9. Loaded Stories

 

I don’t normally write nonfiction. Surely the potent influences of Star Wars, Stephen King, and Dad’s love of telling a good tall tale gave me a strong desire toward fictionalization (novels, some shorter stories). But mostly I think it’s these loaded stories of the 1970s—my father’s murder, my mother’s rape, Dad’s claim of revenge murder—which at different periods of my life were at various stages of incompletion, or still to this day contain plenty of mystery, that pushed me toward fiction. But it’s hard to write fiction when you’re steeped in more interesting stories that are true. Are mostly true? They assail you. They stride into your creative life, brutishly laughing and toying with you, even as you loudly, confidently declare an intention to avoid such topics. 

When I did incorporate the childhood stories into my fiction, it was mostly about Mom’s early years and Paul’s murder, or Dad’s stories, all of which could operate in a more distant way. After all, it’s interesting. It’s historical. It’s the kind of material you don’t often read about. Or, if you do, it tends toward nostalgia, full of wildflowers and rebel music and clothing. Something about innocence. Mom’s gang rape, however, while also fitting into these categories of interesting and under-discussed, was untouchable. Partly this was my own limitation. The type of fiction I’d come to write required me to get up close and personal. It was an intimate sort of writing. But when I started to think about Mom and that event, I reached a flatness, a profound disruption of my faculty to envision. Then just a deep rage. It was simply too extreme. The truth was too brutal, and it short-circuited my imagination. No one, I’m sure, can imagine their mother in such a situation without feeling a visceral sort of hatred and urge toward violence. Sure, a Hollywood blood-fest revenge fantasy can be somewhat cathartic, but when it’s your own situation, when your adult self is transported back to the scene of the crime, those twitches along your arms, that fist you’re clenching, is something real and alive—a famished beast hungry for red meat. Then you get little flashes, not of memories, probably, but cruel fragments, more likely those same Hollywood depictions recast with your family members than anything based in reality. All you can imagine is doing what Dad claimed to have done. And this isn’t some kind of satisfying contemplation. It’s not creative pain. It’s all rancid, spoiling the very quality of your thoughts. And that’s without even contemplating myself. My child self watching men with guns terrorize my mother, terrorize me, before taking her away to that alley to send their underground message. 

Certainly there’s the aspect of wanting to protect Mom. She doesn’t like talking about this, so even what I’ve written here, though it has her support, doesn’t appeal to her in the least. Then there’s the subject of the unknown events surrounding Sunshine’s aspiring drug trade, and Billy’s story, what really went down there in Venice Beach in ’75, within months of my biological father’s murder 2,200 miles away. All I know is what I was told about the actual events. Mom, too, doesn’t know much. There are others who know the real stories, what was really was going on and why. To simply leave these parts out makes the story untrue. And what of the consequences? What would happen if I spoke of it? Could Dad get arrested—or worse? Might others come after him, us? Not to mention the race factor, always a knotted topic in our society, where the old brutal legacies, the reprehensible race-hating acts along our country’s march toward a deeply tainted, lopsided prosperity, continue to play out in our daily lives to one degree or another, whether guided by goodwill or ill will, and which only seriously complicates matters. As the years have passed, Dad’s story about revenge has come to seem more and more unlikely. I asked him directly near the end of his life if it was true that he’d helped kill the men who gang-raped Mom—members of a gang who, one at a time, raped my mother. He said he simply didn’t know. The real and the fictional had merged. Telling stories over and over again had rendered them real, overwritten true memories, obliterated lived experience. The damage caused during his stroke and the years of severe chronic illness, not to mention all the substance abuse, had only exacerbated the matter.

Also, to make the creative process even more exciting, I’ve developed an unfortunate distrust for people like me who tell stories to gain emotional advantage or simply to attract attention. I’m not so much referring to Dad’s storytelling ways, which had their entertainment value, even if I took them completely seriously as a kid (after all, there was nothing that pissed Dad off more than a lie), as to my own stories of tragic or bad events. I distrust it mostly because of the manipulation factor: self-serving, coercive, narcissistic. Sure, at first it feels good. Aside from the sympathy it elicits, you feel important. Over time it develops into part of your identity. You’re an important person with serious opinions and such. People may look at you differently, give you a little more space to move around, but they pay attention. Less obvious, however, is the insidious dehumanizing fallout: essentially, they expect less of you. So when you function adequately, you should be proud of yourself. You resent the implication that you are inferior—that it would be understandable if, as expected, you functioned below normal standards—that you need special provisions and consideration (do you even know what “normal” means?). That you should be held to a different standard, one that others are imposing upon you under the auspices of help, concern, pity, when really they’re feeding their own emotional needs as much as they’re assisting you. It’s a tool of control, patronizing and ultimately damaging. I’m not saying that some of this isn’t good: it is, from the right people who understand, really, what’s at stake and what they’re engaged in. It has helped me and I’m sure it has helped others. But providing too much compassion and understanding, trying to help, can enable a vulnerable person to overindulge in self-pity, the gateway drug to helplessness and self-destruction. And I’m not just speaking of the victim version: one natural extension of “poor-me” self-pity is that I should look down on others who haven’t had murder and rape stories in their life. I should feel stronger, hard-core. I (think I) am better than them because I’ve suffered more. Sure, they may make more money than me, have healthy, loving relationships, boisterous giddy children and fulfilling lives, but where would they be if they’d grown up with the consequences of real violence in their lives? 

So I wrestle: with fiction, with truth, with stories. I wrestle with anger.

***

 

I’m no model of self-control, but over the years I’ve learned to contain my anger. I experienced the worst of it during high school and my early years at community college in Ventura County, but it’s been twenty years since I’ve done any self-cutting or sent a line-drive punch toward an inanimate surface. I get loud and argumentative sometimes, but I don’t really yell—not like I used to—and it’s rare for me to do even that in true anger (I’m more likely to just shut down and get quiet). Still, there are moments, usually involving some sensed arrogant ill will or domineering aggressiveness when the old deep anger says, “Hey old friend, how the fuck ya been?!” 

Feeling left out can make me irrationally angry, depending on the circumstances. Sensing cruelty or manipulation or abuse, or feeling trapped, or flagrant insults or a lack of consideration for others, quickens my pulse and clouds my thoughts. I’m a more secure person that I was in my twenties, but I still doubt myself at times, which generates the self-loathing brand of anger. My main trigger, though, is aggression. I feel compelled to meet aggression with aggression—and, to a lesser extent, to stop and repel the more passive versions of influence and control, such as guilt trips, or being plied with nonsensical smiles or unwarranted compliments that are more common ways in present-day California of getting someone to do something. I know it’s better to not let these things get to you. These things get to me. It feels exaggerated, immediate, makes so much sense in the hot moment. 

I’m not suggesting I’m a fighter: ironically, Dad’s fighting techniques haven’t been vetted among my fellow men, as I’ve never been in a full-fledged fistfight. Or maybe that’s not ironic at all. Why does it feel like a matter of life or death? Why does it feel like if I started I couldn’t stop? That, once I get a taste, I might like it, come to crave it? The old paralysis continues. Is it healthy? Should I find out? Am I just a coward, afraid to get my ass kicked? I suppose that week I spent in Ventura County Jail back in 1993 (for two moving violations and failure to appear in court), shortly before moving to San Francisco, gave me a good bad taste of the potential penal system–related consequences of seriously hurting someone, but you can’t be afraid of that, right? Nevertheless, despite the unlikelihood that I’ll ever get into a real brawl, the urge to fight, the impulse to start swinging, returns now and then, perhaps inspired by a guy threatening to kick the shit out of his girlfriend on the bus, or a belligerent bicyclist who deliberately speeds within inches of my nose while I’m in the crosswalk, or some drunk dude in a bar pontificating about how much California sucks and is full of pussies, unlike where he came from, where the real men live and do real-man things. Can you feel it? You gonna let these assholes get away with that shit? 

These urges aren’t the now-comical fantasies of high school, wrapped in grandiose heroism or righteous reprisals. It’s just ugliness. It’s a peek at that icy state at the edge of anger and rage, our most dangerous place.