Kent Russell’s I Am Sorry to Think I Have Raised a Timid Son is a combination memoir and essay collection. As noted on the back cover (and the majority of reviews I skimmed while deciding whether to read or not), the book concerns itself with “perhaps the most toxic and entertaining of all the can-do malevolences abroad in our land – American masculinity.” Each essay features Russell’s reflection on an individual or group, from juggalos and self-immunizers to hockey players and his own family. He explores their motivations and offers insight into the role of toxic masculinity in his own life, while examining how this image of masculinity shapes the need for both community and independence. In between each essay Russell shares fragments of his relationship with his father, with the final essay focusing exclusively on the two.
One complaint I’ve seen levied against Russell is that for all his questioning and musing, he provides very little in the way of answers. This argument is most apparent in his closing piece, relating a one-day road trip he took with his father, in which Russell directly asks “How come… we have in our hearts such contempt for others?” and indirectly asks “How can I change this ingrained aspect of myself?” The former is explored in several forms throughout the collection; the latter, however, never reaches a satisfying conclusion. In this way, his essays work as something of a collective diagnosis, classifying mutations on the ideals of masculinity without a clue on how to treat it.
And honestly, this just raises the humanity of Russell’s work for me. What would humankind be without its drive to change itself? Everyone has demons to face, aspects of their personality they want to change, an idealized vision of themselves to match, but getting to that vision is hard, even seemingly impossible. Russell’s helplessness to the question of changing himself into a more open individual resonates with that struggle of living.
Perhaps more relevant to the work itself, the tone and content of the book never purport to be a guide to improvement or a self-help book masquerading as memoir. Russell is often crass and toes the line between insight and judgment. He is observer and commentator, but never adviser. In his essay “Mithradates of Fond du Lac,” which lays out the history of self-immunizing (injecting oneself with venom to become immune), Russell convinces Tim Friede to endure five snakebites within forty-eight hours. He has to stop after four, swollen to the point of reducing his mobility. Compassion doesn’t enter into Russell’s narration, which focuses on history and motive, with a solid helping of the philosophical ramifications of the exercise. Understandably, he is at his most vulnerable in the sections regarding his own family and friendships; the first selection, for example, “Ryan Went to Afghanistan,” carries a warm nostalgia tinged coolly with the perception of tragedy.
I Am Sorry to Think I Have Raised a Timid Son dedicates itself to the intersection of culture and masculinity. While I cannot say you will walk away changed by reading it, I feel confident that you will at least learn some interesting trivia, considering Russell’s wide range of topics. (No really, his descriptions of the effects of hemotoxins and neurotoxins on the body are chilling, and I know more now about practical horror effects than I ever expected.)