Two novels explore the roots and results of male aggression
Two new novels consider the theme of nature versus nurture, particularly as it applies to the lives of boys and their families.
'His Mother's Son' is the debut work of Cai Emmons, an accomplished playwright and filmmaker who also teaches creative writing at the University of Oregon in Eugene.
The book explores the psychological and emotional lives of a family both before and after a long-hidden secret is revealed.
The protagonist, Jana Thomas, is a respected physician and the mother of Evan, a rambunctious 6-year-old. When the boy's aggressive behavior becomes out of control, Jana fears that her son will repeat the actions of her brother, who committed a violent crime years before. Jana has told no one about her brother's past; this secret now threatens to destroy the life she's created.
Emmons says that two significant events inspired the book: the birth of her son, now 11, and the horrific events of May 20 and May 21, 1998, in neighboring Springfield, where 15-year-old Kip Kinkel shot and killed his parents and two Thurston High students, and wounded many others.
'I became interested in Kip's sister, who was away at school at the time of the shooting,' Emmons says. 'I thought, 'How could you ever survive this emotionally?' So I think I was working that out in my head, how you could deal with something that not only had an impact on your own family but also affected the community in such a way that you became public in your pain.'
And like many mothers of boys, Emmons also was initially concerned about her son's desire to play with toy weapons.
'When I first encountered this 'maleness' in my child, I was shocked,' she says. 'I found myself asking grown men, 'Did you play with guns and swords when you were a kid?' And without exception, even the gentlest gay men said, 'Yes, I did.'
'I found this very reassuring, and I began to feel that our generation baby boomers is a culture of hypervigilant parents. I know that our concerns are often justified, because there is so much more danger in our world than when we were growing up, but in some ways we may have overreacted.'
Emmons is wary of contemporary child-rearing books that encourage parents to squelch behavior that is intrinsically masculine:
'I think that we need to recognize that male impulse in boys, and find ways of channeling it that we can condone. We also need to engage them in the repercussions in that kind of behavior, as opposed to just letting it happen.'
In the second book, 'What I Loved' by Siri Hustvedt, the author also questions the origins of personality and a parent's ability to shape it.
The story begins in New York City in 1975, when Leo, a professor and art critic, befriends Bill, the archetypal struggling artist. Soon the men are living in the same SoHo building with their wives and sharing a summer house. Their sons are even born in the same year.
But despite the boys' being raised virtually as brothers, Leo's son is as lovingly sensitive as Bill's is darkly troubled. When tragedy strikes both boys, its swath is viciously unjust, ultimately shattering each family's beliefs and sense of purpose.
'The biggest question for me, and maybe for all of us, is: Why and how do we become what we are?' Hustvedt says of the topic at the heart of both 'What I Loved' and 'His Mother's Son.'
The subject matter will perhaps never be understood fully and for many parents is one best handled with reverence and at arm's length.
'My mother says that she raised my sisters and I with a kind of 'benign neglect,' ' Emmons says. 'I think that there's a lot of wisdom there. I've grown to realize that my son can handle more than I give him credit for; I don't worry so much anymore.'