The Macho Man vs. the family secrets
When I heard of the Macho Man’s passing, I felt the way I feel when I see one of those old, ugly and vanquished video stores tucked away in a strip mall. Those video places look so sad sputtering into oblivion in the face of Netflix and fancy cable. I remember how often I visited them as a girl, how each visit held the promise of another Wrestlemania or Survivor Series, perhaps a Royal Rumble and how this would comfort me.
I love WWF wrestling. Not WWE, but the Federation. You can say they’re the same thing, but I’m talking about a particular place in time, 80s/90s superstar WWF. That is where my heart is.
My little brother and I voraciously watched WWF tapes borrowed from the TG&Y store in Espanola, NM. I’d like to say we “summered” in the nearby village of Chimayo the way that New Yorkers I’ve seen on television summer in the Hamptons, but that wasn’t exactly how it worked. As children, every summer (and one weekend a month and every other holiday) we were sent into court ordered exile with our schizophrenic mother and an extended well-meaning family that was deeply in denial about our mother’s illness. While my friends from home (a 5-hour drive away) took joy in summer, met for pizza parties and riding bikes, afternoon movies and trolling through the mall, I lived with my grandparents and a mother I hated and couldn’t understand.
Anyone in my family (except for maybe my brother) would tell you that I exaggerate. That everything was perfectly lovely. If anything, I was the moody and lazy problem that infected the hottest season of the year. And I still kind of believe this story, even if (or especially because) it pins the blame on me clearly and simply. But my actual experience was something else, something messier and quite other, something I’m not sure many people will ever understand. To me, those summers were desolate, isolating and lonely. My amazing cousin brightened them with her friendship, sure, but I could also overhear her sharing her worries about me with my grandma—I was dirty, I ate too much, I slept too late into the day.
I always felt bad there, felt wrong, felt ashamed. Everyone tsked at my misbehavior, why wasn’t I cheerfully my mother’s daughter? Why didn’t I mind her? Her, the woman who followed me everywhere, who burnt me with hot shower water when I was small because she couldn’t imagine that I felt things differently than she might. The woman who eyed me nightly while I slept, who once awakened me with the metallic “crrrrssshhhh” of scissors against my face because she knew better than me that my hair should not be long. I was silently terrified, quietly angry. I spent most of my time inventing elaborate imaginative worlds with my brother, eating anything in sight to dull the pain, avoiding a bath so I wouldn’t have to see the disgusting rolls of fat on my body. I checked out a load of library books. I rented every single wrestling tape.
I’ve always thought it kind of strange that I love this thing. This overly dramatic world of puffed and oiled up men, but from my nearly 30-year-old perspective, it makes a bluntly obvious kind of sense. Shiny gods, not too different from the ones in my books, ruled the ring. They sauntered into the arena like they owned it. They held us all in the palms of their oversized hands. Good and Evil were fitted into glittery lycra and then set against each other to battle. Suplexes and piledrivers, figure four leg locks and sleeper holds were a body’s tools. The balance of power relied on a match. A shiny gold belt, if held by your champion, could set the world right.
And, for me, they really were my champions. I’m tearing up as I write this and I’m reddening, already embarrassed that you think this is idiotic—me and my parade of chesty tan men…
But it’s the truth, bruuutherrrr.
Now, I see those wrestlers as brilliant actors. Their stage? The squared circle. I re-watch snippets of their work on Youtube and giggle at the melodrama. The Macho Man soars from atop the highest rope only to be pummeled illegally by a nefarious Hart Foundation. Hulk Hogan’s eyeball pops out roundly, his eyebrow arches to show the crowd that he is shocked, that something is awry. Miss Elizabeth frets outside the ring, clutching her snapped spaghetti strap—a tiny piece of string that instantly bespeaks the violence she’s endured. Shoved by a man? Why that’s terribly wrong! All the while, Bobby Heenan narrates the scene from the edges; he stokes the flames with sexism and his telltale snarky rudeness. He and the spot-lit evil player work in tandem to elicit my snarl. And once I’m good and angry, hot and lathered and appropriately hopeless, they call in the Hogan-Hero who body slams ‘em all to oblivion. Who makes a fool of the bad guys, transforms the sinister dude into the whimpering clown. Who awakens the power of the Macho Man, heals him with some magically violent elixir. And then the anthem plays (Pomp and Circumstance) and the crowd roars and we revel. The little guy makes it! We all promise to take our vitamins and pray before bedtime. Dreams of being big and strong. Big and strong.
To a child who is small, ineffectual, all brain like I was, these wrestling men and women were my huge embodied dreams come true. Their hands made things happen. Their laced up boots crashed thunderously when they stomped. It was their job to go on at length about how they were gonna take someone down…and then they’d actually do it.
This meant a lot to me and provided me with a violent world outside myself that sure felt like the one I carried within. I had a lot of things to be angry about. A grandma who lost her mind to depression. A dad who traveled all the time and left me with that grandma who could only teach us fear and worry, who backwardly asked us children to care for her. Summers where every adult in my life handed me and my brother over to sickness. And though I’m sure the angry, sweaty men of the WWF hurt and pained their own families by leaving them all the time and placing themselves in bodily danger, I thank them for supplementing my family, my life, for committing themselves to their craft and for beating down all the things that scare and anger the child in all of us.