Our Interview with Bill Patrick on Feminism, Shame, Healing and being a Good Man

Since the publication of our anthology, Hollye and I have been asking a few good men to share their stories, experiences with us about Shame. We had the good fortune and pleasure of meeting Bill Patrick through Brooke Elise Axtell, one of the contributors in Dancing at The Shame Prom.

Bill is quite the guy: true blue, generous, kind, nurturing and a pro-feminist!
Here is our interview.

Tell us a little bit about your life path, and the work you’ve done with victims of abuse

I grew up in a violent household. My father could be the most amazingly kind and generous and loving man in the world, and he could also be the meanest. And you never knew quite which one you were going to face. Most of the abuse was verbal and emotional. But there were times it got pretty damn scary. I called the police on him once. They responded but didn’t intervene, other than to de-escalate the immediate situation. (This was in the days before “mandatory arrest” policies.)

Growing up in my house, feminism was actually a positive word. My mother, who is a strong woman, has always identified as a feminist. Despite this fact, she found herself being mistreated by my father. This just goes to show that even strong women — even feminist-identified women — can find themselves involved with men who treat them badly.

Seeing the way she was treated, and experiencing mistreatment myself, showed me that boys who grow up in violent households do not have to follow the path of the abuser. Instead, we can follow another path — the path of empathy for our mother, and that we can become allies in the struggle for women’s equality, rather than just another violent enforcer of male supremacy.

At 18 I got out of the house. I got therapy. I got away from it all. I went to college 3,000 miles from my hometown and I studied something totally unrelated to women, to men, and to men’s violence toward women. Men’s violence, I had decided, was something that was my past. It would not be part of my future. I had seen enough of it for one lifetime.

Of course that stance proved terribly naïve. Men’s violence is all around us, even if we are not the one doing it. In college I saw atrocious behaviors acted out by young men toward young women. I had a number of woman friends get raped by guys they trusted. There was a large fraternity scene on my campus, and the male frats were absolutely horrible in their treatment of women and gay men. For two years I tried not to get involved in this situation – choosing instead to cynically mock the frat boys and their terrible behavior. But I know all too well what it is like to be hurt by men’s violence. So although I had gotten out of my household alive and (relatively) intact, I increasingly felt like I could not walk away.

Soldiers talk about never abandoning their wounded buddies out on the battlefield. I felt the same way. How could I just ignore the fact that women on my campus were being abused and assaulted? You just can’t leave people out there in harm’s way – people who are being harmed. Rape was happening in my community. This was a fact that I could no longer ignore.

At that time I also read a book called I Never Called It Rape: The Ms. Report on Recognizing, Fighting, and Surviving Date and Acquaintance Rape by Robin Washaw. That book contains a powerful indictment of fraternities. At this time, too, several unbelievably misogynist newsletters written by one of the fraternities came to light. In the resulting outrage, I joined several other students in leading a movement to deal with this situation. We demanded that the all-male fraternities admit women or lose their special status on campus. (There were already several co-ed fraternities on that campus — and those organizations never caused any problems.)

After graduating from college, I began to work in the mental health field. A few years later I went to pursue my MSW. I was living in Portland, Oregon. At that time Portland Women’s Crisis Line had an intense training and education program for men who were interested in becoming allies to the feminist anti-violence struggle.

At the end of the first three-week training I attended (I went through several over the years), the men who had participated each shared how the training had impacted them. I remember saying to the feminist anti-violence advocates who had conducted the sessions:

“This is the first time in a long, long time that I feel truly sane. You speak the language that I understand. The world you describe is the world that I know. The world that I live in.”

I realized that within this feminist anti-violence social change organization, even though roles for men were quite limited, that I had found a home. (And I have continued to feel that way, although I currently live in Canada. A while back I was visiting my friends at our local sexual assault crisis centre. And I said, “When I come in here I feel sane!” Because in my experience it is only the feminist anti-violence organizations – and their perspective on life – that even begin to be able to accurately describe what is going on in our world around issues of violence and abuse, around issues of gender, around issues of race, around issues of oppression in general. The feminists are the only ones who are able to describe the world I live in.)

During the second year of my MSW program I was able to set up an internship with Portland Women’s Crisis Line. They had been wanting to offer a free, community-based healing group for male survivors of childhood sexual abuse. I became that group’s coordinator and co-facilitator. Although I was not a survivor of sexual abuse myself, I found that my own experiences of abuse and powerlessness were a good source of empathy and understanding for the group members’ experiences.

Ever since that time I have sought to integrate an analysis of social power relations into the counseling I do. I am often startled at how non-political therapy tries to be. As if our trials and tribulations somehow exist outside of our immediate social context! (They don’t.) At the same time, I am often frustrated by how many efforts at social change are totally uninformed by the knowledge we now have about how human beings function. As a society, we try to do therapy that is nonpolitical, and we try to do political activism that is not psychologically informed. In my ideal world, these things would connect. Deeply.

I worked for quite a while as a therapist in various settings, and then decided to return to grad school to do research on men’s violence. I had grown weary of doing front-line work with survivors of child abuse, child sexual abuse, sexual assault, and domestic violence. Actually, I never grew weary of this work. It is absolutely amazing to watch people heal from their victimization, from their trauma. The human spirit has an amazing capacity to endure and to recover from horrific harms. What I grew weary of — what weighed on me — was the fact that there was an almost-endless line of survivors of men’s violence patiently waiting outside the doors of the places I worked. People who were waiting for the care and the healing that would help them to feel whole again. But no matter how many people we helped, there were always so many more who needed our help.

I felt like the person in that story who gets tired of pulling children out of the river, and who finally decides to head upstream to see just who or what is throwing the children in the river in the first place! I did my Ph.D. research examining the relationship between men’s restricted emotional lives and their violence against women. My research question was this: is men’s tendency to load all of our emotional energy into rage and anger related to men’s abusive behavior in relationships?

The answer that I came up with was: it is, and it isn’t. (A finding that is perhaps satisfying only in the ivory tower of academia.)

These days I find myself back in a counseling role, attempting to do politically-informed therapy, and doing profeminist activism on the side.

My partner and I are raising a happy four year-old girl. Who happens to be a strong feminist.

How did you become a feminist?

My mother identified as a feminist. So that was a powerful experience for a young boy: to see a woman asserting that women are thoroughly equal to men, and that they deserve all of the opportunities that we give to men. And yet my father mistreated my mother. So that was a powerful lesson in just how powerful patriarchy really is. That even a strong woman can find herself being mistreated.

In retrospect, I can see that I grew up exposed both to my mother’s feminist ideology and to my father’s bad behavior as proof as to why we need feminism so much!

I’d like to include a word on the vocabulary I use, if I may. Over the years I have encountered some strong feminist women who resent the fact that there are men out there who refer to themselves as “feminists.” Feminism, this argument holds, is deeply and inextricably linked to the lived experience of being a woman in the world — an experience that I will never have. I understand that not everyone agrees with this stance. But what I have done, as have most of the men who are strong activists in this area have done, is to adopt the terms profeminist or feminist-allied to describe my work.

Can men be “feminists”? Or does one have to have lived as a woman in order to be a “feminist”? As someone who has lived all of my life as a man, I don’t think that I have enough information to be able to answer that question. All I know is that I love doing the work of gender justice. And I certainly don’t want to needlessly alienate some very strong feminist friends by ignoring their thoughts and feelings about men appropriating the word feminist.

After having read women’s stories in Dancing at the Shame Prom, do you think men process shame differently than women?

Yes. I think that in general women are more honest than men are in telling the stories of our lives. And I think honesty is critical in resolving shame. In my experience, women are more likely to admit failure, more likely to admit humiliation, more likely to admit to feeling like they are not good enough. And more likely then to seek help. So many of us men continue to hold onto a vision of ourselves as perennially capable, competent, and wise. But there are things in life that we cannot do. There are things that we don’t know. But I believe that in refusing to honestly acknowledge our weaknesses, we men have difficulty uncovering our true strengths.

As I write this, I realize that I am really talking about men like me. I am speaking here mainly about men who are white and heterosexual. In my personal and professional life, I have often found that men who are gay are quite a bit more honest than we straight guys are. I have also found that men of color are also often more honest than we white men are. (Some of the research on domestic violence supports my sense of this. There have been studies that show that African-American men were far more likely to admit their violence toward a partner than white men were.)

I am beginning to think a lot about the idea that maybe social power and personal honesty are inversely related. It seems that the more social power a person has, the less honest he or she is likely to be. Maybe this is because the social hierarchies that put men above women, white people above people of color, and straight people above people who are LGBT, are themselves all based on fictions. On lies. Maybe it’s tough to be honest with yourself when you are sitting at the top of something that is built on a foundation of lies.

We spend a lot of time talking about how good people have it when they are at the top. But maybe there is also a cost associated with being up there. Perhaps the price to pay is the loss of a sense of self. The loss of the ability to be honest and genuine. Because maybe on some level you know that occupying the penthouse is merely living on the top floor of a house of cards.

I think that honesty is critical in the resolution of shame, and I think that a lot of us white, straight men are a lot less good at being honest — even with ourselves.

How has shame played a role in your life?

One day, in a spectacular fit of rage, my father screamed at me: “You were a mistake! I never meant to have you anyway!” For a long time after that I carried a sense of needing to prove my worth in the world. I think that I was being driven by shame. By feeling unworthy. By feeling undeserving. Like I somehow had to pay rent for my place on the planet.

Through counseling and through other ways of exploring that issue, I have largely resolved it. However, living with that energy has had at least one long-term impact on me: I am highly conscious about how I spend my life energy. It seems to me that I have moved from a sort of compulsion to do good work (in order to earn my keep) to a desire to do good work simply as an end in itself. I no longer do good work as a way to pay to prove my worth — to make myself somehow a “better” person. I now do good work to make the world a better place.

As I think about this issue, it occurs to me that shame can perhaps bring gifts as well as pain. As with any trauma, the bad things that happen to us ultimately become a part of the fabric of our lives. And I think that the shame I carried actually propelled me to places I might not have gone had I not been driven by it. It led me to some accomplishments and awarenesses I might not have attained otherwise. I am not at all trying to minimize the harmfulness of a comment like the one that my father made. He was a total asshole to say something like that to a child. It was child abuse. Hearing that comment weakened me. But in the healing I became strong. I am reminded of the old Hemingway quote: “The world breaks everyone and afterward many are strong in the broken places.”

What is on your dream-agenda for the future?

I would like to write. To counsel. To educate. To do my part to help eliminate men’s violence and to empower women.

I would also like to get a small sail boat. To see my young daughter grow healthy and happy. To live to a ripe old age with my amazing wife.

How would you define feminist?

As a man, I feel like I get out onto pretty thin ice when I seek to define what feminist means. Since feminism means so many things to so many different people, for me to attempt to define it would almost certainly very quickly lead to me having a disagreement with a woman over its meaning. And as a man, I really do not feel it is my place to debate with women the meaning of feminism. After all, who am I to say that what any woman claims as feminist is somehow wrong or incomplete?

I am much more comfortable describing what I think profeminist means. And to me it means supporting women’s liberation. It means supporting things that enhance women’s choices in life, and opposing those things that limit women’s choices. It is not about making those choices for women, or even suggesting that women should make certain choices. It is, rather, working to ensure that empowering options are there if and when a woman wants to choose them.

To me, being profeminist is also about de-centering the male experience. About no longer considering male as “normal” and female as “other.” It is also about understanding that there are many, many different female experiences, and many, many different male experiences.

This de-centering of the male experience also means making sure that I as a man do not dominate or take over women-sponsored activities and events. As men, it is part of our training to jump right in and take charge. To talk too much. (To write too much!) But that is the last thing that the feminist movement needs! To me, being a profeminist activist means embracing the role of being a true partner in the struggle for women’s empowerment. Sometimes that means being right there with women on the front lines, and at other times it means stepping back and staying out of the way. And sometimes it means encouraging other men to keep the hell out of the way as well!

In working with victims of abuse – the devastating horror of physical and emotional and spiritual abuse – how does shame play out in the healing process? i would imagine it begins with shame on me (self-hatred and loathing) and ends with, releases through shame on you. Is it possible for you to share/describe that journey?

As a therapist, I have long been interested in the role that shame plays in people’s lives. I often see clients who carry far too much of it. And I do believe that part of healing involves sloughing off that shame.
For some reason, when I work with clients, I often have song lyrics pop into my mind. (Sometimes it’s like I’ve got “Shrink Radio” playing in my head!) And when I think of healing from shame, I am reminded of words from the Annie Lennox song “The Gift”:
Take this overcoat of shame
It never did belong to me
It never did belong to me.
I find the image of shame as a heavy, uncomfortable, musty, smelly, ugly, constraining overcoat to be very powerful. And I love the picture of someone shrugging off their shame. Like shrugging off an old, horrid overcoat.
However, in my experience, it isn’t always necessary for the shame to be returned directly to the perpetrator. I absolutely agree that “shame on me” is typically a huge issue for most survivors of abuse. But as to the need to say “shame on you”? That is really a case-by-case situation. For some people, healing from abuse very much requires justice and accountability for the perpetrators of the abuse. Some people go as far as to participate in the prosecution of their abusers – to publicly say “shame on you.” For other people, however, it is enough just to let go of any sense of self-blame that they carry. To let go of any notion that they are forever damaged by what happened to them. As for the perpetrators, many survivors are content to leave them, like the shame, in the past.
One song that I think beautifully describes the process of shame and healing is Mary Chapin Carpenter’s amazing “Jubilee.” The song is a profound description of the process of healing and recovery. I am tempted to quote the entire song here. But I will content myself with just a few lines that seem especially germane to the issue of shame:
I can tell by the way that you’re searching for something that you can’t even name, that you haven’t been able to come to the table, simply glad that you came….
This song tells such a lovely tale of recognizing and healing from pain. I would strongly recommend that anyone who is struggling with the effects of abuse give it a few listens. I would also recommend that anyone working to recover from any kind of shame also give it an ear. And I would recommend that anyone who is in a helping role and is trying to assist others in recovering from shame also pay attention to the healing path it describes.

please check out his website and blog at:

Category: Uncategorized 5 comments »

5 Responses to “Our Interview with Bill Patrick on Feminism, Shame, Healing and being a Good Man”

  1. Hollye Dexter

    To read more Bill Patrick, check out
    Bill’s Pro-Feminist Blog:

  2. kristine

    whew! catching my breath. I can’t remember ever hearing such honesty and depth from a man. I appreciate, more than you know, Bill’s willingness and commitment to the sane and justice treatment of women. I understand that his own pain led him to the discovery of his passion, and for that I am grateful. Not easy to use your own debilitating experiences to help others. I commend you and the work you do. Thank you Amy and Hollye for sharing this remarkable interview. whew!

  3. Ann Swanson

    Amy, Why are you not talking to woman about the power of their vote; that if Romney is elected, everything you and all woman who have worked so hard for, to empower women will be wiped out. We will turn back the clock on women’s rights.

    This is a crucial time to be helping women get out the vote and to make sure that we move forward and not back. Your efforts will matter.

    Please, please spend some time talking about the importance of voting and keeping women’s rights alive and free.


  4. rose levine

    This is a compelling narrative as written. However, I have a very hard time believing that men can be feminist because men are people and people are by nature self-oriented. So for a man to be feminist he must somehow step outside of himself which is not natural for the human animal. I have looked at Bill’s site and it basically takes one argument, fueled by his anger against men and probably originating with this father, and applies it to a variety of situations. The writing is repetitive, predictable and often vicious, the arguments are simplistic and the analysis is lacking. Why? Because he can not internalize feminism the way a woman can. He is using feminism to fight his own personal battle of a different nature even if there is periodic common ground with the battles fought by true feminists. Men are no more monolithic than any other group, and his kind of group bias is dangerous, and at its core it is counter to what is at the core of feminism.

  5. A Man’s View « Dolphin

    […] don’t mind telling you that this blog brought tears to my eyes. Really stunning to read such honesty and depth.  And he’s not gay! […]

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