11/22/2013 05:15 EST | Updated 01/25/2014 04:01 EST

Rob Ford Has Given Us Therapy, En Masse

Gigawatts of digital ink have been spilt over the tragi-comedy of my mayor, Rob Ford. Lots of exposure for the disease of addiction, ironic homages to his manipulative brilliance and stewardship of "Dark Politics" and even a twisted love poem from Toronto's own villainelle, Lynn Crosbie.

And kudos to Shawn Whitney, who reminds us that Ford's behavioral monstrosity is both a microcosm and a mask for his public service horror-show. His self-abuse and belligerence play a foul harmony to his agenda of greed, class stratification, privatization, anti-environmentalism and slashing public services from libraries to urban farms to mental health support.

And more shameful than his antics, perhaps, is how we have all allowed them to distract from the venality of his public campaign, which scads of button-down, crack-free and teetotaling supporters continue to rally behind. Whether slash-and-burn libertarians smoke crack matters far less than the fact that they line up to slash and burn the drug recovery programmes they wouldn't personally need because they can afford to go to swanky rehab clinics in the Caribbean, thank you very much.

So there's a big stinking pile of Trying to Figure Ford Out: such is our obsession with train wrecks -- and abusers. Who is he? What will he do next? Where is his shame? How low will he go? But the darker story is subjective. What are we going through as we watch him?

It's paralysis, on several levels. Firstly, there's our tenuous relationship to the meaning of facts. We're stunned that we can't legally remove a sitting mayor who has confessed to binge-drinking, binge-drinking and driving, and buying, possessing and using illegal substances.

He even has the gall to brag about admitting to some criminal offences. When he gets bored of bragging the truth, he pivots to his general bragging list of lying points. Lying about past behaviour, treatment intentions, bloviating on CNN that he's "built subways" and "saved a billion dollars" and that he's the "best father around." His hamster wheel of confessions and lies degrades the very possibility of "facts." We feel like a collective Ron Suskind being gaslighted by Karl Rove for living in a "reality-based community." In the post-facts world, nobody seems to know what to do when the very pretense of dignity goes up in pipe smoke, to dissolve into the spectacle of infotainment.

But many are paralyzed on a more primal level. We can see it if we pay close attention to how we feel as we're watching it unfold. Glued to our radios and newsfeeds, poring over police documents scarred with black censorship boxes, a hundred thousand grim conversations over breakfast in the murmurs that emotional hostages use: What do you think will happen today? And then at the water cooler: Did you see the press conference? How many people are walking around, teeth on edge, feeling the chaos of Ford? Not his policies, but his hung-over, hyperglycaemic, congested, pinched, asthmatic, volatile, high-blood-pressured, acid-refluxing flesh? We're not just watching something. We're living something. We're working something out.

As a therapist, I can see that so many are being retraumatized daily. By what? By the rage and violence that many of us remember from family life, from stories of addiction and enabling, from the schoolyards and locker rooms and dark alleyways of our vulnerability. We were bullied by older kids, bigger kids, angry kids, brothers, sisters, mothers, fathers. We know how it never stops until the bully is stopped or the addict surrenders -- and so we can't stop watching, waiting for the violence to be contained, because when it stops, a childlike trembling part of us will finally feel safe for a while.

We see that Ford only makes eye contact while menacing or sexually harassing. We see in his scarlet sweating face the pulsing arteries of accusation and veins of self-hatred. We watch the non-crack-smoking councilors sit tense and exhausted in the steel cage of the council floor. We hear Ford blend apologies with excuses and excuses with attacks. If by some miracle he isn't lying about not having had alcohol in three weeks, he's a classic dry drunk.

It boils down to this: "Rob Ford is a nightmare" is not a metaphor. For many who feel viscerally ill at the sight of him hopped up and threatening to kill some "motherf$%&er" in somebody's living room, or explaining how cyclists deserve to be hit by cars, or bumrushing elected officials in City Council chambers, it is literally true. You can toss it off as rhetoric or politics or minimize it into "personal issues" only to the extent that you are untraumatized, or at least think you are. Of course, minimizing his violence is itself a trauma response. So is enabling it.

Pundits have struggled to pigeonhole Ford's demographic, and while the pollsters are finally homing in on the less educated and the underserved, "Ford nation" remains both privileged and not, urban and not, white and not.

It's not taxes or transit or hating bicycles or gay people or "liberal elites" that binds it together. It's the general alienation of late capitalist culture felt by everyone disconnected and disempowered, amplified by unresolved familial or cultural violence that must be normalized for survival. Ford Nation is congealed by the bitter cynicism that believes that the most government should do is to save it a few bucks on car registrations and pay the garbage workers less, and otherwise City Hall can go to hell. To keep our scraps, we enable cruelty.

Ford's wife Renata might be in the solitary confinement of the direct enabler, in which she must take on the logic of the addict in order to survive: share his excuses, pardon his bad days, call the police for help when the violence at home is intolerable but then give conflicting testimony to throw prosecutors off, be grateful that it hasn't been worse (at least lately), and desperately upsell the sunny side.

But the spousal excuse of "He's a good provider" elides with the libertarian excuse of "He saves me money" -- and they're both coming from the same place: a world in which violence and fear and inequality are just the facts of life in the long shadow of the abuser. Here, your primary task, affected through a tango of appeasement and avoidance, is to not lose any more than the abuser threatens to take. As in the family, so in the city.

Short of the court trials of tyrants, has there ever been a comparable spectacle in which millions are dragged into a public intervention and are forced to collectively resurrect their memories, or confront their present horrors in such detail? It's an extraordinary moment that nobody asked for.

Perhaps we're making the best of it. Children are asking questions when they come home from school. There are so many long pauses. People are sharing what they've learned from their own sorrows. Maybe some of us are feeling a little more like siblings to each other, wondering when dad will just get help or leave, already.

Former alcoholics and drug addicts -- hats off to them -- are phoning in to CBC radio, remembering the same rage and powerlessness that Ford is denying. They slowly describe their impossible recoveries that came only after incalculable losses. And they help us understand what might be going on when we read in the police report that Rob Ford would call his staffers late at night from his father's grave, weeping into his cell phone. They know that abuse is intergenerational. They know how hard it is to stop it. They know that Rob Ford has children. Their names are Stephanie and Douglas.

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