Can All-Male Support Groups Save Men From Themselves?
In the wake of Me Too, a movement that owes its roots to the feminist awakenings of the 1960s has emerged
Masters of Atlantis, the Charles Portis novel first published in 1985 and now a cult favorite beloved by writers, comedians and roughly every other intellectual ironist on Twitter, tells the story of Lamar Jimmerson, a veteran of World War I (serving first with the A.E.F. Balloon Section and then as a telephone switchboard operator) who, while in France, gets hip to a larger truth.
Like many stumbling through history after the traumas of the Great War, Jimmerson falls into a belief system that makes as much sense as anything else. While others drifted or dove head first into Communism, Fascism, Dadaism, Catholicism, flapperism and/or a happy hodgepodge of them all (give or take pretty much any other worldview lying around), Jimmerson is drawn to theosophism: the gnostic pursuit (and finding!) of esoteric knowledge.
Upon his return to the States, he continues the work of revelation in as prosaic a manner as is humanly imaginable. While his protagonist’s organization is ostensibly concerned with piercing the veil between what is known and what can be revealed, Portis tells the story in his characteristically bone-dry comedic style, laying bare the humdrum realities of Jimmerson’s life. As with the post-war theosophical organizations that Portis is parodying (?), Jimmerson’s “Gnomon” Temples are lousy with infighting, intra-cult maneuvering and the constant threat of encroachment from competing secret societies. Jimmerson may aspire to be Aldous Huxley or a transcendental influencer in the Freemason mold, but he’s essentially a door-to-door salesman.
And not a particularly successful one at that.
When I set out to write about contemporary Men’s Groups, the seeming zeitgeist of men worldwide being drawn to transformational societies with names like “Man Tribe,” “ManKind Project,” “EVRYMAN” and “Sacred Sons,” I thought the Portis-derived framing of these organizations as scammy cult-lites for the lost and credulous would be incisive. But as I talked to founders and members of these groups, and others who’d been in men’s groups since the ‘90s or were currently in less codified men’s groups (e.g., AA), I thought the framing was less accurate, but still cute. Eventually I came to realize that using Masters of Atlantis as a framing device might still be useful, but that I was, in fact, Jimmerson: a dull-souled door-to-door spiritual nudge, consigned to knocking at the door to revelation without the capacity to ever cross the threshold. Or, worse, endowed with the capacity for busting down the doors of perception and just not really wanting to.
Men’s groups as we know them — not to be confused with the odious Men’s Rights Activism (MRA) and all its crybaby antics — had their genesis in the feminist awakenings of the ‘60s and ‘70s. These female-exclusive gatherings aimed at self-discovery flourished within the larger framework of the equal rights movement and a broad societal appetite for inward journeying that came into fashion following the perceived failures of the outward-focused body politic: Watergate, Altamont, Vietnam, all the other massive bum-outs that are now conveyed with montage and blarings of “Fortunate Son.” In response to women getting their shit together and everything else falling apart, male therapists and mystics alike drew from the back-to-land movements, First People’s traditions and a healthy(ish) dose of Erhard Seminars Training to start laying the groundwork half a century before the term would come into vogue as a cipher for male-only assemblies that practice what is best described as non-toxic masculinity.
While there were Men’s Groups throughout the ‘70s and ‘80s, it wasn’t until the poet and essayist Robert Bly published Iron John: A Book About Men in 1990 that the movement gained real visibility. Bly was born in 1926 and grew up on the family farm in Minnesota. He served in the Navy until 1946, then studied under Archibald MacLeish at Harvard and published his first book of poetry, Silence in the Snowy Field, in 1962.
Concurrent with a career of writing evocatively symbolist, Lorca-indebted but accessible “Deep Image” poetry (and taking the occasional potshot at T.S. Elliot, Pound and the like) and activism against the Vietnam War, Bly, in the 1970s, started to alchemize his worldview with fairytales, mythology, Jungian psychology and how these threads tied into masculinity. While his 1975 book of criticism, Leaping Poetry, is not explicitly about manhood, its rejection of confessional poetry and its call for poets to make associative “leaps” and return to the (as he called it in an essay from 1969) “obscure psychic woods” of poets like Blake is indicative of Bly’s larger dissatisfaction with society’s walls closing in. In 1979 he divorced his wife. While it’s tempting to read some (Jungian? Freudian? xoJane-ian?) unconscious motives in the timing, Bly described his uncoupling thusly: “Ruth Counsell entered my life in 1972. Carol Bly and I agreed to divorce in 1979, and Ruth Counsell and I were married the next year.” Regardless, it was soon after the divorce that Bly fully branched out into men’s work activism.
The vision for this activism was a more progressive version of masculinity based on the idea that men had lost their way, but not irredeemably so. Seeing untenable circumstances where men were forced to compete unnaturally by market forces and alienated from both fathers and fatherhood by societal warpings of manhood, Iron John argued for Bly’s “mythopoetic” (the term for men’s activism on the New Age spectrum coined by the professor Shepherd Bliss) solutions to the malaise in which so many men were trapped. If science and technology and an All Mod Con society couldn’t (or wouldn’t) address it, then Bly — in line with his views on poetry — argued for a return to a more primal, innate kind of knowledge. Hence the drums, and the hugging. Easy to sneer at, but if chanting has no transformative value, Evangelicals and cheerleaders would be out of a job.
Haters of the time dismissed Iron John as new-age claptrap and loincloth solipsism. But even if the value of the prescription is still debatable, and the question of just what “manhood” means has gotten foggier, it can be argued that the years have borne out much of Bly’s diagnoses of (cisgendered) men in crisis. And if Bly’s mythopoetic framing — along with Joseph Campbell’s concurrent exploration of folklore — has seemingly resulted in a nation state of man-children who justify their (and my!) adoration for raunch-coms by calling their buffed-out, neon protagonists “our modern myths,” that’s not really Bly’s fault.
After its release, Iron John was a NYT bestseller for over a year. At the outset of a deeply cynical decade, one where wallowing in defeat was an aesthetic virtue and blaming others a presidential bo-hunk pastime, Bly put out a call for earnest self-improvement completely at odds with the ironic evasions taking root all around him. As late as 2000, in an interview with Paris Review, Bly said, “the most powerful enemies of men’s openness are the corporate men. Three or four years ago there were hundreds of posters in New York one spring saying, You don’t need to beat a drum or hug a tree to be a man. At the bottom: Dewar’s Whiskey. The corporate world dares to say to young men, knowing how much young men want to be men, that the only requirement for manhood is to become an alcoholic.” Bly correctly saw the enemy not as feminism but instead other men who willfully misunderstood him.
Even if the underpinning of men’s groups, then, with all its wolf howls and Jungian hobbitry, was dippy, it wasn’t more so than any other organized rowing towards God. In 1989, I was in the YMCA Young Christian Leader’s Club. Even though I was Jewish, I ran through the woods, collected beads for swimming across Lake George, praised Jesus out of one side of my mouth and cried when we all sang “Sweet Caroline” at the end of the week. It made being a 14-year-old boy bearable. As Ben Weasel sang in “The Science of Myth,” his 1991 song examining these same topics, “if it works then it gets the job done.” The early ‘90s truly were a heady time for men with a capacity to disappoint built into their DNA.
While men’s groups largely fell off the cultural radar after the mid-’90s, the confusion of forces that inspired them did not. The old century ended with the grunting but fatalistic rap-rock misogyny of nu metal spilling into the new. The current transitioned into a mass salivation for firemen that necessarily bordered on necrophilia, and opened wide like an old-fashioned pit of hell with an opioid epidemic that turned all previously held myths of (white male) self-reliance and stoicism on its head. To even touch on video games and online pornography would require a book and then a library.
Suffice to say that, for boys and men and boyish men, the last couple decades were no less complicated than the ones that came before. In the last few years, Manhood in Crisis has been forced to add both incel violence (both online and off, with the very term proudly stolen from an academic exploration of female and non-binary pain) and the seismic reverberations of the Me Too movement to its chart. Because of the old challenges, the new challenges and the old challenges with new names, some men, not content to inhabit their worst instincts, have attempted to rise to them.
Men’s groups are abundant. They are worldwide. From the early adopter of Bly and Robert Moore’s theories (ManKind Project, formed as “New Warrior Training” in 1984) to Jordan Rahme’s Evolved Masculine (which had its first retreat in October of 2019), there is growing consciousness about men’s roles in society, their inner lives (or lack thereof) and the lives of their loved ones. Every few months, there’s a new article, with GQ and The Guardian (and GQ again) being notable examples. A websearch for “men’s groups” brings up dozens of organizations (and notably few MRA groups). (And, at the risk of engaging in unhealthy male oneupmanship, I will note that this piece was assigned a couple months before that last GQ essay, which interviews some of the same people, appeared. Just, in a wolfen growl, saying.)
Over the last couple months, I spoke to various men’s group founders: Adam Jackson of Sacred Sons, Lucas Krump and Owen Marcus of EVRYMAN, Jordan Rahme of Evolved Masculine, Alexander Hill of Man Tribe. I spoke to members of ManKind Project and EVRYMAN who have run their own offshoots for the last couple years. And I spoke to a friend of my mom who has been in men’s groups, all untitled, since the early ‘90s.
There were conspicuous differences between the men with whom I spoke. The friend of my mom, despite having been in groups since the movement’s initial heyday, was the most anomalous, essentially seeing his groups as an escape from country-life isolation and an alternative to going to a bar. But among the other men, their differences were ones contained within the larger mission of men’s work, a wide range of body types, classes, backgrounds and specific early traumas. Adam Jackson was notably the only Black man among them (diversity of membership is an issue that men’s groups have historically struggled with). But the common threads in history were notable as well. Krump and Jackson both came out of a Midwest hardcore/straight-edge scene, with Jackson having been the singer of Twelve Tribes, who put out a number of reasonably hella sick metalcore albums on Eulogy Recodings and Ferret Music in the late ‘90s/early aughts. At least half the men came from deeply Christian families. Most either had or previously had careers in the professional class: tutoring, finance, medicine, real estate. Most had been, by society’s standards, successful in both their careers and sex life (if, also notably, not their love lives). And all had events in their lives that revealed just how unhappy they had been, and that set them on a different path.
These pivotal events ranged from those that built over time — failed relationships or addiction — to events that happened at once, like the losing of a major client, a divorce or, in Alexander Hill’s case, a literal cardiac event. At 27, working in real estate and generally cruising along in life, he had an arterial fibrillation. “I blacked out in the middle of a workout at Equinox Grand Central and came out of my body,” he told me. “Had an experience of direct spirituality, separating the body and the spirit. And then a couple of minutes later, I came back and then I started to understand a lot of things about life that I was completely blocked from before.”
While not all of the men had their severance of spirit and body illustrated so dramatically, they all shared a realization of something vital being grievously absent. In Lucas Krump’s case, he had an anxious breakdown in Singapore a month after his father died, close enough to a cardiac event that he also needed to be hospitalized. As opposed to Hill’s immediate pursuit of gnosis, Krump, while acknowledging the attack as a sign of “a disconnect between the head and the heart,” continued his unhappy wanderings until “I had this epiphany at 37, where I like broke up with my girlfriend after like doing lots of drugs in Montauk.” Which led him from therapy to a 12-step to EVRYMAN. Some roads to Damascus are longer than others.
As with the men, the groups they’re part of bear resemblances. They all believe in certain root causes: that, as Krump succinctly puts it, “When we moved out of the fields and into the factories, when this industrial complex was created, put men in the workforce, created a hierarchy, motivated us, not necessarily to collaborate, but to achieve. And the result of that is we sort of disregarded our natural tendency to have connection and community. And then we started doing alone, and dude, guys aren’t good on their own.” They all believe that the answer to man’s existential disconnect lies — among other things — in a rigorous honesty, the importance of men holding each other up but also holding each other in account. They believe in spaces where men can speak freely about their pain and anxiety, and cry and hug and scream without shame. They all share the goal of saving men, both from themselves and the expectations society puts on them. They all believe that what is absent in a man is part and parcel of what is absent in culture. They all derive these beliefs from both Robert Bly’s ideas and their own lived experiences. As would be expected from men whose lived experiences often at least overlapped with business and tech, they’re all really big on “keynote speakers.”
Where the groups diverge, the previously alluded to “among other things,” is dependent on what parts of the original men’s movement societies they favor: the talking circle or the drum circle (with the important caveat that there are elements of both in all men’s groups). On one end of the spectrum is EVRYMAN, focused more on a pragmatic physiological healing, via a form of talk therapy, albeit one no less arduous for its absence of sweatlodges. On the other end is Sacred Sons, which as the name strongly implies, takes Robert Bly’s drawing from indigenous ceremony to its logical (with no ironic usage of the word intended) conclusion. When I (delicately) asked Adam Jackson about Sacred Sons’ more LARP-ish aspects — the ponchos, the staffs, etc. — he took it in stride. “When we’re in the desert we wear ponchos, because it gets cold and we have really cool looking ponchos,” he says, laughing. “Sometimes those photos look the most epic because we’re in the desert and we have a professional photographer. We put that forward also as an invitation. Because there’s a lot of men who don’t want to go sit in some tiled-room office space and sit in a circle and then … Does that evoke you to share your deepest fears? To sit in a fucking office building with guys in button-ups? I’ll just tell you: it doesn’t. But when there’s a guy called Bear Heart, who has a big red beard and who looks like Tormund Giantsbane from Game of Thrones and he’s holding a staff and he tells you, ‘I got you this weekend and you’re with me’? You really fucking believe it.”
All the founders talked of membership expanding at wildfire rates, and the members spoke of individual lives either transformed or healthily maintained through the groups they were part of. I was privy to a Man Tribe group zoom call where easily a dozen men called in from lockdowns all over, ranging from dimly lit basements in England to beach-swelled backyards in California to men in the Midwest existing within that manliest of geographies: their cars on the open road (or if not “open,” at least in the spacial drift of running errands). All the men were hungry for connection, and it was a need palpably different from mere loneliness (though loneliness sure as shit came up). As one man, who I won’t describe but to say that I no longer subscribe to that easy contempt for men whose avi is them driving in sunglasses, said; “It feels like it’s me against the world. And the world is really strong.”
Obviously the crushing weight of existence is not a situation exclusive to those who identify as boys. (From what I’ve read, the hassle is fairly universal.) But acknowledging the universality of suffering, individual men with certain shared characteristics (identifying as men) shouldn’t be blamed for seeking other men with whom to share, and in sharing, hopefully render diffuse a suffering that either is, or even just feels specific to their make and model. As Man Tribe sells itself: “The days of the lone wolf are over.”
While watching these recorded Zoom conferences, I felt (besides like a voyeuristic creep) an empathy that shifted between recognition and alienation. I’ve been in therapy for a couple years, and should have gone sooner. I won’t say why I go to therapy because it’s not interesting. Hence the empathy. My issues are, I imagine, shared by anyone with parents, a history or a landlord. And it’s these universal, everyday issues — being a decent partner and son, making friends on the schoolyard — that are as much the focus of men’s group work as dealing with larger societal crises. So these men’s discomfort in their own skin and in the world touched a chord. And I appreciated their bravery and self-awareness that attends seeking outside help.
Now, the idea of men as a pack of wolves doesn’t exactly allay fears of toxic masculinity. But I know what Man Tribe means: less a pack of wolves that hunt and tear apart their prey, and more a pack of wolves that communally howl and then go home to their loved ones a somewhat less self-loathing, non communicative prick.
As to any alienation I may have felt watching men striving to better themselves, there lies a question. What, exactly, is my fucking problem? Is it fear? Snobbery? Laziness? The same solipsistic borderline libertarianism that makes me roll my eyes at talks of “community” in punk spaces? An innate misandry akin to being a “pick-me girl” in reverse? The most likely answer and thus bearing repeating: Fear? Of embarrassment? Or weakness? Or of just being exposed as a phony, an emotional dilettante who uses the language of trauma to seem more interesting? All good guesses, and who knows! Seems like something I’d want to figure out. And look at that; half my open tabs are men willing and talk it out. A buffet of offered help. While all the men I spoke to took pains to make clear that they were not therapists, my inbox has been lousy with therapeutic opportunities. All I had/have to do is be open to them. And pay the membership fees, ranging from the low to high hundreds. But I have government COVID cheese saved up and I’m harding spending money in bars. Alexander Hill even floated an offer of bartering membership for a little copy work. I had and have no excuse.
While the question of taking part in these call-ins was wrestled with, the virus lockdown spared me the journalistic imperative of taking part in person. Well, I shouldn’t say “spared.” The aspect of joining intrigued me more than just talking. Other writers, after taking their own agonized pains to make clear that “this wasn’t their kind of thing” gamely went to the desert with Sacred Sons or the struggle-session circle with EVRYMAN and emerged transformed, or at least bound to a tried-and-true narrative arc (men’s groups are not the only biz invested in archetypes). While admittedly I would be as terrified of embarrassment in person as I was online (outside of a hardcore show, physical proximity to strangers is not high on my list of favorites — and even at hardcore shows, I’m usually standing in the back with my arms crossed), I did and do like the idea of joining public-but-with-many-of-the-trappings-of-a-secret society. Which, even if the framing is in many ways inaccurate or unkind, brings us back to the theosophists.
The question of spiritualism in men’s groups is complicated. Groups like EVRYMAN are adamantly agnostic and groups like Sacred Son unashamedly (if also with a dash of humor) count self-described wizards amongst their leadership. But regardless of the actual religiosity of the individual organization, the jargon (“holding place” for each other, speaking intention into reality) is ritualistic, and no less mystical for its origins in therapeutic language. The measure between the therapeutic and the quasi-mystical varied. While EVRYMAN’s founders accentuate the differences between them and the stereotype of “men running around with staffs,” Sacred Sons visibly embrace the staffs (while insisting on their practical use), and Man Tribe kind of splits the difference: a fair amount of juju, but no more than believing bottled vitamins work. The fact that all the founders I spoke to held men’s work’s shamanistic origins in a baseline regard helps the movement appear (to me) as an admirably spiritual project (full disclosure: While I don’t believe in astrology or Tarot, I do believe in God and am open to the existence of spirits, jinn, etc.). Maybe less than the gnostic sects of the turn of the 20th Century, but at least as much as AA or your average black metal concert.
The men I spoke with’s varying degrees of respect for the somewhat Hyborian tendencies of Robert Bly et al. gives the movement an amiably schismatic vibe. (Though, to be clear, the differences expressed to me were far from being as schismatic as the lawsuit that heavy-splintered the original Theosophical Society in the wake of Helena Blavasky’s death.) When any of the founders, briefly and with a fair amount of prodding on my end, spoke candidly about other groups’ methods at all, they were careful to praise in general and not criticize in particular … and then do a variation of “You know I love her … she’s one of my best friends. But…” All of which is understandable. These are men who care deeply about saving other men, and they believe their truth has a chance of doing that. Between that reasoning and my being eager to feel the reverberations of esoteric history, I found what little shit talk I could conjure extremely endearing. To be honest, if the founders of organizations attempting to break patterns of violence and despair that have been dominant for generations upon generations thought all solutions were equal and didn’t think their methods were the best, I’d find their whole project suspect. Without at least a smidgen of religion, this could all just be fantasy football with more crying. (Or less. I’ve never actually played fantasy football.)
While making comparisons to transcendental temples of yore, and accepting that most don’t see those temples with the same affection that I do, I need to make clear that none of the men I spoke to seemed like scammers. I liked each and every one of them, found their pricing far less exorbitant than a spa getaway, and perhaps most importantly, didn’t feel as though any of the men were overselling what their organizations might offer. Whether out of honesty or liability, they made clear that men’s work was not a substitute for therapy or medication (though opinions on those things varied, too), easily copped to and engaged with concerns of cultishness, and uniformly talked of their work as a calling to serve. Like nurses in wartime. In a longish life of discerning phonies from real ones, I am currently batting .500, which makes me a major league level judge of character. For whatever it might be worth, all seemed on the up-and-up. (Bearing in mind that I have not touched a baseball bat, in a sports capacity, in over three decades.)
Conversely, the comparison between the men’s movement and societies dedicated to improvement through metaphysics is, when made without malice or mockery, apt. I don’t subscribe to any new age/climate denialist/Trumpian flattening of belief, where postmodern relativism is weaponized by evangelicals and flakes to the point where one can say with a straight face, “science is just a religion.” But I do subscribe to the en vogue idea that speaking an intention into existence is as good a definition of magic as any. More academically, Radcliffe G. Edmonds, in Drawing Down the Moon, defines magic, in part, as “a discourse pertaining to non-normative ritualized activity.” There are few things less normative in our culture than trying to break free from internalized misogyny and self-destructive patterns of masculinity. Basically, if you’re going to engage in alchemical transmutations of the male psyche — a series of rituals and repeated phrases (like “holding space”) with the specific goal of holistic transformation of body and soul — while constantly pointing out that not everyone on staff is a licensed therapist, I can be forgiven for calling you a wizard. And if a stultifying and deadly pandemic has rendered nearly everything in a shade of two-decades-late millennialist epoch, a kind of latent, Atlantean Y2K panic, so much the better for a grand awakening.
Whether the men-seeking-self-transformation numbers are exactly there (which is difficult to determine, since the only searchable numbers come from the websites of the men’s groups or articles quoting them) or instead writers at GQ and The Guardian are simply eager to provide a counter-narrative to incel spotlight-hogging, it’s clear that something real is going on. While nearly every man I spoke to talked of the Me Too movement as both a necessary reckoning and a catalyst, they all also made clear that the catalysts were manifold, as much personal as societal, and that what is important is less the naming of the zeitgeist and its exact causes than the fact that a zeitgeist is occurring.
Unlike other reporters who came to men’s work with cynical veneers bespoke-built to crumble in the face of revelation and narrative satisfaction, I came to the zeitgeist with an open heart. I love a good zeitgeist, was raised to be openly affectionate with my fellow man (my dad loves his fellow man so much that he married one), am open to therapy and wizardry in equal measure, and, as with all these men, emotionally speaking, I have a lot on my plate. I’m worried about work. I’m worried about growing old and weak. I’m worried about being weak now. I’m worried about my social standing. I’m worried about starting a family of my own. I am grieving my mother’s death, and worrying about how I am or am not processing it. I have some fucked bad material from my past that I absolutely have not dealt with.
And, with all this, I have all these kind and thoughtful men, all of whom I liked immensely, offering to help. Without shame. Without judgment. In this day and age, when selfishness is held as high virtue and the facile is worshiped by leaders and servants alike, there are men offering, blessedly devoid of macho bullying or ironic posturing, comradery and communion. And the only response that I can give — meant truly, though not without misgivings, from the bottom of my soul — is that I don’t think I really feel like it.
I have not a single bad thing to say about men’s groups. Well, OK, I think a lot of them kind of idolize the notion of “embracing the feminine” to a point that, even setting aside questions of gender essentialism, borders on fetishization. But besides that, I’m on board. All this ambitious striving towards improvement, this searching for self-awareness, this brave attempting to breach broken tradition and recapture fire from the mountain: I dig it. I also think guys should have lives independent from work and bars. Even the prosaic aspects of men’s group goals appeal. I think it’s noble.
But, end of day, I don’t want to be exposed. I like my shell. It protects me from the world. I believe that life is inherently painful and that I deserve to suffer as much as anyone. Not a lot, but a little. Just enough to keep me honest. Or at least a likeable enough liar that writing remains viable while the bars are still closed. Like Lamar Jimmerson, I remain irrevocably bound to a life that stops short of the veil. (Also, while we’re here, I read Masters of Atlantis twice, just to see what everyone else finds so funny, and I just don’t get it.) Point being: I strongly suggest that, if you’re a self-identifying man in crisis, you check these men’s societies out. There’s so much to be said for, metaphorically or literally, wrestling with manhood. Positive, raw possibility can and should be embraced. The benefits from said grappling might be incalculable. I both hope that anyone who takes part in the project finds transcendence or at least a kind of peace, and, hedging my bets, I do hope the invitation to transcendence and/or peace remains open. But for now, for myself, whether it’s with the everyday stress caused by everyday hassles, memories of a bad sexual experience inflicted upon me by a couple truckers outside Chicago when I was 19, or with a beefcake sorcerer in waist-length dreads in the desert, at this transformative epochal juncture of these transformative epochal times, I ain’t wrestling with shit.
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