Many years ago I worked for a man who was my boss but behaved like child. He had a henchman who was a bully. And they had a hanger on who was a decent guy – but needed a pack to run with. When they walked into restaurants my boss would shout: “who let the dogs out?” and the pack would respond: “Woof, Woof, Woof”. Some people thought it was a complete hoot. I found it excruciating.
This man was new to the company and he used his position to intimidate and frighten. He let my colleague A and me know that he didn’t like us and hadn’t wanted to keep us on. That he had been forced too. That he was looking for a reason to get rid of us. He would explode with no warning, or reason. We had invested in our careers – so for a year we walked on eggshells around him, thinking time and proof of our abilities would calm him down.
One day he summoned me to his office to play him a song: due that day – but not delivered yet. I tried to explain this to him: the artist was Spanish, worked in his own time, could be difficult – but always came through in the end … and he lost his temper. Screaming at me, his mouth so close I could smell his lunch. Something in me snapped and I heard myself matching him – decibel for decibel – but with cold, ruthless clarity: as I described to him what I thought of him, the henchman and the hanger on.
Two days later he came to my office. Closed the door and stood over me as I sat in my chair. I was expecting to be fired – but was calm. I had had enough of all of it: of the childishness, the shouting, of being physically pushed into corners of the elevator by the henchman, of being belittled because of my surname. So I sat completely still – facing forward and said: “If you are here to apologise. Sit down. If not: we’re having this conversation in (the Chairman)’s office.” He said: “Nobody has spoken to me like that since I was 10 years old.” I replied: “Maybe they should have.”
On Friday I watched a woman screaming at her child. We were outside the school gates – I was picking up the Nans, and from what I could gather – this furious person’s child hadn’t waited on the kerb as arranged. The mother had roughly parked her giant, white Lexus SUV half in the road/half on the pavement. She was standing in the open car door – looming over the little girl, who was cowered down low on the back seat repeating over and over: “but mommy you… you… you were late, mommy you…you…you were late”. Another child, in the front seat just stared out of the windscreen. She’d heard it all before.
As I walked past, Mommy made eye contact – giving me the hard look … “Say something, make my day”, an old hand at intimidation. I stared back, unblinking, but said nothing. The kids were with me now and I had no interest in inviting this ugliness into their lives. But my heart was stutterstepping all over my chest … an echo of long ago. I recognised the bully.
A year after our incident I met my angry boss’ mother: she seemed a decent woman – and you could tell he loved her by how excited he was to be showing her around the company. She lingered in my office, chatting London shopping. When he left to take a phone call, she said to me: “I hope you don’t mind me bringing this up but my son told me about the argument you two had.” I mumbled something about it being over and all being good now. But she hadn’t said what she came to say: “when he was a boy we adopted him and his brother. They were bullied at school for being different and he responded in kind. It took a long time for us to fix that. They had so much anger in them. Sometimes when he is overwhelmed or tired – he acts like that boy again. But I think you saw that. Thank you for forgiving him”. And she gave me a hug.
I wish I had said something to that raging woman on Friday. That I had named for her what I had seen; maybe it would have given her pause. Benjamin Franklin said “whatever begins in anger ends in shame” and I think a little shame would serve her well the next time she projects her self-loathing all over her daughters. And a little honest remorse, hopefully grown from that shame, might help the girls forgive their mother one day. And break the cycle.
One can only hope.
(Images of 60s poster and baby found in the public domain. Image of red haired woman copyright Kenneth Anger.)