A Vintage Whine

by Tom Bentley
Copyright 1999, Tom Bentley

I had a horrific realization the other day. I have nothing to blame my parents for. I can’t even find my wounded inner child’s room, much less him. Try as I might, I can’t think of one compelling incident or behavior pattern from my parents that can account for my station in life, my income, or my night driving. Their genes have probably affected my shoe size, but it’s not worth the lawsuit.

What gave me this pause was an idle perusal of the self-help section of a local bookstore. Here were titles that wept, screamed, accused–I could feel my shoulders slumping and my spirits sagging as I read them. They buckled the shelves: Toxic Third Cousins, Ten Easy Steps to Lose Shame (and those Few Extra Pounds Around the Middle), Adult Children of Parents that Collected National Geographics...

It’s so burdensome and awful to know that all of the syndromes exist, and no less so to know that there’s a book for each one. I felt like the fellow that skims the Physician’s Desk Reference, and knows, just knows, that he has Spiny Clam Elbow, but that the symptoms just haven’t manifested yet. But I took a deep breath and thought that sure, my parents probably took more drinks than was good for us or them, that maybe after working a full day they weren’t able to tell us how much they loved us, that undoubtedly they were short-tempered and reactive now and then and said things later regretted–but I couldn’t make it add up to a book tour and movie rights.

Insensitivity to those actually imperiled by their past? Maybe. God knows that there are any number of Mommy Dearest stories that are sadly true. I have a fearsome memory of one of my adolescent friends being viciously struck in the face by her mother in front of all her peers for nothing more than not instantly responding to her call. Worse stories fill the pages of police reports, or worse yet, go unreported and unresolved.

I suppose what irks me about the stacks of self-help works is that they have become such an industry, so American in their instant assessment and remedy, so commercial and avidly disclosing, like Chihuahua Owners Who Have Married Transsexuals Over Six Feet Tall so eager to discuss their troubles on Geraldo. The therapeutic recommendations and clamorings seem so distant from the small spiritual progressions and lapses that you can observe, puzzle over and nudge, if you listen to the more subtle voices of the self.

There’s a Zen proverb that goes something like, "In summer, we sweat; in winter, we shiver." It’s a statement about acceptance, but it’s not the kind of acceptance that embraces being beaten or humiliated, or accepts that there are child molesters in the world and that it’s pointless to feel any outrage. It’s just acceptance, and a going forward. It’s the good advice of Sartre, telling us that freedom is what you do with what’s been done to you.
And it's not as though it’s just our psyches that are the commercial arenas of self-disappointment. Last week I read an ad in a newspaper for the treatments offered at a place called the Center for Men. They specialize in these areas of cosmetic surgery: Liposuction, Cheek Implants, Chin Implants, Face Lifts, Tummy Tucks, Penile Enlargement, Penile Lengthening, Pecs and Calfs, Ears and Nose, and Eyelids and Browlifts. For every problem, there’s a solution, or, as the saying goes, "There’s an ass for every seat." And who knows what to think about the current teapot tempest over Prozac.

It probably comes off as smug and dismissive, me with the basic middle class, even-keel life, complaining about seekers looking to evolve or those for whom their bodies are a dead end. I don’t want to deny those in actual pain, searching for a means to cope. Personalities are tangled webs, and the same spider is seen differently by different people. But it just rankles me to see a book by someone who claims that the 11 spankings he got as a child have prevented him from getting his promotion, especially when their are true crises–a withered kid’s last word in Somalia, the splintered bones of a Bosnian family caught in mad crossfire–that seem more tangible tests of the self.

The self. Our culture is always after it, always prodding it, pulling it apart and finding nothing–nothing but a thousand ways to feel dissatisfied about it, and providing a list of who to blame. Maybe it’s that sheer ingratitude that pinches my spleen. I looked through those books and thought of all the authors’ time spent sifting through their own and other people’s pasts, assigning villains, and putting a thousand therapies through the psychic vegematic to come up with a different flavor for today’s table. And so much PASSION in these works, so much breathlessness. We can only take a breath when it’s time to sue somebody.

The sheer volume of these books says to me that we’re a society of victims, blamers and chip carriers, talked into our shame by others with an agenda to sell. Life is hard enough without us deliberately lapping at hell’s waters, reading these works to confirm that our lives hurt just as bad as we are told they do, salted books for wounds. I’m trying to accept that their purpose is relief for psychic woes, but I abhor the market-driven dynamics, the over-the-counter consumerism. It reminds me that we had a new clear cola, then a clear dishwashing liquid, then a clear beer. What seems clear is the creation of a market.

Of course, there is one explanation for my inability to comprehend all of these currents: I’m white, male, middle class: I’ve had many privileges, and undoubtedly that gets in the way of my seeing anything clearly. I haven’t seen any books on the shelves that tell me how to treat White Male Syndrome.

Books, books, everywhere, and not a one to make you think. Books that ring with discord, books that paint it black, books that manufacture a thirst for water unknown; there’s not room on the shelves anymore for Faulkner’s human heart in conflict with itself, no place for Annie Dillard’s lambent prose, no ear to be bitten by Twain’s filed teeth. Instead, we read books like Twelve Toxically Shameful Dance Steps for Codependent, Love-Addicted Wolves. We’ve become a nation of literary decaf drinkers.

Hey, I’m not advocating escapist literature, some eye candy for the brain to snack and snooze. I just advise caution in reading books that tell you how you feel and how to feel about how you feel. Read Dorothy Allison’s Bastard Out of Carolina for a story about parental abuse that will chill you for its calm, even-handed description of brutal events. Its power, and it is very powerful, is in its non-advocacy, the incredible objectivity of the protagonist’s voice in the midst of the deepest of pain. Here is a fictional work with more soul-searching truth than a stack of When Bad Things Happen to So-so People.

The thought that the publishing industry has finally caught up to the cosmetics industry, using its greatest tactic, fear, is sobering. My hips, my heart, my love handles–if you are told to look for the bogey man, and given a very good description, you’ll find him. It reminds me of a friend of mine who told me, only half-facetiously, the secret of his success: emphasize the negative. We seem to have an appetite center for burden and chafing, an mangled glob of brain tissue that has a dark hunger for selective memory that concentrates on past voices of shrill insult, that holds up a narrow mirror to our child-faces, defeated and afraid.

I read Beryl Markham’s West with the Night a while back, and marveled at the woman’s self-aware intelligence and calm bravado as she daily flew her little plane over uncharted African lands, testing her courage and fiber in a way that was such an integral, practical expression of personality. I try to imagine her looking at all of these titles, and thinking how it could be that people would even have the time to feel so bad when there was real work to do.

Don’t misunderstand me, though. I’m not saying you shouldn’t try to ease feelings that are real. Write a book about it and they will read. I might be the only one in the country not writing a book about it. I suppose I’m just upset that my parents ruined my fortune by not abusing me as a child. Mom, Dad, thanks for doing your best. I guess we invented denial for those bad days when it’s just too much trouble to go to the bookstore.