Manhood and Violence

The day after September 11, participants in a Manalive batterer intervention group discussed the attack. A young man from San Francisco’s Western Addition neighborhood started by saying he was sad for the victims and their families. The second time around, he offered a blunt big-picture analysis: “America got a punch in the nose. It’s a fatal!” The term was street for Fatal Peril, a pivotal Manalive concept. It’s the moment of shock when a man fears that his male-role authority has been challenged. He saw America as a long-time violator that had finally been challenged.

Manalive program participants at a San Francisco County Jail

In the Manalive program at a San Francisco County Jail, prisoners are brought face to face with a woman whose daughter and grandson were murdered, who comes into the jail as a “victim witness” to help build empathy for those hurt by crime. Manalive is a peer program, run by the incarcerated men themselves. Its foundation out of the author’s frustration with the way domestic violence was hindering anti-capitalist organizing is described here for the first time. Credit: Ruth Morgan (

In the early 1980s, another Manalive participant named Craig had helped me develop this concept of Fatal Peril while deconstructing the lead-up to one of his own incidents of domestic violence. He’d just put the grocery bags down from the car and his wife was mad at him. “Why’d you put ‘em next to the garbage?” she demanded. “What’s it matter?” he replied. “I got to go watch the game.” “You aint going to watch no damn game ‘til you get those bags up in the kitchen where they belong.” That’s what started it, he said. “When she says that kind of shit,” his empty hands, palms up raised in front of him in despair, “I might as well be dead!” He shrugged his shoulders in angry resignation. “Who the fuck she think she is, man? She’s no right mouthing off at me like that.” It took me facilitating three years of five classes a week before Craig finally came along to pinpoint that crucial moment.

I had noticed the pattern Craig and the guys were into, but I didn’t have a name for it back when I started Manalive. Over and over, when they told their side of the story of a domestic violence incident, there would be this moment of shocked, angry bewilderment, when they felt dissed and thought their sense of manhood was challenged. The loss of their expected authority seemed fatal to them. Every time it was like the yellow light on a traffic signal. They’d either slow down and stop, like it says in the book, or, more likely, they’d put the pedal to the metal, run the light and violate. The physical violating was just the end of the line in each incident. The first violations ran short of inflicting physical harm. There was an escalation process, starting with resource manipulations over money, cars, children, booze, or drugs -- anything that could be used to assert the perpetrator’s dominance -- and then moving on to verbal putdowns, name-calling, and threats. Ultimately it reached acts of physical violence around their partners -- throwing objects or punching holes in the wall -- and then escalated to what most folks think is violence: the inevitable slapping, shoving, shaking, punching, kicking, and knives and guns. In Manalive we call it all “violating,” an active word, to insist on the sense of perpetrator agency that is missing from the usual passive descriptor, violence.

It turns out that it’s a long time down the road since we men gave up our sense of Self to invest in a socially demanded manly image of power over others. If we have no sense of Self, when the manly image is challenged, it feels fatal: we have no Self and no image, nothing. Since we come to depend on our manly image for our basic identity, it feels deadly when we don’t have it, and it’s a matter of great urgency to resubstantiate it.

During our post–September 11 discussion, that’s the idea that the young man from the Western Addition drew on next: “There’s going to be some serious re-substantiating going down the other way, now,” he said. “Resubstantiating” is our program’s word for giving the male-role authoritarian image substance again after it’s been challenged. Substance is the problem with the male-role image. It has none. It’s like any image. It’s just a picture, an idea that the whole society has supported for millennia that we have to get into our head to be a “real” man. It’s a gender-based fantasy, so flimsy that a funny look can challenge it. But the twin towers and 3,000 people dead were more than a funny look. The Bush-Cheney boys went to work, with some serious resubstantiating: over ten years of two wars, thousands of our men and women in uniform maimed and killed, tens of thousands of Afghani and Iraqi civilians maimed and killed, Guantánamo, the Abu Ghraib scandal, waterboarding, and the Patriot Act, which gets the CIA into domestic spying and requires airplane travelers to be photographed nude in public to make sure we’re not one of “them.”

You have to wonder. Did it all work? Did we get our image back? Did it deal with the issue that young Muslims are finally pissed off at the United States now, after their fathers and their fathers’ fathers put up with our support for ruthless dictators that trivialized their lives and stunted their chances of happiness and fulfillment in their own lands? Or did it only address our need for control, rather than the actual roots of the conflict? There’s a deep connection between each of us violating the folks in our lives that we love, and governments that violate us. You got to get it after a while in a Manalive program.

How Manalive Works

When domestic violence became explicitly illegal in 1991, we designed a survivor-centric program to help men whose violations were so severe that their loved ones, neighbors, or bystanders called the police and had them arrested. Their arrest was often a surprise to them. Never before in history had women achieved the political power to pass laws that directly protected them from the arsenal of emotional, verbal, physical, and sexual violations that their husbands used to substantiate their expected, gender-privileged dominant role in the home. They were like soldiers trained for a battle that was suddenly deemed illegal after millennia of encouragement, glorification, and social mandate.

Seen in this light, men who harm each other and their loved ones cannot be seen as individual aberrations in need of fixing. They are men in need of some fundamental social belief system realignment to adjust them to a radical U-turn of social reality.

“Manalive” is an acronym for Men Allied Nationally Against Living in Violent Environments. It’s a community organizing program distinguished from other service-oriented community, prison, and jail programs. It doesn’t take an “in loco parentis” approach to violent men and women; rather, Manalive is a peer program. New men agree with their peers that they violate their own Selves and their victims and that they are willing to stop. The program substitutes a social and political analysis of violence for the commonly used mental health individual aberration theory of dysfunction. In short, we understand the system of male-role superiority to be the aberration at the root of domestic violence.

We want new men in our classes. We’re recruiting -- like the marines -- a few good men who’ll help build a movement of folks who see that being intimate, empathic, and warm is a better way to raise our kids and get along with each other. We’d rather be loved than feared. So we run a rotating-entry, come-whenever-you’re-ready system. Once a new man gets there, we welcome him. It’s not as if he’s a mental case or got a bug! He’s just another man who’s doing the best he can to get it right and, somewhere lately, it stopped working for him. It’s a mess! What happened to all that “good” stuff about being the man? You heard your mama. And you heard your papa. You hung with the boys. You watched the videos! You played the games! You listened to the music. It’s all over television. And sports? You heard the little league and high school coach, and you did the trot. They’re hyping the manly lifestyle everywhere. You can’t miss it, and you can’t buck it. You got it somewhere and you acted it out if you’re a new man in Manalive.

New members have just fifty-two weeks of three-hour classes to unlearn a lifetime of learning. They learned to violate from other guys, and they learned it well. They got good enough at it to be noticed. So, chances are, they’ll learn the new stuff from other guys in the class and get just as good at stopping it.

In our first-stage class, we take a down-to-earth approach to adapting to the social change around us. It’s an interesting adaptation. It focuses on the moment men decide not to give over to the socially defined manly image we are trained to believe we should embody. We call that manly image the “Hitman” and contrast it with a sense of our authentic self. The moment of Fatal Peril is a clearly definable moment of fear when we make the fateful decision. We can decide to go along with tradition and violate to resubstantiate our authoritarian Hitman image, or stay equal to our own experience and respond in an emotionally grounded way.

Men have to have gone at least ten weeks without committing physical acts of domestic violence to graduate into our second-stage class. It addresses a question that everyone asks during the first stage: “Who’s going to run my life now that I’ve fired my Hitman?” Here’s our answer: “Your Self is the answer. But who’s that? You’ve been vacating your Self all these years. You’ve made a stranger of your Self and who, in their right mind, would give the power of their lives to a stranger? You wouldn’t hand over your car keys to a stranger. The second stage is the place to get to know your Self again. It’s a detailed, action-oriented, emotionally grounded reawakening to the process of self-awareness that your Hitman training derailed. You can choose to be your Self at a moment of Fatal Peril instead of your Hitman image. The choice involves your willingness to use a system of self-reconstruction to know who your Self really is at any moment.”

And that’s just half of the self-awareness project. After the first sixteen weeks, successful graduates start the final sixteen weeks of the whole fifty-two week process, which has become the standard for court-referred, batterer interventionists in California. During these final weeks, participants address the question of what to do with this newly emotional literate Self. They work to express their experiences and needs assertively in a sensitive, cooperative way, and focus on getting along with their Self and loved ones, not to mention Mother Nature.

Finally, during the third stage of the program, participants learn how to translate what they experience with their five senses and what they experience emotionally into plans to satisfy their Selves while also considering and validating other people’s responses to them.

Freddy Gutierrez and Ivan Corado in play Man.Alive

The restorative justice play {title}Man.Alive{/title}, stories from the edge of incarceration to the flight of imagination, featuring three formerly incarcerated graduates of the Manalive program including Ivan Corado (right), and community artist Freddy Gutierrez (left), was performed widely in the Bay Area in 2010. Credit: Ruth Morgan (

Renowned violence expert James Gilligan and another independent academic concluded that we achieved an 82 percent reduction in recidivism for similar domestic violence crimes among men who attended four months of Manalive at the intensive, six-days-a-week Resolve to Stop the Violence Project program at the San Francisco County Jail. A much less rigorous study of state recidivism rates conducted by prison staff corroborates these figures. Men released from the early Manalive program at San Quentin State prison in Marin County had a 92 percent reduction in recidivism. We are awaiting the results of programs by less intensively trained staff in prisons as far afield as the Westchester County facility in Valhalla, New York, Singapore’s Changi Prison, and the Mason Clinic, a contract agency with the New Zealand Prison Services in Auckland. These programs are run by a small and growing cadre of program graduates who have found full-time and part-time jobs in the system to sustain their work. They depend on an equally small cadre of visionaries in positions of responsibility in prisons. Each program is supported by local political leaders who value creative, humanitarian ways to reduce jail populations and the cost of incarceration to prisoners, prisoners’ families, and taxpayers.

Manalive’s Origins in Working-Class Organizing

Back in Southeastern Kentucky in the early Sixties, I had no idea that I was starting to develop these ideas about men’s responses to those who challenge our manly image, but the ideas were already starting to form. I was in Hazard helping to organize coal miners and their families to keep their union jobs, hospital cards, and pensions. All I got then was that establishing authority through violence was the name of the game. It wasn’t just the commonplace dynamiting and high-power rifle and pistol-fire exchanges between the coal operators and the roving pickets I was working for. It was the violence of a whole industry moving out of a one-industry region and leaving hard-working, skilled coalminers and their large families with no jobs, no health care, and -- since the union went with them -- no representation. It was an early warning of things to come. We’re seeing this all over now. This time it’s across the whole country.

The great United Mineworkers of America was totally powerless to stop it back then. The national coal operators just picked up their ball and went home, and the union went with them. The companies moved their capital out of the whole region to make mega bucks in high-tech strip mining elsewhere. They went for the money, just as corporations are supposed to. Can’t blame them. They cleared $45 a ton from our seventeen-inch seams in Kentucky against $125 a ton with massive equipment strip mining the seventeen-foot seams below the flatlands of Ohio and Wyoming. Hi-tech mechanization made it possible, but the advantages of the technology were not something they shared. There was no political planning; no consultation with the community; no grassroots participation -- just some folks in some headquarters somewhere up there making decisions to make their money somewhere else and leave. They subleased their coal rights to non-union operators who hired out-of-state workers for $16 a day (with no benefits and no safety regulations) to work their truck mines. It was a Fatal Peril for the miners, and they fought back. They wanted their jobs! They wanted union scale, $20 an hour, and full benefits including safety. They formed the Roving Pickets and got in convoys of cars in the union hospital parking lot in Hazard each morning to drive, heavily armed, up and down the hollers to picket and close down every non-union mine in the seven-county region. The uprising lasted all of three years when the leaders were arrested and some jailed for the federal offense of conspiring to dynamite a railroad bridge and a state charge of assault with intent to kill scabs they ambushed on their way to work. The older guys stayed with it the longest to protect their union pensions and hospital cards. But the younger guys trickled off to get minimum-wage, unskilled jobs in Louisville or up over the Midwest.

But could you guess? It was a Fatal Peril in Detroit too, where I went with the young guys. By the time we all got there, it was the same old story. The plants there were moving out too, just like the coalmines back home. The auto industry was taking its capital to make more money off the cheap, non-union labor and tax breaks overseas than they could make off us in Detroit, at union scale with health and pensions and safe working conditions from the start. And once again -- other than stirring up some shit and getting arrested at work, in the neighborhoods, or downtown at City Hall -- five years of this rearguard action to clean up the human mess of a capital realignment, was not where it was at. I’d had it with this kind of community organizing. It was a fact! Individuals, like us in the neighborhoods, had no leverage to move things in our favor. We were operating blind, with no access whatsoever to the kinds of decisions being made, away above our heads, that were disastrous to our lives. So what was this all about?

I got an answer, or at least another question, in a very perverse way. One of our key organizers, a man from Detroit’s Clark Park neighborhood, got into it with his wife. To be honest with you, I had never heard of “domestic violence.” I knew about men hitting their wives. Some guys did it, and it was no surprise when I heard that this guy did it. He was a big, smart, congenial, loudmouthed kind of guy, great for inside plant mobilizations and outside picket-line work. A good man, and a good friend, just the kind to have your back when things got tight and rough. But he went home from a strategy meeting one night, and beat up his wife bad to block her from planning to organize neighborhood women. It was a pretty dumb thing to do, I thought, not because of the woman’s plight and the hurt she had sustained. That kind of thing was taken for granted, back then. It was dumb, I thought, because -- I’m ashamed to say it now -- of what he had done to the organization. His one-man action stopped the women from organizing a whole women’s empowerment project in their adjacent Puerto Rican and Polish catholic neighborhoods. And it split the organization down the middle between supporting the women or supporting the men.

I supported the organizing initiative, and I wouldn’t back down, so that put me on the women’s side. The scene was hot! Three nights of meetings, 7 p.m. until 2 a.m., ended up with everyone mad as hell with everyone. There was money on my head, right away, and I went underground for about six months while we negotiated a street truce. But when it was all said and done, the guys hadn’t moved on the women’s right to organize women. I couldn’t trust them to have my back and get behind an organizing agenda for the whole community and not just for the half that were men. The organization died over that one, and I was left with a question. Why was the men’s power over their wives whom they loved a bigger issue for them than building an organization that they loved to take on the powers that be who have power over them and ruin their lives? Why do we maim and destroy those we love? That seemed to me a question I had to answer before I set foot in another community organization dedicated to change. That seemed to be something we needed to change from the inside out.

I’d heard through the movement grapevine of a radical psychiatry collective that was exploring the notion of internalized oppression. The concept fit my quest. Internalized oppression is the automated version of political oppression. Who needs to pay to oppress you if you’ve learned to oppress your Self? Claude Steiner and others had set up the Radical Psychiatry Collective to provide free mental health services to the People’s Park Movement in Berkeley. While the couple of years I worked with the Radical Psychiatry Collective became the bridge from Detroit to what became Manalive, it was my next job running a twelve-person team of mental health workers at a residential hospital for schizophrenics in Walnut Creek, California, that connected Steiner’s role theories with violence.

I was there at the residential hospital as an experiment. I was not a therapist and I was not hired to do therapy. There was a family systems team and a psychoanalytic team for that. My job, on a third team, was to organize the twenty-two folks assigned to it into a self-help, consciousness-raising community to test the R.D. Laing social theory of a divided Self. The story and findings of that work on Laing’s “full florid process” techniques is a whole other article. The thread in this article is the violating that went on in the childhood, often infant, lives, of our participants. In their childhood years, teens, and early twenties, the participants had had little or no power to escape the emotional, verbal, physical, and often sexual violence dished out to them in their families. Being from a highly adaptive species like ours, they found stasis, over time, in vacating their emotional sense of Self to occupy the various objectifying roles they lived in. There were always several violators on our team who seemed like extreme examples of this social adaptation. I was particularly interested in how they saw themselves and how they decided to violate. They were quite dangerous to themselves and others when they escalated, so in the interests of safety (theirs, my team’s, and the other residents’) instead of increased medications, I successfully enlisted them in designing their own interventions to help them stop themselves from engaging in violence and the other violations leading up to it. The notion that these violators could learn to notice the moments that set them off, account for their own decisions to escalate at these moments, and successfully learn to reverse them became the basis for Manalive’s intervention optimism. If they could do it, so could we all. You just needed to make like the pilots who fly into the eye of a twister and be willing to go into the eye of their violations with them. It may be rough going in, but participants in a mental hospital were a breeze compared to the operators’ gun thugs in Kentucky and Detroit. And once there, it’s all quiet, and you can figure out which way the wind is blowing and what we could do to shift its direction.

Manalive’s Relevance for Political Organizing Today

Going into the eye of an economic twister is the focus of Manalive participants’ second year and succeeding years of work.

Individual advocacy takes up the first year. We advocate to men that they can quit the disabling male-role belief system and give up their loyalty to their socially contrived Hitman role, and instead embrace their love for themselves, their families, and their allies in the struggle for change. The second year, and successive years, are about community advocacy. How do you get out into the community and spread the word of your own changes? And how do you link these personal changes to the massive political changes that govern our lives? The New Deal era is over. In the 1930s the federal government brokered an alliance among big manufacturers, farmers, and trade unions that ensured stability for the international investment banks and manufacturers. Union contracts, government regulation, and safety nets ensured price stability, which made sense for their long-term planning and profitability. Their long-term success depends on economies of scale that require planning way ahead of the rest of us. As near monopolists, globally dominant, they’ve been flush with money. The end of the Cold War brought mass Chinese and Indian markets into play. Recent innovations in internet communications allowed long-distance management and quality control, as well as computerized storage of production processes that made skilled workers’ jobs redundant. The international corporations became secure enough to lift their capital and invest in development and production overseas, where they make giant profits on wages way lower than ours, minimal invitational taxes, and trading and international currency agreements that advantage their move. The transnational U.S. corporations just jumped right out of the local picture, with a sucking sound that would have freaked even old Ross Perot.

We may have thought the Democratic Party was on our side, but fat chance. The party is run by the transnationals at the top and has their global interests in mind. Even our promising hope for change in 2008 had nowhere to go through the front doors of the White House but into the tight web of the internationalists and their investment gamblers. When President Obama inherited the eight-year Bush-Cheney neocon mess, he and the Democrats bailed out the globalist investment gamblers and the auto industries, but they never got us our jobs back. The gamblers had to come first. We all depend on them for our short-term and long-term interests, a point not missed by our progressive liberal friends in the party as they watched themselves sidelined and paralyzed.

Strangely enough, the second-tier capitalists are in the same fix we are. They are the ones that supplied and serviced the transnationals in the good times. They’re out of luck now. They never liked the expense of unions, safety nets, and regulations, and they’re for sure not into picking up the tab that the internationalist gang ran up for their dependents now that they’ve left the table. With the first tier AWOL, it’s firms in the service and supplies side, like Koch Industries, that are putting the most money into American politics these days. They have the urgency and the opportunity to focus on wresting the leadership of the U.S. economy from the internationalist Democrats. Among other tactics toward this goal, they decided on occupying the Republican Party to oust any transnational influences. They allied themselves with the Religious Right, early on, to get a popular electoral base, and helped them take on the many unwanted and unsung local political jobs and elected posts. They then funded their Tea Party to run ultra-conservative, anti-federal, state’s-rights, anti-union, election campaigns at the local, state, and national levels. They’ve done their homework and have now done the real work to paralyze Washington until they can take it over in 2012, dismantle the federal state apparatus, and distribute the internationalists’ power among the states. It’s a toss-up whether these ultra-nationalists will ever take power in the “Untied” States. But if they do, the modern-day Alfred Krupps’ of the U.S. internationalists will join them. And they will need brownshirts from among our ranks to turn on us and keep us in line. They’re already recruiting.

Some of this will surprise even Manalive participants. But we can imagine two responses. One is to invite the two rival gangs, the Nor’easter Bernankes/Geithners and the Sou’wester Armys/Kochs, and the men they will recruit for their brownshirts, to a street truce with us. We could offer them the benefits of empathy-based interaction and peace and prosperity in the national neighborhood. But, I don’t think so! Both gambler gangs are still in denial. They’re neither ready to acknowledge that they harm us nor ready to stop. They’re more likely to fight than switch. If U.S. politics were a Manalive class, we’d ask them to leave and come back when they were ready for the change. But that’s out of the question on their turf. In Kentucky, all the might of the federal government, the United Mine Workers, and the enterprising Roving Pickets could do nothing to get them to the table and stop harming us. The Nor’easter boys simply packed up and left us to starve knowing that we’d get desperate and hungry enough go somewhere else too, or take the gun-at-our-heads pay scales and living standards that the Sou’easters demanded in their subleased, non-union truck mines. Detroit’s the same sorry story now and the whole nation too. Their destruction is spreading. They’ve already picked off our jobs, our unions, our homes, and our public services, and now, they’re re-loading to knock out our kids’ education, our health care, our social security, and our pensions. Ford’s the first of the Nor’easters on target: its two-tier contract pays newcomers half union scale and few, if any, benefits. There is one growth industry. It’s called prisons.

So, unless you’re off to India or China where the jobs are, there is another possible response to the arrogant sense of entitlement we’re getting from the “job creators.” Seize the moment and build a political movement to take on the job ourselves. Who said we have to be the eternal codependents of a bunch of gamblers? There’s Gamblers Anonymous and a slew of other programs to help anyone stuck in that rut. Reject the gamblers outright. Stop tolerating their reckless, relentless drive for supremacy over us. Reject our mute dependence on the see-saw fortunes of any gambler in a game that the bank always wins. There are plenty of us with the intellectual, political, technological, management, administrative, production, media, and people skills to take a different philosophy of social interaction and shape a new future of satisfaction and fulfillment for our Selves and our kids. They use the male role belief system to prevail over us, so we could start there. The battered women’s shelter movement did. They organized nationally to outlaw the violence men use to prevail over them at home under that system. They got significant reforms passed and installed to give battered women more of a fair shake in the Criminal Justice System.

Prison Creative Arts Project piece

{title}Create{/title} by Santana St. John, 2009. Prison Creative Arts Project.

The male-role belief system, or Mr. Bull Shit for short, puts competition and dominance ahead of cooperation and equality, fiction before fact, and manly image before authentic Self. Men in Manalive have figured it out. They don’t have to force themselves to measure up to some fictional, destructive social invention, no matter how long it’s been around. They don’t have to violate their Selves, their loved ones, their friends, or the nature around them just to buckle under an image of manliness. It’s a choice. It’s a decision they made. They want a society that will support their change. They have seen the chaos and destruction that their violating brought about in their own lives and families. We all can see the chaos and destruction that the gamblers’ violating is creating, once again, in all of our lives. They want to love and cooperate with their Selves and each other again, and learn as a community how to create a genuine politics and economics of cooperation and a movement for change to support and drive it.

You’re welcome to join in. We’re a survivor-centric movement for all Mr. Bull Shit’s survivors. We’re willing and committed to personal and political change from the inside out. You’d have to learn the process and work through it with us first. It’s a struggle. We’re not perfect. We still have a lot to learn. But, we’ve moved the personal a ways along the road and we’re ready for the political. Come on over to a Manalive class and check us out. But, think about it. You’d have to agree that you are harming/violating others and agree that you are willing to stop! Looks like it’s just the time.


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One thought on “Manhood and Violence

  1. It is sad to read another put down of men based on men’s presumed feelings of superiority. It is sad to see cause and effect being reversed. Try looking at men being trained that they are inferior to women in relationships; and so compensating by seeking to find a way to feel superior. And then quit blaming men and begin demanding that both men and women do some serious consciousnesss raising about how the verbal/mental/ physical abuse male infants are subjected to result in some men esponding with violence.

    My experience with men is that human males are some of the most caring and gentle creatures on earth until we experience ongoing violence and abuse, starting for most male infants with the sexual brutality/flaying called circumcision.