February 25, 2018

A Big Hug for the Dark Side


Nobody takes Freud seriously these days, right? As revolutionary and influential as he was, in retrospect he was just a pop psychologist—the Dr. Joyce Brothers of his day. He was a damned celebrity. Newspapers used to send reporters around all the time to get some pithy quote or another from him in response to recent world events.

            His celebrity status aside, once he began edging into crazier theories about dream interpretation, the mechanics of the psychoanalytic method and all those zany complexes of his, he lost me.

            But the more fundamental, clear-headed theories about the id, ego and superego, the role of the subconscious, etc., still make a good deal of sense to me. They’re at least workable metaphors. In that way I consider him more a practical philosopher than a psychologist. The speculative history he lays out in Civilization and Its Discontents seems (as he himself notes at several points throughout the book) simple common sense, akin to the speculative history Nietzsche lays out in his Genealogy of Morals. From my perspective anyway, scoff if you will, his core ideas still seem to hold up perfectly well when it comes to explaining certain peccadilloes of human behavior. And those ideas also help explain how I finally came to embrace the dark side.

            Not to belabor a point I’ve brought up before, but I grew up in a very close-knit, supportive, funny and loving family. Sure there were occasional arguments and fights, but those were rare and brief. At heart we all liked each other a bunch, and still do. Without ever being stated bluntly, the general behavioral directive in our house was to be decent and pleasant, both within the family and when dealing with others. Stand up for yourself, of course, and always be honest, but do so in a reasonable and civilized way.

            The problem was, for reasons unknown, as far back as I could remember I was obsessed with crime, violence, horror films, disasters (both natural and man-made) and nuclear war. I had a deep love of everything that was rotten and terrifying and destructive in the world. It might have been a subconscious reaction against the prevailing Christian provincialism of northeastern Wisconsin at the time, or maybe I was just wired wrong. Whatever the case, just mention a body count or severed limbs and I was there. While I was allowed to read about murder, torture and thermonuclear war all I wanted (with the exception of the Manson case), it was strongly hinted these were not appropriate subjects to bring up at the dinner table or when people stopped by. So I buried all these impulses, at least publicly. I still immersed myself in these obsessions in the privacy of my room, but stayed silent about them with other people.

            As with any psychological model based on hydraulics, however, these impulses and obsessions had a way of leaking out. When I was in grade school, I was a very quiet, bespectacled, upstanding model student. I was as straight as they come. But when teachers asked us to write stories or draw pictures, I couldn’t help it—the blood started flowing, entrails were consumed, trains started colliding and mushroom clouds rose above Green Bay. There were no happy endings for anyone. None of it was intentional, I wasn’t trying to shock anybody, it’s simply the sort of thing that naturally came out when I started writing or drawing.

            While I don’t remember any teachers saying anything to me directly about it, I do know my parents were asked to come up to the school for meetings on several occasions. Even though my folks never said a word to me about my teachers’ concerns about my mental health, I knew they’d been called up to the school and why. Somehow the fact they never mentioned it made it worse and more shameful, so I did what I could to bind all those bad and dark impulses even more tightly and bury them deeper. It took a lot of will, it was exhausting, and I was miserable as a result, but soon enough my superego grew much more totalitarian when it came to anything that might be considered unseemly.

            Even as I found an outlet for this smothered aggression in punk rock in my early teens, in high school I was more straight-laced than ever. A little eccentric maybe, but by no means a bad kid. My parents had nothing to worry about, right? I hung out with other geeks, We didn’t drink, swear, smoke, do drugs of any sort and lord knows none of us were having sex. We did goofy but ultimately harmless crap, drove around, went to movies and played Dungeons & Dragons. And I only listened to my punk albums when I was alone (with the exception of that first Clash album, which my mom liked).

            But nice and pleasant as I was on the outside, there was a war raging in my skull. Nobody could see the piles of corpses or smell the napalm behind the bookish facade, but they were there, and looking to find a way out. That’s when I started becoming seriously self-destructive. No one had a clue I was undertaking bumbling and failed suicide attempts every few months, and if anyone had known and asked me why, I wouldn’t have been able to provide an answer. It was simply something I did to relieve, for a while, the growing pressure in my head.

            I survived high school despite my best efforts and headed off to the University of Chicago in 1983. That’s when the repression of my darker thoughts was ratcheted up a few notches. I was at the U of C, the only school I’d wanted to attend since I was in sixth grade, and I was aiming headlong and seriously at a career in academics. I wasn’t about to blow it by, say, cracking wise about the chemical leak in Bhopal or asking people where Leopold and Loeb picked up that rich kid. I barely spoke to anyone, spent all my time studying, and though I was still listening to hardcore, it was always at the lowest perceivable volume so know one would know. All the while my head was still seething and I was still dangerously self-destructive. But on the surface I remained a deadly serious and emotionless U of C student, just on my way to the library again.

            It was when I transferred to Madison the facade began to crumble. I’d kept things under such tight wraps it was inevitable. I suddenly found myself hanging out with those same geeks from high school. They remained as straight as ever, and expected me to be the same. I did what I could, I played along for a bit, pretended I was satisfied to eat pizza and watch the same tired TV shows with them, but I was starting to get pretty shaky. In short order the paranoia started kicking in, I started hearing voices, and the suicide attempts became more frequent and bloody. Worst of all, there was this girl. See?

            Not to bring up this tired old example, but in retrospect there was more than a little Travis Bickle at play here. I mean for god sakes I was a twenty year-old white boy—what the fuck do you expect?

            I’d known this woman for years, but things took a bad turn and I began stalking her. Way I figured it in my head, if I made myself an inescapable presence, she’d have no choice but to return my affections. Right? This translated into long letters slipped under her door every morning, a dozen phone calls a day, “accidentally” running into her when she got off work at two in the morning, and following her when she went to class or appointments. In a word, I became incredibly creepy. But I was still such a nice, decent, straight-laced guy who didn’t drink, smoke, do drugs, set fires or vandalize things.

            Needless to say, my reasoning was a little faulty. One afternoon I called her apartment for probably the sixth time that day, and for the sixth time her roommate told me she wasn’t home. I knew this was a lie, because five minutes earlier I’d listened at the apartment door and clearly heard her inside. I told the roommate she was lying, again insisted the object of my affections be put on the line, and she hung up on me. A minute later my phone rang, and I picked up.

            “I don’t want to hear from you again,” a cold voice said. “I don’t want to see you. I Don’t want to have anything to do with you ever again.”

            Without a word I hung up quietly. As I did I felt a very tangible physical response, as if something was leaving my body. In an instant I felt lighter, almost exhilarated. It was a textbook example of Freudian revelation.

            “My god,” I said aloud to myself as I sat at my small desk looking out the window. “I hate that bitch! I really, really fucking hate her!”

            Of course I’d hated her all along, but refused to allow myself to recognize it. Suddenly in that instant the hatred and anger that had always been in me was unleashed. It was good, it was honest and it was absolutely liberating. After years of misery, I suddenly felt wonderful and alive.

            The next day I met with the shrink I’d been forced to see once a week since the latest suicide attempt landed me in an emergency room. It was at that meeting he famously told me I should take all my anger and turn it against the world instead of myself. It was at that moment I finally embraced what I had always been, stood back and let my id kick the shit out of that fucking superego. And became what I wanted to be, declaring war on everything around me without giving a good goddamn what anyone had to say about it. To quote Alex from A Clockwork Orange, “I was cured alright.”

            The next few years were pretty action-packed, and I was happy. So let this be a lesson to you.


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