New book by Philip Kenney

The Writer's Crucible Meditations on Emotion, Being and Creativity

The Rebirth of Masculinity: What We Can Learn From Harvey Weinstein and Co.

My father was missing in action. He was lost, trapped really, in the box canyons of New York City, looking for buried treasure he believed could be found in the afterglow of success. He brought us to New York from Ohio in 1962 to escape the scent of poverty and loss engulfing the Midwest states of post WWII and the Great Depression. He was a determined man. I barely knew him.

Two years later, at the age of 15, I went with friends to see Goldfinger. It was my introduction to James Bond and a version of masculinity as foreign to a boy from Ohio as the skyscrapers of New York City. I sat there with my friends, transfixed by the music and the exploits of Mr. Bond. He was everything our fathers were not. He was invincible: we didn’t realize how much we coveted that. And of course, he was irresistible. We were beginning to realize how much we coveted that.

In a matter of two hours, 007 deftly transformed my psyche’s pale image of the man in the gray flannel suit into that of a man composed of charm, intelligence and courage. Here was a man to admire, to emulate. Here was a man saving the world from the evil Russians and the cruel plundering of Mr. Goldfinger. And here was a man we now recognize as a groomed and sophisticated sexual predator. Every woman was his, even if the cost of this fleeting privilege was being gold plated head to toe. Mr. Bond didn’t blink when discovering his gold-plated trophy.

But it wasn’t the suffocation of the feminine that was the real aim of Bond’s lust. It was something much more. It involved Ms. Pussy Galore, the smart, competent, bold and yes, sexy pilot who was every bit Bond’s equal and unfazed by his seductive spells. Until the last scene. In that climax of sexual and narrative tension, Bond throws Ms. Galore to the straw covered floor of her barn, pins her down and forces himself on her until she submits and joins his sexual demand as if this was what she wanted all along. This was no ordinary roll in the hay, nor was it a simple case of sexual assault. It was something more sinister, namely the annexing of the female body and the theft of her desire.

What happened in that scene reinforces a cultural fantasy: that every woman wants to be taken. Every boy walking out of the theater that night left with that fantasy branded in his mind. I guarantee it. We walked into our future thinking,  “I want to be like that guy.” From that day forward, it was a fete accompli, if we were to become men, we were to be him. Bond. James Bond. Cool. Unemotional. Invincible. Invulnerable, and, sexually dominant. Yeah. The trouble was, we didn’t feel that way inside. We felt insecure, weak, sensitive and last, but not least, frightened of sex. And so, following the image of James Bond, we began our journey into masculinity by walking away from ourselves — turning our backs in disgust.

It is a psychoanalytic axiom that our behaviors reveal through their consequences an unconscious purpose, that being the revelation of a hidden truth. The classic example of this phenomenon is the Freudian slip in which the speaker surprises her or himself by revealing thoughts and feelings previously silenced and hidden.

In the case of Harvey Weinstein and Co., we stand to benefit by thinking about what that unconscious purpose is. What can we learn of the unconscious motivations that move successful and prominent men the likes of Harvey Weinstein, Charlie Rose, Louis C.K., Al Franken and, say it ain’t so, Garrison Keillor, to become molesters of women? Though there are many forces influencing their behavior, it will come as a shock to conventional thinking to learn that the very public shame befalling these men was, in part, the unconscious motivation of the sexual predation they have engaged in.

Freud developed a theory of the unconscious that he referred to as “uncanny.” Much of that theory has undergone major revisions, however the cornerstone of his notion of the unconscious remains relevant. That insight is consolidated in the phrase, “the return of the repressed.” By that he meant the psychic evacuation of emotions and desires considered unacceptable and their unexpected return by way of cleverly disguised symptoms and behaviors. The question of what is repressed, or in our modern language, dissociated, and how it returns is crucial if we want a thorough psychological understanding of these sexual trespasses and insight into the makeup of masculinity.

If we follow Freud’s thinking, the question arises, why is it that a man of such prestige and wealth would walk into a room with nothing on but an unbelted bathrobe asking for sexual favors? What turns a grown man into a lascivious predator, shamelessly groping after women in a way that even most adolescent boys would consider wrong? Are we to believe these men, who are not stupid, don’t know in some corner of their being that they are courting disgust?

Though Freud’s ideas infiltrated our culture and its conversation, the full meaning of his propositions was not accepted by a culture shaped by the belief that we are separate individuals defined solely by our actions. In short, we are behaviorists: faithful to the prevailing myth that we are what we do. This way of seeing people denies the reality of an inner world and necessitates the activation of repression so as to conceal that which would bring about rejection.

What is unraveling now in this society is our faith in appearances, based on the poorly conceived notion that what we see tells the whole story of who we are. While these assumptions may have some value for a complex social system, they perpetuate damaging world-views. Primary among those, as it regards the making of masculinity, is the denial of emotional reality, resulting in the feelings of men and boys being largely ignored. Having denied their inner life, we tend to judge the actions of men by their impact on others, not realizing that these behaviors often originate from a tangled web of want, need and dissociated feelings that are mostly unconscious.

Consequently, when a breach in the moral code does occur, it is all too common to brand the trespasser as Hester Prynne was branded in Nathanial Hawthorne’s The Scarlett Letter. Today’s condemnation has come swiftly and with comparable contempt to that which Hawthorne highlighted in his novel over 150 years ago. The guilty men have been defined as sexual predators, misogynists and abusers of their position of power over women. Who can argue with these accusations?

While some of these men no doubt have sociopathic tendencies, most are not total monsters. From a psychodynamic point of view, the prevailing judgments are half-truths that obscure the complexity of motivation. Within that complexity lives any number of contradictory emotions and motivations. It is the presence of contradictions within the psyche that contributes to people being both endlessly interesting and terribly hurtful. This is particularly true when one pole of the contradiction, let’s say male vulnerability, is riddled with shame and vehemently denied.

In other words, we are trapped by limited explanations for behaviors we find troubling or abhorrent. In the case of Weinstein and Co., most commentators conclude these men do not value or respect women. End of story. Though it is unquestionable that women have suffered   terrible abuse and degradation most men will never comprehend, it is also clear that men, albeit unknowingly, have suffered from being trapped in a box that causes them to live lives of spiritual and moral poverty. A rebirth of masculinity necessitates a reckoning with the pain men have caused women to suffer, and recognition of how positions of power and privilege have damaged men’s humanity.

The truth is, I was ashamed of my father. The awkward Wall Street accountant didn’t measure up to the suave British Secret Agent. I began a compulsive search for models in keeping with the Bondian gold standard. There were plenty of them. Jim Brown, the powerful fullback for the Cleveland Browns, who incidentally had a tendency to abuse women who went against his wishes, was one. There was JFK, the secular hero of the times, in part because of his chiseled good looks that hinted at a vigorous sexuality. Combine that sex appeal with his upper-class background and what we had was a president who felt entitled to serial infidelities.

These were the men held up as the real thing. Figures of optimal masculinity. You didn’t get to be a star football player by being considerate, and you didn’t get to be president by crying like Edwin Muskie. And so, my brother walked around our house flexing the muscles of his neck to try and emulate the bulging thickness of Bob Ferguson, star fullback for his beloved Ohio State Buckeyes. Me, I walked around looking at myself in mirrors and turning away in shame from my skinny frame, knowing full well I would never wear the uniform of a real man.

From there on out, our psyches were occupied by an image, one imposed by a cultural ideal of masculinity consisting of strength, invulnerability, rationality and sexual prowess. That image took over as the standard of masculinity by which we would forever be compared.  Two predictable consequences ensued. First, we hid from our real feelings, and second, we did stupid and hurtful things.

Our interior life, divided between what we should be and what was authentic to our inner experience, doomed us to living in isolation. A carefully crafted persona dominated our personality and anything outside of that persona was repressed. For men of my father’s generation, the choice was Humphrey Bogart, cigarette dangling from suspicious lips or John Wayne and the swagger of the tough guy. Regardless of the chosen idol, the real self and especially anything suggesting emotional vulnerability, was isolated from the world and, very importantly, from oneself. As a result, men developed a notion of women as a form of property that must substantiate the image. Consequently, men lost all connection with a moral center that could recognize a woman’s value and her feelings separate from their own. 

David Foster Wallace has written, “Everybody worships.” It is a given that all too many men worship power, success and dominance over other men and women. They dream of objects to acquire, that serve as symbols of that stature. They worship the experience of feeling themselves invincible. These obsessions are the subject of much conversation, but little inquiry is made into forces that might be driving men to such compulsive ends.

More often than not, compulsions are driven by fear. The fact that fear is pertinent to men of power is seldom considered. What do men fear? What night terrors lurk in the prison of the repressed? It seems obvious that men fear the inverse of that which they lust after: that being failure, rejection, dependency, weakness — the list is long. In short, they fear humiliation. And what have their actions heaped upon them? — utterly damning, public humiliation.

D.W. Winnicott, an English pediatrician turned psychoanalyst/mystic, said very succinctly: We fear what we know. In other words, what is frightening is so because we have already experienced it at another point in time. What strikes us as incredulous is that these men, despite their personal power and wealth, are hiding from the world and themselves deep feelings of insecurity and self-loathing. Men know humiliation but have effectively banished it from the psyche to avoid its crippling effects.

Like any toxic waste, humiliation leaks into the environment. In the case of Weinstein and Co. what is most disturbing — that being unbearable shame — has been projected onto and relocated into women by way of sexual perversions. Until now, women were left holding disgust and repulsion while the Weinstein’s of the world walked away in search of other prey. Today, because of the collective power of countless courageous women, that unwanted reality has returned full circle where it belongs.

A case can be made that anything other than full condemnation risks colluding with Harvey Weinstein’s outrageous claim that he deserves a second chance. However, I believe we will be better off as a society if this tragic reality does not end with condemnation alone. Freud believed that what is repressed, returns so as to free us from private torment, and allow for the integration of emotions once thought unacceptable. This is the unconscious purpose motivating these behaviors. The unforeseen consequences generate the possibility of integrating exiled emotions and reuniting seemingly disparate parts of the self in a newly resurrected interior life. In the case of Mr. Weinstein and the men of the world, it allows for the painful work of psychological development that can move men towards a more integrated emotional life capable of reparation and empathy. This approach lays the necessary groundwork for a rebirth of masculinity. It enables the transformation of shame into self-respect and dominance into compassion for others.

Little boys. There once was a little boy who became a blacksmith, and a poet, and a mystic. His name was William Blake. He said to us, “Energy is pure delight.” Little boys are delightful. They are rambunctious and adventurous, silly and sensitive. Because energy equals action, they resemble whirling dervishes in perpetual motion, seeking all the thrills of experience a free body   is able to discover.

Little boys are alive. Delightfully alive, and maddening when denied full expression of their passions. At elementary school age, my youngest son found and befriended a number of spirited boys who came together and bonded as a group that would remain tight throughout their high school years. They were a goofy, smart and independent lot that I thought of as the reincarnation of Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn prototypes — utterly unsuited for public school and the culture of suppression that greeted them. By the time they reached fifth grade, they were driving their poor teachers nuts, having banded together in full rebellion against a system that denied them movement, pleasure and play. A culture that made every effort to silence their beautiful voices and force them into compliance with a curriculum they found boring and oppressive.

They should have been members of a tribe that recognized young men who were poets and those who were blacksmiths. Some were artists, a few stand-up comedians and several, in the day, would have been selected for the warrior class. Although each of them went into battle to defend their right to be a boy. More than once, my wife and I were called into the principal’s office to face the ire of a frustrated roomful of teachers on the verge of defeat, demanding that we collude with them to harness the wild ponies in their classrooms. For them, there was no delight, only disruption.

There were many hours I joined the teachers in feeling defeated and mad. Banging my head against the wall seemed like my only recourse. In other moments, I looked at those boys and marveled at the energetic bodies cartwheeling through our kitchen, I could only smile ear to ear at the hilarity of their antics and stand in respect of such fierce devotion to friendship and freedom. I stood in awe and envy of their aliveness and the struggle to preserve it. I worried and fretted about my role: was I to support the life that surged like a flash flood through the staid world of well-adjusted norms, or was I to conspire with society’s pliers to quiet and subdue the life that crested over the banks of the acceptable?

Ours is a story of bondage. Understandably, some will hear that as a preposterous denial of the privileged status men, particularly white men, hold in our society. And yet, a close examination of those privileges reveals far reaching damage. The story of men shackled by a version of masculinity that, at its worst, cripples their humanity, makes them strangers to their sons and a threat to the safety of women is the story of the perversions of our society. Our sexual violations reveal the brokenness at the core of our identity. Is there a path to liberation for us? A way to revitalize and give birth to a new way of being male?

The answer is yes. There are steps we can take towards a more humane masculinity. I began a David Letterman list of 10 and before I could say, “Hey Man,” I had my top 25 all in a row. Here they are, in order of necessity.

Listen. LISTEN MORE
Find out what empathy is
Learn from women
Say you’re sorry, and mean it
Say I don’t know, what do you think? (To women in particular)
Worship something other than profit
Strive for something other than success
Be brave in facing your real emotions
Fight for justice
Practice the integrity of sacrifice
Practice the integrity of honesty
Practice recognizing what is enough
Practice knowing you are enough
Do something different with your libido
Go dancing
Create something
Grab a shovel and dig up some dirt
Read a novel
Stare at the stars
Hang out with children
Mentor a boy
Mentor a teenager
Listen to women
Listen to boys
Practice BEING yourself — rather than PROVING yourself.

This list is a beginning. A pointer. There are other preliminary steps I think we need to take in order to prepare ourselves and garner the needed support of the women in our lives.

The first is the offering of a heartfelt apology — and not just once. In taking that step, men have an opportunity to move toward an appropriate level of shame, an honest sense of regret and a heartfelt apology that focuses on the suffering women have endured rather than on their own redemption. In doing so, they will serve as models to boys, begin the process of reparations and end the cycle of denial, projection and abuse.

The second step is as difficult as the first: we must own up to a very difficult and potentially shaming reality. We are lost. We haven’t a clue how to get home. Admit it. Most men don’t know how to feel their emotions. Many don’t know where they hurt or what from. The majority are dissociated from inner life and their center of being. They see most good as existing outside themselves and are in pursuit of mining its riches through successful performance.       

Little boys. What do they know of masculinity? They roam with ease through life and the countless expressions of the feminine and the masculine that arise within — until they are put in boxes by the demand to declare their allegiance to one or the other. Where are we then? Stuck. Trapped in the dilemma of the either/or paradigm that splits individuals and culture into opposing camps of people living under the trance of separateness. From there we are positioned for misogyny, homophobia and the rest of our battles in the cultural civil war we find ourselves in.

How can we help our sons to embody the fullness of themselves as they are with a healthy respect for others? How can men help each other overcome the conditioning that turned us away from our real nature? The primary casualty of male development is the fertile ground of an interior life. The failure to attune to and enjoy the emotional sensitivity and creativity of boys causes shame and alienation to grow from the core of the self. Therefore, our first task is to connect with the inner self by way of the emotional world. We have to remember what it is to feel. What it is to be strong and sensitive. And what it is to feel hurt within ourselves, and recognize it in others.

A new masculinity confronts men with their worst fear: failure. It asks of us to share our failure and risk our greatest emotional fear: humiliation. From there it doesn’t get a lot easier. The road is rough, and the stakes are high. But the rewards of a renewed masculinity, organized around recognition of our emotional truth will move us toward building relationships based on empathy. With that as a guiding principle, men will be positioned to create purpose in their lives by serving the greater good and beginning the task of repairing our shattered world.

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