When I was ten, Snow White got into a fight with my mother and hit her. We were at Disneyland Paris, queueing for a hot dog. Snow White was dancing for the queue with her dwarves, and my mother had interrupted her twice to ask about hot dog toppings. It was New Year’s Day, before 10am, and Snow White’s eyes were very tired and crazed. I don’t remember the hit so much as the look on her face as she did it. It was a look of joy. She was doing this terrible, inappropriate thing – for which she would be fired – but you could see in her face that it was worth it.
Once the shock wore off, we wondered about her. Did she stay joyful? Did she hit people routinely? Back at home, the usual family arguments became more dramatic. When we screamed at each other we thought of Snow White and our screams became, thrillingly, operatic. My mother calls this kind of screaming “lancing a boil”.
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In 1970 the American psychologist Arthur Janov published The Primal Scream, a self-help book that argued for rage as a kind of cure-all for psychic wounds. Janov encouraged his patients to mentally relive childhood trauma while crying out “Mummy! Daddy!” – the idea being that through screaming, you could set yourself free.
Wildly popular at the time, Janov’s ideas are now widely discredited. Biologically, rage isn’t very purifying: it stresses the nervous system, which triggers an inflammatory immune response. Worse, as the American writer Rebecca Solnit has said, it is entangled with a sense of entitlement: the conviction that your pain hurts more than anyone else’s pain; that your will must be done.
But it’s tricky, because at the same time, that sense of yourself as a supreme being is precisely what can make losing your temper so satisfying. It can seem, as it is happening to me, at least, to be a godlike way of externalising my inner turmoil. What rage really frees you from is the everyday, uncomfortable work of sitting with your own emotions. Sometimes I get a shivery sense, mid-scream, of my own transcendence. At my core, perhaps I am just a scream? I find this idea dark and mysterious. And so, I romanticise Snow White. Life is full of small, demeaning interactions with people who ask you about hot dog toppings. She chose something grander.
After Disneyland, my experiments with rage were not so glamorous. I started a wrestling club where I would invite other ten-year-olds back to my bedroom to grapple and bite them. I threw a chair at a school counsellor. I developed an intense interest in food because I discovered that eating something truly delicious – a Jacob’s cream cracker with cream cheese, say – is similar to raging in that it blots out more complicated feelings. For the 35 seconds it takes me to eat a cheesy cracker I am just a tongue.
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When I turned 12, there was talk of my doing an anger management course. It was a crawling workshop. My mother thought that some of my emotional problems could be traced back to the fact that I had never crawled: I just stood up and walked. I refused to take the course and instead I stopped eating. I found that not eating was a much more effective way of transcending than eating Jacob’s cream crackers.
I also stopped losing my temper. Restricting food is a kind of tunnel vision. You bottle something up inside yourself. Every thought is occupied with food and so you don’t think much of anything else at all. One of the painful things about watching Princess Diana make herself sick in The Crown is that for many women, the experience is one of recognition.
In her essay, “All the Rage”, Solnit writes about the problem of idealising anger, specifically female anger. We are all familiar with the stereotype whereby femininity demands the suppression of anger, but how are we to make a space for rage in our lives without letting it eat us? Freud said that depression is anger turned inwards. That idea, like Janov’s screaming method, is out of fashion now. It’s seen as an oversimplification, which I’m sure it is, but it has always resonated with me. I’m still angry. But I can’t seem to access the same purity of intention when I lose my temper, these days. I don’t feel what I used to feel: righteous, enormous, vaguely supernatural. Usually I cry afterwards. I am just a small, red person waiting for her train.
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Lately, I’ve been trying to find a new means of expression. I have bought a book of meditations, one of which deals particularly with anger. Entitled “Pant Like a Dog”, the instructions are as follows: “Whenever you feel your belly is in knots, walk and pant like a dog. Let your tongue hang out… Try this in your room sometimes. You can use a mirror and bark and growl at it!”
Every week or so now I crouch on my hands and knees on my bed, and look at myself in the mirror. My face goes strange and slack with my tongue out, and if I’m angry when I begin the exercise, which I usually am, my mouth twists and my eyes go small and baleful. You are meant to continue the exercise for 30 minutes. It is difficult to take your own emotions so seriously when you are looking at them in the mirror for 30 minutes, which I suppose is the point. I pant and I pant, and I look at myself. Sometimes, when I growl, I think of Snow White.
This article appears in the 08 Dec 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas special