The Day of the Dolls by George Merrill


For many years I directed a network of counseling services in the Baltimore and Washington D.C. corridors. They were good years for me. I was personally fond of my staff who were generously caring and committed people. They represented a variety of health care professionals and clergy of most all denominations. Our mission was to equip clergy in mental health counseling skills and, through supervised interns in training, offer counseling services to the general community. Churches hosted our offices. This allowed us to bring quality mental health services to the general community at affordable cost.

I discovered something of who I was in those years. The knowledge freed me.

The agency was successful. I functioned well as its director. However I was plagued with an internal saboteur who hovered at the edge of my consciousness. I kept feeling I wasn’t that effective, that I needed to be doing more. This phantom saboteur appeared periodically, his head tilted skeptically to one side, eyes raised and his voice barely audible, whispering, “Not good enough!”

It mattered little whether the agency was doing very well or experiencing hard times; the saboteur had the same message in weal or woe, “Not good enough.” Anyone who has struggled with self-confidence will recognize my visitor.

In reality the agency flourished and my staff had no problems with my leadership.

Then, the Myers Briggs inventory was in vogue. For those unfamiliar with it, the inventory helps individuals and groups understand the difference in people’s personality styles as well as how they process information. It’s a helpful tool for identifying personal gifts and abilities including whatever things, because of our personalities, we probably have no business messing with. The staff and I opted to do the Myers Briggs and Isabel Myers came and administered the inventory.

At the time, my administrative assistant, Jean, was a highly organized and detail oriented person. She kept the columns up to date and the figures were accurate. Our records were kept impeccably, appointment times scrupulously scheduled. However, I felt intimidated because she seemed to have much more of a command of the Agency’s details while even on my best days when I thought I had it together, I always wondered if I had thought of everything.

As we took the inventory I discovered one of the most affirming aspects of my function on the staff: I was a natural in the leadership role I held in supporting the staff and solving our problems together. There was no way I could ever be the master of details, but more importantly, that wasn’t being asked of me. I could never have a mind like Jean’s. By understanding more clearly who I was, I could be with my staff far more easily and not feel as if I were failing them or had to do “more” or be “better.” My affection for my colleagues grew with my new sense of personal freedom.

I was thinking about my experience the other day. It occurred to me how in community we discover ourselves. A healthy community searches for and calls forth what’s best in its members and helps them see where they can function maximally in the larger picture. A community becomes diseased when its members feel at odds with their neighbors and are set against one another.

Racism and xenophobia, hardly new to America, are increasing. The state of uncertainty in this post-modern world is a fertile climate for a demagogue to appear. Appealing to the fear of the unknown, this natural human inclination is inflamed and exploited by opportunists as we’ve seen recently on the political scene. Not affirming and cultivating the immigrant and African-American presence already here, both of which are having an enormous influence on American culture, I find naïve and short sighted. By 2045, the census bureau predicts whites will become America’s minority. It will be instructive to see what happens when the tide’s turned. These however are general cultural considerations. More to the point is how, when racism and xenophobia get personal, they become tragic.

To understand what discriminatory attitudes and practices do to the soul of a person is profoundly disturbing. I’ve written of this before, but I know nothing, save active violence, that brings the horror of discrimination home more poignantly than what clinical psychologists, Mamie and Kenneth Clarke concluded in an experiment they performed in 1956 involving black children.

They showed black children a number of dolls. The dolls were identical except for skin color. The children were asked to choose the dolls that they liked best, asking them questions like; which doll would you like to play with? Which one is nice, pretty and which one is bad and not pretty?

The majority of children had a clear preference for the white dolls, some even saying of the black dolls that they were not nice or pretty.

The results of the experiment exposed how self-hate internalizes itself in African-American children. The American culture had successfully taught young black children not to like who they were.

I first saw this experiment years ago. I saw it as a clip on TV presented by Bill Cosby. It had a profound effect on me. Up to then I had a general idea but no real feeling for the monstrous implications racism and discrimination have for the soul of a human being.

I recall watching the clip. When a little girl picked up the white doll because she thought it was prettier than the black doll, I remember how my throat constricted, tears formed in my eyes and I wanted to hold the child and say to her again and again, “No, no!”

But she was just a little girl being who she thought she was while being taped on a TV clip. There was no way she would ever have heard me no matter how loud I protested.

Columnist George Merrill is an Episcopal Church priest and pastoral psychotherapist.  A writer and photographer, he’s authored two books on spirituality: Reflections: Psychological and Spiritual Images of the Heart and The Bay of the Mother of God: A Yankee Discovers the Chesapeake Bay. He is a native New Yorker, previously directing counseling services in Hartford, Connecticut, and in Baltimore. George’s essays, some award winning, have appeared in regional magazines and are broadcast twice monthly on Delmarva Public Radio.

Letters to Editor

  1. Beryl Smith says:

    You always hit it right on the head with so much understanding and compassion. Keep these writings coming. I am a fan!

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