I’m in the library of a small college in Salt Lake City when my cell phone rings. It’s my wife calling from our home in Boston. She’s just visited her ob-gyn. We’ve been waiting for the results of various prenatal tests. I walk to the bathroom, lock the door, and flip the phone open.
My wife sounds happy, a little out of breath. “Everything went great. No problems.” She pauses. “They did another ultrasound.”
By this she means, I know the gender of the child. This is a touchy subject, because both of us have been forthright about our desire for female offspring. When my wife told me, two years ago, that our first child was a daughter, I flushed with joy.
“Do you want to know?” my wife asks.
She’s in such a buoyant mood. We must be having another girl.
“Sure,” I say.
“It’s a boy,” she says.
I close my eyes. My forehead thuds softly against the mirror over the sink. It’s my job now to say something, rather quickly, about how great this is, how excited I am to be having a son, a bouncing baby boy, an heir to carry on our silly family name. But when I open my eyes, the light inside the bathroom is a sickly yellow and my chest is hammering with panic.
I’m maybe five years old. This is in the house on Frenchman’s Hill, where I grew up. Our cat, Macacheese, has just given birth to a litter of kittens in the backyard. But the kittens came out dead, stillborn in their amniotic shellac. We’re not allowed to see them.
The event has me torn up, so I’m inside, sort of curled on my bed.
My older brother Dave appears in the doorway. “Remember when you dropped Macacheese on her head?” he says.
I shake my head.
“That’s when the kittens died,” he says. “You killed them.”
Dave and I are fighting in the TV room. It’s a boy fight: hurled fists and grunting. Our dad is seated on the piano bench, watching this awkward spectacle. He believes we need to “get our aggression out,” and that there’s no other way to do it. He’s even sort of rooting me on, because Dave is bigger and I need to stand up for myself.
Dave grabs my hair and pulls down until I’m jackknifed at the waist, my head trapped below his chest. “Calm down,” he says. “I’m not going to let you up until you quit spazzing out.”
“You f*cking pulled my hair!”
I’m appealing, I guess, to our dad. But he’s no longer in the room.
I finally agree to calm down.
The moment Dave lets me up, I swing for his jaw and land a glancing blow. Later, after we’ve retreated to our rooms, our father comes to check on me. I’m lying on the blue rug, crying. He tells me Dave has a broken hand, from when he hit the coffee table. He’d been aiming for my skull.
I fight with my twin brother, Mike, too, until he hits a growth spurt and becomes too big to tangle with. Our final fight is especially vicious. We grapple and punch and tumble across the bed. We can smell each other -- our skin, our breath. The intimacy is disorienting. Not so long ago, the two of us walked to school pressed together at the shoulder. But the prohibitions of boyhood have torn us apart. These days, the only time we touch is when we fight.
Having pummeled each other to exhaustion, we stand face to face. Our chests heave with adrenaline. We’re confused, not sure how to bring this to a close. My hand flies up and slaps Mike across the face. It’s a loud, clean blow, delivered so quickly neither of us can quite believe it. Mike bursts into tears and runs from the room. I stand, staring down at my hand. My palm stings, but the rest of me feels nothing.
Around this time, I become convinced that Peter Guerrero wants to kick my ass. I have no idea how this notion has taken root, but I spend every lunch period obsessing over it. Peter is a pudgy kid with a rash that makes the skin on his arms red and flaky. I am constantly thinking about where he is, where I can and cannot walk, what to say if he approaches me.
This is how I understand masculinity to operate: Either you are a bully or you are bullied. You find a weaker boy to absorb your humiliation, or you are that boy.
A few years later, the bully is a kid named Sean Linden, who organizes a posse of his friends to antagonize me. For months, they call me names and issue threats. Linden never gives any indication of why he has targeted me, and I never ask. All we know is that because I’m too frightened to fight back, I’ve consented to this arrangement.
The only arena in which I enjoy some measure of physical pride is the soccer field, where I’m small but quick, a star. One year, I lead my team all the way to the city championship game. I score a goal early and assist on a second, which puts us up 2–0 at halftime. Then a teammate tells me that the toughest kid on the other team is going to beat me up after the game. I spend the second half in a silent panic. We lose the game 3–2. I’m convinced my cowardice is to blame.
It’s 1981, and Sugar Ray Leonard is fighting Tommy Hearns. It’s one of the first fights on pay-per-view, and my father has agreed to buy the telecast. We’ve moved the TV into the living room because a bunch of friends have come over. There are maybe a dozen of us, men and boys flung across sofas and chairs.
We’re all Sugar Ray fans -- except for this one kid, Jeff, who worships Hearns. Nobody really knows Jeff. He heard from someone that we bought the fight and begged to come over. In the tenth round, Hearns lands a flurry, and Jeff, who’s sitting next to me, throws punches right along with him, wild uppercuts and hooks. I stare at him in disgust. It’s such a sloppy display of bloodlust, I think. But a few rounds later, when Sugar Ray is knocking Hearns senseless along the ropes -- trying to do serious damage to the man’s brain -- the rest of us rise from our seats and start throwing our own vicarious haymakers.
I’ve been at the park, walking our hyperactive Labrador retriever. Dave, my older brother, is a senior in high school now. Mike and I are sophomores. As I approach our house, I can see our mother through the full-length window next to the front door. Her expression is grave, her complexion heading toward ashen. Mike appears behind her. He shoulders past her and out the door. He has the smaller of the serious kitchen knives in his hand.
Mike pounds on the door to the garage. “I’ll kill you!” he screams. “I’ll f*cking kill you!” He’s holding the knife as though he’s the villain in a slasher film.
“You’re crazy,” Dave says, from inside the garage. “Calm down, crazy boy!”
This fight began at the dinner table. Mike claimed his right to take over Dave’s room after Dave leaves for college. Dave objected. Insults were exchanged. Mike kicked at Dave under the table. Dave picked up a fork and stabbed Mike in the thigh. Mike substantiates this last act by showing me -- with great ceremony -- four puncture wounds, one for each tine.
I work hard in college to convince the world I’ve outgrown savagery. I quit the soccer team. I rally for nuclear disarmament. I adopt the prevailing feminist spellings (“women” becomes “womyn”). But when my girlfriend makes an offhand joke questioning my manhood, I punch a hole in her bedroom wall.
After college, I take a newspaper gig as a rock critic. Most of the shows that come through town are heavy metal. The fans in front are young dudes with radiant hair and bleak prospects. They all drink too much and talk tough. They want to be like the glittering figures onstage -- that macho, that powerful. At one of the first shows I cover, a couple of burly guys launch into a pattern of shoving predictive of a fight. Then they start swinging. I leap between the two and shout for them to calm down, but I’m not sure whether I’m trying to break up the fight or trying to put myself into the middle of it.
A few years later I’m in Miami Beach, working for another newspaper. I make a right turn onto a main road, and within a few hundred yards a gold sports coupe cuts me off. I honk at the driver because I’m not going to let some dick do that to me. The driver responds by slamming on his brakes so that I’m forced to slam on my brakes. Then he does it again.
When we come to a red light, the guy glares at me in his rearview mirror, and I glare back. Then he gets out of his car -- we’re in the middle of a busy street -- and marches back to my car. He’s screaming about how I cut him off, evidently before he cut me off. I roll down my window, meaning to tell him, basically, Okay, calm down. I apologize.
But before I can say anything, the world swings out of focus, and then I’m staring at my car’s grubby carpet beneath the passenger seat, where, curiously, my glasses are lying. It takes a second to dawn on me: I’ve just been punched. Hard.
The guy hurries back to his car, jumps in, and burns rubber around the corner. Blood is tickling my cheek, from where the rim of my glasses cut into my skin. I pull up at the nearest shop, a pharmacy, and ask if they have ice. The girl at the register stares at me with her mouth open. I am bleeding onto the floor. “This guy sucker punched me,” I say. “Right in the middle of traffic. Can you believe that?”
I tell my friends that the cut on my face is from basketball. But I know the truth. I’m lucky the guy didn’t drag me out of my car, didn’t have a weapon, didn’t turn me into the sort of violent headline I might read about in the Metro section while imagining the victim as a pathetic wimp.
For the next decade there’s always some guy I feel I should fight. The guy who throws elbows in our pickup hoops game at Flamingo Park. The guy who spends months baiting me in grad school. The guy who sells me a bag of fake pot and refuses to refund my money. I sit around for hours at a time, reliving our confrontations, wishing I had the courage to punch these dudes in the face.
It’s tempting to blame all this on my father. That would be the safe move. Perhaps if he’d encouraged us to share our feelings rather than pummel each other, my brothers and I would have entered the world without fear and loathing. We would have become secure citizens, ready to talk things through. But that would miss the point, that masculinity has always been governed by aggression.
To put it more starkly: Aggression is the means by which boys learn to share their feelings. Not even the most loving father can protect his son from the playgrounds, the bars and parking lots where bullies lurk, where soft emotions are hunted down and targeted, where fear becomes rage, and rage becomes violence.
My wife is downstairs with our daughter. I can hear them playing with the new paint set. I’m upstairs working on my novel. Except half the time, I’m not writing at all. I’m trolling YouTube for old boxing matches, street brawls, ultimate fighting -- the pornography of the bullied. I watch these scenes with a scalding, masturbatory shame. My fists twitch and flex. I’m like a Catholic kid frisking myself for that forbidden rush of adrenaline.
Or maybe I’m in my car, immersed in the molten wrath of Boston traffic. This is where I indulge my other secret vice: talk radio. Limbaugh. Hannity. Savage -- our maestros of rage, each a Joe McCarthy Mini-Me. Grievance is their siren’s call. “You are all victims!” they sing. “Are you going to let these [fill in the blank] kick us around? Fight back!” These guys represent everything I despise. They’re vampires of the soul, feeding on the psychic damage of their congregations. And yet listening to them is a kind of seduction. It’s like tuning in to an emotional oldies station. The louder they wail, the deeper I descend into that primordial realm where nobody ever admits he’s wrong or uncertain or frightened, where sadism is the chosen means of eradicating shame. Welcome to masculinity stunted at age five.
And whom does history commemorate if not those men most effective at marshaling their aggression to shape the world? For every Gandhi, a hundred villains. For every Enlightenment, a hundred Inquisitions. For every treaty, a hundred wars.
What I’m asking here is, Do we ever outgrow our savagery? Is there any way to strip from us the masculine pathologies acquired over millions of years of evolution?
Let me put all this in a more personal light: How am I to protect my son from a world that lives inside of me?
I have plenty of fancy ideas about how this might happen, about what it means to be a good man, and I’ve spent many years trying to publicize my own glowing empathy. But the truth is I remain a prisoner of terror and rage, one minute puffing out my chest, the next cowering, dreaming of a power that resides in valor, in the ability to inflict physical harm. It’s horrible who I am.
So now you know why I feared having a son, and why, when I gaze down at my newborn boy sleeping -- he is three days old as I write this -- I am sometimes filled with dread. I offer no happy ending here, no eleventh-hour homily about the rescuing powers of forgiveness. A quick look at the state of the world should dispel such mush.
All I can say is that I’ll do my best with the love I have. I’ll hope my boy becomes someone different from his father, braver in the right ways, less frightened. This, it seems to me, is the only reasonable hope fathers can offer their sons.