Gelf Magazine - Looking over the overlooked

Books | Sports

May 4, 2010

Violent Zen

Psychotherapist Binnie Klein explores her identity, her ancestry, and her relationship with her father by getting in the ring and throwing a few punches.

Max Lakin

Binnie Klein approaches boxing the way you might imagine reacting when happening upon a buck in the woods. The sum of your experience suggests you stay your distance—and the size and sinew of it corroborates that suggestion. Still, the thing draws your feet, slowly shrinking the span until its shimmering back becomes its glinting eyes. Slowly until it's at arms-length, until there is no distance at all, and the bleating nerves inside your head screaming at you to pivot and run give way to a melodic hum, give you clarity, and swaddle all your self-doubt, until that's gone, too.

Binnie Klein with her coach John Spehar. Photo by Michael Marsland.
"Because of boxing's mixed reputation, I had to justify my interest, or at the least, explain it. No one questions aerobics class."

Binnie Klein with her coach John Spehar. Photo by Michael Marsland.

That Klein—a Connecticut psychotherapist in her mid-50s, white, Jewish, reared in New Jersey—does not seem a natural disciple of Rocky Marciano is an understatement. Today's bar-mitzvahed pugilist is a rarefied sight. It is Binnie Klein all the same, Connecticut psychotherapist by way of the Garden State, who climbed into a ring for the first time at age 55. And it is Klein, East Coast Jew, eminently aware of her "brains and Slavic legs," who has been exhausting supplies of Everlast sports tape and whaling on gym bags since.

Her memoir, Blows to the Head: How Boxing Changed My Mind, is a tempered, classical offering of sport as mirror.

Klein found boxing as a part of the physical therapy for a knee injury, embracing it in earnest soon after, searching out the obligatorily hardened trainer and committing herself to the exhilarating if frightening exploration of her own identity. Her experiences growing up in the unsteady racial clime of 1960s Newark; negotiating a dejected, splenetic father; and reconciling the heavy implications and self-imposed sensibilities of modern Judaism, are refracted through her education in the sport. Klein exchanged emails with Gelf recently about Judaism, her father, and her favorite pugilists. The following interview has been edited for clarity.

Gelf Magazine: Your draw to boxing is relatable—exercising a lifetime of stifled emotion, pointed aggression as catharsis—but what is it about the sport that sustained your imagination and kept you from looking into Pilates, say, or maybe free-form rock climbing?

Binnie Klein: Imagination is exactly the right word. While a fitness activity like Pilates or an adventurous challenge like rock climbing can certainly push the body and spirit, boxing tantalized me with its recurring questions: Why? Why me? Why did I like it so much? Why was I fascinated by boxers' narratives? The perplexed reaction of others added to the picture. Because of boxing's mixed reputation, I had to justify my interest, or at the least, explain it. No one questions aerobics class.

Gelf Magazine: As much as it's your own story, Blows reads like a psychology of every American-European Jew in the last half century, or possibly longer. Did you set out to address that complicated mindset—the collective, compounded, submerged rage of unathletic cerebral Jews—or was that something that laid itself out on its own?

Binnie Klein: This is exactly why the book seems to resonate with so many people who had a similar cultural experience. When I began the book, I had no idea how much these themes would run throughout, like a persistent melody. I only knew that the history of Jewish boxers thrilled me in an unexpected way. I followed that trail.

Gelf Magazine: You note, quite astutely, that boxing "is a sport that celebrates, exploits, and pulls out the pride in ethnicity like a taffy machine." You also write that you were only glancingly observant of your own ethnicity, and at times wished yourself even less so. How much of throwing yourself into boxing was your attempt to exorcise yourself from the character of your past, and how much of it was actually trying to embrace it? (As a psychotherapist, you might be better equipped to further ask how much of either sphere was subconscious, and if that even matters.)

Binnie Klein: My relationship to being Jewish was previously shockingly unanalyzed by me! Oh that—maybe I'll think about it more one day. It's like those visual psychological tests where you try to see the faces, but only see a vase, or empty space. Because some of my feelings involved shame, confusion, and alienation, I was predisposed to minimize them. Boxing threw me into the ring with them. I began to feel that I owed it to my ancestors to at least go a few rounds. Perhaps exorcising clears the way for a tentative embrace.

Gelf Magazine: You quote New Yorker editor David Remnick in his assessment that boxing as a practice is most alluring to, and most triumphed by, the poor. History tends to bear that out. Is that something you found attractive, something that resonated in your own upbringing?

Binnie Klein: It is alluring because it is possible. Many boxing stories have a basic, predictable sequence, in which access to boxing combines with the need to improve economic status, like Benjamin Braddock, the underdog portrayed in Cinderella Man; or the character of Rocky, the sweet, inarticulate brute who can't get out of his own way. Desperate times call for desperate measures, especially for those with few options. All the immigrant groups got a shot at it, some making more of a mark than others. Although my family didn't make it to the comfortable middle-class, it would be inaccurate to imagine we suffered the same economic hardship as these figures.

Gelf Magazine: As a pyschotherapist, what are your thoughts on boxing's effect on the brain? Have you observed anything in yourself, or in the boxers you've met, or do you think the concerns are overblown?

Binnie Klein: If you're talking about actual blows to the head, there has been some recent publicity and research about the surprising and pervasive problem of concussions in football, as well as other sports. Somehow, though, we are always asking about boxing in this regard. That said, professional boxers do face risks; it would be foolish to claim otherwise. The problem of pugilistic dementia has been a terrible one for many aging boxers, and there are groups lobbying to obtain health benefits for boxers especially for this issue. More research is needed. As for myself, I don't take these risks—I only spar with my coach, and he holds back. My coach has taken blows in his career, but he seems quite mentally intact to me, as do other boxers I have met. Compared to others, I'm a poseur! I love to box but my goal in writing the book was to tell a story of self-transformation and empowerment, and to honor the history of boxing. As such, boxing has never hurt my brain; it's only made me smarter!

Gelf Magazine: Do you enjoy boxing in its current form—the glossy, arguably lower stakes, higher production, HBO-and-pay-per-view iteration? Why do you suppose it isn't embraced with the same zeal as something like football—no less American and certainly no more violent, yet largely placed behind a kind of glass after-hours wall?

Binnie Klein: Most boxing fans speak of the fact that football and baseball are blessed with giant sums of money, while boxing is not. We complain about the so-called "alphabet soup" of title bouts. No one can keep track; it's quite confusing. My coach, former boxer John Spehar, maintains that America tends to rally around boxing when we have a charismatic and formidable heavyweight; that's been missing for a while. I've been to a few pro fights that I have enjoyed immensely, particularly when I have personally met the boxers, like Tony Grano, Matt Remillard, and Addy Irrizarry of Connecticut. They're great people, and you want them to win. I also don't really know any other form—when I sat with my father as he watched Gillette's Friday Night Fights on black-and-white TV, I was six years old, and pretty repulsed by boxing—so these days I take what I can get, whether it's attending an amateur bout, watching people train at the gym, or forking up some bucks for pay-per-view. I should say I am very appreciative of the internet—I was able to watch (and write about afterwards for the Forward newspaper) the Salita vs. Khan bout from Newcastle, England.

Gelf Magazine: A lot of your devotion to boxing, and you divulge as much, is the mystery you felt in watching your father watch those fights when you were a child, later trying to reconcile his anger and sense of fallibility with your own identity. What in boxing helped you extricate that, or did it make that pursuit unnecessary entirely?

Binnie Klein: It was obvious that my father had a lot of anger and regret. His life had not been easy. I found some of my own anger when I started boxing, and some of it was at him, for not protecting me more when I most needed it. Then I began to feel like I could better protect myself, both physically and emotionally, because of boxing. It was amazing to discover, so late in life, that had he lived longer, we would have had this interest in common.

Max Lakin

Max Lakin is a writer and journalist based in New York.

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- Sports
- posted on May 05, 10
Alan Kahn

A very insightful interview with a very interesting individual. I have read "Blows to the Head" and found it a delightful read and particularly illuminating about the jewish relationships in boxing. Super job, Max and Binnie!

Article by Max Lakin

Max Lakin is a writer and journalist based in New York.

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