About the Author
Michaela Haas, PhD, is an international reporter, lecturer, author, and consultant. She is the owner of HAAS live!, an international coaching company that combines her experience in media with mindfulness training. She has been studying and practicing Buddhism for almost twenty years, holds a PhD in Asian Studies, and is a visiting scholar and lecturer at the University of California-Santa Barbara. She is a regular contributor to Die Zeit, Washington Post, and Huffington Post.
Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.
Bouncing Forward 1. Love
“Nobody can do it alone”
Civil rights icon Maya Angelou turned clouds into rainbows1
Only in darkness can you see the stars.
—MARTIN LUTHER KING JR.
How can this end well? A girl, three years old, is sent across the American plains like a postcard. Responsible parents don’t even let their kids walk to kindergarten alone, but nightclub singer Vivian Baxter is getting a divorce, and her brats are now a burden. So Maya and her brother, four, find themselves in a train car all by themselves. The journey takes days. Fellow travelers feed them potato salad, and conductors help them switch trains. Name tags on their wrists prevent them from getting lost: “Marguerite and Bailey Johnson Jr., from Long Beach, California, en route to Stamps, Arkansas”2—a dusty, cotton-picker dump, where racial segregation is so ubiquitous that Marguerite—Maya Angelou—later joked that blacks were not even allowed to eat vanilla ice cream, only chocolate.
Thus begins Maya Angelou’s biography, and this ominous start is only the beginning to a life that will come to know many more incredible episodes, as well as epic battles to erase “the ugly graffiti on the walls of her psyche,” as Bill Moyers once said about her.3
Nightclub dancer, singer, prostitute, pimp, journalist, actress, director, Martin Luther King Jr.’s right-hand woman, America’s national conscience: Maya Angelou’s life has woven the strongest fabric for her thirty books—thirty mirrors she held up to America. She was a pioneer in many disciplines: the first black streetcar conductor in San Francisco; Hollywood’s first black director; the first black poet to read at a presidential inauguration; the first black woman to describe her life in such captivating, drastic terms that her book made the bestseller list for two years in a row. Barack Obama revealed that his mother, a huge fan of the poet, named his sister Maya after her.
Posttraumatic growth is something Maya Angelou knew all about. Despite the many episodes of violence and loss in her life, she learned never to give up. “When it looks like the sun wasn’t gonna shine anymore, God put a rainbow in the clouds. Imagine!”4 She hummed the lyrics from an old African American folk song. “I’ve had a lot of clouds, but I have had so many rainbows.”5
She even had the ceiling in her Harlem town house painted with clouds in a light blue sky. When we talked in the autumn of 2013, Maya Angelou spoke deliberately, every sentence piercing the air as sharp as a pencil. It was one of the last interviews she would give before we lost her bright light just seven months later on May 28, 2014.
During our talk, she sometimes gasped for air because of a collapsed lung, but her passion and candid humor blazed. She confronted her age and arthritis with the same kind of gung ho spirit she brought to life. “When I wake up with pain, I just tell the pain, ‘Get out! I did not invite you into my body!’ I actually say that out loud,” Dr. Angelou rasped in her deep voice, as she looked back on her life with wisdom and verve.
A hurricane and some fierce storms
As abruptly as Vivian Baxter had deported three-year-old Maya and her brother, she ripped them out of Stamps four years later and transplanted them to Saint Louis. The kids rejoiced briefly in the reunion with the bubbly nightclub singer. Maya Angelou described her mother as “a hurricane in its perfect power.”6
Baxter’s boyfriend, Mr. Freeman, took advantage of the mother’s night shifts and preyed on young Maya, raping her before she turned eight. In her famous autobiography, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, she gave an account of her rape. She hoped that it would help other survivors of violence. “You can survive rape. You never forget it—don’t even think that. But you can survive it and go on.”7 Freeman ordered her to keep silent, threatening to kill both her and her brother. But when her mother discovered the bloodstained underwear, Maya revealed the name of the rapist. Mr. Freeman was sentenced to a year in prison—and, unbelievably, released the next day.
A few days later the police found his body behind the slaughterhouse, beaten to death. “I thought my voice had killed him,” said Dr. Angelou. “That was my seven-year-old logic, so I stopped talking. My mother’s family and my mother tried their best to woo me away from my mutism, but they didn’t know what I knew: My voice could kill.”8
Dr. Angelou called rape “a dire kind of evil, because rape on the body of a young person more often than not introduces cynicism, and there is nothing quite so tragic as a young cynic, because it means the person has gone from knowing nothing to believing nothing. In my case I was saved in that muteness . . . And I was able to draw from human thought, human disappointments and triumphs, enough to triumph myself.”9
Spanking didn’t get Maya to talk either, so Vivian Baxter shoved the sullen, taciturn girl off to her grandmother in Stamps again. This, said Dr. Angelou, “was the best thing that could happen to me!” For five years after the rape, she did not speak. Instead she withdrew into the universe of books, reading every tome on the shelves in the minuscule Stamps library. Perhaps in these speechless years she uncovered the force of language that she later unleashed on artists, civil rights leaders, and presidents. She learned by heart the wise lines of Edgar Allan Poe and Shakespeare’s sonnets, convinced that Shakespeare must have been a black, barefooted chit like her—how else could he have known about abuse and calamity so intimately?
A course book in mastering posttraumatic growth
Maya Angelou is in this book for many reasons. I admire her for her vigorous, emphatic art of writing, for her unabashed self-confidence, her untiring work for women and blacks. A rare and rich treasure of wisdom, she is one of the greatest icons of the civil rights movement and one of the most distinguished African American authors. Her life’s achievements were acknowledged with three Grammys, the National Medal of Arts, and the Presidential Medal of Freedom. But I think she also deserved a Nobel Prize for posttraumatic growth. Her life was her greatest piece of art.
Her biography reads like a course book in mastering the vicissitudes of existence. She gave this book its title because when asked how she rose above hardship, she defined her emergence as “bouncing forward, going beyond what the naysayers said.”10 Speaking about the “blessed components of resilience,” she said, “A person who resists being tied down and bound and made less than herself is able, by resisting, not only to be better than the naysayer would believe, but she’s also able to lift up the naysayer.”11
Taking up the battle
Innumerable studies tell us that children like Maya Angelou, who were sexually abused or raised in a climate of poverty and violence, are more prone to posttraumatic stress, depression, addiction, and other severe emotional and physical issues. They are less likely to succeed in society, find and hold well-paying jobs, and develop healthy long-term relationships. Their disadvantage is compounded by the kind of unstable parenting and racial violence that Maya Angelou grew up with. Scientists show that neglect in early childhood leads to lasting changes in people’s brain functions, making them less stress-resistant and more fearful as adults.12 For decades, researchers believed that abused children were doomed to fail.
More than a million children are abused every year in the United States alone,13 so we better figure out fast how to protect and promote them. “As the world gets concerned, how do you shift the goal from surviving to thriving?” asks child psychologist Ann Masten.
Maya Angelou had an answer.
“Take up the battle. Take it up!” she rallied. “This is your life, this is yours! You make your own choices. You can decide life isn’t worth living. That is the worst thing you can do. How would you know? Pick up the battle and make it a better world. It can be better, and it must be better, but it is up to us.”14
Stretch, stretch, stretch yourself
Before you interject the obvious—that we ordinary mortals cannot hold a candle to Maya Angelou’s fiery grace—let me tell you that she wouldn’t have accepted such an excuse. “If a human being dares to be King, or Gandhi, Mother Theresa, or Malcolm X, if a human being dares to be bigger than the condition into which she or he was born, it means so can you. You can try to stretch, stretch, stretch yourself.”15
Not only did Maya Angelou prove her own words, but the country’s foremost child resilience expert, Ann Masten, too, vetoes the notion that resilience is rare and reserved for exceptional children with extraordinary talents such as Maya Angelou. “Resilience is common and grounded in ordinary relationships and resources” is the uplifting upshot of Masten’s decades of research.16 That’s why she calls our innate capacity to bounce forward “ordinary magic.”
The first psychologist to discover that a surprising number of at-risk children do well was Norman Garmezy, often lovingly dubbed “the grandfather of resilience theory.”17 In the 1960s he observed that many children of schizophrenics had grown into successful, happy adults, and he wondered what made the difference for them.18 Ann Masten collaborated closely with Garmezy at the University of Minnesota. “We focused on the gloomy for such a long time. It really bothers me that when people hear about the evidence on trauma, child abuse, and in utero exposure to alcohol, they assume, ‘Oh, I must be totally damaged.’ People pick up this idea, but there are many opportunities for reprogramming in the course of life. Resilience does not mean you don’t have any scars, but I am continuously amazed by the human ability to reinvent ourselves.”
Reboot your life
“As human beings, we’re reprogrammable to a degree the pioneers of resilience couldn’t even have imagined. We are dynamic systems; we can change,” asserts Ann Masten. She likens the process to a computer restart. “Sometimes when things are all tangled up, you reboot it, you start over, and things straighten themselves out.”
You are not a statistic. Don’t let anybody tell you that your past defines who you can grow to be.
So, how do we hack into the programming code of this resilience reboot?
Masten and Garmezy spent decades looking at the factors that set resilient children apart, such as intelligence,19 personality, and self-mastery. But one factor stands out above all: the support of a loving adult.
Of all the “many, many resilient people” Ann Masten has met over the course of four decades, she’s noticed they unfailingly have had one thing in common. “You just don’t see examples of people who made it on their own.” When parents and teachers fail a child, in the end it does not matter so much who steps up, but that someone steps up and encourages the child to believe in herself, whether it is siblings, neighbors, or friends. “One woman’s unexpected helpers were homeless women,” Ann Masten recounts. “Though they were not doing that well themselves, they intervened in that girl’s life. They told her, ‘You can be somebody,’ and they went and got help. They played an important role. I think this is a very hopeful notion.”
Find your mentor
In Raising Resilient Children, psychologists Robert Brooks and Sam Goldstein describe “a basic ingredient in nurturing hope and resilience in our children as the presence of at least one adult who communicates to a child, through words and actions, ‘I believe in you and I will stand by you.’ ”20 The late Dr. Julius Segal called such a supportive person a “charismatic adult.” Just one supportive adult could outbalance risk factors in maltreated children. “The power of one adult to change the life of a child,” Brooks and Goldstein urge, “must never be underestimated.”21
What we mustn’t forget is that these supportive adults often didn’t appear in a child’s life by luck or magic. Resilient children are especially good at forging connections, at reaching out, at recognizing trustworthy people and asking them for help.
Childhood is a time when we are most vulnerable and in need of support; but at any stage of life we still need people who value us, act as confidants, and stand by us no matter what.
Liberation through love
Maya Angelou came to exactly the same conclusion: “Nobody ever does it alone. Experience allows us to learn from example. But if we have someone who loves us—I don’t mean who indulges us, but who loves us enough to be on our side—then it’s easier to grow resilience, to grow belief in self, to grow self-esteem. And it’s self-esteem that allows a person to stand up.”22
Young Maya clearly suffered from the knowledge of having been rejected by her birth parents. The thought that her mother “would laugh and eat oranges in the sunshine without her children”23 was too much to bear. She and her brother pretended their mother had died.
What life had in the cards for her didn’t look promising. But there was one crucial difference: “My grandmother! She was the greatest person I ever met. I thought she was probably God! She loved me unconditionally.” Maya is convinced that these injections of self-confidence made all the difference. Her brother Bailey, too, was a loyal companion to whom she could entrust her deepest secrets. “I am grateful to have been loved and to be able to love,” she said. “Love liberates.”24
“Sista, you gonna teach!”
Maya Angelou called her grandmother “Momma.” When Maya refused to speak, Momma didn’t chastise her, but simply handed her a small notebook with a pencil attached so that Maya could communicate with notes. “My grandmother said to me, ‘Sista, these people making fun of you and calling you dummy—Momma don’t care. You gonna be a teacher. You gonna teach all over the world!’ ” Maya Angelou remembers. “Amazing! I used to sit there and think, ‘This poor ignorant woman! I’ll never speak!’ Of course, now I have dozens of doctorates and teach all over the world. It’s a blessing.”
Maya’s mother had been unable to understand the depth of her daughter’s trauma, and could provide no comfort. But Maya’s grandmother, her brother, and neighbors in the tight-knit, poverty-stricken community of Stamps, accepted her for who she was, mute and all. “They really believed in me, and that made all the difference,” Maya Angelou told me.
A well-educated neighbor, “the aristocrat of Black Stamps,”25 Bertha Flowers, finally impressed upon Maya that she could not possibly love poetry if she did not read it aloud. Hiding behind the chicken coop, Maya tried to read a few lines in secret. “She gave me back my voice.”
And so Maya learned, “Anything that works against you can also work for you once you understand the Principle of Reverse.”26
“You can do it!”
A supremely intelligent and intuitive child, Maya was adept at finding help and resources, proud of her special skills, increasingly sure of her self-worth and intelligence. While her town was threatened daily by racial violence, Maya Angelou attracted the attention and support of elders in the community who took her under their wing, gently challenging and nurturing her, and expanding her horizon by introducing her to the books that became her lifeline.
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