Monday, June 24, 2013

Andre Agassi's Open - The reluctant Psychoanalyst Ponders The Ability to Communicate

Know Thyself.  Easier said than done.  And Andre Agassi is incredibly open about how little he has known himself across the course of his life.  There's an irony here, because he seems to know about everything that is going on around him and to remember it with incredible clarity.  There is another irony in that he was an iconic figure in our culture - one whom we, in my generation, know - one with whom we feel familiar - whether from his play, from his packaging, first with Nike and then with Canon, or from his star studded relationships, first with Brooke Shields and later with Steffi (or, as she prefers, Stephanie) Graf.  How can someone who is so well known not be known to himself?  And, as he gains self knowledge, how far has he come?  These are questions that we ask with our analysands all the time.  They are also questions that we should know will contain a great deal of uncertainty in their answers.  Some of the uncertainty will come from not knowing how much of the memoir is Agassi's, it is a collaborative effort with a Pulitzer Prize winning writer - but mostly it will come because we are not collaboratively engaged, ourselves, with this person, despite his implicit promise to be open. That said, the form of the writing appears to be somewhat psychoanalytic in that the first step in the writing was for Agassi and his co-author to engage in long taped conversations about his life and to transcribe them.  They then worked and reworked them to become the book, but it still retains the feeling of narrative - of a tale told to a confidante.  We are able to listen in - even if we can't engage, analytically, in the dialogue.

Before delving into analysis, let me first say that the narrator of this story is an incredibly likable guy.  He tells his story well and I would find it entertaining even if I had no idea who Brooke Shields was and hadn't seen him playing tennis on TV for over a decade.  This guy comes across as someone who would be fun to hang out with.  In part this is because he doesn't "know" himself.  He's not filled with the kind of self-love that is off-putting.  The voice of this memoir is very similar to the voice of Bill Clinton in his memoir "My Life".  There is an aw-shucks quality of "Can you believe that this happened to me?"  And I think for Andre, more than for Bill, though it is a bit the case for both of them, it comes from a place of being the golden child - not through effort - though both displayed a lot of effort (almost against his will Agassi hit a million - such a big number - a million tennis balls a year for almost thirty years), but through disowned effort.  The central revelation in this book, something that Agassi "lied" about in interviews throughout his career, is that he hates tennis.  The activity that most defines him - the one that has brought him fortune and fame - the thing that he is most "known" for - we now "know" is something that he does not identify with.  It is something that he does - as it were - against his will.

So it is interesting that this man does not mention his second major packaging slogan - Rebel, though the first, "Image is Everything" is disowned as a Madison Avenue ploy.  But rebel he does - but also, I believe, does not.

Agassi is born to a highly demanding immigrant from Iran - a youthful boxer and apparently the lone tennis player in Tehran (he hit balls against a wall?) who escaped to build a better life in the United States.  Here he met and wooed a woman - a Clevelander - who was taken by his charm - they eloped to California and ultimately landed in Las Vegas where he worked as a pit boss - and she learned how much grit she had as she withstood his harsh diatribes and crazy pursuit of having one of his children become the next number one tennis player in the world.  The father bought a place far enough out in the desert that he could afford it and have enough land that he could build a tennis court on it, which he did, even though he knew nothing about construction.  Then he built a crazy dragon of a ball delivery machine to fire balls at his four children who wielded rackets to fend them off.  His youngest, Andre, was particularly adept - particularly quick, and he was being shown off by his father and hauled to tournaments all over the west at a very young age.

Andre went along with this - mostly, he maintains, because he got caught up in winning, which he liked and, at least as importantly, because he imagined his father liked it, and because he hated to lose.  When Andre meets Brooke, she comments that they are so much alike (and like her friend Michael Jackson, whom Andre finds a bit bizarre) because they had no childhood.  Brooke had a mother who pushed her into modeling and acting from a very early age - but more importantly, from a psychoanalytic perspective, used her as a tool to achieve her own goals.  This use of another as a narcissistic extension, or in plain English, an extension of oneself, is an important component of all parenting.  Who hasn't cringed when their child makes a mistake in public - as if it were we who were making the mistake?  Who hasn't cheered when their child has done well - and felt as proud, or even prouder, than if we, ourselves, had done that thing?  And what child hasn't work hard to achieve the adulation of his or her parent?  And what child hasn't experienced, to a lesser extent than Andre, who was sent away from his parents' love to a tennis "academy" that felt more like a prison, the irony of winning their parents attention only to be disappointed by being in the limelight, or having greater demands put on them, or achieving some other unintended consequence?

And who hasn't been a fan of Agassi, or Graf, or Sampras because we see something in their character - something in their grit or stamina or ability that we admire and identify with - or want to identify with - that we want to own, and that we borrow by becoming their fan - their big brother or sister, or mother or father - so that they have, instead of just their nuclear family on the sidelines, a big family - a stadium full of appreciative fans using them as narcissistic extensions - as self extensions.  And is it any wonder that, in the midst of being so many things to so many people they lose a sense of who it is that they are to themselves?  Especially given that even the most grounded amongst us - those blessed with parents who are frequently able to see us for who we are and might be - and less frequently for who they fear or hope we are and might be - who amongst us with this "healthier" foundation knows themselves?

So Andre has presented this book as a chronicle of who he has been - unbeknownst to himself - but also who it is that he has become - how it is that he has become better known to himself.  And he has made great progress in this.  His first marriage, even though Brooke reflected aspects of himself to himself, was an empty one - at least as it is related here.  Though my hunch is that is was not as empty as he portrays it (more on this in a moment).  He and Brooke began their love match by courting via fax machine when she was shooting a movie on location in Africa.  They found solace in each other - a similar perspective on the world, but they were also very different people.  He - intensely private and competitive, she very public and affable - if somewhat - well vacuous would be cruel, and naive would disavow considerable worldliness, but perhaps shallow in the sense of seeking whatever it is that she is looking for in this interaction at this moment, and being satisfied by it (and not, like Andre, bearing a grudge against an opponent who cheated when they were young teenagers and feeling vindicated when he destroys him in a professional tournament, but also not like Andre with clear likes and dislikes - with a comfortable sense of what he wants to eat in this restaurant, and no particular interest in trying new things on the menu).  She characterizes her openness to new experience as a virtue, and derides his stubbornness as a failing.  And this book is presented, in part, as Andre's overcoming this failing - becoming a new person, a more open person.

The resolution of Andre's character, and his evolution as a person, he pins to his becoming generative.  He tips the valet parking guy more than his nemesis, Sampras, does.  And he, the kid who drops out of school at 14 (his Mom took the correspondence courses for him), starts an academy - there is some irony in this word as it was the place he was sent off to - for urban kids in Las Vegas.  He has been transformed from anti-school to pro-school.  At least for others... What we don't hear about are his own scholarly pursuits.

I am not nitpicking here.  I don't think or expect that Andre should go from being the best on the court to getting a MacArthur genius grant.  But what I mean to suggest is that there is a bit of hollowness to the coming of age portion of this memoir.  Mr. Agassi has matured.  He has decided to start a family with Stephanie.  He is less open about his relationship with Stephanie than he was about the relationship with Brooke.  Partly that makes sense - she is s a private person and they have an ongoing relationship that deserves to be protected.  But it also seems to me that this relationship may be more about supporting Andre - he may be more like his father than he can recognize - perhaps especially because, on the surface, he has changed directions so completely - neither he nor Stephanie want their children to become tennis players.  He is not involved in the development of his children as extensions of himself.  And he is proud of that.  Are they serving the same purpose by NOT being pushed into a career in tennis?  This seems to be a trap - he is damned either way.  And my sense is not that it is through his children -about whom we learn very little - that we will discover the transformation - or lack thereof, but elsewhere.

Agassi has always been competitive.  What drove him, from his perspective, was not his love of tennis, but his love of winning.  I think that, underneath that, what may have made his character so compelling - and may have helped him engage so deeply in his tennis career - was actually his ambivalence.  This is a man who deeply loves - and hates - his family of origin.  He craves closeness with his parents - and does come to see and respect them in ways that are admirable - he appears to achieve a three dimensional picture of them and to get a sense of what drove them to do the things that he hated - no mean feat.  He built a world of friends - the press described it as an entourage - who supported him, and to whom he was deeply attached and whom he supported financially, but more importantly emotionally and spiritually, when they were confronted by terrible life situations.  He is both deeply invested in himself and in the people near him about whom he deeply cares.

What he does not acknowledge in the book is that his openness is partial.  He says that he hates tennis - when in fact, I believe that he also loves it.  He portrays his relationship with Brooke as vapid and states that when it was finally over, it was over.  And yet she is listed as one of the people who reads the manuscript before it is published.  In one of their early breakups, Andre smashes his trophies - and then tells Brooke about having done that.  I think he is trying to articulate a deeply felt desire to be married to her not as they have been - but as they could be, though he cannot imagine how they would get from here to there.  He hates her as she is - he hates the relationship as it is - and yet he has derived great satisfaction from it and from her - from the idea of her and from the idea that she is present in his life - a fan of his - even if that has been convoluted.

This is an enthralling tale of the development of an enfant terrible.  The kid who, before our eyes morphed from one persona to the next, perhaps most incredibly into mature tennis star who became dedicated to the sport he hated as his career peaked and ended.  This book gives us access to the internal experience that accompanied the roller coaster ups and downs that saw him get to that point.  And it is, as the title promises, an open rendition of that experience - surprisingly and charmingly so.  It also, and here I would say of necessity, comes up short of some types of openness, because I think they are just out of reach of the author.  We can, and here I have, opined about what may lay beyond that reach - but we won't know until he goes there.  This book, which on the one hand seems so complete - it is presented as the definitive take on his life - almost cries out (in my mind) for a sequel.  After he steps out of the limelight; after he writes his memoir; after he settles down with the woman who seems right for him and raises his children, who does this man become?  Can he continue to develop the amazing capacity for openness that he has shown here?  As he becomes everyman, will he continue to be able to articulate that experience?  Will this man of the many personae (and hairstyles) continue to develop?  For his, and his wife's, and his kids' sakes, we can hope so.

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