How My Father Escaped From the Act Like a Man Box and Saved His Life

If you’re male, sometime in your life someone has told you to “act like a man.” I heard it from my first wife when she got mad and screamed it at me after I had refused to confront a guy who had sold us a faulty appliance. I heard it again from a friend who wanted me to leave this same woman after she had taken her anger out on me…again, and punctured the tires in my car.

Most of us grew up with certain rules that required men to act and be a certain way that were different from the way women were required to act and be. Growing up I knew that a man must fight anyone who disrespects him, his mother, or his wife. I learned early that a man must be the breadwinner and support his family, no matter what.

Writer and activist Paul Kivel described these manhood mandates as putting us in the Act Like a Man Box. As I grew up I found my life work helping men and women break free from the restrictions that keep us locked down. I came to see that the Act Like a Man Box and the Act Like a Woman Box were mirror images of each other.

When I read Betty Friedan’s book, The Feminine Mystique in 1963 I realized “the problem that has no name,” which is the title of Chapter 1, highlighting the dissatisfactions that women were feeling, also stirred similar feelings in me. The book begins with these words:

“The problem lay buried, unspoken, for many years in the minds of American women. It was a strange stirring, a sense of dissatisfaction, a yearning that women suffered in the middle of the twentieth century in the United States. Each suburban wife struggled with it alone. As she made the beds, shopped for groceries, matched slipcover material, ate peanut butter sandwiches with her children, chauffeured Cub Scouts and Brownies, lay beside her husband at night—she was afraid to ask even of herself the silent question. ‘Is this all?’”

If I had the insight into men that Friedan had in women, I might have written. “The problem lay buried, unspoken, for many years in the minds of American men. It was a strange stirring, a sense of dissatisfaction, a yearning that men suffered in the middle of the twentieth century in the United States. Each suburban husband struggled with it alone. As he went off to work each day, busting his balls at a job he didn’t love in order to bring home the bread to support his family, always terrified he might be laid off, forever trying to climb the ladder and compete other men who were also fighting for the few jobs at the top. When he lay beside his wife at night—he was afraid to ask even of himself the silent question. ‘Is this all?’”

It took me a long time to realize that the same things that society was telling women they must be, were the same things they were telling men they must not be, and vice versa.

For instance, growing up I learned that men must be and women must not be:

  • The primary breadwinner
  • Physically strong
  • Good with tools
  • Logical
  • Hairy
  • Aggressive
  • Muscular
  • Tough
  • Hard
  • Decisive

The reverse was also true. I learned that women must be and men must not be:

  • Home with the kids
  • Gentle
  • Good with feelings
  • Emotional
  • Smooth skinned
  • Passive
  • Curvy
  • Tender
  • Soft
  • Yielding

My father didn’t fit well in the Act Like a Man Box. Unlike his brothers and sisters who all went into business or became insurance salesmen, my father wanted to be a writer. He was a gentle soul, tender, kind, and emotionally expressive. Yet, when I was born and he struggled to make a living, he became increasingly angry and depressed. It’s still heart-breaking for me to witness his struggle and suffering as I read his journals, which I only discovered in recent years.

Summer, 1948:

“The heaping up of many failures unbalances a man’s worth and I often lose complete faith in myself. The feelings of inferiority are overwhelming. I must constantly be reminded of my accomplishments, no matter how small, to keep my self-respect and belief in my intrinsic worth.”

September 14, 1948:

“How much can my wife stand? When in this world will I ever have a piece of bread that isn’t encrusted with fear and doubt, with all those moldy devils turning my blood to water and my stomach to mush. I feel like a gutless zero.”

October 10, 1948:

“Oh, Christ, if I could only give my son a decent education—a college decree with a love for books, a love for people, good, solid knowledge. No guidance was given to me. I slogged and slobbered and blundered through two-thirds of my life. I can’t make a decent living and it’s killing me.”

December 8, 1948:

“Your flesh crawls, your scalp wrinkles when you look around and see good writers, established writers, writers with credits a block long, unable to sell, unable to find work, Yes, it’s enough to make anyone, blanch, turn pale and sicken.”

January 24, 1949:

“Faster, faster, faster, I walk. I plug away looking for work, anything to support my family. I try, try, try, try, try. I always try and never stop.”

June 8, 1949:

“A hundred failures, an endless number of failures, until now, my confidence, my hope, my belief in myself, has run completely out. Middle aged, I stand and gaze ahead, numb, confused, and desperately worried. All around me I see the young in spirit, the young in heart, with ten times my confidence, twice my youth, ten times my fervor, twice my education. I see them all, a whole army of them, battering at the same doors I’m battering, trying in the same field I’m trying. Yes, on a Wednesday morning June, my hope and my life stream are both running desperately low, so low, so stagnant, that I hold my breath in fear, believing that the dark, blank curtain is about to descend.”

Six days after his June 8th entry, my father took an over-dose of sleeping pills and was committed to Camarillo State Hospital. Back then, there was little real treatment and he got worse and worse under an onslaught of electroshock treatments and anti-psychotic drugs. He was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, but his real malady was being trapped in the Act Like a Man Box.

That might have been the end of the story for my father. He was under a court-ordered commitment to stay in the hospital until he was cured. The doctors told my mother he might never get well. But he was a fighter. After seven years he escaped and never returned. Since he no longer had to be the family breadwinner or live up to the other expectations that were required of those who acted like real men, he could begin to find his own way.

He began to write stories, poetry, and plays. He had three books of poetry published and made a living as a street puppeteer in Los Angeles and later in San Francisco. When he died at age eighty-nine, his life was celebrated by family, friends, and the community he served. The story in the San Francisco Chronicle said in part:

“The puppet man died last month, at the age of 89. He lived in a hotel on Turk Street, the kind with a buzzer on the front door and folks sitting on sofas in the lobby. On Monday, the folks regrouped in the TV room for a brief memorial service. A memorial service in a TV room is rare, the kind of person Muni Diamond was.

‘By the standards of society, my father was not a success,’ said his son, Jed Diamond. ‘He didn’t make a lot of money. He was labelled mentally ill. He liked to live among people that society pretends do not exist.’

“The crowd jammed every seat and spilled out into the hallway. They signed the memorial book—one of the cheap scratch pads that Diamond always carried in his pocket. They snatched up free copies of his poems.

“Because of you,” said one, “old madness has become new meaning. Because of you, my tongue is no longer lead.”

My father broke out of the Act Like a Man Box and created a life of meaning and love. I’ll do everything I can to carry on his legacy. Thank you, father.

I look forward to your comments.

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  1. Rick Herranz Sr. says:

    Hey brother
    Wow my mother gave the implied meaning to me as the Oldest of three boys, HER MANDATE WAS Rick act like a man box” she seemed to hate my biological father I thought the reasy why because he was so PASSIVE WITH HER. So the meassage was “Act like a Man box” because your father is a dodleing lil boy, not a man. Rick will you be that man for me? yes mama.

    • Rick, I know what you mean. I had a similar experience growing up. My mother loved, but didn’t respect my father. Like many people at the time she blamed the man if he couldn’t find work to support his family. I became her surrogate, first her “brave little man” who visited my father in the mental hospital when she wouldn’t go. Later, she wanted me to live out her dreams for the man she never had. Her father had died when she was five years old and she forever was looking for someone to fill that void in her life. My memoir (which I’ve posted excerpts on this blog) will be out next year and will describe my own experiences moving from Madness to Manhood: In Search of My Lost Father and Myself.

  2. That’s a cool story. It’s tough to live out life playing the role society expects you to play especially when the odds aren’t in your favour to begin with. Your father sounds like he had a heart of gold, thanks for sharing.

    • Regan, Thanks for saying that. He did have a heart of gold and he gleamed more brightly when he became “a failure” because he didn’t drive himself to fulfill his breadwinner role, but became a success in his own terms when he became a street performer and puppeteer.

  3. I’m sorry to hear about your Dad’s passing, but I greatly appreciate the sharing of his thoughts and life’s experiences. Myself at the moment, am going through an “act like a man box” situation. Brought on more so do to a disability. But just as ever present. My female friend and I, are constantly arguing. Due to her being the one working, and seeming to try to exclude me with decisions. Or stressing me to the point, that I’m lashing out in public over the slightest signs of disrespect. I’ve been battling depression already. After losing my Dad, baby sis, and brother. I’m essentially alone. The only reason I haven’t tossed in my towel yet, is due to the Man upstairs. I don’t believe in coincidences, and I’ve been speaking with him regarding this subject matter more so recently. And happened to have an appointment on the 16th. And have done tremendous research. Especially after last night’s arguing. And wake to this and another amazing email, regarding the same subject matter! Once again thank you for sharing a part of your family history. Please keep up the great work…

    • Robert, Thanks for sharing your challenges. When we’ve experienced losses and feel particularly vulnerable its more difficult to back ourselves up when we know we’re discounting ourselves. The breadwinner role is so embedded in the male psyche (and women’s) that it takes time to see that we can be real men, even when we’re out of work, afraid of losing our jobs, unable to work due to disability, or age, or the myriad things that keep us from being the primary breadwinner of our family. Its time we embraced the full measure of who we are as men–Our lovewinning, our carewinning, our growthwinning, our volunteerwinning, and all the winning roles we embrace other than breadwinning.

  4. We are ALL in that box.. Keep breaking out!
    there are alternatives
    choose love,

  5. Jed,

    Your father sounds like such a lovely man, in spite of his great struggles, or perhaps partly because of his great struggles. What freedom awaits us men and women if we can move out of these boxes!

  6. Your father’s plight can well be summed up in in the words of the White Queen to Alice in “Through the Lookingglass”: “always jam to-morrow, never jam today.” Clearly, your father was a talented and keenly sensitive writer with a gift for accurately describing the predicament of the writer in America. I’m also reminded of the famous quote by Thoreau (who himself died relatively unappreciated): “the mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.” By sharing your dad’s journal entries, you’re giving him the well-deserved recognition that he earned, despite the fact that he didn’t live to reap it. In doing so, you’re providing him the very validation that he craved. Thanks for sharing.

    • Thank you all for the loving replies and acknowledgment of my father and all men who have the courage to break out of the box, even when its messy.

  7. This is so, so beautiful. Thank you for sharing this powerful testament to love.