The Freedman Archives

The following is a collection of letters written by Gary Freedman to his imagined friend.

Wednesday, August 17, 2005

All I Ever Wanted for Christmas: The Identity Kit


January 10, 2005

Hey, buddy. I forgot to ask: Did you get all you wanted for Christmas? Were your wants satisfied? Were your wants met? Did you get what you expected? Ah, wants and wanting! Gifts and giving! I have the impression that most people tend to feel that they somehow have a right to Freedom From Want. I can only hope that you are free from want.

What did I dream of getting as a gift this past holiday season, you ask? What I wanted was an identity kit. That's right, an identity kit. And I didn't get it. I suppose I'll have to live in hopes of getting an identity kit on some other occasion. You can't always get what you want.

By the way, Brian, it was good seeing you last week on Connecticut Avenue, I think it was Thursday January 6th. You're allowed to say hello, buddy; you know that, don't you? What do you think I'm going to do -- report your every gesture to the Chief of Police? Come to think of it, I saw you two weeks earlier, on Thursday morning, December 23rd -- my birthday, by the way. Remember that? You looked totally washed out. I never saw you look like that before. Your face was puffy, and your expression seemed to be one of bemused distraction. Didn't you get any sleep the night before? Were you up all night? Wrapping Christmas presents? Or -- speaking euphemistically -- was the little lady in a preholiday festive mood?

In any event, it was enough that I got a smile out of you. One recognizes oneself in that old smile of recognition from that old friend. But for the fact that I live in the neighborhood where you work -- which occasions chance encounters on the street -- we should have remained practically unacquainted these past several months.

I've spent the past week, the last seven "dark days," vainly attempting to govern my fifty personalities: the multifarious identity elements of my fractious and fragmented Self. As a consequence I must preserve my splendid isolation to ward off further dissolution of my precarious mental states, though I do make an effort to maintain a Good Neighbor policy. How deep the loneliness into which my life has drifted on account of my disposition and destiny and how consciously I have accepted this loneliness as my destiny, are things about which I struggle every day. For the most part I remain closed, withdrawn, and moody.

I have a rage within me, a desire to rebel, reject and negate; I have exiled myself from humanity in order to preserve my Self. I feel strangled in a nexus of human bonds which bind me to this earthly life which I loathe.

I would annihilate the world and all its humanity with an atom bomb, if I could -- leaving nothing but an open field and a rabbit sitting up. Yes, I'm in a Lawrentian mood. A mood befitting D.H. Lawrence, that is. I'm parodying Rupert Birkin, of course. "Rupert Birkin." What a strange name! You recall the character from "Women in Love," the D.H. Lawrence novel? Rupert Birkin would have liked nothing better than to see the world utterly destroyed. He yearned for a different life, a better life. And he longed for a friend, a special friend, to ward off loneliness.

In my solitude and grief I seek my mirror image, a second Self, for solace and comfort. Sometimes I feel as if I could die, actually die, from the frustration arising from my failure to find that other person I require to establish a satisfactory identity. On occasion my frustration turns to despair when I begin to question my own capacity to "mean" anything to anyone.

What are the origins of my suffering? Well, according to my sister (and please, Brian, please, don't define me or identify me as my sister's brother), yes, according to my sister I was a spoiled child. My current distress, my failure to adapt to a normal adult life, stems from the overgratification of my wants as a child.

"Whatever the boy wanted, he was given. A pony? As soon as his legs were long enough to straddle its back. A boat? He had the use of his father's yacht the 'Half Moon,' a sea captain to teach him how to handle it, and a twenty-one footer of his own (complete with anchor). A gun? His father handed him one at eleven. There were the neighboring children for him to play with, trees, cliff, and a river in which to test his mettle, and a succession of nurses, governesses, and tutors to serve and instruct him and for whom he could do no wrong. He did not require strict handling, his mother said, because 'instinctively' he was 'a good little boy.'" So says my sister. Who did my sister think I was, Franklin Roosevelt, growing up on one of the great estates along the Hudson River?

And by the way, for all its material comforts, FDR's childhood was lacking in personal freedom; the boy's time and activities were closely regulated -- not by alphabet agencies, but by a strict and demanding mother. The boy never rebelled against his parents, openly at least. My own suspicion is that he nurtured a secret, inner fury that fueled the powerful but socially-adaptive drive in adulthood to reform the existing economic and political order. People other than his parents, institutions other than his family would pay for his pain. By means of displacement, Franklin Roosevelt protected the idealized image of his early family life, which in reality was in some ways less than ideal. In the little memoir "My Boy Franklin," his mother insisted that she had never tried to influence young Franklin against his own states and inclinations, and yet she also disclosed that it was only 'eventually' that she had allowed his golden curls to be shorn, and that when, at the age of five, he had become melancholy he had 'clasped his hands in front of him and said 'Oh, for freedom'' when she asked him why. She had been genuinely shocked. 'That night I talked it over with his father who, I confess, often told me I nagged the boy. We agreed that unconsciously we had probably regulated the child's life too closely, even though we knew he had ample time for exercise and play.'" Overregulation stifles growth, -- at least that's what Greenspan says.

In some ways the boy Franklin, an only child, was prince of the castle at his parents' estate at Hyde Park. Unlike the surveyor in Kafka's novel "The Castle," he did not suffer from inscrutable surroundings, for he enjoyed supportive attachment objects. He did suffer from the meaningless bureaucracy (child-rearing practices) of his mother, the over-regulation of his caretakers, the probable self-importance of the employees, and above all from the fact that there must have seemed to be no answers in this environment to his most existential questions. Whom could he ask?

Boys thus driven in upon themselves may develop a deceptive exterior which conforms in every apparent respect to the standards of behavior set and enforced by authority and by group influences, but what goes on within may be something that in the long run will explode into an irresistible force, not one to be taken lightly. It is supposition on my part to speak of his loneliness and fear of impermanence, and it is a bit premature, in his life's story, to speak of it when he was yet a boy. But it seems to me to have accompanied quite naturally his feeling of being present but of never quite belonging and the worry of not being quite up to the tests he had to meet.

All accounts concur to create an image of the young Franklin Roosevelt as the traditional young Ivy-educated lawyer with a conservative upper class background, eager to work hard for the sake of his family as befits a responsible, loving husband and father. But a more careful examination of the facts -- based on a retrospective examination of the radical progressivism of his political agenda -- reveals a very different picture. The placid politician, the patient and conventional lover is in fact a man of violent (or potentially violent), sometimes uncontrollable passions -- or passions that are only controlled after a painful inner (and not always inner) struggle. After he became president, the brutal attacks that were lodged against him by his political adversaries energized his passions and, in defiance, he was goaded to augment -- not retreat from -- his legislative initiatives.

Be that as it may.

My sister's reflections on the causes of my social and psychological difficulties are not an objective appraisal of the problem -- they ARE the problem. I matured in and adapted to a disturbed family environment in which my identity-for-others served the narcissistic needs of others, and not my own. I never had the freedom to develop my "own" identity, abstracted from my identity-for-others. I now struggle with the fear of being engulfed by others: the fear that other people will encroach on my basic right to be myself, and not a self-for-others. It's as if I have to be my own Secret Service, protecting my right to Selfhood against the identity assassins who would destroy me. Regardless of any material indulgence I enjoyed in childhood, I lacked a basic Freedom from Fear.

I think that my conflicts and wishes were not so different from those of other children. In terms of experience, yes, I was indulged, but I was also regulated and disciplined -- sometimes harshly. I lived in ever-present peril from the identity assassins in my family, who would ascribe to me a false identity. I rebelled, inwardly at least. What I wanted were parents who were finer, wiser, more exalted. What I lacked, what I wanted for, what I never got was an identity kit. That would have made all the difference for me. An identity kit!

The late British psychoanalyst R.D. Laing writes: "Every relationship implies a definition of self by other and other by self. This complementarity can be central or peripheral, have greater or less dynamic significance at different periods of one's life. At some point a child rebels against the nexus of bonds which bind him to these parents and siblings whom he has not chosen; he does not wish to be defined and identified as his father's son, or sister's brother. These people may seem strangers to him. Surely, he has affinities with parents who are finer, wiser, more exalted. Yet, this nexus of complementary bonds is an anchor that others long for. Orphans and adopted children [like Oedipus of ancient myth] sometimes develop a tremendously strong desire to find out 'who they are,' by tracing the father and mother who conceived them. [Then, of course, some people simply become the managing editors of Jewish Genealogy journals -- like Dr. Sally Amdur Sack. But that, as Doug Gansler would say, is "an entirely different suburb."] They feel incomplete for want of a father or mother, whose absence leaves their concept of self incomplete. Something tangible, even a plaque on a tombstone, may be enough. It seems to allow 'closure.'

A person's 'own' identity cannot be completely abstracted from his identity-for-others. His identity-for-himself; the identity others ascribe to him; the identities he attributes to them; the identity or identities he thinks they attribute to him; what he thinks they think he thinks they think. . . .

'Identity' is that whereby one feels one is 'the same,' in this place, this time as at that time and at that place, past or future; it is that by which one is identified. I have the impression that most people tend to come to feel that they are the same continuous beings through womb to tomb. And that this 'identity,' the more it is phantasy, is the more intensely defended.

An 'identity' sometimes becomes an 'object' that a person has or feels he has lost, and starts to search for. Many primitive phantasies are attached to identity and 'its' objectification and reification. The frequently described modern search for 'identity' becomes another phantasy scenario.

Intense frustration arises from failure to find that other required to establish a satisfactory 'identity.'

Other people become a sort of identity kit, whereby one can piece together a picture of oneself. One recognizes oneself in that old smile of recognition from that old friend."

Well, at least, that's the British viewpoint as expounded by R.D. Laing in "Self and Others."

"You are obsessed with Brian because you don't have any friends. If you made other friends, real friends, you'd forget about Brian. That's the way it works." So says The Mad Monk. Res ipso loquitur.

In any event, I'm struck by Laing's observation: "And that this identity, the more it is phantasy, is the more intensely defended." How would I elaborate that observation? I was thinking of Peter Blos' remark about the importance of the father's protective presence in the development of the boy's sense of maleness -- a presence either actual, construed, or wished for. To the extent my father's presence for me was simply "wished for" (and not actual), that presence was fantasy. To the extent my identity is based on a "wished for" presence of my father (as opposed to an actual presence), the more intensely my identity will need to be defended. Ipso that, Dr. Bash!

The Mad Monk! Week after week of madness with The Mad Monk! It's a wonder I have an ounce of sanity left at this point. I knew that the idea of a therapist saying "I'm not interested in analyzing anything you say" and meaning it would be an unbearable and excruciatingly unhealthy thing for me. That somebody would first deny me the opportunity to say anything that was in my mind, and then would proceed to misunderstand anything I did say, promised a kind of intellectual and emotional hell-on-earth. It is the connection with another human soul that I seek; not a connection with a mad monk. As Elliott Roosevelt (Eleanor's father) would advise, though, "you must learn to develop the wisdom to accept those things you cannot change." I can't change Dr. Bash, but I don't accept her either.

I think R.D. Laing (unlike Dr. Bash) would put the problem of my obsession with you, buddy, differently: "You are obsessed with Brian because he bolsters a masculine identity that is rooted, in part, in fantasy. If you had had a real, as opposed to a 'wished for,' relationship with your father, you wouldn't be obsessed with Brian, that is, you wouldn't have such an intense, obsessive need to defend your sense of maleness."

Yes, I struggle with my active-passive balance: what the psychoanalysts call the "Eleanor Roosevelt Complex." My fear of being daddy's little girl. Try mastering that identity element, buddy! It's darn near impossible. I told you about Rubenstein, didn't I? He called me a fag in the eleventh grade in high school. Actually, Rex Tugwell wrote about that very incident: "The rough handling of his fellows, their careless invasion of his reticences -- these may be a good enough corrective, used occasionally and with insight, for overdeveloped self-regard and inner turning; but in a boys' school there is no escape from such brutalities." Rubenstein was a good enough corrective.

What was it that Peter Blos wrote about the "Eleanor Roosevelt Complex?" "I arrived at this interpretation," he said, "on the basis of my clinical experience which has taught me that a son's subordination of his life's work, ambition, dedication, and achievement to the libidinized expectations of his father are experienced by the son as a submissive and passive adaptation. The effort to surmount this never quite ego-syntonic position of a boy's active-passive balance in the mastery of self and environment reaches a crucial impasse at the closure of adolescence. At that juncture this unresolved imbalance frequently merges with associative identity fragments of a feminine self representation. If this emerging conflict cannot be contained or resolved, an abnormal psychic accommodation will take its course."

Eleanor Roosevelt was "daddy's little girl." Fortunately for her, she also happened to be daddy's little girl. Eleanor Roosevelt's mother died when she was eight and her father, Elliott, when she was ten. "He was the one great love of my life as a child," Eleanor wrote about her father almost forty years after his death, "and in fact like many children I have lived a dream life with him; so his memory is still a vivid living thing to me."

After Elliott's death Eleanor would carry her father's letters around with her for the remainder of her life. For her the letters were a cherished archive. People who lived on in the memories of those alive, she said, were not dead. She read and reread her father's letters, and each time it was a fresh invocation of the magic of his presence: a reminder of a former sacred reverence. Elliott lived on in Eleanor's fantasies, fantasies that were intensely defended.

But Eleanor Roosevelt's relationship with her adored father was to a large extent a "wished for" relationship. Elliott Roosevelt, the younger brother of the accomplished Theodore (New York City's one-time Police Commissioner, I might add), was a mentally-unbalanced alcoholic who died at age 27.

In point of fact, Elliott Roosevelt is himself another one of my "fifty personalities" or identity fragments. One biographer has written of Elliott Roosevelt that: "as one contemplates the promise of his early years, it is the pathos of wasted talents, the stark tragedy of an enormously attractive man bent on self-destruction that reaches through the decades to hold us in its grip." (By the way, Brian: How is it that Elliott was so screwed up, but his older brother Theodore turned out so well? I'll tell you; Elliott was spoiled!)

By his death Elliott made it possible for his daughter, Eleanor, to maintain her dream-picture of him. But somewhere, rarely admitted to conscious awareness, Eleanor carried another picture of her father -- the father who sent her messages that he was coming and did not appear (he had a friend coming in from South Africa), who left her in the cloakroom of his club (The Kilimanjaro in Adams-Morgan), who aroused her hopes that she would be coming home to him ("Stop by my place anytime. You're always welcome. You don't even have to call first, I'm always home"), hopes that were always disappointed, the father who lacked self-control, who could not face responsibility (he quit an academically-selective high school in the tenth grade), who expected to be indulged. (Elliott was spoiled. What did I tell you?). Yes, that was the early life of Annie Eleanor Roosevelt. "Tomorrow, tomorrow, I love you, tomorrow, you're always a day away."

Based on her early disappointments, Eleanor developed an emotional code: One must learn "to accept what other people are unable to give. You must learn not to demand the impossible or to be upset when you do not get it."

Repressing the picture of Elliott's failures as a father and a man exacted a price; her own sense of reality was impaired. She tended to overestimate and misjudge people, especially those who seemed to need her and who satisfied her need for self-sacrifice and affection and gave her the admiration and loyalty she craved. Just as her response to being disappointed by her father had been silence and depression because she did not dare see him as he really was, so in later life she would become closed, withdrawn, and moody when people she cared about disappointed her.

Although idolization of her father exacted a price, it was also a source of remarkable strength. Because of her overwhelming attachment to him, she would strive to be the noble, studious, brave, loyal girl he had wanted her to be. He had chosen her in a secret compact, and this sense of being chosen never left her.

Franklin Roosevelt was the "handsome, intelligent, manipulative, womanizer" who in early adulthood so unexpectedly chose Eleanor out of so many to be his wife, and later disappointed her. (Oddly, and tellingly, my old friend and coworker at Hogan & Hartson, Craig the Embalmer, once confided to me that our supervisor, Sheryl Ferguson, in a private conference, told the Embalmer that he had disappointed her as an employee. "I expected so much from you when I hired you. And you fulfilled so little of your seeming promise." Of some employees much is expected, I suppose.)

In reciprocating Franklin's choice, Eleanor, for her part, not only gratified her life-affirming need for love; she simultaneously chose a man who would disappoint her as her father had done. To paraphrase Sartre ("Psychology of Imagination"): It is not only this or that object (husband or friend) that is chosen, but the imaginary state of feelings that one associates with that object with everything it implies in regard to pleasure and frustration.

It's called "Life Beyond The Pleasure Principle."

But there is more than this.

Eleanor early divined that Franklin had a weakness for struggling humanity which rose to a feeling of responsibility. Eleanor and Franklin, in fact, shared a humanitarian dream. "He felt left out," Eleanor later wrote. "It gave him sympathy for people who are left out." Those who were oppressed and suffering touched a spring of indignation in him which welled up persistently. It is one clue to his whole life's orientation. It explains what he always did with power after he achieved it. He was forever turning to the righting of wrongs, the correcting of injustices, the recovering of the disadvantaged, the placing of the poor in a better position. He felt that the system was rigged and that disadvantages had been institutionalized. There grew in him a persistent impulse toward reform. Such a disposition made Roosevelt, in the eyes of some, the worst kind of rat. Not everyone made things easy on him. "I get some nasty letters," he once told an associate. "But it's my job, and it's an important job."

I myself have suffered injustices. Who will right them? Who will be my champion? No one, apparently. In a law firm of 400 people, who was it who spoke up for me? Who championed my cause? Who said: "He's a loyal employee, an individual of unusual industriousness. His supervisor has described him as being 'as close to the perfect employee as it is possible to get.' He has shown time after time that no personal sacrifice on behalf of the firm that he is requested to perform is too great a burden. He works tirelessly without complaint, happy warrior that he is. You can't fire him because he complained about something trivial on one occasion." Who said that? Who empathized with my plight? No one. Can you explain that? Of course, psychologists observe that the gift of empathizing is little understood. (Make no mistake; empathy is a gift, and, based on my experience, I would say, a rare gift).

And by the way, Brian, just who is it that attached a negative meaning to a trivial event? I was fired, so my employer claims, because I have a tendency to attach a negative meaning to trivial events. But note: The act of describing an outstanding employee who lodges a complaint on one occasion as mentally disturbed and potentially violent -- doesn't THAT constitute an act of attaching a negative meaning to a trivial event? Or am I crazy?

When a person matures and adapts in an unempathic family environment in which no one defends his interests, no one champions his needs, he may learn something. He may become convinced of the need to serve as his own Franklin Roosevelt. "These dark days, my friends, will be worth all they cost us if they teach us that our true destiny lies not in being ministered unto, but in ministering to ourselves." Well, that's precisely what I've been doing: ministering unto myself. It's called self-help. I am determined to right the wrongs I have suffered -- right those wrongs on my own.

I matured in and adapted to a disturbed family environment in which my identity-for-others served the narcissistic needs of others, and not my own. "Life Beyond The Pleasure Principle" dictated that in adulthood I assume the identity of an individual who was disturbed and potentially violent: an "identity-for-others" that served the narcissistic needs of my former employer. I've simply cashed in. I turned the Social Security Disability Program into a victim's compensation program. Is that so wrong? And by the way, thank you for your support, President Roosevelt.

I think Strauss & Company underestimated me the same way FDR was underestimated as a young man. "His associates merely underrated him as a pleasant fellow. They thought of him as permanently several levels lower than he would presently reach. They were therefore constantly unable to believe his achievements. They assumed that the individual they had known a short time ago must have been arrested at the level they had observed. Because he was treated with condescension, he made secret resolves, I am quite sure, as any spirited person would, to show the condescender how mistaken he had been. These resolves do not need to be openly stated or even secretly recognized. They are, nevertheless, an ever present goad."

Check you out next week, buddy. By the way, stop over my place anytime. We can hang out with my buddy, Brad (Captain Vagina). He's from New Hyde Park, New York. A Columbia grad, no less.

P.S. Enjoyed the cabin.


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