If a jarring or traumatic event happens in your adolescent or teen years, it can stay with you into adulthood, and can sometimes even trigger a neurosis or shape some aspect of your personality. This has been a recurring motif in I-don’t-know-how-many dramas I’ve seen about coping with this or that lingering issue. But what about stories in which a traumatic event or some kind of metaphorical face-slap wakes a character up? Not right away but gradually, I mean.
Who hasn’t had an experience that delivers some kind of stern but helpful cautionary tale? I certainly have, but I’m hard-pressed to remember a film or a play, even, that has told such a story. It’s always “oh, I had a terrible thing happen to me when I was 11 or 16 or whatever and I still haven’t gotten over it.”
I did some of my growing up in Westfield, New Jersey, where I lived from age 5 to 16 and 1/2, and it was in that mild-mannered little whitebread town where I experienced one of my key wake-up moments. It was a fall afternoon and I was sitting at a backyard patio table with a friend and his father. My friend and I were 16, and his 40ish dad, a sardonic, sometimes blunt-spoken dentist, was in a blunter-than-usual mood when he began to judge our character and prospects. You either had something on the ball, he said, or you were a washout. And then he looked at his son and said with dispassion, as if he was reading the price on a cereal box, “You’re a washout.” And then he looked at me and said, “And you’re a washout.”
It didn’t feel like much at the moment, but this was the first time in my life that an adult had looked me in the eye and told me I had more or less fucked myself with my lousy grades and my anti-authoritarian fuck-all attitude. I know I’ve never forgotten this, and I’m now persuaded on some level that these tough words lit a fire. I suddenly realized, “Uh-oh, I might have a real problem.” I’d been hearing this all my life from my parents, of course, and from most of my teachers. About what an under-performer I was, blah blah, and how I needed to change my ways. But somehow the dentist got through while the others had just made me turn off all the more. Their admonitions felt like mosquitoes or the meowing of cats outside my window.
And yet an adult dispensing blunt, straight-from-the-shoulder, take-it-or-leave-it candor to a teenaged son (or a friend of his teenaged son) is pretty much forbidden these days. You’re supposed to just show support and encouragement to your children and give them plenty of hugs. That’s good advice, I think. It’s all I’ve ever done (or tried to do) with my two sons. If I had to co-raise and co-counsel them over again I wouldn’t play it any differently. But I’m just as certain that a clanging alarm bell went off when I heard the “w” word, and I think I may have decided that day to prove the dentist wrong (or at least began to think along these lines), so he may have done me a pretty big favor. He’s dead now so maybe he’s hearing me say this on some level.