Tom Matlack discusses the popular men’s movements and why the Good Men Project stands apart.
The first and only time I saw Robert Bly, author of Iron John, the touchstone of the modern “mythopoetic” men’s movement, I was in college—and I wasn’t sure I was impressed. Although I found the man captivating in many ways, I wasn’t convinced that the manhood he was talking about in poetic terms (and accompanied by a lute, no less) was something I aspired to recapture. Beating drums in the woods never seemed to come naturally to me; to me it sounded more like feminism for guys than the stuff of manhood.
At the time, I was immersed in the sport of rowing—a male bonding experience that had little to do with poetry and a lot to do with the testing of physical limits. I suppose the fistfight I had with my best friend during a training session in a cemetery was related to something Bly was getting at, but it sure wasn’t poetic. It had to do with my questioning my friend’s manhood and his retaliating in kind. We both emerged stronger from the exchange.
Our coach, Will Scoggins, had watched our fight from a distance, grinning. He told me that the process of developing underlying trust as a team involved spilling your guts along the way, even showing raw emotion. He had made clear from the very beginning that this was about rowing, but it was also about growing up and learning, the hard way, how to avoid making excuses. The payoff was that we could use this wisdom in any situation later on in life. To his way of thinking, the fight was a sign of progress—a sign of growing faith in one another.
The fight on a cemetery hill with my rowing buddy summarized the kind of men’s movement that I respected a heck of a lot more than what I heard accompanied by a lute.
In many ways, the Good Men Project was born not out of the men’s movement—or men’s rights movement, masculism, anti-misandry, or MGTOW (men going their own way)—but out of the brutal facts of our own lives as fathers, husbands, and guys trying to make a living. In fact, I had never even heard of any of these philosophies until I started writing about my own life and publishing the stories of other men. In the process I somehow got myself in the middle of a political issue that to me completely misses the fundamental challenge for men in 2011. There are plenty of ways the law (particularly family law) and popular culture, as represented by the media, have limited men. But we have no one to blame but ourselves. We made the laws. We control the media. We have, in the end, suffered too long in silence. Too many of us have knuckled under and become absentee fathers.
Mothers have more rights than fathers, more women are going to college, and Oprah rules the gender discourse. So what? Do we allow ourselves to be emasculated by feminism, by divorce law, by women who, God forbid, want to break the glass ceiling once and for all? Or do we embrace their successes while developing our own powerful voice for good in the world, most particularly when it comes to be being fathers and husbands? To me, having guys beat drums or set up some grand zero-sum gender war ignores the opportunity—an opportunity that’s right in front of our faces—that we might figure out a way to get out of the cave of our own suffering.
To me this opportunity has always been about the power of completely unfiltered communication between men once they stopped thinking about what they were “supposed” to be saying and started speaking from the heart about their own lives. In fact, it saved my own life. I realized that I could learn a lot more from men—damn good men—with no formal education but a lot more street smarts than I had. No poetry, no gender warfare, no bullshit. Just the truth.
I was surrounded by 30 other men at a grade school classroom in South Boston, many of whom had been sober barely 30 days. They looked pretty tough, and I imagined I must have been the only one in the room without a gang affiliation. The leader at the front of the room began to speak about his structured approach to sobriety. “You miss a session and you are out,” explained Frank, a blond guy in his 40s. “You are required to do each assignment and come prepared to every meeting.” Frank asked us to stand up and pledge our commitment to this course of action, posing a series of questions to which the group responded in unison, “Yes I will.”
Frank began to tell his story. He’d been to prison for breaking and entering, but now worked as a mechanic for the MBTA. He talked about family members who were dead from overdoses or had been shot in drug deals gone wrong. “I gotta admit to you guys,” he said, “I was driving over here and I stopped at a light in a neighborhood I had no real reason to be in. A couple of hookers who I know better than I’d like to admit from the old days came to my window. The thought crossed my mind. But then I thought of this room full of guys. Always remember that a thought and an action are two different things.”
My initial feeling of not belonging vanished as Frank spoke. He talked with a level of honesty that I’d never heard before—one that made me reconsider my own life. Hearing Frank’s unvarnished story of addiction and the struggle for sobriety was a great relief.
I’d grown tired of listening to men talk about alcoholism as though they were delivering some kind of political stump speech. These were working-class drunks, mostly Irish Catholics, with equally strong doses of blind faith and bad behavior. Many had done time and had experienced lows well below mine. Listening to them talk made me stop feeling sorry for myself in a hurry. I had a penthouse apartment and two healthy children. I had endured a bad marriage, an inferiority complex, and a vicious drinking problem. I had lied to myself and others and had gotten caught cheating, but at least I had a roof over my head and plenty to be grateful for.
To get to the root causes of our alcoholism, Frank asked each of us to get a notebook and start writing. This was the fourth step: to take a fearless moral inventory. Frank handed out pieces of paper with the guidelines, “One for resentments, one for sexual misconduct, one for fears, and one for harms other than sexual. Dig deep. Write it all down. Once you’ve identified the facts, start thinking about how it affected you. What part did you play? I don’t care if some fucker punched you in the face, you had some role in that happening. Write it down.”
Several weeks later, I still hadn’t written a thing. I asked Frank to meet me for a quick dinner before class. We ordered fish and chips at a fry joint on L Street and sat at a scratched Formica booth, with graffiti scrawled across the table. Our food arrived just as I started complaining about my ex. He cut me short. “I thought you told me you cheated on her, Tom.”
“Yeah, so what? She is still being a complete bitch, never giving me an inch, accusing me of being a bad father,” I snapped back.
“Well, what you did was not right, plain and simple.”
“Yeah, but …”
“No fucking buts about it, pal. Let that sink into your fucking brain.”
I thought to myself, Why the hell am I taking advice from an ex-con who was just last week talking about cruising hookers, but pushed that thought away because I trusted that, despite our apparent differences, Frank was the first person willing to tell me the truth. I tried to listen to what he was saying.
“The only way you are going to get over fucking up is to admit that you did. Stop denying it,” Frank continued. “You made a mistake. A big one.”
I realized that the whole point of what we were doing in Frank’s sessions was to actually change behavior, not just talk about it. In the past, not taking full responsibility for the impact of my actions—even if I’d apologized, which I did frequently—got me nowhere. Writing down column after column of times I had committed the same sin, however, made it hard to refute my defects of character. If drinking to excess was insane, this shit was even more self-destructive. It was the reason I drank.
“Maybe you are right,” I admitted. “I can’t seem to get over feeling shitty about being a cheat, which causes me to do all kinds of insanely stupid things to cover up the past. I just keep making the same mistake over again in the present.”
“Bingo!” Frank said. “Let’s go help some sick motherfuckers who have a hell of a lot more to worry about than you do.” With that, Frank got up and paid our bill. We walked over to the classroom. Our group was down to 12 guys; everyone else had decided that drinking was a better option. Not that they hadn’t wanted to be good men at some point, but somewhere along the road they had fallen away—again.
As a man aspiring to be good, I’ve gotten into a heap of trouble with women. I realize that the current men right’s movement is based on how men get screwed by divorce laws. Like so many other dads, I’ve stood outside my ex-wife’s house after dropping off our kids—Seamus, who was 1 year old, and Kerry, who was 3, when we separated—and cried in agony. I was tempted to spend my time in the years after my divorce railing against the laws and, frankly, the whole female sex. But at the same time, I wanted to find love and believe that I could be a good man to some woman—and to do that I had to rediscover some long-lost innocence that would allow me to shed all the bad behavior insulating me from being hurt again. I had to find the balls that I had lost along the way, and stop being a cheating bastard like so many other men these days.
To do that, I needed to hang out with some good men in a faraway country.