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The Good Men Project’s Thomas Matlack: ‘The issue is like feminism on its head’

Tom Matlack went from venture capitalist to philanthropic entrepreneur, giving talks to men looking for role models – guidance on a road less travelled

Thu, Oct 24, 2013, 11:52


In the autumn of 1996, Thomas Matlack found himself in the car park of his church, on the phone to his mother, having been thrown out of the home he shared with his wife and children. “I realised I had absolutely no idea what it meant to be a good father, a good husband, a good man,” he says. Yet, a week previously, his success story was on the front page of the Wall Street Journal – that of the 29-year-old chief financial officer of the Providence Journal, sold for $2 billion. It was, simultaneously, a story of success and a story of abject failure.

Out of the ashes of this personal collapse came a project between Matlack and his business partner James Houghton, the Good Men Project ( “I had been a venture capitalist for the last decade until about the time the financial markets were falling apart. We just began to feel as if we were searching for meaning in our lives. We began to get phone calls from friends, investment bankers on Wall Street, asking us, ‘did we miss the boat?’ In terms of focusing so exclusively on money . . . Should we have been spending more time with our families and thinking of life differently?”

It’s a question that hundreds, perhaps thousands of people have been asking themselves in the years since the financial bubble burst – since achievement began to shift, slowly and imperceptibly, from being seen in terms of finances to how one deals with one’s life, with knowing that a life lived well will no longer be manifested in a hefty bank balance and a holiday home abroad.

In terms of his position, Matlack displays a stark awareness of how it might be viewed as a fortunate one; he is not coming from a place of self pity or desolation. “My partner James and I are a couple of 40-something white guys in finance who are feeling pain – what about the guys fighting in Iraq or locked up in [New York maximum security prison] Sing Sing? What about the guys getting laid off in the GM plants in Detroit, how are they dealing with their masculinity?” He pauses, takes a breath. “Because we had it pretty good.”

The Good Men Project started life as a series of talks, an anthology of stories and a movie. There was no one specific topic; these were stories of men from all walks of life who were, says Matlack, trying to live well. These were men trying to live good lives, a definition for which, he admits, is not easy to come by.

“I always say, goodness is a relative term. It’s self-defined. I can’t tell you how to be good . . . I’m certainly far from perfect, but for me one of the necessary prerequisites of any definition of goodness is honesty.”

Matlack isn’t talking about telling your wife how much you spent at the supermarket or how much of your day you’ve spent on your fantasy football league. In his book, honesty has to do with identity, with how men think of themselves and their roles in society and family life.

“That’s where men get in a lot of trouble,” he says. “We compartmentalise, we define success in a very superficial way and we end up like Arnold Schwarzenegger or Tiger Woods.

“We’ve just tried to gather stories where men are being authentic and telling their deepest, rawest truth – and out of that comes their own definition of goodness. It could be Michael Kamber, probably one of the most decorated war photographers for the New York Times, who has risked his life again and again to bring pictures of war to the world . . . for him, the most important thing you can do as a man is to show what the human effect of war is.”

Kamber’s truth is quite a professional one; it may not be tied into the spoils of finance or the gains of hedge fund accountancy, but his definition of manliness is inherently connected to his career. What about Matlack?

“When I talk, I say, you’ve got to figure this out for yourself. You’ve got to figure out how you want to be a father, a husband, a son, a worker, whatever you want to do in your life. For me, it’s about loving my wife passionately, being a good father to my children and trying to do something for someone other than myself. And always telling the truth.”

Matlack talks of a shift in definitions of manliness, something that has been mooted by gender researchers, psychiatrists, psychologists, doctors and theologians for decades. But where is this change coming from? Is it a remnant of the end of an era of conflict? Is it to do with the changing roles of women in society? Does Matlack blame feminism, as per the John Waters school of thought?

“We talk a lot about [where the change is coming from] and I always say, I grew up in what was essentially a commune. My mother felt no need to wear a shirt in the house. Even as recently as last summer – she’s 73 now – a buddy came over to my summer house looking for me and wandered into the back yard where my 73-year-old mother was getting out of the shower and walking around nude. So she’s a feminist of the old school variety. I would call myself a feminist, too, although I think feminism at this point is kind of like God – it has so many different connotations that you can’t define it any more.”

However he chooses to define it, does Matlack see feminism as a malevolent or benevolent force in his struggle for masculine truth and empowerment?

“Feminism was really about empowering women and allowing them to get out of the house and be equals in the workplace and in society at large – and that’s all to the good. The issue is almost like feminism on its head. Men want to get home; they want to be fathers, they want to be husbands and, at the same time, they’re asked to be the breadwinner, the old stereotype of what men should be and that’s very confusing.”

Matlack cites an article written by Hannah Rosen, “The End of Men”, published in the Atlantic, a US-based news magazine, which detailed how masculinity itself was suffering as a result of women entering the workforce and attending college – how the era of men, as she called it, was over.

“Can you imagine if a man wrote an article saying, ‘the end of women’, and cited a bunch of statistics about how women are in transition from their traditional roles to other roles, and saying how in trouble they are?” He sounds exasperated and astounded – and frustrated.

“Men are redefining themselves in much more nuanced and complex ways . . . We’re trying to say, look, you can’t paint us all with the same brush. You can’t simplify it and say, all 20-year-old men are slackers. It’s not productive. The mission of the Good Men Project is to have a nationwide discussion about what it means to be a good husband, a good father, a good man . . . and women have as much at stake in that conversation as men do.”

But who can men look to as role models?

“We’re obsessed with this story, told again and again with a different face, about wildly successful men who behave badly,” says Matlack. “This is what we talk about, all day long, the guy who’s cheating on his wife or doing cocaine and so, clearly, that’s a symptom of the problem. We’re not talking about men who are trying to live an authentic life – and we just kind of bash these guys.

“So we’ve gone out and found men who we think, at some level, are role models. They are role models who aren’t perfect, who have lived imperfect lives, who have failed and come back from failure to do extraordinary things. We’ve got to get away from pop culture obsessions with celebrity men behaving badly and start focusing more on real men struggling with how to be good.”

It’s not just grown men who struggle with the concept; there are inroads to be made in terms of addressing the issues with young boys, children whose gender identities are not yet formed.

“Boys are dying to figure it out,” says Matlack. “I was recently talking in a school with 400 boys and you could hear a pin drop. They’re going, wow, you’re really talking to us about this, what it means to be a man, what it means to fail, to be assaulted by pornography every minute of every day . . .”

There is a charitable foundation associated with the Good Men Project that focuses on working with boys around the US. “In this country, the number of children growing up without fathers is staggering. If we start talking about how that translates into a lack of education . . . ultimately, in the US, we have 2.3 million men in prison, of whom more than one million are African American, it’s an awful problem we think is part of this whole issue.”

Doesn’t that rhetoric – of the tormented young boy without a male role model, forced into crime or down the “wrong” path – inherently lay the blame, once again, at the feet of the mothers?

“For single mothers, it’s a matter of finding positive role models and examples of what manhood is really about,” he says. “Examples that aren’t superficial, that are nuanced and real. We really preach that goodness isn’t two-dimensional. It requires living your life and making mistakes. The essential question is, what happens then?”

Matlack comes back to the parking-lot phone call. “It’s that point where you realise you’ve been off track,” he says. “Like that conversation I had with my mom, when I realised I was chasing the wrong god and I had completely lost track of what was important to me.”

There is a concession by Matlack that speaking in emotional terms to a male audience is not as easy as it might be for a female audience; that, though the subject-matter may be the same, the conversation is couched in a different terms.

“If we talk about certain topics, guys tend to shut off. So we try to tell stories about men that will attract a wider audience. The moral of the story might be the same in terms of what it’s trying to get at, but it’s in the context of [NFL football player] Andre Tippet, or Michael Kamber talking about war. These are pretty tough hombrés telling macho guy stories you might hear in a locker room, but through that our goal is in trying to spark a deeper conversation.”

Matlack talks fluidly and intelligently about issues that are complex and multi-faceted and difficult to explain and explore and, though he brings up several hurdles to this enlightenment goal the Good Men Project is working towards, he is, essentially, optimistic.

“The recession, in a way, was a catalyst for us. It has all shaken the system, in a good way – it causes us to think about what’s important. Many men can’t fulfil the stereotypical role any more, so they’ve got to figure something else out.”

The stereotypical man of Matlack’s ideology is a character not unlike Mad Men’s Don Draper, a character leading a difficult life, earning the crust but having no large part in family life. “It’s the role taken by our fathers,” he says, sadly. “To be the breadwinner, to work all the time, to be relatively absent fathers, to be husbands who are not particularly sensitive to their wives, to go through life with a stiff upper lip and make the money and think about a relatively narrow set of issues.” It’s not an attractive picture.

“But as a 46-year-old father and husband, the opportunities and richness of my life as a male . . . there is so much more available to me than was available to my father, which is awesome,” he says. “It’s not the end of man; it’s the rebirth of man.”

This article was written more than a year ago, and pitched to several publications which, for various reasons, rejected it. It may not seem like a perfect Fash Mob fit, but it’s an important subject that should be seen as such by all of us, fashion lovers or not.