Men Explore the Male Mystique

By Rich Barlow
Valley News Staff Writer, Norwich

EKE, 53, A BESPECTACLED BUSINESSMAN dressed casually in a rugby shirt, is sitting in his office feeling like life’s doormat. The boredom of his job is rivaled only by that in his marriage, and he’s in the throes of an internal debate over whether to have an affair. A mish-mash of conflicting voices assails his ears:

This is just a part of being a family man.

That girl at the office Is really hot. I wonder If there are any others.

I want to have some fun. It’s been a long time.

Thou shalt not commit adultery.

Think about your wife and kids.

Yeah, have they ever thought about you?

Actually, Zeke is play-acting – as is Stuart, an angular 36-year-old assigned the role of his wife. The “voices” Zeke hears come from four other men, each of whom has paid $85 to Israel Helfand, therapist, and Ph.D., for a two-day men’s retreat at Helfand’s wooded property. They have designated various points in Helfand’s office to represent social institutions: The wood stove is man’s basic passion; a post hung with tambourines, the family; a chair in the corner, school; a punching bag is church.

Bouncing between stations like pinballs, Helfand and his clients voice each institution’s message to the man throughout his life with his wife. Zeke and Stuart give them fodder by making up scenarios for the couple from first meeting to their golden years, down to such details as the couple’s initial experience with sex. (Helfand asks Stuart, playing the woman, if he had an orgasm. “Sure,” Stuart says obligingly. “Six of them, actually.”)

The point of Helfand’s exercise is that society bombards men with messages about how to behave as men that conflict not only with each other, but often with the demands of daily living. A man is taught that real men keep a leash on their emotions, a message confirmed by Zeke, who confides to the group that in real life, he has cried in front of his wife only once during their 23-year marriage, which is on the rocks. The character he’s portraying today refuses to open up to his wife about what he’s feeling. But wall up emotions and you suffocate a relationship, which demands intimacy and vulnerability, Helfand notes.

The message is a central insight of the so-called men’s movement and its mullah, the poet Robert Bly. In Helfand, the movement has poked its nose into the Upper Valley, or at least a nostril (he says at least one other adherent has operated here in the past), and this is Helfand’s quarterly men’s group.

He instructs the men to conclude their gender-message exercise by going outside and burying an object – a stone, leaf, whatever representing the “masculine mystique,” in the symbolism of their desire to shuck off society’s warped message to men. They do so, then sit in a circle on the floor to share what they burried.

A dog yelps outside in the distance.

“Is there anything you would like to do, say, be, before we close this time?” Helfand asks. “I’d like to answer my canine brother,” says Love, a tall 44-year-old. He moves to the glass slider at the back of the room, slips it open, listens a few seconds and then lets rip an earsplitting AAAARRRROOOO!

“I like what (Bly) has to say. I even understand a lot of it.”

It’s five days earlier, and Helfand has slipped off his clog-like slipper shoes and propped his feet on the footstool in his office. He’s laid-back at first blush – he sports a small ponytail and informal clothes; his business card, the color of whole wheat bread, advises that his Four Seasons Healing is an “alternative” counseling center – but the eyes of this backwoods Bly bulge with intensity when he discusses his men’s group, which he hopes to augment with a twice-a-month gathering. But his only departure from civil conversation during a 1½-hour interview is to demonstrate his foam-padded bat by banging it on the footstool.

The bat is for patients to pound out their anger in a way that doesn’t constantly send Helfand to the furniture store. Men often feel an inexplicable anger, he explains, that on closer inspection turns out to be sorrow. Why? According to Bly, men universally grieve because they feel alienated from the Earth, a disconnect born of the Industrial Revolution, which forced them to abandon their centuries-long job as hunter and work in factories for a living. In the process, they subordinated their role as father to their role as breadwinner, robbing their sons of time they need with an elder role model. “Men have become human doings instead of human beings.” says Helfand. It is for this reason that the men in his groups are not permitted to identify themselves by their profession during their quarterly retreats.

Balancing this primal sorrow with hope, and balancing that harmful masculine image society projects on men with a more realistic approach to living, is this gender-mender’s goal for his clients: “I help them to take a look at the gender journey.”

The movement’s critique of industrialism is at least more law-abiding than the Unabomber’s, and most people would greet news that men repress their feelings with a hearty duh. That said, even one of Helfand’s clients found the group’s put-upon feeling a bit whiny: When the men griped that school taught them nothing of value, Love objected to “victim” thinking that overlooks the student’s responsibility to learn. Some of Helfand’s clients have serious problems – he has worked with incest victims, for example – that demand professional help. But isn’t a career rut or lack of communication resolvable with the help of family or friends or church, without dropping $85 on a weekend in the woods? Helfand replies that many of his patients are ciphers even to their friends, and it’s easier sometimes to open up to a stranger.

Reviewing a PBS profile of Bly, a New York Times writer dismissed the poet as a flake, noting that he blamed the federal deficit in part on the denial of reality nurtured in Ronald Reagan by an alcoholic father. Yet a book review in the same paper by a University of Chicago psychologist praised Iron John, the Bly-written bible of the men’s movement. The reviewer said it was impossible to judge the poet’s prescriptions because of the complex issues involved but “there is no question that Mr. Bly has focused on a real source of malaise.”

Helfand denies what he says are feminist charges that Bly and his brethren are merely fronting for a resurgent male chauvinism. “I’m not looking to create an army of patriarchs by any means.” He believes in coed therapy groups and says a man who comes to his men’s meeting for help with a relationship should be working on that problem simultaneously with the woman.

But there’s no getting around how gender affects our outlook, he says, and a coed group is not the best forum for exploring that: If one or more men are attracted to a woman in the group, their inevitable efforts to, impress her could interfere with their opening up honestly to the group.

Punching tickets for the gender journey seems appropriate for Helfand. By his account, his own life has been an evolving journey of selfdiscovery. Named Yisrael at birth, his family didn’t officially register his Hebrew name for fear of anti-Semitism (Helfand says his grandparents were Holocaust victims), calling him Bob instead. When he decided to reclaim his birth name five years ago, “it was like being home again.” The Anglicized “Israel” is a concession to English speakers.

A therapist since 1979, he saw mostly female patients until five years ago. Then, during a four-day fast in the Adirondacks, he says he had a vision that “basically told me to show the world the true male heart.” He began reading Bly and working with men. Directing seven therapists in his Danbury, Conn., counseling center, he seemed to have everything. But he wasn’t happy. What he’d really wanted, ever since he was a kid, was to be outdoors. “Some kids would go and sneak and buy Playboy,” he says. “I used to buy these books like How to Live in the Wilderness for $5 a Month.” Driving with his family one day to his office, his son saw some deer in the parking lot. Realizing that their open spaces were dwindling, the boy started to cry. “Daddy, the deer aren’t happy here anymore. It’s time to leave.”

The family moved to Norwich two years ago. Helfand and his wife, also a therapist, live and work on New Boston Road, a forested strip where deer often linger at roadside and where there are big expanses between the houses. He is the primary at-home parent for his two children. “This year, for the first time in my life, I’ve felt what it’s like to kill, butcher, skin, cut up my own meat, to raise a garden, plant everything from seed. … This is how I’ve treated my feeling of despair.”

As proof that that despair is not a pipe dream, Helfand says many older men who hear this story kick themselves for not chucking the rat race as he did. They include his father, who Helfand says used to vomit many mornings in the driveway before he’d leave for the work day that so upset him in the fearsome neighborhood of Spanish Harlem.

A movement that stresses balance perhaps deserves to be assessed in the same vein. However wacky some of the techniques may appear, if Helfand helps make someone’s life better, it’s hard to say he hasn’t earned his pay. On that score, his clients unhesitatingly vouch for him.

“It becomes an intimate group, and you share with the group things that you would never share with your best friend,” says Zeke. “Here, you’re not judged, you’re not condemned. … It’s OK to have feelings, it’s OK to cry, it’s OK to be angry, and it’s a very warm feeling with the group.”

“Israel I find very energizing and very active and very in-your-face, do it, put up or shut up,” says Peter, another group member who first came to Helfand when the deaths of several close people left him feeling alone.

In the group, he found “I was getting a lot of strength that I didn’t know I had. … This is a very safe place to let my guard down, and find out what happens.”