Don Shewey responds:
I was pleased that The Sun published my article “Stepbrothers: Gays and the Men’s Movement” [May 1993]. But afterward I was disturbed by the number of letters to the editor that praised my piece at the expense of Robert Bly, who was interviewed in the same issue [“From Boys to Men,” Alexander Blair-Ewart].
I’ve noticed that many people look for any excuse to dismiss or denounce work in the field of men’s consciousness. Rather than entertain or attempt to understand the ideas, these people want to believe that it’s all about boys in the clubhouse playing pin-the-tail-on-the-girlie-pinup or wimpy guys dancing around suburban campfires trying to cough up some evidence of testosterone in their tired, middle-aged lives. An easy way to attack men’s work is to attack Robert Bly. And a really good way to discredit Robert Bly is to label him homophobic.
I feel uncomfortable with the extent to which my writing has been used to support this attitude about Robert Bly and men’s work. So I want to point out a few things. Of course Bly has some homophobia in him. Show me an adult American male who is 100 percent homophobia-free, and I will nominate him for sainthood. In his book Men and the Water of Life, Michael Meade comes up with the best definition of homophobia I’ve ever seen: “Homophobia usually means fear of love with those of the same gender. But it has many other phobias inherent in it. There are fears of being physically harmed or dominated by another man; fears of being intellectually dominated and spiritually damaged or misled. There are fears of the bodies of other men, fears of the spirits of other men, and fears of the souls of other men. At the bottom is a fear that something in other men may be the same as something hidden in me, a shadowy something that I barely know of myself. At that level, homophobia is a fear of men based on not knowing my true self and fear of what may be hidden within me.”
While Robert Bly’s work is as much as anything an invitation to gay men to tell their own stories and speak their own truths, my personal impression of him is that he does convey some discomfort at being drawn into discussions of homosexuality. Purely speculating, I’d say that because Bly grew up in the Midwest, had a close relationship with his mother, and identified himself as a poet when he was a teenager, he may have a deep-seated fear of being or being considered “queer.” I feel compassion for that teenage boy; I’ve been there. Much as I want to challenge Bly to work on his ignorance about gay experience, my primary feelings toward him are gratitude, respect, and affection.
The work that Bly has done over the last ten years has taught a number of men, including me, about grief and ritual and laughter and depression and beauty and the ecstatic poems of Rumi, among other things. I submit that the primary force behind his teaching is a love for men — a quality that is by no means the exclusive property of homosexuals.
I was very offended to read “Jesus fucking Christ” in cold print [“Progress,” Gillian Kendall, July 1993]. I do not know what percentage of your readership is Christian, but I am sure a lot of them were just as shocked as I was to see such blasphemy. What on earth do you think gives you the right to be so dismissive of others’ feelings?
I beg to differ with Margaret N. Barton’s letter to the editor [November 1993]. Sally Bellerose’s smart and beautifully crafted “The GirlsClub” [September 1993] went right to my heart. Bellerose draws a vivid picture of the love between two sweet, salty, spunky sisters at a triumphant moment in the narrator’s life. The voice is funny and affirming without a touch of sentimentality, and that pivotal scene on the dance floor pulses so musically that I wanted to get up from my armchair and boogie.
I have shared this story with several friends, all of whom have been moved by what we take to be its hopeful messages: that people can heal from loss, especially with a little help from those who know and love us best; and that a lesbian and her heterosexual sister can be intimate allies.
Samuel Johnson declared that “the only end of writing is to enable readers better to enjoy life or better to endure it.” By this measure, and any other important one I can imagine, “The GirlsClub” is fine writing indeed.
In his interview with Michael Toms, David Reynolds says that we ought to feel bad for being unappreciative of what’s been given to us [“Necessary Guilt,” November 1993]. But I believe that at some point critical judgment must take over and say: here is something that I really don’t appreciate and, more important, shouldn’t appreciate.
“Becoming doesn’t happen in the real world,” Reynolds says. This is true only if we are never deeply critical. Then we have only being. Should the slave have been thankful that his master didn’t let him starve? In fact, only in being critical did the slave become free.
Perhaps Reynolds is trying to get around this problem when he suggests that we should recognize the negative but emphasize the positive. Might this be Pilate, washing his hands and saying, “This crucifixion is an unpleasant business, but should I let it ruin my whole day? The sun is out. The birds are singing. Truth is what I choose to emphasize”?
Also, I sense there is an unspoken class issue underlying some of Reynolds’s thinking. Who are “they” who, according to Reynolds, “need the guilt that comes from realizing they’ve been taking without gratitude”? Is he speaking of those of us in rich countries who enjoy the benefits of subtle, if not direct, exploitation of working people in our own country and around the world? To point out the need for the privileged classes to be thankful to the working classes makes sense. Or is he referring to the vast majority of have-nots on this planet, who live a marginal existence, millions literally starving?
But the most trying part of Reynolds’s interview is when he recounts asking his new clients to close their eyes and describe his office. Those suffering the most can remember the least, he says, and that’s a shame because reality is “much more interesting than ruminating in one’s mind.” But doesn’t that assertion depend on just how interesting Reynolds’s office is? What if it were Nietzsche who had come to him for help? Van Gogh? Carl Jung?
Must one assume that ruminating, or suffering, is necessarily a shallow activity? There have been some great journeys within. And they haven’t all ended in blaming our parents. Many have been courageous journeys, and they deserve at least the respect we might give any common millionaire.
Of course the balanced personality has an outlooking nature, but one can be rich in outlook only in proportion to how far and how sensitively one has seen within oneself. Looking within, some of us may see and feel only positive experiences. Many of us, however, have gotten impaled on deep hurts inflicted by our parents. To emphasize only the positive aspects of our childhood is like emphasizing the teeth that don’t ache. Good parenting is good exactly because the children are free to take it for granted. But most of us must go within, and part of the journey includes an effort to heal real hurts, to ripen our forgiveness so that healing can take place.
I don’t think we are going to be able to stick psychoanalysis into the dusty library stacks. There’s simply too much to it. It is our century’s most profound contribution to knowledge of human evolution and human destiny.
David Reynolds asks, “Are my words my own? Not really. I didn’t come into this world speaking English. Somebody went to a lot of trouble to teach me how to speak this language.” That is flat-out wrong and a glaring inaccuracy for an anthropologist. Nobody went to any trouble to teach Reynolds how to talk. Children learn any language that is spoken around them completely on their own.
David Reynolds responds:
Let me suggest that Milva McDonald test her hypothesis that children learn language completely on their own by playing audio records of spoken Chinese and German around young Anglo-American children for as long as she likes. If they learn to speak these languages, then I’ll admit that Constructive Living theory is wrong in this regard.
Jim Ralston’s letter contains some of the common misunderstandings of Constructive Living that result from brief exposure to this radically different way of thinking and from my poor ability to explain it in a short space. However, if he reads the interview carefully he’ll find that I did not suggest that “we ought to feel bad.” We cannot control our feelings directly, so “oughts” have no relevance to them.
Despite Ralston’s objection, “becoming” is a concept that can be used only in a review of experience over time. At any point in time there is only the presence of something or its absence — neurotic suffering, for example, or no neurotic suffering. I see no problem to “get around” here, and I suggest that we recognize reality, positive and negative, with no particular emphasis on one or the other.
There is no class issue in Constructive Living. Rich and poor, we all live thanks to the efforts of others in our behalf. We all fail to recognize and acknowledge the extent and depth of our taking from the world.
When Van Gogh and Carl Jung show up at my office I’ll be able to ask them how their surroundings compare with their ruminations. The reality is that most of the people who come in for Constructive Living instruction say that they spend too much time in introspection and too little in getting things done. I have neither the intention nor the ability to put psychoanalysis onto “dusty library stacks.” My challenge is to the oversimplified popular conception of psychodynamic thought, which is used to justify and excuse irresponsible behavior.
I read Sy Safransky’s essay “Nothing Personal” [November 1993] at five this morning, while standing sleepily in the living room, trying to wake up so that I could begin preparing classes for the day. Listening to the coffee drip in the kitchen, my stomach growling, I thought of all the letters I haven’t received, all those I haven’t sent. I thought of how my wife waits for personal mail as if for a revelation, and how friends who write do so too infrequently. I thought of the people with whom I have lost touch; are they waiting, somewhere, for the letter not yet written?
Personal essays like yours, Sy, are not letters, but they seem to grow from the same need to reveal and relate. I don’t write many letters to magazines except for business reasons. I don’t usually write to editors except to complain. But I read your essay today like news from part of the family I had long ago forgotten. Sentiment, like an old snapshot, blurred and uneven, has its own time and place. Thank you for the letter. Keep in touch.
I know how Sy Safransky feels about mail. They hand out our mail here each weekday afternoon. There is a large duffle bag packed with books, newspapers, magazines, and letters. Especially on Mondays and around the holidays, it’s fun to watch the officer struggling up the stairs with the heavy load.
I don’t go to mail call because I detest the dynamic at work. More than one hundred guys gather around, eye that big white sack, and think, “There must be something there for me.” Usually the officer will pass out the letters first. Some prisoners try to act nonchalant, chatting with pals or looking out a window at the empty compound. All ears, though, are tuned to the measured or hesitant inflection of names. And as the stack shrinks, those who are empty-handed begin fidgeting and taking greater interest in whatever is on the TV. That’s the part I won’t abide: the desperation. I mock them for it because I despise it in myself. Even after all these years, thousands of mail calls, and much too much suffering, I remain susceptible to despair.
For men in prison it’s always a letter from “her” we’re waiting for. I’ve more or less acquired membership in that most fortunate fraternity, the unattached, over the past few years. We’re “still friends.” We talk and write on occasion, and neither has completely discarded the notion of an eventual reunion, but there’s no obligation, no commitment to be there for the other.
Those poor souls not yet freed from the pains of attachment struggle with their innermost selves right out there in the open. If you watch their eyes during mail call you can see the rationalizations being ticked off one by one, each a little less convincing than its predecessor. The nearby telephones are tempting for the disappointed. As the ringing drones on they shift from one foot to the other, pull beards, brush back hair, sniff and wipe noses. If she answers there’s an outpouring of relief. If she doesn’t, slammed receivers or bemused cynicism follow.
Rather than enduring mail call, I wait for the officer to put up a list, then casually amble by, sipping a cup of coffee and listening to NPR. Then I’ll risk a peek.
Often I feel exploited when there’s nothing but catalogs, periodicals, and junk mail. How am I supposed to order CDs, you assholes? I’ve never even seen one. Clothing catalogs annoy me, too, as I kick back in my prison rags. All of this will be behind me someday. But it will always remain an integral part of me. And I guess I’m glad for that.
Sharing our despair, parceling out our burdens — such is community. Such is being connected to life. It’s incredible how when we hit bottom and let loose a little we find others who can empathize totally.
You really have to do something about your mail karma. Have you always had this problem?
I am referring to the postcard you mailed to me in early April of 1993 — that got here one October afternoon. To refresh your memory, nine months ago you suggested that you might be printing some excerpts from my book Crip Zen [“Crip Zen,” July 1993].
Since your tardy card arrived, a half-year late, the world has trundled along about 6,000,000 miles farther in its eternal, plodding pace about the sun. We have seen several countries and a thousand species expire — or come close to it.
In this time, your magazine has had many letters of love (and some of hate); I have had yet another breakdown (and mostly recovered); and close to 136,986,630 people have passed on to what they laughingly call “their maker.”
In this half-year, our bodies have re-reproduced themselves by a factor of 1:14, and we humans — 5,000,000,000 of us doing a life term here on earth — have produced some 1,860,000,000 kilos of shit (and over 774,989,000 gallons of urine). We have eaten 67,669,000 head of cattle, petted 555,000,000 dogs 9,000,000,000 times on their 555,000,001 little heads (one dog, in the Georgian town of Raskolnikoff, has two), and plucked 662,900,400 fleas from their dirty little bodies.
Much water has flowed under the bridge in the meantime: 898,000,000,000 quite muddy gallons, to be exact, if you are speaking of the same bridge as I — namely my favorite, the Huey Long Memorial Bridge, just outside New Orleans.
You and I are still here, still wondering what it all means, and probably, knowing you (and knowing me, somewhat), still fretting about it all.
After you printed “Crip Zen,” I was astonished at the response. In the old days I could expect a couple of orders, and that would be it. This time, I have gotten more than thirty orders (they are still coming in), as well as one proposal of marriage, one proposal for a lifelong sex partner (female), and three or four truly touching letters from Crips who are suffering from imprisonment, mostly of the psychological sort.
The Sun, as you know, has developed a loyal core of readers who love it, and believe. How fine, eh?