If you are whipped in the face by your mother during your earliest memories, which I hope you never were, certain bad results are inevitable. Many people have early childhood traumas that twist them in ways they will rarely understand, but I can’t think of many worse than violent betrayal by your main caretaker. Being whipped in the face by the mother who is your first teacher of life and love is about as hard a start as a child could have.
Try not to smile at the next picture you see of a mother animal of any kind with her tiny replica next to her. Baby animals are born to be cute and seeing them, tiny versions of their mother, next to mom almost always uncreases the brow. Now advance to the next frame and watch the mother viciously bite the baby animal, blood flowing, the baby screaming. Not cute anymore, is it?
“You are flailing today, Elie,” notes the skeleton impassively, though with that persistent grin. “That bit about Malcolm X you wrote the other day, with its long encyclopedia entry in the middle, and the mini treatises on Fourteenth Amendment jurisprudence, or lack of jurisprudence, and the Voting Rights stuff, threw you off your game. I am less than half formed in these pages. Tell them something they don’t know already. The insight that a baby whipped in the face will bear its suffering throughout life is not worth the dirt under my left scapula.”
He’s right, of course. I am just taking a moment to note again that in the case of a baby whipped by its mother it’s easy to see why anger would become a lifelong problem. Express any sort of outrage to your mother that she would whip you in the face, at two, and things are likely to go a lot worse for you. Nothing warps the impulse to be happy more surely than unfairness shoved down your throat over and over when you are young. The indigestible anger goes into some hidden place in the psyche, waiting for its chance to burst out and rage.
And yet, in most ways, in most situations, my father appeared in control and completely sane, even when he was insisting on things that were completely insane. In the same way that Malcolm X could make an excellent point in the same lecture where he described the creation of the white devils by a scientist named Yakub, or during an ugly emotional reaction to an event, like his unrepentant celebration of the deaths of 120 southern whites when a flight to France went down, my father, who often justified completely mad crap, could often be dead on with his insights.
Here is a case study, cannibalized from an earlier post on this blahg. This is about the brilliant, blond folk singer and social activist my father greatly loved, his friend and colleague from The Human Relations Unit, whose fall from grace, when it came, was as swift and absolute as any I can recall.
My father’s colleague and close friend became very close to the family when I was a boy. We spent a lot of time with her. My sister and I found this brilliant and talented woman funny, and caring, and she seemed to relate to us as a peer. She was like a very cool big sister to us. My mother was very fond of her too. Then, seemingly out of the blue, my father was done with her, for reasons he was too disgusted to detail for his disappointed family. One day she was just gone and we never saw her again.
Many years later my father and I spoke about what had happened to their close friendship. “She is pathologically competitive,” my father said, his face very much like Clint Eastwood’s iconic mask of hatred when he is confronted by an on-screen enemy. “She will fight to the death over everything and never gives an inch, especially when she’s wrong. Her reflexive self-justification makes her impossible to deal with, even after years of therapy and supposed introspection, she still has no insight into how damaged and enraged she is. She is always primed to fight and she fights even the smallest things to the death. She’s one of the most maddening and provocative people I’ve ever met, and I finally just had enough, after a particular incident at a conference we did with Gladys.” That the same could be said for my father, minus the years of therapy, did not need to be spoken by me at the time.
My father had come to another breaking point with a good friend, part of the pattern of his life that troubled me greatly growing up. It seemed to me he never gave these close friends a chance to make amends. It took me decades to see that things sometimes advance beyond the point where amends are possible, much as it saddens me to see this. When things become ugly enough between two people trust is torn and it can become emotionally impossible to make amends. Anger puts each of them on the defensive, they become the worst versions of themselves and can justify their heartless behavior down to the snarl.
Back to the point then, what happens to anger that is swallowed? My father executed a sentence of death on this woman my sister, mother and I felt so close to. He felt 100% justified. Decades later I was talking to Sekhnet about how close I’d felt to this one time friend of the family’s and she urged me to look her up on the internet. I found her easily.
We had a mutually delightful reunion by email which led to Sekhnet and me spending several days in her guest house in Santa Monica during a trip to California. In her version of that conference my father had alluded to as the last straw, it was my father and Gladys who had set-up, sabotaged and betrayed her. “Unbelievable!” she’d laughed, when I gave her my father’s version.
A great animal lover, she had a rescue dog, a lovely, skittish black lab, smaller than your average black lab– possibly still not full grown at the time. She named the dog Boo! Boo! was immediately very friendly with Sekhnet but seemed afraid of me. Our host explained that Boo! had been abused by the man who owned her and that the gentle dog was skittish around men. By the end of our stay my cooing at Boo! to come over and not be afraid turned into “get off me, Boo!” as the affectionate dog would not leave me alone, licking my face and sitting on me whenever I was within reach.
Had the story ended on this lovely note it would have been a wonderful tale of redemption. My father had been wrong about many things, as he sadly admitted on his death bed, and his banishment of this wonderful woman was just another of them. In fact, I once put the two of them on the phone and they had a very cordial chat, reminiscing for a long time, as my father made her laugh again. A beautiful story, if that had been the end. Except, the story did not end on a lovely note.
An unflinching advocate of social change when I knew her, a crusader for the underdog and righteous fighter for the oppressed, she had become, several decades later, a deeply conservative supporter of Dick Cheney, Sarah Palin, Rush Limbaugh, Dennis Prager, Glen Beck and a host of other characters that would have made her earlier self recoil.
She told me she had converted to Judaism and, as a Jew, she valued these brilliant uber-conservatives as the best friends of Israel. I questioned whether these people were really friends of Israel at all, as they seemed to me to support the worst of Israel and for all the wrong reasons. She asked if I’d be willing to have a dialogue about politics, which she’d had a revelation about after 9/11, as a favor to her, since we had such excellent communication and all of her other liberal former friends had cut her off (and she had new ones who were, like her, political independents of the far right). To my eternal regret, I agreed.
The correspondence did not go well. She and I found no common ground, and worse, for me, whether she had a coherent answer or not (and I eventually tried to reduce our Bush era correspondence to two questions: why Iraq? How do you justify torture?) she was vehement. She insisted she was right, whether her answers made sense or not. All of the experts she believed in told her that if we did not rain death and torture on those who hate our freedom they’d literally be upon us in our beds, literally cutting our throats. Besides, we never tortured anyone, she insisted, and we only water-boarded three people (which she didn’t consider torture, in any case) and only because they desperately needed it and there was, presumably, a ticking time bomb and it was us or them.
A difference of opinion, we might say, and not something that should lead to the end of an otherwise wonderful friendship. Our disagreements escalated. My detailed emails were dismissed for their hopelessly misguided liberal bias, the larger points unanswered. It soon became an exercise in masochism for me.
It was also another sad illustration of how feeble even the most well-marshaled and diplomatically deployed facts are against the torrential power of strong emotions. We had liberated Iraqis from a modern-day Hitler? Really? Ask the millions of Iraqis fleeing their homes during the American occupation how liberated they felt. I was missing the point, she told me. I eventually had enough.
We had a long falling out, I came to see her exactly as my father had described her– pathologically competitive, incapable of giving an inch of ground and irrationally spoiling for a fight.
After years of silence I sent her a piece about Ahimsa that I’d written, she wrote back very moved, and grateful for the chance to renew a warm and mutually beneficial friendship. She agreed 100% that we would no longer discuss politics, that it was a third rail we would never allow to electrocute our friendship again.
Except, even though she continually renewed her promise not to send political emails, darn it, she could not resist once in a while (often accidentally, she claimed) sending me something she really thought might change my mind. She’d apologize most of the time when I reminded her I didn’t want provocative political emails and she promised each time not to do it again.
But she simply couldn’t help herself, darn it, sometimes a given piece was just too convincing for me not to be convinced by.
During all the turmoil over the deaths of unarmed black young men at the hands of police she sent me a piece that complained about how these same agitators who protest against the police conveniently ignore the hundreds of times more deaths black young men inflict on each other. An opinionated and simplistic response I found not only irrelevant, but idiotic, inflammatory, and not even well-written. A self-appointed American pundit compares killings by the police, sworn to serve and protect, with killings by violent criminal gangs, sworn to get rich or die trying? This is your response to protests against police killings of unarmed civilians? Really?
But, see, she couldn’t help it, you dig? She was still earnestly trying to convince me she was right, get me to see the truth, get me on board with those who see the light, no matter how many times I’d expressed how these attempts make me feel. I was so willing to have frank dialogue about so many things… why so closed minded about politics?
To me, there is only one explanation for her seeming irrationality that makes sense. This is one thing that happens to anger that is swallowed whole: it comes out as an otherwise unexplainable tone deaf determination to be right that cannot consider the provocative effect it will have on the person it is directed to.
The expression is very often directed at someone who had nothing to do with the original swallowed anger, which starts early in childhood, goes into a mass of general anger and creates the conditions for this kind of righteous moral tone-deafness. And it’s “innocent”, you dig, and it conveniently becomes another proof that the person who gets upset over it is just an irrationally angry hot-head himself.
I know that she was raised by a mother she tells me was insane. I can imagine the pain of that upbringing, it is not so different from my own, although my father was masterful at presenting his insanity with wit and seemingly irrefutable logic. Hey, Dad, you was like the narrator of the Telltale Heart!
“TRUE! nervous, very, very dreadfully nervous I had been and am; but why WILL you say that I am mad? The disease had sharpened my senses, not destroyed, not dulled them. Above all was the sense of hearing acute. I heard all things in the heaven and in the earth. I heard many things in hell. How then am I mad? Hearken! and observe how healthily, how calmly, I can tell you the whole story,” quoth the skeleton.