What We Tell Children About Pain

Essay

"Telling stories is about the ability to understand empathy."

- filmmaker Xavier Box

Words by Ariel Maccarone

August 31, 2018

    When teaching a child about how to relate to their own pain, how much is too much information? How much is not enough? How does one pick and choose which pieces of knowledge to share and which to hold back? I thought of these things while reflecting upon an old episode of 7th Heaven called “Cutters” that I saw when I was thirteen-years-old.

   The episode revolved around a teenager who was secretly cutting herself - a fact which was discovered after she was found cutting herself in a friend’s bathroom. The friend, confused by what she saw, told her parents. Eventually, Nicole was sent to an in-patient mental health treatment program.  

    When I watched the episode for the first time, I watched it with my parents and younger brother. My family and I would gather in the living room each week to watch “wholesome shows” like 7th Heaven. Although I do not know what it was like for my family to watch this episode, I do know that I was extremely uncomfortable while watching it. Part of the discomfort was rooted in how strongly the girl’s pain resonated with me. The other part was knowing that my family was seeing this too––not just the act of self-harm, but also the dark emotions which motivated it.

Difficult emotional struggles experienced by children were rarely portrayed in the media when I was a child. Emotional pain was also not a topic of conversation among my friends and I. As a result, I assumed that pain of this kind was an abnormality and that if one experienced it then one was flawed. I wonder whether I would have been better off at the time had I understood more about what I was feeling and that I was not the only one.

 

    Prior to seeing this episode, I did not know that cutting was “something people did”. I knew little about self-harming apart from suicide being discussed in history books. It was only after seeing this episode that I began cutting myself. I was already experiencing symptoms of depression, but had not yet developed an understanding or language for it. There was no change in my environment or emotional state to account for the decision to begin cutting myself. The only thing that changed was I now knew that cutting existed and that it was a coping mechanism I had not tried. I would go on to cut myself on and off for the next year.

    I have since spoken with my parents about what this period in my life was like for them. My father said, “There is no worse pain for a parent than to watch your child in pain and not be able to help them.” Although his words deeply affect me, I can only understand them up to a point. There exists a space between his words and his feelings that I cannot go––because I am not a parent. I also expect that they confront a similar barrier when trying to understand what my own experience was like. It has been exactly two decades since this time, and my continued conversations with them teach me more about a burden unique to parenthood: unending questions of “What should I have done differently? How could I have prevented it, eased it, stopped it sooner?” These are not objective ruminations, but rather an attempt to cope with and make sense of what happened. For, how really can there be a right way to love?

    I remain hesitant to trust my judgments about my parents' choices because I do not know how a person’s view of the world changes with parenthood. I am certain, however, that I would have felt less alone had I seen emotional struggle among children portrayed more often in the media. I likely would have shared my struggle with others earlier and felt more comfortable seeking help. The absence of such portrayals only served to increase my sense of isolation and shame. Admittedly, seeing this episode did play a decisive role in my choosing to cut myself, but discovering it may also have been what stopped me from exploring other, more dangerous coping mechanisms.

    If I could go back in time and change one thing about this period in my life, it is not my parents’ choices that I would change, but rather the type of media content created for children at that time. I am still unsure what the ideal amount of information to give a child about the world is, but I support whatever amount and type of information create a safe and open environment for introspection and dialogue.

    When teaching a child about how to relate to emotional pain, how much is too much information? How much is not enough? And how do you pick and choose which pieces of knowledge to share and which to hold back?

  

    When people ask me about some of the most impactful moments in my life – the little nooks of bedrock that solidified the ground from which I'd build a life – I jokingly tell them, "I was fucked up by White Fang and River Phoenix." I was nineteen when I was hospitalized under a 51/50 for being a danger to myself. To this day, I still believe that what I needed most was someone to talk to; someone to help me navigate the depth of what being a human being in the world would feel like. .

    I was fifteen when my nineteen-year-old cousin died. We weren't exceptionally close, nor were the circumstances of his death out of the ordinary. ; I think this fact left the greatest impression on me. He was riding a motorcycle and the clutch jammed, launching his body into the side of a parked car. I think it gives some of

    I was thirteen when I saw an episode of 7th Heaven called "Cutters". The story followed a teenager named Nicole who was secretly cutting herself as a coping mechanism to deal with pain. Call it depression, anxiety. Call it by any name. The self-harming was brought to light after she was discovered cutting herself in a friend’s bathroom. The friend, confused by what she saw, told her parents. Eventually, Nicole was sent to an in-patient mental health treatment program.

    When I saw the episode, I was sitting in the living room with my parents and younger brother. Even though we were Jewish, my mother thought it ____ to routinely gather each week to watch “wholesome shows” like 7th Heaven or Touched by an Angel. I do not know what it was like for my family to watch this episode, I do know that I was extremely uncomfortable while watching it. Part of the discomfort was rooted in how strongly the girl’s pain resonated with me. The other part was knowing that my family was seeing this too––not just the act of self harming, but also the dark emotions which motivated it.

Difficult emotional struggles experienced by children were rarely portrayed in the media when I was a child. Emotional pain was also not a topic of conversation among my friends and I. As a result, I assumed that pain of this kind was an abnormality and that if one experienced it then one was flawed. I wonder whether I would have been better off at the time had I understood more about what I was feeling and that I was not the only one.

Prior to seeing this episode, I did not know that cutting was “something people did”. I knew little about self-harming apart from suicide being discussed in history books. It was only after seeing this episode that I began cutting myself. I was already experiencing symptoms of depression, but had not yet developed an understanding or language for it. There was no change in my environment or emotional state to account for the decision to begin cutting myself. The only thing that changed was I now knew that cutting existed and that it was a coping mechanism I had not tried. I would go on to cut myself on and off for the next year.

     The exhibition begins with a sterile-looking rectangular room that nears fifty square feet. Three out of the four walls are an immaculate white, save the uniform, horizontal string of black and white photographs; Brassaï’s photographs. The place and time of Brassaï’s images is a slowly disappearing 1930’s Paris coping with the cultural changes of an impending World War II. Similar to Riis and Hine, Brassaï tells the story of a specific population rather humanity as a whole; a population that Tattersall calls “the nocturnal denizens of Paris” (Museum of Contemporary Art Los Angeles, 2017).

     More than the work of Arbus and Goldin, Brassaï’s photographs construct a language for the city itself. The majority of his photographs typically feature more than one person and dedicate more space in the frame to the surrounding environment. In order to understand the entirety of a single photograph, one must scan the photo from left to right, top to bottom, and do so again and again. Gradually a narrative develops. A string of mundane, but very personal details weave themselves into a cohesive whole.

     The photographs of Arbus and Goldin more extensively explore the “singularity of individuals” (Wall Text, Real Worlds: Brassaï, Arbus, Goldin, 2018). The small size of the photographs–ranging from 12" x 32" to 23" x 32”–cause them to be dwarfed and consumed by walls’ surrounding empty space. One must approach the wall–standing at least three feet from it–in order to make out the specific details that add the intimacy these photographs are known for. The coerced approach is a function of the exhibition's thoughtful spacial design. Nearing the wall at such an intimate distance requires a kind of humility from the viewer. One must accommodate the photographed–move further into their world–in order to know them.

     Walker Evans once praised the camera as being “[that] great, incredible instrument of symbolic actuality…” (Kronenberg and Lee, 169-210). Evans further contended that photographic art is something which arises from the “unobtrusive technical mastery” of the camera as a tool to document the external with fidelity (Kronenberg and Lee, 169-210). Contrary to Evans, Arbus and Goldin subjugate the camera, molding it into an intimate extension of themselves.


     At first glance, Arbus’s room seems to be a reverential testament to the cult of the Other: an army of freaks, the unsavory, the unwanted, all those whose power is not recognized or valued by the mainstream. Upon closer examination, however, one might consider that perhaps Arbus relates to the camera not merely as a vehicle for voices of others, but also as a way to meet the Other within herself. In this way, the camera evolves as would a limb, becoming an intimate extension of its owner. Arbus’s work addresses the “singularity of individuals” (Wall Text, Real Worlds: Brassaï, Arbus, Goldin, 2018), whether that individual be herself or others. This dynamic is achieved by–among other methods–dedicating most of the frame’s space to the individual. The result is an almost mystifying and romanticized outcast archetype.

     The exhibition concludes itself in a smaller room dedicated to Goldin's photographs leading to an intimate room secluded by a wine red curtain reminiscent of a vintage movie theater. Occupying the center of exhibition's smallest room are rows of couches for viewers to sit while watching a slide installation by Goldin. The room plays “a digital presentation of Goldin’s original 35mm slide installation The Ballad of Sexual Dependency (1983-2008)….[The slide installation allows] viewers to experience the artist’s photographs as both static and moving images” (Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, 2017). The couches, too, align with the exhibition theme. They serve as subtle invitations for viewers to–figuratively and literally–share space with strangers. Seating is not compulsive. Viewers can opt to stand against the walls and experience the instillation more privately, or even indulge as would a voyeur and witness the reactions of surrounding viewers in the darkened room.


     “I feel very strongly that every artist has one central story to tell. The struggle is to tell and retell that story over and over again, in visual form, and try to challenge that story. But at the core that story remains the same. It's like the defining story of who you are” (Gregory Crewdson: Brief Encounters, 2012). Real Worlds: Brassaï, Arbus, Goldin gives voice to the dichotomous nature of truth, reality, and identity, and does so during a time in global history when we may have taken those very things for granted.

Real Worlds: Brassaï, Arbus, Goldin is on view until Monday, September 3, 2018 at The Museum of Contemporary Art's Grand Avenue location

(250 S Grand Ave, Los Angeles, 90012).

 

Members: Free
General Admission (valid all day at both DTLA locations): $15
Students with I.D.: $8
Seniors (65+): $10
Children under 12: Free
Jurors with I.D.: Free


 

Mon 11am-6pm

Tues Closed

Wed 11am-6pm

Thurs 11am-8pm (Free admission 5-8pm every Thurs)

Fri 11am-6pm

Sat 11am-5pm

Sun 11am-5pm

Credit: Ariel Maccarone phoographed by Graham John Bell

Ariel Maccarone is a Los Angeles-based author, musician ("Black Mouth"), and artist. She has been published in Boston Poetry Magazine, Argentina-based art magazine Apapacho Gallery, and FOTO MOFO Photography Magazine, where she was also Assistant Editor. She has also worked as a freelance social media consultant for clients such as Red Bull and PEN Center sponsored publishing house Unnamed Press. Ariel still handwrites letters to her first grade teacher, Miss Phyllis, who taught her how to write.

She can be found wandering the Santa Monica mountains with an overpriced cup of coffee and hiking shoes that have not been broken in. You can find more of her writing, music, and artwork at ARIELMACC.com.

                                                                                      Article References

 

1. The Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles (MOCA). The Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles (MOCA) Presents Real Worlds: Brassaï, Arbus, Goldin. Los Angeles: The Museum of Contemporary Art Los Angeles, 19 Dec. 2017. Web.

 

2. Wall text for Real Worlds: Brassaï, Arbus, Goldin, by Lanka Tattersall. 4 Mar.–3 Sept. 2018, Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles. 4 Mar.- Sept 3, 2018.

 

3. Kronenberger, Louis, and Marshall Lee. Quality; Its Image in the Arts. (1969) Atheneum, New York, pp. 169-210.

 

4. Gregory Crewdson: Brief Encounters. Zeitgeist Films, 2012. Shapiro, Ben, director

[©2020 by Ariel Maccarone]