My dystopian novel End of Men was based on a simple idea I had in 2003: what if males stopped being born? The story went through a lot of evolutions over the years. One of the most significant was when I attended a writing class that encouraged infusing your “important topic”—the thing that keeps you up at night, the thing you just can’t stop thinking about—into the narrative.
For me, that issue was the mass shootings that kept happening in the United States. I was a college student at CU Boulder when Columbine happened. I didn’t know anyone who was there, but the tragedy hit me hard. I remember sitting in class afterward when someone dropped a book on the ground. I jumped at the sound and my eyes darted to the door. Someone could come in at any moment and just start shooting. How was such a horrific thing possible?
That prickly sense of fear didn’t end when I graduated. Many times I would find myself walking into a store and imagining what I would do if a gunman came in and started shooting. I’d attend a concert and glance around at all the people and locate the exits. At church, the movies, football games…nothing seemed truly safe. As America’s problem of mass shootings heightened, I avoided going to more than one large event partially because the worry of “what if” crossed my mind.
I didn’t talk about this deep, internalized fear because it seemed pointless and “silly.” I certainly didn’t have any answers to solve it. Instead, I infused the topic into my novel as a way to explore it. End of Men takes place in a not-so-distant dystopian America where mass attacks become such an epidemic that the government shuts down public places and people are afraid to leave their homes. This was many years before Coronavirus and I wondered how I’d ever make such a thing seem believable.
Today, as I grapple with yesterday’s mass shooting at a grocery store in Boulder less than a week after the shootings at massage parlors in Atlanta, that dystopian future seems all too possible. What does it say about the state of our nation that the scariest part of this pandemic might be facing public places again after it’s over for fear of getting shot?
Confronting the epidemic of male-pattern violence
While working on End of Men, I did a lot of research on mass shootings and the masculine connection to violence. It led me to some dark and painful places, from Sue Klebold’s accounts of coming to grips with her son’s role in Columbine to vivid, heartbreaking stories from people who had survived mass attacks. Many times, I’d sit at my desk crying as I wrote and wondering why I was putting myself through such pain.
One of the boards I read coined the term “male-pattern violence.” This topic is incredibly sensitive, for obvious reasons. I actually avoided working on my book for a long time because of my discomfort addressing the issue. Like the protagonist, I worried it would look like I hated men and thought they were all evil, which couldn’t be further from the truth. I have an incredibly kind father, a wonderfully compassionate husband, three sweet young stepsons, and a lot of male friends who I love, trust, and admire.
And yet, there’s a problem.
For centuries, males have been committing violent crimes at rates that far surpass violent acts by females. Brian Sykes, a geneticist, explored the biological connection between the Y chromosome and violence in his book Adam’s Curse. Other studies hypothesized a “warrior gene” that may make certain males more prone to violence.
In all my research on gun violence and mass attacks in the United States, I found very few articles talking about the disturbing fact that the killers are overwhelmingly males. It’s an obvious trend; it’s right there in the term gunman. Michael Ian Black began to address it in his opinion piece “The Boys Are Not All Right”, which he wrote the week after the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.
“What do these shootings have in common? Guns, yes. But also, boys.
Girls aren’t pulling the triggers. It’s boys. It’s almost always boys.”
—Michael Ian Black
It’s not about “us” versus “them”
This discussion does NOT mean that all men are bad or that women never commit violent crimes. It means there is a pattern we need to address. Beyond mass shootings, the issue of male-pattern violence and abuse of power is echoed in the #MeToo movement, #BlackLivesMatter, and so many more. Again and again, we see atrocious violence and abuse of power by males.
We can’t just look away. It feels like a pot has been simmering for decades—maybe centuries—and it’s finally boiling over. What is going wrong with our boys that they’re growing into men who commit these horrific, violent acts? Is it biological or is it how we’re raising them? Are we doing enough to encourage young boys to talk about their difficult emotions so they don’t get pushed down until they explode in anger and violence?
“We’ve begun to raise our daughters more like sons…
but few have the courage to raise our sons
more like our daughters.” —Gloria Steinem
Every dialogue I see surrounding these topics turns into an “us” versus “them” argument. It sparks hate-filled finger-pointing on the “evils” of feminism and the “liberals” who want to take away the right to bear arms. Do I need to be a feminist to know that men attacking innocent people and committing rape is wrong? Do I need to be a liberal to think a mentally unstable person should not be able to walk into a corner store, buy a gun, and go kill a bunch of workers, students, or grocery shoppers?
Gun control, mental healthcare, and redefining masculinity
The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result. Every time there’s a mass shooting, there are calls for gun control from civilians, protests from Second Amendment proponents, and thoughts and prayers from politicians.
Are we going to continue the insanity or change something?
After the COVID pandemic ends, we’ll all go back to work, school, concerts, and public events. Are we going to return to a steady stream of mass attacks in the United States? Sadly, I haven’t seen any gun reform or mental healthcare programs that lead me to believe otherwise.
We need gun control.
We need mental healthcare for everyone who is suffering. (Which, these days, is EVERYONE.)
And we need to take a hard look at the links between violence and masculinity.
This is not a video game. It’s not a movie.
The lyrics to this song by Kris Allen runs through my head, which he wrote the day after the Umpqua Community College mass shooting:
No, we can’t just look away.
No, we can’t just stay the same.
No, we can’t let tomorrow be another today
‘Cause if we keep doing nothing
Nothing will ever change.
I don’t have the answers. I don’t have a petition to sign or a bill to vote for. All I have for now is my voice. So I’m going to use it.
I hope you will, too.