Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Death of a Salesman -- Male Suicide Is All the Rage

Recently I watched a television version of the all-time classic play Death of a Salesman. I was struck by its continued relevance today, in this time of economic uncertainty when so much pressure is still applied on men to be successful providers.

As you may remember, Willy Loman, our anguished hero in Arthur Miller's tale, was a salesman who covered seven states in the New England territory. He drove for miles, suffered from great loneliness and isolation at times, but always had to approach his clients with a smile on his face. He had to pump himself up every day when he looked in the mirror, telling himself that he was the best, he was going to make it big time; for sure, he would make a million bucks! Except that he didn't.

In every way, Willy was an ordinary man who tried to convince himself that he was extraordinary because his occupation required him to do so. What he was selling was not so much a product as himself. And if he failed, he couldn't admit it because that would be admitting weakness when Willy was a typical macho man of the 40s. But how much has that changed?

The main beneficiaries of the gender revolution of the 60s and 70s were women, not men, and rightly so initially because women had to be brought up to par (we're still not there in terms of pay equity or equal representation in Congress and Parliament, as top CEOs of companies or studying for Ph.D.s in math, science and engineering. But the focus for several decades has been on improving women’s lives by meting out greater penalties for sexual harassment, domestic violence and sexual abuse, and this emphasis has been at the expense of neglecting male issues such as Willy's.)

When we first encounter Willy, he’s having a nervous breakdown. He keeps crashing the car and his faithful wife Linda discovers a hose in the basement connected to the furnace. She knows that he’s trying to kill himself but she can't bring herself to talk to him about it because she's afraid she'll hurt his ego. And Willy can't talk to his wife about his fears because it would be emasculating. (Although women suffer depression more often than men, men are far more likely to commit suicide for a variety of complex reasons, starting with the fact that they don't seek medical help; they don't confide in others because they need to keep up a sense of bravado; they have higher rates of alcoholism and drug addiction than women [but women are catching up]; and most importantly, they choose more dramatic methods such as hanging and shooting.)

Men are particularly vulnerable to suicide during periods of unemployment. At the age of 63, Willy had been placed on straight commission and his salary had been slashed by a company that he’d worked for for 35 years. When he complained to the new CEO, the son of the original owner -- a boy who Willy had known all of his life and even named -- Howard shrugged him off. “Just business,” he explained. “Nothing personal.” “Get yourself together!” So much for loyalty, dedication and reward for a lifetime of hard work. Willy was no longer producing, consequently, he was disposable.

One thing that I noticed this time around that had escaped me during previous readings of the play was that Charlie, a mere acquaintance of Willy's, offered Willy a job but he refused to take it because of his pride. Willy was too good for the $25 a week job. He was a salesman through and through and he was better than that. He needed his old job back for the sake of his self image; anything other than that was simply charity or beneath him.

We all know the ending to this sad story: Willy kills himself so that his family can collect $20,000 in insurance money. His sons, one a full-time Lothario and the other unable to commit to any sort of decent job, view their father's death differently. One sees it as the end of the American dream and his realization is liberating to him. He will no longer strive to be perfect or extraordinary. He, Biff, will be perfectly happy to be just like everyone else. The other son, Happy (who is anything but), is more resolute than ever to carry on his father's illusions about life and what it means to be a man in this society.

In these troublesome times, with tens of thousands of layoffs and people literally losing the roof over their heads, how many more company men will decide to make the final exit? In Britain, five times as many males between the ages of 15 and 34 kill themselves as females. This rate drops a bit and then rises dramatically from the age of 65 to 75. According to the World Health Organization, Canada is ahead of the United States in terms of male suicide at 21.5 men per 100,000 people compared to 5.4 for women versus 19.3 men per 100,000 and 4.4 women in the US [].

When suicide is the third leading cause of death in Canada, followed only by cancer and heart disease, and men outnumber women four to one, why isn't this considered a national crisis? We don't need the deaths of any more salesmen! We need to encourage true sex role equality, where we say that we want men to be open about their feelings, from sorrow to rage, and we mean it and don't ridicule them behind their backs. We need to reduce the pressure on young men who are trying to find themselves professionally and in the work world, and let them know that they don't have to be perfect or support entire families without contributions by their mates. We need to stop thinking about men as the ones who are violent and privileged – men as the problem --and realize that the traditional male role is just as confining as the female role, and in some respects, it's worse.

In his book The Myth of Male Power Warren Farrell argues that only men are drafted in North America; men may well be the greatest perpetrators of violence but they’re also the largest number of victims of violence; men work in many occupations that are physically dangerous like firefighting and construction; and men suffer domestic violence at equal rates to women, although women are far more likely to be seriously injured or hospitalized when a man hits them. And something is dreadfully wrong when our young men, the next generation, our greatest resource, have already decided at 25 that life is too difficult and painful to bear.

Sunday, March 08, 2009

Happy March 8! It's International Women's Day.

Congratulations to us. We've made such strides in the 56 years I've been on this planet. Women in equal numbers in law and medicine. Women in the Supreme Court, women in the legislature and a woman who almost became president of the United States. Yahoo! But there are areas where we still fall behind: hardly any women in the math and sciences, lack of equal representation in Congress, the oppressive beauty ideal that continues to plague mainly women but also men in some industries, and the things that we do to ourselves in relationships.

In the last week, I've written two short articles about women who remain in bad relationships. This was partly sparked by seeing so much of Rihanna and Chris Brown in the news but also because I wanted to do something for IWD to send out an empowering message.


Smart Women Being Stupid

Back by Popular Demand – Smart Women Being Stupid, Part Two

Recently I wrote about women who were attracted to the wrong men, and I discussed one woman in particular that I knew who was drawn to a criminal. I received so many comments about that short article that I decided to write a slightly more in-depth sequel, asking the question “Why?” Why do perfectly intelligent, often well-educated, decent women who deserve so much better fall for men who are abusive? Worse, why do they stay?

In the 90s, the explanation was battered women’s syndrome. The women had been psychologically tortured and beaten down to such an extent that they were no longer able to make good decisions. They were afraid of their abusers, and often stayed for financial reasons or to keep the family together. Some of this may still be true but it doesn’t cover all women by a long shot, and it doesn’t get into the psychological factors that drew them to the wrong men in the first place.

What could possibly make a bad-ass boy look good? Well, to begin with, sexual chemistry is paramount. We can’t really help who we’re attracted to – it’s just automatic. What we would hope is that if we find ourselves attracted to someone who may harm us, we’ll have an internal alarm that says, “no way!” And then we’ll lose interest. But some women don’t have that alarm. The bad boy is sexually appealing, perhaps because he acts more overtly sexual; he may be more flirtatious, charming or lustful. He may make the woman feel wanted physically in a way that other men don’t because he doesn’t mind crossing lines.

The bad boy’s behavior may start out being something minor. Perhaps he just seems nonconventional. He’s not afraid of authority. He bends the rules or makes his own, so he comes across looking like an alpha male when in fact he’s just defiant or self-centered.

Some men are drawn to the chase and often prefer a woman who plays hard to get or acts like a bitch (and men are also abused. Domestic violence statistics now reflect an almost equal number of men being hit or hurt physically or emotionally by their partners, although women continue to be more likely to be seriously injured or hospitalized by male violence, largely because of their smaller physical size.) Even though they’ll deny that this is true, some women have the same tendencies to go for that guy who appears distant or unavailable. None of us is particularly interested in a drooling puppy dog or anyone who comes across as even remotely desperate or lonely. If a man acts aloof, or is very attentive sometimes but standoffish and distant other times, the healthy response is to think, “This guy is definitely not for me.” The unhealthy response is to start humming “I’m Going to Make You Love Me” by Diana Ross and the Supremes.

Likewise when the relationship starts to go bad, particularly when a man has already hit a woman or injured her the way Chris Brown hurt Rihanna. Those of us watching that sad drama unfold kept rooting for her to leave him and stay away. Don’t go back, I was shouting at the TV. Press charges! I don’t care if he’s 19 years old, he’s probably not going to change. But no matter how hard I yelled, she couldn’t hear me.

This may be true of the women in your life. In my last post, I said speak up if one of your friends or family members is involved with someone who could seriously harm them, but that’s not always effective. We can talk until we’re blue in the face but adults will do what they want to do. Women don’t leave for many reasons. Aside from obstacles with money or children or actually fearing for their physical safety (which is not extremely common, by the way. It is unlikely that your male partner will murder you like my friend Louise. She was killed by a man who had already been in jail for killing another woman so he was a criminal. And women are not killed in huge numbers by their partners. This is a misconception.)

The main reason that a woman stays with a guy who hits her is that she still loves him. She remembers when he was different and when things were good between the two of them. He begs on bended knees for forgiveness, and tells her it will never happen again. She wants to believe him because she wants it to work out between the two of them, even when the rest of us can see that’s not gonna happen! And that he never was the guy that she thought he was early on in their relationship because he was only putting his best fake foot forward.

All of this is compounded if either party uses drugs or alcohol to access. Drinking and drugging impair our judgment, and predispose women to choosing men who also drink and get high – a great pair. Two people who aren’t thinking right and who’re living in a purple haze. Drugs act as great disinhibitors and if a guy has any violent tendencies, whatever control he had over them is likely to lapse when he’s drinking too much.

What role does self-esteem play in this picture? Clearly, someone who is involved with a guy who beats her, or breaks her jaw, can’t feel very good about herself, but which came first – the low self-image or the bad relationship?

When a woman can’t or won’t leave an obviously dangerous situation, I think the best way to treat that is the way we do with addiction. Loudly and strongly voice opposition to the behavior, but offer warm and loving support to the person. Condemn the act, but let that friend or sister know that you’ll be there for her to help her get out of the quicksand. Have a family intervention or a group of friends get together and tell this person that she’s putting herself in harm’s way. Recommend a good counselor to help her work through her issues related to relationships in general, all of which will be very individual.

And remember, it’s not her fault -- blame is futile. It’s judgmental and helps no one -- but it is definitely her responsibility to get out of a toxic relationship. And if we love her, we’ll extend our hand and stand by her every step of the way.

Friday, March 06, 2009

For International Women's Day -- Empower Yourself by Choosing Your Relationships Carefully

Smart Women, Dangerous Choices

Some women are attracted to bad boys. They may be alcoholics, married men, or men with an attitude like Stanley Kowalski in Streetcar Named Desire, or James Dean in Rebel without a Cause. The worst type of bad boy is a convict or an ex-con and sad to say, there are many women who fall for these men. Why is that?

It may be that a woman likes an element of danger in her relationship. She could like the idea of taming the beast. So she chooses a man who’s rough and tough, or brags about his infidelities because she believes that she is going to be the one woman who will make a difference in his life. She will be the one who will make him faithful. She will be the one who gets him sober. She will be the one to change him.

That kind of thinking can be very dangerous. An acquaintance of mine fell in love with a prisoner. She was a member of my David Milgaard support group. While the rest of us were working to free David Milgaard, a Canadian man who had been wrongly convicted of murder and spent 23 years in prison, my friend, Louise Ellis, worked tirelessly to get a guilty man out of prison.

Louise met Brett Morgan at Milgaard's Supreme Court hearing in 1992. Morgan was a "jailhouse snitch"; he claimed that he shared a cell with a man who confessed to killing a woman that someone else was doing the time for. Louise admired Brett for coming forward. His motives seemed altruistic at the time, so she introduced herself to him after the hearing. They exchanged addresses and began a correspondence, which culminated in a passionate affair.

Brett was in jail for killing a woman in Edmonton. He had been charged with manslaughter and only served eight years out of his ten year sentence, thanks to Louise spending her hard-earned money to get him the best lawyers in town. How did he repay her? Brett went to live with Louise when he was released from prison. Nine months later, she went missing. I was part of a search team that went looking for her. Her remains were discovered in Wakefield, Qu├ębec three months following her disappearance. Morgan had strangled her after she intimated that she wanted to leave him. He was convicted of first-degree murder, but he never served out his term because he died of hepatitis C in prison.

Was Louise Ellis a fool to have taken a chance on Brett Morgan? Some people think so but I disagree. Louise was a 46-year-old freelance journalist. She was bright, pretty, spunky and spiritual. She was a dynamic person and a social activist. Louise gave Brett a second chance in life. She believed in him and he was convincing — I know because I met him. Louise wanted to save Brett. She tried to play Florence Nightingale and it cost her her life.

In the past, women were often held responsible for their own misfortunes when they met violent ends. If a woman was out alone at night, wearing a short skirt in a bad neighborhood, and she was attacked or raped, people would shrug and say, "She asked for it." We now recognize that archaic attitude blames the victim.

What can we do about this tragedy without blaming the victim or judging these women for their actions, but at the same time holding them responsible for making bad choices? We can all encourage the women that we know and love to take a hard look at the men that they’ve chosen as partners. Do these men have a temper? Have they ever struck a woman physically? Are your female friends constantly choosing men who have glaring flaws, hoping and believing that they can change them? No one changes another person. The only time that anyone changes is if he or she decides to do that for his or her own reasons.

We all have daughters, sisters or colleagues who might benefit from our advice, even if they don't want to hear it. Women who are consistently attracted to the wrong men may need counseling. Or maybe they just need to know how valuable they really are, and that it’s not worth the risk to be involved with a bad boy.

If we manage to save one life by speaking up, it's worth it. I'm sorry that I didn't voice my disapproval about Brett Morgan more emphatically to Louise Ellis. Perhaps if I did, she might be here with us today. By the time that she considered leaving him, it was already too late because that’s precisely when certain men become dangerous. Think of Nicole Brown Simpson. Neither Nicole nor Louise realized that they needed police protection after they told their spouses goodbye.

On a larger scale, women's magazines and Hollywood movies need to recast their male heroes. There's nothing sexy or romantic about an ex-con or a tough guy like Chris Brown. A goofy, kindhearted man like Ray Romano on Everyone Loves Raymond is a lot more attractive than Marlon Brando in Streetcar Named Desire. If we can get that message out globally, we could save some women and their families a lot of heartache.

Sigrid Macdonald is a longtime feminist and social activist. She is an editor, book coach and the author of two books including D'Amour Road, which is dedicated to Louise Ellis.

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