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Dreams of Masculinity

Copyright © 1999 by James William Thomas


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When I was twelve, Mike Daly and I used to go downtown to the midnight horror movies, and it was there that I experienced for the first time an unexpected and overwhelming emotional intoxication. When up on the screen the vampire’s shadow fell across the naked white neck of the prone and beautiful young woman, and he swept down, penetrated her with his teeth and began sucking the vitality out of her body, a rush of warm and dangerous blood trembled through me. It was the paradigm of my earliest ideas of love, having the sort of compulsive power that can only be generated by an inner vacuum. Yet a power nonetheless, a primal power or hunger that no analysis can completely encompass, no morality contain, no amount of enlightenment or self-sufficiency completely free us from. Sometimes, " is," as Rilke writes,

...nothing but the beginning of Terror

we’re still just able to bear

and why we love it so

is because it serenely disdains to destroy us.

Duino Elegies

A quarter century later, I see in the vampire’s bite, a man’s endless hunger for the vitality and sensuality in a woman that he has become cut off from in himself. I see in the image of Dracula bent over the entranced woman and sucking her blood, the inevitable outcome of a man’s desiring who has been socialized into a hostile relationship towards all things in himself we in our culture call "feminine."

He is left to go through her, to consume and devour her separateness. As the steady popularity of the vampire image attests, there is something very sexy and seductive in this submission and devouring (the roles of which are not necessarily determined by gender). Our notions of romantic love sponsor a similar form of attachment to other where we are most self-estranged. But it gets a lot less sexy after the opening scenes, as I have found again and again in my adult relationships. And so I have been led back inside, often through loss and dreams, to the places I have most abandoned and rejected myself.

As men, we have been expected to abandon and repress ourselves in order to live up to a code of masculine stoicism and performance. But the psyche’s own psychological remedies prescribed through the dream imagery, provide ways for healing into more wholeness.

The Shaman who came to me in a disco in a dream to lead me into the cave of myself has become my new totem for love; it begins by taking the overpowering energy flowing out of the vacuum of the self and into the image of woman (success, ambition, or some similar obsession), and following it back to the secret sources of the self, what Emily Dickensen called, "That fine prosperity/ whose sources are interior." It is less sexy than the vampire hunger for attachment, but in the long run perhaps more beautiful.

Whereas the vampire represents a hungering for and controlling in others what we are cut off from in ourselves (i.e. the condition of being externalized), the shaman symbolizes introversion, awareness of and connectedness to inner processes, inner resources that masculine culture (or what many call "patriarchal society") has tended to discourage and even punish in men so they could perform more effectively the roles of provider, protector, producer—the three P’s—at the same time requiring (and rewarding) in women the sensuality, gentleness, nurture, and connectedness to others forbidden men.

The shaman has for millennia been the soul healer of a tribe, the witch doctor and spiritual visionary, "...the one who restored life, who found lost souls, and who discovered the causes of misfortune. He was the one who restored wholeness and fullness of being to individuals and communities..." (Moore and Gillette, King, Warrior, Magician, Lover) Over time, the shaman has become "the archetype of awareness, ... the archetype that governs what is called in psychology ‘the observing ego’," that part of us not ruled or restricted by social roles, ego defenses or fears, the watcher within that is able to observe ourselves without getting caught up in our masks, personas and reactions to people and situations. The shaman symbolizes the attentiveness and introversion necessary for reconciling us with what we have become alienated from in ourselves through our experience in the family and society

Many of us, traditionally men but increasingly more and more women, face a struggle to overcome the pressure to be a performer, a producer, a success object. (Her self-alienating role as sex object has been well decried by feminism, whereas his debilitating alienation has been more blamed than understood.) When a man undergoes this process of transformation and starts becoming more conscious of his relationship to himself, his priority of performance and external success is gradually transposed with a richer relationship to himself, his feelings, the people and things around him. The need to perform becomes less important than the need to experience; the injunction to do gives way to the need to be; this is the beginning of a conscious and nurturing relationship to oneself. When we are coming from this still point in ourselves, what we end up doing comes more naturally and corresponds more to inner needs and resources. Then we are more resonant and fully expressed no matter what we do; this is because when we’ve consciously begun to relate to or assimilate the deeper self; we aren’t going against our deeper currents to compensate for our fears, insecurities, or to win the approval of others.

The problem comes when, as men, we take on the roles of producer, performer, authority in a way that precludes having a relationship to other needs, feelings, vulnerabilities, and to these in others. And this is one reason we have traditionally valued—and at times become perilously dependent on, both as individuals and as a society—women’s expected role of being emotionally present and nurturing for us when we have found to our utter dismay that, while having become such stoic performers, we don’t know how to be with ourselves. When we become externalized in order to establish ourselves as "successes," we hold others hostage to the vacuum we create within.

To the extent masculine consciousness—and status—has depended on controlling outcomes in the external world, we are more likely to become estranged from our inner landscape. Stoicism invites us into a denial of our spontaneity and vulnerability; it alienates us from ourselves and isolates us from others. The denial that we are wounded or have needs is the deepest wound of all, because without awareness and feeling there is no healing. This is why dreams have become so central to psychotherapy: our dreams still remember what has become unconscious in us, what we are estranged from and rejecting in ourselves.

One of the fundamental truths that emerges from studying these dreams is that when we seek (as I so often have) to attach to someone else at the places we are most self-estranged or have abandoned or are hostile to in ourselves, loss or a wounding is often the mode of the soul that calls us back into a more conscious and intimate relationship with ourselves. Without it we can’t be on intimate terms with any body else. When we try to by-pass our shadow, it falls on those closest to us in the form of unconscious projections. And when we seek to disown our shadow or wounded self in a relationship to someone else, the psyche intervenes, often in the form of dreams—to wound us into the more conscious relationship we need to be having with ourselves. This deeper awareness of ourselves is, above all, what the dreams are interested in, and this crisis is what brings about the visit through the dream by the shaman.

It seems remarkable to me that the initiatory guidance I had been lacking from my upbringing and culture was provided to me in the form of dream after dream that kept waking me up to my predicament and the possibility of transformation. A dream can provide us this initiatory guidance even when we aren’t aware that we’re lacking it. In this sense, as Fox Moulder of the television show The X-Files, puts it, "A dream is an answer to a question we haven’t learned how to ask." My studies of dreams in a clinical psychology program at The Evergreen State College [with dream specialist Dr. Richard M. Jones], and my interning as a psychotherapist, had attuned me to the peculiar language in which dreams often speak, and their uncanny capacity to mirror in miniature the most important dramas of our lives. The shaman in the disco revealed to me both the sources of my self-estrangement and a way to re-integration and wholeness, even when I wasn’t aware of the problem. Reflecting on that dream over the years summoned up many others that I realized, in retrospect, had provided similar guidance throughout my life.

When a son experiences his father and other men as emotionally and physically unavailable or negating, it doubles his dependence on his mother, and women thereafter. From his father’s absence, inexpressiveness, or critical distance he not only learns not to rely on men for emotional nurture and support, he learns not to rely on himself. He internalizes the estrangement from father and men as something wrong with himself—something inadequate at the core of his humanity, and this maroons him somewhere between his father alienation and his mother dependence.

The absence of the father, uncle, grandfather or mature and self-aware elder, and the absence of any meaningful social rites of initiation into his inner resources or a deeper level of awareness makes it all the more difficult for the son to separate from mother and the dependencies of childhood. [This is of course also true for the daughter, but that’s a different story.] With the mother complex unresolved and his self-image wounded, he enters intimacy with a woman unable to stand his own ground, unconsciously ready to enmesh with her as infant and then distance and cut off from what suddenly feels like a terrifying and shameful loss of self—the dance between the iron man and the infant.

A man’s deepest wounds often remain most unconscious, which prevents him from healing into a greater intimacy with himself and thus with others.

I have come to see the trap of seeing men and women in terms of masculine and feminine, in terms of gender. We are more similar than we are different. And yet the differences abide mysteriously—a little too mysteriously when we remain unaware how our cultural and familial experience has shaped us along gender lines. The deeper we go into ourselves as individuals, the less distinctions such as "masculine" and "feminine" matter, the less our gender socialization or familial experience constructs who we are. To the extent we are not aware of our cultural, familial and gender inheritance, it constructs who we are without us having a choice in the matter. A serious appreciation of how men and women are socialized differently ultimately enables us to appreciate the primacy of the individual. Then and only then can we begin to live the spirit behind the phrase: viva la difference! Bringing this into awareness is a function that dreams perform reliably well.

What we are alienated from in ourselves, we are likely to want to possess control, or shame in another. What we don’t know about ourselves falls like a shadow on those closest to us in the form of unconscious projections. It is up to each individual in his or her own way to become conscious of and heal what their socialization and family experience has set them apart from in themselves and what rewards and punishments may or may not have encouraged the person we want to be.

Since feminism has for the last thirty years been the dominant critique of male as well as female roles in our society, a few words are in order regarding feminism.

Feminism and women’s studies programs in colleges across the country have asked how "patriarchal" culture has alienated women from their "power," their wholeness as individuals. This has helped to free women from alienating stereotypes, expectations, sex and social roles, and in some ways helped to free men as well. But to the extent feminism has equated a woman’s experience of powerlessness with male power, it misunderstands men (and male alienation), often while blaming them. In its just concern for how our society has alienated women from themselves and excluded them from a voice or social power, feminism has tended to emphasize and exaggerate the dark side of men and masculinity, while emphasizing female suffering and victimization, and mythologizing female sensitivity and "superior" capacity for love and nurture. It has largely ignored the dark side of women and positive images of men and masculinity. This latter shortcoming impoverishes both men’s and women’s imagination and ability to reach toward any ideal of masculinity, and thus toward any ideal of union between men and women. One can’t idealize women while demonizing men and still have enough left over for the possibility of love.

The angrier feminists have developed a language—a shorthand- - laden with assumptions, generalizations and judgments which are inordinately easy to impose on all men. This has negatively colored our collective image of men and masculinity, so that even his strength, his wildness and desire can easily be devalued as mere "machismo," "chauvinism," "sexism," or adolescence. His hard work, dedication to the family, his agony and creative genius, his poetry and suffering get knocked as "patriarchal privilege," "old boys network" advantage. His sexual desire is both titillated and shamed by the same women, and until recently there has been little room in this country for his self-respect, let alone his soul. And yet men continue to die 10% sooner than women, commit suicide and succumb to drug and alcohol addiction four times as often as women, and take on 95% of the hazardous jobs in the country while suffering 95% of the injuries—including dying in wars. (Warren Farrell, Ph.D., The Myth of Male Power) And on top of this, when, as Dr. Farrell found, one factors in expenses, the average net income for male heads of households in the United States is actually less than for female heads of households. Yet the popular notion is that "men have all the power".

The language feminists often use to describe men is too often a language of blame, not of understanding. This is not to devalue a woman’s suffering or to dismiss the need to transform social roles; it is a necessary corrective to a perspective that is all too capable of causing more harm than good, more fear than hope, more blame than understanding. With many people, and in many women’s studies classes, it has already been the cause of more divisiveness than healing. We can’t go on trying to heal girls and women without trying to understand how boys and men are wounded.

Meanwhile, men have no such ready-made nomenclature or social shorthand to describe—let alone validate—how they feel victimized by the social roles they are nonetheless expected to fulfill, or to describe their experience of the dark side of the mother and women as abusive, heartless and insensitive to his needs and his experience. He has no language for this despite the fact that many reliable studies show that female to male violence is roughly equal to male to female violence, both between couples and from parents to children.

My aim here is not to win bragging rights for victimhood, but to show that we as a culture—because of thirty years of feminist dominated social criticism—are sorely lacking a language and conceptual framework for understanding men’s experience of powerlessness, fear, needs and love. Without this, sons can’t leave childhood, and men can never grow up. This cultural climate, coupled with an absent or unavailable father, makes it all the easier for a young man to accept definitions of himself that are oblivious and hostile to his experience of love, desire, creativity, grief, needs, powerlessness, fear and isolation—definitions of himself and other men that are oblivious to his needs as a human being, his humanity. Thus denied a language for his innermost feelings, he becomes doubly alienated from and hostile to these places in himself. It takes both men and women, fathers and mothers, to give a son belief in his own humanity. Any perspective or attitude which denies him that, helps to create rather than heal the monsters they most fear and loathe.

Feminism has made both possible and necessary a similar critique of male socialization. This work is of great urgency since our socialization is by and large failing to help young men and women move from childhood to adulthood. One need only check out the statistics of gang violence to find out how fatherless sons are fairing in our country. Murder is the leading cause of death for black males between the ages of fourteen and twenty four. (Farrell) And daughters who experience absent or negating fathers grow up damaged as well, expecting, preparing for, and to some extent helping to bring about their worst fears of men.

The problem with masculinity (as with femininity) is in the ways it alienates us from our wholeness as human beings. Both men and women become alienated from significant parts of themselves in their socialization along gender lines. As the psychologist Harville Hendrix succinctly puts it, men still get rewarded for being "stoic and assertive," and women for being "helpful and cute." (Keeping the Love You Find) Farrell sees traditional gender roles as still emphasizing women as the "sex object," and men as the "success object." Others have pointed out that women are allowed tears and men are allowed anger. Whatever the imbalances, it falls on us as individuals to reckon with them.

Those fortunate enough find the proper balance or guidance, or a good therapist, perhaps, who enacts the initiatory rituals the shaman has stewarded for centuries and which have in our tribe grown cold and blown away like the ashes of a sachem’s ceremonial fire. Initiation in our tribe has become largely a matter of economics and survival, which means there isn’t much of it happening on a psychological or spiritual level—(unless you count organized religion). Consequently, so much more depends on what happens in the family. And yet, the extended family of uncles and aunts, grandparents, grandchildren, nieces, and nephews that brought old and young together and gave children a variety of mentors, is increasingly a rarity. And to make matters worse, in the majority of homes both parents are working and have less time than ever for their children, who become, as in the first dream, marooned on paths that don’t lead us out of our childhood dependencies and traumas.

To trace where most of us have become self-alienated leads us back to our experience of our parents whose behavior has also been shaped by social expectations, social and gender roles. For a man, his self-alienation often leads back to his experience of his father as emotionally unavailable or unreliable, and his consequent dependence on and unconscious resentment of the mother and feminine. The mother-son relationship is no less important, but my angle on masculine consciousness and its relationship to intimacy with women begins with his experience of his father and the cultural fathers as absent. This is not the case for all men; it is the case for many men, and possibly most men, perhaps without them even being conscious of it, since the lack of awareness of one’s wounds is central to the condition of consciousness that I’m concerned with here. While I learn from my dreams, my own dream is to help come up with a language for understanding, rather than for blame.

This article is from James’ book The Shaman in the Disco and Other Dreams of Masculinity: Men, Isolation and Intimacy, awaiting publication. James is a Seattle author and musician.His e-mail address is

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