Paternity Parlor part two – Fathers and Sons and Violence.

How a man refuses violence to protect his son in Susanne Bier’s In a Better World

How does a father raise a son to grow within our tangled conception of manhood?  What part of  how to be a man has altogether to do with violence?  The use of it.  Being familiar with its force and workings?  Linknote

The story of Anton, the father in Susanne Bier’s In a Better World, begins in Africa; a land where acts of homicide and mutilation by rogue bullymen are given reason by our insatiable desire for the raw materials and sparkling stones still to be found there.  Everyone’s culpable in this endless play of centrifugal nihilism. Beast us.  Mostly I let myself tune out those stories because, well, I must keep my hope.

But Bier does not tune out.  Nor does she leave us to wallow but riffs off the bold outline of an African manifestation tracing the bully pattern from its stark exposition there to dig at its more disguised and familiar roots in the resource consuming landscape of Denmark.  Here, with two fathers who must engage with an evil that threatens to incarnate in their own young sons, Bier goes at the heart of troubling questions about our bully selves: how to exhume and release the ancient hold of violence on us?  How to counter the monster bullies that are groomed and given life by violence without giving birth to that malignancy in ourselves?  More fundamentally, if our emotional mechanisms default to the use of force, especially when we are wounded, in doubt or under stress, could these be reframed as only one of many innate propensities in us to be given encouragement, or not, by our structures, familial and institutional? 

We witness the violent evidence of the local African villain before he appears in the flesh through the destroyed womb of a woman brought into a medical camp.  The doctor’s assistant has seen this type of injury before.  It is the work of “Big Man,” who “makes bets with his boys as to what sex the child will be and then he cuts her open to see.”  Here is the first and most obvious evil in this story, a monster.

In a church in Denmark a young boy, Christian, recites in perfect, mechanical form at his mother’s funeral.  Christian has lost his faith, as one can, by his mother’s early death.  There’s no reason why.  No explaining such a rip in the should be natural order of things.  This has filled Christian with anger, an anger that’s focused on his father who, from the boy’s damaged perspective, failed to protect his mother from death and as a consequence failed to protect Christian from this betrayal of life by death.  “You said she wasn’t going to die. You said she wasn’t in pain.”  But she did, and was.

If a child
can’t count on a mother’s love being there,
if he can’t count
on his father’s word,
can he count on anything at all?  What’s the point?

One thing about losing faith in life, you don’t want to keep the loss to yourself.  Its endless deep must be spread in a seek of company and confirmation in despair.  Too much fire there, too much burning to dust, a swirling weight of damaged self that insists on being passed along.  Hot potato.  And sure enough, Christian grabs at his chance to spread his amorphous dread.  He defends Anton’s vulnerable, sensitive son, Elias, from a school yard bully.

Elias is targeted by the bully because he is perceived as weak.  In the dynamics of bullydom preying upon an other enhances the tormenter’s prestige, demonstrating how dangerous and therefore “strong” the bully is in contrast.  This public humiliation reverberates within Elias by his loss of self worth from being forced into the degraded role necessary for and demanded by the bully – a depleted soul unable to generate a sense of self on his own.  The bully takes worth for himself, as if his right, from Elias.  And here, in this old tactic that simultaneously violates and voids, is an elemental assumption of those who trade in the tributes enforced by violence: that the substance of self within an other is theirs to take and use for their own.  It is not.

Christian, made bold by his exponentially larger experience of loss, steps in to block the bully from his abuse of Elias and do what Christian accuses his own father of being unable to do, protect.  And so out of the boys’ alliance against the bully, an outside threat, a friendship is born.  Signified and sealed by the exchange of a knife.

Soon follows an incident where the boys encounter another little bully boy at a swing.  Here, Elias’ father Anton, the doctor home from the medical camp in Africa, tries to intercede.  The swing boy’s father, Lars the mechanic, senses conflict like a laser and steps in to bully Anton.  This immediately vaults the bullying into the adult world and triggers a cycle of Christian and Elias plotting revenge on Lars.  This is a more direct, easily identifiable problem to fix than, say, the death of one’s mother.

More significantly, the incident opens the question of Anton’s manhood in which Elias, himself accused of weakness and as Anton’s son, very much has a stake.  Now Christian tells Elias his father is weak because he “takes a punch” from Lars and doesn’t return the blow.  This logic is expressed by Christian to his own father about the school yard bully, “If I don’t hit back, everyone will think they can hit me.”

The boys track down Lars at his garage so Anton can go “beat him up” in retaliation.  When presented with the fruits of this espionage, Anton says, “…He’s a jerk.  If I hit him I’m a jerk, too.  If I go to jail, you’d be without a father, and then he’ll have won.”  But by now Elias is under the influence of Christian and he is not convinced.  He responds, “I bet mom would love it if you weren’t such a wimp.”

What the young boys do not see is Anton – a father, a husband (albeit estranged) and a healer – trying to embody a truly matured malehood.  Anton puts himself in the path of Lars’ violence to shield the boys, better he receive it than they.  What the boys do not comprehend is the effort it takes Anton to grab and hold the violent synapse from Lars that has found terminus, literally, in the doctor’s body.

Just as young Christian cannot hold all the pain of losing his mother, the lump of violence absorbed by Anton must be dislodged and expelled without further harm.  But where to put it?  Clearly upset after receiving Lars’ punch, Anton goes for a swim to begin dissipating his rage.  Those who choose not to use the energy of  violence to generate an equal or greater force in reply are left processing this toxin through their own system, swallowing and then trying to somehow purge the infectious agent.  Women are familiar with this, we have done it forever.

And this is
of course
what the doctor is next accused of being –
like a woman. 

Anton tries a “teaching moment” and goes with the boys to see Lars.  The bully, a one note fellow, hits the doctor again and echoes the boys’ questioning of Anton’s manhood by calling him a “faggot.”  When Anton shows the boys he is not hurt and contends that the bully is nothing but bluster they are past listening, more seduced now by fueling and feeling the fuel of violence.  They will not be deterred by the doctor’s offer to let the cycle of violence stop within him.

This rejection of the father’s offer deepens the complexities of the boys’ alliance.  On his own, Elias is a relatively normal boy in unfamiliar circumstance who might have been turned by his father’s guidance.  However Christian is propelled by the necessity of discharging his emotional pain.  In his brutal, headstrong, lonely boy way, Christian may well be trying to bring his pain to conscious surface, but this is outpaced by his overwhelming need to offload his spreading despair.  This desperate need Christian shares with Lars the bully, infant in a man’s body, who has let his despair congeal over time till it is impossible to discharge except as molten hate.  Tricky this, navigating the human necessity of surfacing and advancing currents born from our tumultuous hearts.

And so Christian, entwining Elias ever more tightly in his project of revenge, becomes the truly dangerous element in the story.  The boys walk the edge of a high silo tracking Lars who, “… just walks around scaring people and no one does anything about it.”  From their now distorted view, the boys think they will be “protecting” everyone if they “teach him a lesson. Then maybe he won’t behave like that.”  Then Christian, upping the ante, makes a bomb to blow up Lars’s van.  “Your dad will be pleased,” he says to Elias who, still trying to listen to other voices – his father, his mother – is not so sure.  Christian immediately turns on him, “If you’re not with me on this, I want my knife back.”  The friendship token, bonding Elias to Christian, must be returned.  And with its surrender back to Christian goes the implicit threat that Christian will withdraw his protection of Elias on the schoolyard.

When the knife is discovered in Christian’s possession his father asks, “What were you thinking?  Do you want to ruin your life?”  Perhaps.  So betrayed, so singled out by fate, this boy who has lost his mother.  One of the unlucky.  Christian tells his father, “She didn’t want to die and you gave up on her.  I can’t be bothered with people who give up,”  His anger then flames over onto Elias, whose friendship Christian now in fact discards as he conflates “giving up” with lacking a will to bomb bullies.

Meanwhile, back in Africa Big Man arrives in the medical camp, looking for all the world like the monster he is, one eye blind, maggots festering in a wounded leg.  He needs the doctor to save his life.  A bit of leverage on his side, Anton the doctor gives Big Man a chance as he bargains, “no weapons in camp.”  As if you can bargain with monsters.  But Anton’s a human whose core purpose is to heal, and just as back at home with Lars, he puts healing first in his reach to construct an other way to be a man.  The nurses, more practical, will not treat the bully.  They ask, “Why do you want to help Big Man?”  “Because I have to,” he responds. “You are a strange man,” his assistant says.  No one  in this stark world of survival, little more it seems than in the affluent society of Denmark, understands this healer’s desire to turn from violence.

Big Man explains his simple equation.  “Everybody has killed here.  Men, women, children.  It makes no difference so long as I don’t kill you.  We could be friends.  I could be a very powerful friend.”  This is the same school yard logic of friendship as protection against an outside threat.

But here in Africa, with its violence obvious and on the surface, Big Man commits yet another obscene transgression and the doctor allows himself to trigger the community judgment by making the decision to order Big Man out of the camp.  Defenseless, without his body guards,  “but I have enemies all over!” Big Man is taken outside the gates to be collectively stomped to death by the mob.  Not one more human will be forced to absorb his violent darkness.  Even the healer has let go of Big Man because his being is, as some are, beyond healing, beyond forgiveness.  Such life as this must be thrown back to be taken by the whirlwind. This is Susanne Bier’s nod to the existence of real, un-transformable evil: when understanding fails to elicit transformation the only action may be to just let them have him.

Perhaps evil can be beaten away
incarnation at a time.

In Denmark, too, the forces of violence play out.  Elias’ intuitive resistance to Christian’s reasoning is submerged by his want for Christian’s love and friendship.  To get back into Christian’s good graces, Elias submits to the bombing scheme which inevitably goes awry.  Violence condensed and released is a practiced thing, not the work of children.  Elias, in a very physical way and like his father, bears the damage in his body and lands in the hospital.  Christian, full of remorse, lands on the bitter, high edge of the silo, ready to take his own life.  And it is here on this dangerous edge that the doctor puts himself in place to save Christian.

Bier’s story gives us the full spectrum of the bully.  Big Man’s mechanism of intimidation differs only in its order of magnitude from the methods of Lars the mechanic, or from the potential for violence hinted at in the angry boy Christian. By placing her characters and their actions on a continuum, Bier shows us the human worth saving.  Yes, there are Monsters, and they are born as children.  The doctor’s efforts at intervention show us that perhaps only as a child can the bully be diverted from his future of increasing violence and its potential “perfection” into evil.  Only by recognizing the incipient origins of violence in our very own children can we rescue ourselves from its cycles, dragging us round and round.  We have so long depended on Monsters to represent evil out there, to fear, to threaten us, as if we had nothing to do with it.  Can we find the will to let the Monster go (to the mob/whirlwind or as in Jackson’s The Lovely Bones, into the ravine, or to be consumed by fire in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo) and still see the incipient bully next door, or within, for what he is?  With such a leap we might encourage our grab, our chance for significant change.

At end, Anton the doctor speaks to Christian of the little veil between us and death that is lifted when someone we love and who loves us dies.  Like a mother. And the finality of the loss.  This look straight at death brings home for Christian the truth that all life, including our own, will end; a terrifying eventuality that strikes such a blow yet is a part of the let into the grand and continual rebalancing.  Anton’s voicing it brings to surface all the tumult this shift in sight has caused within the boy.  How life, met with death, is now altered for him, irrevocably.  It takes time to recover, to get back to life, after keeping company with such dark spirits.

Anton’s outreach to Christian, a boy whose irrational hit back at death might have ended the life of Anton’s own son, the highest of stakes, represents the effort any of us could make, where the ground for forgiveness is fertile, for “turning the other cheek.”  We hope this boy can accept the comfort of companionship this healing father offers; his empathetic recognition that yes, we are all in this together, the same mortals, trying to learn lightfootedness in this, our human story.

Written with the editorial assistance of Kathleen Gyurkey . 

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