Jun 21, 2018 | essay
Getting Men Off Ledges
Edited by julia-rios
This essay is part of a larger conversation about harassment. We’ve invited different voices to join this and work towards unpacking the problem and finding solutions. You can find the rest of the essays on this index page).
In ‘The Murtaugh File’, Season One, Episode Fourteen of the police procedural series Lethal Weapon, a remake of the late-80s Shane Black film franchise of the same name, LAPD staff psychologist Maureen Cahill (Jordana Brewster) meets Detective Martin Riggs (Clayne Crawford) standing on the ledge outside her office window. Riggs is upset that she’s referred him to another therapist, and throws a tantrum about how he knows that she’s given up on his progress because he’s too broken for her to continue with. He threatens to jump off the ledge if their sessions don’t resume.
Cahill gives in. She calls Riggs an ‘emotional terrorist’ moments before he steps back through the window.
By this time the very next season, after days of emotional outbursts so drastic that his job is in jeopardy, Riggs ends the night sitting on the highest I-beam of an unfinished skyscraper with a bottle of beer in hand when he should be in a session with Dr. Cahill.
This series has been on my mind lately. Season Two just concluded, and while it kept offering thematic tidbits about men with histories of experiencing abuse growing out of toxicity and into emotional health, it never seemed to legitimately fulfill that promise. And in the recent news of Crawford getting fired for alleged hostility on set, the poetic irony is almost unavoidable to me.
A big reason why I can’t stop thinking about Lethal Weapon, however, is because of Junot Díaz.
The revelation of Díaz’s inappropriate behaviour to women in the shadow of his New Yorker piece about his experience as a survivor of sexual assault has sparked intense discourse in the intersections between the literary sphere and the #MeToo/#TimesUp movements, as it should. A lot of it has been heartbreak, frustration, and earnest listening to victims. But in the space between Díaz as a survivor and Díaz as a culprit, a lot of very important questions have emerged: what does empathy look like in this instance? As CNN’s Richard Morgan asks, “At what price do Díaz and all the men like him get to expel their inner demons? Under what terms?”
Well, the ghost of this show, its skeletons, could have offered answers.
Lethal Weapon talks a big game about its theme being getting Riggs past his personal demons and becoming a healthier person. Season Two was really big on that, in fact. After rather swiftly and violently getting rid of the first season’s major conflict—namely, the rage he directed at the cartel that killed his wife and unborn child—they moved on to an even more insidious core emotional scar, that of Riggs’ abusive father, Nathan (Rex Linn). The season implies that all of his self-destructive tendencies stem from this relationship, constantly reminding us that he still reels from it. He has nightmares of the night where the man almost beat him to death as a child, and Martin’s hesitation to end it even when he had the power to take his abuser’s life. Memories of his patriarch’s most hostile and peculiar behaviours leak into Martin’s daily routine without his awareness. When he reconnects with an old friend from the good old days and their friendship transitions into romance, out of nowhere his father has the woman’s pet dog murdered just to prove a point.
The implication is obvious. The aftershocks of trauma follow us relentlessly, constantly forcing us to be vigilant about ourselves and our space. What is not threat is trigger, and what is neither is on the verge of loss.
One would imagine, then, that the throughline of the season would be us watching Martin Riggs wrestle with that truth while in the presence of trained professionals like Cahill, trusted colleagues and friends like his partner Roger Murtaugh (Damon Wayans) and by extension Murtaugh’s entire nuclear family, or his newfound romantic partner Molly (Kristen Gutoskie) and her son Ben (Duncan Joiner).
Instead, he consistently brushes past it. He runs headlong into self-destructive patterns, refuses the offered assistance of those he cares about, and on an almost daily basis ups the ante in terms of how much public property he can destroy instead of facing his demons.
Lethal Weapon is a cop show about the literally explosive fallout of men excusing themselves from the work of being emotionally productive in the shadow of their survival.
It’s exactly the kind of story men don’t need.
And what’s worse, it’s masquerading as the kind of story that we sorely need. The show does a great job of showing Murtaugh as a caring, jovial, emotionally available family man in a loving home. It wouldn’t take a lot of work to show us Murtaugh, as his colleague, helping Riggs come to terms with his trauma. Instead, the show literally excuses him as often as possible. It says aloud that Riggs is damaged, that he has so many issues to work through, but when he bursts, everyone around him puts their hands up and goes, “See? We said he was damaged.”
After stories like Díaz, where people are now unsure about whether men are merely painting over their own abuses with revelations of trauma, we need to show men with trauma actually working through it. The consequences of refusal are too dire. When men stand that high up, with such heavy burdens, and don’t come down gently, their inevitable fall is longer and more deadly for themselves and everyone around them.
Teresa Jusino, speaking on Díaz in The Mary Sue, reminds us: “Do men receive societal power because of misogyny? Absolutely. But they lose their right to vulnerability in the process.” The toxic cocktail of experiencing assault and being culturally inundated with images of machismo as a resistance to emotion is hurting male survivors in more ways that can be described in one essay. That’s why we need men—real ones, and the ones on TV—to take responsibility for the aftermath. Otherwise, not only do we do injustice to our own healing, but threaten all of our future relationships, and the cycle won’t end.
We need to teach and remind men as often as possible that recovery means responsibility. It means not giving in to the improper assumption that this is who you are, or that your own personal transgressions are forgiven simply because you say aloud that you’ve suffered a trauma of your own. It means understanding how it shaped your behaviour, but making amends and owning up to your actions, and working toward genuine emotional openness and understanding. We want to think we can get there by simply saying, “I made mistakes,” but that’s not the case.
Trauma is a lot of things. It defies analogy. But it isn’t an excuse. We don’t write off the things we destroy by saying, “Once upon a time I suffered”. We heal. We take the shards out of ourselves and take responsibility for the things we’ve cut. We put things back together.
We come off the ledge.
We stop going onto ledges.