My father, for a long time, was fond of the construction “you show me a man who…. I’ll show you a man who….” . One of its virtues was its infinite flexibility.
“You show me a man who refuses to eat the delicious dinner his mother cooked for him, I’ll show you a man who goes to bed hungry.”
“You show me a man who doesn’t take the garbage out, I’ll show you a man who doesn’t want to watch the Smothers Brothers tonight.”
“You show me a man who tells his father to go fuck himself, I’ll show you a man who gets no allowance.”
Though he never said “you show me a boy who complains about his father using vicious language against him every night, I’ll show you a boy who never learned the real meaning of abuse at the hands of an enraged, whip wielding mother” he might as well have.
I understand now, as an adult in the last chapters of my life, what I could not have possibly understood as a child, when my father was practicing his version of restraint on my sister and me by not doing exactly to us what was done to him. As kids, my sister and I had nothing to compare it to, this nightly dose of snarling rage from our father. We probably thought it was normal, somehow, or that we must have been monsters of some kind. I don’t mention this here to go into which is worse verbal/emotional violence or physical/emotional violence – that’s a conversation for another day. For the moment I’ll note that Irv, when I confronted him on the issue as an adult, acknowledged that the two were interchangeable as far as the harm they cause.
Is it worse to beat a child viciously or to constantly tell that child that everything he touches turns to shit, that he is his own worst enemy, that he may win the battle but he’s going to lose the war, that the hatred and evil in him is oozing out through the pores of his erupting skin, that his face is “twisted and contorted in hate” (my sister and I still get a chuckle from that curious phrase) that he is a vicious and deadly reptile, a cobra, a fucking coiled rattle snake ready to strike. If this collection sounds petty, add applied strategic silence, dismissing all expressed concerns as the whining of a weakling, constant blame and the steady withholding of approval into the mix. Pick ’em, verbal or physical violence, neither one is a better choice, I assure you.
I thought from time to time that I’d rather have been beaten, because by fifteen the physical part of it would have stopped. I saw this one night, much to my surprise, and even my slight disappointment, strange to say, when I rose up from my chair during a violent tongue lashing and angrily confronted him, ready to shut his mouth for him. That night I saw real fear in his eyes, and he backed down, looking away, muttering to himself, as he sometimes did.
This is the worst of my father, captured in perhaps his most unflattering moment, the coward bully called on it by his young son who is finally old enough to stand up and physically confront the blustering hater across the table. If there had been a real fight, I’d have stood no chance. I was a skinny adolescent, he was still twice my size, but I would have gotten a shot in anyway, and the fear of that, and probably his knowledge that he deserved it, decided the matter. It was a terrible moment, in any case, and only kicked our conflict into a higher gear.
Violence, verbal or physical, generally leads only to more violence. That violence can be turned against others or against the self. Most often it is used in combination. It will do its damage any way it’s deployed. Violence once instilled can seem impossible to overcome, and the fatalistic conviction of that is part of what makes it so dangerous.
It’s much easier to punch back when hit than to understand the deep pain that leads an angry asshole to punch you in the face and that returning violence with violence is a loser’s game. Who cares why the angry asshole punched me in the face anyway? Nothing gives him that right. Are you saying his hurt and rage give him the right, somehow? Fuck him and fuck you and the high horse you rode in on. Boom! In your fucking face, asshole! Works in a bar, in a fight with a stranger, a truculent friend who is about to become a stranger. Works in the movies, in politics, with the barbarous fucks who hate our freedom.
With someone you care deeply about other rules must apply. Empathy is the only thing that has the power to turn aside hurt and rage, to put violence to the side, to restore what is most important, mutual support in a raging world, back in the center of the relationship.
My father, from my point of view, did better than his mother did when faced with rage. He didn’t do much better, fair enough, but I give him points for the improvement. Is it better to rage in words, in attitude, by continually withholding what a child needs most, than to rage with the heavy cord of a steam iron lashed across your infant child’s face? I think it’s beyond argument that it’s better to curse at than whip the baby in the face. Is it an excellent improvement? Admittedly not. But at this point, I give my father at least a bit of credit.
Writing this way I know that some people I know will be infuriated. Even though I present this side of my father in the context of his many fine qualities and his deeply held moral values, these are truly ugly things. Although I claim to offer a nuanced view of my complicated father I am revealing horrible things about a man who is long dead and unable to defend himself. What gives me the right? some, indignant on his behalf, will demand to know.
My life gives me the right. The values my father instilled in me, ironically, give me the right. What gives me the right is what I have learned– that the ruthless exercise of one’s unreasoning will over somebody else’s is always wrong.
Take the tendentious adjective out of that last sentence, it’s still true. OK, let’s rewrite the sentence entirely. Raging against your fellow human being is not only almost always pointless, it’s destructive and just plain wrong. Being in a constant rage is the gateway to wickedness; when enraged, all atrocities are on the table.
This is a deeper subject than I can try to dive to the bottom of now, and this attempt may rankle those already pissed off, but it’s a start. And my sympathy, for what it’s worth, goes to anyone who may be rankled by it.