The Mankind Project has been off my radar for months. However, UK journalist Tom Mitchelson put it back on with his eyewitness account published in Saturday’s UK Mail Online.
I first heard about the MKP’s New Warriors Training Adventure at a NARTH (National Association for the Research and Therapy of Homosexuality) conference in 2003. Various members, including then President Joe Nicolosi, were recommending it to those in attendance as a way to support healthy masculinity. A few same-sex attracted men who tried it thought it was great and a few others thought it made no sense to be naked in the woods with other guys. New Warriors is still recommended on the NARTH website. In view of the current critiques of the sexual identity therapy framework (SITF), it is worth pointing out that the SITF discourages experiences like NWTA. More about that after I review Mitchelson’s weird weekend.
For veteran NWTA watchers, these experiences will seem familiar. Mitchelson grabs your attention out of the gate:
How our man found himself with 65 naked men chanting, drumming – and screaming their rage against women to ‘reclaim’ their lost masculinity…
The temperature has plunged to freezing. I am deep in a remote English woodland outside Exeter.
I have been blindfolded and I am standing, holding hands, with a long line of men – who, until about 24 hours ago, I’d never met before.
Together, we are stumbling through the scrub as beating tribal drums guide our way. Oh yes, and we are naked. Totally naked.
Abruptly, my blindfold is ripped off and I see we have been led to a shadowy candle-lit room. There are about 65 of us in a double horseshoe formation.
This is a ceremony where we are to become ‘new warriors’. And then the dancing begins.
I wish I were somewhere else. Anywhere else. So why on earth am I here?
Why indeed? On its website, MKP proclaims:
We’re redefining mature masculinity for the 21st Century – and we want your help!
Along the way Mitchelson seems amused that the NWTA is viewed as a path to redefined masculinity.
A leader holding a wooden staff decorated with feathers rambles on about the mission of the weekend, using the pompous jargon that would later become very familiar: words like ‘shadow’, ‘warriors’, ‘masculine’, ‘commitment’ and ‘responsibility’.
He tells us how to be a man. It’s hard to take from a man wearing face paint, carrying a feathered stick.
Whatever healthy masculinity is, it seems to involve making the world into a giant man-cave, free from those pesky women.
Everything I read from them is baffling non-speak. They claim the weekend is a ‘process of initiation and self-examination that is crucial to the development of a healthy and mature male self’.
They claim they help move men away from the ‘comforting embrace’ of their mother – something, on the face of it, some wives might even encourage. Then I am told I will ‘confront’ my ‘dependence on women’, to help me move into the ‘masculine kingdom’.
The fun begins when they arrive at the camp.
The unnamed men, dressed in black with their black face paint, want me to hand over my mobile phone, watch, books and food. I do, but I am subjected to a complete search of my bag and my body.
They discover half a bottle of rum, notebook and pen. The faux commando is livid. He shrieks: ‘Do you have problems following orders?’ I nod guiltily, stunning him into silence.
We are directed to another dark room, where all the new recruits and I sit for more than an hour. In silence. At this point, I’m just wondering what on earth is going to happen next.
Suddenly, three men burst in, give me a bandana for a blindfold and take me to a place where drums are beating. I remove the blindfold to see I am surrounded by what I can only describe as the Men In Black.
You’ve got to read the entire article to get the play by play so I will skip the cold showers in the middle of the night, the animal names (most take manly sounding names like “Courageous Wolf and Intrepid Panther;” Mitchelson takes “Relaxed Penguin”), the complaining about women and the meager breakfast. Rather, I want to highlight a significant problem, as I see it, with the NWTA. Mitchelson says it is “the most disturbing part of the weekend:”
We are divided into three groups, each of which has a so-called ‘sacred carpet’, and for about an hour each man is subjected to emotionally manipulative questioning, on the carpet, that probes into his past.
Some of the staff are very skilled at reading visual signs of hidden emotion. At times, three inquisitors demand the answers to questions that eventually leave a man weeping and apparently broken.
This is happening simultaneously on all three mats. At times, it is impossible to hear what was happening on my own mat because of the wails and screams from the other groups.The majority of the men who participate in this spectacle positively welcome this treatment. Others appear less keen. The objective seems to be to provoke a violent reaction from the person in the circle.
One man of about 40 has an issue with his mother. He felt she had treated him badly when he was younger.
A staff man is chosen to represent the mother and, while other men stand in front of him, he is goaded to confront her by pushing through a human barrier.
Instead, he flies into an uncontrolled rage. Staff become panicked and shout ‘safety’ as they try to immobilise him. If these staff men have any professional training, I am unaware of it.
The qualification they seem to share is that they are graduates of the course I am now on. ManKind deny that any therapy takes place. They call it training.
Another man sobs as he is told to act out beating his stepfather and mother to death. Again, he feels that they ignored him as a child and treated him with disdain.
A third man is pinned to the floor by six men and has to wrestle his way out from under a blanket, cheered on by the watching men. It is extremely disturbing to watch.
Disturbing indeed. In fairness, some MKP supporters have told me that therapists are available at some of the events. However, this “guts” or “carpet work” is one of the aspects of NWTA that bothers me the most. I blogged about it before; if you want to know more, go read about the “bucketing process” or the “killing daddy” work. These cathartic techniques are of questionable value even when done by trained therapists; I know of no systematic evaluation of them and on the face they seem unnecessarily evocative of potentially inaccurate reconstructed memories.
Again, read the rest of the article to hear about the initiation and the sweat lodge. Mitchelson closes with an observation about the disconnect between what he experienced and the stated aim of the weekend.
I get home and close the door behind me. I have never felt so relieved to be back in the real world. It takes me two full days to get the strange mantras and patterns of speech out of my head.
The overriding message of the course seemed confused: That we were suppressed warriors and had become emasculated; that we had to reconnect with the wild man; and to get in touch with our feelings. It was 21st-century New Age meets Neanderthal man.
The cult-like intensity with which some of my fellow warriors converted to the brotherhood astonished me.
I had been given a chilling lesson in how easily – and how fast – the kind of men I rub shoulders with every day can alter: can become aggressive and subservient by turns; and gripped by something strange.
And something else shocked me. This was an organisation that aimed to tell me how to be a man.
Clearly, NWTA was not Mitchelson’s cup of tea. However, some men he met there seemed to like it and I suspect some men do find a way to organize their thoughts about masculinity in a setting like that. I personally would not recommend it to evangelical men for reasons I discuss elsewhere. And specifically as a help for same-sex attracted men in conflict, it is not something I would recommend. In fact, we had NWTA in mind when we wrote this in SITF:
Some approaches to sexual reorientation may blend appropriate therapeutic boundaries and are discouraged (e.g., Cohen, 2000). For instance, therapists should not engage in dual relationships with clients or provide physical touch or nurturance to clients. Therapists may supervise or oversee the client’s involvement in physical contact with others of the client’s choosing (friend, family member) during sessions only if the client has given consent. Clients should not be expected to become physically close to other clients in a group therapy situation. Therapists should not refer clients to retreats, support groups or interventions requiring boundary violations as a condition of participation.
Ultimately of course, each individual has to decide what course to take. When making a decision, it is certainly helpful to have information. Since MKP won’t tell you what takes place on the weekends, I appreciate Mitchelson’s article so those considering it will be informed before they go.