When I was a kid, my father had a cattle prod that he used on one of our dogs. I am not justifying his actions—I don’t condone that behavior—but he claimed to see it as no different from one of those electric stun collars some use for dog training. I don’t condone the use of those either, but I point this out to clarify that he was not a cruel man. He did not get off on hurting his dogs, which he loved. My father loved his dogs so much that he maintained a photo album dedicated to them. When he died, I found more photos of his dogs than I did of his first family. I take after him in this way. My wife sometimes asks if I love her half as much as I do our dogs. I do, of course, but it is likely that I show them twice the affection.
For the uninitiated, a cattle prod is a handheld wand that delivers a painful, high voltage, low current electric shock. It is used to get cattle to move. Cattle prods are not exclusively used on cattle, either. Prods were used by Alabama police officers against black protesters throughout the civil rights movement. In 2008, a video leaked that showed a UAE royal using a one on an Afghan business associate’s anus as a means of torturing the man.
My father never used such a thing on the dogs that we had when I was very young. He got the device when I was 10 or 11, which meant that he was in his mid-60s and starting to get weak and lose control of his surroundings. It was clear that he was overcompensating. I never saw him use the cattle prod on our dog, but he definitely did at some point because just by hitting the button and evoking the sizzling sound of the spark, Max would get under the table and cower. I had always seen dogs as unconditionally trusting vessels of love, and so I found this to be absolutely devastating. Max loved and trusted my father, and despite his well-intended rationale, my father would occasionally return this with a high-voltage jolt.
I have never been on the receiving end of a cattle prod jolt, but one time my friend Andrew and I each took hold of one of those training shock collars my father believed his device to emulate to see what it was like. The sensation is jarring, as it feels like every single molecule of your body is getting hit with a baseball bat all at once. I imagined that feeling over and over again upon seeing the dog responsively cower for the first time. I thought of it by the minute, and I thought of it for days. My anger for my father grew unmanageable.
I vaguely remember a story told on This American Life where host Ira Glass talked about those odd impulses we carry out and don’t actually think about until after the fact. Glass recalled an incident from his childhood where he was observing a kid going down a hill on his bicycle. Glass threw his folder in front of the kid’s bike, causing him to wipe out. He never consciously considered doing it, he just did, almost as if he were possessed. That story resonated with me more than any other I have heard from another person’s childhood. I don’t remember picking up the cattle prod, or walking to my father’s room, or standing over his bed, or putting it behind his ear, or joining the ranks of mid-20th-Century Alabama police officers and royal practitioners of torture. I just remember running.
Actually, I remember the milliseconds before that when my Dad, a heavy, six-foot-five-inch bear of a man did not have to go through all of the straining and jerking he usually had to endure in order to get out of the bed. He was just up. It was as if he levitated—like a possessed Dana Barrett in her haunted Central Park West apartment—before going from horizontal to vertical and on his feet in less than a second. I looked at his face, which was stunned, literally, and I turned, dropped my weapon and ran through the house and out of the door.
A handful of years ago, 10-year-old Joseph Hall shot his father Jeffrey—a regional leader of a white supremacist group—in the face while Jeffrey slept. He told the police that he was sick of his father beating his mother. Joseph’s mother admitted that Jeffrey was also guilty of abusing the boy as well. While our circumstances were very different—I loved my father, who did not hit my mother or me, and he wasn’t a member of the white supremacist movement—I could understand where young Joseph was coming from. I doubt that he had any idea what he was doing until it was done. I actually think of him often. After all, a shock to the head could have led to less than desirable results on the morality end.
I ended up out on the lawn by the time it became evident that my father wasn’t going to catch me and he stopped, started laughing, and exclaimed, “I can’t believe you just did that, you little shit,” before laughing some more. He actually laughed it off. I was in total disbelief, as was he. But I guess… How are you going to punish a kid who will, when pushed against a wall, deliver a high-voltage jolt to your dome while you are asleep?
I, and more importantly Max, never saw the cattle prod again.