vol. 4, #27,
LIGHTING OUT FOR THE TERRITORY
By accident, this week, I read two books that talk back to each other, answering each other's questions and raising some more. One was called Dumped!, advice for women whose men have abandoned them without notice.* These women had no idea their men were unhappy, no idea they were screwing around. Worse yet, many of these men delivered the news with startling cruelty: one woman found out she was being dumped when the man made a public announcement at a party, while another got the news when they were celebrating their wedding anniversary at a favorite restaurant. Some of these men took all the money and left the bills behind; many of them abandoned their kids as well as their wives. As one of the women said, "A lot of people had to get unhappy so he could have his happiness."
And yet, even as one part of my mind was sympathizing with the wives and saying, "These guys are schmucks," the other part that's always saying, "Well, yes, but..." was wondering about the schmucks' side of the story, asking whether these women were completely innocent victims. If they had no idea anything was wrong, doesn't that suggest lines of communication had been down for a long time? If he was seduced by another woman, was he in some way ripe for seduction? As for the cruelty, was that cluelessness, or deliberate, nasty acts of revenge?
And I wonder, too, if there was something larger going on. After all, wasn't Gauguin also a schmuck? He walked out on his life, quit his job, and abandoned his family. For the people he left high and dry, a bunch of paintings might not seem like much of an excuse--for them, the cost, in their pain, probably outweighed the benefits. People who are uplifted by his art might feel otherwise.
That's why it was especially interesting to read in the same week Jonathan Coleman's Exit the Rainmaker, which in a sense is the schmuck's answer to "How could you DO that?" It's the true story of how Jay, a community college president, disappeared from his life one day, leaving behind a letter of resignation and a brief note for his wife.
These two books together raise a lot of complicated questions about what we owe to ourselves and what we owe to those who depend on us, and where the boundary between pure selfishness and survival instinct might be--Jay said "I felt as if I was dying inside." But the way people respond to his flight also raises questions about how stultifying and draining our obligations and roles may come to be; when a group of his friends were sitting around talking about his disappearance, one of the men said "You know, fellas, I was just thinking, if only Jay had chartered a plane, we all could have gone."
One of Jay's farewell notes read, "Exit the Rainmaker." He was referring to a production of The Rainmaker, in which he had played the charismatic con man whose sweet-talking convinced desperate drought-stricken people that he could perform miracles. In a sense, that was Jay's life as well, constantly charming donors and reluctant legislators into funding new buildings and programs for his college. As a consultant, he sweet-talked people into giving him contracts. He sweet-talked women into falling for him, and walked off with one of Maryland's biggest matrimonial prizes, a vivacious red-head with style and brains and pizazz, who could walk into any room and instantly become the center of the party.
The rainmaker in the play knew he was a con artist, and ultimately it seems Jay also came to feel like a phony. Yes, he could do all those things well, but the skills were not HIM. Over time, he got tired of faking it.
And the redhead with style was an expensive luxury. He began to realize that however much money he made, his wife would always spend about $20,000 more. The pressure of keeping the money coming in was exacerbated by the sheer weight of all their possessions. Their enormous historic home, furnished with all the stuff she bought on their travels, started feeling like a tomb to him.
There was also the pressure of an over-scheduled life, with all the meetings, and the dozen parties a week she dragged him to. In each place he would be meeting someone else's needs, meeting somebody else's definition of who he was. Did he even KNOW who he was? Had he ever had the time to make his own acquaintance? Who knows? But ten minutes after he had started on his excellent adventure, he says, he felt liberated, like he had thrown away "all responsibility for anything except [his] tick-tock, day-to-day existence." He started reading books he wanted to read, not "all that silly-assed technical stuff" his job required him to read.
A case could be made that he was saving his own life--before he cut and ran, he had been committing slow suicide by alcohol.
And a case can be made that he was a schmuck. Had he abandoned children as well as wife, there's no question he would have been more schmuck than hero. He gave his wife not the faintest hint or warning. He made plans to do something with her the following week, knowing he wouldn't be there. He left her with a note he may or may not have thought would give her control of their money (it didn't, since it wasn't notarized). Until she received the note by mail, she had no idea whether he was alive or dead. It's hard enough on a woman to be abandoned; why the gratuitous hurtfulness of the way he did it?
Anger was surely part of it--she had a redhead's temper, and could tear somebody to shreds with endless streams of furious invective. The accumulated wounds she had inflicted in her rages, the fear of more of the same, could make anybody reluctant to raise issues with her.
But probably the most important factor was that he was afraid somebody would talk him out of it, and that he would have to go back, have to keep on faking it, have to be good old Jay for the rest of his life. A no-hoper. It would have been easy to talk him out of it because part of him understood that he DID owe things to people, that running away was irresponsible, selfish, and cowardly.
He couldn't risk giving them the chance. Like the archetypal heroes of American literature, he lit out for the territory.
It's an instinct that runs deep in our culture, and resonates with all of us (even me, as I plan my more orderly exit from my job). Maybe because we are encouraged to dream big, and can't handle it when we have to settle for small. Maybe because when we do succeed, we can't understand why we still feel dissatisfied. Maybe because as the sands start running out we look at our lives and say, "There must be something more than this."
Ours is the only country founded on the idea that we have a right to pursue happiness. Disappointment may be built right into the American dream, because not all of us are going to catch it.
So I put it to you: are these guys schmucks, or dreamers, Columbus or Peter Pan, bastards or heroes? And if THEY are heroes, what do you call the rest of us, the grownups, the ones who don't run away, who take care of the kids, show up on time, do what needs doing, and make a civilization?
* [Don't worry, nothing personal. I had been asked if I might want to run an advice column, so I was reading advice type things.]
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