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Sometimes I wonder what school I went to. I mean, I know perfectly well. I attended a place I never wanted to go: Yale. But when I was 17 years old, my parents — and a familial urge to be upwardly mobile — more than overwhelmed my personal and private desire to go elsewhere. So, in 1962, I ended up at that all-male college in New Haven, Connecticut, and, despite the education I received, much of which I genuinely enjoyed, I’ve regretted it ever since. It was that school’s particular version of all-maleness that did me in — an elite, powerful style of masculinity that I found painful and eerily shameful even then (though men, or boys pretending to be men, didn’t admit to such feelings in those years or, until recently, in these).
I’ll never forget the bravado, the grim over-the-top bragging about what you had done to women. I remember, for instance, my roommate, a rare working-class kid at Yale in those years who had absorbed the ethos of the place, returning from spring break and shouting — I was in our room on maybe the third floor and could still hear him from the courtyard of our quad — that he had done it, lost his virginity, including other grim details of his conquest. The bragging never seemed to end. I was, in those years, unbearably shy when it came to sex, or perhaps to my own lack of experience and pure ignorance about it, and repelled by the version of it that seemed to be the essence of that world of boys being oh-so-male. My only recourse — the only one I could at least imagine then — was to fall into an expressionless silence when the braggadocio began until I could figure out an excuse to leave the room. This, however, proved to be another kind of disaster, since it was more than once mistaken for experience, which meant, for instance, that my roommate would later pull me aside and confess that the “conquest” he had just spent the last day bragging about had actually been a total horror show.
I knew a little of his history before he blew his brains out 40-odd years later and he had, by then, turned into a Roy Moore-style predator, which I always blamed on the world we had both emerged from at Yale. I’ve never forgotten its style of masculinity or, in a way, recovered from it — from the feeling, that is, that I wasn’t a man but just some sort of sorry failure.
While I did, in the end, go on to graduate school, I evidently didn’t go to the one that any number of the men of my generation and after seem to have attended — you know, the one that, as Ann Jones explains, taught you how “manly” and perfectly appropriate it was to enter a bathroom while a woman was in the next room and reappear naked to make grotesque sexual demands.
All I know is that now it’s somewhat easier, thanks to the bursting dam of news about the grotesque (and grotesquely repetitive) experiences that women have had with male predators, to see what that world of supposed maleness was all about and why it felt so shameful to me, even if I then thought that the fault, the lack, was all mine. We are now, it seems, in a different moment. However, let’s remember that, as Jones suggests, sometimes such moments — take, for instance, that of the first black president of the United States — aren’t followed by a kind of enlightenment but by the angriest of backlashes.
Copyright 2017 Tom Engelhardt. First published in TomDispatch. Included in Vox Populi with permission.