Friday, October 30, 2015

Uncle Al, Observations, Pathological Liars

The other night I watched “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” (Spencer Tracy and Ingrid Bergman) on Turner Classic Movies. To be honest, not a good movie, but I love TCM. If you, the modern viewer, can watch these old films with an open mind and allow that it was a different time, that the standards and mores were different, that relatively tame things now really were risqué back then, that old notions of beauty and style were once truly beautiful and stylish, and that people really talked that way and so on, if you can accept all that, you can easily get hooked on TCM. When I watch those old movies I think of my Uncle Al, who, when we visited him and my aunt back in the sixties, always had his TV tuned to a movie station. He could identify all the old movie stars and knew everything about them. “That’s Randolph Scott!” or “Errol Flynn! He had it all but got mixed up in drugs. The ladies loved him.” And later: “Maureen O’Hara!”
You could say Uncle Al was a “character.” Usually when people call someone a character, that’s code for a strong, difficult personality, someone with charm, who can be funny and entertaining, but in the long run hard to get along with. They’re “handfuls.” We had an Aunt Harriet who must have loved the endearing side of this character she married, but she eventually found Uncle Al too much of a handful and they got divorced in the late sixties. He could be blunt and tactless, prone to saying disagreeable things. He could hold a grudge for forty years. He was one of those types who could never sit still, always itchy, always impatient, a little too quick to take offense, insistent on the last word. I think everyone knows the kind of person I’m talking about. Easy to like but not easy to take. He had a nervous stomach and kept a large glass bowl of antacid tablets on the coffee table which we kids first mistook for candy, because they looked like candy and he ate them like candy.
My father’s and uncle’s mother, my grandmother, lived in Syracuse, New York. My uncle lived in neighboring Dewitt and we lived in a suburb of Boston, five hours away; so geography dictated that the responsibility for keeping an eye on Grandma rested mainly on Uncle Al. By this time, the time I’m talking about, I was in junior high, still a preteen and not particularly aware of all that went on in the opaque and mysterious grownup world. I didn’t know about the effects that loneliness, disappointment, the stresses of a career and financial worries could have on someone in midlife. I hadn’t yet realized that grownups were in essence merely bigger versions of my friends and myself, and who, though better equipped to handle the bewildering complications and problems of life by themselves, were still kids on the inside and were just as susceptible to petty jealousies and unreasonableness and hurt feelings as we were. It never entered my head to worry about Uncle Al’s state of mind, what it must have been like to find himself a bachelor again, all alone in an empty house, dealing with an elderly parent who was herself a bit of a “handful.”
After the divorce, the entire family stopped taking trips out to Syracuse to visit my grandmother and uncle because it would have been too much to host all of us at once. Instead, just my father and I would make occasional weekend excursions to see them. The plan was to stay at my uncle’s house and make visits to my grandmother so she wouldn’t have to deal with overnight guests. Nowadays, as a meditation exercise, I sometimes mentally tour her house, starting at the reception area with the too high coat rack (a winter coat always hanging there), into the living room past the sofa that felt itchy to sit on, the framed photographs, the loud ticking mantel clock, on through the dining room, where each footstep on the wood floor created vibrations that made the joints of furniture and stacked dinnerware and glasses in cabinets creak and clatter, past the old fashioned telephone table and chair, into the cardamum spice smell of the kitchen. 
On one particular visit I could sense a discord between my father and uncle right away. We did all the usual things. We arrived customarily early in the evening, and, as my father went straight to the bathroom, Uncle Al quizzed me on the length of our drive and which routes we took (I had no idea; I never paid attention to highway numbers). Later he broiled us up a few steaks for dinner and we sat down, my father and uncle each with a Manhattan and I with a tall glass of apple cider. As the night progressed and we retired to the living room, more drinks were mixed and faces reddened. I really didn’t pay attention to the specifics of their conversation, but I could follow the general drift as one can watching a foreign language film without subtitles. It had to do with the care of my grandmother, something about my uncle considering her mentally incompetent and no longer able to live by herself, and how she insisted on renting the apartment upstairs but couldn’t handle the tenants, and that he was constantly being dragged in to settle disputes and his nerves couldn’t take it anymore. He became more and more animated in his remarks, and my father countered these with placating words meant to deflect increasingly pointed comments that, if challenged, could easily lead to an argument with no quick resolution. Eventually I was sent to bed upstairs.
After an hour or so, my uncles’s and father’s voices, muffled at first, grew louder and louder; suddenly, the two voices erupted violently into an argument that sounded exactly like two big dogs barking. It was a scary thing for a boy to hear. This went on for a minute. Then I heard the door downstairs open and my father came up to my room. He told me to get up, change out of my pajamas and gather up my things.
“What?” I said disbelievingly.
“We’re leaving. Let’s go.”
My father waited for me downstairs, his overcoat on. There was no talking between them now. A grenade had gone off and this was the eerie stillness that followed the blast. I saw my uncle in the living room. He was definitely drunk, looking unsteady and a little sheepish and diminished, seemingly at loss to either stand or sit or say something or shut up. But what he didn’t look like was apologetic. Nothing conciliatory would come from that quarter.
We got into the station wagon and I asked my father where we were going. He said the motel down the street. I knew the one he was talking about, the Dewitt Motel on the corner that had a crudely animated neon sign of a women in bathing cap and swimwear taking a dive into their advertised heated pool.
Before we reached the motel my father pulled the car over and stopped. “You know, your uncle had too much to drink tonight and he said some awful things. And I said some things. But if we leave him like this, I don’t know what he’ll do. I think we should go back. Don’t you think so?”
And so we did. Uncle Al received my father warmly at the front door. They shook hands. They hugged. My uncle said he knew my father would come back and kept calling him “brother.” “Johnny,” he said to me, “you’re my nephew and I love you, but this is my brother.” And my father said, “All right, Al. All right.”
What I learned from the 11-hour grilling of Hillary over the Benghazi incident: Republicans are humorless high school principals out to crush fun; Democrats are cool guidance counselors who keep guitars in their offices.
I resent the implication you see in television commercials that we need all these electronic devices to effectively navigate life.
I like TV’s “The Blacklist,” but doesn’t the FBI need to do something about their office lighting? It’s way too dim. No wonder Whitey Bulger was on the loose for so long. They couldn’t see what they were doing.
NFL commissioner Goodell just won’t let “Deflategate” die its natural death. This pettiest of crimes, if there ever really was one, does not warrant such as a mindless, relentless pursuit of justice. In this sense he reminds me of Javert, the monomaniacal police inspector in “Les Miserables.”
I used to work with a pathological liar. Realizing he was a pathological liar happened in slow stages because of my long-held assumption that everyone I meet basically tells the truth. There was the stage when I thought he kind of sounded like a bullshit artist. Then I thought he liked to exaggerate to make things sound more interesting. Then I thought he might occasionally outright lie to cover his ass like many of us would when put in a tight spot. It actually took several years to realize that you couldn’t accept anything he said; if he told you water was wet, you’d better check to be sure. It was like lying was his hobby. It was easier for him to lie than to tell the truth, because he lied about so many things that he really didn’t need to lie about. Lying to him was like breathing to most people.
Wikipedia: “Lying is the act of both knowingly and intentionally/willfully making a false statement. Most people do so out of fear. Normal lies are defensive, and are told to avoid the consequences of truth telling. They are often white lies that spare another's feelings, reflect a pro-social attitude, and make civilized human contact possible. Pathological lying is considered a mental illness, because it takes over rational judgment and progresses into the fantasy world and back. Pathological lying can be described as a habituation of lying. It is when an individual consistently lies for no personal gain. The lies are commonly transparent and often seem rather pointless.”
Also: “There are many consequences of being a pathological liar. Due to lack of trust, most pathological liars' relationships and friendships fail.”
I have witnessed that last part. The entire time I knew him, his private life was a mess. Two wives divorced him, and largely due to trust issues he was finally fired. I think he believed lying somehow worked, and to this day has no idea what the damage of being caught in a lie does to one’s reputation.
From what I have read and observed, pathological liars are like method actors in that they immerse themselves into the lie, and they may actually, on some level, believe their own fabricated stories. It’s not uncommon for pathological liars to have had chaotic home lives when growing up and that they think their lives may not be interesting enough. Also, because there is no known medication to combat this illness, the only effective treatment is talk therapy.
The shame of it is, he is actually a nice guy, genuinely friendly and eager to please, and if you met him at a party, you’d be impressed with his (apparent) breadth of knowledge and would probably want to get to know him better. He is very glib. I liked him, but he exasperated me constantly, endlessly. In time I showed little respect toward him and took as a personal affront the small regard he had for my intelligence when telling me some of the things he thought I’d be stupid enough to believe. Sometimes I tried to summon sympathy, knowing that he is damaged and is his own worst enemy. But my sympathy can only go so far. Maybe I can’t blame him for this very unfortunate personality defect that has marked his life, but I do blame him for not seeking treatment for it.  
That is all.


Blogger LL said...

That's what she said.

5:18 PM  

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