Sad Stories in an Age of Pity Porn 

 “The only thing that’s the end of the world is the end of the world.”

– Barack Obama

An acquaintance of mine, a bright guy, has created a large Internet following by what I think of as failure porn – telling stories about how he fucked up prior business relationships, lost gobs of money, and ended up in a darkened street crying.

He’s a good writer. His stories are compelling. But I’ve always wondered if he isn’t worried that this never-ending chronicle of screw-ups might diminish his credibility. Would it make his readers question the sagacity of his advice?

Apparently not. These confessionals have built him a big and loyal following. If it ain’t broke, why fix it?

Still, I’m skeptical of this approach.

On the one hand, it takes courage to admit to one’s mistakes and vulnerabilities. On the other hand, it can come off as an appeal for pity, which I see as a form of weakness. There is virtue in keeping a stiff upper lip.

I suppose the difference is in the intent.

When the purpose of confessing your mistakes and shortcomings is to give your audience hope, it is good. But if the purpose is solely to evoke sympathy, I don’t like it.

An example of the former:

One of the most inspiring presentations I ever heard by a fiction writer was given by Amy Tan, who, rather than give us examples of how skillful she was or how successful her novels were, read her first attempt at writing a short story. It was awful and brave and courageous. But most of all, it was kind. It gave us would-be fiction writers permission to feel that we could one day improve.

An example of the latter:

The other day, I read a blog by an up-and-coming guru complaining that his mother used to wash his mouth out with soap when he said bad words. At first, I thought he was being satiric, that he was poking fun at those overly indulgent parents that denounce such time-honored childhood sanctions. In fact, he was serious. He saw his childhood self as abused. Not only did his mother sanitize his dirty mouth, she occasionally spanked him! “I felt like I had no one to protect me,” he said. He grew up feeling “inadequate” and having occasional bouts of imposter syndrome. “It was all her fault,” he explained.

The very same day, I read an essay in the NYT Magazinetitled “I Was a Low-Income College Student. Classes Weren’t the Hard Part.”

In this mini-memoir, the author described his experience as a student at Amherst College. He was there, apparently, on a football scholarship. All his expenses were paid. But once, during school break, when most kids went home, he discovered that the cafeterias were closed. He was “expected” to pay for his own meals, he was shocked to learn. He managed to do so, he said, by working extra shifts as a “gym monitor.”

This wasn’t his first experience with “hardship,” he said. “Back home in Miami,” we knew what to do when money was tight.” They ate the 29-cent burger special at McDonald’s.

“Without that special,” he said, “I’m not sure what we would have done when the week outlasted our reserves before payday. But up at Amherst, there was no McDonald’s special, no quick fix.”

It gets worse.

As a teenager growing up in Coconut Grove, a teacher once yelled at him after he and some friends were fooling around in the parking lot. “She saw black, boisterous boys and deemed us, and me, less than,”he said. “She didn’t see my drive to succeed.” (Note to reader: I have worked in Coconut Grove. As far as I know, it’s all very posh and very artsy.)

And at Amherst, despite living in privileged circumstances for free, there was emotional trauma and financial pressure from his family. He would get calls from them about “bad news” from his old neighborhood. And sometimes they would write to ask for money.

“Neighborhoods are more than a collection of homes and shops, more than uneven sidewalks or winding roads,” he wrote. “Some communities protect us from hurt, harm, and danger. Others provide no respite at all.”

He put all that cruelty and trauma to work for him as a professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, teaching a course he titled CREAM (Cash Rules Everything Around Me). In the class, he examines “how poverty shapes the ways in which many students make it to and through college. Admission alone, as it turns out, is not the great equalizer. Just walking through the campus gates unavoidably heightens these students’ awareness and experience of the deep inequalities around them.”


My mother didn’t spank us. She used hairbrushes. She used them so well, we didn’t have one that still had a handle. My father didn’t use hairbrushes. He used his belt. The buckle end. The wallpaper behind my bed was shredded from it.

But I don’t talk about that because I don’t want you to feel sorry for me. I don’t feel sorry for myself. I didn’t feel abused then and I don’t feel like I was abused now. I was very lucky to grow up in a family where, one time out of the 10 times I deserved a whooping, I got one.

As far as having to be a “gym monitor”(doesn’t sound too grueling) for extra money? I worked full-time all through college to pay for all my expenses, including tuition and books. I worked three jobs in graduate school. It took me a bit longer to graduate, but I did it… and with honors.

I could only wish I grew up in neighborhood as nice as Coconut Grove where a childhood trauma might consist of being yelled at by a teacher. I got my ass kicked regularly before and after school until I got tough enough to defend myself. I’ve been tied up and thrown in holes. I’ve seen friends die from overdoses and killed in war. I’ve been sexually molested. I’ve had a loaded gun put to my head by a car thief and have been shot at by cops.

As for “surviving” on McDonald’s burgers? I wish I could have been so lucky. Fast food was way above our budget. We ate B&J sandwiches for breakfast and lunch, vegetable soup for dinner, and drank powdered milk. And, yes, I wore hand-me-downs, etc., etc.

And as for helping out the family, check out “Shameless” on Showtime if you want to know how finances in our family worked.

Looking back at all that now, I’m nothing but grateful.

So please, spare me your soft-core pity porn. Unless you’ve got a hard story to tell me, speak to someone else about your oppression.

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sagacity (noun) 

Sagacity (suh-GAS-ih-tee) is the quality of being discerning, having the ability to make good judgments. As I used it today: “He’s a good writer. His stories are compelling. But I’ve always wondered if he isn’t worried that this never-ending chronicle of screw-ups might diminish his credibility. Would it make his readers question the sagacity of his advice?”

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Cathay by Ezra Pound

Ezra Pound was one of my favorite poets in college and even in graduate school. I loved his imagist poems and “Hugh Selwyn Mauberley” and was awed by “The Cantos.” But the poems that broke my heart were the 15 classical Chinese poems that he translated for this collection (published in 1915).

Pound could not read Chinese fluently, so based his translations on the notes of Ernest Fenollosa, an American who had studied Chinese under a Japanese teacher. For me, that’s not a problem. For me, the poems in Cathayare Pound’s.

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An email from NA:

I’ve been reading your [essays] for a good while now. Not all of it applies to me, but I read it all nonetheless.

 I’ve always been confident in my capabilities and those of my fabulous husband,… 18 months ago, we left an uber-cushy expat job in Asia to partner in some new ventures in order to provide a legacy for our three kids, then all under 3.

 It’s tough going… but we’re not going to give up.

Your nuggets of information and inspiration always seem to say just what we need to hear, to suggest a different way of considering things, or riding out the storm.

 So, thank you.

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