So when do boys become men in the UK? In the popular imagination it might be the moment you lose your virginity, or when you turn 18 and are legally allowed to order a drink in a bar. While some might be glad to miss out on the more brutal aspects of these tribal rites of passage, for others, the lack of any kind of initiation traps our males in a perpetual adolescence.
“The purpose of initiation is to align the individual with the tribe, or their society, and the fact is that we have lost that,” says psychotherapist Michael Boyle, who first started working on a modern version of this rite of passage 20 years ago. “The male movement from childhood to adulthood was something that had to be acknowledged.
“Boys had to leave their mothers and defend the place. If they’re not initiated, everyone’s out for themselves and we just have what Freud called the primal horde.”
To combat this, Boyle devised what has become called the Quest weekend – a couple of days for young men to spend in nature with a group of older volunteers, with a strong ritualistic and story-telling aspect. It is a central part of A Band of Brothers, the community-based men’s group he set up in Brighton, which matches up young men from difficult backgrounds – many of whom have criminal convictions – with mentors who have been through the rite-of-passage weekend themselves.
And while some modern men might baulk at the idea of a therapeutic weekend in the forest, there is no denying the group gets results. Only 20 per cent of the young offenders A Band of Brothers works with go on to reoffend (compared to the 68 per cent of young people who are released from custody and go on to offend within a year nationally), while 75 per cent of those who are unemployed when they join the group go on to find a job.
The men who have gone through the Quest process, mainly in their late teens and early 20s, talk of a growth in confidence, of having been taken off a different, more damaging path, or of something “having clicked” when they went on the weekend. One I spoke to said, when he joined A Band of Brothers, he was unable to make eye contact with other men; now he is happy to speak in front of large groups.
Until now only available to young men from the Brighton area, this year A Band of Brothers is expanding and going mainstream. Three new groups – or circles, as they are known – are being set up in the London and Thames Valley areas, while the organisation is now part of a consortium of public, private and third-sector companies who which has been established to provide rehabilitation services in the South East. They will start working with young men who have been sent to them through official channels this autumn.
So how does it work? After joining the group for a Quest weekend, along with adults either looking to become mentors or with a professional interest in the programme, it seems like much of the benefit comes from just having a couple of days entirely out of your everyday life.
Despite there being around 20 participants, each man gets a lot of individual attention – which is made possible by the fact that there are an equal number of “brothers” who have already been through the process and who are now there as facilitators. In the weekends for younger men, there are more facilitators than participants, making the course uniquely resource intensive.
There are exercises for the men to express their anger, group discussions of subjects such as love, sex and violence, elements of theatre and a focus on what Boyle calls “restorying” – inviting men to consider the narrative that has been imposed on their lives and change the aspects they are not happy with. For the young offenders who go through the process, this narrative will often include things like “feeling like a failure” or “knowing I’ll never get a job”.
Boyle adds: “From the beginning, the men feel like they’re in the centre of something that’s intriguing and weird, but also safe. The first thing from a psychological point of view is that they feel safe. It’s like introducing them to a TV channel they’ve never seen before. They’ll always have the option of going back to the other channels, but now they know this one is there.”
So why am I angry about this? I'll Netnipper explain:-
BoB is the acceptable face of TR – a cheerleader. Time will tell if it can bring home the bacon. In the meantime, it has political value: what a clever guy Grayling has been in transforming probation! In opening up probation to innovation..."
"At one time probation would take clients on excursions and work on softer skills, but this type of work became toxic following the reactionary clampdown in probation."
Yes, we did all this and shed-loads of other innovative stuff when I started as a Probation Officer. My Service had its own cottage in The Lakes, a purpose-built day centre with canoes, rock-climbing equipment, woodwork shop, canal narrowboats, crew bus etc etc. We had trained instructors and a small army of volunteers, but every last bit of this infrastructure and philosophy was disposed of by a compliant management wanting to curry favour with successive politicians like Michael Howard and Jack Straw.
It had all been developed from the enlightened and innovative Home Office Intermediate Treatment projects with youngsters who were deemed to be at risk of becoming problematic by following an offending path, but was swept away when the right wing press dubbed it 'treats for naughty boys'. Politicians were of course only too happy to jump on the band waggon of popularity with an increasingly 'tough on crime and the causes of crime' message and probation managers duly obliged by 'following orders'. Look where it got us.
Ironically it's some of the very same senior managers that are prospering under TR and a supposed return to 'innovation' by reinventing the wheel and it makes me very angry indeed. In effect we've been destroyed as a public service because of political interference in our work and now have to suffer the humiliation and indignity of being told the future lies in what we were forced to give up.