Nov 13 2008

Victories of the Heart: A Book Review

Published by at 10:06 am under Counseling & Psychotherapy

Writer disclosure: I know Dr. Mark and the late Buddy Portugal and was part of the men’s organization they founded including being a leader for one of the weekends. I said the book is worth reading, but not for any insight about working with men. It’s not a scientific text and is without any research citations. I also note I have received 2 threatening letters from lawyers and two direct threats of lawsuits from Victories principals for my writing.

These two men became larger than life for most of us involved in the program, which likely became a problem in itself. Think the Wizard of Oz where we find the Wizard is this small guy whose voice is magnified. He doesn’t really have the magic, but somehow knew others needed to believe in something greater than themselves.

Psychotherapy clients naturally idealize their therapists. When the therapist develops an additional type of relationship, problems can be created. It’s called a “dual relationship” and the early formation of this organization was unfortunately rife with these type of relationships which are characterized by an imbalance of power where the client is at risk of exploitation. It’s easier to idealize a therapist in their office when they are empathic and compassionate towards you in a one-on-one relationship. Extend that to powerful men trying to build a men’s organization with their psychotherapy clients and former clients and you have trouble.

These author’s reveal a lot about themselves and their relationship in this book. In fact, the book is really about them and their intense relationship. In and around this organization, it was always “Buddy and Bob.” There was a mystique about them and their relationship which could immediately draw you in, yet leave you feeling excluded. I think the wall around these men that kept others distant was well-fortified.

There are stories of men and their personal lives, but these stories are insignificant compared to how these authors reveal themselves. I might add the men’s stories in the book are either clients of the authors, or participants of their weekends.

I was pressured by Buddy Portugal to write my story for inclusion in the book. I had some vague intuition it was not a good idea, so it required Portugal to make several phone calls (he liked you to have a voicemail system so he didn’t really have to have a conversation) to get me to submit something. As I was not into this, I wrote a perfunctory few paragraphs. This led to more phone calls from Portugal to “go deeper.” After my second offering was rejected, I used my writing skills to tell a more accurate version of my story. I regretted it later.

When I finally found my story as published in the book, I was shocked to see it was not edited to hide my identity.  Anyone who knew me would easily be able to identify me in the book. Even worse, the changes they made suggested negative aspects of my marriage which were absolutely not true. I realize now, this pejorative stab at me was part of their style of passive hostility towards men. This hostility was also present during their weekends late on Saturday nights when jokes about men’s work during the day were common.

I remember distinctly when a few of us volunteer staff intervened in a weekend led by other men and explained we wanted the pejorative jokes to stop late Saturday night. There was no real argument as this made complete sense to everyone in the room. The leaders we confronted also seemed to learn something about boundaries. Why hadn’t they stopped this themselves one might legitimately ask. This pejorative pattern never occurred on any of the weekends I was a principal on the leadership team.

This pejorative style, efforts to degrade others was present after I filed formal complaints against the principal leaders. They refused to meet and mediate my complaint, even though the Victories Board asked them to do so. I received a five page, unsolicited email from one of the four principals at their private meeting telling me he had tried to “stick up for me” when the others degraded my complaints by saying I was having an “emotional breakdown” (exact qoute).

One would think men who claimed to be experts in relationships and healing would have agreed to meet with me to calm the waters if they really believed I was having an emotional breakdown. I’m shocked, but not surprised by their actions from back then. It reflects poorly on them and suggests some of the explanations as to why the organization has struggled over the years to develop to it’s full potential, such as the Mankind Project, which as circled the globe with worldwide centers.

The more recent Board leadership has greatly improved the organization, but I think the idealization of the four principal leaders has hampered the organizational growth.

To them, the very special loving relationship they have helps them help the men who participate in their programs. However, what they reveal often raises more questions. In talking about their loving relationship, they caution the reader that it’s not a sexual relationship. Their message is they are friends, not sexual lovers. Why they feel the need to make this distinction is unclear, so the message to the discerning reader and observer is confusing.

To their credit, they made it clear they did not want to earn any money from the work of other leaders. This clarified an important boundary about money within the organization. No revenue from any weekends led by other men went to these authors. Both these men were independently wealthy (I think) from their robust practices, so earning some percentage was not only unnecessary for them, but not part of their value system.

However, while clear about not making money from other men’s work, they were adamant about being “the best” and really believed they were the ones from whom all good things came within their program. During one of the many telling moments I experienced was after I attended the Wisdom years in Boston, MA. It was a nice experience and I liked it. However, these authors were trying to expand this Wisdom years program to other cities. My evaluation of the experience was constructively critical and I reported several aspects of the experience I would change. I knew the program “as it was” would never be successful in other cities.

As we were getting ready to leave the facility, I was mingling with the men and staff. I spoke to Dr Mark briefly and said I enjoyed myself and liked the experience, which was true. I had already written my evaluation which detailed the parts of the experience which I felt had not worked well. Dr. Mark looked at me and said,

“Yes, we are getting the Wisdom years started here in Boston, then expanding out west. After we get established (in other cities), you and Kurt can take the Breakthrough weekend to those cities too.”

I just listened to him, thinking to myself, no way, this won’t happen. Further, I had no interest in expanding the weekend I was in leadership for to another city. It was hard enough to do it in the Chicago area.

These authors were always looking for confirmation of their ideas and self-concepts. This is called confirmation bias, where one discounts information that does not support their own preconceived notions. This was the author’s fatal flaw in their attempts to develop something bigger than themselves. They had a special way of being with each other that seemed unaware of the impressions of others.

An example of this was their enthusiasm for drinking and pouring Tequila down the pants and onto the genitals of male participants of their weekend. I could not find any reference to this in this book, but I’m pretty sure Dr. Mark writes about this in his book on his special psychic abilities reading palms, throwing stones, and his work with a Shaman in South America.

Needless to say, swigging Tequila and pouring it down the pants of unsuspecting workshop participants is not the way to create interest. When I wrote such things in my evaluation, it was very upsetting to Buddy Portugal, perhaps others and was the partial source of me receiving 30 minutes of what I considered insulting voicemails. I know Buddy Portugal was at least driven by his envy of the Mankind (MKP) Project’s Warrior weekend. He was my therapist for awhile and took opportunities to diminish the success of MKP.

Although I have been critical of the winding path this organizational evolution took, it does not undermine all of the good that has taken place over the years. I remember being at one of the annual fundraisers and a wife present shared spontaneously, “…this program saved my marriage.” This comment was unsolicited and completely sincere.

For me to say, “well, when I was involved back then, there were sharp elbows, ego bruising and even back-stabbing…” would come as no real surprise to anyone else involved back then or anyone in any other organization. I don’t think this is a revelation or anything newsworthy.

So why would the Victories principals send me two “threatening to sue me” letters from their attorneys, a direct threat during a meeting, and another threat via email?

Well, I had 30 minutes of insulting voicemails from one of the principals which were part of a larger pattern of retaliation against others with whom he had some grievance. He never apologized to me, although he claimed to have done so. Also, I had been asked to smoke pot and kill a pet rat the night before a weekend many years earlier and had grown very critical of the experimental, non-scientific and perhaps harmful methods of some aspects of the programs.

Another example, when I returned to a leadership role in 2004, Kurt Schultz, my leader partner and President of the Board, asked me to evaluate the Victories Spirit of Generosity program which had continued to falter. When I learned more from him and attended a planning meeting, I was shocked to learn participants were asked to bring something of value to the program. When they arrived, they were asked to surrender the object. At some point later in the day, the surrendered objects were taken by the staff and buried someplace on the grounds of the Techni confence center. If you’re following me closely here, yes, the men lost their objects forever. They never were returned. One man I interviewed told me he had brought a piece of jewelry owned by his deceased father.

If you read this book carefully, you will see some of the underlying anger that’s expressed. For example, there is a scene where one of the principals rages at his father who was sick. I think the author thought it meant something positive about him, even that he was human and could get angry.

I read this passage and felt more compassion for his father who was very sick and helpless. I also know how emotional memories are stored and can be triggered by present day situations, so it seemed to me this author was revealing something deeper, perhaps his resentments at being unnoticed in his family.

So, yes, the book does reveal the inside workings of not just the program, but aspects of the authors personalities of which they are aware, and aspects of which they may not be so aware. It’s clear as we look at the rise and fall of leaders, the fall often results when the leader is unaware of aspects of their personality which do not coincide with their positive opinions of themselves.

As I have written, from 2004-2008 when I was most involved, the principals struggled to accomplish there dream of creating programs in other cities, like the Warrior weekend had been able to do decades earlier. These authors must have felt the conflict between the organizational need they take a lesser role in decision-making, as the volunteer board became more established. The last two Victories board presidents have been great and the current board has excellent representation. I would have much rather been involved during this period of time.

For me, I was caught in the middle of four powerful, intelligent and charismatic men. I thought it possible to engage and do well, despite my own vulnerabilities. Unfortunately, like my cognitive impairment, I thrived when leading and teaching, but faltered and failed when trying to negotiate the complexities of an organization still mesmerized by the glow of the leaders to one guided by policies, standards, and objectivity. I bruised some egos by speaking and writing truthfully and paid the price. I know now I should have enjoyed the participation and not tried to join the organizational development process as a leader back then.

Back to the book, for anyone involved in the “men’s movement” of the mid-1980’s to the present, this book is worth reading. The stories the author’s tell about men and their work is at times compelling and rich in describing the transition in psychotherapy from listening only to a more body centered approach. The author’s stories about holding sobbing men and helping point them to resolving grief is true. As a leader myself, I witnessed this over and over at the weekends with my leadership team. My co-leader was especially powerful and was always selected by the men as a substitute father to re-enact and repair some type of damaged parental love relationship. You kind of have to be there to believe it.

This book also reveals so much more about the two men. Buddy Portugal is deceased, but he and Dr. Mark had a unique relationship that could cut both ways. The book does reveal the intensity of their relationship and the gifts they brought to each other. It also reveals a lot about their men’s weekend, which can be seen in a historical context with other organizations, called “large group awareness trainings (LGATs).” Human beings are still pretty lost, but in the 1980’s people, mostly men, with grand ideas set forth to “show the way.” Victories’ development was hampered by the lack of formal administrative infrastructure and the petty jealousy among leaders to be the “best boy.”

The leadership requirement to be in a dyadic (twosome) relationship with another man also prohibited creativity, collaboration, and organizational development. It was very much like a family business, where the sons had a lot of ideas, and while, the parents seemed open, innovative ideas were left dangling or deep-sixed. An especially revealing experience for me was immediately after I presented a workbook to help guide participants in their follow-up groups at a Board meeting, one of the founders announced he and the other leader were writing their second book, which would be a workbook for participants of their newest program, the Wisdom Years.

All of us just looked at him, knowing him, and let it pass. There was no second book written. It was a moment for him to let one of the other leaders shine in an effort to improve a part of the program in dire need of improvement. Predictably, he chose to compete and a “good enough” idea was never implemented. Not only did he steal the thunder, he did nothing to improve the follow-up group program. This is an example of how his petty jealousy damaged organizational development. There were others examples too.

I think few people have really read the entire book. One particularly interesting reveal is how these authors decided on the original name for their program, “the Men’s Room.” Of course it conjures up all sorts of imagery familiar for men, but to my surprise, the explanation does involve more than innuendo. Buddy Portugal describes how Dr. Mark “picked up the napkin (with the name) and handed it to me. It said, ‘The Men’s Room’, where men can expose themselves emotionally, where the zipper that keeps us locked up inside of ourselves can be opened.”

The organization, now in it’s 4th stage of development has made some incremental improvements, for example having elements of a more realistic team leadership approach, detailed ethics policies, improved support group trainings, and from what I have been assured a revised shadow weekend. All good!

Men such as myself who offer critical analysis are not popular. I wish it were not so. I invested a lot of energy in the organization and people and have made it clear I would like to be treated in the respectful way in which I deserve. When it worked for the powers to be for me to be critical, such as revising the Spirit of Generosity day and creating the psychodrama training, I was very, very popular. Oh well. So it is.

No responses yet

Trackback URI | Comments RSS

Leave a Reply