The Curse Of The Gift

“Eloise” was from a small rural town in Ohio and in first grade, during reading time, her teacher found her deeply engrossed in an algebra textbook. By age ten, she had moved to live with an aunt in Columbus, enrolled in Ohio State University for Calculus and home schooled in all other subjects. Her “friends” were students in college and grad school, and she became the math department’s mascot. She was never invited to a birthday party, and had no friends her own age. She entered several math events, state and national, and became a local celebrity. Strapped in the back seat, she shifted in her new dress as her aunt drove to her home town for Eloise Day, including a parade where the entire population of 1,506 showed up to cheer. Then she was rushed back to Columbus for her Calculus midterm.

Eloise and I met in our first week of college, and we went out one night for a post-study snack at a family owned pizzeria across the street from our dorm. I told her I planned to major in psych, and take as many lit courses as I could fit into my schedule. She told me she didn’t know her major, but she was certain that it wouldn’t be math. I looked at her, puzzled. “Math ruined my life,” she said quietly.

When a child is tapped with a gift —academic, athletic, artistic — a dangerous rabbit hole opens up. The gift, not the person with the gift, threatens to become the focus. Achievement can eclipse the child who is achieving. Trophies, ribbons, medals and press releases can loom larger than the person herself. Her individuality can be pushed into a small corner, to create more space for her gift. Instead of the child’s owning the gift, the gift owns the child.

The rabbit hole becomes wider and deeper when others become involved. You’re the star of the class, so don’t let your school down! You’re the star of the team, so don’t let your coach down! You’re the star of the show, so don’t let your fans down! Over time, more and more pieces are mortgaged to the sponsors, the community, the country. The rabbit hole becomes more seductive (and more dangerous) with the allure of being The Star. 

Often, the greater the gift the more choices are taken away. When too many choices are taken, the rabbit hole fills with anxiety and depression. In therapy, an important part of the work is for the patient to reclaim his own self, the pieces that he lost along the way, the parts others claimed for their own. The patient needs to reconnect with the emotional vital organs that were placed in cold storage. As the person reclaims his own self, he also reclaims his choices. As he reclaims his choices, he redefines his relationship to his gift. As he redefines his relationship to his gift, he owns his gift instead of his gift’s owning him. 

I’m in awe of the athletic gifts possessed by Michael Phelps, Naomi Osaka, Simone Biles. But I’m even more in awe of their courage as they renew their vows to their own full selves, including their emotional wellbeing. Few will be able to follow their athletic footsteps, but many can follow their path towards mental health. 

Today, looking back, I remember the cheese pizza that Eloise and I shared so long ago. At the time, I didn’t give much thought to her anything-except-math choice in majors. Now, I view that moment as her commitment to her full self, her refusing to allow her gift to consume her. I didn’t keep in touch with Eloise after college, but I hope she still enjoys poetry and ballet, Spanish and guitar — which she liked in college. 

I hope she enjoys math as well — math redefined in her own terms, on solid ground, in the light above the rabbit hole.

*All identifying information about “Eloise” has been changed.

MENTAL HEALTH RESOURCES

The Anxiety And Depression Association Of America

1-240-485-1001

The National Alliance On Mental Health

1-800-950-6264

The Suicide Prevention Lifeline

1-800-273-8255

The Association Of Black Psychologists

1-301-449-3082

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Amy Kaufman Burk is a therapist-turned-author in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Amy’s second novel, Tightwire, follows a psychotherapy from three perspectives — the rookie therapist scrambling to build a treatment — the patient struggling to heal — the supervisor guiding the young therapist through the complex emotional terrain of her first case. The story follows the patient — a gorgeous child of the circus, raised to perform for an audience — as he redefines his identity and finds his path to mental health. This novel was written to fight the stigma of mental issues, and with deep respect for the human capacity to heal.

Click on the link to find Tightwire on Amazon. https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B00QOE1C12/ref=dbs_a_def_rwt_hsch_vapi_taft_p1_i0

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Royal Racism

In March of 2021, Meghan Markle and Prince Harry (Duchess and Duke of Sussex) were interviewed by Oprah Winfrey. They talked about racism within the Royal Family, which contributed to their decision to set out and blaze their own trail. In response, Prince William (Prince Harry’s brother) issued a statement that The Royals are “very much not a racist family.” A friend of Prince Charles’ leaped into the spotlight to announce that his pal (Prince Harry’s father) is not a racist.

Quick recap: Two extremely White British Princes declared themselves and their entire family free of racism. 

Four months later, in July of 2021, Tarrant City (Alabama) Council member Tommy Bryant used the n-word in a council meeting, referring to a female council member, Veronica Freeman. In case further clarification is necessary, Tommy Bryant is White and Veronica Freeman is Black. In the aftermath, although Alabama GOP has suggested that Tommy Bryant resign, he has other plans. He has refused to apologize, and is talking about running for mayor.

Quick recap: An extremely White American man appears to view his own racism as free of racism.

When White people are accused of racism, their knee-jerk reactions are often instant, loud, resounding denials. Although England and the United States both overflow with racism, the massive majority of White folks in both countries seem to view themselves (like Prince William and Prince Charles and Tommy Bryant) as Very-Much-Not-Racists. 

Royal Racism, at core indistinguishable from Commoner Racism, knows no boundaries. Like COVID-19, it crosses oceans, infiltrates continents, spreads through cities, poisons families. Also like COVID-19, it kills. Unlike COVID-19, however, there’s no vaccine. 

So I’m offering an alternative approach. I’m extending an invitation to the Prince of Wales, the Duke of Cambridge and Mr. Tommy Bryant. I’m the princess of nowhere, the duchess of nothing, and a member of no city council. Still, I hope all three of you will take a short walk with me through a different incident of racism.

In 2016, Yale University discovered that a dean of a residential college had posted multiple racist remarks. Yale took a strong stance against racism, the situation was handled and the dean no longer works at the university. Sound straightforward? It’s not. Racism is a complex issue, so let’s 

Pause.

In this moment, I wonder how many readers are assuming that Yale’s obnoxious, racist ex-dean is White. Actually, the racist remarks targeted the White population, and were posted by a woman who is Asian. I’m outraged, as I should be. But I’m also inviting Prince William, Prince Charles and Tommy Bryant to take a moment with me and

Pause 

to think about racism. As a citizen of the United States, I don’t know one person of any heritage — except White — who has never been the target of multiple, even ongoing, actions and words rooted in bigotry. I’m White, and once when I was walking through San Francisco, a man spat on me. Another time, a different man purposefully slammed into me. (I was startled, but unhurt.) Both spoke words I didn’t understand, but later found out were derogatory slurs for “White”. There have been other incidents, but they’re rare enough that they’re not a part of my internal fabric, which makes me extremely privileged.

Privileged or not, this dean’s comments were wrong and harmful. Her mindset was rooted in the same dangerous mentality as all racism —  Us vs. Them, Superior vs. Inferior, Hatred vs. Acceptance, Inclusion vs. Inequality. We all — everyone of every color — need to be aware of the assumptions we carry, and their potential for racism. Still, I want to go beyond my legitimately angry response and

Pause 

because this issue is much larger than I am. My specific brand of outrage is, in itself, a privileged reaction, because this dean and her comments had no power to harm me. However, I don’t want to shrug it off because empathy is a key part of fighting racism. This incident gives me a small taste of what a Black man might feel when he walks down the sidewalk in broad daylight, thinking about his presentation to his company, and suddenly realizes that every White pedestrian is watching him, seemingly with fear. It’s a spoonful of what a Korean-American woman (born and raised in the USA) might feel when a stranger suddenly starts yelling that she’s responsible for the “Chinese Flu.” It’s what a Latino high school student might feel when they tell a friend they scored 800s on their SATs, and later find out a rumor is spreading that they must have cheated, because, well, y’know those Latinos — academic, not so much. It’s what a Middle Eastern college student, an American citizen, might feel when someone sees their backpack (heavy with poetry books) and freezes, as though listening for a ticking bomb.

Yes, this particular instance of anti-White racism was terrible, and I respect my own reaction. At the same time, I have to acknowledge the privilege of having experienced so few incidents in my lifetime as the target of racism. No, it does not make this person’s bigotry okay, and my being White doesn’t make my outrage any less valid. But in order to respect the full impact of racism, if someone ever points out that I’ve made a mistake, I need to listen carefully before I speak. I need to catch myself before I shout my knee-jerk denial, or enlist a friend to shout it for me. I need to remain open to the other person’s perspective, believe their experience, validate them as a full person. I need to own my assumptions, and be willing to recalibrate my mindset, even if it’s painful. 

Before we (Prince Charles, Prince William, Tommy Bryant and I) declare ourselves “very much not a racist,” we need to take a deep breath and 

Pause.

___

Amy Kaufman Burk is an author and blogger. Her first novel, Hollywood High: Achieve The Honorable, follows a group friends through a year in a public high school with over forty  languages spoken among the students. This novel was written in gratitude Hollywood High School’s diversity and commitment to equality and inclusion. Amy’s second novel, Tightwire, follows a psych intern through her first year of training, treating a troubled client with a past filled with secrets. This book was written to validate the experience of emotional struggles, to fight the stigma of mental illness, and with deepest respect for the human capacity to heal.

Amy’s Author Page on Amazon. https://www.amazon.com/Amy-Kaufman-Burk/e/B00R0S66Y4

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Literature Transports You

Mark Angney, a high school English teacher, died of COVID-19 in January, 2021. I met Mark in the summer of 1974, when I was fifteen. Our lives overlapped for six weeks, the duration of Phillips Academy Andover’s summer session. I chose a literature class called “Growing Up In America.”

I had never met a teacher like Mark. He was…there’s no other word for it…cool. His blond hair grazed his shoulders. He walked to an inner beat, wearing khaki shorts and t-shirts. Even though he was excessively old (late 20s), he became an immediate focus of our adolescent fascination. As the summer progressed, we tracked his movements on campus. Sightings usually included his wife and young daughter, who became objects of intrigue as well. Mark wore his love for his family like a badge of honor.

We quickly learned that our teacher had an etched-in-stone list of absolute truths. Semicolons were “powerful.” Too many commas were “lazy.” A great work of literature was a “big mother miracle.” “However” and “although” were upstanding, while “y’know” was beneath human dignity (which became a class joke, since the forbidden word peppered our speech).

Mark continually gauged the gaps in our knowledge and whenever needed, he grabbed a stick of chalk and outlined on the blackboard a lesson in the subjunctive, the difference between major and minor characters, the correct spelling of onomatopoeia. He guided us through the basics of critical reading from A (“Try to remember the names of the characters.”) to Z (“Were you drawn into the story? Why? How?”). Mark taught with a charged focus, an intellectual agility, that matched the shooting-sparks style of adolescent thinking. 

About two weeks into the summer, when Mark graded our initial batch of papers, we discovered more absolute truths. “Very” and “a lot” were crossed out with an annoyed red slash. Sentences should never, under any circumstance, begin with “And.” At our daily mid-morning break, a group of us huddled, counting our transgressions. Although amused at the astronomical total, I understood Mark’s message. When I wrote, everything mattered, even an And. I took in stride the many red marks on my paper, motivated to learn. However, I was surprised that Mark’s comments at the end covered a full page. He highlighted specific words, used grammar to enhance meaning. He encouraged me to trade a passel of tepid adjectives for one strong verb. He showed me how to adjust the structure of a sentence to reinforce its meaning. He demonstrated the interweaving of sound and sense. He introduced me to the difference between mapping out a conclusion, and raising an issue as an open question, inviting the reader to explore on their own. He viewed the writer as responsible for bringing the reader into the writing not only as an observer, but also as an active agent. Until that summer, I had applied these concepts to the literature assigned by my English teachers; I had never, not for a fleeting moment, thought of these ideas as relevant to my own writing.

One day, we read in class an excerpt from a book involving a father/son relationship, trauma and forgiveness. As always, a lively discussion followed. My eyes darted around the room, but I didn’t participate. I was deeply moved, filled with such profound sadness that my only goal was NOT to cry. I held myself icy still, trying to freeze my tears at their source, while ideas ricocheted around the room. When the class ended, I was the last to leave and as I walked past Mark, he spoke quietly. “The way you read — literature transports you. That’s good. You’ll want to hold onto that. Don’t let yourself grow out of it.” To my absolute horror, my tears broke the surface. Mark led me back into the classroom. I didn’t need to explain that crying in front of my peers was utterly, unacceptably, cringingly mortifying. He waited patiently while I regained my composure. For the rest of the day, I felt strangely steady. I had accidentally blown my cover, revealed my weird and embarrassing reaction to literature — and my teacher thought it was good. Of course, Mark was wrong…but I wondered if somehow he was right.

Mark’s vibrancy was such a palpable force that I’m struggling, decades later, to accept his death. If making a difference, one classroom at a time, constitutes a full life — then I can’t imagine a greater success story. I like to think that Mark’s heaven holds a library filled with big mother miracles, chairs soft as clouds, shelves soaring beyond the stars. 

Mark, y’know, you were right. I never grew out of it. And thank you.

Mark Angney

January 5, 1945 – January 20, 2021

___

Amy Kaufman Burk is a therapist-turned-author in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Amy’s first novel, Hollywood High: Achieve The Honorable, follows Caroline Black through tenth grade, in a school with over forty languages spoken among the students. The story deals with the impact of gifted teachers, homophobic bullying, racial and economic diversity, the power of friendship. Amy’s second novel, Tightwire, follows a fictional psychotherapy from three perspectives — the rookie therapist scrambling to build a treatment — the patient struggling to heal — the supervisor guiding the young therapist through the complex emotional terrain of her first case. This novel was written to fight the stigma of mental issues, with deep respect for the human capacity to heal, and follows the patient’s path to realizing he wants to become a teacher.

Click on the link to read reviews, buy a novel. https://www.amazon.com/Amy-Kaufman-Burk/e/B00R0S66Y4

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Death Of A Pet

A.J. was a cat, Bombay, black, sleek. He and his mom, Juande (pronounced Wanda) joined our family when he was a few months old. Juande was a best-in-show winner, past her prime. A.J. was one of her offspring born with the “wrong” features (although my family agreed his too-pointy face was perfect). The man who bred cats  (“Harvey”) was glad to unload his over-the-hill beauty queen and her un-showable son.

When we picked up our new pets, Harvey explained that he’d send us Juande’s Best In Show certificate only after he received notification that A.J. had been “fixed.” We brought our cats to the vet for their shots, took care of A.J., and forgot to request our certificate. Harvey, who was ethical and responsible, contacted our veterinarian when he hadn’t heard from us. The vet assured him that our cats were well cared for and that A.J. wouldn’t be having kids any time soon. Harvey sent proof of our family’s one and only pageant winner. We were all amused, and congratulated Juande. She gazed at us in complete non-comprehension and fell asleep. 

A.J. was goofy. He ran in exuberant circles. His life’s mission was to hunt and ingest all things plastic. He darted out the front door at every opportunity and explored our garden, happily batting at flowers, chewing and spitting out leaves, chasing shadows. When A.J. and Juande weren’t playing with their houseful of humans, they happily scampered around, jumped on pillows, pounced and wrestled. Tired out, they groomed each other then fell asleep, their paws intertwined. On colder nights, they crawled under the covers with us, their little heads peeking out side by side.

The love among pets and their humans is like none other. In relationships involving only people, love is transporting and wondrous in its layered complexity. With A.J. and Juande, the uncomplicated purity of our shared love took my breath away. 

Then A.J. became ill with kidney disease. Treatment failed. He was suffering, and nothing eased his pain. I held him as the doctor put him to sleep, then eased him unconscious, then stopped his heart. He died gently, curled in my arms. 

The uncomplicated purity of my grief matched the uncomplicated purity of our love, and the same was true for Juande. I became her new A.J. She followed me around the house. She slept in my lap during the day. When she wanted to play, she pounced, careful to avoid biting or scratching. At night, she wrapped her paws around my hands and curled against me. As a writer, I work at home and unless I held her constantly, she cried. 

After a year, like many people who lose a loved one, she became more independent. She began to sleep on her favorite blanket, with or without me nearby. She stopped crying when she wasn’t in my arms. Every morning after she ate, she ran in exuberant circles around our living room before settling down to nap. 

One day, to my surprise, I found Juande chewing and spitting out a plastic bag, acting like her quirk-ball son. I liberated the bag and she began vigorously licking my hand, grooming me with an intensity I hadn’t seen since she groomed A.J. We looked at each other.

“I know,” I whispered, “I miss him, too.” She fell asleep purring. I opened my laptop, and began writing this essay.

___

Amy Kaufman Burk is a therapist-turned-author in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Amy’s first novel, Hollywood High: Achieve The Honorable, follows Caroline Black through tenth grade, in a school with over forty languages spoken among the students. The story deals with homophobic bullying, racial and economic diversity, the power of friendship — and was written in gratitude to Hollywood High School with its commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion. Amy’s second novel, Tightwire, follows a fictional psychotherapy from three perspectives — the rookie therapist scrambling to build a treatment — the patient struggling to heal — the supervisor guiding the young therapist through the complex emotional terrain of her first case. This novel was written to fight the stigma of mental issues, and with deep respect for the human capacity to heal.

Click here to read reviews, buy one of Amy’s novels. https://www.amazon.com/Amy-Kaufman-Burk/e/B00R0S66Y4

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The Chasm And The Continuum

Obnoxious, intrusive, frightening, harassing, assaultive — sexual misconduct takes place on a continuum. An obnoxious remark and a rape are obviously not the same, but they share the same continuum. As Andrew Cuomo and Matt Gaetz stand (and cringe and punch and flail) in the spotlight, a gap (more like a crater) separates their perceptions from the perceptions of their accusers. The interplay between that chasm and the continuum weaves through each incident of sexual misconduct.

Andrew Cuomo — Governor of New York, accused of sexual harassment — stood in front of the cameras and said “I’m sorry” for “whatever pain I caused anyone.” He added that he felt “awful,” “embarrassed,” and that his mistakes were “unintentional.” He also asserted  that kissing is no big deal, that it’s how he greets all humans, that he had no clue he was hurting people. As he spoke, the chasm between his experience and his accusers’ viewpoints became glaringly, disturbingly, increasingly wide and deep.

Gov. Cuomo stated several times that he regrets making women feel “uncomfortable.” But let’s call it for what it is. Uncomfortable is trying on a pair of shoes a size too small, or meeting your fiancé’s great aunt who announces that your hips are too skinny to bear children properly, or being offered a bison burger at a dinner party and explaining that you’re vegan. Uncomfortable is nowhere near how demeaned, unsafe and often enraged people feel facing sexual harassment. 

From the other end of the political spectrum and at a different point on the continuum, Matt Gaetz (a member of Congress) is facing allegations of having sexual relations with a 17-year-old, of sex trafficking, and stories have emerged of his bragging about his conquests (including nude photos) to his Congress-colleagues. So far, Mr. Gaetz has expressed no regrets and appears sorry for nothing. He has been loud and brash in his outrage at the allegations.

In contrast to Matt Gaetz, Andrew Cuomo has tried (more like visibly struggled) to hit a humble note, saying he’ll “be the better for this experience.” I hope so, but “being-the-better” is only the beginning. The cultural undercurrents (and tidal waves) that led to #MeToo and #TimesUp are alive and well and kicking people in the teeth. There’s no easy fix for a chasm that’s centuries-deep and a continuum that’s millions-of-incidents-long. So instead of balancing on the ledge and shouting across the gorge, I’m stepping in. From the depths of the chasm, I’m offering this short post from the less-violent-but-still-damaging end of the continuum.

A while ago, on a popular social media site, a middle-aged man wrote a brief anecdote that he clearly thought was amusing. Years before, he and another male friend were walking, and noticed a woman’s breasts. The post briefly described how the two gentlemen stopped for a moment of silence, gazing in reverential awe at this stranger’s chest. The comments following the post suggested that at least some agreed that his story was funny.

Seemingly simple, deceptively complex. 

From age fourteen until my hair turned gray, strangers (always men) stared at me. Sometimes they approached and tried to initiate conversations, inviting me to join them for coffee or dinner or a certain aerobic activity. Sometimes they leered, rating my level of attractiveness, expecting me to be pleased at what they considered to be a compliment. Sometimes they whispered, huddled in a pair or a group. Sometimes they gazed in a moment of gentlemanly silence. Whatever they did, it was at best obnoxious, at worst scary, always threatening. (And I’m one of the lucky ones, because I’ve never been assaulted.) This didn’t happen because I was a creature of such celestial beauty that the angels burst into chorus whenever I appeared. It didn’t happen because I always wore mini-skirts (never owned one) and spike heels (never could walk in them). It didn’t happen because of any of the go-to excuses (you’re so pretty – you dressed provocatively) people offer to shift blame onto the survivor. It didn’t happen because I was special or remarkable in any way. It happened because I’m female. 

Perspective #1: My friend and I weren’t threatening. We were admiring her breasts in a respectful manner. She didn’t even know we were looking at her.

Perspective #2: She knew. And what you experienced as admiring and respectful may have felt quite different to her.

No matter how subtle this man and his friend thought they were as they stared at the woman’s breasts, I can guarantee that she was instantly aware. How do I know? Because almost all women on the planet, regardless of how conventionally attractive they are, deal with unwanted intrusions so often, from so young, that we’re trained to know. We have to know for our own safety, because too often, these situations escalate.

Perspective #1: We were just looking. Don’t you think maybe you’re overreacting?

Perspective #2: Rule of thumb: be wary of any sentence that begins “We were just….” And nope, I’m not overreacting. Welcome to the continuum, from the other side of the chasm.

When I faced similar situations in my younger days, I was immediately watching carefully, trying not to let the man know I was watching, in case he misinterpreted my attention as a sign of interest. I was gauging his build in relation to my own, in case I needed to defend myself physically. I immediately experienced him as a potential threat.

Perspective #1: This is harmless fun, a bonding moment with my buddy.

Perspective #2: Do you mean harmless and fun for you and your gentlemanly buddy, or for the woman? While you and your friend are happily bonding, she’s probably trying to figure out how to protect herself from an intrusion that might escalate into a threat. 

I’d assess the people around me, where I might turn for help if I needed it. I’d be aware of every building on the street, an office I might enter for safety, a restaurant with too many witnesses.

Perspective #1: If the neighborhood wasn’t safe, why’d you put yourself in danger by being there? If the neighborhood was safe, what were you so worried about?

Perspective #2: Your first question is an example of blaming the survivor. Regarding your second question — a common misconception is that sexual assaults take place only in dark alleys, by masked strangers, holding rusty shivs, surrounded by abandoned buildings. 

Whenever I walked alone, I was automatically alert, wearing a don’t-even-try scowl. In spite of my death-stare, some men crashed through the boundary. Sometimes they were overtly threatening. Sometimes they took my arm to stop me from walking away. Sometimes they invited me for lunch at a restaurant they owned, for drinks at their night club, to the theater, a concert, a movie. Every time, the answer was no No NO. Many of these unwanted overtures began with a moment of silent gazing. 

Perspective #1: You must have been doing something, sending unspoken encouraging signals, that invited men to approach you. And your scowl — no offense, but you don’t sound like a nice person.

Perspective #2: Sending encouraging signals — absolutely not — unless you categorize WWF (Walking While Female) as an encouraging signal. As for my scowl, apparently we define Not-A-Nice-Person quite differently. “No Offense” duly noted.

Even if the situation began and ended with gentlemanly reverence, I was painfully aware that I was being sexualized by strangers when I was going to the corner store for a carton of milk, or meeting a friend for lunch, or picking up my kid from school.

Perspective #1: You need a sense of humor. You’re taking everything too seriously. 

Perspective #2: Possibly — but not regarding this issue. Still, don’t take my word for it. Ask Andrew Cuomo and Matt Gaetz. I’m confident that at this point in their lives, considering the trouble they’re in, both would agree with their accusers (and with me) on at least one point: this issue is serious.

Finally, take a quick moment to calculate the number of underlying currents, social norms and cultural mores I challenged or violated by writing this post. 

Perspective #1: Yeah, right, whatever. Can I go now?

Perspective #2: Sure.   

Or you can pause, gauge where you stand on the continuum, and take a step toward the other side of the chasm. 

___

Amy Kaufman Burk is a therapist-turned-author in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Amy’s first novel, Hollywood High: Achieve The Honorable, follows Caroline Black through tenth grade, in a school with over forty languages spoken among the students. The story is about the power of friendship as the students face homophobic bullying and navigate racial and economic diversity. Amy’s second novel, Tightwire, follows a fictional psychotherapy from three perspectives — the rookie therapist scrambling to build a treatment — the patient struggling to heal — the supervisor guiding the young therapist through the complex emotional terrain of her first case. Both novels deal with the chasm and the continuum of sexual misconduct.

Click here to purchase one of Amy’s novels, to read reviews, to check out the first few chapters.

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Passover During Plague

We’re entering our second Passover during the coronavirus pandemic. The story of Passover, told through a Seder, is about the emancipation of the Jews, and celebrates the freedom of all people. It’s a voice against persecution, and a celebration of the human spirit. The story includes plagues: blood, frogs, bugs, wild animals, pestilence, boils, hail, locusts, darkness, death of firstborns. That’s ten.

Today, We The People have our own cluster of plagues: the coronavirus — isolation — white supremacy — hatred and rage targeting Asians and Pacific Islanders — violence against #BlackLivesMatter — families living in such unimaginable desperation that they send their children to flood our borders — voter suppression — homelessness — poverty — educational inequality — hunger — an environment and climate that people have stretched to the point of breaking — lack of mental and physical health care — oppression and violence toward the LGBTQ+ community — sexual harassment and assault — school shootings — gun violence. That’s more than ten, and the list goes on. 

As a psychologist of 20+ years and as a person of 60+ years, I’ve witnessed the astonishing human capacity to heal from terrible injury. I’ve also seen the astonishing human capacity to cause those terrible injuries. Our country is at a crucial juncture. Too many have lost their moorings, swept up in currents of power at the expense of decency, driven by rage rather than by common sense. They don’t realize that their own corruption is another plague, causing damage not only to others, but to themselves as well.  

I look forward to the day when COVID-19 is under control, and my home can return to being a comfortable and safe place to host a Seder. Until then, I’m inviting each and all, every religion, to join together from our separate places, uniting against our plagues. 

Next Year In Jerusalem.

___

Amy Kaufman Burk is a therapist-turned-author in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Amy’s first novel, Hollywood High: Achieve The Honorable, follows Caroline Black through tenth grade, in a school with over forty languages spoken among the students. The story deals with homophobic bullying, racial and economic diversity, the power of friendship — and was written in gratitude to Hollywood High School with its commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion. Amy’s second novel, Tightwire, follows a fictional psychotherapy from three perspectives — the rookie therapist scrambling to build a treatment — the patient struggling to heal — the supervisor guiding the young therapist through the complex emotional terrain of her first case. This novel was written to fight the stigma of mental issues, and with deep respect for the human capacity to heal.

Click here to purchase one of Amy’s novels, to read reviews, to check out the first few chapters.

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Reaching Far Across The Aisle

Dear Mike Pence,

You and I don’t have much in common. I’m a liberal Democrat, an LGBTQ+ ally, a supporter of the Black Lives Matter movement, a believer in a woman’s right to choose. Still, we share a big problem, so like it or not, we’re on the same team. Our country is dangerously divided, and it’s up to me and you and each and all to help. I was a therapist for over twenty years, and a basic tool of my trade was empathy. From that foundation, I’m reaching out to you, far across the aisle.

Empathy is defined not by a single point, but by a spectrum. One end of that spectrum holds the folks who are naturally empathic, sensing what others feel with depth and accuracy, knowing intuitively how to respond. On the other end of the spectrum are people entirely lacking the capacity for empathy, no clue about others’ feelings, and don’t care. Most folks land in the middle. Of that middle group, some need to go through an experience in order to empathize with others going through a similar experience. They are capable of empathy, but only when they themselves can identify with the experience.

Mr. Pence, on the spectrum of empathy, where are you?

Through the years, I’ve viewed your career with sadness, outrage, fear, disgust. But recently, you surprised me. You took a stand, and refused to try to overthrow a fair election. You paid a steep price. A mob stormed the Capitol, hunting for you, chanting “Hang Mike Pence.” During the insurrection, your president never checked on your safety.

Powerful experiences, including trauma, can change people. A mob storming the Capitol and chanting their intention to kill — you don’t need an advanced degree in psychology to know that meets the criteria for a “powerful experience, including trauma.” So I wonder, did that experience/trauma lead to any changes in you?

Mr. Pence, nobody should ever go through what you went through on January 6, 2021. However, now that it’s behind you, I have a question. When you look back on that day, hiding in fear, pack-mentality-rage erupting and infiltrating the sacred ground of your workplace — have you thought about the fear you have caused in the course of your political career? 

Every LGBTQ+ student who was targeted and bullied — fearful of being hurt or even killed— terrified to go to school because of pack-mentality-rage — have you thought about them? How about their parents — having no choice but to send their children to school, knowing that they’d be targeted, in part because you paved the way for hatred to run wild against their kids? Can you feel empathy for those students, for those parents, now that you’ve known that same fear? 

How about the Black trans folks who have been murdered, because people felt it was okay to target Black trans folks, just because they’re Black trans folks? When Donald Trump turned against you, a powerful person who withdrew his protections, how did you feel? Can you understand that you’ve made many others feel exactly the same way when you, a powerful person, advocated withdrawing their protections?

And what about your insistence that “All Lives Matter” replace “Black Lives Matter”? Of course, all lives matter, but that’s not the issue here. The point is that Black lives are often treated like they don’t matter. When your president and his mob decided that your life didn’t matter, how did you feel? In that moment, the mob didn’t chant “Hang Them All!” They chanted “Hang Mike Pence!” Can you understand, in that moment, the difference between “All Lives Matter” and “Mike Pence’s Life Matters”? Now, having survived that experience, can you understand the difference between “All Lives Matter” and “Black Lives Matter”?

Take a pause, Mr. Pence. Imagine going through your trauma not once, but every day as you go to school, as a child or an adolescent on the LGBTQ+ spectrum. Imagine fearing every minute that you’d be targeted with verbal abuse, or assaulted, or murdered in cold blood, because of the color of your skin or your sexuality or your gender identity. I’ll bet you never thought you’d share an experience of such emotional breadth and depth with people you’ve targeted. But like it or not, here you are.  

As a therapist, part of my job was to help clients find their hidden strengths — the kernels buried deep, camouflaged and cocooned. When these pieces reveal themselves, even just a glimpse or a flicker, the patient has a choice — learn and grow and build on those kernels, or run back to the old ways. Change, no matter how healthy, is scary and difficult. Healing means choosing an uncharted path, and always involves holding yourself accountable for your choices. These road-not-taken moments are pivotal points in therapy. The patient either enters a phase of tremendous possibility, or quits treatment. 

Through most of your career, Mr. Pence, you’ve treated many of your fellow humans as less-than, unworthy, disposable. But recently, a kernel of strength and decency emerged when you stood up to your president. Then on January 6, 2021, our country watched you undergo a powerful experience, a trauma. Can you learn and grow from your experience? Can you build on that kernel of integrity, forced out of hiding? Can you wrap your hands around it, own it, bring it into the light? Can you use it to forge a path into a new level of empathy?

Our country is broken and hurting, divided and scared, angry and sad — also hopeful and strong and ready to heal. It’s a pivotal moment for the United States of America, as we enter a phase of tremendous possibility. Like it or not, it’s also a pivotal moment for you, Mike Pence. 

Sincerely,

Amy Kaufman Burk

Doctor of Mental Health

Therapist-Turned-Author

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Amy Kaufman Burk is a therapist-turned-author in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Amy’s first novel, Hollywood High: Achieve The Honorable, follows Caroline Black through tenth grade, in a school with over forty languages spoken among the students. The story deals with homophobic bullying, racial and economic diversity, the power of friendship — and was written in gratitude to Hollywood High School with its enriched and enriching diversity. Amy’s second novel, Tightwire, follows a fictional psychotherapy from three perspectives — the rookie therapist scrambling to build a treatment — the patient struggling to heal — the supervisor guiding the young therapist through the complex emotional terrain of her first case. This novel was written in support of same-sex parents, to fight the stigma of mental issues, and with deep respect for the human capacity to heal.

Click here for Amy’s books on Amazon.

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Clarity Through Chaos

One of the most difficult parts of being a psychologist is thinking clearly through chaos. Those moments are part of the job, and they matter. Decades ago, when I began training to become a therapist, my supervisors gave me several guidelines for evaluating a client, to help me think with balance, care and precision through emotional storms. They told me to begin with the basics, the setting.

Setting: 

Presidential Debate. 

Date: 

Just over a month before the 2020 presidential election. 

Place: 

National television, and immediately available internationally (in other words — everywhere).

The experienced therapists taught me to listen not only to the content (what was said) but also to the form (how it was said).

Content: Dangerous

Form: Chaotic

If I saw any sign of dangerous or chaotic thinking, then I needed to evaluate who might be at risk (self or others), along with the level of chaos.

Danger To Others: 

Consumed by self-interest. Appears unaware when his approach compromises the safety of others. 

Level of Chaos: 

High (unable to follow basic rules, violates boundaries, disregards structure).

If others were endangered, I learned to identify the targets and take steps to warn them.

Targets:

1. We The People

2. Our Democracy 

To Those Targeted: Consider yourselves warned.

In evaluating patients, I gauged their capacity for insight (self-awareness, understanding) and judgment (the ability to consider behavior and its effect on self and others). Insight and judgment are helpful markers for assessing overall mental status.

Insight: 

Little-to-no evidence of self-awareness or understanding.

Judgment: 

Impaired (unable to control his speech and contain his impulses, even though he knew he was on national television).

If insight and judgment showed signs of impairment, then I needed to evaluate reality testing (ability to assess accurately the surrounding environment, and one’s role in it).

Reality Testing: 

Evidence of inability to distinguish between truth and untruth. 

Words, behavior and thought process evident in my office provided a microcosm of words, behavior and thought process in the client’s life outside of my office. Using my interaction with the patient, I created a medium-to-long-term treatment plan.

Medium-To-Long-Term Treatment Plan:

Words, behavior and thought process evident in the debate provide a microcosm of words, behavior and thought process outside of the debate as well. As I imagine his debate-behavior at home with his wife and young son, or at an international summit, I am deeply concerned about this person’s capacity to function personally and lead politically. I strongly suggest forming a team to assess the damage and begin the (long, uphill, multi-faceted and jagged) process of healing on all levels — personal, family, community, national, international.   

To begin treatment, I was expected to document an immediate-to-short-term plan.

Immediate-To-Short-Term Treatment Plan: 

For The Subject — 

Subject is unqualified for his current job, and (urgently) needs to map out (assisted by others with intact mental status) an (effective and calm) exit strategy.

Treatment Plan For Everyone Else In the USA — 

VOTE.

Clarity through chaos. 

This moment matters.

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Amy Kaufman Burk is a therapist-turned-author in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Amy’s first novel, Hollywood High: Achieve The Honorable, follows Caroline Black through tenth grade, in a school with over forty languages spoken among the students. The story deals with homophobic bullying, racial and economic diversity, and the power of friendship. Amy’s second novel, Tightwire, follows a fictional psychotherapy from three perspectives — the rookie therapist scrambling to build a treatment — the patient struggling to heal — the supervisor guiding the young therapist through the complex emotional terrain of her first case. This novel was written in support of same-sex parents, to fight the stigma of mental issues, and with deep respect for the human capacity to heal.

Amy’s novels are available on Amazon. https://www.amazon.com/Amy-Kaufman-Burk/e/B00R0S66Y4

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#BidenHarris2020

I’LL BE DONATING MY AUGUST AND SEPTEMBER BOOK SALE PROFITS TO JOE BIDEN AND KAMALA HARRIS.

Today, when I think of the election, I feel hope. I’m also ready to fight…and make no mistake: this will be an Ali-Frazier caliber fight. 

Below, I’ve included a brief description of my novels, and the link to buy them. Both have been on Amazon bestseller lists, and received many extremely positive reviews. Most important in this moment, both books endorse beliefs which are diametrically opposed to the values of Donald Trump and his administration. 

We need to form a strong team, together, to make sure that Joe Biden and Kamala Harris have the opportunity to lead our country out of the multi-layered mess created by the Trump Regime. So if you’re a writer (or any type of artist) and you’re donating a portion of your profits to support #BidenHarris2020, send me a message and I’ll be glad to post about your work.

Hollywood High: Achieve The Honorable 

Caroline Black, 15 years old, transfers from a college prep academy to the local public school with over forty languages spoken among the students (and no, I’m not exaggerating — welcome to my amazing high school, Hollywood High). The story deals with homophobic bullying, racial and economic diversity, and the power of friendship.

Tightwire 

This novel follows Caroline Black into her first year as a psych intern. The story tracks a fictional psychotherapy from three perspectives — the rookie therapist scrambling to build a treatment — the patient struggling to heal — the supervisor guiding the young therapist through the complex emotional terrain of her first case. Tightwire was written in support of same-sex parents, to fight the stigma of mental issues, and with deep respect for the human capacity to heal.

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His Own Personal Wall

When I was in graduate school getting my doctorate in mental health, I spent six months working in a locked inpatient psych ward. Some patients hated being locked in, but I was surprised by the number who confided that the locked doors helped them feel safe. When I asked why,  “Mr. X” explained. He was a middle-aged gentleman, always dressed immaculately in a 1920s suit and bow tie. He blinked at my apparent dim-wittedness and answered with the weary patience of an elder educating a youngling: “My dear, those locked doors don’t keep me in; they keep bad people out.”

“Build the wall.”

From the perspective of the medical model — identifying and treating the disease — the intensity of the cure needs to match the intensity of the illness. A nail clipper can cure a hangnail and a bandaid can cure a paper cut — modest interventions for modest problems. In contrast, an aggressive form of cancer might need surgery, chemotherapy, radiation — an extreme treatment to match the urgency of the problem. If Mr. X needed the locked doors of an in-patient mental hospital in order to feel safe, then his level of fear must have been off the charts. 

“I will build a great great wall.”

Those locked doors were Mr. X’s version of Donald Trump’s border wall, but the border wall is more extreme — which means that our president’s level of fear is also more extreme. Fear is contagious and since he was elected, our president has spread fear like fire — adding kindling, stoking the flames, stirring the embers, causing sparks to fly. As fear has been running wild in our country, keep in mind that the “great great wall” isn’t actually about Mexicans or immigrants. It’s about overwhelming, consuming, irrational fear. 

“It’s going to be a serious wall.”

Like the locked ward of a mental institution, the “serious wall” comes at an equally serious cost which goes far beyond money. Both create barriers, narrow our world, limit our view. But at this point the analogy falls apart. As people healed on the psych ward, they experienced the hospital as increasingly confining. Over time, identifying the source of his own irrational fears, Mr. X grew mentally stronger. He worked hard, and eventually felt ready to reenter the world on the other side of the locked doors. As Donald Trump’s border wall is built, unlike Mr. X, the Unites States of America will deprive itself of the opportunity to outgrow its own irrational fears. 

“That wall will go up so fast, your head will spin.”

With the murder of George Floyd, there has been a shift, and the United States is in turmoil. However, for the first time since Donald Trump took office, I see people turning toward each other, uniting instead of dividing. The magnitude of the movement against racism has snowballed, the momentum is fierce, and I feel a new level of hope for change. But apparently, our commander-in-chief doesn’t share my sentiment. Instead, there’s been a spike in his level of fear. In the midst of the protests, a new wall went up so fast my head was spinning — a fence surrounding the White House. 

“A wall protects.”

Is Donald Trump protecting himself from the BLACK LIVES MATTER letters recently painted on the road to the White House, large enough to be seen from space? Is he protecting himself from the many colors of the people he’s supposed to lead? Is he protecting himself from those who are supposed to be compliant as they’re oppressed? Is he protecting himself from the #BlackLivesMatter movement? And if he needs to build his own personal wall for protection, then why is he so very, deeply, extremely frightened?

“I will tell you that the problem our country has is that our leaders are so weak.”

For once, President Trump and I agree.

All identifying information about “Mr. X” has been changed to protect confidentiality.

Except for the quote attributed to “Mr. X”, all quotes are from Donald Trump.

___

Amy Kaufman Burk is a therapist-turned-author in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Amy’s first novel, Hollywood High: Achieve The Honorable, follows Caroline Black through tenth grade, in a school with over forty languages spoken among the students. The story deals with homophobic bullying, racial and economic diversity, and the power of friendship. Amy’s second novel, Tightwire, follows a fictional psychotherapy from three perspectives — the rookie therapist scrambling to build a treatment — the patient struggling to heal — the supervisor guiding the young therapist through the complex emotional terrain of her first case. This novel was written in support of same-sex parents, to fight the stigma of mental issues, and with deep respect for the human capacity to heal.

Amy’s novels are available on Amazon.                                                                                https://www.amazon.com/Amy-Kaufman-Burk/e/B00R0S66Y4

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