I was impressed with Leonard Kriegel’s statements about proper male behavior [“A Rage to Live,” Interview by Derrick Jensen, September 1999]: “I prefer that idea that we hold back our tears. Why don’t we give that another chance? To think that somehow you’re going to be liberated by blubbering is ridiculous.” It’s about time someone spoke up! Can you imagine a generation of men raised from birth to be in touch with their feelings and emotions? Can you imagine a generation of men raised to notice and appreciate their similarities to women rather than fighting about their differences?
We need to return to the old-fashioned male roles. Hold back your tears, don’t express anything, and for God’s sake don’t ever be seen in a group of men enjoying each other! I think Kriegel’s hero, Ernest Hemingway, is the perfect male role model. Here is a man who held back his tears, who didn’t let messy emotions get in his way; a man whose favorite pastimes were hunting and watching bull fights; a man who was a drunk, a drug addict, and an abuser of women; a man who spent his life in and out of mental wards and whorehouses; a man whose final reward for holding back was to blow his head off with a shotgun; a man whose suicidal legacy had been handed down to generations. This is a man we can look up to!
All of you lame, new-age excuses for men sitting around campfires whining in unison, listen up! Let’s return to the days of yore when fathers beat their sons into acts of valor, and mothers shamed them with the admonition that “boys don’t cry.” Let’s return to the roles we cherished before all these liberation movements robbed us of our right to be real men who grow up to fight, kill, and die in a war for corporate profit.
I loved the vigor of Leonard Kriegel’s voice, how he said he’d like to wrap his crutch around the heads of those who use the term “differently abled.” I was elated to find a man who unabashedly (and, nowadays, unfashionably) loves Hemingway — his heart and artistry, his philosophy of living and dying bravely, with dignity and grace. And I guess, like Kriegel, I’m a “believing nonbeliever,” and he has helped me to see more clearly why this is a good thing to be.
But I don’t understand why Kriegel polarizes crying and not crying, when he is so careful not to polarize believing and not believing. He says that believing too little leads to falseness. Isn’t it also true that a person can cry too little? The last thing a man wants to be is a crybaby, but if he needs to cry sometimes in the presence of someone he loves, why not ?
I maybe cry once or twice a year, but when I do, it feels cleansing. Afterward, the loss I didn’t think I could bear becomes bearable. And yet letting the tears come forth is like a small death. It hurts to cry, until I get fully inside of it. I have to be brave to let it take me.
I think Hemingway and Kriegel have a gift for not crying. Call it grace under pressure. My father recently died without one whimper of self-pity, and I admired his courage. But we shouldn’t polarize. Others may have a gift for crying. And perhaps best of all is to be a crying noncrier.
Sometimes we need to believe, and sometimes we need not to believe. Sometimes we need to cry and sometimes we need not to cry. The warriors in Homer’s Odyssey occasionally have a hell of a cry together over their fallen comrades, or just because they miss their families back home. I don’t see anything wrong with that.
I am saddened that Leonard Kriegel appears unable to balance his hardness with some softness. As a man, I often feel empowered when I share with other men around a campfire, sometimes crying, but just as often celebrating. I honor the courage of the men within the men’s movement who face their inner demons and responsibilities and make themselves more aware and more responsive to our world.
I have just read Leonard Kriegel’s essay “Falling into Life” [September 1991], and I can relate strongly to his story. In order to make the transition from being a practicing alcoholic to a recovering one, I, too, had to learn to fall.
Going to that first AA meeting, I felt the same way Kriegel did stepping onto the mat in preparation for a fall. I knew I had reached a turning point in my life, but I wasn’t really sure I was ready to take the leap. I felt as though I stood on a precipice: behind me lay the wrecked landscape of my life up to that moment; before me stretched a vast gulf of unknowing, beyond which I could glimpse a shimmering horizon of hope. Hearing that I needed to turn my life over to the care of God as I understood him felt like, as Kriegel put it, “being asked to surrender myself to the emptiness of space, to let go and crash to the mats below, to feel myself suspended in air with nothing between me and the vacuum of the world.” I, too, felt ashamed of my fear to take the plunge, to step off the cliff, to head out on a new path in life.
Eventually, I grew tired of struggling, sick to death of making the same mistakes, taking the same wrong turns. When the day finally came that I took the fall, it wasn’t because I’d felt a sudden surge of courage; rather, “I had simply been worn down into letting go.”
In retrospect, it seems like such a small step: one night at a meeting, I dropped my pretenses and said, “Hi, I’m Chris, and I am an alcoholic.” I had expected to feel humiliation and shame when I uttered those words; to my surprise, I felt humbled and uplifted. For the first time, I knew just where I stood.
After reading Leonard Kriegel’s “Falling Into Life,” I was moved to reflect upon the profound generational differences that exist within the community of people with disabilities.
Born with cerebral palsy about eighteen years after Kriegel, I, too, wore leg braces from an early age and experienced countless exercise routines and practice falls on gym mats for the first twenty years of my life. During the 1950s and early 1960s, my therapists, my father (a World War II veteran), my mother, and nearly all the other adults around me urged me to “fight like a good soldier” through the often painful and difficult physical therapy and to “tough out” the prejudice around me like a true leatherneck. Through persistence and perseverance, I made some progress and learned a stoicism that served me well in difficult circumstances.
But that persistence and perseverance was carried out over an inner rage. I began to realize that, while holding my breath, gritting my teeth against the pain, and pushing myself forward with violent determination, I was also fighting myself like hell. It was questionable whether all those exercises did much good when every outward movement was accompanied by a violent mental and emotional struggle within. All this “soldiering” was getting to be a bit much, and I began to question whose “war” this was anyway — mine or the adults?
By the time I reached my midteens, the Vietnam War was raging, and the peace movement was rapidly growing. At fifteen, in my braces, I picketed the local draft-board office with a small crowd of other protesters. People carried signs that read, MAKE LOVE, NOT WAR. The battles were being replaced by efforts to embrace.
I didn’t discover a community of likeminded people with disabilities until my midtwenties, and when I did, it was a revelation. All of us had experienced discrimination, segregation, and struggle. But we had learned from the women’s movement that “the personal is political” and had come to see that the individual barriers we had experienced were part of a larger picture, and that political action was called for. In the intervening years, the disability-rights movement has achieved considerable success. How did we do it?
The critical first step lay in accepting who we were. We didn’t fight our limitations; we embraced them. We acknowledged that, if we used wheelchairs, then buildings would have to be built with ramps and elevators. If we were deaf, then sign-language interpreters would have to be provided. If we were blind, then our guide dogs could not be excluded from the public places we visited. It wasn’t a question of fighting to walk, see, or hear better; it was a question of accepting each others’ differences and basic needs.
Leonard Kriegel responds:
Sam Daniels hits every button in a peroration worthy of a spot on Oprah — Hemingway’s suicide, corporate profits, drink, drugs, bull fights. And all because I suggested that men would no more be saved by being lachrymose than by anything else. Jim Ralston says that crying can be both necessary and purgative. I certainly have no argument with that. Mark Ruddy says those who “face their inner demons and responsibilities” are to be honored. Funny, that’s just what I thought I was doing, as both a man and a writer. Victoria Bruckner has found salvation in working for the rights of the crippled and disabled. I share her passion, if only because as a cripple I share her needs. (In 1970, I wrote “Uncle Tom and Tiny Tim: Some Reflections on the Cripple as Negro,” one of the first essays to suggest that cripples would be better off if we used whatever political power we could muster.)
I have never thought of myself as speaking for cripples — any more than James Baldwin speaks for blacks or Doris Lessing speaks for women. I speak for myself alone. I have never attempted, either as writer or teacher, to impose my ideas or my beliefs on others. Yet I am a man who, crippled at the age of eleven by polio, discovered that not only was this the central event in his life but the source of a good deal of his writing. All writing is an argument with God (it doesn’t matter whether one believes or not), and any writer is the sum total of everything that has made him a writer. In my case, that includes a virus that took my legs and left me with my rage at their loss. But it also includes being a son, a husband, a father, a teacher, a lover of mountains, Paris, New York, the ocean at night, and a man who refuses to believe that the Dodgers ever left Brooklyn.
“I gotta use words when I talk to you,” says Sweeney to Doris in T. S. Eliot’s play Sweeney Agonistes. Like Sweeney, I am always coming up against the limitations of the words I “gotta use.” But that’s the trouble with being a mere writer. Words are all we have, as even poor Hemingway, in whose words I once discovered a map for a possible future, must have understood before he blew his brains out and gave Daniels an excuse to sneer at the “real men” living with the anguish and uncertainty that invariably afflict all human beings.