Guys : In groups to help them cope, males sing, dance around fires, read poetry, tell their life stories--to the beat of primal drumming.
Welcome to Ventura County--the place where men are men, boys are boys and women, well, let’s not talk about them right now.
It’s a place where guys can be as tough as the saddles they ride in, and male bonding is a slap on the back and a shared pitcher of Bud.
It’s home to rugged-looking guys like Jamie Seerden, an electrical equipment salesman who is accustomed to a certain degree of grittiness in his everyday male banter.
“I work in an arena that is typically redneck, so when the men get together, they do what’s normal for them. They spit and cuss and talk about women and sports,” said Seerden, of Thousand Oaks.
“But men also need a safe place where they don’t have to wear the mask that male-dom has a tendency to make you wear,” he said quietly. “A man needs a place where he can spill his guts about his life and fears, where he can get away from ideas like ‘big boys don’t cry’ and where he can get in touch with his pain.”
Just a minute, good buddy.
Spill his guts about his fears? Learn how to cry? What is this, “Invasion of the Body Snatchers”?
Apparently not. Last year, Seerden formed a men’s support group. And it was just one of many that are springing up faster than gray hairs at an over-40 club.
There are now therapist-led support groups from Simi Valley to Ojai, church-sponsored support groups, hospital-based groups and men’s meetings formed from members of organizations such as Codependents Anonymous.
In living rooms, sweat lodges, among the redwoods or against the backdrop of granite peaks, men can be found singing, dancing around fires, reading poetry or telling their life stories--the night quiet punctuated with primal drumming.
“Being a macho man is a very isolating, painful experience,” said Corbett Phibbs, a therapist who leads a men’s support group at Parenting Plus in Newbury Park.
“One of the major reasons these groups are forming is because, in a sense, it is now socially acceptable--and you’re no longer considered a wimp or a failure--if you feel your feelings. It’s OK now for men to acknowledge their loneliness and anger.”
That anger, they say, is not to be confused with woman bashing. “I think that the men feel bashed,” Seerden said. “They don’t know how to react to the new woman. All the values you grow up with are frightening for men now. You don’t know what kind of stance you are supposed to take.”
Much of the impetus for the groups, nationally as well as countywide, appears to have come from recently published books by authors Robert Bly and Sam Keen. Both have written extensively on what they perceive to be societal myths about masculinity.
In his No. 1-best-selling book “Iron John: A Book About Men,” Bly says that for too long men have gotten their emotional nurturing from women. He encourages them to go beyond male stereotypes and get in touch with their “wild man” and their “inner warrior,” a process he says will occur when men can find their own vulnerability through relationships with other men.
The “wild man” and “warrior” symbols do not imply hostility or aggression, Bly says, but instead joy, exuberance for life and the ability to defend what a man loves.
In “Fire in the Belly,” author Keen expresses similar views. “Only men understand the secret fears that go with the territory of masculinity,” he writes.
The books are also big sellers around the county. “You won’t believe this,” said Ed Elrod, owner of the Ventura Bookstore on Main Street as he proceeded to reel off sales figures for the books by Bly and Keen.
The store had sold 65 copies of Bly’s book by mid-July, he said, versus seven copies of the New York Times Book Review’s No. 2 bestseller. There has also been strong interest in Keen’s ruminations on manhood. Other bookstores, including Waldenbooks and B. Dalton, both in Ventura, reported similarly brisk sales of the books.
What’s the chord they strike in men?
“Men have been looking for a language to express themselves, and this idea of the ‘wild man’ and ‘warrior’ has really hit them,” said Stephen Frueh, a therapist who leads a men’s group at the Families Counseling Center in Simi Valley.
“Men have a language for cars and sports and careers and building bridges, but they also want one for themselves, for who they are. Now they’re asking, ‘Where is my wild man? Where is my warrior?’ ”
And the question, Frueh added, is asked by men from all economic and educational backgrounds.
“One stereotype is that the working class are too macho for this. But there are men who are bricklayers and in the trades, as well as attorneys and doctors,” he said. “If anything, they (blue-collar workers) are more available to talk about their pain and their anger than the educated man, who has been taught that posture and control are everything.”
Passing the Fish
It is a Wednesday evening at Parenting Plus in Newbury Park, and therapist Phibbs is apologizing for the noise.
He is standing in his office, filled with pictures of himself white-water rafting, handling a moray eel in a scuba suit and sky diving from a hot-air balloon. On a table lies a People magazine, whose cover announces “The Johnny Carson Nobody Knows,” and above it hangs a sign written in calligraphy: “Success is doing what you love.”
Phibbs points to a broken pane of glass being boarded up by two workers.
“We got robbed last night,” he says. “They broke in, took a VCR. At least they didn’t get the clock.”
A few minutes later, Phibbs walks into the next room, filled with 10 men sitting on sofas and chairs. He tells them about the break-in.
“How did that make you feel?” one man asks him. The others wait for an answer.
Phibbs shrugs. “I thought, ‘This is going to be a pain in the ass all day long.’ ”
Phibbs sits down and hands a wooden fish to a bearded man on his right. The man examines it briefly, runs his fingers over it and hands it to the man sitting beside him. Soon, the fish comes full circle.
“I don’t know why we do it,” Phibbs says. “We just do it.”
Now the meeting can begin.
The first topic is the previous week’s camping trip in the redwoods, a few hours north of Bakersfield. Seven men went, three backed out.
“I realized that I really trusted you guys,” says one of the men who went. “It felt really safe.”
Don, a drum manufacturer in his early 40s, says it was a freeing experience. “It was the first time in years that I wasn’t responsible for someone else. I’ve camped with my wife and kids, but this time I could just BE.”
Heads nod. A jet fighter pilot, a security officer and an insurance agent talk about their experiences.
Phibbs then turns to a 32-year-old computer programmer who didn’t go on the trip. “Would you like to talk about your fear?” he asks.
The man folds his hands in his lap and stares down at them. A clock ticks in the background. The men sit motionless, silent.
“I’m afraid. . . . " His voice trails off, choked in a sob. “I’m afraid I don’t belong here with you,” he says. “I never feel that I belong.”
Several hands reach out to him.
“You belong,” someone says.
Reading Fairy Tales
The structure of Phibbs’ group isn’t repeated everywhere.
Borrowing from the storytelling style of Bly, Frueh starts each meeting by reading poetry or fairy tales, many of them by the symbolism-laden Grimm brothers.
Later, the men talk about the feelings or memories evoked.
“By bringing a story to the group, what I want to do is activate the imagination, so there can be work based on that,” Frueh said.
“We’ve been fairly trained that a measure of our potency as men is our ability to have a nice house, a nice car and a VCR. A lot of the men find out that they aren’t living in the creative way that they’d like.”
Frederic Wiedemann, a Westlake Village psychologist, also attempts to tap the imaginations of men. In contrast to what he called “process groups"--which involve talking about feelings and experiences in a manner similar to therapy--Wiedemann said his group is a “ritual” meeting.
Once a month, 10 to 12 men travel to a spot in the Santa Monica Mountains, where the sole activity is drumming and chanting. Often, he said, it is after midnight before the men drive home.
“The drums call up a deep, primordial response,” Wiedemann said. “There is something about the monotony of the beat that lets people out of their fixed way of looking at things. When you come back to everyday reality, you are fuller.”
Wiedemann says there have been significant changes in the men as a result of the meetings. One man was working in a job he said made him unhappy, but didn’t have the courage to leave it until he joined the group. Another had always felt alienated and detached from people and now is beginning to feel connected.
“I was pretty uncomfortable with the idea of pounding on drums at first, but I’ve found out that it does have a mythical quality,” said Phil York, a marketing consultant in Moorpark who joined Wiedemann’s group. “You’re not in your head anymore. I felt safer than I’d ever felt in my life.”
York, in fact, was so taken by his experience that he organized a “men’s morning” on Father’s Day at Charter Hospital in Thousand Oaks. Four therapists talked about men’s issues in the ‘90s, and York read a poem while another man pounded on a drum.
“Usually, hospital programs like that have about 20 or 25 people show up. But this was packed,” he said.
“Men have always had to make a living, and a validation of who they are has been what they do. Until now, it’s been ‘How’s business?’ ‘Fine.’ ‘How are the wife and kids?’ ‘Fine.’
“You’ve never heard, ‘I’m scared, I’m 47, things are dicey and the economic situation is bad,’ ” York said, pausing for a moment.
“In the men’s groups, you hear that. In there, you hear the truth.”
Setting and structure aren’t the only things that vary in the men’s groups throughout the county. There is also a wide range of prices--from free, informal groups to therapist-led meetings at a cost of $45 per session. Below is a partial list of men’s groups, their meeting times and costs.
* The Men’s Group at Parenting Plus Counseling Center, 1738 Newbury Road in Newbury Park, meets Wednesdays from 8 to 9:30 p.m. It is designed to be “a safe place where men can search for answers to today’s challenges,” according to therapist Corbett Phibbs, who leads the group. Cost is $25 per session. For information, call 499-1606.
* Trinity Lutheran Church in Simi Valley sponsors an informal men’s group held the second Saturday morning of each month and the fourth Friday evening of each month. There is no cost. For meeting locations, call Dave Weidner, minister of discipleship, at 526-2429.
* Wylie McCrary, a marriage, family and child counselor in Ventura, leads two men’s groups that use poetry and the writings of Robert Bly and Sam Keen. One meets in Ventura each Tuesday from 7:30 to 9:30 p.m., at a cost of $20 per session. The other meets Wednesdays in Camarillo from 7 to 9 p.m., at a cost of $25 per session. For information, call 653-6013.
* Bruce Gladstone, a clinical psychologist in Ojai, leads several men’s groups at the Gladstone Counseling Center, 530 West Ojai St., Suite 208. Gladstone says each therapy group “has a specific agenda and involves drumming activities.” The groups are limited to six participants each. Fees and times vary. Call 646-9724.
* The Conejo Counseling Center, at 3609 Thousand Oaks Blvd., Suite 110, in Westlake Village, has one weekly therapist-led group that meets at various times. New groups are forming. Cost is $45 per session. Call 497-9440.
* The Santa Monica Mountains Men’s Edge offers several men’s groups, as well as two- to four-day wilderness journeys, “vision quests,” gatherings in sweat lodges and special events. Frederic Wiedemann, director, is a Westlake Village psychologist who also facilitates several other meetings that involve drumming and chanting. Call 371-9100.
* The Families Counseling Center, at 1180 E. Patricia Ave., Suite 202, Simi Valley, now has two “mythic poetic” groups that meet Tuesdays and Thursdays from 7 to 10 p.m. The cost is $40 per session. Stephen Frueh, a marriage, family and child counselor, also leads several seminars for men, including “Men and Stress,” “Developing a Positive Mythology” and “Creative Fathering in the ‘90s.” The cost for each seminar is $35. Call 583-3976.