FORK YOU, PAL!

I feel as if I’m getting bits of food thrust at me quite a lot lately, by strangers and loved ones alike, and in various unrelated situations and locations.

I hate it.

And it turns out I’m not alone, which somewhat surprises me. Fussy in general about my so-called personal space — anxious when, without invitation, touched, pawed, patted, swarmed — I nevertheless assume that I, being the awkward outlier, selfish with disdain, must be the one with the problem. Yet mentioning this special type of culinary invasiveness casually amongst friends, I’ve discovered that other people hate it too, many with even greater vehemence.

A family member of mine exhibits the food-ramming compulsion in a way that is clearly bound up with her lifelong tendency to get enmeshed in one Karpman Drama Triangle after another. (Forgive my appeal to a figment of pop-psych that, long past its shelf-date, remains weirdly compelling.) According to Dr Karpman’s clinical taxonomy, the role that my cousin assumes in this dynamic would be designated Rescuer. Rescuers, to avoid confronting their own underlying self-loathing, or to project it onto others, adopt a heightened care-taking behavior. The object (target might be a better term) of a Rescuer’s unsolicited nurturing is called the VictimVictims are persons who may be real victims — or may not be — but who in any case do not necessarily wish to be rescued. Moreover it’s a kind of care-taking that will be useful to the Rescuer only as long as the Victim, perhaps genuinely reliant and needy, remains in a status of inferiority.

This particular type of drama is notable for, as you might have guessed, its classic reversal, occurring when the Rescuer’s relentless, pushy care-taking — contrived to lock the Victim in a perpetual state of dependency — reaches some inevitable tipping point. Feeling increasingly controlled, increasingly resentful, the Victim finally rebels. The Rescuer then scrambles for a new strategy by which to destabilize the relationship, in order to restore the advantage of imbalance. Jumping opportunistically to a new, third, position on the triangle, the former Rescuer now becomes, in Karpman’s nomenclature, a Persecutor. The Persecutor’s role is typified by verbal hostility. Although in some cases his or her reprisals may sound conspicuously snippy or judgmental, more commonly these will be carefully masked, taking the form of passive-aggressive, martyrish remarks like, “I was only doing this for you,” or “Fine, if you really don’t want my help … ”

Back to our … what shall we call them? … food attacks. Whether driven by full-scale Karpman Drama Triangles or not, such episodes are at least templates for the real McCoy. My personal aversion to food attacks may mean many things, some of which could be neurotic in their own right. But one possible straightforward interpretation might be that I’m not hungry. Or that I’m not interested in eating this particular item. Or that I simply feel uncomfortable when given no choice.

“Would you care for a bite of such-and-such?” — this is not the format that usually defines such moments. Questions, however rhetorical in intent, imply some possibility of saying “no” and therefore an inversion of control. Instead the vocal component of a food attack tends to be framed in the imperative, along the lines of, “Here, try some of this,” or worse, the vaguely infantilizing, “Now, open wide!”

Whatever the strident command, it will be accompanied by — synchronized with — a physical jabbing action that can be alarming, even traumatizing: overloaded fork, from whose tines cascade miniature wriggling entrails, rushing towards one’s face; or it may be gloppy fingers — those “unsheathed claws” in Virginia Woolf’s menacing phrase — bearing a portion from which, often enough, a bite has already gone missing. (Eew.) And it’ll be delivered with such intensity as to cause one to jerk back defensively. A man of late middle-age and the dwindling eyesight to go with it, I frequently can’t resolve into sharp focus these fast-moving dollops hurtled in my direction. Perhaps my ready opt-out should be, “Just a minute, let me grab my eating glasses.”

What makes these situations thorny is that to refuse (as I mainly do, being by nature neither verbally passive nor reluctant to hold my ground) generally invites not humble contrition on the part of over-eager sharers but barely veiled dismay, as if in these situations I am the one who is nuts. Which, truth be told, must be how I look, bobbing and weaving to avoid yet another steaming giblet shoved unbidden into my face.


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