Timothy Young describes how he took up the challenge implicit in his experiences at the Minnesota Men’s Conference, particularly how various exemplary men and women supported his resolve while he worked as a teacher to young men in trouble. –mg
WHERE GOD IS HIDING IN EACH BOY
For thirty years the teachers at the Minnesota Men’s Conferences, from Robert Bly and Michael Meade down to Martin Shaw and Miguel Rivera, have coaxed participants to carry their learned experiences into their local communities. This was not to be a proselytizing mission for ‘men’s work’, but rather experiential participation in difficult situations where young men struggle. In 1997 I was looking for a new position and happened upon a job at the Red Wing juvenile correctional facility. For all intents and purposes, it was more of a treatment center than a prison. It was not the outrageously mis-featured place in Bob Dylan’s song. There were no actual ‘Walls of Red Wing.’
Red Wing Training School 1908
For nine years I taught anger management and moral thinking skills at Red Wing. The young men in the sex offender program had all been convicted for prostitution, rape, or sexual assault, on children and/or adults. Those in other programs were incarcerated for various felonies such as murder or robbery. I worked with them on a rotating basis. On average, each youth on the campus had five felony convictions. They were serious and chronic offenders. Some of them were mentally ill. Some had grown up homeless, or in anti-social environments. For most of our residents, their childhoods had been as ugly and disturbing as the acts that brought them to us.
Every day was a day of intense psychological and spiritual work in this crucible. The day-to-day activities of teaching were intensified by the physical structures and the psychological containment of the young men. Sometimes, at the end of a difficult day, I heard a corrections worker say, “I feel like I’m doing life—eight hours at a time.” Prison work takes a toll on the soul. To remain healthy in that unique environment one must always be working on his own soul’s development.
Because of our own early misdeeds, many workers knew that but for one twist of fate, we might have spent time in facilities like Red Wing. Many of us stopped our behaviors before being caught and we had an affinity for such youngsters. Many of the teachers, officers, administrators and caseworkers served youth for decades. One colleague, a frontline caseworker, Dane Petersen, had worked at Red Wing for over thirty years. He had to lead group meetings. He had to find appropriate foster homes, arrange jobs, contact courts, schools, complete reams of mandatory paperwork, and guide shamed young men toward a deeper sense of self-worth. He dealt with sexual propositions from his wards, violent physical threats and assaults, emotional breakdowns and radical, political policy swings from changing administrations. Throughout, he maintained a liveliness and a cheerful dedication to his work. As an ordained Lutheran minister he chose to serve this community as a caseworker, not as a chaplain. He saw his service as a spiritual discipline. As did many other workers.
Just as importantly, he maintained a vital physical, mental, and spiritual life outside the institution. I found that other workers had also been ordained or were deeply involved in their spiritual disciplines, at the institution and elsewhere. A chief administrator served as a deacon at his church. A number of teachers led religious study classes. Among the volunteer grandmothers who spent many hours each week with the boys, one was a nun from a convent down the road. Another had volunteered continuously for over forty years. Chemical dependency counsellors and visiting or assigned chaplains arrived regularly. Each week a Native American elder led a sweatlodge ceremony. Corrections workers and volunteers at this institution served the residents, the spiritual world, the public, and themselves. We were aware that we were continuously involved in some type of interior work—whether called men’s work, soul work, spiritual work, religious or psychological work. We were in it together.
Corrections workers had to face the demons of the environment with spiritual and psychological strength or the atmosphere would deteriorate quickly and become dangerous to staff and residents. Vigilance was essential. When some of our residents arrived, they were already being eaten by psychological demons. According to the Jungian thinker, Marie-Louise von Franz. when a person is eaten up, the demon, (the one-sidedness of a psychological complex) “entangles itself in the surrounding environment.” This entanglement increases the possibility of violence and heightens everyone’s sense of danger. If a staff member was being eaten by the environment’s demons he spiraled into desperate cynicism, often accompanied by alcoholism and other abuses. His behaviors also increased the dangers for residents and staff.
Dane Petersen said, “I have survived because I look to see where God is hiding in each boy. And God is always hiding there. That awareness keeps me going.” He could see divinity and he served it.
The African medicine healer and scholar and occasional Minnesota Men’s Conference teacher, Malidoma Somé, has worked with Meade and juvenile gang members in California. He says that when he first meets someone, “I look beyond the physical man and address his soul standing right behind his body.” In a prison or in treatment it is necessary that one bring this skill, or learn it, or at least acknowledge it in others.
One skill I picked up from the Minnesota Men’s Conferences’ storytellers was how to use folktales to plumb the depths of the psyche. Folktales are accessible to any person because the story seems to meet every individual at his developmental stage, no matter his experience or sophistication.
The Dark Man’s Sooty Brother
I often used the story, The Dark Man’s Sooty Brother, with my anger management students. It isa Grimm’s’ tale told by Robert Bly. In this tale a young man has been discharged from the army. He is penniless, homeless, without family and far from home. He is offered and takes a job to keep the Dark Man’s cauldrons boiling underground for seven years. He is supplied with enough to eat, a place to sleep and just enough work to keep busy. He neither cuts his hair nor trims his nails, nor wipes the tears from his sooty face. As one of the conditions of his employment, he agrees not to look inside the cauldrons to see what is boiling there. After a while he steals a look into the cauldrons and sees his own grief and his own history. Of course, the Dark Man intended that he look. The young man sees his military superiors in the cauldrons and says, “You made my life miserable, now I will make you miserable.” The young man stokes the fires to make the cauldrons boil violently.
Boiling Sulfur Pots
A young gang member, “a soldier,” in my class would immediately identify with the story’s hero. Strong emotions boil up in the hero, too. The steam of his anger must work through him. The emotions must be expressed, not repressed, as he cleans out his soul. After serving his time the hero re-enters the world above. His wage, is a sack of wood chips, transformed into gold coins when he is above ground. I asked my students to imagine that their diploma or GED, the social skills they learned, and the tolerance and acceptance they found, were those woodchips. Often, it took faith on their part. In the tale the young man returns above ground in his sooty clothes and his shaggy appearance. He is immediately robbed of his gold. He returns to the underground. He demands to be cleaned and washed by the Dark Man. He is given another sack of wood chips, and learns the value of being clean. In this shining state he attracts and eventually marries the king’s daughter.
Our residents needed to access and acknowledge their grief and torment in order to get a clearer sense of themselves and find a new path. Sometimes treatment helped. Stories helped. Psychological therapy often helped. Spiritual practice helped. In corrections there was always an opportunity for self-scrutiny, restorative healing and spiritual work—for the resident and the corrections worker. There usually comes a moment when a young man may choose a different path for himself. For some young men that moment did not come. Yet, only if we workers did our own spiritual grief-work, utilized our own self-scrutiny and continued our own spiritual practices could we recognize the moment and help a young man take the next step. The environment of a juvenile prison was a cauldron for us, too. We were aware that we were in this together, even if we were at different stages of personal growth.
Dane Petersen worked in the midst of this turmoil. He worked on his own interior and he worked for the young men who came to him. He told me, “I am merely a way station for these boys. I can’t take credit for their successes. Nor do I take the blame for their failures. I can only offer my service while they are here.” He understood his role. It enriched him and those around him, including me. On many days it took faith and an ever-continuing spiritual effort. I retired before reaching the level of Dane Peterson’s wisdom. Yet, my nine years at Red Wing enriched my life, and I believe that in some way, my time in the program enriched the lives of the young men I served, and the co-workers I toiled with.
Marie-Louise von Franz