(This title made me laugh.)
I’m not very good at being angry. Curious, I know because it’s the emotion/adjective that people associate me with the most. I’m often told that I look angry. Sitting by myself. Staring into space. Thinking. People watching. Wandering. I look angry. This is funny because these are the moments that I am anything but angry. If anything, I am very private about my anger. I don’t know that it’s always conscious but if I’m aware that people can perceive me, I try not to seem angry. My anger is a pinched, repressed thing. It’s an ignored, malnourished beast that’s mostly let out in circumstances so egregious, my only recourse is to find a dark room, get under the covers and weep.
I got sexually assaulted at the beginning of 2020 and even as it happened, I was very careful about not seeming angry. I don’t what exactly I felt in that moment and truthfully, it’s a moment I try not to revisit(on an emotional level at east) but I remember thinking I needed to be as pleasant as possible. That’s the thing about (gendered) violence: in the thick of it, your survival supersedes everything. All I knew is that I couldn’t risk being angry at him. Because what if he out-angers me and escalates his violence? In that moment, I just wanted to get away. So you perform pleasantness until he lets’s you go. If that’s what it takes.
I’m thinking of this scene in season one of Big Little Lies. Nicole Kidman’s character and her abusive husband get into a fight that eventually turns into a sexual encounter. This is a familiar scene in Hollywood. You know that moment where the yelling and kicking turns into sex? I’ve always been uncomfortable about scenes like that but I always figured, whatever gets you going. Except here, you can tell, Nicole Kidman’s character doesn’t really want to have sex. But in the moment, it’s about the “choice” that results in the least harm. Does she say no and risk him beating the shit out of her or does she just give in so it can be over and done with? It’s not really a choice but one set of circumstances feels less risky, less fatal.
In the hours after I’d gotten away, I didn’t feel particularly angry. I felt scared and sad and a little bit ashamed(though I was very careful not to internalise this because rationally, I knew it wasn’t my fault). Yet when I called my cousins, and later told my aunt about it, I kept saying that I was angry. I think I knew that even though I couldn’t access it right then, anger should have been the “right” response. So I kept saying it because I wanted to be believed. I wanted to be a “good” victim—the kind that reacts in the right way. In truth, I didn’t feel angry till the next afternoon. And even then, it wasn’t so much at the violation, it was because he cornered me into having a conversation with him, a conversation where he did most of the talking and basically tried to manipulate me into absolving him. The thing that finally made me angry was this performance of contrition. In truth he didn’t really care about whether I forgave him or not. I have no power over him. My anger wasn’t a threat to him at all. He was just sticking to the script. Doing what “good men who make mistakes” do.
So yes I was angry, but even when I finally articulated it, it was in some ways, a performance. I didn’t say it so much to express how I was feeling, I said it so he could leave me alone. And I only said it because I knew I was relatively safe. I wasn’t alone in that room with him and more importantly, I knew that to preserve his ‘good guy’ image, he wasn’t going to retaliate in front of an audience. In other words, I only acknowledged my anger when I figured it didn’t really matter anyway. I took this righteous feeling and sanded it down to a dull, decrepit thing. Because I knew it was the only version safe enough for me to hurl around.
I’ve been like that about anger my whole life. It’s only in the last two years or so where I’ve made a conscious choice to own my anger, to feel it and let it fuck up whatever needs fucking up.
Except I’ve always thought of myself as an angry person. I’m just now discovering that I am very gullible when it comes to people’s idea of me. Like if people keep telling me I’m a certain way, I just believe it. At some point I figured, If I almost always look angry, maybe I am always subconsciously angry and it just shows on my face. But also, I’ve always had a really strong sense of justice and the way this world is set up, it feels like I’m almost always in a state of rage.
At the end of my first week at a new primary school, I hurt my ankle on my mum’s wardrobe. I slammed the door on my foot and I ended up with a twisted ankle and a deep cut at the back of my right foot. Long story short, I couldn’t wear closed shoes for a while after. The following Monday at school, the headmaster caned me for not wearing school shoes. This was despite me showing him my foot and the doctor’s note. It was my first interaction with him and I never forgave him. Now, I look back and I think, of course I was angry at him. But as child, you’re not really allowed to be angry at adults. I spent the rest of my time in primary school dreading all of my interactions with him. Three years later when I had regular lessons with him, I would be so panicked, I often had to step outside after to catch my breath and still my shaking hands.
Towards the end of class eight, a girl wearing our school uniform stole an Oxford mathematical set from a local bookshop. The owner of the bookshop came to the school to report the incident and this same headmaster had all the girls in our class stand in a line up. Even after the owner didn’t identify any of us as the thief, he still caned us. It was a Sunday. The next Monday during his lesson, I got suddenly got so sick(fever, chills, chest pains, the works) my mother had to come and take me home. We chalked it up to a recurrent bout of pneumonia but looking back now, I think it was a psychosomatic manifestation of my anxiety. For context: while I didn’t have the language for it at the time, I was experiencing my first burn out following years of nineteen hour days(with barely any breaks) where I only ate one meal a day and drank almost no water. That Sunday was just the straw that broke the camels back. I think on some level, I was angry at being punished for something that wasn’t my fault but I knew that my anger wasn’t allowed so I only allowed myself the “appropriate” emotion: fear. Only it was so visceral and pent up for so many years, it literally made me sick.
We could have a conversation here about how punitive the Kenyan education system is. But then I’d have to write a proper essay and the thing that I enjoy about these blog posts is that they’re not that serious and that I get to be self-entered and write about my many many feelings and force you guys to read that. So I will say this: if my childhood taught me anything, it’s that I do not respond well to punishment. I define punishment as intentionally causing harm or pain(physical, emotional, etc.), especially under the guise of discipline or consequences. The only thing I ever learnt from years of being punished is fear, anxiety and repressed anger. In fact, the quickest way to destroy a relationship with me is to punish me when you think I’ve fucked up. Which isn’t to say that I want to get away with things but we get much better outcomes if we have a conversation about it. I am so terrified of hurting and disappointing people that I promise you, I rarely, if ever, offend someone the same way twice.
Because, I think, the premise of punishment is a withdrawal of care, like a licence to neglect and harm in the name of teaching someone a lesson. I don’t think there is ever a good reason to withdraw care from someone you love. Yes, even when they’ve fucked up. Which isn’t to say that you owe pool who harm you care. By all means, redefine your boundaries, end the relationship, etc. I’m talking about circumstances where the intention is to continue the relationship. Like parent-child relationships, friendships etc. Like, calling me stupid because I didn’t wash the dishes doesn’t make me learn the value of hard work or maintaining a clean living environment, it just makes me think of you as a bully. And if you keep saying it, I probably will internalise it and then I have to spend my adult years unlearning that. So yeah, you might get your dishes washed on time from then on, but to break your child’s spirit for clean dishes…is it really worth it?
I have recently discovered that I’m angry at some people for abandoning me when I was sick. It’s a low-grade anger. I mostly don’t think about it and I don’t feel the need to address it because I think those relationship are done for anyway. A few years back I would have managed to convince myself I didn’t care. Because obviously, the other side of anger is hurt. To admit I’m angry about that abandonment would be also to admit I expected some form of care. I don’t think it was an active abandonment, I just didn’t feature in their list of priorities. That’s what really sucks—my world just kept ending, and they couldn’t find the time to check in.
But still, in holding my anger, in trying to let it run its course; to let me teach me what I need to learn about myself. I find that I don’t know what to do beyond just breathing through it. I don’t know what to do with my anger beyond just admitting to myself that I feel it. It feels like a waste. Shouldn’t it motivate me to do something? Shouldn’t I burn some things down? Shouldn’t it make me brave? Shouldn’t it make me more myself?
I felt murderous rage when I was sick. At God. I’ve said before that I just wanted somebody to track him down and kill him for me. But the thing about gods is that they’re strong enough for you to rage at. They can handle it. So even then, at my angriest, my anger was still inconsequential. I don’t know. What does that say about me? Why am I so scared of fucking things up?
I think about my cousin, who after I was assaulted, was so angry for me, she would have gone to war for me if that’s what I needed. I think about that kind anger and what sort of love must inspire it. And sometimes I think that maybe I don’t love myself like that. That I keep choosing people’s comfort, even at my expense. That I keep turning my anger against myself, letting it grind me into an anxious mess.
But I also know that I’m trying. That in the last few years, when I’ve felt angry, I haven’t rushed to bury it. That I’ve sat with it. That I’ve let it teach me, that I’ve let it make me furious enough to choose myself. And maybe I’ll always be the kind of person that quietly rages at big unflinching things—at gods who don’t see me and men who aren’t scared of me. But maybe the point the point is to stop raging at myself.