Some names and other details have been changed to protect privacy.
If you were a man who lived in Washington State in the early 2000s and you threw a phone at your spouse or exhibited worrisome behaviors in front of your parole officer, you might have been referred to the anger-management program for men at Seaport Medical Center. For a year I worked in the clinic there as a research assistant, making handouts for the groups and role-playing with the men to test their ability to control their tempers.
When I began work at the clinic, I thought I would soon be applying to a PhD program in the behavioral sciences, like the other research assistants. Why else would I goad men with a history of violence into wanting to punch me? Ultimately I didn’t pursue an advanced degree, but my time there became meaningful in ways that had nothing to do with scholarship. Without that experience, I doubt I ever would have understood the aggression hiding inside me like a mold spore, waiting for the right conditions to bloom.
The psychologist running the sessions, Dr. B., was a tall, stocky fellow with eyebrows that twitched when he got excited. The way he lectured both clients and students reminded me of a minister, except instead of Christ’s love, the doctor talked about people and their emotions. He wore too-large suits and often had spots of coffee or food on his tie, but his professional swagger made up for his rumpled appearance. Dr. B. modeled his program on the ideas of psychologist Albert Ellis, who in the 1950s developed rational emotive behavior therapy. The idea was that if people could identify behaviors, words, or situations that sparked rage, they could make psychological preparations to prevent an aggressive response. We instructed the men not to deny their anger but to anticipate the feeling and recognize its physiological symptoms. We taught them to take their pulse, for example, and, if they had an elevated heart rate, to turn away from the rawness of emotion and toward a problem-solving mindset.
If you had asked me back then what attracted me to anger management, I would have told you that the subject was fascinating and important. Who wouldn’t be interested in it? I would not have mentioned that I felt empathy toward men who exhibited ignorance of their own emotions; that I even found them beguiling. I had been around angry men for so much of my life that a world without an aggressive male in it seemed flat to me.
The first such man in my life was my mother’s second husband, Dave, who had bipolar disorder and a history of incarceration. When Dave went off his lithium, he suffered mood swings and became paranoid, argumentative, and occasionally violent. After an angry episode Dave would sob and express remorse. Though I feared he might one day lose control and kill my mother, I always knew he would regret doing it.
From Dave I learned to apologize habitually, to avoid eye contact with men, and always to comport myself in an orderly and controlled fashion around them. I did this for so long that I came to believe it was my personality. An unflappable woman can go a long way in a male-dominated industry, and the diplomacy I learned as a child came in handy when I worked as a cook aboard yachts staffed by hotheaded male sailors. Once, aboard a boat in Barcelona, I lived alongside a heavily muscled engineer who routinely made jokes about rape. I was twenty, and while the other women aboard kept their distance from this guy, I took pride in my ability to tolerate him, assuring my coworkers that he wasn’t serious. I believed that listening to such crude rhetoric toughened me up. Even after some female colleagues resigned, calling the work conditions abusive, I remained steadfast in my belief that I had special powers to withstand the stress.
After a decade of placating volatile men at my job, I returned to school to study psychology—in particular, the makeup of the male psyche. I wanted to know: What made men tick? And what made women jump to the beat of that ticking? After I had taken every available psychology course, a professor suggested I find an internship in a mental-health field. If I identified a demographic I wanted to work with, he said, it would inform my graduate-school applications.
At first I worked at an organization that supported low-income families with supplementary childcare, but seeing bruised children enraged me. After that, I did a few stints at a domestic-violence shelter, but the sight of downtrodden women going back to their violent husbands (abused spouses return to their abusers seven times on average) gave me acid reflux. Then I heard about the anger-management program, where I could work with perpetrators rather than victims.
I remember sitting across from Dr. B. for my introductory interview and feeling magnetically attracted to his self-assured manner as he broke down anger and aggression into categories and subcategories. By the end of the second week of lessons, I was smitten.
Due to my upbringing, I had an instinctive familiarity not only with male rage but also with the excuses and explanations women make to accommodate it. “Men just can’t help themselves,” my mother always said. I remember wondering, But why? And even if her husband couldn’t help himself when he punched the wall, certainly after he cooled off he could help it, right? Instead, embarrassed by the hole, I patched it for him.
My mother’s excuses for men’s anger became my own. Although I didn’t think consciously about it, I regarded my employers as overgrown children. On occasion, when a male colleague was respectful and empathetic, I was delighted.
I think this is why I was so taken with Dr. B. A full-grown man speaking about emotions appeared to me as an illuminated being.
I wasn’t much of a research assistant. I could make handouts, but my poor statistics skills meant I struggled to process the data we collected. I preferred sitting in on individual intakes and group sessions, where men talked about their upbringing and, more often than not, the horrendous abuse they had endured from their parents. Especially harrowing was how disconnected these men seemed from their own experiences. They might describe getting a broken nose or arm, then chuckle and tell us that the violence had not affected them.
A few of our clients had swung a fist at a woman, and one had beaten up his girlfriend. Some had recently been released from prison and, after years of incarceration, didn’t know how to conduct themselves in the outside world. But the majority were what Dr. B. called “one-timers”—men with a history of verbal outbursts but only a single episode of violence on their record. They came to us because a judge had ordered a psychological evaluation. Dr. B. met with each man and his family to develop an individualized plan. He learned what sorts of things set a client off, and this became the basis of our group role-playing sessions.
The men in group didn’t know each other, yet they were required to share intimate details about their personal lives. Given their heightened self-consciousness among strangers, provoking an angry response tended to be difficult. Based on Dr. B.’s suggestions, a research assistant might call the man a “loser” or an “idiot,” but their wooden performance often caused the client to laugh rather than fly into a rage.
One day we were working with a client named Jeff when Dr. B. turned to me and said, “You try.”
I recalled some details from Jeff’s file: single mother, no dad in the picture, food stamps, beatings with a wooden spoon, dropped out of college. I figured a mother’s accusatory tone would test whether he could control himself. I put one hand on my hip, like a fed-up mother. “Jesus,” I sneered, “you heard what I said. You didn’t finish college. You don’t finish anything.”
The research assistants, slouching in chairs against the wall, sat up straighter. Jeff blinked. Then his brows arched, his hands opened, and his neck stiffened. Ten men waited for his response.
Jeff mumbled that he didn’t know what I was talking about.
I told him he knew exactly what I was talking about, that he hadn’t been born stupid; he just acted stupid.
Something about the word stupid upset Jeff. He cast his eyes at the floor and put his hands up. “Enough,” he said. “I have to stop.” He could not even look at me.
Afterward, when Dr. B. met with the other research assistants and me privately, I caught my fellow assistants staring at me as though I were a test subject they’d underestimated. I remember wanting to make a joke, if only to distance myself from the anger I’d displayed earlier.
Novelist and essayist Leslie Jamison writes, “The phenomenon of female anger has often been turned against itself, the figure of the angry woman reframed as threat—not the one who has been harmed, but the one bent on harming. She conjures a lineage of threatening archetypes: the harpy and her talons, the witch and her spells, the medusa and her writhing locks.”
It’s no wonder women don’t like to be seen as angry. Who wants to be the medusa? Perhaps if we’d been taught as children to express our emotions, we would have the capacity to feel anger in the same way we experience joy or boredom. Instead we deny it.
“I’m not angry,” a friend said to me the other day, after describing the bullying her daughter had been suffering at school.
The urgency of her tone contradicted her words, and before she could continue, I asked, “Wouldn’t it be appropriate to be a tad angry?”
This friend of many years sat a little deeper into her chair and crossed her arms over her chest, now truly pissed off. Through a clenched jaw she said, “You’re such an intense person.”
This didn’t sound like a compliment, but it made me laugh so hard that tears came to my eyes. Eventually my friend joined in.
“Intense,” I said finally. “Well, I own that one.”
Men may scream, but women are so socialized against expressing anger—and maligned when we do—that the mere suggestion of it registers as an insult. Doubly so for women of color. My friend had taken my suggestion that she might be angry as an affront. So she’d volleyed back. Thankfully we stayed with one another until the mood shifted to camaraderie and gratitude. All I’ve ever wanted is to know that I’m not alone in my feelings.
After that session with Jeff, Dr. B. counted on my acting abilities. Sometimes I role-played twice a week with men who had been incarcerated. This should have made me nervous, but my stepfather had spent a decade in prison before he had come into our lives. Although Dave wasn’t a hardened criminal, his violent childhood and mental illness had contributed to some seriously bad decisions. As a teenager he had stolen cars for joyrides and been sentenced to do time in a low-security facility. In his eighth and final month there, someone had dared him to escape. The attempt had earned him an additional nine years.
One afternoon at the clinic a group of five men sat at a table with Dr. B. and me. A new client, Michael, who had been incarcerated for six years, was talking. Out for two months, he’d already been charged with a probation violation related to what we suspected was road rage. (I heard so many stories of road rage at the clinic that to this day I avoid making eye contact with men in cars and assume every driver has a pistol in the glove box.) Anger management was Michael’s last chance to keep from committing a major parole violation.
“On the inside,” Michael said to the group, “respect is the fabric of life. The problem with the streets is that nobody respects nobody. And I just can’t abide that.” He spoke so forcefully that every word felt like a punch in the air.
The other clients nodded—whether from agreement or fear, I couldn’t tell. Four months pregnant and feeling vulnerable, I did not want to role-play with Michael, but I couldn’t tell the group this. No one knew of my pregnancy yet. Frankly I’d barely processed the news myself. So I did what was expected of me: I stood up to create an argument.
“I’m going to start,” I said, an announcement I didn’t ordinarily make. Dr. B. spun a finger in the air, his signal to let the games begin.
I think I called Michael a “no-good fucking loser,” a put-down one of my bosses had once leveled at me. I watched Michael’s hands form fists and the whites of his eyes get bigger.
Dr. B. leaped from his chair. “Good,” he said, and he pulled Michael out of the room as the five other men stared at me. I worried they could see the shivering girl I felt like inside.
Jesus, I thought, what are we going to do now? By we I meant that girl and me and all the other selves shaking in my shoes.
Anger is everywhere these days: at school-board meetings, political rallies, and on television news programs. A constant rage is simmering in people, and angry accusations and fearmongering are spilling out and saturating our public sphere.
Emotions are not rational. We can’t control having them, only what we do with them. If I feel terrible, the only way to mitigate this feeling is to be willing to engage with it; to register the cold sweat, the tightness in my throat, the constriction in my chest; to allow the rage into my awareness.
For most of my life I was conditioned against expressing negative feelings. So when anger sparks in me now, it’s quickly followed by disgust and shame. I have to surf that shame, allowing my feelings some space.
Sometimes the anger feels like a river rolling through my solar plexus and rattling my rib cage. Other times it’s like a gas engine pumped with too much fuel, revving and roaring until it smokes and catches fire. But as long as I can acknowledge the feelings, my brain is not hijacked. I am not held hostage by my emotions.
One night Dr. B. invited a man named Doug to speak. Doug had lost his job, and his issues with depression made finding a new one difficult. His wife had been pressuring him to look for work, he said, sobbing.
As Dr. B. began to turn to the whiteboard for that evening’s lesson, I spoke up and said, “Can we make a space to acknowledge Doug’s willingness to talk? It takes a lot of courage to show emotion in a group setting.”
The room grew still. Then another man said, “Doug has balls,” and he covered his own eyes and cried.
That night Dr. B. allowed the session to run forty-five minutes over. No one wanted to leave the room.
After that, I couldn’t stop interrupting Dr. B. during group sessions. If I felt one of the clients was really opening up, I would jump in to thank him and to recognize that showing vulnerability in a group setting is hard. Dr. B. remained expressionless when I did this. By then everyone knew that I was pregnant, and maybe he believed this was driving my lack of self-control. In hindsight it seems odd that no one asked whether it was appropriate for a pregnant woman to be role-playing with violent men. But I trusted the techniques we taught and believed the work was more important than any threat I faced. In other words, I minimized my fears.
I limped along as a research assistant for a few more months, even though I’d already decided I wouldn’t be applying to a PhD program. With the baby coming, pursuing an advanced degree seemed like too much. Not to mention that I had finally begun to wonder why the voices of the men in group rang in my mind for hours after the sessions.
A few nights later I was asked to drive a huge stack of receipts from the anger-management clinic to a billing office, and after I had dropped them off, I never returned to work. By then I was eight months pregnant, and I assumed folks would understand my quitting. I didn’t even write an email thanking the doctor for his mentorship. I told myself he didn’t read his email, anyway, which was true, but I suspect the real reason is that I was too busy worrying about my own mental health.
I would eventually seek help from a therapist. Finding a good one was difficult. The worst I interviewed told me that my anger reminded him of his ex-wife. Why, I wondered, was relating to an angry woman so difficult? Did the idea of an angry woman mess with male sexual fantasies of compliant partners?
When I finally found a therapist I liked, it felt strange to be sitting in a room with a man who did not make inappropriate jokes, meaningless banter, or flirtatious gestures. Instead Mr. Good Therapist took my words seriously and asked thoughtful questions. We had lengthy conversations about how thoughts contain emotions and emotions color perspective.
I came to see that, when I interacted with aggressive men, it left me without the energy to sit with my own anger. As long as I had angry men in my periphery, I remained blissfully unaware of the same feelings in myself.
But before I found help in therapy, I went through a long period of failing to understand why becoming a mother was making me so angry. Five days after giving birth I was standing at the window of our houseboat, holding my crying baby, when I suddenly visualized an eight-inch cook’s knife—so vivid I felt as if I could grab the handle. I saw scenes from my time as a cook on yachts, when men screamed obscenities at me and a belligerent captain ridiculed my crappy deck skills, demanding to know why the fuck I hadn’t coiled the ropes. I saw scenes from my childhood, my stepfather’s red, rageful face as he threatened to burn the house down.
I went to see a psychiatrist, who assumed postpartum depression—a credible, if not totally correct, diagnosis. Had she asked about my work history or my childhood, I might have started therapy then, but I was eager to get on with my life and took the script for Prozac.
No amount of serotonin, though, could anesthetize me against the side effects of becoming a mother. Caring for my infant was like being handed a window into my past. Childhood experiences I had not thought of in years blossomed in my mind, the sounds and colors brilliant. I saw my third-grade self playing tag on the playground when a boy grabbed my breast and twisted, leering. I saw myself as a tween standing helpless in our hallway at home while my stepfather yelled that my mother and I were going to get what was coming to us. I saw myself at twenty-two, bent over like a question mark as a marine engineer called me a stupid bitch.
These memories ignited rage like a flammable gas in the air around me.
I shared these feelings with my husband. What did he think gave men the permission to treat women so shabbily? Was our daughter going to have her boobs grabbed? Was she going to have to swallow her feelings the way I had to do to get along with men?
My husband looked at the screaming infant on my shoulder, then at me, then suggested gently that maybe it would be a good idea if I left the house sometimes.
So I joined a gym. There I spied a kickboxing class, and after watching sure-footed, laughing women punch a dummy bag for a while, I signed up. I purchased boxing gloves and learned to form a fist and stabilize my wrist before delivering a right hook. For a few hours, at least, I felt lighter, more powerful. “You go, girl!” the instructor cheered. Women gave me high fives. We bonded through punching our imaginary men.
Wanting to move on from punching bags, I joined a karate studio. I had grown up watching Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Xena: Warrior Princess, both TV heroines who used complex martial-arts moves to kick the bad guys into submission.
For my first year of training at the studio, however, I managed to avoid sparring with a partner. This seems incredible to me now—a bit like avoiding food in a restaurant. Advancement in the martial arts pretty much requires standing opposite someone who’s trying to take you down while you maneuver to get in a punch or a kick. Finally, though, the day arrived when we’d receive our belts. I stood in a line with sixty other students in wrinkled white outfits, all of us grunting as we punched and kicked the air. At the end of the three-hour session, I faced off with J.C., a man so large he could have killed me. But instead of trying to punch me, he coached me in how to pummel him.
“My throat,” he kept saying, raising his chin to expose his Adam’s apple. “It’s more reachable than my eyes,” he added, smacking his neck. His kindness was a fire extinguisher for my aggression. How do you punch a nice guy in the neck?
Afterward J.C. patted me on the shoulder. “We did it,” he said. What had I done, I wondered, except arrive at a heightened awareness of my inability to defend myself? I ducked into the bathroom and vomited lemon-lime Gatorade into the toilet, tears of helplessness sliding down my face.
I made an appointment with the sensei of the studio to discuss my problem. If I couldn’t spar, I asked her, what chance would I have of defending myself against a man intent on rape?
She stood from her chair, walked around her desk, and crossed her arms. It depended on the situation, she told me. “If someone has been waiting for you, you’ve got three or four seconds, max, before the assailant has you pinned like a rag doll.” She sighed, and her whole body seemed to shrink a little.
Three or four seconds?
Then she told me she kept a sword under her bed and a nine-millimeter Beretta in her bedside drawer.
I wondered: If I had a sword, and the occasion to use it arose, would I slash someone’s midsection? If he threatened my daughter, I decided, I wouldn’t hesitate. But if I were protecting myself, I wasn’t sure.
I’m still not. I’ve since had another child, and I’ve attempted to give both my daughters the tools and skills they need to be at ease with themselves. I’ve labeled every emotion for them. Feelings are signals, I tell them. Sometimes the feelings lie. We still have to feel them, though, and investigate their origins, if only to understand ourselves and neutralize the power they have over us.
My stepfather passed away thirty years ago. Sometimes I still hear his booming voice telling my mother and me we’re going to get what is coming to us. When I do, I close my eyes and calmly tell him, OK. All right. Burn what you need to burn. It doesn’t matter, because I’m the one still standing, the survivor of many gross and petty injuries, the boss of my emotions. I’m the one holding the matches.