Thoughts on Touch



My Sicilian mother, Maria Maiorana, touched me a lot from birth until her death in 1999. That is probably what made me a bodyworker.  Maria was a public servant, and among the programs she developed was budgeting for poor elderly women on fixed incomes.  “Janet”, a well-coiffed, ancient lady, began Maria’s first class by saying “Dear, every month I get my Social Security check and I go straight to the hairdresser.”  When Maria suggested that she save the money and do her own hair, Janet smiled kindly.  “Oh, no, I could never give that up.  It’s the only time I get touched.”  Maria never forgot that moment, and neither have I.

We all know that touch is crucial to babies.  Preemies grow twice as fast when touched.  People who adopt from places where orphanage workers don’t have time to touch know the developmental and physical effects are lifelong.  Students of intro psychology know that baby monkeys, isolated from the nurture of their mothers, prefer a terrycloth-covered metal “monkey” to a plain metal “monkey” even when the metal one gives them milk.  But we draw an invisible line when it comes to touch in other contexts.  The truth is that touch is crucial to health for everyone, not just babies.  Ask people who own dogs, or the parent of a young child — it feels good for the toucher, who is also being touched.

Touch is crucial to health at every level, from the most concrete to the most abstract.  Touch, and the lack of touch, change our development, spirits, mood, intellect, compassion, sanity, connection to the world, and sense of self.  The lack of touch causes illness and poor healing.  It hastens death and debilitation, and it can make a death experience worse.

Three experiences in 2012 reminded me how important touch is, and that the lack of touch harms us — diminishing our basic attitude about ourselves and our lives, and creating a society and world of limited sensory perception, empathy, compassion and care.

1.  Touch and Death.  John was my spiritual guide for 30 years.  And for the last three, I got to take care of him.  John spent the summer of 2012 in Lenox Hill Hospital.  He died the day before his 75th birthday at the Mary Manning Walsh hospiceof Calvary Hospital.  Lewy’s dementia and Parkinson’s Disease left him unable to speak and screwed into a fetal position.  At every visit, I touched him for at least a few minutes (note that you would be unlikely to do that with a beloved elder who is “healthy”).   On every occasion, even when asleep, John responded by some unfolding and softening of the fist-like curl his body had become and he was less afraid of the unfamiliar environment of bars, jarring noises and tubes that a hospital is to a demented person.

Under a bodyworker’s hands, the “impossible” happened.  As my beloved friend declined, I developed a severe neck injury (hm, we could discuss that also, but let’s not) and I hired Manya Zuba (, a multi-disciplinary massage therapist who specializes in helping opera singers and the dying, to treat John for two hours a day through his entire passage from hospice admission to death. John had been off all medication for a month.  To the shock of staff and doctors, his body softened and unfolded under Manya’s hands like a flower opening in sunlight.  Visitors were impressed by John’s relaxed presence in hospice, and I feel sure that her “touch” extended to them as well.  John’s body posture had shown increasing restriction and retreat, but as he died, he spread wide open and became soft — even his lifelong-hardened jaw and lips opened.  I don’t know what John’s last moments were like — like many, he was “unconscious” (turns out there’s no such thing, fyi) and he died in the wee hours of the morning — but I can assure you that he lived his last days in the visceral experience of letting go and feeling touched.

2.  Feeling and Acting.  I teach movement for actors at a conservatory linked to a major university.  My teaching involves a lot of touch, including affectionate, validating touch and hugs, and this practice was recently called into question by an administrator at my school.

Teacher/student touch is restricted at just about every university in the country, and even casual events of touch in public are carefully observed and discussed.

  • My sister, a schoolteacher, had to stop giving bodywork to her 5 to 7-year-olds, even in front of their several teachers and aides in a movement class, due to fears that touch will harm a student and/or lead to litigation.
  • A friend who teaches at NYU said a student broke down in tears after two deaths in her family, and my friend said she didn’t feel it would be alright to pat her hand.
  • The teacher at the school in Newtown who survived the shooting said on television that she wanted to say something positive to the students so that their last words heard would be loving and affirming.  She said “I love you all so much, and everything will be ok.”  She reported that she later worried that it was professionally inappropriate to tell the students that she loved them.  Heartbreaking.

Inappropriate touch has been greatly discussed.  It is a terrible thing that can scar.  But there is no question that lack of touch harms — and scars — people of any age.  Americans don’t touch each other very much compared with other cultures.  For many reasons, adolescents are seldom touched.  Only elders get less.

Subtle Discussion, Reflection, Time Away. I had a frank and subtle discussion of touch and context with the administrator at my conservatory.  We talked about touch education for people who will be playing love scenes in movies. We noted that creating roles required empathetic physical observation of others that only touch/physical sensation of the self would allow.  (empathy” means literally “feeling inside”). There will be more discussion of this topic — I hope to be continue doing my fullest work again, even in the context of a strictly regulated university.  But this event made me aware, again, that touch practices are desperately needed in our culture, that my “touchy-feely” behavior is the exception where it should be the rule, and I determined again that more safe touch, rather than less touch altogether, is what makes us sane and whole.  In a discussion of the school policy that led to my resignation, one 18-year-old boy, “Eddie”, told his class that he had been molested as a youngster for a year by a teacher.  He said “the touch work we do in this class feels so good, and George hugged me last week and now I want a hug every week.”  His brave admission broke my heart in at least two ways, but it also gives me hope.

3.  Guns and Empathy. I can’t know what made that boy in Newtown, CT mentally ill, and what state of mind and life events allowed him to shoot little kids at their school.  I can’t imagine what made those adolescent boys in Littleton, Colorado shoot up their schoolmates and themselves.  Guns and video games have been blamed, and less access to and video training with guns would help.

Empathy is not Abstract.  As a touch and movement professional for 30 years, I know that empathy is not abstract.  Sensing another’s body, and identifying with their vulnerability, come from touch and feeling in one’s own body, activated by “mirror neurons” in the brain that that trigger feelings in us when we see other people, especially children who are exceptionally open themselves because they haven’t been acculturated NOT to feel. If you don’t move and you’re never touched except in contact sports, violence and sex, that is the main way you will identify with other people — if you can sympathize with (literally “feel with”) them at all.
There’s a movement in our culture to “protect” us from touch — on the presumption that the small amount of dangerous touch that occurs must be stopped, even if it means that no touch at all will occur.  It seems to me that offenders will continue to offend regardless of rules against harming others, and that taking an essential for health and sanity from everyone is a bad way to prevent offenses from occurring.
Our culture is pornographic and puritanical. The best way through and beyond this serious danger to our wellness — as citizens and individuals — is touch, early and often. There is no context in life where feeling one’s self is not paramount.  Please touch, and move, and see to it that others are touched and moved, especially youth and elders.