Love and Mercy and Their Opposites
Sociopaths, Rez Dogs, Dave Hickey
You know how when you fall in love, all you want to do is kiss and kiss the person, how you will run across town in the rain to see them for ten minutes or drive hundreds of miles to sit knee-to-knee in a bar, suspended in an amber orb that both stops time and allows you to imagine that from this point right here, you can do anything?
You need to feel some of this for your work, too. Or I do. I spent on-and-off seven years writing To the Bridge and there was no way I could have sustained the effort were it not for a sort of love, or more exactly a fascination, for the people I was writing about. They were not in and of themselves fascinating people. Amanda studied marketing in college and by age 29, had four children with three different men. Her husband Jason, the father of the two youngest children, worked for a company that maintained office equipment. The couple presented well, or did for a while, as behind the scenes the mainstays were eroding, the figurative floor and roof of Amanda’s life washing away, until she found herself on a bridge at 1:23 in the morning, with the two youngest children, the boy, age four, asking his mother, “Did you just put her in the water or something?” after he’d watched his seven-year-old sister drop over the railing. It was the last thing he would say to anyone.
In the months before the crime took place, Amanda repeatedly expressed how much she loved Jason, and why. “He is the smoothest talker around… and his memory allows him to form lies in a way that seems to be foolproof as well unfortunately,” she wrote. “He taught me everything I know and I will never not love him.”
There is a sociopath in To the Bridge and - spoiler alert - it is not Amanda, who, while possessing pathologies of her own, is guilty of what nearly all of us are, of wanting to be swept way, of believing things people tell us because they ratify something we want to believe about ourselves: that we are good, that we are helpful, that we are pretty, that if we don’t waver, we will usher in better things together.
I started thinking about this today after seeing on my media feeds a half-dozen people creating origin stories and/or fabricating troubles in order to win people to their side. The cultural landscape makes this easy to do, divided as we are after four-plus years of the serial provocateur that was Trump and a civic immune system weakened by COVID. I may find it reprehensible for, say, a pastor at a California mega-church to offer “religious exemption” forms from vaccination to anyone showing up on a Sunday, making it easier for them to caboose onto the 650,000 people in the U.S. already dead from COVID. But show up they did. There are always people ready to hand out such candy and people to receive it, for instance, Mike Lindell, the “My Pillow” guy, whose turn in the Trump limelight is almost too on the nose, and whose story, I found out today, rings about as true as James Frey’s made-up memoir of addiction.
Side note: I was writing for the LA Weekly when Frey’s A Million Little Pieces was about to publish. My editor had an advance copy on his desk and I thought the cover intriguing. “Take it,” he said, and to tell him what I thought, which I did the following morning, something along the lines of, “I got to page 20 and I am telling you, it’s bullshit.” And though it’s unbecoming, I know, to traffic in schadenfreude, this clip of Frey squirming under questioning from Oprah, it’s kinda good!
Lest we (blurg) worry about Frey, he went on to form some sort publishing outfit where other writers did the work and he took the credit, much as Andrew Cuomo did with his book, and speaking of, the former governor is a keen example of someone who manipulates others into thinking, they’re on the team, that he couldn’t do it without them.
“We are almost uniformly good people who killed ourselves…to accomplish his agenda — for his political glory, and for the feeling that he would make decisions with public service as his driving goal,” said one of his former senior staffers. “I feel cheated out of that.”
It’s attendant on us not to make heroes of the Cuomos, of the Freys, to not become midwives to their stories. But shit, Oprah fell for it. And so did I, in a story I told in To the Bridge, of going to a VW dealership to buy a new car:
After choosing a model, I was walked into the office of the man who would arrange the financing. Mario was tall, with strong features in a large face. He sat behind his desk, tapping on his computer and speaking to me in a relaxed and engaged manner. He occasionally directed a comment to my husband, seated further away by the office door. Soon after he asked what I did for a living, Mario admitted to being a newshound himself, to reading The Economist online every morning, in German. I was impressed and turned to nod at my husband, whose expression was less enthusiastic. As Mario typed up my lease, we spoke in friendly ways about books and our shared lineage—he mentioned that he, too, was part Greek. After he offered tips about his favorite happy-hour spots and told me he was deeply interested in reading an interview I’d done with serial killer John Wayne Gacy, Mario said I could come back tomorrow to grab a copy of the paperwork, which I had signed.
“Wasn’t he an interesting guy?” I commented to my husband, as we walked to my new car. Din had no particular reply.
Before I went to the dealership the next day, I rummaged around in the basement for a hard copy of the Gacy article for Mario… I had only two copies but decided to give him one, I could always get it back later.
I drove to the dealership to find Mario again at his desk. I told him I had brought him the article, and he looked at me as though he had never before seen me in his life. He told me I could get my paperwork at the front desk. I left him the article, certain that by the end of the day it would be in the trash. And when I read my lease, the rate was not what Mario had quoted, or maybe it was; I had not been paying close attention. I felt humiliated, though here also was proof: you can write about sociopaths, you can read all about them, and chances are you will not recognize one when he is taking you in. And while it is the case that my husband is harder to fool than most people, Mario did not that day target him. Also, there is no online edition of The Economist in German.
I have written about many sociopaths, charming ones, murderous ones. Once you see how the mechanisms work, there is no mystery, there are only the Mike Lindells and James Freys and Andrew Cuomos and I guess I am saying, I am bored of them.
So let’s do a hard pivot, back to love, starting with last night’s episode of Reservation Dogs. If there is a more heartfelt and sweet series on TV right now, tell me, please!
More love, from the new book, Far From Respectable: Dave Hickey and His Art, whose author, Daniel Oppenheimer, kindly sent me a copy after he saw me creaming all over his and Hickey’s words a few weeks back on Twitter. And while our susceptibility can, per above, be a handicap, the flip-side is an infinite suppleness, which Hickey speaks to as our great strength.
“As Americans,” he wrote, “we are citizens of a large, secular, commercial democracy; we are relentlessly borne forth on the flux of historical change; routinely flung laterally by the exigencies of dreams and commerce… we are social creatures charged with inventing the conditions of our own sociability out of the fragile resource of out private pleasures and secret desires… We gather around icons from the worlds of fashion, sports, the arts, and entertainment as we would around a hearth. We trace infinite lines of transit around these strange attractors.”
The devotional icons for Hickey, the furniture of his blue eden, were people and things like Siegfried and Roy in Vegas, Waylon Jennings in Nashville, Chet Baker by the beach, Perry Mason on the UHF dial, Richard Pryor on the Sunset Strip, Leo Castelli on the Upper West Side, Bridget Riley in undulating waves of black and white, Robert Mitchum on the screen, Robert Mapplethorpe’s photos on a coke dealer’s coffee table on Hudson Street, Susan Sontag holding court at the St. Regis Hotel, and Dr. J rising up and under and around to complete the greatest lay-up in basketball history…
Favorite piece I read this week: “Love and Mercy in the Time of COVID: A Year in Film,” by James Oliphant, and not only because it leads with a movie I find beautiful and painful and moving and intriguing and original, but because Oliphant took the time to tell us how he how he grasped onto these movies like a lifeline, laying out this whole generous circle of handholds created for others.
Matt and I got in the studio last week…
… and I’ve been getting in there for a few minutes on weekday mornings at 9am EST. Please join me! Bring your coffee and your comments.
Leaving you with the title of last night’s Rez Dogs episode and such a good song, by Native boys, ay? Until next time xx