Bert: I know something about your work, especially family
and "inner child" work. When we think of the "men's
movement" we think of men's rights or Robert Bly and the
mythopoetic. Then there's John Lee, on therapy and healing. There
hasn't been a lot of specific focus on therapy and healing in
the "men's movement," although when you go to a local
gathering you'll find a lot of Alcoholics Anonymous people there.
I thought I'd use that as an opening, to let you talk about your
perspectives on men, the "men's movement" and the kinds
of things that come up for men.
John: John Lee, Doug Gillette and I will be doing a retreat
together in Atlanta on November 6th, 7th and 8th. That will be
the first time that I will have actually done a men's workshop.
I was interviewed by the Austin men's council some years ago,
and I've always been open to men's issues, but I just haven't
had time to get around to it. I had other things that I was doing,
primarily in the area of the impact of child abuse on adults,
which metaphorically we call the inner child work. But in that
work over 200,000 people have attended the workshops I've done
over the years, and at least 40% of them are males. It didn't
start off that way, but as the years went on we saw a continuing
increase in the number of men in the workshops.
Bert: What do you attribute that to?
John: I think that possibly the "men's movement"
has something to do that. Certainly the change of consciousness
about doing healing work and our new awareness of the impact of
childhood abuse on adult life has been a factor. More and more
we're seeing men being more responsible for their own wounds and
their own vulnerability. This is all old hat, of course, but men
didn't show emotion. You didn't show another man your vulnerability,
because that was part of your strength. At least that's the way
it was taught. As we have said, "Wait a minute, that's not
true! Actually the strongest people are the ones who can be vulnerable,"
we've really gotten that message. The message that it takes strength
to be vulnerable. I think more and more men have moved toward
doing therapy and healing work.
Bert: I remember that a while back you'd go to a personal
growth seminar or workshop and it was 90% women.
John: It's true, no doubt about it. When I was interviewed
by Time and Life and Newsweek they all wanted
to know if this was just for women. Those people constantly disdained
any kind of movement by men. I don't know if you've experienced
this in the "men's movement." I know that John Lee and
Robert Bly have shared with me some of the painful stuff they've
had to deal with. They're always looking for a "hidden agenda"
and why this is hokey.
But I think, more and more, the whole idea that it's OK to be
vulnerable, it's OK to be with your pain, it's OK to cry, it's
OK to grieve, is being accepted. I did therapy for 20 years. My
own belief about the fundamental of therapy is that the majority
of the people who came to me needed to do grief work, in some
form or another. They were dealing with loss, childhood loss.
It's also the basis of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Grief is
one way to describe what Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder is. A
lot of the inner child work, healing of inner child wounds, that
I do is grief work.
So I think there's been a tremendous openness, and even a leadership,
among men in moving into those areas, to come together and share
their pain, cry in front of each other, and to nurture and be
there for each other. I think it's one of the best signs of our
Bert: Your workshops are mainly mixed-gender. Have you
ever broken them up into men-only or women-only?
John: I have not done that, simply because it hasn't been
the direction I've gone in. I certainly haven't shunned Men's
Work. In fact, I've always said I was going to move into Men's
Work some day.
I have a male support group that I've had for 17 years now. In
fact, we met this morning. That's been a great consolation to
me in my life, to be able to share with men. These are guys I've
been in AA with for 30-plus years. We just have this wonderful
sharing once a week, where we share our feelings and give each
other sensory-based, non-advice feedback, which we have found
to be the best thing. It helps us focus on, and be in, our feelings.
Bert: And men have this "thing" about advice,
John: Well, men and women, as a matter of fact. The thing
with advice is that it gets into interpretation. Unless you're
really paying somebody to interpret, most of the time people are
projecting their own hallucinations, their own experience, on
you. And that can be very, very dangerous.
We set our group up very carefully. Being a therapist, I could
set up some rules that the guys I was with wanted to follow, in
the very beginning. We do periodically say, "This is my opinion
about what's going on with you," but we add, "This is
probably more about me and my experience than it is about you,
my own hallucinations about you." That's very helpful in
that it keeps it out of subjectivity. That's the danger of interpretation.
Bert: I think of subjectivity, but I also think that a
lot of people seem to be hurt and offended if you don't immediately
see it as "wisdom" and follow it. They don't offer it
on a "take it or leave it" basis.
John: Exactly! That's the other piece of it. Advice or
feedback is given as a gift. You either take and use it, if it's
valuable to you, or you don't. If somebody gives you a pair of
socks, if they fit you wear them, and if they don't fit you don't
wear them. A lot of people have trouble seeing it as that. I think
it's because a lot of us have been raised to be very judgmental.
So a lot of time we feel we are being judged because a
lot of the time that was happening in our upbringing.
Bert: And because we know our own tendency to judge others.
John: That is one of the worst things that goes on. I'm
writing an article right now for one of the national magazines,
on anonymity in 12-Step programs. Anonymity is the spiritual basis
which, theoretically, should keep people from taking other people's
inventory, or keep them from gossiping. However, that goes on.
An unbelievable amount goes on. I had a man break my anonymity
some years ago, and I still have to deal with it. I've been sober
for 32 years. Somebody was on the Internet saying that Bradshaw
was drunk, or had just had a slip. There was a guy in Los Angeles
who got up at a public AA meeting and talked about a national
figure who got drunk in Phoenix because he quit going to meetings.
This guy dislikes the emotional work I've been leading. But once
you start saying things like that in public, it's difficult to
get that out of consciousness. I think that what we say is sacred,
and we need to be very, very careful about what we say about anybody
Bert: Why are the people breaking the anonymity? Is it
just a general tendency, that I will feel better if I can tear
John: If you want my opinion, that's what I think is going
on with this guy. At that time, I had a treatment center in California.
This is a guy that thinks that treatment centers are bad. It's
the Nazi-AA stuff, "there's only one way," "my
way or the highway." I think that we have to get to the idea
that there's a difference between "tradition" and "traditionalism."
Tradition is the living faith of dead people, and traditionalism
is the dead faith of living people. In AA we have some of that
dead faith of living people. A lot of 12-Steppers get very rigid
and authoritarian. That's why I call it the Nazi group. And it
violates the whole principle. The genius of Bill W. and Dr. Bob
is that we work this program as we understand it. There's no "right
way" to work it. But, somehow, there's a tremendous power
in gossiping, putting other people down, judging and criticizing.
And that goes on. I certainly have experienced that, painfully.
If you're a public figure, there's just a sense of wanting to
put you down.
Bert: That seems what the media want to do. That's what
the media want to know about these figures, how they can get the
dirt on them.
John: Yes, having lived through it now for almost 15 years,
I can say it's a frightening thing to watch them go at things.
In the early days when we were having 8,000 or 9,000 people coming
out to our workshops, it was never, "What is going on that's
valuable?" It was always, "What is the deal here? How
are you ripping these people off?" It astonishes me that
we can't look at something and at least initially say, "Here's
what's good, and here are the boundaries of danger with it."
Or something like that.
Bert: I keep thinking of the mobile you used on your PBS
series John Bradshaw on the Family, the one that represents
a family in balance or out of balance. If you were to view society
as a family, and the media as one of the siblings of the family,
how would that dynamic work in a family setting?
John: The way I've always seen the media is as the critical
parent. We come out of a patriarchal culture. When I say "patriarchal"
I don't mean just male, because women can be quite matriarchal.
In other words, I mean a structure where one person has all the
power. I think of the media as the critical parent, always trying
to find out what it is that you did wrong. I remember being in
the bathroom once as a kid, hearing one of my aunts saying, "Whatever
you're doing in there, stop it!" In other words, as a kid,
whatever you're doing you're always wrong.
I think that the media is always into demanding an accounting.
I think that some of that is really valuable. I think that they
help expose a lot of sham-ful things. My only wish is that they
would talk about what's good about things before just trying to
tear it apart. I know that both John Lee and Robert Bly have been
just devastated at times by the media going in there, especially
Robert with the mythopoetic and the drumming. The media just goes
in there and tries to rip it apart, without trying to experience
it. I've seen men who have put their lives together coming out
of one of those kinds of experiences.
Bert: Don't you have the same thing in inner child work?
Here you have a guy teaching guys to go hug teddy-bears.
John: Absolutely! When I did the national program with
KQED in San Francisco I had a man who was an ex-Bandido, ex-offender,
on the program. A Black man. He was hugging a little stuffed green
frog, doing a piece with that. It was one of the most moving things
I'd ever seen, because I knew where this guy was coming from.
The press just did an absolute hatchet-job on him. It was like
it was the most ridiculous thing they'd ever seen, a grown man
hugging a green frog. You can imagine, taken out of context, how
crazy it does sound. But in context, this guy was working on his
pain and his own father's abandonment. It was a moment of self-nurturing
that came out of it. It was really important that he do that work,
and he was willing to do it. We had a group set up at the Center
for Recovering Families and we offered it for free. He couldn't
have afforded to do the therapy.
They've done an absolute hatchet-job on the inner child work,
to the point where I actually avoid using the term. They have
set up such a bad connotation with it. I recently had to get Newsweek
to apologize for sticking my face in an article called "Why
We Love Gurus." Bly's face was stuck on it, too. It was a
terrible article. These gurus promise you immortality, and if
you follow them you won't have to deal with suffering and death.
It was ridiculous.
Bert: Something sounds backwards here. You were talking
about grief earlier. Robert Bly invites men to do that descent
into the ashes and do that grief work. You and John Lee encourage
men to do that difficult work. Yet the media seem anxious to shame
men for doing this work.
John: Exactly. And it is difficult work. What I
see happening is that when it comes to the press you have a lot
of "defended" people, people who are in their heads
and do not want to deal with that kind of pain. So what they do
is ridicule it. I've been there. I've done it. When I didn't want
to deal with my hurt and pain, one defensive way that I took to
get that out of the way was to make fun of it. Generally, when
people are making fun of something they don't understand it's
because they need to do it themselves and they're afraid to do
I do think that there's a wonderful movement afoot, through John's
work and Robert's work, of people being willing to do this work.
There's nothing more powerful in my men's group meetings than
when a guy is sharing something painful and begins to cry and
has the support of other men, that male mothering, that male bonding.
I remember a guy in my group who is a brilliant and powerful personal
injury lawyer. I'd known him for years, but not known him. At
one meeting he got into sharing how afraid he was to go into the
courtroom. It just blew me away. I never thought this guy was
afraid of anything, least of all the courtroom! In that
moment of his sharing his fear, I felt closer to him that I had
ever felt in our 19 years of knowing each other.
That's the miracle of vulnerability. There's no way to be intimate
unless, appropriately, you can be vulnerable. There's an appropriateness
for it. I don't think we should be running around, constantly
putting our victimization out on the table. There's an appropriate
place to do that. I think there have been some abuses with that,
which have repercussions. I'm thinking of people going on national
television talking about all their sexual abuse. There may be
an appropriate place for that, or an appropriate context, but
we need to be careful with it.
Bert: That seems to be a difficult balance. I wonder if
you could elaborate on that.
John: As a counselor, it was very important for me to be
able to share some of my own pain, but only when it was appropriate.
In other words, to have someone walk into my office and just start
talking to them about my addictions would be totally inappropriate.
But I have known of therapists who have, and they think it is
making them one with the person. Often what it is, though, is
something else. They don't see that they need to be there for
that person, not have that person there for them.
I think the same thing is true on a national scale. I think that
in this day and time, that there may be a value in certain contexts
for breaking public anonymity. There's always an issue in recovery
programs, between private and public anonymity. Private anonymity
is anonymity within the program, by which I mean you don't try
to make yourself better than anybody else. You don't try to make
yourself special. You're nobody special, you're just another drunk
or another man working on our issues. You're not the star of the
men's group. But public anonymity was there in the beginning to
protect the program. If Betty Ford got drunk tomorrow, it isn't
going to affect my sobriety one bit. I'd be sad that she did.
But I'm certainly not at risk to drink because Betty Ford got
So I think, once again, that there may be a place to disclose
your anonymity that's helpful to others, where you have a good
sense it'll be helpful to somebody else. There may be good sense
in getting up and talking about your sexual abuse in a context
where it could be very helpful to the public. And I think certain
people have done that. But there's another sense of exploiting
your abuse, as a way of getting identity, getting attention. And
I think certain people have done that. I certainly think that
Rosanne was doing that at a certain point, when she was talking
about her abuse. I don't know what her abuse was, and I don't
want to judge, but it seemed to me to be very exploitative at
a certain point. At least for myself, if I feel that there's a
context where people can really be helped by talking about my
recovery from addiction then I'm willing to talk about it.
Bert: We have an example of that up here. This man needed
to be in AA for quite a while before he could get in touch with
the issues around being a male survivor of childhood sexual abuse.
Some people have said of him that he seems to be wearing that
on his sleeve. But at our monthly men's gathering he would get
the talking stick and share the story every once in a while. One
of the reasons he did that was that invariably other men would
come up to him and talk to him, asking how they can get help with
this. There are an awful lot of sexually abused men out there
who aren't in touch with each other.
John: Exactly! And I think that's an appropriate thing.
I think there's a real value in talking about that in a context
that will help others. That sounds like a very appropriate way
of talking about it.
Bert: What we're trying to do on MenWeb is encourage men
to tell their personal stories. Of course we guarantee their anonymity,
which is even trickier in sexual abuse than in AA work. Yet the
more personal stories we put out there, the more men might come
forward with their own personal stories. And the telling of the
personal stories is a healing process, too, isn't it?
John: Yes it is! What happens in 12-Step meetings? People
get up and tell their stories. I think that is an extraordinarily
valuable thing to hear. I remember when I first started going
to 12-Step meetings and hearing other people talking about alcohol
addiction. I thought these people had been living my life! It
was a tremendous thing for me, to suddenly have the relief, that
somebody else had been through this.
Stories motivate us. There's nothing like a moral story, or a
story of goodness and valor to help us own our own goodness or
want to be good. I'm messing around with a book that, for lacking
a better title, I'm calling "Returning to Virtue." I
don't know when I'll get this done. I'm struggling with it. But
I put on the Net an offer for people to send me stories of virtue,
of people they knew.
I think you teach virtue better through stories, and modeling,
than you ever would through coercion and, "Here's what you
must do, and if you're not good I'm going to punish you."
I think our way of teaching virtue in the past has created much
of the violence that we experience. Here we are the most violent
society in the world and you wonder why, because we have all these
people who claim to believe in God and go to church on Sunday.
But much of that teaching is so judgmental and coercive, and creates
rage in people.
Bert: I've heard a lot of stories that seem to follow that
pattern, that people who are very "religious" are the
ones who end up abusing their kids, even sexually abusing them.
It's seen as part of the punishment or the "judgment of the
John: Actually, I wrote about this in Bradshaw on the
Family. If you truly believe in what Alice Miller calls "the
poisonous pedagogy," which is really the rights of the patriarch,
then you own your children. If you own something, why can't you
use it? What I've tried to point out is the dangers of the patriarchal,
monarchical family structure. Look at Nazi Germany. It sets you
up for a dictator. It sets you up for somebody to tell you what
to do. Ultimately, there's rage that's repressed when people are
being coerced. That's going to be acted out somewhere along the
way. Most people act it out on their own children. They act out
their own patriarchal upbringing and coercion on their kids. I
think that's a tragic thing. But it's going to be re-enacted.
Abuse, physical or sexual abuse, is often a re-enactment of the
abuse that the persons themselves have had themselves. This is
the first time in human history that we've understood this.
That's why I think it's so terrible when people are blasting the
work we're doing. Here for the first time in human history we
understand how abuse works and how abuse sets us up for adult
problems. Gosh, we should be welcoming it with joy and reverence,
seeing that it's a great advance to know these things. I think
many of us have that joy and reverence and are celebrating it,
but the old order dies slowly.
Bert: I'm wondering about the implications for the next
generation, now that we're more open about talking about our vulnerabilities
and recognizing these patterns. Are we breaking that cycle of
these inherited patterns?
John: All I can talk about is out of my own experience.
I definitely think so. I see my friends who are into this. I see
the men who are trying to be good fathers and are committed to
being good fathers. It seems to me, when I look at my own children,
that I couldn't be more grateful for the significances in their
own lives. I don' think I'm in any way perfect, but I certainly
did the child-rearing tons better than was done for me. I'm proud
of my children.
I think we're making an impact. Both of my kids, early on, have
gone to counselors to deal with their pain. Initially I reacted
to that, but then I realized that it was wonderful that they were
willing to deal with their hurts and pains.
Bert: What was your initial reaction?
John: I thought, "My God! I'm John Bradshaw and I've
written all these books," and I was sort of setting myself
up that I had to be a perfect parent.
Bert: There's something wrong with you if your kids need
John: Yeah, typical of my addictive personality, wanting
to be all or nothing. Now that I'm sober I've got to be a perfect
parent. If they go to counseling, it means I'm not a perfect parent.
But I got through that, and I'm glad I was able to deal with that.
In answer to your question, I think it's much better than it's
ever been. There are so many men looking at this stuff. I think
of the Promise Keepers. I don't agree with the religious, patriarchal
premise, but I think it's wonderful that a bunch of men are trying
to be more responsible. I have some doubts about how this is going
to turn out, but I think the initial energy is, "Let's be
responsible fathers. Let's assume our responsibility and commitment
to being good men."
Bert: I think of all those religious fundamentalists who
are getting together man-to-man in small groups, being open, vulnerable
and honest with each other in their own personal lives.
John: I think that's great and I think we should laud it,
even as some of us may not be able to follow some of the patriarchal
Christianity that it involves. But at least it's a step in the
right direction. It's part of a general phenomenon that's going
Bert: You were talking about fathers. One of the main themes
in Men's Work is men working through their relationships with
their fathers. Fathers come up in a lot of contexts. But sometimes
we forget about women's relationships with their fathers. Are
they dealing with the same kinds of issues? And what can fathers
do to be more responsive to their daughters' needs?
John: Well, I think that male and female sexuality develop
slightly differently with respect to mother and father. Bly has
talked a lot about it and quoted a lot of psychological work that
points to it. In some ways a female's sexuality is initiated by
her father as she breaks away from mother. Here's this powerful
male that she wants to be attractive to. I think it's important
for fathers to be there for their daughters, in a loving, nurturing
way, showing their daughters what it means for men to be vulnerable,
and to have some degree of intimacy. Not that there can ever be
a complete intimacy between a parent and a child. Some degree
of intimacy, in that the father is interested in her, values her,
finds her attractive and comments on her prettiness. I think that's
enormously important. I think women also get a sense of security
with having a father present. There's something about the absence
of a father, as has been said many times, that creates insecurity.
I know that's been true in my own life, and for many of the men
who I grew up with. We all came from homes with absent fathers,
and we felt terrified, really.
Bert: Physically absent, or absent emotionally?
John: Both. Mine was absent physically, but for the other
guys, the father was there but he wasn't there. But I think the
actual physical absence is worse, because there's a complete sense
that there's no one to protect me. I was fortunate to have a grandfather
who did come in and help us out. There was always a sense that
he would finally protect us if we needed it. But I think that
with people who have no father at all, there's a sense of insecurity.
I think the impact of that is that a woman will look for a male
to be the father she never had, and will be more motivated by
security than by love. That causes lots of problems.
Bert: Robert L. Johnson has a book, Lying with the Heavenly
Woman, that talks about the six or seven female energies that
a man has in his life. He says that we shouldn't confuse the mother
with the sister, or the lover with the wise woman.
John: I love the work that he does. He's honest about his
own, in a sense, inability to be social or vulnerable. But we
need guys like that. We had scholars when I was in seminary, that
worked on manuscripts that no one else had worked on. Those people
are important for the history of human thought.
Bert: They're kind of important for role-models, too, because
not everybody fits into your scenario. You grew up as an "ordinary
guy," but I was more the "bookworm" type.
John: It's important to realize that there are all sorts
of backgrounds, and each of us in our own way is searching for
this kind of stuff.
I was a smart kid in school, but used to play down my smartness.
You got teased if you were too smart.
Bert: Oh, I remember that! The only way you could get away
with being smart was to be an athletic letterman.
John: Exactly. Or if you cheated for everybody else. Everybody
would want me to give them the answers. So I could get away with
being smart if I would share the answers. That was kind of tragic,
really. I know that a book-learning boy has his own unique problems.
Bert: And now your work is leading you from family to focus
John: I'm very interested in that. My own life has pushed
me in that direction. It's great to sit with a group of men, now
all of us aging, and talk about our fears of death and growing
old, our aches and pains, and having to pee five times a night,
or whatever. Worrying about prostate issues. It's wonderful to
have comrades to share that stuff with. There's a way of sharing
that is different. I can share many things with the woman I love,
but I can't quite share everything. There is an enormous value
to having a man friend in my life. I'm interested in it, because
that's where I am in my life. I've always been interested in it,
and have always thought it important. I've always thought the
"men's movement" is an enormously significant thing
because men have been so adverse to vulnerability, crying and
therapy. To have a bunch of men now willing to go into therapy
and do therapeutic work is an enormous achievement of this generation.
Bert: I understand you're going to be doing a men's gathering
with John Lee and some others, in November.
John: I'm looking forward to it. I haven't talked to the
other guys, but I'm excited about it.
First of all, I'm happy to be there. John and I started a friendship
over the phone long ago, and I helped him get his first book,
Flying Boy, published. We had never met. We talked on the
phone for a year and three-quarters before we ever physically
saw each other. I'm excited about working with him.
I hope that my part of it will be to talk about male spirituality.
I have a lot more thinking to do about that, but I think that,
just as it hasn't been "fashionable" for men to cry,
it hasn't been fashionable for men to go to church or be spiritual.
Many who were kind of turned everybody off. I think it's important
to talk about male spirituality more in a Jungian sense. Just
as we were talking about when we talked about Robert Johnson,
there's something that comes from the father that can't come from
anybody else. It can't come from the brother. The idea of a father-god
is important, just as the idea of a mother-god is important.