May 27

“Douglas” by Hannah Gadsby: Funny Trauma?

Douglas, a new Netflix special, actually exceeds the expectations Hannah Gadsby immediately introduces to her live audience.

Recently I’ve second-viewed Gadsby’s previous Nanette, a different breed from Douglas in that it’s funny for sure, but it’s also downright serious. (See my previous post.) In Douglas Gadsby notes right off the bat that she now realizes she foolishly used up all her real-life trauma in that one show: Had I known just how wildly popular trauma was going to be in the context of comedy, I might have budgeted my shit a bit better.

So, what happens in Douglas? Kathryn VanArendonk, Vulture: “It’s crafted from recognizable building blocks and a list of topics that coalesce into something like a Gadsby signature: art history, misogyny, the patriarchy, self-knowledge and self-blindness, wordplay, her childhood, and an effective dot-dot-dash rhythm of long, winding anecdotes punctuated by short sequences of clean, tight punch lines.”

What’s a population that doesn’t fare so well? Anti-vaxxers, be warned.

One, on the other hand, likely to be delighted? Those who identify on the autism spectrum. Gadsby was diagnosed relatively recently, in 2016.

Although Douglas is the name of her dog, by the way, Gadsby points out (at length) that it’s also the name of an interesting anatomical part. Ali Goldstein, Indiewire: “The special takes its title from a hilarious story about Gadsby unloading a host of information about the female reproductive anatomy on an unsuspecting — but not undeserving — overly friendly man at the dog park. She pivots from gently ribbing herself for failing to properly read this social interaction to proudly claiming her way of seeing the world as the beautiful and unique gift that it is.”

As Hannah Gadsby tells Terry Gross, NPR, she’s always known she doesn’t “process [things] in the same way as a neurotypical person”: “My entire life I’ve made people laugh, and I’ve not always meant to. Often I don’t. Yesterday, I was walking my dogs and a couple stopped me from a safe distance and asked me, ‘Oh! What kind of dogs are they?’ And I said, ‘They’re Lagottos.’ And they said, ‘Oh, I’ve never heard of that.’ And I said, ‘Neither have they.’ And it was the truth, and I wasn’t trying to be funny.”

Writing in Psychology Today Erin Bulluss, PhD, and Abby Sesterka express their high regard for Gadsby’s openness in relating “both the challenges and strengths that come with being autistic”:

She describes the difficulties of her pre-diagnosis experience of cognitive dissonance and lacking an understanding of herself. In the way that women across the world found validation in Nanette, we embraced Douglas because it offered an authentic narrative about the autistic experience like nothing we had seen before. It was empowering, validating, affirming. Finally, there was someone in the global spotlight talking from lived experience about being an autistic woman…

To see an autistic woman on the world stage, speaking honestly and openly about the autistic experience, is unprecedented. Gadsby is the authentic, articulate autistic voice that we have yearned for, and that the world needs to hear. We hope that autistic women can draw strength from Gadsby’s courage; to raise our collective voice from a whisper to a roar.

Nov 20

“That’s Mental”: Bipolar II in Humorous Essays

Look up author Amanda Rosenberg, author of That’s Mental: Painfully Funny Things That Drive Me Crazy About Being Mentally Ill, and these are the words she uses to describe herself:

Writer. British Chinese. Bipolar II. Love Island. Mental. No worries if not.

Her new book is a series of brief essays divided into BC (Before Crazy) and AD (After Diagnosis), and it’s been called “candidly mental but with jokes” (The Nerd Daily).

A less concise intro to the book (PureWow):

After a mental breakdown, suicide attempt, stay in a psych ward and misdiagnosis of borderline personality disorder, Rosenberg received a later-in-life (but correct) diagnosis of bipolar II, which the National Institute of Mental Health broadly defines as ‘a pattern of depressive episodes and hypomanic episodes, but not the full-blown manic episodes.’ Rosenberg describes her depressive episodes as feeling like her head is ‘clogged up with a toxic sludge,’ while manic episodes mean she’s ‘impulsive and obsessive,’ and finds it difficult to articulate how she’s feeling. ‘Everything [is] CAPS LOCK.’
How was she not diagnosed earlier? Largely because, as a part British, part Chinese woman, she didn’t fit the archetypal ‘mentally ill’ person (either a brooding, misunderstood straight white man or an off-the-handle straight white woman). The thing is, she reminds the reader, mental illness doesn’t discriminate. ‘It’s not just straight, white, ethereal-looking people who get depression. Asian people are depressed. Black people are depressed. Queer people are depressed. Trans people are depressed. People with disabilities are depressed.’

In a pertinent excerpt about mentally ill characters on TV (Salon) Rosenberg further notes: “I have nothing against white people playing characters struggling with their mental health. But when you’re a non-white kid and the only people you see on-screen are white, it seems like they’re the only ones who experience mental illness. Not just that—they’re the only ones allowed to have a mental disorder.”

Mental health stigma, grief and loss, trauma, unhelpful advice offered by others, and the difficulty of taking mental health days are just some of the topics covered in Rosenberg’s book. Also, of course: medication and therapy. Nadia Bey, Affinity, alludes to an interesting facet of the author’s experience with the latter: “With mental illness, there’s a sense of needing to have everything figured out or have the ‘correct’ feelings. Rosenberg touches on this by mentioning how she pretended to be sad in therapy because it seemed to be what was expected of her, which contrasts with her pretending to be fine once her mental health began to decline.”

Among the favorable reviewers is comedian Sara Benincasa, author of Agorafabulous!: Dispatches From My Bedroom (see my previous post): “Amanda Rosenberg writes in a very funny, wonderfully accessible way about her experience with bipolar II. She uses her experience as a jumping off point for advice that feels like it comes from a candid friend. Then, just when she’s got you comfortable, she punches you in the gut with a small snapshot of agonizing grief or a particularly evocative, elegant turn of phrase. Truly, this is my absolute favorite way for a writer to approach a tough subject, and she does it gloriously. May this book serve to make you laugh and to increase your compassion for all who live with mental illness. Perhaps you’ll even be kinder to yourself.”

Oct 30

“Joker”: Views of Several Forensic Psychiatrists

Joaquin Phoenix‘s Joker, or Arthur Fleck, is depicted as a man mentally ill, though not specifically diagnosed, who becomes quite violent. Moreover, according to Callie Ahlgrim, Insider, “he names his mental illness as a specific motivation for violence at the end of his climactic monologue, which sounds like the movie’s thesis statement.”

However, as presented in a previous post, “Gun Violence and Mental Illness: The True Relationship,” psychiatrist Gordon Livingston concluded that “(t)he only real predictor of future violence in anyone turns out to be a past history of violent behavior.” Most people with mental illness are not violent.

Similarly, Gabrielle Bruney, Esquire, states, “There are two characters in the film [Joker] who undergo treatment for mental illness, and each inflicts serious harm to others. Meanwhile, in real life, the mentally ill are more likely to be victims of violence than perpetrators of it.”

In lieu of having to watch the violence of Joker myself, below are excerpted quotes from several psychiatric professionals who’ve weighed in with explanations about Arthur as well as some of the film’s misleading messages:

I. Forensic psychiatrist Ziv Ezra Cohen, New York Daily News:

Research shows that people who commit mass shootings in the vast majority of cases do not have a clear mental illness that would explain their behavior. In addition, just 1% of gun violence is attributable to mental illness.

He does not show symptoms of delusions or a thought disorder that one would see in an illness like schizophrenia. He does not show the impulsiveness that one sees in many personality disorders and in bipolar disorder. He is cold, calculating, ruthless. A term we use in psychiatry to describe such people is psychopath.

However, even if we label him a psychopath, we still are not explaining why this particular psychopath behaves in this particular way, as opposed to, say, becoming a white-collar criminal. In addition, many persons who do much good for society have “psychopathic traits,” such as some surgeons, bomb sappers and intelligence officers. Why do they become “good psychopaths” as opposed to “evil ones”?

II. Forensic psychiatrists Vasilis K. Pozios. Philip Saragoza, and Praveen Kambam, in Hollywood Reporter:

...(T)he sympathy engendered through Arthur’s struggles with mental illness becomes conflated with a more problematic understanding of the violence he exacts against those who have wronged him. Fleck’s turn to violence is meant to elicit disdain for the character as his underlying psychopathic traits become more prominent; however, Joker achieves rock-star status because of his violence…Paradoxically, Phoenix’s Joker seems more organized in thought and appearance the more distant from treatment and the more violent he becomes.

Arthur Fleck’s character arc echoes an unfortunately familiar scenario: a lonely, traumatized individual with emotional problems (insecurity, anger, shame, hopelessness) and limited intrinsic or external resources experiences a series of losses, disappointments and insults. All of this leads to his cultivation of a grievance culminating in exacting retribution towards those he holds responsible for his plight — a process known in the practice and science of targeted violence prevention as the “pathway to violence.”

Although people with untreated mental illness have some increased risk of violence against others relative to the general population, this typically occurs in very specific situations such as when an individual experiences persecutory delusions and acts in perceived self-defense. This risk is still low compared to that attributable to other more common violence risk factors like substance use and being a member of the male sex.

Oct 17

Sexual Assault Disclosures: Belief and Disbelief

The Trump campaign is in full denial mode about sexual assault disclosures and continues to slam these brave women repeatedly. (Refer, by the way, to the HuffPost‘s running list of allegations against Trump.) Why now? Trump supporters ask. Unsubstantiated claims, they say. “Look at her, I don’t think so,” says Trump, referring to one of his multiple accusers, seemingly implying the possibility he would abuse a woman he does find attractive?

Remember the Trump pre-debate stunt that involved the premise that sexual assault victims should be believed? Well, now we see post-debate accused Trump: Voters, do not believe these false claims of sexual assault.

“The act of being touched did not traumatize me, unpleasant as it was,” recently wrote Meredith Melnick, Executive Health and Science Editor of The Huffington Post, about a long-ago incident that went unbelieved. “But the way our shared community organized around the guy who did it is a legacy I live with. And it took me 20 years ― until this election cycle, reading through thousands of women recounting their sexual assaults on Twitter ― to realize it.”

Indeed, not being believed regarding sexual assault disclosures leads to one of the longest lasting scars of all who are victimized. Because of the nature of trauma itself as well as the frequent lack of support, it often takes many years to catch up to what happened, to figure out what it’s done to one’s life, and to realize how it affects one’s self-esteem. Individuals often bear their pain in silence or near silence, and often south of fully conscious awareness, precisely because doing so without acknowledgment and validation from others has been too hard.

Yet, as Melnick boldly asserts regarding the general life experience of women, “We’ve all been groped or worse. Yes, all.”

So much is going on in the ongoing public debate that it’s more important than ever to know there is help out there. Ana Marie Cox, a TV journalist who in the midst of live Trump-related reportage last week (MSNBC) was triggered regarding her own past victimization, has tweeted out resources, including the National Sexual Assault Hotline (800-656-HOPE); she also just started #myselfcare to provide an outlet for individuals seeking relief from the onslaught of disturbing news.

Cox wisely added, “Self-care looks different for everyone but IMHO, self-care for survivors today should probably include VOTING.”

Jun 06

Eve Ensler On True Embodiment

Recently I was able to see the wonderful one-woman play In the Body of the World by Eve Ensler.

Courtesy of, some important background:

Ensler was diagnosed with stage III/IV uterine cancer in 2007, just as she began her work with rape victims in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Rather than temporarily retreat from the horrors she was fighting there in order to concentrate on her own healing, she spoke with her contacts daily. Together they worked to help each other. They transformed their pain into power and chose to live and not merely survive…

One of Eve Ensler’s first points in the play is about somatization. How she defined it in her 2013 book of the same title:

Somatize: how the body defends itself against too much stress, manifesting psychological distress as physical symptoms in the stomach or nerves or uterus or vagina…It turns out that somatization is related to hysteria, which stems from the Greek cognate of uterus…Uterus = hysteria. Hysteria –a word to make women feel insane for knowing what they know…

Ensler flinches at the misguided notion that hysteria is not an appropriate response to such phenomena as the high incidence of violence against women across the world.

Or to her own history of trauma. For 10 years Eve Ensler saw therapists in New York who didn’t seem to adequately validate the effects of childhood sexual abuse by her father. When one finally did, it made all the difference.

And when Ensler was afraid to undergo the intrusion of chemotherapy against her body, this same female therapist offered a different way of looking at it. The following are her words (taken from the book):

‘The chemo is not for you, It is for the cancer, for all the past crimes, it’s for your father, it’s for the rapists, it’s for the perpetrators.  You’re going to poison them now and they are never coming back. Chemo will purge the badness that was projected onto you but was never yours. I have total faith in your resilience and the magical capacities of your body and soul for healing…Welcome the chemo as empathetic warrior.’

Whether or not this is something that would work for you or me, it’s exactly what Eve Ensler needed to hear in order to proceed. (Note: In the theater piece Ensler implies that this therapist had become her “friend,” but without further info I don’t feel qualified to comment on whether any boundaries were broken.)

Part of Ensler’s process post-diagnosis was ruminating over the many possible reasons she could have gotten cancer. Among them: having an abortion, marital failures, bad reviews—even good reviews. And lots and lots of the diet drink Tab, she added, drawing hearty laughs of recognition (as many of the play’s other lines did as well, by the way).

But, as Decca Aitkenhead, The Guardian, reports, a different conclusion is reached: “Ensler believes she got cancer because her body became literally sick of the compulsion to keep proving herself. ‘I had to prove I wasn’t stupid, I had to prove that I was somebody, I had to prove that I could do it all on my own. And I think I had gone as far as I could go. I thought, what is the point of this – am I going to do this for ever? Am I going to prove myself to death?'”

When the play was going into its initial production in Cambridge, MA, Lisa Mullins, All Things Considered (WBUR), spoke with the playwright, now six years cancer-free and equally proud that City of Joy in the Congo also thrives. Eve Ensler’s words of appreciation follow:

…I am grateful that cancer stripped away what had to be stripped away in me. So I am living now with so much more peace, with so much more happiness, with so much more connectedness to people, with so much more openness. And that is as good as it gets here. If, in fact, we are here to learn how to love, which I think is what we’re here to do, to learn how to truly, truly, deeply love and really give ourselves and serve and be generous and be connected, cancer was the best teacher I ever had.