High Culture

High Culture: Twin Towers, Long Steep Climbs, Regulation

Sometimes a story or a movie is truly worth well over a thousand words to express and convey an often wordless experience concisely. This week I decided to do something a little different and dip into popular culture – commenting on a film and a book, both of which speak to our themes, portraying them sharply and differently; perhaps tipping a sensory nerve and providing food for thought, at least for me. 

Neither of these two are great works of art I might add, at least not in my opinion. And in neither case did I feel a deep connection with the character, but both are good envoys, and there is no substitute for a good story.

Tower of Babel: Spotlight on Jeremiah Tower

Jeremiah Tower was a local treasure and cultural icon to a food-loving Bay Arean like me. I say “was” because in the movie, it is hard to know if he died or simply evaporated back into the vacuous wasteland of his neglect ridden childhood. I certainly noticed this when the film Jeremiah Tower: The Last Magnificent was brought to my attention. (I won’t say it was recommended, and frankly, I am not really recommending it either.) Nonetheless, for the curious, it is available on Amazon Prime for $2.99, and I will avoid the “spoilers.” And if you love cooking and eating, the visuals of spectacularly beautiful and interesting food is well worth the price!

The film was produced by Tower’s dear friend and self-proclaimed “fan” culinary rockstar, Anthony Bourdain, who certainly must have his own story. As you may remember, Bourdain committed suicide in 2018. Clearly, the restaurant world, even at its peaks, is cruel.

Known for being one of the early luminaries in the now exalted almost “religion” of California Cuisine, Tower was a key figure in the historic, and still after 51 years, wildly acclaimed Chez Panisse in Berkeley. Tower’s own tabernacle, Stars Restaurant, opened in 1984. I think we only ate there once, and all I really remember about it was walking down the carpeted stairs to our table. It was like entering a palatial theater and going to the most expensive seats in the orchestra section: grand. The cinematic scenes of the interior of Stars brought up that pleasurable and even exciting image. Stars Cafe, a later, more casual and reasonably priced Tower offspring where you could actually get a reservation, became a frequent go-to for us. I admit that back in the 90s, the big draw was the caramel sundae, which I am sure is what called me back almost every Friday for a good long time. I don’t remember anything else I ate there besides that sundae, although my husband could probably tell you!

I admit that for me back in the 90s, the big draw was the caramel sundae, which I am sure is what called me back almost every Friday for a good long time.

Hearing about the movie, I was startled to realize (rather like the neglectful parent who, fifty miles down the road, suddenly registers that their child is not in the car but was somehow left at the gas station) that I had not thought about the restaurants in years and had forgotten all about Tower himself. I’m certainly not intending to equate a restaurant with one’s own child, but rather that the forgettable invisibility of neglect and the clueless oblivion of his parents were the staple and persistent ingredient of Tower’s entire childhood. His seeming “disappearance” is perhaps a re-enactment of that.  

Tower was the quintessential “poor little rich boy.” My flashbulb memory of Stars’ majestic, theatrical opulence perfectly portrayed his childhood “home,” although it was anything but a home. His alcoholic mother, who manifested the pinnacle of glamour and style, entertained her similarly privileged white comrades constantly and elegantly. The adorable little boy was either parked somewhere to keep him out from underfoot or forgotten completely. His only solace became the spectacular food that he came to love and took great pleasure in eating.

By age eight or so, little Jeremiah learned that when his mother became prohibitively drunk, she was unable to “perform,” so the food would not make it to the glamorous table. So, like many the child of neglect, he transitioned from complete invisibility to (still) invisible rescuer. He learned to cook to “keep the show on the road” (and shield his mother from shame as it were) and was remarkably successful. Cooking and covering for his mom gave the boy a sense of purpose, and although he continued to go unrecognized, he found that he loved it.

A similarly poignant feature of the film, barely a blip on the story’s screen, is the exquisite depiction of how vanishing in the elegant Dom Perignon sipping crowds, night after night, would make young Jeremiah an easy target for trauma. I won’t give it away; the brevity of the event is almost imperceptible. If you run to the bathroom without pausing, you might miss it, and because the hideous event never comes up again, you won’t know it happened. Again, smacking of traumatic re-enactment.

Predictably Jeremiah went to Harvard to study design and then graduate school in architecture. The spectacular visuals of the food he created reflect his imaginative aesthetic and structural brilliance. He started cooking for his peers in college, and for sure, lots of wine and other intoxicants were on the menus. Although the film does not explicitly say that this child of at least one alcoholic parent had a substance abuse problem, it is easy to wonder, and somehow, I vaguely remember his falling deeply into a serious hell of cocaine use. I could not find any corroboration of that, so perhaps I made it up, but it is easy to imagine.

The adorable little boy was either parked somewhere to keep him out from underfoot or forgotten completely. His only solace became the spectacular food that he came to love and took great pleasure in eating.

His rise as master chef is well documented, beginning with his starring role at Chez Panisse, where he bitterly claimed himself to be of equal valence to the famed Alice Waters. After a dazzlingly successful partnership, there was not enough oxygen in the place for the two of them, and Tower struck out on his own. Clearly, the world of relationships was a predictable minefield for him, as one would expect after his disordered attachment childhood. The film never clearly identifies his sexual orientation. Although it alluded to his being gay, it was hard to tell if that was “all” and he never seems to have a lasting partnership.

As a waiter in some relatively high-end restaurants back in the day, I am not a stranger to chefs blowing up and even throwing things at waiters and line cooks. Similarly, our dad had been a chef, and like a good child of neglect, I often worked in his shadow, however invisibly, to keep order while he created his “masterpieces” in our kitchen. I prided myself on being the only one able to be in the kitchen with him when he cooked. He too, was prone to outbursts and fits of rage, using the heat and delicate time pressure as his excuse. Tower, of course, was no exception to the raging chef rule, and his relationship world, like many a survivor of trauma and neglect, left a trail of wreckage in its wake.

It is lonely at the top. The film does not give us much about that, but I could clearly imagine it. The remainder of the film carefully and “protectively” portrays the collapse of the Stars house of cards. The Stars empire (like the Twin Towers), once a world avatar of wealth and power, was reduced to rubble. It is startling how to “dust he returned.” Again invisible and forgotten, I had to google to find out that he is still alive and living somewhere in Mexico. 

Out of curiosity I looked up the story of the prophet Jeremiah. Here is what Wikipedia says:

As a prophet, Jeremiah pronounced God’s judgment upon the people of his time for their wickedness. He was concerned especially with false and insincere worship and failure to trust Yahweh in national affairs. He denounced social injustices but not so much as some previous prophets…

I wonder why they named him that.

Jeremiah Tower: The Last Magnificent (2016) available on Amazon Prime. 2 hours.

A Step at a Time: 

In the Shadow of the Mountain: A Memoir of Courage

When I heard an interview with author Silvia Vasquez-Lavado, I was intrigued. First of all, because she is Peruvian, and somehow anything Latin American seems to pique my interest. But more, because she led an international group of women survivors of sex trafficking on a trek up Mount Everest, which struck me as heroic in every way. I ordered my copy of her new book, soon noticing that reviews of it seemed to be popping up everywhere. Eager to read it, I was mildly disappointed to find that it lacked the depth of character development and quality of “good writing” that compels me. But remember, I am an insatiable and somewhat critical reader with my own quirky tastes.

The story switches back and forth between the stories of Vasquez-Lavado’s traumatic childhood and younger adulthood and the story of the trek. For me, the more autobiographical part is most interesting. By way of warning to the vulnerable, she describes her own sexual trauma somewhat explicitly but powerfully. And her story, much like Jeremiah Tower’s, clearly illustrates how tightly coupled trauma and neglect must be. Terrible things can happen to a child who is unseen and not taken care of.

What Vasquez-Lavado does particularly well, and uniquely so, is clearly present the trauma of gaslighting. I have been amazed lately that the word has become a household term somehow. Referring back to a favorite classic movie, not Hitchcock but similar, the term, the name, and the movie that matter in my memory anyway were ancient history. Suddenly the word is everywhere. All the young people use it too. However, its portrayal as traumatic to a child trying to make sense out of the world, especially a child of neglect who has no one to ask, it is crazy-making and contributes to the confused belief endemic of neglect survivors that “nothing happened to me!” Vasquez-Lavado, perhaps better than I have seen anywhere, explicitly and effectively conveys the gaslighting experience from the inside. That in itself is worth the price.

Again, we do not get deep view into the life of the young girls, the survivors of sex trafficking. Some are Nepali, some from the US, so there are language challenges. We also see tragically portrayed how often sexual trafficking is an artifact of a galling degree of poverty and perhaps the gaslighting of well-meaning and destitute parents who believe the criminals enticing them with the promise of employment and a better life for their starving daughters. The cursory depictions of both the grimness of their traumatic experiences and their often stunningly courageous escapes are again some of the more captivating parts of the book; as is the one session when Vasquez-Lavado and all the girls gather in a group, in the chill of the mountain, and with the assistance of interpreters, share all of their trauma stories. There, the power of the group in trauma healing is vivid and moving. Many had never spoken aloud of their experiences, even with those with whom they went through them.

There, the power of the group in trauma healing is vivid and moving. Many had never spoken aloud of their experiences, even with those with whom they went through them.

Vasquez-Lavado, as planned, takes the group of girls as far as the base camp, but she herself has planned and trained to go to the 29,032 foot (8,849 metres) summit. The book continues to pivot between her “checkered past” and the climb. And although her personal history is often less than endearing, sensational and reminiscent of a dramatic AA “drunkalog”, she powerfully conveys the desperate compulsion to self-regulate. Ripping and running with alcohol, drugs and out of control sex are well known to many of us with trauma and neglect histories. She tells that story tragically and effectively, even if a bit tediously at times.

Never attracted to cold in any iteration, the prospect of being up in that kind of cold (let alone for six weeks) is truly unnerving! And myself a veteran of endurance sports, I have never cared enough about any sport to literally and knowingly risk my life for it. Many who attempt the summit do not come back. Vasquez-Lavado was the only woman in her group (as well as being the only lesbian and vegetarian, she is sure to tell us). A number of the men (including the man whose athletic resume touted completing two Ironman Triathlons in one day) turned back before arriving at the summit. Vasquez-Lavado does make it, which is an accomplishment that not many women can claim, and that is impressive. But more than that is the role of empowerment in trauma healing and experiencing the body as an undeniable ally. We cannot really reproduce this in any therapy.

All the women in the stories were transformed by both the physical integrity and empowerment proffered by the climb and the power of interpersonal connection for both staying alive and finding some peace with a previously unspeakable and shame-ridden past.

In the Shadow of the Mountain: A Memoir of Courage by Silvia Vasquez-Lavado February, 2022

Once again, although you may be sick of hearing me say it: it is all about regulation. Oy vey, there I go again. The addled organism, out of whack from over and under-stimulation, lack of or distortions of attachment and connection, is on a voracious quest: drinking, drugging, sexing, work… all to that same end.  That is what Jeremiah and Sylvia most have to tell us if we are listening. 

Each time I write a blog, I always try to think of a song that I love that goes with what I’ve written. Today’s is There Is A Mountain by Donovan.

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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