Part 2 of a continuing series documenting and reflecting on a set of states I mapped and moved in 2008. The set revolves around a deeply buried, internalized violence taken on in childhood and adolescence in response to experiences with my father.
That’s the scene as I remember experiencing it. Now let’s take another look from a different perspective. What about my father’s experience? And my mother’s? Nobody comes to be this way by himself. This kind of unconscious propagation of suffering can only be achieved by someone who has suffered greatly, who has himself accumulated many layers of shut-down.
I don’t know much about my father’s youth. My grandfather was an alcoholic, for what that’s worth. When he was a teen, my father dropped out of high school and I’m told he was a bully. But he pulled things together, got his GED, and got a job with the Philadephia police force.
I can imagine that as a twenty-something with all the wounds and defenses a young man in that time and place would have accumulated, life on the beat was both a thrill and a confrontation with things too big to hold. As a cop, you are forced to learn quickly to suppress feeling, to make very quick judgments about people and act on them. If you don’t, you and others are likely to get badly hurt. And it is far safer to err on the side of judging others dangerous or guilty. Erring on the side of compassion can get you killed.
Yet you are faced every day with human pain. You see spouses tearing one another to pieces, children beaten bloody, con artists fleecing innocents, race riots (this was the 60s) with people dropping cinder blocks on the cops below, and the wreck and detritus of lives decimated by drugs, prostitution, and predation of every kind. Every day you are confronted with the worst that humans can do to one another.
Now amplify that by a factor of ten: my father was a good cop, smart, thought well of by his superiors I imagine, and promoted to detective, homicide. I can’t personally imagine the layers of numbness required to carry out that job. Add to that the infamous culture of racism and brutality that was rampant in Joe Rizzo’s force in the 1960’s, and you have the recipe for a dying spirit.
Police work has destroyed countless families. And for every family that is destroyed to outward appearances, another suffers invisible wounds that devour the members of that family from within. Although my family remained intact on the outside, on the inside all was not well.
Now imagine you are my father in the scenario I have painted. At that time, the idea that officers need any kind of support to deal with the violence of their lives was not recognized. He was on his own to figure out how to hold his head above the maelstrom of human pain.
So you hold it together on the job, and then you come home. Your life is no longer on the line, you are safe, you can relax. But when you do, that lowering of your inner defenses opens the way for the suppressed fear, grief, and confusion to come bubbling to the surface. How do you deal with this when you are not close to your family, when your wife has her own fears and pain, (and even if she were available for support neither of you have any experience or model of what that could possibly look like), and when the only thing you have ever learned is a brutal version of command and control? It is what you fall back on when things get squirrely.
So when my sister whined and picked at her food, and when my mother withdrew into herself, and when his own churning feelings were too close for comfort, the natural thing was to seize control, to dominate, to take charge through force. It was what he knew, and to him it was the right thing to do. To him, things were black and white – gray would get you killed. To him, eating what was on your plate was a given, there was no choice, it was what you did at dinner. It made no difference that in order to force this to happen he inflicted terror on his entire family. That terror was invisible to him. The parts of himself responsible for delivering an awareness of such things had been shut down long past, locked into the states of snap judgment, defense, and violence that kept him alive on the job.
The situation was even more dire than that. In the actual moment of beating his baby daughter, my father was further deepening his own hidden suffering. Nobody, and I mean nobody, perpetrates harm on another without some part of themselves being very aware of that harm and feeling the pain of it as if it were their own. And in order to enforce the right thing by his compass, he found himself behaving in ways that were not far off from those he regularly arrested people for doing. The direct dissonance of his behavior with his beliefs about right and wrong could only have driven his suppression deeper, rendering him more unconscious every time he acted out in this way.
I have not spoken with my father about this directly. He just turned 80, and the layers of self-delusion and denial are so deep it is impossible for me to reach anything in him resembling empathy or even self-reflection about this period. All of what I’ve written here is speculation only, and I’m sure his actual, inner experience was different from what I’ve imagined.
Nevertheless I feel can speak about this with a certain level of assurance. He is no different from me, from you, from the many people who have sat in the comfortable chair in my office or worked with me by phone. We are all the same, he and you and I, in this way that we have suffered violence to our most authentic natures and passed on that violence to others without much awareness at all.