Yet another tragedy occurred this past weekend with the murder/suicide of Kassandra Perkins and Jovan Belcher. The professional football player was not a traditional male. He had a degree in child development from the University of Maine and was a member of Male Athletes Against Violence. There was no seeming trigger to this tragedy, at least not yet.
We don’t know why a young man with seemingly green pastures ahead of him would take the life of the mother of his baby, and his own. Surely there will be much speculation and condemnation of him.
I have no information about what was going on in his life beyond the headlines, but if he was having emotional problems, which seems certain, I do know this — it would be hard for him to share them with others. I know that because as a member of two men’s groups, one mostly heterosexual and one mostly homosexual, emotional silence and pain is the common denominator of what drives them to reach out for other men.
The model of manhood in America is where this stoic emotional arctic comes from. We have idolized men like John Wayne and Indiana Jones while we denigrate a man who acknowledges his emotions and frequently we keep him in line by calling him gay or saying “he’s such a girl.”
There are few things worse in our society than for a straight man to be considered gay, and to acknowledge his emotions is to run the risk of being considered a tad bit fey, or “questioning” at best.
The problem with this model is that men do have emotions; strong, definite emotions which are corralled into one small holding pen — anger. And then we as a society say that, sorry, anger is not allowed to be displayed because it scares the women and horses. So we have made men into emotional mummies and then we wonder what happened when one of them explodes.
I see the mummies on a regular basis in my office. My child custody clients come in, they are distraught at being isolated from their children, on the verge of tears and yet they refuse to let the tears flow in my office for fear that I will think less of them. I encourage them to cry, but often fail to get them the release they so badly need.
Men are highly emotional creatures and we have been doing them a disservice by denying them the opportunity to release their feelings in healthy and helpful ways. I’ve been lucky in that as part of these men’s groups I’ve seen men grow and open up emotionally. Sadly though I’ve seen the damage done to their lives, and that they unwittingly continued with their friends and families.
I would love to see a cultural change in America. One that acknowledges that a man can show love and affection without having his masculinity challenged. I have seen many an angry man come to a workshop and finally allow himself to feel, only to become a new man when he leaves.
Creating a wide scale change like this will take men and women confronting their own conceptions of what is a man, what is acceptable and what is masculine. I’ve been told for years that it is men who teach men how to be a man — and I find it to be very true. When a man buys into the “Princess and White Knight” paradigm he’s in a lot of trouble. That conception of manhood leads to a stunting of his emotions, a false sense of chivalry and frequently a lack of communication in a relationship.
The strongest men I know are able to open up to a room full of other men about their deepest fears and insecurities and they gain great strength from it. I have seen men grow beyond their one emotional state — anger — into loving, gentle and kind souls. The kind of men that make great fathers, friends and husbands.
We may never know what caused Jovan Belcher to commit such a tragedy, but if it opens up a dialogue about manhood, emotions and men’s mental health, perhaps some good can come from this sad event.
David Pisarra is a Los Angeles divorce and child custody lawyer specializing in father’s and men’s rights with the Santa Monica firm of Pisarra & Grist. He welcomes your questions and comments. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (310) 664-9969. You can follow him on Twitter @davidpisarra