Mental Illness, the 2nd Amendment, and the Rest of Us.

When I first saw footage of WDBJ-TV reporter Alison Parker and cameraman Adam Ward being gunned down on live television in 2015, I was horrified. Later in the day, when I read more about the shooter, a disgruntled former employee named Vester L. Flanagan II, I froze.

In 2000, Flanagan filed charges, later dropped, against another former employer, NBC affiliate WTWC in Tallahassee, claiming a bigoted, hostile work environment. He further claimed that a high-ranking WTWC executive once called him a “monkey.”

Two springs ago, during my first semester teaching at a major area university, a student made a startling, utterly false accusation against me.

He claimed I called him a monkey.

Quickly investigated and dismissed — this young man, an international student from West Africa, accused other instructors of using the exact same slur, and claimed the university and numerous classmates were conspiring against him — the matter would’ve been easy to shrug off but for two things. One, my student was mentally ill. And two, he was allowed to return to class.

After a series of erratic actions around campus — none violent, but several ominous — he was visited at his apartment by a county Crisis Intervention Team. They found sufficient reason to petition for emergency committal and had the student hospitalized in a psychiatric facility for three days. Seventy-two hours later, he was discharged.

Immediately afterward, he was required to meet with the university’s own mental-healthcare team so that it, too, could assess him. Until that meeting took place, he was officially banned from campus.

Here’s where I say that the university acted properly and did what it could to keep everyone safe without violating anyone’s rights. Of course, that’s the rub: Once it completed its assessment and determined that the student was a) delusional, but b) not a threat, the school was compelled to allow his return.

Knowing my anxiousness over the situation — this was my first time teaching, after all, and this student had made accusations not only against me, but also another student in my class — the university offered to post security outside my door in the days following his return to campus.

Again, though, he was allowed to be there. That meant security couldn’t prevent him from entering; they could merely (possibly) intervene if something happened once he was inside. To my mind, it was an absurd scenario.

“Maybe I should come with you today,” said my husband on the morning this student was set to return. “I could just sit in the back and make sure everything is okay.”

I was grateful, but not enthusiastic.

“You can’t,” I said, thinking of our four children. “Our kids need at least one parent.”

I wasn’t trying to be melodramatic, just rational. We’ve all seen the headlines and watched interviews with eyewitnesses. “It all happened so fast. He just pulled out a gun and started shooting.” It’s become such a common story that it’s no longer a story at all.

We can do better than this.

Wherever you stand on the gun-control issue, everyone seems to agree that “something” needs to be done about the mentally ill, whether it’s Vester Flanagan in Roanoke (it’s obvious he “was disturbed in some way,” said Franklin County Sheriff Bill Overton), James T. Hodgkinson taking aim at Congressman Steve Scalise and others, or my student, a tormented young man who’d written to me in an earlier email that “I am currently undergoing some ‘psychological trauma’ preventing me from operating effectively. As much as I tried, I have not been able to stabilize my mind for the past few days.”

Where are our policies for the people who fall somewhere between “unstable” and “poses no threat”? What do we do when a person is hearing voices, but those voices are declared benign? And when do we infringe on an individual’s right to return to a workplace or classroom in the name of others’ right not to be put in danger?

I don’t have the answers, only questions. Although I grew afraid of my troubled student — who abruptly returned to class one day, stood in the middle of the room looking at me with a briefcase in hand, and then left, never to return — I felt compassion for him, too. He was living with demons I cannot fathom.

Yet, had the worst happened, others would simply shake their heads at the senselessness of his actions and wonder why “something” couldn’t have been done.

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We’re All Damaged: A Novel

werealldamaged_334_499“Have you ever stopped and asked yourself, ‘What’s the worst possible place I could be right now?’ It’s 11:36 p.m. (central standard time), and that’s exactly where I am.”

The place is Nebraska, and Andy Carter, the luckless protagonist in Matthew Norman’s terrific new novel, We’re All Damaged, isn’t thrilled to be back, especially since he’s been doing okay in the Big Apple. True, he’s a subpar bartender, his first blind date in forever stands him up, and his semi-feral cat, Jeter, can’t decide whether to sit in his lap or slash his Achilles.

But all things considered, Gotham beats the hell out of Omaha, the place where, a year earlier, Andy’s then-wife, Karen, announced she wanted a divorce during what he now thinks of as the Great Applebee’s Massacre.

“Don’t get me wrong,” Andy explains. “I’m not a snob. I don’t have a problem with Applebee’s per se. But I think we can all agree, as a civilized society, that lives shouldn’t change there.”

Yet, not only did his life change, but in the intervening months, everyone else’s has, too. His beloved grandpa is dying (hence Andy’s urgent trip home); his mother, Nancy — a local radio-talk-show host — is way too thin, blonde, and right-wing now that Fox News is courting her for the big leagues; his retired-accountant father spends an unreasonable amount of time picking off backyard squirrels with a paintball gun; and his successful older brother, Jim, is still kind of a dick.

Then there’s the Gestapo-like rent-a-cop who prowls Andy’s parents’ new McMansiony neighborhood in a golf cart, ruthlessly enforcing HOA violations; the Glitter Mafia, a group of activists who blanket Nancy’s lawn with sex dolls, dildos, and Teletubbies (the gay one) in hopes of getting her to dial down her vocal stance against same-sex marriage; and the fact that a buddy posted a clip of Andy puking at his best friend’s wedding, punching the groom’s father in the face, and then crashing a car.

On the bright side, BuzzFeed named the resulting “Worst Best Man…Ever!!!!” video the sixth-biggest wedding fail of all time, so Andy’s got that going for him.

All in all, things are proceeding about as he expected. But then Daisy shows up. As is wont to happen in breezy, playful novels — this is an observation, not a criticism — the quixotic, beddable deus ex fuckina swoops in, says and does all the right things to pull Andy at least partly out of his funk, and rattles the supporting cast just enough to keep things interesting.

But what’s Daisy’s connection to Andy’s grandfather? Why does she tell staffers at the hospice that she’s Andy’s sister? Who is she really?

Who cares? Matthew Norman has written a funny, likable novel with a funny, likable protagonist — someone you’ll root for even as you cringe at the things he does. (Let those among us who’ve never flung an ice-cream float at our ex’s house in the middle of the night cast the first stone.)

Surprisingly poignant in places, We’re All Damaged is a perfect summertime (or anytime) read: the story of a thirtysomething Everyman who never quite gives up on his better angels in spite of the universe conspiring to make him do otherwise.

“She kisses me on the cheek,” Andy recalls of saying goodbye to Daisy before heading back to New York. “‘Go home, Andy Carter,’ she says. ‘Shake it up. Start all over again. You’re ready.’”

Despite his dysfunctional family, spotty love life, and history of existential face-plants, he is.

This review originally appeared in the Washington Independent Review of Books.

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Thomas Murphy: A Novel

thomasmurphy“The park is gray and I am blue, thinking about how long it takes to live a life, and what do you wind up with? Age. People say it’s unseemly to feel sorry for yourself, but I enjoy feeling sorry for myself. Who else would feel sorry for me?”

So ponders poet Thomas “Murph” Murphy in one of the countless rhetorical ramblings that populate Roger Rosenblatt’s disarming Thomas Murphy. The beauty of this novella-slash-character-study-slash-longform-philosophical-musing is that Murph doesn’t really care if you feel sorry for him; he cares that he can make you squirm.

But just a little.

See, under his crotchety exterior, Irish expat Murph is a good guy. Sure he’ll needle into your doubts about God, but then he’ll buy you a slug of Jameson’s to help wash the uncertainty down.

Murph’s own worldview is fairly certain: Life is a long series of struggles and suffering, but at least you get to die at the end. That’s what happened to his wife, Oona, and best friend, Greenberg, both gone in the space of a year.

With his intelligence and wit, Murph is similar to Louis, the circumspect widower in Kent Haruf’s wonderful final novel, Ours Souls at Night. Yet whereas Haruf’s Louis offers spare, resonant insights, Rosenblatt’s Murph glories in full-on Joycean reveries and reminiscences. (Both men would make excellent drinking buddies, but the smart money would be on Louis to get you home by curfew.)

Left with his beloved adult daughter and worthy foil, Máire, and her young son, William, 72-year-old Murph is facing a possible Alzheimer’s diagnosis, eviction from his rent-controlled apartment, and an existential choice of sorts: fling himself headlong into the world of dementia, or keep writing poems, walking in Central Park with his grandson, torturing his long-suffering neurologist, and competing in an endless pissing contest with life.

They’re all so appealing, why choose just one?

DEAR MURPH, writes his daughter in an exchange of notes about his increasingly erratic behavior:

It occurs to me — your brooding mind being what it is — that you may think I’m trying to lock you up in the loony bin. I’m not. You probably ought to be locked up in the loony bin, but that condition long preceded your recent shenanigans. I’m concerned that you’ll harm yourself. It’s that simple.
Your dutiful and loving daughter,
Máire

Dear Dutiful and Loving,
I’m sorry, but I never had a daughter, and I don’t know anyone named Máire. My friend Greenberg used to sing about a table down at Morey’s. Is that you? Or are you the old gray
mare, who ain’t what she used to be? Ah, but who is?

Dear Murph,
Go fuck yourself.

Dear Máire,
Oh! Now I remember you.

And so it goes. You’ll find no scorching plotlines in Thomas Murphy, no sampler-worthy feel-goodisms (except for maybe, “They say that Irishmen drink to forget we’re Irish. I say we drink to remember we’re Irish”), and no stunning denouements.

Instead, what you get is a genuinely funny, likeable protagonist who parries with the Fates, his neighbors, and his no-good landlord while wryly taking measure of the world both real and imagined around him. Murph knows mortality always wins in the end, but there’s no reason you can’t kick it in the balls before the buzzer.

“You never crash if you go full tilt. It takes a kind of courage…my ma’s and da’s courage…and Oona’s, when she was certain she was doomed…The courage to gun it, even though you’re predetermined to fail. Because between that certainty and the attempt to refute it is life, boyo — dreadful, gorgeous life.”

And nobody gets out alive.

This piece originally appeared in the Washington Independent Review of Books.

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“Louisa Meets Bear” by Lisa Gornick

louisaCall a book “chick lit,” and you aren’t exactly paying it a compliment. Which is why I’m a little worried Lisa Gornick’s fantastic new novel-in-stories, Louisa Meets Bear, might be saddled with that label. Not only are the author and one of the titular characters women, there’s also a female face on the cover.

It’s enough to give a serious reader a case of the vapors.

But this is a seriously engaging book — one filled with fleshed-out, dynamic characters who pass in and out of each other’s lives over the course of decades. Some — like main protagonists Louisa and her on-again, off-again boyfriend, nicknamed Bear — make frequent appearances. Others show up once or twice, but manage to leave an impression no matter how few pages they inhabit.

This is surely thanks in part to Gornick’s work as a clinical psychologist. The New York City-based writer has a gift for capturing disparate voices and moods, and threading them together into an intelligent, sometimes fraught tapestry.

The sheer size of the cast — including Eric, Marnie, Sam, Corinne, Lily, Ilana, Sarah, Charlotte, Richard, Lena, Cubby, Penny, and Mr. Pryzwawa, to name more than a few — would derail a lesser writer. Yet Gornick doesn’t just firmly hold the reins, she paints each character with unique strokes.

While there are a few big, dramatic events — the sudden death of a child; an enraged, knife-wielding teen lunging at her mother — in the book, these eventually fade into the chorus; brief, biting notes in a extended symphony.

It’s the daily stuff of life — the exasperation, the absurdity, the making of the rent — that occupies most of the characters, just as in the real world. Pivotal moments, recalled years later, soften into memories. They’re not the thing that shapes us; they’re among the things relentlessly smoothing or sharpening us into who we become.

So when Yale undergraduate Lizzy, pregnant after an illicit night with a professor’s husband, carries the baby to term and then gives it up, she is sad but not scarred.

When the baby, grown into a 15-year-old named Brianna, trips on the cracks in her world during a Venice vacation, there’s no clichéd denouement with her adoptive parents on the Grand Canal. Instead, there’s a nod to the imperfect love that somehow endures despite the many ways in which we confound and disappoint one another.

And when Louisa, lying in bed with Bear early on, ponders her bond both with him and another man, Andrew, she does it with the recognition that there’s no one way things must play out.

“I think we could be Hansel and Gretel huddled under a tree. I think I am the wicked witch and you are Hansel trapped in my garden. Bound in the lock of your arms, I think you are the wicked witch and I am Gretel caught in your cage.”

Readers will be caught, too, by Gornick’s evocative storytelling skills. While some chapters resonate less than others — I still don’t know what to make of the well-rendered though odd vignette about a lonesome widow and a blind surgeon — even these offer a master class in character development.

Her observations, as well, are as whip-smart as they are occasionally biting. Decades after their initial coming together, Louisa again considers her doomed link with Bear.

“I can see why you came to hate me — I was using you, using you to feel better about myself — and why you had to get away from me. Your love for me left you feeling degraded, and you dug me out of you…like a dog scratching out a tick.”

And that wound, like so many in this book stanched by the passing of years, still hurts. But it no longer bleeds.

This post originally appeared in the Washington Independent Review of Books.

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Down with Homework!

Homework-MignanelliHomework: bad idea or really bad idea?

That’s a trick question. Homework is an awful idea.

Not only have take-home assignments been proven useless (here’s where I’d cite the appropriate studies if I weren’t in Rolling Stone mode), they’re contributing to the breakdown of the family. At least of my family.

Get within a five-mile radius of our place on most weeknights and listen for an indignant howl. That’s the sound of our eighth-grader railing against his teachers and the American education system in general. (His weekend rants center more on The Man.)

“They’re not in there!” he’ll yell, flinging his history textbook on the couch and slamming his spiral closed. “None of the words are in the book! This is so stupid!” Crumpled alongside him, invariably, is a handout entitled “Terms You Absolutely, Positively WILL Find in the Book.”

My son has a wee bit of trouble focusing. But still. He makes a valid point. This is stupid.

Parents have a tacit understanding with the school system: You keep our kids out of our hair for eight hours a day, and we won’t ask any questions. Common Core? Sure, whatever. Standardized testing? As long as my children don’t come home early.

Reams of meaningless activities designed to “reinforce skills” that must be completed once we’ve all clocked out for the evening? J’accuse, Frederick County Public Schools. J’accuse!

Now, if you’re one of those lucky moms or dads with kids who love all things classroom-related so much that they actually play school, move along. There’s nothing to see here.

If, on the other hand, you birthed the Omen, you understand.

When 9 p.m. rolls around, the only place I want to be is on the couch with a book. In a perfect world, the kids would be in bed asleep. In my world, at least one of them is frantically Googling the noble gases while shrieking about the tyranny of middle school.

It’s usually a minute or two later that he mentions the foam board and stencils required to complete the assignment. (By this point, I’m keying “retroactive birth control” into Bing.)

Now, some experts still insist that homework plays a vital role—that it compels students to take what they’ve learned in the classroom and apply it to tasks done outside of school; that it nudges them toward a deeper understanding of the material being taught and promotes self-reliance.

There’s a reason nobody invites experts to dinner.

There’s also a reason why the concept of homework is fundamentally flawed. Think about it. Do waiters practice reciting the day’s specials after they punch out? Do actuaries spend their free hours handicapping the neighbors’ chances of being eaten by Pomeranians? Methinks not.

So give kids a break. (And by “give kids a break,” I mean, “give parents a break.”) Abolish the worksheets. Just say no to mind-numbing, off-duty tasks.

And if you hear anything about that retroactive birth control? You know where to find me.

[Illustration by Matt Mignanelli.]

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Oh, the Injustice

Gorilla-Wine-MattOf all life’s unanswerable questions—how many stars in the sky; how much beta-carotene in a serving of John Boehner—none is as perplexing as this: Why can’t Marylanders buy beer and wine in the damn grocery store?

Did we defeat communism just to have Free-Staters forced into making multiple stops on their way home from work?

Apparently.

I’m from Ohio, and say what you will about the Buckeye State’s shortcomings—our casserole-based economy; the Cleveland Browns—we know that hardworking people deserve to buy their pinot and Pringles in the same place. (And presumably serve them at the same meal.)

It’s in the Constitution. Or so I assume.

But here in Maryland? That’s another story.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m all for the idea of wandering into the neighborhood wine shop—here’s looking at you, Viniferous—and chatting up the owner about the perfect Riesling to accompany tonight’s wilted greens and goat cheese salad. But that’s hardly how most of us do things.

If you’re a parent like me, your evenings go something like this. It’s a Tuesday night, and you’re having Froot Loops for dinner. Again. And you’re out of cat litter. Again. You can’t not go to the store (see “out of cat litter”), but you also can’t not get a bottle of wine to make life more bearable (see “Froot Loops”).

And you know what else you can’t do? Take care of it all in one place.

It’s like the terrorists have already won.

If Maryland’s lawmakers want to give back to us, the poor, over-taxed citizenry, all it needs to do is take its antiquated liquor-purchasing laws, slip them a roofie, and put them on a train back to the 19th century where they belong.

Speaking of the 1800s, many years ago my husband, Ben, our preschooler, and I went to Deep Creek Lake for a spur-of-the-moment overnight. Our tactical error? Going on a Sunday. Because of Garrett County’s draconian blue laws, the Sabbath-day sale of alcohol was verboten.

During what can only be described as a despondent meal at our hotel, the waiter explained the horrifying situation to us, and then proceeded to set up a booze-buying scheme worthy of “The Wire.”

“There’s an old phone booth down the road about a block away from here,” he explained under his breath, his eyes darting nervously. “If you give me some money, I can take a six-pack from the bar and leave it for you under the seat inside.”

Ben and I looked at each other, wondering at what point our impromptu getaway had turned into a drug buy.

Skeptical, but wary of spending a beer-free night holed up in a cramped room with our feral 3-year-old, we gave the waiter 10 bucks and then quickly exited before the feds descended.

An hour later, Ben walked to the appointed drop spot, and there was the stash. Er, Heineken. It was even chilled. He looked around before heading back to our hotel, half expecting to spot Stringer Bell in the shadows.

Which brings me back to today. The year 2015. Are we any closer to enjoying basic beer-and-wine-shopping conveniences here in the Free State?

Nope.

See that ad for Two-Buck Chuck at Trader Joe’s or that pallet of pinot on sale at Costco? Not here you don’t. In Maryland, we buy our drinks the old-fashioned way: by driving all over town and stopping at whichever liquor store doesn’t have our bad checks taped to the register.

Either that, or by flagging down a waiter from the Barksdale crew who can hook us up.

[This piece originally appeared in the Frederick Gorilla; illustration by Matt Mignanelli.]

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“Coyote” by Colin Winnette

coyoteI’ve told the same story over and over again, to the police, to the reporters, to the prep-interviewers and interviewers and celebrity guests and you name it. I tell them the same story every time: we put her to bed, and when we woke up she was gone.

So begins Coyote, Colin Winnette’s jarring novella about a missing girl, a family’s despair over losing her, and a mother’s relentless descent into madness. At 96 pages (many of them nearly blank), the story’s size is dwarfed by its heft. Weeks after finishing, I still can’t shake it.

WHAT WAS SHE LIKE?

This question, from a disembodied voice, gets put forth throughout the tale. Sometimes the mother answers, sometimes the father. Sometimes no one. We never learn who’s asking, just as we never learn the parents’ names, the vanished child’s name, or the specifics of place or time. There aren’t even any quotation marks.

What there is, though, is a mounting sense of dread as the man and woman lash out at themselves and each other, drawing ever tauter and snapping strand by strand as the days go by.

Then a different missing child is found months after disappearing. Suddenly, there’s hope.

I dragged him into the living room and pointed at the television. There sat a family: mother, father, and daughter. The daughter was in blue and white like the Virgin Mary. She sat atop her mother’s lap.
He watched for a moment. His anger seemed to leave him like a flock of birds.
What am I doing here? he asked.
They found a girl, I told him.
He nodded, watched the TV.
They’re finding girls, I said.

But not their girl. At least not yet. Fractured weeks continue to pass, but she stays gone. The man grows ever more resigned; the woman, clawing with ragged fingernails, continues losing her grip. Each time their world erupts, the lava scorches them both.

He throws a hammer at the TV. They remain perpetually in limbo.

We slept on the couch together that night, her Dad and I. Or, truthfully, he slept with his arms around me and I stared for hours at the broken television. I looked out the window too, but I could only see a reflection of myself. There is…nothing worse than your own reflection where the rest of the world should be.

Nothing better than a short tale with the power to linger — and haunt — long after it’s put back on the shelf. Colin Winnette’s Coyote is one of them.

We had another bad night together. A particularly bad one. The kind of bad I couldn’t ignore…Some kinds of bad can’t be undone.

And some kinds of stories can’t be forgotten.

[This piece originally appeared in the Washington Independent Review of Books.]

 

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“Twilight of the Eastern Gods” by Ismail Kadare

twilightThere’s a moment at the end of W.G. Sebald’s Austerlitz when the reader is left with a wandering, unfinished feeling — the very emotion the tormented title protagonist experiences. Ismail Kadare’s slim Twilight of the Eastern Gods evokes a similar sensation. By its conclusion, readers are left not with any great insights, but instead with a sense of slow-motion, Kafkaesque torpor.

I suspect that’s the point.

Set in Moscow in 1958, Twilight of the Eastern Gods is a fictionalized first-person account of the Albanian Kadare’s own time at the Gorky Institute for World Literature, a prestigious graduate school where writers from across the Soviet Union are brought together and, ahem, strongly encouraged to produce stories, plays, and poems with a socialist bent. Big Brother isn’t officially the dean of students, but he might as well be.

Opening at a summer writers’ retreat on the Baltic Sea, the novel’s first few pages set the tone for what is to come. Although the days pass pleasantly, if prosaically, enough, nighttime brings nothing but a chill dullness, broken up — or made worse — by endless games of table tennis.

“Only every so often, in short, rebellious bursts, would I manage to break free from my enslavement to the little white sphere,” says the unnamed narrator. In those instances, “I would jerk my head towards the shore, and every time I turned, like a sleepwalker, towards the water’s edge I hoped to spy in the far distance, at long last, something different from what I had seen the day before. But the seashore at dusk was merciless. It had nothing to offer but a view it had probably been rehearsing since the dawn of time.”

Things aren’t much peppier back in Moscow, where the students reassemble after a holiday. Walking the echoing sixth-floor corridor of the institute’s colorless residence hall, the narrator takes silent stock of his comrades, hardly concealing his disdain for the many vodka-pounding, obscure-language-speaking, churlish martinets from every corner of the U.S.S.R.

“Some were chairs of the Writers’ Union in the Autonomous Republic or Region and had been obliged by the burdensome duties of their position or by insidious plots to give up their studies,” the narrator observes.

“At long last, after overcoming their adversaries, having accused them of Stalinism, liberalism, bourgeois nationalism, Russophobia, petty nationalism, Zionism, modernism, folklorism, etc., having crushed their literary careers and banned the publication of their works, having hounded them into alcoholism or suicide, or, more simply, having had them deported, that is to say, having done what had to be done, they had been inspired to come to the Gorky Institute to complete their literary education.”

Ouch.

Although the book’s foreword reveals that Kadare’s years at the institute weren’t all bad — coming from an Albanian backwater to the much more cosmopolitan Moscow was exciting for the ambitious young man — the author never lost his contempt for the Soviet system and the ways in which artists like himself were expected to champion it.

When Albania was expelled from the Warsaw Pact in the 1960s, Kadare’s creativity was effectively unmuzzled. It wasn’t until 1978, though, that Twilight of the Eastern Gods was completed and published (first in Albanian, later in French, and finally, this fall, in English). And while the book hardly provides an exhaustive look at Cold War society, it does offer a spare glimpse of one budding scribe’s attempts to navigate it.

This sparseness leaves the story maddeningly skeletal in places. For every bit of action that piques readers’ interest — from the narrator’s attempts to alternately woo and discard his girlfriend, Lida Snegina, to the real-life furor over Boris Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago winning the Nobel Prize in Literature — there are stretches of inaction and ennui.

Mercifully, these stretches are punctuated by dry wit, such as when the narrator observes two students from far-flung Eastern Bloc countries dissecting a classmate’s disappointing writing style: “‘Stulpanc, you really don’t know what you’re saying,’ Nutfulla Shakenov broke in. ‘You’re trying to tell me about that decadent Procrustes, or whatever his name is, but do you realise that in all the tundra and the taiga put together, in an area of three million square kilometres and then some, there is one, and only one, writer and that’s Kyuzengesh? Do we really need a literary theory just for him?’”

And do we really need this meandering account of a moment in time behind the Iron Curtain? Yes. Despite its shortcomings, readers will come away from Twilight of the Eastern Gods with a better understanding of what it was like for one writer to trudge along under Nikita Khrushchev’s thumb. They may end up feeling unsatisfied and flustered, but then, so does the narrator.

Jacques Austerlitz would understand.

This piece originally appeared in the Washington Independent Review of Books.

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In Defense of Scary Stories

Sometimes an ax murdererscary is just an ax murderer. But you wouldn’t know it by reading many of the titles on “scariest books” lists haunting the internet this time of year.

When asked to name the most frightening tales they’ve ever read, cultural critics inevitably feel compelled to go all highfalutin and throw in a few that illuminate man’s inhumanity toward man, the hollowness of existentialism, or worst of all, the Tea Party.

“Ghost stories are fine,” says Erudite Author X, “but the most terrifying thing I’ve ever read is 18th-century philosopher Gottfried Leibniz’s Monadology. Its positions on the nature of the universe and occasionalism are truly chilling.”

Well.

Wouldn’t it be nice if, just once, the learned among us stopped being so insufferable? Imagine George Will naming his five favorite horror stories and somehow doing it in under 60,000 words. Or Charles Krauthammer rattling off the world’s most fearful monsters without once mentioning President Obama.

There’s a thrill to wrapping up in a blanket, clutching an eerie tale, and tucking your feet in so the thing under the bed can’t get them. It’s primal, and it doesn’t need to be defended.

So this Halloween, don’t renounce your love of unabashedly scary reads. Proclaim it! Life’s too short to keep Pet Sematary hidden inside a Brave New World book jacket, don’t you think?

This piece originally appeared in the Washington Independent Review of Books.

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“Waking Up” by Sam Harris

Sam Harris has finally acknowledged his spiritual side. Now, before you throw down your Darwin fish in disgust — or wave your rosary in triumph — you should know that the name-brand atheist still doesn’t believe in god. What he does believe in is humans’ capacity to achieve the levels of awareness, clarity, and wonder that the faithful so often attribute to a deity.

In his new book, Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion, Harris, a neuroscientist, explores how meditation can help nonbelievers strive toward enlightenment (or at least a more satisfying state of consciousness), and then offers a somewhat disjointed roadmap for doing just that.0wakingup

Anticipating blowback from all sides, he starts off by defending his use of the term “spiritual”: “The word spirit comes from the Latin spiritus, which is a translation of the Greek pneuma, meaning ‘breath.’ Around the thirteenth century, the term became entangled with beliefs about immaterial souls, supernatural beings, ghosts, and so forth.” In Harris’ hands, it is brought squarely back into the realm of the empirical.

Having set the semantic stage, he moves onto a frequently hard-to-grasp treatise on the principle of “self” and the nature of consciousness. “The feeling that we call ‘I’ is an illusion. There is no discrete self or ego living like a Minotaur in the labyrinth of the brain. And the feeling that there is — the sense of being perched somewhere behind your eyes, looking out at a world that is separate from yourself — can be altered or entirely extinguished.”

Were he a believer, Harris could shorthand 50 pages by dubbing these inner workings “the soul,” but he were not. Instead, he labors to define consciousness and the duality of the brain, occasionally losing me in the process.

The one description that resonates? Imagine a mirror. Now picture an angry reflection and then a happy reflection in it. Those reflections, like feelings, come and go, while the mirror — consciousness — remains constant. Consciousness is irreducible; it’s a state of simply being, one that offers tangible benefits for those able to quiet their minds long enough to experience it.

Harris is among the lucky. A longtime student of meditation, he recounts many seminal moments where he achieved such a state, including during a trip to the Sea of Galilee.

“As I gazed at the surrounding hills, a feeling of peace came over me. It soon grew to a blissful stillness that silenced my thoughts. In an instant, the sense of being a separate self — an ‘I’ or a ‘me’ — vanished…Only the world remained.

“If I were a Christian, I would undoubtedly have interpreted this experience in Christian terms…If I were a Hindu, I might think in terms of Brahman, the eternal Self…If I were a Buddhist, I might talk about the ‘dharmakaya of emptiness,’ in which all apparent things manifest as in a dream. But I am simply someone who is making his best effort to be a rational human being.”

Alas, he doesn’t always make his best effort when focusing the scope of this book. Although its subtitle suggests a secular self-help guide, Waking Up is really more of a memoir-cum-scientific-text-cum-hearty-endorsement-of-meditation. Each of these topics has merit, but strung together, they feel, well, strung together.

For example, along with protracted discourses on Eastern meditative practices — Harris has studied under several teachers — and Western brain physiology, the author throws in a Meditation 101 how-to box. After long stretches devoted to squishy, esoteric topics, he shifts to a nuts-and-bolts look at choosing the proper guru, the fallacy of near-death experiences, and the risks and rewards of seeking enlightenment via LSD and other mind-altering drugs.

Spoiler alert: Bad trips are bad.

Overall, Harris’ book has much to recommend it, but not so much that it should be anyone’s first stop on the road to secular spirituality. Atheists will cringe at his sometimes woo-woo accounts of transcendent states; the churched will bristle at his refusal to credit a god’s hand in those states; and English majors will struggle to keep up. But few will disagree with his assertion that reaching a place of pure consciousness is challenging.

“An ability to examine the contents of one’s own consciousness clearly, dispassionately, and nondiscursively, with sufficient attention to realize that no inner self exists, is a very sophisticated skill,” Harris writes.

By the end of this book, I still didn’t possess that skill, but I understood it a little better. It was kind of enlightening.

This review originally appeared in the Washington Independent Review of Books.

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