How Not to Raise Repressed, Violent Men

After more than 20 years of working with violent men in Israel, therapist Tamir Ashman says it’s time to rethink the way boys are raised

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An illustration of a boy holding a man's hand.
Illustration.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum
Shany Littman
Shany Littman

Clear, painful betrayal is the theme of a well-known Israeli children’s song, “Danny Gibor” (Brave Danny). The lyrics suggest that a girl, Nurit, betrays Danny, the boy who is trying to win her favor. Nurit eats the apple and throws away the blue flower he gives her, but instead of repaying Danny for his generosity, she goes off to play with a different boy.

In his show “Song of Men,” the therapist and lecturer Tamir Ashman addresses a very different betrayal: the mother’s betrayal of her son.

“I want to exonerate Nurit,” Ashman says. “She’s a girl of 5, it’s her right not to be ready for monogamous relationships. But, Danny’s mother, instead of saying to him, ‘You’re sad, you’re heartbroken’ – tells him he mustn’t cry. The mother gets ‘mixed up.’ She doesn’t want to raise a boy who will be picked on. But the price for this is that her child loses his safe space, both at home and outside. Here is where the gender tracking begins.”

Danny’s story, argues Ashman, is the narrative of traditional masculinity. “Danny learns from Mom that the emotional world has to be repressed, and the song ends with internalization of that thought. Many men, like Danny, are afraid to let go when they become overwhelmed emotionally, they’re afraid their body will betray them. Later, that will be the entry point for addiction to drugs, to work, to gambling, to extreme sports, to cheating in their marriage.”

Ashman also deconstructs another iconic Hebrew children’s song, about the baby elephant who doesn’t know how to walk and whose mother tries to teach him. According to Ashman, the song teaches mothers that if they raise sons “with gentleness, the boys will experience spatial disorientation, they will get lost.” The end is frightening, because at one point the daddy elephant comes home and baby starts to walk out of sheer fear.

Ashman identifies deeply with this: “When my father came home, something happened to my game-playing space. My father never lifted a hand against us at home, but his very presence recalled a master sergeant. He was responsible for discipline and morality. That’s a long tradition for fathers. In the patriarchal culture, the father is seen as the punisher.”

His audiences seem to identify with Ashman when he talks about his and other fathers. In the two performances I attended – one at a conference about domestic violence at Bar-Ilan University, the other for parole officers, in the southern town of Netivot – the audience consisted of professional therapists and social workers. The vast majority were women, but the few men on hand apparently knew exactly what Ashman was getting at.

He says he has encountered that sort of identification intensely for 22 years in the stories told by the men he treats at the Glickman Center for Family Violence Prevention in Tel Aviv, in his private clinic, in other venues around the country, but mainly in prisons, where Ashman encounters rapists and men serving life terms for murder.

Ashman’s show, which he created together with musician Ziv Goland, aims to tell the story of the Israeli male to the general public. It’s a kind of stand-up performance, an enhanced version of the lecture he’s been delivering since 1996. Back then, he noticed that people were accustomed to hearing about women’s gender-based oppression but weren’t really aware of the silencing undergone by males.

“Gender-sensitive therapy for men is a story of the last 20 years,” he says. “In 1997, the American therapist Terrence Real published a very important book, ‘I Don’t Want to Talk about It.’ He addressed men’s latent depression, the way men are disconnected from the world of emotions. Until then, this was a subject that few dealt with. Today we can talk about a therapeutic revolution. There are symposia about the father’s place in the family, the man’s place. Men, the ‘absent gender,’ are the subject of much discussion.”

Tamir Ashman. “Men are subjected to a systematic assault on their need for dependence from the age of one. Slowly I learn not to lean on others. I will stop sharing so as not to be mocked."Credit: Ilan Assayag

In 1996, when Ashman was a third-year social work student, he became the first and only male staffer in the shelter for battered women then being set up at the Glickman Center, which is operated by the Na’amat women’s organization. It seemed like a subversive idea at the time, integrating a male social worker into a women’s shelter. In addition, an experimental men’s therapy group was opened at the center, under the guidance of Natti Ronel, now head of the criminology department at Bar-Ilan. Ronel wanted to apply the 12-step program for curing addictions to the treatment of violent men.

Ashman: “To this day, it’s one of the most effective methods for treating addictions to drugs, alcohol, and compulsive eating. I was fascinated by the idea of trying to apply the method of alcohol rehab to violence. I asked Prof. Ronel if I could observe the group. He said he had no observers, only participants. So for a year I participated in a group of violent men.”

As a violent man?

“As a man for whom that world was not foreign, let’s say.”

After a year with the group and at the shelter, Ashman finished his B.A. in social work and was offered the position of leader of the men’s therapy group after Ronel left. At the time he was 27. Since then, for almost 22 years, he has moderated the weekly men’s circle, and has been certified as a group therapist. He refuses to categorize the participants as violent men, however.

“If there must be a label, they are men who behaved or are behaving violently in relationships and in the family domain,” he says. “That definition, in contrast to ‘abusive men,’ doesn’t freeze them in one situation. As part of the gender culture, we are used to a simple, dichotomous definition: men batter, women are battered. But anyone who’s familiar with this world from close up, knows that it’s not so dichotomous. The division and the dichotomy preserve the conception that men are a violent gender and women, a victimized gender. I think the conditions are ripe for talking about it differently.”

Leading the group made Ashman feel like he’d found a home. “It was a very deep connection for me, helping men,” he says. “As I relate in the show, my father was not a violent man physically, but I grew up with a father who didn’t talk about his feelings, was very restrained, very much withdrawn into himself, like most of the fathers of all of us. I knew I had to help men shed the traditional masculine armor.”

'Women attack with the arsenal they have, and men attack with the arsenal they have.'

Ashman has created a new language, intended for men’s therapy, and that serves him in the groups he leads, which he calls “relationship laboratories.” He’s turned the knowledge he’s gleaned over the years into university courses and into studies – for men only – for a certificate to lead men’s circles. All these academic activities were recently placed under one framework, the Men’s Studies Forum at Tel Aviv University’s School of Social Work. “I call it ‘men’s studies,’ because ‘gender studies’ is synonymous with women’s studies,” says Ashman, who heads the forum.

‘Empathetic failure’

Until recently, he points out, not only did academia ignore male therapy as a subject for training, there was no public discussion about the oppression of men: “When I first started to talk about how men are oppressed and about the silence on the subject in Israeli society, people – mainly women – would stalk furiously out of the lectures. But the dialogue is evolving. Today I can even talk about women’s aggression without people making a fuss.”

Why is it so important to talk about women’s aggressiveness? After all, they are the ones who are brutalized and murdered by violent men.

“It’s very important to dismantle the patriarchal structure according to which there is a male attacker and a female victim. Women and men both influence the intimate space in a relationship. Women attack with the arsenal they have, and men attack with the arsenal they have. Obviously, there’s no comparison between the number of men who physically assault people and the number of women who do so. But both sexes attack. Wrapping oneself in victimhood is a defense mechanism that keeps us from seeing our aggressiveness. To help women get in touch with their aggressiveness and not only their victimization, is to empower women. It’s to show that they possess the power of influence, of control.”

Adds Ashman, “It’s important to emphasize that I’m not drawing an equation. Gender discourse is very delicate, and because equality is nonexistent in traditional patriarchal rule, every dialogue that aims to help bring about equality generates an inherent empathetic failure. But certainly we can talk about female aggressiveness, and it’s important to talk about male oppression. My point of departure is neither contrarian nor misogynous, but it still irks people.”

When does oppression of males begin?

“Gender tracking begins to operate strongly from the age of about one year. When they’re eight days old, [Jewish] boys are already marked in a powerful way, but it can be said that we leave them be up until the age of one year, even if the messages start to trickle down in the form of clothing and the way they are treated. That division creates gender dichotomy from a very young age. Subsequently, the social gender division is effected through shaming activity – based on what, as a father, I am proud of in my son, as opposed to actions of his that cause me embarrassment or shame.”

Illustration.Credit: Yael Bogen

Gender oppression occurs primarily between among parents and children of the same gender, Ashman notes: Mothers track their daughters, fathers track their sons. Afterward comes the turn of the rest of the family and school friends, of both sexes.

“I wasn’t ridiculed by girls but by boys,” he recalls. “Girls didn’t call me gay. At the same time, you could see in high school the way one girl looked critically at another during recess. It’s she who will harm the other girl, cause her to have an eating disorder. Not the boys. Two girls will silently survey a third girl, up and down. The ‘capital city’ of oppression is located within the gender. It’s important to say this, in order to avoid a victimization dialogue between the sexes. There’s intra-gender work to be done. Boys undergo oppression mainly at the hands of men, girls from women. Mothers make comments to their daughters about the way they eat, tell them not to show too much anger.”

What about the boys?

“In boys the inner, emotional space is neglected, and the external domain is cultivated. Career is vital, and it’s important for the car to be clean and unscratched. The boys’ kingdom is analytical thinking, and we live in a society that sanctifies thought, not feeling. In the patriarchal society, feeling is for women and thought is for men. It’s very masculine to think that the practical is more important.”

The men in Ashman’s therapy group don’t show up on their own; they’re sent there after a complaint about domestic violence is lodged against them at the police. Parole boards send them for a year of supervision, and it’s worth their while to demonstrate good will, change their behavior and cooperate: “Overall, men don’t seek help at their initiative. We usually come in for help at the last minute, in the wake of an ultimatum. Men turn to a violence prevention center for the most part after a brush with the law. Because that’s part of the story: I must not be helpless, I am not allowed to ask for help. From the age of 2, we are supposed to be independent, and even though we are actually very dependent, we’re not prepared to admit it.”

Afraid of therapy

'Boys undergo oppression mainly at the hands of men, girls from women.'

The first thing Ashman does during his initial interview of someone who has arrived after behaving violently is to show him the “ejection seat.” “I tell them, ‘I know you’re required to come for a year, but it’s a pity just to take up a space. I won’t keep you here by force. You’ll have a three-month trial period. After 12 meetings, if you want to leave, I’ll write a letter to the parole board saying that you came to the group, you tried, and we decided together that you need to look for a different framework. Since I began with these groups, only one man has used the option to leave after three months. Most complete the first year, and even afterward only a few leave. After two years I have to make them leave, because the budget runs out. The Social Services Ministry underwrites only two years of therapy.”

What do they understand then that they didn’t understand before?

“Men are not against therapy; they’re afraid of it. They feel threatened by the therapeutic language. They’re imprisoned in that tough, shriveled world that doesn’t talk. Family is an emotional business, raising children is a conflictual business. Women, because of their tracking, usually arrive at therapy with tremendous linguistic superiority over the man. They learn how to weave relationships, and that comes with a rich lexicon: I love, I long for, I am afraid.

“I teach 12 basic words in the group. In my search for an emotional language I detected an initial dichotomy, between love and anxiety. Those are the two emotional foundations.”

Men don’t know those words?

“They don’t know how to express them. They are mute. And a mute man, instead of talking, will act out. If I don’t have the language to create an intimate connection with you, I have to act it out. I will turn my back to you, I will slam the door. Violence is communication. War is a form of communication in the absence of speech. Without language as a means for transition, violence enters powerfully.”

Why do men become mute?

“It’s a result of the oppression they undergo. From the age of one year, they are subjected to a systematic assault on their need for dependence. Man is a dependent animal. If I don’t encounter a pair of eyes that see me, when I am an adult person, I will be depressed. Yet, men undergo an attack on that need from the age of 1. Slowly I learn not to lean on others. I will stop sharing, because whenever I share I am mocked. The classic reactions are usually, ‘What are you whining about?’”

The most natural and basic emotions, according to Ashman, are love, anger, sadness, envy, fear and helplessness.

Israeli soldiers during Operation Defensive Edge. “One symptom of untreated combat stress reaction is outbursts of anger within the family.”Credit: Eliyahu Hershkovitz

“Anger is a legitimate emotion for boys,” he notes. “Boys are encouraged to get angry so they won’t be picked on. But the other emotions, which express vulnerability, must not be verbalized. Neither envy, nor fear, nor longing. How many men do you know who talk about their envy and don’t act out because of it? Girls, in contrast, are allowed to be helpless and then to take advice from boys, but that doesn’t legitimize their becoming angry. As a result, their assertive space is affected, and much of the anger becomes self-directed aggression, eating disorders, self-harm.”

Silence and trauma

Israeli men do not only keep mum about their feelings in the domestic sphere, but principally about their traumas – which for the most part are a result of sexual assault or army service. Those two types of trauma are interrelated, from Ashman’s point of view, and the time has come to break the silence about both of them, he declares.

Ashman: “The Israeli man is a very military product, but anyone who says that militancy is destroying Israeli masculinity will immediately be accused of treason. But one-third of the patients in the family violence groups suffer from combat stress reaction. They had certain experiences in their military service, but they don’t treat their traumas, because they’re ashamed to seek help.”

In regard to sexual assaults, Ashman reminds us that the statistics for sexual attacks on boys and girls until the age of 14 are identical. “That changes after the age of 14, but for girls, with most of the sexual assaults occurring within the family, the numbers are the same. But you won’t hear about the cases involving boys, only the girls, because the girls are encouraged to talk about it and the boys are not. Before the second year of therapy, most of my patients won’t dare to talk about what they underwent 30 years earlier. So Israeli society can maintain its suppressive system against men, because they don’t complain.”

Lately, as part of the Me Too and I Didn’t Complain movements, quite a few stories about men have arisen.

“That’s but a drop in the tsunami. Men still don’t dare come out. Have you ever heard about a man who was raped as a boy? I’ve been doing therapy for 22 years, and I’ve heard only 18 stories like that from men. That’s very few. Men prefer to take their trauma with them to the grave. Many times men I treat complain that when they went to the police they weren’t believed.”

'Saying that militancy is destroying Israeli masculinity is labeled as treason. But a third of the patients in the family violence groups suffer from combat stress reaction.'

It took Ashman time to grasp that he had to ask the men he encounters both about sexual assaults and about their army service – they said nothing at their own initiative: “In 2009, there was a man in one of the groups who had a very serious violence problem. He beat his wife and children without any expression of remorse. And nothing helped him. I started to think that he was a psychopath. I said to him, ‘I’ve been working with you for a year, and there’s no feeling of improvement. The outbursts of anger are only getting worse.’ And then I asked, ‘Maybe something happened to you in the army?’ I’d never asked that. He replied with the usual male banality, ‘Nothing, it was regular service.’

“I pressed him a little, and he said, ‘There was a committee of inquiry, but I was acquitted. We were on operational duty, my weapon went off accidentally, and I killed an 8-year-old girl.’ I asked him how that had affected him. ‘Not at all,’ he said. I said that was impossible, and he said, ‘Now that I think about it, the first time I cursed my mother was a month after the event. And half a year later, I slapped my girlfriend for the first time.’ From week to week, he started to understand that there was his life before the event and his life after the event. He was recognized by the Defense Ministry as suffering from combat stress reaction. The State of Israel provides a rehabilitation package to more than 4,000 people in that category [4,649, according to data presented by the ministry to the Knesset in July 2017]. But there are tens of thousands of others who have never been recognized as such.”

Ashman is very concerned that his remarks will be taken as a political statement and not – as he intends – as a therapeutic one. “When people want to silence those who talk about soldiers’ post-traumatic reaction to the battlefield, they label them leftists. But I’m ready to state under oath that something is already happening to most of the snipers who shot people along the Gaza border in the past three months. Initially, the ‘combat heritage’ protects them. But then it starts to show up in nightmares. Something happens to the appetite. Anyone who has killed or wounded someone will be on the spectrum of combat stress reaction. But we prefer to separate domestic violence from combat violence. There’s a reality here that Israeli society doesn’t want to acknowledge. One symptom of untreated combat stress reaction is outbursts of anger within the family. But it’s hard to talk about, because it’s considered a betrayal of Israeli patriotism.”

Israeli soldiers and Gaza protesters face off on the border, June 2018.Credit: \ Eliyahu Hershkovitz

The wars in our part of the world also reflect patterns of domestic violence, Ashman maintains: “Most cases of anger are the result of helplessness that can’t be expressed. Most of the recent wars in this region broke out when leaders couldn’t bear their own helplessness and launched a rage attack straightaway. The cycles of violence in the region are like cycles of violence in the family. When there is less time between military operations, the intensity of violence rises and the elements of conscience disappear.”

So you would say we are actually a nation of battering men?

“We are a nation with a problem of emotional regulation. Masculinity here is changing from a situation of ‘colorless, stubborn and silent’ – the holy trinity of the old masculinity – into a vulnerable, feeling masculinity that has a lexicon and knows how to help and be helped. We are in an intermediate phase. So I am very optimistic. But along the way it’s chaotic and we take a lot of hits.”

How effective is the therapy in your groups? Do the men cease to be violent?

“During the therapeutic process, there is a dramatic decline in domestic violence. But the question is whether they dare to try to apply what they’ve learned in the group with their partner. Without systemic treatment of both the woman and the man, it will be very difficult to change patterns of communication. One participant said, ‘Don’t try what Tamir teaches at home. I made the mistake of my life when I listened to you.’”

Ashman had suggested that patients speak to their partners in the first person, as this is very useful in reducing aggressiveness in a relationship. But the person who tried it wasn’t pleased. “He told me that he said to his wife, ‘I’ve been walking around the house for a week with the feeling that I’m air, that I’m transparent, I feel rejected by you lately. And then my wife said, ‘That’s what Tamir teaches you in the group? Then he’s turned you into a nerd.’ Because women, too, have become accustomed to a certain type of masculinity.”

It’s like telling the boy not to cry.

“Right. If women understood the male revolution that is occurring before our eyes, they too would adjust themselves to multidimensional masculinity. The man who knows how to express his feelings in words is a far more complex man. He will want to be involved at home, in the educational sphere. When I ask my patients what the significance is of the father within the family, many are unable to say. The patriarchal culture has eroded the role of the father. Today, men are waking up and want to be meaningful. They want to be different fathers from the fathers they had.”

Is that also true for men in traditionalist, religious societies?

“The gender dialogue is trickling down into all the communities in Israel. Workshops about new sexuality and about a new dialogue in relationships are flourishing in traditionalist communities. We have a training program for men to create forums for empathetic dialogue for men in the community – 20 percent of the students are religious. The situation among men in Israel is awful: There are 18,000 men in prison, as compared with 167 female prisoners. Four times as many boys as girls receive Ritalin. About 80 percent of the people addicted to hard drugs in Israel [according to official figures from 2011] are men. Boys have far more problems with emotional regulation. Israeli society prefers to call ‘attention deficit.’ A boy who learns from the age of 3 to repress his emotional world and not to talk about it and not be dependent on the world of adults, is a ticking bomb of emotional regulation.”

Ashman encounters “bombs” that have already exploded in the prisons, where he brings his show to men serving life sentences, men who have committed rape and murder, sometimes murder of partners or other women in the family. “The places with the biggest concentrations of men in need of therapy are the Israel Prisons Service and the Defense Ministry,” he says.

After their “Song of Men” performance at jails, Goland and Ashman hold a dialogue with the prisoners, which they describe as very emotional encounters, particularly for the inmates. “Ami Popper [who murdered seven Palestinians at a bus stop in Rishon Letzion in 1990], who claimed in court that he had been raped as a boy, told us, ‘If I had met you when I was 9, I wouldn’t be here today.’ Those are stories that constantly repeat themselves. The question is whether we, as a society, are ready to recognize the connection between the phenomena.”