In The Trenches

An Interview with Stephen Johnson, PH.D.
by Ellis Cose
Whole Life Times, August 1994, pp.24-25

Stephen Johnson, who has been an educator and psychotherapist for over 20 years, became interested in men’s issues when he went through a “mid-life crisis.” Instead of buying a hot sports care or finding a young lover or any one of those standard things that men and women have been known to do in an effort to rekindle their youth, he turned inward to find a deeper satisfaction.

A compassionate man, Johnson has now turned his attention to assisting other men in our society who are in (or, perhaps, unwittingly, on the verge of being in) crisis. As the founder and Executive Director of the Men’s Center L.A., Johnson specializes in men’s issues, gender dynamics, relationship and family counseling.

Why is it that men’s issues are of particular interest to you?

I started out working a lot with women, as did most of the male psychotherapists back in the ’60’s and ’70’s. Men were not exploring their psyches then, and women were beginning to figure out that there was an urgent need to explore their issues, to come together in unity and to create some kind of a power base.

Men didn’t have a clue about what was going on in their outer worlds let alone what was going on in their inner worlds, but they started reacting to this movement among women, which is what eventually steered them toward therapy as well. Now there is a much higher percentage of men who are willing to explore their own souls.

My personal interest in men’s work evolved from my own mid-life crisis, which I went through from 37 to 43. I looked within and asked myself whether I was happy, whether my life was going in the right direction and whether my goals were still salient, and I realized that I was pretty confused. I decided that it was imperative to take up the question of what my life was about and what it meant to be a balanced male.

Are you finding that that’s what men in their 30s – 40s are primarily going through?

Yes, I work a lot more with men who, when they hit mid-life, start asking these kinds of questions. Men who are a little older, however, in their 50s to mid 60s, are usually dealing with issues around aging and the quality of the future. And those who are 70 and older are dealing with issues around health, mortality and completion. But men who are in the 35-45 age range, the baby-boomers who have always been movers and shakers, are asking the questions concerning the quality of present life and wondering what life will be like for future generations and where they will fit in with all the global changes.

When you say the global changes, are you talking economic?

Economic changes, environmental conditions, human rights, etc. There are changes that are happening world-wide, in our own communities and in the global villages that are pretty astounding. So people are asking what this all means and how it will affect their lives.
For instance, a number of men who were moving at a very fast pace during the ’80s are now scaling down and making new career and personal choices that are reflected in a revision of their material aspirations.

Now is that a matter of choice or is it a matter of the down-sizing and the corporate restructuring that has been going on?

It’s a combination of both. But a lot of them have come up against the glass ceiling, or gotten caught in a bottleneck, and were forced to change. And so they realize that it’s a good opportunity to reevaluate, to do some soul searching.

Is it your sense that the questions that men are asking now are somewhat different from those that, say, your father would have asked?

Very different. Men these days are questioning where they’re going top be and wondering whether they will be able to attain their desired life-style. It is less predetermined than it was for my father’s generation. He came through World War II, moved to California, established a family and career and lived “the American dream.” Men of that era were asking the question: “How long will it take to create what I want?” These days, younger men and especially those who are in their 20s, the ones who have been branded as Generation X, experience a certain amount of hopelessness, helplessness and despair. They’re asking the question: “What’s the point of trying?”

Where does the hopelessness, helplessness and despair come from? What’s the genesis of that?

I think it has a lot to do with the dismantling of the family structure, the breakdown of traditions and increased intolerance in the way people relate to each other. This results in fragmentation and alienation within families, communities, neighboring villages and nations. It tends to give the impression that things are getting worse rather than better.

When you say the dismantling of the family structure, are you talking about divorce?

Divorce as well as what appears to be a breakdown of traditional values and family rituals that have typically served to hold communities together. Within the white community we see a divorce rate of over 50% and one that is dramatically higher within the black family. With so many fathers out of the house, it’s troubling to realize just how many American families are being raised by single mothers.

Additionally, people en masse exited churches and synagogues during the ’60s and ’70s which has contributed to an awful lot of the demise of social graces, ethical standards and values. Churches and synagogues traditionally served as the town meeting place and a main support for family life.

A lot of fathers are now raising children who weren’t their biological children.

There are many more blended families now in which fathers are parenting step children, and we are also witnessing a trend toward more single fathers having primary custody of their children. Many men are striving to be good fathers. They feel a responsibility to do a better job than their fathers did and, often times, they have a greater appreciation for the difficulty that their fathers had.

There’s a paradox in that — divorce rates are much higher now than they were 30 or 40 years ago. So there’s a desire to do a better job, but it seems that at least in some sense, people are doing a worse job, at least as indicated by those statistics. How are men grappling with that?

There is a tendency for men to get pulled out of, or flee from families. But if we can create a new kind of container that allows them to stabilize and really evaluate the issues at hand, they will realize that it’s not simply about moving out, but rather about moving in and dealing with the internal conflict. More men are wanting to stay in their families these days. They are not as cavalier about moving out.

Of course some men are choosing to divorce and need help in developing support systems around them so that they can go through the process without shattering. This is preferable over feeling stuck in a bad marriage and living a life of quite desperation. A lot of men just don’t have allies. They haven’t developed friendships. They’re very isolated. So community buildings, in which we attempt to assist men in creating relationships with other men, is a primary goal.

Where is the men’s movement today?

The first ten years of what’s called the men’s movement were about repairing the wounds to the soul that were created by dysfunctional relationships between fathers and sons. After giving years of attention to the relationship with their fathers, men have come to discover that they have some real work to do with respect to their relationship with their mothers. They now realize the need of more intimately understanding what women are seeking in a positive relationship. We are learning how to span the distinctly different emotional languages between men and women, and learning that it is possible to appreciate the differences with acceptance rather than resentment.

How large is the group of men who are concerned with these issues? Are we talking about a small percentage of me, or most men, somewhere in between?

I’m not really sure. But last year at the Mendocino Men’s Leadership Conference, the 125 attendees who have been working with men over the years were all saying that the real work that lies before us is in the trenches. We need to be of greater service to our communities. We need to create more mentor relationships with fatherless boys who are at risk of dropping out of school, or getting involved with gangs or drugs. We need to be working with men who are at risk of getting caught up in our penal system. We need to be working with men who are sexual offenders or are prone to domestic violence. Men’s work is, of necessity, taking on a more serious approach.

We urgently need a men’s social justice network in which men of all ages join forces to attain a higher profile in our cities in order to stabilize them and take them back from those who would squander our valuable resources. Fortunately, service organizations like Knights of Columbus, the Brotherhood of the Elks and Moose, and the Masons are opening their doors to younger men. During the ’60s and ’70s there was a generation gap between men who supported our presence in Vietnam and those who protested, between the long hairs and the short hairs, between older men and younger men. Attendance had dropped severely and many of the organizations were shutting down. Within these organizations today there’s less of that kind of disparity.

What’s driving this new seriousness?

Partly it has to do with the fact that the baby boom generation has come of age. We are older and wiser. We’ve become parents with responsibilities and important decisions to make. We have a president who is of our generation so there is a greater feeling of representation. We feel that we have a power base from which we can get something accomplished and we, as latter day flower children of the ’60s, are accustomed to working together for a common goal. When the problems are no longer isolated to some other part of the world but are on your own doorsteps it becomes more than just a wake-up call. It’s in your face.

To what extend are men reacting, not necessarily to the women’s movement, but to competition from women in the workplace?

There is also a new work ethic. We can no longer count on the corporate structure as a benevolent parent. Employers are not going to take care of us in the ways that we were used to. Generous retirement and health plans are too costly in the era of down-sizing. Jobs are being eliminated for men in mid-life at an alarmingly faster rate than before, and at a time when financial pressures are usually the hardest with college-age children and aging parents to support. The younger generation is nipping at the heels of the boomers and making them very nervous. They are adaptable, computer literate, quick-paced and will work for less income. The boomers are realizing that they are all-too-fast becoming the elders of society without the respect or loyalty to which their parents were accustomed. It’s a whole new ball game for older men who still feel that they must be the primary breadwinner, while at the same time feeling elbowed aside by women vying for positions on the ladder to success, and youngsters in a hurry to carve out a piece of the pie. Couple this with issues around sexual harassment and other confusing gender dynamics and you have a fairly beleaguering set of circumstances. Men tend to feel just as victimized as do women by a system that chews up individuals unmercifully. We need to stop blaming each other and work together to create a new paradigm.

How would you respond to someone who says, “Hey, wait a minute. It’s still a man’s world. Men are still running things. Men are still in control of things.”

I know a case can be made for the belief that it’s still a man’s world: I don’t necessarily feel that way. Last year was being touted as being the year of the woman, and there are more and more opportunities for women. Men are not as privileged as they used to be; we are moving toward a greater mutuality.

There are many men who are sympathetic to women’s issues and many women who care deeply about what men are encountering. There is an element, however, that does not recognize what is taking place, an angry element that has axes to grind. These individuals, be they men or women, typically carry the unhealed wounds of past relationships with men tend to view all men as falling somewhere along perpetrator scale.

I would assume that the men that you tend to interact with most are men who are fairly progressive, who are concerned, who are empathetic, yet who are serious about true gender equality and feminism. Now there are a lot of men who aren’t. What will this era mean for those men who don’t really consider themselves particularly progressive?

There are those men who are angry, who feel disenfranchised, who feel that someone has something that rightfully should belong to them. They tend to be less formally educated, less involved in their own emotional and spiritual growth and haven’t done therapy. In other words, they haven’t really held their feet to the fire in order to fully explore their own issues. These men tend to be hypersensitive, feeling that society hasn’t given them a fair shake. They tend to find a lot of different reasons why things aren’t working for them. They don’t take enough personal responsibility, but instead cast blame on women, government, minorities and the like. They will be left behind if they do not choose to evolve.

What’s the most significant thing that’s going on now?

Obviously I feel that gender reconciliation is very significant, creating forums for men and women to come together and explore the issues. I think that the men’s movement will have very little value if it does not also become much more multi-cultural. It’s got to be about men of all ethnicities coming together to understand each other and work in unity to solve the problems endemic to our communities. In certain respects there’s a sort of neo-tribalism that’s at the core of the men’s movement, which is a reaching back into the ancestral and ancient ways that customarily held traditional families and societies together.

At the Men’s Center we have a program to work with men who are sexual offenders or who have issues regarding their sexuality. We are initiating a domestic violence program to help men who are batterers or who have been battered. We have a neurofeedback program to assist men who have attention deficit disorder or difficulties dealing with stress or who are prone to addictive behavior.

Our prisons our filled with men who really need help and rehabilitation rather than just incarceration. This is where the men’s social justice network can serve as a preventive approach to helping men who are having difficulties with conduct disorder. We’re also involved with Ted Hayes and his Genesis 1 Project to assist the homeless reintegrate back into society.

I think that issues around men’s health are very important. Men have this notion that they don’t need to go to doctors. Prostate cancer, the number two cause of death among males, could be dramatically reduced if men would simply go through a routine exam once a year past the age of 40. We need to get much more information concerning men’s health out into mainstream awareness.

The issues that are most important are justice and mutuality for the genders, stabilizing the family and improving parenting skills, repairing shattered communities and building bridges to brotherhood. It’s in the trenches. The work is really in the street.