For two weeks in the seventh grade I was a football player in the making. Joining the team seemed like a natural step from the schoolyard scrimmages I enjoyed. As it turned out, I did not enjoy vomiting through a face mask in the late summer heat or being screamed at by a man I was doing all I could to please. When the players were exhausted and needed to rest, we were allowed only to kneel, never to sit on the ground; after all, we were being conditioned for violence. Shortly after I stopped attending practice, a friend who remained on the team informed me that the coach explained my absence to the other boys by calling me a “quitter”.
Trials of torture—physical and psychological—mark the American boy’s passage into manhood. Our heroes are supposed to be those who can endure the most pain. Though I largely escaped torment by organized athletics, I was not untouched by this madness. “The strongest among us at some point had to become the weakest,” I carved into my bedroom wall at least one year before I could carry a driver’s license. Many years later, when the chair of a humanities department at a prestigious New York university invited me to apply to his graduate studies program, his first selling point was that the experience would make me intellectually “tough”. For all kinds of American males, suffering is not just an unavoidable fact of life; it is an essential means of becoming.
Is it any wonder that women are wary of us? We emerge from these crucibles hardened not only to life’s adversities, but to the vulnerability of others, which makes it exceedingly difficult to form healthy relationships. If not corrected, the resulting isolation leaves us susceptible to the embrace of our culture’s casual sexism. In a minority of cases, factors combine to produce highly resentful, anti-social types who seek the gratification of dominance—or what a psychologist friend of mine simply calls “bigness”—through aggression or violence. These boys become bullies, rapists, neo-Nazis or mass shooters.
I never lost myself in violence, but the confidence, joie de vivre and easy fellowship I enjoyed during childhood turned bitter around age 20, when my family fell precipitously into medical and financial ruin and it became clear that no government, corporation or community would come to our rescue. I stalked the earth in a cloud of bitterness and fear, ready to explode and dress down with language any person who was unfortunate enough to fail my tests of decency or proper opinion. During this period, people I knew freely and intimately stopped coming around, including, of course, women whose friendships I cherished.
My deliverance from this evil was not guaranteed. By good fortune I met and was helped by a wise elder whose sensitive handling of the condition in which he found me commanded the respect and cooperation that my one-time football coach sought, briefly possessed and threw into the trash when he reduced my fellows and me to the status of base metals to be hammered into crude weapons; male objects shaped to feel little, hit hard and perhaps—in another time and place, as the dead poets of the first World War beg us to recognize—die if it serves the interests of our elders.
A few evenings ago I stopped by a friend’s home for conversation and a glass of wine. Her two-year-old son cried and cried when I appeared in the doorway. He knew the hour had come when his mother would abandon him to the darkness of his nursery. I was glad at his cries; they are appropriate to times of trouble. When he grows silent in years to come I will be concerned.
A version of this piece appeared in The Hudson Valley News