“Why does everything you know, and everything you’ve learned, confirm you in what you believed before? Whereas in my case, what I grew up with, and what I thought I believed, is chipped away a little and a little, a fragment then a piece and then a piece more. With every month that passes, the corners are knocked off the certainties of this world: and the next world too. Show me where it says, in the Bible, ‘Purgatory.’ Show me where it says ‘relics, monks, nuns.’ Show me where it says ‘Pope.’” –Thomas Cromwell imagines asking Thomas More—Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel
Thursday, June 2, 2011
Opening of "The Music Box Routine" continued.
You enter a club with some friends. It’s dark and the music is loud. You’re comfortable here because you’ve been to this club before, and it’s not much different from the handful of other clubs you’ve been spending so much time in lately, since you became a part of the community, since you decided, as they like to say, to get this part of your life handled. One of your friends is telling an amusing story you’ve already heard in a booming voice. You throw your head back and laugh a good belly laugh. Anyone thin-slicing you and your friends entering the club will believe you are confident, sociable guys, and that you’re having fun. Gone are the days of coming through the doors on a mission, prowling the crowd to identify who among the gathered women appears worth risking the embarrassment of rejection, drinking for courage while keeping an eye on the one or two who’ve caught it, waiting for that crucial moment when she’s separated from her circle of friends, taking a breath, taking the march, and taking the plunge—then, all too often, going back to the bar to drown your shame.
Moving through the club your focus is on your friends; they’re the most important people in the room; everyone else, even the best-looking woman in the place, is just a stranger. You can have this attitude because you have plenty of friends, know plenty of women, mingle with plenty who are just as beautiful as any you will meet, and, most importantly, it shows. Without scanning the room, you and your friends drift toward an empty table. But before reaching it, you find in your path a group consisting of three guys and one moderately attractive woman. Instead of lowering your eyes, mumbling, “Excuse me,” and sidling around them, you address them, over your shoulder because you’re still focused primarily on your friends, saying, “Hey guys…,” but before going on you say to your friends, “I’ll ask these guys.” Your friends continue on their way to the table, leaving you with the new group.
“I wanna get your opinion on something,” is how you begin. “This will only take a sec because I gotta get back to my friends. We were just talking about cats and hierarchies. You guys know how dogs are descended from wolves, and in wolf packs there’s an alpha male—like a top guy who’s the leader?” You lift your hands, elbows out, to emphasize your words. “Well, do you think cats are like that too? Are they hierarchical?” By now you’re facing the guys, with your shoulders at an angle to the woman’s. But she’s the one whose face lights up first.
“I think they are,” she says challengingly, as if she’s a little offended you’d have any doubt in the matter.
“Whoa!” you say, feigning surprise. “I didn’t mean anything personal? I’m just talking about cats.” You’ve learned from all the previous times you asked the question that women tend to identify with cats (men are, after all, dogs) and that they tend to respond as if you had asked if cats are as good as dogs. But you only turn toward her briefly for this reproach before turning back to the guys. “Check this out. I have this ex girlfriend and we have kind of an ongoing discussion about her two cats. See, one of them is a little bigger and she noticed that this one always eats first when she feeds them. So she’s like, ‘He’s the alpha cat.’ But I’m like, ‘Aren’t domestic cats descended from solitary wild cats in Africa? And if they’re solitary, they don’t have evolved mechanisms for living in groups, like a sense of hierarchy.’” All of the sudden you’re on the savanna, hunting, keeping women in their place but not really—and the guys are eating it up. They start grinning and excitedly telling you about this or that Discovery Channel show, or some remarkable cat they had as a kid.
You lead the discussion for a few minutes, encouraging the guys, gently teasing the woman when she chimes in, and then you turn saying, “Well, thanks guys. I’m gonna go find my friends,” leaving them ostensibly disappointed. You’ll be able to return to that group later if you want to. There’s still a whole club to check out. That was just a warm-up set.
That’s how we would begin a typical night back then. Now I know a lot of people would like to read a story about how the cad gets his comeuppance, but that’s not really what this is. If anything I think of our winging as an example of how a culture of cooperation can bring out the best in people. Think of what usually happens when you have a group of guys who are supposed to be good friends and you throw a beautiful woman in the mix. It’s sad. But because with Will and me it was already established that we were there to help each other, and we taught ourselves to see even the most beautiful women as strangers, whereas we were each other’s most reliable allies, we never competed for the same woman. Whenever one of us entered the other’s set, the first man in would say, “This is the good one; this is the bad one.” You never game the bad one. (“I only talk to good girls” is a good follow-up.) That’s why we almost always had a good time—and that’s why the women almost always had a good time.
But you have a culture which extols the virtue of every man for himself—and every woman for herself—and things don’t turn out so well. It’s scary how no one seems to realize how corrosive this conservative idea of selfishness as the highest principle is. Take away the cultural heritage that tells us we do best when we cooperate, when we check our selfish impulses for the greater good, and humans are basically apes, savage and cruel. You can’t have a civilization based on selfishness. You can’t even have a relationship based on selfishness. And that’s probably what Will’s problem is: for whatever reason, no matter how brilliantly he cooperates with me and his other guy friends, he doesn’t see women as reliable teammates. He doesn’t trust them. And it’s pretty damn easy to find women who believe you should always take care of yourself first.
I can’t say the scene where we met Stacy stands out in my mind; it has blurred in with countless others. I don’t really even remember when Will and Stacy first started talking about childhood sexual abuse, even though it must’ve been surreal for me to witness since Will’s knowledge of the topic came solely from his conversations with me. The fact is, I had similar discussions with several women around that time, and I was present several times when Will had them. My interest in the topic was both intellectual and personal: I began my studies of the behavioral sciences in the wake of a confrontation between the old guard Freudians and the upstart cognitive neuroscientists, which culminated in the prior getting thoroughly trounced by the latter, exposing the central idea of repressed trauma as a fictional bogy man; and my first love had an abuse history, one that naturally aroused my sympathy, sympathy she leveraged to take awful advantage of me.
“It’s the strangest thing,” Will would’ve said, “how women we’ve just met will make it a point to let us know about their abuse. And look around, you know, it’s all over Oprah and Dr. Phil and that other dude on MTV. Starting about twenty years ago, it became a cottage industry, uncovering repressed memories and helping survivors cope.”
Picture Will: six foot one and square-jawed with salon-spiked hair, wardrobe courtesy of Von Maur, The Gap, and Goodwill—how you’re dressed is really the first thing you say to someone you’re just meeting. The black thermal undershirt and slightly too small red t-shirt said, “It is only natural for me to stand out.” The black leather cuff on his left wrist and the studded bracelet on his right said, “How I put myself together is one of the ways I express myself—and there’s a lot to express.” The boots, the perfectly fitted jeans, the pendant necklace, the rings: “I’m fun and outgoing,” and “You’ll have no difficulty picking me out of a crowd.” People often asked if Will and I were in a band. He would have been lead vocals, with me on bass—and, I suppose, penning the lyrics.
Everything about Will is screaming “PERFORMER” to these women, and they must have him pegged as a bar guy, albeit an incomparably intriguing and impossibly fun bar guy. Then we get to a bounce location—in this case it was Louie’s, an all-night diner—and he starts waxing intellectual over pancakes.
“But check this out—all these therapists are talking about repressed memories and all the havoc they can wreak with the human psyche, and meanwhile these research psychologists are trying to find even a shred of evidence that repression is even a real thing. And they keep coming up dry. Now you’re probably thinking, what do these stuffy lab guys know? But they come up with some ingenious ways to test this shit. For one, they realize there are plenty of people everyone knows have survived traumatic experiences they can go talk to. So you go ask people who lived through the Holocaust if they remember the horrible stuff they went through. They’ll tell you the more horrible the experience the better they remember.”
Even though at this stage, when we’ve been hanging with the women for a few hours, we have some leeway regarding what we talk about—the important thing is simply to have a surfeit of things to talk about—bringing up repression and abuse is bad game. We can go on with it for a while, and it gets women animated, believe me, but then we have to recover by shifting to lighter fare. I only ever brought it up in set when I wanted to test a woman, to see how she responded when I brought her into weedier terrain. It surprised the hell out of me when Will busted it out the first time.
“And they did something that—it just blows my mind. It’s brilliant. These researchers comb through novels and memoirs and every historical text they can get their hands on, looking for any evidence of repression recorded before Freud—or actually they guys he got it from—came up with the idea. And—wait for it—nada. So they offer a prize to anyone who can find any earlier reference. So far the prize is unclaimed. It’s almost like alien abductions, you know, you never hear a peep about it, and then the idea gradually becomes more prominent in the culture. Next thing you know, people are having real experiences of it and totally freaking out. It’s like once you have the script you can do this thorough job of mind-fucking yourself.”
Actually discussing the possibility that some people really have been abducted by aliens is a far more customary practice for pick up guys. But Will was up to something I began to understand only after he’d performed this “routine” several times. Anyway, once you challenge the concept of repression, you’re left with the question of why so many people not only accept the idea but why anyone would ever want to believe they themselves had experienced it. Isn’t the whole point that something awful happened?
“Well,” Will would continue, “just think of how people would respond if you told them you’d been abducted by aliens. Of course, everyone’s first response is, you know, ‘Bullshit.’ But if you can convince them it’s true, well, then you’ve got them hooked. You’ve just brought them into a whole different world, and a much more expansive one. You’re like the most interesting person they’ve ever met. Just think of all the people out there who would kill their own mother to be on Oprah.”
This is the point where the ramifications begin to set in. If the women are participating in the discussion as if they’re completely unfazed, you know they don’t have a history. This happened to us only once. If they’re sitting in that “cocoon of silence,” only opening their mouths to offer lame rebuttals in near whispers, you know they do. This is most of them. If the woman is glaring at you like she wants to tear your face off one minute, holding her hand over her mouth and crying the next, and then shouting her objections so loud you have to take the discussion outside, well, then she has a history—and her name is Stacy.