Rage

Judith Thurman is a staff writer at The New Yorker and the biographer of Colette and Isak Dinesen. A collection of her essays, Cleopatra's Nose, was published last autumn.

www.newyorker.com

A centrifugal luxury best enjoyed in others

The raison d'être of journal-keeping is, in part, to catch yourself by surprise.


March 15
I have not heard from W. in a month. I read anger into any prolonged silence, often wrongly. My mother was always angry, but would never say why: I had to follow her around the house begging for a clue as to the cause of her displeasure.

For some people, including Eric Hoffer, whose epigram I received by email this morning, "anger is a prelude to courage". For me, anger is a prelude to avoiding whomever I am afraid is angry with me. But I'm less afraid of their capacity for saying or doing something to hurt me than I am of my own capacity to become, as anger makes me, unreal to myself. W.'s rage, or imagined rage, even at a distance, is acting upon me like a centrifuge. I can feel my sense of humour, judgement, proportion, and self-regard splitting into unstable particles.


March 16
I haven't thought about Miss Clarke for what – forty-five years? She was my fifth-grade teacher – a formidable, pigeon-breasted Catholic spinster who hated me viscerally (in part, I think, because the Pledge of Allegiance had been changed the preceding year to include the phrase "one nation, under God", which I wouldn't say). She would berate me in front of my snickering, embarrassed classmates for being a heathen know-it-all while I sat timidly with the walls and floor spinning in opposite directions. That is where I get the image of anger as a centrifuge.


March 17
The man I love was angry with me last night because I called him a philistine. He is a cultivated free-thinker on nearly every subject but mental health. He does not believe, he says, in depression. One of our friends has a troubled child, and my lover was boasting that if they would only give him the boy for a few months, he could soon cure his behaviour problems. A woman's anger may be more terrifying to me than a man's, but an enraged alpha male instantly makes me ultra-rational and conciliatory. I will try to propitiate him with a metaphorical grooming ritual – delicate words that pick at whatever is eating him. So I apologized for calling him a philistine, even though I wasn't being sincere.


March 18
I am proud at how fair my fights with my son generally are. That is a relationship pure, at least on my side, of insincerity. He is nineteen, but when he was little, and again when he was in the worst throes of adolescence about five years ago, it was occasionally necessary to lose it with him: I had to play the boss, and I did so strategically, to great effect, since my outbursts were so uncommon. I think I was more shocked than he was to see how violent I could be (verbally; I never touched him, of course). It took all my discipline not to apologize immediately, to resolve the emotional suspense. But he always knew that I, unlike my mother, wouldn't stay estranged for long.


March 19
Many people, especially women, have, as one knows, a distorted image of their bodies: they see them as fatter or thinner or lovelier (but usually uglier) than they are. I know my body, if anything, too well. But not, it turns out, my temper. I have never before kept track of a specific mood, and I can't believe how easily or irrationally I get angry (though I repress it). And oddly enough, when I do admit to being angry, it feels like a luxury. The experience begins as an abstract malaise, but as the anger comes into focus, I enjoy its hardness, an ephemeral taste of freedom from the bonds and burdens of other lives – an animal purity.


March 20
I have started to take my anger pulse several times a day. This morning, for example, I wake up early. Let's see: am I angry yet? No, perhaps because I had a night of bad dreams that dissipated whatever petty rage was left in my system from yesterday. In one of the dreams I had gone on vacation and forgotten my dog – abandoned her without food or water. I don't actually have a dog anymore, she died. But last night I couldn't be bothered to make dinner for myself and had gone to bed with a growling stomach.


March 21
The equinox: a day of celestial equilibrium. So let's not get angry, shall we? I do a little yoga and sit down to write. But through the walls, I can hear the boy next door – the boy my lover believes he can re-educate – having a tantrum and screaming at the top of his lungs. J. is a strange, brilliant child who is too old (ten) for tantrums and has been thrown out of several schools because, they tell his parents, he lacks "social skills", which is of course a euphemism partly for his deeper troubles and partly for their insufferable smugness and mediocrity as pedagogues. Private schools in New York are ruthless places. Succeed, conform or get out – that's the rule.

I sometimes babysit for this lonely and interesting misfit, whom I like. He is the negative image of me at that age: I kept the rage to myself. Once, though, when I turned off the television – it was time for his homework – he seized a butcher knife and brandished it at me theatrically. For some reason I started to laugh and couldn't stop. I didn't do this intentionally, to "outcrazy" him, but it had that effect and, meekly, he handed me the knife. We never spoke of it again, but on his next birthday I gave him a video game with a funny card on which I had written in jagged letters, "For the sharpest knife in the drawer". He hugged me, but then poked my gut sharply with his finger. It was a moment of perfect understanding.

Listening to his inconsolable, primal baying at the injustice of everything that has been done to anyone since time began, I realized that there was no stopping it, no reasoning with him, no bribe, threat, or gesture of empathy that could recall him to his false self.


March 22
An email from W. has elated me: "I'm penguin-watching in Antarctica," she writes. I am aborting this journal a day early, enough anger has been recorded. But before I do, I wish publicly to forgive a few of the people (excluding taxi drivers) who contributed to deleted entries: "Mr. Rocco", at the corner beauty salon, for an unspeakable and sadistic haircut. (Could he have been channelling my high school yearbook photograph?) The man I love. And my housekeeper, who decided to clean out my medicine cabinet, and threw away all the sleeping pills and codeine I had been hoarding for emergencies, because, she said, they had "expired".

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