I’m Elliot Roger and So are You, Dude

29 May


barth polaroidI’ve been trying to talk to men about rape and sexuality for about 23 years now. It’s a conversation that comes and goes, at best, but it seems to be coming back right now, with Elliot Roger’s rampage and how we should deal with it, “in the news.”

I worked with Men Stopping Rape in Madison many many years ago, wrote articles for the group’s newsletter about Axl Rose coming out as an abuse survivor, about Tailhook, how we needed more men talking about our role in the rape epidemic, child/spousal abuse, behavior that supports both, and organizing brother’s circles in the Madison co-ops with great guys. It was the early 90’s men’s movement, and in Madison, ever the soap bubble within soap bubbles, the point was to create “safe spaces” where men could talk to each other about their experiences with sexism, rape supportive behavior, their own abuse or shame, our shitty fathers, and find a different way of being men that didn’t mean being an “alpha” or a “beta” or any kind of “Real Man” (detached, aloof, unemotional, tough, etc). That was a seminal time, but, for me, the 90’s men’s movement, such as it was, got derailed by the Clarence Thomas hearings, weirdly. When I moved to Minneapolis from Madison and tried to plug in with men’s groups there, I found MANY men who were arguing vociferously that Clarence Thomas had been attacked because he was a man, who championed him as their gender’s hero, and who were rallying (yes, literally organizing rallies) to re-spin Anita Hill’s testimony as anti-masculine and man-hating. A men’s rights movement, they called it. Protecting my right to sexually harass women, I guess.

Anyway. Not my crowd.

I let it go at that point. The soap bubble had popped. Finding individual men whom I could speak to about topics like rape-supportive behavior, how men have to take this on themselves FOR themselves, etc. was and is  far more important to me than finding movements and rallies, because it’s exceedingly rare to meet men who are willing to talk openly about their own experiences that may have helped propped up a way of thinking and being that makes life hell for women. I think about how to talk to my daughter Rosemary about these things all the time, but I know it’s absolutely crucial to create a current between me and my boy Isaiah about this. His empathy is so strong but sadly, he has his father’s sense of righteousness which could get him in trouble (it has me, at any rate). When I read what Elliot Roger wrote in his manifesto, I could hear my own self at fourteen, trying to understand the ten thousand savagely mixed messages coming at me in 1979 — from Three’s Company, Penthouse Forum, Rod Stewart, Woody Allen, to Dr. Studd himself, Hawkeye Pierce (especially in the early episodes) — about what it should mean to be a man. (A “Real Man,” as we called them in brothers circles.) I worry about my son, when I hear in Elliot Roger’s entitlement and demandingly angry narcissism things I said myself at fourteen, things I heard even in brothers circles, from men that I know you all would call good men (and I would too). That manifesto of Elliot’s is not an outlier. It’s from the red-hot core of the patriarchy and the tepid mainstream, and I’d wager that every man reading this has had similar thoughts, which on the surface are totally innocuous (“Why can’t she see me for who I am? Why are those idiots considered sexier than me? Why am I not attractive to her? It’s because I’m not cool, built, rich, talented enough.” Which leads to, “I’m not a real man,” and far darker judgments of himself and others). In that manifesto, Elliot was being brutally honest while going on to brutalize himself, and, every time he said that horrible shit to himself, it was maybe going to be straw that broke him. Men, if you want to know how to talk to other men honestly about what it is to be a man, I recommend reading what Elliot actually wrote. See if you see anything familiar in it. See how man iron balls you feel settling in your stomach before you start pointing fingers at Elliot or “bad men.”

But how does this even fucking happen? What are the messages that get internalized and why do we men internalize them? Well, have YOU ever said to someone, “You’re not a real man,” “Man up,” “Don’t be a pussy,” or some variation of it? Even kidding around? Can you hear your father saying “Be a man” to you or a brother of yours? Have you heard a father say something similar to his son? Mine said it to me. “Be a man” still puts an iron ball in my stomach when I think those words. Those words do to men what Elliot was doing to himself. They are the words that men and women use to ride herd on each other, to keep us from being soft, sensitive, or unlike the alphas, I guess. Whatever the individual reason, we ALL do it to young men all the time. It was Elliot’s fathering, too, of course, but a million cultural messages per day said the exact same thing to Elliot…

Kerry: Edward Snowden should “man up” and come home

…verifying the messages that no doubt Elliot got from his dad. Each one is another straw on the camel’s back.

(Think about the word “fathering,” for a sec. It means having babies. You father a child — it has nothing to do with the act of a parenting, the way even the pejorative “mothering” does. Anyway, back to our show…)

The difference between Elliot Roger and 100 million of other men who DON’T go on a rampage is a hair-thin thread (which is holding up an anvil). Every day, we make a decision to do something about that daily humiliation and confirmation that they aren’t real men — because every man hears that they aren’t Real Men, in one way or another. I try to keep it all at bay, remind myself that I’m loved and my kids are strong and good. Like me, do other men go, “Yup. If THAT’S your idea of a real man? That’s not me, so fuck off”? Hope so. It’s that, shove it down hard, or let the culture ride herd on you.  Or, similarly, maybe they come out? God, I really hope so. Back in the day, I had a conversation in a brothers circle concluding that until there were romantic comedies with two leading men falling in love or until there were celebrations of gay relationships on TV, men couldn’t shake the Real Man stereotype. Underneath that stereotype is homophobia, of course, and underneath that homophobia, of course, is a hatred of women — of being a woman, of being womanly, of being soft, affectionate, and of being god no EMPATHETIC — that keep men from being well-rounded, decent, complete people.

If you want to know how to deal with the the Elliot Rogers of the world, you’re going to have to start a conversation with them. Oh no, right? And that means having an awareness that you, sir, are in the same boat as he is. You grew up with the same messages and maybe with the same iron ball in your stomach that he carried around. Scolding him won’t do it. Shaming him in public is going to add to the hate, to the straws that will eventually crack the camel. It’s going to take actual connections and really listening to our young men, our sons and nephews, and talking about your own shit, because this one is as delicate as a powder keg for even the most well-intentioned of decent men. We’re all a little bit Elliot Roger after all.

In other words, it’s going to take empathy.

5 Responses to “I’m Elliot Roger and So are You, Dude”

  1. Emily May 30, 2014 at 1:06 am #

    Right on. I would love to see this reprinted at the Good Men Project.

    • barthanderson June 2, 2014 at 9:02 pm #

      Thanks, Emily. I’m not familiar with that — drop me a link maybe?? 🙂

  2. Andrea van der Wilt May 30, 2014 at 8:56 pm #

    Brilliant piece. Thank you. I so wish for a world in which everyone is free to be themselves, without having to live up to anybody else’s expectations and/or stereotypes.

  3. Vida Cruz June 4, 2014 at 5:29 am #

    Reblogged this on The World According to Life and commented:
    “Underneath that stereotype is homophobia, of course, and underneath that homophobia, of course, is a hatred of women — of being a woman, of being womanly, of being soft, affectionate, and of being god no EMPATHETIC — that keep men from being well-rounded, decent, complete people.”

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