Label Liberation: Chapter 1


Written by Justin Thomas’ father.

March 15, 1972

I AM PROUD, that I have been asked by the author of this book, to write an introduction. I have known Justin Thomas since the day he was born, and I know of all the hardships he encountered during his youth, arid, as a young man, until he left the city he was born in.

I AM NOT PROUD, of the fact, that I must accept some of the responsibility for his leaving home.

I AM PROUD of the fact, that he has overcome so many obstacles during his travels, and has come back to the city of his birth, with a wonderful knowledge and understanding of people, an unusual talent of communicating with people, and a great feeling of empathy, towards all people, including myself.

I AM PROUD, because he is my son.

— Harold Wintraub

Encapsulated Update of the Journey


It is the mid-1960s. I’m in a restaurant with my foster father. Two men who refer to themselves as “master educators” are sitting at the next table, talking about an innovative course that they’re organizing, called Human Communication and Inter-Action. This course, sponsored by The National Film Board of Canada, is for specially invited “pillars of the academic world.”

“Would it be possible for a public school dropout to attend?” I enquire.

“It’s for professors only,” one of them says brusquely.

Gaining some confidence, I say to my foster father, “And they’re in human communication?”

observingThe other educator chuckles and introduces himself as Mark Slade, a senior representative of The National Film Board of Canada, which has a worldwide reputation for producing award-winning films and documentaries related to important social issues.

To my amazement, Mark Slade is not deterred at finding out that I had never passed out of grade one public school. After a discussion, he invites me to attend the course.

During the course, I get a flash of recognition that, if education is a wheel with different spokes, professors often cling to their spokes for their identities. Mark Slade and the other master educators put us on buses to shopping centers and ask us to guess the shopping center’s weight. They are trying to dislodge us from linear thinking. We are told that the master educators are attempting to deprogram us. We are being taught to unlearn things that I have never learned because I have been labeled “retarded” and assume that I can’t learn.

124With less to unlearn, am I actually closer to the hub of education than they are? I have been so ashamed of my inability to learn, and now my whole world is being turned upside down and inside out! Mark Slade explains that if we are cups that are filled to the brim with information, we can’t let anything else in.

I think about the wheel of identity that we are all on, and how some fear looking back to the hub-as if, like the biblical story of Lot’s wife, we might turn into salt and disintegrate. I wonder if this really means we have traditionally been trained to fear the introspection that ultimately leads to a fear-free overview of ourselves, family, other groups and the world at large.

Mark Slade says he has carefully selected a wide spectrum of talented thinkers and visionary lecturers from all over the world for this first human communication program. I wear mirrored sunglasses, a part of me still fearful that the others will see right through me, and discover the truth about my “stupidity.” Mark Slade organizes a second program, this time “To Probe Behind Contemporary Masks Of Technology, To Discover – If Possible – The Human Being.”

National Film Board“Do it,” Mark Slade says. “Take as much time as you require. You’ll have the resources of the National Film Board backing you up all the way.” Being freed of the pressures of subject matter or time constraint by such a highly-regarded educator as Mark Slade, when previously I was made to doubt the possibility of my learning anything at all, causes the fear of failure to gradually ease.

Mark Slade lifted me out of a world where I was bombarded with labels: “Dense”, “Jackass”, “Nut”, “Nincompoop”, “Ninny”, “Blockhead”, “Dimwit”, “Dope”, “Numbskull”, “Pinhead”, “Birdbrain”, “Scatterbrain”, “Nebbish”, “Featherbrain”, “Simpleton”, “Slow”, “Half Wit”, “Thickheaded” and “Dolt”. Mark Slade challenges us “to discover, if possible, the human being.” Attending his two programs along with the most advanced academics and being treated by Mark Slade and the others as if I were on par with them, caused each and every negative label that had become such a part of my identity and life to begin to peel at the edges.

140In 1967 my foster father marries and moves to Mexico City. When I join them, I meet a professor on sabbatical from Berkeley, studying his Latino roots. As soon as I tell him about my inability to learn, he suggests I go to California. “The whole human potential movement is there,” he says. “Get letters of recommendation from the organizers of the two programs you’ve attended and try to get into the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA).”

As soon as the letters arrive from Mr. Slade and Professor Theall, I say goodbye to my foster family and head for Los Angeles. There I meet Colin Young, head of UCLA’s Theatre Arts department, and talk about my interest in theatre and psychology. To my shock, Prof. Young arranges for me to be accepted at the university as a freshman, even though he knows I have never passed out of grade one. Because I am filled with panic at my lack of basic learning skills, a campus psychologist enrolls me at the UCLA clinic school for children aged 11-16 with learning disorders. “Even though you’re 28, you look 16,” the psychologist tells me, “so your presence won’t disrupt the other students.”

What is the essence of essence?In order to get me to read, the clinic staff asks me to talk about the flashbacks that I continue to experience, related to my childhood abuse. The next day, they type up what I had told them, and I learn to read it back. In the afternoons I attend regular classes, telling my professors that I want to get to the core of human conflict as part of a project for the National Film Board.

The professors allow me to ask them and their students any questions that come to mind. I discover that it is only a rare person who sees their parents as anything but symbols-and if one’s parents are symbols, so are all others to the very same degree. It seems that by keeping anyone a symbol, each and everyone else falls under the shadow of the misinformation, the misunderstanding, the missing piece-the missing person.

While in California, as part of my independent research, I interview thousands of people from all walks of life, and am taken under wing by such pioneers of the human potential movement as Dr. Eric Berne, Dr. Fritz Perls, Virginia Satir and Dr. Carl Faber. Within a short time, I am asked to speak to groups of teachers and deans of students, as well as facilitate encounter groups at the UCLA Crisis Intervention Center. As a result of all these experiences, I have an epiphany, a paradigm shift.

The idea of Label Liberation is born.

UnmaskingWhen I return to Toronto, I am asked to speak to a wide variety of people on Label Liberation. Educators Marshal McLuhan, Northrop Frye and others invite me to share ideas with them as well as their students. I do a one-person show about my life, where I go on-stage to get off-stage, to unmask in front of everyone. It feels imperative to dissolve the public/private split that society conditions in all of us.

From my experiences doing crisis intervention and prevention, I recognize that this public/private split is at the root of all personal and social conflict. My every instinct has pushed me to step off the teeter-totter and stand grounded for the first time in my life, beyond all the polarities that our minds are addictively taught to construct. Several of Mark Slade’s colleagues see the show, or hear me present at lectures or workshops.

Soon after, Mr. Slade and I speak on the telephone. He invites me to Montreal to present my show for him. “I’m told that you’re an Einstein of the social sciences,” he says in an anxious tone.

“Einstein of the social sciences?” I exclaim.

“That’s what they said. I’m afraid to hear what you have to say-I might not understand it.”

Taken aback by his concern, I explain, “My show is a step-by-step journey through inner space from group to rebirth as a person. It’s about overcoming our fears of each other. Not one suicidal person I spoke with killed themselves. Wars, prejudice, generational gaps, all kinds of violence and alienation stem from people seeing themselves as ‘losers’ and others as ‘winners’. People take drugs to get high, desperately trying to emotionally climb to the top of the see-saw. It’s about stepping off the teeter-totter, discovering that if life is like a card-game, we can lay all our cards on the table and welcome everyone to experience the state of joker. As a joker we see the trap of being identified as a ‘winner’ or ‘loser.’ From this perspective, we all have 52 cards within. Since we are all whole, why spend our lives trapped in polarity, bluffing?”

“You just can’t turn the light on for everyone in the world! Things just don’t work that way,” Mark interjects.

“But it’s so simple! It’s a step-by-step journey through inner space, from group to rebirth as a person,” I say. “It’s about coming out of the trance and experiencing ourselves and everyone else for real, instead of as symbols to compare or compete with. It’s about snapping our fingers and waking ourselves up beyond the need to be jealous and envious of anyone. We need a new metaphor to liberate us all from being prisoners of words.”

I arrive at Mr. Slade’s office at the National Film Board in Montreal, wearing the joker’s costume from my show, titled Once and for All, OR How I Overcame My Fear of Whores, Royalty, Gays, Teachers, Hippies, Psychiatrists, Athletes, Transvestites, Clergymen, Police, Children, Bullies, Politicians, Nuns, Grandparents, Doctors, Celebrities, Gurus, Judges, Artists, Critics, Mothers, Fathers, Blacks, Yellows, Reds, Whites, Myself and You. “Won’t I be presenting the show to a group of NFB people?” I ask as Mr. Slade walks me to an empty boardroom.

“I want to see the show alone,” he replies.

I share the one-person show, cycle of my journey.

When I finish presenting the show to Mr. Slade at the National Film Board, he puts his arms around me. “That was beautiful, Justin,” he says with feeling. “But I don’t want you to ever put your play on again, or publish the book you’ve been working on. And no more talks on Label Liberation. “

“What do you mean?” I ask, perplexed. “There’s been a tremendous response to my media interviews, from as far away as Germany. Thousands of people have called and written the radio and TV stations, requesting “I’m a Person First” buttons and more information about Label Liberation.”

“Doesn’t matter,” he says with a wave of his hand.

“But my show and my talks are about getting to the core of human conflict, so that all countries can begin to relate in harmony instead of trying to destroy the imagined ‘enemy.’ It’s about overcoming our fear of each other. In wars, people don’t kill people, symbols kill symbols. In prejudice, people don’t hate people, symbols hate symbols. I’ve spoken to many suicidal people. Once they woke up to the fact that I was recognizing them as a person, rather than a symbol, their attitude to life began to change. To my knowledge, not one of those suicidal people went ahead and killed themselves.

“Wars, prejudice, generation gaps and all kinds of violence and alienation stem from people learning to see themselves as ‘losers’ and others as ‘winners.’ Mr. Slade, these labels are deadly! People take drugs to get high, desperately trying to emotionally climb to the top of the teeter-totter. They don’t know that they are clinging to a metaphor, a hollow identity based on symbols conjured up in their minds. How can you ask me not to do any more talks on Label Liberation when it’s about stepping off the teeter-totter and discovering that if life is like a card game, we can lay all our cards on the table and welcome everyone to experience the state of joker?”

Keep it under your hatMr. Slade presses his index finger to my lips. “Ssssh…!” he says. “You’ve got to learn to keep some information under your hat. That’s what makes the world go round. Nobody tells it one hundred percent like it is. The only way to get power and to hold on to it is to keep others in the dark, distracted and off center. Don’t give them the knowledge! You must learn to compromise. I’ll teach you how it all works.”

I look at Mr. Slade, confused. “You encouraged me to do this research! When Marshall McLuhan told me that if he were as private in public as I am, he would lose his power, I asked him, ‘What kind of power is that, if one fears losing it?’ He seemed to resent the question, but I have to ask you the same thing. What kind of power is that?”

Mr. Slade doesn’t answer.

“Label Liberation is about snapping our fingers and waking ourselves up beyond the need to be jealous and envious. We need a new metaphor, like the Joker, to liberate us all from being prisoners of words. Label Liberation is about coming out of the trance and experiencing ourselves and everyone else for real, instead of as symbols to compete with. If America, Russia and China only care about having power over each other rather than sharing power, we all end up on the brink of annihilation.”

“I don’t want any more public presentations,” Mr. Slade says firmly. Moving closer, he cups his hands around my cheeks and stares into my eyes. I can feel his hands trembling. “Justin, I want you to be my lover and come work with me at the film board. Consider yourself hired. With what you’ve learned and my influence here, the two of us will be very powerful together. We’ll be even more powerful than my colleague and his filmmaker lover, Norman McLaren.” His hands slowly move down my back to my buttocks and he begins to fondle me. I can’t believe what is happening. I try to believe that he thinks he’s massaging my back but his hands have accidentally slipped. I back away, and start gathering my props so I can leave. I feel him watching me.

When I pick up the large deck of cards that I used in the play, Mr. Slade asks, “May I please have the two of hearts from your deck?”

I don’t understand why he wants this particular card. “Wouldn’t you prefer one of the jokers?” I ask. “For me, the joker symbolizes our potential for wholeness.”

Letter“I would like the two of hearts, if you’re willing to give it to me,” he says quietly. I find the card and hold it out to him. “I don’t want it now,” he says. “Please mail it to me from Toronto.” Having no idea what all this means, I quickly leave. I do not yet understand that all Mr. Slade’s vast life experiences, his rumored explorations with mind-altering substances, the knowledge he has gleaned from the gifted people he knows, the powerful position he has acquired at the National Film Board, make up his whole identity, and that identity is based on believing he has an ultimate overview of the world. Not having to answer to anyone in a government job he knows he has for life, there are no checks and balances for him, causing him to seek total control over everyone and everything.

When I return to Toronto from doing the show for Mr. Slade in Montreal, I mail him the card he had requested. Shortly after, he sends me a bizarre four-page handwritten letter, in which he addresses me by my full name. It begins:

Dear Adam Keith Justin Thomas,
You see how I have named you fourfold. That’s a fourfold numbing which I requite or consummate by enfolding you in myself. At the moment I take you into my words. You dissolve, numb, in these words, these symbols, and come alive again in me. That is requital. It is a poor requital if you compare it to coming alive in my arms or in my lips….

As I read the words “numbing” … “enfolding you in myself” … “I take you into my words” … “you dissolve numb” … “and come alive again in me”… I feel as if I am being pulled … drawn … inducted … into a trance. With a sense of bewilderment, I read on.

HypnosisThe letter confuses me terribly. I say to my girlfriend, “I wish I’d studied the classics. Maybe then I could understand the meaning behind this letter.” For some reason, I do not consciously accept the reality of the sexual advances that he has made to me in his office, or the sexual connotations in his letter. Perhaps I am too filled with gratitude to Mr. Slade for opening a door that “officially” lifted from me the label of “retard,” and for encouraging my quest.

(Not until many years later do I understand what was really taking place, under the guise of what one might describe as his romantic infatuation. Mr. Slade was trying to lure me into a sexual relationship, and he wanted me to suppress the results of my research so that he could use the information to satisfy his hunger for power and control. He had been exposed to the show and the core meaning of the show’s creative aim — Label Liberation.)

As a joker with 52 cards within, there is a part of ‘me’ that has stepped back from programmed ego and power games we are all susceptible to. I understand extremely well how so many cultures condition us to pathologically polarize ourselves with each other, and compete sometimes to the point of death. I had welcomed Mr. Slade because it seemed to me that, like me, he was interested in experiencing others as equals in essence.

But I didn’t grasp that Mr. Slade was serious when he indicated that he was threatened by my research. It had not occurred to me that the person who encouraged my research did not wish to make such information public, because he would lose his control over others when people learned how to free themselves from polarizing power games. Mr. Slade’s desperate need to claim and maintain power and win at any cost is a reality I have to face and digest. My gratefulness to him and the National Film Board had skewed my perception of Mr. Slade and had caused me to have a higher opinion of him than he deserved. That need of mine to value him so highly was based on the little value shown to me by my biological family, which itself resulted in my undervaluing of myself. It is my loss to allow myself to be placed back on the emotional teeter-totter I thought I had left behind, and the misstep back onto that teeter-totter would cost me dearly.

A few days after I receive the letter, Mr. Slade calls me from Montreal. “I’m making a special trip to Toronto to see you. Let’s have dinner,” he says. “We need to discuss your salary at the Film Board and figure out how to get you to Montreal as quickly as possible. You’ll be working with me.”

When Mr. Slade arrives, he asks me to meet him in his hotel room. “Would you like to have dinner with my girlfriend and me at our apartment?” I ask. “She makes a delicious Portuguese-Chinese dish called minchi.”

“No, no,” he replies. “We can have dinner in my room. Come alone. We need to talk.”

As soon as I walk in the door, I can tell that Mr. Slade is drunk. He grabs my arm, pushes my hand onto his erection, and tries to put his tongue as he forcefully attempts to kiss me. When I recoil, he becomes violent, shoving me onto the bed and tearing at my clothes. After a struggle, I manage to push him off and rush to the door.

“Leave now and you can forget about your job. You’re not going to need it!” he rages. “You better keep looking over your shoulder, because no one else is going to have you. Go on, run. You’re as good as dead!”

I spend the next few days in my room, crying. Then a handwritten note arrives from Mr. Slade:

Who seeketh Me, findeth me
Who findeth Me, knoweth me
Who knoweth Me, loveth me
Who loveth me, him I love
Whom I love, him I slay
Whom I slay, him I must requite
Whom I must requite, Myself am his requital.

The words “Whom I love, him I slay” begin repeating themselves ominously over and over in my head. “He really is going to kill me,” I think, filled with panic.

This traumatic experience, it seems to me, is in some way a result of the research I had done and presented in my show. In my mind, the terror of the perceived threat from Mr. Slade becomes inextricably linked with the ideas of Label Liberation.

How ironic! I have made tremendous progress in overcoming my fear of all people by seeing beyond the labels that define them. Now I face a new obstacle: One of the people who has encouraged me to explore and experience life so freely is now trying to completely direct and control my life.

I had gone on-stage to get off-stage, to overcome my fear of myself and all others by removing the mask I had been taught to wear. I’d found a new kind of freedom and clarity by admitting to myself and telling others the whole truth and nothing but the truth. In doing so, there was a dissolving of the public and private split.

Not telling lies automatically eliminated the possibility of being one of those people who know no other way of adapting to an already schizophrenic society than by living lives based on lies. Such people have been scripted to play-act roles assigned to them. They’ve been indoctrinated to forget the pathway leading to stop-acting. I had penetrated through the negative, and then later the positive, labels that I had been taught by my biological family to believe really were my identity. This false identity had de-constructed and disintegrated. I had de-hypnotized myself. I had snapped my fingers and was transported to a safe place, free from all the inductions and labels I had been subjected to.

So what was left? A timeless moment, filled with a sense of freedom from false barriers and boundaries, a recognition of undistorted truth, a feeling of peace and a love for all human kind. Finally, there were no obstacles left holding “me” back from the act of sharing unconditional love.

When I had been presenting the show in Toronto, London, and Paris, audiences had welcomed me, and together we’d allowed the flow of spontaneity to lift us into a world beyond comedy and tragedy, experiencing ourselves as process, energy and change. Then suddenly this most recent encounter with Mr. Slade has shifted everything.

Back into the whirlpoolSomething within me is shattered. The equanimity of the state of Joker that once carried me to a state of tranquillity now seems like a fantasy. Thoughts and feelings of overwhelming pain surface. What had happened with Mr. Slade causes me to feel that I am losing my footing and have been shuffled back into the pack. I discuss these new life challenges with several others whom I consider friends. One by one, sensing my vulnerability, these “friends” test my limits by insidiously attacking me and then, once they have succeeded at drawing “emotional blood,” they withdraw in triumph. That they delight in leaving me in emotional isolation is clear. The flashbacks of my childhood return with a vengeance, with more recent ones added to them. The post-traumatic stress syndrome takes hold. I am in a vortex, spinning, falling, unable to regain my balance. Now I feel as if I am truly dying. Although I have been there for other people, no one is there to help me. I try to stop the flashbacks and numb my emotions. Once again I have a public and private split.

It takes 22 years for me to find my way out of the labyrinth, get off the teeter-totter, and lay all my cards on the table. Slowly I find my way back to Label Liberation.
For over two decades, I am in a state of shock. During this time, not only am I unable to remember what has happened with Mr. Slade, but I also feel compelled to give up public speaking and refuse to present my one-person show.

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