If you’re outspoken online, you often get asked some variation of “Why are you so angry?” Sometimes it’s more sarcastic, an iteration of “u mad bro?” Other times it’s stated with bewilderment, pointedly questioning the expense of your energy. What’s personally always the most frustrating, though, is when it’s stated in a way that implies you’re damaged, when the complainant is deadset on an armchair diagnosis and seeks the revelation of some kind of origin event, as though there is ever only just one thing that makes you speak out angrily about bad behavior.
A little while back I experienced an especially insidious version of this after I wrote an essay about my discomfort with Steve Albini. The essay focused on the shock aspect of his art and the way it always seems to come at the expense of women and people of color. What bothered me was how at odds Albini’s art is with his public status as an ally of sorts, particularly since his largely middle age white male audience connects with the brutality of his music and doesn’t respond to it as if it is condemning them. It wasn’t an attack on Albini, or even an attempt to dissuade people from enjoying his music. It was simply a public exploration of an internal conflict I had with an artist I had admired for most of my life.
Nonetheless, some people reacted to this piece as though it was a hit piece and one response in particular has stuck with me ever since. Two men I have never interacted with in any way recorded an entire episode of their podcast about my essay and questioned whether “something had happened” to me to make me have these thoughts about Albini. It was apparently impossible for them to believe that I could feel the way I did about Albini’s art unless I had gone through some kind of trauma that was similar to what Albini frequently puts the characters in his songs through.
Initially I laughed this off. I’ve been through a lot of traumatic things in my life but none of them would really match up to Albini’s lyrics. The slow, torturous death of my mother as a result from cancer would not make for a decent Shellac song. The car crash that took the life of an ex-girlfriend doesn’t bring to mind any Big Black singles. A friend calling in to work to cancel a shift while crying, only for us to later find out she had hanged herself is a very different kind of morbid than “A Prayer to God.” The bulk of the traumatic experiences I have had in my life have not involved me being victimized. And yet in a way these men were right because some things did happen to me that made me feel more for victims than artists carelessly utilizing the pain of victimhood. Namely what happened is that the vast majority of the women I have cared about in my life have been victimized by men and the first experience I had with this was with my mother’s own past.
I do not think you need to have firsthand experience with abuse to sympathize with the victims of it, but the longer I exist on this world, the more I realize people struggle to have that sympathy unless they have been affected by abuse in some way so I can recognize that my living with the background knowledge of the history of abuse my mom went through has impacted my outlook. I can’t tell you when I first realized my mom had suffered abuse for much of her life but I know I was aware of it early enough that it likely influenced my perception of victimization as soon as I had any awareness of the concept. There was never a time that I didn’t have some perception of the trauma she had been through and would always live with.
While my relationship with my grandparents on my dad’s side was always positive, my mom’s family was a mystery to me and my siblings. We knew my mom’s parents were dead and that she was somewhat estranged from the majority of her siblings. We also knew that my mom’s dad died when she was young as a result of his alcoholism, but I have no idea when or how we found that out. Likewise, I have no idea when or how we found out my mom’s mother would punish her during piano lessons by slamming the lid of piano down on her hands, or that she would sometimes lock my mom in a closet, or verbally abuse her in front of relatives during Thanksgiving. These were facts we discovered slowly, over many years, and they were never treated as earth shattering revelations, just things our mom endured on her way to becoming our mom.
These tidbits of familial abuse were background noise and I was afraid to ever push my mom for more information. It felt like every day my mom had to focus to put on a facade and if I pried it would cause it to break and the damage would be as bad or worse as the original incidents. I would absorb my mom’s trauma and dwell on it in my own time, not understanding why she had to experience it and hating myself for being unable to offer any relief. It wasn’t even that I was angry for her, I was just sad, and any anger that did exist was channeled inward at my own helplessness.
That changed when I learned the full extent of what my mom went through but the reasons for that are even more complicated. Once my mom’s cancer returned and it seemed unlikely that she would recover, she became more open about her childhood. Part of this was likely because I was an adult by then but it was likely equally because she didn’t have the energy to keep up all of the barriers she had been forced to maintain over the years. And so I learned about her abusive stepdad, a figure I was completely unaware of before this point, and the far more sinister abuse he hurled at my mom. But still I was mostly sad, because the people that harmed her were long dead, and the rest of her family were themselves victims and had escaped that house while she was still a child, so how could they have helped her?
My anger came after my mom died, at her memorial service, in fact, and it never left. My uncle had arrived with his family and with him was a strange, off-putting man I had never met before. I noticed that as soon as he came in, my dad’s entire body language shifted, as though he was preparing for a fight. My dad stormed out of the room and I followed him, asking what was wrong and who the man was. He told me that before they were together, my mom had been in a relationship with that man and that he had beat and raped her. My mom’s brother and their friends knew this had happened but had treated it as a side effect of this man’s substance abuse problems, framing him as the biggest victim, arguing he wasn’t really himself when he did these things and thus shouldn’t be punished for them. And now my mom’s brother, one of her only siblings I thought was “good,” had brought this man to her memorial service because he believed this person was “better” now.
Every idiot thought I had about abuse and how to overcome it shifted in that moment. I had been raised to believe that if you are good and brave and you speak up, your family will stand by your side even if no one else will. But here was my mom’s family, bringing one of her abusers to her memorial service, silently demanding the rest of us simply forgive and accept him now that my mom wasn’t around to say anything about it. Not only had my mom’s family failed to help and protect her when she needed it, they cared so little about her trauma they brought it to our home, reminding us that she was never able to truly speak up about her experiences and now would never be able to because she was dead and one of her many abusers was inexplicably still alive.
Before this, I had my own experiences with abuse. Nearly every woman I’ve been in a relationship with has been abused or assaulted by a relative or a loved one. In high school, my first girlfriend and her siblings were routinely abused by her addict father and a friend of mine was stabbed to death by her father after another friend had tried to remove her from the house when the police refused to intervene. These situations were never resolved, the harm was never undone, and in retrospect I could recognize that in each instance there were cover ups and depressing silence from the community. But the pressure of abuse and the way the perpetrators and enablers of it not only silence their victims but seize and rewrite their stories had never been as clear to me as it was in that moment at the memorial.
I have held on to that moment ever since and I have never stopped being angry about it. I can’t change what happened so instead I do what I can to make sure it doesn’t happen to others and when people question the silence and motives of victims who speak out on their abuse, that memory reignites inside me. This isn’t the only reason why I am angry and will continue to be angry about the way we abuse and harass marginalized people. But it is an especially painful reminder that I should be angry, that we should all be angry, that we should harness that anger.
So when we speak up about how abuse is framed and portrayed, it shouldn’t ever be a question of what happened to us to make us feel this way, it should be a question of why others aren’t also speaking up and doing their part to stop victims’ narratives from being controlled by their oppressors. Because no one should have to endure these experiences let alone the loss of control of the narrative of those experiences after.
Nick Hanover got his degree from Disneyland, but he’s the last of the secret agents and he’s your man. Which is to say you can find his particular style of espionage here at Loser City as well as Ovrld, where he contributes music reviews and writes a column on undiscovered Austin bands. You can also flip through his archives at Comics Bulletin, which he is formerly the Co-Managing Editor of, and Spectrum Culture, where he contributed literally hundreds of pieces for a few years. Or if you feel particularly adventurous, you can always witness his odd .gif battles with friends and enemies on twitter: @Nick_Hanover