In a cabin in the Massachusetts countryside in New England, tears run down the cheeks of Lucas Krump as he participates in one of a new kind of support group that is growing increasingly popular with American men.
A dozen men, all white Americans ranging in age from their 20s to 60s, were at a retreat run by Evryman, a group that helps men remove the armour of masculinity to get in touch with their inner emotions. According to the founders of the group, most men would rather be electrically shocked than left alone with themselves, while one in three men are chronically lonely and 75% of suicides are men.
"There were moments this year when I wanted to give up," 40-year-old Krump told the group, who were all tired of trying to live up to traditional male stereotypes, at this “sort of anti-‘Fight Club’,” according to AFP.
One weekend last month, no fewer than 55 men spoke about their weaknesses and insecurities at the cabin, as snow fell quietly in the woods outside.
Some participants expressed feelings of sadness, pain, and fear, as well as the difficulty in opening up with family despite the urge to.
Participants share their experiences and join both group and one-on-one workshops where they learn to deal with feelings of anxiety and anger. Most men, according to Evryman, were taught to suppress their emotions, but “by doing so, we bottle up we who we really are. And we’re hurting because of it.”
Group founders have seen a surge in numbers attending events, a phenomenon they say reflects a shift in attitudes and an increased curiosity about what it means to be male, particularly among American millennials, as well as a forum for the growing debate about so-called "toxic masculinity" fuelled by the #MeToo movement.
Ryan Zagone, who has been attending sessions for six months, described feeling “like an outsider” in Louisiana, “where the definition of a man is very narrow.”
"Coming here for the first time gave me role models of other ways to be as a man. How to be emotional in... a way that is powerful, loving, empathetic, and at the same time strong," Zagone said.
Michael Kimmel, a sociologist who specialises in masculinity, said many American men nowadays worry they are not doing as well as their father or grandfather and feel like they are living in a “straitjacket.”
"We live in a society in which every other man is a potential competitor, for jobs, for money, for access, for power… So, we don't look at each other as brothers, we look at each other as rivals. So, when you have that kind of relationship, you feel isolated," Kimmel said.
But Owen Marcus, who helped structure Evryman's programmes, said the sessions would never have been this popular 20 years ago. "Younger men are much more open to this. They're more willing to take that initial risk," he told AFP.
Evryman was founded in 2016, predating the #MeToo movement that was ignited by the Harvey Weinstein scandal in late 2017. But the group was brought into focus by global responses to sexual misconduct, which has caused many men to question their own behaviour.
Co-founder Dan Doty said the group’s purpose is not to deal directly with “toxic masculinity,” but that the issue is never too far away. “We need to meet men where they are and not come in and say, ‘Hey, what you're doing is terrible.’”
Zagone believes that men cause hurt because they themselves are hurting. "Men having the ability to go deep into that hurt, to feel it and to process it in a healthier way, then they're not hurting other people… That's the skill we're teaching here," he said.
The sessions are not intended to replace therapy, as participants may still see their regular therapist and come to Evryman for a support network. While take-up is mainly by white males, the group is working to attract more diverse participants. Women, however, cannot join for now for fear they will inhibit the men.
The programmes teach somatic awareness, emotional awareness, and expression. “This coaching is for men who are ready for serious change,” claim the programme designers. “We want to have a million do this work,” said co-founder Sascha Lewis, for whom “there is a sense of a movement happening here in the United States.” They claim to have helped thousands of men and hope to help many more.