Writer Sigrid MacDonald
Writer Sigrid MacDonald

I’ve been distracted here in Tampa, Florida for the least few days and unable to get done much in the way of posting. Here’s a post by Sigrid Macdonald, an author based in Ottawa. She always has very insightful commentary, especially on gender. This one in no exception, and it manages to touch on male suicide, health, and fathers issues. Well done. I’m not sure I agree that domestic violence against men is less harmful. True, men are physically stronger, but women make up for that by being more likely to use weapons and plan strategic uses of violence. But with some small exceptions, the following is right on target:

Death of a Salesman — Male Suicide Is All the Rage

Recently I watched a television version of the all-time classic play Death of a Salesman. I was struck by its continued relevance today, in this time of economic uncertainty when so much pressure is still applied on men to be successful providers.

As you may remember, Willy Loman, our anguished hero in Arthur Miller’s tale, was a salesman who covered seven states in the New England territory. He drove for miles, suffered from great loneliness and isolation at times, but always had to approach his clients with a smile on his face. He had to pump himself up every day when he looked in the mirror, telling himself that he was the best, he was going to make it big time; for sure, he would make a million bucks! Except that he didn’t.

In every way, Willy was an ordinary man who tried to convince himself that he was extraordinary because his occupation required him to do so. What he was selling was not so much a product as himself. And if he failed, he couldn’t admit it because that would be admitting weakness when Willy was a typical macho man of the 40s. But how much has that changed?

The main beneficiaries of the gender revolution of the 60s and 70s were women, not men, and rightly so initially because women had to be brought up to par (we’re still not there in terms of pay equity or equal representation in Congress and Parliament, as top CEOs of companies or studying for Ph.D.s in math, science and engineering. But the focus for several decades has been on improving women’s lives by meting out greater penalties for sexual harassment, domestic violence and sexual abuse, and this emphasis has been at the expense of neglecting male issues such as Willy’s.)

When we first encounter Willy, he’s having a nervous breakdown. He keeps crashing the car and his faithful wife Linda discovers a hose in the basement connected to the furnace. She knows that he’s trying to kill himself but she can’t bring herself to talk to him about it because she’s afraid she’ll hurt his ego. And Willy can’t talk to his wife about his fears because it would be emasculating. (Although women suffer depression more often than men, men are far more likely to commit suicide for a variety of complex reasons, starting with the fact that they don’t seek medical help; they don’t confide in others because they need to keep up a sense of bravado; they have higher rates of alcoholism and drug addiction than women [but women are catching up]; and most importantly, they choose more dramatic methods such as hanging and shooting.)

Men are particularly vulnerable to suicide during periods of unemployment. At the age of 63, Willy had been placed on straight commission and his salary had been slashed by a company that he’d worked for for 35 years. When he complained to the new CEO, the son of the original owner — a boy who Willy had known all of his life and even named — Howard shrugged him off. “Just business,” he explained. “Nothing personal.” “Get yourself together!” So much for loyalty, dedication and reward for a lifetime of hard work. Willy was no longer producing, consequently, he was disposable.

One thing that I noticed this time around that had escaped me during previous readings of the play was that Charlie, a mere acquaintance of Willy’s, offered Willy a job but he refused to take it because of his pride. Willy was too good for the $25 a week job. He was a salesman through and through and he was better than that. He needed his old job back for the sake of his self image; anything other than that was simply charity or beneath him.

We all know the ending to this sad story: Willy kills himself so that his family can collect $20,000 in insurance money. His sons, one a full-time Lothario and the other unable to commit to any sort of decent job, view their father’s death differently. One sees it as the end of the American dream and his realization is liberating to him. He will no longer strive to be perfect or extraordinary. He, Biff, will be perfectly happy to be just like everyone else. The other son, Happy (who is anything but), is more resolute than ever to carry on his father’s illusions about life and what it means to be a man in this society.

In these troublesome times, with tens of thousands of layoffs and people literally losing the roof over their heads, how many more company men will decide to make the final exit? In Britain, five times as many males between the ages of 15 and 34 kill themselves as females. This rate drops a bit and then rises dramatically from the age of 65 to 75. According to the World Health Organization, Canada is ahead of the United States in terms of male suicide at 21.5 men per 100,000 people compared to 5.4 for women versus 19.3 men per 100,000 and 4.4 women in the US [http://fathersforlife.org/health/cansuic.htm].

When suicide is the third leading cause of death in Canada, followed only by cancer and heart disease, and men outnumber women four to one, why isn’t this considered a national crisis? We don’t need the deaths of any more salesmen! We need to encourage true sex role equality, where we say that we want men to be open about their feelings, from sorrow to rage, and we mean it and don’t ridicule them behind their backs. We need to reduce the pressure on young men who are trying to find themselves professionally and in the work world, and let them know that they don’t have to be perfect or support entire families without contributions by their mates. We need to stop thinking about men as the ones who are violent and privileged – men as the problem –and realize that the traditional male role is just as confining as the female role, and in some respects, it’s worse.

In his book The Myth of Male Power Warren Farrell argues that only men are drafted in North America; men may well be the greatest perpetrators of violence but they’re also the largest number of victims of violence; men work in many occupations that are physically dangerous like firefighting and construction; and men suffer domestic violence at equal rates to women, although women are far more likely to be seriously injured or hospitalized when a man hits them. And something is dreadfully wrong when our young men, the next generation, our greatest resource, have already decided at 25 that life is too difficult and painful to bear.