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Inner Child, Inner Man

An Interview with John Bradshaw

Copyright © 1998 by Bert H. Hoff

This article appears in Vol. 1 #2 (Spring 1998) of Men's Voices journal.
 Men's Voices: So men can find their voices and speak their truths

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John Bradshaw is internationally known for books such as Healing the Shame that Binds You and Homecoming: Reclaiming and Championing Your Inner Child and his Public Broadcasting System series Bradshaw on the Family and Bradshaw On Homecoming. In November he will do a menís retreat in Alabama with John Lee. Menís Voices editor Bert H. Hoff recently interviewed him by phone.

John Bradshaw
John Bradshaw

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 time.

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, don't they?

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 else.

Bert: Why are the people breaking the anonymity? Is it just a general tendency, that I will feel better if I can tear you down?

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 it.

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 drunk.

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 patriarch."

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 help.

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 on.

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 on men.

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.


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