Whirled Musings

Across the Universe with Cosmic Connie, aka Connie L. Schmidt...or maybe just through the dung-filled streets and murky swamps of pop culture -- more specifically, the New-Age/New-Wage crowd, pop spirituality & religion, pop psychology, self(ish)-help, business babble, media silliness, & related (or occasionally unrelated) matters of consequence. Hope you're wearing boots. (By the way, the "Cosmic" bit in my moniker is IRONIC.)

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Men, men, men, men, manly men*

Warning: This post discusses sensitive issues such as dildos and naked men. Please remove all minors from the premises, and if you are offended by these topics yourself, please avert your eyes. You'll have to avert them for a long time, though, because this is another one of those seriously lengthy pieces, longer than Rasputin's or Dillinger's...well, never mind. Standard suggestion applies: print it out if you need to, and take it to the "reading room" if you prefer. But you might want to follow some of the links too, so take a highlighter with you.

...And finally we get to the Ceremony of the Ripping Shirt, where we cavort around like apes in the jungle, revealing our manliness to other men, becoming the true warrior-king-lover-gods that we always were but Brenda Weatherby in tenth grade would never believe it. Then we make a conga line and dance out into the woods and plunge into the river and splash around like alligator gar on cocaine until we feel manly enough to take off all our clothes and rip the guts out of a wild hog.

I felt so much better after doing this the first time. I went back to Grapevine, Texas, where I live, and I told my girlfriend Wanda Bodine everything I'd been through, and she said, "That sounds great. Did they teach you how to wear the same color sock on both feet?"

You ever feel like women don't understand how manly we are?

~ Joe Bob Briggs, aka John Bloom, from his classic work, Iron Joe Bob.

Joe Bob wrote that gem of a book in the early 1990s – a generation ago. But some humor has a surprisingly long shelf life. And if you thought the contrived manly rituals that Joe Bob so engagingly lampooned were dead, you haven't been paying attention. Don't feel bad; I was kind of taken by surprise too a few years ago, when an organization called The ManKind Project, aka MKP, briefly hit the news after a Houston-area participant committed suicide (more on that in a bit). I started a couple of different blog posts about it, never got around to finishing them, and put MKP on the back burner with a bunch of other topics. But that's okay, because many other people wrote about it, so there was plenty of critical information online for those seeking something besides pro-MKP propaganda. Besides, a tragedy of this nature deserves more than a drive-by snark.

MKP made the news again in late August of 2010. This story wasn't tragic like the one mentioned above, but was newsworthy nonetheless. And while the ManKind Project was not the target of the suit as had been the case with its Houston branch in the suicide incident, MKP was certainly a focal point. An Orange County, California attorney, Steven Eggleston, sued his former employer, personal-injury law firm Bisnar/Chase LLP and its partners, John Bisnar and Brian Chase, because, Eggleston alleged, Bisnar had insisted that he attend a ManKind Project weekend retreat. More specifically, Eggleston alleged that he was forced to quit his job because the law firm docked his pay as a result of his refusal to sign up for MKP's New Warrior Training seminar. After he'd been on the job for about two months, Eggleston claimed, his supervising attorney, Bisnar, told him about a seminar that Eggleston really needed to attend. He said Bisnar clarified that he couldn't tell him that the attendance was a requirement for employment, but that it was very important for him to attend anyway. Yet when Eggleston pushed for details about the seminar, Bisnar was cagey, in essence saying that what happens at a New Warrior Training weekend stays at a New Warrior Training weekend. All Bisnar would really say was that the New Warrior Training seminar would enable Eggleston to "have closer, stronger, and better relationships with men."

But Eggleston was uneasy, so he did a Google search and found some disturbing reports that led him to fear he would be stripped naked, that he would not allowed to leave if he wanted to, that he'd be required to discuss details of his sex life while handling a wooden dildo called "The Cock," and that he might be pressured into allowing other guys to touch his genitals. Not to mention that he might have to observe or even be part of a ritual in which nekkid men beat cooked chickens with a hammer. (Which, I have to admit, is really dumb; you're supposed to beat the chicken before you cook it.)

When Eggleston refused to sign up for the next scheduled warrior training, Bisnar allegedly became hostile and tried to pressure him into signing up at a later date. Eggleston claimed that Bisnar also docked his pay from a draw of $15,000 a month to a mere $10,000. (To those of you who are struggling to get by on much, much less than ten grand a month, I'll remind you that it's the principle that's important here, not the amount of money.) Eggleston told Bisnar he didn't want to attend at a later date either, and he claimed that as a result of his refusal, Bisnar stopped paying him the draw altogether and told Eggleston he would only receive money for cases that were settled. Things got so bad that Eggleston quit in March 2010, and he claimed that the law firm has continued to retaliate against him by, among other things, refusing to provide him with accountings about cases he brought to the firm.

Here's a link to a PDF of the complaint: http://www.courthousenews.com/2010/09/03/Sensitivity.pdf

And here's an HTML version of the above.

This story created quite a buzz among the California legal community and far beyond. The headline writers had a field day. There were all sorts of headlines about nekkid men and wooden dildos, of course, but my favorite of the bunch was on an AOL News piece: "What Do You Say To A Naked Lawyer? Here's A Suit". I wish I'd written that. Readers chimed in as well with their own smart-aleck or outraged comments. Some outrage was undoubtedly misplaced; there were grumblings about MKP being part of the anti-Christian/pro-homosexual/New-Age/New-World-Order/liberal conspiracy. But at least one commenter on the AOL piece linked to above got it right, in my view:

cinorjer 5:27 AM Oct 12, 2010

To those of you who want to connect this to your favorit[e] rants about homosexuals or liberals, it's none of that. It's just about business owners who can't seem to get that just because you pay someone to do a job, it doesn't mean you own them and can dictate their private life. There are just as many bosses who insist their employees go to Christian retreats and join Bible studies, and retaliate if you decline. And in every case, eventually someone has the guts to draw the line. What's interesting in this case is, the bosses are lawyers and should have known better than to even offer such a whacko retreat, even if voluntary. In fact, all of these "team building and self exploration retreats" are bogus excuses to spend money on a billion dollar industry that doesn't help the company one bit. They were setting themselves up for just this sort of trouble. Makes me wonder what sort of inane advice they like to hand out to their clients.

Well, they're personal-injury lawyers, and apparently successful ones, so I imagine they do all right. Still, "cinorjer" is spot-on about mixing work with personal-growth retreats. Whether it's ManKind Project, Landmark Forum, a Tony Robbins event, or some other LGAT (Large Group Awareness Training) crap, employers have no business pressuring their employees to participate, unless it is industry-specific and directly related to their professional development.

Speaking of Landmark Forum, this aggressively litigious organization must have taken umbrage at being mentioned by name in an opinion piece about the Eggleston case that was published on the Bloomberg.com site. I am guessing that Landmark contacted Bloomberg and that either the author, Susan Antilla, was pressured into removing that mention, or the editors did it for her. The notice at the beginning of the revised piece practically rolls over and wets itself in submission, noting that Landmark "runs traditional seminars in business settings." In what is apparently one of the sanitized paragraphs on her post Antilla writes:

It isn’t unheard-of for a company to dispatch employees to so-called boot camps that promise to improve interpersonal skills or even transform their sometimes-miserable lives. One is Vancouver-based Lululemon Athletica Inc., known for its line of athletic wear. It has gone so far as to require franchisees to attend seminars run by a self-help group. .

Ms. Antilla, thank you for trying, anyway. That "self-help group" is Landmark. By the way, in addition to Landmark, Lululemon is, or at least was at the time this Fast Company piece was written, heavily into The Secret. In case you haven't noticed, New-Wage has seeped into every nook and cranny of the corporate world.

Obviously, some firms just haven't gotten the memo about separation of business and an employee's personal journey, and Bisnar/Chase seems to be one of those firms. ABC News quoted Bisnar's partner Brian Chase as saying that their law firm has a distinct New-Age feel. According to a September 30, 2010 story about the incident, Chase said, "We have yoga on Fridays. Bisnar will encourage people to go to professional seminars for trial lawyers or paralegals. He also encourages people to do personal development. He's passed out Deepak Chopra books. We've had tickets to Anthony Robbins' seminars. He encourages people to better themselves."

Indeed, John Bisnar's bio page on the Bisnar/Chase Web site includes these glimpses into Bisnar's personal passions:

...When asked about the firm's guiding principles, Mr. Bisnar will point out, "The Seven Spiritual Laws of Success" by Deepak Chopra as the bible by which the firm is run. One of his philosophies is "Do the right thing by the client and profits will follow." Another is "Our employees will treat our clients no better than we treat our employees."... [Does this mean they try to coerce their male clients into signing up for nekkid retreats? Yikes. ~CC]

...John has lectured at schools, colleges, universities and civic groups on the topic of the causes, effects and recovery from childhood abuse... He has been an active member of two men's support groups since 1996: one is devoted to personal growth and the other to growth of your business.

Mr. Bisnar is a former member of the Board of Directors and Board of Trustees of various businesses, non-profit and religious organizations.

He is a devoted husband and a father to three adult children and one grand-child, so far. John and wife Kimberly are avid world travelers, seeking to experience different cultures, people, religions, flora, fauna and the beauty of our physical world. Meditation, personal growth, scuba diving, skiing, organic gardening, photography, exotic travel, internet marketing, the Lakers and most of all Kimberly, are his passions.

Gosh, he sounds like a veritable prince of a fellow; I can't for the life of me figure out why Steve Eggleston wouldn't want to get down and get nekkid with him. But I'd keep a rein on that "internet marketing" interest if I were you, John. At least you should read Salty Droid's blog, lest you find yourself tangled up with some of the scoundrels Salty writes about, or become one yourself.

What's the big fat hairy deal? (as Garfield the cat might have said)
Eggleston himself is a former chiropractor, and I confess that when I learned this, my immediate thought was that many if not most chiros, at least in the U.S., seem to be involved with various New-Wage/selfish-help/McSpirituality activities, not to mention a range of questionable alt-med remedies that are sometimes based in New-Wage/McSpirituality concepts. Since Bisnar/Chase's bidness philosophy seems to be quite entrenched in New-Wage beliefs and practices, it is easy for me to imagine that at the beginning of Eggleston's employment there, both sides thought it was a match made in heaven. I confess that I briefly wondered why a little weekend Gestalt-ish gathering, even if it involved nudity and weird exercises, would be such a big deal to Eggleston. But then I reminded myself that even if Eggleston is the kind of (ex)chiro who is or was involved in silly New-Wage activities, that isn't the point of the suit. If the events occurred as he claimed, it seems to me that Bisnar/Chase was clearly out of line. No means no, Mr. Bisnar, and you shouldn't penalize a guy for not wanting to join your bizarre-o manly brotherhood. Of course, the outcome of the case is not up to me to decide.

Though the employer-coercion angle was the real story as far as I'm concerned, it was the nekkid-men/wooden-dildo aspect that created the most buzz about this case. That's not surprising, given our culture's giggly junior-high attitude towards sexual matters; as you can probably figure out from this post, I'm sometimes just as bad about this as anyone else. But the truth is that nudity has been part and parcel of encounter-type groups for more than forty years. Esalen, anyone? And that wooden woodie is simply a variation on the Native American "talking stick," long popular with New-Wage retreat leaders who think it oh-so-cool and enlightened to pilfer indigenous traditions. Also SOP at countless LGATs and retreats over the past few decades are the cathartic exercises, as well as the general atmosphere of sexual/spiritual/emotional "openness" that to an outsider seems to be little more than crass exhibitionism and voyeurism – not to mention the possible practice of therapy without a license, about which we'll have more later on in this post. Then there's the fact that MKP has attracted so many passionate fans and equally passionate critics. The ManKind Project is almost yawningly normal in all of those respects.

Arguably, one of the few features that really distinguishes MKP is that it seems to be a magnet for negative press, almost out of proportion to its relatively modest rank in the New-Wage/selfish-help/McSpirituality galaxy. After all, MKP is no Scientology, no Landmark Forum, no Tony Robbins, to name but a few obscenely wealthy and powerful players. Yet controversy follows it like male dogs follow a bitch in heat.

F'rinstance, MKP garnered controversy a few years back when some therapists were recommending the New Warrior Training weekend as a tool to help in "reparative" or "conversion" therapy to turn gay men straight. The thinking, apparently, was that getting gay guys in touch with their true mythopoetic manly nature would somehow set them on the path to hetero-happiness. This notion caused quite a stir in the MKP organization and factions of the gay community. (Note: ManKind Project is not to be confused with another group, People Can Change, which sponsors a retreat called Journey Into Manhood (JIM). It's easy to confuse the latter with MKP because they have reportedly incorporated several mythopoetic/Gestalt-type elements such as nudity, "trust-walking," and so forth. People Can Change was examined in a November 2010 ABC Nightline story about retreats purporting to "cure" gays who want to be "cured.")

ManKind Project was finally obliged to issue a declaration that New Warrior Training is emphatically not recommended for "reparative" therapy, and that MKP openly welcomes men of all sexual orientations, straight, gay, bi, and what have you. The statement reads in part:

  • We do not, and will not, attempt to change a man’s sexual orientation.
  • We stand firm in support of gay and bisexual men.

(Must not make a joke about "standing firm." Must not...)

The sad case of Michael Scinto
But the most dramatic negative publicity MKP has faced has to do with litigation. Before the California lawsuit, and in fact two years before
James Arthur Ray's infamous Death Lodge brought more unwelcome publicity to these sorts of retreats, ManKind Houston was sued for the wrongful death of a participant, 29-year-old Michael Scinto – the suicide I mentioned at the beginning of this post.

Michael Scinto's sad story was first written up in a much-referenced piece by Chris Vogel in the October 4, 2007 issue of the Houston Press. I'm probably at least the 100,000th person to cite this story, but if you've not previously done so, I urge you to read the entire piece; it is well-written and has good background information about MKP, as well as numerous anecdotes about their LGAT-ish ways. Vogel really did his homework. For those who don't want to take the time to read his story right now, I'll review the basics here.

According to Michael Scinto's parents, who filed the suit, Michael had struggled with alcohol and cocaine for years, but had been sober for nearly a year and a half before taking MKP's New Warrior Training in July 2005. He'd heard about the training from his Alcoholics Anonymous sponsor, Kim Sawyer, a "business coach" who had joined MKP more than a decade earlier. Kim managed to sell the idea to Michael, telling him that the $650 New Warrior training would be the best thing he could do for himself. As was the case with everyone else who attended, Michael was not told specifically what the weekend would involve. Though he signed numerous confidentiality contracts and liability waivers, and filled out a medical questionnaire (is this beginning to sound familiar to those of you who have been following the James Ray Death Lodge story?), he was promised that all activities were voluntary and he could leave at any time. In addition, he trusted Kim Sawyer, who had been his AA sponsor for about eight months.

The retreat was a shock to Michael, to say the least. Upon arrival at the event, men in dark clothes and black face paint stripped him and fellow "initiates" of their keys, wallets, cell phones, and watches. For many guys, no doubt, that kind of thing is just a game, little worse than a frat hazing or at worst, military boot camp, sans the obligation of subsequent deployment to troubled foreign shores. But for those who are as fragile as Michael apparently was, it's much more serious.

During one of the emotional group exercises, Michael became distraught, crying and explaining that he had unearthed a traumatic childhood memory. He wanted to leave, and he asked for his stuff back so he could. Unfortunately he didn't have his wheels with him; the men had been encouraged to carpool to the retreat, which took place in a very isolated rural area 110 miles north of Houston. Staff members got hold of Kim Sawyer, who encouraged Michael to stay, telling him that leaving would be difficult and it would be best if he expressed his thoughts and worries openly with the group. Michael was left with two choices: stay and continue, or try to walk away alone down poorly marked country roads, lost and terrified that someone was coming after him.

The latter wasn't mere paranoia. Michael had had a confrontation with the group leader, and here's what he wrote about it later in a letter to the Madison County Sheriff's Office:

He told me that if I left I would be causing harm to the other participants. I told him that I did not care. I told him to get my stuff so that I could leave. He said that if I left they would kill...(I was) convinced that if I ran they would catch me. At this point I feared for my life.

That's how the quotation appears in Vogel's article, ellipses, parenthetical phrase and all. Though the quotation does not make it completely clear who or what would be killed if Michael left, the implication seems to be that he thought the leader was threatening him. After the talking-to by his AA sponsor, however, Michael stayed.

In his letter to the sheriff's office, Michael described the bizarre goings-on, including those nekkid blindfolded "trust walks," various nude dances and rituals, men sitting nude in a circle discussing their sexual histories while passing that wooden dildo around, and naked men beating cooked chickens with a hammer. This was the stuff that scared the be-jeezus out of that Cali lawyer, Eggleston, when he read about it a few years later.

Michael wrote that on the third and final day the participants were threatened with imprisonment, and told not to discuss any of the processes they'd gone through. Then they were allowed to leave.

Michael's father, Ralph, later said his son had returned home terrified. Michael also started drinking again after his return, so there went nearly a year and a half of sobriety, right down the drain. He told his dad about the threats when he'd tried to leave the retreat, and added that he had "fired" his AA sponsor, Kim Sawyer. He also told his father that he had consulted with an attorney to get a restraining order against Sawyer, who, according to Michael, had been hounding him with phone calls ever since the retreat.

Around 5:00 on the evening of July 25,** 2005, fifteen days after the retreat ended, Ralph received a phone call from his son's employer, who said that Michael had not shown up for work that day. Ralph panicked and called his daughter Becky, and the two of them drove to Michael's apartment. They banged on the door but there was no answer. When Ralph turned the knob, the door opened, and he and Becky entered the apartment. Ralph Scinto screamed at the site of his son's decomposing body on the carpet, a shotgun lying beside him. Blood was everywhere. Michael had died from a self-inflicted shotgun wound to the head.

Stunned, the Scinto family began investigating the ManKind Project. They discovered it to be an international organization with thousands of enthusiastic and vocal loyalists who claimed the training had changed their lives. But they also found what Houston Press' Chris Vogel described as "an underworld of critics with bone-chilling tales of physical and psychological abuse." Michael's sister was able to figure out Michael's password so she could get into his computer. It was there that she found MKP's Houston membership roster, which included many of the city's prominent doctors, lawyers, businessmen, educators, people associated with the arts, and, not surprisingly, therapists and addiction specialists. There were even some Roman Catholic priests on the roster. Michael's sister also found the letter he had written to the Madison County Sheriff's Office. The research she compiled formed the basis of the family's eventual lawsuit.

The Scintos, Vogel reported, became convinced that MKP targeted vulnerable members of 12-step recovery groups, and Vogel's own research seemed to confirm this. He told the story of one guy named "Bob," who didn't want his real name used because he said he feared retaliation. Bob said there was lots of subtle pressure and soft-sell from some members of his 12-step group, who used virtually every conversation as an opportunity to pitch MKP's warrior weekends. Bob did his research and decided MKP was not for him. He also warned one of his friends in his 12-step group, a guy whom he considered to be particularly fragile, not to attend. But Bob said that upon learning of his warning to his buddy, MKP members became angry and started going after him in subtle ways. (Once again, this sounds familiar: recall the tale of former James Ray follower Connie Joy and her husband, who tried to protect other Ray followers from blowing all of their resources on pricey events. Their efforts did not exactly endear the Joys to Ray or his top minions.)

Things became so uncomfortable for Bob that he felt compelled to change meetings, but even that wasn't very effective, he said, because MKP members were at all of the meetings. "It's scary because they know all your secrets," Bob told Vogel, "and physical and emotional retaliation or blackmail is possible. It's like a virus here in Houston." Indeed, there seem to be numerous other tales of participants, and not just in Houston, who said they feared to rock the boat, because they were afraid their most intimate and embarrassing secrets would be spilled by guys who appeared to have no respect for those "confidentiality" agreements.

This is not to imply that the MKP leadership endorsed such clearly unethical tactics. After all, the organization claims to be focused on removing the shame from men's intimate issues, while protecting participant confidentiality. However, humans being the sometimes vengeful creatures that they are, "blackmailing" is always a potential hazard in these situations. Whether MKP endorses it is moot; once the damage is done, it's done. In that sense I suppose it's a good thing that men are asked to give up their cell phones and other electronic gadgets while at the training; since virtually every phone has a camera these days, one can only imagine the humiliating "revenge porn" that could end up online.

Another problem that emerged for the Scintos as they continued their research was that MKP's leaders appeared to be practicing therapy without a proper state license. A spokesman for the national group, Les Sinclair, denied the therapy allegation, saying that what MKP does is "therapeutic in that it's healing." He added that a lot of therapists attend the retreats, and that the MKP "process" is a very powerful one that breaks down men's armor or shield "to get down to their core and who they are."

Critics of these types of events say that there's very little to distinguish the latter from some kinds of therapy. For his October 2007 Houston Press article Chris Vogel talked to cult researcher Rick Ross, who expressed concern not only about what some have viewed as coercive mind-control tactics used by MKP, but also about what seemed to be an inadequate vetting system to determine who could and couldn't withstand the stresses of the program. Ross told Vogel, "What they have is one size fits all, and that's the problem. So, the net result is you get people with issues and troubles, and the pressures of the program can crack them and cause them to have emotional distress. And that's why they have waivers you have to sign...they want them because everything has not always been fine and they don't want the legal liability."

This issue is by no means unique to MKP; it's an ongoing discussion point for critics of LGAT events. And despite MKP's claims that they don't perform therapy, the organization has been recognized by the American Psychological Association, which actually gave an award to a guy named Christopher Kenneth Burke for his 2004 doctoral thesis on MKP's effects on men who had taken the training. Under "Division 51 (Society for the Psychological Study of Men and Masculinity)", Burke is listed as the winner of the award for Dissertation of the Year. His thesis, which basically said that MKP had a positive effect on the group of men he studied, was written more than a year before Michael Scinto's death, and more than three years before the first Houston Press article about the matter. Here's a link to the document, all 356 pages of it. MKP also has a page on their web site with information about this and other abstracts and theses regarding ManKind Project.

In the interests of continuing to keep things in context, I want to stress that so far in this section, I've been drawing mostly from a Houston Press story that is more than three years old as I write this. Apologists for MKP might be quick to point out that things have changed. But I think that is only partly true.

The Scinto family's case, as you may know if you followed this story, was settled in 2008. In a June 2008 Houston Press piece, Chris Vogel reported that ManKind Project Houston agreed to pay Ralph and Kathy Scinto $75,000 to settle their wrongful-death suit. That may seem like a pittance, but the Scintos were apparently satisfied, saying it was never about the money. MKP Houston further agreed that they would change the way they did business, which was really what the Scintos said they'd wanted to accomplish. Vogel wrote:

According to the settlement, The ManKind Project Houston must implement several changes to the way the group screens applicants, discloses information about the program and handles participants who want to leave the retreat during the weekend program.

The ManKind Project Houston agrees to have its questionnaire for applicants reviewed by a licensed mental health professional on how the questionnaire can be improved, and the organization agrees to implement the recommendations accepted by its board of directors within six months. After the improvements have been made, the group agrees to have each applicant's questionnaire reviewed by a licensed mental health professional who knows what goes on at a retreat to determine if the applicant should be allowed to participate...

This only applied to the Houston group, but the national organization was greatly influenced by the incident as well, which we'll get to momentarily.

Yet in January of 2009, according to yet another piece by Chris Vogel in the Houston Press, ManKind Project Houston had not yet lived up to the terms of its transparency agreement. Vogel was actually reporting news from another writer who has frequently blogged about the ManKind Project, Dr. Warren Throckmorton, Associate Professor of Psychology and Fellow for Psychology and Public Policy at Grove City (PA) College. Here's the link to Dr. Throckmorton's post.

It wasn't mere coincidence that the MKP folks had a meeting the following month and finally decided to make some real changes to the national organization and the web site. In August of 2009, more than four years after Michael Scinto killed himself, Dr. Throckmorton and, subsequently, the Press's Chris Vogel, reported that MKP was finally going to give the world a glimpse into its seekrit world of manly rites and rituals. Dr. Throckmorton reported that MKP said one of their reasons for doing so was to address "criticisms" published on the Web, specifically, from Dr. Throckmorton and the Houston Press. The changes, as summarized in Vogel's piece, were to include the following:

  • Members will be released from their confidentiality agreements and will be encouraged to tell anyone who inquires about the initiation and other MKP programs
  • The organization will revise its website and provide a detailed description of the initiation as well as publish new, detailed brochures
  • MKP will modify its confidentiality agreements and training program to reflect this new found transparency.

They didn't pledge to end the nekkid dancing, the cock-talking, and the harassing recruitment efforts, but it was a start.

A little HIS-tory (and, inevitably, some Cosmic Connie her-story)
Despite my snarky tone about MKP, I do not mean to imply that I think men's emotional and sexual issues are trivial – quite the contrary. I've always been pretty sympathetic to the stuff that men go through; even in my most staunchly feminist days in high school I had close male friends and spent hours listening, fascinated, as they told me some of their most intimate secrets. They did this because they trusted me, and their trust was well-placed because I kept their confidences. I considered myself fortunate because I was able to manage to be a confidante without falling prey to the "buddy syndrome" (always the buddy and never the girlfriend). I had male friends who were just friends, and male friends who became boyfriends, and ex-boyfriends with whom I remain friends to the present day. It was a good mix. Though I tried for a short time to take the hard-line feminist view that portrayed men as "the enemy," just because it was a novel idea to try on for size, I knew that mindset was crap and quickly abandoned it.

Despite my compassion for men and the unique problems they face, I feel compelled to add that this doesn't mean that I'm the ideal partner – far from it; my own self-centeredness often gets in the way of that. Let's just say that Ron has to put up with a lot of nonsense from me. I've also done my share of griping about how men don't understand women. And even now I occasionally fall into stereotypical thinking, as I demonstrated recently in a discussion on Steve Salerno's SHAMblog when I embarked upon a misguided attempt to "protect" a young female participant from what I perceived to be predatory behavior from an older male participant. Both participants let me know, in their own way, that I was off base.

The point, anyway, is that I have been interested in "men's issues" in one way or another for much of my life. I became particularly interested in the men's movement in the early 1990s, and you must believe me when I tell you that my original intent was not the collection of future snark material. I was still partly trying to play it straight in those days, torn between wanting to continue on a more or less "spiritual" path and coming to terms with the satirist and snark who dwelt within and was making her presence increasingly obvious. Even as I was creating the mock ads and articles that later became my BLP (book-like product), Cosmic Relief, I was trying gamely to fight my own growing cynicism. In my exploration of the men's movement as it existed at that time, I met some genuinely nice folks who were sincerely concerned about gender roles in a changing society. Several factors fueled my interest. One was that I struck up a friendly long-term correspondence with journalist David Kaplan, who was at the time the "Men's" columnist for the now-defunct Houston Post. (David, who now works for the Houston Chronicle as a business journalist, currently specializing in retail reporting, had his own rather disturbing nekkid story to tell in a 2008 piece for the Chron.)

Also in the early '90s, a former business partner and I briefly did some promotional work for Texas psychotherapist Marvin Allen (not to be confused with the football player), author of In The Company of Men: A New Approach to Healing for Husbands, Fathers, and Friends and Angry Men, Passive Men: Understanding the Roots of Men's Anger and How to Move Beyond It. Marvin gained fleeting notoriety for co-leading some "Wildman Gatherings" and other men's events, mostly around the Texas Hill Country. In fact, the ManKind Project mentions him briefly on their "history" page, to which I'll provide a link later on; they name him as a victim of misrepresentation by the mainstream media. If you follow the link in the second sentence of this paragraph you will see a portrayal of Marvin not as a martyr to journalism but as somewhat of a prick, a New-Wage egotist who wasn't above attempting to throw an elder statesman of the men's movement under the bus. You'll also see that some of the most troublesome issues regarding the men's movement back then are still issues today.

Notwithstanding the unflattering portrayal in that 1991 article, which described events that took place a couple of years before I met Marvin, he seemed to me to be a perfectly decent, almost humble guy and a gracious host who, along with his wife Carol, invited my partner and me to spend a weekend at their beautiful Texas Hill Country home to talk business. Ego aside, he appeared to be driven by a sincere need to help other men. Alas, my partner and I were never able to make much headway in our marketing efforts, which included an attempt to get some sort of men's conference going at a big Houston New-Thought church, with Marvin as the keynote speaker. Perhaps his work was too controversial for the church, or maybe his own financial limitations at the time had something to do with his reluctance to retain us, or perhaps my partner and I were just a less than effective marketing team. I'm thinking the latter might have played a significant part; that short-lived "business partnership" didn't really work for either my partner or me. However, Marvin did write a nice blurb for Cosmic Relief... but then again, so did Joe Vitale, so take that for what it's worth.

Before meeting Marvin Allen, I had also worked on several writing and promotional projects for a Houston clinical psychologist, Dr. Richard Austin, Jr., who was working on a book about inter-gender communication. Through him, I met and got to converse at length one evening with one of his buddies, author and social commentator Dr. Warren Farrell, author of The Myth of Male Power. The Myth of Male Power did and still does attract critics who say Farrell was rationalizing too much on behalf of men, but I found his ideas interesting at the time. He was riding the wave of current trends to be sure, but Farrell was no Iron-Johnny-Come-Lately. He had actually been writing about male-angst issues for years; his book The Liberated Man was released in 1974.

And Farrell was hardly the only person writing about men's issues in the 1970s. After men recovered from the first shock of the neo-feminist movement that emerged in the late 1960s and early 1970s (and was itself a sort of offshoot of the civil rights movement), there was a surge of male "Us-Too-ism," mostly among privileged white men. A new men's movement rose. Warren Farrrell, Marc Feigen Fasteau (The Male Machine) and Herb Goldberg (The Hazards of Being Male, originally published in 1976, though the link is to a newer edition), among others, all produced books exploring the ways in which men suffered as much as women from sexual stereotyping and cultural expectations.

Though it's not apparent when reading the history page on the ManKind Project Web site (I'll give you the link a little later), the emerging men's movement was not without its share of female advocates, and some of these women were...gasp...feminists. In 1974 consulting psychologist Anne Steinmann co-authored a book with researcher and academician David J. Fox called The Male Dilemma: How to Survive the Sexual Revolution. (The description on the Amazon link lists 1983 as the pub date, but the edition I have says 1974.) Based on twenty years of research, this book asked and attempted to answer the poignant question of how men could come to terms with increasingly conflicting expectations in a changing society. And Phyllis Chesler, author of the 1972 classic Women and Madness, subsequently turned her attention to men in a 1978 work, About Men. This book explored the male mythopoetic spectrum in a very sympathetic way, drawing on art and literature as well as philosophy, religion, and psychology.

But I think it is fair to say that few in the mainstream culture really paid very much heed to "men's issues" until the mid 1980s. There was still too much anger over women's problems – much of it justified, I believe, in light of the genuine and blatant legal and social inequalities that still existed. Where men and gender issues were concerned, the 1970s were characterized mostly by reactionary attempts to defend the patriarchy, a classic example, plucked at random from my store of old magazines, being actor James Caan's remarks about "liberated women" in his February 1976 Playboy interview with Murray Fisher. [Sample quotes: "I believe that the husband should be the head of the household, that he should be the boss – when it comes to the big decisions." "Men have run the family ever since the caves, and I think that's the way it's printed in our nerve endings, or we wouldn't have been doing it that way all these generations." "I happen to believe that a woman isn't truly fulfilled until she has kids – and raises them full time." "I'm not sayin' [women] shouldn't have equal voting rights, equal pay for equal jobs or any of that; but in personal relationships, I think the male is meant to be the final arbiter; and I really believe that if she's married, a woman's place is in the home – at least until the kids are grown." (He added that 70 percent of the women he knew would agree with him.)]

James Caan – or Jimmy, as his b.f.f. Mr. Fire says he prefers to be called – was certainly not the most radical or vocal defender of the "old ways," and no doubt his arguments would still hold up today in some religious and social circles, but in any event he probably would have scoffed at the idea of a men's retreat. And so, I imagine, would many other men back then, no matter what their views on feminism might have been. Things began to change in the mid-1980s with the beginning of those wild-man wilderness retreats, which became more popular as the nineties rolled around. It took a couple of poet-philosophers with pagan hearts to really get the ball(s) rolling. Robert Bly (Iron John) and Sam Keen (Fire in the Belly) provided just the right dash of mythopoetic inspiration to create a brave new generation of wounded warriors. Maybe it was simply another idea whose time had come. Or maybe the baby boomers were just bored. Yeah, I think that's it.

Inevitably, then, the lampooning began in earnest, via everyone from Joe Bob Briggs, with his classic from the heyday of the Wounded Men's Movement, Iron Joe Bob (lovingly dedicated "To Bobby Bly"); to Tim Allen (Tim's next-door neighbor on his TV sitcom Home Improvement, Wilson Wilson, Jr., was the quintessential middle-aged multi-culturally literate SNAG (Sensitive New-Age Guy)). I made my own (very) modest contributions to the merriment as well. One of my first efforts was a 1991 piece that took a couple of gentle swipes at the naked-wildman theme, among numerous other New-Wage fads. That piece was published in the Winter 1992 issue of Skeptical Inquirer. Then there's this, borrowed from the aforementioned Cosmic Relief. And there is this two-page "feature article" in Cosmic Relief [Warning about the latter: Crude humor. And in case you are wondering about the relevance, there was a very vocal and, in my opinion, sometimes ludicrous anti-circumcision contingent in the men's-rights movement. There still is; to my surprise, anti-circ billboards have been popping up in the most unlikely places all over Texas, including my little rural neck of the woods.]

Quite without my intending it, my inner snark was being richly fed as I continued to frequent the New-Thought church alluded to above. I had attended briefly years before that, but had begun hanging around there again because my business partner attended, and she talked me into getting involved in a committee for a relationship conference that the church was sponsoring. That's how I met Ron. The church had a short-lived men's group, many of whose members also participated in the church's various singles' groups and events. The participants were a personal-issue-obsessed lot, and I met more than one annoyingly whiny SNAG. Oh, my Goddess, the place was a hotbed. Ron was a notable exception to the SNAG demographic and was alternately as amused and annoyed as I was by the prevailing atmosphere. Within a couple of years of meeting each other, we had pretty much drifted away from the church, though we've remained close friends with a few folks who still attend.

As the millennium turned and the world moved on, I honestly believed that the Wild Man/Wounded Woman/faux-Native crazes were pretty much passe. Of course, I was wrong. The first Houston Press article about ManKind Project popped up, as noted above, in October of 2007. And then in October of 2009 the James Ray sweat-lodge debacle came to light. While not related to MKP, Death Lodge clearly demonstrated that in some circles the ersatz-indigenous craze was alive and well, though unfortunately the same could not be said of several of Ray's participants.

The ManKind Project itself is firmly rooted, so to speak, in the New-Wage Wounded-Warrior craze, and by many accounts was actually responsible for the original wild-man-themed retreat. Their first such event took place in January of 1985, according to some accounts, or in February of 1985, according to other accounts. Either way, it was probably pretty cold outside. Three men, former Marine Corps officer Rich Tosi, social worker and therapist Bill Kauth, and university professor Ron Hering (now deceased), took eighteen guys into the woods of Wisconsin on what was then called the "Wildman Weekend." I know what you're probably thinking: "Wisconsin? In the dead of winter?!? They had to be friggin' nuts, no pun intended!" Then again, Tosi was a Marine, which inevitably brings to mind a certain Geico car insurance commercial. Anyway, the Wildman Weekend rapidly morphed into the New Warrior Training Adventure.

Here's the version of MKP history, including some scholarly-like analysis of the whole mythopoetic men's thing, that currently appears on the organization's Web site. Those of you who are critical of New-Wage attempts to co-opt Native American spirituality will be particularly interested in the section titled, "The Influence of the Original Americans."

And here is a Texas-focused narrative "history" that appears on the ManKind Houston web site. The main writer of the article, Sonny Elliott, aka "Talking Hawk the Seer," wrote:

During the last three years of my consulting business, I would not take on a new client unless he agreed to come to Houston and take the training, as I knew that I could move him and his wants much faster if we had this common bond, especially around accountability issues. On one training I brought four men to Houston, and often one or two men at a time. Like Levi, I brought over a hundred men to NWTAs.

I noticed that although the piece quoted above was apparently compiled in December of 2008 (the 4/91 designation in Sonny's sig simply means that he took his first Warrior training in April of 1991), there is no mention of Michael Scinto's case. In fact, there seems to be no mention of Michael Scinto whatsoever on the MKP Houston site. I guess that is a part of their history that they would rather forget.

But the world keeps turning, and in October of 2010, MKP International celebrated its 25th anniversary at the Galt House Hotel in Louisville, Kentucky. Over the years the organization has inspired numerous offshoots, including The Inner King Training, described as, "An advanced, experiential four day training that initiates men into sovereign, kingly energy." The link in the previous sentence leads to a rudimentary page; here's another one, only slightly less rudimentary, that lists the benefits you'll gain, noting that "you'll get all of these benefits 'in your body' -- in your heart, your guts, and your balls -- not just your head." The organization offers a free mini-course online, but "if you really want that 'Kingly Way Of Being' to become an effortless part of who you are as a man, then you probably want to consider coming to the Inner King Training." No word on whether or not paper crowns are offered, like they used to give away at Burger King. But if you're interested, the history of the Inner King Training is recounted here.

But we're different! Really, we are!
You don't really have to read between the lines on MKP's main Web site to figure out that they're on the defensive and have been for some time. As implied above, they've pretty much come out and admitted as much. There has been considerable fallout from Chris Vogel's Houston Press articles and Warren Throckmorton's blog posts, not to mention the discussions on critical forums (
here is a link to the very long discussion on the Rick Ross forum, and here's a much shorter one on the New Age Fraud forum). In response, the ManKind Project folks have expended an impressive amount of time, energy and space on their Web site addressing various accusations. (If you read the FAQ page for the Houston MKP group, though, you'd think there never was any controversy at all.)

When ABC News did their September 2010 story about the California attorney's lawsuit, they naturally brought up the Scinto tragedy. Carl Griesser, executive director of the ManKind Project, offered his insights.

"I personally have a lot of sadness that Michael Scinto died the way he did," Griesser said. "It's a tragedy. I don't see his participation [in the seminar] as being contributory in any way."

Griesser admitted that negative publicity had tarnished the image of the ManKind Project, which was created in 1985 as a male answer to the women's movement. Through responses on the group's website, Griesser is trying to combat the perception of some that the group is a cult.

"It makes us sound and look like a bunch of idiots," he said.

No, Carl, it makes you guys sound and look like a pack of obsessed cult members. And you guys are doing that to yourselves; don't blame the "negative publicity." The MKP site explains, among other things, that MKP does not use brainwashing techniques; that there's a reason for all of the secrecy; that all of the nekkid stuff is totally voluntary and non-sexual, even when the naked guys are gabbing about their sex lives; and that MKP is not a bunch of New-Wage money-grubbers.

Let's take the money-grubbing issue first, with a couple of questions from the FAQ page on the MKP Web site:

Are you just trying to sell me a bunch of products?
No. We hope that you will participate in the organization at a level that you're comfortable. We hope that you will join a men's group - most of which are completely free.

How do you make money?
The majority of our organizational income comes from the tuition for our trainings. We run with a balanced budget to the extent possible. The ManKind Project has no brick and mortar headquarters, though several of the individual centers do. We have a very small staff of paid employees, and some Committee Chairs are offered a small stipend for their service. We also raise money through donations, and through inexpensive membership fees in some areas. We earn a small amount of money each year through the sale of ManKind Project goods, like hats and shirts. No one ever has, and no one ever will, get rich from the ManKind Project. That's not what we're about.

Well, MKP is a business, and of course there's nothing wrong with a business making money. And perhaps the MKP people are not making obscene amounts of cash on the order of the schemers and scammers that Salty Droid likes to skewer on his blog. Yet MKP is no stranger to the standard LGAT-style hard-sell and soft-sell tactics to get guys to sign up and keep signing up. In his October 2007 Houston Press article Chris Vogel wrote:

It costs $650 to attend the initiation weekend, and then an additional $190 to attend eight weekly Integration Group meetings where men discuss how to incorporate the organization's philosophies into their everyday lives. Suggested activities to do during the Integration Group meetings include shaving another man's face, kidnapping a member of another Integration Group, and changing clothes with another man. Additionally, members can choose to pay hundreds of dollars more to work as staff members during retreats and to take advanced training courses, so they can rise within the organization's ranks and one day lead an initiation weekend. Members also pay yearly dues and are encouraged to make donations.

Granted, that was written a little over three years ago. But $650 is still the average fee for the New Warrior weekend, according to the FAQ page for the New Warrior Training Adventure, although the going rate now seems to be $750 in Houston. I can only assume that the rest is still reasonably accurate as well.

One of the aspects of MKP that frightened attorney Steve Eggleston, and was mentioned in his lawsuit, was the impression that participants in a New Warrior training are not allowed to leave the training, that once they're there, they are all but trapped until the weekend is over. This too is addressed on MKP's FAQ page.

Why are we asked to carpool?
We ask all men who come to the training, including staff, to carpool. Occasionally there is limited parking space, but our primary reason for car pooling is to begin to challenge the isolation with which many men live their lives. Great friendships have been borne between NWTA participants simply by sharing the journey into self-discovery with another. We also take our environmental impact seriously, and carpooling is a significant way to shrink our environmental footprint.

What if I decide to leave? How will I get home?
When you arrive at the training site you will be asked if you are willing to do everything necessary to get what you came for. If you decide you want to leave, one of the weekend leaders is likely to challenge you to stay by reminding you of this commitment.

Many men experience a time on the weekend when they no longer want to be there. Some ask to leave, and then decide to stay. The vast majority are glad they did. This is part of the process; we expect it to happen, just as many of us experience days when we would rather leave our jobs, leave our relationships, run away from our responsibilities. We will ask you if this is one of those times that staying might serve you more than leaving. And then, if you decide to leave, we will help you do that. If you decide to leave the training, we will either return your keys to you if you drove, help you make phone calls to arrange transportation, or have a staff member drive you home. You are free to go, and we will ask you if it’s what you really want for yourself.

This sounds so reasonable, not to mention ecologically correct, but I bet they weren't all that reasonable when Michael Scinto tried to leave back in 2005. I have no doubt they've liberalized their practices a bit in the years since then, but it appears that some of the manipulative tactics are alive and well, as evidenced by the language in the explanation above. The implication that wanting to leave the training is akin to running away from responsibilities is straight from the LGAT playbook.

Inevitably, MKP had to address the enormous elephant in the room: Chris Vogel's Houston Press article:

Are you really as weird as the Houston Press article says?
We know we're a bit unusual, even controversial, but we're nothing like the Houston Press described in their article. Our Executive Director Carl Griesser has written a response to that article... [SEE BELOW. ~CC] We are proud of who we are, the work we do and the positive impact we have had on more than 40,000 men.

Here is the link to the first part of Carl Griesser's rebuttal to the Houston Press article.

Regarding that therapy issue discussed above, Griesser writes that MKP does not practice therapy. He says that instead they see their trainings as being akin to "experiential education programs such as Outward Bound," explaining that like Outward Bound, the trainings are "intense and personal group experiences, designed to challenge participants to develop new awareness and skills." Chicken hammering and proselytizing are useful skills to be sure. On the issue of licensing and certification Griesser has this to say:

In those states which license therapists, therapy is typically defined by a licensing board, and those definitions vary from state to state. It’s certainly true that some of our processes could be used in group therapy. That does not mean, however, that when we use them we are acting as therapists. Most of the processes we use were developed by unlicensed workshop leaders unrelated to MKP. I believe that what makes our training unique, and uniquely effective, is the sequencing of processes to create an initiatory experience. I think the real question at issue is whether our processes involve some risk to participants, and, if so, whether our leaders and staff are competent to facilitate them. The answer to the first question is yes, and because that’s true we have an extensive training program for leaders and staff. On every NWTA three to five certified leaders supervise all processes, and personally lead the most challenging ones. We have now initiated over 40,000 men and almost none have had significant emotional problems during or following the training.

On a separate page, Carl Griesser addresses what he calls the most "outrageous accusations," e.g., that on the New Warrior Training Adventure dangerous and coercive mind-control tactics are used, as are bizarre processes, some of which involve nudity. Among other points he justifies the secrecy and the requirement that men relinquish their possessions during the training:

In traditional cultures surprise was an important element in the process of initiation, and many of us in the U.S. recall the miniseries Roots in which boys were snatched by the men of the village and bags were tossed over their heads. The men who choose to come to our trainings obviously are not snatched from their homes – they come of their own volition. Still, we believe it is important to create a clear separation from “normal” life. For this reason, the initial processes on our training are designed to wake men out of the slumber of their daily lives. They are not “stripped” of their possessions, but they are expected to relinquish possessions which will distract them from being fully present for the training, and their possessions and persons are searched to make sure they have not brought illegal drugs or weapons. Most of us are not used to this type of treatment, and some men find the process uncomfortable. However, it is never meant to be bullying, shaming, or coercive.

Well, Carl, it may not be intended to be bullying, etc., but you know what they say about intentions and Hell.

As for the chicken-hammering ritual, while Griesser says he has never actually seen it happen, he concedes that it might occur in some groups, but that it is intended to be self-parody.

Our intention is to invoke the jester as a way of remembering not to take ourselves too seriously. While most of our processes are carefully planned, this one is left to the imagination of a few staff men who create it. I’ve never seen chickens being hammered, but it could happen. For the record, these would be well-cooked, tasty chickens, and, yes, this does sound completely bizarre when described out of context. In context, it’s usually simply very funny.

Out of context, it's pretty funny too, actually.

Here are more links on the MKP Web site explaining secrecy, nudity, and some of MKP's other major PR challenges.

I would be remiss were I to let this topic go without pointing out this inevitable Q&A from the FAQ page:

Are you affiliated with James Arthur Ray or the Spiritual Warrior Training?
The ManKind Project is in no way associated with James Arthur Ray or the Spiritual Warrior Training. We are deeply saddened and extend our heartfelt condolences to those affected by the October 2009 tragedy in Sedona, Arizona.

Apart from its understandable desire to emphasize its non-affiliation with James Ray, MKP very much wants to communicate that all of this 'splainin' is in the service of transparency and the wish for men to make more informed choices about whether or not to sign up. It's also a way of attempting to put the controversial practices into context for the benefit of outsiders; after all, a common complaint MKP has about the media is that the reports of ritual nudity and the like are taken "out of context."

MKP's more recent communication efforts are better than utter secrecy to be sure, yet I find it hard to overlook the fact that most of the "transparency" came only after MKP's hand was forced. Michael Scinto's parents had to keep raising hell, and people such as Chris Vogel and Warren Throckmorton had to keep writing about it, until finally changes were made to MKP's propaganda and some of their policies, if not necessarily to their actual practices during retreats. There's nothing like negative buzz to make an org scramble to save its image. But even with the "transparency," they're still doing much of the same nutty stuff, and, it seems, keeping the business alive by creating obnoxious proselytizers who, like Eggleston's employer, apparently feel obliged to pressure employees into attendance.

All of this makes me wonder: How beneficial to consumers is MKP's, or any LGAT's, self-imposed "transparency?" MKP's changes were, as Warren Throckmorton and Michael Scinto's family noted, a step in the right direction. But "Caveat emptor" is still pretty sound advice here. For beneath that veneer of raw honesty – which in a sense has become just another marketing tactic for LGATs and some Internet marketers – it seems to be business as usual. There are times I seriously wonder if critical bloggers and investigative journalists are doing much more than unwittingly providing their targets with loads of free marketing advice, giving them the ammo they need to fine-tune their pitches to an increasingly suspicious populace.

My take on all that MKP 'splainin'
As far as I'm concerned, apologists can argue till they're bluer in the face than my profile pic, but many of the points that MKP is striving to make in their "no-b.s." approach are moot. Whether or not ManKind Project officially falls under the category of "cult," for instance, is almost beside the point. What seems apparent to me is that like so many other similar organizations that aggressively encourage ongoing participation, MKP fosters an obsessiveness, not to mention a predictable sameness in speech and behavior, among long-term members. When I look at that ManKind Houston post linked to above, for example (and
here it is again), I am struck by how obsessive author Sonny Elliott appears to be, even stating that at one time he didn't accept clients for his consulting business unless they agreed to take the Warrior Training. I'm struck too by how consumed he seems by his role of wise elder to his MKP brothers, and most of all by how self-consciously faux-Native the whole shtick appears. (I mean, really: Talking Hawk the Seer?)

Regarding the matter of "dangerous and coercive mind-control tactics," I always try to take a more moderate stand on these issues, ever conscious that when discussing matters such as mind control it's easy to come off like a wacked-out conspiracy theorist. While I don't see anything sinister in MKP's intent, it is mind control of a sort – a point that, all good intentions aside, seems apparent in the results. I've read the glowing testimonials and am not trying to invalidate anyone's positive experiences, but I would still argue that MKP, like most LGATs, inevitably produces a sub-culture of men who, though originally in search of a more "authentic" life (whatever that means) nevertheless end up as robo-members, parroting the party line and doing what they must to gather more members into the fold. That's a pretty cultish result, even if MKP isn't a cult in the classic sense. This doesn't mean to imply that all members are disengaged from life; certainly many claim that MKP has helped them more fully engage in their lives and relationships, and some of them seem intent on doing good in the world. But there is also something inherent in the very structure of the organization that encourages robotic behavior. For the most part, as I've said countless times before, I find the robo-phenomena merely silly or annoying. And yet there is the occasional tragedy – Sedona and San Diego; the Turning Point suicides; Michael Scinto's case – that gives me real pause to wonder how benign some personal-growth groups, including MKP, really are.***

Some might ask how I could have devoted so much verbiage to claiming sympathy with men's issues, even presenting my own bona fides, such as they are, and still remain so snarky and critical about the ManKind Project. In case it isn't obvious from context, both here and elsewhere on my blog, I would simply answer that question by noting that I am also sympathetic to women's issues (being a woman myself, and fairly well-schooled in feminist as well as anti-feminist thought), and I am sympathetic to addiction issues (being a recovered alcoholic); yet the snark and critic are alive and well on these fronts too. I've made plenty of fun of women's issues and 12-step groups. My perspective is a product of my own experiences and observations. YMMV and all that.

The beat(ing) goes on...
The lawsuits, the criticism, and MKP's resultant need to endlessly explain themselves have apparently not slowed the organization down very much. Their activities are not just confined to the United States; they've had an international presence for many years. A UK journo, Tom Mitchelson, ventured out on an MKP weekend and
wrote about it in March 2010 (thanks to Warren Throckmorton for the link).

Here's how one day ended and the next one began for Mr. Mitchelson...

It's very late. I am tired and hungry and even my sleeping bag in a freezing yurt with strangers seems attractive. It's not. I don't sleep because, a couple of hours later, the rhythmic banging of drums begins.

A man appears at the door: 'Men, we have work to do.' We are ordered to strip and line up for a cold shower. While each man steps under the water, the others watch and count to 60.

Sounds like fun, doesn't it? And later...

As I am led, blindfolded, naked and freezing, I am strangely resigned to this new, weird way of life. The other men in the group are all relaxed about such a journey.

In the candle-lit room, we are led by hand around the circle of men. Our animal names are called and all the men cheer.

With horribly vivid images playing in my mind of pot-bellies, male genitalia and saggy bums, I return to my yurt and sleep for a couple of hours...

Even more fun, and drearily familiar to anyone who has been following stories about MKP. Later Tom sums up his thoughts.

The overriding message of the course seemed confused: That we were suppressed warriors and had become emasculated; that we had to reconnect with the wild man; and to get in touch with our feelings. It was 21st-century New Age meets Neanderthal man.

The cult-like intensity with which some of my fellow warriors converted to the brotherhood astonished me.

I had been given a chilling lesson in how easily - and how fast - the kind of men I rub shoulders with every day can alter: can become aggressive and subservient by turns; and gripped by something strange.

And something else shocked me. This was an organisation that aimed to tell me how to be a man.

Yet not once during that weird and frightening weekend did I ever hear it acknowledged that we men share a world. With women.****

I shook my head as I read this, almost feeling that I was in a time warp. Was this piece really written last year, or in 1990?

Meanwhile, here in 2011, the case of the California lawyer, Steve Eggleston, awaits resolution, which may come soon. A motion for judgment on the pleadings is set for January 28. That could possibly end the case, with the court deciding that even if the stated facts are true, there is no viable case. Or the judge might allow an amendment, giving the plaintiff a chance to come up with new facts and file an amended complaint. Alternatively, the court could decide that the case is legit as is, which means that it possibly could go to trial, but an attorney I know tells me that only about 2% of cases go to trial. Most settle.

In any case, I'm rooting for Eggleston. And I'm hoping that more employees have the courage to follow suit (pun intended) when subjected to similar pressure from bosses who are personal-growth fanatics – even if there's no potential nudity, chicken-hammering, or cock-talking involved. In the Bloomberg piece I cited above, Susan Antilla suggests that Eggleston's case may have launched a whole new genre of harassment suits from guys who "are determined to keep their pants on."

As we move into the second decade of the new millennium, I fully expect the "men's movement" to continue in various guises, and for the ManKind Project to continue to hone its message in order to neutralize the criticism that just won't go away. But as far as I'm concerned, Joe Bob had the whole thing nailed, nearly twenty years ago.

PS ~ If you just can't get enough of Joe Bob – and I can't – here's another one of his classic works: The Cosmic Wisdom of Joe Bob Briggs. His piece on an imagined conversation between classic hustledork Zig Ziglar and a man with no arms is worth the price of the book. Sadly, this collection of truly cosmic wisdom seems to be out of print, and no, you can't have my hardcover first edition. Joe Bob, if you're out there, bring that book back! And I need to get you to sign my copy.
PPS ~ Speaking of court cases, we're less than three weeks away from the beginning of James Arthur Ray's trial on three counts of reckless manslaughter.
It begins February 16, 2011. Meanwhile, Ray continues to tweet insensitively and inanely, or to allow his minions to tweet for him (same difference).

* Yes, I confess: I am a fan of Two-and-a-Half Men.
** July 25 is my sister's birthday, so it's an easy day for me to remember. But I am also thinking that it should be some sort of remembrance day for those whose lives have been destroyed by LGATs and selfish-help. Not only was July 25 (2005) the day that Michael Scinto's family learned of his suicide, but July 25 (2009) was also the day that
Colleen Conaway leaped from a third-story balcony in a San Diego Mall during a James Ray "wealth" weekend. As it happens, the Transformational Leadership Cartel also holds its summer meeting around that time. (This year, the meeting is actually from July 27-31. July 27 is also Whirled Musings' anniversary; this blog will turn five this year.)
*** Even so, as I discussed at length
on a March 2010 post, I am still not inclined to push for draconian regulations for the selfish-help industry or outright banning of some of the more controversial events.
**** Ladies, contrary to the implication made by that UK journo I quoted above,
MKP has not forgotten us. On their site they link to some similar programs for women – programs that are not affiliated with MKP but that march to the same mythopoetically enhanced New-Wage drum. There is, for example, Woman Within International. Besides their basic Woman Within training, they hold all kinds of workshops on everything from sexuality to healing the wounds of incest to healing shame. Costs are not listed on the Web site, though, because, according to their FAQ page, the weekends are held in such a wide variety of facilities. And then there's the Women In Power Program, which teaches us gals how to discover our "Inner Predator." (Warning to Inner Kings sharing a den with a newly self-discovered Predator: please take proper precautions to protect your manly parts.)

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Monday, January 10, 2011

Snippets for a Monday afternoon

Happy New(ish) Year! It's past time for me to get back to my Whirled; no more excuses. While I'm putting the finishing touch on several longer posts, and churning out content elsewhere for pay, here are a few snippets.

What's wrong with this (big) picture?
New-Wage guru-ette
Marianne Williamson, who first rose to fame in the early 1990s by popularizing A Course in Miracles with her book, A Return to Love, has been an Oprah fave for years. Marianne's stock-in-trade is flowery, poetic writing that is often lovely to read but has a tendency to be kind of rambling, while offering very little in the way of practical advice. (Kind of like this blog, come to think of it, except for the flowery and poetic writing and the being-lovely-to-read bit.) I met Marianne years ago at a book signing in Houston, and because in my brief conversation with her she exuded what seemed to me to be genuine kindness, I still tend to give her, perhaps against all reason, a little more of a pass than I do other New-Wage superstars. But her latest opus... jeez.

The story goes that Marianne was standing near Oprah one day when the latter was chatting about dieting. As most of us know, Oprah has experienced dramatic weight losses and re-gains – repeatedly – over the past couple of decades. According to the story Marianne tells, she said to Oprah, "If you could have done it by yourself, you would have done it by now." Oprah asked Marianne to 'splain, and Marianne said she would reply by email. Subsequently she sent Oprah several letters detailing how Oprah or anyone else should ask God for help to move forward from food addiction or compulsive overeating, and the accompanying emotional baggage. At some point – we're not told exactly when – Oprah suggested that Marianne turn those emails into...hold on to your hats, Dear Ones, because this is really unprecedented...a book. And the result is A Course in Weight Loss, published in November 2010 by, appropriately enough, the New-Wage fiddle-faddle factory Hay House.

The title of the book is, of course, a blatant marketing ploy, and if you're at all familiar with the history of A Course in Miracles (aka ACIM), you'll also immediately notice that the cover of A Course in Weight Loss is vaguely reminiscent of the design of the classic ACIM book covers, consisting of simple text with a border and solid-color background. If you're not familiar with ACIM, suffice to say that it is a New-Wage study course with an impeccable spiritual pedigree, having originally been channeled by an atheistic Jewish woman, Helen Schucman, Ph.D., straight from Jesus H. Christ Himself. The success story of ACIM and Marianne herself are neatly encapsulated in this informative graphic. (Click for enlargement. And yes, I know I've shared this pic before. Sorry about the redundancy.)

Marianne's newest book is all about retraining your consciousness and healing your separation from Gawd, which, she explains, is the true cause of your portliness, anorexia, binging and purging, or what have you. "People report that just from reading this book they're losing weight," says Marianne, according to the Houston Chronicle article I linked to in the second paragraph of this snippet. Oprah herself listed A Course in Weight Loss as one of her "favorite things" of 2010.

The elephant in the room, if you'll pardon the metaphor, is actually a thundering herd of elephants. One hardly knows where to begin. There are several problems, apart from the glaringly obvious fact that Marianne herself has apparently never had a weight problem remotely on the scale (no pun intended) of Oprah's. "Well, gee, Cosmic Connie, that could just be because Marianne takes her own advice," you might say. If you believe that... um, you know those sayings about oceanfront property in Arizona, or bridges for sale?

So let's examine some of the elephants. First of all, that story of the origins of the book seems...well... a tad contrived. Oprah has long been in tune with all of the trends and ideas of the conspicuously enlightened set, embracing everything and everyone from Eckhart Tolle to, most infamously, The Secret. She has supposedly been in touch, almost ostentatiously at times, with her spiritual side for years. She has known Marianne Williamson for years as well. How could anything that Marianne says or writes possibly be so novel to her that she would even ask what Marianne meant by that remark during their conversation about dieting? Or was Oprah just making polite conversation? Or did the conversation actually occur as related? Something about that story doesn't quite ring true to me.

Secondly, the use of spirituality (whether of the New-Wage, Eastern, or Bible-thumping Christian variety) to aid in weight loss is hardly a revolutionary concept. If the blending of spiritual or religious concepts with weight issues is supposed to be a unique selling point for the book, the author and the promoters are kind of behind the times.

Third, Oprah is lavishly wealthy, and besides having her finger on the pulse of cutting-edge spiritual and pop-psychology concepts, she has easy access to all of the world's very best fitness trainers, dietary experts, and methods of medical intervention that she could possibly ever desire in order to achieve permanent weight loss, if such a goal were even possible for her. And indeed, she has had personal trainers and chefs and Lord knows who and what else to aid her in her struggle for years; contrary to the implication in Marianne's remark to her, it doesn't appear that Oprah has been attempting to to do it on her own for a very long time.

Fourth, just look at Oprah. While I think she's lovely at any weight, I have a strong feeling that being even remotely trim is going to be a lifelong struggle for her no matter what she reads or how she tinkers with her relationship to Spirit. I'm not making fun of or trivializing her weight struggle or anyone else's. I'm just making observations.

Could it be that Oprah was just trying to help out a gal pal whose star is kind of fading, by suggesting a quick and easy money op? Ya think?

In any case, Marianne is now making the rounds to promote and sign her new book. She'll be in my neck of the woods this coming Thursday, giving a lecture on what seems to me the painfully self-explanatory "The Lure of the Miraculous." Don't look for me there. I'll be staying home experiencing the miracle of The Big Bang Theory and $#! My Dad Says.

A Course in Methane Miracles: who's gonna step up to take credit?
One of the biggest disaster stories of 2010 was
the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico last April. It was bad news to be sure, but as it turns out, it wasn't all awful. Texas A&M oceanographer John Kessler and fellow researchers recently published a study concluding that hordes of hungry bacteria have gobbled up nearly all of the estimated 200,000 tons of methane the spill released into the Gulf of Mexico. And the microbes performed this feat faster than anyone had previously predicted, without creating the expected oxygen-deprived "dead zone" in the ocean. Not everyone is convinced that the bacteria alone were responsible for the fact that the methane is all but gone, but some journos are calling it "the methane miracle."

Now I'm wondering who is going to be the first in the New-Wage community to step up and claim to have provided the power behind that miracle.

Will it be Phoenix, aka the Spirit Diva, aka Judy Marks, the gal who not only communicates with hurricanes but who also led not one, not two, not three, but twenty-three meditations on the Gulf oil spill?

Will it be Mr. Fire and his sidekick, Pat, who last year announced a "clearing" audio to clean up the mess, featuring Pat's music and Joe's weird vocalizations, which they claimed had awesome powers to tune listeners into the collective unconscious, thus enabling them to impact the oil spill and anything else perceived as being bad?

Or will it be members of that cultish sex-and-money (dis)organization, Access Consciousness (née Access Energy Transformation), who are experts in "Molecular Demanifestation" and "Demolecular Manifestation," and who are going to attempt to demonstrate their expertise by going out on a boat and demanifesting a giant glob of plastic in the ocean? Perhaps a group of Accessories will step forward with the claim that they've been practicing their skills on the methane from the BP oil spill, in preparation for their big ocean voyage (on which they will embark once they have taken care of basic details, such as manifesting a boat).

Or will it be some other New-Wage entrepreneur claiming that it was his or her frauduct or metaphysical superpowers that cleared it all away? Guys and gals, there's a huge money op here. What are y'all waiting for?

Accessories on the loose: monkeys and typewriters

Speaking of Access, in an Access post I wrote last year, I mentioned that a former Access insider shared some of the hooks that Access founder Gary Douglas and his right-hand boy, Dain Heer, have used to sucker participants into continued participation. Among these hooks, my correspondent wrote, were the "clearing statements."

Gary originally and then Gary & Dain together would come up with what they said were new more powerful clearing statements - all the time. So if you missed classes or workshops, you didn't get the 'clearings' from these new and great clearing statements, and you didn't have them to process yourself with or process your clients (if you had any). While I was participating I observed many accessories try to make a 'go' of doing Access facilitation to create income. Most could not and no facilitator was raking in the money like Dain.

The other day someone forwarded an email to me that had been sent out by an Access facilitator who claims to be a relationship expert. This is a person who, among other things, teaches people how to stay married and happy, and also coaches women on how to find happiness and fulfillment as The Other Woman. (In Access, any type of sexual arrangement is apparently okay as long as it is satisfying to the Accessory.) During a recent "relationships bootcamp" call, the facilitator shared a new Access clearing statement:

What secret agenda for the creation of confinement, definement, and avoidance of choice and question pressurizing you utterly into stillpoint through sex copulation and relationship do you have that maintains and entrains what you cannot change choose and institute as life and living that is bigger than the reality of others?

Right and wrong, good and bad, all 9, POD, POC, shorts, boys and beyonds.

When I shared that clearing statement with my guy Ron, he said, "That kinda nails down the thing about monkeys and typewriters, doesn't it?"

Au contraire, Ronald! Far from being the result of random pecking, the clearing statement is in fact deeply meaningful. I'm willing to bet that the first paragraph can be easily understood after taking a few Access classes, downing a few Very Special Brownies, or consuming a large amount of the alcoholic beverage of your choice. Anything that severely compromises cognitive function should do the trick. (If you're wondering what "stillpoint" means, however, you'll have to listen to the bootcamp call to find out.)

The second paragraph is actually the classic original Access clearing statement, according to the former Accessory I mentioned at the beginning of this snippet. In use for many years now, it's a sort of shorthand, with each word having many meanings, according to the Ex-cessory. An early Access web page stated, "This phrase unlocks and erases all the programs, agreements and judgments which keep you stuck throughout all time and space." It's a phrase that is generally used after a "process question" to clear all of the energies – good and bad, right and wrong. Some of the things that are cleared include...

...implanted and explanted stuff, perpetually and/or eternally regenerating and all of the relays, spheres, uns, atomic, subatomic, pre-atomic structures, confluences throughout all time, space, dimensions and realities, ad infinitum.

All of these things were taught in Access One, at least at the time my correspondent was involved. I think they're taught in Scientology too, come to think of it.

But what do those weird things like "POD," "POC," "all nine," "shorts," "boys," etc. mean?

According to information on an Access web site...

POC is short for "point of creation." This means you are asking the energy to go to the point of creation (the moment where you first began functioning as though whatever thought, feeling or emotion was actually yours) and uncreate and destroy it, so that you can now function as the infinite being you truly are.
POD is short for "point of destruction," where you started destroying yourself by functioning from those thoughts, feelings or emotions that were not yours.

My Ex-cessory correspondent 'splained the rest to me:

  • All nine refers to the "nine layers of garbage" that Accessories are taught to eliminate. Each of these layers has a power of its own.
  • Shorts stands for "the meaning, the meaningless, the punishments, the rewards, the layers, the non layers, the meaningless glop and the glop." Hey, makes sense to me!
  • Boys refers to "the 22 nucleated spheres," which Accessories refer to as "the boys in the hood." These are issues that tend to repeat themselves no matter how often we work on them. Clear as a bell, eh? Although I would think that "boys" should be spelled "boyz" for cultural consistency.
  • Beyonds are "the usual feelings and sensations that stop you dead."

Now it all makes sense, doesn't it? I bet this is some of the stuff that Gary Douglas got from his old pal Raz, or Rasputin, as most of us know him.

The former Accessory tells me that Gary always used to say it didn't matter what order the words were said when repeating the clearing phrase. In that respect, the Access clearing statement is like the Four Magic Phrases of Ho'oponoponoponoponoponoponoponopono. Cool, huh?

When I shared Ron's comment with the correspondent who had forwarded the info about the "relationships bootcamp" and the latest Access "clearing statement," that person replied, "Honestly, he's so judgmental." "Judgmental" is kind of a dirty word in Access and, indeed, in much of New-Wage culture.

"But I'm not being judgmental," Ron protested. "I was merely pointing out some scientifical data."

Indeed. Besides, Ron and I both happen to like monkeys. We just think they should be kept away from typewriters, keyboards and phones.

* * * * *

That's it for now; more to come soon.

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