WILD IN THE SUITES: At the First International Men's Conference (1991)

AUSTIN -- Friday morning. October 18: Four students from Amherst show up for the opening ceremonies of the First International Men's Conference in the Grand Ballroom of Austin's Stouffer Hotel. One of them is a long-haired cherub wearing a drab lime jumper over his T-shirt; another dark-haired. pimply-faced lad has on a long red skirt. They are greeted at the door by Marvin Allen, director of the Texas Men's Institute and cochairman of the conference.

"I have a problem with you guys," says Allen. a wiry, bearded, good-ol'-boy therapist who looks a little like Dennis Hopper playing Rumpelstiltskin. "Personally, I don't give a shit what you wear. But the press is always trying to make out like the men's movement is a gay thing or a weird thing. If you wear that, they're going to focus on you." True enough. Surveying the sea of bespectacled professionals streaming into the tastefully carpeted function room, any astute photojournalist would quickly assess the dearth of photo opportunities and probably resort to taking pictures of, who else, Marvin Allen.

"This is my conference," Allen reminds the skirt-wearers. "I gave you scholarships to be here." (The students paid only $50 of the $195 conference fee.) "You can either wear what you're wearing and not be here, or change your clothes and stay." The guys from Amherst comply, but the next day they make their stand and do the skirt thing without encountering any commotion or comment except from the conference head of security who says, "Didn't Marvin speak to you yesterday about the dress code?"

This encounter neatly illustrates one of the key struggles blazing in the so-called "men's movement" these days. Not the tension between gay and straight (that's another story) but between external and internal definitions of this thing called manhood. In living out the question "What is a man?" how much of the answer has to do with outside manifestations -- looks, language, the relationship of men to women -- and how much of it has to do with inner stuff, the nature and purpose of a man's life, his relationship to his own soul?

The very expression "the men's movement" is a good example of this inside/outside struggle. The men's movement is an intention of the media, which has picked up on its radar the contemporary social phenomenon of men gathering in groups to do something other than watch sports, kill animals, rub dicks, or drink beer together. If anything, there are half a dozen or more separate movements going on among men.

The mythopoetic men's movement, which uses poetry and storytelling to explore men's psyches, has come to mass public attention thanks to poet Robert Bly and his best-selling book Iron John, his frequently rebroadcast PBS interview with Bill Moyers. and his day/weekend/ week-long seminars with men across the country, often in the company of mythologist Michael Meade and psychologist James Hillman. (Bly, Hillman, and Meade will be appearing at the Manhattan Center November 2 and 3 giving a seminar called "Making a Hole in Denial: Grief, Courage, and Beauty in Male Soul.") There's the profeminist men's movement, represented by the National Organization of Men Against Sexism (NOMAS). There's the gay spirit movement, which ranges from the goddess-worshiping Radical Faeries to visionary bodyworker Joseph Kramer's Body Electric School, whose courses in Taoist (i.e.,non-ejaculatory) erotic massage promote men's spirituality through sexual healing. There's the recovery movement, which has all-male 12-step groups devoted to nearly every form of addiction and abuse. And there are men's groups advocating social and political activism in specific fields, such as fathers' rights and prisoners' rights.

These are all rather loose affiliations, not necessarily organized enough to be properly considered movements. When pressed in interviews, Bly prefers to call it all "men's work," lending the flavor of elbow grease to the introspection and spiritual questing that provides the most common link to these various men's activities. Spirituality is a scary topic. The lack of public discourse on the subject in our secular society makes it easy for the mind to skip quickly from "spirituality" to "church" to "Jerry Falwell/Jimmy Swaggart/Cardinal O'Connor" (pick your bigot). Many Americans, of course, have spiritual lives; for most, though. it's not hip and probably not wise to talk about them. 
Certainly, inner work is anathema to the media: the transformation of men's souls doesn't exactly make for clean soundbites.

Fine distinctions are equally resistible. Thus, Newsweek and Esquire and the electronic media have taken to referring to "the men's movement," and what they've latched onto as signifiers are some of the exterior details of rural men's gatherings, such as ritual drumming and dancing. It's become a big joke, this idea of "men drumming around fires and dancing naked in the woods," and it's tossed around in the media with the piercing insight formerly found in articles about the women's movement that talked about "bra-burning."

The people outside the media who seem most willing to embrace "the men's movement" are those who have something to gain from it, in fame, glory, or gold -- workshop leaders, book and tape distributors, conference organizers. People like Marvin Allen.

Besides co-chairing the International Men's Conference, Allen and his partner Allen Maurer, run a series of what they call "Wildman Gatherings" that have gotten national (if not exactly flattering) publicity through coverage in The New York Times Magazine and on ABC's 20/20. The golden egg of the publicity goose has fallen in Allen's lap largely thanks to the press-shyness of Bly and Michael Meade, who have declined repeated offers to go on TV and talk about the men's movement with Oprah, Phil, and the gang. The Wildman Gatherings are modeled to some extent on the rural gatherings of men Bly has been conducting since 1981, and of course the "wild man" is the archetypal title character in Iron John. So Allen clearly owes a lot to Bly.

Bly isn't here for the International Men's Conference: as a matter of fact, there's not much of an international presence, either. Two of the 38 "faculty" members presenting workshops come from Great Britain and one from Germany, but the promised speakers from Africa and Latin America never materialize. Perhaps master drummer Babatunde Olatunji was meant to represent the African continent. Even so, the Olatunji concert slated for Saturday night turns out instead to feature two younger musicians from his Drums of Passion, not Olatunji himself.

Who is here? Some 700 men, most from Texas but many from afar. I've met a social worker from Fairbanks, a Catholic brother from San Jose, a shrink from Ogden, and an intensive care nurse from Wichita, as well as an artist from Dallas and a firefighter from Austin. In many small ways the conference is good: knowledgeable speakers, meaty workshops. There's something genuinely heartening about the graduate school environment -- grown men racing from meeting room to meeting room, madly taking notes, buying textbooks and lecture tapes, giving themselves crash courses in cultural anthropology and mythology and psychological theory; buttonholing faculty, staying up late and exchanging excited impressions over cappuccino.

In many big ways the conference is more questionable. Both all-community addresses on the first day, by Marvin Allen and Warren Farrell (author of two widely read "men's studies" titles, The Liberated Man and Why Men Are the Way They Are) traffic heavily in vast, unchallenged generalizations: much talk of testosterone and citation of bullshit stats, no cultural references besides those of the white, upper-middle-class, heterosexual majority of the audience. Caucusing in the lobby after the evening session, some of the hundred or so gay conferees seethe at the lack of acknowledgment of our numbers and, especially in a day filled with talk about grief, no mention of AIDS. The five black men, familiar at being talked past in white company, simply shrug and make plans to lunch together.

A familiar question makes the rounds: "Why aren't there more men of color here?" Surely more men of color would improve the conference: for one thing, there'd undoubtedly be better drumming. I don't automatically object to the complexion of the room. On one hand, it seems perfectly fitting: for changes to happen in the world, they have to start in the hearts of white men. On the other hand, white men don't have a history of encouraging black self-empowerment -- if men of color were truly welcome at this conference, there'd be at least a token black speaker. When I bring this up to Marvin Allen, he immediately starts talking about money and marketing.

Aside from the gargantuan effort of organizing the conference, perhaps Allen's biggest contribution to the event is demonstrating what an out-of-control ego looks like in the context of spiritual work. The frequency with which he uses the expressions "the men's movement" and "Wildman Gathering" might make even Crazy Eddie cry "overkill." And his manner of halting the proceedings each morning to "honor" groups of men (the Vietnam vets, the oldest and the youngest, and, yes, the gay men) seems mostly calculated to invite admiration of his personal beneficence. Only in the last hour of the conference, though, at the start of the closing ceremonies, do the dimensions of Allen's ego fully come into focus.

It turns out that Robert Bly has written a letter meant to be read aloud as his contribution to the conference. Apparently Allen has been fighting up to the last minute to keep this missive secret. After an extraordinarily self-serving introduction ("All us so-called leaders were wounded as boys or we wouldn't be here...we all have envy, jealousy, and anger, just like the guys in the boardroom of IBM"), Allen cedes the microphone to mythopoetic men's group leader Shepherd Bliss, who reads Bly's letter.

"I decided not to come to this conference for two reasons," the letter begins. "First, I think it is too early to arrive at a centralized men's movement. Centralization, or nationalization, usually results in a simplification of ideas until the ideas become a doctrine, invested in some sort of bureaucracy. and it results as well in a tendency to stop exploring and start throwing weight around. I think it is time for continued work at a local level, in small groups of men, in prisons, in schools, in hundreds of cities and towns. I believe in many small streams instead of one river."

Bly's letter goes on to say, "The second reason is that I dislike Marvin Allen's tendency to sensationalize the material. I dislike his use of the term Wild Man and Wild Man Weekends because the phrase promises too much, and I have communicated my objection to him several times. He has agreed not to use the term in 1992. I also disapprove of his reckless inviting of cameras to ritual groups. Several years ago, Michael Meade, James Hillman, the Minneapolis group, the Austin group, the Seattle group, agreed that in view of the media's love of sensation, we would not allow cameras in for any ritual work. Marvin has broken that agreement, and when I called him and asked him why, he said, 'I'm ambitious.' Ambition is admirable to some degree, but if it results in footage that damages the dignity of men's work, or damages the privacy of a man who is in suffering or grief, it is not admirable. It is not right to shut out the media entirely, but we need guidelines.... to invite cameras into residential work, into events in which the men expect privacy, into grief rituals, or primitive rituals, is an act based on naivete that I think is harmful to everyone concerned."

It's an electrifying moment. Suddenly the future of this men's community and the future of Marvin Allen are starting to seem like two different things. Allen's immediate response is to decline the opportunity to be gracious and dignified. "I've known Robert Bly for years," he growls into the microphone, "and I could tell you all kinds of things about him that would interest you. Is it proper to repeat things that were said in private?"

"No," a man in the audience calls out, "and you shouldn't make innuendo either."

Some conferees leap to their feet to testify on behalf of Allen's generosity, his organizational efforts, his Wildman Gatherings. There seems to be some relief that the pissing contest among the leadership has been named for what it is. There's also a deep, abiding lack of interest in dwelling on political infighting. For the first time, when the agenda isn't being controlled with an (ahem) iron hand, the conference seems to breathe with the wisdom of council, the best instincts of the group moving to the surface. The attitude in the room toward Allen is loving -- not indulgent, exactly, but compassionate.

After two days of bristling at his irritating behavior, even I find my heart softening toward Allen. As he continues his gushy, incorrigibly self-promoting master of ceremonies routine ("Now I get to do what I like to do best -- honor people....You men might have heard me say this at Wildman Gatherings..."), it sunk in to me that this guy is every bit as wounded and in need of healing as he says he is, that he's trying awfully hard to get from the world the love he didn't get from his daddy. (Whoever doesn't recognize that familiar impulse can step forward and cast the first stone.) And watching this man who'd just been publicly dumped on by the man who probably could hurt him the deepest, I realize that what's showing on the outside is not the heart of a man, let alone the heart of a movement. I'm seeing scar tissue.

Village Voice, 1991