Bobo the Punching Bag: Reflections on Anger

When I was about five years old and prone to temper tantrums, my mother, who had majored in child psychology in college, gave me a blowup punching bag called “Bobo.” Bobo was about my height and was weighted so as to spring back up after each punch. I was supposed to attack Bobo when I was mad and then, supposedly, I wouldn’t be mad any more. I don’t remember the temper tantrums, but I do recall the rage I felt when Bobo popped back up, refusing to be vanquished. Instead of quelling my rage, Bobo fed it, and it wasn’t long before I dragged Bobo to my closet and shut him in darkness.

I had a keen sense, even back then, of the difference between public and private. I never raged in public or at school. But around this time I had the first and only physical fight of my life. A good friend and I often spent time together making “towns” out of construction paper for our rubber animals. One day we moved to the woods behind her house to make our towns out of pine needles instead. Scraping up needles, we both found ourselves falling short. We reached over to grab from each other. Then, spurred by anger, we clawed each other’s faces, leaving clear red lines down the cheeks. Soon, we both dissolved into tears and were comforted by her mother (a deep humiliation for me to have to be comforted by another mother).

It is easy to laugh at these early childish expressions of anger. After all, we mature and learn to restrain ourselves, and find better ways to handle rage. But there have been other times when I’ve given expression to anger, and even now I find it hard to laugh about some of these incidents. (True confessions time!)

I played the cello from the fifth through the twelfth grade, but I was never very good, and I had an exacting and punitive teacher who scolded me regularly. I dreaded my lessons, and it amazes me I didn’t quit sooner because I never truly enjoyed playing. Once, sometime in middle school, I was practicing a piece — no doubt a Bach suite, a staple of the cellist’s repertoire — and I could not get it right. Furious, but without a target for my rage — no teacher present, no parent present, Bach long dead — I bit my bow, leaving tooth marks that I later had to explain to both teacher and mother with great embarrassment. I was old enough to know better.

My anger dissipated as I got older, or I got control over it, or it went underground. But early in my relationship with the gentle man who became my first husband, a man I still admire and am friends with, there were two incidents of anger that stand out. The first was when I angered him for some reason I can’t recall, and he hurled a head of iceberg lettuce at me with all the force of his 6’3” body. I wasn’t hurt, but it hit hard and I was stunned. We both were. The second incident was when I became enraged with him and threw a coffee mug. It was empty and I threw it lightly across the table without the intent of hitting him. Nevertheless, it landed with a loud thud on the table between us, spilling dregs and silencing everyone present — my parents and his mother. The incident sealed my reputation with his mother as a questionable marriage choice. What I was angry about was that I was having a heated political argument with my father, and my husband-to-be took my father’s side. I can feel to this day the helplessness engendered by those two beloved men ganging up on me. (I am not justifying myself here, only explaining.)

That was the last time I humiliated myself by an expression of rage. But around that time I had plenty of opportunity to observe others embroiled in helpful fury. I was working as an assistant editor for a man who was smart, empathetic, and also a brilliant film editor but, in addition to being an alcoholic, he also had a serious anger problem. Once, after a screening for the producer and director of our film when he became enraged by their critiques, he threw a heavy chair with casters at the two of them. It landed between them without hurting anyone (it easily could have), but the shock felt by everyone was enormous, and it took weeks of reckoning to return to normal in the editing room. Not long after this incident the editor landed in the hospital with a bad back problem, which I’m sure was exacerbated by his anger.

Had it been me — or any other woman — who had thrown that chair, she would have been fired and probably sent for a mental health evaluation. Men are given broad license in this culture — and around the world — to express anger violently. When women do so, we are horrified.

I’ve been thinking of these things because I have found myself writing about a character with occasional bouts of destructive anger. Inevitably, as I think about expressions of rage these incidents from my own past have come roaring back. But even before embarking on this novel anger was on my mind. The Trump years and their sequelae have had a huge impact on me. I raged during the Kavanaugh hearings; I raged during the two impeachments; I raged throughout the insurrection of January 6th. Though my anger has been repeatedly provoked, I have found few ways to turn it into productive action. The novel I’m writing was prompted by my wanting to understand the rage and cruelty that is running amuck now in the public sphere, largely perpetrated by men. How did this Pandora’s Box open? How can the released anger be dissipated or defanged? As I’ve asked before in this blog, what happened in the early lives of these angry men (and women) to make them feel okay about what they’re doing to poison the culture at large? I want to read the blogs or journals or confessions these people might write at some later point in their lives, work that I hope would pinpoint the moments in their development that made them so hateful. I want to hear about their remorse, their shame, their resolution to do better. Do they have superegos? So far we can’t be sure.

I hope you haven’t gotten the wrong idea. If you were to meet me, you would see that, though I can be feisty, I’m not a fundamentally angry person. If you already know me, you might be surprised by hearing of these incidents from my past. But I am a garden-variety example of the human species. I’ve learned to control my anger as I’ve matured — as have my husband, my ex-husband, and my son — and it’s because my life has been a lucky one. I have not suffered from extreme poverty or injustice and haven’t had much cause for extreme rage. I’m aware this isn’t the case for many people whose life circumstances are harsh. (But even those people need to find ways to control their anger, justified though it may be.)

“Docile” as I am these days, one of my new novels coming out later this year is titled Livid. As you might guess, it features an angry woman — or shall we say a woman who becomes angry during the course of the book. It is, I promise you, not the least bit autobiographical.

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Cai Emmons is the author of 5 books of fiction, most recently the novel, SINKING ISLANDS. Two more of her novels will be published in 2022.

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Cai Emmons

Cai Emmons

Cai Emmons is the author of 5 books of fiction, most recently the novel, SINKING ISLANDS. Two more of her novels will be published in 2022.

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