An Interview with Andrew Reiner

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Andrew Reiner has been interested in challenging the tropes of modern day hypermasculinity since his teenage years. After becoming a father, the research he had been doing for years felt even more urgently needed. That, matched with the reception he got from a piece he wrote for the New York Times about the necessity of men learning to become capable of showing vulnerability and emotional honesty, led him to publishing the book, “Better Boys, Better Men: The New Masculinity that Creates Greater Courage & Emotional Resiliency.”

Patrick McKenna got a chance to speak with Reiner about his new book, what he’s learned interviewing boys and men about their emotions, and why men’s groups like MenLiving are providing a long-overdue space for emotional validation and connection. 

Patrick:

Your book seemed to be a cultivation of years of passion for this research. What would you say has driven you the most in your work, particularly while researching for Better Boys, Better Men?

Andrew:

Unquestionably the birth of my son. This was a topic that was definitely on my radar already. I had started teaching a college seminar called “Shape: The Changing Face of Masculinity.” When he was born, it was a reckoning for me. I’ve been on my own little private crusade for much of my life, literally since childhood. In small ways, I was pushing back against a form of masculinity that felt not just limiting, but stultifying. 

But when my son was born, the doors just blew off. Suddenly, everything felt as if the stakes were a lot higher. I now had a son, and all these paradoxical questions were coming up for me because I didn’t want to yoke him with my own issues at a very young age and limit his perspectives and views about being a boy.

Patrick:

Absolutely.

Andrew:

On the other hand, I didn’t want to throw him to the wolves to a culture that so largely still adheres in many, many ways to traditional masculine norms. It felt like throwing him to the wolves and just saying “Oh, I’m confident that everybody out there is going to do right by my son.” Because they won’t.

And not that they even have a conscious agenda. A lot of this, as I’m sure you’ve learned, is so deeply ingrained and woven into the very fabric of our culture. People go around perpetuating these norms, often unwittingly, and they often think that they have the best intentions. But, as I came to learn for all their good intentions, there’s a lot of damage done.

In addition to that kind of opening my lens further with my son, I really felt this impetus to do more for a lot of boys and men. I just felt if I’m doing this for my son, and other boys and men can benefit, then all the better.

Patrick:

That’s great. So what would you say was the most illuminating thing that you learned from the process of writing and researching for this book?

Andrew:

There were definitely a couple of things. One of them is the ways we talk to boys, and don’t talk to boys, and touch them and don’t touch them. This is what I meant about a lot of well-meaning parents unintentionally sending messages. Literally from the time that boys are out of the womb, we are already conditioning them in many ways with a kind of normative or traditional masculinity that ends up sending a very powerful message to them that they are not well-integrated with their emotions. They’re not supposed to be emotional beings.

In so many ways that we touch and don’t touch boys, and that we speak to and don’t speak to boys, we so clearly – without them ever knowing it — send them these messages that are profound for them. These have repercussions for the rest of their lives, and with everybody they will come into contact with.

Patrick:

That makes perfect sense. I like how you said the way it’s ingrained. I feel like that word was used a lot in the book. Like you said, just from the conditioning and it being so ingrained, both those words I think hit on a certain note the ways it’s so interwoven in society from start to finish when it comes to men.

Andrew:

Oh my God, it’s seamless. And while I do think that a lot of dads exacerbate this much more than moms do, a lot of very well-meaning, well-intentioned mothers send that message and perpetuate it too in slightly different ways. So while I think fathers are more heavy handed about it, there are a lot of subtle messages that a lot of boys are getting from their moms as well about this.

Patrick:

So I want to talk a little bit about your interview subject, Paul, and the chapter about loneliness.

Andrew:

Oh yes. 

[For context, this question refers to a specific interview from Reiner’s book with a man named Paul. In the interview, Paul opened up about dealing with depression and loneliness while in a difficult moment in his life. Paul felt as if he had no one to support him, to the extent that he hugged a standing light beam in his apartment. This brought him the warmth he needed at the moment without access to another person to get emotional support. ]

Patrick:

That was the part that was so moving, and I really hurt on the inside for this guy. I think I enjoyed that chapter the most because of how it felt the most connected in terms of MenLiving. I can only hope that our group gives that virtual or in-person hug to the Paul’s in our lives, but I just want to ask what that interview was like for you?

Andrew:

It was…and I say this being completely literal…It was very holy. What I remember is the feeling I had as he was describing this. It was so stirring and such a profoundly sacred transformative thing for him, and I was trying to get in there with him and asking him questions when I felt like the time was right. When I do interviews, being incredibly present and respectful are the two most important things for me. So, as I was listening, I remember just thinking that I’m literally on this journey – even though he’s recalling it – I’m observing this as he’s doing it.

It felt very holy because for Paul hugging that beam would literally become, as low as he was, what he needed to find his way back up out of the hole. So it really felt very much like a sacred space that I was in when he was talking about that because I got that. I understood that.

Patrick:

Absolutely. The thought of that being the best thing that could have happened for him just seems super symbolic.

Andrew:

Absolutely. And I think that a lot of men, if they’re really honest with themselves, in different ways can identify with that experience. One of the things I wanted for the book and one of the things I’m so glad that a lot of men tell me is how much they see their own story in my book. I know that for a lot of men, there’s parts of it that they don’t enjoy reading and that are really hard for them, and they don’t necessarily finish the book. But what I want to do in my book is to move the conversation forward.

With the chapter on vulnerability that you mentioned with Paul, the thing is a lot of men have talked about, “Oh, men need more friends, men need more friends.” But what nobody really has done is they haven’t gone further and said men just don’t need friendships. They need a new kind of friendship. Part of what they need that they don’t have is that emotional safety net that they don’t have in most of their male friendships.

Patrick:

Absolutely. So I watched the PBS interview you did and you said the increase in men’s groups and men’s support groups is super encouraging to you. What would you say the most important element of these groups and the space that they’re trying to provide helps men grow?

Andrew:

There’s a couple things. One of the things that’s really important about men’s groups is that there is a positive peer pressure.  The positive peer pressure is that when you’re seeing other guys sitting around and if they’re kind of owning up to talking about their lives in honest ways, a lot of guys feel like they need to kind of own up too. They feel like, “Okay, I need to own up here. If I want to be taken seriously by these guys, I need to own up and I need to meet them wherever everybody else is meeting them.”

So this positive peer pressure would not exist outside of that circle in terms of emotional honesty, and I think that’s huge. Another thing that happens is there’s a trust that occurs in these circles that often does not exist outside of these circles.

Patrick: 

Totally!

Andrew:

I mean, a lot of men know that a lot of their buddies will have their back if they’re threatened physically. But that same kind of trust on an emotional level does not really exist for most men. Guys don’t figuratively have their backs if and when they need to do deep dives with a lot of kind of sadness or despair or confusion or frustration. A lot of guys will try to offer up solutions and advice, but they won’t bear witness. They won’t sit across and just listen or just empathize. So one of the things about these circles is that they bring a level of trust that a lot of guys have either never had in the company of other boys and men, or they haven’t had since they were very young. And that is no small thing.

Patrick:

Absolutely, its huge. Our organization really focuses on creating that space of connection. We have  guys who have either joined the group or have attended meetings, and they say they’ve obviously had friendships before, but they hadn’t experienced that kind of deeper connection or that space before finding us and attending meetings. 

Andrew:

And that’s how you know you’re doing it right! When you have guys in the group saying those things, you think, “You know what, we are exactly where we need to be.” That is exactly the safe space that you want to create for men that they really do need. For so many guys, it’s like this really wild awakening. Even if guys come in and they can’t get themselves to feel safe sharing yet, just by being there and witnessing this and absorbing is also very transformative.

Patrick:

Absolutely. So that leads me into my next question. If you were to ever lead a meeting at a men’s group, what do you think would be either be the topic that you’d want to discuss or the biggest thing or message that you would most want to convey?

Andrew:

I think one of the most important things that men need to hear is you’re okay. You are enough. There’s so many young men that I interviewed for the book or since the book in the past couple of months that feel they’re not enough. This becomes even more compounded when they become parents and they feel like they’re just failing their partners or their young children. Many young men feel that they are just failing themselves and they’re failing other people, whether it’s in relationships or on the job or friends or whatever. So it’s really important for guys to be in this kind of safe space and for them to learn that you are enough. A lot of them know it intellectually, but they don’t know it emotionally. They don’t think it because there’s such a scarcity there in their emotional lives.

Patrick:

Yes, and that fear of just thinking if I open up and I get received poorly, when am I going to want to open up ever again?

Andrew:

Exactly. Because that happens to all guys throughout their childhood and adolescence. When you finally do open up, you get judged or you get rejected or both. So why the hell would you want to take that chance again and risk feeling that horrible and risk losing whatever status you have amongst your friends in the group? So that message of you’re enough, there’s a lot more complexity there than meets the eye. When you’re making the effort and have the courage to take those steps and show up, you are on the path to learning how to accept yourself, which is a huge thing for men emotionally. And then in turn, when you can do that, you can learn to accept other people.

Patrick:

I love that. I mean, literally one of biggest mantras we have for MenLiving is just show up and that really is a good invite to a man, especially one who’s apprehensive about reaching out.

Andrew:

That’s right! Even saying to him/them that you don’t even have to talk. Just be an active listener. That, as you know, that is showing up too.

Patrick:

Totally. So my last two questions go back to your original point and the basis of your passion. As a parent, what kinds of societal things do you see that still stand in the way of helping a child develop a healthy relationship with masculinity?

Andrew:

We really need to do a better job of normalizing emotional honesty in our homes. We need children to see us doing it, especially boys. We need to have the courage to push through and to access and understand those emotions for ourselves and for the people we hurt. 

The second thing is I want to teach them about the accountability. We’re going to make mistakes. And you know what? That’s okay because the important thing is we still show up. We need to come back and be accountable and say, “You know what, I’m sorry. Let me tell you what was really beneath my anger.” Those are two huge gifts and lessons that we need to model as an example of emotional honesty and accountability in the homes for boys. Once they step outside the door, we no longer can control what happens for them. If we model this in our homes, we are shaping them in ways that they’re going to be far healthier boys and men when they go out into the world.

Patrick:

So going off that, how do you think we as adult men – especially these men apart of MenLiving who are looking not just for connection but ways to have healthier relationships with their children or the people around them – how do you think we can help just promote a healthier representation of what we want modern masculinity to look like?

Andrew:

We should be going out into the world in public and taking what we’ve learned in these men’s groups and walking the talk out in public. One of the things I found in my research was that so many men of all ages that I spoke to who are in men’s groups would say, “This is really helpful and this helps me a lot behind closed doors.” That alone is fantastic. But a lot of them would still say, “I can’t do this outside of these doors yet because it won’t be received the same way it is in this circle.”

Patrick:

That’s very true. 

Andrew:

So yes, that’s a start, but at some point you got to break through the chains and be able to take that into the world. If you’re in a restaurant and there are boys of different ages in that restaurant who are watching out of the corner of their eye and see two men greeting each other and hugging and their father never does that, that is going to be a powerful image in that boy’s mind. It’s going to be burnished. He’s going to be wondering, “It’s okay for boys to do this? I don’t see my dad doing this. So let me get this straight…I’m not used to seeing this in men, but wow. So maybe it’s okay for guys to be doing this.”

That’s just one example but talking about things and showing emotions is huge. A good example is joy. Men don’t show overt joy often because it seems too effeminate. There’s a vulnerability in too much joy. So I think that being out in public at a football game or in a bar watching something, not swallowing back and allowing your joy to come forth is a strong message that says, “You know what? I’m pushing back against it. I’m trying to normalize this because men should be able to be joyful as well.”

 One of the things I talk a lot about in the book is that we raise boys and men with this internal compass and locus of competition that poisons so many of our friendships. It’s one of the reasons why we can’t trust on an emotional level. This idea of being out in public and not feeling like you’re straight jacketed emotionally and that you can show something like joy is breaking down that idea that we’ve got to be grave or somber or angry

I think even just showing joy in public is another way that we can really kind of model something for boys and younger men and lets him know, “You know what, it’s okay to be this way. It’s okay.”

As you know yourself, it’s liberating.

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