"The Man They Wanted Me to Be" is part memoir, part cultural/sociological study, and part sequel/companion volume to "The People Are Going to Rise". (Sexton refers to some of the same events & observations he made in that earlier book here.) Sexton believes that the "dark heart" of the rage he witnessed during the 2016 election campaign and beyond is primarily expressed by privileged white males, personified by Donald Trump.
Sexton takes a long, hard look at the issue of toxic masculinity through the lens of his own life story. He grew up amid poverty and domestic violence in Indiana, raised by a single mother. His father lived nearby but was mostly absent in his life until he was a teenager; he had a succession of three stepfathers who abused him as well as his mother. Sexton struggled to live up to his family's and community's expectations of what a boy/man should be:
To my relatives I was "different," a word I'd heard then use in a suspicious voice whenever they thought I was out of earshot. They were uncomfortable around me, thrown off by how I spoke and how often I'd ask questions that required more than a monosyllabic "yes" or "no," or one of their customary grunts or groans women had learned to translate out of necessity. I talked about feelings, read books, and when I played with my toys, even the action figures and robots that all came with missiles and machine guns, they spent more time communicating than battling each other. (pp. 4-5)I've read a bit about toxic masculinity in the past, but most often in the context of feminism and how it affects women. It was intriguing to read a well-written, thoughtful take on the subject by a male author who has lived with it and been profoundly affected by it. I was reminded a bit, as I read, of "Hillbilly Elegy" by J.D. Vance, which I read two summers ago & reviewed here. (Vance grew up in a working-class family in Ohio, the son of a teenaged mother who became a drug addict & went through numerous marriages & boyfriends. With the support of his grandparents, aunt & some caring teachers, Vance eventually joined the Marines and then attended university, including law school at Yale.)
Sexton's story -- the abuse he endured as a child, his self-destructive behaviour as a teenager & young adult, and his near-suicide -- is hard to read at times. His hospital visit with his dying father, who gave him his blessing to take a job in far-off Georgia, had me in tears. I was happy to see that, near the end, he offers some thoughts on how change can be facilitated. He admits to being both annoyed and puzzled by his students ("Already, at thirty-seven, I'm of the age where I can barely stand the popular culture of the day," he writes on page 238)(lol) -- but he recognizes that young millennials are far more flexible when it comes to gender issues than previous generations. In them, he sees hope for a better future.
This is an important and impressive book. It deserves to be read & discussed widely -- by men in particular (although we know, sadly, most of them probably won't pick it up...!). I gave it five stars on Goodreads.
This was book #21 that I have read in 2019 to date, bringing me to 88% of my 2019 Goodreads Reading Challenge goal of 24 books. I am (for the moment, anyway...!) 10 (!!) books ahead of schedule to meet my goal. :)