What Would Professor Perlman Do
Parenting seems like too great a responsibility to only have on-the-job training. I realize that reading books, consulting doctors, and asking friends or family for advice may not result in higher quality child-rearing. But the permission—tacit or explicit—a parent can grant a child to explore is invaluable. It’s a freedom not found in any manual or blog. I found it in Professor Samuel Perlman’s monologue to his son Elio (Timothée Chalamet) in Luca Guadagnino’s extraordinary film Call Me By Your Name. With magnificent humility Michael Stuhlbarg has implored an entire generation to invite in the joy and pain of a first love and a first heartbreak.
When I was an anxious and severely depressed college junior, one of my friends — let’s call her Laura — kissed me. No one had ever kissed me before. I was 21. It was about nine o’clock on a Tuesday night, and we were alone in my dorm room. I returned the kiss, but instead of delight I felt confusion. I’d known for several years by then that I was attracted to women and men, but I was equally sure I was undesirable to practically everyone. When Laura and I wound up having sex a few months later, I was bemused by the attention I was paid: Someone was reaching out to me, expressing an interest in my mind and body, and I did not know how to respond. The next morning dawned bitterly cold, and during the walk from Laura’s apartment to the subway station, a distance of nearly two miles, I attempted to dissect my malaise. It was not because of the act itself; I was not and never have been a prude or religious conservative. But this portal to a land of sexual awakening struck me dumb, the langue d’oc too undecipherable, the risk too untenable for me to undertake.
After that day I nursed crushes on women — friends, someone I met at a party, a stranger in a bar — but acted on none of it. The knowledge I’d acquired about my sexuality slowed into stagnation. It was only during my first screening of Call Me By Your Name that I realized why. My soul was marred by doubt that cold morning, as I’d left her apartment, and I didn’t know enough to engage with a completely natural part of myself.
Seeking advice from my parents — strict, absolutists, Hindu — was out of the question. I feared being branded dissolute, or just reckless, forsaking my studies to indulge in what they might deem a perversion. That year they’d screamed at me about my weight, and mandated that every day I was home for Christmas I, in order to lose 60 pounds, was to run three miles on the treadmill in the garage. Parents who took such umbrage with my appearance would surely have nothing empathetic or kind to say about incipient bisexuality.
That’s another victory of Professor Perlman’s: He’s not offended or appalled by Elio’s sexual exploration with Marzia (Esther Garrel) and Oliver (Armie Hammer). His acting conveys the single greatest aspect of parenting, one that never occurs to so many mothers and fathers: The gentle granting of agency.
“In my place most parents would hope the whole thing goes away...but I am not such a parent. ...How you live your life is your business.”
I nearly jumped out of my seat, because in the context of my upbringing that is a near-anarchic concept. My entire life could’ve been different if my parents exhibited even a mote of his grace. I spent every holiday not like Elio — lost in books, self-awareness, music, physical freedom — but on the defensive, about everything from my appearance to my mental health to my major.
“We rip out so much of ourselves to be cured of things faster that we go bankrupt by the age of 30.”
I’m 28, and the urge to shield myself from the pain of heartbreak, from the curiosity of same-sex attraction is one I have too often indulged. I wept during the two screenings of the film I attended, especially during Stuhlbarg’s monologue. But I felt fear too:
“Our hearts and our bodies are given to us only once. And before you know it, your heart’s worn out. And as for your body, there comes a point when no one looks at it, much less wants to come near it.”
Had I squandered these resources already? Was my desire for a woman already gone from me? In suppressing my bisexuality have I lost the time in which my mind and body were desirable to others?
Four days before February 14, 2018, my boyfriend of 10 months broke up with me via text message. Among the more memorable missives: “Thanks for destroying Valentine’s Day.” Three weeks prior one of our dogs got through a hole in the fence, and was hit by a car and died. I found his body in the road, blood pooled like a scarlet pillow around his head. His name was Thor and he was nearly 8. My boyfriend had had him since he was a few weeks old. I was blamed for his death, for letting Thor out into the yard at all. Suddenly the person I’d viewed as my soulmate unleashed a near-biblical torrent of rage, including his fists on my person. The bond we’d had evaporated like water droplets on a Texas sidewalk in July. In rapid succession I lost a child and a partner, and, once again, I couldn’t turn to my parents for emotional support. I moved out, and retreated into my parents’ house, where I’d been shamed, insulted, imprisoned. I was desperate to find an emotional Band-Aid, so at Mach speed I sedated myself with food and sleep, closing my heart and mind to the horrors of January and February. Some of what happened must be addressed in therapy, but only when I wrote this essay did I acknowledge that the pain is not independent of the joy. That Thor’s death shone a light on the depth of my intense love for dogs. That in the place of love incinerated by volcanic rage, something else would grow from the charred slopes of my soul.
At my best, aided almost fully by one of Stuhlbarg’s best performances, I know that I must welcome pain; in doing so I can greet an emotional spectrum that includes elation. This mind, this body is mine only in this life. Willing it to numb is a condemnation of life itself. I’m no stranger to submitting only to self-loathing or despair, but Professor Perlman advocates for a fuller life, one that molds us precisely because we are capable of joy and grief. He’s a classics scholar but I think he’d appreciate ‘The Guest House’, by the Persian poet Rumi:
This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival. [...]
Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they’re a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house empty of its furniture,
still, treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out for some new delight. [...]
Be grateful for whoever comes,
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.