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Origins of My Anger

WO ORigins of Anger ArtBy Jordan Rosenfeld

Somewhere after my son began to walk—the world, full of new vistas and terrors now within his reach, overwhelmed him. And as he discovered these new parameters, new boundaries revealed themselves inside me. Most noticeably, when he raged, so did I. As his face contorted into two-year-old indignation, a molten feeling unearthed itself between plates I had thought unmovable inside myself. Up until then, I did not show my anger, not really. I spoke in low tones to my husband when upset. I sent calm emails to friends over disagreements. I forgave those who didn’t follow through on commitments with an idle “no worries,” even if at the back of my mind something seethed. Not an angry person, I told myself.

Suddenly this tiny child could thunder me out of my peaceable castle with his floor-kicking tantrum. All this over having to buckle into his car-seat, or losing his stuffed kitty, or the existential dread that blackened his soul and left him writhing on the floor screaming and whacking away my comforting hands upon waking from naps, lasting often as much as thirty minutes.

During his tantrums, a mini Zeus tossing a thunderbolt from the heavens, I broke into sweats of outrage, bit the inner flesh of my cheek to bleeding, kicked errant toys across the house, and slammed my palms against the table only to stave off the horrible fantasies that involved my hand making contact with his gentle skin. Once, as the Creature That Would Never Stop Crying and Kicking raised his hell, I shouted, “Shut the fuck up!” so loudly I scraped my voice raw.

I never hit or shook my child, but I did swoop him up suddenly, firmly, my fingers digging into the flesh of his armpits, his brown eyes loops of surprise at the urgency of this gesture, and then storm down the hall to his room, where I made him sit in time out with the door slammed shut. A two-year-old.  I shouted over him, and sometimes I had to abandon him completely and retreat to another room to breathe deeply or cry.

I put myself into therapy before I became some kind of horrible statistic, the doe-eyed, pacifist mother in cuffs and bewilderment, crippled by the shock of having done something she can’t take back.

My therapist suggested there was nothing to be done during my son’s raging tantrums. That the problem wasn’t him, but my belief that something had to be done to stop it, to turn it off, to stuff the crackling feelings under a pillow. Walking away was not, in fact, abandoning him, but my wisest and safest recourse.

I began to think about my own models for anger. No one had demonstrated such outward anger at me. I could only remember my mother raising her voice once, when I was about four, after I’d called her a “fucker”—the worst word I knew—for not letting me have a chocolate. She’d stormed down the long hallway of our attic apartment and said, very loudly, though hardly a shout, “What did you say?”

My father could go from calm to stern out of the blue, his lips compressed, his voice dropping to the low register where frustration lurked, as he’d insist upon walking into the kitchen that I, “Take out the damn garbage already,” or ask “How hard is it to do the dishes?”  But he didn’t yell at me. In fact, he’d always been the one to gently recount his own youthful version of whatever bad behavior I’d engaged in, or make a joke of it.

Except that one time, late in my fifteenth year, when I did not come home from the school dance at 11:00, like I said I would, and he left my sleeping infant brother alone in the house to come look for me.  At 11:30, I held up the heavy black receiver of the pay phone outside the school, the wind carving a chill through my thin dress. I knew I could solve it all with a single call: “Going to Kelly’s. Be home a little late.” But in perfect teenage self-obsession, I thrilled to the idea that I would not be a predictable, well-behaved child. Yet, when I saw the headlights approaching on my way up Sir Francis Drake Boulevard an hour later, I knew, with the deep ache of shame that lodges right up inside the bowels, that all I’d done was piss him off; the way his voice shook when he said, “I left the baby alone,” told me I had scared the shit out of him. The next day his voice rose to a shout as he demanded, “Why would you do that to me?”

I shook my head. I couldn’t say I wanted you to demonstrate your love for me. I couldn’t say. I wanted to matter more than that fretting baby and your new wife.

Over the years, my mother has shared an offhand detail about my father and me several times, enough for it to lodge uncomfortably like a tiny stone in a shoe, “When you were little, your dad had a way of making you calm down when you were throwing a tantrum. If we were in a restaurant, he’d just take you outside. When you came back in, you’d be quiet as a clam, not another peep out of you.” These words always left a dark smudge on my thoughts, but I’d wipe it away.

I’m not suggesting my father took me outside and beat me. The only time he ever spanked me, around the age of five, he felt so guilty he apologized for three days. The truth is, I have never known his magic trick for calming my tiny raging beast. Did he bribe me? Shake me a little? Did he have the perfect words to inspire a two-year-old to resist the primal throes of tantrum, and shut up? Maybe he blew a halo of pot smoke in my face, dipped a finger in a bottle of whiskey and shoved it in my mouth. I may never know.

What I suspect is that he became angry with toddler me in some way that was less reserved, different from his usual anger. A private anger, perhaps, reserved for the anonymity of our aloneness, perhaps an anger he wasn’t proud of—his own harsh father making an appearance in him. An anger, frankly, I saw in myself when my own son was two.

In attempting to parse out what was happening to me as a mother—and a first time mother, at that, who was shocked by the madness of sleep deprivation and the heavy blue weight of post-partum depression—I turned back to my therapist for answers. She said, in essence, when we have experiences in our pre-and barely verbal years—before memory and personality consolidate—which are scary and painful and confusing, while we may not form memories that can be translated into words later on, the feelings do lodge in our cells like tiny, dormant eggs. When our children pass through these same difficult passages, say my own raging toddler son mirroring what my own inner toddler may have experienced, the feelings hatch, and may even scare us.

My son, two going on three, is now the age I was the year my parents’ split. The year my mother, pregnant with my unborn sibling that would never come to be, and still grieving the death of her brother, hovered at the edge of the addiction that would claim decades of her life.. Surely some vein of that turmoil runs in the bedrock of my unconscious.

And there are more blocks in my bedrock – another cellular memory that also runs, in some form, in my family. My father’s parents, Jews, left Germany in the thirties, less than five years before Hitler’s “final solution” of camps and ovens. Though my paternal grandparents made it out—their parents, cousins, and a host of other relatives did not. . Though neither my grandfather nor father had to live in the muffled silence of hiding like the Jews who survived, did, or the even more mute horrors of the camps, both of them have a distinctive manner of burying feelings below the visible surface. Of pushing and pressing the unpleasant down below dark waters, or hiding it away from sight and exploding in private.

Torn by tensions I’ve only begun to understand now as an adult, my father—stretched between the demands of me, his teenaged first child, and new babies, and having traded in the well-paying illicit work for a crappy low-paying, miserable “real” job in dialysis—tended toward pointing out deficits (The dishes! Clean your room!) rather than praise or affection for many years. Until my own son was born six years ago, and suddenly the stone wall crumbled between us without effort.

As these pieces of the past fit together, I looked at the anger lodged in the tumbler of my heart, a rough, jagged little stone shrouded in secrecy. I see that my inexplicable rage may have been part of an emotional heritage, a strategy handed down through the generations, of pushing anger away, tucking it in places where it seems to be at a safe distance, until, without warning, the fail-safes stop keeping us safe and anger comes roaring through like a flood.

Shaken by the force of its impact on my own life, at how it erupted most easily at the most tender member of my family, I felt as though I’d been handed a tiny reprieve, to hold this smoldering bit of my unconscious up to the cooling light of day and temper it, before I, too taught my son dangerously volcanic tricks of expression.

Jordan Rosenfeld is the author of two novels:  (as J.P. Rose) and the writing guides Make a Scene & Write Free. Her book of essays, The Art of Lying & Stealing, is forthcoming from SheBooks, and other essays and fiction have, or will soon, appear in the Coachella Review, Literary Mama, Modern Loss, the Manifest-Station, Opium, Night Train magazine, the Pedastal magazine, Pindeldyboz, Salome, Smokelong Quarterly, San Francisco Chronicle, the St. Petersburg Times, Sweatpants & Coffee and more. She teaches, edits and leads writing retreats at:

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