Before you read this any further, go read Scott Hanselman’s excellent blog post I’m A Phony. Are You?. It also might help if you’ve watched either of AMC’s first-rate television series Mad Men or Breaking Bad. If you haven’t watched them, I recommend you do so, but in order from the beginning. Context is the key to these shows, and it is equally important to this little blog post.
The protagonists of these two dramas are related only by the duality of their characters (really, though, on the surface they couldn’t be more different from each other), but that relationship is so strong and so central to who they are that it comes to define them.
And I mention Hanselman’s blog post up front because it puts the best possible spin on an otherwise dark topic; Hanselman is an optimist; I am not. He is a more successful and probably a better man than I am as well, but – as you no doubt well know – correlation doesn’t imply causation.
What is it about me that feels such a strong connection to these two liars, these frauds? Eight years ago, I was hospitalized for five days for a “severe depressive episode,” which – for those of you not up-to-date with the medical jargon – is currentspeak for “nervous breakdown.” In therapy, which began before the hospitalization and lasted for several years afterward, I got down to the core of my depression: My deeply held conviction that I was a fraud, a scared little boy playing at being a man.
I am reminded of something Chuck Palahniuk wrote (mouthed by his own alter-ago Tyler Durden):
“We’re the middle children of history, man. No purpose or place. We have no Great War. No Great Depression. Our Great War’s a spiritual war… our Great Depression is our lives.”
(It’s probably worth mentioning that the narrator of Fight Club has no name, only his imaginary friend.). Like Durden, Donald Draper, the dashing and arrogant Creative Director at Sterlng Cooper Draper Price (Matthew Weiner’s imagined Madison Avenue 60’s advertising agency) is an invention, the result of a very intelligent but cowardly mind, the “whoreson” Dick Wittman, who – wounded by shrapnel in the Korean War – exchanges dog tags with a dead solder named Don Draper, and thus escapes not only the war but his entire life up to that point.
In the case of Walter White, we have a brilliant chemist and genuine nice guy, working as a highly overqualified high school Chemistry teacher and car wash cashier to make ends meet for his shrewish wife and judgmental son. A cancer diagnosis leads Walt to transform into a methamphetamine “cook” (and multiple murderer) and to develop his “Heisenberg” persona, a ruthless sociopath who manipulates others and lies expertly, both to himself and those he loves.
(James Dickey once said to me with a conspiratorial wink, “We’re all amateurs at this, Mr. McConnell. None of us live long enough to become professionals.”)
So it comes to this:
- I’m not what others see me as; never have been.
- I know less than I think I know.
- I’m terrified of making mistakes.
- I’ve never been heroic, or done anything worth remembrance.
- I’ve failed much more than I’ve succeeded.
So like Draper and White, I’ve created a persona, a shell to wear each day, one that portrays confidence and power. Since Mad Men and Breaking Bad are still running, we don’t know where their arcs will end, but I’d venture a guess that they won’t end particularly well. My own shell is cracked and flaking after 30 odd years.
I wasn’t born fraudulent; I came to it (and not gradually) in the boy’s room at North Middle School in the sixth grade. Some kid – I don’t even remember his name – decided I was easy meat and began the taunting and pushing that most boys master and most men never move past. Something clicked in my head: This kid didn’t know I was a pussy, or that I was scared. I just had to hide how I felt and outlast him, stare him down, fists clenched. And it worked. (Of course, a year later, I tried the same strategy and got the snot knocked out of me.)
And that’s how small and simply it begins, and the next thing you know you’re in your forties with a wife and kids and a mortgage, kowtowing to the corporate rhythm, wondering what would happen if you just kept heading west on the interstate instead of taking the exit to the office (yes, yes, I know….you’d end up in Lake Champlain…it’s a metaphor, people), and you realize that somewhere along the line, at some point you cannot recall, the pretending became who you were, and the boy died.
“I touched the knife hilt at my side, and remembered that all men were once boys, and that boys are always looking for ways to become men. Some are easy, too; all you have to do is be satisfied that it has happened.”
– James Dickey, Deliverance