TOs both his marriage and business were failing, John Hammer felt like his life had turned upside down.
An architect who lives in Northport, Hammer, 71, said he felt betrayed, abandoned, hurt and out of control three years ago. In the middle of his crises, Hammer sought counseling with F. Towne Allen, a psychotherapist based in Centerport.
“I’m a seeker,” said Hammer, who 18 months ago joined The Lighthouse Men, a personal development group so named for its mission as a beacon that Allen has run for 20 years.
“I have a passion to grow every day,” said Hammer, whose spiritual quest three decades ago led him to meditation, self-help and journaling. “To be able to show up and share your life in deeper ways and be vulnerable among men is very comforting and reassuring.”
The men’s group, one of five Allen has started over the years, was a natural progression from one-on-one therapy for some of his and other therapists’ clients.
Allen says he was profoundly influenced in 1975 by “Men’s Lives: The Oppressor’s Oppression,” a 1974 short documentary about growing up male in America that explored how men may become aggressive because of how traditional society prizes competitive behavior. Believing that he could benefit from gathering to talk with other men, in 1975 he joined the nascent Huntington’s Men’s Group, a peer-led gathering that alternated hosting duties among members’ homes.
“When I got in my 20s, I found that men were either too busy or too competitive,” Allen said. In contrast, the Huntington group, which he stayed with for 24 years, invited members to talk about their feelings and engage in various emotional exercises. For example, if someone shared that he always felt like was an outsider, they’d form a tight circle.
“So, the guy would come rushing in, try to climb in, break through, climb over the top – whatever – to get inside,” said Allen. “In the end they fight their way in. It’s literally a breakthrough. ”
Allen had worked as a chiropractor for 13 years before going back to school to get a master’s degree in social work in 1984 and studying a variety of therapeutic disciplines, including Gestalt and hypnosis.
Inspired by the personal growth he got from the Huntington group, Allen decided to start his own men’s groups, with the idea that he’d run each one for nine months, then let it carry on by itself. He learned, however, that each group functions a bit differently. Some might need more support and would call him back to lead for a while before going out again on their own.
Over the years, he’s led groups centered on recovery from addiction; professionals, like doctors and lawyers; and Journey Men, so named because most of its members commuted at least an hour each way to attend. That group, which he ran for 18 years, is still going strong, with members spending leisure time together, including a yearly trip to Costa Rica.
“They’re like brothers,” Allen said of the groups.
Distinguishing these men’s groups from psychotherapy, Allen explained, “These are healthy men who are usually sensitive men. They want to go beyond, ‘How’ bout those Mets! ‘ They want something more deep and personal. ”
Trusting one another usually doesn’t come easily or naturally, Allen observes, but over time, the men build strong and lasting bonds.
“Sooner or later people start to talk about their most intimate stuff, including stuff they’re ashamed of,” Allen said. “And then they realize that other people have done the same things, or they’re very accepting. And then you feel very loved and accepted. ”
Each week, The Lighthouse Men meet for a three-hour session, but since the COVID-19 pandemic, the group has met virtually.
“You get past just complaining about your wife or your boss or whatever,” Allen said of the intensive sessions, adding that participants begin to accept responsibility for their own feelings and not feel victimized by others.
For each group, he incorporates meditation and tenets of psychology, aiming to find men with similar levels of emotional development and interests and a comparable desire to grow and challenge themselves.
“I try to teach as much psychology, as much group dynamics, as possible, so that these guys can use it out in the world and use it at work, or use it with their families or wherever it’s useful,” Allen said.
Leading and teaching
The 10 members of The Lighthouse Men decide each year whether to rehire Allen or go out on their own.
“Nobody seems to want to lead the group, so they’re very happy to have me there to do that,” Allen said. “And my job is to go out in the world and keep bringing things back to them.”
A few members of The Lighthouse Men shared how integral the group has been to their emotional growth and daily existence.
Starting as one of Allen’s clients, Doug DiMatteo has been a member since he took up Allen’s suggestion to sit in on the group 18 years ago.
“I was in a relationship and having difficulties and wanted to see if there was anything I could do to change the situation,” said DiMatteo, 72, of Centerport, a salesman for a food distributor.
The weekly sessions have helped him with his emotional growth, spirituality and daily living. When he finds himself reacting strongly to situations, DiMatteo said, he tries to figure out why, “so that I become more understanding of myself, more loving of myself, more compassionate towards others, more empathetic, more sympathetic and have just a general sense of well-being and peace. ”
The group is only effective if you’re willing to be open, vulnerable and truthful to yourself and the other guys, he said, adding that members have developed lasting friendships and regularly golf together, including a trip to Utah in 2019.
Still, some men have left the group when the emotional digging made them feel too vulnerable.
“If you really want to grow, you have to go there,” said DiMatteo, who has a 24-year-old son from his 19-year marriage and is open to having a relationship again. “You can’t just scratch the surface. It takes a certain amount of self-understanding and love to expose yourself and not feel threatened by others’ reactions. ”
After a few months of private therapy with Allen, Gary Vogel was still seeking guidance after his 15-year-marriage ended. He had become more open to personal exploration after attending another retreat in Manhattan. “I had a great curiosity about how I worked,” Vogel said, that prompted him to join The Lighthouse Men a decade ago.
Self-improvement work is never done, but the work gets more subtle over time, said Vogel, 62, who runs a nursery and lives in Aquebogue. “Your core issues never go away, but through your work, you understand where they come from, why they’re there, what they’re doing, and you learn how to make peace with them so that they don’t rule your life and determine how you act and move through the world. ”
‘Helps me improve’
Another Lighthouse member, Glenn Davidson, joined the group 19 years ago after being referred to Allen by his pastor when his wife was dying of cancer.
Davidson, 64, of East Northport, who works in information technology for Northwell Health, has examined his lifelong tendency toward shyness, gradually becoming more open.
“It just helps me improve the person that I am by helping me understand those things. And once I understand them, they basically lose power over me, ”Davidson explained, adding that understanding himself has helped him understand other people, leading him to listen rather than judge.
After his wife’s death in 2004, Davidson said he wouldn’t even consider dating anyone else. Today, he credits the group with helping him work through his guilt by him and other inhibiting feelings by him. He remarried six years ago.
How much longer Allen will lead The Lighthouse Men is an open question. The group has recently found itself peer-led more often, as Allen, 72, has started taking off a week each month.
Other times, he invites one of the guys to lead with him.
If Allen stopped leading the group, the members would likely continue without him and take turns leading it, Davidson said.
With his best friend getting ready to move away from Long Island, Allen, who has a girlfriend after his wife of 22 years died six years ago, said he may start a new group for himself, as he anticipates an acute need for male support and companionship.
“I’d probably lead it for a couple of months, but then I’d back off [as a leader]because I want somebody to take care of me every once in a while, too, ”Allen said.
‘Better than you thought you were’
Psychotherapist F. Towne Allen’s men’s groups set out to accomplish four things:
Work on personal development and self-improvement
Employ methodology such as meditation to gain greater spirituality
“We work on all those levels,” Allen said, noting the irony that many people avoid therapy or personal development because they’re afraid they’ll learn that they’re worse than they think they are. “Actually, the sad thing is that if you do the work, you end up knowing that you’re much better than you thought you were,” he said.
Men often encounter difficulties when they buy into the rigid expectations of what they think men are supposed to be: tough, in charge, never asking for help, said Professor Charles Robbins, who teaches a graduate course called “Men and Masculinities in the 21st Century ”At Stony Brook University and has concentrated his work through the years on gender and masculinity.
“All of the messages really are inconsistent with leading and living a happy, fulfilled life as a man today,” said Robbins. He believes groups such as Allen’s, in which men gather to discuss interpersonal issues and feel accepted by other men, can be effective, but only if they have an effective facilitator.