When I was twelve, I stood between my mother and a man who was trying to kill her. I remember no emotions at the time other than a sense that “this has to end.” For five years my mother had lived with violence, beatings and worse that came at least once a month, almost on schedule. More than once she had to go to the hospital, twice for extended stays because she had cracked discs in her neck.
It might seem to some I exaggerate by stating this man, my mother’s second husband, was attempting to “kill” her. Perhaps so, but it did not feel that way to my twelve-year-old self at the time. I merely knew he had threatened to kill her on more than one occasion and had seemingly attempted to numerous times.
He never laid a hand on me during his violent episodes. There had been times when we had rough-housed out in the yard, and a couple of times he had left me with bruises and the wind knocked from my chest, but that had been play, though today it might be considered crossing the line. It didn’t seem so back then.
Though he was not my father, this was a man who I respected, as difficult as that might sound. He was a Vietnam veteran, earning my regard for his service and a bit of youthful awe at the tales of war he and his buddies would pass along. He was also educated and intellectual, and built by hand rows upon rows of shelves in our basement before covering those shelves with thousands of books he had acquired over the years. If not for this man, my interests in literature might never have blossomed.
Yet he was also the man who regularly attacked my mother, leaving her beaten and in tears.
Why she tolerated this for so long, I do not know, even to this day. She and I have talked about it over the years, and she does not have a good answer, not one she herself can come to grips with.
As I mentioned, I felt no emotion at the time of standing between this man and my mother. I do remember beforehand a general feeling that I knew this was coming, my facing down against this man. I was waiting, waiting for myself to grow older and bigger and stronger. I realized he would probably mop the floor with me, perhaps harming me worse than he had my mother all those years simply because I was standing up to him.
But none of that was in my mind the night I was in bed and heard the first of the screams. It was a familiar pattern, one I knew well, and I realized I would be awake all night, helpless to do anything but listen to the cursing and crying. That night was different, however. I can not say what was different, but I remember that “this has to end.”
I jumped up out of bed, wearing only pajamas, and rushed through the house and down the stairs to the basement where those lines of books encompassed the room. He had shoved my mother over the couch. She was climbing to her feet and he was approaching as I rushed between them and stood there and stared at him. I did not even raise my arms.
He did not look at me, but tried to rush past, to reach my mother. Without thinking, I shoved out, sending him sprawling across the couch. At that point my mother ran up the stairs. He jumped to his feet and lurched after her. I followed as fast as I could.
In the kitchen upstairs, my mother was at the phone, attempting to call the police. Somehow I managed to place myself between her and my step-father once more. I was in a doorway, and there was no room for him to get by me. The only way he could get to her would be to physically remove me.
I remember expecting to be slaughtered at that moment. But it never came. I continued to stare in silence into his face, and then I realized he would not look at me. His eyes were down, and he only stood there several feet away. His fists were at his side, and soon opened, hanging limp.
To this day, more than thirty years later, I’m still not sure what happened that night. Armchair psychologists and the like might say he was too much of a coward to face someone who was willing to confront him directly, and perhaps that is true. I don’t know. I do know that for only being twelve, I was pretty big for a boy at 180 pounds and nearly six-feet tall. However, my step-father was no small man, standing at about six feet himself and weighing slightly more than two hundred pounds. Plus, he was an adult, with at least some military training, whereas I was a kid who hadn’t even played football yet. Maybe harming a kid was a line he would not cross.
That memory is the most vivid one I retain of the few instances of violence that have intruded upon my life. Obviously I had witnessed many sessions of my mother being beaten, but after all these years they all seem to tumble together in my mind.
Of the other times violence has entered my life, there have been few, but I remember them with a little less recall. There was then time when I was ten and my grandfather, my mother’s father, pistol whipped my step-father, for reasons one can guess. There was the time I went camping with friends at 16 and ended up staring down the barrel of a revolver, to this day my mind’s eye telling me that was the biggest firearm I have ever seen in my life, even though cooler heads eventually prevailed that night and no one was hurt. There were a few fist fights in high school. There was the time I went hiking with my dad, I think I was 18, and someone fired several shots over our heads, for what reason I do not know, perhaps just to get their kicks scaring some yokels.
That is the extent that violence has directly affected my life, at least that I can remember.
Odd, then, at least to me, that fictional violence has become such a part of my everyday life. I’m fortunate in that I get to write fiction for a living, and my preferred genres are the fantasy and horror fields. Why is this? Why do I utilize so much violence in my work?
I can’t give a good answer. I could go on about the freedom I find in exploring the human condition when I write fantasy, or I could talk about the sheer fun I have at writing horror, because being scared can be fun, at least when the frights aren’t real.
I could also chat about other writers, how Hemingway used violence to subtly explore the minds of his protagonists, or how Tolstoy despised violence but still found a use for it to guide his characters in their search for God. I could turn to pulp writers and focus on Robert E. Howard’s use of violence as a way to highlight the eternal struggle between civilization and barbarism, or Ed McBain’s dichotomy of violence that on one side was often little more than a day-at-the-office for the police officers he wrote about, but could become quite personal and breathtaking in the blink of an eye.
I could go on and on about all of that, but none of it would be real, none of it would truly focus upon violence.
Before I was seven, before my mother remarried, the world I lived within found violence to be exciting. Back then I got my violence from comic books and television, and that stuff was tame by any comparison of what we have today. Spider-man pounced on crooks to set the world right again, and Roy Rogers blasted a six-gun out of a black-hats hand to save the day and win the girl.
Again, though, none of that is violence, real violence.
None of those memories answer the question of why I write using violence so often.
Or do they?
When I really sit and think about it, when I force my mind to go back, it occurs to me that I am not writing about violence, no matter how many villains my protagonists slay nor how many innocents fall prey to my monsters. What I am writing about is adventure, about a seven-year-old boy’s version of violence.
I have seen real violence, if only a little as compared to others, and I do not write about that. It is too painful to write about, but I can write about fake violence, which isn’t even violence in the first place. I can write the thrilling dreams of a little boy who has yet to taste real violence, because that is who I once was, and perhaps who I want to be again.