Forgiving your parents: real-life wisdom from Steve Martin
I'd brought plenty of books to the airport, where my flight to London was already boarding, when I took a last look at the gateside kiosk and realized I needed one more---Born Standing Up: A Comic's Life, by Steve Martin. The cover featured Steve doing what I could have sworn was a softshoe routine, wearing a white suit, a tie and a pair of bunny ears. He looked both zany and achingly intense as if he were trying not to trip on his own feet while cracking up the audience. An overcrowded jet at 30,000 feet, with someone's baby crying and someone else's chair back wedged in my face, is not my idea of a wild night out. But with the wild and crazy guy to entertain me, I wouldn't even notice. I'd be too busy laughing.
I finished the book in a matter of hours. It's that compelling. But funny? Except for a few wry chuckles, no. Still, I'm not about to complain. While Born Standing Up did not make me laugh out loud, it did expand my sense of what it takes to embrace the future as your best, boldest and most creative self without leaving a painful past behind.
Home is supposed to be the haven where, come what may, your family loves and accepts the real you instead of sending the message, intentionally or not, that they wish you'd start morphing into somebody different. Steve Martin grew up in a "wish you were different" family (the usual term is "dysfunctional but I've come to detest this term; it suggests that mom, dad and the kids are just so much breakdown-prone machinery).
His father, who had dreamed of an acting career, ended up selling real estate and tormenting the household with his rages. Steve took the brunt of his resentment---and often the blows from his paddle---while his cowed, submissive mother failed to defend him. "There was little [my father] said to me that was not critical, and there was little I said back that was not terse or mumbled." At the first opportunity, Steve left home and turned his back on the entire family. Unawares, he carried with him both his father's scorn and his mother's remoteness. Anxiety attacks plagued him; love affairs foundered.
The primal connection between comedy and pain is not exactly news. Comics tend to be tortured souls. No wonder they tell such ferociously scatological jokes among themselves---a bonding ritual captured in the documentary The Aristocrats (which I thoroughly enjoyed and many people detested). The film consists solely of 100-odd celebrated comics riffing with gleeful abandon on the foulest of jokes, which has endured since the days of vaudeville. Bear with me for a minute while I give you the plot line (no rough stuff, I promise). Guy walks into a talent agent's office, says he has a "family act," proceeds to describe in the most foul, phantasmagorical and obscene terms what the family members do to one another. Agent asks the name of the act; guy says, "The Aristocrats."
Why am I telling you this? Because to watch the comics one-up their peers with their own spins on this joke is to witness an explosion of unspeakable familial anguish. George Carlin, Shelley Berman, Phyllis Diller, Sarah Silverman, Eddie Izzard, Whoopi Goldberg...they all roll around in the lunatic filth. But not Steve Martin. Unlike his peers in the comedy world, he's a person of restraint.
Among memoirists, he also stands out for a less-is-more approach. His writing is spare and precise. He shows no trace of self-pity and levels no blame at his finger-pointing father, who for years loudly dissed Steve's comedy to anyone who would listen. Understatement enhances the book's poignancy, which culminates in a transformative, years-long process of reconciliation.
I know first-hand how tough it is to break through a silence in the family. There's so much pride to give up, so much resistance to the other person's side of the story, so much fear of yet another bruising disappointment. From comments on this site and the stories that some of you have shared with me privately, I can tell that estrangement pierces many more families than die-hard myths would have us believe. That's why we need wisdom from those who have met this challenge. Steve Martin delivers the goods.
I keep rereading the scene in which Steve sits by his father's deathbed and the old man says, "I wish I could cry." I dare you to read what follows without a lump in your throat:
At first I took this a comment on his condition but am forever thankful that I pushed on. "What do you want to cry about?" I said.
"For all the love I received and couldn't return."
I felt a chill of familiarity.
There was another lengthy silence as we looked into each other's eyes. At last he said, "You did everything I wanted to do."
"I did it for you," I said. Then we wept for the lost years. I was glad I didn't say the more complicated truth: "I did it because of you."
P.S. On a lighter note, click here to read my sister Joyce's wonderful piece "My Date with Steve Martin." She and I went through a not-speaking phase, but I never forgot how much fun she is. Or how much we had in common (for instance, liking Steve Martin).