Walking CoCo on Bernal Hill in this morning's long overdue light rain, Dan Siegel's remarkably soothing and wise voice is reading his new book: Brainstorm: the Power and Purpose of the Teenage Brain through the Audible app on my iPhone. He's sort of ticking through the exposition of attachment, and describing the emerging sense of the solid self that many of us think about in couples therapy as we work toward more emotionally attuned and collaborative practices. The wet hillside is a bit slippery as I ascend the crest, distracting me slightly from the narrative, and as I return to it, Dan is talking about "earned security."
The irony of this phrase comes immediately to mind in a way that is linked to this year's Masculinities Special Interest Group.
Friends and clients have been commenting for several years that I would probably, pretty much for sure, like the TV series: Breaking Bad. It's not like I didn't believe them, but that's a whole lot of episodes. That's a lot of time. And it certainly didn't sound like something Susana would be into. But a male client of mine had recently given me a DVD of season 1, and my sweetie was medicated post knee replacement surgery, which meant that both of us faced a lot of at home recuperation time. I put it on. We were hooked.
At the pace of a season a week, I got to know the world of Walter White, the protagonist of the series. I immediately recognized him as an ordinary guy who, push comes to shove, defines himself by his accomplishments and his estimate of how others see him. His world appears to be pretty secure. He’s a high school teacher in a relatively privileged community with an attractive wife. They have an adorable special needs teenager and the mixed blessing of an unexpected pregnancy when, at 50, he opens the door to find the Grim Reaper. He has cancer, and not great prospects for the time to “earn” his family’s financial security, a domain of self regulation that had been dormant in his actually secure family if it wasn’t, you know, for the insane cost of health care. In a seemingly inspired moment of “self-reliance,” he launches a new business plan, unprepared for a remarkably predictable slew of consequences to the very realm he seeks to protect and serve. Moving as best he can with no clear map into new realms of risk, he sets up shop in the world’s most violent unregulated marketplace: cooking artisanal methamphetamine in a business climate with no insurance or physical security except that provided by the dominant players, which ultimately include the Mexican drug cartels. You can see how this could “break bad,” rather quickly. It does, and therein lies the tale of a marriage coming unglued.
In my now many years of practice, I have watched remarkable transformations in the ways in which notions about masculinity and femininity have confounded our thinking about self and identity. AFTA’s 2011 conference in Baltimore, the one that Ari Lev put together, exemplified just how much really has changed in the ways we’ve come to see these seemingly foundational aspects of self. These gender archetypes now appear to be not nearly as biologically determined as they had seemed. Anatomy appears to be more correlational than causal in our sexual destiny. What does this tell us about what it means to be a "good" man.
Developments in neuroscience have greatly advanced our understanding of how, to borrow Antonio Domasio's recent book title, Self Comes to Mind. In a consultation group with male colleagues, we have found ourselves concentrating on the developmental theme of winner/loser in our clinical discussions as we try to get inside our male client’s minds. The issues cross the life cycle from the child who cheats or threatens the therapist, to the adolescent who confounds us with lies that he might just believe, to the banker who becomes more dissatisfied with his wife, the higher his bonus grows.
To return to Dan’s discussion in Brainstorm, Walter White presents an image of a particular conundrum in adolescent development: managing risk and dealing with setbacks and losses. At a moral level, this is the domain of self, and the positive outcome is to learn self regulatory strategies that involve the ability to know not only how our behavior will effect others around us, but what would be “the right thing to do.”
It is our contention that “therein lies the rub.” In our minds, masculinity describes a set of cultural paradigms emerging in idealizing relationships and stories that provide the developing sense of boyness with action plans that underly dominance and the disavowal of feeling relatedness. It could be described as learning to "walk like a man."
If you find yourself intrigued by this line of thinking, and the implications we find for practice, come to the Masculinities SIG in Athens and join the conversation.