Monday, November 28, 2011

The Ultimate Betrayal

Whenever there is betrayal in a relationship, the world often seems as though it is collapsing around us.

Nobody wants to hurt. And in most relationships, especially those where the attachment between the parties is not yet secure, there is always an initial fear of being cheated on. I know couples who have put a stop to or sabotaged their relationship for years out of this fear of being cheated on. It seems these couples preempt betrayal even though it has not taken place (and perhaps never will). Yet they are so crippled by the fear of betrayal that they will, out of anxiety and insecurity, inject toxins in their otherwise harmonious relationship.
Luckily this fear diminishes over time with a secure, happy relationship. But it takes time. 

The interesting thing about this fear and with many fears, including that of being handicapped, is that they are actually irrational. No one has ever died from betrayal.

Such fears undermine the human spirit. Yes, at a psychological level, these fears point to insecurities and an inability to cope with any ego-threat. One must rise above perceived ego-threats or one is soon at the mercy of so many events in life. Developing self-esteem is very important for dealing with such fears but so too is conceiving the strength of the human spirit.  

One must trust in the human spirit and its ability to overcome setbacks. Studies suggest that people who have suffered an accident and became handicapped showed more resilience and turned out happier than they ever thought they could be when envisaging any handicap. Similarly, people who have felt betrayed and heart-broken by a past relationship erroneously believe, at the time that their depressed state will continue with them for years and that they will never be able to love or trust again. 
But this is not the case.

It is surprising too, how the weakest, most defenceless human can in fact overcome betrayal. Let me tell you a story...

I have suffered the ultimate betrayal. No. None of my partners have cheated on me. And no, for the most part, my friends have not broken my trust.

The ultimate betrayal came for me as a ten months old baby when I was abandoned by my mother. 

Now I say 'abandoned' because technically, from the point of view of baby Laura, that is what it was. I must have felt terrible as I burst into yet another colic fit, wondering where my mum was. It was clear that she was no longer there for me.
This is not the place to dwell on the reasons she let me go but needless to say, my happiness and comfort were very much a priority and I was well cared for where I was.

Unfortunately at this age, one does not know 'what is good'.  If one were to ask a child then, 'what is good',  is to be with mum.

From eight months, I would have already entered that phase developmental psychologists describe as an important emotional attachment phase.  This means I knew who my mother was. I had begun walking and so I recognised her and I was probably emotionally attached to her.  As a result, any feelings of betrayal I would have had were more pronounced than if our separation had occurred much earlier. Consider also that as a ten month old baby, I was still in the trust vs. mistrust phase described by Erikson and betrayal during this phase is damaging to trust, perhaps more so than at any part of adult life.

So enough of the psychology...I was sent away to live for two years with my grandmother, my Mamy. During that time, I believe I was happy. The proof, was that I am strongly attached to my grandmother even now.

My second birthday in my Mamy's arms, France

But what is disturbing is that when I was separated from my grandmother to be reunited with my mum, I did not recognise my mum.
It turned out that I had become so attached to my grandmother that this second separation from a caregiver also had a terrible impact on me.

I had nightmares. I was constantly afraid. I had screaming fits at night. And I was convinced that my 'new' mum was an evil witch.

What did I have to cope? What defences could I, a three year old toddler, summon to overcome this horrible feeling of dejection and  disempowerment, to overcome this anger and this feeling of betrayal? To have been betrayed not once but twice was too much that I could bear.  I had no recollection of the first betrayal since, after all, I had been too young but the sum of it felt enormous within me.

I felt like a roaming orphan. I identified with Penny from The Rescuers and I had no doubt that Madame Medusa was my mother. It did not help that my mum was fond of jewelry...

I think it took years, but I overcame those nagging feelings of emptiness, the knot in my throat, the self-esteem issues and most of all, I grew to love my mum.

Today I understand her and what she went through. Again, this post is not the scope to dwell on her reasons.

But the gist of this story is that people are too complex to be tied to set relationship paradigms. In this case, the situation demanded that my mum let me go despite the adage that 'mothers should not abandon their infants.' Is betrayal easy? How many mothers would be ready to do what my mum did? Believe me, to do something like this takes much courage. But it also takes a genuine need...

We must learn to understand that the betrayal we feel does not often stem from malicious intent in others, nor does it necessarily have its origins from the weakness and deceit in others. The answers are much more complex. 

At the time of experiencing betrayal, we always think it is the end of the world, that our soul has been trampled on, our egos trashed and that those who are betraying us are evidently manifesting some dark side of their personality. That they have failed us...

But often those who 'betray' us, -and by betrayal, I don't mean physical and emotional abuse which I do not condone, but rather abandonment, separation and loss of engagement- yes, those who 'betray' us are experiencing their own demons and their own limitations. Often their own needs are not being met within the relationship and they must go elsewhere to have those needs met, to grow as a person, to experience peace. My mother did not stop loving me during those two years when she gave me up. But she needed those two years for herself. What has love got to do with anything? And was she necessarily selfish do you think, for taking that time? I don't think so.

I have learnt that our self-integrity is an important part of who we are, it is the foundation of our beings and any destabilisation in our self-integrity poses a threat to our sense of self. Unless we choose to live in a closed box, unless we have adopted unchanging and dogmatic attitudes and have completely stopped growing, then, who we think we are is constantly evolving. And as it does, over the years, often we achieve self-integrity by ensuring that what we do aligns itself with our values and beliefs. We may also change our way of thinking to accommodate what we perceive our recent behaviours to be, all for the purpose of aligning our attitudes with our actions and help achieve self-integrity. 

Doing what we believe is right, running away from paradigms that would in any way shackle us or limit us, is integral to self-integrity and ultimately to human happiness. And yes, there are times when it will appear as though we are betraying others, but this is all part of ensuring that we do not betray ourselves.  

The alternatives: poor self-integrity and a shaky sense of self are dangerous propositions. These do not lead to happiness nor do they help the parties in any relationship. They render us petty, envious, bitter, resentful, controlling and dissatisfied. 

It is true, nobody wants to hurt.  Yet understanding less-than-perfect human behaviors is crucial for processing feelings of betrayal and ultimately, for overcoming their negative impact.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

My Top Films for 2011

Five films stand out for me this year. Some were not technically made in 2011 but they had me riveted, informed and in some cases, deeply unsettled.

1. Adam Resurrected

Based on a novel by one of Israel's top writers, Yoram Kaniuk, Adam Resurrected stars Jeff Goldblum as Adam Stein, a Holocaust survivor with a disturbing secret. During his incarceration in a concentration camp, he was allowed to live on the condition that he entertain a Nazi commandant by pretending to be his dog and walk on all fours.

This film is brutally honest in its dealing with the subject of human debasement, psychological survival and the manner in which cognitive dissonance can deeply unsettle us and drive our behavior. Adam's inner conflict, that of remaining a dog or becoming 'human' again and therefore dealing with his shame and emotional pain, comes to the fore after the war.

It is while practicing his unusual skills as mind reader and pseudo-psychiatrist and himself a patient at a mental hospital that Adam meets a little boy, also a WWII victim. This boy believes that he is a dog and presumably no one can help him. Adam Resurrected is a film I strongly recommend if you are not afraid of complex human themes and have some interest in psychology. Both Jeff Goldblum and Willem Dafoe give excellent performances as always. I love this film.

2. Hors La Loi

Roschdy Zem in Hors La Loi

Not your typical gangster film. Hors La Loi is actually a historical drama more or less depicting the life of Abdel Kader, leader of the Algerian Independence movement in France. It follows the life of three Algerian brothers, Messaoud, Abdelkader and Said, who, confronted with the injustices of French involvement in Algeria and later, with the poor treatment of Algerian immigrants in France, set out to make a difference for themselves and for the impoverished immigrant community.

An informative, captivating story which resonates strongly with social issues still facing France today. I enjoyed the dynamic between the three brothers and the outstanding overall cast. And if, like me, you have a soft spot for Roschdy Zem, this one is for you. He literally sizzles as the silent glassy-eyed, Messaoud.

3. La Rafle

France's shameful WWII secret. Under Vichy rule and faced with a Nazi quota requirement, the French gendarmes round up 13000 Jews into Paris' Velodrome d'Hiver. This cycling arena, right in the middle of Paris is specially sealed for its new ghetto purpose.

This is yet another story of what humans do to one another other and where outgroup prejudice can lead if left unchecked. Google "Vel d'Hiv", or watch this film but either way, do not be naively misled into believing that your own government would fully care for you during a wartime occupation. In the Vel d'Hiv, during their 3-5 days captivity, the 10000 French Jews are subjected to appalling conditions at the peak of the summer heat; no toilets, food or water. Only limited medical facilities are provided by the Red Cross and this is obviously not enough for those rounded up forcibly from their hospital bed. Outside, it was later reported that neighbours of the velodrome experienced foul smells emanating from the newly locked building.

From the velodrome to the death camps of Auschwitz, we follow the plight of several families and real life survivor Joseph Weismann. I would not watch this film again but I strongly recommend it for its revelatory effort. Strong performances from Jean Reno (who is mostly underutilised) and Melanie Laurent.

4. Insidious

This low budget horror was declared the most successful film of the year in terms of ROI. James Wan's horror film has just the right balance of mystery, paranormal, dream archetypes and bedroom settings to strike a chord with the dreamer in most viewers, making them dread falling asleep at night and wish they'd never seen this film. But yeah, a strong horror production that haunted me for days afterwards.

5. Gainsbourg: a Heroic Life

Why does Gainsbourg score with hot women? Find out...

Finally, something funny and light-hearted for a change. After all, I am not all about brooding-over-human-suffering-and-injustice. It seems there is also a hedonist spark in there...

What with sex kitten Brigitte Bardot, the smouldering Juliette Greco, gamine Jane Birkin, Dali's dark and curvaceous muse, and Gainsbourg's last wife, the sizzling Bambou (who is played by none other than sexy Mylene Jampanoi), there is much to feast on in this entertaining biopic about one of France's most celebrated and controversial musicians.

But what distinguishes Gainsbourg from the average biopic formula is the appeal to the child in each one us. From the very beginning, Gainsbourg's larger than life alter-ego makes recurring appearances through an ever smoking dandy-like, animated caricature whose relationship with the artist drives him inasmuch at it limits him. This elongated, long nosed figure has enough panache to charm and inspire; for viewers, it provides an enchanting and heart-warming conception of Gainsbourg's complexity as an artist. This film will delight your senses and make you wish you lived in Gainsbourg's time.

Hipstamatic Greece

A joyful photographic spree, starting in Athens. From the Acropolis, to the Temple of Zeus and onto the Temple of Poseidon at Cape Sounion, Greece's Attica province is resplendent on Hipstamatic. I added a couple of shots from the island of Milos, views from Santorini's castle and the splendid waters of Psarou beach in Mykonos. I hope you enjoy them as I did my wonderful journey in Greece.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Why You Don't Have to Be A Mum

This blog post could very well have been entitled, “How to Piss off Mothers and lose your friends” or “Neo-Germaine Greer Rant”.

It is not intended to be. 

What I want to highlight here is that where motherhood is concerned, there are universally accepted truths that are illogical and rooted in deeply entrenched religious and social mechanisms that we fail to question. I simply hope that questioning those, highlighting those can aid uncertain prospective mothers in making their own choices about motherhood.

In other words, with this post, I want to reach out to women who have had doubts on this subject and tell them that they are not alone and that it is fine to choose not to have children.

Finally, my experience for this post is the predominantly patriarchal community where I have been raised and the curious number of miserable, depressed and untruthful mothers I have known in my thirty odd years.

So it begins....

The Myths

Society elevates its mothers to a pedestal whereby motherhood automatically lends honorable and virtuous qualities to women. Granted the pain and sacrifice involved in giving birth is admirable and even unsurpassed by any other biological feat. I respect it.

The Women

With all actions, one must always look at motivation. Indeed, often motherhood is an accident. Often it follows from the lack of education, the lack of choices available to women who end up fulfilling themselves through the one task they can indeed do though often, not so well, judging from the depression, family conflicts and adolescent angst that problematic motherhood engenders. Finally, often having children is mere tradition, a duty assumed by females.

In Western societies on the other hand, it is arguable that the need for social acceptance, social approval, social support and often financial support, all of which society somehow naturally offers to mothers, are a powerful driving factor in leading women to naturally assume the role of mother.  After all, you can get government support for having children, whether or not you choose to take motherhood seriously.

Granted a woman may be honourable and virtuous but these qualities do not necessarily follow from motherhood and are entirely dependent on each individual’s temperament and disposition. It is highly possible that a woman who has never had children may also be as equally honourable and virtuous. The media just never mentions them.

The Goddesses

One must wonder about the source of this unanimous equating of motherhood with virtue and female fulfillment. Going thousands of years back, it may have arisen from a long lost tradition of goddess cults worldwide in which women detained the secret of childbirth and immersed themselves in fertility rites that men could not take part in. In some places of the world, like the Kabyle of Algeria for example, the magic rites of the birth and life cycle still forms part of a sacred female ritual.

Patriarchal Religions

But in most places of the world, goddess cults are no more, replaced instead by patriarchal religions like Christianity, where incidentally it is a male god who controls the fertility of women. One of the most glaring examples of this is the immaculate conception of the Virgin Mary. This topples traditional matriarchal fertility beliefs because it symbolically empowers a male god, not a fertility goddess...

Society’s equating of motherhood with virtue may have arisen from a patriarchal desire to control reproduction.
Notably, in patriarchal belief systems, guilt is a powerful driving factor for women, often leading them to have children. If the qualities associated with raising children are so universally admirable and if one should feel they have fallen short if they don’t enter parenthood or meet the benchmarks of parenthood, why then, is there no such guilt for men? I maintain that this is partly because the guilt was engendered by patriarchy and in many ways sustained by patriarchal religious systems like Christianity where a ‘good’ woman was not ‘barren’. Indeed, in the Old Testament, one encounters stories of ‘barren’ women who finally, 'at long last', are granted a child through divine intervention.

In purely patriarchal societies, it is usually men who control reproduction, either through social rules, laws or religious belief systems.

Economic Considerations

Even today, the resulting economic effect of motherhood is not to be underestimated. Simply put, motherhood gives males the advantage. In the past, when birth control was not available, it meant that women were frequently burdened by pregnancy. Even today, not occupied by the first years of childhood, male workers experience no glitch in their careers. I have met many women who agonise over having children ‘before it’s too late’  but who are well aware of the career opportunities and experiences that they will have to forego. Men face no such limitations in their careers. Further, the large shift in the workforce resulting from mothers working part-time or stay at home mums means that at any time, there are more jobs available for men. 
Note also that in some societies where there are low employment opportunities, such as some African American communities, Mexico or Spain whose unemployment rate is over 20%, we see a remarkable rise in misogyny and or domestic violence. In those societies, women can inspire jealousy and be hated for just having a job.

In a competitive world or one with few resources, having a woman raise children, not partake in the workforce, not rise to positions of power (and be less likely offered positions of power) perpetuates an arguably secure situation for men. This greatly taken-for-granted status quo may not be readily recognised by male consciousness but it nevertheless remains highly desirable and would be met with strong opposition if threatened. Witness the ego threat posed by women who advocated for the pill years ago. Aside from religious opposition, it was the prospect of women not remaining at home to carry out pregnancy or fullfill their motherly duties and instead, taking valuable jobs, that posed a considerable threat to men.

Controlling Motherhood not only allows men to increase their economic chances but also improves their status.

To understand how one acquires status through having children, it is important to highlight the much ignored socio-economic relevance of the aforementioned Judeo-Christian stories. After all, for many years, infant mortality was high and having many children was nothing short of a miracle and a sign of social status. Having many children also secured the likelihood that at least a couple of them would survive from the harsh living conditions.
This is still the case in many parts of Africa, Asia and the Middle East where incidentally, parents often have many children.

Returning to the contention of this article, one must appreciate the enormous difference between 1. recognising that a couple must has access to enough food and wealth and can therefore raise many children (valuation of the couple’s status) and 2. the misguided notion that the woman must be virtuous for having had children (valuation of the couple through the wife’s morality).  Somehow, the second notion has survived while only the first makes any sense. But let’s be honest, no one wants to openly admit to status concerns, it is better to be seen as virtuous and ‘loving’...

Ongoing Guilt and the need to be Good

A couple with children should therefore only communicate economic ease. Why, then, is there the added impression that the woman must be virtuous and fulfilled? Where does this belief come from?

Firstly, at least the fulfillment assumption may have arisen from the laws of scarcity. In the past, women who understood that child mortality was high, naturally desired what was hard to achieve. They wanted children because it was hard and not many children survived. Therefore a woman who had children, had, in the eyes of others, fulfilled a difficult task.

I must also add here that a woman had through her grace, effectively perpetuated life. A highly valuable consideration especially in terms of its gift to human kind whose population once did not thrive as much as it does today. 
Today would be a different story...

But why are mothers, even today, also immediately perceived as virtuous?

I maintain that economically driven, patriarchal guilt-inducing systems are the reason we continue to propagate the image of a mother as good and virtuous. Consider the way the world celebrates Mother’s Day over and beyond Father’s Day, or even the absence of a day for celebrating non-gender specific Friendship or Humanity. The ubiquitous endorsement of motherhood as virtuous and ‘normal’ and the use of celebrity mothers (but not so much fathers) by the media to encourage identification and emulation creates such social pressure on women that those who choose not to become mothers develop guilt, believing that they must have shortcomings as a female human being.

Note further that women who actually choose motherhood are not spared from guilt. They feel it regularly whenever they believe they have failed in comparison to what society paints as a ‘good’ mother.

Breathe. There is more to come.

I don’t want to give the impression that I am against motherhood. I love babies. Full stop. But the heart-warming feeling I get from babies is not enough to warrant my full journey into motherhood not enough to warrant the “evidently, I should abandon all my dreams now and have children” feeling. Not enough to warrant ‘juggling it all’.

I know my limitations and I’m at peace with them. I respect motherhood especially when it stems from a genuine desire as opposed to the pleasure of merely ticking a box (valuation of a couple’s status…remember?).

What is a concern is the lack of choices some women have for contentment and the ongoing guilt that drives them to become mothers. My issue is with the ‘evidently, once you have a partner, you must have children’ attitude that most women face all over the world. Why evidently?

Biology Truisms Toppled

One might say that the evidence for this truism lies in the female biology. Ah yes, one would say that you simply cannot argue with nature. Nature shows us the way…

The proof is right there, it’s in the limited eggs women carry. So why not use them? Well let’s see. I am biologically capable of having children but I am also biologically capable of becoming an Olympic runner or a dancer or, hell, even a porn star…yes? Note that all these involve pain, sacrifice, endurance and discipline. Yes, believe me, they do.

So then, as a woman, let me ask you, why is it more evident that you should become a mother and not a dancer?
And further, why should you feel guilty for not ‘using your eggs’ before they run out but feel zero guilt for failing to use your legs to their full capacity before it’s too late?

We continue to nurture truisms and ‘natural’ ways of being that are grossly slanted by patriarchy and past social beliefs. They obscure the real reasons why women (and men) should choose to have children.  And through subtle but persistent ideation of motherhood, they discourage deviations by default.

Do what you like.