Mental Health

Maturity, Arts and Resignation

master-copy2Today I decided to dig back into the cache of notes I saved “for further reflection.” Two old clips, back to back caught my eye.

1. Why Grow Up?, by Susan Neiman | Books | Times Higher Education

Each of us has to move from childish wonder to the realisation that things are unjust, that there is a gap between the world as it is and as it should be. But it is easy to get stuck in this sceptical phase and to remain the adolescent who has seen through adult hypocrisy and convention, determined that “we won’t get fooled again”, as The Who put it. This itself can become a sort of dogmatism, and we need to work through it to the next stage in which we learn to think for ourselves without succumbing to despair, and try to fight injustice. “Can philosophy find a model of maturity that is not a model of resignation?” asks Neiman, and she looks at various Enlightenment philosophers who have tackled the problem of “growing up properly”.

2. Why Do Depressed People Lie in Bed? | Psychology Today

So this alternative theory turns the standard explanation on its head. Depressed people don’t end up lying in bed because they are undercommitted to goals. They end up lying in bed because they are overcommitted to goals that are failing badly. The idea that depressed people cannot disengage efforts from failure is a relatively new theory. It has not been much tested in research studies. However, the idea is well worth exploring. It fits well clinically with the kinds of situations that often precipitate serious depression — the battered wife who cannot bring herself to leave her troubled marriage, the seriously injured athlete who cannot bring himself to retire, the laid off employee who cannot bring herself to abandon her chosen career despite a lack of positions in her line of work. Seeing these depressions in terms of unreachable goals may be useful clinically, and may help us better understand how ordinary low moods can escalate into incapacitating bouts of depression.

Is there a maturity that is not resignation? Conform or be destroyed?

Another word for resignation, perhaps, is acceptance. The real question is not whether resignation is good or bad. It is when to surrender and accept things as they are, and when to persist no matter how difficult it seems. When is holding onto a goal foolish, and when is an unobtainable goal a brilliant guiding star?

Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp…

Artists are especially prone to the type of depression described in the Psychology Today article. We can’t imagine giving up the art–or the dream of succeeding with the art– without surrendering parts of ourselves. Yet the world does not cooperate and grant us the success we would like. The sculpture that took years to craft doesn’t get a gallery showing. The royalty check is for $1.36. The corporation that hired you to do a great new show shelved it and it will never be seen. You finished the novel but it isn’t as good as it was in your head. The reviews are bad or non-existent. When are you going to get a real job?

At some point, the American ideal that if you have talent and you work hard you’re sure to succeed starts to mock you. Well, maybe resignation is the wise choice in this situation. Not expecting a best seller, a film adaptation of your novel, a seven figure advance, a Pulitzer or an Oscar, even a regular salary. Accepting that this is the reality of this particular life is adaptive.

This is a very un-American point of view. Accept failure? Never! But if you don’t want to quit, and you have no control over whether or not you succeed, you had better find a way to enjoy the ride.

Instead of looking to the outside world for meaning, you force your life to mean.  You are not stuck in this place, you are living in this place. Art for art’s sake. Imagining Sisyphus happy. Finding nobility in the quest for the unreachable star.



“Family Curse”

I like to follow news related to subjects I’m researching, or have researched. That his how I became aware of the tragic story of an 18 year-old who died from an overdose. The reason I learned about it is that the young victim was a member of the Douglas family, Lady Beth Douglas, the daughter of the 12th Marquess of Queensberry.  Local mental health outreach services had reportedly been aware of her since she was 13-years-old.

A number of stories ran with a headline about the so-called “Queensberry Curse.” They gave the familiar history of Douglas family members who had committed suicide or engaged in erratic behavior including, of course, Lord Alfred Douglas.

There is nothing supernatural about a vulnerability to mental illness running in a family. If the Douglases had been especially prone to a certain kind of cancer, there would be no talk of curses.

I hope that there will not be another Douglas who appears in newspapers for such a tragic reason, but if there is, I hope we can retire this notion of “a curse.”

How the Story Ends: Thoughts on the Move Christine (2016)

The 2016 film Christine is based on the true story of a Sarasota local news personality Christine Chubbuck. I did not know her story when I selected the film under the category “critically acclaimed dramas” on my streaming service. The blurb described the movie this way: “In a film based on true events, an awkward but ambitious TV reporter struggles to adapt when she’s ordered to focus on violent and salacious stories.” Journalism movies are a genre I often like, so I selected it. It was not at all what I had been expecting based on the description.

In retrospect, I believe I had read about Chubbuck when I was studying broadcasting in college, but I didn’t connect it to the film I was watching. The filmmakers undoubtedly assumed that the people who bought tickets would know how the story ends. It is not a spoiler to say that what is best known about Chubbuck is how her life ended. One morning on live TV before her regular segment she read the following “In keeping with Channel 40’s policy of bringing you the latest in blood and guts and in living color, you are going to see another first: an attempted suicide.” And then she shot herself on live television.


Had I watched the trailer before selecting the film, I would have had more of a sense of its tone. This is one case where I feel knowing the ending in advance would have made the experience of watching the film better. It would have added a tension and urgency to what was unfolding on screen. Instead, I spent most of the film wondering why I was watching this woman struggle with mental illness. What was the purpose, the point of view, of this story?

It is, however, a film that has stayed with me and in retrospect, what seemed to be its weaknesses while I was watching, are its strengths. It is a film in which easy answers and clear villains are absent. She has co-workers and family who are patient with her mood swings and who want to help. Chubbuck’s frustration with the shift towards sensationalism for ratings is present, but it is not a bogey man, just one of many problems that Chubbuck is ill-equipped to deal with. She is not seen as worthy of promotion by the powers that be, and the sexism of the time is present, but even if there had been a level playing field, it is not clear that Chubbuck had what it took to succeed in her field. Her erratic behavior, and outspoken insubordination would have gotten her fired in most places of work. She was stiff on camera. The obstacles she faced were real, but her internal struggle was bigger than anything external.

It is rare to have a film in which a woman who is difficult to understand and to like is the viewpoint character. That alone makes the film interesting. Rebecca Hall who played Chubbuck in the film said she was drawn to the film for just this reason. “There are a lot of films about the coolness of being a misfit,” she said, “I don’t know how many films there are, certainly about women, where it shows how painful it is to feel that you don’t fit in and that you are different…”

In this era, where we are sensitive to the idea of appropriation, something that comes up quite a bit in articles about the film is the fact that the writer and director are both men. Should a man have been the one to tell this woman’s story? Is this just exploiting Chubbuck again?

Each of us has many facets to our identity. Yet we consider some identity categories to be more fundamental than others. I am firmly of the opinion that the best person to tell as story is the one who is taken with a story and can’t let it go. Craig Shilowich, the writer of Christine, was drawn to the story because he had experienced depression himself. In the lead up to her dramatic last act, he saw a vehicle to explore mental illness. I would argue that the most important aspect of Chubbuck in this story is not her femininity but her mental illness.

Shilowich refuses to turn Chubbuck into a symbol of a greater cultural message. It might have served the drama better if he had, but he was right to resist the easy sensationalism that Chubbuck’s final statement seems to critique. In the end, I was left with a visceral sense of the frustrations of trying to reach someone who is depressed and who makes herself unreachable. Most of us have experienced–if not clinical depression–at least periods of feeling like an outcast, feeling misunderstood or unable to connect to others.

I was not left with an answer to the perhaps more compelling question of why Chubbuck chose to act in such a public manner.  Why did she chose to make her final act a violent rebuke? It was a death that was engineered not only to end her own pain, but to inflict trauma on others who were forced to witness it.  We can understand and empathize with the person who finds it too difficult to go on living, but the person who wants to force other people– strangers, society at large– to suffer with her?

I find a line from the Boomtown Rats song repeating in my head: “They could see no reasons ‘cos there are no reasons.” It is fortunate that most of us find this incomprehensible and can’t truly empathize.

The film succeeds, then, in what it attempts to do. It is a think piece. A story about a sensational, tabloid-esque story that is consciously anti-sensational and humanizing. It is at the same time disturbing and, for a film that is framed around an ending, strangely unresolved.

There was a line in a Rolling Stone review of the film that struck me. It was, wrote Sam Adams, “a time when things could happen without being recorded.” This led me to a whole series of reflections on how the dictates of what constitutes a good story, and a proper ending, effects our day to day lives and how we see ourselves. This article is already too long, so I will leave those thoughts for another day.

Shooting for Significance

I have been busy this week, and therefore I did not have time to watch the latest mass shooting unfold as a media event on my screen. I find that I am unable to summon any genuine emotion about it besides vague anger and frustration. Tim Kreider did a good job articulating this anger in The Week. His article was written in May 2014, but I had to read for a while to realize that because these events blend into one another and the same articles tend to work for any of them.

It seems that the perpetrator of the latest mass shooting was seeking fame. “This is the only time I’ll ever be in the news I’m so insignificant,” he allegedly wrote.

As I noted here in 2014, Ethan Watters, In his book Crazy Like Us, describes the work of the Canadian scholar Edward Shorter.  “Shorter believes that psychosomatic illnesses (such as leg paralysis at the turn of the twentieth century or multiple personality disorder at the turn of the twenty-first) are examples of the unconscious mind attempting to speak in a language of emotional distress that will be understood in its time. People at a given moment in history in need of expressing their psychological suffering have a limited number of symptoms to choose from— a ‘symptom pool,’ as he calls it. When someone unconsciously latches onto a behavior in the symptom pool, he or she is doing so for a very specific reason: the person is taking troubling emotions and internal conflicts that are often indistinct or frustratingly beyond expression and distilling them into a symptom or behavior that is a culturally recognized signal of suffering.”

Mass shootings are now part of the American “symptom pool.”  Of course there have always been isolated cases of people going mad and acting out in extreme violence. The difference is that now, we have a well-established blueprint for how young men full of pain and impotent rage can express their psychological suffering. Unlike leg paralysis or anorexia, it is destructive to innocent strangers.

Saying that killers want to be featured on the news is not really enough. A deeper question is why they want to be on the news. Assuming that the shooter did write the social media post attributed to him, it is interesting how being in the news is equated with being significant. Being known means that you matter.

David M. Friedman credits Oscar Wilde with ushering in our modern celebrity culture, which he describes in Wilde in America: “It is a worldview where fame isn’t the end product of a career but the beginning of one. It is the part of modern life we call celebrity culture.”

Fame isn’t the end product, it is the beginning.

We are not, for the most part, a nation that manufactures things. We are a nation that sells things. We are not a nation of companies that train and raise up talent, we expect workers to have “portable skills” and to market themselves. Becoming known is a survival skill– a first step in a career not the result of achievement. From there it is but a small step to believing that only people who are known to many people are significant. It doesn’t matter how one becomes famous. It matters that one is famous. The most reviled reality TV star can probably launch a perfume line and have a career, or so it seems.

This is the part of the article where a writer is expected to close with a call to action– here is what to do about it. I don’t have one. None of the ingredients in the mass shooting soup are going to change easily. Gun culture and politics don’t seem to be on the verge of any sort of change. The TV news networks will continue to answer our curiosity about perpetrators of violence and in the process will unintentionally be giving the next mass shooter a blueprint for action. People will continue to suffer from mental illness, and it will always be hard to act before the event. Our cultural assumptions about the value of known-ness and of masculinity and power will not change overnight. But we can’t be entirely powerless to stop this, can we?

Teaser Tuesdays: Into the Silent Land

intothesilentland“How convenient it would be sometimes to turn off consciousness and carry on with ordinary behaviour. Imagine flicking a switch on difficult days and flipping into oblivion, knowing that your body will continue going about its normal business. No one would notice.”

This quote is from Into the Silent Land: Travels in Neuropsychology by Paul Broks.

The description on the back cover, quoting Athul Gawande, says, “Into the Silent Land is a small, strange, beautiful gem– a brilliant lattice of arresting neurological tales, hard-nosed contemplation, and, unexpectedly, a certain wistfulness. Broks is as much poet as scientist, and in this indelible book, he leads us effortlessly into an unfathomable mystery– how that pale substance we call the brain could create something so ethereal and individual as a human mind.”

I posted this quote as part of  Teaser Tuesdays a weekly bookish meme, hosted by MizB of Should Be Reading. Anyone can play along! Just do the following:

• Grab your current read
• Open to a random page
• Share two (2) “teaser” sentences from somewhere on that page

(I chose three sentences because it completed the thought.)

Then you can leave your teaser in the comments of the Should Be Reading blog.

Lessons Not Learned From Columbine

“He could see no reasons ‘cos there are no reasons…”-The Boomtown Rats, “I Don’t Like Mondays.”

Dave Cullen must be the most frequently invited guest to television news who no one actually listens to. Cullen is the author of the excellent Columbine. He spent ten years getting to the bottom of that tragic event, learning about the killers, the victims and the community. He gets a lot of exposure these days as he is invited to comment after each mass shooting.

He was on Anderson Cooper last night, explaining once again, that most of the narrative we create about a killer’s motivations in the immediate aftermath of an event will be wrong. He emphasized that even the killer’s own writings can create a misleading picture. (He had pages from Dylan Klebold’s diary as a visual aid.)  The question we most want answered in the wake of a tragedy is “why” and we will grasp any clues and expand on them. We need a sensible narrative and it is difficult for the sane to be satisfied with an explanation that makes no sense, the kind of motivation that the mentally ill mind produces.

In the wake of Columbine, a narrative emerged about two bullied teenagers who took revenge against the people who had tormented them. The truth was quite different.  I highly recommend Cullen’s book if you would like to explore this topic in depth. The Columbine shooters were not social outcasts. Dylan Klebold felt he was, but this was his own misconception. Eric Harris was a sadistic sociopath who wanted to bring down the world and the school just happened to be his environment.

Yet for the next couple of years we talked about bullying and schools trained teachers to watch the ones who were marginalized by their peers. All in all, cracking down on bullying is a noble cause. It is certainly worth doing. But linking it to Columbine and thinking anti-bullying efforts could have prevented that tragedy is misguided.

With the most recent event, the news coverage focused initially on one detail. In the report I saw, the reporter referred to the brand of the killer’s car every time she mentioned it. “He ran his BMW into…” I do not think she would have done this had he been driving a Toyota Camry. This tells you he was well-off. So immediately you hear the shocked, angry community members following suit using the word “entitled” to describe him. “He felt he was entitled to destroy any woman who didn’t serve his needs.”  Had he been driving a rusted out car, they would probably say he felt rejected and fell into an obsessive rage. The narrative would be slightly different.

“Resist the temptation to extrapolate details prematurely into a whole,” Cullen wrote in the New York Times. “…The killer is rarely who he seems.” (This one was after the Aurora cinema shootings.)

That is why the current focus on “women” and the hashtag #YesAllWomen that sprung up in the wake of the tragedy seems a bit off to me. It is like Columbine all over again. Putting an end to bullying was noble, but it would not have prevented that event. Putting an end to sexual harassment is also noble, but as a response to the killing spree, it seems misplaced. It is taking a mentally ill person’s delusional sense of grievance and debating it as if there were some merit in it.

The Virginia Tech shooter also left a manifesto. He seems to identify rich people as the cause of his pain.  He also compares himself to Christ. The Tucson shooter (who shot Gabrielle Giffords and many others) also wrote an explanation. It was vaguely political but generally made no sense. The latest attacker seems to have been a better writer than his predecessors, because those who have read it (I have not.) understand what it says.  It is women, he says, who have caused him to take vengeance on the world. Had he been failed by a teacher or fired by a boss instead of rejected sexually, I am convinced he would have found another target for his rage and acted out in a similar fashion. The problem was his rage, not what he chose as its focus.

There is a discussion to be had about masculinity and if there is something in our cultural expectation of manhood that makes men so much more likely to present with this form of destructive mental illness. (The Good Men Project had quite a good article on this the other day.) We should discuss what cultural forces might be making the mass shooting part of the American “symptom pool.” I don’t think, however, that we should take a killer’s explanation for his own actions at face value.

Thoughts on the Latest Mass Shooting Part 106

One of my old posts suddenly got a bunch of hits. It was called “Thoughts on the Latest Mass Shooting.” It was not about this one, it was about one of the others.

I know that there has been another one mostly through glimpses in the social media. I can’t watch any more. I don’t want to see the grieving relatives and friends, the makeshift memorials. I know they are there.  I don’t need to know what weapons the madman used or how many times he fired and what the timeline was. I know the answers to that: too many. Too short a time to change so many lives.

For the next week or so, there will be discussions about what could have been done, what this teaches us, what could be changed. We’ll hash out different ideas: better availability of mental health services, better systems to allow interventions with the potentially dangerous, making sure that when someone is in danger he does not have access to weapons with high capacity magazines. We will talk about our culture, and what social forces make a certain subset of our mentally ill young men (and they are almost always men) act out in this distinctive way.  We will focus on some small aspect of the narrative that is different. This one’s deluded belief system blames women for his sense of vicious, impotent rage. This one blames the boss that fired him. This one was a returning veteran.  This one blames the aliens. This one is on a mission from God. So we’ll talk about sexism, or schizophrenia, or PTSD or employment or religious extremism. We will do this with some intensity until a video surfaces of a celebrity kicking her boyfriend in an elevator.

We will change nothing.  We will have decided, through our inaction, to accept that these events are a part of American life, something that cannot be prevented, like a natural disaster.

And when the next one comes, we’ll report on it in the same way: with shock and horror.  I can’t watch any more.

106 is the number of mass shootings that have happened so far in 2014.

Thoughts on the Latest Mass Shooting

A few months ago I went to my local library to hear a speaker who had worked for the secret service for many years, including on the detail of President Kennedy.  One of the things that he mentioned in passing was that throughout our history we had someone try to shoot a president every 20 years or so. Ronald Reagan was the last. I remember as I left the lecture wondering if mass shootings of ordinary people had in some way replaced attempts on the lives of presidents and celebrities. It is much easier for an angry, irrational man seeking infamy to go into a crowded place than to get access to the leader of the free world.

In his book Crazy Like Us, Ethan Watters describes the work of the Canadian scholar Edward Shorter.  “Shorter believes that psychosomatic illnesses (such as leg paralysis at the turn of the twentieth century or multiple personality disorder at the turn of the twenty-first) are examples of the unconscious mind attempting to speak in a language of emotional distress that will be understood in its time. People at a given moment in history in need of expressing their psychological suffering have a limited number of symptoms to choose from— a ‘symptom pool,’ as he calls it. When someone unconsciously latches onto a behavior in the symptom pool, he or she is doing so for a very specific reason: the person is taking troubling emotions and internal conflicts that are often indistinct or frustratingly beyond expression and distilling them into a symptom or behavior that is a culturally recognized signal of suffering.”

Mass shootings seem to have entered the American “symptom pool.”  Of course there have always been isolated cases of people going mad and acting out in extreme violence. The difference is that now, in part due to the publicity surrounding mass shootings, this type of behavior has become an increasingly common form of expressing a certain kind of anger and pain.

Back in 2012, Adam Lankford, writing for the New York Times, made a persuasive case that the same mindset that creates a school shooter in this country creates suicide terrorists in other nations.

Over the last three years, I have examined interviews, case studies, suicide notes, martyrdom videos and witness statements and found that suicide terrorists are indeed suicidal in the clinical sense — which contradicts what many psychologists and political scientists have long asserted. Although suicide terrorists may share the same beliefs as the organizations whose propaganda they spout, they are primarily motivated by the desire to kill and be killed — just like most rampage shooters…It is tempting to look back at recent history and wonder what’s wrong with America — our culture and our policies. But underneath the pain, the rage and the desire to die, rampage shooters like Mr. Lanza are remarkably similar to aberrant mass killers — including suicide terrorists — in other countries. The difference rests in how they are shaped by cultural forces and which destructive behaviors they seek to copy. The United States has had more than its share of rampage shootings, but only a few suicide attacks. Other countries are regularly plagued by suicidal explosions, but rarely experience a school shooting.

The word “amok” comes from Indonesia. It describes a condition in which a man suffers a minor social insult and launches an extended period of brooding punctuated by an episode of murderous rage.

Our version of “amok” seems to be the mass shooting.

After each event there are talking heads who advocate various changes that could address the issue. I find myself increasingly weary at hearing them speak. “Our thoughts and prayers are with…” “Care for the mentally ill in this country…” “Where was security…” “Would more people with guns have prevented….”

It doesn’t seem as though it should be controversial to suggest that better access to mental health services and better training for human resources to recognize and deal with people who might be mentally ill would be a step in the right direction. Having a functional system to keep weapons out of the hands of people who should not have them would be a step in the right direction.  Maybe we could try making high capacity magazines hard to come by so  that when someone does decide to shoot up an office or a mall he at least has to reload.

It does not seem to be a simple question of gun availability in and of itself. Canada has relatively high levels of gun ownership as well. Yet Canada does not have the same problem of gun violence as its neighbor to the south.  (It takes sixty days to buy a gun there, and there is mandatory licensing for gun owners. Gun owners pursuing a license must have third-party references, take a safety training course and pass a background check with a focus on mental, criminal and addiction histories, says Business Insider.)

The reason we seem to be paralyzed in our discussion is that there is not a simple solution. There is not one law that can be passed to make the carnage go away.  That does not make for great political sound bites.

One question that we probably should ask is what aspects of our culture are producing these impulses in unstable young men. (And they are almost always men.)

I don’t have an easy answer to this, but I have a few thoughts. After a deadly shooting, angry people speak out against the shooters who wreak so much havock and alter so many lives. There are a couple of things that tend to be said, and these may provide some clues as to what we assume motivates mass shooters and therefore they may point to what cultural forces drive them.

The first is that people tend to call the shooter a “coward.” It is not really the right word. But then, I do not think they say this because they believe the shooter was afraid of risk. They say it because they believe that the shooter wanted to prove his manhood and strength and they want to rob him of what he wanted. They do not want to let him win.  This suggests that there is something about the idea of bravery, power and proving one’s manhood that is a driver.

Describing mass killers, Adam Lankford, associate professor of criminal justice at the University of Albama, wrote in the New York Times that they share “a deep sense of victimization and belief that the killer’s life has been ruined by someone else, who has bullied, oppressed or persecuted him. Not surprisingly, the presence of mental illness can inflame these beliefs, leading perpetrators to have irrational and exaggerated perceptions of their own victimization.”

After the Newtown shootings, Michael Kimmel wrote on the CNN blog about notions of masculinity in particular:

In the coming weeks, we’ll learn more about Adam Lanza, his motives, his particular madness. We’ll hear how he “snapped” or that he was seriously mentally ill. We’ll try to explain it by setting him apart, by distancing him from the rest of us. Risk factors among shooters And we’ll continue to miss the point. Not only are those children at Sandy Hook Elementary School our children. Adam Lanza is our child also. Of course, he was mad — as were Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, and Seung-Hui Cho, Jared Lee Loughner, James Eagan Holmes, and Wade Michael Page — and the ever-longer list of boys and young men who have exploded in a paroxysm of vengeful violence in recent years. In a sense, they weren’t deviants, but over-conformists to norms of masculinity that prescribe violence as a solution. Like real men, they didn’t just get mad, they got even. Until we transform that definition of manhood, this terrible equation of masculinity and violence will continue to produce such horrific sums.

Most often, mass shooters are middle class males and predominantly white. What cultural norms do people in this demographic share?

I think back to Dave Ramsay’s article on the success secrets of the rich and his assertion that the rich “teach success habits” to their children while the poor do not. What he means, I believe, is that the rich and the upper middle class teach their children to expect opportunities and options and that they will succeed at whatever they put their mind to. They teach them to “aim high” and never give up. Working class people, studies have shown, are more apt to teach their children that they will not always have choices and they need to learn to adapt to difficult circumstances. (I have argued that this is, in fact, teaching a different kind of “success habit.” See the link above.)

The culture of the college-bound middle class is most likely to believe optimistic assertions that failure is only a temporary road bump on the way to success, and that there is always a way if you try hard enough. If people believe they have full control over their destinies then failure is a much greater taboo. In the toxic case of the mass shooter, the self-esteem that we so value turns toxic. He expects to achieve, he is blocked, and he looks for someone– all of society perhaps– to blame.

As I wrote in a previous post, “…the fact is, failure happens. Because we are loathe to admit this, we have an absolute dearth of instruction on how to deal with failure– not delayed success– failure.” Maybe a more nuanced idea of “success habits,” which includes how to deal emotionally with inevitable failure (everyone experiences failure sometimes) would be healthier for everyone.

Another thing that people usually say after a mass shooting is that the shooter should not be given the “prize of fame.”  Whether it really is the shooter’s motivation or not, we assume that he opened fire in a quest for fame.

After the Newtown shooting I wrote on this subject:

Some time ago I read a quote in a book called The Frenzy of Renown by Leo Braudy that struck me: “John Lennon of the Beatles caused a scandal by saying that his band was more famous than Jesus,” he wrote.  “As far as immediate fame goes, he was right.  But the outcry over Lennon’s remark is instructive because it implies that fame is by definition a positive category: If Jesus is the greatest man, he must also be the most famous.”

It seems as though we have lost the sense that there is such a thing as negative known-ness.  Not fame but shame.

In Puritan times, those who upset the community were held up to public ridicule.  They were placed in the stocks.  That made them the most visible members of the community at that moment.  In other words, the most famous.  No one confused this type of fame with honor.

…If the world were fair, [a victim of the Aurora theater shooting] would never have come to the attention of the general public at all.  If the world were fair, he would be some guy who went to a movie one night, and came home and no one outside his circle of friends would never have heard a thing about him.  Most of the admirable people in life have never been and will never be recorded in history.  It does not mean we value the spectacularly known faces of the famous more than the anonymous people who change the course of our lives day in and day out.

I should not know the name of Dawn Hochsprung, the principal of Sandy Hook Elementary School.  None of us should ever have heard of her.

We assume that shooters are motivated by fame (and they may well be) because we assume everyone wants to be famous. We assume that saying the killer’s name on television is a kind of prize. All of this points to the value we place on being known. We live in a society that values popularity and self-presentation.

Quiet by Susan Cain does a great job of showing how American culture has evolved to value extroversion and devalue introversion. “…today we make room for a remarkably narrow range of personality styles. We’re told that to be great is to be bold , to be happy is to be sociable. We see ourselves as a nation of extroverts…”

The successful job candidate is the one who can prove he is a “people person.” Writers were once understood to be solitary creatures who were much better at expressing themselves on the page than face to face. These days, any book on writing, and any of the thousands of writing blogs will tell you that it doesn’t matter how good your book is– success goes to the writer who knows how to promote, promote, promote. The person who can’t, or doesn’t want to, live up to an extroverted ideal can have a hard time of it.

Most shooters are described as quiet loners. This may be because they are quiet loners or it may be that the people reporters ask to describe a killer following a tragedy are not the ones who knew him best. “He didn’t socialize with me, so I assume he didn’t socialize.”

If they really are introverts, the cultural value we place on self-presentation and being the most known could well be a motivating factor. You have an unstable young man who feels as though the world is made for the benefit of other people, who expects to succeed and blames others for his inability. His model for known-ness is right in front of him, in the TV reports on the mass shooting of the month.

From where I sit in the early part of the 21st Century, it seems had to imagine that these cultural trends will change. Yet cultures do shift and change. American culture of today is different from what it was a century ago.  There was a time when women experienced a pool of symptoms that were diagnosed as “hysteria.” Men who were traumatized by war used to routinely suffer from hysterical leg paralysis.  We can only hope that mass shootings will somehow fade out of the modern American “symptom pool” as well.

Demonic Pigs and Hearing Voices

About a month ago I wrote about a strange story that appears in the New Testament books of Mark and Luke. The story of Jesus casting a large number of demons out of a man who calls himself “Legion” and into a herd of pigs. The miracle gets less focus than walking on water or turning water into wine.  Most of us moderns don’t believe in demonic possession.  In any case, Jesus was known as a healer an exorcist and he did something to relieve the suffering of people who the community considered to be possessed.  In my article, I spelled out some of the things I wondered about this episode.

What are demons? What did the authors of the Bible believe about demons? Why were there so many demon possessed people? What happens to the demons when they are cast out?…The other interesting thing is that pigs are “unclean” animals, so the nearby pigs must have belonged to gentiles. Did he cast the demons out of the Jews and into Roman pigs and was there some subtext to that? Luke’s account of the demon pig incident describes the man with the demons in a way that makes it clear he was what we would today call mentally ill… Is insanity shaped by culture just as sanity is?  Do people go mad in ways that are shaped by the cultures in which they live?

I first started thinking about these questions a couple of years ago. I have sought out books on the cultural aspects and context of mental illness such as Constructing the Self, Constructing America by Philip Cushman.  Cushman is a historian and psychologist  and he explores the history of modern psychotherapy from a cultural perspective. He argues that each era develops a different conception of “what it means to be human.”

“Vast historical changes in the last 500 years in the West have slowly created a world in which the individual is commonly understood to be a container of a ‘mind’ and more recently a ‘self’ that needs to be ‘therapied,’ rather than, say, a carrier of a divine soul that needs to be saved, or simply an element of the communal unit that must cooperate for the common good…As a matter of fact, nothing has cured the human race, and nothing is about to. Mental ills don’t work that way; they are not universal, they are local. Every era has a particular configuration of self, illness, healer, technology; they are a kind of cultural package. They are interrelated, intertwined, inter­penetrating. So when we study a particular illness, we are also studying the conditions that shape and define that illness, and the sociopolitical impact of those who are responsible for healing it..”

I just finished reading Learning from the Voices in My Head by Eleanor Longden.  This is her TED Talk:

Longden, who is now a psychiatrist, hears voices and was diagnosed as schizophrenic in her youth. She challenges many of the assumptions the mental health profession and society in general make about mental illness.  Her book gave me a bit more insight into the whole demons into pigs incident.

We live in an individualistic culture. We believe in an independent bounded, self and we believe we have a great deal of control over our destinies.  We think of ourselves more as consumers with choice than as citizens with responsibilities. On the whole we look to science, technology and experts to solve our problems.

In some cultures, past and present, what we see as mental disorders are interpreted as gifts of communication with the spirit world.  (I recommend The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down by Anne Fadiman for a harrowing account of what happened when two healing cultures collided when a Hmong refugee family and U.S. medical professionals failed to communicate their underlying assumptions about the meaning and treatment of seizures.  )

Longden also advocates treating the voices people hear in their heads as messengers. “The psychiatrist Marius Romme, co-founder of the International Hearing Voices Movement, describes voices as ‘messengers’ that communicate compelling information about previous threats and conflicts that the person has faced. The British mental health journalist Adam James likewise characterizes them as ‘mirrors of the [hearer’s] social world.’”

In more collective cultures visions, voices, spells were thought to be messages to everyone.  In an individualistic society they are messages but personal to the individual. In an individualistic culture we value independence– insist upon it.  We use words like “self-reliance” to highlight the virtue of being independent. Its opposite, relying on others, is laziness and sloth.

In Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes the authors say that individualist cultures tend to be right/wrong cultures where collective cultures are more honor/shame cultures. That is to say that Western people tend to think of moral behavior as based on an internal sense of right and wrong whereas more collective cultures are motivated to stay in others’ good graces, to retain honor and to avoid shame.

I am not entirely sure this is true.  People who face a job loss, lose their homes or find themselves in financial difficulty do not have a sense that it is morally wrong for them to be poor.  They feel ashamed.  A couple of days ago I wrote about the tone of some of the comments on blogs related to people’s financial struggles. The tone of the comments is shaming.  Here is an example from Vitae.  The article by Stacey Patton, described the way certain members of the public reacted to an article about a PhD who was making so little that she had to supplement her income with food stamps.

Said one reader: “This woman should consider a full-time job instead of relying on handouts. Despite her degree, it appears she lacks any common sense or personal accountability. Quit leaching off the tax-payers.”

Another: “Anyone pursuing a Ph.D. in history as of 2002 should have known better than to expect a tenure-track job. If you are pursuing a Ph.D. in a humanities field right now, it’s your responsibility to know the risks.”

As the discussion moved beyond The Chronicle, the invective intensified. On his radio show, Neal Boortz, a right-wing political commentator, took some shots. “The money this lady is using to buy food came either from you, through taxes you paid, or your children,” Boortz said. “That money was taken from you by force. It was seized. Stolen.”…

“They denigrated my choice to get a Ph.D.,” she says. “They denigrated my field of study. They harped on the fact that I’m a single mom even though my child was born in marriage. They commented on the fact that I was buying sugary cereal for my kid. Those were personal attacks that said everything about me is wrong. Those pissed me off and made me cry.”

I think we still have an honor/shame culture. It is just that our honor/shame axis has entirely shifted. Honor/shame in ancient cultures operated like this:

It is honorable to perform your role in society.
It is shameful to put your self-interest above your duty.

In our culture it goes like this:

It is honorable to be independent.
It is shameful to be dependent.

Although she did not use these words, writer and social commentator Sarah Kendzior noted in her article “The American Dream: Survival is not an Aspiration” that young people chose their career paths based on an honor/shame dynamic.  Kids out of school are facing a difficult market place with options that offer little pay or security.

Young Americans seeking full-time employment tend to find their options limited to two paths: one of low-status, low-paying temp jobs emblematic of poverty; another of high-status, low-paying temp jobs emblematic of wealth. America is not only a nation of temporary employees – the Walmart worker on a fixed-day contract, the immigrant struggling for a day’s pay in a makeshift “temp town” – but of temporary jobs: intern , adjunct , fellow.

Like their counterparts in the service industry, these short-term prestige positions frequently offer no benefits, no health care, and in the case of the intern, no salary. They require that you have the money to move to switch jobs year after year – impossible for many, but easy for those with cash to spare. In the end, college graduates who trained for white-collar professions often cannot afford to take them, and end up, instead, working at a place like McDonald’s.

In her book, Longden advocates for a less medicalized approach to hearing voices and other forms of mental illness.

“…if we are told that Jane hears voices that are linked to distressing life events or difficult emotions,” Longden wrote,  “we are more likely to empathize with her than if we are told she hears voices because of her schizophrenia. We ascribe her humanity, and we are less inclined to see her as fundamentally different from us. Furthermore, we may feel empowered to try to support her ourselves; we don’t view her distress as something ineffable that only a trained professional can attend…”

The idea that the community has a role to play, and that we do no need to consult experts to deal with people with mental distress is an uphill climb for a number of reasons. Longden outlines many in her book. Here is one more: The shame of “dependence.”

Many articles note that when people have financial difficulties, they often isolate themselves socially.  (If you do not encounter other people you do not have to worry about shame.)  Social isolation plays a major factor in depression.  It becomes a vicious cycle.  This may be why depression is the most common mental health problem in the United States and demon possession, well, I couldn’t find any reliable stats on that.

Asking your friends to help you when you can’t help yourself is dependence.  Whereas consulting, and paying for, an expert to provide a service is a consumer choice.  Seeking professional help instead of leaning on friends and family preserves the honor of independence.  The result is a lot of prescriptions for zoloft.

Just to be clear, I have nothing against the mental health profession or anti-depressants.  What I am interested in is what kind of cultural assumptions we make about mental illness and mental health.  I realized, reading Longden’s book, how reliance on experts can be a way to limit our own sphere of responsibility.   Instead of having the community at large care for its members (extended family, tribes), we shrink the sphere of responsibility to immediate family and our families are not very big.  That is a lot of responsibility for one or two people.  When you’re dealing with someone in serious distress, professionals have to bridge the gap.

Longden argues that we, as a society, need to address the underlying social causes of distress instead of just treating individual’s symptoms.

We need to accept collective responsibility for the suffering and injustice we inflict on one another, and rebranding and camouflaging the effects of trauma, loss, and stress as mental disease directs attention and resources away from creating a safer, fairer, and more just society — a society in which more individuals are able to flourish and thrive, in which the most vulnerable are protected, in which perpetrators are held fully accountable for the impact of their actions, where survivors are not pathologized, and where those who have been shattered by devastating events are greeted with compassion, empathy, respect, and hope for their healing.

So here is where I get to the pigs.

I asked whether there might be relevance in the Biblical story to the fact that the unclean spirits are driven into unclean animals.  Being unclean in Jewish culture, the pigs have to belong to the Gentiles.  They’re Roman’s pigs. They belong to the occupiers.  A farm full of pigs back then had great economic value. They are livestock– they are also wealth. Mark says the herd is about 2,000 in number.  It had to be valuable. They are not wild pigs. Both accounts say that there were people tending the pigs.  (Workers, not owners, I presume, because they don’t say, “Hey! What did you do to my pigs!” I would love to have been a fly on the wall for the conversation they had with their boss later. If the workers tending to the pigs were Jewish he might have spared the laborers from a life of being considered unclean as well.)

All of the Jews were marginalized in the system the Romans brought with them.  The mad man was an outcast among outcasts.  He was shunned by polite society and considered unclean.  Luke describes him as naked and in chains and when Jesus approaches he is afraid he is going to torture him.

Jesus is not afraid of Legion’s voices. He speaks to them and listens to what they have to say.   Then Jesus, who insists that his followers have the power to heal as he does, removes Legion’s suffering by turning those demons back on the society that “owns” them, that is responsible for them.

I’m still not sure what to make of the demons begging to be put into the pigs but maybe that will become clear to me some day.

Demonic Pigs and the Construction of the Self

“When the world itself seems lunatic, who knows where madness lies.”-Don Quixote, Man of La Mancha by Dale Wasserman.

A couple of years ago, after writing a novel from the perspective of a Christian minister, I decided that I wanted to become more familiar with the New Testament of the Bible. I wanted to read it through word for word, in the order that scholars believe it was written, and to form my own opinions of what I read. I tried, as much as I could, to put my preconceived notions aside. A number of things surprised me and caught my attention.

One was just how often Jesus goes around casting out demons. In the post-Enlightenment age, we tend to focus on his miraculous physical healings, but not so much on his demon casting. Generally speaking, modern people don’t believe in demons. In the Bible, there are demons everywhere. They were part of ancient society’s everyday understanding of how the world operated.

In one particular episode, Jesus speaks to a group of demons that are in possession of a man. (The man has a sense of humor about his condition. When Jesus asks his name he says it is Legion. “For we are many.”) The demons listen to Jesus and speak to him. It seems as though they recognize him as another supernatural being. (Although Jesus insists later that his disciples have all the same powers to do what he does if they would have faith.) The demons beg Jesus if he is going to cast them out to please cast them into a group of nearby pigs. He does, and the pigs run into the sea and drown.

This brought up a number of questions for me. What are demons? What did the authors of the Bible believe about demons? Why were there so many demon possessed people? What happens to the demons when they are cast out? Do they go to possess someone else? Do they die? Are they exiled? When Jesus sends them into the pigs, was it a trick? Did he agree out of compassion for the demons and their presence just drove the pigs mad? Or did he intend for them to drown? If he had to trick them, this would imply that he had to negotiate with them and that they have powers that he might not be able to counteract. Or did the pigs run into the sea for comic effect in an era when most people didn’t read and stories were passed along through memorable performance? The other interesting thing is that pigs are “unclean” animals, so the nearby pigs must have belonged to gentiles. Did he cast the demons out of the Jews and into Roman pigs and was there some subtext to that?

Luke’s account of the demon pig incident describes the man with the demons in a way that makes it clear he was what we would today call mentally ill.  His description seems to be of a schizophrenic, which made me wonder if all of the people “plagued by unclean spirits” were suffering from mental illness.  Could there have been so many schizophrenics? Is insanity shaped by culture just as sanity is?  Do people go mad in ways that are shaped by the cultures in which they live?

Steve J. Ayan and Iris Tatjana Calliess, in a Scientific American article “Abnormal as Norm,” use the example of men in Malaysia who believe they have a condition called “koro” to illustrate how different cultures treat varied behaviors as normal. Men who think they have koro are afraid their genitals will retract into their bodies. So to prevent it, they hang weights on their penises.

“The fear, and the uncomfortable antidote, is not common, yet it is accepted in this long-standing culture,” they wrote, “But in a Western country, an adult male who acted on such a belief would certainly be labeled as emotionally disturbed.”

If pumping iron with your privates is normal in another part of the world, then maybe what we consider normal behavior is just as insane or conversely, what we call madness may be entirely normal.  I have started reading a book called Constructing the Self, Constructing America by Philip Cushman.  Cushman is a historian and psychologist  and he explores the history of modern psychotherapy from a cultural perspective. He argues that each era develops a different conception of “what it means to be human.”

“…all of these selves have had important political and economic functions within their eras and that each profession responsible for healing the self has put forth the claim that the self of its era is the only proper self, that its technologies are the one true healing…I want to convince readers that there are good and bad things about any sociohistorical era.  I want readers to agree that there is no single, transcendent truth that can be used by humans to heal in any perfect, universal, apolitical way.”

These are not easy questions for anyone to answer.  They are the big questions of how to be human in the world.  When should your beautiful, mad, messy personality be given expression and when should it be constrained? When should you resist conformity and when is resistance unhealthy?  It takes a lifetime to work these things out. Anyone who says he has the answer is not telling the truth.

Here are a few of my related articles:

Imagining Jesus on Zoloft

Non-Suicidal Poets Tend to Live Long Lives

The Invisible Famine in the Parable of the Prodigal Son

Fry, Flow, Frustration

Published Writers in Pain