Notice Box

My father turned one hundred and one in February this year.

For the past thirty-five of these last one hundred and one years he has been dead. Dead the way I wanted him for the best part of my childhood.

Eventually I gave up on wanting him dead because I stopped living in the same house and wasn’t daily exposed to his unquenchable need for recognition.

For my father, recognition took the form of sex.  Or put more succinctly, recognition involved the presence of another person’s body, preferably a woman’s, into whom he could release all his pent-up energies and frustrations.

Unleash his desire.

When I first encountered my own sexual desire as a child, it came to me in the rush of pleasure I found in my father’s art books, the naked bodies draped over couches.

Not until I heard the comedian, Hannah Gadsby, question the nature of art and the way in which the women in art books are displayed as helplessly half dressed and flayed over couches, did it occur to me that I have viewed sexuality through the male gaze.

I have been attracted to the desire for another through this lens where women are the recipients and men the givers.

More recently I’ve been pondering this phenomenon called the incel movement, a subculture of predominantly young men who find themselves unable to draw the attention or attraction of a woman and thereby feel increasingly rejected.

These men isolate themselves and spend their days resenting these woman, who fit the stereotype of blonde, blue eyed and beautiful, the ‘Stacys’ as the incels call them.  They believe these women are attracted only only to – again stereotyped – virile hunks, hyper masculine men, the ‘Chads’, as they call them.

These disaffected have men banded together through the online world to form a group of involuntary celibates – hence the name ‘incel’ – involuntary because, unlike priests in the Catholic Church or other people who practise celibacy by choice, these men believe that celibacy has been foisted upon them.

They feel rage towards those women whom have rejected them as well as towards the men whom they believe have taken the women from them.

This rage can reach murderous proportions and some of the incels have become crusaders, hell bent on eliminating these women who have caused them such pain.

No doubt it goes back to childhood deprivation of some sort. Parents who were unloving towards a child, or abusive. Or a child who for whatever reason was never able to come to terms with being denied love or not getting things his own way.

Such experience can breed a sense of entitlement, as if these men are entitled to the love of a woman.

I expect it doesn’t just apply to men, but given I’m reflecting on a binary here as dictated by these involuntarily celibates, I won’t try to expand on it more.

If sex is as primal as hunger and thirst as primal as the need for shelter and warmth, as primal as the need to make sense of our experience, then I suspect some of this entitlement is connected to our human need for recognition.

When I was a kid at school, the nuns took offence at those other kids in the class who demanded more attention. These kids were mostly boys, boys who could not sit still at their desks, boys who insisted on talking to one another even when they had been told to stay silent, boys who spilled their bottles of regulation milk at recess just for fun.

Mother Mary John called these boys ‘notice boxes’. In my mind’s eye I saw red postal boxes the type that still line our streets today. These red-letter boxes reminded me of guards on duty, their letter slit a mouth and all wore a crown on top painted in red with the letters HR below in honour of the queen.

Why Mother Mary John chose to call these boys notice boxes and their association to letterboxes puzzled me?

Mother Mary John saw it as a problem when any child sought attention, as if it signalled a defective personality this wish to be noticed.

And yet, isn’t that what we all want/need? Some sort of recognition, some sort of understanding?

And sex is one way of exchanging such recognition though it cannot come by order, any more than those boys who commanded so much attention from Mother Mary John need not have been punished because they did not yet understand the need for all of us to take it in turns to take centre stage.

Which brings me full circle, back to my father, a man who struggled to find his place on the human stage, wanting to take up all the space given the nature of his childhood, a mystery to me still, though I understand is as one dominated by paternal authority and abuse. My paternal grandfather was the chief archivist at the Dutch registry for births death and marriages in Haarlem and a man who put his own impulses and desires first at the expense of his wife and children. In later years he wound up in jail for his crimes but not before he had set in train a crescendo of destruction that found its way onto the next generation.