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WORD VIEW – Milk of human kindness

Esther Phillips

WORD VIEW – Milk of human kindness

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At the risk of annoying some female readers, I’d like to suggest that women, particularly mothers, may be contributing to the ongoing violence in our society more than they realize or care to admit.
If it is a fact that most of our youths are being raised by women in the absence of a male authority figure in the home, then a good number of our females must take the credit for turning out decent and responsible adults.
On the other hand, when we’re faced with a high degree of violence in the society, women must also look to see where they are helping to perpetuate these destructive attitudes and behaviours.
Perhaps one of the most horrific scenes of parental violence in Caribbean literature is to be found in C.L.R. James’ novel Minty Alley. And it is a mother, the nurse, who is inflicting this cruelty on her own son. During one of the beatings, Sonny, the boy, manages to run to a neighbour for help:
He dropped on his knees, his hands resting on the floor, his face turned upwards in supplication. He was stark naked and his whole body heaved. All over his skin the cane had raised red weals of flesh, one almost continuous from the left shoulder across the chest almost down to the navel.
Mr Haynes, the neighbour to whom he runs, is sickened by the cruelty inflicted on the child, but no amount of begging by himself or the other neighbours softens the mother’s heart. Sonny has no choice but to go back to his mother:
His naked little body, all white with red weals, grovelling on its hands and knees, crawled inch by inch towards his mother. She sat watching him come, each hand still gripping an end of the cane . . . .
‘Doggie coming at last, eh? Bone sweet. Come on, doggie.’
She cut him across the shoulders and cut him again and again.
Long after the child is inside the house, the thud of the blows continues and so do the boy’s screams. The mother is heard to repeat: “Hush, I tell you hush. I will beat you until you hush.”
This very painful scene came to mind as I was musing on the growing trend of violence in the society and its possible sources. And while some details of the above incident seem extreme, a critical reading may throw up some useful insights.
The nurse claims that she is beating her son for two reasons: he has objected to being punished by his mother’s lover because the man is not his father.
“You know where your father is?” she asks him.
“You ever saw him?”
Sonny has also asked Maisie, his friend, for a kiss: “So you looking for woman already?”
It seems clear, however, that the vicious and prolonged beating is a playing-out of the mother’s personal issues, whether she is doing so consciously or not. Who is the boy’s father and why has the boy never seen him? Whatever the circumstances, the nurse’s reaction may be revealing a hidden conflict and possible feelings of betrayal, anger and shame.
The boy must not raise any question of his father.
In addition, which one is more real – the mother’s fear of her son getting himself into trouble or the troubling question of male sexuality which, with all its complications, continues to afflict her and remain unresolved? Who is she really punishing?
What is also striking is the nurse’s humiliation of her male child. She will control him, bring him under her complete subjection. If the boy has to hush even as his mother rains blows on him, he has no choice but to perform some feat in his own psyche: a denial of the pain he suffers or a total submission of his will.
The question is: who or what vexing situations is the mother attempting to control?
The question of violence is a complex one and has its roots in several historical, sociological and cultural factors. Interestingly enough, the nurse above lavishes affection on her son on occasions and, in her own words, will give him anything he wants. Yet the beatings speak to the deep ambivalence that characterizes most forms of domestic violence.
We need more intervention that helps women to deal with the deep issues with which they struggle. Neither our children nor the wider society must be made to suffer as a result of our unfortunate experiences or circumstances.