Faking it Till You Make It: How Channeling Clint Eastwood Helps my Marriage
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On my Facebook yesterday, I posted that whatever our feelings about the verdict in the Rittenhouse case, we should be grateful for the commitment and care of the jurors. I mentioned that I’d been a jury foreperson, and that this is hard and sacred work, and we owe these people our thanks.
I wrote this because I have friends who were jubilant and relieved at the acquittal, and others who were anguished and enraged. My instinct, for as long as I can remember, is to look for what unifies. Some call that a virtue, and others call it a vice; some call it being a peacemaker, whilst others declare it is complicity with oppression. I usually reply that it’s as much a part of me as my blue eyes – this isn’t a calculation on my part, it’s the essence of who I am, like it or not, and life experience has only entrenched this view that there are good folks on both sides.
Before we were married, my wife and I were having an argument, and it was not going well. Especially since 2013 and my fall from grace, I have found it almost impossible to get angry, or to stand my ground in any disagreement. So, on this day in late August, Victoria and I sat on the couch, and she made her point about something that bothered her, and I – well, I quite literally cowered. I didn’t do it intentionally, I wasn’t aware I was doing it; I just tried to make myself as small as possible and kept muttering, like an incantation, “I’m so sorry, I’m so sorry.”
My dear Victoria was not threatening me; her voice was barely raised. She simply wanted to bring up something she was frustrated over, and I heard the barest tinge of exasperation in her tone, and I did what I have done all my life: I made myself small.
I don’t know where this comes from; my parents did not raise their voices. I was brought up in a family and I come from a culture that is calm and not abusive. This paralysis that sets in in the face of someone’s anger was always part of my life, and it is partly why I drank – because when intoxicated, I could loosen my tongue and “fight back” with my words, if never my hands.
Since 2013, it’s gotten much worse – even the mildest rebuke instantly triggers a cycle of shame. It is exhausting for me, and it is exhausting for others. They think it’s manipulative, but that word implies that I have some sense of control over this, and am deliberately angling for sympathy. It doesn’t feel like something I can control, and believe me, I have tried every damn therapeutic modality I know to overcome this. I’ve gone on men’s retreats. I’ve changed my religion several times. (I have been “slain in the spirit” with the Pentecostals, and studied Torah all night with Chabad.) I’ve done CBT, DBT, EMDR, and hypnosis. I will not do psychedelics, because I remember my one LSD trip in the 1980s as horrific, one of the most upsetting and scarring experiences of my life.
To one degree or another, this is just who Hugo is.
Victoria is an actor; she studied theater in college. In the midst of our one-sided quarrel, she looked at me and asked, “What would Clint Eastwood do?”
It was quite the non-sequitur. My bride knows I love Clint and his movies. (He was mayor of my hometown.) I looked confused. Vic explained. “Why don’t you pretend you’re Clint Eastwood, and you’re in this situation. Act confident. Pretend you don’t have to be you, you get to be Clint.”
I didn’t mimic Clint’s voice, but I liked the idea. I swiveled towards Victoria, opened my body, and began to talk. I could look her in the eye. I could hear her without apologizing. If I was channeling someone else, I could participate in the argument instead of running from it. I was still saying Hugo things – but pretending to be someone else, someone I admired, someone with whom I could access a truth.
Victoria and I had our first productive argument in years.
Since then, she often says, “I need you to be Clint for a minute,” and I slip the chains of Hugo’s incapacitating self-loathing and show up as a man who can both set and respect healthy boundaries.
There’s a part of me that doesn’t like this. It reminds me of the old saying, “Fake it till you make it,” which I’ve heard most of my life and has led to just more and more faking. My former students will remember me as an extremely confident lecturer, almost swaggering in the classroom; I appeared completely and utterly in control when I taught. Of course, that was a performance – that wasn’t Hugo. Anything I said with certainty came from a script, as my own nature has no certainty. I just knew that people like confidence and certainty, and to be quite frank, I knew that women in particular liked those attributes. It always felt deeply dishonest, it never became completely “me.”
One of the reasons I blew up my life so spectacularly with my concatenation of confessions in 2013 wasn’t just that I was ashamed of my affairs with students, and disgusted by my infidelities – I felt the ENTIRE project of my public life was a complete lie, because from the moment I stepped into the classroom, I had been projecting a confidence and a clarity I neither felt nor believed, and after 20 years of doing so, I was suffocating on my own fraudulence.
From the time I learned to channel this swagger as a young man, it served me well with women. Or to put it another way, it got me into a lot of beds and relationships. I have written before that almost every breakup and divorce of my life has been initiated by an exasperated woman – and the reason was usually the same. The confidence and ardor and passion with which I courted always vanished. I had been putting on a very tiring act, and my hope was, of course, that once a woman fell in love with me I could drop the ridiculous mask of all this competence and ambition and be loved for the small, shy, people-pleasing little mouse that has always seemed to be the real me. You can imagine that was never a winning strategy.
Dirty little secret: I don’t have a particularly high sex drive. Never did. I just know that sex bonds people in the early stages of a relationship, and so my need for that bond, to “lock someone in” emotionally before I dropped the mask, led me to play act at being very passionate and erotically creative. People like it when it seems like you can’t get enough of them. Fake it till you make it.
Lots of people put on their best selves in order to meet someone on the dating scene, but I really created an entirely false self. More than one ex of mine said, not long before she dumped me, “What happened to the Hugo I met? I want him back!”
Channeling Clint Eastwood helps me show up in my marriage. For the first time, I am in a relationship where I am beginning to learn how to balance authenticity with the kind of performance necessary to be a real partner for someone else. It is hard work, and if I can somehow get back to in-person therapy again, it is something on which I hope to continue to focus. It still feels fraudulent, but it helps my wife and I connect, and heck, maybe a little play-acting isn’t so bad, given the alternative.
What does this have to do with Kyle Rittenhouse? I suppose I could channel one of my more left-leaning friends. I could say the right things about gun control, and about the way in which our antiquated laws about self-defense are structured to protect white men. I could say these sorts of things convincingly, because I know how to be convincing – I did it for so long and I did it pretty damn well. Maybe if I faked a stance I do not feel, maybe it would come to seem natural?
But then the temptation would be to play-act a different role with my right-wing friends. I could say to them that I agreed with the verdict, and talk about media misrepresentation, and about the central importance of defending gun rights. If someone figured out that I was talking out of both sides of my mouth, then everyone would be angry and no one would trust me. I’ve been called a toxic and dishonest people-pleaser all my life, and I would rather not be told that often in the time I have left. My often-maddening both-sidesism is a stab at radical authenticity, and it is me, hoping against hope, that you won’t push me away if I show you the “real me.”
So much of our rhetoric about “taking a stand” is grounded in the language of moral courage. We presume that people deep down know what’s right, and that they are afraid of saying what they truly believe for fear of social consequence. Each side says to the public, “We know that in your heart, you know we’re right. Stand up! Hold the line! Come to us and let your truth be heard!”
I’m sure some people really are quiet out of fear, and they do have strong beliefs they’re keeping hidden. For others of us, though, even when we look deep in our chests, we do not see the certainties that our friends expect us to have. I am certain I love my children, and my wife, and my friends, and I love the golden hills of home, and I am certain that everyone is good.
(What I really wanted to write about Kyle Rittenhouse is that I watched his sister cry tears of relief in the courtroom, and I watched Anthony Huber’s sister cry tears of pain in an interview as she remembered her slain and unavenged brother, and that it seemed desperately important to focus on the common thread of weeping. I was even gonna reference Antigone! But I knew better. No one wants to read that crap, even if it seems to me the most salient part of the entire story.)
I could have said nothing at all about Rittenhouse, and I suppose if I cannot bring myself to pretend to be upset, or pretend to be relieved, then it is best that I ignore the subject altogether. My both-sidesism is the most genuine part of me, however; it’s the most authentic and real aspect of my entire self. I am so tired of pretending to feel things I don’t, but it seems so necessary to play-act in order to contribute meaningfully to the world.
At least Victoria gets Clint every now and again, and she enjoys him very much.