SELF-MADE MAN #4: On Violence

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I’m on the phone with my brother for the first time in months and my voice is deeper than he expected. He doesn’t say so, I can just tell. We talk about our home gyms, and I am self-conscious when he asks for lifting stats because he is a former varsity hockey player with a six pack and gravity boots, but I tell him anyway. I think maybe he always wanted a brother because he asks a lot of questions about my workout so I detail it all: the $20 pull-up bar, the jump rope, the app that tracks calories so you’re eating smart and gaining muscle mass.

“You sound good,” he says, and I didn’t know I cared so much but I couldn’t keep the smile out of my voice.

Because he is, after all, my little brother. The kid I’d tackle and run over with my skateboard in grade school, because even if I was a girl, I had four years on him. Now I pull my shoulders back and look at the winter-dead trees outside my window, imagining his view in Hayes Valley, his life as a ball-busting dot comer, how he bloomed so quickly into a man. I didn’t even notice it happening, just one year I helped him find his first apartment in the Sunset and now he shaves with a straight razor and nimbly discusses housing prices.

So I figure he’s got it worked out, and I’ve got no one else to put the question to. “Do you know how to fight?” I say. It’s a non sequieter, but I don’t need to explain myself. We’re brothers.

There is a heavy pause. Then he lays out a story I think might be a parable about going out on the ice all volcanic in high school and then just losing it on some poor shit who didn’t know about our dad, or the bullies harassing him at school about his sister that looked like a boy, the sinking, slow-boil rage. “I’d just pummel a guy in the middle of a game,” he says. He talks about it like he scared himself, but his tone is sacred, too. He wanted to hit something, so he did.

I get it, but then again I’m in a second puberty, the hormones popping my muscles and covering me in hair like a beast. I’ve only recently learned to neutralize my instinct to throttle bovine pedestrians and mouth breathers. But that is not why I ask, because ultimately I’m a lover, a beta. At Thanksgiving, I proposed a toast to the turkey.

I’ve asked because in a bar in Harvard Square the night before, a pack of grizzled ex-punks in mohawks and jean jackets tossed back straight whiskey next to me and the drunkest one leaned more into me with each sloppy shot. I disentangled from my new friend without making any sudden movements, freezing as he lifted his glass and said, “To not giving a fuck,” with a slurry, acidic emphasis on the “fuck.” He put his weight onto my shoulders, and I felt a sudden, dangerous heaviness. I imagined him tumbling and breaking, bloodily Humpty Dumpty, on the floor. I saw things going awry quickly, the animal face off, the sure outcome.

“We need to move,” I told my wife. “I feel like this guy’s about to blow.”

I am not a stranger to violence. In fact, I’ve become much less squeamish, much more nuanced in my relationship to it. Once a week, I stab myself in the thigh with a needle long enough to pierce muscle. Testosterone thickens me, makes me a larger version of myself. It is strange to suddenly be sized up, to be aware of giving and receiving a wide berth, to know that keeping our bodies discrete is the most basic form of respect.

So, I tell my brother, with the possibility of any unhinged frat guy or smashed, middle-age loser deciding that my body got in his body’s way, I should probably know how to fight back. “You know, self defense,” I clarified.

He laughed. “I get it,” he said, “but anyone crazy enough to punch you in the face is someone you don’t want to fight.” I wait, but that’s all.

So I tell him about my friend, a muscle-bound trans guy, who was tackled and mugged at gunpoint despite his mack truck size a few months ago. My brother doesn’t seem surprised. “Can’t do anything about a gun,” he confirms. “Doesn’t matter how big you are.”

“So what do you do?” I asked. “To avoid getting hurt?”

He thinks a minute. “Well, you don’t get punched. And if you do, you do.”

His equanimity stuns me. My brother, a huge muscle of a man who used to harbor a pretty famous short-temper, has a certain humility about violence. I realize that this is another location of masculinity. Despite my broad chest and low voices, I still cannot fully divorce myself from the annihilating types of violence I was raised to fear: overpowering, shadowy figures. Rape or worse.

So does anything change now that I have stubbly skin and a lower center of gravity? Or is the threat more real because of the tell-tale facts of my anatomy? The story of Tyra Hunter gives me cold sweats — a trans woman, she was left to die by the paramedic who cut open her pant leg and refused to treat her while horrified onlookers begged him to save her life. Brandon Teena was raped before he was murdered. I want to think that what is invisible doesn’t matter, but how to fight the reality that, in the worst of circumstances, it does?

Which is to say: I need to learn to throw a punch. So I teach myself. I study YouTube videos. I practice on pillows. My brother and I are different in that way. Don’t get me wrong: if someone ever blows, I plan to first turn the other cheek; but if I need to be the guy crazy enough to break teeth, I’ll be the guy crazy enough to live.

Rumpus original artwork by Jason Novak.


Thomas Page McBee's essays and reportage have appeared on TheAtlantic.com, VICE, BuzzFeed, Salon, and in the New York Times. Man Alive: A True Story of Violence, Forgiveness and Becoming a Man, his memoir about violence and what makes a man, is forthcoming this fall from City Lights/Sister Spit, and he is now at work on a book about masculinity. He lives in New York City. Follow him on Twitter, @ThomasPageMcBee, or visit thomaspagemcbee.com. More from this author →