There’s a subtly terrifying episode of The Twilight Zone that, without intending anything controversial then or for any sane human culture, lays its cold steel probe on an exposed nerve of our time. The episode is called “Young Man’s Fancy,” after a line from the brooding young man in Tennyson's “Locksley Hall”: “In the spring a young man’s fancy lightly turns to thoughts of love.” Not this young man.
Virginia Walker (played by the eminently wholesome and womanly Phyllis Thaxter) has been waiting for eleven years to marry the man she loves, Alex Walker (Alex Nicol). The notable event setting Alex free has been the death of his mother, with whom he has lived all his life, after his father abandoned them when he was a small boy. They have just returned from the justice of the peace, and are about to sign the contract selling his homestead to a realtor. But Alex begins to pull away from the deal. He begins to reminisce about his mother’s favorite song (“The Lady in Red”), about the fudge brownies she made, and this and that. When Virginia grows tired of waiting for him downstairs, she finds him in the attic, not packing a few things as he had promised, but rummaging through an old chest, handling toys and things that remind him of his mother, and saying that perhaps they should not sell the house after all.
Then, in Twilight Zone fashion, an ancient radio turns on, playing “The Lady in Red,” and brownies show up, as if the mother were appealing to her boy from beyond the grave. Virginia, her patience fraying, breaks out into an impassioned plea. She reminds Alex that he made a solemn promise to her that when his elderly mother died he would marry her and sell that house. When he bristles, she loses her temper in turn and accuses the mother of wanting to smother him, to keep him from growing up to be a man. This is a false move—though it is not clear that she had a better one to make. At the end of the episode, Alex has disappeared into his bedroom upstairs, and Virginia, coming up the staircase after him, is suddenly confronted from above by the old woman herself (Helen Brown). Mother is strong, domineering, inflexible, confident, and malign. When Virginia cries out that she won’t give up, she'll have Alex and he will be a man, not the stunted boy that the mother made him, the old woman shakes her head, with a trace of scorn. “He has made his choice,” she says. The bedroom door opens, and an eleven-year-old boy comes out, all agog for fun and ice cream with Mother. The old lady enters the bedroom with him, and the last words are the boy’s.
“Go away,” he says to the woman who would have been his wife. “We don’t need you any more.”
From Boy to Man
Boys, as George Gilder noted in Sexual Suicide, suffer a couple of needs that girls do not. The primary object of love in the home is the mother. A daughter may sometimes compete with her mother for male attention, but for the most part she takes her cues from her, sharing her interests and the promptings of her sex. Her passage from girlhood to womanhood is marked not by risk, the possibility of utter failure, or the need, in a public way, to secure the approbation of grown women, but by the obvious maturation of her body. Women do not subject girls to initiation rites—what would be the point? The daughter's relation to her father is also not fraught with contradiction. Until he is dying, or in very advanced old age, he will always be to the daughter as the protector, the shield; he will be stronger than she is, and both he and she will tacitly acknowledge the fact and what it implies. What I am saying here is true regardless of the particular characters involved, their virtues and vices, and whether they live up to the natural roles. We are talking in the first instance about anthropological relations, and only secondarily about the personal.
With boys, there is no such easy passage. There cannot be. The boy must separate himself from the object of his dearest love, his mother, who is also a fit exemplar for his latent sexual love, in order to establish his identity as a man, so that he may marry a woman in his turn, and be a strong man among other men, his brothers. Saying so should not be controversial. Every culture but ours has recognized the anthropological and psychological fact. The last man a woman ought to marry is an Alex Walker, the so-called mama’s boy, who cannot be relied upon in a crisis and who will let his mother dominate his wife.
Manhood Must Be Won
The boy does not simply grow into manhood, for manhood is a cultural reality built on a biological foundation. Womanhood, by contrast, is a biological reality with cultural expression.
I must insist upon the distinction here. Saint Jose Maria de Escriva could understandably say to each of his male followers, Esto vir! Be a man, and we know what the exhortation implies. Even feminists know, and tremble. It implies that at any moment of a man’s life, his manhood is subject to trial, to be won, again and again, to be confirmed or to be canceled. A man can lose forever his right to stand beside other men. He can fall to being no man at all.
Be a man! An analogous command would strike a woman as otiose; a woman may call another woman a bad woman, but her womanhood itself is not in question, not in the public arena to be tested to see if it is real or counterfeit.
That means that a boy will naturally shy away from girls during his longer period of sexual latency and his more delayed and more protracted period of puberty. He has the work of man-making to do, though he may be only fitfully conscious of it. It is foolish and insensitive to charge him with hating girls. The truth is just the opposite. He and his friends like girls, and are powerfully attracted to them. That is why they have to keep them at arm's length, because otherwise the things they must do as boys will not get done at all. Boys in the company of girls do not form the strong bonds of male friendship, because they are too busy competing for the attention of the girls; they do not invent football, map out the forest, tinker with combustion engines, or bring down their first stag. So it appears that for the sake of both married love and the masculine camaraderie that is so dynamic in its cultural possibilities, we ought to pay attention to the boy’s needs and strengths and arrange social and educational opportunities accordingly.
Publicly recognized authority comes into play here also. What the boy seeks from other boys and men is mainly public, not private. What he seeks from the girl he likes, or from the woman he would marry, is mainly private, not public. It is the difference between the arena and the agora on one side, and the hearth and home on the other; though the public arena should ultimately be placed in the service of hearth and home, rather than hearth and home merely supplying a temporary haven of relief from the arena. This means that, to a marked degree, the boy will be inclined toward what will confirm him publicly as male, and toward those who have a recognized authority to confer the recognition. He hears the baritone in a way that he does not hear the soprano. He looks upon the broad shoulders in a way that he does not look upon the broad hips. He cannot help doing so.
Lessons for Healthy Development
There are certain lessons that are crucial for a boy’s healthy development into a man destined to love a woman—to be a husband and father. Though his mother can provide some of them, there are others that will be provided by a man, or not at all. What might they be?
One of them is to learn how to command and obey. I think here of Kipling’s Captains Courageous. The boy Harvey, a mama’s boy, a spoiled rich brat, is swept off the deck of a cruise ship one rough night while he is retching over the side, and is picked up by a Portuguese fisherman and taken back to a schooner. His first real lesson in manhood comes when the skipper, a good-hearted American named Disko Troop—who has his own son aboard, a son who admires his father to no end and who warns Harvey that he had better obey— knocks him to the deck after one expression of his smart mouth too many. In the ensuing months, for this was back in the day before cell phones, Harvey “learns the ropes,” that is, he learns all that a ship's boy needs to know about sails and rigging, about gutting fish for twenty hours continuously, about how to get along with other men who are similarly under authority, how to fish, how to have a real and masculine friend in the other lad and in the Portuguese fisherman, Manuel, who saved him, and how to stand straight and tall, to take severe criticism as you take a dose of pungent and cleansing medicine, to admit a mistake like a man, to shoulder your share of the work without grudging, and to do dangerous and exciting and head-clearing things with other men. His mother could not teach him those things.
And because your mother cannot teach you those things, the boy will often be found not listening to women who are “like” his mother. It is not that he is prejudiced against them. It is more accurate to say that they do not speak in his dialect. He may tune them out. He may not hear them clearly enough to bother to tune them out. Now, if we were talking about any other creature in the world besides a human boy, the solution would be apparent to us and again not controversial: “Find someone who can speak in his dialect. Find someone he can hear.” I can seize the attention of a room full of boys, in one minute, and hold it for an hour. That has little to do with my capacity as a teacher. I speak the dialect.
We might turn the question inside-out and ask, “What will happen if a boy’s teacher is a woman, and she assigns feminist stories for literature, she has a visceral disaffection for rough play, she favors security over risk and equality over freedom and the dynamism of hierarchy, she likes finger-painting more than football, and for all her egalitarianism she seems touchy about any questioning of her authority?” What if it is all Little Women, all the time, but without Louisa May Alcott's very real love for boys, and her still more than residual Christian faith? The result is tedium, irritation, frustration, confinement, and no hearing.
For the sake of boys and the families they must eventually lead, we must open our hearts and quit attempting to thrust upon them an unnatural and uninspiring commitment to sexual indifference. What they need, they need. Their needs are grounded in ages upon ages of human development, both physical and intellectual. They are attested to by every culture known to man, and by common observation. There is only one word for those who, for the sake of an ideology, whatever it may be, would consciously deny to either boys or girls what they need to be healthy members of their sex. That word is wicked.
Anthony Esolen is a writer, social commentator, translator of classical poetry, and professor of English Renaissance and classical literature at the Thomas More College of Liberal Arts.