'Love Is Sadness,' a Short Essay on Losing Your Temper by David Shields
Photograph by Robert Hickerson


This story is over 5 years old.

The 2017 Fiction Issue

'Love Is Sadness,' a Short Essay on Losing Your Temper by David Shields

What a good man says to his wife when he is at his worst.

This story appears in VICE magazine's 11th annual Fiction Issue. Click HERE to subscribe.

Obama: Every man is either trying to win his father’s hard-won admiration or seeking to avoid all of the errors his father made.

Obama, obviously, is the latter (although, predictably, he pretends to be both).

So am I (the latter).

My mother would often say to me, If you keep going in this direction, you’re going to wind up like your father.


My shrink could barely believe she said this once, let alone dozens of times.

Same shrink (too easy, but still): Emotionally, your mother raped you all.

When people speak of maternal nourishment or paternal authority, I literally have no idea what they’re talking about.

My mother was a terrifying figure of Olympian hauteur and disdain; my father was a severe manic-depressive and ECT devotee who was in and out of mental hospitals nearly his entire adult life.

His role wasn’t to be a caretaker; it was to be cared for (my mother called this the “tyranny of the weak”).

He occasionally liked to say, in his sharp Brooklyn accent, virtually under his breath, to my mother, Shaddup.

Once, early in their marriage, he apparently hit her; my mother never stopped alluding to this brief moment when she wasn’t in charge.

With rare exceptions, marriage is a Punch-and-Judy slugfest that ends with one party’s total subjugation. Power and pleasure are the only things that are real, and they endlessly swap places as means and end. Everybody is bound by these rules, and the only difference is that some feel bad about it and some don’t. —Lev Grossman

Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth. —Mike Tyson

† † †

“Get the fuck out of here, you fucking bitch. What the fuck do I care?”

—something I once actually said, 30 years ago, in order to try to break up with my then fiancée when she said my father had never taught me how to be a man (he hadn’t).


Like dialogue in a snuff film.

Like a parody of misogyny.

Cliché of clichés, fact of facts: It made me feel male/got me hard, saying what I said.

Is there any writer I love—from Epictetus to Simon Gray—whose work doesn’t specialize in self-demolition?

(Was there, by the way, any “major” modernist writer—Kafka, Woolf, Proust, Mann, Joyce, Eliot—who wasn’t flagrantly masochistic?)

One of my favorite books ever is Gray’s four-volume Smoking Diaries, in which his alter ego is the self-serious and bombastic Harold Pinter.

It’s painful, though, to google video interviews with both men.

Pinter is (come what will) a man.

Gray is a victim, an infant.

Had they understood I was a weak boy and would grow up to be a weak man? What I’ve grown up to be is a liar. —Jay Ponteri

If you think the heart is deceitful above all things, you should meet the author. —Anthony Lane

† † †

My ex was someone who was, I thought, the complete opposite of my mother; I turned the former into the latter, the question being, of course, whether she intuited that and became that way on purpose to satisfy what she knew was my deepest drive, or whether I knew (and she knew) all along she had that reservoir of coldness.

—Herr Doktor’s notion that there are always at least four people in every bedroom; key points being, Who are they? Where are they? Where are they hiding? In whom? In college, reading all those Greek tragedies and listening to the lectures about them, I would think, rather blithely, Well, that tragic flaw thing is nicely symmetrical. Whatever makes Oedipus heroic is also—What did I know then? Nothing. I didn’t feel in my bones as I do now that what powers our drive assures our downfall, that our birth date is our death sentence. You’re fated to kill your dad and marry your mom, so they send you away. You live with your new mom and dad, find out about the curse, run off and kill your real dad, marry your real mom. It was a setup. You had to test it. Even though you knew it would cost you your eyes, you had to do it. You had to push ahead. You had to prove who you are.


Upon my return, after I’d been gone quite a while, X said, “Fuck me, you pig .” She had never said anything remotely like this to me before. I think we’re all always saying, “Fuck me, you pig,” to people who aren’t the pigs we want to be fucked by, no? Or, hey, maybe I was indeed that pig. One never knows, does one?

“If you can’t be with the one you love,” my friend says, “love the one who looks like the one you love.” Other people call this having a type. —Sarah Manguso

A subtly revealing scene from the first screen drama about the relationship between Philip Larkin and Monica Jones suggests that the commitment-phobic Larkin was more interested in spanking than actual sex. “I have built Monica in my image,” Larkin once admitted. “I’ve made her dependent on me and now I can’t abandon her.” The film’s director said, “We wanted to show the emotional complexity of it all, the man dominated by his mother who didn’t want to commit to marriage for serious, complicated reasons; he thought he was better off on his own. And we wanted to show the human cost of that, which I hope is what people are going to carry away from it. It isn’t just another bit of sex on BBC2.” —Maureen Paton

My mother reviled me.

I can feel that in every footfall.

My half-brother’s mother adored him, which has made him fat and sassy and self-satisfied and happy.

Poor bastard.

According to my astrologer-friend, Cancers who have never had mother love are doomed.

I love that.

I love the tragedy of that.

This essay is an excerpt from the forthcoming book of the same name. It is also part of a sub-section from the Fiction Issue about losing your temper. Check out the rest of the essays in the section:

"The Bully" by Akhil Sharma
"Rooster" by Walter Kirn
"Rage Blackouts" by Sadie Stein
"Wrath" by Allen Pearl