Why does tragedy exist? Because you are full of rage. Why are you full of rage? Because you are full of grief.
- Anne Carson
Brooke Banner remembers the first time the storm breaks through. She grew up with fear, has known it from the first time her father lay a hand on her. But the anger didn’t come until later, not until she realized that the only reason her father knocked Mom around was because she was trying to protect Brooke. It’s not until her mother physically puts herself between Brooke and her father, when he goes towards her with a drunken snarl that the anger breaks through her and she launches herself at her father, sobbing in a dizzying hysteria of fear and anger. She’s terrified, she knows what her defiance will mean, but it’s her mom, and it’s Brooke’s fault that he’s doing this to her. When he knocks her aside she feels so helpless, knowing that she’s nothing but a little girl who can’t do a thing. She learns, then, that nothing she will do can ever stop the pain born into her family.
She goes to school the next day with a black eye worthy of a boxer and a slight limp in her right leg. She tells her teacher that she’d gotten hit in the face with a foul ball playing baseball. The teacher purses her lips in concern and doubt, but merely tells Brooke to go get an ice pack from the nurse.
When her father finally kills her mother in one of his rages it’s survival instinct to internalize, to shut down. She can’t show her fear or anger, not in front of him. And when social services carts her off to her aunt two states away she remains withdrawn, staying silent in front of her aunt, in front of the social workers. If she faces it, she has to face the storm and she has to admit the truth—that it’s her fault her mom died. Her fault, because she was there and she was too scared and helpless to stop it. So she turns the storm inward, pressing it down, making it small inside of her. Maybe, just maybe, if she makes herself small enough she’ll be able to disappear, too.
By the time she’s old enough to quantify her emotions, separate and bottle them the way she does elements in chemistry class, she recognizes the vestiges of her father in her. She feels the terrifying rage, welling up in her chest until she can’t stand it. And she hates herself for it, that she is so weak that she can’t escape him, even now. She hates that she was so helpless that she couldn’t stop him, can’t stop herself. She bottles it, directs it inward, a steady stream of insults and criticism and rage against her own soul. But when her aunt contributes to the criticism with snappish comments about laziness and getting a job instead of solving useless equations, it’s just too much. It’s a Tuesday morning in the kitchen when her temper finally beats her, and she screams at her aunt until she’s hoarse. The yelling does nothing to alleviate the rage, and she wants so badly to do something, anything, to take away the leviathan inside of her. When her aunt yells back she calls her a heinous bitch, but it’s her hatred towards herself—that she is low enough to become this—that causes her to punch her hand through the window of the kitchen door. The pain brings her back to herself, and she stares at the blood, watching it dribble down her arm in an almost curious detachment. She deserves this pain, she thinks over and over again, deserves every ounce of it. Her aunt shrieks and calls 911, but by the time the ambulance arrives Brooke has calmed herself into a dazed silence.
When her aunt suggests she apply to college a year early, Brooke doesn’t object.
She gets into Caltech on a scholarship, and while she doesn’t feel at home she feels at peace. Here it’s expected that your work is your life and your life is your work, and for the first time she can give herself into her studies without having to deal with the looks and snide comments from the pretty, vapid queen bees of her high school. Physics and chemistry have always made sense to her, been soothing in their equations and their laws and their chemical balances. She knows she has talent, knows that’s what got her here, and now that she’s here she’s determined to excel. When she buries herself in the lab, working through the puzzles of physics, making logic out of illogic, she feels as though she has more than just a modicum of control over her life.
She doesn’t make too many friends, because science is still very much a boys’ club, Caltech not the least. Most of the gawky, awkward student body has rarely so much as talked to a member of the opposite sex before coming here, and they don’t know what to make of the quiet, bookish girl who sets the curve in nearly all of their classes. Meanwhile she has little use for the few socially competent, attractive men among them—most of them are assholes, anyway. She does make friends with a few of the girls in Dabney House, gels with their more laid back, hippie-style approach to things. They all see her as a sort of little sister to take in, and she finds herself looking forward to their Thursday night study dates, doesn’t run away when their late-night chats turn from discussions of Brat Pack movies to talk of family life. She drifts away from them when they get turned on to the feminism, though, when they start going on tirades about sexism in the world of science and the need to protest against the discrimination and harassment from the professors. It’s not that Brooke doesn’t agree with them, she does. But she can’t turn off the anger in the way that they can. If she thinks too hard about the inequality she knows she faces, the fire inside her will rise—and she doesn’t know how to quench it.
It’s ironic, then, that the first time that her temper gets the better of her at Caltech is after she sleeps with her engineering professor. It’s two days after her eighteenth birthday and it’s her first time. She doesn’t know what the fuck she’s doing but he’s sweet, and patient, and guides her through the motions. It’s not until they’re putting on their clothes afterward that he tells her she’ll certainly be getting an A in his class now. Maybe it was a joke, maybe it wasn’t, but the shame and the anger that had been simmering beneath the surface ever since he unhooked her bra suddenly come rushing out of her. How dare he suggest that the only way she could succeed with him was to sleep with him, how dare he use anyone in that way, maybe she was stupid enough to fall for him but god damn him if he was going to let this have any impact on the way she performed in his class. He tries to protest, but she throws a paperweight across the room and screams at him to get out, even though they’re in his office. He stares at her in astonishment, but before he can say or do anything she grabs her sweater and storms out of the room, slamming the door behind her as hard as she can.
It’s the first and only time Brooke drops a class in college. Maybe she’s a coward for it, but she knows if she had to face him for the rest of the semester she wouldn’t be able to bear it.
Brooke’s time at Caltech changes her, and she’d like to think for the better. It gives her a quiet, determined confidence she hadn’t possessed before. She knows none of the professors take her seriously at first, but she ignores it the way she’s always done, pushes through her work and allows her own brilliance to speak for itself. She graduates at the top of her class, and juggles offers from multiple PhD programs. She knows she has a bright future ahead of her, knows it’s because she worked hard and is damned good at what she loves.
But college has also defined a fear of relationships that she knows she’ll never quite work past. She knows she’ll never be free of the rage that runs through her veins, and while she’s gotten remarkably good at keeping it back, still her anger simmers under the surface. She dates one guy for four months her junior year and flees the minute she loses her temper in front of him. She knows it will always get the best of her and she knows it will hurt anyone she’s close to. She vowed a long time ago that she would never become her father, and she decides that means no boyfriends. She will never do to anyone what he did to her mother.
Then Bobby Ross comes along and she breaks all her rules.
They meet two years after Brooke gets her PhD, and she’s teaching at a college in Virginia. She plays hard-to-get with him for months, but he keeps pressing, which is surprising because she can tell he’s as introverted as she is. She knows he’s not a fragile little flower—his father’s a military high-up and he’s seen more than his fair share of the world. Still there’s something intensely vulnerable about him, something that makes her want to cradle him and hold him even though she knows if she slips she’ll break him. She’s careful with him, oh so very careful, but of course, eventually she does slip and loses it one night when they’re out to dinner. It’s over nothing, and she’s already hating herself for ruining the best thing she’s had in years, but he catches her by the wrist before she can run away.
“Don’t,” he says, “don’t go. You think we’re all perfect or something?”
She breaks down that night, sobbing messily into his nice button-down shirt, so hysterical that she can barely form words. He holds her and strokes her hair, murmuring soothing noises that make her cry even harder, because she can’t understand why he’s still around, now that he’s seen her at her worst. She doesn’t tell him everything, but she tells a lot—more than she’s told anyone, ever, except perhaps Molly Gehringer after one particularly drunken night in Dabney. By the end of it his own eyes are glassy as he looks at her.
“All this time,” he says softly, “and you’ve hated yourself that much? For things that—god, Brooke, things that are human.” She shakes her head and looks down, because they’re not, they’re not, but he catches her chin, frames her face with his hands.
“Brooke Banner, we’re more than the people that made us,” he says firmly, “I didn’t know your father, but I know you—and I know anyone who’s so damn worried about hurting other people has got to be so, so much better than him. What he did to you, and the fact that you’re still here and sweet and wonderful—you’ve done so much already. But you shouldn’t have to face all of this alone.”
She knows, right then, that she needs to keep this man. She doesn’t know if she can, and she doesn’t know how, but she knows she needs to fight tooth and nail to keep him.
Two weeks later, his father comes to her with an offer from the military. They’re working to try and make humans immune to gamma radiation, working with the old super-soldier serum that was used to create Captain America nearly a lifetime ago. She accepts, because she knows that she’s better at working with gamma radiation than anyone. She accepts because it will keep her close to Bobby, will give them a chance to work together in a way they never could at the university. She accepts because this is the most direct chance she’s ever had to help people, make a difference in this world. She knows if she succeeds at this project it could change so many people’s lives for the better.
And maybe, just maybe, it will make her better, too.