09 May 2009

More on my little sociopath*

Once I had labeled that man by his correct name, in yesterday's blog post, I said I could think of a thousand examples, and I've been mentally listing them ever since. Here are a few things that have come up today.

Learning how to feel deserving came later than I expected, but I am glad I got there eventually. More than ten years ago, a dear friend whom we had followed around the Bay Area moved here, right around the time we decided to move back. She didn’t find her niche here, and during her stay in our home state she decided she wanted to be a screenwriter, so she took herself off to L.A. to make a go of it. Before she moved away, my friend essentially gave me her job. I started doing the work and realized I was well suited to it. I had a great skill set and the technical aptitude for the work. I quickly became an integral part of a team of developers; they liked working with me because I caught on quickly and wasn’t intimidated when I interviewed them about how the product was supposed to work and along the way was able to find out how it really worked and do a better job writing about it as a result.

But after my friend “gave” me her job, it took me a while to feel I truly deserved it. (She didn't really give me the job at all; the company she worked for hired me, after she recommended me and I was screened and interviewed and successfully worked through my first year there as a contractor and they made me a permanent employee. But I still didn’t feel deserving on some level. In part, my salary had nearly doubled over my previous job’s within the space of a year; it grew even more soon after when they raised salaries to achieve pay parity with our Bay Area compatriots at the same company.

So I have long puzzled over why I didn’t keep up with that friend when she moved back to California. For I still love and admire her greatly, but I was uncomfortable with her after that. Just today, with this cascade of thoughts and experiences I have been recontextualizing having read Martha Stout’s book The Sociopath Next Door, I finally had an insight about that. I think it wasn’t just that I didn’t feel deserving. I had come to feel I had taken something that didn’t belong to me. That if I had something that good, I must have acquired it by dubious means. On some subconscious level I think I felt I stole that job. Or maybe I felt too indebted to her, that I could never repay her and therefore our relationship would be forever imbalanced (because that job was such a huge gift to me and enabled us to buy our house and live where we wanted to live). And what do we do when we feel we have wronged someone somehow? We avoid them (well, those of us who have a conscience about what we've done). Looking back I see how silly an idea that was, but it fits in with all the other ideas and thoughts that have been coming up since I recognized my father for what he is.

Another “cascade moment” for me, as I this morning dubbed this flow of recollections that like puzzle pieces are all clicking neatly into place and revealing the big, bad picture, was one I came about by a weird little set of associations this morning.

I was listening to the Grateful Dead song “Uncle John’s Band,” which comes up in the random rotation every so often. And I smiled at the line about telling the “fire from the ice,” because this phrase had been a mondegreen for me, a misheard lyric that I had long heard as “the buyer from the price.” I think I was 25 or 30 when I first looked up and said, “Hold on, that makes no sense!” and went to look up the real lyric, or maybe noticed a friend not closing their lips in the same places and ways I was.

It made me think of how everything was always being measured and valued and calculated when I was growing up. Trust was one. It was as if there was a finite supply of trust between me and my father that he was always judging to come up short for some reason I had given him to mistrust me: a fib or fudge or lie he caught me in. Some of it must have been lost to evaporation; there was always less than I thought there should have been.

And the valuation of things and people, the continual calculation, meant we, my father's wife and children, were just a drain. He made us feel that way, too, when he doled out little bits of money to my mother for groceries or refused to pay for school activities that I wanted to participate in. My mother said when she had precancerous symptoms, he told her, “You should go to a different doctor. They’re just after your money.” Much later she said to herself, “What money?” We didn’t have any, according to my father. In high school, he was reporting a yearly income of $14,000, probably so those evil colleges I was thinking of attending couldn’t get any of our money.

My sister recently told my mother she thinks the business he owned and operated for years was more or less a front, that he had money independently all along, from his father and from whatever side deals he had going. This fits, too; "The Shop" was a source of stability and identity (look at that man with his own business! Providing for his family!), but it was also his alibi (“I had to work late; Dave didn’t drop his car off until I was about to leave and then I had to shoot the shit with Ben when he came to pick up his car.”), a respectable cover, a place to meet with the guys and do what he wanted behind the shop’s rolling door. Sure, he did some work there and came home with black fingernails and stinking of grease and solvent, but when I started asking him about the reputations of other mechanics and other shops in town, as an adult who had chosen not to buy a pre-fuel-injection Volvo, he’d always say something like, “I wouldn’t trust them as far as I could throw them.” Funny how every other mechanic in town was crooked but he was so upright. He always said he was better because he would explain how things worked and why they didn’t to his customers, and this time was his gift to them. In retrospect I think that was more patter, more sleight-of-mouth, so to speak, and I think a lot of his customers were bored to tears by those lengthy explanations and just wished they could pay him for his work and take their cars home. Most of them, unlike him, were probably not avoiding going home to their families; the ones that were avoiding their nearest and dearest often became his fans, his new shop buddies, his new alibis.

Another, more recent, memory of him telling me about his type of woman. "I like my women slender, pretty, and needy," he said. Rich, or at least financially independent, seems to have been a more recent addition to his list. He doesn't want someone who is after his money. He wants someone he can dominate, and who makes him look good.

I am thinking back to when my aunt told me that my father is “heartbroken” about not having us close to him, but remembering how I felt during the last couple of Thanksgiving gatherings I went to at his place, it felt hollow, like we were all arranged there to maintain his ideal image of himself, but not because he really cared for us. (Remember what he said to my aunt when he saw his granddaughter’s picture? “She’s getting away from me.” And I knew I'd made the right decision in excising him from my life.) Now I hear those words from my aunt and I think, “What heart? Because I haven’t seen much evidence of one.”

The advice Martha Stout gave about following the rule of threes was great, but saddened me, too. The rule is if someone lies or hurts you three times, that’s when you know to run, to cut them out of your life. Because once is an honest mistake, and twice, well, things happen. But three times reveals a habit of deceit and tells you who they are. What’s sad is that I can easily come up with ten lies. And if I can so easily come up with that many, it calls everything he ever said and did that seemed genuine or sincere into question.

* Because he is littler and littler, in my mind: not only physically diminished from the big, scary, imposing guy he once was, but as a human being. He's melllllltinnnng! (Say it in your best Wicked Witch of the West voice.)

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