In “A Better Man: A (Mostly Serious) Letter to My Son” (Workman), the
comedian, actor and author Michael Ian Black offers an uncommon advice book in the form of a letter to his college-bound son, navigating the complex gender issues of our time and delivering a poignant answer to an urgent question: How can we be, and raise, better men? Below is an excerpt.
INTRODUCTION: The Wilds of Connecticut
“There’s a man goin’ ’round takin’ names/And he decides who to free and who to blame” – Johnny Cash
We moved to our little Connecticut town when you were two. Mom was pregnant with Ruthie, and we’d outgrown our first home, a little Dutch Colonial in Peekskill, NY. We wanted some place with better schools, maybe a little more outdoor space. A friend had just moved here with his family, and he suggested we take a look. One bright autumn day as the holidays approached, we strapped you into your car seat and came to see for ourselves. The town seemed lovely and safe, the area schools all highly rated.
The thing that really got me, though, were the Christmas lights. Back in Peekskill, people decorated their homes like used car lots, gaudy red and green flashing lights wrapped in loose bunches around window frames and light posts. Inflatable Santas, plastic reindeer tipping drunkenly on roofs. I have always been a humbug when it comes to Christmas, and the rowdy Peekskill aesthetic made me even humbuggier. Here, in the wilds of Connecticut, it looked as if Martha Stewart had personally strung each home’s holiday lights.
We bought a house and settled into it with our son and new baby girl. We put some chairs on the front porch and watched the seasons change. I jokingly began calling our new town the “the wilds of Connecticut” because, although we really do live in the woods, it felt like a Disney wilderness. The creatures, abundant though they may be, all seemed adorable: deer and fox and wild turkeys and a lazy black bear we nicknamed Bobbi. Sometimes though, late at night, we would hear an eerie music coming from the woods. A wild chorus of high-pitched keening.
Coyotes after a kill. Mom and I would lie in bed and listen and after a few minutes it would stop.
One morning, several years after moving, I woke you guys up for school. It was December, the sun late to rise. By this point in your school careers, the routine felt automatic, familiar to every parent. “Time to wake up.” Mumbles. Breakfast cereal and orange juice. Shoes, jackets, backpacks. Packed lunches. Walk with you to the end of the driveway to wait for the bus, watch our breath in the cold morning air. Wave goodbye as the bus pulled away.
That day, I got you guys off to school and came back into the house, sprawled out on the living room couch. Mom was still in bed. I opened my laptop, did some work, glanced at Twitter, and there it was: gunshots at the elementary school next to ours. Sandy Hook.
The first reports didn’t sound too bad, which sounds absurd even to say. One injury, a ricocheted bullet into the foot of a student. Police and ambulances arriving on the scene. I turned on the TV, flipped to the local news station. Nothing. Mom came down in her pajamas. I told her what I’d seen online, but the TV networks weren’t covering it.
Maybe it was a false alarm? An internet hoax?
A few minutes later, CNN broke into its morning programming: active shooter situation, teachers and children. Children. They may have given some initial, low estimate of the number of dead and wounded, I don’t remember, but I do recall one of the reporters warning viewers that things were about to get “much, much worse.”
Did they already know about Classroom 8, where fourteen first graders and two teachers were killed?
Did they know yet about Classroom 10, where five children and two teachers lay dead? One of the teachers, Anne Marie Murphy, was found trying to shield a child’s body with her own.
A few miles away, your school went into lockdown. “Lockdown.” When I was in school, that word didn’t exist outside of prisons. School administrators activated the emergency phone system and sent out emails: “Your children are safe.”
How do you explain mass murder to children whose only experience with death was a dead hamster buried in the backyard with proper funeral rites?
We waited. We watched TV. State troopers and SWAT teams and kids being led from the building, hands on the shoulders of the child in front of them. Empty ambulances waiting for the wounded that never came. We got an email from your school explaining they weren’t going to tell the kids what had happened because parents may wish to explain it in their own way. How do you explain mass murder to children whose only experience with death was a dead hamster buried in the backyard with proper funeral rites? How do you explain to your kids that a young man could march into their school with a Bushmaster .223-caliber semiautomatic rifle and start firing at will? The email didn’t say.
Mom and I watched TV off and on until the school buses brought you both home. We went out to greet you, walked with you, hand in hand, back to the house. “Was it really windy out today?” Ruthie asked.
“I don’t think so,” I said. “Why?”
“They said we couldn’t have recess outside today because it was too windy.”
When we got in the house, we gathered you both together and told you. I don’t even know what we said: something awful had happened. A bad man, but he was gone now. A lot of kids got hurt, but you didn’t need to worry because you were both safe. Even as the words came out of my mouth, they felt like a lie. How could I promise your safety? I couldn’t. My tongue felt slick, as if it were covered in gun oil.
When we finished , we asked if you understood. Yes, you both said. Did you have any questions? No. Were you okay? Yes, you were both okay. Could you go play now? Yes, go play. You ran off separately, Ruthie to play with her American Girl dolls, you to finish the intricate wooden train track you were building in the playroom.
We had dinner. We put you to bed. We kept the TV off. Mom and I lay in bed and talked about keeping you home the next day, but decided against it. You would go to school tomorrow like always. We listened to the woods and heard nothing.
Mom and I got up together the next morning. “Time for school,” breakfast, packed lunches: turkey sandwiches, raisins, carrot sticks. Extra Oreos. We walked you to the bus and waved goodbye when it took you away.
Parents know they can only do so much to protect their kids. We can strap you into car seats, give you swim lessons. We can offer advice, bundle you against the cold. But we can’t do everything. Every parent accepts that fact. But this felt different. It felt like a tornado touching down, mindless and cruel. But also, predictable.
Everybody knew something like this would happen. Here, in America, it happens regularly. Mass shootings are as common as sunsets. Three shot, one dead at an apartment complex parking lot in Tulsa. Four dead at a Waffle House in Nashville. One sailor murdering two others before killing himself near a military hospital in Portsmouth, Virginia. Domestic violence. Suicide.
People getting shot just isn’t a story in America. We’re used to it. This time, though, was different. This was children, twenty of them. Six adults.
The nation responded to Sandy Hook the way it always does when spectacular acts of violence take place. News trucks rolled into town. Politicians laid out solemn offerings of “thoughts and prayers” like cold cuts at a wake. One by one, parents lowered their children into the ground.
One after the other after the other. The president came. “We can’t tolerate this anymore,” he said.
“These tragedies have to end.”
He spoke beautifully about the need for change.
As I write these words in late 2019, it’s happened 2,135 more times. I’m only including mass shootings, defined as “events in which four or more people, excluding the shooter, were shot but not necessarily killed at the same general time and location.” By the time you read this, that number could be well over 2,500.
No statistic recognizes that each death is its own tornado, spinning so many lives into chaos. Six years after the shooting, one of the Sandy Hook fathers who’d spent the intervening years researching brain disorders that can be related to violence, took his own life. I told you that losing my father ended my world. That’s what these bullets are, world-enders.
Like a lot of people, I’ve been paying attention to the phenomena of school shootings since two white teenage boys shot up their high school in Columbine, Colorado in 1999. At the time, there wasn’t even a term for these events. Headlines at the time called it a “high school massacre,” a “school attack,” a “gun spree.” When Columbine happened, we stupidly thought it was an aberration.
Then came all the others: schools in Georgia, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Michigan, Florida, Louisiana, California, New York… nearly every state, often multiple times. Then came Parkland, the deadliest high school shooting in American history. 17 high school students killed at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida on Valentine’s Day, 2018. Once again, we went through our national ablutions: the news crews, the thoughts and prayers, the resolutions to change, the failure to change.
You can go online and watch the interrogation of the Parkland shooter. It’s ten hours long. The most striking thing about him is how young he looks. He’s 19 but looks a couple years younger than you. He sits in a plastic chair, his ankle shackled to a metal ring in the floor. He wears a hospital gown, his back exposed, his skinny frame visible when he moves. In the beginning of the interrogation, alone in the room, he shouts, “Kill me!” He bites at his arm.
Later, his brother comes in, a brother who apologizes for pushing the shooter away during their childhoods, blaming his own insecurities. At one point, he asks the interrogating officer if he can give his brother a hug. Yes. When he does, the shooter breaks down, sobbing.
“They’re saying you’re a monster,” the brother says at one point.
“A monster?” the shooter responds, almost in disbelief.
If I hadn’t known what he had just done, I would have had the same reaction. He doesn’t look like a monster. To me, he just looks like some kid. Somebody’s son. You can go through the list of mass shooters and you’ll find the same thing in all of them: it’s always somebody’s son because it’s always a boy. Girls aren’t pulling the triggers in these massacres. It’s boys.
I’m not going to pretend to understand gun violence, but I think I understand at least a couple components of it. The first is easy access to guns. You’ve heard me rail against the gun industry and its bloody mouthpiece, the NRA. I’ve called the NRA a terrorist organization because I believe that they not only know that easy access to guns will induce more slaughter, they want those killings to take place because gun sales skyrocket each time one happens. If we wanted to reduce shootings, all shootings, the first thing we would do is reduce access to guns.
The other component I think I understand, at least a little, is the way traditional masculinity can nudge a teetering psyche towards violence. The first two rules many boys learn—“no sissy stuff” and “suck it up”—put boys in an emotional pen. I know this, because I grew up in this pen myself. If we cannot allow ourselves vulnerability, how are we supposed to experience wonder, fear, tenderness? If we cannot turn to others for help, what do we do with bewilderment and frustration? How do we even express something as elemental as joy?
It’s why the caricature of men is that we’re simple creatures. George Carlin has a great joke: “Here’s all you have to know about men and women: women are crazy, men are stupid. And the main reason women are crazy is that men are stupid.”
Mass shootings are only the most spectacular manifestation of our peculiar male dilemma; traditional manhood demands anger and withdrawal, and our anger and withdrawal are crippling us.
Women aren’t crazy and men aren’t stupid, but the joke speaks to the limited ways we see each other and the frustrations that women, in particular, have with men. There’s nothing wrong with our brains. Our brains are intact, fully functioning, nicely wrinkled. The problem is our emotional intelligence. And the reason our emotional intelligence is so low is too many men only allow themselves two basic modes of expression: anger and withdrawal.
For years, I was one of those guys. I cultivated an entire comedic persona based on withdrawal.
If you ever want to see what that looks like, go watch me on one of those VH1 “I Love the…” shows in which talking heads reminisce about decades gone by. My segments are all totally deadpan, sarcastic. They were funny (if I do say so myself) but sarcasm is a form of withdrawal; I was good at it because by that point in my life, I had invested years learning how to stifle my humanity. What you see on TV is an exaggeration of the way I lived my life, but only a little.
I had so much anger back then I didn’t know what to do with, so I clamped down. My release was jokes. They escaped like occasional steam puffs shaking the lid from a boiling pot.
The more successful I became doing that, the less satisfied I felt because I knew there was something fundamentally dishonest about it. That stone-faced person wasn’t me. You’d just been born when we started making those TV shows, and I could no longer keep my inner life at arm’s length. There you were, this new life in my care. How could I be your dad if I couldn’t give myself over to the job? My own dad could never escape his own reticence, could never bring himself to open up, could never love me the way I needed to be loved. That wasn’t going to be me.
Which meant I had to change.
But what if I couldn’t? What if I had been so invested in my anger that I couldn’t see any other way to be that didn’t shatter my sense of manhood? I’ve known guys like that. Are they all going to shoot up schools? Of course not. But mass shootings are only the most spectacular manifestation of our peculiar male dilemma; traditional manhood demands anger and withdrawal, and our anger and withdrawal are crippling us. Thankfully, most boys will find ways to direct that energy outwards in order to make positive contributions to the world. But some will not. Some will curl inwards like infected toenails. We’ve seen what they can do.
It’s this dilemma, I think, that may move boys and men into a dangerous space. No, most men are not going to become violent, but many do. The National Coalition Against Domestic
Violence says that 1 in 4 women (and 1 in 7 men) “have been victims of severe physical violence by an intimate partner in their lifetime.” It is not only men that commit domestic violence, but it is—by far—most often men. Their violence is directed, most often, at women. Could we bring those numbers down if we expanded our notions of manhood to include a broader emotional vocabulary? Does “suck it up” inhibit empathy? If I don’t expect anybody to give a shit about my problems, why should I care about anybody else’s? Would it better if we were taught that life isn’t meant for suffering but is instead meant to help alleviate the suffering of others? How did we even arrive at an understanding that attaining manhood necessitates sacrificing the hearts of boys?
What, in the end, does it mean to be a man in the early 21st century? I didn’t even know how to find out. Who do you even ask? Where does a guy turn when he has questions about being a man? Women have feminism— men have beer commercials.
Other men and women have been trying to answer this question for a long time. I found tons of stuff going back decades from sociologists, historians, psychologists, philosophers, gender theorists. I’m none of those things. I’m just a dad trying to figure stuff out because I’ve got an 18-year-old son about to leave home for college. I wanted to give you something before you go.
What would be most useful?
“Cash,” you said when I asked.
Fair enough. But I also wanted to offer something a little longer-lasting. That’s how I came to write this. I don’t even quite know what it is. Advice. Memoir. Ideas. It’s not exactly a “how to” guide, because that would presume I know what I’m doing, when most of the time I do not.
Maybe I’m just having the conversation I wish my father had had with me when I was a kid.
Maybe it’s me talking to him now, man to man. Mostly, though, this is for you. One father’s love letter to his son.
Like what you read? Get the book here.