These are series of speculations on what recent insights in a variety of areas of science could mean for a community based healing movement that includes amateur research infused with radical understandings of what we mean by health and environment, and high expectations for our own empowered potential.
Epigenetics is what scientists call the discovery that events in our environments can change the outer skin of our genes, change the way in which they express themselves, turning them off and on depending on how our bodies read the conditions of life, and that those changes get passed on to our descendents. Dutch women who survived the famine of 1944 gave birth to low weight babies, as expected, but when their children grew up, they also had low weight babies. The story of hunger clung to their DNA and passed on the traits appropriate to a permanent famine. Combat veterans pass on the changes in their own bodies that come with the constant threat of sudden and violent death, and the DNA of their children born after the trauma wears a coat of camouflage, expressed in the symptoms of PTSD.
But if hunger and terror tattoo the skins of our genes with outdated survival manuals and a continuous stream of SOS signals, if the conscious acts of human beings to deprive each other of food and safety and life itself, mark us in inheritable ways, surely we can decide to mark ourselves, through an entirely different set of human acts, with messages of solace and solidarity, with a codex of healing.
My neuroplasticity-based rehab in Cuba.
Behavioral science has spent far too much time studying competition, aggression, and dominance, traits that are leading the planet to the brink of extinction. The study of solidarity will never get an NIH grant, but we who hope to avert disaster and cultivate a peaceful, just and sustainable future, must study it. When I am in Cuba, in spite of bad food and extremes of heat and humidity, in spite of tobacco smoke and perfume in the air, in spite of the daily frustrations of getting places and reaching people, my body thrives. It thrives because I am surrounded by people who actively wish me well, who go out of their way, except that mutual support is their way, to help me thrive. On top of the more communally oriented nature of Caribbean cultures, Cubans have consciously cultivated a sense of solidarity as the core value of their society. Immersion in that conscious culture did at least as much in my recovery from stroke, as the 40 hours a week I spent in physical therapy and other treatment. The work of healing justice must include the systematic study of the healing properties of solidarity, and develop ways to cultivate it even in the harsh conditions of a city like Oakland.
Neuroplasticity research has shown us that our brains are far more malleable, adaptive, alive, than the old mechanistic models could have dreamed of. Our brains can reroute nerve impulses through new pathways that are made with thought, can reassign whole sections to new functions, can restore what was thought to be broken or lost beyond recovery. We can visualize exercising, and create the benefits of exercise while lying in a bed with cast on. We can train the brain to recover from stroke and blows to the head. Using techniques from biofeedback, we can consciously alter the balance of brain wave frequencies and change aspects of depression, ADHD, the aftereffects of traumatic injury, by desiring dots on a screen to remain within a box. We can regain the use of stroke-weakened limbs, control body temperature, activate the visual cortexes of the blind using patterns of stimulation on their backs. The work of healing justice must include learning everything we can about conscious adaptation, about how to communicate directly with our brains, and then develop low tech practices for community based neurological restoration projects.
My mother making Puerto Rican pasteles.
Type 2 diabetes is a disease of stress. The overworked pancreas begins to refuse its job, insulin receptors stop receiving, cells die and the flow of life-giving glucose starts surging wildly, endangering everything in its path: eyes, feet, heart, brain. Mexican migrants who cross the border, very quickly become many times more vulnerable to the disease. One obvious reason is dietary change, the exchange of beans and tortillas and fresh salsa for hamburgers on white bread and deep fried potatoes. But crossing the border also means entering a climate of hostility, uprooted from their place and people and language of origin. Stress releases hormones in the blood that call forth glucose from the body’s stores. Continual stress exhausts the pancreas. Then we’re told to cut out the foods that comfort us, exercise when we’re bone weary from struggling, and do it as individual patients, on sheer willpower.
What if we told a different story about diabetes? What if we said the pancreas has gone on strike from loneliness, from homesickness, from uprootedness and isolation. What if we created healing cells made up of four or five diabetics whose job was to help restore each other’s roots and cultivate group solidarity? What if they shared meals, cooked for each other twice a week, went on walks together, strategized about protecting their bodies from the stressors in their lives, cried and raged about what’s been awful and unfair, practiced listening to their bodies’ deepest hungers as a guide to diet? Tenderly chopped and cooked and seasoned what made them feel most at home in themselves. What if their story was not one of defective organs, unruly appetites and laziness? What if it was a story of homecoming?
Relatives, Birobidjan, USSR
For the last 27 years I’ve participated in the project of Re-Evaluation Counseling, (RC,) a set of practices and theories about how we recover from being hurt, how emotional injury gets locked into us in the form of a stiffened set of false beliefs about reality, and how by bringing others with us to the inner place of wounding, we can make use of our bodies’ natural methods of healing—crying, shaking, yawning, sweating, laughing—to release those hurts and see the world afresh. One of the many beauties of RC is the exquisite attention paid to the particular ways that historical hurts are stored within particular groups of people. Sorted by class, gender, ethnicity, nationality, sexuality, occupation, age, the accumulated expertise of RC provides a kind of field guide to the impact of oppression.
I now know how to recognize in myself the anxiety that appears as distrust of the competence of others, but is rooted in centuries of insecurity among my Ukrainian Jewish ancestors, handed down, I am sure, in both psychological and cultural patterns of feeling, thinking and acting, and as shifts in what my body responds to as threatening, etched by the light of torches and burning houses into the methyl layers of my genes.
I know about the distinctive traits that history tends to bundle up for people who share an experience: attempted genocide, migration, slavery, the suppression of one’s language or religion. I know in minute detail the sheaf of maps that show how sexism penetrates the psyche and flesh. And using the techniques we’ve developed in more than half a century, I know how to release some of those burdens, revise some of the solidified untruths we take in like heavy metals, to reside in the slow moving, fatty tissues of our sense of self.
Healing justice will need to use this base of knowledge, these and other tools that allow us to re-evaluate, to re-interpret the meaning of what has happened to us, in a way that makes us free to act, free to change ourselves in every layer of our being, from what we believe about our intelligence to how the million islets of our pancreases respond to the call for sugar.
Late 1950s, New York City.
I do a workshop I call Bonework. In it, I ask participants to identify a key story of their family, one that is told over and over, part of the “who we are” of their immediate kinship. I have them turn it into a one sentence narrative: “My family all married lighter people in order to stop being Black and pass into white society,” or “My grandfather was abandoned by his family in the middle of the night, as a boy of six, and never saw them again,” or “When my father was called up before the House Un-American Activities Committee and walked out of the hearings, and called my mother to tell her, I jumped up and down and cheered.”
Then I ask the storytellers to gather in small group and probe each other’s stories, ask questions about who or what is missing, propose alternative interpretations, explore all the possibilities they can lay their hands on. We come back to the circle and everyone either restates the story or asks a question. The woman whose family married whiter says her ancestors did whatever they had to, even at tremendous cost, to see to it that their children survived. The grandchild of the abandoned boy learns that the time and place of the events hint at external violence tearing the family apart, that placing him where they did might have been for his best protection. And I reveal the constant fear that underlay the radical bravado of my childhood, the hysterical relief in those cheers.
We leave the workshop with new stories that open up different possibilities of self- trust. When I do this work with individuals, I look deeper, unearth the inherited social relations as well as beliefs, and invent acts of repair with weight in the present day world. A woman decides to set up a water trust to replace the rivers her grandfather dammed, which caused a famine in a specific band of Apache people. A singer must compose a song about the people her homesteading ancestors displaced.
My father had a massive heart attack at fifty-one. His own father died at forty-six, after five heart attacks had weakened his heart, so that it couldn’t withstand the stress of infection from a spoiled milkshake. My grandfather’s siblings also died of heart disease. This is a strong family history of a specific condition. I imagine the hearts of the Lehrer-Sonnensheim-Levinskies with branching blood vessels reaching out into causes that include poverty-stricken shtetls, pogroms, a diet heavy in butter and cheese and sour cream, the knowledge of a world left behind and destroyed, the Type A life of communist organizers in the 1930s.
So far, my heart shows no allegiance to that heritage, but I did inherit eight blocked paths, eight genetic variations in the P450 cytochrome enzymes that regulate liver function, eight incapacities to convert and carry away the toxins that come in from the outside, or are created within my body. One of the blockages prevents the efficient breakdown of dopamine, estrogen and norepinephrin. Another increases my risk of cancer from tobacco smoke, diesel fumes, burnt meat and pesticides. A third makes me vulnerable to alcoholism and depression, but protects me from schizophrenia.
A major sport among my Puerto Rican relatives is genetic speculation. My cheekbones, they all agree, are like the second daughter of the third brother. Do I tend to wake up cranky? That’s morra, and is inherited from the Moures, while bad tempers came into our family with Jose María Hernandez, a Spanish soldier stationed in San Juan in the 19th century, who married a Morales daughter and cursed us with the tendency to shout. They say that thyroid disease runs in the deeply inbred Morales clan, along with square heads and stick-out ears.
My great aunts are more concerned with character traits and recognizable signs of kinship than inherited vulnerability to the smoke of cigars, or an inability to clean up a spill of stress hormones.
But this is what interests me. If gene expression is vulnerable to intense experience, if we can both inherit and alter the stories by which our bodies function, if the tracks of some of these traits are clearly to be seen among the Díaz clan, others obviously Morales, Lehrer, or Sakhnin, then let’s invent a psycho-social-genetic-cardio-endocrine storytelling practice, something that uses the shovel of memory and metaphor to dig around in the whole question of history and heredity, and see what we can jiggle loose. Between the genealogical gossip of my relatives and the wisdom of my flesh, maybe I can discover and retell a story, brought down, perhaps, from the hills above Naranjito where my Taino ancestors survived the attempted extermination of their people, that will reinterpret the experiences of my ancestors and alter the expression of those liver enzyme genes to handle adrenal stress hormones in a whole new way.
What if we incorporate the researching and retelling of our family stories into our medical practice? What if we use the release and re-evaluation tools of RC alongside this intimate excavation of family history and family myth, and create a psychosocial surgery where we operate on the past, and create new endocrine and neurological and psychological interpretations of the present?
Aurora Levins Morales is a disabled and chronically ill, community supported writer, historian, artist and activist. It takes a village to keep her blogs coming. To become part of the village it takes, donate here.
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