MotherJones MJ93: Backtalk

I am sorry that I ever talked to Veronique Vienne. Immediately after Terry Dobson’s death, she asked me to help her present what she called the “female’s view” of her ex-lover. She felt that the women in his life were not sufficiently honored. So imagine how I felt when I read her article (“Iron John: A Lover’s Tale,” March/April) and heard her wail: “what was missing was me!”

Having missed out on Terry’s death, Veronique sets herself up as his killer, his “superior enemy.” She does it by creating a fairy tale, fabricating a myth of Terry as the model for Iron John so that she can become the raging mother to his Wild Man. She says that she doesn’t “believe men should be made into heroes,” but what she means is, not without her.

Robert Bly’s Iron John is the most fashionable fairy tale we have. Veronique looks at the man on its cover and quickly sees the potential: he looks like Terry, he has a beard, and there we have it! Terry Dobson is Iron John. Terry is “medieval,” “Gothic,” “gigantic,” a “barbarian king.”

We could just as easily say that Terry Dobson was an Episcopalian white boy who went to Deerfield. Just under six feet tall, he had the physique Americans get when raised on football and Twinkies. By her own admission, Veronique was unaware of Terry’s involvement in the “men’s movement” and, by extension, had no idea what his relationship to Robert Bly was like. It could have been mutual respect and liking, an ongoing conversation, poet-to-poet, which had little to do with their respective mythologies.

But then, how could Veronique fit in? Having kissed so many frogs, at least one of them ought to turn into a prince. If she can make Terry Dobson into Iron John, then she can be Mother Nature. Metaphor in hand, Veronique is on the rampage. She is out there, careening around the trees, reaching for her ex-lover on the very shores of his home by the lake, yelling for him to come home so that she can eat him up–how dare he die before she can get to him.

Dead men don’t talk, but I can. Terry had a house with sliding glass doors, wicker furniture, and a dog named Spot. I lived there with him for seven years on the shores of that lake and I must confess that I never heard even a whimper out there in the dark. While I don’t want to insert myself into this scenario, I do want to separate myself from Veronique’s assumptions about the women “Terry (the barbarian king) had tried to take with him into the grave.” Since she was long gone from Terry’s life the only females I know of were Terry’s daughter and myself. We were the ones with him, trying to catch him as he sickened and died, and we always felt honored and cherished by him. We were not secrets, as Veronique apparently felt herself to have been. I was known as his partner and Marion as his daughter.

It hurts my heart to find this woman dragging me into her sour-tasting psycho-drama, seeing myself portrayed as someone trying to get him away from his groupies in order to give him a “peaceful death.” She wasn’t there when his friends offered their home as his death bed. I did complain to her about being stifled by the claims of strangers. Terry liked people and they liked him. Veronique wasn’t the only ex- girlfriend jockeying for position. She was just the only one desperate to get him into a national magazine so that she could become the lover of Iron John.

Mother Jones, why did you publish this? When Terry told Veronique to “kill her darlings,” he meant that she should get herself a good editor. We might have had a story here. Instead, we get a mixed garbage bag of retro-feminism, vengeful mothering, Robert Bly-bashing, and bad dental work. We hear from a woman who’s still complaining about being asked, “What’s for dinner?” when she might have answered, “Pick up a pizza,” and gotten on with her life.

But so what–dead men can’t talk.

Wrong. Here’s some vintage Terry Dobson: “You have a very valid reason for being angry with me. Ground it. Let it go. Let the anger, the abuse, and the hostility subside and we will be able to resolve it. From five hundred feet in the air, there is no difference between us. You are a bunch of exploding atoms and so am I. It is only our desire for separation which keeps us apart. Realize that behind this huge anger is an equally enormous draw between us. Allow yourself to be drawn in. The fact that we are standing here building up energy together will bring us closer together. Isn’t that wild physics?” (Grand Isle, Vermont, 1990).

Riki Moss, Grand Isle, Vermont

There are many tender passages in Veronique Vienne’s memoir of Terry Dobson, and I don’t wish to argue in any way with her view of him. We each see another person with our big knowledgeable eyes, and that’s as it is, right.

I’m not sure her view of the men’s movement is as knowledgeable. To start with, there are five or six men’s movements, and I am associated with only one of them. She’s suspicious in any case of the conferences we hold in the woods, and she believes that we do that to get the men away from their mothers. But we do it to get men away from their work. Most men are much more obsessed with their work than their mothers. We usually provide no telephone; the aim is to make a clean break with the daily work routine. If the men are all woodspeople, we take them to the city.

It might surprise many people to understand that mothers are not much discussed in these gatherings. Of course each gathering has its own themes, chosen and not chosen, but Freud’s mother-blaming is a rare theme. Some of the most passionate talk comes from men who feel they have walked up a blind alley in their job: the rationality is too dry, or the job has gone dead for them, or it leaves them no time to be with their family, or it is stupid and dishonorable. The emphasis falls on the soul damage that much contemporary work causes. One man said flatly, “For ten years, I have been involved in corporate crime.” The men sat there silently for about five minutes after that.

The matter of fathering also brings much passionate discussion. It is a rare man who feels adequately fathered. The other men look at him with amazement. The experience of most of the men is an abusive father, a remote father, a drunk father, or no father at all, a passive father or a father who tells them they have “shit for brains.” As story after story comes out, weeping begins. Many men have never heard father-son stories laid out openly and passionately by other men. One son of a non-talking father, longing to hear his father say that he loved him, intervened on his father’s death bed. He said, “I love you. Do you love me?” The father made a strange motion with his hand, and said, “Of course I love you but men are not supposed to talk that way.” He died a bit later.

The men we meet are determined to get past that habit of not talking in their own lives. The question is how a man can father sons and daughters well if he has not been fathered well himself. And they want advice on that. I believe that men’s work as it develops will be immensely valuable for women, as well as for children and the culture as a whole.

I believe deeply in dialogue between men and women, and the possibility of reconciliation, so I am pleased to respond. I notice that the first impulse of one gender is to be condescending to the other gender. In the early days of the women’s movement, some men were content to say, “All they want to do is burn their bras.” That was too simple. To say the men were trying to hide in tree houses is just as simple. These are not boys, but grown men. They can’t just be lumped together as “mothers’ sons.” I read to a woman friend of mine the sentence, “I am the angry mother. If you venture into the woods, young men, beware of the woman who is looking for her son and wants to take him back,” and asked her what she thought. She said, “Well, the son doesn’t belong to her. Maybe one-sixth of him belongs to God, one- sixth to his own generation, one-sixth to his father, one-sixth to nature, one-sixth to her, and so on. He isn’t hers.”

When we say that all women are girls, or all men are boys, it is a way of saying that they have no wound. To say that men have no wound doesn’t fit with men’s experience. Christine Downing has a fine new book called Women’s Mysteries, and I’ll end this piece with a paragraph from it: “As women have begun to claim the right to define themselves, they have said: the given descriptions don’t do justice to our experience. In naming this, they have made us all aware of the degree to which the dominant assumptions about gender are patriarchal, that is, shaped by a culture in which men dominate. As such, they are assumptions oppressive to women–and, also, we are beginning to see, to males. Thus we now all see and feel wounds which were earlier invisible. Being female feels like a wound or curse rather than a blessing–but so does being male. The wounds are different; there are gender-specific pathologies, but we seem to be at a time when at least some members of each gender are experiencing gender as a wound. Each feels itself to be inferior.”

I like the compassionate tone of that.

Robert Bly, Minneapolis, Minnesota

Veronique Vienne replies: In Aikido, it’s called a “Multiple Attack.” On one side there is Riki Moss coming at me with her rage and contempt; on the other side there is Robert Bly with his gentle yet patronizing dismissal. Terry would have loved it. He was a master at dealing with a multiple attack. To demonstrate how to handle more than one assailant, he would stand on the mat, motionless, almost quiescent, like a dormant volcano. His knees were slightly bent–but you could not tell because of the wide pants of his Aikido uniform. His opponents, who were supposed to attack him all at once, had him surrounded.

They did not even get a chance to hit him. Just as they were upon him Terry would release his knees, twist his body slightly in a delicate shudder–and scratch his nose. Or he would yawn. Or maybe fart. Like drops of water from a windshield wiper, his opponents would be scattered around, deflected by a ripple effect that was both graceful and comical.

We loved Terry. He was, to paraphrase Robert Bly, “a gift we hardly deserved.” We each, in our own way, miss him very much.

ON THE ROAD AGAIN

Ray Bonner’s article, “Why We Went” (March/April), offers no new perspective or insight into the Somalia tragedy. The main conclusions echo the many unreasoned analyses on Somalia emanating from Africa Watch and parts of the media, always with a penchant for a sensational story, over the past year or so. Bonner may disclaim “UN bashing,” but his parroting of these tired and unfounded criticisms of the United Nations constitutes a particularly insidious form of it.

The article also contained many misrepresentations and errors of fact. For example: it is not accurate to say that Ambassador Sahnoun was “fired.” As indicated in the article, the Secretary-General did write to Sahnoun, pointing out that some of his public statements were not conducive to the effective implementation of the UN mission in Somalia. The letter also pointed out that his frequent and unannounced absences from Somalia were detrimental to the carrying out of his duties. Ambassador Sahnoun replied, suggesting that he become a UN Special Envoy for Somalia, which would not require his permanent residence in Somalia and which would relieve him of day-to-day responsibilities for managing the UN operation. The Secretary General felt that he needed a full-time Special Representative in Somalia and proceeded to appoint Mr. Kittani.

James O. C. Jonah Undersecretary General

Department of Political Affairs

United Nations

PUTTING OUT THE FIRE

Mike Weiss has done fine investigative reporting on the arson apparently intended to generate logging jobs through “timber salvage” sales in West Coast national forests (“Firetrail,” March/April). Weiss’s nicely textured account of why timber arson occurs suggests that the Bush administration helped create the context in which blue- collar loggers and timber-company officials are now, apparently, perpetrating very serious crimes. What I liked best about the article, though, was its gentle reminder to mainstream environmentalists that we can’t protect the environment without also addressing the real economic needs of the human beings who are destroying parts of that environment, both to secure their own paychecks and to help their local communities.

If we allow angry West Coast loggers to continue thinking that we care more about owls than we do about people, and if we further manage to displace these workers from ecologically suspect jobs only to dump them onto a slack job market, timber arson may be the least of the problems that we face. Waiting until tomorrow or relying on Clinton to solve the entire “jobs vs. environment” problem through “green growth” just isn’t enough.

Andy Feeney, Washington, D.C.

WE’D BE RICH

How would you like to make some money? I’ll take each statement you made about Scientology (“L. Ron’s Russia,” March/April) and give you $100 in cash for each true statement if your stingy editor will pay me $100 for each one that is false. I’m sure I’ll come out way ahead, so far ahead, in fact, that you will probably have to close down Mother Jones. But then, of course, you could always take Mother Jones off to Moscow and peddle it as a neo-American cult, which it probably is anyway.

Geoffrey Barton, Sonoma, California

THE BOMB TICKS ON

Heartfelt thanks for printing “The Holy War Against Birth Control” by Mark Hertsgaard (“Still Ticking . . . ” March/ April). In this day when so many periodicals either ignore the population issue, or, even worse, go out of their way to paint “overpopulation as a myth,” it was like a cool shower of sanity in a parched land. Hertsgaard did not, however, mention that there were very well-organized, pronatalist, feminist, Marxist, and other leftist groups at Rio who worked around the clock to paint advocates of birth control as some sort of satanic Malthusian conspiracy against the Third World.

Bill McCormick, Charlottesville, Virginia

FEAR NOT, DEAR READER

As a charter subscriber to Mother Jones, I had feared it was becoming just another magazine. (Better than most, but losing the hard-hitting investigative reporting I loved.) Welcome back, Klein!

Laverne Rison, Albuquerque, New Mexico

THE REAL ISSUES

John Judis’s article (“Unholy Trinity,” March/April) is a prime example of why progressive influences in national politics are declining. The left needs to stop appealing to trade protectionism and xenophobic criticisms of Japanese economic power. In a protectionist society, it is the consumer who gets hurt. Education, shared power, and the humane treatment of workers are the issues of the new century, not subsidies for past mistakes of industrial giants.

Jack Harris, Rahway, New Jersey

CLOSE COUSINS

My cousin Kelly recently started working for your magazine. I was hoping for a free subscription, but apparently we’re not that close. I ordered it anyway, full price, and my first issue arrived the other day.

Tom Moore, Corolla, North Carolina