"A Better Man: (A Mostly Serious) Letter to My Son" | Reviewed by Bill Schwab
Updated: Oct 15, 2020
“Why is it boys who are pulling the trigger?” Michael Black raised that discomfiting and lingering question in the aftermath of the 2018 shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. Seventeen students and staff members had been killed. “Why is it boys who are pulling the trigger?”
Black lived a town away from Sandy Hook, Connecticut in 2012 when gun violence by another disturbed young man took the lives of 26 elementary school students and staff members. As his son Elijah turned 18 and prepared to leave for college, Black, the father of two, began to write down his thoughts about manhood in a letter to his son that comprises the content of this book.
Black describes the current definitions of manhood as “toxic masculinity” and pleads for a fundamental redefinition of male roles in the 21st century. He counsels teaching young men to be in touch with their feelings, to be vulnerable, tender and to give and receive love.
“Traditional masculinity encourages strength, independence, fortitude. All good qualities, ” he writes. “At the same time, though, it provides no useful outlets for our vulnerability. If we cannot allow ourselves vulnerability, how are we supposed to experience wonder, fear, tenderness? If we cannot turn to others for help, what do we do with bewilderment and frustration? How do we even express something as elemental as joy?”
Black recollects his boyhood years in suburban New Jersey during the Reagan era when the male chant was “might always makes right.” Referring to the Village People’s rendition of “Macho Man,” Black asks “How do we evaluate what masculinity is today?”
White men in the U.S., especially, are scared because their macho image is becoming passé. This virile image is made worse by the “the infinite axis of manliness” by which the culture judges a man's masculinity more by his choice of beverage or what kinds of grades he earns.“ Black observes, “A C student is somehow more macho than an A student.”
Black examines subjects such as fighting, dating and sex. In his sometimes humorous and self-deprecatory look at guys, he offers advice: “My dream is that this book will help all parents talk to their boys about navigating the complicated world of manhood, learning from their fathers’ successes and failures,” so that their sons can become better men.
This memoir and social commentary offers thoughtful reflections on masculinity and gender roles in today's world. The author maintains men could learn from the feminist movement that has cast off gender-based cultural assumptions imposed on women for centuries.
Black notes that during the past fifty years women have redefined what it means to be female. Young women can now be themselves and try anything. Women have seized this new mantra, and outperform boys in school and at work. A young woman today is the heir of many years of conversation about the many forms and expressions of womanhood. Black calls for public attention to the same cultural conversation about the complexities of manhood, one that offers a different path than society’s norm.
This letter to his son will speak particularly to parents, but there is something in it for everyone. Though not a psychotherapist or a parenting coach, Black offers a thoughtful, timely book.