So I’d been reading The Killing Joke while feeling VERY stuck and frustrated, and this line of Joker’s struck me as worryingly apt: ‘It’s all a joke! Everything anybody ever valued or struggled for… it’s all a monstrous, demented gag!’
This triggered a long think about Joker, and a realisation that what he and Batman have in common is not just that they have hideous traumas in their past, but that they’re both stuck in rage about them. Joker can’t even remember what happened, but the rage is still right there and all the killing in the world won’t be enough for him, any more than taking down all the criminals in the world will be enough for Batman. They’re angry forever.
And this is because it’s always between you and you. Killing people is too superficial! The only way to deal with your stuff is to deal with yourself, and neither of those guys is ever going to deal with themselves.
Then I realised that was why I was STILL stuck in rage about people trying to take away my sovereignty when I was four. In order to really deal with my anger, I not only needed to give myself sovereignty, I also needed to give myself forgiveness.
So I asked to talk to the me who wanted to take away my sovereignty. She showed up as a grotesquely stretched version of four-year-old me in school uniform, as tall as I am now, spindly-limbed and giraffe-necked, like Alice after she ate the mushroom. Her voice and demeanour were adult.
Me: I can’t help noticing you look like a child who’s been forced to grow up.
Her: Yes. That’s what happens. You can kick and scream all you like, but you’ll be defeated.
Me: Oh, bing! There’s no point struggling!
Her: That’s right. You can struggle if you like, but you don’t get to have sovereignty. You’re defeated before you begin. It’s your nature to be defeated. You’re defeated the day you’re born, and even death can’t undo it.
Me: Ouch. Life actually is a black, awful joke to you, isn’t it? People are helpless and there’s no point to anything. You actually share the Joker’s view of life. No wonder I was feeling tempted by it. And no wonder I find it so hard to do anything.
Her: You can do things if you like, but there’s no point because you don’t get to have sovereignty. Somebody could come along and stop you at any moment and there’s nothing you could do about it.
Me: Like at school when I never got to finish a painting.
Her: Yes. Life is cruel and random.
Me: I don’t see the world like that at all.
Her: That’s why you need me.
Me: Wait, you’re trying to protect me from making an effort because you know there’s no point and you hate to see me struggling?
Her: Yes. I wish you’d just give up and join me. See the world the way I do, and we could both just smash everything up for shits and giggles, or die in a gutter and rot horribly because who cares?
Me: Joker, Joker, Joker.
Her: (turning into a Joker jack-in-the-box) YOU RANG??
Me: (freaked out) Backup! Backup!!
Mr. H: Whoa, you have to talk to her in a way that she can hear you. She’s just scared right now.
Her: (back to normal) Was kind of the point.
Mr. H: What for?
Her: Because who cares?
Me: Okay, I happen to know that you do care about me because otherwise you wouldn’t stick around to protect me from making effort. Wait, are you the biggest ‘Why even bother getting out of bed?’ monster ever?
Her: You can get out of bed if you like. It doesn’t matter.
Me: Wait – I think your ‘nothing matters so you can do anything’ is actually a way of trying to give me sovereignty! Joker is totally sovereign in his way, isn’t he? He does exactly what he wants. You want that for me, don’t you?
Her: Of course, that’s what every child wants!
Me: That’s great. Thank you. And you believe that the world is so cruel and random that there’s no point having a long-term plan. There’s no point having anything I value or struggle for, because anything can be taken away from me at any moment. So I might as well just do whatever I feel like, even if it’s destructive or even if it’s nothing.
Me: Your one bad day was the first time you got marched out of Art half way through, wasn’t it? [Note: 'one bad day' is Joker's term for the event that drove someone crazy.]
Her: No. It was when I realised they were going to do that to me every week, and I could kick and scream till my throat hurt and it still wouldn’t make any difference.
Me: Oh, I’m so sorry. Hand-on-heart sigh. This is about creativity, isn’t it?
Her: (tearing up) Yes! I really loved painting! I’m a creative person! That’s what I am! And I realised that day that I’d never be safe to create anything. Somebody could always stop me. Somebody could always take it away. It wasn’t being hit or being bullied that broke me. It was when they took my creativity away from me. My creativity was me! They took me away from me!
Me: Oh, no. That makes so much sense. I totally get why you would react that strongly. And you’re still furious, aren’t you?
Her: Of course!
Me: The reason you look like a child who’s been stretched… is because you stopped then, isn’t it? You got taller, but you didn’t change, because your anger didn’t change.
Me: And the reason why you’re happy for me to spend all day making candybar dolls, but hate it when I write stories, is that candybar dolls don’t matter but stories do. You want me to take out my creativity on things that don’t matter, so I won’t get upset when they’re taken away.
Her: Yes. And that’s why you always make candybar dolls when you’re really depressed and procrastinating. I still want to make pictures. I just don’t want to make pictures that matter. And making dolls is so quick. So I get to finish pictures, over and over again.
Me: My heart is seriously breaking for you right now. What can I do to make this better? I don’t think there’s anything in the monster manual for this.
Her: There’s nothing you can do, obviously. Other than accept my reality and do what you can to find pleasure in a pointless life.
Me: I’m not willing to do that, so let’s try a different tack. Why are you so sure that we don’t get to have sovereignty?
Her: I think that was amply demonstrated at school. You were there.
Me: Yes. I totally agree that we didn’t have sovereignty at school. Can you tell me why you’re sure we don’t get to have sovereignty now?
Her: By extrapolation. And also because – because – the only way a person gets to have sovereignty is to grow up, and if I grow up then they’ve won, and if they’ve won I don’t have sovereignty. So there is no way for me to have sovereignty.
Me: Wait, you believe that a person can have sovereignty if they grow up?
Her: Not really, because of that Catch-22. If you grow up people will stop trying to force discipline on you, but only because they’ve trained you to force discipline on yourself.
Me: That was actually who I was expecting to see here. I thought the me who wanted to take away my sovereignty would be the me who forced discipline on me.
Me: What’s going on? What are you experiencing right now?
Her: I was confused and thinking about what you said. I think the you who tries to force discipline on you does believe that a tiny amount of sovereignty can be achieved by compromise and submission. That good behaviour will be rewarded with a little bit more freedom. Whereas I see freedom as another of those things that it’s pointless to value or struggle for, and compromising with the enemy as not only pointless, but distasteful. (Pause) I mean, you can do it if you like. It doesn’t matter.
Me: Are you sure that it doesn’t matter to you?
Her: I’m confused. I’m breaking up. I don’t know which me you’re talking to.
Me: Can you explain your confusion?
Her: I’m confused about the difference between no-point me and forcing-discipline me. I don’t know which one is which. You’re asking the questions wrong. I feel like I’m losing me.
Me: Could it be that you’re both?
Her: Yes, I guess. But not at the same time. That’s why it’s hard to understand that I’m both because I’m never both at once. No-point me says ‘Do what you like, there’s no point’ and then forcing-discipline me sees you doing what you like and says, ‘Who are you to think you have sovereignty? Stop doing what you like and learn to bow, bow, bow. Maybe if I discipline you enough you’ll finally get that there is no sovereignty.’
Me: On whose authority are you disciplining me, if there’s no sovereignty?
Her: I don’t know. Society. Whoever in the real world is telling you what to do. You yourself. I take your dreams and turn them into orders. And then no-point me sees you struggling to carry out those orders and says ‘Stop struggling and stop valuing things, there’s no point.’ And that’s why you have cycles.
Me: Wow. Thank you for explaining this.
Her: So can you forgive me?
Me: What? Yes of course I can forgive you! You’re a hurt child who just wanted to finish her paintings!
Her: I was. Thirty years ago. I’m something nastier now. I’m thirty years of hate and anger. Thirty years of despair. Can you really forgive hate?
Me: Of course. I was there. I know how hard it was. I know why you’re like this. I know all hate comes from pain. It’s – it’s just pain that’s gone hard.
Her: I’m not sure I want you to forgive me, because I can’t fight you then, and if I can’t fight you how can I win you over to my point of view?
Me: What makes you think that if I forgive you you can’t fight me?
Her: (crying) Because next time you feel despair or hate or anger you’ll just go, ‘Oh, there’s that poor hurt child who wanted to finish her paintings! Let’s do a painting together!’ And then you’ll make me go all soppy and then I’ll lose!
Me: To me?
Her: Yes to you, who else would I be fighting?
Me: Okay, and you’re fighting me to make me understand that there’s no sovereignty, so that I won’t go through all the pain of thinking there is and valuing and struggling for things and then having them taken away from me?
Me: Okay, two things. What if it doesn’t have to be a struggle?
Her: Of course it’s a struggle.
Me: Most of the struggling I’m doing right now is against you. If you can learn to relax a bit, I won’t need to struggle much because I naturally like doing things.
Her: (crying) So I’m causing the problem I’m trying to prevent? Damn, I thought I was one of those monsters who didn’t do that.
Me: It’s okay, I forgive you! And the other thing is – okay, this is a big one, are you ready for this?
Her: Yes. No. I don’t know. Say it anyway.
Me: I’ve got a theory and I’d like us to test it, okay?
Me: Okay. My theory is that sovereignty is possible. Yes, sometimes bad things happen that are unavoidable, but that doesn’t take away your sovereignty. The only thing that takes away your sovereignty is thinking that you don’t have any sovereignty. It’s always between you and you.
Her: But when some huge adult takes away your choice and uses physical force on you, where’s your sovereignty then?
Me: For you, it was in kicking and screaming. You were exercising your sovereignty the only way you knew how. You were raising your voice in protest. For another child, a sovereign response might have been choosing to obey because they valued harmony. And for another it might have been asking politely for a timetable change.
Her: How can it be sovereign to choose to obey?
Me: Well, because it’s a choice. It’s not like someone presses a button and obedience comes out. You think about it, you work out if it chimes with your needs and values and you go, ‘okay then.’ It’s only unsovereign if you think, ‘I don’t have a choice, I have to do this.’
Her: But I didn’t have a choice!
Me: You had a choice to protest or to obey willingly, and you chose to protest.
Her: Nice choice. But I do sort of see your point. I don’t know though. It’s kind of sitting in a garret pretending you’re a princess, isn’t it?
Me: No, it’s a genuine choice. Being sovereign isn’t about controlling everything in your world. It’s about recognising the choices you do have, and making them according to your own needs and values, and not giving a damn what anyone thinks because you are the king or queen of your life.
Her: Fine, but you’re forgetting what it was like. There is no way you can feel sovereign under such horrible circumstances. Maybe it’s normal for teachers to drag four-year-old children across the floor by the wrist, but I experienced it as physical abuse.
Me: Actually I’m pretty sure that’s not allowed in schools now. Your pain is totally legitimate. And yes, there are times when you just can’t feel sovereign, but afterwards you can get the feeling of sovereignty back. Even in horrendous situations – like the hostages in Beirut managed to keep their sovereignty by giving themselves the respect that the guards weren’t giving them. And by respecting the guards as fellow human beings too.
Her: So what you’re saying is the loss of sovereignty I experienced was temporary, not permanent? And that you can have sovereignty regardless of what other people do to you? And that all it takes to have sovereignty is to know you have sovereignty?
Her: I can’t accept that.
Me: Why not?
Her: Because I’ve been teaching you for thirty years that you don’t have sovereignty. So if you’re right, I’ve ruined thirty years of your life for nothing.
Me: It’s okay! I forgive you!
Her: That doesn’t make it okay. If you’re right, I’ve spent thirty years taking away the one thing I most wanted you to have. I absolutely will not countenance that. No way.
Me: I think you’ve already realised that I’m right.
Her: Shut up shut up shut up.
Me: It’s okay, there’s still lots of time. We can still turn this into a good thing.
Her: How can it possibly be a good thing?
Me: Because now we get to learn about sovereignty so we can teach it to other people. It’s a lot harder to teach something if you’ve never had to learn it.
Her: (tearing up) Did you say teach? We get to teach? For real? That’s a huge part of me too!
Me: Yes, we totally get to teach!
Her: Okay, maybe I can get on board with this. But it’s going to take a while. I’m not going to just be fine overnight.
Me: Of course not.
Her: And I guess on the bright side, after being made of despair for thirty years, at least now I have hope. Say, do you think that’s why we named Hope Hope?
Me: It might well be! She’s very powerful!
Her: So we have sovereignty. Wow. We actually have sovereignty. But wait, I’m scared. It’s still not safe to value things or put effort into them because people can still take them away.
Me: Yes, that can happen, but it’s worth the risk because most of the time you DO get to finish your paintings. Now is not then. And oh, bing! The fact that horrible things can happen doesn’t mean the world’s a joke. It doesn’t mean there’s no point trying or valuing anything. Because a lot of the time, trying and valuing things have fantastic results.
Her: But what if people DO take the thing away?
Me: Well, we grieve, and then we try again.
Her: What if I screw up and take the thing I value away from myself?
Me: Same thing. We grieve and we learn from our screwups and try again using the new information.
Her: That sounds reasonable, but it’s very scary.
Me: I know, and it’s okay to be scared, and we’ll take things slowly. And you can go and hide in a safe room and paint any time you want to.
Her: (crying again) Can I?
Me: Sure. You can have a room where nobody can ever stop you or take anything away from you.
Me: Yes. And it can be as big as your imagination.
Her: Wow. Can I go there right now?
Me: Sure. What would you like it to look like?
Her: I just want a door into infinite fields. Like the view when you’re flying. All to myself. And the sea in the distance. I want a world that I’ll never be done exploring.
Me: You’ve got it.
Her: And I want infinite art supplies. And I want them all to be waterproof so my pictures will never wash away when it rains. And I want the power to go inside my pictures, so I’ll have worlds within worlds within worlds.
Me: Oh. That! Yes, of course. Of course you’ve got that. And no, they’ll never wash away. Ever.
Her: Thank you. That’s everything I want.
Me: You’re welcome. Here’s the door. And wait – here are your art supplies. (Handing her a carpetbag.) You know it’s bigger on the inside.
Her: Of course. Well – bye.
Me: You can come back any time.
Her: Maybe. I’ve got a lot to do. Wait, I don’t like the way I look. And my clothes. I don’t want to be wearing uniform. But I don’t know yet what I do want to look like. I don’t know if I’m really a child or an adult.
Me: Well, you’ve got all the time in the world to decide. And when you do, paint yourself a new body, and some new clothes, and step into them.
Her: I can do that?
Her: Okay. Thank you. Goodbye.
(She pushes open the door. It opens on a beautiful landscape under a blue sky. Wind blows through her hair.)
Her: I’m really allowed?
Her: You really forgive me?
Me: Yes. I love you.
Her: I love you since the day you were born. I’m going now. Goodbye.
(She steps across the threshold, and the door closes behind her.)