When I was kid in school, I was bullied a lot. Like many who have been bullied, I still carry the pain.
Back then I didn't know why I was being bullied; I just figured there was something wrong with me. As I got older, however, I noticed more and more what my former bullies performed: toxic masculinity. And for as long as I can remember, I've been repelled by its expressions: quickness to anger; violence; pride in ignorance; self-protective stoicism; dead-eyed, predatory staring. Only in early adulthood did I start to see the problem, explicitly, for what it was.
This is all to say that reading Jared Yates Sexton's The Man They Wanted Me to Be: Toxic Masculinity and a Crisis of Our Own Making struck a very personal chord in me. But really, though, enough about me. This book is critically important to our historical moment. It's also really good — and Sexton's voice is unrelentingly present in it. It crackles with intensity and absolutely refuses to allow the reader to look away for even a moment from the blight that toxic masculinity in America has wrought.
This type of masculinity is certainly not a new phenomenon, of course. Sexton writes that it is "an especially potent and toxic system of power and control that has subjugated women and minorities for generations via methodical and organized actions powered by misogyny and racism, a unique brand of maleness that held sway over the United States of America since before its founding."
A bold claim, no doubt. And true.
What also makes The Man They Wanted Me to Be work so well is that it's largely a personal story. Sexton's book is primarily about his childhood and young adulthood, his coming of age in the Midwest. He describes in absorbing detail the men around him in his youth as typifying the aggression, racism, misogyny, homophobia, manly incuriosity, and insecurity he considers central, historically, to American white maleness. Throughout, his mother is a very sympathetic anchor of stability in his life, while his father figures — for the most part — abuse drugs and alcohol, live recklessly, and/or are abusive to Sexton's mother, and sometimes him too.
Sexton also succeeds in a truly difficult task: casting the abusive and self-destructive men in his life as simultaneously contemptible and victims themselves. Sexton writes that, in this realm, "socialization's purpose is to not only teach gender expectations, but to weed out any 'feminine' characteristic, including, but not limited to, sensitivity, curiosity, creativity, weakness, and a desire to communicate past purposes of utility. This system works on the basis of positive and negative reinforcement."
With socialization like this, a man's tools for solving personal problems are few, while the potential to act badly is tough to manage.
In the most affecting section of the book, Sexton writes about the male role model in his life who showed him just how okay it is to not perform traditional masculinity: his grandfather. Sexton, though still young, had already grown suspicious of the strictures of toxic masculinity, and it was his grandfather who helped him see through it. Sexton writes:
"I'd been confused about masculinity for as long as I could remember, harbored suspicions that something wasn't right, but it was Grandpa's behavior that sealed that distrust. I still felt incredibly alone and shameful about my own shortcomings. Everyone I met, every father figure who entered my life, continually reinforced the notion that I should conduct myself as all of the other men around me, except for my grandfather, who embodied a contradiction so staggering and world-shaking that I couldn't help but reassess what it meant to be a man."
His grandfather would "weep without shame and treat his loved ones with affection and tenderness." When somebody was sick, he "would cry and hold their hand, and whisper to them that he loved them and was there for them." It might seem simple to some that basic human emotion and affection can be so liberating to a boy, but it's only surprising to someone already free of the shackles of what it traditionally means to act like a so-called man.
Sexton's book is also about his father's transformation from a mostly absent and self-destructive parent to someone more present, more informed, more reflective. Yet all the while, outside, white patriarchal masculinity was giving rise to what Sexton considers one of its ugliest manifestations: the presidential campaign of Donald Trump. Sexton attended Trump rallies during the 2016 presidential campaign to observe and document what transpired — and what he found was that for however many redemption stories like his father's were out there, the wild-eyed aggressive bigotry spitting and raging at Trump rallies showed that America still had a long way to go. Sexton writes:
"Trump succeeded because he is the personification of white American masculinity. His gruff demeanor, constant threats, boasting about his money and power, his wanton promiscuity, his propensity for blatant cruelty, and his bullying of opponents, which was like something out of a schoolyard socialization, are all traits we've come to associate with men in this country...For those of us who have been surrounded by men whose arrogance is obviously overcompensation, who talk at length about their money, power, and prowess while exposing their insecurities for the world, you cannot help but see the same in Trump."
So how do we as a culture get past toxic masculinity when, as Sexton suggests, its paragon occupies the Oval Office and its pathology is empowered? Sexton's great book points the way.
The preoccupation with dominance and submission that is part and parcel of toxic masculinity can seem like an intractable problem. It means that maleness is predicated on anyone who doesn't fit its narrow definition being kept down, that being a man is contingent upon suppression and aggression. But it doesn't need to be. After all, Sexton points to examples in his own book of men who have detoxified their masculinity (or resisted the pull of its toxic norms), which is encouraging. All it takes is a little reflection, a little independence, and a little self-acceptance, which, truth be told, is a lot.
Nicholas Cannariato is a writer and editor based in Chicago.