If Compelled To Abide: On Sobriety, Marriage, And Fictional Dog-Killing
Previously: On eight years of waking up. “August 24th was the eight-year anniversary of my getting sober; it’s a little difficult to think of a scale of eight years, not least because I often think 2013 was just two or three years ago. Some people in recoveries — it makes more sense to me to think of recovery strategies in the plural rather than the singular, for obvious reasons — talk about their own histories of using as a solution of its own to a variety of problems/impulses/desires/needs, imperfect and destructive as that kind of solution can sometimes become. The problem(s) predate the first solution and generally persist in some form or another in the face of newer solutions. The first time I needed a drink (in the most weary 1950s-era businessman voice imaginable: “Christ, I need a drink!”) I was five years old, but I would not take a drink for another decade, which made the ages of five to fifteen a very long pre-cocktail hour indeed.”
“But if you sincerely repent—”
“I can’t repent; I only fear.”
“You only regret the past for its consequences to yourself?”
—Helen to Arthur Huntingdon, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall
“I should have tried to endure the evil or cure it for awhile; and when I found it intolerable and incurable, I should have left my torturer suddenly and silently.”
“And if law or might had forced you back again?…”
“I would have gone back; again assured myself whether or not his vice and my misery were capable of remedy; and if not, have left him again.”
“And if again forced to return, and compelled to abide?”
“I don’t know,” she said, hastily. “Why do you ask me, monsieur?”
—William to Frances Crimsworth, The Professor
Recently I realized I had confused the ending of Anne Brontë’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall with Charlotte Brontë’s The Professor, swapping out, as one sometimes does, William Crimsworth for Gilbert Markham and misremembering Wildfell Hall’s ending with Markham shooting a beloved dog belonging to Helen’s son Arthur (whom Markam adopts as his own after their marriage) rather than Crimsworth shooting a beloved dog belonging to his son Victor. It seemed fitting, to my mind at least, that the Wildfell marriage, brokered through a shared commitment to witnessing every extremity of violence, would end on such a note, the boy growing up inclined towards reserve and seriousness, becoming passionately attached to a “superb mastiff” named Yorke, Yorke being bitten by a rabid dog during an outing to a nearby town, and the narrator-father taking it upon himself to shoot Yorke before the onset of inevitable suffering:
As soon as Hunsden had brought [Yorke] home, and had informed me of the circumstance, I went into the yard and shot him where he lay licking his wound: he was dead in an instant; he had not seen me level the gun; I stood behind him. I had scarcely been ten minutes in the house, when my ear was struck with sounds of anguish: I repaired to the yard once more, for they proceeded thence. Victor was kneeling beside his dead mastiff, bent over it, embracing its bull-like neck, and lost in a passion of the wildest woe: he saw me.
“Oh, papa, I’ll never forgive you! I’ll never forgive you!” was his exclamation. “You shot Yorke—I saw it from the window. I never believed you could be so cruel—I can love you no more!”
I had much ado to explain to him, with a steady voice, the stern necessity of the deed; he still, with that inconsolable and bitter accent which I cannot render, but which pierced my heart, repeated—
“He might have been cured—you should have tried—you should have burnt the wound with a hot iron, or covered it with caustic. You gave no time; and now it is too late—he is dead!”
Victor is eventually reconciled to this violence by his mother, the narrator-father being sure “she would comfort him best” in a blur of overidentification, as “Victor would have been no true son of his father, had these considerations, these reasons, breathed in so low, so sweet a tone—married to caresses so benign, so tender—to looks so inspired with pitying sympathy—produced no effect on him. They did produce an effect.”
Victor’s susceptibility to his mother binds him more closely to his father, although this binding perversely prepares his father for the imminent and also-violent son-abnegation to come: “He must soon go to Eton, where I suspect, his first year or two will be utter wretchedness,” for there is something in his son’s temper alternately termed ardor, power, spirit, or “leaven of the offending Adam,” which his father thinks must be “if not WHIPPED out of him, at least soundly disciplined; and that he will be cheap of any amount of either bodily or mental suffering which will ground him radically in the art of self-control.” He imagines the swiftly-approaching day when Victor will receive “blows instead of blandishments” and “kicks instead of kisses” that will produce a “wiser and better man,” and thinks of that day with equal parts dread and anticipation.
None of this is to say that euthanasia isn’t a better death for a dog than rabies — but to what end does Brontë choose to give this fictional dog a case of fictional rabies, to reflect on childhood’s uneasy proximity to animals and violence at the close of a marriage plot? The father’s calculus runs thusly: The boy loved his dog, the boy’s dog is dead; the dog’s death has paired my son with his mother; my son’s mother is an influence whose brief ripeness swiftly gives way to rot; a son shares his father’s weakness for his mother; a son must be flung out into a curriculum of violence to cure him of having been mothered.
But it is not the fostered son of a grand, dead alcoholic whose dog dies, but the cognate son of two middle-class schoolteachers. Crimsworth has no shadow-father counterpart to contend with, no “bad seed” or ghostly remnant of Hungtindon’s influence to extinguish, no adoptive process to solemnize with blood and blood-shedding. I had invented that connection.
It’s a little over eight years since my last drink. It’s now almost two years since my wife Grace and I learned of my brother’s pedophilic obsession with children and my entire family’s conspiracy of silence to secure his unsupervised, wholly unaccountable “program” of self-guided treatment through leading youth groups at our parents’ church, coaching children’s sports teams, volunteering for international missions trips as a high-school chaperone, and a half-dozen other avenues of mentorship; two years since we filed the first of many reports with local organizations and institutions calling for a full investigation of his work with children and my parents’ facilitation thereof. Almost two years since I last heard my sister’s voice calling her brother her “hero” and lying about her rules governing his ability to spend time alone with her child while choosing to extend similar safeguarding to other people’s children, almost two years since I last heard my father’s voice say, “I think if he couldn’t coach children, he would feel that his life had no more meaning, and he might not want to live, so it wouldn’t be possible for him to just coach adults instead” and “It’s a very complicated situation, and I don’t think you really have the kind of relationship with your brother where you’re in a position to offer him advice.” Of the details that have been made publicly available there is little point in dwelling now. Of other details I do not yet have sufficient perspective or composure to discuss. There is a howl, only, still.
It is, however, possible to say without fear of exaggeration or distortion, that I believe our shared sobriety enabled Grace and I to pursue what people in recover(ies) often refer to as the next right thing without tipping over wholly into insanity or despair. Many communities-in-recovery follow some sort of shared rubric for identifying and relinquishing a desire to control or manage one’s own unproductive anger or resentment, not because the ideal state for the sober alcoholic is one of constant imperturbability, but because the delusion that repeated attempts to control one’s circumstances through sheer force of will is a particularly damaging one, and we are often able to live much more sanely and usefully on another basis. The design is not to rid oneself of the experience of anger completely. Anger is often a perfectly appropriate, powerful, necessary, practical, and even restorative state. Rather, the design is to seek out a steadier foundation for living, to distinguish our angers from our fears, our shames, our desires, our delusions, our hopes, our ambitions, our securities, and to seek out appropriate support, counsel, freedom, and possible courses of action (even sometimes possible courses of inaction, as the case may be).
Grace and I, along with the many people we took into our counsel in those early days, knew very well the course of action we were embarking upon would be costly, would invite a great deal of public speculation and harassment, and might very well fail to bring about the thorough investigation, justice, and repair we hoped for. We knew we could not control the outcomes, that it was in fact crucial that whatever outcomes arose did so as a result of collective decision-making by the affected communities, not our personal sense of what ought to be. We knew it was likely to provoke harassment, especially as two trans people being publicly ‘disloyal’ to a Christian nuclear family. So it did, and so it has, although harassment was not the only or even the primary response, as we have also been met with support and solidarity, as eventually (sometimes very slowly) external investigations have begun into some, although by no means all, of my brother’s work. Into the subsequent allegations against my father there has still been no investigation, despite repeated reports.
There are a number of ways one can adapt to the reality of chronic, sustained harassment, none of them wholly adequate. A particularly cruel and active strain has been predictably directed at my wife. While I am periodically the recipient of sentimental appeals to pity my relative’s so-called ‘suffering’ or rambling diatribes against my choices, my wife Grace has been scapegoated by a patchwork and determined alliance of white supremacists, transphobes, and Christian fanatics who routinely monitor her movements and threaten to harm her physically, sometimes under the guise of “protecting” me, who they see as either a brainwashed dupe or a helpless child. Often these people claim to be acting in my best interests, asserting some secret or submerged knowledge of my “true” self (usually some version of my public persona frozen in 2012), which spurs them to stalk her. The thinking usually runs along the following lines: The Ortbergs might have perhaps (perhaps!) acted wrongly, if with the best of intentions, and [Mallory] used to be such a nice cis white lady who wrote fun little jokes about the Brontës, therefore Grace must have installed herself as a cunning, deceitful Gríma Wormtongue-style vizier, first to lure me into transitioning against my own will, then to break with my beautiful white family against my better nature, finally into degradation, delusion, friendlessness, and unreality. The true princess slumbers, disguised in the costume of a beggar-man. Clap your hands if you believe in the Ortbergs. Perhaps we can wake her!
Grace has written something of her own experience with this harassment campaign elsewhere:
I don’t know where the ubiquitous advice “don’t feed the trolls” comes from, but as everyone has been able to see, I suppose, my own tendency has been not merely to feed them, but to prepare a banquet for them, in the hopes I might slake their hunger entirely. I don’t know whether I think this is good advice that I would offer others. But it has been useful for me to affirm that I am not ashamed of the images and words with which they try to shame me. I’m not ashamed of the loving sex and intimacy I share with my husband, or with the other lovers in my life. I’m not ashamed of being trans, or teaching Auden’s dirty verse; of my stubble, fatness, or hairline…the reason we decided to cut off ties with Danny’s biological family was because they had acted, in our view, unconscionably badly.
But all of the key choices were made by Danny, with me in support—as they should have been! Initially, I thought (and said to him) that Danny would eventually be reconciled to them; he insisted not, and I now fully accept and affirm that. I helped edit some of Danny’s public statements on this matter, but my goal was always to de-emphasize Danny’s (entirely justified) anger. I handled some of the public advocacy around Menlo because I had more relevant experience than he did, but mostly because I didn’t want him to have to encounter the hate I got directly. Those were clearly the right decisions.
This has the potential to become a mere Stoical (or worse, Pauline!) hardship list. Dealing with harassment as a result of calling for necessary safeguarding, while personally painful, is hardly the most pressing issue, which remains the necessary safeguarding of children and the ongoing need for publicly-accountable investigations into long-standing allegations of child rape against John Ortberg, Jr. I doubt very much that anyone who harasses Grace in my name is likely to read this entry and abandon their course and publicly apologize to her, although I invite all of them to do so. I am grateful to have been an alcoholic, both because it put me on the path to recovery and a sustainable basis of living but firstly because it led me away from the sickly-sweet coated bear trap of my family of origin. Grateful for my sobriety and my anger, which tells me that there is woe to those who call evil good, and good evil; who put darkness for light, and light for darkness; who put bitter for sweet, and sweet for bitter, even as I do not possess the personal power to deal out woe.
One hopes Victor learns not to love his father’s relationship to corrective violence and discipline at Eton; one hopes he never returns home after that first “year or two of wretchedness” to disciple any further under his father-narrator’s professorship; one hopes for fatherhood the same howling end of Wildfell Hall’s Mr. Huntingdon, for Mr. Crimsworth and Mr. Markham to be consigned to the same “dark grave he so much dreaded” and a swift abolishment and dismantling thereafter.
“The coffin must be closed as soon as possible. If you will attend the funeral, come quickly, for I need help.”
[First image author’s, second image via]