One Mans Universeby Miriam Greenberg
“Spring came at last, no thanks to me.”
If there is one line that captures the spirit of The Talking Cure, WBAI radio personality Mike Feder’s new autobiography, this is the one. Here is encapsulated the author’s unique combination of plodding depression, mordant humor, and a degree of self-obsession verging on the absurd. Spring came at last (sigh!), no thanks to me (ha ha!). But wait a minute – what could our nebbish narrator possibly have to do with the passing of the seasons? What is he, the center of the universe?
And herein lies the dilemma: Yes, Feder is the center of the universe, but the universe, unfortunately for him (and the reader), doesn’t see it that way.
Feder’s early life is indeed nightmarish. It begins in Laurelton, Queens, where he and his sister grow up in the shadow of Mount Sinai cemetery and under the thumb of a clinically insane mother. Ruth Feder sits alone all day with the shades drawn, insisting that her son tell her stories, so that she might vicariously experience the outside world, while also threatening that if he fails to do so she’ll have another nervous breakdown, or be forced to commit suicide. Young Mike thus identifies with Scheherazade of The Thousand and One Nights: “The idea of someone having to tell a new tale every night to prevent their head getting chopped off seemed sadly familiar to me.”
The rest of the family is no help. A few years after his mother’s initial breakdown his father abandons the family, taking “engineering and construction jobs” all over the world (or perhaps working with the CIA, as is later intimated), sending only the occasional exotic postcard or toy sword to his son. Over the years, he and his sister are visited by relatives never concerned enough to extricate them from their traumatic home.
As for school, Feder’s precocious intelligence was combined with mounting emotional problems—something no one in his provincial, middle-class Queens world ever sought to understand. Despite his high marks on the Regents exam, Feder’s high school teachers never saw him as anything but “a blight on the great record of intellectual and scholastic achievement that Jews were supposed to display to the rest of the world.”
It is only after leaving home, high school, and Queens that Feder envisions how he can escape: by creating an alternate universe where only he is at the center, where his problems are most important, where he alone can speak. This seems to be the main motivation of both his life and the current text: to find the ultimate talking cure, an uninhibited space for verbally unraveling the psychological wounds inflicted in childhood. Through his various relationships with his lovers, wives, psycho-analysts, and children; through his one-man performances on radio and in the theater; and finally through his autobiographical writing (realized also in his first book New York Son), Feder seems to equate his process of growth with his ability to create the perfect, unchallenged monologue.
This tragic narcissism can make for engrossing reading, combined as it is with Feder’s sardonic sense of storytelling and unabashed penchant for plumbing his most painful memories. The fascination of reading this somber tale is not quite that of voyeur, but rather of a fellow traveler in a hostile Feder-o-centric world, in which one marvels at his amazing ability to conjure up, and survive, his own life. In this sense, Feder writes in the tradition of other autobiographic accounts of the descent into and recovery from nervous breakdowns, a tradition including works such as Marie Cardinal’s The Words to Say It and Kate Millett’s The Loony-Bin Trip. As in these efforts, Feder’s celebration of psychoanalysis as opposed to drug treatment—which stifles his ability to think, speak, or heal himself—provides a prescient critique of the increasing medicalization and corporatization of the mental health industry.
Yet unlike Millett’s and Cardinal’s intensive character studies and broader social analysis, Feder’s account left this reader constantly in search of signs of other life in the universe. His relationship with a string of therapists drives most of the story, and Feder’s voice is so thoroughly inflected with therapeutic language that his conclusions, as in some act of literary transference, often seem to mirror those of the therapists themselves. His self-analysis, moreover, generally comes at the expense of noticing, let alone analyzing, complex emotions in any other figure in his life. While some might defend this as acceptable autobiographical practice, I would argue that it turns the narrator into a more colorful but equally shallow version of those playing bit parts in his drama.
Feder’s solipsism is particularly evident in his descriptions of women which, beginning with his own mother, are completely overshadowed by his anger at their “castrating” role. The reason why his once brilliant, beautiful mother suffers a nervous breakdown shortly after her second child was born, an incident central to the ensuing events of his life, and an experience common to women of her generation who married young and gave up their careers, is never explored beyond these terse lines: “My mother had been a little genius when she was growing up in the twenties and thirties in Brooklyn. She skipped three grades and entered Hunter…when she was fifteen years old. She graduated at nineteen, and by then she was already nervous, spoiled, and far too sensitive.”
Similarly, we are left simply to imagine the experience of his sister, whose life in the same abusive home merits no more than the following self-referential lines: “Just a few years ago, my sister told me that my mother had actually attacked her a few times when I was out at school, and that she had to be pulled off her by my grandmother and my uncle. Sandy has always been a painful part of my life story. Now, decades later, I finally talk to her.”
Not surprisingly, Feder confesses to being “terrified of all women” –beginning with his first two wives, both of whom he marries reluctantly and leaves once they start expecting him to “become a husband.” His daughter is acceptable only until she starts talking, thus moving in on her mother’s/his wife’s attention. His three bitter lines devoted to his marriage and daughter’s birth: “Six months later I was married, and a year after that my daughter, Sarah, was born. She began talking very early. And she never stopped.” The only good woman in the story is Rose, an avid listener of his radio show who sends him sychophantic fan mail and waits six years until he leaves his second wife and is let out of a mental hospital before she becomes his “nurse and wife.”
Meanwhile, Feder’s errant, swashbuckling father, described alternately as “a fantasy out of a movie,” “the Boss,” and “a hero like Hemingway,” is the one other character with an inner life, albeit a cartoonish one. This is interesting given the fact that he spends relatively little time with the man, who dies in Feder’s twenties in an airplane accident during a mission in Iran. While critical of his father’s temper tantrums and hyper competitiveness, Feder feels (or expresses) no anger towards this man, nor by extension to all men, for his/their role in ruining his childhood. More than anything, Feder seems forever in awe of his father’s unfettered freedom after leaving his mother.
Time and place are also a shadowy backdrop to his succession of personal crises and recoveries—again, unlike either Cardinal’s contextualization of her breakdown with her exodus as a pied-noir in 1950s Algeria on the verge of war, or Millett’s interweaving of life in the women’s arts scene in 1960s New York with the discovery of her manic depression. For Feder, the politics of the 1960s in which he grew up can be boiled down into the following passing reflection, meant only to explain why he chooses not to join the police: “Then came Vietnam, welfare protests, black voter registration; the cops always seemed to come down on the wrong side.”
Feder’s chapters on the raucous life of WBAI in the 1960s and 70s are evocative, though brief. Perhaps some of the best scenes of the book are his descriptions of the hilarious call-in shows and pseudo interviews—like the one with the chairman of the First Annual Sex Olympics—that personalities like Steve Post used to air. Feder’s deep appreciation for the humor and iconoclasm of WBAI’s listeners and hosts in the face of bland, conservative corporate radio reveals a side of him that the reader wants to hear more about.
In the end, Feder’s estranged mother makes good on her life-long threat to commit suicide, leaving behind a note saying, “I can no longer live without the respect of my children.” This even liberates Feder, yet shackles him further to his childhood anger. As he says: “My mother had won again. She had taken center stage from the very beginning and never moved off the spot. She was center stage now, and she would be there forever. Who could possibly follow this act?” It is Feder, of course, who assumes the spotlight, becoming very much like the hurtful, self-centered woman he struggled against.
In the end, The Talking Cure is an ambitious, tragic, and often very amusing memoir. Yet it is ultimately a frustrating one, and the reader can’t help but attempt her own analysis of this sad tale, and some of its broader implications: Can we see in this story the darker, misogynistic side of Philip Roth’s Portnoy, antihero for all those angry, middle class Jewish boys of the 60s so eager to abandon their mothers, and their ethnicity, and to prove their all-American manliness on the backs of WASP women? How does its publication reflect the mounting obsession of commercial media, especially publishers, with the memoir and other self-reflective, therapeutic narratives, at the expense of broader historical and political frameworks? And most generally, how can we as individuals and as a society learn to critique and transcend the confines of childhood—rather than endlessly and selectively replay its injustices, relive it as we wish it was, reject responsibility, and never grow up?