By John Rowan, published by Routledge 1996, ISBN 0415 100496. Price £ 15.99stg paperback.
The Soul of Man Under Patriarchy
The first words of John Rowan’s new book are “Being a man today hurts”, and his thesis throughout this book, and earlier ones (The Horned Cod, 1986; Breakthroughs and Integration in Psychotherapy, 1992) is that patriarchy hurts men as well as women. “We have to look at the nature of patriarchy. To do this we shall need some light from feminism, because it is feminists and profeminist men who have done most to analyse and understand the structure and functions of patriarchy as it exists today.” So from the very opening of this book, the reader can make no mistake about the radical and unequivocating approach he will be taking.
However, Rowan seems to have adopted not only the knowledge about patriarchy which characterises feminism, but also the view that in the social construction of gender, the “real self” is obscured, made inarticulate and effectively tortured. Of course, within feminism, this argument is applied to women, but there really is no possible objection to its application to the situation of men; in Rowan’s hands, it is extremely convincing. He examines “the contradiction between the oppressive nature of the masculine role and the transformational possibilities within every individual man.” I found this translocation of the argument Intensely refreshing.
In many ways, the work of expressing and liberating the “real self” has always been the real work of therapy. In Winnicott, who perhaps definitively used the phrase, the reference is to a (non-gendered?) child whose “real self” is put down within the context of its growing up; and in Alice Miller’s work, which might be expected to put the feminist point, there is a similarly ungendered sympathy extended towards the small person who precedes the unhappy and inhibited large person who comes for therapy. It never occurred to me until I read this book of Rowan’s quite how much denial may be involved in the lack of gender-consciousness which these respected therapists display.
If the “real self” is sexed rather than gendered, the question of the relationship of the individual to society can be the focal point of therapeutic change. Rowan’s ability to draw on the feminist insights and to expand the whole endeavour of feminism into a humane one produces some extraordinary effects. The sense in which even in individual therapy, the person is controlled and defined by societal and group expectations becomes lucid and vital to the success of the therapy. For instance, Rowan would not accept the ordinary therapeutic aim of “empowering” the (male) client – he clearly sees that this may sometimes be colluding with a system of browbeating and unfairness.
It is not enough for him to see his client “empowered ‘ from victim to bully, for example. For the man’s “real self” to emerge requires that the “uneven playing field” of patriarchy is admitted, and that the individual man’s defences against admitting his complicity with it are shattered.
This is strong meat. Rowan deliberately reports cases where men’s attitudes, though very familiar and often self-justifying, are in fact defences of patriarchy as well as defences in the psychological sense. He quotes Terry Kupers’ book, Revisioning Men’s Lives: Gender, Intimacy and Power (1993) to the effect that “The challenge that confronts men is to find ways to be powerful without oppressing anyone, and in the process to redefine power, heroism and masculinity. This is an immense challenge. And men will never meet it in isolation.” (p148)
The need for a social context in which to confront these internalised oppressions has been plainly recognised in the context of feminism, but at the same time there has been a (quite unnecessary) tendency among women at times to deny the need that men have to do the same work for themselves.
Rowan calls the internalised and unconscious assumptions which underlie patriarchal thought (not, of course, restricted to men) the ‘Patripsych’, “an internal constellation of patriarchal patterns”. He points out that most forms of therapy do not engage with this creature, but by neglect or denial may even collude with it. “Patriarchy forms a good lead in to all the problems of domination and submission in our social system…The Patripsych forms a good lead in to all the problems of internal self-oppression which affect us most inwardly.” He criticises forms of therapy which “engage in consciousness-raising, but totally ignore unconsciousness-raising” – a comment which I personally felt should be applied to women’s groups as much as to men’s.
Gradually in the course of the book, Rowan comes to prefer the phrase “domination culture” to “patriarchal culture”, a shift which is far more important than it might seem at first glance, and which I felt he really earned the right to make. It implies an immense step away from the polemical qualities of feminism, even while it embraces the chief of its issues.
Consistent with the view that men, as well as women, are “hurt” by patriarchy is Rowan’s protest against the stereotypical roles of masculinity, including the construct of the “New Man”. There is no option but to face the “breaking” of the traditional male ego: he quotes Keith Paton to the effect that “The healthy male ego is oppressive and wrong.” This is the real “hurt” of the opening words, and it can only be changed by initiatory “wounding” which shatters the oppression and can free the “real self” to feel and express.
This work can well take place in groups, and some of the most exciting parts of the book describe group exercises and experiences from Rowan’s years of work in the field. He is sharply critical of some men’s groups. “I have experienced a number of efforts for men to discover themselves on their own, in men’s groups of various kinds – consciousness-raising groups, therapy groups and spiritual groups. I have not been impressed with the results. So often the group, no matter how it started and with what intentions the men got together, slides into some kind of warm self-congratulation or some kind of cold break-up.”
The relation to femininity is crucial to the work of the group, as it is in individual therapy. Of course, this includes the feminine aspects of the “real self” which is ungendered but not unsexed. But it is hard work, as he comments, to encourage men to face the oppressor in themselves as well as the “hurt child” or the “inner person with feelings”.
There is a considerable severity in what Rowan is proposing, and his insistence on the necessary “wounding” which men must undergo as initiation is something which I have always found distressing in his work, and which I do not fully understand. There is always pain in therapy – the outgrown defences which are breached have been put up for a good reason, and it is painful to let them go. But I sense far more than this in Rowan’s demand that men should face wounding – something discomfortingly heroic, in fact. Perhaps this last shred of masculism is the hardest to relinquish? But in a book which so clearly commends co-creativity and the freedom to be oneself which reflects social understanding and tolerance as well as equality, the bad old idea of sacrifice sits oddly.
I have found the theme of this book so engaging that perhaps I have not done justice to its sheer usefulness to therapists and (potential) clients alike. Rowan’s exceptional breadth of reading and experience is like a mine for the reader to burrow into according to preference or need. There are plenty of exercises which would be useful to groups, references to other books which would enable the reader to pursue various issues in depth, case histories which illuminate attitudes, and most engagingly of all, there are several moments in the book where Rowan uses himself as an example to clarify his arguments, further, there is a most thought-provoking structure to the book which derives from alchemy. It is a book which is rich not only in thought, but also in insight. I think it should be required reading for feminists who would like to understand their own politics more deeply.