I’m not suggesting that rage is the healthiest way to deal with your problems. In fact, it’s probably pretty high on the list of worst options out there.
Rage isn’t for everyone. But there was one time, just once, when it felt just right.
What got me thinking about this, what brought the memory back, was watching the Charles Bukowski documentary, Born Into This, and seeing Hank (they called him Hank, Charles was his pen name) visit the house where he grew up and was forced to endure his father’s violence. From ages six to eleven Bukowski was beaten with a razor strop three times a week. His father gave various reasons for the beatings, but most times it was justified because Hank had allowed a single hair of grass to stand above the rest when he mowed the front lawn. His father would lean into the grass and study his son’s work with a ruler, then stand up, excited, yelling, “Aha! You missed one!”
He was six years old when it started. His mother stood in the doorway, watching his father beat him until he cried, until he bled. When it was over, he asked his mother why she didn’t try to stop it. “The father is always right,” his mother said, and walked away.
I’ve read this account in interviews with Bukowski, seen it in documentaries, watched it unfold in his novels, which are highly autobiographical. All I can say is…no wonder. If you’ve read his work, no wonder.
It fills me with rage. Bukowski never really got back at his father, except for the one time when he was around sixteen and his father tried to force his face into his own vomit on the floor, “This is the way we teach a dog not to shit in the house,” and Hank turned around and punched him, knocking him to the floor. His mother lunged at him, yelling, “You cannot hit your father!” She scratched his face with her nails until he bled. He left after that.
I keep wishing he had done more. I want vengeance. If I were writing this in a mystery novel I’d have the teenage boy tie up his father and beat the man so hard he’d be maimed for life.
Fiction allows us to live out our fantasies. The real world is complicated. Hank never did beat the living hell out of his dad. And, in his poetry he says, “later in life I made him pay somewhat. but he still owes me. and I’ll never collect.”
Bukowski never got the closure he sought. There’s tremendous anger when he writes about his father. Every time I read his work I see it. It makes me see red.
I’ve had a few rage moments in my life. There was one that stood out, however, for the good it did. For me, at least. I’ve never regretted it and it gives me a sense of satisfaction to this day. I don’t know what the therapists would say. I guess it depends on what school of psychology they practice.
It happened when I was seventeen years old. And it involved my father as well.
My parents divorced when I was fourteen. My father, a pediatrician, left my mother to marry his nurse, who was ten years his junior. They had been secretly seeing each other for six years before the split. In the divorce settlement my father said he would send me to the college of my choice.
When the time came my father reneged. My mom fought back, which prompted my father to try a different tactic. He invited me to lunch.
I pulled up to his pediatrics office and he peeked in my car window and suggested that he do the driving. He wanted to drive his new Mazda RX7. He used to have this old 280Z which I loved and I asked him if he would sell it to me when he bought something else and he said, “No, I don’t want you driving that car, it’s too dangerous.” So he traded it in and got his hot little RX7. I ended up purchasing an old Mustang for $500. It broke down consistently every other week. One of its deficiencies was that it lacked handles to open the doors from the inside. You had to find the little metal device I left on the floorboard and slip it into a mechanism under the arm rest then jiggle it until the thingy caught and the door popped open. It was a pain in the ass, but you got used to it.
“That’s all right, dad,” I said. “I’ll drive.”
He stepped into the death-trap warily and closed the door. I followed his directions to the restaurant he’d chosen. In all my life I’ve eaten in very few actual dives. I did have one favorite joint where my room-mates and I ate during college; a greasy place where a decent scrambled egg and toast could be had for under five bucks. The restaurant my father chose was worse than that.
We sat in a booth and ordered whatever. I don’t remember the meal because I never touched it. The moment the waitress left our side my father began.
It was a long, rambling, monotone speech. The words came out rehearsed, dull, orchestrated. They weren’t his words. He’d been coached. It hurt him to say the things he said; I could see it in his eyes. But his eyes didn’t stop him from saying it.
He said things like, “You’re being selfish, Stephen, wanting to go to college out-of-state. You’re being selfish for making your mother take me to court over this. It’s time for me to be selfish. I’ve always done what others have expected me to do and now it’s time for me to do what I want to do. I really don’t believe you’re doing everything in your power to keep your mother from taking me to court.”
It went on and on the things he said. My mother wanted to take him to court about the college thing but I wasn’t on board. Her lawyer said I’d have to testify against my father on the stand and I wasn’t about to let that happen. And yet my father blamed me.
When he left my mom he moved in with his lover whom he married and was suddenly father to her three young boys. I don’t know what had become of the fathers before him. After he left, my dad said he wanted me to move in with him and his new family.
“I have everything I ever wanted now, except for you,” he said.
“My mom has nothing now, except for me,” I answered.
“She has that house,” he corrected. Yes, she had the house that she would sell and it was her life insurance policy for the next many years.
And then he offered me a deal. He would buy me a new saxophone if I came to live with him. I was using an old Conn alto sax and it was pretty good but I couldn’t really hit the high or low notes and it was beginning to hold me back. I could have used a new horn. Even then, though, I knew this was wrong. “I can’t believe you’re trying to bribe me with a new sax,” I said.
At that moment I knew what it was to lose respect for your father.
After I rejected his offer he made a decision in his mind. He figured if I wasn’t trying to be part of his new life then he didn’t need to be part of mine. I know his wife was instrumental in helping him arrive at this conclusion. It made it easier for him to say the words he said later, when I was seventeen, at the restaurant near his office.
He droned on and on at the restaurant and I noticed the other diners growing quiet. I saw them silently chewing, placing utensils gently onto their plates, trying not to miss a word. I felt their sympathy in the curves of their backs and their sideways glances and bowed heads. He continued talking but I didn’t understand what he was saying. It was water over rocks. I floated up and away and saw us both from above. I saw my father balding at the top, speaking his monotone speech to the boy slumped in his seat, staring across the table and not seeing a thing.
And still his words came out. They rolled on and on, hitting the points he had practiced. This was not the man I knew. I remember a doctor who loved his patients, who loved other children if not his own, but I also knew him as someone struggling to love and not knowing how. He was a child in the world, he knew nothing of its ways. He fell for every scheme, invested in every stupid venture, believed every advertisement. He was too kind and trusting and there was always someone around to take advantage of his naivete. Sometimes that someone was a woman.
At once it came to me. He didn’t have to play the victim. He didn’t have to agree to be manipulated. He could have turned to his wife and said, “No. I will not do this. This is my son.”
I decided I’d had enough.
I felt it rise from my feet, into my legs and my gut. I looked into his hurt eyes and heard his soft-spoken words and I felt the rage rising higher, into my chest, my arms, my back, and when it reached my head I stood up.
I walked away. I left the restaurant. I looked back and saw my father nervously paying the check, hiding his face from the diners around him.
I went to my car, my five hundred dollar Ford with the doors that didn’t open from the inside. When he came out I had it idling. He opened the passenger-side door and sat down. I didn’t wait for him to close the door or buckle in.
I took off.
I was a pretty good driver at seventeen. There wasn’t much to do in New Mexico, but drive, and when you had an old Mustang with a V8 engine you could really open things up.
I took that car to seventy, turning corners, hearing the bald tires squeal through intersections and stop signs. I saw my father’s shaky hands struggle to pull the seat belt over his shoulder, to force it into its latch. I smiled to myself, I knew that seat belt was a bitch.
I worked that fucking car like Steve McQueen in Bullitt. The moment was mine, and it was beautiful. From somewhere off to the right I heard the sounds of his whimpering, or yelping, or protestations. It sounded so much more alive than the speech I’d heard at the restaurant.
I returned my father to his office in less ten minutes.
I came to a hard stop. He stuck his hand where the door latch should have been, his fingers fumbling wildly under the arm rest in a desperate attempt to escape.
“You have to use the little metal thing on the floor, if you can find it,” I said quietly, calmly, a little rehearsed. He finally stuck his hand out the window and opened the door from the outside. He leapt out and turned around to face me.
“You’re terrible! You’re selfish! I’ve never seen anyone so self–“
His words were lost in the sound of the gunning engine when I hit the gas, his figure disappearing in a puff of swirling, black smoke. I saw him there for a moment, the well-respected pediatrician standing in the parking lot of his office building, shaking, screaming at the dangerous boy in the not-so-dangerous car. There were patients leaving their cars, heading to his office, observing the scene like the diners at our restaurant observing mine.
I had other moments of rage as the years went on. But he never saw those. They were directed inward, anyway, and didn’t have quite the same dramatic effect.
But that day in the car was magic. It felt right. It was me sticking up for me. It felt like it was enough, maybe enough, to make up for all that would come.
Bukowski had it worse. Beaten with a razor strop from ages six to eleven. And all he did was throw a punch, in the end, to knock the man off his feet. If it had been me…
But we never really know what we’ll do in a situation. Bukowski did what he could and internalized the rest. It made him the writer he became. “It was great literary training,” he said. “The man beat the pretense out of me.”
I hold my rage in my heart, sometimes right near the surface, and I use it when I can. I tap it for my writing, when the time is right. Like now.