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thomas-cottleIn his essay, “Pilot Light” (Winter, 2013) Thomas J. Cottle tells of living with the “low murmur of fear” related to being Jewish. He calls this murmur, a pilot light, the small flame that burns continuously, and that at any moment can be used to ignite the full flame of terror. Cottle goes on to speak of the hundreds of things that today, keep the pilot light lit, even the small things like a colleague’s off-handed remark or a tasteless joke. As a child growing up with parents who well remember the Holocaust, Cottle recalls below, the time when, as an adolescent, he came face to face with betrayal and physical assault at the hands of someone he thought was a friend for no other reason than the fact that he was Jewish. He writes that “the words of philosopher Michael Oakeshott are relevant here: ‘We are what we have learned,’ Let us add, and what we continue to learn, and, for all I know, what our forbearers learned.”


On Brecht, French Horns, and Pilot Lights

Thomas J. Cottle

I remember the heat, the oppressive heat that one summer morning and I remember being cut by the bushes when Sam, a boy who lived in the neighborhood, and another boy, my French horn playing comrade, someone I thought of as my best-out-of-school friend, shoved me face first in to the corner of the garden behind Sam’s house. There was dirt in my mouth along with blood, and the two of them sat on me and pounded me and told me I was a dirty, filthy, Jew. They hated Jews, they said. “We hate Jews. And you’re a Jew. So we hate you!” And they pounded my arms and back. My crying only made them hit me harder and shove my face more forcefully into the dirt. “You’re a crying Jew girl. Sissy girl Jew. Sissy Jew.” To this day I feel so hurt by the one boy, I can neither mention his name nor employ a pseudonym for him in these musings. He shall remain the French horn player. He went away for high school and college and I never entered his home again. Years later I learned that he had died; I think he might have been no more than thirty. It was from an illness. I remember not knowing what to think, or what to feel; not a single emotion came forth. But by then the pilot light had been burning for years.

It was Berthold Brecht who wrote something to the effect that he who is laughing obviously hasn’t heard the horrible news. He was referring to the Nazis and their murderous acts. I held fast to his words. How is it that people can laugh and find joyous pastimes when others are enslaved and being sent to the ovens? How is that people can so freely indulge in recreation and leisurely pleasures when so many of their own countrymen are starving, or without work, or without education, or without hope! Do highly intelligent people, the very sort that underwrote the pogroms and slavery actually not understand that human resilience and health are predicated in good measure on their respective histories, the conditions of their lives, the state of their neighborhoods. Even with all the recent emphasis on neuroscience and genetics, do they not appreciate that human resilience derives as much from the culture as it does from some inborn strengths whose birthplace is located on this or that chromosome? Or in this one freighted psychological moment or that one?

That’s what I would think when I replayed Brecht’s words. Those are the inchoate politics I would formulate and the emotional reactions I would sense. But Brecht did something more for me: He gave me a justification for the pilot light. He was urging me to honor the boiler that birthed its flame. He caused me to know that it was not just a psychiatric illness or a mood disorder or biochemical algorithm gone wrong that caused my mother, and me, to feel fright. Something had gone wrong; it was still going wrong and would stay wrong as long as she, and I, had memory. Who knows, maybe somebody laughed at one of her many misfortunes or failed to consider those things that a Jewish girl might feel, and that her son, decades later, his face smashed in the branches and dirt would also feel. Who knows?

Who knows why some feel that pilot light, and others don’t? Is it somehow good, truly good that I feel it? Do I owe something to Sam and the French horn player for giving rise to a sensibility I am so thankful I possess? Is it good that quite possibly my children don’t know all that much about pilot lights because it is a different time, and thus the sting and wash of history and culture inevitably are felt differently by the succeeding generation? I don’t know what to think about the laughing and the horrible news. That’s untrue. I do know. Of course I know. I want them all to stop laughing for one moment so that they may hear the horrible news at the same volume and intensity I heard my friend play Beethoven’s Seventh accompanied by the recordings of the Cleveland, Philadelphia, and Chicago Symphony Orchestras in his family’s music room. I want them to feel fury, and I want them to weep and to take in to themselves the scent and steady glow of the pilot light long enough to appreciate why it might be that perfectly healthy and decent people feel fright when everything about them seems to be as lovely and neatly manicured as the garden behind Sam’s house.

With neither the verbal nor experiential repertoire to make sense of the anxiety or recognize it’s well spring, (or is it not-well spring?) I evidently fretted as a child. I say evidently as I was regularly being sent to psychiatrists. So something was wrong with me. Imagine, then, how I must have welcomed adolescence, which presented me with an awareness of at least two gorgeous elements that could rightly be welded to that infernal pilot light. History and ideology, I came to learn, provided me with endless causes for anxiety. Wars and famine, and poverty, and evil and injustice, and bullies and mean teachers, and envies and competition and illness and death, and my mother’s depression, simply had to be the reason for that pilot light to burn. And then there was the holocaust, and anti-Semitism. Concrete, all too real, faces, bodies, striped prison garb, sunken cheeks, and desperate eyes. How do you not worry!


Thomas Cottle is professor Emeritus of Counseling Psychology and Human Development at Boston University. His most recent books include: Hardest Times: The Trauma of Long-Term Unemployment; At Peril: Stories of Injustice; and When the Music Stopped: Discovering My Mother. http://thomascottle.com/

© The Antioch Review, 2014