In her memoir, BLOWS TO THE HEAD: HOW BOXING CHANGED MY MIND, Binnie Klein describes her journey, at age 55, from sedentary psychotherapist to boxer. It’s a story of body image, suppressed rage, growing confidence, and coming to terms with aging. It’s funny, thoughtful, and takes a look at the fascinating history of Jewish boxers.
As many of you who are my friends on FaceBook know, tonight I learned I lost every single bit of data on my computer–my memoir, my next two novels, years of photos, my address book, and so on. The only thing I worked on recovering in my shell-shocked state was this interview. Something about losing six years of writing reminded me how very important it is to trumpet a book you love, especially within that small window of time when books must gain the attention of potential readers if they’re to survive. I really do love this book and the immediate impact it’s had on my life, and I hope it wins a large readership.
So enjoy and please feel free to say hello to Binnie and to join the conversation
You mention the surprise people have when you tell them you box. Talk to me about people’s misperceptions about you and boxing—why they can’t put the two of you together.
People see a middle-aged, well-educated professional woman and don’t immediately think, “Hey, she must like to put on boxing gloves and hit as hard as she can! I’ll bet she’s even held a spit bucket for a young fighter!” They are more apt to imagine me curled up with a good book or giving a lecture. I think my profession as a psychotherapist also evokes images of calm and quiet conversation conducted in a pleasant room (not a noisy ring) by two people who never even touch, let alone spar with each other. It’s all words, it’s all brainy, and one likes to think of their shrink as a gentle and compassionate healer, not a tough boxer. I’m both. It’s funny; patients sometimes can’t imagine you at all outside of the therapy room. It’s as if you live in the chair.
I’m hardly a jock. Before boxing, I was at most a stroll-through-the-woods-with-my dogs-type and novice kayaker. Still, I’m always struck by just how surprised people are, since my secret self is a superhero in a cool black leather jacket, always sporting the hippest haircut, not ethnically identifiable in anyway, taller, and perpetually sixteen years old. Somewhere there is a portrait of me aging in a closet, but I’ve never seen it. I think one always has a few blind spots. I’ve always been fascinated by the mechanism of denial. Sometimes it is a sad business, the refusal to admit or see the truth about things, and the crustiest defenses, which have outlived their usefulness, have to be confronted so that we can grow. Other times, denial is the lubricant that smoothes the way for us to face this curious life and death enterprise, this “mortal coil.” Where would we be without it? Figuring out which denials to confront and which to leave alone – that’s the trick.
I just try to breathe out the energy and vitality of myself as a much younger person. I recommend it!
We’ve all seen movies of poor kids from tough neighborhoods who take up boxing to release a sense of rage or helplessness. You took up boxing to rehab an injury, and this quote describes you kind of waking up to the physical you: “It’s a surprise to feel so exhilarated by my own body and its abilities. My body. What a drag it’s been—what a disappointment! Sometimes it just seemed like a necessary oversized backpack for my brain” (p. 8). Tell me more about your connection to your body before and after boxing.
You don’t want to bore people with your physical ailments, and there is always someone who has been dealt a worse hand, but for one reason or another, and none particularly life-threatening, I have lived with life-long chronic pain starting in my twenties. I had to take a long break before graduating college. I had to quit my first full-time job. I was somewhat de-railed. I was emotionally unprepared to be an adult, like a lot of us floundering around in the 1960s, but I remember thinking, “This pain will help me when I get older; it’s preparing me for dealing with limitations.” To some extent that has been true. When the bar is set lower, you don’t expect perfection. I watch people experience bodily limitations and feel shattered by the change in their self-image. Coping with “less-than-optimal” conditions is what life is all about, and that doesn’t mean there isn’t room for tons of joy and happiness.
For a video project in college, I taped myself taking off my clothes and discussing my naked body. That’s the kind of stuff we did in those days. (It was fun to watch the professor’s reaction – I think I got an “A.”) I admired certain personal attributes, but I was obsessed with the fantasy that my entire life would have been different if I’d had long slender legs. I imagined strutting around in heels, and then creating a pretzel-like sculpture when I sat, legs crossed and hooked around petite ankles. I associated my heavy legs with my Slavic peasant ancestry, and it wasn’t a positive connection until I wrote this book. As a feminist, I struggled mightily to help myself and other women to re-frame such negative beliefs, but we all have occasional skirmishes with these battles. I know that I am not alone in this.
When I boxed I felt strong. Really strong. I could make my body move. I could avoid a punch. I could throw a punch. I could feel everything working together, the excitement and exhilaration of being completely in the moment. Now I’ll catch a glimpse of a bicep in the mirror and like what I see. It’s easier to see my body as powerful now, but mostly it’s the sound….the hard, resounding thwack!!! of my punches against the leather mitts that is most gratifying. It’s not about anything superficial or visual; it’s about inhabiting the inside, the moment, the speed, the focus. It’s bigger than my individual body. When I’m boxing, who cares what I look like?
I might have felt some of this as a child if I’d participated in sports, and I’m thrilled to see my 11 year old niece Cassie sampling horseback riding, basketball, baseball, swimming, and gymnastics, like many kids today. She’s proud of what she can do, and I hope she will always have that feeling. My boxing adventures have taught me the value of sports, being part of a team, pushing the boundaries, realizing goals – I’d underplayed the meaning of these activities. Now was that a denial that served me or not? See what I mean?
I love how you speak so honestly about aging and about envying the youth in your college town. Women have so much pressure on them to relate their self-worth to physical attractiveness, which, in the media, is always equated with youth. What about boxing has helped you settle some of that envy?
The other day someone asked me if I “still” boxed. It was like, “Hey, you know with every year you’re getting older – are you still doing this crazy thing?” I hope always to be boxing, at the very least working with punch mitts and sparring with my coach. When I wrote Blows I was closer to that bad patch of envy you mention than I have been in a long time. It seemed for a while like the willowy girls with their whole lives ahead of them were everywhere, leaning into breezes, light and free. I don’t see them that way anymore. I have re-trained my brain not to focus on that. It’s just not productive, and it makes one feel bad. Instead I’m aware of my own special talents, my knowledge, my experience – now there’s always a nice percussive beat in the background, a sequence and rhythm that is distinctly mine. I’m not so interested in watching what others do and have; I just want the opportunity to keep writing. I’ve got more projects in me.
It’s not just boxing that has settled some of the envy. It’s writing this book, publishing this book, promoting this book, experiencing peoples’ reactions to this book, hearing that it has affected them in a positive way. The life of the mind, which I had to balance with the life of the body, reliably transcends youth. We will always be somewhat fascinated with the young; it’s probably biological – they are the future, they are the procreators. Then there are those that keep us eternally young. When Blows came out, I heard from an old friend of my sisters in Newark, who was older than me. “How can you possibly write a memoir?” he asked. “Aren’t you just twelve years old?” I loved him for that! We house the archives of each other.
You continue this theme about the body in your discussion of your Jewish roots and how Jews have been perceived throughout history as victims. Can you say more?
Jews have often been seen as the pale scholars, heads buried in books and not outdoorsy. The value placed on learning and study has a very real and serious beginning, in the shtetls and villages where Jews attempted to protect their knowledge and practices against an unrelenting saga of bias and oppression. The victimization of Jews is not just a perception, it’s a reality. As with other oppressed groups, the problem is blaming victims for some inherent weakness, and the weakness is the perception. In the relative safety of the post-World War II era, Woody Allen and other leading Jewish comedians of the era began to evoke an old archetype, one of physical vulnerability, hysteria, and meekness. Philip Roth’s characters often yearned after the gentile athletes with longing and curiosity. Like all stereotypes, it’s complicated, and one can cite many exceptions. While many in my generation and neighborhood shared this non-athletic Jew perception, I’ve talked with Jews in their twenties and thirties who grew up very active and athletic. This is an immensely nuanced issue, too complex to do justice to here. Fortunately, there are some amazing scholars, like Jack Kugelmass, Sander Gilman, Paul Breines, and others, who delve deeply into this subject.
And you discovered a whole history of Jewish boxers. Talk about a couple of them, if you would. And what it was about discovering this history that had such an impact on you?
My discovery of the amazing history of Jewish boxers played havoc with my own long-held beliefs about physical limitations for Jews, and their non-participation in sports. Between 1910 and 1940 there were 26 Jewish champions in boxing, so many that boxing was once thought of as a Jewish sport. Despite the consternation of the mothers who worried for their sons’ safety and reputations, Jewish boxers excelled and made more money boxing than in the sweatshops. Because I had been so alienated from my own roots, the stories of the Jewish boxers filled me an undeniable ethnic pride, the kind the boxers wore like a flag when they stepped into the ring, Jewish stars embroidered on their shorts, and I began to research their lives. In Blows, I imagine conversations with three of the most influential Jewish boxers, Daniel Mendoza, Benny Leonard, and Barney Ross. I wanted to see what we might have in common and what we might say to each other.
Barney Ross lived in a tenement flat on top of a fish market in Chicago, and his father had hopes that Barney would become a Hebrew teacher. Ross was fourteen when he saw his father, who ran a grocery store, shot down by hoods, and shortly afterwards his mother broke down. Barney was determined to get his some of his family out of the orphanage where they landed after the tragedy. It made him a more determined fighter. He liked betting on the ponies, like my father. He was a jaunty guy who dressed well, and was a champion from 1933 to 1938. Ross witnessed anti-Semitism in the streets of Chicago, and eleven days before a big fight at Madison Square Garden, twenty-thousand people wearing swastikas goose-stepped outside in big black boots, shouting “Sieg Heil!” “I felt like I was fighting for all my people,” Ross said.
Okay, so you’ve been training on the punching bag and learning some moves when, finally, you’re invited to spar. Your coach puts on the head gear, buckles it under your chin. “It’s not attractive,” you write. “I look like a chubby devotee of S&M” (p. 139). And you take this body you’ve never considered to be strong, a body others have had to defend on your behalf, and now you giving and taking punches. What’s that like?
What’s that like? It’s thrilling. From the moment my coach deemed me “ready” to spar, and strapped on the intimidating black leather headgear, I felt, “Okay, let’s do it, I can do this. I’m going to go for it.” There’s no time to hesitate when you spar. The pressure is on, to move, to throw punches, and most of them don’t land, especially if you are working with an experienced coach who isn’t about to be hit. I couldn’t believe how much I truly wanted to hit John, my coach. It sounds odd, but it felt pure and right, especially since he was essentially asking me to hit him. It was as if he was giving me permission, especially as a woman, to let it all go, to send that inner force out into the universe, to not worry about how I looked. I felt transformed by the experience. I cried. We both celebrated my courage. Maybe it wasn’t much to the outside world, but it meant a lot to me.
Being hit was surprisingly….clarifying (and I hope I don’t sound too much like Tyler Durden of Fight Club) – it was direct, crisp, awakening me to the sharp reality of a physical feeling everyone dreads. Just to be slapped around a bit on my arms and body. It wasn’t so bad. It woke me up. I wanted even more to fight back, and that’s the most important part.
There’s a really lovely thread throughout the book about pools—how important it was to go to motels with pools, though you didn’t know how to swim. And later in the book, there’s a dead-on description of a panic attack that happens in the water. I don’t want to spoil the story by telling too much, but it leads to a really profound moment near the end of the book where you talk about how boxing teaches you to get your head out of the way. Would you say more about that?
I didn’t swim as a child. My parents didn’t swim. But I loved being in the water, and just walking into the waves at Atlantic City, holding into the ropes and shrieking with delight. When my father, a traveling candy salesman, took us on the road with him, I begged for a motel with a pool, even though no one swam! It was absurd on the face of it, but as necessary to me as breathing. “Please daddy, go to the next one!” I begged. It represented a chance, a bright light, an opportunity to shed the old fears, maybe the fears of generations. I’d splash around in an inner tube, giddy and laughing. I so longed to be able to propel myself through water, to crash through nature confidently. Phobia and anxiety come from a surfeit of consciousness. Things that usually exist in a natural, rather thoughtless state, become highlighted in the frisson of panic – in sharp relief….time slows down, simple movements are obsessively examined in split-seconds, and pleasure disappears. Then one dreads a repeat of that awful feeling. I’ve overcome so much in my life, and knowing how a panic attack can bring a strong man to his knees brings me even greater empathy for people who suffer this way.
I’m often been too much in my head, introspective and dreamy. When John teaches me to slip, weave, block and move, I am literally getting my head out of the way! I enter another state, free of ambiguity, all things immediate and with consequences. I can recommend it heartily to anyone who is feeling trapped in their head, inhibited, afraid, ineffective, or uncertain about their own personal power.
Let’s end with your father. You described him as “a tragically unfulfilled man” (p. 45)—a Willy Loman type—who probably would have benefited from boxing. I’d like to know how you think it might have helped him. I also got the feeling that your own journey in boxing helped you come to terms with the man he was.
My father, like a lot of men of his generation, hemmed in by the Depression and World War II, strove to provide for his family and “do the right thing.” His own dreams of being a journalist were sacrificed, and he began to exhibit signs of a malignant depression that haunted him most of his adult life. He was an extremely bright and intuitive man, and although not college-educated, could recite long passages of poetry by heart. He loved books and wanted his daughters to be writers. The long, arduous hours on the road as a salesman, family difficulties within the candy company, and the loss (albeit often self-imposed) of a support network, took its toll. His frustrations often exploded as rages within the family, and we were often frightened of him. Boxing is an excellent way to express rage in a contained environment. It would have helped him. I wish he’d had the benefits of Prozac, too!
You’re right, Susan. Before my journey into boxing and writing this book, my summation about my father would have been much more bitter. I changed through the process of Blows. I could identify with my father’s anger and frustrations, and by learning more about the immigrant struggles, the eras in which the Jewish boxers flourished, and the tragic loss of community which we all suffered, I did begin to feel differently towards him. I was no longer just the child/victim of his unhappiness; I was stronger, happier, and ultimately more forgiving. I think that’s how it all works, doesn’t it?
I think it does. Thank you for this fascinating talk and for writing this book.
If you need more convincing, take a look at this book trailer. Want to hear Binnie in person? On August 4th from 7-9pm, she’ll be at the McNally Jackson Bookstore, NYC, reading in the fine company of Susan Shapiro, David Goodwillie and Jennifer Belle. Cupcakes are promised!