Imperfect Control: Our Lifelong Struggles with Power and Surrender

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Judith Viorst, in her new book, Imperfect Control, shows us how our sense of self and all our important relationships are colored by our struggles over control: over wanting it and taking it, loving it and fearing it, and figuring out when the time has come to surrender it. Drawing on the work of biological and social scientists, psychoanalysis, and philosophers, and interweaving fiction and poetry and personal stories, including some of her own, Viorst compellingly argues that we are constantly dealing with ...
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Overview

Judith Viorst, in her new book, Imperfect Control, shows us how our sense of self and all our important relationships are colored by our struggles over control: over wanting it and taking it, loving it and fearing it, and figuring out when the time has come to surrender it. Drawing on the work of biological and social scientists, psychoanalysis, and philosophers, and interweaving fiction and poetry and personal stories, including some of her own, Viorst compellingly argues that we are constantly dealing with issues of control: As children and parents. As lovers and workers. As victims and survivors. As moral - and mortal - human beings. Viorst again provides a fresh way of thinking about a familiar concept, showing how issues of control explain why we remain in hopeless relationships, how an offer of help can be a power play, when compliance is a virtue and when it's an evil, how easily we will quit and how hard we will try. Writing with compassion, acute psychological insight, and a touch of her trademark humor, Viorst invites us to contemplate the limits and possibilities of our control. She shows us how our lives can be shaped by our actions and our choices. She reminds us, too, that we sometimes should choose to let go. And she encourages us to find our own best balance between power and surrender.
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Editorial Reviews

Library Journal
Viorst Murdering Mr. Monti, LJ 12/93 suggests that we tend to exhibit "imperfect control" in our day-to-day existence. Taking an eclectic approach to her topic, she recognizes nature, nurture, and environment as all strongly influencing our struggles with control. Referring to the works of social scientists, psychologists, and philosophers as well as literary examples and personal experiences, Viorst shows how issues of power and surrender confront and affect us throughout our lives. With a new understanding of the possibilities and limits of our control, she ably demonstrates how we can better shape our lives through wiser choices and actions. Her book is very readable, with traces of the author's special brand of humor woven throughout. Highly recommended for psychology collections in all academic and public libraries and for all readers who wish to have a better understanding of the behavior of self and others. [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 9/15/97.]Elizabeth Goeters, DeKalb Coll. Learning Resources Ctr., Dunwoody, Ga.
From the Publisher
Judith S. Wallerstein author of The Good Marriage Imperfect Control is a brilliant book and an immense pleasure to read.

Connie Lauerman Chicago Tribune Imperfect Control continues the kind of work that won Viorst a special commendation from the American Psychiatric Association...smart, lighthearted, and down-to-earth....

The Boston Herald [U]nlike pop gurus who seek to lead us down a path toward some truth we may never even envision, much less attain, Viorst is content with walking alongside us, pointing out the lurking ruts and pitfalls....She makes a great buddy.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780684801391
  • Publisher: Simon & Schuster
  • Publication date: 1/1/1998
  • Edition description: Trade
  • Pages: 446
  • Product dimensions: 6.58 (w) x 9.60 (h) x 1.30 (d)

Meet the Author

Judith Viorst was born and brought up in New Jersey, graduated from Rutgers University, moved to Greenwich Village, and has lived in Washington, DC, since 1960, when she married Milton Viorst, a political writer. They have three sons and seven grandchildren. Viorst writes in many different areas: science books, children’s picture books, adult fiction and nonfiction, poetry for children and adults, and musicals, which are still performed on stages around the country. She is best known for her beloved picture book Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day.

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Read an Excerpt

Control: The capacity to manage, master, dominate, exercise power over, regulate, influence, curb, suppress, or restrain.

Control is a rich and resonant word, a word that evokes strong feelings, a word that is familiar to the tongue, for it touches on lifelong concerns with power and helplessness, with freedom and limitations, with doing and being done to, with who's on top, with whether we see ourselves as someone who goes out and gets what we want or as someone who, for the most part, takes what we get. Control is a hard-edged word; it has -- at least it seems to have -- no poetry in it. It's something we want, need, seize, fear, lose, give up. In our feelings about our place in the world, in how we define ourselves, in our personal and professional relationships, we -- consciously or unconsciously, positively or negatively -- are constantly dealing with issues of control.

Do you think that control is always a negative concept? I'd like to persuade you of another view. Do you think that concerns with control do not apply to how you live or who you are? I'll argue that they apply both to me and to you. For when we can't walk one more step and yet we keep walking, when we learn something new by practicing every day, when we give ourselves over to blistering rage or to passion, when we fall off our diet and onto a crème brûlée, when we say we can't help what we do or resent what we do or deplore what we do and yet we still do it, when we force our nearest and dearest to do it our way, we are -- though perhaps we don't know it, or perhaps we call it by another name -- taking, or giving up, or abusing control.

We are constantly dealing with issues of control.

Control enough to shape our own fate -- or are we shaped by our genes?

Control enough to master a skill, to work toward a goal, to finish what we start.

Control of our sexuality.

Control enough to manage on our own.

Control enough to hold ourselves up to certain moral standards and to hold ourselves responsible when we fall short.

Control within our marital relationships.

Control within our professional relationships.

Control of our adult children -- don't they need us to tell them how to live their lives?

Control is something we sometimes surrender, either by choice or necessity.

Control in the wake of misfortune.

Control of our death.

Whether or not we believe we possess it, whether we rush to embrace it or claim to shun it, most of us want some control -- sufficient control, sometimes total control -- over ourselves, and over other people, and over the events with which we're involved.

Our feelings about control are expressed in our early sense of competence or powerlessness, in our power struggles during adolescence, in where and with whom and how often we make love, in how much aching regret and unfinished business we'll be dealing with when we die. Our beliefs about having control determine whether or not our small and large losses defeat us, how easily we quit, and how hard we try. Our strategies of control, when the point of control is to get our own way, include intimidation, recrimination, negotiation, the laying on of guilt, persuasion, flattery -- and repetition, sometimes known as nagging. Our relinquishing of control may be a bitter failure, a facing of hard realities, or a willing, indeed eager, acquiescence.

Thinking about control can explain why "helpless" Kathy calls all the shots in the marriage: why Tom keeps losing job after job after job; why control-freak Vicky has to dine at precisely 7:00 P.M.; why Ellen and Jill and Robert and Dan insist that, although they did it, and although they agree that it was wrong to do it, it isn't their fault. Thinking about control can explain why we let ourselves remain in a hopeless relationship; how an offer of help may be a power ploy; why persistence isn't invariably a virtue; and when we're allowed to enjoy the pleasure of saying, "This is not my responsibility."

In some of their definitions the word "control" and the word "power" are synonymous. I'll sometimes be using them interchangeably. I'll also be making the point -- I'll be making this point repeatedly -- that while most of us endeavor to mold the events of our lives to meet our personal needs, the control we exercise over ourselves, over others, and over what happens to us is almost always highly imperfect control.

In writing this book, I've drawn on the work of biological scientists, social scientists, psychoanalysts, philosophers, and others who, directly and sometimes very indirectly, examine the multiple aspects of control. I've drawn, as well, on public reports and with identities masked on private case histories, and on the truths to be found in fiction and poems. In addition I've talked with children and parents, husbands and wives and lovers, victims and survivors, employees and bosses, focusing on people whose place in society and the economy allows for the possibility of control. And I've had some things to say about my own control concerns, both past and pending.

Don't look to this book for "Ten Easy Steps to Improving Your Self-Control," or "How to Get Your Husband or Wife to Obey." I'm afraid you will have to seek elsewhere for prescriptions. But I'm hoping to persuade you that the ways we deal with control can enrich or diminish us, and can shape our relationships for good or for ill. I'm hoping to show why experiences you've known by other names can be called "control." I'm asking you to recognize as I, with some shudders and sighs, have been learning to do when the control we claim is too much or too little. And I trust that this recognition, this greater awareness, will enable us to make freer and wiser choices.

For I continue to believe that consciousness helps. I continue to believe that knowing where it is we're going really helps. I believe that constructive change begins when we're finally able to say, "There I go again," or "That's what I'm doing." I also believe that by understanding how issues of control pervade our lives, we eventually may achieve a better balancing of power and surrender, better -- albeit still imperfect -- control.

From IMPERFECT CONTROL: OUR LIFELONG STRUGGLES WITH POWER AND SURRENDER, copyright © 1998 by Judith Viorst. Published by Simon & Schuster, Inc. All rights reserved.

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Table of Contents

Introduction 9
1 How Free to Be? 13
2 The Taste of Control 33
3 Taking Possession of Ourselves 64
4 The Power of Sex 91
5 Who Controls the Couple? 123
6 Permanent Parenthood 155
7 Bossing and Being Bossed 182
8 Victims and Survivors 205
9 Varieties of Surrender 236
10 In Control of Our Death 266
Last Words 301
Notes and Elaborations 303
Bibliography 410
Acknowledgments 425
Index 427
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Introduction

Introduction

Control: The capacity to manage, master, dominate, exercise power over, regulate, influence, curb, suppress, or restrain.

Control is a rich and resonant word, a word that evokes strong feelings, a word that is familiar to the tongue, for it touches on lifelong concerns with power and helplessness, with freedom and limitations, with doing and being done to, with who's on top, with whether we see ourselves as someone who goes out and gets what we want or as someone who, for the most part, takes what we get. Control is a hard-edged word; it has -- at least it seems to have -- no poetry in it. It's something we want, need, seize, fear, lose, give up. In our feelings about our place in the world, in how we define ourselves, in our personal and professional relationships, we -- consciously or unconsciously, positively or negatively -- are constantly dealing with issues of control.

Do you think that control is always a negative concept? I'd like to persuade you of another view. Do you think that concerns with control do not apply to how you live or who you are? I'll argue that they apply both to me and to you. For when we can't walk one more step and yet we keep walking, when we learn something new by practicing every day, when we give ourselves over to blistering rage or to passion, when we fall off our diet and onto a crème brûlée, when we say we can't help what we do or resent what we do or deplore what we do and yet we still do it, when we force our nearest and dearest to do it our way, we are -- though perhaps we don't know it, or perhaps we call it by another name -- taking, or giving up, or abusing contrence.

Thinking about control can explain why "helpless" Kathy calls all the shots in the marriage; why Tom keeps losing job after job after job; why control-freak Vicky has to dine at precisely 7:00 P.M.; why criminals and other bad guys insist that, although they did it, and although they agree that it was wrong to do it, it isn't their fault. Thinking about control can explain why we let ourselves remain in a hopeless relationship; how an offer of help may be a power ploy; why persistence isn't invariably a virtue; and when we're allowed to enjoy the pleasure of saying, "This is not my responsibility."

In some of their definitions the word "control" and the word "power" are synonymous. I'll sometimes be using them interchangeably. I'll also be making the point -- I'll be making this point repeatedly -- that while most of us endeavor to mold the events of our lives to meet our personal needs, the control we exercise over ourselves, over others, and over what happens to us is almost always highly imperfect control.

In writing this book, I've drawn on the work of biological scientists, social scientists, psychoanalysts, philosophers, and others who, directly and sometimes very indirectly, examine the multiple aspects of control. I've drawn, as well, on public reports and (with identities masked) on private case histories, and on the truths to be found in fiction and poems. In addition I've talked with children and parents, husbands and wives and lovers, victims and survivors, employees and bosses, focusing on people whose place in society and the economy allows for the possibility of control. And I've had some things to say about my own control concerns, both past and pending.

Don't look to t his book for "Ten Easy Steps to Improving Your Self-Control," or "How to Get Your Husband or Wife to Obey." I'm afraid you will have to seek elsewhere for prescriptions. But I'm hoping to persuade you that the ways we deal with control can enrich or diminish us, and can shape our relationships for good or for ill. I'm hoping to show why experiences you've known by other names can be called "control." I'm asking you to recognize (as I, with some shudders and sighs, have been learning to do) when the control we claim is too much or too little. And I trust that this recognition, this greater awareness, will enable us to make freer and wiser choices.

For I continue to believe that consciousness helps. I continue to believe that knowing where it is we're going really helps. I believe that constructive change begins when we're finally able to say, "There I go again," or "That's what I'm doing." I also believe that by understanding how issues of control pervade our lives, we eventually may achieve a better balancing of power and surrender, better -- albeit still imperfect -- control.

Judith Viorst
Washington, D.C.

Copyright © 1998 by Judith Viorst

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