A History of My Violence to the Ones I Love
Silas Dent Zobal on Learning to Hit and Hitting Others
We were yelling at each other, me and my girlfriend. We were in upstate New York, in the living room of a first-floor duplex, and all the walls felt close, and the blinds were open but it was dark outside. We shoved each other and said awful things, some of which were true. It was late at night and it was early summer and hot outside and we’d probably been drinking—I can’t remember. We’d been together eight years and we loved each other. She thought I was sleeping with someone else, but I wasn’t sleeping with anyone other than her. Goddamn it, I sputtered and denied and my indignation was overblown because I was thinking about sleeping with someone else. And things got worse and worse as things do.
Sometimes when people argue, one of the arguers has an impulse to say or do anything he can to make the other person angrier. It doesn’t make sense. It’s as if, by some perverse logic, the person who becomes the angriest automatically loses. Maybe this was my girlfriend’s impulse when, between the yelling and the pushing and the saying awful things, she picked up the phone and called the girl she thought I was sleeping with. She said something into the receiver and then she dropped the phone so that it dangled by the cord. God was I angry. It pissed me off that our relationship was failing, and it pissed me off that I felt this failure was mine. Plus, my girlfriend was screwing up the possibility of me sleeping with the girl on the other line. So I grabbed my girlfriend by the throat and pushed her up against the wall.
At my home in Pennsylvania, I keep bees. (I keep chickens, too, and cats and dogs and a garden and a lawn where my two kids can play, and it is all so goddamned sweet that I sometimes sick up a little into the hedgerow.) The bees live in hives with copper roofs. They’re gentle in the spring when food is plentiful. I touch them with my bare hands and they crawl on my fingers. By our fruit trees, I kneel to watch the workers carry bright polka-dots of pollen in the sacks at their knees. There are flowers everywhere. The air smells of honeysuckle. It’s an idyll. It’s a bee-loud glade.
But in the fall food becomes scarce. Everybody gets pissed off and I have to use a smoker and a beekeeping suit to get close to the comb. The bees raid one another, fighting to break inside foreign hives and loot the honey stored for winter. There are wasps and feral honeybees, and they mass into killing balls and their stingers descend and the guards drag dead intruders from inside the hives and drop the bodies on the ground. Until the grass is thick with corpses. This is what good luck looks like. Otherwise I go outside and the air is quiet and ominous. The colony’s hypnotic humming has ended, and the box is empty because everything inside is dead.
1981. An essay by Joyce Carol Oates titled “Why Is Your Writing So Violent?” appears in The New York Times. Inside, Oates reflects on being asked why her writing is so violent. The same question is asked of her in Warsaw, in Oslo, in Helsinki, in Brussels, in West Berlin, in London, and in New York. It pisses her off. In answer, she writes, “Since it is commonly understood that serious writers, as distinct from entertainers or propagandists, take for their natural subjects the complexity of the world, its evils as well as its goods, it is always an insulting question; and it is always sexist.” It’s an important essay for me; it’s artful and smart and it makes me love Oates and her fierceness and insistence and authority. She goes on: “At the University of Warsaw the question was asked of me by an earnest young man… Why was my writing so violent? Might it be that my ‘personal experience,’ ‘perhaps my childhood’ and, in any case, my ‘unique temperament’ had so ‘distorted’ my vision of mankind and of history that the fiction of ‘Joyce Carol Oates’ represented only an ‘extreme attitude,’ unfortunately prevalent in contemporary American literature?”
Oates isn’t having any of this nonsense. For me at least, her point rings true. She says, “We seem to have inherited, along with its two or three blessings, the manifold curse of psychoanalysis: the assumption that the grounds of discontent, anger, rage, despair—‘unhappiness’ in general—reside within the sufferer rather than outside of him.” She’s right, don’t you think? It is insulting that one’s discontent with the world (its sexism and racism and bigotry, its pettiness and selfishness, its callous violence) would be discredited by an attempt to pin it on discontent with one’s personal life. And yet something bothers me here. Because I have been discontent in my personal life, even and especially in my childhood. Maybe you have, too? I can’t shake the feeling that my vision is “distorted.”
Our past does not run inside our present like a film. Instead, it’s like a projection from a magic lantern. The projectionist is whimsical and seemingly arbitrary. Any narrative that seems to link one image to the next is a function of a mind occupying its present moment. For me, the projections are frequently both domestic and demonic. Like so: My dad with deep bloody scratches running across his face. My mom with her fists raised and thick white spit gathered at the edges of her lips. My dead beagle, sweet Annie, in a cardboard box on our front porch. Mom and dad beating each other on the front lawn. The bald patch on the crown of mom’s head from plucking out hairs and eating them. A cigarette burn bright on my brother’s arm.
Guess what I did after I choked my girlfriend. We were next to our leather sofa and the moonlight coming in the windows was enough to see by. So I told her to hit me. I egged her on. My girlfriend was tough and pissed off and she took my advice. She hit me in the cheek and in the nose. There was a cracking noise. The pain felt good in the way that pain feels good when it’s what you believe you deserve. My nose was bleeding. We, my girlfriend and I, were cursing and breathing and sweating and, in fits and starts, telling each other how sorry we were. The other girl—the one I’d wanted to sleep with—was hanging on the phone line, listening.
My girlfriend was wonderful and smart and beautiful and kind and confused. She was dealing with her shit as much as I was dealing with mine. She sometimes hit me during our eight years together. But then all the people I’d known who loved each other also hurt one another. I didn’t think much of being hit. It was what love looked like.
Watch the video of white nationalist Richard Spencer getting punched in the face by a protestor on the day of Donald Trump’s inauguration. Spencer gets called a Neo-Nazi a lot. It’s not without good reason. There’s video of him, readily available, giving an anti-Semitic speech and chanting, “Hail Trump, hail our people, hail victory!” You should watch it. It’s awful. Watch a bunch of men in the audience respond with the Nazi salute.
I’ve hit quite a few people in the face, and I don’t want to hit anybody, not even Richard Spencer, ever again. But in a way that I find both contradictory and upsetting, part of me likes it when somebody else hits Richard Spencer. I am a lousy pacifist. I think it’s wrong to revel in another’s pain. But I can’t help myself: I do it anyway.
Violence in fiction is a lame gesture toward real violence. It’s always glamorized or romanticized or sanitized. In fiction, we roll around in the bloody details. We watch the head cut from the body, the trail of blood on the ground, the people jumping from windows. And sure, real violence is concretely awful. But real violence is more than its bloody details; it’s abstractly awful, too. It’s utter defeat. It’s beyond words. It’s a dark, siphoning depression. Violence is not only one thing: It’s dissolution, and it’s the end of the self, and it’s the assertion of the self over another. In violence (both in moments of supposed victory and of supposed defeat), we sense not just the end of ourselves but the end of all things, the utterly dark nothingness on whose brink we must, for our short spans, live and breathe and love and strive.
Afterward: My girlfriend’s bruised neck matches my black eye. The marks hang there so that everyone can see what assholes we are. I am miserable and uncomfortable and upset that I am not, in any simple sense, a good thing for the woman I love. (It’s so goddamn sad that what we love can be no good for us.) Through the bad months that follow and the couples therapy and the slow agonizing separation, I feel that I’ve regressed, that I’ve crossed some line of shittiness and have become something worse. Something pretty awful. Something, maybe, like the past that I am bent on escaping. But thankfully, becoming isn’t permanent. Or doesn’t have to be.
I wonder if you think, as I do: Yes, I had an unhappy childhood. Think: Yes, I was often frightened by life. Think: I’m often frightened still.
This last year I’ve lived in Aix-en-Provence, France. I’ve been writing a novel. It’s a violent novel, though it’s not only a violent novel. My previous novel was also a fairly violent novel. I’ve written a lot of stories, which are fairly violent and when they aren’t explicitly violent—in a one-guy-punches-another-guy kind of way—they’re usually about somebody dying. (Which, for me, is as violent as violence gets.) All of this leads me to wonder, as I sit at my desk, why violence worms its way into my writing. I spend a bunch of time thinking about it, my head in my hands, and I end up where I usually end up when I spend a bunch of time thinking: frustrated by apparent contradictions. So I get up from my desk and turn on the television or read The New York Times and I hear or read about—well, you already know what I read about. I read about school shootings. I watch unarmed black men get shot by police. I read about riots, gang rapes on buses, bombs exploding in hospitals, mass burials. This list of violence has occupied my entire adult life. I’m pretty sure you know this is true because a similar list has occupied yours, too.
“To the extent that we commit violence,” writes the philosopher Judith Butler, “we are acting on another, putting the other at risk, causing the other damage, threatening to expunge the other. In a way, we all live with this particular vulnerability, a vulnerability to the other that is part of bodily life, a vulnerability to a sudden address from elsewhere that we cannot preempt.” Goodness, Judith Butler! I love you.
For more of us than we care to admit, love and violence and home come bundled together. I’ve gotten tired of not talking about that. Mom and dad hurt each other. Mom hurt me. I hurt my brother. My brother hurt me back. This is how we learned violence. There are many moments that I could tell you about. They flash around in me—these little but painfully bright lights—accompanied by both pride and shame. My brother got in a lot more fights than I did (he’s three years younger), and when he was ten or twelve he got in a fight with a guy my age named T. who lived four blocks closer to the river. My family lived next to a school, Walker Elementary, in Rockford, Illinois. The school was closed (maybe it was after school or a weekend or a vacation) and a bunch of kids hung around the schoolyard where T. was supposed to meet my brother to fight. But T. was late. Then, when he did show up, he had a pistol. He didn’t point the gun at my brother or at anybody else and because of the gun there wasn’t a fight. But I was so pissed off. T. was my age—older and bigger than my brother—and he’d brought a gun? A week later I found T. messing around inside a canvas tent. He was setting it up in a friend’s yard. A number of tent poles sat outside the door. I picked up the poles and hit him, a shape covered in canvas that yelped. And I hit him again and he screamed and struggled to get free of the tent. And I hit him over and over until he laid down on the ground and stopped moving and I could hear him crying. Then I left him there.
It’s all fucking violent, isn’t it? Every bit of it. Language. Our relationships with others. The way we impose ourselves on the world. And that’s the curious double-bind here: This essay is a kind of violence because language is violent. Judith Butler says another thing I like a lot: “The violence of language consists in its effort to capture the ineffable and, hence, to destroy it, to seize hold of that which must remain elusive for language to operate as a living thing.”
In The Wretched of the Earth, Frantz Fanon—a psychiatrist, philosopher, and revolutionary—defends and insists upon a colonized people’s right to use violence. There’s an introduction by Jean-Paul Sartre. Sartre writes that Fanon shows “violence is neither sound and fury, nor the resurrection of savage instincts, nor even the effect of resentment: it is man recreating himself.” In the middle of an act of violence we are also in the middle of recreating ourselves. But the act of recreating must necessarily involve some demolition or deconstruction. That is, the original must, to some degree, be dismissed and reordered and re-rendered. That’s why even winning a fight feels like you’re taking yourself apart.
Killer Mike is one half of the hip-hop supergroup Run the Jewels. (The other half is rapper and producer El-P.) I love Run the Jewels. Killer Mike’s a social activist; he does TV interviews and he lectures at colleges. He writes opinion pieces for publications like Billboard and Okayplayer.
After Richard Spencer got punched, Killer Mike tweeted, “I’m pro violence against enemies of this Republic. Last I checked Nazis were still on My Granddads ‘fuck up on site’ list.”
Run the Jewels releases its albums digitally for free. In 2011, Killer Mike opened the Graffiti’s Swag Barbershop in Atlanta. The shop’s walls are decorated with artwork honoring black heroes like Martin Luther King Jr. But Killer Mike’s relationship to Dr. King’s “pilgrimage to nonviolence” is nuanced and, at least on the surface, contradictory. He exhorts us to “be more like Martin,” but also to be more like Che Guevara, the Argentinian physician and revolutionary who became a central figure in the Cuban Revolution. Between military engagements, Che read Cervantes aloud to his rebel fighters and asked his men to fight against ignorance and teach the peasant farmers, who they lived and fought beside, to read and write. And yet! He’s also known for his violence and brutality. He, personally, shot defectors. Did Che feel as conflicted as I do? I bet so. The poor bastard was only 39 when he was captured by the US-backed Bolivian army. He was killed the next day. The CIA was there. His corpse was put on display, and both his hands were cut off as evidence, and then his body was buried in a secret location. No shit.
Do you know Sylvia Plath’s bee sequence poems? I read them only recently. Shame on me.
Bare-handed, I hand the combs.
The man in white smiles, bare-handed,
Our cheesecloth gauntlets neat and sweet,
The throats of our wrists brave lilies.
He and I
Have a thousand clean cells between us,
Eight combs of yellow cups,
And the hive itself a teacup,
White with pink flowers on it,
With excessive love I enameled it
Thinking “Sweetness, sweetness.”
T. forgave me for beating him with the tent poles. We become best friends. Like recognizes like, I guess. Two fucked-up kids. We roamed our neighborhood, which was called Churchill’s Grove. We went everywhere together. We’d found each other and we thought we were pretty clever and together we were going to fuck up the neighborhood so that it was as messed up as we were. We vandalized homes and skitched behind buses and broke gravestones and taunted the police, because (until they caught us) we knew they couldn’t catch us. We stole enough lumber to build a skateboard ramp in T.’s basement. We broke into houses. T. parked a broken-down Volkswagen station wagon in his garage and duct-taped the windows and we’d sit around in it listening to the Doobie Brothers and getting high in the dark. T.’s mom was seriously batty. His dad had died years before but had kindly left behind his gun collection. T. and I took the pistols out to the woods and shot at birds.
In the RTJ song “Thieves! (Screamed the Ghost)” Killer Mike samples MLK’s “The Other America” speech, given at Stanford. These are Dr. King’s words: “[I]n the final analysis, a riot is the language of the unheard.” Can you see how King expresses sympathy for violent expression even as he confirms his commitment to nonviolence? “Nonviolence,” he says, “is the most potent weapon available to oppressed people in their struggle for freedom and justice. I feel that violence will only create more social problems than they will solve.” Did you hear that? Are you paying attention? Dr. King said nonviolence is the most potent weapon. You see how he’s framing this? He doesn’t object to violence on moral grounds. It’s a practical consideration. He doesn’t choose nonviolence because he’s gentle. Or because he’s afraid. He doesn’t choose it because he doesn’t want to hurt anybody. (Hell, Dr. King knows people are going to get hurt.) He picks up nonviolence because it’s a weapon.
My brother and I learned violence. We had a lot of teachers and finally—and worst of all in retrospect—I was his teacher and he was mine. We knew what it was to hit and to be hit, and after a while we convinced ourselves that it didn’t hurt that much, that pain diminished with familiarity. But we’d gotten confused. We’d confused the diminishment of the strangeness or foreignness of pain with the diminishment of pain itself. On the practical level, what this meant was that we fought. A lot. We fought each other and we fought kids at school and we fought kids in the neighborhood. But at the impractical level all that violence, flying in every direction, kept us in a kind of constant flux, struggling to establish the selves that we wanted to be. When a life is submerged in violence and the physical body is under assault we become aware that we, our selves—whatever they really are—are under constant assault from both inside and out. In some ways, I think this is the condition we all exist in—this constant and (mostly) unconscious struggle to maintain our selves. Each of us: a work of art. And art, as John Updike has told us, “is the triumph of order over chaos, no less.”
The writer George Saunders—an especially decent guy—has said a lot of likable things. Here’s one of them: “Literature is a form of fondness-for-life. It is love for life taking verbal form.” I’ve come to see my life, at least in part, as a willful movement toward kindness and decency. But decency isn’t a state in which one exists. It’s an effort one makes. It’s a practice. The practice of writing, in its best forms, is the practice of kindness and decency—what, in the middle of writing our best work, we aspire to be.
These days I live a gentle life. It has been a sleepy, nonviolent period, though there are quiet reminders. The guards strolling around Aix with machine guns are friendly but vigilant. Certainly, there have been much larger reminders across Europe this year. In Manchester, the suicide bomber outside the Ariana Grande concert. In London and Stockholm and Berlin, men using trucks to run over as many people as they can. On the Champs Elysees in Paris, the man attacking a police officer with a knife. In Normandy, two men storming a church during mass and slitting the priest’s throat.
So—though I’d prefer not to—I’m thinking and writing about violence. Of course I’m thinking about a lot of other things, too. Like: the high grass and wild poppies in the Gallic ruin where I run with my spouse; and my son holding tight to my hand; and my daughter singing:
Les hirondelles volent bas
N’oublie pas ton impermeable
Les nuages qu’on voit là-bas
Arroseront nos tas de sable
Et nos balançoires de bois
Ce n’est pas si désagréable
Pourquoi fais tu ce museau là
Les hirondelles volent bas.
But there’s really no way to pretend that this place I’m living in isn’t a lovely bubble that will soon, like all bubbles, burst.
In “Lie, Cheat, Steal,” Killer Mike says:
And I love Dr. King but violence might be necessary
Cause when you live on MLK and it gets very scary
You might have to pull your AK, send one to the cemetery
We overworked, underpaid, and we underprivileged
They love us, they love us (why?)
Because we feed the village
You really made it or just became a prisoner of privilege?
Maybe literature is a love letter written to a partner who’s dark and abusive, who spits in our faces, who we must live with knowing he has raped and tortured and killed. But maybe it’s also a love letter to decency and kindness, to a partner who wipes the damp from our eyes with her thumb, and touches our bruised necks tenderly and lies beside us at night and opens our eyes so that we can see the darkness, and reassures us and hold us together. She touches us, our partner, with her limitless hands and runs her fingers over us so that we are reminded that our skin is our skin. Together we watch the fog creep to the windows, flinch when we hear the screech owls, and hold each other through the breathless, sweating night—until in the morning, we see the bees hovering over the primroses and the light splintering under the sugar maples.
Nevertheless, I want to yell at the dipshit who asked Joyce Carol Oates that stupid question about whether her “personal experience” had “distorted” her vision. I want to shake him by the collar and shout: Vision is a distortion, you dilettante motherfucker!
Silas Dent Zobal’s The People of the Broken Neck is available now from Unbridled Books.