Lola, Ever and I made our way finally to the toy part of Target, which Ever believes IS Target: her personal playground to roam freely, driving enormous dump trucks, tucking dollies firmly under her pudgy armpit before tromping around with their legs dangling helplessly, kicking balls in the aisle. I walk steps behind her, cleaning up her mess like Rosy The Robot, occasionally whispering One toy, Kinny! ONE! Today was no different, Lola debating if she was truly and all the way past the Disney princess doll stage, Ever mucking about, me dutifully cleaning up. Then it rang throughout Target- the absolutely unmistakable voice of a man bullying a child. I am expert at this; some can name bird calls with one trill; I can point out the average frustrated, overtired and stressed father snapping at his kids from the spirit crushing, emotionally abusive father every time. One note, hanging in the air, and my stomach plummets, my ears burn, and I fight the ridiculous urge to leap on a fully grown man and smack him in the face. I convey this to you with equal parts shame and pride.
I picked Ever up and tried to look casual as I strolled down the aisle and turned my head toward each, no, not this one, this one, this one- here he is. Towering over his child, a little boy of maybe 7 years old at the most, with a defiant scowl, arms crossed tightly over his chest, face cocked upward, occasionally pulling his hands apart to slap them over his eyes and drag them down to his chin in the heartbreaking way small people do when they are attempting to control their behavior, and to stop themselves from crying. The father was yelling even louder now. You know what selfish people do? What YOU are doing. I don't know if you know what selfish is, but it's you. Do you want to be selfish? DO YOU? I heard the little boy answering in a low voice, and then his father's booming reply That is NOT for your friend, that is for YOU, that is selfish, how are they going to play with that? They aren't! And you know it! His voice dripped with contempt for his own son. As I stood holding Ever I felt my arms begin to tremble and my face redden. An enormous fury was climbing it's way through my veins and bubbling out my skin. The Man kept on: GET BACK HERE RIGHT NOW DAMNIT! You aren't getting anything! Nothing! You hear me?! That's it!
I rounded the corner of the next aisle and listened. Everyone around me was listening. Every adult there, at least 20, was listening, shoulders down, eyes looking for the source of the noise, faces in grimaces of both disgust and discomfort. For two or three more minutes, The Man went on, and I looked hopefully at the father's faces around me, strapping, good sized men who would have no physical fear of The Man, who was himself 5'10, 170 pounds, simply dressed, nothing ferocious or terrible about his appearance. The fathers looked at me and looked at their children and no one said anything. Soon I saw that The Man had a friend with him, a man in his early 30's, bright red, bristle stached, humiliated, dragging behind his friend like a repressed child. He was clearly upset. Not upset enough to say something. To do something.
The little boy sprang out from an aisle and his body was trembling like a rabbit in the snare, face curled in a snarl, fists tight. He had moved from fear to rage. I remember that so well from my own little years. He was arguing, snotty voiced, mocking. The mocking comes with a complete and total decimation of any respect the child had for the parent, once they realize that the parent is totally out of control, childlike themselves, reactionary and most of all filled to the brim with self-hatred and a fear of being exposed as nothing, emotionally incapable of handling the most mundane and repetitive tasks of parenting: the constant demands and pushing of children who always want more than what they have. The parent hates themselves, and the child's disrespect is always, to their dissonant hearing, a sign that the child somehow knows the parent is unworthy of respect, and so the parent is overbearing, loud, snappish, reactionary, and finally, mocking, cruel. Once this realization has occurred, only a total rehabilitation of The Man into a real man could fix the disrespect now lodged into the child's heart. Nothing The Man tells him will ever resound or have authority, because the child knows The Man does not act as a man in the world, but as a child. Half of me cheered him on, fight boy, fight, it will keep you alive! And the other half despaired: what would The Man do in the face of such defiance? Escalating fury is what I expected, and what happened. His voice broke it's thick depth and crested a pitch in fury that rang out over the entire half of Target. Get back here right now you are going to get spanked until you cry when we get home do you hear me?
Ten minutes had passed. Ten minutes of a tirade.
I checked on Lola. Fine. I gathered Ever.
Half galloping a few paces behind The Man dragging his mocha skinned, doe eyed little guy behind him, I yelled: I do not appreciate listening to you scream at your son like this- and he turned around.
Shut up, he spat, and kept his striding.
Your son is going to hate you when he grows up if you keep talking to him like this!! I was truly yelling now, furious at my inability to stop him from taking that boy out the door and raising him for the rest of his little life. My chest heaved, sweat drenched my shirt. I kept on: He's never going to talk to you again once he can escape! He looked back at me, face in a mysterious activity of the brain, and rounded the pillows. That was it. He was gone.
I cried and cried on the way home. The cycle breaks my heart in a terrible way: it is intolerable that we ( the sociatal we ) cannot find a way to protect children, to help them, to speak up when they need us, and then how furiously! how righteously! how thunderously and indignantly we punish them when, as teenagers, they turn into law breaking, drug using, drinking, disrespectful, hardened and sarcastic people who come across as if they have little depth. who come across as if who come across as if---
as if-- they had spent their most vulnerable, tender, sweet and good and kind years having their souls and hearts ground into raw meat by their parent or loved one, and no one helped. No one stopped it.
In high school, I hung out with many groups over the four years, and one of them was the 'no goals, no respect, lazabouts ' group. Without exception, each one had their own story about The Man. Sometimes, The Woman, or The Uncle, but always someone who stole their sense of safety, who took from them not only their happiness and peace, but also the faith that adults take care of children, that adults help children. Because for them, there had been no help. And now, restless with a hidden grief, they found themselves unwelcome and unloved at every turn, and embraced instead an alternative idea: that the world and it's adults were all bullshit fakers, and the only real thing was to admit it's all fucked, and give up.
If this little guy spends the next ten years of his life like this, what do you think he will be at 20? Will he be a beaming, prideful young man full of promise and health and interest in the world and people around him. 1 in a 1,000 can do that on their own. The rest need intervention. Help. Unconditional love. Therapy. Fucking travel, experiences, bonding, groups, education, art classes, apprenticeships, but dammit, they do not need jail time and scorn and condemnation and a community of tongue clucking judgement.
I thought these things as I drove home, and then turned this framework on The Man. This is the key. The framework always turns. What we believe the deepest truths to be hold true for our friend and our enemy, our closest loves and our worst fears. Most children, most young adults, are capable of change, love, growth, happiness. Maybe The Man had his own Man. Maybe he had been hurt deeply, and was now full of inchoate rage, turned toward his son.
The point is not blame, but reality. If we refuse to admit that of course, most chronically abused children are not happy and successful adults, but alcoholics, addicts, criminals, abusers themselves, then we can never address the problem, stop the gushing of the arterial wound. I passionately believe that if every young person had a person who stuck their nose in, who became deeply involved, who cared beyond a smile and a prayer, our adult population would be an entirely different animal. Hardly a revolutionary idea. So if so many believe this, then why did no one at Target speak up? I don't understand. All the people around me in this nice suburban town, probably most of them church goers, 'good people'. This man screamed at his son for ten minutes before he left. Think about how long that is. Ten minutes and the toy section was almost deserted by the time he left, when it had been teeming. Everyone got THEIR children away. But the little one who was receiving this abuse had no where to hide.
His father might need medication. He definitely needs therapy. He might need an aural cleansing, for all I know. But whatever he needs, he won't get it in the silence of an emptied out Target, where the only sound was his own terrorizing voice, tearing apart the innocence and spirit of his child.