August 16, 1999

Rage of the American Male

Only a few deranged men go on shooting sprees, but many feel cheated that 'the system' has let them down. And, in some powerful ways, it has.

By Susan Faludi

A man who responds to financial reversal by whacking his wife and kids to death and gunning down a score of people is not someone you'd want to confuse with an average American. Yet, in the aftermath of Mark O. Barton's murderous rampage through two brokerage firms in Atlanta, we pore over the features of his life like tea leaves—just as we do the lives of the many schoolyard shooters, employees who "go postal" and, most recently, the 34-year-old Alabama man charged with killing three people at his current and previous job sites last week.

We can't quell the suspicion that their crimes reveal something meaningful about our society, about us. Particularly, since the shooter is always the same sex, we wonder: what does it mean about the struggles of American men?

We receive little insight from the rampagers, who so often save the final bullet for themselves. But Mark Barton did us the dubious favor of providing documentation. He wrote us a letter, a suicide note addressed not to family or friends but, more globally, "To Whom It May Concern." Its words hold some clues, if we knew how to decode them.

"I wake up at night so afraid, so terrified that I couldn't be that afraid while awake," Barton wrote. "I have come to hate this life and this system of things. I have come to have no hope." It is unhappily a comment that could have been written by many ordinary men in America, who sense that some vague and shifting "system" has let them down. And hasn't it? More and more, the American community fails to offer its postwar sons and grandsons what it used to offer all men: a chance to ground their manhood on utility, dedication and loyalty, whether as a GI serving a nation and caring for his fellow grunts or as a civilian plying a craft essential to his society. For all the grim aspects of industrial labor and World War II-era sacrifice, men could at least feel they belonged to a meaningful brotherhood and provided a utility beyond mere earning power.

But the heirs of the GI generation increasingly find themselves stranded in a different world: computerized, consumerized, celebritized. In an ornamental culture where worth is measured by bicep and SUV size, by image and celebrity, men feel severed from fellowship and a tangible craft, valued only for their stock-market portfolios. In that way, Mark Barton was the garish distillation of the modern male predicament—a Dockers-and-polo-shirted figure seated alone in his suburban home, wired to the Internet so many hours a day that no one else could make a phone call. Meanwhile, his ignored children roamed the streets.

Like so many men in this telemarketed, outsourced economy, Barton's earning power came from enterprises far removed from him. As a day trader, he gambled on abstractions, riding, pilot-fish style, the tiny gyrations of companies whose products he had no hand in producing. But he gave it his every waking moment; something told him his utility at home went little further than his winnings in this jackpot game. Even as men have been freed (thanks largely to the women's movement) to be more involved fathers, their progress is undermined by a sweepstakes culture where only the biggest winner is valued.

That Barton's demons were masculine demons was evident in the words he left behind. "The fears of the father are transferred to the son," he wrote. "It was from my father to me and from me to my son... I had to take him with me." To be a man has always been to receive and pass on a patrimony of skills and a place within a system. But many men suspect that all they have inherited are their fathers' fears—of being found wanting, incapable, not needed. They haven't inherited the tools to deal with those fears, because so many tools of the fathers are obsolete. Barton's father was a lifelong Air Force man, a quaint calling in a world where even the military discourages lifers. But he might as well have been an engineer or a steelworker.

When the sources of our agonies are not visible, we invent enemies—typically, the people closest at hand. Barton killed colleagues, and like so many men going under, he saw another enemy: a woman whose only sin was witnessing his humiliating descent. In his note, Barton wrote of his wife, "I killed Leigh Ann because she was one of the main reasons for my demise..." Barton went on a "Mortal Kombat"-style search for his persecutors, ignoring the culprit in front of him, a culture that feeds the fears of many American men. That culture holds up a frightening mirror. Reflected there is an image of a man in a room alone—isolated from his fellows, unneeded by his family, staring into a computer screen on which he seeks a disembodied fortune or, if that fortune fails, types a suicide note.