“I was young and I was wild.”

Via Andrew Sullivan, I came across this post by conservative writer Rod Dreher on fatherhood and the way it effected his ability to tolerate violence in movies:

I was a professional film critic once upon a time, but had a sharp and unexpected change in my film-watching habits when my first child was born. … I was at home watching TV when I saw that “Goodfellas” was coming on. It had been my favorite film of the year when it was in theaters years earlier, and I was looking forward to the opportunity to watch it again.
I lasted 40 minutes before the violence sickened me so much I could no longer take it.
This was something very new. … Suddenly, I felt it in my bones in a way I had never done. Why? I think it was the simple fatherly act of holding my newborn son close every day, and experiencing how unbelievably fragile human life is. Watching its wanton violation, seeing the terrible abuse of the human body and the graphic murder of human beings, was literally intolerable to me. It wasn’t that I became indignant about it; it was that I literally could not watch it.

What Mr. Dreher is expressing is a variation on a common theme.  Men often say they were insensitive when young – easily holding violence at an ironic distance.  It’s only with marriage or children – so the narrative goes – that they became sensitive and tender and experienced the fragility of human life.  And while I don’t doubt that experiences such as fatherhood can put a man in touch with sensitive feelings, the “insensitive youth” narrative is troublesome because it doesn’t accurately reflect how young men actually feel.  To illustrate why this narrative differs from men’s actual experiences, consider two different studies.

The first deals with memories of September 11, 2001:

Within about a week [of the attack], memory scientists from New York to Michigan to California (now known as the 9/11 Memory Consortium) were querying people on what they remembered.

The resulting set of data contained responses from more than 3,000 people in seven cities. Following up with those same people one year and three years later, the researchers found a decline in flashbulb memory accuracy that gradually leveled off after year one. In the first year, people’s memories were consistent with the initial responses only 63 percent of the time. After that, however, they only lost 4.5 percent of their accuracy per year.

“People began to tell what I would call a canonical story,” said Hirst, who was one of the study researchers. “The error they made at 11 months and the error they made at 35 months was the same.”

Surprisingly, Hirst said, people tend to be particularly bad at remembering their emotions from the time of the attack. It’s hard to look back at an emotional event without coloring it with hindsight, he said.  (Bold mine.)

The second study concerns gender and aggressive behavior.  I read about this study in the popular press several years ago, and found an abstract on a site called “Gender Matters” (scroll down):

Rethinking sex differences in aggression
Aggressive behavior in the absence of social roles
Jenifer Lightdale & Deborah Prentice (1994)

College students were asked to play a video game in which they dropped bombs on an opponent and were bombed in turn. Students were told that they had been matched with someone at another terminal in the room but would never know who that person was. Researchers knew the gender of only half of the study participants. Among those whose identities were known, males dropped significantly more bombs than females. When their identities were not known, females dropped more bombs than males. However, when debriefed after the game-playing session, girls [sic] whose gender was now known to the interviewer, claimed to have dropped far fewer bombs than they actually had dropped.

What’s interesting about this is it indicates men are more aggressive when they think they are being observed, and less aggressive otherwise.  In other words, men who behave aggressively are often performing in a way they think will bring acceptance and validation from society.

So what do these studies have to do with Rod Dreher’s claim that he was ironically detached from movie violence when younger, yet felt it in his bones and was sickened by it when he became a father?  Or, more generally – since I know nothing of Rod Dreher – what might these studies imply about the multitudes of men whose psychological autobiographies follow the same plotline?  Well, the video game study indicates men feel a need to perform aggressive behavior when watched; the corollary to this, I believe, is that men often feel a need to downplay their more sensitive and vulnerable feelings.  Add to this that memory, especially emotional memory, is highly inaccurate and prone to suggestion, and here’s what happens:  Men cultivate an autobiographical narrative that fits how they think they were supposed to have felt.  If a thirty-something father says he’s sickened by television violence while holding his infant son, he’s met with nods of approval.  He’s justified his sensitive feelings.  But if a nineteen year old man says film violence makes him queasy, he’s met with embarrassed silence.  That’s not the way a young single man is supposed to feel.  So the feeling is excluded from the autobiography he constructs for himself.

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One Response to “I was young and I was wild.”

  1. Clarence says:


    I just think some men are more emotional and sensitive than others, and yes, they often have to suppress this when they are in public. However, younger men and men who are not fathers also have different hormonal profiles than fathers and older men and (as any good death penalty opponent will tell you) parts of their brains aren’t fully developed so I do tend to think there is something to the majority of younger men being more accepting of violence than when they get older, i.e. it’s not just selective memory.

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