Talking with my Father about Trauma

A skinny twenty-seven-year old, I pull a thick afghan onto my lap and ask my father to tell me about his childhood. He begins with the usual maneuvers: he adopts surliness, then he jokes, evades. By this time I am armed with the fledgling skills of a young therapist. I have learned a few in the craft of opening up a closed heart.

“You know, your mother and I deliberately made the decision to keep this from you,” he begins.

“I understand,” I say.

“We didn’t want to burden you kids.”

“I appreciate that.”

He pauses. “You’ll never know what it was like back then,” he tells me, “the Depression..” He lapses into silence for a while and then he begins. He wasn’t more than six or seven when his mother died of some lingering disease. He had only vague pictures of her in his head, hardly any memories he recalled her warmth, an infectious laugh.

After she died, things went downhill for my father’s father, Abe, a weak passive man. Abe lost his job, bought a little mom-and-pop store; then he lost the store. Unable to support itself, the family broke up. My dad and his young brother went to live with a cousin. “Aunt” Sylive was mean. She was bitter before the Depression and taking in my father, Edgar and his brother, young Phil, did nothing to shake the venom in her disposition. She was cruel in a daily, ordinary way.

“Like how Dad?” I ask him.

“Oh I don’t know,” he shrugs me off.

“Like how, Dad?” I repeat the question.

I eventually get my father to tell me about the humiliation of ragged hand-me-downs, about how Sylvie would dish out food to him with a line such as, “Here is a big piece of chicken for Steven, because he is my son. And here is a small piece of chicken for you, Edgar. Because you are not.”

When he was eleven or twelve, the rage in my father, the missing of his mother, his father, filled him to the bursting point. His little brother was still young and sunny enough to adjust, but my dad began acting out. An “instigator” at school, a petty thief at home, he lasted through one or two “incidents” and then Aunt Sylvie summarily got rid of him. He found himself banished to the home of elderly grandparents in another part of town.

“What did you do?” I ask.

“What do you mean, what did I do? I went to school. I worked.”

“Did you have friends?”

“I made friends.”

“Did you see Phil and your father?”

Yes, he saw them. All that winter after school he would walk six miles through the snow to have dinner with them at Sylvie’s house. He would linger over a cup of cocoa until Sylvie asked him to leave. Then he’d walk back again alone.

I look out of the window of our little seaside apartment, onto bare November trees. I picture that twelve-year-old boy walking back in the snow.

“How was that for you?” I ask. “What did you feel?”

My father shrugs.

“What did you feel?” I insist.

“A little cold, I guess.”

“Come on, goddamn it.”

“I don’t hold a grudge, Terry.” My father’s tone levels me. “They did what they had to. All right? These were rough times. Besides,” his voice becomes still, “I understand in a way. I wasn’t so easy to handle.”

“You were a child,” I tell him.

My father shakes his head. “Yeah, well, I was pretty hardboiled. I could be quite a little son of a bitch.”

“How much of a son of a bitch could you have been, Dad?” I say. “You were twelve years old!”

He turns away. “I don’t know.” He slumps.

“Look at me.” I take his shoulders. “I don’t give a shit what you did, do you understand? You were a kid. Your mother was dead; your father was gone. You didn’t deserve it, okay? Don’t you get it? You didn’t deserve it.”

My father looks up at me, his blue eyes magnified by thick glasses. “Okay,” he sighs. Then, as sudden as any rage, he reaches out his thick arms and pulls me toward him. Without a word he lays his head on my shoulder, as tender and guileless as a child. Holding him, I breathe in his familiar smell, coffee and cigarettes and a touch of Brylcreem. Feeling the weight of his great head, I am physically awkward, almost repelled, but when he pulls away, I instinctively tighten my hold on him. Gingerly, reluctantly, I stroke his back, his stiff har.

“It’s okay, Dad,” I murmur.

I look out past him at the trees, and wonder what will become of us, my father and me. I still neither trusted nor forgave him, but something deep inside me began to uncoil.

That night was a first green tendril piercing through a stone wall. Others followed. In the years ahead, as our closeness developed, my life became more successful, and my father’s life grew ever more desperate. I watched, helpless, as financial worry, social isolation, and finally, a horrible disease whittled him, sucked the marrow out of him, pulled him under. I stayed close, I gave as much as I could.

I buried my father in September 1991. The night before, when I left his bedside, he gave me his blessing and I gave him mine. The next morning, I walked into the hospital room to hind him dead. His head was thrown back, his eyes shut, his mouth open. It didn’t look like my dad. It looked like my dad’s body, a thing made of clay, like his statues. I touched his eyes and kissed him. His skin on my lips tasted bitter, earthen.

I have often thought about the high school boys my father saw drown and the advice he gave me: “Don’t touch them. They’ll drag you under.” As in so many other instances, his advice on this matter was wrong. I did not go down into that dark vortex with my father. But neither did I let go of his embrace.

Excerpted from I Don’t Want to Talk About It  by Terrence Real.

“The Best Men Can Be”

On January 13th, Gillette released its already famous commercial, “The Best Men Can Be,” which garnered an immediate and emphatic backlash. The commercial juxtaposed men engaging in bullying behaviors with men performing acts of decency.

The nerve the ad hit is prominently on display, if you go to Twitter #BoycottGillette. Here’s a typical example: “Feminists made up toxic masculinity its (sic) not a real thing. They will not be happy until men act like women. Female supremacy is their true goal and bigotry! (sic)” A favorite and powerful trope of the right is this vision of “feminazis” hellbent on gaining supremacy and undoing masculinity, turning healthy men into…well, women. “Gillette,” one tweet reads, “the best a trans can get.”

This trope hits home because it resonates with the core dilemma of masculinity itself. How many grown women do you know who fret that their presumably unstable femininity will somehow be undone? But men seem to live in perennial fear that a dress with their name on it sits right around the corner. Is that really what women want of us?

It’s time for more of us men to stand up to the traditions of masculinity we’ve been handed, to sort through which elements are worthy and which toxic. We should do so not just for the sake of the women we care about and for the children in our charge, but for our own health and wellbeing.

Moving from a patriarchal paradigm to a relational one means leaving a linear, hierarchical world of “power over” others, as Riane Eisler describes it, and stepping into an ecological world of “power with.” It means moving away from a dominance model placing man above nature – whether the nature one lords over is a wife or child, an assistant, or one’s own body – to a collaborative model in which we see ourselves as situated within nature, rather than ruling over it.

Our relationships are our biospheres; we live within them, not above them. You may choose to pollute your biosphere in the living room with your temper, but you may well pay for it in the bedroom when your partner withdraws. As a couples therapist, I have worked for over thirty years helping men resolve emotional stress and interpersonal difficulties by moving beyond the confines of our traditional role. I’ve taught men, for example, to respond to a hurt or angry partner non-defensively, but rather with compassion. The relational answer to the question, who’s right and who’s wrong, is who cares? Your partner is unhappy. You don’t want that. You love her, for one thing, and you have to live with her, for another.

I call this non-defensive response “listening with an open heart” or “learning to be a generous gentleman.”

I want all of us men to listen to the hurt and dissatisfaction of women with compassion, not defensiveness. And I would like women, and in particular feminism, to more explicitly embrace men as potential allies. We are your husbands, your fathers, your sons.

Let’s have a totally different conversation, one commodious enough to empower good people of both sexes to move past the constraints of patriarchy, which damages both women and men and renders the relationship between us pointlessly difficult.

What do you think? Please leave me a comment below.

Click here for my online course all about Working With Men >>

How to Bring a Reluctant Man Back for a Second Session

In RLT, we have seven diagnostic lenses for looking at a really precise description of what is going on and what you’re going to feed back to the couple.

One of the seven lenses, which in some ways is the skeleton of the whole therapy, is stance, stance, and dance. In a heterosexual couple, his relational stance, her relational stance, and the way they interlock in a good-old family therapy, self-reinforcing feedback loop, a vicious circle, in plain English, which we describe as “The more, the more.” The more he angrily pursues, the more she helplessly withdrawals. The more she helplessly withdrawals, the more he angrily pursues. This is couples therapy 101. Anybody trained in systemic thinking knows how to do this. However, I will say, by the end of your first session … And in RLT we do longer sessions. We tend to do double sessions every other week, rather than 50 minutes every week. By the end of your first session, it’s good to have a description of the more, the more.

The more, the more you two are caught in this bad pattern … I’m so sorry for you. The blame is on the pattern, not the people. I’m so sorry you’ve been caught into this pattern. Once you wind up this pattern and let it go, it goes and proliferates and it will, like cancer or rust, eat up all the good feeling between the two of you. Let me help you get out of this pattern. A great psychotherapist here in Boston, once said, “The goal of a first interview is a second interview.” If you can do the more, the more, blame the pattern, not the people, and be accurate about it, they will feel that. It will give them hope. You will establish your bone fides as a competent therapist, and they will be back at your door next week.

Doesn’t matter if they love you. It’s not about nurture. It’s about giving them the feeling that you can help. Of course, nurture is a part of it. I don’t meant to downplay that. Empathy, reflective listening, all the skills of traditional therapy are brought into play. They are necessary, but in RLT, not sufficient. Empathy is necessary but not sufficient. You have to do more in couple’s therapy than just, “How do you feel?” “Oh, that’s too bad.” “How do you feel?” “Oh, that’s too bad.” Once you have the more, the more, what you’re going to be joining with the difficult man about is his more, is his relational stance, what he is doing to blow his own foot off. This is what you’re doing to get in the way of your own best wishes.

We start all first sessions with the same question: “Tell me what your wish is. If you walk out of here in two hours and it hit it out of the park, what would hitting it out of the park get you? What would it look like?” So then, the dysfunctional relational stance, say angry pursuit or irresponsible boy or a helpless victim or passive-aggressive yes man … These stances will be clear in that they obstruct the goal of getting him whatever it was that he said at the beginning, whatever his wish is.

Why a Class on How to Engage Men?

Let’s talk about how to engage men.

I’ll be referring to some of my notes because this is a little technical. First of all, why am I even giving a class on how to engage men? How many of you have ever entered a lecture entitled how to engage women? Why is engaging men such a resonant issue? The answer to this question, as would be safe to answer most questions, is because of patriarchy. Okay, we got that. Now what does that mean? Well, let me quickly review the three rings of patriarchy. Remember those? First is the halving process. You take one whole human being. You say all the qualities to the left are feminine, all the qualities to the right are masculine. Then you divide human traits into two different halves.

The second I call the dance of contempt. That is that the masculine half is exalted, the feminine half is devalued. The essential relationship between these two: domain. The essential dynamic of patriarchy is that the masculine holds the feminine in contempt. The masculine is one up, the feminine is one down. This plays out between men and women, but it also plays out between two men. Look at Kevin Spacey and his victim. It plays out between two women. It can play out between a mother and a child. It can play out between two races. It can play out between two cultures. It is ubiquitous. This dynamic is everywhere.

Then the third aspect of the three rings of patriarchy is that whoever is on the feminine side of the equation, man, woman, boy, or girl, has a profound impulse, if you remember, to protect whoever is on the masculine side of the equation, even while being mistreated by that person. Whoever is on the masculine side of the equation has disowned their fragility. Whoever is on the feminine side of the equation has a hyper-empathic relationship to that person’s disowned fragility, losing touch with their own fragility in a process that would commonly be called codependent, but which I think is actually much broader.

Anyway, what does that have to do with why we have to engage men in therapy? The answer is really simple. Under the rubric of patriarchy, intimacy itself is coded as feminine. Intimacy itself is a chick flick as I say. We do to intimacy what we do to many things being feminine. We idealize it in principle and we devalue it in fact. What does that have to do with therapy? If intimacy is deemed as feminine, then couples therapy, relational work, is also deemed as a feminine endeavor.

Yes, there are some couples who both agree that things were bad and they both bring each other in. I’m not saying that this is across the board, but I am saying far and away the majority is women who are carrying the dissatisfaction of the relationship. It is women who tune in Oprah. It is women who buy books on relationships. It’s women who bought my book on depression. I like to say my book on male depression appeared under pillows all over America. It’s women by and large who drag men into therapy. Men are by and large perceiving this in one form or another as if it were a foreign territory, as if it were a feminine domain, a woman’s domain that they don’t really quite belong in.

Now what we do with that traditionally, and as a therapist, is we try and minimize men’s discomfort. We try and act as if therapy was gender neutral. I like to say, “Sure, we appreciate male forms of intimacy, whatever that is here, and we’re equal in terms of both of your values. Now guys, I want you to get vulnerable, open your hearts, share your feelings, and connect.” Give me a break. That’s feminine under the traditional rubric and we’re not fooling anybody. In RLT we don’t soft pedal the assymetry between the two genders, we put it on the table. We take sides as many of you have heard over and over again. What women are asking for is legit. Look, the research is clear. Egalitarian marriages breed happier, more satisfied people than traditional hierarchical marriages do. This is not a matter of opinion. This is black and white. We are clear that we are born for intimacy. Look at all the attachment stuff going on right now. It is our natural state, it is our birthright. It is the state in which we thrive.

What we RLT people say to the guy is “Do it.” Do you want to hear that again? Was that too technical? Do it. We don’t want women to stand back from their demands for increased intimacy. We want to empower men to stand up and meet these new demands for intimacy with empathy. “Look, Harry,” I say, “you’re a statistic. There are tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands, millions of guys just like you being dragged into offices just like mine so that guys like me and gals like me can render you a more livable, relational person. That’s the agenda that you’re being brought in for and it’s good for you. You’ll be healthier. You’ll live longer. It’s good for your marriage. It’s good for your kids. It’s a good thing to do. Let me teach you how to do it.”

 

Terry Real in Conversation with Thomas Huebl