“Well, as much as I admired your initial impulse to paint a nuanced portrait of the, shall we say, ‘complicated’ man who was your father, this last one really is a bit ridiculous, don’t you think?” said the skeleton from his hilltop bed in the quiet boneyard in Cortlandt. “I know you’re making your case, but are you seriously blaming me because you feel like you acted like an overbearingly judgmental asshole to a timid girl who was intimidated by many things, as far as I can see?”
“Well, it’s a little pathetic, in a piece entitled The Harm My Father Did, to have this vignette of a girlfriend singing out of tune as your big gun. You know, I should have acted less like a jerk that day, when you brought that girl over to your sister’s, OK, fine, guilty as charged, but I don’t think it’s fair to blame me for how you acted when you accompanied her and, because you somehow had my psychological set-up or something, made her too self-conscious to sing. You were a grown man, for Christ’s sake, and long out of the house, you don’t find it a bit sad to try to hold me responsible for your behavior?”
No, I don’t. The only sad thing is that it took me more than thirty years to have the beginning of any insight I could use to start overcoming the destructive things a childhood of abuse had instilled in me.
“Oh, here we go,” said the skeleton, shaking his head.
You can’t have it both ways, as you know. I admire those able to appreciate nuance, and who try to turn the thing and view it from as many angles as possible, and I try to see all sides myself. I credit you for teaching me to strive for fairness, in fact. But you really can’t have it both ways. If your apologies as you left the stage are to be believed, and I prefer to think they were sincere, you had a lot of regrets about the obstacles you placed in front of my sister and me in a world that’s difficult enough to make one’s way through as it is, as you said. If you want to argue about everything that I see as an obstacle, or a manifestation of the struggle to surmount an obstacle, I have a simple, elegantly Irv-like solution for you. I’ll just stop writing your goddamned parts.
The skeleton was silent, looked like he was trying to suck his teeth and glare a bit from under lowered eyebrows he no longer had. In the next moment he had that too jolly by half grin they all seem to have, and still said nothing.
We were standing on line at the buffet at Chris Coughlin’s wedding to Eddie. My father was holding his plate and my sister and I were beside him with our plates. Chris had long been a widow, her husband, Bob, a policeman who’d died young from cancer, had inherited the house next door where the Coughlins had raised Bob and his two brothers. Chris, who had raised her and Bob’s two beautiful daughters in that house, loved my father, who she found smart and hilarious. My father was very fond of Eddie, a retired NYC cop, Viet Nam vet, youthful, handsome and a cheerful raconteur of the kind of brutal, darkly funny stories my father loved.
A rookie cop was elbowed by a perp during the arrest. There was dried blood under the cop’s nose when he hustled the still angry handcuffed man into the precinct. His partner pushed the perp towards the desk sergeant who was going to book him. “What the fuck happened to your nose?” the desk sergeant asked the rookie.
The young cop explained that he’d been bloodied during the scuffle, he’d caught an accidental elbow. “What the fuck?” the desk sergeant said, “‘an accidental elbow’? Get the fuck out of here. I’m not booking the piece of shit like that. Bring him back in a turban.”
“A turban?” the rookie cop asked. At this point my father cracked up while telling the story Eddie had told him the day before.
“Dean, Johnny, show our young colleague here the proper procedure for an ‘accidental elbow’ booking, would you?” The two veteran cops stepped forward, grabbed the handcuffed perp, and shoved him through the door to the back, out of sight. They grunted for their young colleague to follow.
“And they tuned him up,” said my father, using the dry, brutal phrase Eddie had used to describe it. “You know, they ‘went up ‘side his head’ as my boys at Evander Childs used to say. They beat the shit out of him and wrapped his bloody head in a bandage, a ‘turban’, and brought him back out to the desk sergeant for booking.”
“Ah, there we go!” said the desk sergeant. “That’s how we do it! Are you ready to be booked now, sir?” My father smiled broadly to show how satisfied the desk sergeant had been at the end of this successful teachable moment.
Eddie had described the horrified face of the rookie at that moment and left his own feelings about the whole matter manfully to the side. My father loved these kinds of stories, even as they violated just about everything he believed about social justice.
Chris had just exchanged wedding vows with Eddie and we were waiting on line to be served some food that looked and smelled delicious in the large trays over the warming sternos.
“You’ve often told us that angry words do the same damage as slaps and punches. Do you still consider physical and verbal violence equally harmful?” I asked our father. He said he did.
“Then would you consider me and my sister to have been victims of child abuse?” Again he agreed, probably pausing to admire my intuitive use of the passive voice in that otherwise brutal sentence.
“I’d have to say you were,” he said, also employing the passive voice, it occurs to me only now, almost thirty years later.
The thing I remember most clearly about this moment is the angry look my sister shot me as my father admitted he’d been an abusive father. It would have been hard for the man who cursed angrily at his children almost every night, a man who prided himself on his ability to be honest under fire, to have denied it. I suppose he could have said it was perfectly understandable for a father who had impossibly high expectations for his children to vent a little, call the girl an empty-headed, vain little liar and thief, or the boy a venomous cobra whose terrifying face was also, to make things even more scary, twisted and contorted with hate. He might have made an argument for that, he was capable of it, but to his credit he quietly admitted the truth and said nothing to mitigate it. And my sister stared a volley of daggers my way, along the steam trays of food we were about to have piled on our plates by smiling caterers.
I’ve thought of that look several times over the years, trying to understand the reason for her anger in that moment. She had been a victim too, had later expressed her admiration for me standing up to the verbal assaults, told me I’d had it much worse than she did because I always resisted. In my memories she had some glorious and memorable moments of resistance herself, and the sharpest teeth and claws, and quickest wit, of any of the poor bastards assembled on that tiny battlefield each night for dinner. We all remember things differently, I suppose, particularly traumatic things.
I saw a great interview with humanist political scientist type Henry Giroux, speaking to Bill Moyers about our culture of cruelty. He described some of the unspeakably cruel things we now nonchalantly regard as routine. Have a team of cynical lawyers liberally redefine the word ‘torture’ in a secret memo and America is now free to deniably torture anyone any time it has a theory that might make torture necessary. Innocents killed by robotically fired missiles are just collateral damage, not actual children and old people. Protesters on campus? Roll in the tank, armored car, hardcore military surplus contraptions designed to put down insurrections. Many campus police forces, and most municipal police forces, now have this sort of armored overkill in their arsenals. Illegal poker game going on? Break down the door with a battering ram equipped riot squad, men in helmets, bullet proof vests, carrying shields, machine guns. That’s how we do it, yo! “Everyone face down on the fucking floor, if you don’t want your guts hanging off the fucking chandelier. Do it!” Angry black guy tells a cop to go fuck himself, half of America understands why the cop was totally justified in shooting him to death.
Giroux plays Moyers a clip from a campus protest at a California university, either Berkeley or Davis, if memory serves. “Look at this, Bill,” he says and we see a line of students, sitting with arms linked, blocking a road on campus, in protest of something. They are not chanting or provoking in any way we can see, but they are also stubbornly not moving when commanded to do so. One security guard walks back and forth along their line, with a large canister of something with a spray hose at one end. He shoots a jet of something into the faces of the kids. He does this in a very unexcited manner, like a gardener spraying something on his plants. The spray is reddish and the kids being sprayed are reacting somewhat hysterically when it hits them.
“That’s pepper spray, Bill. And, look, he’s doing that like it’s a normal thing to do,” says Giroux.
“Nicely done,” says the skeleton, “I casually sprayed burning chemicals in your faces every night and your sister, I suppose, had some kind of Stockholm Syndrome where she identified with her oppressor.”
Thanks, I thought you’d appreciate it.
If your father comes home smelling like whiskey, and in a foul mood, and begins snarling and then shoves your mother, you will have no mistake about what’s going on. You jump up as the first slap hits your crying mother and take the first punch. Dad kicks you as you slump against the door, turns his rage back on your mother. You’re on dad’s back, literally, and he’s not going to let a sixty pound bastard interfere with the pressing work he is determined to do, He throws you off with a violent shrug and offers another kick and a few oddly casual flicks with the back of his hand across your face (he’s quite drunk, after all). This gives your mother time to crawl across the room, but not quite enough time, because dad has her by the ankle.
The neighbors have already called the police, and nobody is actually going to get killed in the apartment that night, though, by the sounds of it, nobody could predict that. Horrible as this is, there is little ambiguity to any of it.
In the hands of a skilled practitioner, however, words can be wielded in such a way that the victim will believe there is no violence going on at all, only truth being told. There is much more room for subtle nuance in the arsenal of the verbally violent than in the much less ambiguous tool kit of the hitter, kicker, puncher.
“He had a genius for reducing people to the sum of their faults,” my sister observed recently. “And making you feel like you were the one who was wrong.”
“Nobody did it better, ” I agreed.
I thought of a book called “Words that Hurt, Words that Heal” by a rabbi named Telushkin. It made a big impression on me when I read it about 20 years ago. He compared an intemperate, angry word to an arrow let loose from the bow in a moment of anger. No way to call it back, and it will find its mark, always hit directly in the heart, no matter how badly aimed. It was the intent to shoot an arrow into the heart, as much as the actual flight of the arrow, that carried the irreversibly painful message.
In that moment when the bow is drawn there is only a fraction of a second to stop yourself from committing a cruelty you can not undo, Telushkin pointed out. He also described words that heal. These words recognize the vulnerability we all share, and like words that hurt, the speaker’s desire in uttering them is immediately and unmistakably clear. In the case of words intended to heal, the offer of empathy and comfort. He had many memorable anecdotes and metaphors in the book. I read it eagerly, this beautiful illuminating music sung to the choir.
“Well, isn’t that nice for Rabbi Telushkin?” my father’s skeleton said bitterly. “Look, I understand all this, I really do. And, you know, you yourself have appreciated that for a man who has been whipped as a baby to use words alone to brutalize his kids, no matter how hurtful those words were, is an improvement, and sign of restraint, on the part of that damaged, brutalized person.”
Absolutely. I take nothing away from you, vicious fuck though you also, undeniably, could also be. Your struggles are the inspiration for mine. I am only trying to take things to the next level. Not hitting is better than hitting. Wielding words like truncheons and swords, while also bad, is better than whipping a baby in the face with a rough, heavy cord. I’m going for the next level. I’d like to use my words to help heal. You have nothing against this plan, I assume.
The skeleton smiled. “Strength to your arm, son. Make us both proud.” He paused.
“Or I’ll rain a hail of razor tipped arrows down on your pitiful, unarmored, little second-story ass and you’ll never so much as think of sitting down again.” He yawned. “Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have a long nap to return to.”