Serious domestic/intimate partner violence trigger warning in the first few paragraphs of this post.
Sitting on my bed with her back against the wall, my lover—who’s come to visit during my first year of graduate school—tells me that she’s at last made her decision: she’s going to study fine art. I should be happy for her, but I’m suddenly listening from a place so deep inside myself that the sounds leaving her mouth no longer coalesce into meaningful units. There is a moment of blankness, and then, as if someone else has taken control of my brain, I am forced to watch a vision of myself getting up from the chair where I’ve been sitting, putting one hand around my lover’s throat, holding her against the wall, and slapping her face back and forth with my other hand until she is senseless and bloody. I see myself screaming in her ear, letting her drop to the floor, and kicking her in the stomach as hard as I can. In the vision, my mouth moves but no words come out.
Unaware that I’ve stopped hearing what she has to say, my lover continues talking, gesturing to emphasize the importance of her words, imploring me with her eyes for I-don’t-know-what, and then the violence in my mind begins again. Realizing that my hands have clenched into fists, I excuse myself and move quickly to the bathroom. Locking the door behind me, I take deep breaths and splash cold water on my face. I wait till I feel certain the vision will not return, and I flush the toilet and go back to the bedroom where, thankfully, my lover notices it’s time for me to go to class. I grab my books, kiss her quickly on the cheek and, knowing that I need some time alone to sort out what has just happened, tell her I have work to do in the library and therefore won’t be back until just before we’re supposed to go out for dinner.
The afternoon sun is warm on my face, and so I decide to walk to class instead of taking the bus. After a couple of blocks, however, again from out of nowhere, I see once more the images of myself doing violence to the woman I love, and again it is as if some outside force has taken control of my brain and forced me to watch. Nearly paralyzed with fear and guilt, I find a bench and sit down. There’s no way I want to chance having this vision start again while I’m in class, so I go straight to the library instead. My idea, as I settle into one of the chairs on the second floor, is to write out what I’m feeling, a strategy that has helped me figure things out in the past. When I put my pen to the page, however, what comes out of me is the beginning of a poem:
I want a bearded man, shirtless,
in faded jeans, to come one barefoot night
and take me in his mouth.
Like the violence I saw in my head, the words seem to come from someone other than myself, but the shock of recognition I feel when I read them–not only did I write them; on some level, I meant them–is in direct contrast to the sense of alienation I experienced while waiting in my bathroom to make sure that when I went back to where my lover was waiting for me I would not do to her what I’d seen myself doing. I also realize I am suddenly calm, as if I have found what writing was supposed to help me look for, and I am certain–I don’t know how I know this, but I know this–that in these lines lies the key to understanding why that vision of violence came to me.
This certainty, however, does not take me very far, because no matter how I try to connect what I’ve written to what I saw–and I wish I still had the pages I filled up trying to do that–I end up thinking about Brian and how we became friends in our senior year of high school. We were watching a teammate strike out as he tried too hard to hit the ball over the fence during a gym-class softball game. “I don’t get it,” Brian said to no one in particular, shaking his head from side to side as the other boy slammed the bat to the ground and stormed off the field. “I just don’t get it.”
“Get what?” I asked.
We’d been standing next to each other through most of the class, but he looked at me as if he were seeing me for the first time. “What’s the big deal? I mean, it’s not like the guy’s going to fail for striking out.”
“You’re right. It doesn’t make sense.”
Brian’s face lit up for a moment, but then, just as quickly, his eyes narrowed. “Yeah, but at least you can hit the ball,” he said. He was not much of an athlete.
“So I can hit the ball. So what?”
And with that question we were friends; and we quickly became best friends. Sadly, though, what I remember most clearly about our friendship is the day it began to end. “You’re just different,” he told me sitting in my room. “I’ve never met anyone like you, and they can’t accept that.”
“I’ve never met anyone like you before either,” I responded, not even bothering to ask him who they were.
“But they’re saying we’re closer than we should be, that we’re not, you know, normal.”
“So? Who cares what they have to say?”
Brian looked so grateful when I said those words that I thought he was going to cry, and his eyes did start to grow big with a feeling that welled up in him, but then he looked away and almost whispered, “Maybe they’re right. Maybe we are closer than we should be.”
I tried to convince him that he was wrong, but it didn’t work, and from that day on–at least as I recall–he started bringing female friends along whenever we went out, and college applications, yearbook committees, and other graduation-related work suddenly kept him so busy that he didn’t have enough time to see me. The summer after graduation, while I was working at a sleep-away camp in Massachusetts, we wrote letters, but when I came home, he was gone, off to his freshman year at Cornell University. I probably had his phone number and address at school, but I don’t think I ever used them, and I don’t remember receiving either mail or phone calls from him. We did try once to reconnect during the winter break of our freshman year, meeting for a drink at one of the where bars we’d hung out when we were still close. If I remember correctly, he brought his girlfriend, a dark woman who sat silently in her corner of the booth while Brian and I struggled to find things to say to each other. The conversation is lost to me now, but I can still feel the finality of our good-byes, neither of us even pretending that we’d try to see each other again.
At the end of that academic year, while I waited on line to register for my sophomore classes, I met the woman who’d sat next to me in twelfth-grade English. “Whatever happened to your friend Brian?” she asked, making what I thought was going to be small talk to pass the time.
“He’s at Cornell,” I answered, “but I haven’t heard from him in a long while.”
“You know,” she said, “everyone thought you two were gay.”
With cinematic timing my turn to register came next, and I gave her a small, silent wave as I walked to the registrar’s window. My answer, though, has haunted me ever since, not because it was dishonest–I was responding to what she probably wanted to know, which was whether or not Brian and I had had sex–but because if Brian and I did not love each other, we were certainly on the verge of it, or at least I was on the verge of loving him. Answering my former classmate with that unadorned no betrayed that love, and so the moment in which I answered her is a moment I often wish that I could have back, as I still sometimes wish I could have back that moment when Brian decided “they” were right and we were wrong. Not because I think there was anything I could have done to change his mind, and not because I think the answer I wish I’d had the presence of mind to give my former classmate–we did not have sex, but we did love each other–would have made much of a difference to her, but because envisioning how those situations might have turned out differently makes a difference to me, is a gesture of defiance I never want to stop making against what “they” stood, and continue to stand, for.
My lover and I did not go out to dinner that night; we talked instead. She was the one person in my life with whom I had been, with whom I could be, completely honest, and so even though I wanted to, I did not know how to withhold from her what had been going on inside me. I told her what I had seen myself doing to her–though in less detail than I have described here–and how scared I was because I had no idea where the vision had come from, because it had never occurred to me that such violence might be in me; and I am, again, as I write this now, more than twenty five years later, as I am every time I tell this story, awestruck, literally awestruck, by the strength and compassion, by the depth and breadth of the love that my lover showed me that night. It is still hard for me to believe that she did not immediately leave for home when I told her what had been going on inside my head, that she was able to sit alone with me in my bedroom, knowing what I had seen, and feel safe talking with me–and I know she felt safe because she told me so–and we talked until I don’t remember what hour of the morning, but nothing we said brought me any closer to understanding what might have triggered the visions I had seen.
I wish I could remember everything we said to each other that night, because the only thing I do remember, and I have no idea what we were saying that led up to this, is yelling the words I hate you! as loud as I could and then laughing with hysterical relief as I continued to yell them; and in all the seven years this woman and I were together–at least five of which were still to come, and they were seven good years–I don’t think I ever loved her more than I did at that moment. As soon as the first I hate you! left my mouth, I knew she was not the person to whom I was speaking–I had no idea to whom I was speaking–and I don’t know if she believed me when I told her that, but she nonetheless stayed in that room while I yelled those words at her, and when I was done, and I might have been crying, she held me, and we slept; and in the morning when we woke up, I could feel that something in me had been resolved, some tension dissipated.
I started seeing a therapist on campus to try to puzzle out where those violent visions came from and how they were connected to the homoerotic lines that I wrote, but the only thing I learned from that experience was how important it is to find a therapist you can trust. I don’t remember where precisely my lack of trust came from, but it was deep enough that it would be years before I was willing to enter therapy again. Fortunately for me, the second time around was a good deal more successful than the first. I started to understand not only how enraged I was at the world–the reasons for which will unfold over the course of this series of posts–but also how thoroughly I had hidden that rage from myself. As I revisited with my therapist the episode I have described above, I began to be able to point to things in the relationship with my lover that made me angry, in particular the fact that she refused to tell her parents about us because they would not approve of her being with someone who wasn’t Catholic and also the way she saw “us” as a secret haven to which she could escape from the rest of her life; and I could see how each of those angers might have touched the rage I’d been feeling without even realizing I was feeling it, though clearly the violence I’d seen myself doing to her was both wrong on its face and way out of proportion to whatever problems I had with our relationship.
To put it another way, that I should not have hit my lover is something we take for granted; yet taking that for granted very neatly elides the fact that we live in a culture where an awful lot of men with rage not so different from mine do hit their lovers. More to the point, it is a culture where the ubiquitousness of this violence, and of images of this violence, cannot help but shape the forms of expression available to men who feel such rage. To take for granted that I should not have hit my lover, in other words, not to ask why a vision of beating my lover to a pulp was the form my rage took, is also to take for granted that the violence I saw myself doing to her was somehow in the normal order of things. It is to accept that such violence is how men’s rage will, as a matter of course, express itself; and so it is to leave intact the social and cultural structures that normalize men’s violence against women.
Similarly, while there may be any number of therapeutic explanations for the lines of homoerotic poetry that I wrote–perhaps, for example, the bearded, shirtless man was me, and the poem was my way of telling myself that I needed to learn self-love– to see the explicit homosexuality in those lines as merely personal, as being solely a reflection of my psychological state at the time, is to avoid the questions about male heterosexual and gender identity that I think they raise, especially because of the circumstances under which I wrote them.
I’d be lying, for example, if I claimed not to have wondered if writing the poem was my unconscious mind’s way of telling me that I was really gay and that my vision had been as violent as it was because what I wanted, what I needed, was to break out of the “heterosexual prison” I had not realized my relationship with my lover had become. Yet not only did writing those lines not awaken in me a previously hidden and compelling desire for men; not only has the trajectory of my life since then in no way suggested that the poem was, or ought to have been, the beginning of my coming out; writing those lines, as I suggested above, calmed me, gave me a perspective–though I was in no way able to articulate it at the time–that enabled me to go back and talk to my lover, which ultimately strengthened our relationship and my desire for her. In other words, despite the the fact that every social script I know says this should not have been the case, the process of acknowledging my own homoeroticism that writing those lines of poetry began affirmed rather than threatened my sense of myself as heterosexual.
We all know the social scripts I am talking about. A core tenet of conventional heterosexuality, after all, is that a man’s heterosexual feelings should cancel out completely the possibility of any homoeroticism he might otherwise have within him. Or to put it another way, conventional heterosexuality requires of a man the active policing of his own desire so as to eliminate from within himself all traces of homoerotic possibility. Either way, within this framework, to fail to erase one’s own homoeroticism is to fail as a man. Homophobia, in other words, is not simply the fear and hatred of homosexuals; it is also a categorical imperative of conventional manhood. As such, it enjoins heterosexual men to define our sexuality negatively, as what it is not, rather than through an assertion of what it is, and it is that assertion that I guess I have been trying to explore in the two decades since I began writing seriously about masculinity, manhood and male sexuality, though this is the first time I have been able to say it with such clarity.
To examine the violence within myself, in other words, is to examine what it has meant for me, what it means for me, to be a man, not because men are inherently violent or because manhood and masculinity are names for a pathology of violence with which all men are infected, but because I have in my life experienced manhood and masculinity, gender and sexuality, as connected to and through violence; and I am talking here not only about the violence that was done to me in order to make me a man, or in the name of proving manhood–mine or someone else’s–but also about what should have been the unthinkable violence that I saw myself doing to a woman I loved. I am more than grateful for whatever it was in me that kept me from acting out the vision I saw, but I still had that vision; it was as much a part of me–as a memory it still is as much a part of me–as it would have been had I actually punched my lover in the face. Not to examine it, not to pursue that examination wherever it might lead, therefore, is not only to betray the love and compassion my lover showed me when I told her what I’d seen myself doing to her; it is also to betray the humanity I chose when I chose not to hit her.
Cross-posted on It’s All Connected.