I get on a Randy Newman kick now and then. Today, playing a Newman cd while I was baking, I was struck by the song “Marie.” Lushly orchestrated, this version features a warm, romantic background, like so many Newman songs, belying the barbed lyrics.
“Marie” sounds like a love song, but it’s a love song sung by a jerk. The personae of Newman songs are complicated; “Marie’s” is drunk and prone to cliche and heedless of Marie’s feelings most of the time. And yet, he manages to sing a moving love song. Newman packs the complexity of an Alice Munro short story into the three-minute length of a pop song, or perhaps I should say “pop song.”
Anyway, there was no stopping me then. I looked up a YouTube video of “Marie,” and then checked out other Newman favorites, like “Jolly Coppers on Parade” and “Feels Like Home” from his Faust collection.
Finally I landed on “I Want You To Hurt Like I Do.” In this video, Newman’s introduction is imbued with his familiar blend of scalding sarcasm and good-humored self-deprecation. It’s a Randy Newman “We Are the World,” he says. Imagine, he says, good celebrities–Bruce, Sting, Kenny Rogers, and other Kenny’s–singing in chorus, swaying to the melody. (So I once again checked out, of course, “We Are the World,” which I still like.)
But instead of the charitable sentiments of Michael Jackson’s anthem, Newman’s begins “I ran out on my children” and then repeats the refrain “I just want you to hurt like I do.” It’s about wanting others to feel your pain. It’s not about love and light and doing good. It’s about the dark human tendency to hurt when you’ve been hurt.
I relied on this song when writing about my mom and the hurtful lashing out that’s characteristic of borderline personality disorder. Newman doesn’t let us off the hook—we all do it. But, if mental illness is an exaggeration of the normal, then people with people with BPD, because they hurt more, sometimes do it a little more than the rest of us. Here’s what I wrote in Missing:
A typical exchange would go like this. We’re sitting in the kitchen, in tense silence. My mother has just told me that I’m breaking her heart by dating a divorced guy. She can’t sleep. She can’t understand what’s happened to her perfect daughter. Why do I not care about her? She shakes her head, and cries, and looks more enraged at every response I offer. She’s glad, she says at last, that my father isn’t there to see my behavior. He was a puritan, she tells me. He was conservative about morals and marriage and divorce. He would be ashamed, she says, to know I was dating a divorced man.
I’m 21, and lost my dad only two years before. I still feel sad and guilty about my silence during his illness and write in my journal and pray and cry frequently about failing him. I miss him all the time and find my mother even more difficult to deal with, without him there as a buffer. Hearing that my dad would be ashamed of me is the harshest thing my mother could say to me.
So, I try again with my mother. I explain how painful this particular argument is. I tell her, “I hear what you’re saying, and there’s no way I’m going to forget it. But you should understand how much it hurts me for you to say that Dad would be ashamed of me. I’ve heard you and will think about what you’ve said. Just never say that particular thing again.”
A fleeting and enigmatic expression crosses her face. I can’t parse my mother’s discomfiting expression. She doesn’t look indignant or offended, still less compassionate and understanding. To say she looks pleased would be going too far, but perhaps I see a split second of satisfaction.
In any event, my plea has no effect. She repeats the remark about my dad often. Though I know her well, this always surprises me. Why would she not explain her concerns calmly and counsel me? Why does she deliberately say the most wounding thing she can?
Decades later, after a lot more life experience, with soul searching and a little wisdom, I gain some insight. A suffering friend told me, “I don’t believe anyone can understand how I’m hurting unless they’re hurting, too.” It was as though my mother had returned to explain herself to me.
My sisters and I often remark that my mother believed she was powerless. She thought we didn’t listen. She had no idea how deeply her words wounded us. She thought she had to lash out just to have any effect at all.
But now, my friend had explained why. My mother was in pain. She was always in pain and was hurting even more because she feared I was abandoning her. No one could know how much she hurt. But if she passed on a little pain, if she struck out, if she flailed around and made a few barbs stick, maybe someone would share a tiny bit of the hurt and she wouldn’t feel so alone.
In Alice Sebold’s novel The Almost Moon, a frustrated adult daughter smothers her recalcitrant, critical mother in a moment of rage. “It was my mother’s disappointments that were enumerated in our household,” Sebold writes, “and that I saw before me every day as if they were posted on our fridge–a static list that my presence could not assuage.” I recognize the mother, and I recognize the rage.