Take a pain that is too great to bear, it is a doorway for demons to walk through. In my father’s case I learned of his primal pain accidentally. I was over forty when his beloved, seventeen years older first cousin Eli turned the light on in the dark room that was my sometimes cruel father’s inner life. Eli witnessed the scene, more than once, when he was a teenager. He described it to me almost seventy years later. His beloved Aunt Chava, who loved Eli to death, raising a heavy, frayed cord from her steam iron. She’d snatched it out of the drawer next to the head of the table where she sat. In a rage, my tiny grandmother brought it down furiously across my two and three year-old father’s face.
“Seriously, Elie, how do you recover from something like that?” said the skeleton of my father, with a sorrow to rival Eli’s when he told me the story.
“After a while all she had to do was rattle that drawer,” Eli told me with infinite sadness. “And your father would….” and he did one of his beautiful pantomimes, this one of a terrified child, eyes cast to the ground, shuddering in terror.
“You understand now that one doesn’t ever recover from this,” said the skeleton of my father. “And, obviously, I could never speak of it. Certain things are too fucking painful to talk about.”
I found myself in my room as a kid, confused and agitated by the violence I’d just been exposed to, generally over something relatively trivial. I didn’t drink my milk, a liquid I always hated. My mother believed that if a child didn’t drink four glasses a day their bones wouldn’t form right, they wouldn’t grow up strong and tall. We had battles over drinking milk from time to time. My father would chime in with his famous prediction “you may win the battle, but you’re going to lose the war.” It was the voice of experience talking, just not the kind of experience you could build a healthy outlook on.
In my room I wrote, I drew, I learned to play guitar and then keyboards. Honing my powers of self-expression became an obsession of my childhood that persisted into my adulthood. It simply could not be that this was the sum of life and the last word — endless war against insane adversaries with no appeal to a non-insane higher power. My mother wanted the best for me, so did my father. They had other troubles, their own childhood demons, that often turned wanting what was best for me and my sister into a war. We grew up, my sister and I, in a war zone. The alliances were constantly shifting. Once in a while my sister or I would hit with a line at our father’s expense too funny for our mother not to laugh at. Her laughter was the ultimate betrayal of my poor father.
“Sure, side with them, Evvy, they’ll be dancing on your grave,” he’d snarl, from his corner spot at the kitchen table, a spot between a counter, my sister and the refrigerator, where he was trapped. For the record, my sister declined my invitation to dance on our father’s grave as we walked from his grave after his funeral service.
Demons caused by unresolvable childhood pains lead people into cults. Sometimes the cult is a cult of one. It can be someone just like mom, or dad, or whoever our psychological weakness draws us to. Membership in the cult confirms, on one level, what our demons tell us, that we have no right to anything better. Anyone who proposes any alternative to the cult is seen as an existential threat, a deadly enemy to be avoided.
I was determined, as a boy, scribbling in my room, to learn to communicate well enough to do battle with my demons. My sister always maintained that I had it worse, because I fought back against our father’s bullying. I don’t know which of us had it worse. I do know that I am thankful now for the thousands of hours spent learning how to sort through my thoughts and feelings and set them out clearly on a page.
“So it says here that your recent notes on your father’s life are now almost 900 pages long,” says the imaginary shrink, eyes twinkling, lids twitching slightly.
“Was your father also a brutal prick, doc?” I ask, studying his shifting face.
“We are not here to discuss my father,” says the psychiatrist, composing his face. “I have a very successful practice and a very good life. We are here to discuss your failure to thrive.”
“You know, doctor, my failure to thrive is not the thing that troubles me the most about my life. I don’t have a house, or a car, or an expensive guitar, or even a livelihood at the moment, but those things cause me little pain.”
“Then why are you ponying up the $50 copay on your shit silver insurance plan to see me every week?” says the doctor acutely.
“It is my sense of powerlessness, doctor. The sad fact that, in spite of insights I may have gained wrestling with some very energetic demons, I am unable to help anyone else. Maybe we can never help anyone else, except by listening attentively and responding as directly as we can to what they’ve expressed. My sorrow is largely about my inability to be a moral actor, except in a very, very limited way.”
“I’m sorry, our time is up,” says the doctor.
“What are you talking about? I’ve been here less than five minutes.”
“That’s what you say,” says the doctor.
This is the kind of shit I’m talking about. That moment where it doesn’t matter who is telling the truth, who is lying, who is right, who is wrong. That disorienting feeling of in-your-face unfairness, instantly releasing chemicals designed to help us fight or flee, when external reality fades completely in the face of an arbitrary power, exercised brutally. This flood of cortisol and adrenaline overflows from our earliest experiences of vicious unfairness.
“That’s why they call us demons, motherfucker,” says a demon cheerfully, “we exist outside of time, outside of objective reality, our power is undiminished by the passing of years, even decades. We retain the power to fuck you up any time we like. Kind of sucks, doesn’t it?”
I can easily picture my father’s shifty-eyed expression whenever I came close to cornering him in one of his infallibly presented flights of hectoring illogic. It’s related to the implacable look this demon is giving me, but he adds a mirthfulness my father never had when attacking. It is a mirth, in the face of my suffering, an overbrimming satisfaction in seeing me suffer, that makes any desire to flee vanish, now the chemicals are all urging me to fight.
“It is, in fact, my face,” says a former close friend, veteran of several stays in mental wards. True that, my brother. It is a facial expression that provokes rage. It is the face of someone determined to provoke violent emotion, no matter what the cost. It smiles at your pain, mocks your anger and it comes from a bottomless well of self-hatred.
“Yes it does, bitch,” he says with that maniacal grin, smug as a pedophile priest untouchable by any law, “that’s why they call us demons, son. Now, if you would stop crossing your legs so we can get back to work…”
Demonology is not a short talk, but I am done with it for the moment. I also know that defeating demons can rarely be done alone, no matter how well we manage to set the issue out before us, before a reader, even for a jury of our peers. Was my father a monster? He believed so as he was dying, to some extent. He feared that he’d lived as a monster, at least. There is some evidence to support that fear.
A book about a monster is not as interesting to me as a book about a highly moral man who, in spite of his deeply humanistic values, inflicted terrible pain on his loved ones. That book, if I could put it into your hands, on to the shelf of your local public library, would be a fucking demon.