Where Can Men Go to Become Better Men?

On a cloudy afternoon in May, a dozen strangers descended a tree-lined hill in the Catskills, one by one. They were nervous. They had just relinquished their phones, and the only sound they could hear was the distant beat of a drum.

They had little in common, at least on the surface. Among them was a wealth manager from Connecticut, a teenager from the Bronx trying to stay out of a gang, a painter from brownstone Brooklyn, a Haitian immigrant living in Queens and a community worker from St. Louis. They were Black, white and Asian, gay, bisexual and straight, middle-aged and young. Some had served time, while others had hardly ever gotten so much as a traffic ticket.

They had only a dim sense of what awaited them: three days of camping and talking about their lives. But they hoped that somehow they would emerge better, more fulfilled men.

At the bottom of the hill, they entered a huge frame tent, bare except for carpets, chairs and space heaters. A circle of about 25 more men, all of whom had already been through the same process, or a very similar one, welcomed them.

For the next several hours, each person in the circle explained why he had come. Some spoke of bad or absent fathers. Others opened up about molestation, divorce, estrangement from their children, professional disgrace, the cruelties of incarceration.

Dion Johnson, a rough voiced, thickly bearded 49-year-old from the South Bronx, recounted the traumas of his childhood. When he was 4, his mother received a 15 years to life sentence for killing her boyfriend in self-defense. His father was addicted to cocaine, and Mr. Johnson was raised by a grandmother and two aunts, who sent him to Westchester County private schools, where he said he faced racist abuse from classmates.

“I was under the covers at night, praying to God to send someone to love me,” he said.

As Mr. Johnson spoke, some men in the circle raised a hand, to signal that they had shared a particular experience. Others raised both hands, a gesture that signified emotional support. No one interrupted.

It was the first time that many of the participants had heard a man speak about his struggles, in a vulnerable way, in front of other men. For most American adult males — who are less likely to disclose mental distress than women, and who have fewer friends than ever — the prospect of sharing their innermost thoughts in a group setting would be not only novel but frightening.

And yet it didn’t take long to see that everyone in the circle was not only willing to talk openly, but hungry to do so.

The men had come to the Catskills to join All Kings, a New York nonprofit organization founded in 2019 with the aim of building a community for men.

In the most basic sense, it provides a forum where men can talk. New members come aboard through a weekend-long program called “Nature Quest.” All Kings obscures many details about the trips, in part because it believes the experience is more effective if participants go into it blind, and in part because some men might not show up if they knew what would be involved.

(To report on All Kings, a photographer, Kadar R. Small, and I agreed to go through the weekend as initiates, and to keep a few of these details to ourselves, including the names of some men who were there.)

The group practices what is known as men’s work, a kind of personal growth therapy with roots in social movements of the 1970, ’80s and ’90s that argued that Western men are suffering from poorly understood emotional damage.

The best known of these, the mythopoetic men’s movement, aimed to treat these symptoms through wilderness retreats and workshops. “Iron John,” the 1990 best seller by the movement’s leader, the poet Robert Bly, drew from anthropology, literary analysis and Jungian psychology to argue that men had lost touch with their primal, wild nature.

As a result, Bly argued, Western men never learn how to model a positive version of masculinity. They don’t learn it from their fathers, who may be neglectful or abusive, and they don’t learn it from the larger culture, which no longer marks the passage from boyhood to manhood with rituals. As a result, many men still feel and act like boys, which brings them grief and causes problems in society, including domestic abuse and paternal absence.

The Nature Quest, like other men’s work programs, enacts a series of dramatic, sometimes emotionally harrowing, rituals over three days. By the end, each initiate should be able to tap into a stronger, kinder and more purposeful version of himself — his “king,” an archetype drawn from the work of the psychoanalyst Carl Jung, who looms large in this world. (Hence “All Kings.”)

The promise of transformation over a short period of time makes the proceedings feel a little like an emotional magic trick. But proponents of men’s work don’t claim to practice a science, and most facilitators don’t have training as mental health professionals. Rather, the men running the program throw themselves into it with the same intensity required of the newcomers. This shared sense of commitment makes everyone in a circle accountable to one another, said Dr. James McCleary, a clinical psychologist who advises All Kings.

Occasionally, a goofy video from a men’s work-inspired program surfaces on social media, often of a shirtless guy screaming next to a body of water. Sometimes he is wearing designer athleisure or bearing some other mark of membership in the upper middle class — a key demographic for many of these programs.

By comparison, around half the people who attend All Kings, including Mr. Johnson, have spent time in prison. The driving idea behind the organization is that this type of program isn’t just for repressed accountants, but for those who have endured brutal circumstances.

And though men’s work is easy enough to dismiss as a kind of Goop for men, for many of those devoted to it, the rituals offer an emotional release some say they can’t find among their friends or through traditional talk therapy. Over the course of the weekend, seemingly every person in the All Kings tent found himself sobbing, often in the arms of another man. (Including me, in spite of myself.)

In an exercise the first night, the initiates were encouraged to picture future, happy versions of themselves. Mr. Johnson chose a young white guy to play him. A facilitator asked Mr. Johnson to look at the man, standing five feet away, and say what characterized his future self.

“Success: my own house, five bedrooms,” he said. “Confident, secure, proud and at peace.”

The facilitator asked Mr. Johnson what held him back from achieving that.

“Lust,” Mr. Johnson said. “Addictions. I got into porno mags as a kid.”

A member of the circle walked over to Mr. Johnson and leaned against him.

“What does this obstacle say?” the facilitator asked.

“Screw it, I’m going to jerk off,” Mr. Johnson said.

The guy pushing Mr. Johnson repeated the phrase “screw it, I’m going to jerk off” in his ear. Next came another man, this one representing Mr. Johnson’s anger and depression. He, too, leaned against Mr. Johnson, pulling on his hoodie and chanting a negative thought: “I messed everything up.” The two combined their chants, like a chorus of Furies: “I messed everything up. Screw it, I’m going to jerk off.”

The facilitator asked Mr. Johnson to push back, to move toward his future self. As the two men resisted, Mr. Johnson struggled forward. What had enabled him to do that, the facilitator asked.

“Resilience and determination,” Mr. Johnson replied.

The facilitator asked him where he carried those qualities.

“In here,” Mr. Johnson said, jabbing a thumb into his ribs.

In the late 1990s, after a devastating riot at the California State Prison at Sacramento, an inmate named Pat Nolan asked his pen pal, a Bay Area accountant and men’s work veteran named Don Morrison, to help him set up a group inside the facility. Mr. Nolan, now deceased, persuaded convicts from across racial and gang lines to participate in what became known as Inside Circle.

Facilitators were brought in from outside, and they came to a startling realization: The circle produced its own democratic atmosphere, in which inmates and the men who had not been in prison worked together as equal participants. This had enormous benefits for the inmates, according to Dr. McCleary, who designed the ritual process for Inside Circle.

“When we witness commonality in each other, that elevates our consciousness around how to be accountable in our personal and public lives,” he said.

In 2017, Gethin Aldous, then a director at Rockstar Games (of Grand Theft Auto fame) made a documentary about Inside Circle with Dr. McCleary’s son, Jairus. Called “The Work,” the film is shot cinema-vérité style, giving little context about the participants or the methodology. It ends with a simple postscript: None of the men who had participated in Inside Circle had reoffended after they left prison.

Mr. Aldous, who had done similar work in Britain, decided to try to bring the Inside Circle approach back East. He held the first All Kings weekend in 2019.

There were hiccups. Early on, Mr. Aldous noticed that men who had been in the system didn’t respond well to the boot-camp overtones of some men’s work initiations. Nor did they seem to care for the literary contrivances of other men’s work programs, as Mr. Aldous found when a weekend structured around the medieval romance “Parzival” fell flat.

Eventually, All Kings found its footing. Since 2019, more than 300 participants have gone through Nature Quests, which are followed up with online gatherings. This year, the group started a pilot program with the Brooklyn district attorney’s office to hold sessions for men in the days immediately after their releases from prison.

According to Raul Espinoza, the executive director of All Kings, only 5 percent of those who were active members of the group and had served time in prison had reoffended. (In 2021, a report by the Department of Justice found that 82 percent of people who left state prison in 2008 were arrested at least once in the 10 years after their release.)

Though All Kings focuses on those who have served time, during the May weekend, it wasn’t obvious who had been inside and who hadn’t. Instead, over the three days, the sociological differences between the participants seemed to shrink as they shared the intimate, devastating details of their lives.

In one exercise, men took turns making confessions. One said he regretted having children. Another confessed that he had sold drugs to a pregnant woman. Someone else said he had racist feelings toward Black people. Another man revealed that he had lost his medical license after a patient accused him of sexual assault during a prostate exam.

Since the explosion of men’s support groups in the late 1980s and early 1990s, men’s work has been regarded with unease by feminist critics because of its narrative of masculine empowerment and what they regard as its gender essentialism. Here, they contend, is the seed of something darker: a kind of revenge of the patriarchy, not so different from the men’s rights movement, which asserts that women dominate men and claims that men face discrimination in family courts.

Men’s work advocates have maintained that they aren’t in conflict with feminism. They believe toxic expressions of masculinity — misogyny, aggression — are symptoms of the specifically male trauma they are trying to heal. They say that this work makes them better partners to women. And just as important, they add, the work allows men to process emotions, including anger, in a controlled setting. (It’s worth noting that when I returned from the weekend, my wife told me that I seemed more present and less burdened than I had been in a long time.)

On the second morning, a circle of guys stood around a hole in the ground, next to which lay a heavy stone. James Battle, a 29-year-old apprentice pipe-fitter from Brooklyn, lifted the stone and heaved it, repeatedly, into the hole. The point was to induce a state of rage. Soon, Mr. Battle began to scream, and then to wail.

For nearly 20 minutes, he castigated his father — “I don’t know if you’re in heaven or hell or purgatory, but I hope you hear this: I’ll never be like you.”

By the end of the exercise, Mr. Battle was doubled over and out of breath, his dreadlocks hanging in front of his face. He made eye contact with each man in the group. They thanked him for sharing, and he thanked them for listening. Then he staggered back to his place in the circle.

Later, Mr. Battle — who had served time for aggravated assault — seemed buoyant. During a karaoke session, he danced as he led the others in a rendition of Nas’s “If I Ruled the World.”

That afternoon, the initiates went out into the woods with notebooks. They were instructed to make a list of their most troubling recurrent thoughts and then to write these thoughts down in pen on white tank tops. When they were done, they returned to the tent, wearing the shirts.

Mr. Johnson’s had a long list of negative thoughts. It included shame about using pornography, participating in “street life,” and having children out of wedlock.

With the help of a facilitator and other participants, Mr. Johnson reconstructed a moment from the 1990s, when he was home from college in Bridgeport, Conn. In the scene was his father, whose nostrils, Mr. Johnson recalled, were ringed with cocaine. Also in the scene was a friend of Mr. Johnson’s, Sheke, who was a drug dealer.

A middle-aged white man from Wisconsin played Mr. Johnson’s father. Going by Mr. Johnson’s recollection, he told Mr. Johnson that Sheke was a “bad ass.” Then Mr. Johnson cast two more acquaintances in the scene, guys who had asked him to hold a gun for them — something Mr. Johnson said he did because his father’s tales of street life had fascinated him. (Mr. Johnson eventually served three and a half years in prison for criminal possession of a firearm.)

At the instruction of a facilitator, the men in the scene began to push Mr. Johnson back and forth, like a pinball. “What has to happen to end this?” the facilitator asked. The men stopped. Mr. Johnson was weeping.

“I felt helpless and weak,” he said. Then he addressed the man who was playing his father: “I’m not mad at you, Dad. I’m not mad anymore. I was just ashamed of who I was.”

The facilitator asked him to look at the shirt, at his shame over his criminality.

“Where does it belong?” he asked.

“It belongs ripped to shreds,” Mr. Johnson responded, and tore it in two.

Over the next few hours, others reenacted painful memories from their own lives. The passage of time barely seemed to register, so focused were the participants on the work. Sometimes two or three men in the tent would be screaming at the same time.

In the evening, it started to rain. The men gathered around a campfire, warming their hands and bantering. Then they took turns casting their shirts into the fire.

The next day the initiates became members of All Kings. In small groups, they claimed positive qualities from their role models. (In men’s work, these qualities are called one’s “gift,” “gold,” or “medicine.”)

Mr. Johnson chose “fearless,” which he took from Malcolm X; “resilience,” which he took from his mother, who was pardoned when Mr. Johnson was in ninth grade; and “overcomer,” which he took from his father, who quit drugs and with whom he is now close.

To complete the ritual, the 12 men climbed the hill in silence.

A month later, Mr. Johnson said he was doing well. He attended weekly All Kings circles on Zoom. He had a job doing outreach on behalf of a health care program through NewYork-Presbyterian for men who had recently served time, and he was working on an autobiographical novel.

Looking back on the weekend, Mr. Johnson said, “It helped me to forgive myself.”

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