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“When Jimmy lashed out at Shirley, he was, as one abuse expert terms it, “offending from the victim position.” This is perhaps the most common pattern of male violence toward women. Flooded with depression and feelings of victimization, Jimmy used rage to physiologically pump up his sense of deflation. Research shows that rage simultaneously releases adrenaline, which speeds up the autonomic nervous system, and endorphins, which act as the body’s own opioids. This is a powerful internal cocktail, which tragically, like any other form of intoxication, can offer short-lived relief from the pain of depression.

The pattern in males of moving from the helpless, depressed, “one down” position to a transfigured, grandiose, “one up” position has become one of the most powerful and ubiquitous narratives in modern times. The hero, a meek, quiet, strong man of principle, is bullied and pressed to the wall. He is humiliated and abused, often physically. Then comes the turnaround. Clark Kent rips off his business suit to become Superman; David Banner transforms when angered into the Incredible Hulk. The “weakling” stands up. In a recurring scene that lies at the heart of the film Taxi Driver, Robert De Niro stares into a mirror and challenges an imagined enemy. “Are you looking at me?” he threatens. “Are you looking at me?” We invariably laugh, the first time this scene is shown, as we recognize the braggart boy of our own past posturing before the looking glass. But as the scene is replayed, De Niro appears each time better armed and more psychotic, until, in the last repetition, he emerges wholly transformed and wholly mad. His head is shaved, he is covered with tattoos, and he carries enough weapons to attack a small fortress. The question he repeats one final time–”Are you looking at me?”–now sends an unholy chill through the audience. De Niro stands before the mirror like a deranged Narcissus bent over a well of darkness.

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Travis Bickle, played by Robert De Niro, from the film Taxi Driver (1976)

This theme of male transformation harkens back to our archetypal heroes, like Odysseus, Orpheus, Siddhartha, and Jesus. As mythologist Joseph Campbell elaborated, the hero’s journey usually leads from some difficult trial, often involved pain and humiliation, through an experience of transformation to a triumphal return. Throughout most cultures and in most ages, this mutation from a state of helplessness to sublimity has been effected by a spiritual awakening. In modern Western mythology, the same transformation is most often effected through the forces of rage and revenge. In the film Falling Down, Michael Douglas, a repressed, buttoned-down nerd, fulfills our own dark fantasies by decompensating in the middle of a traffic jam and going on a bloody rampage. All of the popular Rambo movies follow this pattern of ritual wounding followed by grand revenge. In Rambo I, Stallone is unfairly pursued and shot at by bigoted police officers. In Rambo II, he is tortured with electricity. In Rambo III, his right side is lacerated by flying shrapnel. In each, he emerges stronger than ever and ready for vengeance. In The Unforgiven, Clint Eastwood is savagely beaten and crawls out of town, only to return and kill his abuser. In fact, almost every recent Hollywood adventure plays out this theme of revenge in some fashion.

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John Rambo, played by Sylvester Stallone, crying at the end of the film Rambo I (1982) 

These scenes of ceremonial injury hark back to the crucifixion and dismemberment of Dionysus, Mithras, Jesus, and other heroes of the great mystery cults. But for the spiritually rich heroes of antiquity, it is their egos, their ordinary selves, that are rent in order to give way to the sublime. In our modern version, the hero’s self is not transmuted by spirit but inflated by violence. This is a dangerous direction for heroism to take.

The same shift from shame to grandiosity through violence that is celebrated in film invades our homes in the form of rampant domestic abuse. Research shows that one distinguishing characteristic of battering men is a markedly increased sensitivity to feelings of abandonment, which can often translate into love addiction. Battering men like Jimmy use connection to their sexual partners to help medicate covert depression. Without acknowledging it, these rough macho guys depend on union with their women to supplement deficiencies in self-esteem. When their partners “fail them,” they are flooded by depression and shame. Rage psychologically and physiologically “medicates” their dip into the experience of depression. Helpless feelings vanish with the illusion of inordinate power. The grandiose entitlement to lash out at another human being rights their floundering sense of self-worth–and they strike. Underneath it all lies the depression, like Jimmy’s, which sets a man up to be vulnerable to abandonment in the first place. With some men these dynamics are violent and obvious; with others they are violent and subtle. . . .”

Terrence Real, I Don’t Want to Talk About It: Overcoming the Legacy of Male Depression (New York: Scribner, 1997), pp. 67-70.

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