BY WAY OF INTRODUCTION: I have been translating (from Portuguese) some of the interviews and stories written about me in the past five years, as well as producing summaries about the videos recorded with some longer interviews. These translations were a requirement for a professional project. It has been hard work. Most of the original texts have style problems in Portuguese, make extensive use of imagery, metaphors and colloquialisms. Some phrases make no sense. The few arguments are not logically constructed. Interviews that took over four hours, sometimes even more than one day, were edited in such a manner that my words frequently sound out of context. Translating these texts has been more than hard: it has been pretty unpleasant. One of the most uncomfortable common features is that even when the whole story is about me (that’s the case with all the stories in this series), the title highlights my famous transgender brother, Laerte Coutinho. This is journalistic sensationalism and opportunism, to say the least. More than that, it is a disrespect with the reader and with the subject of the interview (me). There were worse stories than the ones published here, but those I ignored. I decided to post these on my blog chiefly because they reflect the moment when the media found my suicide story an interesting ornament to the big hype of the moment: Laerte’s coming out as a cross-dresser. Soon they realized that the suicide led back to horrific aspects of Brazilian political power: rape, abuse, brainwashing, physical and psychological torture within the leftist organizations. The stories about me stopped. I became “untouchable” and received more than one threat, including one with a sub-text of execution.
Enjoy – if you can.
- Sister Courage
- She’s got the strength
- Lifter controls bipolar disorder
- The body as a stranger
- Marilia defends bodybuilding
- Science and free form exercise
- Marilia’s brother’s breasts
Translation of the main interview and cover story of the Brazilian magazine “Trip” in February 2011. Trip is a Brazilian magazine founded in 1986 published by Trip Editora. It has received awards in and out of Brazil, including three medals at the New York Art Directors Club. It currently prints 44 thousand copies per month.
She’s got the strength
Marilia Coutinho reconciled body and mind and transformed her life through sport
By Bruno Torturra Nogueira – February 9, 2011
Marilia Coutinho has always been a scholar. She is the sister of cartoon artist Laerte, she is a biologist and a Ph.D., and spent years fighting a mental disorder that nearly took her life. When she realized that her strength could be the medicine, she became one of the best strength athletes in Brazil. And then she found sanity in the limits between her body and her mind.
When the doctor finished stitching Marilia Coutinho’s jugular, he washed his hands: “this is all I can do. During the next half hour we will know whether you survive or not”. They were long 30 minutes in which she had time to think about many things… In how her mental condition was out of control. In how the years of crises, of heavy psychiatric medication ended up there: her body lying on a hospital bed at a public health clinic at the Coast town of Boiçucanga after a suicide attempt of yet unknown result. Should she resist more than the critical half hour, Marilia was sure of one thing: she HAD to gain control over that condition. She still didn’t know how, but she knew it had something to do with exercise.
The half hour elapsed. And then a little more than a year went by. At that point, the 43 year old biologist holding a Ph.D. was already a Brazilian powerlifting champion in her body weight class. “Nobody understood anything”, she concludes, “it is not a normal thing for a woman my age to lift such heavy weights, and (progress) so fast”. And she promptly explains: “Am I fucking awesome? No. I am weird”. A weirdness that follows her since her childhood.
Still at school, little Marilia had a hard time relating to other kids. She didn’t understand their social codes. She felt sad and frightened. And when she felt frightened, she could become aggressive with the other kids. She only gained some control and became more centered when she discovered sports, at age eleven. At 14, she was (it sounds like karma) National fencing champion. Everything was going well until the specter of communism knocked at her door.
At her own home, the family was seduced by the Brazilian Communist Party’s leaders. And it was precisely them, the activism “friends”, who forced young Marilia, at 15 years old, to abandon sport (“a petit bourgeois thing”) and engage in the revolutionary fight. Without her foil, Marilia had no way to defend herself from her own internal ghosts or from the monsters in the real world. While they plotted to install the dictatorship of the proletariat, the top men of the left abused her.
She was raped by comrades in one of the organizations. Political activism turned Marilia in what she calls a “body alienated” person. Psychologically destroyed, and disconnected from the peace that sport provided her, she abused drugs. She self-mutilated and, even after leaving the communist organizations, when in college, she continued haunted by anxiety and sudden crises.
A heavy weight discovery
She had a sound academic career. She was, however, always controlling her condition with huge doses of medication. It was only after her last and definitive suicide attempt, against strict medical advice, that Marilia decided to quit the pills. And she got deeply involved in the physical activities that, since childhood, were on a very second level. It was when she visited a powerlifting gym at the Paraisopolis slum, in Sao Paulo, that she had an insight. She knew, at that moment, that that was her place.
Her academic experience, her love for research, made her a unique powerlifter. She delved into the literature and was capable of understanding, with her biological background, the subtle aspects of the muscles that grew fast on her body. Marilia’s rare intellectual sophistication made her a privileged observer of the hidden meanings concealed in the strength sports. Her extraordinary performance was only less extraordinary than the improvement in her mental condition. She became the living example of the ideas she defends in her new career.
As an athlete, a scholar and a writer (she has three books on the way, one about training, one about aesthetics and health and one about the disorders she has overcome), she tries to raise awareness about the great misunderstanding, both athletic and cultural, that society cultivates: a chronic separation between mind and body. It is something that alienates both athletes and scientists – and clouds the view of physicians and coaches about the huge potential that conscious physical activity has as a tool to bring back so many people to sanity. People like herself, “weird”. Just not weirder than the world itself, where body and mind are seen as separate entities.
Marilia is 47 years old today and intends to participate in her first powerlifting world championship in November. As if her own biography wasn’t sufficiently interesting, she is also cartoon artist Laerte Coutinho’s sister. Curious… While her brother just came public cross-dressed, challenging society to review its gender limits in such a natural way, she, more discreetly, challenges us to look into even more profound, hidden and urgent barriers: where are the frontiers that divide our flesh and our psyche? How much of the strength of a muscle is actually in the brain? What makes mental health different from physical health? These are questions over which she sheds some light in the following answers.
You are a great critic of the fitness culture, of the dominant training paradigm in the gyms. Why?
First of all, we need to clarify the issue. Fitness, in the proper sense of the word, means to be capable of or qualified to do something. To discuss the process of becoming capable of doing something regarding our body is more complex than exercising in machines. We live in a culture that alienates us from our bodies. In this respect, we fail as a society, as families and as institutions that bring up individuals who see the mind in the first person, but think the body in the third person. This is the mentality with which many people become gym members.
But isn’t simply the fact that more people are seeking gyms a good sign?
Yes, in a sense. We are living a century where there is more consciousness about body issues. Until recently, fitness was measured through cardiovascular conditioning. Then, fitness was cardiovascular resistance, strength and flexibility. After that, all this plus coordination, agility and proprioception. We are already reaching a wider vision. But we still don’t know the relative importance of each thing.
And do you think the brain should be counted in the fitness equation?
That’s a good question. It should be, yes, because it is obvious that it is a crucial part of all this. But the brain was left out of the exercise issue the same way we leave the body out when it is time to think about the mind. When it is time to take care of the body, you hang the brain at the locker room. This became a more serious problem when the guided movement machines dominated the market. Guided movement doesn’t have to be thought about. This is something very serious.
Why is it so serious?
Because it creates a culture that does not allow mental illness to be treated through exercise. In the case of diabetes of hypertension, the doctor sends you to the gym. For depression, it is always medication! I’ve seen psychiatrists saying that physical activity should never be treatment for depression. However, you won’t get results if you “only” “pump iron” (in the conventional sense). The mental illness patient must integrate, perceive himself. He is already labeled. He needs an opportunity to change. Through exercise, a person can construct another identity.
How has your relationship with powerlifting affected your identity?
It happened more than once. I was a “problem” child. I had poor inter-personal communication skills, difficulty in interpreting non-verbal actions, fear and depression. I had fury attacks when I felt fear. Until I had the opportunity to practice sports. And it was something that disciplined me and helped integrate lost fragments of myself. I went into track and field, volleyball and became National champion in fencing. That provided me with structure. That was my life, until I was forced out.
What do you mean, “forced out”?
It was when the Brazilian Communist Party thought I had to quit that “petit-bourgeois deviant behavior”. I was 15 years old…
But were you already a member of the Communist Party at that age?
No, but all my social environment was. Brother, friends of the family. And they had immense power over us. At a certain point, one of them approached me and said: “Look, now it is time you quit these things and get into the fight. The life of an activist has to be exclusively devoted to the revolution. And that’s that.” Their discourse was very persuasive, especially for a well-educated teenager, under a dictatorship. Those people destroyed part of my life.
How did they destroy it?
They were violent. I was severely abused inside the leftist organizations. First at the Brazilian Communist Party. But at least at the “Big Party” it was only psychological torture. Much better than in the other organization that I was a member of, the Socialist Convergence, today the Unified Socialist Workers Party. There I was raped… And I had to take it, because to tell it would be treason. The cause was more important – and the men were more important. The female base activists had to have sex with the leaders. There are female activists a generation prior to mine that can’t tell if they were more abused by the military dictatorship torturers or by their comrades. And I was a young girl, 16 years old, blond, blue eyes… a feast for them.
And what happened to you, psychologically?
I was separated from my body in all forms. First, because I could no longer practice sports. Then, because I was raped… And that is when the scariest manifestations of my illness got stronger. Self-mutilation, drug abuse…
And you continued being an activist?
Not for too long. I abandoned everything at 19 years old and moved on to an academic career. I got a bachelor’s degree in biology, a MS in chemical ecology and a Ph.D. in sociology of science. But the symptoms remained, with more or less intensity, and few years later I was diagnosed with maniac-depressive psychosis, a pathology that today is called bipolar disorder. And I was medicated, over-medicated. I took everything.
And what were the symptoms?
I had no stability. I had enormous difficulty in dealing with social situations. To the point that my interaction in institutions became unbearable. And that violence that, during my childhood, I could exert back in other children had to be contained, and it turned against me. It made me do impulsive things, I self-mutilated, I have scars all over my body.
And medication didn’t solve the problem?
It no longer worked. And what does mainstream psychiatry do when one medication doesn’t work? Prescribe another one over the previous med. There was a point when I was taking 11 different drugs. Until a neurologist prescribed a drug called Zyprexa. A death drug. It causes diabetes, hypertension… It is horrible. I took it for only two weeks. And I had a serious disagreement with the doctor and told him to fuck himself. And it was a good thing, it made me think: “Well, since I am doomed to suicide, let me enjoy life for a while and then I’ll kill myself”.
And did this work?
For a couple of months, it was all great. I had to re-think my whole life. I quit all the drugs. It was cool. For the first time, I was consciously happy. That is when I got a membership at a gym and it was very good to me. I found out that different activities produced different effects on me. Swimming and running had acute effect of short duration. Strength training had chronic effect: well-being the whole day. That’s when I started taking exercise more seriously. There was a month, however, when things got complicated and I neglected my training. Symptoms returned. That unexplained torment grew to a point that I got into my car, bought a razor, found a side dirt road from a main coastal highway in a beach town and slashed my jugular.
What was going on in your head at that time?
Nothing. I simply went. Like all suicidal people, I was ambivalent. Until the last moment, my thoughts swung between “should I die or should I not die?”. The doubt kept swinging there until I slashed my throat, saw it all open through the rear mirror and thought: “I fucked up”. Then I tried to stop the bleeding, but it was useless: the blood gushed out.
And how did you survive?
There was a guy passing by and I called him. I told him I had an accident, he got into the car, pushed me aside and took me to a small clinic. They had few resources. They finished stitching me and said: “we did what we could. In half an hour we will know if you will survive or not”. I thought about a lot of things during that half hour…
What, for example?
That whatever I had was very serious. So I needed to control that stuff, and I already knew it would be through physical activity.
And how was that?
I started reading a lot about the subject, I “found out” I had legs, glutes, abs and I could work with them. In the beginning, I used to write down everything. My appetite, my mood, my libido… to correlated all that with training and general condition. That is when I changed careers.
To what, exactly?
I became a strength and conditioning professional. I discussed the suicide with my psychiatrist and he said that, if I did not agree to be medicated, there was no way of saving me, that people like me ended up killing themselves. He even gave me a deadline: he said I would kill myself in the following months and within 5 years at the most. Even then, I quit the meds. It has been five years in July last year and since 2006, when I discovered powerlifting, I never had another episode.
Never. I’m still weird, but I have never hurt myself again. I still have relationship problems, I feel uncomfortable in public spaces. I hate it when strangers touch me. I may become a bit hostile. But I learned to deal with what happens inside my head through my body. When I put the pieces of this puzzle together, my problem became manageable.
And how was your evolution in powerlifting?
Instantaneous. The year I started I became National champion. But that doesn’t mean anything: there are many weight classes, many formulas to determine the relationship between lifted weight and bodyweight… According to these formulas, since I started, I am one of the best in the country.
What determines your performance, basically?
Besides technique, it is related to my nervous system. Being able to negotiate with your brain, make it understand that it can lift that weight and command the muscles to contract, and get it to work. Strength is not only in your muscle. It is a product of a lever system that involves the skeleton and joints. In this system, there is a potential “absolute strength”. My guess is that it is there, but neurologically inhibited.
But what do you call absolute strength?
It is the least known and harder to study of the strength manifestations. Up to now, there is no scientific evidence. Like the lady who, suddenly, threw a freezer through the window with her hands; or the elderly gentleman who lifter a tractor that fell over his grandson; a mother who forcibly opened a crocodile jaw to take her son that was being devoured. This phenomenal strength can only be expressed in moments of great stress. And nobody ever measured this at a laboratory. We don’t know what happens in the brain at that moment.
Do you consider a metaphysical explanation?
That maybe we channel some strength external to the body? No. I do think that our system is, at least, ten times stronger.
Through this logic, I could lift over 400kg with my untrained arm?
You can! But I don’t think it will be that great for your bones. Muscles protect and provide stability and, of course, strength. But increasing muscle size is much faster than training the brain to exert strength. Some people can double their lifted weight in one year without increasing their body weight in 1kg.
But it is obvious that it is not only the will that persuades the brain to command lifting a very heavy weight
There is an approach in training, for example, that suggests performance should be encouraged through fear, rage, strong emotions. Another school of thought, the one I advocate, is to focus on pleasure. You are doing that because you want to. You gave up everything to do it and in that moment, it is all that matters. My best lifts always brought me a great sense of inner peace. It’s an expression of love. Then I get the perfect lift.
But what is a perfect lift?
Powerlifting has a technical dimension. The second dimension is neural. The third is mental. But there is a fourth step, when all of this is integrated and transcends. For me, the very integrated execution of a lift is a perfect act. I have only experienced this about three times. It is not me anymore: not my body or mind. There is no weight on your hands. There is no hand! It is as if everything dissolved to such an extent that the only thing happening is the movement. And because it is movement, it ends. But at that moment, there is no time. It is a moment of illumination: you understand the nature of movement and, understanding that, you understand who you are.
A mystical experience?
Yes. I believe in the transformative power of this integration. Nobody understands how I can perform the way I do. Am I fucking awesome? No! I’m weird. It is not really the most usual thing in the world that a 47 year old woman do the things I do. However, my condition helps to shed some light on what are the real limits. My history is of someone who had no other option but to disbelieve in limits to survive. The limits they told me were out there.
 Translator note: “fodona” means, literally, “super fucker” and refers to a quality of being bold, hard, warrior-like.
 The word “fitness”, in English is used in Brazil in reference to the fitness market without any concern for the meaning of the word in its original language.
 “Big Party” was the Brazilian Communist Party’s nickname
 During two months I could not train upper body because of the neck wound