Unhealthy masculinities

EUSEBIUS MCKAISER | Wounded by the sins of our parents

This is the first in a series of three essays on unhealthy masculinities: the sins of our parents, their connection to our adult selves and pathways to recovery

08 December 2021 - 09:32
Cowardice is a massive burden to be saddled with. Stock photo.
Cowardice is a massive burden to be saddled with. Stock photo.
Image: 123RF/ unitysphere

When he was only nine years old, Will Smith witnessed his father punch his mother so hard that she collapsed, spitting blood as she did so. He felt helpless and like a coward for not protecting his mom from his dad’s viciousness. Writing in his autobiography Will about that life-shaping event, his adult self is able to draw the connections between being a child witness to violence and his own behaviour as an adult.

Everything audiences have enjoyed about this musician and actor have a connection to that front row seat he had, watching dad’s toxic masculinity dominate the family home. An important moment of realisation for Smith came after a long emotional journey to self-recognition that feeling like a coward at the age of nine had led him down the escapist, creative paths he eventually took.

As he puts it: “Within everything that I have done since then — the awards and accolades, the spotlights and the attention, the characters and the laughs — there has been a subtle string of apologies to my mother for my inaction that day. For failing her in that moment. . For failing to stand up to my father. For being a coward.

“What you have come to understand as ‘Will Smith’, the alien-annihilating MC, the bigger-than-life movie star, is largely a construction — a carefully crafted and honed character — designed to protect myself. To hide myself from the world. To hide the coward.”

Several things struck me about this meditation on childhood.


No boy should pay such a heavy cost for the sins of their father. Yet too many of us men are Will Smith too. And the consequences are devastating for ourselves and for the world. These consequences range from the interpersonal to the worlds of business and politics even.

No child should ever feel like a coward at the age of nine, so much so that deep into adulthood they still consciously (even if with self-understanding) attach that label to their nine-year-old self.

Cowardice is a massive burden to be saddled with at such a young age. It pierces your innocence and leaves an indelible mark. You are immediately in the grip of poisonous masculinity because you feel the world’s unhealthy demand that being male — even at age nine — requires you to be physically strong, to be a protector, to be a fighter, to be “man enough”.

What chance do you have of becoming a healthy lover, a healthy friend, a healthy work colleague, a healthy boss, a healthy dad, when your foundational idea of healthy personhood is sullied by what your dad had role-modelled to you? There is something simultaneously movingly honest and very unsettling about Smith’s recurring reference in his autobiography to the momentous feeling of cowardice that came over him at the age of 9.

No boy should pay such a heavy cost for the sins of their father. Yet too many of us men are Will Smith too. And the consequences are devastating for ourselves and for the world. These consequences range from the interpersonal to the worlds of business and politics even.

I was also struck by the functional purpose that comedy, hip-hop and acting serve for Smith. These are not just art forms that he happens to be brilliant at, that allow him to make insane amounts of cash, and which he identifies with as activities that give meaning to his life, and reason to wake up daily. They are ways of hiding from his nine-year-old self’s cowardice. They soothe him. They allow him to forget about dad’s viciousness and a broken family home.

They are also a search for approval, for signs of doing good and making people happy, in ways in which he had been unable to do good by mom when she was being attacked by dad. That is the sense in which his artistic excellence and achievements are “a subtle string of apologies” to his mother. He craved her acceptance of his career-long apology for being a coward.

This isn’t a book review, so you have to buy and read the guy’s compelling autobiography for the details of how this insight plays out in the choices he makes throughout his life. But one element of those choices is worth lifting to the surface immediately. Smith almost underplays a really crucial point when he admits his conception of love was also critically influenced by these childhood events. His personal idea of love is linked to a deep and desperate desire to never be seen or experienced as a coward, and also linked to his need to be approved of. Markers of being in a loving relationship, for him, were to become synonymous with a feedback loop of approval.

I had to put the book down to meditate on that. It is an incredible admission to make. Of course, in one sense, it is not weird or inherently bad to look for signs of approval in those you think you care for and even more so in those you are certain you actually love. Love — almost paradoxically but actually quite understandably — is not only about you but about me too. You benefit from me loving you but I also bathe in self-knowledge that I have succeeded in doing the things that lovers do, like making each other happy.

Obviously, we do not experience love in such calculating and analytical terms (mercifully). But any reflective conception of love would surely include, without derision, accepting that we seek the approval of those we profess to love in the things we do for them from a motive of love. To that extent, Smith’s approval-seeking is not obviously problematic.

Things become poisonous if we seek approval almost pathologically because of unresolved childhood traumas, like guilt for not having protected mom from the body blows.

Things become poisonous, however, if we seek approval almost pathologically because of unresolved childhood traumas, like guilt for not having protected mom from the body blows. Then you start craving approval, not from a motive of love (even if you think otherwise) but because the only way to stop the painful childhood memories from disrupting your day on the movie set or in the recording studio is to make someone, anyone, laugh or dance or applaud you.

You start seeking approval as a form of self-medication. And, just like addiction to substances, you are in danger of becoming dependent on approval, which is not a healthy way of being in the world. It leaves you vulnerable, anxious and a danger to yourself and to those you interact with. That is how hefty the price can be for boys who pay for the sins of our fathers.

In Concrete Rose, New York Times best-selling author Angie Thomas returns to the events that shaped the childhood of Maverick Carter, who is an adult and a dad in her prior novel, The Hate U Give. Thomas told me Maverick was the one character from The Hate U Give who readers everywhere she toured wanted to know the backstory to. They demanded a prequel. There was an intuitive recognition that Maverick’s adult self must have been fundamentally shaped by early life experiences. That was the impetus for her to write Concrete Rose, which is a genre-defying novel that is more than just Young Adult fiction — as it is classified in most bookstores — but a powerful work that is compulsory reading for all of us.

Young Maverick’s dad is in prison, and he is raised by a single mom who has to hold down two jobs. He falls into the trap of peddling drugs — his way to try to alleviate mom’s burdens — and inevitably his schoolwork gets neglected. Soon a girlfriend falls pregnant and the gangsters in the area try drawing him deeper into their world, and the novel allows us to experience life through his eyes, going in various directions as these narratives unfold and intersect. 

One of the many reasons I have punted the novel loudly over the past year is because Thomas writes it in the register of a young black boy — his English, his subjectivity, his vulnerabilities, his moving through a world that is harsh for black boys, and which do not recognise their — our — inherent innocence as we do white children.

Despite what you might predict from my truncated allusion to the storyline, this book is not poverty porn. It is one of the first novels I have ever read that does justice by black teenage boys. It doesn’t pathologise us as delinquents ready to spend more time in jail than in school. It manages to find the perfect balance between showing the realism of brutal social contexts that shape our future selves, including in his case the effects of an incarcerated father on a boy, while gently but powerfully forcing the reader to stop rendering black teenage boys a problem to be solved rather than young, complex, real human beings to be understood, to be held, to be loved, to be taken a chance on.

I kept thinking of Concrete Rose while reading Will. Is there any one of us who can truly develop self-knowledge about our adult selves without understanding our childhood experiences and, in particular, the deep ways in which the actions of our parents have impacted who we are now? Whether it is nine-year-old Will feeling like a coward for not protecting his mom, or 17-year-old Maverick trying to alleviate mom’s burdens that resulted from choices made by dad that led to criminality and imprisonment, adult Will and adult Maverick are still trying to overcome those childhood traumas.

My parents got divorced when I was about 10. I have memories of both trying to use me to get back at the other. I was once in the middle of my piano lesson at St Mary’s Primary School in Grahamstown (now Makhanda) when there was a knock at the door. Mrs Higgins, my first piano teacher, stopped me in the middle of assessing the quality of my scales and arpeggios. Someone stuck their head inside the room and said my mom was there to see me. I got permission from Mrs Higgins to take a break.

When I went outside, my mom told me very firmly that I was not to set foot at my dad’s place and let him cut my hair. She warned me that if I defied her, I would be bewitched by his Xhosa wife who he had subsequently married. She told me his wife would use my hair and put a spell on me.

As a boy, one of my proudest regular interactions with my dad was when he cut my hair and made me look like him. He was in the army and had to keep his hair short and neat. I loved watching him cut his own hair perfectly. Then he would cut mine. We had the same side-part hairstyle. The lines would be perfected with the help of his clippers and a freshly opened Minora razor blade. He was so good that he could trim me with the razor blade without putting the blade in any fancy mechanism, simply using his hands. No-one was allowed to cut my hair other than dad.

Once he was done, he would always look at me and say loudly, “Now you look like a McKaiser”. My mom’s command that I should not go to him again instilled distrust in me about my dad’s wife and disrupted a little boy’s joy. I would not defy her because I feared her violent rage,  especially when she was drunk.

Perhaps the biggest tragedy of intergenerational trauma is that we set out to be different to mom and dad and so often, armed with a desire to be 'better than my dad was to us' or 'not be as violent as mom was to us', we end up being versions of our parents in both good and terrifying ways.

My dad was never violent. He never hit me. He never threatened me. I have many fun memories of him before the divorce, from sitting on his feet while he did sit-ups — he was a sporting fanatic, unlike me — to searching his jeans pockets for left-over peach-flavoured Beechies the morning after him and mom — when they were not fighting — had gone to a dance at the Recreation Hall.

But dad also tried once to use me against mom. I remember him picking me up at school and driving me close to the white areas. This was before the divorce was settled. He knew one of the social workers, Aunt Mayverine, was asked by the court to interview us to help the court determine what would happen to the kids of this divorcing couple. He begged me to not tell the social worker that I wanted to live with my mom and to tell her I wanted to live with him.

I instinctively asked him, “What will you give me if I do that?” and he replied, “Anything you want.”

As many children would, I simply engaged in this conversation as if it was a game, not quite understanding adults are using children to get at each other.

“Prove it. Buy me a tennis racket right now.”

That same day, even though I do not have any interest in tennis, dad bought me a Wilson tennis racket from Brian Bands Sports. I never used it. 

My version of the full self-examination that Smith has undergone for himself is between me and my brilliant therapist. It is between me and my younger self. Suffice to say the manipulation that mom and dad role-modelled, the distrust that they role-modelled, the emotional warfare that does not have to be physical, are templates I took into adulthood.

I was lucky to have very generous grandparents and aunts and cousins, who allowed me to live with them, experiencing shelter, love and support, as I became a teenager. I did not want to live with my violent mom. But I also feared her too much to go and live with my dad.

I cannot type out all the fragilities of my adult self here but the connections between childhood and adulthood are very clear to me. I sometimes watch a very innocent television programme, for example, and a knot will form in my throat unannounced.

Perhaps the biggest tragedy of intergenerational trauma is that we set out to be different to mom and dad and so often, armed with a desire to be “better than my dad was to us” or “not be as violent as mom was to us”, we end up being versions of our parents in both good and terrifying ways.

Toxic men must be held accountable for their — for our — toxicity. What is also true is that toxic men are fragile boys who never healed. Many of us are paying a price for our parents’ sins. And bystanders, women and children included, are unfair victims of our victimhood.

This article is the first in a series of three. McKaiser is a contributor and analyst to Sunday Times Daily and TimesLIVE


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