The best of men are but men at best
A writer confronts his own history of violence
Saturday, March 17, 2018 – Print Edition, Page O1

Author of Mad Blood Stirring: The Inner Lives of Violent Men Instantly the spirit of hell awoke in me and raged. With a transport of glee, I mauled the unresisting body, tasting delight from every blow; and it was not till weariness had begun to succeed, that I was suddenly, in the top fit of my delirium, struck through the heart by a cold thrill of terror.

- Robert Louis Stevenson, Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr Hyde rounded a bend and there he I was, hurtling towards me, head-on - a black Ford F-150 pickup straddling the yellow line like a charging bull, half in its lane, half in mine. I swerved, and for a second saw, looking over me from the truck's cab, the face of the guy at the wheel: younger than me, and bearded, wearing wraparound sunglasses and a nasty sneer. He was playing a game of chicken with me.

I was alone, coming back from the grocery store, but what if my daughter had been in the car? My wife? What if I hadn't seen him in time, and my little family sedan had collided with his truck?

My brain shrivelled, turned reptilian, and I felt a surge of the old venom in my blood.

I wanted to turn my car around, gun it, and catch him at the next stoplight. I gleefully thought about what I'd like to do when I finally caught up to him: Slam him in the door when he attempted to get out, dropping him to the pavement. Or maybe not even afford him the chance, and instead punch out the driver's side window, show him he was only Ford Tough as long as he remained safely inside his truck.

Savage, I know. I'm embarrassed to admit I entertain these sorts of fantasies. So why I am telling you about pretending to pummel Mr. F-150?

For a couple of reasons: First of all, because they're extraordinarily common. Something like 67 per cent of men and 62 per cent of women have thought about killing someone at least once, most of the time because they - we - are angry. When men do this, we're more likely to fantasize about it in more detail and for longer periods.

We're more likely, too, to think about doing this to strangers and co-workers. Men also spend an inordinate amount of time fantasizing about less bloody-minded conflict - for instance the whocould-take-whom-in-a-fight calculus about other men they know. Women rarely do this.

And also, more to the point, because not that long ago, my fantasies would sometimes become reality.

I've slammed an aggressive driver in his own car door; I've punched in a car window; I've headbutted a belligerent drunk on the subway; I've tackled a purse-snatcher, cold-cocked a guy stealing laptops out of a minivan, and gone after enough aggro meatheads that it's a wonder that I didn't accidentally kill someone.

Or get myself killed.

I'm a middle-class, middleaged, well-educated, gainfully employed family man. I contribute to my daughter's RESPs, cook dinner most nights, do most of the laundry and at least half of the cleaning. I'm articulate and compassionate and I sincerely (and rather hypocritically, I realize) believe in the rule of law, not vigilantism. I was raised by a feminist peace activist and an anti-Vietnam War intellectual.

Growing up, I was terrified of fighting. Most of the time I still am. The violence that I have inflicted on other men represents, at most, a few minutes in an otherwise peaceful and productive and happy life.

That is why my own history of violence puzzled me - both at the time, and in hindsight. I was fascinated by the discrepancy between the "everyday" me - the rational, sensitive, progressive version of myself that represents who I am the vast majority of the time - and this destructive side. I wanted to find out what it was and where it came from.

I spent the past several years researching the subject, interviewing everyone from professional fighters to a bona fide serial killer. I felt like a geographer mapping the original heart of darkness. And I found it - or at least an aspect of it - inside myself.

Just to be clear, I'm not saying I have the makings of a serial killer, deep down inside. Not even close.

My violence has been limited to a very specific set of circumstances, one usually sparked by another man acting in a bullying in overly aggressive behaviour, as with the aforementioned Mr. F-150. I am a good guy, after all.


Then again, that's arguably the most disconcerting aspect of my own darkness. The fact of the matter is that none of my fights were necessary. The situations could have been handled with non-violence. Without exception, they were the result of me escalating an already volatile situation with already volatile men.

At the time, however, the violence felt absolutely necessary and perfectly righteous. I found myself faced with a problem and felt that my fists were the only possible solutions. I can't stress enough the emotionality of these situations. In the lead-up to these confrontations I wasn't thinking straight. It was pure, unbridled rage. That and an accompanying tingle of illicit thrill - the whatthe-hell-am-I-doing lurch in your stomach you get jumping off a cliff into deep waters for the first time. My rational, conscious self always seemed a step or two behind my emotional self, which apparently wanted to plunge headfirst - or maybe I should say fist-first - into another fight.

And yet it wasn't solely my emotions taking hold of the controls - an out-of-body experience in which I saw myself react with anger, with a furious, physical response. Afterward, even once drained of adrenalin, when logic and rational thought returned, I still believed myself to be perfectly justified. And, later, when I told others about my violent outbursts, I framed them so that I was the Man in the White Hat, the knight on his trusty steed, in a battle of Good against Evil. I redacted my own fight-lust, the bald desire for bloodshed. There was a part of myself that I was hiding from myself.

In other words, I was rationalizing my own behaviour, which I have since learned is a common characteristic of male violence, whatever form it takes. That raises the question many people are rightfully asking these days: How do you change that part of a man that, at some level, he refuses to fully own up to?

Even though I spoke to dozens during the course of researching my book, Mad Blood Stirring, I won't try to answer for other men. But I've done enough reckoning of my own that I think it's worth outlining my own approach. It's been effective so far, but, fair warning, it's not likely to prove popular. But first, let me tell you what I ended up doing to the guy in the pickup truck: Nothing.

I came to a stop at a red light. I took a deep breath. True, I again considered making a U-turn, but without much conviction - the way you toy with the idea of going to the gym when really all you want to do is watch Netflix. I considered my daughter, waiting at home, and my wife. I was supposed to cook dinner for them. I considered the possibility that I had mistaken the look on Mr.

F-150's face; that it wasn't actually a sneer. That perhaps he may have inadvertently drifted into my lane and and that he was grimacing at his own perilous mistake. I told myself that I'd made a vow - that I'd never get into a fight again. The light turned green. I drove away. By the time I pulled into my driveway, the venom was almost entirely gone.

I'm proud that I've been able to implement this change in my life, if pride is the right emotion. But I'm cautious, too. I'm like an alcoholic, at some level, aware that I must remain vigilant against the darkness inside me, the monster that rises up, the Hyde to my Jekyll, the Hulk to my Bruce Banner.

After thinking about the subject of men and violence for the past several years, I don't have many clear answers as to why men are so frequently violent, at least none as clear as I'd like.

But learning what I have about men - about our nature, our predispositions, our deep history and the darkest parts of our inner lives - there is one clear question that I've been asking myself, and which I think other men need to ask themselves: How does one go about being a man in the world?

I've had to re-examine the parts of myself that I wanted to keep hidden away from myself - namely the part of me that felt justified in using violence to solve problems. The justification - the sense of entitlement that I felt when using violence - was just as much a part of the problem as the violent acts themselves.

Now for the part of my approach that's going to be unpopular: The emotions that led me to fight are a normal part of being a man. Not that these emotions are specific to men - there are, of course, plenty of violent women out there, and many gentle, peaceable men. But on the whole, men are responsible for the vast majority of violence, from bar fights to sexual assault to genocidal pogroms. And all the evidence suggests it has something to do with the timbre of our internal lives. While this timbre is profoundly shaped by our environment, by social values and learned behaviour, it is also related, in part, not simply to being a human, but to being a human male.

However unpopular it is to assert this, the fact remains that, on the whole, male bodies and female bodies tend to be different, including our brain, which is the seat of our emotional lives. It stands to reason, then, that what's going on in those brains may differ slightly from time to time, and in specific situations.

One of the most well-studied of these differences lies in our hormonal systems. Men, on average, have about seven times more testosterone in their bloodstream than women. Testosterone is, among other things, intrinsically involved in libido but also in the response to perceived threats, challenges and changes in social status. It plays an important role in risk-taking and in the desire to maintain a high-status position in the social hierarchy. In nonhuman animals, injections of testosterone will induce aggressive and violent behaviour. In humans, that relationship is not nearly so clear. Testosterone injections don't make people violent. But it can make them edgy, impatient and angry. What is more clear is that when men are young and at the peak of their testosterone production, they're also at the most risk for being violent.

I'm fully aware that science - at least pseudoscience - is often used by proponents of so-called men's rights to justify men acting horrendously, or to support the claim that men are good at math while women ought to stay home and bake cookies. Nonsense, of course. I am not arguing that "boys will be boys," that we can't or should not be expected to control our own violence.

Wanting to do it is another matter, and that's what I wrestled with for the longest time. I knew my hero complex, if that's what you want to call it, was both stupid and dangerous. But it made me feel like a man. A badass man.

I genuinely liked this feeling. That is why I think we need to pay closer attention to the historical antecedents of these emotions, which are so powerful - and at some level, so attractive - that they threaten to override and distort our capacity for rational thought and true self-awareness.

This almost certainly has something to do with the fact that these emotions evolved long before rationalism - an extremely late addition to the animal kingdom. Before this time, the subjective motivation for all behaviour was instinctual and emotional.

Creatures that felt a strong urge to breed, that felt compelled to hunt and search for food, that felt a fierce need to protect themselves and their kin from predators and competitors, were more likely to act on those feelings and, in turn, survive to pass on those same drives.

The most important thing to keep in mind is that these emotional drives worked because they were inherently self-rewarding - they still are. To deny these feelings in ourselves - to ignore the overwhelming evidence that they are part of our very nature as a physical organism - is to willingly refuse to take hold of a powerful lever of self-control.

Here's how I've taken hold of that lever: The kinds of fights that I've gotten into during my life are the most common (and most deadly) form of male violence - one-on-one conflicts between two young men that often begin over a small disagreement and then escalate quickly into a physical confrontation. Men have been doing this since before we were men - that is, Homo sapiens.

Humans, as with other social animals, are preoccupied with sorting out where they stand in the social hierarchy. There are a million more civilized ways of doing this, but physical confrontation is a regular go-to among young men. This is undoubtedly the result, in part, of social mores; young men learn that fighting mano a mano is a way of being a de facto man. But it's also true that, absent other options, it's a natural default. It's certainly the default among males throughout much the rest of the animal kingdom.

Scientists who study violence in non-human animals refer to it as a "contingent strategy," meaning it's a behaviour that's elicited under specific circumstances - generally threats - and triggered via specific emotions - generally fear and anger. Provoke even a lowly mouse, and that mouse will lash out. There is, after all, no survival without self-preservation.

And there is no self-preservation without the inherent capacity to get angry, aggressive and physical. The way I react - the anger I feel toward another aggressive male - is one of the contingent responses we've evolved as a species.

As with many other social species - and all of our fellow primates - holding our own among other males was vital throughout most of our history. And so I suspect that part of the reason it's proving difficult to rid society entirely of these values is because, throughout most of human history, they were inherently valuable. They certainly still feel that way to me.

The problem we're faced with in the modern world is that those instincts that were so vital to our survival for so long now work against us in most cases. They certainly work against making the world a place where might is no longer right. The trick, for me at least, has been recognizing that it still feels righteous. That it was built to feel that way, even though, in the context our modern, civilized, rule-of-law society, that feeling is almost often wrong.

Thinking about this, the fact that we must navigate the modern world with stone-age emotions, has drastically changed how I perceive myself when I'm face-to-face with another belligerent bro. The emotions telling me to smash his nose are still there, still powerful, but there's now a bulwark of self-awareness - a meta-awareness, even - preventing them from spilling out into the real world. I no longer see myself as the Man in the White Hat. I see myself as I am in that moment: a male primate convinced by ancient and powerful emotions that he has every right to be physically dominant. It's not a flattering view. That's part of the reason it works: It takes the wind out of the sails of my own selfrighteous anger. It gives me a moment's pause. And in that pause, I am able to be - I choose to be - the better, more sober, more civilized version of myself.

Being a man is, for me, first and foremost a moral endeavour. The central challenge of that endeavour is learning to control these ancient emotions.

It has not been easy to fix. It was not the result of an epiphany that made me suddenly pacifistic.

It is a constant, fragile and mindful struggle. Primarily it involves a change in my daily habits: recognizing when I'm walking around angry, looking for a target; meditating regularly; paying attention to sleep and diet, getting regular exercise; avoiding booze. Driving slowly, calmly and avoiding being late so I don't fall prone to road rage. Carrying a $20 bill on me so I can coax a drunk off the subway with something other than my fists. It's a new way of being a man. Not as thrillinducing, but a whole lot more honourable and ethical.

To my own surprise, many of the the men I talked to while researching my book - including some of the men who have done truly abhorrent things - often came to a similar conclusion about themselves: that their failure lay in controlling these ancient and destructive emotions. For them, this recognition came too late. Part of that was because they were forced to acknowledge and control these emotions only after they had already indulged them.

I recognize that among men with violent tendencies, I'm likely one of the more self-analytic. But self-analysis is a skill that can - and ought to - be developed. I suspect that if we talked more openly about these emotions, we could encourage more men to live ethically, more honourably.

Before they succumb to the darkness.

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