May 29

“Joyful Recollections of Trauma” by Paul Scheer

Although I’ve been barely familiar with actor/comedian Paul Scheer, author of the new memoir Joyful Recollections of Trauma, his wife is June Diane Raphael, a favorite of mine since Grace and Frankie. Add to this that trauma was a therapy specialization of mine, throw in the kind of bittersweet title that never fails to attract me, and bingo: this post.

An excerpt of Joyful Recollections of Trauma (Vanity Fair) reveals that in childhood Scheer experienced abuse at the hands of his stepfather, Hunter. Scheer recounts the lack of help he and his mom received—from extended family, the community, and therapy.

Although his family’s inability to help was perhaps the most grievous for Scheer, the failure of the professionals is something I feel the need to highlight in this space.

After hearing about Scheer’s victimization, the family therapist said she’d call the police if Hunter was ever abusive again. She failed, however, to do so. “She treated him like she had caught a kid stealing an Oreo from the pantry. I had never felt more helpless. I knew she was never going to call the police, and I knew we were never going to family counseling again, because Hunter had gotten lucky, and he wasn’t going to double down on his good luck. We left that office and never returned, and the therapist never followed up with us.”

It was only when Scheer anonymously called Child Protective Services himself that the police did come to the house, accompanied by a counselor.

They interviewed Mom and Hunter together in the same room. It was like interviewing a kidnapper and kidnappee together: you aren’t going to get the true story. My mom was too scared to say anything. Plus the counselor never spoke to me. Suffice it to say, CPS didn’t find anything wrong—once again reinforcing the idea that if you live through it and have no scars, you’re fine and why complain. I often thought, Maybe one time he will break my arm or leg, then I can finally get some real help. But he never did. That was the trickiest thing about his violence: it didn’t leave any physically permanent marks.

On the brighter side, individual therapy proved to be effective when Scheer, left with severe anger and aggression issues into his adulthood, chose to try it out.

As he told interviewer Stuart Miller, Los Angeles Times, another helpful factor in his life was his move from his home state of New York to L.A..

It’s the self-help capital of the United States and people here do wild things. There’s a culture where people are fine talking about their issues and there’s a lack of judgment. Los Angeles is open to everything: scream therapy or this or that. They say, ‘My healer does this’ or ‘I’ve done this ceremony’ or ‘My myofascial release took out trauma.’ I have a friend who went to Peru and did ayahuasca and changed his life, but I also have friends who do ayahuasca in an afternoon around somebody’s pool and I say, ‘You’re just doing drugs.’

So L.A. has freed me of a certain amount of self-judgment.

Married with two kids and successful in his career, Scheer is truly a survivor. Kirkus Reviews sums up Joyful Recollections of Trauma: “He chronicles his journey through abuse and into the life he dreamed of to show how he did it: through therapy, self-acceptance, and prioritizing his family.” And Jack Probst, Paste, says, “He expertly balances the humor with heartfelt ruminations on resilience, personal growth, and parenthood. Scheer’s candid exploration of these themes makes the memoir relatable and profoundly moving, even as it keeps you laughing.”

Jan 17

“I, Tonya”: Role of Domestic Abuse and Society’s

Not only will [I, Tonya] make you think about Tonya Harding again, it will make you do so with unexpected sympathy. Christy Lemire, rogerebert.com, reviewing I, Tonya 

Although not every critic is fond of Craig Gillespie‘s I,Tonya, the reviews definitely skew highward, currently a 89% on Rotten Tomatoes. Much praise goes to Margot Robbie in the lead as well as to the supporting characters, including Allison Janney as Tonya’s cold, cruel mother.

The infamous Tonya Harding-related “Incident” against Nancy Kerrigan is presented in the film in light of Harding’s own victimization: from childhood abuse to marital abuse to classism to news media bias.

Leah Greenblatt (ew.com) sets up the story line:

In a sport of princesses, Tonya Harding was the perpetual toad: a trashy, too-brash outsider whose mind-blowing axels and sheer athleticism could never quite make up for the fact that she didn’t fit the demure, spangled mold of an ideal figure skater. Raised but hardly nurtured by a chain-smoking waitress (Allison Janney, a viper in Tootsie glasses and a mushroom-cap haircut), Tonya steadily clawed her way up the junior ranks, thanks mostly to pure willpower and the proxy parenting of a coach (Julianne Nicholson) who tried her best to steer her wild-card charge. What set Harding’s destiny, though, was the arrival of Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan), the dim-bulb paramour and protector whose wonky scheme to take down his wife’s rival Nancy Kerrigan would go down in Olympics infamy.

Owen Gleiberman, Variety: “It’s framed as a fake documentary (it opens with the characters being interviewed 20 years later), and it has a tone of poker-faced goofball Americana that suggests a biopic made by the Coen brothers.”

Christy Lemire, rogerebert.com: “…[Gillespie has] made a movie that’s affectionately mocking—of this theatrical sport, of the idiots who surrounded Harding, of this hideous moment in fashion and pop culture—without actually mocking Harding herself.”

But the intermittent humor isn’t received well by all critics. Richard Brody, New Yorker, for instance, sees “empathy…mixed with condescension; much of the movie’s bluff comedy mocks the tone and the actions of Tonya and her milieu.” And Manohla Dargis, New York Times, titles her review “‘I, Tonya.’ I, Punching Bag. I, Punch Line.”

I’m mixed on this myself. The humorous tone, though sometimes a helpful relief, wasn’t always enough to offset the disturbing effects of physical and emotional abuse continually being heaped on Harding.

How much of I, Tonya is truth? April Wolfe, Village Voice: “Gillespie doesn’t pretend to be definitive. Instead, he spins the tragedy of Tonya Harding and Nancy Kerrigan into a searing indictment of America’s obsession with ‘America’ and the ways that public opinion can be irreparably warped by sensationalist news media.”

Our images of both skaters have largely derived, notes Inkoo Kang, Slate, from that kind of media, which “remade the polished, graceful Kerrigan into a ‘princess’ and the brassy, unvarnished Harding into a ‘pile of crap’.”

Katie Walsh, Tribune News Service, offers this apt summary:

Toward the end…our heroine…drawls flatly: ‘The haters always say, Tonya, tell the truth. There’s no such thing as truth.’
Throughout the film, Rogers’ screenplay reminds us it’s not just ‘I, Tonya,’ but ‘We, Tonya.’ She endures years of abuse to make it to the top, but fame becomes her plight…In possibly the most searing indictment, Tonya, during an interview segment, looks directly into the camera and says, ‘It was like being abused all over again. Only this time it was by you … you’re all my attackers too.’

Watch the trailer below:

Oct 11

“Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?” Jeanette Winterson

Prolific novelist Jeanette Winterson, probably best known for her 1985 novel Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, has written a nonfiction book about herself called Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? I have to agree with a writer in The Huffington Post who called this “arguably one of the best titles for a memoir, ever.”

The title’s words Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal are those of “Mrs. Winterson,” the emotionally and physically abusive adoptive mother who strongly disapproved of the author’s teen romance with another female. “I was sixteen and my mother was about to throw me out of the house forever, for breaking a very big rule…The rule was not just No Sex, but definitely No Sex With Your Own Sex.” I mean, Why be happy when you could be normal? 

If there’s indeed such a choice to be made, it seems that Winterson goes for happy. She strikes out on her own. She becomes an award-winning author in her early 20’s. Her successful writing career, though, is not a focus of this memoir; instead, she fast-forwards to more recent times.

Interestingly, although her adoptive mother was a “flamboyant depressive” and the author’s childhood had been so traumatic, Winterson generally hadn’t had trouble with mood issues until the combination of the breakup and finding out more things about her adoption.

In a column written in 2009, Winterson writes about the depression, now past:

I think that the really bad time of my depression was when I could not find that happiness in simple things. I devised a ritual to help myself through it, and to re-make the connection with the natural physical world that gets lost in depression.

What I did was to sit outside, quietly, raining or not, and concentrate completely on a leaf or a flower or a stone, feeling it, looking at it, putting it to my face, sometimes in my mouth, until I recognised it again, as both separate from and part of me. At my worst I just lay in the rain, or sometimes even the snow, until I could feel something not in my own head.

I am not sure this would work for everyone, but I know that finding the way out of the dark labyrinth has to happen in connection, in relation, and can’t happen in the head alone – where the monsters are.

It’s with the help of her current partner, well-known writer and therapist Susie Orbach, that she completes a quest to find her biological mother, Ann. Not that they’ll ever “be mother and daughter,” says Winterson. Nor, as she tells interviewer Debra Ollivier (The Huffington Post), does she expect “closure” from this experience.

Sheena Joughin, Telegraph: “We are shown ‘how it is when the mind works with its own brokenness’, and come to respect Winterson’s psychological courage and her rage to love, despite the ‘savage lunatic’ she discovers inside herself.”