Thursday, May 24, 2007

sins of the father

“If the devil does not exist, and man has therefore created him, he has created him in his own image and likeness”
-Fyodor Dostoyevsky

I remember “Joseph” from my early days of juvenile counseling. He was a pudgy kid with acne and an abrasive personality. Actually that’s putting it nicely. The thing about Joseph was that he would often blow up over the smallest thing. Swearing, spitting, snarling like a caged wolverine.

Even though he was relatively diminutive in size most staff dreaded working the hall he was on. You couldn’t give him a consequence for anything. Not without him having one of those “episodes” anyway.

He would whine and complain. Stomp his feet like a 4 year old and throw whatever he could get his hands on over something as minor as not being allowed an extra brownie for dinner.

He would smart mouth. Curse and yell. He would threaten people three times his size. He couldn’t back up his mouth but he sure tried to convince others he could. I really don’t think he cared if he could.

One day, during one of his calm moments, we were having a casual conversation. I don’t recall how it came up. But he shows me his arms. Up and down both arms are small pinkish scars maybe a quarter inch in diameter.

I see them and wonder if it is some form of skin disease, like eczema or ringworm. I inquire innocently enough…not having the experience I do now to immediately recognize them for what they were.

He tells me, rather nonchalantly, that they are cigarette burns. He proceeds to tell me how his parents did this to him and he is telling me as though he is recounting an episode from a favorite TV show. Face to face he acts as though it is no big deal. But in his dismissive chuckle I can almost hear the devil laugh.

And now I know where that rage comes from.

The devil in Joseph’s life did not wear a red costume. He did not carry a pitchfork or smell of brimstone. He was not a master of fire and darkness. But he did burn this child. He was not the “father of lies” but he was a “father” who was a lie. Joseph suffered from the sins of his father. His skin bore the mark of the real beast.

After that moment I always took Joseph’s little outbursts a little less personal. His insults a little less serious. His anger a little less towards me. It wasn’t me or the rules he was mad at. It wasn’t that he was being a hard head. Nor was he trying to buck the system for the fun of it. He was mad. No, enraged. And rightfully so.

And I believe despite all of this…a stronger person than I could ever be.

Now it made sense. Now that anger had a face and it was not really Joseph’s.
He was hurt and hurt bad. Worse than most of us will ever be. All before his 13th birthday. Hurt physically but more so emotionally. The scars are on his skin. And the emotional scars are in his voice of anger, his cursing words, and his temper tantrums. These things as it turns out…these things we so readily dismiss as the actions of a brat turn out to be scars. Joseph pretended to be many things. Anything really to keep others from seeing how vulnerable he was. He figured if he shouted enough, raised his hackles enough, and broke enough things, maybe, just maybe someone would think twice about burning him again. As with most animals in the wild, he knew, that in order for something to hurt you it has to get close to you. He wouldn’t make that mistake again no matter the cost.

In retrospect I learned a lot of things from Joseph back then. I learned that scars are not always on the skin. That tantrums are not always for attention. That insults are not always personal.

I learned what a devil a man can be. I learned how rage is often really someone crying. I learned that the sins of a father can destroy a son. I learned that hell can be a place in someone's heart.

And I learned how to spot a cigarette burn scar on a kid’s body.