Lately Stanley has grown quite wild. The Man began to feed him at the table, a no-no for many years, and Stanley began to run around us as we ate dinner, whining enthusiastically for us to finish eating. I knew things had really gotten out of hand when I gave him a treat one day after our walk and he bit my hand. There was nothing aggressive about it, just a too-eager dog out of control.
It was time to impose martial law. I soon got him to lie down at the other side of our dining table each time we ate, as he had done for years. He went back to sitting before getting a treat, taking it gently from my hand as he used to.
Today I thought back to how I grew up. In my family there was both verbal and physical abuse, and I learned at a young age to hide in my room at certain times, to hug the walls when I emerged, and stay very, very quiet. When you grow up in the shadow of violence of any kind, the habits of survival that you acquire, not to mention the reactions, can stay with you a long time.
I was married twice, and both husbands were quite surprised by the sudden rages I could get into and the things I said. When they told me this I’d look at them in bewilderment. “What anger? That’s not anger, that’s being honest.” And then I would add, “At least I’m being authentic. At least I reveal my true feelings.”
It took me a while to understand that there is nothing particularly authentic about anger. There is nothing particularly truthful about melodrama.
Over my life I have had to work long and hard with these patterns. Even without physical violence, I am very aware of the fear that comes up when, as a child, you’ve lived in the shadow of anger, incessant blame, humiliation, insults, and bullying.
For many years I worked in an organization where the IT person, let’s call him John, was a big, heavyset man with a booming voice. It was the birth of the computer age and most of us knew little about computers. Part of my job was to train a few others. They had much less education than I and were sure the big square Apple box would explode if they pushed the wrong key on the keyboard. The system was old and slow, it didn’t take much for it to go down, and anytime that happened or the program froze, John would come crashing down the steps, bellowing: “OKAY, WHAT HAPPENED? WHAT DID YOU DO THIS TIME?”
“YOU FUCKED UP AGAIN, DIDN’T YOU?” he’d yell while standing at my desk, just two feet away from the trainees and me. “GET OUT OF THE WAY! YOU’RE GOING TO FUCK EVERYTHING UP, JUST GET OUT OF THE WAY!”
The trainees, all women, almost peed in their pants from fright. I’d try to calm them down, placate John, make a little joke, but they were terrified. On a subtler level, we were all terrified. Very few women like to face down a man who has a foot advantage in height and at least 75 pounds in weight yelling and bellowing, his big arms going in all directions so that he might well hit you by accident if not on purpose. And still we’d defend him: “He doesn’t mean it,” we’d tell the others. “That’s just how he talks, he won’t do anything!”
The men who were there grinned and made jokes. They were far less nervous of him than we were, though now, years later, I wonder if that was really true. I also wonder whether men understand how the difference in size between a man and a woman, even a man not built as big as John, can result in fear and intimidation, a life lived in the shadow of bullying.
That’s how we lived, day in and day out. John was good at his job and that’s all that seemed to matter. No one called him out on his behavior, no one pointed out that not only was this unprofessional, it was humiliating to all of us as we scurried around him trying to placate him and make things okay. Even worse, we got used to it. One can get so accustomed to living in the shadow of bullying and the threat of violence that you soon think there’s nothing wrong.
It all came back to me this past week when a friend told me of threats of violence she encounters at home, with which she has lived for a long time. How many people also live or have lived like that, have indeed taken it for granted like the sun in the day and the moon at night? They may not kill themselves as some teenagers do, but they feel small and that life is hopeless. At times they flare up and find someone they can intimidate back; otherwise they remain quiet, hidden, hoping the shadow will pass.