Cruelty and Need

In Arundhati Roy‘s words: ‘Need was a warehouse that could accommodate a considerable amount of cruelty’.

It’s not surprising the world is full of the inhumane. 

We held a dinner for a long-time friend who turned 91 at the beginning of April. I had thought she was still in her mid-eighties and it shocked me to think she is now almost the age of my mother when she died. Over the years this friend and I talked often about ageing, and about how she planned to manage her descent into what she saw as an inevitable frailty. 

She had no idea she’d end her days in the care of her only son who has taken to living with her since his return to Australia several years ago, almost as a way of giving his own life meaning. And providing him with income and a roof over his head. 

There was a time when my friend would have railed against such an idea but now as her memory fades and her helplessness increases she concedes to the idea of her son telling her what to do. And he does so in that patronising way we saw in his father. 

The strange way that life turns over from the helplessness of infancy when we must bow to the demands of our parents who must in turn respond to our needs, if they can, to a time in old age when once again we must accede to the demands of others, otherwise risk our own needs being denied. 

Is this what Roy means by considerable room to warehouse cruelty? It’s not need that is the problem. It’s unmet need that leads to cruelty.

The idea that in your most vulnerable state when you are in need of care of sustenance, of love and warmth, it is not given to you or it gets handed over with such conditions as to make any person cringe. Unmet need cuts the deepest. 

Need itself is human. We all have needs, but needs ignored or reinforced through even greater neglect are cruel indeed. And here I do not speak of wants and desires. They are something else again. Desires can reflect our needs. It’s possible and likely that what we want we also need but it’s possible that what we want is the last thing in the world we need. It’s the last thing we need. And this includes cruelty. 

We don’t need cruelty. Which is not to say there are not times when in the administering of our needs we don’t experience pain. 

It hurts to watch the needle go into the arm of a small baby who needs to be inoculated against polio or other diseases. For a flash that baby might feel pain, too, the jab of the needle but this is not cruelty. 

Cruelty tends to be wanton, unmeasured, and eked out to make one person feel better at the expense of another. Carson McCullers puts it better.

And love changed Marvin Macy.  Before the time when he loved Miss Amelia it could be questioned if such a person had within a heart and a soul.  Yet there is some explanation for the ugliness of his character, for Marvin Macy had had a hard beginning in this world.  He was one of seven unwanted children whose parents could hardly be called parents at all; these parents were wild youngans who liked to fish and roam around the swamp.  Their own children, and there was a new one almost every year, were only a nuisance to them.  At night when they came home from the mill they would look at the children as though they did not know wherever they had come from.  If the children cried, they were beaten, and the first thing they learned in this world was to seek the darkest corner of the room and try to hide themselves as best they could.  They were as thin as little white haired ghosts, and they did not speak, not even to each other.  Finally, they were abandoned by their parents altogether and left to the mercies of the town.  It was a hard winter with the mill closed down almost three months, and much misery everywhere.  But this is not a town to let orphans perish on the road before your eyes.  So here is what came about: the eldest child, who was eight years old, walked into Cheehaw and disappeared – perhaps he took a freight train somewhere and went out into the world, nobody knows.  Three other children were boarded out amongst the town, being sent around from one kitchen to another, and as they were delicate they died before Easter time.  The last two children were Marvin Macy and Henry Macy and they were taken into a home.  There was a good woman in the town named Mrs Mary Hale, and she took Marvin Macy and Henry Macy and loved them as her own.

            But the hearts of small children are delicate organs.  A cruel beginning in this world can twist them into curious shapes.  The heart of a hurt child can shrink so that forever afterward it is hard and pitted as the seed of a peach.  Or again, the heart of such a child may fester and swell until it is a misery to carry within the body, easily chafed and hurt by the most ordinary things.  This last is what happened to Henry Macy, who is so opposite his brother, the kindest and gentlest man in town.  He lends his wages to those who are unfortunate, and in the old days he used to care for the children whose parents were at the café on Saturday night.  But he is a shy man and he has the look of one who has a swollen heart and suffers.  Marvin Macy, however grew to be bold and fearless and cruel.  His heart turned tough as the horns of Satan, and until the time when he loved Miss Amelia he brought to his brother and the good woman who raised him shame and trouble.

But love reversed the character of Marvin Macy.   

Scene one. I was ten years old I discovered the ease of shoplifting, of slipping a chocolate bar into my pocket almost every time I walked into the milk bar, most often on an errand for my mother. 

I could blame it on the shop keeper who even then knew the way to appeal to a person’s greed was to put the chocolate boxes and quick snack sweets on the front counter. The sight of those gold covered chocolate slabs covered further with bright colours to enhance their allure. 

How could a small child with no money and no access to such delights resist once the bug had bitten? Once I knew how easy it was to steal. The cruelty was not in the milk bar man’s response when he caught me out and threatened to tell the police, choosing instead to tell my mother. 

The cruelty rested in her words: ‘I did not expect this of you’. As if in her mind I was a perfect child, incapable of such abominations, incapable of doing wrong when I knew full well I was. 

It’s an odd form of cruelty but to tell someone who relies on you that you’re disappointed in them is the cruellest form of punishment. Not only have they done the wrong thing, as indeed stealing is wrong, but they have also slipped in your esteem, and you will never be able to see them in the same light again. 

At least it was so for me with my mother. As if she could no longer trust me, nor I her. Our Garden of Eden moment.

Scene two: The look of contempt on Mother Mary John’s face when I came to school wearing a ribbon around my ponytail that was not regulation blue but a pale imitation of it. The movement in her elbow as she jerked open the drawer of her desk to reveal a long line of lost ribbons, most of which she used to punish boys who had been too noisy in class time or rough at recess. 

The way she told such a boy:’If you behave like a girl, you’ll be treated like one. And she made him stand inside an empty rubbish bin with a ribbon tied around his head and finished in a bow. She made him stand like this on the veranda outside the classroom for the length of a full class period as a warning to us all. 

Of what? 

That we should not behave like girls, which was odd when you think of it. Girls were less likely to be rough during recess though they could have been high pitch noisy. But why the rubbish bin and why the ribbon and why her disdain with me for getting my uniform wrong. The cruelty of labels and the desperate human need to order things even when such ordering can leave others in situations of abject shame.

Such dreams

Last night as I went to fill the hot water bottle I prepare every morning and evening for the new puppy in our care, I over filled the kettle. I went to tip it as it continued in its rumble post boiling point and water spilled over my hand. 

This is the third time I’ve scalded my hand in this way. You’d think I’d learn, but no. I’m careless and always in a hurry to get the next move made, the next thing done, the next hot water bottle filled. I become superwoman who can resist such burns.

The delicate skin between my thumb and index finger right in the crook where the muscles join is now red raw, but at least it does not interfere with my typing.

The puppy is asleep again basking in the comfort of the red cloth covered hot water bottle, which emulates the presence of another life in its warmth, even though, unlike other life forms, it’s inert. The puppy has come to rely on it for comfort and it tends to last most of the day until the late afternoon when the puppy tends to kick into action and demands play.

Who’d have thought we’d take on another baby at this stage of or lives. A puppy is a baby of sorts with all the requirements of the most vulnerable life forms. It demands huge bursts of attention, especially in the evenings and first thing in the morning.

I sometimes tire of the puppy much as I tired of the demands of my infant children over the years. Though I remember well the urge to have another baby and another in my twenties and thirties when for a long time what mattered most to me beyond my career as a therapist was the business of getting pregnant and bringing new babies into the world.

Much as my mother had done before me. 

Who can resist such a tiny foot. How fast the babies grow.

It took an age before the urge stopped. An age before I could get a similar shot of pleasure from other events in my life and the longing for a new baby disappeared behind the weight of whatever next project evolved for me, most recently in the form of the book I seek to birth.

A writing teacher once reacted strongly to my suggestion that each writing project, each new book was like a baby. No, she said, we invest too much in our babies. You need to invest less in your book. You need to be able to avoid too much hope for its future, too much investment in the outcome. You need to let the book rise and swell – like a pregnancy perhaps – but you also need to be prepared to abort it if it’s not working. 

She did not use the human birth metaphors I use here. She used instead the language of people like Annie Dillard on the idea of a book’s structure ‘cantilevered’ in some seemingly miraculous way that only you can achieve in the production of a book.

Writing every book, the writer must solve two problems: Can it be done? and, Can I do it? Every book has an intrinsic impossibility, which its writer discovers as his first experiment dwindles. The problem is structural; it is insoluble; it is who no one can ever write this book. Complex stories, essays and poems have this problem, too – the prohibitive structural defect the writer wishes he had never noticed. He writes it in spite of that. He finds ways to minimize the difficulty; he strengthens other virtues; he cantilevers the whole narrative out into thin air, and it holds. And if it can be done, then he can do it, and only he. For there is nothing in the material for this book that suggests to anyone but him alone its possibilities for meaning and feeling. 

Forgive Annie Dillard her use of the masculine pronoun here. She was writing at a time when the masculine was the only way. We now know better. 

And the book I write is like the first dream of last night that comes to me now: I fell into it around 1.22 am – I looked at the clock when my daughter and her partner arrived home after a night out with friends. The dogs started to bark, and the older dog went off to share their bed upstairs while earlier she had shared ours. The younger puppy stayed in her crate yowling for maybe a minute to be let out but then when the door closed behind my daughter and her boyfriend a silence descended.

I floated into my dream aware that someone had littered tiny beetroot balls across the floor near the dog’s pen and my bed. I could not understand how they had come about, and I feared they might stain the place red/purple in the way of beetroot. 

I have not seen my father in dreams for many years, not that I remember but there he was in my dream, beside my bed, naked and insisting that he join me. I told him no, but he begged to be allowed in. 

He did not want to do anything to me, he said. He wanted only to lie beside me. I wanted to go back to sleep but my father towered over the edge of my bed clamouring to be let in under the blankets. 

At one point in this dream my son in law was lying on top of the bed beside me and my father stood over him, too. I could see my father was so enraged he could have leaned down and snapped the young man’s legs in two. But he resisted. 

And then I was again alone with my father. My mother had taken herself off to her bed in the middle of the house while my bed was propped inside the kitchen. 

I wanted to go back to this bed away from my father, but he was desperate. Naked and desperate. He wanted to be beside me. Not to do anything, he repeated, but he could not bear to be alone. 

I wailed and screamed, and he pinned me down. I pleaded with him to leave and screamed out for my mother. ‘Take him away from me,’ I begged her. 

I felt sorry for him but hated my father. I did not want to be with him no matter what. 

And I woke in a welter of perspiration and angst. The darkness of the night a balm to my overstretched mind. At least in this dream I could escape my father even without my mother’s help.

And a final word from Annie Dillard, who advocates ignoring your feelings when it comes to writing your book, much as my writing teacher, Janey Runci, proposed when she discouraged the book-as-baby metaphor. 

Ignore your feelings about your work. These are an occupational hazard. If you are writing a book, keep working at it deeper and deeper when you feel it is awful; keep revising and improving it when you feel it is wonderful. No matter how experienced you are, there is no correlation, either direct or inverse, between your immediate feelings about your work’s quality and its actual quality. All you can do is ignore your feelings altogether. It’s hard to do, but you can learn to do it.