Men Don’t Cry: On Toxic Masculinity
Years ago, I thought I was suffering from depression. I had financial and career troubles and I was running six miles a day to cope (trying to pull a Forrest Gump). I spent my time feeling a deep sense of anger and despair, and I was unable to purge it. I tried to write it out, threw myself into writing poetry. Poet, heal thyself and all of that. I participated in three separate 30 poems in 30 days’ groups and wrote a series of poems that would become my first book. Eventually I realized what exactly I was dealing with, a crippling and deadly disease that must be taken seriously — toxic masculinity. I believed that I wasn’t a man’s man, that I wasn’t a good provider for my family, that I wasn’t a successful writer, or career person. I was allowing expectations to poison me.
There I was, a barely employed adjunct professor. I’d written a bunch of poems my close friends were raving about. I sensed that the poems themselves were on the verge of crying, but couldn’t. I solicited feedback from a fellow poet, and was made aware that the poems were detached, and disaffected. They were full of void. She said to me, “Have you read that essay lately? Do, immediately ok? “Uses of the Erotic” — that right and wise argument that the erotic force is the creation force is the creative force is the volcano of God. Volcano — burning fires.” I read Lorde’s essay immediately. I’m not ashamed to say I was moved close to tears. The erotic, what Audre Lorde called “the personification of love in all its aspects — born of chaos, and personifying creative power, and harmony” laid entombed and mummified in me, and that part, that “I” was missing from my writing.
Let us take a step back before we go any further. Let us remember that men usurp every good thing. Audre Lorde’s essay, “Uses for The Erotic” was written to empower, educate, inform, and motivate women, especially women of color. Lorde writes:
When I speak of the erotic, then, I speak of it as an assertion of the lifeforce of women; of that creative energy empowered, the knowledge and use of which we are now reclaiming in our language, our history, our dancing, our loving, our work, our lives.
I have read Lorde’s essay, studied it, and from it gained understanding of my life as a writer, and as a man. I must give credit where credit is due. I thank you Miss Lorde, truly. I ask to partake from your table.
As a poet, I’ve struggled to accept that to feel is everything, in fact, feeling is essential to every part of my being. And yet there is still so much to learn. Tears are a physical response, one born from feeling things in our bodies. The journey to deconstruct the obstruction, the one that prevents tears, sympathy, empathy, and feelings of vulnerability is humanity’s great struggle, and more so for men. We are conditioned to feel less, and less. We are told throughout our lives that we must not let our emotions control us, and not to allow emotions or sentimentality to influence how we choose our circle of friends, our careers, or the process of choosing a partner. Men are expected to be stoic, hard, and cold. The trash patriarchal world we live in rarely rewards men who reveal their vulnerabilities, or their traumas.
When I decided to get serious about writing poetry I joined an MFA program. It was in the program that I began to realize how solid, and impervious my emotional walls were. There is an “I” and an eye in good/great poetry. Accepting that binary, exploring it to its profoundest depths requires the erotic. I was completely disconnected from it. In her essay “Poetry Is Not a Luxury” Lorde writes:
I speak here of poetry as a revelatory distillation of experience, not the sterile word play that, too often, the white fathers distorted the word poetry to mean — in order to cover a desperate wish for imagination without insight.
In my condition of novice poet, I was failing to achieve the depth and feeling required for my work to grow and avoiding the necessary sacrifice of bleeding my blood through the ink. I didn’t know where the erotic was in my life much less within me. I foolishly believed that the erotic consisted strictly as external (sexual) sensation. The realization, made even more terrifying because I didn’t know where to begin a journey into the true erotic.
But that was it, the Realization. Lorde writes “The erotic is a measure between the beginnings of our sense of self, and the chaos of our strongest feelings.” Within the realization that I was closed off, and the fear of what I would find if I knocked down those walls doomed my journey into the erotic. After that I had to allow myself to be vulnerable, but being vulnerable, exposing yourself in any meaningful way is a herculean challenge. Lorde writes, “It is never easy to demand the most from ourselves, from our lives, from our work.”
I went on the dark journey into self, and learned more than would reasonably fit in this essay. However, the most difficult thing I did not learn was that my inability to cry remained at the heart of my being disconnected from the erotic. Crying is still a physically painful experience for me; afterwards, my head and chest hurt, there’s a thumping at the back of my throat, and I’m disoriented and exhausted. I continue to suppress it whenever possible. Somewhere in the farthest reaches of my soul I have equated crying with failure, shame, and weakness to such an extent that my body punishes me for it. Think about that. Don’t feel sorry for me, but if you’re a man reading this or the mother or father of a son, ask yourself how deadly this can be when you’re trying to navigate stressful conditions. This is especially toxic if you’re suffering from trauma. If you’re an Afro-Latinx or African American man you need to know that this is also killing us.
Picture white men suffering from this brand of manhood, holding leadership positions and dealing with America’s complex landscape of race, economic status, religion, sexual orientation, and political affiliation. Go no further than the current president of the United States of America, a man incapable of coherency, a man whose very speech pattern is reminiscent of a troubled and angry adolescent desperate for approval. He is the leader of a political system rotting internally from toxic masculinity.
For any man wanting to study, navigate, understand, and respect the differences in his world, being walled off and emotionless leads to frustration, humiliation, and confusion. It leads him to hurt people. Instead of expressive emotion, a psychotic anger festers. Unfortunately, if a man doesn’t understand, empathize or sympathize with the multifarious nature of our world, then he takes his place against the true erotic. He produces a reactionary and pack mentality style of toxic masculinity. One can argue that on some level mass shooters, many of whom struggle with various mental health issues also suffer from toxic masculinity. And by extension terrorists of all nations and faiths: ISIS, the Ku Klux Klan, Neo-Nazis, the Westboro Baptist Church and its adherents; as well as rapists, sexual abusers, and men overwhelmed with suicidal thoughts are suffering from toxic masculinity.
Again, let us go back. According to Lorde, “The erotic is a resource within each of us that lies in a deeply female and spiritual plane, firmly rooted in the power of our unexpressed or unrecognized feeling.”
Too many men are indoctrinated into the school of suppression, repression, and aggression from an early age. Some argue men have organic predispositions to anger and aggression; one thing that cannot be argued is that these emotions are unnaturally magnified, and overdeveloped by a capitalist society that perpetuates toxic masculinity. Lorde writes:
The principle horror of any system which defines the good in terms of profit rather than in terms of human need, or which defines human need to the exclusion of the psychic and emotional components of that need — the principal horror of such a system is that it robs our work of its erotic value, its erotic power and life appeal and fulfillment.
Television commercials and programming consistently portray women as giving men suggestive looks and exhibiting sexually inviting behavior. Statista: The Statistics Portal reports that the most popular video games in America are first person shooter games. Almost 30% of players are under the age of 18, the remaining 70% range all the way up to age 50. On average, players kill “enemy” after “enemy” for at least three hours a day. The lines between reality and the virtual world become blurred. Young men begin to expect sex from women, and on some level, they crave and anticipate violence. And this is only one example. We must also consider big budget action films, music, pornography, the fashion industry, cultural and ethnic traditions, and religion. Again, imagine then that this man or these men occupy positions of authority; these negative traits are weaponized against women and children, and other men. Humanity’s (especially men’s) inability to channel the erotic is, I believe, the principal reason we live in the unbalanced world we live in.
As I read Lorde’s work, I kept coming back to my own self, and reasoning out why I cried so easily as a child. The erotic in my deep spiritual plane was virgin, hypersensitive, and wanting nourishment and development. But the world around us seeks to pervert the erotic within us, and our parents, God bless them, want us to be survivors, so they facilitate this erosion. Recently, a woman who works as a clown and does face painting wrote a long Twitter thread about her experience with a young boy and his parents. A young boy came up to her and wanted a blue butterfly painted on his face. His mother said no. She then turned to her husband and asked, “Do you want your son to have a butterfly on his face?” The husband replied “No.” They ended up painting skull and crossbones on his face.
Lorde writes, “As women, we have come to distrust that power which rises from our deepest and non-rational knowledge.” It shouldn’t come as a surprise that my mother tried to quell the erotic within me (or the mother in the example above to her son), having already silenced the erotic within her. And so, this cycle continues. When I was a boy my mother would always yell at me about crying. “Men don’t cry! Toughen up!” I never had to pick up my plate when I was done eating, never washed a dish, never picked up after myself at all. My grandmother, may she rest in peace, would say to me, “as long as there’s a woman in the house you should never have to clean.” The matriarchs in my family, while simultaneously recovering from the effects of toxic masculinity also perpetuated it. I realize now we were a microcosm.
When he was younger I would yell at my own son to stop crying all the time, to toughen up. I would ask him “Is someone beating you? No, so stop crying.” I was using his pain, what he was experiencing against him, to stop him from crying, from feeling. That was a horrible thing to do. Now, I pull him close for a hug. I allow him to let it out, and work through those tears. We must allow our children to feel and to express those feelings honestly.
In her 2010 Psychology Today article “The Health Benefits of Tears,” Dr. Judith Orloff writes:
Our bodies produce three kinds of tears: reflex, continuous, and emotional. Each kind has different healing roles. For instance, reflex tears allow your eyes to clear out noxious particles when they’re irritated by smoke or exhaust. The second kind, continuous tears, are produced regularly to keep our eyes lubricated…Typically, after crying, our breathing, and heart rate decrease, and we enter into a calmer biological and emotional state. Emotional tears have special health benefits. Biochemist and “tear expert” Dr. William Frey at the Ramsey Medical Center in Minneapolis discovered that…emotional tears also contain stress hormones which get excreted from the body through crying…emotional tears shed these hormones and other toxins which accumulate during stress.
The word “toxins” in the article sounds a four-alarm fire because there’s a reason it’s called toxic masculinity. It can be physically lethal and not just for the men and boys suffering from it, but for the people around them as well.
We must facilitate the expression of the erotic, the integration of the feminine, in our young boys so that they grow up to be better men, so they can be capable of vulnerable emotion. Lorde writes:
Recognizing the power of the erotic within our lives can give us the energy to pursue genuine change within our world…For not only do we touch our most profoundly creative source, but we do that which is female and self affirming in the face of a racist, patriarchal, and anti-erotic society.
Roberto Carlos Garcia’s second poetry collection, black / Maybe, is available from Willow Books. His first collection, Melancolía, is available from Červená Barva Press. His poems and prose have appeared or are forthcoming in Bettering American Poetry, The Root, Those People, Rigorous, Academy of American Poets Poem-A-Day, The New Engagement, Public Pool, Stillwater Review, Gawker, Barrelhouse, Tuesday; An Art Project, The Acentos Review, Lunch Ticket, and many others.
He is founder of the cooperative press Get Fresh Books, LLC.
A native New Yorker, Roberto holds an MFA in Poetry and Poetry in Translation from Drew University, and has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize.
His website is http://www.robertocarlosgarcia.com/