"And when did you last see your father?"  William Frederick Yeames 1878

“And when did you last see your father?” William Frederick Yeames 1878


I always wanted to grow up to be a great lover, a famous saint or – if it could be arranged – both.

There were obstacles, the memory of which still visits me from time to time. For example, there was the afternoon at the apartment of a pleasing little classmate whom I did not know very well. Arriving home again, I spun out a tale that seemed to keep the same tune and beat as the grownup stories of being ill-used that I often heard at the dinner table. I no longer remember the details that I made up (thank God!) – but they had to do with how Nancy, my playmate, was being ill-treated (by another child? by the maid?) and how, worst of all, her mother didn’t know!

When my mother, thinking to do the right thing, called Nancy’s mother, it was soon made clear to her that no such thing had happened or could have happened.   Remembering the truth only when I overheard her side of the phone call, I prudently hid in the closet.

It looks funny now, but I rather wish my parents had treated the whole thing more harshly than they did, instead of thinking it funny. I never had that confrontation that Protestant kids are supposed to have, where the divide between truth-tellers and liars is sharply drawn, and preferably driven home with a cane or a leather strap. Instead, only by degrees and degrees did I learn to see that, indeed, there is “a great gulf fixed.”

Another time, my mother (of whom I think the world, but who – as she would be the first to tell you – wasn’t perfect) decided to play the ouija board. This is a board game where the letters of the alphabet are arrayed on one side of the board while the players put their hands on a piece of wood or plastic called a planchette. Then they wait patiently for visiting spirits slowly to spell out their replies or messages, by moving the planchette from letter to letter.

My mother invited me and other family members to be players. The others soon got bored, which left me as the only reliable partner. The reason I was so reliable was that I had tired of it so quickly that – to offset excruciating boredom – I took to pushing the planchette and pretending that messages were arriving from Miklosch, the departed husband of one of my mother’s Russian friends.

This went on, I forget how long, but it put me in the most awful situation. Finally, I could take it no more and confessed, to one and all, that “Miklosch” had been none other than myself.

Once again, the general reaction was, unfortunately, amusement. My mother was apparently more surprised that I‘d been deliberately pushing the planchette than she’d been that Miklosch had communicated with her from the beyond.

Why didn’t they give me the Protestant speech, or take a strap to me, or by some other means draw that bright, red line?

I really don’t know. My parents’ courtship had been spent in long discussions of Marcel Proust, where the subtlest changes of mood become the main event, finely delineated in long paragraphs. There are no bright red lines. The Proustian paragraphs lie in the areas between the large actions. They guide you to notice with care – and leave inward room for – the moments of subjective experience.

Also, my parents were not Protestants. The villages in the Pale of Settlement to which the Tsarist regime had consigned their forebears were places of labyrinthine concealments.   The stratagems of compensation were many-layered: such as self-refuting scholarship, self-consuming, pietistic ecstasies and self-confuting ironies. To be co-victims of anti-Semitism – the world’s oldest and most contagious of mental illnesses – is not an encouragement to emerge full and fearless into the white light of day.

Bambi would like to leave the sheltering forest and run round the sunlit meadow, but he’d get shot and killed if he did.

They did not make the Protestant speech and I grew up anyway, as best I could. What measures did I take subsequently to find the naked light of truth and walk under it? It was a matter of confronting fears as much as deciding to be “on oath” at every occasion. It was a process that went forward sometimes by a sudden, dramatic taking-a-stand, but ordinarily by a longer, more enshadowed and groping exploration of ambiguities and double-messages. I met goods to be weighed, greater and lesser evils to be ranked.

Gandhi said, “Truth is God.” But where was truth when he took nubile girls into bed with him to test his innocence – and to hell with theirs? Even the Truly Great … have trouble finding the truth that is God.

Which doesn’t mean it isn’t worth the trouble.

About Abigail

Abigail Rosenthal is Professor Emerita of Philosophy, Brooklyn College of CUNY. She is the author of A Good Look at Evil, a Pulitzer Prize nominee, now available in an expanded, revised second edition and as an audiobook. Its thesis is that good people try to live out their stories while evil people aim to mess up good people’s stories. Her next book, Confessions of a Young Philosopher, forthcoming and illustrated, provides multiple illustrations from her own life. She writes a weekly column for her blog, “Dear Abbie: The Non-Advice Column” (www.dearabbie-nonadvice.com) where she explains why women's lives are highly interesting. She’s the editor of the posthumously published Consolations of Philosophy: Hobbes’s Secret; Spinoza’s Way by her father, Henry M. Rosenthal. Some of her articles can be accessed at https://brooklyn-cuny.academia.edu/AbigailMartin . She is married to Jerry L. Martin, also a philosopher. They live in Bucks County, Pennsylvania.
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5 Responses to “Imperfections”

  1. carla ifera says:

    …..not knowing anything about the practices of ‘spiritualism’, you must be right in your analogy abby……have met many ‘pure souls’ during my sojourn in this life…..although these people would never presume to define themselves with such a noble description……:)…..btw, nice to see a woman of mental integrity gifted as you are with writing skills…..lotz of writing out there…..but ‘slim pickin’s ‘ for those who want to reserve their contemplations for the mind of the Lord….:)

    • carla ifera says:

      …..thanx for your reply abby…… hey, is it okay for me to refer to you as ‘abby’?….that name comes clearly to mind when i want to address you…..somehow, i feel it’s an identify associated with you on some obscure level….can’t help but acknowledge this intuition….what does the name ‘abby’ mean to you?…..btw, have just written a poem….a joke i heard yrs ago and considered worthy of record…..expanded the joke into ‘story form’ and set it to the cadence of a poem…..would like to share it with you and jerry….(if you’re not into poems, not to worry…..you’re still a christian…..lol)….give me a connection here or ‘there’ to ship this poem to you, if interested…..lv, carla…..:)

      • Abigail says:

        I do appreciate your kind words, Carla. Names are very interesting. I guess sometimes (but not always) they set the scene or impart some directional arrow to our choices in life. My name in Hebrew means “father’s joy” and it certainly was a reminder to me of the father I adored. As to “Abby” vs “Abigail” vs “Abbie”: “Abigail” is the more grownup name but I never set that much store by growing up. “Abby” is what the friends who knew me “back when” still call me. And “Abbie” differentiates me from the good lady who wrote the original advice column under the name of “Dear Abby.” The other difference is that mine is a “Non-Advice column”!

  2. Carla says:

    In reference to your article Abby, I had a very interesting experience when a young girl….I was a a slumber party with some other girls and we played with an ouija board…..All of the girls had a turn and I, being very shy, took my turn last……Nothing had happened with the other girls on the board, so i was completely surprised at what occurred when I placed my hands on the planchette……The devise immediately started moving back and forth over the board without my slightest push…..It felt funny to me, this thing moving under my hands, independent of any action on my part…..Being a quiet kid, I didn’t ask the board any questions….One of the girls asked: “Who are you?” The answer rolled out, letter by letter: Satan……I had never used that name before and usually referred to this person as the devil….We, frightened, immediately stopped playing. And you won’t believe what happened next while we sat in that sober circle on the rug, alone in this basement playroom!! The lights suddenly turned off and we were in the dark!!……We all screamed, but the parents upstairs thought we were playing and didn’t come down…..I don’t know who finally had the courage to get up and find the light switch…..It certainly wasn’t me!!

    • Abigail says:

      Carla, all I can say is WOW! What a story! Thanks for agreeing to post it, since others may be warned in a timely way, not to play around with this particular parlor game. Yuck. I don’t know exactly what to make of it but — when I read it — I did say to Jerry, “Carla is a pure soul and Satan finds those types particularly attractive!”

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