Nuclear Fallout

I only write on holidays now.

There’s a parade impeding traffic nearby in celebration of the millions of men (and, in recent years, a few really weird women) who — willingly or via conscription — traveled overseas on the orders of other violent, authoritarian men in order to kill (and rape and torture) people in one of the nearly countless wars the US has instigated or horned its way into. War always has been and always will be the province of men who demand obeisance, crave domination, and have no compunction about the physical and psychological damage their violent whims cause to other human beings. The war impulse doesn’t materialize out of thin air; authoritarian men learn authoritarianism from other authoritarian men, and nearly all men are authoritarians because they’re accustomed to a world ordered around their desires.

The fundamentals of children’s personalities and their understanding of how to relate to other people are formed by the time they enter school. Gendered behaviors become ingrained in early childhood; girls learn to suppress their personalities and opinions, to take up as little literal and metaphorical space as possible, and to consider everyone’s needs and comfort before their own, while boys learn to despise everything associated with femininity, to do everything they can to force their will onto the world around them, to push boundaries, to expect. The degree of male authoritarianism they’re exposed to — in the home, via popular media, by simply looking around — will determine in large part what degree of authoritarianism boys will exhibit toward anyone they perceive as falling below them in the social order. The degree of male authoritarianism girls are exposed to will determine to a similar degree how little they will value themselves and how cowed they will be by men and their whims.

In theory, authoritarian patriarchy — the absolute rule of the father — in the nuclear family is supposed to produce ideal male workers (dependent on the company for their continued household authority), patriotic soldiers, and compliant, agreeable wives (and/or cheap and docile labor). The institution is and has historically been protected by men’s self-serving division of social life into the realms of the public and the private, the latter being the sacrosanct purview of male heads of household, to be intruded upon only in the most egregious of circumstances (and rarely even then). This arrangement has been slowly breaking down over the course of the last few decades, but we ain’t there yet, and we certainly haven’t emerged from under the legacy of the era in which these institutions and the dividing line between public and private were considered inviolable.

Assuming father figures behaved like Lucas McCain in The Rifleman, this arrangement has historically only seemed noxious to feminists (and, in rare cases, anti-capitalist and anti-war activists, though few of them seem to understand or care how this functions). It works great for men, the managerial class, and the government. But when men all tacitly agree that a man’s home is his castle, there is no check on how despotic and deranged the king of the castle can become and almost no telling how far the effects of the “private” sphere can ripple outward into the “public” world.

My maternal grandmother Maria* died when my mom was seventeen, thirteen years before I was born, when she was crossing a street on New Year’s Eve and was hit by a car, after which my mom was taken in by the sympathetic mother of one of her friends. I only met my maternal grandfather Chuck* once for a few minutes, when I was eleven and he was enfeebled by old age and disease. He died about a year later and my mom seemed simultaneously relieved and nonchalant, which I found peculiar given my attachment to my own father.

I knew there was a reason I had never met my mom’s two older brothers, Dale* and Bob*, and had only met her two older sisters, Sarah* and Deborah*, and their adult children once when I was a toddler; details were slim, but she told me on the many occasions when I asked why we spent holidays with my dad’s family and not hers that I was lucky I didn’t know them, the PG version. Reaching adulthood — in addition to inaugurating the horror of hearing my parents tell dirty jokes without whispering the punchlines — brought with it top family secret clearance.

The king of the castle my mom grew up in — even when his wife and children were the only breadwinners within it — behaved like a whiskey-fueled Ivan the Terrible. He routinely brutally beat and sexually assaulted my grandmother in front of their children, abused my uncles so severely that Bob lost several of his toes, and almost definitely sexually abused my aunts and mother (I don’t push when my mom drops hints). Because my mom was fourteen years younger than her oldest sibling, she got to witness her oldest brother Dale unload that physical and sexual abuse onto his own children when he moved them into the house and allowed his mother to support him and them until her death; the apple moved in with the tree and helped suck the last of the nutrients out of the ground.

Both of my mom’s sisters, having had no contrary examples, married abusive monsters who beat them and their children, and Bob ended up dying a homeless, mentally disturbed alcoholic on the street in San Francisco. Lord knows how, but my mom was the only one who escaped the family curse, probably in part because she finally witnessed a functional family when her friend’s mother took her in and she subsequently made the decision to do whatever she had to to avoid what she had grown up immersed in.

I saw my aunt Sarah when I was in my twenties and she was nearing death, and she was the most pitiful being I’ve ever encountered in my life. Here was a woman in her late sixties who had survived unspeakable abuse at the hands of her own father, only to move on to a husband who was just as bad. Her own children physically abused her and had stripped her home of everything in it that was worth more than a nickel. She was completely alone, the paid “caregiver” who spent the entire day sitting on her ass and blowing smoke all over her notwithstanding. That she managed to smile at me nearly knocked me over.

By my count, my mom and her four siblings begat at least fifteen children. I’m the youngest by at least a decade, and I’m also the only one who isn’t either a chronic victim of domestic violence, a homeless drug addict, or a violent criminal of one sort or another. Two of Dale’s sons, Joseph* and Allen*, are serving triple life sentences for three counts each of first degree rape and kidnapping, crimes they committed together after they had been convicted of rape and other felonies in another state fourteen years prior. They’re also on a short list of suspects for over forty unsolved murders in the metropolitan area in which they were arrested. One of their sisters was a prostitute in the same neighborhood in which they stalked their victims. The oxy plugs and wife beaters who round out the clan pale by comparison, but I no longer imagine that I’m missing much by not attending family events.

One violent, authoritarian man with no self-control directly destroyed the lives of his wife and four of his children and severely damaged the psyche of the fifth, and indirectly destroyed the lives of all but one of his grandchildren (and, surely, of most of his great-grandchildren). One of his sons directly destroyed the lives of his wife and all nine of his children, two of whom directly destroyed the lives of at least four women they violently raped (and there is no fucking way there aren’t more). It is nearly impossible to quantify the exponential toll this piece of shit took on the world, all by himself, from a position of zero economic power, simply because his maleness conferred upon him the social prerogative to do it.

This is admittedly an extreme example, but it isn’t as if it’s rare. Domestic violence, misogyny, and general male authoritarianism are hereditary global pandemics that resist cures because they’re shielded by systemic male supremacy, the public/private dichotomy (which, by the way, also shields men’s porn use and prostitution from scrutiny), and the lionization of the nuclear family that stubbornly persist despite decades of effort. Male supremacist societies and authoritarian men produce insecure, angry boys who simultaneously kowtow to more powerful men and shit all over women, children, and men they feel hold less social power than they do. They produce fearful, self-loathing girls who acquiesce to and collaborate with societal and interpersonal misogyny. And they’re responsible for very nearly all violence, up to and including war.

There may be a silver lining here. It’s obvious to me, from personal experience, that nurture can dominate nature in some cases. If the culture of male authoritarianism and supremacy can be overthrown, it will be when it exerts itself in full, brazen public view, and we are there.

*Fake names, obviously.