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.Seeking no more and no less than legal equality and genuine equity under the law
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.”