Most know that bullies bully because of insecurity– but why? The narrators of The Things They Carried, The Color Of Water, The Woman Warrior, and This Boy’s Life use cruelty as a way to create personas that are accepted and stereotypical in society. Domination and inhumanity are used as coping mechanisms to develop a sense of security and identity when one feels powerless. Having control over another people fabricates internal power and respect, allowing oneself to avoid being an outcast. In these memoirs, characters use terror as a way to mask and cope with their identities and insecurities.
In The Woman Warrior, Maxine struggles to create her selfhood, specifically how to balance her Chinese and American identity. She torments two students who mirror her insecurities, the ‘quiet girl’ and the ‘mentally retarded boy’ (173, 194). Maxine hates the girl for everything she is; her haircut, neatness, even footsteps, but mostly for her inability to speak. In an earlier portion of this chapter, Maxine recollects ‘becom[ing]silent,’ to speak English in kindergarten (167). This is the start of her shame around language. Maxine feels her voice ‘spoils [her] day with self-disgust’ and is a ‘crippled animal running on broken legs’ (169). Speaking is an act of performance for her; words don’t come out naturally, she has to create an American-feminine voice that will be accepted by those around her. One would imagine that Maxine would sympathize and connect with the quiet girl; however, because she has developed such a hate for her own voice, she hates the quietness of this girl that is a mirror image of herself. The girl is the physical representation of Maxine’s fear of speaking and the secretive life of her family. Even though she overtly repeats her hatred towards the quiet girl, Maxine is ‘talking to the familiar’ as she torments the girl and believes ‘that [they] are the same’ (172). This confirms that Kingston sees herself within this girl, however, her self-hate is so immense that she wants the quiet girl to physically experience the same pain. Maxine speaks about ‘push[ing]’ ‘pok[ing]’ and ‘indent[ing]’ the girls face, calling her a ‘sissy-girl’ when she won’t speak (178). Maxine is afraid of passivity and mocks the girl’s fragility and weakness even though those are things that Maxine deals with. This directly relates to her cultural background––Maxine feels this girl is enforcing the Chinese-feminine stereotypes instead of aligning with American norms. During kindergarten, her class performed a play, ‘except the Chinese girls,’ whose voices were ‘too soft or nonexistent’ (167). Maxine constantly feels excluded by her American identity; by tormenting the ‘quiet girl,’ she is also torturing her own insecurities, allowing her to think that she is in control of herself.
Maxine’s reaction is similar when she speaks about the ‘mentally retarded boy’ who ‘followed’ her around as if they were ‘two of a kind’ (192). She describes him as a ‘monster,’ who ‘growls’ and has Frankenstein’s legs (194, 195). Maxine cruelly shuns the boy because of her fear that her parents want her to marry him. Kingston is projecting her feelings of mistrust towards her parents and their customs. Like with the quiet girl, Maxine diminishes the boy while lifting her own qualities – she sees herself as superior. Again, Maxine doesn’t acknowledge their commonalities around speech and feels no sympathy. She is suppressing the truth and pretending to be someone she is not, in order to feel that she is nothing like the other kids with speech insecurities. A few pages later, Maxine states that ‘perhaps [she] made him up’ (205). The boy may have just been an allusion, a physicalization of her insecurities.
In The Color Of Water, James deals with his questioning identity similarly. He tries to align himself with stereotypical images of black masculinity in order to feel in control. James begins sneaking out and not going to school––after his mother’s second husband dies––taking advantage of her emotional state. He starts shoplifting, breaking into cars and mugging old ladies. James sees this as the beginning of his own ‘process of running,’ (much like what Ruth does throughout the book,) in order to emotionally disconnect from his mother (138). James is amused and entertained as he starts mugging women for their purses. Although he feels ‘sorry for them,’ James justifies his actions by stating that he is ‘getting back at the world for injustices [he] had suffered’ (141). However, because Ruth ignores James’ questions about race and promotes color-blind ideologies, he says he ‘wouldn’t have been able to name’ the injustices he has experienced (141-142). James feels a sense of control as steals purses. Perhaps he still feels guilty about not being able to protect Ruth when she was mugged. James also participates in these acts because he has a limited view of what it means to be black. As the man that mugged Ruth was black, James seems to be taking on the societal stereotype of a black man. James can gain power and status through his actions within his friend group and feels he is fulfilling the ‘duties’ of being a man.
Just like with Maxine and James, Tim and his soldiers in The Things They Carried constantly use cruel humor to divorce themselves from the realities of the war. In order to separate themselves they must “perform” and put forth a specific traditional identity. They kick dead children, burn villages without reasons, and frisk old men as they have to fill the social pressures of being a ‘hero,’ pretending they are not afraid of death––even when that is what unites them. Tim expresses that ‘there were times of panic,’ where they discharged weapons blindly and begged for their lives. (20). At some points, it seems as if there is a sense of empathy towards others, such as when Ted Lavender adopts a puppy and ‘feeds it from a plastic spoon’ (21). But these moments are brief; one of the other soldiers steals the puppy and blows it up, justifying his actions by saying he is ‘just a boy’ (21). This theme of war as play, and struggling with masculinity is apparent through these actions. The day Curt Lemon dies, Rat Kiley cruelty shoots a baby water buffalo over and over again, never ‘to kill; it was to hurt’ (75). The images are quite gruesome, he shot ‘the mouth away’ and ‘chunks of meat,’ yet, in between we get (somewhat) tender moments, as he offers the buffalo some of his rations and ‘whispered something as if talking to a pet’ (75). Instead of the soldiers coming together to mourn, Rat must feel a sense of control over death, now that his best friend has died. Much like how Maxine cries as she torments the ‘quiet girl,’ Rat is crying as he tortures the animal. The water buffalo serves as a symbol for his insecurities and the need for power. For Rat and Maxine to cope with the realities of their lives and identities, they must feel a sense of control over another; the water buffalo can’t speak or defend itself just like the ‘quiet girl.’
As Maxine projects her own insecurities onto those she torments, Tim creates an embellished backstory for the man he killed during the war. While this way of coping stems from his extreme guilt, Tim is mostly projecting his own insecurities and fear onto this man he doesn’t know. The dead man is described as having been bullied because of the feminine qualities of his appearance. He ‘had no stomach of violence’ and only ‘pretended to look forward to doing his patriotic duty’ (121). The word ‘pretend’ emphasizes that Tim and his other soldiers are performing––they are acting in ways that match with societal expectations. Although Tim feels sympathetic towards the man he killed, he still is inflicted with the power of dominance and control. He can create this man to be whomever he wants, to make himself feel less alone, and that has been able to survive even though he doesn’t feel heroic. By killing off both the man’s (and Tim’s) ‘worst’ or most unmasculine traits, he can feel secure in his being––that he is not like this feminine coward, but that he is a manly hero. This mirror image or reflection echoes throughout the book and highlights the soldiers’ social obligation in war. Tim is a masquerade of a soldier; he fears humiliation––just like what he believes the dead man felt too.
This mirror effect happens similarly when Tim gets revenge on Bobby Jorgenson for almost causing him to die. He starts to feel extreme ‘hate’ for Bobby, specifically after he tries to apologize for what happened (182). Tim decides that he will ‘spook’ and ‘mess with’ Bobby in order to get revenge. While Tim contemplates his decision to shame him, he sees Bobby sitting with fellow soldiers where he ‘fit in nicely’ and was full of ‘chumminess’ (193). Tim is provoked by the fact that despite his cowardliness, Bobby is still accepted as a ‘man,’ something that Tim constantly feels he must prove. On the night that Bobby is on night guard duty, Tim becomes ‘someone else’ and ‘begins acting’ as he sets up flares and noisemakers to scare him. As Tim watches Bobby set up for the night, he describes him as ‘a little boy’ who ‘cradled’ his rifle ‘like a teddy bear’ (195). By making Bobby seem childlike and unmasculine, Tim is able to feel he is in control has power over him. Despite how cruel this scene is, Tim admits that he ‘wasn’t himself’ and that he ‘wanted to stop [himself]’ (198). Of course, Tim continues because of the immense power and the joy he has seeing Bobby suffer and expose his fears. In this way, Tim can control Bobby’s emotions, thus making him feel like a man. Just like Maxine and Toby, Tim feels ‘close’ to his victim, Bobby, as the fear of death ‘was something [they] shared’ (201). Their victimizers are simply the mirror images of themselves, and by having the feeling of control over insecurities, one seems to have succeeded.
Just like in all the memoirs, in This Boy’s Life, Toby continually manipulates and torments others in order to feel control and power. When Toby is introduced to his first weapon, he believes that the rifle ‘complet(s)’ him (23). Having ownership of a lethal item is not only ‘proof’ that he is a man but also introduces him to the ‘ecstasy of [his power]’ (27). As he spends time in the apartment alone, Toby takes out the gun and started pointing it at people through the window. As he continually feels the immense control and power he has holding the rifle and pointing it at people––but it simply isn’t enough––so he shoots a squirrel. Toby doesn’t react at all when he does this, signifying that he is hopelessly unsure about his identity, thus influenced by the men around him. In the images he sees of himself, he is always armed, and his reality becomes distorted because of the constant violence he experiences. Growing up around abusive men has made him apathetic towards violence, and sees it as the framework for his identity. He lies to his friends, telling them that he killed a turkey and ‘blew his fucking head right off’ (76). Toby believes that through violence and derogatory language, he will be seen as ‘cool’ and masculine––a way to ‘prove’ to himself that he has an identity.
When Toby meets Arthur, who is called the ‘uncoolest boy in the sixth grade,’ they have an unspoken expectancy that they are supposed to be friends (107). However, because Arthur is a more feminine boy who is deemed a ‘sissy,’ Toby decides to continue calling him names, even starting a physical fight with him as he doesn’t want them to be seen as equals. Toby wants to be viewed as a “cool” masculine boy, and Arthur wouldn’t give him that appearance. Toby confesses that he ‘likes him,’ but continues to taunt him (108). Arthur brings out the insecurities in Toby––knowing that if they spent time together, he too would be thought of as a ‘sissy’ and be laughed at. While Rosemary, of course, disapproves of what happened, Dwight praises Toby thus continuing the cycle of using violence and cruelty as a coping mechanism. Toby only uses violence and manipulation to deal with these conflicting feelings. As Arthur and Toby develop their relationship with one another, they kiss, which causes a series of fights between them. Whenever they felt close to one another, they ‘turned on each other.’ As Toby is figuring out boyhood and his identity, he can’t cope with the experiences he has, and thus suppresses them through violence.
By using cruelty and domination, all four narrators can fit into societal expectations (often stereotypical), and manipulate their identities, which gives them a sense of control and power. Because of the complicated environments they grew up in, the narrators are only able to connect and cope with their lives through violence. Perhaps it is not that we are receiving control, but rather that we are being controlled by overwhelming power to manipulate others for our own benefit. It seems that these memoirs are trying to show how human cruelty and domination are the crust of our society––it’s simply so embedded in our lives that we are all participating, no matter what form. We must find new ways to cope with our emotions in order to end the cycle of violence and domination.