Open, and bleeding

Agassi crying

Image courtesy The Telegraph

I’m yet to get hold of a copy of Open, Andre Agassi’s autobiography – but last night, I read the extended extract published in Sports Illustrated.

At one point I stopped reading, unable to resist the memories that bubbled up unbidden from the subterranean wellsprings of the soul. This is the graf where I stopped reading:

Such moments come to mind whenever I think about telling my father that I don’t want to play tennis. Besides loving my father and wanting to please him, I don’t want to upset him. I don’t dare. Bad stuff happens when my father is upset. If he says I’m going to play tennis, if he says I’m going to be No. 1 in the world, that it’s my destiny, all I can do is nod and obey.

It is now 12 years and counting since my own father died in 1997 – and yet I remain conflicted about so much of the love-hate relationship we shared. Okay, ‘hate’ is the wrong word. For a period of 11 years, from the day I delivered the coup de grace to parental ambition by dropping out of college to the day I left my home in Chennai and arrived in Mumbai to take up a job as a journalist, we were two people forced by circumstance to share a finite space while speaking totally different languages that rendered us each incomprehensible to the other.

Dad was — and I cannot emphasize this enough — not even remotely close to Mike Agassi in temperament. But there were parallels – in his case, the dragon was the vision he had of my future, a vision that constantly blasted ambition at me like so many tennis balls I was expected to hit over the net: research scientist; doctor; army surgeon; IFS officer…

Dreams he had for himself. Dreams he sought to live vicariously through me. Dreams I never shared.

In retrospect, there are many things I could have done better; many ways I could have reconciled the dreams he dreamt for me with my own vision of where I wanted to go and what I wanted to do with my life. But that’s the thing about going through hell – that journey comes without a GPS, a roadmap. It is not about days lived so much as it is about minutes endured – a succession of impossible minutes that, like Chinese water torture, drip away at your mind, your strength, till without warning you snap, you break in vital ways beyond possibility of repair.

In that time I’ve done alcohol and drugs or more accurately, alcohol and drugs have done me; in that time I’ve left my home thrice, each time with nothing in my pocket and no idea where I was going or how I would survive; in that time I’ve more than once contemplated ending my life because to continue it seemed more effort than it was worth.

I’ve never been able to speak of the specifics of that period to anyone; even my wife, who knows pretty much all there is to know about me, only has a broad picture but no idea of the real colors of despair. When dad died, I wrote this – my valediction, my attempt to paint the complexity of our relationship in the colors of love, and of grief.

I found then that it was easy to write of the good – but when I got to the point where I had to write of the underside of our relationship, I chickened out. In that piece, I also spoke of why, of how difficult candor is, when it potentially cuts close to the bone:

It is a very difficult thing to do, that: to lower your defenses, express yourself not just from the head but also the heart.

Because, each time you do that, you reveal a bit more about yourself. And the more you reveal, the more vulnerable you make yourself, the more you expose yourself to hurt, to ridicule.

It strikes me that this is yet another reason to admire Andre Agassi – what I’ve read thus far is an example of the sort of searing honesty that is so rare in the self-serving hagiographies that take up so much space on the shelves.

Read, again, the passages headlined 1977 and ask yourselves this: Could you have gone through that experience and not been broken by it? Could you have survived, let alone triumphed? And then, when there really is no need for you to do it – could you have viewed your past life with such blinding clarity and painful honesty?

Those who suggest that Agassi wrote as he did so he could sell a few more books miss a point: he didn’t need to. He – and wife Steffi – are rich. In their case, ‘rich’ is an absolute, beyond need of qualifiers; beyond need, also, of the chump change to be made by selling a few copies of a book.

Incidentally, proponents of the theory that ‘honesty’ is a sales gimmick also need to consider that by writing as he did, Agassi has effectively ruled himself out of future endorsements, sponsored appearances, and other avenues that even the stars of a previous generation continue to exploit.

Rohit Brijnath, one of my favorite sportswriters and a long-time friend, was discussing this with me in email; apropos, he sent me the text of his latest column – one that resonates with my own reaction to the Agassi controversy. It appeared in the Straits Times in Singapore; since there is no online link, I’ll reproduce it here in its entirety, with Rohit’s consent:

The Sporting Life

Andre Agassi is an attention-craving, poor me-crying, book-hyping, drug-cheating millionaire.

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What's he complaining about?: An Annie Leibowitz image

Guy marries Steffi, can buy a Las Vegas casino and still have money to lose in it, and his life is hard? In his autobiography, he writes that he took crystal meth, he hated tennis, his back hurt. Boo hoo.

This is one view of Agassi. I don’t subscribe to it. It is too convenient. It’s too cynical, as if we’re programmed to be suspicious of any honesty as a way to sell books, especially in the Oprah-fied American landscape. It’s too simplistic in its view that if you’re rich, and successful, what’s there to cry about?

Agassi’s soul baring isn’t a clever ploy. His tale is simply alarming, an athlete’s grim walk through the disturbed terrain of his youth. The extracts available so far are compelling. Like Lance Armstrong found the perfect teller of his tales in the writer Sally Jenkins, Agassi’s collaboration with JR Moehringer, who won a Pulitzer Prize in Feature Writing in 2000, has paid off.

The writing is taut; the stories full of the darkness of sport that we don’t see every day, or choose not to. We see the champion, but Agassi is telling us, we don’t always know his story. So he has peeled off the skin of his public persona and shown us a rawer version of himself.

A page of this book is worth entire tomes that sleep on bookshop shelves, inane diaries of athletic lives and autobiographies so dull they can induce a coma. Just for that we should thank Agassi.

His book is a mea culpa, yes, an admission of guilt about recreational drug-taking in 1997 and lies to the tennis authorities. His game then was disintegrating — at one point he played eight events and won a single match. Was the drug an indulgence, an escape? Make your choice, but his honesty deserves respect. We cannot understand sport unless its heroes reveal its insides to us.

The drugs have become the book’s primary controversy, but it is the young Agassi’s labour on court, how he was made, that appals. He is a boy shouted at and berated and pushed into greatness by a father who perhaps saw him not as a kid but a business plan. His book is revealing; it is also a warning.

Turn on the television set and you see the oversized cheque, the grinning winner, the manicured field, the excited fan, the blonde wife. It seems the perfect life. But the sporting world, and we need reminding of this, is not merely about fantasy and fairy tale.

It is a grimmer universe.

Some sports have a culture of abuse towards women. A study early in this decade apparently revealed that English cricketers are twice as likely to commit suicide as the average male. Steroid use to gain advantage is still pushed hard, even at high-school level. American football is having to take a closer look at the links between the game and later dementia.

Sport is not absent of madness and Agassi’s early life is proof. Not that his is the first story involving a pushy parent. Tennis player Mary Pierce’s father shouted “Kill the bitch, Mary” about an opponent. Golfer Anthony Kim’s father would pretend to trash trophies if he won with an over-par score. Golfer Sean O’Hair’s dad made him run a mile for every stroke he finished over par. Once he reportedly said: “When he was too old to spank, Sean was sometime lightly slapped across the face… A few times the light slap would catch the nose and it would bleed. There was never any abuse.”

The stories are endless, but with Agassi we’re surprised, perhaps because he did not look haunted, merely silly, in those denim shorts. It seems he had only disguised his pain. As a boy, he hit 2,500 balls a day, not for himself but for his father, and he couldn’t argue, couldn’t say no, couldn’t say enough.

His father pointed a gun at a stranger in traffic, he carried salt and pepper in his pockets in case he ever needed them in a fight. Of course Agassi couldn’t say no, as he writes: “Besides loving my father and wanting to please him, I don’t want to upset him. I don’t dare. Bad stuff happens when my father is upset.”

Agassi’s book is a journey through an imperfect life, and a strange livelihood, and let’s be grateful. There is enough inspiration out there about sport – sometimes, the darker side needs an airing. Because this is him, Agassi, the great player, we pay more attention and we remember, again, that sport should never be like this.

Sport should be about fathers who challenge their kids, not those who hand them amphetamines before matches. It should be a life born of fun, not fear.

I don’t mean to suggest that post facto honesty absolves Agassi of a ‘crime’ we would have known nothing about had he not chosen to speak to the record. He confessed, and now he can take whatever knocks come to him, and welcome.

I do, however, intend to point out that in our obsession with the ‘scandalous’ coda to the story of a life lived on the edge [from which we single out for notice not the important bits, but such inanities], we are perhaps in danger of overlooking the intrinsic worth of this book. And that, as Rohit points out, would be a tragedy, because such openness is rare enough to be treasured.

31 thoughts on “Open, and bleeding

  1. Wow! Came through to this from Twitter, and I am speechless. Agassi has had his book published. But this review, or opinion, seems so worth it now in retrospect. Hat-tip, Sir!

  2. Strange to be commenting on this old post now. But I guess the following link deserves to be here. Pete Bodo on why Andre Agassi is not trying to sell more copies by confessing to the crystal meth episode

    http://bit.ly/aesEoW

    It felt nice to read this post all over again. Really unfortunate that we don’t get to see Rohit Brijnath’s articles often. And the discussions in the comments are also a good read.

    Swing the blog back into action, na? Enough of the meetings I say!

  3. Prem,

    I’m probably reading this link for the nth time and each time, I read it gives me a different perspective on how, sometimes we tend to disconnect ourselves from what others’s thoughts (even more so from kids because we think we know more than they do).

    However, the link to your article on dad seems to hit a dead-end. If you don’t mind, please post the updated/corrected link. Thanks a bunch.

  4. Pingback: Wide Open « Smoke Signals

  5. I’ve never been able to speak of the specifics of that period to anyone; even my wife, who knows pretty much all there is to know about me, only has a broad picture but no idea of the real colors of despair

  6. Hi Prem,
    good to read an article of substance from you – good that you do occassionally break from the ‘attention grabbing by bringing down Sachin’ habits
    Srini

  7. Have been visiting your blog regularly ever since the Bhimsen episodes started..And needless to say, have been hooked on to your writing since then..Somehow after reading your Rediff article, felt compelled to just post a comment..Thanks for sharing such a beautifully written article..I definitely know that I will not think twice about buying your book whenever you write one :)

  8. Hi Prem,

    Excellent and moving stuff.

    Have you read “Full time – The secret life of Tony Cascarino”? He has an (excellent) chapter devoted to his turbulent relationship with his dad….

    Check it out if you haven’t. Apart from the above mentioned chapter, it is (IMO) one of the best sports autobiography ever written.

  9. Prem,

    Thanks for sharing this. It is probably one of the most difficult things to write about.

    In comparison I had fairly uneventful relationship with my father. May be b’coz I was his youngest child. My Elder siblings had major disagreements with my father about their life choices like the ones you experienced. So By the the time my turn came dad was either too tired to argue or too indulgent in keeping me happy.Relationship with the parents also depends on whether you are the first born or the last .

    Now I am on the other side of the fence. I am a father of a 9 year old. Even though I am not obsessed at making him a world # 1 at anything, we still have arguments while trying to impart basic skill set and education a person would need to survive in the 21st century. After reading Aggasi’s excerpt I wonder how my child would recall his childhood as a grown up.

    • Perceptive of you — yes, it is incredibly difficult, and even at times excruciatingly painful, to get out in black and white, which is why I was particularly impressed with Agassi’s book, or at least the extract I read. The last line of your response is precisely why I think this book is such a must-read: stories such as Agassi’s open your mind to the possibility that maybe there is more than one way to bring up a child.

      One thing I *have* noticed, though, through my interactions with my two nieces — both are rebellious in ways that, my sister says, constantly reminds her of me at that age. I’ve found, however, that while they tend to do the exact opposite if I suggest they do something, they love being allowed to argue, to debate. I’ve gotten them to do things my sister failed at simply by telling them why I think something is important, and then asking them what they think.

      Children are incredibly inventive — my nieces specialize in finding arguments against pretty much anything we’d like them to do. I notice though that if I listen to their arguments, show the necessary patience, agree where agreement is apt and rebut where necessary, they generally end up realizing that maybe it is in their interest to do whatever it is, and then they become perfect angels.

      As a sidelight, I am constantly amused by the ‘compromises’ they come up with — essentially, ways of doing what I want them to without compromising their own right to rebel, without diluting what they conceive of as their ‘dignity’.

      Best, to your son and you both.

  10. Prem,

    While I agree with the overall tone of your post, I cant help but think that a villian is being made out of Andre’s father. For all the ills in Agassi’s life, there is a father to blame. Is everything so black-n-white?

    • Of course it isn’t black and white. Which is why I mentioned in my post that in retrospect, there are things I too could have done differently. I don’t think the intent is to make a villain out of Mike Agassi — the account merely describes what is. Without the father pushing, Agassi clearly would never have become what he is, so ‘villain’ is perhaps the wrong word to use.

  11. Prem Sir,
    You are just a fantastic writer, one of those people who make life worth living for me, even though i have never met you. So, thank you!!

    I did do back and read your post about your dad, the one you wrote when you died. What a great piece it is. I did read a lot of comics myself, but i didn’t have have anyone to shape my interest or to guide me from comics to books. I floundered my way around, but in a way, you were lucky to have a father who understood it.

    I sometimes wonder if could apply the lessons i learnt from my own childhood, to my kids and give them what i didn’t get. But then i find that the whole paradigm has changed. I am bringing up my kids in US, completely different from the type of environment i grew up in.

    Anyway, thanks for writing and please keep writing!

    • For starters, mate, drop the ‘sir’ please? The Queen of England hasn’t singled me out for that honor. Yet. :-)

      I’m no one to give advice, not being a parent myself. But I’ve been a child, and if there is one takeaway from that experience that I would apply to bringing up a child, it would be summed up in one word: Listen.

      I suspect that too often, parents operate on the well-meaning assumption that they know best. In many ways, they do — but it would not hurt to remember that the child has a mind too, and more often than not that mind is capable of surprising you. It is fine to be ambitious for your child; to push him or her in a direction that seems suitable — but I’d think it is equally necessary to listen to the child, let him or her speak of what (s)he finds motivating, exciting, and see if you can help. And I would think, too, that this is true irrespective of what environment you are living in.

      • Prem, another point. Only when I became a parent did I really understand what my parents must have done for me when I was a child. Perspective does change. More often, we blame our parents for a lot of things in our life, we also give them credit when and where it is due, but often fail to see things from their perspective or understand the reason behind some of their actions.

        • True, and I am never sure who is to blame. I tend to think a part of the failure lies with the parents, who give orders without ever bothering to converse, to explain things from their point of view. But then, that is based on my own life story, and not a general statement; nor am I trying to say my parents were totally in the wrong — in retrospect, I’d think they got far more right than wrong in my upbringing; what was lacking was an understanding on the part of each about where the other was coming from.

          A simple example: I remember when I first conceived the ambition of being a journalist, and told my father that is what I wanted to do. His immediate reaction was, are you daft, how do you suppose a college dropout will ever make it in that profession, since you insisted on throwing away a potentially brilliant future, the best you can do now is write the UPSC and get a job in a government department, since it will provide you security.

          From his point of view, I guess it made sense — in the eighties, jobs were so scarce, a mere degree wasn’t enough. Actually, when I first interviewed with the Indian Express, the interviewer threw me out because I didn’t have the “mandatory” qualification of a BA in English literature.

          The problem is, though, that he would not spend the minute needed to ask me why I had conceived of that ambition, how I intended to go about it, and what made me think I would succeed. Absent such dialog, our respective positions hardened: he refused to have anything to do with my “pipe dream”; I in turn obstinately refused to consider any of his suggestions, and instead spent the better part of 11 years with neither a regular job, nor prospects of finding any.

          You are right in saying that we often fail to understand our parents; I agree entirely — I’d merely add the codicil that far too often, parents also fail to even try to understand where their children are coming from.

          • Like some others here, I am a regular at your blog now, post-Bhimsen, and really like your writing on a range of topics.

            On this father-son conflict, nobody else can tell, really except the 2 of you. But I can imagine that 11 years without a regular job must have been harrowing for your Dad. I think Indian society in general expected the Dad to care for and provide for his sons even when they are full-grown adults, until they are set in a track that this larger society approves of. So your Dad was maybe performing a role as best as he could understand it and partly under the pressures of society at that time.

            It is even likely that for every successful Prem there are a couple others that didnt turn out well at all, whereas if they heeded their Dad’s advice, maybe they would have ended up with some safe but mediocre position. Their Dads then take some sense of failure to the grave.

            Thanks,
            Jai

          • Prem,

            For people who are in their mid thirties and above , the relationship with our parents was a different ball game. The way our parents and their parent and theirs were brought up, the social circumstances, environment, attitudes, did not change as quicky as it changed between say before 60s and after 60s.
            For a majority of the parents undertanding the fact that their kids dont find the parents method of bringup, wanting to have a say in things concerning us acceptable was incomprehensible. I still remember the no times I had to listen to the commment “yeduthu pesade( dont answer back)” from the elders in the family.

            Are the 60s/70s generationsdoing a better of listening to our kids better- I have to probably wait for another 30 years to hear the verdict. I would like to think I am better at lsitening.

            BTW- Bhimsen is great. Thanks to you and Vasudevan Nair

  12. Prem,

    Good post.

    I think every ‘old’ person has a full closet of bones, some polished, some spooky, but skeletons all the same.

    In my day job I see a lot of youngsters being driven by their parental ambition, and the result is that they move through their ‘this’ phase of life not discovering their passion. (There are always a very few exceptions.) And it is our frustration to ignite a spark in them.

    In our (Indian) society it is unthinkable for someone to have a written down ambition to become ‘Joe the plumber’, although I wonder why, knowing the difficulty to get a few taps fixed at home or office. Maybe the pushy fathers have a role to play in not letting their kids have a minimum baseline for ambition.

    Ram

  13. Prem,

    It was refreshing to see this post. Brought back my own guilt-ridden past of not living up to my father’s vision. Over the time this has left me scarred, frustrated, angry, depressed, suicidal, motivated, determined and to an extent successful all at the same time.

    Regarding Agassi’s motives to come out clean – I understand what you mean. You have to get this out of the system, provide yourself a spiritual enema and then carry on achieving your perceived potential. People achieve this in different ways – some play tennis, some write blogs and others write autobiographies.

    I have been doing the same – by writing songs. It has been a liberating experience. if you do get time check out my song “roko na mujhe” at http://sifar.in/. You will know what i mean.

    I hate to write self promotion posts. But there are so many other stories that are similar that I couldnt stop myself.

    • I guess it is natural, when you are actually going through your own personal hell, to believe that fate has singled you out for its wanton malevolence. And then you write about it and find, as I did 12 years ago and again now, that you are not unique – and in some strange way, that discovery brings with it a form of comfort.

      Thanks for the link, mate — will go check it out once I’m over the preoccupations of work.

      • Thanks! As you rightly pointed out, just the fact that there are others somehow makes it highly comforting. I wish I could have told this to the teen me. Would have saved a lot of unnecessary hours agonizing.

        But then, I would not have been me if I didnt go through this. And that is the strangest part about it. The hind-sight makes you forgive and forget and actually relish the experience.

        Oh well! Maybe we are what we remember and nothing much more.

  14. This post just drives home the point that you’ve previously been blogging and twittering about. Can’t help but just agree yet again.

    It’s funny that for a sport you don’t care too much for, it is tennis that brings out past memories of your father. I remember sending you a link about Roger Federer and, you blogged about your father.

    Is tennis proving to be that much needed catalyst for you to occasionally exorcise the demons of the past which somehow seem to be clinging on? You don’t need to answer that; the intent is not to intrude into your personal space, but, to leave you with a thought…

    • Possibly because tennis — with its combination of stars under pressure to perform day in and out and solo at that, plus empathetic sports writers who time and again delve beneath the benevolent facade — has produced some great personal writing.

      The demons of my past were exorcised a long time ago: first, when I made it as a journalist or, more accurately, realized I wasn’t the deadbeat I was supposed to be and second, when I interrupted my online running commentary during India’s 1997 tour of the West Indies to do the last rites for a father who, at that point, I hadn’t spoken to for the better part of six years.

      Demons you can exorcise; memories you cannot however get rid of, even with a lobotomy. And just occasionally, unexpectedly, something touches that part of the psyche on the raw. Reading Agassi write of training under his father proved to be one of those moments.

      No need for apologies, mate — sometimes, this kind of writing proves cathartic, and mercifully those who read are sensitive enough to understand.

      • Read this post and I have also read the other one that you wrote after your father’s demise before – but today that article made me think back on what my father had done to me, something that neither had I acknowledged when he was alive nor that many people in my life, including my wife or mother, are aware of.

        My dad had a voracious appetite for books and whichever city that we lived in he would somehow get access to a library and become a member there. He introduced me to Phantom, Tintin comics as early as my first grade. He would sit with me and my sister and read the stories to us kids – and read them in a way that helped us appreciate the humour as well. Slowly, he started making us read on our own by deliberately acting busy but still leaving the comics within our reach. And after a certain point he introduced me to the Enid Blytons and other children books – meticulously handpicked for our reading from the library. He taught me to look up meanings in a dictionary and within a matter of a few years I had started going with him to the library and choosing what I wanted to read. He guided me in those too – Perry Mason, Sherlock Holmes, Agatha Christie, Hailey, Ludlum, Ayn Rand.

        He also introduced me to Chess, he would play with me every Saturday/Sunday, deliberately losing to me at times just so that I don’t lose interest or motivation. He bought me books on Chess that I found very valuable at that time. He also taught me to solve the Rubix cube and used to brag about my speed within his circles or to other folks in the family.

        Today, when I reflect back, I find that whatever I am today was a direct contribution from him. He did all this without anyone noticing it, without me realizing that he was all along goading and guiding me. In fact, I do not think I have ever told him what I owe him.

        It is sad that we realize this only after the person is no more. When all that we are left with are the memories – sometimes to cherish but at most times, to feel guilty, guilty of not taking that extra effort in reciprocating the care, love and affection that our parents have shown towards us.

        Today, I am mimicking my father in many ways – I take my daughter to the library every week, read her stories much like how my father used to do to me, I have enrolled her in an art class – something that she is very interested in and drive her back and forth two days a week to these classes. I am sure she does not realize what I am doing for her – but hopefully someday she would, and I am sure will be writing about it just as I do today, as you have done on your blog.

        Maybe, it is the circle of life! :)

        Thanks for the blog post and thanks for reviving those wonderful memories of the time I had spent with my father. You are an awesome writer – you were able to pack in all those bundles of emotion into that single article. I do not think I can do the same in such concise and precise fashion.

        Let us not call it cathartic – it is only reminiscing. :)

  15. A very touching post… and an excellent article by Brijnath. I almost immediately recall Jelena Dokic’s father, the Williams sisters, Nadia Comăneci’s training from a series I saw years ago and maybe even tales of Yuvraj’s father pushing him beyond the limit. Some might say that it is because they were pushed so hard that they attained those heights and we should be grateful, but what about the inner voice that was silenced. That point about English cricketers, it makes you wonder about all the “almost made it”s, if they were pushed as hard and couldn’t get to the top, how empty would they find the entire experience.
    I am convinced, your review and Rohit’s article have contributed significantly to this, I think I would prefer to read this book anyday over the (what 1000 pages) goody-two-shoes Steve Waugh autobiography, that very seriously I can only read certain small sections of at a time without wondering if the all the feel-goodness emanating from it will make my head asplode.

    • Couldn’t agree more! As a sports fan you really crave for some insight in to what makes those guys tick, whats working on their mind and thats why an honest piece is to die for. I guess thats what makes Aakash Chopra’s column on ciricnfo so good.

      Like Harsha said in his interview for Prem, that we can, almost certainly, never expect a book like this on Indian cricket is a real pity.

      All said and done, Prem super post!!! riveting stuff!!!

  16. Mr. Prem, your autobiography would also be interesting to read if ever you choose to write about it.

    Any idea if the bookstores here have started stocking Agassi’s book.

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