I don’t want to repeat the talk. We’ve all heard it over and over, on radio and on television and from friends. Talk which has no outcome, no solution, and may lead only to despair—or apathy. The only action taken this past week that seemed to me likely to have an effect was the statement by a New York billionaire, a major contributor to the Republican Party, that he would stop all donations until some form of gun control is adopted by Congress.
Many women would make a move like that, if we could afford it and had the right connections. Instead, there are, as always, a lot of women in the streets, carrying signs, lighting candles, leaving flowers and teddy bears at makeshift shrines. The gap, narrowing now, between our lack of political and financial power and our enormous personal power is shown here: the wish, the will, but neither the money nor the legislative positions to make anything happen. We feel, we mourn, and eventually we have to move on. The flowers die, the shrines are abandoned.
This latest horror has led me to reflect on the last eighty or a hundred years when men like my relatives—my grandfather, uncles, my father and my brothers—used guns to hunt, quail in the American South, sometimes endangered animals in Africa. A portrait of my brother Barry shows him in full safari get-up; he and my other older brother, both in Africa, flipped a coin to see which one would have to go home for my first wedding. The loser was properly chagrinned.
By then the male hunting tradition in my southern family was deeply rooted. In the family house, my grandfather’s built-in, glass-fronted gun cabinet had been emptied when he died. Later my younger sister filled it with her dolls. Neither of us ever saw my brothers receive instruction about gun safety; certainly my father provided it on their hunting trips, and their boys-only boarding schools always offered target practice. They were part of a tradition that lingers.
This tradition of white upper-class men—gentlemen—has shaped our country’s view of manhood. (Of course, as in Faulkner’s story “The Bear,” less well-off men hunted coons and possums to survive, as Native American men have always done.) But the big game and the iconic stature belong to men who had the money, the outfits and the guns to go to Africa.
Hemmingway provided the model, but this was after he saw what guns in war did in Spain. Perhaps because of that experience, he never unequivocably embraced the fairy tale. In fact, one of his bitter, powerful late short stories, “The Snows of Kilimanjaro,” depicts a dying white hunter, on his last safari with his wife, from whom he is estranged. She is the one who goes out and kills an animal while he lies wrapped in despair about his ruined life.
The Hemingway stories and photos carry another meaning, one he conveyed in his last novel, Islands in the Stream, where a father who has abandoned his sons after a divorce tries, too late, to teach them the lessons of manhood he believes in on a deep-sea fishing trip where the son who is not strong enough to pull in the big one is humiliated.
This father tried too late to instill the old lessons about physical prowess, courage and stamina that must lead inevitably to some kind of failure. As the Bible says, “The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.”
Now I wonder in the latest school shooting where that young man’s father is—or was. Only the mother is mentioned, implying that she alone was responsible for teaching this tormented soul how to be a man. And she died—mercifully for her—before he committed his crime.
So—where are the fathers? In all the school shootings I remember, the murderer is being raised by a single mother. No uncles, no grandfather—and, most crucially, no father. These separations are often caused by spousal abuse, and so the disappearance of the fathers is another terrible consequence of this wildfire problem.
We can hope for gun control, in some form the NRA and its Republican supporters will accept—unlikely as that is—we can talk about more mental health counseling, without the money to fund these services or, even more crucially, knowing whether or not they are ever effective. (Thirty-day residential drug treatment programs fail ninety percent of the time.) Pills won’t do it, talk therapy won’t do it, jail won’t do it—and these are the only tools we have. Even prayer probably won’t do it, although it is probably the best option.
Fathers must assume the responsibility for revising the myth. Having created baby boys, they are the only ones who can possibly transmit a radically new formula for manhood, not defined by violence, not even defined by success.
That would be a radical transformation, of both father and son. And it requires women to revise our myth, too, to learn to burn out our attraction to the outlaw, the criminal, the hulk.
Usually, we women can’t teach our boys how to be men. We try, we buy books, we talk. But as long as the “romance” of manhood is conveyed by the photos of Hemingway—and now the mercilessly violent video games some boys play to the point of addiction—we will deal with young men who have never developed empathy, who know only that they been mistreated. And they have.
Their fathers have abandoned them.