Jun 24

Military Sexual Trauma: “The Invisible War,” “Justice Denied”

What they never volunteered for: sexual assault, institutional apathy, failures of justice, callousness in the chain of command and repeated attempts to blame the victim…Amy Biancolli, San Francisco Chronicle, reviewing documentary The Invisible War, about military sexual trauma (MST)

The Invisible War, directed by Kirby Dick and produced by Amy Ziering, came out in 2012. The reviews have been so compelling that I’ve chosen to provide significant excerpts to describe not only the film but also the issues at hand.

Sara Stewart, The New York Post:

It’s a chronic but shockingly underreported problem, illustrated with extended interviews and cold, hard numbers: Since 2006, more than 95,000 servicewomen and men have been sexually assaulted — and next to none of their rapists has seen jail time or, in many cases, even a demotion.

From a brutalized female soldier chastised for ‘crying over spilled milk,’ to the Ohio Coast Guard veteran still fighting the VA office for treatment of her shattered jaw five years later, Dick chronicles the myriad ways sexual-assault victims are routinely punished and ignored.

Kenneth Turan, Los Angeles Times:

What happened to these women after the rape often shocks and disturbs them as much as the physical act itself. More often than not, the charges are not taken seriously as a victim-punishing system treats them like criminals, not injured parties. At times even formally charged with adultery, these women are invariably forced out of the service they would have given their lives for.

The heart of the problem is that U.S. military justice mandates that charges like this are heard not by an independent judiciary but by one’s immediate commanding officer. In many cases that is either the assaulter himself or a close friend, which is one reason the military itself estimates that 80% of sexual assaults are not reported.

The combination of these factors is why the women interviewed here are depressed, skittish, often fearful of going outside. The military reports that 40% of female homeless vets have been raped, and women who have been raped have a higher PTSD rate than men in combat. (One man who was raped is interviewed on camera, with experts saying that the shame factor is worse for men.)

A.O. Scott, New York Times:

…Trina McDonald speaks of being drugged and raped while she was stationed at a Naval operating station in Alaska. Elle Helmer, assigned to a prestigious posting in Washington, was assaulted after enduring months of harassment by her fellow Marines. Kori Cioca’s jaw was broken when, she says, she was raped by a Coast Guard commanding officer. To say that none of them, or the others interviewed, are satisfied by the military’s response would be a gross understatement…

Roger Ebert, rogerebert.com:

…Even some military anti-rape campaigns send a mixed message; incredibly, one poster advises men: ‘Don’t risk it — wait until she sobers up.’

Such a system, says Army criminal investigator Sgt. Myla Haider, is designed principally ‘to help women get raped better.’

Although women victims and male perpetrators are the main focus of The Invisible War, male survivors of military sexual trauma and their assaulters, male and female, are represented in another documentary, Michael L. Miller‘s 2013 Justice Denied.

It was executive produced by a clinical social worker whose husband Michael Matthews was raped and sodomized at the age of 19 by a group of male servicemen. He and Geri Lynn Matthews had been married 26 years—and he’d endured years of depression and suicide attempts—when he finally was able to disclose this in a therapy session, then to her (Social Workers Speak). Michael Matthews had also appeared in The Invisible War.

Nov 18

Car Accident Recovery: Book by Dr. James F. Zender

This unique guide is long overdue since more people suffer traumatic brain injuries from car crashes than from war. A must read for any of you or your family members who need support and guidance after being in an unfortunate accident and are most likely in pain. Jerri Sher, regarding Recovering from Your Car Accident

As there has never been a resource like this new book, I’m jumping at the chance to let readers know about it, keenly remembering several of my past clients who’ve had extreme difficulty adjusting after being in car accidents.

“Road traffic injuries are a neglected global pandemic,” states the publisher of clinical psychologist James F. Zender‘s Recovering from Your Car Accident: The Complete Guide to Reclaiming Your Life. “Up to 50 million people a year worldwide are injured or disabled in car accidents. The deleterious impact on the global economy is immense. Thousands of those injured die of opiate overdoses, trying to deal with chronic pain.”

Other effects for victims of car crashes:

The post-accident life of a survivor is all too often devastated by spinal or severe orthopedic injuries, depression, anxiety, PTSD, sleep disturbances, mild episodic or chronic pain, and/or a traumatic brain injury that can cause personality changes, cognitive and memory impairments, and debilitating fatigue. A substantially reduced quality of life with career changes and setbacks, broken and overstressed relationships, and financial hardships that continue for many years, often ensue.

Zender not only offers comprehensive recovery ideas, he wonders what can be done to prevent car crashes to begin with. From a recent Psychology Today post: “What is so tragically different from the current COVID-19 pandemic and the ongoing pandemic of car crashes? The latter is largely preventable by altering human behaviors. Safer driving, improved and more accessible driver training programs, safer roads with better traffic laws, improved law enforcement, and increased vehicle safety would eliminate a vast percentage of crashes.”

Selected Reviews of Recovering from Your Car Accident

Gayle P. Myers, MD: “A must read for patients, family members, health care providers, and attorneys, to help reach long-term healing of Vehicular Trauma Syndrome. I will be recommending this book widely.”

Dawne McKay, Founder of the Crash Support Network: “In my seven years that I continue to recover from a horrific motor vehicle crash, I have never come across such an enlightening, resourceful, and informative book that I could relate to. A remarkable read that touches on every struggle that we face after surviving such a life changing event.”

John Gwynne Prosser II, president, NeuroTrauma Association: “He explains how brain injury victims have a fear of being crazy, they suffer from depression, and that pain is a powerful, interruptive force. He encourages the importance of empathy and emphasizes the power of group therapy and the benefits of meditation. His book is an excellent resource to help these victims and their families.”

Jan 15

“Know My Name”: Famous “Emily Doe” Now Visible

Miller’s new memoir echoes her powerful victim-impact statement, which was viewed more than 18 million times on BuzzFeed alone before it was read in its entirety on both CNN and in Congress. The book is a wrenching and intimate story of sexual assault, survival, self-discovery, trauma, family, and friendship. It’s a beautiful, revealing self-portrait. It’s funny, and it’s heartbreaking, and it’s an inspiration.The Daily Beast, regarding the 2019 Know My Name: A Memoir by Chanel Miller

When in 2016 the victim-impact statement of rape victim Chanel Miller, then known as Emily Doe for the purpose of anonymity, went viral, she received a letter from Vice President Joe Biden. “I see you,” he said. Also: “You have given them the strength they need to fight. And so, I believe, you will save lives.”

As important as this kind of visibility can be to a trauma survivor, Miller’s process was anything but easy as she navigated the judicial system over the course of a few years, a period that ended with the appeal of found-guilty perpetrator Brock Turner being denied.

Olivia Messer, The Daily Beast:

She spent those years in the thick of PTSD. She was depressed, she was anxious, she cried. She was unemployed and unable to sleep, afraid that being unconscious again would make her vulnerable to attack.

But through therapy, support from her family, the justice of the trial—and then the injustice of the sentencing and then Internet fame—and with the help of art and performing comedy and writing and gifts from strangers and elderly foster dogs, Miller slowly recovered.

‘I survived because I remained soft, because I listened, because I wrote,’ she said. ‘Because I huddled close to my truth, protected it like a tiny flame in a terrible storm.’

When I saw the excellent Netflix series Unbelievable it reminded me of cases like Miller’s. I wasn’t the only one—I’ve come across several mentions of this same observation. Megan Garber, The Atlantic, for example: “Chanel Miller’s memoir, like the show Unbelievable, is a reminder of the painful alchemy that turns trauma into art.”

As reviewer Rebecca Liu, The Guardian, puts it:

In a world that asks too many survivors to keep their experiences to themselves and shrink their suffering to preserve someone else’s potential, Know My Name stands unapologetically large, asking others to reckon with its author’s dazzling, undiminishable presence. To read it, in spite of everything, inspires hope.

Selected Quotes

The friendly guy who helps you move and assists senior citizens in the pool is the same guy who assaulted me. One person can be capable of both. Society often fails to wrap its head around the fact that these truths often coexist, they are not mutually exclusive. Bad qualities can hide inside a good person. That’s the terrifying part.

The judge had given Brock something that would never be extended to me: empathy. My pain was never more valuable than his potential.

My advice is, if he’s worried about his reputation, don’t rape anyone.

What was unique about this crime, was that the perpetrator could suggest the victim experienced pleasure and people wouldn’t bat an eye. There’s no such thing as a good stabbing or bad stabbing, consensual murder or nonconsensual murder.

I always wondered why survivors understood other survivors so well. Why, even if the details of our attacks vary, survivors can lock eyes and get it without having to explain. Perhaps it is not the particulars of the assault itself that we have in common, but the moment after; the first time you are left alone. Something slipping out of you. Where did I go. What was taken. It is terror swallowed inside silence. An unclipping from the world where up was up and down was down.

Apr 09

“The Collected Schizophrenias” by Esme Weijun Wang

One of the more frightening things about any painful experience that isn’t outwardly obvious to the people around us — like some mental and physical illnesses or disabilities — is how difficult it is to communicate what it feels like to those around us. Writers like Wang, however, give us a gift in their ability to convey the indescribable through language. Ilana Masad, NPR, reviewing The Collected Schizophrenias by Esmé Weijun Wang

Writer Esmé Weijun Wang‘s The Collected Schizophrenias: Essays consists of 13 pieces regarding her schizoaffective disorder, chronic Lyme disease, and other aspects of her life shown “through simply-conveyed research, powerful metaphor, and personal experiences” (NPR).

Perceived as “high functioning” regarding her mental health diagnoses, Wang admits she’s not comfortable around those who aren’t. “I’m uncomfortable because I don’t want to be lumped in with the screaming man on the bus, or the woman who claims that she’s the reincarnation of God.”

Can you blame her? As she begins her book, “Schizophrenia terrifies.”

Wang knew she had serious problems since early childhood. Lulu Garcia-Navarro, NPR:

She first noticed that her brain worked differently than others, she says, when she was just five or six years old. And then, she says, ‘severe depression started when I was about 11, depression that was diagnosed by a doctor probably happened when I was 15 or 16. Bipolar disorder was diagnosed when I was about 17 or 18, and then the schizoaffective disorder, bipolar type, was diagnosed when I was in my late 20s.’

Reportedly, there’s much more to tell: a history of sexual assault, PTSD, and the eventual diagnosis of late-stage Lyme disease.

The essays involve such issues as leaving college due to psychosis, involuntary hospitalization, society’s views of suicide, the health insurance industry’s faults, and the connection between mental illness and spirituality.

Further description of The Collected Schizophrenias (Publishers Weekly):

She explains her decision not to have children, while recalling time spent working at a camp for bipolar children, and muses about viewing her condition as a manifestation of ‘supernatural ability’ rather than a hindrance. Wang invariably describes her symptoms and experiences with remarkable candor and clarity, as when she narrates a soul-crushing stay in a Louisiana mental hospital and the alarming onset of a delusion in which ‘the thought settles over me, fine and gray as soot, that I am dead.’ She also tackles societal biases and misconceptions about mental health issues, criticizing involuntary commitment laws as cruel. Throughout these essays, Wang trains a dispassionate eye onto her personal narrative, creating a clinical remove that allows for the neurotypical reader’s greater comprehension of a thorny and oft-misunderstood topic.

Wang’s website name, The Unexpected Shape, is from the concept, says the author, of “the unexpected shape of our lives — the boundaries that we were not expecting to live with, but that we end up having to live with.”

Dec 26

“Welcome to Marwen”: Unique Post-Trauma Strategy

On April 8, 2000, Mark Hogancamp was attacked by five men and left for dead outside of a bar in Kingston, NY. After nine days in a coma, he awoke to find he had no memory of his previous adult life. He had to relearn how to eat, walk and write. True story behind Welcome to Marwen

Before Robert Zemeckis‘s new film Welcome to Marwen was the 2010 Marwencol, a highly acclaimed documentary that also depicted the story of Mark Hogancamp in a truer-to-life form.

What led to the life-destroying hate crime against Hogancamp? He’d “told a patron in a bar that he was a cross-dresser who liked to put on nylon stockings and heels” (Advocate).

Hogancamp happens to be a cross-dresser who’s heterosexual. “Though he does not identify as transgender,” states Ariel Sobel, The Advocate, “if Hogancamp had not survived the near-fatal attack he experienced for even talking about cross-dressing, his story would have resembled the many lives taken for not abiding by the societal rules of the gender binary.”

David Ehrlich, IndieWire, describes how Hogancamp created his own rehab program when health insurance no longer supported his needed care.

His solution? To create a rich fantasy world out of the 12-inch, 1:6 scale figures he once painted; a miniature town called Marwencol (located in Belgium circa World War II) in which he could re-enact his trauma in a refuge that was under his full control. A captain named Hogie became his pint-sized alter-ego, S.S. troops stood in for his assailants, and female dolls represented the various women in his life (Hogancamp even built a catfight bar for them to work in, as his version of the past assumed the feeling of a sweet, pulpy, and surprisingly asexual serial). The lifelike, hyper-expressive photographs he took of these scenes attracted some attention, and Hogancamp soon found himself celebrated as a naïve and enchanted outsider artist…

As Zemeckis portrays the women, included are “a loud Russian caretaker” (Gwendoline Christie), “a one-legged physical therapist” (Janelle Monáe), a coworker (Elza González), and his doll supplier (Merritt Wever), for starters. Plus two more special ladies:

Of course, the two most important women in Mark’s life are the one he hasn’t met yet, and the one he can’t seem to forget. First up is Nicol (Leslie Mann), a kind and curious soul who’s just moved in to the house across the street, and is trying to shake off a tragedy of her own. She also has a greasy and abusive ex-boyfriend (Neil Jackson)…

Finally, there’s Deja Thoris (Diane Kruger), the wicked witch of Marwen, who murders any of the gals who get too close to her man Hogie. The only character with no human counterpart, Deja broadly represents Mark’s loneliness, though ham-fisted writing and her pill-blue hair make her seem like a manifestation of the anti-depressants that he takes every morning.

Considering the decidedly mixed-to-worse critical reviews of Welcome to Marwen, perhaps the emotion-tugging trailer itself is preferable viewing:

Selected Reviews

Emily Yoshida, Vulture: “The Marwencol documentary saved the reveal of Mark’s cross-dressing as a third-act twist, possibly to its detriment. The least that can be said for Zemeckis’s adaptation is its willingness to embrace that queerness from the get-go.”

Greg Cwik, Slant: “The whole endeavor feels like a disservice to Hogancamp’s story, in no small part because no one in the film feels human, even outside doll form. Everyone is a type: the pitiable loser for whom we feel bad, the perfect love interest for whom we cheer, and so forth.”

Chris Nashawaty, Ew.com: “…(M)ost of the heartwarming power of Mark’s stranger-than-fiction story is AWOL in its Tinseltown makeover. Steve Carell plays Mark with an uneasy mix of cloying simpleton smiles and just-under-the-surface shell-shock terror that lands firmly on the side of schmaltz.”