Monday, January 16, 2012


A beautiful and intelligent woman once spent an hour at a national conference swearing me to secrecy and then telling me about every powerful man she’d ever been to bed with. Everyone already knew, so she was basically boasting and also informing me that I was no threat. Her premise was that the duty of a woman was to attract and you-know-what only physically impressive and politically powerful men because that was the only way to guarantee the success of the children she would bear. Presumably, his genes would be good and he would be able to provide for a family. She did not care to think about the dark side of this plan.

Barbara Richard ( has written a trilogy, with the help of her mother and sisters, about a family dominated by a man with antlers, the herd stallion, an alpha male, who kept his harem in line with sex and violence, whipping them bloody. She has also been able to illuminate why five daughters and their mother, all of them gifted and intelligent, would stay and endure such a situation; how heredity, society and economics conspired to create this man with antlers too big for his head; and what modern research has to say about it. They call such a man a “narcissistic sociopath” -- no conscience -- and estimate that as many as 5% or even 8% of all people have somehow escaped having compassion or empathy or simple decency. They are often willing to sacrifice anything or anybody in their attempts to be the now-legendary 1% who are better than everyone else because they have the money. They are like biting dogs: if a small dog bites you, that’s one thing. If a really big dog bites you, the wound will be serious. This is why at first there were no mean St. Bernards: any such dog without the instinct to protect was simply destroyed. Out in the country a truly mean bull or stallion is simply too dangerous not to kill. But we don’t do that with people. Until they kill a few other people. And get caught. A lot of men are just small dogs with a big dog complex.

The nineteenth century in middle America has mostly been celebrated as an exemplar of progress, lifting up the hard-working immigrants (at the expense of hard-dying Native Americans) into prosperous small towns and homesteads carved out of the tall grass prairie. How tall? Sometimes twenty feet tall, a sea of grass that had to be burned off before it could be plowed. There are plenty of stories about how hard it was on the people, human plowshares broken against the sod of nature, burned in the consuming economic possibilities as the new railroads brought more and more and more desperate people to what amounted to a threshing floor. The weak simply died, or if they had family back east, went home.

The strong lived by a code of honor: work is everything, a powerful man should take whatever he could, women must buckle under to their men and could get their reward later through loyal children or maybe, if their reproductive powers were weak, in heaven. In the meantime, lay up credits by being publicly virtuous: dress modestly, show up in church, stay clean, hide your hair, sneak your laudanum. Hope to hell you don’t get pregnant too many times because childbirth can kill a woman, let alone the pregnancy itself.

In the last book of the trilogy, “Chasing Ghosts,” it took courage for Barbara and her sisters to unravel the misadventures of their ancestors, both male and female, horse traders, burglars, drunkards, abusers with no sexual boundaries, and the bitter, driving women who rescued the men and bore the children even as they could not rescue themselves. She vividly portrays -- okay, fictionalizes scenes -- these “interstitial” people trying to find a quick fortune with little effort. One man, clearly a guy able to keep his mouth shut, was approached by a tire company to travel the country purporting to sell rubber tires but in fact actually selling latex condoms, newly invented and -- like everything new -- illegal, labeled by the church wicked. (The church wants children, children and more children. Until they are born and hungry.) He did very well for himself until condoms were legalized. Or at least available at the drug store from the back room.

For those who were hopelessly impoverished, it was often the Salvation Army that gave them clothes and enough travel money to move on. No different than today. The city “fathers” resorted to floating troublesome people out of town. Riding the rails was still a possibility if you didn’t know how to steal a horse. How the horses suffered in those days! But best not to hop a freight while you’re drunk.

If 5% of people are sociopaths, in this town of 400 or so where I live, there must be twenty of them, mostly guided along by convention and an alert sheriff’s department, probably most of them still kids or else too old or sick to make trouble. If 1% of people are very rich, there must be four millionaires in town -- more likely on the ranches around town. If 2% per thousand people is a natural Unitarian, then a fraction of me must be it. I don’t know how much I trust such figures, but I recognize the types, the antlered men, the cowering women, the abused kids.

A friend of mine with a father along these lines talks about how waitresses always light up and banter with such men, even when they’re too old to be the engines of lust they once were. Some kind of Clark Gable aura, the strong handsome man with the mustache, excites the tired woman trapped in a small town cafe with an order pad and an apron. It’s strictly a fantasy -- she knows it and he does, too. In the end, frankly, my dear, he won’t give a damn.

Why doesn’t he take care of his children? Why doesn’t he flirt with his wife? He doesn’t have to. He thinks he owns them. They have to do what he says. He can do anything to them in the name of “discipline." The law used to say so, the ministers used to say so. It was the standing order. Everyone thought it was the entitlement of the Man with the Antlers, the Horny Man. Then suddenly everything changed. Thank God! But even now, when my hands aren’t strong enough to take a wrench to a pipe or something and I ask a guy for a moment of his time, he’ll say, “Where’s your man?”


Anonymous said...

Been reading your blog for a while. I think you write about these kinds of alpha men, trying to figure them out, analyzing them, criticizing them, because those are the very kinds (maybe only kinds) of men you are attracted to and on one level wish you weren't and on another level are proud you are. Although now that you are too old for most of that, you can set it on a shelf and look at it. But inside we are never too old.

Mary Strachan Scriver said...

The whole culture has this complex. You're too kind to say that men like this steer clear of women like me. We've learned a little too much. Their sons sure do like to talk to me.

Alpha men make good colleagues if they're not narcissistic sociopaths.

Prairie Mary

Anonymous said...

yep, i'm one of their sons. And I can't stand them and have tried to be just the opposite.

Alpha men who know what they are doing are what people are looking for all right, women to mate with and men to have as leaders. Like Paul Newman said in "Hombre": "You follow me because I can cut it."

Mary Strachan Scriver said...

There are many different kinds of "being able to cut it," many kinds of strength. It's pretty easy to think of John Wayne in a situation where he's at a total loss.

And some Alpha Males can only "cut it" so long as their team backs them. The danger is always that members of the team and even sons and wives and daughters will realize that without them, the antlers fall off.

And they do age. You know what happens to the old herd bull then.

Prairie Mary

Anonymous said...

yep, he is turned out of the herd. and he wanders for a while, loses weight, becomes a shadow of himself. and soon he dies, the mice nesting in his dry skull.

Mary Strachan Scriver said...

There are many Blackfeet stories about the mice that nest in the herd bull's skull. They often sing.

Of course, the herd goes on, swishing through the grass around the skull. Carrying its genes.

Prairie Mary