My (very) weird weekend with the naked woodland warriors who travel to remote England to 'reclaim their masculinity'

The Daily Mail, UK/March 12, 2010

By Tom Mitchelson

How our man found himself with 65 naked men chanting, drumming - and screaming their rage against women to 'reclaim' their lost masculinity...

The temperature has plunged to freezing. I am deep in a remote English woodland outside Exeter.

I have been blindfolded and I am standing, holding hands, with a long line of men - who, until about 24 hours ago, I'd never met before.

Together, we are stumbling through the scrub as beating tribal drums guide our way. Oh yes, and we are naked. Totally naked.

Abruptly, my blindfold is ripped off and I see we have been led to a shadowy candle-lit room. There are about 65 of us in a double horseshoe formation.

This is a ceremony where we are to become 'new warriors'. And then the dancing begins.

I wish I were somewhere else. Anywhere else. So why on earth am I here?

I have signed up to the ManKind Project, an all-male group boasting 1,700 UK members that aims to release men's 'inner warrior' and reclaim their masculinity. I am about to graduate from their New Warrior training course.

It was launched in 1985 in the U.S. by a former marine, Rich Tosi, a therapist, Bill Kauth, and a university professor, Ron Hering, under the guise of providing 'educational services'.

They claim to be a not-for-profit company and nearly 40,000 men have attended their courses worldwide.

But things haven't been going well. Five years ago one of their recruits, Michael Scinto, made a complaint to the Madison County Sheriff in Texas that he'd been abused during a traumatic weekend with the project.

He subsequently committed suicide and his relatives filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the ManKind Project, which eventually settled out of court and claimed it would change certain of its practices.

I had also been tipped off by a number of concerned wives - who'd noticed disturbing changes in their husbands' behaviour since attending one of ManKind's UK weekends away.

My aim is to go undercover to find out just how serious these allegations against them are - or whether they're just a bunch of misguided men who need a break from their women.

My first experience of the organisation is not pleasant. After signing up online to attend their initiation weekend, I am sent an intimidating amount of paperwork - including a confidentiality agreement. Of course, they have no idea I'm a journalist, and it's costing me £500 for the privilege.

Everything I read from them is baffling non-speak. They claim the weekend is a 'process of initiation and self-examination that is crucial to the development of a healthy and mature male self'.

They claim they help move men away from the 'comforting embrace' of their mother - something, on the face of it, some wives might even encourage. Then I am told I will 'confront' my 'dependence on women', to help me move into the 'masculine kingdom'.

To be honest, it all sounds absolutely ludicrous. But nothing as ludicrous as what I discover when I arrive at the training centre in the West Country.

As I enter, I am asked to line up with my fellow recruits and we are ordered to 'observe the sacred silence'.

This is all before we've been shown to where we're staying. It's all rather bizarre, as they begin a strange game where I am asked to walk up to a man who stares at me, with black camouflage paint on his face. The process is repeated again, and again.

Then I am ordered into a Dutch barn, where yet another confidentiality agreement is thrust in front of me, forbidding me to mention anything that happens over the weekend.

They seem to have a paranoid fear of anything getting out. This, I suppose, should have set even more alarm bells ringing.

Next, I am shouted at to hand over all the food I've been ordered to bring - any food, but enough for three men. I feel as if I'm on a military boot camp, although I suspect most of the participants are really just accountants from Slough.

We are all told that we are on a 'journey' and we 'will never be the same again'. Then we are led into a darkened room, where more people shout random words at us.

I seem to have wondered into a Marx Brothers film, but without the laughs.

The unnamed men, dressed in black with their black face paint, want me to hand over my mobile phone, watch, books and food. I do, but I am subjected to a complete search of my bag and my body.

They discover half a bottle of rum, notebook and pen. The faux commando is livid. He shrieks: 'Do you have problems following orders?' I nod guiltily, stunning him into silence.

We are directed to another dark room, where all the new recruits and I sit for more than an hour. In silence. At this point, I'm just wondering what on earth is going to happen next.

Suddenly, three men burst in, give me a bandana for a blindfold and take me to a place where drums are beating. I remove the blindfold to see I am surrounded by what I can only describe as the Men In Black.

A leader holding a wooden staff decorated with feathers rambles on about the mission of the weekend, using the pompous jargon that would later become very familiar: words like 'shadow', 'warriors', 'masculine', 'commitment' and 'responsibility'.

He tells us how to be a man. It's hard to take from a man wearing face paint, carrying a feathered stick.

Having finished his speech, he calls upon men at random to stand up and explain why they were there. Hard to say why, but people are starting to open their hearts.

One man cries as he answers questions about his unhappy marriage. The guards stand in a threatening circle around us, staring aggressively in silence.

I am starting to feel very uncomfortable. When I signed up for the course, they told me I couldn't drive there because there was a shortage of car-parking spaces.

Instead, I was told I should join the others on their minibus to travel several miles from the station, so it is with a sinking feeling that I realise I am stranded.

Many of the men talk about their relationships, work and feelings of anger and regret. 'Sharing', they call it. They all appeared sincere and open. Not buttoned up and repressed, but here-it-is, take-it-all, heart-on-my-sleeve types.

It is here that I learn a piece of warrior etiquette. When a brother 'shares', the correct response is to raise both hands as if surrendering and waggle your hands. At the same time, you say ' Ahho'. At first, I mishear and say 'Ahoy'.

Until the early hours of the morning, we engage in a series of exercises. I have to tell one man what makes me a man, and then wait while he tells me what makes him one, too. We are asked to describe how we fail to stand up to women.

They're always getting at you to put the seat down on the loo,' one of the staff men explains by way of example. For a supposed female reign of terror, this seems a weirdly banal example.

We are told to explain to each other what type of man we are. One of my 'brothers' tells me he is a liar and cheat. I suspect he means he has had affairs.

Another tells how he feels worthless, a third man explains he doesn't know how to control his anger, and another tells me his wife won't let him ride his bike.

It's not long before the blindfold is back on and we are asked to imagine we're in an African village. To assist this illusion, the Men In Black rattle pots, flick water at us and make vocal noises to represent a bustling settlement.

It's not entirely convincing. We are asked to imagine capturing a wild man who terrorises villagers and cage him. We then have to set him free.

We have been asked to visualise meeting an animal along the way. This becomes our 'warrior' name. And I spend the rest of the time with Mighty Condor, Courageous Wolf and Intrepid Panther.

It is odd that no one opts for a sheep, wombat or guinea pig. I, however, become Relaxed Penguin. Oh Lord. Now I've written that, they can identify their Judas.

It's very late. I am tired and hungry and even my sleeping bag in a freezing yurt with strangers seems attractive. It's not. I don't sleep because, a couple of hours later, the rhythmic banging of drums begins.

A man appears at the door: 'Men, we have work to do.' We are ordered to strip and line up for a cold shower. While each man steps under the water, the others watch and count to 60.

I manage to get a few words with some of the participants and they are mostly between the ages of 35 and 45.

They are not all - as I'd supposed - saddos. They work in careers such as banking, IT, education and business and all strike me as intelligent, articulate and enthusiastic about their participation in the project. The majority seem to feel that their lives are not going as they wish.

After breakfast (a handful of nuts and a spoonful of porridge) we spend the morning sharing how we feel. We roar like lions. We talk to our childhood selves and watch the staff men act out scenes such as where one man says yes and the other says no.

Over and over. It was like watching a section of a Pinter play performed by nine-year-olds.

Then it is time for what I found one of the most disturbing parts of the weekend - where we are effectively 'broken free' of our emotional past.

We are divided into three groups, each of which has a so-called 'sacred carpet', and for about an hour each man is subjected to emotionally manipulative questioning, on the carpet, that probes into his past.

Some of the staff are very skilled at reading visual signs of hidden emotion. At times, three inquisitors demand the answers to questions that eventually leave a man weeping and apparently broken.

This is happening simultaneously on all three mats. At times, it is impossible to hear what was happening on my own mat because of the wails and screams from the other groups.

The majority of the men who participate in this spectacle positively welcome this treatment. Others appear less keen. The objective seems to be to provoke a violent reaction from the person in the circle.

One man of about 40 has an issue with his mother. He felt she had treated him badly when he was younger.

A staff man is chosen to represent the mother and, while other men stand in front of him, he is goaded to confront her by pushing through a human barrier.

Instead, he flies into an uncontrolled rage. Staff become panicked and shout 'safety' as they try to immobilise him. If these staff men have any professional training, I am unaware of it.

The qualification they seem to share is that they are graduates of the course I am now on. ManKind deny that any therapy takes place. They call it training.

Another man sobs as he is told to act out beating his stepfather and mother to death. Again, he feels that they ignored him as a child and treated him with disdain.

A third man is pinned to the floor by six men and has to wrestle his way out from under a blanket, cheered on by the watching men. It is extremely disturbing to watch.

Many of the men seem to feel they suffered mental or physical abuse from their parents. They all appear to be functioning in day-to-day life, but these horrors appear easily released under the persistent and intimate questioning of their inquisitors.

I make up a story about feeling guilty for hurting a former girlfriend. I give no specific examples, but feign deep upset. They suggest my behaviour had started in childhood. I tell them it hadn't.

They talk of regressing me. I don't know if these amateur psychiatrists could achieve that or not, but they opt for getting me to wrench the guilt from my stomach by wrestling a rope up through my legs being held by four men.

Most of the men I speak to afterwards seem delighted by this experience. In fact, this is a point at which some men seem to embrace the Warrior Brotherhood.

To me it seems like a way of initiating people into a kind of cult. This session is clearly designed to be the pivotal moment in the weekend.

Now comes the time when we are awarded our warrior's insignia.

Deprived of food and sleep and subjected to the raging emotions of people around me, I am instructed to strip, put my blindfold back on and hold the hand of the man next to me.

It is now we begin the walk in the woods that leads to that candle-lit ceremony where we become New Warriors.

As I am led, blindfolded, naked and freezing, I am strangely resigned to this new, weird way of life. The other men in the group are all relaxed about such a journey.

In the candle-lit room, we are led by hand around the circle of men. Our animal names are called and all the men cheer.

With horribly vivid images playing in my mind of pot-bellies, male genitalia and saggy bums, I return to my yurt and sleep for a couple of hours.

Morning arrives and, after standing in a field 'reclaiming my paternal name', we begin 'sharing' again.

At this point, we're sprayed with burning sage and instructed - naked again - to get in the sweat lodge. This is a tent heated by burning coals.

It is pitch black inside and we are told to shout blessings, make noise, howl, quote poems and sing songs. We are finally given a meal consisting of the food we brought, and then we say our goodbyes by silently staring at each staff man.

The participants hug one another and proclaim their love to their fellow brothers. They give blessings and thank each other for the 'strength' and 'joy' they have received.

I get home and close the door behind me. I have never felt so relieved to be back in the real world. It takes me two full days to get the strange mantras and patterns of speech out of my head.

The overriding message of the course seemed confused: That we were suppressed warriors and had become emasculated; that we had to reconnect with the wild man; and to get in touch with our feelings. It was 21st-century New Age meets Neanderthal man.

The cult-like intensity with which some of my fellow warriors converted to the brotherhood astonished me.

I had been given a chilling lesson in how easily - and how fast - the kind of men I rub shoulders with every day can alter: can become aggressive and subservient by turns; and gripped by something strange.

And something else shocked me. This was an organisation that aimed to tell me how to be a man.

Yet not once during that weird and frightening weekend did I ever hear it acknowledged that we men share a world. With women.

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