(Hat tip to n1l0c2501.)
Trigger warning for explicit depictions of abuse. Minor spoilers for the short film Life’s Poison.
I was recently pointed to Life’s Poison, a powerful short film made for the PBS Online Film Festival about a teenage male who was abused by his father and the struggles he goes through in recovering from abuse and growing to have a healthier form of masculinity. Fair warning: the video (embedded at the bottom of the post) is somewhat hard to watch– I personally had to pause it halfway through and do something else, simply because the emotions caused by the video were too much for me. I am, however, known for my excessive empathy with fictional characters, so your experience may be different.
Life’s Poison reminds me of one of my favorite books on masculinity– bell hooks’s We Real Cool: Black Men and Masculinity. (If you like this blog, and you have never read We Real Cool, the FUCK are you waiting for, go the fuck to the library.) In her chapters on abuse, bell hooks discusses the endemic rates of abuse among black men– physical, emotional, and sexual. She theorizes that abuse disconnects men from their emotions and teaches them to be violent and self-destructive– that is, according to some toxic ideas, a “real man.” (In fact, it is known that abuse history correlates with risk of becoming an abuser.)
When a boy is slapped for crying, he learns that men don’t cry. Later on in his life, he may have trouble connecting to his emotions. Life’s Poison shows this viscerally: when the main character Eliyah’s mother is in the hospital, he stands next to the wall of his school building and shouts at himself not to cry. Crying– even when no one can see, even when you’re afraid for your mother whom you love– makes you weak. The abuse of his father seared that lesson in his bones.
Too, Eliyah’s abuse has warped his way of interacting with the world. In the first words of the film, he says that being masculine is about being hard, being strong. To Eliyah, being “the man” is about demanding respect and being known to be on top and not to be messed with– that is, about being willing and able to use violence. His early abuse taught him to view the world as abusers and abused, those who do violence and those who have violence done upon them: the manly way is to make sure that you’re so strong no one can ever hurt you.
Of course, viewing the world as abusers and abused is common enough among survivors of childhood abuse. Nevertheless, it’s important not to ignore the specifically gendered aspects of Eliyah’s abuse. His father abused him when he was a boy for being insufficiently masculine; he developed the dysfunctional coping mechanism of being hypermasculine. I wonder how many hypermasculine people have abuse histories, perhaps ones they cannot even admit to themselves.
The moment that made me saddest in the film is when Eliyah is taking his elementary-school age brother, Cory, to school. Cory asks for a hug goodbye; Eliyah, telling him he’s a big boy now, gives him a fistbump. The loneliness and puzzlement on Cory’s face broke my heart. Eliyah clearly, throughout the film, loves his brother and wants the best for him; nevertheless, emotionally wounded and yearning to be a man himself, he hurts his brother.
It’s a good moment, too, because that is how kyriarchal conditioning works. Sure, there’s some “guys don’t hug each other, faggot,” particularly when people step out of line; but a lot of it is subtle, a moment neither person would really remember years later. A hug, rebuffed.
It would be terrible enough if the effects of abuse to become more masculine affected only the abuse survivors themselves. But there is a ripple effect. They teach others their own sick ideas of masculinity, bully those who do not fit, perhaps even abuse their own sons in their turn; the unrealistic and destructive ideas of what a man is perpetrate themselves. Abuse harms far more than just the person who was abused.