Helping Boys Become Men*

By Walter Atkinson
From Wingspan, July 1998

In Robert Bly’s landmark book Iron John, he identified two problems faced by men today: lack of adequate fathering, and lack of initiation into manhood. When I read this, I came away asking what would be an appropriate initiation to bring boys into manhood in America today? In the years since, that question has become a quest.

I learned and grew by attending men’s conferences. My first, here in Los Angeles in 1991, was led by Bly and Michael Meade. It expanded my contact with the deep masculine. It also led me into a council of elders. We were elders only in the sense of having survived many years, but I found much wisdom in that council. One night I led a discussion of the question. We spoke of the differences between the formal initiations practiced by tribal societies and the initiations life inevitably brings, of the difficulties in finding appropriate initiators, and of the difficulties in getting American society to accept a formal initiation. The elders didn’t stay together long, but I will always be grateful for the grounding they gave me in my question.

At the time I was pursuing a master’s degree in clinical psychology. I began reading about adolescent development. I found the Carl Jung concluded that initiation is an archetype. The writers that had the most impact on me were psychologists Peter Blos and Irwin Yalom, mythologist Joseph Campbell, and anthropologists Arnold van Gennep and Mircea Elliade. I integrated ideas from three schools of psychology: psychoanalytic, existential, and Jungian, together with mythology and anthropology. This was heady stuff. I became inflated.

In 1992 a conference led by Meade, James Hillman, and Malidoma SomŽ explored the nature of initiation in greater depth. I combined their ideas with my reading for a paper at school.

The quest has led me through the literature of the men’s movement. I like Sam Keen’s analysis of three false initiations: fighting, work, and sex. I believe that alcohol and drugs are a fourth. (I found an excellent analysis of the connection of alcohol and drugs with initiation, from a Jungian perspective, in a book by Luigi Zoja. Robert Moore and Douglas Gillette give an image of the mature masculine that initiation should aim at. The writings of Meade, SomŽ, and many others give insight into the generic nature of initiation, and how it has worked in other cultures. Still, there is no such thing as a generic initiation into manhood. There is only initiation into manhood in a specific society. I found little help with my question: how to design a rite of passage for this society.

What is missing is partly sociology. Unfortunately, I know of nothing in the sociological literature that is of any help.

In training as a psychotherapist, I learned by working with adolescents whenever possible, mostly boys, individually and in groups. They are hard to work with. Most boys come to therapy with a tough outer shell which is hard to break through. Kids have a deep commitment to the idea hat they are OK. They usually come to therapy when a parent or a school decides they aren’t. They star out opposed to the whole idea. Most therapy is based on introspection, which teenagers typically aren’t very good at. Therapy can be effective, but I have come to believe that with adolescents, prevention is better than cure. It may even be cheaper. A formal initiation can be understood as a form of preventive psychotherapy.

In 1994, I attended the last of the Mendocino confrences. Until then, I had held back, being intensely interested but uncommitted. The last night, we did a long outdoor ritual. I made a deep spiritual commitment to help boys become men. Then I had a compelling experience of the need to persist at hard work under trying circumstances. After that, I found a new source of inner strength for the work ahead. This was a profound experience, which I gradually came to recognize was my initiation into elderhood. Yet as the grounding of soul in the earth and forest of the campground faded on the ride home, I became inflated again.

Initiating boys into manhood takes men. I have found very few in the men’s movement who are interested. Most have been extremely skeptical. I believe this echoes what Hillman is saying. Partly because of psychotherapy, this is an era of turning inward, of self-preoccupation. The more self-preoccupied someone is, the harder it is for them to bond with someone who they experience as different. We need to look within, but we also need to connect meaningfully with others, and beyond that, with the larger society. Recently, Bly argues compellingly for te need to connect across generations. Initiation does that.

Slowly, I have met a few men who are taking the first steps toward bringing ideas from the men’s movement to work with youth. In Los Angeles, Stephen Johnson of the Men’s Center has been active, plus Orland Bishop, Ted Hayes, Louis Manguel, Miguel Rivera with drum, Paulo Mattioli with drum, and Dadisi Sanyaki with dance. I have met men from other cities as well. In initiating boys into manhood, we don’t know what we are doing. It takes great courage to go forward when you don’t, and I salute those who have. Still, the need is so great that almost anything helps.

Young people have a lot of energy. It is necessary to find ways to contain their energy, or it becomes destructive. Traditionally, our culture does this with athletics. I raised my sons on backpacking. Rivera and Mattioli use drumming, and Sanyika uses dance. At a conference at Camp Gualala in 1997, Robert Johnson recommended ritual.

This quest has fostered my own development. It continues to deepen my sense of masculinity. Men at many conferences have helped me find specific things I needed to work on. The three men I carpooled with from Mendocino to San Francisco helped me to find the changes I needed to make within myself before beginning the work of developing a rite of passage. Especially the men’s group I joined after the elder’s council broke up has helped me identify those changes, including dealing with my inflation, and sat with me through the trials of life. One man asked, “Why are you so driven to do this?” Good question. I had a very tough time with adolescence, and reached the age of manhood with little inner sense that I was a man. I began to achieve that in my late thirties and early forties, as an academic type struggling to make it in business and provide for a family at the same time. I didn’t recognize that this was about manhood, and begin to integrate it, until my fifties, when I first read Bly. In twelve-step programs, they say you can’t keep it unless you give it away. What you most need to give away is what you had to work hardest to achieve. For many, that is sobriety. For me, it is my sense of manhood.

I have reached some conclusions. As a culture, we manage adolescence badly. Mass education first began in Massachusetts in the 1630’s. The public schools have had problems recently, but as a culture we know how to manage the intellectual development of adolescents very well. We are lost when it comes to their psychic development. Traditionalists argue for the moral development of adolescents. They don’t do very well at spiritual development. Today, we are in a crisis of adolescence. I won’t argue this point: it is argued too well by the evening news.

The more I have looked, the more I have become convinced of the importance of my question. Initiation would help all boys, not just those who are “at risk”. Today, they are all at risk. It would help girls too, but I see that as a job for women. We need a rite of passage with the impact and the follow-through to inoculate boys against the worst disasters of adolescence, and the depth to help them create a good life. It should be adaptable to a very wide range of boys, and use no more time and money than necessary.

Others have developed rites of passage. Very few of them include input from the men’s movement. Of the ones I am familiar with, only a few, specialized for African American boys, appear to go as far and as deep as I feel is possible and needed.

I have six proposals to help design a rite of passage for modern America. Adolescence once took weeks; today it takes years. I propose a two-step process: one initiation from boyhood into adolescence, and a second from adolescence into manhood. At twelve, boys become capable of dramatic inner change. This is the time to reach for impact in the first initiation. By thirteen or fourteen, they too often have developed that hard outer shell, and are too hard to reach. For the second initiation, the culture simply won’t accept them as men until close to eighteen. Initiation requires ritual elders to welcome boys into adolescence and youths into manhood. During adolescence, the primary need is for mentors. Probably the elders and mentors should be different men.

Americans are individualistic. We have always been a diverse and contentious people, and it is difficult to bond to American society as a whole. The conflicting demands of individuality and community are a central feature of our culture. The work of adolescence should include learning to find out who you truly are by looking within, learning to accept others who are different, and learning to manage the inevitable conflicts. In any culture, adolescence is a time of transition from primary engagement with the family to primary engagement with the larger society. I propose using a group as a transition community. (This parallels D.W. Winnecott’s idea that a teddy bear or security blanket is a transition object for infants.) In the first initiation, one of the aims should be to make contact with the wild man at the bottom of the soul, and another should be to bond the boys into a cohesive group through shared experience. During adolescence, the group can carry a lot of the work of growth through the council process. In the second initiation, the aims should include ending emotional dependence on the group and connecting meaningfully with the larger society.

America is diverse; sensitivity to ethnic differences is essential. I propose developing a broad framework, plus training and support materials that help a group of men craft their own approach and adapt it to local culture and circumstances.

The diversity of American society also means that boys will come to initiation with a wide variation in their emotional development. My fourth proposal is to devise a rite of passage that meets this diversity. It should address all the important personality changes involved in becoming a man, and provide a broad spectrum of activities that support growth. For those with inadequate parenting during childhood, the group and mentors can provide significant reparenting experiences.

America is pluralistic. Initiation must inevitably deal with the spiritual needs of adolescents. I propose that this be done in a way that avoids doctrinal conflicts, and is acceptable to as many religious groups as possible.

Americans are competitive. In this society it is harmful to be unable to throw oneself wholeheartedly into competition.

It is also harmful to be addicted to competition, or to winning. My sixth proposal is that during adolescence, one aim should be development of a mature attitude toward competition.

Of course, these proposals are not enough. They offer the beginnings of a framework. I hope they start to break down the wall of skepticism that a meaningful rite of passage can be developed for America today, and begin a conversation.

To go forward will require many men. Right now I am working to put together an umbrella organization that will operate schools, after-school programs, and mentoring programs throughout the Los Angeles area. It may also partner with other organizations. Its primary focus will be research and development on initiation. It will not be limited to men helping boys, but will create a space where women can develop ways of helping girls become women. This is a big job. I can use your help.

The men’s movement is maturing. In the long run, it will survive if it finds ways to help boys become men. If it doesn’t it will surely die.