Russell Bank’s riveting novel Affliction poses an enigmatic but essential question, “Why do we inflict pain and suffering upon others, especially those dearest to us?”
At its tragic climax Affliction suggests that brutality towards others is the desperate but failed attempt to save ourselves, redeem ourselves, through purifying, justified violence.
“The belief that violence ‘saves’ is so successful because it doesn’t seem to be mythic in the least,” said Walter Wink, the late Professor of Biblical Interpretation at Auburn Theological Seminary in New York. “Violence simply appears to be the nature of things. It’s what works. It seems inevitable, the last and, often, the first resort in conflicts.” (2012)
This perverse attitude, which is called redemptive violence, is at the core of the cruelties several of the novel’s principal characters inflict upon each other, in particular Glenn Whitehouse and his son Wade, who as a youth was beaten regularly by his father.
Affliction has much to say about child abuse, but I’ll focus on three of its revelations, which suggest that child abuse is: 1) passed from generation to generation; 2) distorts the victim’s thinking, and 3) often produces avengers who seek to deliver themselves from injustices – real and imagined – through anger, rage and often redemptive violence.
A 41-year-old, hard-drinking well-driller and part-time cop in a bleak New Hampshire town, Wade is struggling to make sense of his chaotic life. In a matter of days he loses both his jobs; his aging mother dies of hypothermia in her unheated house; he doesn’t have $300 to get his car out of the repair shop; he can’t get a dental appointment to extract an abscessed tooth; his long-suffering girlfriend Margie leaves him; his 10-year-old daughter is frightened to be with him; and he thinks his young friend and protégé Jack Hewitt has murdered for fast cash a union leader, Evan Twombley, on a deer-hunting outing.
Ironically, Wade was not always without promise or happiness, especially in his late teens when he was in love with his girlfriend and soon-to-be first wife Lillian. What happens over the next 20 years perplexes Wade as much as it alienates those who love him.
Now remarried and living in tony Concord, Lillian puts the blame squarely on Wade, who was known for beating his wife from time to time: “You’ve never loved anyone in your life, Wade. Not even yourself. Whatever you once had, you’ve ruined it.”
But Rolfe, Wade’s younger brother and narrator of the novel, suggests that the tragedy of Wade’s life is not entirely his own; it is a family tragedy perpetuated by alcohol and abuse reaching back through generations of dysfunctional Whitehouse men:
“All those solitary dumb angry men, Wade and Pop and his father and grandfather, had once been boys with intelligent eyes and brightly innocent mouths, unafraid and loving creatures eager to please and be pleased. What had turned them so quickly into the embittered brutes they had become? Were they all beaten by their fathers; was it really that simple?”
Yes, it is that simple and that profound. Pears & Capaldi (2001) show that child abuse is transmitted from generation to generation and that a parent’s history of abuse will often determine the parent’s own abusive behavior toward his or her children.
“No man can think clearly when his fists are clenched,” said George Jean Nathan. Throughout much of Affliction, Wade’s fists are clenched and his thinking is muddled. He consistently reads people and events incorrectly.
As his life disintegrates, he obsesses with proving that Jack is a contract killer in cahoots with several prominent locals. Of course, no one in town believes him. In fact, everyone understands Twombley’s death for what it is — an unfortunate but all-too-common hunting accident.
When Gordon LaRiviere, Wade’s boss, attends his mother’s funeral and serves as a pallbearer, Wade thinks he must have ulterior motives. He doesn’t; he simply feels compassion for his employee. When Wade’s attorney succeeds in doubling the number of times per month he may now visit his young daughter, Wade sees only defeat and humiliation. He wanted complete custody of the girl, an utterly unrealistic goal.
Wade exhibits numerous distortions in thinking and perception, which research indicates is common in victims of child abuse and among substance abusers. Wade’s chief distortions are: 1) short-term thinking (He often focuses on how he is feeling now and in the next few minutes rather than next month, next year, or the rest of his life), 2) “good old days” thinking (He remembers the highs of his life with Lillian, but forgets all the pain and suffering of their life together), 3) over-reaction (He often makes mountains out of molehills such as seeing a conspiracy where none exists), 4) all-or-nothing thinking (He believes Jack is guilty of murder on the flimsiest of circumstantial evidence), and 5) “feelings are reality” thinking (If Wade feels something is true, then it must be true). (Najavits, Gotthardt, Weiss & Epstein, 2004; Burns, 1980).
Wade’s long-repressed abuse by his father and his numbing dependency on alcohol prime the catastrophe that engulfs the final pages of Affliction.
In an explosion of self-righteous rage, Wade kills his drunken father who had hit him from behind with a whisky bottle. Then, he tracks and kills Jack Hewitt, who is out hunting on the last day of the deer-hunting season.
Wade is an avenging angel who must vanquish and cleanse the earth of these two supposed evildoers. It is all that Wade can think to do to save his wretched life from shameful oblivion. Then he disappears into Canada where he is never heard from again.
Haunted and guilt-ridden, Rolfe interviews those who knew Wade, trying to fathom his brother’s mayhem. Ultimately, he offers this assessment of Wade’s chances of adapting to anything resembling a normal life: “…[O]ur stories, Wade’s and mine, describe the lives of boys and men for thousands of years, boys who were beaten by their fathers, whose capacity for love and trust was crippled almost at birth and whose best hope for a connection to other human beings lay in elaborating for themselves an elegiac mode of relatedness, as if everyone’s life is already over.”
Ironically, in the years following Wade’s disappearance, his small New Hampshire town comes back to life. It’s transformed into a bustling ski resort site. Had Wade only listened to the counsel of cooler heads – his attorney, his girlfriend, his boss — and their interpretation of events, he might have weathered the storm and gotten back on track.
But given Wade’s history of abuse, his distorted thinking, and his avenging rage, he could only do what he did. That is the heartbreaking reality that Affliction exposes like a raw and rotten tooth.
Copyright © 2013 by Vince Reardon
Burns, D. D. (1999). Feeling good: The new mood therapy. New York, NY: Avon Books.
Najavits, L. M., Gotthardt, S., Weiss, R. D., & Epstein, M. (2004). Cognitive distortions in the dual diagnosis of PTSD and substance use disorder. Cognitive Therapy and Research, 28(2), 159-172.
Pears, K. C. & Capaldi, D. M. (2001). Intergenerational transmission of abuse: a two generational prospective study of an at-risk sample. Child Abuse & Neglect 25, 1439–1461.
Wink, Walter (2012, May 12). Facing the Myth of Redemptive Violence, retrieved from January 27, 2013, from Ekklesia website: http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/content/cpt/article_060823wink