William Giraldi on life as a bookish bodybuilder: ‘It’s a poisoned way to be a man’

As a teenager, William Giraldi would pump himself full of steroids, hit the gym … and secretly read Keats. His new memoir examines the absurdities of modern masculinity and envisages a better world in which his sons dont get caught in its toxic grip

As a teenage bodybuilder, William Giraldi would hide a battered old Keats paperback between the pages of Muscle & Fitness magazine to read during his evening cardio, a move he calls a reversal of the classic Playboy mag inside a textbook. His new memoir, The Heros Body, is littered with anecdotes like this: tales of the insecurities and absurdities of masculinity, which document the lengths men go to in order to feel a sense of self-worth in their manhood. Literature, art, music almost anything that would be of no use on a battlefield were condemned as effeminate by Giraldis family and gym buddies, forcing him to pursue these interests in secret.

Thats the perfect illustration of the kind of bifurcated life I was leading at the time, Giraldi says, likening his furtive Keats reading to that of a gay person in the closet. Youve got this part of yourself thats central to yourself, thats at the hub of you. You cant express it, you cant exert it, you cant walk the way you want to walk in the world because of how youll be perceived.

The first half of The Heros Body explores Giraldis foray into the world of weightlifting and muscular showmanship initially sparked by the weakness he felt following a bout of meningitis at 15 while the latter portion delves into his fathers violent death in a motorcycle accident a decade later. Both, he says, were the result of a primitive form of tribalism in which men were forced or volunteered to prove themselves in the most dangerous ways.

Throughout history, males have participated in initiation rites as they enter adulthood. To Giraldi, this goes someway towards explaining why his bodybuilding began in his mid-teens, and yet his father was significantly older, in his 40s, when he got into biking. It shows that it never really goes away, that theres an initiation rite but then once youre initiated youre never let off the hook. Youre never free from it. Its a poisoned way of being a man, because you can never win.

William Giraldi (centre) with fellow competitive bodybuilders on the Jersey shore just before a show, 1994.

While many of the ideas he raises are universal, The Heros Body is a somewhat turbocharged, uniquely American take on what it means to be male. Giraldi grew up in the aptly named Manville, New Jersey (a town straight from the blue notes of a Springsteen song) at a time in which masculinity was at its most brutally realised in both US politics and pop culture. After the failures of Vietnam, America needed an injection of sheer masculine posturing – something to which Stephen E de Souza, the screenwriter behind Commando, Die Hard and numerous other 80s action flicks, attributed the rise in big, muscular action stars.

Indeed, it was under a Hollywood actor who specialised in portraying particularly strong, manly characters, that much of this new force of hypermasculinity reared its head. After the presidencies of Ford and Carter, who, lets face it, werent very masculine presidents Carter was effeminate, Ford was ineffectual Reagan comes along and hes full of this masculine brute and bluster. He was the guy who was pretending on screen to be of highly masculine stock, and then he gets into office and we needed to pump up, as it were, our national image, says Giraldi. I think [de Souza] is correct about Vietnam, but keep in mind also that Reagans administration was a full stop on the victories of feminism in this country, and the emasculating effects of feminism.

The idea of a showy celebrity whose presidential campaign is fuelled by a group of insecure, virulent, anti-feminists hardly feels like a distant memory in 2017. While several decades have passed since Giraldis adolescence, exploring the male psyche feels as essential now as it would have been 30 years ago. On the current presidents ostentatious masculinity, Giraldi considers it a compensatory act: The Trumpian bluster, the masculine showmanship of Trump is a facade. Its a front, its hiding deep wells of weakness and what is perceived as femininity.

Although Giraldis steroid-abusing, bodybuilding teens may be unfamiliar territory for most (some reviews have criticised The Heros Body for being unrelatable, which seems only true in the most superficial of readings), at the heart of the book lies a series of real, human stories about men and their self-destructive behaviours. One passage that struck me as particularly familiar is in the aftermath of his fathers motorcycle accident. Two of the bikers who had been with him that day claimed to have heard him say he didnt feel well, words Giraldi knew his father never would have spoken. It has echoes, I tell him, of my own fathers death, which was preceded mere seconds earlier by his assertions that he was feeling better after a few days under the weather. That would have been a glaring signal of his weakness, and to the clan, Giraldi says. To be perceived as weak when youre a man is a death of another kind.

William Giraldi as a baby, on the lap of his grandfather, with his father standing alongside: Manville NJ, c.1975.

Giraldi believes he began subconsciously writing The Heros Body the day of his fathers death, accumulating lines in notepads here and there over the years that followed. In a demonstration of his newly open love of literature, he refers to Benvenuto Cellinis 16th-century work Autobiography, in which Cellini advises men to wait until theyve passed 40 to write their life stories. As it happened for Giraldi, by the time hed reached this milestone, hed been born as a father, and with that comes its own brand of staggered excellence. The arrival of his sons spurred him to tell the story of their grandfather so as to keep his memory alive, and, it would seem, to try to prevent them from going down the same path their male ancestors had done. Notably, none of Giraldis children were given the first name William, breaking a family tradition that stretched back four generations.

Unsurprisingly, Giraldi has taken a very different approach to bringing up his sons than his father and grandfather did. While he admits he has no way of knowing if such a shift in ethos is widespread (There are millions of men in this country who are doing the very things with their sons that my father tried to do with me and his father did with him), he is, as are many fathers today, conscious of the harm caused by pushing traditionally gendered ideals on their children.

I really do hope to win this, he says. I really hope for them to understand that they could be men while loving literature and music and art, that real men are merciful, that real men are kind, that real men show love towards those who are weaker, not scorn.

For all his awareness of toxic masculinity now, Giraldi still feels regret that he didnt realise sooner. I wasted a lot of years in these issues and these problems, and in sorting out these tangles, he says. I wish I had got right down to what my life would become, I wish I could have been saved a lot of that tangle.

  • The Heros Body by William Giraldi (No Exit Press, 9.99). To order a copy for 8.49, go to guardianbookshop.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over 10, online orders only. Phone orders min. p&p of 1.99.

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