LISTENING TO BOYS' VOICES
"Boys are supposed to shut up and take it, to keep it all in. It's harder for them to release or vent without feeling girly. And that can drive them to shoot themselves."
—Scotty, 13, from a small town in northern New England
IN MY TRAVELS THROUGHOUT THIS COUNTRY FROM THE inner-city neighborhoods of Boston, New York, and San Francisco to suburbs in Florida, Connecticut, and Rhode Island; from small, rural villages in New Hampshire, Kentucky, and Pennsylvania to the pain-filled classrooms of Littleton, Colorado-I have discovered a glaring truth: America's boys are absolutely desperate to talk about their lives. They long to talk about the things that are hurting them-their harassment from other boys, their troubled relationships with their fathers, their embarrassment around girls and confusion about sex, their disconnection from parents, the violence that haunts them at school and on the street, their constant fear that they might not be as masculine as other boys.
But this desperate coast-to-coast longing is silenced by the Boy Code-old rules that favor male stoicism and make boys feel ashamed about expressing weakness or vulnerability. Although our boys urgently want to talk about who they really are, they fear that they will be teased, bullied, humiliated, beaten up, and even murdered if they give voice to their truest feelings. Thus, our nation is home to millions of boys who feel they are navigating life alone-who on an emotional level are alone-and who are cast out to sea in separate lifeboats, and feel they are drowning in isolation, depression, loneliness, and despair.
Our sons, brothers, nephews, students are struggling. Our boyfriends are crying out to be understood. But many of them are afraid to talk. Scotty, a thirteen-year-old boy from a small town in northern New England, recently said to me, "Boys are supposed to shut up and take it, to keep it all in. It's harder for them to release or vent without feeling girly. And that can drive them to shoot themselves,"
I am particularly concerned about the intense angst I see in so many of America's young men and teenaged boys. I saw this angst as I did research for Real Boys, and then again in talking with boys for this book. Boys from all walks of life, including boys who seem to have made it—the suburban high school football captain, the seventh-grade prep school class president, the small-town police chief's son, the inner-city student who is an outstanding cartoonist and son of a welfare mother—all were feeling so alone that f worried that they often seemed to channel their despair into rage not only toward others but toward themselves. An ordinary boy's sadness, his everyday feelings of disappointment and shame, push him not only to dislike himself and to feel private moments of anguish or self-doubt, but also, impulsively, to assault, wound, and kill. Forced to handle life's emotional ups and downs on their own, many boys and young men-many good, honest, caring boys-are silently allowing their lives to wither away, or explode.
We still live in a society in which our boys and young men are simply not receiving the consistent attention, empathy, and support they truly need and desire. We are only listening to parts of what our sons and brothers and boyfriends are telling us. Though our intentions are good, we've developed a culture in which too often boys only feel comfortable communicating a small portion of their feelings and experiences. And through no fault of our own, frequently we don't understand what they are saying to us when they do finally talk.
Boys are acutely aware of how society constrains them. They also notice how it holds back other boys and young men, including their peers, their male teachers, and their fathers. "When bad things happen in our family," Jesse, an astute twelve-year-old boy from a large middle-class suburb of Los Angeles, recently told me, "my father gets blocked. Like if he's upset about something that happened at work, he can't say anything and we have no idea what he's thinking. He just sits in front of the television, spends time on the Internet, or just goes off on his own. You can't get through to him at all. He just gets totally blocked." Of course, Jesse is teaming to do the same. And if we don't allow, even teach boys like Jesse to express their emotion and cry tears, some will cry bullets instead. A NATIONWIDE JOURNEY
I began a new nationwide journey to listen to boys' voices last summer in my native Massachusetts. In one of the very first interviews, I sat down with Clayton, a sixteen-year-old boy living in a modest apartment in Arlington, a medium-sized suburb of Boston. Clay introduced me to his mother and older sister, and then brought me to his attic hideaway, a small room with only two small wooden windows that allowed light into the room through a series of tiny slits. Clay decided to share some of his writing with me-poetry and prose he had written on leaves of white and yellow paper. His writings were deeply moving, but even more extraordinary were the charcoal sketches that, once he grew comfortable with my presence, he decided he would also share. His eyes downcast, his shoulders slumped inward, he opened his black sketchbook and flipped gently through the pages.
On each consecutive sheet of parchment, Clay had created a series of beautiful images in rich, multicolored charcoal and pastels. "You're a talented artist," I said, expressing my real enthusiasm.
"I haven't shown these to too many people," he said, blushing. "I don't think anyone would really be too interested."
Clay's pictures revealed his angst, and in graphic, brutal detail. There was a special series of drawings of "angels." They were half human, half creature, with beautiful wings, but their boyish faces were deeply pained. Soaring somewhere between earth and heaven, the angels seemed to be trying to free themselves from earthly repression, striving for expression, longing to reach the freedom of the skies. They evoked the mundane world where Clayton's psychological pain felt real and inescapable, yet they also evoked an imaginary place where he could feel safe, relaxed, and free.
In our conversation, Clayton revealed that his inner sense of loss and sadness had at times been so great that on at least one occasion he had seriously contemplated suicide.
"I never actually did anything to commit suicide. I was too afraid I'd end up in a permanent hell ... but that's how bad I felt. I wanted to end it all."
I thought to myself that maybe that's what these tortured angels were about-a combination of heavenly hope mixed up with a boy's suppressed "voice" of pain.
Clayton then revealed "The Bound Angel," a breathtaking sketch of one of his winged, half-man creatures bent over in pain, eyes looking skyward, but trunk and legs bound like an animal awaiting slaughter.
Clayton explained, "His hands are tied, and his mouth is sealed so he cannot speak. He's in pain, but he has no way to run from it, to express it, or to get to heaven."
"Your angel wants to shout out his troubles to the high heavens, but he is bound and gagged. He wants to move toward someone, but he is frozen in space. He needs to release his voice, but he cannot, and fears he will not be heard. That's why he's so tortured."
"Yes, exactly," he said.
"I guess if he's tied up long enough," I responded, "and can't release that voice, he'll want to die, like you did."
"I think so," Clay said.
There is no reason we should wait until a boy like Clay feels hopeless, suicidal, or homicidal to address his inner experience. The time to listen to boys is now. MOMENTS OF DOUBT
As devoted as our country is gradually becoming to changing things for boys, society remains ambivalent about giving boys permission to express their feelings. I was recently speaking at a Congregational church in a small New Hampshire town. It was a bright October Saturday morning and I was there to talk to boys and their parents about my Listening to Boys' Voices project. Gazing out at the rows and rows of boys and their parents, I explained that several research associates and I were going across the country to interview and capture the unique voices of adolescent males ranging in ages eleven through twenty. I told the audience, "I hope this project will be just the beginning, that we will all find a way to reconnect with boys, listen to them carefully, and get to know what's really happening inside their minds and hearts."
"That's not so easy," a young, well-dressed woman said from the pews. "I have four sons," she continued, "and, with all due respect, Dr. Pollack, let me tell you something. Number one: my husband is not so hot on my trying to sit down and get all emotional with our sons. I'm not so sure he's going to encourage me to do that. And number two: these days, I don't think our boys are capable of saying much about any thing other than girls and sports, and girls and sports." People chuckled throughout the church.
"How old are your sons?" I asked.
"Eleven, thirteen, fourteen, and seventeen," the woman said.
"Do you wish you could reach inside them and get to what they're really feeling and thinking about? Is this something you would like to do?"
"If I could," she said intently, "I would." Looking around at the other boys and parents in the audience and shaking her head incredulously, she added, "I don't think many of the people in this room really feel in touch with their kids, especially not their boys. To be able to do that, we'd have to all decide we're going to give boys a break. Otherwise, nobody in this room is going to take the first step. Nobody wants his or her kid to be an outcast. So I'm not sure any of us are going to take that first step."
"I'm not so sure I agree with you," I said. "The fact that you showed up today to talk about boys is itself one of those first steps. In fact, everybody in this room decided to come here this morning because they care about boys and about making things better for boys. So everyone in this room actually is taking an important first step."
"I guess you're right," the woman said. "So thank you. Thank you for coming way out here to talk to us."
Excerpted from Real Boys' Voices by William S. Pollack, Ph.D., with Todd Shuster. . Excerpted by permission of Random House, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.