Mackay’s story begins in the 1940s when, at age 5, he was sent to a "boarding school" run by the Catholic order of the Pauline Brothers. Mackay’s mother had herself been institutionalized for paranoid schizophrenia and his father was not in the picture. In the school Mackay was exposed to pervasive violence: "intramural" violence wherein the stronger children taunted and beat up the weaker ones; classroom violence in which the instructors slapped or beat with a razor strop those boys they deemed to be errant in any respect; organized boxing matches; and, most feared, "statutory evening punishment" where students had been selected out by a Brother to be humiliated and beaten after the evening meal and prayers. The latter violence was characterized by "the absence of mercy" and a sadistic ritualism that induced "sick-making terror" in its victims.

We follow Mackay through additional episodes of violence as he progresses through delinquent adolescence--now living in a welfare hotel with his mother--through a stint in the Navy, marriage and fatherhood, and, finally, to an episode in the New York City subway that is the crisis point of the story. In the Navy he is once again victimized by a drill instructor who humiliates Mackay into losing the "instinctive cringe" he had developed during his years at the institution.

Mackay reads in the newspaper that an old buddy--"they had suffered shame and pain together that could never be explained to anyone (38)"--has been murdered in the subway while coming to a woman’s aid. Mackay is terribly troubled by this incident, not only because of the earlier close relationship, but also because he finds himself intrigued by the story. A year later, Mackay is in a similar situation--in his presence, a well dressed but deranged man is threatening a woman in a subway station.


In this autobiographical story, violence is represented as both repulsive and alluring. While the violence and humiliation that Mackay endures as a child clearly have no redeeming features, generating misery and fear that is never overcome, yet there is a kind of flirtation with violence just beneath the surface. It is difficult to avoid an element of triumph and satisfaction when one is the perpetrator after having been victimized so often.

The final scene in the subway, where Mackay struggles with the deranged man, are excruciatingly painful to read, because so graphically depicted--especially for New Yorkers who travel the subway system and can imagine the scene! The first section, where the institutional violence is outlined, is also very disturbing. These sequences elicit in the reader a discomfort that approaches what the protagonist is suffering.

At the same time, the narration occasionally inserts an oddly distant voice when the narrator departs from "omniscience" to become Mackay’s present-day audience: "The worst of it, Mackay says, . . . (32)." This device may lead the reader to question Mackay’s sincerity--for example, when it is stated that Mackay "wanted no part of violence anymore, on any scale" (39)--and emphasizes the ambivalence that Mackay is finally forced to acknowledge. A powerful story illustrating the complex, long-range effects of childhood abuse.

Primary Source

Bear and His Daughter


Houghton Mifflin/Mariner

Place Published




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