When I was nine years old I took apart my father’s electric razor without permission. At the time, this device represented manhood to me – a fetish of sorts – I saw as one of the tools a man used to represent masculinity at large in the culture around me. Witnessing my father run the razor across his dark stubble was a definitive stance I would attempt to emulate early on, even before I had a singular hair on my chinny-chin-chin. In retrospect, I perhaps recognized the trouble I would be in when I opened the razor up and picked apart its guts, tiny piece by tiny piece. Regardless, the appeal of removing the small screws, motor, and wires was evidently too much for me to resist. Unsurprisingly, when I was unable to rebuild the razor, I found myself facing the repercussions of my curious actions.
Years later and as an adult man, I see my quest for knowledge in the guts of that razor in a similar light as I do attempting to unravel the workings of my own masculinity: I am capable of dissecting it, on some level, but must also face the consequences of my tinkering both from within myself and from the culture of masculinity around me. It would take me years of troubled conscious struggle to even begin unraveling the ideas I had so desperately clung to; ideas I believed defined me as a man and ideas that defined me as a valuable person. My struggle for my masculine identity truly began, as I see it, when I was sentenced to a period in prison just as I turned eighteen years old.
This is a test. This is only a test.
A test of your masculinity in perhaps one of the most oppressive of environments. Your manhood as defined by a strict set of rules to be obeyed and perpetuated, as dictated by a long history of macho posturing (see also; American machismo). A history tested and tried through violence, coercion, intimidation, and regimented discipline. A well-honed system of risk vs. reward encouraged from the top-down and rarely challenged in any legitimate way other than in jest.
The challenge begins immediately upon admittance to prison: power plays of intimidation and bullying tactics to throw new arrivals off-balance; judgments based on physical size, demeanor, race, age, and charisma are expediently made by trustees empowered to strictly maintain the hierarchical order. Younger admittances may be presented clothes that are tightly fitting, for example; underwear stained pink in the wash. This test is potentially passable if the young man stands up for himself and demands more proper fitting clothes. Of course, the stance taken must be one of hyper-masculinity, with a threat of underlying violence.
A willingness to fight right off the bat, no questions asked.
Failure to properly follow this regiment results in the rule-breaker potentially being ostracized by the macho-crowd at large. The repercussions of this can be dire and may make one the target of physical violence, theft or other punitive sanctions. Sometimes, using physical violence against a more masculine adversary may overrule victimization temporarily, but this is not always the case. Great care must be taken in this situation or it may simply be exacerbated. Masculinity: the child of exacerbation and excused behaviors.
Specialization (i.e. artistry, writing/legal skills/drug access) may alleviate some pressures of this culture, but one must always pair their skill set with the willingness to resort to violent conflict in the end, lest they be taken advantage of by peers. A fine balance might be struck that allows a position of relative comfort as well as alleviating some of the day-to-day masculine requirements. One might introduce an amount of drugs to a unit and be able to withdraw from the hyper-masculine circles for a period of time.
This was my test and I’m not so certain I passed, even after years of trial and error.
Today, I find myself lacking tools to sometimes adequately function in society around me. While I learned a particular set of skills while incarcerated, I found that few – if any – of these tools can be successfully used in day-to-day living ‘on the streets’. While I am certainly capable of deciding against violent conflict in a particular circumstance, in my life-toolbox it at first appears to be the most applicable instrument for many jobs I am faced with. This causes my thought process a rather visible ‘slow-down’ during certain situations and I find myself struggling to appropriately respond in a timely manner to interactions many people may find easy to walk away from. Even when I am able to maneuver away from potentially stressful situations, the aftershock of emotion can be nearly crippling, throwing me off balance for hours or even days.
Relaying my experience to others (I have noticed and as has been pointed out to me by friends) absolutely instigates a hyper-masculine posture in me. I find it nearly impossible to attempt to discuss prison without taking a stance once so familiar and comfortable to me. My voice changes, my physical posture changes. Even while writing this, my thought process is clouded by a confusing array of feelings that define my masculine self.
The difficulty for me lies in determining what is really Me, what is product, what is creation and what is posturing. Sifting through 41 years of mostly encouraged masculine stances is no easy journey for me and at this point I wonder if the rest of my life will be a series of behavioral ‘undoings’. I insist, however, that I be ‘Me’. Prison, as it was (and more specifically solitary confinement) did nothing to enable myself. It did, however reinforce nearly every negative aspect of masculinity that was present in me as well as introducing new and possibly more powerful techniques in which I employed masculine behavior, sometimes at the expense of others around me.
As I attempt to educate myself, second guess myself, surround myself with other men who actively engage in masculine criticism, I find answers to questions I did not even know existed. Questioning masculinity, in my opinion, does not exist in a vacuum. Doors are absolutely opened. Like the guts of my father’s razor, I am faced with a slew of interconnected bits. In this case the parts are things like gender, race, class, and so forth — all connected, all intricately defined by culture around me, all deserving my attention and hard questioning.
Recently, I was fortunate to take part in the filming of the pilot episode of Think Ten Media’s ‘The wHole’, a work focusing on the use of solitary confinement as punishment. We filmed in an actual prison in Oregon and the mere act of physically stepping back into an institution after so many years was traumatic for me. Indeed, I wept in private the first night, wondering if I had the strength to follow through the next day. While decades had passed, the pain was no less than it was when I was a young man.
The difference was that this time the people around me had no expectations of my masculine self. This was a creative process. A team of people inspired by the idea that locking a man in a cell – alone- for extended periods of time might not be the best approach in corrections. I suddenly found myself shedding guilt. I’ve long since recognized that for me, art and the creative process are invaluable tools in my quest to find my true self. It wasn’t until I participated in a project that focused on prison (perhaps the epitome of my defining masculine stances) that I realized how far I had come.
I also realized how far I had to go, as a man. I must say: it is a pleasure to discover who I really am, at last, even if this journey lasts until the day I die. I realize that I may not see resolution, but that’s perhaps not the point. In my opinion, it is about perpetuating the conversation.
Feature Photo: By Mk2010 via Wikimedia Commons, all other photos courtesy of ThinkTenMedia