Film-maker of Hoop Dreams and Journey from Zanskar, Frederick Marx has a mission to help boys become men. Rites of passage and mentoring are increasingly absent from boys’ lives as fatherless families continue to increase and religious rites of passage are sidelined by popular culture. Pathways Foundation Australia runs workshops to help boys become men, and Paul Henley is the National Training Manager.
This interview is borrowed from ABC National Radio: The Spirit of Things with Dr Rachel Kohn – a great interview discussing the rite of passage for young men.
Rachael Kohn: Spongebob, Homer Simpson, Fred Flintstone: do you ever get the feeling our popular culture isn’t exactly furnishing good role models for boys? Wait, we haven’t even mentioned the music scene. Hello, I’m Rachael Kohn, and this week on The Spirit of Things we’re asking the question, how do boys become men?
Boys to Men? excerpt: I’d like to find that long lost map, that map that should have been…when I hit puberty they should have handed it to me. Since the first day I’ve been looking for that map. I’m hoping that I can find someone who can help me and send me in the right direction. I wish that I had grown up with a male in the house other than myself, someone to even out the numbers, someone to be a man, be a guy, so you can hang out and do guys stuff, so that you could hang out and do girls stuff.
Rachael Kohn: That’s from the film Boys to Men? by my guest today, Frederick Marx.
Frederick Marx shot to fame with his documentary film Hoop Dreams in 1994, which won the audience award at the Sundance Film Festival. It’s about African American high school kids whose lives changed when they became part of an elite basketball team. That began Frederick’s interest in the welfare of teenage boys. Ten years later he made Boys to Men?.New American Heroes is the sequel. He was in Australia recently as a mentor in the Mankind Project which focuses on the emotional needs of men, and helps them become mentors for boys.
Later in the program I’ll be talking to Paul Henley about Pathways Foundation, which focuses on young teens. And the key mechanism in all these programs is the rites of passage.
Frederick joined me in Sydney:
Frederick Marx, welcome to The Spirit of Things.
Frederick Marx: Thank you.
Rachael Kohn: It’s good to be talking to you. And I have to say the first thing I notice is your sheriff’s badge, which says ‘Change Agent’, and…what does that mean?
Frederick Marx: I discovered these at a conference of some colleagues called Social Ventures Network and there is a non-profit company in Portland Oregon that makes them, and they promote them as a way of having people literally use as an emblem, an outer emblem, to demonstrate to the rest of the world that they are actually interested in and in fact creating positive social change. So I actually wear it quite proudly. I think it fits with my jeans jacket, but I also like to pin it on interns who graduate and move on from my non-profit film production company as a way of recognising the willingness to step outside their own ego identification issues and take a stand for service to the greater community.
Rachael Kohn: Your films have been about trying to change the world. You’re here in Australia promoting the film Journey From Zanskar which is a really touching film about a couple of monks who take some children across the Himalayas on a perilous journey. It’s about the fate of children, and that’s something you’re really passionate about.
Frederick Marx: I am. I guess I’m most passionate about it as a man can be who doesn’t have any of his own. It’s funny, I tell people all the time I consider myself an expert on these issues because in fact I don’t have any. I’m an expert as only one who isn’t there on the front-lines every day experiencing the contradictions and all of the complexities of raising a child can be. But yes, I am really concerned about children’s welfare, but not only.
In a sense you could say that most of my work…I’m interested in all of the underdog stories in the world, and they take so many different forms, all of the oppressed, as it were. My company mission is very simple because I can’t remember it otherwise, it’s ‘bearing witness, creating change’, it’s four words. So the ‘bearing witness’ part is simple, it’s telling stories, rooted in documentary reality, and creating change, it’s using those stories to create some kind of positive social change.
Rachael Kohn: But the name of your company is Warrior Films, and that’s immediately about men, men being warriors, and that also has an expression through your other work which you do with young boys. Your films have also been about young boys, HoopDreams, Boys to Men?. Why have you been focused particularly on boys?
Frederick Marx: You know, the easiest and simplest answer is that when I was nine years old my father died very suddenly, he had a heart attack. He was here in my life forever (seemingly) one day and then gone forever the very next without a goodbye. So ever since that moment I have struggled to understand what it is to be a man in this world. My uncle on our way to the funeral put his hand on my shoulder and he said, ‘Freddie, you’re the man of the house now.’ At nine years old. And to me this is emblematic of the kind of dysfunctional culture that we have around masculinity, that somehow a nine-year-old boy should be in any way tasked with being a father to a family that he is only a child of. So that began this journey for me, no question.
But it was interesting for me because I realised the other side of that, now that I am a mid-50s-year-old man. Ten years ago when I was making the film Boys to Men?, I discovered that part of the appeal for me was not so much in working with teens in order to rediscover, in a sense, my own lost male identity from my teen years, but in fact to express in a positive way my own fathering energy, which I actually have…I wouldn’t say in great abundance, but I certainly have plenty of. And since I don’t have my own children I need a productive place to put it. So I put it into my films, and I put it into the very intimate relationships that I create with the families that I film in my stories. And I also put it into my mentor-ship. It’s very important to me to be mentoring young people. There’s no better way to heal yourself if you are an unmentored young man than to step into mentor-ship yourself.
Rachael Kohn: Where did you find that kind of mentor-ship at the age of nine?
Frederick Marx: I suppose you could argue that there were plenty of opportunities around me in family relationships and the like, but the fact is if they were there I rejected them largely out of hand. The truth about me is that all through my teenage years and all through my 20s as well I rejected any strong male figure who appeared on my horizon, and in fact I gravitated more towards relationships with women and gay men. And it’s interesting, it was only in my 40s that I began to understand why that occurred, and I think it had to do with the fact that I felt like my emotional life was safer, in a sense, in the hands of women and gay men than it was in strong, tough, macho men. But I also recognise that at some level I projected the worst, most fearsome aspects of my Germanic father onto these other strong men and that was part of the reason why I pushed them away.
Rachael Kohn: In America today, how many young men are without father figures?
Frederick Marx: Oh my gosh, well, I think there’s something like half of the young men growing up in America today either don’t have fathers in the home or they don’t have the father figure, as it were. It’s harder to define of course ‘father figure’, that can be quite broad, it can be a coach or an uncle or whatever. But for me this is one of the primary causes for so much of the social dysfunction that we see across the planet.
Rachael Kohn: But young people invariably look to some kind of leadership, and that would probably be in the popular culture, in bands and rock bands and in films. What sort of an impact do you think that’s having?
Frederick Marx: Huge, there’s no question. The simple truth is, as elders in this society, if we don’t take the responsibility to initiate our young people into mature masculinity, they are certainly not going to be able to cobble it together from popular cultural influences. You know, we still have…and these are extremes, but on one hand we still have the popular macho male myth, and on the other hand we seem to have the Homer Simpson model from the Simpsons cartoon. I don’t know how it has happened exactly, but over the last 20 years fathers have suddenly come to be seen as the buffoons of the family, as the figures who can’t do anything, who don’t know anything, and are complete idiots, not only in a sort of emotional sense but in any kind of practical sense. So that seems to be the scope of the images that are offered our young people. Obviously there are others, through music in particular. But it is really, really difficult in a post-feminist society for a young man to decide, well, how do I become that man that I want to be in my life? And if they are just left to popular culture, the chances are not good they’re going to find it.
Rachael Kohn: How much has feminism in fact altered the ideal man? In Australia for example we have the notion of the sensitive new age guy, the SNAG, which happens to also be the name for frankfurters or sausages on the barbecue, but that has certainly undergone some change.
Frederick Marx: Yes, and I think young boys, at least in the United States, they know that they are supposed to be sensitive, they know they’re supposed to be emotionally vulnerable, but nobody is really teaching them the skills to do this, giving them the tools to both access and identify clearly what these emotional states are, and then to use them in a productive way that will serve their lives for the better. And that’s just one skill set, is the emotional one. There’s integrity and accountability. My belief is that all men aspire to being in integrity, to being accountable, to being, in a sense, to use Joseph Campbell’s term, the hero of their own lives. But we don’t give them the tools, we don’t educate them in how to do this.
Rachael Kohn: But isn’t that what religious traditions have always tried to do, they have set up the ideals for the good man, the holy man, the pious man, the community leader. They’ve done this through rituals such as in the Jewish tradition the bar mitzvah, in the Christian tradition confirmation, or in other Protestant traditions declaring your faith in Christ and your commitment to the community. Isn’t this where religious traditions came into their own in a young person’s life and now perhaps not nearly as often, not nearly as much?
Frederick Marx: Yes, I think the religious traditions and certainly all of the indigenous cultures across the planet I think are the fountains, the source fountains of this knowledge about initiating young people. There is an African proverb that says if we do not initiate the young, they will burn down the village to feel the heat. In fact that is I think a lot of what we are experiencing around the world now with our young people. But what has happened in the modern age is that so many of these wonderfully rich and powerful traditions have been corrupted by consumer ideology, by the worldwide consumer fever.
So even a rich and wonderful tradition like a bar mitzvah practice…you know, when I was a young man and I would talk with all of my friends who were being bar mitzvahed, the conversation would begin and end with, ‘What did you get?’ It was all about the money you received, the gifts, etc. And so the real ritual intent of creating a threshold that was a real trial for a young man to cross in order to deserve that recognition as a man was not happening. There wasn’t enough of a trial, in effect. And so part of what I want to focus on in my next film are rabbis who are actually doing bar mitzvah practice but with what I would consider to be a richer, truer initiatory intent.
Rachael Kohn: Is there actually a movement that is really claiming the bar mitzvah tradition back to its original intent?
Frederick Marx: I think there is, but I’m not familiar and schooled enough in it to know for sure. But put it this way, I think there is a worldwide movement to reinvigorate rites of passages, and it’s happening across cultures, and it is also happening in a modern sort of new-age way, if you will, through the non-sectarian weekend workshops. These can also be quite a productive means of initiating our young people. And in fact here in Australia there is a wonderful group called Pathways, and they do initiation is for both boys and girls, Pathways to Manhood, Pathways to Womanhood.
Rachael Kohn: I understand you’ve also been in Australia with the Mankind Project. Is that your organisation?
Frederick Marx: No, it’s not. It’s an organisation that was founded in 1985 in Milwaukee Wisconsin by three men who came together and recognised that in a sense they were jealous of what they experienced had happened for women in the post-feminist age…
Rachael Kohn: You mean like consciousness raising groups?
Frederick Marx: Exactly, support groups for women. And they thought, you know, we need these for men. And they didn’t realise exactly what a deep nerve they struck and how absolutely essential that would be in the coming years. But they started a weekend workshop that originally I believe was called the Wild Man Weekend. Cut to 26 years later and this weekend workshop has spread to 15 or more countries, there is over 50,000 men around the world who’ve done it, myself included, I did it in 1995 in Chicago. And it’s here in Australia, it’s been here in Australia for 10 years.
Rachael Kohn: That’s Frederick Marx, speaking there about Mankind Project, which I must say has some mixed reviews. Some people think it has cultish aspects, and others don’t. Go to our website for further information, abc.net.au/rn/spiritofthings.
Boys to men, not an easy transition these days, especially as there are fewer mentors for young men to look up to. And that’s what the people in today’s Spirit of Things are trying to remedy. Later we’ll hear about Pathways Foundation.
So without the week by week attendance at church, which is what used to provide that kind of modelling, I asked Frederick about the workshop.
Well, if you do a weekend workshop, does it really stick? Has that weekend in Chicago in 1995 remained imprinted in your mind?
Frederick Marx: Absolutely, it has, but the way that it has remained imprinted in my mind, the way in fact that it has completely reformed and reshaped my entire life is through the follow-up work. And the follow-up work is what we call I-Groups, but they are really men’s support groups. So men sit in circles in somebody’s living room once a week for three hours a night, usually on a weekday evening, and they support each other, they talk about the emotional struggles that they are facing in life, their trials with family, their trials with work, whatever it is. And the men collectively support the man to reform himself. It’s not about, ‘okay, we’re going to pick up some bats together and go beat up on the guy who is causing you trouble’, what can you do to make yourself a better man so that this issue is not in your way? So that’s what we focus on.
Rachael Kohn: Sounds like the resources then come more from the realm of psychology than, say, religious traditions, or is it a combination?
Frederick Marx: It’s actually a combination, and we have borrowed liberally from other traditions. A lot of our overarching ideology is actually a neo-Jungian psychology. So Robert Moore is one of the fathers of this kind of thinking from Chicago in the United States, archetypal energies, which is sourced in Jungian psychology, but he has refashioned it and is really the intellectual father of the men’s movement. So we use that, but we have been gifted for our weekend by a Native American elder with a Native American tradition which is the sweat lodge ceremony. So we utilise that as well on our weekends. We don’t do it exactly like the Lakota people have done it for centuries, but it’s kind of a modified version.
So we incorporate ritual into the psychological support mechanisms that we incorporate in weekly meetings. And together the two are very, very powerful, because ritual is absolutely essential too. I mean, in a modern environment I think it’s so vital that we reclaim our capacity to create ritual. It brings the sacredness back to each individual moment, and that’s something that, given the kind of consumer economy that we all inhabit, consumer culture, is more essential now than ever.
Rachael Kohn: It’s interesting because when I look back when we were young and people were looking at their inherited traditions, they would often dismiss them as just empty ritual. Funny now that the importance of ritual as a transforming experience is being rediscovered.
Frederick Marx: Yes, and it’s no truer than in my own personal life. I mean, my parents, even though they were both 100% Jewish, they were both atheists. So I was never bar mitzvahed, and I was never raised as a religious Jew. So for me I was always extremely averse to the notion of religion in general, but certainly religious ceremony or ritual, and it was only really late in my 30s but really into my 40s, having done this weekend, that I began to resurrect the importance of ritual in my own life. And now I’m a completely different person. I could talk about this issue for a long time.
But let me just say one thing, I’m going to give you one small example. Four or five years ago there was a dear friend of mine who went through that very same weekend in 1995, and in one of our first I-Groups he said to us, ‘I have cancer, I don’t know how long I have, you guys are going to have to bury me. And you guys are going to have to be the ones to support my son when I’m gone, and my wife.’ So, cut to 10 years later, I’m working on a project in Iran and I get an email from his I-Group from Chicago, they say, ‘Marty’s now been diagnosed stage four, we don’t think he has long. Can you join us for an event to celebrate his life in Chicago at such-and-such a time?’
Fortunately I could, I came back to the States, my wife and I flew to Chicago. I walked into a room in our men’s lodge, as we call it, 100 or more people in the room. Marty was sitting at the front with his son and his wife by his side, and person after person in the room got up and said, quite movingly, ‘This is how you’ve impacted my life, this is the difference you have made, Marty, thank you, God bless you.’ And I did too. Of course I had tears streaming down my face at the time, but it was an absolutely beautiful ceremony. So for me, this is one example of the kind of ritual I think we need to re-bring back to our daily lives.
My sense is that nobody should leave the planet with anything less. The meaning, if you know that somebody is going to be dying sometime soon, get your family together, get your friends together, get their colleagues together, and have an honouring ceremony for this person. Nobody should leave the planet with anything less, because the funeral is too late, they are in the ground, they are gone. Tell them while they are still here.
Rachael Kohn: Gosh, what sort of an impact did that have on Marty?
Frederick Marx: Well, I kidded him in the months afterwards because he lived for another year!
Rachael Kohn: It probably gave him more strength.
Frederick Marx: Exactly, that’s my guess, is it actually gave him more strength to carry on. He lived for another year. And by the way, I also pointed out to him that as I looked around the room, that…we weren’t all there from that original I-Group of 10 years earlier, but three of us were there, three of those men were there. And that means a lot. And that’s the kind of bonding and the kind of community that we’ve built through this…we call it an initiation process, even though it is just a weekend workshop.
Rachael Kohn: It certainly sounds like it can be the start of something big.
Frederick Marx: Yes, we have the audacity to call them initiations. It’s interesting because there is a kind of a philosophical difference that I have in a slight way with Michael Meade who is also one of the grandfathers, if you will, of our men’s movement in the United States, and he says that an initiation, it can’t be created consciously by the community. Maybe that’s being unfair, maybe for him it’s both and…meaning that yes, you can do that but you can also be initiated through some pressure cooker experience that you have in life that in a sense creates that cauldron that you pass through and become a transformed new man on the other side of.
Rachael Kohn: That sort of crucible. But on the other hand you do have to have someone to talk to and to develop it into something meaningful, as opposed to just experiencing it and going home and thinking about what it might mean.
Frederick Marx: Exactly, and in fact I would be completely remiss…all of the data supports the fact that you can have the peak experience of a lifetime on a weekend or whatever, it won’t mean a damn thing unless it is followed up afterwards with regular, rigorous work. And part of the reason why we call these I-Groups ‘I-Groups’ is because of the word ‘integration’. We integrate all of the tools and lessons that we’ve learned on the weekend into our daily lives. So if you don’t practice this stuff, it’s just going to disappear, you’ll just have this fond little memory of ‘oh yes, I had a wonderful time then’, that’s not what we’re interested in. We’re interested in remaking ourselves as men to become the men we always wanted to be in life.
Rachael Kohn: And what does that mean in terms of the ideal image of that man? I would imagine, Frederick, that for 50 men in a room there would be almost 50 different ideals of what a man should be.
Frederick Marx: Well, exactly, and it’s not for me or anyone else to dictate to that man what his ideal of manhood should be. It’s absolutely essential that each individual discover for themselves what their gifts are, to use the Native American term, and how to give those gifts to the community at large. Another way of saying that is to find out what your purpose is in life, what your mission is in life.
To me this is the greatest crime of the last couple of hundred years, is that we are bearing children on the planet in great, great numbers but we’re not giving them what is essential for their meaningful passage through this lifetime. And that is a sense of what they are here to do, what their purpose in life is. And that’s only something for them to discover, but they will discover it if we hold that crucible for them of a meaningful right of passage, they will find it.
Rachael Kohn: So you’re talking about also establishing certain structures in which young men could be fed through, as it were.
Frederick Marx: Absolutely. You know, historically in most indigenous…well, I’ll make it a modern-day context, so nowadays when a teen starts acting out, particularly a teen boy, using drugs, drinking too much, beating up on little sister, stealing, sassing Mom, whatever form it takes, these were the signs that the committee would recognise in the days of old and the elders would come and put their hands on that young man’s shoulder and say, ‘It’s your time, that’s all.’ Because this is the unconscious sign that the young man is giving to his family and the culture at large, that now is his time, he needs to be taught how to become a man.
And the fact is, what they are doing, like for example when they are drinking and doing drugs or driving 100 miles an hour down a city street or whatever crazy harebrained thing they may be doing, they are doing what is an essential element in an initiation, in a sense, which is they are trying to experience the depth of their capacity as a human being, they are trying to know what limits they have as a physical being. And they need to be taught this stuff, they need to be taught it. But they have to be taught in a safe way.
Rachael Kohn: And that brings up the whole business of rites of passage being only viable if the community actually recognises the importance of it and also, I would imagine, imposes some responsibility on the individuals who go through it.
Frederick Marx: Absolutely. The initiates, you mean?
Rachael Kohn: The initiates.
Frederick Marx: Yes. You know, it’s funny because at some level what passes for the rituals into adulthood these days, they don’t really have that component, which is, okay, now you’re 18 or 16 or whatever, so you can drink legally, you can drive a car legally, you can do this, that and the other, vote, so we give them the privileges, but nobody sort of gives them a handbook on responsibilities. So here are the concomitant responsibilities that you have, and it has to do with integrity and accountability, it has to do with emotional facility and awareness, it has to do with mission, sense of purpose, and knowing who you are on the planet, and how you’re going to serve your greater community, et cetera.
Rachael Kohn: Again that brings me back to religious traditions, which really are about teaching people the responsibilities they have to the community, whether it’s the ten commandments or elaboration of those ten commandments. So I’m wondering whether the need for these workshops is an indication that the religious traditions have somehow failed.
Frederick Marx: I don’t know, the power of consumer culture is endless, so we have all been impacted by it. I mean, it’s not for me to judge really how much religious traditions have failed. I would say this, I think it’s important that if a young man or woman comes from a particular religious tradition, that their initiation be in that religious tradition, because one of the essential lessons that comes from initiation is where you fit in the cosmos. You have to understand the beautiful paradox of being absolutely insignificant on a speck of dust in the greater scheme of the whole universe, and at the same time have infinite capacity for power and change. In other words, that the impact that you can have on the planet, on your community, is actually in effect endless. So there is that beautiful paradox that lies at the centre of just about any initiatory experience, and it’s very, very helpful I think to have the spiritual or religious overlay of that for a young person to understand him or herself in the context of that greater spiritual overlay. Now, if one is an atheist for example, that’s fine too, you can still have a similar experience, but you won’t have the added gift, if you will, of that greater understanding.
Rachael Kohn: That’s the Oscar and Emmy nominee, filmmaker Frederick Marx, whose documentary, Journey from Zanskar was just shown in Australia. It’s about two Buddhist monks who take 17 children across the Himalayas to a school that will change their lives. We’re talking about Boys to Men on The Spirit of Things here on ABC Radio National, and how rites of passage are a key part of that process.
Frederick, you’ve pointed to the consumer culture as a barrier to really developing from boy to man, but there are other aspects in our culture that can prevent that too; the way we communicate to each other, the way we see each other. And I know that you’ve been in Australia for a while and you’ve noticed something about the way men are referred to.
Frederick Marx: I have. And, again, it’s sourced in some of the mentorship that I got post my weekend in Chicago in 1995, and it has to do with the pride that I have been taught to use the term ‘men’ and to associate with that very simple term ‘men’. And actually if you go online and you look at my trailer for my upcoming film, the very first words on the screen are ‘Men are made, not born’. So it’s not just a gender issue. When you are born a boy, that is no guarantee you will ever become a man in my book.
So what I’ve been a little bit concerned about here in Australia is the cultural tendency for both men and women to refer to groups of men as ‘boys’. And I’ve said this a number of different times to waiters, waitresses, people that I’ve just run across in all kinds of circumstances across the country, they say, ‘Hey boys, how are you doing?’ And I just look and her and I say, ”Men’ please!’ And they’re a bit taken aback invariably.
And I got into a very insightful conversation with a waitress in Perth who had never before had that brought her attention. And I said to her, ‘You know, when I was a young man, when I was a teen growing up in the feminist era, I was a very, very aware that I was not going to address any woman over the age of 18 as a girl, I was not going to do that because I was taught and I believe it to this day to be true that it’s insulting.’ And I think the same is true for men.
And believe me, I get it, and I understand that this is your Australian culture and these are your traditions, so it’s very difficult and not usually advisable for an outsider to comment on a cultural tradition, but I think it is noteworthy, and I think it’s especially noteworthy in conjunction with the fact that I’ve experienced Australian women complaining about the maturity levels of men in Australian society. So if in fact you are a woman out there and…I would suggest that you might want to stop referring to all of the men in your lives as ‘boys’. If nothing else that will remind them of a standard that they should aspire to.
Rachael Kohn: I agree, but I’m intrigued also by the way people sidestep that whole issue and call everyone guys, ‘Hey you guys, you guys over there.’ It doesn’t matter how important they are, what age they are, what gender they are, it’s a strange way of avoiding the whole issue.
Frederick Marx: I agree, and I’m very uncomfortable to this day in referring to a group of women or girls as ‘guys’, and I see girls do that all the time. But I’m not as bothered by the term ‘guys’ for men as I am by ‘boys’, because ‘guys’ does not indicate an age, whereas ‘boy’ definitely does.
Rachael Kohn: Can I ask you one thing about manhood? A lot of people think to be a man is to be heterosexual and that the whole men description refers to a certain kind of man. How do you respond to that?
Frederick Marx: Well, it doesn’t, it absolutely doesn’t. One of the things in the Mankind Project in our work that we are very, very conscious of are multicultural factors, and gender sexual preference is only one. So we are very, very welcoming and accepting of gay men in our work, they are absolutely men by any standard. But we are also increasingly aware of and accepting of cultural differences. As the work has spread across the world to 15 countries you can only imagine the cultural complexities that we’ve run into. It’s now in Germany, England, South Africa, as I said it’s in Australia, soon we will possibly be in Iran, India, there is going to be real cultural complexities that we have to navigate and negotiate. We want very, very much for each culture to take the work but translate it into its own form. So here in Australia the men are already doing that, they are taking what have been Americanisms, if you will, from this workshop and they are making it truly Australian, which is as it should be.
Rachael Kohn: Well, I for one am looking forward to meeting more and more people who are wearing that badge that you’ve got there called Change Agent. Maybe I can get one myself.
Frederick Marx: You will, I promise you.
Rachael Kohn: Frederick Marx, it’s been great having you on The Spirit of Things, thank you so much.
Frederick Marx: Thank you, it’s been a delight.
Rachael Kohn: After I get that sheriff’s badge from the award winning filmmaker Frederick Marx, then I’ll need a holster, and then a maybe horse. I just might ride off into the sunset.
But before I do, we have someone else to hear from, and that’s Paul Henley. He’s originally from the UK, and has worked in Australia for 20 years in housing, youth, and family issues relating especially to boys. He’s worked in restorative justice for New South Wales Juvenile Justice. In my earlier conversation with Frederick Marx he mentioned an organisation called Pathways. So I called up Paul, who was the co-founder of the Pathways Foundation and who is now its National Training Manager.
Paul, when did Pathways Foundation begin? What was its origins?
Paul Henley: Its origins were back in the early ’90s when a number of the men around the country independently were doing work with boys. And then we met together in ’96 and decided that the coincidence was too strong and we felt as though it was a call by a spirit, if you like, to come together and to start this work.
Rachael Kohn: Why did you want to work with boys?
Paul Henley: Originally my passion was working with young people. My history comes from working with young people, both in Europe and in Australia. And at the time I was working with men, looking at emotional issues around men. And one of the things that come from those groups was a real need for men to support and work with their sons, and from that work really Pathways was created.
Rachael Kohn: Do you have a son? Were you working with a son?
Paul Henley: No, in actual fact I’ve got two daughters, but because I have worked with many boys, especially boys at risk, over the years, I feel as though I’ve got many sons out there.
Rachael Kohn: And from your experience, do you see a common trait in boys which is a warning signal to you?
Paul Henley: Absolutely. I think we can look at the statistics around youth suicide and many of the other issues facing our youth today. And maybe I’ve got a little quote here that relates to the sort of work that we have, from an African teacher who suggests that ‘Civilisation that lacks rites of passage has a sick soul. You know it is sick for three reasons; there are no elders, the young are violent, and the adults are bewildered.’ And to me that sums up the sort of experiences that I was having as a worker with youth when I was putting youth off the street, taking the needles out of their arm, going back the next week and the same people were there, and it was very frustrating to keep on in that cycle.
Rachael Kohn: And is it rites of passage that Pathways Foundation offers to young boys?
Paul Henley: Absolutely, and it’s not just to young boys. The rites of passage is really a map, from my perspective, and it is a map that our ancestors knew very well, and it was one of the most important ceremonies for any society. And can I suggest that it’s just not a one-off event in your life, it’s an ongoing process, there are many rites of passage, but one of the most important ones is for our adolescents moving from boys to young men, and it’s a threshold that has huge consequences if it’s not done correctly.
Rachael Kohn: Indeed, how does one do it correctly? Where do you draw your blueprint from, as it were?
Paul Henley: When we all first met we were all quite inexperienced, and can I suggest that none of us were actually, if you like, initiated men, we all had to find this information and understanding from many of the writings of our ancestors. And we got a lot of information, and then we sat down and worked out what were the needs in a contemporary society and how can we change those real key elements in the rites of passage to support appropriately a modern society. And there were three elements when we started off, which were separation, challenge and return. And these were the concepts that our ancestors used in all their rites of passage. One of the things that we didn’t really understand at the time is that there was a fourth element, and we took that fourth element for granted, and that was connection.
So now we have four elements that we recognise very strongly in any rites of passage. Separation, which is really leaving everything behind, and it needs to be the iPods and the iPhones, all that electronic gear, that all gets left behind, including maybe some of those business people’s continuation of being connected to the outside world via telephone. We then have connection, so we create community inside of that camp. So the community itself starts to really form a support role.
And then there is challenge. In all of our lives we have challenges, and certainly moving from boy to young man in itself is a challenge, so we create safe but solid challenges throughout the camp. Then of course there’s the return, and the return is about not just returning to community and returning to mother, it is also returning to self. And so there are a number of processes that we go through that allows that connection to happen about returning to self and returning to community.
Rachael Kohn: I understand you just had a camp this weekend. So did you journey through those four elements?
Paul Henley: Absolutely. The camp program itself has been written and we keep pretty well close to that. Of course when you’ve got participants, their needs and their wants and individualities change the program somewhat, but pretty well we keep to that program. And the thing about the program itself, it is laid down, like any rites of passage, like a map. So the ability to follow that program and of course the greater number of its parts creates something more. So we tap into those energetics, if you like, to make sure that those energetics advise us of where the program needs to go to support the individual people in that program.
Rachael Kohn: Paul, what sort of transitions have you seen happen in front of your eyes?
Paul Henley: The transitions sometimes are quite dramatic when people suddenly have an epiphany. I wonder if I could just read you a couple of testimonials, particularly from mothers who receive back the father and son, and this is from Marie. ‘Bringing extended family was a very important part of this program for us. Grandmother never felt so special at the return day ceremony. I saw an immediate benefit for my husband and feel my son has changed. He even did his dirty washing when he got home from camp…’
Rachael Kohn: Well, that’s an improvement, isn’t it!
Paul Henley: Well, if that’s just an indication of the sort of change that can happen…but it’s not just those practical things, this journey is not just an external journey for boys and men, it is also an internal journey, and for many of the men and the boys that come, they get an opportunity to talk about stories that they may have never heard before.
Rachael Kohn: What are the sorts of problems that they are struggling with? What do you think are the character traits that you see in boys that really need to be worked on?
Paul Henley: I think it is not just an intellectual concept, it is a biological key. Each of our young people, whether they be boys or girls, have a biological key, and part of that biological key is separation. If we don’t organise a separation and support that separation from family, then what we get is dysfunctional behaviour in order for that separation to be created.
And many of our parents coming along to the program are really at their wits end understanding why their son who a few years ago was a sweet angel has now turned into this six-foot hulk that demands a situation that requires them to discipline or requires them to push him away. In many ways what the boys are looking for is they are looking for an unconscious separation, and what we suggest is that unless this right of passage comes, then that relationship between the boy and parents is going to get to a point where the boy forces separation.
So what we hope is that during this process that we go through a conscious way of that separation, allowing the boys to understand who they might be, to hear stories from men who have gone through that experience before, not just their father but many of the men in the camp, so they become in many ways uncles for those boys. They get to hear those stories and they get to understand what their own unconscious process really is.
Rachael Kohn: And what do the boys tell you or the young men tell you after they’ve been through one of these camps?
Paul Henley: Here’s a thing from Tom who was a young boy on this particular camp we’ve just come from, and his realisation at the end of the camp was that this was a crucial experience for him and he says, ‘It allowed me to realise how important the transition to manhood really is.’
So I suppose what we’re doing, Rachael, is we’re bringing up a consciousness about this transition. If this transition is done in a conscious and appropriate way, then the benefits are huge. It means that relationship is not something that young people move away from, it is actually something they walk towards.
Rachael Kohn: Paul, can I ask you more specifically what happens at the camp. For example, how does it differ from, say, an adventure weekend for boys?
Paul Henley: An adventure weekend really is an external experience, and it’s normally for the boy to have and then he comes back to family. What this experience is is a whole family where the father is strongly involved or mentors or sometimes we have grandfathers coming with the boys, and so on the camp itself there are lots of experiences were those relationships get deeper. The difference between an internal or an external process is that the boys, unconsciously to begin with, are moving towards consciousness, start to have a realisation of what it is to be a man, because what they’ve got in front of them is 30 or 40 men willing to be there for them to go through this process. So there’s a huge reflection.
And it’s also part of the experience of the mother. Mother needs to learn how to let go of the boy, allowing him to walk towards young man. And the mothers really need support for that process to happen. There is no longer a tribe of other women around them giving them support around that process, and so our female leaders offer encouragement and work with the women while the father and son are on camp, so that when the boy returns there’s a new parenting situation being created. Because in many ways rites of passage is the delivery tool, but in actual fact this is a parenting education program. So it’s a whole family experience, and so when the boy comes back into family there is a range of knowledge that allows the whole family to move towards supporting that boy to walk towards manhood.
Rachael Kohn: So how long is someone involved in Pathways, in the program?
Paul Henley: The actual program itself, it really starts a few weeks beforehand when we have a meeting with the parents and we call this the first night, so it is really the first night of the program, and it’s just for parents, and we talk about some of the issues they may be having, some of the problems that they are facing with their young people. And we prepare them for the camp. A couple of weeks later we have a leaving ceremony where the mothers and fathers are involved, and we take the fathers and the boys off, leaving the mothers at the hall with the female leaders supporting them.
We then go on camp, and of course there is a five-day camp, completed by a return at the end. Then there’s a reunion at the end of that process, about two or three weeks afterwards, to bring that community which has been formed on camp…and sometimes the relationships formed on that camp are lifelong relationships. Then we offer for the boys, and also for the girls, but for the boys we offer them to come back within nine months, we use nine months as a gestation period for their maturity to start to develop, we bring them back and offer them to come on staff as a returning young man. They get involved in a team behind-the-scenes and really they are the stepping stone between the boys and the leaders, so that the boys feel more comfortable.
Then many of our returning young men have been through a number of camps, and we offer them an opportunity to come back and join our leadership team, the young leaders. And they are mentored and supported through that. So how wonderful these days to be able to say that a boy that went through his rites of passage when he was 13 is now 20 and he’s coming back and he’s leading other men and boys through the same process.
Rachael Kohn: Gosh, that sounds like a very good cycle to have got going. How many people have been through this workshop now?
Paul Henley: The workshop started back in ’93, and we’ve probably gone through and had about 9,000 young people come through the program to this date, but it’s a bit like a pebble into a pond, you know, if you throw a pebble into a pond what it creates is ripples and the effects go out. So, many of those 9,000 boys have created ripples with their siblings, with their friends, their families have been affected. We encourage grandfathers and grandmothers to be part of the process and honour them as elders. So that 9,000 multiplies out as the ripples from that initial pebble going into that pond.
Rachael Kohn: Finally, what sort of traditions do you draw on in your practices and rituals?
Paul Henley: We draw on many of the ancestors’ rituals, many of the Aboriginal people of this land, with permission, we work with them. So, many of the ceremonies and parts of ceremonies they offer us allow us to ground into what is really an experience of the natural world. And if I can quote something from one of your books Curious Obsessions, ‘The natural world as much as the human world is embedded with spiritual values.’ Again, so we tap into those spiritual values in the natural environment, allowing all of those elements that maybe we know we don’t know to support this wonderful experience of a boy moving from boy to young man.
Rachael Kohn: Paul Henley, thank you so much for being on The Spirit of Things and shining a light into this obviously burgeoning new tradition that is helping boys to become men, and I understand also girls to become young women.
Paul Henley: Absolutely, it’s a program that is growing very quickly with women, Pathways into Womanhood. A slight difference because the journey for girls is different for boys, and so it’s an inward journey for girls and more of an external journey for boys.
Rachael Kohn: Once again, thank you so much.
Paul Henley: Thank you very much, Rachael.
Rachael Kohn: Paul Henley is the National Training Manager of Pathways Foundation, and you can find a link to it on our website at abc.net.au/rn/spiritofthings. And while you’re there you can see photos and links to websites of our guests today. And also check out the transcript for last week’s program on Goddess.
I hope you’re all enjoying the new look websites on Radio National.
December 20th begins the Jewish Festival of Lights, Hanukkah. Next week, come with me and climb around the premier archaeological site in Jerusalem, the palace of David. And also hear from two women who took 11 years to compile the world’s most interesting Jewish cookbook. That’s Stones and Soup next week on The Spirit of Things with me, Rachael Kohn.