Growing up in a home where I was treated as a dangerous adversary from the day I came home as a newborn affected my wiring in fundamental ways. Because my parents were always ready with anger and blame, and I was often regularly excoriated over trumped up offenses, sometimes things I was not remotely at fault for, I became painfully sensitive to the brutality of an incoherent, self-serving narrative.
It was much easier for my parents, two overwhelmed abused children who grew up without essential tools to process their own frustrations, to unite in their blame of a kid who was, in their view, just an irrationally angry little bastard constantly fighting for no apparent reason. In their story their own behavior had nothing to do with their child’s mysterious, unfortunate, completely innate bad feelings. They insisted they were right, stuck together most of the time, and that was that.
My life’s work was set for me early on — to discover a truth deeper than the harmful bullshit that was being angrily forced on me and explaining to myself coherently the reasons for the insane arrangement I was expected to subscribe to as simply reality. As I learn reasons that make sense to me I begin to calm myself. Understanding is my most important tool and I wield it with as much clarity as I can against the sometimes awesome incoherence of a world that requires little by way of reason or clarity to form huge enraged armies to inflict hell on their enemies. Finally learning of the extreme abuse my father underwent, from infancy, (I was in my forties when I learned some key details) unlocked a door of empathy and understanding for me that my father was unable to approach, until hours before his death.
Whenever I am confronted with an incoherent reframing of actual upsetting events it gets my back up. If someone treats me in a thoughtless way that hurts me and when I react with pain tells me I am wrong to be hurt in any way, that it wasn’t thoughtlessness at all, it was an innocent misunderstanding and I have to forget about it because they love me, because they wouldn’t have been hurt at all if I’d done the same to them, it never quite gets down the old craw. I literally can’t swallow an incoherent story, maybe because it makes no fucking sense. Maybe it’s just me, I don’t know. I think I am probably not alone in preferring a story that is understandable in the light of observation and experience to a senseless one designed to serve an emotional agenda to protect someone else against feeling bad.
Friends, when they feel defensive, often see my need for coherence, which requires an openness to accepting one’s part in things that actually happened, as a relentless need to be “right”. I can understand why it looks that way to them, particularly in a competitive and violently adversarial culture like ours, but it is a need for honesty and mutual understanding on my part, more than anything else I can put my finger on. I was forced to defend myself from before I could even speak, in adversarial proceedings brought daily by a father/prosecutor who was very good at prosecuting. I developed skills in arguing way before I finally, misguidedly, went to law school. People sometimes tell me they feel overmatched and it gets their backs up, because they need to feel “right” too and I’m a more skilled fighter with words than they are, so their disadvantage makes them fight harder. There are many ways to fight against something that makes you feel defensive and so many are familiar from my childhood.
Reframing is a famous technique for avoiding any discussion of something you don’t want to talk about and my father was a genius at constantly steering the conversation away from what his children needed to talk about to a much deeper thing that we were “really” talking about. Any conversation about being hurt was constantly reframed until we were talking about the real, and only, issue: what an irrationally angry little fuck I’d always been, and remain.
If I behave toward you in a way that’s wrong, and keep defending it as a mistake, like all humans make, I am choosing a neutral, understandable synonym to let myself off the hook for hurting you. I was wrong because I made a mistake and I made a mistake because I was wrong are fairly close, almost interchangeable. Wrong carries a bit more moral weight than mistaken, since using it accepts responsibility for the harm the mistake caused, so to shift the ground from the moral idea that it is wrong to do something to you that I hate done to me, I can insist on calling it a mistake and put the onus on you, the person I wronged/mistaked to have the human compassion to forgive me without more. It is a painful thing to be unforgiven and an ugly thing to be unforgiving, isn’t it? About a simple mistake? Come on.
Then there is the greatest weapon of all against responsibility or reconciliation — silence by way of response.
This is kryptonite to me, as it would be to you, if applied steadily and consistently over years to make sure there was no possibility of being heard, no chance for reconciliation of any kind. After months of silence about my last attempt at reconciliation with my father (and, naturally, I’d chosen the infuriating medium of a letter, where I have the unfair advantage of not being interrupted, reframed, dismissed, or ignored while communicating as clearly as I am able) he spoke words that live with me to this day “oh, that letter (the one I’d sent twice before hand delivering a third copy). Yeah, I read that. You have to respect my right not to respond to that.”
A debatable proposition, but there you are. As polite and crisp as my father’s sentence was “you have to respect my right not to respond to that” is, it’s a problematic, even incoherent, response to a loved one expressing a need for something better, even as it attempts to close a door forever, even as it succeeds, until the last night of the poor devil’s life when he admits, hours before he breathes his last and I close dead eyelids over eyes I never really noticed were the stormy grey green color of a troubled sea, that he had been wrong. Wrong or mistaken, he blamed himself harshly, as he was dying for things he understood that last night he should have had the sense and strength to work on in himself, instead of being content to blame a baby for being a deadly adversary.
Sometimes there are swamps we walk into without knowing where we are, and clarity is essential here in order to avoid wading into danger for everyone. We can mistakenly believe that people we love can show us an intimate side, a dark side, make themselves exceptionally vulnerable, and then not act desperately to make painful things disappear. The private lives of a couple, how they treat each other, show anger to each other, accept or reject each other, is a swamp we must exit as quickly as possible once we see we’ve stepped into it. Any attempt to protect one against the other will go as badly as reaching into the muddy depths of a swamp to pull at something you can’t see.
This last piece is recently acquired wisdom, thanks to friends who shared experiences to illuminate the truth of this. If you doubt the truth of it, try it yourself sometime, spend a few days alone with a couple and begin trying to protect the wife against the open hostility of the husband and tell me you are not suddenly neck deep in a hot, humid, mosquito rich paradise for dangerous reptiles. Live and learn, my friend, and take the lessons you learn to heart. Only by doing that can we get out of a dangerous swamp that can easily swallow everything we love.