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The Being-for-Itself

AUTHORSFIRST JUNE 23, 2016 ALL COURSES, BASIC, CHARACTERS, CRAFT, IDEA DEVELOPMENT, RESEARCH ADD REPLY
The Being-for-Itself
A session with Leora Skolkin-Smith

In 1969, Jane Alpert a good-looking upper-middle-class Jewish girl who was an honors student at Swarthmore College, conspired to bomb eight government and commercial office buildings in New York City. She was arrested when other participants in her group were caught planting dynamite in National Guard trucks. She pleaded guilty to conspiracy but, a month before her sentencing, she jumped bail. She went underground and lived in hiding until she resurfaced in 1974. Living underground, she was sheltered by now famous feminists and later she published “Mother Right” a feminist manifesto for the then-revolutionary magazine known now as Ms. magazine. After four-and-a-half years of wandering the country working at low-level jobs under false names, she surrendered in November 1974 and was sentenced to twenty-seven months in prison for the conspiracy conviction. Eventually, she was sentenced in October 1977 to an additional four months imprisonment for contempt of court because she refused to testify at the 1975 trial of another defendant in the 1969 bombings.

I think of her for two reasons. First, and most important to me, because I am writing a book set in the early 1970’s and trying so hard to capture a young student at Sarah Lawrence making her way through such a violent time when dislocation and discontent were at the soul center of many. Second, because her background—Jewish, suburban, upper middle class, and an honors English student—matched my own characters.

In Sartre’s Being and Nothing, he talks about the “being-in-itself” and “being-for itself.” He proposes that the being-for-itself is a constantly emerging sense of identity, a being in process of self-identity, while the being-in-itself is intransmutably itself, a finite and concrete object such as a chair. However, he points out that consciousness is always consciousness “of something else outside the self.” According to Sartre, our being is never more vital and alive than when it exists in history, in objective history. Writers invent and reinvent themselves while writing, as positioning one’s self in history gives depth to identity. Consciousness outside self, paradoxically, gives meaning and contour to consciousness of the self. It was fascinating to feel the being -for- itself as I went up against the times I had lived in as an adolescent and the times we now, too often, have relegated to a non-relevant past. That is, the facts of the bombing conspiracy and the surrounding trial were intransmutatable events in real history, but how they helped me process my character was being-for-itself, a being in the process of definition and redefinition.

The question about writing and novels occupies me daily. Is writing then the being-for-itself, the being that can actualize and create an identity even in the remote historical times in which we set our fiction? How do the two come together? Because as fiction writers, we are not bound to history as fact except in the slimmest sense—we must have the time, dates, and facts right and the general flow of historical events accurate, unless we are writing fantasy fiction. But beyond the cursory fact-telling, a self-identity, a being-for-itself is forming whenever real history invites us into a new way toward self-understanding. In what way, I asked myself, was Jane Alpert like me in her anger and naiveté? In what sense did the violent times define my otherwise placid adolescent world and form me as an adult? Can I reach to such a remote and different person in real life to help give life and definition to my fictionalized self and character (which is of course, an expression of my actual being and identity)? These are weighty questions that of course can’t be answered in an essay—they are too deep, too personal and too broad—but it’s the question itself that truly interests me.

In my new novel, I wrote, “Allegra tried to bury herself in her new novel about Jane Alpert, getting to the college library to research the sources until it closed, trying to write in the first person as someone with high moral purposes, taking on Jane Alpert’s voice and imagining herself with Alpert’s babushka and lean angry figure which mirrored Allegra’s wish-fantasies about herself.” Here, I was writing of my character’s experience of being-for-itself, identifying and connecting with her times and a real-life figure.

One afternoon, Allegra saw a gathering outside the library’s windows. A small crowd had besieged the administration building. She hoped that Faith Hale was there somewhere. They were holding up anti-war placards and distributing leaflets. Some were shouting, some were silent, all were young women, most in John Lennon caps and dungarees. She thought, I am the only one alone on this whole campus. A beautiful young woman with startling red hair hair was shouting through a megaphone, and the others, who seemed to be a bunch of students who would not let themselves be separated from one another, applauded. And then the crowd slowly, none of them remaining or running fast, made their way toward the driveway where Allegra was sure a bus waited to take them to a larger anti-war demonstration in New York City. A demonstration she was sure Faith Hale would be at. She had been too crushed and driven to excel here at the college to join, she thought. Perhaps they all had had easier lives, that they could scream out their anger and rage. The girls were more prepared to act and shout with such abandon and they must feel themselves as solid presences in the world which Allegra did not.

This is an admittedly brief example of what can be achieved if a fiction writer’s imagination struggles to grasp the larger canvases of character development of a real figure in history, the being in history helping form a fictional being-for-itself, a self-identity. I hope to explore more about this being-for-itself created by historical positioning in fiction writing in the coming weeks. But I would like offer two exercises, in case others feel this particular approach is helpful in developing character.

Exercise 1

Pick an event in history happening at the same time or before your character’s life. Make sure this event is something you can feel identification or sympathy with. I could never ever commit an act of terror or bomb a building, but I identified with a young person being drawn to extremes. (It’s important to note that no real human lives were ever endangered in Jane Alpert’s actions. The building was completely evacuated.) Identify something in that historical example that amplifies or, by contrast, illuminates your character’s identity. In my example, I picked the angry, lost Jane Alpert. Though violent and active in the world at-large, so unlike my main character who is a college student feeling despair and anger at having found herself in the middle of the 1970’s with its violent and turbulence ambience but drowning in her own personal problems, the juxtaposition throws light on Allegra’s own inner life. She, like Jane Alpert, feels helpless and angry. She fantasizes about not being passive as she is in her own very personal life but being, instead, like Jane Alpert, having a purpose and moral action. The two play off each other, bringing my main character into relief.
Exercise 2

Find an event in history happening at the same time as your character’s life in the book. For example, if you’re character is contemporary, you might pick out the Orlando bombing attack or Donald Trump candidacy. Write that real-life event into your fictional text and make it part of the story. For example, “[main character] walked into a Donald Trump protest on the streets. She was pushed by one of the protesters by mistake and felt angry for being mistaken because, of all the candidates, she despised Donald Trump the most and did not want to be taken as a supporter. The chaos and community anger brought her back to college memories of the Nixon election when she was younger and more involved in the world outside her.” Write how this real event affects your character or the progress of the story.
Factual history, which can often be intimidating at first, can, I am proposing, illuminate and further characterization. It can be startling how much we are, as human beings, capable of being part of a universal, timeless flow. Even in a novel about a personal conflict in the character, reaching for and toward the larger canvas can show us and our readers the infinite and boundless.

THANK YOU FOR YOUR COMMENTS

THANK YOU ALL SO MUCH FOR YOUR THOUGHTFUL COMMENTS. I DEEPLY APPRECIATE YOU RESPONDING. UNFORTUNATELY THE SHEER VOLUME OF COMMENTS MAKES IT IMPOSSIBLE TO RESPOND TO EACH AND FOR THIS I AM VERY SORRY. PLEASE DON’T THINK YOUR COMMENTS AND SUGGESTIONS AREN’T WELCOME I AM JUST UNABLE TO ANSWER THEM DUE TO THE AMOUNT OF THEM.

-Leora Skolkin-Smith

Suicide During Biblical Times

SUICIDE IN BIBLICAL TIMES

As the third installment in my series, “The History of Mental Illness and Suicide,” I wanted to ask: Did the Biblical world consider suicide as just and honorable in certain cases? And did this philosophy preclude the Middle Ages where, abruptly, suicide was punished by throwing the suicide cadavers at the crossroads and hammering a spike in their chests the way they did vampires? There is, in contrast to the modern world, evidence that like the Greek and Roman ancient world, suicide during the times of Jesus and before was often considered a righteous act. The Christian Bible, Old and New Testaments, have as many as six accounts of suicide recorded.
The first account is that of Samson. When the Philistines captured him, he pleaded that God grant him that strength again and God did. But leaning on a pillar, Samson knocked down the pillar, causing the temple to fall on himself and 3,000 Philistines.
Describing Samson’s suicide, the Bible tell us:

Then he called to the Lord and said, ‘O Lord God, please remember me and please strengthen me just this time, O God, that I may at once be avenged
of the Philistines for my two eyes.’ Samson grasped the two middle pillars on which the house rested, and braced himself against them, the one with his right hand and the other with his left. And Samson said, ‘Let me die with the Philistines!’ And he bent with all his might so that the house fell on the lords and all the people who were in it. So the dead whom he killed at his death were more than those whom he killed in his life.

Other stories include the one of King Saul and his armor bearer. (1 Sam. 31:4-5). The story goes that after being fatally injured by some Philistines, King Saul asks his armor bearer to kill him, but when his servant refuses, Samson grabs the sword and falls on it into death. Then his aide, being so disturbed and despairing at the death of his king, kills himself by the same sword. In this context King Saul is committing suicide because he believes he will die anyway, so he wants to end the agony and pain sooner. His servant on the other hand kills himself out of devotion and respect to his king. Both are honorable acts, and just.
The third account is of a servant of King David’s son named Absalom who hanged himself. Absalom, it was said, did so because he did not take the King’s advice.
Perhaps the most widely known recorded suicide in the Bible is the story of Judas. “And he cast down the pieces of silver in the temple, and departed, and went and hanged himself.” (Mattt 27:6). St. Augustine said of this incident, “He did not deserve mercy; and that is why no light shone in his heart to make him hurry for pardon from the one he had betrayed, as those who crucified him were to do. In that despair, he killed himself.”
Lastly, some scholars argue about whether or not the crucifixion of Jesus can be considered a case of suicide. Many assume that in ancient Israel, suicide may have been considered a natural event, or even considered heroic. The most important element is that one must confront the paradox that knowingly getting one’s self killed is not quite the same as suicide. Obviously, there is an important similarity, but there is, also, and most importantly in the case of Jesus, a difference. Nevertheless, the question of whether Jesus Christ committed suicide has been a controversial one, dependent, I think, on one’s faith. Perhaps it is easier for me to consider the possibility that the story of Jesus’ crucifixion was a story of martyrdom and choice because I’m Jewish. I feel disrespectful and uncomfortable exploring this, as a Christian might feel uncomfortable asking if the story of Passover is one of masochism and self-loathing, societal oppression, poverty and freedom, and not the story of a Red Sea crossing and God speaking to Moses. There is, in the naturalistic elements of Jesus’ death, a story of the refusal to submit to a corrupt authority in the Romans, and a pacifist’s journey through a wilderness of violence from others, the lovelessness of the human spirit when it is shackled by aggression and narcissism, and the class distinctions and condemnations that put the ordinary man and “peasant” below compassion and empathy, turning one into a hunted creature beyond humanity. Without answering the question of whether Jesus’ crucifixion was suicide or an act of the Son of God, it is clear that the story, surviving centuries, is one that, unlike the suicides of mortal men, creates a question rather than answering one.
From the Bible, the story is told through John 10:17-18, which reads: “For this reason the Father loves Me, because I lay down My life so that I may take it again. No one has taken it away from Me, but I lay it down on My own initiative. I have authority to lay it down, and I have authority to take it up again. This commandment I received from My Father.”
Contrary, and as a challenge to this attitude, Augustine wrote that, “there is no legitimate reason for committing suicide, not even to avoid sinning…. When Judas hanged himself, he increased rather than expiated the crime of that accursed betrayal…” When the Western Roman Empire began to disintegrate, Augustine’s thoughts deeply influenced the medieval worldview. The notion of sin and disrepute came in with the Judeo-Christian theology, A.D.
What did become clear to me was that the Dark Ages and Middle Ages ushered in a strong notion of sin, suicide of course as a sin, an act against God. Though in ancient times there was a place where although suicide was considered wrong because it defied the Gods it, nonetheless, during the time of Jesus Christ, was considered spiritually rich with paradoxes.
The questions that take us back in history can also help us with the here and now. In writing about suicide, I tried to capture that spiritual side, not the judgment of sin and blasphemy that are still, to this day, pervasive. I do think there is a mythic quest to suicide in some cases, and though that’s provocative it could be helpful that, rather than stigmatizing and condemning those suffering from suicidal depression, we can develop a recognition that something of profound meaning is trying to be accomplished by their suicidal act. This in no way condones suicide, nor do I want to think that peeling back the layers of history all the way to the ancients is some attempt to condone suicide. But with the pathologization the twentieth and twenty-first century brought in, it might be important to uncover the more ancient, mythic dimensions and spiritual feelings and textures of this painfully serious act. A journey back, I think, can also relieve the otherwise condemning, dominant attitude, more related to the Judeo-Christian heritage of suicide as sin and to rigid fundamentalism.
From my new book about a girl who is repeatedly suicidal, I wrote about her trying to reach a spiritual “incandescence” before her suicide attempt fails. I wrote:

She made it to River. If she could kill herself and die, she would awaken to a radiant array of stars, to the other side of life, vibrant with light, she was thinking. The outcome and climax of her whole sexual porousness was certain to be replaced by the pure stars, without any more human soaring and violent plunges and fully unrelated to any of the eternal gazes of Dickers, Faith, Pollard or others who had dismissed her. Something, an incandescence, was waiting. Her body was swelling with burning fatigue and weakness from no sleep. When she got to the trees and bank, she picked three large and heavy stones, stashing them inside her pea coat, and then she jumped into the water, sinking.
It is of this “incandescence” I wished to write. In a world increasing given to pat kitchen psychologies and to pathologizing dark states as solely “ill” and without real substance, I felt a pressing and often urgent need to tug on the uses of our one-dimensional lenses and to start making a case for progressive lens so to speak. That is: to see suicide as a complex act, one requiring a vision that can contain the “spiritual” and historical as other layers of sight and insight, a corrective lens I hope for near-sightedness.

On the History of the Stigma Against Mental Illness, Depression, and Suicide

Leora Skolkin-Smith: On the History of the Stigma Against Mental Illness, Depression, and Suicide

Having now written two novels in which the main character is “mentally ill” and has spent time in a psychiatric hospital for suicidal depression, it feels right to ask questions about why, how, and when, precisely, this mental illness – specifically depression and suicide – was stigmatized. Mental illness and subsequent psychiatric hospitalization are still, at the time I’m writing this essay, what I call “impossible secrets.”

I was recently at a family affair and our host was telling us a detailed account of his physical illness where he had almost died. His account took up two hours of the dinner table talk. He spoke without shame, of course, and no one cringed at the inappropriateness of his account or was made uncomfortable by the details of his hospitalization. It seemed important to him to share this serious experience with friends and family. Support for him around the table was abundant. I couldn’t help wondering if this would have been true if he had confessed he was in a psychiatric hospital and that he had experienced a threatening, potentially fatal illness called depression. I even said to a friend who had listened to the host’s story, “What if this was a psychiatric illness? Would he have spoken so openly?” My friend answered: “Mental illness? Depression? People can’t go there. They are not willing to hear that. No, he would have had to keep a story like that to himself so as not to make people squeamish.” As much as I’d like to think the stigma of mental illness has been alleviated in our era and that the decades of the biological revolution in psychiatry have created a new societal openness to mental illness, I know the social stigma still haunts the survivors. The writing we have had these years about mental illness has been, primarily, from very bright people who survived their depressions with flying colors and were able to return to recognizable “normal” lives. Their accounts have been lucid and coherent, not the jagged raw expressions that ensue from mental breakdowns. In the fifties, “depressed” mentally ill suicide attempters had a romantic color to their experiences. I am thinking of Sylvia Path and Anne Sexton, as well as other poets and famous artists. The fifties and early sixties were a time when it was thought that brilliant, artistic people, geniuses and near geniuses, had breakdowns. This was also true at the time of Goethe and the book The Sorrows of Young Werther and, perhaps, Anna Karenina when suicide was a romantic condition, experienced by the extremely sensitive, victims of society’s rigid morality. The gritty, tragic, day-to-day, ugly struggle inside psychiatric hospitals wasn’t portrayed in these novels, nor is it portrayed with all the confusing imagery and sensibility recent books like Prozac Nation or Girl, Interrupted express. The people in these books were portrayed as completely getting over their own despair and situation, and the depth and complexity with which their depressions were explored seemed questionable. The endings gave relief to their readers, everything was sewn up, creating the effect that the main characters were over their crises permanently. When I wrote Hystera about a young woman’s breakdown, a reader wrote me and gave it a one-star review. Her reason was that my novel, in which my main character overcomes her suicidal despair but by no means is free from its recurrences, was not a fair representation of how mental illness results for those stuck for life. Not everyone overcomes the odds, she argued, not everyone goes back to a normal life, and there is no happy resolution for most people. I thought she had a very vital point; I had neglected to insert the hopelessness experienced of a future for my protagonist who was, in the end, just another bright college girl who had a breakdown but who would, because of her advantages, be able to reassimilate into society. I did feel good, however that I portrayed her breakdown with raw, sexual, and beguiling paradoxes, that I had shown, at least, the chaos and not a neat tie-up at the end. In my second novel, I wanted to go further into the aftermath of an institutionalized woman who could not, for thirteen years, find her way back to the world. The reader finds her practically living on the streets under Reagan’s cuts in the 1980s, the brutal stigmatization that does not allow her to reconnect with the world. In both cases, stigma was a prominent theme. In the first novel, the often-disturbing sexual imagery, and in my second novel, not yet published, the long ostracization by her peers and the society she once belonged to hopefully establish a depth and not facile resolutions.

The Oxford Dictionary defines stigma as “a mark of disgrace associated with a particular circumstance, quality, or person. ‘The stigma of mental disorder.’”

I have become interested in why those with psychiatric illness are still and forever stigmatized. And to give historical breadth and depth to the question, it was fascinating and horrifying to turn to history.

In his seminal book on suicide, The Savage God, A. Alvarez introduces us to the stigma and penalty toward those who try suicide by giving us an example from 1860, from a man named Nicholas writing to his mistress, Mary Sutherland.

A man was hanged who had cut his throat, but who had been brought back to life. They hanged him for the suicide. The doctor had warned them that it was impossible to hang him as his throat would burst open and he would breathe through the aperture. They did not listen to his advice and hanged their man. The wound in his neck immediately opened and the man came back to life, although he was hanged. It took time to convoke the aldermen to decide the question of what was to be done. At length the alderman assembled and bound up the neck below the wound until he died. Oh my Mary, what a crazy society and what a stupid civilization.

In this series, I hope to wander back through history, from Plato up to the present, in an attempt to determine whether our attitudes towards suicide and depression have really changed, or if the stigma is still there, manifesting itself differently through the ages. What can be learned by recognizing the continuum of social ostracization in regard to mental illness, specifically to suicide and depression? What does the future hold as a remedy for the stigma against mental illness, depression, and suicide?

The Election in Israel

The election in Israel this morning, Tuesday, is a place that especially speaks to me and brings me much sadness, frustrations, and not a little anger. Netanyahu publicly came out saying he would not allow a “two state solution”, that is– he would never allow an independent Palestinian State.

Most people don’t understand the beginnings of Israel, even less the facts that Jews and Arabs lived in a mutual respect once back in the 1930’s. Most people also don’t know that it was the Water War that started the hostilities we are seeing in every increasing border wars. Originally, because the Jews in Israel needed water and Syria blocked any chance they could have to create a water route, the border skirmishes, long ago were about what was later called “The Water Wars”. Only Transjordan would allow the Israelis to have access to the abundant water wadis.. But Transjordan had the old city under their military control in (1963, the era of my novel _no Jew was allowed passage into the ancient city, not to the Wailing Wall or other Jewish holy sites, and not to the Jewish graves on Mt. Scopus where my own grandfather is buried.

I am not good at expressing my feelings in non-fiction or essays so I very much want to offer the last few paragraphs of the novel I wrote called “Edges. “Edges” tells a story of a young American girl, Liana, taken by her native Palestinian mother’s birthplace during the Cold War. These years were right before the 1967 war in when Israel captured old Jerusalem and began the refugee issues that still are a haunting violence between two groups, Muslim and Jewish, who, during her mother’s time in Palestine, were once working together in business, living together as neighbors,

The question of why we write looms again large in my mind. I wrote “Edges” thinking all this Palestinian/Israeli history was not known by the world at large and now reading about the current election it feels like the historical context has been buried for good. Apologies if this sounds arrogant on my part, my own mother’s Palestinian family goes back to my great-great grandparents in Jerusalem and my grandfather, thinking business would restore old Jerusalem into cooperation between Muslim and Jewish families started the first department store in ancient Jerusalem in the 1920’s. His brother, Reuben, brought over the first “primus”, a small stove, to sell to the people of Jerusalem. Before and under the British Mandate except for some fanatic Islam groups and fanatic Zionist Jewish groups, the neighboring Jews and Muslim families lived in peace and mutual accord with one another. Business interests and doings like my grandfather brought them together as partners,

I wanted to share a part of Edges, which, I think expresses Liana’s bewilderment at the modernization of Israel in the 1980’s. Where she had run away and lived in secret with a lover in 1963, on the West Bank, she now sees only a faint shadow of what was once TransJordan and Israel.. In the novel, she witnesses an innocent Arab boy killed in crossfire between the Arab and Israeli militia. All he was doing was climbing a tree in a vacant spot on the West Bank. This truly was the symbol I used to create the horror of the contemporary divide between Palestinians and Israel now.

This section I hope brings some fictional life to these ideas and memories. Liana, struggles to understand the modernization of the city she had loved so dearly, Jerusalem.

From Edges, O Israel, O Palestine:

“IN 1986, I WENT BACK TO ISRAEL WITH MY HUSBAND. I wanted to show him the land that had formed me. My mother lived in New York City by then, but she went back every few years to visit Doda Esther and attend various occasions with her old friends. Jerusalem had been cold that February day.
My husband and I took a sherut from Ben-Gurion airport, following the glistening route which passed new- sprung Jewish settlements and towns full of jerrybuilt apartment houses. New gray buildings were everywhere, renovations in progress—teams of back hoes and bulldoz- ers lay in wet mud. Israeli checkpoints were now bullet- proof closures with reinforced steel doors.
The highway through the Judean Hills was unrecog- nizable, except for the rusted tanks and Fords from the War of Independence that were still cradled in heaps of shrubs and rocks. The sky that morning looked bruised by the lowering winter clouds, my mother was no longer here to enchant the stonescape and clay; the lavender was dark. Soon, the gardens of Jerusalem appeared outside our window; crocuses and Jerusalem roses drowned in floods of thawing ice. The air was raw and cruel, scratchy, the biting wind didn’t flag, and there had been more rainfall than the land could soak in. Vapors fumed from the sodden fields, drenched city benches. Some blue Arabic villages lay behind blocked hillocks on the West Bank, closed-off, their rickety watchtowers overlooking the barren soil I remem- bered. The borders were marked only by yellow warning road signs in English, Hebrew, and Arabic which pointed towards Jordan.

Leora Skolkin-Smith 189
The monastery still existed somewhere, I believed, in the far away, impoverished vista of limestone and dust. I brushed my hand against the window to clear a vision of a ravaged distant land.
Entering the center of the new city, a light snow began to fall. The snowflakes looked like mixed salt and pow- der. The old tailor shop and one pharmacy were deserted hovels in rubble, the places I remembered walking with my mother to buy toothpastes that smelled like lemons and aspirin pills the size of playing dice. The harsh metal- lic feel I remembered in the Jerusalem air was gone, the snow melted in the sand and stone heaps, it drizzled into the abandoned alleys, a white liquid painting shapes and ghostly forms. I sank into my seat, wondering if it would have turned out different for me had I known long ago what the war for the water would become. If I had known the border skirmishes as different than the rage and struggle inside me. Would I have decided to go to the Israeli police station instead, in my old army shorts and sandals, report- ing the death I still saw in my night dreams with the young Arab’s face? He had my own face back then, my physical confusions, my formlessness. Soldiers in olive uniforms still guarded the bus stops with heavy rifles. They walked in groups on the new sidewalks now, clicking against each other. It was rush hour on King George Street. The boule- vard was filling with cars and red buses. Lines of Israelis were forming at the kiosks to buy lotto tickets, municipal parking tickets, chewing gum, and stamps.
Ahead, the King David Hotel shone as if rebuilt into polished white steel.
My eyes blinked, spotting a Thai restaurant in a strip of modern boutiques.
…I tried to remember it as it had been to me in 1963—a geography, undifferentiated, hungry for definition, wanting water. I peered out at the dun-colored terrain, at all the bor- ders and boundaries still so explosive and fragile. The view towards Jordan was obstructed as it was from my aunt’s room upstairs, apartment houses in the way of my vision. “

A New Series on the History of Mental Illness

“On the History of the Stigma Against Mental Illness, Depression, and Suicide”

Having now written two novels in which the main character is “mentally ill” and has spent time in a psychiatric hospital for suicidal depression, it feels right to ask questions about why, how, and when, precisely, this mental illness – specifically depression and suicide – was stigmatized. Mental illness and subsequent psychiatric hospitalization are still, at the time I’m writing this essay, what I call “impossible secrets.”
I was recently at a family affair and our host was telling us a detailed account of his physical illness where he had almost died. His account took up two hours of the dinner table talk. He spoke without shame, of course, and no one cringed at the inappropriateness of his account or was made uncomfortable by the details of his hospitalization. It seemed important to him to share this serious experience with friends and family. Support for him around the table was abundant. I couldn’t help wondering if this would have been true if he had confessed he was in a psychiatric hospital and that he had experienced a threatening, potentially fatal illness called depression. I even said to a friend who had listened to the host’s story, “What if this was a psychiatric illness? Would he have spoken so openly?” My friend answered: “Mental illness? Depression? People can’t go there. They are not willing to hear that. No, he would have had to keep a story like that to himself so as not to make people squeamish.” As much as I’d like to think the stigma of mental illness has been alleviated in our era and that the decades of the biological revolution in psychiatry have created a new societal openness to mental illness, I know the social stigma still haunts the survivors. The writing we have had these years about mental illness has been, primarily, from very bright people who survived their depressions with flying colors and were able to return to recognizable “normal” lives. Their accounts have been lucid and coherent, not the jagged raw expressions that ensue from mental breakdowns. In the fifties, “depressed” mentally ill suicide attempters had a romantic color to their experiences. I am thinking of Sylvia Path and Anne Sexton, as well as other poets and famous artists. The fifties and early sixties were a time when it was thought that brilliant, artistic people, geniuses and near geniuses, had breakdowns. This was also true at the time of Goethe and the book The Sorrows of Young Werther and, perhaps, Anna Karenina when suicide was a romantic condition, experienced by the extremely sensitive, victims of society’s rigid morality. The gritty, tragic, day-to-day, ugly struggle inside psychiatric hospitals wasn’t portrayed in these novels, nor is it portrayed with all the confusing imagery and sensibility recent books like Prozac Nation or Girl, Interrupted express. The people in these books were portrayed as completely getting over their own despair and situation, and the depth and complexity with which their depressions were explored seemed questionable. The endings gave relief to their readers, everything was sewn up, creating the effect that the main characters were over their crises permanently. When I wrote Hystera about a young woman’s breakdown, a reader wrote me and gave it a one-star review. Her reason was that my novel, in which my main character overcomes her suicidal despair but by no means is free from its recurrences, was not a fair representation of how mental illness results for those stuck for life. Not everyone overcomes the odds, she argued, not everyone goes back to a normal life, and there is no happy resolution for most people. I thought she had a very vital point; I had neglected to insert the hopelessness experienced of a future for my protagonist who was, in the end, just another bright college girl who had a breakdown but who would, because of her advantages, be able to reassimilate into society. I did feel good, however that I portrayed her breakdown with raw, sexual, and beguiling paradoxes, that I had shown, at least, the chaos and not a neat tie-up at the end. In my second novel, I wanted to go further into the aftermath of an institutionalized woman who could not, for thirteen years, find her way back to the world. The reader finds her practically living on the streets under Reagan’s cuts in the 1980s, the brutal stigmatization that does not allow her to reconnect with the world. In both cases, stigma was a prominent theme. In the first novel, the often-disturbing sexual imagery, and in my second novel, not yet published, the long ostracization by her peers and the society she once belonged to hopefully establish a depth and not facile resolutions.
The Oxford Dictionary defines stigma as “a mark of disgrace associated with a particular circumstance, quality, or person.
‘the stigma of mental disorder’

I have become interested in why those with psychiatric illness are still and forever stigmatized. And to give historical breadth and depth to the question, it was fascinating and horrifying to turn to history.
In his seminal book on suicide, The Savage God, A. Alvarez introduces us to the stigma and penalty toward those who try suicide by giving us an example from 1860, from a man named Nicholas writing to his mistress, Mary Sutherland.

A man was hanged who had cut his throat, but who had been brought back to life. They hanged him for the suicide. The doctor had warned them that it was impossible to hang him as his throat would burst open and he would breathe through the aperture. They did not listen to his advice and hanged their man. The wound in his neck immediately opened and the man came back to life, although he was hanged. It took time to convoke the aldermen to decide the question of what was to be done. At length the alderman assembled and bound up the neck below the wound until he died. Oh my Mary, what a crazy society and what a stupid civilization.

In this series, I hope to wander back through history, from Plato up to the present, in an attempt to determine whether our attitudes towards suicide and depression have really changed, or if the stigma is still there, manifesting itself differently through the ages. What can be learned by recognizing the continuum of social ostracization in regard to mental illness, specifically to suicide and depression? What does the future hold as a remedy for the stigma against mental illness, depression, and suicide?

An American Sniper

An American Sniper.

Recently I saw a breath-tak8ng movie. Afterwards, I had to question my excitement. The film was “American ‘sniper” directed by Clint Eastwood, starring Bradley Cooper. A near-perfect suspenseful script, brilliant acting, and a rendering of the Iraq War was moving, searing in fact. ‘Against a background of destitute limestone buildings and impoverished towns, the American sniper, played by Bradley takes aim and kills any Iraqi who carries a lethal weapon against his own American fellow soldiers. In his first shoot, a young boy is killed because he was carrying a grenade to take out twenty of the soldiers in the American offense. That one moral question reverberated so severely through the audience’s emotional systems, the other perhaps more urgent moral questions were buried by its intensity. The difficulty the Bradley Cooper had with his marriage after his PTSD, returning home to America and staring aimlessly at walls, unable to communicate with his wife and children furthered the pathos of the film, rendering a soft and tender emotional layering which obscured and hid the film’s more ambiguous moral issues. The viewer soon puts the Iraqi landscape of impoverishment and military inferiority and the near serial killer instincts of the Bradley Cooper away, as the compelling story of this one man, the American sniper, is explored with dramatic excellence. Though I was fully entranced, lurking in my conscience were eventual questions about the general morality of our involvement in Iraq after 9/11 and the moral attitude of forgiveness towards an emotionally driven killer, the Bradley Cooper sniper who with zeal and high moral purpose killed over 150 Iraqi people, including putting an innocent Iraqi family at risk so they were executed by the extremists. Being from the Middle East in heritage I have seen such impoverished villages and towns on the other side of the Israeli border. I am no stranger to the brutality of Islam extremists as well, but because Iraqi families and homes were raided in this film, and thrown like so much flesh to a hungry shark, the killing of innocents and the plight of innocents in the real skirmishes we witness today in the Middle East were glossed over. The focus on our dubious hero sniper dominated the film, defined its moral perimeters.
Later, I read that the actual sniper the film was based on was hardly viewed as a hero by his own army. By all accounts he was a disturbed and driven soul. It was also not true that the sniper, as in the movie, killed the central terrorist character. As I heard more, the likeness of the real person to his movie character grew dimmer and dimmer. At best, the real sniper, a man named Kyles, was of questionable motivations.
Having felt the Iraqi war was a large mistake and lapse in judgment it should have been easy for me to hate this movie, which glorified our soldiers’ roles and the determination of the sniper to protect his fellow men. The fact that I didn’t, the fact that I loved this film was troubling beyond words. I confess my intense attraction to Bradley Cooper, an actor I find about the sexiest and finest around, contributed to my awe of the movie. I also confess that Clint Eastwood has proven to be a director extraordinaire, that his sense of timing and suspense is superlative. He can set up tension and scenes like a cinematic magi.. So the question I want to explore is: does it matter? That is, in movies and books, does it matter if the material is noxious and immoral but the artist renders it brilliantly, taking one in completely, does its value diminish because of the bad morality that is its bedrock, and because it doesn’t stay true to actual people (who are called their real name in the picture)?
I haven’t answered the question yet. It reminded of the time when I found out my favorite philosopher, Martin Heidegger was a Nazi sympathizer and worked with Hitler’s national socialist party, admitting in his famous “black books” that he saw Nazism as a glorious new frontier and wanted to support it, including its anti-Semitism. In no way could I throw out his genius. His “ Time and Being” remains a landmark in philosophy, makes no mention and gives no hint of his Nazism. As is true with Ezra Pound, a great poet by any standard, and a Nazi sympathizer as well, Heidegger will remain as the father of existentialism, its most ingenious theorist.
I did, I admit, cringe and hate myself for admiring this film when the Bradley Cooper called the Iraqis “savages” that have to be destroyed or they will infiltrate America, and when the hero worship grew tedious and unearned once the sniper had killed more Iraqis, and there continued to be an unbalanced, uncontested treatment of the Americans as heroes who could do no wrong, as well as the Bradley Cooper character experiencing his victims, like a serial killer, with no guilt, remorse or self-reproach. The question of a preemptive strike against innocents by George Bush’s declaration of war against a country that had little or nothing to do with 9/11 simply did not figure into Eastwood’s depiction of the Iraqi War. Or seem to trouble any of the players.
I thought these were valuable misgivings. It’s another example of how excellent artistry and brilliant directing and acting can so easily overshadow one’s judgment, watching a great film like this. I still tell friends to go see it, but warn it is painfully difficult to admire it so very

Interview in The Brooklyn Rail

Thanks to Andrea Scrima and Storyplant for posting my interview at the Brookyn Rail.
A great interview with Leora Skolkin-Smith about her re-published book Edges!
http://www.brooklynrail.org/2014/12/books/mother-tongue

MOTHER TONGUE LEORA SKOLKIN-SMITH with Andrea Scrima
It’s nearly impossible to imagine from today’s perspective of heavily guarded checkpoints and border controls and ugly, towering walls, but Israel was a very…
BROOKLYNRAIL.ORG

STOP HERE, A book review

In the September 1874 Atlantic Monthly George Parsons Lathrop wrote in his essay, The Novel and its Future:
“Realism sets itself at work to consider characters and events which are apparently the most ordinary and uninteresting, in order to extract from these their full value and true meaning. It would apprehend in all particulars the connection between the familiar and the extraordinary, and the seen and unseen of human nature. Beneath the deceptive cloak of outwardly uneventful days, it detects and endeavors to trace the outlines of the spirits that are hidden there; to measure the changes in their growth, to watch the symptoms of moral decay or regeneration, to fathom their histories of passionate or intellectual problems. In short, realism reveals. Where we thought nothing worth of notice, it shows everything to be rife with significance.”
Beverly Gologorsky’s “Stop Here” is a poignant novel of contemporary realism. Her primary emotional themes are loneliness, a yearning to change the past, small town ennui, and resignation that this is the irrevocable life one has to sort out and put to rest. What is masterful in this work is how she weaves characters lives through a desolate and lonely atmospheric Long Island town.
Gologorsky’s prose is much like an Edward Hopper painting. She stays true to the stark nature of her themes and characters without a “drop of color… yet they shimmer”. (A quote from a painter on the beach in the novel describing his own painting.)
The narration is told with simple words and the intense emotions underneath the narrative are not played up stylistically but left there on the page for the reader to read without linguistic trimmings. The power of the narration is an achievement that enters the reader’s consciousness slowly, like a cautious guest who has been invited into a place, which is, in part, forbidding.
She takes on the ordinary and removes the “deceptive cloak, showing what is trembling below It.” as Lathrop wrote of realism. Though we might otherwise not actually notice these characters because they are so familiar to us, and the dialogue is so real, they could be sitting at the same lunch counter with us.
The novel illuminates the lives of a handful of characters, but one feels that the Gulf War is also a haunting lurking character. The lives of the characters are all connected to a Long Island Diner called: “Murray’s” a twenty-four hour dive and the perfect frame for the telling of their difficult lives.
For example there’s Sylvie, the new wife of the successful diner-owner Murray, who is a Neoconservative, bullish man.
There’s Sylvia, a former actress, getting on in age and worried about a future without stability, she gives up a lot of who she is to gain the same. Left at home, as her husband goes to run his diner, she is bored, restless, and empty. Sylvie discovers an elderly artist appearing to be on the verge of death, living in a seaside lean-to on the beach. Their conversations, though sounding at first a bit meandering and strange, give us one of the most moving examples of Gologorsky’s realism, and how she, as an unobtrusive narrator pulls off what Laphor had said was ”the deceptive cloak of outwardly uneventful days, trace (ing) the outlines of the spirits that are hidden there.”
From a section of the novel we find the character, Sylvie, meeting up with the elderly painter on the beach:
“He hands her (the character Sylvie) a bunch of paintings as easily as if they were sandwiches at a picnic. Winter beach scenes. White, gray, silver without a drop of color, yet they shimmer. Could these be the landscape she finds so forbidding, cold, and untouchable? She catches him staring at her.
“Too bleak for you?” he asks.
“No. The opposite. Is that how you really see what you see out there?”
“There’s no metaphor for the ocean, only how I feel when I try to capture it.”
“In this one the waves are ferocious. They’re filled with warning . . . ”
“Because my fingers were stiff and my knees hurting, the waves spoke to me of what’s impending.”
“Was that depressing?” Is she probing?
“At my age death is a comrade, a way of leaving, an exit.”
“I don’t believe everyone your age feels like that.” Nothing about him seems tired or worn, though he must be near eighty.
“Maybe not. But there isn’t much I’ll miss. I love the beach, but I’m alone now. Do you have children?”
“No.”
“I had a son killed in 1970, in that dirty war.”
The sea, the sky, his death, his son’s. He says it all in the same matter-of-fact way.
“How awful,” she (Sylvie) finally says.
“It was worse than that.”
With Sylvie’s story there are alternating stories of three other women. Each character is presented in alternating chapters but they also mingle inside all the chapters.
Ava, a woman who has been so devastated by her young husband’s death in Iraq is trying to find a new hold on life, one that will include some security for her son. She meets a man whom she initially attracts her and she is quite taken by him but then discovers he had betrayed her, at the same time had bonded as father with her son.
Mila, whose husband is in prison, is very worried about making ends meet because her daughter, Darla, is ambitious and Mila wants Darla to make something of her life, which includes a good college. But Darla wants to enlist in the army to escape her mother and the claustrophobic town.
And there’s Rosalyn, who believes she can shape her own life, although she, too, comes from a poor background. She does so until she becomes ill. She was, also, augmenting her inadequate income from the diner by moonlighting as an escort.
These four women and their everyday lives make up for most of the book, but they’re other characters there too. Each daily life struggle, though understated by Gologorsky’s simple telling feels like an epic.
Interestingly, Gologorsky modernizes the concept of realism proposed as far back as 1874, by Lathrop. Another, more contemporary critic, William Harmon wrote: “Where romanticists transcend the immediate to find the ideal, and naturalists plumb the actual or superficial to find the scientific laws that control its actions, realists center their attention to a remarkable degree on the immediate, the here and now, the specific action, and the verifiable consequence”
In a literary environment of post modernistic fancy and very little realism, it is rewarding to find a book that shows us the “here and now, the specific action, and the verifiable consequences” In this case I believe the Gulf War to be that action and the lives depicted its “verifiable consequence.” Even the sense of an impoverishment of spirit and money, is indirectly connected to the Gulf War and its impact on ordinary Americans.
Done artfully and authentically, STOP HERE is a remarkable novel.