Learning to ride, falling down, getting back on
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I’m sitting in a darkened movie theater, watching as Helen Mirren, portraying England’s monarch in The Queen, happens upon the stag the royal family has been hunting. The animal’s so magnificent he brings a lump to my throat. Not a shot has been fired, and already I’m a mess, my tear ducts revving up at the mere suggestion this creature might get hurt. In the background we hear the sound of hunters approaching, and I almost can’t bear the thought of what will happen next. When, at the last minute, the queen takes pity on the poor beast and waves it away, I’m so absurdly relieved that the tears run freely down my cheeks. I glance furtively at my partner, Cathy, who’s cursing under her breath because she can’t get the wrapper off her second box of Junior Mints. I feel ashamed of my weakness and grateful for the dark.
I’ve always been a sucker for sentimental movies, though it’s only in the last few years that I’ve regularly come unhinged this way. I know I’m being manipulated, often in the most obvious manner, but I just can’t seem to help myself.
Last month it was the shameless Rocky Balboa, in which the aging, good-hearted prizefighter once again triumphs heroically against all odds. By the time the movie ended, with a montage of people of all shapes, sizes, and ages running Rocky-like to the top of the famous steps in front of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, I was fairly swooning with joy for the underdog in all of us. The month before that it was Little Miss Sunshine, whose wry, heartwarming scenes of dysfunctional-family love and loyalty induced near seizures of misty-eyed pleasure.
I can’t imagine what’s happened to me. Nobody cries in my family. Nobody. Not ever. The most unrestrained show of emotion I’ve ever witnessed in an adult family member was my father blowing his nose briefly at a funeral — for both his parents. And yet here I am, hiccuping through my tears like a nine-year-old girl because a deer, a movie deer, might come to a bad end.
To my dismay, the animal’s escape turns out to be temporary. Not only does the deer end up being killed, but, in what I consider a despicably low tactic on the part of the filmmaker, he’s only wounded at first and takes a long time to die. Suitably, the wound is inflicted not by the royal hunting party but by a guest staying at a neighboring commercial estate: a rich, heedless investment banker who murders a surpassingly beautiful animal for no more reason than to hang a trophy on his wall; a man who, as if further proof of his bad character were needed, is a lousy shot.
“Aye, Mum,” the estate’s Scottish caretaker ruefully tells Queen Elizabeth when she comes to view the animal’s carcass. “We did our best to line up the shot for him, but it wasn’t enough, you know? He wandered for miles before we finally were able to bring him down.”
“I hope he didn’t suffer too much,” returns the queen as she strokes the dead animal’s now severed head. My response couldn’t be more reliable if I had a button on my forehead that said, PUSH HERE FOR TEARS.
Despite my current propensity for weeping at the movies, I’ve spent the better part of my life buttoned up and dry-eyed — publicly, at least. This has been especially true in the company of family. The last time I cried in front of my parents, I was about twelve. I recall standing on the steps that led down into our den, where my mother and father were watching television, and blubbering that I felt there was, in the parlance of the day, a “b-bad vibe in this house.” I hadn’t planned to cry, having learned years before to avoid such displays, which were as off-limits as walking around the house naked. It was probably as much the acute discomfort of openly stating how I felt as it was any particular sadness that caused my tears.
My mother, who spoke of “feeeel-ings” with the corners of her mouth drawn down, as if talking about somebody’s unbathed children, merely looked up at me suspiciously from her spot on the couch.
My father’s equally predictable response consisted of an embarrassed half smile, either on behalf of his crybaby son, or from the awkwardness of the moment, or both.
The trouble with outlawing feelings, especially the softer variety, is that one is left to hammer away with the coarser ones that remain. Thus, when our family cat — an animal I loved — was run over, I could choose between anger or no emotion at all. Though it’s possible to get by this way, there’s a price to be paid. By the time I was a teenager, I couldn’t bear the quite modest stabs at intimacy my father initiated every half year or so. Because he knew from bitter experience my reaction to his attempted heart-to-hearts, he would pick places where I couldn’t easily escape — usually the family car. Forging ahead out of a sense of paternal duty, he would begin cautiously, as if I had just returned home from a state institution: “So. Alan. How are things going?”
I knew he was trying to be a good dad, and that these attempts at closeness were far from easy for him. But they were even harder for me, because I had the additional handicap of being a kid. Telling my father how my life was going, or even just the names of my teachers and whether I liked them or not, felt like giving up little pieces of myself. So I’d shove my body as close to the passenger door as I could and fend off his questions with hostile monosyllables. We spoke so rarely that every sentence felt steeped in subtext and seemed to carry the weight of our entire relationship.
“I hear you have Mr. Johnson again for English this year.” (It would be nice if you’d tell me something about how your life is going these days.)
“Uhng.” (Please leave me alone.)
“Didn’t I once hear you mention that you thought he was a good teacher?” (Don’t you love your old man just a little bit?)
I hated myself for being such a jerk, but my self-loathing served only to deepen my rage. “I can absolutely feel his anger,” I overheard my father telling my mother one night. “Why is he so angry with me?” I lay in bed, staring up into the darkness, doing my best not to listen. I had no more idea than my father did why I was so angry. I wished someone would explain it to us both.
Whether in movies or real life, I’ve never been able to stand anything to do with animal suffering. This intolerance feels as much a part of me as the color of my eyes and has only increased with age. With each passing year I find myself trying harder to avoid all stories on the subject, but, like every other kind of bad news, they’re everywhere. I recently read in the morning paper that the “sport” of dog fighting is all the rage in Russia. I didn’t read the whole article, of course — I know better than to do that to myself — but before I could help it, I’d already absorbed the photograph of two dogs fighting, along with the caption explaining that the pictured canines were in the “light-heavyweight division.” I resented the paper for printing the article nearly as much as I did the men who partake in this activity. It’s just one more mental picture I’ll have to spend the rest of my life trying not to see.
Now that I think of it, picture is too weak a word to describe what I carry around in my head. More often they are fully imagined, three-dimensional crime scenes. After fifty-six years, my mind has become a veritable wax museum, containing tableau after tableau of animal suffering and abuse, each one blocked off by yellow police tape in a vain attempt to keep myself out: drowned dogs and hung cats, tortured cows and burned horses. I once read (my apologies to sensitive readers) about a man in India who kept an elephant tied to a tree for nearly its entire life. I have a whole room in my museum devoted to that one: there’s the elephant, the tree he was tied to, and the guy who did it. In a just world, someone would tie him to a tree.
It’s not only horror stories reported in the media that I find so troubling, but also the lesser, everyday cruelties that are so common most people seem not to notice. But I notice. There’s the dog a few blocks away who’s so fat he can barely walk. There’s the German shepherd tied up for hours at a time at a neighborhood used-car lot. And there’s the beagle who lives in a multimillion-dollar house at the beach where Cathy and I sometimes vacation. We walk our two Italian greyhounds along the sand, and no matter what part of the day we go by — morning, lunchtime, three in the afternoon — he’s there, watching us from the same second-story window with a magnificent view of the Gulf of Mexico.
Cathy thinks I’m overreacting on the basis of too-scant evidence. Ever the voice of reason, she says that for all we know the beagle has a great life, and his owners walk him at some odd time when we’re not around, perhaps very early in the morning. But I don’t think so. I think the situation is just what it looks like: one more miserable dog being cruelly ignored by negligent owners.
I know this is neither a healthy nor a wise way for me to live. Nor is it practical. And if I’m going to get so worked up about a few canines, how can I in good conscience not get at least equally worked up about all the suffering children in the world? Why don’t I have a wax museum devoted to them?
Up until I reached puberty, I had a type of mild emotional synesthesia: in my mind’s eye, each feeling carried with it an associated color. Fear was bright red. Happiness was yellow. Anger was a shade of purple. Loneliness, a feeling I experienced a lot as a kid, was an institutional and deflating pale blue. What the source of my loneliness was I cannot say, but it was never far from the surface, ready at any time to break out and swallow me whole.
Supper times in our house were often bathed in purple, as my mother, an indifferent cook, resented having to prepare dinner for three ungrateful boys. My father ate later, after he got home from work, so it would be just my brothers and me at the table. Her low-grade annoyance would occasionally blossom into full-blown rage, though her words were as predictable as if she’d been working from a script.
“They’re not children of mine!” she’d begin shouting, slamming cupboard doors for emphasis. “They’re not even children! I don’t know what they are,” her tone becoming more reflective now, her voice trailing off, as if she were genuinely at a loss as to what we might be. Then the triumphant cry, as if she’d found the answer to some particularly nettlesome crossword clue: “I know what they are! They’re not boys. . . . They’re creatures!”
My brothers and I would look at one another speculatively, trying to discern whether or not what she’d said was in any degree true. Although we never talked about it, I think we all understood that she was calling us the worst thing she could think of. A “creature,” in her mind, was devoid of thought and feeling, a kind of soulless insect. Years later, when I read Franz Kafka’s short story “The Metamorphosis,” in which the protagonist turns into a cockroach, I wondered wryly what mealtimes might have been like at the Kafka household.
Strangely, I don’t recall those meals as being particularly painful. My brothers and I would just bow our heads and let the words rain down. Mother had her “moods,” we were given to understand. Best to keep out of her way as much as possible until the storm clouds had passed.
Decades later, having stumbled into Alcoholics Anonymous a beaten man, I was having coffee with my new sponsor and thought I’d tell him about this curious lack of feeling. My sponsor explained that alcoholics tend to repress their emotions, and because repressed feelings are an impediment to sobriety, it was important to uncover them. Skeptical, but figuring I had nothing to lose, I began to tell him about my childhood, rummaging through tale after tale of family dysfunction, as if rifling through dresser drawers for misplaced socks. I told him about supper times and breakfast times and report-card times. I told him about how my mother had spit on my younger brother, and how my older brother had been sent away to a mental institution. I told him how my mother used to show us the bills from that pricey institution, complaining that my thoughtless brother was going to ruin us all and wondering, at least implicitly, why we weren’t doing anything about it. I felt then, as now, detached from these experiences, as if they’d happened to someone else — or, if they had happened to my brothers and me, as if they had not been nearly as bad as they sounded.
I was just about out of memories when I recalled the time my mother had been late picking me up from a Cub Scout meeting: I was seven, and as the other kids disappeared happily into their mothers’ cars, I became increasingly anxious. Soon I was all alone on the sidewalk. It was a late afternoon in winter, and the sky was beginning to get dark. Anxiety gave way to fear, then to panic. Convinced that something terrible had happened to my mother and not knowing what else to do, I began walking in the direction of my house, which was on the other side of town. I wasn’t even sure I knew the way. I hadn’t walked very far, perhaps only a hundred yards or so, when a car slowed down, and I looked up to see my mother gesturing for me to get in.
“Where do you think you’re going?” she asked angrily. “Isn’t the service around here prompt enough for you?” I don’t remember whether I cried or not, but whatever my reaction was, it evidently displeased her, because she became even angrier, accusing me of near-criminal ingratitude and then — perhaps I was crying by now — of being a baby. The contempt in her face was plain and searing. It hurt then, and it hurts now to think of it. And though at that age I couldn’t have identified by name the emotion I was feeling, it was nonetheless quite familiar to me and came with a color all its own: shit brown.
One of my fondest childhood memories is of my family gathering in the den on Sunday afternoons to watch movies on television. My parents would sit together on the couch, and my brothers and I would sprawl on the floor in front of them. We had only a couple of channels to choose from in those days, and only one that showed movies, so whatever was on had to be fine with us. And it was: war movies, adventure stories, screwball comedies — all in black and white, of course. Those Sunday afternoons allowed us to come together and enjoy one another’s company without the hazards of actually trying to converse.
My mother, especially, seemed happier at those times. Her face would soften, and she’d call me “Aly Pal,” a pet name I enjoyed immensely, though I pretended not to notice. When the movie was over, we’d order Chinese food and gather around the small kitchen table the way I imagined other families did all the time.
These days Cathy and I watch old movies on cable television with our two dogs, Harry and Moe: our version of a nuclear family. Cathy usually knits or crochets, while I almost always have a newspaper or magazine at hand. For one thing, I know some of the movies by heart. For another, I just might need something to hide behind. Even movies I’ve seen many times can get under my skin, depending on my mood. Today it’s Twelve Angry Men, about the behind-the-scenes workings of an American jury. It’s by no means a tear-jerker, yet here I am snuffling away behind a battered New Yorker magazine. I find the climactic scene particularly moving — the one in which Lee J. Cobb, the last holdout for a guilty verdict, collapses in a heap and cries bitterly over his ungrateful son. (“Rotten kids . . . You work your life out.”) He then admits that he, too, believes the accused to be innocent.
I think of how I was an ungrateful son, and how my father deserved much better than I gave him. As much as these memories pain me, I never cry over them — perhaps because in recent years I’ve done the best I can to make sure he knows he’s been a good father to me. Or maybe it’s because there are certain things that are too painful to weep over, things that, as Wordsworth wrote, “lie too deep for tears.” Is that why I’m able to read stories of suffering children — at least, up to a point — yet can’t abide any tale of animal abuse? No. It’s a nice try, I give myself that, but I’m going to have to come up with a better explanation for why I’ve got such easy access to the “cheaper” feelings, while others, no doubt more authentically painful, more elemental, often seem out of reach. An old pal of mine from high school died recently from a heart attack. I’d shared many formative adventures with him, and his friendship once meant a lot to me, but when I heard he’d died, I felt mostly numb.
And yet my heart breaks over the death of an animal in a movie. What is it about animal suffering in particular that I find so upsetting? If all tears are ultimately selfish, am I perhaps substituting their suffering for my own? Is it possible I was so wounded as a child, so shamed, that to this day I remain in some sense unworthy of my own sympathy, my own love? Contemplating this and the implications it has for the way I’ve lived my life, I feel at once profoundly saddened and utterly dry-eyed, perhaps in just the way Wordsworth had in mind.
Like many couples who’ve been together for a long while, Cathy and I will abruptly pick up weeks-old conversational threads. So she doesn’t miss a beat when, halfway through Twelve Angry Men, I start in again on the beagle whose evident neglect and loneliness I can’t seem to shake off.
“If his owners are so rich,” I demand, “why don’t they just hire someone to walk the damn dog?”
An insightful woman, Cathy peers at me over her half glasses and asks, “Leaving aside the fact that you really don’t know for sure what goes on over there, why do you always insist that everyone and everything be happy before you can be happy yourself? Don’t you know that’s impossible?”
Unable to come up with some sort of credible response (probably because there is none), I reach over and take Harry, who’s sleeping next to me, into my lap. The smaller of our two dogs, he’s impossibly sweet and moans with pleasure when you pet him. When he hasn’t seen me in a while — say, two hours — he’ll climb up on my lap and put a paw on each side of my neck, then press his head against mine in a perfectly executed human-style hug, his scrawny tail swishing back and forth like a metronome set to full speed. It seems just a short time ago that he was small enough to fit in my hand. Now he’s three. Too fast, I keep thinking. I know it’s dumb to resist the passing years, yet I’m powerless to stop. I’m old enough, and have had more than enough pets, to dread the pain to come.
A breeder once told me scientists have shown, by means of brain scans, that canines have more-intense emotions than people do. Though I can’t find anything on the Internet about these findings, they certainly wouldn’t be news to anyone who’s ever had a dog.
I give Harry to Cathy and pick up Moe, who’s been looking up at me anxiously, as if worried I love Harry more than I do him, which of course isn’t the case. I stroke Moe’s short blue-gray fur and think about those brain scans. It’s nice to imagine that, for once, animal experiments are being conducted that presumably don’t hurt their subjects and might actually promote their welfare. Who knows: maybe someone will hear about this research and think twice about harming an animal. I doubt it, but it’s possible. Beyond that, simply having scientific confirmation for something we dog lovers have always known seems like a good thing — that is, unless one is thinking about a certain beagle who spends the better part of his days in an empty house with what I can’t help imagining are institutionally pale blue rooms, days that for him must stretch without end, his nose pressed up against a picture window. From that point of view, it’s hard for me to imagine anything more heartbreaking.
Alan Craig’s essay “Push Here for Tears” [January 2008] resonated with me. I, too, find animal suffering impossible to bear, and I don’t have any more answers than he does as to why this is so. I grieve over human suffering, too, but if animals are being hurt, I have to turn off the TV or shut the book. Their misery feels like my own.
I do rescue animals (I once tried to steal a beagle that was being neglected), and I have felt the joy of placing abandoned pets in loving homes, but I don’t volunteer at a shelter because I fear I’d be incapacitated by the loneliness of the caged, often doomed animals.
Craig’s essay has encouraged me to look for some insight into the roots of this “malady” he and I share.