Somaticizing your people’s trauma

I heard a very insightful discussion (between therapist and trauma specialist Resmaa Menakem and Kritsta Tippett) of the deep bodily harm racism inflicts, on a cellular level. Menakem describes how the subjects of racist attention are born inheriting, in their bodies, the stress their mothers felt while carrying them in their wombs. It made a lot of sense to me, the innate vigilant tension that must be carried in the body by those who society marks, solely by their external appearance, as inferior and threatening.

Menakem makes this profound point:

Not just that they lived through trauma, but that the angst and the anguish was decontextualized. And so for my Black body to be born into a society by which the white body is the standard is, in and of itself, traumatizing. If my mom is born as a Black woman, into a society that predicates her body as deviant, the amount of cortisol that is in her nervous system when I’m being born is teaching my nervous system something. Trauma decontextualized in a person looks like personality. Trauma decontextualized in a family looks like family traits. Trauma in a people looks like culture.

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I immediately knew the truth of this. I thought of my advantage, as a white person raised in safety by white middle class parents [1], when an off-duty cop tried to punch my face in for a disrespectful remark I’d made to him. (In my defense, I had no idea the violent piece of shit was an off-duty cop.) When three of his colleagues finally pulled us apart, two pinned my arms. I immediately relaxed my body, signaling to them I was not resisting, that I was calm, that they could safely let me go, which I quietly asked them to do.

Had my body been programmed to tense up and resist, knowing in my ancestral memory that the next likely thing was for all four of them to start beating me, or worse, I’d never have been able to relax and free myself so easily. I’d never have had the chance to reasonably ask the guy who’d tried to punch me in the face over and over what was stopping me from doing the same to him, then doing it, in front of three witnesses, and making my exit without having the shit beaten out of me afterwards.

The trauma of growing up in a despised, feared group is somaticized, it becomes part of the body’s response system (making the body more susceptible to disease and early death, among other things [2]). Not surprising at all, once it’s put out there, but fascinating and important to consider. The inherited, instinctive fight or flight mobilization in traumatized bodies can also be described by epigenetics, which Krista Tippett also did a great show about.

The new field of epigenetics sees that genes can be turned on and off and expressed differently through changes in environment and behavior. Rachel Yehuda is a pioneer in understanding how the effects of stress and trauma can transmit biologically, beyond cataclysmic events, to the next generation. She has studied the children of Holocaust survivors and of pregnant women who survived the 9/11 attacks. But her science is a form of power for flourishing beyond the traumas large and small that mark each of our lives and those of our families and communities.

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These biological expressions of stress and trauma can be worked through by survivors who receive help and support, once the traumatic events are far enough in the past. But what of those whose stress and trauma are ongoing, systemic, unending, in the news every single day?

In the context of now daily police killings of unarmed Black people, this dynamic is very important to consider. The day after Derek Chauvin was convicted, unarmed, unresisting Andrew Brown was, shot to death in a rural county in eastern North Carolina. The warrant for his arrest called him a dangerous drug dealer and the unidentified sheriff’s deputies who went to serve the warrant on him wound up killing him. According to the officers who shot him, the proof that he was resisting arrest is that once they began shooting into his car, and four shots are confirmed to have hit him, he tried to drive away, attempting to back down his driveway, which seems to have been when the fatal fifth shot was fired into the back of his head.

Ask yourself how a Black man, even if he is not a “dangerous drug dealer”, does not try to flee from police bullets coming into his car, particularly after he has complied and kept both hands on the steering wheel.

Recall the original police account of the murder of George Floyd: “Man Dies After Medical Incident During Police Interaction.” We know now, thanks to the video shot by a courageous seventeen year-old, the testimony of several witnesses, police officials and medical experts, and the guilty verdict by a jury of twelve of Derek Chauvin’s peers, that the original police account, while strictly true (there was a “medical incident” but it was Floyd’s murder) was a grossly misleading oversimplification of what happened during those fatal final nine and a half minutes of the “police interaction” that ended George Floyd’s life.

Makes me want to holler, it really does.

I’ve been reminded that most people who become police officers, the vast majority of them “white,” grow up with a conservative mindset, conforming to the norms of our society and believing in a basic code of right and wrong based on enforcing the law, whatever it is, against lawbreakers. I believe many, if not most, are motivated to become police officers by a real desire to protect and serve. The burning, killing question is who and what, exactly, you have vowed to protect and serve.

[1]

Leaving aside my own epigenetic trauma to be the child of parents who lost all but a few family members, every single family member left in Europe, to an outbreak of murderous group madness in Ukraine and Belarus in 1942 and 1943. Every one of them murdered and disappeared without a trace, just thirteen years before I was born. Try as I might, it is something I can never get out of my head, or my body, I suppose, though my own experience never included anything like the killing crews that were the last thing my grandparents’ family members ever saw.

[2]

For a very short description, see also, HERE.

The hidden effects of trauma

My father, a survivor of brutal abuse during his childhood (merciless physical and psychological beatings which started in infancy), was not one to examine his own pain, beyond an occasional reference to the personal demons we all must fight. He took positions I now see were predictable for someone holding in so much pain from the unspeakable trauma he’d endured. People can’t change, shrinks are the craziest people in society, therapy is a waste of time, since people can’t really change, and since we can’t change, talking about it is a big waste of time and energy.

“Look at my brother,” he would say, by way of resting his case about the futility of therapy. His brother, who had been in psychoanalysis for years, was arguably even crazier than he was. My father would never concede that he needed help, because people couldn’t be helped, goddamn it! You take people as you find them, with their faults, warts, tics as well as their good points — we are all in each other’s lives on a take it or leave it basis. I am what I am, I’m not going to change, if you have a problem with that, I’m sorry you have a problem.

It was useless to point out that we make accommodations to people we are care about all the time, important changes if you will. I love my dog and you’re terrified of dogs, I don’t let my dog happily greet you by leaping to lick your face when you come to visit. You find yourself trapped in a situation you don’t want to talk about, no matter what — we don’t need to talk about it. You are offended by coarse language, I don’t need to argue that you are being a needlessly squeamish fuck — “exhibiting a prudish readiness to be nauseated” (in my favorite dictionary phrase of all-time). There are countless examples of things we adjust in ourselves to get along with people.

But that we can all sometimes exert ourselves to get along with others is not really the point. We are traumatized in various ways, and the trauma we’ve experienced colors our world, influences how we see things and how we react. If the trauma is experienced early in life, and repeated consistently, it exerts ongoing influence on our personalities, our choices in life. It is painful to address and difficult to try to resolve.

Trauma is a subtle thing sometimes — it can be something as deniably neutral as remaining stoically silent when someone is pouring their heart out to us. No matter how you try to move me, I will simply not be moved, waiting for you to make the next move, doing nothing you can really blame me for, unless you’re just trying to blame me for your own pathetic problems. The consistent withholding of sympathy is a great way to traumatize a young person and it has the additional advantage of making it seem like the little bastard’s own fault, it will cause the kid to question everything about herself.

I can see the sometimes crippling effects of my father’s often abusive behavior on others in the family more easily than I can see them in myself. Still, I realize that I’ve had to overcome senseless pain that more fortunate people, people whose parents weren’t themselves traumatized, did not have to experience. I think of that great lyric from Albert King “I can’t read, I can hardly write, my whole life’s been one long fight.” I spent decades fighting, for reasons I could barely understand. I understand those reasons much better now, though the reactions I had to struggle against cost me virtually every job I’ve ever had. There came a time when a boss would tell me “this is not a discussion, you do not get a say” and I’d be compelled to be witty.

“Not even ‘fuck you’, sir?”

You can take every mass shooter, like the several in recent days, any police officer who shoots a seventh grader with his hands up, complying with his orders, Derek Chauvin, hands in pockets as he slowly chokes a man to death, or the now indicted officer who trained other officers in the use of force who yelled “taser! taser!” as she shot a man to death after they found out he had an outstanding warrant for a misdemeanor arrest. Take any of these folks and examine their life, and I’d pretty much guarantee they were survivors of some kind of life-altering trauma. It doesn’t excuse their depraved indifference to human life, of course, but it explains how they could act so callously toward others.

I’ve spent time in therapy at various points in my life. I believe it helped me more than it helped my uncle (though, of course, it could hardly have helped less). One breakthrough I had was letting go of much of my anger toward my father when I understood he had done the best he could, based on how he was shaped by his own trauma.

I was far from being able to forgive him, of course, for being such a relentlessly destructive dick, but I came to an emotional understanding that was very important to my belated growth as a person. Once I realized it hadn’t strictly been his choice to be such an abusive parent, once I learned of his abuse and grasped how the whippings he’d taken as a two year-old had warped his world, I was able to let go of a certain amount of anger. If he’d apologized, I could actually have forgiven him, but his position remained as un-nuanced as it always had been — take it or leave it, I am what I am, you got a problem with that it’s your problem.

When I got the sudden news that he was dying, of end-stage liver cancer that had not been diagnosed until he had six days to live, I got on a plane and went to his Florida hospital room. I was in a position that nobody else in the family was in — I’d had important understandings about my father’s life and how it affected my own. I was present in a way nobody else there could be. My father told me, moments after I arrived, “you’re the only one who knows what’s going on.”

I understood that this was about my father’s rapidly approaching death, not about my fear of losing my father, settling a score with him or anything else. He was the one who was dying, not me. I don’t know that I’d have grasped this so clearly if I’d still held so much anger against him, if I hadn’t achieved a level of empathy for the abuse he’d survived.

It is easy enough to scoff at what I’m going to tell next, and, of course, you’re free to. Because I was not standing in judgment of my difficult father, or in denial about his rapidly approaching death (his brother buttonholed his doctor in the hall and asked about a liver transplant for his 80 year-old older brother), or still trying to prosecute my grievances, my father and I were finally able to have a real conversation. I mostly listened.

When I arrived at his deathbed at one a.m. on what turned out to be the last night of his life, he was waiting for me, his thoughts all in order, as he’d promised they would be. He began by alluding to the demon he’d been avoiding his whole life, the childhood abuse he’d suffered at the hands of his violent little mother. “Everything Eli told you about my childhood was true,” he said, referring to the many discussions I’d had with his seventeen years older first cousin, “but he probably spared you the worst of it.”

This was a striking way to begin, it got my attention and summarized hours of discussion into a few words. He’d always insisted that Eli was full of shit, an unreliable historian who distorted everything to his own crazy ends. Now, in a few words, Eli had been truthful, and thoughtful too, in not painting the horrific picture as brutally as it had actually occurred. It got my attention, and required no response from me.

“My life was pretty much over by the time I was two,” my father said.

Again, this was something I knew to be the case. I’d often thought of him as emotionally trapped as a two year-old. Though he was brilliant in many areas, his emotional reactions, within the family, particularly his wildly uncontrolled temper, were those of a two-year old. There was no reason to say anything about this either.

He went on to acknowledge how wrong he’d been to place obstacles in front of my sister and me, life being hard enough without a father making it harder still by being a “horse’s ass”. I’d never heard him use this phrase, but he described himself as a horse’s ass at least twice in the course of apologizing for having behaved badly, in a misguided attempt to feel “in control” that placed gratuitous burdens on my sister and me. It was the only time I can ever remember my father apologizing for anything. I had only one comment, as he berated himself.

“You can’t kick yourself now, you did the best you could do, at the time.” I believed this was true, I understood why he’d acted the way he did, recognized that he could also have done worse — nothing but some kind of innate restraint kept him from beating me and my sister as he’d been beaten.

The point of this little piece is how brutally the hidden effects of unaddressed trauma can act upon us, as individuals and as a society. The 87,000 desperate American souls who killed themselves with drug overdoses last year, every single one of them, was wrestling with traumas that they felt they could only deal with by numbing themselves to death. As a society we ignore trauma — we are not an empathetic society, we spend a million times more on state violence than on addressing the causes of violence. As a culture we extoll the mythical rugged individual, the largely imaginary hero who, without any help or advantage, overcomes all adversity and defeats every challenge to “win.” In a falsely black and white world of winners and losers, it is not necessary to address the pressing problems of “losers.”

Our society is an over-boiling caldron of trauma. Is the constant danger of death from an invisible air-borne virus not traumatic? Is the very real prospect of irreversible destruction of our biosphere not traumatic? Are the fears of millions, probably billions worldwide, that cause masses to cling to insane, often violent, beliefs not born in trauma? People react as they must.

When Robert Evans called Naziism “at its heart a conspiracist theology” he was putting his finger on something very deep and horrifying.

You can look at a conspiracist religion as a predictable reaction to trauma, terror, humiliation. What are the tenets of this kind of religion? You are hurt, and absolutely right to feel hurt, you’re a victim, and the people who hurt you are going to fucking suffer and die.

Here’s what you have to do — sign up to this theory, this theology. Now you can join us in painting the world in good and evil, ascribe all good to your fight for revenge against the evil ones, and all evil to … duh! The evil ones! The godless inner-city thugs who want to rape your wives, mistresses, mothers, daughters, grandmothers. Etc. And best of all, no personal pain need be felt when you externalize it onto a hated enemy who is completely to blame while you are totally innocent.

A religion of conspiracy, a faith that explains everything you cannot understand and provides a simple, clear answer, to the burning question of why you feel so traumatized, why you are in so much pain. If you subscribe to our muscular, proactive theology, and march with the rest of us, you will soon be joyously trampling the evil enemies who brought all this hurt on you. And we will love you for it, and all live happily ever after, amen.

The End.

A Good Conversation (2)

Thinking more about a good conversation, the kind of talk we remember years later, it is the mutual readiness to listen, to really hear the other person, that makes these exchanges so memorable. In a world that famously doesn’t care about your feelings or ideas, it is a great comfort to experience tender care for those things from the person you are talking to.

“Your business is very important to us, please continue to hold…” the mantra of the modern industrialized world, reinforces our essential aloneness in an often hostile universe. Let’s face it, in a transactional culture based on material gain at any cost, we are just customers, manipulated with ever greater sophistication, who most often take what we can get, are allowed to have, if we can wrest it from others with more power. This eternal vying for advantage is the opposite of a good conversation.

In a good talk there is always mutuality. Something you raise reminds me of something I experienced. We compare and contrast, the things on one level very much the same, on another quite different. There is great nuance in our infinitely gradated world, we feel this when we are in a good conversation with someone we trust.

A bad conversation, on the other hand, is marked by caution, by obscuring certain things that would be necessary for an open exchange, by deliberately avoiding subjects, limiting the topics that can be talked about openly. These talks are exhausting. Because much is hidden, and both parties are trying their best simply to survive an uncomfortable exchange intact, there is little possibility for a beneficial exchange of ideas. At best, we “agree to disagree,” in that most odious phrase, since, in a conversation held in darkness, with light forbidden, that is often the only alternative to open hostility.

A good conversation is the opposite of a zero sum talk. In a zero sum world everything is measured by who wins and who loses, there is no middle ground. Life may not really be this way, but seeing it as zero sum makes it so. A clever construction, the zero sum machine.

If I concede to you that I was in the wrong, that diminishes me and gives you an advantage I can easily deny you by merely conceding nothing. Long friendships can be quickly killed if one friend reduces a conflict to a zero sum game. In the end, “I will prevail and you will lose, loser,” is a recipe for estrangement or consent to continue in a kind of living hell.

My aunt was a difficult woman. What I learned about her life explained a bit of why she was that way. When she became demented, toward the end of her life, she went through a Terrible Two kind of period when she was reflexively contrary. I visited her when my cousin was there, to prevent him from killing her as they organized the house to get it ready to sell.

One morning, entering the kitchen where breakfast was in progress, my cousin and my aunt silently eating, I said “good morning, Aunt Barbara”.

“No,” she said, her jaw set firmly.

My cousin and I later had laughs about this. Not good? Not morning? Not my aunt?

“No,” my aunt insisted.

Fortunately this Terrible Two phase eventually passed. As her dementia progressed my aunt became more and more docile. Sekhnet and I remember the last time we saw my aunt and her son together. He had his arm around her as they waved goodbye and turned to walk back into the nursing home where my aunt was now living. It was a tenderness we could not have imagined while my aunt was in control of her faculties.

It was a tenderness I’d experienced myself with my troubled aunt, decades earlier. Staying over at my parents’ place after some holiday meal, everyone else upstairs in bed, my aunt and I had one remarkably candid conversation in the late night living room of my parents’ house. The tenderness I felt for her during that talk, and for long after that talk, I cannot really describe.

A good conversation

My aunt, an often contrary woman my mother dreaded having to spend time with, a mother hated by the son she adored (she doted on him when he was a baby, anyway), was, to put it kindly, something of a pain in the ass. Growing up in a very small family, she was my only aunt. Her husband, my father’s brother, (the only sibling of either of my parents) was my one uncle. We saw them at holidays every year, and the gatherings were always electric with uncomfortable, crudely buried emotions.

My uncle, a smallish, slight man who looked like Stephen Colbert, often flinched around his much larger older brother. He’d laugh nervously after each flinch, remembering that they were both adults now, I suppose, but you could see his discomfort whenever my father moved or spoke in a certain way. My uncle had a corny sense of humor, a surprisingly effective disguise for a temper he kept hidden from me, somehow, until I was close to forty.

I’ll never forget his tour-de-force of raving tyranny one year when my sister and I went to visit him and our aunt. It was like watching a cute small dog suddenly lunge, teeth bared, at another dog’s throat, then another, persisting wildly until all the other dogs were bloody heaps. My mother and my first cousin, long wary of my uncle, were shocked that it took me so long to see this angry, dictatorial side of the mild-mannered fellow, but, as I said, he never showed any sign of it to me, until he did.

I am thinking of a good conversation, the remarkable meeting of the minds and hearts we don’t have very often. It is an exchange of honest reactions, where both parties are sometimes vulnerable and both are interested and open to learning something new from the other, if only how they truly feel. We always learn something in these kind of talks, if only that somebody else understands something we have only just started to be able to express. I had a couple of interesting chats with my uncle over the years, mainly about politics (we were pretty much in sync on our political views) but nothing I’d classify as a memorably good conversation. It was partly my uncle’s aversion to the personal, I suppose.

One night, in the living room of my parents house in Queens, everybody else had gone up to bed, and my aunt and I were in the living room. I was probably around thirty at the time. I’ve always been a night owl, my aunt and uncle were generally in their pajamas before ten. In fact, it was my uncle’s demand that we all get ready for bed at 10 pm, when my sister and I visited him years later as adults, that served as his first shot across the bow, the opening salvo of what the next day would erupt into full blown crazy autocratic rage.

In the living room of my parents’ house, on that quiet tree-lined street, my aunt and I had a remarkable conversation. I recall nothing specific about our long ago talk, other than the closeness I felt to my aunt as we revealed ourselves to each other. Knowing that she had the capacity for this kind of openness made me feel differently about her.

My cousin, when I mentioned this chat to him, always scoffed. To him his mother was a devious master-manipulator, certainly she’d picked up on and played off some vulnerability I’d shown her. Seeing the emotional opening, she’d sympathetically slipped in to ingratiate herself, to cunningly arm and situate herself for future harm she was already planning.

People do this kind of thing, pretend to care with their eye on some other prize, though I remain unconvinced that my aunt was doing that the night of that striking conversation we had. What I recall was how personal our talk was. My aunt told me personal details of her life as I shared details of my own inner life. We were on the same page, as they say (and for good reason).

I have an amusing, short anecdote about my demanding aunt, but it will have to wait. I am focusing on those rare, therefore precious, conversations we have with others that actually exert some change on our lives. They can be illusions, as the one with my aunt may have been (being a one-off, for one thing), but these conversations serve as reminders of what we can be, if we are honest, and open, and truly curious about another person’s inner life.

Seeking the essence of this kind of exchange, this emerging shared knowledge of something deeper, beyond the surface, every day world, is one big reason we read. It is also a gigantic reason many of us write.

Angry Punishment for Anger

This one hits me deep in my childhood — a furious reaction to anger. What do we learn from this lesson? The larger, more powerful party has the right to anger– you fucking don’t.

I’d never seen this maddeningly cruel dynamic set out more forcefully, or with more clarity and restraint, than Robin Givhan did in yesterday’s Washington Post.

Who has the right to be angry?

Anyone who has been hurt by someone they trusted has a right to be angry. The party who hurt them might be able to reassure them afterwards, placate them, apologize, make things right, but that is not the usual course of things — in my experience. An angry reaction seems to cause defensiveness and even more anger in most cases. Then it is a pure, adrenalized struggle for who will prevail in their right to be angry. This struggle is generally “won” by the more violent party, as when peaceful, shouting protesters against police violence are met with the overwhelming force of militarized anti-riot police violently dispersing them. Anger is explosive, your anger can ignite the adrenalized rage of someone who can bludgeon or even kill you to carry out their oath to protect the peace. You got a problem with that?

The defense in the Derek Chauvin murder trial has a very hard job. They need to convince somebody on the jury that Chauvin acted correctly when he kept his knee on the neck and back of a handcuffed man long enough for the prone man to lose consciousness, after the man pleaded for his life for seven agonizing minutes, and who kept the pressure up once the man stopped moving, then didn’t allow the dying man to receive medical attention. On the other hand, the defense only needs to convince one juror.

How do you do show that Chauvin acted correctly, according to his police training, when his actions seemingly killed a subdued misdemeanor suspect? By showing it wasn’t his fault, that things got out of hand, as well as by establishing arguably reasonable expert witness introduced doubt about whether Chauvin’s seemingly depraved actions contributed substantially to his victim’s death.

To show George Floyd’s death was not Chauvin’s fault, the defense needs to pin the blame on somebody else. In this case, a crowd of random bystanders, who were angry and abusive, and threatening, yeah, they were menacing, they refused to disperse when they were told the slow, torture death of yet another unarmed Black man was NOTHING TO SEE. Chauvin’s colleagues, who will be tried separately for their roles in killing a handcuffed civilian, prevented anyone in the crowd from intervening, prevented CPR on the seemingly lifeless man who was probably already dead on the street. The story their lawyers need need to sell is that the police feared for their lives, feared violence from an angry mob that gathered and surrounded them, and because of that reasonable fear, may have made innocent mistakes.

Leave aside the obvious fact that the police had the guns, the police had the ability to arrest people, call in reinforcements, helicopters and every manner of militarized support. But the angry crowd had them so rattled, you understand, that they didn’t realize they were actually killing the big handcuffed guy who had stopped breathing after they kneeled on him long enough. And as for the victim, he died of other causes unrelated to having the air supply to his heart and brain constricted for nine minutes and twenty-nine seconds. All you have to do, if you’re the defense, is establish a little doubt in the mind of a couple of jurors, even one.

If anyone had the right to be angry, the defense could argue, it’s Chauvin and his colleagues who were being disrespected by this irrationally angry, abusive crowd as they merely performed their duties the way they’d been taught to in the academy.

It reminds me of that bagpiping piece of shit Bill Barr’s smugness in continually blaming, and provoking, victims and protesters for their anger over regular “justified” police killings of unarmed citizens. It reminds me of anyone who provokes, out of their own rage, and blames the victim for being so fucking angry.

It reminds me of my own dear mother, shaking me by the shoulders when I was small, snarling “what did anybody ever do to you to make you so fucking angry?!” If I’d had the presence of mind as a kid, I’d have said “I don’t know, mom, maybe it’s my mother angrily shaking the shit out of me and demanding to know what I was so angry about?”

“She never laid a hand on you, you lying prick,” says the skeleton of my father. And as the doors open, I hop off this train, it’s become a bit stuffy in this car.

We were slaves

In a couple of hours Sekhnet and I will join a Zoom seder for passover. Passover is the holiday when we remember that we were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt, about three thousand years ago, and vow to be vigilant in fighting slavery and injustice everywhere. It is called Passover because, the night before Pharaoh finally let his Jewish slaves flee, all-merciful God Himself, and not the Angel of Death who usually does such things, entered every Egyptian home and executed the first born male child, even if it was a baby; He passed over each Jewish (in those days Hebrew) home and spared Jewish babies — hence “Passover”.

God knew which homes were Jewish homes not by His innate, all-knowing genius or the poverty of the slave quarters (apparently Hebrew slaves in Egypt did not live in glaring, barnyard poverty like our chattel slaves here in the US did) but by the mark over the doorway, painted in lamb’s blood, that told the Holy One that this was a house where the babies should not be murdered.

I have more than one problem with this story. Not the part about identifying with the oppressed, it would be a far better world if everyone cared about and worked to protect the powerless, the weak, the despised. It’s the rest of the story, it’s religion, it’s the maddening righteous double-talk and suspension of critical thought often needed to sustain faith in the infinite mercy of powerful forces we cannot understand. It’s the quiet bigotry that is almost impossible to resist when you believe God loves you more than he loves people with different beliefs. And, of course, there’s God “Himself”, the all-merciful Creator who shows his infinite kindness by killing babies to convince a stubborn king to change his mind, when it comes right down to it.

For purposes of discussing religion and ethics I always yield on the point of God, if it is raised. Sure, there’s a God, fine with me. It doesn’t really change the discussion much, from my point of view. The only way to defend a God who allows continual brutal suffering, atrocity and mass-murder is to devise a Rube Goldberg device that blames humans, we who abuse the free will generously bestowed by the infinitely loving God, to do bad things, things that break God’s heart. A pogrom? Lynching? Insistence that a violent riot to overturn democracy that injured hundreds and killed several was a totally “harmless” love-fest? Nothing to do with God. No, God clearly hates that kind of thing. It’s humans, filthy, sinful, stupid, vain, angry, blaming others, trying to blame God!

I may feel the same way about many humans. Surely a group who breaks down the door of a jail and drags a man out to torture him and kill him– fuck them. Pour out thy wrath upon them, O Lord, as we ceremonially ask God to do, at one point during the seder (the telling of the Passover story and the meal). But no wrath is poured out on them, it’s poured out on the guy whose burnt body is swinging from a tree and on the people who loved him.

We were slaves, subject to hard labor for the eternal glory of rulers who fancied themselves gods in human form. In later generations we were dragged out of our hiding places, tortured, burnt, anti-semites loved doing this on Passover, when groups of Jews singing were easy to find. Hard to remember and identify with these painful things, in your soul, when you live in comfort and safety.

I’m not sure that reminding ourselves every Passover of our duty to see ourselves as though we personally were liberated from bondage really does the trick of changing our behavior very much. It is certainly a good practice to always remember that it is only a roll of the cosmic dice that decides whether we sit in comfortable homes celebrating together or run for our lives to a crowded, disease-ridden refugee camp in Cox’s Bazaar, Bangladesh.

I know this — it is much easier to not have to flee for your life, or go to bed hungry every night, without shelter. It is a better life when you do not have to face the harsh realities that billions on the planet are up against. We should be grateful to live in comfort, free from hunger, violence and random acts of viciousness, the things that break all-merciful God’s heart.

These terrible things should also break our hearts, but our hearts are not big enough to be continually broken by these things, we could not live with the despair it would produce. We’d never stop crying, looking around at the way things are for so many here in the richest country in human history, in other places were billions suffer such unimaginably awful fates.

So, understandably, we take comfort in our comfort, our ability to look away from all this human pain we never have to directly encounter. It’s understandable, after all, God Himself is able to look away, always has, always will. It’s not His fault, it’s ours. There is no God but the God in each of us. But it is a lot to expect that God to be more godly than the God we praise, over and over and over, in the face of all this human weakness and misery.

Happy Passover, y’all.

Moral Clarity

The other day I took a swing at hurting an old friend who’d wounded me by taking extended advantage of my vow to remain mild, to the extent I can. I couldn’t get over how he’d abused my good will, how much it still hurt and how ready I was to hit him back hard, if metaphorically.

I understood that I needed to do more serious thinking about this final estrangement from a childhood friend, his ultimate betrayal and smug sense of righteousness were hard for me to take, I was still angry. He no doubt felt the same about me, that I’d betrayed his long friendship, which caused him to lash out at me. I wrote what I thought was a decently coherent kiss-off the other day, in one short sitting, and contented myself that he deserved no better, was glad to expend no more effort for a damaged former friend I’m done with.

Something nagged at me though. I recognized even as I wrote it that I was writing for myself, to clarify my understanding, and for whatever value it might have to a stranger who finds herself up against the same kind of abuse. My friend’s abusive “hard truth” style is quite common, and it can be subtle, always couched as highly rational, with your best interests in mind, merely sticking to the detailed facts of the case, being thorough, respectful and challenging, in a super honest way. This style casts the other person as the emotional basket case, constantly off balance in the face of multiple intellectual challenges, while, actually, the hyper-intellectual pose is a grotesque mask for a raging emotional incapacity. My father had this feature, (much to his eventual regret), I was forced to counter it every day growing up, I know it well.

Today I realized that my dashed off note the other day, the quick swing of a 38 ounce baseball bat, had failed to reach the essential part of the exercise — the moment of moral clarity that can only come from understanding and describing the action of the hurtful mechanism precisely, in a way that it cannot be misconstrued. This deliberate digestion of the causes of our own pain strikes me as the key to the process of learning and growing. When it comes to setting it out clearly, sometimes a ball peen hammer turns out to be the proper tool, impossible to see when you find yourself tightly gripping a Babe Ruth sized baseball bat.

So here is the thing that was finally so hateful to me. I’ll phrase the rest addressing Paul, who is the ultimate recipient of this elucidation, which I actually write for all of our use, though probably not for poor Paul’s. I belatedly take him at his word that he’s truly incapable of understanding another person’s mind, that he will never reach the level of basic empathy, and vulnerability, required to grasp this most important bit about friendship and intimacy. None of those things, of course, give him the right to act abusively toward others, but that’s another conversation. Here we go:

In the end I kick myself for my many attempts to “explain” myself to someone so limited in emotional generosity and so determined to be right at all costs. I should have seen the whole picture much earlier on, when you angrily challenged me to tell you to go fuck yourself when you called to confront me about an email you called “snide and inaccurate” (which, in the end, you conceded had not actually been inaccurate).

I am not naive about the wars between people, I have been in many, hold my own, survive. I’ve seen the identical song and dance at the end of a childhood friendship now at least twice, so I recognize its features. I remind myself that I shouldn’t have taken you at your word that our friendship was important to you and that you’d do anything to fix it. That was my fault, I repressed the knowledge, based on long experience, that you were emotionally incapable of dropping the argumentative persona long enough to empathize with a friend in an objectively aggravating situation.

You thanked me, at first, for my mildness in setting out some of the early ugliness between us and asked me again and again to show good will by re-explaining, if I’d be so kind, what I’d already set out clearly. All of the things I raised you left eternally unaddressed. You were intent, I suppose, on prevailing in the ultimate contest: to show that my life, my attempt to become a better person, was bullshit, that you were right — we can’t change, or remain connected to people we love for life. You’d prove, by the ugly end of things, that change is bullshit and so is weak, wishful faith in the better angels of mankind.

Finally you wrote to me hurt, felt I’d said very hurtful things to you. So be it. I was disappointed and very hurt myself, as I let you know the reasons for clearly, over and over, before saying those things that hurt you. In hindsight, I’d have done better simply telling you to fucking fuck off the first time you challenged me to.

The thing that sticks in my craw, and causes me to write today, is your final, madly negating closing argument, the diabolical doubling down — that you supposedly read everything I’d written, reviewed everything I’d said, and found “no clue” about how I’d felt, what I thought, what your possible fault could have been or why I was so cruelly unforgiving.

Let me be precise about why this “no clue” assertion was so toxic to me, after I’d given every clue, hint, anecdote and comment I had in several long, carefully edited no-frills iterations. Each time I yielded to your assurance that you were sincerely struggling to understand an emotional position I’d already explained as clearly as anyone could, I became complicit. Each time I tried yet again to clarify self-evident things, I was acknowledging that perhaps I had somehow not been clear. I’d been clear, and taken hours to be as clear as I was each time. Every time I struggled to further simplify and recast the same points yet again, I was participating in a vicious negation of my ability to be clear.

My father used to run this play all the time, making me state the same obvious concern five or ten different ways, insisting each time that I’d explained nothing while trying to distract me by angrily refocusing on my “rage”. In the end, one Yom Kippur when I was close to forty, I was finally able to patiently defuse this asshole gambit. He had to back down and admit he understood what I’d explained to him several different ways, over the course of a few hours. He agreed to tone down the hostility, though years later he triumphantly told me he’d only pretended to tone it down, proving his perennial point that people can’t change on any fundamental level. He “won” by effectively ending his relationship with the son he loved. A small price to pay, I suppose, for those terrible regrets he had on his deathbed.

With a brutal father, there can be a pay off, if you work hard enough, gain enough understanding and skill, and are able not to get sucked into the ugliness of a fight. With a contemporary surrogate for that brutal, implacable father, as we have obviously cast each other for decades (I see you as a bully, you likely see me the same way– a very self-righteous bully in my case) it is unlikely to work things out, the chances of any meaningful emotional epiphany are minimal. Peer competition comes in, back to our sporting days as adolescents, an unwillingness (or inability) to make ourselves vulnerable, etc.

In the interest of reconciliation, taking you at your word, I put my aggravation in a nutshell for you, more than once: there is nothing more frustrating to me than making a point, particularly in a contentious situation, and having only silence by way of reply.

Your reply was determined silence on every point I raised, you relied on an absolute right not to respond to anything you didn’t want to respond to. You kept resting on your right to engage no point I raised, yielded not a millimeter, except to allow that you still somehow didn’t understand why I was incapable of accepting your belated apology for whatever it was I’d felt you’d done.

And in the end, hurt, you provocatively claim I hadn’t given you a single clue, in all the thousands of words I sent after hours and days of careful thinking, writing and editing. It was a pure negation of my thoughts and feelings, my ability to make them clear, an extremely abusive act. Surely you’re already in a kind of hell for it, since you are clearly willing to pay the price my poor bastard of a father did to be “right”.

I pity you, in a way, but more importantly, I’m writing to process the lesson – it is self-destructive to keep showing good faith to someone you understand to be incapable of returning it. It turns out that even after doing a lot of work on the issue, one can be bullied and, thinking he is on some kind of high road, wind up unintentionally consenting to it. I do not consent to it and I recommend the same approach to everyone I know when someone tries to dominate them.

Unlike you, I believe in the potential of the people I love, our ability to grow and change. I’ve seen close friends evolve in inspiring ways, I’ve seen changes in myself that have kept me from the worst of things. I get better at not hurting [Sekhnet], for example. I’ve also seen my share of Noams, and Friedmans, quietly, implacably enraged people intent on, I don’t know what — prevailing, I guess, for lack of a better word. There are plenty of assholes to contend with on this planet of assholes, but there are also souls worth holding on to, and it is worth the ongoing work to learn how to live this way.

For what it’s worth, I do feel the bitter sadness of your worldview, you poor bastard.

Worldview and World (part 2)

Yesterday was the one year anniversary of an early morning drug raid in Kentucky, using a warrant based on outdated intel, that resulted in the killing of an innocent 26 year-old EMT named Breonna Taylor in her own home. The police who broke down her door and began wildly firing into the apartment were not charged in her death, though they left her bleeding with 8 bullet wounds for twenty minutes before any medical efforts were taken to save her (depraved indifference?). As she lay dying they were busy arresting her boyfriend, who fired once at men who broke down the door — men all but one witness said never identified themselves as police. The boyfriend recently had felony charges against him dismissed, after only a year. Remember, this deadly military style assault was to enforce Prohibition, Louisville police were there to intercept illegal drugs, though none were found. Although no police were charged in Taylor’s killing, scores of protesters calling for accountability for the officers and an end to “no knock” warrants, were arrested for, essentially, felony protest. Fair is fair.

Hard as it is to believe, your worldview will determine how you see the facts of this awful case. A good percentage of the country sees this killing simply as an unavoidable tragedy, something that couldn’t have been helped. Some will argue that Taylor’s boyfriend should not have pulled out his licensed gun when he was abruptly woken by the sound of men breaking down the door. Once he fired into the leg of one of the men, whatever happened after that was coming to him. The same people will defend the Stand Your Ground laws that extend the Castle Doctrine (you may defend yourself with deadly force against a deadly threat in your home) to anywhere and anyone you fear might use deadly force against you. A black kid walking down a suburban Florida street is fair game to shoot, as we have learned, if you can prove he scared the shit out of you.

It sounds simplistic, I know, to insist on a premise like all communal hatred resulting in violence flows from the same source. Or making the obvious point about the central role early life experiences play in shaping how we see the world, for that matter. It is beyond dispute that how we see the world, our worldview, not only influences what we believe and how we act, it creates the world we live in, to a great extent. All simplistic and self-evident sounding, I know. but I hope my rambling here will shed some light for us, somehow.

Take every situation where an enraged mob goes after a certain group of people simply based on the other group’s ethnic, religious, racial or political identity and rains living hell down on them. Lately it’s angry American fools bashing elderly Asians, shoving them to the ground, slashing them with knives, because they blame all Asians for the “Wuhan Flu”, as our former president, a big fan of tough talk and violence of every kind, dubbed it. How about that Nobel Peace Prize winner, former political prisoner turned prime minister, Aung San Suu Kyi silent on the mass killings and forced evacuations of hundreds of thousands of Rohingya Muslims in her country? Two million Tutsis, slaughtered by hand, in a short, bloody span of time, by machete wielding Hutus, another tribal group. Every “ethnic” massacre is a variation on the same theme. The names change, the victims and perpetrators wear different hats, the methods of killing change, but it’s the same thing, every time. Ever hear of “necklacing?” Hell of a technique, Brownie:

Necklacing is the practice of extrajudicial summary execution and torture carried out by forcing a rubber tire filled with petrol around a victim’s chest and arms, and setting it on fire. The victim may take up to 20 minutes to die, suffering severe burns in the process.[1]

source

How can one human “necklace” another human? Easy, apparently, given the right set of circumstances. For whatever reason, the mass killing of despised “others” is a regular feature of our common history anytime masses of desperate people get really enraged, particularly when they are encouraged in this violent group mania by their leaders. It’s always a very similar horror story, a few details changed.

I don’t know why the commonality of every instance of mass violence seems so hard to grasp, or why it doesn’t act as a kind of brake on these recurring slaughters. Every time I hear the next atrocity story it reminds me of the grappling in the media with the “question” of exactly why the insane guy with the automatic weapon went nuts and killed a bunch of strangers before blowing his own head off. It’s as if, perhaps this time, the insane “gunman” who went crazy and started massacring before he “turned the gun on himself” will be the first to have a brilliant, totally valid theory for his insanely violent act.

Seeing that horrific black and white clip of the guy in the cap dumping a load of jiggly, rubber human skeletons down a chute in the early 1940s did not instantly convince me of the commonality of all such massacres, (and we’ll stipulate that the Nazi death machine was unique in its scope, size and efficiency) but it had an effect on my thinking about the subject, my view of the world.

You see something like that as a child and it stays with you, changes the way you think about “solutions” that involve the mass torture and murder of our fellow homo sapiens. I think I would have felt the same way if the clip had been of charging Turks on horseback whipping wailing Armenian women, children and old people into a raging river to drown. How are those things different? How is either fundamentally different than a man with a gun and a badge nonchalantly kneeling on another man’s neck until the pleading, handcuffed man stops moving and then keeps his knee there until the man is dead? Each of these things is characterized by what the law, in an excellent phrase, calls “depraved indifference to human life.”

On a certain fundamental level, we are all taught to accept that war, and mass killing, are simply an unfortunate, but sometimes necessary, inevitable part of politics. A particularly muscular form of diplomacy, practiced at the behest of God’s imperfect but powerful vessels. The way we have been helping the Saudi royal family starve the people of Yemen, the poorest country in the Middle East, or our devastating blockade of Venezuela — a nation we are crippling economically during a deadly pandemic — just other, more coercive forms of diplomacy. Tally ho! These inferior people, given to a tyrannical form of government, or political beliefs we find repugnant, have simply got to learn to get with the program, we’ll gently starve them ’til they wise up!

Back to the personal, the place where “political” and “religious” beliefs, and “morality” are instilled. If your parent was humiliated as a child, as mine were, they will tend to see the world in a zero sum way. They can’t risk being humiliated any more, the possibility is too traumatic, and so they phrase every disagreement or conflict as a war that must be fought to the death. My father, as he was dying, said he always felt we could never have a real discussion of anything, he thought a fight was inevitable. He said that it had been his fault, because he lacked insight and saw everything in blazing black and white — a win-lose battle to the death. He felt every disagreement with his children inevitably led to a fight since he had never learned any other way, in spite of his education, sensitivity and group dynamic training, vast professional experience and highly developed mind.

In the end, as he was dying, it became important to him, as he reviewed his suddenly-ending life, to confront, out loud, for the first time, how crabbed and destructive his view of the world had been. It should have been as simple as “if you’re in pain, and come to me perplexed, let me listen patiently and try to help you instead of fighting you because I’m angry and afraid.” He realized that simple truth of being a decent human too late, as he apologized to me for the only time in his life. “I was wrong,” he said, also for the first time. Why did it take rapidly approaching death to bring these basic human realizations to him? Beats me. Tragic, truly. On the other hand, what a slippery gift he handed me right before he shuffled off and left me to close his dead eyelids with two fingers of my right hand.

There is really no risk to listening quietly to someone else’s pain, if you care about the person. It is often the only useful thing you can do for someone you care about when they are hurt, understanding how they feel. But to many people, the realm of feelings is always fraught and ready to burst into war. A war over who has the right to feel pain, how much pain is reasonable to feel, to express, how outrageous it is to pour out your troubles as though the person you are crying to doesn’t have even worse troubles! If you tell me I hurt you I am no friend if I say “that’s your problem, asshole.” There is a productive conversation, that starts with yielding to the other person’s right to be hurt, without fighting over how contemptible a worm he or she is to feel that way.

In the wake of my projectile vomiting after that searing Nazi footage from Let My People Go, my father was implacable. It was going to be a hard lesson to me. You see– you disobeyed good parental advice, your mother and I both begged you and advised you not to see what you can now never unsee, strictly for your own good, and now you want my pity because what I warned you about came sickeningly true? It’s good for you to remember next time, you contumacious little prick (yeah, look that up in that dictionary you like so much). And, by the way, seven is not too young to start acting like a man, particularly since you are so smart you don’t need anybody’s advice… (etc.)”

An understandable reaction, I understood it, even at the time. Still, not the reaction a child wants or needs. Understandable from a tit for tat perspective, but not from any other, really.

It is also tempting to repeat the treatment you experienced. This is a familiar tic of the victimized, do it to somebody else, as if abusing another victim will make you feel powerful enough to take your shame and hurt away. The way the more violent of the Ukrainians, recently starved en masse by an inhuman enemy, took it out on their own long-time, powerless, enemies when the opportunity to do so without repercussions presented itself.

I recall the vivid TED talk given by likeable neuroscientist Jim Fallon. He was a funny, mild-mannered expert in the configuration of the psychopath’s brain. He had his family tested at one point, and reviewing the brain scans, found one that was a classic psychopath’s brain. It was his own. He shrugged about it, even when his family and friends unanimously confirmed that he showed many traits of the psychopath. The fact that he didn’t flinch at the diagnosis proved that he had that moral nonchalance characteristic of the psychopath. He didn’t pretend to be upset. His point was that if someone with his brain configuration did not have their violence activated by experiencing or witnessing traumatic physical and psychological abuse during a certain early developmental window, they’d grow up to be people who lacked empathy, but who could also joke, be mild mannered, lead productive lives and never commit violence against anyone else.

Fascinating, if sometimes terribly dark, the way our views of the world are often formed by events early in life, before we know very much. I’ll hope to be on to cheerier subjects soon, boys and girls.

Worldview and the world (part 1)

When I was quite young, early in elementary school, I ignored my parents strong warning and sat in a hotel auditorium full of chain smoking teenagers (this was probably 1963) watching a movie about Jewish history. The movie was called Let My People Go, it was an argument for a Jewish state being the only solution in a world that was constantly trying to kill the eternally homeless Jews. The idea was that if the Jews had a state like every other nation, it would be a refuge that could be defended against all enemies. Without a state, it was always a matter of time until mobs could be loosed on the Jews — as they had been to murderous effect against most of my own family, just thirteen years before I was born, as I’d later learn.

My parents urged me not to see the movie partly because I was subject to terrible dreams as a boy. Looking back now, I see these dreams as an expression of my fear at being constantly attacked by a prosecutorial father and an emotional mother who generally followed the old man’s lead. Something about the hot seat I often sat in didn’t sit right with me, if I may put it that way. I was left to work out what was wrong with this picture in my fertile imagination, which expressed itself in nightmares back then.

My mother read me a book about Noah’s Ark, and turned the pages of the large picture book where I saw thousands drowning in the swirling flood waters, because they were wicked. I wasn’t consoled by the fact that God found all these millions of creatures wicked, I was upset about all the animals that drowned, every lamb, calf, koala bear, puppy, kitten, along with every child on the earth at that time. I was too young to think “what the fuck kind of insanely vengeful God is this who takes this kind of psycho revenge on evil humans by wiping out virtually all life on the planet?” I didn’t think “how come he spared all the aquatic creatures?”. I had a recurrent nightmare of drowning, especially during thunder storms. Eventually, one rainy day, my mother took me to Far Rockaway where we drove past homes built right on the ocean front. That probably helped.

I lost my fear of dying in another one of God’s angry floods, but then it was a scene from a Tarzan movie I saw one day on the little black and white portable TV with the rabbit ears. Jane and some other white folks were escaping from a tribe of cannibals who had tied them up. I don’t know how this could be true, but I recall vividly the moment when a hurled spear felled Jane from behind as she fled. Must have grazed her, I don’t know how else to explain it. Tarzan eventually saved the day but the image of that cannibal brute hurling that spear into Jane’s back as she ran for her life chilled me to the bone. It wasn’t Jane in my nightmares, who was getting the point of a spear between her shoulder blades, it was my mother. Who was throwing the spear? No idea, but who would do such a thing? Who ate people?

My mother took me to the library where she found a book about Hollywood movie making that had plenty of photos of actors, almost all of them white, being painted black and turned into cannibals for Tarzan movies. In one, a half-black painted cannibal is wearing glasses, reading the paper while a make up artist works on him. He’s smoking a cigarette. “You see?” my mother said, “it’s all fake. These people all go home to their own kids, it’s movie making, it’s fantasy, made up, not real”. I did see. I think it had an effect on my cannibal nightmares. The racist underpinnings of the Tarzan franchise, the nonchalant endorsement of colonialism and the scarcity of actual cannibalism among Africans, were not important to me at that time. I had a way to understand that I’d been sold a tissue of bullshit by a Hollywood movie and the dreams stopped.

“With Tarzan I could show you it was all make believe. This movie will show you things that are worse than any bad dream you ever had, and I can’t show you anything to make them go away because these things actually happened,” my mother told me with tears in her eyes. She cried as she begged me not to see the movie. But I was a tough guy and I insisted. She sobbed, my father attempted to bully me, but I wouldn’t back down so they let me have my way.

I remember a smug feeling as I watched the early scenes, stone carvings, etchings, crude drawings of brutality, somber narration. “This is nothing…” I remember thinking, once again my parents just being jerks, treating me like a baby. As the movie traveled from antiquity to the present day the images got more and more realistic, until there were photographs. That got my attention. “Are those people dead?” I remember thinking as they flashed a photo from the Age of Pogroms in Russia in the early twentieth century, The thought may have occurred to me, “Jesus, my grandparents came from Russia and they must have been alive by then…”

Then there were movies, which really got my attention. I’d heard of Hitler and there he was, dancing that insane fake jig I learned years later had been a neat bit of editing by an American or British propagandist who took a clip of a triumphant Hitler stamping his foot and repeated it several times to make it appear he was doing a mad victory jig. Hitler himself, as he wrote in Mein Kampf, had nothing but admiration for such hate and fear-inspiring propaganda tricks and, as he was sitting on top of the world after the fall of Paris, or maybe it was Poland, I’m sure he wasn’t much bothered by his weak enemies trying to make him look crazy.

I seem to remember my little sister there with me at first, but she was gone by then. All around me the smoking teenagers were crying. I wasn’t prepared for what I saw next. The perhaps ten second black and white film clip is seared in my memory as if it was put there by a branding iron. A short stocky man in a cap, with a cigar or cigarette in his mouth, is wheeling a gigantic wheelbarrow. The wheelbarrow is full of naked, jiggling, rubbery looking skeletons covered with skin. He comes to the edge of a gigantic pit, with a chute. He upends the wheelbarrow and the emaciated corpses wriggle down the chute. There was a cherry on top. The guy with the cap throws his cigar in after them and heads back for another load of skeletons.

On the soundtrack violins are weeping and wailing as this hideous action takes place. The teenagers around me are all sobbing. I make a run for it, through the cigarette smoke illuminated by the light of the projector. Make it up to our room in the hotel above, get through the door, see my mother’s crying face and immediately vomit my guts out.

In those moments the beginning of my worldview was sealed. Governments, like people, are capable of good or great evil. When a violent madman is in charge, millions of people will do whatever he tells them to do, no matter how insane. You can disobey the authorities, of course, but they will just torture or kill you, it’s nothing to them. None of us are safe, especially if you belong to a traditionally despised minority group.

As I grew older I was mystified and disgusted by the arguments victim groups seem to constantly have about who suffered the worst. Instead of all victims working together, somehow we became divided into interest groups, suffering lobbies. Blacks and Jews, once allies in the Civil Rights struggle here, wound up turned against each other. The argument over who suffered more is often bitter.

The atrocity of the slave trade lasted for centuries, it was an unspeakably dehumanizing horror involving widespread rape and murder and millions died after being kidnapped from their homes in Africa. In the US, after the official end of slavery, there was a century of white supremacist terrorism the US government did nothing about. There were frequent pogroms in which many blacks, including old people and children, were massacred in what were always misleadingly called “race riots”. There is still widespread racism against the descendants of slaves that half of the country is in violent denial about.

The Jews caught organized hell in Europe where, during a two year-period 1942-1943 virtually my entire family was massacred. It was history’s most prodigious act of mechanized genocide, millions killed on an industrial scale in a few short years. Jews have been hated for two thousand years or more, stubborn, proud, too smart, often defamed as deicides. killers of Jesus.

How are these things — the Holocaust and the Slave Trade — different in their essence? And there have been others, everywhere, just as horrific. What use is the infernal debate about whose suffering is worse? We all need to work together or Hitler and the Klan win, no? This has been in my mind since I disobeyed my parents and saw that awful movie as kid.

(end of part one)

Your Mother’s Anger

My mother, who as a girl, and even as an adult, had been brutalized by her domineering mother, was prone to flashes of anger. I learned to avoid provoking my mother’s outrage toward the end of her life. I was generally quite successful, but there were a few slip ups.

One happened not long before she died, in the narrow hallway outside the bathroom of her apartment in Florida, where the short hallway from her bedroom met the rest of the place. She had mentioned her anger at her daughter, and said she felt guilty about it, since her daughter had been taking such excellent care of her in recent years. She loved her, and depended on her, but there were certain issues that just made her furious.

I knew these issues well, from her point of view and from her daughter’s, both sometimes called me to vent. The stories were remarkably consistent, the major issue that drove each other crazy was constant. A good mediator could have helped a lot, their most common area of conflict was straightforward and seemingly easy to fix, but each was absolutely convinced the other would never go for mediation.

In an effort to reassure my mother about the anger she felt guilty about, I said that many mothers and daughters have such issues. It was fairly classic, it seemed to me, and I rattled off a number of these troubled mother-daughter relationships among people we knew. Believing that personal insight is the only key to interpersonal problem-solving, as I do, I misguidedly I pointed out that she had had ongoing conflicts with her own mother, in childhood and throughout the years I saw them together. My mother instantly flew into a rage.

“I had a wonderful relationship with my mother!” she snarled. We were standing very close to each other in that narrow space, her face turned red, her teeth were bared, she could have reached out and started choking me, if she’d been the violent type. I turned on a fucking dime.

“What do you feel like tonight, Lester’s or the Thai place?” I asked, pivoting as nonchalantly as Fred Astaire.

“Ooh, let’s have Thai,” she said, smiling in anticipation, and in great relief that I was immediately shutting the hell up about her difficult childhood.

That was the graceful end of my last attempt to shine any kind of light anywhere my mother didn’t want light shined.

It makes a cute anecdote, like a fortune cookie. Adroit son distracts angry mom with delicious bauble. It’s a little funny. On the other hand, it’s serious as the cancer that was eating at my mother in those final days.

Your mother’s anger?

She may never tell you the reasons for it, even those she knows well, preferring the painful, unpredictably rippling repercussions of repressing painful feelings, especially shameful, humiliating ones (who wants to feel that shit?) to laying out the many reasons she has to feel rightfully angry, especially laying this out to her children. It is the mother’s prerogative whether or not to give any insight into why she is sometimes short-tempered, or flies into a rage. She may know something about it, she may not.

I keep thinking of two of the luckiest breaks I’ve had in my life, both involving gifts of difficult honesty from people who loved my parents and cared deeply for me. The first one came from my parents’ best friend Arlene, when I was in my twenties. There was no doubt of their love for each other, there was never more spirited conversation, laughter and fun than when Arlene and her husband Russ were in the house. She took the trouble, during a long sunset walk across a beautiful hill, when I visited her after Russ died, to make me understand that my parents’ were basically unhappy people and that their unhappiness had nothing to do with me, though I undoubtedly, and understandably, blamed myself, since my parents always did. It was like Arlene had reached up and pulled a string to turn on a light in the darkness. It was the first inkling I had of a mature and beneficial understanding of my life up to that point.

The second lucky break, which I have written about many times, was my father’s first cousin Eli, who, toward the end of his long life, after many, many visits and long discussions deep into the night, finally revealing something that explained a deeply buried mystery about my father’s implacability. Eli and my parents loved each other as much as Arlene and my parents did. There was no motive on Eli’s part, as there had been none on Arlene’s, to in any way hurt or disparage my parents. These things were told to me strictly to help me understand a perplexing mystery they saw me wrestling with.

Eli told me, with limitless sorrow, that Chava, my father’s mother and Eli’s favorite aunt, a woman who loved Eli to death and who had always pampered him, had whipped my infant father in the face from the time he could stand. He’d witnessed it many times.

“How old was he when she started?” I asked Eli.

However old you are when you can first stand on your two legs, I don’t know, one and a half, two?” he said with infinite sadness.

If those two revelations had never come to me, I have no idea how my life would be today, after the rocky start I had. Arlene’s insight made me begin to realize that trying to please people who could never be pleased, who would always blame me for their frustrations no matter what, was a fool’s errand. Eli’s flooded me with sudden sympathy for my poor bastard of a father. It made me understand how hard he must have struggled not to do the same to my little sister and me, even as he used other means to senselessly punish us. I had to give the man a certain amount of credit, after learning about his own senselessly destructive whippings, for limiting his destructiveness to words and rage. He could have easily started beating the hell out of me when I defied him as an adversarial, highly skilled baby.

Eli’s terrible revelation let directly to me, a few years later, being able to fully understand that my father, a victim of unthinkable abuse, had done his best with the very fucked up hand he’d been dealt. He had to fight to the death, it was that or face the horror of his own mother shamelessly humiliating him from the time he could stand, simply for the crime of being alive. That was how he saw the world, anyway, a bleak place of constant war and unreliable alliances. Fuck. Think about how that kind of treatment from your mother would warp your sense of yourself, your place in the world, your role as a parent. Knowing about my father’s traumatic childhood was essential, it allowed me to finally let go of a lot of anger I’d been carrying around.

I know there are many people, though I’ve met relatively few, who had a wonderful relationship with both parents. To you I say– you are truly blessed, and surely grateful, as you would have learned to be from people who were also grateful for the blessings in their lives, including their children.

For virtually everybody I’ve met, usually one or the other parent was better, sometimes just by virtue of being less monstrous than the other. We are lucky to get love and admiration from one parent, or if not a parent, another adult we meet early on. Even in the worst of situations, we humans always look to rationalize a bad situation, especially when we are young, inexperienced, and at the mercy of things and people we have little hope of understanding. We need to develop this ability to rationalize pain or be destroyed. If it was your father who was more openly at war with you, welcome to the club, there’s half a world full of members. To those whose mother was the more ruthless caregiver, and there are many millions there with you, you have my sympathy.

My point here, as I struggle to clarify and fully understand the quicksand I am gently splashing in, is that, if my troubled life is any indication of what’s good or bad for anyone else’s, the more we understand, the more insight we have into troubling things that happened to our parents, the better our chances of resolving conflicts within ourselves that are utterly hopeless when everything remains resolutely hidden and all personal life is a matter of pretending that the shame behind anger and self-loathing is nothing. The formulation of those who hide this way is intolerable, but I will reduce it to a footnote, so as not to ruin an otherwise reasonable piece with a tell-tale snarl of my own at the end [1].

[1] The formulation of the abusive insister on secrecy, the provider and hider of shame, goes something like this:

“Nothing at all to see here, history is overrated. Shit happens, life looks forward, not backwards. The past is prologue to nothing. Trust me, just be happy, don’t be a judgmental, angry, vindictive person like your insane uncle. Don’t worry about your mother’s pain, your father’s. It helps nobody. I already told you, for the thousandth time, the check’s in the mail and I won’t come in your mouth, so stop struggling so much, would you?”