Remember Warren Zevon? “Excitable Boy” was a cult song during my misspent youth. While no young men I've encountered would, as Zevon’s creation does, “bite the usherette's leg in the dark” or “rub a pot roast all over his chest” during a family dinner, I do think that we need to do a better job with the free-floating and widespread anger felt by the males in our culture.
In a recent creative writing class, I had an intelligent, quiet—you might even say shy—young man brave enough to admit the fact that on those occasions when he writes well, he writes out of fury.
He'd been reading William Gass, and was impressed by the fact that Gass admits he too “writes because he hates.” My student found Gass seductive since, he explained, “it's rage that spurs and transports my creativity. My darkest secrets are right there out on the page, coming out of a place I always wanted to keep camouflaged.”
If not consumed with rage, most guys I know are at least informed by it. This means that they drink too much, drive too fast, and own copies of the film Fight Club. We still teach boys that being a man means rising to the occasion; while encouraging them to take responsibility for protecting those weaker than themselves and defending them at all costs, we also encourage our male children to repress their own vulnerabilities, their own fears and weaknesses, and their own soft underbellies.
Is it a surprise, then, that they mask these less socially acceptable emotions by engaging in antisocial behavior?
Every year at my university, kids celebrate by destroying things. That’s when they appear victorious. Satisfied. Recompensed. It’s a version of what they might have done when they were sad or lonely as kids. Back then, they might knock over somebody else's tower block, or they might poke the class hamster with a stick “just to see what he'd do,” even when, let's face it, he knows what the poor creature would do, which is to recoil in pain and fear.
In pain and in fear themselves, boys are often driven to repress dark emotions; they erupt elsewhere.
Nobody is more vicious, more dangerous to himself and others, than a young man in pain—especially one who has driven his own hurt so deeply inside himself that he cannot even recognize it, let alone articulate it. He might feel as if he has nothing to lose.
Unlike his female counterpart, the young man is less likely to turn these feelings inward. His sister might translate her own emotional life imperfectly—reading anger as sadness, for example, or configuring her frustration with the world as a form of depression and self-loathing—but she is unlikely to choose violence as a means of self-expression.
I recently asked another smart and talented student—who visited my office along with his father—if they could talk to me about masculinity and rage.
Neither one hesitated. This mysterious dynamic ran through their blood; it was like they’d been waiting for this question for years.
“It's a tribal thing,” explained the father. “You get a bunch of guys together, and they want to make trouble. They say, 'Let's go out and almost get arrested.' They don't want to get arrested because that would be a drag, but they want to come as close to the edge as possible.”
“Why?” I ask rather weakly.
Now the son answers: “Because then the next day, you can talk to your friends and say, “Dude! We almost got arrested last night! That was so great!”
They offer explanations practically in chorus, as if in a Greek play: “You get to bust stuff up! You get to break stuff! It's like having a tantrum.” His father nodded, they both turned to me smiling, a mirrored image, and shrugged. “You get to let it all out.”