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Connections

Twenty years of group hugs

We began in the era of Robert Bly’s “Iron John,” and we’re still together today.

Gracia Lam

When I was growing up in the 1950s, men didn’t hug each other. They didn’t talk much, either. So you never really knew what men were feeling. Or thinking. For us impressionable boys, the role models provided were the strong, silent heroes we saw at the movies, their heroism implied by their fearless aloneness. In a way, those celluloid strangers were a lot like our fathers — distant and inscrutable. The men we saw on the screen faced life with a cold imperative that dismissed feeling. They were the coolest of cool.

Our role models included James Dean, with hooded eyes that spoke of bottomless loneliness, and the sheriff played by Gary Cooper in High Noon, forced to face his nemesis alone. And who can forget Shane riding off on his horse while little Joey shouted his name to the empty sky? Alone meant strong, free. Instead of hugs, men made do with a handshake. Handshakes were an important part of every son’s introduction to the adult world. Fathers taught their sons a firm grip.

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Our fathers lived in the shadows, leaving early in the morning to go to work, coming home in the evening for a few hours of family time. They didn’t discuss what they did at work or how they felt. About anything.

Thanks to the women’s movement, things began to change in the 1960s. Men were encouraged to get in touch with their feelings. Most of us didn’t know how. Then came the poet Robert Bly and his 1990 Iron John, A Book About Men. In it, Bly used mythology and fairy tales to reassure men that not only was it OK to feel but that they also could emote openly. They could hug each other without being labeled a “sissy.” From such revelations there sprang up in the woods of Maine and elsewhere men-only events featuring bare-chested guys drumming and chanting and talking about unsheathing their swords. At that cultural moment I made my own entrance into the gladiator’s arena of sensitive men — the Men’s Group.

The same year Bly published his book, I got a letter from a male acquaintance inviting me to the local library to discuss forming such a group, whose purpose was to meet regularly and talk about things other than the Red Sox and Patriots. There were only a couple of rules: no judging and strict confidentiality, meaning what was said in group stayed in group.

We began meeting biweekly. We didn’t know one another, which made it easier to talk. At first it was tough to scrape away years of neglect and reap the mother lode of feelings. “I’m feeling good, yeah, you know, I’m feeling fine” was the refrain as we took turns “checking in.” Years of silence had rendered us mute.

Outside of meetings we didn’t socialize. But every other Tuesday we got together. Somehow it worked. Our group, after all these years, still consists of a doctor, a social worker, a teacher, a commercial fisherman, a journalist, and a lawyer. These days, we meet for a potluck dinner every other month and the conversation is more informal. We sometimes talk about the Red Sox when health issues have been exhausted.

We still begin each meeting with a check-in and end each meeting with (here’s the best part) a group hug. After more than two decades during which we’ve all lost hair, gained or lost inches, and listened to one another’s crises and celebrations, we still form a circle and pause with our arms linked shoulder to shoulder. Our shoulders a bit more rounded, posture a bit more stooped, we are not Alan Ladd riding off alone, but we are men.

Bob Kalish is a writer in Maine. Send comments to connections@globe.com.

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