The Male Mystique

October 28, 1990|By Tim Warren | Tim Warren,Sun Book Editor

LONGMONT, COLO. — Longmont, Colo.-- They are more than 300, well coiffed, well dressed and, judging by their peaceful countenances, spiritually well fed. Professional men almost all, quite civil and civilized, gathered amiably in this hotel conference room in this Denver suburb on a snowy Saturday morning. For $85 in this seven-hour "day for men," they are hearing from the tall, white-haired man on the stage why they are so miserable.

He is Robert Bly, and in ways that are alternately serious, flip, gently sarcastic, angry and reflective, he tells them:

*"Because of the Industrial Revolution, there's a situation of having been abandoned by the father. . . . Then mythology teaches us in the middle of life there's going to be a lot of grief and loneliness. When you feel the pain at age 35, psychology gives the analysis you're a neurotic Christian creep."

*"The whole question of the last 30 years is how ridiculous the American male has become. . . . Men not only feel abandoned, but they feel ashamed."

*"Men want to hear from their dying fathers that they love them. But I always tell them, 'It's not going to happen.' "

*"Everyone comes to a men's group, and they think they're the only ones who have suffered. And they hear other people's stories and then they're amazed."

And then this, delivered with a sly smile: "My job is to depress you -- am I doing a good job?"

Somber though his message may be, most members of the audience clearly aren't depressed. Already they have opened this gathering with 30 minutes of exuberant drumming and an energetic snake dance led by Mr. Bly himself. As he explains the reasons for their unhappiness, they grow not depressed but more involved.

They laugh appreciatively at his many witticisms. They stand up and tell stories of pain and estrangement from loved ones--fathers and women and their children and other men. They tell emotional stories of driving all day to reconcile with a father on Christmas Day, and fierce tales of staking out a claim for their children in bitter custody battles. They tell stories of triumph, of finally getting some sense of who they are after decades of indecision and frustration. And at day's end, they line up by the stage to have Mr. Bly sign copies of his new book, "Iron John: A Book About Men," and to tell more stories about their wounds and joy and -- well, just more.

And Robert Bly listens, as he has done thousands of times since he began working in men's gatherings a decade ago. He is remarkably active and vital for a man of 64, and at the end of a long, emotionally exhausting day he still can focus on each man who comes up to him with yet another deeply revealing story. He gives advice when asked and hugs men he has known but briefly. Almost reluctantly, he extricates himself from the crowd to make a book-signing in nearby Boulder. As he leaves, a few men watch him, almost transfixed.

"He just says a lot of things that appeal to men of my generation," observed James Wickert, 41, a psychotherapist from Littleton, earlier in the day. "It has nothing to do with the women's movement. It's an internal process that we men all have to go through."

At this point in his life, Robert Bly could be settling down in his home in Moose Lake, Minn., where he lives with his wife, content to be a leading American poet and literary figure (he won the National Book Award in 1968 for his collection "The Light Around the Body" and is a member of the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters). Instead, every year he leads dozens of men's gatherings such as the one here, becoming both a revered though somewhat reluctant national figure among many men and a convenient target of skeptics.

His message isn't simple and the answers often are maddeningly slippery. "That's what poetry does: It exposes the images, and you do what you want with them," he says. Using such concepts as the wild man ("the true radiant energy in the male" that resides "in the magnetic field of the deep masculine," he writes in "Iron John") and the "internal warrior" that he has learned from studying mythology and from other writers and leaders of men's gatherings -- such as Michael Meade, Robert Moore and James Hillman -- Mr. Bly urges men to find their own rituals and initiation rites to replace ones that formerly gave males direction and a sense of self but have been lost through societal changes and in the aftermath of the women's movement. He also says he became involved "in an indirect way . . . because I didn't know how to raise my two sons." (He has four children.)

"I've used his stuff a great deal with men working on male identity issues," says Steve Gilbert, a psychotherapist and pastoral counselor in Silver Spring, Md. "There's no question that men today are searching, especially those in their 30s and 40s. I found Bly very useful, both personally and in dealing with men -- particularly in such areas as bonding with fathers, and hostility with fathers, grief and so on."

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