An Essay About Men: Considering the Inner Worlds of Those Who Are Taught to Deny Them

Holly Haworth on Robert Bly, Toxic Masculinity, and the Hole at the Center of Our World

I recently re-watched some of the Mad Men series. On one early episode, Betty says to dinner companions, “Don doesn’t like to talk about himself. I know better than to ask.” She doesn’t really know better, though, because she is a silly woman who wants to know her husband intimately, and that night she asks Don a question about his childhood. “Jesus, Betty,” he responds, his face contorting to show his utter confoundment at this kind of prying. “What difference does it make?” Instead of talking to her, then, he kisses her, and they have sex. It’s classic. The scene cuts to Don sleeping soundly while Betty sits up in bed smoking a cigarette, distressed. She stubs her cigarette, lies down next to him, places her hand gently on his back, and whispers to that eternal enigma of a man who stands for so many men, “Who’s in there?” The scene goes dark.

So often when trying to see into the inner worlds of men, the scene goes dark.

I had been grieving this darkness, moving through it as a hunger, subterranean and underlying an emptiness in my life that only seems to grow. And so it is for billions of women. Where are the men who know that talking or not talking about their lives, their memories and wounds, childhoods and what has shaped them, makes all the difference?

In fact, I was watching Mad Men so that I could look at this phenomenon from a distance—maybe, even, so that I could witness another woman suffering from it, as a balm to my own afflictions and some kind of larger cultural affirmation of what I was going through. For too many months, I had been navigating yet another horrendously painful relationship with an emotionally unavailable man, giving it my all in the hopes that I could get him to open up, and in so doing, that I could win a love that was supportive, that thrived on communication and connection—because what else might love thrive on? And what might our lives thrive on but love?

Already I sound sentimental and feminine. Such is the entrenchment of gender conditioning. Men get mad and women get sad. Men are terse and women overly emotional.

There were numerous instances—when he became saturnine and pulled away for days on end, leaving me feeling abandoned—that I asked the man whose love I was trying to earn a simple question, “Is everything okay?” He would get twitchy and say things like, “Is that a loaded question?” or “I feel like you want me to say something and I don’t know what you want to hear” or “I feel like you’re fishing for something.”

Sigh. I suppose I was fishing for something, casting out and reeling in, casting out and reeling in, daylong, with no bites. A man who could sit down and talk. Who would tell me what was bothering him.

While the hordes of psychological self-help accounts on Instagram have taught us about emotional unavailability, and about attachment theory as it applies to adult relationships, not many are discussing how divided along gender lines the attachment styles are (something that almost anyone can observe), with men in general having dismissive attachment while women suffer anxious attachment. Is everything okay? How are you feeling? Is anything wrong? … Avoidance churns anxiousness. A lack of words makes us fish for them.

Even as my romantic relationship crumbled, it would be more accurate to say that the man I was involved with was silently crumbling. He gave me small crumbs of his love (the official term is “breadcrumbing”) and meanwhile drank and played video games—the sorts of things we just accept as “guy” behavior, the addictions that thrive on buried emotions.

My father turned 70 last year. As he went through the upheaval of homelessness, unemployment, and illness during what might have been a more honorable passage into elderhood, he told me, when I called to ask how he was doing, what he always had, that “Everything is good.” He left when I was a baby and never seemed to be able to face me, or fatherhood, or much of anything, but all has always been good and well. Through four failed marriages, everything was fine, wonderful, even, and the consistency of that line was only matched by the consistency of his drinking.

A friend of mine called to say that his own father, now 80, who lives in a palatial home on the coast and has no financial hardship, is fraught with depression and addicted to pharmaceuticals and refuses to get help. His cold moods and silence over the years drove his (second) wife to leave, and now he is living his last days in a mansion alone, the sea waves chomping at the shore. When his son, my friend, calls—the only of his children who will speak to him after childhood—the marble floors echo with the response he barks into the phone: “Nothing is wrong with me!” Even wealth and status aren’t cures or preventatives for the curse of male terseness.

The poet Christian Wiman writes in “The Limit,” an essay about masculinity and violence: “Anything that suggested madness rather than control, illness rather than health, feminine interiority rather than masculine action, was off-limits.”

The world is suffering from the madness of men who, on the surface, are in control, and mad is considered an acceptable masculine emotion, while sadness is equated with madness and the feminine.

When the poet Robert Bly died, I picked up his book Iron John. It is, as the subtitle tells us, A Book About Men. Under my circumstances of being a woman, perpetually left in the dark on this subject from the perspective of men themselves, I was intrigued. Published in 1990, it arose out of Bly’s work with the men’s movement of the 1980s, when men, in response to the women’s movement, began talking about how they might redefine masculinity. Bly writes that when he facilitated men’s gatherings, “It was not uncommon for [the men] to be weeping within five minutes. The amount of grief and anguish in these younger men was astounding to me.”

While the book troubles many aspects of what we call today toxic masculinity, it is also faulted and troubling in ways that have been pointed out by others. I’m not here to either argue in defense of the book or take it apart critically (which would certainly be a worthy effort), I only want to mention that I picked it up and read it during a time when I was searching for answers. Bly has a certain way with language, and it was the evocation and embrace of the unprocessed grief of men that spoke to me. It was Bly’s invitation to men to bring to light their inner worlds through the ancient technology of story that I felt was important.

Behind my father’s disappearance into drink and all-is-well-ness is, surely, a dammed-up reservoir of grief, and this damming has been the damning not only of him but of four wives, two children, and who knows who else. And so goes the untold story of so many men’s lives. My friend’s father, alone in his seaside palace, is a war veteran who served as a translator in Vietnam. In Mad Men, we later learn that Don Draper, who won’t talk to his wife, doesn’t have a therapist, drinks too much, and is absorbed by work happened to suffer a traumatic childhood that haunts him. The man I was seeing lost his father (a man who he described to me as “stern”) early, at 21. Bly’s neo-Jungian approach instigates a psychospiritual journey of healing wounds, an inner process of reflection that modern men are conditioned against.

The world is suffering from the madness of men who, on the surface, are in control, and mad is considered an acceptable masculine emotion, while sadness is equated with madness and the feminine.

“We are living at an important and fruitful moment now,” Bly wrote in 1990, “for it is clear to men that the images of adult manhood given by popular culture are worn out.” Never mind, even, the rapists; the warlords; the mass shooters; the sexual predators; the authoritarian politicians who revoke women’s rights and inscribe the female womb with laws and legislation—who, by and large, are all men. And yet, it is all part of a continuum, and Don Draper doesn’t only not talk about his feelings but also cheats serially on his wives (Betty, then Megan), and my father is not only always “good” but has also cheated and lied, and the man I was seeing had an ongoing friendship of an undefinable nature with his ex that he hid from me, and Wiman, who inherited a male silence that makes him suicidal even as he finds expression as a poet, is the grandson of a man who murdered his wife in front of his three children, and the men in the Westerns I like to watch (for the landscapes) are as terse as they are precise with a gun, as emotionless as they are driven to violence, and not usually depicted in those films are the oil rigs pocking the landscape, the mining claims on the lands emptied of their Native inhabitants.

Dallas Goldtooth, a Dakota and Diné organizer of the Keep It in the Ground Campaign and the Indigenous Environmental Network, has said that, “You cannot only just talk about toxic masculinity, you have to talk about white supremacy in the same conversation, you have to talk about settler colonialism in the same conversation because they are all supporting each other…. They’re all working together to drive this planet over the cliff.”

Bly, a white man, failed to make this connection as clearly, but he wrote:

The dark side of men is clear. Their mad exploitation of earth resources, devaluation and humiliation of women, and obsession with tribal warfare are undeniable. Genetic inheritance contributes to their obsessions, but also culture and environment. We have defective mythologies that ignore masculine depth of feeling, assign men a place in the sky instead of earth, teach obedience to the wrong powers, work to keep men boys, and entangle both men and women in systems of industrial domination. …

One way to see the men’s movement that grew from the women’s movement is as a testament to how women’s stories mobilize and awaken change.

It is also a testament to the insidiousness and entrenchment of the bad old patriarchy, as the movement from the beginning was rife with backlash to women’s voices, with claims of male oppression that bubbled with obvious fears about the decentering of men’s narratives and the diminishment of male power. Bly wrote his Book about Men in the wake of centuries of books by and about men.

Yet, as Bly would have it, I think, these books were not “conscious.” It seems that the men’s movement for Bly, at least, was a coming-to-consciousness—not a challenge to the women’s movement, he assures us in the preface, or an insistence on centering the male experience and narrative, which has already been centered enough, but a becoming-conscious of that narrative, so that it might be reimagined. Though his book is faulted, he was concerned with inspiring “new visions of what a man is or could be.”

The Diné leader Pat McCabe (Woman Stands Shining) has said, “I see the men as being the architects of these dreams and visions [of reimagining masculinity].” So while I was glad to learn that the men’s movement, as it were, is, if not nonexistent, passé, we might say, I also wonder how us women and nonbinary people can use our voices to call for a movement of men. How can we call them in even as we call them out? Bly’s book, in its best passages, does just that, acknowledging the harms that men cause while calling them into the process we might simply call healing.

The Black feminist bell hooks, who died just weeks after Bly did at the end of last year, did that too. She wrote in The Will to Change: Men, Masculinity, and Love, “[A boy] learns that his core feelings cannot be expressed if they do not conform to the acceptable behaviors sexism defines as male. Asked to give up the true self in order to realize the patriarchal ideal, boys learn self-betrayal early and are rewarded for these acts of soul murder. …Patriarchy is the single most life-threatening social disease assaulting the male body and spirit in our nation.”

And yet, as Goldtooth has said, “It’s a good assumption that the vast majority of the people that will come to [a talk about toxic masculinity] will be women, or women identified.” This year, I read bell hooks. I read Bly. I read Wiman. I waded through loads of self-help advice for anxiously attached people pursuing relationships with dismissive attached people. I watched Mad Men, thinking, searching for insight. I listened to Goldtooth, to Woman Stands Shining. I am writing this essay.

In pointing that out, I am talking about the emotional labors required in order to be a resilient woman who can better understand her suffering at the hands of men. Goldtooth says that, “Women’s safety and health is dependent on them knowing men better than men know themselves. You have to know how a man thinks, you have to know what motivates a man, you have to know about the dangers a man poses to your well-being.”

The man I tried to love broke up with me over the phone on Valentine’s Day (for his ex?—who would know, for he didn’t explain anything). And now I am tired of knowing men better than they know themselves, while still being left in the dark with only my abandonment.

Bly calls our age “a time with no father,” and the writer Stephen Jenkinson says that Iron John, which spent 62 weeks on The New York Times best-seller list, “detonated… a hunger.” It does seem to be a time with no father. But I do not just hunger for a father, I hunger for a brother who won’t hurt me, for male friends who protect me, for good, healthy men around me, for bosses who respect me and honor my work, for a loving partner who can listen. This is an emptiness that only seems to grow, a hole at the center of our world, an absence-ing of these men. Where are they?

*

Single again, I visited the bizarre virtual space in which one can witness the performance of masculinity in a vividly pronounced way, a kind of concentrated spectacle put into motion by my left-swipes, a diorama into which I peered, mostly aghast. Straight woman seeking straight man. There, I quickly noticed an undeniable trend, which was for men to assert that they were “a simple guy” and to ask for “no drama.” People (men) who cannot begin to fathom their own complexities and the mazes of their nuanced psyches can only see people (women/non-binary) who do as bringing “drama” into their lives. They cannot glimpse the tragicomedy in which they are actors asserting their simpleness, holding up their big gaping-mouthed fish, flexing their biceps; they can cast a line into the depths of a lake all day but dare not throw a hook and sinker into their own psyches and be present for what bites.

While women fish for intimacy with them, for the words they can’t say, they leave to do their own fishing, ever absent from women’s lives (the stereotypical “Gone Fishin’” bumper stickers), women always left reeling. Simple guys. Open books. No drama. I’ve learned to see these as red flags. Bly’s book deserves a look because its primary argument, I think, is that men are not simple, that they are every bit as psychologically complex as women and all genders, and that they will do best to acknowledge it.

In our reckoning with toxic masculinity, canceling the grief of men is yet another act of repressing something that wants to come forth in the collective psyche, something that needs to be spoken, reckoned with.

Wiman writes that when he became suicidal and decided to tell a friend, “My heart began to race, I had difficulty breathing, and I simply had no language for what I needed to say.” He recognizes in both his and his father’s voices “a sort of mumbling quietude” in moments of “emotional encroachment.” Once when visiting my father I thought I would speak directly to him about his callousness and refusal to acknowledge my existence (he has hardly ever asked me a single question about my life lived halfway around the world from his), but when I asked him if he could sit down and talk, he looked exactly like one of the fish the men hold up in the photos, all fear-eyed and shocked, his mouth gaping with no words coming out, like he’d been pulled out of water and couldn’t breathe. I decided I wouldn’t try.

I have listened to both Goldtooth and Woman Stands Shining speak about toxic masculinity in numerous conversations. From small, Indigenous communities that have dealt with such huge grief, they both seem to, more than many thinkers, call men in with compassion while calling them to be accountable, and I wonder at the wisdom of knowing, in reckoning with the long legacies of oppression that they do, that they cannot afford to cancel half of their communities.

So while I do not want to hold a pity party for men, I do not want to cancel their suffering—the suffering that I witness in all the men around me, even though they have been conditioned to. In our reckoning with toxic masculinity, canceling the grief of men is yet another act of repressing something that wants to come forth in the collective psyche, something that needs to be spoken, reckoned with. Doesn’t this canceling, then, mirror the canceling of young boys who are conditioned not to express their feelings and thus their full humanity and so become men who are already in some sense canceled and thus confused about how to exist in the world?

Might mansplaining be a way, at least sometimes, of taking up space when a man does not know how to occupy the space inside himself and has rarely articulated something true about the way he is feeling? Might it be a way of performing fatherliness in this time of no father? Isn’t the emotional unavailability of men—the deep silent pools from which many kinds of harms and outward ills plume up—what a movement of men might ply, searching for deeper currents?

I want to ask, as the thinker Báyò Akómoláfé has said, “queer questions” that lead to “uneasy arrivals for tending to the tense fields where new kinds of beings and becomings can thrive and grow.”

It isn’t up to women, nonbinary people, and children to heal men, though. It’s time for men to become response-able for their grief (Akómoláfé’s spelling of the word.)

I have endured wounds inflicted by men that I live with every moment. They are etched into me, and I have spent the better part of my adult life engaged in healing myself, which is also a process of becoming responsible for the wounds I carry. I, a woman, am writing An Essay About Men because they have so often left me in the dark, sitting up at night, burdened with the weight of their inarticulations. And is it a good assumption that the vast majority of the people who read this will be women or women identified?

I’m angry about the massive energy that I have to put forth to articulate to men their own wounds and need for healing, even as they continue to actively wound me, put me in need of yet more of my own healing. My father, just for instance, offers no support to me morally or otherwise in his elder years, no presence, as it has been throughout my life, and as it is for so many of us. And being mad is something that women-identified people have not been allowed; the same patriarchy that makes anger the only acceptable expression of sadness for men also deems us shrill or hysterical for this natural emotion in response to our pain, while men can stay cool and aloof.

But we know that all books have covers, and that you can’t judge by them, and men are full of grief like the rest of us. We have been bound by roles, but we can rewrite them. Our inner worlds are drama-filled, deep, and we plumb them with story, an ongoing act that changes the story, and we are never open books. I am mad, and I want to keep talking about this until men begin to talk amongst themselves, as they must on the way to healing our world.

Holly Haworth
Holly Haworth
Holly Haworth's essays appear in The New York Times Magazine, Lapham's Quarterly, Oxford American, Creative Nonfiction, Orion, Sierra, and at the On Being radio program blog. They have been included in The Best American Science and Nature Writing and listed as notable in The Best American Travel Writing. She is at work on her first book, about listening.





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