Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Gregory Boyle's Tattoos on the Heart – The Reluctant Psychoanalyst Reflects on the Work of a Jesuit

At the Jesuit University where I work, we have been assigning a first year reading for 8 or ten years and I have been of two minds about the choices.  I wish that we were assigning classics; things that the students would refer to throughout their experience at the University – like the Republic.  Instead, the group that makes the assignments has been requiring current books – mostly of the inspirational bent.  I think they want to influence the students to engage in “living a life for others”, part of our mission statement.  The books “Three Cups of Tea” and “A Pearl in the Storm” have been assigned, for instance.  Last year the book was about the HeLA Cells, cancerous cervical cells that are used in almost all cancer research; cells that were “donated” by a poor African American woman who didn’t know they were being taken from her.  It is a rich, complicated and interesting book that I reviewed previously, and the students rose to the occasion.  At least in my group, they seemed to really get it and to discuss various complex threads that were central themes in the book.

The book this year is a book by Gregory Boyle, Tattoos on the Heart.  It has the virtue of being by a Jesuit.  But it really has no plot and the narrative arc is implicit rather than explicit.  It is essentially a collection of homilies that this Jesuit priest has told over the years.  These homilies have been told primarily to the “homeboys” – gang members – in the south central LA community where Father Boyle worked first as a Parish Pastor and then, after he had decided that this was his calling (not to work in the Student Services Division at the nearby, but light years away Jesuit University of Santa Clara, where he was originally intended to work) he started something called “Homeboy Industries”, a collection of agencies that provide many services, but mostly jobs, for ex-gang members so that they can get out of the gang/poverty cycle and move on with their lives.  So these are stories of kids who have moved on, but also of many who tried and failed – he has buried more than 150 “homeys” who have been killed by other homeys.  He tells these stories to homeys because they experience themselves as the subject of interest of someone like him – someone who it educated and not trapped in their community – and this makes them subjects of interest to themselves.  He tells these stories to us because he hopes that it will allow us to see gang members as human beings – very much like ourselves, with similar desires and ambitions.

Boyle relates that there have been three “waves” of addressing the gang problem.  The first was to wage war on the gangs.  This led to a proliferation of gangs as gang members were given additional, reality based reasons to band together against an outside force.  The second wave was to broker truces between gangs.  This was the early work that Father Greg – or “G” in gang parlance – engaged in.  It took him a while, but he and others realized that this was also perpetuating gangs – as Boyles puts it, it was like oxygen to the gangs.  In my mind, it legitimized them and their “turf” and led to institutionalizing gangs as the de facto organizations in the barrio, parish or neighborhood.  The third wave is not to engage with gangs at all, but to engage with individuals.  The idea is that by meeting individual’s needs directly gangs become unnecessary to them.

One of the chapters in this book is a chapter about outcomes.  Boyle has to demonstrate to those who fund his work that he is accomplishing what he has set out to do. This has been a real issue in both psychoanalysis and, more recently, in higher education.  Both are expensive, time intensive enterprises.  Are they worth it?  In some sense, Boyle’s book, the stories that he tells, is the outcome of his work; both the content of those stories – this homey got a job/that homey went to college, but also the impact of the stories on the reader.  He tosses off one statistic – the number of gang murders per year is half now of what it was when gang violence was at its worse when he started this program – but he does not claim credit for that.  What he does claim credit for – not directly, but through the stories, is the positive impact of being a father figure – a stable reliable father figure – to thousands of kids exemplified by stories about a few dozen of them.  And these kids have been able to have profound moments of emotional and spiritual insight as a direct result of the relationships that he forges with them.  And these lead to monumental life changes in some of them.  They also lead to changes in us.  We see the individuals he is talking about as people – soft vulnerable decent people living inside of scared selves and bodies that are tattooed and muscled to scare away scary others – and we feel more human – more connected with people we would not otherwise imagine connecting with - as we move with G through the barrios and witness what he has seen.

This afternoon, a group of us met with a new faculty employee.  She is a local celebrity – the ex-mayor of our city – who has been hired to help us in our community outreach.  We asked her what she envisions doing here, and she said that she would like to be able to be involved with projects that have demonstrable impacts on the well-being of members of the community; something that actually enhances their quality of living through improving their health, economic standing, or their vitality.  I realized that we do this – with our students.  We offer them an education that opens doors to jobs that provide them with a good standard of living.  Many of our students become do-gooders, but they are frequently able to do good from the position of being a reasonably well paid professional.  They work with the poor and underprivileged – they teach them, or treat them or minister to them in whatever way that they do – and they have the credentials to be compensated for this work.

Many of the students in my department are working in the community.  They log 72,000 hours of community service annually.  We know that the work that they are doing, in general, has good outcomes.  Most of the people they work with have better mental and emotional functioning as a direct result of the work that they do.  Many of the people that they work with are poor and/or marginalized in various ways.  Does the work that they do lead to measurable improvement in the functioning of the community?  Is our city, is this world, a better place for the work that they do?

My city will never be without poor, marginalized, emotionally despondent and spiritually bereft individuals.  My adolescent self cringes at the idea that I just wrote that sentence.  But my more mature self realizes that the human condition will, I think, always generate misery.  Ouch, now I’ve written another one - but I fear it to be true and thus feel compelled to write it.  The outcomes that we are looking to achieve, then, are not absolute or perfect – they are determined by the hand that is dealt.  Boyles does not believe that he can end poverty in South Central LA, nor even that he can end gang violence.  What he believes is that he can address both and that will have a positive impact on the lives of some of those he touches.

I think I feel guilty about teaching (and treating) students (and patients) who can most benefit from what I have to offer – those students (and patients) who are NOT marginalized, but are competent – but not yet as fully competent as they will be after their education/treatment.
As part of my own training, I worked in a State Hospital and made a vow to myself that I would include work of that sort, one day a week, in whatever my professional world ended up being.  I have not kept that promise.  Greg Boyle did.  It is some small consolation that my students do that on my behalf.

But, at the end of the day, does this rising tide raise all ships?  Are we creating paths for the homeys to get out of the barrio?  Is our educational and health care system one that improves the lives of all or just of a few?  How do we empower those who are marginalized?  And how would we measure it if we were empowering people – what outcomes would we track through the complicated pathways along which our interventions are being delivered?  Boyle has concrete answers.  He can see the impact of the work that he does.  And he can feel the need for it – which leads him to plead his case – effectively - by helping us feel the need for it.      

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