We run and we hide, blindly building inner walls we hope will keep us safe. This is understandable, but it always backfires.
In 1989, the world watched as something extraordinary blew up before our eyes. An author many of us had not heard of, Salman Rushdie, had written a book. And the blowback went viral. As in, it almost killed the host.
Those who were adults at the time may remember that Salman Rushdie, after publishing his novel The Satanic Verses, received a death sentence. The Ayatollah Khomeini, Supreme Leader of Iran at the time, had issued a fatwa—a legal ruling—calling for the death of the author.
In this essay, Jill shares some insights—not about The Satanic Verses, but about the author—gained from reading his memoir, Joseph Anton. This memoir tells Rushdie’s version of what was happening behind the scenes, all those years ago.
Rushdie’s defense of writing The Satanic Verses is, by now, somewhat legendary. After all, he basically spent a decade in hiding to avoid being killed and, at the same time, to defend this book. Yet if we focus only on things like freedom of speech, we may miss some equally important underlying pieces.
For it’s a most intriguing question: What was behind Salman Rushdie’s motivation for writing such an inflammatory story? What made him do it? Believe it or not, perhaps without realizing it, he tells us.
PART ONE: The lay of the land
Here in the United States, as in many parts of the world, we claim the right to free speech. Some might say this is the most important constitutional guarantee we have protecting our freedom. And freedom is certainly worth fighting for.
But what if someone claims to be fighting on the side of freedom but actually creates prison walls for themselves instead? Then the work must turn to understanding those walls. Where do the walls originate? For as the Pathwork Guide teaches, everything we create in the world—whether it’s good or bad—has roots inside us.
When our creations are negative or destructive, they are always associated with untruth. This means our self-directed questions must be along the lines of, Where is untruth hiding within? For untruth is the scaffolding on which we build inner walls. And these walls then show up in the outer world as unpleasant developments.
“Anywhere that our conscious opinions, ideas and feelings are separated from what’s in our unconscious, a wall is created in our soul. The walls we build in our outer material world are actually far easier to destroy than this inner wall.
“On this side of the inner wall lies everything we know about and are willing to face. On the other side of the wall is where we store all the stuff we don’t want to face. This is a collection of unpleasant faults and weaknesses, along with whatever frightens us and confuses us. We seal all this shut using an unconscious wrong conclusion, like, if I see this about myself it will confirm that I’m bad. With that, we lock the gate and throw away the key.
“So what is this wall made of?…our wall will be made up, in part, from our goodwill that is ineffective due to our wrong conclusions and ignorance…In addition, we will find fragments of cowardice in our wall, along with impatience, pride and self-will. We can see evidence of our impatience in the mere fact that we’ve built this inner wall, hoping to reach perfection by piling our less-than-perfect parts behind it.
“Because heck, it sure is easier to put up a wall than take the time and effort needed to eliminate our misunderstandings and disharmonies. And let’s face it, that kind of self-honesty doesn’t happen without a lot of inner work. So let’s go ahead and add laziness to our list of wall ingredients. Indeed, all these trends are the building materials we’re using to make our inner wall.”
– Living Light, Chapter 19: THE WALL WITHIN | Where, Really, is the Wall?
In Joseph Anton, Salman Rushdie gives us a view into what his inner walls may be made from. And they are worth exploring. After all, these limiting, self-made walls are part of the human condition. And learning to dismantle them is a key reason we are here.
Understanding the landscape
Here’s what Rushdie said in his memoir regarding the Supreme Leader of Iran in 1989: “After he came to power the imam murdered many of those who brought him there and everyone else he disliked. Unionists, feminists, socialists, Communists, homosexuals, whores, and his own former lieutenants as well. There was a portrait of an imam like him in The Satanic Verses, an imam grown monstrous, his gigantic mouth eating his own revolution.
“The real imam had taken his country into a useless war with its neighbor, and a generation of young people had died, hundreds of thousands of his country’s young, before the old man called a halt.” (Prologue: The First Blackbird, page 11)
Rushdie knew this was the landscape in Iran in the 1980s as he was writing The Satanic Verses. He went on to say: “After that the dead cried out against the imam and his revolution became unpopular. He needed a way to rally the faithful and he found it in the form of a book and its author…This was the necessary devil of the dying imam.” (Prologue: The First Blackbird, page 11)
The big question is: Why did Rushdie offer himself up to become their “devil”? What compelled him to do it? Recognizing that humans are so often a bag of mixed motives, what were some of the deeper pieces inciting him to write a book that would blow up his life?
Is it OK to say this?
Let’s pause a moment to ask: Is it OK to be talking about Salman Rushdie like this? There are two reasons I am taking the liberty to use his story as a teaching opportunity. First, he told us his story himself. So I am not disclosing anything new or personal. And second, by virtue of becoming a successful author, he has become a public person.
That said, it’s generally not good to not spell out someone’s work for them. They must come to see it on their own. If we simply tell them what we see before they are ready to discover it for themselves, it will be a bitter pill to swallow.
What I am sharing here are my own perspectives. And I could be wrong. With this in mind—along with a lot of respect and sensitivity—let’s push on.
PART TWO: Understanding negative pleasure
The Pathwork Guide teaches that everything makes sense once we see the whole puzzle. I can tell you the exact point in Joseph Anton when the pieces of Rushdie’s life started falling together and making sense for me. It was when he shared this nugget about Marianne, his wife during the onset of this turmoil. They were well into the process of splitting up when he writes (and note, he writes about himself in the third person):
“He missed Marianne. He knew he must not try to go back to her after everything that had happened, after the CIA plot and the black journal, but, mind and body, he missed her. When they spoke on the phone, they fought. Conversations that began I wish you well ended with I hope you die. But love, whatever he meant by love, whatever she meant by it, the word “love” still hung in the air between them.” (Chapter IV: The Trap of Wanting to Be Loved, page 251)
What was more likely hanging in the air between Salman Rushdie and Marianne was something the Pathwork Guide calls negative pleasure and the recreation of childhood wounds. It will help if we fill in more of the story before explaining how these work. For now, just consider you may have no idea what negative pleasure is. And chances are good, Salman Rushdie may not either.
The recipe for struggle
After marrying Marianne, Rushdie found out that many of his friends didn’t like her. He had also caught her in a few lies. Rushdie said she often seemed angry, and he didn’t know what she thought of him. He felt he had married a stranger.
He also reveals: “He had asked her to marry him in the highly emotional state that followed his father’s death in November 1987 and things between them had not remained good for very long.” (Prologue: The First Blackbird , page 10)
Now it’s February of 1989, and the crowds in Tehran are carrying posters of Rushdie’s face with the eyes poked out. “It was Valentine’s Day, but he hadn’t been getting on with his wife, the American novelist Marianne Wiggins. Six days earlier she had told him she was unhappy in the marriage, that she ‘didn’t feel good around him anymore,’ even though they had been married for little more than a year, and he too, already knew it had been a mistake.” (Prologue: The First Blackbird, page 3)
Let’s add one more ingredient to this recipe for struggle. At another point in the book, Rushdie shared that “his mother had survived decades of marriage to his angry, disappointed alcoholic father by developing what she called a ‘forgettery’ instead of a memory. She woke up every day and forgot the day before. He, too, seemed to lack a memory for trouble, and woke up remembering only what he yearned for.” (Chapter IV: The Trap of Wanting to Be Loved, page 251)
So, is that what made him miss Marianne and want to go back to her? Because he forgot what it was really like? That’s a convenient explanation, but not very convincing. Here’s something that makes more sense: He was attracted to Marianne because she was a great match for his troubled history. In short, she ignited his negative pleasure.
What is negative pleasure?
Woven through the fabric of life is a vibrant substance that has incredible power. This life force contains a stream of utter bliss, which the Pathwork Guide calls the pleasure principle. We will each experience this vibrant aliveness—this bliss—more and more as we do our inner healing work. Eventually, we will vibrate in harmony with the whole universe.
The greatest experiences we can have as humans are connected with this pleasure principle. And fortunately, we are all born pre-wired, if you will, for pleasure. But unfortunately, our parents were imperfect, just as all parents are imperfect. So although we sometimes experienced the pleasure that came from their love, we also experienced pain due to their limitations and faults.
Whenever a child experiences any kind of cruelty, the child’s pleasure principle attaches itself to the cruelty. The wires become “welded” together to the same degree—and with the same flavor—as the cruelty that the child experienced and internalized. And note, there are different flavors of cruelty. Overt cruelty, such as hostility or aggression, is easier to spot. But covert cruelty, such as a parent withholding love through an inability to connect, is often just as damaging.
Did the child experience pleasure when they were rejected? No, of course not. Children simply do the best they can in a traumatic situation, meeting the rejection in a way that makes it bearable. This welding, or wedding, of the pleasure principle to cruelty, then, is not a conscious, deliberate process. We aren’t even aware we are doing this.
Negative pleasure is the condition that develops in which we feel “pleasure”—perhaps very strongly—in the presence of cruelty. And it runs in both directions. So we may find our own cruelty leaking out when we are enjoying a pleasurable activity. And when we are cruel to others, we will experience a streak of pleasure. For our cruelty has “juice” and makes us feel alive.
This effect will show up in our adult relationships and in the way we engage with the world. Because, having not received sufficient mature love when we were children, we have a deep unfulfilled hunger for it now that we are adults. And we will spend our entire lifetime—this one and likely many before it—recreating our childhood wounds as we try to remedy the situation.
Although we’re not consciously aware of why, we feel drawn to people and situations that are the ideal blend of our mixed-up childhood experiences. There will be aspects of the parent who most missed the mark, as well as aspects of the other parent who came closer to giving genuine love and affection. Now, as adults, any time we encounter the unique flavor of cruelty that resonates with our childhood, it activates our life force by exciting our negative pleasure.
A troubled relationship with storytelling
We see the origin of Rushdie’s love for storytelling in the stories he tells about his relationship with his parents. They start off rather pleasantly, like this: “He was not raised in a very religious family. As a child, his father had taken him to Bombay, ‘to pray on the day of Eid-al-Fitr.’ There was the Idgah, and a good deal of up down forehead bumping, and standing up with your palms held in front of you like a book, and much mumbling of unknown words in a language he didn’t speak. ‘Just do what I do,’ his father said. They were not a religious family and hardly ever went to such ceremonies. He never learned the prayers or their meanings.” (Prologue: The First Blackbird, page 8)
Rushdie goes on to say that, as a small boy, his father shared the great wonder tales of the East with him at bedtime. His father told and re-told them, re-making and re-inventing them as he went along. “To grow up steeped in these tellings was to learn two unforgettable lessons: first, that stories were not true (there were no “real” genies in bottles or flying carpets or wonderful lamps), but by being untrue they could make him feel and know truths that the truth could not tell him, and second, that they all belonged to him, just as they belonged to his father, Anis, and to everyone else, they were all his, as they were his father’s, bright stories and dark stories, sacred stories and profane, his to alter and renew and discard and pick up again as and when he pleased, his to laugh at and rejoice in and live with and by, to give the stories life by loving them and to be given life by them in return. (Chapter I: A Faustian Contract in Reverse, page 19)
Rushdie describes his mother, Negin, as also being a storyteller. But she was a world-class gossip. And she loved sharing her gossip with Rushdie. So her “delicious and sometimes salacious local news…hung with the juicy forbidden fruit of scandal.” Gossip, he said, was her addiction. And she could no more give it up than his father could give up alcohol.
It’s interesting to see how there’s a mix of storytelling along with a twist into something dark. It’s also interesting that Rushdie would marry Marrianne, who was also a novelist—a storyteller. But more than that, she was also unstable. Which as we’ll see in a moment, is what made her a perfect match for him.
Finding the roots of negative pleasure
Here are two of the more tragic stories from Rushdie’s youth, that expose the deep roots of his negative pleasure:
“Anis Ahmed Rushdie…inherited a fortune from the textile magnate father whose only son he was, spent it, lost it, and then died, which could be the story of a happy life, but was not…When he took them to the beach on the weekend he would be lively and funny on the way there but angry on the way home…when he was drunk he grimaced hideously at them, pulling his features into bizarre and terrifying positions, which frightened them horribly, and which no outsider ever saw, so that nobody understood what they meant when they said that their father ‘made faces’…”( Chapter I: A Faustian Contract in Reverse, page 20)
And “Anis took his thirteen-year-old son to England in January 1961 and for a week or so, before he (Rushdie) began his education at Rugby School, they shared a room in the Cumberland Hotel near the Marble Arch in London. By day they went shopping for the school’s prescribed items…At night Anis got drunk and in the small hours would shake his horrified son awake to shout at him in language so filthy that it didn’t seem possible to the boy that his father could even know such words.” (Chapter I: A Faustian Contract in Reverse, page 21)
Where we have positive experiences as children, our life force will be wired to meet a “yes” with a “yes”. Then we respond to positive expressions of love, kindness or creativity in the same way. But where our wires have become crossed, we will be drawn to situations that energize our “no”.
Returning to the description of his life with Marianne: “Conversations that began I wish you well ended with I hope you die.” We can start to see the bright threads of negative pleasure connecting Rushdie’s relationship with Marianne and his father, Anis.
PART THREE: Uncovering inner conflicts
There were several other sad stories that Rushdie shared about his father: “Anis took a photograph of his son outside his boarding house…and if you looked at the sadness in the boy’s eyes you would think he was sad to be going to school so far from home. But in fact the son couldn’t wait for the father to leave so that he could start trying to forget the nights of foul language and unprovoked, red-eyed rage.” (Chapter I: A Faustian Contract in Reverse, page 21)
Also, “…perhaps it was inevitable that he would make his life as far away from his father as he could, that he would put oceans between them and keep them there. When he graduated from Cambridge University and told his father he wanted to be a writer a pained yelp burst uncontrollably out of Anis’s mouth. ‘What,’ he cried, ‘am I going to tell my friends’?” (Chapter I: A Faustian Contract in Reverse, page 21)
Life is a mixed bag
Rushdie’s father was no longer alive when The Satanic Verses came into the world. But Rushdie felt his father would have supported him: “Without his father’s ideas and example to inspire him, in fact, that novel would never have been written.” (Chapter I: A Faustian Contract in Reverse, page 22)
Such a flip of perspective about his father cascaded from the closure Rushdie experienced with his father in the months before Anis’s death at 77. Anis shared with him how carefully he had read each of Rushdie’s books. Anis even said he looked forward to reading more. His father told him he felt a profound fatherly love that he had spent half his life not expressing.
What Rushdie received from both his father and mother, then, was a mixed bag. There was both the love for the craft of storytelling, and the twisting of the story into something dark. There were unsupportive comments, as well as unexpressed support.
These kinds of conflicting experiences are common among humans, as we all have both lightness and darkness inside. And through our experiences in childhood, we set the stage for seeing our pre-existing buried conflicts. Why does this happen? So we can heal them. For healing is the whole reason we are here.
In Rushdie’s case, regarding his parents, he went on to say: “They fuck you up, your mum and dad? No, that wasn’t it at all. Well, they did do that, perhaps, but they also allowed you to become the person, and the writer, that you had it in you to be.” (Chapter I: A Faustian Contract in Reverse, page 22)
Perhaps, indeed. For the stage had been set to write a critically-acclaimed novel that would become, in many ways, a disaster.
PART FOUR: Discovering images
I have written about what the Pathwork Guide calls “images” in other essays. In brief, images are wrong conclusions we draw about life at an early age. To us, they are iron clad understandings about how the world works. But they are based on our very limited perspective at the time. As such, they are never in truth. And as a result, they color the way we behave in the world.
When we are living in truth, the rolling pictures of our life story are free-flowing and alive. When there is untruth, they become frozen, like a snapshot. This is why the Guide calls them images. And they act like a boulder in our psyche. Due to their rigid and distorted nature, they cause us to think and act in ways that will make them seem to be true.
But because images are untrue, they don’t align with the truth of our being at our core. As such, they keep us locked out of our own divine self and forced to live from our ego. For our ego cannot let go and live from our Higher Self with these big boulders in the way.
Plus, by acting from these untruthful hidden beliefs, we repeatedly create ever more painful life experiences for ourselves. For our inner conflicts always get out-pictured into the world. This lets us see them, so we can face them and transform them. But our external conflicts are never the true cause of our problems. We are.
How images create more and more pain
One doesn’t need to read Joseph Anton to know that Salman Rushdie has images. He’s human, and all humans have them. But by reading his story, one image in particular jumps out. It might go something like this: “I am rejected by unstable people.” Or “I am abused by unstable people.”
We can see the origin, in this lifetime, of such a belief in Rushdie’s relationship with his father. We can see it in his marriage to Marianne. And we can see it in spades in the reaction he got to his book, The Satanic Verses.
In the end, both the author and his most famous book experienced rejection and abuse from an arguably unstable world leader, as well as from many people who lined up behind that leader. Why did this happen? Because we are all amazing creators. And we create from what we believe to be true.
PART FIVE: The life-altering impact of splits
Rushdie’s writing career got off to a very slow start. In a nutshell, his first attempts at writing books weren’t good.
“He was already beginning to understand that what was wrong with his writing was that there was something wrong, something misconceived, about him.” (Chapter I: A Faustian Contract in Reverse, page 53)
This is the nature of having an inner split: We can sense that something’s off inside. After all, a split is a simultaneous belief in two opposing beliefs that can never be reconciled. It’s not that reconciling a split is hard to do; it’s impossible. Because unlike the truthful opposites that our Higher Self can hold, both halves of our split are based on untruth.
Here’s how Rushdie describes what he was feeling inside:
“It was unsettling not to understand why the shape of life had changed. He often felt meaningless, even absurd. He was a Bombay boy who had made his life in London among the English, but often felt cursed by a double unbelonging…The migrated self became, inevitably, heterogeneous instead of homogeneous…more than averagely mixed up.” (Chapter I: A Faustian Contract in Reverse, page 53)
Unrest points to an inner split
About going off to boarding school in England, far from his home in India, Rushdie said: “When he turned away from his father…and plunged into English life, the sin of foreignness was the first thing that was made plain to him. Until that point he had not thought of himself as anyone’s Other. After Rugby School he never forgot the lesson he learned there: that there would always be people who just didn’t like you, to whom you seemed as alien as little green men or the Slime from Outer Space, and there was no point trying to change their minds.” (Chapter I: A Faustian Contract in Reverse, page 26)
He went on to say, “At an English boarding school in the early 1960s, he quickly discovered, there were three bad mistakes you could make, but if you make only two of the three you could be forgiven. The mistakes were: to be foreign; to be clever; and to be bad at games…He made all three mistakes. He was foreign, clever, non-sportif. And as a result, his years were, for the most part, unhappy…” (Chapter I: A Faustian Contract in Reverse, page 27)
Rushdie waxes on about the many possible reasons he went to boarding school in England, saying no one had forced him to do it. Later in life he wondered at this choice his 13-year-old self had made. I’ll offer another possibility he didn’t mention. It happened due to his inner split, which was then out-pictured in his life.
Can outer changes fix inner turmoil?
During his time at Rugby School, Rushdie—a young boy from India going to boarding school in England—did his best to fit in. He learned the rules, both written and understood, and he followed them. For example, putting both hands in your pockets was against the rules.
But more than once, he came back to his little study to find an essay he’d written torn to shreds. Someone once wrote “Wogs go home” on the wall of his room. Another time, a bucketful of gravy and onions were dumped on his wall. The school demanded he pay for the damage, or he wouldn’t graduate.
He told no one, including his parents, about this. He tried to be like the others and to join in. It turns out, he was learning lessons about life that the school didn’t know it was teaching. To add insult to injury, when he graduated from Rugby School, his parents didn’t even attend the graduation. “His father said they couldn’t afford the airfare. This was untrue.” (Chapter I: A Faustian Contract in Reverse, page 47)
He would go on to college at Cambridge, his father’s alma mater: “Cambridge largely healed the wounds that Rugby had inflicted, and showed him that there were other, more attractive Englands to inhabit, in which he could easily feel at home.” (Chapter I: A Faustian Contract in Reverse, page 36)
But did it? Can moving to a different school resolve the inner tangles? “In later life he often spoke of the happiness of his Cambridge years, and agreed with himself to forget the hours of howling loneliness when he sat alone in a room and wept…” (Chapter I: A Faustian Contract in Reverse, page 37)
Does intentional forgetting—like his mother tried to do—really work? Or does it just make us forget ourselves? Ultimately, doesn’t it just make us forget to search within for the truth of who we really are?
Speaking and healing our split
Just as it’s important to find the right words to express our images, we must work to give voice to our inner split. What are the opposite beliefs we believe to both be true? Usually, one side comes from our mother and the other from our father. In Rushdie’s case, it seems the influence from his father was far greater than from his mother. This might indicate an imbalance within that largely cuts off the allowing side of life.
If I were to take a stab at Rushdie’s split, it might be something like this: “I can’t find peace here. And I can’t go home and find peace.” Or it might be, “It’s painful to be here, where I feel rejected, and it’s painful to be somewhere else where I feel rejected.” In either case, such a split might lead to creating life conditions in which there is no place to go and feel at home.
Healing a split involves learning to hold opposites. And this will necessarily require transitioning from an ego-centered life to living a life that’s centers around our Higher Self. To do this, we will need to unravel the untruth held in both sides of our split. Then we must unearth the truth and imprint it on our soul.
The critical question we must explore is this: What is the truth of the matter? In this case, it might be something like: “When I find my true home within, I will be able to live in peace.” But finding our true home requires we clear away the obstacles—the boulders—of untruth and residual pain that block the way. For they are what’s keeping us from discovering the truth of who we are.
Getting to the real root
It’s tempting to view our life story through the lens of our struggles, believing our painful experiences created our wounds. And for sure, they did leave a mark. But really, life works the other way around. Meaning, our wounds—our inner images and splits—cause our painful experiences. For they compel us to behave in ways that will surface them. If we want to have more pleasant life experiences, our work must be to heal ourselves.
All deeply rooted beliefs, such as images or splits, are carried forward from previous lifetimes during which we failed to sort them out. If that weren’t the case, we would see the error of our ways more readily and correct ourselves. Instead, we dig in and end up repeating the same painful patterns over and over, life after life. If we are ready to unearth them, we only need to look at the patterns on display in this lifetime. What are we creating?
In the case of The Satanic Verses, Rushdie received considerable literary acclaim for his writing. Critics lauded his ability to interweave story lines with subplots. But the flow of his rich storytelling was also woven with powerful threads of cruelty directed toward Islam and its leaders. Only by examining the patterns of what we’re creating in life can we surface the hidden wrong beliefs, which is why we must each do our inner work. No one else can, or should, do this for us.
Once we identify such hidden wrong beliefs, the next step—and perhaps one of the harder steps to take—is to turn the question around and ask: How does this hurtful untruth live in me? In the example given of a possible image of Rushdie’s, one might ask: Where and how do I reject and abuse people? Where and how am I unstable? How do I use my own cruelty to hurt others?
Perhaps it will help to look at what was happening in his creation of The Satanic Verses. What was Rushdie rejecting? Who was he abusing? And how did doing so cause him to imprison himself, living for a decade as he did without a place to call home and feel at peace. For the threat against him was considered to be very serious.
In reality, it is only by diving to such inner depths that we find the way to escape our self-made prisons.
Finding middle ground
Although self-healing is an inside job, it also makes sense for us to take action to correct seeming injustices in our outside world. For in the greater reality, life is not one thing or the other—as it seems in duality—but both/and. And we can only experience this both/and way of living by dipping into another level of reality: the level of unity. This is where our Higher Self resides.
The ego, by design, exists only on the level of duality. So, from our ego’s perspective, we each have to choose which horse we want to ride. And we can only choose one horse. For the ego does not have the ability to entertain opposing views. On the level of the ego, the choice seems to be we either stand up for personal freedom of expression or we will have no freedom.
The problem is that this is a false choice. For the opposite of “I must have freedom” is not “I do not have freedom”. Rather, it is “everyone must have freedom.” And that changes the whole conversation.
These teachings from the Pathwork Guide advise us to always search for the middle ground. So, yes, we must stand up for the right to express ourselves, even if others don’t like it. But since we live in big groups—we live in communities that are part of a bigger world—we must also consider other people and their rights.
Half-truths build prison walls
In the case of freedom of speech, at least in the United States, personal freedom of expression stops at the doorway of a crowded theater when someone wants to yell “Fire!” for no reason. This kind of ruling arises from a legal system that’s basically designed to protect its citizens from the Lower Self of other citizens.
If people had no Lower Selves—no darkness within—we wouldn’t need such outer laws. Because we’d already be living in the harmony of our Higher Selves—of our inner light. And once we get there—by clearing away our inner obstacles, letting go of our ego, and aligning with our inner light—we’ll discover we’re already in divine connection. That if I hurt you, I hurt myself; and if I hurt myself, I hurt you.
In other words, when we take steps to live in the truer reality of unity—living from our Higher Selves—what’s in the highest interest of one person will not conflict with that of others. But when our motivation for freedom is based on a half-truth—believing that our individual freedom is the only freedom that matters—we will not come any closer to real freedom. Rather, the opposite will happen. Our choices will create something that looks more like a prison.
In Rushdie’s situation, his powerful push to secure his own freedom of expression negatively impacted other people’s right to also have freedom. For the publishing of The Satanic Verses threatened many people’s lives, not just his own. These included the lives of his former wife and son, his Special Branch protectors, and people involved in publishing and selling his book.
People attacked, and sometimes killed, those involved with translating the book. There were bomb scares to his publisher and evacuations of buildings. Several bombs actually exploded at various bookstores and department stores that were selling The Satanic Verses. And there were many, many death threats. “We know where you live. We know where your children go to school.” (Chapter III: Year Zero, page 148)
Other people were also fueling this fire by adding their own lies. Like saying Rushdie compared Britain to Hitler’s Germany. “The author of the unloved book found himself shouting at the television. ‘Where? On what page? Show me where I did that.’ (Chapter III: Year Zero, page 152)
What’s more, the longer he stayed alive, the more people wondered if anyone was really trying to kill him. People were asking, Why does he get to be treated like a king? “It was hard to convince people that from where he was standing the protection didn’t feel like movie-stardom. It felt like jail.” (Chapter III: Year Zero, page 178)
Rushdie came up with the pseudonym Joseph Anton at the request of his security detail, who then called him Joe for eleven years. For his own safety, Rushdie’s goal was to become invisible: “Only Joseph Anton existed; and he could not be seen.” (Chapter III: Year Zero, page 176)
In a certain way, this is what we all do. We run and we hide, blindly building inner walls we hope will keep us safe. This is understandable, but it always backfires. Then we send our own unique flavor of cruelty—based on what we internalized from childhood—back out into the world, often without being aware we’re doing this.
These cycles repeat across generations, sending hopelessness down the line and making authentic, loving experiences impossible. It’s hard to admit all this, so we cover it up by blaming something outside ourselves for our lot in life.
The work of healing involves getting past shame and recriminations, and starting to unwind our problems at their root. This is the truer way to freedom.
Salman Rushdie, I honor the magnitude of the task you took on in this lifetime. And I thank you for letting me use your experiences to teach about doing the work of self-healing.
Note: Book references in this essay are from Joseph Anton: A Memoir by Salman Rushdie, published in 2012 in the United States by Random House, an imprint and division of Penguin Random House LLC, read on a Kindle for iPad, Version 6.63. Reprinted with permission.