It was simple when I was twenty: appetite wrapped stone, stone was appetite, scissors, you guessed it, appetite. Every man, woman, house plant, thesaurus, phone book—every one of these could be absorbed for the sake of hunger. All boys at 20 are this way. How does one not turn into a predatory creep? The answers are as variable as the social contract, but safe to say one finds a binding, a principle of community, and appetite turns to a deep desire to belong. One can get there through poetry or dance, but also with fair minded business practices, entrepreneurship, any desire to provide services that assist others. Some people refurbish ambulances and sell them at fair prices. Some dedicate themselves to clean water. I do not say only grown men accomplish these things, only that grown men become gracefully “beyond” themselves. I’ve been teaching college courses for over thirty years and I’ve seen “the boys” who won’t make it, who will become embittered when the shine of the fraternity houses fades. And I’ve seen the boys who want to live in the world with something no one can precisely describe but we know it for it’s palpable, and one may call it decency or civics or respect.
This is becoming a sermon. Forgive me. Don’t stop reading. I’ve a quick story to tell. It’s deeply personal. It concerns my family. My maternal grandfather didn’t care if people lived or died. He simply loved machines and explosives. Really, one may think of him as an anarchistic tinkerer who loved dynamite. He bought run down farms all over the state of New Hampshire solely to indulge his dynamite habit as he loved to blow things up. By things I mean telegraph poles, large boulders, houses, fences. He enjoyed TNT the way regular people like to work in their gardens. The man didn’t give a shit about people.
He was an American “type” who really did say to his 11 year old daughter (my mother) “shoot first and ask questions later” when he left her alone on the farm for three days. He was an American “type” who stirred dynamite into the drink of a game warden who chanced to visit. He was the “type” who sat on a flaming sofa with a pitcher of water beside his feet because eventually he’d have to put it out, but he was enjoying his cigar. He had a special kind of “screw you” and he never relinquished it. He was, in short, an American boy for whom personal growth never materialized. Unlike many boy-men he didn’t become a serial divorcer. He stuck with his family and destroyed everyone.
The Jungian psychoanalyst Marie-Louise Von Franz wrote a compelling book about men who have big bodies but remain children. Such men are often the life of the party, charming, at least at first. Then they tire of you (insert “children”; “wives”; “girl friends”; “friends”) and jump ship (insert “leave home”; “skip town”) and find a new circle to hoodwink. While I know of no studies linking these “flying boys” (Von Franz’s term) with sexual assault, it’s a good bet that groping, rape, violence, and child abuse are all parts of their arsenal.
So I’m in mind of these matters during this election season. In mind of boys who remain boys, embittered, predatory, loud, overtly talkative. In mind of our contemporary fascination with public relations and self-branding, which are deeply tied to the “boy-man complex” (insert Billy Bush). I believe every journalist in America who covers local, state, or national politics or business, or sports, or yes, higher education, will read Von Franz’s book about the devastating consequences of the boy-man epidemic.