The Expert Backstory

A year or so ago, I heard an interview on National Public Radio (someday I’ll write a blog or essay on my thoughts and feelings about “public” radio).   I wasn’t really listening very intently, and I quickly got distracted by my own fantasies and musings.  What I remember is that in some national or world news story there arose some issues about a particular insect.  The NPR reporter had found the world’s foremost expert on the insect in his office at some Ivy League university and she interviewed him about some of the most arcane knowledge related to this particular insect.

The interview brought up some envy in me in relation to this expert, some regret that I wasn’t the master of some specialized field of knowledge.  This was not new territory for me and at times, in the ups and downs of my career in mental health, I have thought of doing something else.  On and off for years I thought about studying reading—from the biological, evolutionary, neurological, motoric, perceptual, cognitive, linguistic, historical and cultural aspects.   I fantasized understanding the process in incredible depth and width and being able to have an impact on how people learn to read, how to teach reading, how to specifically diagnose the problems that some people have with reading.  My first foray into the field was to get training as a Literacy for America Volunteer.  When I completed my training I was immediately assigned a person who was on very heavy psychiatric medication, had lost her therapist and was looking for a new one (and incidentally turned out to already know how to read).

I have also sometimes fantasized becoming a bridge architect/engineer, a bonsai grower and shop owner, and a portrait photographer.  It is interesting to me in writing this list to notice that none of this expertise is in the pure academic realms of literature, history, art, or philosophy.  Academic expertise in the Humanities is too far from real life or real creativity for me.  (I once took a Shakespeare course in college—reading perhaps five of the plays in one semester.  The professor was one of the top ten (?) Shakespearean experts and he was wonderful.  We analyzed almost every line of each of the plays we read.  One class one of the other top ten Shakespearean Scholars came to the class and he and our professor exchanged arcana in a way that was interesting, fun, funny.  I envied them some-- their belonging to this exclusive club and the virtuosity it required and fostered.  In the long run the class deepened my enjoyment of Shakespeare, but for several years I couldn’t see one of the six without hearing in my head several alternate interpretations for many of the lines.  Very distracting.)

I think my returning consideration of becoming an expert in some other field has to do with my underlying yearning to have work where competence is demonstrated by some product or more scientific knowledge that is not so subjective, so ephemeral, so hard to even talk or write about, as the field I have worked in all my adult life.

I imagine two kinds of expertise—one more like the Harvard Entomologist, where the expertise is mostly for its own sake, and although being a professor these days has more financial rewards than in previous eras (perhaps part of what has led to be it being so much less appealing than it once was)—the pure expert is passionate about his or her subject, more than the rewards the expertise may bring.  Perhaps this could be called competence expert.  Perhaps in Abraham’s Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, this kind of expertise is at the higher end.  It represents self-actualization and is a passion.

There is a second kind of expert, the kind I seek to portray in The Expert.  This person’s expertise is developed at least to a significant degree for the success, for the money, for the rewards it reaps for him or her.  Perhaps this is the power expert.  Although complex, an overdeveloped drive for power, which is often related insecurity, lack of safety, overdeveloped competitiveness and a sense that survival is at stake, would be lower on Maslow’s hierarchy.

The psychology of the expert includes a host of issues related to being ordinary and being special, being safe and being vulnerable, grandiosity and inferiority, self-worth and worthlessness.  Carl Jung said the Best is the enemy of the Good.  A friend of mine told me that his therapist told him-- in response to my friend’s talking about his own specialness or wish to be special—“perhaps you should accept that you are just a slightly above average member of the herd”.  Can we be loveable if we are extraordinary?   Can we be safe if we are only ordinary?  Are we safer if we are special or if we are average or “normal”?

Who is John Rothke (echoing Ayn Rand’s “who is John Galt?”  Is he an expert to compensate for a wounded condition?  Or has he lost an eye in order to make himself more ordinary, more likeable, and more loveable than he would be as someone without major flaws would be?  Is his life as solitary as it appears to be in the story?  Is that by choice or chance?  Or does it reflect another kind of wound?   

In post World War II America Albert Einstein was a cultural hero.  This was probably before there was much national self doubt about whether we should have dropped the atom Bomb on populated cities, so that Dr. Einstein received a lot of credit for telling President Roosevelt about the military potential of his theoretical physics.  It was very widely believed that many American lives and more years of war were saved by the surrender that followed the devastation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.  Even later, when there began to be a lot more questions about the ethics of killing so many civilians and whether the Japanese might not have been ready to surrender anyway and whether one bomb might not have been enough, even then it was Edward Teller, and Robert Oppenheimer who became the scientists whose status was open to revision, and not Einstein’s.  The Jewish community was especially proud of Dr. Einstein, because they saw him as a wonderful reflection on the Jewish community—his brilliance, his courage, his American Patriotism.  I am not enough of a scholar and not interested enough to research the current “truths” about all of the issues. This writing is about my personal narrative and what I have believed to be true, no matter how egocentric those beliefs may be.

I emerged from World War II with significant emotional battle scars.  I was born when the war was already raging in Europe and when I was about 2 my father enlisted in the Navy, went away for several weeks for training In Norfolk, Virginia, and shortly thereafter he was assigned to a Naval Base in Mobile Alabama.  My mother and I moved there to be near him—and he spent some nights with us, but mostly lived on the base. 

All but one of my earliest memories are from that period, and I have enough detail to support the conclusions that my mother was socially isolated, alone, frightened and depressed.  We went back to New Orleans for my sister’s birth when I was 3 ½.  Soon after, my father left for the better part of a year to go to an Island in the Pacific and my mother and I moved back to New Orleans and lived with her parents—a home filled with conflict for both of us.  My mother’s father was the only male living the house, other than me, which included, in addition to my mother and sister, my grandmother, my great grandmother, a cook, and almost daily visits from  mother’s 2 sisters and their 3 daughters, a female housekeeper and a female laundress.  I began to wake up very early in the morning in order to have time with my grandfather, but since he usually left the house before 5:00 AM (and didn’t return until 8 PM), I seldom saw him.  I don’t remember the search for a father figure as my motivation, but I do remember that several times when I would get up and not find my grandfather at home (and none of the women in the house yet awake), I would leave the house, wander in the immediate neighborhood and sometimes eat breakfast with a family whose back yard adjoined ours (I climbed over the half broken- down fence).  At the Page house the father was at home, having breakfast with his wife and daughter.

I think the war left me feeling unsafe, uncertain about my ability to find trustworthy love objects and with self-doubts about my lovability and worthiness.  My parents clearly did love me and they verbally expressed that as far back as I can remember.   They also often did things which showed their caring and they often told me of what they saw as positive qualities in me.  However, my mother’s ongoing anxiety and depression, and my father’s absence, led me to develop negative (as well as positive) stories about the world and myself.   (I have evidence of an even earlier, wounding experience that I had as a new born, which probably made me especially vulnerable to the stresses of the war time experience; more about that in another narrative).  Perhaps from all of this there was a predetermination that I would search for compensating mechanisms (identities, narratives) that would help me to feel safe and worthy.

Although the details are fuzzy, I remember hearing the name “Albert Einstein”, being spoken very early in my presence (I was 4 in 1945) and with a tone, and emotional quality of specialness, honor, even awe.  I must have seen a picture of him sometime before I was 9 and, besides learning that brain power can bring respect and admiration, I also learned that he was absent minded, had little concern about his  appearance, and was actually often sloppy and usually had chalk dust all over his clothes.  

I think I inferred that if you are smart enough people will defer to you even if you have shortcomings and defects, and that being really special also means being unconventional.   I might also have learned that appearances aren’t as important as inner qualities. I know that as a preadolescent I experienced intense anger at my parents (along with an experience of being unseen and unloved) because they appeared to me to be so focused on surface appearances and what other people thought (of them and of me as a reflection of them).    I know that sometime around the age of 8 or 9, I had an identity transformation which reflected some personal experiences as well as my adopting Albert as a hero, a role model.

As indicated in the essay on the beachcomber, I was overweight, athletically awkward, nervous, anxious, and fearful.  (I bit my fingernails and finger cuticles so that they frequently bled, I slept very lightly and was often awakened at night by a cuckoo clock in a neighbor’s house—the same one where I had previously gone to breakfast searching for a father.)  My parents’ efforts to respond to these limitations (e.g. sending me to a competitive athletic pre-primer instead of a Kindergarten) only increased how bad I felt about myself.

Although my parents thought I was smart, it is not clear how valuable a quality this was for them, or how understanding they were of what it might mean for me—positively and negatively.   In my first two years in school, there was nothing to indicate I was likely to be academically gifted (although as noted in the previous essay I was the only one in that athletic pre-primer who could count to 100)—I struggled to learn to read and spell, and my printing and then handwriting were very problematic—which has remained a life-long problem.    I remember my father using flash cards with me to teach me sight vocabulary and drilling me on spelling lists before weekly Friday tests.  I remember thinking I must be dumb. 

(I don’t know how I learned to count to 100 before I went to school; I do know that my father read to me every night starting at a very early age—whole books like The Arabian nights; Treasure Island; The Tales of Uncle Remus; Uncle Wiggly).

Somehow, something happened to me toward the end of second grade or between second and third grades.  Suddenly I could read anything and was devouring books.   Although no one else showed any interest in this even when I told them, I had the experience of taking tests and being able to “read” the pages in my mind from the text books in social studies and science which I had read one time.  I also had the experience which I called thinking in numbers—which also didn’t seem to interest anyone very much.   I could solve arithmetic problems instantaneously and even written problems immediately translated themselves into numeric processes in my head and then the answers seemed to automatically appear again in words.

I was still fat, I was still athletically below average, I still was nervous and fearful, and I somehow latched on to the idea that perhaps if I was smart like Albert Einstein, it would compensate for those other limitations and I could be famous and powerful and respected.  Perhaps something also gave me the idea that one of Albert’s limitations was in being socially awkward.  I do know that part of the Einstein myth was that he had some kind of learning disability and hadn’t always done well in school.   (I seemed to have missed the point that, at least in the public telling, Albert was also a fairly modest and humble person and not nearly as obnoxious as I was about to become.)

I became obsessed with proving my superiority through intelligence.  I began memorizing facts to show off my memory.    I knew numbers associated with basic astronomical and geographical facts—the distance between the earth and moon, between the earth and the sun.  The size and temperature of the sun.  How many miles in a light year, the height of Mount Everest, the depth of the Marianna trench.   Average temperatures of world cities and their populations, the length of the major rivers in the world---and so on to the point of impressing others and then driving them away with boredom.

I didn’t realize then, that my need to be superior to others grew out of belief or fear that I might be inferior.  (Although occasionally when I read something I didn’t understand, I would be consumed with self doubt, worrying that I wasn’t so brilliant after all and that people would discover I wasn’t really as smart as Einstein)  I didn’t recognize that my sense of being unloved and unlovable, not fully worthwhile if not actually worthless, were causing me to feel scared and unsafe.   If I could show myself to be smart enough I might be loveable, worthy and secure.   I thought being an expert would be the best basis for building a life.

It is not a coincidence that Nero Wolfe has a plant room with hundreds of orchids growing in a greenhouse on the roof of his brownstone in Manhattan and that I have 25 orchid plants growing on the window sills of my apartment and office.  Nero Wolfe is a fictional detective created by Rex Stout.  There are about 40 Nero Wolfe Novellas.  I was introduced to them by my second wife, Janice and I have read all of them two or three times.  One of the few times I have worn a costume to a party, I went as Nero.  

It is true that my attachment to planting and tending to plants is directly related to my Grandma Bess’s love of growing things and her teaching me how to plant seeds and help her in her garden and her yard when I was four or five.  None- the-less, my identification with the expert, Nero Wolfe, seems to me to be a continuation of my introjection of elements of Albert Einstein’s image serving some of the same functions of searching for ways to be powerful, to see myself as superior so as not to feel afraid that I am not as good as others, and perhaps not loveable, worthwhile or safe.   Nero also is a brilliant problem solver, eccentric, egocentric, brags about his superiorities, is obsessed with food, grossly overweight, drinks beer all day long.  He is an intellectual, who also loves fine and expensive objects.   He also has very limited relationships with others—both in terms of number and intimacy.  Most of the people in his life are his employees.  Nero has a strong code of ethics for himself, and he doesn’t care much what other people think of him personally.  He does care about his professional reputation as smarter, more competent, and more dependable than others.

Could Nero Wolfe be so focused on his work if he were more engaged emotionally with other people?  Was it in compensation for feeling unlovable that he developed his intellectual powers to such a high degree?   Is his focus on power and achievement monstrous or admirable?   Could he be both lovable, competent and have great worldly success?

Most recently, the death of Steve Jobs has invited consideration of the same kinds of questions.  I haven’t read his biography yet, but what I get from the news articles suggests that Mr. Jobs was not a “nice” person.  His focus on details and striving for perfection (or at least full excellence) often led him to be harsh and probably unfair in relation to others.  Can one be an expert and not be obsessed?  Can one inspire affection and respect and be effective in reaching lofty (material) goals? 

I think I became quite conflicted about whether my intelligence was a gift or a dangerous burden and this also led me to identify with the flawed experts.  I identified with the flaws as well as the expertise. In my experience people usually don’t limit themselves only because of their fear of failure; they often equally fear success.

I certainly believe that I was a challenging child and would have been for most parents.  I don’t think it would have been easy to guide me in such a way as to develop my intellectual gifts without conflict, with being a boring braggart and without feeling a need to hide some of my talents or be eccentric in order to be less threatening to others.   Both of my parents had their own insecurities, fears that they were not lovable, uncertainty about their social status.  Some of my fears of success and failure came from them.   In part they tried to resolve these issues for themselves by conformity and appearance and trying to be like everyone else.   I lived in opposition, being non-conformist, pretending that appearances were completely unimportant, that external success didn’t matter, and that being different from others was a virtue.

Two recent television series provide strong representations of the struggles of gifted and wounded people.  Both Bones (brilliant, but insensitive and socially inept, medical and forensic anthropologist) and House (exceptional physician diagnostician who is often {and sometimes not so clearly} misanthropic, manipulative, lacking in ethical sensitivity, cruel, demeaning of others, intrusive) are gifted individuals with glaring wounds, flaws, or limitations.  On the surface both stories seem to represent its hero and heroine as only accepted because of the extraordinary value of their accomplishments (House saving lives of people who would probably otherwise die; Bones figuring out how people died so that the people who killed them can be brought to justice). 

I said that I didn’t know how the image of the Beachcomber entered my psyche.  The narrative of the expert came to me from glimpses that I got from the “myth” of Albert Einstein (myth in the sense of public narrative).   The fact that I can easily point to popular fictional literature and drama which have characters who seem to represent the struggle with similar psychological issues, suggests that this narrative is archetypal or frequently part of the modern human condition.  Without thinking very hard, Woody Allen’s Bullets Over Broadway, Somerset Maugham’s Of Human Bondage, Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead, Ursula Leguin’s The Dispossessed, come to mind as fictional works that address the issues of gifted people and their relationships to the ordinary, their wounds, their successes and failings.

I assume that both creators and “consumers” of fiction—are often exploring narratives of personal significance and that we all have ways of incorporating these stories into our identities in ways that sometimes help and sometimes limit our own healing, growth, change and development.    
 There are both differences and similarities in the narratives of the beachcomber and the expert.  The beachcomber has given up achievement and striving of any kind, reduced life to the bare necessities and is mostly engaged only at the level of survival.  If the beachcomber has any relationships they are fleeting and perhaps only momentary, there is no attachment to place or objects.  The beachcomber’s freedom is in nonattachment and the renunciation of power.  Competence is only in terms of being able to stay alive.   Pleasure is only of movement, sunshine and the appreciation of natural beauty with an occasional enhancement of arrangement by the beachcomber.

The expert is more engaged with world, and lives strongly in a world of achievement, power and competence, attachment to place and objects.  The expert has a strong ego and accomplishes things in a social setting.   As Ursula LeGuin’s hero, the physicist in The Dispossessed has to admit, in spite of his glaring differences and even superiority (in intellect) to others, his expertise counts for nothing if it is not accepted by the larger world.  There can be no individual physics.

Writing these short stories and the background essays that go with them, and making them publicly available is, to me,  evidence of the progress I have made in coming to terms with the challenges of my existence.  My experience in this activity is that the challenges are still there and that I am still struggling with them.  There is a way in which the writing I am doing for my website represents an effort to let myself be more successful and more publicly an expert.  And I still feel both fear of failure (exposure as less talented and less special than I would like to be) and fear of success (I will be noticed and acclaimed for what I am doing and will be even less liked for just being myself). 

The Existence that goes by the name Harris WW Stern is represented in the stories of the Beachcomber and The Expert.  But this existence is represented by many other narratives as well.  Some are as well developed, or can be, as the two already presented.  Some are more fragmentary, partial and perhaps only potential.     The two narratives available now are only a part of my story. In the middle of Maslow’s hierarchy is a level representing the need for love, belonging and relationship.  Unlike Nero Wolfe I have had a rich relational life and my life’s work, which has had its times of frustration as indicated in this essay, has been a constant source of meaning, satisfaction and support for my growth.  In part, my being a psychotherapist has grown out of the strong motivation within to heal some of my own personal wounds as represented in these first two narratives.  I have experienced it as sacred work and I am frequently filled with gratitude that I have been fortunate enough to be able to do it (in spite of society’s ambivalent support for it and that it has not made me rich and famous or even financially very secure).   I am looking forward with eagerness and a little reluctance to articulating more of my narratives.  My hope is that all of them will be inspirational in supporting psychological growth and healing in others.