Issue 46: Summer 2019

A man of few words

At some point I stopped hearing it; it was absorbed into the constant hum of the mill in our small coastal town. The songs, the voices, the guitar riffs blurred together into the background noise of the days after my husband’s breakdown and subsequent diagnosis.

At some point I stopped hearing it; it was absorbed into the constant hum of the mill in our small coastal town. The songs, the voices, the guitar riffs blurred together into the background noise of the days after my husband’s breakdown and subsequent diagnosis. At first it grated on me. Days of punk rock, heavy metal, hard core, death metal only broken up by sleep and the wind in the trees or the water in the rivers and creeks when we went into the woods for walks. An entire collection of songs, thousands of titles, hundreds of albums on shuffle spitting out songs on a whim or based on an Apple algorithm. I don’t remember when it was turned off, when a song was stopped and never started again. It was like the hum of the mill, present for so long I almost forgot the noise existed. I forgot, for a brief time, that quiet could exist in those moments when I made dinners or read on the couch. I forgot about the value and benefit of the absence of sound.

While the music permeated those days, I slipped into behaviour that was surprisingly “feminine.” I don’t mean that I was putting on make-up or wearing dresses; instead, what I did reflected the subtle ways I have been and continue to be influenced by what it means to be a woman, a good wife, and a good daughter. At the time, when people asked if I was OK, if I needed help, I was quick to smile and put on my best happy face. Silence. The active suppression of my voice, of my fear, of my sadness. I needed to look like I had it all together, like I was strong enough to carry us through what was happening. But this strength came with an inability to talk openly about what was going on and how my heart ached day after day. That silence was something I’d experienced before, with my ex. Holding the weight of his struggle, his deep depression, his overwhelming anxiety, alone, was all consuming. He suffered silently, maybe afraid of the perceived shame that came with being vulnerable. Or maybe he just didn’t have the words to say what he needed to. Similar to the days after my husband’s breakdown, my ex often filled quiet with noise. The gunshots from Call of Duty. The relentless voice of Alex Jones pouring out of his computer. Music. In the absence of quiet, there was overwhelming silence. There have been times in my life when, to my parents, it seemed like I feared quiet. My dad said something to that effect when I was a teenager, and he was forced to listen to whatever song or album I couldn’t get enough of at the time. When I was young, my head was a mix of typical adolescent ideas of belonging, rejection, insecurity, and confusion. It swirled in a muddy mix of chaos and somehow music, loud, aggressive music quieted and numbed the chaos in my head. It was like I needed to create the same kind of noise outside that I felt on the inside. Once I reached the right balance, I’d feel the tension ease. I began to long for the pounding bass I felt in my chest when my body was pressed against tall stacks of black speakers at concerts, and for the pressure of other bodies against me as we swayed and heaved in an awkward, sweaty unison. I hated and loved the feeling of being wedged against flesh and metal in a crowd. I hated the loss of space and the constriction, but loved the way it made me forget the swirling chaos in my young mind. Music could be loud and angry when I couldn’t.
Being quiet let me hear the world around me, kept me ready should I need to break my silence and scream into the streets.
Noise was a cocoon and a shield. It created a veil that hid the world around me. Riding Skytrains and crowded buses, I’d sit with my headphones in my ears, music turned up. This created a buffer between me and unwanted small talk that was, at times, necessary. Men on public transit and street corners were less likely to make strange comments if they saw I was listening to music. Books were also good company. But at some point, I became aware that even this protection was a vulnerability. Plugged in, I was easy prey—an unsuspecting target. I’d keep the volume low enough to hear any feet stepping behind me, but eventually I knew even this wasn’t enough. Men could walk with headphones pumping beats and melodies into their ears, but I knew that as a woman I couldn’t. Being quiet let me hear the world around me, kept me ready should I need to break my silence and scream into the streets. Quiet meant my voice could be heard. Quiet was necessary so that, if needed, there would be no silence.  

There’s a difference between silence and quiet. Author Rebecca Solnit calls silence and quiet “overlapping words,” and defines silence as what is imposed, while quiet is sought. In her essay “A Short History of Silence,” Solnit focuses largely on the role silence plays in marginalized people’s lives, women’s lives:

Silence is what allows people to suffer without recourse, what allows hypocrisies and lies to grow and flourish, crimes to go unpunished. If our voices are essential aspects of our humanity, to be rendered voiceless is to be dehumanized or excluded from one’s humanity. And the history of silence is central to women’s history.
This history of silence isn’t something that requires deep research. It is at the surface of the way women live their lives. The way rape victims are forced to swallow their stories until they rot and fester inside them. The way victims of domestic abuse apply layers of make-up and turtlenecks to hide a story that’s written on their flesh and bones. The way witches—women—were burned at the stake. Hospitals and asylums confined crazy women, hiding them from a world that wanted to shut them away and shut them up. The regulation of women’s behaviour continues. What is appropriate is policed and if women step out of line, instead of being locked away, they face silencing of a different kind. Through shaming and ridicule they risk losing their jobs, their identities, their families, and their lives.
Anger, as an emotion or feeling, is attached to men. It is one of the few feelings that is permissible for men to exhibit. But by giving it to men, we took it away from women, saying it wasn’t okay for them to be angry, outraged, or furious.
Standing on the court of the US Open's 2018 final match, Serena Williams was at the peak of her career. She stood as a strong, confident woman who had conquered so much to achieve her dreams and goals. During that match with Naomi Osaka, Williams received three violations. She was angry. Furious even. She demanded an apology from the chair umpire. She smashed her racket against the court. After playing professional tennis for over twenty years and being witness and even victim to vast prejudice for her gender and the colour of her skin, I can imagine Williams was fed up. She'd seen her male peers behave the same way, if not worse, and they got away with it, but there she was expressing her anger and emotion, and was penalized for it. Williams, like so many women in male-dominated circles, suffered because she showed her emotions in a place where someone had deemed it unacceptable to be emotional. But why then had we watched John McEnroe yell, and pound the court with his racket to receive minimal if any repercussions? Anger, as an emotion or feeling, is attached to men. It is one of the few feelings that is permissible for men to exhibit. But by giving it to men, we took it away from women, saying it wasn't okay for them to be angry, outraged, or furious. And so when women have gotten pissed off, along with a host of other emotions, they've suffered deeply for it. And they have suffered in silence. There was a list, copied from a book, that made its way around the Internet. The list is titled Reasons for Admission: 1864 to 1889. It includes the reasons why women were admitted to an insane asylum. And if you were a woman then, just by reading these words you were committing an act that could land you in an asylum. The other offences included: ill treatment by husband, imaginary female trouble, jealousy and religion, laziness, novel reading, overaction of the mind, politics, fever and jealousy, masturbation, time of life, grief. While the list doesn't say it, it's reasonable to assume that the people who made the decisions about whether a woman was admitted to an asylum were men. And even though women don't tend to be locked away in Victorian facilities, our Victorian attitudes towards emotions and gender have lingered. Unwritten rules have governed the behaviour and ways men and women see themselves, and relate to each other. Laurie Penny wrote about the way sanity is socially determined in her book Unspeakable Things: Sex, Lies and Revolution, and echoed what is seen in those old reasons for admission to an insane asylum. “Sanity is still socially determined, just as rebellion is riskier if you’re a girl,” she wrote. “You can be collapsing on the inside but as long as you can put your make-up on and smile for your boss or teacher, you’re okay.” I’ve been working since I was 14 years old, and even though I don’t know who told me it wasn’t alright for a woman to cry at work, I’ve spent many moments in the 20 years I’ve been employed crying in the bathroom. Tears didn’t always mean sadness; sometimes they were a manifestation of frustration, anxiety, and often anger. I cried because it’s more appropriate for women to cry than to raise our voices and slam a fist down on a desk, which I’ve seen my male coworkers and bosses do. My life outside my workplace could have been falling apart but at work, a place that was once held for men, I had to toughen up so that I’d be allowed to continue being part of it. Penny wrote, “Women, like any oppressed class, learn to fear our own rage. Our anger is legitimately terrifying. We know that if it ever gets out, we might get hurt, or worse, abandoned.” And so we swallow our anger and smile.  

Silence has often been imagined as an innately feminine attribute. Women are valued for being silent, quiet, soft, obedient, gentle, emotional; on the other side of the arbitrary gender coin, men are told they must be strong, bold, loud, authoritative, commanding, rational, logical. It’s why men in Western cultures have been given leadership roles in situations from marriages to major corporations. Based on their biological sex, which has been long confused with gender, cisgender men were given a voice, while unilaterally silencing everyone else. Looking at the CEOs of Fortune 500 companies, only 24 are women, and women make up only 24 percent of all national parliaments. Men are more likely to hold positions of power and leadership, giving them the ability to speak for and over others. But the words they speak and the messages they share must conform to their masculinity. It’s a reinforcing feedback loop, where men are given a voice because of their “gender,” and they are allowed to keep that voice as long as they continue to support and feed their prescribed gender role. When their words and their feelings don’t align, they are forced into silence.

The focus of psychology and psychiatry has been on women, and anyone who doesn’t identify as a straight white man. In an article from Vice, “Here’s Why it’s Still Really Hard to Get Men to go to Therapy,” Ronald Levant, the former head of the American Psychological Association and professor at the University of Akron, said “Basically psychotherapy was originally created by men to treat women.” If a man identifies as such and ascribes to a traditional interpretation of masculinity (i.e. men go out and work and be the breadwinner, men are tough, men are logical, men aren’t emotional) then psychology will seem ill fitting and foreign. The confined space where men have been expected to live is based on a singular definition of masculinity. “The performance and expression of masculinity is complex,” wrote Rachel Giese in her book Boys. “The same tactics that give boys power in one situation can make them vulnerable in another—the ability to silently endure pain and emotional wounds might please a coach or parent, but that repression in turn thwarts young men’s capacity for intimate connection.” In some circles it is even accepted that men and boys just don’t feel the emotions women and girls do. In The Essential Difference: The Truth about the Male and Female Brain, author Simon Baron-Cohen presents an argument that “the female brain is predominantly hard-wired for empathy, and that the male brain is predominantly hard-wired for understanding and building systems.” Baron-Cohen and John Gray, author of Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus suggest that women and men are psychologically and behaviourally different, but as Giese noted, the conversation on the psychological and emotional differences between men and women is very different. And while there are anatomical and neurological variations between our brains, psychologists like Cordelia Fine are saying we can’t just reduce everything to wiring, environmental and societal factors come into play. Biological sex, which has become synonymous with gender, doesn’t define how and what we feel, though it has played a role in deciding who has permission to display and talk about their emotions.  

During the 1960s and 70s, as the anti-war, student activism, Black Power, and LGBT movements were gaining momentum, the feminist movement existed alongside the men’s movement. Among those in that group, including writers like Raewyn Connell and Jackson Katz, there was an understanding that by defining gender as a binary, men, women, and everyone who didn’t fit into one of those two clearly defined groups were being done a disservice. Instead of working to break down gender inequality that created unachievable standards for men and women, the men’s rights group evolved into a group that became entrenched in nostalgia and thoughts of the good ol’ days. But in 2018, when the American Psychological Association (APA) released their “Guidelines for Psychological Practice with Boys and Men”, they addressed that treating men as the norm to which women, racial and ethnic minorities, and the LGBTQ2S+ community were compared meant that men and boys were being neglected, and as a result, silenced.

The guidelines were a reaction by the APA to seeing something “amiss” for men: “Men commit 90 percent of the homicides in the United States and represent 77 percent of the homicide victims … They are 3.5 times more likely than women to die by suicide, and their life expectancy is 4.9 years shorter than women’s.” Even though men and boys experience privilege in comparison to women and girls, inequality created by a black and white gender binary has caused an environment where men and boys are increasingly at risk, and as a result put others at risk too. The experiences that contribute to these tragic and disturbing statistics are often tied to a loss of identity or an inability to cope through major shifts in a man’s life. Men who’ve identified as a husband, a father, the provider for their family who suddenly found themselves unemployed, facing divorce or losing custody of his children could feel untethered and lost. Add shame to that mix, and many men self-medicate. An article from Psychology Today, “Men’s Mental Health: A Silent Crisis,” includes research on the way men lean on drugs and alcohol as a means to deal with “stressful life transitions.” Substance abuse is described in the article as being a predominantly male problem. The minority of men who do find themselves in counselling or therapy to help cope don’t stick with it. Without close friends to lean on, relying primarily on their partners, their options for relief become numbered, more isolating and harmful. When men and boys have spent their lives connecting feelings and emotions with weakness and “being a pussy,” causing them to hide and ignore pain, hurt, sadness, frustration, and even love, the man box men feel forced to live in can become a coffin.
... I didn’t see his attack as a lone wolf acting independently. I saw it as part of a whole that had been growing and gaining momentum.
In the days and hours that followed Alek Minassian’s 2018 deadly attack in Toronto, I dared to utter the word misogyny. Friends, and the world at large, found it much easier to say mental illness, because a person had to be sick to commit an act like that. But like Julie Lalonde, women’s rights activist and public educator, and Lauren McKeon, who wrote “How Everyday Misogyny Feeds the Incel Movement” for The Walrus, I didn’t see his attack as a lone wolf acting independently. I saw it as part of a whole that had been growing and gaining momentum. The attack and its motivations could be tied to various causes and symptoms, and after every devastating mass shooting or killing experts and researchers try to answer why the tragedy occurred, but as Jennifer Wright identified in her Harper’s Bazaar article “Men are Responsible for Mass Shootings: How toxic masculinity is killing us,” there is one commonality when it comes to the majority of mass shootings: they are perpetrated by men. And while, as Wright notes, there is no clear connection between mental illness and mass shootings, organizations like the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), the Mental Health Commission of Canada, and the Canadian Mental Health Association are all making men’s mental health a priority because men are less likely to recognize, talk about, and seek treatment for their illness. In an article by NAMI, “5 Myths that Prevent Men from Fighting Depression,” connections are made between masculinity and what it means to be a “real man.” Anger and shame mask their feelings as a means of self-protection preventing them from seeking treatment. Anger and shame (along with resentment and entitlement) are emotions that could be identified in those who find common ground in the Incel movement. And while it is important not to pathologize misogyny, statistics like in the United Kingdom, men are three times more likely to kill themselves than women; in Canada, four of every five deaths by suicide are by men; and all mass shootings since 1982 (except three) have been committed by men suggest that men are willing to go to deadly extremes to deal with what might be mental illness, and to avoid being perceived as vulnerable or weak. Dr. Blye Frank, Dean of Education at the University of British Columbia and expert in gender studies, and Jake Stika, one of the founders of the Calgary-based organization Next Gen Men, are among experts and researchers who have indicated that there are just as many suicide attempts by women, but men are more likely to complete the act than women. For a man to fail at his own suicide would prove their weakness and emasculate him. “The first act of violence that patriarchy demands of males is not violence towards women,” wrote bell hooks in The Will to Change: Men Masculinity and Love. “Instead patriarchy demands of all males that they engage in acts of psychic self-mutilation, that they kill off the emotional parts of themselves.” When we ask men to put words to their emotional and mental pain, to describe their deep hurt, the torment and darkness that keeps them staring into the golden hue of the streetlights as their partners and families sleep, it is like asking Monet to paint his stacks of wheat or lily pads when the only colours he sees are black and white. How can we connect with a world around us when we’re asked even as children to cut ourselves off parts of us that are innate, natural, human, not male or female? Night after night for many months I tried to get my ex to answer that question: What’s wrong? He wanted to die. He wanted to kill himself. Suicide was a way out of the anguish he battled every day. The world didn’t fit him, and he didn’t fit in it. But when I asked him to describe his hurt, his pain, his sadness, he had no words except that he wanted it to end. He’d send me emails telling me where I could tell his parents to find his body. I asked him to get help. I begged. Talk to a therapist. Talk to a counsellor. Call a hotline. Call the police. Go to the hospital. Maybe meds would help. I was a broken record of helpless suggestions that were met with excuses and explanations about why not. And so, I did the only thing I could do at that point, I told him I loved him and that I wanted him in my life. I hoped that love would be enough.  

There are wild places around my town on the coast of British Columbia where noise—cars on pavement, the neighbourhood dogs, sirens, honking—melts away. With every step taken along trails that weave into the backcountry, sound takes on new texture. Did you know the forest floor has a sound when a hiking boot hits it? It’s dull, not an echo, but it has depth, like it moves around each small particle made of pine needles, cedar boughs, cones, leaves, before releasing its own low thud. It’s only in quiet that you can hear the sounds the world makes. When we choose quiet we can listen. Quiet is a choice made. To think before we speak. To listen to someone’s story; a story of triumph, or one of pain. Listening conveys acceptance, caring, belonging.

It’s only in quiet that you can hear the sounds the world makes. When we choose quiet we can listen. Quiet is a choice made. To think before we speak.
The world has absorbed sound and been consumed by it. Noise pollution has become an urban reality. There is pressure to speak louder. There is more to be heard. Meanwhile, silent retreats and vows of silence are meant to allow those participating to connect, to be mindful and to be present. But what those who are looking to connect really need is quiet, not silence. They need the voices of their parents telling them “boys don’t cry,” or “men don’t like opinionated women” to quiet. Men and women need to be able to break their silence without fear of retaliation from a culture that has forced them into to a gender binary that has taken their voice. If there was more quiet, maybe we’d hear the silenced voices who need to speak their hurt, anger, and sadness.  

About the author

Megan Cole is writer, library worker, and reformed community news reporter living on the south coast of British Columbia. She is a student in the University of King’s College and Dalhousie University’s MFA in Creative Nonfiction program where she’s working on a memoir focused on gender and mental health.