On Being Susan Boyle

(Elizabeth Tillinghast in The Huffington Post)

Susan Boyle is a frumpy, grey-haired woman who sang last week on Britain Has Talent, the British analogue of American Idol. An unlikely heroine, Susan Boyle tells us she's single and lives with her cat Pebbles. Yet she grabs us by the heart and fills us with hope. By now, millions have watched her on You Tube.
What is there about her? Initially Susan Boyle horrifies us; we're embarrassed by her, not for her. She reminds us of the possibilities in each of us that we're desperate to get away from.
Obviously middle-aged, and unabashed about it, she says she's 47, and then, as the audience titters, has the effrontery to wiggle her hips with improbable sauciness and remind us, "that's only one side of me." We're not sure whether to laugh at her or with her. One of the judges rolls his eyes.

Plain, plump, middle-aged with frizzy grey hair and a double chin which the camera zooms in on, Susan Boyle is "chronically unemployed but still looking," by her own account.
She's equally forthright about never having been married. Earlier she said she'd never been kissed, although this turns out to be a joke. Susan Boyle doesn't even have the protective status that having a man - any man - seems to confer on a woman. She's frank about being unwanted.
It's terrifying this woman can present herself so openly, with no make-up, and no man. How vulnerable is she? What on earth is she doing up there?
Remarkably, Susan Boyle seems unafraid. It's plain she ought to be embarrassed, yet she seems not to realize that. She has an unwavering dignity. The crowd is mocking, incredulous, but she's undeterred.
When asked what her dream is, she says flat out she's always wanted to be a professional singer. Simon Cowell asks in a pseudo-respectful but subtly smarmy way why this hasn't worked for her - we all know why it hasn't worked, she's hopelessly unattractive, far too old - and she responds, "I've never been given the chance before, but here's hoping that will change!"
Wow. This woman's plucky. She's optimistic despite the odds. Susan Boyle wants to show us what she loves about herself; she's hoping we'll come to care about it too.
Susan Boyle has picked a song from Les Miserables, but she's plainly singing about herself. She stands emotionally naked before us and sings, "I Dreamed a Dream." The song begins in a great arc, with the words, "I dreamed a dream in time gone by/When hope was high and life worth living...," and ends with the words, painful but true, "But there are dreams that cannot be/And there are storms that can't be weathered... My life has killed the dream I dreamed."
Even before reading about her, we can all see this is true; it's clear this woman has been teased all her life, ridiculed for having dreams; we're doing it to her ourselves! Everyone starts out with hidden dreams and hopes of being a star. How cruelly Susan Boyle must have been treated for allowing herself that. Later we learn she was teased as a child for being learning-disabled, and having frizzy hair; she sang to comfort herself.
Susan Boyle sings of having her dreams killed by life - yet her singing is in direct defiance of that. She wants to be a professional singer, and she's out there doing it, putting her heart on the line, daring to try this out right in front of us. She tells us life has killed her dreams, but it hasn't.
In fact, the musical and emotional climax of the song is right in the middle, when Susan Boyle sings of losing hope. "But the tigers come at night/ With their voices soft as thunder/ As they tear your hopes apart/ And they turn your dreams to shame."
Not her dreams. Susan Boyle is not letting shame stop her. Instead, she stretches out the word "shame" on a rising cascade of notes which brings the audience to its feet.
What a voice! What a tremendous sound! Susan Boyle's singing is strong, bold; she reaches out for us with it.
As Susan Boyle sings to us of her dreams and loss of hope, she re-awakens that in us too. She draws us in. We're stirred to remember all we've secretly longed for and let drift away; she invites us to remember what we've given up. The audience goes wild.
Susan Boyle realizes she's won over this unlikely crowd, and blesses us with a lovely, tender smile, as if she knows this is our song too. Suddenly we can see the beauty in her, not just in her voice, but in her smile. One of the judges smiles back wistfully, with sweetness. The crowd turns softer.
By daring to sing in front of us, Susan Boyle set herself a challenge, but she set us one too. We could have flattened her (although maybe not, with this woman!), but we certainly could have humiliated her, killed her dream by refusing to give in to this unlikely temptress. Like Odysseus, we could have bound ourselves to the mast, tempted by the call of her song, but unwilling to throw ourselves in.
Instead, we fell for her. We let her take us by storm, and made her dream come true; right there, right on that stage, we changed her into a wildly famous singer.
With her stunning voice, her straightforward vulnerability - I am what I am, she seems to say - she won us over. She transformed her past, turned the mocking bullies - all of us - into a wildly admiring crowd.
But she changed us too. She gave us a chance.
Susan Boyle changed our image of her, but also our image of ourselves. She turned us from a crowd of snickering sophisticates into people with a shared sense of loss and longing. She gave us hope that maybe it's not too late.
Most remarkable, she made us kind.
She showed us we can help each other.
When asked later how she did it, how she hung in there despite the snickering audience in front of her, Susan Boyle said, "I thought of the song."
She also said she did it for her mother. Single, the youngest of 9 children, Susan Boyle took care of her mother before she died. This is the job of spinsters; noble, yes - but also a jolting reminder that she's alone, and almost painfully pathetic. Yet Susan's mother loved this show and told her daughter she should sign up for it, adding that if Susan ever sang on the show, she would win.
So that was the inner voice Susan Boyle listened to; she chose to hear the one who loved and believed in her, not all the doubting, mocking voices she's been hearing around her for her whole life.
Many of us do not want to hold onto the voice of hope. We beat it out of ourselves. As people get older, they may take pride in developing a determined pessimism, as if that means they'll never be caught off guard. The middle-aged may feel it's almost unseemly to show they have dreams. Like the singer in Les Miserable, we've been reduced by living.
By the end of her song, Susan Boyle still reminds us of ourselves, but she's invested it with hope. She shows us something we all feel - the unwanted, hidden away, embarrassingly vulnerable part - yet changes its meaning. Maybe this part of us is fine, maybe it's more than fine, maybe it even has a beauty which others could see, if we just had the courage to put ourselves out there.
When I was young, some 40 years ago, I had to memorize a poem for school which began, "Hold fast to dreams, for when dreams die/Life is a broken-winged bird which cannot fly."
Here's to Susan Boyle.

*Elizabeth Tillinghast is a psychiatrist and psychoanalyst in New York City.