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When The World Becomes A Human

August 19, 2022

From a host of editing

Before this moment’s rage of #metoo, agonizing suicides, or just the realization that misery is not a fault of the miserable, but an outcome, there was a prequel to this era of “outing” found in my childhood. Baby Boomers had been parented by those who had saved the world, often at the cost of their own lives. Not just the loss of mortality but in the damage to their humanity – parents and children. For fifteen years of Depression and War, my generation’s parents lived through fear, poverty, then destruction and death. No one escaped from that life without being a victim.

Those who did not die led the bent lives of the broken. In that time, there was no understanding the catastrophic breaks in hope and faith so many lived, let alone healing them, so denial and distraction simply distorted a generation born of those saviors of the world. 

In my small life there was no tragedy. No illnesses, no poverty, a WASP family in Westchester, New York at mid-century. There were the excesses of any white, upper middle class, privileged family in America. We were part of private schools, country clubs, too much good food, with both parents together, mother working at whim, not necessity. That polished image, in concert with the cultural dictates of the triumphant, fully hid a cruel life of judgment and rejection. My two older siblings made the mistakes I would learn from and lived lives in the wake of their parents’ judgment, one to the point of suicide. I had just enough intelligence that I could burnish it into an isolated place of coping.

No one asks to be born, let alone to be born to those who have hurt so many. My life was born of those broken by circumstance, if privileged in prejudice. That reality, my reality, was not desired, let alone earned. My parent’s damage became my damage. Rather than understand, my parents coped, so their children did, too.

The methods of coping that my parents employed were the distortions of their generation – drinking, smoking, and the holistic invention of the American Suburban Life as a sanitorium. We could isolate in place. Control the day with booze, their time with smoking, going to church, and hobbies. And having children. 

But distortion, and the victims it creates, could not stand. In my family’s case, the victims were broken by the broken, the legacy of so much damage is more damage. The most obvious cruelty was alcoholism. Drinking for the Greatest Generation was as harmless as Binge Watching is for this time. My parents generation created suburbia as a Safe Space to forget the War and the Depression, most often with alcohol. 

Drinking was seen as devastating to the drinker, and their loved ones were expected to cope. Written thirty years after the drinking generation createdsuburbia, “Adult Children of Alcoholics” Janet Woititz offered up her startlingly obvious argument: Extreme parental behaviors affect young children all the way into and through adulthood. Post-World War II alcoholism was just part of life, often tacitly accepted as normal, even socially positive behavior. My father never believed (or at least expressed) that alcohol was anything more than the next meal, or cigarette. And he was drunk by every nightfall that I knew him  thirty-three years. With one hundred million Boomers having grown up in the ethanol-infused mid-century, the market found the book, and by 1986 it was on the New York Times bestseller list.

When I opened my office in 1987, my landlord referred me to a cleaning lady. She was in her mid-20s, seemed a little sad around the eyes, and was a young Wesleyan graduate. Being WASP, I live by “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”. I did not pursue why a Wesleyan grad was cleaning offices. But we talked one Sunday afternoon as we both toiled in the office alone.

I have no idea how it came up, but in that moment I broke my ethos of non-disclosure. I noted that my father was a very high-functioning alcoholic. She nodded and said, “So are my parents.” We stared at each other for a couple of silent seconds, and we both went back to work.

A week later, the Monday after the next cleaning, I came to the office, early as usual. Woititz’s book was on my desk, with a cassette of an electronic version of Pachelbel’s Canon. I had seen a synopsis of the book in Time magazine, but holding it, and then hearing the odd tones of mechanically rendered heartbreak on the office stereo, I broke down. My staff then arrived, and we went to work.

My capacity for work was of my dad, who came off the same Metro North train every night from Manhattan and drank twelve ounces of scotch from 6:30pm to 7:30pm before every dinner from the moment I knew him. He was the model of the midcentury Provider to a full family.  I am high functioning too, just without the drinking. Or the income. Just with the damage it caused.

By the time my wife and I had children, our parents were either dead due to their mid-century habits, or just not part of our lives. My wife (also high-functioning and damaged) and I soon encountered two abiding conundrums: one, a cliché: “You are only as happy as your least happy child”, and the second, harder to accept, is that we were only as happy as our childhood allows us to be.

That childhood, the Baby Boomer childhood, swam in the hope of the world’s saviors: we Boomers all had the empowerment of our parents’ triumphs over the Depression and Hitler with none of the survivor guilt. That combination of narcissism and dysfunctional upbringings made “virtue signaling” a generational imperative. Just like our parents, we saved the world, too, but from sexism, homophobia, racism, and limitations on lust. Oh, and Nixon.

My generation reacted to the sanitorium of suburban life with The Cultural Revolution, drugs and sex and rock and roll – but we, too, simply did not know how distorted our beginnings were. Because we were not told. The damaged coped, most neither understood nor healed.  We were saving the world now.

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