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Column: Let Us Speak Now of Broken Men

For the Valley News
Published: 12/9/2017 9:00:11 PM
Modified: 12/9/2017 9:00:11 PM

“It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men.” – Frederick Douglass

The events of 2017 certainly support this 19th century observation, although I might substitute “kind” for “strong.”

Broken men. We are awash in broken men. The allegations and factual reports of sexual harassment, sexual assault and predatory behavior are startling, even to pragmatic observers of the male condition. I find myself shaking my head at the very odd fact that in the past 24 months I’ve had personal conversations with Harvey Weinstein, Louis C.K. and James Toback. The circumstances are not important, but it is very difficult to reconcile their monstrous (Weinstein/Toback) or weird (all three) behavior with their normal presentations.

The nearly daily additions to the dishonor roll are numbing: Kevin Spacey, Al Franken, Matt Lauer, Roy Moore, Peter Martins at New York City Ballet, James Levine at the Metropolitan Opera, Garrison Keillor and scores of others who are sufficiently famous to merit media attention when their offenses come to light. Sunlight shines bright only on the tip of any iceberg. Imagine the scale of male dysfunction beneath the glare!

Then, of course, there is the poster child of masculinity gone terribly wrong – Donald Trump. I needn’t chronicle the tawdry history of credible allegations of harassment and assault. If you don’t believe any of this, you are beyond convincing.

As we try to reckon with this eruption of male bile, it is also necessary to examine why we are in this ugly moment. Men are not genetically destined to be narcissistic, entitled beasts, to abuse women and misuse the power they crave. This reckoning is overdue and if there is a silver lining in the gloom, it is the hope that the attention will inspire reflection and change.

I don’t use “broken men” in order to suggest sympathy. Trump, Weinstein et al. deserve no sympathy. The victims of sexual predators deserve sympathy and justice. But none of the “broken men” began life with the intention to break women and girls or, in Trump’s case, to break the bonds of civility for an entire nation. They were all boys — innocent, open, vulnerable boys. That’s where we must start our work.

I recall a photo of Trump’s young son Barron at the January inauguration. He was the only light that pierced the inaugural gloom as he played peekaboo with his nephew while his father signed executive orders. His small face was fully alive in contrast to the grim pomp and “America First!” exhortations from his father. I wonder if Donald ever played peekaboo with Barron? It made we wonder if Fred Trump, Donald’s father, ever played peekaboo with his children?

I wonder because I know Donald Trump was not born evil. He too was once a small boy, ready to absorb whatever filled his life, whether unconditional love or unbearable pain. In one way or another, we all fulfill the prophetic acts that are visited on or withheld from us. If love is conditional or absent, callouses grow on the inside and eventually encase the heart because it cannot bear further assault. A narcissist has an insatiable appetite for adoration — not because it feels good, but because it can’t be felt no matter how persistently sought. If love for a child is unconditional and generous, narcissism is impossible, because the heart is open and feels deeply. We can’t be sure what acts were visited on or withheld from our president during his childhood, but a 2016 New York Times article hints at the family dynamic:

Mr. Trump (Donald) said that their father (Fred) “could be unyielding,” and that (brother) Freddy had struggled with his abundant criticism and stinginess with praise.

“For me, it worked very well,” Mr. Trump said. “For Fred (Jr.), it wasn’t something that was going to work.”

It is a familiar pattern. A child of an abundantly critical parent who is stingy with love and praise might crumble and self-medicate as did Freddy Trump, an alcoholic who died at age 43. Or such a child might grow callouses of sociopathic narcissism and become a desperately tweeting president of the United States. It didn’t work very well for either of them.

What they both needed was love.

The culture of American masculinity breaks many boys and they become the broken men who break others. It stops only when we stop breaking our boys.

Among my retirement delights is to spend a great deal of time with my grandchildren, including my grandson, Jack. I am acutely conscious of how my own behavior and my responses to him will explicitly and unconsciously help to form him. I love him and tell him so. I honor his sensitivity and big heart. I am constantly vigilant lest I carelessly employ the harmful conventions of “don’t cry,” “stand up for yourself” or other phrases, facial expressions or omissions that begin the growth of callouses that turn boys away from empathy and love and toward aggression and resentment.

This is my work. This is our work. We must address these broken men and deliver justice to the women they’ve harmed. But at the same time we must build a generation of “strong,” kind boys, as Frederick Douglass so wisely advised.

Steve Nelson lives in Boulder, Colo., and Sharon. He can be reached at

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