Re: Travon — We’re Ready

I’m a non-professional blogger and my corner of the blogosphere  is growing but I think is usually seen  by, I assume, my group of Friends from Facebook. My strength as a writer has grown over the past two-plus years, and I have come to believe that my opinion matters as much as the next person’s. But something weird happened a few days ago. After a bad day at work, I tried to remember what was important about what I knew as a therapist. I wrote like I always do, but this time I wrote about Travon Martin. Within 20 minutes, I had 11 hits. Within 2 hours, before I went to bed, I had nearly 30.  “Wow”, I thought, “my friends must be up late tonight”. It is now about 48 hours later and my blog has three hundred and fifty  hits and no comments but someone trying to sell a song about him, I think. The highest amount of readers ever for one of my articles — and it took a few months ! — was about 100 hits. The last time I had a big day, I think it was about 150 hits about a variety of things — a great day for me.

But the last two days have not been  great days for me  — those look like controversy or support in the comments section. I never see those coming either, but I know them when they happen.  This is not about me. This great day, these 350 hits — is about the subject of the article — Travon Martin — and there is no controversy.  I went to church this morning and heard a sermon about it as tragedy and heard the pastor struggle with making meaning of it all. I got home tonight and another friend published his sermon about Travon Martin. He also acknowledged it was a tragedy. He also used his faith to struggle to make meaning of it all. Online, friends were taking pictures with hoodies. In the news, there was the hoodie march. Even the politicians got it right. President Obama said exactly the right thing in support of the parents Even Newt Gingrich, while making political hay, said that it was a tragedy. Obama’s folks fired back about politics, but the fact is even white people on the far right know that what happened to Travon shouldn’t have happened. The phrase “he’s black”  and “I feel threatened” should never be used in the same sentence without further proof or without logic.  We all know this.  Even if there are extenuating circumstances, it doesn’t matter.  We all agree that shooting someone, just because of the color of their skin, is wrong. We, as a nation, haven’t agreed on anything for at least the last 3 years and probably not before that. We agree on this.  Parents of any child who wears a hoodie realize that it could be their child. Parents of white kids know this is wrong and they stand in solidarity with parents of black kids. Parents of rich kids don’t ask about whether Travon was too “ghetto” or about his social class. They, too, know tragedy when they see it. I don’t know how it happened, but it did. Even the might gun lobby has been quiet on this. They haven’t been silent on the topic of guns for at least 30 years.

As we Christians approach a holiday where innocent, unjustifiable death brought healing for millions through a movement of unlikely allies, we stand at the precipice of the same thing happening due to a young black boy in a hoodie.  In our hearts, we are ready. Maybe it’s time we put some sort of action behind it. Maybe we should begin building on the bridges which have occurred here. Maybe we should spend time together as blacks, whites, Hispanics, Asians, Multiple-race people — as Americans — getting to know each other, discussing race and fear and whatever divides us. Maybe we should just hang out after work (or while we’re looking for work!), without the media, without the politicians, without the lawyers, without those interested in ideology above people — any ideology.  This is the time, while we all agree on something for once. Let’s not waste this chance to make meaning out of tragedy. I, for one, am willing to let Travon have his day.



Rev. John Madsen-Bibeau, LMFT


I Can’t Imagine — Trauma, Depression, The Truth, African-Americans, and Travon Martin

I just finished watching the Rep. of Travon Martin’s Florida district, Frederica Wilson, speak about the tragedy that happened in her community.

Here’s the link to the speech:  Once again, the press missed the boat on this one. The description of the link says: “Rep. Frederica Wilson (D-Fla.) denounced shooter George Zimmerman as “a renegade wannabe policeman neighborhood watchman.”  I understand that this is the video equivalent of a headline, so they had to choose something to highlight, but it is not even remotely the point of her speech.

First off, the speech is not primarily about the shooter, it is about the victim. Secondly, it is not just about this victim, it is about a pattern of victims. Lastly, it is about the surviving victims who watch another victim die.  In other words, Rep. Wilson is a victim of George Zimmerman’s bullet, in a different way than Travon Martin, but a victim nonetheless. I, for one, cannot imagine the pain she, and others like her, are in. I would just like to give further value to her cries.

As a therapist, I see variations on cases like hers all the time. I frequently deal with what therapists call “trauma”.  Trauma in general usage means “tragedy”  — some God-awful thing that happened that shouldn’t have or is hard to watch.  For therapists, it is  a very specific thing with specific results and consequences. In individual therapy, I am most likely to deal with sexual abuse of a white person or a woman of any nationality than than anything else.  This doesn’t mean that abuse only happens to that group, by any means.  It’s just who I see and what brings people to my office. Other forms of trauma are more focused on violence without sexuality being involved — veterans, people in car crashes, natural disasters, and gang violence or other violence related to crime. Other therapists get more of those cases for whatever reasons.

When I was trained, but not much since then, clinical trauma was defined as an event having two characteristics:

1) Something happened  that threatened to disrupt bodily integrity (i.e. your body could come apart if this event happened and you were close enough to it)

2) You were (or felt)  powerless to stop it.

It takes both pieces to set someone up for psychological trauma and I usually stumble across it when a person’s feelings are all over the map — what we call “emotional dis-regulation” — or they are depressed but don’t know why.  I find that trauma usually has two pieces to it as well — the traumatic event and the “cap” someone else put on it that makes it explode emotionally later. Once the “cap” is removed and the explosion dealt with, the trauma can be processed and dealt with. Until then, bizarre or depressed behavior happens for no apparent reason.

It’s not bad enough that your buddy got his head blown up in the war. It’s that, for some reason, you were blamed for it. It’s not bad enough that a person was abused this way or that. It’s that their parent or parents said “you can’t tell anybody”. It’s not just that you witnessed the death of someone you cared about. Some system or agency or person said it shouldn’t affect you because it’s “not that big a deal” or because  you should be big enough to handle it because you’re … a marine, a man, someone who should be used to it, etc. This implies you’re a “whiner” or “too feminine” or “too emotional” if you complain. That piece — the shame, denial, guilt, or meaning placed by someone else — is the “cap” I’m talking about. It re-enforces or creates the powerlessness that psychological trauma requires.  Once that is removed, the traumatized person appears to go” nuts” for awhile — dealing with the anger, rage, fear, that has grown in the  fermenting parts of the person’s psyche.  That’s the scary part. Once that’s over, real change can begin to happen and the situation can really stabilize — in a deeper and more abiding way than the pretend  stability the person, family, system, or organization had before.

I’m sorry to get so technical, but it is this precise thing that Rep. Wilson is talking about when she spoke to the House of Representatives. In Travon’s senseless killing, she was reminded of another traumatic situation which had no resolution — and another and another and another. When she says she is tired of burying young black men, she is defining the trauma that is Black American life. She is exhausted and doesn’t want re-experience  the death of  one person again.  And she doesn’t want to feel powerless anymore if it does happen.

When she thinks of Travon Martin, she is reminded of the senseless and violent death of Martin Lee Anderson, a young black man who was beaten by authorities while at a “boot camp” for juveniles. The whole thing is captured on official footage from the “boot camp” and was probably played over and over until it was ingrained in the psyches of those who watched. Even one viewing was probably enough if you identified with the boy in some way. That’s the “traumatic event that threatened bodily integrity”. President Obama’s statement “if I had a son, he’d look like Travon” is just the kind of identifying that I makes it a traumatic event.

Regarding Martin Lee Anderson and Rep. Wilson, the hopelessness came later as “person after person was not punished”, and in fact were “promoted” by the system. Rep. Martin and anyone who identified with Martin Lee Anderson felt were reminded that they are powerless over their own lives. In short, if it could happen to him, it could happen to them, too. Rep. Martin stopped there, but made mention of other tragedies where authorities killed blacks for no particular reason than race.

As she talked of Travon Martin and Martin Lee Anderson, I was reminded of Rodney King who was clearly — on film! — beaten to within an inch of his life by police while posing no real threat to any one of the men wielding clubs, guns, and badges. Black America (and anyone who has dealt with violent policemen in L.A.), couldn’t help but identify  with Mr. King. When those men were found “not guilty of wrongdoing”, people watching it had two possibilities: Learn the lesson that they were powerless to prevent it and get depressed or express their reality and be out of control. They chose the latter, which, sadly, reinforced the image society already had of them. I suspect that they became further depressed, anxious, and\or “acted out”  in a variety of ways so the community looked… well, like Watts did in the 1980’s.

I can’t imagine living my life this way. I can’t imagine knowing — actually knowing — that if authorities chose to, for no other reason than the color of my skin, they could kill me or my children. I can’t imagine burying child after child, simply because they had my skin color. I can’t imagine having guns drawn on me for being “in the wrong neighborhood”, regardless of who I was and what I had achieved in life. When I lived in Bridgeport, I remember Alvin Penn — a state Senator!!!! — being pulled from his car by police in a suburb (where he lived, BTW) because they believed he “didn’t belong there” and “must have been casing houses”. I further remember him getting no justice on the matter and the police claiming they were within their rights to suspect him that way.

In a world where Alvin Penn is Martin Lee Anderson is Rodney King is Travon Martin, we have a problem. They have a trauma that I can’t even imagine. President Obama and Rep. Wilson don’t have to feel helpless. They have the power to get some justice out of the system regarding the events they have  witnessed. Wilson used Martin Anderson’s death to fund an agency to prevent it happening again, but here it is with another face in another body in another year. We’ll see how Obama does with it all.

The way to prevent trauma and the emotional chaos or depression that comes with it is two-fold. 1) Don’t have the event occur in the first place and 2)  Don’t reinforce the powerlessness of the victims to stop it. If we’re going to have a deep and lasting peace in this country between races, we need to do both of those things.





Promises Not Kept? What Happened To “A Man’s Word Is His Bond”?

I was flipping through some newspaper-or-other on line, and began following the Doonesbury cartoons that many papers have chosen to not print. The version of them I found was in the LA Times. Down in the corner was a small article re: my alma mater, Cal State University, Los Angeles.

Actually the article was about most schools in the Cal State system and how the were going to close off enrollment until the knew what the budget looked like for the state in general and the state’s education system specifically. I thought to myself, “What a waste! Such a great system gutted.” In 1981 or 1982, I moved back to California because I had run out of money and I missed my family and I was trying to figure out what to do with my life/time. My parents explained that, if I was an in-state student, college was really cheap out there. After I arrived, I discovered just how cheap it was. Pasadena City College, where I first went, cost next to nothing. I think I paid $300 per semester, plus books, or something like it. There I met my friend Ron Bottitta, a few girls I was chasing, and many more people — including a substitute in my “dummy physics” class who was from the Jet Propulsion Laboratories.

Later, I went to Cal State Los Angeles, where I began to understand the complexities of the human mind — including that of a friend of mine, Margo Moten (now Margo Walker). Vernon Kiker — a brilliant, if slightly strange man — taught about the biology of the mind and experimental psychology. The school also had an incredible food court. I used to be able to get a huge taco-salad-in-a-bowl for dinner there and be stuffed all night. At the time, I think I paid $2500 per year (yes, twenty-five hundred dollars) or maybe it was per semester. In any case, I could afford it. As I graduated in 1984 and moved to seminary, I thought to myself , “no one can ever say to me that they lived in California and couldn’t afford school”. If you didn’t go, it was because you didn’t want to or simply weren’t smart enough. When I asked my parents about this, I understood. California considers it an investment in their future. That many students raised the bar for everyone and gave the state all kinds of smart people to work in their industries or whatever. Silicon Valley was just a dream to some people at the time. Sure enough, though, when the time came to create all those jobs up north, there were people who knew how to design and build these things.

Shortly thereafter, the federal government started making loans and grants harder to get and the state government there began raising fees and at some point, people could say that they lived in California and couldn’t afford school. Whatever promise the State of California made to its citizens — implied or planned — it no longer chooses to keep.

Meanwhile, in New Hampshire in the next few days, they vote about taking away the rights of same-sex couples to get married in New Hampshire, after the state already decided to allow for gay folks to get married there years ago. They did this in California (most notably in San Francisco) a few years ago and — simply as a matter of how — I could not grasp the concept. I was once told that “words are like toothpaste. You can’t put them back in once they’re out”. I still believe that.

Remember how all of this started with Doonesbury? Well, the abortion right that Doonesbury talked about is also one of those things that is slowly losing round. In 1972, Roe v. Wade said that women had the right to choose their healthcare options regarding abortion. Since the 1980’s (and maybe before), people have been taking shots at that decision. While I am not “pro-abortion”, I am “pro-choice”, I don’t understand how we once thought women had brains and enough intelligence to make decisions about their own bodies, and now we think they don’t.

I know that education, gay rights, and abortion are all “liberal” ideas, but still, how do you take away rights once they have been given? The San Francisco case is a perfect example. The mayor decided (or maybe the state’s attorney general) that it was unconstitutional to keep adult homosexuals from having the same rights as adult heterosexuals when it came to money, taxes, property, etc. When he did it, the “cat was out of the bag” and folks ran to get married before the state “took it back” somehow. Sure enough, some period later, the California Supreme Court took up the issue and decided the mayor or whoever wasn’t able to make that decision, but there were now hundreds of people who were –according to state documents — married. Now what? I believe the marriages remained legal, but no new ones were granted for awhile.

Forgetting whether or not there are religious claims made about it or not, regardless of what people think or feel about the idea, how do you put the genie back in the bottle? You don’t. Whatever progress was made that gained people’s trust or won their hearts and minds, still is true. It took hundreds of years for slaves to be freed. The gay rights movement was actually really quick in getting its agenda heard. Women’s right to vote took forever in America. The right to make choices about when they’d get pregnant took less time, but in any case the case was made and it was found to be true. Since each of these decisions, black folks have gotten to prove themselves as members of Congress, heads of the UN, and now president of the US. Can we really say they don’t deserve the right to vote once they’ve proven they can lead? Since women had the right to vote, we have women of all stripes — conservative, moderate, and certainly liberal — come forward and lead in all kinds of places. Can we now say that women can’t make decisions? If — in the bizarrest of all worlds — Sarah Palin actually became President, could she or any of us make the claim that women aren’t smart enough to make decisions as basic as ones about their bodies? After Hillary Clinton can we really say that women can’t handle big political decisions? No, we can’t. After gay couples have gotten married, some successfully and some not, can we still say they can’t have relationships? Not without denying what we know — that gay folks fall in love, can handle marriage as well as heterosexuals, and regardless of what we thought before, can raise kids and do so very well.

I am not saying that people don’t have the right to disagree with policies. Not at all. One of my favorite slogans of all time is “if you don’t like abortions, don’t have one!”. This rule applies to all kinds of things. If you don’t like gay marriage, don’t marry someone of the same gender. If you don’t like inter-racial marriage, don’t marry someone of a different race. It’s all very simple, it seems to me.

But back to promises… My wife and kids and I got to see Danl Malloy, our governor, speak about his plan to revamp education because he wants to offer an educated workforce to prospective companies in the state. Remember what I said about California? The truth of that idea is still there and Connecticut would like to join the bandwagon, albeit a few years late. At the meeting, though, there were a lot of people from the Teachers Unions in the audience. They brought up a good point. Their point? We promised these teachers things like pensions and tenure and such. If I had worked all my life, being dragged forward with the promise that I’d be able to retire comfortably or not have to worry about my job, I’d be really upset that the promise suddenly turned out to be lies.

In the 80’s when the market crashed and all those seniors found out that their retirement plans had been thrown out the window by some scandal in the financial markets, many spent all their lives being promised, “if you do the right thing for us, we’ll do the right thing for you”. It turns out that only one half of that bargain was kept. Did Bernie Madoff ever give back all that money? If he did, I haven’t heard it. Ill-gotten gains remain while deserved gains are taken away. This is not the way things should be. We all know it and so many of us are demoralized. Madoff and his clan of ne’er-do-wells should be made to give the money back so that promises made are promises kept.

This is not to say that changes don’t have to be made — an education costs way too much these days — but there must be a way to start a new era where people with old promises have their promises kept if we can’t keep up with them for some reason. Laws and licenses change all the time, with “grandfather clauses” and such. I get that. But if we simply don’t want to keep our promises, it seems to me that the answer is “too bad”. Any parent worth their salt knows that you should never make a promise that you don’t intend to keep. There’s a reason for that. If you want your kids to trust you, they have to be able … to trust you. Your word must be your bond.

Now, this article is called “A Man’s Word is His Bond”. This is one of those things that is what it is right now. I assume that women have some form of the saying, but I don’t know. What I do know is that men used to have moral codes and one of the things we used to say is “a man’s word is his bond”. A handshake was good enough to cement a contract in the old days. The magic wasn’t in the handshake itself, it’s power was the meaning behind it — the understanding, the covenant, the shared belief in telling the truth. If those days have left is, we need to get them back. If they haven’t, we need to make sure we don’t give them up. We have come too far already to give up proof that we can be humans at our best.



Couldn’t Happen To A Nicer Guy… Rush and America

I just got done watching Steven Colbert’s take on the whole Rush Limbaugh scandal about contraception and a Georgetown Law Student. Sadly, I learned something. There weren’t just a few quips about the student. “Slut” and “prostitute” were not the only names he called her. There was a lot of talk about the woman who wanted to testify about contraception. He said things like, “people are lining up around the block to have sex with her”. (I kid you not, he actually did).I was amazed, but not amused. I knew it got bad on his show, but I didn’t realize it got that bad, ever.

He has always had to deal with people on the left criticizing his positions. He has always had trouble finding the balance between too much controversy and not enough controversy to keep him on the air. But make no mistake about it, somebody was listening to him. Millions of people listened and believed in him. Furthermore, sponsors knew it, so they sent their money that way.And as long as sponsors sent their advertising dollars his way, Rush didn’t need to care about what was said. He was going to have a job.

But something happened. And, while that something that happened isn’t good for Mr. Limbaugh, it is a good sign for America.

Since this debacle, people have cancelling their advertisements on his show. Peter Gabriel is upset about Rush using his music in the show, the student has answered back, the President got involved personally, Republican candidates have had to distance themselves from him, (and apparently done poorly at it, per Colbert and Jon Stewart), standing Representatives and Senators have — both Democrat and Republican  distanced themselves from Mr. Limbaugh … and the hits just keep on coming. It does not look good for Mr. Limbaugh or his career. It couldn’t have happened to a nicer guy.

I could care less about his politics or his power in the conservative world. I just don’t listen to his show. I keep my blood pressure down this way, and I avoid hearing any more absurdity and hate in a day that’s inevitably filled with it seeing clients. Not that my clients hate or are absurd generally, but the people who put them in their pain frequently did. In any case, I avoid AM talk radio, with all of its yelling and things that drive me mad.

What excites me is the reaction to it all. Suddenly, other men, men who have pretended they didn’t care for way too long, suddenly seem to care. In the Huffington Post, at least one company owner has said that Rush can’t really take back what he said, that he’s not going to support the show, that he doesn’t accept your apology because he has daughtersand a wife — people that he loves who happen to be one-half of the world’s population.

I may be a radical at times, and I may be a feminist, but I am not a “radical feminist”. Andrea Dworkin and I are not friends. Still, you don’t have to be to see the stupidity that’s been discussed lately as just plain dumb. All you have to be is someone who loves, cares for, or notices the existence of women. For some reason, we didn’t seem to do that for awhile. For years, people like Limbaugh have been spewing this rhetoric. More importantly, Congress acted on this rhetoric in budget decisions. The only way a woman could be heard in American politics  was if she agreed with the bullies or acted like she didn’t know anything., which confirmed why they shouldn’t have a voice in the first place.

When Olympia Snowe (neither a bimbo or a bully) decided not to run again, women lost another voice to stand up for them. That left more of us men (who are the majority in the House and Senate) to stand up for them. When some of us didn’t, they did it themselves. Or they tried. When even that didn’t work, well, finally, we, as Americans, male and female, really got upset.  If we had asked any woman in the country if she likes being denied medical care, I’m pretty sure we’d have figured it out long before this. We didn’t and we didn’t seem to care.

And that’s where Mr. Limbaugh came in. My female friends tell me that they’re going to show up this year at the polls to vote against anyone who hasn’t listened to them in the past twenty years or so. Half of the population is a pretty big voting bloc. More than that, people who care about that half of the population, standing with that 50% form an even bigger bloc. Those people — Republicans, Democrats, Independents alike — who have trampled on the rights of women are going to be in trouble at the polls this year.It’ll be interesting to see what happens this coming election. This is as it should be. Women, being half of the population and all, should have 50% of the voice in American politics and decisions that effect our country’s future. That’s because everyone should have a voice in American politics and our future and women are part of “everyone”.

What further heartens me is that we — male and female alike — have called for the end to this kind of blatant hatred. We’re done listening to bullies tell us how things “should” be — whether they are vocal bullies, rich bullies, corrupt bullies, or just straight-out mean bullies. Rush happens to be all four. As I said, couldn’t happen to a nicer guy. Perhaps we’re done listening to a minority of people, through whatever means, telling the majority of us what we can have after they are done. It doesn’t matter who the powerful minority is or which dis-empowered majority we’re talking about.The majority has done had enough. I like the idea that men and women together are voicing their displeasure about the way we’ve been going.

Lastly, I’m psyched that people are no longer as likely to attach their money to hate. Rush will still have the same opinions long after this is written and that’s his right. But he won’t be getting as rich from it, and he might actually have to care what people might say. For people who believe in capitalism, which apparently Mr. Limbaugh does, the market has spoken. This is a very good thing. He — and others like him who bring everything to a dollars-and-cents decision —  have to listen now. Everyone else (non-intellectuals) are just expanding their view of niceness and that’s a good thing, too.

Maybe this will be the end of Mr. Limbaugh’s career and maybe it won’t. What matters to me is that we’re finally responding to the symbol of America that Rush represents.  He won’t really matter if America makes a shift toward consideration of others, toward kindness in our words, and away from supporting bullies and hatred. He can talk all he wants. If we don’t listen, we’ll be in better shape.