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Part 01, Chapters 21-27

Part 1, Chapter 21

“You needn’t be so scared. Love doesn’t end just because we don’t see each other.”
–Graham Greene
The End of the Affair

As time passed during that first year at Harvard, David thought — or was forced to think — more and more about his parents, especially about the poor woman who was his mother.

On the surface, she seemed to everyone else to be amiable enough, but to him she sometimes had a frightening number of baffling, at times even menacing qualities. During all those college years, he saw something terrifying in her, something destructive, at times even sinister. He associated her with the beginning of all his feelings of insecurity and inadequacy. He had the impression that the last thing she wanted was to have a son who would grow into a strong, self-reliant young man. If that were to happen, she would have to acknowledge that she could no longer have him as a child, and that she herself was growing old. The younger and more dependent he remained, the younger and stronger she would be.

Perhaps the oddest thing of all was that the bizarre competition she had appeared to enter into with him when he was still child now seemed to gain intensity. He could have sworn that she saw him as more of a competitor than ever before.

He could not understand how such a thing is possible, but he could account for her behavior in no other way. Any success on his part, any achievement of his, seemed somehow to threaten her and to make her feel she had to impress him with the fact that she was far stronger, richer, more powerful, more intelligent, and more successful than he was or could ever dream of being.

Her need to prevent him from growing up and her compulsive rivalry with him made her behave as if she had to take advantage of every opportunity to undermine his self-confidence and self-esteem. Nothing he ever did or ever was seemed to be good enough for her. She never missed a chance to criticize, and she never showed any admiration for, or took any pleasure in, anything he accomplished. If it ever happened that she couldn’t find something to criticize in one or another of his achievements, then she simply ignored it. She also ignored any expression of adult manhood and competence on his part.

It was as if the poor woman thought that if she were ever to confirm his maturity and strength, it would weaken her own position in the closed little political world of the family she had created. In that little world, she continued to act as if she had to make him doubt the worth and value of everything he was, everything he did. She seemed to be certain that as long as she did that, it would be very difficult — if not impossible — for him to accept a more favorable judgment of himself from anyone else. She had made herself the central figure in his life, so that only her judgment mattered.

For many years David had tried not to interpret his mother’s words and actions in the way just described. If such an interpretation did occur to him, he tried to tell himself that he was being overly suspicious and morbid. He felt guilty for thinking that his own mother could display so much that appeared to be evil, or that she could want to do so much harm to him or to anyone.

When he was older, though, and had acquired a little experience of the world, he saw more clearly that his mother’s behavior was no different from that of many other people in the world; he saw what monstrous injustices and subtle cruelties many people are capable of in the ordinary conduct of their daily affairs. When he finally outgrew the naiveté that he’d displayed at Harvard, he knew that this dark interpretation of his mother’s actions was, unfortunately, the correct one. She was ill in her mind, and what her illness drove her to was to need and want to destroy him completely. He realized that she believed she could possess him by destroying him, because no one else could have him then.

At first he tried to deny such ideas, of course, but the more he did that, the more insistently they came into his mind. In the end, during the start of his time at Harvard, David became so wary and even afraid of his poor mother that her every word and action became for him a calculated trick, a stratagem designed to trip him up in some way. He saw everything she did as an action directed toward bringing him down or instilling in him a kind of inexhaustible insecurity, aimed at creating a tendency to underrate himself in his dealings with other people.

Later, as he grew older, he saw this happen to sons in many other families, and he realized there was nothing particularly unusual about the way his mother behaved. In the most unfortunate cases he saw, the sons didn’t even understand what was happening to them, and he almost envied them for that. He supposed it must be better not to understand, since there was really almost nothing they could do to change their situation.

As so often happens in such situations, even before his parents’ divorce, David’s father was almost completely absent from the family, in a psychological and emotional sense. David’s mother had apparently made it clear to David’s father that he was not wanted, and so he tended more and more simply to disappear.

He was present physically, but David and his brother were subtly encouraged to ignore him. And since that was what their mother — the most powerful figure around — seemed to want, that was what she got.

In the end, as very often happens with people who are as selfish and manipulative and psychologically ill as she was, and because she was also strong-willed and domineering, she managed, literally and figuratively, to efface the presence of David’s father from the family, even while that family was still living together.

David was hardly aware at all of his father when he was growing up.

He had the impression that his mother saw herself locked in some weird struggle, not only with him but with his father as well. In the early stages of that struggle, she used David and his brother as allies. It was battle in which she seemed always to be morbidly afraid that his father — the mildest and meekest of men — would somehow dominate her, and she used every weapon she could think of in order to weaken him further.

Her efforts were crowned with success. She managed to exploit his basic weaknesses and make him an utterly ineffectual man, battered by life outside his home and incapable of resisting his wife’s psychological assaults within it.

Since this kind of husband, the kind she had for the most part created for herself, could not provide her with the money and social position she craved, the marriage had to end. When it did, it seemed clear to David who was to blame. The poor woman, driven to desire money more than anything, and to desire the kind of man who could get it for her, had been having an affair with a wealthy physician. When he agreed to leave his wife, who was rumored to be an alcoholic, and therefore someone he could dispense with, David’s mother divorced his father and married the physician. That marriage took place two years before David went to Harvard.

With that uncompromising moral sensibility that young people often have, David came to see his mother as someone who was bad and hurtful. Years later, of course, he thought he could regard her with less bitterness and more understanding. He saw her as someone enclosed in a dark, confining, neurotic world, and he realized that probably everything she did — everything that was evil, everything that caused pain, everything that ruined much of his life and the lives of other people as well — was really an attempt to free herself from that dark world. David thought that certainly anyone could understand and forgive that. He at least had to forgive the incalculable harm she had wreaked.

He realized she had been fighting for her survival, and she was simply incapable of understanding what she’d been doing to the people around her.

There was nothing to do but pity and forgive her.

Part 1, Chapter 22

„Wer war dein Lehrer?“
„Ein Engländer in Woolwich. Er galt als exzentrisch“.
„Die beste Sorte Lehrer“.
–Michael Ondaatje
Der Englische Patient

“Who was your teacher?”
“An Englishman in Woolwich. He was considered eccentric.”
“The best sort of teacher.”
–Michael Ondaatje
The English Patient

Life continued as usual at Harvard. Even though the nightmare world David’s mother lived in — and was continually trying to draw him into — would later impact him once more, and with a vengeance, he began gradually, for a time, to forget it.

Jonathan and Ann and Clay remained his closest friends, and if Ann and Clay were like parents for him, Jonathan was an older brother, continually surprising him with the things he said and did.

One of Jonathan’s typical surprises occurred on an autumn morning in a small section of a large lecture course in English literature. It was a course that in itself was no more important for David than any other, but perhaps it eventually did contribute in some small way to the ultimate catastrophe of his life at Harvard. The class may even in some very distant manner have helped to shape the events that finally led to Jonathan’s death years later, in one of those events that always seem to have been more than just a tragic accident.

One day at the start of one of the meetings of the class, which was really a kind of seminar, all the students were sitting around a large conference table in the great fortress of Weld Hall. As they waited for their instructor, Mrs. Parkinson, there was a kind of tense gloom over the whole group, an atmosphere that was at the same time charged with a sense of competitiveness. It was the sort of atmosphere that used to settle quite easily over a class of Harvard students in those days — and probably still does.

Suddenly, Jonathan looked around and asked, “Well, has anybody done the reading for today?”

There was silence. The other students appeared to be trying to ignore the question. They either looked down at their books or out of the high window that was cut into the upper part of the wall. The light that came through it spread a dismal Dickensian winter light over the room, mixing with the glare of the fluorescent lamps high in the ceiling overhead.

Jonathan looked around the class with an extremely solemn expression, except for the light in his eyes. You could almost see his intelligence at such moments, with a hint of the explosive sense of humor behind it. “If nobody’s done the reading,” he said smiling, “then this should be an interesting class.”

“Well, have you done it?” asked one of the Radcliffe students in a tone of voice only a little less harsh and aggressive than normal.

“Of course not,” Jonathan replied, still smiling.

“Oh God, then we’ll have to sit here for fifty minutes and listen to one of her idiotic lectures again,” one of the others said.

“At Harvard, nobody has to do anything,” said one of the freshmen quietly, to no one in particular.

The bell rang, marking the start of class. Everyone waited in silence for a moment, and then we could hear Mrs. Parkinson’s footsteps coming down the hallway. She entered the room, clutching her books in front of her, as if in self-defense. She was out of breath, her face flushed.

“I’m sorry I’m late,” she said with her soft Virginia accent. She looked tense and nervous, and her eyes were moist. She was only a few years older than we were, and she often acted as if she were never quite sure if she were really the instructor, or still one of the students. She was always ill-at-ease, and in her shyness she continually gave us the impression that she looked forward to these classes about as much as she would look forward to her execution.

We were too young then, however, really to understand how she must have been feeling.

She sat down, took off her coat and let it fall over the back of her chair. She put her books carefully on the table in front of her, opened one of them, and looked around the class apprehensively. For a few seconds she seemed close to tears. “According to the outline you received in Professor Brewer’s lecture last week, we’re scheduled to discuss the first five chapters of ‘Gulliver’s Travels’ today.” She glanced down at her notes. “Can anyone tell us what kind of persona Swift has tried to give the narrator of the novel?”

There was another sudden, oppressive silence in the room. Some of the students again started an intense examination of their notes and their textbooks. Others devoted their energies to a close scrutiny of the wall opposite their seats, almost squinting at it, as though the answer to Mrs. Parkinson’s question were written there in a very faint hand, and they were making every effort to read it. At this point, Mrs. Parkinson looked as if she really were going to start crying.

After what seemed like several minutes of total silence in the room, Jonathan cleared his throat. Every pair of eyes in the room turned toward him at once, nervously and attentively, as though he had made some unusually perceptive remark, and they were eager to hear what he would say next.

He began to speak. “I think Swift’s persona — or the narrator’s is the average man, transported to exotic regions, about to experience great changes in what he sees and the way he sees it.”

Mrs. Parkinson looked at him hopefully. And then from that point until the end of the class, she and Jonathan engaged in a remarkable dialogue, with Jonathan performing like some rare virtuoso. He seemed to be able to intuit from her questions exactly what she wanted to hear, or at least he was able to give her a reply which was vague enough to answer almost any question she might have asked.

For his part, David found the whole exchange astonishing. He’d never seen anything like it, especially when, at the end of the class, Mrs. Parkinson turned to Jonathan with an oddly triumphant smile and said, “Well, Mr. Bright, I’m glad someone in this course has done the reading,” and walked out of the room.

Jonathan looked everyone as if he were about to explode with laughter. His eyes glittered. “It was kind of interesting, wasn’t it?” he said to David.

It was hard for David to be as enthusiastic as Jonathan was, though. All David could say was, “Yeah, I guess so.”

Many years later, he came to think of the incident as the beginning of a kind of unconscious conspiracy between Jonathan and him, a conspiracy by which they tried to make Parkinson’s class as interesting as possible for themselves. However, he later thought that in doing that he achieved nothing more than to make a tiny addition to all those factors that would ultimately lead to what he eventually came to consider his destruction.

David and Jonathan’s unwitting conspiracy — if it can be called that — meant that they often talked to one another in class, something that must have been extremely irritating to Mrs. Parkinson.

Once she had him come and see her over a paper he wrote on a poem by Pope, because it contained, she said, some extremely “dark” imagery, and the implication was that there was something seriously wrong with him.

She had her final revenge, many years later, when David met her by chance once, at the intermission of a play in Cambridge, after everything in his life had been destroyed — everything except perhaps one last scrap of hope.

She looked at him and laughed. “Oh, Mr. Austin,” she said, “and I always thought you would turn out to be one of the golden ones.”

Part 1, Chapter 23

“You’ve got to be taught to hate and fear,
You’ve got to be taught from year to year.
It’s got to be drummed in your dear little ear.”
–Oscar Hammerstein II
Lyrics from “South Pacific”

Although David’s English class partly diminished the sense of exhilaration Harvard had given him at first, what really started to make Harvard sad and painful for him was the way his mother continued to plant seeds of anxiety and insecurity in his mind. Some degree of disillusionment was inevitable, though. David’s idea of Harvard was simply too unreal to be sustained for very long.

Almost certainly the most important reason for his difficulties at Harvard was in fact his inability to work out any kind of healthy relationship with his mother, stepfather, and brother. That inability seemed to make it impossible for him to work out a satisfactory relationship with very many people.

David’s relations with his classmates, of course, were especially difficult. He didn’t know how to behave toward them. He felt at times that his behavior toward his contemporaries — perhaps his behavior toward everyone — had been crippled by his mother’s over-protectiveness and her need to dominate.

Getting along with other people his own age seemed sometimes to be hopelessly baffling. At other times it seemed almost impossible. For this reason, without really wanting to, he must have inflicted at least as much pain on others as he suffered himself. His relations with his new roommate were a good example of this.

The first roommate of course had left after the marijuana episode. He was replaced by Tom Mastroianni, an all-American type from New England. Poor Tom — later David thought that of all the regrets he would carry to his grave, his behavior toward Tom would cause one of the sharpest. This behavior comprised one of the first really cruel series of actions in his life, and it is an example of the kind of psychological wound he endured so often and, in the process, had learned how to inflict, perhaps needed to inflict in order to bear his own pain.

The first shameful thing to describe was the way David responded to Tom’s kindness. Tom could see instinctively that what David needed was to have more contact with other people, and so Tom was always trying to introduce him to girls and to encourage him to go out on double dates, especially during the football season. For David, though, with his sense of shyness and vulnerability and insecurity, the prospect of doing something like wasn’t at all enjoyable, it was absolutely terrifying. It was something he simply could not deal with.

David reacted to Tom’s kindness, first of all, by withdrawing into himself even more and by talking to Tom less and less as the weeks and months went by, until he finally stopped talking to him altogether. Years later, David would be astonished to realize that he didn’t speak a single word to Tom during the entire second term — even though they actually slept in the same room.

Probably the only excuse — if there can be any excuse — for this type of behavior was his deep sense of insecurity. It was a feeling so strong and so all-pervasive that it was almost tangible. It seemed to exclude all other considerations, such as the possible grief and pain that he might cause Tom.

Years afterward, David didn’t simply worry about the grief and pain he may have caused Tom then. There was also the grief and pain he may have gone on causing him for a very long time by inadvertently moving Tom’s life in a direction that was more difficult than it otherwise might have been. By ignoring him and treating him coldly, David may have made Tom feel there was something wrong with him. David may have unwittingly forced Tom to make an effort to try to change himself into someone more acceptable to people like David. Such an effort would have been doomed to failure, but he might have gone on trying, even if it made him unhappy.

How often do people like David — or David’s mother — probably without even knowing it or without meaning to, harm and even wreck other people’s lives because of our own selfishness, hatreds, and fears?

As far as David’s own life was concerned, it wasn’t only a question of his mother and some of the people he knew at Harvard wrecking the kind of life he might have had. He eventually came to worry about a larger question as well: the question of this sort of thing happening in the lives of large numbers of people. It was the question of the propensity human beings have for harming and even destroying one another. And this question has always been one of the things — paradoxically — that made him believe in the existence of God. For David thought that if God did not exist, human beings would long ago have destroyed one another completely.

And where the question of God was concerned, when David thought about God, he sometimes remembered what he once heard someone say about God’s non-existence: an infant with an incurable disease proves that there is no God. If God existed he would never allow an innocent child to suffer in that way.

For David, however — at least later in his life — the existence of evil didn’t disprove the existence of God. If God did not exist, David thought, and we had all somehow created ourselves, we would long ago have been destroyed by any number of catastrophes, including outbreaks of incurable disease. David was convinced that it was God who saved humanity from such destruction. It was God who would somehow compensate an incurably ill child for everything it suffered. David was sure God would make that child happy in a better world than this one.

And so David believed that whatever suffering others might have caused him and whatever suffering he might have unwittingly caused them would someday be seen to have value and meaning. That suffering too would one day be turned into joy, into a greater joy than would have been possible otherwise.

David lived on the edge of such an enormous abyss of despair that he needed desperately to believe these things.

For David, when Aquinas wrote that God allows evil to exist so that he can draw the greatest good from even the greatest evil, and thereby show not only how powerful he is but also how much he loves us, it was an explanation of one of the great mysteries of the universe.

Still, even this explanation was not always enough for David, because this explanation was itself a great mystery: how was it really possible for good to come from evil? For David, at such times, the only possible answer was: good can come from evil in the same way that the whole created world came from nothing.

On the other hand, at the level of the individual, it was not always easy for David to see how any good at all could come from the pain that human beings inflict on one another, or from the pain his mother and stepfather inflicted on him. And yet, he told himself, it does, ultimately. And whenever he understood that it did, he couldn’t help but wonder at the way the goodness of human beings seemed to continue to triumph somehow, generation after generation, over every form of evil, from the grossest to the most subtle. David was sure that if goodness did not win out in this way, at least in the long run, utter cruelty would have become the norm a long time ago.

In his own life, all he could do was hope that the unkindness and cruelty he’d shown to others would in the long run, somehow, lead to something good in their lives.

David believed there could never be any excuse for unkindness and cruelty, but perhaps there was nothing wrong with trying to explain or understand it.

Eventually, David thought that it was his ingrained feelings of insecurity that led him to be unkind and that this was probably the case with nearly everyone.

Sometimes his feelings of insecurity and inadequacy were so strong and so all-pervasive that they were almost tangible. They frequently seemed to exclude any other consideration, such as the possible grief and pain that he might have caused others, like Tom his first Harvard roommate.

Tom must have been struggling with his own insecurities. He was a local boy in every sense of the word. He came from Medford, a blue-collar suburb not far from Harvard, and for him to be at Harvard at all meant crossing over into a world that was all but inaccessible to any of his contemporaries. Much later, it occurred to David that he would never know how much pain he must have caused Tom by shunning him day after day the way he did.

At the time, though, David was much too concerned with his own problems and his own pain to think very much about how Tom might have been feeling. David was too absorbed by the need to defend himself, to defend the tiny area that he had withdrawn to and managed to claim as his own. David was intimidated and threatened by all of Tom’s gruff sort of kindness and his well-meant attempts to bring him out of his shell. The shell only became thicker as he felt more threatened, not simply by Tom’s attempts at kindness, but by David’s own thoughts and impulses, by Harvard, by everything.

David’s poor mother had succeeded so well in all of her efforts. She had managed to instill in him an enormous collection of contradictory feelings. He felt inadequate and worthless, but he also had the feeling that he was somehow special, that he should have as little as possible to do with the common crowd. Then again she had so undermined David’s self-confidence that he could not really believe he had any talent or ability at all.

The final result was that he ended up feeling both isolated and inadequate and — weirdly enough — somehow special.

His insecurities, his frustration, his loneliness all turned his personality inward to the only real refuge he had — his clumsy, adolescent desire for God. Some will call it an illusory or even neurotic desire — or worse.

Whatever description might be applied to it, though, or whatever awkward way it might have been expressed, David believed that this desire really was a desire for God, a desire to encounter someone who was infinitely greater and more loving than human beings were, or at least greater and more loving than the human beings he had known in his young life. David was so unhappy and lonely at times that he believed his desire was the same desire that Augustine had written of — fecisti nos ad te, Domine, et inquietum est cor nostrum, donec requiescat in te. This was the desire, he believed, that nothing else could satisfy, and perhaps he took some adolescent satisfaction in the fact that this was something he had been able to grasp very early in life.

In his isolation, David believed that this desire he felt for God was an awareness that there existed an infinite Being, with all the attributes of infinite goodness. David believed that there existed a Person who was the ultimate object of all the obscure and tortured longings of the human heart. But of course there were many people who would have been skeptical, who would have said that probably what he really meant was the obscure and tortured longings of his own heart.

Beyond that, David believed that this desire was an awareness that there existed also a dimension of consciousness that was informed by the presence of God. David thought that in this dimension all the pain and difficulties of human existence somehow had meaning and could even bring happiness.

Of course if he had any understanding at all of such things, it was only the cloudiest understanding. He might have wanted to have someone teach him more about them, but at Harvard, of course, there was no one. It sometimes seemed to David that he was at one of the world’s greatest universities, surrounded by tremendous resources for expanding the limits of human thought and knowledge. Yet there was no one to teach him about God.

There was, however — or so David thought — God himself. David was certain that through all his mistakes and blunders, all his sins, all his misunderstanding and confusion, it was God who kept drawing him on in response to an inchoate desire he couldn’t express.

Though perhaps, he would occasionally think to himself, it was more like the story one of his professors used to tell: about the hysterical woman who thought she was pregnant, when what she really had was a stomach tumor.

In those early years at Harvard, though, David went to Mass every day. He spent long hours in Church, not always praying, but at least longing to pray, longing to somehow reach and touch the face of God through some act of contemplation.

But of course some would say that that too was probably an illusion, because during that time he also sinned, of course. He committed the old adolescent wrongs that nearly drove him to despair, and during those times when he was free of sin, he was tortured by scruples.

He used to go to the old church near Adams House, enter the confessional, kneel down, and carefully tell the priest all of the things he had done wrong.

“Bless me, Father. I have sinned. It’s been a week since my last confession, and since then I have . . . .” Get them all out, he would think to himself. Get them all out and let them wither and die in the light. And then forget them and never commit them again. Make a completely new start now. Be free of the past, as free as if the sins had never been committed.

The priest would always listen carefully and then speak quietly — and at times a little wearily — always ending with the ancient formula, “And now make a good act of contrition.”

“Oh my God,” David would begin, with all the fervor of his young heart, “I am heartily sorry for having offended thee . . . . I detest all my sins . . . Most of all because they have offended thee . . . . I firmly resolve to sin no more . . . .”

And then he would hear the priest again speak the words he needed to hear. “And by the authority vested in me, I absolve you of all your sins, in the name of the Father” — raising his hand and starting to make the sign of the cross — “and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen. Go in peace.”

Then the wooden partition would slide shut with a brief hiss and a thud, and he would leave the confessional and walk outside into the sunlight, looking at everything as if seeing it for the first time. A sense of freedom would come to him, and the world would seem new and splendid.

He was so sure that the dark, ugly things would never trouble him again that he never gave them a second thought.

Others would look at him and say cynically that he was as happy as the woman with the stomach tumor who was certain she felt new life stirring within her.

Part 1, Chapter 24

„…welches…ihn aus den Toren des Gewordenen und Gegebenen ins abenteuerlich Ungewisse treibt…“.
–Thomas Mann
Joseph und seine Brüder

“…which…after driving him away from where all is settled and given, takes him into adventurous uncertainty….”
–Thomas Mann
Joseph and His Brothers

But any sense of freedom or joy — no matter what the source: his classes, his friends, his attempts at being good — any sense of freedom and joy could quickly be extinguished by a telephone call.

“How are you?” From seven hundred miles away, the words seemed to come over the lines with as much intensity as if they had come out of a loudspeaker.

“I’m fine, Mother. How are things there?”

“Oh, not bad.”

Then, silence. A signal for him to ask, “What’s the matter?”

“I’m just not feeling quite up to par, that’s all. But it’s nothing for you to worry about.” She paused, and when he didn’t respond — couldn’t respond, because this conversation was exactly like so many others she’d started in the past — she went on, “But your stepfather’s been giving me some injections. It’s a new drug they’re trying for this sort of thing.”

“What sort of thing, Mother?”

“Oh, nothing. Nobody’s sure. I don’t want to go into detail because I don’t want to worry you.” More silence. “It’s just these lumps. I’ve had them before.”

“Have you had a biopsy done?”


“And what was the result?”

“I don’t want to talk about it now. I just called, really, to find out if you’d made your reservations to come home for Christmas.”

He suddenly felt exhausted and depressed. He was so tired of having this kind of conversation. It had happened so often. It was depressing not so much because of the content — after all it was hard to pay much attention anymore to those repeated vague hints of illnesses that were never illnesses. The conversation was depressing because he suspected his mother meant it to be depressing. It seemed to be the only way she thought she could get his attention. She was apparently unable to communicate with him as one adult human being to another. She could communicate only through her illnesses, real and imagined.

It was almost as if one of them had to be sick, otherwise communication was impossible for her. She knew that if she were sick or if she thought she were sick, she could use her sickness to extort attention. On the other hand, if he were the sick one, she knew she could use his sickness and weakness as a way of increasing her sense of domination and control.

“Well,” she was saying, “have you made your reservations?”

“No, I haven’t.”

A pause. “Why not?”

“Keith hasn’t sent me a check yet.”

“Well, go ahead and buy the ticket, and we’ll reimburse you when you get home.”

He’d heard that before: go ahead and buy it, and we’ll reimburse you. He knew if he bought the ticket, they would find some reason for not reimbursing him. It had all happened so many times already. The price of the ticket would consume a large portion of the rather small amount of money he’d saved for his weekly expenses, expenses he’d managed to reduce to practically nothing by never going out on dates, never buying any new clothes, almost never spending money on anything at all. It wasn’t much, but it was all he’d painfully saved during the summer, working as an orderly in a local hospital. He meant to use it not only as spending money but for buying books as well. He couldn’t spend a huge portion of it on a plane ticket back to a place where he’d always been unhappy, and where he knew he would be unhappy again.

His stepfather, Keith, was a physician, and his income was substantial. Yet according to his mother, at that moment he just didn’t have time to send David the money for the flight home. He’d reimburse him later, if he bought the ticket.

David knew he wouldn’t buy it, though. He knew he couldn’t go home that Christmas. He couldn’t go through what he’d already gone through so often: spending bleak, empty days in Michigan with his stepfather’s silent, brooding hostility and his poor mother’s endless complaints and demands, and her generally bizarre behavior.

Oh dear God, he wanted so much to be free of all that.

He said, “Mother, I was sort of planning on not coming home this Christmas.”

There was a very long pause this time. “Not coming home? And when I’m feeling the way I do? Well, you just do what you want. Life is too short to do what other people want you to do. Believe me, I know how short life is.”

He couldn’t think of anything else to say.

After he’d put down the telephone, he started to look through The Crimson — the Harvard paper. He turned to the page of classifieds and scanned the day’s advertisements. His mind was in a kind of turmoil. He felt like some wild thing in a cage, pacing back and forth in front of the bars, looking for a way out. His inner self was looking desperately for some escape from its prison, escape from his parents, even an escape from the university he thought had disappointed him.

On the surface, he was still calm. The anxiety — nearly overpowering — was well-concealed. Whatever it would do to him in the future, for the time being it was buried deep beneath the surface of his mind.

As he read the paper, one of the advertisements leaped out at him. A group of Harvard volunteers was being organized to go to East Africa to teach English.

Applications were invited.

Though it’s almost impossible to imagine it now, the world was very much larger when David was at Harvard. Traveling anywhere outside Europe or North America was in a way practically unheard-of for an American student. East Africa was on another planet — unimaginably distant and exotic. There were not even any direct airline routes from North America to East Africa at that time. The only way to reach Nairobi was to travel first to a European capital like London or Rome and then to fly south across Egypt and the Sudan.

For an unhappy young man, surrounded by disappointments and seemingly impossible problems with his parents, the advertisement seemed to offer an ideal opportunity dealing with all his unhappiness at one stroke. It would also be an adventure, and thinking about it allowed his mind to soar with hope and high expectation. Surely here was a chance to make a decisive break with everything that was gradually making him more and more unhappy, everything that seemed to be dragging him down. Here was a chance to avoid all the dark, destructive craziness with which his mother and his stepfather seemed to be poisoning their own lives, and his as well.

Here, in front of him, now, there was a newspaper advertisement that represented something bright, adventurous, and free. Here was a chance for him to realize those ideals of adolescent self-sacrifice — ideals that seem so quaint to later generations — ideals that seem always to have been part of his thinking. It was a chance for him to test what he could feel were his growing strengths as a young man. It was a chance — and perhaps this above all was important for him — to do something that would give meaning to his life.

He didn’t know how easy it would be for other people to understand, but what he feared most at that age, what he had the greatest horror of, was leading a meaningless existence. “How terrible it would be,” he had thought in his adolescent innocence, “to become old and to look back on your life and to realize that you’d done nothing.”

It never occurred to him then that no one can ever know if he’s accomplished anything of importance, or if his life has really been meaningless.

However, in the course of time David would learn that some of those whose lives appear to be the most filled with achievement are really the ones whose lives have been the most empty and pointless.

And those who seem to have led broken and absurd lives are — sometimes — the ones who have achieved things past dreaming of.

Part 1, Chapter 25

“I seek my way again, I turn a corner…but…the goal is in my heart….”
Remembrance of Things Past

Sitting in his room, he looked again at the advertisement for the group going to East Africa to teach English. Surely they would have to accept him, he thought. He picked up the telephone and called the number in the ad. He made an appointment for an interview that same day. He was told to bring with him a written explanation of his reasons for wanting to go to East Africa.

He worked all afternoon on the statement, and then at seven o’clock he walked slowly through the cold winter air to the interview in Phillips Brooks House. The Yard lay all around him in the brilliant winter night. Light flowed from the windows of the colonial-era buildings and seemed to lie glittering on the dry, clean snow. Even in winter, the Yard was an oasis of beauty and possibility in the middle of a world that often seemed like a desert to him. He sometimes felt as if he’d grown up in a desert, though, and so it hardly seemed strange to him. He felt threatened by it, but at the same time he was drawn to it. He therefore needed places like the Yard, because they represented a form of hope and a kind of life.

The desert — he thought about it only a little that evening, but when he was in high school, he had wanted to leave the desert he had grown up in and live in one of a different kind. He’d wanted to be a Trappist monk. The Trappists discouraged him, however, but he began to discover that there are aspects of the desert everywhere, and now it was this desert that he both longed for and tried to escape from. He wasn’t really aware of it, but Africa had already started to become the desert and at the same time an escape from the desert.

For him, the desert had many forms. There was the desert of a world without love, without love of God — as he thought of it — and without a real love of other people. That was the desert he meant to avoid. There was also, however, the desert that was a kind of dark night of the soul, a desert he had read leads to God; and this was the desert he was longing for, even though the longing was sometimes buried deep inside. He believed that this was the desert God permitted him to see from time to time. He couldn’t enter it, however. His longing for an oasis of life in the world — the hope he placed in the world and his fear of the world — was still too great.

That evening, for example, on his way to the interview for the African project, all of his hopes and fears were concentrated on the ordeal just ahead of him. His stomach felt cold and knotted with fear, and the only way he had of controlling his anxiety was to present an overly rigid exterior. Clearly, this was not the best way to appear at an interview, unless the interviewer was capable of very great insight and understanding. Such interviewers were rare at Harvard, he would one day realize, though there were more of them there than elsewhere.

At Phillips Brooks House, he stepped into the lighted lobby and walked over to the girl at the receptionist’s desk. She was plain, with long brown hair and a thin angular face. She looked up from her book, and her eyes seemed to glitter with a hard light. They looked like eyes that were accustomed to viewing everything with mild contempt. “The Project Tanganyika interviews are upstairs,” she said to him. “You can sit on one of the chairs at the top of the landing. They’ll call you when they’re ready.” She looked down at her book. He could just make out the title. It was Caesar’s commentary on the Gallic Wars, in Latin.

Some faint human impulse, or some whim, made him ask, “Is it good?”

She looked up, staring as if he were some bizarre insect. “Could anything so inflected not be good?” she replied.

If he had been a different sort of person, he might have laughed, as he would later learn to do in such situations. He was too young, though, and too self-absorbed. He also took himself much too seriously and was perhaps, in his own way, very proud.

He was also very often a shy and bewildered person, so the girl’s answer to his question paradoxically increased both his pride and his sense of worthlessness. He turned away and walked slowly up the stairs. He sat down in a large red armchair and stared at the paintings on the walls. Venerable nineteenth-century gentlemen stared back at him, and he wondered what they had been thinking about while their portraits were being painted.

A door opened at the top of the stairs. He saw a tall man in his early thirties walking toward him. The man smiled and said, “I’m Tom Stafford, the faculty adviser for this group, and I’ll be interviewing you along with Peter Schmidt, the head of the project. Please come in.”

David followed him into a small, plain office. As in most Harvard buildings then, there were no curtains on the windows, only long white shutters. It was a room out of New England’s Puritan past: spare and neat – and somehow timeless, it seemed to David. John Harvard himself could have walked in, sat down, and not looked much out of place.

There was a desk in the room, and sitting on the other side of it was a thin, intense young man who stood up to shake hands. He smiled. “Hi, I’m Peter Schmidt,” he said.

David sat down slowly, feeling so tense that he hardly knew what to say. He handed over the essay he’d been asked to write, and Peter glanced through it. Then he looked up at David. “In your application,” Peter said, “you display a lot of idealism when you discuss working in East Africa. In more concrete terms, just what do you hope to achieve there?”

David was a little startled by what seemed to him to be Peter’s bluntness. He looked quickly at Tom and then back at Peter. They both smiled and waited.

David leaned forward and stared at the floor, almost wishing he could melt into it. There was silence. The walls themselves seemed to be waiting impatiently for his answer. “I meant pretty much what I wrote in the essay,” he heard himself saying. “I can’t say anything other than what I wrote there.”

“We don’t expect you to,” said Tom, “but could you elaborate on it?” He smiled again.

Peter looked much more serious, in the way young men usually are in situations where they feel they have to act as though they are older and more mature. “I’m afraid that what you’ve written is a little vague. Couldn’t you be more specific?”

“Well,” David said, feeling as if he didn’t know really what he was saying, “I think it’s important to teach in developing countries, important for us and important for the students we have there.” He felt the whole situation starting to collapse around him.

“But why exactly is it important?” Peter asked, folding his arms and looking intently at him.

David knew that every word he uttered must be making it clear to them that he was an absolute idiot. Still he went on. “These people have not, uh, achieved the level of, uh, economic and social development that we have. If they’re going to achieve that, then they’ll have to know English, and that’s where we can help them.” The statement suddenly seemed so ridiculous, even to him, that he almost expected them to burst out laughing. He hardly knew what he was saying anymore. All he wanted was for the interview to be over as soon as possible. How in the world, he wondered, had he gotten himself into this situation?

Peter’s response was so quiet and serious that David didn’t know whether to laugh or cry with relief. “But why,” Peter said, “is it important for them to achieve what we have? Maybe, just the way they are, they’re happier than they’d be if they lived as we do. After all, how many Americans are really happy with their lives? What happiness have we in the developed world brought even to ourselves?”

No matter how uncomfortable David felt, no matter how painful the interview was, all he could do was to try to see it through to the end. He might be making a fool of himself, he thought, but he wouldn’t make it worse by yielding to the temptation to break off the interview and run from the room.

David told Peter that what he’d just said was probably true. “But whether or not Africans want to change,” he went on, “their lives are in fact already changing. They’ve passed the point of no return, in a sense, and they can’t go back to a traditional way of life. They’re changing into something new, and what we can do is make the transition as painless as possible.”

He stopped speaking, and Peter continued looking at him for a moment. Then he smiled and said, “I don’t think I have any more questions. Tom, do you want to ask anything?”

When the interview was finally over, David felt as if an enormous weight that had been pressing down on him was gone. He experienced a sense of clarity and freedom he hadn’t known for a very long time. Suddenly he thought the interview had gone well, in spite of everything. He knew he’d be going to East Africa. He had to go. He wanted more than anything to go, more than anything in the world.

He decided he would pray for – no, he would not simply pray, he would demand – in all humility, but he would still demand – this one favor, this one gift from God. He had to go, he was meant to go.

For the entire week after the interview, he prayed. He did practically nothing else except pray. He even went to Mass every day and prayed. In his simplicity he told God he would absolutely refuse to take “no” for an answer. He was convinced that going to Africa would bring fundamental change to his life. That must be obvious to everyone; so surely it was obvious to God, he thought in his childish way. It was, he believed, absolutely inconceivable that they would reject him.

A week later, they rejected him.

Part 1, Chapter 26

“Spicy grove, cinnamon tree,
What is Africa to me?”
——Countee Cullen

David stood in the dormitory entry way, in front of the open mailbox, staring at the letter. “Thank you for your interest in Project Tanganyika,” it began. “We had a very large number of well—qualified candidates, particularly from among the upperclassmen . . . .”

He felt as if the ground under him had dissolved, and he was slowly falling downward into darkness.

David sometimes reacted to things in a way that would seem to most people unnecessarily dramatic, and it would be easy to ridicule him for that kind of reaction.

His outward appearance, he was sure, indicated nothing of what he was feeling. He closed the mailbox and climbed the four flights of stairs to his room. He willed himself to move and to act as if nothing had happened.

And in a way, nothing had, because he absolutely could not accept the fact that he’d been rejected and could not go to Africa. To resign himself to that would have meant yielding to an intolerable weight of disappointment and grief that for the time being remained behind a kind of wall in his mind, like flood waters held back by a dam.

If the wall gave way, it was impossible to know what would happen.

He was determined it would not give way.

He continued with what to most people seems absurd. He continued praying. He prayed that he would still be allowed — somehow, in spite of everything — to go to Africa as a member of the project. Like a child who will not be refused, he insisted, over and over again, that his prayer should be listened to. He demanded, he begged, he pleaded like a little boy.

After all, hadn’t the nuns taught him that nothing was impossible for God? So what if he’d been rejected? That could be changed. How? He didn’t know. He knew what he knew. If nothing was impossible for God, then David thought that God could even — somehow — he was convinced of this — reach back into the past and change his rejection into an acceptance. David just knew that God could do anything. He could do this one small thing for David. He would do this one thing for him. That much David knew. He would not stop praying until, somehow, he had what he wanted.

Of course it was a ridiculous way to pray. Later, even David would think it was ridiculous, but he would also think that perhaps it is such childish prayers, such ridiculous prayers, the prayers of those who will not tolerate a refusal, that God listens to more often than people realize.

The day after he received the letter stating he’d been rejected, David telephoned Peter at the project office. He asked him if there was any kind of work he could do for the project. He said he was disappointed that he couldn’t go to East Africa, but he wanted to help in any way that might be useful.

There was a moment’s hesitation, and then Peter said, “Could you come over to my office this afternoon around four?”

And that was all. David spent the rest of the day going through the motions of his life. What was he expecting? A miracle. Somehow. He wanted to be a part of that project in whatever way he could. He didn’t know how it would happen, or could happen, but he wanted it and expected it.

And he got what he wanted. In the afternoon, in Peter’s office, the impossible was realized in the most natural way possible — as is usually the case. Peter smiled at him from the other side of his desk and said, “Look, I’ll give this to you straight. One of the freshmen we accepted for the Project has decided not to go. So we have an extra place. If you want to come with us — if you want to come with us, you can.”

Because he’d known it had to happen, David felt little surprise. He was very happy, of course, but this seemed to be the way things ought to be.

He smiled back at Peter, thanked him, and asked what he could do now to get ready for work in East Africa. They talked for a while, and then David went over to Schoenhof’s and bought some Swahili textbooks.

When he phoned to tell his mother the news, she was, on the surface, “delighted,” as she put it. He heard the carefully controlled voice coming over the long distance circuits from far away in the middle of the continent.

“What a wonderful opportunity. It sounds so exciting. Africa — we never had a chance to do things like that when I was your age. I think you’re very fortunate. You should take advantage of things like that while you can. You won’t be young forever — and don’t worry about anyone else. You just go ahead and do what you want.”

He listened to her go on and on, repeating the same idea in different ways. Knowing from past experience, though, that what she was thinking was likely to be quite different from what she was saying, he wondered what it might be that she was really thinking.

He didn’t have to wait very long to find out.

Part 1, Chapter 27

“…(W)elch ein wunderliches Wesen der Mensch ist, dass er dasjenige, was er mit Sicherheit und Bequemlichkeit in guter Gesellschaft genießen könnte, sich oft unbequem und gefährlich macht, bloß aus der Grille, die Welt und ihren Inhalt sich auf seine besondere Weise zuzueignen“.
Italienische Reise

“…(W)hat a strange creature a human being is. He often turns the comfort and security that he could enjoy in good company into something uncomfortable and dangerous, simply because he gets an idea he wants to see the world and everything it contains and do it in his own way.”
Italian Journey

Tom Stafford, the Project Adviser, called David into his office one day not long after the talk with Peter. Tom motioned him into a chair and looked down at some papers on the desk in front of him.

“I’m not sure how to tell you this, but I’m afraid there’s a bit of a problem,” he said to him.

David felt the familiar weight of dread beginning to press down on his shoulders.

“Did you know,” Tom asked him, “that your parents had written to the University about your participation in the Project?”

“To the University?” The weight was pushing down harder now, generating in turn the familiar sense of oppression and confinement. “Who did they send the letter to?”

“To the President.”

David had a feeling that everything in the room had shifted slightly, as if reality had perceptibly altered. “To the President – of Harvard?” he said. The chair he was sitting in creaked, and he realized he was gripping the wooden arms very hard.

“Yes,” Tom said. “The letter was passed on to me, because I’m the project adviser. Your parents are concerned that your work with us might take too much time away from your studies.”

There was a sense of suffocation, and the air in the room became very warm. David glanced out the window for a moment and thought to himself, “Why do they do it? Why in the world do they do it? For nineteen years I’ve had to manage without help from anyone. No one every really cared what happened to me. Certainly not my father or mother or my stepfather. Now suddenly they treat me as if I were totally incapable of doing anything, as if I were some kind of moron or invalid. Does it give them a feeling of power when they behave this way? The help I really need, they refuse; and the ‘help’ they give me only interferes with my work and my studies. I got into Harvard myself, through my own efforts, and because of my own success at my studies, with no help or encouragement from them. In fact, they even ridiculed me when I told them I wanted to go to Harvard. And now they think they have to write to the President of Harvard in order to ‘protect’ me from spending too much time on things other than my studies?”

David looked at Tom, who seemed to be studying him with a strangely sad expression on his face. “I don’t know why they’re doing this,” David said. “My grades last term were very good. I’ve always handled my studies well. I had to, because there was no one else I could rely on.” He put his hand up to his eyes. “There was no need for them to write a letter like that.”

“All right,” Tom said. “I think I understand the situation. Don’t worry about it.”

David knew that Tom meant to be reassuring, but from that moment on, the sense of oppression was always there in his mind, and he didn’t know what to do to rid himself of it. He’d been hoping he could help with the preparations for the work in East Africa, but Peter suddenly gave him very little to do. David was cut off from having much contact with the other members of the group. The reason why never occurred to him then. He simply thought that Peter didn’t believe he was competent to help in the way the other project members were helping. That thought made him very sad.

“It’s the letter from your parents, don’t you see that?” one of the girls in the group finally told him. “Peter is afraid to jeopardize the project. When your parents wrote to the President, that scared him. We don’t want the university administration involved in this any more than they have to be – certainly not the President’s office.”

Once again his parents had managed to separate him from the world around him. Once again they’d managed to establish a greater dominion over him.

David became resigned to whatever might happen. He had the feeling he was plodding on from one day to the next. His parents had interfered again, but he promised himself they would not be able to do it much longer.

Somehow he would escape them.

In the meantime, his mind became more and more preoccupied with the idea that he had to be on his guard against them, in order to prevent them from interfering anymore. This sense of fear and watchfulness, though, isolated him subtly but thoroughly from everyone around him. He felt alone and afraid. He felt he was not a member of any group at all at Harvard. He wasn’t even really a member of Project Tanganyika. He was an outsider; he didn’t really belong anywhere. Whatever he was and whatever happened to him, though, he would go to Africa. That one thing he was sure of.

Late one evening, very early in the spring, before spring has really begun and just at the time of year when the New England winter seems endless, he was walking with Adam Roth across a Harvard Yard that now looked cold and bleak to him. Adam was the only other freshman on the project. In the few months that David known him, Adam had come to seem unusually bright, his mind containing a kind of inextinguishable incandescence. He was intense, articulate, almost frighteningly serious sometimes — and like so many young men of that generation, ultimately too intelligent to survive.

Adam had already been to Africa. He had gone there with a group of students from his prep school. “I’m planning to take a leave of absence next year. I’m not coming back here,” he said, speaking to David but looking intensely at something in the distance ahead of him that only he seemed able to see.

“What are you going to do?” David asked.

“Stay in Africa,” he said quietly. “When I was in Salisbury two summers ago, I asked the editor of a newspaper there if I could work for him whenever I came back to Africa. He said I could, so I wrote to him last month and told him I’m on my way.”

“And what did he answer?”

“He’s still willing to hire me.”

David envied Adam more than he could admit. He envied him his freedom, or what seemed to David to be freedom. Compared to David’s life, with the continual pressure and interference on the part of his parents, and the anxiety that that pressure and interference produced, Adam’s life seemed incredibly free. Adam’s life seemed to David to hold all the potential for adventure that his lacked, and which he wanted so much.

David had to find out how Adam would respond to the kind of thinking and behavior that seemed to David to be so confining, and with which he was continually confronted, so he said to Adam, “Wouldn’t it be better just to finish Harvard and get it over with?” We were walking past that small monument in the Yard, a relic preserved from Harvard’s past. It was too dark to see it clearly, but he thought of the plaque he had read so often, the one with the line from Virgil inscribed on it: “Forsitan et haec olim meminisse juvabit.” Perhaps someday even these things will be pleasant to remember.

“No,” Adam said. “I don’t think so. I like Harvard, but I have to get out for a while. Africa means freedom to me, even with all the turmoil there — or maybe because of it. Or maybe it’s not just the freedom, maybe it’s something else, something more than that.”

The intensity that David admired in him seemed stronger than ever now. Adam looked at the chilly darkness around them, and suddenly laughed in the lightly ironic way he had. “You know what I really keep thinking? And I suppose you’ll think this is funny too. I look around at all this and I think to myself: next winter all of this, all of the people here, will be buried in snow, but in December I’ll be in Salisbury again. I know you’ve never been there, but can you imagine central Africa in December after the rains have come? The uplands seem to lift and rise toward a bright, endless sky. And when the wind brushes against the trees, you can almost hear a kind of soft laughter that invites and pulls you in.”

He was quiet for a moment. Then he spoke again softly. “That part of Africa is like an endless spring. You can move there. You can breathe in Africa. You feel alive there.”

His words worked on David like a spell, and it was at that point that his life began to veer off in another direction. Adam had planted in David’s mind the idea that he too could stay in Africa, and the idea was to continue to grow from that point on, becoming more and more insistent as time passed.

Soon it seemed he was thinking of nothing but Africa — and not at all of his mother and stepfather and what they seemed to be doing to him.

One day he was standing with Ann in front of her house, with its decades of history staring down at them, on the quiet street just off the Square. “You know,” he said to her, “I’ve come to the conclusion that Africa is going to be either the greatest thing I’ve ever experienced, or just a total disaster.”

She smiled at him, and seemed to become — in his idealistic vision — nothing so much as some bright-eyed Athena. “Don’t think it has to be one thing or the other necessarily. Nothing is really like that in life. It will almost certainly be a little of both.”

“I suppose that’s probably true,” David answered, without perhaps really knowing what she was talking about.

“Clay’s brother lived in Africa — Kenya. He told us once that Africa seemed to have a strange effect on foreigners. If they stay there for any length of time at all they find in the end that even though they may leave Africa, Africa never leaves them. It becomes a part of them, and they can never forget it.”

David would always remember her at that moment, standing in front of the house on Hilliard Street. Spring had finally begun to stir in New England, and on that afternoon, in the gentle sunlight, Ann looked so kind and beautiful that she seemed too good for this world. Just for an instant a scene from Homer flashed across his mind: Odysseus, standing before a deity in disguise, talking to her, and only recognizing her identity after she’d gone.

Some weeks after that, the group left for Africa, and he was, finally, one of them. His parents did all they reasonably could to stop him. At least they did everything they thought might stop him — short of forbidding him to go — but those things only reinforced his determination to leave. It was perhaps one of the first times he ever really pitied them, because they seemed to think their crude attempts at manipulation were so clever that he would never notice them.

The things that really would have kept him from going were beyond them, beyond their comprehension, beyond their ability to carry out: things such as giving him autonomy as an individual, recognizing his identity as an adult.

These things he would have to try to get for himself as best he could.

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