Folk name: devil's trumpets, jimsonweed
"If you tell anyone about this, I swear to God, I'll kill you."
Much like Mary's story explores the good girl/bad girl dichotomy, Crue Martin gave me a chance to explore similar themes in a man's journey. Crue is the quintessential bad boy, the one all the girls fall for but none want to keep. With his wide shoulders and big hands, he is the stereotype of masculinity on the outside.
But on the inside, things are very different.
Throughout my life, I have seen men criticized and belittled for being feminine or doing feminine things. If they wore a pink shirt, took too long to answer a question, enjoyed dancing, or spent too much time deciding what to wear, they were ridiculed. I recognized at an early age that it was an attempt to emasculate men for not being manly enough, or to remind them - cruelly - that they had better man up, and fast.
What does it mean to be a man, anyway? Twenty years ago, the answer to that question was pretty simple. And men who didn't answer that question correctly were punished, maligned, even attacked.
Today, the answer is much more complicated, thankfully. But I still see those old stereotypes alive and well in our culture. I still see young boys call other males "gay" if they aren't masculine enough. When I visit my 10-year-old nephew at his school, I notice he shies away from me, skipping out on a hug and asking me not to be affectionate with him because his friends are watching. I still see the way men experience shaming for not behaving in ways that are acceptably manly.
Manly means big. Manly means sexually confident. Manly means powerful. Manly means domination.
Just like Datura's sensual, raucous trumpets, stereotypical masculinity has a certain seductiveness to it. There's no denying that. But also like Datura, there's a danger lurking under that surface.
In one of my favorite books, Practical Magic, by Alice Hoffman, protagonist Gillian Owens falls for stereotypical bad boy Jimmy because of his strength, his hyper-masculinity. He takes what he wants when he wants it, does what he wants without thinking about the consequences, and generally just plows through whatever obstacle is in his way. And ironically, one of the ways he gets into trouble is by selling jimsonweed (Datura) that he claims is marijuana. His complete lack of care about the consequences of his actions leaves a trail of dead bodies in his wake.
Jimmy is also a metaphorical poison for Gillian, and in her attempt to neutralize the harm he inflicts on her and others, she tries to keep him calm by regularly (and secretly) adding small doses of deadly nightshade to his food or drinks. Poison for poison.
On the other side of the spectrum of masculinity is Gary Hallett, Gillian's sister's love interest. Outwardly, he also has all the stereotypical indications of masculinity with his cowboy boots and rugged jeans. But in our first encounter with him (in the book), he cries over a memory of his late grandfather.
I can remember reading that and how uncomfortable it made me feel. It was as if I was questioning his viability as a mate for Sally. He's crying, for god's sake, just over a memory!
That was a moment in which I realized how deeply indoctrinated by my culture I've become. We women say we want a man who can talk about and express his feelings, and then we judge one who does as being not masculine enough.
As I wrote The Poison Box over the course of 15 years, I had several experiences with men on both ends of the spectrum. I, like many other women, fell pretty hard for a couple of "pretty poison" men - men like Jimmy from Practical Magic. They didn't always look or act the same, but they all had the same type of energy.
Those were the kind of men who prized being, looking, and feeling masculine. They wanted - or owned - motorcycles and fancy cars. They regularly broke the speed limit, weaving in and out of traffic to show their dominance. When pretty young women walked by, they would nod their heads, hands in pockets, and the girls would giggle and wave. They wore black leather jackets. They avoided commitment at all costs. They liked dominant sexual positions. They criticized or made fun of women who wanted to get married and raise children.
Trying to build a relationship with these dark princes, trying to tame these bad wolves, leaves women affected in a way much like being poisoned by Datura. We become delirious, thinking that things will change, that he will take the masculinity down a few notches (and that we'll still feel the same about him if he does). We begin behaving strangely, sometimes becoming suspicious and a little crazy, sometimes becoming too trusting and a little crazy. We might even turn violent, throwing a plate of food against the wall, or our cell phone into the street. We develop amnesia, forgetting every offense, because surely, things will change and get better if we keep forgiving. And at some point, we develop photophobia and we are no longer able to see the light. We don't remember what the light is like and as such, we stop missing it. We become content to live in the darkness of the poisoned perceptions of masculinity, power, and love.
I know what it's like to go through this as a woman, to be drawn to this seductive and destructive version of masculinity. But what is it like, I wondered, to experience this from the man's point of view? To be Jimmy? Or Crue?
I can't say that I know for sure - I am a woman, after all. But as I investigated this through friends' relationships, through observation, through my own relationships, and by just asking male friends, I noticed one challenge that seemed to face every man: other people's perception of their masculinity. To put it bluntly: Were they manly enough? And did the right people think so?
The question, however, seemed to fail for one simple reason: the lack of ownership of what is masculine. Who gets to define that? And in a culture with radically shifting gender norms, how does a man saddled with expectations of masculinity navigate his way through that?
To me, this was the challenge that Crue faced. He was largely ignored at home, surrounded by women who did not, ironically, value traditional masculinity. Noel Martin was the head of her household, not James. So Crue took what he had - his bigness, his strength, his dominance - into the world where he knew it would be valued, where he knew he could gain power from it.
But he wavered, again and again, unable to trust that strength. He questioned its authenticity more than once. Underneath it all, he didn't feel strong or powerful or even attractive.
I think one of Crue's worst fears was that people saw him as a clumsy bull who was more amusing than powerful. His life became a series of concessions and acts of vengeance. Pulling back, then pushing forward. Letting in a moment of feminine consideration, a pause, then throwing it away for action, destruction.
And I don't think he had any other choice than that. That's all he could do, living in this culture.
But what is our responsibility in this toxic perception of masculinity? What are we, as a whole, doing to create and perpetuate it? What are we, as women, doing to play into it?
And most importantly, what would it be like for a man to feel that he can express himself however he chooses? (And women, for that matter?) Is it possible to let go of this poison and for all of us to just be?
You can buy The Poison Box here. (And stay tuned for the release of the audiobook!)
If you've read the book, a review (on Amazon or social media - don't forget to hashtag it!) would be greatly appreciated. <3