The reinvention of a 'real man'

·20 min read

BUFFALO, Wyo. - Bill Hawley believes too many men are unwilling or unable to talk about their feelings, and he approaches each day as an opportunity to show them how.

"There's my smile," he says to a leathered cowboy in the rural northeast Wyoming town where he lives.

Subscribe to The Post Most newsletter for the most important and interesting stories from The Washington Post.

"I could cry right now thinking about how beautiful your heart is," he says to a middle-aged male friend at work.

"After our conversation last week, your words came back to me several times," he tells an elderly military veteran in a camouflage vest. "Make of that what you will, but it meant something to me."

On paper, Bill is the "prevention specialist" for the public health department in Johnson County, a plains-to-peaks frontier tract in Wyoming that is nearly the size of Connecticut but has a population of 8,600 residents. His official mandate is to connect people who struggle with alcohol and drug abuse, tobacco addiction, and suicidal impulses to the state's limited social service programs. Part bureaucrat, part counselor, much of Bill's life revolves around Zoom calls and subcommittees, government acronyms and grant applications.

But his mission extends beyond the drab county building on Klondike Drive where he works. One Wyoming man at a time, he hopes to till soil for a new kind of American masculinity.

His approach is at once radical and entirely routine.

It often begins with a simple question.

"How are you feeling?" Bill asks the man in camouflage, who lives in the Wyoming Veterans' Home, which Bill visits several times a week. Bill recently convinced him to quit smoking cigarettes.

The man lumbers forward on a walker, oxygen tank attached.

"We can talk about triggers for a hot minute, or six, or 10," Bill encourages him. "All those things are going to try to sneak up on you and trick you."

"I've got a whole bunch of triggers," the 72-year-old veteran responds, finally, between violent coughs. "Well they're called triggers, but they never go away."

Here in cowboy country, the backdrop and birthplace of countless American myths, Bill knows "real men" are meant to be stoic and tough. But in a time when there are so many competing visions of masculinity - across America and even across Wyoming - Bill is questioning what a real man is anyway.

Often, what he sees in American men is despair.

Across the United States, men accounted for 79% of suicide deaths in 2020, according to a Washington Post analysis of new data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which also shows Wyoming has the highest rate of suicide deaths per capita in the country. A majority of suicide deaths involve firearms, of which there are plenty in Wyoming, and alcohol or drugs are often a factor. Among sociologists, the Mountain West is nicknamed "The Suicide Belt."

More and more, theories about the gender gap in suicides are focused on the potential pitfalls of masculinity itself.

The data also contains a sociological mystery even the experts are unsure how to explain fully: Of the 45,979 people who died by suicide in the United States in 2020, about 70% were White men, who are just 30% of the country's overall population. That makes White men the highest-risk group for suicide in the country, especially in middle age, even as they are overrepresented in positions of power and stature in the United States. The rate that has steadily climbed over the past 20 years.

Some clinical researchers and suicidologists are now asking whether there is something particular about White American masculinity worth interrogating further. The implications are significant: On average, there are more than twice as many deaths by suicide than by homicide each year in the United States.

Bill, who is 59 years old and White, is working out his own theory. It has to do with the gap between the expectations men have for their lives and the reality of their individual experiences, worsened by cultural norms that discourage them from expressing any emotions besides anger.

Toxic masculinity often turns outward. But it also turns inward.

"Talk saves lives," Bill often says - because it has saved his own life many times since he tried to kill himself two decades ago, after a cascade of bad behavior and mental anguish led to a divorce, to hopelessness, to estrangement from his two older sons.

And so now he talks to other men "about that brokenness we all feel inside," about "whole health: mind, body and soul." He is unnervingly unafraid to be sappy. Some men respond with uneasy, unblinking stares. But, perhaps improbably, some respond to his earnestness by talking about their addictions, about their problems with middle-aged bullies who still taunt them about "acting gay," about their search for scarce therapists in rural America who can help them heal.

It is slow work.

How are you feeling?

The veteran brings his cough under control and begins to tell Bill about his deceased wife. About his long-deceased father. About his recently deceased son.

And then about Vietnam. About the fellow soldier who suddenly killed himself one day while they were sitting together.

"It's the same nightmare every time," the man says, eyes growing wet. "I just could never understand it."

Bill touches his arm.

"I want you to know, once you quit smoking, that doesn't mean I stop visiting you. I'm going to keep visiting you and supporting you and helping you," Bill says.

Bill is just a man living in America in 2022, one of 162 million, caught between old standards for American masculinity and a new world where such ideas are in rapid flux. Here he sees an opportunity - to help men be better to others by helping them be better to themselves.

If the myth of the American cowboy was forged in frontier towns like this one, why can't it be broken apart and put back together here as well?

* * *

Bill's reflections on what it means to be a real man are rooted in part on the kind of life he wants for his 16-year-old son, Jeremiah, who is just beginning to claim some freedom for himself. The two argue over the usual father-son things. How fast Jeremiah drives his car now that he has his license. Math assignments. Whether Jeremiah has started packing for his overnight school trip.

Bill might be a steady talker, but Jeremiah alternates between teenage monosyllables and explosions of excited sharing.

Tonight: syllables.

"So, Jeremiah, let me know if you want to get your car running before you start homework," Bill tells him one evening before dinner.

Jeremiah recently bought a burgundy Pontiac Grand Prix SE for $500 on Facebook Marketplace. To make sure the battery doesn't drain overnight, he has to reach behind the front panel each evening and manually unplug the lights.

Sometimes, he forgets.

"I'll grab my keys," Jeremiah says, disappearing into his room.

"That's helpful," Bill says in a singsong Dad Voice. "I'll pull around."

Privately, Bill sometimes feels like being a good dad to Jeremiah is a do-over.

Earlier in his life, Bill wanted to become a Lutheran pastor like his own father had been, and he still occasionally breaks into the cadence of ministry. He became an educator instead, and between the mid-1980s and mid-1990s he worked at faith-centered schools. That work took him and his first wife to New York City, to St. Louis, and then to Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. He rose to the rank of principal. They had two sons along the way.

Bill felt important. He even led worship at his church from time to time. That made him feel close to his father's example. That made him feel like he had made it.

But it was during those years that his expectations for his life collided into reality and human fallibility. An alcohol-fueled affair with a subordinate in Myrtle Beach, which he tried but failed to hide, left him with no choice but to resign as principal. That marked the beginning of the end of his first marriage. By 1997, he ended up in Baltimore where he began a rock-bottom fall out of the middle class. He essentially abandoned his children, he says with regret.

There was partying.

There was drunken driving.

There was the wrong women and the wrong places.

And then there was the crash that followed a lengthy mania, as signs of his Bipolar I condition became difficult to ignore. He grew violent and menacing.

One day, he tried to kill himself.

The period is fuzzy now, Bill says, a haze of mood swings and drugs and alcohol. But this much is clear: Driven by ego and impulse, he became a bad husband and an absent father. He was hurting inside, and he hurt others outside.

The capability for suicide is fostered by a habituation to pain and violence, say academics and clinicians, and then facilitated by a technical knowledge of how to use lethal weapons. Research shows that men on average develop a higher capability for suicide than women in part because they are socialized into it. And even though women are likelier to attempt suicide, at least in the United States, men are likelier to die from it because they often choose more lethal means, firearms instead of pills.

Fears of not belonging and of becoming a burden are often at the core of suicide attempts by men, according to leading suicide experts, and mental health challenges can intensify these factors. Men are often more resistant than women to seeking help with their mental health, experts say, because non-anger based emotions are considered feminine.

What Bill does remember haunts him. He recalls once running a knife across his wrist in the presence of his two boys, and telling them that killing himself would be as easy as pushing down a little harder. "They were 10 or so," he says, "or younger than that."

In 2000, after his suicide attempt, Bill moved to Buffalo to stay with his mother and father, at their urging. "Thirty-seven years old and living with my parents," he says now, with a tsk.

Rebuilding his life meant antidepressants and mood stabilizers. It meant talk therapy.

He took a job at a local restaurant with a motel attached to it, the Stagecoach Inn, where he worked for lodging.

That's where he met Denise, Jeremiah's mother.

That, Bill says, was when his life began again.

If his sense of "being a real man" had been broken, it was from that wreckage that he was able to rebuild a healthier self.

He sees his story as a redemptive arc, one that was only possible because he survived his suicide attempt. He has come to believe that he can take his brokenness and help others with theirs.

Bill pulls around to the front of the house now with his truck, a deep-blue Silverado pickup with 20-inch wheels. He aligns his engine with Jeremiah's.

"Okay, do you know what you're doing?" Bill asks Jeremiah as he steps out.

Jeremiah lifts the hood of his car. He keeps silent as he untangles the jumper cables and attaches each clamp onto the proper terminal. He pretends not to notice his dad watching. Bill looks from behind his shoulder.

Jeremiah is the same age now that Bill's oldest son was when they lost touch.

"Are they good and tight?" Bill asks, pointing to the clamps.

"Yup," Jeremiah tells him.

"Are you sure?" Bill asks again.

"Yes."

They both retreat to their separate cars. Their engines whir to life.

"Okay, keep that running for about 20 minutes," Bill says.

A beat passes, and he pats Jeremiah on the back. They exchange a smile but no more words.

Beyond them, Northeast Wyoming is entering early spring. It is red and yellow earth, persisting against eroding islands of white snow. It holds the promise of mud and sod, the promise of a sopping mess that will soon create new life.

But first, the mess.

* * *

Jerry Dean Osborn, 76, does not seem like someone amenable to delicate conversations about feelings. Ozzie, as he is known, has worked his entire life, he says with pride. And not easy jobs, either. He worked as a ranch hand from the time he was 12 or 13. During the Vietnam War he served in medevac helicopters. Later, he began to drive a transfer ambulance from Buffalo to hospitals hours away on mountain roads.

He speaks in a Wyoming drawl, low and slow, the kind that could turn into a growl at any moment but doesn't. He is known to tell a terse joke or two.

He is a man's man.

And for a long time he was in pain.

When he was a boy, Ozzie recounts now, he was sexually assaulted by a male cousin. During his adolescence he was again sexually assaulted, by a construction worker one summer while he was working.

"A lot of people who are alcoholics and drug addicts, there might be a reason behind it. In fact, I know there is," Ozzie remarked one day recently at Bill's house. "I was a mess. I drank too much. I covered stuff up."

Bill and Ozzie first met about a decade ago through mutual acquaintances in Buffalo. Ozzie credits Bill with helping him talk about his traumatic experiences. It was a long descent from that mountain of grief, marked by discomfort over how much of his story to share and the fear that doing so would make him less of a man.

Now, the two men often say they love each other. They hug and clasp hands while sitting together. He and Bill even tried to start a men's group late last year, with meetings at a local cafe, but it didn't really take off.

Ozzie has found that mentoring others who had similar experiences to be intensely rewarding. He is the only male advocate at the Johnson County Family Crisis Center.

Politics remain a point of disagreement between the two men.

Bill, a lifelong Republican, responded to the exaggerated masculine bravado of the Trump administration with something resembling revulsion. He now considers himself a "socially minded Republican progressive."

Ozzie, on the other hand, likes the former president, who he believes behaved as "a man of his word" when it came to his campaign promises. Ozzie is against masks and against vaccines, and may have given Bill and his family breakthrough cases of COVID-19 a few months back. They had only mild cases, but Denise still has a cough from it.

Still, Bill and Denise regularly have Ozzie over for dinner, in part out of concern that he doesn't eat well on his own. Ozzie's wife, Sharon, died in 2016.

In Ozzie, Bill sees proof that the political scrimmage lines that have been drawn around masculinity in American life are unnecessary, even counterproductive. Why should someone like Ozzie be excluded from the conversation?

Bill worries the tenor of America's debates over toxic masculinity could have an inverse effect than the one intended; instead of encouraging men to examine their behaviors, it might make some of them double down.

Because of politics, Bill says, he struggles with how to talk about the high suicide rates among White men in particular. He is aware of how it might sound to ask that the conversation around suicide prevention center on White male despair, because White men still exert more power and influence over the country's politics, corporations, academic institutions and trade organizations. Yet White men are twice as likely to kill themselves as Black and Latino men.

Researchers say that access to lethal means is a major factor in suicide. About 60% of gun owners in America are men, according to a 2017 study by the Pew Research Center. And gun ownership in the United States is not only gendered but also highly racialized. About half of all White men in the country own guns, compared to about a quarter of Black and Latino men.

And there are also all the factors that come before the crisis point. One theory circulating among social scientists holds that White men have fewer collective histories of persecution that can rationalize poor life outcomes, which worsens their humiliation at unrealized ambitions. Another theory points to research showing Black and Latino people have more social "togetherness" within their families and communities than White people, which could foster a greater sense of belonging.

"The cowboy-up mentality is part of why you don't say something," Ozzie said toward the end of a recent visit. "You can have a story, but it doesn't mean anything if you don't burp it out."

"It's all about relating to people," Bill added.

"You know, you can't actually pick yourself up by your bootstraps, that was actually a joke," Jeremiah interjected suddenly. "And now we use it as our slogan."

* * *

The love poems began almost right after Bill and Denise went on their first date in February of 2003. They were extremely cheesy.

But they were also so gentle.

And Denise needed gentle.

One night just before Christmas in 2002, while Denise was living in Pasadena, Calif., her boyfriend at the time grew suddenly aggressive. He began to beat her up. In a split-second decision, she threw the phone he was intent on taking away from her and, when he ran to retrieve it, she managed to escape.

With the help of her boyfriend's female relatives, she bought a one-way ticket to Wyoming to stay with her mother and her sister.

One evening, she was having supper with her mother when she noticed Bill peeking at her from behind a pillar at the Stagecoach. Bill had been in Buffalo for nearly three years and was getting back on his feet. He was their server.

Her guard was up. Cruel, toxic men had brought so much trouble.

But Bill "went brick by brick to help me break down those walls, slowly, and gently," she says. "I felt like we were two broken people and together we made each other whole."

Bill was finding that happiness and trust came from vulnerability, not despite it.

When they married, later that year, Denise convinced her father-in-law to leave the word "obey" out of their otherwise traditional ceremony. "I don't obey anyone," she says, with a laugh.

Now, throughout their modest house are small table-stand decorations with phrases like "All you need is love" and "Love is the answer."

Their triggers persist. Bill has mood swings because of his bipolar disorder, and in 2017 it got so bad they took all the guns from their house and locked them up. Jeremiah has struggled with his mental health as well. That means Denise has often been called to tend to Bill's needs, to Jeremiah's needs, and for many years also to Bill's mother, Esther, who lived with them and had dementia.

When they fight, Denise can lash out, and sometimes Bill cries.

They forgive. They talk. They give each other help and hope.

"It's been a while since you wrote me one of these," Denise says one evening, laughing, as she flips through the 35 poems she keeps preserved in an album.

As she looks through them, Bill is in the kitchen making bratwurst and macaroni and cheese. It is his night to handle dinner.

Soon Jeremiah emerges from his room, and they all sit down together to say grace.

* * *

How are you feeling?

Bill hasn't been sleeping well.

He is worried about how Jeremiah will deal with a close friend moving out of town. He worries about some stressors Denise is dealing with at work. He has been thinking about his two older sons. He is rebuilding a relationship with one of them, but the oldest isn't interested; he was old enough to remember what Bill put his mom through.

Now Bill is driving down a steep mountain road back toward Buffalo. It is afternoon and the landscape is a funhouse of scale and color beneath a cold blue sky. Twenty-, thirty-, forty-foot trees stick straight into a cloud line that feels impossibly close.

He looks from the driver's seat at a stand of Aspen trees in the canyon below. Underground, all of the trees are interconnected by a single root system, he remembers Jeremiah telling him, and so the entire forest is considered a single being.

The mountains look like hills from far away.

He passes the spot where he, Jeremiah and Denise go camping in the warmer months.

He passes a spot where he recalls a motorcyclist once intentionally drove off the road.

Bill is once again thinking about what it means to be a real man. Of all that is at stake in that question. On this one day there will be 126 suicide deaths across the country, and, statistically, 101 of them will be men.

There is much he admires in the cowboy ethics that course through the frontier states - the imperative to live with courage, the value placed on resilience and independent thought. But he rages about the way that ethos can be distorted. He is angry that the state Senate recently attempted to defund women and gender studies at the University of Wyoming. He is incensed that the state's politicians refuse to expand Medicaid. He is mad that a recent vote to expand funding for the state's suicide lifeline almost did not pass; some lawmakers questioned why it was necessary.

He thinks of the Marlboro Man from the old cigarette commercials, a highly curated vision of true masculinity and western authenticity. But that was a just a role played by actors, he points out, and several of them died of lung cancer. Wasn't that all you would get for trying to pretend to be someone you're not? If you made it, you were still just pretending. And if you didn't, then you hadn't even succeeded at the ruse.

That is not what he and Denise want for Jeremiah.

They don't know Jeremiah is preparing to deliver a speech to his peers about navigating his own mental health struggles. He'll tell them about it by text later in the week.

"I don't know what he'll be, I just hope that he's gentle and kind," Denise says to Bill one evening while Jeremiah is in Laramie, 260 miles away, on a trip for the Future Business Leaders of America.

"And humble," Bill says, before he catches himself interrupting.

"I apologize, I'm going to be quiet!" he adds, smiling but with urgency. "Oh, and by the way, I put some laundry in."

Hanging above Denise's side of the bed is a framed copy of the wedding vows Bill made to her nearly 20 years before.

"I, Bill, promise to always . . . Love, honor and respect you, . . . Help, serve, and protect you . . . Listen, hear, and talk with you . . . Work, play, and walk with you."

Bill has been mulling what a "real man" is.

It occurs to him suddenly. His answer is right there in those words - not in the promises themselves, but in keeping them.

- - -

If you or someone you know needs help, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-TALK (8255). You can also text a crisis counselor by messaging the Crisis Text Line at 741741.

Related Content

Two years after Floyd's death, protesters reflect on what changed

Two years after Floyd's death, Black Minnesotans say little has changed

For members of Mother Emanuel, Buffalo shooting stirs painful memories