Love Is… Never Resenting Success
Whenever a friend succeeds, a little something in me dies.” — Gore Vidal
I’ve always thought that quotation summed up Vidal to be what he was: as a bitter old queen’s bitter old queen. I was reminded of his words the other day when I had a brief private chat on Facebook with my friend Charles Graeber, author of The Good Nurse, an investigative book about the most prolific serial killer in history, Charles Cullen, which was released last week and entered at number fourteen on The New York Times non-fiction bestseller list. After his appearance on a 60 Minutes special on Sunday, as well as Charlie Rose, various morning shows and a Reddit Ask Me Anything, it is likely to climb higher by this weekend. As I write this, Charlie is about to go on air on Huffington Post TV, and The Good Nurse has sold out at Mysterious Bookshop in NYC.
Heady times for a first-time author.
Charlie was both humble and brimming with enthusiasm when we chatted, as is usual with him and integral to his unselfconscious charisma. He thanked me for being so supportive, when all I’d done was post comments like, “Congrats! Well done, Charlie!” and hit the ‘like’ button on the blizzard of items he was sharing that related to his book’s meteoric launch. I wrote, “Well, it helps that I have a lingering crush on you, Charlie, otherwise I might take Gore Vidal’s stance about a friend’s success, although I have no attraction to Jay Bulger and I had the pompoms out for him, too.” (Jay is a mutual friend who won the SXSW festival last year with his documentary Beware of Mr. Baker, which I promoted here since its early days when I’d just seen a rough edit, but from that alone it was pretty clear he had a winner on his hands.)
I’m not at all immune to resentment over someone else’s success. I began my review of Jeff Nichols’ Mud last week with,
I should get this review out first before seeing [his earlier film Taking Shelter] or I might be too hampered by resentment for Nichols’ talent to talk about him.”
Nichols isn’t a friend. He is my romantic type, though—tall, blond, talented—so maybe if he were my friend I wouldn’t have felt any resentment at all. But there is a lot of admiration mixed in with personal experience when I express professional envy. Later in that same review I wrote, “I know from the depths of my muse to the tips of my typing fingers just what a tough act Nichols is to follow.” The upshot of my candor and the review in general was appreciation from the filmmakers themselves, a small accolade to enjoy.
I find that if I express envy immediately and as vocally as possible that ‘green-eyed monster’ vanishes quickly. And sometimes I’m not honest and use the expression of both unhappiness at someone’s success and its even/odd antonym, schadenfreude—happiness at someone’s misfortune—as a backhanded compliment. For instance, a few months ago I ran into another best-selling author friend, one of whose novels was turned into an acclaimed film that I enjoyed a lot. After asking how she was, she replied, “Oh, you know. I’m miserable and hard up.” She’s British, and they don’t lie like Americans, who invariably respond with, “I’m doing great, thanks!”
“My schadenfreude has just risen to new levels,” I said, indicating a point on my forehead to show it was at maximum. But in reality I was shocked and dismayed that someone so successful, so talented should be struggling along with the rest of us.
Both envy and schadenfreude arise from low self-esteem, from which most people who aren’t Donald Trump suffer, artists in particular. A few years ago, I announced to my boyfriend at the time that a big-name director he admired had signed on to direct a script of mine. I’d made the announcement over dinner with friends at a restaurant. My boyfriend proceeded to get very drunk, and when we got home he burst into bitter tears and had to go sleep in the spare room because he couldn’t bear to be with me; it just wasn’t fair that I was being given this opportunity when he was battling to get his own work recognized. I felt like telling him that an attachment didn’t mean my piece was actually going to be produced—any director worth his or her salt signs on to a handful of projects at once because only one will move forward, and in this instance mine ultimately wasn’t one of them—but I was too shocked to offer that consolation, and it wouldn’t have made a difference to his extreme reaction. I’d never witnessed such an outward blaze of resentment towards me, particularly from someone who was supposed to love me. But it was perversely comforting to know I’d hit a jackpot, albeit not one that ever saw results.
A few months later, he had his own bit of good news, which was to be the steppingstone to the acclaim he now enjoys as an artist. I was genuinely happy for him, not to mention greatly relieved, and expressed another antonym of schadenfreude, what the Buddhists call mudita, the delight in someone’s happiness. After hugging him I said, still stinging from that night when envy compelled him to sleep in another room, “Now, let me tell you as if for the first time, ‘So-and-so is directing my script.’ How do you feel?”
“Perfectly okay,” he replied, genuinely surprised that his own green-eyed monster had transformed into a sparkling-eyed dancing pixie.
As far as Charlie’s success goes, a lot of my mudita for him might have to do with the fact we have a few things in common as writers. We are both of us voluble, passionate, involved, impressionistic and our prose can be convoluted and tangential. I’ve watched him grow as a writer from when he was penning travelogue—we met in Delhi when he was writing a piece for National Geographic Adventure about pulling a boat up the Ganges—to more weighty articles like his award-winning pieces for Wired about the Japanese tsunami disaster and download pirate king Kim Dot Com.
More than inciting envy, Charlie’s rise and trajectory are inspirational. It took him seven years to finish The Good Nurse. No doubt there were countless hours of research and interviews that needed to be compiled and edited and woven into a compelling narrative that earned Janet Maslin’s admiration, then draft upon draft of the text. But that’s what it takes, and Charlie is at that point where he has what it takes to be successful at his vocation. It’s a dream come true for all of us, but most of us will never experience the realization of that dream. Still, at the end of the day, the celebration of that come-trueness totally eclipses the lameness of resentment. Or it should.