Friday, October 3, 2014

Binnie Klein talks about BLOWS TO THE HEAD: HOW BOXING CHANGED MY MIND, the weird stones in our path, letting loose, and so much more

Boxing fascinates me. It's brutal, it's dark, it gives way to great drama (think Ray Donovan), and it's an alien world to me. Now consider a book about the male-dominated sport of boxing written by a woman, with the fabulous title, Blows to the Head: How Boxing Changed My Mind. You're hooked, right? 

Binnie Klein not only boxes, she's a radio host of A Miniature World, a popular weekly music and interview program, and The Home Page Radio Show, the first radio show devoted exclusively to our relationship with our living spaces. It airs on the 4th and 5th Thursdays of each month on WPKN, 89.5FM or
But wait, there's more! Binnie is a psychotherapist in private practice in New Haven, Connecticut, and a Lecturer in the Department of Psychiatry at Yale University.

Thank you so much for being here, Binnie!

Why boxing?

I grew up in a pretty sedentary family. We were all “mind,” and there were some physical fears and phobias floating around in our DNA. In my mid-fifties, I was in rehab for a broken ankle and foot when I spotted a pair of boxing gloves in the facility. They called out to me, and I didn’t know why – so I asked the trainer to show me a few things. I fell in love with it. I ultimately got my own coach, a former middleweight state champ who loved teaching middle-aged women to get comfortable with their aggression. Although I was a complete novice and would never be a “contender,” I wanted to get as close I could to the real thing.

What is it about such a brutal sport that drew you to it?

Unconsciously, I needed to let loose, to do something that contrasted with my daily work as a psychotherapist, where I am there for the “other,” helping someone else’s journey. That requires a lot of containment of feelings, for them and for you. It takes patience. Boxing turned out to be quite the opposite, with its immediacy and complete physicality. Yes, it challenges the brain (there’s a lot to remember – protect yourself at all times, how and when to choose what punch, watch your stance, etc.), but it’s so physically absorbing. The quick decisions you make in boxing can have volatile consequences. Plus, you can grunt and emote and generally let it all hang out! (although I admit I never spit in a bucket).

Also, as women, we’re definitely not encouraged to recognize or express our aggression. I had been ambivalent about my own competitive nature. Competition and ambition don’t have to involve physical violence of course, but they do require a certain comfort with self-assertion and sometimes, appropriate aggression.
What’s the connection between being Jewish and being in the ring?

 One day, while sparring with my coach, the late John Spehar, who had a vast knowledge of the history of boxing, I asked if there were ever any Jewish boxers. The answer was a resounding “yes!” In fact, there were 26 Jewish champions between 1910 and 1940. With the waves of Jewish immigration in the turn of the 20th century, America became a new center for Jewish fighters. It was a more lucrative alternative to 16 hour shifts in sweatshops. As Budd Schulberg wrote: “To see (Benny)Leonard climb into the ring sporting the six-pointed Jewish star on his fighting trunks was to anticipate sweet revenge for all the bloody noses, split lips and mocking laughter at pale little Jewish boys who had run the neighbourhood gauntlet.”  Slapsie Maxie Rosenbloom, Barney Ross, Benny Leonard – these sounded like the names of my relatives – and I began the research that resulted in Blows to the Head: How Boxing Changed My Mind. I’d grown up thinking of Jews as the pale scholars, heads bent over books, not particularly physical. I needed this other image of strong, tough Jews to round out my experience of my heritage. And I needed to understand my own father’s love of boxing, and explore some of the sources of his own rage.

So tell us, what did you think it would be like to be in the ring, and what was it really like?

 I’d love to modify this question – because I was never in the ring the way real fighters are, and it does a disservice to those who truly face their fears and risk injury. I was a poseur compared to them, an investigative researcher. I can only speak to my experience of sparring with my coach, which was a relatively contained and safe version of the sport. Yes, we were in the ring, but as he often said “I would never use my right hook on you; I will never hurt you.”  But even being buffeted about on the head and body, I experienced sensations I’d never had. He encouraged me to thrust out punches, aim for his face. I felt stronger and empowered, and began to feel that if faced with danger I might be a wee bit more courageous in protecting myself. But for me, learning about boxing, the history of Jewish boxers, and women who box, was never about wanting to inflict pain on anyone.

When did you begin to notice that you were changing from your involvement in boxing?

The immediacy of boxing forced me to get out of my head. I looked forward to the lessons and felt a difference when I didn’t box. I noticed that I felt more confidence in general, and I don’t know if it’s primarily because I learned some punches; I think it’s because I pushed the envelope in my life. I tried something I never thought was “me.” Also, I’d never understood the lure of sports; now I watched footage of Ali fights, mesmerized by the choreography and grace. I began to appreciate the joy others took in following baseball, tennis, etc. Taking up this unusual sport late in life made me realize I could make other changes, too. I could put myself in new and unfamiliar settings – go to pro fights, meet women boxers, attend boxing camp, interview famous fighters and boxing writers. I started to write about my experiences. I’d always written – poetry, reviews, clinical essays – but it had always been a dream to do a book.

It affected my clinical practice, as I began to look at my patient’s physicality more closely. How were they with their own aggression? Were they timid? How we inhabit our physical bodies has so much to do with our sense of identity and possibility of effecting others. We can cower or we can have a stance of sorts. We are entitled to prevent others from hurting us.

What surprised you about it?

That any and all of these changes would come from a passion that most people could not understand.  “Boxing? You? But it’s so violent,” and so on. That I found connection and comfort with the boxing community, a world of people who I never would have known before.

 was surprised that this involvement and research made me more empathetic towards my family and piqued my curiosity about my heritage. I studied immigration (my mother had come from Poland at 8 years old), and talked with Rabbis. I held the rare text of 18th century fighter Daniel Mendoza’s memoir in my hands. I “worked the corner” for a young fighter at an amateur bout. I cried when a famous trainer bullied me at Gleason’s Boxing Camp. I learned my limits, and celebrated the triumphs of others.

Tell us about the “weird stones” in our path?

 Think of a walk on a beach, or on a trail. We pass many stones on the ground. Sometimes we spot an unevenly shaped one, “a weird one.” If you follow your attraction to the unusual stone and pick it up, turn it over, study its contours, you may find a hidden gem. But you have to pick it up and get closer to it. Boxing was my “weird stone.” Weird stones rub out assumptions and preconceived notions, especially when we finally see the imprint of their true shape. We can’t know the true shape when we first pick them up. They are ones that surprise our friends and loved ones. “You?” “You’re going to work with gorillas?” “You’re boxing?”

 “Each person has to find his own range considering the things that matter.” I find this to be as eloquent as it is illuminating. Can you talk about this please?

 My coach John Spehar often talked about the importance of “finding my range.” Initially it was mystifying. Did it have to do with the length of my arms? Where I stood in relation to my opponent? I was a kinetic learner, he said; I understood things only after I tried them physically, and repeatedly. The right range was the amalgam of everything he’d taught me about my body’s abilities and limits. My proper range was not so far away that I couldn’t make contact but not so close up that I would get lost and smothered. It’s like when you get too enmeshed with a loved one, you can’t quite get your bearings or feel your own boundaries; you’re merged with them. We merge when we fall in love, and it’s an incredible feeling; nothing like it, but eventually we have to re-introduce the separateness so we lose illusions and truly see the other. We try different things out -- this close, that far away -- and only by trying can we find the right distance that works for us. When my range was right, when I was “the right distance away,” I had the most power, anything that emanated from my being was authentic, even if imperfect.

 Each person finds their own range as it apply to the things that matter to them, whether it is family, work, beliefs, or relationships. These days I’m trying to find my range in relation to social media and facebook, things like that. Like many of us, I’m so absorbed and so focused on various screens, my eyes are getting blurry. I need breaks. I need to prioritize. I need to walk away so that I can come back.

What’s obsessing you now and why?

I can’t tell you how much I love that you asked this question, because it assumes that there is always another obsession. It speaks to the truth of my and many other creative peoples’ lives in particular. We have to have a project. It’s an engine inside that never shuts down. We only feel truly and fully alive when the engine is revving and adequately fuelled.

 So my current focus is the creation of a half-hour radio podcast which will weave together my long-standing interests in literature, film, culture, and music. I’ve been hosting a weekly music and interview show at WPKN, a listener-supported station, for many years, and have treasured the freedom. We are entering a new era of radio delivery, and if it is in fact going to be achieved through podcasts and easy Internet access for consumers, I want to be part of it! It challenges me to hone my skills, edit down some longer pieces, and weave together threads that I hope will give the audience a tiny bit of respite from the chaos of our over-stimulated lives. I want to share the joy I get from books and contemporary thinkers, and the thrill of discovering new and powerful music. I hope I get the opportunity to reach a wide audience.

What question didn’t I ask that I should have?

Ooh, that’s another great question. I’ll pick “What was the most fun aspect of writing the book for you?”

When I arrived at a structural component that involved a fantasied meeting with 3 of the greatest Jewish boxing champions of all time – Barney Ross, Benny Leonard, and Daniel Mendoza. It was an imaginative exercise that really stretched me. I wanted to avoid just a dry historical recounting of their lives, and I wanted to see what I had in common, if anything, with each of them, and how I imagined us interacting. Barney “Beryl the Terrible” Ross, was a champion from 1933 to 1938, a handsome gambler who loved the ponies (like my Dad). He “told” me about early beatings in the neighborhood, and his father’s murder, leading to disillusionment with “the Jewish things.”

By eleven years old, small and wiry Benny “The Ghetto Wizard” Leonard was the boxer of Eighth Street on the lower east side. He learned about his “range” by studying defense, and was responsible for boxing’s designation as “The Sweet Science.” He could use his head and understand how to succeed without being big and burly and powerful.

When Daniel “The Star of Israel” Mendoza battled in the 18th century, it was bare-knuckles, no rounds, and you went until you dropped. His book “The Art of Fighting,” discussed the need for keeping one’s equilibrium, and he described it the way I thought about “keeping one’s range”

 These remarkable men were true boxers.  I learned through writing this book that I could face some of my fears. I learned that I wasn’t really meant to be a boxer, but that in my own way, I had been, and would always be…. a fighter.

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