An Interview with Stephen Johnson, PH.D.
by Larry Triveri
Whole Life Times, August 1992, pp.22-23
What does it mean to be male? Throughout the country, men are participating in workshops to try to come to terms with this question and, in the process, renew their commitment to themselves, their community and planetary stewardship. Psychotherapist Stephen Johnson is the founder and director of the Men’s Center in Los Angeles, which he created as “a vehicle for men to support each other and the women and children who love them.” He also conducts workshops nationwide.
How did you get involved with the work you’re doing with men?
When I first started doing therapy 25 years ago, I worked primarily with women. Men weren’t really recognizing the need for therapy at that time. About eight years ago as I entered into midlife, I hit a crisis. I found myself disconnecting from my family. I wasn’t feeling nurtured at home, I was working all the time and not feeling the rewards of it. I was longing for something and I wasn’t quite sure what it was. At the same time, it started to seem presumptuous for me to be working with so many women. I realized that I needed to know a lot more about what it means to be a man, and more about the relationship between men and women.
As a result of the women’s movement, a shift was created by women in the way that they dealt with men, the patriarchy. Men who were sensitive to women’s issues and embraced feminist positions were feeling constrained and confused as well. It appeared that women were angry at men, but I think that really they were angry at the structure. When the structure finally shifted, it created a need for men to have to deal with the shift in ways different from what they were used to, so that started to bring men into therapy. At the same time, males who were practicing the therapy also began to discover what the issues were.
Then the elders — Robert Bly, James Hillman, Michael Meade, Robert Moore — began to realize that there was need for men to come together separately from women to do their own work, because men had traditionally gone to women to find out about themselves and who they were. Bly realized that something happened with men in the presence of other men that wasn’t happening when women were around. Just one woman would change the alchemy of the mix.
What was happening?
Men were a lot freer. They gave themselves permission to let the zaniness out. They spoke more openly about their issues and were less afraid of being embarrassed or ashamed by talking about things they had questions or doubts about. He realized “father hunger,” that men had such a need to be around other men, especially older men, because they were starving from a lack of father.
What does the mix of a woman coming into that arena do to shut men down?
I think that because the father’s out of the house a lot — even when they are physically there, normally they are emotionally unavailable — a lot of the responsibilities of parenting are left to the mother. So the mother, the woman, carries a very strong role as the primary disciplinarian, the one who is there to nurture and to dictate how boys should recognize and express their feelings. A lot of boys, especially going into adolescence, become difficult to deal with, so mothers tend to contain and control them. Often what happens is that the boys just go numb at that point. As they grow older and get into relationships with women, the tendency is to look to women for the answers on how to interpret, understand, feel and express their emotions. And what comes up is that numbness again.
Men in the presence of men shake loose from that numbness. They start to allow some of that fierceness out that isn’t necessarily aggressive or destructive but that’s passionate. Men in this country have become overly domesticated, soft, passive. Going through the ’60s, the impact of the women’s movement, the Vietnam War, they’ve lost a lot of that natural fierceness and they don’t feel safe enough to allow that energy out in the presence of women. Sometimes women misinterpret it or don’t feel safe in the presence of it; they feel that they’re going to be harmed in some way. But in the presence of other men, it’s safe to let that out and to start to dip down deeply and experience their masculinity.
How do they then translate that when they go back into the world?
They begin to feel again and to recognize what isn’t working in their lives. They recognize that a lot of their tendencies to work hard need to be balanced with more play, more joy.
I think we have a large number of men across this country who are numb and depressed as a defense against, as Robert Moore says, their own grandiosity. Men get locked into linear kinds of formats where they get up, go to work, come home, spend 10 minutes with their kids and then get on the computer or watch TV; there isn’t a lot that’s happening. They’re not really alive, they’re not really feeling. And the defense against depression tends to be addictions and compulsive behavior. They get addicted to alcohol or drugs or sex or work but they don’t recognize that it’s not creativity, it’s just compulsive behavior.
When you separate men from their daily routines, they have to begin to question their existence. The divorce rate we have in this country has a lot to do with the confusion that men have. Because they’re feeling spiteful in their relationships, they feel that they have to work all the time and are locked into the provider role. Women don’t like being treated as sex objects. Men don’t like being treated as success objects. Yet a lot of men don’t realize that that’s a role structure that they’re locked into.
When I hit mid-life crisis I realized that I couldn’t just turn to people or the kinds of situations that I sought answers from, because they weren’t providing them. In a certain way, I developed a need to separate myself from them but I didn’t want to just isolate. That’s the tendency, for men to isolate. I knew that if I did, I would just get sucked down into the depression. Out of that, I felt this calling to bring men together in small groups.
What were your initial workshops like?
For one thing, I held them up in Topanga Canyon instead of hotels. I felt a very strong influence from the Native American tradition because I felt that we needed to have an earth-based spirituality. What I had experienced in the ’60s was a kind of spacey, transcendent spirituality. I felt a need to ground myself and get deep inside my own wounds and heal them. I wanted to touch the deep roots of my own masculinity and the archetypal, tribal roots of my own heritage. Reading the Native American lore, I realized that there was something about how men commune with each other that was missing in the way that men in our culture were relating to each other. So we created a sweat lodge and started holding councils, passing the pipe. We drummed, danced together and started feeling our bodies.
Then the media picked up on it and began to parodize what we were doing, dubbing it “neotribalizm.” So men who might have been attracted to it maybe remained separate from it for fear of being laughed at. I think the thought of men coming together as men and howling and dancing around a fire was too threatening to them. Yet that wasn’t the essence of what we were trying to accomplish. The men need to bare their souls with dignity in a safe environment.
When men come into this work, are they aware of the wounds?
There’s a longing men have, a desire to reach out for something. They may not know what it is, but they know that when they come together in the presence of other men, it feels good. When they leave, they walk away with something that they’ve been able to touch that perhaps they didn’t know existed before. Men carry a tremendous amount of sadness, despair, and grief inside. It’s not that men don’t feel, but they’ve gotten the message that it’s not okay to publicly emote their feelings. They’re learning now that there’s a kind of dignity, even an elegance and nobility to expressing their feelings and being able to do it safely. Men want to recover, to heal from the shame and abuse they are carrying instead of taking it out on their spouses and children, and they realize that in the safety of working with other men, they can get it handled.
What does this healing process entail?
A lot of it is the ability to tell stories, to share experiences. We work with mythology and poetry, but that’s really to create a kind of bridge to evoke emotions. It takes men out of the linear element of their minds so that they can get more into what they’re really feeling. Then they start to share their own stories and hear each other’s experiences, and it touches them very deeply. Emotions start coming up, unlocking whole storehouses of memories that now they can begin to deal with.
To men who aren’t yet aware of this need to come forth and heal themselves, what are some of the signposts that they might recognize?
Certainly if they find themselves cut off or detached from other people or dependent on alcohol, drugs, sex, or work, these are barometers. If they find they’re depressed and don’t have the energy left over to enjoy their lives or that they’re angry a lot, or tend to have boundary issues where they’re crossing too far over into someone’s limits or allowing others to violate their own, these are signposts.
Men need to be around other men, and what I find is that a lot of men don’t have male friends, and it’s not enough to just have a relationship with your wife or girlfriend or with your children. Chances are that if that’s the case, it’s not even a quality relationship. I think it’s more important that men open their lives a lot more to more experiences, and I think they’ll find that the women who care about them will be supportive of that. It’s my experience that women, in fact, are most interested in men who are working on themselves and learning how to be accessible and express what they feel.
So, even though the work begins as a separation of the male/female relationship, it leads into a reintegration between men and women?
The real work now is on gender reconciliation. It’s about men and women coming together to understand what co-creativity is.
Men and women have different emotional languages. Women cannot change men. Men have to do their own transformation. And neither can men change women. They have to learn to hear each other differently and accept each other. We have to appreciate those differences and understand that in that uniqueness, what comes together is something that actually is much more holistic and integrated. The point is, we have to co-create, return our attention to what’s going on with the world. We have to get out of the therapy room at some point and into the world. The beginning of the truth is in the world. When men heal themselves, they naturally want to do the work outside and selflessly give of themselves; they’re no longer stuck in that narcissistic womb where everything has to be me, me, me. They develop the “I/thou” relationship of working on giving something back, planetary stewardship, if you will.
There are a lot of men who have healed and who are now really interested in doing the work with men, women and children. Men from every strata are getting involved, whether they’re corporate executives, Vietnam vets, ex-prisoners, homeless, gang members — men that often times people would just wash their hands of or feel they couldn’t help. But they are being helped because of men who are working with them. We have technologies and strategies now for men that we didn’t have before, and we can say to other men, “Hey, there’s a light at the end of the tunnel. It was hard for me, too, but I’ve come out of it now, and believe me, you’ll get through it also.”