Wednesday, April 06, 2011

Self Help

Maria Bustillos takes a ramble through David Foster Wallace's self-help library, part of a 300 book collection of heavily annotated books in repository at the University of Texas. If you take Bustillos's gloss on the self-help books, it tells a very sad story indeed. It's also definitively the story of Hal Incandenza from Infinite Jest. The question is, though, how much of this is also DFW's story? It's tempting to say that it's exactly his story, what with the depression, the substance abuse, the florid displays of brilliance in DFW's life. The opposite is also true: it may just be his story (as we'd like to tell it), and not his life.

Wallace's notes in Bradshaw On: The Family and especially in Alice Miller's The Drama of the Gifted Child reveal a person who felt himself to be messed up totally and permanently. He felt particularly nailed and revealed to himself by the latter book, one in which he blames his mother for quite a lot of his suffering. To say that Wallace took The Drama of the Gifted Child to heart is to put it very mildly indeed. He returned to it over and over again; his notes were made at many different times, in wildly differing sizes and styles of penmanship, states of mind. Here are the markers I could more or less identify:

Red sharpie, thin Pink, thinner, like a faded red Rolling Writer? Blue thinner Rolling Writer-type Pencil Dark blue felt-tip, thin Black fine felt-tip Furious blue Sharpie, a thick one Black ball-point

This is another book that made a big splash when it appeared; Wallace's copy is an eighteenth printing, from 1993. The thesis of The Drama of the Gifted Child is that particularly high-achieving children are damaged because their mothers did not allow them to be themselves, but instead through their own insecurities gave their children the impression that only achievement could win them love. That any deviation from right behavior was unlovable, that they would be rejected unless they performed well.

So Alice Miller says the gifted child has to perform all the time, perform even to himself, and is thereby sundered from himself profoundly. "Narcissistically disturbed" is her phrase of choice for this condition. Because the child doesn't feel free to own his feelings candidly, but instead must censor and control himself ceaselessly and let only the good things about himself become manifest, all the bad feelings like jealousy, rage, envy, are driven underground and fester there and make the child secretly, existentially miserable, and in a special way, "divided" in rather the way R.D. Laing describes in The Divided Self. Miller's gifted child splits into two: one is the grandiose child, who is a super-achieving, obedient, reliable and "good" child, and the other a depressed child who never was loved, never was allowed to be a child, who was forced to perform and excel from such an early age that he has become irrecoverably lost to himself.

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