In November, my husband survived a very traumatic experience that he has been working on writing about over these last few months to help him heal from it. Below is his story.
“We know that people can maintain an unshakable faith in any proposition, however absurd, when they are sustained by a community of like-minded believers.”
~ Daniel Kahneman
Ever get the feeling you’ve been had?
Not the ‘oh i ordered a coffee and ended up with a tea’ had but one which has taken you for a ride psychologically over a period of time. And one which somehow managed to convince you to suspend your critical and rational brain while it set to work to create a new way of thinking and therefore shed older ways…? Well I did…
But I’ll set the scene first. Like most humans, I’ve been through periods of self doubt and ennui and have been down dark paths that have hurt myself and others. Preferring not to revisit things, I sought out third party help that may have provided some sort of insight into my thinking and how it impacts upon others..
After a few false starts, I managed to come across someone in my hometown a counselor who seemed to have a lot of insight into how I think about myself and my relationships with others, especially the woman I love. Of particular interest was how I viewed myself as a man, as I had never really taken much stock of my role as one. I just felt that this was my gender, and though I felt uncomfortable and angered over how a lot of men let the team down by being immature pricks towards others, not much thought went into it.
Anyway, this new ‘mentor’ of mine did open up some interesting channels of thought about how a man could work out relationships with himself and those he loved. Things seemed to be going ok and he hooked me up with a group of men who met fortnightly and talked about their lives. Though it was challenging (and in some ways a bit new-agey), I felt it was good for me and good to connect with other men on a level that didn’t involve sports, drinking or fixing shit up.
It was around this time that the concept of ‘training’ started floating around in the group – as well as from my mentor. Basically, this ‘New Warrior Training’, created by the ManKind Project, was a chance to go deeper into myself and examine how I could become more ‘authentic’ by being more accountable and responsible for my actions. It started as a gentle nudge towards rethinking things. However, I held back, still wary of quick fixes, for a while. But after conversations with my counselor and the groupthink of the men’s circle knockout blow was delivered, I signed up for a weekend in November in the wilds of Washington.
I was still a bit wary of what was going on, but decided in the interests of opening up my mind to newer concepts, I would go along with it. It could be a relaxing weekend away with some like minded souls…a check up from the neck up. What could go wrong?
After I relocated to the states, I found a local support group who did pretty much the same thing as I did in Oz and went along to their monthly meets. Good stuff eh? A new town and a new bunch of people who who had similar thoughts.
It was interesting enough, but it seemed kind of circular to me and didn’t really go too deep. Again, the concept of training came up and there was an ‘us and them’ situation in the group: those who had passed through the training (the ‘initiated’) and those who were yet to (the ‘initiates’), and those who were initiated seemed to sit slightly better within themselves. They seemed to be more open in sharing their own issues and having the tools to deal with them.
The learning of these tools was something that could only be mastered over the weekend, proffered both my mentor and the men of the group. “Ooh I can learn something and be part of a smarter group of men,” went my subconscious mind. Either way, I was set to go through my baptismal weekend in November, and even attended a pre-initiation day, which sated my curiosity about the training. Yeah some weird stuff that seemed to cherry-pick a lot of first peoples/indigenous cultural practices, but it seemed fairly harmless. Plus, my trusted mentor/counselor was eager to have me trust him through this process. Sure, I thought, if I do balk, he will be able to guide me, as he knew me well enough. Plus, as I got closer to the weekend, I found that he was coincidentally going to be attending this particular training.
A few weeks before the training, a few red flags went up regarding transport to the campsite. My wife and I both got frustrated at the coordinator for his unprofessional attitude towards those who did not want to bond via their mandatory carpooling requirement. But hey, this was not a weekend on traffic logistics – it was ‘man camp’ and we could overlook a few practical snafus.
Despite a few reservations, transport was sorted and I was determined to go ahead and do the weekend. I duly was picked up by one of the chaps on Friday afternoon and armed with my sleeping bag, a change of clothes and the required food offering, promising my wife I’d call her that evening to let her know I’d arrived safely. We headed off to the wilds of Washington – nervous, yes, but determined.
After a two-hour drive and finding no real food along the way, we decided to head straight into camp in the hope that at least there would be a semblance of a meal that evening.
Then the fun began.
Coming into the main entrance of the Kiwanis Camp hosting the event, we were greeted by a serious looking fellow who asked us who we were and what we were doing. After we explained, he told us quite tersely that we needed to come back at 5:00 and we would be let in. Okaaay…it was 4:50 but we played along and scooted up the road.
Returning, the same bloke again asked us who we were and we repeated ourselves. Strange, but whatever. I figured it was part of the whole deal. After getting our stuff out of the car, we were told by another fellow to wait in the carpark until we were called. (Okayyy, I thought perhaps there were a few people there, so maybe they didn’t want a bottleneck at registration?).
We were shepherded in the cold to a rickety old building, presumably to check in. Reaching for the door handle, I was admonished for doing so, and told to knock three times and wait to be called in.
This was the first time we were all warned to maintain strict silence during the process, and when the first of many “oh..okayyy” thoughts went through my mind.
After waiting in a line in a room that had all windows blacked out and only candles as light, we were corralled by a morose looking character (who I assumed was one of the ‘leaders’) into a room individually, whereby I faced a ‘panel’ of three more leaders. They required I sign some sort of agreement (which I was not given a copy of), and ensured I felt uncomfortable as they again demanded to explain why I was there.
Things got stranger as I was pulled aside by one of the men and asked detailed questions about an existing medical condition I’d disclosed on the medical portion of my application (which they had said would be reviewed and approved by a professional at the time of payment). I told him in no uncertain terms that unless he was a health professional it was none of his business.
Did I mention I was also given a number and that I would be referred to as “Number 24” until i had gone through the initial training? Annoying neo-Jungian stuff that reminded me of the English Sci-Fi series ‘The Prisoner’, but i kept with it. Hell, because of the forced carpooling, I was stuck there for the moment.
Next, we were moved into the next step of registration. Again silence and darkness as we moved from one hut to another incrementally getting ensconced into the program.To ensure that every step was taken we had men in black clothing and bandanas with black face paint standing along the path ensuring I presumed that no one skedaddled in fear.
I was led into another blacked out candle lit room and more questioning about intent and my willingness to change into a better man.
Then came the shakedown. We basically had to empty our bags/selves of anything besides toiletries and a change of clothes and surrender them…no phones, watches, books, jewellery, food or any type of distraction. I presumed that this was to create a sense of parity amongst attendees. The interesting one was medication; whatever drug i had on me was my business and unless those asking me what they were for were physicians (in privacy of course) I was keeping them on me.
But the real kicker was the wedding ring. Pry it off my cold dead finger as I was not taking this off for ‘safety’ though they did ask me to tape over it.
Now the idea of dehumanising began to kick in; remove ones name, any way of contacting the outside world (and any reminders of the outside world). The thing is I sheepishly went along with it in the vain hope that I would at least be able to call my wife during a quieter moment and let her know what the deal was.You see we were not told of this beforehand so we could let loved ones know what was going on. Oh and we were informed that the next 8 hrs would be taken up by ‘preparation for initiation’, a highly regimented evening. Great, no mention of food either.
After the ritual shedding of nonessentials, we were quickly (again) escorted to our sleeping quarters; a skanky scout camp dormitory and told to dump our stuff. We were then taken in small groups to another room where we were told to knock and, upon hearing the word ‘enter’, were instructed to go into a large room with a single candle in the middle and sit in a circle while we waited (in silence, of course) for every initiate to enter and complete the ‘circle of men’. After an hour of waiting for everyone to turn up, we again were asked to state to the group why we were there. Again, another affirmation towards leaving our old life and ‘renewing’ ourselves through ‘initiation and self examination’.
Following that was another shuffling (in silence of course) to the main hall where we were greeted by more facilitators (in commando black with black face paint) and the whole weekend and its rituals were vaguely explained by a few men walking around with a lump of wood they referred to as the ‘talking stick’ (borrowed or appropriated presumably from nw indigenous culture). The message was that we were as men ‘asleep’, had been emasculated and had lost our powers as men. We needed to reconnect with our ‘wild man’ and become a new warrior and to ‘heal the wounds’ inflicted upon us by others. There would be separation, descent, ordeal, initiation and integration.
There were tales of being born again after being asleep for many years etc. We were also consistently reminded via myth and allegory that we needed to release the wild man within to fully realise our masculinity. Ok release the wild man, what about the hungry man? I was starving by this stage and had no idea of the time..remember all windows were covered and the clock on the wall was stuck. Eventually we broke and were allowed to eat some granola and fruit.
As part of our separation, we were then told that we needed to invent new names for ourselves (oh lord) and think of an animal that would somehow represent strength. I became ‘red dog’ I’m not sure what sense of manliness fluffy bunny, scurrying mouse and light sparrow felt about themselves, but hey…I’m just saying yknow.
Hunger and tiredness and incessant repetition was the name of the game, and time became very abstract. The feeling of being constantly monitored by a group of initiated men in the background was disconcerting. If you wanted to pee you needed to check in with a facilitator.
One of the last things we were to do was to complete a teambuilding exercise. I’m thinking maybe stand in a circle and fall backwards to be caught, but no, this was another test of character. We were to go outside and in groups carry a log through the snow along a poorly lit path while having facilitators run past us creating distractions – and we could only speak in code. No ‘here comes a tree we better stop’. It was more like ‘red’ ‘yellow’ or ‘blue’. Really???
Seriously though, I felt it was dangerous, especially when I saw a group being ordered to walk backwards over a low bridge. Afterwards, cold and fucking hungry, we were shepherded back to another room for further talks about how we were being separated from our lives. Again more metaphor and allegory.
Time was askew, as was place, and I quickly felt the only way to get back into the game was to assume the narrowly defined new male roles and be part of the group (gulp!). People fell into this very quickly and accepted pretty much everything that was said. The chances of discussing things amongst ourselves was limited, adding to that feeling of powerlessness.
We were then escorted back to the dormitory in silence and told that we were to sleep. Before the lights out we were informed that in the morning we would be allowed to shower for 60 seconds in cold water. Nobody complained. Nice.
I figured the time to be around 2:30AM when the light finally went out. Having not phoned my wife, I felt awful and was hoping that she would read between the lines and understand what was going on. I resolved to call her in the morning.
Next morning in complete darkness we were woken to a banging tray and and the refrain “hands off cocks, hands on socks,” and were again reminded of the freezing shower that lay ahead.
First, standing around with a group of strangers of either sex naked is not my ideal wake up theme, but there we were, thrown into showers while others counted loudly to 60. Here’s the strange thing though – when I jumped in and hit the water, it was warm, so I had a double whammy of weirdness. Stranger still was the sound of other men groaning as if the water were actually freezing…had they drank the entire pitcher of kool-aid?
We were then marched off hungrily to the main hall for a series of warming up exercises and then fed the same granola and diced fruit, before we listened to a rehashing of the Robert Bly wild man story and then advised we were in for a ride as the afternoon progressed. I was still thinking that, through all the weirdness, something practical and good would come out of this despite all the mythical Jungian platitudes.
My wife managed to get through to me sometime that morning, obviously worried that I hadn’t called her. They told her the number was only for emergencies and insisted she tell them why she was calling, which she refused. Why my wife wanted to talk to me was not their business. I was closely watched by one of the facilitators as I let her know what was going on. Yes there were some weird things (I mentioned it reminded me a bit of ‘Fight Club’) but, as I explained I could still see some benefit in the retreat (eek!). She did lovingly encourage me to listen to my gut and not do anything I was uncomfortable with, and to let her know if I wanted out.
I was made to feel very uncomfortable by the dickwad who escorted me over to the private phone to then ask me if everything was ok and if I wanted to speak about it. Fuck no. The second uncomfortable thing was on my way back to the hall I had to walk through the dining room of the facilitators. Let’s say they weren’t eating granola and diced fruit.
After a feed of lukewarm beans and rice in the early afternoon, the ‘Process’ began, with the idea to confront what had been holding us back and and how it affected our manhood (??). We broke up into separate groups, each one having a ‘sacred’ carpet on which these processes could be safely held.
And this is where things started getting even stranger.
One man would stand in the middle of the circle of 10 or so men and then be questioned repeatedly about what he felt was holding him back from being a mature man. After a couple of questions it appeared the formula was the same: through a series of extremely leading questions, one after another was led down the track where one or both parents had not allowed them to mature into ‘men’. Either the mother had emasculated him or made him think like a woman or the father did not have the skills to initiate him into the adult world.
It reeked to me of a bunch of blokes whining about how women were somehow diluting their masculinity. There was nothing about going into personal responsibility for ones maturity, or the internal malaise behind the feeling of disconnection. Dangerous method.
Most of the men who went through this process ended up in tears through the their incessant and aggressive leading questions. I saw the symbolic beating up of past demons by the initiates. A plastic baseball bat on pillows. No matter how metaphorical and symbolic this was, it was still an act laden with violence where the bat was directed at those who had either taken away their masculine power or who had not provided them with the skills of masculinity in the first place.
Another was the rebirthing process for another man. Though MKP denies that they use a technique that has no scientific validation and that has been condemned by the APA, I watched a shirtless man struggle through a tunnel created by 8-9 men to re-enter the world as a new man. If it looks like a duck, walks like a duck….just saying. To add fuel to the fire, we were encouraged to cheer for the man as he entered into his moment, be it beating up a pillow, sliding through the makeshift vagina / birth canal or yelling at his perceived enemies. It was the equivalent of the chug a lugging a drink with others screaming approval.
It was something I recognized later as being faux tribal and ultimately coercive. Think Lord of the Flies. What if someone turned around and called bullshit?
One other man called home to get a lift back. Remembering my wife’s advice to not do anything that felt wrong, I held back on going through their “Process”, and even scared myself thinking “maybe I should make something up” as I honestly didn’t hold the kind of the resentment against my parents (even with all their flaws) that they were pushing us to have.
That evening, one of the trainers let me know that my wife was outside and if I wanted to see her (of course I fucking did, I wanted out of there). My wife had a bad feeling and with a friend of hers, had done some serious investigations into the MKP organization that we hadn’t done before and learned about their cult behaviors.
From Tom Mitchelson’s article about his undercover experience at one of the NWTA weekends to learning about the co-founder’s murder following allegations of child molestation to the history of MKP to try to “convert” men away from homosexuality to sitting around in a circle passing around a wooden cock (something later confirmed by an attendee that was scheduled for Sunday) to the investigations for its similarities to a pyramid-scheme, she knew that while some would say I could handle it, that the way cults work is something that can get just about anyone.
Similar to Scientology, ManKind Project is cloaked in secrecy with threats of legal action if you shared anything about what happened during the “training” weekends. Yet they don’t tell you what is going to happen (therefore there is no Informed Consent). After reading about an attendee’s suicide shortly after attending one of these weekends along with all of the above, and thinking about how my attendance was pressured onto both of us for a couple of years by our counselor, she followed her instincts and rented a car to make the drive into the ice and snow to extricate me out of a situation that just didn’t sit right with her. And I’m so glad she did.
She hugged me and said “this is a cult, grab your stuff we are going” and I knew she was right. It was all I needed to get out of there.
When grabbing my stuff and waiting for my personal items to come from safekeeping, my Australian therapist approached me telling me that my wife was trying to “hold me back” as I had not gone through the process. Granted he did not come outside to try to talk to her. Very quickly, the apocryphal veil was pulled back with that statement and I was out of there. I was cold, hungry and felt I had dodged something dangerous.
Dodged, yes. I was winged considerably and for days after I was hungry, had nightmares and had some fairly intense insomnia. The other man who left early, a physician, said he felt the events had the potential to be very dangerous. When we reached out to other attendees to share what we had learned about the dark side of this organization, several ‘graduates’ responded with vicious jabs and attempts to discredit us (remember Tom Cruise creepily attacking Matt Lauer on the Today Show about psychiatry?). Long term effects on me from this weekend still go on to this day, and the word ‘therapist’ has made me very wary.
Maybe that can be a good thing, to actually check the bona fide qualifications of anyone who claims superior or insider knowledge about how life is meant to be. After a while I started to coalesce my thoughts about the whole episode and think about the subtext of the entire situation and came up with some thoughts.
One of the overarching philosophies and the stories/themes used during all events leading up to weekend was the heavy doses of mythopoetic phraseology (think Jungian based authors like Robert Bly). This philosophy of MKP is based heavily on essentialist thinking (that masculinity is a elemental and constituent part of the world rather than a social construct) a school of thought highly criticised by social scientists.
Another thing that kept coming up was the strong and strange anti-feminist current to meetings and the weekend.Though not directly women-hating, it misinterprets feminist criticisms of structural disparity and power politics as a jab at masculinity itself. At its essence the mythopoetic stance is that women have had a voice, but in allowing that, men’s voices have been muted. They need to rise again out of the ashes like ‘Iron John’.
Its apolitical and anti-rationalist thinking narrows down the concept of manhood to fairy tales and atavistic concepts that reinforce separation from women rather than look at rational and practical ways to heal disparities, discuss inequalities and examine existing power structures. Kind of like a ‘they have their side of the bus, we want ours’.
I don’t want to be part of a bastardised Grimm fairy tale.
I don’t want to be part of an epic.
If I’m wounded, I don’t want to exclude a great portion of the world in seeking solutions, let alone run around in the bush banging drums and howling like a fucking wolf and pretending I am carrying the strength of male lineage in my family.
I don’t want to make up stories about childhood abuse or repressed memories (a highly dubious technique with very little empirical support).
I don’t want to shed my identity and name myself after an animal.
I’m not interested in LGAT and the rabbit holes it can lead you down and I don’t want to place my emotional/ psychological wellbeing in the hands of someone who has no background in professional mental health services or who subscribes to outmoded and pseudo-scientific ‘therapies’.
I want to be the author of my own story.I want to walk through the bush quietly comfortable in my own skin (and maybe see a real live wolf). I want to be proud of all of my traits no matter how they are labeled.
I want to cherish the memories I have and let go of those which have parted ways with me and if I do stumble and even fall, know that falling down a step or two requires one to set aside time to get back up, dust myself off and journey back up those steps.
“A person can easily be broadsided by the promise of the triple play of spirituality, friendship, and empowerment, and as we all know, those who would use their power over another in those situations can lead to tragic results. Jim Jones’ poison kool-aid is just one of them.”
~ from A Guest Post On The ManKind Project
Links of Interest:
http://www.culthelp.info/index.php?option=com_content&task=category§ionid=8&id=72&Itemid=12 – psychotherapy cult list that MKP is on