I Am the Type of Man Who Gets into Fist Fights—and Likes It

The capacity for violence sometimes makes men feel whole. What are they supposed to do about it?

Illustration of Two Men Yelling at Each Other
Illustration by Mariah Llanes

A few years ago, on New Year’s Eve, I head-butted a man on the subway. Here’s the version I generally tell people:

My wife and I were on an eastbound train. We had been skating at an outdoor rink near our downtown apartment. We were on our way to the suburbs, to ring in the New Year with my in-laws, when a man—a big, thick guy in his early twenties—decided to pick a fight with me.

He was loud and obnoxious and extremely drunk, and he was showing off in front of his two friends by prying open the sliding doors of the subway car and sticking his head out into the tunnel. I got up because he was dangerously close to dashing his brains out on the concrete pillars whizzing past his head. I told him to sit down. He exploded and challenged me to a fight. I told him I wasn’t going to fight him, and I sat back down.

The long and the short of it is that, after he yelled at me, after he threw a bottle at me, spat on me, and then, finally, threatened to hit my wife, I stood up again and head-butted him in the face. A brawl erupted, and at least a dozen other men jumped in and tried to pull us apart. The police came. They arrested the guy and took my statement.

I was sober and the other guy wasn’t; I was the victim and he was the aggressor. The police gave me a subtle nod of approval for defending myself, even as they pointed out the obvious risks. One of the cops took my statement. “You’re lucky,” he said. “What if he’d had a knife or a gun?” But there was an understanding between us—I’d taken the risk to protect my wife.

Directly after the fight, while I was still a little stunned, a man came up to me. He was short and slight and wearing a well-cut suit. “You did the right thing,” he said, dabbing his bleeding nose with a napkin. He had a gift bag with him, champagne decorated with pearlescent ribbons; he was on his way to a friend’s party. I hadn’t seen him on the train, but apparently he had been watching and, as soon as the fight started, had tried to break it up. I apologized for ruining his night. “Don’t worry about it,” he said. “That guy had it coming.” He shook my hand. “Plus, now I’ve got an amazing story to tell my friends.”

This is generally the reaction I get. Most people understand why I did it. And, to be honest, I like telling this story, too, in the way I’ve just told it. It makes me feel like a stand-up guy.

The real story is more complicated.

I’m in a bad mood even before I get on the subway. I hate crowds, and Bloor station is a downright zoo. It’s packed with cliques of tipsy revellers on their way to parties. I have to push through people to get anywhere. A girl trying to get her friend’s attention screams in my ear. My skates bang against my shin.

We take the escalator down to the platform. It stinks. Some kid has just sprayed his tag on the wall, and the whole place reeks of propellant and paint. The kid—he’s maybe fourteen—dashes past me, followed by a gang of tittering friends. It irks me that no one has the guts to say anything, that an entire crowd of onlookers can stand by without intervening. For a moment, I consider grabbing the kid by his jacket, pulling the can out of his pocket, and spraying his chest. Then I consider the consequences: I’d be charged with assaulting a minor. I let it go. This pisses me off further.

On the train, I rant to Lyana, my wife, about the bovine complacency of crowds. I bring up the case of Kitty Genovese, the New York woman murdered in the 1960s in front of thirtysome witnesses, none of whom intervened. It’s not the first time I’ve brought up Kitty Genovese. She’s standard fare when I’m in one of these moods.

Now I’m having trouble concentrating on what I’m saying because of some drunk idiot behind us. He’s so loud. He bellows like a one-man argument, all fucks and shits and bitches. It sets me further on edge. I can feel my jaw clenching. The train lurches from stop to stop. Everyone on board has given up trying to hold their own conversations.

I turn around to get a look at him. He’s younger than me by at least ten years. A big white kid in baggy pants and an oversized hoodie. He saunters over to a set of sliding doors and tries prying them open. He jams his fingers into the rubber seal and cracks the doors a few inches. In an exquisite manoeuvre of stupidity—we’re talking Darwin Award nominee here—he pops his head outside, into the tunnel, where the concrete support pillars are zipping by in a complete blur just beyond his meaty cranium. Whoosh! I have a brief vision of his headless body falling back into the car. Whoosh! Worse things have happened. Whoosh! He’s a subhuman moron.

The guy pulls his head back into the car. He says something boastful and obnoxious—I can’t hear what exactly. I realize he’s with two guys. His friends look uneasy. One of them tells him to chill. He interprets this as a challenge. He’s back at the doors. This time, he pries them apart, his back arched, chest out like Superman pulling apart prison bars. The effervescent cheer of the holiday crowd has gone flat, replaced by a nervous hush. This guy needs a talking-to.

All this time, I’m contemplating him, whoever he is—it doesn’t cross my mind to care. I observe and calculate: he’s big—six foot something, somewhere north of 200 pounds—but he’s not that big, not bigger than me, and not in particularly good shape either. That’s an advantage. He’s drunk. Another advantage.

Along with this conscious consideration of detail, there’s something else: a building surge on the horizon, moving towards me quickly, an impending wave, a deep, seductive swell. He’s a piece of trash. There’s a lapping coolness between my temples. People all around me are scared, nervous. They feel threatened. Not me. It’s different in me, it’s a growing itch, a form of lust. A predatory hard-on. I want him on his knees. Subjugated. Scared. I’m out of my seat. I’m standing beside him.

I should point out that I’m not an especially skilled fighter. I’ve spent enough time around people who know what they’re doing—professional boxers, MMA fighters, martial artists—to know I score pretty low on the badass scale. But I’m six three and a solid 250 pounds, and when I’m pissed off and physically aggressive, I can be a considerable problem.

“You need to sit the fuck down,” I tell the guy. My face feels tense. I’m baring my teeth, grimacing weirdly.

He looks up, genuinely surprised. He sizes me up and then cocks his head. “Who the fuck’re you?” he yells. His breath is hot.

Time opens up like an accordion. The minutes have more seconds; the seconds expand and reveal details I haven’t noticed before. I smell the sour tang of Gatorade and alcohol on his breath.

I lean in, almost whispering in his ear. “I’m the guy,” I hiss, “who can make you sit down.”

His friends hear this and tell him to take a seat. They’re saying something to me, too, but I can’t make it out. My ability to make sense of language is drowned in the thrum of my own pulse. The wave has crashed. Any coherent thoughts have been dashed apart. Everything is about feeling now. His friends aren’t a threat. Whatever they’re saying, their tone is conciliatory. They’re irrelevant.

I’m waiting for him to strike, waiting for him to push me. Waiting for a flinch or a lunge. But nothing. Nothing’s happening. He’s not making a move. It’s all posturing. My inner voice returns. You’re not going to have to fight this guy, it says. If he was going to get violent, you’d already know.

I walk back to my seat. The train has stopped. Someone has pushed the yellow emergency strip. The police will be here in a moment. Or the transit authority. They’ll take care of him.

“How the fuck you gonna make me sit down?” he yells. He’s following me back to my seat. “How the fuck are you gonna do that?” He’s saying it over and over again.

I turn around. “I’m not going to fight you.” I can’t tell if I sound calm or not.

“I want to know how you’re going to make me sit down.”

“The police are going to be here any second, guy.”

“You think I give a fuck about the cops?” he barks. “Fuck them! I want to see you make me sit down.” He’s doing some gangster shit with his hands, waving them around.

“We’re not going to fight,” I say. I sit down next to Lyana. I’d told myself I wasn’t going to get in this kind of situation again.

He’s in the middle of the aisle, standing close to me. Too close to Lyana. The wave is welling up again. I look at my feet. Lyana’s hand is on my thigh.

He throws his Gatorade bottle at me. It misses and bounces off a post, spraying me. He won’t go away. A sprite-like South Asian man in a transit uniform appears, deus ex machina, from behind the guy. The transit man grabs buddy’s arm and tells him to leave. The transit man is unbelievably small next to this guy.

“Get the fuck off me!” He shakes the transit man off his arm. “Get the fuck away from me! I want this guy to make me leave!” He’s pointing at me.

The transit man takes the guy’s arm again and leads him out the door onto the platform. It’s like watching someone pull an obstinate mule from the middle of a road. Buddy doesn’t break eye contact with me, not for a second. On the way out the door, he makes a face like he’s just bitten into something rotten and fires a glob of mucus at me.

From somewhere beyond me, I hear someone say, “Don’t do it, man! He’s not worth the trouble.”

Transit man has managed to coax the guy onto the platform. But then the guy starts pounding the window next to Lyana’s head. He’s looking directly at me through the glass.

“Get off the train, you fucking asshole!” he screams.

“Don’t,” Lyana says.

The doors of the subway car are still open. They stay like this in an emergency. The transit man is blocking the nearest exit, but the guy walks down the platform and re-enters the car through another set of doors. He marches directly to where we’re sitting and towers over me. I can’t remember what he says—something with bitch in it. His fist is raised over his head. He is way the fuck too close to Lyana.

I’m standing. We’re chest to chest.

“You keep talking,” I say. “But you haven’t thrown a fucking punch. You’re a fucking pussy. Throw a fucking punch. Otherwise, sit the fuck down.”

I can feel the heat coming off him. The tiny transit man is behind him again. The transit man looks at me imploringly and says, “I can’t keep him off the train—he’s too big.”

The wave crashes. Everything is suddenly clear and simple. The solution is obvious. I’m relieved by the simplicity of it.

I bring my forehead down like a hammer. I aim for the bridge of his nose, but evidently he turns his head. I see stars—literally, cartoon stars. The guy reels back, but he’s still standing.

Attack! The voice in my head is screaming. Attack! Attack!

I bob, ducking low, my chin tucked, fists up, protecting my head. I try to fire a hard left hook into his ribs while he’s still off balance, but I can’t move my arm. My arm won’t move. It’s like a dream, like I’m underwater. Then I realize there are people all around us, pulling us apart. Someone is holding my arm. I am surrounded by faceless men. They’ve formed a thicket of briars that catch my limbs. They’re holding me back, and I can only think about one thing: getting at the guy, ripping into him, cutting his flesh with my knuckles. Mashing his nose. Crushing his windpipe.

The crowd shifts. I fall backwards over a seat. He’s on top of me. I find his eye with my thumb and press. I hesitate for a moment and then push harder. I feel his eyeball, like a grape beneath my thumb, giving way, but before I can rip it from its socket, we’re pulled apart again.

I’m shoved into a seat. I try to stand. Several people are holding me down. A fist comes at me through a gap in the crowd. My hands are trapped by my side. The fist hits me in the eye. It doesn’t hurt at all.

The police arrive. They’re wearing yellow rain jackets. “He threatened my wife.” I’m yelling.

“Get the fuck off me!” the guy shouts as the cops pull him off the train. “Get the fuck off me, you motherfuckers!” A constable leads Lyana and me onto the platform. We pass the guy. He’s already in handcuffs. He sees us and screams at me over the shoulder of the arresting officer: “I’m going to fucking end you! You fucking understand? I’m going to fucking kill you!” His eyes are puffy and red, and his cheekbone is cut.

I want to smile at him, let him know I see how fucked he is, yelling death threats in front of the cops like that. But I keep my composure.

That night, I barely sleep. I stare at the ceiling wishing I had been able to do more damage. I think about what I’ll do to him if I ever see him again. I resolve to track him down, to punch him, to pluck out his eye properly, to claw him, bite him. Beat him senseless. I can’t control the recurring images reeling through my head. When I do finally fall asleep, I dream of slaughter.

I’m an unusual candidate for this sort of thing. I buck a lot of the expectations people have about the kind of man who gets into fist fights. I am, by common standards, a gentleman, with the emphasis most of the time on the word gentle. This is probably pretty hard to swallow after what I’ve just told you, but I’m confident that, were we to meet, I wouldn’t fit your template for the kind of guy who starts public brawls. And I’m definitely not the kind of guy you’d imagine having fantasies about painting his face in the blood of his enemy. That’s warlord stuff—it’s not me.

I’m sort of a hippie kid. My parents moved to Canada from the United States in the early seventies. My dad was against the Vietnam War; my mother was highly involved in both the peace movement and the women’s movement. She took me to anti-nuke marches and Quaker meetings. When I was in grade school, I was made an honorary member of the feminist group Voice of Women. I still think that’s pretty cool.

Today, on the home front, I’m highly domestic. I proudly supported Lyana through medical school and her gruelling surgical residency by doing the lion’s share of the cooking, cleaning, and laundry. I like holding babies. I don’t really watch sports on TV. I suspect I cry more easily than many men, and I know for a fact I’m more adept and more comfortable discussing my emotions than most. In some very important ways, I’m a successful example of what the women’s movement sought to achieve. What I’m about to say may be the most ironic form male braggadocio has ever taken, but insomuch as a single individual can represent such a thing, I am the post-patriarchal man.

So, what about the fight on the train? What about my alpha-male aggression and wanting to paint my face in the dude’s blood? Those things don’t really mesh with my granola upbringing. Maybe, knowing a bit more about me, you’re tempted to give me a pass. We all do uncharacteristic things from time to time, right? Then consider this:

One night, about six months after the run-in on the subway, I chased a man down an alley into the parking lot of an abattoir, close to where Lyana and I lived in downtown Toronto. I tackled him, jumped on top of him, punched him in the face four or five times, rolled him over onto his stomach, and held him on the ground until the police arrived.

Moments before, I’d heard a woman screaming in the shadowy courtyard behind our building. I mean really screaming—screaming like her life was in danger. I heard this from our fourth-storey flat, where we were lying in bed watching TV. Lyana called the police as I bolted out of our place, bounded down the stairs, and sprinted onto the street, pulling a shirt on over my head as I ran. I hadn’t bothered with shoes. I was afraid—Lyana and I both were—that this woman, whoever she was, was being beaten or raped.

It turned out some crackhead had run off with her purse. By the time I caught up with him, two guys had already chased him into the abattoir loading yard and were gingerly trying to corner him. I snuck up from behind. The man turned and saw me, his eyes bugging out of his head. He tried to slip past me, but I was too close; he panicked, lost his footing, and skidded in the gravel. I took advantage of his misstep and brought him down. The cops came and arrested him and gave me the standard warning: What if he’d had a weapon? But the constable who took my statement clearly thought the whole thing was pretty fantastic.

“You just did our job for us,” he said. “Half the time, these guys run off before we can get there.” And, when he saw I wasn’t wearing shoes, he laughed. “Who are you, buddy, the barefoot bandit?” He gave me a lift back to my building and shook my hand.

But Lyana found the whole thing exasperating. “You could have been killed!” she said.

I protested. “I’d rather be dead than let a woman get raped while I listen to it from my apartment.” I was jacked-up, totally wired, and I was about to launch into my Kitty Genovese spiel, but Lyana interrupted me.

“She wasn’t being raped!” she cried. “He stole her purse. You didn’t have to go after him.”

She seemed to be missing the fact that I had just potentially saved a woman’s life. I felt pretty fucking good about the whole thing, and it bothered me she didn’t get it. I left our apartment and went up to the building’s gym and got on one of the treadmills. I needed to burn off some adrenalin. I bounced along to the whir of the machine in a weird state of endorphin-induced hypnosis and considered Lyana’s perspective.

I’m a little impulsive, sure. Macho and aggressive, even. But these instances represent a minuscule fraction of my life, and every time it’s been about protecting someone, being a good guy, standing up to the assholes other people can’t or won’t or are too afraid to confront. After all, were Lyana to find herself behind some dark building, calling for help, she’d be delighted—as she admits—to see a guy like me, ready to take out the trash. If that means an aggressive meth-head gets a bloody nose and a couple of loose teeth, so what?

But that wasn’t what bothered her. What bothered her was the thing I wasn’t fully admitting to myself.

On the treadmill, I replayed the scene in my head: the takedown, the look on the man’s face, the surprised little O of his mouth, the greying stubble around his lips. It was like my own private action movie. I played it over in my head a few times, coaxing a fresh bolus of endorphins from my adrenal glands. I punched the button on the treadmill and picked up the pace. I had been running hard for half an hour already, and I felt great. I pictured what I would have done if the guy had been carrying a knife: I would have wrestled it away from him and dug it into his thigh. Or maybe I would have pulled back his greasy forelock and held the blade to his hairline, counting coup like an Apache warrior. I ended the run in a sprint. I felt fucking fantastic.

Ah. That was it, the thing that worried Lyana. The Clockwork Orange bit, the fact that I enjoyed the ol’ ultraviolence a little too much.

There’s a line of Freud’s I stumbled upon as an undergrad, in Civilization and Its Discontents:

Civilization…obtains mastery over the individual’s dangerous desire for aggression by setting up an agency within him to watch over it, like a garrison in a conquered city.

It’s the term “dangerous desire” that’s stuck with me. The dangerous part is self-evident: bloodshed, bodily harm, the nasty business of human brutality. But the really scary stuff—and the really interesting stuff—lies in the desire.

To put it bluntly—and I know I’m stating the obvious here—there’s a part of me that craves violence. Or, if not craves it, weirdly gets off on it. The other part of me (the larger, better part, I’d like to think) always regrets it after it’s over, as soon as my logic and empathy come back online. But when I’m in the midst of it, violence feels right—appropriate, somehow, and justified. Weirder still, and embarrassing, now that I’m putting it down on paper, is how important this capacity for violence is to me. It’s part of how I define myself. Even if I were never to fight again, I’d still want to be large and powerful and to be perceived this way. It makes me feel confident, attractive, and inexplicably optimistic. It makes me whole. Take it away and it sort of feels like an amputation.

So why? Why am I this way? And what am I supposed to do about it?

My own stupidity troubles me and fascinates me. I find it worrisome that my emotions grab the wheel from time to time—and that, at some level, I let them. But here’s what really concerns me: What if the urges to rape, beat, and murder are, in some men, as powerful as my own urge to use violence in order to protect people? What if those men are drawn to it the way I’m drawn to my own righteous anger? There’s a lot of evidence suggesting this is true, that these emotions are present in many men and potentially dormant in a great many more. I find this pretty unsettling. How similar are these urges to the ones I have? What’s the relationship? Could my urge to beat up the guy who threatens my wife somehow curdle into the urge to beat her, to rape her? Or some other woman? Could my hateful ability to view some idiot on the subway as subhuman twist itself in such a way that I begin to see an office rival as not really human, not worthy of my empathy? What about a political rival? Or members of a particular religious or ethnic group? How far down do these desires go? Where do they come from? And what does it mean that a man like me, someone who is self-aware, pro-social, educated, gainfully employed, who questions socially defined gender roles, who is otherwise well-adjusted, has trouble resisting the urge to be violent? What then? What do I do about it? More importantly, what do we do about all those men out there who aren’t especially self-aware, or who simply don’t care? Or who just plain revel in the nastiness of it all?

I set out to research these people and the violent acts they commit. More specifically, the emotions that precede violence, the urges that influence our thoughts and weaken our resolution, the undercurrents that run against our better intentions and lead us to do horrible things.

There’s more to this than voyeurism. It’s not really acceptable to talk about this stuff—at least not as openly or as honestly as I think we ought to. We’re touchy about violence the way Victorian society was touchy about sex. These urges are crude and unacceptable. We feel naughty when we admit to having them, so we often don’t. Especially since accepting that these emotions are real and extremely common might be mistaken for condoning them. Understandably, we’ve erected strong moral sanctions against these feelings. It makes sense to do so because, quite clearly, violence is a moral issue. But it’s easy to fall into a trap by convincing ourselves that as long as people understand and agree that violence is immoral, they won’t do it; by insisting that what we really need to do is re-educate men in order to buttress their sense of morality. If we do this properly, we presume, violent men will become more pacific. This hasn’t been my experience. I think the whole thing is a lot more complicated than that. I’m struggling with the how of it all.

As I see it, the problem with trying to contain vice by moral sanction alone is that you never get close enough to the thing you’re trying to keep at bay to understand it. At least, that’s how it’s been with me. I’m a nice guy until, suddenly, I’m not. Part of it is that moral sanctions, the notion that we simply shouldn’t act violently, prevent us from fully acknowledging these feelings. And this makes it easy to be caught off guard when they quietly work their insidious little tentacles under our feet and unexpectedly yank us over to the dark side. If you really want to understand something, if you want to dissect it and name its parts, you need a certain intimacy with it. You need to touch and feel and grope around in the dark and get your hands dirty. With violence, this is particularly distasteful, but it’s important because, as with any human behaviour, what we keep from ourselves, we can’t understand. And what we don’t understand, we can’t control. And that’s kind of the point, isn’t it?

Having an honest conversation about violence is uncomfortable. I think we all get that it’s emotionally uncomfortable. But it’s also intellectually uncomfortable. It’s hard to talk about human violence without suddenly finding yourself in either the Nature camp or the Nurture camp. Even if you’re not one for carrying banners, you’ll find yourself handed one, often by people with ideological axes to grind.
Before I began my career in journalism, I studied neuroscience and psychology; I’ve spent a sizeable chunk of my journalistic career reporting on science. As a result, one of the ways I view human behaviour is through the lens of science, especially neuroscience and evolutionary biology. It’s not the only way to view human behaviour, nor necessarily the best way. But the past few hundred years of logical inquiry make it clear that the brain is the source of human behaviour and that the brain, like the rest of our body, has been shaped by the evolutionary process. Violence is a moral concern, but issuing forth, as it does, from one of our bodily organs, it’s also a scientific one. There’s a lot of compelling research suggesting that my violent tendencies can be partially understood as a product of our evolutionary past and our biological makeup.

So, clearly, I’m a Hobbesian, right? A hawk. A biological determinist who believes humans are a bunch of meat robots programmed with the cold logic of genetic propagation. It figures that a guy like me would glom on to whatever explanation allows him to rationalize his desire to be nasty and brutish.

That’s not my position at all. But people often go there when I express my interest in the biology of human violence. Likewise, if you tend to champion the environmental causes of violence—economics, education, role models, cultural influences, those sorts of things—people will assume you’re waving the flag for Jean-Jacques Rousseau, that, in addition to being naive and wearing hemp and listening to the Grateful Dead, you believe that humans are inherently sweet, and that the world would still be peachy and wholesome if our natural goodness hadn’t been corrupted by the patriarchy.

That’s what I mean about being assigned a position. Start talking about the causes of violence and, invariably, it becomes not just an intellectual discussion but a political one.

The pendulum has always swung back and forth between nature and nurture. At this moment, the biological perspective happens to be the angle a lot of people would prefer to exclude from the story we tell ourselves about ourselves. In other times, it’s been different. Different eras have pinned violence and other social problems wholly on bad blood, race, breeding. Those ideas too were premised on an incomplete understanding of human behaviour. I know what it’s like to tell yourself an autobiography that’s only partially true. In terms of bettering yourself, it doesn’t get you very far.

In terms of understanding violence—my own, male violence in general—I suspect the best way forward lies in trudging out into the no man’s land that lies beyond the various ideological camps.

That’s usually closer to where the truth lies.

From MAD BLOOD STIRRING: Into the Lives of Violent Men by Daemon Fairless. Copyright © Daemon Fairless, 2018. Published by Random House Canada, a division of Penguin Random House Canada. Reprinted by permission of the publisher.

Daemon Fairless
Daemon Fairless is a writer and journalist with a master's degree in neuroscience, who has worked as a producer on CBC Radio's flagship current affairs show As It Happens, and as a print journalist for the science journal Nature.
Mariah Llanes
Mariah Llanes has drawn for the Globe and Mail, Swerve, and Narratively.