I have written another piece on this subject, but, as I recall, it really doesn’t touch what the actual talent for malice is. It is proving a bit hard to describe.
Anyone can be malicious at times. Many people, if not most of us, have good reason to act with a bit of malice from time to time. Humans, as a species, are pricks, as often as not. Somebody does something really bad, and does it again, and a third time, it’s natural to feel that tightening in the face, the clenching of the muscles, the desire to return the favor. Any brute in this moment can shove somebody, snarl, take a threatening pose, say something mean. Some have no hesitation to pick up a fist or a weapon and carry out their malicious business post haste, in the most immediate possible way. But a talent for malice is something else. Talent holds a person to a higher standard, requires something special, beyond the ordinary, something more refined and original than the predictable lashing out.
The above strikes me as somewhat generic, an intro that probably cannot stand as anything more than a note for the rewrite. If the reader is to feel anything about it, the talent for malice must be shown in the form of a story (he said in a note to himself). Otherwise, and as it currently stands, it reads as little more than a didactic high school reading comprehension test paragraph without the multiple choice questions below it. I will try to supply an illustrative anecdote or two when I rewrite it, but I must continue to grapple here with what the talent for malice actually is. As with other elusive things, we can get closer to describing it by showing what it is not (he said, pedantically.)
Pat Conroy’s father, who expressed his rage with good old- fashioned beatings, with two hard fists, clearly had no talent for malice. My friend’s father Stan, who beat the boy like a drum, and sometimes the boy’s mother as well, like a tambourine, and made bank tellers cry— you could see from twenty feet away what a hack at malice this unredeemably angry dick was. The genius of someone with a talent for malice is to deliver the poison while seeming, to the person he’s poisoning, reasonable, calm, cool, even likable. THAT is a talent for malice since it doubly victimizes, first by injecting the poison and then by having the victim castigate himself as paranoid and vindictive, trying to blame this reasonable, nice person for slipping him the poison.
A talent for malice leaves the malicious party with complete deniability and, better still, able to pose as the injured party, unfairly accused, standing defiantly on the moral high ground, an excellent spot from which to continue innocently emptying his bowels on the other. It is not, by the way, a talent for anyone but a desperate person or a sadist to be proud of, but it’s a talent nonetheless.
My sister mentioned that she was an adult close to forty before she fully understood the abuse she’d suffered at the hands of her father. THAT is a genius for malice, that’s how good our father was at it much of the time. I don’t want to say my father was always a genius at it, or even that he displayed his talent brilliantly all the time, just that he had the talent in greater measure than anyone else I can think of and some moments of brilliance.
This moment was not one of them, and, knowing well how he operated, I feel bad to this day that I did not do more about it at the time. My niece was a young girl, probably four or five. If her little brother had been born by this time he was deep asleep in a crib somewhere. I don’t recall him being on the scene, it’s possible she may have been about to turn four, though I’d have to run this by my sister to be sure of the chronology since the numbers are not adding up, somehow.
She was in her pajamas, posing on the staircase, looking adorable. The next day we’d all go out to dinner and she was finally going to get the little purple bicycle she’d been pining for, the one she’d picked out a few days earlier. She was very excited about her birthday dinner in a restaurant and her dream bike.
My father and I sat on a couch at the foot of the stairs. My sister and her husband stood on either side of the bottom step as my sister asked the birthday girl where she wanted to eat for her birthday. She thought for a moment and picked out a local restaurant. My father smiled and said he didn’t think that was a good place to go for her birthday.
She was disappointed, and her mother and father, instead of joining with her uncle to say as one: “let’s go there, that sounds great,” told her to pick out another place. I sat on the couch next to my father watching my niece slowly wilt on the staircase. There was no particular reason I could see that this restaurant was any less appropriate than any of the several others nearby. I said as much, but with no real knowledge of the situation, and , after reminding everyone of the birthday girl’s right to pick her favorite place, didn’t insist.
“Your grandpa doesn’t want to go there, where else do you want to go?” my brother-in-law asked. This whole dance was very odd to me, if not unfamiliar, and I watched it with mounting discomfort. By now my niece was on the verge of tears, nobody, it seemed, had her back. This was a sickeningly familiar scene to us all. Nobody had anybody’s back, as long as the power was seemingly in one arbitrary person’s hands. My niece’s unhappiness was something that could have immediately been fixed with a small portion of mercy, or even a dab of common decency, or common sense. How about just a reason why the place was not going to work?
My father, smiling, then showed a dull flash of his talent for malice. “You show me a little girl who insists on going to Scampy Shrimp and I’ll show you a little girl who doesn’t get that purple bicycle her grandparents bought her.”
Talent! you will snort. This is nothing more than garden variety coercive sadism out for an evening stroll. And perhaps you are correct to snort. But it is more complicated than I can explain at the moment, clearly.
My niece accepted an unacceptable alternative and went upstairs very unhappily to go to sleep. I followed a few minutes later, to kiss her goodnight. She had been crying when I came into the room and quickly pulled herself together. I sat at the edge of her bed for a moment and asked if she was all right. She smiled gamely and said she was. I turned out the lamp, patted her, told her not to worry, we’d go wherever she wanted, and headed downstairs. My father and I left and drove back to the apartment he shared with my mother, in nearby Wynmoor Village.
The next day I found out that my niece had vomited not long after we left. I didn’t blame her at all, hindsight being twenty-twenty. Nothing in the situation seemed hard for me to understand, except perhaps why my father was being such a prick to the little granddaughter he adored.
When you are punched in the stomach, it’s hard to be mistaken about what has just happened, hard for the puncher to credibly deny, particularly if the punch is caught on camera. The only discussion after you catch your breath is about whether you possibly deserved the punch or not, whether anyone does. A sock in the gut is rather unambiguous, if also inelegant. The person with the talent for malice has no need to resort to such crude methods to extract full malicious satisfaction. A job done with a subtle, undetectable touch, smug deniability, and the chance to make the other person feel like the asshole again for being hurt, are the keys to this full satisfaction for the talented practitioner of malice.
Here is really all that’s required, if you have the reservoir of malice already and are looking for a tap to turn to let it pour into someone’s drinking cup. Wait for a moment of vulnerability. If you know someone well, you will probably not have to wait long. When you see it, simply say nothing, instead of showing the weakness of empathy, the only thing the vulnerable party really needs.
This is beautiful in its simplicity and it works every time, I can assure you. Then you can have your wife shake the kid while she yells, to the rhythm of the shaking: “what-did-any-one-ever-do-to-you-to-make-you-so-fuck-ing-ang-ry?!!!” Fucking beautiful, really. You won’t even know what has hit you, in many cases, until years later, and then, only if you’re lucky. I’ve been very lucky that way.