Memoirs explore the meaning of manhood

by Erica Mixon / Beacon Correspondent and Kavita Shah / Beacon Staff • December 3, 2014

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Courtesy of Thomas Page McBee
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Courtesy of Thomas Page McBee

In Emerson professor Richard Hoffman’s recent memoir, Love & Fury, he asks: “Why does my father remain such a mystery to me?”

It’s a question that he, along with two Emerson alumni—Anthony D’Aries and Thomas Page McBee—explore in their memoirs, navigating the meaning of manhood in the context of their relationships with their own fathers. McBee said his father was sexually abusive. D’Aries and Hoffman depict their fathers, both war veterans, as emotionally guarded and distant.

D’Aries and Hoffman read excerpts from their books and participated in a discussion on Tuesday, Dec. 2 in the Iwasaki Library. The three memoirs are a part of an ongoing trend and a cultural shift that has opened up a dialogue about masculinity and gender.

“In any case,” Hoffman writes, “I think [my father’s] inability to express the nature and variety of his feelings made me want to at least try to articulate mine.”

A ‘guy code’ that permeates generations

When Anthony D’Aries, a 2004 Emerson graduate, asked his father about his experiences in Vietnam, he said he was surprised to hear candid stories of Asian prostitutes rather than traditional combat stories. Realizing how Hollywood movies had misled his understanding of war, D’Aries set off on a four-month journey through Vietnam to find the origins of his father’s masculine ideals.

“Retracing my father’s steps brought out gender stereotypes that I didn’t pay attention to until I started to write,” said D’Aries, 32, in an interview with the Beacon. “I started an exploration of how men and women communicate and the stereotypes we inherit but don’t question.”

 In D’Aries’ The Language of Men: A Memoir, published in 2012, he examines his family life to trace the construction of his views on sexuality, violence, and masculinity. He depicts how these topics were taboo in his childhood, showing how his family resorted to surface-level interactions to avoid emotional discussions.

D’Aries said he was raised on an unspoken “guy code” that arose through mindlessly partaking in stereotypical masculine hobbies with his father: talking about cars, jokingly using sexist slang, and gawking at women on television. He added that, at the time, he didn’t fully realize the scope of his father’s influence on his own conception of masculinity; he emulated his father.

Corey Malone, a sophomore marketing communications major, said he appreciated how D’Aries’ discussion on Tuesday painted the struggle of boys raised under a structure that enforced gender norms.

 “People don’t like to come forward and analyze the effects of the mass culture that we have in place for young men growing up,” said Malone, “whereas we talk so much about the unrealistic standards that the media places on women.”

Tulasi Srinivas, an Emerson associate professor who focuses on cultural anthropology, said that the recent opening of dialogue about masculinity mirrors the necessity of feminist conversation in the 1950s, when cultural values were similarly shifting.

“We see how men are expected to be, but some want to be more emotionally attuned, more sensitive, more loving,” she said. “They want to have more options, to not to act in the sort of old-world type of masculinity.”

In an interview with the Beacon, D’Aries said one story about his father and his grandfather’s relationship illustrated his family’s view of masculinity through several generations: His father, when leaving for Vietnam, cried and gestured to his own father for a hug, but was pushed away. His grandfather shook his hand instead and said, “Man up.”

 D’Aries, now the assistant professor of English and director of the writing program at Regis College, said that gender dialogue has improved significantly within the last five to ten years. He said his students in a recent gender studies class were comfortable speaking openly about gender and sexuality.

“Finding ways to become more self-aware should be the priority of every human being,” said D’Aries. “It’s not just specific to masculinity. The memoir picks apart those things we try to sum up with an easy answer.”  

Tenderness and rage  

In an interview with the Beacon, Hoffman, 65, described a particular mythology of American boyhood: a happy posse of boys romping in the woods, going fishing, experiencing a special kind of camaraderie.

“But I don’t remember boyhood that way,” said Hoffman, a senior writer-in-residence in the writing, literature, and publishing department. “When I’ve talked to other men about it, they often will allow that boyhood was immensely competitive, and often that competition was driven by male adults.”

In Hoffman’s memoir, released in 2014, he explores the concepts of boyhood and masculinity in the wake of his father’s death. In the book, Hoffman describes his father as a mysterious figure, but also as a man’s man: a World War II veteran, “a smoke ring virtuoso,” a blue-collar worker, “a perplexing mix of tenderness and rage.”

Hoffman said his father’s generation defined manhood in the context of a misogynistic and homophobic culture, which makes for complicated father-son relationships in today’s society.

“If fathers are trying to pass that along to their sons to be successful as men in the patriarchy, they’re passing along delusions that exclude half the human race,” Hoffman said. 

In Love & Fury, Hoffman writes about a particular childhood memory: his father’s palm raised in a “stop” gesture when Hoffman attempted to kiss him goodnight. 

“I can still see that hand,” Hoffman writes, “big as my whole face, in the timeless moment before it shifts and invites, requires, a handshake instead of a kiss, a quick pump up and down and a little squeeze before letting go.”

Hoffman said there is a gladiatorial aspect to the way American society defines manhood and masculinity.

“It can be terribly abusive,” Hoffman said. “What happens to that rage? When you start telling boys you can’t cry, you cut off a whole range of emotional spectrum.” 

A Self-Made Man

Thomas Page McBee, 33, has two words tattooed on his legs: self made. It’s a reference to his column for The Rumpus blog, “Self-Made Man,” in which he explores masculinity as a newly transitioned transgender person.

“I think in a lot of ways the title of the column is a life motto,” McBee said in a phone interview from New York City. “It’s a play on the idea of literally being self-made with hormones, but we’re all self-made. The whole point of what I learned about being a man is that it’s an intentional act.”

McBee described his 2014 memoir, Man Alive: A True Story of Violence, Forgiveness and Becoming a Man, as a prequel to the column. In the memoir, he examines masculinity through the framework of two life-changing events: being held at gunpoint with his girlfriend and being molested by his father as a child.

 McBee, who graduated from Emerson in 2003 with a degree in writing, literature, and publishing, said that it was important to portray his own specific, personal experience with manhood.

“The narrative I was seeing was every time a trans person was portrayed, it was a sad story...or it was a feel-good story about someone being born in the wrong body,” McBee said. “I looked for stories that felt familiar, but there weren’t any.”

Hoffman, who taught McBee in a writing class at Emerson, said that he appreciated McBee’s unique perspective on boyhood. 

“He’s writing as a mature adult who is having the experience of boyhood, and that’s different from writing as an adult remembering it,” said Hoffman. “That’s tremendously valuable.”

Srinivas said she is happy to see more transgender people and their perspectives represented in American culture.

“I find the American unpacking of sexuality and gender to be extraordinarily limited and almost colloquial,” said Srinivas. “The interesting thing about people coming out as these alternate sexualities and genders is that you have to ask yourself, ‘How oppressive are the categories that we’ve built up that people need to come out as the alternate?’”

McBee said that we all use our bodies to communicate something real about who we are, and gender is a way for humans to identify themselves.

“We all envision ourselves a certain way, work to be that way, and run up against limitations,” said McBee. “That’s why in a lot of ways, there’s a transgender story that’s just externalizing what we all experience.”