Guys, what’s the worst thing that can happen if we air our dirty laundry?
My brief stint as Marriage editor here at The Good Men Project has revealed some interesting, perhaps troubling things. I’ve been asking many of my writer colleagues—some established, others aspiring—to contribute essays. We’ve discussed, sometimes at length, the institution and the writing process. Some of what I’ve heard has actually shocked me.
My casual survey reveals that men seem reluctant to write about marriage. The ones who’ve told me that they either can’t or won’t fall into two general categories:
The first category assumes—the rate is much higher than I ever imagined—that any valuable essay about marriage must reveal some embarrassing or difficult secret. One close colleague, a divorced man in his 50s, said, “I don’t want to air dirty laundry.” This same man once told a story at work, in front of a Dean and the chair of a department, that his college friends (members of a well-known 90s rock band) used to shoot heroin into their eyeballs. Another writer, his narratives always energized and intense, wrote to me in a Facebook message: “My first marriage was a horror show of crazy houses, suicide attempts, blood and shit on the wall, but I won’t write about it.” A third writer—rather young, married to a desirable woman—agreed to write but only under anonymity. He apparently finished the essay but said he could not submit it. His style would give him away, and he didn’t believe I’d be able to edit it to protect his identity. “I should probably delete all of this from my computer. I’m sorry to jerk you around.”
The second category feels the topic itself is emasculating. Despite all the great texts that consider marriage central to the human experience, even those that criticize it harshly—A Doll’s House, Anna Karenina or Crime and Punishment, to name just a few—writing about marriage remains, at least to this category, the business of a eunuch. When I pointed this nonsense out to some (rather young) writers, they agreed that I had a point. But I had to articulate it in order for them to see it. “You don’t hear marriage and think Dostoevsky,” one said. “You hear marriage and think Brides magazine.”
Interestingly, the writers in Category Two often transformed into Category One when I suggested they could criticize marriage itself while ignoring their own marriages. In Crime and Punishment, for example, Dostoevsky compares prostitution and marriage to find only vague differences. No one believed he was calling his wife a whore in the process. “Yeah, sure. But I can’t do anything like that,” someone said. “You know with people. They get the wrong idea no matter what.”
Well, what wrong idea can that be? A few years ago, Lisa Hickey wrote about men who felt their marriages had stripped them of something essential to their masculinity, even their identity. It had to do with a perceived loss of equal participation or decision-making in the marriage, and also with rather common sexual rejection. Even though I don’t have any concrete evidence, I can’t help but associate the writers in Category One with those Lisa investigated in her article. The dirty secret they cannot reveal? It’s not that their wives wear leather to bed. On the contrary: it’s that their marriages are sexless.
Ok, I’m taking this crazy, wild guess right now. But let’s pretend, just for the sake of an amazing image, a daydream I had while planning this post, that I’m 100% right. The “dirty laundry” is not a semen and motor-oil stained sheet but extra sets of bedding necessary to make the couch agreeably comfortable. Category One sleeps alone and hopes no one finds out.
Well, why exactly do they hope to keep this secret? Is it simply the shame of destroying the illusion of the happy marriage? The admission of failure? Or is it a writer’s fear of cliché? My wife won’t sleep with me because I leave socks on the floor. Or maybe it has to do with the writer’s inability to understand the situation: perhaps the reason she’s disinterested in sex is truly mysterious. She used to be a sex kitten but now she’s training to jog up skyscrapers every month, and she looks down at her husband from atop this surrogate phallus. Besides this hobby, she’s taken up knitting, the old lass, and now hopes, her brow tightening, that the socks she’s almost finished knitting for her writer spouse, purple with lavender highlights, will not find themselves left on the floor. At least not if he knows what’s good for him.
So here it is: the essay the writer feared writing, the one about the old lass, her skyscrapers and knitted socks. We’ve read it. Now what? Who thinks the writer’s a loser? Who’s pissed? Let’s pretend his wife is pissed. She’s furious. The writer husband told everybody on the internet that she won’t sleep with him. Bastard! Now he’s in trouble. Now she’ll show him! How? He’s already on the sofa. Well, never you mind, pal. She’ll think of something.
I don’t believe that this wife will be pissed. Because if her goal is absolute control of the marriage, if she wants—I’ll borrow a line from Lester Burnham (the anti-hero of American Beauty)—to keep his dick in a Mason jar under the kitchen sink, shouldn’t she be proud that he told the internet? Her domination is complete. Now that hubby admitted it, she can take that Mason jar and march out into society. Yes! Here it is! She’ll hold it high while walking down her suburban lane. The neighboring wives, seeing her pride, will be inspired to go and get their own Mason jars and march right behind her. A procession from subdivision to subdivision, strip-mall to strip-mall, condo complex to condo complex. It grows at every city until the vast majority of married American women descend onto Washington with their jars held high. They fill the National Mall, the writer’s wife still at the front, and they are ready now to announce…finally…what? What more can be done after this?
My brothers-in-letters, this presented daydream is the worst thing that can happen if we air our dirty laundry—or, rather, our virgin sheets. But the consequences will probably be very different. If an essay published by The Good Men Project results in this Mason jar march on the National Mall, I doubt I’ll be the only one to consider both the essay and the march among the most important events in human history. Once the march is over, we’ll be forced to ask important questions, see if there is anything anyone can do to bring organs and socks back to their proper places.
Photo by Oskay