Monday, April 3, 2017

Caged with Kafka: Cognitive Bias Coping Bubbles Part III

This post discusses the use of the cognitive bias of optimism as a coping mechanism, continued from Part I here and Part II here. It is a part of a broader discussion of how those in recovery from trauma can make safer choices in their relationships.

As I prepared to conclude my thoughts about the musical Gypsy to explain how optimism helped me to cope with less than optimistic circumstances, I found myself thinking of another reference. I spent a whole week in awe at the artful ability to humorously disguise one of the most painful of subject so that it bypassed my conscious attention twenty five years ago. My brain tucked its language away for later consideration when I would be better able to face what I wasn't able to deal with then.

What is Normal?

A few months ago, I spoke with someone who grew up in a Christian community – a compound – in Paraguay that was said to be a foreign missions effort. Her family returned when her father was injured in an accident, and they basically threw the family out when they sought medical care. He was so severely injured that he spent a year in the hospital. When they returned to the US, she was also kept cloistered in another religious community with no television, no telephone and little to no contact with the outside world. From there, she was sent to New Bethany Home for Girls operated by Mack Ford where she was held prisoner behind an electrified, barbed wire fence while guard dogs roamed the perimeter.

When a grand jury convened years later to explore the multiple charges of rape and abuse at the Troubled Teen Home, a member of the jury asked this person why she didn't phone someone for help. I know that my family never had cause to call emergency services, because of the isolation in which this woman was raised, she would not have even thought about calling and wouldn't know who to call or what to say if she phoned someone. It demonstrates that her own level of “normal” was all that she knew, and we cannot use knowledge that we do not have.

In all honesty, if she had called local police, she would not have received a response anyway. Law enforcement in the area would only return her to the compound, and if she'd been a runaway that they'd caught, she was likely to be raped on the way back to her captors at the .

This special circumstance is more rare, but it's a true account of a woman who grew up as an American but in a place that was removed from regular society. We learn by example and experience and what they teach us. As Jill Mytton states what many take for granted, children raised in such constricted environments find themselves in a stressful predicament when the become adults and venture out into the wider world. When we leave, we actually don't have what we need to survive outside.” (Read more from Jill Mytton HERE and view video interview.)

I heard the same message in the new TV series from the X-Men graphic novels that tells the story of a mutant named Legion. It conveys well that those who live extraordinary lives also face painful questions of identity. Consider this short clip from the show.

I didn't experience anything like these women did or like the fictional character of David (the protagonist in Legion) when they were growing up, but I know about my own mind-blowing experiences as I ventured further away from home. My mother had to be right always, and it was far easier to just dance to the tune of her expectations than it was to challenge them. I didn't have the luxury of questioning her reality. I coped through compliance, even though the punishment I endured was psychological and emotional.

Just Eighty-Eight Bucks, Papa,

I spent a year attending a community college, and in less than a month, I began to see the world differently. I'd completed my own rite of passage into something like an adulthood, and I spent all day without supervision. Just a few days before my seventeenth birthday and after attending a private Christian high school, I panicked terribly before my first college test. I looked at the clock every twenty minutes the night before, so I just got out of bed to study until morning when I dressed for school. When I returned home that evening and was ill-tempered from fatigue, my mother asked me why it was so.

When I told her that I was sleep deprived and why, my mother's response seemed confusing, bizarre, and ridiculous. She didn't say, “Oh, I can imagine that this must have been a difficult new challenge for you, and I'm glad that you dealt with it productively.” Much to my shock and awe, she accused me of lying and became very angry. (Here I go, back to Marcy and the Pennies to relive it.) Why would it matter one way or the other to her if I didn't sleep, and why on earth would I lie? Years later, a therapist suggested that my mom likely realized that she had no frame of reference for my new experience, and rather than face the idea that she didn't couldn't relate to me, she lashed in jealousy and shame.

I think that that day more than any other opened the door enough for me to recognize something was wrong – and I knew that it wasn't me. My normal practice of playing along no longer made sense.

Here I mention another line from a song in the musical, Gypsy, where Mama Rose, our insufferable stage mother begs her father for the money she needs to get her children back on the Orpheum circuit in Vaudeville. Not long after I'd taken this test, my English professor at the college approached me and asked me to enter an essay that I'd already written for class into a national competition. Mama Rose sings the phrase “eighty-eight bucks” to her father, asking for money for her next show. I had a very similar experience when I asked permission to enter my work (for I was too young to enter it without parental consent and didn't have the money to pay the entry fee myself). My mother refused, stating that I was only in school to study nursing. My professor's reaction was also a tip-off to me that my normal was not normal when I explained the reasons why my parents would not give consent.

Kafka's Circus Freak

During my junior year of college, I'd signed up for a class in theological literature where I as introduced to the writings of Franz Kafka who is best known for his short story entitled The Metamorphosis. He wrote about how mankind feels a strong sense that he is greater than just another animal on the planet and yearns to overcome an inner emptiness. At the same time, though, he realizes that understanding and overcoming the feeling is often a fruitless endeavor. He also lacks what he needs to think in healthy ways about who he is in the world. (In The Metamorphosis, he awakens one day to realize that he's turned into a giant cockroach, but his family doesn't even notice.)

I don't want to give too many spoilers away for those who haven't read it, but I found that Kafka's A Hunger Artist story to be the most compelling, for it added words to the confusion that I felt. He considers himself to be a professional in the performance art of fasting, though no one would allow him to fast longer than forty days. To justify the ultimate fast, h makes himself over into a side show attraction, is placed in a cage, and he starves himself to death. The the story involves his rationalizations to convince himself that his profession is actually a high calling – his own bubble of optimism that allows a place for him to find meaning in his suffering.

At the close of the story, just before he dies as a pile of skin and bones to be swept away, this circus freak show performer whispers something to the man who supervises the cage who had forgotten all about the hunger artist who now blended into the straw on the floor. In his dying words, the hunger artist whispers that he would have eaten if he could have found a food that he liked – he surely would have stuffed himself like everyone else. But he never found a food that satisfied him.

The Circus Freak Theme in Family Dysfunction

As Gypsy Rose Lee tells her story of finding herself as the supporting actress in her own life as her mother steals the spotlight from her daughters, she stumbles upon the same feelings that I see in Kafka. I did not realize just why I felt that way at the time. Kafka describes the same sentiments in his fiction about the man who fasts. A part of him searches in the hope to find that which he lacks and moans with great pain. I didn't even understand many of the messages that he lays out in the book, but I knew that I felt the same way that he did.

Kafka's parents must have read from that same book that my parents read and that Gypsy Rose Lee's mother did, and my mom had a copy of it. Actually, it is just another example of what I see as the common language of shame and blame. I didn't even see the theme as a story of family dysfunction, for the protagonist talks little about it. He just knows that he's a martyr for a cause and he suffers for it. He is different – but he conveys that through his cockroach and his circus freak side show identity using absurdity. About twenty years after reading this story, I heard John Bradshaw call him the prince of shame, and I smiled widely. Kafka doesn't put a happy smiling spin on his saga, coping with it like Gypsy or like her Mama Rose. He exploits the dark side of things that exaggerates the mixed messages of pain and identity.

Kafka wrote stories about feeling trapped in a set of ideas that were not conducive to living a happy life – and sometimes, is work involves not living. The hunger artist wanted to eat, but what he knew to be good food did nothing for him. So he makes his own bubble of optimism that allows him to be admired in some manner, even as a freak. It enables him to live and make a living, but in the end, he tells everyone that he would have rather lived like everyone else. He wanted to be “normal” enough to enjoy his life. At least within the confines of his cage and his hunger artist bubble, he never does.

Waking Up

Considering how many times I've read this story, wondering what the answers were, I strongly identified with the feelings that he describes through this narrative. I knew well that he was speaking for me in a way, lending his words to me to describe how I felt. But I didn't know what it was or why during that first run-through. I needed Gypsy in light of Kafka's other writings to translate it for me.

Caged Kafka
Another short story by Kafka entitled The Judgement expands it's scope beyond the experience of the adult child who cannot find satisfying food to include the observations of and interaction with his father. But that story was too much like Gypsy, and when I first read The Judgement, I wasn't ready to consider that my normal was really that abnormal and fatalistic.

I would say that it took about ten years for me to build my self-esteem up enough to even understand. My parents didn't have everything that they needed, so they didn't have them to pass them on to me. They didn't have the food of self-care and self-love to build their own identities. They had shame. That I understood, and the rest would come later.

As I write this and as I read and think about how to conclude my ideas about Gypsy Rose Lee, I have recognized what I think is a type of coping mechanism that causes me to enter new relationships as a lesser person than those I'm engaging for the first time. In many ways, I don't live in the despair that the hunger artist exemplifies; yet, I still play the hunger artist in some vain attempt to soften rejectiong by others. If I become the circus freak, everyone else can feel at ease. I reject myself before anyone else has the opportunity. Kafka put himself in a cage in a side show and played the circus freak because that's how he felt. No wonder I was able to so strongly identify Kafka's counterpart [Gypsy Rose Lee] later in life when her mother outright calls her a side show act. I heard the circus reference from my own mother, sandwiched in time in between Kafka and Gypsy.

Until I finish Part IV of Optimism as a Coping Bubble,
please consider these for further reading: