Archives

Promoting kindness, civility: The difference between an “opinion,” hate speech, and free speech

LETTER TO AN (UNNAMED) WEBSITE OWNER WHO THINKS HATE SPEECH IS THE SAME AS AN OPINION

Dear Ms. Website Owner:

Shame on you.  A few days ago I put a few words into the Google search tool about a subject I was interested in, and found my way to your story about it. I then had the misfortune of reading the third comment down, which was hateful and beyond appalling.  I wrote to you privately, asking you to take the comment down because it is clearly “hate speech” and specifically because of the terrible pain it would cause its intended target. I carefully explained my reasons for asking this, which I won’t identify because I don’t really want to call attention to the particulars, except to make a larger point about the prevalence of “hate speech” presuming to masquerade as “opinion” or “free speech” in our culture, and whose responsibility it is to take a stand.  Your response to my request to take it down?

As a fellow blogger I am disappointed that you would want me to censor my readers. I don’t know what kind of blog you run, but (my website) receives (x number) of unique visitors a year and we take our readers’ freedom of speech very, very seriously. Although I do not see eye to eye with many of the comments that are left by my readers, I do respect their right to have an opinion.

Now I admit that you’re not alone in misguidedly offering an unrelated principle to boost a specious argument, Ms. Shopping and Gossip Blog Owner.  And this kind of garbage seems to be everywhere–on television, in the unbelievable amount of name-calling in this culture, in the unkind way people talk to each other, even on big, influential, serious Internet sites like Salon and Slate, which are presumably run and edited by educated, responsible people.  Personally, I think it’s easy to distinguish between hate speech and an “opinion.” It’s like Justice Potter Stewart’s notion that hard-core pornography is hard to define, but he knew it when he saw it.  But obviously you need clarification, so here’s the Wikipedia definition: “Hate speech is communication that vilifies a person or a group on the basis of color, disability, ethnicity, gender, nationality, race, religion, sexual orientation, or other characteristic.”

So give me a break. I would vigorously defend your right to publish your blog, even if I don’t particularly like its voyeuristic and strange focus on the misfortunes of others, but do you REALLY think allowing hate speech on a shopping and gossip blog makes you a virtuous defender of “free speech?”

First of all, if that commenter were exercising free speech, he wouldn’t be hiding his identity, and behind a disgusting moniker yet.  Secondly, many websites do ban hate speech; Facebook, for example, bans (according to its own definition) violence and threats, bullying and harassment, hate speech, graphic content, nudity and pornography, and phishing and spam.  Some websites leave a placeholder, something like, “THIS COMMENT REMOVED.” Some may have policies on such things but don’t enforce them particularly well.  Shame on them too.

Perhaps when you’re not promoting gossip and shopping you’re a law scholar, and you really are one of those free speech absolutists who say all expression, no matter how despicable, should be allowed online. So then where are all the spam comments?  Ah. Your spam filter edits those out, right?  Well, that’s free speech too, so obviously you’re not a free speech absolutist, now are you? It is, after all, someone’s “opinion” that penises should be larger, and that they can be made so with a product called PENIS ERECTOR, and if free speech is what you care about, why not allow all that up there in addition to the Prada and hate speech?

Now people (and governments) may disagree on what governments should and shouldn’t protect, but you’re not a government. This has nothing to do with free speech; YOU OWN THE SITE. And you’re making a choice here, an unkind and hateful one, an uncivil one.

Ms. Website Owner, what’s the downside to editing out hate comments?  Would it hurt your cause of more shopping and gossip?  All it would do is deprive the hater of a forum to anonymously spew hate.  Yes, I believe that the answer to hate speech is more speech, and I see now that a few people are dressing that commenter down in follow up, some with name-calling almost as bad, which of course makes my point, that we’re so steeped in this junk that we can’t see our way out.  Nevertheless, if the comment’s intended target, who is already suffering from unspeakable pain, were ever to see that first comment, it might STILL bring even more unspeakable pain. Do you really want to do that?  Do you have no empathy?  Didn’t your mother teach you anything about morality, civility, kindness?

And while you’re leaving that placeholder, I suggest you do the same for all comments by this person, who seems to be trolling your site for ways he can say the most indecent, hateful things and do the most damage to his targets. He’s obviously very sick.  If you provide a forum for this individual, it doesn’t make you a defender of free speech.  I’m not sure what it makes you, but it isn’t anything good.

If no one takes responsibility for anything in this culture, if people hide behind meaningless and unrelated principles, where the hell are we?  The Dalai Lama said, “There is no need for temples; no need for complicated philosophy. Our own brain, our own heart is our temple; the philosophy is kindness.”

Sincerely,

Fran Dorf

Misguided religion: My heart and soul to Etan Patz’s parents

I almost lost my breakfast this morning upon reading in today’s New York Times that a man named Pedro Hernandez, who confessed to police last week to murdering six-year-old Etan Patz thirty-three years ago, also confessed to some relatives and to a charismatic Christian group thirty years ago.  I can’t even imagine how Etan’s parents feel.

This “Christian” group apparently encouraged (or maybe still encourages) participants to “feel the Holy Spirit and unburden themselves of guilt for their sins.” The  Times further describes the charismatic Christian gathering in Camden that Mr. Hernandez attended 30 years ago a “free-for-all of admissions of guilt, sometimes shocking.”  Furthermore, the article says, the “groups grow hardened and numb to hearing them,” and that one Mr. Rivera explained it by saying that it wasn’t his “place”  to tell because the confession wasn’t made to him alone, one-on-one, but to the group.

This is probably an accurate expression of Mr. Rivera’s own psychological rationalization.  But wow.  That is some religion. Defenders of religion often try to say that we need religion to instill morality, and manage to ascribe this kind of immorality to zealots of “other” religions, but how do we find the morality in any philosophy that would encourage silence and rationalization in the face of such a confession?  How do we reconcile an ethic that finds the “Holy Spirit” powerful enough and sufficient to relieve the guilt of a child murderer?  Or that puts protected confession above any feeling of empathy for the parents of that murdered little boy?  How do we cope with a religion that puts so called “faith” above a proper, conscience-guided sense of right and wrong?  Examples abound of religion–all religions, in history and currently–encouraging blind adherence to zealotry and faith, and/or protection of a misguided, entrenched hierarchy over the development of a moral conscience that can distinguish right from wrong, but really, this all still all reminds me of Eichmann’s Nuremberg defense that he was ” just following orders.”

One has to wonder what other confessions these people heard.   Isn’t there a priest somewhere who understands and can distinguish right from wrong, and could have advised these people?

My heart and soul goes out to Etan’s parents.

Offending the bereaved: Thoughts on the controversy around the upcoming DSM V proposed “grief guidelines”

Michael Max Dorf, a month or so before.

Who would have ever thought there could be a controversy around grief?

In the last few months, in my other (non-writing) life as a therapist, I have heard the devastating stories of several people seriously traumatized by their past contacts with the mental health system, people with a lasting legacy of pain from being (probably wrongly) prescribed powerful psychiatric drugs or placed against their will on a terrifying psych ward. I’m definitely not a conspiracy theorist, one who says things like “everything happens for a reason,” or assigns existential “meaning” to every happening, and so I’m sure it’s pure coincidence that I’ve heard so many stories like this lately. I obviously recognize that many dedicated people in the field are doing work that manages to be both life-saving and compassionate, yet these awful stories also underscore the need for folks setting the parameters in the field–the task force considering changes in the upcoming edition of the “bible” for clinicians, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (so-called “DSM V) to the various “diagnoses” around grief–to at least try to get it right.  It seems to me that those of us working in the field who are honored every day to do this work, to witness people’s deepest pain, have a duty to at least speak out when it appears that a grave and possibly for some folks dangerous injustice is being contemplated.

Partly because of the experience I mention above, and partly as a response to a wonderful “Open Letter to to the DSM Task Force” posted by Dr. Joanne Cacciatore on her own website (which I’m linking to here) , I’d like to add my own voice to all those professionals and offended bereaved people weighing in on this disturbing and upsetting controversy.

As readers of this blog surely know, I too lost lost a child, my son, Michael, who died in 1994, and I’ve been living with, and thinking, studying, and writing about grief ever since. (Let me assure the reader that I’ve also done lots of other things, including recover my sense of humor.)  My writing inspired by this includes a highly acclaimed novel, “Saving Elijah,”  published by Putnam in June, 2000.  After that I (eventually) went back to grad school to get a second masters degree in social work, mostly in order to work with the bereaved, even though I already knew from experience what one bereaved human being needs from another human being.  More recently I’ve been working on a kind of memoir, which I’m calling, “Excerpts: Complicated Grief.”  Included in the memoir is a recounting of the day I first heard in grad school that we were to label grief that lasts longer than two months (now according to all accounts of the upcoming DSM V apparently further reduced to two weeks) as pathology, call it “complicated,” call it a “disorder.”  Even twelve years after my son’s death, this felt like an accusation.  How could it not?  How could they not see that this is damaging to the very people it purports to “help?” It was as if feeling the terrible sorrow I had felt, sometimes even still felt (still sometimes feel now), wasn’t “normal.” Yet I knew full well that it was “normal,” both from my own experience and from talking to scores, even hundreds of other bereaved parents.

I’ve written the memoir in the second person, and it moves backward from the present to the day of the loss, in an attempt to show how grief can (while still being “normal”) reverberate throughout every corridor of a life, sometimes louder, sometimes softer, sometimes as a source of wisdom, sometimes as source of pain or anxiety, but always present.

It opens on what would have been my son’s 21st birthday.

October 22, 2011, seventeen years after. Stand at the dryer, slap in wet clothes, try to form an image of a strapping young man turning twenty-one today.  See only a sturdy toddler.   Like a failed magic trick.

Go to the cemetery, brush away leaves, place stones on the brass and marble marker. Stand in the thick, humid air.  Say Kaddish,  forget the last part.  Try to remember Michael but conjure up only bones in a tomb, shreds of boy and turtle, earthworms, fecund soil.  Say the word fecund aloud, the hard k sound rattling the teeth. Remember your husband falling into the grave. Wonder why you  come.  Get back into your car pursing your lips as if tasting something moldy. Think of old metaphors, new similes. Grief always comes alone to a child’s grave. Grief is no longer a thundering, hissing monster.  Grief is hollow now, like the blunt thud of rock on stone…….

The core problem comes in my view from the pathologizing of the normal human emotion of grief by calling it any kind of a disorder. And so whether you call it an “adjustment disorder related to bereavement,” and give it one year before you dial it up into an even more serious “disorder,” or whether it becomes “major depressive disorder” at two months, or at two weeks, seems to me secondary to the fact that it is called a disorder in the first place.

A child’s death?   At two weeks you’re still in shock. You’re just getting started at two months. Maybe. Actually, it seems to me that it would actually be “abnormal” for a parent who lost a child to not feel overwhelmed and debilitated by sorrow (and to experience many of the attendant symptoms that echo but are not the same as those for depression) at two months out, let alone two weeks out. I would venture to say this is probably true even at one year.  I remember visiting a friend of my mother’s who at age 100 was still talking about her fifteen-year-old son’s death in a car accident fifty years before as if it had happened that day. Personally, I would still call hers “normal” grief. And so the learned people figuring out the DSM seem to have had it backwards all along, and now seem to be doubling down on having it backwards.

I certainly agree that what people who have suffered loss need is (as Dr. Joanne says), human connection, caring, and compassion, or as the Lancet said: Time, Compassion, Remembrance, Empathy.  I believe it’s an insult to think that a pill could be any kind of substitute for that. I remember a good, well meaning friend wanted me to take medication, but even though I was suffering mightily, walking around in my bathrobe (not only figuratively) for three years, I somehow knew that it would do no good at all to try and mask the symptoms, because a certain amount of tears needed to be shed.  Luckily no clinician suggested medication.  I’m not sure what I would have done, given my state of mind, if one had.  The idea that we can “medicate” away the pain of grief isn’t about the bereaved, it’s about those who are uncomfortable with being witness to pain. As Rumi says,

We are pain and what cures pain, both. We are the sweet cold water and the jar that pours. I want to hold you close like a lute, so that we can cry out with loving. Would you rather throw stones at a mirror? I am your mirror and here are the stones.

In other words, the healing from the pain is in the pain.  So it is.

My favorite definition of compassion is the Buddhist one: “Willingness to be close to suffering.”  That’s what I do, what all of us who want to help do, we open our hearts to someone’s suffering.  We witness.  We don’t try to fix it.   I always say: Be present. Be humble. Be patient. Observe. Reflect. Allow silence. Don’t judge. Accept. Listen

It seems to me that this isn’t only about the pharmaceutical industry, it’s even more about the insurance industry, which seems to be in the business of not paying for whatever it can possibly get out of. (And not just in the area of grief.)  In this case the insurance industry seems to want to get out of any paying for anything other than that which has medication as the first line of treatment, and which labels grief a “mental illness,” or a “disorder” of some kind (an outcome that can stay in a person’s record forever, with terrible, terrible consequences).

It’s a sickening conundrum, it puts people who want to provide support for the bereaved who seek it in a terrible position, and of course it puts the bereaved in an even worse position.  Aren’t we trying to help them?  Surely we are. And one of the things we must do to help them is “normalize” what they’re feeling.  Yes, I wailed at the top of my lungs in a hospital room, but so would you.

As clinicians, we have the “V” bereavement code, but insurance generally doesn’t pay for treatment if you use this as a diagnosis. To receive payment from insurance, it has to be a “disorder.” And so to get insurance to cover our effort to help people make their way through grief, we are actually forced to call it some kind of disorder, even when we know it isn’t.  (This is, by the way, actually true for many situations, for example anger management.  Insurance won’t pay for people looking for help with “anger issues” unless you slap on a some kind of a “disorder” label.

Some, no doubt, will think I’m a hopeless idealist, or a radical left winger for believing that Americans, the “richest” country on earth, ought to provide universal health care that enables people to get the health care they need, no matter what their financial or job situation.  I don’t care.  I still must speak the truth as I see it.  And there simply ought to not only be health care for all, there should be some other terminology that acknowledges the debilitating nature of what I’ve called “big time grief,” and also provides coverage for people to get the proper, compassionate psychological support they need in difficult times.

All of us can be hopeful that the outcry from the grief community around this issue will, like the outcry to de-pathologize homosexuality in the 1970s, result in a de-pathologization of grief.  From a practical standpoint, under our current disaster of a health insurance system, we are required to diagnose some kind of “disorder” or there is no insurance coverage for clinical services.  In the absence of a complete rethinking of the whole system (oh, for such an outcome!; let’s just hope the misguided politicians won’t succeed in their threat to repeal the so-called “Obamacare” coverage for everyone), we can only hope that whatever happens, good clinicians (and particularly psychiatrists with their ready-meds) recognize that the DSM is at best an imperfect guide, and can tell the difference between grief and either adjustment “disorder,” or major depressive “disorder,” whatever must be recorded as a diagnosis to get coverage.

I invite you to share your grief story as a comment.

Guns on Mars

Conversation in front of an exhibition of beautiful photographs of people and scenes in Israel, displayed in our local Jewish Community Center.  I’m standing in front of a photo of a man in an outdoor market.  In the photo, we see his back.  His shirt is up, and a large gun is strapped into a holster around his waist at the small of his back.  The gun is the focus of the photograph.

A woman walks by and says, in what sounds like an Israeli accent: “Is that for real?”

“What?” I say. “The gun?”

“Yes.  The gun,” she says.

“I think it’s for real.  I assume it’s for real,” I say.

“Scary,” she says. “Why is he carrying it in his shirt like that?”

“I have no idea,” I say.  “He must think he needs it for self protection.”

She shakes her head.  “What a shame.”

I sigh.  “Yes.  A real shame.  In my opinion, every single gun on the planet should be rounded up and sent to Mars.”

She laughs and walks away, and as she walks away I realize that I completely believe what I said. As far as I’m concerned, there should be a house to house, factory to factory, storage bunker to storage bunker search of the entire planet, and every single firearm, rifle, bomb (nuclear and regular), AK47, and every other exploding weapon, should be put on a spacecraft and shipped to Mars. Then no one would have them, and we wouldn’t have to “protect” ourselves from them. Obviously, we’d still be the same unevolved human race, characterized by our primitive, threatening behavior, but it would be a lot better, and have fewer global ramifications, if we used primitive weapons, like knives and spears, to express our primitive impulses.

I guess I’m out of step with mainstream, conservative America, huh?

Follow up: More Guns, More Death, More Grief

Commenting on my post, “More Guns, More Death, More Grief,” “andthebuddhasaid” (love that moniker) said:

You make great points and are absolutely right, but you didn’t comment on Barack Obama’s support of the Supreme Court’s decision. Apparently he was in whole hearted agreement. Personally I don’t think that this is the decision to measure his stance on gun control, but it would be interesting to hear your thoughts.

Well, frankly, I was upset by Obama’s support of the decision, (which came after the post) but not totally shocked. I posted the piece on http://www.dailykos.com, thinking that that supposedly left-leaning community would mostly be in support, and found myself completely under attack by gun nuts, most of them claiming the right to defend themselves in their homes, and saying gun control laws don’t work, in no uncertain terms. Nearly four hundred people weighed in against me, I felt like a sitting duck. (And they call themselves liberals…for shame. Maybe they’re actually Republican plants.) Strict constructionists and others may argue about the original meaning of the Second Amendment and parse the placement of the comma in its words, and argue that such placement means citizens are allowed to own guns, INCLUDING assault weapons, but what I was primarily saying in that post was that two angry teenage boys in a school yard with loaded guns equals more death and grief than two angry teenagers in the same school yard without guns. Give a suicidal individual access to a gun (suicides account for a huge portion of gun deaths, way more than homicides) and see if a momentary urge doesn’t turn into a permanent condition. Compare the homicide rate in the United States of America with its weak gun control laws to other developed countries with strong gun control laws. I’m interested in grief, and more guns means more grief.

If this was about self protection, why not fight for non-lethal methods of self protection?

As for Obama’s position, my guess is that he’ll not appoint judges who are “strict constructionist” or judges obsessed with “original Intent” to the Supreme Court, and while whomever he appoints might agree with the current Court’s current decision on guns, they will not agree on so many other issues that are important to me that there is STILL no choice about whom I will support in this election. John McCain will be a disaster for this country, which has already endured eight years of disaster. Even a few of McCain’s own Republican party admit that he has too volatile a temperament to be President in this volatile world. Here’s a quote from the Huff Post on this:

“The thought of his being president sends a cold chill down my spine,” Sen. Thad Cochran (R-Miss.), also a senior member of the Appropriations panel, told the Boston Globe recently. “He is erratic. He is hotheaded. He loses his temper and he worries me.”

If Thad Cochran is worried, so am I. Obama, in my opinion, has the kind of mind, focus, conciliatory approach, and even temperament that we sorely need in a volatile world. He is by far the better man. The Presidency is not only about policies; it’s very much about inspiration and vision. McCain has never met a war he didn’t like, and he’s chomping at the bit for more war. I wish it weren’t so, but it is. It seems to me that Senator McCain learned the wrong lessons from his time as a prisoner.

Talking about writing, slavery, grief and more with novelist Bernice McFadden

As promised in my last post, here’s my interview with novelist Bernice McFadden, whom I met at a Book and Author Luncheon, and whose novel, “Nowhere is a Place,” I found to be an extraordinarily compelling tale about family, family secrets, journeys of self discovery, and the personal and ancestral history that make us who we are as people. (See my previous post for full review.)
Fran Dorf: Would you tell readers a little about yourself, your background, and how you came to be a writer?

Bernice McFadden: I am the eldest of four children. I was born, raised and still reside in Brooklyn, NY. I am the mother of one grown daughter. I was a shy child and books offered and escape from the real world. I dreamed of becoming a writer at a very early age. It’s the only thing I ever really wanted to be. For a while though it seemed as if it wouldn’t happen, but back in 1999 the God’s smiled down on me and granted the one thing I wished for on every birthday and every star since I was nine years old.

Fran Dorf: Wow. I admire that. I was a “secret” writer in my teens, but even then I didn’t have a clue what I wanted to be. Question: I admit I found myself more enthralled by the historical story in “Nowhere is a Place” than the contemporary one, although they certainly worked together to tell a larger tale. I especially loved the scenes in which the slaves take over the household of their deranged master. It seems to me that owning slaves would deeply affect the sanity anyway, regardless of how much a society tries to deny the common humanity of people. Can you comment on the origins of this scene? Is this something you invented, or is it based on a real incident or incidents?

Bernice McFadden: When I sit down to write story I start off believing that I know what’s going to happen – I believe I have a beginning, middle and end. I’ve published ten novels to date and each and every time my characters prove me wrong. The characters control the story – I just write down what they show me. I do believe that that particular scene is a tribute to the ancestors that fought against the establishment.. ie. Nat Turner.

Fran Dorf: Well, it’s an amazing tribute. Question: One character, a Native American girl, Nayeli, who is given the name Lou by her master after his dog, takes a large role in the book. I didn’t actually realize that Native Americans were also forced into slavery in America, although I’m certainly not surprised that they were. I assume this interesting nugget is based on truth, but did you know this already or find it out through research? How much research do you do for your novels, and do you research while you are writing the first draft, or before you start, or both?

Bernice: Yes, I was aware that the English enslaved Native Americans in the Carolinas, using them on plantations as well as shipping them off to the Caribbean Islands. I do most of my research as I’m writing the novel.

Fran: Can you comment generally on the relationship of your fiction to your life?

Bernice: For me it is impossible to NOT include some real bits of myself in my fiction. Writing a novel is like a carrying a child – when it’s born it’s going to have your DNA.

Fran: I love the DNA metaphor. I’m always amazed when I hear writers and teachers of writing somehow disparage “autobiographical” novels, or deny that writers use their own lives in their fiction. Question: As a bereaved mother and student of psychology whose last novel was inspired by my loss, I have come to see human beings through a unique lens–the way they incorporate trauma and grief and loss into their lives. I’m always amazed at how deeply these difficult experiences influence personal psychology and one’s personal narrative. In this context, I’m talking about trauma, loss and grief that can be either personal or, for want of a better word, ancestral. I wonder if you might comment on this, whether it has any validity for you, how your own losses as I’ve just defined them affect who you are and what you write about.

Bernice: I’m very interested in grief. I study it in myself and the people around me. This interest is certainly present in my work. I feel that I do my best work when I’m grieving or have the bottomless sense of loss and sadness – I pour my emotions into the story and which in turn seems to lend a certain level of authentication.

Fran: Yes, I study it too, and I agree that emotional authenticity is key. We must always write from a place of grief and loss or what we turn out will be sappy or sentimental. Which is one of the reasons I call myself The Bruised Muse. Question: I’m fascinated by the myriad ways novelists go about writing novels. One novelist told me he wrote things down on cards and pasted them on his bulletin board. John Irving insists he always knows the ending. As a writer who never made an outline in her life and always writes (okay, wrote) fiction to find out what’s going to happen, I can’t imagine that. Can you talk a little about your process?

Bernice: The first time I ever outlined a book was a few months back. My agent suggested I do so because we were shopping a partial manuscript. I sent him three pages, which was of course unacceptable to him. Before it was all said and done I had cried, cussed and slammed all of the doors in my house in order to keep from breaking all of the mirrors! We went back and forth so much that I felt like I was writing a dissertation – but fifteen pages later I was proud of what I had done (even though the story is sure to take a different path) and grateful to my agent.

Fran: When did you know you wanted to be a writer? What training or study did you undertake in order to become one? Do you think compelling storytellers are born, can be taught, or both?

Bernice: I knew I wanted to be a writer when I was nine years old. I took two writing classes at Fordham University back in ’95 and ’96. I do believe you either have it you don’t.

Fran: Actually, I agree, although I think you can learn to use the tools of the craft more effectively. Aside from Toni Morrison and Alice Walker, who are some of your favorite writers?

Bernice: Gloria Naylor, Rita Dove, Stephen King. Junot Diaz has a found a new fan in me as well as British author, Christopher Wilson.

Fran: I’m glad you love Stephen King. Me too. I love Diaz’s short stories but haven’t tried his novel, nor am I familiar with Christopher Wilson.
Bernice: Christopher Wilson wrote a novel called Cotton — unlike any story I’ve ever read — every one I’ve recommended the book to loved it. Diaz’s The brief wondrous life of Oscar Wao– FABULOUS — I loved it — I felt like I was reading it on a treadmill — his rogue writing style left me breathless.
Fran: Breathless? How can I resist that? I shall have to read them, as well as Gloria Naylor and Rita Dove, and the complete works of Bernice McFadden. Question: My last novel, “Saving Elijah” fit into no particular genre, and I always felt as a consequence that the publisher didn’t really know what to do with it. I felt the book and author luncheon was a great way to bring your writing to a wider (read: white) audience. Which leads me to the following question: I feel writers are nowadays compelled in this niche-driven world to appeal to particular audiences, whether the audience is “women, “African American,” “African-American women,” “Jewish women,” or genre based. Obviously, publishers want to exploit whatever natural audience there is for a writer’s writing, but do you feel you’ve been pigeon-holed as an “African American writer” and do you feel limited by that in any way?

Bernice: YES I DO!!! It’s terrible that publishers do not market AA writers across the color line. There are a few exceptions – but too few for it to trickle down and make a major difference for the rest of the AA writers. Which is why my attendance at the Ferguson Library Luncheon was so important – I understand that in all the years I’m just the 4th AA author participant! It baffles the mind that in 2008 so many people believe that we are more different than we are alike. A real lover of literature couldn’t care less about the color of the authors skin – they just want a compelling read – plain and simple.

Fran: Can you comment briefly on how the legacy of slavery affects African Americans today.

Bernice: Four hundred years of slavery and its afternath are not easily swept awy from people’s memory and culture. I don’t know if you are familiar with the infamous Willie Lynch letter, but back in 1712, slave owner Willie Lynch addressed a group of slave owners in the colony of Virginia, and read from a prepared document that outlined his fool proof method controlling black slaves. That method, whether the powers that be admit it or not, is still–not unlike the Constitution–in use today.

Note: The Bruised Muse was unfamiliar with the Willie Lynch letter, but found an enormous amount of information on it on the Web. About what subject isn’t there an enormous amount of information on the Web? As anyone who has emailed me one of those rabble-rousing, false letters about Obama being a Muslim, or Britain/University of Kentucky/etc. eliminating the Holocaust from its school curriculum knows, I try always to seek truth. Just so the reader knows, the Willie Lynch letter is purportedly a letter by a British slave owner speaking about the way to psychologically control slaves, by dividing them according skin color, age, hair type, etc. Here’s a link for the full text. I do feel compelled to point out that there are also debunkers of this letter as an urban myth. For that, check this link. Even if the letter is a hoax, I take its point as a psychological truth. I don’t think there’s any question that oppressed people adopt certain of the negative stereotypes and notions foisted on them by their oppressors, and that it is to their detriment to do so. I do believe a light-skin/dark-skin self-prejudice still rages in the black community, for example. Where did this come from? An oppressor will always encourage you to argue amongst yourselves while he picks your pocket and keeps his foot on your head. It’s an effective, psychologically sound (if Machiavellian) slight of hand.

Bernice’s website is: http://www.pageturner.net/bernicemcfadden/

Novelist Bernice McFadden highlights Book and Author Luncheon

A few weeks ago my friend Gail Malloy invited me to be her guest at the Book and Author Luncheon sponsored annually here in Stamford by the Ferguson Library. I figured it would be a staid affair, as these things usually are, but the proceedings were surprisingly lively. The first unexpected liveliness came in the form of Mickey Sherman, the attorney famous for his television appearances, his controversial legal tactics, and mostly for his losing defense of bail-skipping, convicted Darien rapist Alex Kelly, and convicted Greenwich Kennedy-cousin murderer Michael Skakel. Plugging his book, “How Can You Defend These People,” Sherman, when his turn came to speak, insisted he isn’t really a writer and acted as if he’d both written the book and wandered into the place by accident, but he did prove to be quite a hilarious storyteller, so I may just pick up his book anyway at some point.
The second and more interesting liveliness, at least from a bibliophile’s standpoint, came in the form of the beautiful, talented novelist, Bernice McFadden, whose fourth novel, “Nowhere is a Place,” I bought on the spot. (Actually, Bernice also writes sexy “chick-lit novels” under the pseudonym Geneva Holliday, so her total “books-written” count is somewhere around ten, she informed the crowd that day.)
I finally got a chance to read “Nowhere is a Place” and it turns out to be an extraordinarily compelling tale about family, family secrets, journeys of self discovery, and the personal and ancestral history that make us who we are as people. Using a technique similar to the one I used in “Saving Elijah,” Bernice weaves back and forth between a contemporary story and a historical one and manages to compel us with both. In the contemporary story, an estranged mother and daughter, Dumpling and Sherry, embark on a road trip across the country to a family reunion in Georgia, and along the way we discover the tragic, brutal and sometimes joyful history of this compelling African-American family. With startlingly vivid, often sensuous language, Bernice not only compels us to turn the page but with great bravery shows us in stark reality the absolute violence and uncompromising brutality of the institution of slavery, the psychological and physical dehumanization, the utter disregard for the common humanity of its victims. And with great, subtle wisdom, Bernice also shows us how that legacy affected and still affects the children of slaves and their children’s children, even to this day.
As a person deeply interested in the psychological effects of grief, trauma, and loss, I found the novel utterly moving, though I admit I often found myself cringing when confronted with scene after scene showing the depraved cruelty perpetrated on blacks by whites. I see why Bernice has been compared to Toni Morrison, and I highly recommend the book.
I also love it that Bernice included a short section at the back of the book called “Are We Related?” Well, Bernice, I doubt that you and I are related, since my family history (about which I admittedly know very little) is one that seems to deny that possibility. Here’s what I know about my family and it isn’t much: Because of brutal persecution of Jews in Russia, my great-great grandmother and father (whose names I don’t know) sent two of her sons, ages 10 and 11, my grandfather Abraham Freedman and his brother (whose name I don’t know) to America. They came alone in ship steerage around 1900. I have seen an affidavit my grandfather signed when he arrived, in which he renounced the Tzar of Russia. I suspect, as you say, that it is a labor of love to research one’s family tree that is not always fruitful. Though I would seriously like to find out more about my own family, fruitfulness might be an issue for me too. The problem is that name Freedman was probably not even my grandfather’s real name, since it was common for immigration officials to simply make up names that would be more “American” when people came before them. My mother’s people also came from Russia around the same time, I think, and on that front I do at least know their name, which was Balabanovich. Any Balabanovich’s out there?
Bernice has agreed to answer some questions–on the writing and publishing process, on how grief figures in her fiction, on some of the startling scenes in her novel, and on the legacy of slavery today. I’ll post that in the next few days.

More guns, more death, more grief

Every day now, it seems, we have to eat more of the poisonous fruit that has grown out of the election and re-election of George Bush. Yesterday’s 5 to 4 decision by the Roberts Supreme Court endorsed a so-called “personal right to own guns,” and overturned precedent of seventy years. What happened to Roberts and Alito’s promises during their confirmation hearings that they would honor precedent whenever possible? We can’t have “activist” judges, conservatives scream.

The net effect will be more guns, more death, and more grief. More mothers and fathers will suffer unspeakably over the tragic and unnecessary deaths of their children. More sisters will grieve over brothers. More brothers will weep over sisters. More grandmothers and fathers will have to bear watching their children endure the worst possible thing that could happen to them. Perhaps the honorable Justices who think there should be MORE guns in this society and not fewer guns would like to provide funds for grief counseling for the victims of their decision, one which completely defies decency, reason, and common sense. Oh, I forgot, Congress provides funds.

According to Adam Liptak’s news analysis in today’s NY Times, the precedent in this case was a 1939 decision in which the Court, in United States v. Miller, upheld a federal prosecution for transporting a sawed-off shotgun. A Federal District Court had ruled that the provision of the National Firearms Act the Miller defendants were accused of violating was barred by the Second Amendment, but the Supreme court disagreed and reinstated the indictment. This was followed by decades and decades which a majority of “courts and commentators regarded the Miller decision as having rejected the individual-right interpretation of the Second Amendment.

The court’s slim decision is yet another in a long line of devastating and destructive decisions that have followed from the stacking of the Court with conservatives. Here’s NPR’s Nina Totenberg, writing a year ago, about this matter.

“For conservatives, this term was pretty close to the best of times, and for liberals, it was pretty close to the worst of times. Although Roberts and Alito both promised at their confirmation hearings to honor precedent whenever possible, in their first full term together, they effectively reversed a number of key precedents. In each case, it was by a 5-to-4 vote.”

And the trend has only escalated during this current term.

During the arguments the appallingly arrogant and seriously misguided Justice Antonin Scalia, the darling of the right, parsed the meaning of the words “A well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed.” Justice Scalia argued that “the prefatory statement of purpose should not be interpreted to limit the meaning of what is called the operative clause.” His word-parsing, semantic argument is not unlike the argument over the placement of the comma in the clause that has been going on for some time now, and which, for all I know, may even be part of the decision. How do we argue semantics over common sense? That’s what I want to know. The “liberal” Justice Stevens argued more globally and sensibly that the majority’s understanding of the Miller decision was not only “simply wrong but reflected a lack of respect for the well-settled views of all our predecessors on the court, and for the rule of law itself,” and was “based on a strained and unpersuasive reading of the Second Amendment.”

As the kids say, “Whatever.”

The net effect will be more guns, more death, more grief.

I so well remember a conversation I had back in 2004 with a young woman who said she was going to vote for George Bush, because he would keep us safe. I decided not to address the “safety” argument, and pointed out that the reelection of George Bush would lead to the overturn of Roe v. Wade, which I knew she cared about, and many other laws that she counted on without even realizing it. She looked at me and shrugged, “Never happen.” Well, it IS happening, and it will continue to happen…

And it is yet another reason to support Barack Obama for President. John McCain comes right out and says he will continue to appoint conservative Justices like Scalia and Alito and Roberts to the Supreme Court. We cannot and SHOULD NOT just shrug that off, we should take John McCain at his word. Here’s yet another case of the unquestioning acceptance and operational reality of “doublethink” in this country. WHO are the “activist” judges?

Let’s do some real straight talking. If John McCain is elected, we can look forward to even more poisonous decisions by the Supreme Court, with majorities that will not be so slim.

Immersed in the language of our dissolving country

their cronies

and the poor

American landscape

disappearing in the rockets and red glare,

battle hymns of them and us.

Who are these people who

hang unbroken in creation

stimulate their Jesus action figures

steamrolled by flat-out hucksters

stupefied by the complex,

stream across the detritus of America

abrogate treaties, inform parades

circumnavigate the globe with their

misbegotten little wars,

sell any crapola like Good News,

stir any Orwellian double talk into their soup,

eat any fiction they find strewn across the open plains,

while little girls spread their legs

and people die without good reason

and we eat the poisonous fruit.

What is human without a microphone?

To which country did my grandfather Abraham come,

carrying his clothes on his back?

Movie Review: Grief is the backdrop for the wonderful film, “The Visitor”

Grief is both the thematic underpinning and the overarching aura in an absorbing, powerful film called “The Visitor.” While this low-key, underplayed film is humanistic and realistic in the extreme, memories of the dead loom over the characters like silent, watchful ghosts. The Visitor was written and directed by Tom McCarthy, who several years back gave us another extraordinary film, “The Station Agent.” Like that earlier film, The Visitor explores issues of identity and place, belonging and connection, but this film also looks at immigration and other post-9/11 issues, and indicts the US government for its arbitrary, callous policies. It is a mark of McCarthy’s mature sensibility that the film makes this indictment quietly and subtly, by engaging us with a charismatic and likable young man living an attractive, authentic life, and then arbitrarily taking that life away from him. This stands in contrast to more traditional “Hollywood” fare, a movie like “Rendition”, which makes its indictment with a bludgeon. And the immigration issues, while crucial to the plot and deeply disturbing, are clearly secondary to the psychological and interpersonal matters this gifted director wants to explore. His vision is psychologically sound, particularly evident in the way he deals with grief.

“The Visitor” revolves around a depressed, middle aged economics professor named Walter Vale, played by the subtle actor who so memorably played the ghostly Fisher patriarch in my favorite television series of all time, “Six Feet Under.” With his hunched shoulders, immobile expression, furrowed brow and everyman face, Richard Jenkins literally inhabits this character. It’s a restrained performance, yet highly effective. While neither the circumstances of Vale’s wife’s death nor when she died are ever specified, it is clear that Vale continues to carry the weight of his grief, and that grief has transformed him into a silent, somber, disaffected man, lonely and isolated, floating through life, or rather going through the motions of his life, teaching his class, attending faculty meetings, pretending to work on a fourth book, and returning every night to his neatly kept suburban home.

It’s not that he isn’t trying to find some avenue back into the world, and some enjoyment or at least engagement in life. He’s been taking piano lessons, but while it is clear here that both he and his wife loved music, she was the pianist, and as the movie opens we find him dismissing his fourth piano teacher, played to spinsterish perfection by veteran actress Marian Seldes. I can’t help mentioning here that Seldes eerily reminded me in this role of my own elderly spinsterish piano teacher of long ago. Her name was Alma Drum, and she used to place a pencil under my hands just the way this one does with Vale. Miss Drum was as petite as she was stern and humorless, with her helmet of gray hair. Miss Drum would by now be about a hundred and thirty years old. (Hmmm, maybe I should meditate on her for a while, and do a post on her.)

We get some sense that Vale must have been something in his heyday, and we find some hope that he can actually make a spiritual comeback when circumstance forces him goes to present a paper at New York University, and he arrives at a Village apartment he and his late wife owned, but he hasn’t been to in years. There he finds a pair of young, undocumented squatters in residence, Tarek, a Syrian musician played with winning charm and charisma by Haaz Slieiman, and his girlfriend Zainab, who is originally from Senegal and makes jewelry which she sells from a table on the street, the character played with with wary fierceness by exotic beauty Danai Guiria. These two freak out when he arrives; they think they were living in the apartment legally, and they offer to leave immediately. Walter agrees, but then realizes the couple has nowhere else to go, and changes his mind, for reasons even he doesn’t quite grasp. They stay, and Walter befriends them, first Tarek, who embodies youth in all its impetuous enthusiasm, and eventually Zainab, who is aloof and wary at first, but who gradually comes around. Now we begin to see some sparks of life in this graying, somber character, as Tarek introduces him to the lively New York City jazz scene, the filmaker here celebrating New York City in all its diversity. Finally, Walter Vale begins to take the first steps out of his isolation, most particularly in a scene of extraordinary power in which the reluctant Vail joins in an African drumming circle in Washington Square Park, a balding white man in a suit amidst the primarily black, hip drummers, dancers, and percussionists.

But then Tarek is arrested for no wrongdoing while with Walter in the subway, imprisoned in the kind of unnamed, unidentified detention center we’ve been hearing a lot about lately, this one somewhere in Queens. The arrest and the imprisonment are both arbitrary and capricious, a disturbing reminder that human rights are being violated every day in this country. Continue reading