Harlan Ellison, Norman Mailer, and the Underdog, by Martha Thomases
This was my week to consider the lives of little old Jewish men. On Tuesday, I went to a screening of Dreams with Sharp Teeth, a film about Harlan Ellison, where I was lucky enough to talk to the man himself.
On Wednesday, there was a memorial service for Norman Mailer at Carnegie Hall. If Mailer was there, it was, alas, in spirit only, and in the lives of those who read his work.
What struck me about these two events is that both men were bullied. Harlan talked about a group of boys who would beat him up every day after school. Mailer, a Jew at Harvard in the late 1930s and early 1940s, certainly was shunned more than his share. It was the era of John Wayne and Gary Cooper, Cary Grant and Jimmy Stewart. A man like Dustin Hoffman could no more be a leading man – a hero – than Larry Fine.
As one would expect, boys who experience cruelty grow up to be fighters. Both men have reputations for being opinionated, biting, passionate in their defense of their positions. Both have been known to throw a punch, physically as well as verbally.
And yet – they also both grew up to be charming men. Maybe my perceptions are flawed because I met them in the 1970s, when they were no longer young, but I don’t think so. I think they learned to be charming for the same reasons they learned to fight. Charm, with the sense of humor that so often tags along, is a great way to ingratiate oneself to people. Including bullies.
Girls can also be bullies, but of a different kind. I’m sure there are girls who beat up smaller kids, but it’s more likely that girls will bond together to exclude those they would ridicule. The bully is as likely to be the most beautiful, or the most popular, not the most physically strong. And, again, their victims learn to be charming.
Charm is the weapon of the outsider. There are many studies that demonstrate, for example, that women’s intuition is, in fact, a learned trait, that women learn to observe more men more closely than men observe women, because women have been more dependent on men’s approval, and need to keep tabs. African-Americans similarly know more about how white people will react than vice versa.
Bullies think they are hurting their victims. A punch in the face (or the kidney, or the knee) certainly hurts. At the same time, the bully’s victim learns to develop his own weapons. Perhaps she learns to hide meekly, and find a roundabout way home from school. Or he learns to find an adult or a bigger bully who can act as protector. Luckily for us, many develop a sense of humor or a winning smile or another talent that keeps away the pain.
For the artist, bullying can result in an empathy for underdogs of every kind, and the ability to understand different kinds of characters and situations. The best writers feel like outsiders and underdogs. Their work takes us to new worlds and lets us live new lives. Their success is the best revenge.
Martha Thomases, Media Goddess of ComicMix, is a real fan of the movie, My Bodyguard.