Dangerous

I’ve known my whole life that I was dangerous.

Okay, maybe not since I was a baby, but certainly since I was five. I told you about chasing my little sister down the hall for leaving her stuff on my side of the room. I didn’t tell you how my parents responded when I pushed her into the dividing wall and she ended up needing stitches in her head.

My father was a surgeon. He scooped my sister up and we all piled into the car to take her to the emergency room. My mother stayed in the car with my little brother and me while Dad and my sister went inside. They came out full of stories about how brave my sister had been under the needle--Dad did the sewing. Everybody ignored me. Except, of course, my sister.

She spent our childhood telling everyone the story about how brave she had been and how bad I was for pushing her. “Look,” she would say, pulling aside her bangs. “This is what Rachel did to me.”

And I believed her.

It got worse when I was eight. We were the new kids in the neighborhood, having moved twice since I gave my sister the scar. As was my wont, I was sitting in a tree--it was a tulip poplar--in the front of our house, reading. (I like sitting outside reading, it is the best thing about having a dog--and a backyard.) A number of the neighborhood kids came by, including my younger siblings, and started making fun of me.

“Come down out of that tree so I can hit you,” one of the older girls said. She and another of the neighborhood girls had spent the past several months bullying me, sending me notes about how fat I was (“Dear Full-Ton”) and calling me names as they rode bikes up and down the street. They had also been threatening to hit me. When I would not come down, the one girl started climbing the tree, saying she would pull me out of it.

Something inside me reacted, and I started kicking down at her. She climbed out of the tree. I followed and, fueled by my fear of being hurt, started whaling on her with my fists. The other kids were horrified. Although they had cheered her on when she was coming after me, now they saw me as the aggressor, and told me so.

“You're going to kill someone someday,” my attacker's little sister said. (She was about my age, but in my sister’s grade. My sister and I were both a year ahead of our age group in school. My attacker was in my grade but a couple of years older--and bigger--than me.) My reputation was set. I was the violent one. I was dangerous.

As Professor Peterson would put it, “Well, yes! You were! You had finally showed that you had some teeth!” (Which, by the by, worked; my attacker and I became best friends for the next several years, and she is still one of my most loyal friends, now that Facebook has enabled us to reconnect.) But what if what the kids said were true? Was I destined to kill somebody? Was I the monster in the room?

You would think it would make me more confident, knowing the damage I could do. But it didn’t. It terrified me. I was the bad one. I was the one always threatening to lose my temper and go berserk.  (Which, as my sister was able to make me prove time and again, I would when we were kids.) It was my fault if I ended up in a situation in which I felt threatened because I was the one who carried the threat.

And so, once I grew up, I submitted, rather than risk hurting anyone. I submitted when boyfriends cheated on me. I submitted when friends betrayed me. I invariably believed that it was I who had been in the wrong. I submitted at the slightest hint of disagreement--until I didn’t, at which point all the predictions came true.

I hurt people. No, I haven’t killed anyone, my childhood Dementors were not prophets. But they were right that I was capable of hurting people badly. Like my college boyfriends. And first husband (we met in graduate school). Colleagues and friends.

“Mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa.” It is all my fault. I am the monster in the room.

Or am I?

One of the mechanisms that I developed over the years was to hit myself on the head whenever I felt the urge to defend myself, above all in arguments with people closest to me. Until listening to Professor Peterson's lectures on personality, particularly agreeableness, I had not been able to understand this behavior. It was clearly an effort to punish myself--but for what?

Now I think I know: I am so scared of standing up for myself and hurting someone, I default into hurting myself instead. This carries over into other interactions.

I invariably cry when I have to talk with my department chair or dean about promoting myself or my work.

I am anxious whenever I am on campus--that is, in my professional capacity as a scholar--because campus is where I am called on to judge other people, possibly tell them I think their ideas are wrong. (It’s easier at conferences, where you don’t necessarily have to say anything if you disagree; plus, the stakes aren’t as high if you aren’t involved in making decisions about hiring or tenure or evaluating students on their work.)

I worry about walking around our neighborhood with my dog and getting into difficult situations with other dogs (who have sometimes attacked my dog), but even more about other people being frightened of my dog (all thirty pounds of her). I do not react well when people accuse me of not keeping her under control. (She’s a corgi. She barks.)

Teeth. I have got to get comfortable with the fact of having teeth.

I have noticed something remarkable in the past week or so since I got up the courage to start baring my teeth. (I can’t tell you the details, it has to do with my presence on campus.) I am less anxious, not more, knowing that I am capable of being cruel--and that being able to be cruel, as Professor Peterson says, is a good thing. I have spent my whole life, okay, since I was five, trying desperately to be harmless, when all along I was meant to have teeth.

I was meant to be able to defend myself against bullies--and little sisters. I was meant to be able to stand up for myself and speak my truth. I was meant to be able to contradict people when I believe what they are saying is wrong. I was meant to be dangerous.

Because the opposite of dangerous is not nice. It is lies.

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