Charles Blow is a columnist for the New York Times. Fire Shut Up in My Bones is a memoir of his childhood.
Blow grew up in rural Louisiana in the ’70s and ’80s, African American, I would say poor but not desperately poor, in a dysfunctional family but not as dysfunctional as many.
He came from a “broken home” in the sense that his parents split up, but in another sense he had very strong family support. His was one of those extended families where people related by blood or marriage routinely abused each other verbally and sometimes abused each other physically—up to and including shooting each other—yet where there was the understanding that they were always connected for life and in their own flawed ways would stick by their family members and do their best by them (when they weren’t shooting them).
He recounts stories of extended family members who were criminals, insane, philanderers, flamboyantly gay, hotheads—or sometimes a combination of multiple of these—yet he typically describes them with empathy as doing their best with what they had.
Clearly Blow is an intelligent, sensitive person of depth. Of all his strengths, though, what stands out as much as any is his extraordinary memory for sense data. The descriptions in this book are more elaborate and detailed than those in all but maybe ten percent of novels. If you want to know not just what happened to him as a child—and what he thought and felt about it—but also what everything looked, sounded, smelled, tasted, and felt like to a child raised in such an environment at such a time, you’ll find it very well articulated here.
Fire Shut Up in My Bones explores many important areas of life, including parenting, violence, race, death, and especially sexuality.
Blow’s was a troubled childhood in many ways. Although there were things he found happiness in, and he was conscious of being loved by some of the people in his life, including his mother, for the most part he felt like he didn’t fit, that he was odd or different in ways that generated disapproval or worse in many of the people around him. He seems to have been a very self-conscious child, actively seeking approval and acceptance and analyzing what it was about him that made them so hard for him to get.
He was an intellectual nerd, in a social world that for the most part didn’t value that. He was suspected of being soft, a mama’s boy. He dealt with this in part by obsessively striving for all the things least compatible with that image, including athletic success, popularity, and leadership opportunities.
So to go along with his academic success, he added being a top basketball player, winning class president elections, insinuating himself into the social elite at his schools—including the most exclusive fraternity by the time he got to college—and starting his dating and sex life quite young.
But there was something contrived about it all. He doesn’t come across as someone who had a natural bent toward these things, or who necessarily genuinely valued them in proportion to the extent to which he pursued them, but as someone pragmatically trying to change who he was in order to conform to the values and expectations of others. Not uncommonly, no matter how successfully he seemed to have conquered some area of life, he sensed that he was still not fully accepted, that he was still perceived as kind of an outsider, as being somehow “off.”
He’s like the bullied nerd who obsessively takes up bodybuilding in order to make people see that in reality he’s a tough guy who can take care of himself and who deserves the usual perks that musclebound young males typically receive in life. The problem is that most people still see such a kid as a nerd masquerading as something he’s not, as someone who does not have the intangibles to go with the role he has consciously chosen for himself.
As a teen, he had one of those “driving while black” experiences that has been so much in the news in recent months and years:
Brandon did as asked, but insisted on knowing why we had been stopped. The officer gave a reason: not signaling before a turn. It wasn’t true. We hadn’t made a turn before his flashing lights came on. Brandon protested, to a point. Then the officer said something I will never forget: that if he wanted to, he could make us lie down in the middle of the road and shoot us in the back of the head and no one would say anything about it. With that, he walked back to his car and drove off.
By suggesting that he could kill us right then and there, he wanted to impress upon us his power and our worth, or lack thereof. We were shocked, afraid, humiliated, and furious. We were the good guys, we thought—dean’s list students with academic scholarships. I was the freshman class president. This wasn’t supposed to happen to us.
As a child, I had been taught, in subtle ways, to be leery of the police. It wasn’t that they were all rotten, but you didn’t want to rustle around in that barrel and come upon a bad one. This was the first time I fully understood that message.
I found Blow’s account of his fraternity days to be among the most disturbing parts of the book. Of course I’ve always found fraternities more evil than not, with their conservatism, arrogance, conformity, militarism, and us versus them attitudes.
His fraternity is one of those with a particularly vicious hazing tradition. He recounts how he is abused and humiliated as a prospective member (disappointing in that he puts up with it rather than realizing what an awful decision it was to associate himself with such a gang in the first place) and then how he similarly abuses and humiliates newbies when it’s his turn (even more disappointing since we know by now that he is an intelligent, humane, sensitive person who has experienced suffering himself throughout his life).
In the fraternity, people are beaten savagely, degraded in ways far in excess of what happened in the famous Stanford Prison Experiment (forced to eat their own vomit, for one example), and financially exploited. Members from other campuses are welcomed to join in the torture as a way to further bonding within the national organization.
After some high profile fraternity scandals around the country, including deaths, schools make some effort to crack down on the worst abuses, and some governing bodies of fraternities go along with this out of fear of crippling lawsuits. But many chapters resist giving up their “traditions.” By this time Blow himself is an officer at his fraternity, and he is one of those who goes along with retaining the hazing, just taking it underground so there’s less chance they’ll get in trouble.
He writes about the pressures he was under, and how reluctant he was to cooperate with the hazing culture, but come on. By now he was an adult, albeit a young adult, and he just plain made the wrong, cowardly, decision.
It’s not that I can see no merit whatsoever in fraternities and their hazing. The argument is that you have to break a person down and show him that he cannot survive as an individual in order to rebuild him as an unselfish, loyal team member. Plus, it’s one of those “whatever doesn’t kill me makes me stronger” things, where putting people through these ordeals allegedly toughens them up and improves them.
I understand that, but I’m unconvinced that the evidence supports the notion that torturing people like this makes them better human beings. I’m sure they’re more bonded with other fraternity members (or other street gang members or other Marines or whatever other similar abusive groups you want to talk about), but is that an unambiguous good? Are they, or the world, really better off because they’ll more fully conform to the mores of their elitist group and feel a closer kinship with their fellow members than they would have without the abuse?
Not to mention, even if it had any such benefits I think they’d be largely coincidental anyway. People engage in this behavior because they’re brutal sadists or because they feel trapped by peer pressure and can’t see a way out that won’t bring upon them more disgrace than they are strong enough to handle. The alleged benefits are rationalizations.
Another point sometimes made in defense of fraternity hazing is that it’s consensual, that the people being abused have chosen to put themselves in the position to be abused. And I agree that’s a relevant factor. It makes fraternity hazing less objectionable than, say, kidnapping someone and gang raping them. So, yes, these beloved fraternity traditions are not the worst possible form of human behavior. I’ll grant that.
Now it’s certainly true that there can be benefits of individual self-interest in persevering through this abuse and becoming a member in good standing of these groups (as I’m sure could be said of the Mafia or Scientologists or countless other institutions). You will always have networking contacts for your career and other advantages in getting ahead, as members will favor each other over non-members. And most importantly you’ll almost certainly get a great deal more pussy (as Blow describes), since being in such an outfit makes one vastly more appealing to most women. (To which I say, as I have in many other contexts, what in the Sam Hill is wrong with women, that they so consistently reward horrific male behavior with the one thing males most value?)
But is that really a good thing for anyone other than the members themselves? And for that matter, is it even on balance a good thing for them, given the cost?
Anyway, enough about that. Blow certainly doesn’t defend his fraternity’s behavior, nor his role therein. He just asks us to listen with empathy to how such behavior comes about, which I’m willing to do, though I still have a greater admiration for those who take a stand against such bullshit.
The most prominent themes in this book have to do with sexuality and sexual abuse, especially insofar as some of the other issues dealt with can be partly subsumed within sex (e.g., the quasi-sexual sadism and masochism of the fraternity hazing).
Certainly what most readers would single out as the central incident of the book—which Blow treats as the central incident of his childhood—is his being sexually assaulted by an older cousin Chester. (Blow is 7 at the time; Chester is 11.)
They are staying in the same house temporarily, sharing a bed. Blow is sleeping on his stomach, and wakes up to feel Chester on top of him. Chester has pulled Blow’s underwear down. Exactly what he does isn’t described explicitly, except in the negative sense that there is no penetration. Reading between the lines, it would seem Chester has an erection and is rubbing himself on Blow’s bare ass.
Blow is pinned, and Chester speaks soothingly and encouragingly to him, trying to get him to treat what’s happening as mutually enjoyable. Blow does not cooperate in the way Chester wants, but nor does he fight or yell out or anything. He’s more shocked and creeped out than anything, and kind of freezes.
Any attempt by Chester after the fact to elicit a positive response from Blow—to get Blow to admit that he’d liked it and that it had been somewhat consensual—is rebuffed. Blow refuses to concede that it was anything other than a negative experience. Chester is angered and treats him from that point on with disdain, insulting him by, among other things, ironically implying he’s homosexual.
Blow is too ashamed, and too wary of his cousin’s reaction, to tell anyone what happened. But he experienced it as traumatic, and much of the book is speculation about how the incident relates to the various ways he sees himself as messed up. Chester is a horrible villain in his eyes, so bad that as a young adult, still smarting over what happened more than a decade earlier, Blow gets a gun and gets in his car to drive to where he finds out Chester is in order to kill him.
Years after the night with Chester, he is sleeping with another male relative, this time an adult, and the man caresses him in a sexual manner, kind of feeling him out to see if he’s receptive. Blow is not, and leaves the room in disgust, though again he doesn’t tell anyone about what happened.
In addition, there are multiple times he is propositioned as a child by older boys, again kind of feeling him out to see if he’s interested. When his reaction indicates clearly that he’s not, they react negatively like Chester, angry at him for not going along with what they’re proposing.
Much of Blow’s speculation has to do with how these incidents, especially the molestation by his cousin, relate to his possible homosexuality or bisexuality. Have they caused him to be homosexual? (Ever since he woke up with Chester on top of him he has periodically had fantasies of a sort about males. Not blatantly sexual, but a certain sense of being reluctantly intrigued by the male body.) Was he already homosexual, and their gaydar revealed that to them before he himself realized it?
What’s especially interesting to me about his ruminations on the terrible pain this all caused him is how socially determined it seems to be.
The consequences of victimization are always in part inherent to the assault and in part a matter of social conditioning, but the mix can vary greatly.
If, for instance, the traumatic incident from his childhood had been somebody chopping his arm off, then I would say the suffering caused by this is about 95% from having an arm chopped off and 5% from how one is conditioned to react to it. Going through life with one arm because someone attacked you just plain sucks. I mean, we can imagine circumstances that lessen the suffering—e.g., society is arranged so that you can function almost as well in almost all areas with one arm as with two, maybe one-armed people are afforded some sort of elite status like semi-crippled Chinese women of the past who had had their feet bound, etc.—but that’s pretty far-fetched. For the most part society doesn’t trick you into thinking you’re worse off with one arm; you really are worse off with one arm.
On the other hand, if you’re traumatized when you realize you’re circumcised, or not circumcised, or because you don’t have a certain brand of tennis shoes, or because your skin is light or dark, then that’s entirely or almost entirely socially generated. You suffer because of the attitudes, and resulting behavior, of others in response to these facts about you, and because of the attitudes you’ve internalized from others.
I’ve long suspected that the harm of sexual abuse has a much bigger social component of this kind than most people would ever acknowledge. I don’t think the trauma is 95% to 5% inherent like having your arm chopped off. I suspect it’s more like 40% to 60% or 15% to 85% or something like that.
That’s not to say the suffering isn’t real. Socially-generated suffering is still suffering. But I think the suffering is attitudinal more than anything. How you choose to experience and interpret it is a big part of how traumatized you’ll be by it. Or really how society chooses to frame it is a big part of how traumatized you’ll be by it, since the amount of “choice” you have as an individual is limited by the social attitudes of your group.
I mean it’s great if you can rise above it as an individual and choose not to see it as something hugely damaging to you, but it’s a rare person that can do that when that’s in conflict with the messages society has communicated to you your whole life.
Think about someone, for instance, who is raised in a “blame the victim” society that teaches that any woman, or child, who is sexually assaulted brought it on themselves through some sort of shameful behavior and should be thought less of or even punished in response. Is it possible for such a person to defy those attitudes and respond with “My society’s full of shit on this issue; I have nothing to feel guilty or ashamed about”? Sure. But it’s very, very difficult.
I wonder if the prevalent attitude of our society isn’t also damaging. The societal attitude today concerning sexual assault seems to be “What was done to you is the worst possible thing one human being can do to another. You’ve been severely harmed. This could adversely affect you your whole life. You should hate the person who did this and want him to suffer as much as possible and be killed, and society should feel the same way about him on your behalf. You need massive, long term, mental health resources devoted to you to have any chance of ever getting over this horrible thing.” I doubt that’s as harmful an attitude as “You brought this on yourself. You’re wicked,” but it seems to me to make extreme suffering and long term damage a self-fulfilling prophecy.
In Blow’s case, it’s not just attitudes about sexual assault that are relevant, but attitudes about homosexuality.
There is reason to believe, as he suspects, that he is treated the way he is by these people in part because they perceive him as “soft” or “unmanly” in ways they associate with homosexuality. Furthermore, they think that his being so makes him inferior.
Speculating further, it’s as if they want to occasionally get down in the gutter with a homosexual to satisfy some impulse of their own that they either loathe or have learned to somehow rationalize as acceptable because it’s only an occasional thing, and when this inferior being isn’t flattered by their interest and doesn’t welcome the chance to be used as an object they are surprised and angry. He’s supposed to like this dirty, nasty stuff because he’s one of “them.” If he rejects them, then he’s kind of reversing that by revealing that they’re more into it than he is, that it’s not some occasional thing they do as a lark with an inferior, but more a part of them than even of him.
It’s their own negative assessment of homosexuality, including whatever homosexual tendencies that they themselves have, that makes them hate him and hate his failure to go along with their indulging of what they see as their dark side.
And it’s in part his own ambivalence, if not self-hatred, about possibly being homosexual or bisexual that makes him torture himself wondering if he sort of consented to Chester after all by not screaming and fighting back with all he had, that terrifies him when he starts having fantasies about males, and that makes him try to change his thoughts and behavior any way he can think of to make these fantasies go away (through such strategies as throwing himself into religion, and chasing girls sexually even more frantically than most males his age do).
Subtract negative attitudes about homosexuality from the equation and I suspect he’d have been far less traumatized by what he describes. Subtract the powerful social message of “Oh my God, you poor child, the most horrific possible thing has been done to you and you need to be constantly told what an extraordinarily brave survivor you are and what an inhuman monster Chester is, and it’s not your fault you’re now scarred for life” and I suspect the trauma would be further lessened.
When I step back and assess what Chester did, I don’t approve of it, and I don’t see it as neutral, but I also don’t see it as being as bad as I suspect 99% of people nowadays would see it.
What I see is a clumsy kid—he’s 11 remember—with tendencies toward bullying to get his way, with conflicting feelings about his own homosexual urges, in effect aggressively propositioning someone he suspects will be receptive to him, wanting to engage in behavior that both of them will enjoy, and then being a dick about it when he’s rejected. There’s a certain amount of experimenting and curiosity to his behavior (imagine if it were a female child instead, a little girl pressuring a little boy to “play doctor” and show each other their genitalia or whatever), and he finds it jarring when his brutish behavior elicits a negative response.
He’s in the wrong, but I just don’t see him as some horrific predator who deserves to be shot. Again, you have to abstract the behavior from optional attitudes about sex and homosexuality. Imagine it’s two kids fooling around on the playground. One of them gets a little too aggressive in initiating a wrestling match, grabbing his companion and wanting to engage in some roughhousing that they’ll both enjoy. When the other kid finally succeeds in getting across the message that he’s not into it, that he doesn’t want to roughhouse that way right now, the first boy relents with a certain attitude of disgust, of “Sheesh, I’m just fooling around, wanting to have some fun. You don’t have to be so sensitive about it.”
That kid needs to learn that “no means no,” that when you’re trying to get someone to join you in some activity it’s not acceptable to use physical contact to pressure him into it. The proportional response to that level of wrongdoing is something like sending him to the principal’s office, or grounding him, or just the two kids sitting down and talking about it and talking about the acceptable boundaries of their relationship. The disproportional response is categorizing the kid as being in the worst subset of criminals who deserve to be hated for life and given the severest possible punishment (up to and including death) while treating the other kid as having been victimized in the worst imaginable way.
Add our present day unhealthy and perverse attitudes about sex to the mix and a garden variety act of bullying by an 11 year old becomes the most traumatic experience of Blow’s life and something that provokes the desire to respond with lethal violence 15 years or whatever later.
For what it’s worth, I found the people in that fraternity Blow describes to be considerably more loathsome than the child Chester.
As I say, I know I’m in the 1% in reacting that way, and that most people would take my reaction as somehow being “pro” child sexual abuse, but that’s genuinely where I am on this issue.
Interestingly, when I was, I think, about 6 or 7 (I’m unsure, because it was so long ago that the memories I have of it are extremely fuzzy), I had an experience that overlaps to some degree with what Blow describes with Chester when he was 7.
I had a male cousin who was four or so years older than me, so he would have been probably about 11 like Chester. We were alone one afternoon when he was visiting, and we engaged in some low level sexual experimenting. It was totally initiated by him. I think I was sitting on the floor, on the carpet, and he got down there with me and was kind of rubbing the top of his head and his forehead into my crotch, first with my pants on, and I think—though I don’t remember for sure—then doing the same to my bare crotch after lowering my pants. If he did anything before or after that I don’t recall it.
I certainly don’t remember getting an erection (if that’s even possible at that age). I don’t remember any kind of sexual arousal at all, not just because that particular activity didn’t do anything for me, but because sexual arousal wasn’t something I experienced at that age.
What I thought is that it’s weird behavior and he’s a weird guy. But I already knew he was a weird guy. I was bemused by it, not offended, and certainly not traumatized. I didn’t fight against it, but also don’t recall having any ambivalence afterward about the fact that I didn’t. I think I was just kind of curious where he was going with this.
Due to my age and lack of life experience, I didn’t really have any framework by which to judge it. Like I say, I kind of had the preexisting attitude that he was a weird guy, but really for all I knew this was a form of experimenting and messing around that people his age, or our age, routinely engaged in and I was just finding that out now. It wasn’t anything I enjoyed, but I didn’t much care one way or the other. My reaction was more like if as a 6 year old I played hide and seek or whatever for the first time and it happened not to be very interesting or fun for me so I had no inclination to play it again.
To this day I don’t feel the slightest bit victimized by the incident, nor did I or do I feel any ill will toward the cousin about it. We were playing. Yes, he was the older party, and yes he was the one who initiated it and all that, so in that sense he was to “blame” and my not fighting him off at that age doesn’t constitute legally or morally relevant “consent,” but that only matters if we were doing some horrible thing or he was doing some horrible thing to me. And I hadn’t internalized that attitude.
I didn’t tell anyone, but insofar as I can try to recreate what my mindset was at the time, it had nothing to do with being ashamed, and certainly had nothing to do with fearing that he would hurt me or something if I “told” on him. I think I had a vague sense that it was somehow “taboo” and therefore something that people might well react to in a negative or unpredictable way and so it was better not talked about.
Frankly it just wasn’t a big deal. I found his behavior mildly curious. That’s about it.
But, God, imagine that happened today. And imagine someone caught us in the act. My cousin would be in some kind of juvenile detention for years and I’d be in therapy for the rest of my childhood. Any imperfection or hang-up, especially sex-related, that I had as an adult would be attributed to this worst-of-all-possible crimes I’d experienced.
I contend that my shrugging it off and neither experiencing it nor remembering it as something terrible and traumatic is a much healthier reaction.
I don’t want to get into a whole debate about yeah, but what Chester did was different because of this or more wrong because of that; my point is not that the incidents were identical in all relevant respects. My point is that there are choices to be made in how we respond to things like this, both at the level of the individual and to a greater extent at the societal level, and that the present day hysteria on the issue is almost certainly not the best such reaction.
I respect Blow for being so honest and open about his childhood experiences in Fire Shut Up in My Bones, for inviting us along to observe as he tries to come to grips with how to interpret and respond to these experiences and to what he learns along the way about his own sexual identity.