Mama's Boy: Part One
The scene is the kitchen/dining room of my sister Sheila’s immaculate and spacious Victorian house in a small town outside of Hamilton, Ontario. The date is Mother’s Day, 1997. The family (my father, mother, sister, Great Aunt ma — and she really is a great aunt, by the way — and my maternal grandmother Lii whom I still call Grandma, though she wouldn’t bat an eyelash if I called her Lii) have just finished a very nice dinner and a... certain amount of wine. David Groenewegen’s letter is on my mind. I’m still wrestling with the idea of answering it in an upcoming issue, but the answer is looking more like an essay all the time. Since my mother had stopped reading Cerebus through the course of Reads and I had only recently (when that fact came to light over another dinner) persuaded her to finish it and read Minds (ahem), I was wary of an essay of that kind just arriving in the old mail box of the old homestead. Since it was a family get-together, I didn’t want to get stuck on the subject and end up monopolizing the conversation, but I did think that notification was- in order.
I paraphrased the gist of David’s letter and told Mum that I was thinking of answering it with an essay called “Mama’s Boy.” Now, whether she answered “Ohhhh, dear”- or “Dear Sister” or just Mmmm’ed her “Mmmmm” that rises up at the end and signals a kind -of simultaneous interest in and dread of the future course of the topic at hand... I couldn’t say. It was one of those, anyway.
Still in expediency/sound bite mode, I plunged in: “The first thought that I had about being a mama’s boy was the ‘cry-baby’ thing. You know, Cliff and his broken little finger.”
Now, I have to interrupt myself to explain this little piece of family lore. Cliff is my Uncle Cliff, my mother’s younger sibling and only sibling. Symmetrical it was that the same structure existed between myself and my sister. Two kids. Older one a girl, younger one a boy. Now, I don’t have a clear mental picture of myself before the age of, say, ten, except that I was a mama’s boy and a crybaby. That is beyond dispute. My mental impression of myself is of a boy who simply started crying at birth and stopped only intermittently until he was about eight or nine years old. No, that’s an exaggeration, but it’s hard not to exaggerate when you consider reality through infant memories. I cried too much for a boy, that much was true. Big boys don’t cry. My crying and the little traumas I cried about were well over into the girlish range (such distinctions being allowable back when the earth was still cooling in the early l960s). Anyway, I have a very vivid memory of “The Boy Who Cried Wolf.” You know, he cried wolf so often that eventually the villagers didn’t believe him, and when ‘the real wolf came no one came to help him and he got -eaten. This had a particular resonance in my mother’s family, since we had the more immediate example of “Cliff’s broken little finger” which had the same high moral outcome as “The Boy Who Cried Wolf.” Uncle Cliff was a cry-baby too, you see. And he cried at the least little trauma, so that when, one day, he broke his little finger, no one believed he was hurt for (some period of time — part of my mental block — a day? two days? a week?). And then they took him to the doctor and, lo, verily, the finger was broken.
We return you now to the Victorian kitchen/dining room.
“His arm!” my mother, father, and grandmother said in unison, laughing.
“His arm?” Something convulsed inside of me-in that moment, I have to confess. -And then I laughed.
“You mean to tell me that a little boy had I broken arm, and no one believed him and the only,” I was really laughing now — it was quite a punch line, “the only moral you could draw from it was ‘you shouldn’t be a crybaby’?”
That cracked up the room, let me tell you.
“It served him right,” said my Dad in. his mock serious tone by way of emphasizing the fundamental (albeit somewhat grim) humour of my observation, and we all cracked up again.
“Served him right” It was a great line that was-taken two ways at that Mother’s Day table. Black, black humour for the women and an exaggeration of the soiling out process for my Dad and myself. “It served him appropriately” is the other half of the double meaning. A cry-baby is stuck, between the baby state and the intended boy state. A broken arm served as a wake-up call that there are things that are worth crying about and things that are not worth crying about. It moved my Uncle Cliff along. It not only served him appropriately, it served me appropriately — years and years after the fact. Served me so well that I didn’t need to have my arm broken to know I had to get past where 1 was. I think the essential moral is pretty sound, constituting how things work best on the masculine side of reality (what there is left of it, anyway).
Baby, boy, man.
Two easy steps—or at least they used to be. The baby was expected to become a boy, and the boy was expected to become a man. The baby was expected to aspire to become a boy, and the boy was expected to aspire to become a man. If a boy isn’t “measuring up,” the other guys are going to call, him a baby. It can be mean, sure — it’s an icon of literature written by and for “mama’s boys.” “They all-called me a baby and I went home crying.” Well, duh! But it can also be a friendly bit of cajolery: “Don’t be a baby.” Don’t cry so easily, don’t give up so easily, don’t sulk or throw a temper tantrum when you don’t get your own way. In short keep moving, keep progressing. Stop being a baby and become a boy, a guy. Pain is a big part of it. There are three ways to deal with physical pain: one, behave as if it hurts more than it does; two, behave as if it hurts just as much as it does; three, behave as if it hurts less than it does. You know? Strength? Become better, learn to take it, walk it off, spit on it, and run a few laps. Reaction to pain constitutes a significant conscious decision. If someone cracks you on the ankle with his stick while playing road hockey, and you drop to the ground and roll around clutching the ankle and it doesn’t hurt — but it looked like it hurt —- well, the guys aren’t going to know. You can milk it for sympathy. and theatrically limp around for a minute or two, but you’ve really made a conscious decision to stay a baby inside even though you’re a boy outside. It’s just as... unprogressive?. . .to milk sympathy out of the guys (okay, attention and maybe concern) as t is to run• home to mama crying. It’s a -bad interior choice. The right interior choice is to widen the gap between the pain and the reaction. As little exterior reaction to as much interior pain as you can manage. Shorten the reaction. Wince and hobble when, you know, that’s really all you can do. The moment you can look okay, look okay. In the “sorting-out” process, once you get into the bad habit of imagining pain, anxiety, fear, and all that stuff, you’ve really set a self-destructive pattern. You never properly jump from baby into boy, so the odds are not good that you’ll ever make the jump from boy to man.
Unable and/or unwilling to make the jump from baby to boy, the “mama’s boy” misinterprets cajolery — and the fact that very, very quickly in the boy stage, everyone else is getting sorted out. There are guys who are natural leaders, natural athletes, natural everything. There are guys who are fair, good, okay, and better than okay in all the same aspects. But the key thing is not just athletic ability or popularity or whatever. It is being a guy: And a big part of being a guy is accepting who you are and where you are in the pecking order. To the “mama’s boy” the world is full of bullies and mean guys who make fun of him and pick on him. They exist, but a lot fewer of them exist in the “mama’s boy’s” world than exist in the “mama’s boy’s” mind. The “mama’s boy” takes himself too seriously. He sees himself the way his mother sees him: fragile, special, better than most if not all. Self- importance is a no-no in the guy’s world. That’s where the “ribbing” comes in, “taking the piss” out of someone. Just like physical pain, you’ve got to be able to take it. Not take it and sulk, or take it and lash back, but take it good-naturedly, take it as if you put your pants on one leg at a time in the morning same as everyone else. Not take it as if Mother’s Little Prince just got a footprint on his coronation robe.
Super-hero comic books are tailor-made for “mama’s boys.”
Much has been written about them as “power fantasies” and as “wish fulfillment,” but (at the risk of being really offensive) most of what has been written has been by “mama’s boys” for “mama’s boys.” And I think, naturally enough, that they miss the point. Super-hero comic books interpose themselves in the jump from baby to boy and from boy to man. The “mama’s boy” misses the point out on the playground when he is seven or eight years old. He has an inflated opinion of himself. He sees himself through his mother’s eyes. He takes to super-hero comic books because he has to retreat into a world where he can make the jump from baby to boy without abandoning his high opinion of himself. He misses the sorting-out period when the babies who are turning into boys figure out who is who in the pecking order. Choosing up sides for a team sport, he obsesses about the fact that he was picked last when everyone else just wants even teams and a good game. Once the game is on (say, road hockey), he obsesses about the fact that no one will pass him the ball, that he hasn’t scored, that someone else scored. At no point does it occur to him whether his team is winning or losing; he is just obsessed with how he is doing. If he misses scoring a goal or lets in a goal the only thing he thinks about is his personal humiliation, the unacceptable disparity between his performance and his self-image as Mother’s Little Prince.
Super-heroes feed into the misapprehension of the baby who refuses to become a boy. If he could just get bitten by a radioactive spider or get hit with some gamma rays, he would become .the biggest, strongest boy. Not only would he score a goal, he would score all of the goals. He could beat all of the boys on his own without breaking a sweat, and his performance would match his self-image as Mother’s Little Prince. He just completely misses the point He would not become popular by beating everyone. Any guy worth his salt wouldn’t let him play because it would be too uneven. Uneven equals bad game. It removes the point of the game.
Choosing up sides is a perfect example of the masculine dynamic that is at work in changing a baby into a boy and a boy into a man. Know who and what you are in the pecking order. Play for the team. Get into the spirit of the competition. Play as well as -you can. Work hard. If you suck, work hard so that you don’t suck as bad.
But to the “mama’s boy,” choosing up sides exists purely to humiliate him and any kid who is picked last. It makes him feel unloved, which is a very, very strange emotion to drag into a mad hockey game. If the object were to humiliate guys who suck, you would just say, “Okay, everybody who sucks down at that end. We’re going to blow you to shit, beat you 150 to nothing.”
He just completely misses the point of the masculine dynamic. He has no interest in finding out why and what he is. If he can’t be the top one, the best then he wants to quit In the masculine world that’s a giant step down. Nobody sucks as bad as someone who quits. A dead guy is better than a quitter. A dead guy you could lean up against the crossbar and he’d stop a few shots just by being there.
I was never really that bad. Once Uncle Cliffs broken (gulp) arm dried up the waterworks, I had a pretty good idea where I stood. About a half a foot shorter than everyone else. Not athletic, not popular. But I had made the leap from baby to boy. I learned not to act as if I was entitled to more than I had, I learned not to sulk, I learned how to try and fail and forget about it.
Yes, Cliff’s broken...arm (gulp) did the trick. Did it pretty well, because I remember it occurring to me around the age of twenty that I could not remember the last time I had cried. So not only hadn’t I cried in a decade or more, I hadn’t even been aware that I had not cried. What brought it to mind? Funny you should ask.
Two things: feminists started turning the world upside down in 1970, and I had my first girlfriend, Deni. The opinion had spread very far and very wide and very quickly that it was Okay For Men to Cry. In pretty short order (as things moved closer to full upside down position), that became It’s Good For Men to Cry. At full 180- degree out of whack, but perpendicular, that became It’s Mandatory for Men to Cry with the undertone of Good Men Cry, Bad Men Don’t.
Well, I gave it the old college try, let me tell you. And for a period of time (maybe a year? probably less) I was capable of crying if I was sufficiently frustrated, angry, or unhappy. There was a sense of. . . weird achievement. . .1 guess I would call it: “Getting with the Program.” There was just one small problem. I didn’t like it. Whatever it was that women got out of crying wasn’t there for me. I didn’t feel as if I was letting it all out.” I was still frustrated and angry and unhappy, except now my eyes were all red, I was all “squishy,” and my stomach and brain were tied up in a knot.
In theory I will accept the proposition that I just didn’t go far enough, that I had to work at it more, dredge up more unhappy memories and reasons to feel sorry for myself to really get the waterworks pumping, but “in theory” is as far as I’m willing to go. In retrospect it was a stupid regression from man to boy to baby, to no good purpose, and fortunately, from my standpoint, it didn’t “stick.”
Having opted out of the “sorting-out” process, the “mama’s boy” is unable to distinguish this kinda guy from that kinda guy and just divides the world into “mama’s boys” and homicidal maniacs. He uses the term “cool” and has no idea what it means (i.e., “Dungeons and Dragons is cool!”). “Cool” is what the sorting-out process is all about. Mother’s Little Prince is not cool. A quitter is not cool. The guy who scores the most goals is not necessarily cool. The guy with a sports car and a different girl every night of the week is not necessarily cool. The first one could be a “hotshot” — someone who is good but thinks he is much better than he is and acts like it. If he is stupid enough to say it out loud, he is an “asshole.” “Hotshots” and “assholes” are not cool. Nice ones are funny and good to have in your corner when the cutting gets close and there is not too much at stake. Then they are sort of cool or off-and-on cool. The second guy is cool if he isn’t scooping other guys’ girlfriends and wives, and as long as he knows who he is and who he is okay. If the thinks he is his sports car or he thinks he is the best- looking women he goes to bed with, then he’s really-no different from the “mama’s boy” with his super-hero comic books. He is filling up the gap between who he is and his self-image with a sports car and sexual conquests He is not cool.
The sorting out process worked well for years and years. Probably centuries. You ended up with guys who knew who they were and guys who didn’t know who they were. And the guys who knew who they were knew which guys didn’t know who they were. Whatever the game, the quitters, the hotshots, the assholes, the bullies —all of them became apparent in any environment to guys who knew who and what they were. There were losers, but a loser used to be someone who was just relentlessly self destructive. The hair-trigger-temper types, the finks, the snitches, the weasels. The sort of guy who would hit a woman. Only a loser would hit a woman. The concept was that they were losing, bit by bit, one episode at a time, everything that meant anything. It seems to me that it is a mark of how degraded our gender-merging civilization has become that even the term loser has no specific meaning. Once women picked it up, it was used fur anything from a serial killer to someone with a bad haircut and plaid pants. Someone they wouldn’t go out on a date with.
The “sorting-out” process worked well because there were no rule books attached to it so an asshole or a hotshot of a loser could study how to pass for a guy. Things like “choosing up sides” — there are probably a million of them that are just part of baby becoming boy becoming man.
The fact that I have to coin the term “sorting-out process” indicates how much of what I’m attempting to discuss was just “the way it is” for many years. You didn’t discuss “mama’s boys” or quitters or hotshots or losers or assholes with guys who knew who and what they were. You didn’t discuss the pecking order. You knew your place. You stuck to being a guy who put his pants on one leg at a time in the morning just like every other guy.
So there were really no words when everything started turning upside down. “Male bonding.” I can’t think of a guy whose stomach didn’t turn over when he heard that one. But there was nothing to answer it with. “Oh, yeah? Well, what do you call it, then?” Uh. Hanging out? Shooting the breeze? Going for a beer? Sure didn’t sound as...scientific as “Male bonding.”
In retrospect it was a perfect bit of archery on the part of the long-delayed (but inevitable) alliance between “mama’s boys,” quitters, girls, and women. It turned out that they all had the same complaint. Guys were mean. Guys were bullies. Guys excluded anyone who wanted to “play” and wasn’t a guy. “Male bonding” — and its even more stomach-turning psychiatric term: homoeroticism — left every guy gasping for air. Bullseye, girls. That one really, really hurt.
Since there was no terminology, it was very hard to make a case. Why couldn’t others play? The most accurate answer was “he or she doesn’t know his or her place,” which sounded awful, because someone who didn’t know what was meant by it saw it as oppression, clear and simple. In a masculine sense, it was not intended that way. What was meant was: everyone has been sorted out in this particular context of “Us guys.” Another guy could come along and as long as he kept his mouth shut while he figured out who was who and what was what, he would do fine. You don’t mouth off. You remind yourself that you put your pants on one leg at a time same as all these other guys. If somebody asks you what you do or where you come from, you answer him and then you expect to get kidded about it — expect the guys to make a joke out of it Take it with a smile and a self-deprecating remark, and you’re on your way to finding your place. Keep your answers short and pay attention. Stand your round if you’re drinking. Don’t be a know-it-all. Even if you have an encyclopedic knowledge of what is being discussed, keep it to yourself until you know who is who and what is what. “Mama’s boys” are easy to spot because they shut up and they never care to whom they’re mouthing off. Nothing Mother’s Little Prince enjoys more than proving he knows more about any given subject than the person he is talking to. He. Doesn’t. Know. His. Place.