by Frederick Marx
In 2008, I was asked to give a presentation to about a thousand U.S. Army Non-Commissioned Officers in Washington, D.C. They had flown in from around the world to attend a weekend of presentations on ending sexual harassment and abuse. The Army’s stated goal was to end it within ten years. They failed. Miserably.
But I don’t fault them for trying. I was scheduled as the first speaker. After all the welcoming speeches by officials and politicians, we were running half an hour late. By the time I came to the podium, I was told to reduce my presentation from 30 minutes to ten.
I wanted to show clips from my Boys to Men? series, which clearly illustrate ways in which masculinity formation takes place in teen boys. I wanted to explore how those issues play out in adult men and can impact them in relation to sexual harassment and abuse.
I couldn’t do any of that in ten minutes. Instead, I said I wanted to address the men in the room directly. (Though the conference organizers were women, the audience looked to me to be about 98% men.) I basically told them that until they could feel their own feelings, the likelihood was extremely small that they could ever relate to or understand the feelings of sexual abuse victims.
I walked off to a smattering of polite applause and was not invited back to a similar gathering the following year. I might as well have told the men that until you live on Mars, you’ll never understand Earth.
Suppression of feelings is one of the key lessons every soldier is taught in boot camp. During battle-time deployment, it is certainly true that feeling feelings can get one killed. Circumstances of life and death demand that soldiers make the best, most rational decisions they can in the moment.
Though intuition can be extremely valuable at those times, succumbing to accompanying emotions of fear, anger, sadness and shame can be life threatening. Training takes over and normal mental processes are overridden by programmed autonomic patterns. But what’s an invaluable MO in wartime can itself become a killer in peacetime.
The problem is that human emotions are not faucets that can be switched on and off at will.
Once men and boys are trained – by parents, peers, schools, workplaces or the military – to hide, repress and deny emotions, their emotions don’t come back with ease and facility when needed. With emotions switched off, we will remain unconscious of what makes us most human.
This doesn’t mean those feelings no longer exist. They’re just driven underground where the danger of the truths they represent can be repressed. Then, when feelings arise in others, just like in ourselves, we insist they be choked down, often with insults and judgments: “Don’t be a pussy. Suck it up. Stop acting like a baby. Be a man!”
The latter judgment points toward part of the military problem. Women aren’t “man enough” to suck it up when they come forward with their stories of sexual harassment and abuse. That’s their “problem.” If they were “man enough,” their pain would be treated like all pains in the military – something to be ignored and dealt with privately.
The military is not institutionally or culturally equipped to deal with the pains that victims of sexual abuse and harassment experience. The documentary The Invisible War makes this painfully clear.
Still, my presentation didn’t fall entirely on deaf ears. Women responded. During the evening reception, one woman told me privately she had been waiting her entire life to hear a man say what I said. Other women also came up and thanked me. I don’t recall speaking to a single man.
My own journey on the path to the Mature Masculine began when I was nine. After my father’s sudden death, there followed many years in which my dad’s name was never spoken in our house. I drove all my grief, confusion and fear underground and never once had a conversation with my siblings or mother about my dad. Silence became the norm.
Though the term didn’t exist for another 15 years, I basically grew up with post- traumatic stress. Whenever my peers asked about my dad, I simply said he was dead. That ended the conversation. It was only a matter of time before those painful feelings I had repressed surged to the surface and I acted out.
The one and only time I ever hit a woman was when I was 18. My girlfriend and I were in Jamaica. I was masking my fright at this strange new world behind bravado. The Third World we called it then – low-income people of color with ways foreign to me. I needed intimacy and wanted reassurance, but I wasn’t conscious of it and didn’t know how to ask for it.
When my girlfriend was her usual social self at a party one night, talking with numerous other men, my frustration and jealousy boiled over into rage. I called her outside, started to yell at her and ended up hitting her on the shoulder with my fist. I was like many men who enact their inability to express feelings and emotional needs by acting out in violence. It’s a common male shadow strategy. We were already drifting apart anyway, so once we got back to the States, we had the good sense to break up.
I believe a lot of domestic violence would disappear if men were taught emotional intelligence from an early age. No one showed up to teach me. If only I had a mentor as a teen, things might have been different. Of course, most men don’t have mentors and are not taught emotional intelligence. But that incident told me something was wrong. I didn’t know what to do or how to do it, but somewhere inside I knew I needed to work on myself. The irony with my girlfriend was that we only grew closer after we broke up. She became my best friend.
I didn’t realize it at the time but I was drawn to the company of women and gay men. I unconsciously felt my emotions were safe with them, and I could risk being vulnerable. I unconsciously steered away from strong Type A males who were just like me, driving most of their emotions deep underground.
My father certainly modeled that behavior for me before he died. I ended up projecting my father’s and my own emotionally repressed behavior onto other men. I also judged “strong men” as arrogant and full of themselves, just like my dad – self-appointed leaders seeking obeisance. This pattern emerged in my teens and continued into my 30s: reject “strong” men and draw near to women, gay men and “softer” straight men.
Robert Bly says American men are the walking wounded, unconsciously seeking their father’s blessing. That was certainly true for me. As a filmmaker, I sought approval and recognition through my work, thinking it might somehow fill that void. Certainly, a great deal of my artistic life has been spent analyzing “father issues.” That was also a fair summation of most of the men I knew.
The evidence of all that father wounding – and all those sons’ unconscious seeking – is too great to recount here. Suffice it to say that too many men are suspended adolescents, ruled by their fears and unconscious appetites, still trying to prove something to Daddy.
Unfortunately, given the immeasurable extent of horrible consequences, those men largely run the world. Conversely, it’s worth noting that female- led countries have fared much better in their Covid-19 infection and mortality rates than male-led ones.
Frederick Marx at WarriorFilms.org is an internationally acclaimed, Oscar and Emmy nominated director and writer with 40 years in the film business and decades doing men’s work. His film HOOP DREAMS (1994) , which The International Documentary Association named “The Best Documentary of All Time.”