Saturday, April 10, 2010

Open: An Autobiography by Andre Agassi

Andre Agassi's autobiography, Open, was surprisingly wonderful. How rare to find an athlete with such articulate self-awareness. His memoir thoroughly convinced me that he really does hate the game of tennis, the game brutally forced on him as a child. Unfortunately, he can't quite stay away from it either, because it is the thing he knows how to do best in the world; the thing that makes him feel in control (as he never was during his childhood). A fascinating contradiction, and likely one that many child-stars have experienced.

What I kept wondering is: Why does this work so well?

Yes, we know it's bad to harass children to death...but take a look at those boffo results. (Obviously, this is what dad was thinking, too.)

Granted, it doesn't work on every child prodigy... After all, there were three sons before Andre, who failed and couldn't deliver, forever regarded by their father as disappointments and losers. Andre felt the pressure, as another tortured child, Michael Jackson (fifth son, to Andre's fourth) certainly felt it. I also think of Mozart, Patty Duke and countless others, including even Agassi's two wives: Brooke Shields and Steffi Graf. (Agassi is so deeply defined by his childhood-prodigy experience, that I seriously doubt he could bond with any woman who did not in some way share it.) At one point, Shields refers to Jackson as "just like us, he never had a childhood"--and it is clear that the show-biz kids identify very strongly with each other; the psycho-stage-parent thing is its own unique gestalt. (To his credit, Agassi doesn't take potshots at the infamous Teri Shields, but I would have.)

Agassi's father, an Iranian immigrant and former boxer working in Las Vegas (extremely determined to hit the big time), started on him when he was tiny. Andre daily faced a machine nicknamed "The Monster"--shooting tennis balls at him at a furiously fast rate. And little Andre hit them back, over and over and over, hour after hour, day after day. These sections are very difficult to read, since they are basically an account of child abuse. But it's legal child abuse. The book introduces us to a whole world of tennis camps and stage-dads, endlessly haranguing and pimping the kids. It's grueling and horrific. The Florida "tennis camp" is like Basic Training; they even sleep in barracks and eat gruel, shipped out by bus to a local school for prearranged half-days, which guarantees the kids plenty of time to practice, practice, practice. Hours and hours and hours. Andre learns to channel his considerable anger over these circumstances, into his game. He becomes a very aggressive, precocious player and enjoys beating everyone who takes him on. As a teenager, the capitalists come calling, giving him the endorsements he needs to drop out of school (in ninth grade) and hit the road. For a working-class kid who has always lived hand-to-mouth, the money is jaw-dropping and intoxicating, and he is quickly hooked on the life of a star. He collects an entourage, and the real games begin.

My question for discussion is: Does this child-prodigy-routine work or doesn't it?

I offer Andre, Mozart and Michael Jackson as proof that their dads seemed to be onto something. And as long as stage-parents can produce these kinds of results? The Oliver Twist-tennis camps will still be in business.

Would he have won eight Grand Slams without his father's horrible machine, firing those endless tennis balls at him and teaching him to return even the strongest, deadliest serve at astonishing speeds?

Can we make champions without child abuse? Would Michael Jackson and Mozart have existed without child abuse? Of course not.

It's a paradox. We watch the champions, we watch the movies, we watch the stars, and we are dazzled... but we also disapprove of the process by which they learned to dazzle us.

I speak as one long dazzled by Agassi's return volleys. And now I ask myself: was I dazzled by the results of child abuse? Apparently so.

Andre makes us aware. He had the awareness forced on him, and now, he shares it with us.


D. said...

My mind yielded from the squirrel-trove the bonsaiing of trees and foot-binding. And that the ends do not justify the means. And that many don't walk away from Omelas.

Beyond that the coffee has not yet penetrated.

La Lubu said...

Does this child-prodigy-routine work or doesn't it?

I say "no". Most children who go through this rigorous, systematic abuse do not become child stars, and most abandon their area of interest and talent before adulthood---what they once loved, they learn to hate. Agassi and Jackson and the rest are outliers. The standard consists of all the kids that are being screamed at in the bleachers or backstage, being told they fucked up even if they won, because they didn't perform to the standard of seasoned, adult professionals. There are higher numbers of those kids than we assume, but they're "invisible" without stardom.

Meanwhile, most phenomenal adult creatives weren't child stars or even child prodigies.

My dad was a runner. He doesn't run races anymore, and he can't really run on hard surfaces anymore without a lot of arthritis pain (he still logs anywhere from 7-10 miles a day). He used to take me to cross-country races when I was a kid; sometimes I would run, too. There was another girl from my school, a couple of years older, who always ran.

She had a stage father. He did not run, and I doubt he ever did. He was mean on a good day, but I'll never forget the day he loudly berated her, cursing and calling her everything in the book because I was right behind her...about 30 seconds behind on a one mile race. She must have been feeling bad that day, 'cuz her time was about a minute later than usual. She was 11 or 12 years old at the time.

She quit running. Not that day, but within the year. Never ran in junior high or high school, even though she was good at it. That's the usual outcome of that dynamic.

DaisyDeadhead said...

La Lubu: He did not run, and I doubt he ever did.

There is a great segment of the book wherein the senior Agassi suddenly cuts short a game between he and Andre for the very first time--just halts the game in the middle.

Andre realizes its because he can finally beat his father, and his father doesn't want to face that moment. Very intense.

Agassi never plays his son again. Instead, he starts propositioning adults, saying, my kid can beat you, even betting $5000 on him once (it was Vegas after all). His mother worked for the state of Nevada, and his dad worked strictly for tips... Andre knew that if he didn't win, his family would directly suffer... incredible pressure. This is like, a nine year old kid we are talking about.

He learned to get angry and use his anger to win. But imagine what it's like to have to depend on anger all the time.

JoJo said...

Wow that is messed up. I had no idea he hated tennis. I figured every elite athlete loved the sport they played, otherwise how could they be #1 all the time?

When I was a kid, probably 6, my summer swim instructor told my parents I had all the makings of an Olympic swimmer. I got enrolled in year round swimming lessons, at an indoor pool in Hyannis. I'd get whisked out of school at the end of the day and taken to lessons. I hated every minute of it. So, I absolutely REFUSED to learn how to dive. I figured if I couldn't dive I couldn't be forced to compete. I never did learn how to dive and my parents finally realized I had no interest in competitive sports. Tennis was forced on me too. Hated that so much that the instructor called my parents and told them I was not taking it seriously. lol I liked slugging the ball as hard as I could, right over the fence of the tennis court.

The sad thing is, my parents had no interest in encouraging me to excel at the things I was interested in.

SnowdropExplodes said...

What La Lubu said, basically.

What immediately came to mind is a passage from an Isaac Asimov short story called "Dreaming is a Private Thing". In it, there is a way to record the products of a person's imagination and sell these for others to experience as dreams - this is like a high-end version of novels, movies etc.

The head of a company that sells these dreams meets the parents of a child whom the talent scout has identified as a potential "dreamer" (person able to produce high-quality "dreams" for sale). There is special training needed to become a professional standard "dreamer". At one point in the conversation between the child's parents and the boss, the boss says, "If they take a plain boy without the proper talent and put him through a development course, they'll ruin him. A dreamer he won't be, I guarantee you. And a normal human being he won't be, either. Don't take the chance of doing it to your son."

Substitute any sport or media stardom in place of "dreamer" and it's what I would say to the parents who would do this stuff to their kid.

And the thing is, we don't need to make champions, or stars: they do grow naturally as well, if given the proper nourishment. We might not have had Mozart or Agassi or Jackson (or for that matter, the Williams sisters - reading this post, and remembering what I heard about how they were trained by their father, I wonder how they feel about it all deep inside?) but we have had plenty of greats who did not have that pressure. And who knows - maybe they would have been great anyway? Or maybe they would have been greats at something else.

I think sometimes parents confuse "flooding" with "proper nourishment". I recall a number of episodes of the Simpsons that deal with this issue. For example, the one where Bart joins the school football team and Homer tries to encourage him by making him QB but he's better as a Tackle. But most particularly a quote from Lisa: "Don't get me wrong, Dad, but your half-assed under-parenting was a lot less scary than your half-assed over-parenting".

Final thought: once it gets into a child's head that (a parent's) love is conditional upon success in 'x', that's never a good situation.

Bryde said...

Daisy-this article reminded me of seeing Andre on Oprah-just after the book came out.He talked about how much he hated the games-but certainly came nowhere close to the hatred the book must relay.

It made me feel guilty for loving him as a player so much.I remember the first time I saw him.I was just in love with his....difference.I would watch him any chance I got.I had posters,calendars-the whole bit.

But I am so pleased that he channeled all that into something so awesome.All the work he does for his school and the kids in it-THAT'S something to be proud of.

I don't care about his little foray into drugs-who can blame him?He came out the other side of all this horrible shit and became a better man in spite of it.

It made me like him even more.

Ann ODyne said...

Yes - legal child abuse.
The father did however, get out of Iran. The Las Vegas element remind me of a book I read years ago exposing the top tennis players - 'Short Circuit' and I recommend it.
Andre is clearly a good person and I wish him well.
Vegas joke by Joan Rivers:
Everything is about gambling, the high school colors are Red 15 and Black 33.

(Jennifer Capriati, Chris Evert and Tiger Woods all started really young)

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Rootietoot said...

I suppose that kind of treatment/abuse can make a high achiever champion sort of person, but I don't see it making a well rounded *complete* individual, capable of making his or her own mistakes and choices, the kind of thing that makes for a peaceful and whole adult. How very sad.

I had a friend who was champion gymnast and her husband was won silver in the Barcelona Olympics as a swimmer. Their 2 kids showed alot of athletic promise, but neither wanted to go the direction of their parents. The parent's pushed the kids a bit, but eventually allowed them to go their own direction. By pushing them some, the kids learned about keeping a commitment (signing up for a swim team meant sticking with it the entire year)

There's a balance in there between pushing the kid to fulfill your dream as a parent, and letting the kid do whatever they want without any guidance at all. The parent's responsibility is to find that balance. I'm not sure how many of us achieve it, I know I wasn't so good at it.

Siren said...

Does this child-prodigy-routine work or doesn't it?

I'm with your first commenter, D., on this one.

This is an interesting question, because it assumes the end result, the champion, is a good thing, the product of a process that "worked."  We see such champions as good things because -- why?  Because greatness is amazing and inspiring to watch?  Because the differences these children grow up to make have big enough impacts on the world, positive impacts, and this somehow takes away -- or at least softens -- the wrongness of the process by which they came to greatness?  Because who they are makes the world a better place?

This story seems so tragic to me.  It's very hard for me to see it in terms of the ends justifying the means.  I know that's not the question here -- the question is more about whether the means really work to create the desired end. 

But should we desire it?

The question I end up asking myself is this: Doesn't the premise that this prodigy routine "worked" implicitly sanction the physical and/or psychological torture of a child? 

I don't mean to sound like a raving bleeding-heart liberal-minded overly-idealistic social-working obnoxiously-PC super deluxe child advocate type or whatever.  Maybe I'm still too close to childhood myself, and so my perspective is skewed.  Maybe my appreciation of people like Agassi and Mozart and Jackson is limited and short-sighted because I don't have a ton of experience from which to regard these things.    

And maybe I'm even being a total hypocrite, because some of my own greatest gifts seem to have blossomed under extreme conditions, and I wouldn't change that, because I cherish these gifts.  (Well -- I don't hear you saying Agassi is saying that.  Michael Jackson certainly never did.)  

In my view, the world -- even though it's better because of these champions -- might have been even better with three fewer champions and three more happy, whole, self-loving people in it instead.  It's hard to imagine a world without Mozart.  But I'd be willing to give it a try.

sheila said...

I saw a ton of interviews of him when his book came out. I thought it was amazing because I had no idea!

Thought it was incredibly sad. And real.

Blooming Tea said...

Andre is very lucky to have skills and talents to meets his parents expectations, but this is not always the case with others. Some parents just know how to recognize the talents and push their children to the limit.

Sam@blooming tea