Trauma, poverty, and Chile’s first dog

Lost and Found – Trauma, Poverty and Chile’s First Dog

“Are more famous people dying these days, or am I just more aware of it?” I asked my husband the other day. I had just heard the news of the passing of Vietnamese Buddhist luminary Thich Nat Hanh. Although I am not a student of his, several very close friends are, and I have always admired the way he brought social justice and activism into spirituality, which means a lot to me. 

Granted, he was 95, and his international spiritual community had been preparing for it for some time, but still, it was a tremendous loss. The day before, it was rock musician Meat Loaf, again, not a favorite of mine, but he was only 74. Well, rock n roll is a rough life. “No,” my husband replied. Although COVID has taken many lives, “these deaths are part of the natural order.” Perhaps I am indeed more attuned to people’s passing.

For those with a history of neglect, loss can be complex, even abstract, or mysterious. A profound sense of sadness or emptiness that seems to make no sense. There may be no obvious cause to point to for the profound sadness, which can then readily turn to shame, or the self -recrimination of “self-pity” or “self-indulgence.” Grief for what never was, however confusing, is very real. There may be profound sorrow and loss upon the death of a profoundly disappointing, neglectful or even cruel parent. The door is closing. There is no more hope.

Several of the deaths I learned of this week were of people who overcame great trauma and loss of their own before making significant contributions in the world. They became very visible before they took their leave.

For those with a history of neglect, loss can be complex, even abstract, or mysterious. A profound sense of sadness or emptiness that seems to make no sense.

Andre Leon Talley

I have always loved clothes. Admittedly it is not exactly politically correct. When I had the privilege of visiting Milan, one of the world’s great fashion centers, visiting the showrooms of the fanciest designers was like a fantastic museum show. I loved it. Although I pride myself in only buying clothes when they are marked down to “almost free” and wearing them for three and four decades, I am still somewhat embarrassed. Two years ago, I heard an interview on the radio with an icon of the fashion world I had never heard of, who had just published his memoir, The Chiffon Trenches: Andre Leon Talley. 

He got my attention because he was the first African American man to break into the decidedly rich white world of fashion. Of course, I had to read the book. Like Arthur Ashe and Tiger Woods, he had the talent, the courage, the determination and the guts, not to mention the ability to endure discrimination, at least at first, to make a name and become visible, not only in a high-class white male but also female-dominated industry.

Talley was born in rural North Carolina and was skinny, black, poor and gay. He always loved beauty and has been prolifically quoted for lamenting a “beauty famine”, which he always did his utmost to remedy. Born in the Southern US in 1948, being gay was not easy or safe, and although the memoir does not detail much about his childhood, he was sexually abused as an adolescent, which scarred him for life. He later self-medicated liberally with food, and although he associated closely with Yves Saint Laurent, played tennis with Louis Vuitton and was the darling of Karl Lagerfeld, he never had a lover his entire life, or at least as of the 2020 memoir. He seemed to charm everyone. Close with Diana Vreeland, editor in chief of Vogue, he loved women, he loved elegant and ornate grandeur, and never ceased to love beauty.

When he was close to 40, Talley suffered the indignity and greatest horror imaginable when one is central on the fashion stage, he gained over 100 pounds, which, even on his large frame, made him enormous, and all the more larger than life. His close associates twice sent him to high end “fat farms” to lose weight which he was unable to maintain, invariably gaining it back and more. Clearly, it was related to his unprocessed trauma. Ultimately, he settled into largesse and created for himself a signature style of brightly colored caftans in the most exquisite and exclusive of luxurious fabrics and made grand sweeping entrances wherever he went. This continued until his recent death. And although he has been criticized for not doing enough to blaze a trail for a rising generation of African American aspirants to the editorial and design cliques of a highly lucrative industry, nonetheless by his willingness to be visible, brave and stand tall, and visibly endure the mantle of his trauma, he broke a barrier. He is a hero in my book. Au Revoir Andre and thank you.

Hong Kong’s “Madonna”

The same day I heard about Andre, I heard another story from another corner of the world. The “Madonna” of Asia, Anita Mui, had died at 40. Born in Hong Kong very poor, by the age of four, living with her single mother and little sister, Anita found herself singing in the public plaza to earn money for food. Already at that age, people loved her. Again, through hard work and gritty tenacity, she rose to become the pop sensation of the East. Although I had never heard of her, I was struck by the outpouring of public respect and grief that seemed on a par with International spiritual and political leaders.

Many of my readers may have attended the recent Trauma Research Foundation Social Justice Summit, a powerful and timely meeting of many great minds, where the hugely relevant interface between trauma and social justice, essentially world trauma, was skillfully and colorfully presented. 

One speaker named Alta Starr, a social justice and somatics practitioner, told a story about an experience she had with one of her students many years ago. He was a dark-skinned African American young man, about six feet five inches tall. Starr’s class was doing a somatic practice which involved stretching all the many muscles of the back and reaching one’s full height. While doing the practice, this healthy young man collapsed and fell to the floor in a dead faint. Of course, Starr was terribly worried as well as dismayed and puzzled as to what she herself may have done. The young man came to and, although confused as well, quickly recovered.

Returning to class the following day, he had been busily processing. His whole life experience had taught him that to be visible as tall and dark, and to appear threatening, would endanger him. In order to be safe, he had to shrink and hide, be small and invisible. Stretching into his full stature had been too terrifying, which is why in the practice, he had disappeared from consciousness. 

Andre and Anita had the courage and the stamina to stay present, work hard, become visible, captivate the world and make more than one tremendous contribution before taking their leave.

Chile’s First Dog

Well, I do prefer to end, even these short blogs, on a positive note. Because I have an affection for all things Chilean, the story caught my attention about Brownie. Brownie is a Border Collie mutt puppy who languished in a Chilean animal shelter in 2016, longing for a home. According to shelter staff, he was difficult to place because he had some sort of congenital problem with his back legs that made him disabled and therefore less attractive. A young couple found him adorable and happily took Brownie home.

Six years later, Brownie became a centerpiece of the political campaign of his owner 35-year-old Gabriel Boric, the newly elected president of the Republic of Chile. Brownie has become a social media sensation and a national hero. Standing tall, risking going from invisible to visible, from disability, poverty, trauma and neglect, to presence, adding beauty, depth and joy to a hungry world – well, these are all good reminders. Thank you to Thich Nat Hanh, to Andre, and Anita. Thank you and goodbye for now. 

And you Brownie, well hopefully we’ll be seeing you for a while.

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 Turn! Turn! Turn! by The Byrds.

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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