Sunday, July 21, 2019

What Makes a Pleasure Perverse?

Paul Bloom tells us that some people take a perverse pleasure in not following the rules. I recall the following incident. When I was a freshman in college the testing service gave us all a special aptitude test. A guy from my dorm did the unthinkable: he managed to get every answer wrong. He got a zero. The testing authorities called him into their office. One woman was so distraught at what he had done to her curve, that she started crying. We were all duly impressed. For the record, this is a true story.

We might want to think that he had no good reason, but perhaps his bad reason was really a good reason.

Obviously, you can only get a zero on a multiple choice test if you know all the answers. But if you take offense at the useless exercise and choose to defy all norms, you can also show how smart you are by getting all the answers wrong. You will not be defying all rules and all norms, but will be issuing a rebuke against those who are making you take a test that counts for nothing. If you feel insulted by the exercise you might well make your results an effort to turn the tables, and thus, to salvage some measure of your self-respect. Is this a good reason or a bad reason? If the test were an SAT or a GRE or an LSAT, your ability to get a zero would not count at perverse; it would be self-destructive. 

So, perversity, in the sense that Bloom is using, applies when nothing is at stake… except for your self-respect. When psychologist Bloom interviews children and asks them suitably silly questions, they often give him suitably silly answers. They are being perverse but are also asserting themselves against what appears to them to be a mindless exercise.

… kids are so often perverse: they give silly answers for fun, saying the opposite of what they really think just because they can. Scientific papers have had to be retracted because of so-called mischievous responders. Researchers who study teen-agers have it worst. In one study, nineteen per cent of high-school students who claimed to be adopted turned out to be kidding. In another, ninety-nine per cent of students who said they used an artificial limb really didn’t.

One might say that these children are playing a language game. But, that they are playing a game that differs radically from the game being played by the researcher. Evidently, they are showing that the researchers’ game requires everyone to follow the same rules. And they are showing that they reject the role ascribed to them in the game: the role of guinea pig, the role of test subject who is not profiting from the game. Did they choose to play the game or were they told that they had to play it?

Bloom suggests that this resembles the behavior of wanton boys, boys who steal because they can. 

Augustine recounts how, in his youth, he and his friends stole some pears. They weren’t hungry—in fact, they threw the fruit to the hogs. Instead, Augustine writes, their act was “gratuitously wanton, having no inducement to evil but the evil itself.” Accounting for his behavior, he concludes, “I loved the evil in me.” We still explain perverse behavior this way. 

You may or may not want to tax school children with Augustinian evil for stealing a couple of pears. Apparently, the action counts as perverse because the boys are not profiting from their dereliction. They are not poor and hungry. But, they are also showing that the workings of a market involve participants obeying rules. Without mutual respect for rule following, there would be no market. They are not undermining the workings of a fruit stand as much as they are showing themselves to be non-participants-- not fully held to obey the rules-- because they are children.

By Bloom’s reasoning people perform perverse actions because it establishes them as authentic and autonomous:

Rather, it’s a way of establishing oneself as an authentic and autonomous being. We might call it existential perversity. A person can ask: If I only do what makes sense, what use am I? Why is my consciousness relevant at all? The desire to exercise your autonomy might motivate you to turn against the expected, the reasonable, and the moral—to show yourself, and perhaps others, that you are free.

If I may take exception, I would point out out that feeling you are autonomous and authentic does not make you autonomous and authentic. In truth, no human being is autonomous. No human being can function outside of society or the state. So said Aristotle, and we are happy to bring up the point. I will leave authenticity for another time and place.

Second, we must distinguish between two kinds of freedom. You can be free to play by the rules and you can be free to break the rules. These are not the same kinds of free. Evidently, the second kind of free precludes the first.

If a boy or an adult shows himself or the world that he is free of society’s strictures, he is writing himself out of society. He is setting himself apart, either to be rejected or to be idolized. Pariahs are not obliged to play by the rules. They have been placed outside of society because they have failed egregiously to do so, and have also failed to correct their errant ways.

And idols are not obliged to play by the rules. They make their own rules. In short, if you steal the pear and get away with it you are suggesting that you are above the rules. If you get caught, you might be voted off the island.

But then, behavioral economists believe that they know what is best for us. A highly dubious proposition... one that an individual might, for a good reason, want to reject.

Behavioral economists know that salads are better than hamburgers so they want us to make salads more prominent at the school lunch counter. They do allow the hamburgers to exist in a darker place, but well-intentioned efforts to trick children into eating what the economists want them to eat can lead to the Obama administration school lunch program where children did not have the choice. They were only offered big helpings of grass and weeds… and not allowed to eat hot dogs at all. The result, as you know, is that the children did not eat in school and, being hungry for most of the afternoon, ran off and gorged themselves on junk food. Tons of healthy food were apparently destroyed because behavioral economists failed to respect children's freedom to choose.

In that context, perverse behavior is not undertaken to show how autonomous children are, but to show the economists that they should stop trying to manipulate people, thus, to deprive them of their freedom. In that case, the collective perversity and petty despotism lies on the side of the economists, not of the children.

Bloom describes the economist approach.

On a societal level, the desire to exercise choice may create collective perversity. The policy theorists Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein have long advocated the adoption of “nudges”—revisions to our “choice architectures” that favor, by default, the most beneficial outcomes. A business might nudge its employees by automatically enrolling them in a retirement-savings plan (though they can always change it); a cafeteria might put the healthiest food in a prominent location (though the unhealthy food is still available). Thaler and Sunstein point out that choice architectures always exist. The salads have to go somewhere, so why not give them pride of place? Still, many people find the idea of nudges upsetting; they object to having their choices shaped, even in a rational direction.

Like psychologists who ask children silly questions, behavioral economists are being called out for their own bad behavior. That is, for trying to manipulate other people's minds... thus, to diminish their freedom.

Bloom ends with a reflection about potlatch, though he does not call it by its venerable Indian name. He talks about people who destroy valuable possessions and declares it to be a dangerous and perhaps perverse thrill:

It’s a collection of photographs depicting the gleeful destruction of valuable things—a hundred-dollar bill set on fire, fine champagne poured down a drain. Just looking at the photographs gives you a taste of what Rubin describes as a “dangerous thrill.”

In truth, the behavior is not perverse. Practiced by the chieftains of rival tribes, it is a way to assert status and to garner prestige. The chiefs who are burning their possessions are showing how wealthy they are. They are saying that they have wealth to burn. They have so much wealth that they can burn some of it and still have more than anyone else.

It’s like a billionaire who has so much money that he can waste tons of money… without it having any real effect on his wealth. When you have an infinite quantity of whatever, taking some of it away, even destroying some of it, means that you still have far more than you or anyone else would ever need. Only the hyperrich can burn their wealth.

We will grant an exception for those who participate in what Renaissance Florence called a bonfire of the vanities... a burnt offering, a sacrifice of possessions designed, not for a perverse motive, but as a way to get one step closer to Heaven.

Saturday, July 20, 2019

The Decline and Fall of New York

In case you missed it. Journalist Blair Sabol wrote about the decline and fall of New York City for The New York Social Diary. As best I can tell, she has just reached the height of middle age and takes the occasion to take us on a journey through a city whose sense of manners and decorum has been in serious decline:

Forget the commonly accepted basic rudeness, and disintegration of all manners – nowadays if you haven’t already been labeled a racist (or sexist) you haven’t been participating.  And I refuse to blame it all on Trump since I saw this decline happening long before he was elected. Trump is just a reflection of our current society.

A fair point about Trump, and far more intelligent than the usual commentaries we read from so-called intellectuals.

As for the true significance of the downfall of a New York titan, that would be Jeffrey Epstein, Sabol suggests that he make other predators look like rank amateurs:

Jeffrey Epstein has managed to make Harvey Weinstein look like Noel Coward.  The descent has moved that fast.

Actually, Weinstein was pictured 25 pounds lighter, and now has a full team of female lawyers.  He may make it yet. Even Donald Trump’s affair with Stormy Daniels now looks trivial. After all, she was big in the porn scene, AND is over the age of 14.

Remember when Eliot Spitzer’s “afternoon tryst” with Ashley Dupré was a jaw drop!  What was more astounding? That he got naked except for his black socks or that Dupré got a Chelsea apartment, a few Hermes bags and got to write a weekly advice column for the New York Post?

Even Matt Lauer and Charlie Rose now seem tame and tired, and that was merely a year ago.  How about Hugh Grant being arrested with Hooker Divine Jones 22 years ago on Sunset Strip? It almost ruined his career.

Or newscaster Pat O’Brien getting busted for making phone sex calls to his 35-year-old assistant at the Four Seasons Bar 15 years ago.  Today these seem innocent.

Ah, those were the days!

As always happens in these lists, the one missing name is: Bill Clinton. Whatever you read about Epstein’s pedophilia, the point of the manufactured outrage is to create enough distraction to protect the reputation of Bill Clinton. It’s a bit like the 9/11 Commission, skillfully directed by Democrats to leave Clinton out of the picture. As it happened Republicans were not smart enough to figure out what was happening … but it’s not the first time. 

Sabol continues to remark on the breakdown of dress codes, as in, codes of proper professional attire:

And though we have been given the okay to dress in pajamas and torn jeans all day and night, we certainly don’t look or even act better for it! But it is a tricky call to criticize anyone’s appearance.

Just the other day I went into a top surgeon’s office and a lot of the nursing staff sported full “sleeve” tattoos, lip piercings and semi-shaved heads.  I realized I had a look of shock on my face as they took my BP and physical history (this visual didn’t at all reflect their professional performance — but again, I am old). I miss the white coats and even the nurse’s caps!  They were all well versed on “wound management” and taught me that Bacitracin is better than Neosporin, It’s a new day!

Thank Sabol for rendering a public service. First, in saying what no one is allowed to say any more. Second, for telling us what is the best antibiotic ointment.

And, of course, she adds a few notes on the decline and fall of civility, on our culture’s descent into what seems to be terminal vulgarity. About that no one is allowed to say anything, so allow Sabol her say:

My other “bad” occurred when I lost my verbal common ground — my civility with some of my fellow men/women.  I still can’t call anyone “dude.” I don’t get the lingo. I reserve that for the Laguna Beach surfing community. I applauded the women’s national soccer team for their sports achievement; and okay, they don’t want to go to the White House. But dropping the “F-bomb” at every turn seemed more “crass and cheap” than “cool and courageous.” Show me something more to look up to.  Aren’t they all supposed to be heroes for young girls?

In the end, everyone seems to be mimicking gangster rap behavior and clothing.  Wearing ripped denim short shorts and backwards baseball caps to receive the keys to the city? And of course, taking “duck lips” selfies while “chucking up the deuces” or whatever the current cool hand gesture is (F-you seems to be our culture’s current salute).

Who else had the chutzpah to say that the American women’s soccer team was crass and crude? 

The problem is: the thrill is gone. The frisson is gone. We have become numbed to obscenity, to the point that we barely even notice it… until the next batch of Jeffrey Epstein papers:

Letting our freak flag fly is unique until it is all anyone ever does.  Suddenly freak flags are mainstream. Even porn is a bore. Sexual perversity is becoming the cultural norm.  The only difference with Epstein is it is a huge business story that comes under the heading “under-age girls.”  I say it’s more than the girls; it is a giant “follow the money” story. All the heavyweight names about to be exposed will keep this story afloat longer than Bill Cosby or Les Moonves ever did.

And since we are told that we must admire women for their achievements, Harper’s Bazaar has a cover photo of tennis great Serena Williams in the almost altogether:

Meanwhile, Harper’s Bazaar published Serena Williams on their summer cover dressed in a giant gold Ralph Lauren cape. The pose was nearly nude — she was flashing her bare ass cheeks and a whole lot more. The headline read “Serena Unretouched.” Okay, so the message is that at last, an athletic, black female body makes a fashion magazine cover. She gets to share her “naked truth.”  The problem is magazines are over, and I couldn’t even find it at my local CVS.

A veritable goddess, don't you think?

That’s right, achievement on the court counts less than exposing butt cheeks on the cover of a so-called fashion magazine.

Anyway, Sabol is tired of it all and rejoices over the fact that she is old enough to ignore it:

So I am old and out of it – and only too glad to take my seat in the back row of the bleachers of life.  Believe me, I need the distance to observe and to catch my breath. A friend just gave me an appropriate t-shirt: “JOMO” emblazoned on the front.  Joy Of Missing Out.

And, the joy that comes with aging.

Friday, July 19, 2019

Tom Friedman Laments

If Tom Friedman sees it, then everyone must be able to see it. Today’s Democratic Party seems hellbent on re-electing Donald Trump. The party has embraced radical policies that are designed to provide every manner of benefit to those who do not belong here while ignoring those who do. (via Powerline and Maggie’s Farm)

What are Democrats offering to America? Friedman is dismayed to list their policy proposals, from the first presidential candidate debate:

I was shocked that so many candidates in the party whose nominee I was planning to support want to get rid of the private health insurance covering some 250 million Americans and have “Medicare for all” instead. I think we should strengthen Obamacare and eventually add a public option.

I was shocked that so many were ready to decriminalize illegal entry into our country. I think people should have to ring the doorbell before they enter my house or my country.

I was shocked at all those hands raised in support of providing comprehensive health coverage to undocumented immigrants. I think promises we’ve made to our fellow Americans should take priority, like to veterans in need of better health care.

And I was shocked by how feeble was front-runner Joe Biden’s response to the attack from Kamala Harris — and to the more extreme ideas promoted by those to his left.

And then, Friedman offers his own policy prescriptions, via, Powerline:

So far so good, but the real comedy comes later in the column when Friedman recommends what policy ideas Democrats should be for:

“I’m disturbed that so few of the Democratic candidates don’t also talk about growing the pie, let alone celebrating American entrepreneurs and risk-takers. Where do they think jobs come from?”

Friedman hasn’t been paying attention. Didn’t he listen when President Obama said “You didn’t build that”? (Ditto Elizabeth Warren.) Liberals no longer believe in entrepreneurship and “growing the economy” (in Bill Clinton’s clunky phrase). It’s the Bernie-Lizzie Party now: the system is rigged! Only redistribution and punitive taxation on the prosperous will satisfy the sanctified envy and blood lust of the ascendent left. The Democratic Party is back to loving workers but hating employers. A winning formula I’m sure.

And the Democratic Party has become the risk averse party. It has become a party of rent seekers, of the entitled many that want to live off of guaranteed government largesse. 

Friedman proceeds to pretend that the Revolution can wait. Say what? Surely, he is right, but don’t you find it somewhat bizarre that a shopworn slogan from the 1960s should be rearing its ugly head again? The Vietnam counterculture went all-in for revolution. It was a heady time. Young people believed that Communism and Socialism were the future. They were actively rooting for a Viet Cong victory over the armies of American imperialism. 

Anyone who is barely sentient knows that the great revolutionary hope has died. It died years ago when the Berlin Wall fell and when China decided to toss Maoism into the dustbin of history. No serious human being today is militating for the overthrow of the capitalist order. This does not mean that no one is fanning the flames of rebellion. 

Those who are-- you know who they are-- are not merely sore losers. They are not merely imbeciles and morons. They are not merely impervious to the verdict of reality. No, they invested their lives and their minds in a radical leftist ideology and they do not know anything else. They are not merely incapable of recognizing that they were wrong. They are incapable of thinking differently. They are locked in a mental cage of their own making.

Anyway, Friedman does eventually trot out his own favorite Democrat, the governor of the great state of Rhode Island, one Gina Raimondo:

Ask Gina Raimondo, Rhode Island’s governor, and my kind of Democrat. She was just elected in 2018 for a second term. In both her elections she had to win a primary against a more-left Democrat. When Raimondo took office in 2015, Rhode Island had unemployment near 7 percent, and over 20 percent in some of the building trades.

“When I ran in 2014, there was a temptation to appeal to particular constituencies — gun safety, choice, all things that I believe in,” Raimondo recalled. “I resisted that temptation because I felt the single greatest issue was economic insecurity and people who were afraid they were never going to get a job. So I said there are not three or four issues, there’s one issue: jobs.” Unemployment in Rhode Island today is about 3.6 percent.

Raimondo has faced a constant refrain from critics on her left that she is too close to business. “I created an incentive program for companies to get a tax subsidy if they created jobs that pay above our state’s median income or jobs in advanced industries,” she noted. “I have cut small-business taxes two years in a row since 2015. I am not ashamed of any of that.”

Because, she continued, “I listen to people every day, and you hear what they are worried about. People say to me, ‘Governor, I just got a real job.’ And I’d ask them, ‘What is a real job?’ And they’d say, ‘It’s a job where I can support my family with real benefits.’ So I named our state job-training program ‘Real Jobs Rhode Island.’” It will be impossible to “sustain a vibrant democracy with this level of inequality.”

We might ask whether this story is unique to Rhode Island. Or whether it merely reflects Trump administration policies. After all, the drop in unemployment has accompanied the Trump economic boom. It is not merely a product of Friedman’s favorite governor.

And yet, before we join the Raimondo for president campaign we feel obliged to recall the sorry state of Providence schools. Fair enough, the governor is not responsible for the city school system, but still, in such a well governed state, led by a political party that Friedman likes, you would expect that a coalition of democratic politicians and labor unions could have produced a decent education for children in the state’s largest city.

Apparently, such is not the case. I refer to my previous post on the topic. Link here.

The Case of the Derelict Boyfriend

Some good news from the advice columnist front. This time, as expected, it comes from the inimitable Miss Manners

Here is the letter:

I just had surgery, and my boyfriend wants to leave for the weekend with his friend. I feel very hurt. Is it just me?

I am sure that I do not need to tell you that the letter writer is entirely in the right. One can only feel dismay at a boyfriend who is such an insensitive clod. One does not know what has happened to American men, especially, one imagines, to millennial men, but this small slice of everyday life does not leave us with too much hope.

Naturally, Miss Manners grasps the situation:

One of the duties of a boyfriend (a girlfriend, too) is to demonstrate a more-than-passing interest in the object of his affections.

Miss Manners uses the word “demonstrate” advisedly. She has no objection to his feelings also being genuine; that is merely outside of the realm of etiquette. But no matter how deep his love, you cannot reasonably be expected to appreciate it while he is away skiing and you are eating applesauce through a straw.

Yes, indeed, it’s all about duty and responsibility, not about feeling. As opposed to certain other highly challenged advice columnists, Miss Manners understands that said boyfriend does not need to feel the feeling. He needs to be there, present and accounted for. 

What your girlfriend is recovering from surgery, you stick around. No matter what. The feeling does not matter. The action does.

Kudos to Miss Manners.

Thursday, July 18, 2019

The Case of the Compulsive Wanker

If this case does not cure you of therapy, nothing will. A man who calls himself the classic married guy writes to New York Magazine’s pathetic advice columnist, Ask Polly. His problem is that he wants love and wants to be loved. As of now, his closest approximation to sex is his compulsive wanking. (If you do not know what means, look it up.) 

Interesting point, the man has been in therapy for sex years. You see, he was the victim of sexual abuse, inflicted by his step-father. Said step-father believed that CMG was something of a wimp. So he wanted to toughen CMG up… by berating him for not being very manly, by wrestling with him, and perhaps even by abusing him sexually. So, when he goes to therapy his therapist persuades him that sexual abuse is the meaning of his life, that he wants sex so badly because his stepfather made it the meaning of his life, and that he needs to seek loving affection, thus, to give up on manning up and becoming more like a woman.

Some people will imagine, as Polly does, that sexual abuse always produces such outcomes. One might also rejoin that a therapist who tells you that sexual abuse is the meaning of your life will inevitably produce such outcomes. The letter tells us nothing of where his mother was in all this. It does not tell us whether said stepfather intervened, in a clumsy and even abusive way, because Mom was worried about son’s manliness quota. 

Surely, any man who thinks that a woman is going to make him a man is making a serious mistake. Perhaps Mom knew this. Surely, the therapist seems not to have a clue. Neither does Polly.

Now that our compulsive wanker has been brutalized and mutilated by six years of therapy, he is writing to Polly in order to hear her confirm that he has not wasted his time and money on an empty quest for mutual girl-style affection. Polly is up to the task, but that is the problem. 

You can tell from the letter that CMG defines himself by sex and love. You can also tell what is missing from his self-presentation: his work in the world, his career, his status and standing among men. Beyond a passing reference to his dropping out of his graduate program, he says nothing about his job or career prospects. We assume that his therapist, like Polly, ignores this basic constituent of manliness… because they want him to define himself as a victim of sexual abuse… and to become more like a woman. The therapist has obviously failed at her job; he would do better to leave her than to ask for another woman, like Polly, to persuade him that he has been scammed.

I quote the letter in full.

I’m the classic Married Guy — met my first wife on literally the second day of college, started dating a week later, and married a few months after graduation. When that marriage began to unravel after almost a decade, the disruption it caused to my framework of personal value sent me into a downward spiral. I left my grad program, went AWOL on an internship I had worked years to get, and wound up unemployed and alone in a shitty studio apartment in my hometown. My plan was to play video games and smoke weed until my credit cards were maxed out and I’d have to kill myself.

Then I met a woman, and you can guess what happened next — two years later, I was married again. To our credit, this time around has been more emotionally healthy and better overall. My first wife was the bubbly optimistic type, and her relentless positivity helped me suppress my darkest thoughts. My current wife is dark and moody, and we bonded over our deeply pessimistic worldviews. At first I thought I was breaking my old patterns — I could finally express the “bad” feelings I didn’t want to acknowledge and started going to therapy to deal with my traumatic childhood.

During the course of therapy I began to realize that my Big Pattern wasn’t avoiding my past per se, it was using my wives’ validation to avoid past feelings that would have destroyed me. My stepdad was primarily an emotional abuser and would insult and demean me daily, mostly about my failings as a man. This was punctuated by weekly-ish physical abuse in the form of surprise wrestling matches, with the stated goal of teaching me to defend myself and “man-up,” and random yearly-ish sexual abuse, wordless, confusing, and terrifying. The main fantasy I used to escape this reality was maintaining faith that I would eventually meet The One — a transcendent, luminous woman who would love and accept me as a Man.

Six years of therapy have helped me understand my patterns better – I realize I choose women who are happy with me, rather than women who make me happy; solving my wives’ relatively easy problems gives me a sense of purpose and accomplishment, and allows me to ignore the vast tangled expanse of my own issues; I can’t feel good about myself in isolation, and need my wives’ validation to feel worthy of love. In short, I’ve been close to drowning in a pool of my own shame for nearly my entire life, and having a wife is the only strategy I know to barely keep afloat. But now I want to swim.

In some ways I’m making big strides — I moved into my own apartment two years ago while still committed to my marriage. I told everyone it was so I could get better sleep and alleviate my PTSD symptoms, which was true but only half the truth. Since then I’ve been able to fall asleep alone at night (huge accomplishment for me), completed a group therapy for male survivors of child sexual abuse, and told my story at an art exhibit for survivors. And then early this year I finally separated from my wife — it lasted less than two months.

In those two months I was profoundly miserable. I thought I had gently eased myself into living alone, but to be honest, the lack of sex was the hardest thing to deal with. I developed a form of eczema on my penis from a combination of stress and self-abuse, according to my doctor. I feel like a creep for admitting how much I feel I need sex, but it’s so much more than “just sex” to me. My therapist tries to encourage me to seek satisfaction in nonsexual relationships, but they feel empty to me. Nothing comes close to replacing the complete emotional/physical/spiritual validation of sex with a woman I love and trust deeply. While I can fantasize all day about casual sex with random people, I know from experience that casual relationships make me feel unsafe and insecure.

The way I think about it is: Friendships are satisfying when you can share your deepest insecurities with another person and feel seen and accepted for who you are. That’s hard enough as it is. But what if your deepest insecurity is sex, and only having loving, committed sex can make you feel truly seen and accepted? I don’t know how to break this cycle. 
Married Guy 

So, his stepfather’s overly macho version of masculinity sent him scurrying into the arms of women. He is looking for consolation and comfort, for protection from the duties that come with being a man in the world. He is looking for refuge. He does not want to be a man but wants a woman to love him anyway. Apparently, his mother was so concerned about his general wimpiness that she allowed her husband to try to beat some strength into him. Now, he has found two mothers who will affirm him regardless of his lack of manly achievements.

So, Polly begins thusly:

Just keep in mind that I’m not a therapist. It goes without saying that you need to keep seeing a therapist. You should continue to trust the guidance of experts. If anything here doesn’t feel helpful, cast it off immediately. Trust your own instincts. Use anything that works, and reject anything that doesn’t feel accurate or useful.

We notice that trusting experts and trusting your instincts are in contradiction. Evidently, serious thinking is not Polly’s strong suit. 

Polly also sees him as a sexual abuse victim and explains that his abuse made it that words are meaningless. We do not know where she got that; it is a perfect non sequitor, worthy of someone who cannot think at all:

One of the worst aspects about the kind of sexual abuse you experienced is that it teaches you that words are meaningless. Everything your stepfather told you was either untrustworthy, inaccurate, warped, or an outright lie. He told you that he was focused on you for purely charitable reasons: He wanted to help you become a man. That wasn’t true. He told you that he was teaching you to fight. That was only partially true; he was also maybe getting off on wrestling with you. And when he wasn’t wrestling with you or teaching you a lesson, he was insulting you. His emotional intimacy amounted to emotional abuse. So most of his words were lies.

The real point is to attack the big bad stepfather. We know very little about the man, but we do know that it is impossible for everything he said to be wrong. No one is wrong all the time. No one is right all the time. We might separate the method from the intention, but we also know that more than a few young men have found moral sustenance in such quasi-military training exercises. If they went too far in this case, they went too far. But, that is no reason to ignore the fact that CMG has been seriously unmanned by his therapist. And now, by Polly too.

Of course, Polly knows nothing about such male activities, so she reduces it all to a pool of emotion. In this case, true love. Stepfather, she opines, was a liar. We do not know where she gets that, but it is suitably lame.

My guess (from a great distance, mind you) is that you decided that his sexual abuse was a manifestation of his love for you. His sexual abuse meant that you mattered. His sexual abuse revealed the truth of who he was: a liar who needed you. His sexual abuse meant you weren’t powerless after all. You had something he wanted, you had value, you were loved underneath it all.

Eventually, Polly descends into her own mix of girl talk and psychobabble. It’s all about feelings… because she’s a girl and she knows:

Words don’t feel like love to you. Words feel like a lie. You might not recognize this consciously, but when people talk about how they really feel, you might suspect that they’re lying. You might also suspect that if they could tell the truth, they’d only insult and demean you. Intimacy itself feels untrustworthy to you. People tell you they care and they want things for you, but you’re sure that they only want things from you. You suspect that you’re being used by the people you care for, so you don’t want to show up and listen to them and know them better.

As I noted, she wants him to become more like a woman:

In other words, your entire life is an act when you’re a man. You can’t be real or soft or vulnerable if you’re a man, according to your stepdad. You can’t ask for what you want, or have needs at all. You can’t show up and just speak words out loud about how you feel. It seems like you’ve overturned and rejected this philosophy, to some extent. You wrote down your feelings very clearly to me. You managed to go to group therapy and participate in an art exhibit. That’s dramatic progress.

And the answer, she continues, is real emotional intimacy. Again, the man seems not to have a job or a career. He seems to have been washed out of the marketplace… so Polly wants him to seek emotional intimacy. It’s his problem, not his solution:

You don’t want real emotional intimacy with other human beings because emotional intimacy means being insulted and demeaned. You don’t want to know other people’s needs, either, because what they say they need is never accurate. You can feel useful by helping to solve their “easy” problems, but you don’t want to know what their more complicated problems might be. Maybe you even prefer to see your wife as simple, as inferior, as never even coming close to your fantasy of what a woman could be, because that way you’re safe. You don’t want to know more about your second wife’s feelings because you believe, in your heart, that knowing more would mean discovering that she doesn’t care at all. Knowing more would reveal her to be insulting and demeaning and untrustworthy. Knowing more would reveal her as another liar. You don’t want to know. You have kept your wife at arm’s length because to do otherwise would be too scary.

And also:

Now you feel unsafe and miserable when you’re not having sex with someone you trust. But you also don’t have an honest, emotionally intimate, two-way relationship with the person you trust the most, your second wife. You’re afraid that she doesn’t TRULY love you. You say having sex with someone you trust keeps you from feeling miserable, but I don’t believe that you trust her completely. You devalue her in order to keep her feelings from mattering to you. If you had sex with her AND you had real intimacy, that would be too much. That would matter too much. You would feel too afraid of losing that. You have to believe in a fantasy instead, because it keeps you safe from disappointment and also safe from annihilation.

Polly concludes that he deserves to be loved just the way he is. Now, this is called maternal love. Mothers love their children unconditionally. Fathers do not. Her advice is pathetic.

The cure is knowing this in your heart: You deserve love just the way you are.

Take some of the magic that’s been infused into sex and move it over into the realm of WORDS: Two people, showing up, telling each other the truth. It can be transformative. But you’re too afraid of words and honesty to know that yet! Jesus, have I been there!

When I was younger, I was always too anxious to be present and hear people when they told me things. It was too frightening to show up and care. But once you understand and FEEL WORDS in the moment — which is the hardest thing for a child of abuse to do — you will feel alive and good and electric in a way that doesn’t just evaporate once it’s over.

It’s just as delicious as a fantasy. But it’s better, because it’s real. To look at someone and understand what they mean? To feel that your pain and your suffering matter, and so do theirs? It’s like the art exhibit you did, or the therapy, combined with the best sex you’ve ever had. You don’t need the sex part to feel that. Trust me. You just need to be open, skinless, alive, and really, truly ready to feel what this world has to give you.

Maybe you aren’t there yet. You’re still anxious and afraid. That’s okay! I’ve been through a quarter of what you have, and it took me years to FEEL WORDS and FEEL FEELINGS and SAVOR THEM and MAKE THEM LAST. In the meantime, take this to heart: You don’t have to serve a purpose for other people to love you.You don’t have to be a man. You can just be a person. You can feel shitty and pathetic and unworthy, and you will still deserve love.

I won’t quote any more because it is too painful to watch her embarrass herself. She is going to whine on about feeling feelings and feeling loved. Unfortunately, this passes as advice in one of America’s premiere magazines.