Schmidt, who was in denial at the time, later realized the answer to his daughter’s question: “Because I let myself die inside.”And so he clicked the link in Keuilian’s email. It brought him to a sales page for a program in Chino Hills, California called the Modern Day Knight Project. On the site, a sizzle reel plays, with Bedros Keuilian, who has a double-barrel shotgun for a chest and a face that folds and scrunches like a bulldog’s, speaking in front of a classroom. “The Project is a 75-hour experience that’s for men just like you, who know that you’re meant for more,” Keuilian starts. The Project is a grueling healing process, he continues. “It’s like administering chemotherapy to a cancerous area of the body.”As Keuilian talks, B-roll plays that resembles a Marines recruitment ad directed by Michael Bay. Men wrestle one another in chokeholds, men link arms in the ocean while waves crash overhead, men howl banshee screams as they exit body bags. They look tough, rugged, like badasses. The same uniform adorns each man: black gym shorts and a white T-shirt bearing their last name on the front and “The Project” on the back.When Schmidt saw that sizzle reel, he loved it. He needed it, recognizing some of the hardcore drills from his Navy training days. “Believe it or not, I actually really enjoy that stuff,” Schmidt tells me. “Yeah, I love suffering.”
“I love to suffer, because that’s the only way you’re going to grow.”
“You’re not allowed to be a man anymore, you’re almost a racist if you’re a man these days. It’s crazy.”
The Modern Day Knight Project, which opened in 2019, is among a growing number of new men’s bootcamps and weekend retreats that promise a man an opportunity to dig deep, uncover his trauma, and recapture his primal essence that has been lost in our industrialized, materialistic society. (Out of convenience, I’ve taken to calling these programs “man camps.”) The Project’s closest analogue is the $10,000 Wake Up, Warrior program and its signature Warrior Week, run by entrepreneur and success coach Garrett White in Laguna Beach, California.
“The logic behind it is, you gotta really beat down a man before he'll tell you the truth and when they're in a really sedated state.”
In one evolution called The Dash—which refers to the dash between the birth and death dates on your tombstone—men are given a shovel and instructed to dig their own shallow grave. Then they enter a body bag, zip it up, and lay in their fresh grave, as instructors spread a layer of dirt on top of them. While underground, each man is tasked with burying their Inner Bitch so their Inner Beast may rise again. Afterwards, men write a eulogy—not for their life as it is now, but the life they envision for themselves with their Inner Beast awakened. “You do have to bury your Inner Bitch sometimes, right?” says Project graduate Ryan Dean, a Marine veteran and entrepreneur, and one of several interviewees I spoke with who was attracted to the concept. “Maybe not the most choice of words in some cases, but I like it.”Keith Schmidt adds that you never really kill that voice in your head. “There’s always a spawn of the Inner Bitch,” he says, chuckling, a note of melancholy in his laugh.
“You do have to bury your Inner Bitch sometimes, right? Maybe not the most choice of words in some cases, but I like it.”
Men account for 79 percent of all suicides in America.
“Built into the male role is the danger of not being good enough to be accepted and respected and even the danger of not being able to do well enough to create offspring,” Baumeister said in a 2007 speech (echoing Deol’s fears). “The basic social insecurity of manhood is stressful for the men, and it is hardly surprising that so many men crack up or do evil or heroic things or die younger than women. But that insecurity is useful and productive for the culture, the system.”Suicide rates have steadily risen among men since 2000, according to the National Institute of Mental Health, and was the seventh leading cause of death among all males in 2011. Men account for 79 percent of all suicides in America and the highest suicide rate, in fact, is among old, white men.One root cause may be the underdiagnosis of depression in men. Although women are consistently diagnosed for depression twice as often as men, recent studies suggest depression is often “masked” in men as their depression symptoms do not fit traditional clinical definitions of the disorder, like crying or loss of interest in life and pleasure.To better detect depression among individuals adhering to masculine identities, psychologists have developed alternative models like the Gotland Male Depression Scale. These new models prioritize externalized symptoms over internalized ones, such as explosive anger at minor annoyances; numbing their pain through substance abuse, workaholism, and womanizing; self-destructive and power-seeking behaviors; impoverished friendships; and a general “I can do it myself” syndrome. When including these alternative scales alongside traditional ones for depression, men and women met criteria for depression in about equal proportions, a 2013 JAMA Psychiatry study found. It is curious, however, that these symptoms of male depression are some of the same behaviors we associate with “manning up.”
Young men living in individualistic cultures were those most vulnerable to loneliness.
As advised, I puckered my lips like I was about to suck a straw, then inhaled through the belly, inhaled through the chest, then exhaled all at once, my torso resembling a balloon inflating and deflating over and over again. Eventually, my breath assumed control and my hands curled into crab claws. My limbs numbed. I attempted to uncurl my hands, which felt like stone fists that did not belong to me, but my fingers barely budged. I could not stop my breath if I tried (and I tried, brother!). My body became like a runaway train, my breath its conductor, and somewhere in the caboose my consciousness rested as passenger. It was kind of nice to take a break from myself. Men howled and screamed and yipped animal-like sounds around me. “I didn’t deserve it!” one man yelled out of nowhere. A few seconds passed and another man shouted back, “But I do deserve this!”Afterwards, Smiles invited us to share what “came up” for us. One man detailed kissing a woman who was not his wife on a business trip. He never went further with this woman and never told anyone about it, but privately he harbored fantasies about what could have been. “I was putting her on a pedestal,” he said, “and not my wife, who I should’ve been treating like my queen.” A particularly beefy and bulky fellow praised the sanctity of this space, where he didn’t feel the weight of being a father, husband, and leader at work—where, for once, he could just show up as his raw, authentic self without fear of judgment, responsibility, or competition. One long-limbed man openly sobbed, unable to catch his breath. “Guys,” this man said through trembling gasps, “we’re raping our planet. We’re raping our women.” Tears fell from his eyes. “We can’t keep doing this.” Afterwards, the men by his sides embraced him.
“I know I can call these guys at any time of the day, any time of the night and say, ‘Hey I need you,’ and they’ll be there with no fucking questions.”
Today, a 2019 YouGov poll found, almost one in five UK men say they have no one they consider a close friend, and, according to a 2006 analysis published in the American Sociological Review, white heterosexual men have the fewest friends in America. One explanation comes from University of Maryland professor and relationship expert Geoffrey Greif. Men tend to develop “shoulder-to-shoulder” friendships (doing stuff together) while women have “face-to-face” friendships (sharing emotions and experiences), he writes in Buddy System: Understanding Male Friendships. Evolutionary psychologist Robin Dunbar also notes that men most deeply bond during periods of intense and scheduled engagement like school, sports, and military service, but fail to maintain those relationships as distance and time apart grows. In this way, there are downsides to living in modern America, where we are told we all can ascend upwards in society based on working hard and developing skills. Wherever you find yourself on the socioeconomic scale is your own doing. Making lots of money? Good job, you deserve it. Poor and destitute? Probably laziness. Traditional masculinity exacerbates that rhetoric: It’s your own fault and you ain’t even a man, either. So why spend time with male friends doing things “shoulder to shoulder” when that time could be used to level up your life? Or do you lack the discipline to do so, man? That notion reminded me how all The Project graduates I interviewed kept repeating that outsiders did not understand their bonds, how for each of them, “me” had turned into “us,” describing it with an opaque intensity similar to combat veterans talking about their squadmates. “I know I can call these guys at any time of the day, any time of the night and say, ‘Hey I need you,’ and they’ll be there with no fucking questions,” Schmidt told me. Man camp, especially one like The Project, kept feeling like a bait and switch, a modern contraption to satisfy pre-modern longings. Once upon a time, if someone from your town, family or tribe succeeded, you were all considered successful. This had obvious drawbacks, but it did promote the idea you alone were not responsible for your standing in society. Now, through man camps, men are sold individual glory and delivered a brotherhood into which they belong. Is that all any of them really wanted?
Through man camps, men are sold individual glory and delivered a brotherhood into which they belong. Is that all any of them really wanted?
Suddenly, I understood what Keith Schmidt and all the other Project graduates kept telling me about brotherhood. “True masculinity is showing love, showing compassion, showing all these things that are traditionally not spoken of as masculinity,” Schmidt told me. “And I think that scares some people.” Whenever we worked out, I’d always catch other park visitors watching us. In brief moments, I saw how we looked from their perspective. We looked weird. We looked New-Agey cultish. We looked like boys who wanted to be men that wished we were still boys. We looked toxic, screaming so loud our vocal cords almost snapped, taking up as much space as possible. We looked like every male cliché and stereotype that serves as too many punchlines. But as imperfect as the Mpowered Brotherhood was, I never felt bad or wrong being there. I was just happy to be one of the guys. Brendan Bures is a freelance writer in Austin, Texas.
“True masculinity is showing love, showing compassion, showing all these things that are traditionally not spoken of as masculinity. And I think that scares some people.”