"What’s she like, eh?"


Growing up as a Navy kid, always just passing through, obliged to travel light, I took to collecting figures of speech–especially animal metaphors–along with my menagerie of stuffed animals. England in the early ’60s was a particularly rich hunting ground: “Get them, swanning about!” “Don’t try to weasel out of it!” “Listen to me, rabbiting on!” “He just wolfed down his dinner!” “She just catted up on the pavement!” I could go on like this till the cows come home…

Back in the States, in collegiate Animal Houses, young people were busy horsing around, pigging out, or bird-dogging another’s girlfriend (thereby qualifying as a snake-in-the-grass). These examples are all negative attributions, whose underlying belief is that a human’s “best behavior” should be angelic, rather than beastly. The field of Ethology begs to differ, finding ever more examples of animals behaving in ways heretofore believed to be uniquely human. Many species demonstrate altruism for vulnerable members of their “reference group”; and recent studies have confirmed dogs’ intolerance for favoritism, and primates’ capacity for premeditated stone-throwing.

It is my view, after more than three decades of clinical practice, that humans deny their “animal” urges at their own peril–especially their urges towards aggressive (antisocial) behavior. Ever since the publication of Robert Louis Stevenson’s novella, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, the notion of a wolf-man has become a common metaphor for a wolf-in-sheep’s-clothing hypocrite, whose conscious persona is self-righteous, but whose unconscious antisocial behavior is acted out–when the moon is full, or the keg is empty. “Who knew?” the shocked neighbors of the homicidal maniac du jour are inevitably quoted in the media. “He/she seemed so nice.”

In several clinical settings, civilian and military, I have been the designated “Wizard” (a Marine Corps term), to whom hapless individuals, who have violated their own (or society’s) code of conduct are sent for Anger Management counseling. I began with a current theoretical model that holds that anger is a secondary emotion, arising in response to a primary irritant–most often either humiliation or fear. To use a Cockney idiom, something you do “Gets right up my nose!” My animal metaphor for this was our purebred but long-haired German Shepherd, Lili–the runt of a litter ten–who was oh so meek and mild at 4 months, but by 6 months showed signs of what dog trainers call “fear aggression.” As my “Angry Young Men” [not all young, not all men] Group pointed out, humiliation and fear aren’t the only irritants. There is (the tort lawyer’s bread & butter) pain & suffering; and there is (Lili’s pet peeve) intrusion. She’s tall, dark & shaggy–occasionally mistaken for a wolf–fearing only the vet. What gets right up her nose is the intrusion of other dogs and/or delivery vans into “her” territory.

[To be continued in the next post…]

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Filed under aggression happens, ethology, jekyll and hyde

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