One by one, the Journeyers in our small group take turns reenacting painful childhood memories. Jason, a baby-faced, barely-out-of-college guy, struggles for a minute to come up with something. Then, finally, he half-heartedly recounts the time he tried to get his dad’s attention. But Dad rebuffed him, saying that he was busy reading the newspaper.
“So what message did you internalize from your dad that day?” prods the Guide.
Again, Jason struggles. “That he wanted to read the paper?” We chuckle.
The Guide fills in the blanks. “He was telling you that the newspaper was more important than his son.”
The Guide instructs Jason to reconstruct the scene. Jason picks men from our group to play his young self and his dad. Dad grabs a scrap of paper sitting in the sunny cabin, takes a seat in one of the folding metal chairs, and buries his face in the paper. Young Jason approaches Dad, trying to get him to play. Dad brushes him off: “I’m busy.”
Young Jason and Dad play out the scene over and over again, while the Guide and Jason stand off to the side.
“You were a boy who needed his father’s attention. And do you know what you got instead?” asks the Guide. “He told you you were worthless. He didn’t have time for you.”
Dad picks up on the Guide’s words and incorporates them into the dialogue. “I don’t have time for you. You’re worthless. Leave me alone.” For the 15th time, young Jason approaches Dad seated in his cold metal chair, and Dad rejects him. Young Jason skulks away.
Much like how Jason had trouble coming up with a traumatic memory, he draws a blank when the Guide asks him what he can do to change the situation. Each Journeyer, after recreating his memory, must step into the role of his younger self and take control to change the memory.
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This final step is vital to the process, and it varies based on the memory. When Charles, a young evangelical minister from Oregon, recreates the day his father beat his mother because she wanted to buy Charles designer jeans, the Guide tells Charles that to take control of his memory he has to remove his abusive father. What ensues is a four-minute wrestling match, where Charles struggles to drag the Guide out of the cabin and slam the door shut.
With few exceptions, most Journeyers take control of their memories the same way. Whether one of the three Guides plays a locker-room bully or a father sneering about the “faggot” behind a fast-food counter, Journeyers drag the offending character out of the cabin and slam the door shut.
The Guides put up a good fight. When Charles the minister doesn’t completely close the door to the cabin, the Guide pushes his way back in. “Are you kidding me?” pants Charles when he’s told he has to start all over again.
My resolution is different. I recount the time in fifth grade my father stormed into my bedroom when he heard me fighting with my little brother, punched us to the ground, then walked out. I play the part of my younger self. While I lie on the floor of the cabin, the Journeyer playing my brother lying two feet away, the Guide pulls out a blanket and drapes it over me.
“You never got up from the bedroom floor, did you?” he asks. “You’ve been lying there all your life.”
He has the other men in the room kneel around me, their knees pinning the blanket so that I’m wrapped tight like a taquito. Only my head pokes out from an opening.
My resolution is to finally, for the first time in my life, get up from the floor where my father left me physically and emotionally bruised all those years ago. On the Guide’s mark, I struggle to push myself up, but the weight of the men keeps me pinned. Sweaty and exhausted after several futile minutes, I switch strategies. Wriggling like a worm out of an apple, I free myself out of the top side of the blanket. I lose my shoes. My feet stink.
But for Jason and his newspaper-reading father, the solution takes a violent approach. First, the Guide playing Jason’s father rises from the metal chair to stand in front of him, repeating the lines about Jason being worthless. Next, Jason is handed a baseball bat and told to kneel on the floor. A punching bag is placed between him and the father.
“What you need is a new father,” the Guide says, moving another Guide to stand behind the first. “But this old father is standing in your way. You need to get rid of him.”
Jason looks wide-eyed at the man standing in front of him. The Guide who has been leading Jason through the exercise makes an over-the-head swinging motion. Jason grips the bat, lifts it up behind his head, and swings it down, the bat thudding on the punching bag.
“Again!” yells the Guide.
Jason obeys. He swings over and over again.
“Yell! Let it out!” commands the Guide.
His yells are weak at first, but with each swing, they grow deep and primal. Every few swings, Jason’s old father buckles a little, clutching his body as though wounded.
Another Guide motions for the rest of us to encourage Jason.
I’m horrified by what I see—Jason beating his dad to death in effigy—but I join in the growing roar of voices. Jason seems like such a nice kid, the kind of guy whose biggest regret is the day he forgot to do his algebra homework.
After several minutes, Old Father crouches close to the floor. Jason wails away, his timidness fleeing with his wide-eyed, belly-deep screams.
“Finish him!” commands the Guide. A few more swings, and it’s over. Old Father lies motionless on the ground.
The room is silent, except for the New Father, who stands with his arms open, repeating the lines that have been covered by the thudding and screaming: “I love you, son. I care about you.”
Jason drops the bat, stands, and approaches New Father, who wraps his arms around his son.
Many of the other scenarios end the same way: the Journeyer is held by the Guide playing his father, who tells him how much he loves his son. I’ll admit feeling a twinge every time. What son doesn’t crave his father’s love?
After our group has finished the exercises, we walk from our cabin to the carpeted lodge room. Inside, the lights are low. While the different cabins slowly file in, two staff members off to the side of the room sit in the Motorcycle position. The man in back gives the other a back rub.
Once all the men have assembled, a Guide speaks briefly about the work we did with our father issues. He then instructs us to take out our pens and notebooks. We are instructed to write the letter we wish our ideal father, the Golden Father, would write to us. After a few minutes, Guides take their places for another holding session. When my turn comes, I opt for the side-by-side hold. I don’t need to feel another erection in my back.
While the Guide reads me my letter, I think about the beatings and bruises and black eyes my dad gave my brother and me. Mom was the breadwinner most of my childhood years; I think Dad took out on us his frustration over feeling emasculated. In the patriarchal Mormon faith, a stay-at-home dad never fully lives up to his manly obligations. Dad and I haven’t spoken much in the 10 years since I left the Mormon church; in fact, I haven’t heard from him at all in three years. And yet, despite being raised by an abusive, spiritually castrated father, I have a strong preference for women.
When each man has been held, we adjourn to our cabins.
Just a few hours left. I want to go home.
My carpool piles into our vehicle and we cruise away down the road that, thanks to the rain, is slowly turning into slop. I turn on my cellphone, and as soon as I can get a signal, I text friends and family that I am alive, safe, and headed for the airport.
“How was it?” they ask. The medium limits me to 140-character messages. I really don’t know how to respond.
I should be asking the guys in my carpool what they thought of the weekend. I should be asking them what they experienced, and how it affected them. But I’m too tired to think about that. I haven’t slept in two days.
What am I supposed to do with this experience? I signed a confidentiality agreement before participating, but how can anyone keep quiet about something this intense? How can I not tell my friends or family members what I saw or did? And what about the married men? How could they not tell their wives what they were doing all weekend?
I turn around to ask Tony, the guy who had attended “Journey into Manhood” years earlier, how the weekend was different this time around. He says that it was “pretty much” the same as he remembered, just a couple of minor differences.
Is the confidentiality agreement really about making the weekend more effective for Journeyers? I doubt it. Included in the information packet is a page urging us to return for a second or third weekend. “Sometimes a price discount is available for men who are going through the JiM weekend a second time,” reads the flier.
We stop for dinner at the In-N-Out. Dave notices that I’ve become withdrawn from the conversation as I try to answer the barrage of text messages from my friends.
“I’m just tired, you know?” I respond.
“Yeah, man, me too.” He smiles and puts an arm around me as we walk back out the car for the final leg toward the airport.
And then there’s Dave. We have become friends during the weekend. I feel guilty for lying to him, for betraying his trust.
At the curb of the terminal, I grab my bags and hug the guys. I worry about them and what will happen when they return home. If they’re hoping they’ll end up straight, I can’t help but think they’re in for a major disappointment.
Finally back in Sacramento, my friend Pauline, the self-described fag hag, picks me up from the airport and drives me to her favorite bar.
I spill my guts over a much-needed beer. “Oh my God,” she says, over and over again between drags on her cigarette.
My phone buzzes. Looking at the caller ID, I sigh, tell my friend it’s the call I’m expecting, and walk outside the coffee shop.
It’s Dave. I’m not looking forward to this.
A week has passed since returning home from JiM. Several Journeyers have tried contacting me in the days since. Before leaving the retreat, staffers handed out thick packets of information, which besides promoting two more of JiM co-founder Rich Wyler’s retreats and his telephone coaching service, urged us Journeyers to keep in touch with each other. There was also a check-in conference call, and an invitation to join a Yahoo! group. I decided not to participate in either of those. I felt like I had intruded enough into their lives.
I had also ignored all the calls and emails from the other Journeyers. Most of the men stopped after the first few tries. Dave, however, didn’t give up.
He eventually emailed me: “Dude, I miss you. I hope you’re doing well. I called you a couple of times. If I’m harassing you just let me know.”
I wrote back: “I’m OK. I miss you, too. The thing is, I have something to tell you, and you’re probably not going to like it. We should talk over the phone.”
So now Dave was calling me, and this time I answered.
While pacing back and forth on the shop sidewalk, I tell Dave everything: how I’m a straight writer, how I was at JiM undercover.
“I knew it!” he says. “I knew something was off!” Apparently my explanation at JiM about my faith proved less than convincing. It seems, though, that Dave was suspicious of my religion, not my sexual orientation.
But that doesn’t matter now: Dave is upset. He has every right to be.
“This is why I have this issue!” he groans. “I’ve had trouble trusting men. Now here we go again!”
I may have lied about my involvement, but I wasn’t about to let him pin his issues on me. I go on the attack.
“C’mon, do you really think straight men go off into the woods and hold each other?” I demand. “What about that all-night holding session you told me about? Does that sound like something straight guys do?”
Surely he would see the absurdity of it all.
Silence on his end for a moment. Then, quietly: “I don’t know, man. I don’t know.”
We end the call, and I walk back inside. I’m worried about how this will affect Dave. Dave is a stable guy, but what if word spreads among the Journeyers? How will they take it?
Dave calls back after a couple of hours. He is more composed, but he wants to know more about my motivation, about my stance on homosexuality.
I tell him that I think he’s normal, and that professional, reputable psychological organizations agree. I tell him that biologists have observed homosexual behavior in hundreds of species. I doubt I get through to him. How much does science really matter when God has spoken?
And there’s more to consider than just Dave’s feelings. “What do you want me to do?” he asks. “Leave my wife? Leave my kids? Just go live with some guy?”
There’s no easy choice for Dave. Either way, he loses something. Leaving a religious philosophy like Mormonism isn’t as simple as changing underwear brands. Often your friends stop calling, and your family members stop inviting you to dinner. Sure, Dave could finally live out and proud, but at what cost?
“I don’t know, man,” was all I could say. “I don’t know.”
This piece originally ran on Alternet.org. Some details have been altered to protect the identities of participants.
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