Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Bohemian Therapy

Sometimes my practice of crisis intervention with families is informed by my own experiences, as you might expect of a mental health practitioner.  I was reminded of this earlier today when I heard Queen's  Bohemian Rhapsody on the way home from work. 

It wasn't the heady days of the seventies that hearing Freddie Mercury's incomparable voice and Brian May's guitar solos brought me to.  It was Christmas of a handful of years ago. 

I was  in my sister's car with her two sons J and A,  and my other sister's two daughters, E and H.  E was the youngest,  then about twelve or thirteen.  E had always had to fight to hold her place among her cousins, although J, the oldest, was only four years her senior. She had tended to go ignored or teased by the others, in part because she tended to bug them a lot.  As younger sisters and cousins often will do.

I felt for her many times.  Although I was the oldest in my family, as a kid I always felt unsure of myself in communicating with my cousins and often said something goofy or insulting when I didn't mean to, and so I wasn't always as popular among them as I would have liked. I felt like I had to constantly prove myself.   

In a family of performers, E had lots of competition from her blues singing sister and guitar playing cousins.  My mom bought a keyboard around this time that she learned to play; the others didn't notice.  She played in the school band; no one among the kids acted very impressed.  Mind you, E's mom and aunts and grandmother thought she was the bee's knees; but we were old, what did we know?

In the meantime, J and A, who lived near Seattle at the time, were playing in a band of their own, and writing songs.  H was going to open mics to watch her friends sing and play, and performing the occasional solo at school.
They  were by that time mesmerized with old music.  The boys appreciated the New Wave stuff their mom and I used to listen to, and H was listening to a lot of old blues numbers.  So to pass the time on trips or while hanging around during visits with each other, the entire family often found themselves singing old songs from the seventies and sixties, the lyrics of which the kids were getting very good at reciting. E would hum along, not seeming quite as interested as the other three, but definitely wanting to belong. 

And here we were in the car,  at Christmas; my sister, me, her sons, our nieces, singing Ramones and Beatles songs.  Eventually, we ran out of ideas and there was a little lull in the back.  It was then that E's plaintive voice was heard, completely solo, a little shaky but in perfect pitch:   

"Is this the real life?
Is this just fantasy?"

I don't know how familiar you are with Bohemian Rhapsody.  But it's not an easy song to sing.  First of all, it's rather long for a pop song, and the words (being operatically sung and all) are often difficult to decipher ("I'm just a little sillouette of a man, scaramouche, scaramouche, will you do the fandango"....it doesn't even make sense.  Although I was delighted when I was learning English country dancing to find out there actually is a dance called the fandango, which we learned by heart without prompts, but I digress).  Secondly, the key changes several times. 

 But E had learned it, and she sang the whole song from the first "I'm just a poor boy" to the last "any way the wind blows" note perfect, never pausing, key changes and all.  The rest of us joined in when we could, but none of the rest of us knew the words to the entire song.  Even though my sister and I were actually alive, and actually old enough to appreciate it, when the song came out.

"Wow, E..." her sister said after this.  "Yeah, that was good," her cousins had to avow. 

E. climbed several rungs up on the ladder of cool that night. 

Whether I'm in an interview room with a distressed family bringing their child in out of concern for his or her mental health, or whether I'm seeing a longitudinal study unfold before my eyes of the ones  I love, and how they interact with each other, it always amazes me to see how each person in the family can easily change the dynamics by doing one little thing.

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