I just finished reading the novel Stoner by John Williams, and it is a real literary gem with many rich facets for contemplation (by the way, it’s not about the love of ‘Mary Jane’ – the book’s main character is called William Stoner)…but the most fascinating thing to me about Stoner is the effect it seems to be having on men. This winter men kept asking me, ‘Have you read this book?’, and when I said ‘No’, they would describe it to me with a quality of raw and deep awe, which felt unusually emotionally naked, from a man. When I mentioned this to my friend Julie, she said that she had also witnessed such a moment occurring between two men and had also been struck by it. To me, it felt like there was an earnest subtext in these moments; it felt as if they were metaphorically pushing the book into my hands and asking, ‘Please read this – please…understand.’
Then – well, perhaps you will remember from my last long, interactive essay about Made in China’s Gym Party that I had a short spell of romance earlier this winter. It was very short – lasting only about three weeks and including only three dates. But have you ever had a really short affair with someone that pressed its shape deeply into your heart, very quickly? This was like that. I think he felt it, too. On our third date, the time flew by like galloping horses, and realisation dawned on me with each new turning of conversation that we could talk about everything, that we could map the world together through our conversation. As I discovered him, and felt him discovering me, a subtle sense of mundane social repression lifted, and I began to see there was pure freedom in the space between us, and it felt like I could breathe more deeply, relax, and be perfectly myself. I’m old enough now to know this is rare. It made me feel giddy and amazed. It made me sling back red wine every time it felt so good that it felt unreal. I invited him to stay the night…but there was something about our connection with each other that called up what seemed to be a kind of gentle innocence…to me, it felt like I was starting over again, as a teenager, in a pure heart space. Things were sweet and quite chaste. We kissed, held each other, and slept.
He had to get up before dawn to catch a train, and we said a sleepy good-bye in the dark at my front door. After he left, I turned away from the door to walk back up to my bedroom through the pre-dawn stillness in the house, and I noticed a book on the arm of the sofa in the living room. I went to look at it, thinking he must have pulled it out of his rucksack and forgotten it. It was Stoner. Opening it, I found a message written to me on the second page, and I realised he had left it for me to discover after he was gone.
And so here the subtle sense of entreaty I had sensed and wondered about before was made tangible: the book had actually been pushed into my hands, with a message for me written inside it, urging me to read it. This was the point where the repeated incidences suggesting something intriguing about the book’s appeal to men turned into a perceivable glitch in the matrix, for me. I took it up to bed and started reading it immediately.
Stoner has an interesting publishing story: it was actually published in 1965 to modest critical praise and sales, and a few years later it went out of print. The author, John Williams, was a professor of English at the University of Denver for thirty years, and his largest literary success came in 1972 with his next book, Augustus, which won half of the National Book Award that year. After languishing out of print for many years, Stoner was reissued in 2003. This was followed by several years of a quietly growing swell of re-valuation by various critics and word-of-mouth praise, which has culminated this winter in a flurry of attention, accolades and bestseller status.
The story of Stoner is simple – it follows the life of one man, William Stoner, from birth to death, 1891 – 1956 (a time period which covers the Great Depression and both world wars). He is the son of a silent, poor, farming couple in Missouri. He goes to college, falls in love with literature and becomes a university English teacher. Initially, I was not very interested in reading the book, because it sounded, well, boring. But I was highly curious about the quality of naked emotion that it seemed to elicit in the men who told me about it, and then having the book actually pushed into my hands, and as a romantic gift, made me want to start reading it, and then very quickly the book performed that magic trick that some books can do – it pulled me instantly, powerfully into its fictional world and held me. Added to the power of this holding was a deep enjoyment of the clarity and beauty of the writing.
The first aesthetic thing that struck me about the book was the sombre, grand tonality of its prose, and the pervasive evocation of silence, which is reminiscent of Steinbeck, Hemingway, and also Jim Harrison, perhaps. The prevailing expressive palette of the book is quiet, sad and weather beaten, like the Stoner family farm. The colours in the book are mostly grey, black and white. Like Steinbeck and Hemingway’s work, the silences and muting of colour evoke the vastness of the American landscape, the spaces in between families created by the settler diaspora that was a by-product of the American Dream, and the loneliness of the Midwestern farmer. But these aesthetic effects are just the stage props which hold the fiction within the specific time and space of its setting – and while these are coherently and satisfyingly bound up with the themes of the book, its lifeblood is really the depiction of Stoner’s inner world of thought and emotion. The book is really about the quiet, weather beaten psyche of Stoner, and the profound changes that occur in him as his life unfurls step by step.
The story begins when William Stoner leaves the family farm to study agriculture at the University of Missouri, and one day in a Sophomore English survey class that he is required to take, he experiences an awakening brought about by Shakespeare’s sonnet number 73. His professor, Archer Sloane, says ‘Mr Shakespeare speaks to you across three hundred years, Mr Stoner; do you hear him?’, and in the next moment, William Stoner does:
‘He looked away from Sloane about the room. Light slanted from the windows and settled upon the faces of his fellow students, so that the illumination seemed to come from within them and go out against a dimness; a student blinked, and a thin shadow fell upon a cheek whose down had caught the sunlight. Stoner became aware that his fingers were unclenching their hard grip on his desk-top. He turned his hands about under his gaze, marvelling at their brownness, at the intricate way the nails fit into his blunt finger-ends; he thought he could feel the blood flowing invisibly through the tiny veins and arteries, throbbing delicately and precariously from his fingertips through his body’ (p. 11).
The character study of William Stoner is a beautiful exploration of the human instinct to grow towards light and love, to endure through conditions of barrenness as unexpressed potential until circumstances shift to allow a flowering. It is an exploration of how an individual human nature responds in different ways to the various types of nurture surrounding it. When the basic nature of William Stoner’s psyche is exposed to the sunlight of Shakespeare’s dance of concepts and poetry after many years spent in a state of darkness and silence, he is flooded with a new aliveness in response. The conditions creating the muffled darkness surrounding Stoner at the beginning of the book are poignantly barren:
‘It was a lonely household, of which he was an only child, and it was bound together by the necessity of its toil. In the evenings the three of them sat in the small kitchen lighted by a single kerosene lamp, staring into the yellow flame; often during the hour or so between supper and bed, the only sound that could be heard was the weary movement of a body in a straight chair and the soft creak of a timber giving a little beneath the age of the house’. (p. 2)
One of the profound beauties of the book is that into the barren aches of the silences, separations and muted colours of Stoner’s perceived world, Williams eventually pours light, love, beauty and joy, in repeating patterns of connection and disconnection, exploring the powers of these two states, and showing how they work upon the psyche. Stoner has a brave persistence: he is nearly a cipher at the beginning of the novel, yet an instinct for love and expansion wells up again and again in defiance of the confining nature of the behaviours created by his strange, silent, distant nurture. His parents are characterised as two-dimensional, dour, silent, grim people. This may be a significant evocation of the extremely hard times and circumstances that formed the American people of John Williams’ time, but it is also a picture of a barren and joyless existence. And the child who was formed by it emerged deeply silent, dissociated and lonely. Yet he just keeps growing towards light, and I found his moments of expansion and gravitation towards toward beauty and love to be heroic, considering the conditions of his nurture.
As I read Stoner I began to realise that the book’s structure is strangely simple and almost un-novelistic. It is simply the story of ‘a life’. However, I approached the book primed by a deep wondering about its appeal to men, and I realised that out of all the minute and significant moments that ‘a life’ has to offer, and the infinite possibilities for the creation of stories out of them, Williams selected the moments that represent the male rites of passage in our Western society of the twentieth century. Stoner goes through university, takes the first steps into his career as a university English teacher, makes a decision whether to fight in WWI, marries, buys a house, has a child, finds fulfilment with his work, has an affair with a woman he truly loves, faces turmoil and enemies in his job, loses his parents, watches his daughter grow up, faces a serious illness, and dies. On the surface, it seems like a boring life and a boring story. But along the way, Williams describes with beautiful and precise poetry how these moments feel in Stoner’s psyche, and also how they reconfigure his psyche in a continual process of becoming. The theme of awakening, of becoming, is intertwined with the depiction of each of these thresholds, and via the breathtaking intimacy of the encounter with Stoner’s interior world of thought and emotion, the novel expresses the universal through the minute.
Although I enjoyed reading it, was held quite happily in its thrall and felt a deep enjoyment in the brilliance of its artistry (Williams’ clarity of expression is really something quite special), Stoner didn’t work quite the same on me as it clearly did on the men who had spoken to me about it. At first, I found the sombre tone occasionally a bit too much, a bit too…unlike real life, and perhaps purposefully and somewhat artificially reaching for the tonal register of Steinbeck and Hemingway. It was as if they were composers, and Williams, noticing that Steinbeck and Hemingway composed certain pieces in B minor for certain effects (i.e. depicting the grand, sad, empty spaces of the American Midwest), decided to use B minor, too, just because they did; and at first I questioned whether this was a genuinely felt artistic choice or a striving to be great like them by being like them.
But then I wondered about the men who loved the book. The sombre tone probably wasn’t too much for them – and perhaps they soaked it in, needed it, resonated with it in some way…? And then I thought about the books that do produce the same effect of awe and resonance in me, which Stoner did not: these are the books that also heal, teach and reflect me in a deeply powerful process that re-makes my being in some profound way. I long to disappear into them at regular intervals, turn to them for comfort during difficult times, and I am extremely excited whenever I discover a new one. And it often feels as if they say something about me that I am not able to consciously articulate yet – often they are teaching me something in a deeply poignant process that represents the frontier of my psyche as it is expanding or healing. They bring something new into me, which, before I am able to understand it in a conscious way, is simply held in the ambiguous, unique energies of the book. And I usually feel a desire to share these books with people who are close to me, almost as a way of saying, ‘this is where I am right now – it’s important to me, even though I can’t yet say why.’ And I can see that the tonalities or messages of these books are not as compelling to other people as they are to me, because the specifics of my personal expansion are unique; and this has to do with resonance, a mysterious harmony that happens between our basic nature, the particular stepping stone we are standing on in our personal process of expansion, and the works of art that come into our sphere of consciousness, in a totally unique combination of individual self and artistic piece. With Stoner, it seemed that the way the book had been pushed into my hands, both metaphorically and literally, echoed the moments when I had done the same, in a gesture of appeal for connection and understanding.
But the effect of Stoner seemed to be particular to men. At a certain point while reading it, a couple of chapters in, I looked back at the cover and ran my eyes down the listed quotes from reviews to discover the gender of the rave reviewers: all men, save one review from a woman on one of the inner, opening pages. And so I wondered about what appeared to be a larger resonance between Stoner and men , and in the midst of this wondering, I attended a lecture on 16 March 2014 which was a part of Cambridge University’s Science Festival. It was titled ‘Buddhism and Science: Healing Ancestral Patterns in Psychotherapy’ and was given by Dr. Bronwen Rees, who is a practising psychotherapist, academic, and Buddhist teacher who uses mindfulness (an ancient Buddhist practice of self-awareness and self-management) as a tool in her psychotherapy work.
Dr. Rees gave a fascinating talk that examined the psychological fallout of trauma as it passes through successive generations (you can read the paper accompanying the talk here). One of the most important general points she made was that the term ‘mental health’ is an alienating definition for the process of developing a complement of skills and types of awareness which are, as she said, essentially just the ‘processes of being human’.
She spoke about trauma in childhood and made a point that interacted interestingly in my mind with my question about Stoner’s appeal to men: where abuse of one child has happened in a family, the entire family experiences profoundly negative effects arising from it. Rees writes in the paper accompanying the talk, ‘the family system, as a feedback organisation, is compromised through denial – leaving the victim isolated and traumatised, with other members of the family living narrow lives, trying to keep their own partial version of truth going.’ (Rees, p. 7).
She gave the example of a family where the youngest child is being emotionally abused by a parent and pointed out that the older children will copy the pattern of the abusive parent and learn to bully the victim, too. In order ‘to keep their own partial version of truth going’, in order to keep themselves safe, and their idea of the family as a ‘good’ family, the older children will suppress their natural responses to seeing the abuse, and experience dissociation from normal emotions, like compassion, and the result is ‘silence and secrecy’ about the abuse, as well as a family organised around power dynamics instead of honest emotional expression and responses (Rees, p. 7).
When I heard this, compassion bloomed in my heart for the older children, the bullies – because they are driven into a state of emotional and relational disconnection, and therefore also denied the healthy, nurturing warmth of connection that is our natural due from relationships. (And here I thought of E.M. Forster’s ‘Only Connect…’ from Howard’s End.) They don’t comply with the abuse because they are cruel or immoral; they do it because their sense of survival and safety is based on the need to belong to the family and to believe that the family is okay. The dynamic happens to them when they are young, and they don’t have the ability to understand it and its destructive power, or the strength or maturity to fight against it. And the nature of the dynamic is to make them blind to it at an early age.
I saw an enlightening parallel to this idea, between men and women. It seemed to me that on a societal level men are like the older children in an abusive family dynamic running cyclically for hundreds of years (with women as the suffering younger sibling), who have been drawn unconsciously to participate in our society’s unfair, gendered power imbalance, and who are suffering their own quiet share of sadness resulting from the broken system. I wondered if Stoner, and its great theme of connection/disconnection and sombre tonality, somehow taps and brings to the surface a truth about a current state of collective male ennui at the far end of the cycle: after the older child has been taught to bully and dissociate from his emotions as a means of participating in the ‘family’ (i.e. society), he then finds that he is unable to sustain the relationships that mean the most to him, that the unconscious behaviours he was taught have driven away the true warmth and fullness of love possible in relationships.
I looked at my relationships with men – my Dad, my ex-husband, my ex-boyfriends and male friends, and I started to see them all in terms of the fictional older child in Dr. Rees’ example. I could see how Dr. Rees’ point applied, in various permutations and degrees, to most of them. This child would have a lack of insight into how emotions work from a lifetime of suppressing or denying them. He would have relationships based on power dynamics rather than emotional honesty and emotional connection – not out of a desire for power, but because he was sorted at birth into a category that had certain conditions: where a tenuous sense of belonging required participation in social power games and a muting of his natural emotions. Underneath the suppression, and amidst emotional confusion, he would feel strong surges of love, anger, or grief, and these would find expression sometimes, somehow, but probably through his actions rather than his words. My dad is a quiet, hard-working man – in some respects very similar to William Stoner. I remember that after I grew past the age of free and exuberant child hugs, and he had to respect my physical apart-ness, he used to clap me four times on the back – pop, pop, pop, pop – in moments of pride or love, with such force that my back would smart afterwards. It really annoyed me as a teenager, but of course I know now that it was his oceanic father’s love forced into the only size and type of expression available to him, to the particular sort of man he was raised to be, in the particular society he was raised in.
When I think about how often and how much I have needed to cry to process grief over losses old and new, and how crying has washed my heart and psyche clean over time, and how in our society, and especially for men, this is considered a ‘weakness’ (language which comes from a social paradigm about power, rather than a social paradigm of health or honesty) – I wonder how many unshed tears pool in the hearts of all the men walking around out there. How much grief is stored in their minds and bodies? How dissociated are they from their natural emotional responses? How much guilt do they feel underneath a superficial participation in the rules of a ‘civilization’ that still oppresses women, albeit in more subtle ways now? How asleep are their true natures? How stifled are their needs? Are they…okay?
I live in a sort of Modern Family house-share: it’s been running for ten years, has been lodged in two different houses along the way, and although the house members have changed with time, the ethos of behaving like a family with each other has stayed the same. It’s a happy and peaceful place. Two of my housemates are a gay couple: Paul and Jose. I love them like brothers, and we relate to each other like family. Although it is a stereotype of gay men, it happens to be true that they are beautiful and stylish. I find it endearing how their chiselled beauty and innate style turns various angles of the rooms they inhabit into inadvertent GQ photo spreads – and they are charmingly unaware of this, although sometimes I point it out, and then they flash modest smiles at me. They are good, kind, intelligent and funny. At dinner a few nights ago we talked about the ideas in this essay and the question of emotional suppression in straight men. Here is what they said:
Jose [imagine a sexy Andalucian Spanish accent]: When I came out, um… Being gay gives – a licence. Is that the right word?
Joy and Paul: Yes.
Paul [imagine a resonant, sophisticated British accent with Aussie inflections]: If you go to the pub with a group of straight men, it’s a totally different experience. The emotional language has certain… You express certain things in a joking… Guys can express some of these things, but only indirectly. I find being in a straight male environment very uncomfortable.
Jose: I like being in any groups of people who are a bit freer. I know a straight guy, Pablo – and he is really free. You can talk about anything with him. He loves cunt, though. You should see his girlfriends. [He looks heavenward and the fingers of one hand expand like a lotus flower to express rapture.]
[We stop talking and laugh. A wish blooms inside me to meet a guy like Pablo.]
Jose: But I don’t feel comfortable in gay bars, either… It’s all stereotypes. It’s another place you don’t feel free.
It was interesting to think about this idea of freedom and suppression in terms of Stoner, and how when we’re talking about freedom, what we’re talking about is the freedom to have a natural emotional response, which is what, as Dr. Rees explains, is suppressed in a broken relational dynamic. The brokenness of Stoner’s surrounding culture is strongly evoked by the characterisation of his wife, Edith, who is a disturbing, mentally ill figure, and whose childhood is described as ‘typical of that of most girls of her time and circumstance’ (p. 53). Her conditions of nurture are described in terms of emotional stifling: ‘Her childhood was an exceedingly formal one, even in the most ordinary moments of family life. Her parents behaved towards each other with a distant courtesy; Edith never saw pass between them the spontaneous warmth of either anger or love. Anger was days of courteous silence, and love was a word of courteous endearment. She was an only child, and loneliness was one of the earliest conditions of her life. (p. 54)
The failed marriage between Edith and Stoner is one of the sources of sadness in the book, but it is no wonder that their marriage is a failure. It is no surprise that left to their own blind and damaged devices, and without any chance of a supportive, intervening circumstance in their culture to teach them how to break free of their programming, they will recreate their childhood atmospheric prisons with each other – with Stoner as a silent submissive, and Edith as an actress playing the role of ‘woman’ as it was written by early 20th century American culture, and slowly going mad.
When Stoner encounters real love, something in him is freed. As he falls in love with a young postgraduate English student named Katherine Driscoll, Williams writes: ‘Day by day the layers of reserve that protected them dropped away, so that at last they were like many who are extraordinarily shy, each open to the other, unprotected, perfectly and unselfconsciously at ease’ (p. 200).
The theme of love found, of connection, and the resulting feeling states in the male psyche – and consequently the exploration of the feeling states of loneliness, disconnection and silence – is probably the most important theme of Stoner. The grand modulations between tonalities in the book follow Stoner’s progressions from the dark, muffled aches of separation and loneliness to connection, clarity and light. When Stoner finally experiences real love, the writing comes alive. And then I realised that the sombre, b minor tonality of the other parts of the book form a rich contrast to the bright Major chords of the writing about love and fulfilment, which is a meta-statement of the book’s largest theme. Qualities of aliveness – colour, light, warmth and movement – come into the novel with Stoner’s love for Katherine:
‘Her eyes, that he had thought to be a dark brown or black, were a deep violet. Sometimes they caught the dim light of a lamp in the room and glittered moistly; he could turn his head one way and another, and the eyes beneath his gaze would change colour as he moved, so that it seemed, even in repose, they were never still. Her flesh, that had at a distance seemed so cool and pale had beneath it a warm ruddy undertone like light flowing beneath a milky translucence’ (p. 199).
And he experiences an awakening brought about by this love:
‘In his extreme youth Stoner had thought of love as an absolute state of being to which, if one were lucky, one might find access; in his maturity he had decided it was the heaven of a false religion, toward which one ought to gaze with an amused disbelief, a gently familiar contempt, and an embarrassed nostalgia. Now in his middle age he began to know it was neither a state of grace nor an illusion; he saw it as a human act of becoming, a condition that was invented and modified moment by moment and day by day, by the will and the intelligence and the heart’ (p. 201).
I am beginning to wind down towards a conclusion, but I have one more point to explore, and I also have to finish the personal story I started telling you at the beginning. One of the things that fascinated me as I read Stoner was the clarity with which Williams depicts Stoner’s inner emotional world – and it was apparent to me that this was a peculiarly, particularly male inner emotional world, even though I had never been inside of one before. It was kind of exhilarating to be in it, via the book, after a lifetime of observing the behaviour of men and often scratching my head in bewilderment. It felt as if Stoner allowed me to put on ‘boy glasses’ and see the world for the first time through their eyes. And, quite interestingly, what I saw with my Stoner glasses was that men are also bewildered by me, by us, by women. Of course, I have grasped our mutual, staring bewilderment with each other across this gender divide before, but Stoner showed me an array of things about men I had never seen before so intimately – like the vast, elemental expanse of the male emotional range, which, from my perspective as a woman in a culture of emotionally suppressed men, is so pervasively hidden. And I wondered if that is why the silences depicted in the book feel so poignant. When Stoner sees his daughter Grace for the last time before he dies, he simply cannot get the words out to explain how he feels to her, in a beautiful and sad moment of inarticulateness. She says,
‘Mamma and I – we’ve both been disappointments to you, haven’t we?’ He moved his hand upward, as if to touch her. ‘Oh, no,’ he said with a dim passion. ‘You mustn’t…’ He wanted to say more, to explain; but he could not go on. He closed his eyes and felt his mind loosen. Images crowded there, and changed, as if on a screen. He saw Edith as she had been that first evening they had met at old Claremont’s house – the blue gown and the slender fingers and the fair, delicate face that smiled softly, the pale eyes that looked eagerly upon each moment as if it were a sweet surprise. ‘Your mother…’ he said. ‘She was not always…’
‘You were a beautiful child,’ he heard himself saying, and for a moment he did not know to whom he spoke. Light swam before his eyes, found shape and became the face of his daughter, lined and somber and worn with care. He closed his eyes again. ‘In the study. Remember? You used to sit with me when I worked. You were so still, and the light…the light…’
These are the last words he speaks to her. Moments like these in the book helped me see the richness and complexity of feelings about love and connection in the male psyche, and how the truth of the feelings may find only partial expression, how they may be muted in their outward expression. I saw the diamond-like brilliance of emotional insight possible within the male psyche, as in the passage above when Stoner contemplates the true nature of love as a ‘becoming’. And I saw how much men care about the people they love, and about love itself…and the depth of sadness possible, and silently held, within a man who is unable to create or sustain it. I wondered if the moments of intense connection with the book that I had witnessed with various men during the winter had to do with the way the book articulates for them something they are not able to articulate for themselves, if it shows with depth and precision what men are generally not able to express, and if that is one reason for its profound resonance with men.
I have to admit, though, that I struggled sometimes with writing this essay, because at points I got really angry. It was as if the release of compassion inside myself stirred up the entire section of my psyche bound up with the dynamics between men and women, which has threads leading off to various complexes and memories of moments of injustice, suppression and suffering as a result of being a woman in a male-dominated culture. The suppression is much more subtle now – it is hidden away, but still embedded in innocuous-seeming habits, casual turns of language, and traditions – and it still accumulates in the female psyche, and it still hurts.
And another thing that stirred up my heart, and interacted with my reading of Stoner, was what happened after I discovered Stoner in my living room, in the early morning stillness. The book felt like a tangible expression of the sweetness of feelings passing between this man and me. The date itself – spending time talking to him, looking at him, listening to his voice – set off a reaction of buzzing delight in me, which felt like an energy current through my body. And it seemed like it was happening between us – I mean, it seemed like it was happening to him, too. After the date, I waited to hear from him, trusting that things were going well. But several days passed, and there was no word from him. It felt jarring, in comparison to how he had communicated before, and in the context of how well things had seemed to be going.
After the second day, I started to feel a distinctly uncomfortable caving sensation in the centre of my chest, and bad feeling in my gut. I wanted to ignore these. I consulted my Past Self: She said, ‘Do you remember what has happened in the past? Like the time you met this amazing guy, who made you feel instantly electric, delighted and free, and then he stood you up on your first date. When he eventually came to apologise and ask you out again, you ignored your instincts, told him it was fine, and then for the next three years he walked all over you. He stood you up many more times after that, because you told him, ‘that’s okay’. You have doormat tendencies. You need to evolve now. Tell this new guy it’s not okay to spend time in your bed and then not be in touch about whether he wants to see you again for days.’ It was hard to hear this – she was so unsentimental. It clashed painfully with how much I liked him and how badly I wanted things to go well.
I also consulted Paul. In the wide spectrum of gayness, Paul’s way of seeing things is more typically masculine. Jose is more like me in how he thinks about these things. Paul said a very wise and important thing, which I took to heart: ‘You have to remember that there’s nothing philosophically wrong with him not getting in touch. People are free, and he’s not bound by anything to behave in a certain way. If you are asking him to be in touch, remember that you’re making a request that he can choose to respond to, or not. But you also have a right to your feelings, and a right to ask for ways of behaving that feel respectful to you and make you feel good, not bad.’ It was an important nuance to this question. My girlfriends all responded to the situation with a straight-up, ‘No, it’s not okay for him to do that. That’s so disrespectful, if he still wants to see you.’ Of course, maybe he didn’t, was the unspoken thought.
So, I decided to write an e-mail to him somehow expressing how I felt, and I found that doing this was at the frontier of a psychological issue for me. I felt really shaky about it. I had the image in my mind of a field with boundary posts in it, and a little girl version of myself determined, but scared, putting a new post in the ground and then standing by it, her arms crossed over her chest, looking fierce. I think I knew that saying something had the power to snap us out of the spell we were in, that it would be one of the steps that would begin to turn our romantic enchantment into a more awake kind of behaving, and I knew that it would bring up any lurking, fundamental disharmonies. Basically, I knew it would flush out the truth, whatever that was. However, I also felt strongly compelled to stretch towards this new way of being, to honour my feelings and only be in relationships that felt respectful, and I genuinely wanted to know what was really true about him and the situation, no matter what that truth might be.
In my fear to lose a sweet thing, I embroidered the e-mail with the finest charm. At one point, I cutely adopted the language formulations of his profession – the law – and sprinkled in a little French; and the topper was pasting in a link to a clip of The Three Degrees performing in front of a live studio audience from the 70s, perched elegantly, identically, on stools in glitzy floor-length gold lame dresses, swaying, and singing ‘When Will I See You Again?’
There was no reply that night or the entire following day. Then, finally, a cryptic one-line e-mail arrived saying he would write more the following day. No kisses. No ‘my darling’ – as there had been before. So, I knew already, from that, and the minor erosion that had begun in my heart progressed to a full-on dropping of the cliff into the ocean. All the sweetness I had felt flowing through my veins officially turned into disappointment at that point. But he didn’t write the next day, either. Finally, he wrote the day after that, six days after our date, to say he didn’t have time in his life and couldn’t continue seeing me.
It was a fair reason, and I felt very sad, but I understood. But aside from that, by the end of the fourth day of silence from him, and pondering how in our current world of technology communication takes seconds, the bottom dropped out of the market for me for this pairing. No matter how sweet, buzzy and deep the connection, my soul had begun to shout ‘No!’ to this, to any, to all situations that don’t flow in a correct-feeling rhythm and harmony, that don’t feel instinctively good, or where I have earnestly asked, ‘Can you…?’ and someone cannot. But as in Paul’s wise nuance, nobody should be judged if they ‘cannot’ – they simply cannot, because life moves us in patterns where we are genuinely restricted by circumstances or the frontiers of our unfolding psychological abilities. In this situation, although I had to endure the decay of sweetness into disappointment and wait for my psyche to metabolise my sadness, I was comforted by the little girl on the field in my imagination, standing with determination in front of a new boundary post.
A week later, I would find out more: I bumped into his ex/girlfriend, who would refer to him as her current (i.e. non-ex) /‘boyfriend’, and this was how I learned that, although he had represented himself as wholly single to me, he was still involved with her. I e-mailed him to say I had just had this experience and wasn’t pleased, and his response was to become defensive and angry with me, and say that it wasn’t my business (i.e. that I didn’t have a right to know whether he was single or not before getting involved with him). This made me really, really fucking angry. At the same time I was having this experience, I felt strongly compelled to write this essay about Stoner, men, and compassion, and in the midst of it all, I had attended Dr. Rees’ talk. My anger and compulsion to write about these things held each other at bay in a force field and eventually they spun into each other and turned into a transformative process, during which I had to examine and re-configure my own psyche in order to circle back, to try to find compassion and balance.
I gradually realised that as I was reading Stoner, I was carrying a disgruntlement from what happened with this man that prejudiced me towards the character of William Stoner, which was also just unfair. It felt like grains of my anger were falling onto the diamond-like prose and ruining it. Towards the end of the book, especially when Stoner reaches its most sublime point, the starkness of the grains of anger became more clearly defined and more dark, set against the brilliant light reflecting out from the book’s ending. That coincided with the peak of my turbulent feelings and the intensity of wanting to write this essay…and in the presence of the profound beauty at the end of the book, I found I just wanted peace. I wanted to brush away the grains of anger. I wanted to do justice to Stoner. As a writer, I wanted to truly enjoy and honour John Williams’ artistry. I wanted to step out of a cycle of exchanged anger and sadness. I wanted to see clearly and with an open heart. I wanted to forgive.
I set about doing this using tools I have learned from psychotherapy. I wrote an uncensored stream-of-consciousness journal entry about my feelings of anger, which (more messily and with many more swear words than I will write here) circled from
‘he – this experience – made me feel really angry and sad’
‘it felt just like the disrespect I felt throughout my last relationship…a lot of the anger and sadness is really about that relationship…about Him.’
‘and with Him… that relationship mirrored the disrespect and disregard I was forced to absorb from my parents as a child…a lot of the anger and sadness is probably really about that…about Them.’
‘I just loved All of them so much’
‘I just wanted them to love me back…to show me love…to love me the way I loved them’.
And at that point, I stopped writing, put down my pen and cried really hard for my past self. And then the thought that came next was ‘but they didn’t know any better; they were all just repeating the patterns programmed into them…they were asleep, and just as hurt as me.’ And so instead of crying just for me, I ended up crying for him, Him, Them, and Us.
After I finished, I could see Stoner better. I could see everything better. I could go back to the e-mails written by this man and hear the anguish hidden behind his language: he hadn’t wanted our sweet, unfolding discovery of each other to stop either, and I knew enough about his other relationship to see that the circumstances surrounding it were really painful to him, and that he was trying to end it and act well, although he was not succeeding. I could see that behind the negative behaviour of my last boyfriend was a tragic blindness and inability to participate in the relationship with healthy emotional responses and connection, because he didn’t know any better. When I could feel our love dying away because of his confusion and silence about important things, I asked him to try to learn about his psyche, and how things from his past were hurting our relationship, and his answer was not ‘I will not’, it was ‘I cannot’. And I could see that his love for me was deep, profound, true.
After I circled back to a state of peace, compassion and clarity, I felt a kinship with the character of Stoner, because I grew up with barren nurture, too. But to be named ‘Joy’ - I have always felt like it was a spark thrown to me from my mother’s true self, a clue that I could follow back to my true nature, even though she wasn’t able to give me much else. Like Stoner, I keep going towards it, towards the truth of myself. After I circled back to a place of compassion, I was able to write this essay, to see the sublime beauty in Stoner and what it says about the nature of the male psyche, and to look at men in our culture and say to them, ‘It’s okay. I think…I understand.’