FortyFied: Personal Chronicles. Cecille Lopez Lilles.
University of Santo Tomas Publishing House, 2011.
The cliché that goes “Women are from Venus while men are from Mars” is still believed to capture accurately the essence of the difference between man and woman. Often, this is taken as an absolute truth: men and women are simply different in the ways they experience, perceive, and cope with the world. The adage’s implications go beyond the perceived chasm between the two sexes. One implication is that women, as Venus, embody the sexual impulse, while men, as Mars, embody the aggressive impulse.
If we follow this line of thinking, it would not be a stretch to think that perhaps Freud was right when he postulated that any and all things stem from either or both of these two libidinal impulses. However, majority of Freud’s absolutes have been disputed, if not debunked outright. Absolute belief in the adage must similarly be discarded, if only in the light of recent vigorous research that examines and answers exactly that: How are men and women different?
In FortyFied, a collection of essays that have been published in The Philippine Star, Ms. Lilles writes in her introduction that her life’s journey is to understand men, and, in one of the essays in the collection (“My Muse Is A Man”), she says that men serve as the inspiration for her writing. Indeed, what baffles us often become the subject of our essays. Given this, perhaps the most frustrating thing about the essays authored by Ms. Lilles is that the challenge to understand carries a defeatist tone, as in “nothing will come out of this.” Her essays follow a predictable pattern: a vignette about the experience, musings and personal thoughts, an attempt to understand the male way of thinking, then ultimately falling back to the literary equivalent of shrugging and moving on. The mindset of “they’re just different, so what can we do about it” is evident in many of the essays, and if there is an effort to understand, it is done superficially through interviews with the author’s family and friends, which she still rejects in majority of her essays’ concluding remarks.
Certainly, her essays are interesting. She writes with wit and humor as she describes her encounters with the jock, the nerd, the attendants in the hardware store, and CEO archetypes that quail under the pressure of negotiating airports. Even her attempts to grasp what she terms as “man-speak” (“Ugga bugga”, she says) are certainly interesting situations in and by themselves. After the promise of the blurb and the introduction, what I expected from Ms. Lilles essays are the answers to the whys. Why do men have and maintain mistresses? Why do men engage in risky sports? Why are men’s bags when traveling significantly fewer and smaller than women’s? Why do men seemingly have their own language? And, with regards to the last question, really, how is man-speak different from how women speak, with their endless tittering about the latest fashion trends and the most expensive shoes?
And this is where the problem lies: in her quest to portray men as always “entertaining and enthralling”, the fascination impedes true understanding. Those who make it their life’s work to comprehend do not simply stop at fascination: they are required to investigate, to examine, to take apart all pre-conceived notions and simply let it be. Often, the essays attempt to explain the behaviours through evolution: that in the course of their maturity as homo sapiens they are required by circumstance to preserve and protect their ego. While this is a valid explanation, is this the only reason that can inform women who are attempting to understand their partners?
In many ways, Ms. Lilles’ essays aim to be guideposts for women to eventually accept men’s specific behaviors. She does this by presenting various “case studies” of encounters with men. Ultimately, she comes to the conclusion that there’s nothing to be done, that’s just the way they are. While this may be helpful to a certain set of readers, accepting does not equate to understanding, and thus it does not fulfill the book’s promise of “understanding the male psyche.”
Speaking of reader characteristics, another problem I had was that majority of Ms. Lilles’ pronouncements about men’s responsibilities and women’s privileges do not resonate with me. For example, men must, at one point in time, take a woman out to a fancy dinner to a restaurant with great ambience which serves food that can barely reach the lower part of the esophagus. They are also expected to foot the bill. Or, men should always carry a woman’s luggage. If they do not do these, they can be rightfully dumped or the woman would have every right to throw a fit. While Ms. Lilles in her introduction says that her preconceptions about men were debunked after writing about them for five years, there is still the irresistible urge to try to cram them into neat little boxes made with dated rules and norms. Thus, I am left with the impression that the explanations provided by the essays are just token declarations without any real value.
This then prompts the question: who, exactly, is FortyFied’s target audience? Is it young women like me, who survive with one foot in the era of 20-volume encyclopedias and old-school library card catalogs, and the other in the Google, Facebook and Twitter age? Does she target women in their twenty-somethings who are just as baffled by men, if not more so, than women who are significantly older and are more experienced than us? Is it the thirty-somethings, who are career women, who tuck a newspaper in their armpits while one hand carries their hard-earned (or not) LV handbags and the other a cup of steaming hot Starbucks coffee, on their way to the office where they must work to make ends meet? They who are perhaps at their first couple of years of marriage, and fighting tooth and limb to reconcile their own identity with their husband’s and children’s? Or is it women who are of the same age as the author, those who have perhaps made a name for themselves (or have very nearly done so), with children who are at least school-age, some perhaps even working?
In truth, the writing and the essays are at their most brilliant when talking about her experiences as a mother: how she, as the mother of twenty-something girls fend off suitors and bad-mannered boys, how she labors to explain to her eight-year-old son why she is so fond of her shoes. She is most engaging when talking about how desperately she holds on to norms during the Facebook generation, how she, as a mother, is keeping her head afloat in the sea of confusing signals that only men seem to understand. Her most inspired essays come when she is talking about herself.
Thus, while I would not recommend FortyFied to anyone who wants to gain insight into a man’s mind, I would definitely recommend it to women who are poised for a slowdown after a lifetime of hectic scurrying to and fro, for some entertaining essays about how a woman like them has also struggled to move inside a man’s world. —Marie Rose G. Henson, Interlineal.net
*Thanks are due to Mr. Carljoe Javier of University of Santo Tomas Publishing House for generously providing a review copy of this book.