August 9, 1999

Sometimes it is difficult to decide who’s more foolish: the politicians or the news media that is supposed to report on them.

I vote for the news. I expect politicians to be fools, but I always hang onto the belief that the media will actually report the news, the real news. But what they report is, more often than not, entertainment masquerading as the news.

Take, for instance, the big story last week. Hillary Clinton gave an interview to a new magazine, Talk, which is edited by the woman who edited the New Yorker. In that interview, First Lady Clinton made some comments about her husband.

(By the way, have you ever wondered how the wife of the President of the United States came to be known as the “first lady”? I have. Just what exactly is she first at? Does it imply that the wife of any past president is now a tramp? Or maybe it is symbolic, and the sitting first lady is expected to emulate Eve, and the White House is our national Garden of Eden. One wonders who plays the role of the snake, now that Richard Nixon is gone.)
So anyway, in this interview, Hillary Clinton attempts to explain that her husband had a very difficult childhood, that he came from a dysfunctional family. (She should have just said that Bill grew up like the rest of us.) Anyway, she was trying to help us understand why her husband sometimes is as self-destructive as your average crack addict. She suggests that his compulsions with women originate in some emotional or psychological problems that stem from his childhood.

Well, whoop-dee-doo — now there’s a revelation! She went on to say that this truth does not relieve him or anyone from bearing the responsibility for his actions.

The news media went wild over this — it was like she had dropped an entire tenderloin in a pool full of sharks. They all went on a feeding frenzy. But, give me a break: this is no more of a story than the weather.

On the other hand, I also liked this story and the coverage that it garnered because it brought to national attention the degree to which are we shaped by childhood traumas and our sick, screwed-up, dysfunctional families. It also brought up the question of what our responsibility is for rising above the wackiness of our childhoods.

You have to give it to the president: Bill Clinton has never said, “Blame it on my mother or grandmother.” And he shouldn’t.

I always say that none of us escape childhood alive. Partly because I find that funny, but mostly because whenever I say it, people seem to respond as though there is at least a germ of truth there.

Do you honestly believe that there were no wounds caused to you as a child? Do you really believe that you escaped childhood without at least some distorted perceptions of the world or of yourself? Do you believe that the way you were treated as a child has nothing to do with your beliefs and behaviors as an adult? If you don’t believe any of this to be true, I suggest that you continue on your Prozac and see your shrink at least twice a week, because you ain’t got it yet.

Let me get a little bit personal. Just a little, because I don’t know you and because my mom listens to all my shows.

When I was a kid, there was a television program called Father Knows Best. The title alone ought to tell you something about the culture of the ‘50s and about the message that the media was trying to convey as America reorganized itself after the Second World War. (I often wonder how the moms watching that show felt about the title.)

The show was about a suburban family dad who always knew best, a mom who knew her place and their three children — Bud, Princess, the big sister, and Kitten, the little sister. Everything was perfect in this family: dad didn’t drink or hit mom or the kids; Bud didn’t do drugs; Princess, the older sister, was not a dyke. Father always had his tie on and would go up to his son’s room every night for a little father-son bonding.

In retrospect it was, in many ways, a really, really sick show. I can remember my pals and I trying to figure out just where the hell these people lived, ‘cause it sure wasn’t our neighborhood.

We did not grow up in pristine, perfect little families like Father Knows Best. We grew up in families with the blood and guts that real people have. My family wasn’t dysfunctional, but it wasn’t perfect, either. There were things my father and mother did that I wish they had not done — but that’s cool.
Still, there are scars from childhood that have affected my behaviors as I grew up. I’m not going to tell you what they were, but they are still there. In many ways, working through those so-called issues is part of my life’s work. It’s my job now to be as healthy and happy human being as I can possibly be.

Now, we all have this stuff, this emotional baggage — all of us. If you look hard enough, and if you are willing to actually look inside yourself, or look at your own family and siblings, you are going to find some weird stuff. But, along the way, you will also find stuff that helps you understand who you are and why you are that way.

But first, you have to be willing to look. You’re in denial if you’re not willing to look.

I’ll give you an example: I have a female friend who was sexually molested by a relative when she was twelve years old. As an adult, she has great difficulty being intimate with men and enjoying sex. Now, it did not take her long to figure out that these problems just might be connected to the abuse she suffered as a child. To me, this is a no-brainer, but I know there are those of you out there who still can’t make the connection. For the record, I refer to you as no-brainers, too.

Does it help to know that most child abusers were also abused as children?
Have you ever, even for a moment, just been willing to take a look inside your past seeking connections?

I have a friend who grew up in a working-class world. As a child, not only his family, but his whole environment told him that none of us are very smart and we aren’t like those middle-class people — none of us will ever amount to very much.

Well, in spite of all this, or maybe because of it, my friend became very successful. One day, he found himself at an executive level making more than $200,000 a year. He also found himself doing cocaine all day, everyday, and drinking at pretty much the same rate. His friends tried to suggest that he had a problem. He, of course, responded that he had it all under control.

Finally, one day he really screwed me up because of his addictions and I put it to him: he had a choice to change or die. The next day, he went to an AA meeting. Now, he has been clean for ten years, and he’s much happier.
He looked inside himself and found that he had been living with a lifelong conflict. On the one side was his self-image, developed in childhood, that told him, “I’m not smart, not capable, not supposed to be successful.” On the other side, he was successful and respected in his everyday life. The only way his mind could resolve this conflict was to believe that he was really a fraud despite his seeming success. He woke up every morning believing that this was the day that he would be found out, and all his success would disappear. He feared that he would wind up being the bum he really thought he was.

Now, once he figured this conflict out, and realized that its roots were in his childhood, getting it together was not that hard. He forgave himself and began creating a new story of himself that was more congruent with who he actually was as an adult. With the conflict gone, his compulsion to self-destruct just disappeared.

Can you make that same connection in your own life?

I have found that overcoming those things from my past that have led to a delusional belief system does not necessarily involve getting angry at the past. What good does that do? I can tell you that a little bit of forgiveness can go a long way. Of course, if you aren’t willing to look you’ll never get there.

One of my favorite Shakespearean quotes is, “To thy own self be true.”
Shakespeare meant that you need to be true to your own nature, not to the demands or expectations of others.

It’s a pretty amazing insight, because in Shakespeare’s time there wasn’t much of a therapy industry.

So, getting back to Hillary Clinton. She described her husband as being in denial. I take that to mean that there is something back there in ol’ Bill’s heart memory that he might just be too afraid to look at. Can you relate to that?

Now, back to the issue of personal responsibility. Say somebody is brutalized as a child by his father, then grows up and kills somebody. Is he responsible, or is his father? I say that our first responsibility in life is to know ourselves well enough so that we can take full responsibility for our actions. And even if we don’t bother to know ourselves, then we are each still responsible for our actions.

There is a similar belief in Christianity and Buddhism that speaks truth to all of what I’ve been discussing here. In Christianity, it is said one can forgive the sinner without forgiving the sin. In Buddhism, it is said that one can forgive the doer without forgiving the deed.

So, I’ll forgive the news media for wasting my time this week with this stupid story about Hillary Clinton, and I hope you’ll forgive me for doing a story about the stupid Hillary story.

Now I still wonder who abused Rudy Giuliani, but I’ll save that one for another time….