I was having a panic attack while I walked the dog after dinner. Children rode skateboards and scooters in that last yellowed hour before bedtime. I felt unreal to myself, and the Denver streets I’d known my whole adult life seemed false and imitative. What I felt was a numbing and a derealization that left me somewhat incapable of speaking to other people, as if I were vocally paralyzed, as if some essential fluid in my body had evaporated. It was hard to believe that people lived in the houses we passed; instead, the houses seemed part of an elaborate ruse of which I had not been informed. When we encountered other dogs, my dog, who was eight pounds, and at ten years old somewhat arthritic and embittered, lunged and snarled at them, then attempted to bite their chins.
A mother and two small children riding scooters stopped. The mother said, “That’s a terrier,” and her voice was firm, but her smile betrayed an uncertainty. So I said, “Yes.” Her son, who wore a helmet that made his head approximately as wide as he was tall, said, “A Western terrier.”
A Western terrier. I liked that. Like a Plains Indian. As if, in frontier days, the hills of Colorado were populated with wild terriers. And I, her owner, was by proxy Western. Here we were, the dog and I, Western, like cactus or paint horses or coyotes. I smiled broadly at her, and then, located, I whispered the word to myself as we turned north toward the park and then home. Western. We are Western.
This was the shape of my panic: I looked fine on the outside. I did not experience heart palpitations, shortness of breath, chest pain, sweating, or nausea. It was less an attack than a physics problem; the world had become suspect and false, a stage set meant to look like a neighborhood, even as I recognized the irrationality of that thought.
After the dog and I got home, I got on the Internet and clicked around aimlessly. Hillary, Bernie, Trump. Gun control, politics, filibustering. A new word specifically for Latino/a queers. Images of women being burned in cages. The Orlando night club shooting was the largest massacre in American history, if you don’t count what happened to the Native Americans at Sand Creek. The problem did not seem to be with me; there seemed to be a problem with the world. Or perhaps the problem is that we do not agree on what counts and what does not.
As the summer and fall of 2016 wore on, the panic attacks continued. I began to wonder if they were medical and psychological, as I had always understood the causes of panic, or if they were a rational response to the radically altered world in which I found myself.
Often when I travel outside the United States, people don’t think I’m American, even though this is the only country in which I’ve ever lived. Most of the time, I’m mistaken for being English, Dutch, or German, most likely because my hair and skin are light and my eyes blue. I sometimes find it embarrassing to be an American, like when I’ve sat in Mexico, watching my fellow countrymen and women treat Mexico and its citizens like nothing more than a playground for a cheap drunk and a source of racist jokes. Other times—for example, when I see French tourists, who seem to have a deep love affair with Western cowboy and girl mythology, driving huge RVs through my state, gawking at our natural beauty–I’m proud to bursting. This is my country, I think, this raw and difficult terrain and the people who have made lives here.
When I come home from traveling, I am grateful for an odd assortment of things that I usually take for granted: clean streets; the extraordinary free services of my local library; the safety of my food, working stoplights; the presumption of innocence, a free press. These things serve for me as evidence of American ideals, even though in practice, our ideals are imperfectly realized, which is unsurprising given our history. I mean: Thomas Jefferson, while publicly opposed to slavery, enslaved more than one hundred people, including Sally Hemmings, with whom he would have unacknowledged children, from her early adolescence onward. Jefferson, for me, stands as the perfect metaphor for this country’s beliefs: while his beliefs sound ethical and just, his practice was not. I have always felt that our job, as citizens, was to move our laws and practices closer to our beliefs. Despite inevitable policy disagreements with my fellow citizens, I thought we shared an understanding of the beliefs on which this country was founded—in particular, the Jeffersonian notions that democracy is made of common folk, not aristocrats, that the Bill of Rights is sacrosanct, and that the rule of law, freedom of speech and press mattered. To be an American meant we mostly agreed on the what, but perhaps not on the how. That was okay: our national conversation would be ongoing, I thought. And while I know the devil was in the details, I believed in the long arc towards justice. I have always held some cloudy belief that we as a country would move closer and closer to what our historic documents said we aspired to be.
Hold my beer, said 2016.
The African-American writer Richard Wright’s final novel, The Outsider, was published in 1953. Wright, born in 1908, near Natchez, Mississippi, had written The Outsider in Paris, where he’d moved in 1946, and became a French citizen, after a lifetime of disillusionment and rejection in the United States. A gifted student, Wright had had to leave school and move to Memphis to earn a living for his family. After Memphis, Wright left the South for New York, then Chicago. He sought not only escape from the racism of the South, but to be among like-minded thinkers and activists, which he’d hoped to find within the Communist Party. Yet even those cities, and his involvement in the Communist Party, left him with a profound sense of rejection when their ideals clashed. In his autobiography of his childhood, Black Boy, he wrote, “I had fled men who did not like the color of my skin, and now I was among men who did not like the tone of my thoughts.”
The Outsider is the story of Cross Damon, a man living out the problem of free will—at its simplest, that individuals make choices–while living within oppressive systems that appear to arbitrarily grant and deny that same freedom. It’s a long, difficult book—difficult because of its bleakness and its occasionally turgid sentences—but it is also a book remarkable in its descriptions of internal, physical experiences of external circumstances. What results is a perspective of a man who cannot trust what he knows to be true or believe what he sees:
One walks along a street and strays unknowingly from one’s path; one then looks up suddenly for those familiar landmarks of orientation, and, seeing none, feels list. Panic drapes the look of the world in strangeness, and the more one stares blankly at that world, the stranger it looks, the more hideously frightening it seems. There is then born in one a wild, hot wish to project out upon that alien world the world that one is seeking. This wish is a hunger for power, to be in command of one’s self.
Damon is African-American (Wright uses the term Negro). Cross is married, but estranged from his wife who refuses to give him a divorce; he is seduced by a young woman, and although he tried to confirm that she is of age, when she becomes pregnant, he learns that she is fifteen years old. In despair because his attempt to do right has failed, Cross starts a new life under an assumed name after a train wreck in which he is presumed to have been killed. Yet even in his new life, he faces again the same problems: women, ‘crooks’, and his own violent responses. These problems, Damon begins to understand, are internal, not external.
Raised by a deeply religious mother who issued relentless prohibitions against sexual pleasure, Cross feels overwhelmed and helpless in the presence of women’s bodies. For Cross, women are objects in an internal struggle (“Deepening need of desire for the desirable: woman as a body of a woman”) but his insight doesn’t leave him any more capable of resisting or managing those desires. Desire is the root of Damon’s frailty.
His adolescent fantasies had symbolically telescoped this God into an awful face shaped in the form of a huge and crushing NO, a terrifying face which had, for a reason he could never learn, created him, had given him a part of Himself, and yet had threateningly demanded that he vigilantly deny another part of himself which He too had paradoxically given him.
Damon’s existential crisis of free will is this: how do we live in a world in which God has given us desire and yet sees us as sinners for acting on it? Put another way, Wright’s subject is, What happens when what we see in front of us and know to be true is denied?
In this way, Wright’s work became something of a north star for me in this time of existential panic.
From “Here are the images that show Obama’s inauguration crowd was bigger than Trump’s,” in The Washington Post, March 7, 2017, by Lisa Rein:
The [Park Service] images are the official record of the federal government — and they contradict Trump’s claim that more than 1.5 million supporters crowded onto the Mall to watch him take the oath of office. Photos taken by news outlets during the inauguration also showed a crowd size smaller than Obama’s during his first inauguration in 2009 — about two-thirds smaller, according to several estimates by experts.
The Washington Post and other news outlets sought the official images after Trump boasted of his inauguration crowd size and his press secretary, Sean Spicer, accused the media of doctoring photographs to show angles with small numbers of attendees. Spicer also called Trump’s inauguration “the most viewed in history.”
The specific name for the kind of anxiety I experienced in 2016 is called derealization, often described as a sense that a person sees the world as being false, or as if through a window. Generally speaking, derealization is fairly common and not of great concern unless it begins interfering with one’s life, e.g. unless I begin to act as if the world is not real. Derealization is distinct from depersonalization, in which a person feels that she herself is not real, a more concerning feeling, often associated with more serious psychiatric conditions, like schizophrenia. In my case, when I am in the middle of an episode, I know that the apparent fakeness of the houses on my street is in itself fake. And so I carry on, outwardly normal, but inwardly suspicious that the world I believe is real is not.
Wright’s friend and contemporary was the French writer and philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre. In those post-war years, Sartre, Wright, and Simone de Beauvoir spent time together in Paris, talking about the state of the world, existentialism, and literature. For Sartre, the story from which we cannot escape is encapsulated in his ideas of bad faith, or mauvaise foi, a phrase which means one is acting in according with a predetermined role. That is to say, one inhabits the attitudes and expectations of one’s role—a waiter, a housekeeper, and so on—so that one’s choices are erased because, to put it in English-teacher-speak, the form has determined the content. If one is a waiter, one must feel and choose in the predictable ways of a waiter. There are no real choices, and our lives, which are meaningless, are based on our living out bad faith, on our acquiescing to expectations outside us, rather than the desires inside us. We do not become because we have been made, and we are complicit.
The year after Sartre’s first novel Nausea was published (1938), Sartre was drafted into the French army as a meteorologist, and one year after that, in 1940, the Germans marched into Paris. He was later imprisoned by the Germans and then release, owing to his health issues. In 1944, a translation of his short essay called “Paris Alive: The Republic of Silence” appeared in the Atlantic Monthly, with this paradoxical view of freedom:
Never were we freer than under the German occupation. We had lost all our rights, and first of all our right to speak. They insulted us to our faces every day—and we had to hold our tongues. They deported us en masse—as workers, as Jews, as political prisoners. Everywhere, –upon the walls, in the press, on the screen,–we found that filthy and insipid image of ourselves which the oppressor wished to present to us. And because of all this, we were free.
The more Nazi venom crept into our thoughts the more each precise thought became a conquest.
In early 2017, I repeated these lines to myself again and again—“Never were we freer than under the German occupation”—in hopes of feeling this freedom, but it did not work, and the days of late winter and early spring were characterized by dread.
I first encountered Richard Wright my sophomore year in high school when our assigned reading of his autobiography, Black Boy, coincided with Parent Visiting Day. During class, we read sections aloud, and beside me, I felt my mother tense like a leopard.
“Of what lit-er-ary value is this book to these girls?” she said to the teacher while my gut roiled and I whispered shut up to her.
I was not surprised by her reaction. I had listened to her tell the women of color who worked in our home how stupid and lazy they were, and as I hid on the stairs, listening, I was frightened and sick. She’d snap off the TV when I watched Laverne & Shirley, saying, “That show just glorifies the working class.” She felt the same way about Happy Days, so I didn’t watch Fonzie either. From her, I learned that racism isn’t only about race; that the person who espouses it is also broadly unjust. However small a thing, I felt the injustice of not being able to watch shows like all the other kids, as well as the sting of her temper and rages, and I felt myself on the side of everyone she belittled. The result of her criticism of Black Boy was that I understood it to be true.
All these years later, what my mother feared has come to pass: that I would take the words of an African-American man over hers in constructing my worldview, that I would turn to his work to find language for how I feel now.
A few years ago, I was diagnosed with celiac sprue, an auto-immune disease. About six weeks after the diagnosis, when the intestinal villi (described in medical literature as small finger-like projections) ought to have begun healing, I stopped sleeping. I began to worry about the upcoming Christmas holiday, about whether I had enough presents for my children and step-children. Then I worried about whether we had enough towels for our house guests and I bought more towels, for which we did not have room. Then, I fretted about how overstuffed the closet was. The whole thing came to a head with the dog groomer, who asked, Do you want the dog groomed on Wednesday afternoon or Thursday morning? I felt that there were permutations and problems with any choice I made: I felt the inescapability of all my choices.
I went to a therapist and asked him for medication. I had taken one of my brother-in-law’s tranquilizers which left me tired but still aware of the false nature of the world I lived in. The therapist sat in a chair that looked to me to be excessively ergonomic. It appeared to have adjustments at the low and mid-back as well as the tilt of the seat, as well as a footrest. He began to talk about what he called a major task of mid-life: the acceptance of my eventual death. I wondered if the tilt of his pelvis indicated back pain, and if so, if he’d had surgery or if he was the sort of person to do yoga. He had watercolors of birds on the wall and books of poetry on his bookshelves. Once, I asked him if he was a birder. No, he said, it’s just that they’re professionally dull with a low associational quotient. I did not ask about the poetry.
He said, “Your problem is not in your biochemistry. It’s in your thinking. It’s about the meaning of life and death. You have come to the land of never. You will never eat another baguette. You will also not have more children. You will never be twenty-five again, trying to live as an artist in New York. You have made choices that you cannot undo.”
I stared at the therapist, who had a habit of laying one index finger across his top lip. The facts of my life were in conflict with the way I imagined how life is. Who cannot eat bread? What sort of a person cannot have shredded wheat for breakfast or pizza for dinner? But this panic was personal, not political.
Sometimes I still, all these years later, stand in the grocery store among the loaves and rolls, shocked. Bread? Really?
Wright’s work explores the point of origin for Damon’s sense of dislocation: is it simply a matter of circumstance? Can you change your life by changing where you live it? Wright seems to think not. When Damon escapes after the train wreck, he remains powerless.
He had reckoned that his getting rid of the claims of others would have automatically opened up to him what he wanted, but it had merely launched him to live in the empty possibility of action who spell, by purging reality of its aliveness, had bound him more securely in foolish drifting than he had experienced in the past. The world became distant, opaque: he was not related to it and could find no way of becoming so. It was this static dreamworld that had elicited from him those acts of compulsion, those futile attempts to coerce reality to his emotional demands.
Freedom is not, Wright suggests, simply a matter of escaping the expectations of others. Existential crisis is precipitated by the self when that self merely perpetuates ‘empty possibilities’ in the form of actions that don’t matter. The result? The false dreamworld in which we try, again and again, to make reality what we want it to be. This strikes me as a particularly American, even Jeffersonian, problem to have.
In an unpublished journal, on September 8, 1947, Wright wrote:
[Jean-Paul] Sartre is quite of my opinion regarding the possibility of human action today, that it is up to the individual to do what he can do to uphold the concept of what it means to be human. The great danger, I told him, in the world today is the very feeling and conception of what is a human might well be lost. He agreed. I feel very close to Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir.
It seems impossible to lose the feeling of what is a human. Except–
In May 2017, TIME magazine reported that the Twitter-bots of 2016—fake accounts designed to re-tweet fake news, spread disinformation, and to respond algorithmically to real people, all in an attempt to influence the presidential election—had become more sophisticated. This new high-tech system, TIME reported, used malware to infiltrate US Defense Department Twitter users and link them to Russian-run servers that could send information from the hacked user’s account, thereby potentially giving the Russians the ability to send messages from seemingly legitimate Pentagon accounts.
Half the Twitter followers of the President of the United States are reportedly bots. Our national conversation is driven by machines which (who?) are programmed to track certain words and phrases and respond in a quasi-syntactic way that mimics conversation.
The writer Sarah Nyberg created a Twitter account called @Arguetron that released four or five tweets an hour. The Tweets were programmed to respond to the alt-right, Infowars crowd, and were assertions of typical left-wing beliefs, although not insulting or sarcastic. “More than two genders exist,” read one. In one case, a Twitter user argued with the bot for ten hours, seemingly unaware of what was or was not human.
The therapist said, Here is the best definition of anxiety and depression I ever heard: Depression is the feeling you have lost something and anxiety is the feeling you are about to lose something.
So, anxiety is a good thing, I asked. It meant that everything is going well?
Not exactly, he said.
In an interview, given seven years after The Outsider’s publication, and just a few years before his death, at fifty-two, Wright said,
I didn’t want to write an existentialist novel (The Outsider). I believe in the beauty of life, in its infinite richness. One can experience dread and anguish and the idea of being nothing, but then one finds again the multiple potentialities offered by life.
Let’s say, for the purposes of argument, that in 2017, anxiety is a mostly a political, not psychological disorder: an inability to find the multiple potentialities offered by life, an experience of depersonalization, or dysregulation, in the face of falsehood, in the face of threat to one’s self via circumstance.
I’m not alone in making this argument: Psychology Today has run numerous articles about “Trump Anxiety.” Some urge us to acknowledge our feelings, rather than repress them. Others suggest self-care to prevent stress overdrive. Even the political news site The Hill covered the phenomenon with The Science of Stress in the Era of Trump (7/21/17). It notes that ‘we are wired for greater affinity with similar ideologies and opposition to those different from our own” and suggests everything from self-care to connecting and listening to others over a cup of coffee to performing random good deeds. These remedies are not suggested for policy disagreements among political divides. They suggest that something like what I have been feeling has swept the country: a profound anxiety caused by dissonance between self and world.
Perhaps this is because an entire alternate world has been created by disinformation, the intentional spreading of falsehood to achieve an aim.
Some disinformation comes from without: one town in Macedonia hosts at least 100 pro-Trump websites, filled with stories made up by entrepreneurial teenagers, designed to whip people into a frenzy. Samanth Subramanian, in WIRED magazine (2/15/17) reports: “These Macedonians on Facebook didn’t care if Trump won or lost the White House. The only wanted pocket money to pay for things—a car, watches, better cell phones, more drinks at the bar. This is the arrhythmic, disturbing heart of the affair: that the internet made it so simple for these young men to finance their material whims and that their actions helped deliver such momentous consequences.”
And some disinformation comes from within. In Los Angeles, Justin Coler is a 40-year-old husband and father who grosses somewhere between $10,000 and $30,000 a month as a publisher of multiple disinformation sites. A registered Democrat, Coler tells NPR that he started his websites in late 2012 to “infiltrate the echo chambers of the alt-right” in order to “denounce” them. His made-up stories go viral: one published in “The Denver Guardian” about an FBI agent who was killed under suspicious circumstances after leaking Clinton emails got more than 1.6 million page views in ten days.
The simplicity of their motivation stuns me: in helping to elect a con man to the Presidency, they have changed the world for “pocket money” for a new car.
What I am seeking is truth in an era of falsehood as a matter of life and death. Draw a line from the clamor and clap for the lies of the pussy-grabber former tie and steak salesman to the death of a young woman at the hands of a white nationalist as she counter-protested a white nationalist rally, steps away from the university founded by Thomas Jefferson.
I know what we are, but I do not know where to go from here.
Thirty-five years after my first reading of Black Boy, the ending stands as a personal manifesto for the present time:
Yes, the whites were as miserable as their black victims, I thought. If this country can’t find its way to a human path, if it can’t inform conduct with a deep sense of life, then all of us, black as well as white, are going down the same drain…
I picked up a pencil and held it over a sheet of white paper, but my feelings stood in the way of my words. Well, I would wait, day and night, until I knew what to say. Humbly now, with vaulting dream of achieving a vast unity, I wanted to try to build a bridge of words between me and that world outside, that world which was so distant and elusive that it seemed unreal.
I would hurl words into this darkness and wait for an echo, and if an echo sounded, no matter how faintly, I would send other words to tell, to march, to fight, to create a sense of the hunger for life that gnaws in us all, to keep alive in our hearts a sense of the inexpressibly human.
Pause for a moment–even read those lines aloud. They were written by African American man who, as a child, had to borrow a white boy’s library card because he wasn’t permitted one, a man who has written again and again of the anxiety and despair caused by living in a country where what we say and how we live are wildly divergent.
I am trying to build a bridge between me and the outside world.
I am walking the dog in a new place because we sold the house downtown and moved west. The houses in the new neighborhood were built in the 1950s and early 60s, when Richard Wright was considering leaving Paris for England, because he believed that France had become inhospitable to expatriate black American writers. He was especially wounded by James Baldwin’s critique of protest novels, which Wright felt was directed at his own work when Baldwin wrote: “Literature and sociology are not the same.” In the end, Wright stayed in Paris.
While Wright was in the last years of his life, which ended with a heart attack, the tidy modern houses of my neighborhood sprung up. Nearby, newly widened interstates led residents to shopping malls, which are now empty, because we order online. This worshipful consumerism is part of how we got here—”here” meaning that I am a citizen of a country that has elected a failed business man and reality TV show star president. We believe in buying and selling; we do not care about the ultimate cost. Some days, my new neighborhood feels like a graveyard memorial to another time, which inspires oddly tender feelings in me. I thought it would be better, that we would be better.
The streets through which I now walk the dog are unfamiliar, but they do not seem unreal. In fact, it is the opposite: everything seems hyper-real. In the evenings, children clamor outside, dogs bark, chickens squawk, and men drag sprinklers and hoses into position on the lawns. I am trying to decode these streets and people. I am trying to look at my fellow citizens as they are. There are times I want to look away and retreat into the distant opaque world. How am I to understand a place where an elderly neighbor, upon hearing that our last names are different, brings over a Bible to re-direct us into being a proper, male-dominated family? And there are times when this neighborhood is what I would hope for: when others post on our community media page that they need Arabic lessons, or that the local addicts who beg for change are our addicts, in need of help. I am no longer panicking, for the most part, but I am no longer innocent and unquestioning, either, even as I try to hold onto Wright’s idea to keep alive the inexpressibly human. I cannot tell if these people, my new neighbors, are friend or foe, if they have a hand in building the world I know or destroying it. I am, as never before, observing for bridges, trying to ignore the walls, and considering what it means when what I believe and what I see seem irreconcilable. Perhaps this is what it means to be American, to live within the ideals and the contradictions of our history as we create the future.
Some days, only the outdoors make sense. Cold water runs through ditches, and the dog balances on the grassy bank to take a drink. Rabbits flatten themselves in the grass, leaving only their coal-colored eyes visible. These things are true; there is no disinformation.
West of the house, there is a path up one of the foothills and within half an hour, I can be on top of the mesa looking east and south toward Denver’s sprawl, then north toward Boulder, or west toward the mountains. Here, rattlesnakes and deer coexist, as do bikers and runners and horsewomen and men. This land is your land, this land is my land; it is irreducible, and this is where I begin. What I like best about being high up is that everything else gets very small and far away. Even the sun is the size of a nickel. In this way, I go on.