Sabina Berman is Mexico’s most commercially successful and critically acclaimed playwright. She has won the Mexican National Theatre Prize an unprecedented four times. She is also a journalist and has written film scripts, poetry and prose, in addition to her work for the stage. Her collection of interviews with Mexican women in positions of power, Mujeres y poder, won the 2000 National Journalism Award. She recently wrote director Jorge Fons’ new movie about the murders on the border of Juarez and the adaptation of “The History of Love” for director Alfonso Cuarón.
Maria Bustos was driving me through Mexico City on the way to see Sabina Berman. My goal was to learn about Sabina Berman’s early family life and how her family might have influenced her decision to become a playwright.
The artist gives us a way to see the themes of our culture which most of us are not capable of seeing. Deeper than the cultural influences of a specific time, a few artists penetrate deeply into the relationships process. Like Shakespeare, they can show us how people manipulate others , leading to confusion, polarities and paradoxes.
In Hamlet, Shakespeare pulls back the curtain and shows us a grown child caught in the parental triangle. The audience can see and feel the bare bones of emotional confusion and the problems created in taking sides, leading to the essential question, to be or not to be? After reading Hamlet, few will question the importance of being a well defined self. Most of us can see the difficulty, in the throes of deep emotions, to know and declare who we are to important others.
Who among us would not like to understand how to be free of these emotional quagmires? Yet we cannot free ourselves without understanding the deep and often unseen pull of relationship connections. It takes disciplined effort to be mindful of how our family history may be impacting our sensitivities and decisions. We are tuned to react to important others, and when the pressure increases on us or them, our behavior can unfold in very automatic ways, often beyond our ability to control. Do you ever wonder what made you say that or do this?
As to Shakespeare’s family life we cannot know what influenced him and how those influences may be reflected in his plays. Did he just have the right genes for being creative? What about the influence of his parents or the social and political environment on his thinking and writing? We will never know how he reacted to the expectations and pressures from his family or those around him. We do not know if he liked his grandparents or used them to deal with his parents.
But we can have a more complete picture of the lives and influences, and even genetic make up, of current leaders in many different fields. As more people, like Sabina Berman, are willing to take the bold step of reflecting on their lives openly, more knowledge will be available about the process of managing one’s self in social networks.
I am grateful to Sabina Berman, a contemporary playwright, for her willingness to give us her impression of the influence of family relationships on her development. I was curious about her life and how she developed her plays, which often combine both story-telling and ethical questioning. Would Berman consider her plays mostly entertaining or did she purposely provoke with the intent to educate? Would I remember to ask this kind of question when I met her?
Consider the predicament I was facing. In one of her plays, Yankee, Berman focuses on interrogators and the interrogated. Now I had to ask her questions. What kind of an education would I get? No doubt she would see my biases: my evolutionary take on the forces behind human behavior and my hope that knowledge of family emotional systems would enable people to see the importance of being a self.
As an interviewer my task is to ask questions that will open doors to new ways of thinking. These exchanges can also promote the ability of the interviewee to see his or her story differently. Each of our stories changes depending on who is asking the questions and how those questions are posed. If the interviewer asks more open-ended questions, the person interviewed has more freedom to clarify points or to deepen his or her understanding of the emotional forces that operate in his or her own life.
David Slone Wilson, in his essay, “Evolutionary Social Construction”, notes that we constantly construct and reconstruct our selves to meet the needs of the situations we encounter. He believes we do this with the guidance of our memories of the past and our hopes and fears for the future.
With this big picture in mind I was ready to meet Sabina Berman.
Maria Bustos and I arrived at Berman’s apartment building and took an elevator, which opened into her apartment. A smiling Sabina Berman welcomed us. Immediately I found her to be very open, disarming and delightful. She is a very accomplished woman, and I hope you will enjoy how she tells her story and questions me.
Interview with Sabina Berman
AMS: I have a couple of questions about the bridge between family life and one’s life direction but please feel free to go in any direction you choose.
I was wondering how early could you remember if and when you were just slightly different, thinking different, doing things a little bit different from others. Then I was wondering if or how did your family react to you? I was also wondering if there were other people in your family who have been artists or who have stood out who have been leaders?
SB: As I remember, I did anything to be different and be noticed. I liked to see people react. I was a very good student but at the same time, I was said to have behavioral problems. I wanted to get the attention of my peers. And I could sacrifice my teacher’s attention if I could get my peers to pay attention.
I am not sure why but I am the third child in the family.
AMS: How many were there all together?
SB: Four. There were two older brothers and a younger sister.
AMS: So you are the oldest daughter?
SB: But I was really depressed by my brothers.
AMS: How much older are they?
SB: One is four years older and the other one is seven years older.
AMS: And your mother didn’t rescue you or help you…
SB: She was too busy. There were too many children and she worked.
My mother, always she told me the story of how I was born. Said she wanted to have a girl. Said she was going to take time off just to have a girl. She didn’t work for a year. This seemed very important to her in retrospect, because she worked all the time, and she liked working.
AMS: What kind of work?
SB: After I was born, she became a psychoanalyst. Before that she was a
Criminologist. She’s really is very happy. This brings me to your second question. My father was an engineer. They were both born in Poland and met in Mexico. My father was thirty and she was eighteen and they married. They did not really tell me the story of how they met.
AMS: Maybe romance wasn’t that important to your mother to tell you the story of how we fell in love?
SB: Our family is very intense, very Polish. My parents clashed and then they got divorced. Perhaps that is maybe why I don’t remember.
AMS: Sometimes the fighting creates enough distance to mange the perceived or real difference between the parents. And then other times, no, it is too painful and the parents just drift apart. Often married people continue the relationships and just find other women, other men, other relationships, or they just bury themselves in work.
In trying to understand relationship dynamics often we see that if parents fight there is less focus on the child and the child can grow up without as much involvement in the life of the parents.
SB: Absolutely…absolutely! They gave me very attention but wanted me to work hard. The message in which they agreed was very simple and clear. My father use to say, “The night is young”.
Sometimes I wanted to complain that I was working too hard. I might be playing tennis five hours every day because he wanted me to be a champ.
My brother was a champ. And the expectation was there when I went home. If I complained he would say, “the night is young”. So I worked it out and I mean, I really, really worked. Overall it was very useful!
Being an immigrant, especially in a country like Mexico you have to fit in. There is a very open door, but once in the society is closed to immigrants. That secret has to be erased. So my parents were very clear, you have to work to earn your place in society, you have to earn it. So I go back to work as being a central value in the family.
AMS: Were your parents escaping from Poland during the war?
SB: My father came here because there was a lot of opportunity to study and work. This was somewhat before the war.
AMS: About what year would that have been?
SB: I think it was nineteen forty or thirty-nine.
AMS: Did he sense that Poland was becoming a very unfriendly environment?
SB: Yes, and that he should get out.
AMS: So he could anticipate the future. Did he come with any of his family?
SB: No one, nobody!
AMS: So who stayed behind?
SB: You want to look at photographs?
This is my father and this is his mother. As you see, he stands out. He’s like a self-made man. He’s very talented and very determined.
AMS: And this is your father and the siblings? Is he the oldest in his family?
SB: I am not sure. He was the oldest child, yes. There were five of them. This one is the uncle. He came later to Mexico but most of them died.
AMS: Were they in the concentration camps?
SB: My father does not know. He never got to know where they were. The only one who escaped that he knows of was this sister. She came to live in New York. Even thought she went through the concentration camp, she is very cultured.
AMS: It seems your father anticipated the future and was saved from the fate that happened to most of his family. Yet he did not keep in contact with anybody except his one sister and his uncle?
SB: Yes, as a matter of fact, he used the expression, “nobody survived” which was not precise.
AMS: Perhaps it was too painful for him to look for these people. He just assumed because of the tragedy that they were gone. It can be just too hard to look.
SB: No, I think his greatest love were his mother and grandmother who were dead. The sister was not very much in his conscience.
AMS: It’s interesting how he could escape and come here and then just make that assumption no one survives.
SB: He looked for them when I was very young. I only remember he told me that he went through the UNESCO. He tried all that stuff you know that the Jews did during and after the war.
AMS: But his uncle came here and found him? And his sister later found him?
AMS: How did they do it?
SB: The uncle went through the war in the Polish resistance. His sister somehow escaped Auschwitz. What she told me is that she had a machine gun, as a twelve year old. She tried to join the resistance and they said, “you’re too young” but she had no home, she didn’t want to go back to Auschwitz so she continued following the people in the resistance until they said OK, you have the machine gun so we’re going to train you.
Nevertheless, when I met her, the war had been too much and you could see that her image of herself was disturbed. She was very tortured, very resentful and always angry. After the war she became a governess.
AMS: What year did you met her?
SB: I met her in 1990 or so when my sister and my cousins decided the new generation should have reunite. Then we learned that she hated my father.
AMS: O yes the rise of sibling rivalry, which comes to us from Adam and Eve’s children.
SB: My aunt felt that she deserved something because she went through the war. My father didn’t believe so. Therefore it was very complicated.
AMS: Yes, even birds have this problem. They squabble in the nest and probably they also blame each other. We may never know if they think about what they do. More than once I have wonder if people think much about one what they do to one another.
Birds push each other out of the nest in an effort get more food or attention if you will. Each mother and father have to decide how much should I give to these guys and how much for me.
It was Robert Trivers who gets the credit for observing this common theme in social species. He developed the idea of parental investment and is one of the great names in evolutionary biology because of this.
The primitive question in social groups is, how much for the others and how much for me? It all boils down to is: “Am I going to survive or not.”
Every family has this problem to solve. But if you go through a war or something horrendous like that it can be even worse. And if you have Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome the effects of the war can linger for a long time complicating matters.
Your aunt sounds like she went through a difficult period where it becomes almost impossible to keep herself going in a “normal” way.
I saw this with my father who was an Intelligence Officer in the Second World War. He was the first intelligence officer to fly in a B29s and gathered intelligence. After a bombing raid they would exam the photographs and decided what were the targets that had been hit. Perhaps they guessed as to how many women and children may have been innocent bystanders of the war or they may not have wanted to know. My father did a great job. He got commendations and medals, but then after the war, he became a…
SB: …a communist terrorist?
AMS: Close, he was a terrorist of some kind.
SB: I’ll try not to, you know, to make a story.
AMS: I will have to write that one if you will not. But of course it influenced my life and my choice of career. I needed to understand human behavior.
SB: I was going to be a psychoanalyst but then I taught literature and became a writer. I studied psychology and literature.
AMS: And your mother was a psychoanalyst?
AMS: And still is… Where is she living?
SB: In Mexico
AMS: And how old is she?
SB: Her name is Raquel Berman, Rachel in English. She’s 80
AMS: Eighty, and she’s still a psychoanalyst. That is wonderful.
And your father?
SB: He died
AMS: What year?
AMS: And what did he die from?
AMS: So, very quickly?
AMS: A stroke and then he suffered?
SB: He lasted for seven years.
AMS: Seven years
SB: On and off, he was in and out of conscious.
AMS: Did your mother look after him?
SB: No, they were divorced.
AMS: Yes, that’s right they had the conflict, which didn’t help them. Then they found other people or they separated?
SB: They separated and then they found other people then they went back to each other.
AMS: Ah, that’s interesting.
SB: They were embarrassed to tell us about this. But they were seeing each other. But they didn’t go to live together. They decided they could be lovers.
AMS: So they never married anyone else?
AMS: They had different relationships with people but nothing that really mattered as much as the fighting that they could have. The fighting and the loving they could have with each other. So when your father got sick, who took care of him?
SB: We cooperated. But my mother, no, she’s not that type. My brothers and I were taking turns.
AMS: Who emerged as the primary caretaker?
SB: My older brother moved to my father’s house.
AMS: That’s how families are, eventually someone emerges and does what needs to be done, or things fall apart. In well functioning families someone comes up to do the job. If you don’t want to do the job, it’s ok because someone will come up and take the job. How about your younger sister?
SB: My younger sister and I are very good friends. She lives in New York.
She immigrated to America but we talk on the phone at least one hour every day.
About every month I go to New York or she comes here.
AMS: What does she do in New York?
SB: She is writing now about Mexican American artist. She has her PhD in philosophy of art.
AMS: She is married with children?
SB: She has two children.
AMS: And do you have children?
SB: No I don’t. She has two boys. They are fifteen and ten.
I never married by the civil law. I’ve had three important men, in my life, so far.
AMS: How about your two brothers?
SB: My eldest brother never married. My other brother married and had two children. The younger one died from a car accident three years ago.
AMS: That’s devastating
SB: Yes, his son was nineteen. The oldest one is a girl. She is very much like me. She just finished at Harvard. But she’s going to go into business instead of psychology.
AMS: What will she know of your family? Your father’s family may be hard to find now. He was not sentimental about his family but he treasured these pictures of his family. It sounds like he became a tough man.
Perhaps, we can speculate, he had to leave home at a too early age. When this happens it easy for people to become falsely over adequate.
I don’t know if that happened with your father. But he seems to say, “I don’t need my family.” I have heard many men say, “I don’t need my family.” “I can do everything myself.”
SB: I think so. I didn’t know what words to use to describe it but he was distant,
perhaps he was even arrogant. He was distant and he was disenchanted from all human kindness.
He was not the life of the party but when he spoke his words were powerful. He was such an anarchist. I use to laugh till I cried when he told me his morals about life.
AMS: So he was an anarchist because of what he saw with the Nazi’s, that human nature is evil much of the time.
SB: He saw that human nature could be molded to accept cruelty very easily.
AMS: I understand, under the proper circumstances. A book that looks at how people can be easily molded is “The Lucifer Effect” by Phillip Zimbardo. He organized the prison experiment at Stanford University to understand how the Nazi’s could do what they did to the population. He recruited normal college students and half of them were guards and half were prisoners. Within three days the prisoners had forgotten their names. The guards were mean and oppressive, humiliating them taking away every shred of identity that they had. So in three days, they had even forgotten their names.
Amazed at this change Phillip Zimbardo brings his girlfriend to show her this amazing reaction. It was a version of what the Nazi’s would do. And his girlfriend said, look if you carry this experiment out one more day, I will never see you again. Not one more day. Not in the name of science nothing. It’s so horrible.
SB: These kinds of traumas can last for a long time. I had a cousin who was compassionate but he seemed very disenchanted, even though he became rich. I remember once I was eight and came and stayed in his house. I saw he had a small room where he slept. I was surprise as every night he was sleeping with the light on. I asked my father, isn’t he crazy? He said that this was a useless word. His behavior was probably because he must have been very afraid.
I was so moved to imagine this guy being by himself, there alone without family, and being scared. Even with his gun he was scared.
My father could go on and just say things like that with a lot of insight about the very basic necessities of life.
You know it was not social skills at all. I think it was a way of being able to see himself in the person, on the other side. He opened doors like this all the time. We are the same. I recall him saying about a black man that he was so handsome. It was not social skills it was the way of seeing himself on the other side.
AMS: To see the humanity…both positive and negative and not linger in a morbid way but to move on. How did he earn a living?
SB: He was an engineer and later he built a screw factory.
AMS: What got him into a screw factory?
SB: My father was fascinated by how machines worked. He was a wonderful genius, very inventive but not so great as an administrator.
AMS: Did he learn engineering in Poland?
SB: No, he came expressly to study here at seventeen. He went to the National University.
He falls in love with Lázaro Cárdenas, the president of Mexico at that time. He was a socialist. The first time he saw him talking in the downtown area, he was saying, we need to put the lights on all over the country. So my father became a young socialist in Mexico, even though he was Jewish. My father was always telling me, I’m saved as in this country I have a future
In fact what made my father decide to stay in Mexico was hearing the leader of the socialist party youth speak, The party was ruling Mexico and this leader was Jewish, and that made my father fall in love with the country. This young man’s family built this building. Then many years later I came here and I bought this apartment. And still today over half of the floors in this building are owned by this man’s family.
AMS: That’s a funny connection, a bit of synchronicity? There is a great deal of interest in the unusual ways that we are connected to those who were of interest to our families.
It seems your father is a very highly intuitive man. He notices changes in society. One clue, he’s pretty sure, two clues, yes, that’s it, he leaves Poland and shows an interest in changing society through socialism. He seems to say in his actions: “I don’t have to worry about this decision. I am going to move on to the next thing.” He makes a judgment, leaves Poland, comes to Mexico, become an engineer, and builds a factory and around thirty years of age he meets your mother.
SB: No, he met my mother before he became the owner of his factory. He meets my mother and then he has two children. He knows he has to make more money and my mother, the daughter of an exiled entrepreneur, talks him in to building his own factory. So he builds a factory and they become rich. Sounds easy, and they used to say it was easy.
AMS: So after the two children, the boys are born he has a factory and then your mother is able to take off work for a year because she wants to have a girl. Your Dad works harder and your Mom has time off. That is my funny interpretation.
SB: It is funny, yes. Only it is only half true. My father expected to be the sole provider in the family. My mother worked out of her necessity to have her autonomous identity. Her words: autonomous identity.
Do you think she put the big pressure on him to be successful in order to have a girl? And then when you’re born, the boys pick on you because you’re a girl? It would kind of explain their picking on you.
SB: I’m not sure why they pick on me?
AMS: Well, my daughter has two boys and then two girls and then a boy. I had two brothers, younger. So I picked on my brothers.
Perhaps the overall explanation is that it is almost automatic for the oldest to pick on the youngest. Men pick on women, some say because they are bigger and then they can control them and thereby have reproductive security.
These picking on or controlling behaviors are an advantage in adulthood in managing self in a group, at least from an evolutionary perspective therefore as children we need to practice.
Among my grandchildren I see how the girl wants to keep up with her brothers. Before her younger sister was born she fit in with the boys by being a bit of a tomboy because she wants to be like them and they reject her and push her around.
Now if I am there things change. I take on the boys and demand respect for the girl or threaten to turn them upside down. Often the mother is so busy she doesn’t have time to really pay attention to this ongoing conflict.
I can also see how triangles play out. The two boys are natural allies. The girl is on the outside. Without somebody who is going to run interference, the girl is going to get hammered. In her case, as in yours she had a sister and now she has an ally.
I’m not sure how much younger your sister is?
AMS: Ok, that’s interesting. So you had to manage much longer than my granddaughter. She only had to wait two years for an ally. You had to wait until you were five. So you had to develop a lot of strategies to deal with these powerful boys. I guess your mother went back to work after you were born?
SB: Yes, but first she took another year off to nurse me and then she went back.
AMS: And who was there in the house for you as when you were young and growing up? Did they have a caretaker?
SB: Yes, but they changed.
AMS: So you found books?
SB: Right, I love books!
AMS: Books, that’s what you found because you were good in school.
SB: Well in my household, there was no option…you had to have good grades.
AMS: To survive you have to be good at something. I’m a good tennis player, which helped me in school, as my grades were spotty, because I’m dyslexic. I failed Spanish and Latin, as I could not repeat the proper sounds or words. But a few teachers saw I had potential and encouraged me despite my learning disability. Sometimes people fit into the regiment of being good at school and they don’t develop their creative side.
AMS: What about you? Did you have to develop a creative side or it just came?
SB: I think I was very much by myself. I remember thinking about things that did not make sense. I remember thinking about the Bible. Many nights I was asking myself and asking God, is this justice? Is this a correct to think about men and woman?
First, he created man then woman. I felt that was a way to show prejudice against women. And there are no heroes in the Bible.
AMS: Yes, and you noticed that you had this in your family. There is an inequality because of the age and size of your father who is the dominant man, and then you see this inequality sanctioned in the Bible.
SB: In this questioning state there is the beginning of my creativity. Different truths were presented which were not really true. There were all these inconsistencies.
I have to really think things out. And maybe I’m like my father in some ways, as I always doubted that the authorities, the teachers, knew the real truth.
AMS: That’s a wonderful thing. There’s neurobiologist from Chili named Humberto Maturano and he says, “Question authority.” Always seek more than one answer. His contention was with increasing choices one’s brain becomes more creative, filling in the idea gaps with an artistic self. To the artist often there is no ultimate truth just the momentary aha! You were very young when you figured all this out.
SB: I was very much aware of inconsistencies. Americans seem to search for information, very factual, while Mexicans are leery at heart. Mexico is a mixture. We come from Polish roots in addition. Therefore I want the attention on the untruth, of the so-called truth.
AMS: How did you develop this skill? Were you a good writer early on? Did you write at eight or ten? Did you write your own stories?
SB: I wrote poetry. I love the technology of writing. You draw letters that are sounds that become words that become imaginary things in your mind. I’m still fascinated everyday when I write with written language.
AMS: I see this playfulness with sounds early on in my little grandchildren. The sound of the word becomes a joke because of the twist in how it’s perceived initially and then in what it becomes. Is this what you’re thinking about how there is a twist in the meaning of words?
SB: Yes, but also the word and its sound signify something greater or more natural.
If I found a word or story I liked I would want to tell my father or want to tell my mother and then they went, “ah.” They were very positive.
I use to come from school and tell them stories. I use to talk to my mother for an hour about stories that were completely false. Now I know that she knew I was making things up but still she went “Ah.”
For me the big challenge was to make my mother and my father laugh. They were always separate.
AMS: Did you wanted to make them laugh and perhaps love one another? Or just to make them happy for the moment.
SB: To laugh and to love. I have to joke. People cannot change that much but they can laugh.
AMS: So what you did with your parents, entertain them; you could do the rest of the world? You could transfer that ability once you learned it from your built in audience. Your parents were your first critics. Fortunately they had a predisposition to admire you and appreciate your work.
SB: Absolutely, I have to thank God for that. My two parents, even though they weren’t with each other could appreciate the work. I was not feeling guilt for their separation. They didn’t fight for me. My parents and sister were integrated as good objects inside of me. I learned to fend for myself and although I was popular, I knew I had to do the work.
AMS: You have the courage to perform and give others your truth. You seem to be saying this truth does not have to be the real truth, it’s just is your own truth.
SB: You know something I am having an insight. I cannot tolerate when there is somebody who needs negative energy. I’m not the person who can perform like that. I’m going just be very frank about it and say I don’t want to work with you. But I’ve been wondering for a couple of years, why I’m so mean to those who try to influence me in this way.
AMS: Perhaps it is not easy to set a limit. You set a limit with people who are critical because it’s not part of the way that you want to be or the way you learn. Perhaps you expect them to know that about you?
SB: It’s not part of the way that I prosper and I have nothing to give to people who are critical because they shown me their mind is closed. If the door is closed, I can’t bother to open it. It is a war I don’t want to fight.
But as you know, there are some people who really are very sly and rule over other people. I do not always see this happening at first.
AMS: I try too hard and much of this is a waste of time. You could easily divide people into two piles. It might be fun as away to understand others. There are always the people who like to complain and whine, and then there are the people who are going to do something positive.
Some will take action, accept responsibility and make some kind of a difference. You can see that almost immediately when you ask people to help out. As soon as they open their mouth, the critical people are other focused people. Once something goes wrong they look not to “what can I do” but to blame others and focus on what you are not doing right. This is sweet trap for people who are trying to make the world a better place or the shadow of the parents happy. I understand the trap.
And for you, you start out as a youth entertaining your parents and then your peers. So was school a positive experience for you?
SB: I started in psychology but then I was not sure why I was there. I had to study something, as I was eighteen year old. And then I found theater. There was a drama company. I was there as a student but to work I had to sign an application to be a professional. So even though I had not been to a drama class in my life, so I signed to be a professional. I quit school to be an actress.
AMS: You were how old?
SB: I was eighteen
AMS: You were eighteen and did your father and mother have a fit?
SB: Yes, my father was not very happy. He told me it was a mistake. There I was working in the theater and then I started writing for the theater.
AMS: What year was this when you began writing? Did you have a muse? Did you have a person who coached or inspired you?
AMS: You just thought again?
SB: Of course, that was the most important. I remember the director. He gave me an exercise, an improvisation with a monologue. I said I prefer to memorize my own work than somebody else.
AMS: You were brave to say such a thing.
SB: I wrote the monologue, which was inspired by the Bible. I was talking to God. But it was very tragic. Eventually I started writing for my own company. After a year I gathered my own company. We won a tournament and the prize was to the country for several months. And I knew then that this was my life, my passion.
AMS: What do you think the impact of your work on other people has been?
For me it’s important to communicate, so my texts are very clear. But for me theater has to be also much more than words. It has to capture the mind of the public –fascinate it with beauty—and they bodies to –that’s why I want them to laugh, to shake them in their seats.
First, I made very abstract theater, philosophical. But I couldn’t achieve too much. So I changed, and what I do is –you might call it: social comedy. The comedy is with social themes.
In one way it’s interesting, because in some ways nobody gets it. What I write is about the theater of the absurd. You write about one thing and they think it is another. It’s about a door that opens to some place and when you perform it people hear it and the door they saw went to another place. I wanted to stop this talk about what they think they saw. In one way a writer can become what are they talking about.
So I changed my world completely. I always wrote comedy but now I write about the social scene.
AMS: What year about was this? What was the social issue that you were having fun with?
SB: It began in the 1980s when gender issues were beginning to be important. Perhaps the country was ready to be shocked. This country is fantastic for that we invented the word machismo.
AMS: How did you do it?
SB: I made a comedy about the admiration of the patriarch in a fundamentally humorous, paradoxical way. Then we made a movie out of how they cut up woman. I made a company about Machismo. Between (Between Pancho Villa and a Naked Woma)
AMS: I am interested in how society has changed. I too saw a lot of change in the way people live their lives and what they value. I saw amazing changes. First, I was divorced in 1973 and I noticed almost half of my friends were also divorced. It was almost like herd behavior. The relationship between men and woman was disturbed.
First, there were the sixties, woman began using birth control and working and then there was a large increase in divorce rates. It appeared to be independent decision but in society as reflected in the arts, the relationship between men and women was disturbed.
The women’s movement began, as did the civil rights movement. Some kind of tipping point occurred. I wondered what was the impetus for social change now?
I happened upon, Jack Calhoun’s work. He did the population studies for the U.N. and said the population would increase until the year 2024. If there were not changes in reproductive behavior, there would be great difficulty in keeping the population at a sustainable level.
Calhoun predicted that family life would change dramatically and that three quarters of women would be divorced from reproduction. Women will have to become procreated instead of biologically created. If this strategy is successful eventually the population will decrease to a sustainable level.
Creative people produce additional social space. We use to explore physical space but now we are exploring social space.
Based on the structure of the life of early humans Calhoun thought the family of the future would consist of loose networks of twelve adults and eighteen children.
I had an Aha! Our instincts to survive and to adapt to changing conditions could be influencing the structure of the family. At any point in time people can say the world is going to be like this forever. This becomes crazy making. So I became very interested in self-organizing systems. I was interested in people who had a method to guess about the future plus enable the population to adapt to change.
SB: You think there is a race for wisdom. I think you were saying that the anthill was wise?
Andrea: The wisdom of the hive shows us how self-organizing works. There is no top down plan. The emergence of an adaptive response by the group demonstrates that the group can know without being told what to do.
People put a lot of faith in reason, yet it is hard to prove that your thoughts occur before your brain fires. Libet’s research was a shock. He showed that our thinking is a half a second behind our readiness for action. The talking, thinking brain is often autobiographical rather than leading the way.
The exceptions are when you say no to some habit. I’m going to quit this… I’m not going to do this instead. Then yes, the mind can lead the way through inhibition.
I like to ask, if you have all the power, how are you going to change Mexico? How do you think you could influence the system as it is now?
SB: You’re asking me?
Andrea: Yeah, I’m asking you, but you don’t have to answer right now. But this is what you’re doing in your writing. You use entertaining information to help people see.
I think that people who know more about their past see more about the future, as they understand history and their roots. You’re using entertainment to help influence people?
I use erotic information. Information that is full of life. That tends towards life. This is one of my life decisions. If I am going to something I will move towards the erotic. Fiction is important but I also have a program and it transforms me too. Last week we had transsexual people on Mexican TV for a whole hour. These were people who were going to get married. For me that was entertainment and a big service. For this small minority people, that is a service as people get to know them as real. It opens the mind of people.
We are not yet with the values of New York or San Francisco but we have the Internet. The world is going to be more and more globalized, even here in Mexico.
We are not using the ideas within our country. We are having the invasion of ideas from the outside. We are paralyzed. We have a bit of democracy but now that we have it we are paralyzed. We are afraid of change. Mexico is more conservative now than it ws four years ago. What about what it is that is happening here. I am trying to look at this.
Poverty is our deepest problem. Rich people are very convinced that they can make a change but it is not happening
Because we come from a long tradition of political power, Mexicans are overly concerned with power. Power seems more important than before and now we have elected a democracy.
And yet we are still so afraid of change. People are more conservative now than they were years ago. And what about what happens all around us, the social stuff. What about the people? How can we speak to what is happening around us.
AMS: Democracy at its best represents the wisdom of the crowd, but it is dependent on information, which is autonomous. When we are overly influenced we act like a non-thinking herd of cows.
If any democracy were cut off from the rest of the world, it would be similar to the nuclear family cut off from their extended family. The problems become more intense in smaller systems with no or little outside influence.
Are you saying Mexico is more cut off from the rest of the world than the US? Perhaps the lack of information is due to the large numbers of people living in poverty? But you are saying the intellectual, the ones who could know better, are afraid to see and to act?
SB: Because we come from a dictatorship, part of the dictatorship has a legacy of maintaining power, political power. Everybody wants to be the president of Mexico.
Americans wants to be many things, some want to be artists, or rock stars. There are lots of place where one can excel, although there is still prejudice and social injustice.
AMS: That’s true.
SB: Mexico is very much obsessed about power. So that becomes the main discussion.
AMS: And I come here as a stranger and I say Mexico is complicated, who could have a vision of how to make things better?
SB: You think it possible?
AMS: Perhaps a new way of being in this country will not come through powerful people but from the grass roots efforts to promote opportunity for ordinary people.
Sometimes America is called the land of opportunity, as it is possible for poor people to rise up. In a capitalistic way people are able to solve problems at the local level. This is how I became interested in the entrepreneurs culture here in Mexico.
So far the Mexican government has not been able to figure out how to solve the problems of transportation, the tendency of monopolies to dominate, the increasing levels of pollution and as you said the crushing poverty.
Perhaps there is no one smart enough to create a better path and therefore I would come to the conclusion that power doesn’t matter.
What might make a difference is a practical approach to the problems that people can understand. This is how leaders stand out from the crowd. They find the pulse of what people can accept, and then lead them forward into an unknown future.
Abraham Lincoln did this incredibly well. People could not accept that slavery was evil so he framed it as the importance of preserving the union. Now we see Obama and Hillary Clinton trying to attract followers through their ideas.
SB: Absolutely… That’s wonderful all the problems that we have today we think are about power. Instead you think it’s about ideas.
AMS: Ideas have a very different kind of power. They are more like a virus. No one can control them. They are everywhere and nowhere. Ideas, if they are entertaining, like yours, open the mind in unknown ways. Ideas also create a social space, which is now becoming more important than physical space.
I see our time has run down.
I hope we can continue this conversation. We began to open many of Pandora’s boxes. Thanks you for giving us your time and insights. It has been fun to know a little more about you.
SB: You are welcome and I will look at your website.
Sabina Berman’s Mindful Compass
(1) The ability to define a vision:
Sabina Berman was young when she discovered the fun of entertaining her peers. Early on she discovered a love of poetry and her fascination with the written language. She discovered how to bring love and laughter into the lives of her parents. Often she would come home from school and tell stories that delighted and amused her family. Perhaps it was only natural that when she had the opportunity to quit college and become a professional person in the theater she happily took the chance.
Of course many children can be entertaining and technically excellent in their writing but still lack a profound way of understanding and communicating well to the broader world. One of the differences is the ability for the artist to develop a penetrating insight into the nature of humans. With a “different” way of seeing one will never be great. Sabina Berman has the gift of seeing deeply and wondering deeply plus the well tuned ability to use words to shock and stimulate.
How much did her family experiences enable the profound nature of her work? One can only guess where her talents spring from? We do know she was exposed to great literature and surrounded by intellectual parents. Her ability to observe relationship dynamics all around her is still informing her vision. Added to this is that she has an overarching sense of curiosity and wonder plus a feeling of social responsibility to inform people of the pressures of “evil,” in its many forms.
At a young age Sabina Berman was questioning all things that just did not make sense to her. Her highly developed sense of justice was useful in question everything, even God’s fairness.
It was this deep curiosity that she credits with beginning her sense about her own creativity. Much of her work has been focused on the ”untruth” of the so-called truth.
For me it’s important to communicate, so my texts are very clear. But for me theater has to be also much more than words. It has to capture the mind of the public –fascinate it with beauty—and their bodies to –that’s why I want them to laugh, to shake them in their seats.
(2) The resistance to change in self and in any system:
As we hear in her story her first real encounter in relationship dynamic pressure was when her parents were resisting her efforts to having a more low-keyed life as student. She was given a push to work hard from her parents. The night is young, her Dad would say. Eventually she found her own middle road. She notes, I learned to fend for myself and although I was popular, I knew I had to do the work.
When she was eighteen she decided to quite college and work in the theater. Her father was not very happy. He told her it was a mistake. Nevertheless she began to work and write for the theater and then a new life opened up for her. She dared to dream and to act. In addition there was no anger expressed at the resistance of her family, just a willingness to persist.
Another insight she had about resistance is that when people are negative she cannot keep trying to win them over. Eventually she is able to draw a line and just say NO to such people.
I’m going just be very frank about it and say I don’t want to work with you. But I’ve been wondering for a couple of years, why I’m so mean to those who try to influence me in this way. It’s not part of the way that I prosper and I have nothing to give to people who are critical because they shown me their mind is closed. If the door is closed, I can’t bother to open it. It is a war I don’t want to fight. But as you know, there are some people who really are very sly and rule over other people. I do not always see this happening at first.
Seeing the resistance and the seduction away from her principles clearly and then taking a stand to maintain her own direction is one of the skills that Sabina Berman continues to develop.
(3) The ability to connect and use systems knowledge:
Having a mother who is an analyst no doubt gave Sabina Berman a foot up in understanding human nature. She lived in the atmosphere that was oriented towards thinking about human nature. In addition she had an eye out for observing the humor in relationship dynamics. Even her early fighting relationships with her brothers amused and puzzled her.
You could say that writing for the theater is clear evidence of one’s current understanding of the connected nature of our relationships. Since her gift has been to use words to paint a picture of the human, galvanizing people, to take corrective actions. Sabina Berman questions the kinds of pressures put on people in the different segments of society.
In one way she shocks people into waking up and seeing their own connection to others. Clearly she has been able to clarify and use her talents in taking on societies pretends.
Many people close their eyes to what goes on in the underside of any group. Sabina Berman takes her understanding and couragiously reveals to the public what it is they are participating in through silence. This does produce discomfort. Yet, so far she has been able to craft her knowledge into a grain of sand creating pearls of deep value.
Over time Sabina Berman has become more integrated in her ability to act on knowledge and to take a stand in her social communities. By continuing to participate in altering injustice in the social arrangements within society she is living out her way of dealing with her profound understanding of human nature.
Sabina Berman continues to provocatively communicate and perhaps even slightly intrude on people’s comfort level. She enlightens people in the way she dramatizes the predicaments of all people. She remains a provocative voice that we can recognize as being deep and still elusive.
In one way it is interesting, because in some ways nobody gets it. What I write is about the theater of the absurd. You write about one thing and they think it is another. It’s about a door that opens to some place and when you perform it people hear it and the door they saw went to another place. I wanted to stop this talk about what they think they saw.
(4)The ability to be separate:
As noted in the quote above Sabina Berman has had to be able to be separate from her critics. She has a talent to describe a world which can be sad or even horrid, as in how people take advantage of one another, yet she remains detached from the “evils” in and of the world, which is basic to seeing and communicating about these tensions in a new way.
Being an artist may always require a tolerance in one’s soul for being misunderstood.
The true artist has the ability to separate and still deeply strike a cord with the audience. She aptly describes the process: an artist must arise above the tendency to give into the audience, to being bought and sold by the local social truths and the need for approval.
Sabina Berman’s North Star is her deep ability to be a part of the social system while being deeply separate from it. She tells us is she is alone in the creative spirit and rejoices returning again and again to entertain and possibly educate us before withdrawing again to muse.
In one way a writer can become what are they talking about. The country was ready to be shocked. This country is fantastic for that we invented the word machismo.
Books and Articles Mentioned
Social Evolution by Robert Trivers
The Lucifer Effect by Phillip Zimbardo.
THE TREE OF KNOWLEDGE : The Biological Roots of Human Understanding by Francisco R. Varela, Humberto Maturano
The Theatre of Sabina Berman: The Agony of Ecstasy It is evident that Sabina Berman’s theatrical acumen matches the depth of her dramatic design whether it is the sheer variety of techniques from song to staged tableau that appear in The Agony of Ecstasy; the physicalization of what it means to be interrogated and to interrogate in Yankee; It is the combination of theatrical technique with universal themes of self-definition that cuts across cultures and ultimately makes these plays translatable.
 The Literary Animal: Evolution and the Nature of Narrative, Edited by Johathan Gottschall and David Sloan Wilson
Lázaro Cárdenas was born into a lower-middle class family in the village of Jiquilpan, Michoacán. He supported his family (including his mother and seven younger siblings) from age 16 after the death of his father. By the age of 18 he had worked as a tax collector, a printer’s devil, and a jailkeeper. Although he left school at the age of eleven, he used every opportunity to educate himself and read widely throughout his life, especially works of history.
Cárdenas originally set his sights at becoming a teacher, but was drawn into politics and the military during the Mexican Revolution after Victoriano Huerta overthrew President Francisco Madero. He backed Plutarco Elías Calles, and after Calles became president, Cárdenas became governor of Michoacán in 1928. He became known for his progressive program of building roads and schools, promoting education, land reform and social security.
After establishing himself in the presidency, in 1936 Cárdenas had Calles and dozens of his corrupt associates arrested or deported to the United States, a decision that was greeted with great enthusiasm by the majority of the Mexican public.
Cárdenas subsequently decreed the end of the use of capital punishment (in Mexico, usually in the form of a firing squad). Capital punishment has been banned in Mexico since that time. The control of the republic by Cárdenas and the PRI predecessor Partido de la Revolución Mexicana without widespread bloodshed effectively signalled the end of rebellions that began with the 1910 Mexican Revolution.
Cárdenas is considered by many historians to be the creator of a political system that lasted in Mexico until the end of the 1980s. Central to this project was the organization of corporatist structures for trade unions, campesino (peasant) organizations, and middle-class professionals and office workers within the reorganized ruling party, now renamed the Party of the Mexican Revolution (PRM).
During Cárdenas’s presidency, the government expropriated and redistributed millions of acres of hacienda land to peasants, and urban and industrial workers gained unprecedented unionization rights and wage increases. The railway Ferrocarriles Nacionales de México was nationalized in 1938 and put under a “workers administration”. However, Cardenas and subsequent presidents also used the PRM and its successor, the Institutional Revolutionary Party or PRI, to maintain political control; leaders of the worker and campesino organizations delivered votes and suppressed protests in exchange for personal favors and concessions to their constituencies. Also central to Cárdenas’s project were nationalistic economic policies involving Mexico’s vast oil production, which had soared following strikes in 1910 in the area known as the “Golden Lane,” near Tampico, and which made Mexico the world’s second-largest oil producer by 1921, supplying approximately 20 percent of domestic demand in the United States.
of March 18, 1938, Cárdenas nationalized Mexico’s petroleum reserves and expropriated the equipment of the foreign oil companies in Mexico. The announcement inspired a spontaneous six-hour parade in Mexico City; it was followed by a national fund-raising campaign to compensate the companies. The company that Cárdenas founded, Petróleos Mexicanos (or Pemex), would later be a model for other nations seeking greater control over their own oil and natural gas resources and is the most important source of income for the country, despite weakening finances. Seeing the need to assure the technical expertise needed to run it, Cárdenas founded the National Polytechnic Institute.
Lázaro Cárdenas was awarded the Lenin Peace Prize for the year of 1955.
The first scene of Sabina Berman’s new screenplay, “Backyard,” is set in a strip of desert known as Las lomas del poleo outside the Mexican border city of Juárez. A woman’s body is found half buried in the sand. Although the mangled and decomposing corpse is unrecognizable, the uniform she wears reveals the name of the multinational corporation which owns the maquiladora or in-bond assembly plant where she worked. While photographers, reporters and investigators circle and pace around the body, the camera pulls away to gaze out at the incongruous backdrop of transnational corporate office buildings and juxtaposed shantytowns that make up a large part of Juárez, perched just below El Paso along the U.S.–Mexican border.
Since the early 1990s, Juárez has been under siege. Over the past decade roughly 385 women have been killed, often in sadistic and gruesome ways, and about 1,200 more have been reported missing. “Backyard” is a screenplay that explores the circumstances of these unresolved murders and the way in which they have been normalized in everyday life in Juárez. Berman’s text probes the reluctance and apparent refusal of both the Mexican and U.S. governments, as well as the multinational corporations that run the maquiladoras, to properly investigate the murders and bring those responsible to justice.
In the discussion that followed the reading of her screenplay, Berman stated that she wanted to situate Juárez as a cosmopolitan city, however contradictory and flawed. She also highlighted the fact that despite the status of Juárez as a border metropolis with a thriving drug trade and sex industry as well as a large internal migrant population that comes to work in the maquiladoras, Juárez remains a place of intense poverty and social injustice. The political instability and corruption that has come out of Juárez’s condition as a major industrial center is illustrated in Berman’s screenplay by the continuous struggle for power between the cronies of the multinational corporations and the local political bosses.
Also locked within this battle are those activists who, often against all odds, try to unravel the mysteries and inconsistencies surrounding these crimes and the identities of the perpetrators. This volatile situation reveals how deeply Juárez is affected by and involved in the politics of globalization. What is most interesting in this text is the way in which Berman pushes the audience to think about the way in which Juárez and its inhabitants are imagined from outside, as well as the way in which they imagine themselves.
Since the early 1980s, Berman has been one of Mexico’s most prolific and successful playwrights, and has significantly contributed to the rejuvenation and continued development of Mexican theater both nationally and internationally. The recipient of numerous awards, Berman has won the national playwright award from the Instituto Nacional de Bellas Artes (National Institute of Fine Arts) four times in five years. In addition to being the best-known and most performed playwright in Mexico, Berman is also an accomplished director, producer, novelist, essayist and poet and has written and performed several plays for children.
Sabina Berman is UC Berkeley’s Writer in Residence for the spring 2005 semester. She presented a reading of her new screenplay Backyard in a talk titled ”Theater Crossing Borders“ on February 1, 2005, in Stephens Hall