The Rites of Men

Psychotherapist Michael Boyle is in Edinburgh tomorrow (11th August) to talk about his visionary approach to directionless or delinquent young men – lead them through a modern rites of passage they will never forget. 

Published in The Herald on 10th Aug 2012

AMID the depressingly high statistics for male youth offending, unemployment and suicide, Michael Boyle believes society has forgotten a simple truth – that to grow up at all, boys must somehow be initiated into manhood.

While shipbuilding, mining and other now-defunct industries provided a bridge of sorts until recently, this psychotherapist has devised an intensive weekend program that taps into much earlier, earthier rites of passage. Much like their tribal forebears, he believes today’s young men need a primal, authentic encounter with life before they can truly live it.

“It’s there as a consistent pattern in anthropology across time, across the world,” says Boyle, 59, who is running a workshop on the subject at the Edinburgh Festival tomorrow. “At a certain point, where the young men’s biology had changed, testosterone had kicked in, those youngsters were potential assets to society but had to be initiated into the mythology of the tribe for its greater good.”

The exact details of his weekend process are withheld to increase its impact, but participants can expect drumming, heightened emotions, and potent stories brought to life around the campfire. “There are two paradoxical messages that came powerfully from traditional rites of passage,” explains Boyle, a Londoner with Irish roots. “The first is that you are not the centre of the world. You are ordinary in the sense that you have to serve the collective. And the other message, paradoxically, is that you are extraordinary – we have to try and get the boys to own their uniqueness, their assets, to take responsibility for who they are in the world, not just throw it away.”

Unorthodox as it sounds, A Band of Brothers has attracted widespread interest since its inception in Brighton five years ago – not least because graduates of the scheme have shown an eyebrow-raising 80 per cent drop in offending rates. The charity has been invited to the House of Commons and shortlisted for a prize by the prestigious Centre for Social Justice. And last year’s summer rioting only underlined the need.

“The sad fact is that we teach young people shopping better than we teach them values,” says the London-based psychotherapist, who gave up a successful glazing business to re-train after suffering his own crisis of identity. “There’s a real split between what we hear from teachers, trying to get children to behave responsibly as civilians, and the culture of the market which basically says help yourself, do what you like.”nderlined the seriousness of the problem.

Disillusioned with his consumer lifestyle, Boyle sought spiritual meaning in his own rites of passage with a US men’s organisation in the Texas desert in 1994. It was a powerful experience which gave him a new respect for men and a determination to help others reach their potential. “One of the great things about rites of passage is that it required the whole community to come together and ask big visionary questions like what sort of society do we want to grow into. Somewhere the imagination has to be engaged, and the imagination is everything.”

For Boyle the answer was to draw on epic stories. In the corporate world he now uses Shakespeare’s plays to inspire leadership skills in executives with Olivier Mythodrama (led by Richard Olivier, son of Sir Laurence) – and when it came to Band of Brothers, the myth of choice was the Grail quest of Sir Parzival. “The key themes are a father who wasn’t there, a mother he had to break free of to find out who he was, and a call to adventure which he could not resist,” explains Boyle. “You can see the guys really light up as we enact it. They recognise themselves.”

Just as important is the work of mentors – volunteers recruited locally and trained with their own rites of passage – who are paired with the young men and continue to meet them regularly after the weekend. “These kids have never had that kind of attention before,” says Boyle. “We acknowledge the pain they have already been through – their losses, their shame, all the emotional stuff which is so influential in their behaviour.”

For Chris Frape, an unemployed 17-year-old from Brighton’s notorious Whitehawk estate, the weekend came at just the right time. “I was getting kicked out of school all the time for fighting,” he recalls a year on. “I would pretend nothing was wrong, but things would build up, till someone would say something and I’d just lose it and end up stamping on his head.”

Chris admits he found the weekend uncomfortable at times. “I didn’t want to deal with my emotions – it’s just not me,” he remembers. “But on the weekend they encourage you to get your anger out safely: throw a stone in a field, scream what you’re angry about.”

As it turned out, Chris – like Sir Parzival – had grown up without a father. It’s something he has discussed many times since with his mentor, Robin Life, as they work together at the charity’s allotment on the hill above Brighton, building a shed and bench around the fire pit.

“Now I’m hoping to train as a painter and decorator,” says Chris with a grin. “I don’t do that mad fighting stuff any more – I’m more chilled out.”

Boyle can point to many similar stories – the ex-con who became an aid worker, the local hoodie with a new job driving fork lift trucks – indeed, 80 per cent of participants go on to find work. He makes no apology for the single-gender emphasis. “Actually, in indigenous cultures it was the mothers who sent the boys off on their initiations – because once you know who you are as a man, your relationships with women can only get better.”

Word seems to be spreading fast. So far this year the charity MIND has enlisted Boyle and his cohorts in a programme encouraging men to talk about their mental health struggles, while Brighton police have commissioned them to work with men who have just come out of prison. “According to the statistics, 82 per cent of them return to prison within a year,” says Boyle. “That’s a waste of money as well as a waste of a life. We think we can kick a big hole in that number.”

He has also met local groups in Bristol and the London borough of Hackney to discuss ways of starting offshoots – and after interest from men’s groups in Edinburgh and Moray, he also plans to run a mentor training weekend next year inScotland.

“We’re just beginning, really,” grins Boyle. “Just blowing on embers, hoping to revive something powerful – something that once worked throughout the world.”

For more information, see Michael Boyle’s workshop “The Trouble with Boys is the Trouble with Men” runs from 1pm to 5pm on Sat 11 Aug, at the Melting Pot, Rose Street, Edinburgh, tickets £10 (£7.50) or 0131 473 2000. He will also be joining a panel discussion on male youth at St John’s Church in Edinburgh at 10am on Sat 11 Aug, tickets £6.50 (£4.50) or 0131 473 2000.

For my personal take on menswork, click here.

Posted on: 10 Aug 2012 in Interviews, Journalism, Menswork, Spirituality
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