An attack. A home invasion. And their ghosts. By JP Pomare.
The Sunday Essay is possible thanks to the support of Creative New Zealand
Original illustrations by Daniel Ido.
0. Context of violence
I still have nightmares about that day. I see a knife sliding under my rib cage, opening up my organs. My mind goes back to the farm from my childhood; the times when the butcher came to our house, me watching him drag his blade through the lambs’ throats before stringing them up. How easy it was. His wrist jerking, then the hot rope of blood. The smell of it. The offal sliding out with a slap on the concrete. Years later, I would stop eating meat. Only violence has this power of change.
1. The perfect
It’s early, barely light. Paige is sitting up. I don’t know what woke me but the night passed in gasps of sleep. Tonight’s nightmare was the one where I grab the wine bottle. And now I’m awake, damp under my spine, still breathing hard.
You had a nightmare, she says.
I need to get up anyway.
Yeah, I say. Give me a sec.
I scratch at my eyes, pull myself out of bed. She walks behind me, close enough to grab my arm if she needs to stop. I turn the lights on in each room as we go. Sometimes my skin might itch with fear, or I might turn sharply at the sound of a passing scooter out on the street, or the rattle of a neighbour putting their recycling bin out. I don’t show her my fear, or I don’t think I do and the more I manage to hide it, the less I seem to feel it. Eventually I know it’ll be normal again.
She sleep alright? I say about our daughter. I didn’t hear her.
Yeah, she was good. She fussed a little at about 1.30 then went back to sleep.
Passing through the lounge, the dining room, the kitchen, the bathroom, it seems performative by the end; I lean into each room, cast my gaze about. All clear, I say.
Can I go back to bed?
Yeah, she says, still eyeing the back door. And sometime later she might call my name with urgency. I heard something, she will say.
The house is our dream house. The sort of place we could probably never own. But when we sold our apartment with delusions of buying a two-bedroom house in Melbourne’s inner north, the red-hot property market broke our spirit and we settled on renting. The house is big, a long block. Separate living and dining room. A nursery in the middle with a big blind to block out the light. A backyard with room for both our i30 and an outdoor dining space. It is private. It is safe.
My life changes most at the moments in which the perfect shifts violently to the pluperfect. Is becomes was. Has becomes had. Feel becomes felt. As in: Paige felt safe here. I used to sleep every night, and work through the day. Things were easy for us.
Children of parents in the lowest income quintile experienced a seven-fold increased hazard rate (HR) of being convicted of violent criminality compared with peers in the highest quintile (HR = 6.78, 95% CI 6.23-7.38). This association was entirely accounted for by unobserved familial risk factors (HR = 0.95, 95% CI 0.44-2.03). Similar pattern of effects was found for substance misuse.
(Childhood family income, adolescent violent criminality and substance misuse: quasi-experimental total population study – Amir Sariaslan, Henrik Larsson, Brian D’Onofrio, Niklas Långström, and Paul Lichtenstein)
2. The scream starts in the brain stem and ends in the atmosphere
I thought I knew what a scream was, but until that moment I’d never heard a real scream. It starts at the medulla, shoots out crackling every nerve, tensing every sinew. The screamer is not conscious of the scream. The screamer has shut down all but the most primitive structures of the brain. The throat opens and the sound tears out, filling the air. When I heard it, I was in the bedroom. I had just showered, the baby monitor was close by. The scream communicated something beyond cognition – this is an emergency, someone is in peril. I went to my daughter first. (Had I looked, the monitor would have shown a nine-month-old girl
safely asleep in her cot.) My mind projected something else: my daughter having a seizure, or choking, or strangled, or electrocuted. I saw her tumbling out of her cot, her head dashed on the floorboards. Why else would Paige scream? When I got into the nursery, I pulled my daughter to my chest, I shook her awake, held my ear over her lips and nose. Her eyes opened, closed, opened.
The scream continued. The dread that my daughter was in trouble metastasised to rage. Finally, words broke through that sound.
SOMEONE IS IN THE HOUSE.
Children with three indicators of malnutrition had a 15.3-point deficit in IQ at age 11 years. Findings suggest that promoting early childhood nutrition could enhance long-term cognitive development and school performance, especially in children with multiple nutritional deficits.
“The fear module” is an emotional level of fear learning that is independent of cognitive learning. There are those relatively harmless things we, as primates, fear via association with dangerous entities – spiders, snakes etc. The fear module has evolved further in humans than other mammals to include facial recognition skills. Humans are also particularly adept at recognising harmful stimuli outside of their focus: a potential snake at the edge of a walking path, rushed footsteps from behind, a flash of anger in a stranger’s eyes. But we are not primed to develop a fear of traffic, flying golf balls, or heart disease.
Other fears can and do develop in an industrialised world. A fear of handguns, power sockets, corrosive materials. If one saw in real time what a speeding car can do to the human body, a phobia may develop. As we are not primed to fear something like a knife, our fear of knives is largely contingent on whether we personally have been in a threatening situation with such a stimuli in the past. What is fascinating about the development of fears is the way they exist within, and largely interact with, our subconscious. As is the case with all big emotions, fear causes a near shut-down of the faculty of logic and critical thinking. Resources are diverted from the frontal lobe to the older structures of the brain. The threat grips the mind … and imprints the fear. The bigger the threat, the stronger the hold.
One is not responsible for the failure
to regulate one’s insulin,
or for the automatic process
of inhaling air and exhaling carbon dioxide, and yet
one is held responsible for one’s thoughts
and the corresponding
Treatment for fear may come in the form of systemic desensitisation. Exposure to the stimuli at increasingly threatening levels.
Acrophobia might be remedied by slowly going up and looking down, from ever increasing heights. The only recent development in this field of medicine is the potential incorporation of virtual reality simulation.
What happens if we fear the place we once felt the safest? What happens if fear gets into our home, and nests there like a giant spider crouching in the corner, eyes glinting, limbs bent with tension like a compressed spring. What then?
One night some years ago, I was walking home when a taxi leapt halfway across the footpath beside a four-lane arterial road. I leapt in fright, my senses firing despite the effects of my three-pint evening.
The driver’s door opened and the choking voice of a middle-aged cabbie called for help. The passenger in the seat behind him was gripping the driver’s throat. I called the police as I rushed around the car to help. Someone else got out of the back seat and ran away, stopping at the corner, turning back to watch.
The man in the back seat turned his attention to me. He rushed out of the taxi. “Don’t fucking record me!” He tackled me in the middle of the road. My elbow exploded with pain – a small chip of funny-bone dislodged. My shirt ripped. He was out of his mind. I managed to roll him over, but I couldn’t break his grip. I slammed my forearm into his face, watched his head rock against the road and felt sick. It was enough to break free. The lights changed and the traffic started towards us. I reached the sidewalk but he ran at me again. I tackled him. Held him down. His friend ran back.
“Don’t hurt him. He’s off his head.”
I was sitting on the curb 50 metres from home, giving an interview to police while my wife lay in bed calling my broken phone over and over. I’d messaged her when I left the pub. Home in five. It was 90 minutes later when I walked in the door, shirt torn and bloody. She just watched me wide-eyed.
“I was so scared.”
Charles Whitman murdered his wife and mother before climbing a tower at Texas University with a small arsenal, and proceeded to shoot passers-by. Sixteen people died and many others were injured. He’d been seeing a therapist to help with a recent development of overwhelming violent impulses.
Below is an extract from the suicide note he wrote before the massacre:
lately (I cannot recall when it started) I have been a victim of many unusual and irrational thoughts. These thoughts constantly recur, and it requires a tremendous mental effort to concentrate on useful and progressive tasks.
In his note, Whitman had asked for an autopsy of his brain if he did something terrible. The autopsy found a tumour pressing on the amygdala of his brain.
A report concluded:
the … tumor conceivably could have contributed to his inability to control his emotions and actions.
Walking home in another part of the city. A sedan crammed with teenagers. A bottle tossed, detonating on the footpath near my feet. My ill-advised middle finger, a volley of cusses. Taillights, open doors and suddenly I was in a street fight. It didn’t last long. The police arrived later at my apartment. They never caught them. Another ripped shirt.
Years later I find myself giving people on the street a wide berth even in the middle of the day. I avoid eye contact. I inexplicably imagine a stranger shoving me toward a passing car. I brace. I tense. I plan what I would do to evade an attack. I look for a weak spot, or a weapon, or a bystander I could call to help. I want to trust strangers like I used to, but my brain won’t let me.
Paige was still screaming as I rushed through the house, with our daughter in my arms. The enormous fear that our daughter was in trouble was now a searing rage.
HE’S IN THE BACKYARD.
I handed our baby to Paige.
HE’S GOT THE KEYS.
I saw a hooded head against the driver’s headrest in our car. Firecrackers snapping in my head. Who the fuck did he think he was? WHO THE FUCK DID HE THINK HE WAS?
The Flynn Effect
IQ scores have risen for people living in developed and undeveloped countries for at least one hundred years. American scientist James Flynn is credited with discovering this phenomenon. The Flynn Effect is often attributed to improved nutrition and other
A brain tumour that kills many more than the host. What luck — what terrible luck! What else could you call it but rotten luck?
The night before we were drinking wine with friends. The empty bottles were beside the backdoor. I could have grabbed one. I could have hit him with it. Or I could have leapt up, pulled down the roller door and trapped him in our enclosed backyard with its eight-foot walls.
Instead I threw the door open. I yelled in his face. I grabbed at him. It took a few wild moments for the boiling to reduce to a simmer. I stepped back; he couldn’t get out and leave unless I gave him space. I stopped swearing. I looked at his eyes, the only part of his face that was visible and told him I wouldn’t chase him, I wouldn’t call the police, he was free go.
Just fuck off. Alright?
He lifted himself from the seat. He didn’t run. Why aren’t you leaving? He came a step closer. I looked down to where his fist sat hard against his hip, and in it was a knife.
Part of me feels sorry for Charles Whitman even though he murdered 16 people. The tumour, if it really was the cause of his violence, was not his fault. A nest of bad cells conspired against him. I feel sorry for his victims. They may have chosen a different path to walk that day.
In the same way the brain tumour is the result of factors outside of Whitman’s control, the microstructures that influence behaviour in anyone’s brain are shaped by forces outside of their control. Why then do I not feel sorry for Osama bin Laden, or the Christchurch gunman?
Our brains are enormously complex causal networks that follow the same scientific imperatives of the universe as do other systems, like weather patterns. I wouldn’t scream at the clouds for raining, I probably wouldn’t hate a bear that mauled me. Acceptance that we are both causes and effects completely outside of our control is the antidote to anger, prejudice, hatred and arrogance. One is lucky to be clever, or healthy, or rich — and others are unlucky. As a view of human nature, it provides a foundation for greater compassion. It cuts through the bullshit logic of retribution.
Acceptance of determinism ≠ Acceptance of fatalism
Life continues on, we still feel like we make decisions and are in control and we try to make the world a better place.
of all the reasons he did what he did.
finding only a regress. Cause-effect-cause-effect-cause etc. Blame
and determinism cannot both exist
in the brain
No, not at the same time. Everything is connected.
I tumble in this way into the black hole and find I am wrong to be angry. Every time.
There were 20 or more police in total at our house, and more still searching the streets for our car and the man who took it. We gave separate statements. Later, we will discuss what description we gave of the offender, our recollection of the man differing in significant ways. Paige, for instance, thought the man was in his 30s, I saw someone in their late teens or early 20s. Paige saw a man well over six foot. I saw someone slightly shorter than me. We spoke about our biases, and how this might affect the way we view strangers. Paige asked, “Could this change the way we view the offender and people like the offender? What can we do to counter that?”
The urge for retribution is almost impossible to dispense with but we must. Past violence is the number one coefficient for predicting future violence. Determinism is only compatible with justice if we take the view of justice as restorative, and not entirely punitive. This doesn’t mean I don’t want this man to suffer the consequences of his actions. It doesn’t mean we should live in a society free of accountability, it just means that how we choose to react should prevent further trauma, damage, and crime.
4. Empathy is a project
When we learned of the two days of joy riding in our car, before police spikes ended a late-night car chase, the interviewing cop’s face came back to me. He said, “The magistrate in this state is soft, they put dangerous criminals back out on the street every day. In your statement, I’m going to ask you to include the ways you have been affected, how you feel being in your home, whether or not you feel safe. Do you feel like he’s made you scared in your own home?”
Yes, I said. Of course I’m scared. But when the shock wore off, I was discomforted by the exchange. Had my fear been weaponised? Justice and retribution merge here, where I sense that the cop, a badged member of the nation’s legal apparatus, is angrier at the criminal than I, the victim, am.
I’ve found I can’t work. Disruptions to a creative practice can occasionally help to knock one out of a funk, or dislodge a new idea or line of thinking. This has not been the case for me. I’ve tried to give myself over to the simple pleasure of raising a child instead. It took weeks for the guilt of zero creative output to subside; the writer is always working, the writer’s mind is always on the next project, always inventing. The feelings of ennui and disruption are tinder for the burning frustration. I’m human. I need something to blame.
Last time we spoke to the task force investigating the case, they updated us. By this stage, the insurance had paid out and we’d bought a new car, new baby seat, replaced most of the things that had disappeared with the masked intruder. I still have the nightmare where I grab the bottle and bludgeon him until there’s nothing but pulp in the front seat and it’s me the police come for. In another nightmare, I close the roller door and we wrestle on the tiles of my backyard until I’m overwhelmed, the knife hits me, slicing my legs and arms but there is no pain and when I open my mouth to scream nothing comes out. Paige might wake me. She might hold me as I kick and shiver and my breath grows rapid. She will tell me in the morning you had a nightmare, a bad one. I’ve always had nightmares and every nightmare is violent in its own way but these new ones recur. In the very worst of them, I arrive too late and it’s not the car that’s gone but Paige or our daughter.
With help, we will get better. With new locks, new cameras and greater vigilance, we will learn to live in this house. I will get some sleep. I will find a way to forgive him as he slides through the legal system towards the cogs of institutionalism. According to court records, his lawyer claims he found the knife in our house. Thus creating a defence — obviously — that this had been a simple opportunistic crime. But the truth is, he came prepared, with a blade tucked down the back of his pants. He planned to do this to someone. To enter their home. To threaten their lives and take their things. When I feel like I can out-think this problem, when I feel like I’m just getting on top of my emotions and beginning to feel empathy for this man, a thought comes unbidden: how far was he prepared to go? When he pulled the knife out, I believed that he wasn’t going to use it. As I backed away, telling him to take the car and leave us alone, I viewed the blade as a break-the-glass precaution. He didn’t really want to hurt me … the morning hadn’t gone to plan for either of us. But after the dreams, the cold sweats, the over intellectualising about the illusion of freewill, inherited violence and an evolved fear module, despite it all, at my weakest moments I find I hate him. I find I want to burden him with the trauma, the fear, and the anger.
But above all else this weakness is what scares me the most.
JP Pomare is a Melbourne-based New Zealand author. His new novel The Last Guests is published in July by Hachette and can be ordered at Unity Books.
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