Just Beneath the Surface


I’ve been considering the various explanations of the film, “Life of Pi” and its meaning. My first impression was that this was a prototypical example of magical realism. Ang Lee’s direction captured the novel elegantly. The use of CGI was not distracting – the tiger and orangutan were portrayed believably. Then my friend, Mark, introduced me to his metalinguistic view – that Pi is a story about the power of story-telling. “Life of Pi” shows what happens when a writer who, after recently abandoning a novel he’s worked on for two years, interviews a man named Pi who tells the writer a strange, disturbing tale that is also wonderful but thoroughly implausible. The Writer does not fully believe. So Pi tells an “alternate” story based on the same events as the first, but which is not as fanciful. Pi then asks the writer, “Which story do you prefer?”

The first story is a fantasy about a boy and a tiger, shipwrecked and sharing a lifeboat in the Pacific for 277 days. The boy experiences strange events, visions of beauty and horror in the depths of the ocean and floating among the stars; he briefly stays on a floating, carnivorous island inhabited by thousands of meercats. Eventually, the boy is washed ashore in Mexico where he recovers. While in the hospital, the ship’s investigators question him about his lifeboat experiences. They don’t believe his story of sharing the lifeboat with a starving tiger so he tells a second story which is more realistic and also more troubling.

The writer, when asked which story he prefers, answers, “The one with the tiger.” Pi then responds, “so it is with God,” suggesting to the writer and the viewer that God prefers to communicate with fanciful, meaningful stories, even if the stories are not literally true. The power of Life of Pi owes more to imagination than to verisimilitude. The fundamental idea is that we humans are emotional creatures who respond to stories that resonate in us, whether fact-based or not.

A further consideration about the religious message in Life of Pi, and the truth of God and his interventions in our lives, considers all three faiths that young Pi explores. The Writer character, promised a story that would make him believe in God, questions adult Pi about the influence of each one. Pi struggles to reconcile the differences between faith interpretations – specifically Hinduism, Christianity, and Islam, acknowledging each contains valuable elements, even as they tell different stories. What he knows is that faith elements helped him survive his ordeal at sea.

Pi does not believe that any of the world’s religions have cornered the market on the truth and his intention is not to proselytize a specific dogma. Rather, his stories are intended to help the Writer consider which version of the world he prefers. Is it the version where he makes his way, without regards to the mystical, or the other where he can accept a presence greater than himself? That writer, like the Japanese investigators and we viewers, choose the latter.

Setting aside the story’s religious elements, an alternative theory takes a psychological perspective. And, as a psychologist, this perspective resonates with me. The characters in both stories, animals and people, represent various elements of the self – the brute, the innocent, the seeker, the protector. It is the raft, something Pi constructs himself and where he must retreat in order to save himself from the malevolent tiger, that represents faith. Does Pi truly co-exist with the tiger for those 227 days? Or is the animal story a defense mechanism that allows Pi to survive the rescue? To be able to live with the memory of the horrors he experienced with the others who survived, only for awhile?

Life of Pi is a moving story. And it is effective in its ability to reveal without showing, those elements of faith and survival that lie for all of us, regardless of our disparate experiences, just beneath the surface of our told stories.


Mr. and Dr. Rogers

Since the news of yesterday’s senseless bombing during the Boston Marathon, I’ve seen on several social media sites a comforting quote from Fred Rogers. It goes something like this, “When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping,’” followed by his observation that he found that experience to be consistently true. I was struck by the solace his simple, homespun story offered and how many people are subscribing to his point of view. Clearly, Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood lives on.

I started thinking about the other Rogers in whom I have found wisdom in the face of inhumanity and sorrow, Dr. Carl Rogers. Carl Rogers, for those who are unfamiliar with his work, was a leader in the Humanistic movement within psychology in the 20th century. He held firmly in his belief that people are ultimately good and have the capacity to heal themselves. One of his quotes that came to my mind yesterday was, “When I look at the world I am pessimistic, but when I look at people I am optimistic.” He also believed that living a good life was not achieved by arriving at any particular state – be it happiness or nirvana or achievement or virtue. Rather, he proposed the idea that the Good Life was a journey rather than a destination.

Journeys are seldom easy. Their opportunities are non-partisan. We will experience breathtaking scenery, amazing people, disappointing meals, and frustrating detours along the way. Sometimes, tragedy befalls us. Other times, an unexpected encounter reframes the experience and we are transformed.

Many of us are still reeling a day after this terrible event. We’re feeling vulnerable in our communities. There are so many things about yesterday’s cruel act of terror we don’t know yet and that in and of itself adds another dimension to our anxiety. I think it is prudent to seek the reassurance of those in whom we have shared vision for making sense of the senseless. For me, the compassion of Carl Rogers – who emphasized human potential rather than our mental and behavioral illnesses – filled that empty space today.

False beliefs

I’m fascinated by how children begin to understand false beliefs and what that says about their understanding of perspective. There’s a great deal of research (and a few Youtube video demonstrations) around Theory of Mind. The concept is particularly interesting for those of us who study and work with people with Autism Spectrum Disorders. I’m also finding it useful as I continue to work on my novel.

One of the central characters in my YA novel is a middle-school aged student with ASD named Sam. In the first half of the novel, he plays a supporting part in the ensemble but as the mystery deepens, so does his role.

Here’s my dilemma. Something that he does that is stereotypic behavior for individuals with ASD becomes a useful tool for the resolution of the crisis. The main character, who realizes the potential of Sam’s atypical talent, must convince Sam to use this ability to trick one of the suspects. How Sam responds will determine whether he subsequently uses his talent for what, at the time, might seem to be a bad thing. Does Sam recognize the false belief aspect of his ruse? And, if he does, what does that tell us about his disability?

To help me sort out these questions and gain a better understanding of False Belief development, I’m reading “Theory of Mind,” by Martin Doherty. I hope I can use this gambit and still remain true to Sam’s nature.

NaNoWriMo Day 2

So far, 3377 words written. Chapter One complete. I’m resisting the urge to edit. I’m more thankful than I can say for the scene outlines – they’re life savers!

Here’s one of the ah ha moments (so far): not having to agonize over every each and every word choice. Writing a novel in this format (no editing) is so different from writing a short story.

I’ve told most of my closest friends and family that I’m doing this. And my writing buddy, Mark, is keeping me on track.

I think one of the motivating elements in this story is fleshing out the teenaged characters. I have a strong interest in adolescent psychology and its been fun to infuse these characters with the unique teen issues, like Imaginary Audience, Personal Fable, and invincibility.

Next week, I hope to be ready to reveal an excerpt from the novel.

Stay tuned.

Sociometric Status

My November novel writing project includes several characters, including the main character, who are young teens attending middle school. One of the tools I’m using in my character outlines is sociometric status.

Sociometric status measures the degree to which a child is liked or disliked by his or her peers. Status is determined by nomination – in other words, through the eyes of other children (although some researchers obtain ratings from teachers rather than students). Status categories include Popular, Average, Neglected, Rejected and Controversial. Insofar as my novel’s setting is primarily in the school, having a understanding of how each character is perceived by their peers is useful.

Sociometric status is not without its controversies. Not all researchers agree on the utility of sociometric status. For my purposes (not related to research or intervention, but to fleshing out fictional characters), I find the distinctions helpful – especially with regards to the difference between neglect, rejection and controversy.

These are the differences: Neglected children are neither nominated as liked or disliked and often “fly under the radar” of their peers; Rejected children are actively disliked and can usually be identified by the things that they do which are seen by their peers as undesirable; Controversial children often receive both “like” and “dislike” nominations from their peers. They can sometimes be members of marginalized groups or may, in fact, be seen as a leader but not in the traditional sense.

My bio – here’s what I do as a school psychologist and university instructor

Karen Walsh, M.A. Certified School Psychologist, has worked for Special School District for 23 years as a practicing school psychologist in Early Childhood and K-12 schools and as an Effective Practice Specialist in school psychology. She is a past president of the Missouri Association of School Psychologists (2008-2011) and has been published in both the Missouri association’s newsletter and the National Association of School Psychologists’ publication, Communique. Karen’s role at SSD has also included grant writing, with over 1.5 million dollars in awards for the district and its partners. Prior to working for SSD, she worked with families and children affected by Autism Spectrum Disorders at Judevine Center for Autism (now TouchPoint) and Childhaven (now Edgewood Children’s Center). She has also worked as an adjunct faculty member at University of Missouri – St.  Louis, Webster University, and Maryville University, teaching Child Psychology, Educational Psychology and Adolescent Psychology.