The murderers tend to be in their twenties, the abusers middle-aged although probably they began their nefarious behavior much earlier. Decades of shame have suppressed us and it is only with group support that we can dare to come out now and tell our horrific stories.
So—why do I call them boys?
Because something happened to prevent these men from growing up. The definition of adulthood, I think, is the development of empathy—empathy for people who are not among our friends and family.
The failure to develop empathy is the mark of the undeveloped male, no matter what his age. No man could see the look on the face of a woman in front of whom he is masturbating without feeling pity and shame unless he never developed the ability to feel pity and shame. And no one crushing bike riders on a park path could plow on once he saw their terrified faces—unless he had never learned to identify with the suffering of strangers.
I remember when one of my own little boys seemed to be able to distance himself from little girls, as though girls were so strange, so unlike, that he couldn’t connect even in his imaginations. I remember when many boys routinely called other boys “fags” as the ultimate term of derision.
I don’t know how successful I was in teaching my sons and their friends not to use those terms and to understand the little girls they were teasing. Certainly I was never able to curb my older brother’s meanness. Maturity sometimes seems to come along mysteriously, like the opening of a flower’s hard bud. By their early twenties, most young men I knew had expanded to include these Others—women, including me. I think it happened at the same time they learned, again, to shed tears—having been shamed out displays of emotion by other boys by the time they were in third grade.
Now I wonder what role we, the mothers, played—or did not play—in the essential development of empathy in our sons. It seems to me we could have done more, reading aloud stories about animals—not the sentimental ones, but gruesome tales like The Biography of a Grizzly which ends with the heartbreaking story of the old bear finding his way to the place of bones and laying himself down to die. Or reading aloud some of the old stories about girls cast adrift in a heartless world, like The Secret Garden—and surviving.
And telling the unvarnished stories of our own early travails.
Sentimentality, and fear of emotion, may have kept us on the emotional sidelines while our boys were growing up. Unconsidered worship of the male played a part, sometimes, too. Telling the truth, digging for feeling, take a big dose of courage.
And—we will have to avoid offering comfort to the husbands, fathers, brothers and sons who have recently been brought to justice. I dread to think how many wives will greet their disgraced husbands—the CEOs who have lost their positions because of the way they have treated women—with outspread arms and some version of “I’m sure she was exaggerating.”
Or “Didn’t she ask for it?” (Short skirts etc.).
Or “Why did it take her decades to come forward?”
Or…”You poor thing…”
In these cases, empathy (our great gift, as women) is totally inappropriate. The fact that when these men lose their jobs, women who depend on them find themselves suddenly short of funds weighs in here, too.
“It isn’t fair!”
Well…in fact it is.