Monthly Archives: June 2021

The Work (2017) Film

“Nearly 20 years ago, an unconventional program started inside Folsom Prison: Some of Californias most hardened convicts invite members of the public to join them (in the prison) in intensive group therapy sessions” 

Haunting music accompanies the start of this documentary.  Outside the gates of the prison we see the pensive uncertain public volunteers arriving to go inside the prison being told “you are being watched right now”.  Interspersed with prison yard images of inmates in light blue prison uniform and white vests:  razor wire fences and closing steel gates, set against the bright blue Californian sky and the  prison security towers, vulnerability has no place here.  Gang and racial divisions still exist, to be emotional is weakness, and long since forgotten father wounds abound. 

We follow the 4 day  personal journey of each member of the public and several of the black, white, Hispanic, native american, bearded, bandana wearing inmates.  Several small therapy groups go on at the same time within the grey breeze block walls of a large undecorated prison room.   Heavy on seamlessly blended leader facilitation (these are prisoners who may sometimes be unpredictable), as well as peer facilitation,  we follow one group as one by one each man succumbs to his emotions and shows his vulnerability.  We see men who are brave enough to get in touch with their feelings, their emotional wounds, sometimes easily, sometimes through gritted teeth.  Daring to descend inwards and down to their most painful least visited places whilst being facilitated and held by the circle of fellow men, this is  deeply moving and thought provoking throughout.

“Right where your wound, your hurt is…..right alongside that you can find your gold”.   This isn’t a trained white middle class educated listener, but an incarcerated murderer uttering these words.

This is intense,  demanding viewing…….as I watch I realise the wider world is waking up to the possibility that unprocessed feelings may be behind much of the acting out behaviour of men that can be so damaging to societies, to their relationships with others and to themselves.

Ok, a confession, this type of work is close to  my heart……..but 90 minutes later I feel like I’ve been on retreat myself, my outer world receding as I too am put firmly in my own moment of aliveness, in touch with my body,  my emotions, my own “Work”, and the richness, beauty and power of men helping each other to get in touch with their true selves.

Iron John:Men and Masculinity (1990) by Robert Bly

“At a gathering of men in a  huge hall in London in  the 1980’s (Robert Bly was there too).    A man climbed upon stage suddenly and shouted ‘I don’t know how to be a man!’ “.    A few years later this book arrived

Running through this book  is an ancient Brothers Grimm fable about a boy who goes into the forest.  (This tale was selected by Bly as one of only 6 out of 236 Grimm brothers stories that relates specifically to male dangers and triumphs)

The boy wants to do something dangerous. The king tells him about a lake in the forest where men keep disappearing.  The boy investigates and ends up having  to drain the lake, where at the bottom he finds a Wild Man.  The Wild Man has a Golden Ball that the boy has lost.   So begins a relationship between the boy and the Wild Man. 

Picture Source: Wikipedia

Later the Wild Man ends up locked in a cage.  The key to unlock the Wild Man and get back the boys Golden Ball is held under the boys mothers pillow….. the Wild Man tells the boy he needs to steal the key…..(Bly talks openly in the intro about the dilemma of having it under the mothers pillow)

Each of these events is pulled apart in great detail, discussed, and dissected, imagined and pondered  by Bly.  The symbolism of each stage of the tale is related to how men find themselves in modern Western society (ie generally not in touch with their true nature and true selves, perhaps looking for the answer in the wrong places).      It’s a series of gentle thoughtful duly considered wonderings, considered from many contexts and points of view. Bly is a poet and there is Jungian influence in this book. Its part poetry, part discussion, part mythology, part interspersed with modern examples to illustrate and keep it relevant

During my training the general interpretation  of “Wild” from fellow students was ‘out of control’.   Bly uses ‘Wild’ to mean connected to nature, free spirited, aware of his wound, hairy and not bound by convention, more like a Woodman or Shaman than a savage.      

This book is an acquired taste, not an easy read, despite being a bestseller and pretty well known amongst mens work literature.  It’s a book to dip into for a few pages, then ponder. Then come back to it some time later. Each time I’ve looked at it still feels like starting again each time.  Reading the same parts again can harvest a different fragment of the story.  It can be frustrating, and requires patience.   What is he trying to say?    How does he link it to what we actually need to do?   I’ve only made it to the end once, but then maybe that’s me (I’m not a good book finisher but a better starter)

Not one I’d suggest to give to clients in general unless you’ve formed your own view of it first, or they are particularly keen.  Bly is clear that this is about male initiation. And also that it does not exclude gay men.    It is however a remarkably ageless book that does not date like some books based on ideas/times/movements and you don’t have to be into poetry to get something out of it.