For my novel The playground of Teireisas, I lived for a long time with greek mythology, and more, with the way the themes of these ancient stories have become part of western european culture – just think what Freud would have done if he hadn’t recognized himself in Oedipus?
The Jocasta in this story has to choose between her husband and her son. The story is about complicity in domestic violence, a complicated psychological fact that I wanted to investigate, and present from the inside out, to further understanding.
He grabs me.
I have turned around to hang up his coat. He grabs me from behind, his hands close round my throat.
I do not resist. I lean against him, feel his firm body taut against my back, feel his belly against my buttocks, feel that he can hardly wait until it’s evening and the boy is out of the way. His hands tighten so that I could not speak even if I knew what to say to him. I know he is waiting for me to make a mistake so he can go further, protest is always a mistake, protest stimulates him. Then again, if I am too compliant I drive him to a frenzy. It is so difficult.
When he finally releases me, my throat hurts so much I can barely say I’ll call him when the tea is ready. No, he’ll call me. He wants to put in an hour at his desk. I look at my watch – this means there won’t be time left between tea and dinner to handle another pile of washing. Pity, I wanted to watch television tonight, but there’s no chance of that now.
When he is safely upstairs I collapse on to a kitchen chair, just for a moment before I get the boy out of bed. Just for a moment. I am so tired.
He can’t help it, it’s my fault. I started it. When he wouldn’t go to bed with me, when we were just married, I seduced him with my fantasies about ropes and struggling, and subcutaneous bruises where women’s flesh is vulnerable in rough hands, I bound him with my tales of helplessness, I made lust and power fuse in his mind so that now he doesn’t know any better and wants nothing else.
I always used to have fantasies like that, so how can I blame him if what excites me in words repells me in action? I don’t understand it myself, I don’t understand it at all.
I’ve baked a cake, and although, or perhaps because, my mother-in-law keeps warning against the risk of warm cake swelling up in the stomach, my son and I are especially fond of that first warm slice. But I let him choose: does he want his cake now or later, upstairs with daddy.
He wants his cake now.
I wait with mine, so that it will not look as if we have been enjoying the real teatime down here in the kitchen, and my poor little boy gobbles up his sticky, luke-warm piece before he can have tasted it properly.
Just at that moment I hear him coming down. He finished earlier than he thought. He calls from the top of the stairs, but everything is ready on the tray, we’re coming —yes, the boy too, although he would rather not have him. Clutching his new toy ambulance in his left fist, he clambers awkwardly up the stairs just in front of me.
He stands at the window and does not look round as I put the cups and the saucers with cake on the low table, so he does not see how, in an endearing attempt to claim a second slice, the boy places his precious toy on top of his father’s portion. But before I can give a warning sign he has turned round and seen the ambulance, and with one bound he seizes it and hurls it furiously across the room towards the fireplace, where it hits the stone with an ominous crack.
His son’s howling only makes it worse. Big and menacing, he approaches the boy, who wails and flees towards me with his head abjectly lowered. I say nothing, to avoid diverting his anger to me, but I take the boy onto my lap and hold him close, while he covers my face with small, tearful kisses.
There is a certain relief in the way he ignores the boy at dinner. Things almost go wrong when I am serving the spinach, which the boy does not like, using the usual argument that it will make him grow, that spinach and health go together, and he rightly says, ‘Daddy too’.
But he does not notice. He looks as if he is thinking about his work — and of course I can’t give him spinach because it was his father who always made him eat vegetables whereas his mother took his side. That was what the rows were about before his parents’ divorce: the fact that he refused to eat vegetables. Sometimes I think he only persists in this refusal to make what happened in the past live on.
This is where he is so vulnerable.
And in his vulnerability I love him: his strength appeals to my imagination, his vulnerability to my love. In his vulnerability I am his mother and the mother of his son, twice a mother, twice a woman.
But although he forces me into her role, I do not want to be his real mother, because he rejects her with all his strength. He rejects her with a contempt that verges on desperation. Less than a week ago she came here, after he had forbidden her to visit uson his birthday. He would not let her in. There she was, outside the house in her car. She kept it up all night. Just for a cup of coffee, she begged, just for a cup of coffee. I didn’t sleep that night, but he did. At seven in the morning the neighbours opposite gave her a cup of coffee, the neighbours I don’t get on with, fortunately, otherwise there would be even more people I daren’t look in the eye because I’m ashamed of him.
But he is beginning to take the boy so seriously. Like a formidable enemy.
I’m sorting the washing – luckily close, in the living room – when he gets out of his cot and understandably totters towards the first spot where he sees light: the study. So I’m able to take the child straight into my arms when he throws him out, yes, literally throws him, under a hail of abuse in which I can distinguish the words ‘he’s murdering me’. As if he is the victim. Him. Of course I know that he lives for his work and that he can’t bear my disturbing him, especially now when with the university cutting back his job is threatened if he does not publish regularly, but still.
I kiss the spot where the boy has grazed his knee on the doorsill. It is getting worse.
Later that night I let him do what he wants with me. I lie as still as I can but there is always a bit of struggling. I am not strong enough to prevent that.
But I think, I think that sometimes it seems as if there is something wrong with the theory that a fantasy allays the real desire. At least it doesn’twork like that with him. No hint of sublimation – so that he could restrain himself by day as long as I allow him this at night. It seems to be the other way round: it seems as if my subjection to his will makes him crave more; more of this too, because once or twice a week used to be enough.
I know too little about the nature of fantasy. They say that what comes from the subconscious is innocent, but I sense guilt in what he does with his fantasies. Not the desire itself perhaps, but the fulfillment of desire creates guilt.
It’s not just him. It’s me too. Because for me pain is the most real feeling. The only feeling. I cannot feel happiness, I’ve never been able to. My despair makes me sure that I am alive. That’s why I am guilty. That makes me his accomplice. And still I must help him.
And I must help the boy. Because I want something different for my son. He must inherit happiness. My prince.
My prince who is suddenly standing by our bed with wide night eyes, who has seen what we were doing together, his father and I. He surely can’t have heard me crying out?
He knows very well that he should not have got out of bed. There was nothing the matter, he had not been crying, he just came out of mischief, curiosity. This time the cuff round the ears he gets from his father is justified.
But I can’t help it, I lift him up in my arms. I know what I’m doing is wrong, that by comforting him I make the punishment by his father seem arbitrary and make him blind to his own naughtiness. A second guilt. He clings to me and I carry him to his room, sit in the chair beside his bed with him in my lap – and I kiss him, his damp sleep-curled hair, his warm tummy, his wet blind face.
Uit: Het kind en de rekening, Contact Amsterdam 1988.