|Kyle and Adriana, his camp girlfriend, both dressed in drag for their camp talent show.|
Last week I attended a monthly meeting for the Hudson Valley chapter of the Bereaved Parents of the USA and was startled to find that all 15 of us grieving parents who had gathered by Zoom that night were mourning dead sons. Apparently, this gender disparity is typical. The group’s leader, Bereaved Parents USA board president Kathy Corrigan, recalled a getting-to-know-you exercise at a national gathering some years ago in which those who had lost sons were sent to stand on one side of the room, while those who lost daughters stood on the other.
“The difference was stark,” recalls Corrigan, who has lost two of her three sons. “Nearly all of us in attendance had lost boys.”
I began researching this issue a couple of weeks ago when I was asked to prepare a lay sermon for my former Unitarian Universalist fellowship in Poughkeepsie on the theme of “Playing with Fire.” Those words immediately made me think of my son, Kyle, who died at age 26 of a drug overdose after years of metaphorically playing with fire by engaging in death-defying behaviors. Although he died addicted to drugs, I used to say his real addiction was to taking chances with his life.
Kyle was not born a wild risk taker; in fact, he seemed somewhat shy and timid as a toddler. Yet as he grew up, he began repeatedly risking his safety and health to prove how tough he was. The more I read on this subject, the more I see that the death of my own son fits a much larger pattern of toxic ideas about masculinity pushing ever-increasing numbers of our sons into early graves. Though this is tragic, it is also somewhat of a comfort to me, as I find that the wider the lens through which I examine my son’s tragic death, the more able I am to stop blaming myself. My son and I, no matter how special I like to imagine we are or were, are still just products of huge societal forces that shape all our lives.
As Kyle stepped into his role as a young man, he engaged in ever-more-envelope-pushing, dangerous behaviors, culminating in him “experimenting” with and then becoming addicted to the deadly drugs that ultimately killed him. Kyle told me he did LSD 45 different times in high school. After he turned 21, he pushed the envelope even farther and did the drugs we all know are life-destroying. He also engaged, even before he did any drugs, in death-defying feats of physical daring. He left behind videos of himself skateboarding off a roof, riding a bicycle off a slide, riding a bike down a staircase, doing trick jumps over the bodies of his little sister and other small children in a playground, and playing a “hit-the-other-guy’s nutsack” game in which two high school boys face one another with their legs wide apart and then roll a bowling ball as hard as possible at the other man’s genitals. Kyle’s little sister Jamie, now 28, told me the other day of a time his friend Scott thought Kyle was dead after he leaped from a great height off a local diving spot called Doobie Drop. Far below him, he saw Kyle lying facedown in the body of water, blood pooling around his head—and was stunned when Kyle sat up. Another time, when my ex-husband and I left Kyle home alone for the night at age 17, he performed some kind of stunt (maybe on a swing, but perhaps on a roof, we never did get the whole story) that broke his wrist; his friends have told me they all thought it was a miracle he’d survived.
I always think of Kyle as having been an especially brilliant, sensitive young man, but his reckless antics show he was a more typical male adolescent than I liked to believe he was. Young men are known by actuarial tables everywhere to drive more recklessly and die more violently and suddenly by injury and accident --and by homicide, suicide, and drug overdose--than women. It turns out that my son was not as exceptional as I dreamed he was—and seemed, actually, to have been more concerned with impressing people with his macho courage (aka stupidity) than many of his peers.
When he was 16, Kyle drove his car at 100 miles an hour up and off a hilly road in Highland in order to “catch air.” D.J., his best friend since second grade, was in Kyle’s passenger seat as the car flew through the foggy night sky and slammed into a tree. Both boys miraculously walked away without a scratch,
|D.J. and Kyle before Kyle |
nearly killed him by "catching
Kyle, meanwhile, in the years after that car “accident,” worked his way through consuming every drug he could get his hands on, including drugs he could not even identify. During one harrowing week, Kyle showed up in Southern California to join me on a business trip and was half out of his mind on what he thought was Xanax. A kid who worked at a local pharmaceutical factory had given him a bag of powder, of which Kyle had consumed unmeasured spoonfuls throughout the previous week. By the time he stepped off the plane for that visit with me, he was suicidal and seeing things. A few days of good sleep brought him back to himself, but I probably never slept well again after that trip, having seen up close the complete disregard with which my son treated his life.
|Kyle strung out on a mystery drug.|
Eventually, his recklessness led him to the most deadly, addictive drugs, the ones I had always made him swear he would never do–crack, meth and heroin. He could never adequately explain why he did them: “I thought I could just try it once… I was curious… Once the other guys in rehab described the high to me I knew I’d have to try it.”
Kali Holloway, in an Alternet article, “Toxic Masculinity is Killing Men” written a year before my son died in 2016, notes that we begin socially reinforcing stereotypical masculine behavior, including the suppression of emotions, on our boy children when they are still babies. She writes:
“Parents often unconsciously project a kind of ‘manliness,’
a diminished need for comfort, protection and affection, onto their boy
children as early as infancy.”
As a result, baby boys are picked up, held and comforted less often than baby girls. This despite the fact that boy babies are at least as in need of affection and comfort as girl babies, if not more so. (Boy babies actually cry more, though whether this is because they are held less makes this a chicken-and-egg equation.) One mom in the grief-support group I just attended recalled her mother telling her to
We didn't think we cuddled our
boy baby less than our daughter,
but research says most parents do
to help "toughen them up."
A group of more than 200 adults shown identical videos of a crying baby but divided into groups told the baby was a boy or a girl judged the baby as “angry” if they thought it was a boy, while the girl baby was perceived as “scared.” Their responses to the angry baby vs. the scared baby were divided along gender stereotypical lines, as well.
Little boys internalize adult expectations that they “man up” early: they first show signs they are hiding and suppressing their emotions between the ages of 3 and 5. A University of Michigan study found men are more likely to engage in death-defying activities to attract women than women are to attract men (Ha! For this they needed a study?);.
In a 2010 NIH funded study published in the American Journal of Science, “Gender Disparities in Injury Mortality: Consistent, Persistent, and Larger Than You'd Think,” Dr. Susan Sorenson explains,
“[M]ales are born with a numerical advantage, which decreases over time. At birth there are 105 boys for every 100 girls.1 There would be even more, but fetal death is 7% higher for boys than girls.2 The mortality gap widens immediately; by their first birthday, 21% more boy babies than girl babies die.3 Excess male demise continues throughout life, such that by age 65 years or older, there are 75 men for every 100 women.4From https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3222499/
And then here’s one of mine, in which I mourn Kyle’s inability to accept himself for who he was:
lay out the photos chronologically,
birth to death, looking for the one
that will leap up shouting, “Here! This
is the day you might have saved him!”
they just tell their happy story:
loved baby, loved boy, ever joyful.
When his face shut down at 12, only
hindsight lets me see my disruptive
need to leave his father shatter him,
corrupting his fierce faith in love.
In uprooting him, I showed him
he could be switched with a flip
from popular golden child
to nervous nerd who couldn’t
tell a joke nor make a single friend.
rushed him back, replanted him
in familiar soil where he seemed
to thrive again, but by then he had seen
how powerless he was, knew his good life
could collapse anytime. The worm biding its time
squirmed out of its hole as my son learned
his good life was towers waiting to fall.
after adolescence barely
show a glitch; he still hams it up, skates
past his drug arrests. He rock climbs,
goes to college, falls in love, teaches, hikes.
leaves no photos of himself on crack,
nothing in his journals about the men he met
through Grindr, no evidence of how he gradually
ground himself down every time he felt good.
In his last pictures, he holds his daughter,
wraps his arms around me, dances with his sister,
gazes into his girlfriend’s eyes, pushes his grandmother’s
wheelchair, worm rolling under his tongue.
compulsive need to find an explanation
keeps me poring over pictures, videos, poems
for years. Now I’ve excavated all my mistakes--
and found only this: nothing brings him back.