Perhaps this still all seems too abstract. Someone who makes it real is the novelist, J.M. Coetzee, whose brilliant, harrowing novel, Disgrace (1999), tells the story of a professor of literature, David Lurie. In the aftermath of an affair with a student, David resigns from his position at a University in Cape Town and retreats to his adult daughter Lucy’s remote small-holding in the uplands of the Eastern cape. David’s rural exile, however, is not fated to be a peaceful one.
One afternoon soon after David arrives on the farm, three strangers arrive – two men and a teenager – and enter the premises under the pretences of wanting to use the phone. Without further ado, the strangers knock David to the floor. When he comes to moments later, he finds himself locked in the lavatory. ‘His child is in the hands of strangers’. Eventually he’s released. They want his car keys. Whereupon he’s doused in methylated spirits. ‘The scrape of a match, and at once he is bathed in cool blue flame’. David manages to get to the toilet bowl in time – to extinguish the flames – and survive. But when he rouses, he finds the car stolen, the dogs shot and his daughter gang-raped.
This appalling incident, so difficult to read, happens in Chapter 11, roughly half-way through the novel. Which means that Coetzee leaves the reader completely wedded to the father’s quest for justice for nearly the rest of the story. Because Coetzee refuses to satisfy the quest. The regional police won’t act. And Lucy, impregnated, won’t press charges. It’s only in Chapter 23 that one of assailants reappears. By which time the reader is baying for blood. It’s the teenager, whom David discovers peeping at Lucy through the bathroom window. The whole passage warrants quotation:
The flat of his hand catches the boy in the face. ‘You swine!’ he shouts, and strikes him a second time, so that he staggers. ‘You filthy swine!’
More startled than hurt, the boy tries to run, but trips over his own feet. At once the dog is upon him. Her teeth close over his elbow; she braces her forelegs and tugs, growling. With a shout of pain he tries to pull free…
The word still rings in the air: Swine! Never has he felt such elemental rage. He would like to give the boy what he deserves: a sound thrashing. Phrases that all his life he has avoided seem suddenly just and right. Teach him a lesson, Show him his place. So this is what it is like, he thinks! This is what it is like to be a savage!
He gives the boy a good, solid kick, so that he sprawls sideways.
An extraordinary moment. Coetzee has his readers in the palm of his hand. Because (at least at the beginning of the passage) we too feel David’s ‘elemental rage’. We want what David wants: to pulverize the kid who raped his daughter. But suddenly, during the course of the passage, Coetzee starts to humanize the kid. (‘More startled than hurt, the boy tries to run, but trips over’). Both the kid’s clumsiness and then ‘shout of pain’ remind us that, whatever he’s done, the kid remains a human being. So, the reader is made to feel conflicted, vengeful still, but now protective too. Starting to fear rather than desire that the kid will be ravaged by the dog and beaten witless by the father. In other words, the reader is beginning to remember. The boy remains David Lurie’s brother.
In his rousing war-time sermon, ‘The Weight of Glory’ (1942), C.S. Lewis writes that ‘the load, or weight, or burden of my neighbour’s glory should be laid daily on my back’. What does he mean by this? Lewis is exhorting me to remember, continually to bring to mind, something I have forgotten about the stranger on the tube I will never meet again. Lewis is exhorting David Lurie to remember something he has (more understandably) forgotten about the boy sprawled in front of him at his mercy. Lewis writes:
It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest and most uninteresting person you talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship… There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal.
For me, then, anger management does not just involve, as Cognitive-Behavioural Therapy manuals have it, becoming more self-aware. No, efficacious anger management means becoming more other-aware. In the moment, right there on the tube, what I need most desperately is to think more not just about myself – who I am. I need to think more about who he is.