We Are All Dumbo
(You know which one you are, right?)
In her 2017 debut (and semi-autobiographical) novel The Idiot, Elif Batuman recalls a searing moment from kindergarten:
The teacher showed us Dumbo, and I realized for the first time that all the kids in the class, even the bullies, rooted for Dumbo, against Dumbo's tormentors. Invariably they laughed and cheered, both when Dumbo succeeded and when bad things happened to his enemies. But they're you, I thought to myself. How did they not know? They didn't know. It was astounding, an astounding truth. Everyone thought they were Dumbo.
(Forgive me for assuming that none of my readers – nor Batuman’s – need the plot of Dumbo explained to them.)
There are at least two ways to read this anecdote. One (Batuman’s), is the dominant response of our era: bullies like to delude themselves into believing that they are the real victims. Cruelty must be built on a pretext of self-defense, a justified lashing out against one’s heartless persecutors. In this first view, everyone thinks they’re Dumbo – but most are lying to themselves, reshaping the narrative of their lives to make themselves into plucky little victims rather than seeing themselves as the remorseless tormentors they really are.
The second view, of course – and Batuman is more than good enough to tease us with this possibility – is that everyone is right. Everyone is Dumbo, at least some of the time; bullies are not immune from being bullied, and those who think of themselves as the innocent are, on plenty of occasions, capable of impressive acts of sadism.
Parenting inclines one to the second view. My daughter is in 7th grade at a public all-girls school. You might remember middle school: friendships are as intense as they are fragile, betrayals are common, wounded feelings are universal. This week’s enemy was last week’s bestie, and the wheel will turn again thrice more before the school year comes to an end. I hear Heloise’s side of things, and I can see enough to know that in these all-consuming dramas, she is (like all her friends and rivals) both sinning and sinned against in equal measure. At least some of the time, she’s Dumbo.
I’m not consumed by the Johnny Depp/Amber Heard defamation trial, but I gather a lot of people are. Without knowing all the details, what seems likely is that we have two people who have each treated the other badly. Their mistreatment escalated to physical violence and was accompanied by drugs and alcohol. The pattern is familiar enough. Plenty of us look at this unhappy relationship and say, “Sounds like each gave as good as they got. It’s mutual abuse.”
This is not the acceptable view in our more-enlightened age.
Writing last week for NBC, Lux Alptraum warns us that:
…mutual abuse is an oxymoron… an abusive power imbalance only goes one way. As the United Nation’s definition of domestic abuse notes, abuse is a pattern of behavior in any relationship that is used to gain or maintain power and control over an intimate partner. By definition, only one person can wield power and control within an abusive relationship.
Alptraum concedes that sometimes, the abused hit back, but reminds us of the dangers of false equivalence:
Abuse victims don’t always suffer in silence. They push back against their tormentors, they lash out in frustration, they attempt to reclaim their autonomy in ugly and unpleasant ways. That behavior can be unsympathetic and sometimes even appalling. But when it comes from someone who’s disempowered, who’s responding to an instigator rather than controlling a situation, it cannot truly be considered abuse.
Alptraum suggests that those bullies in kindergarten who identified with Dumbo were remembering times when those they had tormented hit back. They are confusing the richly-deserved consequences of their actions with suffering unprovoked and unmerited injury.
Or maybe, despite the claims of the contemporary culture, power dynamics are not as neat and hierarchical as we imagine. Perhaps we can’t just look at age, or money, or biological sex, and say, aha, whoever is older, wealthier, and male-er is automatically immunized against victimhood. Perhaps Johnny Depp can be Dumbo, and Amber Heard can be Dumbo, and we can all be Dumbo – and, of course, we can be, and surely are, also Dumbo’s tormentors.
It is far easier for the bully to see himself as the bullied than it is for the victimized to see himself as the victimizer. It is certainly easier for the culture to do as Alptraum does, and double down on rigid binaries between the abusers and the abused, than it is for us to accept and embrace complexity and shadow.
On a related note, I’ve seen a handful of threads on Twitter referencing Eugene Ionesco’s classic 1959 play, Rhinoceros. (I fell in love with Ionesco in high school, and I managed to see a student production of Rhinoceros at Stanford in 1986. It remains the only time I’ve ever visited the Palo Alto campus of Cal’s archrivals for anything other than a sporting event.)
The play – and the 1974 Gene Wilder filmed adaptation – tell the story of a small town suddenly infected by a virus that turns the citizens into rhinoceroses. At first, the townspeople are horrified and frightened, but one by one, they grow to accept the inevitability, perhaps even the advantages, of transforming into these massive beasts. The play’s protagonist, Bérenger, slowly loses every one of his friends, and eventually his wife, to rhinocerodom. All these go gladly to their fate, but Bérenger remains defiant to the end. His final speech, as the last human perhaps on earth, is a classic:
“People who try to hang on to their individuality always come to a bad end! [He suddenly snaps out of it.] Oh well, too bad! I'll take on the whole of them! I'll put up a fight against the lot of them, the whole lot of them! I'm the last man left, and I'm staying that way until the end. I'm not capitulating!”
One of Gene Wilder’s greatest performances is as Bérenger – here’s his take on the final scene. (Warning, it’s 13 minutes!)
On Twitter recently, I saw a series of folks cite the play for their own purposes. One suggested that the play connected with our collective contemporary willingness to accept COVID infection as inevitable. In this tweeter’s eyes, the heroic Bérenger was standing up for Zero Covid and the determination to fight off a virus to which everyone else had capitulated. Another tweeter suggested the opposite – Bérenger was an anti-vaxxer, willing to accept societal ostracism and alienation rather than inject a substance that everyone else mistakenly thought of as benign.
You could probably find 17 other Twitter threads in which Ionesco’s play is claimed for one side or another. It reminds me of hearing anti-abortion and anti-apartheid protestors both singing “We Shall Overcome” and “We Shall Not Be Moved” at various Bay Area rallies when I was a Berkeley student. They were diametrically opposed groups, but damned if they weren’t all sure they were the “we” to which the hymns refer.
Art is malleable, because we need it to be so. Be it an old American spiritual, a Disney classic, or a renowned French absurdist drama, most art ends up reinforcing rather than subverting our self-conceptions. We may be the bully, but we will see ourselves as Dumbo; we may be a rhinoceros, but we will flatter ourselves that we are Bérenger; we may be firmly aligned with the dominant power, but we will invariably imagine ourselves to be in the brave cohort marching and singing to overcome it.
Maybe we’re all shameless self-flatterers, bound and determined to identify with the plucky underdog even when we’re anything but. Maybe both Johnny Depp and Amber Heard imagine themselves to be the victim of the other’s abuse, but only one of them is right. Or maybe, the truth is marvelously simple, simple enough to be grasped by every kindergarten child: we are, each and every one of us, Dumbo.
A personal note: Thank you to so many of you for your kind words since I wrote about being diagnosed with a traumatic brain injury and ongoing encephalopathy. I’m still coming to terms with what this means for both my past and my future, not to mention my present, but I’m somewhat hopeful that it will liberate me to write more — perhaps even to revive this Substack!