2 June -- 14 Sep 1997

Sitting On An Angry Chair

Anger scares me. In me or in other people. Tonight a friend was in a foul mood while trying to install new peripherals on his computer -- one of the plugs broke while being unplugged, thus rendering the equipment, and much worse, the place it plugged into, useless without some heavy surgery. He was displeased.

Me? My reaction was basically fear, and the feeling that he must be placated, made to feel better, not just for him but for my safety. This is one of the gentlest guys I know, someone I miraculously never feel uncomfortable with. (Ok, so that just means the few times it has happened weren't all that memorable. Not like some of my ex-roommates who living with was just months of feeling uncomfortable.)

I don't remember the source of this. I grew up with two parents until the summer after fourth grade, when my dad moved out. I assume my parents probably fought (why else would they have divorced? why would so many of Mom's and my arguments include her saying "You're just like your father!") but I don't remember it -- in fact, I remember being absolutely surprised when they told me Joe was going to live somewhere else. I have a diary entry which includes the plea to God, "Please keep our family together," so it couldn't have been too bad for me before the separation.

After that, I lived with my Mom and we had the usual arguments, mostly. There isn't a teenager alive who's never fought with a parent; my lack of fighting with my dad is probably only because we haven't lived together in fourteen years. Mom and I disagreed on lots of things: the proper volume for heavy metal music (but not whether it was worth listening to, oddly enough. Mom's favorite band is AC/DC); what kind of clothes were cool; whether I should take the garbage out right now or at the commercial. I never thought much about these disagreements; it seemed like I could stand up for myself in them.

There were more serious ones. Should I take the bus halfway across the county to go to the magnet program for the academically talented in high school? I did, and my sophomore year of high school was over before Mom quit trying to get me to transfer to my zoned school. Why would a parent try to stop their child from excelling at school? Should I study French or Spanish in high school? I chose French, and Mom made it sound like that choice had condemned me to a life of working in McDonalds. Where should I go to college? When I was told I could get a scholarship to the state university forty minutes away, Mom said if I turned that down to go to a much more rigorous and expensive private college, she wouldn't contribute a cent to help me. A humongous threat to an eighteen-year-old who's never been a risk taker, because there was no one to help me pick myself up when the risks didn't work out. Even in college, the state one, she opposed my choice of major. In all but one of these big arguments, I stood up for what I wanted. I didn't try to placate Mom, because she was unplacatable. The strategy was to just ignore her if you could accomplish your goal without her help.

Anger was natural, then. Notes slid under her door saying, "I hate you!" Kids say that; my six-year-old half-brother said it to me a few nights ago when I told him he had to go to bed and no, he couldn't stay up and watch the next cartoon. Kids say it because they know how difficult it is for grownups to hear.

It's not Will's anger at me that's a problem; I know I haven't done anything bad enough for him to even care about it the next day. My anger at him, however, is another story. There comes a point when my yelling is not just because it's the only thing he'll hear; it would be impossible to express my frustration with him in calmer tones. When I scream to him that he's a little brat to his face and mean it. When I act as if I were a 14-year-old instead of his 24-year-old big sister. He bent my glasses; he's heard all my imperatives about going to bed right now as funny and asks me, laughing, to pick him up and take him after ignoring what I've been telling him at gradually greater volumes for several minutes now.

I don't have the authority with him that his parents do, and I don't know him well enough to know what the best way to get him to obey is. But he knows somehow that this level of yelling is over the edge, that his father's jokes about "Suzanne will slap you around a little if you don't behave" are getting perilously close to reality. I apologize, as I'm reading him a story, for calling him a brat. But I think I scared me more than him; he provokes his parents to a level of yelling that makes me uncofortable to be in the same room with, on a regular basis. I grew up in a quiet, single-child, single-parent household and I'm not used to the level of everyday noise and emotion and children screaming at being asked to interrupt Rugrats to go pick up their rooms. I don't know how parents cope with their own anger, and the way children can provoke it by being the selfish little beings they naturally are a lot of the time.

And in (supposedly) adult life, I don't know how to deal with anger with people and I don't know how to deal with their anger. Angry without having to face the source, not too bad -- I tend toward the sympathetic magic, writing the person's name on a piece of paper and burning it. If it worked, one of my ex-boyfriends would be dead several times over.

But face-to-face, I could only scream, and be yelled back at in more convincing ways that always seemed to demolish my arguments and insults, until I was saying something with only the tiniest grain of truth to it just so that it would be something that would hurt him. The fight I'm thinking of, I ran and locked my bedroom door behind me (and he did try the door) so that he could only take his hurt out on trash cans and recycling bins. I was always scared that next it was going to be me, even during normal times when we weren't fighting, as this was a guy who quit the school paper rather than be fired after taking a swing at the editor. He had been sweet and thoughtful and calm when I got to know him, and the story of that job seemed far in his past -- it only came back to haunt me and fuel my fears a few months into the relationship.

But unlike Will's anger which goes away so fast, my ex (which he already was by the time of this fight, though we remained roomates for laziness of both of us) stayed angry. Refused to clean up the trash all over the kitchen floor from the can he had overturned, because he felt "justified" in doing it because I had implied that he was like my grandfather. (Not in any specific way, just that he reminded me of my grandfather.) Whereas I felt it was childish of him to not clean up that which he had overturned -- it was his kitchen too. It stayed that way for three days, a battle of wills.

That fight sticks in my mind as probably the worst I've ever been in, though I don't even remember its beginnings. I could have hit him then myself, but I had no desire to get close enough to present a possible target. I rarely wanted to get close to him under any circumstances by the end of the relationship -- his strong arms always refused to let go and I felt like I was in a trap.

He felt unstoppable, too powerful for comfort. It takes some kind of power over me to provoke that kind of anger or the fear of someone else's anger. The family members, the boyfriends, the close friends, the bosses. The power is probably the source of the necessity for placation of another, and also my fear of my own anger -- what will the person at whom I've shown anger DO to me for showing it? Better to burn papers, to dance to thumping songs which let the body express the anger without the dangers of involving the mind or any outside being.

These thoughts on why anger in the world may be unsettling to me are new, and I did not have them, did not know this hypothesis, until I wrote the final paragraph of this essay. They may not change the world, but then again they may. Certainly the world would be better without insults and overturned garbage cans.

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