When Jared Yates Sexton was reporting on the 2016 presidential race (his observations fill his acclaimed book The People Are Going to Rise Like the Waters Upon Your Shore: A Story of American Rage), he saw that the "dark heart" of Donald Trump's campaign was guys with backgrounds similar to his own: they were white, working-class and living far from either coast. The Man They Wanted Me to Be: Toxic Masculinity and a Crisis of Our Own Making is Sexton's look at these men and his lifelong struggle to figure out his role among them.
Sexton, who was born in 1981 and raised evangelical in Linton, Ind., entwines scholarship about virulent masculinity's toxicity with personal experience: being taunted as a child for his sensitivity; his and his mother's poverty; their maltreatment at the hands of his father and stepfathers; his later difficulty sustaining healthy relationships with women. Sexton cites research on how "performative masculinity" markers, such as avoiding the doctor, contribute to the recent drop in men's life expectancy, and on how self-doubt in men correlates with hypermasculine behavior. "As men are taught that emotions are for women and the only acceptable means of communication is anger," Sexton writes, "their aggrieved entitlement is routinely finding an outlet in senseless violence."
While The Man They Wanted Me to Be offers glimmers of hope--Sexton recounts his father's transformation in the final years of his life from rage-filled tough guy into introspective Prius driver--the book is frankly alarming. It's also alarmingly good. --Nell Beram, author and freelance writer