The Places I've Never Been (2012)
I met my father for the first time twice in my life. The initial first was in the summer of 2009. While snooping around the house on a day I could not stand to show up to my high school summer job, I came across the photograph of a man who shared my crooked smile. I turned it over and in plain, black letters it had my father’s name and beneath it, ‘Giselle’s Dad.’ An hour later, I sat on my twin sized bed with the telephone receiver to my ear and called the operator. Within forty-five minutes, I found him in Texas at in his mother’s house. He had no knowledge of the stories I built around him, each ending with him either dead or at least with limbs blown off in war. When you are a child who does not know her father, you become good at telling stories. You develop what teacher’s used to call a “writer’s imagination.” You cope in the only way you can.
The second time I met my father, I flew. After talking to my mom about the pros and cons nearly four years later, I decided to go to Texas and meet the other side of my family. By then, I was nineteen and old enough to understand loss without being torn apart by it. Two round faces were waiting for me at an airport in St. Charles, Louisiana. When you meet your second family for the first time, when it is the first because of a personal choice and nothing else -no death, no war- you don’t want to hug these people, but you do. You feel you must. You are part them.
I eye the man whose face looks just like mine, a face I have known every day of my life: high forehead, wide mouth, large nostrils, round nose and look back at a mirror with no glass. My grandmother stands beside me and I think of the things I have missed. “Grandma” does not roll off of the tongue nicely, much like the word “dad.” The three of us walk towards the exit. We finally get into the car. On the drive to Texas, my father turns and asks if I plan on getting my hair done while I’m there. I do not touch my afro. I do not spit. I smooth the snarl from my lips. I say, “It is done,” and it is. All of it is done. My opinion was done forming. The mystery was finally solved. My hair was a conditioned, wild cloud around my head.
After this exchange, I cower in the back seat, Louisiana swampland rolling past. I think of the sky, how it is the same blue everywhere, even in places I have never been. I get to the house and remove my shoes. The only things that belong to me stay close. My scarlet duffel bag, hot pink blazer, and canvas sneakers with frayed laces are all familiar. Even though these people are my family, they do not belong to me. Not like my mother or my home does. They are a land I have acquired but never set foot on. A home left to me because of birth, whose living room I did not decorate.
The immediate family greets me in the living room. I meet my aunt Sarah who is the constable of a quiet town in Texas. My family has a large meal prepared for my arrival and I sit quietly, answering questions when I can. I am exhausted by all the new people with names I cannot remember: Cousin Herman, Miss. Something who goes to my grandmother’s church and lives down the block, Cousin Torsha, and Uncle Somebody. After a while, my aunt sees that I am uncomfortable and takes me for a car ride. We talk about all that has happened since I have been gone. She is warm and kind.
Over the next few months, I do everything to avoid seeing my father. I learn his patterns. He comes over to the house for a few hours every morning. I train my body to wake up as soon as the door closes behind him. I gravitate towards Aunt Sarah and Cousin Herman. They do everything to make sure I am happy in this strange place. They take me crabbing in the Sabine River; I brown my skin in the Texas sun. I laugh with them and go out to eat. They even drive me to meet my younger sisters for the first time.
I watch the way my father interacts with the family and find that there is no poetry in the way he lived. There was no story to craft around his absence from my life. He was just a lazy man who hopped from family to family. Just a sick man, who had a few strokes, learned how to talk again but still loved the same. He loved with his absence. He loved by taking. I decided to have nothing to do with him and by the second week. I remained cordial but never spoke after, “hello.”
Childhood imagination became a dull flicker when held to a brighter light. I needed the visit to quiet my youthful wonderings. I needed to know what I was missing, if anything at all. There is a hole you carry when you don’t have certain answers. When left alone, it widens until there is nothing left. Other times, we fill the hole with things that do not grow. People can smell it when we step into the room. We carry what is missing with us, even if we do not know its name. I found out that sometimes the gift is the lack of a gift.
On the last day of my trip, my father was so angry at my lack of communication that he flung a cup of iced tea in my direction upon departure. He started toward me violently, my aunt Sarah blocking his way and my cousin Herman holding his arm. I smiled and shrugged, wiped up the cool, sweet liquid. On my way to the airport, I gave thanks. My grandmother did not tell me she loved me as I boarded my flight. She was clear about where she placed her loyalty.
When I finally reached New York and found my brother, uncle and mom, I did not say too many words. On the ride home, the sun tinted the sky a rich red violet. It was my welcome mat. I did not learn much except that the face is a well that never dries. Family is not a bloodline but a way of being; it is a mutual presence. Finally, I learned that the sky is the same blue everywhere, even in places I’ve never been.
Unlearning The Phantom (2013)
This essay was written exclusively forThe Body Narratives
You’ve probably heard the saying “revenge is sweet,” and the tales of revenge that receive the most media attention typically do have an element of victory in the narrative (Lorena Bobbitt, the woman who chopped off her ex-husband’s penis after he sexually assaulted her, easily comes to mind.)
Less commonly discussed are the smaller, everyday acts of revenge that people commit, and how they feel about it. This sort of revenge still affects people, but it seems as if the universal “sweetness” of revenge is probably, at least to some extent, a product of popular mythology.
About 20 years ago, we started conducting research on revenge after noticing that people often struggle with forgiveness – even forgiving the people they love. In most relationships, people usually want to feel like they’re getting a fair deal, and revenge is one recourse they have if they feel they’ve been slighted.
Some forms of revenge do make the perpetrator feel better, though it’s usually not as “sweet” as imagined. A number of other factors influence how people feel about committing revenge, from how it’s crafted to the target’s reaction.
More bittersweet than sweet
For the most part, research on revenge has focused on romantic relationships and theworkplace. These studies have mapped out a topography of revenge that looks rather different from the image often portrayed in popular media; it’s rarely as violent or dramatic as it appears to be on TV, in movies and in literature.
There’s good reason: Public acts of revenge can make a person civically or criminally liable, whether it’s revenge porn or damaging someone’s property. Instead, revenge often involves breaking the typical rules of a relationship: not returning a text message or phone call, purposefully being unreliable or being less affectionate.
Many brood about getting revenge because they think it will make them feel better. Unfortunately, most people aren’t particularly good at predicting how they’ll feel in the future. In a 2008 study, one group of participants was asked to imagine how they would feel if they could punish the people who didn’t cooperate in a game. The other group was allowed to actually punish those who didn’t cooperate. The people in the group that imagined taking revenge consistently thought it would feel better than the actual punishers found it to be.
It’s not that there aren’t any positive experiences associated with getting revenge – there are. It just doesn’t feel as good for as long as many people think it would.
In fact, somestudies indicate that people experience a range of positive and negative emotions when contemplating revenge.
So rather than revenge being either bitter or sweet, it’s more likely that revenge is bittersweet.
Revenge: A dish best served…symmetrically?
At least two factors determine whether a person feels good or bad about revenge.
One is how “beautiful” or aesthetically pleasing the act of revenge seems. In one study, researchers asked a group of MBA students to tell two stories they personally knew about a time that they (or someone they knew) had taken revenge on a coworker.
They felt much better about some stories than others – those that appealed to a person’s sense of duty, like when someone might “take one for the team” and go after a coworker who was mistreating everyone; acts that were especially well-tailored to the offense (say, getting a coworker who constantly took credit for other people’s work fired by sabotaging the very work that the freeloader had been taking credit for); or those that had symmetry between the offense and the act of revenge, with each having similar consequences. (For example, imagine a manager of a computer store who sets unusually strict standards for cleanliness, and constantly keeps the workers on the job past the end of their shift; to get revenge, the workers are extra meticulous about cleaning every last shelf, drawer and corner so they can keep the manager on duty longer than he or she wants.)
The other factor that influences how people feel about revenge is the target’s reaction.
In one study, participants played a problem-solving game with an assistant who was instructed to take more than a fair share of the winnings (in this case, raffle tickets). In return, the participants could punish the assistant by removing some of the raffle tickets from the assistant without the possibility of gaining any for themselves. The researchers found that people reported feeling more satisfied about punishing the assistant when, after meting out the punishment, they received a message from the assistant saying “Your decision to subtract my raffle tickets has probably something to do with my distribution. It was unfair, I know.”
The researchers say that the satisfaction – the “sweetness” of revenge – comes from knowing that the act of revenge changed the offender in some way. If the participants witnessed that change, they felt more capable of influencing the other person’s attitude or actions.
So in order for revenge to be enjoyable, the way it is crafted, performed and responded to seem to matter. The best kinds make people feel like they are living in a better, more controllable and fair world. Others – especially those that make people feel regret, don’t change the offender or result in lopsided amounts of harm – are probably not as sweet as you’d imagine them to be.