TEDxUCLA 2015: Beyond the Box
Capes, cowls and courage: the psychological power of superheroes
Dr. Andrea Letamendi is currently theAssociate Director of Mental Health Training, Intervention, and Response for the Office of Residential Life at UCLA. She is a licensed Clinical Psychologist who received her Bachelor’s Degree from Cornell University (2002) and her Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology from the Joint Doctoral Program of SDSU and UCSD in 2011. Following graduate school, Dr. Letamendi trained at UCLA as a postdoctoral scholar to study mental health interventions for children and adolescents.
I still read comic books.
I realized that saying this now when superheroes regularly soar, leap and smash into popular TV and film, that’s not much of a confession. But growing up geek was not easy.
When I was 12, I met the person who would change my life forever. His name was Batman. Okay, so I didn’t actually meet Batman, but I discovered a show called Batman: The Animated Series, an after-school cartoon that brought me into the world of this melancholy, determined superhero whose one mission was his promise on his parents’ grave to rid Gotham City of the evil that took their lives.
Each episode essentially featured the story of a wayward villain. Sure, the crimes they committed, but also their history, their motivations, their losses and failures. They went from being superhuman to human.
Now I didn’t know it at the time, but my 12-year-old brain was essentially taking psychological profile cases and notes. A narcissistic genius who attacks with riddles. A psych professor who engages in brutal, inhumane experimentation. A misunderstood half-man, half-reptile who will never be seen as anything but a monster. A psychopathic clown who just wants someone to laugh at his jokes. And of course, a grown man who dresses up as a bat.
These antiheroes and adversaries introduce the idea that who we are is shaped by what happens to us. The greatest detective taught me that one of the most amazing abilities was the one in which you could decode, unlock, and demystify external shells in order to see people for who they truly were.
Now when I discovered this, I decided to dig deeper in written stories, the pages of comic books. Unfortunately, I didn’t know that comic books weren’t cool. I knew this because when I had them at school, my classmates would often steal them, destroy them, or mock me about them.
So, oftentimes, the bullying would devolve to verbal attacks about our noticeable differences. “Where are you really from? Why aren’t you hanging out with your own people?” Well, I’m American-born Ecuadorian and Chinese, so finding my own people was like finding Kryptonians after the radioactive blast destroyed Krypton.
My family’s cultural values were clear. Speak Spanish, eat Chinese food, and have a mean topspin. It made sense to me. But what makes sense to someone about their cultural identity could be confusing to others.
I realized that my best approach was silence. I decided to armor up, to wear masks. I kept those secrets safe, protected from those who wouldn’t understand them. I decided to have control of this. I could control who would accept me, who would judge me. How could they get past this cryogenic suit?
But as my defenses amassed, I lost control and I forgot who I really was. By the time I finished college, I’d forgotten about comics altogether.
Then two amazing things happened. The first was that I got into graduate school to pursue a doctorate in clinical psychology. The second was that the program was in the same city as Comic-Con.
Comic-Con! Where a hundred thousand anime, sci-fi, and comic book geeks gather each year. It was like I was rebooted. It was amazing. I started to read about superheroes again, write about superheroes, and yes, even dress like superheroes. That’s my leg.
So I even started to dress like superheroes. I had found my people. I was part of a community. It was empowering. It was validating. It was all under a secret name.
Okay, it’s not like I was ducking in alleys or hiding in telephone booths. In fact, this was a very deliberate decision to keep these universes separate. Why?
Well, we know for women in science, it’s a battle to get ahead, and of every 100 Ph.Ds awarded in the U.S., six are earned by Latinos. Why would I mess with those odds? Why would I do something to stand out even more? A scientist would not be taken seriously if her colleagues or patients learned she was an avid action figure collector, comic enthusiast, or cosplayer.
But those masks were becoming very heavy. Burdensome. I felt exhausted trying to keep those universes separate. In fact, I was starting to feel, because of the burden and because of the heaviness of those masks, that I needed to do something about it. In fact, I felt that I was going through something called imposter syndrome.
Now I want you to think about your very first college course, first time in a job, or your first time as a parent. Did you ever feel inadequate? Like you weren’t good enough, no matter how much you knew? Like there was an “F” written on your chest and it stood for Fraud? That is imposter syndrome.
It’s the feeling of self-doubt that persists even in the face of information that tells you the opposite is true. Awards, publications, degrees, none of those things matter when the most powerful villain — who I will call Impostorio — is a voice telling you, “You don’t belong here. You’re not good enough. Everyone around you is better.”
Impostorio poisons you from the inside out, disguising himself as the teller of truth, but tearing you down whenever you face a new challenge. This often co-occurs with the feeling of being found out or unmasked. “What if everyone knew?” I asked Impostorio. “Would I be kicked out? Would I be denied opportunities? Would I be poisoning my Ivy League credibility?”
When I finally started seeing patients, inevitably I had to start talking about myself, opening up. The very first time a patient asked me about my background, they said, “Where are you from?” Well, it was like a fear toxin was injected in me. They would find out everything: first, my ethnic identity, and then the exact coordinates of the Batcave.
So, like a ventriloquist dummy, I blinked mechanically and words that were not my own came out of my mouth. “It sounds like you’re really interested in knowing more about my background. Tell me more about how you feel about that.”
I was not proud. I was essentially asking someone to do something I refused to do. In fact, weeks later, this patient approached me and revealed that she — well she was born male and she was transgender. She was a woman. We both realized that we wanted the same thing: to be seen for who we truly were.
As an intern, one of my rotations was in a hospital unit, so I got to walk around in a cool white lab coat and killer Crocs. One of my patients was a veteran who had undergone double amputation. He had survived war abroad, only to lose both legs in a motorcycle accident.
When I approached his bed, he said to me, “You’re going to ask if I’m going to kill myself. You’re going to ask if there’s something wrong with me.”
Now I’ve never been in a combat zone, but I’ve studied men and women, extraordinary men and women who have believed in a mission, who have put themselves in harm’s way, and even sustaining psychological and physical injury, would go out every day, put their cape and cowl on, despite their doubts, despite their fears.
“No one cares about comics,” Impostorio warned me. Okay. I compromised.
“I’m not going to ask what’s wrong with you,” I told this patient. “I’m going to ask what happened to you and what do you need now to keep going?”
We talked about psychological resilience, also called the steeling effect. It’s actually the power of getting stronger after adversity and trauma. Surviving war and talking about that survival with this patient to realize this next chapter, this amputation, wasn’t a disfigurement or failure. Instead, this was a new chapter. A new challenge.
Now just like in war, trauma is common in comics. Now I know you know the story of Batman. But do you know the story of Batgirl?
Batgirl was attacked when she wasn’t prepared. She was shot by the Joker who brutalized her and left her paralyzed from the waist down. Determined not to retire from superheroism, she became Oracle, a genius-level tech nerd and computer geek who collected data and disseminated that data to members of the superhero community.
Now, in an event called Flash Point, The Flash travels back in time only to discover three previously split worlds must merge in order to form a new continuity in which all DC superheroes regress to an earlier stage and phase in their lives, but remain in a modern timeline. Okay. You with me with that? Doesn’t matter.
For Batgirl, her trauma was never reset. It was never erased. The life-threatening attack was still in her history. But something amazing was going to happen to her. She was going to regain the use of her legs, and I was going to help her through it.
Gail Simone, the writer of the Batgirl comic, reached out to me and asked me about survivors of physical trauma and the interventions that might help them heal. How would we treat Batgirl with dignity, respect, and validation? What would that look like? I did my best to answer those questions, drawing from experience and empiricism.
Well, when the book was finally published, Gail Simone achieved her goal with the treatment of the story. Mental health was depicted with dignity, respect, and validation. A superhero was seen not just asking for help but receiving therapeutic support from a compassionate clinician, a young female minority professional. The psychologist helping Batgirl was me.
My 12-year-old self was jumping up and down. She was cheering. She was freaking out. And then she started to really freak out. Now my name and profession are in print together in one place. The universes were colliding. The Infinite Crisis was upon us and I had no control over it.
To me, Batgirl’s story is one of resilience. Her story is real. She’s the women, men, and children I’ve worked with who’ve learned to overcome something that was intended to kill them.
As the writer of the book had described, in comics, the subject of mental illness is often overlooked. She’s right. Positive stories of persons with mental health problems are absent not just in comics, but in TV, film, movies, and novels.
But being part of this representation was a big deal to me. It wasn’t just a light bulb turning on. This was a lightning bolt, a radiation blast synergy. What if comic book narratives can embolden those who are silently suffering with mental health problems? What if superhero stories can actually shape public opinion about psychological health, shrink stigma, shatter misconceptions? I knew instantly my place in the universe was not to be a masked avenger, but to help people see who they truly were through the power of story.
Okay, so what about the earth-shattering blast I was so worried about? To my shock, there was no destruction, no universes colliding, no blast, not even vertigo. When my colleagues learned about this depth, this passion that I had, they were supportive. They wanted to know more about this unique intersection of knowledge. And I was invited to speak about the psychology of superheroes at universities, mental health agencies, and at science conventions.
I still encounter self-doubt. I still face the occasional accusation. “You don’t look like a comic book fan.” Impostorio’s revenge. But I have to think about what Batman tells himself anytime his mission is questioned. “I chose this life. I know what I’m doing. And on any given day I could stop doing that. Today is not that day, and tomorrow won’t be either.”
So what I learned from superheroes is this. It’s okay to wear masks: for the greater good, to protect ourselves, for fear of the unknown. But I ask you to consider this: What if you were to take off your masks right now? What would you unlock? What potential would you uncover?
Be bold, be brave. Break through your masks. Thank you.