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Just Ask Me: Help! My Work Friend Got Promoted—and I’m Jealous

Dear Fran, 

I’m 31 years old and have been working in the engineering and project management industry for a little over 10 years, five at my current company. A good friend of mine started working at my company about two years ago but in the business development sector. It’s been great to have her here because we can grab lunch or a quick chat anytime.

Here’s the issue—I’ve had the same position for my entire time at this company and after only a couple of years, she recently got a huge promotion. Window office, director title, six-figure salary, the whole bit. I know I should be happy for her, but I can’t help but feel extremely jealous of her situation. She’s making more than I am by a good $30K and at her age, she is bound to keep on rising up the ranks.

I guess I also worry about our friendship. How are we going to keep up break time chats and water-cooler talk when she’s in a whole different hierarchy? How can I handle this whole thing more gracefully?

Thanks,

Don’t want to be envious

Dear Envious:

Ah, envy: that little green monster that often seems to cause so much pain. It can rear its ugly head at friends, colleagues, celebrities, bosses, family members, and perfect strangers (in no particular order). It can glom on to someone else’s courage, clarity of vision, emotional serenity, compassion, persistence, intelligence, quick wit, or success.

Let me give you a personal example. As a writer, my most powerful envy comes when I’m in the middle of a book and I suddenly find myself so profoundly moved or deeply amused by the words on the page that I have to stop and take a breath to contemplate (and envy) the author’s skill. Here are a couple of random examples that stopped me this way: Emma Donoghue’sRoomShira Nayman’s Awake in the DarkPatrick Suskind’s PerfumeJeffrey Eugenides’Middlesex; and Cynthia Kaplan’s book of personal essays, Why I’m Like This.

Now I want you to notice that, of the books that have stirred my green monster, some are bestsellers, some only sold a few thousand copies; some were recently published, some years ago; some were lauded by critics, some not so much. The truth is that while I might occasionally envy someone’s “success,” what I envy most powerfully is what I most value, certain qualities of character, and what I aspire to as a writer.

So first, I want you to be clear about what it is that you’re envying. Is it your friend’s success? The fact that she got chosen for a promotion and you didn’t? That she got a lucky break and you didn’t? The six-figure salary? Or does your envy stem from your fear she’s more skilled at her job than you are at yours?

I ask you these questions because I think it will help you to separate that which is mostly beyond your control and concentrate on that which is primarily in your control. Life is certainly not fair and your friend’s success may well be due to sheer good luck, which is painfully beyond your control.

What is in your control, and what you can concentrate on, is how to be the best you can be atyour job. Identify things that would make you promotable and work on those skills. Separate what is going on with your friend’s promotion from the realities of your position and the likelihood of moving up. If you truly feel that a promotion is due, pursue it with your manager.

Another worthwhile consideration is whether you actually enjoy and are stimulated by your current position. If you’re bored, or find yourself eyeing your friend’s (or another) field that seems more interesting or presents more opportunities for advancement, take some steps in that direction. Maybe her job change will prove to be a catalyst for you to make some changes for yourself. You don’t necessarily need to wait around for management to give you a bump up the ladder; maybe it’s time for you to pursue a new industry or a new company that will provide the opportunities that you are seeking.

Next, you call this woman a “good friend,” but I wonder if she’s a real friend. Is she someone you can actually talk to, or is your relationship merely centered around the water cooler chat? Are you worried about her throwing her new position in the hierarchy around because she already has? If so, then I’d stop thinking of her as your “good friend” and try to gracefully back away while continuing with the superficial water cooler chat.

My standards for a “good friendship,” however, are a little different. I root for my friends to reach their goals, I applaud their achievements, and I expect them to do the same for me. A quality friendship is based on whether I can talk to and confide in my friends, and whether they they can talk to and confide in me. I feel that friends are real friends because they share honest feelings with each other, and can allow themselves to be or appear vulnerable.

If this were me, and I thought she was my good friend, I’d find a time when she and I weren’t at work, and share some of my feelings surrounding her promotion. I might casually say that I’d been hoping for a promotion, too, or even confess how envious I am! I might ask her how or why she thinks she got the promotion, and maybe even ask her for some suggestions. And then I’d watch very carefully to see how she handled the situation. This is a tricky time for your friendship. If she’s really your friend, she’ll offer her support and hear out your disappointments in a loving way. If a candid conversation like that didn’t go smoothly, I’d seriously think about how close of a friend she really is.

I wish you the best of luck in your career and your friendship, and I’m glad you wrote in and asked.

Fran

Originally posted on The Daily Muse

Read More From Fran

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My novel, “Saving Elijah,” is now available on Kindle!

Wow!  It’s been twelve years since Putnam published SAVING ELIJAH, my novel “inspired” by the loss of my son.  It’s now available in a KINDLE edition through Amazon, and RIGHT NOW, for a limited time, Amazon is offering it FREE if you’re an Amazon Prime member.  Otherwise it’s just $3.99.  My blood, sweat, and tears for only $3.99!  And what do you get?  Terror and sorrow, poignancy and inspiration, I hope.  That’s a lot for free, and even for $3.99. Click HERE for the Amazon link to get the book, and if you happen to read it and like it, please leave a review there.  For reasons I don’t exactly understand, the reviews for the print edition of the book don’t automatically get transferred to the new Kindle edition.  This, of course, is one of the many things about this life that I don’t understand.

Here are a few of those rave reviews:

“Stunning, spellbinding, cracking with suspense, dark humor and provocative questions. A compelling page-turner that meditates, with honesty and insight, on the nature of parental love and responsibility.”  (Publisher’s Weekly, notable review)

Ambitious, imaginative, and beautifully done. (Wall Street Journal)

Fascinating, skillful, a fiercely compelling read. (Glamour)

The Death of Empathy: Surviving the Culture of Snark

Surviving?  Given the death of empathy for each other as fellow human beings, if we make it through the century it will surely be a miracle.

Hey, Bruised Muse readers, I tend toward cynicism myself at times, and have even been known to be kind of funny in my real life (if not particularly so far on this blog), but my humor is generally directed toward myself, as in self-deprecating, if you know what I mean.  It seems we’ve arrived in the last few years at some kind of a PEAK OF SNARK in this culture, in which so called humor is used as a weapon to destroy others, rather than as a coping mechanism to help and heal ourselves.  You have to now call ours a Culture of Snark; one writer has even gone so far as to call it the Culture of Sadism.  He isn’t far off.

You see the culture of snark and sadism in the songs the kids listen to, lyrics that regularly label women bitches and ho’s.  You see it all over the Internet, in “comments” so vile that you have to wonder if the people saying such things in public had mothers. You see it in these dreadful bullying episodes that have resulted in teen suicides. You see it in politics, of course. I see it in my psychotherapy office, among kids who call each other names as standard practice, even between husbands and wives who are supposed to love each other.  But what disturbs me the most is when vile comments are EVEN directed at people who have suffered misfortune, tragedy, or trauma, as if some people deliberately reject the “intellectual” or “psychological” idea that blaming the victim is wrong, and try to blame the victim and heap abuse on her (or him) as much as possible.

Because I’m alert to the horror of maternal bereavement myself, I first became aware of this when I heard the unbelievably nasty things people were saying about Cindy Sheehan, who lost a son in Iraq. I mean the woman lost her son! I don’t care what your politics are. How can ANYONE justify let alone SAY in public the following sentence (written by someone who calls him or herself 12th Monkey), which I found after a one minute search of the Internet: She (Cindy) reveals (in her book) that her son’s death in that war almost drove her to take her own life: “Every night I had to restrain myself from taking my entire bottle of sleeping pills instead of just one.” Cindy, please reconsider.

Cindy, please reconsider?  12th Monkey, where were you raised?

It’s as if people’s internal censors are no longer functioning, as if they’ve completely lost their empathy for their fellow human beings. Are we turning into a nation of sociopaths with no conscience?

There’s an important piece by Maureen Dowd called Stars and Sewers in today’s NY TIMES about this issue. It asks the question: “Are our brains being rewired to be more callous by the Internet?” The piece in part talks about the terrible snark that has come out against reporter Laura Logan, after her terrible rape in Egypt. It references two new books I intend to read.  The first is by Evgeny Morozov, “The Net Delusion: The Dark Side of Internet Freedom, and the other by Nicholas Carr, author of “The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains.”  Here’s one of Dowd’s quotes from the latter book: “Researchers say that we need to be quiet and attentive if we want to tap into our deeper emotions,” If we’re constantly interrupted and distracted, we kind of short-circuit our empathy. If you dampen empathy and you encourage the immediate expression of whatever is in your mind, you get a lot of nastiness that wouldn’t have occurred before.”

The Bruised Muse wonders where all this is leading.  Can it really get WORSE than Dowd’s example of a Feb. 3 snipe from the conservative blog Mofo Politics, after Logan was detained by the Egyptian police: “OMG if I were her captors and there were no sanctions for doing so, I would totally rape her.”

I would totally rape her?

When we combine snark and/or sadism with a general dumbing down, anti-intellectual strain of the culture, we find ourselves in a truly scary place.  Big consequences not only for our relationships but for civilization itself. For example, although we can trace a relatively straight line directly from the behavior and music beloved by many members of my generation, including myself, to the current generation, who in the world would have ever guessed that in just thirty years, popular culture would devolve to the point where songs with lyrics considered racy at that time, like the Rolling Stones’, “Let’s spend the night together” are played on loudspeakers in supermarkets for all to hear, and the kids are now listening to songs with lyrics like 2 Live Crew’s, “Nibble on my dick like a rat does cheese?” Now THERE’S poetry. I sure hope future shoppers won’t be listening to THAT while picking up the Gouda.

Yes, I’m making a joke here, but this really is dead serious.

Does the Bruised Muse have a “Survival Tip” for dealing with this disturbing tendency? Obviously the Internet isn’t going away, but public awareness is always the first step toward action and/or change.  Research may say that our brains are being rewired, but other research (read, for example, Life Unlocked, by Srinivasan Pillay, MD) says that you can outsmart your wiring, in other words re-re-wire, by thinking different (ie better, in this case nicer) thoughts. The Bruised Muse says: Speak out out against the culture of snark.  Breath deeply.  Think of the other.  Be nice.

On grief, with “Codependent No More” author, Melody Beattie…Friends are invited to tell a story of loss

Okay, so it’s been months since I last posted, and I feel like a neglectful blog-mother, but a lot has happened that has kept me busy. Mainly, most importantly, I’ve become a grandmother! The daughter of my daughter was born on Friday evening March 5th at 9:06 PM. But I’m not writing about that today, because I need more time to process it, old-school writer that I am.

Today, I’m writing about an interview for “Bottom Line/Women’s Health” I did with a true pioneer of the self-help industry, Melody Beattie, whose book, “Codependent No More,” introduced the country and the world to the term “codependency” way back in 1986, and essentially spawned the support group movement, which has saved so many lives. (Wow! We were all wearing big hair and shoulder pads back then, and none of us had computers, let alone blogs.) Just to show the longevity of Melody’s ideas and work, I checked Amazon, and found that  “Codependent No More” ranks at #242 today. It is truly impressive and rare that more than twenty years after the book’s publication, it still enjoys that kind of sales. By way of comparison, I’ll admit that back in 2000, “Saving Elijah” got up to #730 the day after a wonderful review appeared in the Wall Street Journal, but two days later sank like a stone.

During the interview, I discovered that Melody too had lost a child, a son named Shane, so we got to talking about grief. She is developing her own website about grief, which I am linking to. I sent her a copy of my essay from the Wellness and Writing Connections Anthology, “My Son’s Name was Michael — Not Elijah,” which reflects on the process and consequences of turning my own grief into fiction.  Below, I’m posting her response to my essay. (In bold are my comments and explanatory notes)

Isn’t that the beginning of a book?  I wanted to turn the page and read more.  A lovely compliment from Melody.  In fact, I am writing a kind of memoir in essays, which will include a version of “My Son’s Name.”

It took a long, long time to develop any compassion for people who say stupid things, and I still don’t have much of it, so I teach. I teach them what to say and more importantly, what not to say (and will have a section for them on my site).

I teach them what to do.

Step by step, paragraph by paragraph, I teach them how to write a comforting letter to someone in grief.

I teach people that grieving is not a “condition” nor is it wasted time. Our personal velocity changes and we move at a different pace than many other people in the world.

And the second year is worse than the first — it does not, as people enjoy saying, “get better with time.” The longer I don’t see Shane, the more I miss him, not less.

My AA sponsor told me after funeral that I needed to write out a check for each of the people who had helped me get through the week of his death so they could take a vacation, as I had “drained them.” And it would be a nice thank-you gift. Well, I didn’t feel grateful to anyone for anything, but I did as she said — and of course, the people who received a check (for $2,000) included her.

Nobody talks about how vulnerable we are.

I had a contract too — had to pay back the advance. (Here Melody, the author of 15 books, is referring to the section of my essay that talks about losing a two book contract for “Flight” and one other novel with Dutton in 1992, after Michael got sick, when I couldn’t produce a second book.

I started crying 30 days before Shane died, and couldn’t stop — and I wasn’t a crier. My soul knew what was coming, and my grief began before he left, when our souls started to say “see you” but in a different way.

And who in the hell says we have to let go completely and forever? In what book is that written? We don’t have to let go of someone when they move away, forget about them, or stop missing them.

People comfort themselves, not the person in grief. I want to help them to learn to switch that around. Here Melody is referring to the tendency of people say things that push the grief away.  People do this because it’s hard to sit with pain, very hard, it takes stamina and real compassion. My favorite quote in this regard is a Buddhist one, “Compassion is willingness to be close to suffering.”

Your story got me going. There was a real taboo in the media about the death of children at that time. Producers, etc. didn’t want to talk about the idea that children die. The world wasn’t ready for it yet. But every year, in this country alone, 250,000 people die before they receive their allotted 70-90 years of life — die before their parents do.

And God does too make mistakes. The New York Times says that 88 percent of the people we hire for assistants steal. I think that statistic applies to people generally, and not just about stealing. I think about 9 out of every ten people we meet have the ability to love and care. In the Old Testament of the Bible, which covers both Jews and Christians, it says on the seventh day He rested. Well, I think that whoever he goes to handle things on day seven went by those same statistics, so only one in ten of his workers did a good job. The other nine made mistakes. They let our children die. That’s what I think, anyway. It’s the only way I can make sense out of something so cruel and senseless. God’s assistant’s messed up, and we (and our families) became the victims of their ineptitude. Interesting theory, this one, not one I subscribe to. I believe that if there is a God, God doesn’t intervene with individuals in day to day events.  Or, maybe I subscribe to the notion that we live our lives on earth to learn certain lessons, and my own lesson may have been related to losing one I love. Of course neither of these theories explain theodicy, or the existence of evil in a world supposedly controlled by a good God.  Events unexplainable include the Holocaust, slavery, natural disasters, terrorism, or other horrific, “evil” events of history.

I hope you keep writing.

I hope you had an affair. Because if you were touched, then you knew you were still alive, whether you wanted to be or not. Here, in her lovely, supportive way, Melody is referring to the way I open my essay, with an account of a women in my town whom I ran into at Starbucks after she’d read Saving Elijah and confused my fictional character with me, and who asked if my husband took me back after I had an affair. Quoting my essay, “I looked at her, speechless. Saving Elijah, to describe it as the aggressively sensational Putnam cover copy did, is about a woman named Dinah Galligan, who while keeping vigil over her comatose five-year-old son, Elijah, “meets a seductive spirit in the hospital corridor outside the pediatric intensive care unit, one with a startling connection to her past, who claims he can make her child well again—if she’s willing to pay the price.” Near the end of the novel Dinah has a brief, desperate affair, so the question wasn’t totally weird, but I still wanted to shake her and scream, “DINAH IS A CHARACTER, YOU IDIOT.” Luckily I was not only speechless I was paralyzed.” And then later in the essay, I say, ““The question I’m most often asked now when I confess that I lost a child AND wrote a novel inspired by the experience (depending on who asks, I might leave out one or the other of those facts) is why didn’t I write a memoir? I could have, I suppose. A carefully constructed memoir can give a reader unique access to someone else’s singular experience, possibly fostering empathy, learning, understanding, growth. But reading a memoir can also make us feel safe, even smug, in the essential “otherness” of the author’s experience. Like the millions who gawk at a celebrity’s all-too-human troubles, or hoot at bad behavior on Jerry Springer, the woman at Starbucks could think, “Well, I would NEVER have had an affair.” You wish, lady. You have no idea what you would do if your child died, let alone what I would do.”

Talking to, and receiving this response from Melody gave me an idea, which I shared with her. Expanding on the idea that everyone has a story to tell and wants to tell it, it seems to me that it would be interesting to invite people (famous and not, anonymous and not) to tell a story of personal loss and discuss how it changed them, in, say, two or three paragraphs.

Any takers out there? Write me an email at frandorf@aol.com or leave a comment and I’ll post it.

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.

On my bookshelf

Up next on my book-laden night table are:

Exit Ghost by Philip Roth. One of my favorite writers. This one is Roth in the winter of his life. Brilliant and provocative, as always.

Nowhere is a Place by Bernice McFadden. I heard Bernice speak at a Book and Author Luncheon and there was something about her that moved me. So I picked up her book. Toni Morrison called one of her books, “searing and riveting.” That’s good enough for me. As soon as I finish reading it, she and I are going to have a little interview. She’s agreed. I’m sure I’ll have lots of interesting questions for her, and she’ll have lots of interesting answers. Watch for it.

The Unthinkable: Who Survives When Disaster Happens by Amanda Ripley. I heard Amanda Ripley on Diane Reehm’s show and for some reason, possibly because a friend of mine just barely made it out of the Towers, I was fascinated. In order to write the book, Amanda endured a series of dangerous situations to see how she herself would react. It seems most people freeze, or wait and see what other people are doing, or waste time to gather up their belongings, all of which are exactly wrong. Denial, deliberation, and then taking action are the three steps. Amanda says that you matter more than you think, you must act, luck is not the only factor, although 9/11 was a case in which it was unclear what to do, or as she put it “there was no true north.” She also advises that you should get to know your “disaster personality” and to give your brain something to work with. For example, when you get on the plane, count the number of rows, so that when it’s dark and full of smoke and you can’t see, your brain has something to work with…in a theater know where the exit is, and so on. People who think they have control over their destiny do much better. This seems confirmed by my friend in the Trade Center. She had been in the 93 bombing, and simply wasn’t going to listen to the authorities when they came on the loudspeakers and told everyone to stay. Others who listened to authority weren’t so lucky.

Amanda also talked about the differences between reactions in men and women, blacks and whites, different income levels, etc. For example, income absolutely determines who dies in fire; as one firefighter said, “I never fought a fire in a rich man’s home.” In some disasters it’s much better to be a man; in the Tsunami, for example, women drowned because they were never taught to swim. On the other hand, in hurricanes and floods, men are more likely to die, because women evacuate earlier. This led to the point that really gave me pause, which was that women and minorities differ substantially from white men in their reactions to disaster. According to Amanda, this probably has to do with world view and might reveal that white men have more self confidence, hence their superior ability to take action. Thirty percent of white men, according to this author, seem completely unworried about hazards. I think my husband is in that camp. In many situations, like a hurricane, worrying can be an asset. Men may eventually take action because of their confidence, but they’re already too late. The people who worry have already gotten out. Presumably this means women and blacks, but it seems belied by what happened in New Orleans. I shall have to check the point when I read the book. As for the point about women, maybe some of the propensity to worry has to do with women being the primary caretakers of children, instinctively attuned to worrying about their children. I mention this with apologies to feminists, a group I consider myself part of. Anyway, this is fascinating stuff, at least to me. Can’t wait to read the book.

The Great Derangement by Matt Taibbi. Apparently Matt went under cover in the Reverend Hagee’s church and found out just how deranged these people are. Still, he even, apparently, admits to having felt sucked in at points. It reminds me, for some reason, of one of my favorite bits of interior monologue of all time. It’s from (I think) Jay Mcinerney’s Bright Lights, Big City. The character sees a Hassid on the subway, and goes on about how it would be so nice to have rules and laws like he does that tell you what to do in every aspect of your life, your path and God’s plan all laid out for you, how safe and secure that would be…and goes on and on, and then finally says, “But what a f—ing haircut.” I just loved that paragraph, and have always remembered it from way back in the early 80s, despite my currently failing memory. I hope I got the source right. In any case, Taibbi is a provocative and facile writer, his Huffington post spat with Erica Jong notwithstanding.