The Thread: The Masked Man

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In the beginning, He was the word. The word of the house, the word of vocation, the word of study, of thought, of art. When Western writers wrote an everyman, of course, they wrote about themselves:

Just remember that the things you put into your head are there forever, he said.1

He is the long-delayed but always expected something that we live for.2

He created man in his own image.3

He made the world and he made the word, as if there is a difference, if one can be separated from the other.

He was the invisible pronoun, the universal. English centers him, his, but makes his centrality invisible. For he was the standing for all of us, even though he was not all of us. He was the objective view. He had the power of the word and the books, the professorships, the access, the father. And his world was good.

I grew up in Tahoe City, an isolated ski resort town on the shores of the lake, near the border of California and Nevada. Population well under two-thousand. I went to a private elementary school that my grandparents paid the tuition for. My father was a butcher at the local Lucky’s chain supermarket. It was a union job, one he hated but had been doing since he was thirteen years old. My dad also grew up in a small town, but his was near Lake Michigan. The local butcher shop hired him as an apprentice, and from thirteen, that was his career path. I don’t think he hated butchery as much as he hated the store that he worked at, the manager, and the physical toll his work took on his body. My dad retired in his early fifties, and by his mid-sixties he was dead. I barely remember him living without physical pain.

In Tahoe City, it seemed to me there were only two kinds of resident families: the ones that owned their giant fancy houses with the views, and the ones that rented the average houses, the condos, the small wooden cabins with no view. Because I went to the (only) private school, all of my friends lived in fancy houses. My family lived in a rental. In my mind, we were poor.

I knew poverty looked different in San Francisco. I heard about poverty that couldn’t buy groceries. But in my child-mind, because we lived in a rental house and I was only in the private school due to my grandparent’s money, my family must also be poor. My dad worked a blue collar job, wore random t-shirts, and drove an old Subaru hatchback. My friends’ fathers worked in business: collared shirts and Audis. It took me many years to see this was a story, a child’s story I’d told myself to explain the difference between me and all the kids around me. My parents weren’t poor. But that narrative was so tightly woven into my identity and sense of self: my envy of all of my friends with their giant, multi-tiered homes with swimming pools and nannies and caretaker’s cottages told me that I lacked.

The comparison of my life to my wealthy friends left me unable to see my own good fortune: the luxury of getting to go back to school shopping with my grandma, filling my closets for the year. I didn’t understand that private school tuition, the ability to be in those classrooms in the first place, was its own lavish privilege. I only saw that I had less, my family had less. I would read Anne of Green Gables and imagine that our lives were similar. Sure, Anne was orphaned and literally had to work to earn her keep. But I had chores, and yes, parents, but they were meager, not wealthy. I believed I had no privileges. I couldn’t see myself except in comparison to the people around me, and the people around me all had more. I didn’t know that to be surrounded by that kind of wealth, to have access to those families, that education, that small school environment was a huge boost. I couldn’t see my princess life until my adulthood. How strange that I had thought myself a pauper.

But our view of ourselves is almost always skewed in some way. In 1976, Dr. Samuel Smithyman, then a PhD candidate, placed a personals ad in several Los Angeles newspapers. The ad stated he was looking to interview rapists for research, and gave an anonymous phone number. Smithyman didn’t think anyone would call, but by the end of the summer, he’d taken over two hundred calls, fifty of which became the basis of his 1978 dissertation, “The Undetected Rapist.” In it he shared some of the first insights into the rapists that get away with it.

Prior to Smithyman’s research, the only studies that had been done on rapists were done in prison, with the already-convicted. The conclusions that researchers drew from the prison interviews were vastly different from the conclusions Smithyman drew from speaking with the unconvicted rapists. Convicts tended to be “generalists,” opportunistic, as in: they would steal your TV and also sex if they thought they could get away with it. But the men who don’t get caught, who “get away with it” are specialists. And they tend to repeat their offenses, with some of Smithyman’s subjects admitting to over fifteen separate offenses in an interview.

 

We carry our father’s names like mementos. We owe it to them, to ourselves and our children, to pass forward something more than their legacy of marginalization, dominance, and loss.

He is the head of the violence against women task force. He advocates for the criminalization of strangulation. He is one of the most vocal supporters of women coming out against their abusers. At the same time, he is an abuser. A violent, drunk, misogynist that strangles his girlfriends and hits more than one of them so hard she has permanent damage. He tells them not to speak to anyone about him or he’ll know. He’s the law.

No man, for any considerable period, can wear one face to himself and another to the multitude, without finally getting bewildered as to which may be the true.4

He preaches against homosexuality, building a whole identity on his anti-LGBTQ stance. At some point, he is nearly always caught in a bathroom stall with a man, or in a hotel with a man, or in his office, with a man. He puts on the mask of anti in hopes that nobody will see the truth beyond it. This is not to say that only men do this; this is to say that men, also, do this.

Marianella Belliard wrote a tremendous analysis of Junot Díaz and his literary alter ego, Yunoir. She compared Diaz/Yunoir to the Edward Norton character in Primal Fear, a murderer who convinces his lawyer that he has a dissociative identity disorder. In Primal Fear, the shy, sweet Aaron appears to be a the mercy of his sociopathic alter ego, Roy. The great twist of the movie is when the audience (and the successful defense attorney) realizes that Roy is the real personality, and Aaron is the mask. Thus, Belliard explains, Yunior was always the real Díaz, and Junot was the mask. The literary world assumed Yunior’s sexism and misogyny were surely a brilliant device of Díaz’s to shine a light on the hypermasculine and sexist culture of which he was a part, but not a participant. As Belliard sees it, we all got it backwards. Of course, Junot Díaz is not white, but his mask is as male as they come.

People have elaborate masks. Maybe concealment is even human nature. Some masks are grotesque caricatures, larger than life. It’s obvious that there’s something under there, something human. But on some people, the mask is invisible, and the whole world bends around it.

There is an idea of a Patrick Bateman, some kind of abstraction, but there is no real me, only an entity, something illusory, and though I can hide my cold gaze and you can shake my hand and feel flesh gripping yours and maybe you can even sense our lifestyles are probably comparable: I simply am not there.5

 

I took Commedia dell’Arte in my last two years of high school. It’s a seventeenth-century Italian improvised theater form based on stock characters in masks and basic plots. The masks terrified me: giant beaked noses and vivid colors. They weren’t human faces; they were caricatures of human faces, grotesque. The characters themselves made my stomach twist. I hated their violence and their unrestrained impulsive physicality. I didn’t want to be one; I didn’t want to embody their wild urges and their hideous faces. I didn’t care that they were funny (and I did find my classmates who embraced the form quite funny). I suppose I wanted to be taken seriously, and thought that meant that I needed to be serious. And something about the masks unnerved me deeper than I could explain.

My favorite album at this time was Ani DiFranco’s Little Plastic Castle, and my favorite song was called “Loom.” Ani sings about wanting a man to take off his dark sunglasses so she can see his eyes. She promises not to squander his gaze, and also not to do anything he can’t tell his wife. But she also wants to take up lots of room, looming in his consciousness. It’s a flirtatious song, a dangerous song that sounds like a raucous dance party. There was something transgressive about looming. Maybe it was because women aren’t allowed to say they want largeness, or maybe it was because he was married and the looming woman should have been his wife. Or maybe it was the idea of his gaze as a valuable thing, something that could be squandered, but in which she wished to bathe. Or maybe it was because she was calling out his mask. Those sunglasses. That gaze.

If you had met me a decade ago, I would have told you I was a boy’s girl. I had brothers. I had boys as best friends, starting all the way back in preschool and continuing, off and on, through law school. I have seen boys hurt, and I have watched them grow into men. Some of them are so hard on the outside, so gone from themselves, I can’t recognize the boy they were in the man they have become. I lived with boys and men all of my life, adjusting to them, taking care of them, dazzling them when I could. But for all of my effort, all the time I put into knowing boys and later, the men they became, did I ever really see them, truly, outside of my lens and underneath the mask? I loved them, and loved too many to dismiss them all, but I’m starting to tire of their masks, the versions of men that are never the problem, that cloak the problem, that allow men to be both law and lawless at once.

What I know and don’t know about men matters. What men know and don’t know about themselves matters more.

How do I get him to take off those sunglasses?

 

We lived in the blank white spaces at the edges of print. It gave us more freedom. We lived in the gaps between the stories.6

Right now, white men are being asked to see themselves as more than the blank white page on which everyone else’s politics are projected, reflected, amended, and put to word. White men are being asked to look at themselves without a mask. They are being asked to set it down.

I think about all the boys and men I have loved. Many of them white, many of them good. What will it take to look at yourself, at the men around you, and see beneath?

In modern interviews with rapists, researchers are careful about their language. They have found that if you ask subjects if they’ve raped or sexually assaulted a person, the yeses are overwhelmingly fewer than if they ask about their specific behaviors. Then, subjects are surprisingly candid about ignoring consent.

These men tend to start young, committing their first rape in high school or early college, usually with someone they know. Once they’ve sexually assaulted once or twice, some undetermined portion of these men stop, and another portion continue or even increase their pace of assaults. Men who expressed remorse are less likely to continue, whereas men who have a narcissistic view of their own entitlement to sex. These men use language like “paying her back for arousing me,” or talk about being rejected as younger men.

But most of them maintain that the “real rapists,” the bad guys, are “out there.” Someone else. Not them. Most subjects in these studies freely acknowledge non-consensual sex—but that does not mean they consider it real rape. Researchers encounter this contradiction again and again.

Asked “if they had penetrated against their consent,” said Dr. Koss, the subject says yes. Asked if he did “something like rape,” the answer is almost always no.

Nobody, not even the convicted rapists, think they are the problem.

I remember with embarrassment telling a teacher that I couldn’t be racist because I had a Filipino boyfriend. I remember telling myself that I couldn’t be racist because I had friends and lovers of all kinds of racial and ethnic backgrounds—Black and Latinx and Chinese and Vietnamese and mixed. I went to an urban public school in the 1990s, and our school district had diversity quotas. I didn’t mind the quotas, in fact I loved going to school with kids from all over the city, all over the Bay Area. But this meant that I saw classmates of all sorts of backgrounds excel and fail. I didn’t see my own privilege, and the diversity around me allowed me to believe I didn’t have any. We were all treated the same, I thought.

I remember thinking when I applied to college that affirmative action sounded like an unfair policy. I didn’t understand systemic racism because I had never needed to understand it. I was graduating from a diverse school; it seemed unnecessary (ironically because of its own “affirmative action” policies). I believed that diversity was the way forward, and all of this categorizing was divisive. I was holding hands with black kids, just like Dr. King had dreamt. Weren’t we done?

Revisiting my younger self in this place, it’s uncomfortable. It makes my whole body cringe. My forehead furrows and my heart beats in my ears and my palms tingle. I’m nervous. It’s not that I want to talk about my internalized racism; I know what it’s like when an identity I haven’t realized was in me gets pushed into the light. It feels awful. But not nearly as awful as it feels on the receiving end of unexamined bias.

My job is to dig through as many layers of privilege and lies and oppressions as I can. Maybe that’s everyone’s job. The shame I feel for having internalized the racist heteropatriarchy of my country is nothing compared to the shame I feel for refusing to deal with it for so long.

You can start any time. When you don’t like what you see, you can start to deconstruct it. Pull apart the pieces of your assumptions and examine them. Find a new angle, hear someone else’s point of view.

Oscar Wilde famously claimed that “man is least himself when he talks in his own person. Give him a mask,” Wilde says, “and he will tell you the truth.” I want to believe that the converse is true. Cis men, white men, you have a truth inside you, something soft and sad and vulnerable. We see it in our baby boys, and then we see it slip away, somewhere behind the mask of whatever masculinity demands.

Women can’t recover those little boys without men.

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1. Cormac MacCarthy, The Road.

2. Tennessee Williams, The Glass Menagerie.

3. Genesis 1:27.

4. Nathaniel Hawthorne, The Scarlet Letter.

5. Brett Easton Ellis, American Psycho.

6. Margaret Atwood, The Handmaid’s Tale.

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Rumpus original logo and art by Aubrey Nolan.

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The Thread is a monthly literary conversation, developed for The Rumpus and edited by Julie Greicius. Send us what you’re reading that you can’t stop thinking or talking about to [email protected], or reach out to Marissa on Twitter or Facebook, and she just might pull the threads of it apart for you in a future column.


Marissa Korbel’s award-winning essays have appeared in The Manifest Station, Under the Gum Tree, Nailed Magazine, and others. She is seeking an agent and publisher for her first book, Played, a memoir of precocity. She lives in Portland, Oregon with her partner and their toddler, and writes with Lidia Yuknavitch at Corporeal Writing. More from this author →