All you need is love, love. Love is all you need. –The Beatles
The Beatles’ lyrics ring through my ears while the emotional fallout of J. Jill Robinson’s first novel provides haunting accompaniment. More in Anger is many things. On the surface, it’s the saga of three generations of women and their struggles for self-actualization. Deeper and most importantly, it’s a searingly, brutally honest look at the damage parents do in brief and unthinking moments.
That part of the tale is not fiction. As a therapist, I see first-hand how unshakable that damage can be. I witness adults weeping in my therapy office when they realize the parents they idolize, and have been defending, have really caused significant pain. I see how love might not be enough. Yes, we do need love, but that isn’t all. We also need to not be continually scared, belittled, or shamed by those who love us. This novel so aptly narrates how love can be enmeshed with pain in families, and the great power these two have to shape our adult lives.
Society in general has underestimated the lasting effects of parents who constantly scold, shout at, berate, spank, or belittle their children. These methods of parenting may produce a child who is compliant, who (most of the time) obeys authority. But the part of the mind that governs rational thought, emotional resilience and internal motivation may become underdeveloped. The child’s mind will grow in areas to survive this type of treatment, not to thrive in life.
More in Anger demonstrates well how deeply parents influence their children, and what kind of influence exists when the parents use an authoritative style. “Her mother’s voice had always been the equivalent of the voice of God, her view the only one that counted, that ruled on her worth, her value,” muses the adult Vivien, struggling to understand what it was that made her so unlovable to her mother. But what she still did not know, longed desperately to know, was what was the matter with her. “What is wrong with you?” her mother demanded again and again. “What is the matter with you, Vivien?”
The “troubled” children and “rebellious” teens whom I’ve had the honor of getting to know in one-on-one psychotherapy usually have similar questions: “Why don’t I matter more? What’s wrong with me?”
Reading Robinson’s book convinced me of its power to increase awareness of the long-lasting and sometimes severe effects of punitive parenting. So my first question for Robinson was whether this was her goal in writing it.
She explained that while going through her parent’s belongings after they passed away, she realized although she was inheriting objects from them, she also inherited things she didn’t want – some of their emotional traits.
“I became interested in exploring, in particular, the emotional legacy of anger, and how it can be passed down through generations,” Robinson told me. “I wanted to explore its effects on the angry people themselves, and on the people around them – their partners, their children.”
Through More in Anger, Robinson very eloquently narrates the real-life feelings and thoughts of children who have been scolded harshly. The important link between these thoughts and feelings, and destructive adult behavior is also made. “She loved being drunk – she loved not giving a fuck and then passing out, she loved being gone.”
Through the authoritarian style of parenting that many of our generation experienced, something called “affect management” was not taught. This is the ability to have an intense emotion and process it to a level where it doesn’t become troubling. As I say to kids, “Get your mad out; don’t let it turn into mean.” Passive-aggressiveness, guilt-promotion, avoidance and explosive communication have been the norm among those of us raised in the seventies. And we are passing all of this along to our children, without realizing we have been doing so.
More in Anger brings the touchy subject of punishment parenting to a greater level of understanding. We can get into the minds of those affected by it, and see how cycles of abuse, addictions, and mental illness arise, as well as what we can do to change this dynamic. This fictional format is such a wonderful way to share these messages because it can help readers to feel less like they are being told what to do, and provide an opportunity for a deeper emotional connection with the characters and their plight. This emotional connection can open the gate within us to explore our own condition.
That said, not everyone who reads this book will share the experiences of the three main characters. I asked Robinson if she had hopes regarding what non-identifying readers will take away from this story. Her wish is that a “reader recalls the effects of anger, that the book invites some self-examination, some reflection on one’s own life and family.” For some, she continues, there will be a huge sigh of relief for not having grown up like this; but, for others, the experiences of the characters might echo their own lives or the lives of others they know.
Ultimately, Robinson reveals that it’s possible to end the “legacy of anger,” as she puts it. Through More in Anger, she’s able to demonstrate that, with some self-awareness and work, the legacy depicted through three generations of characters in her book does not have to continue. “You do NOT have to become like your mother,” Robinson says. “It isn’t impossible to change the course of your own personal history.”