Escaping the Groundhog Trap

by

J.C. Schildbach, LMHC

I’m not a big fan of Groundhog Day—the holiday or the movie.

As a kid, the holiday just confused me. Why a groundhog? Can’t you just see if you cast a shadow yourself? Or if a bush, a stone, a dog…anything casts a shadow? I wondered at the particular properties of groundhogs, and why their shadows might be somehow different than those of any other thing on the planet. I suppose I never quite felt like anybody adequately explained the magical properties of particular varieties of burrowing rodents for me to really get behind the holiday or its alleged meaning.

The lack of a real explanation is one of the things that keeps me from enjoying the movie, Groundhog Day as well. What caused this to happen? And why is the resolution what it is? What would make any magical powers of time control so interested in getting Bill Murray’s character, Phil, together with Andie MacDowell’s character, Rita? Perhaps a resident of Punxsutawney is one of the aliens from Edge of Tomorrow who accidentally infected Phil with the time control powers. But that can’t be it, because then Phil would’ve had to die every day, and he only died on some of those days.

Beyond that, the movie just follows the theme of so many movies from the 1980s about how great small-town America is, and how some cynical guy from the big city needs to learn to appreciate that. As for Murray’s arc in the movie, it’s rather similar to Scrooged.

The audience is also expected to root for Phil to ‘get the girl,’ even after he uses his powers of time repetition to manipulate one of the local women into sleeping with him, and then trying to manipulate Rita into falling for him by pretending to like everything she likes—information he gathers from her in conversations she will never remember.

Ultimately, Phil has to get through one day being kind and helpful, rather than acting like his usual, egocentric self (but, again, why is this the resolution—and would it really matter whether Rita decided she liked him or not?). But that last, single day of generous Phil doesn’t feel much different from the videogame-style resets that go on through the rest of the movie, or in Edge of Tomorrow, and hardly seems like a long-term change to his character as much as it feels like him resigning himself to being a decent human being for one day if he ever wants to get out of Punxsutawney. How is his decency not just more manipulation—another possible route out of the repetition he is trapped in?

Many people have labeled Phil’s situation in Groundhog Day an “existential dilemma” or otherwise termed the movie as existentialist. Properly speaking, though, if Phil’s was an existential problem, he wouldn’t have a long period of being able to make whatever decisions he wanted with no thought, responsibility, or consequences at all, only to be pushed into making the “right” decisions–as judged by whatever power kept him perpetually trapped in Punxsutawney on a particular day–until he did what was deemed correct by that power and the “spell” was broken. He would be responsible for whatever he did, and nothing would compel him to do anything.

groundhog drive

The most important lesson of all–Don’t drive angry.

Still, it’s something of a tribute to Groundhog Day, the movie, that it has become synonymous in our culture with repetitive behavior or situations. And it is perhaps the fantasy that we could relive a particular day until we did it right, managing to impress everyone around us, and connect with our one true love in the process (as well as the opportunity to indulge in a great deal of irresponsible behavior along the way), that has led it to this level of popular recognition. Or perhaps it’s the underlying idea that we are trapped by our own behaviors in repetitive cycles, and that we can change ourselves in order to achieve a better life—along with the wishful notion that we need to be good people if we really want to get what we want.

After all, the idea of breaking out of repetitive cycles and habits, or perhaps of creating better habits and repetitive cycles, along with being better people…good people…our best selves, is what underlies much religion, philosophy, and, yes, therapy.

We all struggle through our own behavioral patterns, habits, and the potential sameness of our days, the rut of weeks, months, seasons, and years. But no bizarre fluke of time is going to trap us in a loop and push us to do things differently and become better people, or pursue what we want. That’s on us.

Whatever I might think of him, Phil found out that it wasn’t a groundhog, or the celebration that surrounded a groundhog’s shadow, that was at the core of his problem. Rather it was his own shadows, the darkness he threw out into the world.

So maybe Groundhog Day is the perfect time to look around at our own shadows and what they say about our forecasts—how much more winter we may have in store—and then think about what, if anything, we want to do to change that.

Happy Groundhog Day.

 

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Suicide at the Oscars, part two: ‘The Phone Call’

by

JC Schildbach, LMHC

It was a great year for crisis lines at the Oscars—or, rather, for films involving crisis lines. Not only did the documentary, Crisis Line: Veterans Press 1 take home a statue, but so did the short, live-action film The Phone Call. And, while Crisis Line: Veterans Press 1 tried (perhaps a little too enthusiastically) to convey a sense of the actual drama that can occur at a crisis line, The Phone Call comes across as a disturbingly simplistic endorsement of suicide-on-demand and irresponsible behavior by crisis line workers, all while portraying a dangerously inaccurate view of the function of crisis lines.

I will begin with the same bit of disclosure I placed at the beginning of my piece on Crisis Line: Veterans Press 1: Having spent more than five years working full-time for a crisis line, and continuing to work in a position sideways from, and occasionally overlapping with, such work, I can’t help but come to these films with something of a bias. And I will also offer up a spoiler alert for The Phone Call: if you haven’t seen it, and you don’t want to know exactly what happens, stop reading now.

The Phone Call seems to have generated most of its praise based on the acting of Sally Hawkins (as Heather) and Jim Broadbent (as Stanley/John)—which is undoubtedly solid, even given the ludicrous material. But most reactions seem to ignore any other critical angle—like the crass manipulations taking place in order to make The Phone Call happen at all.

To begin with, the call center where the story takes place seems to be lost in time. Despite the opening shot of the movie panning by a sign that reads “City WiFi Zone,” the crisis center apparently has no computers and no Internet hookup.

Now, I don’t know the current state of crisis line call centers in the UK, or really the state of any such call centers aside from the ones I’ve worked in, visited, or seen in documentaries—all in the United States. But I will say that if a call center in this day and age equips workers only with a pad of paper, a pen, a phone, and a lamp—they are verging on worker abuse. Absent the most dire of funding situations, failing to provide crisis line workers with computers and Internet access is simply unacceptable, given the relatively low cost of such amenities—and the necessity of such items in making it possible for workers to track down lifesaving information—or even to assist callers who are simply trying to access other services.

At one point in the movie, we see Sally Hawkins’ character, Heather, get up from her desk—thankfully she sat at the front of the room near the bookshelves—to try and look up the “mystery caller” in the notebooks where past call records are kept—handwritten on paper.

Add to that the script manipulation of having absolutely minimal staffing. Despite there being numerous desks in the call center, when Heather arrives, there is only one other worker there–Daniel.  At the only time Heather even considers enlisting Daniel’s help with Stanley/John, Daniel is talking with another caller, back turned to Heather, and flipping through a phone book, or some other reference material. She immediately (and completely irresponsibly) determines she can’t get Daniel’s attention—as if muting her phone and calling across the room would have been too much trouble to stop somebody from dying.

'Would you look at that?  Daniel's busy.  Guess you really are going to die today, Stanley.'

‘Would you look at that? Daniel’s busy. Guess you really are going to die today, Stanley.’

Stanley/John is also supposed to be a sympathetic character, the main reason being that his wife, Joan, died two years ago after a long struggle with cancer. As Heather questions Stanley/John about other family members he may have, we also find out that he and Joan tried to start a family, but had only one stillborn child, 25 years ago, and then were unable to have any children after that. Certainly, it’s a sad tale. Certainly, we can understand Stanley/John’s despair.

But just imagine being in the same situation as Heather—or really any crisis line worker—being treated the way Stanley/John is treating her. Stanley/John has decided he is going to die, and has decided that whatever random worker answers the phone is going to have to listen as it happens.

John/Stanley sobs, makes vague statements indicating he has taken actions to kill himself, and refuses to provide information under threat that he will hang up to prevent anyone from tracing the call and sending an ambulance. The audience has to accept that either the call center does not utilize caller id—further putting workers in a terrible situation—or that John/Stanley blocked his information, in order for the whole ‘hanging up’ thing to really work as a threat.

Stanley/John eventually reveals that he’s taken “Antidepressants” that he got “from the doctor.” But killing oneself with pills tends to be a lot trickier than most people realize—at least to do it in the calm, and apparently quick way that Stanley/John manages, all while allowing for a conversation and a quick death before the ambulance crew can arrive and try to revive him—and without his body doing its damnedest to try and expel the deadly pills he’s ingested. Then again, perhaps Heather waited a good long while before calling for the ambulance, as she was looking through notebook after notebook to find the right person named John who lived around the corner from the Boston.

The big moment of connection for Heather, where she (mostly) accepts Stanley/John’s decision to die, is when Stanley/John asks in a pressured tone, “Can you just stay there and talk to me? Are you allowed to do that? Can’t you just stay there and talk to me and hold my hand? Isn’t that alright?”

Heather’s answer: “Of course, I can. I’m not going anywhere.”

There are an infinite number of much better answers Heather could have given at that time. For instance: “No, that’s not allowed, Stanley/John. I’m not here to make you feel better about killing yourself. And, to be honest, if I was really doing my job, my co-worker, Daniel, here would know everything that was going on, and probably already have an ambulance heading your way.”

Instead, in the course of the short conversation, Heather passes up numerous chances to make more than just a conversational connection with Stanley/John. For instance, Heather and Stanley/John discuss jazz, including Stanley/John telling Heather he could teach her how to play tenor saxophone properly. Yet, rather than latch onto that, and suggest that Stanley/John maybe teach music, or otherwise get back into music, Heather doesn’t push on that point of Stanley/John’s ambivalence at all.

In fact, beyond asking about immediate family, Heather does nothing to find out if Stanley/John was involved in anything else in his entire life beyond his relationship with Joan. Work? Friends? Family? Hobbies? Pets?

Heather also does nothing to explore what Stanley/John has done to deal with his grief over the loss of his wife. All we know is that he got antidepressant pills from his doctor. Apparently, Heather takes this as evidence that Stanley/John really has made a valiant effort to deal with the kinds of normal struggles anybody feels at the loss of a long-time companion. ‘Oh? You got a prescription? Wow—that was very brave of you. I’m sorry you still ended up feeling something.’

And perhaps the most obvious thing Heather leaves out is asking how Stanley/John’s wife, Joan, might react to Stanley/John’s decision to kill himself. Or maybe we are meant to accept that Joan is the kind of person who would want her husband to die—that she’s something of a monster, and Stanley/John is really stressed out because he’s two years late on following through with their suicide pact.

Throughout the conversation, Heather lets Stanley/John bully her into not talking about the things she should be talking about, all with the threat that he’ll hang up, and the assertion of his ‘needs’—how he just can’t go on without Joan, but really needs someone to ‘hold his hand’ at the end.

We are supposed to find it comforting that once Stanley/John insists that it is, in fact, too late for a rescue, he compliments Heather, saying, “you’ve been wonderful. You’ve been a wonderful friend to me.”

But Heather is not Stanley/John’s friend, and isn’t supposed to be acting in that capacity. And really, if Heather was either doing her job right, or actually acting in a capacity as Stanley/John’s friend, she would have done more to try and help him.

And then we get the most maudlin endorsement of suicide ever committed to film—we see the ambulance arriving outside Stanley/John’s home. The camera switches to an interior shot of the home’s front door. We see someone arrive, and…it’s Joan! We never actually see Stanley/John, only hear him talking to Joan for a while.  She talks about how she’s “been looking for” him, and they both agree that they’ve missed each other. So, we get this reunited-in-death sap that makes this suicide seem cute, since it helped an old couple get back together.

'What, John?  You've gone and killed yourself?  You go to hell for that, don't you know?'

‘What, John? You’ve gone and killed yourself? You go to hell for that, don’t you know?’

It’s no surprise that director and co-writer Max Kirby comes out of the world of commercials and music videos. The Phone Call is practically a commercial for suicide, with all the depth of the average music video. It’s a concept piece that tries to press emotional buttons, while keeping the audience from engaging in too much thought.

As we watch The Phone Call, we are not meant to think about the value in going on with life, and finding meaning after loss. We don’t even get a serious look at suicide, depression, or mental illness, because we are given only the most surface reasons for Stanley/John to kill himself. We are supposed to take this all as somehow romantic—the sad, old man who just can’t go on without his wife. Isn’t it sweet that he’s killing himself?

And perhaps even more aggravating is the summation of the movie from its official website: “Heather works in a helpline call centre. When she receives a phone call from a mystery man, she has no idea that the encounter will change her life forever.”

I’m not sure exactly what we are supposed to take away from this tagline—that the big change in her life is that she is now carrying the burden of having sat through this man’s death, while being derelict about trying to help him? The big scene we are supposed to take as evidence of change is one in which we see Heather following through on part of the conversation she had with Stanley/John—to go back and visit a jazz club she used to frequent. We see her getting cozy with call center co-worker, Daniel, a potential relationship that was hinted at early in the movie. ‘Gee whiz, isn’t it nice that all it took was the suicide of an old man to make me get out and live a little? Isn’t this rosé delightful?’

To clarify, my reaction to the movie is not meant as some discussion about the right to die, but about the way crisis lines operate, and the absolutely awful way this is portrayed in the movie. It is simply not the job of crisis line workers—paid or volunteer—to just “hold a caller’s hand” while that caller dies by his/her own hand.

It is a hazard of working at a crisis line that one may end up on the phone with somebody as that person dies. But this is much different than such an occasion being the purpose of that work. A police officer has the potential hazard of being shot on the job—but it is not the police officer’s work to be shot on the job. A teacher may be subject to the hazard of being verbally abused or even hit by an angry child—but it is not the teacher’s job to be verbally abused or hit.

And what kind of horrible people would you be attracting to work at the crisis line if you told them that part of their job was just to listen as people die? What would be considered an appropriate level of intervention if just letting people die was considered an acceptable or even desired outcome?

Heather, like any crisis line worker, when confronted by questions of listening versus intervening, should make it clear that, as much as crisis line workers are there to offer support, they are required to intervene in order to prevent callers from completing suicide. And with experience and training, one will gain a better idea of just when that intervention needs to take place.

In the case of The Phone Call, there was an admission that a suicide attempt was already underway; and for all intents and purposes, Heather did nothing. We are supposed to see that as somehow touching, and even life-affirming.

Don’t just feel about that. Think about that.

 

And now for the obligatory ending: If you or someone you know is having thoughts of suicide, call the national (U.S.) suicide prevention hotline 1-800-273-TALK.

 

The Great MLK Day Snack Experiment

by JC Schildbach, LMHC

My wife, M–, or Ms. M– to her students, is a Montessori-certified preschool teacher, and darn good at it. Each year in the lead-up to MLK Day, she teaches a (age appropriate) unit on Martin Luther King, Jr. that is largely built around discussions of treating people fairly, and all that good, old Golden Rule stuff. I absolutely love this exercise and the stories that come out of it.

The lessons typically start off with a “circle” (full-class lesson time) involving the ‘snack experiment.’ In this exercise, the class is divided in half, or roughly in half. Usually, the division runs along gender lines, as that’s the easiest split to make, and one that the children will easily grasp. It also speaks to other forms of false divisions in our society, but I don’t think they get into all of that.

Anyway, depending on the age and temperaments of the children, there may or may not be an advanced warning that circle time involves an exercise in fairness and feelings. Each year, M– switches whether the boys or the girls get the snack at the outset of the experiment. For 2015, the girls got the snack first.

The group with the snack is encouraged to go ahead and eat the snack, while nothing is said to the group without the snack about whether or not they’re getting anything.

Inevitably, the group without a snack starts into fidgeting, and then a bit of grumbling, about why they aren’t getting the snack. Or they start asking if they’re going to get a snack at all.

Most often, there is also some hesitation on the part of those who have received something to eat, or at least from some of them, about whether or not they should be eating before everybody has been provided with a treat.

MLK blue

M— sits silent for a while, then starts the discussion. She asks, essentially, how everyone is feeling right at that moment.

The hands start to go up—usually from the slighted group. This year, the big word among the boys was “disappointed,” since the first respondent used that word, and it apparently sounded pretty good.

“I feel disappointed.”

“I feel mad…and disappointed.”

“I’m angry…and disappointed.”

“I’m disappointed…and sad…and mad.”

The side that got the snack sometimes has to be encouraged to give some input, which usually starts with some hesitant, and sheepish remarks.

“I feel good.”

“I liked the snack.”

It can take a little goading to get some other responses. But this year, the big breakthrough came from one of the older girls who raised her hand and said, “I don’t like it. I’m not happy. Because ( ) is my friend, and { } is my friend. And if they’re not happy, I’m not happy.”

Before long, other girls were joining in, offering up their thoughts on why it’s better when everybody gets a snack, and how it’s more fun when everybody gets to join in, why it’s hard to be happy when others are deliberately deprived of that same happiness.

When those empathetic thoughts start to come out, there is the beginning of a transformation throughout the class. Even without a treat, the snackless start to feel happier, realizing that others care about them, and are sticking up for them.

Of course, balance is inevitably restored. The snackless become…the snacked? Okay, let’s just go with ‘the hungry are fed.’

The discussion continues on, the children offering up sentiments that are occasionally amusing, occasionally profound, and sometimes both.

And, this year, the discussion was closed out when the youngest boy among them, after being prompted several times to raise his hand if he wanted to share his thoughts, finally did so. Then, talking through full cheeks, said, “I want more crackers.”

Happy MLK Day!

Dropping Keys, Dropping Letters

by Jonathan C. Schildbach, LMHC, waning ASOTP, reforming soul-eater

An eighth-season episode of The X-Files was built around a “soul-eater”—a person who could draw the disease out from others into his own body, eventually vomiting it out. The concept of the soul eater is based in various forms of folklore involving a range of ideas about curses and cures, and the ability of some to take away those things that most harm or most sustain a person. Unfortunately for this particular soul eater, the demands of those who knew of his powers began to overwhelm his ability to process and expel the disease. He existed in a perpetual state of deformity and misery.

I like the soul eater as a metaphor for the work done by many people in “the healing professions.” In this field, many of us work at building a skill set that allows us to help extract the mental and spiritual toxins in others. Ideally, those receiving help will find a way to vomit out the toxins themselves. Yet, such toxins are in no short supply, and many who are most in need of help thrive on a constant diet of disease coupled with a willingness to let others take on the burdens of that disease. It becomes far too easy for helpers to end up like the suffocating soul eater, awash in the illness of others.

In the professional parlance, we call all that business of being overwhelmed by the problems of others “secondary trauma.” There’s a tendency to assume that, as trained professionals, we are able to recognize and address our own forms of distress. But, like many people in positions of suffering, particularly those who are considered high-functioning, it is entirely too easy to soldier on without addressing our own needs. We know how to address all this, and yet we often don’t, or we often address it in an unhealthy fashion, assuming it will pass in time. We take on more than we can handle, and think nothing of it. Whatever doesn’t kill me makes me more convinced I’m strong enough to take it.

Hey--eat any good diseases lately?

Hey–eat any good diseases lately?  The X-Files’ soul eater.

I bring this all up by way of saying that I’m in the midst of a career shift—not out of the helping professions, but into some different channels in the same field.

In particular, last night I dropped off the keys to the office where I’ve been serving as an ASOTP for the last year-and-a-half, at least temporarily distancing myself from a particular portion of the field that I have been involved with for over seven-and-a-half years—the treatment of sex offenders.

The change was forced by way of making a shift in my full-time employment in crisis services. As I write this, I am deliberately allowing myself only some small bit of awareness of the insanity of my professional life over the past several years. Yes, I have been working full time in crisis services, while also working anywhere from zero to ten hours per week with sex offenders. Such arrangements are not unusual in the helping professions—where we are pushed to learn our craft in rigorous, unpaid positions, while also attending school and working a paid job just to stay afloat. The habits of overextension established while in graduate school can extend out into professional life, and feel totally normal, even as we are pushed toward deformity and misery.

Currently in a break from a years-long pattern of toxic soul-eating, and ready engagement with secondary trauma, I realize I’ve become numb to plenty of very bizarre things. Running plethysmography assessments, I can sit through audio scenarios of sexually violent behaviors, paying them as little attention as if they were overplayed Top 40 hits from yesteryear piped over a grocery store or dentist office sound system. I’ve become entirely too comfortable asking people about their masturbation habits, and pressing them when I think they’re lying (only in the course of assessments, of course—well, mostly). Fortunately, I haven’t become so numb that I’ve lost all awareness of the twists and turns of my mind, although I frequently find myself stumbling in otherwise polite conversations when frighteningly dark and vulgar jokes spring to mind—an entirely appropriate coping mechanism in certain circumstances and with particular people—but definitely nothing you want to spring on friends of friends who don’t even have the most limited of contexts for understanding where such thoughts could come from.

And all of that was on top of 40-plus hours per week of run-of-the-mill crisis intervention, suicide prevention, utilization management…

So, if I want to mix in some metaphors, I can say I’m now a ronin—a samurai without a master—an ASOTP without a CSOTP—which, really just makes me a guy with an expensive piece of paper that says I’m an ASOTP until next September, but which conveys no real ability to treat any offenders unless and until I take on another master/CSOTP. Weighing the massive number of hours I still have to accrue across assessment, face-to-face treatment, and supervision, in order to get the full credential myself, I think this may be it for my involvement in offender-land.

I’ve dropped off the keys; and, with no further action, the letters, too, will drop—as will the level of…expulsion required of me on a regular basis. Sure, I’ll still do what I can to draw out various forms of mental/spiritual disease when that is required of m—but hopefully now in more manageable, fun-sized portions.

 

 

Dad’s Grave

by J.C. Schildbach, MA, LMHC, ASOTP, Preacher’s Kid

The Summer of 1977 is forever burned into my brain as a collection of hallowed moments experienced while on a cross-country, family car trip in a Pine-Green Chevy Impala Station Wagon: Seeing a lightning storm roll toward St. Louis from the top of the Gateway Arch, enjoying a traditional Chinese wedding banquet in San Francisco, swimming in Lake Michigan, watching “Star Wars” at a theater in Chicago when we were unable to procure tickets to the King Tut exhibit. (As a decades-long fan of the movie, it pains me to note that I nodded off sometime after the scene of R2-D2’s capture, later jarring awake to the battle cry of a Tusken Raider).

There were days-long visits to farms in communities we had lived in before I was old enough to remember, where I got to ride a horse for the first time, play in a rubber raft in a flooded cornfield, and experience the frightening speed of an angry mother pig as a newfound friend and I were made to race it to the fence of its pen after said friend pelted the sow with a dried-out corn cob. There was the morning I inadvertently released the inmates of a henhouse as I made a rather misguided effort to helpfully gather the eggs before breakfast, and the wonder of first experiencing the Beach Boys’ “Endless Summer” surf anthems from a landlocked farm community in the midwest.

Somewhat more mundane moments have stuck with me as well—attending a Saturday night church service in Sheboygan; staying up late to watch “Sssssss” on TV on a rainy night in Independence, Missouri; settling into the perfect stereo situation in the back seat of the Impala as my brothers played Blue Oyster Cult’s “Agents of Fortune” on the car’s cassette deck—“This ain’t the Garden of Eden,” indeed.

But there was one great disappointment in the whole epic adventure: the trip to my father’s grave in a small town in Nebraska. The victim of a stop-sign-running driver, and the shoddy engineering of the late-60s AMC vehicle he was driving, my father, the local Missouri Synod Lutheran minister, lost his life in the late summer of 1971. I am writing and posting this on the 43rd anniversary of that unhappy day—a day I was too young to remember or properly process—a day that gave birth to the attachment issues referenced in the subtitle of this blog.

Pops at 21...on his way to change the world.

Pops at 21…on his way to change the world.

The occasion, for me, was already lacking the appropriate sense of solemnity, with the shouting from a baseball game just across the road filling the bright, evening air. Things seemed even further amiss as we headed in the direction of…well, what seemed to be nothing.

Where was the towering monument? The magnificent marble Pieta? Or at least a moderately ornate cross?

Being a big fan of horror movies, and fascinated with the ornamentation and mythology of the church, I had built up the idea in my mind that my father’s grave would be marked by something appropriate to his stature as an important religious leader. My ideas were perhaps weirdly informed by my recent reading of Scott Corbett’s “Here Lies the Body”—a story set in a graveyard, and involving a massive grave marker with a statue of a pointing, judgmental angel—not to mention occult symbols scrawled in blood, and a murder mystery. On top of that, to pass the time on the drive from state to state, I had also read and re-read a book of “real life monsters,” which included stories of Vlad Dracula, and Haitian zombification procedures.

So when I saw the flat, drab grave marker, I wouldn’t say my heart exactly sunk, but my 8-year-old mind certainly underwent some shifts in its understanding of the world–shifts I filed away for later examination.

A little over a decade later, when I bought a copy of Tom Waits’ “Blue Valentine” album, and heard the song “A Sweet Little Bullet from a Pretty Blue Gun” (about the 1977 suicide of a 15-year-old girl who jumped from the 17th story of a Hollywood hotel with her guitar) which contains the line, “Nebraska never lets you come back home,” that scene of my father’s grave came back to me, despite not having given it much thought at all in the interim.

The passage of time, and hopefully the acquisition of some tiny bit of maturity, led me to reassess the precise meaning of my father’s grave. I realized that that grave marker wasn’t about his importance in the world, or his stature in a small Nebraska town. It was just some sign, marking the place where the material–or perhaps more preciseley, the matter-bound–part of his existence was left. His influence, his importance, extends way beyond that little concrete or stone marker.

My father’s influence in the communities he served extends to this day, in part through the connections my family made in those communities.  His impact, which, combined with the hard work and diligence of my mother, who raised five sons and a daughter in the years after my father’s passing, extends out into the world in myriad ways, through the hard work and community involvement of all of my siblings and their children—all in their own ways striving to make the world a more humane place.

For my own part, struggling to understand my father’s path in life before it was cut short, and trying to find my connection to it, has been a lifelong endeavor. And while I may have, at times, viewed my father and his life in weirdly iconic terms—iconic in the sense of symbols, signs, and signals to the outside world—I now view it as iconic in the sense of legitimate meaning and influence, the ability to impact the world positively by being a decent person…the same sort of influence I can only hope to emulate.

Happy death day, pops!

God Looks Away, Youth Minister Sex Offender Publishes Self-Serving Article (TW)

At the core of “My Easy Trip from Youth Minister to Felon,” an article posted in the online version of Christianity Today’s Leadership Journal, is an odd and self-serving theological point: that God does not look upon sin, and that when sin continues long enough, God gives us over to it so that we might hit rock bottom and then seek redemption. God turning away is, according to the anonymous author, a convicted sex offender still in prison, the reason Jesus felt God had forsaken Him while He was on the cross—God could not look on His Son/Himself as His Son/He took on the sins of the world. It is God’s looking away, the author suggests, that allowed King David to embrace selfishness and send Bathsheba’s husband, Uriah, into battle to die, so that David might have sexual access to Bathsheba. In this same fashion, the author contends, God looked away so that the author might plunge deep enough into sin to be made to answer for those sins.

The author provides no theological discussion of why God also looked away from the victim of the author’s sin, implying (through the author’s shaky theological discourse, and his frequent use of “we” and “our”) that the teenage girl who had been manipulated into a sexual relationship with her youth pastor, shared in the sin, or simply had to be sacrificed so that the author could be redeemed. Without ever naming his actual crime, the author crafts a tale of a sexual predator in need of redemption, and a sexual assault victim as sacrificial lamb, all with God’s blessing/God’s inability to stomach what was happening. But if we are to look at God as incapable of looking on sin, or even the victims of another person’s sinful behavior, then it seems only right to assume God looked away throughout the process that led to the publishing of the article.

The article, taken down from Leadership Journal after much public pressure, can be read from an alternate site here.

I’m a bit torn about whether I think people should read it—not in the sense that I think it deserved to ever be published in the first place—it didn’t—but because it provides an interesting look into the kinds of self-centered justifications, and victim-blaming that sex offenders will endorse in an effort to convince people around them that they’re sorry and won’t ever do anything like that again, because, boy, they’ve learned their lesson, and (in this case) Jesus forgave them, so you should, too.

What was meant by the editors to be taken as a moving story of sin and redemption was, instead, merely a continuation of the abuse, prettied up with self-aggrandizing mock-contrition and Bible verses. And, sadly, the editors saw fit to tag it with the “related topics” of Accountability, Character, Failure, Legal Issues, Self-examination, Sex, and Temptation. Of those tags, “Failure,” and “Legal Issues” seem the only appropriate ones. “Sex” only fits in the broadest definition; whereas “Sexual Assault” or “Sex Offenses” would have been much more fitting. “Temptation” is little more than a label that normalizes the sexualizing of underage girls.

It's not somebody who's seen the light...It's a cold and it's a broken Hallelujah

It’s not somebody who’s seen the light…It’s a cold and it’s a broken Hallelujah

What I keep wondering in all of this is how the article came to be posted in the first place. Did the editors of Leadership Journal coordinate with prison officials to approve the project, or did they just accept it from some inmate, insisting via e-mail that he had a unique tale of a fall from grace and a re-acquaintance with God? Did they know the author prior to his incarceration? Is the author in a treatment program in prison? If so, were his treatment providers at all aware of what he was doing? Were lawyers for the author, lawyers for the victim, or the judge in the case aware of the intent to publish such a piece? And, perhaps most importantly, was the victim, or the victim’s family aware that any of this was happening? And did she/they have any say in the matter?

I ask the above questions because I cannot imagine that, prior to publication, the article was examined by anybody with any clinical knowledge of offender behavior—or, for that matter, by anyone with any sense of the damage done to victims of sexual assaults. If I give the editors the benefit of the doubt, then maybe I can view them as possibly well-meaning, but definitely confused/ignorant people looking to generate an attention-grabbing conversation about statutory rape. And while, it certainly grabbed plenty of attention, that was because it took a story of sexual assault and transformed it into a discussion about how easy it is to be seduced by a teen when one takes one’s eyes off of God, and vice versa. The sexual content is so subdued/obscured that it comes across as if it is intended to describe temptation only—definitely much more so than if it was labeled appropriately as child molestation, pedophilia, hebephilia, exploitation of a minor, statutory rape, or rape.

Any sex offender treatment provider who knows anything at all about what she/he is doing certainly would never have approved of the article as it appeared. Offenders in treatment (in or out of prison) are often given writing assignments wherein they are required to relay details of their behaviors and thought processes and demonstrate an understanding of the damage they caused, as well as the way they convinced themselves it was okay. And while I recognize that it wasn’t specifically crafted as a treatment assignment, the Leadership Today piece reads like an eloquent first draft of such an assignment, crafted with care before a treatment provider and/or members of a treatment group demanded changes due to the author taking a victim stance, failing to acknowledge the actual crime or its impact on anyone other than himself, and refusing to incorporate even the most rudimentary sense of understanding about how he built up to the offense and kept it secret for as long as he did.

Or perhaps it’s more like a second draft, after the offender removed most of the overt blaming of the victim, and switched, instead, to implied mutual blame or implied consent for the crime.

I have heard hundreds of variations on the same basic story told in the article, from the mouths of offenders, emphasizing the frustrations in their lives, the reasons they had contact with the victim to begin with, and the reasons they are not to blame (and, yes, a lot of them invoke religion as part of that). It is rare to come in contact with an offender who, from the beginning (not of the offense, but of contact with the justice system and the need for an evaluation for sexual deviancy) is capable of outlining how he (or occasionally, she) manipulated the victim to engage in sexual acts and to keep it a secret, how he justified the crime to himself, and what specifically happened (in clinically appropriate and criminally accurate terms), without putting a large portion of the blame on the victim for somehow enticing or seducing him.

Despite the author’s claim, added after the controversy erupted, that he takes 100% of the blame for the crime, and recognizes that what he once viewed as a consensual relationship was no such thing, the article itself tells a much different story—of a man who worked hard to build something up for the glory of God (and how he was really amazing at doing that work), and then how he accidentally broke it because he was being selfish. Without ever acknowledging the severe harm he did to the victim, harm that is likely to last a lifetime, he signals that he has returned to a life of service to God because he is involved in leading a ministry group in prison (another thing I have a really hard time with anybody allowing).

And while the author touches on one of his justifications for engaging in his behavior—that his wife was paying too much attention to their children, and not enough to him—he is only able to acknowledge the impact on his wife in the form of the fight they had when she found out about the crimes, and how she left in the middle of the night with the children. The author laments that he has not seen his children since, but doesn’t even mention the extreme embarrassment and devastation he caused his wife and children. Nor does he ever fully indicate that he recognizes how childish his justifications for his behavior were, or how those justifications were merely the starting point for a cycle of lying and manipulation committed for the sole purpose of having repeated sexual contacts with a minor.

In a truly terrible minimization of his behavior, the author compares his repeated sexual abuse of the victim (while implying she shared in an identical struggle with him) to the difficulty of smokers trying to turn away from cigarettes.

From the complete dearth of information in the article, if this really were a treatment assignment, once all the extraneous details, self-promotion, and claims to deserved forgiveness are removed it might sound a little more like this:

“In my 30s, I accepted a position with a church as the coordinator of youth ministry. I built up the group from just a few members until it was one of the largest youth groups in the region. I realized I was experiencing sexual attraction to one of the underage members. I manipulated her into having sex with me, and justified my sex offenses, in part, by blaming my wife for not paying enough attention to me. I had sex with the teen repeatedly. When my wife found out, she took our children and left. I was convicted of sex offenses and sent to prison. I am currently still in prison. I will be a registered sex offender for the rest of my life.”

And, if the author began to actually include the most obvious missing items, the skeleton of a real assignment, or perhaps a combination of real assignments, would start to look like this:

“In my 30s, I accepted a position with a church as the coordinator of youth ministry. I built up the group from just a few members until it was one of the largest youth groups in the region. I realized I was experiencing sexual attraction to one of the underage members, and that she looked up to me in a way that made it possible for me to manipulate her. I set about grooming her. I justified my sex offenses, in part, by blaming my wife for not paying enough attention to me. I managed to work up to the point where I convinced the girl to have sex with me. I then had sex with her repeatedly while convincing myself that she wanted to have sex with me as well, that she was mature enough to handle a sexual relationship with an adult who is an authority figure in her spiritual life, and that I was in no way manipulating her. I managed to keep her from telling anybody about our relationship through various forms of coercion, and went to great lengths to keep anyone from finding out about it. We eventually got caught. My wife, understandably, left me and took the children with her. I was arrested and convicted of sex offenses. I am currently in prison. I will be a registered sex offender for the rest of my life. The teenager I manipulated and raped will need a great deal of therapy and other supports in order to cope with the aftermath of my actions. My wife, my children, and numerous other people impacted by my behavior will also need support to attempt to repair the damage I caused. I recognize that I need to stay away from minors for the rest of my life, and that I can never be placed in any kind of position where I might have authority that can be abused, particularly over any people who could be considered ‘vulnerable.’ I also manipulated editors of Leadership Today into publishing an article I wrote that completely justified my behavior, and suggested that the victim was equally to blame for my sex offenses.”

The assignment would be given back with numerous, specific requests for much more “self reflection,” “accountability,” and actual identification of his specific behaviors and thoughts.

Becoming a sex offender isn’t an “easy” path as the author’s title suggests. It is one that is pieced together with care by the offender, and crafted to secure the cooperation of the victim(s). It is not, as the author portrays it, a little trouble in a marriage, a dash of arrogance, and some innocent flirtations evolving over time into mutual passion—passion that makes God look away, as if God were easily embarrassed. Such a description may be a very simplistic explanation of how an extramarital affair (the words the author uses along with “adultery” to describe his sexually exploitative behavior of a child under his care) evolves.

Unfortunately, by diving into this discussion, without any sense of just how manipulative the author was, and how harmful his words are, the editors of Leadership Journal have put themselves in a place where they must now back away from this discussion entirely. Rather than promoting a meaningful dialog about forgiveness and redemption, they allowed a sex offender to promote himself as a victim of the temptation to have sex with minors.  They allowed him to promote his story of redemption—a story that rings as false as any rapist having the arrogance to compare himself to Christ on the cross, as he suggests that God’s mercy has saved him, all while implying a teenage girl entrusted to him for guidance and education was just as responsible for being raped as he was for raping her.

 

God Bless Anita Bryant

Friday, May 16, I had my first experience with a mental health/chemical dependency conference hosted by a drag artist. The incomparable Aleksa Manila presided over the “Saying it Out Loud” conference, complete with multiple costume changes and delightfully tasteless jokes between various announcements, awards, introductions, and seminars. This was the thirteenth annual gathering of this conference, which was created with the goal “to continue to co-create learning, growth and understanding of the best practices and relevant clinical services needed to support members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and questioning communities.”

Dr. Ronni Sanlo served as the keynote speaker, as well as screening a new documentary, “Letter to Anita,” about her almost-wasn’t involvement in LGBTQ activism. Now I’m going to get into a few spoilers here, but I don’t think the basics of Sanlo’s story are the heart of the documentary, as much as is the personal perspective she brings to them. So, when I say her activism “almost-wasn’t,” I mean that Sanlo, like a number of lesbian women of her generation, went about her life as a heterosexual woman, married (to a man) with whom she had two children, not really aware that there were other options.

Unfortunately, just as Sanlo was realizing that there were other options, that the attraction she felt to women wasn’t something that made her completely alone in the universe, Anita Bryant was ginning up Florida’s legislature to pass laws denying parental rights to gay parents. Sanlo’s divorce went through.  Her children, for all practical purposes, were taken away from her.

Liberty turns her back as Anita Bryant looks to the sky, expecting Jesus to fly down and smite the gays.

Liberty turns her back as Anita Bryant looks to the sky, expecting Jesus to fly down and smite the gays.

Hearing the story now, it seems unfathomable to me. In part, my disbelief comes because at the time Sanlo was being viewed as an unfit parent simply for acknowledging who she was, I was living a few doors away from a blended family—two lesbian mothers with three teenage children among them. Granted, at the time, I was in grade school and not really aware that the two parents in that household were ‘romantically linked.’ I was under the impression, for whatever reason, that the families were living together for other reasons—economic? ecological? I remember that, in the fifth or sixth grade, when our class was given an assignment to write an editorial letter about an issue of concern, I mentioned the family as I explained why we shouldn’t be mowing down forests and fields to build new houses when there were other options, including multi-family homes, that would allow greater preservation of nature. Clearly, I had missed the more important political/social issue facing the family.

At any rate, the nature of my neighbors’ relationship was eventually pointed out to me by gossiping peers, with the implication that I was stupid for not having realized it, along with the weird sexual goings-on that were certainly a part of that relationship. Not to say that I was super-forward-thinking at the time, but I knew the two women as my neighbors who had been pleasant to me whenever I encountered them. So whatever sexual things may have been going on between the two women were of about as much interest to me as those of the parents of anyone I knew. That is to say, I really didn’t devote much time at all to thinking about sexual things between various peoples’ parents, and may, as I tilted toward pubrerty and all manner of prurient thoughts, have actively avoided thinking about them.

As far as I was concerned back then, anyone who was cool and/or innocuous toward me warranted much less concern, anger, or fear than the bevy of teenage male piltdowners who seemed to have little more to do than roam the suburban streets trying to prove their masculinity by tormenting children much younger and smaller than them—a model of “manhood” I unfortunately subscribed to briefly when I hit a similar stage in life.

I can only imagine that the lives of the couple from the blended family had some parallels to Sanlo’s—at least in terms of them apparently having partnered with men to build families in order to live out the deliciously limiting American Dream. It’s not too big of a stretch to believe my neighbors, like Sanlo, had seen few other options for relationships but hetero marriage and procreation. It was my understanding that both of my neighbors were divorced, although, like same-sex partnerships, such things were not discussed a great deal at the time, despite divorce quickly becoming commonplace—something that would reach almost all of my friends who hadn’t, like me, experienced the death of a parent. And if the exes of my neighbors were still coming around to visit their teenage children, I wasn’t aware of it. Then again, I wasn’t aware of much that went on in the lives of those teens, since there was far too great of an age gap between us—that impossibly vast chasm between elementary school and high school—for us to concern ourselves with each other.

Speaking of parallels and gaps, “Letter to Anita” touches on another critical piece of Sanlo’s life that fits in with the development of my own understanding of individual rights, freedoms, and what it actually means to be something “other” than heterosexual: Anita Bryant’s crusade against, well, all people who don’t fit her very narrow definition of appropriate relationships (never you mind Bryant’s own divorce).

As I’ve noted before on my blog, I was raised religiously, in the Lutheran Church, Missouri Synod. My father was a pastor in said church. My father died when I was rather young. I spent a great many years struggling with religious ideals and how they fit into the world. And despite my current agnostic tendencies, I still hold onto an idea of religion as an expanding element in peoples’ lives, a force that should open people up to larger experiences, a force that should create love and acceptance, as opposed to a limitation on peoples’ lives that causes anger, hatred, judgment, and closed-mindedness. I spent a lot of time struggling over moral issues, their relation to legal and spiritual concerns, and how we all get along as a people who are supposed to be dedicated to personal freedom, personal responsibility, community ties, love, and all the rest of that stuff.

But Anita Bryant, with her perfectly coiffed hair and starchily-pressed orange and brown polyester outfits, was telling me, in her own, orange-juice-endorsing way, to fear, hate and distrust people I knew, people who had shown me kindness, people I knew to be funny, smart, and no threat to me at all. She put out albums (which, as a teen, my younger brother delighted in purchasing from the local Goodwill for the purposes of mocking and destroying) filled with patriotic and religious songs, promoting the goodness of the USA and Jesus. Yet, everything she said, every objective she pursued, was in contrast to freedom, goodness, and the anti-judgmental stance that Jesus and America were supposed to represent.

Yes, Anita Bryant, in contrast to all she stood for, or wanted to stand for, had helped turn this white, hetero, suburban boy, and his white, hetero, suburban friends, into supporters of gay America…into people who would forever see the gay menace she was so sure was destroying us all, as nothing more than the paranoid delusion of close-minded, controlling, angry people who were completely incapable of seeing the irony of their anti-freedom, anti-love stance as they waved their flags and thumped their Bibles.  Anita Bryant, as Sanlo notes, managed to galvanize opposition to gay rights opposition–even out into the hetero world and parts of the Christian community she was so sure she could count on to share her views.

So God bless Anita Bryant. God bless Ronni Sanlo. And God bless us everyone.

Suicide Notes from the Cosmic Web of Coincidence

Back around Christmas, I posted a piece about how, contrary to popular belief, the ‘holiday season’ is not the most suicidal time of the year. I’m gonna let you in on a little secret…spring is.

I wasn’t giving the idea of springtime suicide all that much thought, until the news of a note from Kurt Cobain’s wallet—mock wedding vows that turned out to have been penned by Courtney Love—bounced into the news for a day or two, and I realized I’d been hearing about a lot of recent suicides–well-known and mostly-unknown.

Hearing the specifics of Cobain’s wallet note, on a local radio show as I drove home from work, knocked down a self-imposed wall that had prevented me from engaging with the stories of recently-released information and evidence from Cobain’s death, leading me to think back on my memories from that time.

Back then, my wife and I were making a living designing and printing T-shirts out of our apartment, selling them at the Fremont market, and through ads in a local paper, The Stranger, and in national publications Spin, Vibe, and Rolling Stone, as well as doing custom jobs for businesses, bands, and other organizations. News of Cobain’s death had managed to elude us until I saw it in a Seattle Times headline, there on display by the sales counter at a gas station/convenience store across the road from our apartment, where I had gone on a late-afternoon beer run.

As with most deaths, my reaction was one of stunned silence–an unvoiced, “Wow, that’s weird.”  Back home, I hemmed and hawed and didn’t quite manage to relay the information, instead turning on the TV news and waiting for the story to come on.

We had only recently confirmed my wife’s first and only pregnancy; and it hadn’t been long enough for us to share the news with friends and family. I couldn’t stop thinking of that photo of Kurt, Courtney, and baby Frances from the cover of Spin. Cobain, not even a year-and-a-half older than me, had achieved what we were all supposed to want—right? Money, fame, a family—all while getting to tout his artistic integrity and give a big middle finger to…well, whoever he wanted, I guess. He was just getting started. He could continue on being a vital artist, or get old and boring, or become a recluse, or whatever he wanted. He had the resources now, and…

Kurt and courtney and frances

Well, if I steer clear of the conspiracy theories, he killed himself. How was that even possible?

Looking back through a lens of pop culture references, I think of Tyler Durden confirming that we weren’t all going to become millionaires, and movie stars, and rock gods. But Cobain had become that…or at least two out of three.

Also, prior to Cobain’s death, I’d read interviews with Eddie Vedder where he talked about being depressed and drinking too much wine, and I was worried Vedder was going to kill himself…intentionally, passively, or accidentally. Cobain said plenty of dark things, sure, but he was just kidding…right?  And, yeah, I had all the Nirvana albums, and all the tracks that turned up on compilations, credited and uncredited…No Alternative, Hard to Believe, The Beavis and Butthead Experience

In my earliest thoughts about this post, I had some germ of an idea about making a connection between Cobain’s death and my current work…like Cobain’s death had some impact on the trajectory of my life, and…oh well, whatever, nevermind. I think we all try to fit various life events into narratives that make everything add up into some kind of “everything happens for a reason” bumper sticker idea…as if the suicide of a celebrity I had never even met was meant to guide me to my purpose.

It was a good 12+ years from the time of Cobain’s death until I bounced back into school with the intention of becoming a therapist, and then a few more before I had gotten involved in suicide prevention, almost more by happenstance than by a powerful drive to do so. I found out I was good at it–able to handle the stress of trying to redirect people in crisis—trying to suss out what it was they were after, and find a way to address that (which often just comes down to listening and validating the underlying emotions of their distress).

Cobain may have been one tiny thread among numerous others leading up to where I landed, just like the other people I knew (mostly peripherally) who had taken their own lives—or tried to—the bulk of them in spring. But Cobain was never some overtly motivating factor. In fact, I think if I cited him as a big reason for my work, it would be kind of ridiculous… “Man, Cobain’s suicide really changed me, and I decided I wanted to help people.” But to be clear, I have no harsh judgment for whatever factors direct people to engage in ‘the helping professions.’

A supervisor of mine, who was instrumental in providing me with the fundamentals for dealing with people struggling with suicidal thoughts, theorized that the increase in suicides in spring might have something to do with the dashing of expectations…that slogging through a cold, dark winter is one thing when everybody has to put up with the cold and the darkness. But when spring starts peeling open, turning itself toward the sun, grasping those opportunities to grow…and you’re still stuck in that winter mindset…cold, despondent, unable to see the sun or feel its warmth, or to even care about dragging yourself out into it…well, that’s when you lose hope.

In thinking about springtime suicide, I’ve had this other little germ of a thought…that when we are constantly exposed to the idea that everything happens for a reason, it can have the inadvertent effect of making people seek out connections for why they feel shitty. And when they can’t find particular reasons…or perhaps the reasons they find are viewed as trite or easily resolved by the people around them…or maybe the reasons they find all land in the arena of self-doubt, shame, or a sense that they are apparently deserving of the bad things that have happened to them and the lack of happiness they feel…well, it can hurt that much more.

Instead, why not embrace the idea that plenty of things in life happen for no reason at all, except, perhaps, for the culmination of random factors and arbitrary decisions…the cosmic web of coincidence…which can end up dropping anyone down a deep dark hole? (Arguably, this is a ‘shit happens’ bumper sticker argument, but I like to think of it as much more involved).  And why not embrace the idea that darkness is an essential part of being human? As much as happiness may be the goal, as much as we may all want to be millionaires and rock stars and movie gods, even the millionaires and rock stars and movie gods among us can’t completely avoid disappointments, disasters, trauma, and loss—hell, a lot of them are born of that negativity (although I don’t want to promote any ‘tortured artist’ stereotypes).

None of us get to insulate ourselves against negative feelings. Those negative feelings–even feelings of suicide–are actually much more common than people think. But when we’re so fixated on happy, and so fixated on the idea that we can ARRIVE at happiness once and for all, with just the right combination of attitude and effort, we set people up to wonder just what is wrong with them when happiness seems so elusive.

So, check in with your friends and family this spring and every spring (and every other season for that matter). That celebration-free, often contact-free, stretch from New Years Day until the world starts warming up in spring can be long and dark as hell…and when spring rolls around, and people are left feeling like they are still disconnected and down in a hole, despite all the blossoms and rays, that darkness can become something much more overwhelming.

 

 

From Seed to Cocktail–In Memoriam

I had just been talking with a co-worker about growing tomatoes, and how I was late planting the tomato seeds I’d gotten at a friend’s funeral back in October, when I found out that that friend’s wife, Jodi, had died.

As usual, I’m struggling with the appropriate response…both virtually and in the real world. I’ve been on her Facebook wall repeatedly, tapping out letters and words that I then delete, feeling confused about just what is the appropriate response in the time immediately following the death of a friend.

After all, Facebook is where you wish “Happy Birthday” to people you rarely, if ever, see face-to-face, right? I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with that. I’m not saying that there’s anything wrong with posting an RIP message on somebody’s Facebook wall.   But to honor the person in this case, there’s a need for something other than drive-by (surf-by?) condolences. And, no, I’m not considering this piece to be the adequate response.

The message I kept reworking essentially came down to this…

Jodi had been battling that vicious monster since before I met her, over 12 years ago. She fought with such grace and tenacity that I was sure she would outlive us all. And if the kindness one unleashes in the world, and the reverberations of that kindness, count in the tally of one’s years, then I’m sure she will.

In case there’s any question, the above isn’t one of those bullshit eulogies, like when Richard Nixon died, and suddenly everybody remembered what a great guy he was, despite the mountains of evidence to the contrary.  Everybody who met Jodi loved Jodi.  And I’m pretty sure that would have held, even if she had been tied to some ridiculous scandal that led to a widespread loss of faith in American democracy.

Jodi was just one of those people who was funny, warm, and fun to be around. She could slap you with a sarcastic comment that made you instantly feel like a part of her family. She seemed to have a bottomless well of good will and giving. She was the kind of person who lived her life, with cancer, better than most of us live our lives in good health.

A friend of mine from college, Jared, had a semi-serious theory that when a person dies, that person’s soul explodes into a whole bunch of little pieces, which blast out into the world, and attach themselves to the souls of all the people who ever loved that person, becoming a part of all of those people. Jared’s evidence for this was that, when his grandfather died, he was suddenly taken with the urge to go out fishing—something that he had never done, but his grandfather had done religiously. Jared described a beautiful, solitary day out on a lake, where all the love he had felt for his grandfather resolved itself into a sense of peace in regard to his grandfather’s passing, and the meaning of his grandfather’s life, and the lives of us all.

Now, I can’t say that I subscribe to Jared’s theory of exploded souls.   But a weirdly similar sense of “exploded soul attachment” hit me shortly after I received the news of Jodi’s passing. Of course, I was knocked off balance. I wondered if I should leave for the rest of the shift, out of concern that I might be overwhelmed with the demands of assisting people through crisis situations. I gave my co-workers a heads up, essentially enlisting their help in ensuring I didn’t make a mess of things.

But instead of the feared distraction and destruction, I felt imbued with a sense of caring and connection with the clients, which is often difficult to engage. That is, as something of a survival technique for the job, it’s necessary to avoid getting caught up in the drama and emotion of the lives of clients, while also being able to convey a sense of empathy. It’s a difficult balancing act to keep an appropriate sense of distance, without disengaging. But all I felt was calm, a sense of presence with the clients that can be difficult to maintain while also staying on top of the other elements of the job.

Supposing for a minute that the theory of exploding souls is true, my piece of Jodi’s soul manifested itself in the feelings of calmness I experienced—an ability to connect and remain in the moment. Even my exchanges with clients I have spoken to hundreds of times were a bit more ‘in the now.’

I’m going to try to hang onto that little piece of her soul.

And for now, I’m going to get those tomato seeds in their pots, and think on how glad I am to have had the opportunity to craft and share a few lakeside, breakfast Bloody Marys with Jodi.

bloody mary

 

Forced Healing: A “Girls” Beach House Retreat

(Spoiler Alert)

Season Three, Episode Seven of HBO’s Girls finds Marnie securing a North Fork (the vacation destination for people who feel the Hamptons are “tacky”) beach house from a family friend, in an attempt to engage her friends in some never-defined process of “healing”—healing that is supposed to take place over a duck dinner, leaving time for face masks, a viewing of “Queens of Comedy,” and a ceremony built around throwing slips of paper, inscribed with wishes, into a bonfire.

As she hops around in the turbulent surf, insisting it’s “the best swimming conditions imaginable,” while the rest of her friends wait uncomfortably on shore, Marnie observes, “I just think we have a lot of healing to do and we have a lot of ways that we could do it.”

The best swimming conditions imaginable--why isn't anyone joining in?

The best swimming conditions imaginable–why isn’t anyone joining in?

Healing rituals can be very powerful…I guess.  I can’t say as I’ve ever utilized any as part of a therapy or group therapy session.  And, just to be clear, I’m using the phrase “healing ritual” in the broadest way possible—essentially encompassing any kind of activity designed to provide participants with a positive outcome by engaging in some sort of symbolic action.

I have, at times, advocated that people use healing rituals, for example, when grieving.  But in those cases, I’ve suggested an individualized ritual, focused on something that is specific to the mourner’s connection to the deceased.  And such rituals come with the caveat that one cannot simply get over grief by coming up with a clever routine that serves as a reminder of a loved one.  You have to feel the hurt to get to the heal.

Personally, I’ve only ever taken part in one healing ritual, at a church.  That particular ritual involved dropping stones into water, and had something to do with establishing intentions and letting go of bad habits or negative thoughts that trap one in old patterns…or something like that.  While I enjoyed it, and found it to be engaging while it was taking place, it wasn’t something I was particularly invested in, or something that spoke to my own personal needs or expectations at the time.  So it didn’t really stick with me.

I suppose I associate healing rituals, or rituals in general, with religion or spirituality, rather than with therapy.  This is not to say that religion and spirituality are totally separate from therapy—perhaps different sides of the same street…finding meaning in, and ways to deal with, the difficulties of life.

Ritual, though, is imposed on reality.  Ritual says, ‘we are here now, and these are the steps we are going to take to create shared meaning.’  Therapy depends more on meeting people where they are, and taking steps as those steps become possible.  At any rate, for either rituals or therapy to work, they need the ‘buy-in’ of the participants.  If there’s no meaningful connection to the work being done, no personal sense that it is worthwhile, then little is likely to come of it.

Marnie, unfortunately, never gets the buy-in of her friends.  Hannah, Jessa, and Shoshanna come out to the beach house as much out of a strained sense of obligation to Marnie as they do because they’ve been offered a free, weekend getaway.  Hannah soon sabotages Marnie’s tightly-scheduled friendship renewal when, on a trip into town, she runs into past roommate Elijah and a group of his friends.  Inviting them to join Marnie’s restorative retreat, Hannah implores Elijah to, “save me from this hell.”

Strangely enough, the only actual healing that takes place is between specific members of Marnie’s healing retreat and Elijah.  Prior to inviting Elijah over, Hannah and Elijah excitedly reveal how much they miss each other, thus effortlessly mending a pointless rift that started because Elijah had slept with Marnie.  Later, after some icy exchanges, Marnie opens up to Elijah about her break-up with Charlie and about her connection to “Old Man Ray,” because she cannot, in the context of the healing she wants to pursue, reveal to her other friends that she is sleeping with Shoshanna’s ex.  Nor would she want to admit it, as Ray does not fit into the overly-planned, picture-perfect life Marnie envisions for herself.

In addition to keeping secrets, as much as Marnie tries to impose control and ritual on the gathering, her friends are not particularly in the mood for structure, ritual, healing, or therapy.  What growth these characters experience is a result of taking steps forward on their own, or being confronted with the consequences of their actions.  At the moment of this particular beach retreat, Jessa is recently out of rehab (where she “learned a lot of great communication games”), Hannah is (relatively) satisfied with her career and her significant other, and Shoshanna is re-evaluating her life, potentially involving splitting from her friends (who she characterizes as “fucking whiny nothings”) permanently.

It clearly is not the time for a ritual based in Marnie’s need for connection, and modeled after a pop-culture version of how women bond with each other (with acknowledgment of the irony that I’m using an extended pop culture reference to explore how and why ritual and therapy may or may not work in particular contexts).

In a shallow, drunken conversation about the impact of their parents on their lives, Hannah tells Marnie that she had been dreading the trip to the beach house, and “would have done anything to not be here.”  Then, to assure Marnie that they are having a valuable exchange, and perhaps in hopes of pre-empting the scheduled dinnertime healing session, Hannah assures Marnie that they are taking part in “one of the most meaningful weekends of the summer.”

Hannah’s dismissive comment speaks to the crux of the problem.  Marnie views the weekend as a reset button on their lives, a way to make things “like old times” and to get back to normal, once and for all.  But everyone else sees it as just a weekend…a break from their real concerns…time out from “normal.”  Their lack of ongoing, meaningful connection to one another has become ordinary and acceptable for everyone but Marnie, who is clinging to a Hollywood ideal of female friendship, particularly given that her Hollywood ideals of marriage and career have completely fallen apart.

Perhaps the problem with ritual as a strategy for healing, then, is that it is often a break, outside of commonplace daily activities, potentially gripping in the moment, but ultimately just a break.  There are few, if any, rituals we engage in that become transformative, except perhaps those rituals that are constants in our lives, practices based in our beliefs.  It is a delightful fantasy to think that we can come together with friends in a carefully orchestrated event that will have life-changing potential.  However, close relationships are a process of careful, ongoing cultivation, just as most things in our lives do not bend to sudden, planned transformation, resulting in perfection, or reclaimed perfection.

As for the Girls, whether the rest of the group is really thinking about how they fit together is up for debate.  None of them, aside from Marnie, seem particularly concerned with making sure they move forward together, developing deep bonds.  As it stands, their bonds seem more circumstantial than intentional.  Although they express concern for one another, Hannah, Jessa, and Shoshanna seem content to pursue their own ends, and let the relationships go where they go, even if that involves completely drifting apart.

When Marnie finally decides to throw down, and try to force the group to engage in whatever ritual it is that she has planned, any thought of such healing has jumped the track, and it becomes more like an impromptu, and leaderless, group therapy session—the kind where problems are brought up, but no resolution is sought.  Grievances are aired, and alliances shift rapidly, but the intent of the participants becomes wounding, not healing.

Shoshanna takes center stage in this process.  Having consumed numerous “North Fork Fizzes” throughout the day, or perhaps simply frustrated enough by the behavior of the people around her to finally demand attention and express herself, she unloads on the group for treating her “like I’m a fucking cab driver…like I am invisible.”  Then, delivering the final blow to Marnie’s healing weekend, Shoshanna tells Marnie, “You are tortured by self-doubt and fear and it is not pleasant to be around.”

In short, Shoshanna indicates that Marnie needs to go get some therapy rather than trying to heal things that were never whole to begin with.

The episode ends with the “girls,” waiting for the bus back to their regular lives, slipping back into the one ritual that did come together over the weekend—a dance routine taught to them by Gerald (with a hard ‘G’).  Not exactly a healing moment, but an indication that things are essentially where they’ve been for a long time—with individuals who occasionally connect as much as their circumstances and personalities allow.