Redefining Strength: Manumalo Muasau Addresses Abuse and Trauma in Pacific Islander Culture
By Loveni Enari
What's better for Pacific Islanders’ mental health than a laugh with your mates about the hidings you got as kids?
You know the stories … with the jandal, the stick, at school, in front of mates, the whole church; the time Mum was throwing stones at me while I was running away, she was telling my cousins to catch me and they had to, but they were really sad about it; the time Dad went overboard with the hockey stick … oops, maybe that’s not so funny, but there are many more, aren’t there? Too many, maybe?
And then the laugh and ‘Ehh, what doesn’t kill you, makes you stronger, no?’ Or the tough sounding, ‘It was nothing more than your average PI kid got, no more.’ Or, ‘It’s good trauma. Toughens you up. Hahaha.’
Funny eh? Except when you start to analyse it, it's actually potentially very harmful.
Psychology doctoral candidate and mental performance coach for the NFL Tennessee Titans, Manumalo Muasau, knows about it all, both through his university studies and through that school of hard knocks, the streets.
Born in Tacoma, Washington and raised in Hacienda Heights, California and Glendale, Arizona his parents were from the villages of Ofu, Manu’a and Tula, Tutuila in American Samoa, and emigrated to the USA in the 1970s and 80s.
His father led what Manumalo calls the double life. On the one hand the respected Assembly of God faifeau (pastor), was well respected by the church community, and on the other hand, the homeless, authoritarian disciplinarian who physically abused his three sons.
Why, you ask? You know why. Because he loved them, that’s how the warped logic went, and still goes. You know, the biblical proverb so religiously followed by many - ‘spare the rod, spoil the child.’
And, yes, I did say, ‘homeless.’
For the first 13 years of his life Manumalo, his two elder brothers, father who struggled with his challenges and mother who battled with schizophrenia and borderline personality disorder, lived out of their van, in shelters, motels and in parks in Los Angeles and Arizona.
Coming from his unpredictable and trauma filled childhood, by all accounts Manumalo could've been a statistic or product of his environment. The odds were much in that favour compared to what he's actually doing now.
Instead, Manu holds a Masters Degree in Sport & Performance psychology and he's in his final year of completing his doctorate in clinical psychology from John F Kennedy University in Northern California.
Manu believed so much in wanting to serve his people that he strategically made his clinical training experiences to work as a Mental Health Specialist at the Pacific Islander Wellness Initiative (PIWI) which is a mental health clinic specially designed to serve Pacific Islanders in Northern California. Did I mention he also played two seasons of American football for the New York Giants in the NFL?
Manumalo means ‘Victory’ and his inspiring story is truly one of victory despite all the odds stacked against him.
He takes up the narrative, ‘I had a father who was very well respected in the church community. He was everyone's favourite uncle and he had great charm and connected with people.’
‘The version behind closed doors was when his struggles manifested itself in abusive behaviour towards my siblings, mother and I.’
‘With my mother, due to the lack of understanding of mental health and and mental illness in our communities, she was often deemed as demonically possessed from our church community which led to her and us being ostracized from everyone.
It was tough going through it, but I realise now that it wasn't that our folks didn't want to help us, it was just that they didn't know how to help. We're one generation removed from Samoa and our parents and elders were just trying to figure out how to survive and coexist in the mainland US.’
Their father's internal struggles continued throughout the period of homlessness, all the way up until September 17 2003 when he passed away.
It was the most trying day of young Manumalo’s life, yet also the most pivotal.
This interview was conducted on September 18th 2023 which is 20 years and 1 day after the most defining moment in Manumalo's life. He was 13, his brother Lue was 14 and they sat on a park bench and ‘just cried and cried,’ he says. ‘We spent hours crying and comforting each other.’
Their father had just died, he and Lue were living in a group home, their oldest brother Matthew had been in jail for 6 months for armed robbery and was about to be given a longer sentence, and their mother, due to her untreatd and undiagnosed condition at the time, displayed unpredictable behaviour that led to roaming the streets unknowingly.
‘After crying till there was nothing left, we realised we could not possibly go any lower. There was only one direction left for us. We had hit rock bottom and yes the only way was up.’
‘So we made a promise to each other and it unlocked a whole new frame of mind for me. I really started to focus on sports and take it seriously.’
‘I did everything I could to go from being homeless and counted out to wanting to make it to the NFL.’
On that very same day, the oldest brother Matthew was released from jail. Manu & Lue would eventually move in with their Aunt and Uncle who came from military backgrounds.
The discipline, structure and routine they provided were like manna from heaven for the boys. To this day he’s hugely grateful for that one year - being held accountable for their actions - which allowed them to reset and calibrate, so necessary for the fragile, traumatised youngsters.
For such a spiritual person as Manumalo it was as if God had a special plan for them and had decided to give them a second chance.
‘I'm a person of faith, and I know deep down that the day my father passed unlocked something within me that helped me embrace adversity even more.’
‘Now I can look back and say, man, as sad as it was, I wouldn't change it for any other moment because it is a part of who I am today.’
Manumalo says he now looks for the adversity in life because it’s only then that he’ll be able to know what his ‘next level’ is. Having gone through so much in his younger years, he’s equipped with a level of resilience and buoyancy limited to a privileged few.
His ‘second chance’ saw him concentrating on football, receiving a scholarship to study and play at Georgia State University and being signed for the New York Giants. His professional playing career, however, was a short one but it wasn’t his physical capabilities which led to such a short career, it was his difficulty in managing his own mental health stressors that led to a premature exit out of the NFL.
While ‘brain dumping’ with the Giants’ team psychologist he had what he calls ‘a full circle God moment.’
‘Suddenly I knew this is exactly what I want to do when I'm done playing football because I knew I wasn't the only one struggling in silence in that locker room.’
Manumalo’s doctoral dissertation is exploring the transitional experiences of Samoan's who are the first generation in their family to go to University.
It is likely to be very relevant to many young Pacific Islanders and those from lower socioeconomic groups throughout the USA.
As for the humour Islanders so often use when discussing personal trauma Manumalo says, ‘Humour is a very advanced form of coping and in our Polynesian communities we joke but over time it can normalise masking our issues.’
‘That’s when it starts to look like your culture but it’s actually just trauma and needs to be addressed for people to thrive.’
And here Manumalo introduces a catch phrase he sees as vital in how we look at trauma.
‘You have to name it to tame it,’ he says.
‘Labelling can be informative and behaviour needs to be recognised for what it is; if it’s abuse, it’s physical, emotional and spiritual and this labelling allows us to shift the narrative of what is appropriate and what is not.’
If we do not have a term for what is happening it may take on a meaning which hinders the healing process. The passing of time can also cause serious problems.
A trauma expert named Resmaa Menakem talks about how time de-contextualises trauma, and therein lies the potential danger because, ‘trauma in a person, over time, begins to look like personality. Trauma in a family - over time - starts to look like family traits, and trauma in a people, over time, can start to look like culture.’
So yes people, put simply, because beatings may be commonplace, and may go back many generations in your familial history, this does not make it part of our ‘culture’. It needs to be named for what it is, abuse, and only from there can we make the right steps to address the issues and start the healing process.
What about trauma making you tougher?
‘If you’re training someone to run through a brick wall or you fasi him and he won’t cry, then yeah, you may have created a tough person.’
‘But is that the same toughness that allows you to deal with the loss of a loved one, or a break up, or being fired from your job? I don’t think so.’
‘The goal is to always figure out how we can equip our children with the mental and emotional skills to manage their own trauma when they experience it. I'm not trying to protect them from trauma because it's going to happen to them.’
‘We need to take them out of their comfort zone to prepare them but we simply cannot traumatise our kids in our own homes.’
When listening to him speak so eloquently and passionately about his journey, his work, his family, his intense love for all of them - including his father, who is tattooed on his arm, it is heartwarming to recognise that, on such a tortuous journey, this amazing person has achieved so much in his young life.
Among all his outstanding achievements, however, one act stands out like the sun rising amid the painful wasteland of his childhood.
Manumalo has found healing for his growing client base, his two brothers, for his beloved mother, and most importantly - because, without it, none of the others would be possible - he’s found healing for himself.
CoconetTV Bonus: Manumalo has also graciously offered his top 3 tips to young Pacific Islanders on how to prioritise their mental strength -
1. Identify your gift, cultivate your gift, then share your gift to the world. Manu truly believes that every person on earth has a gift, but oftentimes we can forget about what those are due to :
1) we experienced adversity early in life and remained in a state of survival mode, or
2) we may be seeking guidance on how to approach this process.
Either way, it’s okay because it is just that, a process that requires us to engage in if we’re going to move forward in this 3-step method. Once we’ve identified what we’re called to do, then we take the necessary steps to nurture our gifts. This is when you do anything absolutely necessary to gain knowledge about how to grow the confidence to own your gift and cultivate it. This can be done by seeking out mentorship, internship opportunities, or just being around social groups where people share the same interests/gifts.
Lastly, sharing your gift to the world is where the real fun and joy comes from. To see others appreciate your gift in the same way that you do is something that can spark even more inspiration/encouragement for one to continuously operate in their gift. Sharing your gift to the world is not about boasting about your talents, but giving yourself permission to own your gift unapologetically.
Meaning we can be humble and confident at the same time. If we’re going to reclaim our narrative in society (which I believe we can do), it will require us to step out of our comfort zone and display the other side of humility, which to me is confidence.
2. Humanise you so you can see others in their humanity!
Give yourself the opportunity to engage in your own mental strength journey. Seek the elders and matua’s who you admire and who’s experienced life so you can embrace the wisdom attached to their experiences. Seek spiritual mentorship, small groups, and even therapy to help you navigate this journey.
Healing has become so sensationalised, primarily due to social media, but I tell you, it’s not for the weak because it requires an honest self-assessment of truly understanding why we do the things we do. For many of us, the journey is met with painful truths and unbearable realities, but if we can lean in and understand our own humanity, it gives us a chance to grow, and to ultimately see others in their own humanity, which (for me) has resulted in non-judgmental acceptance of others.
3. Embrace Your Intelligence!
We all have it, yet we still may struggle to accept it. A primary negative stereotype in PI communities in mainland US is that we are intellectually inferior to other ethnicities. It’s a negative bias that’s plagued our community, and many other marginalised groups for many decades. Sometimes we fall into the trap of confirming this stereotype, myself included. It wasn’t until I was around Samoan excellence in academic and other professional spaces, that I became more comfortable in identifying as someone who was more than just a football player. This was part of my journey of humanising myself.
Embracing our intelligence as a community and culture is an important step towards reclaiming our narrative in society. Gratefully, since I’ve fully embraced my intelligence (and my humanity), it’s resulted into fearless action driven by my intuition and spirit of demanding more of myself and those I serve.
My biggest insecurity, as it is for many of us, is the fear of rejection. Because I no longer carry that burden, I am able to graciously say that I show up as, Me, Manumalo Jacob Muasau. And that means I show up as a vibrant, infectiously optimistic, goofy, intuitive person who loves connecting with people’s hearts (ie: my humanity connecting with someone else’s humanity).
Manu lives by his 2 favourite Samoan Proverbs:
"O le a la I le pule O le Tautua (The path to leadership is through service)"
"Ua malie lo’u loto (Remain in a heart of contentment)"
Check out the video below where Manumalo Muasau joins Big Body Cisco on the Western Conference Podcast for an indepth look at Manu Mental. A program for Mental Health that this Mental Performance Coach put together for the NFL's Tennessee Titans.
Loveni S. Enari is a Samoan journalist who’s spent most of his life in Spain as an English teacher, rugby coach, catering manager, journalist and father. He hails from the villages of Vaiala, Safune, Lepa, Nofoali’i and Wairoa.
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