Werewolves are a subject near and dear to my heart, as a horror fan and a Halloween enthusiast, as well as a student of the myths and legends that make up our society’s collective consciousness. But the reason I have been thinking about them lately has a lot less to do with any of that, except perhaps for the collective consciousness to a minor degree, and much more to do with the possible origin of the myth as it relates to human nature. The reason I have been considering them is mostly because I grew up with one, and the curse has trickled down.
My father was a werewolf. In the legends, the werewolf is an ordinary man by most external observation. Nobody knows the dark secret he holds inside, and he might not even be fully aware of it himself. His monstrous affliction is not usually one of choice, not one he can control, and not one he would welcome if he could change his nature. But he IS a monster, all the same. He transforms, almost always in private (such as under the cover of darkness), into a raging beast. He hurts people, destroys things and animals, and causes general terror. At the end of these destructive episodes, he transforms back into a man. He is able to blend back into society then, to hide his monstrous nature, leaving people in terror of when the next time the wolf will surface.
In real life, the werewolf does not become an actual wolf monster, of course. And his patterns are a bit less predictable than a full moon. But, most of the lore holds true. The man (always a man) blends into society. Nobody outside knows of his nature. But in private, he may transform into a beast. The beast may cause destruction, might harm other people or animals, and at the very least seeds terror in his wake. The monster also might take the form of an ordinary man, speaking and acting normally with no sign of his monstrous affliction. But neither he nor those around him know when the transformation will happen again.
Let me back-track a bit on this thought process before I get too far into it, and address why this has been on my mind in the first place. A couple of years ago, after not hearing from my ex-wife for years prior, I received a text message from her accusing me, in very vague terms, of certain things. I might go into it in more detail some day (I’ve certainly danced with the idea enough), but for now let me simply say one of those things was “abuse.” I don’t know what she was referring to, since it was simply that one word, so can only make educated guesses based upon our past and things she had said before. But, as a person who tends to dwell on things (see my previous post about the inability to let go), these words have haunted me since. I have spent many hours pondering the word “abuse,” what it could have meant to her in our relationship, and what it means to me. And actually, I doubt this is anything she was referencing. But the thought process led me here.
For me, and my experience with my father, I can say that he was what you might call “non-traditionally abusive.” He didn’t hit us, generally (though there were a few instances of physical violence), and he never touched us inappropriately. There were some instances of what you might call traditional emotional abuse, but I kind of think most kids of Baby Boomer parents can claim the same (sorry, Boomers), but it isn’t like he was constantly belittling us or trying to make us feel bad. Mostly, and more pervasively, there was a cloud of toxic malaise that hung over our household, caused by his presence. We walked around on eggshells, never knowing when my father would transform from a typical misanthrope (which he certainly was) into a raging beast.
This is what I mean when I say my father was a werewolf. He had a temper, to put it in very basic terms, but I think having a temper is putting it too mildly. All of us have a switch inside of us which, when flipped, engages what I will loving call “freak-out-mode.” For most of us, that switch seems to be fairly deeply buried, only getting flipped in moments of great stress and panic. This is the switch that causes people to murder others in “a moment of passion,” or to start yelling at someone at the top of their lungs in the middle of a crowded store. Sometimes people just flip your switch. For a werewolf, that switch is not very deeply embedded at all. That switch has a hair fucking trigger.
I don’t think I want to belabor this much more, because I imagine you get the idea. We all know someone like this, someone who gets angry VERY easily, and is likely to throw things, hit things, break things. Maybe in very bad cases they hit their spouse or kids, perhaps they kick the family dog (my dad certainly did that on more than one occasion). Perhaps you have lived with one of these people, and so you will be able to relate to this experience. Perhaps you have not, but surely you must know someone who has.
Upon thinking about this at length, I have come to the conclusion that the non-wolf periods are nearly as bad as the wolf periods, on an emotional level. Because at least when the beast is raging, you have a reason to feel fear. That beast is unpredictable, dangerous, causing destruction that could lead to you or something/someone you love. But when the beast is hidden, the potential of the beast is still always there, so you still feel a baseline of fear without having a good reason in the moment. You spend a lot of energy trying to keep that beast at bay, and a lot of anxiety builds up knowing it could come at any time. Knowing it WILL come.
And here’s a basic truth: a werewolf is a monster. And a monster might kill you.
Sure, your werewolf might not have hurt a human yet. Maybe your werewolf takes a hammer to the drywall when he’s pissed. Maybe your werewolf kicked the dog a few times, but mostly just throws things. Maybe he kicked a dent in the side of the car when it died on the side of the road. Maybe he threw a wrench at the mower when he raked his knuckles on a sharp piece of metal while fixing it. But when you live with a werewolf, you know… that could be you. Some part of you KNOWS. No matter how gentle, how loving, how considerate your werewolf might be in his human form, the beast might some day turn its bloodshot eyes to you.
As a child, I felt like a prisoner in my own home. My father’s presence was a dark cloud that hung over us, threatening at all times, not just when he was raging. In novels, when a character has a dual nature, they often say things like, “When his mood was light, it was as if the sunshine had parted the clouds and all of us would bask in the warmth of that light.” I don’t think living with a werewolf ever feels like that. When the werewolf is calm, you do everything you can to keep him that way. For me, that meant hiding in my room a lot and trying to keep my head down. You don’t want to be the cause of his next transformation. There are really no pure “happy times” (aside from perhaps when the werewolf isn’t around at all) because the appearance of happiness is only there to delay the bad times you know will surely come. It becomes a survival technique. You must know the appropriate way to act at all times, the way that will be least likely to cause the wolf to emerge.
Thinking about this werewolf analogy, I always come around to the same question: Is it abuse? This question, to my thinking, hinges upon three things: intent, knowledge, and power. If two out of three weigh against the alleged abuser, then it’s abuse.
Intent is the more difficult of the questions. As I stated, the werewolf almost never chooses his affliction. He doesn’t want to be a werewolf. He doesn’t want to hurt people. The saddest part about the werewolf mythology is that the werewolf is just as much of a victim as those he hurts. I think to a degree, the same can be said of the more mundane variety of monster that might or might not have spawned this legend. Did my father want to keep us under a shroud of terror? Did he want to break his possessions, hurt his pets, bully his children? I honestly don’t think so. So I am willing to give him a pass on intent.
But, did he know he was hurting us? This is a hard one for me to answer for him, but should not have been hard for him to answer for himself. I don’t know for sure if my dad knew his rage was such an omnipresent energy in our home (even in its temporary absence), and I can’t ask him now since he died years ago. But I believe he should have been aware enough that he should have been able to answer that for himself, had he been asked. His answer would have revealed a lot. For me, if a person is aware of the harm they are causing, even if they do not intend to cause that harm, and do nothing about it… well, they are directly culpable. In his death, I am forced to guess. Based upon what else I know about my father, I think he was introspective enough to know that he was causing us harm. I think he simply gave himself a lot of excuses about WHY and gave himself too many passes. In other words, I think he felt that he came by his anger honestly and was entitled to it. But I can put a big check mark by “knowledge” in my abuse assessment. I don’t think the excuses matter.
Which brings me to power. This is an easy one. Is the abuser higher than the abused in the power structure of their relationship, physically or otherwise? And the answer here is a definite yes. There were a few instances I do not care to share here where my father turned his violence upon me, my brother, or my mother and it was apparent he was the physical superior. We were kids, my mom was a woman and also someone who grew up with a werewolf father herself and would not ever fight back; the fight was trained out of her. And in the family dynamic, he was our family leader. The power structure was clear.
So, I can confidently state that I believe my father abused his family. He might not have wanted to, but I think he was aware that he did. He sought no help for his affliction, and didn’t do the honorable thing that many werewolves of the legends do: banish or kill himself. Is that harsh? Probably. Perhaps I am naive because I have no basis for comparison in my own childhood, but I think I would have rather grown up without a father than under the shadow of a werewolf.
Which brings me to myself. As I stated at the beginning of this, the curse has trickled down. In the legends, you become a werewolf by being bitten by a werewolf. In other words, you begin as a victim, then become the monster yourself. This has certainly proven true in my own life. I am very much like my father when it comes to that shallow “switch.” I can only think of two instances when I hurt an animal due to my freak-outs (one as a toddler, one as a 20-something), and zero involving humans (not counting fights as a kid where I was defending myself from actual attack). But many an inanimate object has been the victim of my wrath over the years, that I can assure you. And unlike my questions about my father, I don’t have to wonder if I had knowledge of my actions and how much they have harmed my relationships over the years. I can say with assurance that I did. I knew it then, and I know it now. As for power structures, I have always been a physically strong man.
So this brings me to a sad truth: I am a werewolf like my father before me. I don’t know what my ex-wife has considered abuse or where her accusations lie exactly, but being completely honest with myself, I know I abused her in a similar way as my father abused me. Just by being there, demonstrating my rage in her presence repeatedly, I caused constant harm. I never hit her. I only exhibited aggression toward a pet one time (shoved the cat off the back of the couch when the cat hurt me once), but it’s a moment I know scarred me and had to have left an impression on my ex as well. But as I said… when you live with a werewolf, you know… that could be you. Some part of you KNOWS. There was a baseline of fear in our home, established, maintained, but never discussed.
And so I am left to wonder, acknowledging this about myself, can a werewolf ever be freed of their curse? It’s fine and well to admit the failings of your past, to lament them even (and I certainly do). But we can’t reach back and fix those things. What I can address is my relationship with my current wife and our future together. Have I been a werewolf to her as well? I think the answer is yes, though thankfully to a lesser degree. I have done better, but I need to do much better still.