For nine-year-old Cloretta Robinson, her strange odyssey apparently began on March 17, 1972. Known as "Cocoa" to her friends, she was sitting in her fifth-grade classroom at the Santa Fe Elementary School in Oakland, California when a friend noticed blood coming from Cloretta's left palm. Cloretta herself seemed unaware of the blood until her teacher interrupted the lesson to send the girl to see the school nurse.
It was the nurse, Susan Carson, who would later describe what was happening to reporters, “Her palms were bleeding when she first came in,” Mrs. Carlson said. “There isn’t any evidence of a wound. It was fresh blood. I wiped it off and after a while . . . it would appear again . . . there were no puncture wounds. I looked with a magnifying glass.”
Though the bleeding later stopped, that was hardly the end of the story for Cloretta. Over the course of the next few days, she would start bleeding again from different parts of her body, including her left and right feet, the right side of her thorax, and even from her forehead. The bleeding episodes would start and end with no discernible pattern.
Cloretta Robinson was bearing many of the supposedly miraculous signs of stigmata reported by Roman Catholic saints throughout the centuries. Except of course, for the fact that she was a young African-American girl whose family belonged to a small Baptist sect. Though she was deeply religious and even sang in her church choir, it was seeing a movie about The Passion on television on March 13 that apparently caused her to have a vivid dream about the Crucifixion just a few days before the first stigmata episode. She often had dreams about the Bible and religious themes but this renewed fascination with Christ's suffering, not to mention Good Friday falling on March 31 that year, presumably triggered the bleeding.
Stigmata (the plural of stigma) is the popular term used to describe the supposedly miraculous appearance of bleeding, wounds, or psychosomatic pain on parts of the body corresponding to Christ's crucifixion wounds. Primarily associated with the Roman Catholic faith, the first recorded stigmatist in history was St. Francis of Assisi (1182-1226) who was reportedly developed stigmata-like wounds on his body "while engaged in peaceful ecstasies of contemplation." The first of these episodes was said to have occurred when a six-winged seraph descended on him bearing Christ's cross. Since Francis' day, there have been more than three hundred stigmatists recorded of whom sixty were eventually canonized. The overwhelming majority of these cases have been women.
Interestingly enough, there was a tremendous upsurge in stigmata cases during the 16th and 17th centuries as the Protestant Reformation got underway but the number of cases fell to pre-Reformation levels only a century later. To help classify the stigmata cases that were arising then, Pope Benedict XIV (1675-1758) established formal guidelines to distinguish between natural wounds and supernatural ones. Among these guidelines were that stigmata needed to be: (i) sudden in appearance, (ii) show major tissue modifications, (iii) show persistence and inalterability despite all therapy, (iv) hemorrhage (bleeding), (v) absence of infection or suppuration (with some wounds even giving off a perfumed smell), and (vi) have a sudden and perfect disappearance.
Not all stigmatists have developed crucifixion wounds though. Some have reported tears of blood and having a cross-shaped wound appear on the forehead. Other female stigmatists developed a ring-like wound on their ring finger to mark their "betrothal or marriage with the Lord." Not all stigmata were visible however. St. Catherine of Siena (1347-1380) reported "invisible wounds" that caused her to feel the pain of the Crucifixion directly. During the 20th century, there have been numerous reported cases of stigmata of which the most famous were St. Pio of Pietrelcina (1887-1968) and Therese Neuman (1898-1962).
Explanations for stigmata have ranged from self-mutilation, purpura or internal bleeding, urticaria, or even as symptoms of conversion disorder. There does appear to be a strong link between developing stigmata and various mental disorders including obsessive-compulsive disorder, dissociative identity disorder, and anorexia nervosa. Self-starvation is also a common feature of stigmatics who are often trying to imitate Christ's suffering as much as possible.
The exact nature of visible stigmata seems to be strongly influenced by religious images of Christ's wound. For centuries, Christ was portrayed in statues and paintings as having had nails driven through the palms of his hands and, sure enough, virtually all stigmatics prior to this century with visible wounds show marks in their palms. More recently however, images of Christ as they appear on the Shroud of Turin show the nails having been driven through the wrists (to provide better support for Christ on the cross). Perhaps not coincidentally, more recent stigmata cases are showing wounds through their wrists instead.
As for Cloretta Robinson, her bleeding episodes kept occurring on a regular basis, from one to five times daily. Asked why this was happening, she simply replied, “It happens. It just sort of comes on, I don’t know before. It doesn’t hurt. I just look down and it’s there. I don’t know what it is." Aside from commenting on how "weird" the bleeding was, she seemed to take her stigmata in stride. Medical testing at the Children's Hospital Medical Center in Santa Fe found no indication of any physical disorder or family medical history that might explain what was happening. Aside from diagnosing her condition as "Easter Bleeding Syndrome", her doctors seemed as baffled as everyone else.
While her doctors were fairly skeptical about Cloretta's stigmata, her family and fellow churchgoers didn't seem to doubt that something miraculous was happening. Not only did her parents release photographs of the stigmata to the local newspapers but their pastor, Reverent Leonard Hester gave a sermon about Cloretta's bleeding episodes. A newspaper story about Cloretta had the title, "Child's Easter Bleeding Puzzles Parents, Doctors" and described how their lives had been changed by the bleeding. The publicity helped attract curiosity seekers and Cloretta's mother had to walk her daughter to school to keep the crowds away.
Based on what they observed with Cloretta Robinson, two of her doctors later coauthored an article titled, "A Case of Stigmata" for the Archives of General Psychiatry. In the article, they described Cloretta as a "pleasant, neatly and attractively groomed prepubescent black girl, cheerful, friendly, and somewhat reserved in her conversations with adult white men." They didn't find anything unusual in her home life or family situation and she didn't present with any symptoms suggestive of hysteria. About the only unusual thing about her emotional state was how little she seemed to care about her bleeding which they described as "a bit of “la belle indifference.”
What concerned the doctors most however were the auditory hallucinations that apparently developed not long after the bleeding started. While praying at bedtime, Cloretta reportedly heard voices telling her, among other things, that "your prayers will be answered." On Good Friday and Easter Sunday, she also heard voices telling her to pray with certain people who had illnesses she felt could be healed. The voices stopped after Easter Sunday and there were no further hallucinations. Though Cloretta denied any knowledge of the stigmata phenomenon prior to her own bleeding, she seemed to identify strongly with Jesus Christ and was preoccupied with His crucifixion.
Once her bleeding episodes started however, she learned about other famous stigmatics, including St. Francis of Assisi, and identified strongly with him as well. Just sitting in a room drawing pictures of St. Francis caused her bleeding to intensify and her doctors ruled out any possibility of self-mutilation in Cloretta's case. They concluded her red blood cells were somehow permeating her capillaries and penetrating the skin to cause the bleeding they witnessed directly. In their article, they stated that “One can no longer dispute the power of mental and emotional forces to control such physical phenomena. By analogy we need not doubt that profound, intense religious and emotional forces, conscious and unconscious, could cause stigmatic bleeding.”
After the bleeding episodes reached a climax on Good Friday with bleeding from her hands, feet, side of her thorax, and forehead simultaneously, the stigmata gradually subsided. Though the bleeding didn't return on the next Good Friday, the stigmata spontaneously returned two years later. Cloretta became a local celebrity in church circles and her minister preached sermons about her miraculous bleeding. He even conducted revival meetings where faith healing took place though her family learned to treat it as a "seasonal" problem.
There is little real information on what has since happened to Cloretta Robinson (who now goes by the surname of Starks). Despite the publicity that surrounded her, she has managed to regain her privacy with no mention of her appearing in any newspapers since that turbulent period in her life. Though she might have been proclaimed a saint in another time and place, "Cocoa" Robinson-Starks is largely remembered today for being one of the most well-documented cases of stigmata in recent years. She can also be seen as a good example of the powerful effect that the mind can have on the body.