Cuddled together under a blanket on the couch I found myself explaining violent death
to my three-year-old. We don’t own a television and so during the winter we work our way
through the public library’s collection of children’s DVD's, playing them on my computer. Each grubby cover unlocks a routine: he asks questions, I answer. In exchange for my willingness to watch with him, he relents and chooses movies about animals instead of power machinery. I am fascinated by wildlife documentaries and so sometimes I forget to fast forward.
His voice was tight and he had the telltale red just above his cheekbones where he’d rubbed them with his fists when he asked me.
“Mommy, what are those hyenas doing?”
Like most people, I thought hyenas were scavengers until we checked out this National Geographic special. In fact, lions scavenge more kills from hyenas than the other way around. The spotted hyena, the “cringing scavenger” or “graveyard lurker,” kills ninety-five percent of its food. The bloodbath that accompanied bone-crushing jaws and flesh-tearing teeth was horrifically mesmerizing. Unable to turn away I missed the warning signs and felt guilt when his fragile voice brought me back. I pulled him closer and wiped his invisible tears. “They’re just hunting, sweetheart.”
He knows about hunting. We’ve watched Bambi all the way through and we’re not vegetarian. He knows, too, about death, at least at some level. When the pet cat from my own childhood died at my parents’ farm he was there. I crouched next to my dad; the two of us placed her gently in the empty bathtub where we helplessly watched her drown in the profound waves of old age. My dad is a veterinarian and he still couldn’t tell me which vulnerable rise of her chest was her last. She was never friendly and so we didn’t hold her. Instead we waited and in my mind I rehearsed what I would say, secretly excited and yet also dreading the moment I would have to explain dying to my son.
In a way everything changed after that night. He understood enough that he started drawing pictures of hunters and guns. “They’re playing hide-and-go-seek,” he reassured himself. He refused to watch Bambi for a while. When we did he’d scream if I forgot to skip the middle. He only wanted it to be spring: the first snowflake that fell across the screen he would cry in terror. He started using “dead” to describe anything that was wrinkled or desiccated, far beyond the brown leaves covering our sidewalk. “Is that banana dead? Is winter so, so long?” he’d ask. “Is it going to be winter soon? Are some animals dead?
I answered that the hyenas were hunting, but their frenzied laughter told him something much more sinister was happening on the screen. It was more than what our family members do in deer season to feed themselves: it was more than sustenance. Even to me the fisi, as they are known in Swahili, seemed rabid, out of control. When they finally mangled the baby zebra enough that she couldn’t get up, I hated them. I wanted to lie and I wanted it just to be a movie. I wanted to protect the zebra baby, my own baby. But, I was under their spell so instead I talked about death.
Hyenas are the embodiment of contradiction, hermaphrodites of opposition. Cat-dog, male-female, even life-death: hyenas disturb because they stand partly in our world and partly in the otherworld. They look like canines, but are more closely related to felines. Female hyenas appear to have both a penis and a scrotum. It is their bulbous fused labia and elongated clitoris, which can become erect and through which they urinate, that have confused gender norms for centuries. They’re not hermaphrodites and they subscribe to strict gender roles; they just don’t conform to our notions of sex. This is evidenced by the fact that scientists have named their elongated clitoris a “pseudopenis” or a “peniform clitoris,” yet it is the same organ through which females mate and give birth. It struck me as illogical, this mashing of our sex organs to try to understand the hyena. Watching mucus-covered hyena cubs flounder on the ground next to their mother, still panting from their delivery, I saw how futile our understanding was. We are human and so we cannot comprehend the paradox of a world where life begins with death.
The two female cubs, bloody and wet from their passage into this world, were trying to kill each other. Neonatal siblicide kills approximately one-fourth of all spotted hyenas in their first month of life. Mother hyenas give birth to twins and the unborn sometimes begin fighting inside the womb. Born with their eyes open and even some teeth, it seems hyenas are made for life in a clan of violence. Theirs is a constant struggle up the social ladder. After my son had gone to bed, I unearthed our newspaper from the snow outside and removed it from the damp plastic. Then it dawned on me: perhaps we fear hyenas because they are the embodiment of our future. Perhaps we find them creepy because we see ourselves in their glowing eyes. We hear the hopelessness of humanity in their evil laugh. We are human and so we cannot see that which we cannot comprehend: ours is a world where life depends on death. The hyena’s all-seeing gaze reminds us that the veil “the other” wears is thin: our prosperity can only grow out of the suffering of the otherworld for so long before it tears.
It’s easy in my own struggle to make ends meet to forget how much I have. I take my children to a low-income health clinic, but I have never had to fear for their survival. We wear hand-me-downs and I shop at secondhand stores, but those are choices, choices that actually make me feel better about the resources I consume simply by virtue of my personal collection of statistics: American, white, educated, age 30-34, urban-dwelling, female, two-child, husband-wife family. As I carry my recycling, unsorted, to the curb I feel the weight of a chart that tells me that I, like my countrymen, use the paper equivalent of almost six forty-foot trees every year. I don’t, but somehow distinguishing myself from everyone else like me is just a way of climbing another ladder. Telling myself that I’m not wasteful, but some people are, isn’t that just passing the buck? I pass blame the other way when I talk about how I can’t afford to buy all locally-produced or organic products. The irony of my rank stings: I’m not poor enough to be forced to use everything, but I’m not rich enough to make amends for my consumption.
A report tells me statistically I spent between $8,790 and $9,970 on each of my children last year. Again, I didn’t, but that doesn’t change the fact that last year in Sierra Leone, the country with the current highest infant mortality rate, the average income per person was $340. Per year. I was wearing a pair of $300 boots when I first met a woman from Sierra Leone. They were a gift, on sale so he’d only spent half the price, from my husband. Her husband had died during Sierra Leone’s brutal 11-year civil war, a war that displaced more than half of the country’s population and saw a quarter of a million women and girls suffer sexual assault. Patriarchy, engrained in Sierra Leonean culture and society, laid a foundation for violence against women.
After that first documentary with my son, my ongoing fascination with spotted hyenas only further elucidated the marriage between patriarchy and chauvinism. I started to see it everywhere. In my country a patriot introduced the term “legitimate rape” to the century-old fight over unborn inside the womb. While well-suited politicians played scientists and tried to force reproduction to conform to their notions of sex, war broke out in places where the term “honor rape” is sometimes used. In a way, I started to envy the ugly fisi: female spotted hyenas are more aggressive, are bigger than the males. Spotted hyena society is a matriarchy where adult males are very last in the bloody, flesh-tearing food chain. Adult males eat last; they must take abuse from the lowest of the females or the female hyenas will band together against them. And, somehow most poignant as the pages of my snow-dampened newspaper unveiled, the female spotted hyena has complete power over reproduction.
Because of the female hyena’s pseudopenis, mating is impossible without “full female cooperation.” The female spotted hyena decides when, where, and whether she will tolerate sex. If she changes her mind after mating, she can flush out the sperm from her elongated reproductive tract by urinating. I thought about this again and again, most recently at a restaurant with a friend. We were chatting about his upcoming seventieth birthday when the television screen over his shoulder caught my eye.
“Sorry,” I apologized, “but there are protests. Somewhere. I haven’t seen a paper today; do you know what’s going on?”
His answer, the words “girl,” “gang rape,” “India,” should have been warning signs, but that night I pressed on, reading every horrific detail I could find. My husband found me with the telltale red above my cheeks.
“What are you reading?” he asked.
I didn’t know how to explain it to him other than that maybe the Mayans, or at least those who had misinterpreted them, had been right all along. We were a few days past the end of the world, but wasn’t everything that was happening apocalyptic? It had to mean something, the kind of carnage where a woman could be mutilated on a bus, where kindergarteners were gunned down in a classroom, where a high school student–a child–could be shot on the sidewalk in my neighborhood. If it didn’t mean the end, then did it mean our clan of violence had become sustainable? What if, instead of spinning out of control, everything was just spinning?
Dr. Kay Holekamp, who has studied spotted hyenas for years, developed a theory to explain hyena social structure and the pseudopenis. The answer, she said, was bone-crushing. Hyenas can eat anything organic and survive because of the massive skulls, jaws and teeth that allow them to, literally, pulverize and digest even bones. Dr. Holekamp found, however, that hyena cubs could barely manage to chew dog biscuits. Alone, the cubs would die. The spotted hyena mother must care for her cubs for three or four years until the cub’s own bones develop enough to be able to compete for food. This is a significantly longer time than other predators and so Dr. Holekamp theorized that female hyenas had to become bigger and stronger, meaner, in order to give their offspring more time at the carcass. In other words, the violence my son and I witnessed on my computer screen was an evolutionary adaptation “for the sake of feeding the kids.” In other words, I can’t put the blame on patriarchy or politics or statistics.
We sat across from one another, the widow and I, and in a way I wish I could return to then. Now in the future, I want to change the past, or at least have then the understanding that I do now. I wish I had said different things. No one offered any answers, but there have been apologies. Years after I met her, the president of her country officially apologized for the violence women suffered during the civil war. Years after I met her, I gave birth to my first child. Her daughter was born in Sierra Leone. My son was born in the United States. Spotted hyena cubs inherit their mother’s rank and the higher the mother’s status, the more protection and food the cubs are ensured. The higher the mother’s rank, the more likely it is that the cubs will survive. Are we really that different?
In graduate school I studied the three pillars of sustainability: environmental, social, economic. I memorized the Brundtland Commission definition and wrote papers on the needs of future generations. And then I bore children into the present and realized I shared the selfishness that makes us human: I would sacrifice anything for my children. Empowered as a mother to the future, I felt even more helpless. I stared at pictures of oil pools, shed angry tears when Africa’s black rhino was declared extinct. Tragedies far away felt even closer than the ones at my doorstep, perhaps because I am privileged enough to distance my concern. It’s safer to write a Facebook post about Russia outlawing adoption to the United States than it is to look at the faces of the children in my city who dream of “forever homes.” The only orphanage I have ever visited was in Zambia. There two dozen toddlers swarmed my legs, their tiny arms reaching up toward me, simply because I stood above them, simply asking to be held.
I wish I had held our cat as she was dying. I was scared that she would hurt me and it is my fear that I regret. I wish that I had comforted her as she took those last vulnerable breaths, even though I realize it may not have made a difference. Still I wish that I had tried, if nothing else because I am human and therefore my capacity to love goes beyond mere biology. It’s this capacity to love that makes wildlife documentaries so fascinating. We watch animals and we tell stories about family and friendship and compassion. We mash our world to try to understand theirs, but their world actually provides insight into our own. Answers. There must be answers because I refuse to believe that all we can do is apologize.
I was taught to draw sustainability as a Venn diagram, as reconciliation. In Sierra Leone the war is over, but everywhere the violence remains. The circles of our lives overlap and we must see that or we will only continue to scramble up pillars. Our fear of the future divides us. We cling to our ranks because we have never known anything else. Every now and then, though, life provides us a chance to see that the other exists.
The hyena’s gaze scares us, and it should, because it is a warning: we, too, have the potential to start our wars before we are born. The spotted hyena stands on hunched haunches and laughs when we realize that our world overlaps with the otherworld. The lesson I believe we must heed is that because we are human we can overcome our evolutionary fate. Because we are human we have the capacity to bear reconciliation. Quiet and kind, the woman from Sierra Leone had done everything she could for her daughter, who in turn went on to live beyond her statistical allotment. In spite of everything she had suffered, the widow spoke only of love. She was a reminder that sacrifice, at its root, means to make sacred.
Laura Story Johnson is an attorney working in human rights research and advocacy. Born and raised in Iowa, she has lived in New York City, bush Alaska, Mongolia, Boston, west of the Zambezi River in Zambia, and in Austria. Her writing has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize. She resides in Chicago with her husband and two children. www.laurastoryjohnson.com