Mythological heroes of yore – and comic book superheroes today – embody our deepest values. This is what a hero would do. Heracles, Arjuna, and Spiderman learn that great powers bestow equivalent responsibility. Prometheus, Odin, and Deadpool accept suffering as the cost of their attachment to the world. Theseus, Samson, and Punisher wreck violence upon their enemies.
These men are all heroes. They battle monsters. They fight and kill to enforce boundaries.
At times, they reveal themselves to be more monstrous than the monsters.
The Greek hero Theseus has a signature style: he follows the Golden Rule. Do unto others as they would do unto you.
Theseus encounters Club Bearer, a villain who murders people by using a big stick to smash them into the earth. Theseus murders Club Bearer by using a big stick to smash him into the earth.
Theseus encounters Pinebender, a villain who murders people by tying their limbs to the bowed trunks of pine trees. Theseus murders Pinebender by tying his limbs to the bowed trunks of pine trees.
Theseus encounters Sciron, a villain who murders people by kicking them off a cliff when they attempt to wash their feet. Theseus murders Sciron by kicking him off a cliff when he attempts to wash his feet.
And so on.
Theseus, the hero, rids the world of monsters by doing unto monsters precisely what they would do to him.
Then Theseus meets the Minotaur.
The Minotaur – a monster with a human body and bovine head – was born because his mother was unsatisfied with her husband and went to great efforts – constructing a wooden cow costume, etc. – to have sex with a bull instead.
Obviously, this myth was concocted by a man. Many men fear that they’re lousy in bed; many men assume that a larger penis would make them IRRESISTIBLE to women; many men tell stories about “wicked women” turning faithless in the face of someone better endowed.
And – also obviously – in a man’s story, the Minotaur’s monstrous genesis had to be a wicked woman’s fault.
The Minotaur is known to be a monster because he eats humans. The Minotaur’s father imprisoned him inside a giant labyrinth. In an annual ritual, the Minotaur’s father also locks defenseless young people inside the labyrinth. Then the Minotaur eats them.
But Theseus seduces the Minotaur’s fully-human sister, convinces her to give him a secret map to navigate the labyrinth, and then smuggles in a sword during the night. After skulking through the labyrinth, Theseus slays the sleeping Minotaur.
The Minotaur – we recognize him as a monster by his big bovine head. But all bovines only eat plants. It’s actually the monster’s human gullet, stomach, & intestines – the monster’s human appetite – that must be feared. The Minotaur has an herbivorous head but is a meat-eating monstrosity beneath the neck.
During his travels, Theseus has often feasted upon bovine flesh. He’s already mirrored the monstrosity of the Minotaur: eating the other’s people. But inside the labyrinth, Theseus does not devour the Minotaur. This is the only time when Theseus does not strictly mirror the behavior of an enemy.
Which might have revealed too much about the boundaries being policed: Only humans may eat the world.
The fundamental horror – what made all of Theseus’s enemies monstrous – was never about what they’d done, but rather who had done it.
In Jess Zimmerman’s essay collection Women and Other Monsters, she describes the ways that myths are used to define the boundaries of acceptable behavior. A human who eats other animals can be a hero; an animal (or animal-headed entity) who eats humans would be a monster.
Zimmerman offers advice: What should we do when we recognize the hypocrisies in our ancestors’ sacred stories?
For women, the boundaries of acceptability are strict, and they are many. We must be seductive but pure, quiet but not aloof, fragile but industrious, and always, always small. We must not be too successful, too ambitious, too independent, too self-centered – and when we can’t manage all the contradictory restrictions, we are turned into grotesques. Women have been monsters, and monsters have been women, in centuries’ worth of stories, because stories are a way to encode these expectations and pass them on.
We’ve built a culture on the backs of these monstrous women, letting them prop up tired morals about safety and normalcy and feminine propriety. But the traits they represent – aspiration, knowledge, strength, desire – are not hideous. In men’s hands, they have always been heroic.
The monsters of myth have been stationed at those borders in order to keep us out; they are intended as warnings about what happens when women aspire beyond what we’re allowed. … They mark areas on a map: Do not enter. Here be monsters.
But if stepping outside the boundaries makes you monstrous, that means monsters are no longer bound. What happens if we charge through the gates and find that living on the other side – in all our Too Muchness, oversized and overweening and overcomplicated as we are – means living fully for the first time? Then the monster story stops being a warning sign, and starts to be a guide.
While teaching poetry in the county jail, I’ve chatted with lots of people who landed there for dealing.
Allegedly dealing. Everything that I’m about to write is a work of fiction. The product of my imagination. Or somebody’s imagination, surely. Inadmissible in a court of law.
“My name’s S______, but don’t nobody call me that. Even the cops, they’d say to me, like, ‘Yo, G_____, we know you’re dealing, but you’re only selling marijuana. So that’s okay. Just be cool about it. Don’t sell that shit near campus, a’ight?’ And that’s how I knew, this last time, something was up. Cause it wasn’t ‘Hey G_____,’ this cop car pulled up and they were like, ‘Hey, S______, get your ass over here,’ and that’s when I took off running. Now they’re trying to give me seven years. Over marijuana!”
A lot of the guys have claimed that cops are just trying to keep drugs away from campus.
“There used to be all that housing north of campus, near where they built that informatics shit. But now they’re driving everybody out. Like I know five, six guys, used to live in that place, they’ve all been moved down to the south side. They’re trying to concentrate everybody there. Down at that Crawford [a low-income housing facility], down where they’ve got Shalom [a resource center for people experiencing homelessness]. You might have a place up north, you get busted, by the time you get out, they’re putting you on the south side. Up north, must be cop cars crawling by like every fifteen minutes. Out of everybody I used to know, only D____ is still living there.”
The guys fear being near other people who are experiencing the same struggles as them. It’s easier for the city to provide services in a centralized location. But it’s also easy for the people who need services to cross paths with old friends and slip.
“I go into Crawford, I don’t even ask or nothing, pretty soon people are coming by, offering some of this, some of that, ‘Hey, haven’t seen you in a while, wanna get high?’ My old lady was living there, and on the nights she’d kick me out, I’d just sit there in the hall, right outside her door, like, ‘Please, babe, let me in,’ and everybody walking by would offer me a little something.”
“I seen you in that hall!”
“Yeah, my old lady, I love her to death, but she’s got herself a temper.”
Last week, somebody told me it’d be his last class for a while. He was getting out.
“I don’t know about these cops, man, but I feel like the DA here, the prosecutors and all, they’re not even that upset about it, if you’re selling drugs. Like, it’s okay to move a little, as long as you’re mature about it.”
I asked what he meant, mature.
“You know, mature, like you’re staying away from campus, staying away from college girls, not selling dope near schools or nothing, not cutting it too much, not making people OD. You’re not going out there and trying to push it onto people. Like if somebody comes to you, then you’ll sell, but you’re not out looking for customers. You’re not trying to, I don’t know, you’re not trying to get anybody hooked or nothing. It’s a good system if it’s flawed in the right way.”
“So you think they know sometimes, and they’re letting you do it?”
“I know they know. Cause I got into this drug thing, it was like an experiment. It was psychology. I wanted to see what was up with these people. But then I get the feeling, like on Messenger, the cops know I’m there to watch them, to learn what’s going on, so they all start fucking with me. Like they’re saying … fuck, I don’t even know. Like I write something but then my messages say something else. Or I go and pick something up and then somebody else writes to me asking to buy the exact same amount I just picked up. Like everybody knows what I’m doing. Like they’re watching me.”
“And they’ve got drones everywhere. Like all over Bloomington. One time, this drone was just following me, doing circles right over my head, and I freaked out. I was pretty high at the time. I ducked into the woods. And the drone, it came with me. And pretty soon this jeep pulled up, these guys got out, they were looking around, you know, like they were looking for somebody. Even after they left, that drone was up there, circling. After it flew off, man, I booked it home.”
“If they don’t much mind, though, why’d you end up here?”
“That’s the thing! That’s what I don’t think is right. Cause I came in here on like a nothing – I mean, yeah, they found me with the dope, and there was this night I woke up with like eight cops surrounding my place, they were like come on out and I was like, fuck that, no, and they beat my ass and brought me to jail.”
“And I was only here, like, five days or something. They had me sign this piece of paper. I never should’ve signed it. I mean, who has time to read that shit? But they put me on ‘pre-trial release’ or something, and then I failed this blow-and-go – or, no, I guess I caught another charge.”
“I got high, I stole a lemonade. But that’s like a ticket thing! I was just trying to be a good doctor. And now I been here fifty days, looking at two felonies. I don’t think they should be able to do all that if you haven’t had a trial.”
“How’s a lemonade make you a good doctor?”
“Shit, man, I don’t know. I just try to take care of these h–s. But now it gets to be that you can’t trust nobody. Snitches everywhere, you know? Like there’s snitches who’ll buy, and they’ll shoot the dope, and then they go and give some fake shit to the cops. Like that’s what he sold me or whatever. I mean, damn. Snitches everywhere. Like on Messenger, like on Facebook, I get the feeling half those people on there must be cops.”
I reminded him – again – that his word wasn’t an acceptable synonym for “women.” And I still couldn’t understand what he was trying to accomplish with the lemonade.
He had an erratic mind. We were reading a set of poems with allusions to Greek mythology – W.H. Auden’s “Musee des Beaux Arts,” Jack Gilbert’s “Failing and Flying,” A.E. Stallings’s “Art Monster,” Barbara Hamby’s “Penelope’s Lament,” Dan Chelotti’s “Ode to Hephaestus.”
When it was his turn to read – “Art Monster,” featuring the minotaur mired in acedia – he could only make it through a few lines before offering another rejoinder to the text.
I was fed
on raw youths and maidens
When all I wanted was the cud of clover.
“So he’s like a cow then, right. Man-a-cow?”
“Yeah, half-bull, and …”
“So he’s got cow thoughts. And I was thinking, they’ve got those things, right, that can reach into your head? Like magnets? I mean, like, fuck with your brain? Read and control your thoughts?”
“Um, I guess with transcranial magnetic stimulation – I mean, the right pulse of a magnet, aimed at the right …”
“No, cause, I got this thing on my phone, right? It’s this little guy in the phone, and he’ll look right into my eyes, he said that all the time, like look into my eyes, and every single thought I had, he’d know before I said it. I swear! It’s this phone thing. I still got it, I can show it to you.”
Another guy – bedecked in tattoos, who apparently has a pack of five chihuahuas who’ll jump into his backpack when he whistles, then ride around town that way, zipped inside the bag – shouted, “You need to smoke less meth.” and we got back to the poem.
The minotaur’s despair at waiting didn’t resonate as well as I’d hoped. But the poem still seemed to work.
“He’s murdering all these people, eating young girls or whatever, but it says, like, I wanted clover. But they thought he was a monster, treated him like a monster. They wanted him to be a monster.”
Dealing sometimes does make monstrous things happen.
There’s the regular problems – dealing means selling drugs, and some people shouldn’t be buying drugs – which I’ve heard many men lament.
“I mean, we read shit like this, somebody shooting up in front of their kids, not taking care of their kids, not getting them fed, and I know. I know. Right? I might’ve sold this. You sell for a while, you’re gonna have somebody OD.”
Drug dealing means moving in a world where lots of people are on edge. The buyer, or the seller, or both, might not have slept in days. Paranoia sets in. People worry about jail time, and undercover cops, and the risk of being cheated. The danger of the drugs being no good, or too good, or simply unpredictable.
“These last few years, man, seems like every month, another buddy dies.”
“Hell, five times, last year, five times I died. Five times I ODed, and somebody brought me back.”
And there’s a lot of money involved. So people plan heists. Sometimes these go spectacularly wrong.
During my second year, I was working with a group of men living in an ostensibly rehabilitative dormitory on the first floor of the jail. That was a hard year – because we worked with the same people every week, and they stayed in that same cell for months or years at a time, we grew particularly close.