Loving Families Don’t Drag You Down

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One thing that the family scapegoat, or identified patient, may find remarkable–when comparing his (or her) relationship with his toxic family to other people’s relationships with their far healthier families–is the conspicuous lack of affection the former has for his or her family, as against the healthy affection felt in normal families.

Now, something that the scapegoat has, which the flying monkeys of the toxic family don’t have, is an honest view of the lovelessness of that family. The narcissistic parents and their flying monkey sons and daughters boast of how ‘loving’ they are as a family; but such boasting is really just reaction formation, used as a cover for the family dysfunction that is their reality.

We scapegoats know that love is not just something in words–it’s mainly in actions. The toxic family can say they ‘love’ the scapegoat over and over again until they’re blue in the face, but the scapegoat who is wise to them won’t believe a word of it.

The reason we don’t believe these empty professions of love is because those who have ‘loved’ us so much keep dragging us down. Yes, even the best of families have their share of conflicts and frustrations between members, but there is no systematic degrading of one member by the others.

One way I often got dragged down by my family was that I was constantly infantilized by them. They would talk down to me as if I were an idiot, speak condescendingly to me as if I–for a long time already an adult–were ten years old, and treat my attempts to stick up for myself as if I was being ‘mouthy.’

This is one way a toxic family can retain power over the scapegoat: by making him or her feel like an eternal, overgrown child. This way, the victim feels overawed by the victimizers, never able to see past their illusory authority, and never able to fight back and free him- or herself.

If your family truly loves you, they want to help you rise as high as possible. They celebrate your every success, and they empathize with and comfort you whenever you experience a setback, failure, or otherwise heartbreaking moment.

When toxic families do these good things for you, it’s the exception, not the rule, which is, as I’ve said above, dragging you down. Healthy families dragging you down, on the other hand, is the exception to the rule…which is raising you up.

No, no family is completely good or completely evil; but the healthy ones are predominantly good, and the toxic ones are predominantly evil. So, when in an argument with your toxic family, if they mention their good moments with you, which they’ll do to manipulate you, confuse you, and guilt-trip you into falling back in line and believing their b.s., remember that those ‘good moments’ are the minority, and that they fade into insignificance compared with the many more bad moments.

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Instead of celebrating my successes, my late, probably narcissistic mother tended to find ways to drag me down. Back when I was in grade four, and I was getting my first As in school, I was naturally proud to tell my parents about my new achievement; but this was around the time she started spouting off about my supposed autism. (Read here to learn about my mother’s autism lie in detail, and how I came to the conclusion that my childhood ‘diagnosis’ was all a fabrication of hers.)

In the form of a kind of back-handed compliment, she would claim that my new academic success was a manifestation of a “miracle from God” that I’d been pulled out of a state of extreme retardation (associated with ‘my autism’) to become a reasonably intelligent person. Her plan had always been to make me feel, somehow, behind everyone else. It was gaslighting at its most brutal.

Even if I really had an autism spectrum disorder, be it a mild one like Asperger Syndrome (AS) or the more severe kind she’d claimed I had, any reasonable mother who loves her child would never tell him or her that this academic success was a “miracle”: she’d just say she was proud of him. She wouldn’t prate on and on about psychiatrists recommending locking him or her up in an asylum and throwing away the key (as my mom did to me), even if the shrinks had really recommended that! My mother would have known that the psychiatrists were wrong in their judgement, and she would have tried to encourage me as best she could.

She wouldn’t have said that she wasn’t sure if I would have made a good garbageman, as she did (I’m actually a teacher). She’d have had the common sense…and the love for me…to think to herself, He doesn’t need to know what they said about him. Telling him what they said would be harmful to him.

But none of what my mom said to me was about love (though she certainly pretended she was speaking out of love!) or about common sense. It was about tricking an impressionable child into believing he was inferior to his siblings and to everyone else around him. The “miracle” had just made me a little less inferior…and I should be thankful to God for that, apparently.

Her intentions were all about dragging me down, for she didn’t want me to get any higher.

Now, that one time in my childhood was the first major time that my mother dragged me down when I was rising up. The second major time she did this was twenty to twenty-five years later, when I’d proven myself a successful, capable English teacher in East Asia, and I was about to marry my Taiwanese girlfriend, Judy. Mom decided to revive discussion of ‘my autism’ in the form of AS.

Since my life had already improved to the point where she couldn’t reasonably sustain an argument that I had ever been mentally incompetent, and since talk of miracles from God would have sounded inane to the ears of a man in his early thirties, my mom knew she had to modify her lies to make them plausible in the context of my new life situation. Hence, she shifted from talking about classical autism to the mild, socially inept form of Asperger Syndrome.

Still, it had the same effect of dragging me down: she could remind me of how awkward I was as a kid, reawaken those old feelings of pain and insecurity in me, watch me get upset, then enjoy her new source of narcissistic supply.

God forbid that I should ever cross the line and build self-confidence! The very idea that I should ever feel as though I fit in with other people was anathema to her. Small wonder she smiled like a Cheshire cat when she said that I, as a teen, had the maturity of a small child, as a young adult, had the maturity of a teen, and as a then-33-year-old, had the maturity of a 23-year-old. I was infuriated; but I’ll bet she thoroughly enjoyed making me feel that way.

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The fact that I was going to marry Judy and never go back to live in southern Ontario must have been at least a huge part of Mom’s motive to drag me down like that. By no longer living near her and the rest of the family, I would no longer be controlled by them, the way they’d once controlled me, back when I was a kid living in Canada.

Mom wanted that power and control back, as did my older sister, J., Mom’s golden child and ‘mini-me,’ so using AS to stir up my old insecurities and make me feel emotionally dependent on them was a desperate, last-ditch attempt to hoover me back into the dysfunctional family relationship.

Mom, of course, wasn’t the only one in the family to drag me down. As I said above, J. was a huge contributor to the problem, always rationalizing her attitude, as Mom did, with claims that she was ‘only trying to help‘ me.

During a visit to Canada that I’d made with Judy back in about the late summer of 2001, we were all at a picnic. I had made a preference of drinking one particular drink (orange soda, as I recall), and J. decided to nag me for drinking so much of it that there’d be too little left for anyone else. I don’t think anyone else there really cared, but J. couldn’t resist making 31-year-old me feel like a 10-year-old.

As I discussed in a previous post (scroll down to Part VI), on that day at the picnic, J. also expressed distaste at the idea of me marrying Judy. Did J. think her disapproval was going to deter me from marrying the woman I love? Does J. think my marrying Judy has been the decisive factor in my not returning to Canada, when it is my family’s toxic nature that is the real decisive factor?

By hoping I wouldn’t marry Judy and would return to Canada, J. was trying to drag me down. She failed.

Another dragging-down that I experienced, back in my teens, was because of my eldest brother, R. I’ve written before of the long rant he gave about our father supposedly loving us more or less based on our academic performance. It was an absolutely nonsensical belief R. had (he having been in his early to mid twenties at the time, so one would have expected a more mature attitude from him), one I suspect our mother planted in his head when he was a kid; Dad was just trying, in his dysfunctional way, to push us to work harder at school (by shaming us, sadly, if we failed), and getting disappointed when we didn’t do better.

Anyway, as an ego defence against R.’s belief that we all thought he was “the idiot of the family” for having quit high school back in the mid-70s, he claimed that he’d known many who got high marks at school, and who were “absolute idiots.” Now granted, it was a fault of mine at the time to allow myself to be unduly influenced by the opinions and flippant attitudes of others, but I was just a kid then. R. made me believe that there was no reason to take any pride in my academic success, so I lost much of my motivation to work hard at school, thus limiting my job prospects after graduating.

My doing well at school was one of the few things I had in my teens to feel good about, and this was with Mom’s nonsense about ‘my autism,’ and her supposed worries of having to continue to take care of a ‘forty-year-old moron’ (yes, she described me with that last word) in the far-off future. R’s bruised ego was more important to him than his youngest brother’s already fragile self-confidence, and he dragged me down even further, as Mom had been doing.

The times that my other elder brother, F., dragged me down were too numerous to count, and so varying in their bullying and sadism that I hardly know where to begin listing them off. Trauma tends to make one forget many of the bad memories, so I tend to repeat the same ones over and over again. Suffice it to say, along with all the verbal abuse he (as well as that of Mom, Dad, R., and J.) had subjected me to on a regular, almost daily basis, F. was the one who got physical with me: hitting me, spitting on me, threatening beatings or (on one night) to throw me outside in the Canadian winter cold (remember that I was a kid at the time: he was much bigger than I), and so many other degradations that to him were “fun.”

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The long-term psychological effects of bullying and childhood adversity have been extensively studied. The research shows that children subjected to this kind of emotional abuse suffer all kinds of problems, not only a lack of self-esteem, but also from problems relating to other people, trust issues, emotional dysregulation, and escape in such forms as maladaptive daydreaming.

The family would attribute these problems of mine to ‘my autism,’ with no empathy for me, but instead with a judgemental attitude, never taking any responsibility for the huge role they played in causing these problems. (To be fair to them, no, they weren’t responsible for all of the problems, but they were responsible to enough of an extent that they should have, but of course essentially never, acknowledged their role, and should have shown a sincerely apologetic attitude.)

My father, though not really part of the narcissist collective that the other four made up, was a seriously flawed man who dragged me down in other ways than they did. He rarely defended me against the attacks of the other four, and rarely sympathized with me over the problems they caused for me. His biggest fault, though, was his right-wing thinking, with all the attendant bigotries; and he taught me, in my youth, to think in those ways, from the mid-1990s to the late 2000s.

So while I didn’t directly suffer narcissistic abuse from him, I did suffer emotional abuse from him in the form of psychological corrupting–in this particular case, him teaching me his prejudices. Though I, in my initially liberal attitude, resisted, I eventually succumbed to an agreement with his mean-spirited attitude, through having heard an ongoing repetition of his slurs on blacks, women, socialism, etc. Those fifteen-odd years were truly lost years for me, his having dragged me down to such a base way of thinking that I now deeply regret.

His death back in 2009, I must say at the risk of sounding terribly unfilial, was a liberating moment for me, since I no longer felt I needed his approval for my beliefs. Consequently, I did something I never thought I’d ever do: go from the political centre-right to the far left, as you can surmise from my other blog posts.

So my message to you, Dear Reader, is this. Do you find yourself sitting on the fence with respect to your relationship with your family? If you feel frequently hurt by them, but you’re still not sure if the bad times are such that you consider the good times not worth putting up with the bad, ask yourself if the times they drag you down are the majority, or just the minority. Is their dragging you down more significant than their raising you up, or vice versa?

The answers to these questions should determine whether or not to go no contact with them.

Analysis of ‘Johnny Got His Gun’

Johnny Got His Gun is a 1938 anti-war novel written by Dalton Trumbo, published the following year, and adapted into a 1971 film, which was also written and directed by him (with an uncredited writing collaboration from Luis Buñuel). The film stars Timothy Bottoms, with co-stars Kathy FieldsMarsha HuntJason RobardsDonald Sutherland, and Diane Varsi.

The book was temporarily taken out of print several times, when such wars as WWII and the Korean War broke out; for the book’s anti-war sentiment was deemed inappropriate at those times. Having been a member of the Communist Party USA during WWII, Dalton agreed to the non-printing of his novel, as long as the Soviet Union remained allies with the US against the Nazis during the war. As for the far right, isolationists among them sent Trumbo letters asking for copies of the book while it had been out of print. He reported the letter-writers to the FBI, but it turns out the FBI was far more interested in him, a leftist, than in the rightist writers.

The novel tells the story through a third-person subjective, or limited, narration, meaning we get the story from the protagonist’s point of view, that of Joe Bonham (played by Bottoms in the film). This means that the perspective of the medical staff is given only in the film adaptation. Other differences between novel and film include the rearrangement of some scenes into a different order, and the inclusion of scenes in the film with Christ (Sutherland) generally having been written by Buñuel (assuming IMDb is trustworthy here), although the scene of Christ playing cards with Joe, the redhead, the Swede (played by David Soul), and the other soldiers is in the novel (Book II, Chapter 16), and around 27-30 minutes into the film.

The film was originally a modest success, but became a cult film after Metallica‘s video for their songOne,” which included scenes from the film, revived interest in it. In fact, Metallica bought the rights to the film so they could use scenes from it in their video without having to pay royalties on it.

Links to quotes from the film can be found here.

Joe Bonham, a young American soldier in WWI, has been severely injured from the blast of an artillery shell, rendering him limbless, eyeless, deaf, and without a nose, tongue, or teeth. To make matters worse, the army medical staff taking care of him, not knowing who he is (three minutes into the film), and mistakenly thinking he’s decerebrated from his injuries, assume that he feels no pain or pleasure, and that he has no memories or dreams; so they keep him alive for medical research.

Joe gradually comes to the horrifying realization that all that’s left of him are his torso, genitals, and mutilated head (from Chapter 3 onward), with only the sense of touch left to link himself with the world, and with his consciousness intact to realize the virtually hopeless state that is the remainder of his natural life. This is alienation in the extreme, as only war can cause it.

The medical staff are keeping him alive so they can study him, the rationalization being that such study can be a help to future injured soldiers. When he realizes fully what’s been done to him, he’d like to kill himself by cutting off his own breathing, but he can’t, because the staff have him breathing through tubes directly connected to his lungs (Chapter 5, pages 28-29).

So, the overarching theme of the story is loss, lack. Joe has lost not only all the body parts that can make him useful, help him to enjoy the company of other people, or give his life meaning; not only has he lost his will to live and his faith in God (especially by the end of the story); but he has lost the very ability to end his life.

Normally, desire is aroused by a stimulation of the senses, so we’d think that a lack of those senses might cause one to be able to resist the sensual temptations of the world and attain peace, nirvana; but Joe is someone used to the physical pleasures of the world, to the enjoyment of relationships with other people, so being deprived of all of that, all of a sudden, is something he cannot accept. His is a Lacanian lack giving rise to desire: a desire to be useful to others, to be recognized and acknowledged by others, to be wanted by others (e.g., his girlfriend, Kareen [Fields]).

How can he be worth anything to anybody (other than that impersonal medical staff who are exploiting him for their own purposes) in his mutilated state? As a quadruple amputee with his face blown off, he’s been symbolically castrated, though, ironically, his genitals are still intact (Joey’s got his gun), they being the symbol of desire par excellence. Instead of letting go of his desires, which would lead to nirvana, he has them all the more, trapping him in a symbolic samsara. His is a living death: note how the novel is divided into two books, called ‘The Dead,’ and ‘The Living.’ It’s as if he’s dying (despair), then living again (new hope), then dying again (frustrated hope), then living again (revived, if feeble, hopes), a symbolic reincarnation into a world of endless suffering, of hell.

His hell is the undifferentiated world of what Lacan called the Real. He cannot tell day from night, dream from waking life, or fantasy from reality (especially with all the sedatives he’s getting). He cannot measure time with any degree of accuracy, though he certainly tries very hard to.

Communication borders on impossible for him, except towards the end of the story, when a nurse uses her finger to spell “MERRY CHRISTMAS” on his bare chest (Chapter 17, page 86); and when he uses the Morse Code, tapping the back of his head on a pillow, to communicate with the army brass, only to have his wishes rejected. Therefore, his connection with the Symbolic Order, the therapeutic world of language, culture, and society, is a tenuous one.

The paradoxically terrifying/beatific world of the Real, or to use Bion‘s terminology, O, is one beyond the senses, a suspension of memory and desire. James S. Grotstein says, “A transformation in ‘O’ is attainable only by the disciplined abandonment of memory, desire, understanding, sense impressions — and perhaps also the abandonment of ego itself.” Such a place could be heavenly, like nirvana, if Joe could just let go of his ego and the world he’s lost; but of course, he’ll never do that, so he can only experience the hellish aspect of O, the Real, which is dialectically right next to the heavenly aspect (consider my use of the ouroboros, which symbolizes a circular continuum, the dialectical relationship between opposites [i.e., the serpent’s head biting its tail], to get at my meaning), depending on whether or not one clings to desire.

Trumbo’s novel begins with memories of sounds, like the sound of the telephone ringing. His hearing is the first thing he discovers he’s lost, and ironically, he has a ringing sound in his ears, reminding him of the telephone. Added to this, he remembers a sad phone call at work in the bakery: he must go home, for his father (Robards) has died. More of the theme of loss.

Other sounds Joe remembers are of music, his mother’s singing (beginning of Chapter 2) and piano playing (Chapter 1), something he’ll never get to enjoy again. In subsequent chapters, Joe remembers other sensory pleasures, like his mom’s home cooking (Chapter 2), a listing-off of various delicious foods (her baked bread, her canned peaches, cherries, raspberries, black berries, plums and apricots, her jams, jellies, preserves, and chilli sauces; the sandwiches of the hamburger man on Fifth and Main, etc.), all foods he’ll never get to taste again. He describes the aches and pains in his arms and legs, doing hard physical labour, in the hot sun, to the point of exhaustion (Chapter 4, pages 19-21).

He describes going to bed with Kareen (Chapter 3, page 15; and about nine minutes into the film), their one and only intimate time before he’s shipped off to fight the war, an indulgence her father allows, amazingly. All of these vivid sensual descriptions are here to underscore, for the reader, all that Joe has lost.

The film symbolically reflects the difference between what he had (and what he wishes he still had) and what he’s lost by showing his memories, dreams, and fantasies in colour (the dreams and fantasies being in saturated colour), and showing his current, hellish reality in the hospital in black and white. Indeed, all he has left are his memories and fantasies.

All these memories of his reinforce in our minds that Joe is a human being, with a heart and feelings, with dreams, hopes, and desires, like everyone else. He’s more than just a guinea pig for the medical staff to study and experiment on.

This understanding is the anti-war basis of the story: soldiers aren’t just pieces of meat (like the piece of meat that Joe has been reduced to) for the army and ruling class to use for their selfish purposes. Of course, these selfish purposes–the imperialist competition to control the lion’s share of the world’s land and resources–are cloaked behind rationalizations of keeping the world “safe for democracy.”

Now, what is meant here by “democracy” is not really the power of the people, but what is properly called the dictatorship or the bourgeoisie, or the rule of the rich. Boys like Joe are recruited to kill and die to protect and serve the interests of the capitalist class. This story’s setting during WWI is significant in how Lenin at the time wrote Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism, a polemic against the war (understood as an inter-imperialist competition among the great powers of the time for land and resources), which was very unpopular in Russia. And as soon as the Bolsheviks took power, they worked to get Russia out of the war.

If only American communists could have been so successful.

The novel’s defiant, anti-war tone reaches its highest pitch at the ends of Books I and II, in which Joe speaks contemptuously of that old lie about the “fight for liberty.” As Joe says on page 49, “What the hell does liberty mean anyhow?” His response to the importance of liberty is “my life is important” (page 50). As for Joe’s defiance of the war machine and what it has done to him, hear Donald Sutherland’s reading of passages from the end of Book II (pages 103-104).

Now, since Joe has realized what a big mistake he made believing the bourgeois imperialist lie of ‘fighting for democracy,’ we should try to understand what originally drove him to buy into that lie. It was his love of his father and his wish to identify with him, to win his father’s love. Though his father cynically realizes that ‘defending democracy’ is really just about “young men killing each other,” Joe as a naïve little boy just goes along with the apparent virtue of such a fight. After all, as his father says, “Young men don’t have homes; that’s why they must go out and kill each other.” (Recall, in this connection, the fourth line in the bridge to the lyrics of the Black Sabbath song, “War Pigs,” which came out close to the same time as the film.)

Joe deems his father a failure who has nothing but his phallic fishing pole to give him distinction (not even Joe has distinction, apparently, as his father frankly tells him), but this is the only father little Joe has. Joe manages to lose that fishing pole one day when fishing not with his dad, but with his friend, Bill Harper (Chapter 9, and at about 1:16:30 into the film). The loss of the fishing pole is another symbolic castration. Joe’s memories of his father hugging him, and wanting to receive a hug from him, are–I believe–wish-fulfillments of Joe’s (the line separating his actual memories and how he wishes to remember his past is a hazy one). His father’s death, and the loss of the fishing pole, goad Joe–through guilt feelings–into being willing to do what “any man would give his only begotten son” for…kill and be killed for democracy.

This choice of words, “only begotten son,” is intriguing. It reminds one of John 3:16. Joe’s father would give his only begotten son to die for an ideal, freedom, which sounds like God the Father giving His only begotten Son to die for our sins, so sinners can live in an ideal world, heaven, which is freedom from sin and death.

This comparison leads us to the understanding that Joe, in the extremity of his suffering, is comparing himself, however obliquely, to Christ. He is suffering in an excruciating manner similar in a number of ways to how Jesus suffered. In his state of living death, Joe is harrowing Hell, so to speak, as Christ did.

The two books of Trumbo’s novel, recall, are named “The Dead” and “The Living.” The reverse order of these names suggests resurrection. On the other hand, Christ will return to judge the living and the dead (1 Peter 4:5). This understanding gives depth to Joe’s dreams and fantasies of conversing with Christ, for it gives meaning–and a sense of grandeur–to Joe’s suffering.

His dream of a rat biting into a wound behind a bandage on his side, or his chest (something he, at first, can’t tell from waking reality–Chapter 7, page 41; and 45 minutes into the film) suggests the spear in Christ’s side. The loss of Joe’s limbs is analogous to the stigmata in Christ’s hands and feet; recall how he believes the doctors have amputated his arms and legs–for example, he feels the pinching and pricking of sharp instruments when they remove the bandages from where his left arm would have been (Chapter 3, page 13). And the mutilation of Joe’s face parallels Christ’s crown of thorns, the digging of those thorns into His head.

The mutilation of Joe’s body, and the mental disorientation he feels as a result, symbolizes and literally means that he is in danger of suffering psychological fragmentation. Pathological narcissism–in Joe’s case, the covert kind in which one sees oneself as a grandiose victim–is an effective–if dysfunctional–defence against such fragmentation. In Joe’s case, this narcissism expresses itself by his comparing of his suffering to that of Christ.

In the film, when Joe is with Christ in one of his fantasies (46-50 minutes into the film)–when Christ is doing His carpenter work–and Joe is speaking about his fears of having the rat nightmare again, the two are looking in each other’s faces as if Joe were looking into a mirror…that is, the narcissistic mirroring of the self in the other. As a dream, the scene is a wish-fulfillment for Joe in which he hopes to find a solution to the rat nightmare problem, which of course Christ can’t solve, because Joe’s problems are material, not spiritual, ones: Joe has no mouth with which to yell himself back into consciousness, he has no eyes to open, and he has no limbs with which to knock the rat off of him. This must have been a scene that atheist Buñuel wrote, for Christ is no help to Joe, and He Himself acknowledges that no one really believes in Him.

Joe remembers his Christian Science preacher from childhood telling him that God is Spirit (35 minutes into the film), as is man in his true nature, which makes Christ vaguely comparable with Joe, who barely has a body anymore, and barely has any sensory contact with the physical world. Joe, like Christ on the Cross, feels “forsaken” (Chapter 20, page 101) by the medical staff, who refuse to grant him his request to be taken around in a glass box and presented as a kind of freakish icon to teach people about the horrors of war.

To be taken all over the US and displayed thus, as an anti-war icon, is comparable to Christian missionaries traveling the world and spreading the Word of the Gospel (Matthew 28:19). Joe’s message of saving lives, though, is the salvation of physical lives, not that of spiritual ones. “He had a vision of himself as a new kind of Christ as a man who carries within himself all the seeds of a new order of things. He was the new messiah of the battlefields saying to people as I am so shall you be.” (Chapter 20, page 103)

As we can see, this association of Joe with Jesus is far more apparent in the novel, especially towards the end, than in the film. And if he is like Christ, we can find Mary parallels, too.

First, when Joe realizes the extremity of his predicament, he feels as helpless as a baby in the womb (Chapter 7, page 37), and he–in his thoughts–calls out to his mother for help (Chapter 5, page 25). This association of limbless Joe with a baby in the womb can also be linked with his recollection of his mother’s telling of the Christmas story, with Joseph and pregnant Mary trying to find an inn in Bethlehem to spend the night (Chapter 17, pages 88-90).

Without his mother to know of his mental cries for help, Joe must rely on the care of the nurses, on whom he transfers his Oedipal feelings, which have resurfaced as a result of his regression to an infantile state, this being part of his coping mechanism.

Having transferred feelings of Oedipal love from his mother onto the nurses, Joe finds one nurse in particular–as noted especially in the film (Varsi)–whose tearful compassion for him is receptive to that love. Accordingly, she masturbates him (Chapter 14, page 72); about an hour and fifteen minutes into the film). Remember, though, the blurred line between his fantasy world (i.e., wish-fulfillment) and his reality. How much of her massaging is real, and how much is his imagination?

Since the Oedipal transference is sent to her, and since it is she who writes “MERRY CHRISTMAS” with her finger on his chest, this nurse can be seen as the Mary to his Jesus. The tears in her eyes over his suffering make her a kind of mater dolorosa, Our Lady of Compassion.

Now, these Christ and Mary parallels do not mean that Trumbo was trying to present a Christian “prince of peace” kind of anti-war story. Such symbolism only serves to express the gravity of Joe’s suffering through the use of familiar religious imagery. This is no story about “faith, hope, and charity“: on the contrary, it is about bottomless despair, which is especially apparent at the end of the film.

Joe’s pitying nurse would be an exterminating angel, were one of the doctors not to stop her from cutting off Joe’s air supply to euthanize him. The doctor, whose “stupidity” is bluntly noted by the chaplain in the film, would keep Joe alive in that hellish state so he can continue to be studied. For this is the whole point of war: the exploitation of young men to kill, to be killed, and to be otherwise used as a kind of commodity for the benefit of the powerful.

Unable to kill himself, unable to live in any meaningful way, unable to communicate and be listened to (i.e., to re-enter the social world of the Symbolic; our libido seeks other people’s company, as Fairbairn noted), and hovering between consciousness and unconsciousness because of the sedatives the doctors keep giving him, Joe is trapped in the undifferentiated void of the Real. If he could only let go of his attachment to his ego, that illusory self we all have from our contemplation of our mirror reflection, the Imaginary, then he might find peace.

But his was never a Buddhist or Hindu upbringing, of course: it was a Christian one, from which he derived his narcissistically amplified ego by identifying with Christ. And since even the religious systems of the Far East typically hold up the authoritarian and class basis of their respective societies, they would be of little help to him, anyway. His predicament is a material one, not a spiritual one. The eternal death of his Hell is not being able to choose when he can die.

He might see himself as Christ-like, as a fisher of men, but he lost his father’s fishing pole…just as he’s lost everything else. And just as Joe’s father is dead, so is God the Father dead…hence, there’s no Christ to wake Joe out of his nightmare.

‘Germ,’ a Horror Short Story

[SEXUAL CONTENT]

Vera crouched in the shower stall, trembling in fear as the water sprayed down on her bruised body. In her mind, she replayed the beating she’d got from Bob, her pimp.

“Only two hundred bucks?” he’d said after thumbing through the bills in her bedroom.

“Business was slow tonight,” she’d said in a shaky voice.

“You had at least four men in here today, probably five or six,” he’d said, scowling at her. “You may not be all that great-looking anymore, but you’re good for more customers that this. You’re holding out on me again, aren’t you? Empty your purse!”

She’d done so. There were at least one thousand dollars from that day alone. Now she was really shaking.

“Bitch, you never learn!” he’d said, followed immediately by the first punch, to her jaw on the lower left side.

As she shook remembering each punch to her face, shoulders, and chest, she never noticed a tiny green splat, no bigger than the tip of her index finger, go from a tile next to the shower drain, up her right foot, then her ankle, calf, knee, upper leg, and finally deep inside her vagina.

It never tickled or anything; it felt no different than the water soaking her body.

She did notice, however, and about ten seconds later, a strange, warm, vibrating feeling all over her body. It was surprising, but it felt good, soothing. The pain from her beating faded away.

She looked down at where the bruises had been on her chest, two of them, each just above a breast.

They were gone.

Her breasts were bigger, rounder, and firmer, too. Her hairy pubes were replaced by a landing strip.

“Holy shit,” she whispered.

Now with a new energy, she got up on her feet and quickly began running a lather all over herself. As she’d been soaping up her face, she felt no cut just below her lip on the left.

Once she was clean and rinsed off, she got out of the shower stall, towelled herself off, and ran out of the bathroom to find her bedroom mirror, a tall one giving her a full view of her body, from her head to her toes.

She examined her entire body, turning around and eyeing every inch of her skin. No cuts, no bruises…

…and no imperfections from ageing.

“What…the…hell?” she gasped, with agape eyes.

This 38-year-old woman now had the body of a 22-year-old porn star.

She couldn’t explain it.

She couldn’t stop grinning, either.

*********

All tarted up in a tight-fitting red dress to show off her new figure, Vera was out on the streets again, hoping to make a huge ton of cash all at once, to speed up her savings so she could leave this town and Bob forever.

Maybe she’d even find a good man and never have to hook again.

Someone like Derek.

Over the next several hours, she’d had two johns, a nice one and a bad one, this second one having worn a tacky pink paisley shirt. His attitude towards women was as bad as his taste in clothes, for he’d aggressively fucked her so it hurt inside; he also enjoyed slapping her around as he fucked her.

He left her apartment in a hurry, having never taken off his clothes for the sex. He’d unzipped himself, whipped it out, slipped on a condom, done her, pulled off the condom, zipped himself up, paid her, then ran off.

“Bastard,” she hissed after he’d slammed the door behind him.

All the pain from each of his slaps went away seconds after she got them; her vaginal pain disappeared by the time he’d left, too.

Wow, she thought. What is this super-power I’ve got? Is there an angel above who’s pitying me?

Ten minutes later, she was back on the street and, about twenty minutes after that, she found another john.

“Lookin’ for some action?” she asked him.

“Sure do,” he said, smiling and approaching. “How much for…?”

He was interrupted by a grunting sound coming at them from the side, a shuffling and scraping sound on the sidewalk.

They turned their heads and looked over to where the sounds were coming from…and their eyes and mouths widened.

A man without legs or a right arm was crawling towards Vera, his empty pants legs and pink shirt sleeve sliding behind his ass.

“You…bitch,” he hissed, then a few of his teeth fell out. “What did…you…ungh…” His tongue came off and got stuck in his throat. He coughed it out, then it lay on the pavement beside his cheek.

She screamed, then she and her new john ran away from the crawling man.

“Who was that guy?” the john asked her as they reached her apartment.

“I don’t know,” she lied, for she’d recognized the crawler’s paisley shirt.

*********

In her bedroom again, she danced and stripped for her new customer, proudly displaying her new and improved body.

He gazed in awe at her nakedness.

“Wow, you’re hot,” he panted, unzipping his jeans.

“Thanks,” she said with a grin.

“How much for anal?” he asked.

Her smile vanished. “I…d-don’t do anal.”

“I want anal!” he shouted, then punched her hard in the gut.

She buckled and fell on the bed. He pulled off his T-shirt, jeans, and underwear, then got on the bed with her.

The pain from the punch was gone within seconds, but he got her in position for anal rape too quickly for her to resist him.

He shoved it in raw. She screamed in pain, and though the pain of each ramming went away quickly enough, the relief didn’t amount to anything, for the old pain got replaced by that of a new ramming in each time. After a few minutes of the ordeal, he pulled out and came all over her buttocks.

She lay there on the bed, sobbing.

My daddy did that to me when I was a teen, she thought. “You bastard.”

“That’s what you get for choosing to be a whore, bitch,” he panted, and reached down for his pants and underwear…but, “Ungh!

His dick fell off.

He screamed at the sight of it between his shoes. Then his balls fell off.

“What the fuck?!” he screamed in a soprano voice. “What…germ…did you pass onto me?”

His nose fell off.

Oddly, there was never any blood.

He screamed again. A few teeth fell out.

Her pain was all gone. She wiped his come off her ass with a tissue, sat facing him, and smiled.

His left arm fell off. Now, he was the one sobbing.

She got back into position for anal and spread her buttocks wide open. She looked back at him with a mock-seductive look. “Wanna fuck my ass, baby?”

He glared at her, but just then, his right eye fell out.

She got off the bed and went for his jeans. She pulled out his wallet. “OK,” she said, “how much have you got in here?”

He tried to reach for his wallet, but his lower jaw fell off. “Umph!” he grunted.

She pushed him to the floor. Now, all of his remaining limbs detached from his torso. His head came off, too, and rolled to the other side of the bedroom. Finally, all was still and quiet.

So, she thought as she continued thumbing through his wallet, I guess I know what happened to Mr. Pink Paisley. Fucker got what he deserved.

“What?!” she yelled. “Only twenty-five bucks? No ATM card, either. You were gonna rape me, and not even pay me?! You fucker!!” She stomped on his left arm. The fingers and thumb detached and rolled away. “I’d better get some garbage bags and clean up this mess.”

********

She was back on the streets later that night. It was past midnight. Now, she was almost hoping for nasty customers, so she could see them come to pieces from her new powers.

As she looked around for men to attract, she thought she saw the first john who’d had her since her transformation–the nice one. Same clothes–a white T-shirt and black pants–same brown hair, same skinny build and height–about the same as hers. Same face, too…she thought.

Wow, she thought. He didn’t come apart. He didn’t die, like those two bastards. Is it because he was gentle with me? Is that even him? Looks a lot like him, but I can’t be sure in the dark.

Then she saw Derek.

Speaking of nice guys, she thought. Here comes my man, or so I’d wish him to be. He’s one of the few johns I actually like having sex with.

He approached her with a smile.

“Hi, Derek,” she said, beaming at him.

“Wow, you’re looking the best you ever have,” he said.

“Thanks,” she said, turning around for him with pride. “I’m glad you like it.”

“Not that you had to change your looks at all, of course,” he said. “I’ve always thought you were beautiful just as you are.”

“You are so sweet to me.”

“My pleasure,” he said, offering her his escorting arm. “Shall we?”

“Uh, OK,” she said, and took his arm.

“Why the hesitation?” he asked as they began walking towards her apartment.

I can’t tell him about the Germ, she said. He’ll dump me. But what if he catches it? “I-I had a few nasty johns today,” she said.

“Well, if you don’t feel up to having sex, why are you out here streetwalking?” he asked.

“Because I have to, silly,” she said. “Bob will beat me up if I don’t. You know that.”

“I’d like to beat Bob up.”

“He’s much too big for you to beat him in a fight. He’d kick your ass. Besides, even if you won the fight, he has all his mafia friends who’d kill you.”

“I’ve gotta take you out of this town, far away from him. If only I had the money,” Derek said.

“You have had the money to pay for sex with me, and that’s been on lots of occasions over the months. Why not save your money instead of blowing it all on me?”

“One, because I’m so hot for you, I’ve got to have you as often as possible. Two, because I want you to experience a gentle, considerate john as often as possible, to offset and take away the time from the nasty johns, and to pay you more than they will.”

“Bob just takes the extra money for himself. You’re giving it all to him, not to me.”

“Bastard. Anyway, how’d you get to be so…well, more than usually beautiful today?”

“I don’t know,” she said. “A good makeup job?”

“Come on, it’s much more than cosmetics, Vera. You’re much more shapely than your usual shapely self, like a girl half your age. What did you do?”

“I really don’t know,” she said as they reached the front door of her apartment building.

“Black magic?”

“I don’t know. Strange things have been happening tonight. I can’t explain it.”

“Really?” he said as they got in the elevator. “Anyway, whatever it is, you look really beautiful. Of course, as I said before, you always did look beautiful, makeover or no makeover.”

“Thanks,” she said with a giggle. I really like him, she thought. I wanna make love with him so badly…but I shouldn’t!

They reached her floor and got out of the elevator. As they walked down the hall to her apartment, he said, “I’m burning to make love to you.”

“So am I,” she said, fitting her key into her door. “I’d do it with you for free, you know that, but Bob–“

“Even without the threat of Bob, I’d pay you, to help you make ends meet. If only I could get you away from that piece-of-shit pimp.”

They went inside. “If he were dead, we wouldn’t need to leave,” she said, thinking, Maybe, with this new power of mine, I could coax Bob into a suicide fuck. They went over to her couch and sat together.

“Don’t do anything foolish to get the cops after you,” he said, then he put his arm around her and kissed her on the cheek.

“Wait,” she said, pushing him away. “Not right now.”

“Those two guys before me really shook you up, didn’t they?”

“Yeah. I just need a few minutes.” Or days…or weeks…or years…

“Well, OK,” he said, taking his arm away. “I don’t wanna pressure you into sex. We can sit and talk for a while.”

“Thanks.” You are so sweet, Derek. I wanna have sex with you so badly…yet because you’re so sweet, I can’t have sex with you. If I saw your body falling to pieces the way those two other guys’ bodies did, I’d fall to pieces!

She sat on his lap, delighted with the feeling of his erection under her buttocks…yet terrified of it, too.

“Cuddling will be fine,” she said. They put their arms around each other. She pecked him on the lips. Cradling her in his arms, he slowly rocked her back and forth as they looked into each other’s eyes. “I think I love you.”

“I know I love you,” he said.

“What do you see in an older woman like me, in such damaged goods?”

“Well, maybe it’s because you’re damaged…not in body, but in how you’ve been hurt so much. I see the pain in your eyes. My mom used to have that look. Your pain arouses my wish to help you, to love you.”

Now I know I love you, she thought while smiling at him.

They started with a few pecks on the lips. Within ten seconds, the pecking phased into French kissing. The pleasure he was giving her made her forget, for the moment, all of her worries, and she let him get her out of her dress.

In pink underwear, black stockings, and black high heels, she was allowing his hands to roam all over her skin. She let him unhook her bra, and it slid off with a proud wiggle of her breasts.

“Do you like them?” she asked with a grin.

He looked down at them. “Whoa!” he said while fondling them. “No silicone. How is this possible?”

“I don’t know. I only know that I like it.”

They resumed French kissing. He pulled off her panties to reveal her new landing strip.

“Did you get a waxing?” he asked breathily.

“No,” she sighed between kisses. “As I said,…I can’t…explain it.”

This is really weird, he thought while unzipping his fly. Still, I guess I can’t complain. He got on the floor and lay on his back.

She hesitated before mounting him. Will he die if we fuck? she wondered. Will his dick fall off?

He furrowed his brow at her hesitating. “Still don’t wanna do it?” he asked.

She was too horny to say no. She rationalized it thus: If he dies, I’ll lose him. But if we never screw, I’ll never enjoy him, which is the same as losing him, because I’ll never have him. Besides, he might dump me for someone else if I hold out too long, and that means losing him, too. I’ll have to take my chances and see if he survives a fuck. “Yes, let’s do it,” she panted.

“You sure?” he asked while putting on a condom.

“Yes!” She took it in, with sighs of rising pitches and loudness.

As she moved up and down on him in the cowgirl position, her mind swung back and forth between fear and desire. Was that brunet in the white T-shirt and black pants really my first john after my beautifying…was he really the nice one? she wondered. Did he survive–if it was him–because he was nice to me, or because this poisonous Germ in me hadn’t taken effect just yet? The answer would seem to be the first one, because the beautifying took effect so much sooner, and because everything about the Germ seems to be working in my favour, like the quick healing. I’m glad those two asshole johns died, and if that guy I saw was the nice john, still alive and healthy, I can be confident that Derek will be OK…but I only think I saw the nice john! I can’t be sure.

Because her pleasure was limited by her worries, she wasn’t as lubricated as she should have been.

In his passion, Derek gave her a hard ram; it felt like a stab against her vaginal walls.

“Oww!” she yelped.

“Sorry,” he panted, then tried to move in more gently.

“It’s OK,” she sighed…or was it? Even if the Germ is benign to me, she thought, would it misinterpret my pain as Derek deliberately hurting me? Is the Germ some kind of alien that doesn’t know the difference between accidentally and intentionally hurting people? If that’s so, I’d better try to enjoy this sex the best I can. It’s too late to stop it, anyway–there’s no turning back. The guy in paisley wore a condom, too, and it didn’t save him from the Germ.

She looked down in his eyes and tried to focus on her love for him. They were getting more and more excited, but he gave her another impassioned, hard ram.

“Oww!” she screamed. Oh please, Germ-alien, or whatever the hell you are, don’t think of Derek as an enemy. Don’t kill him!

“Sorry,” he said again. “I didn’t mean…to do that.”

Did you hear that, Germ-alien? she thought. C’mon, Vera: focus on your desire!

“I’m gonna…blow my load! Oh!” he grunted.

“I’m…almost…there, too. Ah!

They orgasmed at about the same time. He pulled out and removed his condom.

Here it is, she thought, watching him closely. The moment of truth. She got off of him.

He started getting himself off the floor. “Ungh!”

“Oh, my God!” she screamed. “Are you OK?”

“Yeah, sure,” he said, getting to his feet. “I just haven’t put my dick away yet. Silly me. I should’ve done it before.”

As he was putting it in his pants, she watched with a terrible dread. He noted her staring at him.

“I don’t need any help, thank you,” he said with a sneer. “Ooh!”

“What’s wrong?” she fired out in terror.

“Nothing,” he said, zipping himself up. “It’s just really sensitive after a fuck. If I’m not careful with it, I’ll hurt myself.” He saw the look of fear still in her eyes. “Why are you so jumpy tonight? Did my aggressive fucking remind you of those two bastards?”

“Yeah, in a way…not that you’re at all like them, of course.”

“Sorry, I didn’t mean to make you feel that way. I guess I’m just clumsy when I’m horny.”

“Oh, you’re the best lover I’ve ever had,” she said.

“Thanks,” he said while stretching. “Oww!”

“Oh, God! Are you OK?”

“Yeah. I just pulled a muscle in my back, that’s all.” He took his wallet out of his pants pocket.

“Thank God.” So far.

“Why are you so worried about me hurting myself all of a sudden?” He took out a few hundred dollars and paid her.

“N-nothing,” she said, taking his money. “I just…care about you.”

“That’s sweet,” he said, put his wallet back in his pocket, then kissed her on the cheek. As he walked to the door, he said, “I’ll call you tomorrow, late morning or early afternoon.”

“OK.” I sure as fuck hope you do. “Bye.”

“Bye.” He walked out the door and into the hall.

She stood at the open door and watched him approach the elevator. I guess he’s gonna be OK.

“Oomph!” he grunted as his knees buckled.

“Oh, God, no!” she screamed, running out to him.

“I’m fine,” he said with a wincing face. “I just sprained my ankle. What is it? Are you worried you’ve given me a bug or something?”

“Oh, no,” she said with a nervous giggle. “Of course not.”

“Look, two guys sexually assaulted you tonight, so you’re not feeling well. Go to bed and sleep it off. I’d stay and comfort you, but that asshole Bob would charge me for extra hours I cannot afford. Good night–I’ll call you tomorrow.” He kissed her, got in the elevator, and left.

********

Early in the afternoon of the next day, Vera had just about finished with another nasty john, one who’d punched her in the face before receiving a blow job from her.

When he came in her mouth, he noticed the disappearance of the bruise, cut, and blood on her face.

“Wow,” he said. “You heal quickly, bitch. I’ll just have to give you another taste of my fist.” But as soon as he balled up his fist, that arm fell off. He screamed. “What the fuck…?”

He spat a few teeth out.

She got up off her knees, sat on the edge of her bed, and watched him, grinning.

“You bitch!” he screamed, spitting out a few more teeth. “What have you done to m–?”

His lower jaw fell off, then his cock and balls did. She laughed.

He shook his head and groaned.

Then his head fell off.

“I still have the power,” she said, then picked up his body parts and put them in big, black plastic bags, and set them next to those of the night before, which contained the body parts of the man who’d anally raped her. “I was so worried that I’d lost the power after Derek’s survival, which I hope has lasted up to now…wait! He hasn’t called me yet, the way he promised!”

She rushed over to her phone, which was on her coffee table in the living room. She noted the time: already 1:30 in the afternoon. She dialled his number in a near-panic. After an eternity of waiting through six rings of the dial tone, he finally answered it.

“Derek?”

“Yeah?”

“How are you? Are you OK? You said you’d call earlier today, and you didn’t, so I got worried.”

“Yeah, of course I’m OK,” he said. He heard a sigh of relief. “Why wouldn’t I be? I was just too busy with work to call earlier, that’s all. Sorry for making you wait. Anyway, are you gonna tell me why you’re so worried about me getting sick and dying, or whatever your problem is?”

“Yeah, I’ll tell you everything tonight,” she said.

“What about Bob?” Derek asked. “I don’t have any money for another screw tonight. He won’t want me around if I don’t pay.”

“Oh, I’ll take care of Bob, don’t worry.”

“What are you gonna do? Don’t go putting yourself in a situation where he beats you up again.”

“Won’t happen, I promise. See you here tonight.”

She hung up, then texted Bob: I made a lot of money today and last night but Im keeping it all if you have a problem with that come here and tell me CUL8R

When Bob stormed into her apartment, which was no later than ten minutes after receiving her text, he–approaching her wide-open bedroom doorway–found her naked on her bed, on all fours, with her back to him, her ass pointed out at him with both of her holes showing on purpose.

“So, you’re keeping all the money for yourself, are y–? Whoa,” he said once he’d reached her bedroom doorway, and was now checking her out and feeling his jeans’ zipper already straining from his hard-on. “That’s the best you’ve looked in a long time, Vera. If you spent the money on improving your looks, I might forgive you…almost. What did you do to yourself?”

“Oh, I didn’t spend any money on my looks,” she said, looking back at him with an inviting smirk.

“Well, how did you suddenly become so hot-looking? Normally, you look like a dog.”

You bastard, she thought; Derek would never say that to me. “You don’t need to know.”

“Well, I say I do,” he said, approaching the bed. “You’re my product.”

“All you need to know is that you’re not getting your greasy fingers on one penny of my money.”

“Well, in that case,” he said, unzipping his pants and getting on the bed on his knees behind her, “I’ll just have to give you one hell of a hate-fuck.”

Still looking back at him and grinning, she said, “Come and get it, baby.”