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Richard E. Cytowic Excerpt, 2010 Fall

In the Quiet

My godfather, an orthopedic surgeon who never bought anything off the rack, used to say of me, “He’s the only kid I know who has the same expression on his face no matter what he’s doing.” When my father, also a physician, spent time with me going on clothing sprees or bringing me along on house calls in the 1950s, he’d try to draw me out.

“You’re awfully quiet,” he’d say.

I usually said that there wasn’t much to say. I could stay silent for hours, an ability adults remarked on as if it were some kind of feat that took effort. But it wasn’t. My placid exterior covered up a rich inner life. A favorite teacher later told me that my face gave away the fact that something was always going on in my mind, that wheels were turning.

So which was I, a poker-faced stoic or an open book? I can confirm that I’m comfortable with contradiction and ambiguity; that I grew up in a household that was Auntie Mame squared, a place of constant parties, hangers–on, and libertine chaos that foreclosed privacy, peace, and quiet; that my father was a narcissist who put textbook definitions to shame; that he was an alcoholic and narcotic addict driven to destroy everything he professed to love.

Children of alcoholics turn into astute observers. Predictably unpredictable behavior makes us learn to read a parent, and others, in order to survive. We adapt to ambiguity because we must love someone whom we can’t trust. We step back and observe with detachment. So adept do we become at recording from a distance that we make ourselves the stable hub of a wheel around which chaotic events can spin. If we choose we can become invisible, the quiet camouflage of invisibility an excellent shield.

Richard E. Cytowic