Drums, Sweat And Tears

Men: construction workers, college professors, computer salesmen. In the suffocating dark of a tepee, squatting on naked haunches by a mound of sizzling rocks, they re-enact the sacred rituals of the Sioux and Chippewa, purifying their souls in the glandular fellowship of sweat. Men: media consultants, marketing consultants, media-marketing consultants. With hands cramped from long hours at their keyboards, they smack in happy abandon the goatskin heads of their drums, raise their voices in supplication to west African tribal gods more accustomed to requests for rain than the inchoate emotional demands of middle-class Americans. Men: Jungian therapists, substance-abuse counselors, Unitarian ministers. Mustaches quivering with freshly aroused grief, they evoke the agony of drunken fathers, of emasculating bosses, of a culture that insists on portraying them as idiots who would sneeze them selves to death if their wives didn't come up with the right antihistamine. Yes, men. What teenagers were to the 1960s, what women were to the 1970s, middle-aged men may well be to the 1990s: American culture's sanctioned grievance carriers, diligently rolling their ball of pain from talk show to talk show.

These are exciting times: the men's movement is dawning, the first postmodern social movement, meaning one that stems from a deep national malaise that hardly anyone knew existed until they saw it on a PBS special. The show was "A Gathering of Men," Bill Moyers's 1990 documentary on the poet Robert Bly. Bly's is a voice in the desert of America's backyards, calling for the missing father - the father whose indifference, abuse or alcoholism has permanently wounded his sons. The broadcast "gave shape to the disconnected, rambling conversations that had been taking place all over the country," Moyers says. Since then, Bly's new book, "Iron John," has spent 30 weeks on the best-seller list, a stunning achievement for a cross-cultural analysis of male initiation rites. Another current best seller is Sam Keen's "Fire in the Belly," a book about what American men lack. There are at least two national quarterlies devoted specifically to the movement - MAN!, with around 3,500 subscribers, and Wingspan, with a (free) circulation of more than 125,000. And the past year has seen a flurry of interest in new general-interest men's magazines, including a failed venture by Rupert Murdoch and Rolling Stone's soon-to-be-published Arrow. Hundreds of men's groups around the country - 163 in the Northeast alone - sponsor hundreds of conferences, workshops, retreats and gatherings. If the epiphenomena of the men's movement seem a trifle outre - wanna-be savages banging drums in the moonlight on weekend camp-outs - this was no less true of the women who ignited the feminist movement with the flames from their own burning brassieres.

And it is a movement about which hardly anyone can feel neutral. Many men have found a weekend retreat to be a profoundly moving and impressive experience. Among them is Quinn Crosbie, the 49-year-old director of New Start, a counseling center in Santa Monica, Calif., who had his first ritual sweat this month at a men's retreat in Topanga Canyon: "We were chanting and sweating and screaming and hollering. It was fun and uplifting because it involved prayers and a lot of affirmation. People talked about pain." Many other men, of course, regard the chance to spend several hours talking about pain as a great reason to see a movie instead. "Thank God I haven't spent any of the '90s on either coast," says Chicago lawyer Tom Lubin, who welcomes men's retreats as a chance to stay in the city and meet the women left behind. "Before I heard about this trend, I was thinking of moving."

What the movement doesn't have, at least not yet, is a serious political or social agenda. There are groups working to make divorce and custody laws more favorable to men, but it would be a mistake to think of the men's movement as merely a political response to feminism. White men cannot plausibly claim to be underrepresented in the upper echelons of American society. Nor is the movement concerned with the quotidian lives of men in relation to their lovers and families. It is not about taking paternity leave, taking out the garbage or letting one's partner come first. The movement looks inward. It seeks to resolve the spiritual crisis of the American man, a sex that paradoxically dominates the prison population as overwhelmingly as it does the United States Senate. "The women's movement has made tremendous strides in providing a place for women in the world," says Eric McCollum, who teaches family therapy at Purdue. "The men's movement is going to provide a place for men in the heart."

Take Larry Lima, who made a fairly typical middle-class mess out of his life after a promising start, earning more than $100,000 a year in his late 20s as a medical-devices product manager in Boulder Creek, Calif. In short order Lima's father died, he had major surgery on his back, he lost his job, his wife lost her job, they divorced and Lima realized he was an alcoholic. Sober and back in his hometown of Summit, N.J., with two young children, he signed up for a men's weekend at a lodge in the Adirondack Mountains. In the atavistic silliness of dancing and drumming by firelight, in the third-degree agony of squatting alongside red-glowing rocks in the stifling darkness, he felt himself cleansed and reborn into a new, more serious and responsible life. Talking with the other men that weekend, he realized the importance of men learning from one another, because - and who should know this better? - "alone, we don't know what the hell we're doing."

Lima was a fairly representative men's movement man: white, white-collar, in his 30s and divorced. He had few male friends with whom he shared anything deeper than a beer. He was not that much-ridiculed figure, a "sensitive" man. The men's movement makes a point of not propagating "sensitivity" of the wispy, flaccid, moonstruck variety. It does, however, promote "communication." Elaborate rituals have been devised to help men overcome the cultural taboo against revealing emotions. Men's groups typically set aside a special time for members to talk about their feelings. Many have found it necessary to outlaw diversionary topics such as sports, politics and cars. At the men's retreats run by psychotherapist Wilbur Courter in Kalamazoo, Mich., he forbids participants even to mention their jobs, leaving most of them "almost speechless." Courter says his work "is directed toward helping us become better human beings instead of better human doings."

Sex is usually a permissible topic, although it is generally disguised under the rubric of "relationships." As Allen Maurer of the Texas Men's Center explains, "Rather than talk about women's anatomy, when we talk about sex, we talk about how we feel about it." Borrowing from Native American ritual, some groups use a "talking stick," a ceremonial object that guarantees the floor to whoever holds it. This is a good way to make sure that everyone gets to say what's on his mind without interruption by the rest of the group. But it's not hard to imagine how women, to whom the easy exchange of intimacies comes naturally, must view this quaint masculine practice: Aha, men are finally learning to talk about their feelings. But they have to hold a stick to do it.

For many informal men's groups, communication is the end in itself. Ed Hunnold, a lawyer and founder of the Men's Council of Washington, was drawn to the movement by "a keenness for male friendship." He knows many men - like him, happily married and well adjusted - who wake up to the realization that their circle of friends had dwindled to "their wife and another couple they go out with together." But the men's movement also has a more profound strain, a romantic assertion of primitive masculinity in all its innocent strength and virtue. This is at the heart of Bly's "mythopoetic" approach to male malaise. He analyzes contemporary American culture in terms of pre-Christian fables and concludes, unsurprisingly, that we are sadly lacking in kings, wizards and enchanted forests. "Iron John" is an extended exegesis of a single long, convoluted and previously obscure fairy tale. Its central characters are the innocent young son of a king and a hairy, beastlike man who lives deep in the forest. The beast is captured and locked up in the castle, but the boy helps him escape and then, afraid of being punished, runs off with him to the forest, where he grows into manhood. Many adventures ensue, at the end of which boy, king and beast are reconciled. The boy, of course, marries a princess.

Drawing on bits of anthropology and a vast knowledge of world literature, Bly elaborates this tale into a survey of the ways in which traditional rural cultures have handled the crucial emotional passages in a boy's life: separation from the mother and initiation into the world of men. He concludes that the typical American family does the first incompletely and the second hardly at all. This, in fact, has been more or less the case ever since the Industrial Revolution created a separate sphere of "work" for men, while leaving everyone else behind at home. Even when nominally living at home, the father often spends most of his time and energy elsewhere; he "loses his son five minutes after birth," Bly writes. The elders who in other cultures would initiate the youth into the customs of the tribe are off playing golf in St. Petersburg. The consequences, says Bly, are lives blighted by "father-hunger," which manifests itself in emotional immaturity, general unhappiness and a volatile impatience with the surrogate father figures of our society. On this in turn Bly blames all manner of delinquency, down to whippersnappers in university English departments "deconstructing" their elders.

Bly reserves a special pity for what he calls "soft" males - those who, lacking a strong masculine image from childhood, have been duped by feminism into surrendering their natural birthrights of righteous anger and self-assertion. This has sometimes been misunderstood as an endorsement of the long-discredited values of the Paleolithic. Thus Betty Friedan, the pioneering feminist, sneers at "the so-called men's movement. They say, 'Feminism has made wimps of you. Get back to your cave man.' It's a definition of masculinity based on dominance." But to look at Bly - white-haired, gently spoken, a poet by trade - is to wonder which cave Friedan thinks he crawled out of. In fact, nowhere does Bly imply that men should dominate women; he thinks they sometimes need to fight, but he would have them do it as equals.

One needn't accept Bly's mythopoetic argument in every detail to grasp the power of his concept of father-hunger. Myths speak to something basic in the human psyche, but it may not be entirely fair to use mythology as a standard against which to measure actual human societies. Bly romanticizes the peasant culture in which fathers and sons worked together in the fields, but historians tend to doubt that emotional health was really the defining characteristic of the Middle Ages. On the other hand, we cannot deny the pathology of the modern family, in which the average father, according to statistics from the Family Research Council, spends just under eight minutes a day in direct conversation with his children, and roughly half that if his wife also works outside the home. The strong emotions many men experience when exposed to the soothing drone of Bly's storytelling make it plain that he has touched something deep and powerful within them. "I would guess that most of the men who are involved in this movement are men who've come to understand how they've been abused as children," says Jim Conn, a Methodist minister at the Church In Ocean Park in Santa Monica, Calif., and a former mayor of that city. He means abuse in its broadest sense: "sometimes by mothers, sometimes by fathers, sometimes by entire family constructs."

Abused by one's entire family construct - how much more victimized can one be? John Lee, publisher of MAN! and author of "The Flying Boy," an autobiographical account of growing up with an alcoholic father, contends that the men's movement "is really at its root and core about abuse and oppression." This is not in his view contradicted by the fact that most of the participants are white males, generally considered the most privileged segment of American society. In fact they have been abused and oppressed all along but just didn't realize it. For one thing, every white male in this country had a father, and usually that was a source of abuse right there. Then society turned them into "success objects" valued only for their salaries - a complementary form of oppression to that which values women only as "sex objects." "They gave white males the semblance of power in return," Lee says bitterly. "We'll let you run the country, but in the meantime, stop feeling, stop talking and continue swallowing your pain and your hurt and keep dying younger than you need to be dying." In recent years the death rate for American men has been 40 percent higher than for women. Lee regards that as another form of oppression: the tyranny of mortality.

So men are victimized by nothing less than industrial civilization, which has stolen the father from the home, alienated man from nature and forced him into a suit and tie so he can run the country. Not to speak of all the men who also have to wear suits and ties and never get to run anything more important than a county sales-tax office. No wonder men are rebelling. No wonder one form the rebellion takes is the "Wild Man" retreat, in which men who ordinarily might not know which end of an ax to grasp live out a fantasy of aboriginal frolic, confined to a weekend and purged of any practices that might offend contemporary sensibilities, such as ritual mutilation or chemical intoxicants. The Texas Men's Center runs six to eight of these a year in various parts of the country, generally drawing upwards of 100 men who pay $249 each to leave their inhibitions behind in the parking lot. Drumming is an essential ritual in these gatherings (following story). So is a couple of hours in the sweat lodge, typically a structure of canvas and tree branches brought to an insufferable 150 degrees by rocks heated in a fire. Sweating is a wonderful communal ritual, the lowest-common-denominator human activity. No one has to worry about his performance in a sweat lodge. And the heat, the dark, the steam and the herbs (typically sage) the men inhale or rub on one another combine to create a hypernormal state, which is what men have always sought on Saturday nights anyway. "I would say that the majority in the sweat were moved beyond their rational faculties," recalls Conn of one such experience. "There was a lot of crying, screaming, yelling, gurgling sounds that came up." Much of it, of necessity, is fairly free form; as James Sniechowski, founder of The Mens-work Center in Los Angeles, puts it, "Nobody knows what a postprimitive ritual should be, now that we don't live in the woods anymore."

But they know what they are seeking. They are seeking communion with other men, an "honoring" or a "blessing," as it is called. This is the quality that was missing in their relationship with their fathers and that they have been seeking ever since, often from women. It is no accident that many men find their way to the men's movement after the breakup of a marriage or long-term relationship. Love fails them because they expect women to heal the wounds of their boyhoods, and that can come only from other men. "I think," says Conn, who was divorced twice before coming to the men's movement, "a lot of women are saying, 'I don't want to listen to this anymore. You'd better go find your father or your brother.' They've thrown up their hands in exasperation. For me the realization was my own divorce. I had to say, 'Wait a minute, there's something that I can't learn from women and I never learned it from my father.' So I turned to other men.

"As children, we went to our mothers when we skinned our knees. Our fathers weren't very sympathetic So it's very valuable to learn that men can be sympathetic, and I had to learn it by doing, by sitting in a room with men and saying 'This hurts' and having somebody say, 'I know'."

So there it is, the solution to the alienation of modern life, the key to surviving the spiritual crisis that descends when, as Maurer puts it, "we find out at age 40, having three or four marriages and seduced lots of women. having a Porsche. that doesn't do it." Can a movement that teaches there is more to life than that be all bad?

But, then, what happens when the weekend is over and the Wild Men get back into their cars and the cellular phones are already ringing their strident demands? The script is overdue, the client is frantic. They'll just have to work next. damn, that's their weekend with the kids. What now?

What now is that we need another revolution. In the 18th century, men made the world over in their image; now they look in the mirror and strain to catch a glimpse of the Wild Man beneath the tie, and they ask: is it too late to start over?

Listen - hear that drumming? Is that the call of the tom-tom in the woods?

Or the thump of your lonely heart?