Sunday, April 28, 2013

Dear Young Therapist: Allow for the Unexpected

Dear Young Therapist:

No graduate program can prepare you for everything that is going to happen in your career. As you embark on your journey as a therapist you'll want to be sure you make allowances for the unexpected to happen. It will--in ways that you'll never expect. 

My training did not prepare me for what happened on April 15, 2013. Bombs went off just two and a half miles away from my office in Cambridge. While I could not hear the explosions, I could hear sirens and helicopters as the day progressed. My heart sank hearing the news between my appointments: my city--my home--was under some sort of assault. 

I reached out to friends and family. I was safe. They were safe. 

My mind quickly turned to my patients--some forty people scattered across the Boston region who call me their psychologist.

Were they safe? 

Some volunteer every year at the finish line of the Boston Marathon. Others live or work within the area of the blasts. Some, experienced survivors of all sorts of trauma, were likely to be stimulated and flooded with fear. I worried about them reliving their own personal hell from the past.

I wasn't trained to reach out to patients when I think they might be in distress. I wasn't trained to know what to do when bombs exploded just a couple of miles away from my office. What teacher could anticipate such a thing?

You'll learn in your practice that sometimes the right answer to the situation isn't the thing that your supervisors taught you. Ethics are important. It's important that you spend years studying your ethical code so you can develop a deep understanding of the complexities of being ethical in your practice. You'll need lots of colleagues to talk things over with. You also need to learn how to be responsive in ways that codes and protocols cannot teach you.

You've got to make allowances for the unexpected and know how to make decisions when the world around you has fallen apart. Days will come when you'll have no supervision, guideline, or protocol to follow. You'll be on your own. You'll know you've finally earned your license when you know how to make a path of your own that's strong, clear, ethical, and wise. 

Friday, April 26, 2013

Dead in Her Bed, Ignored by the World

Shot in the head four times while she lay in bed, a mother died by the hands of her own son.

Her name was Nancy Lanza. She was the first to be murdered by her son. She wasn't the last. The young man went on to murder 20 school children and six school teachers. It was the second largest school shooting in the United States.

For many, that's the last we heard of Nancy Lanza. Her death is mostly obliterated in official death counts and memorial services. Even our president neglected to mention her death while memorializing the tragic loss of children and teachers.

Media reports subtly blame this tragedy on Lanza. Some reports characterize her as a caring but misguided woman who was in over her head trying to raise a difficult child. Other less subtle articles depict her as a monstrous and vile woman who unleashed terror on the world of innocents because she owned guns and failed to properly lock those guns up.

We might as well be direct here: many just flat out blame Nancy Lanza. It would be more honest if media just said it: She asked for it. If she didn't want to die she shouldn't have guns. It's her fault.

Strange how that logic is offensive if we are talking about women being raped but appropriate if we are talking about women being murdered. We've got some work to do here. We can be better than this.

Yesterday my Twitter feed was filled with requests to vote for a Webby Award to be given to the journalist Ann Curry for creating and promulgating the #26Acts hashtag. The #26Acts campaign is a lovely, sweet, and beautiful idea. It's also an idea that irritates me each and every time I see the hashtag.

Why is it that some murders are memorialized and while others are ignored? Why don't we ever hear of Nancy Lanza? Why does her death not matter?

There were 27 murdered that day in December. Each one mattered and none should be ignored. Age, innocence, or behaviors should have no bearing on mourning the tragic loss of human life.

Nancy Lanza--whoever she was as a person--died in her bed that morning.  In her death we've collectively turned her into the hated other--the person who isn't like us.

We've replaced an actual woman with a straw woman of sorts--a caricature of a person who resembles what we need her to be. Devoid of actual facts, we've created a representation of Nancy as a vile and monstrous woman who failed to lock up her guns. She isn't like us--she is the other--that person who didn't protect our innocence and our young with her careless ways.

The other bears all the responsibility for the trauma so we can take no ownership for our own portion of responsibility.

We don't mourn the other: we hate it. We project everything about our own selves into the hated other that we cannot tolerate or see. In doing so, we pretend that somehow it is someone else's responsibility for the violence that is in our world. The guns we own, the abuse we inflict on each other, and the valorization of violence and aggression in our society becomes the responsibility of someone else, the other. 

We'd be just fine if it wasn't for those awful horribly nasty people--the hated other.

Nancy Lanza was transformed from a living human being into a reflection of the parts of ourselves we least want to look at and think about. When you think about Nancy Lanza, you are actually thinking about yourself.

Do Nancy some justice in this world: we've turned her into a monster--now take the time to see that the monster you see is a reflection of a part of yourself.


Now of course, there was one more death that day. One more person was lost--probably lost long before those twenty-seven people died. A young man, just 20 years old, lost in complicated ways we do not understand, picked up those weapons and gunned down his mother, six educators, and twenty young children. His acts were horrific and he is responsible for his crimes.

Yet if you care to look deeply enough into Adam Lanza, you'll still see reflections of yourself. You'll still find parts of your own shadow self reflected back at you. If you can dare to look and own those parts--that's the very moment that you'll be forever changed and transformed for the better.

Not popular to suggest an act of kindness for Nancy Lanza.

Even less popular to suggest an act of kindness for Adam Lanza.

I think he mattered too, in his death, in his madness, and in his complete loss of humanity. He was a person who committed a horrible act against humanity. Yet still, he was a person.

I lose my own humanity when I respond with cruelty or hate toward the Adam Lanzas of the world--no matter how monstrous or evil their deeds are. We can hold someone responsible for their crimes yet remain compassionate for them and our selves. We can hold someone responsible for their crimes without becoming violent ourselves.

So with that:


The final act of kindness, for Adam, is really an act of kindness for ourselves. To release ourselves from our own violent ways, we need to recognize the violence within each of us--own it--hold it--and make the choice to act with kindness.

In his death, Adam can help us see our own evil and hate that we desperately try to pour into him so we do not need to address it within ourselves.

Just imagine what might happen if you looked deeply in the eyes of the other and for a moment saw yourself. How might the world be a different place?

Friday, April 19, 2013

What's Going On?

So I'm watching television, speechless, as I see my city under siege and two children who have destroyed so much.


Sunday, April 14, 2013

Manly Affections: Robert Gant

Men embracing and kissing. Gant, Robert, 1854?-1936
So here we have another vintage view of two men. Many--though not all--of the images of men that I've become fascinated with are ambiguous (see here, here, here, here, here, and here). While the images might show two men touching in ways that are currently only reserved for men who identify as gay (or have same-sex attraction), in days of yore, men had more latitude to express friendship through touch and physical closeness.

This image isn't ambiguous at all. These men are straight up making out. Or are they?

As with many of the other images I've collected, their original sources were either not documented (does anyone believe in references anymore?) or obliterated by history.

I did a little investigation of this image entitled "Good Bye" to see what I might be able to find out. The story of this embrace was fairly easy to extract from the internet.

The image was taken by Robert Gant (1854-1936), a photographer from New Zealand. For those of you with a great deal of interest, you might consider checking out Chris Brickell's book "Manly Affections." Brickell wrote the following about his book (you can also check out a YouTube clip :

What if New Zealand's male settlers were not all as stoic and unemotional as we tend to assume? What if homoeroticism existed alongside - or even at the heart of - male society? What if the colonial social pattern actively facilitated intimate and sexual relationships between Pakeha men? 
Manly Affections doesn't provide any clear answers, but it does explore the questions. It focuses on the life and photography of Robert Gant, who left us some 450 late nineteenth and early twentieth century images. Part biography, part cultural history, part visual analysis and part provocative speculation, this book project extends the analysis begun in Chapter One of Mates & Lovers. Along the way, I place homoeroticism within a broader discussion of masculinity and community life, and I discuss locally-circulating representations in their global context. The book will include approximately 150 images. While most histories of same-sex desire and intimacy explore urban lives, this project looks at small towns and rural locales: Gant spent much of his time in the Wairarapa settlements of Masterton and Greytown. In Gant's photographs, life on farms and in homesteads mingles with classicism, light bondage, romantic friendship and theatrical dress-ups. Gant and his enigmatic friends wove together Pakeha settler masculinity, emotion and eroticism in surprising and fascinating ways.

Take the time to watch this YouTube clip that the publisher of Brickell's book put together of Gant's images. You can also listen to a podcast about Robert Gant here.

FFor more images of vintage men and their relationships (some gay, some straight) visit: Two Men and Their DogAdam and Steve in the Garden of Eden: On Intimacy Between MenA Man and His DogThe Beasts of West PointVintage Men: Innocence Lost | The Photography of William GedneyIt's Only a Paper Moon;Vintage Gay America: Crawford BartonThese Men Are Not Gay | This Is Not A Farmer | DisfarmerDesire and Difference: Hidden in Plain SightCome Make Eyes With Me Under the Anheuser BushHugh Mangum: Itinerant PhotographerTwo men, Two PosesPhotos are Not Always What They Seem,Vintage Sailors: An Awkward RealizationThree Men on a HorseWelkom Bar: Vintage Same Sex MarriagePretty in Pink: Two Vintage Chinese MenMemorial Day Surprise: Vintage Sailor LoveMemorial Day: Vintage Dancing SailorsThe Curious Case of Two Men EmbracingThey'll Never Know How Close We WereVintage Love: Roger Miller Pegram,Manly Affections: Robert GantHomo Bride and Groom Restored to DignityThe Men in the TreesThe Girl in the OuthouseTommy and Buzz: All My Love,Men in Photo Booths, and Invisible: Philadelphia Gay Wedding c. 1957. You can also follow me on Tumblr.

Suicide, An Unheard Cry: Vintage Views of PTSD

I've recently discovered that the National Archives has its very own YouTube channel. Where have these marvels of history been hiding all my life?

Here are two clips to get you started:

Sunday, April 7, 2013

Patient Suicide: Part Seven--Training Monkeys/Herding Cats

This is part of an ongoing story about a patient suicide. Click here for Patient Suicide Part One: The Phone Call, here for Patient Suicide Part Two: 30 Minutes to Think, here for Patient Suicide Part Three: Fully Present, here for Patient Suicide Part Four: What's a Life Worth, here for Patient Suicide Part Five: Treat People Like They Matter, here for Patient Suicide Part Six--Leftovers, here for Patient Suicide: Part Seven--Training Monkeys/Herding Cats, and here for Patient Suicide: Part Eight--On Scarves and Lessons Learned

It is nearly two years now since my patient killed herself. As the anniversary nears of her death, I'm thinking a lot about all the subtle and not so subtle ways I have been trained to look away from the experiences of my patients. I've also been thinking a lot about the ways in which I break those rules and don't look away.

Shortly before her suicide, my patient brought in a box full of photos. Her body deeply trembled as she handed me the box. 

"Let's do this quickly," she said. "If I think about it or talk about it too much I won't be able to show you. I've not always been like this. I've not always been so lost."

She handed me a shoe box full of pictures. I knew her sharing was important. I knew that it meant a great deal to her. It hadn't even entered my mind until after I received the call that she had killed herself that this was likely the beginning of her goodbye to me.

I carefully picked up each picture and tenderly held them as if they were a beloved infant. These were her memories--important and treasured and painful. I knew that much. I also knew I needed to treat them with loving respect. I saw pictures of her ex-husband and his children, past hospitalizations, vacationing with friends, and some of her beloved dogs.

These pictures were each representations of something we spoke about. I knew a lot about her ex-husband--how much she loved him and how angry she was that her depression destroyed that relationship. I knew about the terrors of past hospitalizations. I knew about the cold-wet sheet packs that were used to help her "calm down." I knew about the sodium thiopental treatments that "helped" her talk about the childhood sexual abuse. I knew about each of the dogs she had euthanized prior to a suicide attempt. I knew about the joyful practical jokes she played while living with friends.

She shared these stories with me over the years and I never looked away. She shared the pictures with me and I took each one in my hand and  carefully looking and asked thoughtful questions. I tried to take in her whole experience in every way I knew. She mattered to me--and it mattered that I did my best to witness everything she could share with me.



Let what I feel fill me, but not consume me
Let me follow what I feel, but not be forced
Let me become the kind of soul 
Who never clings to hard
Who lets go and yet loves
Let me imagine better worlds, 
Yet work in this one
Let me touch and treasure, even people I can never hold
And let me learn from all my losses
Let me out, and let me in
Let me see, and let me be
A window, maybe broken, 
But through which, 
A bit of air and sunlight comes.

--Jack Veasey

Saturday, April 6, 2013

Cats in Hats

Apparently this is a thing. I'm going to have to be very careful here or I might suddenly find that it's tomorrow morning and I've done nothing but look at cats in hats. Here are a few selections to get you started. For more, check out Shironekoshiro on YouTube.