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Thursday, May 26, 2016

Cynthia Pittmann and Humans of La IUPI (Complete Interview)

Interview by Humans of La iUPI - Gabriel Ramos and Nahmyr Mayas - who can be found on Facebook at Humans of la IUPI

Interview of Prof. Pittmann

APRIL 24, 2016 

A segment of this interview was published on the Facebook Page Humans of La IUPI  on April 24, 2016. The interviewers and administrators of the FB page are university students Gabriel Ramos and Nahmyr Mayas. They interview people associated with the University of Puerto Rico, Rio Piedras in order to bring a common understanding between people, and their FB page is associated with Humans of New York.

HOLI: How has your day been so far?

Pittmann: Today has been an interesting day because there was a spur of the moment change that often happens here in Puerto Rico.  I had extra time so I met up with a student for coffee and talked with her about her autobiographical story. After our meeting, I went to the planned assembly (and the reason classes were canceled) and it was so packed with people!  Students, professors, and support staff were sitting in all of the chairs, on the floor and standing up in the back. Since there was no room, I left. I had a free period so I came here [to the APPU patio] a little bit early and had lunch.

HOLI: When you were young, did you think you were going to be a professor?

Pittmann: When I was young –for a quick minute—I wanted to become a hip go-go girl. I had a lot of funny dreams like that. I think most young kids do. My strongest desire though, was to go to college. Since neither of my parents had finished high school when I was growing up, they didn’t really know how you go about planning for college. They always said: “Yeah, go to college.” And later on, when my mother completed high school and started community college, I thought that I really didn’t want to do it that way. By the time I was 16, I decided to join the Navy to take advantage of the GI Bill and its educational benefits. It did work out because the military paid for my college education for almost 5 years. I got my BA and through my MA degree. It was only about $400 a month, but it was still really helpful. I had to have a part time job while attending school so I could manage. By then, I really wanted to be a writer but was not ready to admit it. That career was just so unheard of! In my background no one had any experience with writing as a career. If you told anyone that you wanted to write, they thought it was unrealistic and that you could never make any money to support yourself.

HOLI: That same thinking still goes on today. What was behind that? Did you write all the time?

Pittmann: I started writing in junior high school; I started writing in a journal. I had a teacher who told us to just write to a friend or to no one. We could write to ourselves. Whatever we wanted to do, we  were required to write. So I started writing a letter to a friend and then I just kept it up. I liked it. I called my “reader” a friend forever. I still have that journal. I just remembered thinking: “You know, it would be great if you could just write and express yourself all the time.”

HOLI: When you showed the class your blog, one of the things that interests us the most was the writing about your mother. We read a little and it says that she was killed by her neighbor because of her sexual orientation. Can you talk to us more about your mother and your relationship with her?

Pittmann: My mother was born on October 31st, which was the Witches Day or Halloween, and she thought it was funny because people are so superstitious. She just took the meaning of her birthday as a playful sign of personal empowerment. I liked the way she could reverse the meaning of symbols and my blog is dedicated to her. I can’t say that we didn’t have a complicated relationship when I was growing up. She used to call herself fertile Myrtle because she started having kids when she was 19 and every year after that she had five. She decided after we were all raised to go back to college. I was in the Navy and everyone else had moved along. I think it was when she was studying social work and gender that all of the questions about her gender orientation started coming up. At that time, a Wayne State professor had the students do a project – a self-ethnographic study. After she was murdered, I found the journal-like study and read through it. I found out she had gone through a lot of tough times when she was growing up and that society wasn’t helpful or forgiving. Her parents had problems and the world was a violent place in this young girl’s eyes. I still think the world is still a violent place for a lot of people. In her case, she never seemed to question her sexuality. For her, she thought of herself as just a tomboy. After going to school and talking to a lot of people, I think she started to realize and acknowledge that she was attracted to women. One time she called me on the phone when I was living in California and she wondered aloud, “Why is everybody was always asking me if I’m lesbian? This conversation was a several years before she died. I told her: “Well, are you?” And then she didn’t say anything. I think she started to acknowledge that she liked women. Her call was a sort of testing the water, to see how her family would react to the news. Because I was okay with it, and my older sister was too. My brother has a little trouble accepting Mom’s same-sex gender preference, he doesn’t think it’s right. That resistance to unconditional acceptance is why I have so much of my mom in my blog. I take her life as an inspiration. She and her partner Christine Puckett started  Affirmations in Michigan, and the group is for LGBTQ rights as well as a social organization, which is nationwide now. It offers a lot of support. I’m proud of her for doing that.

HOLI: Where were you on the day that she was killed? How did you find out?

Pittmann: I was working at the Naval Consolidated Brig in Miramar, California. It was Communications Counselor/Life Skills teacher for confined people who had problems with violence, with themselves, or just problems in general. They talked to me about their personal problems. When I was at work, my sister called me and she said that Mom’s been murdered. I said that it wasn’t true and asked her how she knew. She said our cousin called and I still said, “How do you really know?” I didn’t want to believe it unless I really new for sure. I said to her, “Call me back when you really know.” She kept trying to convince me, but I wouldn’t believe her. I think it was a self-defense mechanism. I refused to believe her. Work was a strange dynamic after that because some of the inmates were confined for gay bashing, or some were sexually active while knowing that they were HIV positive and not informing their partners. It was a new kind of crime that was just classified as assault. I was in that kind of situation where assault related to gender prejudice was visible and relevant. At that moment, I wasn’t thinking about that. I was thinking about the trial we had to go through, and writing letters to the judge, and most of all trying to find out why it happened. When that kind of thing happens (a murder), you have so much curiosity. I think that’s also a way of being protected from feeling. You think that if you know how it happened, you can change the past but you cannot. That thinking process is good for you because it helps you to open up to the reality of the murder slowly. And then dealing with the real truth, which is that your neighbor has killed your mother and her partner. So, it was tough for everybody in my family.

HOLI: What is the current position of the person who committed the murder?

Pittmann: James Brooks? He was convicted of double homicide, and since he was an older man, he stayed in jail until he died. We didn’t ask for a capital punishment because most of my family members didn’t believe in it. The majority of us don’t but the lawyers thought that double homicide was the way to go and so that’s the way we went. It’s surprising because I knew him so well. When Christine, Mom’s partner was out in the yard stabilizing some fence posts, he was in the kitchen with a bunch of guns. He just picked one up and shot her from the kitchen door and then he got another gun and walked over to her. My mom went out when she saw Christine on the ground, and while my mom was talking to him, he just lifted the other gun he had in his hand and shot her right in the center. And then, he went back and shot Christine in the back just to make sure that she was gone. He had a strong feeling that it had to be done because they were violating a natural law or something. He felt that he was doing a necessary service – like when you shoot a horse with a broken leg. His idea was that it had to be done, it’s a part of society to be eradicated.

HOLI: How did you look for closure or do you embrace the situation?

Pittmann: Early on I learned in that there wasn’t going to be a complete closure from this experience. The only way you could deal with something like this is if you look for meaning and some kind of way to help— to memorialize your loved ones or help prevent that from happening to other people. That way you develop compassion rather than bitterness. One of the inmates at the brig talked to me about his reason for confinement. He told me that he had friends in Texas, and sometimes they went to a bar and when they saw a gay person leaving the bar they would follow him and used a bat to beat him. He was ashamed because he never connected a person to the violence until he found out about my mother. He needed to confess and asked me for forgiveness.

HOLI: In some way, you’ve seen bad or evil in people. What’s keeping you so sane, or at peace with yourself? What’s giving your life meaning?

Pittmann: I do a lot of thinking about how people are in life and in general. I’ve realized that through connection with others and developing compassion for others you can have a meaningful life. It gives your life meaning. I’m not excusing Brooks for his violence but I believe everybody has that possibility of violence within themselves. We need to develop compassion and to realize that we’re all connected. We need to realize that it’s not always just one person who is responsible for a violent crime. Sure one person goes to jail but in this case, I feel that it was a bigger problem. Society was involved. There were people who shared his beliefs and made him feel that he was doing the right thing. We need to learn to love one another, and I know that sounds cheesy, but to connect with each other no matter our differing backgrounds. Make the world better for ourselves. I think I had that belief before my mom was killed, but this experience has put it to the test. We have to be tolerant with one another. We’re disconnected from our inner world and we’re products of our immediate environment. We are not aware of what our hearts feel and as a result, we forget that human beings matter. Maybe Brooks got too isolated? And maybe he felt confused. My mom didn’t think he was going to do it. Maybe he felt angry, and probably felt he was doing something out of loyalty to my father who had died years before.

HOLI: It’s really shocking. You said society is disconnected in some way and I share your opinion on that because we see in the news that there was an earthquake and a lot of people died, a catastrophe, and we don’t feel it. We talk about it but we don’t know what they are going through. I think it’s because we are sitting behind a cellphone or a computer, and we just can’t relate.

Pittmann: Yes. I had a disconnect when I found out my mom was killed, and that kept happening over and over. I would forget and then painfully remember. My mind pushed away the pain. We have these pain barriers that sometimes keep us from the opportunity to feel empathy. Our mind is engage, but our hearts are not. We have to be all together in this world.

Friday, February 19, 2016


When I dare to be powerful,
to use my strength in the service of my vision,
then it becomes less and less important
whether I am afraid. ~ Audre Lorde 

When I ask my students to write a poem, a hushed and anxious silence comes over the room. I feel their soft tissue contract and hard shells close down. It's all over now. Gone is their creative inspiration. No pearls of poetic wisdom will be given here.

I understand that writing (and sharing) a poem is akin to revealing your most embarrassing moment so I usually try to find a sideways strategy to coax open those locked shells. 

Step 1: Acknowledge Our Common Humanity

It helps to know that everyone can be vunerable. To that end, I might tell them about my most embarrassing moment to give them the courage to open up again:

I was a drum major leading the Huron High School marching band during halftime at the homecoming game. For those of you who don't know, this American football game is part of a tradition that welcomes back alumni. In consequence, the stands were packed full of current students, friends, teachers, administrators, as well as former graduates. There was a light rain that evening when we marched briskly across the field. Challenged by my co-leader Mark Gardner, I learned to kick high while twirling the baton. When I finished my high kicking and baton stunt, Mark would throw his high up in the air, spin around, catch it and march along again. He loved to do daring performance throws. Most often, he would catch the baton, but sometimes he would miss. It didn't stop him, and he constantly pushed me to do more. Our performance was going fine that night, but I was a little worried about my kick. I would make it high this time. I'd show Mark that I could lead as well as anyone. 


The game was so close! Everyone sat in anticipation. When we finished our musical numbers, it would start again. All eyes were on the field as we turned the corner. I'm the first to face the tightly packed and excited crowd. Throwing my baton and kicking high, I felt the rhythm. I knew I could do more, kick higher, and really show my enthusiasm. Inspired by the driving beat of the drums, I pranced proudly and kicked higher still. So high, in fact, that I landed in great surprise on my backside!

The crowd was suddenly hushed while a slow building roar of uncontrolled mirth rolled over the bleachers and arrived to my burning ears. They're laughing! They're laughing at me! Up, I jumped. I looked back and here comes my ever teasing competitor.  When he's within earshot I whisper, "Stop Laughing! How could you!?" My eyes screamed at him but meanwhile, I must gather my injured pride and continue as everyone knows that the show must go on or to borrow another useful cliché, I thought:

You have to get back on the horse when you fall.

I marched up to the front, turned and waited for the band.  It's time to conduct the ever popular Washington Post March. I lift my arms, blow the whistle in two-step time and begin. I dare a look over at Mark, and yes, he's still laughing. 

Now, I laugh, too, but it took a while to find any humor in that public humiliation.  

Oh vanity. You are a tough adversary! 

I thank Mark to this day for helping me realize that I needed to be more playful and take risks and their potential failure lightly.  Later, I became more able to gracefully accept my flaws and find the freedom in laughing at (and with!) myself.  

As a writer, it's important to  be emotionally honest. As a writer, the biggest failure is if you are not authentic because readers will let you know - even if it's just by ignoring you. Be brave. Make mistakes. Besides, you can always edit later. Go ahead. Put yourself out there! You have so much to gain by focusing on your vision instead of worrying about your vulnerability. 

Washington Post March

After reading that story of my own humiliation, I encourage you to remember and let go of any idea that you have to protect your image. Offering an undefended humanity to others as you write is the most generous and appreciated gift. 

Next up, I ask the question: What are the most important aspects of compelling writing? 

John Philip Sousa wrote the Washington Post March in 1889 for a literary contest. In the inaugural Amateur Authors Association essay contest sponsored by the Washington Post, which was held on the Smithsonian grounds on June 15, 1889, a crowd of 25,000 people gathered to listen to the march and watch as 11 students (8 girls and 3 boys) received their gold metals.