There was a popular dog food, when I was a kid, called Laddie Boy. For all I know it’s still around, I’m seldom in that aisle in the supermarket these days. I think our brilliant dog Patches may have eaten Laddie Boy. I recall the stink of it when the can was opened — in later years on an electric can opener that sounded like George Harrison’s electric guitar on Revolution (White Album version).
I had a classmate, for a couple of years, named Fred Ladner. I liked Fred, we stood at the back of the sized place line in fourth or fifth grade and he was always pleasant. One day, for reasons– or more likely simple, brutish reflexes — I can’t recall, I menaced Fred in the school yard. I remember how he recoiled, confused and hurt and I recall the vitriol with which I called him “Laddie Boy” as I glared at his sudden fear. I may have grabbed his shirt, but I don’t think I even did that. He didn’t make a move to get away, just stared at me wide-eyed, his sense of my senseless betrayal clear in his wet, scared eyes. I don’t know how it happened, I don’t know what, if anything, may have precipitated it. What I remember was his fear and confusion, and that I was the direct cause of it.
I don’t remember any other incident of myself being a bully in childhood. I sometimes expressed a bit of malevolence here and there, as any boy sometimes does, like after a friend’s mother drove him and his sister into a concrete stanchion and the guy wore a maroon wool hat, a la Mike Naismith of the Monkees (not sure what color Mike’s wool hat was) all day long in school. One day somebody snatched the kid’s hat off and we saw that it covered a white circle shaved into the dark curly hair of his head, where he had been probed, or stitched or whatever. He was very unhappy to be exposed this way and I was in the circle of boys, his friends and classmates, who sadistically kept the hat away from him in a game we used to call Saluji, for some reason. He desperately tried to get the hat back, only to see it flicked away at the last second by the mercilessly grinning little boy he rushed.
It was a momentary thing, and this kid was probably my best friend at the time, something I quickly forgot about. I had no recollection of it until, to my surprise, I learned that he was still very bitter about it more than fifty years later, when he brought it up one day with great feeling.
It is easy enough for me to see these behaviors, and if there were two instances I can recall there were surely more, as me acting out what I experienced at home. Where my sister was sly, passive aggressive, darkly, sadistically funny, I fought back directly whenever our parents took a verbal swing at me. My father was, I can see now, often tormented by demons that caused him to act contrary to the way he taught my sister and me to behave, contrary to his ideals and highest beliefs. He bullied my sister and me, often goaded by my mother’s demand, after a long day at work, as he was trying to rest up a bit before going to his second job, that he do something about the two disobedient, disrespectful little pricks she had been dealing with all day.
We are aggressive and sometimes irrationally hostile, we smart apes, and, in crowds, we are capable of doing things that are the stuff of nightmares. We have always been this way. We don’t always know why we are screaming and pumping our fists into the air as someone we hate is being publicly tortured to death. It’s a homo sapiens thing. You don’t see cats and dogs doing this kind of thing. Pigs raised for slaughter in Auschwitz-like conditions don’t act this way. Only humans form lynch mobs, send armed men into villages to rape and burn, build vast state-of-the-art machines to kill as many as possible in the shortest amount of time.
As I state the obvious I’m also thinking about what makes a reliable narrator. Is somebody trying to get to the bottom of his or her pain a reliable narrator? For example, I wrote hundreds of pages, posted here, in a first draft trying to get to my father’s point of view as he was inflicting terrible damage on his children. This process caused me to swing wildly at times, in an attempt to vividly describe the damage and also understand it from a bully’s point of view.
Although he generally bullied us, is that really what my father was at his essence? Surely there were many other things at work in his nature, more salient features that those who knew him would see him as before “bully”. Describing my father’s angry glare as “psychotic,” for example, was a wild swing and a clear miss. In the second draft, should I live long enough to produce it, these missteps will be corrected as I convince the reader, and, more importantly, the publisher, that I knew what I was doing all along when I stumbled through the first draft. (Tip of the yarmulke to Neil Gaiman who hipped me to this in his Mahster-clahss youTube ad).
I don’t think it requires a Sigmund Freud to convince anyone that the indigestible traumas of our childhoods live on in us many years later. The pain we can’t understand or process has nowhere to go except various, mostly unconscious, survival strategies: a rigorous daily exercise regime, sarcasm, constant busy-ness, “recreational” drug use, etc. We make vows to do better, as I have with my attempt to apply an “if I can’t help, I don’t hurt” ahimsa-based approach to my own life. Knowing that I am as capable as the next little Hitler of cruelty to my fellow creatures, I try to be aware of my hurtful actions as I keep my own interactions with violent or provocative assholes at a minimum. A neutral straight face shown to a vicious person one encounters by chance, I’ve learned, is usually better than a sneer, a comment, a middle finger raised. As is getting away from them as smartly as possible.
Still, most of us get to understand so little about what makes us act the way we do. Of course, we’re all masters of justifying it, to ourselves and anyone who might be offended by it. I realized a few weeks ago, to my great surprise , that after writing everything I could think of about my father, in the course of a daily practice over two years, that I am now able to clearly see things from my father’s point of view. I imagined his voice, informed by the regrets he had while dying and the lifetime of progress he made in the last few days of his life, expressing what he wished we could have talked about when he was alive.
Talking to his skeleton regularly explained things to me I could never understand before. I don’t pretend to understand exactly how this happened, but imaging the conversations I know he wished we’d had revealed things I never had a conscious clue about. I finally understood this perplexing character, in a way I cannot presently understand the little boy who suddenly turned on his friend Laddie Boy and made his eyes grow wide in betrayal and fear. Very much like my father’s eyes when, one day during a verbal beating he was dishing out, I stood, a skinny fifteen year old, with such violence that the old man in his chair was suddenly afraid.
 As I learned, to my great surprise, one day during law school while I was transcribing words of a legal decision into a paper I was writing, that I wasn’t looking at the keys as I typed. I was amazed to realize that I’d taught myself to touch type, completely unconsciously, simply by typing countless pages during my dreamy creative writing days and as a rat-like law student.