[Paleopsych] Boston Globe: Daddy, what did you do in the men's movement?

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Daddy, what did you do in the men's movement?

Robert Bly may have retreated to his sweat lodge, but the reconsideration of
masculinity and fatherhood he helped initiate hasn't ended.

     By Paul Zakrzewski  |  June 19, 2005

     THE LAST TIME most of us heard a joke about grown men getting in touch
     with themselves by beating on drums or hunkering down in sweat lodges,
     the first Gulf War was in full swing, and Nirvana ruled the airwaves.
     But for a brief moment in the early 1990s, the ''men's movement" was
     everywhere you looked, from Jay Leno to ABC's ''20/20" to the pages of
     Esquire and Playboy.

     And if the movement was never particularly large or diverse -
     according to Newsweek, about 100,000 mostly white, middle-aged men had
     attended a patchwork of weekend retreats, conferences, and workshops
     by 1991, when the movement peaked - it struck a chord with a country
     that appeared confused about contemporary manhood. Books by Sam Keen,
     Michael Meade, and other leading figures in the movement sold hundreds
     of thousands of copies, while Robert Bly's ''Iron John," a cultural
     exegesis on wounded masculinity in the form of an obscure fairy tale,
     spent more than 60 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list.

     Arguably, the Bly-style mythopoetic men's movement, as it was known,
     can be traced back to the late 1970s, to men's consciousness-raising
     groups and masculinity classes in places like Cambridge, Berkeley, and
     Ann Arbor. However, it was Bly's collaboration with Bill Moyers on the
     1990 PBS documentary ''A Gathering of Men" that turned the groundswell
     of retreats and gatherings into a national phenomenon.

     With his lilting Minnesota brogue and occasional impish aside, the
     grandfatherly Bly talked about the Wild Man, avatar of a kind of inner
     masculine authenticity lost during the Industrial Revolution, when
     fathers left the homestead (and their sons) behind and went to work in
     factories. With the lore and lessons of manhood no longer passed on to
     younger generations, men lost a certain kind of male identity, even
     the sense of life as a quest. ''Many of these men are not happy," Bly
     wrote of today's ''soft males," as he called them. ''You quickly
     notice the lack of energy in them. They are life-preserving, but not
     exactly life-giving."

     Today, however, the drums have largely fallen silent. While there are
     still weekend retreats - for example, the ManKind Project, which
     boasts more than two-dozen centers worldwide, conducts ''New Warrior
     Training Adventures" for some 3,000 men every year - these are mostly
     affairs for the already initiated.

     ''The men's movement as we knew it has gone underground," says Ken
     Byers, a San Francisco-based writer and therapist who attended dozens
     of retreats in the early 1990s. ''Unless you're involved in that
     underground, there's very little way for the average American man to
     connect with it."

     Of course, Bly's mythopoetic movement was only one of several, often
     contradictory men's movements. Since the 1970s, ''men's rights"
     advocates have pushed for fathers' parental rights, while profeminist
     groups such as the National Organization of Men Against Sexism and the
     national network of Men's Resource Centers want men to become more
     accountable for sexism, homophobia, and violence. And in the wake of
     Bly, new mass men's movements seized the media spotlight. In 1995,
     Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan organized the Million Man
     March, to inspire African-American men to rebuild their lives and
     neighborhoods. Meanwhile, by the mid-1990s, the Christian evangelical
     Promise Keepers were packing hundreds of thousands of men into
     football stadiums each year for rallies that, like the ''muscular
     Christianity" movement a century before, encouraged them to reclaim
     their masculinity by retaking control of their families with the help
     of Jesus Christ.

     So what happened to Bly's mythopoetic movement? The negative media
     coverage, such as Esquire's ''Wild Men and Wimps" spoof issue in 1992,
     didn't exactly help. But there were other factors, too. For one thing,
     even many of the men not inclined to dismiss Bly-style gatherings as
     silly found themselves mystified by the rarefied Jungian concepts
     tossed around the campfires like so many marshmallows. ''Many of the
     men I saw worked really hard at trying to figure out the mythology,
     but they just weren't getting it in the belly," says Byers, echoing
     the title of Sam Keen's bestselling book.

     Unlike the Promise Keepers, which held weekly check-in sessions, there
     was no follow-up work done once participants left their weekend
     retreats. ''It was an event, a spectacle," says Michael Kimmel,
     professor of sociology at SUNY Stony Brook and the author of ''Manhood
     in America," a 1997 cultural history of masculinity. ''You were
     supposed to be changed by it and then go home."

     Part of the problem, too, was the mythopoetic movement's complex
     relationship to feminism. On the one hand, some feminists construed
     Bly's attack on feminized males as reactionary. ''I'd hoped by now
     that men were strong enough to accept their vulnerability and to be
     authentic without aping Neanderthal cavemen," Betty Friedan told The
     Washington Post back in 1991. (Bly denied that there was anything
     anti-woman about his ideas.) What's more, the movement itself could
     never get beyond the fact that unlike the feminist movement - which
     itself had lost steam by the 1990s, as women achieved more economic
     and financial power - Bly and his followers never had any clear
     political agenda to drive them forward.

     Then again, perhaps the death of the men's movement has been greatly
     exaggerated. Like the women's movement, it may just be that its
     biggest lessons have simply been absorbed into the culture, minus the
     pagan fairy tales and faux Native American rites. For example, it's
     evident to any man who carves out time in his busy week to meet his
     buddies for a drink that, as Bly suggested, men benefit from time
     spent in ''ritual space" - that is, with other men. (Full disclosure:
     For the last year I've met with other men in their 30s and 40s for a
     weekly discussion group in Jamaica Plain, where we talk about
     everything from career issues to complicated relationships with our

     And whether or not they can tell their Wild Man from their King
     (another figure in Bly s complex mythological scheme), many younger
     men want to be more engaged in family life than their own fathers
     were. In 1992, about 68 percent of college-educated men said they
     wanted to move into jobs with more responsibility, according to a
     recent study by the Families and Work Institute. A decade later, the
     number fell to 52 percent. Meanwhile, a 2000 study by the Radcliffe
     Public Policy Center found that the job characteristic most often
     ranked as very important by men ages 21 to 39 was a work schedule that
     allowed them to spend more time with their families. Seventy percent
     said they were willing to sacrifice pay and lose promotions to do so.

     Still, the reality of being a good father often poses more of a
     challenge for these young men than they expect, often in ways that Bly
     himself might have explained. ''One of the central problems is that
     the image that men have of immersing themselves in families is a very
     maternal one," says Mark O'Connell, a Boston-based psychologist and
     the author of the recent book ''The Good Father: On Men, Masculinity,
     and Life in the Family" (Scribner). ''They are trying to follow
     something that isn't altogether authentic and reflective of the
     different strengths that men bring to the table."

     America, of course, is a different place than it was when Bly wrote
     his best seller. Today, when men get together in organized men's
     groups, they are more likely to talk about Jesus Christ than Iron

     Nevertheless, there's more than a touch of Bly in John Eldredge's
     ''Wild at Heart: Discovering the Secret of a Man's Soul," an
     evangelical call-to-arms that has sold 1.5 million copies since it was
     published in 2001 and that has helped launch a series of weekend
     workshops. Men still go into the woods, but instead of wrestling with
     the Wild Man, they meet Jesus, described as a kind of fierce,
     unfettered energy that transforms ''really nice guys" (a version of
     Bly's ''soft males") into passionate beings ready to tackle life's
     adventures, including romantic relationships. ''Not every woman wants
     a battle to fight, but every woman wants to be fought for," Eldredge
     observes in a passage that might have been written before Betty
     Friedan was born.

     Meanwhile, after years of dwindling attendance due to financial
     problems, the Promise Keepers are staging a comeback this summer,
     hoping to fill 20 stadium rallies across the country. And in March,
     the first annual Catholic Men's Conference, inspired by the Promise
     Keepers, attracted 2,200 men to Boston, who came to listen to speakers
     ranging from Archbishop Sean P. O'Malley to ''Passion of the Christ"
     star Jim Caviezel to Bush administration official James Towey.
     (According to organizer Scot Landry, the event's success was fueled by
     the growing number of men's fellowship groups in the Boston
     Archdiocese, which have spread from a handful of parishes 5 years ago
     to between 30 and 50 today.) The emphasis was on the importance of
     traditional Catholic teachings on sexuality and the family, under
     which men - not their wives - are called to be ''the spiritual leaders
     of your home," as one speaker put it.

     Even if we're not likely to see maverick poets and Jungian therapists
     on television specials and magazine covers again any time soon, one
     thing is clear. The Bly-style men's movement highlighted a powerful
     urge for men to commune with each other that persists today, even
     among those who wouldn't be caught dead within miles of a drumming

     ''There was something about Bly's language and approach that was easy
     to caricature," says O'Connell. ''But he was on to something really
     important, and a lot of what he was talking about got lost in

     Paul Zakrzewski is the editor of ''Lost Tribe: Jewish Fiction from the
     Edge" (Harper Perennial). He lives in Jamaica Plain. E-mail
     [2]pzak at verizon.net.

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