Sunday, September 6, 2009

Dexter Wants to be Seen

When I was looking for a YouTube clip to accurately depict Dexter's seeming inability to develop trust or move beyond the superficial in his interpersonal life, (see Dexter Denies His Deeper Level) I noticed a pithy comment left by someone (a certain "dingpong2000") who wrote, "I think guys just generally relate to him. That's the magic of Dexter: he's the most normal abnormal person on TV."

Well, I couldn't have said it better myself. Dexter's character is simply an aggrandized version of all of us, which is why I like the show and why I wanted to mix it up with my unrelenting interest in human development and contextual influence. And while all television shows offer versions of our own experiences to peruse at a distance, it's Dexter's peculiar compendium of competing issues that most dazzles the viewing population. We're curious about how a serial killer is also capable of loving children and analyzing himself in the process.

What's been even more curious to me are the spiritual undertones that seem to be present in the writing, particularly when Dexter is opening and closing each episode with his thoughts. Throughout the first three seasons, he discusses the theme of feeling validated in a variety of ways. With his brother Brian, he risks losing the one connection that would reflect his real history and therefore confirm who he is. When he develops a connection to Lila and she appears to acknowledge and embrace his darkness, he's stunned and excited by this possibility. And in season three, Dexter looks again for the feeling of acceptance through another as he tries to forge a friendship with Miguel Prado.

Feeling validated, accepted, and acknowledged are all connected. They are primary feelings we experience which help us develop and define our unique selves. Physical touch, eye contact, and interpretation of facial gestures begin this process when we're infants and learning about who we are as the world reflects its face back to us. If a baby's first interactions are with an easy-going and generally happy parent, those emotional vibrations and tendencies will be transmitted to the child. Likewise, if a parent is tense, hostile, or insecure, the infant will experience this by looking at the parent's face and perceiving their anxiety through the way in which he or she is being held.

Since these first interactions are so vitally important to a child's development, it's no wonder that being validated and reflected in the eyes of another continues to be a powerful experience for us as adults. When Dexter says he wants to be "seen" this is what he means. And for me, there is something spiritual about this. When someone is capable of looking at me and appraising me or my circumstance with a compassionate, present-centered response, I feel loosened up, confirmed that I'm really okay, and free to move on to the next task at hand without as much resistance. Living with less resistance clearly has a spiritual component: there is a feeling of connectedness to the larger, non-physical aspect of who I am precisely because another human was able to reflect my experience back to me in a real way for a moment or two.

That's what Dexter's looking for and who isn't? Why else would people form friendships, get married, and make families? Feeling validated and esteemed for who we are gives us the ability to connect to another, and then becomes a springboard to connect to a field larger than us. We don't always have a name for it, and maybe that makes it even more delicious and mysterious. Some people report they experience these kinds of feelings rock climbing, laughing with their friends, sitting alone next to a tree, or being engaged in their work. And others are trying to experience this sense of connection to themselves and the larger world with other more risky behaviors, such as indiscriminate sex or binge drinking.

But the bottom line is we are all searching for ways to be "seen." This doesn't mean someone finds one of our external traits or successes alluring and tells us so. It's a little more delicate than that, and a bit more piercing. You know it when you feel it. It's someone who looks at us, experiences something, and reflects it back in a very open way. Or it's our own individual experience of sitting in front of the ocean and sensing we are part of it in some way.

When was the last time you felt "seen"? What happened inside of you as a result? How have your attempts to be seen changed over the years as you evolve? Have your attempts reflected things Dexter has done as well?

Chances are you haven't had to manifest your searching in such extreme ways, but nonetheless you are doing it. When you see Dexter ravenous to be acknowledged for who he is, you see yourself. It's really that simple.

Monday, August 31, 2009

Not So Heavy Dexter Delights

It's time for the lighter and more exciteable aspects of Dexter to be given attention. Since I'm so unabashedly struck by the show, I've spent a number of minutes, perhaps mountains of minutes, reading blurbs here and there about the show's success as well as its popularity with viewers. Here are some things that come to mind.

Monday = no layered or complex thinking, please.
  • Dexter is Showtime's first ever drama to be nominated for an Emmy (they lost to Mad Men, for a show whose main character we have already imagined in our cultural lore since our parents told us what it was like in "their day.") Aside from the outstanding wardrobe, I'm not so compelled.
  • Facebook fans total nearly 745,000 and several leave messages with "best show ever" typed proudly into the cyber chinks of the facebook wall.
  • James Manos Jr, the same writer who fed our psychological cravings in The Sopranos, also developed Dexter. Why am I unsurprised?
  • Michael C. Hall plays Dexter and is also one of the executive producers. He is an articulate and thoughtful man who artfully describes his experience with Dexter on a myriad of YouTube videos, should you be so inclined.
  • Jennifer Carpenter, who plays Deb, and Michael C. Hall are married in off-set life. She speaks highly of him in interviews. During one particular piece, I recall her describing they had a trusting foundation as friends working together on the set before they dated, which made their union easier. This sounds healthy, doesn't it?
  • If you find these tidbits interesting and have shed your residual guilt about surfing the net for trivia, you can visit the website for colorful snapshots and show updates. The authors don't make their bios totally clear, but they are talented and write the blog in Spanish.
  • Dexter has gained popularity in Europe, and while I write about our beloved from southern Spain, it appears I have a counterpart who does the same. He's also a writer, and manages a number of interesting blogs on his own:
  • Season 4 kicks off on Sunday, September 27 on Showtime. Get your breakfast ready!

Friday, August 28, 2009

Dexter Denies His Deeper Level

Woo-hoo! Among the vast number of doohickeys you can use in the blog-o-sphere, I have added one to this blog, which is a small but real success. I have learned to post a YouTube video. And if you're a Dexter fan or not, you'll relate to this clip of our beloved and seemingly empty vigilante responding to Rita's question about his personal longings. Peer to the right to watch!

What I love about this scene is Dexter's narrative acknowledgement of the precise strategies he uses during the conversation to avoid sharing anything deeper or more intimate beyond the hope for a video game. It wouldn't be so hilarious if he responded in this blank way but without sharing his own astute observations. This scene grabs us so tightly because we are a smart, smart people who also use a slough of stratgies to keep us safe. And we not only use these strategies, such as evasiveness or superficiality, as a way to keep things controlled, but WE ALSO OFTEN KNOW THAT WE ARE DOING IT! We might even convince ourselves, as Dexter has, that we have no deeper level and then, of course, we never have to examine anything beyond our physical bodies and the tangible objects surrounding our lives. That might be an easier way to live, but from my perspective, it's not nearly as rich and satisfying as when we allow for some internal examination.

Habits and strategies that are used to keep us "safe" usually began years ago, and I mean hundreds of years ago, which is why they are often automatic as opposed to consciously chosen behaviors. Our families and the culture at large pass us parts of their psyche and we learn to negotiate our way in the world having adopted their schemas and tips. These tricks have been integrated into the way we engage with one another, how we talk to ourselves, and how we make decisions.

An easy example is the old adage, "The early bird gets the worm." Think about all the things this implies and how it informs your reaction when you oversleep, when you watch your partner oversleep while you clean the house, or when your neighbor has executed every weekend errand known to exist in two hours while you bumbled around your coffee pot and the morning paper until noon.

Do you ridicule yourself for this? Does your mind tell you all kinds of negative things about running behind or not accomplishing what early birds should accomplish? We may not be aware of it, but cultural beliefs like this one keep us doing heinous things. Many of us are running around looking for a magical worm and believe that we're more likely to find it if we wake at 7am instead of at 10am. If we're doing something based on a hand-me-down belief, whether from family or culture, but don't know it, this often means we're behaving unconsciously.

Someone behaving unconsciously would have the same conversation Dexter had with Rita in the YouTube clip, but without the recognition he was lacking substance. He would be unaware that experiences beyond an Atari can offer a different type of fulfillment and would likely not even feel a sense of stress or curiosity about the topic at all. His reactions to particular areas of his life would be based on impusles, urgencies, and fears, along with all of their concomitant beliefs of self-protection. Someone standing in this stage of personal development is also likely to lack awareness of his personal feelings toward himself or others. And it's very common that, as human beings, we're more or less conscious in some facets of our life than in others.

Do you know someone who operates unconsciously in a particular aspect of his or her life? Or, after a personally stressful event, do you notice having used an unconscious response pattern (like turning off your feelings, using violence, shutting down) as a way to cope?

If you can identify that you have done so, it doesn't mean you're living unconsciously on a broad scale. It just means that certain areas are trickier than others to change. It also means you can feel the difference between living on autopilot and making truly desired choices, and that some part of you wants to be free of those learned habits. And surely, it means you're like Dexter, talking about the Atari with a clear sense that something beyond it would ultimately be more satisfying.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Harry the Cop and His Codependent Ways

When I began watching season one of Dexter, I found myself rooting for him almost immediately, and what fans didn't? It's the essential notion of cheering for a killer that captivated so many viewers, and the same notion that resulted in the Parent's TV Council begging for CBS not to air the show on prime time television. But even though this aspect of Dexter's character brings a thrilling intensity to the screen and leaves us to wonder how right or wrong Dexter's actions might be, it is the weaving of Dexter's history that most fascinates me. Dexter is an exaggerated version of all of us, having been undeniably shaped and sometimes even coerced by the environment around us.

Primarily, the family that raised us sent a myriad of messages about who we are and what we are to do in the world. While watching the flashback scenes during season one of Dexter as a young boy with his foster father, Harry, I was intially relieved and elated that this understanding cop could have the foresight to help a child's urges be controlled or channeled. Certainly the writers intended this. The rescue of a troubled child with a mysterious past and the hero who gives his life potential is a classic story our culture loves. What a stand-up guy! What a selfless, giving, foster-father who not only changes a boy but also teaches how to deliver justice in a world that makes such horrifying mistakes!

However, upon further reflection, what becomes clearer is that Harry's "code" and his repeated interventions with Dexter are primarily for his own gain: he can't tolerate injustice, he gets off on being a savior, and his own guilt or remorse about events not uncovered until later in the series can be rectified by the daily sacrifice he makes to add a sociopath to his family unit. In a number of the flashback scenes, we see Harry stepping in to admonish Dexter and to give him messages about adapting and faking so that he will appear "normal."

In each of these scenes, have you noticed the deference and admiration Dexter gives Harry in return? What child wouldn't? Two more good reasons for the honest cop to take a broken birdy under his wing: if someone gives him that kind of respect and admiration, the sum for him, of course, is power.

And this is what makes Harry, in my estimation, a very codependent parent. Usually we refer to codependency in the arena of romantic relationships, as in, "I can't breathe when you're not here." Or the term is used to describe the person in a relationship who enables or supports another's behavioral patterns. But the bottom line is that in a codependent relationship, both parties believe they need the other to survive, and this belief stems from a limited sense of personal power.
Do you remember Dexter's first dastardly deed? When Harry was in the hospital, he asked Dexter to take out the nurse: the very nurse who had been attempting to hurt Harry. Talk about I can't make it without you! Even though viewers are led to believe Dexter has some kind of internal problem with his violent impulses, you wonder how Harry's influence actually made these impulses even more recalcitrant to change. To the point that he requested his son keep him safe in a hospital, Harry clearly wanted Dexter to feel responsible for him. He had it backwards: the parent is supposed to keep the child safe.

But children often feel some kind of responsibility to their parents. This occurs because parents often inadvertently create codpendent cycles with their children by relying on them: change you're behavior so I'll feel better, keep your needs at bay because I'm tired, cover up my sense of personal inadequacy by becoming a brilliant doctor, and so on. So the child learns to put their own desires and needs aside to serve the needs of the parent, and in this way the child becomes responsible for the parent.

The payoff for the parent is an emotional boost of self-importance, power, and control as well as feeling admired and revered. Ironically, the child is learning how to elicit similar feelings and discovers that it feels good to please their parents because they gain a feeling of love and approval. Both are relying on the other, making codependency a very mutually reinforcing relationship.

But it STARTS with the parents. Parents who need their children to behave in a certain way are really trying to quench their own unmet needs. Where have you noticed that this is true for you? Are there certain behaviors your child does that drive you nuts, and how are they related to your own needs? In what ways were your parents' unmet needs deposited into their expectations of you?
Once you can name them, the grip of those old expectations can be loosened. And like Dexter, our inevitable evolution gives us the chance to grow out of what we were taught in order to create our own unique ways of relating to the world. Please feel free to share about how you related to Dexter's process of questioning Harry or the moments you realized you wanted to move BEYOND your parents' needs for you to be what they wanted. And tell us how you did it!

Monday, August 10, 2009

Dexter Is A Thinker

I admit I really can't appreciate the violent scenes in Dexter and routinely close my eyes or look out the window prior to the action. I'm also aware of the conundrum I experience internally when I think through the concept of using free time to blog about a television character who kills people. It appears upon first thought to be a bizarre misuse of my time, and perhaps even repulsively opposed to who I am. But on second thought, this is exactly why the show captivates an international audience: it drops a deluge of human paradox and moral ambiguity in front of the viewer's eyes and then cues the ears of everyone watching to tune in to their own personal dilemmas through Dexter's narration.
In the first season, the writers did an excellent job filling us in on who Dexter is and how he sees himself. He shares that he is a "neat monster," as well as empty and damaged, and that something mysterious has "left a hollow place inside." There are scenes where he watches himself as an outside observer of his own life and believes life must be pretty easy for others, who are likely not having to fake their emotional responses to loved ones.

But this is the part that is so obviously human for all of us. There are days when I definitely use unkind words to describe myself and moments I've wanted to stand on something tangible while sensing that empty ache in the center of my solar plexus. And like most people who have been conditioned by the rugged individualism of the American boots-on mentality, I'm convinced that whatever is happening in my solar plexus is my own mess. Surely everyone else is skipping boundlessly into their morning showers with a twinkle-y song and a renewed fervor for returning to the office. When tough moments have passed I realize I've undergone a normal human process, but by then it's too murky to call back for a replay with friends. I'd rather move on. So aside from watching beautiful people on the screen, such as Michael C. Hall and Jennifer Carpenter, who play siblings on the show and are married in real life, I'm able to see parts of my own experience unfolding through Dexter as he exposes his keen observations.

As a way to support his pathological tendencies, Dexter shares early on that he doesn't understand emotion and hence has a difficult time faking it. (Never mind that emotion is a subjective phenomena, and not something we can necessarily cognitively "understand" in the moment it occurs.) But the show's set-up was certainly well-done, because anyone with half a neuron knows that sociopaths aren't accessing the full scale of human emotions. However, I'm pretty convinced that at least in American culture, a lot of us are living almost exclusively in our heads and lack practice (not the ability) with feeling a wider range of our personal pangs and joys. Maybe we don't go to the extent that Dexter must, and copy a dramatist's words verbatim to propose marriage, but our culture does espouse the academic, logical, and assessment-oriented style over all others. Our conditioning around being good thinkers is so saturated into our lives that it helps to stop and ask what your social norming has promised you in the first place. What are you gaining by being cut-off from your emotional life? The perception of control, success, or strength? You're likely convinced that stopping for even one moment to experience a feeling or a stillness would be a waste of time, or pointless...or terrifying.

If you said terrifying, then you're not as identified with your mental schemata as most Americans. You know somewhere inside of you something volcanic and uncontrollable could rupture, and then what would happen? Isn't this exactly why Dexter is married to a code instead of the experience of life? No wonder this show has the audience hooked. We might not be murderers, but many of us are clearly committed to keeping emotion captive.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Dexter's Dark Passenger....And Ours, Too?

In addition to a beautifully written series with a cast of wow!-ing talented actors, Showtime's Dexter invites us to take a peek at the "dark passenger" living inside each of us. Reviews of the show during its early inception tauted this as one of its main attractions for viewers: they could identify their own shadowy components by witnessing Dexter's passenger come alive through gory ritual and an articulate personal narrative. But is this dark passenger a primal, innate being or has he been dropped into our experience?
As season one traces us back to Dexter's early childhood trauma, for example, it's easy to draw conclusions about where an urge to kill was first conceived. But what about the rest of us? Why should so many viewers have felt this strong identification with Dexter while clearly so few of us are acutally killers? Please drop your comments for a more thorough discussion. Perhaps we can sort through some important questions before the merciful beginning of Season 4 on September 27!