The seven men sat at the front of the room. At first glance they looked like a panel of experts, ready to talk about investments or lawn care. Except that they tended to fidget, and when they spoke, their mouths were dry.
It's hard not to feel anxious when you're the focus of the evening and the evening is called "Naked Men." Even if you're wearing clothes."Of course the `naked' has to do with the honesty we expect them to use to answer your questions," Salt Lake therapist Steve Paul told the 25 women who gathered at the Golden Braid bookstore.
The women had each paid $12 for the chance to see six men bare their souls.
Paul runs a men's therapy group. From the group's ranks he enlisted men willing to answer questions posed by a room full of women. The unspoken assumption was that these would not be questions about carburetors.
The idea was that men who had been through therapy, who were used to talking, not just about themselves but about their feelings, would be willing to unbutton their egos and talk candidly to women and reporters. As it turned out, there was even a TV camera.
The men confessed later that they had expected some antagonism from the women. But it wasn't like that at all. The women were very polite. And the questions for the most part tended to be less interrogations than validations: Not "Why aren't men faithful?" but "What skills are you learning from this nurturing pool of men?"
I suspect that most, maybe all, of the women were single, and that they thought $12 was a small price to pay for the right to ask questions. In other situations, like maybe at home after a date, certain questions might sound too confrontational or too whiny.
The six men and their therapist ranged in age from 26 to 53. One was a lawyer. One hung wallpaper for a living. Two had never been married. One had custody of an 11-year-old daughter. One had seven grandchildren.
They looked like a cross-section of Utah men. Except, of course, for one telling difference: At some point all of them had decided to join a group in which men meet weekly to talk about their feelings. And sometimes even cry.
But they didn't always know how to be so open, they said. Wendell learned from his dad that a man could spend eight hours with his son out in the fields and not talk about anything more revealing than baling wire. Rod used to think of himself as a John Wayne kind of guy.
But being in the men's group, all six men agreed, has made them less "numb." They feel more emotions than just anger; they take more responsibility for relationships; they have fewer "non-consequential" conversations now. As Wendell said, they speak more from the heart.
The two most intriguing questions of the evening came near the end.
"As women, what do we need to learn to be more intimate with you?"
"You need to learn the same things we need to learn," said Rod. "You need to learn about your feelings, so you have something to share. You can share yourself with me only to the extent that you know yourself."
"If you want to encourage us to be intimate," said therapist Steve Paul, "then the intimacy I encourage from you is to take more time to listen. . . . Our words often come more slowly as we search for the feelings we have."
"What is it in women that you fear?" another woman asked.
"Being judged in terms of what her father was," said Ron.
"Not being good enough," said Rod. "Being in a relationship brings out all those feelings of inadequacy. I'm afraid that she'll find out I'm not what she thinks I am, especially when I'm not sure who I am."
Daniel asked that the TV camera be turned off before he answered. Women in the audience leaned forward, eager to hear Daniel's secret fear.
"Rejection," he said.
And then, unfortunately, it was time to go, before we got to more practical questions: How does a woman meet someone new? Do men always like to be the pursuer? What do men mean when they say that a woman seems "desperate?" Do younger men like to date older women? When is it appropriate to talk about relationship issues without forcing things?
The men looked relieved when it was over. And the women seemed satisfied that they had learned, if not everything they always wanted to know, at least something. At least, maybe, that underneath it all men and women share a common bond of fear and need. As one woman summed it up:
"I always believed in my heart of hearts that men and women are exactly the same. And you all have confirmed that."