he feels crossed him. He too seems to be making a list of America’s internal enemies and checking it regularly.
While it’s a natural human reflex to dislike anyone who takes a stand against you during a time of vulnerability, it’s also a hallmark of the psychopath to divide the world into “with me or against me”. Psychopathy we learn is a spectrum, you can be a little bit psychopathic or very, very psychopathic. Even extreme psychopaths are not necessarily killers, some are very successful in business and politics, being highly intelligent, often charismatic, unimpeded by doubt or hesitation, seemingly fearless.
Much as we’d like it to be, the workings of the world are neither simple nor straightforward. That’s one reason telling my father’s story with any degree of completeness might take me another few years, or beyond the span of my natural life. It might take a thousand or more subtle strokes to paint a lifelike portrait, but even that is not enough. A lifelike portrait, by itself, tells us only what the person looked like. I’m aiming for a portrait that shows exactly why he looked and acted the way he did. High bar.
I’m thinking of Nixon’s enemies list because my father had one. It was never committed to paper and it was not a very long list, but it was absolute. As a kid I argued with him about this tendency to cast beloved friends out of his life forever with no chance of reprieve.
“You have been over this very idea several times already in this ms.,” says the imagined psychiatrist, impatient for me to get on with it, or at least to expedite payment of his bills with my insurance company.
A friend insisted, shortly after I started writing this manuscript, doctor, that I was actually writing this book about myself, not about my father. I conceded that it might be so. It’s a book about a relationship, I told him. The relationship was marked by a one way lack of forgiveness that became, after a long enough while, mutual. It took decades to have any helpful insight into the implacable nature of my father and how to let myself off the hook for his unexplainable anger. I get it now. I fortunately had just begun to really get it when he was rushed to the hospital to get the news that he had less than a week to live.
“Again, old news. His liver cancer diagnosed six days before his death, in the E.R. while his cardiologist, endocrinologist and hematologist were still making appointments with him, to try to figure out what was wrong,” the shrink observes, snappishly. “He had an appointment with the cardiologist for the day he died, didn’t he?”
“I love that you’re making the shrink the asshole foil now, Elie, instead of your poor old father,” said the skeleton of my father, with a rictus of approval and a bony thumbs up.
I know, pops, I’m doing it for your sake.
“The two of you really are nuts,” observed the shrink.
“The two of us?” said the skeleton indignantly.
All right, that’s enough, you two. Doctor, my father was always very suspicious of psychiatrists, because of fear of his own demons and because psychiatry is a profession we know attracts a disproportionate number of mentally unbalanced people. Dad, this pretentious quack is only trying to be helpful. So, both of you, calm down.
“You’re an asshole,” said the mental health professional definitively.
Look, doctor, there’s no need for the fucking language. I appreciate your professional opinion, but I’d appreciate a more specific diagnosis. I’m sure that DSM you have there has more specific categories and insurance codes for my particular constellation of conditions.
“Go to hell,” said the mental health professional, closing his notebook, grabbing his DSM and stomping out of the room.
“I rest my case, Elie,” said the skeleton of my father pointing to the fleeing shrink’s back. “What is the new point you are trying to add here today?”
My Way or the Highway, the roots of that extreme and inhumane position.
“Well, that is a fucked up way to operate, and as you recall I had deep regrets about having been that way, I told you about that the last night of my life. We know a lot of people like that, too insecure and damaged to listen to advice or hear anything that contradicts anything they need to believe. Your beloved Eli, he was a great practitioner of that philosophy,” said the skeleton.
You loved Eli too, and you were afraid of him until the day he died.
“Life is complicated, Elie. You’d have been afraid of him too, if you’d met him when I did. He was a bundle of rage who had no hesitation to punch anybody in the face. Anybody. When he drove a truck he had a pistol tucked next to the steering wheel.”
He told me it was in a holster strapped to the steering column, just below the steering wheel.
“It’s a miracle he never shot anyone, with the temper he had. The Gleiberman temper, he’d always say, with that winning smile. The man had a beautiful smile,” said the skeleton.
Do you think My Way or the Highway is related to a fear of shame?
Complete and categorical intolerance of any opposing point of view. What do you suppose motivates that?
“Fear and shame, yeah, probably a pretty safe bet,” said the skeleton with a yawn, and then he fell back into his soft grave, snoring.