The Bubble

I live in a bubble.  I think nearly all of us do, surrounding ourselves with people similar to ourselves, who engage in cultural practices we approve of and often share.  We forget so many people are fundamentally different from us.

I should probably get out more, because I’m afraid I’ve started to confuse my bubble with reality.

“There is nothing more important than the white family and the white child. To aim for their preservation and safety should be our ultimate goal.”

That’s a quote from a website I wandered onto today, looking for something entirely different.  I haven’t linked to the source of the quote because I don’t want to generate more traffic for the site it came from.  If you really want to know the source, it shouldn’t be so hard to locate.  After all, I found it.  And I wasn’t even looking for anything related to white power.  It was just there.

And I want to think there is no such thing, and that the people who wrote that are not real.  But they are.  The world outside my bubble is real.

I remain shocked, although I should know better.  And a little frightened.

I suppose it isn’t automatically dangerous to assume that one’s own particular race or ethnicity is better than another.  Plenty of people seem to think it and manage to get through the day without violence or overt acts of hatred.  Except it is dangerous.

After all, it isn’t that hard to see the contributions of a variety of different cultures to our modern world.  It’s also not hard to see that there are good and bad people in every group–good and bad according to any standard you can think of.  If you can’t see those things, it’s because you are deliberately shutting your eyes to reality.

The only way to maintain a view of one’s own group as superior to all others is to maintain a psychic blindness.  I can almost understand that blindness, but not quite.

Almost, because I was raised in it.  I wasn’t raised with a sense of racial or ethnic superiority, but a moral one.  Let me tell you more about it.  I’ve described it before in earlier posts: primarily, in Just as I Am: Why I Joined a Cult. and in Terrorism: and Why I Tore up My Bible.  I want to hit on a slightly different aspect of it in this post: our sense of superiority.

We were the “one true way,” the “truth.”  And we said things like “Jesus is the same, yesterday, and forever.”  Meaning how we worshiped and believed was right, because it had never changed.  (The fact that it had didn’t stop us from saying it.)

That sense of moral superiority is common to most religious cults–perhaps all of them.  I don’t know that it’s a defining or necessary characteristic, but it’s so helpful to the proper functioning of controlling religious group that most of them have it.

Paranoia is useful, too.  Most cults believe that they are uniquely persecuted in some way–either directly in the form of discrimination, criticism or humiliation on the part of the larger society, or by “tempting” members to leave the group.

Paranoia and superiority increase a sense of bondedness to others in the group.  It creates an intense loyalty.  This isn’t unique to religious cults or high-control groups, but it is shared by groups that may want to deliberately manipulate members into supporting each other despite behaviors they might otherwise find morally troubling..

In that regard, they are extremely similar to other kinds of supremacist groups.  That’s not so hard to tease out even in a casual look at literature or other materials.  They are better and they are also in some way in danger.  Regardless of who “they” are.  I don’t know, but I would imagine the function would be the same: to intensify feelings of loyalty toward the group.  It also intensifies the sense of superiority: even our suffering is proof of our specialness.

And that, I think, is dangerous.

Because of our belief in our moral superiority, there could be no “bad” members in our group.  People sinned.  Of course, they did.  Jesus, after all, came to save sinners.  A certain degree of sin was expected and tolerated.  But some types of sin could not be openly addressed–mean-spiritness, abuse, or even criminal behavior to name same.  And these were often covered up and denied when possible.  The behavior was excused.  And sometimes, the offender was shunned.

You’ll see that in supremacist groups as well.  Members of the supposedly superior group with questionable  histories either don’t exist, are believed to have been driven to it by circumstance, or are associated in some way with hated groups: They are “Jew-lovers” or worse.

Evidence of certain kinds of diversity within the group is simply not allowed.  It can’t be seen.

In the 2x2s, the group I grew up, members who had strayed from the moral standards of the group had “lost out.”  Those who still believed in the primacy of the group–the main tenet, really–but had failed in some other, serious way (like pedophilia) were often protected by the group from outside scrutiny.  Criminal acts were denied or minimized.  The offender was seen as “struggling,” and “tempted.”  But never evil.  Evil was for outsiders.

That’s the dangerous belief.  When evil can only be committed by “outsiders,” by people who are in some important way “not like us” we become unable to see it when it is there and unable to act against it.

Further Reading:

The Massey Family. (2001).  Our Story.


What It’s LIke

I’ve been thinking.  I do that a lot.  Miraculously, this does not give me headaches, although other people complain it does that to them.  I try to take this as a compliment and keep doing it.

I was thinking about madness.

I took a course in college on women’s literature and madness, or something along those lines.  We read work like Dorothy Gilman’s A Yellow Wallpaper, thinking that depictions of women who were mad written by women had something to do with real life.

yellowyellowI realize now–I suppose I’ve known this for a long while–that madness in books has very little to do with madness in real life.  Psychosis, from what I can tell, is much less interesting and a lot more frightening than  many people think.

I can’t be exactly sure, but it seems that way from watching the people who go by my place yelling at someone who isn’t there in the middle of the night sometimes.

I think when people write about madness, they are really writing about a fear of madness, and they imagine psychosis taking the form of whatever they are frightened of.  I was afraid of madness for a long time.  I began to be able to face what I needed to face when I stopped being afraid of it, when I realized that whatever is wrong with your head you can live with it.  You can seek treatment, and you can live the most fulfilling life you can, in much the same way that someone who loses the use of an arm or a leg can seek treatment and get on with life.  It’s an impediment.  It may be a more serious impediment than a physical impairment.  But it isn’t a death knell.  Nor does it mean you need to stop thinking about what kind of life you want, or what kind of a person you intend to work at being.

The good news is that in the end what I needed to face wasn’t psychosis.  The madness in my head turned out to be a long ways from psychosis.

Flushing homeless individuals from encampments under the 10 freeway along the San Gabriel River.  Photo credit: Los Angeles Times.
Flushing homeless individuals from encampments under the 10 freeway along the San Gabriel River. Photo credit: Los Angeles Times.

I had two issues to contend with, really.  I mean, other than the usual I’d like to be a better person with less baggage and more emotional wholeness kind of stuff.  The first one was a profound sense that I wasn’t real.  This is a form of dissociation.  It’s not a fantastic problem to have, but it’s better than diabetes.  It doesn’t have to be permanent, and there are no injections involved in the treatment.  I wish I had known what it was a long time ago.  I might have had a lot less scary growing up.

The second issue was that I remembered events that no one else remembered, or seemed to remember, and that didn’t entirely seem possible.  Back to the madness–because that sounds like a hallucination, doesn’t it?  But sometimes there is only one eye-witness to an event.  Sometimes only one person survives horror, or no one else will admit it happened.  Not everything no one else can corroborate is made up.  But it is disorienting to be that person, isn’t it?  We look so often to others to confirm for us what is real.  And sometimes there is no one else that knows.  And that’s just how it is.

One of the ideas we kicked around in my college class–and I’ve heard it in the years since–is that crazy people are the sanest people there are.  I disagree with that.  I have always disagreed with that.  Sanity is not about reality, or knowing what is true and what isn’t.  Sanity is about being able to function.  It’s about being able to not strangle your loved ones because you think they might kill you first.  It’s about having a place to live that feels safe and comfortable and that the bulldozers won’t sweep away every time they want to clean up under the bridge.

You know what’s real when what you think allows you to function.  And that could be a mass delusion, but if there is a roof over your head, and you have something to eat, and you feel loved, then that’s better than some people are doing.

We don’t know how lucky we are to have our sanity.


She's also extremely tolerant.
She’s also extremely tolerant.

My cat amazes me.  She is, in a sense, proof to me of the mystery and wonder of the universe.

I say this because from time to time she acts in ways that suggest real intelligence.  This morning, she went and sniffed her pink mouse for minute, stood there, then walked over to her toy box.  She sniffed that intently for a minute as well, and then went back and jumped on her mouse with conviction.  After she’d got it nicely across the room, she walked away with that “looking for something to do expression” on her face, dove under the desk, and batted a ball out that I hadn’t realized was there or I would have put it away.  But she did.

This is a cat who knows where her toys are, and makes decisions about which one she wants to play with.  I’m not bragging about my cat, although of the two cats I’ve had, I have always figured she was the smarter one.  I’m just amazed at how this creature, with her small brain and no cerebral cortex remembers there’s a ball under the desk that she can’t see.

In living our hectic, technology-driven lives, I think we miss a lot.  Among them, what’s going on in the animal world, even with the animals under our noses.  It’s time to slow down and smell our dogs and cats.

For a Solitary Christmas

People worry about me on Christmas.  Well, they seem to.  Maybe they don’t.  Maybe no one, in fact, thinks much about what I’m doing on Christmas or whether I enjoy it.

Because I don’t have any family to speak of.  I’m an orphan.  I’m not alone, but my Christmas usually is.  People worry about that.  Or, like I said, they seem to.

Snapshot_20121225_8But Christmas is one of my favorite days of the year.  Almost everything is closed.  Most people are busy at home or away–with family, or on vacation.  Doing something that doesn’t involve me.  And generally I stay home and do more or less exactly what I please, with no interruptions, no obligations, and no sense that shouldn’t I be doing something different than what I’m doing?

For many people, Christmas is about family–at least, from the outside–it seems that way.  I’ve never really lived what you might call a normal life, so I’m not sure.  I’m just guessing: Family and warmth, and closeness, and love.  That seems to be what it’s about.

It doesn’t mean any of those things to me.  Never has.

Christmas, when I was growing up, was a cruel joke, a time my relatives made a show of pointing out to me how unloved, unappreciated, and unwanted I was.  It’s not hard to do this.  Tell your little girl to write a letter to Santa, asking for everything her little heart desires.  Then don’t give her any of it.  Give her something else.  Something she didn’t ask for.  It’s still a present.  She still has to be happy, and grateful, and do the dance of  how wonderful you are for giving it.  But the point is made.

So, I don’t associate Christmas with excitement, or presents, or love.

I do associate it with solitude.  Because after the presents were opened, and the dishes washed, and the wrapping paper gathered up and thrown away, I didn’t have to do anything.  No one needed me.  And I could do exactly what I wanted without anyone noticing or paying any attention to it.  No one criticized, interrupted, or distracted me from it.  I was left wonderfully, beautifully alone.  And solitude in a violent, contentious household is a glorious thing.

Because of that, Christmas represents for me a chance to look inside, to look back, and to reassess where I am.  Now, I know a lot of people do this after New Year’s.  But I’m usually busy at that point.  I’m preoccupied thinking about the future, about tomorrow, about the semester ahead.  But Christmas–at Christmas time there is literally nothing else to do.

It’s also a chance to read 3 or 4 books if I feel like it, or like today, to watch as many snippets of Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet as I could find and then all of a Kirov Ballet production of Swan Lake on Youtube.  Just because I felt like it.  While I ate the most delicious sambar I have ever managed to produce.  And cuddled my aging cat, who mightily dislikes the cold–or perhaps is just very fond of me.

I’m sharing this with all of you because I know I’m not the only one out there spending Christmas alone.  And I also know that for some people the solitude can be very lonely, and full of loss and disappointment.  I want to suggest–only because it has worked for me–that a day can be made to mean what you need it be mean.  If you are able to pull out from it what joy there is in it for you, instead of trying to turn it into the meaning and joy it seems to hold for everyone else, you can turn a day alone into something splendid.  A holiday alone involves losses–it must.  Human beings were meant to live alone.  But you can stay in your losses, or you can make what you can out of what’s left.  And what’s left, as I said, can be splendid.

Just a thought.

Happy Holidays

From time to time, someone complains about the shift from Merry Christmas to Happy Holidays.

Latkes are not really sweets.  But they are still damn good.
Latkes are not really sweets. But they are still damn good. Click on the image for the recipe.

I think they’re a bunch of cheap bastards.  When there is Christmas, New Year’s Day, Kwanzaa, Hanukkah, solstice, Epiphany, Saint Nicholas Day, Boxing Day, and even a few birthdays at this time of year I can’t see why someone only wants me to have a nice Christmas.

I am a fan of holidays, and I see no reason I have to be a member of a particular tradition to enjoy them.  If there is music, dancing, food, or fun of any kind, I’m all for it.  There is, I admit, a degree of selfishness involved in that.  I mainly just want the sweets.

Fantastic Christmas cookies from Pasta Princess.  Click for the recipe.
Fantastic Christmas cookies from Pasta Princess. Click for the recipe.

But, I also think our holidays are an important part of our cultures.  When we share them–instead of just sticking to our own–we learn something about each other.  We spread not just cheer, but some understanding.

So, if I wish you Happy Holidays, it’s not because I am afraid to offend someone who doesn’t celebrate Christmas. I’m wishing you happiness on all of them.  Even the ones I don’t know about.

So, Happy Holidays!

Call to Action

Periodically, when something dramatic (usually) or an important anniversary approaches (the 3-year mark on a massacre in Yemen), my Facebook becomes cluttered with calls to action, guilt-trips, and accusations that the right people don’t care enough.

I have always found these mildly irritating.  I am approaching fed up.

This is not a post about the evils of Facebook.  If we didn’t have social media platforms to communicate these idea, we would communicate them in other ways.  Instead of seeing them on newsfeeds, I would find them in letters to the editor and in overheard conversations on the bus.  I would hear them in face-to-face conversations.

Let me tell you why I’m fed up, though.

We like to tell others where they have gone wrong, what they should have done that they haven’t done, what they need to do now, but we fail to act ourselves.

As important as it is to educate others about the issues and events we are aware of–that others might not know so much about–there are generally a great number of other important and useful things that can be done to address those issues that concern us that aren’t being done when we simply exhort others to action.

If you want change, start with yourself.  Isn’t that the old saw?  And if it isn’t enough, do more.  If you can’t do more, accept the limits of your power in the world and be content with it as the best you are capable of doing.

I am deeply concerned with issues of peace and violence in the world.  There are some people who are very good at political action, at being involved with organized protests and appeals to government.  I’ve found I’m not so good at that.  I give up hope too quickly, become discouraged.  And I have trouble with group demonstrations–my cult background kicks in, and  I can’t whole-heartedly shout slogans in the streets.  I lack conviction about it.

I know this.

So I don’t do those things so much.  Instead, I try to do what I’m good at.  I’m good at understanding complex societal and psychological factors that converge in violence.  So I work at that.  I’m reasonably good, I think, at writing, so I do that.  And I can teach–and in the process of that, work towards cultivating empathy and positive self esteem, which are both among the better innoculations against violence.  And I hope that that is enough, because it is what I can do.  If it isn’t, I hope that someone else can do it.  Because there are more than 7 billion of us on this planet.  There should be someone in that number who can do something for us.

That is what allows me to live with myself every day, despite what is going on in the world.  I do what I can, I use my strengths in the service of what is important to me, and I trust that my best is enough.

You can try it if you want.  That’s as much of a call to action as I’m going to give.

Being Human

In The Last of the Friebergs, Dov (Beryl) Frieberg—one of the few survivors of the Sobibor death camp in Poland—concludes his account by saying that he wants a life like any other human being.

I’m not, in a way, surprised.  I feel the same way.  I don’t want to make a significant difference in the world.  I just want to go to work and come home again and pet my cat and talk to the people I love and be a person.

Why?  Because I wasn’t.  Those of us who survived torture and other kinds of severe trauma endured experiences that simply aren’t supposed to happen to human beings.  In addition, we often were forced to break the rules we associate with being human–either to survive or to avoid further abuse.  In some cases, we violated our own rules for ourselves.

I did.  In my last post, Who are We, Anyway? I described some of that: I killed a kitten.  I remember it well.  The snap of its neck in my hand.  Its small body, first struggling and then still.  It’s a feeling I will not ever forget.  That memory remains with me as one of the most horrifying events of all of my life.  As long as I live, it will be there.

There’s a reason torturers do this to their victims.  Whether it is forcing an inmate in Abu Ghraib to masturbate in front of prison guards or throwing food on the floor for starving men on the way to Buchenwald (as Elie Weisel describes in Night), the goal is to push someone outside the normal bounds of social constraints.

This does two things: it attacks the individual’s identity, full-force.  “Who am I?” we are forced to ask.  If I am willing to eat food off the floor like an animal, if I will masturbate in front of people I hate, if I will kill, then am I the person I always thought I was?

And it destroys our sense of worth, our resolve to survive, and our will to resist our captors.  If I am not who I thought I was, and not even fully human anymore, than am I worth protecting?  Am I worth fighting for?  Am I worth keeping alive?  A person without too much will can be easier to control.

I was a child growing up at the time when I was tortured.  I didn’t know really who I was just yet, what my worth might turn out to be, or how my character would develop.  I didn’t know anything.  It wasn’t so hard to convince me not only that I didn’t have rights the way other people did, but also that I didn’t deserve to have them.  I didn’t know I was human.

It wasn’t hard at all.