Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Trust Issues

Faye Dunaway refuses to talk about her performance in "Mommie Dearest" as she felt it was too "over the top".   Frankly, compared to my childhood, I thought it was subdued and restrained.

You may get the impression, reading this blog, that I have "trust issues" with regard to other people.  And this is true, but it is in part due to my upbringing, which was a classic Skinner-box learned helplessness experiment.  It is also due in part to the realization that the commercial enterprises in our country are not our friends and are basically out to screw you six ways from Sunday, if they feel they can get away with it.  I tend not to trust banks, credit card companies, or anyone trying to sell me anything.

When I saw the movie (and read the book) "Mommie Dearest" I felt like I was reading my autobiography.  It was so close to the truth of my childhood as to not be funny.   In that book, Christina Crawford talks about the "night raids" her Mother would conduct, while drunk, being completely irrational and violent.   Christina was lucky - she only had a Mother who did this and not a Father as well.

My Father's drunken tirades were nothing like my Mother's, at least in terms of frequency.  Since he wasn't home most of the time, we didn't have to deal with his anger control issues very often.  When he was home, we tried to leave or make ourselves scarce, lest he notice us and start something.

We used to call him "Mr. Ho-Ho" as he was always pretending to be jolly and friendly.  However, it was a thin veneer, and quite easily detectable as entirely false.   To be fair, his children were a complete puzzle to him.   None of us was a "chip off the old block" - wanting to join junior Calvary or go out for sports.  My oldest brother was subjected to a lot of pressure in this regard - forced to go out for football and other activities and earn his varsity "letter" in prep school.

Unfortunately, he was a rather thin and awkward and sensitive artistic type, ill-suited for the gridiron.   He bravely stuck it out, though, sitting on the bench most of the time, appeasing his father, lest he get yelled at or beaten.   Later on in life, he would reject my father's values of materialism and "getting ahead" in life, as being false.   And sadly, I think this had more to do with his difficult relationship with his Dad than any real political leanings.

When my other brother came of football age, my Dad forced him to sign up for "Pop" Warner Football, which he detested.   My Dad never "threw the ball around" with us kids or took a real interest in the game or even tried to explain it to us.  He didn't watch football every Sunday while the family gathered around the television.  As a result, we had no interest in the game.   He thought that for some reason, we would spontaneously become enthused of it as it was some sort of American rite of passage.

Anyway, my brother decided that "Pop" Warner football just wasn't his thing, my Dad berated him for hours, calling him a "quitter" and "Mr. Quitter" and saying idiotic things like, "Wherever you go in life, from now on, you'll be known as the guy who quit 'Pop' Warner football!"   He did this for over an hour, mentally castrating my poor brother, who was at that pubescent age where what your Dad thinks of you has a great affect on your brain.

When it was my turn for "Pop" Warner football, I told my Dad, "no thanks, not doing that!" which was a shame, as I was the only one in the family who really had the build for it.   But he had made it so toxic at that point that the idea of even trying it was scary.

My Dad would occasionally go into rages, and these were unpredictable and violent.   Like in Mommie Dearest, he would go through our bedrooms, complaining they were messy and dirty, and then do things like overturn bookcases and furniture and then tell us to "clean up this mess!" - a mess he largely created.   I am not sure if he learned this from a drill sergeant or what.  I am not sure what he wanted to teach us in this manner.  What we learned was that he was an asshole.

When we would start crying (as little kids are prone to do), he would scream at us to stop crying and then say, "Smile dammit!  I want to see you smile!   You should be happy!"   It was pretty sick stuff, in retrospect.

We also called him "Mr. Half-a-stick-of-chewing-gum" because about an hour after his fugue state had dissipated, he would realize what a shitty job of parenting he was doing and then try to apologize to us, offering us a stick of chewing gum as a present.  Unfortunately, since he had already eaten all the chewing gum, there was only one stick left, which he would divide in half and offer each of us a half-stick.   It was so fucking pathetic, I kind of felt sorry for him.

But that in short, is how learned helplessness occurs.  When you put an animal in a Skinner box, and none of their actions creates any kind of rational feedback - positive or negative - they just cower in a corner and whimper.   What we learned from him was avoidance as that was usually the best strategy for his fugue states and rages, which were unpredictable.

As I noted, my Mother was pretty much the same way, only more so.  And when my older siblings were old enough to leave home (or at least have a driver's license) and my Father had his mistress (and thus, blessedly, was rarely home) my Mother would go into her fugue states which were pretty much the same as my Father's, only without the half-stick of chewing gum.  Unfortunately, I was not able to escape these, as I noted before, but was left alone with a severely mentally ill woman.

Again, the antics portrayed in the film Mommie Dearest are not an example of "over the top" over-acting, but a realistic portrayal of a rage-aholic Mother, as I can attest to, from personal experience.  Although my Mom had no fetish about wire coat hangers.

It wouldn't have been so bad, had the four children stuck together through this and at least offered support to each other.   But maybe in a situation like this, it is "every man for himself" and people learn to look out for themselves and to hell with the other guy.  My sister had largely left home by the time I was 8 years old, so she was not so much a presence in my life.  She spent the rest of her life trying to "understand" her relationship with Mother, and of course, calling my Father periodically for infusions of cash.   Sadly, in her short life, she was never able to break free of the parental leash.  Many children don't and they don't because parents enjoy this sick form of control.  Well, some parents do, anyway.

When my Father re-married, he was ecstatic to have three new children to lord over and who were needy.  He was tired of the old ones anyway, who were no fun anymore, being resistant, dead, or mentally ill.

My older brother I remember only because he tended to mock me and belittle me, I guess in a way of making himself feel more important.   Like I said, my Father tended to belittle him, so maybe this was his way of coping - passing along the fun.   He left home early and never looked back and resisted their attempts to steer his career.

My other brother, well, he learned to take care of himself and to hell with everyone else.   Drugs, of course, were part of the problem, as was mental illness.   Mentally ill people tend to be selfish people - taking what they want from society and not thinking about consequences or outcomes.   He would do stupid things and get into legal trouble and act mystified as to why everyone was upset.  Once he adopted the role of "troubled child" it provided a set of normative cues and expectations to live up to.

At first, his antics seemed to only harm himself.   But as a kid, I had a paper route, and when I delivered the evening paper, I had to collect money and balance books and then pay the paper distributor.  It was arduous work, and when people didn't pay, I often ended up at the end of the week barely breaking even.   One day, I went to settle up with the distributor and found I was nearly $20 short.   The distributor yelled at me and called me an idiot and I could not figure out why I was short on money.   I later on found out that my brother had stolen money from my money pouch to buy drugs.   He felt that the money was his for the taking and whatever consequences I had to face were no concern of his.

While this was hurtful at the time, in retrospect, I realize this only made me stronger and made him weaker.   I know that sounds weird (particularly when you calculate the compound interest on $20 over 40 years) but his self-destructive actions ended up destroying him.   On the other hand, they merely made me resolute not to go down the same path.

I told my parents, of course, thinking that justice would be served.  They yelled at him, but they never asked him or forced him to give me my $20 back and to this day, I was never made whole.   I guess my way of coping and "looking out for myself" was to get a job and try to be independent as possible.   First I had the paper route and then the dishwashing job at the Olde Tyme Gas Light Restaurant which lasted until the cook shot himself in the kitchen.

The odd thing was, my parents were not happy with my initiative.   They felt that working was somehow beneath the children of someone in their station in life - even though they were one or two generations removed from poverty themselves.   I was told in no uncertain terms that they did not like the fact I was working and would not help me in any way whatsoever and that I was "on my own".   It was very odd.

When I went to General Motors Institute, my Mother would run that down as being "some sort of trade school" or whatever.   She felt that a useless liberal arts degree was the only education worth having as it had taken her so far in life (the sarcasm light is ON).  After seeing my older siblings flounder with liberal arts degrees (which even back then, were considered worthless in the job market), I kept to my own inclinations and ideas.   And besides, my parents, with their odd behavior, had largely squandered what little credibility they had in the advice department - career or otherwise.

In fact, the only time they seemed to be happy was when I flunked out.   As I noted in The Parent Trap there are a lot of parents who love to lord over the ruined lives of their children, and my parents were prime examples.   In the cocktail circuit, whining and bitching about your failed children was seen as some sort of perverse status.  As I noted before, my Dad once called me on the phone, ecstatic that his step-daughter qualified for full disability - he crowed as if she had graduated from Harvard.  I guess that is what qualifies as "success" in my family - going on the dole.  Real success is criticized as being flawed or "selling out" - you see how sick this is and how damaging it can be if you adopt those normative cues.

So what changed in my life?   I finally woke up one day and realized that clinging to "family" was going to kill me, quite literally.   It was not a healthy or loving family, but rather a twisted relationship where everyone was looking out for themselves and screw everyone else.  Where failure was success and success was failure.   Where being needy and weak meant you were loved.  The best thing to do was walk away and live my own life.   And the rest, as they say, is history.

But this is not to say I don't still have trust issues.  I think part of the experience of random rewards and punishments is that it programs your brain to be wary and skeptical.   Again, perhaps this is a good thing, to some extent, as it prepares you for the disappointments in life - when you realize that even friends and family and husbands and wives can have ulterior motives or perhaps no motives at all, but just random madness.

When something sounds too good to be true, I tend to be very skeptical.  I've been burned before, from the get-go.   And when someone seems irrational or crazy, I just walk away, as I learned the hard way, many times, that dealing with crazy people is an exercise in futility and a sure way to end up victimized in short order.

And when some company offers me a "great deal" I realize that they are not doing this out of the goodness of their hearts, but to make money, sometimes in odious ways.   And I walk away from that shit, too.