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The Will to Change: Men, Masculinity, and Loveby bell hooks
Chapter One: Wanted: Men Who Love
Every female wants to be loved by a male. Every woman wants to love and be loved by the males in her life. Whether gay or straight, bisexual or celibate, she wants to feel the love of father, grandfather, uncle, brother, or male friend. If she is heterosexual she wants the love of a male partner. We live in a culture where emotionally starved, deprived females are desperately seeking male love. Our collective hunger is so intense it rends us. And yet we dare not speak it for fear we will be mocked, pitied, shamed. To speak our hunger for male love would demand that we name the intensity of our lack and our loss. The male bashing that was so intense when contemporary feminism first surfaced more than thirty years ago was in part the rageful cover-up of the shame women felt not because men refused to share their power but because we could not seduce, cajole, or entice men to share their emotions — to love us.
By claiming that they wanted the power men had, man-hating feminists (who were by no means the majority) covertly proclaimed that they too wanted to be rewarded for being out of touch with their feelings, for being unable to love. Men in patriarchal culture responded to feminist demand for greater equity in the work world and in the sexual world by making room, by sharing the spheres of power. The place where most men refused to change — believed themselves unable to change — was in their emotional lives. Not even for the love and respect of liberated women were men willing to come to the table of love as equal partners ready to share the feast.
No one hungers for male love more than the little girl or boy who rightfully needs and seeks love from Dad. He may be absent, dead, present in body yet emotionally not there, but the girl or boy hungers to be acknowledged, recognized, respected, cared for. All around our nation a billboard carries this message: "Each night millions of kids go to sleep starving — for attention from their dads." Because patriarchal culture has already taught girls and boys that Dad's love is more valuable than mother love, it is unlikely that maternal affection will heal the lack of fatherly love. No wonder then that these girls and boys grow up angry with men, angry that they have been denied the love they need to feel whole, worthy, accepted. Heterosexual girls and homosexual boys can and do become the women and men who make romantic bonds the place where they quest to find and know male love. But that quest is rarely satisfied. Usually rage, grief, and unrelenting disappointment lead women and men to close off the part of themselves that was hoping to be touched and healed by male love. They learn then to settle for whatever positive attention men are able to give. They learn to overvalue it. They learn to pretend that it is love. They learn how not to speak the truth about men and love. They learn to live the lie.
As a child I hungered for the love of my dad. I wanted him to notice me, to give me his attention and his affections. When I could not get him to notice me by being good and dutiful, I was willing to risk punishment to be bad enough to catch his gaze, to hold it, and to bear the weight of his heavy hand. I longed for those hands to hold, shelter, and protect me, to touch me with tenderness and care, but I accepted that this would never be. I knew at age five that those hands would acknowledge me only when they were bringing me pain, that if I could accept that pain and hold it close, I could be Daddy's girl. I could make him proud. I am not alone. So many of us have felt that we could win male love by showing we were willing to bear the pain, that we were willing to live our lives affirming that the maleness deemed truly manly because it withholds, withdraws, refuses is the maleness we desire. We learn to love men more because they will not love us. If they dared to love us, in patriarchal culture they would cease to be real "men."
In her moving memoir In the Country of Men Jan Waldron describes a similar longing. She confesses that "the kind of father I ached for I have never seen except in glimpses I have embellished with wishful imaginings." Contrasting the loving fathers we long for with the fathers we have, she expresses the hunger:
Dad. It is a vow against all odds, in the face of countless examples to the contrary. Dad. It does not have the utilitarian effect of Mum or Ma. It's still spoken as a ballad refrain. It's a pledge that originates in the heart and fights for life amid the carnage of persistent, obvious history to the contrary and excruciatingly scant follow-through. Mother love is aplenty and apparent: we complain because we have too much of it. The love of a father is an uncommon gem, to be hunted, burnished, and hoarded. The value goes up because of its scarcity.
In our culture we say very little about the longing for father love.
Rather than bringing us great wisdom about the nature of men and love, reformist feminist focus on male power reinforced the notion that somehow males were powerful and had it all. Feminist writing did not tell us about the deep inner misery of men. It did not tell us the terrible terror that gnaws at the soul when one cannot love. Women who envied men their hardheartedness were not about to tell us the depth of male suffering. And so it has taken more than thirty years for the voices of visionary feminists to be heard telling the world the truth about men and love. Barbara Deming hinted at those truths:
I think the reason that men are so very violent is that they know, deep in themselves, that they're acting out a lie, and so they're furious at being caught up in the lie. But they don't know how to break it....They're in a rage because they are acting out a lie — which means that in some deep part of themselves they want to be delivered from it, are homesick for the truth.
The truth we do not tell is that men are longing for love. This is the longing feminist thinkers must dare to examine, explore, and talk about. Those rare visionary feminist seers, who are now no longer all female, are no longer afraid to openly address issues of men, masculinity, and love. Women have been joined by men with open minds and big hearts, men who love, men who know how hard it is for males to practice the art of loving in patriarchal culture.
In part, I began to write books about love because of the constant fighting between my ex-boyfriend Anthony and myself. We were (and at the time of this writing still are) each other's primary bond. We came together hoping to create love and found ourselves creating conflict. We decided to break up, but even that did not bring an end to the conflict. The issues we fought about most had to do with the practice of love. Like so many men who know that the women in their lives want to hear them declare love, Anthony made those declarations. When asked to link the "I love you" words with definition and practice, he found that he did not really have the words, that he was fundamentally uncomfortable being asked to talk about emotions.
Like many males, he had not been happy in most of the relationships he had chosen. The unhappiness of men in relationships, the grief men feel about the failure of love, often goes unnoticed in our society precisely because the patriarchal culture really does not care if men are unhappy. When females are in emotional pain, the sexist thinking that says that emotions should and can matter to women makes it possible for most of us to at least voice our heart, to speak it to someone, whether a close friend, a therapist, or the stranger sitting next to us on a plane or bus. Patriarchal mores teach a form of emotional stoicism to men that says they are more manly if they do not feel, but if by chance they should feel and the feelings hurt, the manly response is to stuff them down, to forget about them, to hope they go away. George Weinberg explains in Why Men Won't Commit: "Most men are on quest for the ready-made perfect woman because they basically feel that problems in a relationship can't be worked out. When the slightest thing goes wrong, it seems easier to bolt than talk." The masculine pretense is that real men feel no pain.
The reality is that men are hurting and that the whole culture responds to them by saying, "Please do not tell us what you feel." I have always been a fan of the Sylvia cartoon where two women sit, one looking into a crystal ball as the other woman says, "He never talks about his feelings." And the woman who can see the future says, "At two P.M. all over the world men will begin to talk about their feelings — and women all over the world will be sorry."
If we cannot heal what we cannot feel, by supporting patriarchal culture that socializes men to deny feelings, we doom them to live in states of emotional numbness. We construct a culture where male pain can have no voice, where male hurt cannot be named or healed. It is not just men who do not take their pain seriously. Most women do not want to deal with male pain if it interferes with the satisfaction of female desire. When feminist movement led to men's liberation, including male exploration of "feelings," some women mocked male emotional expression with the same disgust and contempt as sexist men. Despite all the expressed feminist longing for men of feeling, when men worked to get in touch with feelings, no one really wanted to reward them. In feminist circles men who wanted to change were often labeled narcissistic or needy. Individual men who expressed feelings were often seen as attention seekers, patriarchal manipulators trying to steal the stage with their drama.
When I was in my twenties, I would go to couples therapy, and my partner of more than ten years would explain how I asked him to talk about his feelings and when he did, I would freak out. He was right. It was hard for me to face that I did not want to hear about his feelings when they were painful or negative, that I did not want my image of the strong man truly challenged by learning of his weaknesses and vulnerabilities. Here I was, an enlightened feminist woman who did not want to hear my man speak his pain because it revealed his emotional vulnerability. It stands to reason, then, that the masses of women committed to the sexist principle that men who express their feelings are weak really do not want to hear men speak, especially if what they say is that they hurt, that they feel unloved. Many women cannot hear male pain about love because it sounds like an indictment of female failure. Since sexist norms have taught us that loving is our task whether in our role as mothers or lovers or friends, if men say they are not loved, then we are at fault; we are to blame.
There is only one emotion that patriarchy values when expressed by men; that emotion is anger. Real men get mad. And their mad-ness, no matter how violent or violating, is deemed natural — a positive expression of patriarchal masculinity. Anger is the best hiding place for anybody seeking to conceal pain or anguish of spirit. My father was an angry man. At times he still is, even though he is past eighty years old. Recently when I called home he said, speaking of me and my sister, "I love you both dearly." Amazed to hear Dad speak of love, I wanted us to talk but I could not find words. Fear silenced me, the old fear of Dad the patriarch, the silent, angry man and the new fear of breaking this fragile bond of caring connection. So I could not ask, "What do you mean, Dad, when you tell me that you love me dearly?" In the chapter focusing on our search for loving men in Communion: The Female Search for Love I make this observation: "Lots of women fear men. And fear can lay the foundation for contempt and hatred. It can be a cover-up for repressed, killing rage." Fear keeps us away from love. And yet women rarely talk to men about how much we fear them.
My siblings and I have never talked with Dad about the years he held us hostage — imprisoning us behind the walls of his patriarchal terrorism. And even in our adult years we are still afraid to ask him, "Why, Daddy? Why were you always so angry? Why didn't you love us?"
Inthose powerful passages where she writes of her father's death, Barbara Deming names that fear. As death is swiftly taking him beyond her reach, she sees clearly that fear had kept him away from her all along — his fear of her being too close, and her fear of seeking to be close to him. Fear keeps us from being close to the men in our lives; it keeps us from love.
Once upon a time I thought it was a female thing, this fear of men. Yet when I began to talk with men about love, time and time again I heard stories of male fear of other males. Indeed, men who feel, who love, often hide their emotional awareness from other men for fear of being attacked and shamed. This is the big secret we all keep together — the fear of patriarchal maleness that binds everyone in our culture. We cannot love what we fear. That is why so many religious traditions teach us that there is no fear in love.
We struggle then, in patriarchal culture, all of us, to love men. We may care about males deeply. We may cherish our connections with the men in our lives. And we may desperately feel that we cannot live without their presence, their company. We can feel all these passions in the face of maleness and yet stand removed, keeping the distance patriarchy has created, maintaining the boundaries we are told not to cross. In a class with students who are reading the trilogy of books I have written about love, with forty men talking about love, we talk of fathers. A black male in his late thirties, whose father was present in the home, a hard worker, talked about his recent experience of parenthood, his commitment to be a loving father, and his fear that he will fail. He fears failure because he has not had a loving role model. His father was almost always away from home, working, roaming. When he was home, his favorite way of relating was to tease and taunt his son mercilessly, in a biting voice full of sarcasm and contempt, a voice that could humiliate with just a word. Reflecting the experience of many of us, the individual telling his story talked about wanting the love of this hard man but then learning not to want it, learning to silence his heart, to make it not matter. I asked him and the other men present, "If you have closed off your heart, shut down your emotional awareness, then do you know how to love your sons? Where and when along the way did you learn the practice of love?"
He tells me and the other men who sit in our circle of love, "I just think of what my father would do and do the opposite." Everyone laughs. I affirm this practice, adding only that it is not enough to stay in the space of reaction, that being simply reactive is always to risk allowing that shadowy past to overtake the present. How many sons fleeing the example of their fathers raise boys who emerge as clones of their grandfathers, boys who may never even have met their grandfathers but behave just like them? Beyond reaction, though, any male, no matter his past or present circumstance, no matter his age or experience, can learn how to love.
In the past four years the one clear truth I have learned from individual men I have met while traveling and lecturing is that men want to know love and they want to know how to love. There is simply not enough literature speaking directly, intimately, to this need. After writing a general book about love, then one specifically about black people and love, then another focusing on the female search for love, I wanted to go further and talk about men and love.
Women and men alike in our culture spend very little time encouraging males to learn to love. Even the women who are pissed off at men, women most of whom are not and maybe never will be feminist, use their anger to avoid being truly committed to helping to create a world where males of all ages can know love. And there remains a small strain of feminist thinkers who feel strongly that they have given all they want to give to men; they are concerned solely with improving the collective welfare of women. Yet life has shown me that any time a single male dares to transgress patriarchal boundaries in order to love, the lives of women, men, and children are fundamentally changed for the better.
Every day on our television screens and in our nation's newspapers we are brought news of continued male violence at home and all around the world. When we hear that teenage boys are arming themselves and killing their parents, their peers, or strangers, a sense of alarm permeates our culture. Folks want to have answers. They want to know, Why is this happening? Why so much killing by boy children now, and in this historical moment? Yet no one talks about the role patriarchal notions of manhood play in teaching boys that it is their nature to kill, then teaching them that they can do nothing to change this nature — nothing, that is, that will leave their masculinity intact. As our culture prepares males to embrace war, they must be all the more indoctrinated into patriarchal thinking that tells them that it is their nature to kill and to enjoy killing. Bombarded by news about male violence, we hear no news about men and love.
Only a revolution of values in our nation will end male violence, and that revolution will necessarily be based on a love ethic. To create loving men, we must love males. Loving maleness is different from praising and rewarding males for living up to sexist-defined notions of male identity. Caring about men because of what they do for us is not the same as loving males for simply being. When we love maleness, we extend our love whether males are performing or not. Performance is different from simply being. In patriarchal culture males are not allowed simply to be who they are and to glory in their unique identity. Their value is always determined by what they do. In an antipatriarchal culture males do not have to prove their value and worth. They know from birth that simply being gives them value, the right to be cherished and loved.
I write about men and love as a declaration of profound gratitude to the males in my life with whom I do the work of love. Much of my thinking about maleness began in childhood when I witnessed the differences in the ways my brother and I were treated. The standards used to judge his behavior were much harsher. No male successfully measures up to patriarchal standards without engaging in an ongoing practice of self-betrayal. In his boyhood my brother, like so many boys, just longed to express himself. He did not want to conform to a rigid script of appropriate maleness. As a consequence he was scorned and ridiculed by our patriarchal dad. In his younger years our brother was a loving presence in our household, capable of expressing emotions of wonder and delight. As patriarchal thinking and action claimed him in adolescence, he learned to mask his loving feelings. He entered that space of alienation and antisocial behavior deemed "natural" for adolescent boys. His six sisters witnessed the change in him and mourned the loss of our connection. The damage done to his self-esteem in boyhood has lingered throughout his life, for he continues to grapple with the issue of whether he will define himself or allow himself to be defined by patriarchal standards.
At the same time that my brother surrendered his emotional awareness and his capacity to make emotional connection in order to be accepted as "one of the boys," rejecting the company of his sisters for fear that enjoying us made him less male, my mother's father, Daddy Gus, found it easier to be disloyal to patriarchy in old age. He was the man in my childhood who practiced the art of loving. He was emotionally aware and emotionally present, and yet he also was trapped by a patriarchal bond. Our grandmother, his wife of more than sixty years, was always deeply invested in the dominator model of relationships. To macho men Daddy Gus, Mama's father, appeared to be less than masculine. He was seen as henpecked. I can remember our patriarchal father expressing contempt for Daddy Gus, calling him weak — and letting Mama know via domination that he would not be ruled by a woman. Dad took Mama's admiration for her dad, for his capacity to love, and made it appear that what was precious to her was really worthless.
Back then Mama did not know how lucky she was to have a loving father. Like so many females, she had been seduced by myths of romantic love to dream of a strong, domineering, take-control, dashing, and daring man as a suitable mate. She married her ideal only to find herself trapped in a bond with a punishing, cruel, unloving patriarchal man. She spent more than forty years of marriage believing in the patriarchal gender roles that told her he should be the one in control and that she should be the one to submit and obey. When patriarchal men are not cruel, the women in their lives can cling to the seductive myth that they are lucky to have a real man, a benevolent patriarch who provides and protects. When that real man is repeatedly cruel, when he responds to care and kindness with contempt and brutal disregard, the woman in his life begins to see him differently. She may begin to interrogate her own allegiance to patriarchal thinking. She may wake up and recognize that she is wedded to abuse, that she is not loved. That moment of awakening is the moment of heartbreak. Heartbroken women in longtime marriages or partnerships rarely leave their men. They learn to make an identity out of their suffering, their complaint, their bitterness.
Throughout our childhood Mama was the great defender of Dad. He was her knight in shining armor, her beloved. And even when she began to see him, to really see him, as he was and not as she had longed for him to be, she still taught us to admire him and be grateful for his presence, his material provision, his discipline. A fifties woman, she was willing to cling to the fantasy of the patriarchal ideal even as she confronted the brutal reality of patriarchal domination daily. As her children left home, leaving her alone with her husband, her hope that they might find their way to love was soon dashed. She was left face-to-face with the emotionally shut down cold patriarch she had married. After fifty years of marriage she would not be leaving him, but she would no longer believe in love. Only her bitterness found a voice; she now speaks the absence of love, a lifetime of heartache. She is not alone. All over the world women live with men in states of lovelessness. They live and they mourn.
My mother and father were the source figures who shaped my patterns of love and longing. I spent most of the years between twenty and forty seeking to know love with intellectually brilliant men who were simply emotionally unaware, men who could not give what they did not have, men who could not teach what they did not know — men who did not know how to love. In my forties I began a relationship with a much younger man who had been schooled in the art and practice of feminist thinking. He was able to acknowledge having a broken spirit. As a child he had been a victim of patriarchal tyranny. He knew there was something wrong within, even though he had not yet found a language to articulate what was missing.
"Something missing within" was a self-description I heard from many men as I went around our nation talking about love. Again and again a man would tell me about early childhood feelings of emotional exuberance, of unrepressed joy, of feeling connected to life and to other people, and then a rupture happened, a disconnect, and that feeling of being loved, of being embraced, was gone. Somehow the test of manhood, men told me, was the willingness to accept this loss, to not speak it even in private grief. Sadly, tragically, these men in great numbers were remembering a primal moment of heartbreak and heartache: the moment that they were compelled to give up their right to feel, to love, in order to take their place as patriarchal men.
Everyone who tries to create love with an emotionally unaware partner suffers. Self-help books galore tell us that we cannot change anyone but ourselves. Of course they never answer the question of what will motivate males in a patriarchal culture who have been taught that to love emasculates them to change, to choose love, when the choice means that they must stand against patriarchy, against the tyranny of the familiar. We cannot change men but we can encourage, implore, and affirm their will to change. We can respect the truth of their inner being, a truth that they may be unable to speak: that they long to connect, to love, to be loved.
The Will to Change: Men, Masculinity and Love answers the questions about love asked by men of all ages in our culture. I write in response to questions about love asked me by the men I know most intimately who are still working to find their way back to the open-hearted, emotionally expressive selves they once were before they were told to silence their longings and close their hearts.
The Will to Change is the offering I bring to the feast of male reclamation and recovery of self, of their emotional right to love and be loved. Women have believed that we could save the men in our lives by giving them love, that this love would serve as the cure for all the wounds inflicted by toxic assaults on their emotional systems, by the emotional heart attacks they undergo every day. Women can share in this healing process. We can guide, instruct, observe, share information and skills, but we cannot do for boys and men what they must do for themselves. Our love helps, but it alone does not save boys or men. Ultimately boys and men save themselves when they learn the art of loving.
Copyright © 2004 by Gloria Watkins
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