Friday, August 31, 2012

"MANIC: A Memoir": Review/reflection

“Manic: A Memoir” by Terri Cheney is a wild novelistic trip through dramatic Hollywood events by a woman we envision to be a fabulous blonde, a hapless Marilyn Monroe.  When you go to YouTube and look for video of her, you find a bony red-head with an ear-to-ear mouth that has a little gap in the front top teeth.  Hardly any makeup, a politician’s suit and scarf, and a lawyer’s demeanor.  Privileged, she had a Corvette given her at age sixteen (now a Porsche -- she got the message:  “you are what your drive.”) and graduated from Vassar, where she was an English major, before law school in LA and employment in the entertainment biz.  (Big names mentioned here.  The kind whose cases require battalions of lawyers.)

Her writing is sensational, but very workshop -- meaning things like socko first lines for each chapter:  “I didn’t tell anyone that I was going to Santa Fe to kill myself.”   It’s skillful.   She works “closely” with her agent and publisher -- that means she’s writing to sell.  And it worked.   “The Dark Side of Innocence” is a childhood version of the biopolar dilemma, her second book.  I’ll look for it.  She and her publisher, William Morrow, are working ALL the publicity venues: social internet, book tours, interviews, vids. conferences, and short pieces about pop subjects.  (Insanity is very popular).  She seems to be a kind of Joan Didion Lite with overtones of Joyce Carol Oates.  (I can hear Tim snorting now.  He hates this thing of explaining one writer by invoking another.  SHE says she’s into Austen and Fitzgerald.  Very trendy.)

It appears that even though her writing implies out-of-control movie-star bad behavior, the kind of excessiveness we as a culture perversely define as privilege and genius, she is in her daily life usually quite circumspect and puts a lot of energy into local groups that work hard to educate and reform the managing of people struggling with manic-depression.  She gets kids with manic-depression to write as therapy  

Her background in law must be helpful and she herself considers it essential preparation for being a writer, though she does not write in a straight narrative line -- each chapter in “Manic” is a stand-alone piece, some of which were written without any relationship to each other at different times.  She points out that this fits with being manic-depressive, a term she prefers to bipolar.  She feels that being politically correct is a way to dodge the real issues.  I agree.

I found it interesting that she was from New England.  When I did my ministerial internship in Hartford, Connecticut, the social worker whose home I stayed in (with twenty cats, which I thought was a good thing) took me out to the local cemetery to show me the graves of young men who, like her son, had struggled with manic-depression and schizophrenia.  But her son persisted against the odds and finally got his mood-swings under control.  (Until then he bought a racy red sportscar every spring and headed over the horizon, obliging his mother to track him down and return the car, which he couldn’t afford.)  Clearly this is a phenomenon that is related to the environment, that is organic as much as emotional, and that can be deadly.

But it’s so dramatic and the manic phase is so productive and enticing that people get pulled into the glamour of it all and pretty soon they are enabling -- maybe even marrying these jet-propelled characters.  The down side comes hard.  That’s when you need a good lawyer.  

But not every irresponsible immature character is manic-depressive, though it makes a good defense, an excuse really. Of course it is hoped that the organic functional origins of this burn-high/burn-low brain will be found soon.  It seems not to have anything to do with intelligence per se, though it interferes with judgment.  This author was forced into therapy (not a prob in LA) and then into a spa-type hospital.  Finally electroconvulsive shock treatment that after eight sessions threw her into suicide again and that turned out to be have been supervised by a doc arrested for very bad behavior.  She lost a lot of memory.

We might not even read this stuff if it weren’t so entwined with class, education, achievement, sexiness, fine clothes and all the other cultural markers of success that have persisted since Victorian England.  (They don’t call it “Victoria’s Secret” for nothing.)  Going manic at Esalen, “mixed state” at Big Sur -- soooo exciting.  Although no one I know except therapists from Saskatoon ever goes to Esalen anymore.  There are some good thoughts in here, though the book is FAR from being either an medical account of the problem or a checklist of what to do about it.  One is this “mixed-state” business: it turns out that "bipolar" is not just a euphemism but also a distortion of a range of states along a continuum. 

Another interesting and cultural point is that the author’s first line of defense was being “beautiful.”  Everything is beautiful at the ballet, right?  Maintain that facade of lovely manners, perfect grooming, and elegant house -- in a society that judges by appearance, “faultlessness” and “perfection,” and what she describes as an obsession with high-end flowers -- and few will challenge what’s under it.  But we all know about the wormy corruption at the heart of fame and fortune.  The crowd loves it.

If I were this woman’s psychoanalyst I would go straight for her parents, to whom she dedicates the book.  Her mother instructs her that a lady never scratches an itch and her father sets her up for electroshock conditioning to treat what is the most out-of-control bulimia I have ever heard described. (Her mother never kept enough food on hand so she ate her way through the spice rack.)  In college (Vassar, remember) she rumbled the garbage dropboxes, reinforced by the risk and repellence.  Therapists would be very interested in her first months and years of life with two such narcissistic over-controllers.  Such extreme people get built into an infant’s brain.  Cheney seems to have no consciousness of these forces.  She’s a pill-popper with sex on the side.  Maybe she’s saving the psych stuff for a later book.

This is a fast and exciting read, like the incidents it describes.  I don’t trust this woman.  She hasn’t gotten to the bottom of it yet.  But there are lots of video interviews of her on YouTube and they’re pretty interesting.  See for yourself.

Thursday, August 30, 2012


One of the most contentious and provocative mental health issues is that of multiple personality disorder.  As I ponder the changing understanding of what a human identity is -- moving from the “animal plus soul” unified being to an “emergent process produced by interacting sub-systems” (which probably makes no sense to anyone who hasn’t been reading the research and which is only a provisional hypothesis anyway) -- the implications spread out in circles like ripples in a pond where a stone has been thrown.

On “Oz” (Is that woman NEVER going to leave that series alone???) the man retarded by trauma to his brain was given a sock puppet by Sister Pete to help with two things:  his difficulty in understanding what was happening to him and his loneliness.  He talked to it and it talked to others on his behalf.  It was truly just a sock with two button eyes, but it even said things that the guy with his arm up its “butt” couldn’t or wouldn’t be well-advised to say.  It had a separate personality.  This is the basic model for “multiple personality disorder.”  

The phenomenon as it presents to the ordinary people who don’t have it is that a person seems to change personalities, maybe even posture and gestures or abilities.  (Yeah, “Sybil” or “Eve”)  If spouses or bosses find out about such a thing, even if it seems benign, it means the end.  It’s too scary.  Kids often can handle it, but they think all grownups are weird anyway.

From the inside, some of these sub-personalities know about each other, some of them don’t, and selective amnesia about events is one of the clues that they exist for the person who includes them -- time is just missing.  Or someone will remark on the difference among the various personalities.

From a theory standpoint, the idea is that children who are traumatized will create a dissociated, distant and protected identity that can “leave” until the pain and damage is over.  If authorities discover a child has this kind of internal identity, it can point at an abuser, usually a family member.  Secrecy is a high and enforced priority. It is related to the idea that parents “own” children and can use them as they please.  Abusers will make a big fuss over the American right to raise one’s own children in one’s own way.  Interference will cause explosive resistance.

Since children love their parents (in terms of attachment, bonding, emotional needs, dependence, identification and so on) they are motivated to keep abuse secret.  It’s a protection in the child’s mind.  No one outside the family can be sure that a kid who spaces out or seems different sometimes is abused or has some other issue.  The consequences of accusing parents, or maybe only one out of the pair or some peripheral or floating family member (the notorious boy friends) are so catastrophic that authorities want to be sure.  So they find reasons to do nothing.  

Once the splitting of one identity into several begins, the severality of persons are also motivated to keep it secret, partly because of feeling like a freak and partly because it works.  We all present different parts and sides in different contexts.  We are to some extent what we do and what those present call out of us.  There has never been a time when ordinary people have been exposed to so many shifting, vivid, seductive, admired personalities as we are today.  We see actors in many roles -- an ability that is praised -- we see them age over their lifetimes.  We hear different languages.   The Walmart homogeneity that seems to dominate us is in fact often scattered by other sources.  Some of the roles we take on exist in dream worlds, but still influence our political beliefs.

Going back, I just read “I Am More than One” by Jane Wegscheider Hyman  who has also written “Women Living with Self-Injury.”  This is a genre of self-help book not unlike Nancy Friday’s compilations of sexual experiences.  On the one hand, people (esp. women) read them to figure themselves out for purposes of self-improvement, but on the other hand they provide scripts for the inner puppet-shows that go on in everyone, though not usually as vividly as multiple personality:  more like debating whether to buy something or accept a new job.  I suppose some of this gets displaced to social networking on the Internet now, which explains a lot.

Aside from trying to understand what a human identity is (beyond Antonio Damasio’s idea of electrochemical brain action, moving into his idea of including the realm of interaction among people which seems to be the growing edge of the evolution of human beings)  I’m sayng we should fight against stigmas that impose avoidance as a solution.  The “keep your distance” strategy.  The old quarantine method.

Maybe if you’re a nineteenth century African chief trying to save your village from ebola, it makes sense to isolate sick people and let them die.  But if you are in modern society with many reasons to understand multiplicities of people and their conditions, it makes a lot more sense to try to find out what it’s all about and how it works.  Not that you have to go around hugging sociopaths and lepers.  And yet we stimatize (with bad and unconfirmed criteria), isolate, and let die millions of people (including children and babies) who have something like HIV-AIDS or mental illness, as though we had no other choice.   True enough, some are found, treated and kept alive.  The fact that we CAN makes it worse when we DON’T.

A virus can be “scientifically” identified.  Multiple Personality Disorder cannot, though Hyman claims that it can be seen in brain blood-flow studies that assume increased blood-flow in a brain part means it is doing something and that when people switch from one personality to another, the blood-flow pattern changes.  It’s all pretty new.  Even if someone sat down with a video of the actual blood flow events, the interpretation would depend on what that person thought a human being was.

I see identity as a moving, dancing, process, partly because my own introspection “feels” mood changes, attitudes, personas forming and dispersing as I “act” in different capacities.  Some people CAN not and WILL not give up the idea of a soul, something entirely apart from anything physical and more than any possible electrochemical phenomenon.  Because they draw comfort, hope and sanity from this belief, I would not want to discourage it.  For the same reason I would not want to discourage someone who thinks they truly are enough people to populate a puppet show.

Damasio says that an identity is the physical brain (which includes the whole body) + the emotional and metaphorical mind + the internalized knowledge and interaction of other people whether in memory or reality -- one sliding back and forth into the other.  Limiting that last vital process by stigma-enforced isolation/exclusion seems wrong to me.  I wouldn’t quite say evil.  I think the right reaction is always “tell me more.”  All of you puppets in there, speak up!

Wednesday, August 29, 2012


This is a little spin-off from my idea that someone should write a buffalo soldier script for Anthony Chisholm.  I’ll make a start and maybe a real script writer will pick it up.  There are other “buffalo soldier” movies out there, including episodes in my all-time fav Western, “Rawhide.”  So this one would need a twist: maybe anti-war, anti-terrorist, anti-violence.

(We see the old man, still wearing parts of his uniform, in a tipped-back kitchen chair out front of a log cabin.  He’s whittling.) 

Yeah, I was a buffalo soldier, one a’ them cavalry companies organized from black men.  A lot of us wandering around after the War between the States ended.  My story was a little different.  I started out in life as a slave, born on a plantation.

I had a wife, a mighty purty woman.  The master transgressed against her.  Because she resisted, he had her branded -- right on the face.  MIssed her eye, but near enough that it swole shut.  Her cheek didn’t heal, just oozed.  One morning I woke up, put my hand over on her side and it was already cooled by her absence.

I found her in the grove nearby, hanging.  Nothing to do about it except take her down and hold her a while.  I wasn’t a religious man but I didn’t want her body misused, so I took a shovel and started to dig a grave.  Wasn’t long until the other men came to help.  They brought a quilt to wrap her.  It was summer -- hot work even among the trees.   We began to sing the old songs.  She was safe in the earth by the time the master rode up on his tall fancy horse to see why we weren’t out in the fields.   We told him some old wild pig had died in the grove and we’d buried it because it was so stinkin’.  We planted a bush, the one they call “bridal veil.”

That night I called the master out into the barn and left him dangling from the rafters.  I rode off on his best horse -- not that tall fancy one he liked to look down from, but a little Morgan mare that could both plow and be ridden.  I loved that horse and called her my “Sweetheart.”  My punishment and my reward have always been my ability to love things.  

We didn’t ride north, but instead went West.  I had very little idee what was out that way, but every reason to go find out. I was hopin’ to find peace.  Twarn’t hard to get along so long as I kept my head down.  Took a chicken now and then and maybe a little garden truck.  Still some game around.  The problem was when I got out there to where the population was thin.  It was lack of water.  It’s dry country out there on the prairie and in the badlands.  Mighty hard on my little horse.

After a while I began to run into Injuns.  I realized that they often stationed someone up on top of a ridge or butte, likely enough a kid or even an old-timer, just to watch for riders and maybe buffalo.  I’d signal, then climb on up there to talk.  They was usually pretty bored, though they generally was makin’ arrowheads or something.  We had some fine times jus’ sittin’ quiet with hawks going by and the clouds towering up high on summer afternoons.

They seemed so familiar that I wouldn’t be surprised if I had some Injun blood in me.  They thought my hair -- which wasn’t cut while I wandered -- was like the front part of a buff.  I took it as a compliment.  By that time I had many friends among ‘em.

After I got to know those injuns, life was a little easier.  They didn’t have much, but among the things mostly missing was the suspicions and assumptions about blacks.  Still, I gradually realized those little white homesteaders and town founders was often desperate people, coming from hardship and maybe some faraway foreign place where they was the ones hunted down.  I’ve always been kind of diplomatic and they were most often Christian.  Like I said, I’m not a religious man, but I recognized their songs and sang with ‘em.  That seemed to work.

I didn’t drink much, but I was a gamblin’ man and that fit right in with the Injuns.  I even got pretty good at that “bone game” they play, but it’s a team game and I never got tight enough to form one.  Moved on too much.  Cards and dice in saloons worked good for me, but I was careful never to win more than I really needed.  Never enough to make me enemies who would run me down.  I was shot at a few times.  Hit once. 

The best of times was when I had a grubstake and maybe even a pack mule so me and Sweetheart could wander for a while.  We got so we sure did know the trails and the lay of the land and could find our way almost as good as an Injun could.  I was always pleased to meet one of them who knew the lamdmarks and passes so we could draw maps in the dirt, tellin’ the stories of what happened where.

After the war broke out, the stories got trickier because deserters showed up.  A man wasn’t sure who to trust.   Afterwards there were suddenly a lot of men roaming the West -- all kinds, both sides and neither side.  It was too crowded for me.  It was too dangerous to be alone out there.  According to the gummint, the new enemy was the Injuns and their land was ours. Too late I was more or less captured to act as a scout for the U.S. Cavalry.  I never had much use for young renegades of any kind, Injun or not, but I figured that I could kinda steer the cavalry away from the quiet people raising kids and just trying to survive.

I volunteered for the war south of the border but was turned down.  Then I was scheduled for a foray onto the Staked Plains in 1877.  But I had real bad feelings about it -- heard a sweet little voice sayin’,  “Don’t go.”  So I didn't.  The cavalry ran into some rum-running buffalo hunters, then Quanah Parker on a mission, and everything got confused -- maybe due to bad map advice on purpose to lead the Cavalry astray.  They ran outta water and some died of thirst.  If I’d a’ been their scout, I’d a’ been blamed.

I was getting old by then.  Sweetheart had died of old age and I never did find another horse I liked as well.  At night I’d ruther roll up in a blanket out on the ground somewhere so I wouldn’t wake up still reaching out for that cool hollow next to me.  But I figure once you really love something, it’s never very far away.

I made it my business to become the hostler of the company, takin’ care of the horses and tack.  It’s been pleasant work and I was finally at peace.   Doesn’t make as excitin’ a story as battles, but I sure have seen a lot.  I sing to the horses.  They’re not very Christian -- they like the drinking songs best.   You want to look at Sweetheart?  Here you go.

(He holds up what he has been whittling on and we see it is a clever little carving of a mighty pretty horse.)  

Tuesday, August 28, 2012


I don’t “do” Indians -- at least not generic Indians.  What I do is Blackfeet, Blackfoot (Canadian, same tribe) and maybe a few other high prairie tribes (Gros Ventre).  Every time I see a book with “Blackfeet et al” in it, I grab it, even if I have to sell a cat (jokes) to afford it.  When “Reality and Dream:  Psychoterapy of a Plains Indian,” showed up on my radar, I grabbed it.  I’m not sure whether I got it from the Powells in Hyde Park (the original) or Michael’s Powells in Portland where each category of books was “curated” by someone who knew what they were doing.  In the Seventies I combed that section every few days.  The Native American literature renaissance was just ending.  Publishing houses were remaindering their “Indian” books because they didn’t sell, mostly because no one knew how to market them.  They weren’t about people who hunted buffalo.

I remember thinking that George Devereaux was the name of the Indian being psychoanalyzed.  It’s a familiar Blackfeet/Metis name.  But instead Devereaux was the therapist:  In fact, he devised a new field:  ethnopsychoanalysis.  His Ph.D. adviser was Alfred Kroeber and his relationship with his analysand in this book reminds one of Kroeber and Ishi, though it’s not the same.  Everybody Talks About was traumatized by war and personal betrayal, but he was not a primitive bow-and-arrow man.  I taught several people from that family.  One of the little problems with this book is that it’s a lot more transparent that either Devereaux or Talks About really guessed.  People who have lived here a while can solve the little name switches and so on, as easily as they were able to see through a Cosmopolitan magazine article about dating in which “Peaches” was converted to “Cherry.”  (I’m not sure that author was picking up on the overtones of the new name.)  it’s unclear whether Devereaux ever visited Browning.  He seems to have been getting his information from anthro journals.

But this is an earnest book in which two men sincerely wanted to understand each other and that’s what comes through.  In fact, I think that probably had more to do with sorting out Talks About’s dreams, understanding and recovery than the careful explanations of Freudian metaphors.  Talks About  often ends up blushing!  Devereaux is not just a silent observer, but an active conversationalist.  He pays close attention to transference and countertransference.

Basically, Talks About went off to war, came back only to discover that his wife had left him for another man and had sold everything.  He had a daughter out of wedlock and valued her, even had a pretty good relationship with her, but was worried that he didn’t have enough to offer her.  Also, he had mysterious illnesses:  headaches, pain that prevented him from riding a horse (he worked as a cowboy), and depression.  

This classical analysis using Freudian concepts is entertaining to read these days, watching as Talks About realizes the meaning of “tall grass”, a man standing on a hill, a foot slipping into a shoe.  (Meaning sex, sex, and sex.)  He catches on quickly, which is not surprising when one knows how much old-time Blackfeet life was governed by dreams.  But he’s not an old-timey “blanket” Indian and sometimes I got the feeling he was being suitably "amazed" because it pleased Devereaux so much.  But the bottom line is that Talks About was justifiably enraged over his mistreatment, but denying it.  Clearly he needed to get that emotion out of the way so he could find a practical means to put the world back in order.  He was certainly not alone.

I have no idea how they managed to convert this book into a screenplay.  Most of it is transcripts of the counseling “interviews” plus some consideration of “theory and technique,” some test results, and other discussions.  There is a probably unavoidable odor of “Hey look at me, Ma!  I’m counseling an INDIAN!  A real INDIAN!!”  The book came out in 1951 so we’re talking about events soon after WWII.  

Devereaux’s original name was György Dobó, he converted to Christianity from Judaism, and he was from a romantic but volatile part of the world that was sometimes Austro-Hungarian (like Adolf Hungry Wolf’s parents) and other times Roumanian (like Mircea Eliade).  His family was similar to Geza Roheim’s Jewish bourgeois family.  A good ethnopsychoanalyst would take all that into account.  But there was no way Talks About could return analysis of his analyzer, no way he could say,  “I think you’re projecting.”  

Talks About did come up with some childhood sex play (an anthro footnote appended to explain it as cultural) but the memory that seemed most significant was a young girl who went through the ice and drowned while he was present.  He ran away.  The guilt followed him.  The tragedy was witnessed by another young girl.  Devereaux explains the Blackfeet phobia about water.  (There are Water Monsters down there!!)

Both psychoanalysis and anthropology were sort of early in their development at this time.  Karl Menninger and Robert Lowie contribute prefaces to defend the proceedings, but no Blackfeet was consulted.  Today they would contact Jim Welch, were he living, or maybe Darrell or Woody Kipp.  In the Fifties it did not occur to the big shots that a Blackfeet would have anything useful to say.  Nowadays the Blackfeet would have so MUCH to say, that they would know better than to get involved.

Until this movie.  I gather that much of it was filmed where the counseling took place in a Midwest Veteran’s hospital rather than on the rez.  There are two other movies proceeding, one in Cut Bank with that name and the other a filming of Welch’s “Winter in the Blood.”  The Cut Bank one doesn’t seem to have Indians in it.   They haven’t finished shooting the Lone Ranger movie with Johnny Depp as Tonto yet.  The reaction to his get-up has not been entirely positive, though I myself like that bird on his head. 

The generation of Browning people who fought in WWII and returned betrayed and traumatized was the generation to which Bob and Harold Scriver belonged.  Both could have used some psychoanalysis, but there was no way they would have let any psychoanalyst get near them.  Everybody Talks About undergoing the “talking cure” was a brave and intelligent man.  George Devereaux understood that.

Monday, August 27, 2012


"I've been thinking a lot about binary antagonism because I've spent a lot of time this year in alternative socio-political space . . .in fact agonism is viewed as aberrant and even pathological. "  (Art Durkee, complete comment on previous post.)

As it turns out, I spent my blogging time earlier today giving feedback on a chapter in a book about a Blackfeet family.  I was very pleased to be asked to comment and daunted that the scholar asking didn’t know about my bio of Bob Scriver (“Bronze Inside and Out”) or this blog, both of which contain a good bit of info about the person in question.  I mean, the point of both was to inform scholars as well as others.  But I’m not on a faculty anywhere and that still counts.  The advantage is that I can tell the truth as I choose without worrying about tenure.

My attention is now captured by Art Durkhee’s comment on the “Oz” posts.  (Art is not academic but I respect him very much.  We don’t agree sometimes.)  Naturally my point of departure is the Bibfeltian “both/and” principle.  Art interpreted my comments as being down on those big gym-bull alpha males, but they have their uses.  Sometimes a guy built like a grizzly and with a Conan attitude is exactly what is needed.

More than that, I find that I’m really “turned on” by Simon Adebisi, Karim Said, and Chris Keller  NOT Vern Schillinger.  Adebisi because if a tiger came around, he could deal with it.  Though -- if he were ineffective, if he ran -- I’d never pay any attention to him again.  But I also loved his wacky striped sock, magic hat, and general dominance, underlain with constant plotting.  He wasn’t so much narcissistic as in total denial of the existence of any kind of consequences or limits and his willingness to die -- he considered death trivial.  His or anyone else’s.  He’s a true sociopath.  (The CHARACTER, now.  Remember I’m talking CHARACTERS.  The actor is quite a sophisticated lawyer in London.)

But go to the other extreme of mental/emotional/compassionate while keeping the magnificent physique and you’ve got Said, who seemed all the more powerful because of his restraint.  It was not weakness -- it was power kept voluntarily under control.  TERRIFIC Greek drama material.  Nothing to do with being black or Islam.  Excellent for Shakespeare.

For me Chris Keller is the most magnetic of all, a sociopath capable of love in an obsessive way: Tobias is everything he is not and can't be.  Sister Peter Marie was vulnerable to Keller, as much as I am.  (Yes, I remember he’s not REAL and neither were Sister Pete’s fantasies.)  The writers could have made more of his admiration for Tobias Beecher’s mind.  But they did a good job of showing Keller’s voracity for what he thought was love -- he craved, he destroyed,  More even than his physical fuckery, he was a mind fucker.   And yet love to him was only sex -- he couldn’t get past that.   He remained unexplained even as he destroyed himself.

There aren’t a lot of these types around, which is lucky.  I am safe from them only because they don’t think I exist.  They bump into me if they pass too closely because they don’t see me.  They don’t wonder whether I can see them because I'm invisible.  (This is an advantage for a writer.)

The great irony of these Extreme Alphas is that many of them are hurt, partly because they smash into confrontations and partly because they hurt themselves.  The women they need are moms.  (Chris goes for Sister Pete’s breast.)  They can’t even feel gorgeous sexy women.  Which is why they need men for sex.  But they despise their need.  I don’t think it IS caused by nurture.  I think these men are created genetically.  Probably a high proportion are killed young.  They are Beowulf, mythic.  Sampson, pulling it all down on their own heads.  Pre-Greek drama.

On the other hand Chris may very well be a victim of early sexual abuse combined with violence, which is a thread that was explored with the Aryan Nation character -- I never did get his name -- who has a “black” gum implant, whose penis gets the tip bitten off, and who ends up with HIV.  His breakdown is powerful and justified, but it would not have been possible for Chris Keller.  Keller is too armored, too cynical.  Of course, what attracts me and Sister Pete and even the Toby character is the possibility of somehow getting to the core of him.  It’s his inscrutability, the Sphinx dynamic, that pulls us in.  He is naked and entirely hidden at once.  (I think the actor “got” this.)

Which is all begging the question that Art poses:  why can’t the world understand that raw opposition doesn’t go anywhere?  Well, because sometimes it DOES.  Sometimes it WORKS.  The magnificence of the human animal is the ability to produce variety, people of all kinds and abilities.  If we have all gladiators, we’re in trouble.  if we have all civilized guys in togas, we’re in trouble.  The ideal is to find the niche where you fit.  And some niches probably are rat holes that need to be cleaned out.

A specific culture produces specific types.  This is the level I think we should be addressing.  Why are we producing the kind of men in “Oz”?  They must have some use that we like.  (There were no former soldiers in this group.)  Or are they accidental by-products from something else we like too much, like drugs?  Why are we so attached to the agonistic sports of boxing and football, in spite of what it does to individuals?  Why is it so interwoven with sex?  (Ask the football team in Missoula.)  Is it Anabisi’s attitude of being entitled, or is it Chris Keller’s craving for deep sexual intimacy?

My natural “peers” ought to be Tim McManus or Sean McMurphy (the actor actually WAS a Golden Gloves boxer),  I feel friendship for them.  Chucky Pancomo makes me want to run.  I’ve never known any Hell’s Angels -- only Gypsy Jokers.  I did deal with “Oz” types when I was an animal control and being agonistic would have been hopeless in person on the street.  I was “Ms. Friendly Persuasion” the whole way.  

But there was a kid who was siccing his dog on other kids, who were being bitten, and when I grabbed the dog, the kid tried to strangle me.  The dog’s collar broke and the two got away.  Weeks later, I spotted the dog away from the kid, tossed it in the truck and was picking up speed when the kid threw himself on my hood and tried to break the windshield.  I didn’t even slow down.  When we got to court, his file was literally two feet tall.  “Oz.”

You know the “Oz” actor -- not the character -- I’d most like to meet?  Anthony Chisholm.  Now there’s a guy who must know some stories.  Come to think of it, he WAS supposed to be a Vietnam vet and his bunkie was also military -- didn't last long.  But Chisholm has the feel of American frontier cavalry.  Someone ought to put him in a show about the Buffalo Soldiers.

Sunday, August 26, 2012



Recently there has been an attempt to justify the constant conflict in our society by trying to find a way to make agonism -- well -- less agonizing.  Agonists feel life is a struggle in the best of times.  I don’t know what they would make of adult oppositional defiance “disorder.”  They say conflict is inevitable, esp. in a pluralistic society, but they don’t like it when they don’t prevail.  

Manicheism is part of a complex of Middle Eastern religious systems that valued that dualism, that binary division of everything from gender to rank to tribe.   Manicheism taught the struggle between a good, spiritual world of light, and an evil, material world of darkness.  No gray area.  An adolescent’s way of seeing right versus wrong.  It appears to be the default position of every conservatism.  Each tribe finds its own members good and other tribes bad.  This is the motor of "Oz" plots, with Simon Adebisi (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje -- in reality a London-born lawyer) staking out the African (Yoruba) version of the metaphor.

But that’s not all there is to the warring dualities, for many of these characters are at war with themselves, their good sides against their bad sides.  This is the level that draws us in and lets us identify with them.  The plots are simply the cloud chamber tracings of their particular moves back and forth between being good people with problems and bad people who murder.  The problem for the scriptwriter is how to manage that.  Sometimes the plots get pretty preposterous or are unrealistically compressed in order to keep everything moving.  In this series the actors are good enough to make you forgive the unlikelihoods.  In the best of circumstances the overarching social questions get a good airing.  It is true, as Sister Pete says, that a country without laws is doomed.  We see it in the newspapers.

But there’s more to it than that.  Agonistic societies with rules must have lawyers and judges and rule books.  Beyond that, they assume God is a big Super Judge, the source of authority.  We swear to God.  The permission to kill people is assumed to come from God.  When the injustices and destruction continue in spite of the law, God is emptied and the people no longer believe in the deflated balloon that lies on the courtroom floor.  The Maenads, the women crazed with vengeance, take over the world.

But contemporary science is giving us a new vision: the interrelated mystery of many small parts that can blindside us with epiphany.  A simplistic idea of evolution resulting from conflict, leaving one creature a winner and the other one sprawled is wrong, dead wrong.  Evolution is a question of many tiny accumulating code changes on every level from quark to cosmos.  It’s not a matter of who wins the argument.  

The whole concept of existence is transformed.  Humans are not children of a big King God, but rather something like music borrowed from the Milky Way.  We don’t die, we simply shift to a new key and the music goes on.  Somewhere in our bones and entrails, hollow as they may seem, are traces of other music played earlier whether or not ears had evolved, because everything is waves and particles.  The planet earth itself resonates; the seas are full of whale songs.  

What was missing for me in this very successful and popular series called “Oz” that spoke to so many people about their own situation in life -- about the mystery of what will happen next, about human hatred and mortality -- was this religious shift, which is very much underway in the culture.  Even more than that I was missing the insights into human being and meaning that will loosen the hold of institutions so that they can grow, too.  The reason this thinking is missing is that these ideas are too new.  Just in the last decade have some understood.

The scenes of counseling and “sessions”  of groups were fine as far as they went, but there really wasn’t time on the show for the careful sorting-through for individuals that could reveal the delicate organic machinery of change.  Someone would say,  “I’ve had time to think a lot” and then claim a new view of life, but it was never all that convincing.  Many plot threads were simply stories accumulated in a journalistic way, so that the viewer had to connect the dots.  At the end one whole episode filled the interstices with stories.  Actually, the effect of many of the stories was to confuse the dots, to disrupt the game.  On purpose.  This is a series about questions rather than answers.  Fontana loves to fool us.

In an interview Tom Fontana says that after 9/11 he was presented with a choice between being afraid or choosing to believe in our country and God.  Very Manichean.  Very Manhattan.  Very Agonistic.  He says he “chose” the latter alternative.  In other words, he stayed in his bubble because he had decided to do that.  This fits with the current counseling language of “making choices.”  The counselor tells you to make a choice and gives you plenty of clues about what the system wants you to do, which is the “good” choice.

What if the choice is “emergent,” the result of a whole new set of options?  And by that I don’t mean moving from New York City  (not that I object to Fontana’s quite marvelous world there), to an equally high-octane world in LA.  I mean, what if the economy collapses?  (It did.)  What if suddenly there is plenty of oil?  (There is.)  What if there is a major election?  (It’s coming.) 

Showing nude men deep kissing is old news now.  Fontana did it to himself.  “Fuck” is a word that means nothing anymore.  Some say that a creative person has about ten good years before they begin to repeat themselves.  There was an up-tick when Michael White played a character evidently inspired by Jar Jar Binks, that obnoxious cartoon character in “Star Wars: The Phantom Menace”.  By the end of “Oz” it was clear that Dorothy should look around for her ruby red slippers.  Everyone had slipped too far into the old groove.

I’m unclear about the relationship between Tom Fontana and David Simon, who both seem to claim “Homicide.”  They seem to have taken the genre in quite different directions.  Fontana went with the stripped Greek wrestlers and Simon went with a more open world containing more possibilities.  “The Wire” was deliberately designed to change focus and the ground of the argument every three years.  But for what “Oz” is, a ground-breaker, a career-maker, it deserves praise and admiration.  I haven’t seen any political impact so far.  But now that the shock has worn off, we can think about it.

Saturday, August 25, 2012

"OZ AGONISTES" Review: Part i


This is a discussion of an HBO cable show that ran from 1997 to 2003.  it was the brain child of Tom Fontana (b. 1951) who began working with sound tape at age 9, the end of the period in life that is called the “adrenarche” and just before adolescence.  In other words, part of his identity and the way he thinks is linked closely to spoken and staged words, which frees him up to think about content and character.  

Since he began his TV career, he has focused on the underclass (the poor, the disenfranchised, the recent immigrants, the inner city) from an idealistic point of view.  His main characters are people fighting the riptide of crime and poverty that takes people under and the context is always a claustrophobic institution where the main escape is via death.  There are always mitigating “inside” dark or bitter jokes and transgressive rebellion, sometimes violent and tragic and other times ridiculous.  In other words, the roots of this sort of plotting are in Greek theatre with its religiously moral context.  “Oz” uses the device of the Greek chorus to reflect on the issues.  

In these times of tumult with a lot of non-readers trying to address these issues, the series feeds a craving for some kind of understanding or at least the feeling that someone cares.  Fontana himself is Italian and thus culturally Catholic but the writer Sunil Nayar from India seems to bring a Hindu New Age sort of feeling that offers a bit of transcendence to the Manhattan liberal Jewish hunger for justice.  I wish someone would do a analysis of the sociology of this group that dominates media from the East Coast in a more sophisticated theatrical way than does the film community on the West Coast.


Long-form troubador tales go back to before the Iliad. which is why you’re supposed to study it in high school.  By the time "Oz" arrives, we have all grown attached to massive novels that work through generations of families.  We’ve loved soap operas on the radio that carry families and neighborhoods through long arcs of crisis, redemption and renewal.  They are in our blood stream.  The hour-long episodes of a series that lasts years, especially those with high production values and excellent writing, are more recently pioneered in shows like “Homicide: Life on the Streets” and then freed by a cable channel like HBO where the limits are privately set and thus free to go to the edge.

It appears that this permission turned loose a pent-up store of stories about men.  One could even say “hypermen” rather like the “leatherman” movement that involved Tim Barrus, except that these are naked men, clearly revealing that most of them are “gym-bulls” with extraordinarily developed bodies, but nothing real to do with all that muscle and with completely undeveloped minds and souls.  There are enough exceptions, like the Bert and Ernie pals, to make the point.  

To watch these episodes three at a time is like reading chapters in a book.  One can put the book down and walk around a bit to think and work off some adrenaline, maybe go to the Internet to search for information about something related,   But to treat the DVD’s this way is probably not typical.  I know that kids will obsessively watch over-and-over episodes of violence or sex that intrigue them.  I watched alone and on two levels, one monitoring the story and so on and the other one watching tech matters like camera angles or timing and other choices.  The voice-overs I listened to were unhelpful, so I stopped playing them.  

What came to the surface was that the actors had their own “series” going in the dynamics among them and -- as the series became more and more popular -- with the public that was highly attentive and not always aware that this was fiction, though very realistic fiction.  In fact, because some of the actors were type-cast and related in real life, the writers began to pick up on characteristics and dimensions of their real lives.  I used to do this when I was writing plays for high school kids, in the best of times pulling in the kids themselves to self-consciously help with plot and dialogue.  It worked pretty well.  Fontana was quick to say which actors participated in creating their characters, thinking up twists and quirks.  Far from feeling exploited, they felt it was a chance to develop themselves and their careers.  I think that was accurate.  But they were self-conscious in letting outsiders know about it -- I think in part that accounts for the horsing around in commentary, but these are guys who LOVE horisng around.  "Oz" became a kind of club where the cast of extras hung out.

In fact, the dimension that made me most uncomfortable was the occasional feeling -- in commentary on the DVD’s and elsewhere -- that this series went dangerously close to porn for pencil-necked white guys who used to get sand kicked in their face at the beach.  Charles Atlas probably had more teen boys in a furor than even Playboy.  Certainly earlier.  The illusion that some mild-mannered guys have about bodies and power no doubt kept them watching.

Breaking Boundaries

Okay, fine.  If you took out all the “f-words,” the show would be half as long.  It looked at male nudity in a way that had never been in plain public sight before.  Gay sexuality -- as an inborn aspect of personhood, as a power venue, as a adaptation to drives with no conventional outlet, and as emotional connection overwhelming everything else -- was simply there.  The most magnetic triangle was the love/hate/sex mix of Christopher Meloni and Lee Tergesen with J.K. Simmons sometimes in play.  It appears that this thread came out of the “chemistry” between Meloni and Tergesen, neither of whom are conventionally “gay” but both of whom are daring and passionate.

Talking about religion or portraying religious professionals on television is as dangerous and misunderstood as sex IMHO.  Several energetic and brilliant serieses about churches have been smothered by intolerance.  This series did at least scratch the surface in several honorable ways made possible by really fine actors.  Everyone loved Sister Peter Marie (Rita Moreno) and Father Ray Mukada (B. D. Wong.)  Malachi McCourt pulled in the traditional irish priest and humanized him.  Eamon Walker as the Imam Said was particularly remarkable and powerful.  As Dean Winters remarked, one wonders whether his character could even be created and developed now after 9/11.

(to be continued)

Friday, August 24, 2012


Since I’ve been preparing my notes from Alvina Krause’s acting classes for a blog at the same time that I’ve been exploring therapy issues and liturgical design that will support spiritual experience, I see quite a lot of overlap.  (The notes are at  This post will list a few things in common.  Bear in mind that this training is for stage actors rather than movie actors.  It is meant for live people in performance and includes the whole rehearsal period -- maybe more if the actor is a member of a reportory company. 

FOCUSING:  This is first on the list because one really cannot do much internal work without learning how to do this.  One exercise is a good illustration of the skill.  Imagine yourself sitting in a chair that is surrounded by a pool of light.  Now imagine the pool slowly shinking until it is just on you, excluding everything else.  (Eugene Gendlin developed this into a whole technique for counseling which he described in his book called, of course, “Focusing.”   There is a wealth of information at his website, enough to keep a person learning for the rest of their lives with themselves as the text.  It seems trivial and obvious but,in fact, it is the key to all that follows.

BODILY AWARENESS AND CONTROL is the first place that focusing will take you, so that you are aware of your skin, your muscle tension, your visceral state, your skeletal posture, and so on.  But that’s only the beginning.  An actor needs an exquisitely attuned performance sense: is the body inert, paralyzed, energized, at the beginning of a gestural move or a bodily transition?  From the other side, observing others, how are their bodies telling you who they are?  Do their shoes hurt?  Have they had military training?  Are they wondering whether they remembered to turn off the stove?  

AK sent us down to the Field Museum of Natural History to the Hall of Man to take a close look at the sculptures by Malvina Hoffman because they had captured each unique person from around the planet in a moment, just as Rodin did.  We were to pick out one of those figures, duplicate their muscle tension and stance and see what we could learn about them from that.  A woman who balances things on her head all her life will be quite different from a hunter who crouches while scanning for prey.  is a good place to start working on expressive and interpretive issues.  It’s the url for the American Dance Therapy association.

CULTURAL SOPHISTICATION  And that takes us to the next domain, which is broad and specific knowledge of cultures everywhere in the world.  In this time of diasporas, people from every climate and geography, every kind of subsistence and accommodation, are everywhere around us.  Television documentaries and ordinary news bring us such an avalanche of people of such different kinds, in tranquility and in trauma, that we can scarcely assimilate it all.  It takes a strong sense of history to cope with it all.  

Beyond that (there’s always a beyond) every culture is in layers -- economic, educational, moral -- each adapted in an ecological way to various niches.  These always include an underculture, a counterculture, a splinter culture, and individuals in the process of sorting.  In terms of acting, this is crucial to portray accurately.  The research may be close at hand, but a little scary.  Whites visiting black churches, Native Americans hanging out at Starbucks, conservatives going on ridealongs with cops.  It is not necessary to take major risks.

In terms of therapy I worry that too many people are guided by supposed experts who in reality know nothing about any culture but the nice one that made them professionals and therefore they give unintelligible or inappropriate messages.   Or, on the other hand, the “I been there” folks -- maybe wounded healers -- who come to counseling addicts or abuse victims may be so locked into that context that they miss resources that might really work.

THE MYTHIC & METAPHORICAL -- FELT SENSE  The key to spirituality, acting, and all the arts is discovering this level that most of us have come to through Joe Cambell as interpreted by George Lucas in “Star Wars” or by Bill Moyers on PBS.  (Don’t forget Moyers has some seminary background.)  There is a huge mass of literature to explore, including all the Sacred Stories of the various religions of the book.

Metaphor is uniquely human and doesn’t usually appear in consciousness until high school -- early adolescence.  Perhaps it has something to do with the development of sexuality.  (I remember vividly realizing what a phallic symbol was and blushing everytime I saw something vertical.)  It is a powerful recognition to see that one thing can “stand” for another.  Sexual paraphilias or fetishes are certainly examples.  

Sensory metaphor is actually one of the strong brain connections to memory.  In fact, the Alvina Krause “method,” which is sort of a variation on the theme of Stanislavky’s method, uses sense memory and metaphor to take the consciousness of an actor to a detailed portrayal (almost an inhabitation) of a character in a play.

EMPATHY/TRANSFERENCE  Gendlin points out and Krause confirms that human beings live in communication with others, even if the others are not physically present.  In fact, one can be in communication with parts of oneself.  This is what Schwartz means by “parts” when he suggests that we each have an internal family, sometimes helpful and sometimes so obnoxious that a person can avoid them only by creating intensely stimulating “noise” in the actual world.

For the actor, empathy for the other person and then the ability to deliberately project how the actor feels until the other person feels it as well, is almost a definition of their craft.

AGONIST SKILL  is the ability to do these two things, empathize and transfer emotion, clearly enough and artistically enough that an observer is drawn into the exchange and participates in it.  Agonism, the opposition of two fairly evenly matched forces, is at the root of dialectical Western thought:  theatre, law, and religion emerges from the struggle between person/culture and the environment and then between persons/cultures struggling to maintain their access to survival.  They may be mistaken about what they need, they may need to learn how to compromise, they may not know what to do once they win, but this is the origin of the stories that teach us.  Asia and indigenous America follow a different path but produce equally compelling stories.

LIMINAL SPACE is what Gendlin describes as “clearing a space” and what Victor Turner was able to identify in a cross-cultural way.  It might be a actual space or only a head-space, but the skill of entering and leaving that space at will is a major gift of any artist in any field.  It is a meditation skill as well as a meeting place.

Thursday, August 23, 2012


One of the good things about evidence-based counseling is that they generate a lot of definitions, check-lists, and categories.  Not everyone considers that good and they can be destructive or misleading.  But right now my attention is captured by some of them.  Provisionally.

These are supposed to be the five main signs of damage from Complex Trauma:
1.  Affect dysregulation
2.  Structural dissociation
3.  Somatic disregulation
4.  Impaired self-development
5.  Disorganized attachment patterns

Now I’ll try to translate them to plain English, though maybe not exactly as their originators would see them:

1.  Getting mad or depressed or falling in love or getting high without any awareness of the connection to events and no ability to manage the extremes.  Confusion about what happened and about reactions.  I suppose bipolar disorders might fit here.  Lack of reality checks.

2.  Sectioning off one’s internal personality so that some sides are just not admitted to -- maybe not even consciously known.  I think the explanations and mechanisms of dissociation are the weakest subject in this book and so do others who are writing IN the book!  It’s not the book, it’s the concept.  This is the sexy stuff that gets dragged into schizophrenia (which may be as much or more organic as psychological) and split personalities, which appear to be much exaggerated.  Parting out personality is much more subtle and pretty much universal.

3.  Always miserable: flu symptoms, too fat, anorexic, aching, unable to sleep, a whole series of colds, whatever.  Plus what used to be called psychosomatic but could just as easily be called somatopsychic.  Does substance abuse go here?

4.  Some people don’t live up to their potential.  Maybe they don’t want to.  But maybe it’s a worrying failure to get ahold of things.  I know that feeling.

5.  Falling intensely in love, getting close to someone, then feeling oppressed and running for the exit or demanding “space” or attacking or starting a new relationship.  Choosing impossible people.  Or simply never caring much about anyone.  Even after babyhood it is important to have secure and lasting attachments, but if one didn’t have that original anchor in the proper time to form the ability (infancy), it will be very hard.  I think that’s right.  But in today’s world it kinda gets pushed onto people.  Even ministers in some denominations are moved all the time so they don’t get “too attached.”

These five probs are the usual middle-class complaints that get taken to middle-class counselors.   People sit in comfortable chairs and talk.  But things can get much, much worse.  Though this set of essays doesn’t address the following, Courtois/Ford at least lists them:

  •   Economicaly impoverished inner city ethnoracial minority persons.
  •   Incarcerated individuals and their children and families.
  •   Homeless persons and their families.
  •   Sexually and physically revictimized children or adults.
  •   Victims of political repression, genocide, “ethnic cleansing,” torture or displacement.
  •   Developmentally, intellectually, or psychiatrically challenged individuals.
  •   Civilian workers and soldiers harassed and assaulted on the jobs or in the ranks.
  •   Emergency responders who are repeatedly exposed to grotesque death and suffering.
Not on the list are child soldiers psychically emptied by committing forced atrocities against their own families.  The list missed reservations, rural economic sumps, and illegal immigrants -- but then there’s no limit to such a list, is there?   

Courtois and Ford do at least realize that the PTSD in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders IV still doesn’t go far enough.  They provide the acronym DESNOS:  Disorders of Extreme Stress Not Otherwise Specified.  I laugh because it’s such an et cetera category, but it probably does the job, which is to simplify and shorten the label.  Also, if you have a label to google, you might actually find something you want.  If you want to know more about the condition the acronym stands for, try this:

Desnos also turns out to be the name of a Parisian surrealist poet who died of typhoid in a concentration camp in 1945, just AFTER liberation.  The Holocaust can definitely give a person DESNOS !!  But Robert Desnos knew the power of the word and act.   

Susan Griffin relates a story that exemplifies Desnos' surrealist spirit:

One day Desnos and others were taken away from their barracks. The prisoners rode on the back of a flatbed truck; they knew the truck was going to the gas chamber; no one spoke. Soon they arrived and the guards ordered them off the truck. When they began to move toward the gas chamber, suddenly Desnos jumped out of line and grabbed the hand of the woman in front of him. He was animated and he began to read her palm. The forecast was good: a long life, many grandchildren, abundant joy. A person nearby offered his palm to Desnos. Here, too, Desnos foresaw a long life filled with happiness and success. The other prisoners came to life, eagerly thrusting their palms toward Desnos and, in each case, he foresaw long and joyous lives.

The guards became visibly disoriented. Minutes before, they were on a routine mission the outcome of which seemed inevitable, but now they became tentative in their movements. Desnos was so effective in creating a new reality that the guards were unable to go through with the executions. They ordered the prisoners back onto the truck and took them back to the barracks. Desnos never was executed. Through the power of imagination, he saved his own life and the lives of others.

This strikes me as being on the boundary between the therapeutic and the spiritual, the liminal place where a leap to vision can change events.  In a few  of these counseling essays there is mention of spiritual factors that help people comfort, protect, and control (they say “modulate”) their trauma.  I haven’t seen this before and it is an important link for “The Bone Chalice.”  A liturgy, for either a single person or a holding community, scripted or extemporaneous, can have enormous power in this way.  

Professional counselors, no more than the general public, have a very limited understanding of how to use these resources.  Most people think that spirituality is a supernatural force that descends on lucky people, esp. those who have an inclination towards New Age captures of unfamiliar cultures.  Some are too eager to accept any magic that comes along and others will scoff and denigrate anything that isn’t concrete and proven.  Both extremes are unhelpful, but it’s tough to get people to the “meta” level where they can see past their own lives.  This specific task is an item on some of these lists of goals.