Band of brothers

The men's movement (still) want guys to open their hearts

Metro Times, Detroit/November 11, 2006
By Michael Jackson

In a rented meeting space in a northern Detroit suburb, an "integration group" — or "I-group" — is meeting. Nine "warrior brothers" sit in a circle, surrounding a candleholder shaped like men locking arms in a huddle. Next to the candleholder sits a prayer fan. A symbol of power, the staff, sits nearby. This room is what these men call a "safe container," a place where male emotions are allowed. One by one, these men spend the evening talking about personal issues and feelings. When men want to echo the speaker's sentiments, they extend an arm to show sympathy. The "elders" identify their standing in the group by asserting when they "did their weekend." And one can talk with them all night without learning what car they drive, what they do for a living, what sports they enjoy watching. In a strange reversal of topics, these men don't talk about "things." They talk about loved ones and relationships instead.

Once a month, Mankind Project's weekly gathering of "warrior brothers" opens itself to interested outsiders, showing curious men what the group has to offer. Like the New Warrior Training Adventure, the details of the I-group are secret. What is said here stays there. Though the men's words cannot be repeated, what's memorable is how they say them. The evening progresses from archetype to archetype. During each "round," the men, one by one, participate, until everybody has spoken.

The "lover round" is a time to talk about feelings, to "check in" with the emotions — anger, sadness, joy, fear and shame — that are dominant at that time, challenging the idea that men must live up in their heads while their emotions remain shrouded in mystery.

The "warrior round" is a time to deal with integrity and accountability. The men discuss how well they are living up to their own personal standards, and may ask another man's help in holding them to their code.

The "king round" is a time to bestow blessings on each other, to give thanks and reward accomplishments.

Finally, the "magician round" is a time of transformation, with role-playing, facilitated discussion, and any necessary conflict resolution.

This particular I-group has been going for more than a decade. The all-white group is distinctly middle-class, but as the evening progresses, it becomes clear that several of the men are gay. Clearly, this is an accepting, gay-friendly environment.

The evening seems free of any agenda, and the sharing isn't always pretty. Some men vent their anger and frustration, and their outbursts are accepted, as the group prefers to have them released in a safe space. Like the meetings of Alcoholics Anonymous, what is said here stays here. Frank talk is invited, and only gossip is frowned upon. It lasts for hours, and when it finally comes to a close, the group stands and gathers in a huddle, arms locked around each other's backs, giving final blessings before breaking up for the night.

Meet the men

Men's groups are nothing new — think of the Masons, Elks and Fred Flintstone's Loyal Order of Water Buffaloes — but in the last 25 years, we've seen mass movements of men searching for meaning in their lives. The Million Man March on Washington and the Promise Keepers grabbed headlines in the 1990s.

And every few years, it seems men are rediagnosed and renamed, whether it be "angry white males," NASCAR dads or metrosexuals.

But men's groups like Mankind Project originated far away from the angry men of talk radio and the pious men of the Promise Keepers. The men's movement as we know it grew out of — or was informed by — the women's movement of the 1970s. Rather than being rigid, religious or righteous, the men's movement draws on encounter groups, feminism, new age religion, Jungian therapy and comparative mythology. In the 1980s, some men began looking back at older archetypes and experimenting with initiation rituals, operating under the idea that only men can initiate men. It had a strong appeal for baby boomer men who had rejected their 1950s middle-class male archetypes — emotionally unavailable good providers — but didn't want to be "soft" males, too attuned to their feminine side.

In the case of Mankind Project, it all started in the mid-'80s, with three men brainstorming about effective mentoring. Bill Kauth, a psychotherapist and seminar leader, Ron Hering, a university professor, and Rich Tosi, a Marine veteran and former General Motors engineer, who now lives in Fenton. Armed with a few ideas about male initiation rites, the three took a group of 17 men on what was originally called a "Wildman Weekend." Since that initial weekend in 1985, Mankind Project has become a national nonprofit, operating dozens of men's centers in the United States, Europe and Africa. It is estimated that more than 35,000 men have undergone the group's New Warrior Training Adventure.

Captain Bly

In his productive career as a poet, critic, educator, activist and translator, Robert Bly spent much of the 1970s "praising the feminine soul." Then came a surprising reversal. In 1981, at a commune in New Mexico he taught a group of men for the first time. He became a regular leader of men's gatherings, experiences that informed the provocative 1990 best-seller Iron John. The book proved to be the breakthrough moment for the men's movement and launched Bly as a pop celebrity.

The book is a heady blend of psychology, then-current events, literature and comparative mythology. Bly canvassed mythology and there found hairy, powerful men who mentor young boys into heroes, especially the Brothers Grimm's tale of "Iron Hans." It demands an indulgent reader, one willing to forgive the oracular tone and the occasional overreach of his prose. Still, every few pages Bly's comparative mythology will strike gold, much in the same way his idol Joseph Campbell consistently did.

Some critics found the book exciting. The New York Times Book Review wrote: "It is refreshing these days to read a book that does not lay the blame for America's collective ills on social injustice, the savings and loan scandal, Iraq or the National Endowment for the Arts, but — get this — on defective mythology." The reviewer, psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, hummed sympathetically that, "moon shots and genetic engineering notwithstanding, we are still befuddled creatures needing all the help we can get from the distilled experience of the ancients of the tribe."

But the note of critical approval was rare. The Times Literary Supplement hooted, "For the unreconstructed, almost anything — drink, drugs, depression or matriarchal domination — will seem preferable to the prospect of joining one of Bly's cheery male support groups." In The Village Voice, Sally Eckhoff huffed, "Maybe women should be glad that the job of keeping everybody emotionally lubricated is off our shoulders for a while."

Bly's effort to envision masculinity as a positive force became more misunderstood than ever. Suddenly, quiet men's gatherings were caught between tree-hugging, drum-beating caricatures and people trying to turn a buck by hawking male vitality tea. And since Iron John, the currency of Bly's ideas has retreated, in many ways, to the encounter groups that first developed them.

And that's a shame. Or so says Jess Row, writing for Slate that we need "more books like Iron John." Remarking on contemporary writers, such as Caitlin Flanagan, who peddle canned gender roles, Row mourns that there aren't more books examining "contemporary relationships and gender roles without panic, dread or shame." His unfortunate conclusion is that, in the age of ironists like David Sedaris, much of Iron John is simply too painfully earnest to strike a popular chord.

Row writes, "reading it today reveals how much American culture has changed over the last decade and a half. The 'men's movement' was briefly the subject of controversy among feminist and derision for conservatives, but what killed it, more than anything, was simply that it was too easy a target for satire," that "the fear of ridicule" has "made any serious discussion of men's emotional lives impossible."

Shaping a loving world

Peter Putnam has great speaking energy. Soft-spoken but intense, the 47-year-old community college writing teacher and author sits in Cass Cafe, telling how he got involved with Mankind Project several years ago.

"I was at a friend's party, and I met this guy. He told me all about Mankind Project and I was fascinated. I never saw him again or figured out who it was, but he gave me a card with the number on it.

"That number sat by the phone for months. I knew when I was ready — and then things happened quickly."

Putnam called the group and "did his weekend," going on a men's retreat known as the New Warrior Training Adventure. There, Putnam was able to deal with his repressed emotions, to empty his "shadow bag" of anger and sadness.

"You need to have a way to express those feelings. We're taught to stuff our feelings into our 'shadow bag.' You stuff away enough anger for a long enough time and it starts to get toxic. You need to let that out or it's going to hurt you."The group was a way for him to come to terms with his father, who died when Putnam was in his 30s. "When I was growing up, my archetype was the 1950s man, John Wayne, the 'old warrior' of my father's generation: hardworking, focused, determined. But it was too nationalistic. But, still, they were warriors. They got the job done."

But these good providers couldn't give what Putnam calls "the blessing," something he wants to be able to pass on to other men. As a husband and father he's thought about that a lot. That thinking led to The Song of Father-Son (iUniverse, $21.95, 270 pp.), which even sports a photo of Putnam cradling his child, Henry, in his arms. The Song is a series of meditations on manhood, fatherhood and "unblessed sons," with stories from his life and "warrior work." Some of the passages show how moving the journey of self-discovery can be. A reading from his book would be a fitting close to a men's movement meeting.

But what is it about the men's movement that this wiry, bookish Detroiter finds so compelling? Why isn't it good enough to be a good person?

"For much of my life, I was a good person. It wasn't enough. My 'warrior' had to be repressed. By being strong men, we can change the world more effectively by accessing those energies that have been repressed. We need to have access to that masculine energy that's untapped to shape a more loving world."

Putnam's enthusiasm for the men's movement's new age trappings is infectious and charming. "When I did my weekend, part of it was to rename myself," he says. "The name that I found coming out of that weekend was Strong Bear. I think it's still a good name. I realize it may sound hokey to some people. I mean, sure, I'm not going to come into Cass Cafe and announce myself as Strong Bear. But it really is a powerful experience to give yourself a name that you choose."

Fishers of men

"Mind-body exhibitors. Free workshops. Free parking." So reads a flier for the Human Spirit Expo, which has taken over Holt High School on the outskirts of Lansing on this bright autumn afternoon. Vendors have turned the high school's concourse into a marketplace, hawking everything from "healthy chocolate" to new age crystals. Some lie prone on low tables while masseuses work them over. Every sort of psychic reading abounds here, not just tarot readings, but such unusual offerings as "Native American bone readings."

Mankind Project Vice Chair Kirk Tirakian seems a bit doubtful about the expo. "Do we attract any people because of this? I'm not sure. The Mind-Body-Spirit Expo is larger. That one's put on by phenomeNEWS, and we did get some people interested there."

Among the shiny crystals, dream-catchers and nutrition displays, offering men community seems an odd fit. But the theme of mentoring elders dovetails nicely with the presence of Dan Millman. The expo's keynote speaker, Millman is the author of Way of the Peaceful Warrior, which was made into film with a minor theatrical release. The book tells the story of a young athlete whose dreams turn to ashes until he finds an older man who mentors him back to health. The film has been screened twice today, and Millman is hanging around, speaking to fans before his speech this evening.

In a sparsely occupied corner of the expo, the Mankind Project men sit at a table beneath a banner that asks, "Are you the man you thought you'd become?" It's the ultimate low-pressure pitch, with type big enough to be read across the room. A few low stacks of literature sit on the table, and the project's integration group coordinator, Michael Erickson, sits with the patience of a seasoned fisherman. Despite the bustling business over at the psychic end of the expo, only perhaps a dozen men have expressed interest in the group today.

Erickson, middle age with a head of close-cropped white hair, has a disarmingly sincere manner. Asked what the group has given him, his eyes crinkle into a tender smile. "I found a home. I found somebody to call to give me a pat on the back," he says, adding with a laugh, "or a kick in the ass."

As Erickson tells it, the group is about "opening up," integrating one's psyche and integrating one's self with one's brothers. Pressed to go beyond buzzwords and jargon, Erickson echoes the writings of Bly and others, who believe that contemporary society offers men a merely provisional manhood, saps men of trust, and crushes their souls with judgment.

Speaking of a prehistoric past, Erickson argues that we've lost crucial initiation rituals that release "a huge amount of energy." He adds that for men who had difficult childhoods — as he takes a moment to hint at his own troubled upbringing — the group offers a way to heal those wounds and grow. The way his eyes glitter when he alludes to his childhood, one wonders if they are shining with insight or watery with bittersweetness.

Given all this openness and sincerity, it should be a tricky business to talk turkey. But when the time comes to put a price on the New Warrior Training Adventure weekend — $600 — Erickson doesn't blink. The money goes back into the organization. "There's no profit taken," he says, "and even our staffers pay to participate in it."

When asked why something deemed so vital to men should be out of reach to so many, Erickson responds disarmingly: "If the interest is there and the means aren't, there are ways to subsidize it. Let's put it this way: If somebody doesn't have enough money, there's always a way to make it work."

Reaching out

Though the men's movement does remain largely white and middle-class, some local men are trying to bridge that divide, with surprising results.

Pontiac resident Ron Gay, a 51-year-old carpenter, was until recently a multicultural coordinator for Mankind Project. Calm, self-possessed and quietly eloquent, Gay is a men's group veteran who first got involved in men's groups 14 years ago. As a "warrior" with Mankind Project, Gay seems a textbook example of the sort of healing men can accomplish together.

His father was no stranger to another era's men's groups, becoming a 33rd-degree Mason in Gay's native Alabama. Gay describes his relationship with his father as loving, but it came to a tragic end when his father was killed in a construction accident when Gay was 13 years old.

"That was a wound," Gay says, "but the greater wound was that the men in my life weren't equipped to help me." As Gay describes it, when he found that his uncles and other male elders lacked the skills to step in and help, it started a lifelong journey that caused him to ask: "How do men learn to be there for each other?"

In the mid-1990s, while working as a docent at a holocaust museum, Gay began looking through the museum's files, reading about how the Masons were persecuted by the Nazis. The persecution flew in the face of the all-white Masonic tradition he knew, and inspired him to question the value of groups that didn't reach out to others.

"I felt we didn't have Detroit. In many ways, it was a repetition of my father's lodge."

This April, Gay teamed up with fellow warrior Putnam to start a monthly meeting called Men's Forum. It's an effort to strip away some of the men's movement's trappings and find a middle ground that will attract interested men in the inner city. So far, the group has attracted a core of four or five men, and appears to be gathering strength.

Are low-income men or men of color even interested in this sort of thing? "I sense the desire is there," Gay says, "but the need for common ground makes it more important to be pragmatic, to discuss how to be a good father, how to deal with real problems.

"I don't need all the ceremony, but it doesn't scare me."

The group, which meets at the Unitarian-Universalist Church on Cass Avenue near Wayne State University, is still experimenting with the structure of the meetings.

"In Mankind Project, the men that are there already have life skills in place," Gay explains. "But it's really important to have food and shelter before you ask, 'How do I feel?' It's an important question, but it's one you ask later. In the Men's Forum, this is not small talk. It's DUIs, debt, social issues and alimony. And it's personal stuff — a place to come share your experiences as a son, a father, a grandfather, a husband. We try to balance the two."

Gay understands the hazards of his undertaking, and takes pains to avoid any perceptions of "missionary work."

"It takes time and trust, building a rapport," he says. "Our message is that you don't have to do it on your own."

Enter the warriors

It's a sunny October day in Ferndale, in a basement meeting space at the Metropolitan Community Church of Detroit, where the Mankind Project is holding one of this year's graduation ceremonies. Light filters in through block glass windows as dozens of spectators — family members, spouses, partners and children — take steel chairs set on the shuffleboard floor. A few staffers are present, laughing, talking about yesterday's Human Spirit Expo and occasionally clasping their arms around each other in heartfelt embraces. On necklaces, they wear pendants of cloth that they call "talismans," stones and other items wrapped reverently by "elders" in fabric. On a table near a wall festooned with regalia from the space's regular Boy Scout meetings are before-and-after Polariods of today's graduates. The "before" photos are tense, unsmiling, grim. In the "after" photos, the men beam with pride and happiness.

The "new brothers" are meeting outside in the parking lot for a "debriefing" before the graduation ceremony. Inside, a burly but soft-spoken man, Mankind Project's regional representative Dave Tuscany, stands up to address the crowd, telling them what to expect today.

"We men tend to be cut off from here to here," he says, placing a forearm against his neck and then his belly. "The idea of the New Warrior Training Adventure is that we try to get in touch with feelings that would normally be cut off." Some in the crowd, notably women, nod in understanding. Tuscany goes on to explain how the "warrior weekend" reimagines ancient tribal efforts to rein in the worst excesses of masculinity, helping "warriors" to find the difference between the "macho" and the "masculine."

"Why are we here today? To support our loved ones." In a nod to the wives, children, parents and same-sex partners in the audience, he says, "It will be a lot easier if we just say that you're here to support your 'man' — your lover, husband or partner. We're here to support our men, to foster their continuing growth."

Shortly, the conversation turns to "mythopoetic" matters — Jungian "shadows," repressed parts of the self, empowerment circles and shifts in energy — and it becomes easy to get distracted. The mysterious terms do as much to explain as they do to obscure. But before the spectators can get too confused with the jargon, all is soon forgotten when the "new brothers" make their dramatic entry.

A gauntlet of staffers forms by the entrance, and at first glance they seem to be making "jazz hands," fluttering their fingers in the air. This esoteric device, it is later explained, is American sign language for "applause," though some in the group prefer to call this affirmation "sprinkles." Deliberately, the dozens of graduates enter the room through this silent applause and take seats in front of the spectators. It is a few minutes before they are all seated. Though Mankind Project requires "new brothers" to be at least 18, and the group skews young, though it does include several older men.

One by one, graduates come forward to accept a group photo and a certificate. As they do, they are handed a tall staff to hold as they address the audience. The first warrior comes before the audience with a sly smile on his face, as though he has a secret.

He eyes the audience for a moment, then announces, "I am Courageous Sea Lion, and I welcome you."

One by one, they come forward and introduce themselves with their "animal names" before making a short speech about what motivated their decision to do "the weekend" and what they felt and learned. They introduce themselves with inventive "animal names," such as "Green Crocodile," "Strong Dolphin," "White Lion," "Old Grouper" and "Sky Panther."

Their speeches are short, but the atmosphere is charged as they speak. Some of them cry "Ho!" — a shout of joyous affirmation that's roared back by the group. Some of them burst into tears, letting their emotions wash over them. One warrior has decided that, from now on, he will use his full birth name. "I wasn't letting all the parts of me come forward," he announces, "and I've decided to claim my last name."

Twentysomething warrior Pristine Deer tells how his college classmates noticed his newfound positive energy, teasing him by asking, "Dude, are you high, man?"

Serene Hawk grabs the staff and soberly describes feeling detached: "I was going through life in a daze. But now I can accept who I am, what I am, and what I've gone through. I'm now ready to step into my real life and be present."

Timber Wolf, who says the weekend was "scarier than jumping out of an airplane," tells how he returned from the weekend and found himself weeping with his daughter.

Another graduate tells how the experience "helped me find my compassion and helped me find my strength. And I'm grateful for community."

White Lion comes forward to say, "I was a people-pleaser. Now I know that I come first."

This sentiment is echoed by another warrior, who, staff in hand, says, "I now have a stronger understanding of who I am, and I'm not letting others define it for me. It's called 'backbone.'"

In a wavering, nervous voice, Bald Eagle deliberately says, "As much as I said I didn't want to be here, for me the worst fear is to be disconnected with the rest of humanity. I don't want to do my life alone — there's so much fear of connecting. I want to get that connection again."

Another graduate's speech is short and to-the-point, marveling, "I have never spent time in the company of men where there was no shaming or humiliation."

Perhaps the most arresting speech that lasts only 20 or so seconds, filled with deliberate pauses. A tall young man beams as he takes the stick and announces, "I'm Beautiful Man."

He looks at the audience for several seconds before saying, "I feel comfortable standing in front of you."

He stands there for several discomfiting moments more before lobbing this line: "The thing on my face ... is a smile."

Glimpses of adventure

So what goes on during men's initiation retreats of various men's groups? A look at the literature of the men's movement does offer glimpses of what happens, and it's not all sweat lodges and drumming circles. A quick Internet search can yield anonymous postings arguing that the retreat is simply a way to fleece people by making them run screaming naked through the forest. Some are put off or made uncomfortable by the role-playing or "warrior work" that goes on. Indeed some of the actual descriptions of men's retreats that are available are surprising — and often harrowing.

In Iron John, Robert Bly describes a gathering in which more than 2,000 strips of red cloth were given to several hundred men. The men were asked to "fasten or tie a red strip over any part of his body that had been wounded in some way."

"Many men needed ten or more strips. For some men the entire right side of the body, head to ankle, was brilliant red; on others the red almost covered the head; for some, both arms and legs. When the exercise was over, the room was a sea of red."

Bly also describes men who purge their anger "in shouts of rage that can go on for 20 minutes." In their book Victories of the Heart: The Inside Story of a Pioneer Men's Group, Robert Mark and Buddy Portugal also describe men purging themselves of their emotions by shrieking for several minutes, leaving those watching turning pale and trembling. The book also recounts role-playing exercises attempting to re-create traumatic emotional scenes from participants' childhoods that involve screaming, crying and intense emotional responses.

In his book, Peter Putnam describes a men's retreat where he was "reborn" by traveling through a "birth canal" of men, emerging at the end and cutting a symbolic umbilical cord.

In some of these situations, the level of physical intimacy involved, men touching and holding each other, calls for new ways of defining what's proper. Mark and Portugal take care to discuss it frankly: "We are two men who love one another, who have developed a powerful bond in a nonsexual relationship. We do not intend to red-flag the nonsexual aspect, although it is important."

The fact that the men's movement is so friendly to gay men is likely to cause homophobes to break out in a cold sweat. As Mark and Portugal explain, "Gay men have the same needs as heterosexual men for connection with other men in a safe, respectful relationship that includes a sense of brotherhood and deep compassion for the welfare of the other person."

The middle ground

It's the last Monday of November, and in a parlor on the second floor of the Unitarian-Universalist church's McAdow House in Detroit, Gay and Putnam's Men's Forum is meeting. The chairs around a meeting table quickly fill up. On this night, the forum has drawn about 10 men, their biggest group yet. It's a genuinely diverse bunch, about half black and half white, with men anywhere from their 20s to their 50s. The forum is still finding its rhythm, and one gets the sense that it's being invented as it happens.

The meeting opens with each man briefly discussing what's going well in his life and what's not working. Though nobody "checks in" by ticking off feelings, the small speeches do offer snapshots of what the men's emotions are. It's a clever tactic, one evidently arrived at by trial and error since the group started meeting seven months ago.

The next hour is spent discussing something practical. On this evening, a participant has brought his camera and is discussing digital photography. It's an interesting dynamic: The men begin by discussing something personal, their statements careful, tentative, qualified. There is no weeping or shrieking, just a light loosening of the emotional restraints. But when the talk turns to photography, suddenly the table fills with life, everybody eager to discuss things, technology, action. It has a limbering effect, establishing a rapport that helps those unfamiliar with "checking in" and "shadow bags" to seize a sense of community.

After a short break, the men return to the table for a discussion of interracial relationships. After an hour of practical dialogue, the group is sufficiently lubricated to share personal stories. Everybody at the table has something to share, and a few disclosures evidently surprise and electrify some of the men at the table. The Men's Forum seems to be finding its groove.

As the two-and-a-half-hour meeting comes to a close, it seems as though it's been just a short visit. By the time the men are ponying up a few dollars each to pay for the space, everybody is on a first-name basis, and everybody has shared something personal, something practical and something emotional. And nobody talked about football once.

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