This story appears in the March/April 2018 issue of Playboy. Subscribe

For kicks, my father would leave my mother alone in a room with his male friends. The first time he did it, my mother thought he was being careless and told him that his friends had come on to her in his absence. The next time it happened she thought he was being naive, too trusting. She complained bitterly from then on, sensitive to every instance of abandonment. Time and again he found some reason to ghost on her. Years later, my father admitted that this was how he extracted proof that his friends envied him. As if to help her understand his motives, he said my mother was like a candy bowl he would leave in the room to taunt his friends, who knew the candy belonged exclusively to him. Any way I look at it, his analogy only compounds the horror it represents.

My wife and I argue over this revelation in particular, one of several my mother has passed on to me like toxic heirlooms. My wife called the candy-bowl excuse a lame distraction. “You can’t compare a woman to a candy bowl,” she said, “and expect her not to take offense.” I agreed in part, but where my wife saw a sadistic man abusing his wife, I saw a guy trying to impress his homies. Maybe I was just arguing for a lesser charge. The way I saw it, my mother was incidental. To my father, she was an object to be acted upon. I conceded that my mother suffered a kind of symbolic violence in the process, but felt that it was unintentional. Insensitive, sure, but not mean-spirited. My wife insisted there was nothing symbolic about it: It was violence in fact. “If the thing he used as bait really didn’t matter,” my wife said, “your dad could have used an actual candy bowl and gotten the same results.” It would have worked, I mumbled, if it had been an ounce of weed.

Until very recently I imagined there was a difference between predatory, destructive masculinity and the kind of “locker-room-talk” masculinity that men exercise mostly in the company of other men. I reasoned that the locker-room variety, the sort demonstrated by Donald Trump in the famous Access Hollywood tape, is flawed, but at least it isn’t calculated to deliberately hurt anyone. Another case in point: that photo of Al Franken pretending to honk a sleeping woman’s breasts, the picture staged to grab the attention of other men. Not long ago, I would have said that it was another victimless offense—an immature or insecure guy clowning for his friends, that this type of behavior promotes bonding and friendship among men. That’s a view of masculinity I got from my dad, a view I’d been inclined to protect. But I think now of all the ways it can be harmful.

I imagined there was a difference between predatory, destructive masculinity and the kind of ‘locker-room-talk’ masculinity that men exercise mostly in the company of other men.

After my father died two years ago, my mother embarked on a kind of “truth and reconciliation” campaign. I doubt she was thinking about it so formally, but I’m sure she’d processed and bottled up her experiences over the years because she didn’t trust confiding them to anyone while my dad was still around. Not many people, anyway, knew my father intimately enough to corroborate the subtle kinds of cruelty he could inflict on my mother. Most people would consider my dad’s peccadilloes as victimless bad behavior. His death made me—an educated, securely employed, property-owning husband and father—the closest thing our extended family had to the patriarchal standard to which masculinity attunes in America, so perhaps my mother thought I would be independent enough in my thinking to receive her stories about my father objectively. Getting stuff off her chest may have been cathartic for my mom, but her stories felt like a list of charges against me.

I had convinced myself that the candy-bowl incident was harmless because it was a social interaction among men. Sociologist Michael Kimmel has noted how “men prove their manhood in the eyes of other men.” To argue, however, that my mother was an object caught in the crossfire between men negotiating their masculinity may only prove that masculinity is dehumanizing to anyone who is not a man. I think of Donald Trump’s famously enigmatic boast/confession, “I moved on her like a bitch.” He’s not saying he had such a good time with this woman that he continues to feel waves of contentment. No, I moved on her like a bitch describes the way he acted upon the incidental woman. Whether or not women and children are treated as objects, as long as masculinity is active, men will need something to act upon. To be domineering, we need people to dominate.

“Domineering” is practically in the job description of an American patriarch. My dad was good at his job. From where I was standing my mom seemed to have figured out how to navigate his antics. Because she concealed her distress, I assumed she didn’t suffer. I assumed my father’s masculinity was victimless. And I thought being a husband and a dad required some degree of despotism.

“Do as I say and not as I do,” my father liked to tell me, which presented a problem as I grew into my own manhood. By depriving me of action, however symbolically, he moved on me—in a manner of speaking—like a bitch. Naturally, I responded in kind and produced a family drama that took no account of my mother’s pain. Even still, I catch myself sometimes performing my dad’s swaggering dominance with my own wife and kids. I agree with Kimmel that masculinity is situational, something experienced and expressed in relation to others, because I too need a masculinity check now and then. Knowing how this works, I look for healthy ways to get my mojo out in the open where I can relish it. I play tennis. Instead of dominating people, I dominate the court. Alas, this so far is all the generational progress I’ve made.

I’m end-running my mother’s #MeToo revelations so my masculinity can continue functioning like a verb and thrive in the context of other men. The obvious lesson I take is that human beings should not be the object of my actions. The challenge now is to envision a kind of masculinity that is accountable to women as well.

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Gregory Pardlo is a professor of creative writing and a Pulitzer Prize–winning poet. His new book, Air Traffic: A Memoir of Ambition and Manhood in America, will be out April 10 from Knopf.