James Michael didn’t know how to tell his wife about his addiction. A movie changed that for him.
When the credits rolled, after my first viewing of “A History of Violence”, I sat in the theater a long time. I couldn’t move. My issues were nothing like those depicted in the movie, but my story was exactly the same.
And the weight of it held me in my seat.
A History of Violence isn’t about violence. It’s about hiding.
More precisely, it’s about trying to hide. Until it’s about being found out.
A History of Violence is the movie that gives me a vivid picture of what a man is.
It is the story of a man whose secret, violent, criminal past rushes into the open due to circumstances beyond his control. He’s a former mob hit man whose created a new life for himself as a small town diner owner, an illusion that he maintains until his old employers find his hiding place. Then, his wife and children learn his secrets. His carefully-crafted façade of a gentle family man crumbles and he is helpless and exposed. But the story doesn’t detail his violent past—it’s about the exposed man dealing with his past in his present.
Unlike most “Man Movies”, the violence in AHOV is not the answer to the man’s problem. This violence is his problem, and I believe, it’s a metaphor for any man’s problem.
Early in the movie, when his family man persona begins to crumble, we see Tom’s strategies for covering, for preserving the shreds of an image he has left. Mostly, this means we see him scrambling to hide from his wife. I had my own strategies to hide from my wife. My reflex was to cover and maintain. I had excuses and diversions prepared. I instinctively responded with humor, changing the subject or tone of the conversation when things got a little too close to home.
The violent scenes in AHOV are exhilarating and move the plot along. But those scenes are not really the “manly” ones. The façade fails. Tom’s strategies are unsuccessful. He can hide no longer. In the hospital room, wounded physically, he tells his wife about his secret former life. She vomits uncontrollably, unable in that moment to handle the reality of her husband. I longed for truth to break my strategies. I longed for my strategies to fail. But I feared this reaction. I would lay awake at night, while my wife slept next to me, and vividly imagine a scene like that, a scene where I spoke the truth about myself, where I revealed the reality of who I was. I couldn’t imagine it going any differently than it did in AHOV. I trembled with fear imagining her disgust and anger and sense of being betrayed.
Tom Stall has the worst parts of himself thrust into the open and he must decide how to respond. He has to be completely honest with his wife. He has to wait for his family to accept him. He doesn’t know for how long.
We’re all hiding something.
We are all afraid. We are all ashamed. We all have anxiety. We all wear masks.
Being a real man means taking off your mask. It means being brave enough to be weak.
I sometimes wish that being a man meant swinging a claymore or intimidating your annoying boss. That would be easier. I have come to believe that being a man means sitting at the kitchen table, with your heart completely exposed, with nowhere to hide, wondering if you’ll be accepted as you are by those you love most, now that they know the truth.
Probably, no one reading this is hiding what Tom Stall was hiding, but many of us are hiding something.
What will it take to come clean? What will it take to be open and exposed to your loved ones, your family? Hopefully your secrets won’t be forced out into the open by a one-eyed mobster. Hopefully you can be a man and verbalize your secrets on your own terms.
“I am weaker than I pretend to be”
“I am angry all the time”
“I am an addict”
“I am unsure of your love”
It wasn’t hard for Tom Stall to physically defend the patrons of his diner or his family. It wasn’t even hard for him to kill his own brother. I think the hardest thing Tom Stall ever did was walk back into his house after everything was in the open. Nothing was hidden and he was powerless. He was at the mercy of his family; he was completely known And that’s what being a man is.
The hardest thing he ever did was sit down at that table and make eye contact with his wife. He is too ashamed to talk, but his eyes ask the question, “Here I am. Am I accepted? Will you love me?”
His daughter gets him a plate. His son passes him the meatloaf.
His wife looks him in the eye.
There is hope.
The hardest thing I have ever done was reveal myself to my wife. I sat my her down on the couch in our living room on an otherwise normal night. My greatest fear was her rejection, and I finally confronted it. I said the hardest thing I’ve ever said aloud: “I struggle with an addiction to pornography”
She was angry and sad.
She asked questions.
She got up and changed the password to the computer.
…then we went out for Chinese food.
She still loves me
…and I’m still honest with her.
And that’s what being a man is.