In graduate school, a female classmate told me I read like a girl. We were at a house party. Curtis Sittenfeld’s novel Prep had recently been released in paperback, and I mentioned that I’d read it over the summer and enjoyed it. “Really?” my classmate said. Her face began at surprise and then traveled toward disapproval. “I don’t know any other men who liked that book.”
Or maybe I was only imagining disapproval. She was one of those people who likes to amuse themselves at parties by playing armchair psychologist. On another night, drinking canned beer in someone’s patchy backyard, she referred to me as “one of our program’s alpha males,” a claim so absurd I did an actual spit take. A couple of months later, at a post-workshop dinner, apropos of seemingly nothing, she turned to me and said, “I bet you were popular in high school.” That time, at least, I knew I was being insulted.
It’s funny, the comments that stay with you and bury themselves deep in your pockets — small, smooth stones you can worry over in idle moments. I can still hear the voice of the boy who called me a sissy on a school-sponsored weekend trip to the North Carolina mountains when I was in the fifth grade. I can see his face too, ruddy in the cold, chubby with baby fat. I no longer remember the point of that trip, except that it was sponsored by the gifted and talented program and brought together kids from three or four different schools. But I remember walking through the woods with a girl I’d just met, a girl I was quickly developing a crush on, though at that age I didn’t know what to do with my crushes except stand near them, like a wood stove in a drafty cabin. I remember that she had an unusual name, hippie parents, and the kind of chunky, plastic jewelry I associated with much older women. I think we were supposed to be identifying trees.
“What are you two talking about?” the boy said. He’d snuck up on us. I didn’t know him, but I could tell from the girl’s expression that she did.
“Leave us alone,” she said.
“Awww, do you like him?” he said. He turned and called out to another boy standing a few feet away, “I think she likes him!”
This second boy laughed and shook his head.
“What do you like about him?” the first boy said. “Is it his little lisp?”
I knew I was supposed to stick up for myself. But instead, I stood there silently, a thousand tiny knots tying and untying themselves in my stomach. I thought I’d lost the lisp. The year before, I’d left class once a week to meet with a speech therapist, who held up flashcards and instructed me on what to do with my tongue and my teeth.
It was later that weekend when the same boy called me a sissy. I remember being confused by his anger. I hadn’t talked to that girl again. I’d hardly talked to anyone, except when I absolutely had to, and even then I’d spoken slowly, carefully avoiding certain words I knew could be trouble.
When that former classmate told me I read like a girl, I wonder what she meant, exactly. That I enjoyed books with female characters? Or books that were written by women? Or was there some constellation of “female themes” she had in mind, and if so, what were they? Prep is about a Midwestern girl named Lee who goes off to an elite East Coast boarding school, where she feels alienated from her wealthier, socially savvier classmates. The setting of the book was foreign to me, as a product of public schools, but I could identify with Lee’s anxieties and her tendency to be a watcher, someone who in social situations is always looking to others for clues about how to behave.
As a kid, I was a voracious reader, and an indiscriminate one, the kind who would read the cereal box at the breakfast table, or a golf magazine in a waiting room, if nothing better was available. I read a bunch of The Hardy Boys books and plenty of those sports-themed Matt Christopher novels, but I never loved them the way I loved Ramona Quimby and her sister Beezus or the novels of Judy Blume, which I read at a pace that outran my ability to understand their more grown-up themes. In third grade, I learned about puberty from Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret, and its boy-centered follow-up, Then Again, Maybe I Won’t. A year later I learned about sex from Forever.
But it wasn’t the salacious material that kept me coming back to those books. The protagonists of Matt Christopher novels felt interchangeable to me, a succession of dull, earnest boys in a rotating wardrobe of sports uniforms. The Hardy Boys had cool adventures but were themselves about as interesting as a plate of mayonnaise sandwiches. Ramona Quimby was funny and weird. Judy Blume’s characters had rich inner lives. They were filled with self-doubt, just as I was filled with self-doubt. They had complicated, ever-changing relationships with their friends, their families, and their own bodies.
The word “sissy” didn’t take on its pejorative usage until the late 19th century, around the same time that human-development specialists, particularly in the U.S. and Great Britain, began to worry about the softening effects modern life might be having on the rough-and-tumble nature of boys. According to the historian Julia Grant, author of The Boy Problem: Educating Boys in Urban America, 1870-1970, there was a growing concern that “real boys — who were boisterous, mischievous, and pugilistic — were having unnatural Victorian ideals of deportment forced down their throats.”
In 1874, biologist Ernst Haeckel put forward his theory of recapitulation which held that an individual’s development mirrored the evolutionary development of the human race as a whole, “from savagery to civilization.” As Grant points out, this involved a misreading of Darwin, as well as a belief in the same racial science that gave us phrenology. But Haeckel’s’ theory would continue to assert an influence even after the ideas it was based on had largely passed from the scene. G. Stanley Hall built on Haeckel’s work in his two-volume work, Adolescence, which was published in 1904 and, according to Grant, became “almost a bible for [20th]-century boy workers.”
Hall believed that boys, in early life, had mindsets that essentially mirrored their more primitive ancestors. Around age 10 or 11, they began to “evolve” into more mature, better-mannered versions of themselves. That “civilizing” process was important, Hall thought, but it was equally important for parents and teachers not to rush boys through the “joyous savagery” of childhood. (Girls, too, had a bit of savagery in them, but Hall didn’t seem especially concerned with protecting it.)
Boys were encouraged to play outside, to fight, and to read “boy books” that celebrated daring behavior like The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, whose title character runs away from the “civilizing” forces of Widow Douglas and her overbearing sister to enjoy an untamed boyhood on the Mississippi. Concerns that boys were becoming “sissified” by modern comforts, especially in cities, also led to the creation of the Boy Scouts, where adolescent boys could “build character” by learning the wilderness skills their forebears had learned by necessity.
Anxieties over “sissified” boys run like a ribbon through the entire history of the Boy Scouts, right up to recent controversies about the organization’s policies toward gay and transgender members. In 1958, a national Scout leader told The Washington Post that the Scouts were coddling boys with amenities like air mattresses, heated cabins, and potato peelers. “Camping has gone soft in the last 20 or 30 years,” complained David Dunbar, assistant director of camping for the Scouts. “We have made it an entertainment for people, rather than group living in the out-of-doors, so that a boy now arrives at camp and says, ‘Here I am. Entertain me.’”
Similar anxieties were expressed in letters to advice columnists, most of them written by mothers, about sons who failed to demonstrate appropriately masculine behaviors, whether that meant playing with the wrong toys or failing to fight other boys who picked on them. For a 2004 article in The Journal of Social History, Grant reviewed letters written between 1920 and 1940 to a popular child-advice columnist named Angelo Patri. She found that parental worries about “sissy behaviors” were common. One mother from Ohio, for instance, complained that her five-year-old son was constantly picked on by boys who would slap him and steal his bicycle. “I cannot seem to teach him to take his part,” she wrote. “He lets these boys do anything they want and just stands there.” Patri, in his response, told the woman she was right to worry, that a “normal, healthy boy” of that age would fight back. “I think I would tell John to take a stick and whack the boy who attempts to take his bicycle.”
These letter-writers didn’t speak directly of homosexuality, but its specter hung over their worries. Increasingly, psychologists were drawing links between “sissy” tendencies in early life and homosexual tendencies later. “[19th]-century sissies were castigated by their peers,” Grant writes, “but [20th]-century sissies bore a clinical as well as a social stigma.”
When I was four, I told my parents I wanted an Easy-Bake Oven for Christmas. We were living in semi-rural Connecticut, and my best friend was a girl named Roxanne, the only kid my age who lived within walking distance. She was a year older, and she liked to boss me around. Those early-20th-century theorizers would’ve had a field day with how we played house, which required me to have an imaginary dinner on the table by the time she got home from her imaginary job.
My father wasn’t usually a gender policeman. He didn’t decry “sissy stuff” as some other dads did, and he only rarely exhorted me to “toughen up” when I was hurt or upset. But, apparently, the Easy-Bake Oven was a bridge too far. He and my mother discussed it, and he put his foot down.
Maybe he was worried about the amount of feminine energy in my life. He was in the Navy and that year he’d spent a lot of time at sea. I’d been spending a lot of time with Roxanne and the three teen girls next door, who took turns babysitting me. They’d helped me discover the movie Grease, which had quickly become a favorite of mine. When we visited my grandmother in Florida, I’d pull my mom’s old Barbies from the guest-room closet and use them to act out little plays I wrote in my head. (Though I knew not to touch them if my grandfather or uncles were around.)
Recently, my mom told me she wished they had let me get the Easy-Bake Oven. “You didn’t know it was supposed to be a girl toy,” she said. “You just thought it looked fun. It probably was fun!”
Instead, after my dad went out to sea again, my mom pulled an old refrigerator box from the basement and helped me turn it into an “oven” by using scissors and markers. I told her that had probably been better, in the long run, for my creativity.
“It just seems so silly now,” my mom said. “An Easy-Bake Oven! Of all the things to care about. But we were so young. We had no idea what we were doing.”
The short story that got me into grad school — which would later become my first published work — was about a woman who appears on the game show Jeopardy! a day after her fiancé tells her he wants to postpone their wedding. In grad school, I wrote a number of stories with female protagonists. I wrote stories about men, too, but they were more difficult for me, slower to come together. In early drafts, the men’s voices always had a stilted, artificial quality to them, like second-rate imitations of Raymond Carver characters. I loved Raymond Carver, but I didn’t recognize myself in his stories. I approached them with an anthropological curiosity as if they might help me understand the inner life of a certain kind of man I’d always had trouble with, both in my writing and in my life. I’d spent plenty of time around these men, and over the years I’d learned to speak their language, to mimic their behaviors, but I could never quite imagine their interior landscapes. What did they worry about in quiet moments alone? Were their internal voices as gruff and spare as their external ones?
I had an easier time relating to the chatty, sardonic women in Lorrie Moore stories who tended to wear their anxieties on their sleeves. Or like Alice Munro’s characters: careful, contemplative, always replaying scenes from their pasts in search of new meanings. Of course, I could have written male characters who thought the way I did. But on some level, I think I was scared to do that in the same way that for years I was scared to write nonfiction. What if people saw the way my brain worked and decided something was wrong with me? I don’t know any other men who liked that book.
For the record, I wasn’t popular in high school. I wasn’t unpopular either. I occupied the anxious middle zone of someone who will never be cool, but who has yet to give himself permission to stop caring about coolness. The summer after my sophomore year, we moved from South Carolina to Florida, and I took the opportunity to reinvent myself. I’d long since shed the lisp, and a recent growth spurt had given me broad shoulders and an actual chest. I started going by Mike instead of Michael. I started lifting weights. I invented a minor but nagging injury to explain why I wasn’t going out for football, and each morning I read the sports page so I could have lunch-table opinions. I found myself getting invited to parties, where I watched the other, cooler boys for clues on how to walk, how to be funny without being weird, and what to do with my hands.
In the spring of my junior year, my friend Chris came out to me. This was the mid-90s, a different time, and I knew I was being entrusted with something. Chris and I were on the school newspaper staff and our friendship existed outside the orbit of my other male friends. He was a year older than I was. The following fall, he’d go off to SMU on a dance scholarship. He worked at Banana Republic, smoked Camel Ultra Lights, and his hair was always perfectly gelled. At lunch, we’d sometimes check ourselves out of school, under the guise of selling newspaper ads, and drive to the mall or to this sleepy bayside café where the waiter would serve us wine if his boss wasn’t around. After he came out to me, Chris would sometimes invite me to hang out with his gay friends, a group of guys in their 20s who lived in apartments and carriage houses in downtown Pensacola. I was fascinated by those guys. How unselfconsciously emotive they were. How they teased each other relentlessly, but with an energy that was totally different from the ways my other male friends teased each other — sharper and funnier, but also more loving. They talked fast, and they’d break into these big theatrical voices then laugh with their mouths wide open.
For a while, I wondered if my fascination with them meant I was gay too and simply fooling myself, though I never looked at a man and wanted to kiss him or put my hands on his body. I asked Chris about this once, and he laughed at me. “You’re not gay,” he said. “You’re just not a macho-jock asshole.”
Though at various times in my life, I’ve tried on the outfit of the macho-jock asshole. At various times in my life, I’ve wished it fit more comfortably because it seemed like the outfit other people wanted me to wear.
I can see now that my fascination with those guys was really a fascination with a certain kind of liberation. Of course, it was a liberation that came with a price. At school, Chris had to mute his more flamboyant tendencies, and I’m sure he knew that people gossiped about the question mark of his sexuality. But on weekends, with those friends, he could cut loose. He could be himself. I can still conjure up those living rooms, hazy with cigarette smoke, and noisy with cross-talk, everyone vibrating with a rambunctious joy.
Recently, I found myself dating a woman who lived in the Philadelphia suburbs, a single mom of two elementary school-aged boys. She lived next door to a single dad, and he came over sometimes so the kids could play together while the three of us had a drink on the back deck. He was always friendly, full of corny dad jokes and the kind of blandly upbeat small talk you might have with a realtor at a cocktail party. But I never felt comfortable around him. I suspected our politics were different, which made me carve wide arcs around certain subjects, but I also thought I could detect a ribbon of aggression beneath his jovial exterior. He was a former cop, and it wasn’t hard for me to imagine him cuffing someone and throwing them against the hood of a car.
I’d never dated someone with kids, and, at first, I was tentative, unsure of my role. Their dad was still in the picture, but he lived several states away. Sometimes I’d walk into the living room and realize they were FaceTiming with him on their iPads. Eventually, though, I grew more comfortable. I gave them piggyback rides. We kicked the soccer ball around the backyard. I asked them questions about school, what they were reading, and at night, after dinner, their mother and I would go for a walk around their neighborhood while the boys rode in circles around us on their scooters. While she put them to bed, I’d drink a glass of bourbon on the deck and look at the stars and think about how I could get used to this life. I even let myself imagine the conversations I might have with the boys as they got older, the kinds of questions they might ask. In some cases, I thought, I’d tell them the same things the men in my life had told me. In other cases, I’d tell them pretty different things.
One night when I wasn’t around, the boys were awoken by noises outside their window, and when they roused their mom from bed she discovered that the neighbor and his girlfriend were screaming at each other in his driveway. “He was saying some pretty terrible stuff,” she told me later. “It was kind of scary.”
I could tell the incident had rattled her. She said it made her wonder what he was like with his kids. “They’re always so well-behaved,” she said. We were driving to Costco, her own kids back at the house. She told me about her dad, who was sometimes a yeller, and whose moods could be unpredictable. I told her about my grandfather, and the screaming matches I used to overhear between him and my mom whenever we’d go to visit. She mentioned a couple of exes, but only vaguely, and I didn’t press for details. This was around the time of Brett Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court confirmation hearings, and we talked about that too. How angry he’d gotten every time someone challenged his credentials, how even in his calmer moments he looked like someone who could explode without much provocation.
The next weekend, her mother was in town and she volunteered to watch the kids one night so we could go to dinner. It took us a long time to decide on a restaurant. I kept asking what she was in the mood for, and she kept shruggingly saying she was up for anything. Eventually, we settled on a place, but I don’t think either of us was excited about it and the meal was disappointing. Driving back to her house, she said, “You know, sometimes after a long day at work, and with the kids, it’s nice if someone else takes charge.”
“Sorry,” I said. “I should have just picked something.”
Later, in bed, I whispered commands into her ear. I moved her legs around, positioned her body the way I wanted it. I pulled her hair, and when she moaned I pulled harder. “That was really hot,” she said afterward, both of us on our backs, sweating into the sheets. Then she laughed. “Wait, was that you being decisive?”
She broke things off a few weeks later. I didn’t see it coming. “I just can’t picture a future for us,” she said, though she had a hard time explaining why not. “I guess I’m not very good at talking about my feelings.”
“Maybe you could try?” I said.
The room felt heavy with her silence. I kept pecking away at it, reframing the same questions in different ways, even as I could hear an embarrassing neediness creeping into my voice. I hated that neediness, that wanting. It felt like weakness, because it was weakness. A different sort of man, I thought, would wave goodbye, catch a train back into the city, maintain his pride, and get on with his life.
“You’re not really my usual type,” she said eventually. “Though things with my usual type haven’t exactly worked out in the past, so for a while I thought . . . well, I don’t know.”
“What’s your usual type?” I asked.
But I never got an answer to that. Maybe she thought she was sparing my feelings. Or maybe she was just ready for the conversation to be over.
Of course, I filled her silence with plenty of my own assumptions. I knew she and the kids liked to go camping, and so I pictured a series of brawny men chopping wood, assembling tents, wrestling away bears. Though as a good friend pointed out to me a few days later, these assumptions were really just projections of my own insecurities. It was the same way I projected disapproval onto the face of that grad-school classmate. When she told me I read like a girl maybe she meant it as a value-neutral proposition, or even as a compliment.
It’s been a lot of years since anyone called me a sissy, and I mostly feel good about my particular brand of masculinity. Though I still have my moments. At a party, or a family gathering, if I’m talking to a certain kind of man I’ll hear my voice change, feel my shoulders stiffen: a familiar performance. Maybe other men do this too. Maybe we should talk about it more often.
About a decade ago, I went to couples counseling with a woman who was on the verge of becoming my former fiancée. After our first session, she told me she was surprised by the things I’d said in the therapist’s office. She knew I’d been stressed, but not how bad it had gotten. She had no idea I felt like my life was spiraling out of control, or that I woke up every morning feeling sick to my stomach, a bundle of worries — about my career, and my writing, and money, and a million other things. I was having panic attacks, too, though I didn’t know to call them that yet.
“I guess I thought it was obvious I was falling apart,” I said.
“Actually, you’ve always seemed so together,” she replied. “That was one of the first things I liked about you. You had this calming presence. Everyone else I know is so neurotic.”
I laughed, though not because it was funny.
The counseling, it turned out, was too little too late. I’d blown things up in multiple ways, beyond repair. But there was a lesson, I think, in how that relationship ended. I’d turned all my anxieties inward, and sealed them up because they felt shameful to me. I didn’t want anyone else to see them. I wanted to be tough, and together. I wanted to be the kind of guy that other people could lean on, not a leaner myself. Somehow, it had never occurred to me that a person could be both. •
Images illustrated by Barbara Chernyavsky.