Issue 211 | Correspondence | The Sun Magazine

Correspondence

I disagree with Robert Bly’s fundamental idea [“From Boys to Men,” May 1993] that males must struggle to become men in some mysterious way that females do not. This idea has been around for a long time, and is the rationale used for fraternity hazings, boot camp, and a host of violent, inhuman rituals in which males in our society have been forced to participate “to make men out of them.” The rituals Bly offers are more benign than these, but the idea behind them is malignant and reactionary.

Somehow, there is this idea that women become women simply by virtue of going through puberty, but men must be toughened up. Bly says that it’s because the male fetus is first female in the womb, so the male must struggle to distinguish himself. But the male fetus is going to grow up to be a male child, and then a man, no matter what amount of struggling he does. Nature takes care of that. Men are as much a part of nature as women are.

Yes, men have been hurt, and forced — not by women, but by the Industrial Revolution and by classism — to take on jobs that take them away from their families. The lack of fathering in our society has greatly hurt both men and women. We need to work together to change this, to create flexible job situations, to get good national health insurance, and enable parents to spend more time with their families.

All the mothers I know would love a full partner in raising their children. There’s an African saying: “It takes a whole village to raise a child.” All of us, men and women, are suffering not just from lack of fathering but from lack of community, and from an economic system that is not human oriented.

I think Bly’s thesis reinforces a kind of insecurity that many men in this culture experience about not being man enough. During wartime it’s sold to us that “real men” put on uniforms and fight and kill each other. In peacetime, being a “real man” has something to do with being a good provider and competing with other men in an unjust economic system. Who profits from making men prove over and over, in different but always exploitative contexts, that they have balls?

I read Bly’s book Iron John. Running through it is a contempt for soft men. Why can’t there be a range of masculine behaviors and ways of being for men? Men seem to me to come in as great a range of flavors and styles as women do, and neither sex has a monopoly on toughness, tenderness, tartness, sweetness, loneliness, or any other human quality. When did God die and appoint Robert Bly the arbiter of how a man should act, think, or relate to his mother?

And when Bly talks about separating from the mother, one sees an image of the witch-mother clinging to the pure, innocent boy-child as the noble band of elder men attempts to initiate him. Well, I’ve been teaching in the public schools in Oakland for the last few years. I go into classrooms with thirty-five children who are so starved for attention they’d hang on a coat rack if it looked like it would smile at them. The time to start fathering boys — and girls — is not at puberty, in rituals, or in adulthood with thirty-year-olds who can afford to spend hundreds of dollars to sit at the feet of a best-selling elder. That’s glamour. If you want to nurture the next generation, then change half the diapers, and help them learn to read and write and tie their shoes and wipe their noses and look both ways before crossing the street. Lobby for more money for schools, parks, playgrounds. This is not women’s work. It’s everyone’s work. Children aren’t property, to be fought over by the mother and father. They’re a huge responsibility — they’re everyone’s responsibility, whether they happen to be your offspring or not.

Bly is a poet, so of course he has a profound relationship to metaphor. But metaphors can be tricky; an idea clothed in flesh can seem more real than it actually is. Bly’s idea that men need to do these rituals in order to really become men is just that — an idea. There’s no basis for it except a feeling of emptiness and longing within many men (and many women), to which you could ascribe any one of a number of different meanings, causes, and cures. I’m not arguing with the feeling. But the place Bly takes it divides men and women at a point in our history when we need as never before to pull together.

Alison Luterman Oakland, California

Lately I find myself wondering more and more if The Sun isn’t primarily a men’s magazine that’s decided to let women participate. Today the May issue arrived, and I read Don Shewey’s “Stepbrothers: Gays and the Men’s Movement.” I was moved and delighted, and very glad The Sun had brought it to me. But after reading the conversation with Robert Bly that follows, I was furious. It’s not just that, as has been done for centuries, Robert Bly calls women who challenge the status quo crazy (“disturbed” is his word). It’s not just that interviewer Alexander Blair-Ewart makes the laughable assertion that “any mention . . . of actual differences between men and women . . . is denounced immediately as sexist.” (Wrong: what women denounce is the creation of false differences — e.g., that women possess lesser intellects than men — and the lie that actual differences render women incapable and undeserving of full participation in society.) It’s not just that Blair-Ewart implies that women really want to be dominated by men, or that he effectively calls us stupid (we aren’t sensitive to “men’s bullshit”?!). It’s not even that in one breath Bly talks about an emasculating exercise created by a man and in the next blames it on women, or that he implies that “too much” autonomy would be “damaging” for women and that it’s up to men to decide how much “expansion” to “give” us, or that he has the audacity to absolve fathers of all responsibility for their absenteeism, implying that women prefer to raise their children alone! For someone who claims compassion for women (at least, younger women), Bly sure does seem to want to keep us in our place.

Of course, I’m angry about all that. But what I want to know is why, as far as I can recall, the little space The Sun has given to discussion of women’s rights has been used to trash them. Camille Paglia and Robert Bly are the only two people you can find to talk about the women’s movement? Why not invite David Duke to tell us about civil rights? Here’s a little exercise: go through the Bly interview and substitute “blacks” for “women” and “whites” for “men” — you might think you’re in the Jim Crow South.

Bly may have some interesting things to say, yet I seriously doubt you’d have run his interview had it contained as much smug, patriarchal, anti-Asian, anti-black, anti-Semitic rhetoric. I’d like to know why you don’t have similar standards regarding sexism. Why is misogyny — a belief system as contemptible and malignant as racism — acceptable? Don’t The Sun and its readers deserve better?

Andrea Wolper New York, New York

I was saddened and perturbed at Alexander Blair-Ewart’s statement in his conversation with Robert Bly that “any mention . . . of actual differences between men and women in the presence of a woman is denounced immediately as sexist or untrue.” I certainly do not feel that way. On the contrary, I celebrate the differences between the sexes and have supported my husband with all my heart in his pursuit of many of Bly’s teachings and ideas.

Couldn’t Blair-Ewart at least have said “some women”? He himself is contributing to the very kind of blanket generalizations that he seems to find so frustrating.

Mimi Wyche Greenville, South Carolina

In “From Boys To Men,” Robert Bly said, “The old men in Australia spent two-thirds of their time initiating and working with the young men.” He neglected to say that one-third of the young men died in their initiation rites.

On the other hand, I applaud Don Shewey his questions in “Stepbrothers.” I applaud the forum you provide. What is possible when we acknowledge that there are more than two genders, that we can change genders in midstream, that we can raise our children as fluidly as their genderless souls require?

I hope to celebrate my old age, when I will be as gnarled as a tree, with my blossoms bearing male and female parts.

Andrew Ramer Brooklyn, New York
Robert Bly responds:

As new ideas come forward about men and their natures, it causes a shaking of the ground, and I think all of this fear and upset needs to be set out clearly. I agree with much of Alison Luterman’s letter, including the African saying, “It takes a whole village to raise a child.” But that sentence contradicts her earlier statement, “The male fetus is going to grow up to be a male child, and then a man, no matter what amount of struggling he does. Nature takes care of that.” Nature doesn’t take care of it. Many male children grow up to be boys and not adult men. They need help from many other people besides the mother and father, and that’s the point of the African saying. Luterman doesn’t seem to realize that African societies consider initiation rituals for women as essential as initiation rituals for men. The idea behind such rituals is not malignant and reactionary.

She’s also inaccurate when she says that running through Iron John there is “a contempt for soft men.” What I say is that “soft males” are “lovely, valuable people — I like them — they’re not interested in harming the earth or starting wars. There’s a gentle attitude toward life in their whole being and style of living.” In my family, my brother was the hard male and I was the soft. However, both soft male and hard male are immature forms, and a third sort of man is essential.

Andrea Wolper tends to go into McCarthyite name-calling when new ideas about gender appear. Nowhere in Iron John or in my interview in The Sun do I “absolve fathers of all responsibility for their absenteeism.” I say exactly the opposite. Nowhere do I say that “women prefer to raise their children alone.” I say exactly the opposite, that women justly want help, which is sensible.

None of the letter-writers mentions my main point, which is that we’ve lost much knowledge about how to help girls become adult women and how to help boys become adult men, and we should admit this and look on the whole thing with a little humility. Vitriolic defense of old feminist positions is not necessarily helpful. Therapists, both male and female, are finding themselves having to rethink all kinds of assumptions about gender-conscious therapy as it relates to men. Here, too, the ground is shaking.

New ideas are needed from all sides. I hope we can all abandon our defensiveness and open ourselves to new ways of understanding gender.

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