by Jennifer Sey
Though I love memoirs, I’m not a fan of the sports tell all. I generally avoid books with a picture of the author on the cover. They tend to paint a rosy but meager hard work pays off! picture that I find specious and incomplete.
And so, I was knocked off my rails by Andre Agassi’s memoir, OPEN . For me, it was one of those rare books about something “small” (tennis) that helps you see something “big” and in this way, it was a revelation. I could not get enough. I didn’t want it to be over. I could have read about every cut throat match he won or lost until next February. The exhausting rallies, the missed serves, the back pain, the bad calls, the “just don’t miss” approach to tiring his opponents out. Not sure why I found that part so fascinating given I don’t even watch tennis. But I suppose it was the way he describes what it feels like to compete. To perform. To exceed one’s physical limitations. At its best and its worst. The fear. The pain - both physical and emotional. The giving everything, the giving up. The wanting it more than anything. The not having it ever be enough.
He captured the ambivalence of his athletic destiny with captivating honesty. Rare that athletes talk of their experience this way. Most often we readers are plied with saccharine, sentimental triumph-over-adversity tales that reflect none of the “I hate tennis” candor of OPEN. Athletes can hate their sport. And love it all the while. Life is strange that way. There is something inherently truthful about ambivalence. As I get older (and older), I realize that being sure of anything is nothing short of folly.
Still, the thing that most struck me was his absolute and utter commitment to straightforward emotion. No ambivalence there. This is me. This is how I feel. Right now, this is how I feel. There was no intellectualizing, hedging, waxing or waning. He was mad. Or frustrated. Or plain old fucking pissed off. Or he was in love. Truly madly deeply kismet style in love with Stefanie Graff. Or he was desperately disappointed in himself. For losing. For a failed marriage. For using drugs to escape that disappointment. He just laid it out there pure and simple.
I feel a rotting rebellion and loneliness in my gut. A pink Mohawk might help… I’m in love with a woman I hardly know. I will fill her room with flowers and patiently wait, despite the gnawing misery and anxiety, until she realizes she loves me back.
The lack of cynicism, the purity of emotion expressed was exhilarating to read. The prose glittered with transparency. Clean in a dirty cynical world. Even entirely unflattering emotions were shared without equivocation. There seemed to be no fear of tarnishing his “image” by admitting to ugly feelings (and acts). It was a celebration of emotional honesty.
I want this. I want to live this way.
As I tore through the book in record time and ruefully began planning which sports memoir would be next on my list to devour, I stumbled upon a strange parallel yet divergent result in Tiger Woods’ and Andre Agassi’s young lives and adult fates. They were both schooled from a young age by very demanding fathers. Andre’s father, an Armenian immigrant, was determined that his youngest son would be the #1 tennis player in the world. When Andre was a baby, his father taped a tennis racket to his hand and required him to swat at things. Anything. Hit it hit it hit it. His father built a tennis court in their Las Vegas backyard, having bought the house for solely that purpose. He manufactured a frightening machine that pummeled young Andre with incessant balls for hours every day. He forced him to play adults at the tennis club. For money. And for show. All of this reminded me that I’d seen Tiger as a toddler on the Tonight Show, put on display, putting balls. A monkey with an accordion. The rest of Tiger’s young life is legendary. All golf. All the time. No need to recount it here.
But here is where they veered apart: Andre expressed normal teenage rebellion. When he was sent to Bollettieri’s famed Tennis Academy, he began to act out albeit in relatively benign ways. He sported a ridiculous hair style. He challenged the borderline abusive Bollettieri. He cursed, he snuck out, he drank beer. He wore those famous denim shorts (this was hardly the rebellion it was made out to be, they were Nike leftovers that no other sponsored player wanted.) All these things added up to what looked like rebellion and, ultimately, led to actual rebellion. Nothing bad. He spoke his mind, even when he didn’t know what he was talking about. Like a normal teenager.
But Tiger never did this. He was managed and boxed and packaged into the perfect gift of discipline, athleticism and poise. We should have smelled bullshit. No one is that perfect. But we wanted a hero in this un-heroic world of dishonesty and disappointments like John Edwards and anti-gay preacher men who end up being not only gay, but sex solicitors and crystal meth users. It’s an ugly world filled with liars. And we wanted a hero who did no wrong. And this, of course, does not exist.
And now we’re mad that he’s not the thing he never could have been. He would have been better served to be more human early on, to go through that process of individuation so needed for a child to become an adult. Instead, he suppressed. Or it was suppressed for him. By parents and handlers and coaches and moneyed interests. He wasn’t allowed to say stupid things to the media as a teenage golf prodigy. He wasn’t even allowed to talk to the media, his handlers hovering like bodyguards. He never stepped in it, only to learn from the experience. He never misspoke, acted out, yelled, cursed, drank too much. Until he did.
And the rest is public record, tabloid fodder. Having kept it all in for so long, having failed to grow up by learning from mistakes, having put forth such an impossibly perfect notion of athlete-hood, of manhood, it was inevitable he would fall. Ah, but hindsight is 20/20 isn’t it?
Well, the learning for me is this: I will let my kids stumble. And fall. And be imperfect. I won’t manage their lives to the point where they can’t make mistakes. I will not protect them from themselves to such extremes that they don’t learn to be grown ups because they’ve erred as children. I will embrace all that they are, the good and less good, as just what it should be. Because it is who they are.
My son Virgil is a good student but often forgets to do his homework. No more reminding. He can get a bad grade. He’ll learn. Or he won’t. But I can’t protect him from consequences. Consequences happen. If I shield him from the results of his actions, he won’t mature. He’ll have a false sense of the world and his role in it. He’ll think bad things don’t happen. He’ll think he’s somethin’ special. Which he is. To me. But in the grand scheme of things, he’s a boy, that will one day be a man. That will be well served by feeling his feelings as they come, by knowing that actions can have penalties, that no one is perfect. And that we can indeed recover from mistakes. But better if they aren’t colossal horrific ones like sleeping with upwards of 10 women while being married with two small children.
Thank you Andre. You are a role model. Funny how that happens. The guy who was supposed to be the bad boy rebel ends up epitomizing humanness, and kindness, and love. And the one we herald as the perfect hero, ends up being a red hot mess of ego and addiction and plain old selfish misbehaving. And so it goes.