David McConnell’s ‘American Honor Killings: Desire and Rage Among Men': Book Review

BY GARTH GREENWELL

AmericanHonorKillings-210In this unnervingly beautiful new book, David McConnell
investigates six murders of gay men over the last two decades. McConnell’s focus is on the perpetrators
of these crimes—men he interviews and corresponds with and locks eyes with at
their trials—and one of the most disturbing and profound aspects of his account
is the fact that of desire and rage, the two terms of his subtitle, desire is
by far the more resonant. However twisted or thwarted, desire is everywhere in
this book—in the victims, who sometimes long for their attackers; in the murderers,
some of them gay, all of them longing for an ideal they feel is under
threat; and in the author himself, who hovers somewhere between perpetrator and
victim, an ambiguity he makes fascinating use of in the book. 

The most gripping of these stories concerns Darrell Madden,
who in Oklahoma City in 2007 murdered the 62-year-old Steven Domer (See Towleroad's coverage HERE). With a fellow white nationalist,
Bradley Qualls—a partner in the crime whom Madden, in a little drama of
dominance, would also kill—Madden posed as a hustler to lure his victim. As he does often in this book, McConnell takes us into the scene, putting us closer to the action than we
might like. “Gazes snagged on them, slid down their bodies, and were nervously
yanked loose,” he writes, cannily putting us in both perspectives at once–that
of the two men waiting for their prey, but also of the men driving past them,
most of them much older, most of them solitary, most of them on their own sort
of hunt.

McConnell has written two novels, and it’s out of a
novelist’s respect for the twists and textures of individual lives that he
refuses familiar explanations for the violence he describes. He rejects from
the start the idea of “gay panic,” but he also questions the category of “hate
crimes,” proposing instead that we call these acts “honor killings.”

These
murders aren’t about individual hatred, McConnell argues, and they’re finally
less about attacking a despised group than defending the honor of an ideal of
what manhood means: “These killers….saw, or needed to see, themselves as
believers, soldiers, avengers, purifiers, as exemplars of manhood.” This may be
a question of emphasis—surely a preoccupation with honor entails hating
whatever brings dishonor—but McConnell is convincing in his insistence that each
of these killers is “a far more convoluted being than our culture…wants to
allow.”

MaddenThis is certainly the case with Darrell Madden, whose life
emerges as equal parts tragedy and farce. McConnell spent years meeting and
corresponding with Madden, and he gives us his history in pieces, moving
repeatedly from the scene of murder to the life that led to it. We learn that
Madden had a brief career as a porn actor, and that what led him to white
nationalism was his own desperate attraction to skinheads.

Madden speaks to
McConnell about these things with an openness suggesting trust and fondness,
feelings that are to a significant degree reciprocated. McConnell acknowledges
Madden’s charm and attractiveness—“he was, almost reflexively, an expert
seducer”—and the scenes between them read like an uncensored version of the
relationship between Perry Smith and Truman Capote in In Cold Blood. Hidden desire and fascination pulse in the
paragraphs of Capote’s classic book; in American
Honor Killings
, that desire is laid bare.

David_McConnell_new-210And so the most interesting character in these pages is
finally McConnell himself, and the book’s key investigations are of his own
motives and desires. He writes of “the joy of violence,” of “a wild physical
pleasure of release,” of “brute and happy manliness”; he claims, speaking of
skinhead culture, that “the solidarity the group engenders is, basically,
love.” It’s clear that McConnell understands and to some extent shares the
longing for pure manhood and ideal brotherhood that sets the men he studies on
their paths. “What am I,” he writes, worrying at “the nagging question of
whether I’m more Steve or more Darrell”—more victim or perpetrator of these
crimes.

That’s a question many men might ask, and what’s most
exciting about American Honor Killings is the way its nuance and detail sharpen the point of its cultural critique.
McConnell reads individual acts of violence against gay men as signs of stress
or fracture in an ideal masculinity we collectively adore. “The constant irony,”
McConnell writes in a telling passage about Madden, “was that daily life among
the skinheads in prison was strikingly similar to scenes from the gay porn
movies Darrell had appeared in not long before.” The internet is full of porn
for gay men in which gay men are brutalized, often by men who match Madden’s
skinhead ideal of manhood.  This
lends credence to the most unsettling conclusion of this excellent book: that
the desire in McConnell’s title is our own.

Garth Greenwell is the author of Mitko, which won the 2010 Miami University Press Novella Prize and was a finalist for the Edmund White Debut Fiction Award and a Lambda Award. Beginning this fall, he will be an Arts Fellow at the University of Iowa Writers' Workshop.

Comments

  1. Derrick from Philly says

    Oh, the irony. After all the bull written by the bigots today on this blog now here’s this book.

    BEWARE THE BLACK MENACE, bring a skin head home you tonight.

    Please do.

  2. Derrick from Philly says

    @ DAVID,

    you beat me to it. But I’m afraid the skin heads don’t stand a chance. These bigots speaking out to day on this blog only want to be bashed and killed by Black men.

    Give the skin head a chance, Rick.

  3. UFFDA says

    Everything that is seedy, low, degraded and impure in a man is despised by the macho ideal. Gay men in particular can be the unjust focus of such hatred. Yet we all have minds that can choose to think differently refusing to indulge negative impulses. This author needs to change his perspective and get over himself.

  4. Caliban says

    The book sounds interesting and disturbing, especially to the degree to which he identifies with the killers. It’s nearly impossible for me to look at that photo of Madden, with his tattoos instead of eyebrows, and seeing past that to think of him as charming or seductive. I’ll probably read it at some point, just because I’m interested in dark psychology.

    It’s not really new thinking that rabid homophobes, even killers of gay men, are really hating and killing something in themselves as much as they are their victims. If you’re comfortable with your own sexuality and masculinity (or lack thereof), why would anyone elses concern you?

    (We get a daily dose of this from certain commenters who seem rather hysterical about femininity in men or the “taint” of women on gay male culture.)

    There seems to always be more than a bit of homoeroticism in any “hyper-masculine” group, from male hero worship of certain athletes, the tight clothing of skinheads, or wrestlers using anti-gay slurs at the same time they parade their oiled and muscled bodies in skimpy shorts in front of mostly male audiences.

    Still, it sounds as if McConnell may have something new or at least interesting to say about it.

  5. says

    NOTE: Comments on an earlier post have been closed and hidden due to severe trolling. I apologizes to our readers for the cesspool the comments section has become and promise we will work to find a solution. The site right now is built on a very old template, which makes moderating individual comments very difficult give the size of the site and the number of them coming in. We count on readers to flag items for us.

    Commenters who race-bait and/or use multiple identities in order to start or invigorate comment wars (we know who you are) run the risk of being BANNED. Please refrain also from goading trolls into commenting. Those comments may also get deleted.

    Sorry for having to even say this. Please try to carry on in a civilized way with constructive commentary and respect for others. Thank you.

  6. Caliban says

    Oh, and I forgot to add, I’m glad to see a book review on this site and hope to see more of them in the future, either by Garth Greenwell or others. In my experience gay men are more likely than average to be readers and features about books are sorely missing at most gay sites.

  7. Jols says

    Thank this book for confirming that homophobia and racism are direct consequences of patriarchy and the pathetic need of belonging / feeling superior of men who are at the lowest of the lowest, and whose only claim to superiority is their penis and their white skin (none of which they’ve had to do anything to gain).

    This violence is just distress and the hatred of anyone who they feel unsettles the place of the penis/whiteskin supremacy – the only thing their feel prevents them from being lower than dogs.

    Both pathetic and sad. And yet, we’re the ones dying, so…

  8. Rick says

    “McConnell reads individual acts of violence against gay men as signs of stress or fracture in an ideal masculinity we collectively adore. “The constant irony,” McConnell writes in a telling passage about Madden, “was that daily life among the skinheads in prison was strikingly similar to scenes from the gay porn movies Darrell had appeared in not long before.” The internet is full of porn for gay men in which gay men are brutalized, often by men who match Madden’s skinhead ideal of manhood. This lends credence to the most unsettling conclusion of this excellent book: that the desire in McConnell’s title is our own.”

    Yep. The same gay men who promote the culture of effeminacy lust after the most macho of men and desire to be raped and humiliated by them.

    In doing so, they are seeking desperately after their own lost masculinity, which the culture of effeminacy has deprived them of, having caused them to internalize the larger societal idea that homosexuality and masculinity are incompatible.

    It is this contradiction that defines much of gay male life and culture……its dysfunctionm and the self-destructive behavior of so many of its adherents.

    And it will only change when gay men decide en masse to reclaim their masculinity and re-define their own sexuality as a form of shared masculine experience rather than as a form of femininity and pseudo-womanhood.

  9. Rick says

    And relatedly, the violence of many “straight” men towards gay men IS out of anger that they have destroyed the noble nature of male-male love by tainting it with the pseudo-womanliness and cowardliness that the culture of effeminacy consists of.

    So the solution for these “straight” men is the same as it is for gay men–a reformed male culture in which men’s primary social, emotional, and sexual attachment is to each other than to women.

  10. ChristopherM says

    The violence of straight men against gay men comes from the perception that we have given up our masculinity regardless of where we fall on the scale of masculinity. In other words, it is based in misogyny. Much like Rick’s cockamamie opinions. We shouldn’t have to change who we are in order to avoid violence.

  11. Rick says

    “The violence of straight men against gay men comes from the perception that we have given up our masculinity regardless of where we fall on the scale of masculinity. In other words, it is based in misogyny”

    No, ChristopherM, misogyny is defined as a hatred of women. You are NOT a woman and therefore violence directed against you or others like you is not misogyny.

    None of these guys would attack a woman for engaging in the behavior that you engage in–because she is a woman and is only behaving the way women naturally behave.

    They attack you because you have consciously rejected your own gender out of contempt for it to such an extent that you are willing to artificially alter your behavior so as to try and mimic members of the opposite sex, to which you do not belong.

    You attempt to make a mockery out of maleness and masculinity and all the values associated with it and are therefore an aggressor who is being reacted to, not an innocent victim.

  12. ChristopherM says

    Oh I see Rick, if a gay man is bashed who happens to be what you would consider femme, he had it coming. Wow, I can’t even imagine the self-loathing that is going on inside your head. You should seriously seek some therapy.

  13. says

    Anti-gay prejudice, with its insidious links to misogyny and transphobia, turn not only deeply insecure straight men into neanderthalian bigots, but it inspires far too many insecure homosexual men to be exactly the same.

    Because of this, it’s with great pride and joy that I see my straight male friends and my father standing strong in solidarity with the LGBT community. Joined by people like NHL mainstay Brian Burke and his son, Patrick. They march with us in the Pride Parade. Why? Because that’s what real men do – they stand strong with those who are discriminated against, and who are targeted by bigots.

    Gay men and women, no matter “how gay” some right-leaning prejudiced bigot may deem them to be, will have an ally and a support from those men in my life. Transpeople – you will find allies and supporters who love you.

    Because in this day and age, it’s only the insecure cowards in society that lash out at others simply for being Different.

    To the men and women who refuse to side with the bigoted bullies, you’re the real heroes, and you’re changing the world for the better.

  14. Rick says

    “Wow, I can’t even imagine the self-loathing that is going on inside your head.”

    No self-loathing, whatsoever. Both my sexuality and my masculinity are intact and I see them as totally compatible.

    It is effeminate men who are self-loathing and who suffer from severe lack of self-esteem (which is why they let themselves get beat up)….their effeminacy is, itself, a result of the self-loathing that comes from having internalized the idea that their sexuality is incompatible with masculinity…and no man who has surrendered his masculinity can ever feel any pride or self-worth, regardless of his sexual orientation……precisely why effeminate behavior is almost always accompanied by all kinds of self-destructive behavior, whether suicide, drug abuse, alcohol abuse, acquisition of STDs, etc.

  15. ChristopherM says

    Really UFFDA? Rick said, “You attempt to make a mockery out of maleness and masculinity and all the values associated with it and are therefore an aggressor who is being reacted to, not an innocent victim.” That sure sounds like saying the victim has it coming if they are a sissy. I suppose racists and sexists stick together.

  16. ChristopherM says

    “It is effeminate men who are self-loathing and who suffer from severe lack of self-esteem (which is why they let themselves get beat up)”

    Thanks for proving my point Rick. In your twisted world, sissy boys have it coming. Pitiful.

  17. melvin says

    @Andy – Thank you! The site desperately needs an update in the comments section. It is a major weakness and embarrassment – the main reason I don’t recommend the site to others. And several commenters desperately need to be banned.

  18. says

    ChristpherM, don’tcha love the reality that’s not those apparently-“effeminate” men that are closet cases?

    exactly. they have the confidence and spines to be Out.

    that’s why Closeted men hate them.

  19. Caliban says

    I don’t care if you act and look like Jason Statham or RuPaul, if you are perceived to be gay there is a *potential* for verbal or physical violence. The mere state of BEING gay is enough, doesn’t require a certain walk, speech pattern, or clothing type. IF “effeminate” gay men are attacked more frequently a large part of that is they are more easily identifiable as gay.

    And many physical attacks, even murders of gay men, in recent years have had their origins in online “dating sites” where mannerisms and speech patterns are not seen or heard. At best their relative “femininity” can only be inferred by the written profile, and many of the victims have been men who were perceived by others (according to articles and the accompanying photos) as traditionally masculine.

    Two men who show intimacy and affection in public, regardless of their gender presentation, are also potentially at risk. Upon what do you put them blame then, that “real men” don’t show affection in public? Sure they do. Men hold hands or show affection with their girlfriends or wives all the time. It’s only when the object of affection is another man that hostility becomes a real possibility. Ergo, it’s not the perceived “femininity” of gay men that’s the central issue, it’s BEING gay itself.

  20. MateoM says

    I’m so glad Andy is finally taking a stand against the trolls. If anything, the comments Rick posted afterward cement the fact that there is a major troll problem on this site and that people are not being held accountable for their actions.

  21. UFFDA says

    Nonsense Mateom, Rick is never nasty or viscious like KIWI who should certainly be thrown out as soon as possible. Rick merely has unpopular opinions. That’s nothing, nor is it evidence that he’s mistaken.

  22. EchtKultig says

    Caliban is correct, effeminacy only makes identification easier. In fact there is plenty of evidence that some homophobes are actually more threatened by masculine seeming gay men. (possibly because they are more turned on by them…)

    Concerned about this book though; wonder if I’m not just seeing a crazy closet case who is praising other crazy closet cases for “honorably” ridding the world of what they want to rid in themselves. Just because a reality exists in someone’s mind doesn’t make it real! Seems most likely Darrell liked doing gay porn a little too much, and went crazy as a result of it, becoming a white supremacist to cope with it. How is that honor? The honorable thing would have been to come out.

  23. Derrick from Philly says

    “Nonsense Mateom, Rick is never nasty or viscious like KIWI who should certainly be thrown out as soon as possible. Rick merely has unpopular opinions. That’s nothing, nor is it evidence that he’s mistaken.”

    Oh, UFFDA, please. Little Kiwi has an “in your face” strategy of responding to racism and misogyny, along with his rough parodies. Rick has stated some of the most vile ideas ever posted on this blog. His views on gender role behavior are old misogynistic crap and cause too many Gay men pain (He is a Gay-bashing homosexual). His views on race and immigration are right off some White supremacist website. Rick aint new–he’s just spooky. You know, like Tony Perkins in “Psycho”.

  24. MateoM says

    UFFDA, since you’re an alias of Rick it doesn’t surprise me you’d come to his defense, and even celebrate his disgustingly ignorant perspective on gender performance and masculinity. And the fact that you readily go after Kiwi cements that. Do you purposely post under numerous names as a conscious joke, or are you nutty enough to need to back up your flat-out wrong perspectives because you think it some how makes your words truer? I just don’t understand trolls like you.

  25. Just_a_guy says

    I’m with Echtkultig on this: I’m uncomfortable with calling perpetration of violence against gay men as an “honor killing” under any circumstances.
    Period.

    I get it that those who do violence against a perceived gay man often may do so based upon their perceived “honor.” But then, SO DO TERRORISTS. So did the NAZIS! I get it that there is an allure to the s&m in sexuality — gay or straight. But we are irresponsible to not call a spade a spade.

    What’s more, gay on even openly gay men commit violence on other gay men (aka domestic violence, a big problem in the gay community). This openly gay on openly gay violence seems likely also often bound up in messed up notions of “honor” and masculinity.

    Rick, I don’t have a problem with a renewed self-aware men’s movement–but, dude, YOU (towleroad’s too-outspoken troll on the topic) are NOT the standard-bearer of it.

    We need to be able to draw and maintain healthy boundaries, as a community of people. Period. I like that this review explores the topic, but I’m hesitant to embrace the implications of any such notion of “honor killing.” Further, if anything, I call for more lgbtqa solidarity, not less. How is charitably exploring a perpetrator’s vision of himself as killing for honor at all useful? Maybe someone wiser than me can spell that out??

  26. truthman says

    The United States is controlled by Jews. Jews control the media, hollywood, magazines, banks, and politics. Jews own the publishing houses and print the school textbooks. A lot of these public figures of other races are members of the secret society “Freemasonry” including Julian Bond. Freemasonry is controlled and led by Jews. This is about power, and protecting the Jews who have taken over all white countries. Jews view the white race as their enemies because the white race are the only ones who stand in their way to obtaining total world government control. The Jews want to make whites a minority in their own countries. Jews call any whites who bring this up racists because they don’t want white people to have political power. The Protocols of zion is the Jewish plan. All Jews and their freemason puppets of all other races are enemies of the white race. They are the racists. They hate the white race, they hate Christianity, they hate white traditions, they don’t want the white race to be independent. Jews want to dominate the white race. This is war, a race war. The Jews who have the power call the other races that they dominate racists. The Jews are pathological liars. A pathological liar is someone who lies to get what they want no matter who it hurts. White nationalism is the only logical response to this political domination by Jews in all white countries. This is about POWER! Whites must take back the power in their own countries. The Jews must be thrown out of power and freemasonry will be outlawed. If you don’t want whites to have power in their own countries, the you are a anti white racist and enemy.

  27. David Hearne says

    Don’t we typically think of “honor killing” as being when family or tribe members kill a woman of their family or tribe who has shamed her house?

    Huge difference. If the author’s point is that we are somehow hypocritical in fearing Islam when we have domestic faith-based killers then I think he went out on a limb and fell off.

  28. duh says

    Becuz manhood is like an air, vague and transient and intangible, the ones who begin the quest with the sole intent in search of manhood would very likely never achieve their goal.
    In essence, they have shaky self-identities and can’t answer three of the most questions in their lives– who am I? Where do I come from? Where do I wanna go? Thus, their fail searches are a form of insatiable lust, too.

  29. millerbeach says

    Honor? There is no honor in murdering anyone. It is a coward that murders, because they are too stupid to reason. It’s a primal urge, controlled in civilized man. These cowards simply do not have a handle on their own emotions, nor their own attractions. They fear themselves, and their own cravings. Out of frustration, they pick on a perceived weaker group of society. There. I just saved you the cost of the book.

  30. Markt says

    In southern Europe and Turkey, male/male public affection can be shockingly intimate. In northern Europe public affection is rare and especially rare between men. Yet, northern Europe is, at least legally, more accepting of homosexuality. Is it easier to accept something theoretically, when it’s never obvious in public or your experience?
    I am often shocked by public affection and especially male/male public affection. When 2 people are compelled, in the moment, to come together physically in public I instinctively understand that moment – including to the point of witnessing copulation. But much more casual physicality can annoy me when it’s not based in a strong need to make that connection.

Leave A Reply