Monday, November 13, 2017

Bonding is the Trump card

I'm writing a book called Good Morning, Monster  which  explores five cases of severely abused patients I had when I was a psychologist . They clung to sanity by a thread and I am  exploring their heroism and bravery.

 Have you ever wondered why some people with terribly disturbed childhoods turn out to be normal sane adults? This book, about psychological bravery and the process of psychotherapy will describe how it happens and what tools these patients used to cling to the wreckage and rebuild themselves.

I have finally almost finished  the book and have now gone to the patients, some of whom  I have not seen for thirty years, to ask them if I may  write  about them.  I gave each of  them a five page summary of their case to give them a brief idea what I was up to. I agreed I would  show them the final copy when I have finished the book in hopes of getting their final approval.  

What surprised me by their reaction to the summary  was how loyal they were to their abusive parents. One man said, "Please don't say anything bad about my mother. She did the best she could do."  This is a mother who locked her son in an attic for five years with nothing in the room while she and her husband ran a Chinese Restaurant. When he got to kindergarten he had no language, neither Chinese or English so he failed.  

During a catch up lunch with another  ex-patient the first thing she did was tell me her father had died. She stayed at the hospital in Sault Saint Marie for weeks on end and in the last month he only recognized her. She said between sobs that when he died she felt that a part of her went with him. She paused, looked at me and said, “I know you think I’m crazy to have been so attached to him, but I always have been. I know he had huge faults, but I chose to overlook them and just take what he could give. I honestly feel he loved me as much as he was able. Nobody’s perfect. You’re right I’m a fighter. I fought to keep him in my life. "

 I think she recognized the dubious expression on my face so she continued, "I hope you aren't going to slam my father in your book."  I pointed out to her that he had abandoned her in a cottage in a woods in  Haliburton at the age of eight with her two younger siblings. He said he was going to get cigarettes. He was like the father in The Glass Menagerie, who worked for the phone company and fell in love with long distance.  She heroically managed to take care of her younger siblings throughout a Canadian winter until she was discovered stealing underwear for her brother at Giant Tiger and was put in foster care. After I reminded her of this she said,  "Has he always been the best dad? No. Did he always love me or give me all the love he had? Yes.

When I heard these two ex clients defence of their parents, I had three reactions. First I  realized I had underestimated bonding. (Bonding is the formation of a mutual emotional and psychological closeness between parent and child, and their newborn child. Babies usually bond with their parents immediately following birth.)  Loyalty to a parent,  no matter how much they have tortured and abandoned you, holds firm.  

Bonding exists in the animal world as well and it is almost impossible to break that attachment. At the Toronto Zoo a gorilla who was raised in captivity alone for the first few years and never saw a maternal bond  was artificially inseminated and gave birth. She had no idea what she had given birth to was a baby or that it had anything to do with her.  She never bonded to the infant. The baby had the natural instinct of  bonding to the mother.   The baby continually climbed on the mother to attach. The mother rejected the baby by batting it away.  Tragically, the baby would not give up. It got a concussion and brain injury and finally the psychologists but a little red football helmet on the baby trying to get the mother to bond. Ultimately after  the mother broke limbs they had to be separated. 

Second, I thought of all the narcissistic clients I'd seen  who are enraged at their parents over minor infractions. ( example: "I will never speak to my parents again because they won't pay for my wedding.") I wish they could have been flies on the wall when these people discussed their parents.  

Third, I realized I had to go back to the drawing board and look at my notes again and include what the difficult parent's had endured in their childhoods with their parents. I found with the mother who had locked her son away, she'd been a child in an opium den in time of war in Vietnam in the 30's. Her mother had allowed her to be burned by 'hot pipes' for money. She had no idea how to parent and from  her perspective locking her son away and earning money was protecting him. The father, of the other client who left his family in the forest had a sexually perverted father and a physically abusive mother.  He also behaved far better as a father than his parents had. 

Interestingly, the trepidation of my former patients made me go back and revamp the cases including what had happened to their parents in their childhood. I think the cases are rich  and more complex now.  There are no licenses or regulation for parenting. The most common tool for parenting is role modelling.  What you do as a parent is influenced by what happened to the parent in childhood.  Multi-generational abuse almost always gets handed down in some form.  I was thankful that I was reminded by my patients that although you can abhor some behaviour, to judge it is a mistake.  

Sunday, November 12, 2017


I was having coffee other day with some other writers and they were saying the worst occupational hazard they face is the dreaded Writer's Block; that is  facing the blank  page with nothing to say. Much to everyone's shock I said I'd never once  suffered from writers' block. Some one asked me what motivated me and I thought for a while and then had to admit, if I'm being honest, It is anger.  I recommend it for writers. First it is inexhaustible. Second,  it is always with you and  it gives you a cutting edge. Finally, anger gives you motivation and energy so you can surrmount  all obstacles.  There is nothing like righteous indignation to get you to speed to your computer in the morning.  Anger  has, of course, always been the emotion of choice for me and other Irish Catholics of the American variety.

The easiest way to explain how anger weaves its magic into the writing life is by exploring the  motivation for  my new book  (forthcoming)  titled Good Morning, Monster. The seed for this book originated at my high-school reunion several years ago. The principal had everyone stand up and clap for an alumnus of our class, Tony G.,  a military hero, who had been awarded the Purple Heart at the White House for an act of bravery performed in Vietnam. 

In terms of full disclosure,  this military 'hero' is the same  hyperactive boy who krazy-glued the mouthes shut on the fish I was using for my science project on oxygen for the New York State Science Fair. After months of work, I came into the lab to find them lock-jawed floating on the top of the tank.  Don't bother wasting your breath telling me that was fifty-six years ago and I should give up my resentment.  I nurture grudges. Have you ever heard that there is no such thing as Irish Dementia? Why--because they never forget the grudges.

 The principal waxed eloquent about the traits of war heroes saying they had to have courage, selflessness, humility, patience, caring, and tenacity. Of course, what he said was true and I agree, we  need war heroes. I mean no one wanted Hitler in the white house in 1940.  However, as the principal was expounding on military heroes, I started getting hot under the collar thinking  of the unsung psychological heroes in my private practice in psychology. I have seen more bravery in some of my patients than General Patton ever saw in World War two.

My patients’ bravery is not time limited as a war hero’s is; it occupies their entire life. Why is it that heroism is not measured in duration? Most of the time heroes are brave for one moment in time or in testosterone flashes.  My patients had to be brave every day.  In his Nobel Prize acceptance speech Faulkner said bravery was sometimes, "simply  enduring".

If you are an abused child,  life can be your own personal war. Children with cruel parents have to get up every morning and fight a new battle against incredibly uneven odds. They are captive, powerless, behind enemy lines and are held prisoner. They have no loving childhood to fall back on for personal strength; there is no armistice in sight and there will be no glory at the end. Back wards of psychiatric hospitals are full of these grown children who sank from battle fatigue and fell into some form of mental illness. The streets of our cities are beset with substance abusers that could not fight another day. They had PTSD before they were five and had no veterans’ services to turn to. 

As my anger surged, my book began to take form. I would counter the military hero and offer another form of heroism; The kind that is a lifelong fight. There has been a lot written about victims of late and I want to explore strength and resistance. I aim to celebrate my patients' bravery. They won't have my old high school principal's and the White House's adoration, but their stories  will see the light of day, and it will be my way of giving them the Medal of Honour.

Monday, July 3, 2017

Bud, anyone?

I was talking to Bruce my advertising friend  about the new Budweiser commercial that was aimed for the 4th of July. It is where Adam Driver, ( oddly enough) drives across country to a disabled veteran’s home to tell the family that the daughter has a scholarship provided by Budweiser.  Bruce and I could not agree on efficacy of the ad.  It worked for me and he thought it approached The Bachelor in its degree of hokum.

Surprised by our different views, I began to go deeper into what actually is the Budweiser market. What do men and women want who drink Bud? After all targeting your group makes an ad, if not good, is at least successful.
I came across what I thought was an astonishing study and survey done on Bud advertisers. What female Bud drinkers want is a man who is, and I quote from the study “authentic.”  Ok, I get that. It makes sense  you want someone genuine who is not a sleaze artist or some bogus goofball. Just be real; be honest; don’t have a false persona. I could see going for that kind of man in an ad or even in real life. It tells you the Bud woman wants what I want in a man. I mean at least it is not way off the mark.  Of course “Authentic” can be misleading for you can be an authentic psychopath—but let's not delve into semantic hair splitting.
Now what kind of girl does a Bud man want? Please sit down before you read this. If you take heart medicine and you are a woman, please pop a pill under your tongue. You will think you are in a really warped time machine. Ready? The woman they want is, and I quote again, “Low-maintenance!” That’s right. They could have picked intelligent, genuine, funny, ambitious, kind, family oriented. Nope.  They want “Low-maintenance.”
What exactly does low-maintenance look like in a woman in a relationship with a man? She wants whatever the man wants. (That is referred to by the Bud man as ‘No drama.”) She doesn’t need restaurants or dating. She will just stay home, have a beer, ( Yup, a Bud)  and two minute sex which she says was perfect and then say goodnight. If you don’t call her on time or cancel to watch football with your bros she is fine with it. She has no demands, which is what the Bud man wants.
 Why doesn’t she have any demands? What does it take to be “low-maintenance.”  There is no one home and she has no boundaries and denies her personal needs. That ends when one day she just gets depressed ( as the Rolling Stones say there is a little yellow pill for mothers--I suspect low maintenance mothers) or silently walks out, or the man walks out because he is bored stiff or not stiff.  “Low maintenance” is a way of saying I want a woman with no needs. The only important needs are my own. Also you never work on a relationship or have romantic highs with out sorting out personal needs of everyone in the relationship. Low-maintenance women are the ones that are still on the Titanic.

The  results of this study done by Bud reflect any decade since the 30’s. It does not reflect any social change. I think that male Bud drinkers are living in a time warp and mistake fear and powerlessness in women as a time when “America was great.” Bud drinkers carry on, but I’ll take a foreign beer anytime.

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Horns-a plenty

This piece on my elk battle was originally published in Reader's Digest in 2001. However, I am going back to do another residency at Banff this September 2016  so I am blogging it.  I think it is worth republishing since there is never enough known about rutting. 


I’ve never been a good student.  Whatever is happening in the front of the class usually fails to captivate my attention.    On the plane I’m the type that never listens to the disaster routine that the stewardess regurgitates about all the different ways you could die and the heroic ways the person at the emergency exit could save you. Instead I read the En Route magazine and wait for the drinks trolley.
True to form at the orientation lecture at the Banff School for the Arts, high in the Alberta Rockies, where I’d gone to take a mystery writing course,  I tuned out the forest ranger who dressed like a Canadian Mountie in a pointed hat and high boots.  Instead I checked out the anthropological differences between the mystery writers and the poetry writers. The Elmore Leonard wannnabes were muscular, smoked filter less cigarettes, wore tight black pants, had short spiky hair and red lipstick. The poetry writers were wan with Botticelli hair, wore wire rimmed glasses, ironed blouses (where did they find them), baggy pants, and no  makeup.  The New York writer beside me was also happy to ignore the lecture on “The Emergency Measures in the Event of a Bear or Elk attack” and regale me with her mystery plot about  a lap dancer who kills men with pelvic thrusts. 

Instead of listening to the content of the lecture we focused on the form.  As this giant blonde Albertan told us about the annual rutting of the elk, the New Yorker said she wouldn’t mind mounting the Mountie, or locking horns with that Nelson Eddy of the new millennium.  She said she had a weakness for men who wore pointed hats and tagged horns.
As those around us diligently wrote down what to do when faced with an elk, of course those in the poetry section used fountain pens, we giggled uncontrollably saying that for sure these guys had seen one too many episodes of wild kingdom.  We agreed that men in charge had to have a “Beware Schtick”.  It’s part of “the territorial imperative”. Translated it means, “Hey man, we are in the know. This is our turf.”  In New York it’s Central park at night and taking a cab to Harlem and here in Alberta it’s bear and elk.  Men are here to tell you what’s dangerous and the women are here to be scared.  But as the New Yorker said, it had its appeal. She said it got to “the inner gatherer” in her.  I agreed they didn’t make those coonskin Davy Crocket caps for nothing. It’s all part of the collective unconscious.  
She found elk a tad more frightening than I did for all I could imagine were those guys who called themselves benevolent, wore Wall Mart suits had flushed faces and  folded their arms across  their chests and then flapped their hands in greeting to one another.  I think they had a secret handshake and horns on their hats. (Wasn’t the father on Happy Days an Elk?) Actually they are sort of scary when you think about it.  Would you rather run onto a two or a four- legged elk in the forest?      

The muscular Mountie, or as the woman from Vancouver in my class referred to him as the “I’m Game Warden”, earnestly regaled us with how important elk horns have become to the Alberta economy. According to studies at the University of Alberta, testosterone  increases at least fivefold when men take ground up  E.V.A., or Elk Velvet Antler for the initiated. Women may take it as well since it does not increase testosterone, but only enhances oestrogen. I guess that means they don’t grow horns. One can only imagine what women do with more oestrogen: freeze more casseroles, laugh harder at men’s jokes, begin to find Tom Jones even more  attractive, buy a Victoria’s Secret preferred customer card?
 I always wondered why all those elk and deer horns were such a big deal. I don’t know why people scoff at Freud when what he says about sexual motivation seems to be fool-proof.  I should have known when even our bicycle courier at work wears one of those silly hats with turquoise felt elk horns sprouting from the crown that sex, in the form of male virility, was behind the whole thing.  People that live in the Rockies have elk horns mounted on the front of  their car grills  the same way the MTV’s on the east coast  have Black fly bug screens.  Over every fireplace the doe-eyed elk follows your gaze and no matter from what angle you look at him, he appears to be gazing back at you, silently begging you to get over this dorky velvet horn thing and get him down off the wall.
The next morning I was leaving my forest cabin and lo and behold there were three giant elk that had to weigh around 1000 lbs. and have a five-foot antler span.   I decided even though they were blocking the way I’d just motor between them.  However, as I stepped forward they closed rank.  I inched ahead.  One began scraping his hoof on the pine needled forest floor.  I wondered what that meant.  I thought it had a Hemingway ring of   “I’m ready to take you on little lady since these Rockies are my turf.”  It was one of those classic I’m charging numbers. At least that’s what bulls in the cartoons used to do when smoke came out of their noses and ears.  Weren’t all those horny quadrupeds in the same genus if not same species?  One lowered his head so his antlers were parallel to the ground and, more importantly, perpendicular to my heart. 

I racked my brain. ( As opposed to the elk who had a rack on his brain).  Now what had that Mountie told us to do?  I hadn’t listened--story of my life. There was something about a phone number.  I backed into the door and checked the automatic dial . There it was – “elk  911". I pressed the number and my adrenalin stopped pumping as the familiar voice of our favourite Game Warden said ,  “Elk 911.  How may I help you?”  I explained my situation. “Oh that’s our old boy Donnie.  He’s kickin’ up his heels for the spring calving.  Just likes to show off for the girls. You should see him in rutting season. He really goes to town.”  After explaining that I was an angry, hungry and trapped Homo Sapien, he suggested I should hold up a large broom on the top of my head and then I should balance a hat on top of that and walk out and face the elk.  In turn, the elk, would think I had a large rack, become intimidated and would disperse.   Fearing that the kind warden was retaliating for our rude behaviour at orientation night, I enquired  “Are you serious?” In a tone of one who had dealt with the doubting Thomas from the East on more than one occasion he said,  “Trust me”.
What were my options? I held the broom handle on top of my head with a blue jays cap precariously balanced on the top of the pole and stomped out on the front porch and strode confidently, far more confidently than a I felt, down the porch stairs. Now I know elk aren’t rocket scientists, never having grazed in the Harvard yard, but were they dumb enough to fall for this? If an elk came out of the forest with a pen and pencil, even though I’m blonde, I am quite sure I would not have mistaken him for a writer.  

But lo and behold the elk took one look at my new horns and tore away as though my rack compared to no other.  I had an antler span of well over five feet and they knew it.  Take that you velvet antlered single digit I.Q’d cowards.   I confidently strode down the forest path and past a large group of music students from England who were on their way to breakfast.  Naturally I looked a bit odd so I explained to the gaggle that I had to balance a broom stick on my head with a baseball cap swinging from the top of that to ward off  the elk that were following me.  However, when I looked around there were no elk.   They had run off into the mountains. Being English  they said they understood perfectly, and quickly excused themselves and rushed ahead. 
Thinking I had put elk behind me, I went to class to begin an exercise in researching for accuracy in plot details.  Our teacher suggested we work in pairs. My partner was a writer from Calgary who is currently writing a mystery story set  in Banff  with elk  as the main focus.  I wondered what kind of messuages was this?  Who was the detective-- Bullwinkle? She patiently explained that the killer   makes his murders appear  to have been perpetrated by an elk gone wild.   Sensing my scepticism, the elk- murder- writer told our group that there have been a plethora of human elk conflicts. In fact it was pointed out in Research Links, the Parks Canada periodical, that there were seventy-five incidents reported in Banff alone in 1991 up from three in 1987. The most current statistics suggest that the fatalities have now doubled.  Last year a Japanese tourist was actually impaled while taking a picture outside of the Banff Springs Hotel.         The elk murder woman asked me If I’d go with her at dawn, to hear the cry of the elk as it looks for it’s mate.  Apparently they make an unearthly cry as though it were their last breath.  She wanted to hear it so she could write about it in her murder description.  I was writing a Freudian Murder mystery--what was I going to do-- take an excursion into her psyche, I petulantly thought as I trooped through the pre-dawn forest on her elk excursion.

Even in April we had to wear full winter gear-- even though by noon you could wear shorts a tee shirt. I guess that’s what they mean by mountain air.  The first night nothing happened, the next nothing.  Now I was getting too tired to write, but Donnie had become my Moby Dick.  I, the Ahab from the east, was determined to find him.  Up again at 5:00 a.m., stalking  and finally we heard the unmistakable bellow.  Elk-mystery-woman was ecstatic. It sounded as though someone was dying, literally being turned inside out.  It sounded primordially eery and somehow gut wrenching, actually perfect as a murder mystery sound. I had to hand it to elk-murder-mystery-woman on the sound score. Was it a cow that had lost her young?  Or the bull looking for someone to make his breakfast and tidy up his horns.    The echo of the mountains threw us off.  We kept losing the sound and finally we came upon it in it’s final desperate heave. There, doubled over a stump retching, was one of the British high school music students.  He looked up green at the gills and said between heaves in a proper British chirp,  “ I seem to be tossing my cookies on my way home from a rather protracted evening”. As an explanation for why we were stalking a drunken teenager at dawn, I offered,  “Sorry, I thought you were an elk.”

Friday, October 2, 2015

Bullying in Montreal

Today I gave a talk about my book, Too Close to the Falls, at a CEJEP  (College) in Montreal, which was populated mostly by students from other countries. The students were very taken by my chapter on bullying called Anthony McDougall.  The gist of the story is in Catholic school in grade four Anthony bullied me and no one would help. I asked my parents for help and they said, turn to the principal. The principal said to pray (didn’t work), my mother said to invite Anthony to lunch and make him a friend (Insane).  Roy, the delivery car driver at my dad’s store, told me to hit Anthony with something sharp when he lease expected it. (worked like a charm). 

I was explaining to the students that in a memoir you have to explain different realities. In the bullying chapter there were three realities: my parents democratic view, the catholic church, and The rough and tumble world of Roy.  Juxtaposing realities is inherently exciting, loaded with inner conflict and is a good technique to use in a memoir.

I then asked the students if they had any conflicting realities they had to juggle.  To open them up I said I assumed they had to keep several balls in the air since their parents were from one culture and Canada had another culture.

A smattering follows of what I was told. I used their voices because they were so succinct.
-- I am from Rwanda. My brother was a child soldier and I had to get away from him by swimming a river.  The rebels killed my parents and now my uncle who was a rebel, lives in Canada.  Thanksgiving does not work at my house.
-- I am from Afghanistan and the Taliban bullied our family and my father was killed in the town square for a reason we never understood. Now in Canada my mother does not ever want me to talk to anyone outside of our family.  That is paranoid so I just don’t tell her I go out with friends who are not relatives.  

When I went to have a  coffee in the school cafeteria after the talk, some students from the class joined me and more stories poured out. These were too personal to say in the full classroom.
--My mother and I were raped in the same room by some Serbian soldiers.  We left the scene silently and never talked about it. When I got to Canada I learned that you were supposed to talk about trauma or bullying. I tried to bring up what happened to us, but my mother hit me and said it never happened. She said if our father knew of it he would leave us. I have to balance the two cultures.  I am learning to do it but it is hard.

 A boy whose father and brother were killed in Afghanistan and who fled to Pakistan alone at 16 said, “War is just bullying on a large scale.”  He said he fantasizes every day about attacking those who killed his relatives.

After an hour of stories I left Montreal feeling that being bullied by a boy who pulled my hair out was fairly minor in the world of ‘bullying’.  One thing I was glad about was that the Anthony McDougall story touched so much within these students that they carry around every day.