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After childhood sexual abuse, Charles Blow explores masculinity in new memoir

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  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Finally tonight, a prominent observer of American life today takes a look back at his own beginnings.

    Jeffrey Brown has our conversation.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Today, Charles Blow has a high-profile perch and international reach as a columnist for The New York Times. He got there by way of the small segregated town of Gibsland, Louisiana, a childhood marked by poverty and a family life that was both sustaining and sometimes violent, including sexual molestation by a cousin, a coming of age into manhood at Grambling University that included both learning and harrowing hazing rites, all of it brought to life in the new memoir “Fire Shut Up in My Bones.”

    Charles Blow joins me now.

    Welcome to you.

  • CHARLES BLOW, The New York Times:

    Thank you for having me.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    You have this clear voice now that comes through in your column. But what comes through in the book is a long struggle to get there.

  • CHARLES BLOW:

    Exactly.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    I guess to get a sense of yourself?

  • CHARLES BLOW:

    Exactly.

    I think this kind of coming of age is kind of a natural part of what most of us go through. And I just wanted to document mine. You know, there’s part of the writing experience where people say you should write it because you want to read it. And I wanted to read this experience that I had.

    And I thought that it would be helpful too to have other people be able to understand what rural poverty is like, what this kind of quest for manhood and masculinity feel like, what struggle through abuse and trauma.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    The rural poverty and the setting feels very much like the old segregated South.

  • CHARLES BLOW:

    The year that I was born was the year that my local school actually integrated. That’s 1970.

    And the town was still relatively segregated and still is to this day in some ways. I mean, the cemetery where many of my relatives are buried, the black race and the white race are still separated by a chain-link fence.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    You talk about the identity of masculinity, sexuality played — a core scene which opens the book involves this — the sexual abuse by a cousin and the very real possibility years later that you would kill him for that.

  • CHARLES BLOW:

    Right.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Explain how that came to play such a role in your understanding of yourself.

  • CHARLES BLOW:

    Through childhood sexual abuse,, if you don’t deal with it, you push it down, and it comes back out in all of these kind of unpredictable ways.

    And this is one of these very unpredictable, illogical, violent ways that it was expressing itself in my life 13 years after the actual incident. But I think the question you’re asking is about how that impacts identity.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Yes, because that’s what you’re exploring through the whole book here.

  • CHARLES BLOW:

    Right. Right.

    And I think that you have to separate the two things. One is what happens in the mind of a child, which I explore for a very long time in the book.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Right.

  • CHARLES BLOW:

    And I think that, for the child, because they are — depending on when the abuse occurs, they’re kind of pre-sexual being at that point. You’re catapulted from this kind of pre-sexual innocence, naivete into a sexual reality, a violent one, a kind of psychically violent, even if not physically violent one, that you’re not really fully capable of understanding or comprehending or putting it into any sort of context.

    And those children can quite naturally and understandably braid together these ideas of identity and attraction and abuse.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Which can become confining, right?

  • CHARLES BLOW:

    Right, and also wrong.

    The science tells us that that’s probably not the way that it works. But it takes a mature mind, help from professionals looking at what the science says, to begin to unbraid that. And some people never get to the point where they unbraid that. In my case, I get to the point where I start to unbraid it as an adult, that how — whatever your attractions are going to be, they’re probably either — you’re probably either predisposed to that or predetermined to do that at birth, and that, yes, a child of sexual abuse has some really horrible side effects that can be undone, but sometimes track you for over a lifetime.

    But identity is not a negative thing. It’s just a different thing.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Yes. Well, that’s what I wonder.

    Do you think — and I’m wondering from reading this, was it a question of — because you’re also talking about remaking yourself in some sense from the country boy to a sophisticate, the urban man you are now. Is it a remaking or is a kind of coming to know yourself? How do you see it when you look back now?

  • CHARLES BLOW:

    Well, I think it is — what you have to try to do is to figure out in life what things can and should be changed and what things cannot and shouldn’t be changed, and having the wisdom to be able to separate those two things into separate baskets.

    And, sometimes, we don’t have that wisdom, we don’t have that kind of presence of mind, presence of self to be able to understand that identity in particular. It’s something that is actually beautiful the way it is, doesn’t need to be changed, and no one else could actually change it for you.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Let me ask you, finally, how does all of this factor into the work you do now? Because now you are writing about societal issues, right, and you’re looking at all of these things that shaped you, masculinity, racial issues, that suffuse our society today.

  • CHARLES BLOW:

    The things that I write are things you just mentioned and things that are very close to me because they are part of my life experience.

    In addition to that, the kind of voice and cadence and beat of the writing is informed by the people that I grew up around. When I’m writing, I try to imagine that I’m writing to explain to someone who was a neighbor who — the older gentleman across the street.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    You have them in mind?

  • CHARLES BLOW:

    Those are the people who I’m trying to talk to, and because I think that that sound, to me, is most genuine.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    All right.

    The memoir is “Fire Shut Up in My Bones.”

    Charles Blow, thank you very much.

  • CHARLES BLOW:

    Thank you.

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