Nov 15

Joan Baez: “I Am a Noise”–Anxiety, Trauma/Dissociation

As Kenneth Womack, Salon, has stated, the new documentary Joan Baez: I Am a Noise is “…one of the most intimate and revealing documentaries of its kind. In one sense, it chronicles Baez’s preparations for her final tour; yet at the same time, the film underscores the singer-songwriter’s lifelong search for the truth about the overarching depression that has marked her life.”

But depression is just one aspect of her mental health issues. Her anxiety and panic attacks began in childhood, leading to therapy in her teens. These conditions, moreover, continued to plague her throughout her career.

And that’s not all. Peter Bradshaw, The Guardian: “(T)his intimate and painful documentary… brings us to the brink of a terribly traumatic revelation that it can’t quite bear to spell out.” We get just enough, though, to understand that she has disturbing childhood memories–“though she says she cannot recall definitively whether her father sexually abused her” (Deadline).

What Baez can be clearer about, though, are her experiences of dissociation. Matthew Carey, Deadline: “For the first time, Baez speaks in detail about experiencing multiple personalities, among them someone she describes as ‘Diamond Joan.’ The condition, known clinically as dissociative identity disorder, typically results from long-term trauma in childhood featuring abuse or neglect.”

The following are revealing quotes from recent interviews conducted with Joan Baez.

I. Scott Simon, NPR

“And my sister Mimi just called one day and said, you know, I think something terrible happened in our childhood. Do you want to look into it the way I will in therapy? And eventually I said yes. And we both discovered some very deep trauma from childhood. And we were – our bodies and brains were reacting to that our whole lives without our knowing it because it was all unconscious, subconscious.”

“And I believe with all my heart that he and my mom have no memory of it at all. The mind is an extraordinary thing to have blocking something out if you really don’t want to deal with it. I mean, I had blocked it out for 50 years. And then the journey was really quite something.”

II. Walter Scott, Parade

Regarding her dissociation, or DID: “[Mine] was many splits and each one had a reason for being there—each little entity that’s born is there for a reason—when I was trying to grow up. By recognizing these little entities and then nurturing them, that nurtured a part of me that needed that. I loved all the little people in there and they’ve held me together and taught me a lot.”

Regarding her son, musician Gabriel Harris, age 53: “That’s where this terrible sadness comes in that I wasn’t there for him. I didn’t realize the extent of it until I saw the film and I hear him talking. I salute him for being honest and loving and caring but saying what his truth was about growing up with a mom who basically wasn’t there. A lot of times I was there, but I wasn’t there.”

III. Bobbi Dempsey, AARP  

“First of all, I don’t think the ending in the film really, really shows the amount of peace that I came to. I’m not sure why. But all of that came through deep therapy. I put off deep therapy for half a lifetime. And clearly figured out why: It was too scary to deal with. But no, I don’t have those demons now. Occasionally there’s a little pop-up, but basically, no. Therapy is hard work and it’s a lot of emotional excavation.”

“If somebody [asked] what am I proudest of, I would say getting through that tunnel. It was pretty dark when I entered it, and I entered it on faith. And then by the end I was really back in the light — or in the light, in a way, for the first time.”

Feb 09

“Solutions and Other Problems” by Allie Brosh

Solutions and Other Problems includes humorous stories from Allie Brosh’s childhood; the adventures of her very bad animals; merciless dissection of her own character flaws; incisive essays on grief, loneliness, and powerlessness; as well as reflections on the absurdity of modern life. Publisher of Solutions and Other Problems by Allie Brosh

A frequent point being made about comic artist Allie Brosh‘s follow-up to her last best-selling book, Hyperbole and a Half, is that it took seven years—for her fans, seven agonizingly long years during which she’d unexplainedly withdrawn from the internet. As it happens, Brosh was going through some things, including a major health scare, her divorce, and the suicide of her younger sister.

Hyperbole and a Half: Unfortunate Situations, Flawed Coping Mechanisms, Mayhem, and Other Things That Happened featured her usual openness regarding her emotional struggles. Amy GoldschlagerKirkus Reviews:

…(H)er vivid depiction of her struggle with depression is extraordinarily frank, describing a deadening descent into apathy, the frustration engendered by torrents of unhelpful advice and a bout of hysterical laughter inspired by discovering a piece of dried-up corn underneath her refrigerator. It was very important to Brosh to communicate what being clinically depressed really feels like. ‘I was really pushing myself,’ she says. ‘I had a two-part motivation: to shine a light on the serious thing that’s really scary and bring out the more absurd aspects of it.’ Her intention was to ‘walk the line between levity and respect for the subject,’ she says. ‘I wanted to make it easier to talk about.’

Solutions and Other Problems (2020) is described as “a new collection of comedic, autobiographical, and illustrated essays.” As Publishers Weekly states, “Brosh’s spidery and demented digital portraits, a visual expression of fun-house mirror anxiety, fits her material perfectly.”

Selected quotes are representative of her style and attitude:

For the sake of trust building, the third chapter will follow the second. But then we will jump directly to chapter five, do you understand? No chapter four. Why? Because sometimes things don’t go like they should.

When you can explain things to people who are willing to listen to you explain them, it is extremely difficult to resist fully and brutally explaining them. It feels good to explain them—like maybe you’re getting somewhere. Like maybe, if you can just…really explain them, the experiences will realize you’re catching on and stop bothering you.

I don’t believe in karma, but I believe there are things that can happen that very specifically force you to understand what an asshole you were.

The title? She tells Susanna Schrobsdorff, Time, “So, you know that thing where you have a problem, and in trying to solve the problem you generate a brand new type of problem? It’s sort of about that. How the solutions themselves become the next generation of problems. Because no solution is perfect.”

Additional quotes from her Time interview:

I think self-improvement itself is a good thing, but sometimes the message gets a little muddled. Like, it sort of feels like self-help books are designed more to sell books than to offer practical help. There’s not a lot of realism in there. A realistic self-help book wouldnt sound like “Easily banish your anxiety with these simple tricks!” It would sound like “Moderately improve your anxiety over a span of many years by continuously choosing to do the hard thing instead of the easy thing, and there’s no real end point—you have to keep going indefinitely if you want to keep improving.” And I think that really holds self-help back—the promise of easy results.

Sometimes I feel scared to be vulnerable, but I don’t think I’ve ever regretted it. I think it’s good to be vulnerable; it shows people that it’s safe to be vulnerable too. And, for the most part, I think people appreciate that. Actually, one of the comments I have saved in my special folder is somebody who said, “Thank you for going first.” I’ve probably read that one a hundred times. It helps me remember that I don’t need to feel scared.

As always, there’s the caveat that different people experience depression slightly differently, and what works for one person might not work for the next, but for me what has been most helpful is when somebody shows a willingness to understand, and also a willingness to just quietly be there if that’s what I need. Sometimes it feels good to talk about it; sometimes it’s too overwhelming, and it feels helpful when somebody lets me know that it’s O.K. to not feel O.K. right away.

Feb 03

“Wintering” by Katherine May: Selected Quotes

A recent book that’s perfect for today’s world is Katherine Mays Wintering: The Power of Rest and Retreat in Difficult Times. Although we’re currently in the actual season known as winter, wintering in May’s book is not necessarily what you readily imagine it to be—but it often involves such feelings as rejection, loneliness, loss, humiliation, and/or pain:

Wintering is a season in the cold. It is a fallow period in life when you’re cut off from the world, feeling rejected, sidelined, blocked from progress, or cast into the role of an outsider. Perhaps it results from an illness or a life event such as a bereavement or the birth of a child; perhaps it comes from a humiliation or failure. Perhaps you’re in a period of transition and have temporarily fallen between two worlds. Some wintering creep upon us more slowly, accompanying the protracted death of a relationship, the gradual ratcheting up of caring responsibilities as our parents age, the drip-drip-drip of lost confidence. Some are appallingly sudden, like discovering one day that your skills are considered obsolete, the company you worked for has gone bankrupt, or your partner is in love with someone new. However, it arrives, wintering is usually involuntary, lonely, and deeply painful.

Selected Quotes from Wintering

Wintering brings about some of the most profound and insightful moments of our human experience, and wisdom resides in those who have wintered.

Life meanders like a path through the woods. We have seasons when we flourish and seasons when the leaves fall from us, revealing our bare bones. Given time, they grow again.

If happiness is a skill, then sadness is, too. Perhaps through all those years at school, or perhaps through other terrors, we are taught to ignore sadness, to stuff it down into our satchels and pretend it isn’t there. As adults, we often have to learn to hear the clarity of its call. That is wintering. It is the active acceptance of sadness. It is the practice of allowing ourselves to feel it as a need. It is the courage to stare down the worst parts of our experience and to commit to healing them the best we can. Wintering is a moment of intuition, our true needs felt keenly as a knife.

We seem to be living in an age when we’re bombarded with entreaties to be happy, but we’re suffering from an avalanche of depression. We’re urged to stop sweating the small stuff, yet we’re chronically anxious. I often wonder if these are just normal feelings that become monstrous when they’re denied. A great deal of life will always suck. There will be moments when we’re riding high and moments when we can’t bear to get out of bed. Both are normal. Both in fact require a little perspective.

There are times when everything seems easy, and times when it all seems impossibly hard. To make that manageable, we only have to remember that our present will one day become a past, and our future will be our present. We know that, because it’s happened before. The things we put behind us will often come around again. The things that trouble us now will one day be past history. Each time we endure the cycle, we ratchet up a notch. We learn from the last time around, and we do a few things better this time; we develop tricks of the mind to see us through. This is how progress is made. But one thing is certain: we will simply have different things to worry about. We will have to clench our teeth and carry on surviving again. In the meantime, we can only deal with what’s in front of us at this moment in time. We take the next necessary action, and the next. At some point along the line, that next action will feel joyful again.

Mar 28

“It’s Kind of a Funny Story”: Depression, In Fact

Sometimes I just think depression’s one way of coping with the world. Like, some people get drunk, some people do drugs, some people get depressed. Because there’s so much stuff out there that you have to do something to deal with it. Ned Vizzini, It’s Kind of a Funny Story

In 2013 author Ned Vizzini died by suicide. He was 32 when he jumped off his parents’ roof in Brooklyn. He left behind a wife and young child.

One of his books, the 2004 sci-fi Be More Chill, has now become a Broadway musical, which has put the deceased author back in the news.

Vizzini had also written the bestselling Young Adult novel, It’s Kind of a Funny Story (2006), based on his prior experience of checking himself into a psychiatric hospital after calling a suicide hotline. The catalyst: he’d had a dream about jumping from the Brooklyn Bridge.

Athough his real-life five-day inpatient stint was helpful, Vizzini publicly admitted he continually had to work to manage his depression. In other words, the various forms of therapy he received over the years were not curative as much as guiding and supportive. A realistic way, actually, of viewing depression recovery.

In 2010 a film based on the book was released in theaters.

It’s Kind of a Funny Story, The Book

Tanya Lee Stone, New York Times, at the time of publication: “Laughter is one way to cope with pressure, and that’s what Ned Vizzini’s insightful and utterly authentic new novel is all about — the insidious kind of pressure teenagers face in a success-oriented society that values product over process, scores over scholarship and extracurriculars over extra innings.”

It’s Kind of a Funny Story, The Film

The film It’s Kind of a Funny Story received so-so reviews from the critics. A.O. Scott, New York Times:The best I can say is that it’s kind of a good movie.” Viewers, on the other hand, have given it somewhat better marks overall.

From Scott’s synopsis:

Temperamentally disinclined to be melodramatic, Craig [Keir Gilchrist] is bothered by some of the usual stresses of modern adolescence. His selective public high school is a hothouse of academic pressure. He is obsessed with Nia (Zoë Kravitz), the girlfriend of his best pal, Aaron (Thomas Mann). And Craig’s well-meaning parents (Lauren Graham and Jim Gaffigan, with Dana De Vestern in tow as a funny-cute little sister) are not quite able to give him the support and sympathy he needs.

16-year-old Craig gets checked in to Argeron, the hospital. “Now Craig realizes,” notes “cinema therapist” Birgit Wolz, “that this is not as simple as chilling out for a while. He believes that he made a mistake when he discovers that checking in is much easier than checking out. To make matters worse, the youth psychiatric ward is undergoing renovations, and he is forced to stay in the adult unit with patients who are more seriously disturbed.”

Available now on DVD and elsewhere, It’s Kind of a Funny Story is previewed in the following trailer. Note that Zach Galifianakis was cast as a fellow inpatient. “As Bobby, the psych ward’s resident depressive-philosopher, Galifianakis works his character’s insights and neuroses like worry beads — effortlessly, unceasingly and to marvelous effect” (Betsy Sharkey, Los Angeles Times).

Additionally, there’s the bonus of Viola Davis as Dr. Minerva, a caring psychiatrist.

Oct 18

“A Star Is Born”: Why You Might Feel Triggered

What does remake-of-a-remake-of-a-remake A Star Is Born, with Lady Gaga (Ally) and Bradley Cooper (Jackson), depict that some viewers may find troubling? Ahead are possible triggers and spoilers from review excerpts.

The Coupling

Britt Hayes, ScreenCrush: “…a perfect reflection of institutionalized misogyny; it is a movie that is very much of our time, but we are living in a time that demands so much more — at the very least, criticism of a world in which the best a woman like Ally can hope for is marrying into fame with an alcoholic because he’s the only person who ever admired her nose.”

Misogyny and Boundaries

Headline by Aja Romano, Vox, is A Star Is Born has a problem with consent”:

Throughout the film, Lady Gaga’s character, Ally, says no, and her ‘no’ is always converted into a ‘yes’ by men. This happens again and again, from every man around her: her father and his friends…

Narratives where a woman’s no always means yes directly contribute to rape culture. Sexual harassment and assault occur in part because men are taught to view women as saying no when they mean yes, and to wear women down through repeated asking until their no changes into a yes.

Ally’s Mental Health

Aja Romano, Vox“Despite the number of lines given to its female star, no version of A Star Is Born has ever cared about her psychological makeup, pivoted around her decisions, or given her much agency over her own career.”

Jackson’s Addiction and Emotional Abuse

Robyn Bahr, Vice: “…It’s truly one of the best cinematic examples of an emotionally abusive relationship I’ve ever seen. And much like real life, it’s hard to detect when toxic behavior crosses the line into systematic emotional abuse.”

Jackson’s Mental Health

Elizabeth Cassidy, The Mighty: “While Jack goes to rehab, which happens in other renditions as well, we could expect Jack to seek more mental health treatment than would have been available in the ’30s, ’50s or ’70s.”

Aja Romano, Vox: “When he ultimately realizes his disgrace is hurting Ally’s career, he decides to die rather than continue hindering her rise. It’s framed as a tragic, noble sacrifice — but while it’s absolutely a tragedy, it’s anything but noble, because it’s brought about in part by his inability to see Ally and her career as existing apart from him.”

Britt HayesScreenCrush: “While the impetus for his relapse (Ally’s producer makes a couple cruel comments) seems flimsy, the actual relapse and subsequent suicide are deeply upsetting — and borderline triggering for anyone who’s lost a loved one to addiction.”

Concluding Thoughts

Li Lai, Mediaversity Reviews:

By all means, go and enjoy A Star is Born. Cooper and Gaga bare their souls in this film, and that level of vulnerability is brave and laudable. But know that its 1937 story goes wholly unchallenged and can be discomfiting to watch in certain scenes, especially given these current times where, much like Ally, women continue to be controlled by broken men with too much power in their hands.

Robyn Bahr, Vice: “Jackson Maine is a tragic character because of the childhood neglect he suffered and the heartbreaking choice he makes at the end of the film. But his inner demons don’t absolve him from inflicting devastating control over the woman who loves him and, hopefully, viewers see that message loud and clear.”

Aja Romano, Vox:

A Star Is Born keeps being remade because Hollywood is besotted with the mechanics of stardom, refracted here through a lens of male power and female submissiveness. It’s deeply frustrating that this story has reappeared, with all its problems, at a moment when we’re taking a hard look at the very kinds of power imbalances and consent issues within the industry that this film reifies, and even romanticizes. Maybe by the time the next remake comes along in another 20 years or so, we’ll have finally figured out that it’s really just a bad romance.