It’s New Year’s Day of 2014, and I’m feeling confessional. (Not in the legal or moral sense, more in the poetic sense.)
I get the impression that I am widely regarded, by those who know me and those who follow my work and my social network postings, as an angry person. I can’t really deny that, I suppose. Being an angry person has become deeply unfashionable, these days; when the cult of positivity reigns supreme over (at least) American West Coast culture, a surly motherfucker such as myself stands out like the drunk asshole at a rave.
Of course, things are more complicated than they would appear to be. I am, in my personal life, a generally peaceable person: despite what you might think if you only know me through my writing or the public persona I seem to have generated, I am generally a polite, non-confrontational person. In many ways, tools like Twitter serve as safety valves for the rage that often hits me. I say horrible shit on Twitter so that I don’t say them in real life.
But I am an angry person, there’s no doubt. But I don’t think many people — especially people who are focused on positivity as a force for change — understand why I’m angry, why anger has always been a very literal survival mechanism for me. If you’re someone who cares enough about who I am as a person to be curious about this, I figured I’d maybe provide some insight, even if it’s highly unreliable and subjective.
When I was about two years old, maybe two and a half, my mother was pushing me in my stroller at a swap meet in North Texas, where we lived, when she realized a woman was following her, focusing on me with a particularly intensity. It frightened her, until the woman came up and introduced herself as a child development researcher from the University of North Texas. She told my mother that she’d noticed me pointing at signs around the swap meet and reading them aloud. Did I do this a lot, she wondered?
My mom shrugged. Sure, she said. She assumed it was normal. (My mother was barely old enough to legally drink at the time.)
The woman assured her it wasn’t, and asked if my mom would bring me into UNT to be tested, which she did — she told me later that she sat there all day, listening to me occasionally crying from within the office where the woman and her colleagues were doing whatever they were doing to me.
Finally, the woman came out, and told my mother that they’d like to keep me for further observation. It worried my mom. Was there something wrong with me, she asked?
Quite the opposite, the woman said. It turned out that, according to their tests, my IQ was completely off the upper end of the chart. I was some kind of weird mental mutant, and they wanted to basically figure out what the hell was going on with my brain. But the whole situation creeped my mother out, and she politely declined.
I grew up in a very odd way; probably the closest media depiction to my childhood I’ve ever seen is the 1991 Jodie Foster film Little Man Tate. Mom was, mostly, a young single mother who worked a series of low-paying gigs as a waitress or caterer or music critic while she focused on her career as a singer/songwriter. We lived in shitty little houses in shitty parts of town. The first time I saw someone murdered was when we lived in the Dallas suburb of Addison, thanks to some sort of gang fight in the front yard of our apartment; I must’ve been about four years old. Later, we became semi-nomadic, living in Tennessee, Montana and Wyoming, as well as various spots around North Texas.
My grandparents, however, were…I’m not sure I’d say they were rich, but they were definitely upper middle class at the least, and there were probably times when my grandfather cleared over a million dollars in the 1980s, including investments. They took a very active interest in my development, and though my mom did not very often take their money, she allowed them to pay for my education.
Because of this, I mainly attended private schools until eighth grade — Montessori schools and British style prep schools, where I was surrounded by the offspring of Texas’s economic elite, the scions of vast oil and ranching fortunes. Every morning, my mother would drive me from whatever downtrodden ‘hood we lived in to these schools, which often had ivy carefully planted to grow up their red brick walls and where the boys and girls wore uniforms and school trips were to Aspen for skiing instead of some nearby state park for S’mores and campfires.
I get the impression that I often attended these schools on some kind of scholarship, due to my IQ scores, which were routinely above 180 on the old Wechsler scale. I was reading at a high school level by the time I was around six years old, when my favorite books were C.S. Lewis’s Chronicles Of Narnia, which was also the time when I first began writing simple BASIC programs on the Commodore VIC-20 my grandfather bought me; when I was nine, I fell in love with Douglas Adams and Stephen Hawking; when I was ten, I read It by Stephen King for the first time. Since very early childhood, I’ve been a speed reader, averaging between 500-1500 words per minute, depending on the complexity of the text. I have no sense of needing to comprehend text, or even a lag between seeing a word and understanding it — I read as fast as my eyes can move. There’s no translation between character and concept in my head. Even as a child, the only time I remember having to spell out words was when I was around three or four.
Child prodigies usually follow a pretty standard path in life: chess and classical music lessons, advanced science or math, off-the-charts academic achievement. And that was definitely the direction my grandparents pushed me in. They bought me chessboards, paid for violin lessons, bought me the latest computers. When they had parties, they would get me to come out and deliver mini-lectures to their friends about the books I’d read, like some kind of fucking trained animal.
The problem, though, was that all of my intelligence lay in what people often erroneously call “right-brained” activities. Chess bored me; I was crap at violin; I was fascinated by the concepts of astrophysics but I was utterly uninterested in the math. I liked writing text adventure games, but I couldn’t wrap my brain around the rigorous side of coding. I hated puzzles and brain teasers. I was more interested in writing fantasy stories or little songs. I was useless at all the little feats of prodigy. I was endlessly verbal but not especially analytical. I loved playing with Legos and using my G.I. Joes to make up stories about heroism and sacrifice, but I got quickly bored with the microscopes and other science toys my grandparents would buy me. I’d lose the extra lenses and the little bottles of dye for staining samples.
I was also an awkward, irritating child. I talked constantly, and because I couldn’t speak as fast as I could think, my words fell all over each other, my drawl making me nearly unintelligible. Most adults found me irritating — and because I was completely uninterested in the hallmark obsessions of 1980s Texas childhood, like monster trucks and the Cowboys and Garbage Pail Kids and WWF wrestling, other kids just hated me.
I cannot remember a time when I was not deeply depressed. Even as a child, I was intuitive enough to be aware that I was completely socially hopeless and something of a disappointment to my family — especially my grandfather, who was a self-made and driven electrical engineer who constantly reminded me of my failure to live up to my potential, which seemed to him a terrible waste of the money he was spending on my education.
I also can’t remember the first time someone punched me in the face.
I was badly bullied from preschool right up until the day I walked out of high school, my junior year, never to return. I was called names and mocked, of course, but I was also physically abused by my peers, punched and kicked and slapped on a regular basis. Hardly a week went by when I wasn’t physically assaulted to some degree; and each school year, I could expect at least one fairly hardcore beating, which of course got more serious as time progressed. I got my first broken nose when I was thirteen, from a girl I’d never met before, at a house party; I still have no idea what I did to earn it. Riding home on my bike from my eighth grade prom, some drunk rednecks ran me off the road, ruining the suit I’d borrowed from my great-grandfather for the occasion; and I’ve written elsewhere on this blog about my experiences with guns.
If you’re wondering why no one in a position of authority intervened in this, why no adults stepped in…well, the fact is that most of the faculty in the schools I attended probably loathed me as much as their students. I was a smart-ass know-it-all kid who never, ever had any respect of any kind for arbitrary authority. I was constantly disruptive in class, because I was almost always bored out of my mind. Some of those teachers and administrators were better at hiding their dislike than others; some of them were pretty open about it. I remember the first time I really understood that, sitting across from the principal of my school — being aware that I wasn’t just a professional irritation to him, but that he actively disliked me as a human. It made me feel like I had nothing to protect me from the world’s sharpest edges.
And so I was miserable. I was so miserable, in fact, that at the age of eleven, my family sent me to a therapist, who promptly put me on first Elavil, and then lithium, after the Elavil caused me to go on unprovoked, uncontrollable crying jags.
I think that was around the time that I began to hurt myself in earnest, bashing my head into walls.
That was also the year I got expelled from my first school, for fighting with one of the teachers’ kids: he hit me and ran away, and I chased after him, screaming obscenities at the top of my lungs. (Remember, I was by this time an avid Stephen King fan, and this provided me the kind of vocabulary that you might imagine.) I think when I caught him I tried to beat him up, but of course I was useless at it.
It didn’t matter who started it, of course; what mattered was that I was the one who got caught, who disturbed the peace. I was angry at being hit, but I was even angrier because it wasn’t fucking fair.
I think I remember the moment at which my perpetual dogged sadness became something different. After my expulsion, my scandalized grandparents made it clear that they were done with trying to provide me with an excellent education: I was on my own.
So eighth grade was the Gee School in Pilot Point, Texas — a good old-fashioned junior high with good old-fashioned approaches to dealing with freaks like me. Including, as it turned out, corporal punishment.
I can’t remember my math teacher’s name, and I can’t remember what I did to earn my punishment — I think I was more disrespectful than usual, and I may have called her a name. Certainly not good behavior on my part. But I do remember being summoned to her room after school to take my whuppin’. It was a big wooden paddle, with holes drilled in it so it would hurt worse.
She got one lick in before I grabbed it away from her, threw it done, and walked out. I remember my absolute, implacable rage, clear as day. I was tired of people hitting me, and I didn’t care if it was a teacher, or if it was condoned by the school, the Texas Board of Education, God and sonny Jesus. I was just done. If not with the beatings, if not with the petty cruelty and monstrous indifference of the universe I moved in, I was at least done with accepting it. I wasn’t going to be a victim anymore. I was going to fight back.
There’s a scene in the movie Good Will Hunting where Matt Damon talks about his father’s abuse. “He used to just put a belt, a stick, and a wrench on the kitchen table and say, ‘Choose.’”
“Well, I gotta go with the belt there,” says his therapist, Robin Williams, but Damon shakes his head. “I used to go with the wrench.”
“Why?” says Williams. “Because fuck him, that’s why,” Damon replies.
That. Precisely that.
And I never did let anybody hurt me again. Oh, I got my ass kicked from here to Christmas Island, and not just once. I lost a lot of fights — literally and figuratively. But I didn’t let it happen. I fought back. I gave as good as I could, and sometimes as good as I got.
Once, when I pissed off one of my mother’s boyfriends, a big dumb fuck named Marty, he gave me two options: I could let him lock me in my bedroom for three days without food or water, or I could let him go after me with his horse whip. (He was a professional hunter’s guide.) So I let him lock me in the bedroom…and then I kicked out the window and went to stay with friends until it blew over.
There was nothing noble in my anger. I was a nasty little shit, confused and enraged and smashing into the world like a wounded beast. I’m sure I made my family’s life a living hell. But it was anger or oblivion. It was all I had.
And sometimes my anger failed on me; sometimes the sorrow would get the best of me, and that’s when I’d go in my bedroom or go get drunk in an alley and cut myself with a knife or a broken bottle, or stand on the edge of a high building and think about what it would be like, the sudden leap in my stomach as I jumped, and those last few whirling seconds of misery before everything just went the fuck away. I think the first time I really, honestly contemplated suicide, I was probably twelve or so.
I never really seriously tried it, even the one time I cut my wrists in public like a massive asshole emo kid and got held on a 5150 in California. (They can hold you for 72 hours, but they kept me overnight; in the morning, the doctor on duty at the psych ward said “Do you feel like an idiot?” I said yes. “Are you going to do this again?” I said no. He let me walk. Hey, I was nineteen. There was a girl. Sigh.) But I seriously considered it a lot. Truth be told, I still do, sometimes. Sometimes depression grabs ahold of me and leaches all the color out of the world, and I tell myself that nothing matters, that I’m still a waste of potential, that I’ve never done anything important or valuable.
And the thing that keeps me from doing it, every time, is my absolutely refusal to give the sonsofbitches, whoever they may be, the satisfaction. Why not commit suicide? Because fuck him, that’s why; fuck him and fuck you and fuck the uncaring, cruel universe.
I’m angry because the world is cold and unfair and it doesn’t have to be, and I’m never going to get past that bedrock of betrayal, that original sin. I’m angry because I believe in a better world, and because I hate the things and the people who stand between me and that world. And because, as Johnny Lydon once said, anger is an energy. It’s a sword and a shield that you can use to keep the black-eyed dog from sniffing at your door, a way to protect yourself and stand up for people who can’t stand up for themselves. You don’t cry; you snarl and sneer.
I’m not saying this is right, or the best way to face the world. But I’m old enough now to understand that there really is no right way to live; all that matters is you find a way to survive in the world. For some people, the world is a Burning Man camp where you embrace the change you want to see in the world; for others, the world is an alley fight and you get your back good and hard against a wall and you don’t let the motherfuckers get you off your feet. The universe is big enough and weird enough that both of these things can be true simultaneously.
There’s a line at the end of the movie Se7en that I have taken, this last year, as my credo; it is for me the equivalent of the motivational posters and inspirational quotes many people post on their Facebook walls and in their cubicles. At the end of Se7en, Morgan Freeman says, in a mournful voiceover: “Ernest Hemingway once wrote: ‘The world is a fine place, and worth fighting for.’ I agree with the second part.”
That. Precisely that.