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With Regina Barreca

Channeling Boys' Rage


Personally, I think we've done an excellent job of raising our young men. More or less.

And yet, while listening to Warren Zevon's song "Excitable Boy" on the radio, it occurred to me that rage is still a big issue. It occurred to me because I was stuck in traffic next to a young man in an old Honda who was apoplectically outraged that we were not all zooming down the highway. He got into a shouting match with another man, this one not quite so young, and I believe that only -- only -- because traffic did indeed start to move again, did they not each jump out of their respective vehicles and start pounding one another into the breakdown lane.

Remember Zevon? "Excitable Boy" was quite a cult song during my misspent youth. While I don't think that many of the young men I've encountered would "bite the usherette's leg in the dark" or "rub a pot roast all over his chest" during a family dinner (let alone kill a girl at the junior prom only to "dig up her body and make a cage with her bones") I do think - as the astonishing popularity of the book Raising Cain demonstrates -- that we need to do a better job in terms of dealing with the free-floating and widespread anger felt by the males in our culture.

We need to do it for ourselves, as their teachers, parents, mentors, and friends; we need to help them stay away from the kinds of anger that finds expression all too often in the most unpalatable and downright scary behaviors.

In a recent creative writing class, I had one extraordinarily intelligent, very quiet -- you might even say shy -- young man brave enough to admit the fact that on those occasions when he writes well, he writes out of otherwise unexpressed aggression.

He'd been reading William Gass, and was impressed by the fact that Gass admits he too "writes because he hates." My student found Gass seductive since, my student explained, he finds "the reason I first started writing seriously was out of anger. And oddly enough, it's rage that transports my creative juices, so to speak. My darkest secrets are right there out on the page, typed out in ordinary sentences, as if they were common knowledge. I am both excited and frightened by the thought of immersing myself in the spring from which this flows, because it is a place I always wanted to keep buried, camouflaged and away from public view. At the center of me, there's an anger and rage that would chase away anyone with soul enough to try to find it."

The nicest men I know are, if not consumed with rage, then at least informed by it. This doesn't mean that they wreck cars, kick dogs, or set fire to public property. What it does mean is that they often drink too much, drive too fast, and own copies of the film Fight Club. We still teach boys that being a man means rising to the occasion; while encouraging both boys and girls to step up, take responsibility for protecting those weaker than themselves, helping those who cannot defend themselves, and speaking up for those whose voices might not otherwise be heard -- all of which should, naturally, be applauded -- we somehow also encourage our male children to repress their own vulnerabilities, their own fears and weaknesses, and their own soft underbellies.

Is it a surprise, then, that they mask these less socially acceptable emotions by engaging in, paradoxically, vividly antisocial behavior?

Every year at my university, kids celebrate by destroying things. After a successful basketball tournament, someone will overturn a car and burn it. While I might be wrong, I somehow don't think it's the girls who initiate this act. Maybe because they find it too threatening to hug each other, boys have to punch each other -- hard -- on the arm. Dunk each other in toilets. Engage in food fights. When they're sad or lonely as kids, they might knock over somebody else's tower block, or they might poke the class hamster with a stick "just to see what he'd do," even when, let's face it, he knows what the poor creature would do, which is to recoil in pain and fear.

In pain and fear themselves, our boys are often driven to repress it and to cause it in others.

Nobody is more vicious, more dangerous to himself and others, than a young man in pain -- especially one who has driven his own hurt so deeply inside himself that he cannot even recognize it, let alone articulate it. He might feel as if he has nothing to lose. He might feel like everybody thinks he's a jerk anyhow -- why not act like one?

Unlike his female counterpart, who might herself feel a sense of righteous (or ridiculous) anger, a palpable sense of injustice, or a smoldering awareness of frustration, the teenage boy is less likely to turn these feelings inward. Hi sister might translate her own emotional life imperfectly -- reading anger as sadness, for example, or configuring her frustration with the world as a form of depression and self-loathing -- but she is unlikely to choose actual violence as a means of self-expression.

When I asked another smart and talented creative student who visited my office along with his father to tell me about boys and rage, neither man hesitated. This mysterious dynamic ran through their blood.

"It's a tribal thing," said the father. "You get a bunch of guys together, and they want to make trouble. You get a bunch of women together, and when they're planning for an evening out with their girlfriends, they say things like, 'Let's stand in a circle and dance all night. We'll put out pocketbooks on the floor, and we'll just go wild.' When guys get together they say, 'Let's go out and almost get arrested.' They don't want to get arrested because that would be a drag, but they want to come as close to the edge as possible."

I admit to being rather open-mouthed in surprise. This is an engaging, unpretentious man my own age, one who raised a terrific son. And "As close to the edge as possible" is what he's saying?

"Why?" I asked rather weakly.

Now the son answered with alacrity: "Because then the next day, you can talk to your friends and say, 'Dude! We almost got arrested last night! That was so great!'" When I asked why this counted as fun, they offered explanations in a chorus, as if in a Greek play: "You get to bust stuff up! You get to break stuff! It's like having a tantrum." His father nodded, they both turned to me smiling, a mirrored image, and shrugged. "You get to let it all out."

It's that last line that got me.

So here's our assignment: How do we encourage the next generation of boys, the ones now sitting in our classrooms, to figure out another way to let it all out that doesn't stop them from writing, scare them, or worry us?

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