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.

2 thoughts on “Cruelty and Need”

  1. This is such a heart rendering post. The role of ‘need’ (which is another word for vulnerability and powerlessness) in the systematic practice of cruelty is so painfully real to so many people.

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