Monthly Archives: January 2017

Mary and her followers

Because I lost a friend to cancer recently, I’m in a eulogizing mood. Sticking with the theme of social/cultural commentary, I return to my favorite arena—the arts—to pay tribute to a television icon, Mary Tyler Moore. We lost so many icons in 2016 (Bowie, Prince, Muhammed Ali, the heartbreaking back-to-back blow of Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds) that it seems unusual to me that I’d choose Moore’s passing to remark on. She was neither the most or the least influential figure on the aforementioned list, but her life is relevant to the themes of privilege and prejudice that are on many of my clients’ minds these days.

As I wrote in my last entry, American television exported many symbols in my seventies youth, but few of them were comic. Britain of the 70s seemed to have enough of its own comedy, so its public had little use for contemporary American stars like Carol O’Connor, who played Archie Bunker (who was actually based on a British character), or Carol Burnett, or Mary Tyler Moore. Following immigration, I watched her on sick days from school, or on indolent summer vacations, when reruns of The Dick Van Dyke Show were part of a daily TV diet. Watching Laura Petry, I was vaguely aware that she was modeled upon an early sixties ideal: beautiful, graceful, lightly comic (ala Lucille Ball); aspiring a pre-tragic Jackie Kennedy. Her later transformation into Mary Richards, a character fronting Moore’s eponymous 70s sitcom, reminded me more of my mother: she was still beautiful, still gracious, but now she was unmarried (that part’s not like my mom), dating (though carefully falling short of promiscuity, it seemed), and solidly career-focused. She put the men in their place (“put a sock in it, Ted”), but she was never mean about it. Like all of our favorite social revolutionaries, she smiled a lot.

At one time, I may have thought her a poor woman’s Jane Fonda or Sally Field, two of my favorite female movie stars of that era. Ordinary People changed that. Playing a middle-aged woman grieving the loss of a favored son, she dropped the winning persona, lost her smile, and delivered a performance of such complexity that Ordinary People (for a while, anyway) became a staple of graduate school counseling programs, as a teaching tool illustrating dysfunctional families coping with loss. Tyler Moore’s character, in particular, seemed to absorb so many viewers’ projections. She was cold and unsympathetic, yet compelling. Easy to dislike, her manner of coping was too familiar, too relatable, to be dismissed. After OP, her career seemed to wane, as she drifted into mediocre TV movies. Her focus turned to charity, being active in animal rights issues; was sadly beset with alcoholism and diabetes.

I sort of waited for a worthy heir apparent, and thought Julie Roberts and Sandra Bullock fit the bill—Jennifer Aniston, too. These stars were wonderful, but something had changed. I had changed. By the nineties I was noticing Hollywood’s lazy feminism. Murphy Brown, a late eighties sitcom, seemed to keep alive the semi-tradition of lauding independent women, with the implication that social equality in all areas was being promoted. But at this point something else was being suggested of male figures who were career-focused, unmarried, and sexually liberated. Represented by the likes of Jerry Seinfeid, the male cast of Friends, the various roles Charlie Sheen has inhabited, the “independent” men of TV were usually roguish, or at best inoffensively feckless (as in the case of Seinfeld). Their independence was spun as emotional detachment, became a source of parody. They were relationship-phobic. The phrase, “afraid to commit” became a chestnut feminine critique.

The feminists of my mother’s generation seemed to yield to a generation of tiresome male-bashers, largely oblivious to their reversed double standards. This seems to have influenced a number of backlashes: right-wing social movements, reactionary politics; uber-sexist male celebrities. Remember Andrew Dice Clay? He was so obnoxious I once thought him a leftist plant: a kind of pop media Manchurian Candidate, sent by principals of a progressive movement to illustrate the wrongness of an arch-conservative demographic. There have been plenty other provocateurs since, each increasingly provocative, representing new waves of established thought, with fresh, distinctive voices, perhaps, but with ever more ugliness, on both sides of the social/political divide, if I’m honest. If light comedy with a social comment still exists, I’m struggling to find it.

Graeme Daniels, MFT

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What it means to be white…and English


Got a reading assignment recently, from a loving man and friend who brings me fruit from his garden. Note the word ‘assignment’. You might glean that I was feeling resistant, a bit prickly about what happens next. The book in question is Robin DiAngelo’s What Does It Mean To Be White, a semi-academic, somewhat incendiary text whose subtitle, Developing White Racial Literacy, previews the author’s attitude. My friend had asked me to read this book leading up to and in the wake of Donald Trump’s election, believing a crisis was afoot, and that white people, in particular, need to change the way they think and talk, about race.

I pronounced myself interested, if not zealous like him. In truth, I am cautious about being recruited to something, though I am drawn by the premise. Indeed, some topics need to be addressed, and after 169 entries to date, I figured it was time I addressed this one*. Anyway, I’ve finished my reading so I’m ready for a good chat. I’ll likely start by acknowledging certain points. That our “dominant” culture views racism as a binary—you are or you are not ‘a racist’—thus blocking a meaningful discussion because this bias elicits defense, seems correct. I also agree that our collective privileging of philosophies like individualism, meritocracy, and universalism (platitudes like, “under the skin we’re all the same”) similarly deflect from realistic discussion. On the negative side, I don’t care for the application of terms like ‘literacy’ (implying the corollary, illiteracy) to preemptively derrogate dissenters. It seems not only pedantic, but superior in tone, fanatical. A turn off. Lesser offensive is the book’s ignoring of nationality as an aspect of diversity; further, the notion that racism is a white problem because that term indicates a pervasive, institutionalized phenomenon, while terms like prejudice or stereotype are more appropriately applied to individual situations, seems correct on the one hand. At this point in the text, DiAngelo had already outlined the economic, legal, and social disadvantages largely experienced by people of color. However, if one is subject to an individual act of prejudice, be it dangerous or otherwise harmful, it will seem merely academic what term is applied, which lends an element of so what to this portion of her book.

With that preface, I will next ask my friend if we might sideline the intellectual part to focus on the personal. This is what I thought might be explored at length in What Does It Mean To White, and what I hope to make room for.

When I was a kid (age 0-10), there were few peers or adults of color in my community. I lived in semi-rural areas of Britain, within outskirts (British term for suburb) of UK second cities, Manchester and Birmingham. I recall small populations of Indians, people from the Middle East, but no one of what we now call Asian heritage, and hardly anyone Black or of Hispanic heritage. To me, Black meant someone of African background, and some lived in the inner cities, I somehow learned. I discerned much from TV. I will have learned about slavery from Roots, the celebrated Alex Haley book that became a miniseries, and something of a media sensation. Slavery was horrible, I observed, and was told. It doesn’t exist anymore, adults added.

I learned what ‘Americans’ were from cop shows. Americans, to my 7-10 year-old self were white, spoke in canned voices and said words or terms like ‘wow!’ or ‘holy cow!’ a lot. The ‘other’ Indians, or Native Americans, were…well, I didn’t know where they came from, and I won’t have thought about it. Those cop and/or action shows delineated the stereotypes and hierarchies: white guys were in charge—were the heroes, but also, mostly, the villains. Black guys were bad, as in thugs, generally, but also, sometimes, the hip, as in more knowing partners of the white guys in charge. Asian people were clearly subordinate, the people in charge of the computers and other machines, whether fixing them or else declaring their failures in critical moments. An exception, it seemed, was Star Trek, with its weird Scotsman whining, “Cap’n, I canna git ni pewer!”.

Emigration to the US didn’t change much. There were more Latinos (as in Latin America versus Spain, I inferred), more people of mixed race. Still not many Black people, as I still lived a middle-class life, now in suburbs, not ‘outskirts’, and the socioeconomic segregations seemed largely similar to what they were in the UK. I experienced largely benign, if irritating prejudice in middle school and (somewhat) into H.S. Peers teased my accent, stock British phrases which I didn’t use but had crossed the ocean via media (I blame PBS, Jane Austen, Benny Hill, The Royal Family, The Beatles. Thank God I got through school before Harry Potter!). I was unhatefully called a ‘limey’ sometimes—a reference, apparently, to Elizabethan era English sailors who, lacking vitamins when crossing oceans to conquer foreign lands, contracted scurvy and thus needed fruits like limes as a remedy.

“Okay,” I would say without interest when this was explained.

A genuinely upsetting experience happened in 9th grade, when I frequented a friend’s home that also attracted his sister’s friends, one of whom was a friendly, same-aged Black girl who went to a local school, not mine. She was pretty—had a lovely smile and her hair was curly, with Shirley Temple ringlets down about the base of her neck. Mostly she was charming, and as she hung around me and my friend a bit more than his sister, we bantered easily. I was careless, I think. Awkward as a teen for reasons that are beyond the scope of this entry, I’d say the wrong thing at times. I don’t believe that what I said to her was prejudiced, or racist. On the surface, at least, race didn’t seem relevant to the offense. Anyway, I’d said something, and thus on the third, or maybe fourth—and sadly, last—occasion this girl was in our company, she was morose and distant. I asked my friend what was up with her. According to him, she’d said one or two things to me that he deemed flirtatious, and I’d brushed her off.

I didn’t know what to do—what I wanted to do. Dealing with the feelings of girls, women was…hmm? Long story short: never saw her again. I’d like to share this memory with my friend, tell him that I’ve been thinking of this story as I read the DiAngelo book. It was and is relevant to our important subject, because among other things, what was somewhere in my mind the time that girl was in my company were the following assumptions: you (I) don’t have relationships with Black people. They live elsewhere, have different lives. They don’t like you, wouldn’t like you, much less want to be close to you. Was any of this conscious to my teenage mind? No. Robin DiAngelo, paraphrasing psychoanalysis, would likely argue that this doesn’t matter in so far as we have a responsibility to search our minds and upon that endeavor, to be honest. Fair enough.

By the way, I have a teasing question for my friend when we get together, about that fruit he’d given me the last time we saw each other: why was he giving me limes?

  • Actually, the entry “Don’t look at me” (August 2014) is centrally about race


Graeme Daniels, MFT


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Memory of skittles


Do you remember going to movies as a kid, expecting colorful, fun adventures; a gripping, if not especially meaningful story? And do you recall those films whose lulls in exciting action, featuring longwinded dialogue (by my youngest standards, that meant all dialogue besides the phrases “look out!” or “we’re running out of time”) that left you confused, or bored, or possibly disturbed? Some stories, books or films, deposited ideas that I failed to grasp when I was young, but they left residues that my mind later absorbed, reorganized, and therefore put to different uses. Like…

I’ll eschew a Jungian pretense, a scholarly attempt to know the cross-cultural and time immemorial derivatives of modern storytelling. If Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory, the first ever film my parents took me to see (that I recall) is based upon, or is meant to parallel some Biblical or otherwise mythical antecedent, I was and still am ignorant of such information. When I saw the film when I was four, or maybe five, circa 1972 or 73’, I came away from the experience, like many other children I think, delighted by the color and mischief of the story. The rainbow images were childlike psychedelia, and an apt reflection of the candy ephemera I and most kids seem to fall in love with. The characters and story of Willy Wonka seemed fun and mildly comic; I was inclined to smile, laugh or even squeal at the playful action. At the same time, however, I recall feeling oddly disoriented by the menacing character that was Willy Wonka, and vaguely concerned for the sympathetic hero, the “honest” Charlie Bucket.

The morality aspect was not lost on me, even as a four or five-year-old. I was, after all, supposed to be downloading guilt around about this time, so a timeless cautionary tale about honesty or greed was actually, uh, well-timed, developmentally speaking. I recall the theme of gluttony being most impactful at the time. This may have been because I was at a movie theater, where candy snacks will have been (as they are still), with no sense of irony, sold in oversized portions to parents and children. I may have been more conscious, via experience, of greed and gluttony issues. Lying or treachery versus faith and honesty were likely not yet my cutting edge concerns. Maybe for me life was more about what I could do, when I could do it; when it was time to play, to stop playing; when is it time to notice too much of a good thing. The theme of patrimony, of passing down a legacy—notions of continuity and mortality—to a worthy heir, was lost on me.

It isn’t today, of course, but as I watched Willy Wonka recently over the holidays (it somehow seems an appropriate Holiday feature), I considered that the themes that resonated with my five-year-old self, that were implicitly deposited then, and which lingered thereafter, are still the ones that resonate most today. An addict is someone who is drawn by a figurative candy store; is seduced by an anticipation of pleasures: if not color or adventure, then of joyful affiliation, like-mindedness and play. The consequences of eating too much, of being self-centered, entitled or arrogant, are observable, but more so by onlookers, not the actors, save for a hero, the one survivor who will be redeemed, and rewarded with a happy ending. As a kid, I didn’t fully understand Charlie Bucket’s happy ending—that piece about inheriting the kingdom, whatever that was about. I just thought he’d been rewarded for not being too greedy. I might have looked at my mother to see if she were directing my attention, hoping I’d get this message, and thus I’d pick up my empty wrappers and not ask for more.

When people taste freedom for the first time, or for the first time in a while (going off to college, life after a separation), there is a sense of loss, one that may be felt palpably or tacitly, like the original losses. Buried. Not Buried. This is when the candy store opens its doors.


Graeme Daniels, MFT




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