Excerpts from “BOY: A Woman Listening to Men and Boys”
Everywhere I go now, I see men differently.
I have loved and appreciated and felt exasperated by men in many ways —father, brothers, relatives, playmates, friends, lovers, mentors, colleagues, husband, ex-husband, son, long-term partners. I know the goodness of men. And yet, after more than a half century of living with them, I realize I am still mystified by much of their behavior.
There have been moments when I might have been tempted to give up on men altogether. Having a son keeps me hostage to the world of men. It’s a kind of hostage I want to be. We’re here such a brief time, I don’t want to miss anything.
Here’s how it began.
In my later fifties I fell in love again. I felt an inexplicable depth of connection with this man. He was the most open and vulnerable man I’d loved and the most elaborately defended. So tenderly close and then . . . unreachable. My heart was scrambled. He didn’t seem to be aware of his behavior or how hard it was to be on the other end. I’d wake up in the middle of the night, pierced with anguish. What do I not understand here? In the midst of heartache and confusion, stillness found me, and the word “BOY” appeared in my mind’s eye. I had no idea what that was about, but I trusted it.
Writing is one of my ways of letting things sort themselves out. So I went to the wilderness to listen for poems. Not much luck. It dawned on me I needed to listen to actual men. To see what I could learn about some of the puzzling ways of relating I’d experienced. What’s at the heart of it? And what’s my part in it?
What if no one’s “wrong”? Or “right”?
I am a woman living in a culture primarily thought up by men. I have carried a boy child in my body. He was part of me. I get it that it’s human being first. And yet, because of his gender, my son has had to navigate a whole other world than that of his sister. I wanted to know more about this world. I wanted to know, what happens to boys growing up? Maybe I would need to listen differently if I wanted to find out.
I didn’t want to close my heart. To me, at this time on this earth, it seems essential to stay open and embrace what I don’t know and don’t understand.
So I came closer and listened more deeply.
I just wanted to listen without blame or judgment to how it is for men, a whole half of the human species I knew less about. I wanted to hear their honest human stories, without gloss or performance.
Occasionally, I would catch myself wondering — what am I doing listening to all these males when I was someone who had muttered, more than once, about being tired of always listening to men, and men not listening in return? I really didn’t know. I just knew I had to do it.
The more than eighty men and boys I interviewed (and dozens of mini-interviews wherever I’d go — people I’d never met on airplanes, on trains, in restaurants, waiting rooms, in a tow truck, at the gym etc.) range in age from 9 to 94 years. They are men of color, white men, gay and transgendered men, straight men, married men, bachelors, brothers and fathers. They are all American—and come from a variety of educational, religious and work backgrounds.
I’ve mostly chosen to share the more vulnerable responses, those perhaps less easily spoken about publicly—the ones that touched me most or just felt true.
From the Violence Section
“Because it is learned, it can be unlearned.”
Any woman who has given birth to or nursed a boy, or anyone who even just looked, really looked, into the eyes of a newborn knows — there is no violence there.
So much of “being a man” sounded like a violence to the spirits of the young boys I listened to. Emotional as well as physical. The so-called “ordinary violence” — the daily violations that interfere with their being who they truly are. When I shared some of what I had been hearing with a friend in his 60s, he listened quietly, nodding in recognition. Then he leaned closer and spoke softly: “Yeah. And then, you have to be a man.”
I am well aware of the fear and violence that many women live with, but I hadn’t really let in how it is for men. The stories I heard when I asked the question — What was your first experience of violence? — changed that.
So many of these boys were beaten, yelled at, tickled to the point of tears, teased, mocked, put down, humiliated, hazed, called names. They suffered from absent, neglectful or abandoning caregivers, insensitive schoolyard bullies, mean big brothers, abusive coaches, unaware fathers and mothers passing on what had been passed on to them. In many instances, the brutality of their welcome to the world was searing. A man in his early 60s told me, “I was found unacceptable. It’s hard to find your way back from that.” If your caregiver is a source of terror and pain, where is safety?
Moment to moment we are impacting these boys by who we are and how we are. What do they see when they look in the mirror of our face?
I was trying to understand what it might be like to always be on guard, afraid that something violent is going to happen. What does that do to a boy’s natural curiosity and creativity? How can you feel free to play and discover? It’s heartbreaking what men have to go through to “be a man” — the uncomfortableness of it. I’m amazed at how much more limited the range of expression is for the men and boys I know than it is for women and girls. How easy it would be to pass on that uncomfortable feeling, without knowing why. Not out of malice, but because maybe nobody showed you another way of dealing with it.
If you could have the imagination and a way to express whatever you need to express — would you need to be violent?
~ ~ ~
From Thomas (40s)
My idea of a violent man was someone who fought with other men all the time, and was physically abusive to women. I wasn’t those things, but I was using different types of coercion in my relationships that I wasn’t aware of. After what I witnessed from my stepfather and the other violent men in my mother’s relationships, I vowed to never hit a woman. I have kept that vow, but I wasn’t aware of all of the other kinds of violence that I had been doing.
Men have the ability and the upper body strength to control and dominate. We think that we’re in charge, because we can be.
It’s really the rules of engagement, how you treat people. Now I say, “Equal is equal is equal.” And that’s something that takes a long time to soak in, because I always reserve the right to, if all else fails — I’m going to put my foot down here. Because somewhere in the back of my mind is the idea that I’m the boss and this is the way it’s going to be.
A lot of guys, when we’re first getting help, we try to minimize or deny responsibility for our violence. Blaming, really. It’s culturally acceptable.
I got good at being passive-aggressive. I was losing control of my partner. When we up the ante, when we’re challenged and our emotional or verbal or economic authority doesn’t work any more, as happened in my case, I finally crossed the line. I shoved her against the wall, and I threatened her.
She didn’t call the police. She waited, and gave me a chance to explain myself. I remember the look on her face. She shook her head and said, “No, you’re not going to do this to me.” There was a quiet understanding between us at that moment — a pivotal, life-changing event. That look on her face, in her eyes.
Over the last few years, I’ve seen that look many times. I’ve seen it in my own mom’s eyes when I raise my voice to her. It’s a look of being hurt so deeply, and frightened. Fear of my rage. In my mother’s frightened eyes, I saw myself as a terrified young boy. I felt ashamed, a very uncomfortable feeling, which was quickly followed by anger to justify myself. Men, we do that. It’s a habit. Emotional violence — what it does is spiritual violence. It leaves a person worn down and off-balance.
The most difficult thing to deal with is when I feel justified. It stems way back. Growing up in a turbulent and unpredictable alcoholic household was full of emotional violence. I remember as a boy when I had suffered humiliation and violence, I said, “This is not going to f—-ing happen to me anymore.” This emotional bomb shelter where you go into, it’s a protective mode. Years and years of, “You’re not gonna f—- with me. I will not let anybody control and dominate me or challenge me ever again.” I carried that attitude all the way up to domestic violence, controlling and dominating my partner.
That little boy is still there, and he’s still afraid and he still doesn’t want to be hurt again and he still doesn’t completely trust people. I have to keep reminding myself, “You can trust her. She loves you.” My default position is not to trust, not move towards intimacy, not be vulnerable. I have to make a concerted effort to overcome that automatic response.
From the Afterword
I wanted to learn to love well. I wanted to look into the violence in my own heart and not add to the aggression on the planet. “Everything included,” a beloved older friend once said to me. “If you have any idea of ‘us and them,’ you’re going the wrong way.”
I got to practice listening and staying open. Whenever my heart clicked closed with thought, ideas of blame, judgment, making wrong, my own impatience or projection — reacting with the whole array of human habits — so did the exchange. When I took a breath and relaxed, suspended my beliefs long enough to put myself in their shoes, and let myself just listen and not know, the world lit up. It was like falling in love again and again with life ~
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