When I was small my mother made my arms red with Indian rub-burns, gave me a bottle-brush of tiny pigtails with rubber bands that pulled half my hair out, brushed that hair with a wire dog brush, using both hands to dig the steel pins into my scalp. “Isn’t that brisk? Don’t you feel invigorated?” When I got bigger she stopped touching me, and I was kind of glad.
Dad beat me with a strap a yard long and an inch-and-a-quarter wide with a spring-loaded clasp at one end. It was used to bind stacks of magazines together before it was used on me. Not often, but the thought of it was always there. I was never able to predict when the beatings would come or what would provoke them. When I was four, Dad beat me so hard he gave himself a blood blister. We all thought that was hilarious—you can still get laughs in our family by bringing that one up.
These beatings never sent me to the emergency room, but Mom and Dad discussed it a couple of times. It was as though I wasn’t in the room as Mom clinically assessed the battlefield of my ass.
The beatings that sent me to the hospital came from my peers at school. Nobody seemed to think anything of this until I had my arm broken, and my teacher and one fellow student seemed angered. I still think of them as allies.
When I tried to talk to my mother and grandmother, they told me to accept my beatings. If I hit back, I would lower myself to the level of those who attacked me. Jesus, Martin Luther King, and Ghandi were held up as my models for dealing with street violence.
Dad offered me money to get into fights, so much for a black eye and so much for a bruised knuckle, and I made a few bucks off of him before he got tired and decided he’d forgotten about our deal.
In the fourth grade I saw an article in National Geographic on the piercings, flagellations, and other grotesqueries surrounding Easter celebrations in the Philippines. I had to prove to myself that I could do what they could do.
My parents were out. While my brother and sister watched TV, I pressed a needle under the edge of my thumbnail until I couldn’t stand it any more. I sat and breathed until the pain was tolerable, then pushed the needle until I couldn’t stand it anymore, then breathed with the pain.
After a few hours, the skin on my thumb-tip tented as the needle emerged. No one would hold my body hostage against me again. It was disposable. At school, I ignored or invited pain from those who bullied me, and they backed away.
Loathing—disgust tinged by fear—was my first effective weapon.
I realized I had no more respect for other people’s bodies than my own. I became one of the violent people. I went from creepy to vicious, but until fourteen I regarded myself as a victim.
Then I threw Mom across the kitchen.
Our kitchen was long and narrow, with the hallway and door to my bedroom at one end and a rack full of pots and pans at the other. Mom had confronted me about my grades while I was washing dishes. I received terrible grades because I had been taught no study skills and received no academic support. I cut school out of self-defense. And there was no reason for me to expend my energies on anything beyond my immediate responsibilities to those around me—life was a burden to be endured, not a challenge to be met.
Mom did not want to understand. Understanding would oblige her to do something, and she wanted me to make the problem go away. So I turned to my room.
Mom got in front of me and asked why I didn’t love myself.
I picked her up, threw her, and opened my door without seeing her land. When I heard her hit the pots and pans, I turned to face what I’d done. I’d never wanted to touch her in anger before, never considered the possibility. I tearfully apologized.
She didn’t seem that surprised. I don’t think that was the first time someone had done that kind of thing to her.
She wasn’t the only one I hurt. My brother, sister, and friends all came in for their share. Each incident left me shaking with guilt that still falls on me in the dark hours of the morning. How thin my mother’s arms felt, how I turned away from her while she was still in the air, the sound of pots crashing against one another on their way to the floor.
But I never hurt anyone for pleasure. I never hurt anyone more than once. And after six or seven incidents, I was able to get my behavior under control. If I was upset enough to attack someone, I’d cut myself or break a knuckle punching a wall instead.
My last fight came when I was sixteen. A kid my age who had a gang with him gave me a hard time. I returned it. He knocked me down, climbed on top of me, and punched me in the face. I put my finger in his eye, my thumb in his mouth, and pinched. He asked to be let go.
I let him go. I’m pretty sure he was okay. The eye is not a vulnerable jelly, but a tough little sac of gristle. I never heard anything about it later. And I haven’t been in a fight since then. Two more years of high school in Richmond and then out into the world and no more fights. Ever.
Let me give you an example of the kind of fight I don’t get into.
This was in Santa Cruz. I’d lived with Steve for two days when I found his house was where people came to do drugs. Meth, coke, heroin. The classics.
Steve injected cocaine. He was at the end of his financial cycle, and his ripoffs had grown completely bald. He lied to his friends about scoring and walked away with their money.
It was a clear spring afternoon, cool salt air blowing off the bay. I was curled awkwardly in my caved-in single bed. I was trying to figure out how to get enough money to move. I’m not good at money, so I wasn’t happy. There was a knock on the front door. A bam-bam-bam ‘no more of your bullshit’ knock.
I got up.
Pulling back the curtain over the glass panel of the front door, I saw Troy, a furious dude with a blonde handlebar mustache. We’d spoken before, were friendly enough. Now Troy was on Steve’s porch with a chain in his hand. It wasn’t even a bicycle chain, just links from a spool at the hardware store. Like he’d bought it for the occasion.
There were three people behind him, more of Steve’s junkie friends. Two chains and two sticks, and me in my sweatpants.
“Just a minute!” I said, and went to the kitchen. Looked under the sink, and there was my baby. A beautiful fully-loaded can of Easy Off oven cleaner. I went back to the hall, and set the Easy Off down on a table out of sight of the door.
I opened the door and stepped forward until Troy stepped off the porch. I said, “Hey, dude, what’s up?”
Troy said, “Where’s Steve?”
I said, “I don’t know, I haven’t seen him since I got home from work.”
Troy rattled his chain, and I think he was encouraging himself. “Steve owes us money. We’re gonna stay here until we get it.”
I smiled thin like a lizard and thought about whipping out that can of Easy Off, getting him right in the eyes, his friends screaming. The caustic foam would stick like napalm. If they wiped it off, they’d lose the skin on their hands. That all went into my smile.
Most people have to bluff their way into a fight. I do not have any bluff, and that is not something you can fake or hide.
I said, “Listen, I’ve got work in the morning. I’ve got to be up at five. And if you guys are beating around the house, I’m not gonna get any sleep. You want me to give Steve a message?”
“Oh.” Troy paused. I grinned openly, waiting for him to start the fight. Troy met my eyes briefly, looked down as if ashamed. “Well, just let him know we came by, okay?”
“Will do. Y’all take care, okay?”
Troy said, “Yeah, you too. See you around.” His friends all nodded, reflexively friendly as they said good-bye.
A couple of days later Steve and Troy were hugging and crying and apologizing. The junkies did a lot of that. Still later, Troy did what all the rest of them did and came into my room in the middle of the night and told me his fucking life story, a full confession.
A few years later, I was forced to confront my habit of self-injury. My second girlfriend provoked me while I was cleaning the kitchen. I slashed myself three times with a chef’s knife. When I saw her reaction to the muscle visible through my parted skin, the blood running down my arm, I knew I had to change if I was going to live with people.
So I changed. Now I see self-harm as displaced violence toward others. I minimize. I control. And the woman who provoked me to cut myself? We have been together more than twenty-four years. The news calls our neighborhood Homicide Central, but she feels secure with me in the house. Her Rotweiler boyfriend.
It’s like owning a pickup truck—you get used to having people ask you to help them move every once in a while. Recently, a friend asked me for a favor. She was shy about her request, and when I finally got it out of her?
She was helping a friend prepare a house for sale. The house was for sale because someone liked assaulting people at that house more than they liked taking their meds. People had been attacked often enough so that it was a pattern rather than a series of incidents. The cops had been consulted. They said get a gun, and move.
The cops were very sorry about this. So the owner of the house came to my friend. And my friend came to me.
Standing in the pale honey of the late summer sun, I breathe the clean floral air of the hills and watch the street, one open driveway, one front gate, watch my friend’s little dog on his sallies and inspections. I have noted the brambles and brushpiles, the light fixtures lining the walks and driveway, the heavy stone planters and the low-lying branch.
But none of these are magic the way the Easy Off was magic. I find magic in an unheated pool with no diving board. It’s set back from the street, surrounded by buildings and fenced gardens. No one can hear anything that happens back there. If I can get him within ten feet of the pool, I can get him in the pool. Then have my friend go out by the curb and call the cops and wait for them. The cops said they would not respond quickly to a situation up here. And they said to use a gun for this job.
I just won’t let him out of the water. At first it seems like a joke. Then he starts to feel the cold and really wants out. A little later he’s got the shivers from hypothermia. After a while, he won’t be able to climb out by himself. All it takes is waiting and a patient little shove every time he gets close to the edge of the pool.
There’s a rake I can use.
The violent man isn’t here today. If he is here, he’s going to stay away because he can see me. And if he does come onto the property? I will stand in front of him and speak courteously. He will look at the shimmering blue in my glasses and smell the chlorine on my breath and he will apologize and go away. Nothing will happen.
Nothing ever does.