Trigger warning: toxic masculinity, addiction issues, serious illness, and family member death
Editor’s note: The Wasp is a woman, but I have decided to include this post on “What About the Mens” Wednesday since it deals with toxic masculinity. -Al
Right now, I’m supposed to be writing a post tearing apart the “Who hurt you to make you this angry?” derailing tactic. I have the ideas down, and I’ve been talking them over with fellow feminists who have a lot of thoughts about it, but the words just aren’t clicking. That was the sixth post I’ve started recently, each one to the same effect – my sentences fell apart, my thoughts disintegrated, and I closed each document in a fit of frustration.
Right now, someone in my family is dying of toxic masculinity.
First, understand that I’m not being melodramatic when I say he’s dying. He is an extremely severe alcoholic with other serious mental health problems, he is mixing large quantities of alcohol with other dangerous drugs on a constant basis, he is refusing any treatment, and he is physically very ill. This is going to kill him. It’s just a matter of when.
Masculinity, or rather the social construction of it endemic to the culture that man and I grew up in, told him that he could not be vulnerable, he could not be afraid, he could not even be genuinely happy without being shamed and laughed at. He was indoctrinated, like so many boys, into an ideology of power and violence, and so that he could survive it, every spark of joy and sensitivity and innocence was either crushed or hidden under layers of stone. I remember him hard-faced or angry, unaccountably angry, angry with no words to explain why, because real men don’t need to explain themselves. And when the very real pain and shame and fear in him became too much to bear in solitude, to channel into anger, or to fight off with guns, masculinity told him that he could not seek help, he could not speak or feel or process, and faced with the impossible trap our society had laid for him, he turned to alcohol to dull it and drown it.
The women in his life tried to care for him. They tried and are trying to find him help, to get him what he needs, or even just to keep in touch with him. He refuses all of this because he cannot need them, cannot endure being taken care of because it makes him vulnerable, and a real man is always strong and in control. And for this, he’s going to die.
And yet this is not just a story about how an angry, working-class white Republican man fell to pieces, or about toxic masculinity tearing a family apart. Not exactly. Nor is it a story about the sensitive, brilliant child he will leave fatherless, how the same child stopped dancing with me last year because he finally got the message that dancing is for girls, or how once he cried when someone told him he was graceful, because only girls are graceful. This is not a story about how our society stomps the joy and the empathy and the compassion and the grace and the fucking willingness to dance out of boys by instilling a fear that they will somehow become girls, and the deep sense that being a girl is something profoundly shameful and awful, though that’s a story we must keep telling until it stops being true. This is a story about the political becoming all too personal – a story for which I can write no satisfactory ending. What can we do when our lives are shattered, when those we love are casualties of a struggle that so many treat as mere sport?
It’s not that I was unaware that the political and the personal are inseparably intertwined – my own political views were profoundly shaped by my own experience of violence and how our culture enables it. When I discovered feminism and intersectionality and the language to describe what had happened to me and why, these tools were so powerful; I used them to build a ladder out of the wreckage inside my head, and to construct and defend boundaries around myself, and to join the effort to tear down the structures that give rise to violence. Though the indignities and reminders were continual, I could fight them, could at least try to protect myself, knew how to get up again. Now, though, I already have the words and the background to understand and articulate what’s happening and why, but nothing I can do will stop it or even help, and in the face of the immediate suffering of those around me, the knowledge that this must be an unceasing – and may be an unwinnable – fight seems immeasurably cruel. I can pour all my energy, all my life into pushing back against this exact foe, these exact horrors, and for all it matters to that man and to the people who love him I might as well be fighting ghosts.
In the end, I suppose, I will do what I always do, using the tactics that I have learned from those more experienced than I am. I will get up tomorrow. I will fashion my pain into a sword, and my fury into a wall, and I will try to take care of myself and be good to myself so that I can be a rock for others. I will take on what concrete work I can to provide support for those I love who are hurting, to help them find some comfort even in the midst of this turmoil. I will fiercely, utterly love that little boy who no longer feels free to dance, and I will fight with my words against the constricting, suffocating lies society tells him, and I will try my best to give him and every other child I know the knowledge that there is nothing shameful in being a woman, and that being a man doesn’t require becoming a stone. And I will think and listen and read and write, and I will hope that someday, we might live in a world that is better than this.
About the Wasp: Though often misunderstood due to her fearsome exterior, the Wasp may be a friendly and beneficial insect, as well as an excellent neighbor.
All the same, it’s probably best to avoid any sudden movements.