May Surprise


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May
What Were the Affects of the 1991 Initiation to Manhood Weekend for Six Teenage Boys Reported in the Book Boy Into Man?


In 2005 I was running a counseling group for five middle school boys and I learned how much they wanted to be initiated into manhood. One boy returned from winter vacation in Hawaii with a book about Hawaii and Hawaiian culture. He wanted a traditional Hawaiian Initiation to Manhood Ceremony, including the ritual circumcision. I was quite surprised to hear him say he wanted a circumcision. The other boys also wanted an initiation to manhood, and asked for Bar-Mitzvahs. This also surprised me because none of them were Jewish. They all wanted an initiation to manhood so much that they would take anything from any culture, even if they didn’t know what they were talking about. At the end of the school year we created a ceremony (minus the circumcision), however I felt it was insufficient. I’m Jewish and I had a Bar Mitzvah, but I still didn’t know how to give them an initiation to manhood. It launched me on a journey to learn about manhood and being initiated into manhood, for the boys and for myself.

1991 Initiation to Manhood Weekend

I discovered the book Boy Into Man by Dr. Bernard Weiner about the Initiation to Manhood weekend that a group of parents created for their six thirteen-year-old sons twenty years ago. The parents gathered and planned for months beforehand. The weekend was a male only event with fathers, family friends, and sons. It was held in the country. Fathers and sons worked together to prepare the food and care for the site. They had time around the fire to speak honestly and candidly, the men teaching and inspiring the sons. There were rituals to let go of childhood and enter manhood, respect women, and to find inner strength. Parts of it were theatrically done with masks and costumes. Each of the boys slept alone outside, in their chosen spots. The book is an entertaining and inspiring account of making and having the ritual. I wanted to know if it worked. What were the effects of their Initiation to Manhood Weekend, at the time, and long-term? With Dr. Weiner’s help I contacted all the sons (now men 34 and 35 years old) and the four surviving fathers. I asked them how the weekend affected them.

What do the men remember of it, and what did they get out of it?

The men vary in what they recall and what they think the immediate and long-term affects were. Some of them remember the weekend in vivid detail, while others remember it minimally. For the men that do remember it, several experiences and lessons come to mind. First off that it was fun and exciting. Jonny Nesmith reports that he really appreciated the time with fathers and male family friends. Aside from the ritual and intentions he recalls and values the communal time of being around the campfire with the fathers, sitting and telling stories. He found this powerful in itself.

Jonny Nesmith and David Edeli recall starting the weekend nervous and embarrassed when two fathers stood outside their school dressed as big papier-mache hands beckoning the boys. The boys shifted their embarrassment to being proud. David recalls that after the weekend he told a female friend that the weekend was very important and valuable, that he learned three specific lessons toward positive manhood; treat women respectfully, be really careful with drugs and alcohol, and to have a good work ethic. The following fall David was a freshman in a high school where he didn’t know anyone. He wrote an article about the initiation experience in his high school newspaper. In hindsight he sees that as a gutsy thing to do, indicating the importance that the weekend had for him at the time.

For some of them the weekend contained a component of confronting their fears. Josh Magnani remembers that he faced his fears by sleeping outside alone and David Edeli remembers that sleeping alone outside made him feel brave and confident.

What stands out from the interviews with the men is the recollection that the lessons that the men had to teach were secondary to the relationship to the men, and the experience of respect and acceptance that the men extended to the youth. Erik Weiner wrote: I think the effect of the initiation weekend at the time, for me, was a feeling that I was becoming a man, an adult. I was being accepted by elders into "the tribe" and allowed behind the curtain to hear some of the secrets of what it meant to be a man. What those secrets were I can't remember exactly. Probably some revelations about sex, love, and other mysteries of life.

The long-term effects on a person’s growth are difficult to identify and attribute to one weekend experience. Yet, some of the men feel that they carry that weekend with them. The fact that most of them remember the weekend, and some of them remember it in detail indicates that it had a lasting impression, and suggests that for some of them it was a powerful, even formative experience.

Each man has a different experience or lesson that they carry from that weekend. One man said he had an experience in college where he identified that he had strong opinions about respecting women. He thinks he was influenced during the initiation weekend eight years before that. Jonny Nesmith spoke about how it expanded his relationship with the other boys and the fathers, creating a shared masculine experience that has stayed with him. The interviews with the men reveal that for some of them it was one experience that helped them feel confidence in becoming an adult, a man. Erik Weiner wrote: In the long-term, I've always felt grateful to have had that experience. There are many age-bridges to cross in life - 13, 18, 20, 21, 30, 35, 40 - but I'll always remember 13 as the biggest and most revealing bridge. The fact that our fathers and uncles built a ceremony to celebrate this crossing was what gave it that importance. We stepped to the other side and entered our teenage years, childhood now behind us. Just like driving a car for the first time. Getting into the driver's seat - nervous, doubtful, scared - thinking, "I'm not sure I can do this." And your parent is there and they say, "You can." That belief is the fuel that ignites the possibility of accomplishment. And that is what our fathers and uncles gave us that weekend. We weren't sure we were ready to become men. They said, "You are."

The men expressed a range of conclusions about the weekend. No one said anything negative about it. Some men remember the weekend as very positive. David Edeli said it was “unmitigated good,’ that he was always was glad and proud that he did the initiation, and found it “unquestionably worth it.” A few of the men recommend initiation to manhood (or womanhood) for others, and intend to offer something like it to their kids when the time comes.

What do the fathers remember, and what do they think it did?

The fathers are more able to identify the effects of the weekend on their sons, on their relationships with their sons, and as bonding experience with the other fathers. The fathers consistently said it was good for the sons at the time. Terry Edeli recalls observing that the initiation weekend helped the boys grow up. “…it helped him grow up. We were recognizing him as much older than he was. They looked more grown up the next day, standing in line.”

The fathers were acknowledging their sons for who they were, and the transition that they were in. The fathers were individually and collectively saying ‘we see you, and we are with you in this transition’. Being witnessed and acknowledged for who you are, and the challenge of getting there is powerful stuff. It is difficult to deliver these things within the flow of daily life. The weekend retreat provided the opportunity to see and say things that could be overlooked or unsaid.

The fathers were also seeing and accepting that their sons were growing up, maturing, becoming their own people. Jim Thurston recalls “It was powerful for me to realize that he was growing into a man, and I had to trust he’ll be okay, he’ll make it.”. Terri Edeli said he had the most memorable dream of his life during his son’s initiation weekend. In one portion of the dream someone fell into a river and drifted away. He felt that this was obviously connected to what was happening at the moment. The fathers were recognizing that their sons were growing into their own people, and they would have to release their sons to the world.

It was also a bonding experience for the fathers with each other. The process of creating the ritual required collaboration and sharing of views, being honest and candid together. They used a collaborative process to create the weekend, welcoming and integrating their respective gifts and talents.

The fathers reported long-term effects as how it impacted their relationship with their sons. Only one of the fathers said that the initiation weekend did not have a long-term benefit on his relationship with his son. He attributes it to living far away, and not being actively engaged in his son’s life before and after the weekend. The other fathers were clear that the weekend had a very positive impact on their relationships with their sons, through the challenges of the teen years and young adulthood. Terry Edeli explained that the initiation weekend was a ‘proactive marker of our lives together’. There were obvious struggles between the parents and their teen son. He recalls the difficult moments. He said “The initiation rivals all that. It was a huge positive. It’s a presence in the past that is really big”. Bernie Weiner was equally clear “The father/son bond was immeasurably strengthened as a result of the caring ceremony.”

The fathers that felt that the initiation weekend had a positive impact on their relationships with their sons said that the benefits remain in their current, adult relationships with their sons. When asked if they have a good relationship with their sons Terry Edeli answered “Ya, great. Really, really great. I would imagine that the weekend had a role, a significant role”. He continues “It set the standard. It was a proactive statement. What were the really big things that happened between us in the last 34 years? It (the initiation) would probably be the first thing mentioned. It was really big.”

Bernie Wiener writes “The effect on the fathers was profound, and the subject of the initiation has come up regularly over the years.” Another man chose not to talk to me about the weekend because his memories were so precious.

What do they attribute it to? What worked?

A few things led to the success of the weekend. The biggest thing was that it happened within a network of established, trusting, ongoing relationships. They were all part of an intimate community where there was trust, appreciation and respect for each other. The boys attended an independent school called the San Francisco School. They were part of a small class (15 students) that had been together for years. The six boys that participated were almost all the boys in the class. They were also involved in each others’ lives beyond the school: birthday parties, camping trips, basketball team, babysat together, had the same piano teacher, etc. As school culture was very supportive and encouraging they were accustomed to treating each other well. They entered the weekend feeling safe and at ease among each other. They also felt safe among the men. Their school was designed to have high parent and community involvement. Of the fathers on the weekend one was the school principal, another was a basketball coach, one father prepared the lunches, and another was a school administrator. The boys were very familiar and comfortable with these men. The boys had a sense of intimacy and community with each other and with the fathers. They did their initiation to manhood weekend with their close friends and the male elders of their daily lives.

The initiation weekend also succeeded because the boys were accustomed to rituals and could relate to the dramatized, ritualized way they were being taught. It was consistent with what they did at school and within that community. The boys were familiar with rituals to the point of being fed up with them so it helped that the fathers kept it dramatic and interesting to the boys. The boys’ familiarity with ritual and drama enabled them to engage in the archetypes and metaphors used in the weekend.

Another factor that made the initiation weekend successful is that the parents created it for themselves and their sons. They were honest and expressive about themselves, their values, and the lessons they wanted to teach. One man said “we created it in a thoughtful, conscious, and collaborative way”. One man was a baker so they integrated baking bread into the ceremony. The whole weekend was an expression of who they were and there was nothing in it that was foreign or awkward to them. It was about self-expression and connection, rather than playing out a template or script.

Initiation in Community

The weekend did not have any identifiable downsides. How much it impacted each person or each relationship varies, but everyone received positive benefit, at the time, long-term, or both. Most of the men who were initiates when they were thirteen-years-old recommend it for others, and intend to provide an initiation to their sons and daughters when they come of age. The initiation ritual was carefully designed and well executed. What made it work was that they were already in community together. All the fathers and sons came into the weekend in relationship with each other, with established trust, mutual respect, and felt interdependence. This was the common ground upon which they could open up and be genuinely present to each other. An initiation to manhood can take many shapes. These fathers initiated their sons by inviting them to connect to the men of their community. The critical component and catalyst was the relationships: among the boys, and among the fathers, between the fathers and sons, the young men and the elders. As they knew and trusted each other they were all able to be men among men.

© 2012, Richard S. Robinson

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Richard S. Robinson. Rich is a licensed psychotherapist in Berkeley California. He used to work at a continuation high school for teenagers with emotional issues and now is in private practice specializing in teenagers and families. Rich works with families to develop behavior contracts and to live with respect and appreciation. Rich has been a mentor and pack leader in the Young Men's Ultimate Weekend, an initiation to manhood program for teenagers, and he volunteers at a YEAH, a shelter for homeless young adults. eMail



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