by Larry Smith
After The Bitch in the House, Cathi Hanauer's book about contemporary women's issues, hit the New York Times bestseller list and women's book groups everywhere, readers, writers and reviewers wondered: What are the men in their lives thinking?
In a brilliant mix of editorial and marketing savvy, the task of finding out was put to Hanauer's husband, writer Daniel Jones. The result is The Bastard on the Couch: 27 Men Try Really Hard to Explain Their Feelings About Love, Loss, Fatherhood, and Freedom.
Bastard tries to break down and make at least a little sense of a new moment in men's lives, a moment that Kevin Canty aptly describes in his unflinching essay, "The Dog in Me," as one where "something's come loose, something's come unglued ... we no longer feel quite comfortable in our roles, no longer quite fit the people we imagine ourselves to be." Bastard explores a time of feminism and equality, a bright new democratic future ... in which Canty and so many of us are wondering why we still seem to be paying for everything.
That question and others are poked and prodded by the likes of Vince Passaro (on why men lie), Toure (on why men cheat), David Gates (on why men log), Anthony Swofford (on why men must be alone), and Anthony Giardina (on why men don't need to go to every goddamn school play), and 22 other men who write with candor and crankiness, heart and humor.
On the eve of his book tour (and a few hours before his monthly poker game), Bastard editor Daniel Jones took some time to talk about what we talk about when we try (really hard) to talk about the lives of men today.
Larry Smith: Tell us a little bit about the genesis of Bastard.
Daniel Jones: My wife's book, The Bitch in the House, gave smart women a forum to explain their frustrations about modern marriage, about the kind of marriage many of us thought was going to be like walking into a bright new world of equality and happiness and hasn't quite turned out that way. Not surprisingly, among their frustrations were the men in their lives, who didn't seem quite up to the task of marriage. I knew some of these men. In fact, I was one of them myself.
It seemed important to me that men be able to weigh in on these issues, both for themselves and for women. Because chief among the women's frustrations with their men was this question of "What is he thinking?" Women really do want to know. And they're generally not going to get good answers out of their husbands, because it's too loaded. In fact, I doubt many of the men in The Bastard on the Couch would ever sit down and articulate their feelings to their wives quite the way they have here either, because their own relationships are also too loaded for such a thing, and who can come up with an articulate explanation or defense of how they're feeling in the middle of a fight? Not me.
Me neither. And while you can probably spit and hit a book club reading Bitch in Amherst, San Francisco or Manhattan, I can't see Bastard readers sitting around deconstructing it.
Men want to figure this stuff out. But they're on the defensive so much that they're a little hamstrung. In Vince Passaro's essay, "Why Men Lie (and Always Will)," he talks about the moral high ground women always seem to occupy in relationships, and how men are always working from a deficit of one kind or another -- the man's never doing enough, his life isn't as hard, he's been privileged for most of world history while women haven't, et cetera. So this position isn't really a place where you're going to feel comfortable airing your frustrations with your marriage or your sex life. Compounding this is a man's sense that it's somehow not polite to criticize his wife in public. After all, he's got to live with her, and she's angry enough already. For whatever reason, most women I know don't share this inhibition. They tend to fire away. And I don't even think their husbands mind that much because they know it's better for them in the long run for their wives to blow off the steam in little bursts than hold it in until they explode.
Both Bitch and Bastard spend a lot of time looking at the notion of the "egalitarian marriage" -- which definitely doesn't seem to be working. Where did it go wrong?
Men and women get married these days and often have this idea of egalitarianism as a goal. They probably met in college or grad school and have equal skills. They come at the marriage equally armed for combat, knowing they can walk away from it and both leave equally. Add to that that all the old rules are stereotypes. If you're both lawyers and your wife does all the shopping and cooking, there's a stigma attached to it, even if she enjoys it. You find yourself trying to not do certain things even if you naturally want to do them. Whenever my wife and I have responsibilities where they fall along sexist lines -- she likes to cook, I like to muck around in the yard -- we're sort of embarrassed for it. I think this silently goes on in almost every marriage.
Is it harder or easier to be a man today than it was 20 years ago or 50 years ago?
That's a tough question. Male and female roles were clearer in the old days, but did that make it better for men? On the one hand, I don't want to think of myself as living in a time when it's harder for men than previous generations. After all, how self-pitying would that sound, considering how privileged we are? I haven't fought in a war, haven't suffered through a potato famine or God knows what else. So I have to believe overall that men's lives are easier, though I also wonder if they aren't less rewarding in some ways. Men of the "greatest generation" ... everyone depended on them, right? And it can't be quite as rewarding for a man to come home at the end of a long workday and realize his wife doesn't depend on him as much as wives used to. Sure, the money he brings home is great, but she's bringing home the same money, so what's the big deal?
Where do Bitch and Bastard most closely meet and differ?
Where they meet is that neither the men nor women here want to go back into the traditional marriage of the past, and they both embrace this new egalitarian ideal of marriage.
Where they differ the most is that many of the women were obsessed with their mother as a role model. It was very concrete, common thread in Cathi's book. Women are racing away from what their own mothers were -- they want to do more than what their mothers did.
A lot of guys are struggling with what kind of father they are supposed to be. I thought Anthony Giardina's piece, "A Short History of the (Over)involved Father," really worked because he wasn't afraid to remind men that just because they have a kid doesn't mean the rest of their essence is stripped away. So much of being a parent these days is feeling like you're "supposed" to be doing this or that. It's all about "quality time." Tony's essay traces how this notion is embraced by the popular culture -- particularly mainstream movies -- that preach how family is more important than work, how work is the evil thing that takes parents away from their beloved children during the day, and how if you would just quit your job and go home to your kids everything would be great. But Tony argues that that's a ridiculous notion to embrace -- chiefly because our kids probably don't want us hovering over them all the time anyway -- and also a damaging view of adulthood to present to our children. Seeing your father being ambitious -- a guy whose work is as important to him as his family -- really isn't such a bad message. Your parents are your first measuring stick for success. To see your parents overly doting and embracing your life as a child more than their own as an adult is a backward message. It's good for my children to see their parents with ambition; it doesn't mean their childhood is getting cut short or gypped.
I've given Bastard to a couple of guys who I figured wouldn't find it on their own. They all said they expected to read one or maybe two pieces, then started reading and couldn't put it down. That gives me a certain degree of hope. Yet ultimately there's something sad about the tone of Bastard as compared to what's the more intense tone of Bitch.
The tone of Bitch is definitely more aggressive. It's about women going after what they want, making great strides and finding great frustration along the way. But at least they are on the move and going out and grabbing what they want. Men, on the other hand, are often on the losing side of this new power equation in many relationships, and there's something about the men that is more reactionary and on the defensive.
How did writing these books affect your own marriage? Are you like the most enlightened couple ever at this point?
The sappy but true answer is that working on these books has made our marriage stronger. We've learned a lot, we've gone from being solitary writers to almost daily collaborators, and we talk constantly about the problems of modern marriage, either with others or ourselves. The only downside, for me, has been that I made the mistake of suggesting in my introduction that men may need to be more charming "if we want to keep ourselves in the game"; Cathi seized on this, of course, and throws it back at me whenever we're arguing about something. "You're the one who said men need to be more charming," she says. "So be more charming."
Publication date: 05/06/04