Groucho Marx was, I believe, a comic genius; a linguistic virtuoso, offbeat, wacky and insanely funny. He was also rude, abrasive and these days he’d qualify as verbally abusive. In film after film Margaret Dumont was on the receiving end of his scathing humour. She would fall for his iconoclastic charm and we the audience would fall about laughing at the sheer improbability of plot and seduction.
Groucho remains a legend, not least for his inimitable one-liners, including the oft quoted: “I don’t want to belong to any club that would accept me as a member.” His bon mot came unbidden to my mind recently when I read an email from someone whose relationship pattern, with partners and friends, is one in which she is sought out and enters into a close, often exclusive, relationship. Yet, before too long, the other person in the relationship always turns on her.
“I kept thinking about it”, she writes “and I know that there must be something essentially rotten within me to have me resonating with people like this in the first place. I wish I could extract whatever it is so that I would cease going through these emotionally painful experiences when these characters turn on me so viciously.”
Somehow, she feels, the other person’s bad behaviour must be her responsibility – which is, of course, a nonsense. But this is as near as she could get to articulating the idea that something about her attracts abusive people. A brief friendly chat soon leads to them “hanging around her and wanting to spend loads of time with her”. (Her words.)
In fact what attracts these people is their sure sense of how easily her boundaries can be violated. A delightful, gentle person, she exudes vulnerability through every pore. That’s the attraction she holds for them.
But what of the attraction they hold for her? Nobody gets to be as vulnerable and susceptible as she is, irrespective of her considerable intellectual acumen, without undergoing emotional trauma in childhood and beyond.
And this is where the hook is. She, like so many people, was fed messages about how worthless and stupid she was. When someone comes along and singles her out for special regard and special closeness, how could she refuse? For her, the attraction lies in the attraction that these people so obviously feel for her.
Naturally, there is a price to pay: the intimacy of the relationship is of the ‘Us and Them’ variety, and requires her too to buy into criticism of everyone who falls into the ‘Them’ category.
It starts small with the odd jokey remark, then becomes increasingly judgmental, and potentially compromising. Ultimately, when she refuses to join in condemning people she has no quarrel with, the relationship founders and she becomes the target.
And this is where Groucho got it right: the people who are falling over themselves backwards to involve you in their club, who work too fast and are too keen, are probably the sole members of a club you really wouldn’t want to be a part of.
Certainly Groucho’s words suggest an uneasy relationship with himself (to say the least); but it is especially when people have an uneasy relationship with themselves that they need to exercise all care in deciding which clubs they would be well advised to join. When it’s the ‘Us and Them’ club, take Groucho as your role model and just tell them straight: “Go, and never darken my towels again.” That should do it.