There are some who say that cruelty is learned, and not inherent – the result of trauma and abuse early in life. Freud’s view was that cruelty is natural; that sadism (the want/need/desire to do harm to others) is the forgotten child of sexual desire and aggression, based in biology and psychology and a deep-rooted part of human nature.
I’ve always appreciated British psychoanalyst and author Christopher Bollas’ view – he believed that beneath hatred and hateful behavior lies a pure and simple emptiness; that anger and hatred and subsequent cruelty are nothing more than ways to fill that emptiness.
And – he said – importantly, that it is better to feel cruelly than to not feel at all.
Cruelty in Action
John Berry came to live in our neighborhood the summer before we started eighth grade, and only a few days before my 13th birthday. He lived in the house across the street from mine. It was a house with three stories – mine has only one – and had big windows facing the street and the pillars of Old Rome across the porch.
Nobody else in the neighborhood cared much about his house – they cared about his face. There was a rumor going around that that John Berry’s face was burned all the way through, caught in a fire when he was a baby, and now he wears a hospital-blue mask that hangs loose around his skin to hide it. And that he didn’t have eyelids or a nose anymore; there was always spit running down his neck because he didn’t have lips.
And it was true. We watched him move in. With Dee Boy and Tim and Skittles. The mask on his face made it look like an alien was moving into our neighborhood.
I think he turned to look at us, but I wasn’t sure. How could I be sure? You couldn’t see where he was looking with his face covered like that.
We were sitting on the sidewalk in front of my house throwing dice. I lost, which meant I was supposed to go knock on John Berry’s door and, when he came outside, ask him what happened to his face. And then ask him if he would take off the mask and show us what’s underneath. And then take a picture for everyone from school to see.
It was his dad who opened the door when I knocked. His dad was a big guy with a big gut that hung over his belt and a mustache. I wouldn’t trust my sister around him. But that’s a different story. He wore a big shiny belt buckle with a charging blue bull on it.
He asked me in a deep voice, “What do you want?”
“Is John Berry home?”
He was looking me right in the eye. He didn’t care if I was trying to pull anything or not. He was going to kill me either way.
He said, “Yes.”
I stood there for a moment.
His dad said, “And?”
“Can he come and play basketball with us?”
His dad didn’t blink, giving me that look, and I thought to myself, This isn’t worth it. Not one bit.
He looked at me for a while longer before finally he shook his head and said, “Johns Berry can’t come out right now. He’s got homework to do.”
I turned my head to the side and said, “But it’s summer?”
His dad shook his head again. His mustache shook too. “He’s homeschooled,” he said. “He doesn’t have summer break like you do. You’re going to have to come back on the weekend.”
I knew Dee Boy and Tim and Skittles were in the bushes behind me watching. I don’t think John Berry’s dad knew. He didn’t stop looking at me. And I realized that he was looking at me like that because he was scared. Why would a guy that big look scared? The more I thought about it, the more I realize that he wasn’t scared for himself. No – he was scared for John Berry.
John Berry finally came outside. He was wearing his blue mask. I could hear him breathing, raspy, when he stood close to me. He said, “Hey,” in a quiet voice.
“You want to play basketball?” I asked him.
He nodded his head.
“Do you know how?”
He shook his head.
“You don’t talk much.” Tim said.
“Come on,” Dee Boy said. “It’s easy.”
We walked toward the basketball courts at the playground. John Berry walking slowly behind us. He didn’t say anything. Dee Boy stopped to tie his shoe. He told us to keep going. But I knew what he was doing. Skittles was laughing into his hand. John Berry was looking up at the sky next to me. I could hear him humming a song from underneath his mask.
Then Dee Boy tackled him from behind. I knew it was going to happen. Skittles held down his arms and Tim took off his mask. John Berry tried to get away, but he didn’t try too hard. He just kind of flopped over like a fish and laid on the ground. And I knew then that this had happened to him at least once before.
The skin on his face was red-pink and all smooth, shining in the light like meat cooking on the grill. There was spit running from the sides of his mouth because he didn’t have lips anymore, and his nose was all the way gone too, just dark holes like a jack o lantern. There were pieces of skin hanging over eyes where his eyelids used to be, and his is eyes were bloodshot and red.
I looked at him and I couldn’t look away.
Dee Boy put his knees down on Johns Berry’s chest and it made him cough, grunting from deep in his stomach. Tim turned green and he dropped the mask onto the ground and took a step back onto the grass. Skittles laughed and laughed.
Dee Boy said, “Goddamn!”
Skittles said, “He looks just like a pussy.”
“Man you don’t know what a pussy looks like.”
“Sure do. I saw your mom’s last night.”
“Shut up asshole.”
Tim didn’t say anything He just stood in the background looking down at the blue mask on the grass. John Berry started to cry and Tim walked off with his head down, kicking his foot into the dirt. John Berry started to cry, quiet, making sounds from the back of his throat like hum hum hum…
I couldn’t look away. I looked at John Berry right in the eye and he looked back at me, water running down his face and mixing with the spit from his mouth. It was wrong to look at him that way, but I kept looking anyway. The sound of him crying with no lips and no nose and no eyelids. It was then that I understood – and still do to this day – the true definition of cruelty.
Dee Boy let him up and said, “Alright alright don’t cry, we were just fooling around.”
Skittles said, “Pussy!”
John Berry pulled his mask from the grass and put it back on his face. He walked home and didn’t turn around to look at us again.
They moved away a few months later. Before summer was even over. I know John Berry’s dad would have killed me if he could have. He would have ripped my arms off and beat me to death with them. Or choked me to death if he could have. I had a dream about it once: He beat me until I looked just as bad as John Berry and he said to me, That’s what you get! and I woke up not being able to breathe.
I think now that John Berry was lucky to have a dad like that. My dad would get mean (when he still lived with us) and I would run into the bathroom to hide. It was the only door in the house that had a lock (besides his bedroom), and I’d lock the door and listen for a half hour or more while he pounded from the other side, yelling that he was going to break it down and wring my skinny neck. He never did though – it would cost too much too fix it, and he knew that even when he was drunk.
Finally he would fall asleep, snoring on the carpet, and I would step over him to get to my room. I still feel safe in the bathroom. I go there to think. It’s the only place I can go to think clearly. People think I’m doing something else, but I don’t really care.
My dad is gone now. My mom said that he’s in jail somewhere near Poanoke County by the lake. I don’t know if that’s true. She doesn’t always tell the truth about these things. But I wouldn’t visit him anyway, even if it was closer. His was a different form of cruelty.
The time that it takes to get to the lake from my house is 26 minutes. I timed it once. The time that it takes to get to my girlfriend Gogo’s house from my house is twelve minutes on a bike. When I was eight years old I fell off my bike, and I promised myself I would never fall off again.
I haven’t, and I won’t. I know I won’t.
Read this next: The Kids Who Keep Our Secrets