A Word in Edgewise

By E.B. Boatner January 17, 2008

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“Once upon a time….And they lived happily, ever after.” Everyone loves a story, and storytelling has been around since mankind began to communicate—by grunts and clicks, cuneiform scratches, and villanelles.

Some stories—and I use the word “story” broadly here as those patterns of self-perception embedded in a person or culture—are passed on orally, as origin legends for a tribe, like the Navajo Etséhostin and his wife Etséasun, or the Old Testament Adam and Eve.

Some teach moral lessons, like the Grimm Brothers’s “Bluebeard,” or Aesop’s “Ant and the Grasshopper,” retold in verse in the 17th Century by La Fontaine. Stories are legion, told and retold, evolving over hundreds of years, even down to Disney’s version of Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Little Mermaid.”

A nation’s cultural “story” can impel young men to fight. In Britain during the Great War (1914-18), a “real man” not only went to war, but also was considered a failure and a coward if he broke down under the torture of trench warfare. Doctors derided claims of “war neurosis,” or “shell shock,” until finally, men like the extraordinary psychologist W.H.R. Rivers listened, observed, and changed the story, paving the way to diagnose and treat Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) today.

Political candidates are held to the current “story” of acceptable behavior in society in the 21st Century. It wasn’t until 1920 that a page was turned, and the 19th Amendment allowed American women to vote. Tears, anathema still to the American perception of manhood, torpedoed Senator Ed Muskie’s presidential chances in 1968. Should shed tears be different for Senator Hillary Clinton, or just another reason not to vote for a woman?

A people may be helped or hindered by their self-perceptions, both the in aggregate and as individuals. A collective and individual sense of what makes a “man” can send a youngster to war; give him the right to beat his spouse (a “rule of thumb” meant not beating her with a stick thicker than that digit); or bring him, his second, and his pistol or sword at dawn to avenge a perceived blot on his escutcheon.

“Story” through GLBT history has evolved from burning at the stake to institutionalizing to a DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) diagnosis to its removal in 1973. (Trans people, however, until future revisions, still are entered as 302.85s).

I offer these thoughts as a way to understand—not excuse—behavior on a national and individual scale. As long as our national story incorporates banning gays from the military, or an individual’s story allows him to beat a boy and leave him to die tied to a fence, we’ve not written a suitable narrative.

To date, mankind’s script still is trying out in New Haven, and needs extensive revision before we’re ready for Broadway.

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