Have you ever been treated as if you didn’t exist by someone important to you? This person gains your trust, you become psychologically and emotionally dependent on them, and then they get up and leave? My uncle came into my life in my early teens and split in my mid-20s. I didn’t realize the impact his rejection had on my life until therapy. As my professional identity was unraveling, I often took solace in the fictional identity I fashioned after my uncle. My uncle is the oldest brother on my father’s side. He taught Psychology at my hometown high school – Penn Hills in Pennsylvania. His lifestyle was different than that of my father and his family. He gambled and smoked. He lived in the mountains in Ligonier, an hour from Penn Hills, along the Loyalhanna River. He heated his home with a wood-burning stove. He was single and ran a roadside fruit stand with a friend. He was an atheist. My family held him with high regard and it was always a big deal when he came to family events. There was a mystique about him. He was cool. He said things like, “What’s happenin’?” and “You dig?”, and gave low fives. He was tall, wore a newsboy hat, and dressed like Woody Allen, his hero – collared shirt inside a sweater.
I was in 7th grade when for no reason he started showing up at my house for visits after school. I was the only one of my brothers to spend time with him when he came. My mom would welcome him with open arms and get him a coffee and an ashtray. I think she felt like I did, that we were privileged to have him come to our house. We sat in our living room. He’d rant that the suburbs, God, education, and contemporary popular culture were killing free-thinking and creativity. Most people were idiots. He scorned my classmates who wore Stanford sweatshirts but were too dumb to ever get in. TV and “hanging out” were frivolous activities. He claimed that Penn Hills represented the American intellectual abyss.
I was a good kid who got good grades in 7th grade. Teachers liked me. My parents were proud of me. I was voted Best Dressed, not exactly foreshadowing the self-respecting slob I’d become. Adults commented on my maturity. I respected who I’d been taught to fear: teachers, my parents, other adults, and God. And I defended them vehemently against my uncle’s cutdowns. My uncle called my teachers, his colleagues, silly. Then he took shots at God and religion. I was going to be a priest in fourth or fifth grade. For a stretch, I went to church daily, waking my father at 5:30am before school to take me to mass. Man, I loved hearing old folks at service exclaim to my father, “What a mature kid!” I watched the 700 Club and actually called the prayer line to confess my sins. My uncle was slicing into my identity. At first it was painful. I argued angrily and would eventually storm off to my room, often with my uncle laughing. I started wanting more than school, my hometown, and my family could give me. I couldn’t name exactly what I was missing, but I was claustrophobic. There was something “out there” I wanted to explore. The slice became actually an opening.
I started spending time with my uncle. I think our relationship was mutual. In me, my uncle had a willing and enthusiastic audience. For me, my uncle was the rebellious character I didn’t have the courage or the know-how to become on my own. He was also a channel to ideas and art. He turned me onto the 1960s counterculture. He read and identified authors and titles I must read. He introduced me to jazz; Blood, Sweat, and Tears; and Doobie Brothers. He gave me a slew of history and science documentaries on VHS. I took notes as I watched them. I visited him frequently at his home. On one occasion, he said “Get ready for one of the best experiences you’ll ever have.” He screened 2001: A Space Odyssey. I was fifteen. I didn’t have a fucking clue what this movie was about. Of course, I thought it was amazing.
He also tuned me into his worldview – a quasi-post-hippie individualist freedom philosophy. He resented authority. He owned his own mind. Institutions needed to be torn down. He dismissed subjectivity and emotions for objective evidence and critical thinking. He was cynical and rejected anyone who didn’t agree with him. This was one of the most exciting times of my life.
The music and books he gave me energized me. I thought about my life’s purpose differently. The intellectual transformation wasn’t enough, though. I started becoming my uncle. If I was to be an intellectual, I not only needed to be smart, I must be like him. I denounced Catholicism and God. I ridiculed believers. I started ignoring certain friends and rebuking my teachers. All of those people were idiots. Contemporary music and culture was trash (this was before “culture is trash” was an actual philosophy). I called him one Saturday night and told him I was sick and listening to the Who. He responded, “That would make me sick.” So I quit listening to the Who.
I asserted this identity more forcefully in college. No one knew my former self, so everyone assumed I had always been this way. I went to school for English. I graduated from college and I was aimless. I floundered in various sales jobs. Since I was fourteen or so my only goal was to become a scholar – whatever that hell that meant. I had the attitude – arrogance, dismissiveness, cynicism, being an ass. The problem, though, was that I didn’t have the chops or at least a serious path to leading an academic life.
But I could pretend. No one may see me as an intellectual, but I could still project this personality into the world. A gigantic gap separated my real and imagined selves. I had to maintain this identity or else I’d have to confront my purposelessness. I lodged my uncle’s voice somewhere in my frontal lobe, the decision-making part of the brain, for protection. I consulted it both for important and trivial decisions: Is this person worthy of me liking them? Is this idea acceptable? Should I be reading this columnist? Does this sweater give off the air of an intellectual? Should I be working at this job? Should I have this conversation with this person? Should I watch this movie? Is this joke funny? The only problem with this strategy is that it was just in my mind. I wasn’t a scholar or intellectual. I was just a lost asshole.
Somehow I landed a girl, a beautiful, funny, creative girl. She put up with antics like this: She asked me one time, “Am I bright?” My response: “No.” I ridiculed her family. They were of course part of the contemptible masses. I tried steering her away from her friends and hobbies like hip-hop music. I bought her philosophy and art history books as Christmas presents. Our relationship was theoretical; it wasn’t emotional and physical. She didn’t sign up for this.
My girlfriend became my wife. This is when the relationship with my uncle suddenly changed. I still don’t know why and I’m not going to conjecture. I was no longer the chosen one, there for his tutelage and shaping. He lumped me in with the “normal” people, the idiots. He never directly told me these things, but he signaled them. One time I went to see him while he visited my parents. I was working for my family’s business, a painting company, while I went to graduate school. I was nervous because I knew I was a disappointment to him. He confirmed my expectations. He mocked me for living in the same neighborhood as my parents. He disapprovingly asked about my grad school, “What’s IUP going to do for you?” (I was attending Indiana University of Pennsylvania, a run-of-the-mill state school.) I left my parents’ house demoralized. He started ignoring my phone calls and emails. When we talked, there was a distance. I worked hard for ten years, many of which were formative ones for an adolescent boy, to model myself after him. Now, this identity was evaporating. I was out there alone. I had no idea who I really was.
My egotistical assness transformed into hatred and disgust. I would never trust anyone again. This included friends, family, and my wife. I treated people badly. I gave up on goals and a future. I drank a lot and was hoping my material self would go the way of my imaginary self. Become no more.
Books, music, art, conversation, and ideas are still vital parts of my life. My uncle is not.
Soon after the relationship with my uncle dissolved, I landed a job making good money and getting terrorized by management.