14 May 2015
Within a week, I read two narrative non-fiction books that were deeply connected in theme and evoked a powerful emotional response. Both Man Alive and The Other Wes Moore examine the journey to manhood; what it means and how it is achieved.
For the two Wes Moores, whose stories are traced in The Other Wes Moore, this passage was fraught with peril, poverty and the absence of fathers. Growing up in West Baltimore and The Bronx, the boys had similar struggles and yet their lives diverged greatly, one going on to become a Rhodes scholar, Army officer and accomplished writer/speaker, while the other is serving a life sentence for a heist in which an off-duty police officer was killed.
Do you think that we’re products of our environments? I think so, or maybe products of our expectations. Others’ expectations of us or our expectations … I realize how difficult it is to separate the two. The expectations that others place on us help us form our expectations of ourselves.
A series of letters and visits between the two are the basis of Moore’s analysis as he examines what manhood meant to each of the boys and how they faced the approaching need for responsibility – caring for family, trying to better themselves and their lives, sometimes achieving, sometimes failing.
Thomas Page McBee’s path to manhood, chronicled in Man Alive is likewise fraught with obstacles. As a female-bodied man bearing the scars of family trauma and reeling in the fresh vulnerability of surviving a mugging, McBee’s experience is unique and his insight, broadly relevant.
It seemed possible to me, in the dry heat of that courtroom, that heaven was a metaphor for the grace of perspective you get when you die.
Through intertwined narratives of past and present, McBee explores both the perception of and his internalized messages about what it means to be a man. In a story that could be full of heroes and villains, we find instead nuance and complexity. McBee comes to terms with the humanity of his abusive father and mugger, freeing him to embrace manhood on his own terms.