My family, all through the sixties, as the Vietnam war and the war for Civil Rights here in America raged on TV, had our own war every night at the dinner table. This is not my imagination speaking, it was an actual war. In case there was any mistaking it, our father would grimly remind my sister and me regularly “you may win this battle, but you’re going to lose the war.”
What kind of parents style their struggles with their children as a war? How does it nurture a child to predict that, in the end, no matter how many bloody battles they manage to win, they are going to lose the war? What war? What exactly is this fucking war, dad? Speculating about what kind of parent convinces their child that they are in a losing war is a dodgy exercise, I think. All I can say definitively is that, in my case, it was parents who’d been raised by brutal tyrants themselves, and had lifelong difficulty controlling their own over-boiling rage.
My mother loved me, there is no question about that. Yet I have a vivid, and hilarious (in retrospect, I didn’t see the grand humor at the time) memory of my mother shaking me vigorously by the shoulders at the dinner table. She was frustrated, I was small enough to be grabbed by the shoulders and vigorously shaken. As she shook me, in the manner of a terrier shaking a rat, she demanded angrily, each syllable accompanied by a shake “What did an-y-bod-y e-ver do to you to make you so fuck-ing ang-ry!!?”
I had no sensible answer at the time, though it occurs to me now I could have said “I don’t know, maybe things like what you’re doing right now. Would you let me go, please? and stop screaming, I’m a few inches away.” The point is, my mother, who I was much closer to in many ways than I was to my father, was as capable of incoherent rage as my father was. They simply did not know how to control themselves when they were frustrated, which was often.
I don’t blame them for being frustrated. Life is often frustrating. We have our noses rubbed in our powerlessness countless times every day. Corporations are people, increasingly we are not and the cards are ever more unfairly stacked for the corporate “person” against the human person. We are powerless consumers manipulated into buying things we don’t need, things we are told will make us feel better about ourselves, voting for representatives who will not hesitate to sell our interests to the highest bidder. People who pine for long-past golden days are nostalgic for a sense that we are not all endlessly manipulable saps. We always have been, but much more so now, in the age of instant data-driven demographic manipulation.
My parents were born at the dawn of our modern age of mass manipulation. My father, born in 1924, came on the scene around the time of the radio. By the time he was old enough to understand what he was hearing over the radio we had our first mass media president, FDR, skillfully using the magical new wireless medium to reach every American in their living rooms. Poor as my father’s family was, there was some radio somewhere they could huddle around to hear FDR address the nation in his Fireside Chats. Movies were the other new form of mass media, and both of my parents saw them as often as they could. My mother went every Saturday, saw the newsreel between features, watched the events unfolding in Europe and elsewhere.
Fast forward to now, every kid has a device in their pocket that shows them endless, opinionated newsreels endlessly. The torrent of targeted content is unstoppable. Kids think they are the best informed generation in history, since they have instant access to the five second answer to any question. We can think of this as “information” but it is most often slickly packaged commercially-driven manipulation. Being constantly bombarded by “content” also fractures the already shaky human ability to focus and concentrate, shatters it into one and two second twitches. The world is constantly changing, for the most part without wisdom increasing. So be it.
Anyway, I don’t blame my parents for being frustrated, for having been the victims of frustrated, violent mothers. The only thing I can blame them for, and this is a stretch, is not gaining any insight into their life-long battles with rage. You’d hope a new parent could examine their life and reactions honestly enough to realize that blaming a new-born baby for being irrationally enraged, adversarial and vicious was probably not the entire answer to the question of why life with baby seemed so impossibly hard.
Back to the war at the dinner table. The tension would be mounting all day, my mother making the famous threat of that era “wait ’til your father gets home!” As my mother served dinner, after my father came in from his exhausted nap, the sniping would begin and my father would as often as not beg our mother “feed me after them!” It was unbearable to him, trapped in his corner seat near the toaster, between the wall, my sister and the refrigerator, to have to fight this endless battle every single night after a long day at work, before he headed off to his second job.
At his second job he interacted with Jewish teenagers who seemed to love him, as many of his high school students also seemed to. He was a hip guy with a good sense of humor and no taste for bullshit. Every so often one of these kids would become a surrogate son (no surrogate daughters that I can recall). He developed a lifelong friendship with the last of these surrogate sons, a man named Benjie.
But at the dinner table, he was cursed, besieged by his own bloodthirsty offspring, at war. He was reduced to threatening his snotty, doomed children, that, although they my have been winning battle after battle against him at the table, they were destined, in the end to lose the fucking war. He guaranteed it, bitterly, angrily. “You will lose the war!” What fucking war, exactly?
“Well, of course, I can’t defend any of this,” said the skeleton of my father, “it was an existential war. I’d been raised by an angry mother who literally whipped me in the face from the time I could stand. You can judge her, decide she was psychotic or whatever judgement you’d like to make. The fact is, I was forced to eat shit and ask for more from the time I was two. From the time I could stand, I was made to shudder in fear, by my own mother. You do the math.”
I get it. Here’s what I was thinking. My sister and I did the best we could to survive in this existential war. The alliances were constantly shifting, but we could never forget that we were in an ongoing battle, in the midst of a long war we were told we were going to lose. It came to me, the other night before I fell asleep, that since we were always duking it out and fighting for our lives, we would often take it out on mom. Yeah, these two little bastards would join forces to mock and torture your ally, mom, on a regular basis. We tortured the fuck out of her.
“Don’t sound so happy about it,” said the skeleton.
I’m not happy about it. It’s sickening, really, to think about. We were being bullied regularly and we found someone to take it out on. Mom was a prime target for bullying– her mother had bullied her, you bullied her. It was irresistible to us when we were kids, being in a war anyway and sensing her vulnerability, we bullied her. She fought back, she ranted, she cried, she even lashed out at us a couple of times physically, usually with dire consequences that left her crying. But we tortured her. She may have won a few battles but we…
“Don’t even say it. Why are you telling this to a dead man?” said the skeleton, turning his face to show me his profile.
The apple, it is said, doesn’t fall far from the tree.
“That’s beneath you, Elie,” said the skeleton, shaking his head slowly.
Maybe so, but who gives a shit? You may win this particular battle, dad…