My Brother


I published this poem at least 20 years ago.

Whispering to Each Other in the the Darkness

I turn off the car radio and sit
with my brother in the darkness
of a Pennsylvania winter. He is crying
and I am looking at the moon. He asks

me to stay, he begs to come with me.
Across the stiff grass is tin shed
that protects him from sudden beatings.
I have been the one to find him, his knees

tucked beneath his chin, dark hair swept
over his forehead, legs that won’t stop
shaking. I have led him inside, my arms
hung around his shoulders like a shawl.

Now, we sit without speaking, and I
am thinking of the warmth of milk
tested against my wrist, the brushes
he pulled through my hair, dolls caps

I placed on his head. “You are my real
mother,” he says. Fingers of streetlight
briefly touch our wet faces,
shadows clasped tight in our arms.

Boyhood: A review of gender


Boyhood ImageMuch is being said about this movie.  Filmed over a 12 year period, with the intrinsic value of watching the actors grow up and/or age, ambitious as hell, and attempting to say so many things about coming of age, the meaning of life, love, abandonment, struggle.  People say when they leave the theatre that they feel that they’ve been allowed into the lives of the characters in a completely new way–as if they were friends.

I’ve seen a number of Richard Linklater’s films, and I always feel the same way about them.  I always think he’s good, and that he’s trying something different, and it interests me.  And I always feel that he skims the surface of big topics and can’t get into the strata.  I felt this way less about Boyhood, but not a lot less.  The real genius of the film was the concept–that’s always the real genius of Linklater’s films.  To conceive of filming over this period of time, to aim at saying what you can say when the audience sees change happening–the real change as well as the narrative change–that’s a kind of genius.  I just wish he’d done more with it.

I left the theatre and turned to my partner and said, “This makes me want to make a movie called Girlhood, because he just doesn’t get women’s lives at all.”  And yes, I get that it was intentionally a male-centric movie, and the women weren’t bitches–they were complicated and interesting, if not developed–but it’s the hole in the center of Linklater’s understanding that gets me.  He doesn’t understand what women’s lives are about.  Now, as I’ve said, he doesn’t get into the strata, the difficulty of need and emotion and psychology in his characters.  But even his external observation shows the need between fathers and sons.  Not mothers and sons, by the way.  I’m never sure what’s up with that.  Does this boy want anything from his mother?  Outside of stability?

So, here, in the 4th paragraph, I get to my real subject, catalyzed by the movie.  I don’t get straight people.  I particularly don’t get straight white women.  And I don’t get the romantic relationships between men and women.  I don’t get what they want from each other, outside of the biological imperative (sex and babies).

When I look at the movie Boyhood, I watch and I think that the friendships between boys, and the need for connection between fathers and sons, drive the movie.  I don’t understand what emotional need men bring to women.  Maybe to be understood?  To have that one person who gets you?  But it seems so impossible.  Straight women don’t get men.  Maybe women don’t get men.  And straight men certainly don’t get women.  They absolutely don’t get the mix of fear, hatred, powerlessness and need women bring to heterosexual relationships.

Frankly, we should all be gay.

I understand the driving need for connection that propels you toward the one other, the one person, the only one, you think, who will get you as you need to be gotten.  I understand the terrible neediness of it, and the drive to be better, to learn more, to get closer, to learn what closeness means.  It’s just that I’ve never believed that I was going to get that from a man.  Friendship, closeness, sex, yes.  That driving terrible need, enough emotional meeting to keep me in it?  I’ve stayed with my gender queer spouse for 27 years because there was always enough emotional meeting to keep me in it, and enough forgiveness and love for the neediness we both sometimes have to make it bearable.

Of course, what I know about having a gender queer partner is that a big part of her need for me is to get her gender.  It’s part of the terrible feelings of invisibility she has–I have similar feelings for different reasons.  I need to get that she’s different, that she’s standing in a different place in relationship to the world, and I need to let her know I get it because other people in her life are always letting her know they don’t get it.  Intentionally or not.  Loving her or not.

Do straight people need that?  A validation of gender?  I’m not straight, but I don’t need it the way my partner does.

I did a devised theatre piece at Endicott College with four men.  It focused on gender, on male bonding, on trying to get the right woman, on competition and love.  I watched the cast bond with each other, and if anything, I was the fulcrum, the catalyst–I was there to serve their bonding.  I love how men bond with each other and love each other.  I love how they get each other with so few words.  I love their loyalty and their brotherhood and their tenderness.  And I understand, watching male-centric movie after male-centric movie, that they are the most important to each other.  Women seem to be a much needed side issue.  And being such a close witness, I get that.  I get that women fill some need men can’t fill with each other, but that women are fundamentally outside the male experience.  And men seem to find women frightening.  Alien.  Not to my guys at Endicott, necessarily, I didn’t see that with them.  But it turns up in the canon over and over again.

So, I kind of get straight men.  I mean, I don’t get that Linklater doesn’t understand how women’s lives are dominated by the fear of male violence and the need for male attention (my life is not dominated by the 2nd, which is why I don’t get straight women).  He includes male violence in his movie, but he doesn’t enter the strata–what the fear of that violence, and also the fear of being outside male privilege (being a poor single mom versus being married to an upper middle class alcoholic in Boyhood), does to women.  That’s the situation in his movie, and he serves it up, but without any thread of continuity, without any understanding of why.  I wonder if men get that women are afraid they can’t make it without a man–can’t be safe financially or from violence.

Today I found a list on Facebook of strong female characters in literature who women all want to be.  Anne of Green Gables, Jo of Little Women, Elizabeth from Pride and Prejudice.  You know what these women have in common?  They are made strong by their diminished need for male approval.  They reject the safety and protection of traditional femininity and male interest in order to determine their own destinies.

See, I’m just much too queer to even understand why someone would choose a life based on a need for male approval.  Because I never needed it that much.  If at all.  When I read those books, I knew I was one of those women.  It was relief to read about them and to see myself, because my mother and her friends lived in financial and physical fear.  (My besetting weaknesses lie in other places–self-doubt, a tendency to risk too much, an inability to settle and ground…and, okay, I have financial fear because I can’t be practical, I have to be an artist.)  All my life, I’ve watched straight white women need men to like them, to think they’re pretty, to want them, to give them attention.  And I’ve never been able to understand.  I mean, I liked the attention, and I used it to make myself feel better, but I didn’t need it.  When it was gone, I barely noticed.

I have always, however, needed one other, one somewhat female other, to give me a singular, specific attention.  I love the men in my life, but I just don’t need them in the same way.  And that makes my relationships with men such a relief.  I can relax and enjoy my male friends.  My only worry, and this has been a lifelong problem, is that sometimes they fall into wanting more from me.

So, if I was to write a film called Girlhood, what would I say?  I’d put a queer girl in the center, trying to understand what made her different.  I’d have one of her friends be raped, I’d have her mother stay with a man because of fear that she couldn’t make it on her own.  I’d have men who bonded and left women outside their bonding, and I’d have the queer girl want to be one of them.  I’d have the women bond intensely, but also betray each other and gossip.  I’d kill off at least one character, and probably more than one, because in a film of such ambition, an intimacy with death would be necessary to me–we age, but we also die.  And I’d go after that drive, that propulsion toward the one other–I’d contrast the queer girl’s drive with her straight friend’s drive.  I’d contrast their neediness and their strength, and I’d try to learn about how gender makes us different.  I would work with how a woman needs her mother, and how she needs her father, and how those needs are different.  Not the psychological difference, but the experiential difference.

And maybe, if I could find a way to fit it, I’d write about a boy and his mother.  Not what the white male canon has said.  But more about what I hear in other communities, particularly communities of color–men who love their mothers and are grateful and resentful and living in those feelings in a kind of closeness.

Life is so interesting!  There is so much to understand, so many shoes to try to slip into, so much imagination to apply.  Boyhood is a very good movie.  Conceptually, it’s great.  It just doesn’t say enough.  About what I want to learn.  And that it makes me think it is a kind of teaser.

I’m adding it to my list.  Of narratives by men that I need to answer by writing my own movie.  Or play.  Or whatever.

Which means it made an impact.