Mar 07

Documentary “Far from the Tree”

Andrew Solomon‘s bestselling book has now become Rachel Dretzin‘s well regarded documentary Far from the Tree, which “examines the experiences of families in which parents and children are profoundly different from one another in a variety of ways” (IMDB).

As Solomon wrote in the 2012 book, “All parenting turns on a crucial question: to what extent parents should accept their children for who they are, and to what extent they should help them become their best selves.”

First, some additional quotes from the book that represent its content:

This book’s conundrum is that most of the families described here have ended up grateful for experiences they would have done anything to avoid.

There is something ironic in prejudice against the disabled and their families, because their plight might befall anybody.

These parents have, by and large, chosen to love their children, and many of them have chosen to value their own lives, even though they carry what much of the world considers an intolerable burden. Children with horizontal identities alter your self painfully; they also illuminate it. They are receptacles for rage and joy–even for salvation. When we love them, we achieve above all else the rapture of privileging what exists over what we have merely imagined.

Key words: horizontal identities, as contrasted with vertical identities. As defined and explained in Solomon’s book:Because of the transmission of identity from one generation to the next, most children share at least some traits with their parents. These are vertical identities…Ethnicity, for example, is a vertical identity…Language is usually vertical…Religion is moderately vertical…Nationality is vertical, except for immigrants.” And, of course, there are many other examples.

“Often, however, someone has an inherent or acquired trait that is foreign to his or her parents and must therefore acquire identity from a peer group. This is a horizontal identity. Such horizontal identities may reflect recessive genes, random mutations, prenatal influences, or values and preferences that a child does not share with his progenitors.”

Documentary Far from the Tree showcases five different types of horizontal identities existing within specific families. Viewers see “intimate and heartening views of people with Down syndrome, autism, of dwarfs, and the family of an 18-year-old boy now imprisoned for life for the murder an 8-year-old boy. And of Andrew Solomon, gay in a family that could not at first accept him” (Dr. Lloyd I. Sederer, HuffPost).

Far from the Tree is available on DVD and at Amazon Prime. Watch the trailer below:

Psychiatrist Sederer concludes that the path to success for these families “is taken in incremental steps, with relentless and sustained effort, and with patience (except when unbending institutions demand they be impatient). We see how a family with a quite different child embarks on a journey that is undertaken with love and insists upon keeping hope alive.”

Daphne Howland, Village Voice: “It’s a painstaking inspection of parenthood, which is fraught even in less formidable circumstances…But it’s also a contemplation of what it means to be human and, ultimately, optimistic.”

Finally, the headline of reviewer Ann Hornaday, Washington Post: “This documentary about families will make you cry — for all the right reasons.”

Sep 13

DeRay McKesson: Living “In the Quiet” No More

Three separate quotes from On the Other Side of Freedom: The Case for Hope (2018) by DeRay McKesson

Hope is the belief that our tomorrows can be better than our todays. Hope is not magic; hope is work.

In each generation there is a moment when young and old, inspired or disillusioned, come together around a shared hope, imagine the world as it can be, and have the opportunity to bring that world into existence. Our moment is now. 

If your love for me requires that I hide parts of who I am, then you don’t love me. Love is never a request for silence.

In addition to addressing his and others’ social activism in the 12 essays of On the Other Side of Freedom: The Case for Hope, DeRay McKesson tells us important details of his own upbringing and influences.

Why write about the personal stuff? As explained to Michel Martin, NPR:

We have to start talking about all of who we are because all of who we are shows up in the work that we do…

I know that I’m a gay black man every time I come into a space, and what does that mean to be in movement spaces or other spaces where people are homophobic, but like me. I wanted to write about that. I didn’t know how to write a book about justice or about where we’ve been and where we go without also saying here’s who I am in those ways…

Among the first to champion the Black Lives Matter movement, DeRay McKesson’s difficult childhood included abandonment at a very early age by his drug addicted mother, sexual abuse by an older boy, bullying, living in a violent neighborhood, and coming out to himself as gay but feeling the need to keep it to himself.

An excerpt in The Advocate is loaded with meaningful statements about living “in the quiet”—his perspective on growing up oppressed—which DeRay McKesson feels differs from the closet.” Selected quotes from this piece:    

But I did not know then the cost of the quiet. I did not know that the quiet is a thief, that it steals the potential for joy, for power, for freedom. And like most thieves, it works so that you don’t realize you’ve been robbed until what you once had is already gone. Or perhaps it steals away the possibility of things that you deserved, wanted, expected.

I think about the quiet instead of “the closet” because I’ve never hidden any part of myself from myself or from others, and the closet seems to imply some form of hiding. And when I think about being in the closet, I think of being there alone. But there are many people raised in the quiet, still in the quiet, stuck in the quiet, together. And they don’t always know that they’re not alone, even if it feels like they are. I was never hiding, as the image of the closet implies. But I grew up quieter about the parts of myself that I didn’t think anyone would love, the parts that I had never seen loved in others, the parts that might put me in danger if they were seen and heard as publicly as every other part of me. Quieter, that is; not silent.

When I think about the quiet, the image of a library comes to mind — the place where supposedly you can’t learn if there’s noise, a place of exploration that says don’t speak. But there are always people whispering and passing notes in the library, always people finding ways to have a voice despite the rules, always people coming out of the quiet.

Jul 05

Hannah Gadsby: “Nanette”(Serious Comedy)

Do you understand what self-deprecation means when it comes from someone who is already in the margins? It’s not humility. It’s humiliation. I put myself down in order to speak, in order to seek permission to speak. Hannah Gadsby, “Nanette” (Netflix special)

I and many others have only recently become familiar with Australian comedian Hannah Gadsby via her new Netflix special Nanette,” an atypical show featuring the expected stand-up humor mixed with some unexpected not-so-funny messaging—with a purpose.

I rarely watch comedians’ specials. I just don’t find them “special” enough. This one is.

Hannah Gadsby is a lesbian, a gender-bender, a self-admitted larger type of person, an experienced laugh-getter—and she’s also had some terrible stuff happen to her. In “Nanette” she risks putting this hard stuff out there and winds up finding that audiences can relate.

I agree with Linda Holmes, NPR, who concluded, “Suffice it to say there is a reason why people are so urgently telling the people they know to watch it.” Start with the trailer:

More from Holmes:

Gadsby begins with a riff on what it was like, as a kid growing up in Tasmania, when she ‘found out [she] was a little bit lesbian.’ The general attitude, she says, was that gay people were not welcome: ‘You should just get yourself a one-way ticket to the mainland, and don’t come back,’ she summarizes…

…What, exactly, is funny about feeling unwelcome in your own country because of who you are? What, as she continues in another anecdote, is funny about being angrily confronted by a man who believed she was another man hitting on his girlfriend? The humor is in the way she tells it; the humor is her choice. She is making the decision to make it comedy. She could make another choice instead.

And so she does. Sophie Gilbert, The Atlantic: “Nanette is the kind of work that leaves you shaken. Not because it’s really funny (it really is), or because it’s equally heartbreaking, but because it finds a fusion of those two modes that’s incandescent. It feels not coincidental that some of the most beautiful, innovative works of art of late have similarly balanced light and dark. In this moment, where news feeds oscillate back and forth between dog memes and human-rights atrocities, we’re used to shifting moods in a heartbeat. In Nanette, Gadsby shows how full of power and potential the space in between can be.”

What’s it been like for Gadsby to have continually addressed stories “about homophobia, assault, and other traumatic experiences” on her extensive tour, Jackson McHenry, Vulture, asked the comedian.

I am basically reliving trauma, quite significant trauma, every night. I’ve had psychiatrists and psychologists reach out to me over the course of the 18 months I’ve been touring, saying ‘Nobody’s done this, we don’t know what you’re possibly doing to yourself.’ It’s like an extreme form of CBT, or neurobiological rewiring, or something like that. It’s never easy to perform. It has not gotten easier on the stage. I’ve really upset audiences, and I can feel that. That affects me in turn…

But it has, over the course, gotten easier for me to leave it there. In the first 12 months, I was going home and, you know, rocking myself to sleep. I felt very vulnerable, I felt very unsafe. It felt like a risk every time I stood onstage. That part has gotten easier, and that comes from, just basically, audiences caring. I have had a less and less hostile audience.

Connecting with others, she adds, has been helpful. “I will not allow my story to be destroyed,” she tells her “Nanette” audience. “What I would have done to have heard a story like mine … to have felt less alone.”

Jul 10

“Notes on a Banana”: Bipolar Disorder and More

In his masterful new memoir, David Leite weaves together three of my favorite things: food, humor, and debilitating mental illness. Notes on a Banana is beautifully crafted, inspiring, and poignantly honest. A must read for all foodies and memoir lovers who know the power food and family have to overcome nearly every obstacle in life. Josh Kilmer-Purcell

In Notes on a Banana: A Memoir of Food, Love, and Manic Depression the “Banana” in question is David Leite‘s nickname, the “Food” a significant part of his career, the “Love” his long-term relationship with “The One”—otherwise known as Alan—and the “Manic Depression” his symptoms of bipolar disorder that surfaced in childhood and didn’t stabilize until his late 30’s or so. Leite is now in his 50’s.

B. David Zarley praises Notes on a Banana as “one of the finest portraits of bipolar disorder I have ever read.” He speaks from the experience, like Leite, of living with hypomania, and he states the following about Leite’s diagnosis: “Bipolar II, to be specific, the form of the disorder marked by deep depressive modes and hypomanic episodes (hypomania being, as Leite describes it, ‘a watercolor version of bright-neon manias’). It is the alternating currents of depression and hypomania that have galvanized and rendered black Leite’s life, a perpetual rolling brownout.”

Leite also once had signficant difficulty accepting being gay. Kirkus Reviews:

In college, the author had affairs with men while ‘dating’ a woman he fantasized would be his wife but with whom he could never have sex. He also began experiencing the chaotic extremes of the bipolar disorder that psychologists had mistakenly diagnosed as depression. Leaving college without a degree, Leite went to New York, where he worked first as a waiter then as an ad writer while unsuccessfully trying to turn straight through involvement with the ‘gay curing’ Aesthetic Realism movement. A long-term relationship with a man who ‘loved everything about the ceremony of the table’ led to Leite’s reimmersion in the cooking he loved and the Azorean culture from which he had separated himself. It also gave him the courage to seek the answers that had eluded him and his doctors about the truth of his condition.

In addition to the medications and therapy Leite now uses, he’s described other parts of his “bipolar arsenal” (his blog) : “…Things no shrink can prescribe and no therapist can analyze—namely, cooking and writing about food. Even on my worst days, when it feels like I have some gargantuan creature threatening to drag me down through the couch cushions, the simple act of swirling a knob of butter in a hot skillet can cheer me. And nothing mercifully bitch-slaps depression for a few hours like the utterly frustrating and highly improbable act of stringing together words, like pearls on a necklace, and turning those words into stories.”

Publishers Weekly:  “His firsthand account of mental illness pulls no punches, serving up an honest and open perspective on personal and family issues that are often swept under the rug. Despite Leite playing the leading man, the true stars of the memoir are Leite’s parents, who mirror his passion (his mother) and thoughtfulness (his father) and allow Leite to continually draw the focus of the story back to family and food, love and learning.”

Mar 03

“Frozen”: What Are the Meanings and Messages?

Just what is the meaning and/or message of the animated film Frozen? Many have been busily analyzing this question.

First, the plot of Frozen, in brief, from IMDB: “Fearless optimist Anna teams up with Kristoff in an epic journey, encountering Everest-like conditions, and a hilarious snowman named Olaf in a race to find Anna’s sister Elsa, whose icy powers have trapped the kingdom in eternal winter.”

It must be noted that this Disney film actually passes the Bechdel Test.

You can watch the trailer below:

Many say that the best and main element of Frozen is the sisterly love. Sisterhood of the family kind. Well, “family” often includes parents. So, where are the parents in all of this?

R. Kurt OsenlundSlantexplains that Elsa’s “ice-emitting powers” are a source of shame for them:

In childhood, she injures her sister Anna during snowy playtime, and the half-stone trolls beseeched with healing Anna’s wound ask if Elsa was ‘born’ or ‘cursed’ with her gifts…Mom and Dad do acknowledge that Elsa was born this way, but after having Anna’s memory wiped, they nevertheless urge Elsa to remain in the family’s castle, its locked gates signifying the girl’s closed-off, guilt-ridden heart. ‘Conceal, don’t feel,’ the princess is taught to tunefully recite in the film, which is based on Hans Christian Anderson’s The Snow Queen, and hinges its chief conflict of eternal winter on the dangers of emotional suppression.

Gina Luttrell, Arts.Mic, tells it like it is and calls out the parents as abusive: “Elsa’s parents brutalize her instincts so that even as an adult, she lives in constant fear of herself. Those lessons are so ingrained that she continues hiding even after her parents die.”

Although some see a strong “coming of age” theme regarding Elsa, many others zero in on an even more specific developmental challenge, that of being gay in a homophobic society. Osenlund, for instance, says the movie “(t)eems with gay themes.”

Blogger Steven Salvatore: “The one thing I couldn’t shake as I watched the story unfold was how strikingly similar it felt to growing up gay and learning to find inner peace and acceptance while balancing the fears you have of what others might think about you.”

Catherine Bray, Time Out: “The standout song, ‘Let It Go’, feels like Disney’s most inspired coming-out anthem yet (‘Conceal, don’t feel, don’t let them know. Well, now they know’).”

Salvatore, again: “In the last chorus of the song, she sings: ‘Let it go, let it go / And I’ll rise like the break of dawn / Let it go, let it go / That perfect girl is gone / Here I stand in the light of day / Let the storm rage on / The cold never bothered me anyway.’”

Added by the blogger, “If that’s not a coming out song, I don’t know what is. Regardless, it’s absolutely empowering.”

(For the complete lyrics to “Let It Go” and a related video clip from the film see my previous post about this song.)

Another theme of Frozen is the kind of sisterhood that’s not just family-related. I’m talking Female Empowerment. Women’s Independence. “These sisters, both queens in their own rights, are doin’ it for themselves,” says Osenlund.

Margaret ManningThe Huffington Post, hopes “women of all ages” will hear and get the message she did: “Stop trying to please everyone, forget perfection, don’t be afraid to be different and be true to yourself. Stop being a ‘good girl.'”