May 19

“A Quiet Passion”: Emily Dickinson’s Influences

A new Terence Davies film starring Cynthia NixonA Quiet Passion, examines poet Emily Dickinson‘s life (1830-1886) as a “troubled, reclusive genius” (Justin Chang, Los Angeles Times).

What was at the root of Dickinson’s isolation? Among the mental health conditions that have been speculated are social anxiety, depression, and bipolar disorder. No one really knows for certain, however.

Does A Quiet Passion represent her true story? Some say no, some say kinda, some say it may not matter so much. William Nicholson, Guardian:

Davies’s film is not biographically accurate, nor does it present a purely subjective vision of Emily. He has made his own…The dramatist controls the selection of material, and therefore the story he or she tells…In this case, where the subject is a poet, the test for me is: does the work send the viewer, the reader, back to the poems? If it does, then bring it all on.

In the film Dickinson is first seen in 1848, says Chang, when she (played by a younger actress) is “being expelled from Mount Holyoke College, where her refusal to submit herself to God in the expected manner has earned her the label of ‘no-hoper’. The relative good humor with which her Protestant family greets this news is telling, as is a terrifically funny later scene in which Emily, her parents (Keith Carradine and Joanna Bacon) and her siblings spar with a morally upright aunt (a delightful Annette Badland).”

Nixon then takes the lead role. According to Ella Taylor, NPR, “…No one would call Nixon’s Emily Dickinson a happy camper, but this is a riot grrl for her time, taking charge of her destiny and, in her tortured, compulsively honest way, her soul.”

Lindsey Bahr, Associated Press, summarizes what ensues in A Quiet Passion:

…Jennifer Ehle is her sister Vinnie and Duncan Duff is her brother Austin. There is still vigor and energy in all, but life has tempered that a bit. Emily finds a lively companion in Vryling Buffam (Catherine Bailey), who is even more modern than Emily. But Vryling manages to delight in the silly constrictions of their society where Emily is deeply conflicted and tormented by pressures of piety, decorum and what she feels is right.

And the world only seems to disappoint Emily as time goes on. Some of her poems are published, but not enough. She falls madly in love with a married pastor, but he does not return her affections. Her married brother falls for another woman. Her health begins to fail. And then there’s death, which looms everywhere.

About death, that notable Dickinsonian thread, A.A. Dowd, AVClub:

Death haunted Dickinson’s thoughts, and especially her work; she found beautiful ways to convey a lifelong anxiety, instilled as early as childhood, when the passing of a second cousin struck her with an incurable case of melancholy…What’s surprising about A Quiet Passion, given the writer-director’s own incurable melancholy, is how lively, how flat-out funny, it frequently is.

And another theme worth mentioning, autonomy:

Without sinking into total pop psychology, A Quiet Passion recognizes a desire for independence as a driving motivation. This applies not just to her rejection of organized religion’s demands…but also to her decision never to marry—though Davies, who’s been open about his own lifelong rejection of romance, doesn’t deny the resulting sting of loneliness…

The trailer, which contains excerpts of praise from critics, follows below:

May 17

Teen Suicide: How Friends and Peers Can Cope

Teen suicide as depicted, for example, in the current Netflix hit 13 Reasons Why is devastating for the surviving friends and peers. Some survivors will feel guilt specific to certain actions or inactions, and others will feel confused and self-questioning, wondering what they could’ve done to help. For various reasons, some will even consider self-harm.

Where can teen survivors turn for help? For starters, 13 Reasons Why offers a link to Crisis Information, indicated in their 30-minute “Beyond the Reasons” episode featuring the cast, showrunners, and therapists addressing important issues. The following is a sampling:


The Society for the Prevention of Teen Suicide also offers resources. Here are their suggestions for how teens can cope in the immediate aftermath of a friend’s death by suicide:

  • “The first, last, and middle thing to remember is that you are not alone…”
  • “One of the ways to help yourself is to talk about how you feel. It doesn’t have to be one of those heart-to-heart conversations that gets real emotional way too quickly…”
  • “Reach out to the people who know you…”
  • “You will probably spend a lot of time trying to figure out what happened – why your friend did this. You may even think you know, and you’ll probably hear a lot of gossip and rumors from other people who think they know too. Try to remember that the truth behind every suicide is pretty complicated – there’s always more than one reason a person chooses to take his life. And even if a lot of what you know and hear turns out to be true, all the facts that drive someone to make this desperate decision are like one of those equations in algebra with a mysterious ‘X.’ In the suicide equation, the only person who knows what that ‘X’ really means is the person who died…”
  • “Kids tell us that when someone they know dies by suicide, they sometimes feel responsible, like there was something they should have done to prevent what happened…It may be hard to accept the fact that the only person any of us is responsible for is ourselves….”
  • “Let’s say that maybe you were mean to the kid who died. Maybe you teased him or bullied him or ignored him. You can’t take back what you did, but you can learn from it…”
  • “You may hear other people saying mean things about your friend. Or maybe they’ll joke about the fact that he died by suicide. These kinds of responses might get you really mad. It may help to remember that a lot of people are so uncomfortable when someone dies by suicide that they say stupid, untrue, and unkind things…Staying calm and reasonable is a better way to try to get people to listen to the truth.”
  • “Sometimes, when someone we know dies by suicide, we may find ourselves thinking about suicide, too. It’s kinda like, ‘If he could do it, maybe I will too…’ Again, normal reaction, but scary reaction. If you find yourself having these kind of thoughts, it is really important to talk with an adult you trust…”
  • “You may want to do something to remember your friend, something to show that you cared about him and that he was important in your life…[Some may] see these memorials and think, ‘Hey, if I die, then at least the school will pay attention to me, remember me in a cool way.’ It may sound crazy but it is absolutely true and contributes to something called suicide imitation or contagion…There are safe things to do that don’t feed into the contagion thing.”
  • “Last thing to know – it does get better. Getting back close to normal takes as long as it takes…”

Among books deemed helpful is educator Marilyn E. Gootman‘s When a Friend Dies: A Book for Teens About Grieving & Healing.

May 15

Excuses Vs. Explanations: One Shows Responsibility

It is better to offer no excuse than a bad one. George Washington

Don’t you sometimes want to know the reasons you did or felt something in particular? Or is it that you just want to make excuses? You know that explanation for bad behavior you just heard from someone else? Is it really an excuse in disguise? Or did that person truly want to get something across to you that could matter?

To clarify the semantics, an excuse usually is not about taking responsibility. Rather, it tends to arise when one is feeling defensive; it’s meant to deflect from blame. An explanation, on the other hand, is usually offered as part of the process of achieving personal insight and actually wanting to be understood by others.

Excuses are common. We’ve all made them. Example: Years ago I taught a course in which an adult student with no paper to hand in tried out the old line, “The dog ate my homework.” That’s typically an attempt, of course, to cover up the lack of time and work invested in an assignment. My retort, by the way: “Bring me the dog.”

An explanation from the student, on the other hand, might have involved an honest reason the homework didn’t get done and acceptance of appropriate consequences.

As Susan Krauss Whitbourne, PhD, asserts in a Psychology Today post, “The Only Excuse You’ll Ever Need (Or Should Ever Use)” is whatever the truth of the matter happens to be. Simple, but not always easy.

She and others cite research, however, indicating that excuse-making sometimes does work—though in this context an excuse is actually an explanation. Confused yet? Amy Nordrum (Psychology Today):

An analysis by Gettysburg College psychologist Christopher P. Barlett indicates that if you’ve done something to annoy someone, a thoughtful excuse—like ‘I’m sorry, I’ve been feeling really irritable today’—can stave off retaliatory feelings. Another study finds that in dealing with complaints, businesses can make a problem feel less serious to customers by deploying an excuse…

The most effective excuses accomplish one of two things: They either gracefully express one’s responsibility and offer reassurance that the mishap won’t happen again, or they explain that the situation was out of one’s hands. They also show empathy for the resulting trouble and mirror the mood of the listener.

Nordrum actually offers a technique for making excuses called the ERROR Method:

  1. Empathy: “I hate that you [burden placed on person] because of me.”
  2. Responsibility: “I should have thought things out better,…”
  3. Reason: “… but I got caught up in [reason for behavior].”
  4. Offer Reassurance: “Next time I’ll [preventative action].”

It then falls on the receiver of the excuse to determine if it feels acceptable. Is the speaker being honest? Really trying to be understood? Or used to engaging in a pattern of getting out of things?

How do you figure it out? You might try digging deeper. Ask more questions. Or wait and see.

May 11

“Lost Marbles”: Living with “Depression & Bipolar”

This is the book that medical students should read, not the DSM. Jim Phelps, MD, reviewing Lost Marbles: Insights into My Life with Depression & Bipolar

Part memoir, part self-help, Natasha Tracy‘s Lost Marbles: Insights into My Life with Depression & Bipolar, is a collection of articles she’s written that have previously been posted at Bipolar Burble and Breaking Bipolar over the course of several years.

Quotes excerpted from an interview Leslie Lindsay conducted with the author:

One of my strengths, I feel, is to write about mental illness in a way that is real, honest, gritty and not sugar-coated. I say the things that people with mental illness think but don’t have the words to express. This is why people identify with my work so strongly.

I don’t believe in the concept of “stigma” per se. What I believe in fighting is prejudice and the inevitable discrimination that follows it. I believe that by making people with mental illness three-dimensional people with real emotions and real struggles, we actually start to sound just like everyone else – just amplified.

[If diagnosed with bipolar disorder]…(I)t’s important to know that the world is not ending, there will be a tomorrow and there is an innate you that will not disappear. That said, the world, the tomorrows and even you, will change in response to the illness. Again, this is normal and natural. Most people never get back to a pre-bipolar state.

There are many things a newly-diagnosed person can do. Firstly, it’s important to get the best bipolar specialist psychiatrist and therapist one can find and create a treatment plan that makes sense for the individual. Then the treatment plan must be followed. It’s also important to lean on loved ones during this time as they will connect a person to who he or she really is.

It’s an unfortunate truth that for many in the United States the cost of medication is very high. That said, the drugs, while laden with issues like side effects, save lives every day. Many people would have taken their lives without these medications. Yes, there is no doubt that they are expensive and have other associated issues, but when it comes down to life or death, a functional life or a life spent in psychosis, there is no doubt that they are still worth it.

Some helpful resources suggested by Tracy in the interview:

If you want a sampling of Tracy’s writing before getting Lost Marbles, here are just a few good choices:

For further info go to Tracy’s YouTube page.

May 08

“No One Cares About Crazy People”: As True As Ever

[Ron] Powers intends for the book to comfort families dealing with severe mental illness, to shock general readers with examples of atrocities befalling the mentally ill, to show that “crazy people” are rarely dangerous to anybody but themselves, and to push for significant reform. “I hope you do not ‘enjoy’ this book,” he writes in the preface. “I hope you are wounded by it; wounded as I have been writing it. Wounded to act, to intervene.” Kirkus Reviews, about No One Cares About Crazy People: The Chaos and Heartbreak of Mental Health in America (2017)

No One Cares About Crazy People was written before all the recent outrageous attempts to decimate the Affordable Care Act. Just imagine the additional things author Ron Powers could say now.

Powers writes about his two sons afflicted with schizophrenia. “For his son Kevin, that struggle ended in suicide, and the heartbreak of that experience (among others) permeates every impersonal date and statistic in the book with sorrow and rage” (Shelf Awareness). Son Dean is still in treatment.

As told to Terry Gross (NPR), “There is no greater…feeling of helplessness than to watch two beloved sons deteriorate before [your] eyes, not knowing what to do to bring them back.”

A brief explanation for the title as well as a book synopsis, per Publishers Weekly:

This resounding rebuke to scornful attitudes toward the mentally ill takes its title from a notably insensitive 2010 email exchange between high-level staffers of Scott Walker during his run for Wisconsin governor. Using that moment as a touchstone of indifference, Powers…weaves a dual tale of the personal and the political. In one thread, he traces the history of public efforts to ameliorate (or, more often, hide) the plight of those living with mental illness, from London’s infamous Bedlam in the 18th and 19th centuries, where wealthy visitors were charged admission to gawk at the inmates, to America’s present-day prison-industrial complex. In the other, he tells his own family’s heartrending story of grappling with disease…

Although drug therapy can be helpful, Powers believes, “(h)e recognizes that ‘Big Pharma’ has made money distributing drugs of questionable usefulness” (Margaret Quamme, The Columbus Dispatch).

A couple things Powers deems pointedly not helpful:

  • Deinstitutionalization: Many inpatient facilities closed in the 1960’s in favor of caring for patients in community mental health centers. If well-meaning, it also failed many who wound up in prisons.
  • Anosognosia (“The false conviction within a person that nothing is wrong with his mind”) is ignored by laws that prevent involuntary commitment to mental health facilities.

If indeed “no one cares about crazy people,” Powers means people other than their loved ones, of course. From Shelf Awareness: “For the families of the mentally ill…caring about ‘crazy people’ is a necessity. In roughly alternating chapters, Powers allows us to watch his sons grow up, dealing with the challenges of incipient schizophrenia as well as tragic events that shape their young minds. All the while, Powers movingly relates the joys of raising creatively gifted children.”

The critique by Ron Suskind, New York Times, offers a fitting conclusion for this post:

No doubt if everyone were to read this book, the world would change. But its clumsy title…is painfully correct. The mentally ill are still viewed with fear or suspicion, as broken, as damaged goods or objects of pity. Still, Powers will surely help to correct that perspective; it’s impossible to read his book without being overcome by empathy for his family, respect for his two beleaguered boys and, by the end, faith in the resilience of the human heart.