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Stealing The Key
Copyright © 2002 by Dr. H. Paul Shuch

So, when did you steal the key?

American poet and philosopher Robert Bly (at right, seen lecturing at a Men's Gathering) is one of the patriarchs of the modern Men's Movement. He uses mythology, guided imagery, legend, and verse to help men around the world confront their shadow, explore their fears, and deal with their personal issues around the role of masculinity in a post-feminist society.

It was Bly who taught me about stealing the key.

Robert Bly -- click for full-sized image

In one of his better known works, Iron John, a Book About Men, Robert Bly retells the Grimm fairy tale "Iron Hans," using it as a metaphor for contemporary men's issues. The tale centers on the coming-of-age of the fair-haired prince, truly a Golden Boy (whom Bly says represents the pure and unsullied youth within each of us). In one poignant passage, the boy seeks to free the Wild Man, who is kept caged in the palace courtyard (in Bly's interpretation, this symbolizes the need for everyman to free the wild man locked within himself). To do so, he must first steal the key to the cage, hidden years ago for safe-keeping by the Queen herself (who supposedly symbolizes each man's mother).

This conflict between mother and son is interesting in and of itself, because the Men's Movement tends to focus on our unresolved issues with our often absent or distant fathers. Mother issues don't get much play in men's workshops, so Stealing the Key stands out as a unique activity. But I digress.

After a prolonged search (perhaps one's personal strugle between the conflicting aspects of the psyche?), the boy finally finds the key, and frees the beast.

And where does he find the key? "Under his mother's pillow," as Bly tells it, "just where Freud said it woud be."

In Men's Gatherings, this part of the Iron John story often serves as a jumping-off point for workshops about Stealing the Key -- claiming our birthright or our manhood; declaring our independence from our parents. In every man's life, there comes a moment when he has to steal the key, or remain a boy forever. Some of us do so as rebellious teenagers, some when we go off to college or to war, some when raising families of our own -- and some only when confronting the death of a parent, a loved one, or a dream. (I've long suspected that Nice Jewish Boys take longer than anyone else to reach this point. But again I digress.) Stealing the key is a pivotal moment in every man's life. And many of us live out our days without even realizing we've done so.

"So when, and how," Bly asks, especially of the older men participating in his workshops, "did you steal the key?"

I had read Iron John, seen Bly on TV, listened to his tapes -- and yet, it wasn't until the question was posed to me by Bly himself that I gave the matter much thought. And contemplating that question led me to an epiphany.

I realized I had stolen the key the moment I married Muriel, wholly against my mother's urging. Muriel isn't my first wife, or even my second. She is not the love of my youth nor the mother of my children, but rather my inevitable midlife crisis. We met when I was 44, and married after I had turned 50.

My mother, then a spry 75, was totally opposed. She had never liked Muriel, and made no bones about it. She was still practicing up for matriarchy, a role she was to assume the following year, when her own mother (who had long ruled our clan with an iron hand) died at 97. But her years as a Jewish Mother had taught Mom how to be outspoken, and me how to repress my feelings.

"You're making a terrible mistake," my mother insisted. "And I have to try to save you from it, just as surely as I'd try to save you if you were standing in front of a speeding truck."

At that moment, perhaps for the first time in my life, I spoke to my mother from the heart, without thinking first. "You're absolutely right," I replied. "I am making a terrible mistake. You know what else? I am fifty years old. Don't you think it's time I started making my own mistakes for a change?"

For the first time in her life, my mother had nothing to say in response. That was the very moment, Bly later helped me to recognize, that I finally stole the key.

My mom is still a Jewish Mother, and more outspoken than ever. Muriel, the love of my autumn years, is my beloved speeding truck. And, for the first time since I was thirteen, today I am a man.

So, when did you steal the key? Send me your story in an email to drseti @, and with your permission, I'll add it to a collection of men's experiences, to be posted here.

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this page last updated 14 June 2007
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