[Paleopsych] Boston Globe: Daddy, what did you do in the men's movement?
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Fri Jul 1 17:38:46 UTC 2005
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
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
pzak at verizon.net.
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