Beyond the gender wars: Three books by Terrence Real

Terrence Real, I Don’t Want To Talk About It (1997)
Terrence Real, How Can I Get Through to You? (2003)
Terrence Real, The New Rules of Marriage (2007)

After going through a major relationship crisis last summer (now thankfully resolved), I was searching for solace in the used-book section of my favorite bookstore and came across the title I Don’t Want To Talk About It: Overcoming the Secret Legacy of Male Depression. I devoured it in a matter of days, and quickly sought out psychotherapist Terrence Real’s other two books, amazed at the light they cast upon not only my immediate dilemma, but on larger familial, cultural, and indeed global issues. These are some of the most helpful “self-help” books I have ever read, and have been real game-changers for me at a difficult time.

Real’s argument is that boys are systematically discouraged from experiencing the nurture and connectedness that all humans need in order to become psychologically healthy and strong. Even without overt trauma in their lives — which is all too common — the cultural expectations for males in our society tend to leave them inwardly wounded and emotionally inept. The symbolic image for this is “separating from the mother,” which is forced upon most boys much too early. There is so much fear in our culture of being consumed and engulfed by the female realm that boys are subjected to shaming, criticism, and outright abuse for not being strong and independent at far too young an age.

In adult life, these men carry a burden of depression that is not recognized or treated — depression itself being considered a “female disease.” They carry on a cycle that was generally handed down from their fathers, and pass it down to their children, who often act out the dysfunctionality that they refuse to recognize and heal. And their marriages frequently fall apart, when their women have had enough.

Because men do not learn how to be intimate, connected, or emotionally aware while still remaining appropriately themselves, they can’t understand why their wives are unhappy with them. Trained to mask their underlying sense of inadequacy and shame with grandiosity and belligerence, they may frighten women and children into silence or flight, or trade a difficult spouse for a more admiring and compliant one. Or they may simply retreat into a confused state of baffled hurt. Through multiple case studies, Real describes how men and women in his therapeutic practice have been able to come through this impasse, when they bravely take up the work of facing covert depression and the underlying trauma that created it.

How Can I Get Through to You: Closing the Intimacy Gap Between Men and Women extends this view, focusing on methods of communication and interaction that build intimacy within male/female partnerships. Real reiterates the message that the bifurcation of human experience into two mutually incompatible categories serves no one. For true healing to take place, we need to recognize and honor needs that are universally human, even though they may present differently in male vs. female experience.

And we need to recognize the abusive legacy of “false empowerment,” through which men are encouraged to cover up a core of buried shame, fear and rage by keeping themselves in a position of dominance over others. This is not a man-only phenomenon, of course; women, too, are now able to empower themselves out of relationship and intimacy as well. The problem is not in either gender’s tendencies, but in the imbalanced relationship between them, the deeply ingrained contempt of one side for the other.

In fact, the traditional privileging of masculine over feminine qualities is one of the most destructive forces in our world. Feminism has made great strides in allowing women opportunities traditionally granted to men — which was necessary, but not enough. The opposite, equally necessary movement has not taken place, for obvious reasons. What man wants to give up his grandiosity and privilege to become “downwardly mobile,” to become humble, receptive, and vulnerable? What person in a “one-up” position wants to give up that power, in order to receive the greater gift of true intimacy and connectedness?

Only the truly courageous ones, many of whom are profiled in Real’s books. They want to reconnect, they don’t want to lose their wives and children, and they are willing to work hard to make this happen. They embark on a journey of facing their own early trauma, learning new skills and techniques for workable, respectful relationships, and recovering the heartfulness they lost in childhood.

It’s not only men who have to do the work, although women have a head start in recognizing and trying to do something about the problem. (Nearly all couples’ therapy is initiated by the woman.) There’s a therapist’s catchphrase: “Everyone is either blatant or latent.” If men in general tend to be the “blatant” ones, acting out with more overt behavior like addiction, battering, and infidelity, women tend to be the “latent” ones whose sharp perception of the faults of others often functions like a screen protecting them from their own unhealed wounds. Once a man has begun to change, they need to learn how to accept and adapt to that change, and not continue to punish him in lieu of others who have hurt them in the past.

When such unhealthy patterns can be transformed, an amazing kind of inner alchemy takes place. As Real puts it, “vicious cycles” are turned into “charmed circles,” with one partner’s positive steps reinforcing and encouraging the other’s. The New Rules of Marriage is a manual with systematic steps for creating such a relationship, through wise and loving practices that leave each partner feeling heard, respected, and empowered.

Even if you are not married and never plan to be, I think these books are worth reading. If nothing else, they shed light on the phenomenon of the wounded, falsely empowered child-men who are currently running our country and our planet — and on the premature, misguided separation from our great Mother (the Earth) which is driving us into the coming environmental catastrophe. We all need to learn that we can be intimate and strong, independent and connected. Each of us, whatever gender we identify with, needs access to the full range of human capacities, if we are to stop the cycle of destructive rage which results from the split into polar opposites. It may have played a role once, but that time is over.

Books like these give me hope that a better world is possible, that change is in the air and that we can move in a positive direction when we commit to living with honesty, integrity, and love. Marriage, with all its trials and challenges, is the goal of life — marriage to our true selves, to one another, to our world. I’m so glad to have encountered these helpful guides along that path.


Classics Club: Herland

Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Herland (1915)

Herland is a thought experiment: what if there were a society on earth composed entirely of women? How would it develop? What would it achieve? And what would happen if and when it encountered the world of men again?

This is the premise put forth by Gilman, a prominent sociologist of her time, with three male explorers in an unidentified savage wilderness coming upon such a land of women, which thousands of years ago was cut off from the outside world. Similarly to the Houyhnhnm section from Gulliver’s Travels, in which a society of horses is found to be infinitely superior to that of human beings, Herland is portrayed as a paradise of peace, plenty, and wisdom. The three men, who represent three different attitudes toward this feminine utopia — complete acceptance, complete rejection, and, in our narrator, something between the two — are captured by and slowly integrated into this new world.

Plausibility is not the point here. The first problem of an all-female society — how to reproduce — is cavalierly solved by the convenient miracle of parthenogenesis. The development of electric cars, printed books, and other technology in such a limited, confined area strains credulity. And one would expect that even without men, there would be at least some jealousy, backbiting, and other unpleasant emotions, rather than the perfect harmony that reigns in Herland.

But again, that’s not the point. The point is to imagine that the traditional image of women — that they are unintelligent and weak, only fit to serve men — is false, and that feminine intelligence and strength are only being held back by a regressive, oppressive masculinity. By now, this is hardly a new idea, and while it’s interesting to see it played out in fictional, dramatic form, it’s lacking in subtlety. The women of Herland are not rounded enough as characters for a satisfying work of fiction, but this also weakens the novel as a polemical tool. They’re more like clones than real people — they did all come from a single common ancestor — with a hive-mind mentality that makes the perfect society a little too perfect, and that fails to recognize the real consequences of a one-sided development. The feminine principle has negative aspects as well as positive ones, and if we ignore the former we cannot truly comprehend it, nor its place in our full, two-sided humanity.

The disturbing side of Herland is only challenged by the “bad boy” of the trio of explorers, and while one can hardly condone his obsession with subduing and mastering the women, by making him so unpalatable Gilman disguises some legitimate objections. A society that leaves no room for imperfection, change, or creative conflict will lead to stasis and ultimately death. The women want to re-introduce men into their land, but it’s not clear why or how, since they still want to keep everything else exactly the same. While the portrayal of women as brave, strong, and inventive is stirring, there’s no sense of what therefore men can contribute to Herland — other than serving as stud in order to widen the gene pool. And that’s a rather oppressive thought right there.

Herland ends abruptly with the narrator and his bride leaving for the outside world. I hadn’t realized that there was a continuation, With Her in Outland, and that might bring some more balance and nuance to this initially one-sided presentation, so I’d like to seek it out. Even with its shortcomings, I did find that Herland raised some fascinating and important questions, which in our time are more important than ever to wrestle with. We all need to use our imaginations to try to create a better world, and such exercises can help us to find our way forward, even if they can’t provide a blueprint that works in reality.

Classics Club List #77


New Release Review: A Man of Genius

Janet Todd, A Man of Genius (2016)

ManGeniusWhat happens when an eminent scholar and biographer turns her hand to fiction? In the case of Janet Todd’s A Man of Genius, we get a highly distinctive, engrossing tale of mystery and madness, centering on a woman writer of one of those “horrid books” that were so popular around Jane Austen’s time. In Todd’s novel, Ann St. Clair has no respect for her own writing, seeing it only as a profitable and not too unpleasant way to make a living. She’s also glad to be independent of her uncaring, distant mother, who is entirely wrapped up in the memory of her dead husband.

The gothic elements of Ann’s fiction start to intrude into her own life, though, when she tumbles into a bizarre relationship with a male writer whose friends think him a genius-in-waiting, based on his one fragmentary work. Haunted by the bitter ghosts of her childhood, tying herself to an increasingly unstable man who neither needs nor wants her, Ann trails him across the post-Napoleonic landscape of Europe to a strange, shadowy existence in the underworld of Venice. The conclusion is shattering, surprising, and for me, unforgettable.

Ann’s story is not a comfortable or easy one to read, and this is not an amusing historical pastiche. Todd takes us into the dark heart of nineteenth century London and Venice, following her protagonist into a horrible form of emotional and physical subjugation. Her journey is harrowing, violent, and sad, and readers must have a strong stomach to follow her through to the teasingly hopeful end. But for those who do, the journey into the depths becomes a confirmation of the power of the self, which sometimes only lights up when threatened by utter eclipse.

Todd doesn’t attempt an imitation of the writing of the time — we are looking over the characters’ shoulders from a modern perspective, as it were — and yet her highly mannered style chimes well with the historical period. One can tell that she has immersed herself in it to such an extent that she can play freely with its language and people and ideas, so that her creation is relevant to both the “then” of the story and the “now” in which we experience it.

I usually avoid books that are gleefully advertised as “dark” and “harrowing,” as I dislike the kind of prurient pleasure-in-others’-pain that they often seem to trade on, but Ann’s story offers something more complex and far more interesting than that. As we move with Ann from the fragmentary to the whole, from blind folly to a hard-won wisdom, we are touched by some of the deepest mysteries of the human heart. Janet Todd has beautifully translated her passion for and knowledge of the era and its literature into a compelling fictional creation. I hope she will give us many more.