Jairus McCleary on ‘The Work,’ His Father, and the Hard Truth That Pain is Pain

Four days in Folsom Prison, gallons of tears, years of pain and one really good documentary

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James McCleary has the hardest job in a hard place, Folsom Prison, where the walls are hard, the bars are hard, and the men are hard as well. As the leader of an intense group therapy program, McCleary is responsible for cutting through that hardness or pummelling into softness with extraordinary honesty. McCleary too, it should be said, is tough — though not hard. He’s an admirable man doing an admirable job, which is why his son, Jairus, decided to document his day-to-day in the film The Work, which captures the four-day transformation of men, a lot of hugging, and a lot of crying . It’s a devastating film — at times even hard to watch — but also hopeful portrait of James’ muscular optimism.

The entirety of The Work unfolds in one room and the entire premise is that what happens in the room stays in the room. The cameras guarantee that isn’t really true, but it feels like it is and the men behave like it is, leaving behind their allegiances to gangs and the tools by with which they protect themselves emotionally and physically. The armor comes off and makes a bang as it hits the floor.

It’s a wonder to watch tough men try to do the toughest thing and be honest with themselves about their circumstances and their actions. It was a wonder, too, for Jairus to watch his father at work. He spoke to Fatherly about the power of that experience and what his father taught him about getting better.

The Work is a very intense documentary. Tell us a little bit about the program that you depict.

The program in our film is called The Inside Circle Foundation. It was started by Patrick Nolan, a single inmate twenty years ago, who recruited, both men from the inside and outside of prison. He started secretly at first, within Folsom Prison, but now the administration has endorsed it as a viable rehabilitation program. At first, it was a writing program. Patrick didn’t know anything about modern psychology at that point, but he knew that men had been sitting in circles for the last hundred thousand years around a fire talking. He said that he could at least do that. That’s what he did. He invited men to start talking. That’s what they did.

How did you get involved?

I got started because my father started doing emotional work when I was 16. One day he came home and sat down on the couch and began crying in front of my brothers and me. It marked a shift in our relationship. My father calls himself a reformed clinician. He has a degree in clinical psychology but has traveled the world for years, working with different indigenous groups and bringing into modern psychology the process of initiation.

Eventually, he became involved with the program at Folsom Prison and invited my brothers and me to join. For years, I said no but finally I agreed to go in.

Describe what “The Work” actually refers to.

It’s a general blanket term for all of the messy stuff that happens in a person’s life that they try to reframe so that they can behave differently. To put it in a box of group therapy sells it short. It really is empathy and compassion. It’s an impromptu session based off the strength of the truth that you tell. That connects with the person sitting next to you and the people in the circle. They’re throwing out whatever works, whatever they’ve experienced in the moment to try and help the individual that seems to be in the center, that is feeling whatever they’re feeling.

So much of the film is about the men disarming themselves, letting go of the armor with which they walk around and being vulnerable.

The term that keeps coming up and you can see it everywhere now, is toxic masculinity. As men, I think that we are taught to hide our emotions and not confront our emotions. We’re taught not to cry or taught not to show weakness.

This is intensified within the prison, where, if you get a death notice like one of the characters Kiki did, that his sister died, you cannot show any emotion that will invite people to take advantage of you. That emotion, for Kiki, was sadness. If you show sadness, you start crying, people will see that you’re vulnerable and will try to take advantage of you. Out there in the yard, the only acceptable emotions are anger and rage and that can translate into violence or just being aloof. For Kiki, that moment where he was able to cry about his sister who died years ago, and he never got a chance to mourn that loss, that room was the only safe place within the prison that they can do that.

This is a film you made with your father and with your brothers so tell me about how we got here from that moment years ago, when he broke down in front of you on the couch.

My dad’s father was never around. He worked multiple jobs and was aloof. He had been taught and trained not to show emotions. When my Dad started doing this work, he was pretty much the same way. He was aloof. He thought that what it meant to be a successful father is giving a roof over everybody’s head, putting clothes on people’s backs, and having food on the table. That’s all he really was taught. When he came home, it cracked open our relationship to be able to talk about anything that’s happened between us, anything that might happen in the future.

How did he have this moment of awakening?

My uncle had started doing this sort of emotional work with a group called The Mankind Project, which grew out of the work of Robert Bly and Joseph Campbell. It was part of the mythopoetic men’s movement, a response to feminism. These guys saw women starting to be empowered and starting to change. They reflected on their identities, on certain societal norms They said, ‘Who are we supposed to be? What are we not looking at? What are we shying away from?’ My uncle started doing that. My dad saw the change in him and became interested.

Sort of like, “Come out to the woods with us.”

Yeah, there are all those stereotypes of the mythopoetic movement. Just a bunch of guys screaming out in the woods and beating on drums, but really what it is, is embracing these emotions and the types of positive behavior that we’ve been told that we shouldn’t do.

How was it to get more and more involved in your dad’s vulnerability?

A lot of fathers can be stern. They say, “My way or the highway.” There’s a shield that they carry. You’re not supposed to cross these borders and they have to be an authority figure. My dad really opened himself up to scrutiny. That’s why he’s the biggest hero I have, because in that moment, his identity as a stern father figure crumbled and he invited us to criticize him. He said, “Are there things that I’m doing that are hurting our relationship? There are so many mistakes I have made. What are the mistakes that you think I’ve made? How can I be better?” He started doing that.

You three brothers were teenagers at the time. Just the idea of your dad opening himself up to three teenage boys about what I can do better, is touchingly brave. So much of what the men talk about in the film – both the men from the inside and those from the outside — is about the search for a father figure, or the struggles of being a father inside or the damage their fathers did. Even for men who haven’t been beaten or grown up in tough circumstances, it’s resonant.

You hit the nail right on the head. Rob Albee, one of men who started the program with Patrick Nolan, he’s always said, ‘Pain is pain. What hurts one person hurts another person.’ You can’t put this stuff on a scale. Your pain to you is just as powerful to you as mine is to me. It doesn’t matter the intensity of that pain. You feel it as intensely as I do, and crossing the gap between individuals and sharing that, that’s the power.

Is what you did in that room behind the camera also work?

Absolutely, because my brothers and I had done the work and been in so many of these four-day retreats before, we knew what we wanted to shoot.. The other part of it was that there were men that were my friends from the film industry who were interested in doing this kind of work with me. If they wanted to be the DP or they wanted to be on the crew on the film, they had to volunteer themselves and go through the program as well. That was a prerequisite that my brothers and I came up with, but we came up with that with the men inside as well. While they were shooting, there were moments where we didn’t try to hide the fact that there were cameras there. You can see the camera guys with tears running down their face.

There were times where the men on the inside said, and this is not in the film, but they said, ‘Put down the camera. You, out down the camera. Art, put down the camera.’ Art would put down the camera. They’d be like, ‘Sit down in the circle and check in.’ They would do that and Art would cry and do whatever he had to do and then they would switch. It’s all the work.

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