MAW #4: The Monster

Why does tragedy exist?

MAW #4: The Monster

Welcome to the home stretch. The penultimate issue of MAW is now available in print exclusively at comic shops. Digital copies are available on comiXology, iBooks, Google Play, and Kindle.

This is part of a series of essays on the series and its influences. We're in final act; there's no way to keep reading (or writing) these newsletters without major spoilers, so please read MAW before you scroll down.

In the original draft of Maw, Howie was named Curtis, and he did not matter. Curtis was a seventeen-year-old boy who worked at a grocery store and spent his after hours tagging along after our main Terrible Man, Felix, whose violence kicks off the “revenge” portion of Maw’s rape-revenge story. He had about three lines, and he was marked for death from the moment we met him. It was possible to pity him, because he was too young to know what he was getting into, but he had it coming. All of the men in that first draft did.

Howie doesn’t have it coming. He’s Diana’s son, raised on the commune, and though he’s now an adult man who lives like a seventeen-year-old — seriously, run the numbers; dude lives in his mom’s backyard and has possibly never owned a shirt with buttons, but he’s got to be pushing forty — the weirdness of his upbringing has given him valuable perspective. He’s deeply empathetic. He’s genuinely nice to women, and not just to get laid. In a story where everyone is obsessed with “justice,” Howie is the only person who raises the possibility that justice is not identical with retribution; he’s the only person who suggests that Marion could heal her pain without visiting it on anybody else.

Howie is also a coward, and his cowardice gets people killed. Every death in the final act of Maw is Howie’s fault: He sends Wendy off on her own, he lets Felix into the commune, he doesn’t tell anybody about the Marion-shaped monster he saw snacking on Felix, and though the list goes on, the reason Howie does these things is always the same. He’s afraid that he’ll get in trouble if he speaks up. Howie is a good dude. Howie is a kind dude. Howie is a dude who opts to save his own skin, pretty much every time.

Maw is a story about “male violence,” and though it’s tempting to present the reader with a succession of terrible men doing terrible things and getting got, life is not that simple. There are men in this world who are kind, who Get It, who are friends to marginalized people, who may be marginalized themselves, and who nonetheless find themselves complicit in heinous shit, because that’s how patriarchy operates. How much guilt do those men bear, and how angry can we reasonably be?

My answer, in the first draft, was “all of it” and “extremely angry.” We have all known men who chose inaction and silence, and we know what that choice costs. In the Netflix documentary Audrie and Daisy, about the rapes of two young girls, Daisy Coleman’s brother Charlie says that he knew most of the boys at the party where Daisy was raped. He'd never trusted the ringleader, Matt Barnett, but two of the boys present, Nick and Cole, were his "best friends." One boy, Jordan, was on the wrestling team with him. What he can't understand, he says, is why none of them spoke up: "Like, how hard would it have been for Jordan to text me and say 'why is your sister at Matt's?' But he didn't. Nick didn't. Cole didn't." When he called his friends to ask what happened, none of them would return his phone calls.

Four years after that documentary premiered, Daisy, Charlie, and their mother were all dead. Daisy and her mother both died by suicide.

One text. That’s all.

You could stay furious about this kind of thing forever. What was the text or the call that could have saved you? Who decided not to speak? Who knew everything, and said nothing, even when no-one else believed you? How much of your pain is the result of the message not sent, the warning not given, the witness who decided it was none of his business? What possible excuse could they have for looking the other way?

The paragraph that promoted Howie from doomed checkout boy to main character comes from a book called Amateur, by Thomas Page McBee. I was reading the book while I was pitching Maw — Howie is shown reading it in Issue #2, for all the good it does him — and, though I’ve recommended it about fifty times in other forums, it got so specifically tangled up in the creation of this particular story that I’m just going to start talking about it again and trust I can hold your interest.

Amateur is a book about violence disguised as a sports memoir. McBee is challenged to a fistfight by some inexplicably angry dude on a sidewalk, and soon afterward enters an amateur boxing match. He wants to know “why men fight,” but he also wants to know why, despite his own evolved feminist consciousness, some part of him really did want to punch that dude in the mouth.

The boxing match, in McBee’s telling, is a kind of blood ritual, a circle where demons can be summoned: His abusive stepfather, his mother’s death, the violence he survived as a child and the violence he might still face as a trans man, and, what is most frightening, the part of him that could actually hit someone, the piece of him that is — scarily, violently, rightfully — furious about all of the above. There’s a quality of ceremony and exorcism here that I find tremendously appealing. McBee has to construct a performance where that other man can show himself, let the monster have its say, so that he can keep it from taking over.

McBee strikes the reader as a kind man, but, more importantly, he strikes us as an honest one. He’s a trustworthy narrator precisely because he never hesitates to implicate himself, and this includes telling us about moments where he could have done the right thing and kept his mouth shut. In the scene that saved Howie’s life, he’s in the locker room:

[Two] dudes, teasing each other with a sharp edge that felt dangerously close to breaking into a fight, called each other ‘faggot’ repeatedly. I’d not heard men who weren’t gay use that word since high school. I sat rigid on the bench, in the middle of lacing my shoes… I would not speak, I could not speak, even as they repeated the word over and over, because they were bigger than me and if I spoke, I was sure they would see me for what I was, and I was afraid of them.

You know what? Fair enough. I am not going to ask a marginalized guy, in a windowless locker room, already managing a risk of violence in that setting, to go and get murdered just to make some shitty guys feel bad about their language. For one thing, the guys won’t feel that bad. For another, the man doing the right thing will feel very bad, due to being hate-crimed.

It is easy to fixate on the men who’ve failed you or sold you out, the men who stayed quiet while their friends hurt you. That picture isn’t wrong, but it also isn’t whole. Patriarchal masculinity is a cannibal cult; the men who succeed devour the men who fail. Men who object to male violence become targets of that violence. We all want to think we’d speak up, if we saw someone being hurt, but in the moment, when you’re alone with a bunch of violent men, and you’re about to make all of those men angry at you, other considerations may well take hold.

Is what Howie did forgivable? Should we be in the business of forgiving Men, writ large, for their complicity in patriarchal violence? The first question, I’m not sure on, but the second is a hard no, and always will be, no matter how many brilliant books I read.

I think that most of the time, when you make the decision to save your own skin, you are also making the decision that someone else will be hurt somewhere down the line. I think that most men are not afraid of being murdered if they stand up to their friends; they’re afraid of being laughed at, disliked, called names, socially excluded, and if you don’t care enough about other people to risk those things, then you don’t care at all. I think that the opposite of me too is not me, that a coward is a coward, that it only takes one text, and if you don’t send that text, that’s who you are: The guy who didn’t bother, the accomplice, just as guilty as anyone who actually touched that girl. I think that if something horrible is happening, and you’re looking around for the guy whose job it is to stop it, you suffer from a fundamental misunderstanding of your role in life. That guy is you. No matter how many excuses you think up, no matter how thoroughly you've convinced yourself you can't make a difference, no matter how scared you are, no matter how much you have to lose, he is you, and he always will be, on every day and in every room.

That's what I think, and I feel rage rising in my throat as I type this, but I am too old, by now, not to see what else I am doing: I'm mourning. I am grieving all the men I thought were my friends, who didn’t speak up when they saw something terrible headed my way. I am grieving how much I liked those guys, the easy inclusion and friendship with men I once wanted; the realization, which came slow and painfully, that not only would they never see me as one of them, most of them would never even see me as a human being. I am remembering what it was like to trust people, to believe in the essential goodness of the world, and I am deeply sorry for that child, because they grew up into me, someone who cannot trust any more than he can flap his arms and fly south for the winter. I'm ashamed of letting those men get close enough to hurt me, and ashamed of being hurt at all, and ashamed of being so worthless to the people around me that they evidently look at me and see someone worth hurting. I am tired of thinking about violence; sad that I think about it so often, just because so much of it has happened to and around me. I am wondering who I would have been, what else I would get to care about, if I didn’t have to think about rape all the goddamn time.

I think the real favor McBee’s book did for me was to let me say all of that, too, rather than sticking with the part that feels powerful and authoritative; the part about how they’re wrong, and I’m right, and being right makes me, like, so angry. He is so adept at charting how anger flows through grief, and vice versa, that it forced me to consider how rage might be a protective cover for other, stickier emotions. It's not the first time anyone has made this point – there's a famous Anne Carson passage that will get you there, if you're short on time – but it is the point we all have to reach, sooner or later, if we don't want to be broken into the shape of our abusers.

Marion’s revenge on the men who killed her sister is violent, because violence feels like power. Revenge is a seductive fantasy, for a lot of survivors, because it is a fantasy about taking control. But violence and control feel empowering to incels and domestic abusers and online hate mobs, too, which is why they take all their frustrations out on women. By the time Marion gets down to taking revenge on Howie, she is completely out of control; she’s drunk, spiraling, ready to enact the worst possible punishment on a guy who was only tangentially and accidentally responsible. She’s someone that a safe, whole, healthy Marion wouldn’t recognize.

I’m not passing judgment. The whole point of Maw is that I think Marion’s rage deserves to be seen and honored, even when it's not heroic; this is my magic circle and the demon I needed to summon, this is the monster that I had to embody so that I could let her go. ("There is a theory that watching unbearable stories about other people lost in rage and grief is good for you – may cleanse you of your darkness," Carson writes. "Do you want to go down to the pits of yourself all alone? Not much.") It is important, though, that the only thing that slows Marion down even a little is talking to somebody who understands how sad she is. Everyone else who sees Marion asks what she is, but Howie asks what happened to her — they see a monster, he sees a badly injured woman. Every other man treats Marion as a threat to be put down. Howie talks to her. He operates from the baseline assumption that she is a person, and as simple as that sounds, it is something a lot of people never try.

Howie was a way for me to write myself through a whole series of risky things – masculinity, complicity – but, perhaps most importantly, he was a way to confront my own sadness without freaking out. He's an overwhelmingly lonely person. He doesn’t belong anywhere, with anybody. The women on the commune will never trust or like him because he’s a man, and the men in town see him as a traitor and a queer because he’s aligned with women. He has no father, because his father is a violent asshole, and thus no-one he could learn from. He has no mother, because his mother will never forgive him for being her abuser’s son. He's pushing 40, and he spends every day alone, in a van, trying to get high enough that he can forget how unloved he is.

Howie could be angry. He could spend his life on MRA message boards talking about femoids and misandry and the red pill, and though I wouldn’t like it, I would understand. Instead, Howie watches the waves and lets the sadness happen. It isn't a good life, or an easy one, but it is a significantly less violent life than most of the people in this story have chosen.

"Can we perhaps find one of the sources of non-violence in the capacity to grieve, to stay with the unbearable loss without converting it into destruction?" asks Judith Butler, reflecting on that Carson paragraph. "If we could bear our grief, would we be less inclined to strike back or strike out? And if the grief is unbearable, is there another way to live with it that is not the same as bearing it?"

Ceding control, letting the sadness be sad, doesn’t feel good. It doesn’t fix anything. But it does keep you from hurting anyone else, and sometimes that’s enough. This is the other kind of inaction Howie is good at, and this one is actually useful: He can sit with his own sadness, look straight at it, without running away into the arms of rage. In the moment he offers that gift to Marion, redemption is within reach. That moment ends, of course. They always do.

Other inspirations for Howie: