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'Portnoy's Complaint'? Self-Love and Self-Loathing

Nearly 40 years ago, a character burst onto the public stage unlike any the American public had seen before. He was smart and funny and over-the-top neurotic. His name was Alexander Portnoy, a creation of the writer Philip Roth.

Portnoy's Complaint is told as one long psychotherapy session. It shocked some readers, delighted others. Hardly anyone, though, is indifferent about Alexander Portnoy.

Within a few pages we learn that Portnoy — nice Jewish boy, brilliant honor student — has a problem. He loves himself too much, and one part of himself in particular. Aiding young Portnoy in these furtive sessions of self-love are a variety of props: an empty milk bottle, a sock, a baseball mitt and, famously, a piece of liver. So numerous and colorful are depictions like these, it's tempting to conclude that this is a book about masturbation. It's not.

"It's actually a book about enmeshment and one's relationship with one's parents," says Alana Newhouse, arts and culture editor at the Jewish newspaper The Forward.

The Parent Trap

And what parents does Portnoy have! A father who suffers — suffers! — from both a dead-end job and a chronic case of constipation. But it is Portnoy's mother, Sophie, who shapes young Alex into her own neurotic image. She is, as Alex puts it, "the patron saint of self-sacrifice" and "one of the outstanding producers and packagers of guilt in our time."

In other words, she is a Jewish mother. In fact, Portnoy's Complaint did for the Jewish mother what Jaws did for the shark: took an already frightening creature and made it even scarier. At the time, there was a backlash of sorts, with Jewish mothers complaining that they were being unfairly portrayed.

Some 40 years later, though, Jewish mothers have exacted revenge. These days, all mothers are Jewish mothers, says Newhouse. "That is the way you're supposed to mother. You're supposed to be warm and inviting and caressing. All of the things that were caricatured as bad 30 yeas ago have come back around. There are children out there who wish they had Jewish mothers."

Guilt Without Sex

Not Alex Portnoy, though. He was desperate to escape his Jewish mother, to flee his suffocating New Jersey home and indulge his libido. After all, it was 1969. The Sexual Revolution was in full bloom. Yet, while most Americans were engaging in sex without guilt, Alexander Portnoy engages in guilt without sex — until, one day, he meets a woman willing to fulfill his every fantasy: Mary Jane Reed, a.k.a. The Monkey.

Portnoy, though, derives very little genuine satisfaction from the relationship. He is chronically unhappy, torn between his over-developed conscience and his over-developed id. His intelligence (a 158 IQ) doesn't help, for Portnoy possesses just enough self-awareness to recognize his pathology, yet not enough to free himself of it. So, he suffers.

"He's a sad character, someone for whom there seems to be no love in sex at all," says Mark Oppenheimer, editor of the New Haven Review and author of Thirteen and a Day: The Bar and Bat Mitzvah Across America. Humor is Portnoy's saving grace; otherwise, he would be unbearable.

Guilt Shtick

Portnoy may be Jewish but his appeal — if that's the word — is universal. Anyone predisposed to bouts of guilt (which is pretty much all of us) can relate to Alexander Portnoy.

"This novel is the great American novel about grappling with guilt, particularly with parental guilt trips," says Oppenheimer.

In a 2005 interview with NPR's Fresh Air, Phillip Roth said it's not the sexual acts depicted in the book that shocked people. "I think they were shocked and outraged by the revelation of brutality — brutality of feeling, brutality of attitude, brutality of anger. 'You say all this takes place in a Jewish family?' That's what was shocking."

Portnoy Lives!

In the end, it would be easy to simply pity Portnoy. But we don't.

"I loved him," says Newhouse. "I found Portnoy to be funny and angry and compassionate — and most of all searching. This is a character who is in deep conflict because he wants to change."

Portnoy has grown up. He's nearly 40 years old now. How's he doing? Did he represent a neurotic blip in time, or does his character, and all it represents, live on? There is some evidence that Portnoy lives. For one thing, he created the template for a new kind of American character: the troubled young man in therapy. Shades of Portnoy can be seen in Woody Allen's films, for instance.

And, says Newhouse, real-life Portnoys still walk the streets of New York City. "I think it's safe to say I've dated a few Alexander Portnoys," says Newhouse. "I also know a few female Portnoys — Alexandra Portnoys — who similarly struggle with the enmeshment with their parents."

There is, it turns out, a little bit of Portnoy in all of us. Who knew?

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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Eric Weiner
Eric Weiner is a national correspondent for NPR.org. Based in Washington, DC, he writes news and analysis for NPR's website.