Piece of the Pie
Piece of the Pie
Notre Dame is Burning
Notre Dame is Burning
Dr. Hillary McBride
Dr. Hillary McBride
Dr. Hillary McBride
Bonus 1: Dr. Hillary McBride
Host Simon Kent Fung sits down with trauma therapist Dr. Hillary McBride to delve deeper into the mental health dimensions of Dear Alana.
Bonus 1 • 23:51
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Thank you for listening to Dear Alana. Today we are bringing you a bonus episode with a deeper discussion about Alana and her journals. For an extended version of this conversation, join Tenderfoot Plus at Tenderfootplus.com.
Just a heads up. The following discussion contains references to religious abuse. Listener discretion is advised
SIMON KENT FUNG: We’ve been hearing a lot about Alana’s spiritual influences—the ideas that both she and I received from the Church. But I’m curious about other perspectives, particularly the psychological and developmental one. My guest today is uniquely equipped to help us unpack some of these angles. Dr. Hillary McBride, is an author, researcher and therapist in private practice, whose clinical and academic work has been recognized by the American and Canadian Psychological Associations, and whose research on human sexuality was awarded the international Young Investigator Award in 2017, the same year she published her first book titled “Mothers, Daughters, and Body Image: Learning to Love Ourselves as We Are.” Dr. McBride hosts the CBC podcast “Other People’s Problems,” and her latest book “The Wisdom of the Body: Finding Healing, Wholeness, and Connection Through Embodied Living” was published by HarperCollins in 2021. She identifies as a Christian.
Dr. Hillary McBride, thank you so much for joining us. I know you've had a chance to listen to the early season of Dear Alana. So I guess to start things off, I'm really curious about your initial impression of what’s been striking to you about Alana Chen’s story.
DR. HILLARY McBRIDE: One of the things that comes to mind is the kind of objectified mythic status that she had in the community of being the saint. And in a way I was really drawn to Alana's sainthood as she was moving through her community in a way that was so generative and loving and really, in a way, seeing some of the community members who were invisible.
SIMON KENT FUNG: Like the homeless people she was helping.
DR. HILLARY McBRIDE: Mm-hmm. I kept wondering about who really knew her. And I think that's what's really interesting about this project and what's so fascinating about getting access to her journals and hearing the things that she's processing through. Because it's so unusual for us to have access to the inner world of a person who is so profoundly performatively good.
SIMON KENT FUNG: Yeah. Why don't we start with listening to some of those journal entries, read by a voice actress. I’d love to get your thoughts on them.
This one’s from when Alana was a teenager and would be sneaking out to go to Mass every day, possibly to escape a difficult home life with her parents’ fighting all the time. Let’s take a listen.
ALANA: “God, I want to know you more. To be honest, there is something in me still not satisfied…Maybe I need to pray more. Or trust that you’re never bored with me. Mother Teresa talks about girls who are convinced, they are convinced that you are in love with them... I want to be in love with you. But I have trouble hearing your voice, I have trouble listening. I want to be so close to you. It seems that you know everything about me, yet I don't know much about you.”
DR. HILLARY McBRIDE: So I think as I hear that there's a number of things that stir in me. I'm thinking about what's happening developmentally, like you mentioned in her home life and also at that age. Like it is such a tumultuous time to be a 13-year-old navigating the transition as a body from child to adult. And the complexity of that, I think, can feel very disorganizing for people. So I'm imagining some things that feel kind of disorganizing inside of her, but also in her context around her. And then what happens when someone hands a very clear cut worldview that creates a sense of clarity and perhaps calm, and a way of feeling like the things that are confusing inside are not so confusing. It's so easy for the mind of a young woman to feel like they fall into that as a strategy to organize the things that otherwise feel disorganized.
So my mind immediately goes to: what was it offering her? And if it was offering her something of a structured worldview that might suggest in a way that she was craving a sense of structure, craving some way of organizing something that otherwise felt chaotic and confusing. And that's not an atypical thing, as I mentioned, for that stage of development. It's totally developmentally appropriate for a young girl to say, “I wanna find a way of orienting myself in the world and understanding that I have meaning and that I have purpose, and that I matter,” because that's a time in life when those questions start to emerge of, you know, “Am I important? Do I belong? Where am I safe? What matters? Am I good? Where do I find a sense of meaning?” And it seems like at that moment in her life when she might have been asking those questions, she was offered it at the hands of people who, who I imagine meant well. But also it began what was a path of destruction for her.
And so I'm just noticing right, you know, it's easy, it's so easy retrospectively to look back at things like this and kind of fine tune the analysis and go, here's where the story is leading. But I think it's, I think it's not so different than most stories of people in faith communities that I know: there's beautiful things and there's hard things, there's really healthy things and there's really unhealthy things. Because faith communities are made up of people. And people are a mix of health and unhealth and beauty and pain.
And so it makes sense that we would see that in Alana and we would also see that in the kind of the emerging story that we know is about to unfold.
SIMON KENT FUNG: Right.
DR. HILLARY McBRIDE: And then kind of the last thing that I'm wanting to say about this is that I think I'm seeing some of the seeds of the perfectionism that she espoused in her internal evaluation of her faith.
So it is so normal for there to be flexibility in how a person perceives the relationship and proximity with God. The idea that there could be a day, one day where a person has great certainty about what they believe, and then the next day when they have questions and doubts and fears and longings that are unanswered—the whole spectrum from absolute faith to total doubt is wildly human, right? This is a very normal experience, and yet when she's comparing her experience to the, you know, perfectionist ideal set out by this commentary about Mother Teresa's girls, my thought is that she doesn't have an understanding at that point that it's okay to have doubt. It's okay to have change. It's okay to have fluidity in the way she's relating to God, to the divine. And the interpretation of that fluidity that does exist, is one of judgment and perfectionism and shame.
And I think what often happens is if we have a preexisting narrative about perfectionism, it's so easy in religious communities for the dysfunction to ride the coattails of our existing internal defense, our strategy of earning our good-enoughness through perfectionism. And also it's easy for us to move into those communities and have that presented to us and for us to do something called “introject”: for us to take that story on as if it is capital T true about us—you know, the need to be perfect as a way of being good and lovable.
And so whether it comes from the religious community or whether it comes from her existing narrative, at some point these things meet in the middle. And I can imagine it creates really fertile territory for her to not know how to navigate the mature complexity of an evolving faith that includes doubt and includes longing. It includes not knowing. But at 13 she doesn't get that. And so it sounds like some shame starts to take root.
SIMON KENT FUNG: I think this really connects with some of her journal entries where Alana’s meticulously documents her sins. Let’s have a listen.
ALANA: I am a failure—moral failure. Obsessed, addicted, selfish, starving, impure, disordered, messed up, repeating lustful thoughts, lonely, incomplete, empty, wasteful, useless, sensitive, prideful, self-seeking, praise-secking, desperate for love and affection, unable to receive true love, closed off to truth…no one to talk to, no one to understand, can't make eye contact with mom or anyone. Always going to love, fail, sin.
SIMON KENT FUNG: She goes on and on. Earlier, you used the word compulsive. And so, I’m curious if this is an example of behavior or thoughts that you might describe as compulsive. And then also, like, how would you distinguish that from a healthy honesty, you know, about one’s shortcomings, or areas of growth. Help me understand where the line is.
DR. HILLARY McBRIDE: I think to your point about health, when it comes to recognizing who we are and being able to see our own limitations or shortcomings, I wanna make the distinction between honesty and shame or honesty and a kind of judgmental criticism.
Because I think it is actually healthy to be able to examine the patterns in our life that keep us stuck, the ways that we are hurting and the ways that we hurt others, and being able to reflect on those things and know what to do about them, to be able to understand their function, to have some flexibility with them, and maybe even to accept them, right? That would be a measure of health.
But the compulsive list-writing around the things that are seen as sinful or problematic or make her defective or broken in some way has a quality of dysfunction to it. That signals to me that there's more at play here. That this is, this is the voice of shame. And shame, shame also has a purpose. It does something very functional internally for us to distance us from what we believe is unacceptable and in trying to distance us from what we believe is unacceptable, ideally, what I think when we see the positive nature of shame, what it's trying to do is protect us from being associated to the things that we believe will make us unlovable.
And so if shame can get in there and it can create this space between who we believe ourselves to be and the things that are happening inside of us, perhaps then those things can go away. And if those things can go away, then we can remain to be seen as good and lovable and valuable in our communities.
Again, so much of shame as with other emotions and with other processes here is related to what we are told is good and acceptable.
So the difference with health is the ability to actually be in relationship with those things. So for example, there is such thing as compulsive masturbation. And instead of seeing the masturbation as a sin and something that needs to go away, something that needs to be the source of shame, health is the ability to say, “Okay, let me look at this behavior and let me see what it's doing and let me be in relationship with it in a way that helps me be compassionate.” Right? “What is the purpose that this compulsive masturbation is serving? Is it, is it allowing me to soothe pain that is otherwise unsoothable?” Well, if that's the case, then wow, I can really appreciate what it's doing and maybe I can create some flexibility psychologically and behaviorally to develop some other strategies so that the masturbation isn't so compulsive and it feels more in line with something that's healthy and fruitful and expressive and creative and authentic.
So the ability not to cut something off, but to actually understand it, and examine it, would determine if it's, if it's health.
And what I hear in the list that she’s writing is that this is not an exploration of the internal system, but rather that this is a kind of, like, shaming of the self, shaming of these behaviors. This is a list of proof of all the ways that she's bad and all the things that prove to her that she's not good enough and needs help in saving.
And yet, so many of those things I would look at and go, I'm pretty sure everyone I know has most of those qualities where like, there's some things on there that are actually just human.
But again, the rigidity, the kind of black and white narrative, the perfectionism, the idealization of what it means to be a good Catholic, to me, signals that these things are not allowed to be welcomed into her existence. They are proof somehow that she's bad and consequently they need to be, they need to be fixed and solved, and they need to be made to go away.
SIMON KENT FUNG: So when Alana came out to her priest, according to Alana, he told her not to tell her parents. We may never know the exact reasons why, but I think this kind of pastoral guidance in conservative spaces is actually very common. There’s usually an attempt to diminish it in order to perhaps dissuade them from further exploration. Or, in Alana’s case, there might have been this sense that her family wasn’t conservative enough, so don’t tell them or they might encourage you. I’m curious what you think about that kind of recommendation and approach?
DR. HILLARY McBRIDE: Hmm. Well, asking a parishioner not to tell their family something is more than a whiff of spiritual abuse, as far as I'm concerned, and falls in line with some of the things that would make me start wondering around about cult behavior, right? The separation of a person from their family and creating secrecy in a person's relationship with the people who are closest to them is really problematic, right? There is abusive elements there. And Alana, among so many other people, put profound amounts of trust in their spiritual leaders, and so will do what they tell them to.
And yet I, at this point, become very concerned about what other manipulation is happening, what other spiritual abuse is happening or is going to happen when a person is asked to cut something off from their family in that particular way.
SIMON KENT FUNG: How do you define spiritual abuse?
DR. HILLARY McBRIDE: Yeah. So what we know is that abuse in a spiritual context is a person taking advantage of a power dynamic to speak as a religious leader on behalf of who God is and representing the authority of God through what is usually a manipulative lens. So a person taking advantage of their personal agenda and writing into a story of another person, particularly a person who is less social power than them, an idea about what makes them good, about what the right way to be is, about who God is, and ultimately usually something for that person's personal gain.
SIMON KENT FUNG: That personal gain doesn’t have to be attention or power or money, right? It could be an internal reward, like a feeling of being good, or right or doing God’s work, right?
DR. HILLARY McBRIDE: Yeah, absolutely. That there can be a tremendous psychological and perceived spiritual payoff for doing the things that you think you're told to do or by being a leader, by being a powerful leader. And feeling like that allows for you to experience proximity to God. Somehow having more power and spiritual context is associated with leading more people to God. And consequently that feels good for you at night. You know, when you sleep at night, it feels good to feel like you've done the thing that proves that you're gonna be okay on the other side of this.
But it's really, and I mean if I could back it up and speak just more generally, it's like it's any power or control that someone in a position of religious or spiritual leadership uses over another person that implicates their faith system, their belief, their behaviors, the story about being human and, and unfortunately I think it's a lot more common than we'd like to admit.
SIMON KENT FUNG: Yeah. And it also sounds like this dynamic is not unique to religion, right?
DR. HILLARY McBRIDE: Mm-hmm. Yeah, absolutely. I think that these dynamics exist wherever people exist. That the need or the pleasure to have power and control over another vulnerable person, over a person who has less social power, and the perceived gain from that is something that happens in homes across the world. It's something that happens in school systems. It happens in, you know, in job environments. It happens in the fitness community. I mean, there are so many places where these kind of dynamics exist because they're not actually just about the religion, they're about people. And people's way of accessing safety and power and control and likely trying to navigate their own sense of powerlessness and, and lack of control on their life.
But I think that religion adds the extra special sauce on top of those human dynamics being validated and endorsed, allegedly by God or the Church, and being seen somehow as superior because they're bringing a person or people in proximity to the ultimate, to what is capital G Good, so to speak.
SIMON KENT FUNG: Yeah. The stakes are, are so much higher when you bring God into it.
HILLARY McBRIDE: Right. Yeah. I mean that we could talk at length about the nature of spiritual trauma in terms of feeling like the impact of abuse when it transcends space and time to include the afterlife, to include perpetuity, does profound psychological damage to a person, because it instills in them a fear that not only when my perpetrator is gone will I not be safe. Not only when I'm out of this situation, not only when this behavior is gone, but forever, for the rest of time there will be suffering, aloneness, isolation, and torture. There is something so awful and so horrific about communicating to a developing nervous system or to a person that your suffering will never end. You couldn't even die and get away from suffering. Because it could still be there on the other side. What I think that does is it creates very little opportunity for a person to have flexibility, health. It's essentially creating hell right here and right now in a person's nervous system as they anticipate the suffering that they think will come later. The body doesn't understand the difference between eternal torment and right now if we think that's where we're heading.
And I think that when we, when we look at our faith traditions, it is so important, it is so important that we examine what they have done to us that has been traumatizing, what they have done that is fragmented us from ourselves. But in the same way that I said it earlier in the interview, I say it now: it is actually when we look at those things and we understand their function, that we can begin to heal them.
Because I ultimately believe our faith communities, our spiritual traditions, have so much good in them. We can't really lean into how good they are though when we're not also willing to look at the damage that they do.
SIMON KENT FUNG: Yes.
DR. HILLARY McBRIDE: Because we are wired for belonging, because we are wired to understand how we fit into a social context. The people around us have a profound ability to influence what we know about who we are, what is good, what is safe, what is bad, what allows us to be in, what causes us to be out. And the people who are around us have the ability, especially those people who've been given social power—the faith leaders, the political leaders, the parents who speak into our lives—they have the capacity to do profound harm. But what's so important to note is that healing is written into our bodies.
The capacity to adapt, the capacity to get away, the capacity to find new people who tell us really good, healthy stories about who we are will never be completely suppressed by the damage done by the people who hurt us. There is always the opportunity to heal. There is always the opportunity to get away from contexts that don't reflect the goodness of who we really are.
And because social connection is so important for our sense of who we are, when we find people who hold up a mirror and show us that we are really deeply loved, that we are good, that there is the possibility for hope, our nervous system, our brains, our self-stories will always be able to take that in.
Maybe not at first. Maybe not with ease, but it is always a possibility.
SIMON KENT FUNG: Dr. Hillary McBRIDE, thank you for joining me. I learned so much.
DR. HILLARY McBRIDE: Thank you so much for the invitation to share in this really, really important project.
SIMON KENT FUNG: You can learn more about Hillary McBride and her writing, speaking, and private practice on hillarylmcbride.com. Thanks for joining us for this bonus episode of Dear Alana. To hear more of my conversion with Dr. McBride, subscribe to Tenderfoot Plus at tenderfootplus.com. I’m Simon Kent Fung.