Content warning: this article contains mentions of emotional abuse.
We spend lifetimes trying to undo our own spines.
— Alison Malee
I am not a woman born of anything soft. I did not grow toward the sunlight. And I am proud — in a spiteful, resolute, and near-feral way — to say that rage is an old friend.
Yes, rage. That thing that burns your throat raw before you’ve even so much as uttered a word, consuming all you are — or, perhaps, serving as the agent of a revelation. Rage is terrifying, exhilarating. It is the closest a person can get to walking through fire and remaining unburnt.
There is power in rage. Women are taught to fear it, to crush it, but the only people with a reason to fear our anger are those who have told us that it does not deserve to be heard.
There is power in anger. It can give voice to otherwise unutterable truths of circumstance, oppression, and desire. In anger, we lift the veil. And, likewise, there is power in joy, desire, subversion — in short, there is power in any metaphorical (or literal) howl at the moon.
Yet every woman I know has given in and tamed herself. I count myself among them.
We file down our teeth, replacing dangerous smiles with something that cannot bite back. Having dulled the sharpness of our joy, our rage, our intellect, and our desires, we can no longer imagine wildness. We learn to force our bodies and minds into the dull corset of expectations when inside, somewhere, despite all of it, we are still stoking an inferno. It swells and we swallow it and suddenly we are dead women walking. Just like that.
“Please.” “Thank you.” “Whatever you want.” “I’d be happy to.”
“No, that doesn’t hurt.”
“I forgive you.”
Every woman I know has, at one point or another, given in to the will of expectation and tamed herself.
I spent my childhood being angry. Not all of it, of course; I knew happiness, silliness, hope. I very earnestly memorized the periodic table, arranged my stuffed animals so none of them would feel lonely when the lights went off, and choreographed complex performances to the music of Hannah Montana with my school friends.
But I grew up in a home where, like Lewis Carroll’s Alice Through the Looking-Glass but without the fantasy, I was asked to believe at least six impossible things before breakfast.
I knew the things I was accused of were lies. I didn’t yet know the technical terms — gaslighting, emotional and psychological abuse — but I knew that in my mind, and that knowledge was strong. Perhaps not strong enough to abstain from conflict, but still strong enough to fight, to scream the truth to an unrepentant liar. Abstention is a luxury I didn’t have; I was a child in my own home, and conflict dripped from the walls like paint that never dried.
The weekends were the worst. Our home became something of a suburban war zone: pitched battles in the living room and guerrilla warfare through the hallways. Shelter was taken behind bathroom doors that locked just in time. Relief came in the form of a dark, looming closet to climb into. There was something soothing in the way the hangers poked into my back, my neck. A strange perversion of the touch of a mother who went out to run errands, leaving me much worse than alone.
Amidst the fear and hurt and confusion lay a seething undercurrent of white-hot rage. Rage at my powerlessness. Rage at the vertiginous insanity of it all.
I still remember the way he said the word “disobedient,” replacing the sound of the “oh” with a guttural, almost flippant “uh.” It was a charge levelled randomly, absurdly. “Dis-uh-bedient”: a word punched through gritted teeth, intended to shame.
Anger kept me alive. Sometimes I wonder, now, whether it was wise to fight back. Maybe it would have been better to stay quiet, even just once or twice. But the heavy truth I now carry is this: if I had stopped, even for a moment, I would have collapsed. I do not think I would have had the strength to get back up. I was damned either way, but it was rage that allowed me to walk away with clear eyes and a mind that could still tell up from down.
The word ‘spine’ entered English from an Old French word that translates roughly to “thorn-like part.”
Modern understandings of the concept tend to see spines as solid, heavy, pillars of unchanging self to which we affix ourselves in the face of fate’s strong winds. A spine is constant. A spine holds you up.
But what if some spines are different? Sometimes our strongest parts are also the most capricious: we love fiercely until betrayal turns our vision black. We rage at injustice until, on the wings of a breath that lasts a sliver of a moment too long, we collapse in fear, guilt, and uncertainty.
Sometimes the things that hold a person up are not constant. They rise up, claws first, seemingly out of nowhere, and can retreat just as suddenly. They are vicious. Their beauty is wild and unrepentant.
The thorn of a rose can be a beautiful thing. But make no mistake: if you push too hard, the thorn means to draw blood.
At a fundamental level, anger is a warning. From a psychological perspective, people at times become angry when they perceive themselves to be under threat, whether emotionally or physically. Anger is accompanied by the activation of the body’s fight-or-flight response, and it changes the way we think. It makes us less averse to risk, less prone to think analytically. And many of us have seen anger — often the anger of parents, or intimate partners — bring about unspeakable pain and devastation.
But despite this, anger also conveys what is important to us: what we are afraid to lose, what we deeply wish for, and what we can no longer stand to accept.
Anger is stigmatized along gendered lines. It is a masculinized emotion, associated with overt aggression, and is generally perceived as legitimate only when expressed by men — powerful men. The angry man is the powerful man. He is a man who is, or is seen to be, in control.
By contrast, the expression of anger is the elephants’ graveyard for the credibility of women. Many people believe that women express anger at lower rates than men. Anger is taboo for women; it is antithetical to everything we are supposed to be.
Yet women consistently report feeling angry just as often and intensely as men. Women feel rage. We just aren’t talking about it.
Any set of stories about women and anger will be bound by the common thread of the patriarchy. A great deal of the anger experienced by women derives from our diverse experiences living in this system, in areas ranging from our relationships, our work, and our physical and emotional safety, to our senses of self and self-worth. When we suppress our anger, and when our anger is stifled by forces outside of ourselves, we learn that to be feminine is to be silent in the face of indignity, abuse, and injustice. This is one of the principal mechanisms through which the patriarchy persists.
But anger speaks truths about power and oppression, and, if conveyed constructively and heard, it can be a force capable of turning this world on its head.
In “The Uses of Anger,” an essay published in the fall 1981 edition of Women’s Studies Quarterly, feminist writer, poet, and intellectual Audre Lorde vindicated anger as a source of radical truth, invaluable in the struggle against personal and institutional oppression, specifically against societal racism. She wrote passionately and cogently of the radical potential inherent to the anger of racialized women, and rightfully called out her white feminist peers for their routine failure to hear this anger without lapsing into fear and defensive ignorance.
Lorde’s writing therefore has great relevance for white women as we work to disentangle ourselves from, and to help dismantle, the structures of racial privilege that have benefited us, and which also serve to uphold the patriarchy itself. Without removing Lorde’s arguments from their rightful context, however, the notion of anger’s transformative potential is powerful and vital in all fights against injustice.
For Lorde, anger was not something to be feared. Too often, she argued, anger is confused with hatred: the threat of imminent destruction, intimately tied to the perpetuation of oppressive social systems. Anger, by contrast, can be informative and constructive: when spoken and heard openly, it is an opportunity for learning and liberation. Anger, Lorde wrote, is “insight into power.”
Many of the strangest experiences of my own childhood involved being sent to anger management sessions of several varieties. The first time was when I was about seven or eight. Quite tediously, I tried repeatedly to explain to this counsellor — who struck me as tragically dim and is likely responsible for whatever extent to which I am now a misanthrope — that I only got angry when I was screamed at, accused of things that were simply false, or became afraid that I was about to suffer physical violence. Realizing that I would never get through to this man, I acquiesced to play with Legos and discuss how I might implement the highly provincial strategy of “counting to 10” the next time I “felt mad.”
My mother, father, and I even flew out to Calgary in the dead of winter to meet with a psychologist who specialized in treating “intellectually gifted” children with “behavioural struggles.” I was 11 years old. I remember worrying for days in advance about whether the psychologist would like me. Still a child, my understanding of psychologists was limited and somewhat off the mark: they could see who and what you were. Their judgement was absolute. And I so desperately wanted to be good.
For the first time, I told a man about my life and my anger, and he did not explode. He didn’t blame me or accuse me of lying or starting fights. He didn’t chase me through the house or tell me I’d never have any friends.
The psychologist had a copy of the famous René Magritte painting “The Treachery of Images” in his office, which, if you do not know, reads “Ceci n’est pas une pipe.” He asked me what it was and I quickly replied that it was a painting of a pipe. He said I was quite clever. In retrospect, he probably said that to all the children, but in the moment I was beaming. Surely, I thought, things would now get better. I didn’t think I had done anything wrong. And, to top it all off, the psychologist thought I was clever.
But when we returned home, things only got worse. I began to feel that there was something deeply wrong with me. I could not be fixed, and even the best of intentions were hopeless in the face of whatever darkness afflicted me.
Nine years and one divorce later, I discovered that the psychologist had told my parents that I was certainly not the problem. He said I was a bright and sociable child. But that knowledge came too little and far too late.
As I grew older and the spectre of independence loomed large — as I became more educated, independent, opinionated, and articulate — things became more vicious. A common theme emerged in the diatribes directed toward me: unless I learned to “handle my anger,” I would never be able to be in a lasting relationship. In short, unless I made myself small, unless I learned not to fight back against indignity and abuse, no one would ever love me.
I raged against this sentiment at the time, but, almost inevitably, I came to believe it, too.
The idea that women must hide their anger lies at the heart of our culture’s understanding of femininity.
We are to be caretakers, not only of the weak — children, the elderly, the sick — but also of the unfettered emotional discharges of immature men who have lived too long without consequence. We are to be silent and unaffected; to be otherwise is to be unattractive and therefore deplorable, hideous from root to stem and barely worth the air we breathe. We are to secure ourselves and our immediate surroundings so that men can stomp about like children, shielded from the consequences of knowing exactly how much they have broken.
The patriarchy’s suppression of women’s anger — especially of women who experience marginalization on several different levels — serves a dual function.
First, it functions to keep us small, distracted, confused, self-hating, and inefficacious. This suppression has an even more destructive and secondary consequence: to shield the institutions at large from critique, not only by preventing dissent, but also by inculcating subjects with the idea that anger expressed by women is automatically illegitimate and expressive of their lesser status.
“Bitch,” “hormonal,” “hysterical,” “crazy,” “bitter”: these are all phrases and tropes that function to discredit women before we have even opened our mouths to speak.
As a white woman, I am lucky that the discreditation I experience is not informed by my race or ethnicity. And as a white woman, I am also aware that I am predisposed to hear the anger of racialized women in a way that reflects a patriarchy inflected by hierarchies of race, sexuality, and class. People’s degree of responsibility to learn to hear the anger of women from diverse backgrounds correlates positively with the extent to which they have, directly or indirectly, benefited from the censure of those women.
There is also, however, a significant extent to which we are all implicated in our individual and collective oppression. This is not to say that we are to blame, but rather that this system depends partly on our cooperation.
The fight for truth begins with our own minds and our own spines.
As time has passed and circumstances have changed, my daily life is no longer a battle waged outwardly. The monsters I let fester in the castle as I defended its walls have crawled into the light. They are not kind. They have told me that I should fear the rage that took me by the hand and walked with me through this life. But they are wrong.
A while ago, I came to the ironic realization that I was terrified to be angry. I turned my anger — anger from the past that I had still not expressed, anger at the everyday indignities of being a woman, and anger at things I experienced in my personal life — inward. Instead of owning my anger, I tossed about inane platitudes such as “I’m not angry, I’m just hurt” (as if being hurt by someone isn’t a reason to be angry) and “I’m just feeling a bit overwhelmed and confused. I’m not upset with you.”
Anger kept me alive, but I was not spared the thought that I was nevertheless wrong to have been angry, and by extension wrong to have survived as I did.
Finding myself in stable relationships of various stripes, I was convinced I would be abandoned if I showed my teeth. For one, I was told exactly that, over and over, at all levels from the intimate to the cultural. My rage, however, is also intimately entwined with a long history of trauma. My rage has long been an indication that someone who ought to have taught me that I was good, valuable, capable, and strong actually seemed to think the exact opposite.
How could I let myself feel that way again? How could I let my anger speak, if that was what it might say?
I am only now learning to let my anger back in, to accept it as my ally once more. Now, it is not a bulwark against destruction but a light that shines on the things that must change. And with my anger — which is now a bit softer, a bit more settled — so many other good things are slowly and haltingly returning to me. There is a certain unity to emotion, to the messy, overlapping facets of existence: if you dim the light of one, the others will follow.
Women are angry. We are absolutely, blindingly, earth-shatteringly enraged. This anger is often hidden behind well-trained smiles, pastel shades, and the personally and politically toxic trait of being ‘nice,’ but it is no less urgent for this act of camouflage.
Coming to value, express, and even love our thorns — of which rage is but one — is a personal and political act of immeasurable import. Let’s lift the veil, and step into the light.
The prospect is tantalizing, but if you look at it straight on you may also hear a voice calling to you from the darkness you are leaving. If you are angry, if you sharpen your thorns and bare your teeth, it will say that you will be a far cry from the pretty, quiet girl you ought to be. Will anyone love you, then? What will you have left? “Stand down,” it will say.
And when that voice speaks, remember this: “No” is a complete sentence.
I don’t want to be a pretty, quiet girl. I would far rather be an angry, joyful, and truth-loving woman who burns with the ecstasy of a life lived outside of the shadow of fear.
And so I will end with this: fuck the fear. Fuck the whole damn system — bring it down. And fuck every single person who has ever told you that you do not deserve, or cannot afford, to be angry. The road back is long, but we will weave womanhood from the blood-soaked, mismatched threads they tore from our spines; we will move, think, love, and rage too fast, and too sharp, for any cage.
Because I am not a pretty, quiet girl. None of us are. And we’ve broken far more than a few nails crawling out of hell.
Photos by Jadine Ngan