The thing that made my dad do what he did is he didn’t put himself in the victim’s position. He knew what he did was wrong: in that sense, he had a conscience. I don’t think he felt guilty. Only powerful, in that he broke every rule of society.
The Marquis de Sade was very popular reading when I was in college. There was this idea going around that if you had qualms about transgressive behaviour, you somehow wanted to squash all individual expression. It’s like no one had ever read Eichmann in Jerusalem, they had never thought about what happened when an entire country, a would-be empire transgressed every rule of decency, or that maybe you ought to consider what rules you break and why. They didn’t seem to consider that transgression can give you a cheap thrill, a sense of power.
Transgressiveness gave my dad a sense of power. He liked that. It gave him a thrill, a high, an excitement and sense of purpose in life I think he must have otherwise lacked.
What he never did was place himself in the position of the victim. He never experienced their fate as if it were happening to him. There was something wrong with his brain.
I know I did that. Their bodies went through his machines and I saw my body going through them. I saw that anyone’s body might go through them. I felt intensely the fragility of my own body and of everyone else’s.
I didn’t, for more than 30 years, really grasp that we are fragile, but fortunately we are mostly not stupid and mostly not in the grips of a sadistic murderer. We don’t usually land up getting sliced to pieces, either dead or alive.
But I remember the first time I touched C’s skin. I felt so shocked she was warm. It was as if I had been bracing myself for all of my life against the feel of a dead body again, or at least bracing myself against the comparison and had not really felt anything sense.
I suppose what really happened is I have made the comparison ever since, dissociated the feelings, and never been able to connect those two particular dots.
Whenever she doesn’t respond to me, like when she doesn’t answer the phone, I relive that panic of the dead body. I relive wanting to revive someone who cannot be revived any longer. I relive that sense of the dead body as this thing that once responded and no longer does. I do my best to contain that panic and to not express it too much, but I have it. I can never quite get away from entirely, probably because I had not fully remembered all the dead bodies I encountered or felt the emotions connected with touching them. I dissociated some part of that and consequently the dots remained unconnected.
As I started to find a little bit of calm in me somewhere today, I began to realize that I am ordinary. These are things that happened to me. They are not quite the things that might happen to anyone, but they are in some way exterior to my ordinariness. I don’t quite know how to get at this. I do not have ordinary things in my head because of what happened, but I am an ordinary person.
My dad was not ordinary. He was a monster. He did what he did because there was something really and truly different about how he thought and felt. But I am just normal. I have all this trauma to deal with, I have all of these issues because of it, I have a personality to put together still, but I am still somehow completely ordinary.
This might be what a reader was recently trying to tell me: there is no pre-trauma self to return to. It starts to become blurred what is the person and what is an event that happened to the person, because there was never really a time before that kind of event occurred.
I remember in middle school, death haunted me. Well, wouldn’t it? My lover got beaten to death in front of me. I don’t know when I stopped playing assistant to my dad’s psychopathic workshop, but it was within memory. Her death touched off all the same issues, the same pain, and the same existential questions.
It gave me the sense of being unnaturally morbid, as though death were my personality. There was never anyone before I had death to come to terms with. That’s the kind of thing I mean.
It’s not that I can come through the trauma as the person I might have been without it. I don’t mean that.
Just I don’t need to feel tainted by it forever. I felt tainted when it happened. There was a sense almost of contagion to it, and I think that sense of being tainted has continued, because so many conversations I tried to have about some piece of it–not even the core part, but some other piece—have made it seem as though the knowledge of what happened needed to be kept away from the other person, as if it might be dangerous to them.
But I am not tainted. I am just ordinary.