Print Page   |   Contact Us   |   Sign In   |   Register
Complexity Matters
Blog Home All Blogs
Search all posts for:   


View all (443) posts »

Courting Danger to Conquer Fear

Posted By Prucia Buscell, Monday, April 24, 2017

Fire, Swords and the Art of Escape

During the week, Dr. Michelle Carnes is a public health anthropologist in American Indian and LGBTQ youth suicide prevention, cultural preservation and restoration.  All her work involves helping communities confront taboo topics that can lead to health disparities and life and death situations. 

On the weekends, she eats fire.  And escapes rope ties. And swallows swords. Michelle Carnes’ evolution to professional sideshow stuntress is rooted in her own resolve to conquer fear. At first, it’s hard to get past the fear, she said. “When the fire is coming at your face, a part of you says this is a bad idea,” she said. “Fire is hot (about 400 degrees) …But once you learn how fire works, it’s less scary and you discover what you can do.”

People ask her all the time, “How did you get into this stuff?” It’s a personal journey with an unlikely and frightening start. In 2001 Michelle was living in Chicago. One night as she walked home from class a violent assailant attacked her from behind, threw her to the ground, beat her, and stole her book bag. She ended up with a bloody nose, two black eyes, broken glasses, and vertigo, probably from a head injury suffered when she hit the ground.  She had no health insurance for her physical injuries but it was the harmful emotional and mental dislocations that took longest to heal. 

“I was terrified to leave the house,” she recalled. “It was very hard. People don’t know what to say to you, and they try to talk you out of your fear.  They don’t understand the way it affects you. PTSD was not part of the cultural language at that time.   It was very isolating, and I feared I would feel like this for the rest of my life.”

Two years later, she was still feeling the physiological symptoms of the attack, disproportionate responses to stimuli, anxiety, panic attacks and sudden anger. Then she started teaching as part of her graduate program. It helped. “I realized being in front of a class was a kind of performance.  I felt competent. I knew the material, and how to present it in a way that that was meaningful to people in the class,” she said. “I became focused on them, and began to forget about what was going with me. That was my first clue that getting up in front of a group was helpful and powerful.”

Several years later, she went back to the scene of her attack and used film to tell the story of what had happened there in a documentary she made. “Digital storytelling is a therapeutic technique used commonly in my work with tribal communities,” she said. “Getting a video camera and telling a hard story using documentary filmmaking techniques lessens the burden of what you carry around and help other people understand. When I made my film, it felt like a huge weight had been lifted – and now, in my work, we put video cameras in the hands of youth with tough stories to tell. Art and creativity are deeply healing ways to approach trauma. It’s not just my job; it’s something I know personally and intimately.”

After she moved to Washington DC to complete her PhD at American University, she began taking improv classes in 2013 on a whim. It felt fun and therapeutic and reduced her panic attacks significantly. Next, she learned stand-up comedy. She enjoyed performing. The panic attacks became infrequent and then disappeared. Michelle discovered she delighted in audience reactions to her taboo-shattering humor. Sideshow stunt performing was a natural next step.

Fire eating is an old American show business circus act with a long spiritual history in India and elsewhere. Many modern day fire-eaters are women; some are drawn to the personal liberation and power that fire offers.  Michelle found that by choosing to expose herself to danger, she was the hero, the survivor – and no longer felt like a victim. She says how powerful it is to hear from people who knew her as a timid soul years ago tell her how much she has changed and grown.  

Michelle reports a sharp recent insight on the relationship between emotional issues and physical performance. She recently learned sword swallowing, one of the most highly prized, difficult and dangerous sideshow acts.  In early attempts, she felt as though the sword was hitting “a closed fist” in her throat. Her teacher, Harley Newman, whom she calls the “Zen master of sideshow,” reminded her of a recent personal loss (a friendship she ended) and suggested this loss may be “stuck” in her throat. Harley told her she had to leave behind who she had been and become the person she would be now: a sword swallower. She tried again, and the sword went 15 inches down her esophagus, literally past her heart. She cried when she took the sword out, fully grieving the loss of her friend but grateful for her ability to stand her ground and trust her instincts – exactly what she needed to learn this difficult skill.

She is committed to the months of practice it will take before she will be able to swallow swords on stage.  “It’s about getting the mind ready, and disciplining myself to do it,” she said.  “Finding ways to express myself creatively isn’t just fun and extra income for me; it’s been my makeshift method to heal and grow into someone I never imagined I could become.”

Michelle takes comfort in the way she has learned to be calm in the face of many dangers – whether environmental, internal or self-imposed.  Now the producer of the longest-running Washington DC variety show, the DC Weirdo Show, she prepares to share her story (and some of those fire talents) at the next Plexus Institute conference at her session, entitled, “It’s Only Weird the first Time: How Curiosity and Courage Expand Possibility!” on Monday, May 8! Register now at

This post has not been tagged.

Share |
Permalink | Comments (0)
Association Management Software Powered by YourMembership  ::  Legal