Patriarchy and collective trauma (Edited)
“Each man is a bridge, spanning in his lifetime all of the images and traditions about masculinity inherited from past generations and bestowing— or inflicting— his own retelling of the tale on those who ensue.” Terry Real
“Just as for many depressed women recovery is inextricably linked to shedding the traces of oppression and finding empowerment, for many depressed men, recovery is linked to opposing the force of disconnection, and reentering the world of relationship… to themselves, & to others.” Terry Real
Some of the more important ideas that Terry Real discusses in the book: I Don’t Want to Talk About It: Overcoming the Secret Legacy of Male Depression, are around the trauma inherent in boys’ socialization, which he calls the loss of the relational and how this more or less collective wound in boys’ lives sets up their vulnerability to depression and issues like difficulties with intimacy, violence and addiction in adulthood. He suggests that these traumas can be grouped in three domains: diminished connection to aspects of the self, to others and to the mother. He claims that the idea that boys must rupture their connection to mother is one of the oldest and most deeply rooted myths of patriarchy. The attenuation of closeness to their mother is for many boys the earliest and prototypical loss. In the book through references to theory, literature, films and many study cases, he sheds light on the dynamics that take place inside the modern family in accordance with the prevailing myth that suggests that boys must be helped to gain distance from their mothers. The tragic irony is that fathers end up causing great harm in the very act of trying to live up to traditional patriarchal notions about what makes a good father and the ways to socialize boys.
Real refers to psychologist William Pollock who suspects that beneath the undeniable “father wound,” which is the emotional toll taken on boys by “absent fathers,” there may be an even earlier “mother wound.” Real says that according to Pollock “This is not the wound of the stereotypical mother who will not let go, but the wound of the mother who, in compliance to society’s fears and rules, lets go too early……..In such moments of passive trauma, these mothers have allowed themselves to be silenced by the conventions of patriarchy.” He further adds that unfortunately diminished connection to the mother does not involve only the connection through nurture, but the mother’s diminished authority, which is as damaging as diminished nurture to boys. Real claims that the traditional idea that only men know how to raise sons undermines both the mother’s instinct to care and her capacity to guide and set limits. He writes that “As devastating as the taboo of mothers’ tenderness is for boys in our society, the under-cutting of mothers’ power is at least as destructive. When a boy rejects his mother’s authority because she is “only a woman,” when a mother shrinks from the full exercise of her parental rights and responsibilities both play out the values of patriarchy. The mother’s higher authority as a parent is counterbalanced by the son’s higher status as a male.”
Individuation and our misunderstandings around this important and necessary developmental experience for both girls and boys is also discussed in the book. Real claims that individuation does not have to be severance and separation through disconnection, but a process of maturation and healthy autonomy through healthy connectedness. Maturity and connection should not be set up as choices that exclude one another. He writes: “the true meaning of psychological “separation” is maturity, and we humans stand a better chance of maturing when we do not disconnect from one another. Such literal thinking misses the point that boys must work out “separation” with the people they are “separating” from. There is no way they can work it out on their own. And the current notion that mentors—“male mothers” as Bly calls them— must help the boy “leave” begs the question of why he must “leave” at all. Traditional visions of masculinity, even in the very language of “separation,” equate growing up with severance. But what maturity truly requires is the replacement of childish forms of closeness with more adult forms of closeness, not with dislocation.”
A great part of the book as the title suggests is dedicated to analyzing the link between disconnection from emotions and male depression and addiction in adulthood. He quotes research findings that indicate that in this society most males have difficulty both in expressing and identifying their feelings. Real writes that the term for this impairment is alexithymia and that psychologist Ron Levant estimates that close to 80% of men in our society have a mild to severe form of it. However, emotional numbing and lack of feeling is part of the criteria for a diagnosis of overt depression. Also, alexithymia is connected to an array of addictive defenses used in covert depression. He refers to Bessel Van der Kolk’s research that points to an understanding of the physiological basis for some of the defenses used in covert depression that rely on behaviors rather than substances. Real writes: “A connection between masculine socialization, alexithymia, covert depression, and substance abuse seems obvious. [However] the intensification of muted feelings can be achieved not just by using drugs but also by using action, by throwing oneself into crisis situations. Risk taking, gambling, infatuation, and rage all trigger our bodies’ “fight or flight” response, releasing both endorphins, the body’s opioids, and adrenal secretions, the body’s natural stimulants.”
Real believes that the emotional numbing common in both overt and covert depression may be an extreme form of the way in which society truncates the capacity of many men and boys to feel their emotions because within patriarchal cultures traditional masculinity views the strong expression of emotion as unmanly and prohibits most expressions of vulnerability. However, unacknowledged vulnerabilities seldom stay buried; instead they tend to rise up to exact their own toll. For instance, studies indicate that from boyhood to manhood, traumatized males display a distinct proclivity toward “externalizing” distress by inflicting it. Furthermore, the shame and taboo attached to vulnerability is one of the reasons why so many depressed men neither talk about it nor seek help, which both blocks men from resolving depression and impedes their capacity to heal from the traumas that have contributed to their depression. Real cites research that shows that whether a person is struggling with the effects of combat, various forms of abuse or childhood injury, the best predictor of trauma resolution is good social support. By internalizing the value of invulnerability and the devaluation of dependency, boys learn to fear intimacy and to reject connection in an ongoing manner. He concludes that since males become unwilling to acknowledge and face the vulnerability of their own hidden pains, and are unable to be intimate with their own emotions, they cannot face intimacy with others either.
There is a lot of information in the book worth pondering on, but I will focus on his last chapter to end this post today. Real begins the last chapter with a question: Why would a depressed man choose the hard work of reassessing the very longings, skills, and responsibilities of mature relationship that were actively discouraged throughout his socialization?
He suggests that practicing full relational responsibility both transforms the dynamics of depression and shifts to a more mature stage of psychological development. He terms this shift as a move into fathering, which he writes “can, but need not, involve the biological begetting of children.…… Fathering occurs when the essential question a man lives by changes.” This practically means that there’s a shift in the questions asked from What will I get? to What can I offer? Real writes: “recovery demands a move into generativity” and as men heal and mature they can potentially enter into a fathering relationship to children, partners, family, an art, a cause or to the planet, but as long as men fear subjugation they remain arrested in earlier developmental stages and they have limited repertoires of service. He points out that service is the appropriate central organizing force of mature manhood because after a certain point in a man’s life, if he is to remain truly vital, he needs to be devoted and actively engaged with something more than his own success and happiness.
Finally, Real reminds us that most human cultures throughout the globe have as a central tenet that it is a source of one’s own growth to care for the context one lives within. He writes: “It is becoming increasingly apparent that the old paradigm of worth through dominance, of valor, is atavistic. It no longer fits our complex, interdependent world….. Our interconnectedness to nature, and to one another, can no longer be denied. We live in a global economy. We share global resources. We face global threats. The paradigm of dominance must yield to an ethic of caretaking, or we simply will not survive……. The dynamic of dominance and submission, which has been at the heart of traditional masculinity, can play itself out inside the psyche of a man as depression, in his interpersonal relationships as irresponsibility and abuse,,,,,, or in humanity’s relationship to the earth itself. We have abused the environment we live in as if it were an all-giving and all-forgiving mother, an endless resource”. Speaking of caring for the contexts we live in and our bigger home, the planet, in order to preserve it for future generations, I think Paul Salopek’s** quote sums it up beautifully: “11,000 miles into my trek, I can only pass on what I’ve seen: Tread lightly upon the Earth. Share what little you have with strangers. Scan the horizons for rain.”
** Paul Salopek is a writer and National Geographic contributor, who eight years ago embarked on a trek across the world in the footsteps of our human forebears. When he wrote the article he had roughly walked 11,000 miles from Africa through the Middle East, Central Asia, and South Asia. You can read the whole article at: https://www.nationalgeographic.com/history/article/8-years-ago-began-walking-earth-stumbled-into-era-change
I’d also like to provide a link to Rick Hanson’s newsletter this week, which has to do with social anxiety, which I only very briefly mentioned in the previous post on anxiety: https://www.rickhanson.net/relax-needless-fear-around-others/, and share a few morning photos of Benjamin (Βενιαμίν), which in Greek means the youngest, our most recent male addition to the garden fauna.