My mother once told me – no that’s not true – my mother many times warned me: “If you ever sell any of my jewellery after I’m dead, I’ll come back from the grave and bite your toes.”
I don’t know if she meant she would nibble on my toes, or fully eat them, but I was petrified of her doing the things she threatened. My mother, after all, was a crazy bitch.
I don’t mean that for real, because I don’t think the phrase “crazy bitch” means anything beyond its derogatory raison d’être – it exists purely to make women fear their own rage, their own feelings. It is a nasty little word-prison and we are made to dread its confines.
Every time I raise my voice in the market at my CB of a daughter, or say something rather provocative to a person who has demeaned me, I remember to catch myself, to look around and check who has heard, what khaki-panted man has now won himself the right to say he saw me in the street, at the market, he saw me yelling at my child, my husband, the greengrocer, and that man can say, “Yes, I saw that woman, I remember her, that one, and she was a real crazy bitch.”
What I’m interested in is why we’re not interested in what happened right before such-and-such woman acted like a crazy bitch.
I can tell you what happened one night, right after my father died and right before my mother did, when I was in a taxi coming home to New Jersey from New York City, and I was late making it back to my mother who determinedly gave herself cancer in the mere weeks after my father’s death. I was preternaturally nervous that I was going to be late making it home, because my mother had taken to assuming every late arrival was a fatal car accident, like the one my father was in. I asked the taxi driver to hurry a bit, my phone was dead, I couldn’t call my mother. And the driver made a comment under his breath about what I was rushing home to, some man, probably, who was going to be angry at me.
Which enraged me, because he didn’t know the pain I was in, he didn’t know the pain my mother was in. He didn’t know the way we both woke up at the same time in the middle of the night, having heard his voice in our dreams, and ran around the house to see if he’d been hiding in a closet, if we’d only just missed him. The body in the coffin was a joke, a nightmare, of course the head of our family would not be dead, my beloved father was not dead, how dare the world.
And now here was this taxi driver, this stranger, making comments about me being out and worried about what some man was going to say or do to me, when there was no man around at all; that, in fact, it was the loss of the only man I’d ever loved that had me feeling this incredible fear, and the fear metastasised into rage and I screamed at him, the classic: “What did you say!?”
The driver, quite predictably, became enraged at my rage, and he turned the car around on the highway, he made an illegal turn on a dangerous stretch of road, and he started driving me back into New York City, away from my home, from my mother who I knew was waiting by the window, anxiously parting it with her nails that she no longer filed.
I was so angry, not just at the driver, naturally, but at all of it, all the death and illness I’d had to endure when everyone else I knew had only to think about dating and the best place for cocktails that month.
I began to thrash in the taxi, kicking my legs at the seats in front of me, pummelling the divider that separated the back seat from the driver. Of course I was screaming the whole time, “STOP THIS CAR, MOTHERFUCKER!” and I kicked and shrieked for what felt like many minutes, thinking how I hoped he would take me somewhere and try to kill me, because all I wanted to do was draw someone else’s blood. But I didn’t get that wish, I had shown the driver I was a crazier bitch than he, I had screamed louder and crazier until he finally let me out on the side of the road and it took me another hour to get home to my mother, who was crying and smoking cigarettes at the kitchen table. I’m sure I don’t have to tell you what the driver screamed out the window as he sped away.
What I’m interested in is why when men act out of rage, we step aside, we let the lions have their space, we nod our heads in tacit understanding. But when women do it, we are wild, irrational, circumspect, diseased. When we are young and angry we are unruly, on drugs. When we are old and angry we must have never gotten what we wanted. We must not have been laid in a very long time.
What I’m most interested in is how we can change that. Because what I’ve learned after a decade of talking to women about their desires and fears is that one of the hardest things of all is suppressing the rage that comes from decades of abuse and maltreatment, from decades of men who don’t know how to carry on platonic relationships, who say things like, “Oh, no one taught me that, nobody told me that a woman may not like to be told to smile when she is walking down the street, dealing with the facts of her day.”
Nobody told men that, but plenty of people have told women that losing their composure means they are harpies, witches, shrews, Rochester’s first, mad wife. For centuries we have been letting men be men on account of their instincts and we’ve been doing the opposite to women – telling each other to fasten a corset around our instincts, bottle it all up, refrigerate it, drink red wine through a straw so as not to stain the lips.
We need to change the script. Men’s instincts have been the pride of the land for so long. Women’s instincts should be, too.
In thinking about how to change the script, I can tell you what I decided to do. I decided not to apologise when a man doing some work on our house cut some wires by accident, and I screamed “FUCK” at the top of my lungs. You see I’d been doing an important Zoom event when all of a sudden my internet and all the lights went out – and I hadn’t been told he’d be working that day.
Had I known, I would have gone and done my event elsewhere, and then the six meetings to follow. Because I am organised, I am a woman, I am a Capricorn. But the man has a very busy schedule and he comes when he can, and I suppose he didn’t have the time to warn me. My husband, embarrassed by my explosion, closed the door behind us and said: “It was just an accident, relax.”
Yes, and it was also just an accident that the same man looked at my breasts instead of my eyes when he rang the doorbell the week before, even though I had a sign on the door that said, “On radio interview, please don’t knock unless very important.”
But the fucker rang the bell anyway and then spent the 45 seconds talking about the mushrooms he forages while looking at my chest, and asking me if I needed fishing tips, because he saw poles in the garage the other day, and I said: “I’m in the middle of an interview, I’m sorry,” because I’ve been taught to be nice, above all, above hiding my rage I have been taught to apologise whenever a soupçon of rage has bubbled over. So I apologised: “I’m sorry,” I said, I can’t listen to your stupid fucking unsolicited fishing tips any more because I have a job, too, and my job is not listening to your Monday morning mushroom musings, just as your job is not to cut my fucking internet because you didn’t do your due diligence, but if you do fucking mess up, and cut my internet line, then your job as a human is to apologise, and not to stand there kicking your feet into the ground, cursing about how the line is so shallow, it is someone else’s fault, naturally, because you are a man. It’s not your fault, this accident, it is someone else’s.
It was similarly “just an accident” when a man in a van merged into my father’s lane on a beautiful September afternoon, causing my father’s car to flip several times in the air, and my father to sail out the driver’s side window and land half-dead on the central reservation. It was not, however, an accident, for that same man to sue my father’s estate for the damages to his vehicle, a lawsuit that was delivered to us the day we lowered my father into the ground after he succumbed to injuries sustained during that accident.
So that, when I’m screaming FUCK at the top of my lungs after my internet was cut, I’m not just a rageful crazy bitch who doesn’t want to be inconvenienced. I am a lot of things and I am taking the time to say them out loud, because maybe, just maybe, the next time that builder hears a woman scream FUCK, he will be a bit more used to it, perhaps more ready to apologise, perhaps a bit less inclined to look at the ground and mouth the words he wants to say out loud.
I don’t think that particular man is going to read this treatise on anger, but if he does, perhaps he will understand that, on top of my internet issues and my father’s crash and my mother’s cancer, I am also a bit weary of all the men I have had to make feel better, all the men in bars who I was not attracted to at one in the morning; I am, for some reason, thinking in particular of the man who tweaked my nipples, apropos of absolutely nothing and then acted horrified when I acted horrified.
In my book, there is a man named Vic who tries to make Joan, the protagonist, feel bad for not loving him. Following the death of my father, I had several Vics sniffing around, smelling the loss of a father on me, and I still have a lot of anger about that.
But I’m not just angry at men, of course. I am also angry at myself. I am angry at my history of apology, I am angry at all the times I apologised to virtual strangers for not being cool. I am angry at all the times a man has tried to fold me into his arms, to make me feel better, and I – not wanting to offend – have made up an excuse, something was wrong with me that I didn’t want to be held. I’m sorry, I know that any other woman in the world would want your arms around her right now, but there is something wrong specifically with me. I am frigid, I am drunk, I am damaged. And I’m sorry, I know I’m not looking hot enough right now to turn you down more directly.
I am also angry at my mother, who’d had enough shit to deal with in her time, that she should have known about the shit I would have to deal with in mine. She should have known enough not to threaten me with her posthumous rage.
In Indiana, when I was researching my first book and close to broke and running on fumes, I sold a lot of her prized jewellery. I’ve been scared to say it out loud, lest she hears me. But I’ve decided to stop apologising so much to everyone, and that includes my dead parents.
Now I welcome my mother coming to bite my feet in the night, because I miss her, and I would like to say, “Hi Mama, nice to see you, sorry about selling the jewellery. But I had to do it, even though I knew enough to be afraid of you. As it turns out, I’m a real crazy bitch, too.”
Animal by Lisa Taddeo is published on 24 June by Bloomsbury at £16.99. Order a copy for £14.78 at guardianbookshop.com