Dec 13

“The Art of Misdiagnosis”: Investigating a Mom’s Suicide

All I can really do is write my own misdiagnosis of your life. Gayle Brandeis, author of The Art of Misdiagnosis

So states Gayle Brandeis, author of The Art of Misdiagnosis: Surviving My Mother’s Suicide, in this brief trailer to her new book:

The book’s title takes its name from the documentary Brandeis’s 70-year-old mother Arlene was working on “about the rare illnesses she thought ravaged her family: porphyria and Ehlers-Danlos syndrome.”

“Whether they were psychosomatically induced or not,” states Kirkus Reviews, “Arlene attested that the illnesses had been repeatedly dismissed or misdiagnosed by the medical community; even the author herself admits to suffering, as a teenager, from a combination of malingering and factitious disorder.” (See this link and this one for definitions of these conditions.)

In an interview with Mutha Magazine, Brandeis states the following about the origins of her book The Art of Misdiagnosis:

My therapist suggested writing a letter to my mom (such great advice!) and that became a thread of the book. The time around her suicide begged to be told in present tense. And as I dug through our old emails and files and the like, certain pieces jumped out at me as needing to be part of the narrative. It took a lot of time and finessing to fit the puzzle pieces together, but the pieces revealed themselves to me with bells on.

What was going on for Brandeis when she lost her mom? Melissa Wuske, Foreword Reviews:

Brandeis’s mother committed suicide one week after Brandeis had a baby. Those deeply contrasting experiences set the scene for the opening of this memoir: a daughter going through her mother’s things, trying to make sense of her death.

And this quest winds up involving a “compulsive, contagious need to know her mother and herself.”

As author Nick Flynn writes in his review: “John Cassavetes offers this: ‘When a character can’t find his way home, that’s where the story begins…’ Gayle Brandeis begins her story where it ends, then slowly—thoughtfully, painfully, lovingly—works her way back. It all circles around a handful of days, where everything happens—birth, death, truth, transformation.”

More about the overall process Brandeis experienced, from Kirkus Reviews:

Desperate for answers, she and her sister fruitlessly scoured their mother’s bedroom, which, much like the woman herself, appeared ‘lovely and elegant on the surface, total chaos underneath.’ The author’s reality soon became even more complex: she wrestled with the grief of her mother’s sudden death, processed her complicated history of paranoia, suspicion, and delusions, and nurtured her newborn. This frustration bleeds into the text as Brandeis recounts episodes where her mother’s inexplicable accusations wreaked havoc on her pregnancy and her marriage. The author then reveals her mother’s history of psychosis, which seemed to stem from the author’s pregnancies, with which Arlene became obsessed.

Author Caroline Leavitt‘s review:

Deeply compassionate, and breathtakingly brave, Brandeis’ memoir is a raw, unflinching trip down a rabbit hole, unspooling both the chaotic life of her mentally unbalanced mother, and how her mother’s obsession with physical illness crash-landed Brandeis’ own life—and health—from girlhood to marriage and motherhood. About the stories we desperately need to make of our lives in order to survive, and how the body sometimes speaks what the mind dare not, this is also an extraordinarily moving portrait of a troubled mother, and of the daughter who fearlessly, poetically, writes her way into discovering her truest self. Truthfully, I am in awe.

On her website Brandeis provides resources for others dealing with suicide. 

Dec 11

“Mostly Straight”: Men Experiencing Sexual Fluidity

We hear a lot about the Big Three Sexualities — straight, bisexual and gay. Most of us assume that these three orientations encompass the universe of sexual identities. But there is a new kid on the block: The mostly straight male. Ritch C. Savin-Williams, author of Mostly Straight: Sexual Fluidity Among Men

The followup sentence in developmental psychologist Ritch C. Savin-Williams‘s new book (excerpt available at Time):

To the uninitiated, mostly straight may seem paradoxical. How can a man be mostly heterosexual? If you’re a young man, you might assume that either you’re straight or you’re not, meaning you’re likely gay and maybe bisexual. Yet the evidence suggests that more young men identify or describe themselves as mostly straight than identify as either bisexual or gay combined.

Key to this revelation is a social climate in which a researcher can ask the right question, and some men can feel open enough to admit their truth. “However,” writes Katherine Heaney, Cornell Daily Sun, “when Savin-Williams asked these young men if they have told people that they are ‘mostly straight,’ most of them said no.”

“This is far less of a matter of embarrassment, Savin-Williams said, but mainly because it is not a recognized term so they do not think people would understand what they mean.”

The author’s research involved 40 young men, mostly students at Cornell where he teaches, who described themselves as mostly straight. Additional description of what this means:

The mostly straight man belongs to a growing trend of young men who are secure in their heterosexuality yet remain aware of their potential to experience far more. Perhaps he’s felt attracted to or fantasized about another guy to a slight degree or intermittently. He might or might not be comfortable with this seeming contradiction, a hetero guy who, despite his lust for women, rejects a straight label, a sexual category and a sexual description that feels foreign. He’d rather find another place on the sexual/romantic continuum, some location that fits him more comfortably.

In a recent article in The Cut, Savin-Williams identifies his major findings, summarized by me below:

  • About 5 to 10 percent of males will use the mostly straight label if given a choice to do so.
  • These men aren’t “closet cases,” i.e., they are not gay.
  • They are more open to the possibility of a gay attraction than men who see themselves as straight, but it doesn’t mean they lean heavily in that direction.
  • In the lab mostly straight men exhibited physiological evidence of attractions to men.

Notably, a comparable 2008 book regarding women’s sexuality, written by psychology professor and researcher Lisa M. Diamond, PhD, has also been covered on this blog (see “Sexual Fluidity” by Lisa Diamond: New Thoughts About Identity) and was actually reviewed by Savin-Williams.

About Diamond’s Sexual Fluidity: Understanding Women’s Love and Desire: “Probably the most surprising finding of the study was how often women changed the way that they thought about their sexual identity over time,” she told Big Think. Rather than stability of identity, the norm was changeability of identity, often back and forth.

Dec 07

“The Silence Breakers” Trump Trumpism

An excerpt from Time‘s article on “The Silence Breakers,” who’ve been named TIME Person of the Year 2017:

This reckoning appears to have sprung up overnight. But it has actually been simmering for years, decades, centuries. Women have had it with bosses and co-workers who not only cross boundaries but don’t even seem to know that boundaries exist. They’ve had it with the fear of retaliation, of being blackballed, of being fired from a job they can’t afford to lose. They’ve had it with the code of going along to get along. They’ve had it with men who use their power to take what they want from women. These silence breakers have started a revolution of refusal, gathering strength by the day, and in the past two months alone, their collective anger has spurred immediate and shocking results: nearly every day, CEOs have been fired, moguls toppled, icons disgraced. In some cases, criminal charges have been brought.

Trump came in second, disproving his previous boast that he’d be Person of the Year. As Rachel Withers at Slate noted in her headline, “Time’s 2017 Person of the Year Isn’t Trump. It’s a Rebuke of Trump.” And of Trumpism, I might add.

Who are “The Silence Breakers”? Those on the cover represent the many who’ve boldly come forth with recent allegations against powerful men who abuse and “include actress Ashley Judd, singer Taylor Swift, former Uber engineer Susan Fowler, Visa lobbyist Adama Iwu, Mexican agricultural worker Isabel Pascual, and one woman whose face cannot be seen” (Vox), who represents the many more victims who are not comfortable being named.

And it’s not only women who’ve been harassed and/or assaulted; some men are also represented.

Below are some of the most salient points made by writers Stephanie Zacharek, Eliana Dockterman, and Haley Sweetland Edwards in their Time “The Silence Breakers” essay.

Regarding Ashley Judd‘s admission that she previously hadn’t known how to report her alleged victimization by Harvey Weinstein:

When movie stars don’t know where to go, what hope is there for the rest of us? What hope is there for the janitor who’s being harassed by a co-worker but remains silent out of fear she’ll lose the job she needs to support her children? For the administrative assistant who repeatedly fends off a superior who won’t take no for an answer? For the hotel housekeeper who never knows, as she goes about replacing towels and cleaning toilets, if a guest is going to corner her in a room she can’t escape?

Almost everybody described wrestling with a palpable sense of shame. Had she somehow asked for it? Could she have deflected it? Was she making a big deal out of nothing?

Nearly all of the people TIME interviewed about their experiences expressed a crushing fear of what would happen to them personally, to their families or to their jobs if they spoke up.

Many of the people who have come forward also mentioned a different fear, one less visceral but no less real, as a reason for not speaking out: if you do, your complaint becomes your identity.

 “All social movements have highly visible precipitating factors,” says Aldon Morris, a professor of sociology at Northwestern University. “In this case, you had Harvey Weinstein, and before that you had Trump.”

In politics, at least, what constitutes disqualifying behavior seemed to depend not on your actions but on the allegiance of your tribe. In the 1990s, feminists stood up for accused abuser Bill Clinton instead of his ­accusers—a move many are belatedly regretting as the national conversation prompts a re-evaluation of the claims against the former President. And despite the allegations against Moore, both ­President Trump and the Republican National Committee support him.

Dec 06

“Three Billboards”: Female-Centric, Female-Reviewed

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, aptly called both “sorrowful and savagely funny” by Rolling Stone in its 10-best list for 2017, has one of the best story lines and some of the most interesting and complex characters and performances I’ve seen in a long time.

Most importantly, it has Frances McDormand in the lead. And in honor of rare female-centric films such as Three Billboards, I’ve decided to let this movie post be female-reviewer-centric as well.

Watch this trailer, which sets up the Three Billboards premise (and colorful language) really well:

Moira Macdonald, Seattle Times, describes the basic plot of Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri:

[McDormand] plays Mildred Hayes, a no-nonsense woman (she dresses, every day, in a navy-blue jumpsuit; the sort worn by plumbers or mechanics) who’s out for revenge. ‘I’m Angela Hayes’ mother,’ she says, in a voice so low you could jump over it. Her daughter, seven months ago, was raped and murdered by an unknown assailant; Mildred, frozen in clenched-jaw heartbreak, needs to know who to blame.

Mildred pays for three empty billboards to make the following statements:

    • “Raped While Dying.”
    • ″And Still No Arrests?”
    • ″How Come, Chief Willoughby?”

More about Mildred’s process, as expressed by Manohla Dargis, New York Times:

The billboards turn that grief into a weapon, a means of taking on the law and assorted men — a threatening stranger, a vigilante dentist and an abusive ex (John Hawkes) — who collectively suggest another wall that has closed Mildred in.

Dana Stevens, Slate, adds to our understanding of Mildred:

…(T)hough Mildred makes many choices that are reprehensible or downright dangerous, McDormand never fails to convince us of the fundamental decency of this woman, a tragic heroine struggling to find even the tiniest scrap of meaning in a comically awful world…Mildred is a tough person to be around…there are moments late in the movie when she commits acts that push at the limits of audience sympathy and goodwill. But McDormand, at age 60 one of our most gifted and least calculating actresses, fearlessly challenges us to love her character anyway.

How does the police department deal with Mildred? Kate Taylor, Globe and Mail: “The decent Willoughby (another finely crafted portrait of sympathetic masculinity from [Woody] Harrelson) tries to pacify her and rein in the most vicious of his officers, the explosively racist Dixon, played by Sam Rockwell in full psychopath mode.”

April Wolfe, LA Weeklyaddresses dynamics that ultimately may leave some viewers dissatisfied:

[Director] McDonagh painstakingly humanizes a character who we find has unapologetically tortured a black man in police custody. And then Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri seems to ask audiences to forgive and forget wrongs like police violence, domestic abuse and sexual assault without demonstrating a full understanding of the centuries-long toll these crimes have taken on victims in real life.

There’s another problematic issue too. The Globe and Mail’s Taylor: “If the film fails to solve Dixon’s emotional puzzle, another one that remains troubling is Mildred’s relationship with her teenage son, Robbie (Lucas Hedges), the only remnant of her family and link to her motherhood, yet apparently an afterthought in her crazed planning.”

Nevertheless, this is a movie, one with overall positive reviews, that makes you mull such things over. In closing:

...(T)here’s no better time than right now for a high-profile movie led by a meaty, complicated female character — and no better actress than McDormand to take it on. And you can put that on a billboard. Jocelyn Noveck, Associated Press, regarding Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

…just the bitter pill the times call for, offered with a loving cup to make it go down just a bit easier. Ann Hornaday, Washington Post

…a cathartic wail against the zeitgeist of rape culture and state brutality. It’s a rallying cry, a right hook to the jaw, and wow, does it ever hurt so good. Katie Walsh, Tribune News Service

Dec 04

Apologizing: Harriet Lerner Takes On Sorry, Not Sorry

The best apologies are short, and don’t go on to include explanations that run the risk of undoing them. An apology isn’t the only chance you ever get to address the underlying issue. The apology is the chance you get to establish the ground for future communication. This is an important and often overlooked distinction. Harriet Lerner, Why Won’t You Apologize?

Early this year relationship expert Dr. Harriet Lerner came out with Why Won’t You Apologize?: Healing Big Betrayals and Everyday Hurts, now out in paperback. Her previous TED talk had just a slightly different angle, “Why Won’t He Apologize?” It opened with an amusing anecdote about expecting her husband to offer up his deepest regrets after she unfairly reacted to a perceived, but perhaps petty, slight.

You can see it below:

We and all our relationships will surely be affected by hurts—and thus, with choices regarding apologizing. Lerner: “The only way to avoid being mistreated in this world is to fold up in a dark corner and stay mute. If you go outside, or let others in, you’ll get hurt many times. Ditto if you’ve grown up in a family rather than raised by wolves. Some people will behave badly and will not apologize, repair the harm, or care about your feelings.”

Why Won’t You Apologize? is for both the injured party and the injurer, covers non-apologizers (who usually suffer from low self-esteem) as well as over-apologizers, and so much more—including an essential topic she also wrote about in her Psychology Today blog, that “People won’t apologize if they’re feeling overly-accused or pushed to assume more than their fair share of the blame.”

Of course, as Neda Ulaby‘s recent NPR piece on Lerner’s book points out, info about apologizing is quite timely in this new era of individuals coming boldly forth with allegations of sexual harassment and assault by well-known figures.

From Ulaby’s article: “…Lerner says, ‘It’s not the words ‘I’m sorry’ that heal or soothe the harmed party. What the harmed party wants and needs to hear is an emotionally packed corroboration of the reality that occurred: ‘Yes, I get it. It was terrible. It was unconscionable. Your feelings make sense.’ ”

Furthermore, “Apologies do not excuse perpetrators from the consequences of their actions. And they do not compensate for a culture where women have less power and less privilege — and too many men have things to be sorry for.”

Other Pertinent Quotes from Lerner (Interview with Kathy Caprino, Forbes)

Little add-ons like “but” (I’m sorry I forget your birthday, but I was stressed out with work”) or “if” (“I’m sorry if that joke I made at the meeting offended you”) will turn your sorry into a not-sorry-at-all.

Bringing up the other person’s crime sheet  (“I apologize for yelling and now you apologize for provoking me”) is another common apology error.

A heartfelt apology means accepting responsibility for our mistakes without a hint of excuse making or evasion, even if the other person can’t do the same. Sure we may be convinced that we’re only 37% to blame, but we can save our different perspective for a future conversation where it can be a subject of conversation and not a defense strategy.

More than anything, the hurt party wants us to listen carefully to their feelings, to validate their reality, to feel genuine regret and remorse, to carry some of the pain we’ve caused, and to make reparations as needed. They want us to really “get it” and to make sure there will be no repeat performance.

You do not need to forgive in order to let go of the corrosive effects of negative emotions. And it’s not our job to encourage others to forgive. Pushing forgiveness can traumatize the hurt party all over again…It’s the last thing the injured party needs to hear.