Performances of Denial

Nothing’s wrong. There’s nothing for us to talk about. I don’t have to have this conversation. I can’t do this right now. I don’t want to do this right now. Why are you pushing this? It won’t get you anywhere.



Why do you keep insisting there is a problem, when it’s much easier and more pleasant for me if we don’t talk about it, and if you just act like everything is fine? Why does it matter what happened last month? Last year? Over the past few years? Why must we talk about it? Can’t we just move on? Can’t we just pretend you’re happy? Can’t you get out of my face?

I do not acknowledge that there have been conflicts in our relationship. I do not acknowledge and will not discuss any matters in which you might think you are right and I am wrong, or in which you might characterize me as having done something that was in my own best interest but which tanked our relationship. I will not  talk about our relationship.

I will remain silent, or walk out of the room, or cry if you try to force a conversation on me. I am the one controlling how the relationship goes, not you.  What? You say that your experience is tied to mine because I’m your mother? I’m your boss? I’m your colleague? You need me to talk about ways that our relationship has been unequal? That I’ve hidden behind silence, departures, and tears? You think you need to talk about how I’ve used you when it suited me– to project an image, or to protect me from criticism, or to make a case for me? Is that what you’re whining about? Well. I’m not having this conversation. There’s nothing for us to talk about. Nothing’s wrong.

The Lord’s Prayer (a translation)

“Our Father, who art in Heaven, hallowed be Thy name- ”

Male parent, up in the sky, Your name is something special-

“Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven-”

You’re the Boss of us, so we have to do whatever You want. Here… and up in the sky.

“Give us this day our daily bread, and forgive us our trespasses-”

Give us food and ignore when we don’t do what You want us to do-

“-as we forgive those who trespass against us-”

-just like we ignore when other people don’t do what we want them to do-

“-and lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil-”

-and don’t make us want to do what You tell us not to do, but keep us out of trouble-

“-for Thine is the kingdom, the power and the glory-”

-because You’re the Boss of us, and Scary, and Important-

“-forever and ever, Amen.”

-even when we’re dead and skeletons and dust and the earth is gone and the universe is gone and time is gone and whatever. Ok, that’s all. Please, do not send me to Hell to be tortured. Thank You.

Dear Q of D:

“I am so sad. I’ve been sad for months, maybe years. I cannot seem to get engagement from the world. I cannot seem to effectively engage. I thought I was one thing, but it turns out, I am not a very good one of that thing, mainly because I never learned to quite sell it or to make it pay off. I am capable of pouring all my time and efforts into compelling work that never goes anywhere and is only seen by 3 people. Anyway, I believed that I was headed for greatness. I didn’t want to be great for it’s own sake, but I did long to feel the joy of being a valued, contributing member of society and, I admit, I wanted to be seen as more than competent; I wanted to be seen as talentedextraordinarysomething special. I hoped for a place in the world. I wanted to be met with the same enthusiasm I’ve always felt for doing cool stuff with other interesting people. Yes, I’m interesting. Except, I’ve lost my interest in myself. Oh, Q of D! I have always been on fire with ideas and hopes and love, and I’ve never been a slacker (well, not since my teens). I’ve made all kinds of difficult and worthwhile things happen. But, not really all that much lately. I’ve mostly been told by the indifferent universe, “Ok, that’s enough; what you’re doing is of no consequence.” It’s true, art is not of any consequence. But, neither is anything else. And, oh, and I work with a completely dysfunctional group of people who can’t seem to effect any kind of productive or positive changes, much less have an authentic conversation about anything important or meaningful. They are super-committed to avoiding any form of conflict. But, that is not particularly relevant to my story, except what the hell? I’m losing my sense of invulnerability. Help. Signed, Listless.”

Dear Listless: Oh, come on. You’re alive, have lots of friends and family you care about, are needed by many, appreciated by the ones who count, and you’re well-fed and healthy, right? And now you’re just whining.

First of all (on point) about people recognizing you, seeing you or even noticing your existence in passing: who needs some narcissistic prince-ass, the company President or some pathetic, terrified little manager to bolster your freaking self-confidence? Ok, that’s not what you are asking, and the fact is, you don’t want them to bolster your self-confidence; you just want someone to actually play with, but with intellectual vigor, genuine humor, and commitment to quality. So, I get it.

But I’m just saying, a cheerful, relaxed attitude and good bourbon goes a long way. You sound smart, creative, lively, funny and good-looking. Take a break from trying to change things; take a clue from John Lennon and let it be.

Oh, and the performance aspect of this? Which, I presume, is why you wrote to me? You wanted to be seen as this, or that, or the bees knees. Even by yourself, you wanted to be “seen as.” You have been your own audience, but you know what? You suck as an audience. You’ve forgotten all the courageous, creative, successful, even thrilling– and talented, extraordinary, something-special parts and all you remember is the moment where the set fell over. Well, who are you to criticize? YOU get up there and do it.

Love, Q of D.

Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain.

We also have a backstage—the part of our experience that is not on public display and which we seek to keep private. The process of hiding our backstage processes and only showing our front stage is what Goffman calls “mystification,” meaning, let’s say, that the host likes to clean the sink, vacuum the stairs and wipe the finger prints off the doorjamb before the guest arrives. Arriving, we say, “Wow, your house is beautiful! I wish mine was this clean,” as if we believe that their home always looks spotless. As if we do not also clean our homes when we have company. We seek to mystify, and we allow ourselves to be mystified by others.

Our backstage is like a wait station at a fancy restaurant. It is like the slaughterhouse from which neatly wrapped steaks emerge for the grocery shelves. It is like the dressing room where the athletes are naked and vulnerable; it is like the teacher’s lounge at the middle school. Our backstage is our bathroom. We have many physical backstages in life, which suggests that for every backstage there is a potential front stage where we present what is presentable. The delicious plate of food, delivered by a clean, happy waitperson, turns the diner into an audience. The would-be backyard barbecuer, looking for the right cut of meat on display at Safeway, is the audience for that performance of “Bloody butchery? What bloody butchery?” The well-lit stadium, filled with fans and magnified by the media, makes an audience out of millions of people both local and remote. The classroom turns students into an audience for the school’s performance of “We Will Tell You What to Think About and How to Think About It.” The living room, where we open the front door dressed and made-up to greet our dinner guests, is the setting for our performance of “Aren’t You Impressed?” or at least “Please, Like Me and my House.”

Another kind of backstage is what we’re thinking and feeling behind the expression that we’re wearing on our faces. Front stage, we look like we’re paying attention; we’re taking good notes on the guest lecture; we’re sitting up straight. Or, we’re performing something else, the rebel version: “I don’t care. You don’t scare me and you don’t interest me, so I’m going to read the newspaper AND listen to my i-pod while you talk. I’m going to text my friends, or tap on my laptop keys, because I don’t care.” That’s a front-stage performance of high status, a performance titled, “I’m too important to be bothered with you.” (What we don’t think that we’re performing is, “I’m too stupid to be able to follow what you’re saying,” Or, “I’m a narcissistic pain in the arse.” ) But, we’re not always in control of how our performances are perceived. And, backstage, we might be having an experience that we desperately seek to hide in our outer expression. If I have a migraine at an important job interview, I must not crease my brow or appear uninterested. If I feel incompetent or vulnerable or needy at a job interview, I must not appear so; I will smile and nod and perform what I do not feel in order to mystify my audience, my interviewer.

Whenver we are in the presence of others, we have a backstage and a front stage operating. When we are intimate with others- our best friend, our twin sister, our lover- the backstage may be far less monitored: we pick our toenails as we watch The Daily Show, or burp, or fart; we leave the bathroom door open when we use the toilet. Managing the impression that we make on others is exhausting, and we are relieved when the burden is significantly lessened by familiarity, love, affection and trust. But even with our closest mates, we do not reveal everything. There is always, always something held back, if not consciously then in spite of ourselves. We have schemes, fantasies, desires that we have never shared and never will. Joseph Campbell called it the Shadow or the Shadow Self; Billy Joel called it “the Stranger.” Erving Goffman would not say there is one essential self, but rather many potential selves, and points out that the first meaning of the word person is mask, which implies that there is something behind the mask. He would say it’s another mask.

I am not saying that everything we do is a performance. If I sneeze because sneezing accomplishes a social goal for myself, such as allowing me to leave the room momentarily to collect myself, that is a performance. If I sneeze to demonstrate to someone in the elevator that her perfume really, truly is taking up too much space, that sneeze is my performance of victimhood, meant not as a low-status move but as a way to demonstrate to the perfume-wearer that I have been mightily offended by her scent overtaking my personal boundaries—my performance of “Victimhood-as-Power.” I am better than she, because she has made me suffer. If I sneeze because I have  a tickle and can’t stop the sneeze, the sneeze isn’t a performance, but everything I do afterwards is a performance: I will try to save face. Check to make sure there’s nothing embarrassing clinging to my skin. Wipe my nose with a Kleenex, perhaps trying to hide the nose-wiping, which is a sort of performance of modesty, a performance of “I don’t really have a body or bodily fluids.” I will save face by apologizing, “Excuse me!” or making a joke: “Kablooey!” or by blaming something outside of my control: “Damn pollen!” I will try to create affiliation: “Anybody else have allergies? Then you know how bad it is!” Or, I will pretend nothing happened. A performance of “Sneeze? What sneeze?” or “I’m too  important or secure to be bothered or stopped by a reflex.”

Actors have to understand all this, or they suck. Bad actors look like they’re faking it; we don’t buy their performances. Bad actors don’t get that their characters are made up of little performances; that their characters have backstages from which front-stage actions are set in motion. Characters in a play come to life when the actor does what characters in real life do: negotiate status. Occupy multiple roles before multiple audiences. Maintain and protect a backstage while creating and sustaining a front stage. Seek to mystify. Preserve face. Make, use and misuse symbols. Perform rites and rituals. Perform roles. An actor whose character fails to do these things is a bad actor. A one-dimensional actor. An actor who does not understand human behavior. In other words, the actor must, within the context of the play, perform a character who is, himself, performing for the other characters. An actor’s performance of a role is a performance of a person who is performing something. It is said of Shakespeare that his characters’ backstages are transparent to the audience. When Hamlet turns to the audience and wrestles with “To be or not to be,” we see his backstage. But, behind that backstage is perhaps another backstage- that of a man who is performing a feat of logic—“To die, to sleep—to sleep, perchance to dream…” in the face of the illogical. At the very least, behind Hamlet’s visible backstage, there is an actor portraying Hamlet, and that actor’s own backstage: he has a cold. His marriage is falling apart. He has a hangover. He is terribly insecure and fears the critic from the Denver Post who he knows is in the front row tonight.

The Academy may not recognize your amazing gifts, but…

… most people are natural actors. It’s how we develop a sense of self, and how we maintain our roles in families and social and professional circles. Even the word “role” points to performance. I suppose you can imagine a person raised by wolves who, you argue, is NOT an actor, but I’d argue back that wolves live in social hierarchies and have rules, and whoever lives among wolves as a wolf will still have to perform status, if nothing else.

Acting is something you already do, whether you’re aware of it or not. Let me explain what I mean. Humans are social creatures. Human society is structured through rituals and symbols. We are, as Kenneth Burke once said, the symbol-making, symbol-using, symbol-misusing animal. We use symbolic interaction to communicate meaning. Symbols (language, gestures and ways of moving, facial expressions, objects and images, structures, sounds and combinations of sounds)—the meanings of these are linked to their symbolic power: our experiences of human social reality and our place in it are mediated by symbols. People make, use and misuse symbols to survive in a social environment, to create families, groups, teams, cultures and subcultures, to create or acquire and maintain power.

In a human hierarchy created and sustained through symbolic interaction, we are hyper-alert to the minutest of signs given off by others, particularly those whose survival depends upon us and whose survival reflects back upon our own competence, our own roles and our ability to fulfill them (I am a good mother whose child is healthy and cared for; I am a good father who provides for my family; I am a good babysitter who can be trusted).

We are hyper-alert to the signs given off, in our presence, by those upon whose favor our own survival and success may rest. I pay particular attention to the nuances of my boss’s communication when I am in her presence—does she avoid conversation? Laugh at my jokes? Appear to like me? Appear indifferent?

We may be hyper-alert to someone who might give or withhold affection, since affection is a strong motivator: was Mom a little reserved on the phone? Does she still love me?

We may be hyper-alert to someone other than a parent with whom we share a blood bond reinforced by affection and by traditional role expectations, such as a younger sibling.

We are less hyper-alert to to the signs given off by those, such as grandparents, who hold no power over us and whose affection for us does not determine our sense of self-worth, although if the grandparent  is very wealthy and we stand to inherit a significant sum when they die, we may be more hyper-alert to the signs of affection or disapproval that the grandparent gives off, and act differently in response.

We are less alert with those with whom we share the same amount of power, and for whom we hold little or no responsibility.

We are not alert at all to those with less power or status than we hold ourselves and for whom we are not responsible, since it does not matter to us whether they like us or not, or whether they are happy, unhappy, alive or dead. (This is one reason that those who occupy a low status might be compelled to force themselves into view, to make others take notice—because others have communicated that they, the low-status persons, are not worth bothering about. That can be enraging in some circumstances, such as when power, possession of resources and health are flaunted in the face of lack and suffering). Sometimes, it’s true, self-interest (that is, for example, the alleviation of guilt, the promise of heaven or the pleasant sense of purpose and worth that altruism feeds) overcomes self-absorption and makes us care about the weaker, poorer, sicker and less fortunate.

Being alert to the signs given off by others, we respond to those signs accordingly. We “act” a certain way in order to elicit approval, to threaten, to communicate deference, to demonstrate affiliation or superiority. We act dismissively, we act friendly, we act huffy or aloof, we act like we are enjoying ourselves. We act. What we “act like” is our performance for others.

Dressed up as a fab girly teen

Dressed up as a girl

That’s me and my father, Gary. Looks like Christmas, circa 1969. Dad, Mom, my little brothers and I lived in a slate-gray, mid-century modern, 3-bedroom house in Casper, Wyoming. In this photo, I am wearing two of my presents… a super-cool, mod robe, and a fall (that is, a shiny, blonde half-wig).

Without all the frou-frou, I more commonly appeared as I do in the blog’s main photo. In it (taken the summer of the same year) I am a tousled, towheaded daydreamer in a grubby t-shirt, dreaming that she’s a boy.