“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 virtuous.
For a long time, that was how it felt. If I could just achieve a suitable shape, whatever was weak within me—and so much seemed weak, so much seemed wicked—would be vaporized. I’d become a walking exhibit of desire: women would want me, men would fear me, and the world would open itself, oyster-like, to spill forth its pearls.
My father left copies of Men’s Health around the house, and in those pages I discovered a secret codex for life. Interviews with famous bodybuilders and professional athletes cleared the brush from a hidden path. Eat your greens, your protein. Don’t neglect your legs. Stand with your shoulders squared and shake with a firm hand.
Life was rife with weak points—I need only turn the soft shape of myself into a weapon and learn where to strike.
I never got very good at cutting. For years, I continued using the small knife in the kitchen. The blade was so dull that I had to drag the point across my skin—more of a stab than a slice, really. Afraid my efforts wouldn’t leave any scars, I often cut the same spot multiple times over the course of a few days, reopening the wound.
This insistence on scars bothers me. It reduces the whole endeavor to an extended act of vanity. As I was hurting myself, I never forgot that familiar accusation: you’re just doing this for attention.
That is what my father said when a relative tried to commit suicide. She just wants attention.
I didn’t judge him for those words—I knew he was groping through the dark corridors of his grief the only way he knew how, broken by the thought that a person he loved could ever do such a thing—but I can still hear the verdict in his tone.
How juvenile, how pathetic, to morph the body into a message this way.
Once, my brother punched a hole in the wall along the stairs after a long argument with our parents. It remained there for years, a concave reminder of a different kind of message the body could send.
There are some kinds of shame for which the word shame is nothing but a faded outline, an empty signifier. When you search for its root, you find only a vast network of tunnels, leading both everywhere, and nowhere at all. Another Forbidden Land, complete with its own cryptic ruins, impossible to decipher.
Each Colossus is different. Some of them are humanoid, standing at nearly a hundred feet, while others look like animals: a horse, a salamander, a hawk. Some of them are immediately hostile—they shoot bolts of electricity at Wander from their mouths or their eyes—while others barely notice him until he’s crawled up their granite flanks and begun the work of destroying them.
The Colossi can only be killed by finding their weak points—the glowing symbols hidden throughout their bodies—and stabbing them. When the marks are punctured, they release a rushing torrent of black fluid. After the Colossi die, black tendrils unfurl from their corpses and flow into Wander until he loses consciousness.
When Wander wakes up again, he is back at the tower, spread eagle on the floor. A group of human-shaped shadows stand over him, shoulders hunched—one for each colossus he’s killed.
As the game goes on, this mystery becomes rich soil for doubt. What happens when Wander kills all of the Colossi? Why does the game feel so sad? Who is Dormin, that mysterious presence that delivers hints to Wander from the sky, speaking in many voices all at once?
What kind of story is this?
And yet, despite the player’s growing dread, Wander becomes stronger. With each victory, his little health bar grows.
By my junior year, I was lifting weights twice a day. I liked staring at myself in the avenue of mirrors, my skin glistening with sweat, and knowing that I wouldn’t be judged for my narcissism. There, everyone wanted to be changed; all of us were united in the work of willing ourselves into something new.
The gym was a place where violence against the body was acceptable—celebrated, even. Pain usually meant you were doing something right.
While I worked out, I listened to movie soundtracks. 300. Saving Private Ryan. Fight Club. Gladiator. Troy.
Most of the movies I loved at that time involved men dying—or at the very least, being maimed—in acts of great passion. In Armageddon, Harry Stamper stays behind to detonate the nuke that will destroy the asteroid blazing towards Earth. In Braveheart, William Wallace cries out for freedom as he’s disemboweled. In Starship Troopers, a wounded Watkins blows himself up with a grenade to give the others time to escape. In Scarface, Tony Montana stuffs his face in a pile of cocaine and blasts his way through a room of armed men until he is finally killed, absorbing bullets as he goes, the purity of his rage its own special armor.
Even The Iron Giant finds a way to die: when the lovable robot realizes he’s a weapon, when he finds out that his entire body is nothing but a walking gun, he destroys himself in a blaze of glory. Sure, the movie’s ending implies some kind of renewal—all the broken bits of the giant’s body rolling back to rebuild him—but this is almost an afterthought. It is his sacrifice that earns the swelling music, the eyes misted by tears, the hands clenched tight around our hearts.
The word passion comes to us from the late Latin passiō, which translates to suffering, or submission.
When I was 13, my parents took me to The Passion of the Christ on its opening night. My mother didn’t want me to go because she’d heard about the violence. My father, the kind of lukewarm catholic who likes to go to church for the community, was oddly adamant that I accompany them. It’s the only time I remember him showing this kind of religious devotion.
He needs to see it, he said. He needs to know.
Despite the film’s gleeful emphasis on blood and agony, we are led to believe that this suffering—the whipping, the crown of thorns, the nails through the wrists and ankles—is not in vain. After all, what is being done to this body is being done for us. The suffering and the salvation are rendered inextricable—without Christ’s suffering, there can be no resurrection. No second chance. No forgiveness.
When I turned my face away from the screen, my father shook my shoulder, and whispered don’t miss this.
There is a version of this story where I replace one relationship to pain with another, where my desire to hurt myself with a blade is substituted by a healthy craving for exercise. This is an easier story for me to imagine.
But the truth is more troubling: the more I went to the gym, the more I wanted to cut. The larger I became, the more I wanted to mark that largeness, to make it real.
It feels too simple to say that I hurt myself because, all around me, men were creatures for whom hurt was the only constant. And yet.
I didn’t cut my wrists—only my upper arms. Back then, wrist cutting was something I associated with suicide, with only wanting attention.
Later, lying in bed next to a girlfriend, we will compare scars, and I will explain, quickly, that I didn’t want to die. It wasn’t about that.
Why then? she will ask, and I will answer the only way I know how: I don’t know.
And I still don’t. I can only say that for a long time my feelings were a landscape beset by periods of profound disruption, where the world occasionally shook with such force that it threatened to rupture something essential, and that hurting myself stabilized that particular scenery.
One thanksgiving, I overheard my brothers reminiscing about the shouting matches they used to have with our dad. We almost hit each other a few times, the oldest said, smiling at the fondness of the memory. I think that’s an important thing for a dude to have, growing up. You’ve got to get close to beating the shit out of each other. You respect one another after that.
Eventually I started using a belt. Like a flagellant, I folded it in half and whipped my back. Unlike a flagellant, my intentions were entirely secular—I craved only the quick crack of pain. This method was reserved for moments of failure, like a bad grade on a test.
I never came close to hitting my dad, but my senior year I broke a knuckle punching a chair because I couldn’t complete a Physics assignment.
Wander, so far as we can tell, is not a trained soldier. As he runs, he flails the Ancient Sword behind him, his feet tripping over stones and ledges. When he’s struck down, he takes ages to stand back up again. The game’s developers intentionally made the controls difficult, forcing the player to contort their fingers into odd positions while they played, to give the sense that they were succeeding in spite of Wander’s inadequacies.
Unlike, say, Zelda, there are no special items to gather along the way, no puzzles to solve. New weapons can be obtained after multiple playthroughs, but they don’t appear in the base game. It is an experience that wants you to think very little about its mechanics, even as it uses them to nudge you towards failure. This difficulty is meant to foster appreciation for your eventual triumphs.
Look at you, the game seems to say, succeeding despite the odds.
John Darnielle, talking about the razor blade he used to keep in his wallet: Yeah, my friends knew. They didn’t like it, but I think that’s part of the appeal. If you’re 16, it’s like, you know, your friends don’t like it. And you say, yes, but it’s my body, and I’ll do what I like with it, right?
I never used a razor blade like Darnielle, but I did tell my friends, with the same kind of conviction and arrogance as him. My friends, like his, were always angry with me, and this anger only added to the effect, as though their frustration was proof that I’d travelled somewhere no one could follow.
Of course, Darnielle’s reasons are easier to fathom. He was a teenager grappling with the incalculable ruination of an abusive stepfather. What is my excuse?
The worst thing my father ever did to me was use those large arms of his to toss my body onto a bed after I announced that I was failing a math class. The bed was soft, and he was quick to apologize for raising his voice.
This is the same man who gets frustrated when I don’t wear socks in the house, frightened that I’ll get sick. The same man who refuses—absolutely refuses—to hear me utter a harsh word about myself. The same man I once caught crying in the front yard, digging a grave for a snake he’d killed, saying I hate to kill.
When it was first released, I saw Star Wars Episode III six times in theaters. My favorite scene was when Anakin, now locked into the black carapace of Darth Vader’s suit, finds out that Padme has died in childbirth. As he screams, his rage shakes the room, crushing the medical droids around him like tin cans, flinging panels and circuits from the walls. I loved it—seeing how powerful, how tremendously terrifying, he became in his grief.
Most people used other words to describe this moment, like cheesy.
In an essay at Motherboard, Sarah Jeong points out that something is clearly lacking in the healthcare system of the Old Republic. “In a galaxy of bacta tanks that can heal grievous wounds, and highly advanced cybernetic prosthetics to replace limbs,” she writes, “how is that the only explanation given for Padme’s death is that she ‘lost the will to live?'”
The simple answer is that George Lucas is a lazy writer with little interest in female pain. For his male characters, though, disfigurement is a consistent motif: Anakin is burned alive and becomes Vader, Luke loses a hand, Han Solo is encased in carbonite. The message is clear: for men to grow, they must be wounded in some way.
It’s a familiar refrain in cinema: the father’s daughter is kidnapped and he goes on a killing spree to save her; the retired cop’s wife is killed by a gang of thieves, and he must hunt down each one and break their knuckles, punch out their teeth, riddle them with bullets. If he dies in the process—burnt up in the raging inferno of his own anger, all the better.
In Shadow of the Colossus, Mono never speaks. We never find out what her story is—whether she wanted Wander to go to all this trouble for her. We are only really allowed to see this journey, this quest, from his point of view.
But no one forced that sword into Wander’s hand. Whatever he reaps in his rampage belongs to him.
Visiting home my sophomore year of college, I told my father I think I have depression. Things had reached their pinnacle by then, whole days blasted to ash in maelstroms of internal static, weeks spent shuffling beneath Seattle’s gray canopy feeling like a smoke-choked husk.
When he said You have nothing to be depressed about, I couldn’t help but agree. After all, that had always been my central shame: to have been handed a good life and spit on it with my own despair.
When he said If you have depression I’ll kick your ass, I knew he was only joking, and I let the conversation deflate into awkward silence.
Anyways, I understood that thinking—that a feeling was something you could bleed out of a body.
Another story: a middle-class white kid, raised in the comfortable confines of the suburbs, inflicts pain on himself because he has faced no true trials, no real strife, no genuine trauma.
So-called “Men’s Rights Activists” like to point out that white men are, statistically, more likely than any other group to kill themselves, and by a wide margin. It is impossible to miss the accusation in their tone when they bring up this fact. They say it the way someone might say look what you made me do.
One day I just stop cutting. That is the simple, awful, confounding truth of it.
And there, I think, is the fear. If I don’t know why I started, and I don’t know why I stopped, I cannot be sure that the whole thing won’t begin again.
After Wander defeats the final Colossus, the player realizes he isn’t a hero at all. A group of horsemen arrive at the Forbidden Land—the only other people we see in the game—and try to stop him from completing the ritual. The Ancient Sword doesn’t even belong to him—he’s stolen it.
It turns out that Dormin, that mysterious voice in the sky, was once an evil deity, defeated in ages long past, whose power was sealed away into sixteen Colossi. By killing these creatures, Wander has unleashed that evil back into the world.
But the horsemen are too late. Just as they reach the tower, Wander’s body is engulfed in shadow. He grows into a giant horned beast: the evil god Dormin, reborn. For a moment, the player is allowed to take control of this towering monstrosity. It’s a complete inversion of the rest of the game—now, you are the Colossus. In an instant, you are given all the power the game has withheld from you. You can bash the little horsemen with your towering arms or unleash a tide of blue flame from your jaws.
Except, controlling this giant body is hard. It moves slowly, and no matter how much the little men are crushed, they keep standing back up. They flee for the exit between your feet.
In the end, the player cannot win. One of the men drops the Ancient Sword into a pool of water. The pool becomes a vortex, and Wander, shrunk down to his normal size, is sucked inside. The last thing he sees is Mono, still dead on the altar, before he disappears into the pool’s depths.
Like my need to harm myself, my desire to exercise has cooled over the years. Now, I only go once a week. Like the cutting, some ember of desire remains, but it is only a dull pulse.
There are posters on the wall of my new gym, and they say things like Run the Day or the Day Runs You, or, superimposed over an image of feet on a treadmill, Therapy.
Perhaps my progress lies solely in my ability to see the lie here. To know that kind of story will never apply to me.
What if there’s no true inciting incident, no single reason you start hurting yourself? What if it’s just something you live through, or in? A fish who can never see the water in which it’s swimming. That famous frog, lounging in hot water until it’s boiled alive.
The second and last time I admit to my father that I think I might have depression, he tells me I should learn to play guitar. This response is so unexpected, so naively optimistic, that I can’t help but laugh.