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by Alon Gratch
Little, Brown, 2001
Review by Heather C. Liston on Dec 6th 2001

If Men Could Talk

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 women.

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 don’t talk, don’t listen, or don’t 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 they’re saying.

In the vein of Deborah Tannen’s You Just Don’t 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: ‘Don’t be a woman.’”  In other words, manhood is defined in terms of womanhood. Women are x; men are not-x.  No wonder they’re 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 says—it might be nicer and easier if men could just come out and say what’s going on—but sitting around whining about what’s unfair never amounted to much of a good time for anybody.

Gratch is a mediator in the war between the sexes.  Don’t get mad and bomb the guys back to stone age, he is saying to women.  In the realm of communication that’s 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 can’t men just talk like regular folks?  Here’s where Gratch’s many years of clinical experience come in.  He has an ample supply of anecdotes about male patients who can’t 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 don’t cry)

·        Emotional absence (I don’t know what I feel)

·        Masculine Insecurity (I’m tired of being on top)

·        Self-Involvement (see me, hear me, touch me, feel me)

·        Aggression (I’ll show you who’s boss)

·        Self-Destructiveness (I’m 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 cigar.”

            The 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.  I’m 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 men—and 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.