THE LIGHT LET IN – On Being Sweet & Earnest: A Correspondence With Kelly Sundberg (Part 3)

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Stanley Kubrick – 1946


[Click the following links for parts 1 and 2 of the correspondence.]

“What makes a man, Mr. Lebowski?
Uh… I don’t know…sir.
Is it being prepared to do the right thing, whatever the cost? Isn’t that what makes a man?
Sure, that and a pair of testicles.
You’re joking, but perhaps you’re right.
Mind if I do a jay?
Scuse me?
Bunny Lebowski, she is the light of my life. Are you surprised at my tears, sir?
[inhaling the jay] Fuckin’ A.
Strong men also cry… Strong men also cry.”

-The Big Lebowski


Dear Kelly,

I’ve long had (ever since I stumbled across an exposé in a 1995 Esquire) what is likely an abnormal fascination with prison. It’s not quite an obsession, but at times it has been pretty close to one. What draws me to it is the unfathomable horror of it all — the misery, the boredom, the myriad indignities, the violence. Particularly in that final year or two of my drinking freefall, I read and watched everything I could find about prison— movies, tv shows, articles, documentaries, books. I didn’t consciously think about why beyond a general curiosity, but in hindsight, I think there were a few reasons fueling it. One, I was giving myself some perspective on my own misery, delving into a far worse situation to remind myself of how good I had it compared to how much further down I could go. It wasn’t the first time I had tried this. Years before, during a time of awful, sickening heartbreak, mixed with being hospitalized (yet again!) for Crohn’s disease, I had read and watched anything I could about the Vietnam War. I guess I was trying to figure out how to grit my teeth and bear it — to “Shut up and take the pain!” as Sgt. Barnes yells at the screaming wounded soldier in Platoon — partly so that he won’t betray their position to the enemy, but also out of the cold cruelty of a man whose soul had shriveled and hardened under the relentless brutality of war.

I think the other unconscious reason for my prison fixation back then was that I was preparing myself for the (highly unlikely) possibility that I might end up there. It was an absurd fear, as I wasn’t doing close to anything that would put me there. I never sold drugs, never carried more than a few grams of weed, never stole anything worthy of a felony, never forged any prescriptions, or any of that. At the very most I was perpetrating very low-level crimes, stealing a few dollars or a few pills here and there, whatever could get me through a few hours or days. (For the record, I have since made full amends for these acts.) I didn’t have a car, so I rarely drove, but I suppose under certain circumstances I could have driven drunk and killed someone, which certainly would have earned me a stint behind bars. Fortunately, gratitude to all the celestial powers that be or may be, I am terribly, terribly lucky that that never happened. But mine was the irrational fear of a man not in control of his life, a man so full of chaos and self-loathing that he believed his fate could easily be, for no realistic reason at all, to live out his days in the worst place imaginable.

So as crazy as and improbable as it was, I was still basically trying to figure out how someone like me could survive a place like that. One picks up general bits of advice — keep your head down, mind your own business, steer clear of the wrong people, and wait out the clock. But in a place that small, that seems impossible to keep to yourself for any real length of time, particularly if you look like an easy target. You are going to run up against people who want to take from you the precious few things you have left. So you also hear the opposite advice as well — as soon as possible, pick a fight with somebody you have a chance of beating, in front of as many people as possible, and fuck him up. It’s a common story, perfectly summed up by Uncle Nikolai, the Russian mob boss in 25th Hour: “This is my advice to you: When you get there, figure it out who’s who. Find the man nobody’s protecting. A man without friends. And beat him until his eyes bleed. Let them think you are little bit crazy, but respectful, too. Respectful of the right men.”

25th Hour is one of my favorite films. It’s an ambitious movie, flawed in parts, even has some elements that could be considered problematic, but it’s tense and powerful, and superbly acted. It has a tight script by David Benioff, adapted from his novel, some of the director’s sharpest and most focused directorial work, and a stellar cast. It’s one of Spike Lee’s best, though it is something of an anomaly in his filmography, with almost no black actors in the principle roles. Edward Norton plays Monty, a New York drug dealer who has been busted and is going to prison for seven years, and the story takes place on the night before he goes, as his friends, played by Philip Seymour Hoffman, Barry Pepper, Rosario Dawson, (and tag along Anna Paquin, a student of Hoffman’s), try to give him a decent send-off. Needless to say, the celebration goes awry, and the palpable sense of doom, shadowed by the background of a wounded New York City (the film was made in 2002, right after the September 11 attacks), grows more and more intense as the sunrise approaches. In one of the final gut-wrenching scenes, Monty leads his best friend Frank to a secluded corner of Central Park and says “I need you to make me ugly” — by which he means “Pummel my face until it is unrecognizable, so that I look anything but soft and pretty on my first day in prison.” Frank refuses at first, but Monty finally goads him with everything he has until his friend flies into a rage and beats his face to a pulp, all the love, hatred, loyalty, guilt, blame, and hurt between two lifelong friends, now men, pouring out in the darkest, truest, and (possibly) final hour of their friendship.

Hard to say, if I found myself on either end of that equation, if I would have the guts to go through with it. I haven’t been in many fights myself, particularly if you don’t count the requisite scrapping with my little brother growing up. Just a few unfortunate incidents, usually only a few punches thrown, some shoving, the kinds of things that happen in proximity to the wrong people in bars or at shows. I never threw the first punch, though I did say the absolutely wrong thing a few times, the kinds of things that get you punched by drunk assholes. But I never lost any teeth, or got knocked out, or ended up in the hospital. So I can’t say I ever really lost or ever really won. Just survived. And surely didn’t look very impressive doing it.

I suppose what I’m getting at here are certain notions of “hardness,” and the perils of navigating masculinity, particularly in its most extreme iterations — prison and war. Hardness, of course, as we are discussing it generally, is not merely the domain of men. But these associations, particularly as a male in our society, are difficult to avoid. Violence, honor, grit, guts, stoicism, protectiveness — these are the traditional attributes of a certain old-fashioned type of masculinity. The various definitions of masculinity have changed much throughout history and different societies, but for me, in our era, my relationship to masculinity has evolved more in relation to women than it has to men. I’ve never been much of  a “man’s man,”  a “dude among dudes” kinda guy. I can hang there for awhile, and I have friends and acquaintances like that, and I can watch UFC and talk shit and hold my own when it comes to locker room jabber, but that’s only a very small part of my world. I never much cared about impressing other dudes. But as a young man growing up, trying to understand what women wanted and what was attractive to them, I often found myself questioning and redefining my own masculinity.

Early on I knew that I would never be the handsomest or the strongest, I’d never be the cool, mysterious and dangerous type — but perhaps I could be the most romantic, the most sensitive, the best kisser, write the best love letters. And that would be enough, wouldn’t it? I mean, I could cry. Oh boy, could I cry. In joy, in pain, in sadness, at movies. I always carried about a deep gush of feeling, and it was near impossible to keep in very long. It came out in music, and poems, infatuations, and tears. But after many years and numerous relationships, I gradually came to realize, as the Charlotte Gainsbourg says to Gael Garcia Bernal in The Science of Sleep: “It’s not attractive for a girl to see a man cry.” Not unless he’s trying not to, gritting his teeth defiantly, as a single tear streams out, like Denzel in Glory. I’m joking, of course, but only mostly. I tried to curb it, thought I could save it up for just the right moment, like Brando in Streetcar, so that it would be a raging display of power and passion. But I’m just not built that way.

Over the years, I fell for women who liked my soft spots, others who appreciated them, but definitely wished for more hard ones, and for the ones I already had to be harder. Ten years ago, I had a massive crush on a girl who worked next door to my restaurant. She was pretty and sweet, with dark hair and glasses and elaborate, colorful sleeve tattoos. One day she came in with a cast on her wrist, and when I asked her what happened, she told me she had found out her boyfriend was cheating on her, and punched her bedroom wall over and over until she broke her hand. That was it, I was sunk. Whatever kind of crush I’d had on her before, I was now hopelessly in love. What can I say, I’m a sucker for a beautiful, dangerous lunatic, even if there are giant, flaming red flags behind her eyes every time she smiles. Particularly back then, when the burgeoning alcoholic in me craved a companion as crazy and broken as I was. Eventually, we got together, and we were mutually smitten, but it was always a little dodgy. Once I told her about how the day before I had listened to Mahalia Jackson’s “His Eye is on the Sparrow” and how it had filled me with such soaring joy and hope that I’d wept wild tears of happiness. If felt cathartic and important, but when I tried to relay this feeling to her, she just looked slightly repulsed and said “Why do you only ever show me your weak side?”

Who knows, she might have been right, but my infatuation was clouding the fact that we would never really share enough of the same language. There’s a huge difference between weakness and vulnerability, just as there is, as you said, between hardness and strength. But the results in this case were the same. She eventually dropped me for her motorcycle-riding, asshole ex-boyfriend, the one she’d punched the wall for, and when he treated her like shit long enough, she came back after a few months, only to leave me yet again, and this time to marry the guy. (She’s no longer married to him, fortunately, and has a son and a happy relationship with another man, and we’ve remained friends.) This was all a lot more about her than it was me, but I took it to heart nonetheless. With that and any number of similar situations, I started to halfway believe the bullshit myth that “Nice guys finish last” (which the late, brilliant Garry Shandling refuted so beautifully: “Nice guys finish first. If you don’t know that, you don’t know where the finish line is.”). I was starting to wonder if it was true that women are crazy and they never know what they want, that they always change their minds and have unrealistic desires — they want the bad boy and the sweetheart, the lover and the friend, the guys who listens and who ignores, who withdraws just enough to be desirable; is an animal in the sheets, with a tender touch at just the right time; has a motorcycle, a PhD, a dynamic, creative job, a shoulder to cry on, and a holy fuckton of money.

I mean, wasn’t turning on to any shitty Red Pill “manosphere”garbage, or anything like that. I hadn’t lost any actual respect for women, or become bitter, or changed my tune. I was just bewildered. I was hurt and feeling sorry for myself, and trying to figure out what I was doing wrong. Things never quite turned out the way I thought and hoped they would, and I felt like I was just never quite good enough. In my heart I knew any simplistic theories were bullshit, but the ones I concocted were more along the lines of a comedian’s observations, like a Chris Rock or Amy Schumer: “Women are crazy and men are dumb. Men will do anything for sex and women only want the most unavailable man.” It was comforting to distill the painful absurdities and contradictions down into something comic and clear. Because of course there are just as many theories about men: that we want “the Madonna and the whore,” a woman who is intelligent and deferential, independent and beholden, someone to take care of us, and someone to let us do whatever the hell we want.

These are not easy paths to navigate. Sometimes the languages are so different. I’ve been lucky that from early on I’ve always related to women, felt at home with them and loved their company. I’ve always had amazing, talented, brilliant, hilarious women as friends, and this has never changed. With the exception of a few flings, every relationship I’ve had has been based on real friendship, and I feel incredibly blessed for that. But when love and sex comes into the picture, it almost always gets more confusing. As well as I may think I know and understand women, a lot of it goes out the window at that point. Or at least it used to be that way. Over time, I’ve tried to pay attention and learn from my mistakes. I’ve learned not to push so hard, not to force things, not take myself so damn seriously, and to not throw my heart at every single person I found beautiful and interesting. I gave up pursuing women who wouldn’t meet me halfway, and it was fine. You go your way, I’ll go mine. Not the end of the damn world.

A lot of that was able to come about when I got sober. I was pretty raw at first, but full of hope, and no longer so afraid. That gush of feeling started to settle. I got healthy. I felt calmer and stronger. I didn’t cry at the slightest tear in my emotional fabric. And I no longer got so hung up on love that I would barely survive the fall. It helped that I learned to like and trust myself a lot more. It really does make it easier to say no to someone who doesn’t want to meet me halfway when I like and respect the me that I’m coming back to. There is nothing more to fake.

I wrote a play back in the mid 90s, during my senior year of college at UC Santa Cruz. It was fun, but not very good (people my age liked it for the most part, but in the grand scheme of things it was painfully under-ripe). It was supposedly about a lot of things, art and marriage and jealousy, and a lot of other subjects that interested me, but were well beyond my actual scope of understanding at the tender age of 22. But probably the least mature, most misguided trope I used was to make the main character a raging asshole. He was a sculptor, and I thought by making him remote and difficult, judgmental and witty, a man hardened by painful life events I could only guess at, that it made him more complicated and interesting. And in order to make him seem passionate, I gave him a softer inside, a hot, churning magma that would occasionally show itself through the hard outer crust, a single tear burning on his cheek, the monumental wailing of Stanley beneath Stella’s window. Sure I was channeling Brando’s tortured machismo, but I was also mired in the detached, gum-snapping, tough-guy irony of the Tarantino 90s, where any stab at earnestness was suspect. It was a strange era, where even Kurt Cobain’s famously soft underbelly was shielded by all sorts of cryptic deflections and ironic dryness.

Well, one of the actors in the play had a friend from LA who came up to see it. He was a playwright himself at the time, and later became a well-known TV and film director, including several episodes of Freaks and Geeks, which kicked off the Apatowian-led 21st Century return to earnestness (couched, of course, in dick jokes and stoner repartee). When she asked what he thought of it, his main criticism was that the sculptor’s “hardness” was so transparently fake, an obvious trick that distracted from the real story. I was dismayed by the criticism, but ignored it nonetheless, because I was attached to the dynamic, and considered it essential to the story. That said, a sliver of truth wormed through to my brain, and I knew somewhere in the back of my mind that he was right. I was not writing from the truth of myself, but trying to create one out of thin air, out of experiences I knew nothing about. I hid behind a paper lion, because I thought it could protect me, I thought that by mere association with my own character, I too could be pass for passionate, dangerous, and complicated.

That actor whose friend had come from LA and I had a brief, dysfunctional on-set affair. Always one for disarming frankness, she said to me once: “I keep waiting for you to be as good as your writing, but you just aren’t.” It was a characteristically cruel thing for her to say, but also true. I’d had a real story to tell, one that was true and good, but I’d buried it under too much falseness.

My hope now is that twenty years on, that trend has reversed, and that anything I write will have to work hard to be anywhere near as good as me. 

I suppose we shall see.

Yours earnestly and hopefully,



* – * – *


I don’t want to be a bad woman
And I can’t stand to see you be a bad man.

-Cat Power


Dear Todd,

Your letter arrived at a time of suffering for me, a time when I was struggling with the residual trauma of my marriage (in a fairly serious bout of PTSD), so reading a letter that discusses some of the more toxic elements of masculinity should have been difficult for me, but it wasn’t. It was a relief.

It was a relief to have those toxic elements acknowledged.

Even more of a relief, was how you prefaced the letter, an accompaniment that doesn’t show up in the letter itself— “But all that aside, I hope you are well as can be and safe during such frustrating, painful times. It sounds like you are well cared for, and for that I am glad.” Thank you, Todd. Thank you for your earnestness, for your sincere concern that asks for nothing in return. In the past couple of years, I have formed friendships with men, but friendships with men are fairly new to me.

Growing up, I was never one of those girls who hung out with boys. I have a brother, but he is five and a half years older than me, so we weren’t close until I was in my twenties. In middle school and high school, I didn’t know how to talk to boys. I didn’t like to wrestle, or horseplay, or do that kind of physical flirtation that tweens/teens seem to do so well. I simply didn’t understand how to relate to boys.

And when I started dating, I came up with the same conclusions as you: “Women are crazy and men are dumb. Men will do anything for sex and women only want the most unavailable man.”

Here’s the thing: I did have men who would have done anything to have sex with me.

Here’s the other thing: I only ever wanted the most unavailable men.

I grew tired of that narrative, and eventually, I outgrew it. Then, I married, and we all know how that story ended.

When I left my then-husband, I thought that I would never trust men again. Even my relationships with my brother and my father were damaged by the dissolution of my marriage. Still, I knew that I needed to learn how to connect with men in healthy ways. I needed to learn how to appreciate men because of my son.

I cannot be a good mother to my son if I don’t trust men, you see?

So part of my journey of “sweet and earnest” is in reaching out to men who seem trustworthy, is in letting these men into my life, and is in having platonic and safe friendships with men. I’m not sure that I started reaching out to men deliberately, but in time, I discovered that being around kind men made me feel better about the world, which became a kind of positive reinforcement. The more “kind men” that I met, the more that I thought men were capable of being kind. I have to believe that men are capable of being kind because I am raising a boy who will eventually turn into a man.

My son was not born angry.

My son is not violent.

My son is sweet and earnest, and I believe that, as his mother, it is my job to protect that tenderness in him.

I don’t know what happened to my ex-husband to turn him into the angry man he became. My mother-in-law once told me a story of how, when my ex-husband was a child, he would wake up in the morning and come downstairs and curl up in her lap. He would curl up in her lap for so long, she said. He was so sweet, she said. There were so many times when I saw that same sweetness in him, and that sweetness was what I loved about him.

Still, at some point—long before I came along—violence became the thing that defined my ex-husband, and he embraced that violence. He embraced having brawled in bars, having sucker punched strangers, having tumbled over a snowy mountain with two of his best friends as they pummeled each other with their fists (only to later realize that they had almost fallen over the side of a cliff).

He wrote short stories that were also defined by violence, and his mother once said to me (after reading one), “I don’t understand. I didn’t raise him that way.” (I still cannot read Cormac McCarthy’s fiction because I associate it too much with the aesthetics of my ex-husband’s short stories).

My ex-husband’s mother only knew the little boy who had curled up in her lap. She didn’t recognize the violent man who was standing in front of her.

But, at some point, my ex-husband had chosen violence. He had chosen violence for his life, and that choice caused me unhappiness, caused our son unhappiness, and caused my ex-husband unhappiness as well. I don’t think that my ex-husband thought he had a choice. I think he thought the violence chose him, but his violence was always his choice.

I want my own son to choose differently.

And so, I befriend men. I reach out to them. I trust them. I show my son that I am capable of trusting them, and that they can be trusted. My son has to see me trusting men so that he knows that he, too, can be trustworthy. I don’t want him internalizing destructive messages about masculinity. I don’t want him deciding that his father’s choices are his fate.

Being a single mother is hard. And perhaps what hurts the most is seeing the good fathers. I see them everywhere, and I crave that for my own son. Selfishly, I also crave that for myself. I have a good father myself, but what I mean is that I yearn for my son to have a good father—a father who nurtures him, and who models kindness. Still, if years of therapy have taught me anything, it is that I cannot change other people. I cannot change the reality of the father that my son has. All I can do is show him that there are other realities out there.

My son is in soccer. He is starting late—in the fourth grade—and he is just learning. My son doesn’t have a father to coach him after practice or on his non-game days. My son gets all of his practice at the games. Still, he is improving, he is having fun, and he is surrounded by kind men. His coach squeezes his shoulder and tells my son that he’s doing a good job, and I can see how that affirmation affects him.

The other day, his coach said to me, “He’s doing really well. He’s hustling!” And I can translate what “hustling” means because I, too, was a hustler. I know what hustling means. We hustle when we don’t have the skills, but we’re determined to do it anyway. We hustle to make change—in ourselves, in our lives, in our fourth grade soccer games. We hustle to survive, and I am not ever going to teach my son anything but hustling.

In high school, I never received an award for athletic talent, but I was always the one to receive the “Most Improved” medal. I already knew how to hustle.

Today, my therapist told me, “I just can’t wrap my head around how far you’ve come since I started seeing you.” Even in therapy, I know how to hustle.

Hustling is the ultimate in earnestness.

Hustling says, “I don’t know how I’m going to do this, but I will make it happen.”

My son’s birth was violent. His childhood was violent. His father was violent. My son’s entire, goddamned culture is violent. But, I’m going to be the mother who hustles. I don’t know how I’m going to do it, but I will make it happen. I will save him from that violence. I will replace the violence with which he was raised with sweetness.

With love. And with earnestness.

I know that you, Todd, feel the same way. Our desire to see a cultural shift is how this communication came about, and I’m confident that we’re not the only ones who feel this way. So, let’s keep hustling, keep being sweet, and keep being earnest.

Let’s keep opening ourselves up to kindness.

With many thanks.

Your earnest friend,



Kelly_SundbergKelly Sundberg’s essays have appeared or are forthcoming in Gulf Coast, Guernica, The Rumpus, Slice, Denver Quarterly, The Los Angeles Review, and many other literary journals. Her essay “It Will Look Like a Sunset” was anthologized in Best American Essays 2015, and a memoir based on that essay is forthcoming from HarperCollins in 2017. She divides her time between Appalachian Ohio where she is a doctoral candidate at Ohio University and her home state of Idaho.



About Todd Gleason

Editor-el-Heifer of DMC. Head Drunk. Big Sinker. John the Conqueroo. Like a knight from some old-fashioned book. View all posts by Todd Gleason

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