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Fathers, Sons and Guns: An Interview With USC Sociologist and Author Michael Messner

Posted: 10/31/11 12:21 PM ET

Guns are in the news every day in our society. They're the weapon of choice in countless "routine" homicides and mass murders. Motorcycle gang shootouts. Armed robberies. School shootings. Domestic violence rampages. Guns are a staple of our entertainment culture, a critical part of the story line in a seemingly endless number of TV shows, Hollywood films and video games. They're also the subject of ongoing and often acrimonious political debate. Guns -- and the violence they either inflict or seek to prevent --- are a major presence in our individual and collective psyches.

And yet in mainstream journalism and book publishing there is very little thoughtful discussion of one crucial aspect of the role that guns play in our lives: the relationship between guns and manhood. It's a stunning omission when you consider that men own the vast majority of guns, comprise the vast majority of hunters, and commit the overwhelming majority of gun violence. You'd think that with all of the gun violence in our society more people would want to take a closer look at the gender angle.

Alas, many people assume "gender" means women. The subject of women and guns does merit further inquiry and discussion. But men are every bit as gendered as women. It is long past time that the gun debate was infused with a sophisticated understanding of how gun use and abuse - from hunting to homicide - is tied inextricably to cultural constructs of masculinity across a range of class, racial and ethnic categories. Part of this understanding has to do with the emotional connection so many men feel to guns - and to the men they bond with around them.

Few people are better positioned to contribute to this effort than Michael Messner, long-time professor of sociology and gender studies at the University of Southern California and author of numerous books on masculinity, sports and politics. Messner's new book is a memoir about his experience with guns in the context of his relationship with his now-deceased father and grandfather. I spoke with Messner about the themes he develops in King of the Wild Suburb: a memoir of fathers, sons and guns. (Plain View Press, 2011). What follows is Part I, which largely concerns issues related to Messner's experiences hunting with men in his family. Part II will address further political questions about guns and their relationship to manhood in U.S. society.

JK: Guns and hunting have been in the news a lot recently. California Governor Jerry Brown signed legislation banning the open carrying of handguns, bucking a national trend toward relaxed standards for open carry. Texas Governor and Republican presidential candidate Rick Perry took some heat when it was reported that he had long belonged to a hunting camp that had an overtly racist name. And let's not forget the embarrassing moment in the 2008 GOP presidential primary race when former Massachusetts Governor and current candidate Mitt Romney claimed to have been "a life-long hunter," and later had to admit he'd only been twice in his life, hunting for small rodents.

MM: It is fascinating to me how, in this day and age, national politicians still apparently have to establish their affinity with hunting. Obviously, this is motivated in part by a desire not to alienate a huge lobby and voting bloc--the NRA. But it's also connected to a very American ideal of frontier masculinity, as though every national politician has to prove some affinity with the image of Teddy Roosevelt as frontiersman and big-game hunter. The male politician who fails to establish this image risks being seen as weak and feminized. What you don't see as much these days is politicians posing with animals they have killed (well, maybe Sarah Palin does so, but conservative women politicians--think Margaret Thatcher's muscular militarism--risk not being taken seriously unless they wield an even thicker stick of masculinity).

JK: This is your first memoir. Why did you choose to focus on the role of guns in your relationships with your father and grandfather?

MM: The book is an effort to come to grips with my emotional bonds with my father and grandfather, many years after their deaths. Like many men of their time, neither was comfortable with direct verbal expressions of love for each other, or for me. Instead, rifles, shotguns and hunting trips were the connective tissue of these relationships--first for Dad and Gramps starting in the 1930s, and then for me with them, starting around 1960. I had also been initiated in to the post-World War II culture of heroic violent masculinity--through John Wayne movies, television shows, and fantasy gun-play with other boys. My fascination with guns was fed by dreams of male heroism--an ideal I would later rebel against. But also, on a deeper level, guns were a foundation for a sort of bounded intimacy between Dad, Gramps and me. In rejecting guns and hunting as a young man, was I also rejecting this intimacy, despite its limits?

JK: You describe a sense of loss you felt as a young man when you made the decision not to hunt. The loss had to do with severing an important connection point you had with your grandfather, a WWI veteran, and your father, who served in WWII.

MM: I was in my late teens and early twenties and had gotten caught up in the tail-end of the anti-Vietnam war movement, and eventually was inspired by the feminist movement in the 1970s. I was searching for a new definition of what it means to be a man, a definition grounded in peace, non-violence, equality and respect for women. Part of this youthful quest involved rejecting guns and hunting with Dad and Gramps. I open the book with a description of the last time I went hunting with Dad. I was in college, and felt very torn when he invited me. I decided to go, but to not carry a rifle. I still wonder if this embarrassed him in front of his friends--his long-haired hippy-looking son walking a deer hunt with no rifle. But he never criticized me; instead, he thanked me for coming. Two years later, he would be dead. And the fact that I severed my ties with him, refusing any longer to hunt with him, still plagues me. The memoir, in a way, is my poking at the scar left by this self-inflicted wound.

JK: Many young men in the 1960s and 1970s came to reject some of the traditional ideas about manhood that many of their fathers tried to pass down - like unquestioning respect for authority even when that might mean killing and dying for questionable or unjust causes such as the Vietnam War. But you also write that you learned a great deal about manhood from your father - a highly respected and accomplished high school football and basketball coach in your hometown of Salinas, California -- and your grandfather. The lessons and example they provided contributed to your development as a profeminist, anti-war man. Can you talk about what you see as some key pieces of the masculinity legacy - good and bad - that you and other men in the Baby Boomer generation inherited from your father's and grandfather's generation?

MM: It was much later that I saw this, but I know now that I learned a sense of responsibility to family, and a sort of sticktoitiveness from Dad and Gramps. I rebelled against the post-war middle class views of gender embodied by my breadwinner father and homemaker mom. But some of the men of the "New Left" I met in the 1970s whom I initially saw as role models for new ways to be men were exploitative of women--both sexually, and in terms of women's labor. I never sought to go back to my parents' gendered family arrangements, but I came to see my dad's treatment of my mom and my two sisters as loving and, very importantly, as respectful.. I have tried to emulate some aspects of that love and respect for women--especially with my wife Pierrette, an accomplished professional and wonderful mother--while seeking to re-shape it in a context of gender equality we have learned from feminism.

JK: You recount a story about killing your first deer, a buck, on a hunting trip with your father, grandfather and a family friend. You write that you tried to put on a face of modest pride, but what you felt inside was "triumphant accomplishment on the surface, mixed with a deep undercurrent of guilt." I think lots of men have felt that dichotomy when we've successfully enacted certain ritualized masculine performances -- especially when violence is involved.

MM: That's a good point. I wonder how many boys and men have experienced this sort of ambivalence during a moment that's supposed to be triumphant? At the age of fifteen, I was a bit surprised, very confused and privately shamed by the dread I felt after killing that buck. I wasn't supposed to feel that way! But I think in retrospect, this ambivalent feeling became part of the emotional template on which I tried later to re-cast my definitions of masculinity. I think this is a key to re-thinking how we might relate to daily moments with boys: what's happening below the surface?

JK: You write movingly that "those hunting trips with Dad and Gramps were actually about fathers and sons finding a way to love each other. These outings were not so much about hunting for deer: they were about hunting for each other." You have two sons who are now young adults. Because you gave up hunting before they were born, you never had that as a catalyst to connect with them. Is that a continuing source of sadness? Did you find other less violent ways to bond with them that will stick with them throughout their lives, as your experiences hunting with your father and grandfather have stayed with you?

MM: I write about this in a book a bit. I think those hunting trips with Dad and Gramps are so emotionally salient in my memories because they stand out against a backdrop of not much else. What I mean by that is that it was part of the gender division of labor in my family that Dad wasn't around a lot of the time. I'm sure I spent many many more childhood hours with Mom than with Dad, so the few things we did together end up taking on greater meaning and importance. When my sons were born, I promised myself that I'd be around alot. I didn't want to just pop in to their lives every week or three and do something with them. However, I wonder whether they will have any memories, years from now, that carry the emotional depth of my memories of hunting with Dad and Gramps. I end the book with a letter to my sons, posing this this sort of dilemma for them to ponder: perhaps the meaning of a son's relationship with his father is a sort of puzzle to be deciphered over a lifetime.

JK: I love your book's title, King of the Wild Suburb. On the cover is a photo of you as a three-year-old mowing the lawn in a Davy Crockett hat and tasseled leather jacket, and your father working on the lawn in the background. Can you talk about how you came up with the title, and the role your early socialization had in guiding you toward hunting as a normal and unremarkable part of 1950s white, middle-class American boyhood?

MM: That 1955 photo seems to capture a lot of the historical moment, as well as the nature of the side-by-side (rather than face-to-face) nature of my relationship with my father. I'm not just pushing a lawn mower there--a common symbol of middle-class father-son work in the post-war suburban landscape--I am also toting a toy rifle. I was a three-year-old boy caught up in a national "Crockett Craze." Disney's popular movie about the rugged individualist, Indian-fighter, and martyr of the Alamo Davy Crockett was followed by a TV series. Suddenly, boys throughout America were riding one of the first television-driven consumer waves. I worshipped the lanky actor Fess Parker, and like seemingly every little boy in America, and some girls too, I sported a coonskin cap. From the tanned hide of a buck that Dad had killed, Mom designed and sewed me a genuine buckskin coat and pants, abundantly fringed and adorned with colorful Davy Crockett stencils. I accessorized with a plastic tomahawk sheathed to my waist, a "Davy Crockett Original Powderhorn" slung across my shoulder, and a flintlock pistol with a real metal hammer you could cock and fire, just like Davy at the Alamo. I was King of the Wild Frontier--or at least of the spanking new suburban landscape I labored to protect from the wild Indians I was certain were still holed up in the nearby mountains of the Salinas Valley. And this is the source of both the humor and tension built in to the title of the book and its cover photo.

Part of the tension--and this is really only possible to see in retrospect--is that this 1950s identification with Davy Crockett was very much a pre-civil rights era celebration of white masculinity, and the violent subjugation of the continent from Native peoples, and eventually of the Southwest from Mexico. Still today, in a good deal of popular culture as well as in political debates about gun violence, we tend to think of white guys with guns as protectors and heroes, while reacting with fear to images of black or brown men with guns.

JK: I realize that your memoir is, as the subtitle suggests, about fathers, sons and guns. Many women who read this - and who will read your book -- will appreciate your insights about male culture in families. But like me, they'll be curious about the women in your life, and in your father's and grandfather's. Can you say a few words about the women in this story?

MM: My mom and my two older sisters Terry and Melinda were foundational to my learning to love and respect women. They continue to be important in my life today. My mom contributed years of loving family labor of the sort that allowed my dad to develop such a successful public life. I continue to be inspired by my mom--now 87 years old. I wrote a book focused mostly on the men in my life, but I consciously tried not to fall in to the trap of writing my mom or sisters out of my story, as many male memoirists have done in the past. Like many men of my generation who came to define themselves as feminists, I was inspired in the 1970s by women in my life who were in feminist consciousness-raising groups, exploring deeply personal issues and collectively building feminist theory and action from those discussions. Without this inspiration from women, I am certain that it never would have crossed my mind to think about "manhood" in the ways I do in the memoir, or in my work as a university professor.

JK: You've said for many years in your lectures that masculinity killed your father, who died of cancer at age 56. Can you explain what you mean by that?

MM: My dad was in many ways a quintessential middle class American man of the mid-twentieth century. He played football in high school and college, fought in World War II, and then had a successful career as a respected high school coach and the sole breadwinner for our family. He had internalized the rules of manhood: play with pain; tough it out and don't complain; give up your body for team or country or family. When he started having symptoms of bowel problems, he ignored them and toughed it out. When he couldn't stand it any more, he went to the doctor but by then his colon cancer had advanced and spread. Of course, cancer killed my dad, but I believe that the rules of manhood he lived by converted this otherwise curable cancer into a death sentence. Still today, we teach boys these rules of manhood: learn to take (and deliver) pain and you will be rewarded with access to male privilege, status, and honor. Privilege and honor is the carrot; but the costs of these narrow and stoic definitions of masculinity lie in lower life expectancy for men and a limited openness to vulnerability, and thus to intimacy.

Coming: Part 2.