This article originally appeared on VICE Australia.
The most memorable time I saw a grown man cry was when I was accepted into an outlaw motorcycle club. The national sergeant-at-arms stood next to me, shedding tears that streamed down his face as he took the shirt off his back and awarded it to me as a sign of brotherhood. The silence in the room was heavy. It never occurred to me how fast tears can roll down a man's face and how picturesque it all is. Especially when the man is certified as the most badass in a room full of violent egos.
I watched a lot of Jean-Claude Van Damme and Steven Seagal films as a kid. My father enjoyed how melodramatic they were and I sat and watched with him. Steven Seagal was an alpha prototype who viewed masculinity the old fashioned way—the way of the Samurai, who felt it was dishonorable for a warrior to expose emotion. There were a lot of these types in the scenes I was raised around; old school brawlers with no time for feelings or sentiment.
Van Damme, on the other hand, never seemed to have a problem with crying. He represented the modern action hero, with all his sensitivities laid bare in the face of tragedy. In his films, Van Damme was always a fish out of water. He never set out to be a badass, but there was always an incident that forced him beyond the law. And he seemed cool with not looking comfortable about that.
Later, as a I grew older, I became friends with guys who cried. These were friends who felt neglected by mainstream society. They were polluted and drawn into the dregs. They came from broken homes and led broken lifestyles, and they took up lives of crime.
Those invested in the underside of society often deal in extremes. Their emotional bandwidth is all or nothing. If you gain their trust to partake in their lifestyle, then you have to bear the weight of their emotional needs—just as they happily bear yours. I suspect this attitude stems from the prison system, where loneliness skews everyone's sense of social normality. After a few months inside, most prisoners find their mates slowly forgetting visits and not answering calls. Many are left vulnerable. And when they’re finally released, they have to fight to regain everyone's trust. I think it's possible that with time, this combination of paranoia and reliance has imprinted itself on the criminal psyche.
I remember watching a grown man in his 50s cry when I confronted him about his spiraling drug habit. It was all fun and games when we were out on a Friday night, but we discovered it didn’t stop there and he'd still be going Wednesday the following week. His wife had left him and he was about to lose his house. So our friendship circle enforced a drug ban and threatened him with excommunication if he betrayed us. But it was his crying that somehow revealed the emotional depth of our friendship. He cried in a way that was more than a "thanks" or "I'll do my best." He cried in a way that physically showed us he cared.
About four years ago, I ran into another friend at a strip club in South Melbourne. We hadn’t seen each other for years and he had just got out of the Metropolitan Remand Center after having spent a year in solitary. He seemed edgy or on speed, I couldn’t quite tell. He was acting paranoid, which I assumed was a hangover from his time in the slot.
Later that night, there was a group of Australian football players celebrating at the other end of the bar, and his eyes kept darting their way. He kept asking me why the boys on the other side were staring at him. I jokingly told him it was because he had "revenge" tattooed across one side of his head. Then about an hour later, I heard smashing glass and someone yelling “look what you made me do!”. I looked down the bar to see my friend hunched over a football player, crying as he repeatedly socked him in the eye. He was sorry for the bloke, but he couldn’t restrain himself.
Although criminals might not seem together in terms of career, education, or a solid upbringing, we are certainly aware of our unstable emotions—and very open to talking about them. I always found it comforting when I heard prisoners openly telling their friends that they loved them on the phone. It’s a weird feeling, the way words can express an everyday emotion with such brutal honesty.
But there are limitations to this emotional transparency. There are very strict rules around the things you're allowed to be openly emotional about. For example, getting prison time is something you can’t complain about. Hard luck stories won’t get you very far according to the concrete code of the prison yard. Neither will sorrows about your relationship unless it involves family. Emotion among inmates is mostly restricted to stories about your brothers, the love you have for them, and how much you miss them.
This could be due to the insecurities of gang culture and the concept of loyalty. I once watched a man break down in a protected visit at Port Phillip Prison behind glass when I told him that his child had been taken into protective services. The agony of watching a man weep behind thick glass is stultifying because you can’t hear anything. You just watch them as sadness takes hold. And it’s heartbreaking because there's nothing you can do. You can’t console with a hug or a handshake. You just have to watch him feel the full force of his decisions.
I guess the cliche is true: that when you play with fire, you’ll eventually get burned. And if you hang around criminals and indulge in their slippery lifestyle, it’ll eventually catch up and topple you. Or at the very least, it'll present you with enough tragedy to make crying the most natural thing in the world.
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