My friend, Kate, is outraged on my behalf. I find myself tracking her energy for clues about why, until she just tells me, doesn’t make me guess like I’m used to. She’s mad that a family member, I’ll call her Elle, asked me, in her “watch me dissect your trauma with scientific interest” way, whether I thought our father singled me out for sexual abuse because I’d fractured my skull in a car accident as a baby, and he somehow considered me damaged goods. That maybe he thought a little more damage piled on top of that wouldn’t make a huge difference in the course of my life, or maybe I was already a lost cause, so why the hell not? I wasn’t exactly sure of Elle’s logic, but I’d repeated her question to Kate as a valid one.
We were doing an interview for Kate’s podcast about Trauma, and when I repeated Elle’s question, Kate’s eyes got wide, then her mouth twisted and let out a stream of curse words that warmed me up on the inside, though I wasn’t sure why. Later, when she was editing the interview, Kate got pissed off all over again when she got to the retelling of this story, told her husband about it and he was pissed off, too. When I imagine them both leaning on the same side of the island in their kitchen, sputtering out expletives in between sips of coffee, it lights me up on the inside. They see the whole picture while I am still squinting into the air, trying to make out the clues they deciphered that I cannot. I have never been able to find the trail of breadcrumbs that leads me back to my own rage. When I look for them, all I ever see is a clean forest floor in the waning light.
To be clear, I don’t want to be angry. But since I’m angry anyway, what I want most is to be angry, finally, at the correct things. Not the woman in front of me in line at the grocery store, for talking too much, then dropping her credit card on the ground. Not my kid, for skipping her snack so she is next-level cranky when I pick her up from school. Not my husband, who looks at me and smiles while I am getting dressed and I snap, “Can’t I have one second of privacy?” because I cannot bear the weight of anybody’s love.
My family–my husband and my daughter–might say they find the crumbs of my anger everywhere. Scattered at the foot of the bed, around corners, in between toes, in the itchy places behind their ears, in the dishes left in the sink, in the angle of a cushion, flung on the couch that way. But I have skipped over this rage somehow, polished the edges of the pain so well that everything and everyone around me has dulled, so that I don’t realize I’m angry, until rage bursts from the depths of me and sprays hurt on the people I love.
* * *
On New Year’s Day, 2020, my mother and I flew to Miami for two days. We went to meet her half-brother, a family member materializing out of fog from the vials of spit my mother sent to 23andme a couple of years ago. My mother, who will be 80 years old in May, grew up as the only child of a single mother in rural, 1940s’ New Jersey. Her father, Saverio, a hair-dresser and ne’er-do-well from southern Italy, traveled around the world running from a variety of mafias and spreading his seed.
My mother’s half-brother was born and raised in Venezuela, where my grandfather landed sometime after WWII, leaving a wife and, likely, children in his hometown of Gravina in Puglia, Italy. I can picture my grandfather cutting and styling hair at a shop in Caracas while looking over his shoulder for the Chinese mafia before he snuck off to Brazil to do business with an imaginary brother. He left his girlfriend, who was eight months pregnant, with a four year old son and no money for bills.
There is enough intrigue in this tale already to distract us all from the matter at hand–my rage. There may be a trail of breadcrumbs to lead me back to my rage, but in this case, there is also a trail of sandwiches leading away from it. Did the mafia, Italian or Chinese, ever catch up to Saverio? How many countries, how many children, how much debt? Was he even a good hairdresser? I don’t know the answers to any of these questions.
What I do know is this: during our second and final night in Miami, I woke up to the sound of my mother muttering a stream of vitriol into the dark. My body froze. With immediate clarity, I thought, My whole life has led to this moment. This is how I die.
My brain sped back through my life. I said a prayer for my husband and my daughter, for them to make it through alone but okay without me. My mother stood up, quiet. I did not breathe. She walked around my bed and went to the bathroom. I pretended to be asleep. She got back in bed and started muttering again. “She’s just a spoiled little bitch, a total brat…does she think I’m stupid?” On and on like that until I drifted off thinking, how familiar this is, lying in the dark, waiting to die, to the lullaby of someone else’s rage.
The truth is, it’s impossible to notice rage as something that exists in the world separate from me when I was born into a house with rage and fear so thick in the air, it was all I ever breathed. Regular air felt too thin. Life without rage took place at too high an altitude for me to comfortably exist there for long.
The truth is, rage always felt like better than nothing. I grew up feeling like I was not a person, like I was nobody. Nobody heard me crying. Nobody heard me scream. As I write this, I fall in love with the word, “nobody.” No body. No soul with a body heard me or helped me. Nobody with a body helped my body when it bled. I felt alone on the Earth, alone to bleed, to grieve and to heal. That level of alone, of nothing, of nothingness, the magnitude of that loss, the growling chasm of nobody, no body–if I had tried to bear that as a child, it would have killed me. But rage was something–rage has a body and it is hungry for a target and it always finds one. Even when I was no body and no body came to help me, I still had rage. Rage searched for a path toward people, the same way lightning searches for a path to the ground.
Once, when I was about eight-years-old, I stood in the middle of the kitchen and watched my father laughing so hard there were tears running down his face. He was sitting, slapping his palms on the kitchen table, marking the end of each wave of laughter. I felt my face stretch into a smile that matched his, kept smiling as I watched him drop his face into his hands. My mouth fell into a frown when I realized the sounds coming from him had turned into sobs. His voice, muffled by his hands, said, “I am so fucking bitter.” And then again, “I am so fucking bitter.” I could tell, from how his voice sounded, that he was clenching his back teeth together and my own back teeth clenched in response. I took a half-step toward him, then a whole step, before I slid back to where I started. He looked up when he heard my feet slide and said, “Don’t ever let yourself get bitter, Fruitcake. There’s no fucking way back.”
I have spent so much of my energy trying to keep my darkness separate from my family life, not pretending the darkness doesn’t exist, but trying to keep it from touching the people I love and causing them harm. Just underneath the surface of my daily life, I feel how dark and light are not about good versus evil, and I know that dark and light were never separate to begin with. That is a lie I am trying to untangle and unlive now. By trying to keep the shadows out of my home, all I’ve really done is attempt to pry apart something that was integrated and whole to begin with. And when dark and light are pried apart, the darkness stalks the light. What it is trying to do is reintegrate with light–become whole again, but what it feels like is being stalked, haunted, terrorized.
I don’t know if my mother knew or knows how pervasive the soundtrack of her rage was in all of our lives, whether she thought no one heard or thought it didn’t matter if we did. It was not a secret, because there are no true secrets in families, only things that people choose to give their attention to or not.
I often think about my father’s warning, his use of the word bitter. Bitter means “angry, hurt, or resentful because of one’s bad experiences or a sense of unjust treatment.” In other words, bitterness is a choice you make, a commitment not to get over being treated badly, a commitment to stay angry. I am not sure how to parse all this out, because I don’t feel a commitment to my rage, but here it is, still, swimming to the surface and gasping for air. I have decided to practice turning towards it, letting the lightning strike of it move through me, and into the ground. Maybe then the energy of this rage can connect me more deeply to ground, to the Earth I live on, the skin I live in. Maybe these bolts of rage have been waiting for years to affirm my place in the world, to help me say, I am here. Light and dark together. I am here.