We must be willing to get rid of the life we’ve planned so as to have the life that is waiting for us. — Joseph Campbell
Rummaging under a stack of papers in my office I ran across a thin book purchased weeks before then set aside as the reason for it faded. Less than 120 pages, I decided to run through it quickly and be done.
Alice Miller’s The Drama of the Gifted Child had been an online recommendation to someone else but I thought I might uncover a nugget or two for myself. I settled into my office chair at home to zip through as much as possible before bed.
Twelve pages in I came across these words, “…for the emptiness is real.”
And suddenly my universe collapsed, all of the faulty trusses and jerry-rigged supports and facades cracked snapped crumbled. As did I, tumbling from my chair to the floor. The dam holding back the reservoir of unshed tears blew apart, releasing a grief I never knew existed. The words echoed in my head.
“…for the emptiness is real.”
I don’t need to look up that quote. I can tell you it is on page twelve about a quarter of the way down, half-way through a paragraph that starts at the bottom of page eleven. I know this the way I remember where I was when JFK was assassinated, Armstrong strolled on the moon, the Challenger exploded, the Twin Towers fell.
The first tears in forty-five years weren’t anger. Not sadness but an ocean of grief churning a Typhoon of anguish, a storm whipped up by words originally written in German when I was twenty-one. Miller never met me, never will, so how did she know me? How did she know what I only said secretly to myself? How could she name what I never could? Nobody knew these things about me. I stopped admitting them to myself years before.
Accommodation to parental needs often (but not always) leads to the “as-if personality.” This person develops in such a way that he reveals only what is expected of him and fuses so completely with what he reveals that one could scarcely guess how much more there is to him behind this false self. He cannot develop and differentiate his true self, because he is unable to live it. Understandably, this person will complain of a sense of emptiness, futility, or homelessness, for the emptiness is real. A process of emptying, impoverishment, and crippling of his potential actually took place. The integrity of the child was injured when all that was alive and spontaneous in him was cut off. (Miller, p. 11)
I cried so violently I feared I might not be able to inhale. Curled into a ball, alone in my office, gasping like a drowning man reaching the surface only to sink again. Whenever it felt like it might be over, those words floated back and the purging punishing sobs began all over again.
“…for the emptiness is real.”
Yes, it was.
Walking the bleak black nights of my early teens in South King County with my friends, we often spoke of our home struggles. Never in detail, though, only invective. Even best friends weren’t allowed to know details. Mike and I were reading heavily of WWII, so we dubbed his house the Western Front and mine the Eastern Front.
“The thing I like about acting is it allows me to be somebody,” I said during one drizzly walk.
“Be somebody else, you mean?” asked Mike.
“No,” I said. “I mean somebody. Anybody. There’s nothing inside of me. It’s all empty.” That was the only time I admitted it out loud. It wasn’t angst or existential pretension but an observation of reality.
Silently screaming my torment, streams of saltwater and saliva soaking into the carpet, there was no space to wonder where this came from, no breath to spare even for a single, “why?”
Goddamn Alice Miller. She reached across decades and languages and continents to lay her hand on the place nobody should know about, gentle, loving, she touched the abyss where the self should be and said, “I know.” Her understanding more savage than a whip. Nothing could prepare me to be seen so nakedly. Not naked. Like an MRI for the the self. She knew the symptoms, showed me the scans with gaping blackness in all the wrong places. Not malignant black. Nothingness.
The twelve pages I read the first night became the high water mark for days.
Seven the second night. Miller wrote in broad terms about healing, how astonished she often is at the speed. Then she wrote, “This is not a homecoming, since this home has never before existed. It is the creation of home.”
And, on the floor again, a complete replay of the night before. So it went, night after night, wading through the jungle swamp wondering when the next ambush would strike. Sometimes I could only stay upright for one page.
We told ourselves as children and adults, my siblings and I, that it wasn’t so bad, what we experienced. Others had it worse. We turned out pretty well. Those weren’t lies. The lie was that those stories made it OK. A cupful of words at the right moment kicked Humpty Dumpty off the wall, served him scrambled for breakfast, and scattered his ground up shell in the garden. That lying fuck was not ever coming back. Not in my world.
It took three murderous weeks to read 119 pages. This I know with absolute certainty. Except. I have documentation that says it was six days. Both are true. My perception of time distorted, warped, and stayed that way for nearly two years. Once, while journaling about an event from three months prior, I decided to verify the time span on my calendar. It had been less than three weeks. Checked the date four times before believing it.
That first night with Miller, I felt shaken and stirred. There was no path back to where, and who, I had been an hour before. I had eaten the forbidden fruit and gained knowledge, except the consequence was to get expelled from a private hell. Just as Miller said this wasn’t a homecoming, it was also not a rebirth. Turns out I had waited all my life to be born, floating in the amniotic sewer of approval, strangled by umbilical expectations.
One day I would learn to crawl, then walk. Maybe run. Soar? It could happen. For the moment, all I could manage was to lay on the floor and cry like a newborn.
*Gregory is a software engineer and amateur photographer, filmmaker, and writer. He is a native of the Seattle area and father of two beautiful and talented daughters.