How Gender Informs Our Ability To Understand Each Other

In her powerful poem, “Fear of Men,” Susan DeFreitas explores the ever-evolving puzzle of gender, feminism, and family.

Susan DeFreitas performs at Jade Lounge for INK NOISE Review.

“Fear of Men”

When I was young I had no fear
of men, though of dogs I did. My grandfather, a gentle man
with large hands, walked me every morning
past the beast, that explosion of barking
that broke the day, the fence that strained
to contain it. Men, as far as I knew,
were helpful. They fixed things, opened doors, jars,
and reached the canned peaches on the top shelf.
Sometimes I feared my father, true,
the way he could ignite without warning,
but this was because he was my father.
It did not occur to me it was because he was a man,
like my grandfather, who never raised his voice,
and patiently walked me to school each day
past the thing I feared.

Fear of men is a learned thing.
First, you must fear boys.
Boys like cousins, always breaking
bones, always setting things on fire.
Boys tenderly holding each other’s heads down
in the snowbank, boys’ arms and legs kicking and flailing.
Boys swinging and missing, hitting and running.
One boy I knew lay in wait each morning
of sixth grade to taunt me, to run close like a firework,
whistling with menace, and dart away again.
I dreaded the new day, the way I was, whatever it was
he had singled out about me—felt like the mouse
under the couch with the cat’s eye always on me.
Looking back, I suppose you could say
maybe he liked me.

Junior high in Hart was a constant effort
to keep boys from taking your clothes off.
It’s the same in many places, and it’s true:
saying no all the time makes you feel like your mother.
By the time we got to high school we were tired, and besides,
we were happy to give it up for our steady fellas,
in part because they protected us from other boys.
I’m not trying to say anything here.
Except maybe if you were Catholic, or unlucky,
you’d be stuck with him forever.
This guy who was basically your bodyguard.
Plenty of nice girls did.

I do not like this fear of men
on the street, in the park, in the parking lot
after dark. I do not like it when one approaches me
walking and I must look away.
I dislike it especially when he is black.
Because perhaps he thinks that his being black,
the fact of that, has something to do with this.
Girls, listen: Eye contact with a man of any color
can be hazardous to your health. Something in them
catches fire, then it’s your job to put it out.
And when your car is robbed, the catalytic converter lifted,
when the gunshots fire in the distance, when the bottle is broken
in the alley, when a child is forced to do
what a woman does, when a woman is,
my sweet boy children, it’s all men.
And they walk, I think, in fear of each other.

My husband is a gentle man.
He produces jars of jelly from the top shelves for me,
unscrews their lids if stuck. If I asked him,
I bet he’d tie my shoes for me, the way my grandfather did.
There is no sweetness greater than his way
with children. And yet,
he lives with a beast; I’ve seen it,
watching our quiet dinners,
barking silently at the sliding glass door.
The beast wants that glass to explode ecstatically,
breaking the bone china, shattering that fussy
sugar dish. This beast believes it wants
to run the tundra and eat whatever it is fast enough
to catch, to wolf down its meat
bloody and rare. But what it’s really hungry for
(and only now am I old enough to know this)
is a wide open space on the edge of town
where it can hiss past at a safe distance
and explode gloriously against the sky,
to burn itself off and disappear.
But how can it, when I’m always right here?

I am tired of this fear of men.
I think men too are tired.
Tired of inventing acceptable excuses
to touch one another. Tired of extracting
the shrapnel of other men
from the bodies of women. Tired of the vigilance required
to protect their daughters. Tired of murders.
They are tired of being beaten up
and they are tired of doing the beating, tired of being jumped in
and tired of jumping, tired of the love they carry but dare not
speak. Someday, maybe, the beast in the brain, that beautiful animal,
will have its room to run,
and our boy babies with their lovely bodies
will no longer leave us for war.
And out in a glorious field somewhere,
those men who cannot help but break
our hearts will do so at a distance,
burning off their arsenals, singly and together,
in great, glittering explosions.
And our fathers and brothers and husbands and lovers will watch
that heroic display, maybe, the way they do the Super Bowl,
with something akin to longing,
then offer us their large hands to hold
on that long journey home.
INK NOISE Review is a reading series dedicated to bridging the various branches of the Portland, Ore. poetry scene. Follow them on Facebook.

Production and editing by Heliorana Filmworks.

Susan DeFreitas

Susan DeFreitas is a writer and book coach, an associate editor with Indigo Editing & Publications, and a reader for Tin House Magazine. Her work has appeared in the Utne Reader, the Nervous Breakdown, Southwestern American Literature, Fourth River, Weber—The Contemporary West, and Bayou Magazine, among other publications. Follow her on Twitter.



    1. FYI My last guy I was with for ten years was an incessant nag. He was sweet or I would not have been with him for ten years. I am just not a nagger. That issue is not about what sex you are. But I did have to ask myself what was relevant about what he nagged about. Some of it was and the rest I told him was his. Buck up and talk about it.

  1. I have never developed a fear of men even though I suffered abuse from those in my family. Learning how to push back at a young age helped. In fact it was always my own esteem that I had to deal with. I have a very good relationship with my guy. We don’t fight at all, but just accept each others right to be who we are. Oh, we did fight over algebra once but figured out a tsunami was going on and that probably caused it. It just starts from a mutual decency. My son went off to war even though I tried to talk him out of it. I supported him after he made the decision. We don’t stick with standard gender roles. I would suffocate in that. Plus I am the one that likes sports more and fishing. I have always had more fear of women but that has gotten better. There was just much distrust before in me. In recent years that has subsided and I love being around women. I get impatient with people who are afraid of men of color. I have never had that fear either. I get a little impatient with fearful people. Humanism makes sense to me as does feminism when it concerns all human dignity.

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