A slap in the face
A critic in Story Magazine recently ventured that, in an article of the literary precedents for violence, that there is an "illiterate vocabulary for violence". That when all reason fails, there is always the sock on the jaw. It says precisely what it means. There is no arguing with it. It makes a clearly defined dramatic point. And as the most valid argument for that theory the author cited Melville's Billy Budd. When Billy, harried and chivvied by the detestable Claggart, finds himself literally unable to vocalize his frustration, or to deny the charges being brought against him, the injustice being done to him in all its monstrousness, his futile attempt to speak finds voice in only one possible way - he lashes out and strikes the First Mate, killing him with one punch. Any other solution to the problem would have been illogical, untruthful, fraudulent.My father is an evil man. I say that, meaning it and understanding what it means. It is only in understanding what my father is, that I understand what I mean by evil.
- Harlan Ellison, The Glass Teat.
Last Thursday, I slapped his face. I had to. Any other solution to the problem would have been illogical, untruthful, fraudulent. Any other response, not solution - for it solves nothing and changes nothing, yet there was nothing else to do. Any other response would have been illogical, untruthful, fraudulent. Nobody can tell you otherwise, though everybody will.
Nobody can tell you how much hurt you should sustain: but they always will. Everybody thinks that they can tell you to accept it, put it behind you, walk away: everybody has a breaking-point and nobody recognises it in anybody else. Nobody can tell you what is right and wrong: there is no right and wrong. There is just an absence of alternatives. Why might you slap a father's face? Because he gives you nothing else. Because there is no other place to go. When your father hurts you, as a matter of course, deliberately, out of wickedness and guilt, hurts you to cover up his shame, then, eventually, you reject his hurt just as he rejected you. Enough: no more. See this, rather than feel it: for what matters is not the hurt you cause but the response you make. You will not do that again. You will not hurt me any more.
It happened at a funeral, or rather at the reception, more than two hours later, which I had largely spent avoiding my father and which my father had largely spent avoiding me. He has spent many years avoiding me, and my existence: for when it was convenient to him, when he decided he did not want to deal with the problems of a failed attempt at fatherhood, he chose to deny my existence and the existence of my siblings, because it would be easier for him, because it would be more convenient for his loathsome and ambitious wife. Confrontations should not happen at a funeral, it is not the time for them: and yet on the other hand this confrontation was about a funeral. It was about a funeral which happened twenty years before, when my father buried me. When I was not even dead and yet my father buried me. It makes me scream, with unabated anger and unwanted hatred. Because it was convenient to him, my father buried me.
Who would do such a thing? Only a coward. Only a particular sort of coward, only somebody dominated by moral cowardice, only somebody afraid of the truth. So afraid of the truth that he would rather sacrifice his children than accept it. And once that road is taken, the wrong, and thus the guilt, and thus the cowardice is multiplied. For the longer such a lie is told, the harder it hits when it is finally discovered. So the guilt is greater, for the hurt is greater, and as a consequence, there must be more lies, more evasions to escape the truth. Moral cowardice has this consequence: when we have wronged someone, we have to blame them for the wrong that we have done. We have to compound the hurt, to multiply it, and in doing so to recast it as a wrong done against ourselves.
He came up to me, a couple of hours after the reception had started: I had just suggested, to my brother, that it was nearly time to leave. Presumably he had been working himself up to this: presumably the effort involved had got to him, had caused him such difficulty that he had decided I was an enemy to be confronted. That is how he spoke to me. He pushed his head close to mine and asked me:
- Are you going to speak to me, then?
That then, demanding, confrontational, did not help: it said you are wrong, you are withholding something that I have a right to expect. I was off-balance anyway, having assumed, that if he had not spoken to me by then, that he was never going to: and his aggressive approach made it worse.
- I don't know, I said.
He asked again: Well, are you? And I said, as it was true and I could think of nothing else to say: I don't know. What would we talk about?
That was as much as I could handle, and rather more than he could: because then it came out, the blaming of the child for the father's sins, the anger and resentment that I cause him as the living symbol of his own failure as a father and his own moral cowardice in smothering that failure in a blanket of lies. His hatred of himself, for what he had done, rechannelled as a hatred of the child for making him do it. It was my fault. The lies were mine, not his. I was the guilty party.
- That's the question you're going to have to ask yourself. That's the question you've had to ask yourself for twenty years, he said. And then he said something else: You are a traducer and a liar. And he got up and went to the other end of the room and sat down with his sons, his real sons, the shiny new ones that he got when he denied the old ones.
For a short time I could not speak. Nor, if I could have spoken, could I have said anything that would help, or change what he had done or what he was. It solves nothing, to slap your father in the face: but if there can be no solution, what is there left to do? If the father who denies you, who lies to cover up the fact of your existence, then comes to you and blames you for it, calls you a liar, calls you a traducer, what is there left to you? What options exist? What reactions exist?
Only one, that does not involve swallowing the hurt and the humiliation. Only one. You walk up to the other end of the room, pick your father up by the arm and tell him that you will not be spoken to like that. And when he responds that he will speak to you in any way he wants, you slap his face for him. It is the truth: it is the only truth that you can tell that he will have to listen to. It tells him true: You will not do that again. You will not hurt me any more.
I have told him so. He is a liar, a traducer, and I have told him so, in public, such that he understands it. It needed to be done: sooner or later it would have been done, if not in that place, at that time, then at another place and time, because there was no other end to it than that. But there is no end, no resolution, and I feel none. I feel no satisfaction, just distress, just anger, anger, bitterness.
I am down, distressed, confused and angry. I have spent much of the period since, suddenly bursting into tears: in the street, in the airport terminal, in the café before breakfast, back at home. I did not want any of this to happen. I do not like conflict and confrontation: it is partly to get away from it (and to get away from people, since without them there is no confrontation) that I came to Aragón, to a small town near the almost-silent Pyrenees.
I did not want to see my father. I did not want him to come up to me. I did not want to slap his face, not at a funeral, not anywhere. I am not sorry that I did, though I am sorry that it happened: but I am not sorry that I slapped him. But I am more than sorry - I am shaken, shattered, traumatised, by the anger, the hatred, the fact that all I can feel for my father is hatred and anger. I do not want it. I have had enough of it, yet it is all that I can ever have. I do not want it, but I cannot rid myself of it. He, only he, could do that: but it is the one thing that he will never do.
I do not want this. I want a proper father, not this louse, this liar, this serial betrayer. I do not want a father who prefers to hurt his children rather than apologise to them. I do not want a father who victimises his children in order to preserve the lies that he tells to others and himself.
I do not want this father, this louse, this spineless bastard. But what is a bastard? A bastard is a child without a father. I do not want this father but I cannot rid myself of him. Even if I could, that is his game, his particular cowardice, his arrogance: these children do not suit me any more, I shall dispose of them.
I will not be him. I will not be like him. I can see him, in myself: I can see myself, in his face, in his shape. In the way you see, in looking at your father, what you will be like when you are his age. I can see his characteristics in me, his stupid pride, his difficulty in apologising. But I can see them in myself and not deny them. That is the difference between us. I can recognise my pride and admit to it: I can know and admit it, that I find difficulty in apologising. But I have had to live with my failings and learn to understand them: to work on them when I can, to work around them when I cannot, to accept them when I cannot do either. I have paid for my failings. But with that price has come some understanding.
That is the difference between us: it is all the difference in the world. Errare, humanum est: it is the failure to accept it that constitutes inhumanity. We all hurt other people, through our own stupidity and thoughtlessness. But to hurt one another for no reason other than the failure to admit our fallibility: that is evil. When you are driven to do further wrong, solely because you cannot admit you are wrong, then that is evil. Because it multiplies itself and blames your victims and there is therefore no end to it. For that reason, moral cowardice is evil.
My father is an evil man. I hate him, not, in truth, because he is evil but because he is an evil from which I cannot detach myself. He is evil and he is my father: because he is my father, I cannot be free of the evil that he does. I hate him. I hate him, but I will not pretend he is not there. I cannot pretend that he is not there. That would suit me, but would be a lie. An impossible lie: impossible not just to sustain, impossible to tell. To hate him does not suit me, but it is the truth. I have that, at any rate. I have it and I understand it. He has money, and pride, security, ambition, while I have none of these: but he has nothing, nothing, and I have more than him. Because I have integrity, and he does not. He has nothing. Liars have nothing: it is because they have nothing that they need to lie. He has given me a legacy of infinite anger, yet he has nothing and I have more than him. He has nothing, because he is a liar. He has nothing, but I can tell the truth.