I have known a father, two husbands, and a number of lovers. I have a 25-year-old son. And still, much of the time, I don’t understand the language of men. In an epic, more than 50-year struggle, I tried to talk to my father; I tried to listen to him. I tried to parse his words and even what he didn’t say. In my marriages, my relationships, I made many mistakes by being both too honest and too fearful of honesty. My son and I are close but I think we still confound each other sometimes. There is a clear difference between the ways men and communicate but it goes way beyond Debra Tannen or John Gray. Yet I know that trying to bridge those gaps is absolutely necessary.
In today’s political climate I am often horrified by some of the things men in power say: about the way they wish to take women back to the days of our mandated silence, our inability to control our own bodies; to those days even when women were sent to the madhouse for disobeying or being combative. In no time in my life have the differences between the sexes seemed so very sharp.
And yet there are many of us, still and always, who search for ways to communicate better with the men in their lives.
Such is Anthony D’Aries journey in his compelling memoir The Language of Men. D’Aries uses a trip to Vietnam to validate his father’s experiences in the war there and as a spring board to chronicle his own life-long need to understand his father. The surprising result is an examination of his own language and the illumination of the language of men in general. D’Aries provides keen insight, for this reader, into the male mind and guides us through his own journey as he discovers the costs of speaking like a man.
D’Aries grew up in what seems at first to be an almost pathologically normal family: father, mother, older brother; working class, close. But his mother worked a series of difficult and low-level jobs, his father ruled with both brutality and love, and his older brother provided a role model of a man not to be like. The television ran constantly like a meme, often violent films that the family of men would watch over and over.
A man’s man, D’Aries describes his father as smelling of Winstons, coffee, gasoline, a hint of Old Spice, a whiff of bologna. “I picture him on a billboard, straddling a dusty horse, cowboy hat tipped over his face, leather reins clenched in his left fist and in his right a small bottle of amber cologne. Work by My Father.”
This is a romantic portrait. His father was nothing like that picture, except in his son’s overactive imagination. D’Aries had the same view of his grandfather, who lived on a farm and had hands busted and split by work, the same kind of hands D’Aries’ father had. He worked in a deli, a job to which he would sometimes take his son, a place which “took a piece of almost all his fingers, the flesh slivers ending up ‘in someone’s ham sandwich, I guess.'” The hands of his ancestors were the hands he wanted to inherit. But some larger part of the author realized that with that kind of inheritance came a sort of manhood with which he was not completely comfortable.
In his off hours, D’Aries’ father taxidermies small animals, many of them road kill. In both his father’s job and his avocation D’Aries rightly sees an undercurrent of violence, a life on the edge of blood, forged perhaps in the war, but just as possibly in his DNA. His father’s talk of the whores he bedded in Nam belie the gentle and courtly way he treats D’Aries’ mother or the respect he seems to have for D’Aries’ wife, Vanessa; it is in fact D’Aries’ relationship with her that prompts him to make the journey into his own past and figure out what being a man really means.
Freely admitting to an impatient and even imperious treatment of his wife, speaking about his use of pornography instead of intimacy, expressly discussing his own inadequate attempts to understand Vanessa’s commitment to health care for underserved women, D’Aries clearly and honestly opens up his life to his readers as he struggles against his demons. His confessions are well worth the struggle: He begins to see, over the course of the memoir, how much he has assimilated from his father, his brother, his male friends, and how much he needs to both understand and discard.
In a telling passage during their trip to Vietnam, Anthony comes close to the ambivalence of his own “language:”
‘Babe, you gotta hear this. My Dad once told me about this Vietnamese dude who…’
‘I’m really not in the mood right now.’
“It’s not that long.’
She sits up. ‘I don’t want to hear any more. I don’t care about the girls he was with or what he spent his money on. I don’t get why you’re so obsessed with it.’
‘I’m not obsessed with it. It’s not like I’m getting off on these stories.’
Vanessa reaches for her water bottle. Then she stands up and tries to turn up the air conditioner, but it’s already on high.
‘Have you even been listening to yourself on that tape? You snicker each time your Dad says “beaver” or ‘jugs.”
I fight the urge to snicker now. ‘Oh, come on. Those words are hilarious. I don’t condone his behavior.’
“Whatever. You stare into every massage parlor we walk past. You take us to that saloon. Then, after I spend all day talking to these women with horrible stories of rape and whatever else, you take me to a movie that’s basically a 90-minute rape scene. And you keep playing me these stories about your Dad doing whatever he did here.’
‘Yeah, but there is a big difference, babe. He didn’t rape or kill anyone.’ My voice echoes off the low ceiling.
‘I’m not saying he did, but those women he was with –‘
‘He was only nineteen. Show me another nineteen-year-old guy who would have done any different.’
She shakes her head. ‘you really think we’re only talking about your father right now?’
My face burned. ‘What?’
To his credit, D’Aries includes that personally unattractive section in his memoir, but he tries hard to learn from it. The fascination and repulsion he feels for his father’s wartime behavior cuts to the core of who he himself is as a man. He searches both his father’s past and his own, looking for answers, trying to figure out just what it is his father was telling him.
Like many children who grow up to be writers (even if they have no idea that that is what they will be), D’Aries spent a lot of time alone or in the company of some very strange friends. There were days he did not speak a word. His room was his “decompression chamber, equalizing the me the world saw and the me I really was.” He pushed back against his own violence, even as he went on odd and dangerous adventures with his buddies. He stole an expensive watch from a relative and, rather than be discovered, smashed it into pieces. His close friend Billy, whose family was far weirder than D’Aries’, provided the template from which he judged his own growing up. But somehow each stage of his life stymies D’Aries, until he begins to collect his father’s Vietnam memories and from them to try and draw a portrait of the man who loomed so large in his life.
Still, like many good men who wish to live an intentional life rather than one shaped by destiny, family, the media, D’Aries struggled with his own impulses, which were often contradictory. He dated a good friend’s ex-girl and destroyed friendships, he gave into his pornography habit even though he adored his wife, he took great pleasure in his father’s unseemly relationships with women during the war, and some part of him envied his n’er-do-well brother who was always getting into one fix or another. Yet his impulses were decent and The Language of Men is the result of those impulses.
D’Aries memoir reads like a film in places: he was influenced by the film of Stephen King’s Stand By Me, by the films of De Niro and James Dean. By the idyllic boyhoods and rough violent adulthood which bumped up against each other. His is a cinematic journey through an ’80s childhood that seems quaintly old-fashioned, almost as if D’Aries stepped out of another, more long-ago decade. There are cars and guns and fights and the simplicity of man against woman that speak of a darker age. But it is important to realize how, in so many ways, the language of both men and women has not changed as much as we might like.
D’Aries obsession with his father’s past is something his father doesn’t completely understand. But for D’Aries to make it work with Vanessa, it is clear he has to come to terms with who he is and who he is is a man shaped by a soldier father; it is clear D’Aries sees the contrast of his father’s war days against who he was later to his son. But D’Aries has his own demons to fight. Up front about his drinking and carousing in college, he and his high school friends (Team Destructo) seem to find their masculinity in the traditional ways of rootless young men: partying, risk-taking, and impulsiveness, all of which D’Aries writes about as though it happened to someone else. This is not who he wants to be. You can feel the push back, even as he allows himself to participate.
Although I continue to try and understand the language of the men in my life, I never got to take the journey toward understanding my father that D’Aries did. His brave and honest book is a testimony to both his persistence and his growth. While, the book ends with a Vietnam-era reunion which the entire family attends, it is not closure for any of them. It answers no questions but rather hints at the possibility of a future new language for all of them.