RAGE

by Stephen Jay Schwartz

 

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.

33 thoughts on “RAGE

  1. Chuck

    Hi SJS:

    What a powerful memory. Painful I'm sure. I will try to come and respond in greater detail, because right now I have two kids screaming at me with rage of their own.

    Man…strong blog today. I will be back.

  2. Reine

    Stephen- Such emotional fire. Our experiences, however awful they might have been, did something to our make up. We must use them, or mine them as you mentioned a few days ago. That, I think, is revenge and the rightful playing out of fairness. That we are able to mine our experience, as we see it through until it plays out its damage. Only as we use it does our rage reform itself as lived justice.

  3. Zoรซ Sharp

    Hi Stephen

    I'm constantly amazed at your ability to strip yourself bare to us. My rage is quiet, and boiling, and I hope it never does find an outlet other than my writing …

  4. billie

    Such an incredible rendering of what must have been a HUGE milestone in your younger life. It's so powerfully written I don't even want to write anything else – just want to sit here with what you wrote for awhile.

  5. Tammy Cravit

    Such a powerful, vibrant story! Thank you for sharing it.

    I remember my own moment where I made a similar decision, where I responded to my father's "my way or the highway" attitude by taking the highway (so to speak). Nothing near as dramatic as yours, but that moment was how I ended up in California, and on the life path I'm now following. It's been a wild ride, and in its wake I've been able to repair my relationship with my dad to a large extent, but that was definitely a day when everything shifted for me,

  6. Chuck

    Sorry about bailing on my first post…I'm back. As Zoe said, thanks for stripping yourself bare. This blog reminds me of one you posted when you were wringing your hands over the pressure of putting out another novel (which you did admirably), which has always stuck with me. The fact that you're so in tune with yourself can only serve to help you. I wish I were. Typically I'm not aware of my rage, my anger, my desires, until I'm ninety feet into the woods with a steering wheel where my teeth should be.

    Thanks again, SJS!

  7. MJ

    Outstanding post. Especially for someone on the verge of a rage moment at her office over boundary and "using" issues (hey, I know how it feels when the rage flows up from your feet to the top of your head!!!).

    You can always respect yourself for standing up for yourself. I have some close family members who never did that – they never got closure, or a moment of self-respect. Having the stress and the self-respect is better (if you can't win with a person, don't let them win based on inertia).

    I wish that your past, and all of our rough pasts, could be revisited and revised. But in the absence of that, that we heal.

  8. Louise Ure

    God, Stephen, what a history you have and what a writer you are. Up until now, I've held memories of how you treasured your father's medical bag. He seemed a kindly, country physician you who admired endlessly. Today you've opened the door to more of the story. And the continued importance of that medical bag.

    A small PS: how serendipitous that both you and Zoe have blessed me with pictures of Steve McQueen!

  9. Shizuka

    You've laid out your rage and your incredible empathy so bare on the page.
    It amazes me that you wanted your father's medical bag as a memento after
    everything he did. And that you can still feel love for him.
    All of that somehow comes out in your fiction.

  10. Thomas Pluck

    Steven, thank you for baring all there. My own life was similar, and it shows in everything I write.
    They say the hand that rocks the cradle rules the world, but in most cases, the hand that slaps the child, or isn't there to rock the cradle because it's off fondling its new wife, is the shadow ruler. It is the ultimate disrespect, and scars millions of young men who grow up with this same rage, and often no target, as the father is gone or someone he's never known.
    And as we know, bottled rage will find a target, whether its the one deserving the blame or not.

  11. David Corbett

    Stephen:

    When are you going to stop phoning it in and post something with some real heft to it?

    Shizuka touched on something that I think bears repeating: Despite the rage you so righteously capture and convey, there is also a wounded love in all of this and your other writings about your dad. That capacity to carry both of those emotional constellations and to express both not just well but simultaneously speaks volumes for you, not just as a writer but as a man.

    In fact, it may be that more compassionate twin who has stayed the vengeful twin's hands all these years. There is always something a bit self-congratulatory about rage, and a bit weak and helpless. That doesn't mean it's always inappropriate — I agree with you, sometimes it's the ticket. But afterward, the spell of guilt descends and there's a sense we were possessed by a demon you didn't really understand or recognize.

    I've paid the price for some over-the-top outburts of anger, and my brother has a terrible temper (he tried to kill me once in a fit of rage). My late wife Terri had a story taped on her wall, about the boy who lost his temper, and whose father made him drive a hundred nail into a fence, then take them all out again — so he could see the holes left behind. I left that up for years after Terri passed, because I know she put it there for me. That hurt, knowing she felt that way about me, knowing I couldn't make it up to her, but I needed to get the message.

    As I've tried to understand my own rage better, I find that it's the falsity more than the abuse that infuriates me. Your father's cowardly deceit and selfishness, his projecting his own narcissism on to you — that's what got to me as I read your post. And Bukowski's mother living in utter denial of her son's pain. It's crazy-making, and that insanity makes the pain all the more unbearable. You don't feel real, your pain has no public reality, it's a kind of living death.

    You feel something like it again when you grieve. The world moves on, you're stuck with this gutting sorrow. You feel not just out of synch, but slightly mad.

    But as i read your post I also thought of Phaedra and Hippolytus, the ultimate tale of the vengeful stepmom. Your dad's wife sounds like a piece of work. And maybe I'm mistaken, but I sense she was the ventriloquist in your dad's monologue.

    Okay, enough. I could talk about this endlessly, and maybe some day you and I will.

    Once again, stellar job, full of blood and muscle and heart. Thanks, cabrรณn.

    David

  12. Stephen Jay Schwartz

    Chuck – it's taken me over forty years to be in tune with myself. And I'm only halfway there. I wish it came easy. Reading the Bukowski helps, because the man wrote with honest vulnerability. He's a good mentor. Thanks for responding to the blog and for your meaningful comments.

    Reine – I always remember that quote about the perfect revenge is to simply write well. I think that refers to how we deal with editors who reject us, however. Writing does help to dampen the rage, but it's not as satisfying as a fist in the face. Maybe that's why "Fight Club" was such a popular book and film.

    Zoe – I think you've found race car driving to be a pretty good outlet, right? Although I don't know if you should unleash your rage while driving two hundred miles an hour. By the way – sorry if I stepped on your blog a bit – I posted mine a bit early because the last time I posted I couldn't get it to go up on time – so this time I stayed up until 1:00 am and force-posted to make sure it went up.

    billie – I love your reaction to my writing. Go ahead and sit there quietly. It's the best response.

    Tammy – When faced with a take it or leave it ultimatum, like the one your father gave you, the best way is to do exactly what you did. You are much healthier because of it. It's this kind of attitude that reminds me to tell my kids that I will always love them no matter what — my love is unconditional. Too many parents use "conditional" love to manipulate their kids. I commend you for striking out into the wild.

    MJ – great words of wisdom, thank you. I know what it is to have that rage in the office, too. My mind has been so much more clear since leaving the day job. I love how you describe the inability to stand up for yourself as "inertia." It's a perfect description. It took me a long time to learn how to establish boundaries…it took most of my life, really. So much time wasted to inertia.

    Louise – yes, I thought about that Steve McQueen photo and your response to Zoe's blog. I was waiting to spring that on you. It's interesting that you remember that medical bag and the feelings I expressed for my father in that earlier blog. There's so much dimension to our lives. Love and hate are forever entangled. Maybe this is why Bukowski couldn't beat his father. I've got so many stories about my relationship with my father…so many strange, sad observations. Someday I'll write a memoir and get it all off my chest.

    Shizuka – It's the greatest compliment in the world for you to say that the complicated feelings I have for my father somehow come out in my fiction. I have a close friend who is my father's age and when he read Boulevard he told me that I'm still dealing with my father's death. Yes, it permeates everything I write. Occasionally I take out that medical bag and go through all the devices inside. And I show them to my kids. I think they get a sense of him.

    Alafair – thanks for the compliment – it means a great deal coming from someone with your gifts and talents.

    JT – well, I wish I could channel it into a decent work-out routine.

    Alaina – thanks for the kind words. I hated those experiences at the time, but I somehow knew I'd be better for them in the long run.

  13. Stephen Jay Schwartz

    Thomas – I agree, too often that bottled rage is transferred to the wife or boss or, God forbid, the children. Passed down from one generation to the next. We're lucky we write, because we have a truly healing outlet to place this rage. And we actually heal through the process. We're rare, and fortunate.

  14. Stephen Jay Schwartz

    David – did you just call me cabron? I'm from New Mexico, don't think I don't know what that means, you maricon. You are absolutely right on the ventriloquism, by the way. There are so many more tales to tell about her, too. You hit the nail on the head. (sorry, I couldn't help that.)
    I love your comments, David – they are always incredibly insightful. I always can't wait to hear your response to my blogs because I know I'm going to discover something new about myself from your observations. You see so clearly. Your memory of Terri posting the story on the wall is heartbreaking – you have a way of conveying your sense of loss and regret that speaks directly to the truth of things. Every sentence you write is powerful. I'm looking forward to the day we sit down for that talk.

  15. David Corbett

    Cabrรณn isn't NECESSARILY derogatory. I and Luis Urrea and Joe Loya and some other guys I know use it as a kind of teasing endearment. I defer to the Urban Dictionary:

    Generally, this is an insult (though close friends can call each other 'cabron' with impunity, as long as they smile when they say it) (333 yes to 111 no)

    Sorry if I spoke clumsily. Maybe I should have stuck with homeboy.

    And thanks for the kind words, though methinks they're more generous than is deserved. Anything I give back to you, you've already given to me. That ain't bullshit.

  16. Stephen Jay Schwartz

    Davie – I took cabron as intended, as a derogatory endearment between friends. As is "maricon." I love you like the Mexican brother I never had.

  17. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Well, you made me want to kill him.

    David's right (maybe not so much about cabrรณn) – it's so crystal clear how he was projecting his narcissism onto you. Only I would call it "malignant narcissism". Horrible – but I bet it's made you a much more compassionate father.

  18. Stephen Jay Schwartz

    Alex – it's made me an unbearably compassionate father. My kids hear me tell them I love them about twenty times a day. I'm good with that. I think they are, too.

  19. lil Gluckstern

    Yes, Stephen, you touched a lot of me today. I don't think parents realize the impact they have on us, and how painful the relationships can be. I agree that your talent is to take all those feelngs to the page and produce the heartfelt character you have written. There is a quote that I will probably mis-state from Jung-the man who is angry, and the man who knows he is angry are a thousand miles apart. So, it helps to use that anger in a way that benefits us and our growth. (At least you didn't get a ticket.)

  20. Jonathan Hayes

    Beautiful, Stephen. Violent, urgent, raw, profoundly moving. If that had been fiction, I'd have wanted you to kill him. Or, at the least, beat him to a pulp.

    That's in part because I have a friend whose ex-husband (a well-respected doctor, coincidentally) lives the same banally evil lie, patiently rationalizing his selfishness and neglect of his original children so he can indulge his new young wife and kids.

    Really, sometimes physical violence is the only appropriate answer. Even though, of course, we all know that physical violence is never appropriate. Therein, of course, the challenge of civilization: it's always there, lurking under the surface, always the satisfying, forbidden response to emotional brutality.

  21. Judy Wirzberger

    Stephen
    I look forward to the time when you write of rage and I feel it is in your past, not your present.
    For years, I was a woman full of rage and lived in disquiet. The rage warped my perceptions and distanced me from peace and compassion. It allowed someone else to control my world. I watched the Jaycee Dugard interview with Diane Sawyer. She certainly has a right to be full of rage, but she chooses not to, not to let him steal any more of her life, not to live each day in anger, not to surrender her own power. Awareness of the evil the rage caused in me helped me choose. It flares once in a while, and after it passes, I realize how wonderful I feel without it.

  22. Stephen Jay Schwartz

    lil – I love your misquoted Jung. It's perfect. Don't worry, I misquoted Jung, too. My opening quote in BOULEVARD was attributed to Jung right up until it was time to go to print, and then my editor said, "We HAVE to know exactly where you found this quote!" and I searched and searched and ultimately discovered I had it wrong. Oddly, however, it is still attributed to Jung in the audio book. Oh well. And it would have been even better if I'd got that speeding ticket – it would have made my father incredibly embarrassed.

    Jonathan – I'm going to steal your opening line as a blurb for my next book, muthafuka! That was very nice! Boy, you said it when you mentioned the neglect of the original family to indulge the new wife and kids. I felt so left behind. No kid should ever experience that, and yet so many do. There should be a class for fathers who leave their "first kids" behind. There's no such thing as first kids – there are only kids. I feel sorry for the children in his new family, too, because they were victims as well.

    Judy – yeah, much of the pain and rage remains in the past. I tap into it when I need to, mostly for writing. I could use a little therapy, however, because I cry whenever I watch movies where children are denied affection from their fathers. I'm getting more and more sentimental as I age.

  23. allison Brennan

    You are one of the kindest, most generous people I know. Generosity has nothing to do with money, it has to do with doing what you can because you want to and you care about the others people in the world, not because it's expected. Our experiences all work for us or against us, the good and the bad, and you've chosen by the love you've shown your family and others that the weak father you had only made you a stronger, better human being.

    And there's probably a special level of Hell for women who manipulate and tear apart families.

  24. Stephen Jay Schwartz

    Allison, that was the sweetest thing in the world to say. Thank you so much.

  25. PK the Bookeemonster

    Very good post, Stephen. However if I may offer this:
    You didn't act out of rage. I've learned a lot about anger/rage from personal experience. Anger is just an emotional response to things not going the way we want them to. You were angry with your father for not being a better father.
    You acted as you did because you were standing up for yourself and knowing right from wrong.

  26. PD Martin

    Great post, Stephen. I think repressed rage has got a lot to answer for (from self-destructive behaviour to violence) and sometimes there can be a fine line between standing up for yourself and anger. Then again, I'm a person who sees mostly grey ๐Ÿ™‚

    Like you and the other posters, I feel so much anger when I hear about children not being nurtured, loved and protected. That really is THE basic parenting requirement. And I felt this frustration escalate as we were put through the wringer to decide if we were suitable parents (adoption). Of course I understand and know the system has to be thorough but it was hard at times when we were being judged by a third person – knowing this is not the process most people have to go through to become parents. I wonder if Bukowski's parents would have passed the tests?
    Phillipa

  27. Gar Haywood

    Holy shit. That's the only thing I can think to say. Holy shit.

    Let's forget about the experience you're describing for a moment to consider one question:

    Can this man write, or what?

    Stephen, you amaze me. 'Nuff said.

  28. Stephen Jay Schwartz

    PK – I've thought of that, too. That maybe it wasn't necessarily rage that I experienced. There were other times when I was extremely angry and I punched walls and windows (breaking them with my fists) and threw boulders around, often at my car. That all came from feeling that I'd been pushed against a wall by my parents. Someday it will be a memoir.

    PD – Unfortunately most parents do not go through a psychological review before being handed the keys to their childrens' lives. Bukowski's parents should have failed the tests. I've never gone through the process of being reviewed to adopt a child, I can only imagine have nerve-wracking it would be. Oddly, my father "adopted" a child and didn't go through any kind of review. But that's a strange and bizarre story which is better left for another day.

    Gar – thank you, my man. Your words mean more to me than you know.

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