You never forget the faces of the people that have really harmed you. At least, I don’t. I haven’t.
— § —
Take the bullies, for example. When I was five, or seven, or eight, or nine.
There was J.H., the giant white supremacist boy with the round head and the rosy cheeks. E.D., with the small, brown face and the curly hair, who was always grinning, even when he was laying into you—or rather, especially when he was laying into you. T.W. and T.V., the “twin Tommies” as they used to be called, one blonde and dirty, with a giant mouth and a strangely square jaw for such a young boy, the other with a tall, thin face and an angular chin and nose, dotted with freckles.
How many times was I beaten up? Hard to say. But I remember their faces; I could sketch them from memory to photo perfection, even now, if I could draw at all.
Strangely, to me they’re all adult faces. They were that even at the time. I can, if I squint with my mind’s eye very hard, these days sort of just catch glimpses of the child in them. But to me, the bullies will always all look like adults; the nice kids like children.
I think that’s one of the reasons I’ve always had an ambiguous relationship to adulthood, though I know that it didn’t originate with the playground gang.
But it is fair to say that for me, there is a fairly strong subconscious connection between “adult” and “bully.”
And given that I’ve always experienced the world in this way—that adults are bullies and bullies are adults, and that’s simply how it is—why would any nice person ever want to grow up?
But more on this later.
— § —
I can’t remember many of the faces of the people I’ve loved over the years.
I couldn’t, for example, draw any of my grandparents’ faces from memory, even if I had the skill to do so. I just don’t clearly remember them without looking at photographs.
My first girlfriend? She’s more a collection of facts to me than a face or a physical being. What did she look like? She had blonde hair. I remember that much.
Favorite professors during my undergrad years, in both of whose classes I sat for hour after hour, many semesters in a row? One is a beard. The other is a nose and long, curly hair.
They’re presences in my memory, but they’re not the visceral, true-to-life portraits that I retain of the harmers.
— § —
I read recently that a certain population of people that end up in therapists’ offices are, deep down, seeking justice for past wrongs—only they can never get it, no matter how long or hard they try.
They identify the closest behaviors that they can in their loved ones, then impose irrational punishments and seek pleading apologies for these behaviors—but it is never enough. The events of the past remain unaltered and unaddressed by this quest for justice, forever. The original wrongs can not be righted or equitably adjudicated; the original perpetrators can never forced to pay then, when it mattered, for those wrongs.
The statute of limitations long ago ran out; the loss is forever. Loved ones generously suffer, inadequately and thus infuriatingly, in their stead—with no end in sight, because the job can not be completed.
— § —
I don’t think I see much of myself in this account (and indeed the quote had nothing directly to do with me, but that I think it’s insightful). I hope that others aren’t busy seeing all the time what I don’t see in this case. It is a vain but healthy hope.
I wish I could give more detail about the population being referenced, but I can’t. Just as I can’t give the full names of the bullies. Just as I can’t often say many of the things that I think and feel and remember here.
Because there would be victims. That is also a part of the injustice of suffering at the hands of others; even if you are able to directly confront those responsible, the attempt to extract justice turns them into victims, rather than into vanquished trophies that are metonymous of evil.
If you’re a good person, you can’t get yours back. That’s why you’re a good person.
— § —
Of course, it’s also worthwhile to point out that if time passes, they may also be victimzed, rather than cleansed and chastised, by attempts to extract justice simply because they have changed and grown.
The playground gang, for example, is frozen in my memory as they were then. I have no knowledge of anything that became of them—whether J.H. ultimately grew up to be a nice person and left behind the white supremacist tendencies that had undoubtably been inculcated in him by his parents, or whether T.W. perhaps went on to found a school for impoverished and suitably starving children somewhere in the third world.
Perhaps both went to university, got married, had children, and give to UNICEF. To expose them now would somehow be unfair. Maybe one of them has a suicidal daughter that is even now being beaten up daily on the playground, and clings to her father as her only lifeline. How would she experience the revelation that her father was once just such a bully?
For me, however, they are forever the playground gang. That is where their growth stopped; those are the faces from whom recompense ought to be extracted. These other potential souls, perhaps grown older and wiser and with families to support—the ones that I cannot expose—are merely the accessories that protect, in their younger selves—the war criminals.
They do this by allowing themselves to be victimzed instead, if they are named, all these years later.
— § —
In a way, I could say that I was born on the first day of kindergarden in a public school on the west side, when I turned up as a small “Chinese” boy (there was no concept of mixed race on that playground at that time; you were either white or you weren’t) and was held down and beaten and kicked senseless until I lost track of anything happening to me. I’d later regain my senses in the nurse’s office as I waited for my mother to arrive.
— § —
I could, instead, say that I was born on the day that my mother first took a belt to me (yes, it was always my mother) with wild rage in her eyes, rage that told me that she felt she’d been violated somehow by me, a tiny boy. It was a brown belt, and it flew, overhand, again and again toward me as I lay, prone, on her bed.
Of course, I’ve posted before about these violations that I committed and that caused me to deserve such treatment. I was rather clueless about them at first, just as I was clueless about the sin of not being white.
In my mother’s case, they came mostly in the form of disappointments—my failure to be the ideal little man that she needed me to be, for her safety and for her own emotional stability and security.
As I recall, the first time it happened it was because I had said the word “damn” out loud.
In fact, I didn’t know what the word meant. I’d learned it, ironically, from the playground gang during a beating, and knew only that you said it when emotions were running high.
I learned that day that it was a magic word that could also cause emotions to run high of its own account.
Later on, I’d learn that victimhood is the secret result of having had power all along—a dangerous lesson that I (and too many others) will spend a lifetime trying to unlearn.
But I digress.
— § —
Those that live in the eternal quest for justice were, I suspect, born in the same way, and probably also many times, each time into trauma.
Together, these crimes and primal scenes form a narrative of the eternal relationship between the creation of the self and injury; between identity and the failure of justice to obtain.
The self born enough times this way is a self whose chief property is that of rendering the world itself morally flawed by virtue of the judicial failures of which it is in some way the founder.
— § —
I often wish that I could share more. Name names. Poke eyes. Tell the stories as they were, in public.
But I have no interest in creating victims from the bullies, for the most part. I’ll know that it’s time to tell the stories when they can be told without the possibility of encountering that paradox, of living that surreal emotional conflict by which justice can only be visited upon the innocent.
— § —
In the meantime, here’s to the selves and the bullies that made them. And (the one name I’ve named, for better or for worse) to the parents that ensured, paradoxically, that the children they sought to punish for being children would forever associate adulthood with the unjust pursuit of power, trapping them forever in the state of justly empowered Peter Panhood from which they were meant to be forcibly expelled.
A state and a world in which birth inevitably has something to do with near-death and in which the state of being grown up is invariably just shy of—at best—being fucked up.