I’ve just finished the novel Look at Me Now by Thomas Hubschman. It’s a story about victim-hood, though that’s not apparent at first since the novel begins with a women in her early forties finally gaining enough courage to leave her bullying husband of 25 years. At first, I thought it was another story about women’s liberation after they throw off the yoke of a domineering male. And in this story, the male was unquestionably a domineering egocentric bully.
But after she has left the relationship, Dierdre’s wounds gradually become apparent. Although she is often insightful and sometimes generous and caring, she is also short-tempered and judgmental. Having spent most of her life under the control of either her father or her husband, she’s a blamer, and often finds it difficult to take responsibility for her own decisions. Which is why, perhaps, she is dangerously close to choosing another domineering partner after leaving her husband. Like a child, she still seems to be tempted to want someone else to take responsibility for her.
This is not an And-they-lived-happily-ever-after story. Hubschman’s stories never are. They are inevitably a chapter in the unending process of a life, leaving the reader to decide how the protagonist will deal with the next challenge that emerges as he or she has dealt with the one in the story.
In Dierdre’s case, the reader is left asking whether she and her new lover can help each other. Harry himself has struggled, with some insight, into his bullying past. In my experience, couples like this can sometimes be immensely helpful to each other, able to forgive and encourage, understanding the complexity of a bullying/victim relationship. Or they can continue to destroy each other.
Whatever else, Look At Me Now isn’t a story about being a victim – when a truly helpless person, often a child, is abused and does not have the means of stopping or escaping from the abuse. It’s much more about victim-hood, about abuse in which the abused subtly, though almost always unconsciously, cooperates in the abuse. It’s an attitude of immaturity in which the victim is old enough and with sufficient resources to stand up to the abuser but fails to do so.
I know it well. Look at Me Now is about a Jewish women in New York. But her victim-hood is similar to the Catholic version, and the many varieties with which I am well acquainted. I suspect it has a great deal in common with all the other versions around the world as well. Victim-hood occurs more often among women, while the counterpart – bullying – occurs more often among males. I think this is because, as research shows, young girls read social signals faster than young boys. We learn more quickly what pleases and what displeases adults around us, so we are more successful at gaining praise and affection for responding to others’ wishes.
That’s fine in children. It’s as it should be, and can develop into a valuable gift if the child is in a loving family where she can learn to use this sensitivity not only for her own ends but for understanding and supporting others. But if we become adults and still feel guilty when someone we love is suffering through no fault of ours, something has gone wrong. This makes it impossible to support the other person as he or she struggles to deal with something that is his or her challenge because the impetus is to take the problem away from him altogether and make it ones own instead.
The relationship really goes wrong if we are unfortunate enough to enter into a close relationship with a man who himself blames us for everything that happens to him that he doesn’t like. If we cooperate, if, in order to avoid further assault, we silently ascent to his accusations that we are responsible for his temper tantrums, for his infidelities, for whatever has gone wrong, it becomes a terrible partnership.
Because each partner has found a way to avoid responsibility for his or her own choices. The man blames the woman, and the woman feels responsible and guilty – not for her own choices, but for her partner’s unhappiness.
Look At Me Now is great story. But don’t look for any right answers. Which, come to think of it, is one of the reasons why it’s a great story.