Jun 26

“My Mourning Year”: Therapist’s Own Grief Process

Andrew Marshall is best known for his self-help books, but his memoir demonstrates that mental health, even for experts in the field of psychology, is a universal struggle. Failed counseling sessions, spontaneous vacations, and romantic dates are all attempts Marshall makes in order to move past “the black holes of Thom.” Zane DeZeeuw, Lambda Literary, reviewing My Mourning Year

Although known in the United Kingdom as a top-notch couples therapist and author of 18 self-help books, Andrew Marshall‘s My Mourning Year: A Memoir of Bereavement, Discovery and Hope, about the death 20 years ago of his partner, may be his best writing, according to Zane DeZeeuw, Lambda Literary.

My Mourning Year is an almost unedited version of the diary he kept following Thom’s death. “He does not offer steps or guidance for how to navigate the mourning process; instead, Marshall uses his experience as anecdotal evidence that a person can survive and learn to live again after being affected by a tragedy.”

As Marshall explains in a Telegraph article, “When my partner Thom died 20 years ago, he was just 43 and I was only 37. I did not have the first idea how to cope with the grief that enveloped me.”

By publishing such a personal book, going against the usual privacy he’s maintained throughout his career, Marshall states, “I want to show that there is no right or wrong way to grieve and everybody – even therapists – make mistakes.”

One significant point Marshall makes in My Mourning Year (and I will continue to quote from Telegraph) is that “Bereavement has the knack of finding the fault lines in your life and blowing them apart. It exposed that my parents were not entirely comfortable with me being gay and I was not comfortable with their polite but distant way of showing they cared.” He needed to take some space from them.

And, adds Marshall, “the most important message of all: grief does not work to a conventional clock. Sometimes it feels like 20 months since Thom died and I still find new things to mourn. (Just recently, I wept about never getting to know him as an old man.) At other times, Thom’s death seems so long ago that it happened to someone else – perhaps because I’m not the same man I was 20 years ago.”

In the aftermath of Thom’s death there were certain things that failed to make Marshall feel better: a rebound relationship, for example—also counseling, it turns out. He actually tried it twice. This “was particularly upsetting because up to then, I’d thought of therapy as the holy grail. The problem was partly me. Just as doctors are terrible patients, therapists make terrible clients.”

(My own take on that latter statement is that it’s overly generalized and certainly not always true. I’ll accept, of course, that he is a therapist and that he feels he made a terrible client.)

Some of the things that did help Marshall’s grief process included the catharsis involved in attending theater, learning to be assertive about specific needs, taking a course in something new to him, and a one-year death anniversary dinner shared with close friends.

Eventually, moreover, he mended the rift with his parents that Thom’s death had provoked. Too, he was able to love again:

Bereavement is a wake-up call that none of us immortal. So I worked hard on improving my relationship with my parents and they have not only learnt to accept me but came to my wedding, two years ago, with joy in their hearts.
Perhaps this is the reality of mourning: you never get over the loss, but if you allow it to open you up to new experiences, you can transform your life into something that might be different, but still rewarding and meaningful.

Feb 24

“No Good Card for This”: Empathy to the Rescue

Uhh…wow. Let me know if there’s anything I can do? “Most of us, most of the time” when receiving word that a loved one is suffering, say authors Emily McDowell and Dr. Kelsey Crowe, There’s No Good Card for This

It’s indeed a common line. And not so helpful.

We often say the wrong things to people who are suffering and/or grieving, something Emily McDowell‘s popular line of “Empathy Cards” has aimed to improve upon. Some examples of her cards’ captions:

When life gives you lemons I won’t tell you a story about my cousin’s friend who died of lemons.

I promise never to refer to your illness as a “journey.”

Unless someone takes you on a cruise.

The Five Stages of Grief:

Crying in public

Crying in the car

Crying alone while watching TV

Crying at work

Crying when you’re a little drunk

Combine McDowell’s humorous caring sentiments with the skills of Dr. Kelsey Crowe‘s “Empathy Bootcamps” and you’ve now got a book—There Is No Good Card for This: What to Say and Do When Life Is Scary, Awful, and Unfair to People You Love—teaching us how to be there for loved ones in need.

Both McDowell and Crowe are cancer survivors; each understands first-hand how others struggle to do or say the right thing. McDowell, on the standard sympathy cards not cutting it for her. “You still appreciate humor, you are still a whole person. There wasn’t really anything in greeting card world that allowed for that” (Ashley Strickland, CNN).

The “Empathy” line McDowell eventually created are “cards for the relationships we really have.” And these have struck a major chord with buyers.

McDowell decided she’d like to help people even further, so she sought an expert to help her craft a book that’s “whiskey for the wounded” versus chicken soup for the soul (Siran Babayan, Los Angeles Weekly).

One of the key ways to figure out what to say to someone, McDowell tells NPR, comes from listening.

…I think a lot of what we go into in the book is that we operate under the assumption that we need to find the right words, and the good news is that Oprah can’t even do that. Nobody can do that. And so you kind of are off the hook in that really all you need to say is, ‘I’m here,’ and ‘I’m thinking about you,’ and ‘How are you doing today?’ and then let the person talk.

As Alex Ronan (Slate) observes, being able to offer the right kind of listening isn’t a strong suit for many. So the authors offer some guidance, including a piece called “What Kind of Non-Listener Are You?”

For example, the Epidemiologist non-listener ‘asks a lot of clarifying, fact-based questions before learning how someone is feeling’ while the Sage ‘gives wise perspective and advice…when it wasn’t asked for’ and the Optimist ‘always offers a bright-sided perspective.’

Strickland of CNN summarizes other significant points of There Is No Good Card for This, which I’m totally paraphrasing below:

  • Avoid doing nothing. Offer something specific you can do versus the standard and not so helpful “let me know if there’s anything I can do.”
  • Take the time to carefully consider what it is you really can offer.
  • Try to learn about the process of grief.
  • Avoid making it about yourself.
  • Problem-solving isn’t the goal here.
  • People appreciate such simple gestures as listening and texting.
Dec 23

“Manchester by the Sea”: Parenting Unexpected

Manchester by the Sea, featuring the highly praised performance of Casey Affleck, is the “best movie of the year,” states Rex Reed, New York Observer. And as of this writing it’s a rarely seen 8.5 on IMDB and 97% on Rotten Tomatoes.

Although I found it to be longish, slowish, and above all utterly sad—the latter of which was repeatedly attested to by Affleck himself in his recent and humorous SNL monologue—it’s certainly worth seeing.

Basic info about Manchester by the Sea from A.A. Dowd, AVClub:

Casey Affleck, in the great internal performance of his career, plays Lee Chandler, a withdrawn handyman scraping by in Quincy, a suburb of Boston. Lee is the kind of miserable bastard who’d rather sucker-punch a stranger at the bar than go home with the beautiful woman trying to pick him up. Who is this broken man? What eats at his heart and swims behind his eyes? The questions hang like storm clouds over the early scenes, a solitary life told in odd jobs and punchlines: Lee shoveling snow, Lee screwing in a lightbulb, Lee unclogging a toilet for a tenant who has the hots for him. Frances Ha editor Jennifer Lame gives this opening passage a certain comic pop, until a phone call sends Lee racing to his hometown of Manchester By The Sea—but not fast enough to say goodbye to his older brother, Joe (Kyle Chandler), who’s just died of the degenerative heart condition he’s been afflicted with for years…

Lee becomes legal guardian to his 16-year-old nephew Patrick (Lucas Hedges). April Wolfe, Village Voice:

That prompts a string of flashback sequences, where Lee seems an altogether different man; he’s jovial, physically affectionate, has a wife (Michelle Williams) and three kids. The impact is immediate — we now understand that something has happened to make him so cold, and it certainly cannot be good…

Rex Reed, New York Observer, regarding Patrick:

It’s wrenching to observe the values of a boy too young for a driver’s license, sensitive, witty and highly intelligent enough to cope with his father’s death and the challenging alternative of living with a neurotic, estranged mother (Gretchen Mol) who lives in Connecticut with her emotionally blocked and religiously obsessed second husband (Matthew Broderick).

The Trailer for Manchester by the Sea

Various Themes

A.O. Scott, New York Times: “It’s a masculine melodrama that doubles as a fable of social catastrophe…”

Matt Zoller Seitzrogerebert.com:

It’s a story about the complexity of forgiveness—not just forgiving other people who’ve caused you pain, but forgiving yourself for inflicting pain on others. It’s a story about parenting, of the biological, foster and improvised kind. And it’s a portrait of a tightly knit community that depends mainly on one industry, fishing, and that has evolved certain ways of speaking, thinking, and feeling.

A.A. DowdAVClub: “Are there experiences so crushing that they ruin you forever? That’s the big question Lonergan asks, and we wait hopefully for a charitable answer.”

Selected Reviews

Kenneth Turan, Los Angeles Times: “…heartbreaking yet somehow heartening, a film that just wallops you with its honesty, its authenticity and its access to despair.”

Rex Reed, New York Observer: “…a triumphant exploration of the way real people think and feel about grief, loss, love and survival that will stick in your gut and cling to your heart long after the final frame fades to black.”

Andrew Lapin, NPR:

a sprawling work that revels in its messiness, because being uncertain and uncomfortable and not knowing whether to laugh or cry when something happens is the real grist of humanity. One of the film’s final lines is ‘Do we have to talk about this now?’ But that’s what Manchester captures so beautifully about life: it’s a series of difficult conversations we’d rather avoid, about death and family and responsibility, and the ones that matter are with the people we love, or once loved, or will learn to love someday…

Nov 23

“Louder Than Bombs”: Deception in Grief

Louder Than Bombs is interested in the intersection between grief and memory, and how difficult it is to capture both either through photography or film. Brian Tallerico, rogerebert.com

Looking for an intense dysfunctional-family drama over your Thanksgiving break? I mean, besides at home? David Rooney, Hollywood Reporter, sets up the plot of Joachim Trier‘s 2015 Louder Than Bombs, seemingly overlooked in theaters but now available on DVD:

Three years after the death of celebrated war photographer Isabelle Reed (Isabelle Huppert), a major exhibition is being planned and her longtime colleague Richard (David Strathairn) is writing a New York Times feature pegged to the opening. We learn via a quick montage of award speeches, interviews and news reports that Isabelle did her best work by remaining in conflict zones after the tanks pulled out, in order to capture the consequences of war. It’s also revealed that she died not in the field but shortly after retiring, in a road accident just a few miles from her home in Nyack, New York.

Richard respectfully informs Isabelle’s widower, Gene (Gabriel Byrne), that he intends to reveal the full circumstances of her death in the profile; it’s believed that she drove deliberately into an oncoming truck. Gene asks for time to tell his withdrawn youngest son Conrad (Devin Druid), who was just 12 when his mother died and has been spared any knowledge of her apparent suicide. Conrad’s older brother Jonah (Jesse Eisenberg) takes a break from his wife, his new baby and his college professor job to come sort through Isabelle’s studio for material from her final trip to Syria to be included in the show.

Jesse Cataldo, Slant: “…(D)espite its status as the emotional and narrative center of the film, the exact nature of Isabelle’s death is never clarified. Possible scenarios are glimpsed via the daydreams of one character, and discussed obliquely by others, but precise explanations are avoided.”

The trailer:

Themes and Meaning

Bilge Ebiri, Village Voice: “A fractured film about a fractured family, Louder Than Bombs takes a potentially tired premise and reshapes it before our eyes…a story of parents and children in which we’re pulled by the currents and countercurrents of desperation, depression, and love.”

Sasha Stone, The Wrap: “…(W)hat are we obligated to tell our loved ones? What are we obligated to tell our wives to prevent their getting hurt by the things we do? What are the benefits of deception? What is the eventual harm?”

Oliver Lyttelton, The Playlist: “None of these characters are being entirely truthful to each other, or to those in their orbit. The three Reed men talk (or in Conrad’s case, don’t), but are incapable of communication, and their grief remains in stasis as a result.”

Selected Reviews

Michael O’Sullivan, Washington Post: “Along with his regular co-writer Eskil Vogt, Trier has crafted a profoundly beautiful and strange meditation on secrets, lies, dreams, memories and misunderstanding.”

Michael Rose, Huffington Post: “Some might fault Trier for tackling subjects about people who appear to have it all. In ‘Louder Than Bombs,’ the angst of the upper middle class becomes universal as Trier takes us into their struggle to find what it takes to hold a family together.”

Guy Lodge, Time Out :

This is the stuff of unapologetic melodrama, artfully structured in such a way that the rotating stories inform and enhance each other even when only one character is in focus: absence is a presence, and that doesn’t refer only to the missing mother in the family. Yet the emotional conclusions here can be a little pat, and catharsis too easily come by. It’s more cautiously sound-proofed than its title implies. Only when Huppert’s on screen does the film feel it could detonate at any moment.

Aug 01

“Captain Fantastic”: Leading A Lifestyle of Protest

He Prepared Them For Everything Except The Outside World. Tagline for Captain Fantastic

Matt Ross‘s indie film Captain Fantastic is not as its title might suggest. Not a comic-book-style action hero, Viggo Mortensen‘s lead character Ben Cash is actually the patriarch of an alternatively raised family in the Pacific Northwest.

Manohla Dargis, New York Times, sets up the plot:

For years, [Ben] and his ailing dream of a wife, Leslie (Trin Miller), have been living with their six kids…on a compound where they have thrived beautifully without electricity, a sewer line or trend alerts about the Kardashians. By day, Ben teaches and trains the children, racing them through the woods like Olympians or Special Forces soldiers. At night, the family plays music together and reads by firelight — leafing through books one page at a time — before bedding down in the communal tepee…

Ben and Leslie have opted to live in seclusion as a matter of principle, having embraced protest as an ideal. At its loftiest, their profound seclusion suggests that they’re spiritual and philosophical heirs to an isolationist like Henry Thoreau; at worst, it suggests fanaticism, cultishness, selfishness…

Instead of holidays like Christmas, the Cash family celebrates Noam Chomsky Day. By way of introducing the noted social philosopher here, one sampling I found of Chomsky is quite relevant to today’s political theater: “The more you can increase fear of drugs, crime, welfare mothers, immigrants and aliens, the more you control all of the people.”

A quote that becomes germane to Captain Fantastic and is voiced by a well-learned Cash child: “If you assume that there is no hope, you guarantee that there will be no hope. If you assume that there is an instinct for freedom, that there are opportunities to change things, then there is a possibility that you can contribute to making a better world.”

David Edelstein, Vulture: “You could actually think of the movie as Noam Chomsky’s Little Miss Sunshine.”

Let me explain further…

A major turning point early on involves a crisis regarding Leslie’s mental health. We learn she’s been away for months in order to get help for her bipolar disorder—but soon enough we also find out she’s killed herself. Not fans of Ben’s influence on their daughter, her parents (Frank Langella and Ann Dowd) bar him from the funeral, which becomes yet another thing to protest.

Justin Chang, Los Angeles Times: “...(T)he Cashes decide to steer their bus toward the big city, crash Mom’s church funeral and honor her wish to be cremated in a Buddhist ceremony.”

A brief summary of what ensues (Alonso DuraldeThe Wrap):

Just when you think the film is smugly poising Ben’s rebel-outsider mentality against the close-mindedness of his late wife’s parents, ‘Captain Fantastic’ steps up and acknowledges that some of Ben’s parenting techniques might actually be endangering his own children, and it makes the case that home-schooling and living off the land can be great and valuable, but socialization skills can come in handy as well.

Stephanie Zacharek, Time: “When Ben realizes that in trying to prepare his children for everything he may have prepared them for nothing, it’s as if we can see right into his crushed soul. It’s also the moment he becomes most human: at some point, all kids have to learn that parents are people too.”

Watch the trailer for Captain Fantastic below:

A FEW CLOSING THOUGHTS

Leah Greenblatt, Entertainment Weekly: “…(T)he movie truly belongs to Mortensen; fierce and tender and tremendously flawed, he’s fantastic.”

Stephen Rea, Philadelphia Inquirer: “It’s a rare movie that asks such big questions – about parenting, about family, about modern-day America – and comes up with answers that are moving and meaningful, that make you laugh and cry.”

Stephanie Zacharek, Time: “So where’s the line between rigid parental standards and possible abuse? Captain Fantastic crab-walks tentatively toward that question, and even though its conclusion feels rushed, the movie still works as a portrait of an unorthodox family that’s well adjusted in its own odd way.”