One on Two Thousand: Outsides, Traumatic Memory, Cultural Neglect

Although for years I could not make a go of relationships, I would not exactly say I was friendless. I had a cadre of not-exactly imaginary friends.  Perhaps you would call them personal heroes, but they were/are real people and very much in my life. When I was a lonely twelve-year-old, I had a much bigger-than-life poster of Joan Baez on my bedroom wall. Racked with the dysregulated system of my then-unknown trauma and struggling to get through the days, I was soothed looking at her calmly, serene, peaceful face. Most of my heroes were men, but she was an iconic female role model, someone to emulate, a beautiful, creative activist who even hooked up with Bob Dylan, not to mention her exquisite voice. I remember when I used to painfully pedal up Page Mill Road, one of the steepest and most highly regarded (no pun intended!) cycling hills, being comforted and spurred onward, knowing she lived up in those beautiful woods somewhere. I think she still does. 

In the early 2000s, I had occasion to see her in person. No, not at a concert, but at close range when I went to a workshop at the famed Esalen Institute, a picturesque retreat center deep in the redwoods on the craggy coast of Big Sur, California, USA. I saw her in the clothing-optional mineral bath area, so needless to say, I saw all of her. I remember thinking, “We should all look so good at 60!” which seemed very old to me then! 

Recently, I heard on public radio that Joan Baez, now 82, had recently released a new documentary film called I Am Noise, and there would be an interview at 5:00 AM the following morning. I made myself a note so I would not miss it, and the following morning, coffee in hand I tuned in. The first thing I heard her say, in her now slightly scratchy voice, was, “The panic attack stuff started early, and then the anxieties just heightened and heightened.” Then she proceeded to gently blast all my idealized misconceptions of her, one by one. Yes, she had fallen hopelessly in love with Bob Dylan, who mercilessly broke her heart after a much-photographed, short time. She married political activist David Harris and had only recently gotten pregnant when her dream of a homey life as wife and mother was shattered by his imprisonment for civil disobedience. They amicably divorced not long after his 20-month prison sentence, and Baez has been (apparently) contentedly single ever since. As for me, relationships were a minefield. As she said, “I’m not really good with one-on-one relationships, I’m great with one on two thousand!” I certainly have never been good at the one on two thousand, but I had the good fortune to get to therapy in time to (mostly!) work out the one-on-one thing, which for the attachment traumatized is the work of a lifetime.  I was yet again humbly reminded of what they say in AA: “Don’t compare your insides with other people’s outsides!” Words to live by!

Trauma Memory

Mimi Farina, Joan’s little sister, alongside her husband Richard, was also a folk singer, if far lesser of a star. She died of cancer at age 56 in 2001. But before she did, she approached Joan to break a long family silence about their shared history. Mimi remembered what Joan did not. Both of them had been sexually abused by their father. A highly respected physicist, philosopher, and educator, who would have thought it, let alone believed it? Joan had long “forgotten” or blocked it from memory, as do many of us with trauma too heinous to “know.” But as Bessel van der Kolk eloquently reminds us, the “Body Keeps the Score.” In Joan’s case, the flashing scoreboard was certainly familiar to us: panic, anxiety, and relationship hell. At last, Joan found her way to the personal work that would both unlock the lost memory and relieve the misery of dysregulation and what she later recognized as fragmentation. 

Although her father died in 2007 and her mother died at age 100 in 2013, before Mimi died, both sisters attempted to talk with their parents about what had happened and how it had affected their whole lives. Both parents fiercely denied that it could have been even remotely possible, as happens to many of us and our hapless clients. Joan was able to make her peace in the belief that they also had blocked out the unbearable memory and simply did not remember. This is a controversial “solution.” But I have to admit it is one I also often espouse, especially if one’s perpetrator is themselves traumatized, which they all too often are. And it has allowed her, as it has many of us, to live peacefully thereafter. Joan has a somewhat idyllic life, with a beautiful garden and contented chickens, up there on Page Mill.

Trauma memory is so insidiously confusing, and many survivors are haunted with self-doubt and/or guilt about the coming and going, believing and not believing, the seemingly relentless rally of peek-a-boo with their horror. But panic and anxiety are undeniable messengers, as are countless other symptoms. And for Joan anyway, their disappearance has been confirmation. I never tire of celebrity disclosures, especially from such well-loved cultural icons as Joan Baez, (and even more especially when they do not come on the tails of a tragic suicide story.) If Joan is able to help even one me-too survivor to believe what they think they remember, I am gratified. Of course, neglect is much harder to remember and believe because the problem so often is that there is nothing to remember. But that huge topic will have to be for another day… 

Indigenous People

I fear this will seem like a second-string afterthought. SO not my intention. Here in California and 16 other US states, Monday is Indigenous People’s Day (The remaining 33 US states still call it Columbus Day). I want to acknowledge it, especially as I have recently been learning how shamefully ignorant I am about the First Nation people of my country. My not atypical public school education, even (mostly) in the highly reputed Palo Alto Unified School District, offered little to no history and culture about our national forbears. (That is, of course, no excuse for continuing the neglect in my own personal development, especially as one so impassioned about social justice.) Apart from the heinous mistreatment of native peoples, they have suffered the most unforgivable, godforsaken neglect of perhaps any of our minorities, although I am breaking my own rule by comparing worsts. Suffice it to say, unforgivable neglect on top of everything else. I am forced to take note of and begin to correct my ignorance. 

In my customary, if inexplicable way, I love to read the biographies and memoirs of great athletes. In this case, I found myself diving into the hefty tome 

Path Lit by LightningThe Life of Jim Thorpe by David Maraniss (Simon & Schuster 2022). Although the book does not really take us inside the emotional world of the protagonist as my favorite biographies do, it successfully begins to fill in the vast vacuum of knowledge for which I am duly humbled and grateful. In addition to all the other phenomenal mistreatment, abuse, and robbery of First Nation peoples, the book demonstrates another way that they were exploited for profit: the veritable sale of their extraordinary athletic ability. Huge sums were garnered by college athletic departments that drew huge spectator crowds to watch games, wowed by the very players they called savages. Thorpe was an amazing, extraordinary athlete, called by some in his time the best athlete in the world. Like many of his kind, his life sank into misfortune and ultimately wound to a lousy end. 

I like the practice I have heard others doing, lately of learning and acknowledging on whose native land I now stand and/or live. I am writing this in what is now my dearly loved home and was once Yelamu Ohlone land. The Joan Baez documentary is still only in theaters. It is called I Am Noise. It may be at a theater near you.  I am going to wait until I can stream it, as I like to watch movies when I am stirring my cheese vat. Meanwhile, enjoy a day off, if you have one, whatever you may call it.

Today’s song:

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