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.
In many ways, the Good Men Project was born not out of the men's movement, or the 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.
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."
"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."
As a man aspiring to be good, I've gotten into a heap of trouble with women. I realize that the current men's rights 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 one year old, and Kerry, who was one 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.
I traveled to Italy with four friends. Each of us had suffered a loss that drove us to search for a personal renaissance. Tuscany seemed as appropriate a place as any.
We soaked up the local culture. I learned the history of Santa Maria Del Fiore Duomo, designed by Brunelleschi and built over generations with pure faith that its unprecedented scale would remain structurally sound -- a daring belief at a time when the Black Plague had wiped out the city's population and the ruler of Milan threatened the Florentine republic. I stood on the floor of the church and looked up in awe because I couldn't imagine that much faith.
We stayed in the countryside among the olive trees. From my bedroom window, I often watched an elderly man patiently harvesting the olives, a single tree at a time. He moved with great precision as he raked the olives onto cheesecloth. He never seemed to be in a hurry as he went about his task.
One afternoon, I sat at a picnic table with my friends on the grounds of our little inn. I heard a horse snort and stomp its feet on the hillside across the valley. I turned to look at the animal, examining the color of its coat and the grace of its movements in the afternoon sun.
For the first time in years, I recalled riding horses as a boy. My instructor, a young woman four years my senior, had told me that horses are the most intuitive beings on the planet, perfectly mirroring the mood of their human handlers. Although she feigned indifference as I backed my horse into a briar patch the first time we saddled up, and then made me clean out the stalls, her eyes always let me know that something about my gangly awkwardness stirred her wild streak.
As I continued to watch the Italian horse shake its mane, I remembered the day the handler and I rode bareback at a gallop through the woods near the horse farm her father owned. Afterward, I looked at my teacher with the eyes of a 12-year-old boy who has seen the perfection of a 16-year-old girl and doesn't need to take another breath.
The vision of perfection was shattered a couple weeks later when she told me she had to leave, that she was pregnant and planned to marry the father -- a mean-looking guy with a beard -- and move to Maine. I could still see her fake smile, trying to make something all right that really wasn't, even for her, and feel the shattered expression on my face that, as much as I tried, I couldn't hide.
Back at our villa near Florence, I drifted back to our circle and listened carefully. One of my friends wept gently as he whispered the story of his wife succumbing to cancer. He'd held her hand as she slipped away, their five children surrounding her bed.
I looked back at the horse. It had moved to the other side of its corral and was now munching on grass. I held the sight in my eyes for a moment.
Another friend told the story of seeing his son on the evening news after the boy had carjacked a woman, actually removing her from the driver's seat. In a drug-induced blackout, the son had left the car in the middle of the road and walked home. He only escaped serious jail time because a judge sent him to treatment instead.
I noticed that the old man in the grove below us was now up in the tree picking his olives. He was quietly going about his business, something I imagined his father, and his grandfather before him, had done. His movements were intentional and beautiful in their simplicity.
The friend next to me described discovering his teenage daughter having an affair with his best friend. He'd had been at a cookout when he finally put the pieces together and then suffered for months afterward as this man stalked his daughter.
The distant pop of gunfire in the woods nearby -- locals hunting for birds or perhaps wild boar -- startled me. It was my turn.
I told my story: athletic success, financial success, marriage, kids, booze and utter failure as a husband and father. When I was finished, I looked up the hill. The horse lifted its head, mid-bite, and looked my way. It was the first time there was no darkness in my heart -- only Tuscan sunshine and thoughts of riding bareback through the woods at a gallop, chasing a schoolboy crush.
Inside me, something let go, and something else was restored. I had remembered how much I was capable of romantic love for the right and most innocent of reasons. The gender war in my heart had vanished. I had behaved badly out of fear of rejection, but now I knew that my life story didn't have to end that way.
My friends and I played bocce that evening in the olive grove. We swore at one another like brothers, smacking balls and talking trash until the sun went down and we had to go inside for dinner. And somewhere deep in my soul, I knew, from that day forward, that I would end up with a woman -- a woman whose Italian roots would bring me full circle back to that day.
At its most basic level, the Good Men Project and the variety of men's groups organized to advance our emotional, legal and political interests are talking about the same thing, albeit from different perspectives. While my focus has always been on the power of one man spilling his guts to another, telling the radical truth about himself, I am willing to concede that in all those stories two themes that the various men's movements have rightfully picked up on have emerged: the difference in the very vocabulary of men's speech and the difference between a father and a mother.
Women dominate the very vocabulary by which men's lives are described and interpreted, both at home and in the media. Men are afraid to dip their toe into the unfamiliar waters of their interior lives, since they fear they might end up crying on Oprah's couch. As I have traveled the country, I have realized that men are struggling, and most are struggling in silence. Our popular culture has dumbed down men to sex- and sports-crazed idiots, with very little space for the nuanced truth of how hard it is to try to be a good dad and a good husband and breadwinner, which is what women still expect of us, all at the same time. The whole point is that we don't have to talk about these issues from a female perspective in female terms. For it to matter, we have to have the guts to talk about the male experience with our own voices, digging beyond the discomfort to the truth of what it means to be a man amidst all the conflicting expectations and confusion about what is really important at the end of the day.
Scoggins, Frank and my Italian buddies changed my life because they described my fears and my aspirations in a way that I simply could not deny. They inspired me to be a better man by revealing to me the radical truth about myself. That's what guys have to do a hell of a lot more of, rather than whining about women -- breaking the silence to tell the truth of our own lives in our own male voices, uncolored by what women expect to hear. That is a basic mission of the Good Men Project.
The other issue that has come up again and again is parenthood. Whereas women were trying to leave the home when the feminist movement really got going 50 years ago, men are trying to find our way home in 2011 (and, damn, we need to). As a group, fathers have been woefully absent. The number of children in this country growing up without fathers is staggering. How are all those boys ever going to grow up to be good men if their dads cop out? Men, despite all the divorce laws that disproportionately favor women, have to start focusing on that.
In my case, such inequitable laws made me determined to become a decent father. I realized, looking down at my son Seamus, who was just a baby at the time, that I had missed the very thing that was most important to me, and nothing,no one, was going to take that away from me.
A decade and a half later, I have realized how much I love being a dad. It's the one thing I know how to do well. Like most divorced dads, nothing came easily; I had to learn how to care for my babies on my own. I had to fight for every day of visitation, from the time they were in diapers until now, as my daughter prepares to go to college next year. I had to shut out the constant refrain repeated to my face, and for too long internalized in my soul, that I was "a shitty father, and always will be." I had to let my own intuition take over, my own sense of connection with my children. I had to learn to protect my kids, and also how to let them go. I learned to relish each moment in their company, even the most difficult ones, as the core substance of my life.
Cole had outgrown his baby nursery, and to replace it, Elena designed a cowboy-themed bedroom with a tepee and log cabin bunk beds. When Cole's eyes are heavy after a long day of pretending to be a knight, I get his jammie-joes on, brush his teeth, and he gives Mommy a goodnight kiss and hug before I carry him down the hall. We snuggle into the lower bunk and read three books -- about lost penguins, monkeys toying with alligators and dogs wearing strange hats and driving cars.
Often Cole starts snoring before I have finished the first story, but sometimes he goes the distance. Either way, I turn out the light. Even if he is already asleep, he stirs when he hears the switch and asks, "Daddy, will you stay with me for a little while?"
Holding my son as he slumbers, surrounded by big chunks of raw pine, is a cocoon I have to force myself to leave. I listen to Cole snore and stare up in the dark at the bottom of top bunk, my mind empty of any thoughts.
I eventually get up and walk back into my life. But every night I return nourished just enough to make it through another 24 hours, until it's time to get his jammie-joes on again and climb back into the cowboy bunk beds.
Read a reaction to this column at Dadvocate.
Like this? You might also enjoy "Manhood in Four Moments," "Why Do We Forgive Adulterous Women?" and "Do Divorced Dads Get a Raw Deal?"