A screwdriver to the ribcage, toxic ideals and a lack of fatherly advice
There I was, an eleven-year-old, stuck between a block of abandoned offices and a defunct parking lot with a screwdriver pressed against my ribcage. He demanded what was mine with eyes that spoke a language of their own. I was told to either hand over one of my cigarettes — our currency at the time, back in the nineties — or he would push the sharp object into my lung. My friend did not help me nor did he run. We froze, as did time.
It taught me three things: (1) taking seemed easier than earning, (2) life was cruel, and (3) there was a clear distinction in the dominance hierarchy.
My life would never be the same.
No one prepared me for predators like him. I was thrown into an inner city wilderness without any such fatherly advice. My dear grandmother, a lifelong ophidiophobe, taught me how to spot snakes in the underbrush; my grandfather showed me how to hunt and harvest the meat from moose because, well, that was what men did. It gave me a sense of historical belonging but wasn’t transferable to my everyday life.
Ironically, though, I did eventually learn — albeit, through less gratifying means — how to detect and dispatch of “snakes” and harvest what I needed from other’s belongings (and sometimes their psyche too) to further my own progression. Perhaps it was a big ask to expect my ageing grandparents, or even my parents, to teach me how to fend off cigarette-stealing, screwdriver-wielding twelve-year-olds.
I could’ve done with some manly advice, though.
And I say “manly” because in times of turmoil caused by other males, by means of traditionally masculine aggressive dominance, one would probably be better off going straight to the source for pointers. I’m not excluding mothers here as masculine traits aren’t restricted to men — I’ve seen some streetwise, tough-like-leather single moms in my days — however, their intrasexual experiences are. And that matters.
With attributes such as stoicism and aggression baked into the fabric of “ideal” masculinity, it isn’t hard to understand why there’s a natural wanting of fatherly advice on how to navigate in such environments. It’s just too easy to bite off more than you can chew when you haven’t been handed the appropriate cutlery to begin with.
The problem was that my father and I grew up in different worlds, at very different times, so he was lacking the tools needed to survive in my habitat. How could he pass on something of which he knew very little of? Had he tried, it possibly would’ve had the same effect as when suburban social workers try to connect with troubled and sometimes other-cultural children from urban homes. It’s doable, but there’s always going to be that pronounced divide embedded between.
My father is a good-hearted man. Himself an endurer of the traditional, and perhaps perennial, misconceptions of masculinity: boys don’t cry, emotional self-reliance, homophobia (he has since widened his lenses in that respect and even had gay friends), and stigmatisation of emotional sensitivity — combined with a phobia for confrontation. All of which was passed on to me through socialisation and genetics.
I became an insecure, confused and very agreeable child. Not traits well suited in an urban obstacle course occupied by mongrels with bone-crushing molars ready to assert their dominance upon you on your way to school.
When the one curriculum that seemed to matter the most was how to fight and not take flight, with no available teacher — you often failed the test.
And I bombed hard.
I, like many of my peers, was propelled into a quasi-manhood where violence, racism and antisocial dominance lived in unison; and where emotional repression was normalised. All of which contributed to further confusion, resentment and a sense of social exclusion (which made crime more justifiable).
And because of the masculine ideals many of us had inherited long before forming our own worldviews, we thought of “brotherhood” as a way of gaining power in numbers to further our individual needs rather than a sanctum wherein we could share and support each other. For such thinking would’ve been perceived as weak and in some cultures, perhaps more prevalent in some than others, an act of femininity (a behaviour considered a stigmatic offence in our domain).
I relate to such behaviour as a glitch (men misinterpret, and thus misuse, the energy derived from predisposed masculine aggression and competitiveness within a toxic social context) whereby men end up pinned against each other for fear of “demasculinisation” (e.g. being exposed as weak thus risk being dominated) and therefore fail to reach out and interconnect with one another on an emotional level. It becomes a vicious cycle. One that can last far beyond adolescence.
In short, it’s like the malfunctioning of “male-functions.”
As for Battary (which was the nickname given to my screwdriver-wielding oppressor for his inability to pronounce the word “battery”), he went through a few stages:
- An obsession with skunk and hashish. Not as a causal smoker (nothing he ever did was half-hearted), but like a full-on mad cannabis scientist who would study the art of rolling like one might a final exam.
- Arson. He used to walk around with a way too powerful blow torch and casually set bike sheds and parts of schools on fire for kicks.
- Tagging-ish. His fascination lay with getting the thickest and most permanent markers available to maximise the destruction with one stroke. Never the “art” itself.
- Crime for profit (to support his cannabis obsession). Yep, Battary became a semi-sophisticated burglar who over a summer, almost single-handedly, raised the crime stats for burglaries in several parts of the county by targeting suburban homes equipped with a crowbar and an ice scraper. He would use the slimmer ice scraper to pry open a door enough to then jam the larger crowbar in and… just use your imagination folks.
In the end, we were part of the same domino effect of a glitch. I would soon do to others what he had done to me. And it would take me almost twenty years of chaotic self-reflection and growth to learn that there are healthier and more authentic ways of interpreting my masculinity.
I hold no grudge against Battary for the screwdriver incident. He just happened to be the domino piece before me.