Interview: Jared Yates Sexton on "The Man They Wanted Me to Be"
Father's Day is fast approaching. And while many of you might think to just send a greeting card, make a phone call, or head to the bar (hey, some of us have issues...), some of you might be on the hunt for the perfect gift for Dad. How about a tie? No? 'World's Greatest Dad' coffee mug? Did that last year? Tools? Barbecue set? Beer? (Okay, beer is always good.) Some stalwart symbol of traditional masculinity such as, say, a bottle of Brut cologne?
If none of those strike your fancy, or if the idea of contributing to stereotypical gender consumerism makes you cringe, maybe it's time to think outside the box. This Father's Day, perhaps it's time to reevaluate our ground-in notions of what defines masculinity and how such a rigid set of codes, rules and, yes, gift-giving ideas, can be not only ridiculous, but dangerous. A great place to start would be with Jared Yates Sexton's recently released treatise, The Man They Wanted Me to Be: Toxic Masculinity and a Crisis of Our Own Making. I was fortunate to sit down with Sexton and here's what he had to say:
Your new book is both an exploration of toxic masculinity in all its facets and an examination of your own life experiences shaped by the expectations of such ideas. While your first non-fiction title, The People are Going to Rise Like the Waters Upon Your Shore, includes personal anecdotes and documents your travels and trials as a rogue journalist on the 2016 campaign trail, your latest book clearly embraces the memoir format. Were you anxious, then, about divulging so much of your personal history, including much of your childhood and further traumatic life events? Did you ever have second thoughts about publishing this book because it was so bravely personal?
Absolutely. I’ve known for a while that eventually, at some point in my life, I would get into my experiences. My childhood and upbringing were…traumatic and rather nightmarish. I’ve been dealing with the fallout of that my entire life and expected eventually to tackle it. But I didn’t think it would happen now and I didn’t think it would happen in this way. The moment asked for it though, and the more that I looked at our current situation, our current crisis, the more I realized that it was the right time to get into my experiences and my past in order to bring the thing together and hopefully make some sense out of the chaos.
At first, when I started writing, it was just writing. I thought I could get through it without much mental or emotional suffering. I’ll admit, that’s the masculinity talking. I’ve survived every type of abuse imaginable but I always thought, well, survivors of trauma have a hard time, but I’ll be fine. I wasn’t. Writing this put the whole thing together and brought a lot of it to the surface that I either hadn’t dealt with completely or hadn’t really made sense of or healed from. It was terrifying putting it out there, especially as it makes me incredibly vulnerable for people to come after me and use that vulnerability against me, particularly those who want to hurt or intimidate me. It wasn’t an easy decision.
As with all of your writing, you don’t shy away from hot button topics in this book. Much of your work has been read as divisive and you make no secret of the fact that you’ve received harassment and death threats from your reporting on President Trump. Although this book is somewhat less political than your first, I’m curious as to what its reception has been like. Was it what you expected? Has any feedback caught you by surprise?
I’ll tell you what I didn’t expect: that the harassment would take the same form as the bullying and harassment I suffered as a child. There are echoes in it, for sure, of when I was younger and vulnerable, reminders of how schoolyard bullies behaved and how my abusive stepfathers would lay into me. I knew I’d be dealing with some of this, but I didn’t expect it to take this shape, and I certainly didn’t expect so much. Insecure men who are drowning in the patriarchy are very, very defensive about who they are and anyone who questions it is met with the same anger and violence that accompanies abuse. It’s a sad state of affairs.
So, why this book? As in, you’re known for your political journalism, both with your previous book, your work in Salon, The New York Times and other venues, and your twitter commentary, both as a current analyst and as an infiltrator of Trump rallies in 2016. With all that on your plate, why did you turn your focus towards the topic of toxic masculinity? Was this something you always wanted to write about? Or did it spring from your early experiences covering the 2016 election and the change in our political landscape?
I never planned on this, but the current crisis kind of demanded it. We’re living in a society that is steeped in toxic masculinity. Progress is being held back. There are fascists marching in the streets. Extremist groups gaining members and power by the day. And it’s all happening because insecure men are being radicalized by people who know exactly how to manipulate them for political and financial gain. This is the key to mass shootings. Why we can’t take action on climate change or the social safety net. Why we can’t have universal health insurance, a better economy, security in a woman’s right to choose, and why Donald Trump is the 45th president. It’s all wrapped up in masculine programming and insecurity. It’s costing lives and it’s costing us the future.
Along the lines of my previous question, I’d like to add—why now? The Man They Wanted Me to Be is not just a hot-take on gender issues, it’s not jumping on a trendy feminist bandwagon. You write sincerely and with urgency. You have deeply thought about problems with masculinity, you go back in history, project into the future, in short—your heart is in this book and it shows. So, why do we need a book like this right now? Or have we always needed it?
I’ll tell you, I needed this book when I was younger. I was a sickly little kid who felt like he was the only boy in the world failing at masculinity. It was so bad I considered killing myself at the tender age of six. All of the men around me seemed to perform masculinity with ease, meaning I was somehow defective. What I didn’t know then was that all men feel uncomfortable with masculinity, we simply don’t talk about it, don’t communicate it, don’t check in with each other, and as a result we all live in these sad, isolated prisons. If I could have read a book about masculinity when I was younger it could have saved so, so, so much pain and suffering in my life and the lives of people I love. I really wanted to have this be in a library, in a bookstore, and for an insecure, endangered young boy to find it and know that he’s not alone. And young boys, and the men they grow into, have needed to hear this for as long as there have been young boys and men. It’s an important moment, a critical one, and it’s long past time we start examining, questioning, and re-configuring the old ways we used to take for granted.
Much of the memoir sections of The Man They Wanted Me to Be are recollections, but your argument comes from a clear reflection on your life and the lives of your family. What did you learn about yourself in writing this book? Did anything surprise you? Do you feel that you’ve changed in any way since you began the writing process?
So, while I was writing this book I actually discovered that I had a serious medical condition. It was something I kind of knew, a problem that had announced itself before and I’d always ignored. I knew, deep down, that I needed to see a doctor, that I needed to get checked out, but I kept putting it off and was determined to tough it out. As I write in the book, this kind of thinking killed my father. He died at the too-young age of fifty-nine from diabetes, an illness that could have easily been treated if he hadn’t avoided going to the doctor for years and years and years. What I realized, writing the book, and going through that diagnosis, was that patriarchal masculinity, the thing I was writing about, studying, criticizing, and thinking about constantly, is always with you. Men who are raised in these ways, who are exposed to it, are always subject to it, as if it were a chronic condition itself. This is why you see so many liberal and feminist men who still do terrible things. We can slip right back into it. Writing about this and researching the male fear of doctors, a fear which sentences them to shorter, more miserable lives, made me look in the mirror and realize I still needed to grow.
I mentioned that your work can be seen as divisive. I can imagine readers balking at this book—both men and women—and feeling that issues of masculinity, female empowerment and gender politics do not apply to them. How do you convince those readers that these topics are necessary to embrace? How can you insure that you’re not just preaching to the choir with this book, that it’s not just existing in a vacuum of readers who already agree with you?
This is something I spent a lot of time taking into consideration. I didn’t want to write a rah-rah book. I wanted to make a case for feminism that outlined what it was, how it benefited all people personally, socially, and financially. That’s the thing here—even if people feel like toxic masculinity isn’t a problem, its dangers are obviously evident. Men are living shorter lives as everyone else is living longer. Their earning potential is down. They’re hurting physically, mentally, and emotionally. And, this is so key, every man knows that traditional masculinity is a lie. They know it as they’re over-performing, as they’re sticking out their chests, as they’re living their every day. I’ve had so many men reach out and tell me that they didn’t want to listen to my argument but knew, within a few pages, that what I was saying was the truth. Once that starts and the cat is out of the bag, so to speak, it’s my hope that some people can turn their lives around.
And, finally, what can people actually do to combat toxic masculinity or to initiate a sea change that would one day render it an obsolete term? We live in charged times where men and women either feel at liberty to loudly and obnoxiously express their opinions or walk on tiptoe, afraid to rock the boat or cause unintended offense. It’s a fine line that’s asking to be walked and no one, obviously, is perfect. So what can your average man or woman do to take a stand on the issues you explore in your book?
Honestly, the solution is both simpler and more complex than expected. The biggest thing a person can do is offer support, love, and understanding. Men come out of their shells when the people around them reassure them that if they fail, if they’re not totally invincible and strong, that they’ll still love them and value them. It’s like coaxing a terrified animal out from hiding. You establish trust and then they realize it’s in their best interest to come out. The truth is, men are suffering from this and they have everything to gain. They can live better lives and have better relationships. That’s so freeing and lovely and just a taste of it can be intoxicating. There are, of course, larger problems, problems that are going to require therapy and major life changes, but it all starts with communication and support. In my experience, and the experience of people I’ve talked to who have escaped lives of abuse and even membership in extremist groups, it’s that communication that starts the process and can change lives.
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