EVERY NOW and again, my wife will hear a noise in the middle of the night.

“I heard something downstairs,” she’ll say, waking me.

I strain my ears to listen.

“Did you hear it?”

“No,” I’ll say. I never hear it, but then again, my hearing is ruined from my high school punk-rock band, and I know that my ears are not a reliable indicator of anything. I already dread the question I know is coming: “Will you go downstairs and check?”

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Oh, God. I really don’t want to go downstairs, because it’s the middle of the night and I’m comfortable and, most importantly, because even though I didn’t hear anything, I’m suddenly terrified. What if, this time, somebody actually is in the house? Why is she sending me downstairs to confront my murderer?

What I want to say is “You go downstairs,” but I can’t say that because it would violate the ancient contract between man and woman, the one that says men will be the first to face danger. And because it would be such a dick move.

So then I have to get out of bed and creep downstairs and wander around in the dark praying that nobody’s there. Left unanswered is the question of what I’m supposed to do if I should come face-to-face with an intruder. In theory, I guess I’m supposed to kick his ass. In practice, we would most likely have a very awkward conversation.

“Excuse me.”

“Oh, hey.”

“So . . . are you robbing us or what?”

“Yeah. Would you mind giving me a hand with the fl at-screen?”

And I would help him. What else could I do? The options are violence or nonviolence. In that situation, I would much rather take the nonviolent route. On the other hand, if the situation should turn more menacing, I would be forced to defend myself and my family to the best of my limited (nonexistent) abilities.

close up of a crowbar

ULTIMATELY, WHEN my wife sends me downstairs, she’s relying on my willingness to use violence if the need should arise even though I am ill-equipped to do so. When things go bump in the night, my only real utility is having the honor of being the first one killed. Which seems unfair.

Look, I’m certainly willing to do whatever I can to protect my family, but if it’s true that I should learn the craft of violence to do so, it follows that all men should do the same, and then we are back where we started, with men being trained for general mayhem because any one of us may decide, at any moment, to start throwing barstools around. This is the paradox of modern manhood: The culture simultaneously demands men’s “civilization” while asking us to retain our capacity for manly violence at the squeak of a floorboard.

A Better Man: A (Mostly Serious) Letter to My Son
A Better Man: A (Mostly Serious) Letter to My Son
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We despise violence and revere it. Of course, we are a (cough) civilized society, a society in which violence—except in times of war—is officially condemned but unofficially celebrated. Even today, violence sometimes carries a certain nobility. Watch any video of a neo-Nazi getting punched in the face and you’ll see what I mean. People love it. Hell, I love it.

Why? What do we get out of it? Research has shown that animals may be similarly drawn to violence. One study, from Vanderbilt University, found that aggression in male mice activates the same reward pathway in the brain as sex. Mice might pick fights with each other because it feels good to rumble. Aggression appears to fulfill a primal need in animals.

As boys, we grow up understanding that, at some point, we will almost certainly have to confront violence. Whether it’s wrestling or play-fighting or actual punches being thrown in the parking lot after school, boys know that violence, in some form, will play a part in our childhood.

It did in mine. Once, a boy I knew pulled a switchblade on me and called me a kike. Once, a high school classmate jumped me in the hallway because I wouldn’t let a joke go. In camp, a bigger kid told me I was on his “hit list” and that he would be coming for me in the night. He never did, but I didn’t sleep the rest of the week.

Once, as a young adult on a New York City street, I got cold-cocked in the face because I stepped between a tourist with limited English skills and the three-card monte dealer who was trying to rip him off . I haven’t had many fights in my life, but I’ve had some, and I don’t think it will shock you to learn I lost them all. Those incidents startled me, scared me, hurt me.

victim of assault

After I got punched in the face, I couldn’t fully close my mouth for two weeks. Violence, and the threat of violence, deflates you. Not, I think, because it causes physical pain but because it steals part of your soul.

WORSE THAN the times I received violence, though, are the times I inflicted it. Three times from my childhood trouble me to this day.

The first was when I was about five. My brother, Eric, had just come home from the hospital after a surgery to correct his cleft palate. His mouth was swollen and tender; he had stitches in his lip. He must have been in pain.

"I’d punched him as hard as I could in the mouth, exactly where he’d just had surgery."

My brother and I rarely argued, even as kids, but for whatever reason, we got into it that day, and before I knew it, I’d punched him as hard as I could in the mouth, exactly where he’d just had surgery. I remember how satisfying it was to hit him, and how that satisfaction immediately turned to horror when he recoiled from the punch, howling.

The second time was when I was maybe nine. My dad and his wife, Beth, had just bought their first house together. It was in a new development in an old cornfield torn up for spec houses. All that upturned soil had left rocks everywhere.

Right after they moved in, Eric and I were visiting, wandering the new neighborhood sidewalks, when we ran into a group of kids around our age on the other side of the street, maybe three or four of them. I don’t know why, but we started taunting each other. Insults flew back and forth across the road.

Before I knew what I was doing, I’d bent down and reached for one of the rocks, grabbed it, and threw it as hard as I could at one of the kids. It hit him square in the head. I can’t remember if he fell or not. Eric and I ran away. Later, the boy’s father came to my dad’s door with his son. Thankfully, he was okay, but they wanted an apology. They got one.

The third time was the worst, unforgivably bad, even though the actual level of violence was the smallest. Because my sister, Susan, has Down syndrome, she’s always needed somebody to keep a careful eye on her. When we were kids, that duty fell to us boys. I was probably ten years old or so, and we were on summer vacation. Susan and I were the only ones home, so I was on Susan duty for a couple hours.

The only adult nearby was Elaine, my mother’s partner, who was coaching her son’s Little League team at a field about a five-minute walk from our house. It felt unfair that I had to sit there on a gorgeous summer day and babysit my sister. Little League practice seemed to be going on forever, and I was eager to go out and play.

I waited for what felt like hours. I grew angrier and angrier. Why did I have to watch my stupid sister when everybody else got to play outside? I just wanted Elaine to get home so I could be released, but there was no sign of her. Finally, out of frustration, I slapped Susan in the face. I remember it so well. We were sitting together on our brown carpeted stairway, the house was still, and I slapped her.

She looked so puzzled. I wanted her to cry. It took a couple slaps. Once the tears came, I left her alone in the house and walked to the ball field to tell Elaine that Susan was crying for some reason, wouldn’t stop, and that she needed to come home. It’s the worst thing I have ever done.

I’ve never told anybody about that. Not my wife or my brother or the occasional therapists I’ve visited over the years. I’m not holding myself apart from the worst impulses of other men. I have them, too.

WHEN THE #MeToo movement started, a famous line from writer Margaret Atwood began circulating: “Men are afraid women will laugh at them. Women are afraid men will kill them.” I was just a boy when I slapped my sister, but in that moment, I was one of those frightening men.

One of the unspoken truths about being a man is that fear of men isn’t confined to women; men are also afraid that men will kill them. Everybody is afraid of men for the simple reason that men commit the overwhelming majority of violence. One half of our species does most of the hurting and killing and one half does not.

huge number of shell casings from bullets lying on the floor in the room terrible shooting indoors after which there was a lot of shell casings from bullets
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Male violence, whether justified or not, is most often rooted in fear. Think of the types of fear as a pyramid. At the base is the fear of loss of life, your own life or the lives of those under your care.

Above that is the fear of scarcity, which is the fear that somebody is going to take your limited amount of stuff, thereby endangering your life or the lives of those under your care; I think most hate-based violence lives in this broad area.

At the top of the pyramid are two brother fears: the fear of diminishment in other people’s eyes, which is the fear we call “pride,” and the fear of letting others down, which is the fear we call “honor.” Activating any of these fears may move a man to violence. Another way of saying this is that traditional masculinity itself might be rooted in fear.

"The Real Man can’t admit his fears because doing so would leave him emasculated."

If Real Men are locked in a perpetual game of ¿Quién es más macho?, it stands to reason that our fear is a massive vulnerability. How many times have you seen some movie character spit into the dust and mutter something like “I ain’t afraid of nuthin’”?

I’m here to tell you, that man is a goddamned liar. The Real Man can’t admit his fears because doing so would leave him emasculated. If he admits to being hurt, then he is vulnerable to further hurt. If he allows his pain to show, he fears his enemies will attack him at his weakest.

The Real Man is beset by enemies, always. Always there are others out there threatening to destroy him, to destroy his family, to take everything. It’s a bleak way to go through life. Here we men are, supposedly strong, yet not strong enough to tell the truth.

The language of traditional masculinity is an endless series of smoke signals we send up warning the enemy we are not to be trifled with.

“Here is a man,” we say in the way we drink our coffee (not the more feminine tea). “Here is a man,” with the pickup we drive, the clothes we wear, the curt way we nod to each other in the elevator. It’s every niggling, exhausting detail of our lives informing all who dare gaze upon us that we are men. Not because we are strong but because we are scared others will think we are weak.

We have heard so many women amplify their voices on this subject in the last couple years, women who have suffered at the hands of men, been overwhelmed by men, feel exhausted and defeated by men. Not all men, we say, stupidly.

But when these women tell their stories, they are almost always about men. To say that men do these things is not to condemn all men, but from the perspective of a survivor, that matters very little. It’s you and me. It’s men.

Beth used to play an album of Kenny Rogers’s greatest hits all the time when we were kids. There’s a song on there called “Coward of the County,” about a regretful father on his deathbed cautioning his son against the violence that ruined his life.

Pretty good advice from ol’ Kenny. Then again, at the end of the song, the son drops three guys in a bar fight for sexually assaulting his girlfriend. “Sometimes,” the son decides, “you gotta fight when you’re a man.”

Here, outside the world of country songs, you will almost never be in a situation where you have to choose violence, but when something goes bump in the night, whether you like it or not, it’s still your job to confront the danger. It’s what you do as a man for the people you love.

Then, when you get to the bottom of the stairs, take a breath, and step into the darkness.

This article originally appeared in the September 2020 issue of Men's Health.

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