Nov 14 2008

Victories of the Heart: The Inside Story of a Pioneer Men’s Group: How Men Help Each Other Change Their Lives: A Book Review

Published by at 5:55 pm 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. In my Amazon review said the book is worth reading, but I admit I go back and forth. Endings are often problematic and my ending with these authors did not go well.

I also note I have received 2 threatening letters from Victories’ lawyers and two direct threats of lawsuits from Victories principals for my writing. My most recent response has been to publish all my positive and critical Victories related writing, including the pot, killing the rat, and voicemails I found insulting. This writing can be found here among 47 posts.

The arc of history in this organization suggests I would have been more satisfied with the recent (last 10 years) organizational stakeholders. They are doing a good job, are unpaid, and dedicated. Their heart, not their ego is in their work.

In this book, the authors describe their lack of introduction, preface, chapters, (they don’t mention footnotes) in a pejorative way saying they don’t care for that writing style in the books they read. Later in the book, Buddy Portugal talks intimately about his learning disability and how he has trouble writing and reading. To him, writing this book is an exceptional accomplishment and something he is rightfully proud of.

The fact these authors deliberately avoid any effort to substantiate their ideas and methods with research is the major disappointment of this book. It reflects their style which was part showmanship, part “seat of their pants” approach.

They were often entertaining, always charismatic. This worked for them and as we read more, we discover how they not only complemented each other, they seemed to complete each other, making each other more whole. I think I may speak for many of the men who knew and worked with them in their programs, it’s difficult to imagine either of them working alone in any way. This, of course, speaks to the tragic, early death of Buddy Portugal and it’s impact on his family, friends, and Bob Mark.

These two men were larger than life for most of us involved in the program. This book comes close to bringing their story to life, but one would have really had to see them in action. I was fortunate to have done so. I no doubt idealized both of them for many years.

Skilled therapists and thinkers and writers about therapy understand it’s important to work with the idealization of clients. One of the more common methods is to help clients see their idealization is at least partially a projection of their own strengths and that over time they will begin to know and experience this themselves.

There is a tendency in this book for the authors to embrace the idealization of their clients which becomes a problem for both therapist/leader and client/participant. I know Buddy Portugal’s struggle with me in 2008 represented a time in his life where it would have been much easier for him to apologize to me privately.

As the voicemails show, he used many, many words to try to convince me I had done something to cause him to speak to me via voicmail in a way I would describe as insulting. He himself referred to one of the significant voicemails as “scathing.”

So what was going on? Certainly it was a complex situation with many moving parts, but looking at the idealization issue, it was difficult for him to have to deal with me as an equal, a colleague in some complicated organization for men. I know I was burned out and he was likely much more ill than he realized, having died a relatively short time after this conflict.

When he finally agreed to meet and plan how to mediate our conflicts as the Board had requested, I told him to not try to apologize, as the conflict for me grew to involve my perceptions he (and the other three principals) had hijacked the 2004 Strategic planning process, damaged the efforts and financial contributions of sincere volunteers. That he had felt entitled to leave me insulting voicemails was simply a small part of the overall problem.

I asked him if he was sick, was there something wrong with him. Our meeting was quite easy, as I had been his client and had many intimate discussions with him. He told me no he wasn’t sick. He knew I wanted one outcome of the mediation to be him doing some psychotherapy work to explore what was going on for him that he would unleash on me, someone who had been devoted to him, Bob Mark, the other leaders and program.

In our brief meeting, I asked some difficult questions. There was a spark, an understanding between us that was illuminating for both of us. Try as he had to stay behind the wall, our long history together allowed me to understand him at a level deeper than he was ready or comfortable to go.

The next day or a few days later, he called and left another voicemail. He told me he would not do mediation with me, ever. He was done and that was that.

I continued to try for awhile. I know my motivation was to try to salvage a relationship I felt was important to me and a type of work I found very meaningful. I know I was unrealistic, naive and in my “unsmart” lower brain in all this, but I had been very excited about the 2004 Strategic plan and had some fantasy I could mediate with Buddy and also hold the other 3 principals accountable in a way they would realize they had drifted from the path.

So much for my brain damage.

So, idealization is a tough and very complicated process. Shamans and “shaman want to bes” likely can not do it as their sense of power derives from mystique, secrecy and magic. They are not able to really have a level 5 conversation where deep honesty and vulnerability are revealed.

So the power imbalances, the unresolved idealizations and the need to sculpt magic out of thin air caused problems in this organization. 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.

In the Wizard of Oz, the deceptive nature of the Wizard doesn’t get much focus. Dorothy is angry, yet the Wizard escapes in the balloon by himself. He is alone and unaccountable to anyone. Not a great place to be if you need intimacy.

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 “Bob and Buddy.” There was a mystique about them and their relationship which could immediately draw you in, yet also leave you feeling excluded. I think the wall around these men that kept others distant was well-fortified.

One possible explanation for this well-fortified wall around these authors was the influence of shamanism on Bob Mark. He had traveled to South America (his book on his spiritual methods, Clearing the Path: Opening the Spiritual Frontier is highly recommended) and worked with a shaman there. It’s well-known shaman’s have tricks and to remain disengaged, above and apart from your clients/patients/participants enables a kind of power to elicit change.

As the many men’s stories in the book demonstrate, these authors had a confidence in their work. They listened, moved in close to men, and help them connect with the deeper feelings associated with their concerns. Mark and Portugal talk about this process of “going deeper” both in their work with men, and their personal relationship.

They learned they could build intensity with men through focus. Men would walk to the center of the room where they could feel the energy of the larger circle around them. Form this place of intensity, the men would melt into whatever work was needed for them. This was an intense process and these authors created safety for men by making the rule no one had to participate in this more intense, body-centered work.

Their writing illustrates their understanding of male development and the need for men to be seen, heard and connected. They were able to do this and often in elegant ways.

I know their great wish was for this book to be the catalyst for their program to grow by leaps and bounds. The reader can see this as they write about their excitement, anxiety and hope for this book. Buddy Portugal talks about how he never envisioned writing a book, but was now wondering about the book’s potential.

While the book did not reach the zenith of the author’s hopes, it is a remarkable achievement in their lives and leaves a legacy for them, their families and countless men. I am one of them and perhaps have read and studied more of this book than any other book I own. It’s perhaps more impactful for me as I did feel shunned by these men at the end of my involvement with their program. I overestimated my meaning in their lives and the wall around them closed tightly for me.

These authors were awe inspiring at times, so this worked, at least for me for some time. I can say also one of the most healing experiences was after some work I did, Bob Mark came over and gave me a warm hug. It was very meaningful, in part because of who he was and who I perceived him to be in my idealizations.

There are stories of men and their personal lives, but these stories are insignificant compared to how these authors reveal themselves. These revelations are carefully crafted to lead the reader certain directions. They appear very honest and sincere, yet the well-fortified wall around them speaks to other issues deeper and more complex.

I had been referred to Buddy Portugal in the late 1980’s and saw him for several years until my selection to be a part of an early leadership team signaled to Portugal it was time to terminate. It was premature, as I learned in 2011 I had serious cognitive problems related to early childhood trauma. I could be very smart and dynamic, but under stress or complicated circumstances quite “unsmart.”

Portugal couldn’t be held accountable for not knowing this about me, but he did hold himself out to be an expert. My involvement in this organization at this early stage meant in a way I was “being treated” by the four men in the 2 original leader teams. It was like group therapy without a treatment contract.

I had the vague perception Kevin and Paul, in a way, competed with Buddy Portugal to be my healers and gain my admiration. Actually, they really liked the musician I had been paired with and I as a therapist offered some skill. I was an “out” trauma survivor and offered Kevin and Paul a subject along with other volunteer staff and their clients to experiment in their use of shadow objects, which for at least the three (Kevin, Paul, myself) of us were knives, switchblades and handcuffs.

The only problem was my weapon was a component of a serious trauma whose memory I had forgotten and was a key element of my work within this organization. For Kevin and Paul, their objects were part of their fantasies or imaginations. They were metaphors for the way they perceived themselves.

For me, each time I thought of the knife, wrapped it up to bring to one of their programs, unwrapped it, took it in my hands, I lit up the neural circuits that had been created by the earlier trauma and strengthened my traumatic symptoms. It was not healing for me; in fact, it was very damaging. I had intuition at the time, but hindsight and learning about my damaged brain confirmed my intuition.

This is where the lack of science and resulting problems hit the road for me. I believe their intentions were to help, but they were basing this on the psychoanalytic idea that catharsis alone was therapeutic, at least that’s what I have to guess at this point. How could they think the intermittent and random use of shadow objects in a group could result in a healing and corrective experience for a serious trauma survivor? They have never clarified their research basis for this method, never wrote or published anything with citations one can evaluate.

My understanding of the research and personal experience with this shadow object method suggests it’s not an appropriate activity for a group experience. It was harmful for me and the weekend I observed did not lessen my concerns about this provacative method.

One might argue that for the majority of people, this method would be fine. However, the research shows a percentage of trauma survivors do not remember the trauma, so their participation at a weekend could create risks for them unknown to leaders and staff. It’s not a good idea and although the program literature states all the programs are based on research, the use of shadow objects in a weekend group setting poses risks.

One of my objections during the last year of my involvement was the shadow weekend and methods. Although the 2004 Strategic plan set up detailed steps for the organization to move from a private business/practice of the leaders to a more democratic and research based program, the two original leaders flexed their muscles and resistance as it related to “their” programs, the Wisdom years and shadow weekend respectively.

A particular issue of concern was nudity and silence at the most recent shadow weekend. I judged the response of Mark and Portugal and the rest of the leader/Board members addressing the issue to be inadequate. I looked at these men who were brilliant and creative in their own ways and wondered how they could be so disconnected from the how the public might see such controversial methods, and more importantly, the potential risk of harm to participants.

Where were Mark and Portugal? They had written a book and created a foundation for a program to succeed, but were distracted from the importance of establishing policies, procedures and ethical standards to help guide the way. The activities of the organization and its governance was haphazard and Mark and Portugal tended to be focused only on the development and expansion of their Wisdom years program, even though their methods deviated from the excellent 2004 Strategic plan.

And so the last decision I was present for suggested the nudity at the shadow weekend was replaced by something I considered inferior and with no research basis. The leaders of the shadow weekend had decades to build something lasting and that could expand. They did not. The founders of the organization and authors of this book could have done something more to address the vulnerabilities in programs.

In fact, those knowledgeable in neuroscience research available at the time understood such methods of waving around an object resembling an element of a serious trauma could likely be retraumatizing. It was for me. I have to guess these leaders were disappointed I didn’t break down and sob when they encouraged me to take my turn brandishing the knife.

To be diagnosed with cognitive problems much later did not make me a happy camper. I think of the use of shadow objects now as an inappropriate version of exposure therapy done without my informed consent. Did this method work for other men? For sure, and perhaps I was the only one who looks back and feels damaged. Even so, I have a right to write about it and not fear being sued because I disagree with these methods.

Besides the authors own stories, the authors try to explain their methods through the stories written by the men who are either clients of the authors, or participants of their weekends. These stories read as if they are being told by the authors. Actually, all the stories in the book were written by the other men, then edited, probably briefly by the authors.

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.

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