MotherJones MA93: Iron John: a lover’s tale

Fight disinformation: Sign up for the free Mother Jones Daily newsletter and follow the news that matters.

For everyone on Earth there was once a pregnant mother. We all tend to forget this. To remind myself, I sometimes squint when I am in a crowd. I imagine her everywhere–waddling, patient, awkward, moving carefully because she cannot see her feet. As if to prepare herself, she looks, and feels, like a big baby.

That woman (she was so much younger then) will always be your mother, and you will always be her child. She will always think that she knows what is best for you.

It is to the rallying cry of “Mommy, leave me alone!” that the men’s movement is organizing itself. A grass roots phenomenon, it encourages men to meet by themselves to experience their quintessential maleness. Robert Bly, one of the most important voices in the movement, is largely responsible for its childlike, let’s-go-hide-in-our-tree-house strategy. He argues that in order to discover their true identities, men must free themselves from the influence of women, particularly their mothers.

To help them do this, Bly takes frustrated sons back to their “natural” habitat–the woods. But these happy campers can never escape altogether: instead of Mother, they now have to deal with Mother Nature. And Mother Nature does not cook dinner or do the dishes

Hungry, Tired, Wet and cold. That’s how I remember Terry Dobson when he left his cabin in November 1977 and moved into my illegal Lower Manhattan loft. We were broke, and kept the place warm with a potbelly stove. At night we scavenged for wood, driving his red Ford pickup to abandoned warehouses and empty lots on the Lower West Side. Terry was a big man, but he looked gigantic when he swung a chain saw.

Terry had been born into the wrong century. He was a medieval man who liked holes, alcoves, wall tapestries, bare wood floors, ropes, breastplates, heraldic beasts, blades of all shapes . . . and lecterns. Like a Gothic character, he loved to tell stories. He had a great imagination and loved to act out his fantasies. Once I saw him try to release the latch from his old icebox by cracking a whip across the room. Without warning, he would dodge a fictitious opponent or fall suddenly on the floor in the middle of a conversation. It could be nerve-racking. “Grab my wrist,” he would sometimes ask. “Go ahead, grab my wrist.” Those who did would abruptly find themselves upside- down in Terry’s lap.

The two of us lived together for five years. We shared everything, the good times, the bad times . . . and my small salary. His rich mother had disowned him. A crucifix may hold vampires at bay, but to keep mothers away–even neglectful ones–you need a regular paycheck. As Terry’s sense of dependency increased, our relationship deteriorated. Often I would catch him looking at me like a boy looking at his mom. Lovemaking became impossible–it would have been incest. In 1982, he went back to the woods.

Terry Dobson always knew he would become famous. He used to tell me how he was going to need a helicopter pad built on the roof of his house. What was he going to be famous for? He didn’t have a clue.

Terry did become famous, but only years after we’d broken up. He became a mythical figure: aikido master, guru, inspiration for the men’s movement. I should be happy for him, but I am not. I want to remember him the way he used to be–gentle and distracted in his dirty jeans, carving a stick with his electrician’s knife while telling a story. Above all, I want him alive.

When Robert Bly’s best-selling book, Iron John, first came out, I didn’t know that Terry was involved with Bly’s men’s movement, but I felt uneasy when I noticed the striking resemblance between the portrait on the book jacket and my ex-lover. Without reading it, and without knowing quite why, I felt angry. I don’t believe that men should be encouraged to be heroes. Being human should be enough of a challenge for anyone.

Bly had recognized the mythical man in Terry before anyone else. He knew that the ex-marine who’d shown up at his seminar one day was a very unusual outcast. Terry reminded Bly of the hero of the Grimms’ fairy tale that inspired Iron John, a boy making the long journey to full manhood with the help of a mythical forest being, the Wild Man. Like Bly’s hero, Terry performed many tasks and discovered many different selves, from Warrior to Lover, in the course of his journey. Terry, too, was driven by the Wild Man, whose archetypal voice was strong in his psyche.

Terry had been eager to embrace Bly’s mythical analogy, but unlike most men who attended the seminars, he did not think his journey could be made in a weekend. He felt that his entire life had to be exemplary, a model and a warning. He was a tragic figure, who spoke like a hero (even his most casual “How are you?” sounded like an invitation to elaborate) and behaved like one.

Terry’s friendship with Bly was based on mutual admiration. “Robert,” on Terry’s lips, was a word full of promises. It echoed like the sound of foghorns at night, of rain in a bucket, of footsteps in an empty street. Bly invited Terry to all his seminars. He encouraged him to teach. He treated him with respect. My husband, who also befriended Terry toward the end of his life, went with him to one of Bly’s seminars. “Bly stopped everything and made a big deal out of Terry,” he told me later. “Terry was trying hard to be humble, but he was beaming. Just standing next to him, I could feel his pride and his torment. He was like a little toaster.”

Bly’s great gift to Terry was the gift of life: he gave Terry spiritual children. One of the central points of Bly’s complex mythology is the idea that only men, not women, can release men from their emotional infertility. Maybe he’s right. Being “the one who does not conceive” keeps men under a stubborn spell. I have attempted to break many such spells. I have kissed many frogs. Terry was one of them.

The first time I kissed Terry Dobson–in a romantic embrace at the corner of Prince Street and Broadway–I felt like I was kissing the inside of a porcelain bowl. A handsome Hemingway type in his late thirties, the bearded Terry did not look like the kind of guy who would wear dentures. I ignored my dismay and didn’t process the information (how many repeated blows does it take to uproot thirty-two adult teeth?) until the morning after, when, stumbling into his bathroom after our first night together, I was confronted by his teeth smiling at me from inside a glass of water. After making love, some people light up a cigarette; Terry, I learned, defanged himself.

I buried the memory of that first kiss with the rest of my mental paraphernalia about Terry–with the memories of his martial arts prowess, his black beret, his collections of swords and bungee cords, and his obsession with packing. I would never have conjured up the memory of his fake teeth if I hadn’t met Jane Nisson, the woman who gave Terry his last kiss.

Jane did not know Terry very well, but her husband, Ken, had been his best friend for years. As fate would have it, they were alone with Terry when his heart failed him in August 1992. Ken, who had shared a lot with Terry–a common passion for aikido, but also meals, arguments, dope, and disappointments–was cursing his friend as he called for an ambulance. “Don’t you dare die on me,” he grumbled. “After all we’ve gone through, don’t quit.” While Ken fumbled with the phone, Jane tried to revive Terry with mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. I imagine her, bending over the huge man, holding his face in her hands. With her first breath, she said, she dislodged Terry’s top teeth. She threw them on the bed. Her second breath got the bottom ones out. Like so many women who had kissed Terry before, she did not stop to think about it. Strange things can happen when you kiss a frog.

Dying is a rite of passage. As the body goes from the visible world of the living to the dark realm of the deceased, the person’s identity undertakes a reverse journey, from the murkiness and confusion of day-to-day existence to the sudden illumination of posthumous glory. As in fairy tales, it’s the kiss–the kiss of death–that reveals the hero.

It wasn’t until after Terry’s heart failure, as he lay in a coma at San Francisco General Hospital, that I realized what a legend he had become. Hundreds of people came to visit him: friends, ex-girlfriends, family, ex-wife, martial arts students, kids, disciples of Robert Bly, Human Potential seminar graduates, Zen monks, New Age leaders, healers, astrologers, massage experts, medicine men, and mystics. You had to wait in line to get into his room.

For some he had been a spiritual master. For others he had been a “real” man. Many said that he had changed their lives. The night of his heart failure, Terry had given an exceptional aikido class that was observed by Mira Zussman, an anthropologist from San Jose State University, who took notes: “The mat was full…..I got the feeling that people had come from all over to experience Terry….People lined the benches, the floor, and the stairs leading up to the street….Terry can barely walk. Hobbles. But he is there. Breathing hard but not quite panting. His presence is keen….What a huge man he is. With what intensity…..I feel that he is talking right to me….I am thinking, this is a man I want to know. I have to know this man. I already know this man. And if I feel this, then all these people who’ve come here tonight must feel this quality all the more.”

Terry had a gift for making everyone feel special. I suspect that it was his way of making sure that no one would be too critical of him. The people who flocked to S.F. General worshipped him, and they came because they felt they had a special intimacy with him. Riki Moss, an artist and sculptor who lived with Terry in Vermont and for years had anxiously watched his health deteriorate, had learned to share him with the rest of his fans. “Most people fascinated Terry,” she explained. “He entered directly into their drama. I knew that there were legions of devotees, students, and peers–and a battalion of adoring gay women and sensitive men. When I got to the hospital, they greeted me with tremendous compassion and support.” Even so, it could become too much. “If I get hugged one more time by some stranger who claims to be a member of Terry’s spiritual family,” she told me on the phone from Terry’s deathbed, “I think I am going to scream.”

As soon as it became obvious that Terry would not come out of his coma, many people reported that he had appeared in their dreams and told them how he wished to be buried–although Riki knew that he’d wanted his ashes thrown in Lake Champlain. A neighbor in Vermont called to warn that three mirrors in Terry’s house had spontaneously shattered in the middle of the night. There was a constant flow of groupies. Riki, wanting to give Terry a peaceful death, decided to move him to a friend’s house in Point Reyes. He died in the ambulance, in her arms.

More than two hundred people showed up on Mount Vision for a spontaneous memorial service the Saturday after his death. There was chanting, praying, dancing–and a lot of preaching and pontificating. David Rothman, an old friend, stood up and remarked that Terry would’ve retched if he’d had to sit through the ceremony and listen to all the sanctimonious bull, but he added: “Look, Terry, you aren’t here, so fuck you. We’re doing it anyway.”

Robert Bly wanted Terry’s son, Daniel, to know what his father was like. As soon as he heard that Terry had died, Bly placed an emergency phone call to a friend and dictated, over the wires, the following poem:

 I loved in Terry Dobson His enthusiasm for the noble impulse. When he knew a radiant idea was near, His eyes and heart opened wide And he staunchly kept his place Until the wave arrived. His tremendous discipline as he waited Gave courage to others. He kept his radiance When the wave of death approached. To me, he was a gift I hardly deserved. And a great soul that made the world Sweeter to me. 

Terry was all of these things–but was much more. That’s why I have decided to go into the woods, explore the myth of Iron John, and bring the mythical Wild Man back to life.

I know where to find him, on hte shore of Lake Champlain, where he used to spend his summers as a boy, where he made a home with Riki– and where his spirit still roams today.

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.

Raised on Park Avenue, Walter Norton Dobson III, alias Terry, could tell the difference between the salad fork and the dessert fork, but he had never tasted his mother’s cooking. He had lost his teeth, he told me, Wasp style: to non-nutritional food served on good china. He described how he was always hungry as a child, his weight-conscious mother having instructed the maids to give her robust little boy small portions and no seconds. When he was sent away to boarding school, the cafeteria offered only empty calories and plenty of occasions to fight.

Years later, watching Terry eat junk food as an adult, I could still feel his rage. Sometimes I went with him to the Empire Diner, an all- night restaurant under the West Side highway. He usually ordered toasted corn muffins with a double scoop of vanilla ice cream and a generous serving of hot fudge. As we sat there, with the truckers and the insomniacs, I got to know his mother and learned to hate her patrician ways, her two royal-size poodles, and her four martinis before dinner.

Much has been written about women’s ambivalence toward food, but the critical relationship between eating and cooking is still misunderstood. Bill Clinton would have lost the election if Hillary had refused to bake cookies. American voters were ready to forgive Hillary her career, but they demanded her presence in the kitchen.

Now I shudder when I remember Terry calling me at my office every day to ask what was for dinner. He refused to learn to cook and depended on me to feed him. On the few occasions when he did cook, he did it in such a way as to endanger his life. The oven would explode; he would cut himself badly; he would spill boiling water on his legs and groin.

More than food, he wanted my submission. “Honey, what’s for dinner?” is one of the most primitive of human cries. “What’s for dinner?” The woman herself is on the menu. It’s her body, her freedom, and her future that the men and children demand. If you don’t believe me, try breast-feeding a baby. It’s like touching a live wire and becoming one with the hunger of the world. Nothing could quench Terry’s thirst– nothing–not even the gallons of milk he used to drink all day long, waiting for me to come home from work.

In Iron John, the young hero must steal the key from under his mother’s pillow in order to free himself. In modern fairy tales, a boy can only become free if he is willing to steal the key hidden in his mother’s kitchen drawer. If Terry had been allowed past the pantry door and had learned to bake cookies, he might have been a well- adjusted child–and there would have been no story.

All his life, Terry was both fascinated and repulsed by the aggressive values of the male establishment. At Deerfield Academy, he accidentally injured a teammate during football practice, breaking his jaw and nearly killing him. It was after this incident that Terry contemplated suicide for the first time. Later, his rebellious attitude got him thrown out of Franklin and Marshall College. Terry had no role model: his estranged father had been banned from the family and lived in a room above a seedy movie theater; his impeccably dressed stepfather, who claimed to have a seat on the Stock Exchange and had two well-behaved sons of his own, ignored him.

Terry learned karate, spent time in the marines, lost more teeth in fights, worked briefly as an undercover agent and as a chauffeur. Embarrassed by his antics, his mother and stepfather shipped twenty- three-year-old Terry off to Japan to work for Robert Maxwell. The legendary publisher was already a crook, and Terry did not last long in his service. He did, however, learn enough about international dealings to feed his imagination for the rest of his life and inspire his tall tales about samurais working for the CIA, Zen masters falling in love with porn stars, and Vietnamese women making love to American soldiers before cutting their throats. During this time, Terry studied the secret ninja martial art, practiced in Japan by spies and assassins. It was heady stuff for a young American in 1961.

But Terry almost didn’t survive that first year in Japan. There were a couple of suicide attempts. He was saved by the kindness of a frail old man, aikido founder Morihei Uyeshiba, who, against his senior students’ advice, took Terry on as a private protege. The master, called O Sensei by his followers, had turned the art of fighting (outlawed in postwar Japan) into an art of loving.

Of all the martial arts, aikido is the least confrontational. The first time I saw Terry demonstrate aikido, I was mesmerized by the elegance, grace, and swiftness of this man who looked, at first glance, like a mountain range. Terry deflected his opponent’s attack with a simple wrist movement and caught him in an almost maternal embrace. The technique that Terry had learned from O Sensei was based on replacing one’s fear of getting hurt with a genuine concern for one’s attacker.

Kaz Tanahashi, a fellow aikido student who remained friends with Terry up until his death, remembers him as the dedicated and devoted attendant of the old man. He thinks O Sensei felt the presence of the Shadow in Terry, but took a chance with it, knowing perhaps that Terry could take his message to the Western world–a message of discipline, practice, and patience, but also of personal courage in dealing with the dark side.

In 1970, Terry came back to the States with a Japanese wife, two young children, and a prestigious Godan aikido degree. His mother, he told me, never asked any questions. She simply dispatched the chauffeur to the airport with the Bentley.

Like her, Terry preferred not to talk about certain things. His lavish storytelling was a cover for his silences–and his lies. It took me a long time to piece together what happened after he came back from Japan. At first he’d tried to find a job and be a good husband and father, but these roles didn’t work out for him. When the two of us first met (at a bicentennial party on July 4, 1976) he never mentioned his wife or kids. He lived alone in a loft near the Bowery, a huge space decorated with partially burned antiques, enormous sections of tree trunks, stairways leading nowhere, and parachute gear hanging from the rafters. A painting of his ancestor, General Daniel Bissell, hung next to a gigantic, rusty circular saw blade. A roll of brown butcher’s paper, hooked to the rungs of a primitive ladder, fed directly into his IBM Selectric typewriter. Terry told me he was thinking about moving permanently to his cabin in the woods.

He downplayed his aikido prowess, mentioning only in passing that he’d founded a modest dojo on Bond Street with his friend Ken Nisson. As far as I could tell, Terry was a writer. He told me that his latest book was about self-defense and conflict management and that his coauthor, Victor Miller, had collaborated on the screenplay for the first Friday the 13th movie. It was a strange match. What did conflict resolution and horror movies have in common? “Victor is a great tactician,” Terry told me. Their book, published in 1978, was titled, Giving In To Get Your Way–The Attack-tics System for Winning Your Everyday Battles. It was inventive and innovative, but no one bought it. No wonder. Terry himself didn’t buy any of it. He never cared about winning his everyday battles–in fact, he was busy losing them.

Terry loved to fuck things up, so that he could fix them afterward. Dysfunctional by today’s standards, his behavior was considered creative in those days. He loved to hang around junkyards, dump sites, and remnant shops. The hardware stores of Canal Street were his idea of heaven. Fabien Baron, a young French friend who lived with us in Manhattan for a couple of months, remembers Terry as an American icon. “With Terry I discovered the real New York: grainy, black and white, authentic. Driving around with him in his red truck, I thought I was driving around with Jack Kerouac. He was wearing big, ugly lace-up shoes, a white tee shirt, and jeans with his underwear showing.” Fabien, who designed Madonna’s Sex book, also does art direction for Harper’s Bazaar and Calvin Klein. I’ve noticed that Canal Street, junkyards, and broken-down pickup trucks are recurring themes in his work.

Terry may not have been a Beat poet, but he was a true bard. He’d keep you spellbound for hours, turning small stories into interminable tales. He drew material from his own history: his ancestors’ role in the Louisiana Purchase; how his great-uncle had built the first golf course in Texas; the adventures of Daniel Boone, who had been a friend of his family in the 1800s. Whole afternoons would vanish. Evenings would turn into dawns. Time itself would seem to stop and listen–and the day would linger, suspended to Terry’s lips.

A powerful-looking man, Terry had the sweetness of a big animal. He became interested in martial arts because he wanted to learn to protect, not hurt, people. All his life, Terry tried to become the loving mother he’d never had. He was often compared to a female bear protecting her young. He had sewn a big rag doll, soft and floppy, and would use it as a prop in his self-defense workshops, to illustrate how you can be both fierce and caring at the same time. I remember him cradling the doll against his bosom while throwing his opponent to the floor. Not much of a house husband, my clumsy lover would sometimes try to vacuum the rug, do the windows, or scrub the tub while holding his big rag doll.

Terry’s death wish was second nature. He had a unique gift for disturbing the molecular balance of things. As soon as he appeared on the scene, fires would break out, floorboards would collapse, and cars would smash into trees. To be Terry’s lover, I had to learn to flirt with danger. During the five years we lived together, between 1977 and 1982, my life was a series of near-disasters. My health fell apart, my family rejected me, I lost my job, my loft was declared unsafe, and I was arrested for trespassing when I refused to move out. But I was never hurt. On the contrary: I learned to take care of myself, made peace with my mother, got a better job, cut a deal with my landlord, and fought City Hall.

Dealing with the mess of life–with loss, decay, failure–and making it look exciting was Terry’s special talent. I remember how, in one instance, he was able to sabotage his potential career as a corporate consultant in less than two hours. He had been hired by IBM to give a one-day conflict management workshop in San Francisco. There was nothing esoteric about it. People in those days would routinely go to workshops to learn everything and anything–how to find a mate, how to find a parking spot, how to find themselves. Terry was well rehearsed, but in his heart of hearts, he hated the idea of “managing” conflict. He fumbled with his slides, broke the projector, told a mesmerizing story about Japan, and finally announced that he had forgotten what it was he was supposed to talk about. His audience was aghast. It was very funny–in retrospect. At the time, I was not in the mood to laugh; in fact, the incident broke my heart. I was running out of money. I felt I was also running out of luck.

Only a handful of workshop attendees came back after the lunch break- -people who probably had nowhere else to go. Terry perked up. He told stories until he had gotten everyone on his side. When the session finally ended, he received a standing ovation. As I listened to the thundering applause, I realized it was time for us to part.

Terry did not want to go. I had to kick him out of my life. It was one of the most frightening things I ever did. Terry’s dark side was more than a metaphor. I knew he could kill me. I knew he felt like it. But he had been a good mentor: I was safe as long as I protected him from himself. We confronted each other in a dark place–a place with no words, no right or wrong, no stories to tell, no celebration, and no ending. “You will never be an artist,” Terry used to tell me, “unless you are willing to kill your little darlings.” Did he know that he was one of those darlings?

For this article I interviewed many of Terry’s male friends, and they all told me wonderful things: Terry had been a role model, a charismatic figure, someone who could inspire and energize a crowd. Terry was generous, honest, radiant. Terry was the Wild Man, he was the Warrior. Terry was huge, like a redwood tree. Terry could make men weep. As I listened to these testimonials, I got increasingly restless. Something was missing. I did not know what it was, but I could almost feel it. I racked my brains. I looked around. And then it hit me: what was missing was me.

None of the men I interviewed ever mentioned the women in Terry’s life–his mother; his former wife, whom he divorced in the early eighties; his past and present lovers; his daughter or mine. Like a barbarian king buried with his wives, Terry had tried to take all his women with him into the grave. “Terry never talked about his family– or his children,” said Jack Kornfield, a Buddhist monk and friend of Terry’s in the men’s movement. “When he died, we wanted to know if his family knew what an extraordinary person he was. But we did not know any of them.”

In Terry’s world of Love-Thy-Enemy, there wasn’t much room for women. In the more than eighty hours of his storytelling that his friend Kaz Tanahashi recorded on tape, only a few episodes involve women, and none portrays them in a flattering light. Yet Terry loved women, because women were his true enemies. I understood that in Paris, the day he dragged me to Napoleon’s tomb and the Musee des Invalides, with its huge collection of artifacts from the Napoleonic Wars. I followed him reluctantly from room to room while he inspected the trophies, the flags, the medals, the drums, the helmets, the canteens, the old letters, the maps, the camping equipment, the saddles, and the pantaloons. I could tell he was happy, profoundly happy, and I felt increasingly more resentful. Why do men love war?

The answer was right in my mouth. It tasted like gunpowder, iron, and dirt. It was the taste of my jealousy–the taste of the enemy. I looked at Terry, childlike, mesmerized, absorbed in the contemplation of an old etching representing a battlefield–and I wanted to kill him. I knew right there why men go to war: to be away from their real enemy, from the women who drive them crazy. They go to war to be left alone. They go to war to find their peace.

Terry and I were friends at the end of his life. Friends, but still enemies. Men are lucky. They are superior because they have a superior enemy.

Veronique Vienne is a free-lance writer who lives in Brooklyn. Her articles have been published in Town & Country, Metropolis, Graphis, West, and Columbia Journalism Review.


Straight to the point: Donations have been concerningly slow for our hugely important First $500,000 fundraising campaign. We urgently need your help, and a lot of help, over the next few weeks so we can pay for the one-of-a-kind journalism you get from us.

Learn more in “Less Dreading, More Doing,” where we lay out this wild moment and how we can keep charging hard for you. And please help if you can: $5, $50, or $500—every gift from every person truly matters right now.

payment methods


Straight to the point: Donations have been concerningly slow for our hugely important First $500,000 fundraising campaign. We urgently need your help, and a lot of help, over the next few weeks so we can pay for the one-of-a-kind journalism you get from us.

Learn more in “Less Dreading, More Doing,” where we lay out this wild moment and how we can keep charging hard for you. And please help if you can: $5, $50, or $500—every gift from every person truly matters right now.

payment methods

We Recommend


Sign up for our free newsletter

Subscribe to the Mother Jones Daily to have our top stories delivered directly to your inbox.

Get our award-winning magazine

Save big on a full year of investigations, ideas, and insights.


Support our journalism

Help Mother Jones' reporters dig deep with a tax-deductible donation.