By Barbara Falconer Newhall, The Oakland Tribune, November 1, 1987
One hundred twenty men gathered at tiny St. John-in-Montclair Church in Oakland early yesterday morning – to discuss men’s secrets.
It was a men’s conference. No women allowed.
They brought their masks, their poetry and their inventions to share. There would be drumming, dancing and wrestling. Men stuff.
They also would be talking about fathers, family, male sexuality, friendship, spirituality and men’s secrets.
I wanted to go.
I got on the phone with Rob McCann, rector of St. John’s, an Episcopal church of 437 souls, 170 of them men.
No, said Father Rob. I wasn’t invited. No women.
Last year, the women of the parish had made lunch for the men attending the conference.
But this year, the women wouldn’t even be allowed through the kitchen door. Lunch would be catered – by men.
As a consolation, Father Rob offered me a private interview with Shepherd Bliss, a professor of psychology at John F. Kennedy University and the leading attraction at yesterday’s conference.
(No, Shepherd Bliss did not invent his name upon arriving in California. The Blisses are a family of Southern warriors for whom Fort Bliss was named. Shepherd is the name of his maternal grandmother.)
Shepherd welcomed me into his house in the Berkeley flats and settled me into an enormous man-sized easy chair. He brought me a nice cup of tea.
“I want to know what those ‘men’s secrets’ are,” I told him in so many words.
Shepherd, of course, wouldn’t mind some publicity for his men’s events – the next one will take place next weekend at JFK.
I figured we could strike a deal. The publicity for the secrets. The secrets, I hoped, would shed some light on why it is that men, not women, run the world.
If I could be privy to the secrets, I could maybe be privy to the power.
But talking to Shepherd Bliss was like talking to the Wizard of Oz.
And like brave little Dorothy, I was disappointed.
Men’s No. 1 secret, Shepherd revealed, the secret they most want to keep from women, from other men, from themselves – is that they, too, feel powerless.
They are no more in charge of the world than women.
Good grief, if men aren’t in charge, who is? Who is in the driver’s seat in this world running amok with serial killers and plummeting stock markets?
I don’t mind a little oppression – just a bit – if it means that there is someone in charge. Someone to keep the nuclear missiles of the world safely tucked away in their silos.
“Women assume men are powerful because of how powerless they feel,” Shepherd explained.
Men like to assume the appearances of power. They swagger. They join men’s clubs. They drive fast cars, work long hours and give themselves titles.
But “those are covers. They project power that we don’t feel.”
Men are in fact fragile, said Shepherd. They die younger than women. They worry – am I man enough? Father enough? Husband enough? Will I be a good provider? Will my wife stay with me? Will I be able to stay with her? What is death like?
And, of course, as any woman who has ever loved a man knows, they don’t readily give themselves permission to cry.
“You know a man through his grief, not his anger,” said Shepherd, who is also a psychotherapist and a Methodist minister.
Women, on the other hand, are socialized to cry. They also communicate face-to-face and verbally.
Men have a side-by-side way of communicating with each other. In simpler cultures, men hunt, work, dance, and drum together.”
Men hunger for male friends and for our fathers, our absent fathers,” he said. “But we feel we must do it alone.”
Now I was feeling sorry for the strong sex. What could I do to help the man in my life?
And with that we arrived at the deepest of all male secrets.
“Don’t try to help,” said Shepherd. “Let him go to his men friends for that.”
“Men are more dependent on women than they are willing to admit. They see their wives as mothers, not as erotic, other adults. One of the reasons men are violent is to prove their independence from mother.”
Is that why my son Peter kicked me in the ribs this morning?
“And finally,” said Shepherd, letting fall one last secret. “Many men long to give birth, to produce a life as only a woman can.”
Women know they have a power and authority that is based in their body. “Men should honor that, not compete. Honoring it is a way of breaking its power.”
Breaking a woman’s power?
And now I knew why there were no women allowed at St. John’s yesterday.
Reprinted by permission of The Oakland Tribune
I wrote this column when the kids were small and Jon and I had been married only ten years, but something tells me that men and women haven’t changed all that much since then. The men’s group at St. John’s Church is still going strong. And Shepherd Bliss hasn’t changed, either; he’s still campaigning for a better world.
For a story about my favorite macho male writer, read my post on Jon Krakauer.