by Alon Gratch
Little, Brown, 2001
Review by Heather C. Liston on Dec 6th 2001
The first question for If Men
Could Talk, by the psychologist Alon Gratch, is Does it live up to its
title? And the answer is . . . yes,
though not in the way you might expect.
This is not a male-bashing book, as some people assume when they see its
cover, nor is it a comic work. It is,
however, a work of good humor and compassion with much of value for men and for
If Men Could Talk is an
unpretentious, earnest, and helpful work by a male psychologist who treats many
male patients. This is unusual, he
tells us, because most psychotherapy patients are women. So while many therapists spend their time
listening to women complain about men who dont talk, dont listen, or dont
understand, I spend most of my time listening to these men. Thank God someone is listening and is at
least trying to help the rest of us de-code what theyre saying.
In the vein of Deborah Tannens You
Just Dont Understand and the hilarious stage show Defending the
Caveman, Gratch begins by acknowledging that men and women are differentthat
they communicate so differently they sometimes might as well be speaking
entirely different languages. Men are
difficult, the book begins. On the
surface, they seem distant and elusive.
Or loud and obnoxious. And when
you try to get to know them it often gets worse . . .
Unlike Simone de Beauvoir, who
complains in The Second Sex, that woman is too often defined as the
Other, seen in relation to man rather than as a complete being in herself,
Gratch seems to assume it is men who are, well, different. He even says, at the beginning of a chapter
on Male Insecurity, The first order of business in being a man is:
Dont be a woman. In other words,
manhood is defined in terms of womanhood. Women are x; men are not-x. No wonder theyre confused.
Unlike de Beauvoir, Gratch does not
react in anger. He accepts the
situation for what it is and gets on with the business of figuring out how to
live with it. And he advises women to
do the same. Instead of raging at the
men in their lives for being unable to communicate, express their real
feelings, or get a grip on their problems, women, Gratch advises, should listen
carefully to whatever men are saying, watch the related clues they give
in their actions, and become interpreters.
It may not be fair, he saysit might be nicer and easier if men could
just come out and say whats going onbut sitting around whining about
whats unfair never amounted to much of a good time for anybody.
Gratch is a mediator in the war between
the sexes. Dont get mad and bomb the
guys back to stone age, he is saying to women.
In the realm of communication thats where they already are. If you want them in your life, you have to
do some work, and, among other things, learn to listen in new ways. But why, asks the frustrated female;
why cant men just talk like regular folks?
Heres where Gratchs many years of clinical experience come in. He has an ample supply of anecdotes about
male patients who cant behave normally for one reason or another. And he organizes those reasons into seven
male attributes, each of which gets a chapter of its own. These attributes are:
Shame (boys dont cry)
Emotional absence (I dont know what I feel)
Masculine Insecurity (Im tired of being on top)
Self-Involvement (see me, hear me, touch me, feel me)
Aggression (Ill show you whos boss)
Self-Destructiveness (Im such a loser)
and, of course:
Sexual Acting-Out (I want sex now)
He ends with sex, he tells us, because everything is about
sex, except sex, which is about, well, everything else. In other words, sometimes a penis is just a
skeptical among you may be wondering about now whether this author is just a
sensitive new-age guy, down on his own gender.
No. He is definitely an insider
in the world of men, one of the guys himself in spite of being able to see
(sometimes) the broad view of a detached professional. My favorite example: he tells a story about
his four-year-old daughter and seven-year-old son, who were able to bridge the
gender gap in toys for a while. The boy
liked war games and the girl liked Barbie, but in order to play together they
reached a compromise in which the Barbies dressed up in fatigues and rode
around in jeeps and tanks liberating France from the Nazis. I was expecting the story to end with the
girl showing her big brother the evil of his ways and teaching him more
peaceful, nurturing games. To my great
surprise, though, the author ends this section by telling us he is much more
comfortable with the idea of his daughter enjoying the battles than the idea of
his son liking the dolls. I was
shocked. I admit it. Im a girl.
And Gratch is a boy. And this
anecdote about his children served to remind me of why I was reading the book:
because it is very difficult to remember that other people are different
from oneself. As much as I like and
enjoy menand I see them on the streets every day!I was caught off-guard once
again by a male response to an everyday situation. True empathy is hard to maintain. Gratch can help us all with this important work of understanding
and accepting one another.
© 2001 Heather Liston. First Serial Rights.
Heather C. Liston studied Religion at Princeton University and earned a Masters degree from the NYU Graduate School of Business Administration. She is the Managing Director of the National Dance Institute of New Mexico, and writes extensively on a variety of topics. Her book reviews and other work have appeared in Self, Women Outside, The Princeton Alumni Weekly, Appalachia, Your Health and elsewhere.