The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd exposes mascupathy in its most extreme form: The book chronicles the lives of slaves and slave owners in the first half of the 19th century. It portrays the violence, brutality, domination, and emasculation endured by slaves in the United States for two hundred years. While Kidd does not hit us over the head with scenes of slaves being whipped, beaten, and punished in other disturbing ways, she does show us scenes that cannot help but stay in the mind; a reminder of the depths of pain visited upon fellow humans by humans.
The action takes place mostly in Charleston, South Carolina between 1800 and 1840, although some of the novel portrays northern attitudes toward slavery. As a reader who likes to come to books and movies without preconceptions, I will not disclose much of the narrative except to say that Kidd uses a powerful structure device—alternating chapters between the daughter of white slave owners, Sarah Grimke, and a slave of her same age, Handful. It is a compelling story of the two women’s intersecting lives over a period of forty years.
Manifestations of mascupathy
I believe Kidd’s book portrays mascupathy at its most evil (I do not use that word lightly). Perhaps the most fundamental of characteristics of this socialized distortion of masculinity is entitlement – in the case of slave ownership, the malevolent belief that it is acceptable to use and abuse others for self-aggrandizing ends. In many situations, Caucasian men have felt they had the right to dominate other human beings: women, children, other men of lesser status. But in no other case—at least in modern history, and in particular the history of the United States—has one group of men owned another group of people, treated them as inferior, mercilessly physically abused them, denied them legal rights, and considered them to be only three-fifths of a person.
In writing this review, I acknowledge that women were a part of the slave-owning class, and, in fact, in this book they are sometimes more cruel than men. But slavery was invented and made legal by men; women’s participation in slavery does not absolve men of responsibility.
Kidd describes other forms of mascupathy, but I will not go into them so as to allow the reader to discover for her/himself other manifestations of entitlement and domination.
Insights for men
As a nation, we have legislated and litigated more equality and have become more egalitarian: we have elected an African-American president, provided more opportunities and care for the disadvantaged, and raised our consciousness of the need for mutual respect and equal treatment under the law. There is still, however, much more work to be done.
Because its main characters are female, The Invention of Wings might appear to be a women’s book, but I believe it offers much, perhaps even more, for men. My colleague, Randy Flood, and I like to point out that therapy is about relationships, and relationships are about achieving respect, equality, and empathy. Kidd’s consciousness-raising and dramatically exciting book challenges men not only to look at their mascupathy, but to also explore gender roles as well as racial attitudes. It is both a great read and a clear window for self-examination.