Ch. 7 The Neon Pink Elephant Posing as Wall Flower
The intuitive mind is a sacred gift and the rational mind is a faithful servant.
We have created a society that honors the servant and has forgotten the gift.
~ Albert Einstein
December 5, 1997. Our airplane bumped, jolted, dropped, and shook during patches of rough turbulence over the fluffy green quilt of rainforest canopy that covered almost all of Suriname. Robert squeezed my hand, leaned in, and gave me a kiss while I tried to offset the painful pressure that was building on my eardrums with quick nostril puffs. I could tell that he was just as thrilled as I was about paying our motherland a long overdue visit.
I’d landed at least half a dozen times before at Zanderij—the only international airport in the entire country—when I still lived here, but this was my first time back as an adult. I was intrigued by it all, especially the complete absence of city lights.
I loved the velvety feel of thick darkness. In its unlimited spaciousness, my intuition roamed freely, lit up inner truths, and highlighted what really mattered in shapes and images made of neon colors, soft water pastels, earth tones, or gritty charcoal grays. Some of these abstract impressions were projected onto a blank screen in the forefront of my brain and further processed so that I could translate the message, most of the time.
For example, take this timeline, broken up into two equal sections, that just now popped up in my mind. It indicated that when we left Suriname a few years after the 1980 coup, I was a month short of turning 14, which meant that at 28, I’d lived the first half of my life in Suriname, and the second half in Miami and California. What was most relevant here was the major leap of growth that occurred during my transition from the first half of my life to the second. Was I about to make another major leap forward by going back?
I knew that the timeline had less to do my concrete age and the exact number of years in each period because the Miami years of learning through trial and error, mostly error, for sure counted double. And the last five years following our wedding perhaps too: they had been turbulent, jarring, bumpy, and painful—due to sudden drops and outside pressure—just like this descent.
Fortunately, my relationship to Robert was still steady and solid, often the one thing that made sense and that held all the confusing pieces together. It offered him the same secure home-base when disillusioned at his new job and corporate America in general. For me, it wasn’t work, but school, graduate school, that was tearing me apart. I was in my fourth year, my dissertation year, the year where everyone was doing their most intense research—aka their deepest me-search—myself included.
I was on the one hand doing groundbreaking research that I loved and was good at, feeling my way through the dark and searching for cracks in glass walls and ceilings, and on the other hand, shitting in my pants—despite support from my advisor and committee—because I discovered that the most prominent experts and influential gatekeepers in my field believed that my intuitive way of working with clients, conducting research, and collecting data, the reason for returning to Suriname, deserved to get mauled for lacking scientific rigor.
I’m not sure when the stark reality of the double-bind that I was in hit me full force. My journey started out very promising. Dr. Tran and Dr. Roberts interviewed me for the very last full-tuition scholarship offered to an incoming ethnic minority student by the Pacific Graduate School of Psychology, PGSP. It felt serendipitous. Affirmative action scholarships had already gone out of fashion almost every where else.
Getting this scholarship was the only way I could afford to go to graduate school. My chances of getting accepted at a government-subsidized university program that did innovative research and also offered solid clinical training were as good as seeing dogs fly. I’d tried and didn’t even come close. A year’s tuition at a less competitive private professional school, like PGSP, was as much as Robert’s salary. As intolerable as things had gotten at the air force base—proving Barb right that the military was one of the worst bureaucracies to work for—I couldn’t give up my job for a six-figure student loan. It was out of the question.
“This is a very impressive resume. So you’re doing three-month rotations and shadowing each one of the managers in the career, transition, family, deployment, crisis, and relocation counseling programs?” Dr. Tran asked.
“Yes, I am. I’m seeing about forty new information and referral individual clients per week, and have co-facilitated dozens of parenting, single-parenting, marriage, career transition, relocation, and financial planning groups in each of these programs,” I said.
“Why would you leave such a great job?” Dr. Roberts asked.
“It’s grooming me to do quality control and public administration as a center director and will very soon deny me direct contact with clients, which is what I love the most about my job. I also worked as an assistant researcher at the UC Berkeley psychology department to see what that would be like. I’d like to continue doing cross-cultural research to advance the field, but only if it’s secondary to providing therapy. A practice-oriented PhD program like this would be an ideal match,” I said.
It would not have helped to tell them the whole truth, that I was leaving this great job because daily contact with my “crazy boss from hell”—as my colleagues liked to call her—was wearing me out. I learned to be strategic when speaking up about her paranoid, sociopathic, and racist operations: supporting my colleagues’ complaints about their poor job evaluations (despite off-the-charts positive feedback from clients) and demeaning gofer assignments often resulted in third-degree scrutiny by our squadron commander and more calculated retaliations in the office.
Whatever I’d chosen to say and not say did the trick. Around the time of our first wedding anniversary, Dr. Tran called with good news. I’d been awarded the scholarship. I slumped in Robert’s arms and cried tears of relief and happiness.
A few months later in the fall of 1994, the fresh blood of about sixty bodies streamed through the halls of the modest two story building on the first day of classes. My new classmates and I were like a busload of frenzied tourists at a popular attraction site, turning maps, notebooks, and handouts upside down and right side up, eager to find our way. Being surrounded by a mob of like-minded souls who loved psychology as much as I did was a dream come true.
I spent the first year glued to my textbooks that too often served as desk pillows, exploring the convoluted mazes created by the human mind and the ways out of them while in class, at the library, at a café or at home. My inner compass—along with a generous helping of patience and perseverance—had finally delivered me at this unbelievable destination, the springboard of my future career.
All seemed well until I was rudely awakened one night by a call from Uncle Erwin.
“Your dad is in the hospital. He had an aneurysm,” he said. My heart pounded in my throat. An aneurysm? What the hell is an aneurysm?
“Oh my God, is he alright?” I mumbled.
“Yes, he just got wheeled into surgery. He was in a coma for a few hours but is stable enough to be operated on.”
“Isn’t Apoh’s big birthday banquet today?”
“Yes, we decided to go ahead with the party and not tell her until tomorrow because it was too late to cancel it. We also didn’t want to disappoint her and the guests who’ve traveled from far and wide to Hong Kong to celebrate her big day with her, so we told her that your pa was stuck somewhere and unable to make it.”
“That makes sense. Tell them that I love them, and could you call me back right after the surgery? Thanks so much . . . Oh, one more thing, please wish Apoh a happy 85th birthday and say hello to everyone at the party for me.”
We picked Ma and Pa up from the airport the following week. Pa looked like a disoriented, long-lost POW who’d been held captive for decades and was finally sent home. It was one thing to hear over the phone that the surgery drained the blood around Pa’s brain; it was another to see him in a wheelchair, thin, frail, his bald head wrapped in a turban of white bandages.
It felt as if the ground underneath me gave out when I realized how close his brush with death had been. While falling and falling into a bottomless pit, something blurry came into focus. For as long as I could remember, Pa had been my source of affection and comfort: Ma my source of strength and grounding. Making this distinction somehow made a big difference.
I realized that even if we piled all of misfortunes up in a big heap they’d still pale in comparison to losing Pa. Against all odds, Pa fully recovered, not from one, but two brain surgeries: he had a second one six months later to cinch off a tiny vein that was also on the verge of bursting. Ma was by his side—like a boulder— through all of it.
“God gave me a second chance. When times got really hard I wished I could end it all. I got to feel what ending it all would be like and am thankful to still be here, completely healthy without any deficits. It’s a miracle and I’m so blessed,” Pa said. In less than a year, he found a job in structural engineering and not only learned, but simplified complicated calculations to retrofit homes and buildings so that they too could better absorb all the shocks and aftershocks from devastating earthquakes.
I tightened my seatbelt for the landing, proud of Pa for pulling through, proud of myself for slowly but surely letting him back in, and happy that he was still enjoying his job—the most stable and well-paying job he’s had since moving to the US. I wondered if doing my dissertation on Surinamese people was a sign that I was still holding onto a romanticized nostalgia of what no longer is or perhaps never was. Ma and Pa had lasted only a few months when they returned to Suriname right before our wedding. Basic goods, like bread, were still on the scarcity list—available one day and no where in sight the next—which was too much unpredictability for Ma to live with.
Perhaps I’d been dreaming up air castles and needed to shift my attention to retrofitting my inner structure and foundation, just like Pa did when he gave up architecture and switched to structural engineering. It could have stabilized my shakiness and over-the-top reaction to a claim made by Dr. Paul Meehl, a renowned clinical psychologist whose famous articles supplemented our Ethics lecture. He cautioned that any clinician who considered “personal experience to be more valid than research studies was self-deceived . . . We are bound as human beings to make 'fundamental attribution errors'—giving ourselves too much credit for positive outcomes—and only a 'hard-nosed' skeptic and critical thinker with statistically-significant data can remedy this unfavorable, unreliable human condition that is prone to self-serving bias.”
His words spun around my mind like a compass needle unable to find true North. They were logical yet made no sense. I couldn’t believe that this guy was a clinical psychologist. How could he expect anyone to live that way? That would be like telling the parents in my parenting class that they needed to rely more on the research findings in books and video tapes than on their own parental instincts because their perceptions were by default untrustworthy, self-centered, and unfair. Sure, I got that we all have our own questionable pet theories about raising kids that are based on our personal experiences: I just didn’t get how research findings would successfully resolve these issues and help anyone become a better parent. Even if it did, the process sounded awfully rigid and unrewarding. Is this what was expected of me as a therapist?
Was I self-deceived for feeling deceived? My world was suddenly upended: there wasn’t a single safe spot to land. Why didn’t anyone warn me that “personal experience” were dirty words within this field? If I'd known that sooner, I would not have invested as much hope, time, and energy in this dead-end career. I’m not sure who should have warned me—past professors, mentors, graduate student advisors? How? Perhaps none of this stuff bothered them. My classmates didn’t seem in the least affected by any of the readings and lectures on Meehl. How could they not? Maybe they agreed with him or maybe they also grokked that taking Meehl on would be like walking in a lions’ den with pieces of steak strapped onto their body.
Paul Meehl, born in 1920, was according to his colleagues and my professor arguably the most brilliant and prolific American psychologist of the 20th century, the second youngest clinical psychologist to have served as president of the American Psychological Association. The commotion around him reminded me of an undefeated general: he was worshipped like a god by generations of psychologists, philosophers, psychiatrists, physicians, educators, neurologists, geneticists, and lawyers alike. His famous seventy-two page rant, entitled, “Why I don't attend Case Conferences,” outlined dozens of “mental fallacies” committed by “feeble-minded psychologists” at case-conferences, and has become a classic, a must-read for everyone on the road to becoming a practicing psychologist.
It would take me at least a year to thoroughly digest it and another nine to absorb his 200 articles and volumes of other works. Just the thought of confronting him seemed silly, like a mouse trying to have a face-off with an elephant. She’d only be interested in knowing if his big foot in front of her was suddenly lifting up, especially since he had a habit of telling “funny stories employing some snide expressions of clinicians who reject objective data” and a reputation for giving sloppy-minded clinicians “a good beating” at professional gatherings.
My peeved inner guerrilla warrior asserted that he could argue from here to the moon why his logic and research analyses were more scientific and trustworthy than flawed “clinical eye-balling”: it still took just one eye-ball, her third one, to conclude that she didn’t trust him and didn’t want to play by the rules of his haughty game. I’d never felt so threatened before. The threat—an arrogance that reason was superior to intuition (honed by personal experience)—that he represented, as unclear and vague as it was to me at the time, lodged itself like a sharp little pebble inside my shoe.
After sporadic dabbling in his work, I succeeded in getting a closer look at that pebble when Google entered the scene. In the early days, only Wikipedia-like descriptions and long lists of impressive accomplishments, positions, and publications popped up when I typed keywords like “Meehl” and “biography” in my search box. Adding “criticism” to my search produced lots of critique given by him, not of him. I read these, tried different word combinations with the hopes of finding something more personal, and ended back in idle, unsure mode when a description like “tough notes by a gentle genius” crossed my path. A gentle genius? What was I missing? It took two decades of slow-grown, sun-ripened audacity for me to brew up the brilliant idea to add “narcissism” to the mix. True to form, Paul Meehl was a step ahead of everyone else. He not only provided me the information that I was looking for, but also offered an insightful critique on himself that was neatly packaged and wrapped with a bow.
In a fifty-three page, story-form autobiography that he contributed to a thick, hard-cover, encyclopedia-sized journal called, A History of Psychology in Autobiography (Stanford University Press, 1989, out of print and going for $577, used), he candidly reflected on his personal and professional life. At the age of 68, he delineated a thread of pre-existing cracks, holes, and hardships in his early life that informed his premises—intellectually buff premises that he and other giants in the field had presented as bulletproof and that I feared I was disrespectfully, stubbornly, and foolishly trying to puncture.
He wrote that he’d inherited his father’s “brain genes” and identified strongly with his claim that, “if a man was dumb, he might just as well be dead.” He also talked extensively about his mentors and teachers, such as Victor Smith, who said, “a large portion of all human misery was in principle remediable if people did not think so irrationally and unscientifically about practically everything.” Meehl agreed. “I see more merit in Smith’s position than do many contemporary intellectuals.”
When he was eleven, his father, described as an excessively industrious bank clerk, committed suicide after embezzling money to play the stock market. As if that wasn’t tragic enough, Meehl stated that “at age sixteen I suffered a second object loss when my mother died of ether pneumonia . . . This episode of gross medical bungling permanently immunized me from the childlike faith in physicians’ omniscience that one finds among most persons, included educated ones . . . It has also helped me to avoid dogmatism about my own diagnostic inferences, to which I am tempted by my self-concept as a naturally gifted and well-trained clinician.”
His mother’s death, a second object loss due to gross medical bungling? It made sense why he’d want to prevent others from experiencing this horror and why he’s embraced his excess in intellect, even wear it with pride. “Voltaire said that in contemplating human affairs, those endowed with an excess of feeling are moved to weep, those with an excess of intellect, to laugh. I am clearly of the second sort . . . A frenzied egalitarian could say that I have substituted an elitism of intellect for the more common snobberies of race, family, or money, a point I cheerfully concede.” Perhaps I would too if I were in his shoes.
One of his main career goals was convincing clinicians that scientifically-based and computed actuarial (risk) predictions were more reliable than clinical eye-balling and intuitive predictions. “I am not a world-improver,” he insisted. His outlook on life was cynical and practical: even as a student, he thought that his peers who wanted “to be loved as a person” while going to college were immature and irrational. His life-long, chagrined overexertion to help second-class clinicians up their game by thinking more like a scientist—with the hopes that they’d make fewer diagnostic and prognostic errors—was according to him driven by a desire to stop wasting taxpayers’ dollars.
The first hole that I detected in Dr. Meehl’s premise: his well-honed academic acuity and critical thinking skills still didn’t prevent his “personal experiences” from coloring his professional agenda and contributions—as a matter of fact, they’re like a neon pink elephant in the middle of our professional field, successfully claiming to be wall flowers. Because of Dr. Meehl’s potent caliber and widespread impact, this may pose a much greater problem to our field than the damage an entire group of “feeble-minded clinicians” is capable of doing. Second, if his father’s brilliance was far beyond the “fair to middling stupid people,” statistically speaking, you’d meet on any given day, why wasn’t he able to remedy his misery through rational and scientific thinking? And third, Dr. Meehl argued that he wasn’t “snobbishly dismissive” of other people or their work because he treated files of his own research on humans and thousands of rats with the same scrutiny. Did that mean that he and his father were not disturbingly critical of dumb people and the dumb things they did because his father took his own life after making a dumb move?
If Dr. Meehl were still alive, I’d ask him if he thought human beings possessed other kinds of intelligences—social, emotional, spiritual, extrasensory—and other redeeming qualities, beside scientific and intellectual acumen, that could have saved his father’s life. That would be the question that I’d be interested in, given my personal bias and focus on world-improvement and personal healing—not necessarily at the expense of diagnostic nomenclature and risk-prevention—in learning to let go of the past and achieve peace of mind.
I didn’t possess any of this clarity and information as a graduate student, but I knew that something important didn’t add up. Strange things started to happen. Familiar drumming sounds—not audible to anyone else—bounced off tree trunks in the rainforest and echoed in my inner ear, and childhood memories of roaming in the jungle began to plague me whenever my eyes crossed or rolled over from studying too much. Because these mysterious sounds and flashing images of Winti dancers were always laced with alarming urgency and the threat of extinction, I assumed that they were sparked by rumors that Indonesian loggers might buy and cut down a good chunk of Suriname's rainforest.
I looked at the vast sea of undulating trees underneath us. The thought of it alone broke my heart. Fortunately, these negotiations fell through, but the drumming continued. The beats were rousing hidden reserves of courage in my heart and belly, reminding me of my childhood heroes, Baron, Boni, and Joli Coeur, who’d escaped and hid in these same dense jungles that we were flying over. I couldn’t imagine life as a slave. Would I dare to rile everyone up with my drumming and attack plantations to free my friends, relatives, parents, and siblings from their hell?
I’m not sure. I didn’t even dare say to anyone how much Dr. Meehl’s article was bothering me. The come-back I’d hear in my mind was, “Then go back to where you came from.” I knew that no one around me would say such a thing: it was a knee-jerk response, reminding me of what’s often said to immigrants when they complained about things that no one else in their host country seemed to have a problem with. In this context, I was not just an immigrant, I was the recipient of a big, fat scholarship and very grateful.
What if all my past trauma and loss messed with my head? I secretly tried on every diagnosis in the DSM to determine for myself how fucked up I really was and to get a better grip of my inner experiences. This was doing more damage to my unhinged brain than I'd realized. A few ominous diagnoses and their criteria persistently orbited around me as if playing a game of Russian roulette with my sanity.
Some days, the paranoid bullet got in my face, exposing my paranoid delusions. Just like my old crazy boss from hell, I was suspicious of everyone and “reluctant to confide in others because of unwarranted fear that the information will be used maliciously against [me].” Other days, I was spun around my own axis by an obsessive bullet while each of these words “obsessions—distressing ideas, images, or impulses that enter a person's mind repeatedly . . . Perceived to be senseless . . . the person finds these ideas difficult to resist” relentlessly marched up and down my mind on the beat of my inner drummer. Obsessive compulsive disorder, yup, I worried and fretted about having that too.
Occasionally, a faint inkling, you are fine, there is nothing to worry about, seeped up from a powerful source within. It longed to clear this convoluted maze from my mind with just one strong gush. But as soon as I opened up to this redeeming and familiar inner voice—the knowing that none of this imposed madness was a reflection of the real me—it was just as quickly slammed shut by the definition of grandiose delusions, which are “delusions of inflated worth, power, knowledge, identity, or special relationship to a deity or famous person.”
I was stuck in an invisible cage between a rock and the hard walls and ceiling of my rational mind. No, you can't tell anyone about this, I heard when I rattled the cage. Expecting some kind of special consideration for your unique condition will sound self-deceived, aka entitled and narcissistic, at best, and grandiose, at worst, to anyone but you. Do you want to be permanently branded with a scarlet flag in an environment that already places you under daily microscopic scrutiny?
Psychiatrist Judith Orloff revealed in her book, Second Sight (2010), that she treated her intuition like a “shameful secret” and stopped dreaming altogether when she was a graduate student in medical school. Even within the safe perimeters of her own thriving private practice years later, she still dismissed her intuitive hunches until it was almost too late. After she incorrectly disregarded an inexplicable, strong visceral sense that one of her clients was about to commit suicide, she mustered up the courage to reclaim and integrate her intuitive and psychic talents back into her work, now transforming the face of psychiatry one seminar and book at the time.
Noting my intuition’s brooding fervor, I feared that it was worse than just shameful; it had the potential to become dangerous, maybe even criminal. I feared that an “eigenwijze” flare up might convince me to bulldozer over obstacles in my way, undeterred by the consequences for breaking the rules of my trade.
“I’m so borderline,” I broke down to Robert during a pillow cry one night, exhausted of my own mood swings. He wasn’t familiar with the lingo nor the bad rep that this very unstable personality disorder had in my field. When he held my face in his hands, looked at me reassuringly, and replied, “You are my borderlight,” the power of his words struck a dormant cord and soothed my distraught soul in ways that I couldn’t yet grasp.
He was in that moment more than a loving, supportive husband: he was a messenger and said the unimaginable. Maybe my inner struggles and objections to the status quo were shining light onto my field’s oversimplified mistrust and harsh disdain of personal experiences on purpose. My purpose.
We were about to land. I swelled from anticipation as the engines roared and the wing flaps fought for dear life with the wind, bringing the tires to a screeching halt. The passengers in the plane, mostly of Surinamese descent, whistled, clapped, and cheered. It felt good to be on solid ground, on Sranan gron, Surinamese land.
We waddled single-file to the back of the plane, everyone boisterous and in great spirits. The moment I stepped outside, a blast of warm, humid air smothered my body. Just one taste of damp, earthy rainforest, and I knew I was home. I galloped down the steps of the clattering scaffold that had been wheeled over, and smiled broadly at the familiar sights and buildings in front me. I had the urge to fall to the ground on my knees and kiss it, but the grown-up and doctoral student in me was afraid of looking ridiculous.
This was, no doubt, a third-world country. There was only one other airplane parked on the coarse, concrete run-way marked by two strips of lights in the midst of mysterious shadowy wilderness all around. The two-story departure and arrival hall ahead of us was no bigger than a large roach motel and some patches of paint on the walls of the building were flaking off or splotchy with mold. Bold, encroaching weeds had nestled into a few large cracks in the concrete, and a faint whiff of urine drifted by as we approached the building, on foot.
The entire bottom floor—the customs line, the baggage belt, the shops, the bathrooms, the snack and seating areas—of the airport had been renovated: it was hard to believe that all the chaotic, heart-wrenching goodbyes from fourteen years ago happened here.
“Has the airport changed since your last visit? How long ago was that, eight years right, when you and Uncle Henk "accidentally" missed your plane to pursue a foolish long-distance love affair? Look at us now, our first time here together as an old married couple,” I said and gave him a teasing shoulder bump.
“I know, isn’t it crazy? Who could have imagined when we left as children that things would turn out this way?” Robert said. His family was one out of the thousands who left on an extended vacation and never returned. He was only eleven at the time.
“Everyone will be so excited to meet you, and it’ll be fun to show you my old room in the house that my parents built when I was still a baby I think. I played outside all day long with the kids in the neighborhood, and was in charge of the yard and mowed the lawn every Saturday. Did you know that your family’s old furniture is still in my old house. Weird, huh?” Robert said.
“Twilight-zone bizarre,” I said.
All I could make out on the dark drive home was how narrow the highway—a two-lane paved street—looked compared to what I remembered. Everything else looked mostly the same and filled me with comfort.
The next few days, our aunts, uncles, cousins, and friends—the majority of mine still clumped in the Dieterstraat—welcomed us with hearty hugs and meals. We squeezed about two to three visits in one day so I could get myself and my research rolling in less than a week.
A friend had enlisted a research assistant who would recruit fifteen racially mixed research participants (ages 17-30 years) through word of mouth and a newspaper ad prior to my arrival. Back in California, I battled with Dr. Meehl’s notion that human beings who lacked academic reasoning skills, finessed intellect, and scientific training were self-deceived and doomed for life. I was certain that human beings possessed many other admirable qualities other than our logical mind that make life worth living. The question was, how could I prove that this was true? Since you can’t prove anything in the world of science—only disprove an existing premise—I needed to find a few graceful black swans that lived as far away from the ivory tower as possible to show that not all swans were white. This is how Suriname first entered the scene.
“Let yourself be inspired by your own burning questions, and let these shape your vision for a study,” Dr. Phillip Akutsu, my dissertation adviser, said to us in our research seminars. He was new and, unlike many other professors, more interested in stimulating our own research passions than merely recruiting bodies to promote his own cutting-edge projects. He was not in the least taken aback by my grand plans to conduct an international, multidisciplinary study. As a cross-cultural researcher, he understood why I needed to look into sociology, race relations, and other historical data to substantiate a study that met both my needs as well as my program’s bottom-line demands.
Pioneering articles with sweeping insights, such as “The Weirdest People in the World” (Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 2010), would have saved me a lot of time and energy—hauling and copying articles from heavy journals to interweave a strong argument —if they’d been available a decade and a half sooner. Researchers Henrich, Heine, and Norenzayan contested that 96% of psychological participants in studies published in top journals were from Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, Democratic societies that were WEIRD: they made up only 12% of the world's population, were “particularly unusual,” “frequent outliers,” and compared to non-Westerners, scored higher on various measures of positive self-views that incorrectly portrayed their skills and aptitude.
The biggest kicker: the studies done on university professors produced the same results, which could explain the culture-bound, obsessive concern about self-serving bias in our field and the earnest effort by psychology professors to correct their own personal issues, skewed perceptions, and lack of self-trust by relying on mathematical computations and scientific research that are statistically-speaking more reliable, but missing the point.
In terms of our field’s selective attention, not only have certain groups been consistently favored over others, we have also favored certain research topics over others. A comprehensive meta-analysis of key mindfulness studies, “Meeting of Meditative Disciplines and Western Psychology,” (American Psychologist, 2006), by renowned psychiatrist Roger Walsh and psychologist Shauna Shapiro shows that Western psychology tends to peg uncategorized data into existing categories (or overlooks it altogether), contributing to an “assimilative integration that feeds the global 'colonization of the mind'” and that “undermines the growth and credibility of other psychologies.”
I set out to do groundbreaking research by exploring if different cultural influences, self-concepts and behaviors—i.e. individualistic vs collectivistic and horizontal vs vertical ways of relating to others—were more closely connected to self-centeredness and more predictive of social harmony than intellect and level of education. It was crucial that the rest of my committee members were as supportive of my unconventional project as Dr. Akutsu. I picked Janet Negley, who was my group practicum supervisor and a talented clinician. She appreciated my intuitive skills and liked my “self-contained presence.” Both she and Dr. Akutsu supported the notion that the best antidote to self-serving bias was self-awareness and the ability to integrate holistic and paradoxical (non-either-or) phenomena.
I mailed a letter with my preliminary dissertation goals to Dr. Maria Root, a nationally acclaimed professor at the University of Washington who specialized in multiracial issues, to ask her to join my committee. I included a term paper entitled, “The Psychological Lynching of Multiracial People in the US,” an analysis of the racial tension that I experienced and witnessed first-hand at my program in my role as co-leader of the students of color group.
Dr. Root had just developed a contextual model of racial identity to replace older models that forced bi/multiracial participants to polarize and rank their cultural and racial backgrounds, worldviews, and preferences on a number scale. “We must learn to integrate experiences that have been deemed mutually exclusive,” she wrote in a theoretical paper introducing the model. Within a week, she responded that she'd be happy to join my committee as an outside adviser. I could kiss her.
When scouring for the best methodology for my study, I bumped into an obscure approach, called grounded theory. It gleamed like a gold nugget in a muddy stream. In contrast to traditional scientific methods, “good grounded theory was determined by the personal qualities, abilities, and ‘theoretical sensitivity’ of the researcher: having insight, the ability to give meaning to data, the capacity to understand, and the capability to separate what is pertinent from that which is not.” According to its developers, Strauss and Corbin, the more familiarity the researcher had with the subject of study, the better—not necessarily the more biased.
My heart somersaulted in true nerd fashion. Strauss and Corbin even encouraged researchers to handpick and study pregnant sites and historically-neglected participant pools to gain greater clarity on little understood phenomena rather than peg new data into pre-existing research categories.
The participants that my assistant had lined up for me were ideal—from different neighborhoods representing every large neighborhood throughout the capital (population: 250,000). All but one of them were at least the third mixed generation in their families: it was hard to find anyone with just two ethnic backgrounds. The participants as well as their parents—who more often than not only had an elementary, junior high, or high school education—spoke at least three languages, some up to seven. Most of the participants had a high school degree and were under 25. A few were at trade schools, pursuing degrees in nursing, business administration, and the like. Others had followed their parents’ footsteps, ran small businesses or specialized in a particular area of expertise, such as music.
While I interviewing them, one at the time, in Dutch, they said things like, “How much longer until you return home?” “How do you like Holland,” and “No, no need to pay me. I’m happy to help you.” I couldn’t detect a barrier of any kind: they saw me as one of them, and genuinely enjoyed the opportunity to support my project as if it were their own.
I conducted the interviews at restaurants or at the participants’ homes. Participant after participant revealed that there was a great amount of ethnic and economic diversity in their neighborhoods, schools, and extended families. Because of this interracial mixing, “everyone” cross-celebrated each other's cultural and religious traditions. These national holidays each had their own righteous place on school and government calendars—Phagwa, Christmas, Shub-de-Wali, Chinese New Year, Keti-Koti (Cut Chains, emancipation from slavery). A variety of gourmet ethnic foods were cooked in every home, and a few of the participants proudly reminded me that Suriname was the only nation in the world where a mosque and a synagogue have stood side by side for decades regardless of what was happening in the rest of the world. We were off to a good start.
Mandy, who identified herself as “everything except Javanese,” was a piano teacher and musician. She described what she’d recently witnessed at a Caribbean festival:
When we went to Trinidad, there was something like an Ala Kondre, All Countries, festival, where you have all cultures of Suriname in one, so you see a Hindustani with a sari, traditional Hindustani dress, and a Javanese person with a slendang, traditional Javanese clothing, and a Chinese person, and then they make together, so parts of their culture, of their music, they use in one, so it actually becomes one big thing. One piece [of music], that is why they call it Ala Kondre, and the musical part, there you have all the instruments that are typical of the Surinamese cultures . . . you have the Hindustani drum, the tabla, you also have the guitar, you have the harmonium, but then you also have the apinti drum of the Maroons, you have the gamalan of the Javanese, so you have all the instruments together, and it was really very beautiful, it was just incredible, and that’s why people were also amazed by it, like how is that possible, you know?
This was not a pregnant site. It was a gold mine. A very clear pattern was emerging—individual ethnic groups in Suriname somehow fostered the ability to be uniquely themselves yet were equally invested in an integrated whole. Several of the participants used the paradoxical phrase, “I'm everything and nothing.” They belonged “no where and everywhere,” hence the term, ala kondre, na fraga, all countries, no flag. There were no patriotic, self-serving boundaries that caused turf wars, yet there were no signs of self-denial either.
Arianne, one of the participants, explained:
I think that if you can get along with everyone, then you will get much further ahead than someone who stays alone, at least, someone who is only loyal to their ethnic group, so no contact, circle of friends is, for example, only Javanese. If you move between everyone, then you get to know more people, then you also get ahead in life. . . You will develop optimally, because you know at least how everyone thinks. Since I started high school, I interact with a lot of different ethnic groups, and I have grown spiritually riper, and a little bit more mature, and I now can judge a situation, and say, you need to determine for yourself what you will do, this is right or wrong, you need to know for yourself. And before, I would have said, this is wrong or this is right, I would have just pushed my opinion, but now I can just float a little bit. And you can also read people better. If someone has bad intentions, most of the time, you will discover that soon enough.
Here was my “hard proof”—concrete evidence that self-serving bias is not a doomed human condition that can only be remedied by a hard-core quantitative researcher with statistically-significant data. As a matter of fact, these participants had keen eye-balling gifts that were honed by personal experience and very effective in remedying human misery.
I'd hoped that data like this would absolve all my self-doubt. That by watering my shriveled up roots with my truth and cultural heritage, I'd be able to trust my intuition more and just move on. But that sounded too convenient and self-serving to my indoctrinated inner academic.
I needed to understand how racial strain, strive, and mistreatment showed up, and how the participants resolved these conflicts. As speculated, the greatest amounts of conflict occurred within subcultural groups that were vertically oriented, one of the subcategories on my self-concept scale. According to the participants, desiring high social status and a sense of superiority most often showed up among traditional, religious, privileged, political, or narrow-minded subgroups of Chinese, Hindustani, and European (either overseas Dutch or local White Surinamese) descent. The participants recounted occasional hurtful incidents of feeling excluded and stereotyped based on their racial features, skin color, the languages they spoke, and their ethnic backgrounds. They claimed to rely on their intuition and higher spiritual guidance to move through these painful moments.
Mark and Ann reported the worst and most extensive cases of bigotry. Mark left his parents’ home at age fifteen and had lived with three sets of foster parents since then. “I could not stand it, my mother, she is very, yes, how should I say it, the manner in which she is raised, from a certain class. I cannot stand it. I can get along with everyone, but she thinks she is too good for some people,” he said. Ironically, his mother's classist and racist attitudes towards Creole people were equally effective in helping him gain self-awareness and shun her elitist attitudes. She could either get on board or stay on the sidelines; his loyalty to his own egalitarian worldviews was unshakeable.
Ann explained how she learned to cope with her boyfriend’s Hindustani parents, who initially disapproved of her as a suitable girlfriend for their son because she is not Hindustani. Ann resolved the conflict by focusing on her own values and needs despite the oppressive and distracting behavior of her boyfriend's parents.
They now turned around because we have been together for about 5 years, but in the beginning it was really [bad] . . . , look, the way I think about it, I don’t get all stressed out, I mean, what if I go put up a fight, like, “What do they think?” and “I have to stay with him” and “How dare they not accept me?” and maybe today or tomorrow, I think, oh, no, he is not really my type, and then all the commotion, while it was not really necessary . . . I also think, I am not going to debate back and forth with someone, I mean, if you think you are fine like that, you will notice it yourself, you will find yourself one day . . . In the beginning, I really had something like, damn, you know, but later, look, I am not like that, I mean, I don’t think I will ever become like that.
“I am not like that” and “I'm not going to debate back and forth with someone” who thinks of herself as superior created a buffer of self-awareness around Ann. Mark was already practicing this kind of protective self awareness as a child. I smiled inside, delighted by the similarities between myself and these two young strangers who were holding up a mirror and showing me my cultural backbone and resilience.
Many of the other participants spoke of a “larger movement” toward wholeness and harmony that they intuitively tapped into to when in need of support and strength. Whether the guidance came from deceased relatives, wise elders in rural villages, revelational dreams, or open-minded, mainstream city dwellers, the participants were time and again the ones who pursued and integrated higher wisdom into their worldviews.
By this time, I was dying to find out if their survey data were consistent with their interview responses. I was flabbergasted by what I found. They characterized themselves, their parental figures, and society-at-large as having an individualistic sense of self that was just as strong as their collectivistic orientation. These results were unprecedented. The participants “enjoyed maintaining harmony within the group.” They did this by “sacrificing a self-interest for the benefit of the group,” by “finding it pleasurable to spend time with others,” by “helping within their means, if a relative had financial difficulties,” and by “sharing little things with neighbors and cooperating with others.” They felt that the majority of Surinamese people were inclined to do the same.
Despite their concern for the group, they were just as adamant about preserving their own integrity and needs. They checked of items such as “likes her/his privacy” item and “believes that people succeed due to their own efforts and skills.” They weren’t afraid of confrontation but didn’t like competitive, hierarchical ways of relating to others. Items such as “hates to disagree with others in the group,” “gets annoyed when others perform better than she/he does,” “believes that competition is the law of nature,” and “would sacrifice a favorite activity if the family did not approve of it,” were seldom checked off, which was different than what WEIRD populations in other
studies checked off on similar scales, especially in regard to competition. American multiracial research
participants in one of these studies associated the term American with White. Surinamese participants claimed that it was too difficult to describe a Surinamese person. "They are all very different, come see for yourself," one said.
Upon my return to California, I entitled my study, Ala Kondre, Na Fraga, All Countries, No Flag: The Multidimensional Experiences of Surinamese Doglas, Multiracials, and for about a year, dedicated almost every waking hour to its completion. Dr. Akutsu was so impressed with the final product, he nominated it for a dissertation award, the only one of its kind, proving to me that it was possible for my work to be recognized as first class within my career field.
Mission accomplished. I’d managed to wiggle through the cracks in the glass ceiling of reason and emerge unscathed on the other side. The playbook rules that I followed were perhaps a bit off-beat and counterculture, but I didn’t break any traditional rules. I clearly spelled out why statistically-sound research in Western psychology is not immune to preferential treatment of topics and groups of special interest, and that unscientifically-minded people with no more than a high school education could have well-developed, sophisticated levels of self-awareness that are not self-centeredness and that promote harmonious social relationships. And I also showed why intellectual arrogance would stand in the way of fostering these.
Unfortunately, discovering these two black swans didn’t make it any easier for me to reclaim my intuition and step into my power. They actually worsened my inner tension. I couldn’t walk into my internship site with my dissertation under my arm, and acting like a pioneering rebel while technically still a fledgling was the clumsiest form of professional suicide I could think of.
It was again Dr. Meehl, ironically, who best expressed what I feared. “It has been my experience that there are many more psychologists who are capable of performing a clever and replicable experiment than there are high-level ideators who can create a novel concept or deeply analyze a familiar one, especially one in controversy . . . The second rational consideration is more important, less narcissistic, but somewhat controversial. (For younger readers of these autobiographies, it could be morale lowering and bad career advice—but we were asked to as frank and revelatory as seemed fitting.)”
Much to my surprise, Dr. Meehl was fascinated by parapsychology and extrasensory perception, i.e. “extrascientific ways of knowing,” the metaphysical mind/body program, and religion and mental health. His reflections on these topics had been published in “papers that [he] was proud of for their high level conceptualization, but which few psychologists have read or even heard of.” I never would have guessed that he didn’t quite fit the mold of the profession either. “Colleagues find me paradoxical (some would say inconsistent) here, because while I don’t understand or trust unscientific ways of knowing, I do entertain substantive notions that are anathema to almost all American psychologists.”
Luckily, he wasn’t easily swayed by the opinions and beliefs of others—he usually did the swaying, but this was the one area where he had little impact. His colleagues saw him as a very bright and reflective man,” and “put up with his funny ideas” with a “mixture of disbelief” and “amused tolerance.” There was one occasion that he remembered when he was verbally attacked at a conference for claiming to be a rigorous thinker and researcher yet daring to bring up “Freudian dream shit.” He became more cautious and private about these topics, but openly asserted that, “I'm inclined to think that there is something to telepathy, and if forced to bet a large sum one way of another, I would wager affirmatively.”
The “ambivalent regrets” that he had about conducting his professional life and the endearing humility that he developed later in life dislodged the sharp pebble stuck in my shoe. He was at 68 a “somewhat disappointed man,” aware of the “note of petulance creeping into [his] scholarly publications, for which [he] has been faulted.” He wondered about the “narcissistic rewards” that he had been entrusted: “the profession has delivered such ego-pellets to me somewhat more than I deserve . . . I sometimes think that professional recognition came to me too early for my own good.”
I couldn’t agree more. The profession, in its attempt to eliminate bias, had created a feedback loop that was fueling itself with these same ego-pellets by emphasizing work and writings from Dr. Meehl that served its own skewed purposes. In the meantime, Dr. Meehl’s avant-garde papers, high-level thinking, and redeeming insights that more accurately portrayed why he was one of the greatest hardly saw the light of the day.
His later words of wisdom, seasoned rather than tainted by age and personal experiences, addressed the merit of intuition and the limitations of critical thought. How many thousands of graduate students and clinicians like myself could have been spared the hyped-up fears about our irresponsible “eye-balling” and overreliance on personal experiences if Meehl’s retraction of these early overheated claims was just as widely celebrated and accessible?
“In the relatively short time I was treating patients, I had the nagging background thought that what I found interesting and scientifically defensible didn’t necessarily relate closely with how much I helped the person . . . I’m more likely today to rely on leverage from the ‘relationship’ and a mixture of common sense, intuition, and bits and pieces of psychodynamics (important early childhood relationships) than I am to proceed with some grand strategy.
Amazon Wisdom Keeper (in-progress) is a professional memoir and eye-opening account of my spontaneous birth and initiation as a shamanic healer during an intense period in my doctoral program when my intuitive voice feels most threatened by the indoctrinating double-binds in the mental health field. What gives my story an added twist is my ability to anchor into my rich cultural background and mystical upbringing near the edge of the Amazon rainforest when standing my ground, challenging my field, and placing all bets on my intuitive integrity—each one severely tested after escaping the chaotic aftermath of a military coup in my native Suriname and losing almost all that I knew and loved at the age of 13.