The Hero’s Body is the 2016 memoir from critic and novelist William Giraldi (Busy Monsters and Hold the Dark ). It’s a poignant, brutally candid account of growing up scrawny and bookish in a family of “unapologetic, unforgiving masculinity,” and of the obsessions he developed in coming to terms with that ethos as well as with a tragic loss.
He was born William Giraldi IV in Manville, a working-class town hard by the Raritan River in central New Jersey. When he was ten, his mother abandoned the family, leaving him “to be raised by men for whom masculinity was not just a way of being but a sacral creed.” Somehow, in this proudly “nonliterary household,” he was drawn to literature. He’d buy bagfuls of paperbacks for a dollar at library and yard sales. During his Catholic grade school’s annual book fare, he would sneak away from evening basketball practice in the school’s gym, break into the main building, and help himself to as many books as he could stuff into his duffel bag. For him, this was not so much thievery as it was a “search for self,” driven by a resolute belief that “language [was] a form of deliverance…a religion more vibrant and sanative than what I was being sold by the Catholic clergy six days a week.”
At the age of fifteen, eight months after a harrowing month-long battle with viral meningitis and a recent break-up with his girlfriend, he wandered into his Uncle Tony’s basement, a space fitted out with all manner of weight-lifting equipment. Giraldi followed his uncle around as he went through his routine, gamely performing the same exercises. He experienced “sensations of baptism or birth,” a feeling that he had “just been claimed by something holy.” In the daily lifting sessions that followed for the next two years, he found a way to “make my own creation myth, to renovate my pathetic vessel into a hero’s body,” and, in the process, gain the acceptance of his father, grandfather, and uncles.
Giraldi graduated from his uncle’s basement to a gym that catered to hard-core body builders. And so began his use of anabolic steroids, which, in addition to bulking up his body, gave him high blood pressure, debilitating headaches, back acne, and gynecomastia (an increase in male breast tissue). He endured it all because he was “pantingly desperate for some semblance of power, for my place among men.” Soon he decided to enter a bodybuilding competition, and every day for two months in advance he tortuously sculpted his body into a symmetrical mass of sinew while consuming multiple thousands of calories. He placed second, much to the (muted) delight of his father, grandfather, and Uncle Tony, who were in attendance. After a second contest some six months later, he quit bodybuilding altogether because it no longer was all-consuming, because he came to realize “that my future was something else”: writing.