Among the incorrigible

This may be the craziest reader advice letter that Cary Tennis ever answered at Salon, and he set the bar high for crazy. Tennis published it in May 2009, at a time when I read his column regularly, mostly in a futile attempt to orient my own mess of a social and professional life relative to other people’s messes. At one point I even wrote to him with one version of my own tangled clusterfuck of a story; it’s probably just as well that he didn’t respond. I recently came across the aforelinked letter again at The Ivy Lie, prefaced with this commentary from Clayton Thomas: “I have no sympathy for this next person, but it still goes to show that a Harvard degree doesn’t guarantee success.”

Personally, I find the letter writer impossible to resent because he sounds ragingly ill-adjusted and beset with a truly awful social life. The gist of his letter is that he completed a bachelor’s degree in film at Harvard and dropped out of graduate school (institution unspecified) after a year, and left school utterly incompetent both professionally and socially. The writer claims to have had no difficulty maintaining good grades in college and grad school, but describes himself as “so sheltered that I can’t give directions to my own home, nor do I keep track of how much money there is in my bank account. Basically, I haven’t had to learn the ins and outs of daily independent living and it’s driving me insane, because I am 25 AND I HAVE A HARVARD DEGREE!”

There’s obviously something wrong here that has nothing to do with Harvard. Some people are just fucking out of it. One of my high school teachers–mind you, at a prep school whose student body had a high average IQ–told me that she had students who for the life of them couldn’t tell her where they had changed planes on their most recent vacation. The Insurance Schmuck, who has a bachelor’s degree in economics, has overestimated the median household incomes of townships and counties where he has lived or worked by factors of up to three. There was also, of course, that dumb fucker of a senior international studies major at Dickinson who was mystified by my references to Pervez Musharraf and Hamid Karzai and needed my help naming the political offices that they held in the month of so following 9/11. This Harvard boy, however, is a special kind of clueless. Not only is he unable to balance his checking account, mentally or on paper, he doesn’t really know where he lives. He’s living with his parents again, presumably in his childhood home, so this is pretty bad news.

Harvard Boy goes on to lay out a weird but, to my mind at least, more or less understandable rationale for why he can’t get his shit together professionally or socially. As kooky as some of his reasoning is, it makes a lot more sense coming from a failed Harvard alum than it would from someone who went to a university for mere mortals. An environment as abnormal as Harvard will naturally produce abnormal thinking; it’s just that this fellow’s thinking is a different kind of abnormal than the kinds that are socially acceptable in the Ivy League. This isn’t the sort of status-consciousness that Harvard hoped to inspire in its young alumni:

Since I’ve dropped out of graduate school I’ve made some attempts to get a job, but not wholeheartedly. I was fired from a fast-food job a couple of months ago, which has shot my confidence for getting a higher-paying, higher-status job. I’m scared to death of getting one, because I don’t think I’ll put in the effort to do well. I don’t have to worry about paying the bills (my parents take care of it all) so there’s no external motivation to get serious….

I wouldn’t mind being isolated or having a low-status job if I were independent (not relying on parents). But “settling” for a “McJob” while under their roof seems to be the very example of slacking off because there’s no pressure to do better, and I feel embarrassed doing that.

I know there’s a way out of this — maybe finding a different set of friends; a mentor; making a plan and not caring what other people think of it — but getting out of bed to do it is the trick. I’ve even thought of running away to California (I studied film) but I don’t know how the hell I’d survive.

This guy is illogical, but he didn’t become illogical in a vacuum. Bougie parents are rarely logical about their precious snowflakes. Bougie peers are no better. In a healthy environment, Harvard Boy would feel no shame about seeking and holding menial jobs because he’d be a productive member of society. Instead, he feels forced to play a game that he knows he can’t win. He knows that his peers and their parents will look down on him, and cruelly so, for working the sandwich line at Arby’s. There’s no way around it. He’s paralyzed by the fear that he won’t be able to measure up.

He didn’t come up with this preoccupation on his own; he learned it from the community. It’s been said that disordered thinking adapts to cultural norms, and not vice versa. The cultural norms to which Harvard Boy has adapted include a belief in winning at all costs, and he’s a loser. He doesn’t try because he’s living in a socioeconomic milieu in which he will either get no social proof or lose social proof for making a good-faith effort to support himself and adjust to the workplace at a fast food job. He’s responding poorly and self-destructively, but the incentives he’s responding to are so perverse that he isn’t exactly irrational.

Even his notion of running away to California isn’t as eccentric as it sounds. He has the insight to realize that it would be a reckless move, and that’s better than many people. If he knows that he stands a chance of having his body found in a pool of blood on Skid Row, he probably won’t end up dead on Skid Row. Again, though, his academic and socioeconomic milieu encourages exactly that sort of deracination in pursuit of personal ambition, and it denigrates those who have the self-awareness and modesty to admit that they wouldn’t be able to hack it. Harvard Boy has spent his life in an environment where it’s cool for a twenty-something to dick around with filmmaking in LA on family money and uncool to “settle” for an entry-level job in food service.

Harvard Boy describes serious social deficits, a knack for alienating family and friends, a pathological habit of withdrawing into the internet for most of his waking hours and being unable to reintegrate socially when he finally signs off, major depression, and suicidal thoughts. Some of this trouble has to be intrinsic. It doesn’t help, of course, that his parents would apparently rather let him drift endlessly than try to give him some structure and guidance.

His ability to complete his undergraduate studies at Harvard with consistently good grades calls Harvard’s academic rigor into question, although it’s far from the first thing to do so. Maybe school gave Harvard Boy the structure and discipline he needed to not totally lose it, or maybe he was a legacy admission. For what it’s worth, Harvard’s undergraduate division is notorious for grade inflation.

Cary Tennis’s advice to Harvard Boy starts off sensibly enough with a suggestion that he may have Asperger’s Syndrome and that he ought to try therapy and basic lifestyle changes (diet, exercise, etc.). With that out of the way, however, Tennis plunges into the morass, encouraging Harvard Boy to take full advantage of his white privilege and seize all the amazing professional opportunities that are given to Whitey by Whitey. Some of Tennis’s comments are bizarre. It’s obvious that this kid is getting shit for constituent services from Whitey. Harvard Boy isn’t about to get studio invitations from bigshots in the industry. If that were in the cards, he wouldn’t have had occasion to write to Cary Tennis about his professional failure. He would have written instead about his mere social failures while the ‘rents hooked him up with directors.

Shit, Whitey isn’t even the party responsible for hooking anyone up with the good stuff. That’s Bougie. Or Richie, Nicole, Lionel, or otherwise. Take a look around any number of dicey to outright bad neighborhoods in Reno, aside from the monoethnic barrios, and you’ll soon see bus shelters full of white people that some disoriented geezer could demolish with a Grand Marquis without hitting anyone who has a snowball’s chance in hell of ever joining SAG, let alone pitching scripts to Quentin Tarantino. My own constituent services from Whitey and Bougie have been dreadful, and I ain’t tweakin’ like some of these crackers. All I can say to Cary Tennis on this matter is damn, white boy, speak for yourself. If anything, white privilege has been checking me, as it does in Soviet Russia.

The only real point to mentioning this emo Ivy League shit over at Salon is to point out that the rest of us probably aren’t doing that badly. I know I’m not nearly as fucked up as Harvard Boy, and you probably aren’t nearly as fucked up as Harvard Boy, either.

But for the grace of God.

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