The difference in those years between the striving of a boy in Brooklyn and the striving of a boy in, say, Aberdeen, South Dakota (the small town I once knew best because I had cousins there whom I used to visit) was certainly notable—but in the end, I think, it did not run all that deep. For what both cases suggest is the need for boys to create a standard of competitive excellence irrelevant to the standard set for them by the culture that will all too soon be taking control of their lives.
Ball-playing was, to be sure, far less dangerous to the health and well-being of the Brooklyn striver than was the competitive consumption of alcohol to his small-town counterpart. For obvious reasons: at the very least, playing ball does not end in automobile accidents that threaten life and limb. I am not sure why ball-playing would not have sufficed out on the prairie—or for that matter why alcohol should have played no part in Brooklyn. Perhaps it was that in the former, space to play was too easily come by, while in the latter alcoholics were a glut on the market; perhaps, that is, the substance of the competition itself had to be at a premium. I also find I cannot remember the primary means for being tested among the boys in my own home town, which was a respectable-sized Midwestern city; playing ball was probably part of it, as were daring the currents of the Mississippi in small boats and courting danger with automobiles (although not under the influence of alcohol).
But such niceties aside, the point is that there was certainly a whole lot of testing going on. In all cases, the standards being applied were immediate—you either achieved them or you did not—and measurable: three hits were unequivocally more than two, and a fifth of liquor was unequivocally more than a pint. One nowadays reads tales of drunken bingeing in campus fraternity houses that leads straight to the hospital emergency room. The small-town boys I used to know would have been contemptuous of such an idea. The object was to hold the stuff, not to be overtaken by it.
This need to establish a measurable means of earning the respect of one’s peers was something quite alien to us girls. We were inclined to place ourselves within a circle of friendship based precisely on the making of allowances for one another’s weaknesses. That is why our inevitable competitions tended to remain masked, and why we were such inveterate sharers of intimacies. That is also why, in later adolescence, when we were pleased to discover our considerable new power over boys, we were frightened by their alien need to be constantly testing their strength: against teachers and parents, which we could understand, but also against themselves, which we could not. Most chilling to us was the way they seemed willing to do it over and over again, even when they lost.
The time I am talking about was the period immediately before and during World War II, when boys not all that much older than we were enlisting in the Navy or getting drafted. By the end of the war or in its immediate aftermath, most of my male contemporaries would have made their way into one uniform or another; but before that event happened to them, the hope of serving, plus anxiety over the possible shame lest they be unable to do so, hung like a twin shadow over all their boyish pursuits. We girls, still comfortably far from our own forced debut into real life, dreamed the romance of war widowhood—learning to knit sweaters that were seldom finished, sending girlish letters to one APO or another, and in general miming high emotion. We were, in other words, still children, while the boys were being brought ever closer—closer than they themselves understood—to a man’s estate. They would all too soon be in no need of making up contests.
But that, too, is not really the point. The point is that boys must always find some means to measure themselves, and the reason they must do so is that they are by nature pure of heart. By this I do not mean to suggest that they are not dirty, noisy, disruptive, and even violent. Or that there are not among them those who may sooner or later lie, cheat, and steal. But whether they are naughty or nice, troubled or troubling, what seems to be given to them along with their testosterone is an enormous degree of transparency.
Anyone who has ever watched little boys at play knows that whatever they are up to, for good or ill, their hearts are always on their sleeves. Little girls acquire wiles with practically their first step. They flirt, they pout, they manipulate. Watch a group of them at play, and what will be going on beneath their games is an instinctive feel for tactics and strategy worthy of the world’s most practiced diplomats. Boys, by contrast, have no wiles. As the years go on, life will teach them not to cry when they want to, and to cover up their fear. But little boys almost never dissemble or manipulate—even their lies are transparent. Nor, as a rule, do they romanticize themselves, which is perhaps why millions upon millions of them could be sent into combat without becoming murderers.
SOMEWHERE ON the way to and from the 1960’s, something happened in America to suppress this natural condition of boys: some loss of energy, some shying away from their instinctive restlessness and competitiveness, and, with it, a fading of whatever happened to be the standards of gallantry. It is not easy to say what brought this about—our mores of child-rearing certainly had a lot, if not everything, to do with it. In the end what really matters is that the process of damping their natures—which would prove so fateful, to them and to the rest of us, during the years of the Vietnam war—was applauded by the keepers of the national ethos: the intellectuals, the educators, the clergy, and the press.
So much so, that I used to find it very difficult to explain to my adolescent children what things were like when I was growing up. Whenever I tried, they took me to be chiding them in some way—and who could blame them? Had I not myself once done the same with my own parents? But the invidiousness that galled my children was history’s doing, not mine. What I mean is that the condition of the country during World War II and its aftermath—the condition that was also responsible for the avalanche of children born more or less around the same time as mine—was no longer available to the postwar offspring. It had ceased to be.
During the war years, such things as love of country and service to country were—to use a recent happy contribution to the English language—a no-brainer. People believed that the United States was good and that its enemies were bad and needed to be roundly defeated. The government, the newspapers, radio, and Hollywood engaged in a concerted effort to reinforce that belief. Those who in the late 1930’s had been opponents of American entry into the war slunk away in silence, while the most popular movie stars—those who were not in the armed forces, that is—traveled the land selling government bonds.
True, the public culture of those years primarily consisted of a lot of corny romancing; there are few popular artifacts from that time that do not now make one simply giggle with (fond) embarrassment. Yet there was a sense in which those movies and songs and books were not in the least meretricious. Underneath everything, they were expressions of a kind of unspoken recognition that this was a boys’ time, governed by boys’ standards. And it was our boys who were in the right, and who were winning.
It goes without saying that a lot of young men were killed in that war, and many returned home in bad shape. But consider: not a single poster or graffito defaming the government was to be seen in public places. There was no suggestion, except from a few hole-in-the-corner radicals, that the war itself had been anything but thoroughly just. For several years Washington had imposed a system of rationing of such commodities as gasoline, meat, and sugar, and yet there was only a very modest black market. War being war and fear being fear, no doubt there were soldiers who found themselves moved to do some very unpleasant things, but no press exposé or movie dwelled upon them in malicious triumph. Veterans returned to a country in which no new housing had been built in several years, and were forced to camp out for the time it took to catch up; yet there were no angry demonstrations on their part and nothing but warm embraces on the part of those required to take them in.
One cannot in decency say that it was joy to be alive at that hour—too many millions of innocent lives had been snuffed out—nor was it very heaven to be young (in truth, it never is). But Americans were having a rare and precious national experience in which for a time most things were felt to be in the right place and for the right reason.
A generation later, in the summer of 1969, long after I had given up trying to explain all this to my children, one of my daughters went on a youth tour to Israel and returned home in high excitement. Having grown up in a culture shot through with the manipulations of girlishness, she had discovered boys’ country.
“Do you have any idea,” she demanded, “what it feels like to be in a place where everybody loves the soldiers?”
“Yes,” I told her, “I do.”
THE BOYS I grew up with had been presented with what they believed was a contest to end all contests, and in the face of it they were quickly able to put aside their adolescent means for self-testing. But what of their sons, all those young men who came of age in the 1960’s, only to hide from Vietnam? Did they not feel the need to try themselves? Surely they did; they, too, after all, were boys. Something, however, kept a great many of them not only out of the Vietnam-era armed forces but, long before that, out of the entire game of serious and pure-hearted boyhood.
Indeed, many of the adolescent boys who swam into my ken in the 1960’s, mainly as my daughters’ classmates and companions, I often found at least bewildering and now and then downright heartbreaking. As everyone knows, the word from the world of adolescent psychology in those days was that this generation would be the first to be genuinely free and healthy, especially when it came to sex. But aside from whatever reservations I may have had about the virtue of this idea, I simply could not see how the boys my daughters and their friends were hanging out with could possibly be taking part in any Great Sexual Free-in. For the most part the sons of New York’s aspiring middle and upper-middle class, they were well-kept and healthy enough, but they seemed to me so . . . frail. And as for the free and easy sex they were supposed to be enjoying, from the look of them it was not apparent how free it could be—or how easy, either. Sex, after all, to borrow from Mr. Dooley, ain’t bean-bag.
One thing that marked these putative prodigies of sex was that they could not even bestir themselves to see their girlfriends home at the end of an evening. Nor had they been subjected to that propulsion-into-manliness of being expected to do so. My own never-enforced (because unenforceable) rule in this matter was greeted by my daughters first with puzzlement and then with derision, as if I had demanded that they dress in little starched pinafores and lisle stockings. But remember, I am speaking here about boys and girls in, of all places, the city of New York: far from the safest environment, one might have thought, in which a young man would want his would-be inamorata to travel alone after dark.
Another thing that marked the young in those days is that they tended to run in packs (I am told they still do), and without a scorecard you could not tell which two of them constituted a couple. It was as if the great new freedom they pretended to be asserting was freedom from and not freedom for. The boys, as I say, seemed very needy, not sexually but psychically, and the girls they hung around with often looked to be serving more as their mothers than as the objects of their lust. I do not mean to suggest that these kids remained chaste—everybody knows they did not—only that, as is so often the case with matters sexual, things were not quite as advertised. Just exactly how things were, it would take time and a fair amount of needless sorrow to figure out.
Whenever I think about what went wrong with the 60’s young, a particular incident always comes to mind. My eldest daughter and some of her friends were going off to college, and a whole group of them had gathered one evening in our living room to say goodbye. A couple of young men from Columbia College were also there, one of whom was the longtime boyfriend of one of the girls. This young man’s reputation had preceded him. It was said that he was a brilliant poet, deemed by common consent of the faculty to be the most gifted the college had seen in years. But if he was in fact a poet, he had clearly decided to impersonate Keats, dead at twenty-five. Slouched into one of our chairs, he promptly began to languish, shoulders hunched, arms dangling, hair draped over his face. He spoke (as young men in those days were wont to do) in breathy murmurs, as if it were too demanding of his energy to attempt to make himself heard.
My husband, who normally fled the scene when a young man appeared in the house, was on this occasion honoring his daughter by hanging around, and so was present when at some point the two Columbia boys began to carry on a mumbled conversation about the nature of existence, full of the day’s confused profundities and clearly intended to signal their own incomprehensible brilliance to their admiring auditors. Not until my husband, himself a onetime Columbia boy, was moved to ask our young poet if he had never been told by any of his famously distinguished professors that the sorts of things he was saying were the purest bullshit did the young man—as it seemed for the first time in his life—snap alert, sit up straight, brush his hair out of his eyes, and spend the balance of the evening engaged in genuine conversation. I could not believe my eyes. Finally it occurred to me that, in his own way, this child had been just as much abandoned by his world as any Harlem urchin by his.
Shortly after that evening, our poet was all too predictably to lie his way out of being drafted into the army. If memory serves, he first thought of claiming to be a conscientious objector, but upon learning that he would be required to perform some kind of communal service declared he could not possibly spend his time taking orders from some bureaucrat and instead found some psychiatrist to declare him mentally ill.
There were psychiatrists aplenty willing to offer such service to the boys otherwise eligible to serve in the Vietnam war. Failing that solution, a good number of others took themselves off to Canada or Sweden. Their whole universe—their parents, their teachers, their doctors, and even in a sense the draft boards themselves—connived with these boys in their escape from duty. In further aid of this escape, the culture surrounding them engaged in the obverse of what had been done for the boys of World War II: it declared those who served in the war, rather than those who ran away from it, immoral and even criminal.
Since God is not mocked, there was surely some kind of price to pay for having flubbed even so generally ill-regarded a test. Perhaps the price was a subtle one, paid in a slow sapping of amour propre for years and years to come. But what we do know is that by the time the war was over, a change had come over the women whom nature and nurture had intended for these young men. They were now throwing themselves into a movement whose main source of ideological energy was an abiding contempt for the male sex.
AND NOW still another generation has passed. Those who were once the boys of the 60’s have long since returned from their various forms of self-imposed exile and for the most part become successful and affluent beyond the reasonable hopes of man. And every day they climb onto or into machines designed to keep them, as they say, “in shape,” but whose deep-down function may be to provide a simulation of testing that will enable them to make the grade at long last. What of their little boys—the generation of the new millennium?
From the look of it, they have been abandoned to their own brand of danger. But there is this difference. After a quarter-century of almost exclusive concern with girls—their sorrows, their strengths, their needs, their thought and speech patterns, and even the configurations of their brains—those who stand at the gates of culture have begun to pay attention to boys, and to see them as something other than foils for their female counterparts.
It is never easy to figure out just how such a shift in interest comes about. Perhaps the explanation for this new focus is something as simple as plain saturation. The social theorist Robert Nisbet once pointed out that the most underrated force in human affairs is boredom. We may just have reached the point where the feminists feel that one more study of the female whatever would put even them to sleep—Gloria Steinem herself may be having trouble keeping her eyes open. Whatever the reason for it, boys and their problems are lately becoming all the professional rage.
But, it seems necessary to ask, to what end? Take, for example, the squirmers. It seems recently to have come to the attention of the people in charge of educating them that a great many young boys find it difficult to sit still for very long, thereby creating certain problems in the classroom. Beyond that, their restlessness often results in paper work so sloppy as to be nearly illegible, a difficulty many of their teachers find most disturbing. The problem having been brought to the attention of the experts, a few million boys have been diagnosed as suffering from a serious neurological condition known as attention-deficit disorder (ADD); and, to the great relief of bored and incompetent schoolteachers, the experts have further prescribed that the condition be brought under control with a substance called Ritalin (street name: speed). For some strange reason, taking this amphetamine has the effect of quieting young boys.
What other effect it may be having on them is a subject to which no one seems yet to have given any thought—any more than the psychiatrists who once secured exemptions from duty for these boys’ fathers gave a thought to what other consequences might be lying in wait for them. Which raises an urgent question: how much of the current attention to boys can be said to be loving of them as they are truly constituted to be?
The question is especially pertinent in the case of a recent and highly praised book, Real Boys.* Its author, William Pollack, is the director of the Center for Men at McLean Hospital outside Boston and a member of the faculty at Harvard Medical School. Pollack offers for our consideration the case histories of a series of troubled adolescent males he has interviewed and/or treated. As a result of listening to them and their families, he writes, he has arrived at the insight that essentially all the problems experienced by boys in our society stem from the fact that at much too early a point in their lives, they are thrust out of the arms of their mothers.
Now, on the evidence of this book, William Pollack is certainly a tender interlocutor, especially with boys in whom he sees a need for tenderness. But as for insight, why could it not as justly be contended, and on the basis of Pollack’s own examples, that these boys’ problem is not mothers but fathers—that is, that they may be suffering from the lack of manly instruction? So at least it has been contended, and by people of discernment, about the troubled and troublesome boys of the inner-city ghetto, who cannot be totally of another breed.
This is just another way of saying that all of it—the Ritalin, the research, the insight—may well be irrelevant to the quiddity of little boys, and particularly of little boys in trouble. After two generations’ worth of social and cultural suppression, they continue to be in exactly the same condition: by nature pure of heart, and in need of some answering purity of heart, they have been left with scarcely any good way either to be wholly themselves or to be assured that they are indeed on the way to becoming men.
AT ITS very bleakest, the denial of this condition has meant bloody murder. Literally. Since the 60’s, the juvenile suicide rate in this country has doubled and redoubled. To anyone for whom this is merely a cold statistic, let me illustrate it with a few gaudy examples. Only a few years ago, in a single region of New York State comprising about 100 square miles, eight boys between the ages of twelve and fifteen killed themselves within four months. It was held by some that this epidemic may have been a case of “copycatting”: another spate of adolescent suicides had recently occurred in the town of Plano, Texas. Yet it seems quite unlikely that the New York boys would have heard of the Texans, or for that matter were even aware of one another. Perhaps, rather than being cases of copying, all these suicides had something very grave in common. If so, no one was able to figure out what it might have been, the psychologists least of all. Of one of the New York boys it was said that his parents were too neglectful, of another that his parents were driving him too hard to achieve.
The same bafflement attended the news this past October that, within the space of two weeks, two Columbia students had killed themselves and a third stabbed himself twice in the chest and barely survived. Of course, all suicides must in the end necessarily remain a mystery. Why do some people let themselves be blown away by the first cold breeze, while others survive calamity upon calamity? But about children who have not even lived out the first quarter of their lives, surely there has to be something more to say.
One point to take note of is that the majority of youthful suicides are committed by males. Girls threaten suicide more often than boys, and even go on to attempt it, but with a high degree of frequency their attempts are carried out it in such a way as to secure their rescue. (Alas, not high enough: one of the Columbia students was a young woman.) Boys sometimes do the same; but for the most part, not being naturally manipulative, if they set out to kill themselves, there is a high probability they will succeed.
And then, in another addition to the repertoire, there is mass murder: a boy turns up at school with a gun and picks off a few of his fellow students and maybe a teacher. This has recently happened, with varying numbers of victims, in Moses Lake, Washington; Bethel, Alaska; Pearl, Mississippi; West Paducah, Kentucky; Jonesboro, Arkansas; and Springfield, Oregon.
The first of these rampages took place in February 1996, the latest in May 1998. The most successful of them, numerically speaking, was the work of two boys aged thirteen and eleven who before they were stopped had managed to kill five and wound ten. Their success may be attributable to the fact that they acted according to a plan: the younger of the boys sneaked into the school building and set off a fire alarm, the elder shot the victims one by one as they filed out of doors. Their closest rival was a fifteen-year-old from Springfield, Oregon, who, working less systematically, killed only four, two of them his sleeping parents, but succeeded in wounding 22 of his fellow students as they were eating lunch in the school cafeteria. One of the boys told interviewers that he had acted as if in a dream, but most of the others confessed to having harbored feelings of rage.
If adolescent suicide is in the end mystifying to the experts, adolescent murder, especially if it involves a mass of victims, somehow seems not to confuse them. Thus, before the blood had dried, it was announced that the boys in question were depressed—no doubt a perfectly unimpeachable judgment if also a perfectly unenlightening one, depression being the diagnosis for a wide assortment of human ills, from small to great. Next, no less predictably, it was said that the boys had had too easy access to gunsview held by many people who seem to believe that because guns are necessary for shootings, they are themselves the agents of shootings.
To be sure, there have been many dreadful accidents with guns in the hands of little children who no doubt had too easy access to them. But the boys in these schoolyard incidents were out to cause suffering and death; had there been no guns available to them, the results would obviously have been far less horrific but their intentions not one bit less murderous. What moved those seven boys to take those guns into their hands is a question to which the anti-gun reflex is no answer.
Next came the pronouncement that the boys had clearly fallen under the influence of the violence that surrounded them in the music they heard and the movies and television they watched and the computer and television games they played. Such a charge is hard to resist: the unremitting stream of ugly junk with which the senses of today’s young are assaulted morning, noon, and night—hardly offset by the pap that passes for their education—must at the very least act like a slow poison on their nervous systems. But that, too, cannot by itself be a short, straight road to murder, or else the whole country would be nothing but a charnel house.
What can with assurance be concluded about the rampagers in the schoolyard is that they are obviously crazy—or as the experts prefer to put it, “seriously disturbed.” Just as obviously, however, they are crazy boys. Everybody knows that girls, who inhabit the same low youth culture, would never do what they did. The violence of girls is not only rare but is almost always committed in packs; there is virtually no such thing as a lone outlaw female. Besides, when a girl is out to have a really destructive tantrum, it is usually herself she goes after, doing such things as starving herself or pulling out her hair. Those boys were being boys, only much—murderously much—more so.
AS ANYONE with eyes in his head can tell you, all little boys love to play with guns. If they are deprived of the opportunity—by their socially over-enlightened mothers, for instance—they will make a weapon of any facsimile at hand, whether pencils, spoons, sticks, or even just their index fingers. If allowed to be themselves, boys also like to fight, usually as just a mode of horseplay but sometimes for real. Perhaps above all, they like to be bad, at least now and then, as a kind of masculine badge of honor.
It is nowadays very difficult for a boy to grow up with masculine honor in this society. For one thing, he is standing at the tail-end of a veritable whirlwind of anti-male sentiment that has been sweeping through the country for decades; although the force of this sentiment has somewhat let up, it has left in its wake a vast collection of moral and spiritual debris for any boy to pick his way through. For another thing, he has been deprived of any healthy means of meeting hostility with hostility, for he is also bereft of most of the ordinary, which is to say noncriminal, ways of being a bad boy. The obscene language with which he might once, say, have scandalized his parents has become commonplace, as has the kind of talk about sex that might once have given him and his playmates a frisson of serious naughtiness: in school itself, and from a very early age, he is vouchsafed instruction into the arcana of sexual behavior that would otherwise be beyond his imagining.
Perhaps most of all, the possibility of participating in some straightforward means of testing has been corrupted by enlightenment. Ball-playing, for example, is now done in organized leagues whose underlying intention is to provide everyone with a simulacrum of self-esteem. As if kids were too dumb to tell good performance from bad, it has become common practice for parents and other spectators to cheer for every play by every member of every team, win or lose. Nor does such a boy have the means of testing his mettle through the performance of some genuinely responsible work. He has, so to speak, no wood to chop and no water to draw, and he earns no money that is necessary to keeping a roof over his family’s head.
To top it off, a quarter-century ago his government decided that he would no longer be subject to the requirement of serving in the defense of his country. Should he voluntarily wish to do so, he will be greeted not only with open arms but with the promise of many emoluments, primary among them the hope of a better future career as a civilian. Once upon a time an American boy might be accosted by a poster—now a standard bit of junk chic found in flea markets—with the picture of a stern figure pointing a long and bony finger and the caption, “Uncle Sam needs YOU!” Today he will see on television a scenic commercial with the slogan, “Be All You Can Be.” Not, help defend your country, or even your family. Not, discover the strength in being attached to something larger than you. Not, be a brave man, or be a good man, or even just be a man. Only, prepare yourself for a better career—the slogan of a country that has forgotten the natural purity of a boy’s heart.
Finally, short of murder and mayhem, he is not likely to undergo serious punishment for wrong doing. If he is disruptive at school, he is much less likely to be punished in the sight of all his buddies than to be drugged or sent into therapy. This last bar to self-respect is a bequest from the boys of the 1960’s, who rioted and trashed and burned their universities, and found the means to duck out on their responsibilities to their nation, with only a minor inconvenience, if any, to themselves and with the din of adult praise in their ears. (One of them, after all, even made his way into the presidency.)
In short, by virtue of the ease into which he is born, an American boy is on the one hand infantilized and on the other hand deprived, by a let-it-all-hang-out culture, of his God-given right to the comforting innocence of childhood. Considering what life is like for hundreds of millions of children living elsewhere in the world, it would be unholy to feel too sorry for him. But raging schoolyard murder and galloping suicide, even though they are the exception, beg for some understanding beyond what is feebly offered by the professionals of mental health.
IN 1960, Paul Goodman, the radical social philosopher, published what would turn out to be his most influential book. It was called Growing Up Absurd.** The book said much that turned out to be dangerous, but also some things that turned out to be prophetic, the most prophetic of all being its first sentence: “It’s hard to grow up when there isn’t enough man’s work.”
Goodman was referring here to those basic forms of labor that modern society had ruled out: building yourself a shelter, taking your own food from the ground. This nostalgia may have been a little foolish, or simply irrelevant. Also, he had no way of knowing that all too soon, the very words “man’s work” would elicit shrieks of feminist horror and then simply be placed under interdiction. And Goodman in his own way contributed to making growing up even harder, for the anarchism of the counterculture that owed so much to his inspiration turned out to be a flight from manliness that put all other flights to shame—and drove Goodman himself, be it said, to near-despair.
Still, he was onto something. It is hard for a boy to grow up without feeling the need for a uniquely masculine form of striving. All the more so in a culture where his expectations for work will almost certainly include work that girls will be doing as well (even should he look forward to becoming a steelworker); where his sex life will, so to speak, fall into his lap; and where even his military experience, should he decide to have any, will take place in a thoroughly feminized atmosphere. In his heart of hearts, that place of purity and no dissembling, he may perhaps forever harbor a dream of dangers passed and difficulties conquered—a dream no girl or woman will ever share with him or even, in her own heart of hearts, ever understand or perhaps forgive. But what is to become of him?
One may not pray for him to be tested in war as his grandfather was. But is it too much to pray that he will, without exploding, find places to go where only boys go and things to do that only boys can understand and, if he proves good enough, genuinely admire?
* Random House, 398 pp., $24.95.
** The book was published in three installments in Commentary.
Decter, Midge. “What Are Little Boys Made Of?” Commentary (December, 1998).
Reprinted with permission of Commentary magazine.
MIDGE DECTER is the author of The Liberated Woman & Other Americans and Liberal Parents, Radical Children, among other books. The most recent of her many contributions to these pages is “Southern Comforts” (July 1998).
Copyright © 1998 Commentary