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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Common bonds

Men’s group shares confidential moments with Danish documentary maker

As many men age, they realize something is missing in life. Often this epiphany is sparked by a collapsing marriage, unfulfilling career or shortage of friends. Perhaps the children are gone and there is nothing to fill the time once consumed raising kids.

So what’s a guy to do? Silently suffer. Divorce. Quit. Join a poker group. Buy a sports car.

Not if Owen Marcus has anything to say about it. He wants men to learn how to connect with their emotions and build a support group with other men – a bond that’s more real than drinking beer and watching the game. Yet not so extreme as a boot camp weekend in the woods with a loincloth and instructions on hunting and gathering your own food.

In other words, join a men’s group.

“They just need a little work on learning some skills never taught to them,” said Marcus, of Sandpoint, who sets up men’s groups across the country to give men a safe place to practice opening up and being emotional in a masculine way. Nine years ago he started a group in Sandpoint with 11 other guys. Today, 150 have attended the various groups. Sandpoint currently has four active men’s groups and plans a fifth.

A men’s group is just that – a gathering of men in a safe environment where they feel free to express their emotions, whether it’s frustration with a partner, anger about a dying parent or fear of not being good enough.

“You feel and express things you’ve never had a chance to do,” said Marcus, 60, who also works as a rolfer. “You relax. You feel younger, look younger. Sometimes you cry for the first time in decades. For most guys it’s being with men in a real way. Men are starved for that.”

A new documentary film focusing on a Sandpoint group is opening the domain of men’s groups to the world and revealing this usually private, intimate and confidential forum in hopes of helping other men get real with their emotions.

The film shows that men are vulnerable, have feelings, cry and are capable of loving. In short, it’s an exploration of what it means to be a man, Marcus said.

The U.S. premiere is Friday in Sandpoint at the Panida Theater and the Danish premiere is planned for March. Marcus is interested in finding sponsors to host the films in other places around the Northwest, including Spokane.

Nearly 40 men from the Sandpoint groups and their partners will attend to talk about their experiences with men’s groups, the film and how it has changed their lives. The audience will receive a list of self-reflection questions.

“I hope the audience will be inspired to take a critical look at themselves and approach to change limiting situations in their daily lives,” emailed Danish filmmaker Maja Bugge. “At the same time, I hope for men and women that their perception of manhood and masculinity will be challenged.”

Bugge, who spent three weeks in Sandpoint in July 2012 filming the group, has a passion for gender and masculinity studies, especially after experiencing her father’s midlife crisis. While attending graduate school in New York City, Bugge learned about men’s groups and contacted Sandpoint’s Marcus after hearing his radio interview about how men need emotional support from men, yet most guys have few close friends to rely on.

With no luck finding a group in New York willing to open its doors, especially to a woman filmmaker, Bugge got permission from the Sandpoint men’s group. Soon after, she was driving across the Long Bridge into unknown territory.

“We are willing to risk being vulnerable,” group member Robert Myers said during the film’s trailer. “With every meeting there is a risk in showing up. We have fear and we lay it on the table. You know hiding fear is really the old style of man.”

In another scene, an emotional Myers – who is struggling to find courage to embrace his relationship with his girlfriend – is filmed breaking down saying, “One of my great fears is, you know, can I, can I do it,” as tears flow.

Yep. Men crying. Bare-chested men hugging. There’s even a very emotional dog pile, when member Chris Blair is held down while realizing his anger about his estranged father. He screams, “I can’t breathe, get off me.” The men hold tighter. One man says, “Your whole life you’ve been holding your breath.” In the next scene, Blair is standing and exuberant, thankful he can finally breathe.

Marcus said it’s finally a chance to break the “bro-code” or the “emotional glass ceiling” where male friends aren’t supposed to share too much, hug or form a strong brotherhood where anything goes.

Marcus recently published his book “Grow Up: A Man’s Guide to Masculine Emotional Intelligence.”

Men’s groups of various types are found around the country. Marcus traveled to Chicago earlier this month to start another group and give them the tools to create their own safe space to practice emotions and then translate those into their daily lives. The idea has taken off in the last 20 years.

Yet Spokane only has one known men’s group. It follows a different method than what Marcus teaches, with most members having attended intense weekend “initiation” workshops known as New Warrior Training Adventures, put on by The ManKind Project, an international nonprofit.

“We’re just a group of men who get together and are honest with each other,” said Greg Anderson, 54, a mental health counselor who started the Spokane group years ago. “We can be real. You don’t have to wear the mask you wear every day.”

Anderson discovered The ManKind Project in 1989 and soon after attended a warrior weekend in Minnesota. He started a group in Yakima and then another group when he moved to Spokane.

He said no matter the method, men’s groups are powerful. The groups give Anderson clarity, allow him to speak the truth about what he wants in life and learn how not to blame others for his choices.

Yet there are critics, especially of the nearly 30-year-old ManKind Project. Detractors call it a New Age cult, heavy on intimidation that often involves nudity, blindfolds, exhaustion and belittling. Participants must sign a confidentiality agreement. There have been several lawsuits. Yet the project leadership vehemently denies claims made by critics. Anderson dismisses the criticism and said the intense weekends aren’t for everyone.

Marcus attended a warrior weekend in Arizona in the mid-90s and said most of the criticism misrepresents the experience. But he agrees the weekends are not for all and mostly help men who need a “kick in the ass” because, he said, it’s “very experiential and for some, intense.” He is a lot more concerned about the motives and techniques of for-profit companies.

David Calechman, 54, of Spokane, drives every Wednesday to Sandpoint to participate in the men’s group. The self-described loner said he loves the idea of the groups but isn’t sure which method is the best. The travel time and logistics are becoming too much and he dislikes the Sandpoint group’s strict structure. He might start his own group in Spokane.

What he really wants from the experience is “a real group of friends in a real community.”

Calechman had that once when, at age 31, he took a radio job in an Eskimo community in the Arctic Circle. That’s when Calechman said he became a man.

“Even as a tall, white Jewish outsider I still belonged in a way I never have anywhere else,” he said, adding that men are able to talk and show more emotion in traditional, tribal communities. “It was such a relief to feel like you don’t have to do everything yourself.”

Calechman said the key to men’s groups is to take the lessons and make them real in your everyday life.

That’s why Marcus said he designed his trainings for the average man and how they can naturally transfer what they learn in the men’s group to daily life.

“Our trainings are just men’s group – men sitting around talking,” he said. “There is no confrontation, no lecturing of how you should be and no extreme exercises.”