Friday 3 August 2018

Thought Picnic: Remembering the day you were told, you smell like a toilet

In juvenile detention
I left the office early today at the end of a 2-week working visit to Berlin to be able to beat the rush-hour traffic to the airport. Even that did not mean we were not caught up in traffic until my taxi cab driver used his smarts to cut a detour that took probably 20 minutes out of our journey time.
Down one of the byroads, I noticed high fences and barbed wire on top of the walls. Military, I thought until I saw the sign in German for young offender’s institution. The taxi cab driver said it was a place for pickpockets.
I thought about the parents of the kids in that institution and how they might have helped or failed their kids. Maybe there was nothing they could do about the situation.
The threat of detention
Just then, my thoughts wandered to the many instances where in my father’s displeasure, he threatened to have me locked up in a police cell, for no other reason than the breakdown of communication and the thought that the experience might just toughen me up and make me probably more amenable to the thinking and the respectful subservience to his obstinate will.
Whilst the threat was never carried out because others intervened, and I was to humble and humiliate myself at his feet to placate him, the thought that he would threaten this police cell idea remained a lasting blot to what could have developed into a more rewarding father-son relationship.
It is no stretch of the imagination that I was at times a difficult and unruly child, in some ways the rebelliousness was seeking a way of independent expression, some of which might well have landed me in a young offender’s institution.
When to them you smell
Things finally came to an irredeemable schism when on failing my course he decided I would be more useful on his failing farm. It was conceptually a gulag neither I nor my mother was keen on the idea. I guess on the running of my luck, I had become more of a mother’s child than a father’s child. The morning we were to go to the farm, my sister gave me some money and I left my home for good.
However, I find myself writing this blog because I just read reports of an excerpt from Lisa Brennan-Jobs’ book called Small Fry in which she talks of the difficult and sometimes strained relationship she had with her father, the legendary Steve Jobs. [The Telegraph]
She visited him just before he died and sprayed on an expensive rose facial which she found in one of her father’s bathrooms and his acknowledgement? “You smell like a toilet.” This after hugging her.
A destructive streak
It is sometimes difficult to write about the complicated relationship between a parent and a child. The joy in your being born could soon dissipate into condescension, obloquy, disparagement and condemnation. “You smell like a toilet”, is a paraphrase that means many things from disappointment, disillusion and anger on the part of the parent.
You’re not measuring up, in the many ways you by osmosis were supposed to not just to meet the standard but exceed it, whatever that unspoken standard was. The times I was not fast enough, I was not man enough, I was not athletic enough, my teeth were rotten, my mouth was smelly, I was stupid, blind, dumb, an altogether a sense of shame that I could ever have been their offspring. When nothing else worked the ultimate putdown was, you were not responsible.
Take heed what you say
There is a coming of age to this whole process though, from the earnest desire to please and receive praise, through the fear of offending locking you into a state of stupefying stunted lack of agency, the need for acceptance then tires you out to the point of seething resentment, by which time indifference leads you to live your own life the best way you can regardless. You shrug it all off.
I cannot remember when the desire to please my father lost its drive, it was before I was 20 and I had already failed at simple and difficult things. I became the ward of another who allowed me to explore possibilities in ways that gave me a sense of direction.
In some ways, I have a good relationship with my father now, in others, flippant statements in the tone and intent of “You smell like a toilet” have a way of sticking in the recesses of your memory for a lifetime. They are never forgotten. You always remember those things, for they cut deep, stab you in the heart and recovering from the blow is almost impossible, maybe only time can heal the pain.
Take heed what you say to a child.

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