Come on, People Now, Apologize for Your Brother; or, Everyday Evasions to Accommodate Tortured Genius
A film conversation between Gregory Giles and Teresa K. Miller
People often said that he finished sentences for me. Well, he did. He was between me and the world. He not only answered the telephone; he finished my sentences. He was the baffle between me and the world at large.
—Joan Didion, Joan Didion: The Center Will Not Hold
We recorded our first album in 1998 at Jesse Colin Young’s ’70s-era studio above the California town of Inverness, just beneath the ridgeline of formerly wooded mountains that stretch toward the northern end of the Point Reyes peninsula. Young and his band, if we need reminding, recorded the feel-good anthem “Get Together” in 1967, a cover of a Chet Powers ditty almost as famous by now for being mocked by Nirvana’s Krist Novoselic during the song “Territorial Pissings” on Nevermind.
Young did well financially, through career and marriage, and lived in a luxury home just a few yards uphill from his separate recording studio, the full estate lodged among Douglas fir and coastal oaks overlooking Tomales Bay. But in 1995, the Mount Vision Fire swept along the ridgeline, destroying dozens of wealthy residences as well as 15 percent of the Point Reyes National Seashore. Young’s house burned to ashes, but miraculously, his studio emerged unscathed, in one of those insanely unpredictable moods of wind and fire. No doubt massively insured, he pulled up stakes and moved with his family to Hawaii, where he now operates a Kona coffee plantation, perfectly happy fifty years later to float his hit song’s lyrics at the bottom of each page of his website. He left the studio to his godson, who happened to be our first drummer as well as a recording engineer.
Architecturally, the studio’s style is early Hippie with Wealth, beautiful unfinished wood interior, cathedral skylights, white fabric panels along the canted ceilings. You could find a building like this at the Esalen Institute in Big Sur, luring lost souls with the promise of an expanded consciousness. The gear is vintage analog; the small loft bedroom, reached by a ladder, is just big enough for pitching horizontal hippie woo; the kitchen is well-appointed; and a front porch featured at one time a fat black tomcat who, with infrequent fits of energy, stalked rats and gophers, returning to the porch before eviscerating each rodent in full view of exhausted musicians growing sick of their own music. All of which is to say, my bandmates and I were a little bit out of our atmospheric depth.
I never felt comfortable there in that Stevie Nicks time capsule, surrounded by the scrubby wasteland of the fire’s aftermath. We recorded basic tracks live in the same room but surrounded the drum kit and loud amplifiers with heavy folding screens padded, framed, and upholstered to match the décor. These moveable room dividers are known as baffles. They keep the sonic murk of a full band from bleeding excessively into microphones intended for only one instrument. Some of the baffles had glass windows along the top so that musicians could lock eyes and “get in the groove,” approximating a live performance. It was an unnatural, disconcerting experience for the first few days—being in the same room together, ostensibly a “band,” but protected from each other’s performances by makeshift walls.
When Didion describes her late husband John Gregory Dunne as a “baffle,” I imagine a protective barrier that can help her focus on her own thoughts in the midst of cacophony, but I also imagine the other sense of the word: something that confuses, alienates, and distorts. As the apparently more laconic half of the pair, she seems grateful for this mediator, but she also admits that he likely regarded his interruptions and intercessions as a kind of prerogative to enjoy unreflectively in the relationship, motivated by a hunger for gossip, in part, but also by an anxiety to hold forth before others—and most often, by virtue of proximity and habit, before his wife.
(Any time I hear someone described as a “raconteur,” I see an older man enamored with his mellifluous voice, steamrolling his interlocutors into a captive audience.)
Didion’s protagonist Maria Wyeth in the Los Angeles–set Play It as It Lays is a desiccating cipher surrounded by the peremptory actions of entitled men in the film industry. It is a time period contemporary to Young’s recording studio, pure ego disingenuously in pursuit of pure mindfulness, “open love” directives that surreptitiously perpetuate the effacement of women. Seeking balm or diversion, she does what I always did as a depressed young man in California: drive a car on freeways with no purpose or end in mind.
This could be a vehicular version of Hélène Cixous’s écriture feminine in which there is no teleological thrust to a conventional narrative, the latter being a literary instance of the male “drive” to have a single climax at the end of a sexual act (which is an “act” like an exact quarter or fifth of a traditional drama), focused entirely on the genital area. But sadly, the interstate highway is a beeline to a destination, a vas deferens business route leading to the prostatic interchange before heading north on the urethral expressway—in the Cixousian scheme of things, a very masculine project. Consequently, Wyeth finds herself attempting an escape along a seminal bypass that can’t seem to linger around the Angelino sprawl or the Mojave Desert before shooting toward Las Vegas with its dead promise of instant gratification.
Dunne and Didion were lifelong collaborators, but now, we primarily celebrate her achievements as a journalist, essayist, memoirist, and novelist. He helped edit her work from the very first novel she wrote in 1963, and presumably, she did the same for him. Did it give him a false sense of being a Svengali? I imagine they were each other’s facilitators, perhaps even each other’s muses. He is now the forgotten impresario known mostly through his wife’s achievements, while she will likely persist in public memory through the slips and retrievals of common knowledge over time.
that’s about 2% of what happened. tried to buy a gun. kicked me. climbed up the side of my house at night. followed my son age 5 home from school. had to change my number twice, and he still got it. months and months it went on
— Mary Karr, Author (@marykarrlit) May 5, 2018
For Mary Karr, David Foster Wallace was literally the sociopathic Denny Marzano from the widely read 1999 Onion article skewering the insidious pathologies of romantic comedy plots. The “2%” in her tweet is the trivialization of Wallace’s abusive actions against her described in the 2012 biography Every Love Story Is a Ghost Story, distilled into two sentences: “One night Wallace tried to push Karr from a moving car. Soon afterward, he got so mad at her that he threw her coffee table at her” (175).
Most famously, before they had even been in a relationship, he tattooed Karr’s name along his bicep—for him, no doubt, an irrefutable signal of total commitment, a visible token, the indelibility of which could excuse him from the reciprocal care that healthy relationships demand. Tortured geniuses are nothing if not dead-lazy about the mundane responsibilities of withholding abuse, about doubting their entitlements in a responsible way that precludes acting on bad impulses precipitated by self-pity and impotent rage.
I write this knowing that, according to his biographer D.T. Max, Wallace, at the time, was in the zone with Infinite Jest, writing steadily and peacocking before an MLA hiring committee, cosplaying as a zero-fucks eccentric in his trademark boots-and-bandana armor and telling them in faux-outsider, anti-academic mode that he was “really really smart” (174)—yes, he got the job behaving like a smug twit. Which makes me wonder if Wallace, at his best, was a paralyzed, self-deprecating Eeyore—and at his most violent, a successful writer.
His abusive behavior has been minimized by hagiographies and apologias long and short—abuse often referred to as “alleged,” even though Karr has Wallace’s letters confirming her accusations—often written by fawning “bro lit” apostles and fellow male writers. Prior to #MeToo, the elegiac mood of generosity toward Wallace focused on the mental and emotional disturbances suffered by the author rather than the innocent victim of those disturbances, reserving sympathy only for the perpetrator-victim himself. Self-harm tells the world that it cannot damage the individual as much as the individual can damage himself, a triumph of preemption. Do not speak unkindly of the dead genius, so the reasoning goes, particularly when his abject moods seasoned a disposition for literary production that mostly male fans regard as a challenge to average readers, unassailable in its off-putting density. (Despite its reputation, however, Infinite Jest, the crown cubic zirconium of that production, is rather easy to track narratively.)
“Bro,” as a putdown, targets men who buy into an antique masculinity, typically dependent on personal and legacy capital, that nonetheless celebrates willful independence, the “stoke” of limit experiences and ideologies—whether skiing down an avalanche-prone couloir; immersing oneself in the remotest misery of the soul, perhaps living purposefully in dreary accommodations in the developing world to suit that mood, à la William T. Vollman; jumping to the margins of the American political spectrum, at the feet of their Bernie and Trump avatars, who become weirdly interchangeable despite the politicians’ antipodean platforms; hypothesizing worst-case scenarios, like a team of NASA scientists, to play with amoral theories; or viewing government regulations over the individual as quaintly symbolic holdovers from the days before Uncle Web decided to buy his nephews beer, weed, guns, and porn on the regular—and as such, “bro” tends to get over- and misused, even if it still has an effective charge. I recoil defensively from the term myself, as a big fan of Cormac McCarthy and Don DeLillo, two titanic luminaries of the “bro” canon. But I can’t deny its accuracy.
If you go to the Wallace wiki, you will be easily and inevitably guided in the left margin toward the Pynchon wiki; there is a chain of po-mo adoration among mostly young white male readers who love their protagonists with the flattest Pepe the Frog affects, publicly urinating in the midst of disorienting experiences, preferably protagonists with goofy, transparently punned names that read like an author’s sullen tantrum against the critical gravitas of his self-inflicted tome rather than a genuine attempt at humor.
After the social media scrum of #MeToo, the tide is changing, as Megan Garber’s thoughtful Atlantic article on Karr demonstrates. Some lines worth quoting:
For Karr and Wallace, though, [the pathological way American culture approaches power is] an even more complicated proposition: our insistent fealty to—our implicit faith in—the notion of genius itself. Karr’s #MeToo stories were not so much an open secret as an open revelation. They were not hiding in plain sight; they were, worse, strategically ignored. They were the collateral damage of a culture that prefers convenient idols.
Karr wrote three best-selling, beautifully written, unsparing memoirs that gainsay all the disparaging (and covertly misogynistic) stereotypes of the genre, but since Wallace’s death, her accomplishments as a writer are at risk of being overshadowed by her brief, shitty relationship with him. For every tortured male genius, beatification follows self-annihilation, and Wallace has now unwittingly apotheosized his own legacy with the combination of gravity, some form of ligature, and the adolescent allure that accompanies a cult figure’s suicide.
Unsurprisingly, given her abundant frankness, Karr cops to her own emotional damage in interviews and articles, past situations of weakness that invited such a train wreck of dysfunction into her life, circa 1990. She is defiantly unsentimental about the experience, just as unflinching as when she describes a babysitter forcing oral sex on her prepubescent self in The Liars’ Club—in other words, not a plainspoken, sharply described confession I imagine Wallace having ever been capable of offering without flurries of belles-lettres caveats, even if his coterie of editors, peers, and fans, acting as surrogates, now enable this posthumous evasion.
Teresa K. Miller
A riddle: A father and his son are in a car accident. The father dies instantly, and the son is taken to the nearest hospital. Just as the child is about to go under the knife, the surgeon exclaims, “I can’t operate on this boy—he’s my son!”
How is this possible?
Oh, what fun my fourth-grade math class had grappling with that brain teaser! Lest this seem like a quaint relic from the unenlightened early ’90s, a study at Boston University in 2013 found only 15 percent of children given a version of this riddle and 14 percent of BU psychology students guessed the surgeon could be the boy’s mother, and even participants whose mothers were surgeons fared no better arriving at the answer. Self-described feminists had slightly improved outcomes: 22 percent guessed the surgeon was the boy’s mother. Men and women struggled equally with the task.
Some reached the relatively inclusive conclusion that the boy had two fathers, a theory I don’t remember anyone floating in my elementary school class—but the widespread recognition of gay marriage offers cold comfort in the context of hell or highwater mental backflips to conjure a male surgeon. More commonly, BU study subjects came up with all kinds of improbable explanations, from the father not actually being dead, to the surgeon being a robot or a ghost, to the whole scenario being a dream.
Let that one sink in: Somewhere around three-quarters of feminists in 2013 were more likely to imagine a ghost/robot/dream surgeon than one who was also a mother. When my classmates and I were finally told the answer, the lesson was Oh, duh, how could I so lack creativity as an individual? Our teacher offered no discussion of intractable gender schema or the societal conditions that might have led all of us to hurl aside Occam’s razor.
If it’s true an innate recursion, meditativeness, or nonlinearity inhabits “women’s writing,” I would posit it has little to do with the capacity for multiple orgasms and much to do with being forced to tread the same ground over and over again. Naming the sexist power structure becomes, by design, quotidian and clichéd. We “let” women do so much: be doctors (and 19 percent of surgeons), march in protests, represent fewer than 20 percent of congressional seats, author less than a third of material in a typical literary magazine. You’ve already told me about misogyny. Yes, but you’re still standing on my foot.
If you have to fight for the floor and to hold it once granted, there’s little room for sprawling, unedited experiments in finding what you want to say. Genius as a mode of artistic capital is contextual and socially granted, not something one asserts through objective merit alone or often even at all. In the recent film adaptation of Meg Wolitzer’s The Wife, the ingénue mistress quotes her professor-lover’s tautological advice that a writer must write, to which the jaded Smith alumna author replies, a writer must be read.
Play It as It Lays is a slim and wiry Trojan horse, a woman’s journey to opting out of an exploitative system distilled to a series of the most germane impressions. There’s no room for repetition, overexplanation, or inconsistency. It’s a feat of cutting to the quick, the woman writer’s essential skill on display: revising to the point the final product feels slight and effortless, though it is anything but. I’m reminded of Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad, one of the few contemporary novels indisputably deserving of its accolades, narrow on the bookshelf and hard as a diamond.
Show me the woman who has been permitted by a major publisher to write a book not only as long but also as flabby and self-indulgent as Infinite Jest—forget about being critically acclaimed for it. I imagine the team at Little, Brown being handed an editor’s least favorite directive: to use a “light touch” on Wallace’s doorstop, giving the American canon the dubious gift of a 1,000-plus-page book that might have been a pithy, well-wrought 400. An axiom of bro lit, of course, from DeLillo to Pynchon, is bigger is better. It’s the literary equivalent of an eleventh-hour legal document dump—the more intimidating the volume, the more silencing. If you don’t appreciate its genius, you just don’t get it.
Wallace’s story is even thornier for his mental health struggles. Not only does critiquing him invite accusations of insufficient empathy, the co-occurrence of his fervently positive reception and unstable, dangerous behavior also reinforce the trope of the tortured genius—that he did not produce in spite of psychological imbalance but rather because of it.
In an unparalleled takedown of the western art world’s love affair with antiheroes, comedian Hannah Gadsby asserts jokes perpetuate the trauma of the comic, because they only have a beginning and a middle. Unlike stories, they do not have an end, denying truth, closure, and healing. An art history major, she refuses, for example, the traditional narrative around Van Gogh having been “ahead of his time”:
People believe that story that Van Gogh was just this misunderstood genius. … He [didn’t sell work because he] couldn’t network, because he was mental. He was crazy. He had unstable energy. People would cross the street to avoid him. … This whole idea, this romanticizing of mental illness, is ridiculous. It is not a ticket to genius. It’s a ticket to fucking nowhere. And artists are not these incredible … mythical creatures that exist outside of the world. No, artists have always been very much a part of the world and very, very firmly attached to power.
Examining an author like Wallace divides readers into his camp vs. Karr’s. It stirs up the unanswerable question: Is he a victim, or is he a monster? What are our options beyond such dichotomies? Cult legends tend to flame out like James Dean, not become aging bird-boned widows weighing under 100 pounds, shaking and wide-eyed as they receive presidential medals à la Didion. The literary marketing machine can milk the crazy eccentricity of a bro dude, even as he ultimately exits the world via suicide. Admitting hungry voyeurs devoured his breakdown and perpetuated his exploitation does not wash away the stain of Wallace’s misogyny, his endangerment and objectification of women like Karr, or the curse of association inflicted on her well-deserved career. He posed a real physical threat to others and showed no capacity for observing appropriate boundaries—are we really going to argue such damaging instability was somehow essential and worthwhile because he produced the Incandenza saga?
Versions of this debate over trade-offs have popped up in all corners of the arts in the past year. Are we willing to forgo the work of established greats like Roman Polanski, Woody Allen, Kevin Spacey, Pablo Picasso, Sherman Alexie, Junot Díaz, and Louis CK? Without tortured genius like theirs, the argument goes, there would be no great art. No matter the real torture tends to be of others, primarily women. No matter this question rests on the premise there is no such creature as a stable, respectful male genius, let alone a female or nonbinary one.
“I understand this world and my place in it,” Gadsby says. “I don’t have one. … Art history taught me there’s only ever been two types of women: a virgin or a whore. … Take your pick, ladies’ choice. That’s the trick of the patriarchy. It’s not a dictatorship. Take your choice.”
If the choice is between a token and no one, we choose tokens, distracted from obliterating the choice altogether. If the feminist daughters of female surgeons don’t immediately imagine doctor mothers, what limits and blind spots do well-meaning, progressive artist-types go around imposing—on themselves as well as the potential untorturing geniuses around them? To buy into the false dichotomy leaves us shrugging off rapists or inventing robots, dreams, and ghosts.
Once upon a time, I went looking for some lost part of myself, to rekindle my writing, by working on a finca tucked in jungle foothills in Costa Rica, where a creek running red with clay separated the vegetables from the coffee plants. Like Joan in The Wife, I was a women’s college graduate—also, steeped in feminist texts and a former self-identified “card-carrying manhater.” When an expat farm manager twice my age spent the first weeks making oblique, laughable come-ons, I pretended not to understand. I had the situation under control. I recognize, now, the desensitization process. It is not such a leap from a sad, silly come-on to a direct one. From a direct one to a physical grab. If you’re going to grab a woman and get away with it, one good strategy might be to do so when you’ve got her alone, four hours away from home base by motorbike, in a country she barely knows.
I escaped this particular chapter unscathed, except for my sense of self-efficacy and unwavering values. I believed I had in some way invited this treatment, though I couldn’t conceive of an alternative response at the time. I omitted the troubling, confused part of the story for years afterward. I did not want my adventure highjacked, so I denied the truth of its context. Also, how could I have worn a swimsuit, why had I gotten on the bike, why hadn’t I shut him down and left the farm and abandoned my plans and eaten the cost right from the first hint of impropriety? And what could I dare complain about, galivanting with my privilege through someone else’s country?
Our canonical tortured geniuses demonstrate that even violence as blatant as serial rape will be met with—in a display of true cultural dissociation—simultaneous disbelief and excuses. Is there any wonder, then, so many of us pick our battles in the gray areas, ignore the accretion of ever-more-threatening but deniable double entendres, try to work within or game the existing system—not only on the battleground of gender but also race, class, and sexuality? Who, exactly, has our backs? As Garber puts it, women, in particular, are still subject to “the fickle avenues of our empathies.”
If ever there were a tortured genius, it’s Didion, losing her husband and then her daughter in quick succession, producing decades of masterful work anyway. She admits there is much of herself in her character Maria Wyeth, a woman who loses custody of her daughter and ends up in a psychiatric hospital. Didion’s devastating and directed mourning finds voice in two worthy memoirs, The Year of Magical Thinking and Blue Nights, her pain bared to the world, controlled and polished to be heard. All her suffering seems directed inward—there’s no hint she might have bought a gun or climbed the side of someone’s house in her distress, as if such responses have nothing to do with gendered social permissions.
In describing the loss of her own daughter in The Center Will Not Hold, Vanessa Redgrave says to Didion while poring over old photo albums, “It changed my perceptions …. I understood something I hadn’t before, which was that you don’t get all gloomy-doomy,” to which Didion smiles, nods, and replies, “Yes,” turning the page.
The most compelling moment of The Wife was not the revelation Joan Castleman was the woman behind the man, writing Nobel-winning novels and receiving none of the credit. Her ghostwriting is almost superfluous, a caricature insisting on the existence of women geniuses among us. The greatest truth arose in the times Joe demanded his glasses and she immediately obliged, digging in her purse, without please or thanks—when, on the verge of leaving him, she still reminded him to take his pills. At what point does being helpful and allowing others to save face result in our own erasure?
There is an interlude in Joanne Kyger’s Japan and India Journals in which she makes New Year’s resolutions regarding her work, writing, “The craft should fit like a glove. Exactly: from my own life, not sources from myth.” Her then-husband, already-famous poet Gary Snyder, felt entitled not only to read her journal but to jot some suggestions for her, including:
Fold your clothes in your drawer. … Quit reading so much trash. … Genius means hard work too. … Why can’t you ever have a meal ready on time?? And wash the dishes soon after. And pay attention. … Learn to take criticism when it’s fair without getting nasty//humility. —Gary
This is a glimpse into a marriage at once mundane and shocking, the kind of thing people would have accused Kyger of exaggerating had she not left the intrusion in the published volume, though it seems to have done nothing to sully Snyder’s enlightened public image. “We only care about a man’s reputation,” Gadsby notes. “What about his humanity? These men control our stories, and yet they have a diminishing connection to their own humanity, and we don’t seem to mind.”
The End of the Tour, a film adaptation of David Lipsky’s homage, makes no mention of Karr or the treatment she endured. Wallace appears lonely, inept, and frustrated by women, vaguely menacing when jealous of Lipsky’s minor flirting successes but not a danger to those around him. It closes with Wallace—the real one, the scene implies, the unfettered, quirky, finally joyful one—abandoning all self-consciousness as he does a floppy, funny dance with the Baptists in some unidentified church hall. He’s been obsessive, neurotic, and off-putting through the film, but deep inside, we see, this is who he really is.
Except, the scene is completely imagined. Lipsky didn’t observe such an event. It’s extrapolated from Wallace telling him about heading to a church dance. In fact, many have argued Wallace used stories about church as way to throw journalists off the scent of recovery meetings, so as not to out himself or his fellow attendees, and he was also on record as hating dancing. The most optimistic, humanizing clip of the docudrama never happened. All the things that might ruin his reputation—but allow us to conceive of a new system—did.
Screenshots taken from Joan Didion: The Center Will Not Hold (2017) and The End of the Tour (2015) are included here under principles of fair use for the purpose of commentary.
About the Authors:
Teresa K. Miller and Gregory Giles have jointly written a series of seven longer conversations for Berfrois to date, on films with environmental, food, and social justice themes. They graduated from the Mills College MFA and MA English programs, respectively, and live near Portland, Oregon. More info is available at teresakmiller.net and 20minloop.com.