“We need to teach our boys that they can bear suffering and loss without shame … that anger is a question that deserves deeper answers than punishment or silence.”
On our first date three years ago, my husband Geof told me where he went to college, what he did for a living, that he was involved in climate activism, that he was allergic to wheat, and that his younger brother had committed suicide almost 30 years ago. As we got to know each other better, suicide as a defining event in his life took greater shape through many more conversations that each chipped away small pieces of the hugeness of what could never be fully be explained.
Geof’s brother Peter took his life at 21 in the family garage with the motor running. Geof found the body. Sometimes he relives that day, describing what Peter’s face looked like, what his fingers looked like, or how it felt the moment he anticipated what he was going to find when he opened the garage door. Details are sometimes uttered that have been unspeakable for many years, and, in between, Geof wraps himself in quietness for long stretches of time. I know that he will never—can never—tell it all. It’s OK.
How do we keep what happens to us? How do we incorporate these events into our lives, without turning them into anecdotes? For a long time, it was difficult for both of us to get inside Geof’s life. He was so impenetrable and lonely, a prison few entered or escaped. The turning point may have been sitting in a parked car in Cambridge, watching him pick another fight to push me away, and thinking, not for the first time, that I just didn’t have the stamina to do this much longer. What I said was, “You’re so much work.” What I didn’t say was what we both heard: and I might have to leave.
When profound tragedy like suicide happens, for a long time the heart oozes and weeps, in drips or in rivers, and you can build dams, but they constantly break, and there is nothing to do but get yourself out of other people’s way. Eventually, in great time, the heart scabs over, but scabs are not cement, and they occasionally get bumped off, or picked off, and the leaking begins anew. The heart scabs over again, but even so, the movies in the brain play on.
John Steinbeck once said, Men need sea monsters in their personal oceans. I have found this to be achingly true.
And just one more quote in the form of lyrics, this from folk singer and songwriter Bob Franke:
There’s a hole in the middle of the prettiest life
So the lawyers and the prophets say
Not your father nor your mother
Nor you lover’s gonna ever make it go away
And there’s too much darkness in an endless night
To be afraid of the way we feel
Let’s be kind to each other
Not forever but for real
Geof’s sea monster lives in that hole. I used to feel threatened when there was no room for me there, but I don’t feel that way anymore. I can leave them to it when they need each other, there in that place.
One day Geof and I were walking in the woods of Concord around a pond called Punkatasset, and it must have been near the anniversary of Peter’s death in March. Geof was in his annual dark mood, full of ambivalence, even though it was a glorious winter day. He talked of Peter, the inability to ever set things right or ever fully move on, the burden of survivorship, and the urgent but impossible desire to turn back time to see what was coming and stop it somehow.
When we returned to the car, I was taking off my jacket to put it on the back seat, and Peter spoke to me for the first and only time. I felt like my lungs had been punctured and all the air escaped in one big whoosh.
Peter’s voice was so perfectly, distinctly clear, though I had never heard it before. Tell Geof I do not want this for him. Tell him I want him to finally be happy. Tell him I need him to live. Tell him.
I don’t know how much time had gone by, but Geof saw me standing on the side of the road, shaken. I don’t really remember the rest, but ever since that day, Geof has occasionally reminded me that a very wise woman once told him that it was OK to be truly happy because this was not a betrayal of his brother … and that he loves this woman for giving him that.
Sometimes my husband is too expressive, too insistent on emotional closeness when I need distance. I don’t know if I’ve ever said it out loud, but a line from The Man from La Mancha goes through my head: “Spare me your unbearable tenderness.” I catch myself in exquisite hypocrisy. How much of my time and my career as a psychologist and educator have I devoted to speaking, writing, and teaching that boys have a deep capacity for emotional expression that can be cultivated, and that society cruelly discourages? If we are to raise boys to be men who can access their feelings and express them without stigma or any perceived threat to their masculinity, aren’t we obligated to not only verbalize—but to also experience—comfort with this kind of man?
My new marriage has an emotional landscape that is deep, complex, and gender neutral. I am not the only one who wants to “talk about feelings.” I am not the only one who cries easily. I am not the only one who gets up during the night because there is “stuff” to think or talk about. Although this blog certainly is an open love letter to my husband, it must be more than that. It must also be a road map of emotional maturity and intelligence for all boys growing into men.
No one ever said that life is fair, but no one should have to travel the road Geof did to claim his own life. No young man should have to commit the exorbitant amount of time and money Geof did for over 25 years of psychotherapy to come to shaky terms with the suicide of a brother, the horror of that discovery, and the pressing need to unlearn the cultural norms that stipulate that intense emotional topics are best not discussed. He had to build a new structure from the bottom up for listening and speaking plainly about feelings.
Boys and men who experience severe trauma may of course need this intensity of intervention. Must they also be doomed to experience decades of depression, anger, and damaged and failed relationships, within or outside the family, essentially all products of a performance of self-hatred?
The toxicity of emotional disconnection creates the destructive cycle that invisibly affects careers, parenting, and interpersonal relationships. I should know. Take it from me—a former participant in marital emotional estrangement—this cycle does not only happen to boys and men. But it does happen to them disproportionately.
Perhaps there is one “intervention” boys could embrace, with adult guidance, that does not require subsequent decades of repressed pain and the eventual need to grab hold of it and press it to ones chest. For Geof, there could be no sustained joy in life until the pain was stripped of its power over him, but the obvious problem was in how big the pain had gotten because he did not talk about it sooner, in healthy ways, often enough. “Talking about feelings” with boys—routinely, from a young age—could redefine masculinity in important ways and prevent the incredible waste that may ensue in the absence of that one critical step. How many men would like to stop hearing “be a man” when they show vulnerability? I know plenty.
The best job I ever had was working in a boys’ school. The boys made lots of mistakes, but as the Head of Middle School always explained, they made them within a framework of redemption. The idea was that no matter how misguided a boy’s behavior might be, there was always the possibility of a course change given the proper emotional tools and adult support for making it. A boy is not a fully formed adult. He is still becoming, to borrow an expression from Walt Whitman. Could you say the same for grown men? Likewise, for women? Yes, of course. We are all still becoming.
So is redemption something you earn by specific deeds that get recognized, evaluated and approved by others, or is it something that is given freely through compassion? I think the answer in each instance lies in the negative spaces between people’s comments. Often what is most wanted or most needed is what is not said.
Soon, but hopefully not too soon, Geof and I will be further bound to one another through the shared loss of younger brothers. His loss was sudden and long ago; mine is coming slowly and relentlessly.
Already I see who is talking, who is not talking, and what patterns are being laid down. I think every day about how I will hold this experience, so that it becomes an authentic and deeply personal part of me, while also writing about it publicly, because I will need to.
Geof gave me the trust, the love, and ultimately his permission to tell his story, believing that storytelling lifts us all up, beyond regret, irrespective of forgiveness, into that place where our shared humanity surpasses our individual pain.
We need to teach our boys that they can tell their stories; that they can bear suffering and loss without shame; that anger is a question that deserves deeper answers than punishment or silence; and that they can find others who will listen with empathy. We need to model the social acceptability of this kind of emotional journey for males within our families, within our schools, within our communities, and in all other places where boys can learn that this, this, enhances masculinity rather than erodes it.
We encourage our girls to give voice to their emotions. When they grow up, many want men in their lives who can support them as they do so, and who can do the same themselves. I had to wait decades to find this, and Geof had to work decades to get it, so that he could give it, and isn’t it funny…
Life doesn’t always give second chances, but the thing is, sometimes it does.
—Photo Keoni Cabral/Flickr