Good Girls Don't Get Angry

By Jeanette Miller

In the 1960s, an invisible, unwritten code of the small, midwestern town where I came of age required girls to grow up Iowa-nice, and nice meant you didn’t get angry, let alone feel it. When my younger brother and I spoke angry words to each other, even in jest, our mother would exclaim, “Don’t fight! You’ll spoil our supper!" We got the message that anger was a sin and that food was sacred.

No matter what a person does, don’t tell on them. If you do, you’re a tattle tale. I heard this on the school playground and from my cousins, my first playmates. But I’m not tattling my tale here. I’m telling my brother’s. Shortly after he and I started taking care of our parents, when Dad was ninety-four and Mom was eighty-eight, we talked over a bottle of wine. For the first time Jim told me his story. When he was a boy, five or six years old, and Mom thought that Jim had been a naughty boy, she would shout, “Go get the belt!” He was to get a designated belt, the same one from Dad’s clothes closet every time, and hand it to her. Then she’d lash him with it. Because she thought he’d been a naughty boy, “Spare the rod and spoil the child” from Proverbs 13:24 seemed to excuse our mother’s rage.

This punishment happened repeatedly until, one day, Jim brought our mother the belt and refused to let go. He held onto the end without the buckle with both hands. Mom chuckled nervously. After that there were no more orders to go get the belt.

“Where was I when this was going on?” I asked. We agreed that I must have been outdoors playing or at school with no inkling about what was happening. If I had seen my brother being beaten, I probably would have just stood there, unable to speak, unable to do anything about it. It’s not likely I would have told anyone what I saw.

Why wasn’t I beaten? I asked myself. Maybe Mom thought the belt shouldn’t be used on girls. I’d often heard her tell her friends that girls were easier to raise than boys. I certainly was. I learned not to cross an invisible yet clearly defined line. I learned to obey, be good, and be nice.

The one-story house where my brother and I came of age kept secret my brother’s tale. What other secrets was it hiding? I asked myself.

Above the console radio The Bible Looking Glass, a book published in 1876, stood upright on my parents’ living room bookshelf. It “profoundly illustrated by object teaching pictures…the pain and misery that result from vice and the peace and happiness arising from virtue…” On page 83 was a drawing of a male lion gazing at its reflection in a brook, preceding a chapter on anger. A caption under the picture read: “Anger resteth in the bosom of fools.” As a child, I wondered why the lion wasn’t roaring.

Our family’s suppression of anger continued to influence me into young adulthood, my middle age years, and into my midsixties, when I retired from practicing as a psychotherapist to take care of my parents. Dad lived to be one hundred, and Mom who died at age ninety-seven.

Two years into caregiving, after the idealistic, honeymoon period (when I thought I could make my parents’ last years their happiest ones), I showed up one morning, as usual, at 8:00 to have coffee with them before setting up their meds for the following day, washing the breakfast dishes, cleaning off the stove, and mopping the bathroom floor.

Dad showed me a stack of newsletters put out by the airplane parts factory in Dayton, Ohio, where he worked during World War II. One of them featured an article titled “What You Will Never See.” It listed Dad’s name on a roster of selected employees. One man would never be seen showing up for work on time. One of the women referenced would never be seen without her make-up. My dad, the article read, “would never be seen in a fit of anger.” When he was ninety-four, I asked him if he’d ever gotten angry. “Once,” he disclosed, “I was feeding a horse and it tried to kick me, so I didn’t give her any oats.”

This must have taken place in Nebraska, where he was born and raised, before he met my mother.

After I’d finished the household tasks, I drove to the local grocery store to get the groceries on the list Mom had dictated to me. When I returned, Mom and Dad were still sitting at the kitchen table, where Dad was watching the end of an Iowa news program on the TV, tucked into a corner niche among the cupboards he’d built. As I was transferring the groceries from their paper bags to the table, Mom exclaimed, “You got the wrong kind of creamer!” (She hadn’t told me what kind she’d wanted.) I burst into tears. Dad turned to me as he rose from his chair. “I’d like to be able to help you, but I’ve been putting up with this kind of thing all my life,” he said as if this complaint would serve as a bond between us. He made his exit from the kitchen to the living room, where he would watch TV a good part of the day—Fox News and Judge Judy.

Without saying a word, I put the groceries away as Mom reached across the table for the playing cards to play solitaire and shuffled them. I drove to my apartment with the worst headache I’d ever had. I picked up my cell phone to phone my doctor’s office. Over the contact list was a golden orb with shiny, gold lines moving in waves inside its circle. Instinctively I headed for dark, pulled the bedroom curtains shut, and lay down on my bed. Four hours later, the orb, which had moved from the phone to anywhere I focused, disappeared. My doctor’s nurse informed me that the orb had been the precursor to a migraine, something I’d never experienced before. I popped a movie, Tarantino’s Kill Bill, into my DVD player, then watched the sequel. Furiously, I took notes as Uma Thurman, in acts of revenge, kicked butt, fighting assassins. An excerpt from the eleven pages I wrote reads:

Whistling. Ink dripping down
Comic violence: the eyes of a comic-book girl
Women: female assassins
In black and white Beatrix bleeds
Bill’s heavy boot steps: he wipes blood from her face
She’s aware, the audacity
She tells him: “It’s your baby.”
An eyeball: the world? In a void
Her profile: her corpse? In a casket?
A green house, V. Green socked in her face
The living room trashed: glass, broken lamps
Duel in the kitchen, Beatrix with a skillet,
Her weapon of choice.
Vernita = Copperhead. Beatrix = Black Mamba
Unfinished business: a gun. Dead: Copperhead

I sent the poem to Quentin Tarantino’s public relations address, hoping he would be honored by my poetic homage. No response. I sent the poem to several journals. Rejected. Friends told me the poem was not good. A year later I found the poem in the bottom drawer of a file cabinet. The long, long poem wasn’t a poem at all but a short-hand memo of what I’d seen and heard on screen. Instead of getting in touch with my own anger, I watched an angry woman take revenge. The only anger I could experience was second-hand.

Jeanette Miller is now retired after earning an MFA at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop in poetry, then teaching at the University of Southern Indiana. She received a second master’s degree in psychology and worked as a psychotherapist in Iowa clinics. Other essays from her memoir, “The Undertaker’s Granddaughter,” were published in Yuan Yang: a Journal of Hong Kong & International Writing and an anthology on wisdom by Wising Up Press. Jeanette lives in downtown Iowa City, where she is a member of Film Scene, a movie theater that specializes in independent movies.


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