case study

Case Study: Childhood Mirrors



Teachers are no strangers to the impact careless words have on tender youngsters. While much of the world calls exchanges between youngsters on the playground or in the hallways at school teasing it often has more sinister connotations and results. Calling a child an unkind name or goading a child for physical attributes can have lasting deleterious ramifications that can last a lifetime.


I work in a school in a small village in Portugal. Like many small villages, most of the inhabitants have known each other for generations and many of them are interrelated. Small villages the world over tend to be insulated against change and conservative in their outlook. Villagers can also be very judgmental towards those they perceive as different or regard as an outsider. Often, the level of literacy is low and people don't seem to understand that each person can be an individual, and behave as such, and still be a valuable and contributing member of the community.

Some years ago I had a particularly shy student who had come to live with his grandparents in the village several years earlier. His parents had abandoned him when each had found a new living partner and there were reports that he had been beaten before being brought to live with his grandparents. He was quite heavy; his movements were very clumsy, but his face was beautiful.

When the rest of the class became aware of his vulnerability and isolation they instantly began to verbally attack him with unkind comments like: “You're so fat.” “You look like a truck.” “You move like a hippo.”

At first, I wasn't aware of what was happening until I noticed that the child was beginning to withdraw as if he was frightened or trying to be invisible. When I finally realized what was happening, I talked to him privately. It took some time, but he finally opened up and told me what was going on. He also told me that he felt so anguished by the other kids’ nasty baiting that he would hurt himself deliberately in order to make the emotional pain go away. He showed me his arms. They were covered in bite marks and bruises. He was turning his rage against his own body! It was the first and only time I cried in front of a student!

School policy does not recognize bullying, so I decided to take matters into my own hands as I was the responsible teacher for this class. I booked an appointment with all the students involved and their parents as well as with this boy and his grandmother because, apart from all the rest, this boy had been rejected by his parents. His grandmother was a very anxious and nervous woman, defeated by witnessing her grandson's suffering. It was a difficult moment. All the mothers and some fathers began to cry; they couldn't believe that their children were being so cruel to the shy new kid in their class. Their children had admitted their guilt during the meeting. I interpreted some of the tears as true pain for the child’s humiliation; but I also theorize that some was a kind of humiliation on the part of the parents who were known to behave in similar ways. Unknowingly, they provided an example to their children who then perpetuated the behavior with their classmates.

Surprisingly, the abusers came from families with higher standards of living and higher levels of literacy than that of the abused. They were the most successful students in the class. Unable to accept anything perceived as difference, these children attack. They belittle others as a way of attempting to establish superiority and as a way of proving themselves and establishing a pecking order.

Sadly, most people seem to think this is a normal and natural behavior, especially among boys. In the animal kingdoms it is referred to as establishing dominance. Young boys are encouraged to be aggressive, to avoid being sissies, to not show or seek affection past a certain age. In all societies, male children are cautioned against too much emotion unless that emotion is anger and expressed in acceptable macho ways. Unfortunately, those acceptable macho ways are usually expressed in beatings either physically or vocally – to put others down to appear bigger in observers’ eyes. This aggression directly contributes to war, the same downfall of our species, only on a larger scale.

Girls have a somewhat different way of establishing dominance; they form cliques, cut out others unlike themselves, segregate those who dress differently or are not as attractive as being unworthy of attention. Such actions can be just as wounding as the boys’ more aggressive, overt behavior.

In the village environment, adults act in similar ways. These are learned behaviors and are passed down from parent to child. That probably explains the reason my school doesn't believe that bullying is taking place. It has become such a frequent occurrence that it is commonplace and, as such, raises no alarm. It has become so much a part of the landscape that it has become invisible. Schools are mirrors of the societies in which they are rooted. Children, too, reflect the behavior they see in their homes, in their schools, in their villages, countries, and planet. To change the world, we must begin by changing the examples we demonstrate to our children. Yes, they hear our words, but it is our actions that they model.

These are times in which many of us prefer to avoid conflict. We choose to bury our heads in the sand, to not become involved, to act like those things that upset or show us in a diminished light don’t exist. We just let the storm take over unless, of course, we are ourselves in the middle of it! Then, we take action.



Children are exposed to many different opinions and examples. They are vulnerable to peer comment, parental comment, and societal modeling. Many times, their opinions of themselves are formed by these influences. Once formed these opinions affect self-esteem, feelings of self-worth, behavior, and relationships for the remainder of their lives.

We have the example of many lives to draw inferences from: Karen Carpenter of the singing group The Carpenters starved herself to death, literally, because she perceived herself as not thin enough; Michael Jackson, after years of hearing that he was ugly from his father and later from the press on every continent, saw himself in their portrayal and experienced shame at his appearance.

This case study illustrates that rage at insensitive treatment at the hands of peers can result in self-inflicted violence. While often perpetrated with knives, this youngster’s violence and hatred of himself was displayed as biting himself hard enough to leave teeth marks and bruising on his arms, visible reminders of his inwardly-deflected pain and the rejection he experienced from his parents and his classmates.



  1. Have you heard of self inflicted violence before? Have any of your friends done this? If you found out a friend was, for example, cutting themselves, what would you do? Should you tell an adult? Why?
  2. If you were the boy being teased in this story, how would you feel? What would you do?
  3. Sometimes when people are obese, there are reasons: for example, obese people may be trying to use their body weight as insulation or as a barrier. Do you think this is true? Why would someone want to do that?
  4. Did the teacher do the right thing? What would your parents say about this situation?
  5. Have you seen examples of cruelty in your school? How do you think they should be handled? If you were the teacher or principal, what would you do?


Case Study written by Paula Silva:

Paula was born 1965 in Porto, Portugal.  She studied Modern Languages and Literatures - Portuguese/English.  Since completing her studies, Paula has worked as an English teacher.


Case Study: White as New Fallen Snow


How Vitiligo and Michael Taught Me Compassion

I am a 52 year old white woman, and when I say white, I mean white like new fallen snow! I have Vitiligo. Vitiligo is a disease that can compromise your immune system and distort your whole appearance.

The summer before I was getting ready for college, I noticed some strange looking chalky patches that suddenly appeared on my hands. I was an olive skinned girl who never worried about sunburn and who tanned every summer to a golden mocha. Of course in those days of the early seventies we were slathering ourselves with baby oil never giving a thought to sunscreen. It never occurred to me to worry about my skin or the sun or my appearance beyond the occasional pimple and getting the latest fad in fashion and makeup.

I thought the spots were from the French fry grease at the fast food restaurant where I worked that summer to save up money for college. I was sure they were small burns from the fryer and would go away when the burns healed. But at college that fall, I noticed the spots not only had not disappeared, but had grown larger while new ones were forming on my elbows. I knew then that they could no longer be ignored.

I had never even heard of the word: “Vitiligo” but after my doctor visit, I soon became intimate with it as it became a huge feature in my world. An autoimmune disorder, I learned that Vitiligo can be genetically passed down in families but not always. My family has no history of Vitiligo. And it was autoimmune- what a heart-stopping betrayal! Everybody wants to be “comfortable in their own skin” but my own skin was damaging itself and damaging me! How can your own skin turn on you?

I began to read everything I could find on the disease. Vitiligo is an antibody that is in your genes when you are born and for some reason it gets stimulated to start destroying your melanoctyes which are the cells in your skin and hair that produce melanin. Melanin is what gives your skin pigment or color. There is lots of research being explored to discover what triggers Vitiligo and what determines how fast it spreads. It may be environmental factors, stress, physical factors like hormones and blood loss or most likely a combination of all of these. The medical community has established that the antibodies in Vitiligo completely destroy the melanocyte.

That means that my body sees my own cells as something foreign that needs to be attacked, destroyed and removed! There are some treatments that may help restore pigment in some cases but those treatments are not a cure. As of now, there is no cure. The treatments are very time consuming and involve taking a drug that can cause liver damage. I tried a few of these therapies early on when my white spots were not so widespread, but it was not very successful. I decided that I would rather have white spots which were not painful or really hurting me in any way, (other than sunburn, and strange glances and remarks from people) than risk damaging my liver and turning yellow from the resulting jaundice! Did I want to turn white or turn yellow? Were those my only choices? Nursing was my college major and that influenced my decision to forego the drugs because I understood, medically, the reality of the side effects. I later tried the depigmentation therapy on my face to bleach out the remaining dark areas but it did not work very well for me. It affects everyone differently and it takes a lot of diligence and repeated treatments.

The National Vitiligo Foundation (NVF) is a lifesaving resource for people afflicted with this disease. They spearhead the research and search for a cure while providing education and resources for sufferers of this disease. Vitiligo is in the same category as other autoimmune disorders like Lupus, Reynaud’s, Diabetes, and some Thyroid disorders. Most people who acquire an autoimmune disorder develop more than one. I recently discovered that my Thyroid is also involved and I have mild Reynaud’s which is a disorder that affects the circulation in extremities like hands and feet. It makes one’s fingers and toes cold and discolored from poor circulation.

I learned at an NVF conference I attended that because melanocytes are completely destroyed by Vitiligo, there is zero chance of getting Melanoma in the areas that are white. Researchers are looking at a possible treatment for Melanoma using antibodies taken from the blood of people with Vitiligo. The thought is that maybe those melanoctye-destroying antibodies might provide a treatment or cure for cancer is a thought I like to hang onto because it would mean that something good could come out of this disorder.

There are emotional valleys for the person adjusting to the diagnosis of Vitiligo. Over time Vitiligo spreads and is not easy to hide in those stages. My face, hands, arms, and legs became covered with white patches and were a source of embarrassment for me. But the day came when I decided that I was not going to wear long sleeves and pants for the rest of my life! I did need to protect my skin however, because the depigmented skin has no protection from the sun. I found out the hard way how badly burned one can get from the sun if not extra careful. I sometimes think I alone keep the sunscreen industry in business. There are days I wish for a vat to dip myself into to decrease the time it takes to apply sunscreen and protect my skin because it’s necessary if I am going to continue the outdoor activities I love and enjoy. The evening is a better time for me to do things when the sun is not so intense and I forego things scheduled for daytime when the sun is bright. It does require lifestyle adjustments.

I often think how fortunate I was that I didn’t have to deal with this during my junior high and high school years. Being a teenager dealing with all of the hormonal changes, peer pressure and confusion is tough enough without harsh comments about one’s strange and changing appearance. I am sure I would have had to endure cutting remarks regarding my strange appearance. I did need to learn to deal with people staring and making comments especially during the summer months when my pigmented skin was darker in color and I was more exposed wearing summer clothes. I have heard some very bizarre, sometimes funny and occasionally hurtful comments.

I don’t think people intend to be mean but are surprised by someone’s (mine) appearance and don’t think before they speak. I imagine that I did look odd with white spots all over my skin. Children wanted to know if I was “like a leopard” or was I “part zebra?” Adults thought I had been burned and would ask “is it painful” or “is it contagious?” I think I actually liked it better when someone would actually speak to me about their curiosity and ask questions rather than just staring or worse yet snickering or whispering to their friends. Explanations had to be necessarily lengthy and that took up my time when I might have preferred to spend it in some other way.

I will never forget one of the saddest encounters I can remember with a woman who was from India who stopped me one day in a parking lot:

“I noticed the patches on your skin. Do you have Vitiligo?”

“Yes, I do. Are you familiar with it?”

“Yes. My sister who lives in India will never be able to marry because she has Vitiligo. There is a taboo surrounding it in that culture and no man would consider marrying a woman with the disease and whose appearance is marred and undesirable. When it comes to women, India places a lot of emphasis on beauty.”

I could not fathom that attitude nor imagine it to be true. I thought about how lucky I was to have met a man who looked at me and loved me without seeing a “spotted person” but saw a human being. Actually, he was more offended by people staring and snickering at me than I was. I was once stopped in a store by a woman who wanted to know how I had gotten such a bad case of poison ivy. I was baffled by that one until she added that she couldn’t believe how much calamine lotion I had on!

There was one incident where I noticed a lady staring at me which happened all the time, but this time she began following me in the grocery store and when it got a little creepy I turned to face her. She remarked that I “must be an amazing volleyball player to have so many brush burns on my knees and elbows from diving for balls.” I had to bite my tongue so I wouldn’t burst out laughing! I always feel bad for most of the people who make comments because they are so embarrassed when I tell them the facts. The most hurtful encounters are with people who don’t take the time to stop and ask but just stare, point or even laugh. There were times I would actually forget that I did look “odd” until I noticed someone staring or pointing and that would launch me right back into feeling self-conscious and awkward.

I realized too, that I was fortunate to be a white person with Vitiligo. I met several black people with Vitiligo at the NVF conferences I attended and learned how much more devastating it is for them. I was a white person who was turning whiter. They were black people who were becoming white. Not only did they have to deal with the physical changes, but they had to deal with feeling a loss of their race and identity. I cannot speak to this but I can certainly empathize with how much more difficult that must be to lose your ethnic roots, identity or race and to not only question your own identity, but have all that questioned by others.


The Famous Face of Vitilgo

That brings me to the most famous person to have Vitiligo: Michael Jackson. I was a big Michael fan from his early days with the Jackson Five and all through his solo career. He and I were the same age so I grew up on his music and dancing. I remember hearing for the first time the rumors that he was bleaching himself white; I thought that was crazy. I knew personally how difficult it was to try to use depigmentation as a treatment for Vitiligo so I couldn’t imagine how someone could actually bleach their entire body. I asked my dermatologist at one of my yearly visits in the late eighties if she knew anything about Michael Jackson’s skin color and she told me that it was known by most in the dermatology community that he had Vitiligo.

At first I was excited to think that I shared something in common with Michael Jackson. Then as the reality set in, the more I thought about it, the more I realized how horrible it must have been for him. Not only was he a black man, he was probably the most well known person in the world and someone who performed in front of millions of people. It was easy for me to just ignore the stares and go on with my life but how do you do that when you are in the spotlight all the time and subjected to ridicule and tabloid trash talk? I can understand why he tried to cover his Vitiligo up the best he could with makeup and clothes. Michael was known to be a very private person who didn’t want to divulge his medical condition to the world. I have a feeling he may not have received a lot of support from those around him, his professional contacts, and certainly not from the media. And when he did admit to having Vitiligo, so many hateful people in the media refused to believe it using ridicule and writing he “claims to have a skin condition.” Claims to? They accused him of trying to bleach his skin and become a white person. They called him a traitor to his race thinking he had betrayed the African American community of his roots. Who would chose a disease that betrays your own body, challenges your very identity and continually changes your appearance requiring medical treatment and makeup? How does someone who makes their living with their famous face and who faces a debilitating disease deal with that kind of ridicule and mocking from the press?

There were those in both the black and the white communities who turned against him simply because of his changing appearance. Hurtful words can be more painful than a physical attack. Michael endured far too many hateful, hurtful words. Many in the “media” claim that even with Vitiligo Michael would not have naturally turned so completely white. Well, I can verify that it is very possible. My Vitiligo started with me being mostly tan colored with white patches and spots, and gradually progressed to my appearing mostly white with tan spots to now being almost completely white except for a very few tiny tan spots.

Not only is a morphing appearance unavoidable with Vitiligo, but it is inevitable. Now that the antibodies have finished with my skin, they are starting on my hair. I have huge white patches in my hair, eyebrows and eyelashes. It is a cruel joke that the hair on my legs remains as dark as ever which looks even worse against the stark white skin! I can’t throw out that razor yet. And I now get stares and lots of questions about my hair.

Most people actually think I just have beautiful white skin now. I am sure Michael could have experienced a similar evolution of his appearance. He reportedly used the depigmentation therapy to help even out his skin color so he would not have to wear so much makeup. It is all so easy to understand if people were only not so quick to make hateful judgments or believe everything the tabloid media spews about celebrities.

I wish I could have understood better what Michael Jackson went through while he was still with us. I regret not letting Michael know in some way that I understood at least in part what he went through dealing with this disease. I regret not speaking up more then. I have now become a major defender of Michael Jackson promising myself that I will not let hateful words stand! I think too and I sincerely hope, that I have become more accepting of people’s differences because of my own personal struggles with appearance and acceptance. I try really hard to not make judgments about people without learning more about them. Without the challenge of Vitiligo in my life, and my connection to Michael Jackson I might not have that understanding; I might be a different person. Vitiligo and Michael Jackson taught me about compassion.


Discussion Questions

  1. What do you think about people who stare at those who look different? What makes people stare? What causes them to laugh or make fun of someone who looks different?
  2. What causes discomfort? Would you feel comfortable asking questions of someone who looks different? Could you discuss it with them? Would you initiate the conversation?
  3. What causes the sensitivity that makes humans feel shameful, embarrassed or humiliated? Have you ever felt that? What were the circumstances? Did it make you angry? Sad? Hurt? How did you handle your feelings?
  4. What causes us to see someone as “different” and then separate ourselves from them? Do you avoid people who are different? Are you uncomfortable around someone whose appearance is “different” or “abnormal?” Are there things that can be done to practice making ourselves and others comfortable? What are they?
  5. Does a disease like Vitiligo have emotional components? Why or why not? Imagine having a disease that affects your appearance. How would you feel?
  6. How do you feel about ethnicity? Racial pride? Racial prejudice? Is it important to keep and respect one’s heritage?
  7. What do you think causes people to “jump to conclusions” about other people? To label? Discuss labeling and labels.
  8. Have you ever been the target of ridicule? Of public ridicule? How did that affect you? Discuss.
  9. What constitutes a handicap? Are all handicaps obvious or visible? Do you consider yourself handicapped or sensitive to the handicaps of others? Can you imagine having physical or mental limitations? Do you think you are a compassionate person? Why or why not?
  10. What are the consequences of separating ourselves from others? Of making others unacceptable? Does it cause conflict? How and why? Does it cause suffering? Who suffers when intolerance is practiced?
  11. If you were in charge of creating tolerance in today’s world what is the first thing you would do? Could you convince others to join you in that mission? How would you go about it?
  12. Have you ever felt like you should speak out about or against something? Did you voice your opinion? Why or why not? How did that decision affect you? How did it affect others?
  13. How do you feel about blaming people for their own diseases? Would you blame someone for their own cancer? What about diseases which affect appearance like Vitiligo, Acne, or Anorexia? How about disfiguring illnesses that drastically change body or facial appearance? What about diseases that are not so visible like Diabetes? What about hidden diseases like mental illness or drug addiction?
  14. What would it mean if we could create a more humane and compassionate society and world? Could you describe what that world would look like? Can you list the changes you would notice in a world like that? Do this exercise as a brainstorming group.
  15. It has been said that it is important to leave the world a better place than you found it. Discuss what this means. Do you agree? If you agree, then what can you personally do to make it better?


Case Study written by: Joyce Frame

Joyce is a retired nurse living in Cincinnati, OH. She spent six years in the Navy after graduating from West Virginia University with her BSN. She now keeps very busy volunteering in many different areas, including feeding her very favorite Penguins every Monday afternoon at the Aquarium. She also works with the Assistance League of Greater Cincinnati to 'provide comfort, offer hope and encourage a feeling of dignity and self worth in adults and children' served through its programs. Joyce makes time to keep up with her love of tennis, reading, listening to music, and working in the yard.


Case Study: Street Bum, Angel or . . .

Detroit, Michigan; Summer of 1981. I was with two of my long time friends at our local dance club where our favorite band plays most weekends. We are regulars there. I ordered a coke and both of my friends were appalled and demanded I purchase a real drink. What would people say if they knew I wasn't drinking? My reply was, “who cares, people can think its Rum and Coke. What difference does it make?” They insisted on buying me a real drink but I declined. I was getting tired of their discussions as if I somehow wasn't there hearing them pass judgment on me.

Just then a man came up to the table and asked me to dance. He had an Afro-style haircut, wore a long coat and rumpled clothes and looked like a bum. His voice was soft despite his rough appearance. I had a feeling this guy was someone special and my thoughts jumped to the Good Samaritan story. With absolutely no hesitation, I said “yes.” He helped me out of my chair and I led the way to the dance floor.

I'd started dancing when I was three years old and throughout my childhood I performed in dance recitals, talent shows, in hospitals and retirement homes. When I wasn't performing I was taking dance classes or practicing. I love to dance.

It has been my experience that most guys don't dance well and I usually lead on the slow ones. So I was doing my thing on the dance floor when I looked over at my partner and realized this guy was nothing short of an amazing dancer with moves I've never seen before (and I went out dancing a lot!) I was excited to find someone who could challenge me, so I stepped up my moves. Who was this guy; and how lucky was I to be dancing with him?

The song ended and I hoped we would stay for another but he walked me back to my table, thanked me for the dance with a slight bow then disappeared. My exhilaration turned to disappointment. It was too fast. We didn't even talk. I wanted more.

My reverie was cut dramatically short when both of my friends took turns reprimanding me for not only dancing with a bum but a bum who was a Black man. ‘What was I thinking anyway? I should stick to my own kind. Didn't I notice his flapping shoes?’ They told me it was embarrassing for them to be with me. I thought: “who are these people I thought were my friends? We are so very different now and I no longer seem to have anything in common with them anymore.”

Through my life, I have often thought about that evening—sometimes because of my now ex-friends' behavior and the criticism about my choices in drink and my dance partner. Mostly I think about the fact that whoever I danced with that night was someone special. It was obvious the guy was in disguise and I wondered why he would do that. Was it God testing my ability to accept people as they are and not to judge? I believe that was the case. The guy didn't smell like a street person at all. Although his clothes were worn and rumpled, they were clean. I never even noticed his floppy shoes. And you have to get past a bouncer and show your ID to get in to the place and they didn't have a problem with him. I felt very safe with this person. His energy was magnetic and he had manners far better than most guys who ask me to dance. I really wish the experience had lasted longer. It was a highlight in my life that I have returned to many, many times since and wondered who this person was and why it happened.

Cut to July 7, 2009, Staples Center; Los Angeles, California—Michael Jackson's Memorial.

His brother, Marlon, is on stage relating a story about this guy he saw in a record store. He described him as dressed in rumpled clothes, an Afro . . . I froze. He was describing the man I danced with that night in Detroit so many years earlier. He continued his story ... ‘So I said, Hi Mike, what are you doing here?’ In that moment I had absolutely no doubt whatsoever who I had danced with that night so long ago. I had danced with Michael Jackson!

I told myself it was crazy: ‘what would Michael even be doing in Detroit?’ Then I found out that in that very time frame he was on his Triumph Tour, and one of the stops was Detroit. I looked it up on Wikipedia and found out they were performing on August 29th (Michael’s birthday but he and his family did not celebrate birthdays at this time) at the Joe Louis Arena which was an easy drive to the club. So it was possible. Later I saw a picture of Michael dancing with Tatum O'Neal where he was in mid-move—that distinct move. He also did it in the Don't Stop 'Til You Get Enough video where first there is one of him doing it, then two and finally three. He leans back a certain way with his leg in a specific position. That was the move I saw across from me on the dance floor back in Detroit.

Now that I know it was him, I wish more than ever we had danced longer, exchanged a few words, and that he might have revealed himself. That evening when I left the club, feeling a bit down from the treatment from my so-called friends, and the all too short time with the mystery dancer, the bouncer made an odd comment to me that made no sense at the time. I remember this because he rarely spoke to me beyond "ID please" and "go on in" but whatever he said was something about my dancing that lifted my spirits a little even though it was cryptic. Now, knowing who I danced with that night, I realize his comment must have been something about me dancing with Michael without coming right out and saying it given the man’s desire and need to be in disguise. He had to have known since he checked everyone's ID in this small place and he had a bird's eye view of the action, including the dance floor.

I don't know why I chose not to have alcohol that evening but I think none of this would have happened if I had indulged, especially now knowing that at that time, Michael did not drink. No matter how short that moment when I didn’t know who I was with, it was already tucked away as a standout experience in my memory. Now it is something I will be eternally grateful for having in my life. It fits with the message Michael Jackson told repeatedly: “It doesn't matter what we look like, we are all a part of each other. Don't judge, accept and above all L.O.V.E.”


Lessons, Discussion Point and Questions

 FRIENDS – their view of my actions and my experience or relationship with them

to be nobody but yourself in a world which is doing its best, night and day, to make you everybody else means to fight the hardest battle which any human being can fight; and never stop fighting.  e. e. cummings

  • Ideally, accepting each other in friendship

  • Friends worried about hanging out with the right people

  • Friends’ shock at dancing with a Black man (growing up living in a bubble)

  • Doing something different and your friends feel threatened

  • Drinking – what it looks like to my friends if I don’t

  • Friends talking to each other as if I wasn’t there in a negative or judgmental way

  • Pressure to behave like your friends want you to behave

  • How do you handle the pressure your friends place on you to be like them?

  • Be who you are and have the courage to be true to yourself (e e cummings poem)

  • Friendships – what’s important, boundaries, what are you willing to accept, put up with; changes at different ages

  • Tolerate more when you’re younger in certain areas?

  • When older there is less peer pressure?

  • Knowing when to let go of a relationship when it’s not good or work through them if possible

  • The need for acceptance – how far will you go?

  • Fear – friends feel threatened and think they are losing you when you change

  • Advice to “stick to your own kind” – do friends reflect what the community lived in believes or what people are brought up to believe?

BUM or ANGEL – my relationship and experience with him

All God’s angels come to us disguised.  James Russell Lowell

  • Saying yes to a bum – is that a danger, against social rules . . . or was there an instinct or intuition to accept without logic or mentally processing the decision?

  • How I felt with this person – safe, comfortable; there was no consideration needed; there was just a knowing that they are fine. I wanted to be with him, in his presence and was disappointed our encounter was short. I have never had that kind of feeling from anyone before or since.

  • Ability to see beyond the outer appearance – literally and figuratively. If anyone bothered to notice (including my friends), his disguise was obvious and executed poorly and I could see this young face underneath all the facial hair and wig. His eyes which seemed to me to be sad and lonely and very kind.

Usually, when encountering someone sad and lonely, their desperation is a turn off but this time it was just the opposite. Most likely because I saw kindness in his eyes and saw into his soul and that was what I found so magnetic, was attracted to, and wanted to be around. Those eyes have been part of the reason this memory has stayed with me so strongly. Was there a knowing that this person was so much more than what he appeared to look like in the physical? How does that occur?

  • Open mindedness allows us to see the person within and does not judge based on outer appearances. The focus was not on what the person was wearing but on their talent as a dancer.

  • This bum or angel was a catalyst who stirred things up in my relationship with my friends and as a result of this experience, I made the decision that I no longer wanted to be friends with them.

  • When you just know the inner part of a person, the outer changes too. Have you ever met someone that made no impression one way or the other, but once you got to get to know them and learn how great they are, they become more physically attractive?

  • Beauty is in the eye of the beholder?

  • Discuss: The Beauty and the Beast story;

  • Discuss: the Good Samaritan story

Questions to Ponder/ Point of View (POV)

What motivated him to dress in disguise and go places? This, we do have an idea about; he wanted to observe real life this way because he couldn’t by being himself. But why dress like a bum? Why make it obvious he was wearing a disguise? Maybe he’d already observed that people were afraid to look closely at someone who most people would normally avoid, someone who would normally repel others, or might cause discomfort or fear. What do you think?

Had he approached women before in this disguise and asked them to dance? What were the results? Did he get rejected and kept trying or did others instinctive say yes too? Is there some kind of information transfer that takes place in interactions which has no name?

What did he think when I said yes? Did he expect it? Was he surprised? Was this the kind of experience he was hoping for? Was this, perhaps, his private study of human nature?

He may have just wanted to dance and I happened to be the lucky one he asked. Why would someone go through all that trouble of dressing in disguise, going to the club, and then only dancing one dance only to leave immediately? What might have happened had he been recognized? Why do you suppose he took that risk?


General Questions

Using as an example, the movie Vantage Point that shows the same incident from the point of view of different people – police, victims, observers, rescuers, we get a glimpse of each version unique as we follow the individual and their role in the experience. We make conclusions based on how we see things referenced from personal knowledge and experience. We only know what we know.


Trailer from the film Vantage Point


In this scenario, examine the point of view of:

  • The friends behavior towards each other, toward the author and the bum and examine the value they place on appearance

  • the author; each friend; the angel and her awareness or lack of it; the bouncer

  • the bouncer – observing who he lets in, and what goes on

  • the people at the club and what they were focusing on

  • the bum or angel – his: choosing this particular place, dressing in disguise to be able to observe in a detached way, his choice of dancers, his experience in the club—with the author and for himself.

  • The people who read this story – how would they have responded to this scenario at that time and place in history? Will they respond honestly?


General Point of VIew

  • Prejudice: comes from lack of knowledge and fear, usually irrational and comes from others influence and opinions

  • Discrimination: thinking someone is not good enough to be acknowledged as a peer

  • Social acceptance: fitting in, going along with the majority

  • Being different: causes people to be afraid and they feel they are in danger at some level

  1. Can age change our point of view?
  2. Does experience affect our point of view?
  3. Does our knowledge or lack of knowledge, expansion of knowledge change our point of view?
  4. Does our intuition, inner knowing affect our point of view on a subconscious level?
  5. Does seeing an event from a physical, mental, emotional or spiritual point of view color that point of view?
  6. Does history or era or then vs. now affect our point of view?

Why was this experience so strong in the author’s memory that she thought of it often throughout the twenty-nine years since it occurred? If this person was in disguise, why wasn’t the author afraid when he asked her to dance? Why did he choose her? Who was he? And most importantly, why did life present her with this experience?

What compels a person to do something without thought?

Discuss that inner battle where that little voice says “yes” and logic says “no.” Is there danger there? Why or why not?

Do you believe we have certain experiences to help us learn something? Are we sometimes the mirror for the other person with whom we are having an experience?  Are we ever there to give something to each other? To teach?

The author thinks that she certainly walked away with a sense of something powerful. Does she think there was a gift in this experience? Can you identify a gift or gifts? What did her partner get out of it? Was he the mirror? Did he receive a reflection or get something back too? Why?

This just may be a story about unconditional and universal love. Perhaps even a love for all mankind. How magical it can be and how it can change a person for a moment in time to be remembered for a lifetime? Is it magical? Do you believe in magic?

What lessons can be learned from this story? Do you have a similar story to tell?

How do you relate to the statements below?

  1. The Good Samaritan story: we should love our neighbor as ourselves. Just because someone isn’t just like us doesn’t mean we should reject them. What a boring world it would be if we were are all same!

  2. People are judged by how they look (outer beauty vs. inner beauty) An attractive person can open their mouth band suddenly become unattractive and vice versa.

  3. Racial prejudice and discrimination

  4. Peer pressure

  5. Staying true to yourself

  6. Accepting people allows who they are to emerge

  7. Beauty and the Beast story

  8. True love whether as a friend, lover or universally, is there for us if we listen to our inner voice that guides us. You only need to listen and follow it.

  9. Look beyond the mask or package and beyond what society is telling us to do, think and believe; do what you know is right in your heart.

  10. If something looks good in the store and you bring home the package and open it – you can find it is not what you expected. Paying more means better quality is not always true.

  11. Sometimes someone recommends something or someone and you find what they like, is not what you like. It doesn’t mean you can’t be friends necessarily. We are all different and diversity is good.

The moral of the story: When you stay true to who you are and listen to your heart, magic happens.


Michael songs and lyrics that exemplify the lessons:

Black or White

Human Nature

You’re Just Another Part of Me

Wanna Be Startin’ Something

Can You Feel It?


The Man in the Mirror



Aside from the two quotes with the authors listed, the following are referenced:

  • Jackson 5 Triumph tour (dates and info listed in Wikipedia)

  • Marlon Jackson’s speech for Michael’s Memorial at the Staples Center; LA, CA

  • Well known stories: Beauty & The Beast, The Good Samaritan

  • The film Vantage Point

  • Michael Jackson’s songs and lyrics or lyrics by others that Michael performed: Black and White, Can You Feel It, You’re Just Another Part of Me, Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’ and Man in the Mirror


Description of Michael

illustration by the Author

  • Large Afro wig, large oversized eyebrows and moustache (An Afro haircut was a style in the 1970s characterized by a bushy head of hair shaped like a bubble usually worn by African Americans that connoted pride in one’s race. The racial pride movement began with James Brown’s song I’m Black and I’m Proud)

  • When the author got up to go to the dance floor, she looked into his face which is how she identified he was in disguise; she saw a smaller face hiding under the large Afro and excessive facial brows and moustache. His face seemed a confirmation that he was someone safe, kind and trustworthy – which was unusual for her as she rarely trusted anyone.

  • He wore a long duster type coat, below the knee in length; the color was a faded grey or brown

  • The duster and pants worn were baggy and rumpled but clean. They were definitely too big for his frame; the person was almost swimming in them.

  • His shoes were tattered and the soles were loose.


Case Study written by Nancy J. Caldwell:

Ms. Caldwell currently resides in Southern California.  She is an artist and writer and still enjoys dancing.



Case Study: When Words Slam and Pain is Invisible




She and her siblings were very young when their parents were divorced. It was in the mid 1960’s. Their parents had married very young—barely out of their teens. She was the middle child. The oldest sister had dark hair and eyes, a beautiful smile and looked like her mother, and although there were three, the two younger siblings looked more like sisters with their fair skin and blond hair. Like it or not, she had become the caretaker of the two younger ones. It really wasn’t her choice. The two younger siblings didn’t really know how much their older sister took care of them and wouldn’t find out until much later. Unfortunately, that was held against them, although it wasn’t their fault.

Their divorce was not a friendly one; there was a lot of hurt, anger and betrayal, the betrayal being one sided and not her side. She was a petite woman and he a shorter than average man. In her younger years, she led a very active life although she was not worldly. He was a bit worldlier, an only child and charming. He had charmed the children’s mother enough that she would leave home at such an early age to marry and have a family. Or was it her childhood that drove her from home? Her father was demanding with lots of expectations and was hard on the children. Traits get passed down through each generation and perhaps their father being an only child allowed him to learn how to acquire that charm among other attributes. He was very close to his mother and his father had died when he was very young making most of his influence maternal. The two younger siblings looked more like their father, with their blond hair, small brown eyes and fair skin.

The marriage didn’t last long and the messy divorce dragged the children into the middle several times. Was it because the parents didn’t know any better or because they were more interested in how they could hurt one another? No one knows but that tug of war had lasting repercussions on the children and shaped who they became as adults. After the divorce, the mother was left to take care of three small children on her own. She had to find a job that would feed them and provide for their basic needs and a place to live. She had few marketable skills that would enable her to land a good paying job, so she was forced to work more than one in order to make ends meet. She wasn’t sure how she would make it work but she did; she found a way.

The divorce left its mark on her: she became very angry, confused and bitter and those emotions lived in her a long time. She couldn’t seek help with how to deal with her situation. In those days, divorce was uncommon and never made public. She was forced to deal with the consequences of actions over which she had no control. She found herself in a place that she never dreamed she would be in. After all, when one gets married, isn’t it for life? Unfortunately, this was one lesson of many that would change her way of thinking for the rest of her life.

The children visited their father on a regular basis at least for awhile. Their visits with their father seemed pleasant from what they could remember. When their father remarried, and they went to visit, it was like having another family. Did they fit in? Did he want them to be there? Did his new family accept them? It seemed so, at least on the surface. The additional family life gave some stability to their lives until the day it suddenly stopped, Years later the children would learn that their parents were fighting about them and who they would live with permanently. As their fighting grew more heated, the visits with father diminished. Their mother’s anger grew even deeper. As the girls grew older it only seemed to get worse.

Their mother relied on them for to help around the house such as laundry, housework and cooking but they weren’t always as helpful as she needed. They were more interested in hanging with their friends and doing kid things. They didn’t really understand how much help she needed from them. There were expectations. They also got into trouble for eating more food than what was allowed; it was important that they stay within a budget and watch every penny. That makes sense even to a child, but at times it was extreme. Their mother took to hiding food or keeping it up in her room closing the doors and not allowing entrance. The closed door effectively signaled that they were not welcome. If they wanted something that she had, they would go find it. What child wouldn’t want to find candy or soda? When they did find the candy, they would take a couple of pieces and she would get angry. When she became angry one would rather not be in the house. Anger at one child would bring her wrath down on all three.

Those words and the pictures in their minds would forever remain ingrained in memory. There is something about hearing the words “I wish you never had been born” and “You will never amount to anything” that sticks forever in one’s head. Frequently those horrific words were accompanied by bruises, belt marks and hand prints. But it was mostly the words that hurt. The physical pain eventually would go away, but the mental bruises stayed.

As the years passed, the anger didn’t subside and the words became even more hurtful until the children reached an age where they could fight back. How could they fight back? How could they fight against those words that come from someone who was supposed to love, guide and protect them? Rebel!

Mother could be nice to be around, was liked by all their friends, so maybe this all was normal? The anger continued and so did the rebellion. By their late teens, all had moved out of the house in one way or another. Two moved to another state and went through their own crises. Finding their own way without much guidance wasn’t easy; they were on their own and had to be self-sufficient in order to survive. This led to some bad decisions, situations and lessons. They tried to reconnect with their father and rebuild a relationship with him and he seemed interested at first, but soon disappeared out of their lives once again.

As the years passed; each one of the siblings had begun to feel the effects of their childhood. Each one handled their pain differently, but eventually all would seek counseling. They therapeutically confronted their mother about how they were impacted by their childhood. At first she rejected what they were saying because she had assumed that they were okay because all three had grown up to be loving, caring, law-abiding adults. She missed the effects because they are not visible to the naked eye. They gave their mother examples and talked about how their childhood impacted decisions made later as adults. At last, she finally understood. She was finally able to hear how she and their father had hurt them. Hearing those words and her apology made them all cry.  

The pain is still there but the daughters seem to handle it better. Each one of them in their own way has worked to find peace within and find a way to move forward. The loss still brings grief however, for the thinking patterns are established. They will never know early family life, they can’t ever be daddy’s little girl. They missed having parents help with homework or having someone to talk to about boys and the things that girls talk about; they lacked any encouragement and direction. The one thing they know well, is how not to treat people.

When children are brought into this world, they should be welcomed for they are the future of our world. They are innocent, but all too often are mistreated, neglected or abused for reasons not their own. Personalities, behaviors, attitudes and feelings are formed early. When the words directed at children are cruel and hateful the impact slams into that child with lasting repercussions. Adults must think carefully and critically about the words they use when communicating with anyone, but especially with acutely impressionable children.


Discussion Questions

  1. If you could speak with this mother and explain why these words—“I wish you had never been born” and “you will never amount to anything”—are so violent, what would you say? What would you want her to understand?

  2. If words can be violent and cause inner wounds, can words also be healing? What could the mother in this situation say to help her children heal from the wounds her words created? If a friend told you that a parent had said these words to them, what would you say to try and heal some of their pain?

  3. What would you say to the father in this situation?

  4. How might the mother’s past have played a role in the way she treated to her children?

  5. How can we work to end this cycle of violence? When we are the victim of violent words, how can we work to avoid making other people victims of our own violent words?


Case Study written by Kimberly Michaels (pseudonym):

Kimberly resides in the Chicago area. She holds a degree in Information Technology.  She has a strong belief in service to others and is an active volunteer in the American Red Cross.  She enjoys the outdoors, theater, music, reading and writing and has recently started to write poetry.





Case Study: Sister

Illustration: Confusion by


This is a tale of two brothers and a sister. One brother was white and one was black; one was healthy and one was dying; one could cut to the heart with words, and one could heal.

We weren’t a happy family, really, though from a distance we looked great: Handsome parents, solid career for the father, three children that people cooed over, and the parents were just so nice. Now that Mom and Dad are gone folks speak sincerely of how kind they were, and the contributions they made to the community. But day to day living was harder, and disappointment bit deep. Our father worked long hours to build his career, and even more hours to keep our grandfather’s business afloat. Our mother was left pretty much alone to deal with the house, Dad’s secretarial work, and the children, while communication with Dad often floundered. When my older brother and I were little, all too often she would greet Dad when he came home in the evening with tales of how “bad” we were. Then he would beat my brother. Though my older brother has grown up to be a gruff but tender hearted man who cares deeply for his family, it’s no surprise that as a child he was a bully. I wasn’t beaten as I was Dad’s favorite—but this didn’t endear me to my mother or my brother.

My baby brother Julian arrived when I was six. I think that at this point Mom’s enthusiasm for being a parent was gone—or maybe she was just tired and sad. I can’t remember that she ever held Julian tenderly, and soon I was changing his diapers, bathing him, reading to him, and putting him to bed. As we got older, I played with him, and continued to be responsible for much of his care. And I discovered that when I gave Julian the love I myself so desperately wanted, he responded and we became very close. Years later he told me that when he was little I was the only one who smiled at him.

Our father sent Julian away to school when he was in 4th grade. He meant well, and Julian later told me that he was glad to get out of the house. But the schools he went to were wrong for him. He never said much, but over the years he became silent and angry, and immersed himself in the martial arts. When home he would explain to me the various disgusting ways he could kill me with his bare hands, and he stopped calling me Emily. Instead he called me SSSISTerrrr—with such an edge to his voice that the word dripped venom. Sometimes things were all right, and we would laugh and joke and talk as we used to. But he wouldn’t call me Emily, and if I forgot caution and shared from the heart a joy or sorrow, he would respond with a subtle verbal jab that would sharpen distress or turn joy to darkness and confusion. And there was a gradual shift in our roles: Julian became the “adult,” and I the “child” who needed advice and correction. In some obscure sense I was always in the wrong, and when I listened to my brother I became increasingly off-balance and tentative in my work, feelings and desires. At last I sensed that something had become twisted. So I gently withdrew, and regained my confidence.

Years went by, I was in graduate school, had my own apartment in Brooklyn, and sometimes I would leave the noise and grit of the City behind, and take the train to spend a quiet weekend at the Monastery. This is how I came to know Brother Benedict. Poughkeepsie station is a handsome old one with stairs rising from the platform to an overpass above the tracks—just like you’ll find in stations in the far reaches of Brooklyn and Queens, where the subway rumbles out into the sunlight. And in the summer the stationmaster keeps the windows of the overpass open to catch the breeze. One warm Friday afternoon as I got off the train I looked up at the overpass, and there—hanging out the window and looking eagerly at the crowd of passengers below—was a powerfully built young Black man in white monastic robes—leaning out so far that the large black wooden cross he wore around his neck dangled in the air. But when the Monastery guests climbed the long stairway to the overpass, he greeted us with a quiet presence that gained power from his careful listening. He didn’t seem to mind that passers-by stared, or that some of us guests were a little shy when we realized that he was from Africa.

Brother Benedict drove us to the Monastery, got us settled in our rooms, and I soon found that he was a comfortable person to talk to, with a keen sense of humor. One of my favorite memories is watching him charge happily up and down the front lawn, skillfully fielding a football with a couple boys—his cross sliding and bouncing on his chest. And peeping out from under his robes as he ran were slacks in a black and white hound’s-tooth pattern so bold that they looked like they were left over from the psychedelic Sixties.

Another few years went by, my father died; I got a job and settled down in a small apartment near the Monastery, where I went regularly for Sunday Mass.

Then things fell apart with Julian. I was having trouble with my computer, and Julian offered to fix it during a visit. We talked, but there was no laughter this time. Though he’d never mentioned it before, he felt that I hadn’t pulled my weight in caring for Dad in his last illness. He wouldn’t listen as I explained that I’d done as Dad had asked me to in not quitting my demanding job as I had offered to do... Julian had made no arrangements or explanation when he left his graduate school work to care for Dad, and he was kicked out of his PhD program and not allowed to return. His behavior to me that day suggests why his university may have been glad of an excuse to be rid of him, for Julian used such violent words that for the first time in our lives I forgot tact and stood up to him.

“No one speaks to me like that,” I said.

“But they’re only words. It’s actions that count. I fixed your computer.”

“Julian,” I said, “To speak is to act. No one speaks to me like that.”

He left without admitting that I had any right to object to his attack. I cried and threw up for a couple of days and missed a crucial deadline at work. For years afterward I spoke to him only when necessary, and then only in brief sentences. I did, however, speak with the Prior of the Monastery, who told me that it would have been easier if Julian had been hit by a bus, and wisely suggested that I strengthen ties with other members of my extended family.

Not long after, the Prior told me that Brother Benedict, who had been away for a while at another house in the Order, was in the hospital with bone cancer. And he asked me a favor, which he’d also asked of a few others. All of the monks soon would be leaving for the annual meeting of the Order. Would I visit Brother Benedict in the hospital while they were away?

I was glad to do this, and went often—although I feared that my visits weren’t a success. I would come with cheerful things to share, but Benedict would greet me with almost no expression in his voice, we’d speak for a minute or so, then he would close his eyes—often rolling over so his back was to me—and I would end up sitting with him for a while then quietly saying goodbye. But I kept coming back because I’d promised.

When the monks returned, Benedict came home from the hospital. I was glad because I thought he was better. I didn’t know he’d been sent home to die.

About a week later, on a beautiful summer day, the Prior phoned to say that Benedict wanted to see me, and since there was urgency in his voice I came right away. The Prior led me through the monks’ private rose garden to the simple room where Benedict lay. He looked much worse than when I’d last seen him, and he spoke with effort, skipping his usual greeting. “I didn’t speak because my body was hurting. But my heart was joyful because my Sister was with me.” He closed his eyes. Before I could begin to respond the Prior touched my arm, signaled that it was time to leave, brought me back through the garden and said a quick good-bye at the gate.


Benedict died soon after and his funeral filled the church, for he was well loved. And I wept for him—and I think for Julian as well. My two brothers: Julian who when he called me “Sister” made it a curse. And Benedict who had every excuse of race and culture to reject me, but in his dying words blessed me with the name: “Sister.”


Vocabulary: Hound’s-tooth pattern

Discussion Questions

  1. How is it possible for the same word, “sister,” to be both a curse and a blessing?
  2. Are there other words that might be a blessing or a curse?
  3. What are some possible reasons that Julian became hostile to Emily, and began to treat her as if he were the adult and she the child? Are there other circumstances where a role reversal might occur? Why?
  4. Did Emily do something that earned this treatment from her brother? Did you think it was mean? What might precipitate meanness? Who has the problem here? Is there any insight to the problem? Why or why not?
  5. Emily confronted Julian with the statement that “To speak is to act.” What does this mean? Do you agree?
  6. There’s an old saying: “Actions speak louder than words.” What would be a good example of the truth of this saying? Is it possible that Julian was thinking (and acting) on this principle? Do you agree with the principle of actions speaking louder than words? Why or why not? Can you think of some examples in your own life?
  7. Why did Emily speak of both Julian and Benedict as her brothers? Since Benedict was a monk, wasn’t “Brother” his title? Are there other connotations of “brother” or “sister?” What are they?
  8. When “brother” or “sister” is used, are emotions attached? Always or sometimes? Why do you think that’s true?
  9. Is there a lesson in this story? What is it?
  10. Are misunderstandings or misinterpretations common in families? Why do you think that is true? How can misunderstandings or misinterpretations be handled or resolved?
  11. Has anything similar happened to you? Tell how you resolved it and what the outcome was. Were emotions involved? How? Why?
  12. There are cases where one incident can split a family and where families are estranged for years. What do you think happens when one of the estranged family members dies and the rift is never repaired?
  13. Are there unforgivable behaviors? Unforgiveable mistakes? Why or why not and how did you come to that conclusion?
  14. If you were called in to mediate in this situation, what would you do? How would you go about it? Please explain.

Case Study written by Emily Koenig:

Emily Koenig is a pseudonym. The author grew up in New York City and is a faculty member of a university in the Northeastern part of the United States.


Case Study: All the Right Stuff


A model family in a small Midwestern town in the 50‘s and 60‘s, we had all the right stuff: a nice home in a comfortable quaint neighborhood; a family business that benefited the entire community; and a father who was well-respected, a prominent businessman who served on the city council and the school board. We were members of the local Country Club. Attending church every Sunday, we were the talk of the town-four sisters-with our matching outfits and beautiful red hair. Everyone made such a fuss over this model family. Our Saturday nights were all about getting ready for Sunday with mother spending hours curling our hair while we watched Lawrence Welk on TV...all the right stuff.

As a child, the third of four daughters, I remember being carefree and happy, especially when the chores were done and it was time to go outside and play! Having a passion for the outdoors and that feeling of abandon offered by the wind blowing in my face, I rode my bike or ran just about anywhere I wanted to go in our little town. I loved to climb trees and walk in the summer rain, splashing in puddles along the way, or rustling through a pile of leaves on a beautiful fall day. I had a zest for life and a curiosity about anything unknown, with a burning desire to learn and explore and a boldness to go after something until I understood it or captured it. In everything I did, I challenged myself to do it the best I possibly could. Practicing until I could practice no more, I was driven to perfect whatever it was I was trying to learn, whether it was something just for fun like whistling or trying to beat my record number of jumps on a pogo stick, or something a little more serious like perfecting my diving skills at the local swimming pool after hours or rehearsing Claude Debussy’s Clair de Lune for my most difficult piano recital. Looking back now, I realize that I had an extraordinary drive and an adventurous, bold spirit that would not give up easily. I didn’t know at the time that this was my gift. I didn’t know that it was special. Nobody ever told me.

Oh, I remember people telling me I had a beautiful smile. They noticed that I was always happy and they hoped I would never lose that. But my smile was masking something else below the surface. Something was amiss in my carefree world…in this “Leave it to Beaver” family. Something the community didn’t know. Or did they? We kept it well hidden. It was our secret. Our model family was not so perfect after all. Occasionally I thought there must be somebody in town who knew. Surely, there was some little telltale sign that something was wrong, but perhaps they chose to ignore it. It was not appropriate to talk openly about such things back then. Teachers, neighbors and friends turned a blind eye and pretended it didn’t exist. Besides, it was none of their business. And so the myth of the model family was perpetuated by another generation of onlookers who preferred to live in denial. This “happy” child had another story to tell.

I often wondered if everyone else had the same experience in their own families. Did their fathers rule the household with an iron fist? You know, “old school” style. This is normal, right? Was there yelling and screaming every time they did something out of line? Were harsh words and insults thrown at them with sharp precision like darts aimed at a designated target? Was the dinner table a place of cruel discipline, when slouching in your seat meant you got a yardstick down your back? Or when a spilled glass of milk or an elbow on the table brought on the insults to your intelligence once again? The tension at dinner would often escalate to a dramatic tirade which ended with me crying. And with a knot in my stomach, I would be forced to finish my meal without speaking, choking down the food, all the while just wanting to escape to my room for solace.

Was it normal for a father to tell their child that they were a disappointment? To state over and over again “You have nothing but rocks between your ears!” Did all children receive such harsh criticism every time they made a mistake? “What’s the matter with you, are you really that stupid!” was a statement often hurled in anger and frustration when typical childish behavior created an undesired outcome. Was this the way all children were treated? It didn’t seem right to me. I knew in my innermost being that something was wrong in our family. The way he made me cry so often, hurting me with his insults and angry criticism, all the while following his harsh words with “You know I love you.” What? How could this be? It didn’t make sense! “I love you” and “you are stupid” don’t go together. Regularly whipping me with a leather belt like some pathetic creature or banging my head against the wall in an attempt to “knock some sense into me” do not translate to “I love you.” I knew this much to be true!

I don’t remember exactly when it all began. Somewhere in the dark corners of my mind, there is a vague memory of a specific incident of ridicule and humiliation when I was around 5 years old, but I feel as if I was afraid of him all my life. Looking back, the most serious incidents may have been infrequent, but it really didn’t matter. The insults carried much power regardless of how frequently or infrequently they occurred. And there was always an underlying fear that it could happen again at any moment without warning. What would be the trigger that would set off the next explosion? Checking his mood whenever he walked in the door or sensing the environment whenever I arrived home became a habit. Keeping my radar on while in his presence was automatic. It never went away. My sensitivity to the atmosphere in the room was sharp – always on guard, I was ready to flee at the slightest sign of a meltdown.

Learning to tiptoe around and telling lies to avoid the unpredictable eruption of vile words and sometimes physical punishment, became the norm in our household. It was a defense mechanism we all employed. Never knowing whether a certain behavior or mistake would set him off, we tended to hide and cover up as much as we could, even insignificant things. It was just understood, it was a way to survive. I could never tell when it was coming. There were times when he surprised me and didn’t react at all to something I thought would surely get his ire up. And then the very next day, something relatively minor would bring on the rage. How does a child live with that uncertainty every day? By holding one’s breath…or not breathing at all as long as he was in the room. Somewhere in the back of my mind, I thought there was a possibility he would go too far one day…and what would happen then?

Growing up, I didn’t really know for sure if our “model” family was like other families. I wanted to ask my friends, but somehow I understood this was a family secret that I was not supposed to tell. This unwritten rule was never spoken - just assumed. Finding escape and solace in daydreaming, spending as much time at a friend’s house as I could, staying away when he was home or climbing my favorite tree to hang out and watch the world go by, I wondered what it would be like to be part of a “normal” family. My sister and I would spend hours talking about our pain and anger, expressing our desire for him to go away. How that would happen didn’t much matter, as long as he was gone. I thought certainly this would bring peace to our family and I could relax and be myself without feeling like there was something fundamentally wrong with me…that I was somehow flawed…that God made a mistake in creating me the way I was.

I’ll never forget the fire in his eyes or the sting of his words, the hurtful way he lashed out with his cutting remarks. It was as if his intention was to make me feel as small as he possibly could - to belittle my very being and strip away any sense of worth I might have in me. What did I do to deserve this? I must have done something besides what he got angry about, because such a minor thing should not have stirred such rage. A strong sense of helplessness pervaded my life, unable to control my surroundings and feeling stuck in a situation I could not change. I knew with every ounce of my being that this was wrong and I made a vow to never, ever treat my own children this way!

Sometimes I asked myself why my mother didn’t do anything about it. But most of the time I think I understood. He held our entire family emotionally captive. He wielded the power and he controlled us all with his rage, even those who were not his primary targets. I was aware that my mother felt frustrated with the situation, but she also did not have the strength to fight with him. He was too powerful and intimidating. His very presence changed the atmosphere in the house. There were times when he would be raging at me in the living room, and I could hear my mother banging pots and pans around in the kitchen out of sheer frustration. Later on, after being sent to my room in tears, she would come to comfort me and try to help me understand why he was the way he was. My innocent young mind couldn’t grasp the adult concept of stress and worry; however, this was the excuse made on his behalf.

One blessing in the midst of it all was that my mother shared her faith in God’s love with me during these private talks. I would draw on that faith during some of the darkest times in my life. As a child, I had a little plastic cross on my nightstand that glowed in the dark. I often looked to it for comfort. There were times though, when I questioned why God would allow a helpless child to be treated in such a way. Why couldn’t He rescue me from this? If God was really all that powerful and loving, why did He not perform a miracle and change my father to be more loving and kind?

There were a few times, when under my father’s attack, I found a spark inside of me that ignited, and I fought back - really hard! As I screamed for my right to be respected, the look on his face told me that he was taken aback by my retaliation - something he didn’t expect. I thought, “Good! Maybe now he’ll change his ways!” Unfortunately, that didn’t happen. It appeared this rebellion only fueled his anger more, but I didn’t care. I’d had enough! It seemed I couldn’t grow up fast enough to get away from this monster called father. All I could think about was gaining my freedom and being able to live my life the way I wanted to. I tried to stay the “good girl” as long as I was living at home - that’s where the fear tactics probably worked best - but this would soon change.

When I was finally on my own at age 19, I thought the world was my oyster and my troubles were over! Little did I know that I would spend the next 20 years of my life making mostly self-destructive choices and “looking for love in all the wrong places.” Escaping my pain through the use of drugs and food, and attempting to resolve my issues within emotionally abusive relationships became almost a rite of passage for me, but it was also a cry for help. I didn’t really want to be so miserable, I didn’t really want to fail in life, but I didn’t know how to be any different. That bold little girl had lost her way and she didn’t know how to find the beautiful child inside which she knew existed. That beautiful child was disabled by violent words, by insults that made her believe she had no worth, that she was a hopeless case and might as well give up on life. After two failed marriages and with a soul weary of trying, this child, this woman lost hope. That man with his words had absorbed all the energy from my being. He took my soul and broke it down. The stamp of abuse forever ingrained on my spirit, it held me in its grip. My entire life was altered, my way of being in the world and in my relationships was defined by this experience. My God-given gifts were not allowed to be expressed or to reach their full potential - all because of words…violent words.

I have worked a lot at healing over the last 20 or so years. Since the age of 30 I have sought help through counseling, Twelve Step Programs, journaling, and writing letters to my father which have been burned in a symbolic gesture to release the pain and resentment. Although I have made much progress in my recovery with the help of these tools and my faith, I have not found the courage to confront my father face-to-face with the reality of how his treatment affected me. And, until recently, I have felt deep in my soul that there was something at my very core that I had not yet reached. My inner light, my beautiful child was still buried, protected from harm by my fear of judgment, my need to “fit in” with the rest of the human race, my lack of trust in a world that wouldn’t understand, my belief that unconditional love and acceptance would never be mine.


Most people can understand how physical and sexual abuse manifest in a person’s life. These crimes against helpless human beings are unforgivable, reprehensible, and are obvious in the harm they cause. But the “crime” of violent words is yet to be understood or even acknowledged as being worthy of significant efforts to change it. It is the most elusive of all abuses because many people believe that it is not so harmful, that the victim should be able to handle it and move on relatively unscathed, because children are resilient, right? It is also one of the most rampant abuses in our society today because of this misconception about the power it wields. My life is testimony to the fact that having what appears to be “all the right stuff” does not guarantee protection from the deep wounding caused by violent words.


Discussion Questions

  1. What is the myth of the model family?
  2. How might the so-called model family be camouflaging a problem of abuse within the family?
  3. How would you define verbal abuse? Emotional abuse? Are they the same? If not, what are their differences?
  4. How does physical abuse play a role in the verbal and emotional abuse experienced by the person in this study? Does it change the experience?
  5. In this situation, what could the non-abusive parent have done differently? Or not? Why or why not?
  6. What signs or behaviors would you expect to see in a child that is being verbally abused? Emotionally abused?
  7. If you became aware of any kind of abuse toward a friend or acquaintance, what would you do? What should you do?
  8. If you suspect a friend or acquaintance is being abused, but you don’t know for sure, what would you do? What should you do?
  9. What are some of the long term effects of verbal abuse on the victim? On society?
  10. Do you think there should be laws against verbal and emotional abuse?

Written by: Charlene Burgess


Poem by Charlene Burgess

Wounded Soul…A Path to Wholeness

The one on whom I depend for my life
The one who claims to love me
He’s lost his cool once again
His power sends me
To a place where there is no light

His darkness engulfs me, fear reigns supreme
My life is no longer important

How can one be filled with such hate
Toward someone so small and helpless?
Is this my fate?
Where is God in all of this?
I scream, I fight
For my right to be respected!
If I had the choice, I would not have elected
To have you in my life
You would not be
Standing here hovering over me
Fire in your eyes, fists clenched
Hearing my cries, your thirst quenched

Control was your plan
To have me cowering at your hand
Words wielded with fierce command
Beating me into submission
You accomplished your mission
For the time being…

A flicker of light within my soul
Kept burning inside
Waiting for its time to toll
Stumbling, faltering through life on the way
Looking for the kind of love you didn’t display
I knew it existed
But I was so misdirected
Attempts to find wholeness would only bring more pain
This tender heart needed to be protected

Then one day, an angel came my way
Shared his heart and then revealed…

Remember that part of you
you learned to ignore
because it brought so much pain?
Your boldness,
your drive to learn, to explore,
to shine, perfect, love and proclaim
Your courage in the face of adversity
when others didn’t agree

That is your gift, your brilliance
You must let it shine!
Hold it up high for all to see
Don’t hide it any longer
Just let it be!

Live your life with purpose and conviction
Seek the truth
Be God’s glow
Share your message of hope
The world awaits your lesson

Reflecting love,
kindness and compassion
You will inspire others with your heart
Your soul has been awakened
Come into the light from the dark

Beautiful Child
Adventurous Spirit
That bold little girl
Has found her way home!

Copyright © 2010 by Charlene Burgess


Case Study written by: Charlene Burgess

Charlene (2nd from the left in the top photo) grew up in the Midwest and lived there until 1986 when she moved to the West Coast. She currently resides in southern Oregon and works as an Administrative Assistant for a non-profit organization. She has a daughter and son-in-law, two rambunctious and loveable grandsons, and a cat named Angel. She enjoys singing, reading and writing inspirational stories and poems, scenic drives, the ocean, walking on the beach, sunsets, moon and stargazing, gardening, swimming, music, good movies, friends and stimulating conversation. Her passions include writing and seeking ways to make a difference in the world through works of love and compassion.



Case Study: "When Silence Isn't Golden"

Five Sisters by Paula DiLeo


How a young child, in a normally safe environment, can be affected by careless words that last a lifetime.


I was probably 9 or 10 years old, the oldest child of 5 girls. My father worked two jobs to support us and my mother was a homemaker. I recall a typical childhood with neighborhood friends and a sense of safety in that more innocent time. We enjoyed the freedom of riding our bikes in a group to a nearby park where we spent hours exploring and being kids. I recall my father as a very sweet man. We would see him briefly in the evenings and on weekends. Summer meant vacation and beach trips and lazy, long days to invent our own fun. Sometimes we would playact and put on musical plays; or collect fireflies in the evening and let them free in a wonderful display of blinking lights.

My mother was very disciplined and dominant in our family. My sisters and I learned very young that it was best not to express our own opinions because mom did not appreciate it. I recall a bit of spanking and a harsh tongue and glaring eyes—boy, she had piercing blue eyes. As a result, I became inwardly directed in my thinking and feelings. For me, safety was in silence. I loved to read and had an infatuation with horses that has remained all these years later. I was the oldest child and was blessed with my own room during my growing up years. I spent a lot of my time in my space, reading and being that quiet girl.

My greatest gift, and salvation one might say, was an ability to do well in school. We attended a parochial school and I managed to maintain really good grades and discovered that peace would reign at home if I continued doing well. The teachers at St. Brigid’s were strict and smart and seemed to care about the students. Every other year my class was taught by a nun, sister so and so. I can envision black and white habits and still hear jingling rosary beads. I suppose we did not see the sisters as people; they seemed to be in a hurry most of the time. A few of them were happy and smiling and even jolly and there were others who were stern and I found that a quiet, studious demeanor was the logical route to avoid punishment. My classmates, at times, would invite rulers on knuckles, feet in garbage cans and bodies in the closet. Intimidating, but effective discipline.

In opposite years, the instructors were lay persons, all women. Most are just a blur in memory but there is one that I do recall. She was my 4th grade teacher whose name is lost to time. I recall a stocky, short, dark haired woman. I was a good student, quiet, competitive, shy and bright. I understood concepts well and quickly and remember some boredom while waiting for others to catch up. Reading aloud was particularly challenging for me because I did not understand why some other kids might have trouble with words and pronunciation. Our classroom size was very large, usually 40 pupils or so. We were always packed into the class rooms and petite nuns would think nothing of standing on a desk to be seen and heard.

My favorite subjects were English and Handwriting. I did not care for Mathematics or Science. Sometimes, it felt like a lot of work to understand concepts or memorize seemingly unimportant information. Perhaps due to my home environment, my confidence as a young child relied very much on my grades. It was expected that my average half year grade would be an A, and I worked for that A. I felt that it made my father happy and proud of me. It probably did. I knew it kept my mother from focusing on me to deliver one of her tirades.

The incident I wish to reveal happened during Math class while we were learning how to reduce fractions. My fourth grade teacher was explaining the process and I clearly recall jumping ahead in my mind and visualizing the next step in that process.   My hand shot up and I was excited to recite what I was thinking. Of course, she acknowledged me. So, I verbalized what I saw in my head. I remember feeling pleased with myself and I was excited to receive the kudos that I expected. I wish she had said that it was good thinking and let’s just see where this leads us. But she didn’t. Instead, she said something to the effect of “ Lauren, we all know that you are smart, but let me finish what I was explaining. She may have added, “ can ask questions when I’m done.” I clearly recall her tone of voice. She sounded irritated and dismissive.    

Whatever delight I was feeling about knowing the answer melted as I sank in my seat. I remember feeling shame and humiliation and I wished I could disappear. Now, almost 50 years later, I still wince at the memory and am able to feel that blow today. Her words were unexpected, harsh to my 9 year old self and damaging to my fragile self esteem. Since that day, I finished High School, moved across country, attended college, have three beautiful daughters of my own, attended professional school and have worked 25 years in medicine.

During many years of schooling I have carried those words and feelings with me. That particular teacher had no way of knowing my mother or her questionable behaviors. She didn’t know that my safe place was in school with books and my brain. One careless statement left a lasting effect—never again would I volunteer an original thought. Oh, I would think and use my ideas and share with a study partner, but in front of a classroom? Never. My security and confidence in that setting was forever affected by that one teacher, who probably forgot the incident by lunchtime that day so many years and memories ago. As I go back in time and re-run situations in my mind, I understand now that my feelings of shame have grown up and traveled with me.

Opportunities lost, friendships never formed, a marriage that didn’t survive—all may have resulted from my fear of speaking my mind, sharing ideas, or opening myself up and expressing a unique self.  Start with a foundation of a mother’s criticism, add hurtful and wounding words from a respected teacher, and a personality develops that may be very different from the true self. Take away the affects of thoughtless words and you might uncover a very different me.


It is fascinating to me how words are arranged and how voice inflection and facial expression can alter and infuse those words with understanding or sarcasm. I wonder if it is possible to be aware before words are said whether they might damage or uplift another.  And, once expressed, with awareness immediately following, is it possible to fix it? Once damage is done, can it be undone? How? Can words heal words? What would you say?

How do we teach children to recognize being hurt and talk about it with a trusted adult.? My parents never knew about my brush with humiliation or how it affected me. As a young child, my fear was probably that if I said anything, I would be admonished not to question a teacher or cause trouble. I know that I tucked that incident away and carried it with me into the future. If I had had some background or knowledge about what happened and how to deal with it better at that time, perhaps my life would be different. Perhaps someone would have understood and encouraged me to verbalize my feelings in a healthy way. I imagine what might be different if the wounding words were healed and understood. Maybe I would have used verbal language instead of words on paper to express myself in later years.


Discussion Questions

  1. What responsibility do teachers have to be aware of words and how they affect young students?
  2. How important is the look on your face when you say something?
  3. Who do you think would be a good person to talk to in a situation like this? What would you have done?
  4. Do you have someone you can talk to about anything; with no fear of criticism? If you do not have a trusted person to talk to, can you think of anyone you could approach? What if you said something that you knew was hurtful? What would you do? When?

Case Study written by Lauren Trainor. 

Lauren was born and raised in New York and has been a resident of California for 30 years.  She is a mother, grandmother, sister and physician.  Her passions include the written word, two special boys, music and horses.  A full moon and the ocean calm and inspire her.



Resources on Marzabotto, Sant'Anna di

McBride, James.  Miracle at St. Anna (Riverland Trade, 2003).

Following the huge critical and commercial success of his nonfiction memoir, The Color of Water, McBride offers a powerful and emotional novel of black American soldiers fighting the German army in the mountains of Italy around the village of St. Anna of Stazzema in December 1944. This is a refreshingly ambitious story of men facing the enemy in front and racial prejudice behind; it is also a carefully crafted tale of a mute Italian orphan boy who teaches the American soldiers, Italian villagers and partisans that miracles are the result of faith and trust. Toward the end of 1944, four black U.S. Army soldiers find themselves trapped behind enemy lines in the village as winter and the German army close in. Pvt. Sam Train, a huge, dim-witted, gentle soldier, cares for the traumatized orphan boy and carries a prized statue's head in a sack on his belt. Train and his three comrades are scared and uncertain what to do next, but an Italian partisan named Peppi involves the Americans in a ruthless ploy to uncover a traitor among the villagers. Someone has betrayed the villagers and local partisans to the Germans, resulting in an unspeakable reprisal. Revenge drives Peppi, but survival drives the Americans. The boy, meanwhile, knows the truth of the atrocity and the identity of the traitor, but he clings to Train for comfort and protection. Through his sharply drawn characters, McBride exposes racism, guilt, courage, revenge and forgiveness, with the soldiers confronting their own fear and rage in surprisingly personal ways at the decisive moment in their lives.


Miracle at St. Anna (2008), Director: Spike Lee, Running time: 160 minutes.

In the fall of 1944, four African-American soldiers find themselves caught behind enemy lines and surrounded by German soldiers. They take refuge in a small Italian village that has been temporarily vacated by the Germans. In their company in a small boy, obviously shell-shocked and feverish, who seems only to speak to his invisible friend Arturo. Tensions rise among the four men not only because of their life-threatening situation but also because two of them become rivals for the attention of an attractive young woman. When they manage to make contact with their unit, they are told to capture a German soldier for questioning and with the aid of the Italian partisans, have a candidate. What they don't realize is that there is a traitor in the partisan group, one that will have major repercussion on one of the men 40 years later. Written by garykmcd for IMDb.


Olsen, Jack.  Silence on Monte Sole (I Books, 2002).

Monte Sole -- Mountain of the Sun -- had the bad luck to lie on the main route of withdrawal of the retreating German armies in the fall of 1944. As the Allied advance stormed up Italy to the very shadow of Monte Sole, Axis frustration over their retreat and the harassing Italian partisans reached its peak.

With full authorization of Field Marshal Albert Kesselring, and with an infusion of dread SS reinforcements, the Germans determined to neutralize Monte Sole. The result was, in Kesselring's chilling words, "a war operation." In brilliant, page-turning prose, Olsen re-creates the unspeakable three-day butchery of innocent Italian civilians that ranked among the blackest atrocities in the history of man's inhumanity to man.

Jack Olsen served in the U.S. Army Air Force and the OSS. Olsen is the award-winning author of thirty-one books. A former Time bureau chief, Olsen has been described by the Philadelphia Inquirer as an 'American treasure'.