Butchers we are, that is true. But Butchers, also, and butchers of the bloodiest badge have been all Martial Commanders whom the world invariably delights to honor.
—Herman Melville, “Moby-Dick”
I imagine Andy Williamson standing on the welcome mat of my family’s house at 614 Ravenwood Drive. I see him in the moment before his hand touches the door, in his goth band T-shirt and baggy black jeans, his long black hair in a ponytail. His friends Mitch and Patrick are behind him. Angry 16-year-old outcasts in East Texas, just as I had been, but with a home life far worse than mine and without much hope of escaping.
Maybe Patrick stares at the ground, shifting his weight uneasily. Patrick was less calloused and angry. If he knows what is about to happen, he must be troubled. Does he know? Does Andy? Are violent images from his father’s porn collection flashing in Andy’s mind? Is this some kind of vengeance, a premeditated act meant to harm? Or do years of pent-up friction suddenly ignite at the moment the door swings open, when he shoves out his arm to hold it ajar?
Few men escape this world without being tempted to vengeance.The story of the righteous avenger is so common in literature, television and film that for men, revenge is the expected response when harm is done to a loved one. I grew up with a love for adventure stories, in which revenge often seemed part of the natural order, a test of manhood and courage, the obvious course of action for men strong enough to carry it out. In the last scene of David Cronenberg’s film “A History of Violence,” the main character, Tom Stall, returns to his home in small-town Indiana after killing his brother—a mafia leader—and several henchmen. The killing is done in the heroic, half-comical style characteristic of much cinematic violence these days, the works of Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino being prominent examples.
But Cronenberg’s is not a Rodriguez or Tarantino movie. His story continues past the killing. Stall walks in and sits at the dinner table with his young daughter, teenage son and wife. They are eating meat loaf, green peas and yellow corn. The camera views them through the dining room window. His wife and children are hesitant, unsure which of the man’s two personae is sitting with them—their father, unassuming small-town café owner Tom Stall, or his alter ego from the time before they knew him, Joey Cusack, ruthless mafia assassin.
After a long pause, during which no one in Tom’s family meets his gaze, his daughter rises and sets a plate in front of him.The son pushes the meat loaf toward his father, eyeing him cautiously. No one speaks. The movie ends with the camera still gazing through the window, framing the movie’s fundamental questions: Can a man return from brutal violence to a peaceful life among loved ones? Can any person or society with a long history of violence find lasting peace, or is the specter of past misdeeds always crouching in the shadows behind and within us? Must cycles of violence continue, and how might they stop? What alternatives are there to seeking revenge?
Andy was Tori’s ex-boyfriend, her first real boyfriend. She was 14. On a weekend trip home, I had warned Andy to stay away from my sister, not to come to our house. My warning came after weeks of unwanted phone calls and visits, after hearing Tori recount Andy’s bouts of explosive anger and paranoia. He called her a “cunt” and a “cruel bitch,” and speculated about her sexual activities since their split. He threatened to hurt me, too, though he stayed away when I was there.Then, sometimes, he cried to her on the phone, repenting and begging to get back together.
The idea of redemptive violence recurs again and again in American media, where salvation comes through violent acts committed by men whose righteousness distinguishes them from those they kill. The idea is so deeply instilled in American culture that it informs our art, our individual choices and our national policy. Celebrating “victory” in the first war in Iraq in 1991, President George H.W. Bush said, “The specter of Vietnam has been buried forever in the desert sands of the Arabian peninsula. It’s a proud day for America—and, by God, we’ve kicked the Vietnam syndrome once and for all.” The Encyclopedia of American Foreign Policy defines the “Vietnam syndrome” as “the anti-interventionist consensus in Congress and among the American public against sustained U.S. troop commitments in foreign crises.” The encyclopedia goes on to say that “unpleasant memories of the Vietnam debacle seemed to constrain American political leaders in the final quarter of the 20th century from embarking on wars far away that might result in large numbers of U.S. casualties and still not bring quick victory.” In other words, the Vietnam syndrome was the reluctance, after more than 50,000 young American men and women died for a dubious cause, to send more of them off to fight for other dubious causes. The quick victory of the first war in Iraq, in Mr. Bush’s view, healed the American psyche of its scars, dispelling a distasteful reluctance to go to war.
Early scenes in “A History of Violence” establish Tom Stall’s idyllic small-town life with a happy family and a good job as proprietor of a diner on the town square. After his daughter has a nightmare, Tom reassures her “there’s no such thing as monsters.” But the rest of the film suggests otherwise. Soon, two killers on the run enterTom’s café as it is closing. They brandish guns, and one of them starts to grope the café’s waitress.Tom smashes the coffee pot into one killer’s head, takes his gun, leaps over the bar and shoots both killers dead. He is shown on news clips across the country and celebrated as an “American hero.” His son, Jack, tells his father, “You’re a hero, Dad. … You could probably do ‘Larry King Live,’ Dad.” Tom is an instant celebrity, an American archetype, a “man of few words” who takes violent, vigilante action to save his family. He says to an intrusive reporter, “We’re tryin’ to get back to normal here,” but the question the movie asks is whether violence renders normal life impossible.
This is where “A History of Violence” diverges from the standard action movie script, looking hard at the consequences of violent action.Tom’s son, Jack, tries to emulate his example. Where once he deflected the school bully’s insults with humor and self- deprecation, now he attacks his taunter and leaves him hospitalized. In typical action movies the good- and bad-guy characters are clear, but as this movie progresses, we can no longer distinguish heroes from monsters by their costumes. They wear the same skin.
On a cool fall afternoon in October 1991, I was summoned downstairs to the phone at the student housing co-op. “Your sister’s on the phone. She sounds upset,” the guy said. I was a freshman at the University of Texas at Austin, an undeclared liberal arts major with big aspirations. I was 18 years old. Tori and I had always been very close. Our closeness had provided a kind of refuge in the wealthy and conservative town of Athens, Texas, a place where my family never belonged.
Tori and I had political views and religious beliefs that were different from those of our neighbors. Raised as liberals and feminists in a town where both were anathemas, we had different understandings of the roles of men and women and human sexuality. We suffered for those understandings. In eighth grade, when a teacher asked for two students to debate the pluses and minuses of capitalist and socialist economics, I made the mistake of agreeing to defend the socialists. The same year, when Converse high-tops were all the rage, I got a pair of Pepto-Bismol pink ones. I wore the shoes for a week before caving to the pressure, but the two events were enough to earn me the nickname “commie faggot” in school hallways.
Tori had similar experiences. As a girl, she also had to contend with the fact that any hint of sexual activity got her labeled a slut. When I lived in Athens, she and I had at least been able to provide friendship and protection for each other. But I was in Austin now.
As I crossed the co-op lobby, I could see the black phone receiver dangling on its silver cord. As I got closer, I could hear my sister screaming. I rushed to the phone and snatched up the receiver.
“Tori? Tori, what’s going on?”
She kept screaming.
“Tori, what happened? What is it?”
The screams were mixed with wracking sobs. After a minute or two, she tried to speak. “Chet, help me,” she said. “Oh, God. …” She started crying uncontrollably again.
“Tori, listen, tell me what’s happening. Where’s Mama and Bob?”
“I don’t know. They’re at the college, I guess. I’m at home. … Chet, they raped me.”
“What? Who did, Tori?”
“Andy and his friends—you know, Patrick and Scott. I shouldn’t have let them in. They came to the door. … Andy said he just wanted to talk to me. … I shouldn’t have let him in.”
“Oh, no, Tori. Oh, no. … I’ll come home. Don’t worry. I mean. … I’ll get there as fast as I can. Did you call Mama and Bob?”
She was still crying. My chest felt tight, and my breath was shallow.There was an orange plastic chair next to me, for use with the phone. I kicked it over.Then tears came, and I could not stop them.
“You’re the first one,” Tori said.
“You have to call them. They have to come home now. Did you call the police?” “No, Chet, I can’t. I don’t know what to do.”
“I’ll do it. It’s OK. … No. Nothing’s OK, but I’ll do it. I’m so sorry.”
She started sobbing hard again. I held the phone and listened as she told me how it happened.The world seemed to close around me until there was only that room, the dim light falling through a small frosted window, the black plastic phone receiver, the flicker and hum of the Coca-Cola vending machines behind me—all that was plastic, metal and nothing. All that was nothing. I dangled from a thin silver coil. I waited for Tori to tell me what to do with my imploded heart, my lungs, which felt as if they would never open fully again. My sister, I knew, could only feel worse.
“Don’t call the police yet, Chet, just Mama. Just tell Mama to come home. Don’t say what happened. I’ll tell her when she gets here, please. …”
“OK. I love you,Tori. I can be there in three hours.”
“I shouldn’t have let them in. I can’t believe this.”
“I can’t either,” I said.
But I did believe it. In a way, I believed it more than I believed my life in Austin. What I had not believed was my escape from the whirlpool of my family’s life in Athens. Now, I heard my sister’s voice, calling me back, and I felt the vortex swirling around me.
In his poem “Love calls us to the things of this world,” Richard Wilbur writes of how love beckons us out of abstraction and back into the physical world. It calls us back to the actual creatures and places we care for. It calls us from what we thought we were doing, what we wanted our singular lives to be about. But our actual selves are not singular at all. Action movie heroes can exist outside of any familial or other social context because they inhabit only the territory of myth, the myth of the just and noble avenger, where monsters are defeated by those who are better at killing than the monsters. But in the actual world, any person is part of a broader set of relationships; any event or work of art, part of a broader cultural discourse.
In the movies of the Rambo franchise, not once does ex-Green Beret and Vietnam veteran John Rambo have to come home and sit down with his wife and children to a quiet dinner of peas and corn, talk of work at the office and what happened at school. The movies end before he has to assimilate back into peacetime society or cope with the physical and psychological wounds war has dealt him. In fact, while the first movie acknowledges that John Rambo has been damaged by his experiences in Vietnam, the later movies go on to suggest, like President George H.W. Bush, that the cure for the psychic damage caused by war is returning to war, this time to win.
The actual Vietnam War, of course, left scars across the American psyche that now appear permanent. We see the worst cases on street corners and interstate on-ramps, Vietnam veterans holding cardboard signs. Even veterans with less severe disorders are plagued by nightmares and paranoia. I have seen a close friend of mine, a Vietnam veteran turned Quaker pacifist, break down, weeping in the middle of dinner at the mention of digging a pit trap to catch an animal. “We used to dig those for men,” he said, apologizing for his loss of control. This is the kind of hurt we never see in John Rambo or action heroes like him; for them, the only appropriate response to hurt is rage.
On the coffee table and on the living room floor, in our house on Ravenwood Drive, in the afternoon’s pale waning light, there were three of them, one she had trusted. She had opened the door.
Love called me to leave my studies and books and try to carry my injured sister out of danger.Tori called me for help, but I confused her cry with a call for revenge.As I drove home, I replayed the sequence of events again and again in my head, as though it was a script and I was searching for my role. I felt called to drag three messed-up boys, who were not my people, from their homes and kill them. I felt love curdle to hatred in my gut, the acid refluxing into my chest, burning in spasms between my spine and heart. I drove three hours, as fast as I could, up Interstate 35 to Waco, east on Highway 31 to Athens, where experience had taught me to believe in monsters. As I drove, I considered whether to become one.
My ex-wife, Debbie, tells the story of having a bad dream one night as a little girl and wandering into her parents’ bedroom for consolation. At the sound of her footsteps, her father, a Vietnam vet, leapt from the bed, grabbed the baseball bat he kept beside him and started to swing it at her before her cries caused him to wake up and realize his mistake. Who had her father become in his dreams? Who was Debbie to him?
With a new generation of soldiers now returning from war, the question of how to heal and reintegrate them into society is more urgent than ever.
Even in my outrage, I knew a lot about where Andy Williamson’s violence came from. Andy’s father was a Vietnam veteran, too. He was prone to flashbacks and sudden, uncontrollable rages, a textbook case of post-traumatic stress disorder left untreated. He was a single father who beat and cursed his children. Andy’s mother had fled his frequent abuse. Mr. Williamson called Andy’s older sister, Melissa, a slut and a whore; he shared his porn magazines with his son.
My mother and I wanted to call the police. We begged Tori to let us call them, but she refused. My mother took Tori to meet with a lawyer, but Tori was terrified of the exposure and humiliation of a court battle. She did not want to go to school marked every day by what Andy had done to her. She was, as I had been before her, already an outcast because of her political opinions, the clothes she wore and her relationships with guys like Andy, who were also rejects. I understood those reasons. I had trouble understanding the other reason she gave: She did not want to “hurt” Andy, despite what had happened. She did not want to press charges or send him and his friends to juvenile prison. When I threatened to call the cops anyway, she threatened suicide. So no one called them.
After a week of caring for Tori and trying to persuade her to go to the police, I returned to Austin, full of grief and helpless anger. I could not focus on or care about college. Soon, I stopped going but did not bother
to withdraw, taking zeroes in all my classes.
Though school no longer mattered, reading did. I looked to books for answers. I’d made a few close friends in Austin. We would get together and pass around favorite books, reading poems and passages out loud, all of us buzzed on coffee or cheap wine or some other spirit. One night, soon after my return, three of us gathered to discuss a much darker subject.
I remember what my best friend, Kevin Adams, said when he called our friend Gary to join us. He had tears in his eyes when I told him my sister’s story, but he tried to sound hard and brave. “Gary,” he said, “you feel like raping some boys?”
Gary did not say yes or no at the time, but he joined us at Kevin’s apartment to discuss what to do. When he arrived, Gary gave me a hug and called me “brother,” a term the three of us sometimes used to express our closeness. Kevin served us coffee. I felt glad that his girlfriend, Janis, wasn’t home. We needed “to keep this quiet,” I said.This was talk for men only.
I recounted the story for Gary, who shook his head and cursed as I told it. Kevin sat silently, grimacing and exchanging solemn glances with Gary as I spoke. When I finished the telling, there was a brief moment of silence in the room. Gary looked at me and studied my face. Then he looked at Kevin, who nodded in assent to a question we didn’t have to ask out loud. From the Old Testament “eye for an eye” to action movies, the scripts had been written out for us to follow. We started making plans to go after Andy.
We discarded the idea of rape, agreeing that it would make us just like Andy and his friends. We did, however, discuss whether to kill them. Andy and his friends were often home alone in the afternoons. We could watch Andy’s house until we were sure all three boys were there and Andy’s father and sister weren’t. Then Gary and Kevin, whom they would not recognize, would go to the door. When Andy answered, Gary would force them into the car at gunpoint.
As our talk went on, we weighed whether we should actually kill them or just take them into the woods, tie them up and “beat the hell out of them.” Gary said we didn’t have to kill them; we could “just make them afraid we might.” I expressed my concern that showing our faces and not killing them would bring more trouble. We talked about wearing hoods, about how to apprehend them without getting caught. We talked about finding them out at night on their skateboards. I remember saying I wanted to “hurt them like they hurt my sister” and “make them as scared as she was.” I wanted to humiliate them, to avenge their crimes with my own. As we spoke that night, I felt scared but brave, apprehensive but also just.
This is the temptation that violence offers, a response so well-conditioned it seems automatic. That night, we did not talk much about the risks involved, the risk of prison or retribution from Andy’s father, of being changed forever—not into heroic avengers from action movies, not into soldiers whose killings are sanctioned by governments, but into common criminals breaking laws meant to provide due process to anyone accused. We did not talk about what our acts of violence would do to us and our families, how they would leave us haunted and make us abusers of men as we took our revenge against abusers of women. When I left Kevin’s apartment late that night, we had a tentative plan. We would reconvene soon to discuss when to carry it out.
In the bleak days that followed our meeting, I imagined the blood of three boys on my hands, and at first, I felt that I would not want to wash them. I spent several days thinking about what we should do.
Kevin, Gary and I often loaned each other books by wilderness poet Gary Snyder, radical agrarian Wendell Berry, naturalist Barry Lopez, Catholic pacifist monk Thomas Merton and American Buddhist teacher Robert Aitken. All were men who had turned decisively away from violence.They were our heroes. I often quoted favorite passages, like one of Berry’s “Sabbath” poems, which includes the lines:
“It is the destruction of the world / in our own lives that drives us / half insane, and more than half. / To destroy that which we were given / in trust: How will we bear it? / It is our own bodies that we give / to be broken, our bodies / existing before and after us / in clod and cloud, worm and tree / that we, driving or driven, despise / in our greed to live, our haste / to die.”
Kevin, Gary and I considered passages like this holy writ. We meant to live by them and were trying to figure out how. In the days after our meeting, I returned to my books and read frantically in search of reason and consolation. When I read lines that spoke to me, the roiling fury inside me was replaced for a few moments by a sorrow just as unbearable, but much less dangerous to others. I veered between weeping and shaking with rage. I felt humiliation and defeat as a self-appointed masculine protector who had been gone from his post when invaders came.
In those dark hours and days, I re-evaluated almost everything I’d thought my life was about, finding most of it trivial. I had no goals that held worth in the face of catastrophe. One of the few things I held to was that my relationships with Tori and my family were a lot of what gave my life its better context and meaning.
Asking myself what I could do to help Tori and my mother also served to re-center the internal dialogue inside me. I did not want to devastate my family further by going to prison. I remembered Tori’s threat to end her life and feared that more violence would push her to it. I could not stand to imagine my mother and my other sister, Claire, losing me to rage and prison, or Tori to suicide or madness.
I remembered that I had once even pitied Andy. I knew about his father’s abuse and how he had been taught to view women. I despised what he and his friends had done. I could not forgive, and nothing could excuse, but as the grandson of a brutal and abusive grandfather, I understood the violent legacy he carried. I knew where his father’s violence had come from, too.
I still cursed and punched the walls of my tiny room. I could not sleep. But after several days, I told Kevin and Gary that I no longer wanted to go after Andy.They were relieved.Their doubts about our violent culture and their desire to live differently were part of why I loved them.
In his 1906 essay “The Moral Equivalent of War,” philosopher William James writes,
History is a bath of blood.The ‘Iliad’ is one long recital of how Diomedes and Ajax, Sarpedon and Hector killed. … and the Greek mind fed upon the story. … At the present day, civilized opinion is a curious mental mixture.The military instincts and ideals are as strong as ever, but … [p]ure loot and mastery seem no longer morally allowable motives, and pretexts must be found for attributing them solely to the enemy. … [T]he justifications pleaded are invariably fictions.
The second Bush Administration capitalized on the nation’s newfound support for war in 2003. The current war in Afghanistan began in the name of vengeance, the one in Iraq with preemptive strikes. Both are justified now by the idea that societies can be forcibly redeemed, freed from their pasts and made safe for us through military force. As the wars grind on and casualties mount, as a new generation of veterans returns home damaged, no nation involved seems likely to emerge a “winner” of anything worth the costs. In the United States, we can only hope that the vanquished Vietnam syndrome might be replaced by an Iraqi-Afghan one, a new reluctance to rush into war.
Had the threats of prison and my sister’s suicide been removed, would I have killed or come close to killing? Was it fear alone that stopped me? I cannot say for sure, but I do not think so. I believe it was also compassion for my family. I believe it was also my hunger.
Around this time, I attended my first Quaker meeting, on Kevin’s recommendation. On the corkboard, I read an open letter from a man named Jim Corbett, co-founder of the Sanctuary Movement, which had established a new underground railroad to give safe haven to Salvadoran and Guatemalan refugees fleeing death squads supported by the U.S. government.The movement itself was over by then, but in Jim’s letter, I read the line, “Individuals can resist injustice, but only in community can we do justice.” I knew immediately that this was what I longed for: a community where living justly was possible. I wanted to find such a place and bring my family there.
I spoke to Tori almost every day and visited often. Later, I moved her to Austin to live near me. I could hardly bear to sit in the living room of our family house, to look at the coffee table where the rape had occurred. Sometimes, I still thought of vengeance. I repeated the process of considering and then turning from violence almost daily. But I knew that what I wanted most for Tori and myself was mercy and a better way—not to give either of our bodies to destruction, not to drive or be driven to it.
In turning from vengeance to care, I could connect with the real source of my hurt: Tori’s suffering. I could ask, with my family, what steps we might take toward healing, however slowly.Violence might have rendered even the asking impossible. It almost did.
As my family and I struggled to come to terms with an event that nearly destroyed us, I read a magazine story about the war and ethnic cleansing in Bosnia. The Sarajevo symphony had been closed down, but after a bomb killed 22 people in a bread line, principal cellist Vedran Smailović sat for a time each day in the street where the bomb had exploded. For 22 days, in full evening attire, with the sound of mortars and machine guns firing around him, Smailović played Albinoni’s “Adagio in G minor” as an elegy for the lost, in defiance of those whose hatred had overtaken them. I taped the story to my apartment door, on the in-facing side so I saw it as I walked out.