Half the Sky: Valor, Grief, Transformation

Back when I was in college, I remember the Maoists used to say, “Women hold up half the sky.” Although I was never a Maoist, I always loved this image of women, muscled arms upstretched, supporting at least half of this wide world of ours. As we approach International Women’s Day, it continues to shock me that girls and women can still be prohibited from going to school; imprisoned and even killed over what they wear, or their reproductive decisions in 2023. In some parts of the world, perhaps more than others, the sky is falling.

In honor of International Women’s Day, I want to memorialize a quiet and powerfully important woman who equally quietly slipped away on February 3, 2023. She was only 79, and I say only because the numbers seem smaller and smaller as I approach them myself. And I say quietly because after hearing through the grapevine, that she had passed, I systematically combed the web and all my accessible resources, turning up nothing: no obituary or substantial biographical material. Finally, an article written by her husband made the rounds and landed in my inbox. The woman is, or was, Sue Othmer, the valiant matriarch of neurofeedback. 

I am moved to write about Sue, not only because neurofeedback is so powerful as a way of working with developmental trauma, neglect, and many other afflictions, but also because she epitomizes the polar opposite of the neglectful mother. Her life and career were inspired, shaped, and compelled by her fierce attention and commitment to the thriving, healthy, and safe development of her children. 

Born in Boston, Sue, then Fitzgerald, grew up in Anchorage, Alaska, and later Bethesda, Maryland. A superior achiever in school, she later studied physics and then neurobiology at Cornell and then at Oxford, where she met her husband and later professional partner, Siegfried Othmer. They were married for 52 years. In 1968, their first child, Brian, was born, followed in 1973 by their daughter Karen, and then in 1975, their youngest, Kurt.

Neurofeedback has continued to evolve and grow into an increasingly comprehensive, complex, and effective methodology beneficial to so many people (and some animals!) with a broad spectrum of somatic, emotional, and behavioral symptoms.

Grief

Grief was both the context and the catalyst of Sue’s life, certainly her professional life. Baby Karen died at 14 months of a brain tumor. By the time of his sister’s death, Brian had already been suffering from painful mental and behavioral problems for five years. As time went on, Brian’s complex problems evolved further into a difficult-to-treat seizure disorder.

The Othmers set out on a fervent quest in search of help and relief for Brian, in the course of which Sue happened upon a quirky, then new procedure developed by Barry Sterman at UCLA: neurofeedback. Sterman had been experimenting and succeeding at curing seizures in cats. The Othmers were heartened to find that neurofeedback proved helpful to Brian as well. And although it was not sufficient to save him, it gave him six good years, enabling him, almost, to graduate from college before his death in 1991. By the age of 47, the Othmers had lost two children. By then, however, Sue had studied and created an evolving mental health treatment option of neurofeedback. Transforming her own tragedy, she made a tremendous contribution to the world and certainly to my life and work.

I only had the occasion to meet the real woman once. It was probably in 2009. I was a new, starry-eyed neurofeedback practitioner, fresh out of my beginners’ training. For some strange reason, neurofeedback did not seem to have caught hold on the West Coast of the US: strange because I have always thought of my coast, particularly the San Francisco Bay Area, as being in the vanguard of the new and groundbreaking of whatever discipline. For whatever reason, that did not happen with neurofeedback here, and my impression is it still hasn’t, much to my dismay (despite my humble efforts to disseminate it.) So, in those days, I traveled wherever I had to and wherever I could to learn more. When the Othmers, Sue and her husband Siegfried, offered a weekend workshop in Los Angeles, I was on it in a hot minute.

Sadly, the neurofeedback field, mighty but small, has been fractured by factionalism and “in-fighting.” As my consultant once said, “The polar bears get on well when there is plenty of salmon. However, when there is not enough salmon, they fight among themselves.” So unfortunately, this quirky “new” discipline suffered from a senseless “otherism,” which, while needing numbers and unity to garner attention and research funding, could not settle on a unified purpose enough to work together. So be it; I did not know that then. When I enthusiastically found myself in the Othmers’ training, I did not know I had “crossed lines.” But it did not matter. 

I don’t remember that weekend well, but I do remember that I loved it. Sue was a towering, if somewhat quiet, exquisitely smart, strong, precise, and no-nonsense presence. Although not warm or approachable to my taste, I liked and admired her, and she was a fine teacher. And she gracefully held up her half of the sky alongside her powerful and imposing husband and professional partner. Indeed they were the highly effective neurofeedback “power couple.”

Neurofeedback has continued to evolve and grow into an increasingly comprehensive, complex, and effective methodology beneficial to so many people (and some animals!) with a broad spectrum of somatic, emotional, and behavioral symptoms. It combines science, art, and perhaps some magic: brain and heart. All in a sea of hope, tireless conviction, and hard work, all of which epitomized Sue Othmer.

Again, not religious; I have little puffs of memory that float up from my childhood of “compulsory” religious school. I remember the song, the quote from Proverbs: “A woman of valor who can find? Her price is more precious than rubies…” That does sound like Sue.

In many ways, a simple procedure, simple enough to originally utilize with cats, it is also vastly complex, and learning it is endless. It works on the principle of “operant conditioning,” which seems utterly obvious, but can be so easily “forgotten.” Essentially, positive feedback is re-enforcing: reward, encouragement, acknowledgment, appreciating all the positives, strengthening and increasing whatever behavior or change is being rewarded. It seems like a “no-brainer.” I will resist the urge to rhapsodize about neurofeedback here, but I will surely return to it repeatedly. And there is much information to be found about neurofeedback!

From the ravaging flames of grief, from the depths of her broken heart, Sue Othmer summoned the mythical phoenix of neurofeedback.

Transformation

From the ravaging flames of grief, from the depths of her broken heart, Sue Othmer summoned the mythical phoenix of neurofeedback. She and Siegfried continued to experiment, study, evolve, and teach it all the days of her life, until she could not, creating new and even more mysterious iterations, but never flagging in her curiosity, vision, and energy. I know how much neurofeedback has regulated, healed, and enhanced my own life, and my many clients over the past 14 years, countless suffering people around the world. It certainly guided the direction my own practice has taken, and I am so grateful.

So often, tragedy and grief, pain and suffering spawn and catalyze immense creativity and inspiration. This is not to minimize or somehow cancel out the impact of loss, violence, or destruction, but perhaps to give them meaning. I have always said, “everything I have ever been through serves me.” That certainly cannot be said of all trauma. But I am vastly grateful to all the many who have made a gift to us all of their own agonies. Thanks, Sue, and Happy International Women’s Day to all!

Today’s song: Mujeres by Silvio Rodriguez. Says Silvio: “Me han estremecido un monton de mujeres:” I have been ‘shaken’ by numerous women…

 

My book “Working with the Developmental Trauma of Childhood Neglect: Using Psychotherapy and Attachment Theory Techniques in Clinical Practice” was published on August 31st. It provides psychotherapists with a multidimensional view of childhood neglect and a practical roadmap for facilitating survivors’ healing.

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