The Salvation of Childhood Anger

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This essay is dedicated to my late client, “Philip,” who honored me with his trust and his anger.

I wander the tea and chocolate aisle at my neighborhood grocery and scan for something dark and coconut-filled. I inhale French roast coffee which reminds me of conversations with old friends. Then I hear it. A slap ricochets from the next aisle. Impact of skin on skin. Four-year-old wailing ensues. I freeze, a rush of adrenaline replaces the olfactory reverie. I wonder what to do. As if there is anything I can do except deliver the parent a dirty look as I pass. Which I do, my body crawling with itch and loathing, something like walking through tall grass as mystery weeds graze my legs with their black swollen pods. The mother surprises me with her attractiveness and stylish clothing.

“I told you to stop that,” she says to a small boy. Why must she subject the whole store to her foul parenting? But if she saved her pique and assailed her child in the car, the situation would repel me even more. I hover at the end of the aisle so I can glare at her with one eye, the other hidden behind jars of soy-nut butter. The little boy reaches out for her. He wants her to comfort him. She ignores his pleading. How can a child being whacked by his parent cling for dear life to said parent? I flash to scenes from the Wal-Marts of my youth. How I burned to kick those parents in their dull faces, as I tried to kick my own. Punch him! I telepathed to the child. Tell her she’s a stupid cow! I mentally strode over and backhanded the parent, whisking the little person to safety. When we hit children, we rob them of these things. The comfort of a parent’s touch, minus the flinch of fear. The creative use of their physical selves to move, to love, to breathe deeply and fully. The sense of deserving protection and care. The knowledge that their bodies are worthy of respect, even reverence. The unpolluted ability to know spiritual connection through the body. When I witness or hear about the hitting of a child, or the threat thereof, I feel the impact of this profound loss through my own body.

My client, Philip (58), told his story in shreds. He stopped every few seconds to suck in air, wipe a hand over his eyes, as if he couldn’t keep awake to tell me about this part of his life, after so many years of blackouts. Alcoholism. Renal Failure. Heart Disease. Chronic Pneumonia. As a younger man, Philip had to keep intoxicated to deal with a steady stream of trauma memories.

“I’d come in late for dinner . . .They’d be waiting for me . . .Get in your room and take off your clothes, they’d say . . .I did . . . After dinner, one of them would come back there with a belt.”

At the end of his session, I introduced Philip to my punching bag. Hollow at the bottom, where 12 gallons of water were supposed to be, the thing scooted as he swatted it with PVC pipe.

“Swing as hard and fast as you can.” He did, as he chased the bag across the floor. Philip’s story so unnerved me, I headed straight for the treadmill to walk it off. The ritual of his parents’ “discipline.” The way they made him participate. The calculated practice of making him wait, humiliated and vulnerable in his room. The unnecessary stripping that left him completely at their will. Philip’s story may sound extreme, but it lays open an adult motive that keeps this antiquated and barbaric practice alive: Power-Over.

One time, my family visited my maternal grandparents’ house in Texas. I was nine. We sat around the kitchen table. Next to me, my father teased like an uncomfortable child under the gaze of his father in law. He stuck an index finger between my ribs and said, Hey toots, will you sit by me? I tried to ignore him. My grandparents noticed the pestering. I said stop Daddy but he continued. He made a quacking sound as I swatted his hand away. He said, can’t I have a little fun with you? I smoldered. He kept on with the finger. And then, I glared. At him. Looked him in the eye with eyes that said, Go. He unbuckled his belt with one hand while he yanked me up with the other. Out of my chair and away from the table where my grandparents sat arrested in dismay. My grandmother opened her mouth and then closed it. My mother stared into her lap. No! I screamed. Stop! My voice pealed from my body as he hauled me out of the kitchen, into the adjoining family room. No tears. Only screams. He started swiping at me with his weapon while he pushed me towards the bathroom. I resisted, fell to the floor, kicked, howled for someone to please help me. Nobody did. (More will be said about this scene in coming installments.) I hated him with all the spiritual powers I could summon.

What did the hate do for me? A lot. It gave solid footing for my anger. Anger keeps us separate when we need to be separate. Anger fuels resistance when we need to resist. Anger reminds us we have rights when we need to be reminded of our rights. And yes, children need all of those things. Anger allowed me to see myself as a person, distinct from my father with his belt and his narcissism. A screaming heat wave of a girl who refused to take humiliating abuse without putting up a fight. That’s what I wished for those kids in Wal-Mart: a good dose of punching, screeching outrage. To fight back instead of having to dissociate, blame themselves, or get sick. I yelled back, I hate you! You bastard! The words felt so true. They triggered him to lash harder. But did I regret them? Absolutely not. Giving in to him would have been unthinkable – and it wouldn’t have stopped him. Giving voice to my outrage made me a strong and separate human being. Think of the opening scene of Les Misérables with Jean Valjean and the prison chain gang. Remember how he looked up at Javert, as if to defy his domination? His choices were limited, but he protected his humanity by respecting his own anger and letting it shout through his eyes.

In 2014, while most states have outlawed the practice in schools, it’s still legal in some districts for principals to use corporal punishment. Intentional pain inflicted by parents is largely unquestioned in the U.S., unless visible marks appear on a child’s body. “Abuse” is difficult to establish because of old cultural beliefs about parents’ rights to hit their children. Some states are even re-instituting corporal punishment in schools – as a reaction against children’s peer-to-peer violence. Old practices die a hard, ironic death. Can you recall what it was like to be manhandled as a little person? Empathy can be unsettling. Notice if you mentally wave me off and say, I deserved it. Part of us resists knowing the horror – and puts us at risk for passing it on to the next generation. But part of us would like to scream, Back off you idiot! and tackle this issue, notice, speak, advocate, tell the truth. A few days after Philip told me his story, he appeared at my office with a new spiral garden hose. He attached one end to the sink in my group room – the other end to the base of my punching bag. He filled the thing with water. Then he selected a bat from my array of instruments and swung hard at the red vinyl, again and again, surprising me with his force. After his allotted 30 seconds, he stopped. Then he shook my hand and said thank you. There were tears in his eyes. Philip died last week at the age of 63, after six years on dialysis.

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