Son of Bat­man

The Iowa Review - - CONTENTS - Micah Bateman

In mem­ory, the rev­e­la­tion is un­clear. When did I know I was Bat­man? I don’t think there was a par­tic­u­lar mo­ment, or if there was, it eludes rec­ol­lec­tion, like the mo­ment you first re­al­ize you’ll one day die. But in fact, I think it was a se­ries of clues, as with all good iden­tity nar­ra­tives: not a comic book cre­ation myth—no vats of toxic chem­i­cals, no ra­dioac­tive spi­ders, no vendet­tas, no re­venge-tragedy foibles, no psy­cho­log­i­cally scar­ring phys­i­cal de­for­mi­ties. There was a slow process of un­furl­ing. First the name, the sim­ple guise: Bateman. Bat­man with an “e” de­posited right down the cen­ter. How minu­tia sep­a­rates the com­mon­place from the ex­tra­or­di­nary; it was an easy enough trans­for­ma­tion, from the sav­ior of hu­mankind to the Ger­man “boat­man,” the El­lis Is­land im­mi­grant wage la­borer. Sim­plic­ity is bril­liance, like the black frame glasses that sep­a­rate Clark Kent from Su­per­man. Then it was the alien­ation: the pre­co­cious in­tro­ver­sion, the want of dis­tance, the way peo­ple looked at me with sus­pi­cion. A close fam­ily friend told me on the day of my high school vale­dic­tory ad­dress that he thought I had been re­tarded as a child. He used this word pre­cisely: re­tarded. He thought, he said, my brother was the gifted one. Me, there was some­thing un­name­ably amiss. It was in the way I spoke, he said, to no one. But I didn’t speak to no one. I spoke to the fig­ures in my head: some­thing my CAT scan had missed. I was young when they had me CAT scanned. I un­der­stood this to be a test in­volv­ing fe­line sac­ri­fices; per­haps the ma­chine ran on cal­ico blood. They tested me af­ter I claimed con­tin­u­ally that my “hair hurt.” In fact, it panged vi­o­lently, and I ex­pressed this to my par­ents in equally vi­o­lent pangs. I squalled. Aside from this, I didn’t speak—not tod­dler, not child. I spoke only in a near-monas­tic vo­cab­u­lary of non­ver­bal cues. Mostly I rolled my eyes. But nope, prog­no­sis neg­a­tive—just a par­tic­u­larly ma­lig­nant case of brat­ti­ness with a cap­i­tal B. My older brother Jar­rod, by this point, was very verbal. At seven, he de­scribed at length the “boo-wows” in my

grand­fa­ther’s pas­ture, which is to say moo cows, and the “woof-woofs” that pissed on the fire hy­drant near my house. We kept a woof-woof, name of Poochie. He didn’t speak much ei­ther, though no one thought to have him scanned but me. Or per­haps th­ese CAT scans were a hoax. Af­ter all, for all their won­der and ex­pense, they couldn’t pinpoint my pre­cise af­flic­tion, couldn’t lo­cate the data I never com­mu­ni­cated—that I was heir to the Bat­man legacy, for in­stance, that I was des­tined to be alone with my gifts, that I was born to save my small, East Texas town from the ma­ni­a­cal vil­lainy of squalor, ig­no­rance, prej­u­dice. Hind­sight be­ing what it is, I wish I had been born decades ear­lier so that I might have used my gifts to in­vent a more in­sight­ful CAT scan­ning process. When it oc­curred to me that I was the next Bat­man, I only strad­dled the line be­tween truth and fancy. Al­ways bet­ter to err on the side of just in case, I prepped my­self, de­vot­ing time to tele­vi­sion re­search with sac­er­do­tal zeal. The re­search be­gan be­fore Tim Bur­ton be­came the new Bat­man imag­i­neer, so my imag­ined Bat­man started as a campy 1960s Adam West, whose gut dis­tended from his ny­lon tights, long be­fore Hol­ly­wood mas­culin­ity be­came a pathol­ogy. He was my first gummy morsel of gen­der con­sump­tion, iden­tity dif­fu­sion, and good old clas­sic nar­cis­sism. In­deed, here was a su­per­hero of the post-freud per­sua­sion, whose side­kick wore panty hose with green briefs, a ballsy faux pas even now for any­one any­where on the gen­der­sex spec­trum. West knew things I knew. He had per­fect pitch, could sing a high, high C, shat­ter­ing the Rid­dler’s glass trap of death. When the Joker left a clue— He who laughs last, laughs good— West rushed off to the city well, a proper gram­mar­ian. As Bruce Wayne, he en­joyed opera and art; his Bat­cave foyer li­brary was re­plete with all the nec­es­sary Ox­ford Clas­sics in first edi­tion hard­cov­ers. He sprang from jams with Ivy-league wit and a charm­ing fop­pery. Im­por­tantly, his en­gi­neer­ing prow­ess pre­dated the com­puter age. He was all I had out­side of my fa­ther. This may not have been a prob­lem were my fa­ther and I not so ir­rec­on­cil­ably dif­fer­ent. My fa­ther was a brute of a man, the pic­ture of mas­culin­ity: hairychested, splin­ter-faced, cat­a­stroph­i­cally dis­tem­pered. The tat­too he home-in­flicted on his left arm was the ini­tials “P.H.,” pur­port­edly those of an ex-girl­friend, though I half sus­pected it stood for Pussy Hater, which is to say, hater of wimps: my ilk. Peo­ple have wit­nessed him bench press more than three hun­dred pounds. At age eleven, he got his first job at a full-ser­vice gas sta­tion. At fif­teen, he moved out of the

house. By nine­teen, he was work­ing eighty-hour shifts on an offshore oil rig, do­ing man’s work on a man’s sched­ule. When I was twelve, he bought me a ri­fle for Christ­mas. I, on the other hand, was a runt. At any point in time, I was twenty pounds lighter than my peers, which, in child­hood, ac­counted for a for­mi­da­ble frac­tion of body mass in­dex. I was pal­lid skin and jut­ting bone; my ribs stuck out like a god­damn xy­lo­phone. Even­tu­ally, I would read my mother’s ed­u­ca­tional text­book on ado­les­cence, which would call me an ec­to­morph, a word sound­ing more like an in­sect clas­si­fi­ca­tion than a hu­man body type, which made it all the more fit­ting. I com­prised a chiti­nous ex­oskele­ton and a dis­pro­por­tion­ately large head, like a pray­ing man­tis. My con­stel­la­tion of freck­les, like ba­nana spots, were an evo­lu­tion­ary mech­a­nism. I must have been floated down the bul­rushes from a ba­nana grove, all the way to Jack­sonville comma Texas, pop­u­la­tion 14,868 by last cen­sus. More the younger ver­sion of my fa­ther, Jar­rod was a me­so­morph, mean­ing bearer of mus­cu­la­ture: mean­ing, not a pussy. He could open things and turn things, for which I would need my big, bright, gold, gay util­ity belt. He had a dif­fer­ent sort of evo­lu­tion­ary mem­ory, too. From birth, he knew the rules of boy­hood, knew how to be dirty, that cow shit on your ten­nis shoes was OK, that lift­ing things was prefer­able to leav­ing them alone, and that shirts were some­thing sissies wore. Th­ese were the mis­takes I made. I knew the words to The Sound of Mu­sic and sang them in mixed com­pany. Didn’t know the rules to touch foot­ball, or flag foot­ball, or foot­ball foot­ball. Played pi­ano, in­stead of no mu­si­cal in­stru­ment at all. Th­ese were things only Bat­man could make OK.

In 1989, I met a darker, more so­phis­ti­cated Bat­man. Michael Keaton: not an ob­vi­ous choice for the role. But the set de­sign, the char­ac­ter, the cos­tume—great! His was a film that said: I am gothic. Do you get the gothic? Do you feel the gothic? I felt the gothic. I also felt the other char­ac­ter­is­tics of the new Bat­man style. Tim Bur­ton’s Bat­man Bat­cave was less in­dus­trial (in that pedes­trian, fac­tory way) than its 1960s tele­vi­sion pre­de­ces­sor, higher tech, at greater cost, and more sty­gian, mys­te­ri­ous. Parts of the 1989 Bat­man film were shot on lo­ca­tion at a Van­der­bilt man­sion built shortly af­ter Re­con­struc­tion— one of the last ves­tiges of the mori­bund, if not mortem, Bruce Wayne class. Bruce Wayne was worth $6.8 bil­lion. Many be­lieve Bat­man is an anom­aly as a su­per­hero with­out su­per­pow­ers, but this is a grave mis-

con­cep­tion: he is both super smart and super rich. That early on I tested into the for­mer of th­ese cat­e­gories marks my aus­pi­cious be­gin­nings as Bat­man, The Next Gen­er­a­tion. Start­ing from a very young age, my fam­ily told me that my in­tel­li­gence would be worth mil­lions some­day. Mil­lions? I asked. In sixth grade, for Christ­mas, my aunt bought me a copy of The Mil­lion­aire Next Door. It spoke of teach­ers and trades­men who had scrimped and saved all for the sake of a seven-fig­ure net worth. But Bruce Wayne was an ef­fort­less bil­lion­aire. Heir to Wayne En­ter­prises, he had a dis­pos­able in­come that ri­valed the gross do­mes­tic prod­uct of the Com­mon­wealth of Do­minica. Here was a Bat­man who un­der­stood class and in­trigue. Who un­der­stood, also, the ca­sual debonair­ness of in­tro­ver­sion. I, too, was in­tro­verted. At nights while my brother slept sonorously in the un­der-bunk, I played alone in the mid­dle of my room, lights off. It was my room when the lights were off. Jar­rod, even into the priv­i­leged years of his teens, al­ways feared the dark. I em­braced the dark as a vac­uum of iden­tity. Any good Bat would. The cover of dark en­ables many nec­es­sary things: mid­night min­istries im­pos­si­ble by day­light. For in­stance, I let it be known that house­clean­ing was too me­nial for my caste, a fact my par­ents ac­cepted with lit­tle res­ig­na­tion. But my room, then, a mess! Where were my ser­vants? Where was my Al­fred Pen­ny­worth? Bruce Wayne would never tol­er­ate such dis­ar­ray, so un­be­com­ing of one’s gen­teel sen­si­bil­i­ties, one’s bach­e­lorly chic­ness. So I cleaned at night. By morn­ing, I dis­avowed knowl­edge. No one cleaned my room. My room was clean, be­cause that was the or­der of the uni­verse: the god­li­ness that nat­u­rally fol­lowed the elite. This, my par­ents never un­der­stood. My in­tel­li­gence, my de­meanor, were not freaks of na­ture: they were fate. There was no chro­mo­so­mal mis­match, no mi­totic cat­a­clysm, noth­ing clumsy enough for a CAT scan to dis­cern. Of the 640 mil­lion per­mu­ta­tions of sperm and egg, X or Y, brown eye or blue, I drew the Bat­man gene. I did weigh my op­tions. I could con­form to my sur­round­ings like a good sen­tient be­ing—pick up a bas­ket­ball and pos­ture ath­leti­cism, belch out loud and pos­ture boor­ish­ness, pick up a pitch­fork and a cat­tle prod and a bar wench, pos­ture man­hood and stu­por and fra­ter­nity. Or I could be Mother Fuck­ing Bat­man.

(When I’m asked to de­scribe my­self in three words, th­ese are the ones I use.)

So, there came the in­evitable age when the world split. Did I pre­fer my Bat­man campy—adam West—or did I pre­fer him oth­er­wise—michael Keaton? I can never pin down an ad­jec­tive for Michael Keaton’s Bat­man. Cer­tainly he isn’t man­lier. To bor­row from Tim Bur­ton him­self, why would a “big, ma­cho, Arnold Sch­warzeneg­ger-type per­son dress up as a bat for God’s sake?” But cer­tainly there is a dis­tinc­tion be­tween Keaton and West, and cer­tainly that dis­tinc­tion is man­i­fest in their re­spec­tive cos­tumes. Even at an early age, the campy one I could never wear—too re­veal­ing. Some­thing about the span­dex that made the cos­tume, as such, un­nec­es­sary. If you could pull off full-body span­dex, why would you need a cos­tume? And me pulling off a span­dex suit with my xy­lo­phone ribs and Casper pal­lor was a No. The cos­tume should fill out the in­ad­e­qua­cies of the form. At an early age of de­vel­op­ment, give me a cos­tume with built-in obliques, some bulge around the cod­piece—some­thing to im­press the ladies at the lunch counter. A cape with a wink at its flip.

But here, al­ready, were th­ese ques­tions of mas­culin­ity, con­tem­plated even at early ages when your sib­ling learns the word fag­got, not re­ally know­ing its com­pre­hen­sive or po­lit­i­cal im­pli­ca­tions but at least know­ing its abil­ity to emas­cu­late. As the tar­get of such an abil­ity, you learn it quickly. You dis­avow knowl­edge of Adam West and his span­dexed “part­ner,” decked out in full-body con­dom with no women around to speak of. The fop­pery ceases to charm, be­comes fop­pish. Now you know what fop­pish means, as part of that class of frica­tives along­side fag­got, de­not­ing some sex­ual per­ver­sity or mal­for­ma­tion that you don’t even know yet if you have or not, be­cause you’re eight, or twelve, and still in that Freudian nar­cis­sis­tic phase: that time when you’re sup­pos­edly in love with your­self or the con­tin­u­ally re­vised im­age of your­self. Some­thing about learn­ing “ob­ject at­tach­ments” from your mother, whose sole ob­ject at­tach­ment, it turns out, is you. This is what you learn to fall in love with: what she falls in love with. Among other things you learn from your mother at th­ese early ages, you learn how to be a “fag­got.” Your brother learns to ex­ploit this: the brother you thought was an idiot but turns out to be one step ahead of Dr. Freud him­self. Of course, the age dif­fer­ence made me an easy tar­get for my brother, five years my se­nior and markedly, at any one point, more de­vel­oped. We were

al­ways, in near mem­ory at least, sep­a­rated by the ado­les­cent cur­tain. While he was off het­ero­sex­ing with his co­eds, I was still in love with my Bat­man cos­tume: first and fleet­ing, the one I could never wear, and then the real one—the one of Gothic fan­tasy, of patho­log­i­cal mas­culin­ity, of the strength and rigor of tire rub­ber rather than span­dex, of in­tri­cately carved Gray’s Anatomy of man. But the prob­lem is only par­tially the brother. The brother, still in some re­spects a child him­self, has his own prob­lems. The prob­lem is also the fa­ther: the bi­o­log­i­cal fa­ther, the fa­ther fig­ure, the fa­ther of mas­cu­line role mod­el­ship, the fa­ther who beams be­at­if­i­cally when you un­dress your fi­nal Christ­mas gift, wrapped in patch­work that al­lows you to see the seams of the box—the box of your brand new ri­fle. You check your Christ­mas list, check it twice. Surely, some­where, in a fit of fever, maybe a ges­ture of sui­cide, you had writ­ten “ri­fle.” But no, only fa­ther’s in­tu­ition. Per­haps the coup de grâce, though, is the con­ces­sion of lit­er­a­ture in your stock­ing: Chicken Soup for the Teenage Soul. Some­thing didn’t add up. But my ge­net­ics were just too woe­fully a match for me to have been adopted: freckle to freckle, blue eye to blue eye, sim­i­lar height to Tom Cruise’s pro­por­tions. It had to be the or­di­na­tion. My fa­ther was des­tined to be in­ad­e­quate, be­cause I was des­tined to be Bat­man. Or Freud was des­tined to be right.

The “fam­ily ro­mance” is a term coined to ex­press the neu­rotic’s fan­tasy of “get­ting free from the par­ents of whom he now has a low opin­ion and of re­plac­ing them by oth­ers, who, as a rule, are of higher so­cial stand­ing.” First, there was the process of dis­il­lu­sion­ment, then the process of re­place­ment. Dis­il­lu­sion­ment: But I was a Bat­man fan­ta­sizer so early on, as early as I can re­mem­ber. But the signs were all there, and it didn’t take a super-sleuth to as­sim­i­late them into the fi­nal hy­poth­e­sis that my par­ents were in­ad­e­quate (I’m not alone in this; ev­ery­one is a teenager). This is not to say in­ad­e­quate per­sons or even parental fig­ures, but I was look­ing for some­one a lit­tle apter, some­one whose in­tu­ition did not say, “Buy him a ri­fle, he’ll love it.” (To be fair, my brother would, and did. I gave it to him, or rather he as­sumed it from its ne­glected po­si­tion in the back of the closet. He slew many beasts with it.) I was look­ing for some­one who knew the mean­ing of class and in­trigue. Re­place­ment: Bruce Wayne is a bil­lion­aire. Watch the movie again. No­tice the li­braries. Tally the lit­er­ary al­lu­sions. Note, also, the ab­sence of wall-mounted guns (like in my par­ents’ liv­ing room). Ob­serve that Vicki Vale, his love

in­ter­est, is a Pulitzer-win­ning pho­to­jour­nal­ist who pur­sues him. The ef­fort­less airs of a play­boy, the ca­sual in­tel­lect, the dearth of guns: th­ese are things I needed. Be­cause while my brother was the one in school win­ning footraces and foot­ball games, I was the one read­ing in the back of the class­room, ogling the other girl read­ing in the back of the class­room—not sex­u­ally, but in the recog­ni­tion of what the fel­low­ship of in­tel­lect ac­tu­ally meant. In Amer­ica, it means class mo­bil­ity. It meant a ticket out of Jack­sonville, Texas, a much-needed one, like a va­ca­tion, but longer, to Gotham City maybe, home of Bruce Wayne—to the chic noir of New York, where ev­ery­one is book­ish and intellectually am­bi­tious. In this way, Bruce Wayne and Bat­man em­bod­ied place as well, the per­son­i­fi­ca­tions of ro­mance of New York and citi­ness. Per­haps my fan­tasy was also a “lo­cale ro­mance.” New York was just in­ac­ces­si­ble enough (I of course had never been there) to har­bor all my il­lu­sions. Il­lu­sion is key, quoth Freud: “the whole ef­fort at re­plac­ing the real fa­ther by a su­pe­rior one is only an ex­pres­sion of the child’s long­ing for the happy, van­ished days when his fa­ther seemed to him the no­blest and strong­est of men and his mother the dear­est and loveli­est of women.” Only il­lu­sion­ary fic­tion could sup­port such an ideal, and the ideal is paramount. This prob­lem is one of any­one’s, it seems to me: that in liv­ing with one’s par­ents while evolv­ing one­self, one must re­al­ize their hu­man­ity, and the ideal is bust. So like with the fic­tional Bruce Wayne, New York (Gotham City) be­came the ideal set­ting and can­di­date for my own lit­tle ro­mance. But why wor­ship the hero­ized ver­sion of Bruce? Why not the Bruce with­out the Bat­man? In “A Spe­cial Type of Choice of Ob­ject Made By Men,” Freud de­scribes how the boy of the neu­rotic per­sua­sion some­times “forms the phan­tasy of res­cu­ing his fa­ther from dan­ger and sav­ing his life; in this way he puts his ac­count square with him. . . . It is as though the boy’s de­fi­ance were to make him say: ‘I want noth­ing from my fa­ther; I will give him back all I have cost him.’” Hence my never-end­ing bat­tle to res­cue my fa­ther from the en­su­ing squalor of East Texan, pa­tri­ar­chal ide­ol­ogy. When he gives me ri­fles, I re­cip­ro­cate with lit­er­a­ture. When he takes me hunt­ing, I co­erce him to the mu­seum. What a per­verse and in­sult­ing re­ciproc­ity! But it makes sense that if I am to let my Bat­man freak flag fly, I must first break free of the fa­ther by break­ing him free. I must re­pay my debts to him. Af­ter all, my fa­ther is a charm­ing man whose charm I tried to learn along the way. But if the hero, why, too, the cowl and cape? Cut to Bur­ton on the cast­ing process:

So I saw a zil­lion peo­ple and the thing that kept go­ing through my mind when I saw th­ese ac­tion-ad­ven­ture

hero types come into the of­fice was, “I just can’t see them putting on a bat-suit. I can’t see it.” I was see­ing th­ese big ma­cho guys, and then think­ing of them with pointy eyes, and it was, “Why would this big, ma­cho, Arnold Sch­warzeneg­ger-type per­son dress up as a bat for God’s sake?” A bat is this wild thing. I’d worked with Michael (Keaton) be­fore and so I thought he would be per­fect, be­cause he’s got that look in his eye. It’s there in Beetle­juice. It’s like that guy you could see putting on a bat-suit; he does it be­cause he needs to, be­cause he’s not this gi­gan­tic, strap­ping ma­cho man. It’s all about trans­for­ma­tion.

Like Bur­ton’s as­sumed Keaton, I also wanted to trans­form. And Bat­man was my pro­jected self—the ide­al­ized end to trans­for­ma­tion.

Over the years, like ev­ery­one’s, my pro­jected self has evolved. Cur­rently it tends to take the form of lit­er­ary-lib­eral hip­ster­ism. I lis­ten to the cor­rectly in­de­pen­dent brands of mu­sic, read the cor­rectly “se­ri­ous” brands of lit­er­a­ture, watch the cor­rectly “art­ful” brands of films, re­cy­cle, wash my dishes with de­ter­gent twice the price of nor­mal but un­harm­ful to our sib­lings in the sea, ap­pre­ci­ate gallery art, have all the “Mil­len­nial” qual­i­ties of hip-to-be-square self-ab­sorp­tion while not be­liev­ing in the tra­di­tional routes to ag­gran­dize­ment—law school, in­vest­ment bank­ing, and the like. And still, I have no clue what the medium of my life will re­sem­ble to­mor­row. Su­san Son­tag wrote that ev­ery per­son is a per­sona, from the Latin mean­ing “mask.” And be­hind this mask, what? Sev­eral thinkers sug­gest there is no such space. If a man is but a lay­er­ing of masks, to un­mask would be to ef­face en­tirely. But to Son­tag, be­hind the mask lies cru­elty. I say, con­fu­sion. My fa­ther didn’t know any bet­ter than to be the man he was, born in ru­ral East Texas, at work by age eleven. And of course he has en­dear­ing qual­i­ties. In fact, he en­cour­aged my Bat­man ob­ses­sion, though his mo­tives were un­clear: would Bat­man make me into a man? As I share my rec­ol­lec­tions with him over the phone and through the email I in­structed him how to use, he won­ders out loud why I haven’t re­mem­bered the Bat-sig­nal he built for me when I was seven. He care­fully de­scribes the mem­ory he feels I should have inked out: “I cut a bat sym­bol out of ply­wood with a jig­saw and af­fixed it to the end of a flash­light. It was prob­a­bly one of the coolest things any dad has ever made.”

I have also dis­cov­ered, in re­cent years, that my fa­ther keeps a se­cret stash of po­etry he’s writ­ten on acid-yel­low le­gal pads in an in­con­spic­u­ous brief­case be­hind his work trousers in the north­east cor­ner of his closet. When I dis­cov­ered his stash, even among the myr­iad am­a­teur­ish mis­takes ap­par­ent to me as a teacher of lit­er­a­ture—the inverted syn­tax, the trite end rhyme, the dime-store clichés, all rea­sons why he must have felt it nec­es­sary to hide his writ­ing—i tripped over two lines that made me fall in love with my en­tire fam­ily, I cried for the first time in four years, and I couldn’t bear to fin­ish read­ing. I re­gret that my snob­bery brought out the worst of my fa­ther’s in­se­cu­rity, and that our two anx­i­eties (mine, mas­culin­ity; his, in­tel­lect) to­gether cre­ated es­ca­lat­ing chal­lenges for one an­other. Of course I was a pre­co­cious child, and of course I made him self-con­scious. Did I ex­ploit this as much as my brother ex­ploited my in­se­cu­ri­ties about my gen­der? Ev­ery­one around us con­structs the masks we wear, be­hind which is a neb­ula of mis­un­der­stand­ing. Con­sider that my choice mask was Tim Bur­ton’s Bat­man, the one whose rub­ber rip­pled with the flex­ing of preter­nat­u­ral, non-anatom­i­cal mus­cles—the one Bur­ton him­self clas­si­fied as a built-in Sch­warzeneg­ger. Con­sider that my fa­ther now en­gages lit­er­ary de­bates in his new, self-bought New Yorker sub­scrip­tion. If the mask means to fill out the form’s in­ad­e­qua­cies, who de­fines them? My fa­ther and I have done a mu­tu­ally ex­haus­tive job of it. This year for Christ­mas, I’ve al­ready bought him the novel du jour, and I’ll ex­pect an­other gym mem­ber­ship in re­turn.

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