We’re not finished milking Tim Kreider’s essay collection We Learn Nothing. Not by a long shot. The following passage from “The Czar’s Daughter” has made the rounds a bit and is worth reproducing here, as it touches on a dynamic we talk about with some frequency in reference to social media, namely, the difference between who we’d like to be or feel we should be and who we actually are.
The essay is a rumination on, and almost a eulogy for, a deceased friend of Tim’s named Skelly. Apparently Skelly was quite the character, reputed in their circles for the stories he told about himself, most of which were “not, in the strictest, most literal-minded sense of the word, true.” The way Kreider describes him, the guy was an inveterate but highly creative teller of tall tales, lovable in the extreme, not to mention a self-described Christian. After he died, Tim and his friends learned some rather disconcerting truths about Skelly’s mental health (you’ll have to buy the book for more details). Reflecting on what made his unconventional friend tick, Kreider introduces an inspired term he and a cohort coined to describe how some of us respond to the judgments we face, both from others or ourselves (to say nothing of G-o-d):
Knowing things about someone is not the same thing as knowing him… As far as I know, none of Skelly’s friends cared about the facts of his life that embarrassed him so deeply. If anything, we were just sorry he’d ever felt the need to tell us these ridiculous stories. It implied that, on some level, he felt badly about himself, as if he didn’t believe we’d like him for who he really was. What someone’s lies reveal about them (aspirations to being an accomplished writers, fantasies of an exotic history and a cosmopolitan family) are always sadder than the fact of the lies themselves. These inventions illuminate the negative spaces of someone’s self-image, their vanity and insecurities and most childish wishes, as we can infer from warped starlight the presence of a far vaster mass of dark matter.
Years ago a friend of mine and I used to frequent a market in Baltimore where we would eat oysters and drink Very Large Beers from 32-ounce styrofoam cups. One of the regulars there had the worst toupee in the world, a comical little wig taped in place on the top of his head. Looking at this man and drinking our VLBs, we developed the concept of the Soul Toupee. Each of us has a Soul Toupee. The Soul Toupee is that thing about ourselves we are most deeply embarrassed by and like to think we have cunningly concealed from the world, but which is, in fact, pitifully obvious to everybody who knows us. Contemplating one’s own Soul Toupee is not an exercise for the fainthearted. Most of the time other people don’t even get why our Soul Toupee is any big deal or a cause of such evident deep shame to us but they can tell that it is because of our inept, transparent efforts to cover it up, which only call more attention to it and to our self-consciousness about it, and so they gently pretend not to notice it. Meanwhile we’re standing there with our little rigid spongelike square of hair pasted on our heads thinking: Heh – got ‘em all fooled!”
What’s so ironic and sad about this is that the very parts of ourselves that we’re most ashamed of and eager to conceal are not only obvious to everyone but are also, quite often, the parts of us they love best. Skelly’s stories themselves–not their content, but the fact of his telling them–were part of what we liked about him.
As you can probably tell, the essay is ultimately about friendship and our love-hate relationship with being known, how we work against ourselves esp in the intimacy arena, yet how love sometimes transcends self-sabotage (thank God!). It hits close to home. I mean, which of us can’t relate to Skelly, whose personal motto was “the less people know about you, the better off you are”? Who hasn’t, in response to some perceived judgment or deficiency, indulged the urge to hide? I know I have. Just put me in an unfamiliar context and ask me what I do for a living and the stitching on my soul toupee will become painfully opaque. Which isn’t to imply that most of our soul toupees aren’t durable enough to withstand changes in circumstance. They certainly are! As with Skelly, even in the warmest and most accepting environment, our internal prosecutor can prove powerful enough to ensure that we never take it off. And even if we wanted to, the glue affixing these rugs to our scalps is often too strong for our feeble hands to budge.
Kreider seems to understand this, both about himself and his friend, which is probably why he can write with such palpable compassion. The empathy runs so deep, in fact, that he can see how Skelly’s compulsive secrecy may have informed his faith in a gracious God, a faith which Tim may not share but with which he can clearly sympathize and even admire. To wit, the paragraph where he mentions a song that some mutual friends had composed in tribute to their singular pal, “The Ballad of Tumbleweed Skel”, and then describes what happened when the notoriously close-to-the-chest Skelly first heard it:
I wish you could have seen his face as he heard it–he was so abashed and flustered at finding himself the center of attention, but he was also helplessly grinning, laughing uproariously and clapping his hands at a good lyric, quickly recovering himself to catch the next one. It was like watching the face of the guest of honor at a celebrity roast, torn between chagrin and delight. I’m glad he got to hear that song. He died less than a year later. It was our way of letting him know, in the most affectionately mocking way possible, We’ve got your number. And he loved it. Personal motto notwithstanding. For all his secrecy and his fear of being seen, he was touched that we had observed him so closely, and with such love. He loved that we knew him. This is one reason people… believe in God–because we want someone to know us, truly, all the way through, even the worst of us.