“The taboos against expressing our anger are so powerful…. When a woman shows her anger, she is likely to be dismissed as irrational or worse. At a professional conference I attended recently, a young doctor presented a paper about battered women. She shared many new and exciting ideas and conveyed a deep and personal involvement in her subject. In the middle of a her presentation, a well-known psychiatrist who was seated behind me got up to leave. As he stood, he turned to the man next to him and made his diagnostic pronouncement: ‘Now, that is a very angry woman.’” That was that! The fact that he detected—or thought he detected—an angry tone to her voice disqualified not only what she had to say but who she was as a person.” —From The Dance of Anger, by Harriet Lerner, published in 1985; how far we have not come.
At the end of last year, novelist Ayelet Waldman had a “tantrum,” a “hissy fit”, a “meltdown,” upon learning that her book was not included in the New York Times’s list of 100 most notable books of the year. This type of snub tends to upset many writers, especially when positive reviews of their work have been published by the list-maker, and when another major paper (such as The Washington Post), has listed the same book as among the top 50.
Waldman sent out 8 ill-advised tweets, the last 2 apologizing for the first 6, in which she expressed outrage, sadness, confusion, and frustration. Linkbaiting operations, whose employees apparently do nothing but troll Twitter looking to aggregate someone’s—maybe anyone’s—more ill-advised tweets so that person can be made to look as stupid or evil or crazy as possible, had a field day with Waldman’s posts.
Not surprisingly, people rampaged through the comment threads, proclaiming that they would never, ever read anything that this woman wrote. This crazy woman, this bitch, this terrible mother, this rotten wife.
Yup, they said all of those things. Scroll through the comments on those links yourself, just as sociological research. You’d think she’d advocated date rape or collaborated with the Nazis.
Now, if you want to, go back and read the tweets for yourself. Was that a tantrum?
I’ll show you a fucking tantrum. I lost it in Lowe’s not long ago because the cellphone signal kept dropping. I was unable to reach my husband with the URGENT question of which size drain screen we needed for our tub. I swore multiple times in public, mainly at the phone itself. Fuck you! I said to it. Goddamn motherfuck. Fucktit!
I’m not proud of this. I’m ashamed to go back to that store. I’m sure it wasn’t pleasant for anyone who might have overheard (I was so focused on my own misery, for which I didn’t even have a good reason; it was just one of those things. I didn’t notice if anyone was around.)
I know. We’re supposed to think of other people first. At all times. But sometimes other people don’t happen to occur to me. That’s not a good thing. But I don’t think it’s a crime against humanity, either.
“That’s ugly,” a friend’s husband used to say, when she became enraged. He’d rush around the house closing windows and drawing curtains, even though they lived in a remote cabin and had no neighbors. I mean no one around, at all.
It seemed to us that our husbands often used the fact of our rage as an excuse not to consider the content of what we were saying.
“You’re sick,” my husband used to say.
My friend L and I had no way to assess this. Were we sick? Ugly? How would we know? We seemed perfectly normal to ourselves. Not always paragons of politeness, but who is? we reasoned. Later, when I got a job in the “real world,” I saw women behaving “worse” than I ever had, at least in public. A VP stamped her feet and raged at the CEO–right in the hallway. At another job, a VP regularly screamed at the top of her lungs at her husband, with the door of her office open. Afterwards, she would stride out of the office, puffing her chest and straightening her blouse as if she’d just come from some liaison.
I’m not saying that these behaviors make other public displays of anger okay, only that I have no idea what’s normal for women.
Because here’s another data point: I was trading dog stories with another woman, and she said she’d once tripped over her golden retriever while carrying a hot plate. She’d sprained her ankle. “I almost cursed!” she said.
Hm. Is that normal? Or is that repressed? If this is the baseline, I guess I could see why Ayelet Waldman’s tweets might have seemed psychotic.
The thing is, I suspect that if Waldman had said all this one day later, or a month or two later, perhaps in an essay with a reflective tone, looking back on how she had felt, she would have been congratulated on her honesty. Other writers who had felt the same way would have come out in support, in droves. They would have voiced relief that someone expressed what they were secretly feeling.
My guess is that’s is because she reacted in the moment that people had trouble with the content of what she said. You know. Women and raw emotion. Can’t be having that. Emotional women are crazy.
It’s interesting that Waldman also expressed nostalgia for her (most likely frustrating at times) career as a public defender, claiming that it was more directly rewarding than writing was. Because wouldn’t you know, just a week or so ago a Facebook friend posted this status: “One of the worst days ever being a lawyer. And god fucking damn do I feel angry. Pissed. I’d love to shatter a big window with my phone or the big-screen TV. If there were someone near who I didn’t like I’d pick a fight and beat the mother fucker to death.” (Used with permission.)
Wow. Now that’s angry.
Let’s grant a few things. This guy posted on social media, but really only to his friends, and not to a truly social social media forum—i.e., he’s not a novelist or an essayist with a large public following, so linkbaiters like Jezebel and the rest are probably not trolling around his feed hoping for juicy tidbits to go viral with. The friends of this man understood the context and were unlikely to pile on and accuse him of being a bastard, a potential murderer, someone whose life’s work was unworthy of any validation whatsoever.
Which is sort of a shame (about the lack of interest on Jezebel’s part), because actually he’s a civil rights lawyer, and the thing he was mad about was a kid getting locked up for life. So, instead of being angry about a personal or professional slight—a blow to his ego—he was upset about a matter of justice. Like the woman Lerner describes above, he was morally outraged.
All the same. He said he wanted to kill someone. Or rather felt as if he could kill someone. Whereas Lerner’s colleague expressed nothing of the sort. And Waldman said nothing like this, either. She wanted to curl up and cry. She said she felt outraged, a term that would cause most English teachers to write “vague” in the margins. She mentioned no device, no matter how infuriating everyone on this planet agrees it is, that might get smashed, no person, motherfucker or otherwise, who might get beaten up.
And while I’m sure those who know Waldman personally were similarly unlikely to pile on to the hate-train and accuse her of bitchiness and general unworthiness as a writer and a mother and a wife and a human being, the rest of society, including otherwise progressive writerly society, jumped right in.
Many of these same people, in saner moments, know that our society is repressive toward certain behaviors in both genders. And just a couple of weeks ago psychiatrist Julie Holland argued in the New York Times that we as a society are overmedicating women’s feelings. Emotional women are crazy.
I have some issues with Holland’s essay, which I might get to in another blog post, but for now let’s go with it. My sister posted a link to it on Facebook, and some of her friends agreed that the thesis was obviously true. If this is obvious, it would follow that we ought to welcome more emotional expressions, including of anger, from women.
Well, maybe not in Lowe’s, over a cellphone signal.
My lawyer friend on Facebook had a reason for his anger. Waldman had a trigger for hers. I merely had a tantrum in Lowe’s, though I do have a clinical problem with anger. In all these cases we can debate whether a public display was a-ok, and what terms of expression are acceptable, and we can also have another discussion about whether any of us gets more or less of a pass due to extenuating circumstances such as moral outrage, mental illness, perimenstrual factors, PTSD, or whatever. That is, whether judgment from the rest of you is ever justified without knowing more.
(Right now I am swearing at my computer because my mouse is not selecting properly, which seems to me a perfectly reasonable thing to swear about, and my neighbor is swearing because he cannot find his keys, which also seems to me a perfectly reasonable thing to swear about. Sometimes in the mornings we grin sheepishly at one another. I refuse to believe that either one of us is a bad person overall, though our other neighbors possibly hate us both. It’s negative energy for sure, though, and even the dogs don’t like it. If we could control it, we surely would, and I for one have been trying my whole life to get a handle on it–to make it so my dogs and my neighbors pop into my head before my anger at the mouse does–and today is apparently not the day of victory. It would be nice, though, if someone out there would once in a while acknowledge the struggle:
The problem with being
really fucked up
is that no one gets
how hard even small
So that week when
I lasted four days
because I still exploded.)
Some rage is righteous, like the civil rights lawyer’s, some is reasonable, like Waldman’s, some is ridiculous, like mine at my cellphone. But on a bad day, any of it might leak out. If we want to have any integrity, we can’t just say it’s a shame that society censures certain behaviors (also, in women, blunt communications styles—another thing Waldman is famous for, and something I also happen to relate to) in one gender or another. We have to be willing to tolerate those behaviors at least sometimes. I’m not saying you have to accept my anger, especially not in Lowe’s, but sometimes, women are going to lose it, in public, for reasons both scrutable and in-.
These episodes, what with being “ugly” and “sick” and all, are bound to be unpleasant, perhaps most of all for the women who lose it. But what does that mean for the rest of who they are? When an athlete beats his wife, people debate how this should affect his professional career. When a writer, such as Nobel laureate Gunter Grass, is found to have been a member of the SS, some people choose not to read his subsequent, unrelated work. “There are consequences,” people say.
“There are consequences,” people said, in that huffy parentified tone we all seem to have adopted lately, about their stated decisions not to read, ever, anything Ayelet Waldman had ever written, because she had been ungraceful with her anger. Maybe so, but I maintain these consequences for the expression of a woman’s anger are extreme, and neither logical nor natural. Such a disproportionate response seems rooted in gender bias.
I know a lot about my female friends. How neurotic they are about hiring cleaning people even when they can afford it, for instance; how weird they are about food; how dishonest about money; how much they hate or love sex; how ambivalent about parenting or careers. I know almost nothing about how they do rage. Oh, there were those few sightings in the workplace, and one or two friends have let a couple of mentions slip regarding hurled cutlery. But compared to the data I have on other areas of behavior–in fact, women rarely admit to even feeling anger–this is a black hole.
How do you do yours? Do you bite back a curse and donate $100 to charity?
Or do you yell? Throw stuff? Gnash your teeth? Spit? Slam doors? Swear in public? Flip people off while driving? Fire off a bunch of tweets? Go in your bedroom and pound pillows? With the door open or closed?
I’d like to know.