A Response to the Houston Press Article

MKP’s Response to the Houston Press Article

An Open Letter from Carl Griesser, Former Executive Director

On October 4, 2007 the Houston Press, an alternative weekly, printed an article by Chris Vogel exploring the death of a young man who participated in the New Warrior Training Adventure (NWTA) two weeks prior to his suicide in July 2005. Vogel also purported to describe the NWTA and asked to interview the leadership of MKP and our Houston Center. On the advice of our lawyers, we declined to be interviewed. Perhaps as a result of this, Vogel’s article is filled with innuendo, misinformation, and descriptions of processes which sound diabolical because they are taken out of context. Given the pervasiveness of the internet, perhaps you’ve read the article. If so, please take the time to read the following.

The organization I’ve served as Executive Director for the past eight years is not the organization Vogel describes. In this letter I’ll address some of the claims made in the article.

By way of introduction, let me say that prior to being hired as Executive Director of the ManKind Project in 2001, I was Chief of Emergency Services at a community hospital in Oregon. Prior to medical school I worked in experiential education with Outward Bound Schools in North America and Canada, and ran a wilderness program for adjudicated youth. This background has served me well in my work with MKP and has informed my efforts to make our trainings as safe as possible.

In Vogel’s 23-page article, he makes the following misrepresentations (often through the words of those he interviewed, few of whom had experienced our training):

  • The ManKind Project recruits wounded, vulnerable men, particularly from organizations like Alcoholics Anonymous.
  • MKP does not adequately screen the men who attend our trainings, and prevents men from leaving.
  • MKP practices unlicensed psychotherapy, continues to harass men after the training, and forces men to keep secrets.
  • On the New Warrior Training Adventure we use dangerous and coercive mind-control tactics, and bizarre processes, some of which involve nudity.

Before addressing these points, I’d like to provide some context about the ManKind Project.

Most of the men involved in The ManKind Project are deeply concerned about the condition of the world. Global warming and other forms of ecological destruction, war, famine, human displacement on a massive scale, political systems that are more responsive to special interests than to human needs – the list goes on and on. Most of us also believe that at a deep level men are largely responsible for the state of our world, primarily because our cultures have failed to teach men how to be men.

In traditional cultures boys are consciously challenged to make the transition to mature masculinity through processes of initiation. Few modern cultures provide effective initiatory experiences for boys. As a result, we believe that most men remain stuck in the emotional world of childhood. The New Warrior Training Adventure was created 24 years ago as a modern initiatory experience in which men are challenged to rediscover their feelings, to begin to heal the wounds of childhood, to wake up to their responsibilities as men, and to live with integrity and commitment to personal missions. Our experience has shown that even if initiation does not occur at puberty or in young adulthood, the process of initiation remains crucial to the development of mature masculine consciousness.

Following the NWTA we offer a ten-week Primary Integration Training designed to teach men the skills to sustain their own ongoing peer support groups. We believe that the transformation in awareness that most men experience on our training will dissipate without the support of other men. Men are also encouraged to return to staff New Warrior Trainings; some choose to pursue a demanding leadership curriculum to become certified NWTA leaders. We also offer training in personal leadership and multicultural awareness to those who are interested. Over 40,000 men have now participated in the NWTA in 38 centers in 8 countries; we estimate that 10,000 men remain active in ongoing Integration Groups.

Now, to address Vogel’s points:

  • The ManKind Project recruits wounded, vulnerable men, particularly from organizations like Alcoholics Anonymous.

In some of our centers many men who have participated in the NWTA have backgrounds in recovery. Like the MKP, Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous provide a structured approach to regaining personal responsibility and integrity. Many men who follow the processes of AA and NA experience significant transformation in their abilities to live their lives effectively. And many of these who attend the NWTA report that the skills learned with MKP have enabled them to extend what they’ve learned in recovery into other areas of their lives. Many also credit the awareness learned on our trainings with their ability to succeed in recovery. I don’t suggest that our organization is linked in any way to recovery programs, but many men have found our work to complement their work in recovery. And it’s not surprising that these men have chosen to share what they’ve found helpful with others.

However, recognizing that men who are new to recovery may not be appropriate for our training, we adopted the following policy in 2005:

Sobriety and the NWTA
MKP recommends that if a prospective participant is known to be an alcoholic or addict, he be sober and free of drugs for six months. If a man who has been clean and sober for less than six months wishes to attend an NWTA, MKP recommends that:

  • He be interviewed, ideally in person.
  • The interview be conducted by a weekend leader or physician who is familiar with the recovery process.
  • The man who invited the potential participant be present for the interview and the training.
  • Individual assessment and overall safety is the goal.

Most of our centers, and the Project itself, do little or no advertising, and for the past 24 years, our enrollment has been based primarily on word of mouth. Men invite men they know to the training because they themselves have found it helpful. These are often intimate conversations, in which our members share what the experience has done for them, but this isn’t a nefarious process of skulking around in corners. And while some men who have been through our training have eventually been able to stop taking medications (particularly antidepressants), we do not claim that our training will enable men to get off their meds or stop therapy. In fact, in the debriefing session at the end of our training, all participants are strongly encouraged not to make significant changes in their lives for at least six months. They are explicitly told to continue taking any medications they’re on (unless advised otherwise by their physicians), to continue attending recovery groups, and to continue in therapy. We are aware that in the elation many men experience at the end of the NWTA, there is a risk they may decide to abandon the structures which have served them in the past, and we actively caution against this.

  • MKP does not adequately screen the men who attend our trainings,

Men who attend the NWTA are required to complete a four-page Confidential Medical Record. This Record includes detailed questions about substance abuse and emotional and psychological problems. We require licensed physicians from MKP to review all forms and have developed a detailed protocol to guide them. We encourage them to follow-up significant medical or psychological problems by calling the applicant, and if indicated, his physician or therapist. On the basis of these reviews, we do occasionally decline interested applicants. This year we added additional questions to the form improve our ability to identify men with emotional instability, mental illness, and suicidal ideation.

  • … and prevents men from leaving.

All men who attend the NWTA must sign our Participant Release and a Confidentiality Agreement prior to the training. Our release is similar to those used by other experiential education organizations and includes the following statement:

Voluntary Participation. I confirm that my participation in any and all Activities is purely voluntary, and that I may decline to participate in any of the Activities at any time.

It’s not unusual for a man to decline participation in an activity. Nor is it unusual for men to leave the training. There is nothing in our release requiring men, as Vogel asserts, to remain on the grounds, and in 2007, a typical year, seventy of 3,290 men left the NWTA prior to completion. When men arrive at the training site they are asked if they are willing to do everything necessary to get what they came for. If a man says he wants to leave early, one of the weekend leaders will speak with him about why he wants to leave, and is likely to challenge him to stay by reminding him of his commitment to do “everything necessary.” Many of these men do stay, and most are grateful they did. I don’t believe anyone has ever been threatened for choosing to leave the training.

We do 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 born between NWTA participants simply by sharing the journey into self-discovery.  We also take our environmental impact seriously, and carpooling is a significant way to shrink our environmental footprint. Carpooling can make it challenge to arrange transportation for a man who chooses to leave early, but we see it as our obligation to find a way to honor his request.

  • MKP practices unlicensed psychotherapy…

We do not practice therapy. Rather, we see our trainings as closely related to experiential education programs such as Outward Bound. Like Outward Bound, our trainings are intense personal and group experiences, designed to challenge participants to develop new awareness and skills. Many of our processes are similar to ones commonly used in the outdoor education field, though only a few actually take place outdoors.

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.

  • … continues to harass men after the training,

The weeks following the NWTA can be challenging as participants integrate their new perspectives into their daily lives. For this reason, each participant is assigned a mentor who calls him once or twice shortly after the training. The intent of the calls is to offer support and to encourage him to attend the Primary Integration Training. The PIT is a series of ten facilitated weekly meetings which bring the men back together in small groups for support and training in the skills which will enable them to create a healthy ongoing support group. As valuable as most men find the NWTA, most who continue believe their ongoing weekly or biweekly integration groups are even more important to their personal growth. So we do follow up the NWTA with a few phone calls.

Men who remain on our listserves will receive occasional notices about additional trainings or community meetings. In addition, MKP, and each of our US centers, is a 501(c)3 nonprofit, and like most nonprofits, requests donations to support our work. The Project itself solicits donations no more than twice a year, and most centers have a single annual fund drive. Anyone who requests to be removed from our email listserves will be removed immediately, and we do not send solicitations by mail to anyone who asks us to stop.

  • …and forces men to keep secrets.

Our Confidentiality Agreement was developed primarily to protect our intellectual property after a man who attended one of our first trainings in Australia began offering a training which was almost identical. It also was intended to protect personal information shared by participants. Until recently we asked men prior to attending the training to keep the NWTA processes secret. No one has ever been forced to sign our agreements, nor have we taken any action against anyone who has broken them. We made this request so that each man could have a novel, fresh experience. We believe that an element of surprise challenges men to stretch into new abilities and perspectives. MKP has recently concluded that this approach to secrecy has provided fuel for those who characterize us as a cult, and that our commitment to secrecy has made it difficult to respond candidly to such accusations. For these reasons, we now encourage those who have been through the NWTA to share information with others to the extent it is requested.

  • On the New Warrior Training Adventure we use dangerous and coercive mind-control tactics,

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 trainingare 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.

We believe that most men grow through challenge, and that without challenge most of us are quite content to remain complacent. The second process on our training is designed to challenge the participants to take a close look at how they hold integrity, accountability, and personal responsibility in their lives. The process provides a concrete way for them to experience the impact of their choices on others and to consider what their lack of integrity costs them and those they care about.

Some men who have attended the training have complained that we use sleep and food deprivation to break them down psychologically. We provide less and simpler food than most men are used to eating, but the amounts are certainly nutritionally adequate. Many men report that eating lightly on the training gave them a surprising level of mental clarity, which is our intention. (We do carefully follow men with diabetes and provide additional food if needed.) We require that participants have at least four hours of sleep each night, which again, is less than what men are used to, but something that most of us have done voluntarily at some point in our lives without ill effect.

  • …and bizarre processes, some of which involve nudity.

Read a Specific Response to recent articles about our use of a wooden phallus and Nudity.

Most of the processes described in the article which may seem bizarre also involve nudity. The most significant of these take place on Sunday morning after a significant level of trust has developed. Most men in our culture feel insecurity and shame about their bodies and their sexuality. Most never speak about this with anyone. One of our processes provides men the opportunity to speak openly and respectfully with one another about their sexuality. This isn’t about sexual exploits or conquests – it’s about telling the truth about how it feels to be a man in a man’s body. We use a carved wooden phallus for this process as a way of taking our anatomy out of shadow, as a way of saying, “This is what we look like. This is how we are made, and it’s OK to be this way.” We believe that nudity is particularly important for this process because for most men being nude intensifies our feelings about our bodies. Nudity is always optional, and some men choose not to disrobe fully.

On some trainings nudity is also an optional part of a process modeled after the sweat lodges of many indigenous people. This process is not based on any specific religion or belief, but is conducted with a sense of deep reverence. Vogel’s assertion that someone once asked men to touch the genitals of others is extremely unlikely, and certainly not part of the ceremony. I’ve investigated this tale further, and have found no evidence that it took place. (I would also point out that neither “Mary’s” husband nor her son was interviewed for the article.)

When I went through the training twelve years ago I initially found the nudity embarrassing, but the overall experience enabled me to feel more comfortable in my body. There are certainly men for whom being nude is difficult. This seems particularly true for some younger men in the US who have not had the locker room experiences which were typical for my generation. We’re also aware that for men from some cultures, such as Islam, nudity with other men is a taboo and have taken steps to make it clearer that it is acceptable to participate without disrobing.

Finally, the hammering of chickens refers to a process near the end of the training in which we intentionally poke fun at ourselves for the rituals we use during the training. 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.

* * *

And one last point: One quote from Vogel’s article is definitely accurate:

They discovered that dozens upon dozens of priests, ministers, therapists, heads of companies, doctors, lawyers and people involved with addiction rehabilitation all had at one point attended The New Warrior Training Adventure.

Vogel suggested that there’s something nefarious about so many successful men participating in our training. I see this, instead, as a measure of how valuable the work of the ManKind Project has been for men in all walks of life. Many of us are far better men for having participated in the New Warrior Training Adventure.

I hope that the information and perspective I’ve provided here have been helpful. If you desire additional information, contact one of the men on our Communities Page.

Sincerely,

Carl Griesser
Former Executive Director
The ManKind Project

 

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