Men like to tell me I am angry when I’m not. As if they understand my emotions better than I do. As if what I have to say about it doesn’t matter. It makes me angry.
A writing teacher tells me I ought to explore my anger at my mother’s death. My anger at her for dying. “That’s not how I feel,” I say. He shakes his head, pitying my obtuseness.
Men like to tell me I’m really angry at X when I’ve just expressed anger at Y.
When I’m angry at my husband for not washing the dishes, he suggests I’m not really angry about that, but rather about X. X being some tragedy or injustice—any will do: small or large, personal or political, recent or ancient—for which he, the non-dishwashing husband, is verifiably not responsible.
If I argue that no, it’s the dishes, just the dishes I am angry about, my husband looks at me like my writing teacher did, pity and care mingling in his blue eyes.
Later in the class, I write with rueful annoyance about the hospital chaplain who came into Mom’s room in her final days and tried to bond by showing us pictures of his trip to China, undeterred when I told him Mom was Korean.
“The chaplain was just doing his job,” the writing teacher says. A bit triumphantly, it seems to me. “You’re not really angry at him, you know.” Then the teacher gives me that look. The one that says, we all know what you’re really angry about.
It seems my anger at any Y can now be undermined by invoking the X of grief. The more I protest, the less intelligent I seem. The more in denial.
My father’s side of the family is blue-blooded white Anglo-Saxon Protestant from New England. They believe that whoever raises their voice first loses the argument.
You don’t have to raise your voice—said with cool and, of course, quiet bewilderment—is a winning move in his family.
Unless perhaps the accused party has the presence of mind to quickly lower their volume and mutter I’m not raising my voice, with quiet dignity and disdain.
I learned to master their rules, but Mom never did. Her English was loud and unguarded, earnest singsong, missing articles, bursting with the crunchy snap of Korean consonants. My paternal relatives were too polite to laugh. But they grinned and shook their heads when she spoke. Sometimes I grinned and shook my head along with them.
Many years before Mom died, I attended a small liberal arts college, conservative as far as liberal arts schools go, full of future hedge fund managers and policy makers. I thought I was cool for befriending mostly guys. They were mostly white and patrician like my father. Later I married one of them.
A good Friday night was getting drunk off watery beer in the dorm and lecturing each other on topics we knew little about. The guys agreed that science had proven PMS to be all in women’s heads, with no medical basis, menstrual cycles serving as convenient excuse for lack of mastery over emotion.
I didn’t get angry. I let them think I agreed with this and other outrageous things they said. I spoke archly without raising my voice, grinned and shook my head at the ridiculousness of messy emotion. Just like one of the guys.
That’s what I’m really angry about.