December 8, 2019

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Beastly burden

Science journalist mines his emotions, experiences in exploration of male violence and says proper training of the animal within vital to safe, civil society

Author Daemon Fairless

TESSA BUCHAN PHOTO

Author Daemon Fairless

Daemon Fairless is a longtime journalist — a producer on CBC Radio’s As It Happens and a writer for the science journal Nature.

So he knows that, as a rule, journalists don’t make themselves the focus of the story.

However, when it came time to write Mad Blood Stirring, his non-fiction investigation into the roots of male violence, the Toronto writer found he couldn’t get a handle on the narrative. He handed in a year’s worth of work to his editor but says it was "garbage."

"I was feeling like, ‘I’m not cut out to write a book; I’m not that good of a writer,’" he says. "And then I started writing the chapter about the psychopath (serial killer), in which I talk about my mom, and something really changed in the quality of the writing because I was starting to access a lot of emotions that I hadn’t dealt with."

Those emotions became the through line of a book that uses the author’s family history and his own violent impulses and actions to frame a broader exploration of why men are so prone to fight, rape, abuse and wage war.

Over the years, Fairless had found himself wading into conflicts (confronting a belligerent drunk on a train, a bully in a shop) in ways that often turned physical — and his secret enjoyment of these scuffles was more about the thrill of the fight than the notion of defending anyone’s honour, more about wielding power than being a hero.

This behaviour seemed at odds with his upbringing — raised by pacifists, he was a sensitive child, a drama kid — and his current status as an enlightened modern feminist with a wife and child. It made him ponder the source of his need to dominate.

"One of the things I think about a lot is that notion that when women are angry they cry and when men are feeling anything, they’re angry," he says. "I suspect that that has a lot to do with how men are socialized, but I was raised in a way, in a family, where crying was OK, feeling my feelings was OK.

"I do think there’s this weird dichotomous notion that if you allow men to cry and be sensitive, they somehow won’t be aggressive and dominant, and I think that might be fallacious. That’s where I think we need to understand the inherence of dominance and aggression. I think they’re there regardless of how we’re socialized.

"Now, you can socialize men not to turn those emotions into (anti-social) behaviour — I’m not at all suggesting we are fated to (be violent) — but I think it’s a little precious to suggest that we can negate or amputate or turn off a set of emotions that are deeply inherent."

The fact that men are more violent than women is widely documented, and Fairless — who has a master’s degree in neuroscience — provides plenty of background research, from work with primates to psychological and sociological studies, to back up the notion that the human male has been shaped, from his ape roots, to settle disagreements via shows of strength.

"No matter how you achieve success later in life — money, fame, esteem — no matter how high up the social ladder you climb, we all know that we can be shoved off that ladder by the simple application of physical force," he writes, referring to the fact that even as adults, we can’t escape the "microcosmic hothouse" of the schoolyard, where disputes are settled mano-a-mano.

Fairless interviewed a variety of men who have engaged in violence on different levels and with different motivations — including a serial killer and a recidivist rapist — several of whom have remarkable insight into the baser parts of their nature.

Nelson, an MMA fighter, writes songs and meditates. He also beats people up for a living and once rode a guy down a flight of stairs. He calls the instinct for violence his "inner animal," and tells Fairless: "I think we either train him or we let him run wild. That’s what you try to do with martial arts — train him. But real enlightenment isn’t about just training the animal. It’s about not having to deal with that animal at all."

Fairless also talks to men who have let that inner animal run wild, with horrific consequences. Of course, the psychopathy of a serial killer can’t be generalized to the whole population, but it can’t be ignored that men are responsible for 85 per cent of all homicides and 91 per cent of all same-sex killings worldwide.

His interviews reveal the way men rationalize and justify the use of power to get what they want, especially in cases where sex and violence are intertwined.

Fairless also describes several of his own physical confrontations; he readily admits the fact that he has quite a few to describe is indicative of his instinctive desire to seek out conflict.

He also admits that there’s something satisfying, even to the reader, about a bad guy getting the snot beaten out of him by a heroic bystander.

"When I talk about these natural tendencies, that sense of natural satisfaction is part of the inherent drives I’m talking about," he says. "What I’m most concerned about right now is, how do we get past the emotional satisfaction of that kind of frontier justice? That’s all we had before we had law and institutions and whatnot. But if we’re going to be safe, be more civilized, we have to give up that sense of satisfaction.

"This impulse, it’s not like it’s an awful thing; it’s got its place. But that place is really far and few between.

"For me, it means giving up self-indulgently satisfying that emotional urge. That’s being a boy, that’s being a child, that’s being an animal, really."

Fairless is the father of a young daughter; asked how writing the book made him feel about sending her out into the world, he sighs deeply.

"Oh, Jesus. At this particular time, it makes me pretty anxious, to be honest," he says. "I think that that’s a huge part of why writing this book helped me get my (life) together, because I have to lead by example...

"I wish this was some kind of social prescription for the ills out there, but it’s a prescription for myself."

jill.wilson@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @dedaumier

Jill Wilson

Jill Wilson
Senior copy editor

Jill Wilson writes about culture and the culinary arts for the Arts & Life section.

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History

Updated on Monday, March 19, 2018 at 8:44 AM CDT: Adds images

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