I became an apprentice spiritual healer among the Nacirema-Orue in 1986 and was considered culturally competent to assess and treat community members by 1992. Although I’d been reared among them, my training as one of their healers was very intense, occasionally severe. I was frequently evaluated by elder healers, compared and contrasted with other apprentices, and often strongly critiqued, sometimes even publicly rebuked, for my lack of conformity. Eventually, I passed a self-defense ritual, and this culminated in my being fully initiated to a higher caste of healers within their society.
The Nacirema-Orue believe the person is more important than his or her family lineage or community. Even so, each individual culture member must remain constantly vigilant to adhere to tight community norms and standards. Individual behavior is regulated and scrutinized in relation to the ancient religious belief that one is born defiled and damaged due to the sins of one’s ancestors. Thus, although the person is considered more important than their family or community, he or she is presumed to be born defective in some way or another.
A strong emphasis is placed upon personal freedom and self-expression yet to succeed in this culture requires induction of a chronic preoccupation with conformity. Nacirema-Orue do abuse many of their children, physically, sexually, and through the use of shaming, but this is mostly a secret activity because it’s frowned upon as unlawful, despicable, and un-beautiful. Children are also held to education standards that suppress creativity and will prepare them to complete boring, repetitive tasks as future workers. On the one hand, how the developing child thinks, feels, and behaves is considered an important determining factor as to whether he or she will be considered a future candidate for prestige. On the other, the overarching determinant for success in Nacirema-Orue society pertains to how one appears to others, rather than how one actually thinks or feels in one’s inner self, and children learn early that ‘putting on positive appearances’ is much more important than what is actually occurring inside their ‘celebrated’ selves.
Being less than ‘fine,’ ‘beautiful,’ ‘productive,’ and ‘stable’ at all times is taboo in Nacirema-Orue culture. This culture celebrates personal adornment, physical charm, the acquisition of wealth symbols and real estate, and sexuality. The majority lighter skin tone commands social and economic privilege, while darker skin tone is considered far less beautiful and undermines the obtaining of many forms of privilege (although it is sometimes eroticized and rewarded). The idolized bodies of women of all skin tones are frequently sculpted and painted to sustain an impression of ageless youth and fertility.
The Nacirema-Orue warrior culture compels boys and men to compete intensely to gather wealth, prestige, and dominance over one another in order to attract the female (I’m depicting the heterosexual case—homosexuality is tacitly accepted but equated with femininity and loss of status). Men are socialized to be highly territorial and to use wealth, physical strength, and violence to demonstrate their power and control over the social and material environment. Women have become more accepted to initiation into this warrior path over recent years, but many must utilize their sexual idolization to succeed. There are some prestigious women leaders but few signs of matriarchy. Nacirema-Orue practice patrilineal descent for both social privilege and name-giving, although one encounters females occasionally who have appended the name of their father’s family to their husband’s name as a means of asserting self-identity.
Culture members often develop different types of suffering demarked by inner self-hatred and self-revulsion but will work very hard to appear happy and beautiful in their presentations to anyone outside their immediate families. For example, the “How are you?” traditional greeting (a type of superficial check-in with another’s self-preoccupation) is expected to be responded to with a correspondent ‘fine’, ‘very good,’ ‘happy’ or ‘beautiful.’ Deviations from this social format create an undesired social obligation on the part of the greeter to listen to complaints or other self-referents from the person they’ve greeted. Close friends and family members may be an exception, but such bonds tend to be devalued in favor of working hard, using time efficiently, and constantly cultivating one’s separateness and self-differentiation. Belonging and cooperation are also very much devalued, particularly for men, except when they increase productivity, time efficiency, or success in warrior games. This approach to life generates numerous secret longings which often lead to misery, occasional violations of deeply-held social taboos, and the creation of popular songs.
Ironically, Nacirema-Orue community members unable to bear their secret misery and/or otherwise maintain strong productivity, efficient use of time, or chronic separateness risk rejection and shunning by others. They are presumed to be deficient or otherwise impaired. Some are merely ostracized from important social circles and opportunities, while others may be left to wander the community, camping out and begging for food and coins. This form of misery or ‘dis-ease’ is considered an illness or sickness which makes the affected person socially undesirable, even untouchable. Affected individuals are viewed as an economic and social burden and are pressured to seek the intervention of a spiritual healer. If they resist, they may be forced to see the healer by others or abandoned and treated as though they are invisible.
To be invisible has special implications in Nacirema-Orue culture and is experienced as worse than death. In a culture placing such emphasis on the self and the individual, this is the most severe of punishments. Some of those who come to feel invisible manifest visionary experiences that are considered further evidence of their defilement. Those who sense their own invisibility may eventually take their own lives, which may increase their visibility to loved ones for a time. Loved ones must quickly resolve their grief because preoccupation with death and loss interfere with productivity, efficient use of time, and the overall health of the Nacirema-Orue economy. Both the bereaved and abused in Nacirema-Orue culture carry similar risks of being made invisible and being viewed as defiled, deficient, or impaired.
The economic system is currently dominated by a very small class of extremely wealthy individuals who frequently pass along their status to their young. This class subsidizes the high caste of Nacirema-Orue spiritual healers in their quest to identify, categorize, label, and treat those who are viewed as defiled, deficient, or impaired by having ineffective, unproductive, and non-beautiful selves.
I was trained to administer ‘treatments’ which consist of aiding the affected community member toward resolving their inner self-hatred and self-revulsion through highly-specialized symbolic patterns of listening and speaking felt to bring gradual relief. In recent years, the interests of the wealthy class turned toward producing and marketing complex and dangerous elixirs and synthetic herbs which tranquilize, sedate, or hypnotize the afflicted community member rather than doing much with self-hatred or self-revulsion. This new Nacirema-Orue healing theory presupposes that such individuals actually have damaged brains which these elixirs correct. This new way has been promoted as superior to the older specialized speech/listening approach in restoring them at least to productivity and efficient use of time.
I was forced by this change to flee to the fringes of this society as my older form of Nacirema-Orue training fell into disrepute. I came to work with other indigenous cultures during my flight, which was life-changing and very rewarding. However, I was frustrated to discover that I was completely unprepared for the differing values I encountered pertaining to belonging and cooperation. I found myself questioning all I’d been taught, developing new ideas about human beings, and this created terrible awkwardness, cognitive dissonance, and self-questioning.
When I brought these experiences back toward the community of Nacirema-Orue healers, however, I found myself maligned and denigrated as not understanding fully that the practices of these other societies were inferior for the most part or could be easily accounted for and integrated into their new, dominant ideas. In short, the Nacirema-Orue high caste spiritual healing community does not believe that other cultures have much to offer in regards to healing. To my mind, this same caste is similarly affected by their own culturally-valued, deeply-held need to perpetuate their inner selves and now wishes to do so internationally.
Since I began questioning ideas about ‘dis-ease’ in Nacirema-Orue culture and suggested they may have to do with the culture itself, I’ve become viewed as culturally-incompetent by the mainstream of their spiritual healers. I’m not sure what the full ramifications are, but I’m already excluded from presentations, celebrations, social gatherings, and other events. I have not been allowed to depict these differences within their sanctioned literature so had to turn to the use of ‘fiction’ (www.tessasdance.com), which seems a great irony.
I’ve been able to make a living applying my now-antiquated ways with certain interested but disenfranchised clients, but I must still participate in certain forms of categorizing and labeling. My living remains dependent on the same wealthy class who subsidize a dominant healing viewpoint I abhor and oppose. I’m viewed even more as a non-conformist, on the outside periphery of what is sanctioned, than I was when I commenced my training.
I even occasionally have the sense of being shunned or ostracized. I’m writing this blog post because I’m afraid of being made invisible.
Mad in America hosts blogs by a diverse group of writers. These posts are designed to serve as a public forum for a discussion—broadly speaking—of psychiatry and its treatments. The opinions expressed are the writers’ own.