Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about men. Specifically, I’ve been thinking about one man, because I realized last year, that out of all the men I know—I still don’t understand them. Make no mistake, I know how to take care of a man. I usually can determine what a man’s needs are and how to address them even at the expense of my own. I know how to not let my intellect come off as a threat. And that if they do or do not respond to me in very specific ways, I add it to my running calculation of what to do or not do around men. My mother, for instance, taught me never to make eye contact with men I am not interested in, because in her experience, it encourages the predator in them. On the other hand, she encouraged me to fix myself up when I am interested because men are visual creatures.
I’ve been taking care of a man for as long as I can remember. I know how to take care of him when he’s hungry, when he’s exhausted, when he’s in pain, when he’s discouraged, when he’s at the end of his emotional tether. I know how to give him space, when to motivate him, when to say nothing and let him think it was all his idea. I know how to twirl our conversation into a fan dance. It seems I have never not known these things. I thought I understood men, but in twenty years of writing, I have never been able to write them. And since last year, I’ve been obliged to learn. Quickly. Because when writing a character, the voice, in order to be convincing, has to feel true. The audience can always tell.
This past summer, the image of Luciano Garbati’s sculpture has been making the rounds online depicting a nude Medusa holding the head of Perseus captioned with, “The way it always should have been.” A year ago, when the opportunity presented itself to create an origin story for Medusa, I admit, I put off writing Perseus. To me, Perseus has always been just another dumb, opportunistic jock with Olympus-sized daddy issues. But for the past few months, I’ve had to get in his head and make arguments in his voice as authentically as possible which means I have to empathize with him because if he reads hollow on the page, he’ll read hollow on the stage. But I struggled with Perseus. I did. I mean, why do we need his story at this point anyway? We live in a world full of men just like Perseus. But in trying to recall having deeply authentic moments with men I’ve known at a critical point in a relationship, I’m left remembering long silences or tantrums or rage. So I stopped asking them to open up. I also stopped caring about why they reacted this way. Historically, for me it’s been kind of like asking a child where it hurts and they don’t know where to point, so all they do is cry. And I don’t have the time or interest anymore to raise a grown man. But I’m still so often confused by why men do things.
What must it be like to be born into the body (to say nothing of the mind) of an oppressor and to be obliged to stay there even if it’s not a great fit? It’s like trying to figure out why someone would choose to rake leaves with a hammer. I’m reminded now of Hurston who said, “The position of my white neighbor is much more difficult...The game of keeping what one has is never so exciting as the game of getting.” And then there’s Orwell who says of the colonizer, “He wears a mask, and his face grows to fit it.” Now I am wondering if Perseus is, in a way, just as voiceless as Medusa, pinned forever in the role of a demi-god man-child who slays monsters and rescues princesses and usurps thrones. We often talk about his acts of violence, but in the same myth, Perseus was trying to save his mother by volunteering to slay the Gorgon. He is also attributed with inventing antidotes, bringing life to the desert, and creating coral reefs. And Pegasus (the progeny of Medusa and Poseidon released only upon her death) was the ambassador for the Muses—the literal embodiment of pain transmuted into grace.
When Perseus returned the Gorgon’s head to Athena, she affixed it to her shield, and the Gorgoneion icon became an emblem of creation out of destruction, and was replicated as jewelry, installed over buildings, and welded into armor. Medusa’s name, in fact, means “Protectress,” and so, the disembodied Gorgon head has come to mean all who wear it or stand beneath it are defended. It’s odd how selective the collective memory can become regarding mythology. We sometimes forget that Perseus’s distant half-brother, Heracles, willingly sought out his penance when he took on the Twelve Labors. And even the problematic sky god himself didn’t start out that way when he liberated his siblings from his father’s gut. In fact, Zeus was at one point a creatrix and gave birth to a fully-armored Athena from his own head. We sometimes forget that Odysseus wanted to come back home. We sometimes forget why Orpheus looked back. To the ancient Greeks, heroes weren’t heroes because they were great men. Heroes were heroes because they did great things despite the fact that they were men. Why is it that today, we so often assume people who do great things must possess/embody great morals all the time? It’s no wonder in the process of being let down by our conventions, we often forget they were forged right here among us.
Truthfully, I have only learned one thing about men in trying to write one—if we continue to turn the men in our lives and memories into gods, then a god is all a man will think he has the option to become.