Angry Young Men
This article is an extract from Aaron Kipnis' book Angry Young Men - How parents, teachers and Counselors can help "Bad Boys" become Good Men (Jossey-Bass, 1999). The book offers specific, practical advice for parents, teachers, counselors, community leaders and justice professionals. It is a riveting, expert account for everyone concerned about how we can save our young men. Buy it!
The outer gate crashed shut with the finality of a head-on car collision. Then came the first deadening click as the lock on my new front door slid in place. Click, chunk the second lock was secured. Click, click, click - the sound of the guard's hard leather heels striking the concrete floor steadily diminished as he strode away from my seven-by-eight foot, windowless, steel-doored cell. I was eleven years old.
The police arrested me for running away from home after a beating by my stepfather. Incomprehensibly to me at the time, they jailed me but allowed him to remain free. My heart grew cold as I sat alone on a sheet metal cot in the Los Angeles Juvenile Detention Center. As I contemplated my future, the singular thought echoing through my mind was click, click, click ....
During the next seven years of adolescence, when not in juvenile institutions, I spent most of my time living on the streets of Hollywood or San Francisco's Tenderloin and Haight Ashbury districts. The outcast and the outlawed were my friends and family. I lived with Hell's Angels, drag queens, drug dealers, runaways, dropouts, prostitutes, musicians, artists, and thieves.
I rifled cars and stole from shops. I slept in abandoned buildings and cars. I ate out of dumpsters, "dined and dashed" at restaurants, committed acts of prostitution, sold drugs, and did whatever else I could to survive as a teenager alone on the city streets. Understandably, the police repeatedly arrested me.
During my detentions I witnessed numerous beatings, sexual assaults, bloody suicide attempts, stabbings, desperate escape attempts, and young men driven insane from long solitary confinements that broke their spirits. Because of my rebellious behavior in those institutions, I also spent difficult months in isolation cells.
The other prisoners' enraged screams, threats, pounding on the bars and walls, and cursing filled the air with a frightening maelstrom of discontent. These experiences left indelible impressions on my young psyche that still haunt me on occasions. Even though over three decades have passed since my last arrest, those images remain my most vivid memories of adolescence.
As is still true today, the majority of us in those institutions were there for nonviolent crimes. The horrors I witnessed as a child propelled me into adult life with a drive to find alternatives to the juvenile justice system. Angry Young Men is one result of that passion. Most conditions that I encountered as an angry young man have steadily worsened since then, as has the incidence of juvenile crime. This leads me to believe that our society has largely pursued ineffective strategies for the care and restoration of youth at risk.
Today American boys suffer higher rates of homicide, suicide, incarceration, functional illiteracy, school failure, child poverty, gang involvement, gun carrying, drug abuse, violent victimization, male prostitution and sexual assault, AIDS, and homelessness that the youth of any other Western industrialized nation. In many categories we exceed others by far. The only other nation with a similar ratio of incarcerated young men is Russia. But then Russia never has been known as the "land of the free."
After my first arrest, a judge made me a ward of the state of California. I remained under the state's jurisdiction, on probation or parole, from age eleven to twenty-three. Most friends from this period died long ago from overdoses, suicides, and the perils of street life. But I survived. Eventually, I even thrived. And so can most boys who are similarly abandoned. They do, however, need some specific help, offered at the right time in the right way. A central principle of the book is my personal and professional belief that the majority of difficult, troubled, angry, criminal, and even violent young men can lead whole and productive lives when given the right opportunities and leadership.
Turning It Around
Unlike most so-called "bad boys," I received a college education. A compassionate parole officer noted that, as a young felon on parole, I might qualify for a rehabilitation grant to cover some college expenses. I had to cajole, campaign, and finally protest to get the money. But I eventually made the case that, by depriving me of a high school education, the state had, in fact, handicapped me. It thus seemed fair the state contribute to my adult education in some way.
Though this support was nominal - a few hundred dollars each semester - it gave an impoverished young man enough of a leg up to make college a possibility. Los Angeles City College's policies allowed me conditional admittance as a nineteen-year-old with only a ninth-grade education. It was the first time I went to the same school two years in a row. From there I worked my way through the California State University system and private institutes, culminating my studies with a Ph.D. in clinical psychology.
While a psychology undergraduate I counseled numerous boys and young men in residential treatment centers, juvenile halls, on wilderness "rites of passage," and in county jail as a public defender's assistant. Over the years, I also held support groups, seminars, retreats, and private consultations for men. In response to the suffering I witnessed over the years, I started conducting research on male psychology in the late 1980s. My book Knights Without Armor was the first product of that inquiry.
That book was well received. It generated invitations to teach or speak at universities, learning centers, professional conferences, hospitals, social service agencies, men's retreats, government agencies, corporations, and national television shows. I started receiving requests to train educators and therapists about how to work more effectively with men and boys.
In small groups, in widely varied settings, men of all races and economic status recounted their life stories. The vulnerability, beauty, and tenderness often hidden behind men's opaque exteriors repeatedly struck me. These sensitivities emerged when men felt both safe and supported enough to be authentic about their lives. Many of these groups included felons, combat vets, recovering or not-so-recovered addicts and alcoholics, and former gang members. Most of them had been or still were angry young men.
My wife, Liz Herron, a leader of women's groups for twenty years, invited me to co-host communication and conflict resolution seminars for women and men in the workplace. We published What Women and Men Really Want based on those experiences. Our Gender Relations Institute facilitated dialogues for about 30,000 women and men in various organizations. In those contexts many more men talked about their hopes, fears, dreams, and confusions with women and their struggles with socially imposed models of masculinity.
After years of listening to men in all these semitherapeutic contexts, certain themes emerged. Many differed from the psychological theories I had learned in training, particularly popular academic ideas about male privilege, pathology, identity, capacity for intimacy, and some that even seem to imply an ontological flaw in men's character. Many of the difficulties men face as adults started when they were quite young, but those problems were often poorly met. And as I talked to more men who, like myself, went through the criminal justice system, it became apparent that most began their initiation into crime, violence, addiction, and alienation when they were boys.
Working Well with Bad Boys
Angry Young Men is about the growing numbers of boys at risk who annually fall through the social net that is supposed to catch youth in free fall. Today that net has a number of large holes in it. The catcher in the rye is asleep in the field. Tragically, most of the boys who slip through the grasp of parents, teachers, counselors, therapists, social workers, judges, and probation officers do not survive. They go to prison, they go insane, they die. And they create a lot of collateral harm when they go down in flames. Instead of dying young like most of my friends, however, or ending up in prison like many others, I stalked a better life with fierce determination. I also had some lucky breaks and a few good people along the way who cared.
Though I still travel about the country a bit, today I am more focused on my local community. As faculty at Pacifica Graduate Institute I teach graduate psychology students. As president of the Fatherhood Coalition, a nonprofit service organization dedicated to aiding fathers and their families, I help implement a variety of programs that support young men in their roles as fathers.
At age fifty I have a beautiful family and home, a stimulating career, good health, and a multitude of loving friends and colleagues. Most of my adult life I've hidden my bad-boy past to all but a few intimates to protect my professional and social standing. Recently, however, I began experimenting with working some of my personal stories into various seminars. When colleagues or clinicians-in-training heard my history projected against the backdrop of my current life, some inevitably asked, "How did you turn your life around?" Following these discussions many urged me to write the book. There is, however, no simple, single answer. I wish there were.
How the gradual transformation from bad boy to good man happened in my life is one of the themes weaving through the book. My hope is that this personal story will support other young men trying to create better lives and aid those trying to help them. I've learned that my work with others often goes only as deep as my willingness to face my own demons. The more authentic I am, the more at ease others feel in working with the central issues most troubling to their lives. This seems particularly true with troubled young men.
Impersonal "professional" personas often leave clients and students feeling separated. Transparency in a therapist or teacher, however, can embolden others to present core issues otherwise too imbued with shame for revelation. Working near the turbulent places of passion and despair in a young man's psyche calls for a certain openness to our own suffering as well. That is one of the reasons I took what feels like a somewhat risky approach to the book in the spirit of the mystical poet, Rumi, who advises: "Destroy your reputation." Moreover, Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel teaches that survivors have a moral obligation to tell their stories to the world.
The repression of personal secrets consumes a great deal of energy in our culture. The consequences of secrets bring many clients into our consulting rooms. A myriad of private behaviors or aspects of personal history, if made public, can deny a person employment, social inclusion, safety, or freedom. In our fragmented culture today many of us long for authentic connection to one another. And, as this book details, alienation is at the core of most male violence. So these are some reasons I chose to share my own experiences, alongside what I've learned thus far about what helps boys at risk, what hurts them, and what merely gets in their way. The book presents a variety of emerging programs and perspectives that I believe can best help troubled young men. The inclusion of substantial social science research also illustrates obstacles to healthy young male development in many domains.
Do I come to this topic as an unbiased social scientist, objective and freed from the legacy of my past? No. We're all waist-deep in our personal melodrama regardless of the subjects we research. But I've lived fully in both worlds now: the disenfranchised life of an adolescent outlaw and the privileged life of an educated adult. Angry Young Men is my attempt to bridge those worlds.
Our national culture today is a lot like the East Side of Santa Barbara. The divide between opportunity and privilege or exclusion and despair is a double-edged sword that often defends one class and cuts the other. It is harder than any other time in modern history for young men at risk to cross the thickening line that separates them from a good life. This is particularly true for low-income boys and young men of color, as the book investigates throughout. I believe, however, there are many things we can do to assure that boys' lives turn toward hope and community instead of nihilism and destruction.
The book's perspective throughout can, perhaps, best be called one of harm reduction and humane justice. This approach attempts to transform the lives of young lawbreakers through providing essential elements missing from their lives. Many thoughtful citizens think the punishing spirit of retribution reigning over criminal justice policy today does more to harm and disenfranchise troubled young men than restore them to productive citizenry. This book does not minimize the need for dangerous young men to be confronted or contained. It is more concerned, however, with interventions effective in preventing angry young men from becoming violent in the first place and restoring them to lasting health and humanity if they do.
Boys who end up in the criminal justice system often share elements in their formative lives that can be changed if we are willing to make the effort. Many of the critical junctions in my early years are typical for boys whose lives get shunted away from community, toward crime and incarceration.
Just as Dante explored seven levels of hell, Angry Young Men investigates seven paths that can lead to prison: (1) Home, (2) School, (3) The Street, (4) Juvenile Institutions, (5) Drugs, (6) Youth Crime and Gangs, (7) The Criminal Justice System. Crossing each of these paths are critical junctions where boys at risk can either be diverted toward community and life by parents, teachers, mentors, clergy, judges, probation, parole, law enforcement, and helping professionals, or, tragically, be pushed closer to alienation, isolation, incarceration, and death.
Each chapter details the shape of a specific hole in the social net for boys living in the United States today and offers suggestions about how to mend it. The book examines child welfare, foster care, parenting, education, street life, community services, treatment methods and perspectives, adolescent mental health, addiction, public policy, gangs, youth incarceration, prisons, prison after-care, probation, parole and rehabilitation - all through a lens of a "maleresponsive" psychology.
Though not every man in prison today went through the developmental sequence of events in the order presented ahead, most visited these seven domains along the way as boys. Each missed turn at the crossroads of community or prison makes it that much more difficult for a boy to find his way home. For most "bad boys," the First Pathway to Prison begins at home.
During the course of writing the book a lot of maintenance got deferred around my home. As it mounted up I started feeling overwhelmed. One day, I called one of the program administrators in our Fatherhood Coalition and asked whether any of their young men could use a few days of work. He called that afternoon and said one of his guys was trying to earn some Christmas money and could start the following day. At 8:00 A.M. a sixteen-year-old boy showed up at my door ready to work. He introduced himself as Carlos. He looked familiar. As we talked a bit, I recognized him as a local gang member with an old car and a loud CD player. I immediately felt a little apprehensive, knowing that he and his friends lived only a few blocks away and now he was going to get a good look at everything in my home. But I was already committed. So we went to work.
He was a great help. He worked hard and thoughtfully. We accomplished a great deal in a few days - more than I could have done alone in a week or more. And we talked a lot along the way about his school, the neighborhood, and other elements of his life.
I referred him to some other friends for more steady part-time work. One thing I learned from poverty is that offering good employment is often the most sincere demonstration of respect. I paid Carlos and he left, apparently pleased by our brief collaboration. He was grateful for the work; I was extremely grateful for the help.
Afterwards, I never felt safer in my neighborhood. I knew that next time he was on the corner that we could talk, easily. Although I could not count on it, I felt I had a better chance of being protected by Carlos than exploited.
During the course of our exchange we came to know one another a little. Now my experience of him as part of my neighborhood is not merely some cerebral exercise, but a genuine experience of being in community with him. It was a small event in both our lives, but within it was the core of what I have attempted to voice in this book. The building of bridges begins with a single, slender cable stretched between two distant poles. One need not have a Ph.D. in psychology to help many of these boys. A compassionate heart and courage to risk a little goes a long way. I hope Angry Young Men will encourage us all to try, in whatever way we can, to at least look out for the life of one young man, beyond our commitments to our own children.
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