I hadn’t heard of John Lee before reading this interview in David Lenfest’s forthcoming Healing Men: In the Heart of Men’s Recovery. Yet I found Lee’s insights about grief, and his candor about his own journey, deeply moving.
The founder and director of the Austin Men’s Center, Lee conducts a private counseling practice specializing in masculine psychology, co-dependency, and addictive relationships. He has also taught religion and American studies at the Universities of Texas and Alabama. Lenfest writes :
“Central to Lee’s approach is the idea that we can only fully inhabit our true selves once we have broken with the past, and with the set of internalized controls our personal histories engender. Lee argues that in the work to reveal their true selves, men require the help of other men in a nonthreatening, noncompetitive environment — hence, the ‘Wildman Gatherings’ which form an integral part of Lee’s therapeutic approach. In these gatherings, upward of one hundred men congregate in rural settings and participate in drumming, dancing, and other rituals as a means of recognizing and exchanging their deepest feelings. Lee believes each man must define his masculinity through grieving the losses of his past; at a particular stage, he needs to work without the presence of women to be able to find himself.
“Lee himself came to an understanding of these issues through the pain of his failed relationship with Laural, an experience he documents in his first book, Flying Boy: Healing the Wounded Man. Two more books, I Don’t Want to Be Alone: A Journey Through Co-Dependency and Addictive Relationships and Recovery, Plain and Simple, have followed.
“John and I met in the summer of 1990 in Santa Fe, New Mexico, where I had just experienced a Wildman Gathering conducted by John and his partner Marvin Allen in the Ocate wilderness east of Taos.”
This interview is an edited chapter from Lenfest’s book, which will be published in May by Health Communications, Inc. It can be ordered from Health Communications, Inc., Enterprise Center, 3201 SW 15th Street, Deerfield Beach, FL 33442 ( 1-800-851-9100).
LENFEST: At the Wildman weekend that I recently attended, I found it empowering to be placed in the circle of elders, of men fifty and older. It redeemed much of my past. As a fifty-four-year-old man with three careers behind me, I thought that there had been a lot of waste in my life. Being inducted into the circle of elders told me that not all was wasted.
LEE: Not a goddamned ounce. Once, at a gathering, a man was crying. He said, “I don’t deserve to be here. I’ve wasted so much of my life.” Then he paused for a moment and said, “But come to think of it, I’ve gone through some deaths, I’ve gone through a bankruptcy, I’ve cleaned up from alcoholism and drug abuse. I’ve put two kids through school, and one through college. I buried my father. I survived all those things. Maybe I do deserve to be here.”
Everything we do, no matter how self-destructive it might appear, has at its core a distinct speck of light that is moving us toward wholeness and individuation.
There was a period when I knew exactly what it would take to get Laurel back. Yet I did the opposite because there was something in me that knew more. In the middle of that seemingly self-destructive behavior was a speck of knowing that brought me to where I am now.
When a man says, “I’ve had two divorces, I’ve wasted my life,” and he’s sitting in a men’s gathering, I know — and something in him knows — that it took those two divorces to get him to where he is right now. And where he is right now is in some way more healthy and healing and vulnerable than if he had stayed in one of those marriages. And he knows it.
In every act of self-destruction there is a movement toward growth. People could think that’s a very dangerous idea.
LENFEST: You’re also interested in the body and the movement of the body.
LEE: So much of the men’s movement and the recovery movement is about information and speaking and talking. Those are absolutely necessary and valuable, but the body has been neglected.
LENFEST: The body retains memories like an emotional sponge, and you have to wring it out with regularity if you’re going to keep working.
LEE: The body is a charge-building system. And if the body is not discharged on a regular basis, then you will develop disease and addictions to keep you from remembering. That’s a very interesting word for me, re-membering the body. If I drink enough, I can forget I have a body. If I work enough, I can forget I have a body. One of the ways to find the soul is through the body. The soul lives in the body. The spirit, on the other hand, is more etheric, more elevated.
I believe that most of the men I work with, whether in recovery or in the men’s gatherings, have a strong connection to their spirit. Their spiritual life is not that shabby, but their soulful life is almost totally neglected. I want to rejoin soul and spirit; I want to use prayer and meditation for my spirit — and dancing, drumming, and pounding a pillow with a bat for my soul. And yet the total container that I am is the house for both, but they’re not the same thing.
I do bioenergetic exercises in the morning to get the energy moving up and down my body. Yoga, tai chi, and those kinds of things are very useful for that.
The problem that I’ve experienced with tai chi and yoga is the same problem I see with runners and weight lifters. Many people, men particularly, do these endeavors with their minds, not their bodies. Watch the face of a man who runs. Often most of his energy will be concentrated from his eyes up. Or in his jaws. He’s got to run three miles so he’s focused, he’s concentrated. And the same thing with yoga and tai chi. They’re done from the neck up. It’s the most amazing thing to watch. They haven’t translated that ancient art into the body. A good teacher will recognize that.
The body is so much a part of recovery, and yet it’s often omitted in the men’s movement. I try to address that in my training program for counselors.
A lot of therapists say to their clients, “You’re angry. Tell me more about that.” And I want to say, “What do you mean, tell you more about that? How am I going to discharge that energy around my father by telling you about it?”
Just talking about problems is an incomplete way of dealing with them; we need to discharge these problems in a bodily way and then, once the energy has dissipated, articulate what’s left. If I get really angry at you, my anger probably has less to do with you and more to do with me and my history. Of course, it might just be about me and you. But if I’m really scared and twisted and hyped up, it’s almost guaranteed to have more to do with something about me and my mom, or me and my dad, than it does about me and you.
It’s necessary to discharge this anger — by using the body — in a way that separates the pain we felt when we were five years old from what is between me and you now.
LENFEST: So if I go into a rage over a particular event, it’s probably not my present anger, but anger that I’ve gotten from one of my parents, an anger that surfaces when it’s triggered by some recent event. I need to realize that, understand it, and discharge my anger in order to deal with the present.
LEE: People try to do it intellectually, and it’s not intellectual. That’s why I use the body. The body is pre-verbal. The mind is verbal. If we’re in an altercation, and there is a tremendous amount of energy, and if I don’t move it out of my body in some way, I’ll try to move it verbally onto you, because it’s got to get out.
LENFEST: I’d like you to talk about dignity — real dignity and false dignity. Is there dignity in handling pain, and is that different from old-fashioned stoicism?
LEE: There is dignity in handling pain. Stoicism is a subtle form of self-pity. Stoicism and self-pity are kissing cousins. If I have pain, no matter how big the pain is, and if I grieve that pain, it only takes, in the scheme of things, moments.
Stoicism takes lifetimes to master. Self-pity is a waste of lifetimes. Grief is the most dignified act that one can perform if it’s separated from self-pity.
If a man doesn’t know how to grieve and isn’t willing to participate in that act as often as necessary, then there is something about his masculinity that has yet to be formed.
LENFEST: How do we distinguish between the two?
LEE: A man gets a divorce from his wife. There is self-pity if she leaves him. He gets drunk and he doesn’t shave and he doesn’t take a bath and he doesn’t eat well. He goes and punches the jukebox full of quarters, and the jukebox tells him that his baby left him and he ain’t worth shit because of it. That’s self-pity.
The man who is willing to be dignified will call another man and say, “My wife left me. I know you know about such things. I’d like to come over and stay with you for a couple of days. I’d like to talk with you, and I’d like for you to hold me. I’d like you to listen to me cry, and I’d like for you to watch me beat the shit out of this pillow. And while I’m doing that, I would like for you to prepare me three good meals a day.”
And then for weeks he would write in his journal and he would cry and he would go to a men’s support group. He’d cry and he’d write in his journal and he’d beat a pillow and he’d write in his journal. He’d keep doing that. And all this time he’d keep eating, exercising, getting support. That is dignity. That is grief. And that is something very different from self-pity. And within three to six months, no matter how important that woman was, he would go through most of the grieving he needs to do around that particular issue.
But most men in their self-pity, or their stoicism, will simply go get another woman. Or, they will throw themselves into seventy-hour work weeks. Or, they will buy a new car. They’ll keep a stiff upper lip. Yet they will never tap into the thing that would really restore their dignity and, to some degree, deepen their masculinity.
LENFEST: How do you define masculinity?
LEE: Each individual creates his own definition of the masculine. Deep masculinity involves knowing when to wield a sword, a metaphorical sword, and when to sheathe it; when to rest and when to work; when to nurture and when to be nurtured; when to get angry and when to grieve. If a man doesn’t know how to grieve and isn’t willing to participate in that act as often as necessary, then there is something about his masculinity that has yet to be formed.
LENFEST: What about taking joy in something, as the other side of the coin to grieving? We don’t talk about that very much.
LEE: That’s because we don’t talk about grief. A man who cannot grieve cannot experience joy. And most men in this culture can’t grieve, so there’s not a whole lot of joy to be discussed. It’s out there; it’s available. Over the past few years I’ve experienced quite a bit of it. But when I refrain from grieving, I don’t feel happiness either.
After that nine months of grieving for Laurel I have to tell you, I was ecstatic. And then, for a while, another level of grief came up. I went into it, and the joy came up again. It’s been that cycle consistently. Until you are slapped right up against the wall, you won’t do even one-hundredth of what these books on recovery say.
LENFEST: You’ve written a lot about your own life and your spiritual quest.
LEE: Someone said that I have created a whole system of psychology on the case history of one. It’s both a compliment and a criticism. My work is based on my experience, and the experiences of the men who have worked with me, yet these experiences don’t apply to everyone. I have a partner in Austin who read The Flying Boy, and he said he didn’t relate to it whatsoever.
But there’s a lot about my life that people might learn from. I try to draw upon a variety of sources as a way to heal myself. I take them, run them through me, and then tell about my experience.
A number of people say that they wish there were more books like The Flying Boy. Most books read as if the author has taken certain facts and integrated them into his life, and now he doesn’t have any more problems.
When I hear certain speakers, particularly in the men’s movement, or in the recovery movement, give daylong workshops, I walk away thinking, “Damn, I wish I could be that healed.”
These speakers set up artificial barriers between themselves and their listeners. They put the listener in the role of a child who will, someday, with the help and grace of God, and by listening to more people like this guy talking, get to be like this guy. And that’s very dangerous.
LENFEST: You don’t want people to be like you?
LEE: Right. I want people to find in what I say things they can use in their lives; I’m more interested in me being me as much as possible in front of as many people as possible than I am in being an authority.
LENFEST: I meet many men in this movement who continue to think fondly of their mothers and almost never say anything critical about the mother at all. I meet few men who express anger with their mothers, while I meet many who express and work out anger with their fathers.
LEE: Most men fail to break with their mothers because their mothers did little to encourage the separation. Therefore, most men hate their mothers so much that they can’t ever confront their hate, because they don’t want to denigrate her, or their memory of her. This inspires addictive behavior: if you knock back a pint of whiskey, you can forget that you didn’t make the break.
A functional father and mother, through their behaviors and statements and actions, help the son or daughter make a clean break. Unfortunately, there are few such functional folks around to show us how. Parents who cannot let go of their children rear children who turn into adults who can’t let go of their parents.
Our culture fails to teach us that it’s necessary to kill our parents. Freud and Nietzsche understood that a man has to kill the father. Until a man kills his parents, he can’t re-parent himself. He keeps negative voices in the back of his head that speak to him early in the morning hours, saying things like, “Get out of bed, you lazy son of a bitch, and get to work.” That’s the negative father in there.
I have an exercise in my daylong workshops for saying goodbye to Mom and Dad. The audience will be in tears and snot the moment that exercise is set up; this separation is one of the most painful events of our lives. When we fail to do it, we stay children, we stay counterproductive, we stay less than creative.
If a man barely knew his father because his father was emotionally or physically absent, and you tell that man he’s got to kill off what little he’s got, he’s going to be terrified, and then he’s going to be pissed off at you for telling him he needs to kill off his father, given that he never had a father to begin with.
There’s this fine silk thread that connects him to his father. I’ll say, “We have to let our father go.” And the guy will respond, “But then I’ll just float away. If I let my Mom go, I’ll just float away.” And I say, “No, what will happen is that fine silk thread will turn into this huge golden rope that will connect you to the archetypal father, to the positive father you have inside you. And if your mother and father are still alive you might even be able to have a reasonably healthy relationship with them.”
LENFEST: Do you think that a majority of males in this country are raised by women to be naive?
LEE: Most males are raised to be naive, but not necessarily by women. The father, through either commission or omission, raises his son to be naive as well.
Some of the leading figures in the recovery field, the whole recovery business, are still very naive in many ways. It is built on the idea that you can teach anybody anything. You have to have a certain amount of idealism and naiveté even to be in the recovery business, or the men’s movement, or the college teaching profession. If you really believe that you can teach somebody anything, then I think you’re naive.
I’m still very naive. But in my work I don’t ever assume that I’m teaching anybody anything. That’s why I rely upon my personal experience. I feel that I am a good teacher, but it’s because I don’t believe that firmly in the act of teaching. I say, “Here’s my experience. Does that draw anything out of you that you already know but maybe have forgotten?”
LENFEST: Otherwise, you remain a tourist in somebody else’s reality.
LEE: That’s right. I try to introduce that person to his own reality by using my experience.
LENFEST: As twentieth-century males, we grew up with a kind of code of honor: keep a stiff upper lip; be strong; endure whatever happens; be productive. This was the way to become a hero.
But don’t such codes result in what Thoreau called “lives of quiet desperation”? Isn’t the men’s movement trying to get rid of that “quiet desperation”?
LEE: I think so. And yet the shadow side of the men’s movement can be accused of creating another kind of code that proves just as detrimental.
By this, I mean the notion that the men’s movement should go the way certain people say it should, and that if you don’t agree, then perhaps you’re not in the men’s movement. There is a trace of unhealed egotism and competition in those who think they know the best way to do it.
If the men’s movement only reaches the white, Anglo-Saxon, middle-American male, we will have really embarrassed ourselves and hurt the planet at large. We will have formed another type of country club, or another type of Kiwanis, or Jaycees, and we don’t need any more of those. A lot of the men’s movement is geared to those who can pay the money. That’s not going to take the movement as far — culturally and sexually — as it can go.
My work has never been geared toward the academic and intellectual, but more toward people like me. I have my roots firmly planted in the hills of Alabama and in the prairies of Texas. These are the men I feel must be reached; I want to make this work concrete, physical, and simple in order to reach these people.
LENFEST: I’ve been particularly interested in men’s addiction to work.
LEE: Most men are afraid to stop working because if they do, they will have to confront their pain directly. A man who works twenty hours a week has time to consider his anxieties. A man who works forty to sixty hours a week can avoid looking at everything.
Men in primitive hunting and gathering societies worked an average of three hours a day to sustain themselves. The Australian Aborigine spends 60 to 70 percent of his day in soul work. We spend maybe 2 percent a week, if we’re lucky.
If the men’s movement only reaches the white, Anglo-Saxon, middle-American male, we will have really embarrassed ourselves and hurt the planet at large.
LENFEST: Do you think we should follow the example of the Aborigines?
LEE: We can’t go back to primitive times, but we can do a number of things that would give us more time to be with ourselves. It’s important to remember that dealing with these issues involves a lifelong process. I don’t know anyone who is finished, but I do know some people who think they are. Either they have attained something that’s closer to sainthood than I am comfortable with, or they’re denying their true situation. Both possibilities frighten me.
Even though the leaders say recovery is a process, many of them behave, act, and sound as if they’ve already acquired the product. At one conference a man introduced himself as a recovered co-dependent. And I thought, “Wow!” He may be, but I don’t want to listen to him, because if he is fully recovered, I don’t know what I have to learn from him. He’s just too far away from my experience. My experience says it’s a process.
In the audience, heads turned and people whispered, “Did he say recovered?” I was the next person on the program. I was careful to say, “Hi, my name is John and I’m a recovering co-dependent.”
The shadow side also appears when I’m in a Twelve-Step meeting and I don’t see any therapists. I never see the people who, on their cards or in their brochures, state that they specialize in co-dependency and addiction. Maybe they don’t need meetings. That’s not for me to judge. The point is that their clients do not see them at meetings either. There’s an artificial separation established by therapists when they say, “I’ll tell you to go to meetings, but don’t expect to see me there. I specialize in it, but I do something else.”
And there are those who jump on the bandwagon too quickly. Last year the psychotherapist specialized in couples counseling and relationships. This year his card announces that he’s specializing in men’s groups and men’s issues. Ask him how he got from there to here so quickly and sometimes the answer is very scary. “I went to a men’s gathering once. I saw Bill Moyers interview Robert Bly.”
LENFEST: Thich Nhat Hanh, the Vietnamese Buddhist monk, talks about recognizing the good things in our lives, recognizing what he calls the “non-toothache.” He asks us to compare how we feel when we don’t have a toothache to how we feel when we do. And he refers to this as our “non-toothache.” He urges us to recognize the blessings in our lives in this way, be they as simple as a glass of fresh water.
Has the men’s movement generated needs and problems that aren’t really there? Are we talking about a “non-toothache”?
LEE: Adult children who grew up in dysfunctional families have their whole system inverted so that their main motivator is pain. When, as an adult, that child begins to move toward recovery, the system begins to realign itself.
For years, I could not write unless I had experienced tremendous pain. I’d been taught through literature, through poetry, through my culture, that the only way one could accomplish work was through experiencing deep hurt and deep pain, and out of that, one gave birth to something positive and creative. I’ve been questioning that for years and then recently I found myself writing a new book while I was in the happiest, healthiest relationship that I’ve ever been in.
My sense is that I’m beginning to re-invert that which has been upside down for a long time. I believe that is the process of recovery.
The recovery movement and the men’s movement are leading people back to the true self. Once the true self has been energized, the result might well be “I’ll stop attacking you,” “I’ll stop raping the land.”
In the Eastern tradition and in fairy tales, you often find a wise old baby, like Lao-tzu. An old man will act more like a wise old baby than like a wise old man. He’ll say things that are so wise — the same things a two-year-old will say. He’s made the full circle back to where he was before society, culture, mother, and father started chipping away to make him into something he wasn’t. His true self begins to return. And so at sixty-five, he’s wearing a baggy old set of double-knit pants, and he doesn’t give a shit who likes them or what’s in style, just like a two-year-old doesn’t care. What matters is what’s comfortable, what feels good, what feels right because he’s operating in many ways from a truer self.