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Pictures of the Depths of the Soul: Prostitution, Poverty, & Progress

Recently, famed photographer Mary Ann Marks died. Ms. Marks spent her career travelling to places most people fear, to photograph people most of us prefer to ignore, or shun, or simply pretend don’t exist.

Some of her most powerful images (see her website:http://www.maryellenmark.com/books/titles/falkland_road/index001_falkrd.html ) were of children in the sex trade. The link above will take you to her axiomatic 1978 collection of photos from prostitutes on Falkland Road in Mumbai, where prostitutes literally live and work in cages. Her work led to the 1981 documentary of the same name, which in turn led to much outrage and clucking of disapproval in the West.

Lest we get comfortable thinking our own country doesn’t have Falkland Roads, Mary Ann went on to photograph street children in Seattle in 1983, titled “Streetwise”. It also led to a documentary on the issue, and also to much indignation by liberals like myself, who tend to get outraged by social injustice. Comparing the poorest and most benighted children of the two cities makes for a fascinating romp through culture, colonialism, and capitalist history, to action.

Out of curiosity, I searched online to see if anything much has changed about either Falkland Road or the street children of Seattle since the books came out. In Mumbai, real estate prices are skyrocketing, making finding a decent place to live almost as difficult and crazy-making as in Manhattan (for a great analysis of the impact of commercial change in the city over the past 20 years, see Mehta’s “Maxiumum City”). Even previously shady areas like the one surrounding the Red Light district are being bought up by newly-rich capitalists for office space, car parks, and apartment towers. Apparently, even the old, poor, and long-shunned Falkland Road is being squeezed by progress. In fact, within a decade it’s likely that the cages prostitutes have occupied since the late 1800’s will be gone. Relocated may be a better word.

Although India has made enormous economic progress in recent years, very little change has happened so far in the struggle to end the deepest sort of child poverty. It is very common to see young children in India’s biggest cities walking about near traffic, barely dressed, sometimes accompanied by either young mothers or older sisters, begging. Unlike here in the U.S., most of these child beggars aren’t scammers. Most are truly homeless, undocumented, and nearly impossible to track or count. India does now have improving maternity hospitals, but large numbers of very poor (and especially rural) women still give birth at home. Without a solid, working infrastructure for registering home births, many of the poorest people in India do not have birth records, which means they’re invisible to the state. Even though it is possible to register births long after the fact, homeless people, prostitutes, and other members of the very bottom register of society don’t always do so.

All of this means that the Indian government really has no idea how many people it has, in spite of tons of work going into counting people. There are simply bigger problems on the governmental agenda- like lowering the astonishing maternal mortality rate, which is finally falling due to large-scale comprehensive efforts in many states. Recently, the Indian congress considered a bill to legalize prostitution, which is already somewhat legal, and make it more of a standardized commercial venture. The bill failed. In India, it is legal to exchange sex for money, but not to act as a pimp, madam, or trafficker, or to own or operate a brothel. Interestingly, it’s specifically forbidden to sell sex within 100 yards of a temple or school.

Looking at Seattle in the years since Mark last photographed homeless kids, many of whom traded sex for money, we can see some change. The city has created multiple shelters and hotlines for kids on the streets to access for help. These folks do heroic work, and doubtless save many kids from a permanent (and short) life on the streets. However, due to money problems (budget cuts and increased need for services), the 800 or so people sleeping in shelters every night only represent a fraction of the whole.

Just like India, the U.S. has a hard time quantifying how many homeless kids it really has. Some homeless kids are undocumented immigrants. Many are not reported missing by parents, so they never get counted as runaways. It’s easy to tell that India’s homeless teen/sexual exploitation problem is vastly larger than that of the U.S. A quick walk around any part of Delhi or Mumbai and then New York or Chicago or Seattle can tell you that much, even though the U.S. is really good at hiding these things, the amount and level of poverty is pretty obvious at face-value.

Even though we don’t have any Falkland Roads in the U.S, with teen prostitutes living in squalid cages on public view, we still have a serious problem. The fact that the richest country on the planet has ANY homeless, unaccompanied children (which is different from homeless families, also a terrible tragedy, but not the same) is an abomination. And, of course, it’s not just a big city problem. When I look at Mark’s photos from Seattle in 1983 (here: http://www.maryellenmark.com/books/titles/streetwise/300E-032-024_stwise_520.html) I see scenes that are familiar from the place where I live now, and every other American city I’ve ever lived in.

Ultimately, to end the horrors of both Falkland Road and the homeless kid problem here, we’re going to have to actually believe in the inherent worth of human life, including female life and gay and transgender life. That’s an awfully lofty and long-term goal, I’m afraid, even though both Hinduism and Christianity call for equal treatment of all humans. I don’t think I’m personally able to make a dent in that one on a global scale. However, when I look at Mark’s photos from 40 years ago, I see something that IS possible. Mary Ann was able to photograph prostitutes and homeless kids because she treated them as the children of god they are. Because she treated them with care, she was able to capture their experiences on film, and thereby remind the world that these people exist and deserve our care.

I’m not much use with a camera, but I can treat people as human, and I can demand that the world remember.

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Pure Play

During our two-day art and play therapy conference in Mumbai, we talked about a lot of things: brains, trauma, diagnosis, cultural issues, techniques, and theories of arts and play therapies. We also played a good deal to break up the lectures. One of my standard methods of waking up an audience is to have a couple of people come up on stage and teach us all some hand-slap games from childhood.

Hand-slap games are great for a few reasons: they make you stand up and move, they make you engage with a partner, they provide opportunities for both vertical and horizontal neural integration, and they’re fun. It’s most fun when there are people in the audience from different cultures who can teach us games in a variety of languages. I’ve taught and learned these games in many countries now, and I think the Asians may have won.

I’ve seen American and European audience members struggle with some fairly basic hand games, but I’ve never seen an Indian or Thai or Cambodian not be able to completely master a complex hand slap game in English in a few minutes. This phenomena makes me wonder why those of us in the West seem to struggle some with learning new pattern/language games when our friends in SE Asia don’t. I have two hypotheses, and no way to test them, so for now they’re only guesses:

1. Our overuse of tech tools has deteriorated our abilities to learn new physical pattern games and songs. We spend a huge proportion of our play time now engaged with screens and keyboards (like I am right now). I wonder if one of the costs of this new form of engagement is the quickness with which we pick up new physical patterns. Even though a lot of these new gadgets are made in SE Asia, very few people have access to the internet at home, and fewer have x-boxes or other video games at home (except in S Korea and Japan, which I’m not including here). Most college students in India still write papers out by hand, even for computer science classes. Note: the audience was of mixed ages from 18-75, and I didn’t see a difference that way. The men were generally a little slower to learn the games than the women, but I expect that’s because boys play fewer hand slap games than girls and therefore have less practice.

2. There may be different neural pathways and/or structures in our brains depending on whether we are in a collectivist or individualist culture. Although little girls in the West also play hand slap games, we don’t  generally spend as much time with peers as children in the east do. Families in SE Asia are often larger than ours, meaning there are more likely to be sisters around to play with than in the West, and people here tend to live in close-knit multi-family communities (even in high rise apartment buildings). They also think differently about connections than we do in the West. Like I mentioned in my post about manners, people in SE Asia tend to think far more often in terms of “we” than “me”.

I’m not attempting to make a value judgement here, I’m just pointing out anecdotal evidence that there may be a hidden cost in terms of our cognitive abilities attached to our typical Western lifestyle. Certainly, being a little slow on the uptake for learning  a new hand slap game isn’t likely to cost anyone a raise or a Nobel Prize, but what other mental capacities may we be unknowingly sacrificing for tech and personal space? Now that we have the tech (ironically) to look inside our own heads and examine the workings, maybe it’s time to look at how our choices of lifestyle and mindset impact our abilities to learn and connect, preferably before we loose something important that we never knew we had.

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Graciousness

When I was growing up, manners were a Big Deal. Table manners, party manners, school and church and friend’s house manners were all bundled up together in what my mother sometimes called “home training”. Essentially, manners give us cultural reference points for how to behave appropriately for our class, age, gender, position, and culture. Because of my rather intense “home training”, I am able to write a damn fine thank-you note, host a cocktail party successfully, attend a wedding without causing a ruckus, and otherwise generally behave in a way that befits an adult White woman in the U.S. (especially the South, where manners remain a Big Deal).

While I’ve been roaming around India, I’ve had occasion to reflect on the role of manners in a global village. India is a very diverse and ancient place- the manners of the people here are traced back millennia, and can be quite complex and formal. For example, on the first day of our conference, the Chief Guest (a high-ranking bureaucrat from the University) was over an hour late. The opening of the conference was delayed until he arrived, at which time he gave a rambling, off-topic talk for another hour. No one left or began to talk to friends, or checked texts. Every single one of the 200+ audience members waited quietly and respectfully until he finally quit talking and left.

I cannot even imagine the depths of arrogance involved in being a person who thinks nothing of keeping 200 people waiting for an hour (he did not apologize) and proceed to ramble for another hour. My fellow Americans would’ve walked out, possibly after setting him ablaze.

Which brings me back to manners.

In my small experience, Indian people are intensely mannerly, to the point that I’ve begun to wonder if they might all be psychic. I think inside my head, “I’d love another cup of tea”, and it appears. Seriously. As a guest in an Indian home, you are not allowed to lift a finger to help your own self, no matter how stubbornly American-ly self- sufficient you may feel.

Really, manners generally boil down to displays of graciousness. In the West, this generally means helping guests, elders, and friends feel at ease. In India, graciousness seems to extend past helping others feel at ease to helping others feel a sense of being respected and valued, sometimes at the cost of the ease of the host. For example, if you say to your Indian host, “Wow, it’s hot in here”, you may find the whole family being organized into teams to fan you, or to fix the AC, or to otherwise insure that you experience no discomfort whatsoever.

The Indian sense of graciousness involves a level of self-sacrifice I’m not sure I can really grasp as a Westerner. An Indian person would far rather be hot, tired, out of cash, and foot sore than to have a guest do the smallest thing that might require effort. It’s a complete reversal of the usual power balance we see in the U.S.- here, the guest is not just made comfortable, he or she is made to be entirely without any cares of any sort for the duration of the visit regardless of what else the host may need or want to be doing. This appears to be true in homes of Hindus, Jains, Muslims, Sikhs, and any other religious or cultural group on the subcontinent.

Interestingly, this concept of complete graciousness to guests seems to extend to clients in the psychotherapy setting. I’m only beginning to put together the whole picture for myself, but it feels as if therapy here may be practiced with a natural sense of attunement and empathy that we work hard to cultivate in therapists in the West. I wonder if we all began to treat our clients as guests in our home rather than as paying customers involved in a business transaction if there might be a shift in the depth and effectiveness of our work?

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Taking off for the wild blue yonder-

I’m leaving today for a lightening-fast 2 week study abroad experience with 8 intrepid graduate students. We’re going to India: Delhi, Agra, Jaipur, Mumbai. I may or may not find time and internet connections to post while we’re gone. In the event of no writing time, here are links to some of the fabulous agencies we’ll visit while we’re there:

Salaam Baalak Trust, New Delhi: http://www.salaambaalaktrust.com/city-walk.asp

Provides food, shelter, and education for thousands of street children. They also run a city walk tour program, which we will get to experience. The city walk tours provide income for the programs, training for the kids who are guides, and give tourists a clearer insight into the lives of street children.

Arpan, Mumbai: http://arpan.org.in/

Provides prevention of and treatment to child victims of sexual abuse in Mumbai. Also provides parent education. Arpan is sending speakers to our expressive arts conference in Mumbai.

TTK Hospital for Addictions, Chennai: http://www.addictionindia.org/

We won’t be travelling down to Chennai on this trip, but they are sending a speaker to the conference. One of India’s oldest and largest treatment centers for addictions.

We’ll also be doing tourist stuff: Taj Mahal, Rathambore Tiger Park, Amer Fort, Water Palace, etc.

And eating lots of great, fresh, local Indian food. More posts with photos to come-

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Counseling across the “sham of culture”

Last night I finally finished reading the brilliant novel, The Siege of Krishnapur by JG Farrell. It’s one of those can’t-put-it-down-and-go-to-sleep-like-a-sensible-person books. So, as the minutes past midnight ticked by, I reached the conclusion of the book, and as it happened, the end of the rule of the East India Company. In the denouement, the hero is heard to say, “Culture is a sham. It’s a cosmetic painted on life by rich people to conceal its ugliness”.

Well, hell. I had believed that I was going to shortly be released by Farrell’s novel so I could finally join Will in blissful slumber. That line kept me up until my eyelids finally flatly refused to stay open. I woke up this morning still wrestling with the idea of culture as a cosmetic for the wealthy. Certainly money allows the more privileged people in the world to buy their way into far more comfort than others can afford, but what about the rebuttal given in the novel by the callow young romantic poet, “Ideas, too, are a part of culture. No one can say ideas are a sham. Our progress depends on them”. Given that he meant “progress” in the best British colonial sense, it’s a highly charged term (Farrell has his British overlords starving and rotting in the marble-columned banqueting hall their predecessors in the Company built in happier days to underline the whole “progress” conceit.)

As I mentioned yesterday, I’m getting ready to go back to India next week. I’m taking grad students, and we’re co-hosting a conference on art and play therapies for trauma at a college in Mumbai. There are a *lot* of ideas going on there, and many of them are about “progress”.

All of which leads back to the starting point of the circle: how much of what we call “culture” is cosmetic? How much of what we generally call “multicultural” or “cross-cultural” counseling is then also cosmetic?

Because I am truly a pedant some days, I’m going to begin my response (certainly not an answer) with a definition. Mr. Merriam and Mr. Webster say, “the beliefs, customs, arts, etc., of a particular society, group, place, or time: a particular society that has its own beliefs, ways of life, art, etc.: a way of thinking, behaving, or working that exists in a place or organization (such as a business).”

In therapy, the key bit of the definition is the middle, the “way of life” bit.That’s where we tend to get hung up- how differently people from various cultures view constructs such as the “right” way to conduct male/female relationships, the “right” way to behave in public, to work, to/if worship, etc. We’ve seen a far too vivid example of clashing ideas of what’s “right” in terms of the behavior and role of the police in Ferguson recently.

So, right, back to the therapy room with us.

How much, if any, of the typical “cultural” considerations we tend to consider when working with people are cosmetics designed to paint over (white wash?) the ugliness of life? When counseling students write up case reports, we always expect them to talk about the client’s gender, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, marital status, and social class. This is intended to help the reader better understand the issues presented and the relevance of the treatment plan.

I do think including cultural/demographic data is important to designing effective treatment: the inner world view of the client is central to the likelihood that treatment will be helpful. Knowing your client is generally considered to be key to helping him/her.

But what if  it’s not?

If Farrell’s hero is on the right track, maybe culture matters less than we’ve been taught? I think working with play and art as healing media certainly flattens out a lot of the usual demographics, especially with young children. What I mean is, children can decide that a car is a car, or it’s a bed, or it’s a spaceship. Since I don’t use any of the classic psychoanalytic or psychodynamic theories where the therapist interprets the symbols in the play or art for the client, which is very judgement-laden and very seriously culturally created, it is what the client says it is.

Even so, when working with clients or students from cultures very different from my own, such as the students I’ll be teaching in India later this month, how much of what I’m saying is “progress” is a cosmetic to make the ugliness look better?

I’m going to talk a good deal about brains while I’m there. Brains are pretty much the same in all humans, anatomically. We’ve learned a tremendous amount about how our brains work; how they’re hurt by traumas and how they can heal, in the last few years. It’s wonderful to know more about all of that. We should be able to extrapolate some of this into new formulas for medication that are more effective and targeted. We should be able to devise more effective therapies. We certainly have a huge quantity of new evidence that play does, in fact, heal.

But how relevant is that in a country with nearly zero mental health care?

I don’t want to be the Avon Lady of mental health in the developing world. I think in order to avoid that sad outcome, I’m going to have to be on my toes to be sure I can tell if I’m carrying a suitcase full of make-up around with me. And I’d better be careful not to open it up and start make-overs on a bunch of unsuspecting Indian folks. I think they’ve seen that act before.

Explaining empathetic attunement in India

As some of you may know, I’m preparing to take a group of my graduate students to India next week for a two-week whirlwind tour of the northern parts of the country. One of many highlights of the trip is a two-day conference at NK college in Mumbai. I’m the keynote speaker, and of course, my topic is play therapy.

I get to talk about play therapy a lot. Usually, I’m talking to professionals or grad students who already have a pretty decent idea of what play therapy might be. At this conference, I get to introduce the idea of play therapy to about 150 college students (mostly psychology majors), professors, and professionals who have probably never heard of play therapy, AND who live in a very different cultural context from the one I inhabit.

To call this a bit of a challenge is a serious understatement.

I’ve been working on my outline and slides for months now, and I’m not satisfied with them yet. I’ve got the usual suspects lined up: Virginia Axline’s 8 principles, the basic attending skills in play therapy, how to set limits, some brain stuff. But I don’t yet think I’ve captured the IT that makes play therapy such a powerful modality for working with kids.

When I think about what the IT, the driving force of play therapy, is I get lost for words (which is not a common occurrence, trust me). What can I call the magic that happens in the space between the child and the play therapist? You know, that feeling of being invited into the inner world of the child’s imagination and thoughts, being in sync, attuned, congruent, aligned? This, in my opinion, is what makes therapy tick. I find it to operate most powerfully when I’m helping my client access his or her creative, affective brain, getting out of the rigid, verbal, linear left brain and into the visual, contextual right brain. I’ve just never found a perfect English word to describe it, and now I have to find a way to describe this to a group of people for whom English is a second, third, or fourth language.

When I teach beginning counselors here in the United States, I often use Judith Jordan’s idea of mutual empathy to explain the “it” of therapy. Mutual empathy differs from one-way empathy in therapy in its bi-directionality. In most ways of working, therapists are trained to use empathy to enter the world of the client. In mutual empathy, the therapist feels the clients feelings with him or her, and helps the client to understand that their feelings impact the therapist as well; that their feelings matter to the therapist. I believe that this process occurs naturally in engaged play and expressive arts therapy. Left brain-to-left brain contact, which science now tells us helps grow and repair relational neural pathways, may be the “it” I’m raving about today.

But how to explain that to 150 Indian students and scholars? In an hour?

I’m still working on it. However, I have found a word in Urdu (a cousin of the language of old Persia which is widely spoken in northern India, also the language of some of the greatest poets who ever lived) that might help: manoos. It seems to be a little different from our word empathy, and from the Hindi word for empathy, which means the same as the English. Manoos seems (I say “seems” because I’m definitely not a linguist nor do I speak Urdu) to impy a feeling of care and warmth for another person or an animal such that it/they are no longer a stranger and there is a mutual affection and understanding between yourself and the other.

Maybe manoos isn’t the answer to explaining the empathetic attunement therapists must use, but I’m going to move ahead with it for now. Maybe manoos will at least start a conversation about how inadequate language can be in the face of felt experiences? I’m going to keep wrestling with this, and hoping for a flash of enlightenment.

Rumi, one of many brilliant poets who wrote in Persian, a cousin to Urdu, wrote:

I closed my mouth and spoke to you in a hundred silent ways.”

Maybe that’s the definition of tuning in?