A Man



An interview with John Bradshaw on the Mankind Project

John Bradshaw is one of the world’s great originals – in the 1980s he helped pioneer the self-help movement and he coined phrases like the "Inner Child" and the "Dysfunctional Family." Today, he’s the most keenly insightful and youthfully effervescent 73-year-old man I’ve ever met.

He’s the perfect speaker to be addressing MKP Houston’s community event in October, sponsored by the Houston Elders www.texaselders.com/ . Matthew Fox, a Houston poet and Elder, is spearheading the Bradshaw portion of the event.

Fox introduced me to Bradshaw who I’ve wanted to interview for years. I learned that Bradshaw is currently working on a book tentatively entitled Calling Forth Our Better Angels: Our Unprecedented Opportunity to Live The Life of Virtue.

His other books are a must read for anyone on the path of personal development, including Bradshaw On: The Family, Bradshaw On: Healing the Shame that Binds You, Homecoming: Reclaiming and Championing Your Inner Child, among many, many others.

I became aware of John Bradshaw in the early 1990s with his addiction recovery writing, and then followed him to his Emmy-award nominated PBS specials.

Bradshaw told me he initially studied to become a Roman Catholic priest, (he earned a B.A. in theology, an M.A. in philosophy, and three years of graduate work in psychology), but eventually his rebel won out and he began pursuing his own path of discovery.

“I look back on the time I was doing my first PBS specials, with some trembling, and I remember the rebel in me that didn’t want to get that doctorate in psychology. I was a rebel when I was in the seminary. I’m still a rebel.”

I recently re-read Bradshaw On: Healing the Shame that Binds You. For me, the work of handling shame in the “Inner Child” has to be dealt with by also developing the mature masculine.

“You’re right,” Bradshaw responded. “I think it’s absolutely essential. There’s an enormous amount of science that supports what I began talking about in 1979 around the phenomenon of the “Inner Child” work. A lot of neuroscience and even evolutionary biology has come into play which totally supports what we’re doing. Neuroscience is saying detachment disorders affect the non-dominant hemisphere of the brain, which is the seat of feelings and the regulator of emotions. So, when we’re damaged in that part of the brain, we have a very difficult time with emotions.”

Bradshaw referenced the work of Silvan S. Tompkins, a somewhat esoteric academic (with difficult dense prose) who is called by some the American Albert Einstein. Tompkins broke with mainstream psychology in 1962 with his two-volume book, Affect Imagery Consciousness, which declared the primacy of the affect system as the motivating force in human life as opposed to Freud’s theory of libido and sexual energy.

“A feeling is in a context – an affect,” Bradshaw explained. “If I say that I’m sad, it’s because I’m thinking of a scene based on something that happened. The scene is the emotion. If I told you that I was angry, you’d know the emotion but not the scene.”

According to Bradshaw, the affects in our lives influence all aspects of our nature including, curiosity, joy, pleasure, surprise, fear, anger, sadness, and shame.

Following this month’s theme in The New Warrior Journal on multi-culturalism and racism, I asked the noted author what solutions he had for us.

“C.G. Jung talked about owning shadow,” he noted. “He said it’s the highest moral problem. There’s a kind of dishonesty we’re unconscious of, and this is where our prejudices reside. I will think I don’t have any male chauvinism left in me as I’m watching a football game and then this gal comes on reporting from the sidelines. I hear myself thinking that she shouldn’t be doing a man’s job, even though she’s brilliant at it.”

Jung said that confronting one's shadow is an "apprentice-piece," while confronting one's anima is the “masterpiece.”

As Bradshaw shared the beginning of this quote, I gleefully joined in the chorus with the ending of the phrase (one of my favorite quotes).

“In order for men to be whole, they need to embrace their femininity,” he said. “I just did a sermon on the book, The Da Vinci Code, where I talked about Jesus having women followers. In those days women were considered inferior males. Look at the Gnostic interpretations of the scriptures, they talked about us all becoming the perfect male. That’s not so good for women. So they followed Jesus because he was an apocalyptic preacher that said all people would be equal. Mary Magdalene and other women followed him because of his promises of equality. The belief that women are inferior has followed us into the modern day.”

When Bradshaw’s mother died, he said he had a group of men that were able to hold him, hug and kiss him.

“Men can be as vulnerable as women, absolutely, and sometimes more so,” he continued. “It’s a uniquely individual thing for a man to own his vulnerability - the part that is out of control, the intuitive part, with all the feelings.”

In our culture women tend to get more permission to embrace their feelings, he added. But women also need to own their masculinity.

“My wife went back to school later on in her life,” Bradshaw recalled. “She embraced the masculine side of herself by stopping her inclination to care for everybody else to the exclusion of herself.”

I mentioned that there is a biological component of aging where a man’s testosterone lowers and a woman’s testosterone rises.

“We certainly are the product of male and female hormones in the body,” he stated. “But this goes back to your question about prejudice … at a deeper level. A man’s inability to access his feminine is about him maintaining his idea of superiority. The masculine is good, the feminine bad. We look at color the same way: white = good, black = bad.”

Bradshaw told the story of the first time his Texas grandfather paired up with a black man on the golf course.

“My grandfather stood frozen in amazement when he first looked at the black man standing next to him ready to tee off. At the end of the first nine, the black man gave my grandfather a golf club. My grandfather didn’t know how to handle the moment.”

Bradshaw referred to the event as a “pattern disruption” for his grandfather.

“His view of black people was disrupted, even though it didn’t change him completely.”

Bradshaw said he experienced his own “displacement” as a child living below the poverty level. He quoted Leon Bloy: “There are places in the heart that do not yet exist; suffering has to enter in for them to come to be.”

“Pain expands you,” Bradshaw said. “I’ve sort of been able to accept blacks out of my own suffering and minorityhood. On this issue, people have to look to at the vulnerable Inner Child - kids playing with each don’t carry racism. It makes no difference to them. All of us have to be willing to work on our own covert racism or sexism.”

Bradshaw recalled dating an African American psychologist in San Francisco.

“We got pretty far along, and then one morning I awoke and looked at her face and all that Southern crap came over me - not that I rejected her for her skin color, but I felt it. I asked myself, ‘what am I doing with these thoughts?!’ There is a covert prejudice that all of us carry that’s related to unhealthy shame.”

Healthy shame gives us permission to be vulnerable, according to Bradshaw. We allow ourselves to be perfectly imperfect. We can and will make mistakes. In this healthy shame we are able to access a higher power, and we can get help from friends.

Too often, any kind of fundamentalist religious orientation can create a kind of polarization, creating unhealthy shame that doesn’t permit us to be human, he added.

“Prejudice is about polarization,” the author declared. “When two groups are polarized, there’s no place to meet in the middle. Unhealthy shame tends to gravitate toward unhealthy religions. Because a person will feel less than worthy, they will move toward an organizational sense of absolute power, coming from an absolute God.”

The topic of the Elder meeting in Houston is Eldership and the accompanying issues, including being a grandfather, sexuality as we age, being married to a grandmother, preparing for the end of life, enriching life through contribution, mentoring, and dealing with changes in our body. Plus, men must come to grips with the second half of their life.

“Albert Schweitzer said we have two careers. He was a great teacher and theologian; then one day he realized how people were suffering, so he got a degree in medicine and went out and took care of them. However much we change, most of us are not called to that kind of tremendous change in life.”

Crisis is inherently a time of “heightened potential,” he said. But it’s also a “dangerous time of retardation.”

The author said his first real crisis was going to a theological seminary and having to be a celibate priest. Subsequently, he married and raised a child and two step children.

The really big crisis, or “profound religious experience,” occurred in 1962 while he was out running on a road in Minnesota.

“After running 11 miles, I looked up and saw a face on the horizon … I saw a Jesus Christ face. I was absolutely amazed because I hadn’t been reading the bible or praying, but I heard this voice that said, ‘you do what you know how to do and you’ll never worry about money again.’ Coming from a poor family, I had been obsessed about money my whole life. Thank goodness he didn’t say anything about sex, because I was in the middle of a sex addiction. Six months later I established a clinic for sexual addiction. I’ve been 24 years sober. What a profound experience that was for me.”

Some years later Bradshaw said he saw the same image in a crowd of 5,000 people in Denver.

“I asked them to close their eyes and meditate on God as they knew him. That’s when I saw my face of God again. I don’t say it’s everyone’s God, but he was my God.”

I told Bradshaw that I thought it was a shame that our culture puts visionaries or shamans on the lunatic fringe.

“Unfortunately there are fundamentalist that claim to speak in tongues, and all of that … but it’s harder to believe when it’s on public television. I believe we have downplayed spirituality in our culture. This profound spiritual experience was real to me. This was my first crisis, to find an attachment figure to make a commitment to.”

Another crisis he experienced was around money.

“I acquired an incredible amount of wealth in just seven years and I started buying ranches in Montana and Texas … but none of that brought me happiness. Creating happiness is harder than making money. I’ve heard it said that in the evening of life, you’ll be judged on love alone. So, I ask ‘what are my relationships?’ It’s usually not until the second half of life that we will ask ourselves the essential questions. The first half of life is about self-absorption, the second half is about generativity.”

For Bradshaw, his awakening to the second half of life came with the death of his father and two of his closest friends.

“I started asking, ‘What is the ultimate meaning of my life? How will I be remembered? What is my legacy? What is my purpose, destiny, or calling for the rest of my life?’”

Bradshaw said he looked to Aristotle, St. Thomas Aquinas, and Erik Erikson for inspiration on how to ponder these deep moral questions. The common answer is: virtue.

“From the moment a child ventures out into the world he’s building the foundation of emotional intelligence, or moral intelligence. After a mere six months he must learn to act in the face of fear – which is defined as courage. A man in midlife who loses his father and his friends must have the courage to look at his anima, that part that is not in control of life anymore. Any man that bypasses that process and does not show courage becomes a kind of self-centered, self-absorbed, narcissistic, bitter old man.”

I found this quote from Dr. C. George Boeree: “The maladaptive tendency in stage eight is called presumption. This is what happens when a person ‘presumes’ ego integrity without actually facing the difficulties of old age. The malignant tendency is called disdain, by which Erik Erikson means a contempt of life, one's own or anyone's. Someone who approaches death without fear has the strength Erikson calls wisdom. He calls it a gift to children, because "healthy children will not fear life if their elders have integrity enough not to fear death."

What’s next for this world traveler who’s got millions of books and tapes in the hands of people in Australia, Germany, Ireland, England, and other distant lands? John Bradshaw’s schedule includes working with a group of unity ministers in Austin, Texas.

“I became a priest after all,” he chuckled. “Joseph Campbell said that your destiny and purpose is your full realization that what you’re already doing has been your purpose.”

I asked Bradshaw for what Elders do best – a blessing.

“There is no such thing as mediocrity to the soul … and I’m paraphrasing Hillman … if you’re a butcher, be a great butcher. You can be like our grocer, Bubba, who was in charge of the produce department. He was rough around the edges, but as a kid growing up, I knew everyone in my town respected him. I’d watch him delicately clean the lettuce, and the celery … he was known to have the best produce around. So my blessing is that you get focused and realize that what you’re doing is okay.”

Having survived quadruple heart surgery, Bradshaw said he knows the consideration of death.

“Erik Erickson calls it ‘Ego Chills’ when you’re able to contemplate your own death. You may not come to it through quadruple bypass surgery … you may just notice hair growing out of your ears, and your nose. You may notice some wrinkles that weren’t there before. Or your skin is getting loose.”

After his surgery, Bradshaw said he went through a period of depression.

“I was in Scotland lecturing and my doctor said ‘you’re clinically depressed.’ He was right. I was thinking more and more about death and dying. I had to come to an ego integrity of accepting my one and only life as something that had to be. The other recourse is despair which comes with a criticalness about almost everything. I’ve found a meaning for my life in my Elderhood. I still have a life with purpose and destiny. I’ve been around long enough where people ought to listen to what I say.”

How ought we then bless each other?

“We need to support each other by blessing the coming generations. In this culture we value youth, beauty, and money. An Elder goes below the superficial and blesses from a soulful place, understanding that there’s never been anyone like him before. He has something to give, and it’s important. An Elder blessing is a vision of a good life. An Elder has something to give his grandchildren, something to give to people around him, something to give from his own life experience. Truly there’s a divinity that shapes our end and we have a strength within us that knows what’s important, and what’s not. Cardinal Newman said, ‘Not to know the relative disposition of things is to be a slave.’”

What can MKP do to keep our organization thriving?

“It’s really hard to keep it all together … we must have a great realistic imagination to realize the future. Too often when the founder dies, the group becomes codified and mummified. You end up with an organization instead of an organism. I like a spiritual practice I work with called, ‘You’re not that important.’ When I want to think of myself as enlightened, I need to remember my own shadows.”

I spent twice as long with John Bradshaw as I usually do in an interview, (so there’s so much more unsaid here) but I was having way too much fun to leave the conversation. He mentioned one of my favorite moves, Rudy – the true-life story of Daniel E. ‘Rudy’ Ruettiger.

“When I think of what The ManKind Project is doing, I think of this movie,” Bradshaw said. “I look forward to being with people who are involved in caring for each other. That’s why I decided to speak at MKP Houston. It’s everyone’s destiny and vocation to care about each other. We’re all important. Rudy Ruettiger was the only man in the history of Notre Dame football to be carried off the field.”

That gives me chills, I told Bradshaw.

“I got chills, too. And, why? Why is it that that statement moves us to chills? It’s because there’s something profound in us that knows about perseverance, and love, and those guys recognizing the leadership in Rudy. His life was about playing as hard as he could.”

John Bradshaw closed the interview with this line from John of the Cross, a Catholic mystic: “Where there is no love, put love, and there you’ll find love.” -

© 2006, Reid Baer

Related Issue: YouTube commercial for this column. Also see Reid's poetry on YouTube.

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The fame you earn has a different taste from the fame that is forced upon you. - Gloria Vanderbilt

Reid Baer, an award-winning playwright for “A Lyon’s Tale” is also a newspaper journalist, a poet with more than 100 poems in magazines world wide, and a novelist with his first book released this month entitled Kill The Story. Baer has been a member of The ManKind Project since 1995 and currently edits The New Warrior Journal for The ManKind Project www.mkp.org . He resides in Reidsville, N.C. with his wife Patricia. He can be reached at E-Mail.

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