An Interview with Stephen J. Johnson, Ph.D.
The following is an interview with Stephen J. Johnson, Ph.D., Executive Director of the Men’s Center Los Angeles conducted in May of 1994 by Ellis Cose, a contributing editor for Newsweek Magazine. This interview was included in Mr. Cose’s book, A Man’s World: How Real Is Male Privilege – and How High Is Its Price? (Harper Collins, 1995).
COSE: Probably the place to start is with the fact that you obviously have something called the Men’s Center. I was looking through some of the articles that had been done and there were several references to the Men’s Center and the fact that you give talks and seminars on men’s issues. Why is that of particular interest to you?
JOHNSON: I started out working a lot with women, as did most of the male psychotherapists that were licensed back in the sixties and seventies. Men were not exploring their psyches then, and women were. The women’s movement is now about 30 years old. So a new generation of women, 30 years ago, was beginning to figure out that there was an urgent need to explore their issues, to come together in unity and to create some kind of a power base. At the time the women’s movement was essentially about establishing equality with men. Now, the women’s movement is much more about balance of power. Early on, men didn’t have a clue about what was going on in their outer worlds, let alone what was going on in their inner worlds, but they started reacting to this movement within women, which is what eventually steered them toward therapy as well. They started coming in slowly and now we are finding a much higher percentage of men who are willing to explore their own souls.
My personal interest in men’s work evolved from my own midlife crisis, which I went through from 38 to 43. And as do most men when they get into their mid-thirties, I looked within and asked myself whether I was happy, whether my life was going in the right direction and whether my goals were still salient. I realized that I was pretty confused about life. Many men at this point in their lives find that they’ve been climbing their own ladders only to discover that they’re leaning against somebody else’s wall. I decided that it was imperative to take up the question of what my life was about and particularly what it meant to be a balanced male in relationship to other human beings on the planet. I turned my attention to issues concerned with the male psyche and balanced masculinity in an attempt to further understand my raison d’etre. It was an intensely existential period, which I likened to a journey into the dark night of the soul.
COSE: Are you finding that that’s what men in their 30’s and early 40’s are primarily going through?
JOHNSON: Yes. I work a lot with men who are in their 30’s and 40’s who, when they hit midlife, start asking these kinds of questions. Men who are a little older, however, those who are in their mid 50’s to mid 60’s, are usually dealing with issues around aging and the quality of their lifestyles in the future. And then those who are 70 and older are dealing with issues around health, mortality and completion. But men of my generation who were in the 35 – 45 age range, which comprised the baby-boomers who have always been movers and shakers, were asking the questions concerning the quality of present life and wondering what life would be like for future generations. They were concerned with where they would fit in with the ever-increasing global changes.
COSE: When you say the global changes, are you talking economic?
JOHNSON: Economic changes, environmental conditions, human rights, et cetera. People, in general, are pretty much aware that things are rapidly changing as we’re exiting this millennium. There are certain kinds of changes that are happening worldwide, in our own communities and in the global villages that are pretty astounding. So people are asking what this all means and how will it impact their own lives.
For instance, a number of men with whom I work that were moving at a very fast pace or were on a fast track during the 80’s are now scaling down and making new career and personal choices that are reflected in a revision of their material aspirations. They are bringing their personal lives more in alignment with their view of a new world order.
COSE: Now is that a matter of choice or is it a matter of the downsizing and the corporate restructuring that has been going on? Or is it a combination of both?
JOHNSON: A combination of both. But a lot of them have come up against the glass ceiling, or got caught in a bottleneck and were forced to change, and probably would not have had they not hit the wall. So what they realize is that it’s a good opportunity to reevaluate, do some soul searching, to look at where they are spiritually.
COSE: Is it your sense that the questions that men are asking now are somewhat different then, say, your father would have asked?
JOHNSON: Yes, very different. I think that men these days are questioning where they’re going and wondering whether they will be able to attain their desired lifestyle. It is less predetermined than it was for my father’s generation. He came through World War II, moved to California, established a family and career and ostensibly lived “the great American dream”. Men of that era were asking the question: “How long will it take to create what I want?” These days, younger men and especially those who are in their 20’s, the ones that have been branded as Generation X, experience a certain amount of hopelessness, helplessness and despair. The outlook is somewhat bleak. So they’re asking the question: “What’s the point of even trying?”
COSE: Where does the hopelessness, the helplessness, the despair come from? What’s the genesis of that?
JOHNSON: I think that it has a lot to do with the dismantling of the family structure, the breakdown of traditions and increased intolerance in the way people relate to each other. Essentially, this results in fragmentation and alienation within families, communities, neighboring villages and nations. It tends to give the impression that things are getting worse rather than better.
COSE: When you say the dismantling of the family structure, are we talking about divorce or are we talking about something other than that?
JOHNSON: Well, I am talking about divorce, as well as what appears to be a breakdown of traditional values and family rituals that have typically served to hold communities together. Additionally, people en masse exited churches and synagogues during the 60’s and 70’s…during the God-is-dead movement, which has contributed to an awful lot of the demise of social graces, ethical standards, principles and values. Churches and Synagogues have traditionally served as the town hall meeting place and a main source of support for family life. It’s endemic that within the white community we see a divorce rate of over 50 percent and one that is dramatically higher within the black family. With as many fathers out of the house, it’s troubling to realize just how many American families are being raised by single mothers. The burden is very significant.
COSE: A lot of fathers are now raising children who weren’t their biological children.
JOHNSON: There are many more blended families now in which fathers are parenting stepchildren, and we are also witnessing a trend toward more single fathers having primary custody of their children. Many men, if they are in the role of father, and they’re serious about it, are striving to be good fathers. They feel a responsibility to do a better job than their own fathers did, and oftentimes they have a much greater appreciation for the difficulty that their own fathers had.
COSE: And there’s a paradox in that, it seems, as I’m sure you know, divorce rates are much higher now than they were 30 or 40 years ago. So, if there’s a desire to do a better job, it seems that at least in some sense, people are doing a worse job. At least as indicated by those statistics. How are men grappling with that in your practice? Are they sort of re-embracing more of conventional values, or are they just kind of making their peace with that reality?
JOHNSON: We have at the Men’s Center a very strong emphasis on family. There is a tendency for men to get pulled out of or flee from families. And if we can create a new kind of container, if you will, that allows them to stabilize and to really evaluate the issues at hand, they will realize that it’s not simply about moving out, but rather about moving in and dealing with the internal conflict. More men want to stay in their families these days. They are not as cavalier about moving out as they were in the 70’s and 80’s.
Of course some men are choosing to divorce and need help in developing support systems around them so that they can go through the process without shattering. This is preferable, also, over feeling stuck in a bad marriage and ultimately living a life of quiet desperation. A lot of men just don’t have allies. They haven’t developed friendships. They’re very isolated. So, community building, in which we attempt to assist men in creating relationships with other men, is a primary function of the Men’s Center.
For men who are trying to stay in families, much of what we do is focused around bringing men together to understand what the issues are that they have to deal with. If they are willing, we encourage them to consciously rechoose the family structure as a vehicle that supports their spiritual evolution, psychological development and overall maturity.
COSE: Now, a very basic question. Where is the men’s movement today?
JOHNSON: The first ten years at least of what’s called the men’s movement were about repairing the wounds to the soul that were created by dysfunctional relationships between fathers and sons. After giving years of attention to the relationship with their fathers, men have come to discover that they have some real work to do with respect to their relationships with their mothers. They now realize the need of more intimately understanding what women are seeking in a positive relationship. We are learning how to construct a bridge to span the distinctly different emotional languages between men and women. We are seeing more books written about gender dynamics by people such as Deborah Tannen, John Gray, Aaron Kipnis and Elizabeth Heron. We are learning that it is possible to appreciate the differences with greater acceptance rather than resentment. It’s so tempting to fall into misunderstanding that we need all the help that we can get.
COSE: How large is the group of men who are concerned with these issues? Are we talking about a small percentage of men, or most men, or somewhere in between?
JOHNSON: I’m not really sure. But, what I noticed last year at the Mendocino Men’s Leadership Conference was that the 125 men in attendance who have been working with men over the years are saying that the real work that lies before us is in the trenches. We need to be of greater service to our communities. We need to create more mentor relationships with fatherless boys who are at risk of dropping out of school, or getting involved with gangs or drugs. We need to be working with men who are at risk of getting caught up in our penal system. There are men who need help reintegrating back into society from prison. We need to be working with men who are sexual offenders or are prone to domestic violence. Men’s Work is, of necessity, taking on a more serious approach now.
We urgently need a men’s social justice network in which men of all ages join forces to attain a higher profile in our cities in order to stabilize them and take them back from those who would squander our valuable resources. Fortunately, service organizations like the Knights of Columbus, the Brotherhood of the Elks and Moose, and the Masons to name a few, are opening their doors to younger men. During the 60’s and 70’s there was a generation gap between men who supported our presence in Vietnam and those who protested, between the long hairs and the short hairs, between older men and younger men. Attendance had dropped severely and many of the organizations were in danger of shutting down. Within these organizations today there’s less of that kind of disparity. There’s more mutual understanding, harmony and good spirited communication between men of all ages, races and belief systems.
COSE: What’s driving that, this new seriousness?
JOHNSON: Well, I think, partly it has to do with the fact that the baby boom generation has come of age. We are older and wiser now. We have become parents with responsibilities and important decisions to make. We have a president who is of our generation so there is a greater feeling of representation. We feel that we have a power base from which we can get something accomplished and we, as latter-day flower children of the sixties, are accustomed to working together for a common goal. When the problems are no longer isolated to some other part of the world but rather on your own doorstep it becomes more than just a wake-up call. It’s right here; it’s in your face. So, it’s time to make a positive difference; it’s time for a change.
COSE: To what extent are men reacting, not necessarily to the women’s movement but to competition from women in the workplace?
JOHNSON: There’s no question that there is some feeling of competition, because back in the 50’s there was only 14 percent of married women in the work force, whereas today it’s 65 percent. There is also a new work ethic. We can no longer count on the corporate structure to act as a benevolent parent. Employers are not going to take care of us in the ways that we were used to in years past. Generous retirement and health plans are too costly in the era of downsizing. Jobs are being eliminated for men who are in mid-life at an alarmingly faster rate than before and at a time when financial pressures are usually the hardest with college age children and aging parents to support. The younger generation, often referred to as the busters, is nipping at the heels of the boomers and making them very nervous. The busters are very adaptable, computer literate, quick paced, and will work for less income. The boomers are realizing that they are all-too-fast becoming the elders of society without the respect or loyalty that their parents were accustomed to. It’s a whole new ball game for older men who still feel that they must be the primary breadwinner while at the same time feeling elbowed aside by women vying for positions on the ladder to success and youngsters in a hurry to carve out a piece of the pie. Couple this with issues around sexual harassment and other confusing gender dynamics and you have a fairly beleaguering set of circumstances. Warren Farrell’s The Myth of Male Power, Aaron Kipnis’s Knights Without Armor and Jed Diamond’s The Warrior’s Journey Home among other books, speak to the realization that men tend to feel just as victimized as do women by a system that chews up individuals unmercifully. We need to stop blaming each other and work together to create a new paradigm.
COSE: How would you respond to a woman, or to anyone, who says, “Hey, wait a minute. It’s still a man’s world. Men are still running things. Men are still in control of things. What do you mean that men are feeling elbowed aside?”
JOHNSON: I know that a case can be made for the belief that it’s still a man’s world. I don’t necessarily feel that way, however. Last year was touted as being the year of the woman. There are more and more opportunities for women and more and more evidence that men are not as privileged as they used to be. A leveling-out effect is taking place. We are moving toward greater mutuality. There is an element, however, that does not recognize what is taking place. The issue is not with feminists in general, since many men in the men’s movement were among the original feminists. There are many men who are sympathetic to women’s issues and many women who care deeply about what men are encountering. The difficulty arises from the angry element of society, be it men or women, that has axes to grind. Often, it’s the radical feminists, male and female, who express the more cynical sentiments about men. These individuals typically carry the unhealed wounds of past relationships with men. They may have been victimized by a man on one or more occasion and tend to view all men as falling somewhere along the perpetrator scale. Those that have empathy for the difficulties that plague men and women alike are more equitable in their assessment of this struggle for gender justice.
COSE: I would assume that the men that you tend to interact with most are men who are fairly progressive, men who are concerned, who are empathetic, yet who are serious about true gender equality and feminism. Now there are a lot of men who aren’t. And I was just wondering if you have any observations on what this era will mean for those men who don’t really consider themselves particularly progressive.
JOHNSON: There are those men who are angry; who feel disenfranchised… who feel that someone has something that rightfully should belong to them. They are the men that tend to probably be less formally educated, less involved in their own emotional and spiritual growth, and haven’t done therapy. In other words, they haven’t really held their feet to the fire in order to fully explore their own issues. These men tend to be hypersensitive, feeling that society hasn’t given them a fair shake. As they look around, everywhere they see roadblocks. They don’t see opportunities, or the ability to get ahead. These men tend to find a lot of different reasons why things aren’t working for them. They don’t take enough personal responsibility, but instead cast blame on women, government, minorities and the like. They will be left behind if they do not choose to evolve. I would encourage any man who identifies with even some of what I have described to get involved with other men who are seeking recovery and healing from past wounds… who are making the shift from a victim mentality into one of greater accountability. There is a lot more support now for men who are willing to change.
COSE: I understand that you are working on a book. Can you tell me a little about it?
JOHNSON: The working title of the book is rather provocative. It’s DANGEROUS WOMEN And the Men Who Fall for Them. My intent in writing this is certainly not about characterizing all women as dangerous but rather identifying a particular type of woman who tends to collude with a man in being involved in his downfall. I found repeatedly in my practice with men the tendency for them to be attracted to highly desirable and irresistible women who later revealed treacherous characteristics. I became fascinated with this syndrome where men, often at the pinnacle of success, get involved in disastrous relationships that bring about their fall from grace, if you will. It’s sort of like when your dream woman becomes your worst nightmare. There have been numerous public figures that have acted out this drama. It’s a book designed to help men to avoid these pitfalls, to extricate themselves from highly dysfunctional relationships and to gain greater appreciation for hearth and home. I’ve also found that most women are sympathetic towards this problem and are very concerned about the toll that these kinds of relationships take on themselves and the men in their lives.
COSE: Is the most significant thing that’s going on now what you referred to earlier as the trench work? Or, at least the inclination to turn in that direction? Or, are there other things that strike you as really significant?
JOHNSON: Obviously, as I stated earlier, I feel that gender reconciliation is very significant, creating forums for men and women to come together, and to explore the issues in a very cogent and considerate fashion. I think that multicultural work is very important. The men’s movement will have very little value if it does not become much more multicultural. It cannot just be about white guys going out into the forest to learn to drum and dance. It’s got to be about men of all ethnicities coming together to understand each other and work in unity to solve the problems endemic to our communities. There are multicultural conferences being convened by Robert Bly, Michael Meade, Malidoma Somé and others in various parts of the country each year. In certain respects there’s a sort of neo-tribalism that’s at the core of the men’s movement, which is a reaching back into the ancestral and ancient ways that customarily held traditional families and societies together. We’ve lost a lot of the ancient teachings and we need to readopt them.
At the Men’s Center we offer a program to work with men who are sexual offenders or who have issues regarding their sexuality. We are initiating a domestic violence program to help men who are batterers or who have been battered. The O. J. Simpson case has brought this issue much more out of the closet. We have a neuro-feedback program to assist men who have attention deficit disorder or difficulties dealing with stress or who are prone to addictive behavior. Our prisons are filled with men that really need help and rehabilitation rather than just incarceration. This is where the men’s social justice network can serve as a preventive approach to helping men who are having difficulties with conduct disorder. We’re also interested in the crisis of homelessness. We are involved with Ted Hayes and his Genesis 1 project to assist the homeless to reintegrate back into society. I think that issues around men’s health are very important. Men still have this notion that they don’t need to go to doctors. Prostate cancer, the number two cause of death among males, could be dramatically reduced if men past the age of 40 would simply go through a routine exam once a year. We need to get much more information concerning men’s health out into mainstream awareness in order to assist men in making sound decisions regarding their well-being.
These are the issues that are most important today. It’s about justice and mutuality for the genders, stabilizing the family, improving parenting skills, repairing shattered communities and building bridges to brotherhood. It’s in the trenches. The work is really in the streets.
As of 2010 Dr. Stephen J. Johnson has been an educator and psychotherapist for 40 years. As the Founder and Executive Director of the Men’s Center Los Angeles he specializes in men’s issues, gender dynamics, relationship and family counseling. His web sites are: www.DrStephenJohnson.com and www.MensCenterLosAngeles.com