Tom Matlack ’86, a former rower on a Wesleyan championship team who looks the part with a tall and muscular build, came to campus in the fall on a publicity tour for a project that poses the question: What does it mean to be a good man?
Wesleyan, where Matlack presented a WESeminar during Homecoming & Family Weekend, was the second stop on a tour that nabbed a slew of press coverage ranging from the Boston Globe to Huffington Post to Fox & Friends. The first stop was Boston, where the premiere of the documentary film that is part of the project drew 500 people, a turnout that suggests he may be onto something.
In addition to a film, The Good Men Project consists of a book of essays, a website and blog, and a series of presentations—all devoted to men discussing those points in their lives when the question about how to be a good man came into critical focus. With two wars underway and an economy that has cost millions of men their jobs, issues surrounding men in their roles as husbands and fathers have become particularly charged, Matlack contends.
Most of the men he met, Matlack says in his blog, “were regular guys with more ordinary problems: a husband whose wife has terminal cancer and all he wants for her is decent death at home with their five children, an Indian architect struggling with the fact that his marriage isn’t working but in his culture divorce is not an option, a father who tries to protect his son who has been beat up by a neighborhood bully.”
Men, of course, are famously reluctant to engage in Oprah–style revelations of their feelings, particularly when those feelings emanate from their most intimate relationships. Matlack says he started thinking about this inhibition while he was writing a profile of Matt Weiner ’87, creator of Mad Men, just after the first season of the show. The show’s character, Don Draper, has lived a life of deceit and, as a result, is most telling by what he is unable to say. Matlack’s objective is to overcome the Don Draper in every man by fomenting honest discussion.
Weiner participated in a panel discussion about the project in Los Angeles, the final stop of the tour. Speaking to a group who had just seen the film, Weiner said, “Communication between men is very, very structured. I don’t know what’s good or bad about it, but it took me having $3 million an episode to express anything I feel about my father.”
Honesty begins with a look in the mirror, and Matlack is candid about his own troubled past. In the book he describes his high–octane career as a newspaper company executive and then as a venture capitalist, punctuated by a page–one story about him in the Wall Street Journal. Meanwhile, his personal life, fueled by alcohol, was headed straight downhill. His descent included a close brush with death on the Mass Pike, upside down in his girlfriend’s baby blue Ford Escort after he had fallen asleep at the wheel. Later, he experienced a remorseful epiphany about his absence in the lives of his two baby children, who were living with his ex–wife. As it turned out, he’d had his last drink, but the path to becoming a good father was more difficult than the one to sobriety—a fact he can only see clearly now that more than a decade has passed, he is happily remarried and has devoted himself to his three kids who are now 15,13, and 4.
The Good Men Project is not prescriptive. Generalities are meaningless, says Matlack. It’s up to each and every man to discover what it means to be a good man. As a participant in one of the project’s discussions observed, a large part of being a good man is simply asking the question: What does it mean to be a good man?
“Men remain the hardest audience to reach because many cling to the idea that no matter how bad the dilemma, silence is the right response,” Matlack says. “But the most common reaction is men saying that they are thrilled to know they are not alone.”
Matlack recently took his project to a place that would seem to be an unlikely hunting ground for good men—Sing Sing prison in New York. He was motivated by Julio Medina, whose story appears in the book. Medina is a former drug lord turned leader in helping inmates survive on the outside and stay out of prison.
“If anyone has proven that men who have done awful, criminal things can redeem themselves,” says Matlack, “Julio has proven that. I also wanted to make clear that no one is excluded from the conversation about manhood—black, white, gay, straight, rich, poor, not even inmates. What I found so moving about the men I met in Sing Sing was their determination to face their faults directly and think deeply about how to improve themselves despite the limitations of incarceration. How do you become a good father or good husband when you are locked up? That’s what they were talking about.”
Matlack wants men to know that they are not as alone as they might think. The good men stories are intended to tell men that others struggle with the same issues that weigh them down, especially since so many men are facing joblessness, the hardships of war, or simply the demands of family life.
“The way out of the box isn’t silence,” he insists. “Don Draper is a cautionary tale to all of us. The answer is to speak the truth of our experience, not shy away from it. Our book and film are an attempt to break the ice.”