Sharper Than a Serpent’s Tooth, A Thankless Child Author

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If The Atlantic’s Sandra Tsing Loh were to suddenly disappear, I would have less to rail against. Then again I would lose a favorite model of effective creative writing. I would also lose an occasional insight into the words of Chazal that she provides without ever meaning to.

Tsing Loh may have upstaged Rav Yisrael Salanter, one of whose most quotable quotes reads something like, “Not everything that is thought should be said; not everything said should be written; not everything written should be published.” Tsing Loh adds an element to that set, in a perverse sort of way. She manages to say things that should not even be thought.

We’ve visited with her before as she explained why marriage no longer makes sense, biologically or psychologically (and how her affair, plus not having sufficient energy to try to respark some feeling in her own marriage led her to drop her husband of twenty years, the father of her children and someone she described as “a good man”). I keep coming back to her, because I admire her crisp, wry style, and how she succeeds in writing so much about herself and yet stays just on the right side of narcissism. She may be the center of her own universe, but she does a good job in inviting visitors to tour the most interesting parts of it.

“Daddy Issues” in the current issue of The Atlantic deals with how she handles the demands her aging father makes on her time and energy. She will not quickly win the Dama ben Nesina Award for graciousness and patience with a parent, but we ought not to be too critical of her frustrations. Many others have likely thought some of the nasty things she has. The difference is that others struggle against those thoughts, while she embraces them.

Here are some of the choicer quotes:

RECENTLY, A COLLEAGUE at my radio station asked me, in the most cursory way, as we were waiting for the coffee to finish brewing, how I was. To my surprise, in a motion as automatic as the reflex of a mussel being poked, my body bent double and I heard myself screaming:
“I WAAAAAAAANT MY FATHERRRRRR TO DIEEEEE!!!”
“What I mean, Rob, is that even if, while howling like a banshee, I tore my 91-year-old father limb from limb with my own hands in the town square, I believe no jury of my peers would convict me. Indeed, if they knew all the facts, I believe any group of sensible, sane individuals would actually roll up their shirtsleeves and pitch in.”

Okay. Never mind the question of whether, given that they have total freedom and no responsibilities, we are indulging our elders in the same way my generation has been famously indulging our overly entitled children. Never mind the question of whether there is a reasonable point at which parents lose their rights, and for the good of society we get to lock them up and medicate them.
I rant to myself: He is taking everything! He is taking all the money. He’s taken years of my life (sitting in doctors’ offices, in pharmacies, in waiting rooms). With his horrid, selfish, grotesque behavior, he’s chewed through every shred of my sentimental affection for him.

That’s right: my family is throwing all our money away on powdering our 91-year-old dad’s giant-baby [deleted] leaving nothing for my sweet little daughters, with their thoughts of unicorns and poetry and dance, my helpless little daughters, who, in the end, represent me! In short, on top of everything else he has taken from me, he has taken away my entire sense of self, because at age almost-50, it appears that I too have become a squalling baby!!!

She admits that “I will of course miss him … when he is dead,” and that “in traditional China, with its notions of filial responsibility, my elders would be living with me in my home, or I in theirs.” As you get close to the end of the article, you convince yourself that Tsing Loh is working up to revealing some epiphany, some insight into the how much of her father works within her, and how she can never repay the debt of what he has given her. It doesn’t come. Her ending is as soulless and amoral as the beginning. Discovery, yes, but no insight: “I can no longer think of my dad as my ‘father.’ But I recognize in him something as familiar to me as myself. To the end, stubborn, babyish, life-loving, he doesn’t want to go to rehab, no, no, no.”

Missing from everything that I have read of hers is G-d, a value system she lives by, any articulation of principles that are bigger than life. My suspicion is that there are none. The product of a marriage of a Chinese father and German mother, the only culture she references is on her father’s side – the culture of a Buddhism which is thoroughly atheistic.

Missing as well is even coming close to translating her rhetoric into action. While her sentiments are horrid, she does not abandon her father. She complains (and demeans him in the process), but she still does pay for his care, in cash and in time. Despite all her ratiocination, she cannot cut anchor from some subliminal sense of duty. She leaves the essay as she entered it: trapped between instinctive obligation on the one hand, and cold calculation on the other. Moreover, she has no way to even process the tension between them, some way to make sense out of being able to hold on to both at the same time.

We recall Chazal telling us that charus al ha-luchos can be read “cheirus.” Words of Torah engraved on the tablets of the Ten Commandments and the tablets of our hearts give us our freedom. We usually take that to mean that those not privileged enough to enjoy the guidance of the Divine Will are slaves to their temptations and desires. While this is true in many cases, Sandra Tsing Loh teaches us another dimension to their teaching. Those who are removed from the word of G-d are slaves even to their positive instincts and inclinations, because without it, they can make no sense of them, and stew in their misery.

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4 Responses

  1. YEA says:

    The line that not everything that’s thought has to be said etc. has also been attributed to the Kotzker Rebbe.

  2. narc says:

    “yet stays just on the right side of narcissism…”

    is the correct side the left?
    groucho marx was interviewing a woman who said she was approaching thirty. to which he asked, from which side?…

    “She may be the center of her own universe, but she does a good job in inviting visitors to tour the most interesting parts of it.”

    in other words, she thinks her idiosyncratic life is of great interest and a worthy point from which to generalize about marriage in general, elder care, parent-child relationships etc a good working definition of narcisssism.

  3. lacosta says:

    …nothing i stated detracts from the odiousness of her remarks , her moral, and her ethics…no wonder why there is a place for her on National Public Radio…..

  4. lacosta says:

    Prager always talks about feelings are less important than actions…and we are only punished for machshavah by avodah zora..
    maybe by goyim there is an onesh for machshavah as well as maaseh , but is a ben noach chayav in kibud av va’em?

    [YA – Shtei teshuvos be-davar:
    1) A ben Noach is quite possibly obligated in all matters of character and midos. He is also obligated according to some in matters that are considered fully sichli – rational. See the hakdamah of R Nissim Gaon to Shas.
    2)I believe that lots of our chevra make a serious error in looking to the Sheva Mitzvos as a complete system for spiritual significance and fulfillment. First of all, thee is a dispute as to whether the Sheva are a minimal system to preserve social order (Rambam) or a religion for non-Jews (the Chinuch). Even according to the latter, it is a mistake to believe that the law for non-Jews spells out all that a non-Jew needs to find happiness. The law makes some demands normative. Other expectations can’t be made into law, because they cannot be expected of all people. Yet a spiritual seeker would be able to distill certain lessons from our Torah and apply them to his life, even though he would not be practicing the law itself. A non-Jew could and perhaps should detect in the laws of kibud av truths about hakaras ha-tov and other values. Without obligating himself in all the nuances of Jewish halacha, he should be able to take away a certain ethic. That ethic will make him happier (See Malbim on the the Fifth Dibbur in his discussion of it in Yisro.)

    If a non-Jew asked you whether sleeping around is forbidden to him by the Sheva mitzvos, you would have to say “no,” assuming he avoids married women and a few relatives. Should you then encourage him to use his freedom? Or should the lessons and ethos of many halachos that apply to us tell you to counsel him in a different approach?

    To me, the answer is obvious.]