Anger is an Ally

After I was run over by a car, getting mad helped me find my way back to myself.

Katie is a writer from Toronto whose work has appeared in Rolling Stone...

 

There’s not much I remember about 2009 besides getting run over on my bike by a drunk driver. It counts as run over if you hear they had to pull your unconscious body out from under the car.

Almost seven years later, I still think about the accident. I wonder what else it touched, beyond the initial injuries. I get migraines that radiate out from the scar where my head hit the pavement. My memory sometimes pivots to places I’d rather not be. I wonder about the wiring in my brain for grief, happiness and anger—have my triggers changed with age, did something get shorted, or do we all, eventually, coax our responses into new constructions, albeit usually less violently?

It was foggy, one of those warm flukes of a late November night, and I remember saying goodbye to some friends and pushing off the curb and out onto the street to start for home. It was maybe three and a half minutes from Koreatown to my apartment by bike. It was routine. My brother lived in the neighbourhood and I did the ride between our apartments at least once a week.

I was reminded of the fact that it was foggy—the elevated importance of water droplets vibrating in air—much later, during the legal discovery process, one of the driver’s insurance company’s many attempts to undermine how it was I got hurt. Fog really makes it anyone’s game, I found out: it can blur the rationale of why a sports sedan was tearing down a 40 km zone at upwards of 60 km. It can make hazy what should have been the one clarifying fact: that the driver would blow over the limit when he was breathalyzed at the scene, just after my body had been shuttled away in an ambulance. Fog seemed like a get-out-of-running-over-somebody-free card. The low lying cascade of tiny, warm water particles that, otherwise, make the city seem magic suddenly meant a lot more trouble for me.

After the accident, I was forced to move back in with my parents for most of the winter. I couldn’t walk for a couple weeks, both of my eyes were swollen shut, my body was a mash of colour. As the swelling in my brain went down and my head trauma began to heal, I had the most lucid and terrifying dreams of my life. Road trips from when I was a kid extended and played out languidly over a dream-span of months: a hurricane that went right by a motel my family was staying at in South Carolina once, as if it had seen a NO VACANCY sign lit up and kept on down the highway. Or the time I accidentally locked myself in a gas station bathroom somewhere in New Hampshire and had to climb on the toilet tank to bash the window out with the conch shell that was the doorstop ‘cause I was sure my parents wouldn’t notice and leave.

Some of the awful stuff seems canned now: monsters cobbled together from whatever I’d seen that day while being shuttled between doctors—a CT machine with teeth, or being stuck in a scene from Speed, a favourite I’d been comfort-watching. But the really bad dreams were vivid in how plainly my regular fears were played back to me—losing family and friends to almost inane accidents or watching them just keel over and die in front of me, in the middle of grocery shopping. It was all part of the process of my brain repairing itself, my doctor told me. The dreams got less terrifying over time, but the lucid, near tactile quality has never toned down.

My waking anxiety was worse. People urged me to pursue legal action against the driver, secure some retribution if I could, but my sense of fight was flattened—I couldn’t bring myself to give a shit. Whether it was the wringing my body had been through or the mental unpacking my brain was still teetering toward, it felt like the visceral switch that would propel my next move had shorted.

Rage inverted goes bad pretty quick—it festers fast into fear, then numbs further into apathy, which feels like a big, dulling cloud coiling around your brain. That November I felt muted in the gloom of grey days melting together, happy to live between the blankets in my parents’ guestroom. What fished me out was my friends. One flew across the country; another called me every day and when she finally saw me told me how crazy I looked, which was a relief—at least we were laughing again. More made the trip to the end of the subway line to haul me out of bed and to my parents’ couch, where my dad would insist on showing them the photos taken the day after the accident, pointing out all the colours that formed on my face. It was jarring and I needed it. To tell the story as far as I knew, over and over again, to be questioned, to hear things I wasn’t conscious for, like how the driver tried to speed away while I was trapped beneath his Honda Civic and the crowd rushed over to block his path. That someone was instructed to collect my ruined bike and put it behind my brother’s apartment. That I wouldn’t stop calling one of the emergency room doctors Shia LaBeouf when I woke up to my clothes being cut off me. Armed with everything I’d forgotten or that had rocketed out of my brain, my friends were magpies of the accident, giving me a narrative, something to reconcile.

With this information, I was finding my way back to my anger. I decided to press charges. My dad and I went to the first scheduled hearing of my case at Toronto’s Old City Hall the following spring. I’d moved back into my west-end apartment and was back at work, not yet back on my bike. At the court house, no one showed up—not the the police on the scene, not the driver. My dad went hollering down the cavernous hall, calling out the names we knew only from the police report that was left with me at the hospital the night I got hit. When no one answered him, I felt the dull and heavy cloud still slogging around my brain, the last remnant of the accident’s fog, start to vaporize in defense of my father, incredulous that he had to do this.

The anger I’d sidelined in exchange for detachment returned—that zeroed-in feeling of an eye-narrowed and razor-sharp awareness I recognized, once used on a runaway horse I stopped by standing still right in front of its bolting body. Or the sudden surprise at the calm that can come couched in anger, once a steady hand on my back that helped me to finally turn tail and walk away from a screaming, gaslighting ex as he backed me into an alley for another fight prompted by—at that point—just about anything. Anger can quietly highlight how the spectacle of a scene simply requires your removal from it, or it can stir you from a temporary state of suspension. At Old City Hall that day the damp lethargy I’d been content to live in like some swamp creature dissipated, and anger shot up in me like flares out of fog. I’d found it.

*

Anger takes energy. It takes energy to form, to maintain, and, most of all, to control. Dr. Brad Bushman, a professor of Communication and Psychology at Ohio State University and a member of Barack Obama’s committee on gun violence, has studied human aggression and violence for over twenty years. Despite the average brain being about the size of a grapefruit and accounting for only two percent of our body weight, it nonetheless consumes about twenty to thirty percent of the calories we digest. “It’s a very demanding organ,” he said. “And the part of our brain just behind our forehead, the prefrontal cortex, is in charge of executive functions—and one of those functions is emotion regulation. And the emotion people have the most difficulty controlling is anger, and the brain needs fuel to control anger.”

We are programmed to avoid anger: it often indicates a threat, from which we as a species like to create some distance. Even on a cellular level, anger is uncomfortable. “If you think about anger on two axes,” said Dr. Bushman, “one axis being pleasant/unpleasant and the other being passive/active, anger is unpleasant and active. Your heart rate increases, your blood pressure increases, your skin conductance increases—it activates you to respond. People don’t like it and usually want to get rid of it.”

But what do you do with it? Psychologists like Bushman classify anger as an approach motivation, meaning that people don’t like it when they’re angry and want to fix it. There’s no doubt that anger has been the motivator behind tragedies too numerous to name, its energy harnessed with intent to harm others. Without channelling it into something productive, it can dissipate, becoming as noxious as an airborne toxin, accelerating prejudice into fear and worse.

But at its best, anger is also a conduit. “Probably every [social] movement in history was fuelled by anger,” Bushman told me. “Civil rights, getting women the vote—all these movements are fuelled by anger. It motivates us to approach the problem and do something about it. Attack the problem if you will.”

This has to do with what triggers our anger. It’s what some psychologists consider a “moral emotion,” a feeling associated with moral transgressions. Specifically, anger is linked to violations of autonomy. So when guarded and deeply personal notions such as justice, freedom, fairness, individualism, individual choice and liberty are threatened, anger lights our brain up like a pinball machine.

For Zoe Dodd, a Toronto-based harm reduction worker and anti-poverty activist, anger is a reliable resource where money, social support and political leverage have oftentimes proved scarce. In Toronto, during John Tory’s first winter as mayor, the city would not call extreme cold advisories even when the temperature plunged, a record number of times, below minus-30 degrees Celsius. Without the advisory, emergency shelters could not open, and marginally housed and homeless people started freezing to death on the streets of the city. Still, emergency shelters didn’t open. It was the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty—and Dodd—storming the mayor’s office and refusing to leave until the advisories went out that finally pressured the mayor to make the call.

“I work with people where it’s life and death, it’s not a joke,” she told me. “I don’t want to be polite about it. It’s why you organize. It’s powerful—you’re unleashing power. That becomes a common bond and thread between people, especially people that are feeling incredibly oppressed, to come together and take on power with their anger.”

Maybe that’s the difference between outright rage that obliterates and the driving energy that anger, thoughtfully directed, can provide—anger meant to bind, rather than rage that fractures. For women, for people marginalized, anger can be cause to accomplish much more and sustained to ration, to tide over. These are modes familiar to anyone who hasn’t been afforded the resources to know what it means to budget with what you have—and if what you have is anger, what are the limits?

When New Brunswick’s Morgentaler clinic, the only private abortion clinic in the Maritimes, closed in July 2014, it was after a twenty-year battle with the provincial government for funding. “What do you say when someone asks for help accessing safe abortion services, and you have no answers?” said Jaden Fitzherbert, a former volunteer escort at the Morgentaler clinic. She remembered the desperation of women who contacted her when the clinic closed, a young mother of two who admitted to taking pills that were supposed to induce a miscarriage. “I was horrified. I was just so angry that people seeking abortion services were being forced to take pills and hope for the best. I was always pro-choice, but with the clinic closing, I suddenly found myself thrown into abortion rights activism.”

Fitzherbert and other volunteers at the clinic, along with women in the community, all of them angry as hell, quickly organized. “When we decided to crowd-fund money,” she said, “we were really motivated by the utter disbelief that we were essentially crowd funding money to provide basic healthcare, something that the provincial government should have been doing the last two decades. We wanted to be perfectly clear: we were doing the government’s job, because they weren’t prepared or even willing to do it.”

Morgentaler closed, but the money raised enabled a new private clinic to open with inclusive mandates driven by the community that fought for it.

*

Male anger so often seems to be reactionary, seething at the surface in anticipation of something it can contend with, conquer, emotionally lay waste to. Female anger has, conversely, learned to wait, to pick its moments carefully, to gain strength and rally in the interim by nature of its suppression. As women, we are conditioned to minimize it early on, to not argue, to lessen our reactions, and later, as self-protection, to deescalate, take the blame when it may not be ours. Dr. Ursula Hess, a psychology professor who specializes in the communication of emotions and the social factors—such as gender—that influence the process, recalled a study where women and men were asked to rate how much they trusted strangers they were paired up with based on their expressions. Men were found to be trustworthy whether smiling or showing anger—in some cases moreso when they were perceived as angry—whereas women showed a “significant drop in trust” when they displayed anger. “Anger was as positive as happiness when it comes to inspiring trust in a man, but it failed to do this for women, who were trusted more when they smiled or showed a neutral expression.”

To be an angry woman is to already be seen as somehow suspect, implicitly radical. An angry woman is emotional, over the top, out of control, bitter, shrill, crazy, should calm down. In my own cross-examination during the trial for my accident, I was urged by my lawyer to keep a straight face against any accusations or cloying attempts at camaraderie. When it was over he practically hooted—I remember how thrilled he seemed with the notion that I had scared them, made them uncomfortable, all because I had buried my feelings so deep there was no way for them to be dredged up by twenty minutes of interrogation. In being absent of reaction I became a more convincing victim. Anger, maybe the most honest reaction I could have had, would have been my undoing in that situation. Our anger is caricatured back at us in order to mitigate it, and in the process, perpetuates the notion that women can’t just be angry. It becomes another thing mired in qualifiers.

Undermining like this is meant to be negative, to strip anger of its usefulness, but it’s in this warping that it becomes something greater than the inherent spark that first created the sensation itself. Women’s anger should be seen as something greater than the sum of its pissed off parts—the rules applicable to our playing field shift so much that winning mostly means having to prove it over and over again. By the time we do, the result is something so concentrated, “anger” alone may not cut it. It’s a force, focused and active and sure of its footing—female anger gets shit done.

But because women’s anger is seen as suspect, it is more often than not met with questions meant to shut it down, rather than dig to its root. We saw this with the Jian Ghomeshi and Bill Cosby cases, the women who’d come forward in each forced to present better reasons to be believed than their bodies alone. Pain, trauma, violation, poisoning—when projected on a female body, these often do not automatically equate to proof of harm. We see this in campus assaults across Canada and the United States, men with high tuitions, who we are told hold so much promise—are just ensconced in promise—supported and shielded by their institutions, afforded time and privacy to build their retaliation on the backs of the women they’ve harmed, women who bear both the brunt of media attention and institutionalized scrutiny because they threaten the antiquated systems that allowed their abuse. We see it in the continued appointment of judges who treat cases of sexual violence as opportunities to exercise tired tropes that do more to defend the perpetrators than give the victims opening themselves up any sense of equal footing from the outset. We see it in the walking caricature currently holding the highest office of power, the President of the United States.

And when forced suppression of a woman’s anger becomes overwhelming to her because that woman won’t accept being complicit in her own erasure, there seems to always be an unspoken understanding that things will be made more difficult for her.

*

Tanya Tagaq, the Inuit throat singer and Inuk advocate, has spoken out candidly and frequently about Indigenous erasure. For this, predictably, she has been called loud and labeled angry. She has also been lauded for these same qualities. “I’m one of the angriest people I know,” she agrees. “And it’s finding a way to harness that without acting on it. And at the same time it’s very hard to think about peaceful revolution because usually, when things happen in nature, outside of nature, change comes through some act of violence.” Anger can be an ally that binds with deft hands the wounds caused by the caustic claws of lunatics.

“The mountains are carved with giant glaciers,” Tagaq says. “That in itself is an act of violence in a sense. A caribou gets killed by a wolf, that’s an act of violence, and humans, we’ve managed to pervert violence in a really obscure way. But social change, if you look at examples of it all over the earth, people don’t get violent over human rights unless they’re completely cornered. Inevitably when you try to cut off somebody’s mind from their heart there’s going to be a fight.”

There are levels assigned to anger. Tied into the notions of white supremeacy, anything other than white anger becomes a stigma, something to be curbed outright—and if it can’t be, then lessened. Perverted this way, the natural response of anger gains warped qualifiers that impede women of colour and marginalized women in the freedom they have to access and wield it with the same visibility a white woman might. “People can only speak to their experiences unless they’re greatly empathetic, and I find what happens a lot when Indigenous women are trying to voice their opinion is when other women hear it, they want to see themselves as compassionate and forthright people that are fighting for their own rights. And we end up fighting for our rights like dogs fight for scraps, when in reality those events are not mutually exclusive,” says Tagaq.

Scholar, activist, and author of “I AM An Angry Black Woman: Black Feminist Autoethnography, Voice, and Resistance,” Dr. Rachel Alicia Griffin, agrees. “When people of color express anger, the potential of our anger to fuel, inspire, and motivate is often lost because interpretations of our anger are confined to the dominant white imagination, and typically via white privilege white people experience our anger as only threatening and dangerous.”

Part of what can make women’s anger so powerful is the different layers that form its intent, and the pressure it probably took to distill. And while anger may not be the ideal source, it’s not exactly in short supply. “There’s a never-ending pool of it,” Tagaq says, “from getting beeped at when you walk down the street to the refugee crisis.” But like any raw source, it needs to be refined. “If you can learn to siphon anger into something productive, you have an endless supply of gasoline for your vehicle.”

*

The anger I found that day, listening to my father shout his way through the courthouse, replaced my anxiety, and it was staying angry that steadied me through getting a lawyer and the process that followed. My anger worked like rations that fueled my resolve. Which was good, because nothing happens like on TV, and the back and forth between lawyers—cross-examinations, discoveries, inquiries, all nice ways of describing the process of buying more time for the prosecution to dig up what they consider to be dirt on you—takes a long time.

Anger braced me against the personal attacks meant to smear my character, make me less reliable, a bad victim. Suddenly, riding horses since I was a kid had become the reason for the spot in my lower back where the vertebrae in my spine now tilted closer together, never mind that the surface bruising in the same area after the accident matched the front of a car’s bumper exactly. And the two classes I was finishing by correspondence following the accident? I failed them because I hadn’t ever given a shit about school—something the driver’s insurance company would argue after digging up some old transcripts, ignoring the opthalmologist’s post-accident report that advised me not to rule out the possibility of my retinas detaching due to head trauma, and that it might take some time for words to stop blurring into fuzzed blocks, or for me to even read again. Most of the physical reminders of the accident were gone by the time the legal process started, save for the scar on my forehead that would take plastic surgery to reduce. But every new allegation, every picture pulled off of social media since the accident—regular stuff like hanging out with my roomates or literally leaving the house—meant to rewrite my narrative completely, was a poke or prod right to the guts, still tender. Even the most self-assured person put into that situation would start to feel the tricky unraveling power of doubt’s deft fingers. But throughout it all anger was an ally that always showed up in the back of my head, lending reassurance that I wasn’t going crazy, that I knew what had happened to me.

At its most simplified, anger provides us with information that something is happening that we don’t like. Like a divining rod your body can wield to home in on something deserving of your attention, anger can become a tool. For me, it was a spile to access power from a source in myself that let me stare steady back into the eyes of these lawyers who looked at the spot where my skull had split open and saw fault in the deep lines now scarring my forehead, who blamed the accident on me.

I remained resolute, and we won.

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