Unplaying the Shame and Blame Game

Part 10 in multipartite post, The ‘Madwoman’ v. the Madness of the State.

Judge ______ may not comprehend the value of healthy communication in business, public, or private affairs, but I do. Consultants to Bill Gates may not be able to imagine repairs for the damage caused by passive aggressive communication beyond seeking still more money or implementing still more technology, but I can. Military experts and mental health professionals may not be aware of alternatives to recovery from trauma healthier than their heavily lobbied and efficaciously questionable pharmaceutical products, but I am.

To me, a communications problem is a design problem.

In 2012, the Department of Justice invested $3.3 billion – that’s B-as-in-Boy, not a typo, not M-for-Mary’s-Little-Lamb – federal taxpayer dollars for an award-winning graphic design communications model that might be as unfamiliar to lifelong AIGA members or the Clio-collecting communications industry as it was to me before I ever further focused my job market research, disrupted by the raging monologues of my passive aggressive brother-in-law who wanted me to pretend to be an uneducated woman entering the workforce for the first time and as if I learned nothing in college, graduate school, or through my post-graduate job-seeking adventures. While simultaneously scrubbing his property clean of three or more generations of accumulated familial filth and fetching and serving at the querulous and impulsive commands of his abusive mother. For far less than our federal minimum wage. He may not be motivated to get out of bed for less than $50 grand a year, but boy oh boy are his expectations much higher for the other members of his housing compound. Unfortunately, the Duluth model teaches passive aggressive communication skills to adult women and men whose own parents, teachers, and religious or community leaders failed to teach them how to resolve conflicts in healthy ways, thereby exacerbating the problems that the nonprofit purports to solve for our Justice Department.

Do I need to remind readers that the first court-ordered psychologist to analyze my Cousin Ted diagnosed his personality as passive aggressive? According to the nonprofit organization’s annual report for that year, the combined force of 21st century technology, taxpayer dollars, and the nation’s internal military (i.e., police force) is unable to even describe loving, healthy communications without invoking still more violence:

duluth design analysis

Similarly, even the communications experts who maintain Liz Claiborne’s global portfolio of brands are unable to identify love without also communicating abuse, for its educational program ostensibly targeted toward ending adolescent dating violence:

claiborne design analysis

Quoting from the Duluth mission statement, “We give voice to diverse women who are battered by translating their experiences into innovative programs and institutional changes that centralize victim safety.”

The thing is, I do not give permission to any US Banker or anyone else who sits on the board of directors of this hypocritical or well-intended but misguided or badly educated organization or anyone else to take my voice from me. “The unforgivable would consist of depriving the victim of this right to speech, of speech itself,” as I cited in my thesis research the work of 20th century philosopher Jacques Derrida explaining the simultaneous, though contradictory, necessity and impossibility of the principle of forgiveness.

In presuming to speak for me, this model of “anti-violence” commits unforgivable global violence. Centralize safety? Or centralize traumatized victim monologue? Centralize woman as victim, thus replicate the abusive hierarchical dichotomy of our society that the organization claims to fight against? Regardless of the quantity of thin mints their legions of uniformed girls may have sold to increase their CEO salaries, I do not need their “help” translating my expertise, but our system of jurisprudence and law enforcement departments across this nation desperately need my visually educated help if they genuinely want to achieve the written goals of this organization.

Their visual communications speak otherwise. Here is an organization suffering and spreading severe pain, branding and identity developed by bureaucrats in love with their own acronym, spells nothing, rhymes with rape:


Spikes of pain radiate out from this organization unfamiliar with the organization of color in both our natural (scientific) and cultural (artistic) worlds. If you have never mixed mineral-based colors on a palette, think rainbows or spectrums visible via the relationship between sunshine and water. According to their simplistic pie charts, the domestic violence project spiraling out of Duluth spent a mere $13,577 on fundraising, or marketing, in 2012, yet miraculously spread its passive aggressive communications strategy to nations as far afield as American Samoa, Australia, Hong Kong, Norway, the United Kingdom, sovereign tribes within the borders of U.S. and Canada, hosted visitors from Iraqi Kurdistan and Turkey, and their representatives have received honors from the White House and traveled to Colombia and Singapore pitching their product.

An additional $68,911 buys brand recognition on the back cover of DAIP’s annual report for the shell subsidiary of a multinational oil company responsible for slave labor and civil war in Africa, cheap plastic retail product manufactured and sold by global slave labor, educational tests rooted in eugenics or genocide and designed to increase tech sector profits while crippling the critical thinking abilities of future generations, and paying its CEO a salary in excess of the salary and benefits package of the President of the United States:

duluth design analysis3

Given the opportunity, I will save my more thorough analysis of the unhealthy communications cartwheeling from Minnesota for still more writing. Suffice it to summarize its failure to teach conflict resolution and healthy communication through another anecdote. In the field of design, this is called primary research:

On my way out of Seattle, I provided emergency overnight shelter for a friend who has been homeless even longer than I have, battling through an acrimonious divorce, together with their young child shifting from house to house or car to motel after you run out of friends or family. A graduate cum laude well-versed in the Minnesota model of victim indoctrination, she was readily able to describe for me each of the spokes on the Duluth Power and Control Wheel, even without Google’s help prompting her rote memorization of free, online knowledge. She easily, almost cheerfully, shared specific examples of her husband’s abusive behavior during her second marriage following her childhood traumatized by incest abuse, yet is still not ready to recognize her own coercive and manipulative behaviors that contribute to the passive-aggressive dance of their abusive relationship, with their child tangoing along for the duration.

Next I asked DAIP’s target audience about the difference between their models for violence and nonviolence, or their Equality Wheel, or, “What does a healthy, loving relationship look like to you?”

She snorted self-deprecatingly before shrugging, shaking her head, and giggling a little, “I. Don’t. Know.”

You can maybe see why it might be challenging for graduates of DAIP’s anti-violence program to visualize the difference between abusive communication and loving, healthy communication?

duluth wheels side by side design analysis

Closer examination of the fine print buried in the identical visual graphic reads as if it was written by someone who took a one-semester correspondence course in Feminist Theory 101 or maybe acquired that knowledge online and for free, without the benefit of group discussion, deeper readings or self-reflection, coupled with zero understanding of human psychology or the interrelation between any two individuals, and now tries to apply the theory to near-universal taboos and the most heinous crimes in our society: child abuse, rape, and homicide.

Clicking on Seattle’s newspaper prior to election day 2013, I was not at all surprised to read that, according to Seattle Police Department’s own statistics, domestic violence crime increased by 60 percent between 2009 and 2012. That confirms my expectation after interviewing on 12 September 2012 with Sarah Sorensen, Volunteer Supervisor, Victim Support Services, who first introduced me to the Duluth models. Just to clarify, Ms. Sorensen’s role means paid supervisor overseeing volunteer labor, the first to arrive after armed and uniformed officers have secured the crime scenes, her own supervisory position most decidedly not volunteer. Yet another position seeking and desperately lacking my educated professional expertise in exchange for the same wages offered by Seattle’s unionized school teachers, the director of Boise’s homeless shelter, and Bill Gates.

Bonus, while surrealistically evaluating me for any bigotry that I might hide, Ms. Sorensen was even willing to freely toss in a lip curl and squinted eyes responding to my experiences participating in the community memorial totem carving project as well as the same sneering derision for my poverty as a sitting member of Seattle School Board, most of my immediate and extended family, and Meridian Police Department.

With even the so-called experts and community leaders desperately needing to learn how to treat other folks with what I consider to be basic human dignity, what other communication models offer market competition?

All of the mental health professionals on staff at two of Idaho’s psychiatric facilities strenuously avoid teaching or assisting their patients with conflict resolution, and most of them refrained from practicing healthy communication in their interactions with each other as well as their clients. Instead, they deliberately shamed their patients for our behaviors, replicating the parental shaming that occurred during the all-important first five years of an abused or neglected child’s life. Without intensive trauma recovery and self-awareness, the behaviors role modeled for the child become nearly hard-wired or cemented well into adulthood. When staff’s own passive aggressive communication or bad behaviors interfered with their ability to perform their taxpayer-funded jobs, those conflicts were blamed on their patients. At least one group leader earning a paycheck from Intermountain Hospital openly preached a mentally unhealthy directive: “You want to avoid the anger.”

Anger is a powerful, but superficial feeling that, examined more closely, inevitably masks deeper feelings of sadness or fear. Never in my life have I experienced or observed anger in others disproving this theory of basic human psychology. To paraphrase psychotherapist and spiritual guide Thomas Moore, Ph.D., the lesson that anger tries to teach our conscious minds is to listen to our deeper feelings hidden by anger. Listen up, anger says. Hear me, or I will crank up the volume still further. Anger, without awareness of those deeper feelings, travels along the spectrum of violence and, repressed long enough, eventually explodes as rage.

While incarcerated at Intermountain Hospital, I asked one group facilitator for her suggestions for conflict resolution strategies, or healthy communication.

“You mean communication styles?” the ubiquitous sing-songy, little girl voice.

Intermountain Hospital’s sole attempt toward teaching healthy communication and conflict resolution, a hierarchical, bullet-point list photocopied crookedly down the page, and presented to their patients only after multiple requests by an involuntarily held client with graduate-level education in design and psychoanalytic theory:

intermtn hosp comm styles design analysis

Healthy communication is labeled as “assertive.” While it is assigned hierarchical privilege at the top of the list, nothing on the page gives any indicator that these communication “styles” might be behavioral choices. The all-caps, bold, and underlined categories communicate far too many typographic options available thanks to late 20th and early 21st century technology, with which design literacy simply has not kept pace. Ditto with the array of bullet point dingbats. Nothing about the page layout indicates communication as a dialogue between two, the challenges and nuances of all communication, where “assertive” to one person might appear as “aggressive” to another, with vast differences between cultures, across communities, and even within families. As I’ve noticed in my family, and again in my interactions with Idaho’s Designated Examiners, direct or healthy communication can be frightening or threatening to the passive aggressive or abusive communicator. Masking fear, the passive aggressive communicator then responds in anger and threatens or accelerates abusive behavior along a spectrum of violence.

According to Intermountain Hospital’s communication model, passive and aggressive communication are ordered as distinctly separate “styles” rather than cyclic unhealthy, or abusive, communication. No individual remains passive from birth to death or lives without experiencing anger, because anger is a human emotion. Even the most aggressive individuals have phases of passivity. At the height of his aggression, Ted Bundy slaughtered five women in one night, but throughout his career of rage, his murderous aggression alternated with interludes of passivity.

Further, mental health professionals were unprepared to offer recommendations for resolving conflict between healthy and passive aggressive communicators.

“Sometimes, you just have to leave,” that group’s facilitator stated, without suggesting how to accomplish that feat or offering safety from abusive communicators.

Passive aggressive communication is dishonest. For individuals taught passive aggressive communication by their parents dishonest with themselves, in their marital relationship, and in their relationships with their children, in adulthood, healthy communication changes the rules. In public affairs, rules for healthy or civil communications are defined by law, as you know much better than I do, Professor McConnell. That is why I am seeking your help. You are an expert in the laws that define our civilization. Whenever I try to solve a problem, I go to educated experts and ask. Why reinvent a wheel if a better wheel has already been designed and built?

A third communications model introduced to me by a privately employed, state-contracted counselor fails to visually communicate with its potential audience without further written or verbal explanation:


This vernacular graphic design appeared on the refrigerator after one patient’s state-sanctioned counseling session following a week fraught with unresolved multigenerational household conflicts after release from Idaho’s psychiatric facilities. The letters match the first initials of some of the people in the household, but the arrows did not correspond to that week’s conflicts, thus even a professional designer could not puzzle out its meaning without asking.

Sating my curiosity by attending a follow up session, that counselor’s other methods for “therapy” include: projecting his feelings onto his clients while insisting that he “feels” what they feel rather than simply asking what they might be feeling, vehemently avoiding exploration of early childhood development to gain better understanding of adult behavior, holding up a hand prohibiting his clients from speaking if they express ideas that better educate or inform his own, and an inability to judge spitting and slapping as abusive behaviors, while using Christian dogma to shame his client for her participation in that week’s intergenerational family conflict. He credited Alcoholics Anonymous for this graphic design that fails to communicate codependent or abusive relationships between roles defined as perpetrator, victim, rescuer, and judge, and further fails to recognize that passive aggressive or abusive relationships only require unhealthy interactions between as few as two parties.

Instead of misdiagnosing or shaming their clients, or replicating the bad behaviors of their parents, what might happen if state-sanctioned counselors began modeling healthy communication for their clients?

Where is the model for healthy, loving, interdependent communication?

As the communications experts maintaining Liz Claiborne’s global portfolio of brands point out, love and abuse should look nothing at all alike.

So, what does love look like?

The world’s branding and communication and law and order and mental health experts may not be qualified to envision healthy, loving relationships, but I am.

In my graduate research published in 2008 I got as far as describing unhealthy, codependent, or abusive public and private discourses as playing the Shame and Blame Game. Unlike less educated or passive aggressive analyses that readily point to their opponents playing the blame game, while failing to identify both their own participation in that same game and its intricate relationship to the underlying psychology of shame, my thesis offers visual, written narrative, and tactile solutions crossing the problem of that imbricated border between any two. If readers have access to an academic library or interlibrary loan, they may benefit from the experience of learning what does not, purposefully, readily translate via screen media alone. As a designer, I can empathize with the psychology experts and their difficulty devising a healthy communications model, as it took me another four years of post-graduate research co-mingled with professional job-seeking experiences before I began to design a model for healthy, interdependent communication or what I call Unplay the Shame and Blame Game.

Human communications are that complicated.

And this simple:

Likely you could find similar thinking in Eastern, Persian, African, and American indigenous cultures, but because I owe much of my education to Western civilization, I trace the lineage of my logic through that genealogy descending through René Descartes:

descartes stick figure

Descartes severs the mind from the body, privileging logic over emotion:

descartes severing mind from body

If René had been born into another era and did not already privilege his masculinity (culturally associated with logic) over femininity (culturally associated with emotion), he could as easily have concluded:

movo ergo sum

I hurt. I am in pain. I feel scared. Therefore I am.

Inverting that hierarchy still results in the same narcissistic subject self that begins in I, ends in I, and stutters a whole lot of the first person pronoun in between:

narcissistic subject self

Cartesian logic operates on not just a horizontal hierarchy, but also cuts vertically, separating mind/body, internal from external, and self from other:

self other stick figures

Mind is privileged over body, and self separated from other:

mind body self other separation

But the human being is a social animal. After our basic needs of air, water, food, shelter, and warmth are met, the essential human desire seeks another to hear his experience. Francis Ponge and Julia Kristeva further examine how our language reveals that desire:

i speak and isn't it nice that you hear me?

Feminist theory challenges the patriarchal presumption of subject self as male:

and what about my i?

This challenge applies equally well to difference between any two human beings as long as our global community continues to be structured in terms of power-over instead of power-with.

From philosopher Judith Butler, referencing the work of psychologist Jessica Benjamin, intersubjective communication between two healthy, ego-invested human subjects or nation-states taking turns speaking and listening, reporting feelings rather than repressing for later acting out on them, sharing judgments where neither subject’s ego collapses or feels threatened by the judgments of the other:

we speak and we hear; therefore we are

Respect means, simply, hearing and being heard.

This is what a healthy, loving relationship looks like:


Notice one subject is not lording over an object. Neither of their positions obliterates or subsumes the other. Both subjects are fully present on the same plane, engaged in dialogue.

In intimate relationship between healthy subject selves, that dialogue between two is sacred space, both partners listening to feelings and judgments of the other for the pure joy of hearing the sound of the other’s voice. Disagreement, either partner saying “no,” as every successful sales manager recognizes, is simply an opportunity to negotiate to “yes,” conflict resolved not through coercion, manipulation, or force, but through conversation with each hearing the concerns of the other before reaching compromise. In healthy relationship, no need for repressing feelings or avoiding resolution out of fear of sharing judgments until conflict necessitates confrontation, thereby escalating violence.

Public affairs in a healthy society would be restrained to civil dialogue, instead of what we have now, with leaders or pundits name-calling, finger-pointing, and spinning around what I have coined their passive aggressive volvelles to rationalize their actions divorced from their words, along with our incessant yammering about the rightness or wrongness of lopsided, ill-formed opinions.

Unhealthy or abusive relationships, with the more physically or economically powerful partner or nation stamping its arrogant foot and insisting on the rightness of its judgments uninformed by other perspectives, look more like this:


Red means stop.

From the moment Officer Justin Root clamped handcuffs too tightly around my wrists, bruising me, all of the abusive behavior that I observed and experienced at the hands of state and state-contracted employees within Idaho’s broken mental health juridical system followed this structure of passive aggressive communication, the same communications pattern that Cousin Ted followed to rationalize his kidnap, rape, torture, murder, and necrophilia of his victims:


Officer Root: “Nope, I just checked them.”

Rationalized by my mother as “maintaining peace in the home” in domestic affairs, a public office example of the second stop on the passive aggressive volvelle is when former Seattle Police Chief Gil Kerlikowske, since promoted to Commissioner of Customs and Border Patrol, avoided resolving conflicts with the police union after having first denied institutionalized problems later defined by the Department of Justice as excessive force along the spectrum of violence. This stop on the volvelle occurs when the passive aggressive encounters a problem that s/he does not know how to resolve:


Systemically, the third station around the passive aggressive volvelle defines the State of Idaho’s entire approach to mental health. By isolating from wider society the victims of adverse childhood environments, the state implicitly or explicitly blames those victims sometimes themselves grown into abusers. Perhaps because their behaviors are socially unacceptable, or perhaps the story that I heard repeated over and over and over again, with subtle variations, from patients involuntarily held within the state system: because those patients are structurally situated in the less powerful position within their individual abusive families. With no role models for healthy communication. No skills for internal or external conflict resolution. Having endured childhood trauma that ranges from simply not being heard to more severe psychological and/or physical abuses.

One teeny, tiny example of how passive aggressive communication infects the entire system, during my second and final meeting with Dr. Olnes, to my surprise, he blamed me for not supplying references so he could verify my mental wellness with witnesses from the outside world, without giving me a chance to respond to his accusation. Factually, however, if we could remove from the equation the psychiatrist’s understandable exasperation operating within the limits of the state system or having his limited time and resources wasted by families who are not healthy enough to resolve their conflicts within their own homes, three references were included in the written materials that I requested that his staff add to my chart and that my entire state-assigned treatment team please read prior to scheduling our team meeting and planning a course of “treatment” for resolving the state’s abuses. Requesting that staff return that contact information to me so I could at least call my professional references prior to them receiving cold calls from the state mental hospital, his clinician readily agreed.

Then failed to follow through prior to our unscheduled exit interview.

Yet another teeny, tiny example of mental health professionals holding their patients to higher expectations than they set for themselves.

State hospital policy excludes “the most important member of the treatment team” from both the vernacular graphic design of their trifold brochure and treatment meetings, a top-down, dictatorial process for psychiatric treatment:


Looks like the field of psychiatry has become a growth industry since Dora quit seeing Freud, recognizing his diagnosis of “hysteria” as the white, male authority figure not listening to his patient:


Did we suffer regular campus homicide/suicide attacks prior to the heavily lobbied, state-sanctioned, widespread dispensing of psychotropic medications?

While Dr. Olnes and his staff thankfully concluded, after two weeks of observing my behavior, that I do not meet the criteria for Ms. Dalrymple’s “diagnosis” and Meridian Police Department’s violation of my civil liberties, still he refused to listen to my perspective providing insight as to how so many mental health professionals could apply such a wide variety of mental illness labels to me.

“I think I can explain that,” I offered, “Would you like to hear?”

“No,” Dr. Olnes curtly denied the State’s victim’s right to speech.

While I have described that perspective here in some detail, after four weeks evaluating visual and verbal communications of the state’s psychiatric facilities, I was prepared to summarize the reason for the diagnoses offered by Idaho’s mental health professionals in three succinct words:

Passive aggressive communication.

Individual abusers and abusive state systems avoid self awareness or repair of systemically broken bureaucracy by blaming their victims:


As I read the article that prompted Seattle’s former mayor’s wife’s decision to stop respecting her local print news, I recalled my decision to top with plastic Homer and Marge figurines the wedding cake shared with the prosecutor and son of ex-FBI parents in an attempt to combine the disparate interests of two distinct individuals. Carrying none of Peg’s martyr baggage, I hear no media “bully,” but a tongue-in-cheek report offering almost no editorial opinion while providing excellent feedback from voters, giving her husband ample time to change his public behavior before the next election cycle. And of course her reference to the “anti-bullying” policy of Seattle Public Schools demonstrates the failure of any program that labels victims and bullies without teaching healthy communication skills. Fourth stop on the passive aggressive volvelle:


Quickie lesson in critical thinking or truth serum for the products of both Seattle Public Schools and the State of Idaho’s beleaguered system of education who will otherwise miss out, try to identify the implied thesis of the newspaper’s political pundit: Mayor McGinn is not to blame for the 60 percent increase in domestic violence crimes during his tenure in office. And the “proofs” supporting that thesis: we’re spending more, we’re doing the same thing with the same staff, but we’ve changed the names of their jobs, “…and the change of a name is meant to be accepted as a change in the nature of the thing named,” Joan Didion writes in her scything, evocative critique of the U.S.-backed Salvadoran regime that disappeared thousands of its own citizens in the early 1980s.

When we learn to Unplay the Shame and Blame Game, then we no longer concern ourselves with blame or fault, rather, we can identify systemic problems, and get to work on solutions that actually work.


I consider it a sign of relative good health that Seattle’s new Mayor Ed Murray speaks openly of experiencing familial abuse in his own childhood (at 13:55). At least he is not living in denial. His leadership actions will demonstrate whether he is a survivor, meaning a former victim who has effectively healed those traumatic wounds, or whether he will twirl around the passive aggressive volvelle and blame his staff or victims of crime or acts of God if he also struggles to find systemic solutions for complex citywide problems for which he is responsible in his new position of leadership.

My solution looks ridiculously simple to learn how to Unplay the Shame and Blame Game. And it is. Healthy communicators may recognize this model simply as healthy communication, or you may have never given this much thought to what was already role-modeled for you by healthy parents, teachers, and community leaders. Lucky you. For the rest of us, you simply take the passive aggressive volvelle and push-pull it inside out. At each station along the way, perform its opposite. If you descend from multiple generations of familial abuse, healthy communication may feel uncomfortable at first. Like learning anything new, you get better with practice.

While the traumatized subject self revolves around a seemingly never-ending wound or martyr narrative, when turned inside out, a circle might also be a healing shape. Think the lunar sphere, the shape of the earth that holds such wealth of biodiversity, a pregnant belly that nurtures a new human generation into life. Where the motion of the trauma narrative spins in a never-ending circle, you might jump out of that chaos at any station, make that leap from victim/abuser to survivor, and by survivor I mean not merely a victim who endures a crime, but transforms into neither/nor but a third way of being not well defined in our known languages, a rebirthing into the uncountry of philosopher Hélène Cixous, the alchemical process that you must perform to change your life in the words of poet Rainier Maria Rilke, learning to nurture yourself or undergoing a process of rematriation, a neologism I coined in grad school.

Instead of denying the experience or perspective of the other, listen:


Reporting or self-examining our feelings in the midst of argument or conflict takes a tremendous amount of self-restraint, particularly if we have not disciplined ourselves to recognize our feelings as distinct from the actions of others. It may or may not be appropriate to report our feelings aloud if the other is unable to hear or empathize with our feelings in the heat of the moment, but we can always self-check, and by the time a public figure prepares a statement for press release, passive aggressive communication displays nothing more than ineffective leadership. Are you responding in fear or anger? Instead of retreating in fear by telling yourself oh poor you, how the other simply wouldn’t listen to your opinion, or arrogance by telling yourself yours is the only opinion that matters, self-check, report your feelings to yourself, and move on to the next station, Unplay the Shame and Blame Game, by hearing the perspective of the other:


Instead of Seattle’s former mayor’s wife blaming the newspaper for doing its job, or the White House encouraging education administrators to teach prepubescent or adolescent brains to avoid resolving conflict by categorizing the world in terms of black/white, victim/bully, right/wrong, may we teach/learn that intersubjective communications or healthy dialogue between any two means owning individual behavior, recognizing bad behavior as abusive, and promising to change? Philosopher Hannah Arendt described for us the essential correlation between forgiving and promising. The victim forgiving without the abuser owning and promising change of abusive behavior guarantees future abuses, as in family, so in public and business relations:


Challenging, nuanced judgments to make when deciding to speak out against injustice versus refraining from speaking, along that spectrum of violence where not-speaking might communicate anything from approval or acquiescence to abuse to simply judicious restraint during difficult conversations or all the way to unforgivable crime, a victim deprived of her right to speech. No conflict is resolved by avoiding the problem, however, and oftentimes avoidance exacerbates a problem, until the avoidance itself becomes bigger than the original conflict:


At this point, readers may be saying to themselves, but this is just another circle. Placed side by side, the passive aggressive volvelle of abusive communications and the healing shape of loving, healthy communications look very similar. How does my solution to the design problem resulting in the taboo crimes of child abuse, rape, and homicide in intimate relations, and mass school shootings, torture, and genocide in public affairs differ from the Justice Department’s 3.3 billion-dollar graphic design cartwheeling out of Duluth?

Unplay the Shame and Blame Game resolves any of the conflicts described in the fine print on the spokes of the wagon wheels lumbering out of Minnesota, plus any others that might arise in personal or public relations, increasing Boeing’s budget by plus or minus $12 billion, for example, and saving incalculable human misery spawning generations worldwide. The passive aggressive volvelle and the healing circle of healthy communication are not intended to be placed side by side; healthy communication turns inside out and revolves in the opposite direction from abusive communication.

My simple cartoons and Venn diagrams here require much more graphic design work, paying as careful attention to our visual vocabulary and grammar including subtleties of typography and spacing in our process of communications between human beings as we now only prioritize communications when selling global brands or products:

unplay identity design process

My current visual challenge in designing an identity for Unplay the Shame and Blame Game is that the simple graphic shape of a circle split into four equal parts soon begins to resemble a swastika, with its unfortunate attendant mid-20th century cultural connotations. Like any design problem, I will solve it through the design process.

In healthy relationship, neither ego feels threatened or subsumed by hearing the judgments of the other. Each self feels safe reporting even deep feelings of sadness or fear without masking those feelings with anger.

In passive aggressive communication, the structurally less powerful partner refrains from sharing judgments out of fear of the structurally more powerful partner’s aggression; the structurally more powerful partner shares or acts out feelings of anger, hiding those more vulnerable feelings of fear or sadness at the separation from the other. And of course that means it is the responsibility of leadership or the structurally more powerful individual to establish safety, even if that means admitting vulnerable feelings. There is strength in vulnerability.

Branding and communications experts worldwide already know the complexities involved behind simplifying the identity of an entire firm or institution to a single mark; lay people oftentimes observe the end product of brand identity and provide uneducated, derisive feedback while ironically spending, over time, trillions of dollars on brands that have effectively identified their audience and manufactured desire for their products via the seductive means of visual communications.

While I have already abandoned one possible permutation for just the ampersand, this motion graphic clip illustrates the complexities in designing a brand identity for Unplay the Shame and Blame Game:

Enormous insight into the irresolution of conflicts in both our private and public affairs once I recognized that the passive aggressive volvelle maps perfectly onto the structure of trauma, applying my knowledge of Freud, Derrida, and Kristeva’s observations that birth itself is a traumatic experience, not just for the mother, but also for the infant. To be alive, even without further traumatic events like child abuse, rape, imprisonment, or war, social abuses like racism, sexism, or the brute survival of poverty, we have always already experienced trauma. As Lacan and Dr. Rogers write, even language is traumatic, and trauma follows the structure of language, “When we begin to speak, we speak on two levels, on the level of what we intend to say and hope others will understand we mean, and on the level of saying things that we don’t intend and can’t hear ourselves saying.”

The passive aggressive volvelle of internal communications within the traumatized subject:


Research on trauma also follows the structure of trauma, as Dr. Rogers concurs with my experiences, a process of repression, avoidance in recognizing their own bad behaviors within the field of experts, with a tendency to blame their victimized patients, and Dr. Herman describes American Psychiatric Association board members discussing the perspectives of battered women as “irrelevant” and “I never see victims,” so similar to the perspective of white, male art critic Peter Schjeldahl plaintively asking artist Kiki Smith while nevertheless admiring the courage of her work, “But how can you identify with a victim? It’s like identifying with a chair.”

The question of a small boy with unresolved difficulties in relation to his mother projected onto all women as objects of his ongoing fear and fascination, unexpected from a critic surely well-versed in art theory of the male gaze, possibly posed to assist his audience in their reading of Kiki’s work?

More than a table, sofa, or the design of any other piece of furniture, a chair most models itself after the human body, with back, seat, arms, and legs, and chairs or seats designed for travel even offer headrests.

How to identify with a victim?

Take a seat.

Think about it.

Poor decapitated René. Reconnect your thoughtful head to your body movement.

Feel. Empathize with the suffering of another human being.

Before a traumatized subject can engage in healthy dialogue with others, s/he must first repair the harm within, and that is if we do not give further consideration to the relation between human subjects and our designed environments, also always already.

This letterpress print from my 2006 Body in the Desert series prompted one viewer to share her mother’s experience as a psychologist working with imprisoned lifers, where she described the design of the group therapy environment: the female psychologist protected within a glass enclosure from the potential violence but not the gaze of her male patients, where the prison architects – consciously or not – replicated the gendered hierarchy of power relations within a strip club:

body in the desert

Body in the Desert series, 2006, 35.5×38 cm, letterpress prints with mixed media additions, neither individually titled nor numbered. Photo documentation courtesy Luis Guerrero.

If our Department of Justice is willing to invest $3.3 billion in a passive aggressive communications model that replicates the abusive hierarchical social structure of woman-as-victim and fails to transform traumatic monologue into healthy dialogue, contributing to the increase of domestic violence crime by 60 percent in just one sample city, without further factoring in the cost nationwide, what dollar value would they assign to a healthy communications model?

How effective is my graphic design solution for the problem of passive aggressive communications?

Before I arrived back out West to my family’s compound, they agreed that, while they would invite me to participate in their family and/or religious activities, they would not force their religious beliefs on me. Participating in one of their Family Home Evenings, I was assigned the task of teaching that week’s lesson. From watching their earlier activities, I learned to my relief that the lesson need not be limited to religious dogma, but could be my choice of material. Would Unplay the Shame and Blame Game work to resolve real-life conflict situations? Could I turn my model into an actual game, fun to play? Desiring feedback to improve my ideas, I introduced my model for healthy communications to my family, diagramming the graphic design of my passive aggressive volvelle on an immense whiteboard that dominates their dining room, before asking for examples of a recent conflict in their day-to-day communications.

My adolescent nephew who had earlier ridiculed his teenage peers unsuccessful in completing suicide (“They can’t even get that right”), with no reaction from either parent accustomed to jeering in their home, volunteered a situation at school where he had responded sarcastically to a friend, who amplified the conflict with name-calling before walking away.

In his telling of the unresolved conflict, he cast himself in the role of victim, although, by his own description, he had been the initial aggressor. He denied any wrongdoing, defending sarcasm – humor with intent to wound – as socially acceptable behavior. Acceptable, in an aggressively narcissistic society, but is it desirable? In the weeks after the conflict, he and the classmate avoided each other altogether. He blamed the conflict on the former friend’s feelings of anger, his voice rising in a plaintive whine defending his taunting behavior.

Next I introduced the healing circle of healthy communication, and we discussed further ideas for how he might choose to repair the friendship, a minor conflict which might heal over time until the next occasion of sarcastic or deliberately hurtful behavior, or simply use healthy communication skills in building future relationships, resolving conflicts as they arise.

Not sure how effective my teaching style was with my own family, with the discussion shortly thereafter devolving as my brother-in-law jeered, in high, lisping falsetto, at the notion of “sharing” feelings – my model actually reports feelings to ourselves or to others, encouraging self-awareness instead of passively or aggressively acting out repressed anger – and his son swiftly followed his same-sex role model. The two male members of the household disrupted the lesson with physical tussling, father grabbing son in a headlock, and both males ridiculing both my ideas and each other. My brother-in-law patronizingly recommended another game in their cupboard, the Ungame, promoted by James Dobson. By curious coincidence, that evangelical Christian pastor was the last to interview Ted Bundy, famous for irrationally blaming Cousin Ted’s homicidal behavior on pornography rather than the psychologically sound reasoning of adverse childhood environment or some complex combination of nature/nurture that science does not yet fully understand.

I had already done that research earlier, following the suggestion of my sister, who described the Ungame as one their family rarely played, for the same reason that broke up my introduction of healthy communication into their family discourse. Dr. Dobson’s game impresses me as being designed for severely dysfunctional individuals lacking rudimentary social skills, a card game asking questions that healthy families or friends might discover in the process of getting to know each other while playing any other game, such as the games required by Idaho’s psychiatric facilities in lieu of psychotherapy, or participating in any social activity.

Later feedback from my young adult niece described “the whole family” turning to stare at her paternal grandmother from the moment I introduced the phrase Shame and Blame Game. Her observations differed from my perspective standing at the whiteboard, where the father, daughter, and son’s heads all jerked down before they peered furtively around the table at one another, while the elderly lady stared straight ahead, bobbling her head up and down as if moving to the tune of some internal music. Later, the old lady confused my lesson for that week’s game activity, stating plaintively that she preferred, “simple games, like Chinese checkers.”

My sister, a former school teacher with two graduate degrees, complimented my pedagogy, asked me to leave my graphic design solution on their whiteboard for further reflection, and emailed early the next day to say that she had already observed passive aggressive communication in her household that morning, though she did not describe details of the new interaction.

The next conflict that arose with the elderly lady commanding me to attend to her household needs at her immediate whim, and whirling through her passive aggressive volvelle, deny, avoid, blame, to raging martyrdom, like a high-speed analogue clock, after I explained I was working on other priorities at that moment, though happy to help at another time. All of my efforts to resolve the conflict one-on-one with her failed, her raging monologue unabated, so I walked away explaining that we could resolve it when she was ready for dialogue.

That time did not arrive while she and I still subsisted in the family compound, nor did I expect it to. That expectation would be too high for a human being with nine or ten decades of passive aggressive communication under her belt. Where she studiously avoided resolving the conflict, I again diagrammed Unplay the Shame and Blame Game on the family whiteboard, this time inserting the old lady’s specific phrases where they applied to the stations of the passive aggressive volvelle, and requested family meeting.

Conflict resolution session with my brother-in-law as head of household taking the lead as mediator of course largely failed; as a passive aggressive communicator himself, he does not possess skills necessary for resolving conflict. To his credit, he at least attempted to mediate the discussion after sending his – adolescent and chronologically adult – children out of the room.

Because grown children do not need to learn how to resolve conflict in healthy ways-??

The old lady again spun through her volvelle, this time affecting a delicate little-girl martyr voice for her performance for her son. Her suggested “resolution” to our conflict attempted to forbid me from speaking the terms deny, avoid, blame, and martyr, or, as Derrida would say, the unforgivable, depriving her victim of the right to speech.

After listening to more of her perspective that evening, however, I started practicing a new tactic, explaining healthy communication on Christian terms of do unto others as you would have others do unto you: disrupting my meditative practice with her abusive tirades would be like if I walked into her sacrament meeting and started shouting at her to answer my phone; how would she feel if I did that? While she never learned to report her feelings, she at least began to respect my boundary on her passive aggressive behavior and, despite continuing to deploy those tactics in communications with her family members, she seemed to slowly recognize that neither martyred whining nor abusive rampaging were effective methods when communicating with me.

Feedback from my sister the following morning: my graphic design solution, with specific examples culled from the old lady’s vocabulary familiar to the entire family, helped her to see it. Second-hand feedback, that my graphic design solution finally helped her husband, after three decades of marriage, to see it too. She further complimented my composure throughout the challenging conversation, and wished her children had been permitted to stay to learn how adults resolve conflicts in healthy ways. Four adult human beings, with seven or eight degrees in advanced education among us, all still struggling to learn healthy communication, my sister’s feedback taught me that I have a viable product.

Of course seeing the problem in others is one thing; self-reflecting to see the problem in ourselves is quite another. Identifying the problem as the passive aggressive volvelle is only the first step toward healthy communication; second step is turning the problem inside out and revolving in the opposite direction, practicing the healing circle, Unplaying the Shame and Blame Game.

In the remote possibility that Seattle Police Department or King County Victim Support Services are already deploying Unplay the Shame and Blame Game, I must ask that they cease and desist using my intellectual property without professional compensation for 40+ years of life experience combined with a BFA, MFA, and six years of post-graduate professional research and development. Much as I would like to sing healthy communication from the nation’s rooftops, as long as the world continues to spin through this era, I need colleagues who reciprocate my respect by the only method capitalism knows how to communicate respect. Neither Ms. Sorensen nor her more empathetic but more junior colleague, with nothing more than a bachelor’s degree in creative writing, are qualified to design and teach healthy communication models.

Ditto in the even less likely event that Victim Support Services in the State of Oregon might have improved their trauma recovery model since my last exchange of emails with my second husband. I doubt it; my understanding of his psychology is that he is scrupulously, sometimes even painfully, honest in all of his business relationships.

Anticipating Mr. Stanciu’s misuse of the psychoanalytic term “paranoia” applied to concerns about my graphic design used without fair compensation of my educated professional skills; while I thank him for sharing the limits of his knowledge and experience, as you can see, in my real, educated professional experiences, deeply traumatized folks in positions of power-over will never hesitate to benefit from my labor without reciprocating my respect.

According to my journal notes, Unplay the Shame and Blame Game is copyright 13 January 2012, following a meeting with my grad school mentor, with the deeper insight mapping the passive aggressive volvelle onto the structure of trauma the following September, coincidentally the same week that I met separately with both Gayna and Ms. Sorensen, neither of whom practice healthy communication in their professional lives.

Unplay the Shame and Blame Game has many potential applications across all the media we currently use for communications: perhaps an actual board or online digital game, both print and web collateral, definitely a website to facilitate internal and external communications worldwide. In the State of Idaho, as a case from Ms. Dalrymple’s hometown so tragically illustrates, if a married couple can reach for a well-machined tool in the midst of argument, that tool could just as easily be a smartphone loaded with the Unplay app instead of a shotgun, with far superior results.

Perhaps Unplay the Shame and Blame Game could even serve as a model for architectural space for community mediation and conflict resolution, or community planning healthier than the model dominating Meridian, Idaho, and the rest of suburban America: one ghastly strip mall and isolated sub. Division. After. Another.

As one historic district small business owner described his community to me, “Meridian has no identity. Where is your town center? Is it here? Is it over there? Who are we?”

“I see that,” I responded, “I am an expert in identity.”

Unfortunately for that community, that Meridian business owner then decided to fork over the bucks to pour asphalt and install chain-link around his rental property, contributing to the community’s aesthetic problem before consulting with an aesthetic expert in designing identity and visual communications solutions.



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