(Oh no) Don’t say nothin’ bad about my baby,
(I love him so) Don’t say nothin’ bad about my baby,
(Oh don’t you know) Don’t say nothin’ bad about my baby,
He’s true (he’s true)
He’s true to me (true to me),
So girl, you better shut your mouth.
— The Cookies, 1963
Well, The Cookies certainly had strong feelings about the nobility of their “Baby,” now didn’t they? I won’t bore (or torture) you with the rest of the lyrics, but all in all, I believe it’s fair to say that the gist of the tale is as follows:
While “Baby” may, conceivably, have misbehaved badly in previous incarnations and relationships, his great and special love for “Me” has changed him completely, as he is now a wholesome and dedicated suitor who would never do anything to hurt Me or our fabulous coupling. Due to his great love for Me, Baby is now a changed man: true, good, and altogether committed to the sanctity of our close and holy intimacy. Oh, yes – and one more thing: anyone who doesn’t agree with, or indeed even dares to question the entirety of, the above, had just better, well, shut her mouth.
I believe that about covers it. Hmm, so what’s the take-home here? Well, for one thing, I guess we can all agree that Me is a very lucky girl, and a very special one, too – right? I mean, after all, Baby appears to be transformed, and all for the love of Me. She must be quite a gal – quite a gal, indeed – to inspire all that change for the better, in a guy who appears to have been something of a scamp, in his pre-Me life.
So, what was the appeal of this song? Yes, it had kind of a catchy tune, for its genre, but that’s certainly not all. Why did teenage girls take to it so strongly, even though most of the lyrics are merely a continuous, defiant repetition of the warning against speaking ill of the great Baby? Well, I think it touched on some universal sentiments and longings. First of all, we ALL want to be Special. So special, that, for the love of us, even a bad person could turn good. Tucked in with the wish to be special is the wish to believe that People Can Change. We also want to believe that our ‘someone special’ is in some sense, Perfect; that is, we idealize them. And finally, we all want to believe in a Perfect Love – that if we could only meet The Right Person, and be the Right Person for our Right Person, we really could walk off into the sunset together and be happy, forever.
Of course, we are all mature, sophisticated people who don’t really believe in, or wish for, these things anymore – aren’t we? We, the wise, the grown up, look back on songs like this, shake our heads sagely, and say, “Tut tut – that’s all just so much romanticized, teenage twaddle,” right?
But the fact is that, despite our not believing anymore, that these things are possible, we nevertheless still WANT them. Because for most of us, the outer veneer of emotional ‘sophistication’ is just that – a veneer. The longing for, and belief in, this ‘romanticized teenage twaddle’ is still there, just beneath the surface, waiting for the right circumstances to potentiate it.
Think you’re immune? Well, consider these folks:
1) Joe, a successful, middle-aged business executive who had been ‘happily’ married for twenty-five years. I’d been seeing him in therapy for about a year, dealing with his ongoing low-level depression. I saw him weekly, on Thursdays.
One Monday, I got an urgent call: “I have to see you, right now – something has happened.”
I try to ask what.
“No – I have to tell you in the office.”
Wow. Okay, we set up an appointment for Tuesday. I wonder all that afternoon and evening what it could be, wracking my brain for any memory of a medical condition, or a boss that might have it in for him, or fill-in-the-blank. I draw a blank.
Next day, I come out to get him in the waiting room. He’s a nervous wreck, unshaven and looking hung over, though he doesn’t really drink. I show him in to the office.
Pt: I’ve got to talk to you.
Me: That’s why we’re here – fire away.
Pt: (Rubbing his hands over his face – he hasn’t made eye contact yet) You’re going to say I’m crazy. But I’m not!
Me: Look, I don’t even have any idea what’s going on yet. Suppose you tell me first, then we’ll decide later if I think you’re crazy?
Pt: (Twisting his tie) Okay, then . . .
Me: Okay, then . . . what?
Pt: I’m in love!
(Silence, as I mentally offload cancer, the plague, getting fired, murder, and a host of other felonious and fatal suspects.)
Me: Okay . . . go ahead, I’m interested.
Pt: (Breathing hard) What am I going to do?
Me: Well, for now, I wish you’d tell me what you’re talking about, so we could all be in on it.
Pt: This isn’t funny.
Me: I’m not laughing – I just don’t have any idea what, or whom, you’re talking about. Is this someone I would know about?
Pt: Yes. I mean, well yes. Kind of. I mean, no – not really.
Me: Hmm – that covers a lot of territory. Can you be a little more specific?
Pt: Okay – it’s . . .well, it’s . . . I can’t.
Me: Is it an adult female?
Me: Someone you’ve known for a while?
Me: But it’s too scary to tell me who it is?
Pt: Yes. (Silence) Oh, okay, then: I had an affair with my admin. (Visibly shaking)
Me: Oh, you mean Edith?
Pt: (Looks around, terrified) My God! Don’t say her name!
Me: Joe, saying her name won’t make anything happen. It’s just a name.
Pt: Okay, then, I guess you can say it. (Pause) The main thing is: I’m in love!
Me: Wow – how long has this been going on?
Pt: Since last night.
Me: You mean – last night is the only time you’ve . . .
Pt: Yes. (Pause) But it’s enough.
Me: You mean, enough to know you’re in love?
Pt: Yes. (Angry, defensive) And that’s definite – you got that?
Me: Well, sure, I think I get what you’re . . .
Pt: No! It’s not what you think. This is . . . different – it’s like, amazing.
Me: Okay – amazing?
Pt: Yes. Beyond everything – just beyond . . . you know, just, like, way beyond.
Me: Joe – don’t you think . . .
Pt: God damn it – I knew it! I knew you were going to start questioning it, tearing it down, making it, somehow . . . cheap.
Me: Joe, I’m not trying to do anything . . .
Pt: Yes you are! I can hear it in your tone! You don’t really believe in it!
Me: Look – but isn’t Edith the one . . .
Pt; I knew it! I knew you were going to start with all that stuff! (Throws up hands) Oh, what’s the point?
Me: Joe, please – I was just . . .
Pt: Yeah, yeah, I know. Just because, once upon a time, I once told you a few minor things about her, you pre-judge, and go off like a Roman candle.
Me: Well, it wasn’t just once, and it wasn’t a few minor things. (Pause) I mean, you tried to get her fired, Joe – and for several pretty good reasons, as I remember.
Pt: (Stands up, in a challenging manner) Stop, right there! You’re talking about the woman I love!
(Editor’s note: Don’t say nothin’ bad about my baby!)
I’ll stop right there, as he advised me, so I can introduce you to:
2) Rebecca, a small, quiet bird of a woman. Thirty-two years of age, she had come in because she didn’t agree with the policies of her boss at the Oakland Library. The boss wanted Rebecca to ‘man’ the front desk more frequently, interfacing with the public and thereby maximizing the usefulness of the library facilities. Rebecca believed that being in ‘the back,’ taking proper care of the collections, was what her job was about. She didn’t much like dealing with the public, finding them on the whole “crass,” as well as “obnoxious and plebian.”
If you’re getting the picture of Rebecca as a somewhat haughty, prim introvert, well, then I’m doing a pretty good job of describing her. Her last relationship with a man had been at least ten years earlier, and she broke it off because she found him to be . . . well, I can’t remember her exact adjectives, but if you looked for him in a library, he’d have been filed in the Crass, Obnoxious and Plebian section.
Our sessions were on Wednesdays, at 6:00, and with Rebecca, that didn’t mean 6:00.01, if you get my drift. Let’s put it this way: once, in a small fit of affection, I slipped and called her Becky, and she almost quit therapy over it.
And then one day I got a call:
Rebecca: I have to talk to you.
Me: Now’s as good as any.
Rebecca: No – in person, and in private.
Me: The NSA isn’t onto me yet, as far as I know.
Rebecca: This isn’t funny.
Me: Okay, then let’s set up a private appointment in my private office.
Rebecca: What did I just say?
Me: Okay, in all seriousness, let’s meet tomorrow at 4:00.
Rebecca: Alright, then: 4:00.
(Editor’s note: “And don’t give me no 4:00:01, either.”)
It made me feel like I was part of a sting operation – you know, like a cop or something.
The next day, I was working Robbery Detail out of Rampart Division, when the suspect came in for a sit-down:
Rebecca: I have something to tell you.
Me: Sounds like a good reason for a meeting.
Rebecca: This isn’t funny.
Me: Sorry, Ma’am: just the facts. (Okay, I didn’t really say that, but that’s what it felt like.)
Rebecca: I met someone, at the library. (Pause) And he touched me.
Me: He touched you? Where?
Rebecca: In Biography.
Me: Uh . . . so, tell me about him.
Rebecca: (Defensively) It’s not what you think.
Me: And what do I think?
Rebecca: You probably think it’s inappropriate and wrong. But you’re wrong.
Me: Okay, it’s been established that I’m wrong. Now can I please know what I’m wrong about?
Rebecca: Well, he’s . . . well, he’s a Hell’s Angel. (Pause) But he has potential – I know it.
Me: Oh? What kind of potential?
Rebecca: Well, for one thing, he knew the word ‘propinquity’.
Me: Well, that’s a start.
Rebecca: (Glowering) Don’t go there!
Me: I’m not going anywhere.
Rebecca: I know just where you’re going, but you’re wrong.
(Editor’s note: Boy, you better shut your mouth!)
Me: So, tell me more.
Rebecca: And now, it’s all up to him – to prove himself.
Me: And how will he do that – if he does that?
Rebecca: For starters, by picking me up in a car, and in a suit.
Me: Why does he need to do that?
Rebecca: Because I have tickets to Don Giovanni. (Pause) I know he has potential – I could feel it in him, and I know I’m right. This could be . . . well, this is the Big One. (Pause) You look skeptical, and I don’t appreciate it.
Me: Well, I don’t know if I’m skeptical, but it does sound like a pretty big stretch – for both of you.
Rebecca: I know he’s going to prove himself to me, and live up to his potential. (Pause) He agreed.
Me: He agreed that he has to live up to his potential?
Rebecca: No – he agreed to try. (Smiling) For me.
Me: Well, you’re certainly worth it, but how long is it going to last, realistically?
Rebecca: (Disgusted) I knew you’d use that word!
Me: Well, I am here to help you . . .
Rebecca: Then help me!
Me: I’m trying.
Rebecca: Then tell me how I can make it work.
Okay, I think that’ll give you a pretty good idea of the kind of situations that come up – regularly. Both these patients were (and are) smart people, who would absolutely tell a friend, who told them what they just told me, “Hold on a minute there – this is crazy.” So what made their judgment go AWOL like that?
We all know – on some level – what’s ‘realistic’, but we all have primitive wishes, hopes and dreams, going all the way back to childhood, that lurk inside, waiting for the right opportunity. As we grow up, we learn, from the experiences of others, from societal pressure, from our own frustrating experiences: we learn what is societally ‘normal’ to expect, we learn what sounds mature, and we learn, in some sense, what the realistic ‘range’ is, for each of us.
An example: I remember a woman describing to me going to a summer camp, in Upstate New York, as a young teenager. She said that within the first two days, the girls and boys had divided themselves into levels:
“The really cute girls got the really cute boys, and the rest of us – well, we were the bottom-feeders; we could never ‘cross over,’ and we had to scramble for whatever we could get.”
Sad and poignant – but realistic. We all have to learn our ‘place’ in the hierarchy. And we learn what to expect from relationships, and from work. But that doesn’t mean our FANTASIES are dead: they are just dormant, waiting inside for the right situation. I remember, as a young boy, being shocked, shocked, when a girl I really liked, didn’t like me. I mean, how could she? It didn’t make any sense – it didn’t feel ‘right’: how could she not like me? God got it wrong! Well, I learned – I didn’t like it, but I learned – or maybe I should say I ‘settled,’ for frustrating reality: sometimes, you like them, but they don’t like you, and vice versa. Damn.
So, we learn (grudgingly) to accept all of these realities. We certainly know how to tell other people how to act, what to expect, and whether they’re acting rationally. And, for the most part, we apply those rules to ourselves, too.
Until we don’t.
My patient Joe knew quite a bit about the ‘admin’ he had the one-night affair with (and that’s above and beyond the fact that he also absolutely ‘knew’ not to get involved with anyone from work). She had undermined several bosses – and those were only the ones he was aware of. She had created rivalries that didn’t need to be rivalries. She had spread ugly rumors about a co-worker, that eventually got the co-worker demoted – rumors that eventually were found to be false, by the way.
So what happened to him – what happened to his judgment? Well, she had a genius for telling people what they wanted to hear, and she certainly told Joe what he wanted to hear, during their one-night stand. The day I spoke to him, he was ready (seriously ready) to leave his wife and children, ready to jeopardize his job, and ‘run away’ with her. But Joe was lucky: she called it off, a few days afterwards, before it became public knowledge, when she realized (bitterly) that it wasn’t going to improve her chances of advancement in the organization!
And by the next week, Joe had returned to his senses, regretting what he did, and thanking god that it had ended before he destroyed his marriage. Later, he was amazed, and disturbed, by how he had been able to deny all that he knew about this woman, and only believe the best about her.
He sat there and said, “How could I have been so stupid?” And the only answer he could come up with was, “I guess I wanted to feel like a big man so bad, that I just believed what I wanted to believe.”
I get it: we all, deep down inside, want to feel like a ‘big man’, but it stays deep down inside, unless, and until, something comes along that triggers it full-scale, in a way that our good sense can’t override.
Joe was foolish, yes, but isn’t he just you or me under the right circumstances?
And Rebecca? Well, maybe she was lucky, too. Her Hell’s Angel never showed up for their dress-up date, in or out of a suit. She was devastated for a week or so, and then embarrassed for having taken the ‘sleigh ride,’ as she called it.
But even much later, she said, “Part of me knew it could never work out, but I still think he had something special in him, and I could have brought it out.” She was enamored with the idea of having that kind of power, and besotted with the idea of his changing ‘for’ her.
Rebecca could find any rare book you wanted, but there was still that little girl (Becky?) inside her, way back in the stacks, searching for the elusive Book of Love.
These were both normal people, who happened onto situations that, somehow and mysteriously, were perfectly designed to actuate their hidden inner wishes and needs, like the right key opening a lock.
It could happen to anyone, so don’t feel so superior.
And if it does happen to you, you might be able to recognize your sorry state, if you find yourself saying to your friends,
Don’t say nothin’ bad about my baby!
Note: All clinical vignettes herein are significantly altered to protect patient confidentiality and privacy.