“To feel strong, to walk amongst humans with a tremendous feeling of confidence and superiority is
not at all wrong. The sense of superiority in bodily strength is borne out by the long history of mankind
paying homage in folklore, song and poetry to strong men.”
Fredrick “Dr. Squat” Hatfield
The story begins, as so many do, with a quest: there is a boy, his blade, and a damsel. We don’t know who she is, but we know she’s dead. The boy, his name is Wander, travels far—riding his horse over marshes and through the grooved tunnels of a canyon under a moon smothered by clouds—to a place called the Forbidden Land.
Inside a crumbling tower, he places the girl on an altar, and a voice in the sky tells him that he must kill sixteen Colossi, giant sentinels of stone scattered across the barren landscape, to bring his beloved back to life.
There was a time when all I wanted was to be my own colossus. At 15, my father took me to the gym for the first time. He reduced me to a series of parts—biceps, shoulder, triceps, deltoids, the all-important core—and showed me how to make them hurt. The only thing that separated me from a world where my body was something more than a receptacle for shame, I learned, was my own capacity for pain.
The summer before my freshman year of high school, my ex-girlfriend and I spent our afternoons kissing in the sweltering trailer her father kept in the backyard. This would have been fine, except she already had a new boyfriend. Over the phone, she told me the guilt of her infidelity had become so unbearable that she’d chosen to pierce her wrist with one of her mother’s brooches.
I’m sad too, I said. And then I lied: I’ve been cutting myself.
Don’t do that, she replied, but I couldn’t miss that note of wonder in her voice—the way our mutual self-destruction seemed to bind us together again.
That night, intent to twist the fib into truth, I walked to the kitchen and made the first incision on my left arm. It wasn’t very deep, but the relief I felt—a deep breath after a long submersion—was so profound that, when she ended things between us a week later, for real this time, I went back, face puffy from tears, and did it again.
It’s embarrassing—cliché—to know it started this way. A teenager, lovestruck and stupid, holding his own body hostage for a bit of attention. More embarrassing, still, to know how long it continued.
I first played Shadow of the Colossus in 2006, just a year before I started experimenting with self-harm. It’s a game that—apart from its strikingly cinematic atmosphere—is most famous for what it withholds.
The player knows almost nothing about Wander, or his connection to the girl, Mono, that he so desperately wants to bring back to life. All we’re told is that he’s in possession of something called the Ancient Sword, the one weapon capable of destroying the Colossi and completing the “forbidden ritual” that will return her to him.
There are no other characters present for most of the game. Just Wander, riding across a desolate wilderness—arid deserts, wide plains of wind-swept grass, seaside cliffs of bleached white stone—inhabited only by the ruins of an old world we learn nothing about, and the giants that the boy must kill, one at a time.
My father has spent most of his life lifting weights. His body shows it: he stands just over six feet, a towering bundle of muscle. Back when he worked for the IRS, he spent so much time at his office’s gym—eating his sandwich at his desk earlier in the day and slipping off to work out during his lunch break—that they asked him to be a personal trainer. When he turned fifty, he bought an expensive bicycle and one of those goofy spandex riding suits. Nowadays, he will often call me after a ride, still breathless, to tell me how many miles he’s ridden, his voice full of the kind of delight one might expect from a child bringing home a good grade.
The Ancient Greeks, who are often credited with building some of the world’s first gyms, had a phrase for the ideal human: Kalos Kagathos. The beautiful and the good. For them, physical fitness and morality were inseparable. To be beautiful, to be fit, was to be virtu