Pixar’s “Inside Out” is a charming, vividly-imagined film with terrific comic timing. Its insights are sharp and its message accurate. So why was I the only person in the theater who didn’t sniffle?
“Inside Out” takes us into the brain of Riley, a buoyantly happy 11-year-old girl about to face her first major life challenge: a move from Minnesota to San Francisco. We see the world inside her head, including a control room operated by her emotions. Joy (Amy Poehler) is in charge, a strenuously cheerful “Go, team!” type whose outline fizzes with energy. There’s also Fear, who “keeps Riley safe”; Disgust, who apparently helps her to figure out what’s cool as well as keeping her from eating broccoli; Anger; and mopey blue Sadness (Phyllis Smith). The challenge for Riley is coping with a new house, new school, new classmates, trying out for a new hockey team. The challenge for Joy turns out to be not only protecting Riley but figuring out what on earth Sadness is there for. What good is she?
The movie lays it out for you plainly, and it is true: Sadness allows you to empathize. Sadness brings people together by giving other people the chance to comfort and care for you, and giving you the sorrow that allows you to understand others’ hurts. At times this movie even echoes Allie Brosh’s “My fish is dead” comic about depression, which depicts the way being cheered up can make you feel much worse, and the way that emotional numbness is much worse than sadness or anger.
“Inside Out” is acute (and very, very blunt) in its portrayal of happiness as something parents expect from their kids: American kids almost have a duty to be happy. This movie gives voice to the fear and unhappiness these expectations can bring kids. It has some terrific lines (introducing Anger: “He cares very deeply about things being fair”). It’s replete with poignant images, like the golden happy memory globes turning blue as Sadness touches them.
The thing is, this is a movie that exists to teach kids how to feel their feelings. I couldn’t help being reminded of the picture books my parents would give me to help me with my own “defects of character”: Leo the Lion Takes a Bath, and all that. (“You got soap in my eyes! I HATE it when you get soap in my eyes!!”—actual dialogue, I think.) The use of characters named Sadness and Joy just took this movie too far into the realm of moral lesson, for me. There’s a workbook feeling to this movie, a whiff of the school counselor’s office.
That slightly utilitarian feel was intensified for me by the specific imagery “Inside Out” uses to depict the mind. Joy and her colleagues are in the control room, pressing buttons and reading manuals—even joy is work. Every culture has its own vocabulary for representing experience. I wonder how different “Inside Out” would feel if Riley’s mind were a palace, or an obstreperous parliament; or a cathedral. Instead the imagery we get is control panels, construction crews, security guards, and shift work.
There are various other weird glitches. Our rare glimpses into other people’s minds are much flatter than what we see in Riley’s—univocal—and they’re not merely gendered but gender-stereotyped. Both the unanimity of the emotions and the stereotyping are done for comedic effect, which is mostly successful, but it throws off the message and the metaphors. Many of Riley’s happiest memories cluster around honesty; I do not believe that has ever been true of any 11-year-old human or other mammal.
In general I found it hard to believe that a child had reached that age with so few awful memories, persistent shames, or sins. We visit her subconscious and the great lurking fears there are broccoli and the vacuum cleaner. She’s eleven. I led a charmed life as a child, and I had accumulated more Dostoyevskyan angst by age six than this kid seems to harbor at twice that. (The unrelentingly sunny, goofy, princess-pink aura of her fantasy realms seems especially unrealistic. John Darnielle maybe has a closer eye on what happens inside the World of Pure Imagination.) I don’t know, maybe I’m just jealous; maybe some kids really are that cloudless?
But the friend with whom I saw this movie was floored by it. For him, the movie brilliantly depicted what it feels like to put up a facade, to know that people expect a certain level of competent happiness from you even when it feels like Sadness or Anger has hijacked your control panel.
“Inside Out” moves from happy memories to an emphasis on bittersweet ones. It strongly hints that all memories eventually become bittersweet. There’s even a moment toward the end where Joy, not Sadness, turns a memory blue: That’s a haunting, beautifully simple way of conveying a complex psychological truth.
I think this movie will be good for children and many adults will be deeply moved by it. The fact that it didn’t quite get there for me shouldn’t stop you from loading this into your memory tubes.
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.
For the extraordinary 2012 documentary “The Act of Killing“, filmmaker Joshua Oppenheimer encouraged participants in the Indonesian death-squad killings of 1965 to reenact their murders of suspected or fabricated Communists. The killers, who have reaped material and political success from their violence, were for the most part happy to oblige. Their reenactments became increasingly baroque and Hollywoodized; they expressed the self-image which made them feel powerful and free, and allowed them to evade remorse. This was not a film about the victims but about the victimizers: the phantasmagoria of their rationalizations.
Now Oppenheimer has released “The Look of Silence”, a companion piece that follows Adi, a 40-something father of two whose brother was killed in ’65, as he confronts his brother’s killers. The movie’s title refers most obviously to the fixed stare with which Adi watches footage of the killers chortlingly reenacting and expounding on the proper methods for throat-slitting and dismemberment.
“The Look of Silence” was made before “The Act of Killing” had been released, so nobody Adi interviews starts out with any suspicions. But Adi explains that he is the brother of someone they killed. He will not let his interviewees get away with easy answers: “I don’t mean to offend you—but I think you’re avoiding your moral responsibility,” he tells one man, striking his chest at the final words as if reciting the Confiteor.
“Act” is probably the greatest documentary I’ve ever seen. “Look” is excellent in its own right, with several powerful scenes of horror, remembrance, or ambiguous quasi-reconciliation, but it’s not as blunt-force essential as the earlier film. The new film has the ultra-crisp and color-soaked visual style of the earlier one, its quick and dramatic cuts, and its attention to the weird little details of life: Two men stroll along a riverbank, interrupting their reminiscences about their days in the death squad to smell some river plants. Adi’s centenarian father is introduced when Adi asks him to sing, and he warbles obligingly, “You’re so sexy! I can’t stand it!” The conversations are sharply-observed; Oppenheimer keeps in a lot of material that less confident directors might have cut, like Adi’s mother saying that she’s never celebrated her birthday because “I don’t believe in that. People get addicted to it.”
“Look”‘s metaphors are visually striking but somewhat obvious: Adi is an eyeglasses salesman, so there’s a lot of, “Can you see better now? Can you see further?” There are symbolic jumping beans, the hard closed shells that jerk and hop convulsively because something alive is hidden inside. Adi’s father doesn’t know his own age—or pretends not to, pretends he is still a carefree 17-year-old. The documents that might have proven his age have been lost long ago.
“Act” took its killers on journeys deep into the most walled-off sections of their psyches. We saw one perpetrator struggle to acknowledge the humanity of his victims, while another tried to get him to get therapy to cure the first symptoms of conscience.
In “Look”, by contrast, people mostly just threaten Adi and tell him to stop talking politics. There are hints that some of these men find their status and self-image fragile, but many others seem utterly self-satisfied. “We should be rewarded with a trip to America,” one says, adding that it wouldn’t need to be an airline trip: He’d be satisfied with just a cruise. There’s a nasty twist toward the end, when Adi finds out that “your neighbors are your persecutors” actually understates his closeness to the perpetrators, but mostly this is simply a portrayal of an exceptionally brave person trying to, fairly literally, speak truth to power. (Before the film showed, an introductory speaker noted that Adi and his family had left their home village in order to escape retaliation.) The movie’s emotional force comes mainly from Adi’s tense, watchful face as he confronts the men who fattened themselves on his family’s pain.
There is one horrifying detail that gets explored in depth, and we watch the daughter of one of the perpetrators learn about it. She, too, holds very still, almost rearing back, holding herself as far away from Adi and the camera as she can. Her father reveals this detail without any hint of shame and even without realizing, it seems, that it would shock her.
Perhaps that’s the most hopeful element of this harrowing film. As with “Act”, the credits for this movie are filled with “Anonymous,” since Indonesians who worked on the movies were afraid to link their names to it. Part of the films’ vertiginous effect is that they allow people who are in power, and have been in power for a very long time, to tell their side of the story—and only in the telling do the perpetrators sometimes start to realize that their side doesn’t look so good. They have been so used to everyone around them living in the world that they created; their story has become normal to them, they inhabit it, but they have never told it all the way to the end. And only when they are comfortable enough to reveal everything do they begin to see the look on other people’s faces.
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.
I listen to a lot of what you could call “Christ-haunted” music. Your Mountain Goats, your Weakerthans. Not music made by believers necessarily (although sometimes, unexpectedly, yes), but music made by people who can’t quite escape the stories of Scripture and the language of Christian faith. Cain, resurrection, David, sorrow for sin; a desperate rosary or a hospital vespers. You could add to this list stuff I don’t personally quite grok, but which is clearly in the same ramshackle choir loft: Sufjan Stevens, the Hold Steady. You could add Youngest Son, whom I’ve reviewed for TAC.
But I realized recently that I couldn’t think of any women who work that weedy hallowed ground. Women who pray with their voices cracking, who kneel when they’re angry and offer praise when they’re in pain—whose personal relationship with Jesus is fraught. Where were they?
I eventually came up with Sinead O’Connor. I’m glad O’Connor’s voice is out there, though she is not really my thing. There’s also Evanescence, maybe, bless Amy Lee’s teenage heart. They’re vague and bombastic enough to score superhero films and they turn that evangelical “Jesus is my boyfriend” thing into “Jesus is my ex who I have constant Facebook drama with,” and I’ll be honest, I love it. But I felt like I… uh, I felt like this guy.
I asked around, and got a terrific list of suggestions; I’m sharing my favorites with you here. A lot of these were suggested by Youngest Son’s Steve Slagg; others came from various denizens of the twittering world. You know that the comments box is ready for your additions.
Iris DeMent: Yowly country music in the grand tradition. For the purposes of this article let’s start with “The Night I Learned How Not to Pray.”
Jennifer Knapp: I admit until now I only knew her as “that Christian singer who came out.” I loved “Remedy” and generally dig her rawer songs, although she can get a bit sugary and a bit anthemic for my taste. (Did I really just say that after linking to U2? Consistency is for atheists….)
Sam Phillips: Slagg says, “Lots of faith-influenced cultural criticism, as well as insider critiques of the church, in her 80s and 90s acid-pop albums, especially Martinis & Bikinis. Then in the 2000s she started writing weird, poetic folk-pop songs with an odd sort of spiritual mysticism that reminds me of the more recent Bill Callahan albums. There’s a real personal element there too, since she was working through a divorce and getting basically kicked out of Christian music in the 80s, etc.”
Judee Sill: A hazy, haunting ’70s singer, heartfelt and askew.
Slagg called her “practically a [Mountain Goats] character, an addict/mystic/misfit/doubter/end-times fanatic. …She really was a true believer, though her spiritual appetites went into the occult and new age as well as Christianity, and there is definitely a pilgrim/searching quality to her work as well. The conflict in her songs comes less from doubt and more from trying to survive in a world inhospitable to the type of devotion that her beliefs and passions required of her.”
Nina Simone: Another Slagg pick and a great catch. He says he thought of her “more because of her choices of rep and the darkness and interior conflict she brought out in certain songs (Sinnerman, Nobody’s Fault But Mine) than for her original material. And her mashup between George Harrison’s ‘My Sweet Lord’ and David Nelson’s ‘Today is a Killer’ somehow encompasses the whole range between jubilant worship and misotheism.”
Torres: Fierce and angsty; a voice that can shimmer or shriek, with lyrics to match either mode. Check her out especially if you come from that Southern evangelical world. Here’s a blunt object.
If I had to come up with some grand theory about these women and their work, I guess I could say that they tend to express criticism of the Church a lot more frequently and openly than similarly Christ-haunted guys. Sam Phillips’s line, “I need God / Not the political church,” is the kind of thing I mean. My instinct is to say that the men tend to sing about churches for outcasts—the Church of Misfit Toys—whereas the women sing about searching for that church and finding something different, and worse.
The need for rescue is there but the rescuing hands too often bruise as they clutch. These singers have found no sanctuary on earth.
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.
CDs of “Beat the Champ,” the new album from indie folk/rock band the Mountain Goats, come with a small white sticker proclaiming: THIS RIGHT HERE IS AN ALBUM ABOUT PROFESSIONAL WRESTLING. I guess they had to get the ironic disclaimer out of the way: Yes, this is a weird thing to do, roll with it please. If you do roll with it you will find an utterly unironic tribute to the wrestling heroes of singer/songwriter John Darnielle’s childhood—and one of his band’s best albums.
The songs explore many of Darnielle’s recurring themes: memory, what it’s like to feel nostalgia for a childhood and adolescence that were marked by abuse and fear, the escape into an inner world of imagination, and the way not only gentler emotions but thwarted rage find a haven in that imaginary world. Pro wrestling is a storytelling sport (like figure skating, the sport onto which I passionately project my own issues) and so it’s made for people who need a primary-colors story that’s better than the one they’re living.
The album opens hard on the piano chords of “Southwest Territory” (place is once again a character in the Mountain Goats’ songs), and the songs find a rhythm that alternates between nostalgia and ferocity. There are a lot of fathers and sons in these songs. Darnielle’s liner notes are up-front about what he’s doing here:
It’s always a challenge for me to state simply what things were like between my stepfather and me, because there were few sweet spots that didn’t end up getting polluted or corrupted by the dynamic of abuse, but in wrestling we had a point of contact: in many ways, he was a child who’d never grown up, and he liked to play the part of an antagonistic older brother at the fights. …
The situation in my house was deteriorating badly and permanently during the span of my hyper-fandom, which lasted from when I was nine until I was maybe thirteen. My life was chaotic and frightening. I did not cheer the heels. I feared and hated them. I wanted to see them punished. When, in the heat of battle, the good guys would abandon the rulebook in order to fight fire with fire, something in me responded primally.
“Beat the Champ” is a fairly blunt-force album. It has anthems like “The Legend of Chavo Guerrero,” and Darnielle shows off his terrific capacity for making threats in “Werewolf Gimmick,” which reaches a kind of ecstasy of rage. There’s the never-surrender guy in “Choked Out,” who feels himself “at one, for once, with the universe” as he loses consciousness; and there’s Bull Ramos, “that old wrestler with the bullwhip,” sitting blind and invalid on his porch in Houston, happy in the memory of friendship. There’s humor here, but it’s gallows humor: the blurting comedic horns as Darnielle sings, “I personally will stab you in the eye! With a foreign object!”
I love the childlike, rippling woodwinds in “Southwest Territory,” and the way Darnielle’s voice is strained to breaking as he portrays a wrestler switching from good guy to heel, and the gorgeous, limpid piano ending of that song. The thriller violins of “Stabbed to Death Outside San Juan” and the battering drums of “Werewolf Gimmick.” The most intense and punishing songs are always followed by relief.
This is a beautifully-constructed album—you can feel its architecture, its timing—and all of that construction is in the service of some of Darnielle’s most resonant writing. Most of these songs are written from a place where the longing for justice has started to become infected, just started to transform into rage. I’m tempted to say that it was “always already” infected, that human justice will always werewolf when the wolfsbane blooms. But this album, like Darnielle’s novels, captures both sides of justice perfectly: our need for it (honoring this need for justice is a prerequisite of forgiveness, if forgiveness is something you’re concerned with) and the cruelty we commit in service of that need.
“Beat the Champ” ends, as it probably had to, with a story of defeat. After all the triumphs in the ring the lasting triumph is survival: reaching a place where you don’t need to play the hero anymore.
“The Hard Problem” is Tom Stoppard’s first work for the stage since 2006’s fantastic “Rock ‘n’ Roll,” and like “Rock ‘n’ Roll,” it asks whether there’s such a thing as a soul, or whether a human being is just “a pinball machine which thinks it’s in love.”
But where the earlier play offered a clash between Marxist materialism and the pagan ecstasy of rock music, “The Hard Problem” is a more blunt and programmatic conflict between evolutionary biology and a sort of heavily diluted Christianity, set in a brain-science research institute.
I saw National Theatre‘s broadcast production from London to international movie theaters, which closes May 27. “The Hard Problem” is short—only 100 minutes—and it feels undercooked compared to Stoppard’s other work. The problems and stakes are often stated too explicitly, and only one of the characters is fully fleshed-out.
That character is Hilary (Olivia Vinall), a young psychology researcher whom we meet as she’s using the Prisoner’s Dilemma to flirt with her tutor, Spike (a suitably greasy Damien Molony). Hilary argues that the abstractions of the Dilemma leave out everything that real-life arrestees would know about one another. “I’m gonna give Bob a chance to go straight!” she declares: she’ll hang tough, regardless of whether her fellow prisoner sings. And when her tutor asks why, she says, with just the right mix of irony and sincerity, “Because I’m good!”
Spike replies, “Don’t say the word ‘good’ as if it meant something in evolutionary science.”
Hilary is good, we learn. (This is one of the very few artworks in which I can actually believe it when other characters praise the virtues of the hero.) She’s also something more than that: Spike comes out of a postcoital shower to find her kneeling by the bed they’ve shared, praying.
The rest of the play explores what Hilary thinks she’s doing when she prays, and whether it can fit into a scientific worldview. The conflict is over-simplified, in part because Hilary herself doesn’t seem sure whether she’s arguing for “God” as a Platonic Form—an “overall moral intelligence” that grounds human morality and allows us to distinguish “good” from “beneficial for species survival”—or whether she’s arguing for “God” as an active and loving Person.
But maybe that’s the point. “The Hard Problem” may be one of those works in which the surface question isn’t the real question. The surface question is: Does the inability of the sciences to explain consciousness and morality leave God “the last man standing”? Hilary makes the case most briefly when she says, “I agree with you, Spike. Morality isn’t scientific. So there must be something else, which isn’t science.”
But Hilary’s own life suggests that people don’t long for God the Explanation. When Hilary prays, what she says is: forgive me; protect those I love; thank you. Even as she argues that “When you get to [explaining] consciousness God pushes itself to the front of the crowd like a doctor at the site of an accident” her choice of metaphor suggests that she’s not really thinking about the philosophy of mind, but something more personal.
She’s the only character who does pray, the only one who considers prayer something more than nursery rhymes. Stoppard gets a lot of easy mileage out of the English discomfort with religious faith: “So you, as it were, pray to God, then?”
Hilary is a moving character, simultaneously brash and humble, whose arc within the play is poignant and satisfying. Vinall is a joy to watch, whether she’s challenging the materialist men who surround Hilary, or struggling to explain the source of her sorrow. Parth Thakerar, as an overconfident materialist who suffers a serious setback at work, is a scene-stealer, fierce and funny. His ecstatic little “but!” as he announces a market crash pops like a champagne cork: Everything’s good news for somebody. The National Theatre production is appropriately spare: strings of lights, beautiful and evocative of neural pathways, serve as backdrops.
There are other threads here: the unpredictability of the market as a mirror for the unanswerable questions of philosophy; children’s innocence versus their responsibility; the mentor/protégée relationship as a mirror for parent/child relationships.
It’s an eroticized mirror, though: All the mentoring relationships in this play are sexualized on at least one side. Sexuality is the only language these characters seem to have with which to work out their neediness, intellectual excitement, guilt, admiration—everything that could link them to other adults.
On a theoretical level this might sound like a good idea: Just as Spike reduces human motivation and morality to physical survival, so these characters (and/or the culture that shaped them) reduce all their longings and emotions to sexual attraction. But as an actual thing that happens in a real play that you watch, it’s slightly baffling and boring. One man openly says that he only understood another character’s motivations once he was informed that she was acting out of a lesbian crush, as if all other human motives have become utterly unintelligible to us. I know Stoppard knows how to write sublimation, so I’m assuming this was deliberate cultural critique.
This is not Stoppard’s best work, nor even his best work on these topics, but it’s well worth your time. There are good lines and sharp insights—and there’s Hilary, with her gentleness born of guilt and grief. Still, there’s too much “debate on stage” and too little character development—too little of “Rock ‘n’ Roll”‘s weirdnesses, ecstasies, and sudden sorrows.
For a play about the unpredictability of human action, “The Hard Problem” feels too planned.
Most of the art and literature of friendship is elegiac. From Montaigne to Marsden Hartley, from St. Aelred to Andrew Sullivan, from elegant tribute to anguished lament, our art of friendship is haunted by the death of friends.
There are many reasons for this. Friendships are typically less public than marriages or parental relationships; for most of our lives they play in gentle counterpoint against these more public relationships, only emerging in moments of anguish. Friendships don’t produce children, so art can serve as a memorial—something to last when the friend is gone, something to prove that the friendship had weight in the world.
And friendships, especially in the modern and postmodern eras, are free of promises to stick by one another. We only know a friendship is lifelong in retrospect. Often we only see the depth of a friendship, its endurance and the way it shaped a life, when death has parted the friends.
Part of what makes my friend Wesley Hill’s slender new book so intriguing is that it is an attempt to give an account of friendship that is grounded in history, theology, and literature—yet forward-looking. Spiritual Friendship: Finding Love in the Church as a Gay Christian is an essayistic collection of provocations, not a tome intended to be “the last word” on friendship or its relationship to Christian community. It’s a book about hope and hope’s uncertainty, about trust and taking chances; it’s not a look back at a friendship well-lived. It’s an unfinished story.
The book is divided into two sections. Both sections seamlessly weave Hill’s personal experience, passages from literature and descriptions of artwork, historical and sociological interpretations, and theological reflection. The first section is weighted more heavily toward the theoretical: Hill asks how friendship lost its public character, and why men, especially, find the intimacy and vulnerability of deep friendship much harder to attain after middle school. But even in this section he shows how the longing for friendship has shaped his own life, and how difficult it has been to acknowledge and understand that longing.
Hill asks whether and how friendship should shape Christian lives. He engages with the Christian arguments against friendship—shouldn’t Christians love everybody, not just the people we especially like?—and suggests that for Christians the terms “friend,” “brother/sister,” and “disciple” should intertwine. I think there’s a lot more to say here: What about friendships with non-Christians? Will mixing friendship (a relationship we basically choose, and one which is based on at least initial affection and attraction, pleasure in the other person’s presence) and discipleship (a relationship with those whom we often would not choose, who are different and to whom we are tied through our common love of Jesus rather than directly to one another) make it easy to turn away from the hardest parts of discipleship, to retreat into a circle of friends? I specifically wonder how the vision of a church “molecule” made up of the atomic bonds between friends would become a cross-class church. Wouldn’t class segregation be easier in a church based so heavily on chosen bonds, whether friendship or other forms of kinship?
The great thing about Hill’s book, though, is that it prompts these questions (and many others) and doesn’t attempt to resolve them. It has already prompted one terrific reflection on how friendship might fit into a class-crossing church.
The second half of the book draws us deeper into Hill’s own story, which we’ve glimpsed in the earlier sections. He describes one friendship that basically shattered under the weight of his own expectations and unacknowledged needs. He stumbles around for a while in the rubble of that friendship, meeting other people and trying again—with that heartbreaking caution which is the result of pain and failure—to open his heart to others and intertwine his life with theirs.
And the book closes with an extended description of his friendship with a married couple. This friendship has affected their decisions around work and housing; the friendship has been blessed by a minister, and after the blessing the friends received Communion together, in a renewal of one of the most beautiful friendship practices of premodern Christendom.
But, in the words of Schmendrick the Magician, “There are no happy endings–because nothing ends.” Throughout this touching scene Hill has been reminding us that the future of this friendship is uncertain: “I know we’ll see further complications in our friendship down the road. … And I know that, modern life being what it is and with none of us being quite ready to take a vow of stability, we’ll likely find ourselves saying a more permanent good-bye at some point in the future, perhaps even as soon as next year.” He focuses on gratitude for the time they have had together, and tries to hold love lightly.
The old saying goes, “Man plans; God laughs.” Or in the AA formulation, “Expectations are premeditated resentments.” In a way, the second half of Hill’s book is a meditation on the difference between plans and promises.
Plans are fantasies which take place in an alternate universe where we control the most important aspects of our lives. Promises, by contrast, often explicitly highlight the uncertainty of the future: I will be your friend come what may. The wedding vows are a litany of all the hardship that may lie in wait for the couple: for richer or for poorer (layoffs, financial crashes which turn your smart decisions suddenly foolish, the tears leaking from her eyes as she stares at that second line on the pregnancy test), in sickness and in health (disability, depression, the emotional and financial struggles which illness brings), for better or for worse (this isn’t who I thought I married; I don’t know if I can do this). And then the final blow, once you’ve somehow learned to live with all the rest: ’til death do you part.
God may laugh at our plans, but I don’t think He laughs at our promises. Where other books on friendship gain their depth and poignancy from their attention to a friendship which has ended, which perhaps we weren’t grateful enough for when we had it, Hill’s book gains its richness from his attention to and gratitude for a friendship which is only beginning. That’s appropriate for a book which is about the future of friendship itself.
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.
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.
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.
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.