Acts of violence are terrifying, but a sustained threat of violence is sometimes much worse. If the violence occurs in the home, then it’s something you feel in the air. You adapt to the threat by becoming hypervigilant. This heightened state of awareness is effective in short, sharp doses but when the fear of violence is constant, hypervigilance becomes your default emotional setting; making it very hard to relax or be in the present moment.
In a home where violence, or the threat of violence, is regular then you learn how to negotiate it from a young age. You become adept at reading facial expressions and body-language as well as scanning the tone of people’s voices to detect and deter possible threats. You become a skilful emotional manipulator; able to keep an abuser’s anger at bay by remaining intuitive to their needs and triggers and adjusting your behaviour accordingly. These survival strategies, cobbled together through trial and error, eventually become instinctive. By seeking to contort yourself around the needs of the person you’re afraid of, you simply prolong the dread that feeds the hypervigilance. It’s a catch-22. On one hand, you don’t want the violence to happen. On the other, you know it is inevitable and would rather just get it out of the way.
One such event occurred when I was about five years old. We had not long moved to a new house on the other side of Pollok, where I grew up. Pollok is a so-called deprived area on the southside of Glasgow and in the early 90s it scored highly in many of the tables for social deprivation across Europe. Our new home was a three-bedroom, semi-detached house with a front and back garden. This night, I recall being upstairs in bed but finding it hard to sleep because of noise coming from the living room. My mum had people over and they were downstairs drinking, laughing and listening to music. My next memory is standing at the living room door, before a group of guests. I had my hopes pinned on my mum letting me stay up because she was drunk. I preferred her when she’d had a few drinks. She was much more relaxed, fun and affectionate. But tonight, she was having none of it and told me to go back to bed. There was then a bit of back-and-forth between us. I suspect I was showing off in front of her guests, probably winding her up or trying to outwit her in some way. Then her tone and posture shifted as she gave me a final warning to go back upstairs. I defied her.
She held my gaze for a moment before leaping out of her seat and charging into the kitchen. She pulled the cutlery drawer open, reached in and pulled out a long, serrated bread knife, turned around and began pursuing me. I already knew she could be unpredictable but this was like nothing I had witnessed before. I ran out of the room and naively made for the stairs as she emerged from behind the living room door and into the hall only seconds behind me. I scrambled up the stairs as fast as I could but she was closing the distance between us. With nowhere to hide I ran into my room, slamming the door behind me, but it seemed to just bounce off her as she came charging through, clutching the knife, like a monster in a nightmare.
If only I had had the sense to run out of the front door instead. Seconds before, she had appeared to be having so much fun that it had felt safe to wind her up in front of people. Now I was trapped in my room, pinned against the wall, with a knife to my throat. I don’t remember what she said to me but I remember the hate in her eyes. I remember thinking that I was about to be cut open and that I would probably die. Just as she lifted the knife to my face, she was pulled from behind and thrown to the other side of the room by my dad, who restrained her while one of the guests picked me up and bundled me into the back of a car.
I don’t remember my mother, or anyone else, ever talking about that night again. Truth be told, I almost forgot about it myself until many years later, when it occurred to me in the form of a flashback.
It’s hard to quantify what an experience like that does to a person and harder to measure the long term impact as life unfolds. All I can say is that events like these, while seeming strangely normal at the time, later found expression, not only as visual memories, but also in my beliefs about the world and all of the people in it. For if you are not safe in your own home, under the care of your own mother, then where else could you possibly drop your guard?
Violence wasn’t an everyday thing in our house but my mother’s unpredictability created a chronic sense of dread in me. But while puzzling for me as her son, in the broader context of our community, her drunken, aggressive and violent impulses were not difficult to understand.
In Pollok violence was a part of daily life. Even just a simple trip to the shop around the corner was a risk to your safety – and pride. There were varying degrees of violent threat to consider, from scuffles to proper fighting, and different qualities of violence to fear, such as fist fights or stabbings. What didn’t change was the constant awareness of aggression and the potential for it escalate.
In a community like this, the threat of violence is so pervasive that even when there is no reason to be afraid, the state of hypervigilance keeps you on alert regardless; making daily life considerably stressful. Outside of the home, in the school, violence was more like a public exhibition. People staved off the threat of violence by stoking it for someone else, whipping the playground into a frenzy until the first blow was struck.
My biggest worry, when faced with an unavoidable fight, would be that I might gain an early advantage, which could raise the stakes and potentially provoke an extreme act, biting or head kicking. I went into every fight with something to lose. Most of the people I had to fight with were not burdened by that anxiety and this gave them a distinct advantage. Their anxiety was like my mother’s. Their biggest fear was losing face in front of other people in the community and this gave them an edge.
Sadly, backing down from a confrontation or admitting that you don’t want to fight can leave you vulnerable to humiliation as well as more aggression. It’s this fear of being ridiculed, cast out or attacked that subtly directs your thinking and behaviour in violent communities.
Poverty Safari: Understanding the Anger of Britain’s Underclass, by Darren McGarvey, is published today by Luath Press, £7.99 (Kindle edition, £2.84).