In the prequel to Ken Solin’s new book, 700 other men help him realize where he’s been, where he is, and where he wants to be.
Phil was late, as usual. By the time we parked under the Scottish Rite Masonic Center in San Francisco, the sound of drumming was thundering from the auditorium upstairs. The Robert Bly day apparently had already begun. The closer we got to the front door, the louder the drumming grew and the more wary I became. By the time we entered the building, the sound was deafening—drowning out the pulse throbbing in my ears. It was just as well that I wasn’t capable of thought, because I wouldn’t have been able to hear myself think. My body kicked into fight-or-flight mode, screaming from a place deeper than the mind, what the fuck have I gotten myself into? The only reason I didn’t run was that I refused to give in to my fear, a lingering legacy from my boyhood.
Into the cave
A hulking, shaved-headed, hoop-earringed usher reminiscent of Mr. Clean greeted us in the lobby and assured us that we hadn’t missed anything important. He elbowed between us, slapped his giant catcher’s-mitt-sized paws on our shoulders, and maneuvered Phil and me down a steep, narrow, pitch-black corridor like hand puppets. He planted us in front of a two-story, dimly spotlighted, canvas curtain painted to look like the entrance to a cave. The two overlapping pieces of the canvas moved rhythmically like mammoth lungs powered by the drums beating inside.
My heart had migrated into my throat, where it felt deep-fried in bile, and my eyes began to water in pain. I couldn’t see Phil’s face in the dark, but since he’d talked me into coming with him, I hoped he was feeling equally terrified. Just as the hulk’s grip on my shoulder was beginning to piss me off, he shoved us roughly through the canvas flaps and into the cave. We emerged into a brightly lit auditorium packed with hundreds of men standing and swaying to the primitive rhythm of a dozen massive handmade conga drums being played on the stage. Their insistent rhythm resonated deep within me, and a vaguely familiar adrenaline rush surged through my body. I could taste the fear.
When my eyes adjusted to the light, I was stunned to discover that I was surrounded by 700 or so guys—not a familiar or reassuring experience for someone who was afraid of other men. The last time I could remember being in a large group of guys was at a YMCA summer camp in New Hampshire when I was a boy. I had no clue what was expected of me in the midst of all this raging testosterone and no confidence that I was up to the challenge, either. Fuck you, Phil, for getting me into this, I seethed. Why did I put myself in such an uncomfortable situation?
But the truth was very different. I did want to face that old demon, my fear of other men, but was terrified what facing it might look like with hundreds of men watching.
In that moment of realization, I knew there was no room in my heart for any more fear or emotional pain—even though I’d never admitted to anyone that I felt any. For as long as I could remember, I’d conducted my relationships with men like a boxing match, bobbing and weaving to avoid pain. Unfortunately, my fast footwork also kept me emotionally isolated from them and confused about my own manhood. Though I’d always been popular with women, I never fully opened my heart to them, either. They soon realized that I was a lone wolf and a major fuck-up with other men. So they had two choices—sign on to become my entire universe or move on. For those who signed on, it was an impossible undertaking with a preordained result—and I went from one lose-lose relationship to the next.
So entering the metaphoric cave meant facing my deepest insecurities about myself. While I respected every guy in that auditorium for having the courage it took just to show up, I also resented them for forcing me to be honest with myself about the reason I was there. I’d come to a crossroads in my life, and the emotional vacuum I’d created to isolate myself from other men was suffocating me. Well, here it is, I acknowledged, my moment of truth. It’s time to fish or cut bait—either continue to choke on my fear or find a way to involve other men in my life.
Through the looking glass
So that’s the dilemma I faced at the beginning of a day-long workshop by the American writer, poet, and leader of the Mythopoetic Men’s Movement, Robert Bly. I didn’t know much about him or his best-seller, Iron John: A Book About Men, but I soon discovered that I’d boarded an emotional roller coaster that would turn my life upside down, forcing me to set aside all my preconceived notions of manhood and do something about my isolation.
The descent into the cave began to feel like tumbling down the rabbit hole into Lewis Carroll’s topsy-turvy world. The first clue that the usual rules weren’t going to apply was the conspicuous absence of the workshop’s originator and namesake. That’s just great, I smirked. A Robert Bly day without Robert Bly. Where’s it going from here? It turned out that Bly wasn’t AWOL—he was sick—so Jack Kornfield, a Buddhist teacher from Spirit Rock in Woodacre, California, pinch-hit for him.
Kornfield had spent many years in what was then Burma, where he experienced a spiritual transformation. He’d since become a highly sought-after teacher whose diminutive stature and slight build belied his powerful message—that manhood is inextricably linked to the male spirit. The concept hit me like a lightning bolt, revealing a whole new way of looking at what it meant to be a man.
While still considering Kornfield’s message, I was brought back to earth when Michael Meade, a gruff New York Irish storyteller, took the stage and asked the audience, “What is it that each of you used to love to do that you don’t do any more?” He offered his father as an example. Growing up in Ireland, he’d loved to dance but, after immigrating to America, he never danced again. There wasn’t a sound in the auditorium as each man dug into his memory to recall his lost passion.
Mine hit me immediately, and it explained the jolt I’d felt on hearing the drums being played as Phil and I entered the auditorium. As a teenager I’d played conga drums in an Afro-Cuban jazz group with some friends—mostly for our own enjoyment—and drumming always connected my heart and my body. I sold my drums to help pay for college and hadn’t played since. During the program breaks, I went onto the stage and played one of the drums. I suddenly understood the adrenaline rush I experienced when I first heard the drumming, and it washed over me again with an intensity I hadn’t felt for a quarter of a century. Reconnecting with that joy made me wonder why I’d let my passion die.
After giving us time to explore what we’d loved and lost, Meade told a classic myth about the rites of passage from boyhood to manhood—the story of a young man who had to successfully complete several tests of bravery to win the hand of the king’s daughter. Meade told the story in twenty-minute installments throughout the course of the day while softly playing a small hand drum. His drumming became hypnotic and helped build anticipation and deepen our involvement. At the end of each installment, we let out loud groans and pleaded for more. Maybe it was because he’d gone through those rites of passage himself and was totally comfortable in his male skin—but, whatever the reason, he was the best storyteller I’d ever heard. When he finally finished the story at the end of the day, I felt I could slay any dragon to achieve my dream—if I only could figure out what my dream was. The other guys must’ve felt similarly, because the entire audience stood for five minutes whistling and shouting its appreciation.
Then Malidoma Somé, a university professor from West Africa, told his personal story about the elaborate rites of passage he’d experienced as a young man in his village. As his story unfolded, I realized how short-changed I’d been by my father and my community by not having undergone any meaningful initiation into manhood. The mix of admiration and sadness I noticed in many of the other guys’ faces showed how cheated they felt as well.
In guiding Somé through the rites of passage, the tribal elders clearly prepared him and the other boys in his tribe to understand their adult responsibilities—both physical and emotional. Once a boy completed the required rituals and tests of bravery, he was considered a man and was entitled to all the privileges of manhood. It was understood that he would continue to live by the principles and lessons he’d learned.
The only rites most men in our culture experience are religious rituals like confirmation and bar mitzvah that many of us in the audience had undergone as intended introductions to manhood. But they paled in comparison. For me—and I suspect for many others—they were empty gestures, rote recitation of ancient Latin or Hebrew that required no comprehension, commitment to principles, or courage. We hadn’t overcome any physical or emotional challenge that would change our lives forever. No wonder guys are so fucked up, I realized. No one’s teaching us to behave like men. And how can we become men if we have no idea what that means?
Throughout the day we were invited to ask any questions of anyone on the stage. Listening to other men’s questions, I realized that many of them felt as isolated from each other as I did—and, like me, they wanted to know why that was and how to connect with each other. It’s encouraging to know that I’m not the only clueless guy here. Understanding where I am—and that I’m not alone—may be the first step toward figuring out where I want to be and how to get there.
Finally James Hillman, a renowned Jungian therapist, spoke about the emotional aspects of manhood. He stressed the need for men to get in touch with our pain and open up and share it with each other. No shortage of pain here to share, I admitted to myself. Now all I have to do is grow a pair and talk about it with other guys. But Phil’s the only other guy I know, and I’m not sure I have that kind of relationship with him.
Well, I got my chance sooner than I’d anticipated. The workshop ended with several exercises meant to help chip away at our isolation. Paired with a stranger, we told each other about our childhood experiences with our fathers. Looking around the auditorium, I saw tears flowing freely as men relived their boyhoods. Everyone paid rapt attention to his partner’s story, offering the kind of understanding and acceptance that many—or maybe even most—of us had never received. Many partners ended up hugging each other supportively. I’d never realized how much pain other men carry around with them and how many of us were eager to end that pain and isolation from one other.
Back to the world
Watching the sunset as we drove home over the Golden Gate Bridge, I realized that my experiences that day had shined a spotlight into the darkness of my boyhood that I’d always carried inside me. I still felt terribly lost but now had a glimmer of hope of being found. Phil and I had hardly said a word to each other during the workshop and were now too physically and emotionally drained to talk. When I dropped him off, all I could say was, “I don’t know about you but, in my whole life combined, I’ve never thought as much about my male identity as I did today. Like it or not, we’ve gotten a crash course in male awareness.”
I wasn’t really sure that I liked it much, though, because for the next few days I was shaky and even more short-tempered than usual. My anxiety level kept shooting through the roof—intensified by the fact that I had no idea where it was coming from or how to make it go away. I felt like I was being carried away by a rushing river and ached with a hunger that had nothing to do with my belly. My male soul—until then a stranger to me—was awake now and demanding to be fed. And the demons that possessed it, which I’d ignored all my life, were trumpeting for attention like a herd of bull elephants. I felt compelled to move forward because the status quo wasn’t working for me any longer.
As memories of my troubled boyhood bubbled to the surface, I began reliving them, feeling lost and abandoned just like I’d felt then. Nightmares of my violent father began plaguing me—not vague dreams, but actual re-enactments of the physical violence I’d endured. From as early as I could remember, he’d tried to murder my spirit—but he underestimated the emotional toughness his brutality created in me. Since I was a young boy, I’d been determined not to become like him—a robot who never questioned authority but reacted violently when I questioned his. I knew he was a coward the first time he cornered me and beat me without purpose or mercy; and, to me, he was a sheep in wolf’s clothing. I was never going to forget my father and wasn’t remotely ready to forgive him yet. There wasn’t room for both of us in my soul any longer, though, and I felt an urgent need to kill him off once and for all. I realized that my life was never going to change until I did.
There was a bright side, though. Amid the emotional turmoil the Bly day stirred up, I remembered something that made me feel hopeful and good about myself. After listening to my workshop partner’s pain-filled story about his father during the sharing exercises, I instinctively hugged him and he hugged me back. I felt uncomfortable at first because I’d never been physical with men and wasn’t sure how he’d react. But seeing the tears well up in his eyes and feeling him relax into my arms made me understand that men really can help each other. I hungered for more of that good feeling.
Someone had mentioned men’s groups during that Bly day, and the idea had stuck with me. I’d never joined any group in my life but didn’t feel like I could just stand by any longer holding onto the vague hope that I was somehow going to be rescued. I had to save myself.
A week or so later, I decided to start a men’s group. The only guy I knew well enough to ask was Phil. He knew a few men who knew a few others and, in a week, nine of us gathered in San Francisco for the first meeting.