la violenza, mia vita (2002)

Hatred and violence are in the hearts of human beings. - Thich Nhat Hanh

I began my day today with a quiet meditation on violence. I've no doubt that appears a strange thing for a pacifist, for someone who spends time in thought and action working towards nonviolence, because it was not on nonviolence which I was meditating. Violence is as much a part of my life, of my history and prehistory as anything else; perhaps more so than many things. Violence and its relatives have run through my life and my family with a sharp red thread, etching scars into the surface that stop bleeding, which fade slowly over time, some to nearly nothing, but even when they are no longer visible they stay, permanently etched into the viscera of my skin and soul. It is not a meditation that calms, or leaves me empty. It is one which stirs the pit of my stomach to nausea, which leaves my cheeks itching from salt, which sits, in the back of my throat like a bad taste in my mouth I cannot be rid of, no matter how much water I drink.

I was born to two parents whose lives were controlled by fear: whose patriarchs controlled with belts and broken limbs; with shouts or worse, silent stares; with stares that foreshadowed pain that would come momentarily if their wishes were not granted, a promise neither ever doubted. My father's brother once learned those stares had meaning when he was thrown from a second-story window to the ground below for doubting. He felt its meaning forever in a limb that would always ache when the weather changed. Their mothers -- my grandmothers -- would do little most of the time, still fearful and aching from other violence they'd survived in their lives: my paternal grandmother's loss of her first husband in WW2, her own passage across the Atlantic to leave her country behind for Mussolini to ravage, my maternal grandmothers life of scrounging for food, for shelter, for love, for faith: her life with profound poverty, the stepmother of violence. My father's first love ended abruptly when, as she was sitting reading a book on her windowsill amid the factories of urban Pennsylvania, a stray bullet from a nearby street fight tossed her book aside and took her life, and my father's residual droplet of innocence with it.

When I was barely two, my paternal grandparents and my uncles Albert, 13, Craig, 16, and Geoff, 17, went for a lazy drive through the winding hills of rural Pennsylvania with their neighbors -- likely one of the great few days of peace and leisure in their young lives, though overshadowed by a feeling of inexplicable dread -- and their car was hit by a trucker short on sleep but tall on amphetamines. My two eldest uncles awoke with their crushed younger brother on top of them, and purportedly with the heads of my grandparents at their feet. Being barely two, I wasn't told of the depth of the accident; of its terrible reality, but I felt that violence in the few years we stayed in my grandparents house, my mother struggling to rear then not just one child she hadn't planned on having, but two teenage boys whose personalities were ever poisoned by what they had seen; by the guilt of being asleep on the car floor, and thus, left physically unharmed. Being so young, I would never know why for years the sight of either of my uncles made me run away screaming, caused me to find a quick hiding place. Even now, I cannot know for certain, early childhood being so hazy. It may be one of them sought to release some of that anger and guilt upon me forcefully, as some of my recollections suggest. Yet, it may also simply be that I felt their anger in a quiet, buzzing and perpetual seethe, that the sheer force of its presence, there, under the surface and glistening on top, was terrifying. My mother recalls the fuss my grandmother put up before they left that day, carrying on in Italienglish about how she had this terrible feeling she would never see her granddaughter again. My mother thought she was simply being dramatic, and that hysteria would haunt her for years; one of the few fuzzy visual images I carry of my paternal grandmother is of her waving goodbye and kissing my cheek with a face wet from crying. I have no way of knowing if the memory is actual or projected.

When I was six years old, shortly after my great-grandmother left us in Pennsylvania for an apartment in Florida, her home was broken into. At the age of 76, she was robbed, raped and murdered. Again, no one told me at 6 what had happened but only that she had died. I felt the afterburn of it as we packed up and drove back across the country to Chicago, in the heavy silences of my parents; in the sadness and horror of their quiet breathing.

Not long after we moved, the arguing that was constant in my household would erupt into full scale wars, with screaming, with crying, with fighting well into almost every night, followed by hard, stoic quiet in the morning. That anger lashed out at me at times, like flames eating up one home sometimes lick the house next door. My father left not long after. I hung my head out the apartment window three stories up. I begged him not to leave, and he cried back that he was sorry. I hurled my teddy bear out the window at him in anger, but ran down shortly to retrieve him, horrified at my own small act of violence. Teddy was there on the sidewalk. My father was gone.

When I was seven years old, just able to walk through my neighborhood by myself, I took a shortcut to the park one day with a friend. In the alley we walked in was a tripod of steel poles which looked fit for climbing. I climbed to the top, then felt myself falling, saw a moment of fear on my friends face and the next thing I knew I awoke with a pain in my head and half my right hand two feet away, with what remained a grisly pulp of skin and visible tendons and bone. My friend was gone. I didn't panic -- my mother being a nurse and a natural rescuer, I had attended many a grisly accident scene with her and was used to seeing things like this by that early in my life, from mangled motorcyclists to head-to-toe burn victims. I was more afraid of being alone, and more angry at the loss of my hand than anything else, and so I shouted mouthfuls of obscenities until someone found me and then walked with a stranger, carrying the remains of my hand in my palm to my mother. My hand was reconstructed -- not perfectly, plastic surgery wasn't the art it is today in the 70's, but all in all, pretty well -- but I lost the ability to expertly do some things I had aspired to,I felt what the price of even small freedoms could be, and I then had very visible and obvious scars to go with my burgeoning emotional ones.

Then, there was a period of my life in which violence did not interrupt every peaceful moment. My mother and father were happier no longer tethered together disharmoniously. I spent fanciful weekends with my father, my mother filled the house late evenings with the other nurses she worked with, laughing, sharing drinks,acting like the girls most of them had never had the chance to be. But it was during those years that anger crept into me softly -- anger, brother to violence -- and it began to appear in small things: in drawings, in childlike poetry too dark for its age, in small cruelties to my younger sister, in the fist fights I would dare neighborhood boys to enter into with me.

I would revel in feeling control and power, the two-headed mother of violence, in which every bruise or spot of blood I would inflict, or every cut or scrape I received myself was a trophy. I became proud of my prowess, of my own violence, harbored uncomfortably in pigtails and overalls, and which argued late at night with its father living within me in tandem: fear.

Not long after, one date of my mothers would lead to more dates, to dinners, to slow introductions that children aren't supposed to see coming, but I did. And I hated him -- truly hated him -- on sight seen. At dinners he took us out to, I would kick him repeatedly under the table throughout. I would try to sabotage his attempts to woo my sister to his side, which were fruitless: my sister never knew our father, and thus craved one of her own, and likely any would do. My sister missed out on most of the fighting, on our lives in Pennsylvania: she had no such anger, and she did not have one of the few gifts exposure to violence gives us, which is precognition of it, which while sometimes does appear in the face of a cousin, paranoia, often is grounded very much in reality; in a horrible knowing of its presence and its promises. My own presence was stifling, and I was sent to live for a while in California with my aunt. When I returned home, both I and violence had a new family member: I had a stepfather, and its cousin, resentment, had come to stay.

That same year, I nearly gained a stepmother as well, but she opted instead to put a bullet into her head and was discovered a day later, her two-year-old wandering about the apartment in soiled diapers with bloody feet, crying. She would be the second woman in my father's romantic life who had died violently.

Over the next few years, the coals of conflict would crackle with embers waiting for kindling. The beginning of my puberty would arrive synchronously with my mother's new marriage, with a move to a home in which we were made to feel like guests, not residents, in which the anger and violence I saw in the face of my stepfather when he first entered our lives would come home to roost. First it appeared in small things: in teasing and taunting that went under the guise of good humor, little pokes and prods about how fat or ugly I was, about how clumsy I was, about how much trouble I was. The prods would go deeper and continue, spanning over years, coupled with shouting, with the locking of my door, with more hiding under the bed. Casual comments that everyone could see the breasts I was developing eventually turned into night spent forced to a chair, told in detail how those same breasts could be mutilated. (Those years are a set of several in my life that I simply am not yet comfortable talking about, for my privacy and that of my family, in detail.) It was like a series of masks: my mother turned into my grandmothers, mostly passive and silent, my stepfather relived my grandfathers abuses on my parents with me. I felt its legacy, deep in my gut, like how it feels when you're hungry; how it feels painfully hollow, but not empty.

I stared smoking at 11, the same year our hairdresser took me into a back room of his shop to fondle me unenjoyably and with a passive consent provided by shock alone; an incident I spoke nothing of to anyone. I snuck out of the house at 12, trying to find joy in freedom, at least, until that same year I was sexually assaulted by a gang of young men in the back of a van in a series of events I will never be able to remember, in which being knocked unconscious was a gift I will ever be grateful for. When violence oversaturates, we begin to be thankful for those aspects of it which cause only physical pain, and enough of it that we begin to feel the raw edges wear off the emotional, making it harder to cut so deep. I didn't open my mouth about the blood on the toilet paper a week after my attack.

I took up with bitterness, cousin to violence by marriage to resentment.

Over the next couple of years, I tried to turn my fear and pain into angry power by slashing myself with razors, by popping any pills and other assorted chemicals -- organic and otherwise -- could find, by half-baked suicide attempts, by stealing just because I could then passing out my booty freely to gain favor and awe. I said yes when every other girl would say no, to anyone who would ask, and I slid my mouth over the genitals of others in a mishmosh of apathy, calculated cool, and a deep longing to magically turn my pain into pleasure, even if that pleasure wasn't mine.

When it all hit fever pitch, after an endless series of fights and rows, nights on benches, locked doors, threats of commitment and homes for delinquents, an angel fell unto my doorstep just when I needed him. I remembered some of my innocence, I remembered not being so scared. I fell in love for the first time; a long, swift rabbit-hole tumble. I gained a pile of bravery -- not bravado, my longtime companion and yet another cousin to violence, but bravery -- and I shrugged off a lot of anger.

But anger, violence, is a tricky net: it pulls in those around you and even if one of you lets go and squirms out, it still leaves others within it, and so more times than not, you can only escape it one at a time, and so I tried to go first. I got out of my home, I hurled the blood and gore that followed me unto the sidewalk as I ran, and I managed a few days of escapism before, like my father with his love years before, I found my actions and my renewal usurped by a bullet to the head, by a police-taped apartment I walked around crying in with bloody feet as I scavenged it. It took me years to see that when violence taints us, it leaves a very unique stain, and we seek out others just as unwashable simply because they know, they understand, what we carry. We do not have to try and fruitlessly explain it, explain living violence to people for whom what is televised or done with thousands of dollars of special effects is the only visceral violence they know. But in doing to, we come back to the net: we forget that those who share it with us may well still be caught inside themselves, and some of them will be unable to get out. My angel, my high school boyfriend, his father had driven his car purposefully into a lake when Matthew was just 2. His mother went insane, and when she took to chasing him with knives, he was hurled from foster home to foster home; he was beaten at three, molested at two. His way to get out of the net was the same way he got in: with violence, in a haze of Quaaludes and gunshots to the head.

It was overkill for me; the last bit of violence close to me that I could handle. For a long time, after a series of days spent unable to speak or even eat from weeping and shock, I did what most people seem to as a reaction to violence: I turned off and I tuned out, I went numb, which was extraordinarily easy to do. I set myself into physically and emotionally dangerous situations to see if I'd pass the test and still be left disaffected, taking up with the sister to violence, despair. I spent plenty of the remaining years of my adolescence that way, slowly digging myself out of my own apathy and stupidity, but every step involved having to revisit everything that hurt so much. I finally stopped testing myself when it became clear that I'd either pass every test and simply care less and less what happened to me or others, or I'd die trying. It became clear that one of the lone powers I held over violence was refusing to let it take me as a willing victim as it had so many people and things dear to me. It became clear that while it was a part of me, a part of my family, and a part of the world I lived in, I didn't have to like it, and I didn't have to let it have its way with me without some fight of my own. I remembered that while violence was a part of me, a part of my family's legacy, so was love, and so was nonviolence, something I was perhaps more equipped this far down in my line to practice than any member of my family before me.

Violence and its family -- its parents, fear and power, its stepparents, poverty and helplessness, its siblings, anger and despair, all of its cousins, and its progeny, loss and injury -- are a part of my family.

Like family, you can leave, you can disown them, you can even separate yourself entirely from them and never share a word or a moment together again, but you cannot remove family from yourself: you are they and they, you. At the end of the film Amores Perros, the director's dedication was this (translated): "We are also those whom we have lost." And we are, whether that loss has been of those dear to use through violence, or whether it is the loss or removal of that violence itself (though in our culture, there is no fully escaping it). It is why, abhor it as I do, and work as I do to keep it out of my life, my actions and reactions, out of my fears and worries, I have to also love it a little because it is a part of who I am, and it is, in fact, the part which keeps me from it and keeps me keenly aware of its influence, on me and all around me, all at once. I cannot see violence and be apathetic or detached. I cannot find it entertaining or fun, even when I know it is fictional or fantasy.

I do keep it close to me, rather than try and escape from it. I study it, observe it, feel how it clenches powerfully in my belly like the beast that it is. I have no doubt that some of why I do that is out of fear; I keep it close to me, beside me, because I am afraid that without that keen awareness, it will creep back into my life like a viper and I will continue its horrible legacy, likely in ways that are small and unnoticeable at first, but which, by the time I have noticed them, will be more profound, larger, unmanageable; which will have me back in its net with others I have unwittingly dragged in with me. I am afraid that if I allow myself distance from it, it will breed the apathy that allows it to be permitted at best, and endorsed, celebrated, congratulated at worst.

I have many readers -- enough to come as a great surprise to me -- who are war veterans or people in the military. For a while, I hadn't been able to figure out not only why they would want to read me -- pacifistic antiwar me -- and certainly why most of them seemed to agree about things I have said about violence, things which have angered many people who most certainly had not fought wars, or readied for battles. But it is clear why: because it is their family too, violence is. They know it intimately too, they have seen it without blinders or special lighting or the distance of a television screen and it is a reality, not a concept, for them. They are too wise to think not to revere it, or to take it at all lightly, in any respect. We are blood relatives, they and I, different, but linked closer than more benign commonalties could make us.

But keeping it so close has its own pitfalls: when the attack on the World Trade Center happened last September, I was not in the shock many other people were. I was deeply saddened, but I was neither surprised nor shocked. That acceptance of violence, that intimacy with it can, on the surface, make one look cold or unfeeling. On the other hand, my abhorrence of violence has often met with anger or violence, with the sentiment that I simply must not understand how violence may be needed or that it can have a nobility of its own. Of course, I do know violence; certainly not as well as someone who grew up in Bosnia or Cambodia, but I know it. Yet, I cannot share my own history with every passerby, it is exhausting and it is intimate and personal, and glossing over it in sound bytes doesn't serve it with the proper respect and reverence I feel it needs to be given to revere those it touched or took. While I do believe that violent acts can, in rare circumstances be kinder that not (such as, say, shooting a half-dead dog to remove his pain), I don't think that most of us, myself included, have the wisdom, the understanding of the consequences, nor enough experience with life completely devoid of violence to be able to exercise sound judgment as to when violence is "right" and when it is "wrong."

n. Date: 14th century
1 a : exertion of physical force so as to injure or abuse (as in effecting illegal entry into a house) b : an instance of violent treatment or procedure
2 : injury by or as if by distortion, infringement, or profanation : OUTRAGE
3 a : intense, turbulent, or furious and often destructive action or force b : vehement feeling or expression : FERVOR; also : an instance of such action or feeling c : a clashing or jarring quality : DISCORDANCE
4 : undue alteration

It is the fourth definition, the most obtuse, of violence that resonates most soundly with me. Once you get past the blood and the gore, the sounds of squealing ties or smashing poles, the screaming and the yelling or the horrible silences, the terrible, terrible sound of a single bullet being fired, what you are left with -- what remains and creates the legacy of violence, is that undue alteration: of life, of living, of faith in things and people. It is what should not have happened, but did, because someone did not know their own power, or the power of another, or something else. Because anger, self-hatred or helplessness became unbearable and unmanageable. Because in a world where so few of us are empowered in the most basic ways, violence is an easier way to get that empowerment than waiting, or asking, or making it oneself. And in many cases, because until any given act of violence occurred or was done, we were not intimate enough with violence to understand the depth of its power and its horror.

I will be 32 years old this year, and very few years of my life have passed in which I was not exposed to some level of violence, and in a good half of those years, in which I was living with it side-by-side. I've studied it immensely, I have drowned myself in its presence, I have thought about it, talked about it, created with it, courted it, fought with it face-to-face, skin under my fingernails, and I have watched it like a hawk and I still really don't understand it. But I want to. I want to understand it perhaps more than I want to understand anything, because what it all seems to boil down to is that violence erupts -- when it is man-made -- from a lack of understanding who violence is before it is too late. I want to understand it because I know it is in me as much if not more so than anything else, and if I cannot understand it, then ultimately, I cannot understand myself, the world I live in, and all the dark places I came from. When I say "understand" I do not mean to find the logic in. Violence is unbelievably logical and rational, far more so that love, far more so than compassion.When I say understand, I truly mean to accept, rather than fight; so that I can accept it for what it is -- for what it really is, as hard as that can be -- recognize and revere its power, rather than giving it more fuel with fear and anger, let it pass by and accept what its less recognized progeny, its bastard son, perhaps, can be. If we really feel and understand the awful legacy of violence, we can perhaps find the one fine thing it can create, an infant child from its own rib: nonviolence and compassion.

We have to protect it from its terrible parent. All too often we let it eat its own young, and we stand, averting our eyes and holding out the salt and pepper, dissociating ourselves from it, convinced we are not a part of it, or if we are, that our part is noble because we cannot consider the fact that it may not be. But there we err, because we are a party of it, and it a part of us. It is part of our -- and I know it is part of mine -- family. And to understand it, I don't know that there is any other route besides letting it stir the stomach to nausea, swallowing the salt from your cheeks, and putting down the water to stop trying to wash the bad taste out.


© 2002, 2004 Heather Corinna. All rights reserved.