January 28, 2014 § 1 Comment
Thaddeus Gunn on the origins of his recent Brevity essay, “Slapstick“:
I was less surprised than I should have been when my grandmother told me that she had “crowned” my mother with a milk bottle when my mother was a child. She offered it as an example of how much better kids had it in the modern time than when my mother was a child in the 1930s.
I was in junior high school at the time my grandmother told me this. It was the 1970s. Corporal punishment was still legal in public schools. In addition to swats with a wooden paddle in the principal’s office—something I’d only ever heard of—I saw children pulled from their seats by their hair and ears in the classroom. Slapped across the face. Kids kneed in the stomach, or kicked in the kidneys as they sat on the floor. Once a student had his tongue nipped by the teacher with a pair of scissors for talking too much. It drew blood. Once the principal in my junior high grabbed a boy by his belt buckle and yanked him right up off the ground.
This was simply the way things were done, at school and at home. The most strict teachers and principals were lauded by parents and the school board alike as exemplary disciplinarians.
Add to this that it was the Vietnam Era. No amount of violence perpetrated at home or at school could match a photo spread from My Lai. Nothing could exceed the violence of the three assassinations in a single decade, the four dead in Ohio, the five dead before the riot at Pontiac Central High in our neighborhood, or the bombing of ten of our school buses in August, 1971, by the Ku Klux Klan. The external violence seemed to ameliorate if not normalize the local.
Abuse is a bewildering and over-simplified subject on both ends: The abused are viewed as helpless and pitiful (or worse, potentially violent), and the perpetrators as one-dimensional, soulless monsters. Abusers are many times among those you love the most and that you are the most eager to forgive.
My mother is not a monster. Nor were we her victims. If we were victims of anything, it was of an immense, faceless anger of unknown origin that rolled down through the generations, one that none of us could either escape or comprehend—except perhaps only as harsh laughter at our own predicament and violent compassion for each other: perhaps only as slapstick.