"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Sunday, February 10, 2019

Love–A Zero Sum Affair

Laura Beth Michaels had never had much luck in love.  A few indifferent boyfriends in high school, one or two more in college, and one  left on the curb while Laura Beth pursued her career.  She had, consciously or not – motivation and influence never mattered to her as much as purpose and results – chosen career over all else; and after a successful four years at Columbia, post-graduate work at Harvard, she received an appointment at Johns Hopkins.

Her social life, let alone her love life, always played second fiddle to her career ambitions, and as the years went by and as she grew more set in her professional, academic ways, finding a mate lost interest.  By the time she was well-placed at Hopkins and on her way to tenure and recognition within her field, she was unsuitable for both love and marriage.  Such intellectual pursuits by themselves can be handled by a more balanced, more desirous person; but Laura Beth was anything balanced.  While she had no regrets or remorse about her now confirmed single life – she had made her bed as the saying went, and she was content to lie in it.

She came from a tightly-knit family with surprisingly few dysfunctionalities.  She loved her parents, took care of them, and shared in the family life of her two sisters.  Her nieces and nephews were like her own children and, being one step removed from the real thing, felt she had license to spoil them; and spoil them she did – lavish presents at birthdays and Christmas, dinners out in Soho and Park Slope, and invitations to ski in Vermont.  The nieces and nephews, although they respected and admired their aunt for her professional successes, and appreciated her attention and concern, never really warmed up to her, a feeling which increased as she got older, more insistent, and more eccentric.  The tickets to the Met, videos of her sisters as children, and offers to referee at soccer games although generous to a fault became tedious; and because the children knew of no way to politely deter their aunt, they simply demurred.  Yet Laura Beth, so set in her ways and so firmly established in her mind as an important centerpiece of her family, never picked up on the clues, subtle innuendos, and kindly refusals; and continued her solicitousness. 

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For a year or so and quite surprisingly her solicitations dwindled to nothing; and while the children, now grown, wondered what had happened, their mothers knew exactly.  At the age of 55, Laura Beth was entertaining a gentleman caller, a colleague from Hopkins who, like her, had an advanced degree, a fine reputation, and a serious desire to make a difference in the world.  They went out often – dating would be grossly inappropriate for such a couple – enjoyed either other’s company, but never strayed far from the ordained path of cells, cellular function, gene therapy, and micro-organic synthesis.  It was surprising that they even bothered, for this was the stock-and-trade of their daily lives; but the truth of the matter was that neither one had any real interest outside work and only socialized with each other because it seemed the thing to do.  By the time Laura Beth first began seeing Albert she had been – except of course for her parents – virtually alone for all of her years, and the whole idea of sexual intimacy had become not only unthinkable but distasteful.  For many years her sisters thought she might have sexual ‘issues’, but in fact she was only deeply indifferent – one of those people for whom sex simply was never on the table and as far from the realm of the expected as ice hockey or flamenco.

Yet, Laura Beth was not emotionally vacant.  The death of her parents affected her deeply, and she realized – again either consciously or subconsciously (it mattered little) – that she was incapable of any profound emotional relationship outside that of Mother and Dad.  While Freudians might have called her devotional fidelity to her parents a case of arrested development, she thought no such thing.  Who wouldn’t love, respect, admire, and be at the beck and call of such good, responsible, and loving people?

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Not her sisters, however, both of whom cut their family ties as soon as they left for college.  While they maintained a frequent and friendly contact with their parents, the reality of Mother and Dad faded quickly in the distance.  They thanked their parents for a good, consistent upbringing, financial support, and good advice; but when it came to real love or intimacy, they were not at home.

The difference among the three sisters became most clear after their father died after a long illness.  Laura Beth was distraught, adrift, and lonely; while her siblings went about their business of husbands, children, and work.  The easy explanation was that they had a new family network which had replaced the old and could easily forget the past in favor of the needs and demands of the new.  But this would be too facile an explanation.

Paul Morel, the main character in D.H. Lawrence’s Sons and Lovers was very attached to his mother – so much so that this filial love displaced all others.  He could not form any reasonable sexual relationship with women because of painful feelings of guilt.  Every time he felt himself drawing close to a woman, he felt he was betraying his mother, the only woman he really loved.  For her part, Paul’s mother was a selfish, demanding, and impossibly hungry woman.  She knew that her son was weak, timid, and dependent, and she took every advantage to keep him for himself.

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Lawrence, for whom the book was a semi-autobiographical work, never explicitly took sides.  As an author/son he could not bring himself to criticize his mother; nor could he condemn himself for being so emotionally immature, guilt-ridden, and emotionally confused.  Yet the text speaks for itself.  Paul Morel was born this way, evidenced by the way his two brothers, both also the target for their mother’s desperate and ravenous love, easily escaped her influence and developed good, mature sexual relationships with others. 

So Laura Beth was born this way.  Despite her professional independence and individuality, she was always a timid daughter, only emotionally secure with her parents through their unconditional love.  In fact without it she might never have made much of herself beyond high school.   Her sisters were like Paul Morel’s brothers – born of the same parents, but inheritors of different genes.

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Laura Beth was perhaps even more like Tennessee Williams’ heroine Laura in The Glass Menagerie.  Williams’s Laura was so timid, so dependent, and so immature that she could only relate to her class figurines.  Even as a young adult she could only imagine lives she made up for them while remaining afraid in her own room.  Laura Beth of course was no recluse and far less psychologically dependent on her parents than Laura; but the lessons were the same.  There is no accounting for emotional ties, how they are formed, what shape they take, and where they lead; and perhaps most importantly, the depth of feeling, the profound attachment for one person can never be transferred to another.  If one is inextricably tied to one’s parents, life after their death can only be lonely, desperate, and permanently unfulfilled.

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The sadness of the tale is not that she missed her parents more than most, nor that she became less welcomed by her siblings and their families, but that love is not fungible.  There are no zero-sum equations. 

On the other hand, who is to say that the profound, exclusive, and dependent love that Laura Beth had for her parents was not equal to any marital love? Or even a love of a mother for her children? What is the particular calculus which governs such variables?

It might be easy to dismiss Laura Beth, to judge her emotional dependency and immaturity harshly; or to assume that her single-minded attachments were due to childhood trauma (her parents, reminded her sisters, were not really that kind); but wasn’t it as likely that she, like Paul Morel and Laura, were simply made that way, ineluctably, and in all three cases, sadly.  She was not a bad person nor a particularly good one; but only one perhaps more true to her make-up and character than most.

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