The Delicate Bargain of Trust

The foolishness of trusting what you love because you love it

Alexander Chee
Jun 28, 2018 · 15 min read
Image: Jessica Siao

On my first day in Florence, Italy, three years ago, I went into a tiny gelato shop near the apartment I was renting for the month, and after I ordered gelato, reached into my pocket to pay, and realized I didn’t have enough. I struggled to explain this in my limited Italian to the shopkeeper, a friendly young man who listened perhaps for a second before he breezily said, “Pay me later,” in excellent English.

I admit I was stunned. I’d never met him before. But what was interesting to me was that as he said this, I thought, I will. And I did. For the rest of the month, I went back and bought gelato whenever I had the impulse. I’ve been invited back to teach at the program that brought me there for several years now, and I go back all the time to this little shop for gelato, also wine, which he also sells. I make a point of going even when I am put up in neighborhoods that are not near him. He remembers me with a smile, a look of recognition that I don’t get from most other places I shop, perhaps because I came back to really pay him that first time. I remember him because he trusted me. He remembers me because he trusted me and I came through.

Last month I was there again as his country and mine turned down dark roads to ethnic cleansing, and the purging immigrants, and I went in several times to buy gelato as a hedge against the despair I felt, and to think about why this was happening. I thought again about how easy it was for me and him to trust each other, and how it began with his extended hand.

A thought came. How to balance that delicate bargain against these larger betrayals? I know it’s not a simple question, and yet, I am still asking it of myself.

There’s a story my aunt likes to tell about me. I was visiting her at her home in Maine, and in the middle of the night, realized the doors to the house were unlocked. She lives next to what counts as a busy road for that part of the state. I was staying in her barn loft for ten days, working on a novel, and as I tried to go to sleep, found that I could not. When I asked myself why I understood that it was because I knew she left her doors unlocked. And so I locked all of the doors and went to bed, thinking they would never know.

I was seized by the idea that someone could just pull over, come in, and rob or kill us in our sleep. The thought was so clear in my mind, I could see the headlights in the yard.

My uncle woke the next morning at 5 AM as he usually does, and went to the barn for firewood. As he tried to get back into the house, he discovered the doors were locked. He hadn’t brought keys or thought to leave the door unlocked because they were never locked. My aunt was waiting to hear him come in and then heard what she quickly understood was gravel being tossed at her window. She threw it open and saw her husband there, in his pajamas, in the snow.

“What on earth are you doing?”

“Alex must’ve locked the doors to the house!”

They laughed about it that morning when I came down to coffee, and they still laugh about it. But I don’t know how to live in an unlocked home. I don’t even know how to go to sleep in one. I don’t know what it’s like to have faith that all of your neighbors for miles around don’t have one in their number who might want to harm you.

In 1993, my therapist at the time showed me just how I had never learned to trust.

I had gone into crisis intervention therapy, attending twice a week, after breaking up with my boyfriend of three years. I had been telling my therapist our narrative, one I thought I knew. We’d met while he was still with another man, and he had left that man for me. We were long distance at first, sending passionate letters that lengthened into zines and novellas — our longest, I think, clocked in at 70 pages.

When we began, I was in San Francisco, he was in New York, and I left to move to New York for many reasons but one, in particular, was him. We lived near each other as he put together a new life for himself — he’d been in a popular couple at the center of a social circle that was ruptured in part by this breakup. We spent a year there together before applying to graduate schools, and each chose the program best for us, and soon enough we were long distance again.

After that first year of school, we had planned to live together in New York for the summer, and he changed his mind at the last minute, asking me to live near him instead, in another apartment — something I rejected as, well, an expensive waste of my time. I stayed in Iowa City instead. “I can’t live with another lover again,” he said.

There were supposed to be visits, but he then put off his visits until, when the fall came, he had moved to San Francisco for a new program and a new city, and it had been almost six months since I’d seen him. When he finally made his plans for a visit, to my surprise, I didn’t want to see him. It’d been too long.

I thought about how the summer had been full of letters and phone calls. Those long literary love letters just began to feel like aspirational loneliness. When he finally made his fall visit to me, I told him to think about our breaking up, but by the time he arrived, I knew my decision.

But in my experience, most of what we are taught regarding trust in America masquerades largely as the pre-conditions for abuse.

The break-up took about a year. I was doing the homework for that. I wasn’t certain what therapeutic triage was supposed to look like. I had gotten into therapy for the first time because this boyfriend had recommended I do so, in the healthiest possible way, in fact, back when we lived in New York. But this was the first time I’d chosen it myself, though. On this particular day, I’d gone through the litany of my complaints about him and us, and finally, we’d reached this moment when I saw that my problems with him went far past him, that he was like a bend in a river I didn’t know I was in.

How do you know how to trust someone, my therapist said to me, and I realized I didn’t know the answer at all.

Like most people, I think, I had not been taught how to trust, only that I should. That it was good to trust. But in my experience, most of what we are taught regarding trust in America masquerades largely as the pre-conditions for abuse. We’re taught to trust what we love because we love it, whether we are to trust in our community, a higher power, a brand, family, an authority figure, a government, an ideology, a lover — it is a common belief that loving someone is enough of a reason to trust them. And that if they love what you love, you can trust them to take care of it the way you’d want them to take care of it — an issue, a history, a case, a borrowed book.

And, this is a foolish thing to believe, one of the first things to be disabused of. It is much like confusing wanting to be loved by someone with loving them.

When I examine my unconscious beliefs, I can see that trusting someone because I loved them had worked with my parents, and so I believed it was a system I could rely on, and not a chance that had worked out. By the time I was in front of my therapist, I’d recounted stories of being betrayed by my father’s sisters, peers, my best friend from high school, my choir director, and these betrayals ranged from theft to lies to sexual abuse, racist physical violence, and emotional abuse.

I had learned, essentially, the opposite of that early primal lesson: Loving someone made them suspicious to me, given how many people I’d loved who had betrayed me. By the time I was in front of my therapist, I felt pretty confident that this was a reasonable approach.

And then my therapist said, “Usually I would tell you that you were paranoid, but you actually have been betrayed by a lot of people. And yet you’ll still have to learn to trust people. Your life will be better for it.”

Which sounded as easy to me as learning to go to sleep with the door to the house unlocked.

On the first day after my Iowa City therapist revealed that I had never actually learned a process I could use to ascertain whether I could trust anyone, I spent a fair amount of time amazed that anyone had ever let me out of my house. I felt like a child who has run away with the family car, driving it successfully before finally crashing it into a tree.

In the narrative of my now-broken relationship, for example, I could see I had overvalued my desirability to that boyfriend, and to men in general, and so I experienced any perceived slips in his attention, much less his fidelity, as related to that. I didn’t have a stable sense of self-worth apart from that desirability. Minor problems between us were amplified into major ones, and major ones felt like the end of the world. And this was because I had related my self-worth directly to that desirability.

The first therapist I’d ever seen was a friend of the family, in high school. He’d written a book on child-rearing that said parents should encourage their children to keep diaries, and then find out where they kept them, and read them when they were not around. I was flipping through it in his office before our session, and then after I read that sentence, was never able to go again. Had my parents read that, I wondered. Was my own diary safe? To this day I have trouble keeping one on a regular basis, and I wonder if it is some leftover childhood reflex, created after reading that, and in place protect myself.

My Iowa City therapist had written a book on codependency I bought and took home with me, and between that and her sessions, I learned how to ask and answer questions in a language I’d never spoken before. Mostly because it included words for me. When you set boundaries, do the people you love respect them? Do they follow through on the promises they make, and if they don’t, do they acknowledge they have disappointed you? Do they make amends for their mistakes? Do they show you that they value you as a person? How? Do you value yourself as a person? What do you value in yourself and why, and how have you learned to value it? How do you share it, and why? Do you trust yourself? How have you learned to trust yourself?

And, that was really the question. Because not trusting other people meant you didn’t trust yourself to trust other people. Not having a set of values that would teach you to trust someone else means you don’t have one for yourself either. And the biggest source for this heartache is that if you don’t catch this emptiness in yourself, you can pass it along to those you love and raise, and so it can go on, intergenerationally, until finally, someone learns to stop it.

‘Trust what you love’ is in the basement of many empires, if not on their front doors.

It is very common now to use the term ‘messy boundaries,’ for example, as if perhaps you and your ex-boyfriend are nations near each other that each regard the same island as belonging to each other. But what I learned was that even now I have the impulse to tell you what I think my ex-boyfriend of the time was going through, and the truth is, what he was going through is for him to figure out. That’s the boundary. Imagining that I know the answer, or that I’m better than he is, or worse, that is where the messy comes in. In the new country, I had to make out of trusting myself, part of that included simply moving on from him — accepting that the relationship was over, and resisting even interpreting him for others. And that would take many years.

I wish I could say my relationships got better immediately, that I experienced an uptick in intimacy, but really, I had to learn to reinterpret the world in a way the world wasn’t invested in. Because the world really runs on this broken way of trusting.

Iwas thinking recently of a friend who seroconverted after having first been coerced into having unprotected sex in a relationship with his partner. He told me the story after having tried to kill himself. He called me to help him after he got home from the hospital, and as I went over and cleaned up his house, he told me stories, really, of being made to sleep in another bed until he relented. I was horrified. I knew both him and his partner, I had been part of a social set with them, and had idealized their relationship as seeming, from the outside, like an ideal of romantic love. I didn’t understand why he didn’t leave. But I did eventually understand that all around me during those days of the AIDS crisis, we were confusing physical vulnerability for emotional vulnerability — a problem just about every gay man I know, much less everyone I know, has experienced in some way or another.

Most of us do something like this now with tech companies. Perhaps you have read Baratunde Thurston’s Data Detox essay from earlier in this series. At the center of every decision you make about what apps know about you is the way you pursue a relationship with the digital simulacra of the people you love and trust in life. Connecting with them on Facebook, for example, is done because you trust them. But the data that is harvested from you comes because you have mixed that trust in them with a trust in Facebook. And that is the hinge.

Trust what you love” is in the basement of many empires, if not on their front doors. Even the betrayal of trust, for example, a commonplace of stories ranging from romantic comedies to love triangles to adventures to murder mysteries, from Anna Karenina to Empire, relies on the one character having trusted a loved one a little too much, resulting in everything from disappointment to murder. Each has a moment equivalent to “How could you, I loved you!”

Trust what you love” is even a part of the ethos of the neoliberal pursuit of art and commerce as mutually satisfying — the “Do what you love and the rest will follow” myth pretty much requires it. It’s part of brand loyalty — “I love this brand and so I trust it with my data and not read the fine print” is the entire story of our betrayal by every tech company.

And yes, it goes on to politics, obviously. I remember a cousin of mine in Maine complaining the actions of Governor LePage there, the two-term Tea Party governor who is so unpopular, he inspired the state of Maine to change its voting laws so that a candidate like him could never win again. She was complaining about him after the first term. When I pointed out to my cousin that she had voted for him, she said, “Well, we didn’t think he’d be that bad.” And when I asked if she’d read the articles written about him during the election, which gave every indication he would be that bad, she said, “Oh,” and dismissed them with a wave of her hand. “We figured that was just liberal propaganda.”

It really wasn’t, though. I knew she was joking a little at my expense — the liberal, mixed-race cousin who has moved away — but the predictions of those articles, which suggested LePage would lead in a corrupt way, had come true. But what I think of now is how she said “we,” of how “we” had figured. The people she trusted had come to this conclusion with her. They were displeased by his actions but not with the way they’d made their decision. The joke she told me indicated she wasn’t likely to read articles about new candidates for the next election to be sure she understood this time. And while we haven’t discussed if she voted for him again, I know she voted for Trump and I know she hasn’t changed the way she makes her decisions. Voting, we know, is still emotional and social, and so many people will vote for someone despite their disappointment.

You can love someone and disagree with their politics, it is common to say right now. But you would actually have to learn how to do that. As we think about how to change the political culture of the country, ask yourself how you make your decisions on voting. Do you study the issues, and vote to belong to a movement, or a party, or something else? What is the something else? Should this even really be how you vote? And do you know how you know what you trust?

Back in my Florence tabacchi, as I ate my gelato and watched as the people in the neighborhood came through the door of the store, stopping in for a coffee, a snack, a bottle of wine, gelato, I saw parents come in with their children, having picked them up from school. People greeted the shop-keeper, each other. The store is out of the way of some of the tourist traffic and the sidewalk is narrow. If you didn’t know it by reputation you probably wouldn’t stop in. It isn’t on Yelp. And so despite being between some of the major tourist stops, it remains a sincerely local place. I can see he holds his neighborhood together. I’m only there one month a year, during which I am there maybe 4 or 5 times. But I have never once seen a black customer in his shop.

A new friend there in Florence had just told me of how he’d bought a home in an Italian town he described as dying. “Maybe four people live there,” he said. “You could probably buy the whole town.” Italian birth rates have declined such that the government had begun offering money to Italians to have children. When I learned of this, I thought of the thousands of migrants now dead in the oceans off the coast of Italy, hoping to find such an empty town. And the news of the recent shootings of African migrants by Far Right extremists — two this spring — and then the party associated with the shooters then won the election. I have been reading articles about Steve Bannon’s role in advising the new Italian Far Right government, along with the new Austrian Far Right government, both of whom now seek access to sensitive EU security secrets, concerning given both governments are sympathetic to Putin and Russia, and how Bannon met with them in the same spring it was revealed Trump is now being advised by Bannon again also, in relationship to the Mueller probe into Russian interference in the American election.

The problems we face now are different from any other kind of way to trust than ever before.

As I wonder which politician, which foreign traveler, which fellow citizen I can trust, I am trying to monitor, more than I ever have before, just how I trust what I trust, and why. I know my loyalty to my shopkeeper as a customer hangs on the slimmest of threads. One that I should be suspicious of before ascribing any further ideas to him, good or bad. He shakes my hand with a quick smile as I go. As I exit and head on my way, I am only too aware of the way we live in countries that are at present weird mirrors to each other. I have no way to say, I hope your gentleness and openness are what thrives past the right wing’s rise to power in his government. Or that I hope my own do also, during mine. But I wish it and hope next year he and I still greet each other with a smile.

Alexander Chee

Written by

Author of the novels THE QUEEN OF THE NIGHT and EDINBURGH.

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