Review: Terrence Real’s “I Don’t Want to Talk About It”

by Miles Raymer


Hey! Listen up. Let me tell you something. A man ain’t a goddamn ax. Chopping, hacking, busting every goddamn minute of the day. Things get to him. Things he can’t chop down because they’re inside.

––Toni Morrison

This passage from Beloved sums up the central message of Terrence Real’s I Don’t Want to Talk About It with uncanny accuracy. In our world, made by and for men in so many ways, we are bafflingly bad at providing the space and support for boys to become the men they truly want to be. As a result, everyone suffers. Families remain caught in brutal behavioral loops of trauma, abuse, and depression––cycles that mar the promise of each new generation. In this bold and beautiful book, Real challenges men to get off our asses and do something about it.

Terrence Real is a therapist, so this book is about a 50/50 split between theory/research and real-life examples from his work with clients. There is also a moving series of sections that explicate Real’s personal experiences with depression and family trauma. This review will focus on theory, but before diving in I’d like to say that the client and personal examples go a long way to make this book special. It’s quite grueling to read, but it’s also incredibly rewarding from both an emotional and intellectual standpoint. I’d be skeptical of anyone who said they got through it without choking up at least once or twice.

As the subtitle indicates, I Don’t Want to Talk About It explores “the secret legacy of male depression.” Real classifies depression as “an auto-aggressive disease, a disorder in which the self turns against the self” (198, emphasis his). Central to Real’s approach is the distinction between “overt” and “covert” depression, with the former being “acute and dramatic” and the latter being “mild, elusive, and chronic” (33). Much of the book focuses on dynamics of covert depression, which Real claims is more commonly experienced by men and less often diagnosed by mental health professionals: “If overt depression in men tends to be overlooked, covert depression has been rendered all but invisible” (41, emphasis his). Here’s a more detailed explanation:

Overtly depressed men…are frozen, endlessly rehearsing repetitions of pain and despair. If overtly depressed men are paralyzed, men who are covertly depressed, as I was, cannot stand still. They run, desperately trying to outdistance shame by medicating their pain, pumping up their tenuous self-esteem, or, if all else fails, inflicting their torture on others. Overt depression is violence endured. Covert depression is violence deflected. (198-9)

Undergirding Real’s theory of depression is a similarly-bifurcated theory of trauma, which he characterizes as being either “active” or “passive”:

Active trauma is usually a boundary violation of some kind, a clearly toxic interaction. Passive trauma, on the other hand, is a form of physical or emotional neglect. Rather than a violent presence, passive trauma may be defined as a violent lack––the absence of nurture and responsibilities normally expected of a caregiver; the absence of connection. (107, emphasis his)

In active trauma, a child’s boundaries are violated. The parent is uncontained, out of control. In passive trauma, the parent neglects the child’s needs; the boundary between parent and child is too rigid, impenetrable. (204, emphasis his)

As these passages show, Real’s view of trauma is often framed using the parent-child relationship, but the diversity of examples in the book show how it can also play out between spouses, siblings, and relatives. It’s a complex, cyclical, and self-perpetuating problem that affects all family members, usually with disproportionate force. In a nutshell, Real posits that male trauma trickles down from father to son, carving out pockets of depression as it goes; trauma is the cause, and depression is the effect.

Before presenting what Real thinks we should do to confront and heal male depression, I’d like to highlight how and why he’s so concerned with male depression in particular. The simple answer is that he thinks men are much less likely to recognize and seek treatment for their depression, compared to women. The main reason has to do with how boys are socialized in American culture:

For most boys, the achievement of masculine identity is not an acquisition so much as a disavowal. When researchers asked girls and women to define what it means to be feminine, the girls answered with positive language: to be compassionate, to be connected, to care about others. Boys and men, on the other hand, when asked to describe masculinity, predominantly responded with double negatives. Boys and men did not talk about being strong so much as about not being weak. They do not list independence so much as not being dependent. They did not speak about being close to their fathers so much as about pulling away from their mothers. In short, being a man generally means not being a woman. As a result, boys’ acquisition of gender is a negative achievement. Their developing sense of their own masculinity is not, as in most other forms of identity development, a steady movement towards something valued so much as a repulsion from something devalued. Masculine identity development turns out to be not a process of development at all but rather a process of elimination, a successive unfolding of loss. Along with whatever genetic proclivities one might inherit, it is this loss that lays the foundation for depression later in men’s lives.

Just as girls are pressured to yield that half of their human potential consonant with assertive action, just as they have been systematically discouraged from developing and celebrating the self-concepts and skills that belong to the public world, so are boys pressured to yield attributes of dependency, expressiveness, affiliation––all the self-concepts and skills that belong to the relational, emotive world. These wholesale excisions are equally damaging to the healthy development of both girls and boys. The price for traditional socialization of girls is oppression, as Lyn Brown and Carol Gilligan put it, “the tyranny of the kind and nice.” The price of traditional socialization for boys is disconnection––from themselves, from their mothers, from those around them. (130)

The tragic bind for boys and men in traditional socialization is that in order to demonstrate themselves worthy of human connection they must perform competitively, they must become winners, which intrinsically demands disconnection, the exact opposite of what they truly seek…It isn’t that men have fewer relational needs than women, but that they have been conditioned to filter those needs through the screen of achievement. (178, 184)

This book is nearly 25 years old, and that quarter century has been anything but quiet on the gender front. Even so, Real offers some of the best insights about male socialization and gender differences I’ve encountered––ones that seem just as useful today as they must have been in the late 1990s. Even though I count myself fortunate to have escaped many of the cultural manipulations Real describes, I still recognize them from my own boyhood, like old, unwelcome acquaintances. I certainly did not escape them all.

If social and emotional disconnection––brought about by trauma and sustained by depression––is a major problem for men, then reconnection becomes the main goal of recovery. When a man finally becomes capable of admitting his struggle and commits to doing something about it, he can enter the realm of what Real calls “relational heroism”:

Relational heroism occurs when every muscle and nerve in one’s body pulls one toward reenacting one’s usual dysfunctional pattern, but through sheer force of discipline or grace, one lifts oneself off the well-worn track toward behaviors that are more vulnerable, more cherishing, more mature. Just as the boyhood trauma that sets up depression occurs not in one dramatic incident, but in transactions repeated hundreds upon hundreds of times, so, too, recovery is comprised of countless small victories. (277)

The downstream effects of relational heroism are, well, heroic:

Each man is a bridge, spanning in his lifetime all of the images and traditions about masculinity inherited from past generations and bestowing––or inflicting––his own retelling of the tale on those who ensue. Unresolved depression often passes from father to son, despite the father’s best intentions, like a toxic, unacknowledged patrimony. Conversely, when a man transforms the internalized discourse of violence, he does more than relieve his own depression. He breaks the chain, interrupting the path of depression’s transmission to the next generation. Recovery transforms legacies. (229)

This is a stirring and inspiring narrative, one Real effectively imbues with various mythological and historical elements. It has burrowed deep into me and will stick around for years to come. I do, however, want to air a couple quick critiques of Real’s perspective. The first is a problem I seem to have with almost all of the therapy-centered books I’ve read up to this point, which is that they don’t take seriously enough the deep structural obstacles that make recovery difficult or even impossible. Real’s great at identifying and articulating the negative outcomes of male socialization, but remains mute on the question of economic, political, and technological reforms that might help men retreat from the worst versions of manhood that continue to undermine our collective well-being. To be fair, those issues are probably beyond the scope of this book, but I think it’s important to consider societal incentive structures and choice architectures, which can go a long way to make it easier or harder for men to heal without relying exclusively on “sheer force of discipline or grace.”

My second critique is another issue that often comes up when I engage with therapeutic frameworks, which is that they tend to be totalizing in ways that belie the vast complexity of human minds and mental health problems. I don’t mean to accuse Real of being deaf to nuance (he’s not), but his formulaic description of depression as always resulting from some sort of trauma feels overly simplistic. It seems reasonable to assume that most depression can be linked to trauma in one way or another, but I imagine there are some minds that manifest depression in the absence of trauma. I worry that Real’s theories might in some cases lead us to seek trauma where perhaps it doesn’t exist, or even misdiagnose depression. Although I think Real provides convincing evidence for the existence of covert depression and passive trauma, they occasionally feel like overly-capacious categories into which any negative human experience could be classified. Resolving this concern may be merely a matter of semantics, and it’s important to point out that I lack the education and clinical experience to form a strong opinion one way or another.

I’d like to end with reiterating that I found this book incredibly challenging and helpful. It’s the only book that’s ever made me cry both at the beginning and the end. I’m totally fascinated by these ideas and hope that this is just the beginning of a long and fruitful relationship with them. At the risk of drawing this review out a bit more than some readers might appreciate, I’ll leave you with a few more passages from the book’s closing pages:

Any man who has struggled in his life with a deep, core experience of depression will need help not only in learning how to cherish himself, but also in learning the art of cherishing others. Just as the beam of contempt, the internalized dynamic of violence, may sometimes turn inward in overt depression, sometimes outward in covert depression, the regenerative force of recovery must turn inward toward increased maturity, increased self-regulation, and outward toward increased relational skill. Recovery, at its deepest level, evokes the art of valuing, caring for, and sustaining. The relationship one sustains may be toward oneself, toward others, or even toward the world itself. (320)

Service is the appropriate central organizing force of mature manhood. When the critical questions concern what one is going to get, a man is living in a boy’s world. Beyond a certain point in a man’s life, if he is to remain truly vital, he needs to be actively engaged in devotion to something other than his own success and happiness. The word discipline derives from the same root as the word disciple. Discipline means “to place oneself in the service of.” Discipline is a form of devotion. A grown man with nothing to devote himself to is a man who is sick at heart. (322, emphasis his)

Our interconnectedness to nature, and to one another, can no longer be denied. We live in a global economy. We share global resources. We face global threats. The paradigm of dominance must yield to an ethic of caretaking, or we simply will not survive. (324)

Rating: 10/10