Fatherly’s Letters to Boys project offers boys (and the men raising them) guidance in the form of heartfelt advice given generously by great men who show us how to take that crucial first step in confronting seemingly unsolvable issues — by offering honest words. Read all the letters here, or share your own.
I hear you’ve been bullying kids at school: beating them up, stuffing them in lockers, smacking the glasses off their faces. You’re a big 12-year-old boy, well ahead of the puberty curve and angry. You come by it rightly. Your dad was big. I was big. Angry too. That’s all family stuff.
Adults say that it gets better. Maybe it does, but it won’t tomorrow and it more often gets better for the kids who get beaten than the kids who do the beating. The kids who do the beating remain befuddled by the contradiction at their core. “How can I be the biggest kid in my grade, a popular kid, and a budding sports standout,” you’re thinking, “and still feel like a great big nothing?”
Your dad felt the same thing, all through high school. He was big and bad and easily great. I idolized him. He was moving weights at age 18 that I still can’t move in my thirties, after decades of powerlifting training. But he was also tucked away in that big body like it was a turtle shell. He was a big man on campus, but a small man at home, where an even bigger man laid around the house in his briefs, contributing nothing, and having his needs met by an invincible, workaholic wife who hated his guts.
Today, people talk about “gender identity” and “sexual orientation.” Your dad and I didn’t have either of those things until later in life. I don’t recall seeing two people of any gender kiss in a tender way until I was an adult. Based on a recent conversation we had, I’m not sure you’ve seen that yet, either.
In the place of identity, my brother and I had our obligations as big boys; we were meant to wear upon and brutalize our caretakers. Your grandfather was only proud when one of us was suspended from school for beating up another kid. He would pull on those Sansabelt trousers of his, 50 inches wide in the waist, and hurry to the school to rage against the principal or assistant principal or whoever was assigned to deal with his fury. He would slam his big fat fists down on the table and shout that his boys were being railroaded by an unjust system that targeted the preternaturally strong.
During his junior year of high school, your dad decked one of our weird country cousins for flicking his ear in study hall. The poor kid’s jaw broke and there was a big intra-family war over who was paying that dental bill — our father’s pants were big, but his pockets were shallow. Still, our father made it clear: He was proud of your dad for laying out that goofball.
Believe in the Best Men Can Be
Because you’re big, people will expect you to not only commit acts of violence, but receive violence without complaint. Nobody will bother listening when you say, in that wimpy singsong timbre of a pubescent boy, “I don’t like this.” You will remind people of their schoolyard bullies, abusive fathers, and selfish lovers. They will look at you and do the math: A big man is going to be a bad man. A lazy man. A stupid man. A man who will take what he wants because he can grab their skinny arms and push them down. This will isolate you.
I’ll tell you what it did to me. It made me retreat to my room, where there was nothing to do but sit around and think. After a while, I lost my mind and decided that, if and when I became a grown-up, I was going to disappear. As big as I was, I would wander the Earth like a ghost, observing everything while remaining invisible to everyone around me.
Through my twenties, I thought about renouncing and casting off my maleness. I felt trapped — 240 pounds of beef, either a “swole bro” or a “solid guy” — because I understood that these descriptors were, solidity aside, insubstantial. I had questions about my identity, but the answers that emerged from discussions of “post-masculinity” and social change fit me poorly, like someone else’s clothes.
I don’t want to take ownership of this identity term, particularly since I’m married now, but for a long time I was convinced that I was asexual. I wasn’t. I was just operating under the assumption that anytime I touched another person, a smaller person, it was a gesture toward violation. I didn’t want to violate anyone’s space; I wanted to be left alone. So I left the future to others whose identity demands were much more pressing than my own and learned to focus on what I did instead of what I was. I wrote.
As you grow up, my hope is that you step back and think about who you are and what you do. Maybe you’ll accept the cards dealt to you and just be big, but maybe you won’t. Maybe you will construct a new identity, as if from many seemingly mismatched jigsaw puzzle pieces, taking a bit of this and a bit of that and seeing if the result remains true to you.
What you have to do, nephew, is carve out a space to think that’s big enough to accommodate your biggest thoughts. You can’t do much about your parents. Neither could your dad or I. But you can begin preparing for your own life. You can sit alone in your room, dreaming dreams big enough to expand past the confines of your big body.
Oliver Lee Bateman is a journalist, lawyer, historian, and competitive powerlifter. He currently resides in Pittsburgh’s Highland Park neighborhood.