The very first Berlin Boys Club wasn’t much of a club. It was late summer in 2015, and membership stood at two — me and a guy I’d met through Facebook. That was it. Still, before we knew it, he and I were having the type of conversation — about our fathers, about our relationships, about our needs — we’d never had previously. We were saying things we’d kept only to ourselves and speaking directly from the heart. In the end, we shook hands, hugged and planned to meet again the following month.
It all started the same way most things start these days, online:
I posted that call-to-action at 3 a.m. one morning after a friend had just told me about his girlfriend having a miscarriage six months earlier and how he’d been drinking to cope with the sadness. He told me this drunk, and I got angry at him for not telling me sooner. His reply was that he didn’t want to bother me. “You’d have bothered me if you needed help lugging a washing machine into your house,” I responded.
“Most definitely,” he admitted.
I essentially wanted the Berlin Boys Club to flip that dynamic — to make it just as easy to talk about pain and fear as it was to talk about sports or any number of other cliché guy topics.
In the beginning, we met once a month at my friend Maggie’s flower shop. When I’d complained to her that I wanted to get men together, but not in a bar, where we’d inevitably get drunk and talk like morons, she offered up her place. So after hours, sitting amongst magnolias, bone-dry lavender and spider plants suspended in macrame cages, we spent a couple of hours drinking tea, eating biscuits and engaging in conversations we’d rarely or never had before.
Frederick Douglass said that it’s easier to build stronger children than to fix broken men, but we tried to repair ourselves. We understood that we were products of our environments. We’d grown up in homes where our mothers’ examples of how a woman should be were limited to how she was allowed to be, and our fathers, even if they were enlightened, were still only as enlightened as men were back then. So we started with the assumption that we were probably wrong.
Next, we wanted to open up new channels of conversation for men. It was a banter-free zone. If you wanted small-talk, you could get it afterwards, but while we were in the flower shop, the conversation had to be as personal and explorative as possible. Of course, inevitably, we ended up down wormholes discussing TV shows, the news or how hard it was to find a cheap apartment in Berlin. But, in general, we were good.
We always began in silence before going around the room and having everyone express what they wanted to get out of the evening. This is when all other plans would typically derail, especially when someone had just split up with their partner. When this happened, we jumped into action like a team of cardiologists, examining the broken heart, diagnosing the conditions that lead to it — 99 percent of the time it was miscommunication — and outlining possible treatments.
Generally speaking, we had no problem telling each other off. We were semi-strangers, but there was something about the setting that permitted us to talk like brothers. Put two men in front of an engine, and they’ll talk about it for an hour without even bothering to ask the other’s name. Put them in front of a football game and that time doubles. But put them face-to-face, with mild instruction and the scent of lavender, and they’ll actually talk to each other about things with far deeper meaning than cars and sports.
The guys who attended were anywhere in age from their early 20s to mid-40s. Some were dads. Some were potential dads. And some you wouldn’t even ask to take care of a cactus. The one shared trait, though: They all knew life was a mixture of dissatisfaction and glory.
I was very much the same. I’d given up a perfectly good job in Dublin to become a writer in Berlin in my late-20s. Now, approaching my mid-30s, that romantic decision, bolstered by occasional but never breakthrough success, was appearing a little foolish. So I began the Berlin Boys Club as much for me as anyone else.
I set the topic for us each month. Things like, how we deal with stress, why we have such a hard time crying, what does masturbation do for you, etc. But again, I left a lot of space for things to change and take on a life of their own. For instance, one night, this French guy came along, in shock, because he’d just moved in with his girlfriend and didn’t know how to deal with the drop-off in sex that accompanied cohabitation.
Whenever we talked about sex, we always came to the conclusion that we placed too much of an emphasis on it, and that as men who grew up on the internet, porn had muddled our ability to have sex with someone and connect with them at the same time. One guy admitted to never being able to come with another person. Jerking off isn’t a problem, but coming with someone else feels like taking a crap in public, he said. Another guy hadn’t had sex with his partner in six months and didn’t know how to start back up again. None of us knew either.
As a group, we didn’t always come up with solutions.
Plus, sometimes, the solution was merely saying the problem out loud.
One time we took unusually weak magic mushrooms and spent the next two hours asking each other if we could feel the mushrooms, rather than asking each other if we could really feel life. Another night, we said, fuck it, and drank wine, after which we slipped into a melancholic stew blaming capitalism for our inability to find happiness. At a different gathering, we tried meditation, and apart from the sound of wet noses, the room had never been more peaceful.
That was important because despite being young men in the peak of our lives, the men of the Berlin Boys Club were no strangers to depression, sadness or crippling anxiety. One would go missing for a month or two, only to come back and say it was too hard for him to get out of the house. And so, we traded the numbers of cheap therapists as much as anything else.
The Berlin Boys Club disbanded a year after it began because of gentrification. The flower shop was hit with a 250 percent rent increase and closed down. I also relocated from Berlin to L.A. Nonetheless, our closed Facebook page still gets the odd hit. And when I check my DMs, there’s always something from someone curious about the club — the occasional woman too. In fact, a friend of mine who’d been date raped wanted to address the group. If we’d lasted a little longer, she would have, and I hope that it might have been a moment of healing for her and a wake up for the rest of us.
In hindsight, I don’t think a few men gathering semi-regularly to discuss their dysfunction was ever going to change the planet. But if anything, it showed how men could actually nurture each other. We could be the fathers and brothers we’d never had. If rats in London learn how to unpick a lock, according to morphic resonance (an interesting, if disputed scientific phenomenon), rats all over the world will be able to do so — with no instruction, too. Maybe, at some level, we were hoping that if we could train ourselves to be better men, that all men, all over the world, would become better too.
After all, we’re no worse than rats, right?