My friend Wesley Hill has a new book out, Spiritual Friendship: Finding Love in the Church as a Celibate Gay Christian. As the subtitle suggests, the book takes his own position as a jumping-off point: the position of a gay man who accepts the teaching of his church that marriage is a union of a man and a woman. I’ll give the book a real review later—I read an early draft and it was fantastic—but for now I want to look at the relevance of Hill’s approach for those who don’t fit the description in his subtitle.
Hill depicts a cultural landscape in which romantic and filial relationships are the only ones we treat as life-shaping. We consider devotion, commitment, and intimate sharing of thoughts and emotions appropriate within marriage, for example, but creepy and clingy within friendship. We think choosing where you live and therefore which jobs you can take based on the needs of your spouse, your kids, or your aging parents, is ordinary and admirable. Choosing where you live based on the needs of your boyfriend is a bit risky, but understandable if you guys have been together for a while and are “serious about each other.” Choosing not to take a better job far away, choosing to stay in your hard-luck hometown, because your friends are there—that’s loserish and a little crazy.
It wasn’t always this way. Hill’s book, like mine, looks at cultures in which (some) friendship(s) had real, public meaning: cultures in which friendship could be a form of chosen kinship. Men who were “like brothers” could acknowledge that closeness in a way their culture could recognize. Friendship might be a means for the friends’ sanctification, a way to bring them closer to friendship with Jesus, as it was for St Aelred (from whose great work Hill’s book takes its title). Friendship might be an economic relationship, as friends shared household and finances. These cultures had plenty of problems—my book tries to at least hint at some problems we may face if friendship’s public meaning revives—but they were problems of love’s obligations, not problems of alienation and isolation.
Hill explores how our cultural expectations affect people who, for whatever reason, don’t expect to marry or have kids. How do we give and receive love? How do we lead lives which are fruitful and not just lonely expanses of time-before-death? So often gay people in the “traditional” (for lack of a better word) churches receive no hint that we, too, have vocations—that we, too, are called to love specific other people. So Hill is trying to restore “spiritual friendship”—intimate, lasting friendship which draws the friends closer to God—as a vocation for gay or same-sex attracted Christians.
But for now I want to look at a different question. Has making marriage the only intelligible committed relationship between adults been good for marriage? Has making romance the only haven for adult intimacy been good for romance?
When the only way to get devoted love is through romantic love, you might expect romantic devotion to be strengthened. The numbers suggest that this has not happened. Marriage rates are at historic lows (and see also this book) and while cohabitation has increased dramatically, cohabiting relationships are still much less stable than marriage (see Cherlin again for more). As our definition of family has narrowed, our families have destabilized.
We may expect that adding new people and new obligations would burden us. This is part of the worldview explored in Jennifer M. Silva’s Coming Up Short: Growing up means growing apart, losing trust, learning to stand on your own two feet. He travels the fastest who travels alone; and in this economy you’ve got to be ready to move.
But Silva found that the quest for independence and some modicum of control left people still burdened, still poor, and more alone. It turns out that the isolated dyad—whether that dyad is the romantic couple, as it typically is for the well-off, or the mother-child pair, as it is for those who aren’t wealthy—is almost as vulnerable as the atomistic individual. Two people can’t always lift a marriage on their own shoulders. Many men, especially, have only one confidante: their wife or girlfriend. This is stressful for the wife, and makes it all but impossible for the husband to know where to turn when the problems he needs to discuss are specifically problems with his marriage. (This may be part of why so many people nowadays have AA envy. Your sponsor is like an Army-issue friend! This is something I would think about a lot if I were structuring how a church welcomes new members.)
So it may not be surprising that Hill’s book closes with a beautiful depiction of his friendship with a married couple. He is not “support personnel” in their lives, and they are not consolation prizes or prostheses to replace the missing spousal limb. They are the “threefold cord” of Ecclesiastes:
Two are better than one; because they have a good reward for their labour.
For if they fall, the one will lift up his fellow: but woe to him that is alone when he falleth; for he hath not another to help him up.
Again, if two lie together, then they have heat: but how can one be warm alone?
And if one prevail against him, two shall withstand him; and a threefold cord is not quickly broken.
How can married couples attain the kind of “spiritual friendship”—and the emotional and economic interdependence—which Hill and his friends have found? Matthew Loftus gives some good thoughts on this search and its challenges, in a terrific reflection on spiritual friendship in a mobile economy. There’s a lot in that post—about class, about place—but as usual a big part of the answer is “give up your independence and accept that you’ll get to make many fewer choices about your life.” Surrender control and autonomy, and you might get love.
Eve Tushnet is a TAC contributing editor, blogs at Patheos.com, and is the author of the recently-released book Gay and Catholic: Accepting My Sexuality, Finding Community, Living My Faith.
When I was in middle school I filched a book from my sister, a mystery novel with a lesbian narrator. At some point in my reading a lot of things clicked together for me as I recognized many of my own longings and emotions in the narrator’s depiction of her sexuality. This is how I began to figure out that I was gay.
It came as a huge relief. Coming out as gay seemed to explain not only the intensity of my attraction to that modelesque girl in my English class; it also seemed to explain a persistent sense of alienation or exile, which I had felt since childhood. Having a name for what I felt meant that it could become intelligible. I could blame this feeling of loss, guilt, and homesickness on homophobia rather than on myself. I wasn’t sure that “being gay” really explained all of this exile feeling, but it seemed to explain enough.
Later on, though, I met Christians who started to clear away some of my misconceptions about their faith. And in their descriptions of what is meant by “original sin” I began to see the outline of those old feelings again. I began to wonder if the exile that I felt was Adam’s exile, and if my experiences of outsider status, as a lesbian, were heightened expressions of our universal loss of home.
The point of this is not to say that my coming out was “really” or “only” about original sin. I’m still pretty gay. But hidden within that coming-out narrative was a religious narrative, no longer about the search for the authentic self but about the longing for God.
And so I wonder, when I see the multiplication of identity-politics terms and initials—LGBTQIAABBQLOL and all that—what might be hidden in these terms. Right now our discourse around the spread of identity labeling mostly takes place entirely on the labels’ own terms: Are asexuals “really” queer, or do they just have victimization envy? Is “demisexual” even a thing, or is this just how people who don’t like being normal say “normal”? I wonder what we’d see if we stepped entirely off the identity battleground, and asked what else these terms are trying to articulate. Are some of these terms, for some people, a way of articulating religious longings, an unacknowledged vocation, or a criticism of surrounding culture?
How much of what we call “being gay,” for example, is the longing for devoted, intimate same-sex friendship? We used to have many ways to express our longings for another person of the same sex; now we have vanishingly few. Men, especially, may find that the only way they can intelligibly express or even acknowledge this longing is by sexualizing it. (This is probably even more true if physical touch is one of your love languages—I know that stuff is pop-psych but I find it pretty useful as an explanatory framework.)
When someone identifies as “genderqueer,” how much of that is a response to the bizarrely rigid gender categories we enforce today? When I sort baby clothes at my volunteer job I’m always dismayed to see that anything with a soccer ball on it is for boys (boys get soccer, football, basketball… and camo) and anything with an artist’s tool is for girls (easel, paintbrush, ballet shoes). Boys who like dance and dolls–representing basic human impulses to create and nurture—are given no positive ways to understand their preferences unless their parents value “gender nonconformity.”
These are examples from sexuality and gender identity, but I suspect you could try to apply similar approaches to other areas. The “#lifehacks: Express a religious longing as mental illness, then as identity politics” progression has occurred with (off the top of my head) anorexia, depression, and addiction. And frankly, when people self-identify as “conservative” or “progressive,” they’re often naming a religious orientation toward different aspects of Heaven (its hierarchy and order, for example, or its overturning of worldly hierarchies) as much as they’re expressing positions on tax rates or health care reform.
None of this means the surface-level meaning of the identity is fake. Nor does it mean that everyone who self-identifies in a particular way is expressing a covert spiritual longing—let alone the same covert spiritual longing! And most sentences that start, “Why don’t you just…?” or, “I think you’re just…” are examples of projection and self-righteousness, not insight.
But the problem with the proliferation of identity labels may not be that we’re too accepting of this language. It’s that we’re too incurious about what the labels name.
Eve Tushnet is a TAC contributing editor, blogs at Patheos.com, and is the author of the recently-released book Gay and Catholic: Accepting My Sexuality, Finding Community, Living My Faith.
Sing hushaboo, sing hushaby.
The Wuggly Ump is drawing nigh.
–from Edward Gorey, “The Wuggly Ump“
Some of the best horror flicks explore social or psychological issues: “Night of the Living Dead” weaves racial mistrust and hatred into its zombie tale; “The Babadook” hits on grief, parents’ fear of their children and vice-versa, the pressures and stigma faced by single mothers, and emotional repression. I loved “The Babadook” but if it has a weakness, that weakness is the extent to which it’s a “message movie” about the need to somehow make peace with the horror in one’s own life.
“It Follows” name-checks “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” and The Idiot (which one character is reading on an adorable e-reader shaped like a makeup clamshell). But its grim little heart is simple. ”It Follows” wants to make you feel dread. This is an almost entirely successful chiller about the awful things we can’t escape.
The basic story is: There’s this thing, which you pick up by having sex with someone who’s got it. It follows you. It can look like anyone. Sometimes it looks like someone you love, “to hurt you more.” Whenever it appears it’s horrible—the moments we see “it” are incredibly disturbing and wrong. It doesn’t move very fast, but it will get to you eventually. Wherever you are it’s somewhere out there, walking toward you. It will kill you.
You can get rid of it if you have sex with somebody else: Pass it on. But when it kills that person—and it will—it returns to you.
There are a lot of heady ingredients in this cocktail: sex, of course, but also post-collapse Detroit, which gains resonance as a “character” as the film goes on; friendship vs “the friend-zone,” American can-do spirit vs. acceptance of fate. There are autumn leaves and pretty blondes. The soundtrack is a great, foreboding electronic thing, with allusions to harpsichords and bells. There are striking, unexpected scenes: a girl being interrogated by cops on her front lawn, for example, as the neighbors watch and gossip.
The acting is uneven, and there are sometimes weird pauses in the dialogue which drain tension, especially early on. There are some minor plot holes.
But overall this is a frightening and sad film. It’s got some humor (the kid who can’t get laid to save somebody else’s life) but it’s a real gem of feel-bad cinema. It’s about how it feels to feel awful. It’s about that pit-in-the-stomach feeling, the weeks between your arrest and your sentencing, the slow arrival of catastrophe.
The bit from The Idiot which the movie quotes asks why someone would remain inside a house which they knew would soon collapse. “It Follows” doesn’t have an answer to that question, or a way out of the problem—it doesn’t have a message. It just makes you sit in the swaying, shuddering house.
Eve Tushnet is a TAC contributing editor, blogs at Patheos.com, and is the author of the recently-released book Gay and Catholic: Accepting My Sexuality, Finding Community, Living My Faith.
What she said
“I smoke because I’m hoping for an early death,
And I need to cling to something…”
–the Smiths, “What She Said”
What do you notice about this description (by a writer I respect immensely) of the failure of nicotine patches to replace cigarette smoking?
Unfortunately, [Johann Hari] is on much shakier ground when it comes to critically examining science and suggesting solutions. For example, in a discussion of nicotine addiction, he argues that because the nicotine patch only helps people quit 17.7 percent of the time, this means that only that proportion of cigarette addiction is due to the action of the drug nicotine and the rest of the addictive behavior is simply determined by the person’s background and social environment. While those factors certainly matter, this completely ignores the role that dosage, scheduling of dose and route of administration have in addiction—none of which are unrelated to the way the chemical itself works.
(full article, in which this is a side note)
What leapt out to me was the absence of the aesthetic side of smoking vs. wearing the patch. I don’t just mean that smoking looks good, although it does: Smoke dissolves like perfect conversation. Smoke turns women into chapels.
What I mean is that all these aesthetic associations reinforce nicotine addiction. The sights and smells and sounds of smoking (tapping the cigarette against the pack; I knew one woman who made a little kiss sound every time she took a drag) intertwine in memory with the release, calm, or rush of nicotine. Of course alternatives that lack any aesthetic value aren’t real replacements.
This isn’t a brief for smoking. The classic book on this subject is Richard Klein’s Cigarettes Are Sublime, which he wrote in part as a (successful) pathway toward quitting. It’s his elegy for his habit. Klein’s book is countercultural—to some, even shocking—because it dares to admit aesthetic motives into a conversation that has been wholly colonized by health-and-safety language.
Mainstream discussion of public policy, or even (in secular contexts) personal moral behavior, proceeds as if health, safety, economic prosperity, and happiness are the only legitimate motives for action. More than that: We talk as if health, safety, economic prosperity, and happiness are the only possible motives for action. This is why we fail to understand the power of religion to motivate behavior. (See also: all the baffled concessions that AA may help people because it gives them a community. Yes, I’m sure that’s often true and usually important, but I suspect proponents of the 12 Steps are not lying when they say that unconditional surrender to a Higher Power has something to do with it.) This is why we try to justify moral claims on the basis of research data purporting to show that they make people richer or safer. This is why we try to figure out what a father is so we can build a replacement—and, on the other side of our family-structure arguments, why we unintentionally imply that there’s no such thing as good-enough parenting.
I don’t want to recapitulate Paul W. Kahn’s excellent Putting Liberalism in Its Place—a liberal’s acknowledgment that the liberal categories of reason/discourse and desire/choice don’t exhaust the possibilities for human motives—so I will just say a few things.
First, understanding the aesthetics behind our misdeeds can actually help us replace them. A lot of the early work of sobriety for me involved accepting what I really got from drunkenness—the ecstasy, the cheap imitation of hope, the acrid autumnal smell and upper-piano-keys sound of whiskey toppling over ice—and either finding a more sublime expression of these things in God, or kissing them goodbye.
Second, encouraging people to view their lives as a quest for material well-being is not only false to human experience; it’s banal and degrading. We were made for self-gift, not success, or even stability.
Third, we are aesthetic animals inescapably, so we smuggle in the aesthetic politics we disown. We do allow ourselves an aesthetic politics of smoking and other drug use, but it’s not a politics that fosters empathy for smokers or offers a greater sublimity than the one they’re (sometimes) seeking. It’s a politics of disgust and shame. We allow ourselves to be disgusted by smoking and smokers: Many of us are proud of our revulsion at the smell of smoke, or our disdain for the weakness of those who smoke. (Like most of our politics of personal behavior, this is a covert form of class war on the part of the rich and aspiring-to-be-rich.) Why do we allow ourselves the worst, most judgmental part of aesthetic politics, but view any talk of beauty as trivial and abhor any talk of finding meaning in suffering?
Once you name the willful exclusion of aesthetics from our conversations about policy and personal conduct you notice it everywhere: in our understanding of depression, for example. So this post is an admittedly sketchy attempt to name the thing, so we can recognize it whenever it raises its banal head.
Ten years ago Marilynne Robinson began telling us the story of Gilead, Iowa, a tiny town surrounded by fields and farms. A droplet of water in which the whole world is reflected.
She began with Gilead, a novel in the form of a long letter written from the dying John Ames to his young son. Ames situates the town in its historical context, showing how this apparently all-white enclave nonetheless falls under the shadow of racism, from the Civil War to the civil rights movement. And Ames writes the letter in part because he’s afraid that the newcomer in town—Jack Boughton, his best friend’s son, who grew up in Gilead but has since always been a stranger to it—has designs on his young wife, Lila. She too was a stranger in town once, and some part of her will always be a stranger. John Ames worries that Jack’s estranged heart calls to and quickens her estrangement.
John Ames is a preacher. His world is the historical world, the world of pressure and circumstance and coercion—the world of fears, insecurities, theological argument. But it’s also the world of conversion, change, and the freedom of baptism. The world of history—inescapable and exhausting family history, as well as national history—is sometimes broken open, and another world can be glimpsed in the cracks.
These glimpses of ecstatic, timelessly suspended beauty are some of the most memorable moments in Gilead:
There was a young couple strolling along half a block ahead of me. The sun had come up brilliantly after a heavy rain, and the trees were glistening and very wet. On some impulse, plain exuberance I suppose, the fellow jumped up and caught hold of a branch, and a storm of luminous water came pouring down on the two of them, and they laughed and took off running, the girl sweeping water off her hair and her dress as if she were a little bit disgusted, but she wasn’t.
John Ames is capable of being intellectual and sardonic about his religion when he wants to be. But Gilead is one of the most haunting portrayals of gentle religious faith I can think of.
When Robinson returned to Gilead she wasn’t so gentle. Home, which follows the same events from a radically different viewpoint, is a brutal read. Where Gilead portrays hope sustained, love painstakingly nourished, and beauty encountered in spite of all our misunderstandings and well-intentioned cruelties, Home is a book about despair. Where Gilead is about choosing to remain embedded in the town where you grew up, Home is about slinking back there in humiliated defeat. Home is about how awful it can be to feel oneself inescapably known: all your sins strenuously forgiven but never forgotten.
The two books together form an unforgettable diptych. They contain meditations on faith and its lack, God and his silence. There are images that pierce the heart: a man’s dress shirt with embroidered cuffs, shoved into a car’s exhaust pipe. Not a word is unnecessary or out of place. Like the best novels, they hint at an endless number of other stories. We could listen to the voices of Gilead forever.
The voice I think many of us wanted to hear most was Lila’s. Lila speaks very little in the diptych. She has a mysterious history and an intense theological concern with those who don’t know the Gospel. She’s a pastor’s wife who seems to feel herself a heathen. She’s an uneducated woman married to a man who quotes Feuerbach. And she has integrity. Against all these wordy, thought-ridden characters, silent Lila punches above her weight.
Now Lila has her book. With this book Robinson has added nuances to her portrait of small-town life and of religious faith—the way we can be known and yet not-known by those around us, and the way we can know and yet not-know God.
Lila is not as crisp and necessary as the first two books. Parts of it are beautiful, and much of it is well-crafted. The revelations about Lila’s past are doled out with perfect timing. The first half, when Lila is a new arrival in Gilead and still mistrustful and closed-off, is much better than the second half. I have opinions about this book, whereas toward the first two I only have gratitude.
Lila, it turns out, was a migrant farm hand from her childhood through early adulthood. Lila is full of Iowa farmland: starwort and clover, the way the corn husks cut your hands. Lila was neglected by her birth family and stolen by a woman she only knows as Doll. She never had any religious education until she turned up in Gilead and sheltered in John Ames’s church: “But the rain was bad and it was a Sunday, so there was no other doorway for her to step into.”
Because we’ve read the other two books, we know what happens next: Lila and John fall in love, though they’re hesitant to call it that, and they have a baby. Their separate sorrow and damage somehow help them fit together, despite also keeping them apart. Their happy-ending love is a splintery reconciliation of brokennesses.
Lila thinks—and speaks, when she speaks—in simple declarative sentences. Her voice is lyrical because the world can be lyrical, not because she’s straining to produce thoughts and poetry, the way her husband often strains. Her theological debates with John are laconic to the point of hilarity—and poignancy. There are moments when her voice takes on a tinge of horror. The description of the credenza in which a madam kept the brothel women’s valuables could have come straight out of Stephen King.
Toward the somewhat padded end of the book, Lila does start to sound authorial: I started to hear Robinson defense-lawyering on behalf of her characters. (And on behalf of Calvin. And God! Let all these people defend themselves.) One of the great strengths of the earlier books, especially Home, was the way Robinson let her characters be appallingly hurtful. She trusted her readers to empathize with them not only despite but because of the fact that their writhing and fumbling damaged those around them.
This happens much less in Lila. Everybody is hardworking, yet mistreated and ashamed. Lila is the most hurtful major character, and it’s impossible not to sympathize with Lila. Everybody’s a good person in some rock-bottom way: even the boy who thinks he might’ve killed his father is miserably preparing himself to go back home and face his hanging. I admit I found this disappointing, after having my sympathies stretched on the rack of Home.
Lila’s unguided Bible reading leads her to some startling insights: she recognizes some of the wildest images, the terrible wings and the voice in the firmament. The sheer four-color weirdness of the Bible strikes a chord with Lila, who never felt that her experience of life was normal or intelligible. No normal or intelligible book could honestly respond to life as she’s known it.
It would be reductive to say that Gilead is about what it looks like to say “yes” to God, Home is about what it looks like to say “no” (and why you might do that), and Lila is about what it means to say, “I don’t understand the question.” Still, the best parts of Lila’s religious meditations come when Lila experiences recognition, wonder, bafflement, or fear. Toward the end she starts to reason things out, and it comes across as explaining God or judging him by the yardstick in her mind. This is believable, we all do it, but it’s not that interesting.
The most compelling element of Lila’s religious vision is its tacit opposition between two ways of living in the world, the way of work and the way of baptism.
Lila likes work and takes pride in it. This pride is never acknowledged by anybody except other desperately poor people. More powerful people view Lila and her kind with contempt; their work and virtue, which come at such immense cost to them, are treated as valueless. Work produces pride, but poverty corrodes that pride and leaves only shame behind. You can never work hard enough to escape shame; you can never earn the certainty that you deserve welcome.
Baptism is the central recurring image of all three books. Baptism is unearned; it’s complete in a moment, unlike work, which must be slogged through. Work is time; baptism is the inbreaking of eternity. You can be judged on the quality of your work but the quality of your baptism—including the quality of your faith at baptism—is not relevant. Baptism is done to you, not by you, and so you can never be proud of it.
Lila honors work and calls to account those who fail to honor it. But work—even the work of love, performed in marriage—is limited by our own abilities, circumstances, histories, and wavering desires. Baptism, in these three books, is the moment when we see what love might look like without limits. That isn’t always comforting: part of the case for small towns is that limits create identity. Both Home and Lila explore whether baptism erases the self and whether it can be defeated by a determinedly unsaved soul.
Robinson’s novels are so powerful because on these central questions she doesn’t take sides. She lets readers live out all sides: the shame when we’re judged on our own inadequate efforts and the resentment when we’re given an unwanted gift; the beauty of belonging and the ways it can make us blind; the need to honor work, place, and history, and the ache for something that demolishes all these human things.
Eve Tushnet is a writer in Washington, D.C. and blogs at Patheos.com.
I finally got around to Ethan Watters’s 2010 Crazy Like Us: The Globalization of the American Psyche, an exposé of the exporting of American concepts of mental illness.
Watters writes with justified outrage about the corporations, humanitarian organizations, and mass media which have acted as pushers of both drugs and therapies. He depicts charities descending on post-tsunami Sri Lanka, ignoring local cultural practices and basic needs in order to promote PTSD diagnoses, in a kind of “voluntourism” for grown-ups. The NGOs assumed that their understanding of trauma could be easily transplanted to other cultures, so they sent volunteers who didn’t even speak the local languages. Sri Lankans lacked water and medicine; they got puppet therapy and coping bracelets. Meanwhile Hong Kong media made anorexics into celebrities, leading to an increase of this deadly behavior. And American drug companies used heavily-massaged research and shady advertising practices to turn Japanese melancholy into medicalized, Western-style depression.
Watters has two main explicit insights. First: People in every culture experience trauma and stress, but they find different ways of expressing and understanding their suffering—lending it meaning by embedding it in a narrative—based on the “symptom pools” provided to them by their cultures. When a new disorder enters the cultural “symptom pool,” people in distress will begin to manifest the symptoms of that disorder, whether it’s the day blindness of Victorian hysterics or the body dysmorphia of (some) American anorexics. Shifts in cultural narratives will shift the symptom pool, and thereby change the ways people manifest their suffering. Importantly, cultural narratives also shift how people relieve suffering, if and when they do relieve it. When it comes to mental illness, not only the diseases but the cures are culturally-conditioned.
And second: American media, medical authorities, corporations, and other agents have decided to ignore these cultural differences in favor of promoting a one-size-fits-all model of mental distress. The only cultural narrative they will accept is the American narrative: Distress and suffering are illnesses like any other; human beings are fragile physical vessels, easily broken by trauma but fixable by medication and therapy; other people’s religions and traditions may be nice ornamentation, but the real treatment comes from psychiatrists and drugs; what works in Schenectady will work about as well in Suriname.
Watters exposes the assumptions and blithe overconfidence behind this worldview. He also suggests a deeper, implicit critique of American atomistic culture. The chapter on Sri Lanka shows how Sri Lankans understood trauma as stemming not from individual suffering but from loss of social support; misery could be bearable as long as it had company. This communal culture provided resilience that was often overlooked by the individualistic symptom checklists of American therapists. And the chapter on schizophrenia in Zanzibar emphasizes the isolation of American schizophrenics, the scrutiny to which they’re constantly subjected and the ways in which well-meaning attempts to protect or encourage them actually keep them from rejoining the ordinary social world. Cultural practices in Zanzibar, by contrast, embed the sufferers within their family. By accepting the sufferers’ shifting moods and abilities, their relatives to prove to God their steadfastness and penitence.
After exploring many different approaches to schizophrenia, Watters asks, “Which cultural beliefs tend to exclude the sufferer from the social group and which allow the ill individual to remain part of the group?” American beliefs that schizophrenia is a brain disease, which we might expect to reduce stigma, in fact may increase stigma and separate sufferers from their community. Belief that schizophrenia is caused by spirit possession, which might strike many (not all) Americans as not only stigmatizing but obviously false, in Zanzibari culture actually helps fit sufferers into well-accepted roles and rituals.
Several of the book’s chapters contrast the American fix-it mentality with an older mentality of acceptance of suffering. The PTSD chapter suggests that people are often more resilient than the American worldview would expect (so there’s less to fix in the first place); the chapter on depression in Japan suggests that while there are obvious problems with traditional Japanese romanticism about melancholy and suicide, there are also ways in which pathologizing suffering damages those who suffer.
The fix-it mentality may also fuel Americans’ tendencies to judgmentalism: If most suffering can and should be fixed, then people who perversely persist in suffering are just wallowing. A bootstraps mentality can apply itself to mental health as much as to financial prosperity. Learning to accept suffering might be as necessary for American mental health as learning to live in community—and, in fact, these might be mutually-reinforcing cultural changes, since nothing teaches patience like living with people you can’t slough off.
However, Watters ends the Zanzibar chapter with a sobering exploration of one American researcher’s attempt to apply Zanzibari insights to her own husband’s mental breakdown. Even once she had identified the problems in her own culture’s approach to mental illness, she found it impossible to step outside her culture or take a truly “Zanzibari” approach. My attempt to wring cultural critique out of this book may simply be my own form of American fix-itism. Maybe we can’t be fixed either.
The end of the Zanzibar chapter is an unusually subtle moment for Watters. Mostly he’s a polemicist and a dice-loader, uninterested in alternate readings of the evidence (maybe one Zanzibar family is having a hard time because it’s run by a controlling jerk, not because it’s run by a modernist?) or non-craven reasons that somebody might accept an American narrative of the self. I wish Watters had engaged at all with literary studies like Jonathan Shay’s Achilles in Vietnam: Combat Trauma and the Unmaking of Character, which traces the outlines of PTSD symptoms in the Iliad.
But the limits of Watters’s book are less important than the exposure and criticism of American mental-health meddling.
About halfway through Tarell Alvin McCraney’s “Choir Boy,” at D.C.’s Studio Theatre through February 22, there’s a terrific scene in which two schoolboys get in a confrontation about the true meaning of Negro spirituals. Bobby (Keith Antone), a bully who’s also the headmaster’s nephew, argues that songs like “Wade in the Water” are coded messages teaching slaves how to escape. Pharus (Jelani Alladin), the play’s hero, a music-loving kid with a camp manner, says that there’s no evidence for this view. It’s not just wishful thinking—it actually diminishes the slaves’ accomplishments.
Bobby argues that the spirituals “weren’t just” songs about God, they were coded rules and maps.
“You keep saying they weren’t just,” Pharus jabs back. In other words, why would spirituals become better if they had a material, this-worldly purpose? Couldn’t the most important purpose of a spiritual be, well, spiritual?
But as the argument progresses Pharus’s own language becomes not religious, but emotional and even political. The spirituals, he argues, encouraged slaves, gave them the strength to endure, and inaugurated the line of exhortatory black rhetoric which culminated in Barack Obama’s “Yes we can!”
This scene almost stands as a summary of the play itself. “Choir Boy” is about the struggles of a gay teen coming of age in a black, Christian prep school for boys; but it’s also about the complex interweaving of religion, ambition, and emotion. In Studio’s staging it’s almost entirely effective. This story could easily be melodramatic—McCraney makes several heavy-handed choices in terms of character development and dialogue—but the committed actors and stylized use of singing give it an emotional power which carries it over its occasional soapy lapses.
The Charles R. Drew School has never had a student like Pharus before. He’s portrayed with tenderness and nuance—all the boys’ actors are terrific—by Alladin, who also gets to show off his gorgeous falsetto. Pharus has a naturally more feminine manner (“Who came to make a joyful noooooooooise?!”), which he exaggerates into the self-defensive camp which is the other side of shame. “Choir Boy” isn’t a play about “bullying,” a term which defines the problem as a matter of individual misbehavior. It’s a play about an entire culture which targets, harasses, and sides against a boy before he even understands why—before he has any idea of the standards to which he can’t, and then won’t, conform.
This culture is a Christian culture, and Jesus occasionally does rear his wounded head. He pops up in the school’s poignant, ironic alma mater: “Trust and obey, for there’s no other way/To be happy in Jesus/Than to trust and obey.”
But mostly the God of Drew is “The Lord,” the powerful ruler and judge who gives or withholds favor, not Jesus the man—or the Lamb, the Prince of Peace. Christians have so many images of God that we can pick the ones which suit our preferences, unfortunately. The school attempts to balance between the three most prominent elements of set designer Jason Sherwood’s backdrop: a crucifix, a sports trophy, and a portrait of our first black President. The choir is a way to honor God, but also an arena for the singers’ ambitions: Pharus knows he should sing solo at graduation because “I would go glory—as only I can! Lord, use me!”
The story of Pharus’s shifting relationships with the other boys in the choir and with the strict headmaster (Marty Austin Lamar) is told in a mix of short scenes and a capella gospel songs. Perhaps the most electric scene in the play takes place in the boys’ showers. The actors strip down and take their places in a wash of spotlight and shadow. They show their tensions and longings through glances and gestures as they sing “Motherless Child.” It’s a beautiful piece of work: emotionally realistic (every actual gay teen in this setting, like many straight teens, associates the locker room with a complex mix of desire, confusion, and fear), expressionist in style. For me the fact that the song is about a mother, and a mother’s voice calling her child home, made it even more powerful. The memory of a woman enters that all-male space and, because she is an outsider there, she can offer the hope of rescue and refuge.
The gospel selections are perfectly-chosen and haunting. They’re examples of how sometimes the best way to express what’s in one’s own heart and soul is to use somebody else’s words. The play itself, by speaking through the songs, enters into a tradition even as it critiques the culture which that tradition helps create.
“Choir Boy” includes some nuanced portrayals of obedience. It’s not a purely individualist play. These characters are boys used to shaping their lives around others’ words and demands, as neatly summarized in the one-sided phone conversation we hear between a boy and his parents: “I will. I am. I won’t.” You just accept your role in the world—and long to be accepted in that role, as in Pharus’s declarations that he is and wants only to be “a Drew man.”
As the play moves toward its climax its grip slackens, its wicked humor becomes rarer, and its predictable twists and occasional clunky dialogue become more noticeable. (“You were preparing for somebody to hurt Pharus. You weren’t prepared for somebody to love him.”) And this is one of those artworks which is ostensibly about the clash between religion and sexuality, but only sexuality gets a fully imagined voice. McCraney is much better at portraying the rush of first love and the wild glee of ambition than he is at voicing sincere religious faith. That makes his play more generic and comfortable for theater audiences than it wants to be.
McCraney is a truly talented playwright. The skeleton of his play has too much AfterSchool Special in it, but his experimental style and heartfelt emotion put beautiful flesh on the familiar bones.
In college I noticed something new on the coat of a sartorially-eccentric friend. “What’s with the black armband?” I asked. “Some sort of fascist thing?”
“It’s for my father,” he said simply.
That’s the only time I’ve seen someone wear mourning. And my friend, after one too many encounters with similarly foot-in-mouth undergraduates, stopped wearing the armband because it got too grueling to keep explaining. It no longer served as an outer key to his inner grief; it no longer signified anything at all.
“Death Becomes Her: A Century of Mourning Attire,” showing at the Metropolitan Museum of Art through February 1, explores the long last days of formal mourning in Britain, France, and the United States. The show covers 1815 through 1915: the rise of department stores with “mourning departments” (imagine the Grace Bros. sitcom you could set in one of those!), the death of Prince Albert, and the decline of mourning wear in the face of modern war.
The exhibit is reached through the Egyptian wing–all those mummies and sarcophagi to get you in the mood–and weeping willows are painted in the stairwell leading down to it. The dimly-lit room full of gowns is haunted by requiem music; you can buy your own jet jewelry at a small sales desk. Like Victorian mourning in general, it’s a little too much, a little lugubrious and gooey and aware of being observed.
Mourning dresses are a school for designers: The restrictions on color and fabric heighten the need for interesting textural contrasts and fashionable silhouettes. The gowns in this show use embroidery, scalloped trains, lace, and beading to give hints of personality and even sexuality. There are two glorious gowns in moire silk, streaked with light like rippling black water. There are French “half-mourning” gowns shimmering with sequins. There’s a retro-futuristic gown from American mourning specialists James McCreery & Co. in black, white, and purple, with a startling zigzag trim, colorful bands over the neck, and full gigot sleeves. There’s a half-mourning wedding dress used during the American Civil War. There is, on occasion, decolletage.
Widows weren’t just emotionally distraught. They were also newly available. Their black garments convey all the chastity–and challenge–of a nun’s habit, but this was a nun you were allowed to court. Widows, a quotation projected onto the gallery wall reminds us, were “often imagined as dangerously independent and alluring.” And the widows themselves were sometimes the ones doing the imagining: When one young widow was scolded by her mother for prolonging her period of formal mourning, she replied, “Don’t you see, it saves me the expense of advertising for a husband.”
Now that we’ve lost the traditions of formal mourning, we may be tempted to assume that they were gentler and more protective than they really were: that they were fortifications against human nature, rather than products of it. Mourning served all the purposes the human imagination could devise for it. They were “a shield to the real mourner… [and] a curtain of respectability to the one who should be a mourner but is not,” as Harper’s Bazaar noted in 1886; but the very fact that everyone knew a fox’s heart might beat under a sable cloak meant that formal mourning couldn’t protect sincere mourners from scrutiny and insensitivity.
We’re in the process of re-formalizing mourning. Instead of restrictions on color and fabric for the mourners, we are developing restrictions on speech for their friends and neighbors. The lists (and listicles) which try to teach you what to say and what never to say to a bereaved person are intended to free us from the bruising, pitiful world where everybody says what he thinks. The expressions we’re left with (“I’m so sorry”) may not have the somber beauty of a moire gown, but they have the beauty of simplicity and humility in the face of other people’s pain. They acknowledge that there are roles in life which must be played no matter how you feel about them, and the role of the mourner is not the same as the role of the mourner’s friend. Like traditions generally, the new rules of formal mourning attempt to honor a necessary suffering. They embed us in our social world rather than trapping us in our own special selves.
The Metropolitan Museum’s merry widows, however, suggest that tradition and rules only go so far. Judgment, callousness, and mixed motives will always find a way to repurpose the rules.
And I won’t lie: Mixed motives have given us some great fashion over the years. I covet those fingerless lace gloves may not be the best thing to think at a funeral–but such thoughts are as old and as human as tears.
When I heard there was an Iranian-Californian vampire movie where a lady vampire skateboards through a deserted town under the streetlights and the palm trees, her chador blowing out behind her like Dracula’s cape, I thought, That’s awesome!
But by the time we actually reached the skateboard scene in “A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night” all I could think was, That’s terrifying!
“A Girl” is a totally effective piece of atmosphere: dreamlike, black and white, with a phenomenal soundtrack of spooky global New Wave-type stuff. Ana Lily Amirpour directed this thing until it shrieked. It’s hypnotic, kind of desultory, sexy, and weird.
And the vampire is scary. “A Girl” has a sense of humor, but man, Sheila Vand’s nameless vampire is Nemesis in lipstick. She judges, and she brutally kills those she finds guilty. (Exclusively men, I think, though I’m not sure. This is a very Riot Grrrl kind of movie.) She’s ferocious, but there’s an emotional vulnerability to her which comes out in her tentative romance with the sweet-natured, frustrated Arash (Arash Marandi). Can a boy and a girl get together when the boy keeps having to pay his father’s drug debts and the girl is a vampire? A cat and a mouse might fall in love, but where would they live?
Vampirism isn’t an allegory here—there’s no the real vampires are the gentrifiers-–but it does have a few echoes in other parts of the narrative. Vampirism is linked to ecstasy: losing yourself in sex, drugs, music. (Not the ecstasy of religion, which is absent, although there’s a feeling of greater social conservatism than American pop culture usually depicts: filial piety, expectations of modesty, don’t you want me to leave the room so you’re not here with a man alone?) Vampirism is linked to merciless justice. It’s paralleled with capitalism, maybe, the oil rigs sinking fangs into the earth. And it’s paralleled with living off others: Arash’s father and his father’s drug dealer are pathetic, but they drain people dry.
This is a glamorous movie. Music-video timing, gothed-out humor, sexy vengeance, sneaking through fences and meeting in deserted roadside wastes. “A Girl” has been billed as “the Iranian vampire Western,” but to me it felt closer to an outlaw-lovers film, pulpy and cigarette-cool. It’s a teenage movie in the most thrilling ways.
I just finished Andrew Cherlin’s new book, Labor’s Love Lost: The Rise and Fall of the Working-Class Family in America. It’s a solid piece of historically-informed synthesis.
But it’s also full of examples of my least-favorite feature of contemporary sociology of the family. Because almost all writing that gets labeled “sociology” is done by members of the overeducated elite, the values common among that elite are taken for granted and treated as objectively correct, whereas values common in working-class or poor communities are pathologized. “Good parenting,” for example, is defined as parenting the way the upper class does it.
This gives sociology an unpleasant us-helping-them flavor. Bad enough when elites try “teaching folk songs to the folk“; must they now teach Ivy League fight songs to the folk?
None of these progressive sociologists would dream of suggesting that the rich are better—but all their solutions for the problems of the poor turn out to be attempts to make the poor act and think more like the rich, and never the other way around. Or they suggest, as I said about 2010′s Red Families vs. Blue Families: Legal Polarization and the Creation of Culture, that “poor or nonelite Americans [are] simply elite Americans without the resources to act on the values they obviously share with the authors.”
Here’s an especially egregious example from Cherlin, in which another sociologist, Annette Lareau, phrases something in a way critical of upper-class mores and Cherlin straight-up rephrases it to turn the criticism into praise. Cherlin summarizes Lareau’s research findings like this:
The middle-class [parenting] style of cultivation entailed verbal reasoning and negotiation between parents and children; organizing out-of-school activities and transporting children to and from them; and intervening in schools to ensure that their children were treated well. The “natural growth” style [of working-class parents], on the other hand, entailed verbal directives issues to children without much questioning or negotiation; unorganized, free-flowing out-of-school time; and reluctance to confront and question authorities such as teachers. The result was that middle-class children developed an “emerging sense of entitlement” which we might view as encouraging independent acting and thinking—just the kinds of skills that can be used to obtain and succeed at a high-paying job.
Emphasis very much added. Who’s this “we”? As someone who was lucky enough to spend much of her childhood in “unorganized, free-flowing out-of-school time,” but also has a pretty strong and unpleasant sense of entitlement as a result of privilege, I think Lareau was closer to right than Cherlin.
It’s possible to do sociology which questions elite morality. Kathryn J. Edin and Maria Kefalas’s truly excellent 2005 Promises I Can Keep: Why Poor Women Put Motherhood Before Marriage allows the women they interviewed to speak for themselves, at length, and takes their moral beliefs seriously. Edin and Kefalas found that the women they studied (who were also their neighbors, which is why the book is so good) felt sorry for them because they had no children. These women believed that you shouldn’t wait too long to have kids. Children brought hope and joy into neighborhoods where people were often tempted to despair. Edin and Kefalas were able to accept this critique of their own delayed-marriage, delayed-childbearing lifestyle.
And Cherlin himself offers praise for one non-elite community: He shows obvious respect for the “caring self” fostered by black communities. But that’s an exception; throughout most of the book elite values are assumed to be best.
If you’re a progressive (or anyone, really) doing sociology of the family, and you can’t name at least three major, substantive issues on which poor people are more likely to be right than rich people, you probably have not discovered an objective morality which just happens to line up with the values of the contemporary elite. You are, instead, an unwilling covert operative in the class war—fighting on the side of the rich.
So I’ll lay some of my cards on the table. It’s obviously a massive generalization to suggest that there’s a common “working-class” or “poor community” culture—in fact, one of the best contributions of Cherlin’s book is his delineation of the many ways in which working-class and less-educated people have adopted beliefs and practices which began as upper-class norms. But here are some things I believe which go against the norms of my own overeducated class. This list is not exhaustive:
- It’s okay to marry young. It’s okay to have children before you’re financially stable. It is a good and beautiful thing when people without money have kids, even if they have little prospect of ever achieving financial stability. The problem is not with the parents, but with those who don’t offer material support so they can care for their kids.
- Have more kids. The whole “have fewer, but invest in each one more” mentality, which Cherlin promotes, is the mentality which brought us helicopter parenting.
- Playing in dirt is better than being shuttled to a score of structured, supervised afterschool activities.
- Children should learn obedience as well as independent thought. We need to learn how to say “yes,” and to whom; we need more than critical thinking skills.
- If you get pregnant in college, have the baby.
The point here isn’t that I want you to agree with me about each of these specific moral claims. Most of them can be abused. Some of them become much shakier when other elements of a coherent moral worldview are absent—delaying marriage but not childbearing isn’t the best possible path. And, most important, as a Christian I believe that “Judge not, lest ye be judged” is a central part of the moral life. My task is to love and serve regardless of what other people do, not come up with rules for how others should conduct themselves.
But as a Christian I also believe that it’s easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter Heaven. Why do progressive sociologists keep greasing the camel?
The most tense scene I saw in any movie this year was Marion Cotillard leaning against a blank wall gulping from a bottle of water.
Cotillard is playing Sandra in “Two Days, One Night,” yet another must-see from Belgium’s Dardenne brothers (“The Kid with a Bike,” “Rosetta,” “The Child,” “The Son”). Sandra is waiting for the results of a vote taken by the employees of Solwal, the company where she used to work. When the movie opens she has barely, partially overcome a severe depression; she’s ready to work again, but her boss has other ideas.
He decides that the other workers will choose between rehiring Sandra or getting a thousand-Euro bonus each. They vote and Sandra loses, but the boss decides—he has this power to make the rules—that there will be a revote on Monday, in response to claims that the foreman intimidated people in the initial vote. The title refers to the one weekend Sandra has to convince the others to choose her job over their paychecks.
It’s a searing movie. Sandra visits each worker alone: Her husband offers to go with her, but she knows she has to undergo this serial humiliation by herself. She’s exhausted by shame. After an initial conversation with the leader of her tiny band of supporters, she’s panting as if she’s just run up a flight of stairs. She gulps Xanax to stay strong enough to beg for her job.
She does have support. Her husband and a couple of her former coworkers stand by her as she struggles to put together a majority for the Monday-morning vote. But none of them are in the trapped, miserable position she’s in; none of them have to expose themselves as rawly as she does. So it makes sense that even when her husband is touching her tenderly and explaining that one of her friends just persuaded another employee to support her, all she can say is, “I feel so alone.”
Sandra has no argument. She never tries to point to her own productivity; she just says that she needs the job, and that she isn’t the one who created this awful conflict. What she has to do requires incredible strength, yet the very fact that she has to do it—and the additional fact that it exhausts her inner resources—makes her feel weak. By exposing her (unearned) shame, she sometimes shames others into supporting her. Other times, they explain their reasons for picking the bonus over her, and she has to say, “I’m not mad. I understand.”
And the ones who say they’ll vote against her are easy to understand. They’re poor, sometimes poorer than she is; they have families to support; they didn’t create this conflict either. The psychology of the ones who switch to her side is more complex. There’s an unexpectedly funny scene where one of them thanks her fervently: He knew he did the wrong thing, he says, when he voted against her initially. By coming to him to beg, she’s allowed him to redress the wrong. He’s so intense and adamant that she’s visibly taken aback. For several of these workers the chance to support Sandra becomes a means for their own redemption or liberation. That’s great and all, but will she get her job back?
This is a Dardennes film, so there’s a twist. I was wondering if it would happen, but when it did, I was still blindsided. It’s a twist which makes the movie’s underlying spirituality unavoidable, startlingly blunt, not like a tract but like a parable. The opening and closing scenes both involve a cell phone, and Sandra physically alone; the contrast between them is unabashedly stark and deliberate.
If I were a college chaplain–and there are excellent reasons I’m not!—I might put together a film-food-and-discussion series on, let’s say, “Depression and the Search for Meaning,” featuring “Damsels in Distress,” “God Help the Girl,” and “Two Days, One Night.” All of these movies work within (to one degree or another) the contemporary medicalized view of depression, in which it’s an illness like other illnesses. But they also suggest that living through or with depression requires not solely medication or therapy but a rediscovery of meaning, some form of personal renewal and liberation which one might call spiritual. They play against each other interestingly—music and beauty flow through “Damsels” and “God Help”; solidarity links “Damsels” and “Two Days”; they’ve got wildly different genres and levels of hilarity, from “Damsels”‘s winsome comedy to the Dardennes’ long-take realism; and all three movies allow an underlying religious vision to break through into explicit reference at a few key points. (They all center on women; are there recent movies I’m forgetting which explore a man’s renewal in the face of depression, or are we still too uncomfortable with seeing men in this shamed, weakened, and supplicant position?)
“Two Days, One Night” is a harrowing, profoundly moving film. I keep trying to come up with adjectives to make you see it but I think Victor Morton has written the definitive capsule review.
One of the year’s most widely-praised horror movies, Australia’s “The Babadook,” methodically chews through a list of terrifying questions: What happens when you can’t protect your child from tragedy and grief? When you can’t protect him from the people around him? From himself? From yourself?
This review is very spoilerous, so enter at own risk. I (as usual) was grateful that I knew very little about the film going in.
Widowed Amelia (an increasingly-frayed Essie Davis) has her hands full coping with her elementary-age son Samuel. Sam, played by the extraordinary Noah Wiseman, dances across that line separating “rambunctious” from “out of control.” He shoots darts at his classmates and breaks a little girl’s nose by pushing her out of a treehouse. He uses his homemade weapons because he’s stressed and scared—these aren’t just toys for him, although there’s also boyish playfulness in his attitude—and he pushes the girl because she’s horrible to him. But you can see how Amelia would start to feel overwhelmed. And then he brings her a pop-up book called Mister Babadook.
“You can’t get rid of the Babadook,” the book threatens. Its creepy drawings and chop-licking verse give Sam nightmares. He can’t sleep, so his mom can’t sleep; and she begins an insomniac descent into horror.
Almost everything about Jennifer Kent’s film is powerful: the haunting music, the sharp visual sensibility (including phenomenal use of old TV clips), the tightening tension as Amelia’s isolation grows. Wiseman can contort his face into a gargoyle howl one moment, then grin shyly up at his mom with a heartbreaking sweetness. He’s an utterly recognizable child. So many horror films today feature a cast of pretty but soulless monster fodder. “The Babadook” knows that horror is much more frightening when you’re rooting for the victims and wishing you could protect them.
The little family is almost totally abandoned by the society around them. They have one helpful old lady next door, but everybody else seems intent on judging them and then walking away from their problems. Don’t drag me down with you! is the message they get. This is a horror movie set in the world of Coming Up Short, the world where walking away from burdensome duties is easy and even respected. (Don’t be codependent! Don’t get caught up in somebody else’s drama!) Nobody seems to feel a duty toward them except the child-welfare social workers, who are surprisingly patient with Amelia but don’t come close to understanding or empathizing with her.
What is the Babadook? The movie offers a partial answer. There’s one very specific thing the Babadook is, one face it wears. But the movie is not an algebra equation. Part of the reason it needs to be a monster movie, not a drama about loss and salvage, is that monsters can’t be reduced to just one thing. The Babadook is a mother’s fears about her own unfitness; it’s a child’s inner turmoil, and the guilt and glee and fear which come with having a body stronger than your self-control; it is grief, yes, hungry grief, but it’s also all the inner voices of judgment. It’s everything we don’t control. It’s the way the world looks when we’re abandoned: Everything warps, everything sprouts fangs, everything is out to get us. Any single specific fear can burst its boundaries and spill out inkily over our whole mental landscape, losing its intelligible name, becoming the Babadook.
And the movie does not shrink from its initial declaration; it does not break its rules. You can’t get rid of the Babadook. What happens instead is startling, a darkly glinting flash of hope amid the wreckage.
I had two problems with this terrific film. The tiny problem is that the dream sequences, with Davis falling slowly back onto a bed, felt shopworn. The bigger problem is that for a film about the impossibility of resolution, “The Babadook” gets real sunny real fast at the end. Amelia has said and done some terrifying things, yet her relationship with her son seems basically solid—even though they’ve still got the bruises from their climactic encounter with the monster. The events of the movie should have shaken this kid badly. The Babadook should have left his clawmarks on their love for one another. It’s possible I’ll notice more shadows in the final scene when I rewatch this movie—and I think I will rewatch it, even though I’ll dread it—but that was my initial impression.
Maybe it’s bizarre to wish that this tragic film was even darker. But I think the movie’s strange, moving ending would be even more powerful if the mother-child relationship was more obviously mangled, yet still loving.
Jaroslav Pelikan declared, “Tradition is the living faith of the dead, traditionalism is the dead faith of the living.” But it can be hard to tell which one you’re actually doing.
“Bad Jews,” at the Studio Theatre through December 28, takes place over a few hours in one tiny (but pricey) New York apartment. Cousins Daphna, Jonah, and Liam are reunited on the night after their grandfather’s funeral. (So big, even Abe Foxman was there!) Liam has also brought an outsider: the blonde, beatifically-smiling Melody (Maggie Erwin), a 1950s Coca-Cola ad of a person, whose sunny shiksa demeanor couldn’t be more of a contrast to the rest of his family.
Most of these people are awful in their different ways. Daphna (Irene Sofia Lucio) has burrowed into her Judaism like a tick, swelling with the righteous blood of the Jewish dead. At no point does her faith make her act better. We never see her pray; we never see her give up anything she really wants in order to follow God. In fact, God isn’t mentioned. She’s catty and racist, and she’s appointed herself to defend the family’s religious and ethnic heritage against the lukewarm assimilationism of Jonah and Liam.
This allows Daphna to get off some great lines. She pegs Liam as a type we’ve all encountered, who loves any tradition as long as it’s somebody else’s. She calls him “proud of how disdainful he is” toward his heritage.
“Oh, if you found yourself in the middle of a rain dance, you’d be perfectly respectful,” she rants, prancing around the apartment in her imitation of a Native American ceremony. “But if you find yourself in the middle of a hora—I’ve seen you in the middle of a hora!—you want to die.” Like many people in our culture of religion-switchers (I’m an adult convert so I have little ground to stand on here), Liam never bothered to seek an adult version of the childhood faith he rejected.
Daphna is crazy-eyed and gooey-faced. Liam (Alex Mandell) at first seems more reasonable, but she pushes his buttons, and they end up in a nuclear war of judgment which has him howling into her face and saying some truly filthy things. (There’s a line about a shofar which had the audience laughing in “Did that just happen?” horror.)
These characters aren’t quite caricatures. Melody does live up to Daphna’s instant assessment that she “looks like she was conceived and water-birthed in a Talbot’s“—her belief system is a cross between Lennon’s “Imagine” and a second-grade Thanksgiving pageant. But she’s also a gentle person, who clearly makes Liam better than he would be without her. She’s able to get off some sharp lines of her own. I loved the little grunt of frustration with which she punctuated her complaint that the family talks “in this—hnnnn!!—horrible way.”
Jonah (a truly fantastic Joe Paulik, able to get laughs with just a tilt of his head) at first seems like a mere audience-identification character, or even an irrelevance. He lurks around the edges and oozes away from the fights. But in the play’s final moment he reveals his own way of grappling with the family’s Jewish legacy, a moment which sent ripples of shock and confusion through the audience. Jonah’s gesture brings the play together and makes its central conflict obvious.
What Daphna and Liam are ostensibly fighting over is the disposition of an item of jewelry. This is a chai necklace, which belonged to their grandfather and which he hid in his mouth throughout his years in a concentration camp. The Hebrew letters mean “life,” and at the center of ”Bad Jews” is the question of what it means to give Judaism a future. Liam is going to have kids (there’s a weird and unnecessary bit in which the play itself seems to agree that Daphna has never experienced romantic love), but they won’t be Jewish kids in any life-shaping sense. Daphna points out that if everyone lives like Liam, in a few generations Jews will disappear. And yet her own Jewishness seems museum-like, a Civil War reenactment, a kid dressing up in her dead grandfather’s clothes.
I didn’t read much about the Holocaust when I was a kid. My understanding of what it meant to be Jewish was shaped more by Purim at the JCC, Isaac Bashevis Singer’s Hanukkah stories, and tales of the New York immigrant world than by pogroms and persecution. On one level I think that’s better0–better to be formed by stories of Jewish life, not Jewish death. On another level it’s false to Jewish (and Christian) history. It’s an incomplete picture. And, as Daphna would point out, it makes it easier for me to be Christian; I had less guilt in conversion (less guilt, not no guilt) than I would have had if I’d been raised with the Holocaust closer to the center of my identity.
“Bad Jews” is a conversation-starter: Many families have had these highly symbolic fights over how to distribute the possessions of the dead. And even the goyim among us have conflicted relationships to the culture and traditions of our childhood. One man’s hora is another man’s Jell-O salad. Joshua Harmon’s play is ferocious and fast-paced; and very funny, if you don’t mind being lacerated while you laugh.
My heart is by dejection, clay
And by self-murder, red.
–John Donne, “A Litany”
Gus’s heart is Red, all right. He’s a 72-year-old Communist Party member, former longshoreman, and union organizer; he’s already tried to kill himself once, and has called his children together to explain his new plan: Sell their Brooklyn brownstone, split the proceeds among the kids, then finish himself off. Tony Kushner’s “The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide to Capitalism and Socialism With a Key to the Scriptures,” at D.C.’s Jewish Community Center through December 21, is loosely structured around Gus’s kids’ attempts to argue their father (a broken yet indomitable Tom Wiggin) out of suicide.
“Guide” is a soapy, overstuffed play. Kushner’s plays are always intellectual turduckens. This one tries to wring insight and poignancy out of gay babymaking, apophatic theology vs. the social gospel, the housing crash, the Stalin-Hitler pact, the morality of suicide, commodity fetishism, the Shining Path, and the Guaranteed Annual Income—plus musical bedrooms, a Yale-educated hustler, a mysterious locked suitcase, and a giant portrait of Our Lady of Sorrows. Some of this works.
The religious material did the least for me. It felt tacked-on and I didn’t grasp how it connected to the rest of the play’s themes. Maeve Ludens (Lisa Hodsoll), a recovering alcoholic, offers a paint-by-numbers depiction of the religious ecstasy of drunkenness; I didn’t know I was capable of being bored by that subject. I think there’s something going on about the ossification of our deepest longings inside jargon and internecine battles—neo-Platonism vs. Dispensationalism (okay?) as the equivalent of Trotskyites vs. anarcho-syndicalists—but the religious jargon isn’t quite pointed or funny enough for satire. And unfortunately Paul, who spouts a lot of the religious jargon, is an unlikeable and thin character with no redeeming qualities. He’s played at a painfully opera-villain pitch by Michael Anthony Williams. (Paul is here because he’s married to Gus’s son Pil. Why Gus thinks this contemptuous, controlling guy is good for his child is hard to fathom. Maybe if the contempt were underplayed rather than screeched it would work better. As it is, I wanted somebody to hand Pil a flyer for a hotline.)
Kushner at his worst writes mannered melodrama which never quite achieves camp. “The money [I paid for sex] was a prophylaxis, but not against germs. Against–” And there’s this Significant Pause, into which the hustler says, Significantly, “–Love?”
But Kushner at his best can transform seemingly obscure economic debates into heart-pounding, high-stakes drama. The Guaranteed Annual Income first comes up early in the play, and slowly grows in meaning and resonance until it becomes the play’s central metaphor. “The best thing I ever did,” Gus says, remembering the fight for the GAI, “was the worst thing I ever did.” There’s a parallel between the GAI fight and Gus’s planned suicide: Both are rejections of solidarity which leave the younger people to bear the consequences.
The GAI also becomes a vehicle to explore the meaning work should have in our lives and self-concept. For the Communist man is always and only “Homo Faber, Man the Maker,” man the worker; both communism and capitalism reduce us to our economic productivity. There are shades here of Tom Stoppard’s bourgeois Communist in “Rock ‘n’ Roll”: “Work does all the work!” But here, unlike in Stoppard’s play, even music mostly exists to serve the cause. Kushner draws out the limits and anxieties of this view of work: Who are you when you can’t work hard anymore? Who are you when you don’t have to work, when you’re no longer under terrible economic pressure which gets you up in the morning even as it terrifies you? Who are you when all your work seems pointless, when you work your whole life and don’t seem to have made anything?
Gus’s other son says, “I’ve always wanted to ask you. In 1975, when you won the GAI, you must have felt free of the clock.”
But Gus nods and muses, with an unexpected sorrow, “Workers who don’t have to work.”
“Guide” ends with one of those overused theater endings, suspended before the final decision. The opening of the suitcase doesn’t have quite the impact one might hope for. Several of the themes—life after death, the different ways we try to control time and are defeated by it, the way a longing for home can become a paralyzing longing for stasis, what money changes about human relationships—don’t get a full workout. But to the extent that this play has a final message, it’s a powerful one: Human life is a long defeat, but it’s better to lose together.
The novel’s setup is fairly simple. Sean, the narrator, suffered severe facial disfigurement from a gunshot wound sometime in his early life—the kind of disfigurement which makes him hard to look at, which makes other people recoil from him. But after decades of learning to accept his situation, he’s patient, quiet, and hopeful. He’s even managed to turn his suffering into a vocation: He supplements his insurance payments by creating play-by-mail adventure games. He personally guides subscribers through fantasy realms he devised as he recuperated alone in his hospital bed. The most elaborate and alluring of these worlds is Trace Italian.
This game takes place in an environmentally-devastated future America filled with mutants and bounty hunters. Your task is to reach the Trace Italian, an impregnable star-shaped refuge in the Kansas hinterlands, underneath which lies the one remaining city of survivors. Sean has never bothered to depict the underground city itself, and even the inner defenses of the Trace are sketchy at best, because no player has ever gotten that far.
I arranged the bottles into a loosely octagonal formation on the counter, and I pictured a very small person sitting at the center of the octagon, no bigger than the distal joint of my little finger, bored but safe, half-crazy from isolation but protected from the outside world. That person was me. My parents would have asked the younger me, what do you want to be safe from? After the accident nobody would ask. That was, to put it harshly, the best thing about the rifle blast that destroyed most of my face.
Already you can sense that Sean’s imagination is not the self-made haven he seems to think it is. Wolf in White Van is itself a puzzle game, with clues dropped gradually so the reader can piece together the terrible things that have happened—to Sean, and to two dedicated players of Trace Italian, two seekers who went rogue—and examine possible reasons for these events.
Misreading is one of the book’s central themes. Sean’s parents, desperately grasping for some kind of explanation for what happened to their son, flail around and try to blame everyone in sight, from their friendly local gun-shop owner to Sean’s favorite bands and authors. Sean insists that none of these people were to blame: that sometimes things happen for no reason.
Slowly you start to suspect that Sean himself has drastically misunderstood the actions of a player whose story he has used for a long time to reassure himself, a player whose early exit from the game seemed to prove to Sean that Trace Italian remained a safe and purely internal place, with no repercussions in the real world. Sean writes at one point, “It is a little strange to me, to be defending something that was supposed to have been a place where people could feel safe and have fun, where nothing ever really happens except inside our heads.” But very little which starts inside our heads completely stays there–and anyway, the mind itself is a place, where significant things happen. Rage is real even if you smile through it. Humility is real, even if nobody else notices it. Sean has a lot of both.
Wolf in White Van has a lot in common with Darnielle’s previous novel, Black Sabbath’s Master of Reality: a protagonist who was hurt in early life, hurt in a way which makes other people misunderstand and judge him; a depiction of the retreat into the mind, what fantasy feels like when reality is too hard to bear; surly teens who like surly music for reasons they find hard to articulate; a rippling current of thwarted rage. But the narrator of Master of Reality puts his rage up-front, and the persevering, heartbreakingly hopeful kid underneath only reveals himself slowly. Wolf in White Van works in the opposite direction, from the battered-but-smiling exterior to the dark skull-decked throne within.
Some of Darnielle’s songs touch this same place, where violence can be directed outward or inward or both at once: the punch that breaks the knuckles. Fantasies of returning to your hometown with “TEC-9s stored under the floorboards” and fantasies of “shoving our heads/straight into the guts of the stove” are fueled by the same rage, which billows bigger than any possible cause might justify. The imagination is a secret garden—full of snakes. Or ghosts: “Old feelings, long pressed down to where they couldn’t do any more harm, shed weight and rose inside me like vapor. They felt, to me, the way ghosts are supposed to look.”
To the extent that Wolf‘s worldview reminded me of any other book, it wasn’t Master of Reality but Cujo. There’s the same insistence on the meaninglessness of life’s horror: Nobody’s flying this plane. Darnielle adds that we seek refuge—unmotivated, before there’s any reason to seek it, acting on impulse—but the refuges we create are built out of our own minds. They’re salvaged from old repurposed hatreds and glued together with inchoate longings. True refuge is unimaginable because we’ve never experienced it. (This reverses what I vaguely remember as St. Augustine’s claim that we can recognize goodness and joy in this life because we share the memory of Adam’s happiness in Eden.)
I don’t want to make this book sound like it simply condemns the imagination, or the attempt to build an interior shelter. The mere attempt to create the Trace Italian is poignant, and the patience and perseverance Sean brings to this task are real. This is a book about the things books about the Triumph of the Human Spirit are about, and those are good things; it’s just that they don’t always triumph, in part because there’s a lot more in the Human Spirit than patience and perseverance. There’s also—and the scenes which reveal the meaning of the book’s title are terrific—the wolf in white van.
This week I’m preparing to go to the 10th National Harm Reduction Conference (which I’ll be reporting on for TAC), and also reading for the first time David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest. The conference and the novel offer strikingly different narratives of addiction and recovery–both of which are gaining cultural ground in different ways.
So far (I’m on about page 640 of this 1000+ tome) Infinite Jest is deeply embedded in the 12-Step world. In this narrative, addiction and recovery are basically spiritual. Forgive me for drastically oversimplifying a novel I’m loving, but in IJ addiction is often an enslavement of the will or an escape from the self. Recovery is even more insistently spiritual. You recover by giving up and doing as you’re told: Unconditional surrender is the only path to personal peace. If you don’t learn humility through obedience and accept total transformation through surrender to some kind of obscure Higher Power you will destroy yourself and everything you care about.
“Of course–the Crocodiles dig at each other with their knobby elbows and guffaw and wheeze–they say when they tell Gately to either Hang In AA and get rabidly Active or else die in slime of course it’s only a suggestion,” to quote a line which I, as they say, Identified with pretty strongly.
This view of addiction and recovery is all over the place nowadays. From semi-experimental bestsellers to laugh-track CBS sitcoms, a standard “recovery voice” is emerging: voluble about amends and humility, vague or even shifty on the subject of God, wryly submissive and terrified of relapse. (The Sergeant-at-Arms section of Infinite Jest will hit a lot of people very hard.)
You can hear this narrative in this snippet from The Harder They Fall: Celebrities Tell Their Real-Life Stories of Addiction and Recovery–emphases added:
There are some common threads that weave through these often stirring narratives of recovery: initial success fueled by various stimulants, the inevitable crash and burn, and then somehow, often at the last possible moment, against all odds and having been dragged kicking and screaming into a rehabilitation program, finding redemption in the quiet, steely disciplined, deeply personal process of healing the self, making peace with inner demons, and finding a renewed way to live.
The fact that this book exists is a sign of the highly 12-steppy moment we’re all in.
In this narrative addiction and recovery are sublime experiences. They involve moral and spiritual concepts we have a hard time articulating today: Helen Andrews wrote the key essay here, noting,
The irony is that the aspects of AA that seem to resonate with them are the things they hate about organized religion: the admission of powerlessness, the submission to authority, skepticism about the value of thinking for yourself, the rote repetition of phrases that to an outsider seem vapid, sentimental, or silly.
There’s another narrative, though, which is emerging at sites like The Fix and Substance.com. This is a gradually-coalescing worldview, which typically includes but isn’t limited to “harm reduction” properly understood: ”Harm reduction is a set of practical strategies and ideas aimed at reducing negative consequences associated with drug use. Harm Reduction is also a movement for social justice built on a belief in, and respect for, the rights of people who use drugs. ”
In this emerging narrative addiction is better understood as a medical problem than as a spiritual one. (No “personal demons” here.) This narrative reminds us that most illegal drug use isn’t addictive use. Most people who do abuse substances (using what I think is the most useful definition, compulsive use of a substance or behavior in spite of detrimental effects on one’s life) recover without rehab or AA or any other kind of specific help; most people just grow out of it. Lots of people moderate their substance use. You (…for certain values of “you”) really can cut back. And even for those who need to abstain from drugs or alcohol completely, demanding total abstinence up front is more likely to produce despair than compliance. Offering an identity as more than a drug user, in this worldview, is the best way to help somebody become no longer a drug user.
This narrative includes various corollaries: Humiliation, surrender, and obedience are often excuses for abuse of power; participation in spiritual programs like AA shouldn’t be coerced via legal threats, or required by any treatment center which takes health insurance; simply having recovered from addiction yourself doesn’t give you the expertise needed to shepherd others, so a degreed and credentialed counselor who’s never experienced addiction will probably help you more than a sponsor whose only qualification is his Qualification.
The two narratives have differing views of authority: The 12-Steppy model comes across as authoritarian, and can definitely be used as an excuse for cruelty, but it also has an anarchic respect for the wisdom of ordinary people. It attempts to turn followers into leaders through personal guidance. What I’m (again, super-reductively) calling the harm reduction model is simultaneously much more individualistic, and much more reliant on medical expertise. The expert-layperson hierarchy is in many ways more rigid than the sponsor/sponsee relationship. The harm reduction worldview tries to avoid the problems of class- and education-hierarchies by soliciting as much participation as possible from people on the ground, current drug users. “Nothing about us without us” is a slogan of the harm reduction movement, and one with which I agree… but it’s not a slogan AA ever needed, because AA’s whole genesis and development was by “us,” the alcoholics.
The harm reduction model is typically much more comfortable with the idea that different approaches to recovery are valid for different people. There’s much less pressure to force everybody into one method, goal, spirituality, and language.
On a policy level I usually agree with the harm reduction movement (although I don’t make the strong separation they tend to make between spirituality/religion and mental health/medicine). And we desperately do need to accept that there are many different paths to recovery; the one-size-fits-all approach kills people. On a personal level you can probably hear that my own recovery was heavily influenced by (though not strictly within) the 12-Step model. I read David Carr, Stephen King, David Foster Wallace, and I think, Yes, that’s what it’s like.
The increased prominence of the dramatic 12-step narrative, what I’m calling the narrative of sublime recovery, may make it harder for us to accept that anything else is “real” recovery at all.
Maia Szalavitz, a truly invaluable journalist whose work I’ve recommended here before, recently asked, “Most People With Addiction Simply Grow Out of It–Why Is This Widely Denied?” Part of the answer, I think, is that the growing-out-of-it type of recovery is invisible–and it’s invisible because it’s boring. It’s banal. As far as I know there are no novels or sitcoms about banal recovery, because it looks like staying basically the same. You get to keep the self-image you started with: You can keep thinking you’re smart, good, and competent, able to handle whatever life throws at you. You’re able to keep mislabeling your luck as “Good Choices I Made,” if that’s a thing you do.
But this banal recovery, this recovery in which you get to hang onto your ego and keep all your fantasies of competence, makes certain things possible. I know a lot of people who went from destructive use of drugs and alcohol to moderate use, and what that made possible for them was friendship, marriage, babies, honesty, wholehearted religious participation. And these experiences are sublime. People who managed to avoid the unconditional surrender of sublime recovery have so many other, more beautiful paths to surrender.
Marriage is humiliating, parenting is humbling, friendship is a school for gratitude. The fantasies and ego will be burned off by love. Banal recovery makes possible a sublime everyday life.
That is the goal of real recovery.
Love Is Our Mission: The Family Fully Alive is a slim volume, more of an overgrown pamphlet, prepared for the 2015 World Meeting of Families in Philadelphia. It’s meant to lay out Catholic beliefs about vocation, sex, and family life in a way that acknowledges and responds creatively to contemporary challenges. It contains discussion questions to make it easy to use in ministries, book clubs etc. This is what outspoken Archbishop Charles J. Chaput and his team think is most important for American Catholics to hear on the subject of family life.
How’d they do?
In the end I think they got the most important things right.
Many people will be disappointed by this book, because it’s inadequate. But that’s the nature of the beast. I don’t intend to list the various lacunae, unexamined premises, pet causes (which really are important!) that go unmentioned. If I were writing this book it would at least mention the incarceration crisis, because I see the prison system’s effects on families every week, but I get that everyone wants to add one more thing. In the words of Steven Wright, “You can’t have everything; where would you put it?”
There are broader problems with LIOM: I initially wanted to say, “This book needs more about premarital sex, and how fear of divorce has made it seem like the only responsible choice.” But what the book really needs is a clearer statement on the “capstone” model of marriage. The biggest cultural alternative to Catholic sexual ethics isn’t hedonism, but a risk-averse model of responsibility: a model in which every option must be explored and exhausted before one can finally subside into marriage, and in which marriage is the reward for finding yourself and attaining both personal and economic stability.
There’s also just way too much pope. Surely people who were not Pope in the past 20 years have something to contribute to Catholic discourse on the family? Popes John Paul II, Benedict, and Francis are just all over this volume, it’s like a papal Whack-a-Mole. Papal authority is one thing, papal celebrity another. At least some of the papal page-count in this book could be better spent on the voices of married people, women (hey there’s a thought), people who actually are poor rather than just “serving the poor,” etc. (That said, the quotes from Pope Francis were blunt and homey, refreshingly different from the professionally soothing tone of much of the writing. Still too much of him, but not as much too much.)
But there are unexpected grace notes as well: “Mary, as virgin and mother, uniquely and beautifully recapitulates both the vocation to celibacy and the vocation to motherhood”; or the lovely riff connecting Pope Francis’s “field hospital” metaphor with St. Augustine’s depiction of the Church as the inn where the Good Samaritan brought the wounded man to be healed. The artwork is beautiful and touching. Without exception the illustrations are striking and add to the meaning and resonance of the words.
And the three big things I took away from this volume are all things it gets right.
First and most importantly, LIOM insists that Christian ethics flow out of the life and mission of Jesus. Early on the book promises, “Everything we offer in this catechesis flows from Jesus himself,” and it constantly reminds us of the specifics of Jesus’ life, from the hospitality he received in the homes of the disciples to his sacrifice on the Cross, which models for us the “sacrificial fidelity” we must show in our families and communities. This is so basic, but so easy to leave undone—it’s easy to think of sexual morality as an abstract, rule-bound sphere, totally alien to the vivid and shocking and compelling life of Jesus. And the more we abstract the rules away from their source in the Trinity, and especially in Christ, the easier it is to feel that the rules are malleable, and/or to use them as tools to judge others.
LIOM also presents a model of ethics which is not so much about rules as about vocation. Everyone has a calling from God to give and receive sacrificial love from others. Whether you do that in marriage, in parenting, in vowed religious life, in friendship, in hospitality and love for the stranger, or in several of these at once, you were made to love, to be loved, and to give selflessly. “[I]f our parishes really were places where ‘single’ did not mean ‘lonely,’ where extended networks of friends and families really did share one another’s joys and sorrows, then perhaps at least some of the world’s objections to Catholic teaching might be disarmed.” The family is a church—the “domestic church,” a phrase which recurs throughout the volume—and the local parish needs to act more like a family.
The emphasis on hospitality is not something I’ve seen from other church documents. Families are challenged to serve and welcome others, rather than retreating into cul-de-sacs. Families and married adults can feel incredibly isolated, and the isolation of single laypeople is even more obvious. LIOM suggests that mutual hospitality, focused on serving one another rather than meeting one’s own needs (even when those needs are for inherently good things like companionship and love), can fit the scattered puzzle-pieces of the parish back together. This is a form of solidarity which can be practiced at any level of society.
This catechesis is supposed to re-present eternal truths in a way which fits the specific needs of contemporary Americans. And it insists that the central cultural question of our time is the question of trust.
It begins by noting, “Many people today honestly seek meaning” (there’s that lotion-y abstract-reassurance voice) “but don’t know whom to trust or where to commit their lives. Amid this uncertainty, Christians are people who trust in Jesus Christ.” This theme of trust and lack of trust emerges throughout the book. For a book almost exclusively devoted to sexual and familial ethics, LIOM spends a surprising amount of time discussing how and why to trust the Church; it was written by people with a poignantly obvious understanding that the Catholic Church lacks credibility.
That loss of credibility of course stems in large part from the horrific sexual abuse scandals. But LIOM implies, I think rightly, that the Church has also lost credibility here because Her parish and communal life is fragmentary at best. Even people who want to live as deeply embedded as possible within the Body of Christ often find it really hard to know where to start with the Catholic Church.
LIOM speaks to a world where isolation is the result of justified mistrust. It’s the world of Coming Up Short: a world of disconnection and drifting. LIOM insists that Jesus and his Bride the Church are trustworthy even when everybody else lets you down—including churchmen and lay Catholics. And it challenges Catholics, reminding us that we need to earn trust by loving. We can’t act entitled to trust we haven’t earned through our own sacrificial love for others.
Eve Tushnet is a TAC contributing editor and blogs at Patheos.com.
On the very top level–the frosting of the cupcake, if you will–”God Help the Girl” is a musical about a Manic-Depressive Pixie Dream Girl and her nebbishy love interest. It was written and directed by Belle and Sebastian’s Stuart Murdoch, and it is so twee it twinkles, almost two hours of Emily Browning’s giant eyes and sugared voice and insistent suffering, and there were times when I hated it.
But beneath that thick super-sweet frosting, this is a subtle film about the stories we tell about our suffering, and what, if anything, we can count on when we fail ourselves once again.
“GHTG” opens with Eve (Browning) listening to the local radio hosts on her giant headphones, and then sneaking out of the mental hospital where she’s been receiving treatment for what is fairly quickly revealed to be depression and anorexia. She goes to a show which turns into a bit of a shambles, and has a meet-cute subway encounter with the sad-sack singer who kept getting drowned out by the drums. James (Olly Alexander) falls for this tumbleweed angel, of course (“I like your knees,” it’s that kind of movie), and she lives with him for a while. She makes music and makes a friend (the charming Hannah Murray in an underwritten third-wheel role), and they all live sincerely and youthfully–until Eve’s pill supply dwindles and she starts to feel her edges sharpening again.
A musical is always going to be aggressively stylized. It’s a form which requires optimism about human connection: We have to understand one another at least well enough to harmonize for two and a half minutes. This particular musical knows just how much it’s candy-coating loneliness, abandonment and depression. Eve’s wistful, meandering, mostly rhymeless songs spin her pain into cotton candy. All her damage becomes cute.
But here’s the thing: Why can’t damaged people see their damage as cute sometimes? Eve listens to the radio hosts discussing the way fans of harder-edged, more bluntly downbeat bands like Joy Division made a fetish out of madness and suffering. “There is a mystique. They did lose one along the way,” a host says, alluding to singer Ian Curtis’s suicide. “Unless you’ve lost one… you’re not really rock and roll.” This voiceover suggests that candy-coating your pain may be artificial, but so is “rock and roll” expression of pain. Both are romanticized, turned into a genre and a look. All our attempts to grapple with pain are artificial; nothing’s more poignantly human than artifice.
It’s not just that “GHTG” whistles so loudly through the graveyard that you’re basically compelled to look at the graves. The movie is doing something deeper than mere irony. It’s suggesting, I think, that viewing your life and your pain as an indie musical may help heal you.
Early on in the movie Eve’s therapist shows her a drawing of the Maslow hierarchy, and explains that we need to take care of the lowest level–food, sleep–before we can even begin to address our needs for “art, morality, music.” “GHTG,” by contrast, suggests that only these top-level forms of joy (or even worship) make it possible for us to care enough to eat and sleep like the doctors say we should. The soft, drifty tweeness of it all, the aggressive romanticizing, the synchronized hand-claps: These are anchors of hope, acts of faith. If beauty isn’t coming to save the world, maybe prettiness will.
That strikes me as acute psychology: The genre in which we think we’re living really can affect both our mental health and our spiritual well-being. Some people need to live in metaphors of surrender, others in metaphors of liberation. And maybe–I am conceding this through gritted teeth–maybe some people need to live in candy-floss guitar pop with transparent, sincere lyrics.
Lots of people have noticed that the title pays off. We do get a lot of God talk and Jesus imagery in this film. And when you see how pivotal God is to this narrative you’ll wonder why people talk about “deus ex machina” like it’s a bad thing.
James goes to church to sort himself out. I wish we saw him there; I wish we saw what he found there, whether it was a big dark echoing space of smoke and color, or a small white room full of guitars and waving hands. But we get a sharper picture of Christian faith when Eve goes to a Christian healer. She herself doesn’t believe–and yet during the session she finds herself repeating, “I want to be better; I want to get well.” That is maybe the hardest movement of the human soul–the movement to wanting to get well–and in this movie the push comes from above.
The whole portrayal of this Christian healing session is sincere: Eve’s vision of Jesus is as real as anything in this tight-POV movie. In the aftermath, she tells James, “A few days later, I began to feel much worse. Seriously panicked.” But now, “I feel… different. Like she cleaned me out somehow.”
The movie’s closing songs and images stress independence. (That’s a relief, when several scenes earlier seemed to linger greasily on Eve’s undressed dependence.) Eve sings that she’ll “forgive myself and eat,” with a hilariously symbolic apple.
I think you could read this as a story of faith reduced to therapy: Jesus is useful. But that would be unfair to a nuanced movie. When all else fails Eve, when friends are gone and she’s grabbing blindly at anything which might heal or even just relieve the pain for a little while, the nets which catch her are music and her own ability to believe in herself and in her dreams. But by that point in the movie we’ve been told several times that both of these saving powers are gifts from God. That undercuts the independence/self-reliance imagery a lot, and makes the movie deeper both psychologically and theologically. (Here is a super-spoilerous take on the movie’s religious imagery which shaped my own reading of it.)
This movie wasn’t made for me. I fully admit that if its hyper-stylized, slickly optimistic genre had been ’80s pop/New Wave rather than whatever Belle and Sebastian does, I would adore this and watch it a million times. (Come to think of it I did do that back when it was “Grosse Pointe Blank,” which was much more handwavey, secular, and disingenuous than this flick, not that I care.) And intellectually I can acknowledge that self-forgiveness is a real thing many people need to do and struggle to do; emotionally I’ll always find it kind of skyhooks. (The bit about music always being there for you I’ll cosign, though I may have a darker take on that than “GHTG.”) The parts of Christianity which are easiest for me to grasp are the parts about the insufficiency of self-forgiveness. But self-forgiveness can also (maybe?) be the first step out of the prison of self-hatred.
“God Help the Girl” is a smart, powerful little flick. Sometimes I hated it. But I won’t forget it.
A young American expatriate in Paris comes home one afternoon to find her husband, a doctor working on pediatric AIDS for Doctors Without Borders, unexpectedly home in the middle of the day and watching porn. This setup, which could lead to a farce or a realistic domestic drama, instead gets the suspense-flick treatment in Amy Herzog’s tense and thought-provoking “Belleville” (at D.C.’s Studio Theatre through October 12).
I’ve seen three Herzog plays so far (and reviewed “4000 Miles” and “After the Revolution” for TAC) and “Belleville” is by far the best: character-driven, propulsive, and full of tough moral and cultural commentary. As we watch Abby (Gillian Williams) and Zack (Jacob H. Knoll) play out typical couples’ quarrels and reconciliations—all those jokes which teeter on the edge of real resentment—we start to intuit how much Zack is really hiding. The American couple’s lives intertwine with the lives of their landlords, the even younger Muslim married couple Alioune (Maduka Steady) and Amina (Joy Jones): four outsiders in France, two couples in which the husbands are keeping secrets. Four characters, three countries, two days… and one knife.
Abby, an underemployed yoga teacher, is increasingly aware that she’s pretending to be an adult. Her sister is about to have a baby; Alioune, whom she had assumed was older than her because of his familial and work responsibilities, turns out to be four years younger. “Were you ever told, growing up, ‘It doesn’t matter what you do as long as you’re happy’?” Abby asks Alioune. When he says he was not, she calls this line “the worst thing you can say to your kids”–which got a laugh of recognition from the D.C. audience. Abby was raised to be happy, not to be good or dutiful or responsible, and so of course she is miserable.
Playacting adult life rather than living it is one of the central themes of “Belleville.” Abby and Zach have some of the trappings of adult life: “We were the first of all our friends” to marry, Abby notes. But there’s something ersatz about their grown-up life. They’re celebrating what Abby calls “our first grown-up Christmas” with a teeny, tiny fir tree. “A starter tree,” she says optimistically.
Twined around this theme are the many distractions which allow liars—or, let’s say, people in denial—to pretend that everything is okay. Pot, porn, pet names for your spouse, moving to a different country: There are so many ways of postponing the inevitable.
All four of the characters were easy to relate to, at least for me. Amina is the most grown-up. She’s stern, but she’s not wrong. (She might even come across as too much the stereotypical “strong black woman,” if not for Joy Jones’s nuanced performance.) Alioune is the guy torn between conflicting loyalties and aspirations, between his friendship with Zack and his responsibilities as a husband and breadwinner. Abby is frightened, trying to tell herself that everything is still forgivable, nothing’s gone too far just yet. (Williams is excellent throughout most of the performance but does get a bit actressy, heavy on the big shaking voice, toward the very end.)
And Zack is the only one who knows, from the very beginning, just how trapped they all are. Many of us eventually reach a point where we’ve concealed the truth about our circumstances for so long that exposure seems impossible to bear, a fate worse than death. There’s a powerful parallel between the morning-after scene where Abby tries to piece together her disastrous drunken night, and the situation in which Zack has been living from the very beginning. You wake up inside something you did.
Lies both spring from and strengthen shame and mistrust. You don’t trust another person with the truth about yourself, and so you keep secrets; and the fact that you’re keeping secrets becomes another secret you have to keep. Distractions help you keep yourself from noticing the steady growth of shame and erosion of trust. Meanwhile the other person trusts you, but is starting to notice a quiet voice inside, saying, Something’s wrong.
“Belleville” captures that willful suppression of the voice of conscience, the desperation which prompts it and the even greater desperation which it causes in turn. The play also suggests, I think, that the American insistence on happiness–on having the right emotions, not just doing the right things—perversely makes it harder for us to acknowledge and understand our interior lives. Demanding happiness makes us more ashamed, and less self-aware.
Well, I’ve never seen a Pelagian horror film before.
“As Above, So Below” is a collision of lots of intriguing ideas and settings. It’s about a British professor’s quest to find the Philosopher’s Stone in the Paris catacombs, despite warnings that the Stone is hidden near “the gates of Hell.” So we get treasure-hunt adventure; religious horror; nature horror, as the archeological spelunkers get trapped in cave-ins and swim through tunnels deep underground; and what we might call “justice horror,” that chillingly mathematical genre about the return of repressed old sins.
The best-handled element is the nature horror. The Catacombs are creepy and cool–and legitimately scary. The audience in my theater was happy to yelp, gasp, and cringe as the characters clamber over human bones and get stuck in terrifying wormholes.
The treasure hunt also works pretty well. There are a few moments where characters make implausible logical leaps (“‘Rectify’! That means we have to go back and replace this stone!”) but overall the quest bounces along pleasurably. Our Hermione, here named Scarlett and played by Perdita Weeks, dabbles in creative chemistry as well as arcane knowledge. There’s a Ptolemaic hinge, and a kind of glittery invisible ink which can be revealed by mixing common cleaning products and then setting them on fire.
Unfortunately, the religious horror and justice horror basically don’t work at all, in part because they’re subgenres which especially rely on compelling characterization. Spoilers below.
Every character has been issued a maximum of one trait and one item of backstory. Scarlett is driven, and her father killed himself after failing to find the Stone. Boom, done, that’s all you get. George (Ben Feldman) is reluctant, and his brother drowned in a cave. Papillon (Francois Civil) likes graffiti and has a mysterious burn on his hand; none of the other cavers get even that much individuality.
All of these characters feel constructed. They’ve been made to fit the narrative, rather than the story flowing out of their traits and histories. Seriously, George’s brother didn’t just die, but drowned in a cave just like the waterlogged ones they’re now about to explore?
The Catacombs lead to an underground warren in which the characters are confronted by their past sins, or whatever they feel guilty about. There’s also lots of random spooky stuff which doesn’t seem to have any connection to the guilt/justice theme. So there’s a mysterious hooded man in a chair, and some attacking rock people, and the ghost of George’s drowned brother, and a freaky lady in white, and a phone that rings underground… and it all starts to feel like (if you’ll pardon the phrase) one damned thing after another. A haunted hayride, not a sojourn in purgatory. But that isn’t the biggest issue.
The biggest problem is the movie’s shallow portrayal of guilt, penance, and redemption. This is the heart of the film, it’s what the quest is leading up to, and it is just a mess. First of all, no distinction is made between guilty feelings and actual moral wrongdoing. So Scarlett’s “sin” is that she didn’t pick up the phone the night her father killed himself. Obviously anyone could understand why she would feel guilty, but it’s not as if the audience is going to agree that she was responsible for his death. Greg’s “sin” is even more deck-stacking: He was also a child when his younger brother was injured in the cave, and he got lost as he tried to get home, so by the time he returned with help his brother had died. The movie wants to depict guilt and punishment for sin, but doesn’t want us to judge the characters as harshly as we might if they’d really done anything wrong. (I was hard on “Deliver Us from Evil,” but that movie is a great example of both solid, simple characterization and actually letting its heroes do terrible things.)
Meanwhile the third character whose “sin” gets explicitly named suddenly says, “I have a child I’ve never seen. I know he’s mine, but I won’t admit it.” Hey look, something that’s actually wrong! Blink and you’ll miss it, since there were no hints that this character had any hidden sin and this child will never be mentioned again. Like the ringing phone and the boy lost in the cave, the abandoned child exists solely to fill a cardboard box marked “SIN.”
After many trials, Scarlett learns what the Philosopher’s Stone really is. It’s her. I mean, I think it’s us, if we tap our potential, or something. She sees her face reflected in a bronze disc and gains the power to resurrect the dead. She then explains that if the surviving cavers admit their sins and jump into a bottomless pit, they will be saved. They do and they are. And they walk away down the Paris streets, looking fairly freaked out. Roll credits.
The quest for the Stone was about rules: Learn the rules, then follow them, in order to gain power. When the characters enter Hell suddenly the rules don’t matter. They’re disrupted and discarded—caves loop in impossible circles, a lost caver moves with inhuman speed. This feels both frightening and satisfying, since the idea that life has intelligible rules always seemed a little childish. The characters’ quest object shifts from power to redemption or healing. When I thought this was where the movie was going, I was really impressed with the weird decision to combine a Philosopher’s Stone movie with a tour-of-hell flick.
But when Scarlett sees her face in the disc, the rules come roaring back. She figures out the trick that allows her to tap into her inner power and save both herself and others. I don’t think you need orthodox theology to wonder, “Is that all there is?” Not only is there an answer—inherently unsatisfying, as Douglas Adams knew—but the answer was inside me all along?
Everything interesting in this world, from music to sex to religion, exists because we know we’re not sufficient unto ourselves. Switching the story from “confront your sins” to “unlock your hidden superpowers” makes the story smaller: a piece of self-comfort, an easy out, which is the opposite of what I want from a horror movie.
Eve Tushnet is a TAC contributing editor and blogs at Patheos.com.