When you're getting ready to have a child, people always tell you it's going to change you. And you say you know, realizing that you don't know. This happens so often that not only is it cliche to tell someone children are going to change them, but it's cliche to describe it as I just have. It's such a cliche it's become a meta-cliche.
But to get a bit Rumsfeldian on you, even though you know you don't really know, you really don't know how much you really don't know.
I was watching a movie tonight - a movie, not something happening in real life - called Rabbit Proof Fence. It's a very fine movie, and I recommend people see it. But as a new father I had some trouble sitting through it. It did something to me that I've never experienced before.
There is a scene near the beginning of a movie where a woman's children are being taken from her, essentially kidnapped by the Australian government. I'm not sure I can describe it in great detail. She's struggling to prevent the children being taken, and the woman who plays the mother is very effective, very realistic in her portrayal. I won't try to go beyond that. You should see it.
As I'm sitting watching this with my wife, with my daughter sleeping safely in the next room, for the first few seconds of the scene it's almost as if I'm outside my body, looking down and wondering why I'm not having an emotional reaction. I feel like I should probably be feeling something, some emotion. But I don't. The emotional part of my mind feels blank, like a piece of slate that's been worn down by water.
And as I'm beginning to wonder why I'm not having an emotional reaction, I feel my mouth drawing into a grimace. Still I feel nothing consciously. But my mouth is acting strange, and physically I feel almost as if I might scream. It occurs to me at that moment how silly that is, the idea that I might scream. I almost want to laugh at myself.
But then I start to get a little frightened, because I'm afraid I might actually start to scream. If I scream it will scare my wife, and it will wake the baby. And besides, there's nothing to scream about. I'm just sitting in my house, watching a movie, like I do several nights a week these days.
At this point a low sound begins to come out of my mouth through clenched teeth. It's the sound you might make if you had just awakened to find yourself struggling against tight bindings. I feel a panic rising in my chest. For an excruciating instant I have no idea what I might do next.
Suddenly, mercifully, the scene is over, and the panic begins to ebb. It is replaced quickly by a white-hot rage. I cannot say for certain that if by some chance I had run into the actor who played the man who took the children at that moment, I would not have had to be restrained from trying to kill him.
I mean this in the most literal sense possible. I have no idea how I would have acted in that situation. My logical and rational faculties were still present at that moment; I was able to think consciously that none of what I was reacting to was real. But those logical faculties did not at that moment seem to be in the driver's seat.
What this subjective experience allows me to understand, though of course I couldn't prove it, is that having a child somehow rewires your brain in ways that run far deeper than what I would have imagined. There will be moments in my life when I am unable to react in any way other than as a father.
And lest you think this has nothing to do with the usual subject matter of this blog, let me say this. In the next few months the Pentagon is almost certainly finally going to have to release the totality of the photographs and videotape of the atrocities at Abu Ghraib prison. If Sy Hersh is to be believed, and I for one believe him, some of the worst of the abuse was visited upon Iraqi teenagers and pre-pubescent boys. According to Hersh, on one of the tapes you can hear a boy screaming.
If this is true, I cannot imagine what horrors will be visited upon us by those Iraqis who knew and loved these boys. Hopefully, for the sake of peace, they will find some way to forgive us.
But I doubt it.