Madhouse Stories

 

No One Cares About Crazy People by Ron Powers, is written by a father whose two sons have been afflicted by schizophrenia. One of his sons committed suicide. The book alternates by chapter between giving a factual history of society’s treatment of the mentally ill and telling the story of his sons’ descent into mental illness. Powers says in the introduction that he initially planned on only writing the factual history of mental illness and leaving his sons’ story out of it. He then realized that he could not tell one story without telling the other. I could not read either of the stories without reflecting on my own or my cousin’s story of mental illness.

***

Last May my cousin Stefan died by suicide. When my mother told me the news I gasped in horror and I cried, and I grieved but the truth was I was not entirely surprised by Stefan’s death. In fact, I had long feared he would die by suicide. Stefan suffered from schizophrenia. I knew the rate of suicide among those afflicted by schizophrenia was high and I knew Stefan had attempted suicide before.

When I told a friend about Stefan’s death she asked if we had been close. We certainly hadn’t been close geographically, as he lived in Romania and I lived in New Jersey. We had not seen each other since I was twelve and he was eleven, when our families spent a vacation together in the mountains of Romania. We never saw each other again after that vacation and for many years we did not speak to each other either. About two and a half years before his death, we reconnected on Facebook. While we didn’t have some of the more traditional markers of a close relationship, we did form a bond over something we had in common: mental illness.  One of the first things he said in his initial Facebook message to me was “I think maybe you and I are the normal ones.” Then he directed me to a song he related to. It was the Gnarls Barkley song “Crazy.”

When Stefan first contacted me, he was in a mental hospital in Romania. I was surprised that he was allowed to use the internet from a mental hospital because that had never been an option for me when I was in mental hospitals. I was even more surprised when he posted pictures of the mental hospital, its surrounding grounds, and the other mental patients with the hashtag “madhouse stories” because in the United States that would be considered a serious breach of privacy. Within the mental health system in Romania, he seemed to have a level of freedom that was unfathomable in the United States. Stefan wondered which system was better and said he would go mad in an American mental hospital.

Stefan read my writing about the time I’d spent in mental health facilities. I’d expressed how isolated and dehumanized I felt by my lack of freedom; I’d been put in solitary confinement for days, I’d lost control over what and how much I ate, I was told that I could not hug my mother when she visited me in my prison. He said I’d been treated like shit and that perhaps I’d been treated worse than he had been. I felt that regardless of how he was treated, he had suffered as a result of his mental illness more than I’d suffered as a result of mine, for he had schizophrenia whereas I had depression. Powers says “But even among the many devastating diagnoses of mental illness, schizophrenia stands unique in its capacity to wreck the rational processes of the mind. It is to mental health as cancer is to physical health; a predator without peer and impervious to cure.” (xv)

I know that many, if not most people with mental illness have been treated much worse than either Stefan or I were. Society is not and never has been kind to the mentally ill. In chapter after chapter of No One Cares About Crazy People, we see just how cruelly the mentally ill were and are treated. We see countless examples of the mentally ill being abused, abandoned, neglected, persecuted, demonized and dehumanized.

We see that contrary to stereotypes of the mentally ill, both of Powers’ sons are kind, caring, charming, intelligent, hard working and talented. I remember how charmed I was by Stefan when he was a child and how devastated I was to learn that he had descended into schizophrenia as an adult. Yet I learned that schizophrenia had not changed his essential goodness and that I was still charmed by who he was as an adult.

A chapter of No One Cares About Crazy People addresses the deinstitutionalization movement. On the surface it seemed like a good idea because many institutions were awful places and this would give the mentally ill a chance at freedom but the movement ended up being a disaster because society failed to provide the mentally ill with appropriate supports in lieu of mental hospitals, so many mentally ill people ended up homeless. Stefan told me he feared ending up homeless one day and could picture himself deliberately getting committed to a mental hospital just so he would have something to eat. Both of us were dependent on and living with our mothers as a result of our mental illnesses and the fear of homelessness has crossed my mind.

I always knew a problem in the treatment of schizophrenia is that schizophrenics often decide that they don’t need to take their medicine because they feel there’s nothing wrong with them but until I read Crazy People I didn’t realize that denial of one’s sickness had a name-anosognosia. Anosognosia can strike after long periods of wellness and compliance with medication. It happened with Powers’ sons and I noticed hints of it in Stefan. He told me he’d been free of symptoms for three months and was preparing to start work again but that he missed his hallucinations because they kept him entertained. He posted statuses and messages that I found alarming, but I felt helpless to do anything about it. Those who are much closer to their schizophrenic loved ones often feel helpless as well.

I cannot begin to fathom the levels of pain Powers must have experienced at losing a son to suicide but losing Stefan was hard for me because I’d lost a flesh and blood connection who knew what it was like to walk the lonely and terrifying road of mental illness. I was furious to learn that the Romanian Orthodox church would not officiate Stefan’s funeral because they considered suicide to be an unforgivable sin. He had died from a very serious mental illness and I couldn’t blame him for his death any more than I could blame a cancer patient for their death.

Powers’ surviving son is doing well now. He has recovered from the worst of his mental illness and in many respects is thriving. I’ve also recovered from the worst of my mental illness and am mostly doing well now but recovery is not an all or nothing linear process and I did end up in the psych ER a few months after Stefan’s death. Once the terror of the episode had passed and I realized I was going to be discharged from the ER and returned to my regular life, a second wave of grief hit me as I thought about Stefan and how he would never have that chance. I do not hear voices in my head like those afflicted by schizophrenia do but as I walked into the sunshine of the hospital parking lot, I could hear eleven-year-old Stefan’s voice ringing out through the mountains of Romania.

In the forward of Crazy People Powers says he hopes you do not “enjoy” the book but are wounded by it. Indeed, it would be hard to enjoy a book that depicts such real and bleak suffering and I did not “enjoy” it, but I am glad to have read it.

The last chapter of the book is titled “Some one Cares About Crazy People” and in it Powers takes a cautiously optimistic tone about advancements in the treatment of and attitude toward the mentally ill. I hope those advancements continue, for the sake of people like Stefan, for the sake of people like me, for the sake of people like Powers’ sons, and for the sake of all those who battle mental illness.

Book Review : To Siri with Love

This is a memoir written in a series of essays by the mother (Judith Newman) of an autistic teenage boy (Gus). The overall theme of it is the boy learning to connect with machines such as Siri and trains in a way he’s had trouble connecting with humans and that in turn leading to improved connections with human beings. This is a memoir that has generated a lot of controversy, as many people are disgusted by the way this woman writes about her son and autistic people in general.

Let me start out by admitting a couple of things that may get me crucified in the autism advocacy community: I bought this book and there are aspects of it I appreciated.

I was aware of the #boycotttosiri movement and at first I didn’t want to give money towards the book so I read it when I went to the bookstore but eventually I lost patience and purchased it on my Kindle.

I liked that this book gave a counterpoint to the narrative that technology is destroying society and relationships. I don’t use Siri but I’ve found other aspects of technology such as Facebook to be helpful to me when it comes to forging relationships.

It was interesting to me that Gus was initially diagnosed with Nonverbal Learning Disability. That is my official diagnosis. Although only a sentence is devoted to it, exposure in a high profile work may at least make people aware that it’s a deficit in processing nonverbal information (and not an inability to talk, as is often assumed.)

Thanks to this book I learned about some new autism programs that have been developed or are in the process of being developed in my own home state.  There’s a bookstore in New Jersey that only employs people on the autism spectrum and Rutgers is developing an autism living community.

I laughed a few times because the author says some funny things.

That being said, none of the positive aspects of this book are enough to redeem it in my eyes in the face of all the things I find wrong with it. I agree with the criticism leveled at it by the autism advocacy community. I won’t go so far as to say this woman doesn’t love her son, as some have but I will say she writes about him in a disrespectful manner. The overall tone of this book is distasteful and off putting to say the least.

The tone is along the lines of “I’ve suffered this horrible tragedy but I’m not going to let it get me down. Let me tell you how I’ve managed to persevere in the face of this tragedy through dark humor and wit poking fun at the tragedy.” This kind of tone is okay if you’re talking about your cancer diagnosis, your failed marriage or your tornado-ravaged house. It’s not okay when you’re talking about your autistic child.

Let’s start with the passage that has garnered the most outrage: The one where she talks about how she’s going to sterilize Gus because she doesn’t think he’ll be a good parent. She asks “How do I talk about this without sounding like a eugenicist?” You can’t because what you’re talking about is eugenics.  You shouldn’t decide that someone will be a bad parent as an adult based on what they’re like at age thirteen. Actually YOU shouldn’t be deciding whether or not someone else reproduces at all. That’s a decision they should make for themselves

She says that when she envisions Gus having sex she envisions a Benny Hill tune playing in the background and that can’t end well. I don’t know who Benny Hill is so I can’t find that joke funny anyway but it’s especially unfunny that she makes a joke like that at the expense of her son.

Really, the whole book is at her son’s expense. She invades his privacy, makes all kind of embarrassing comments about him and reveals all kinds of embarrassing details about him without his consent. She expresses the belief that autistic people can’t feel embarrassment, which would explain why she had no qualms about writing a book like this about her son, when I’m sure she would have been humiliated had her own mother written such a book about her.

This belief that autistic people can’t feel embarrassment is erroneous, dangerous and dehumanizing, as are the beliefs she expresses that autistic people can’t feel empathy and have no theory of mind. And the part where she wonders if Gus thinks? I thought my eyes would roll out of my head.

As if commenting on her desire to sterilize her son and on the soundtrack to his sex life weren’t bad enough, she also says that she can’t imagine any girl finding him interesting and complains throughout the book about how uninteresting she herself finds him. You know what?  Given the choice between spending a day with Judith Newman and spending a day with Gus, I would choose Gus, no question.  People who have autism or some other disability, who have atypical interests, behaviors, or speech patterns can be good friends and good lovers. Interesting is in the eye of the beholder.

In case you can’t tell, I don’t like Judith Newman very much. She comes across as selfish, entitled and judgmental. She feels entitled to pass judgement on issues she hasn’t got a clue about. When reflecting back on childhood classmates of hers who were bullied and who she assumes were autistic, she criticizes their parents for sending them to a mainstream school where they would be known as a retard. She has no idea what options were available to those parents or why they made the choices they did. Some special needs kids are better off in special schools but they shouldn’t automatically be sent there for fears of bullying in the mainstream.  If they do end up being bullied maybe it’s the behavior of the bullies that should be criticized, rather than the behavior of the parents.

When speculating on the reasons behind the rise of the incidence of autism, she suggests that people with autistic traits who in previous times would have been unable to find mates are now reproducing and she adds in “Thanks, Tinder!” That’s disturbing in the same way wanting to sterilize her son is disturbing. At least she didn’t say “Thanks, Obama”?

When discussing autistic students at Cambridge objecting to research being done in to pre-natal genetic testing for autism, on the grounds that it would lead to eugenics, Newman says that it is not the place of the autistic people who attend Cambridge University  to speak for the autistic people who are sitting alone in their rooms twirling objects.

First of all, if pre-natal testing for autism ever becomes possible, I seriously doubt it will be possible to tell if an autistic fetus will end up attending Cambridge or sitting alone in their room twirling an object. Second of all, can we please stop acting like autistic people who attend Cambridge and autistic people who sit alone in their room twirling objects are mutually exclusive categories, as if there can never be any overlap between the two? I didn’t attend Cambridge but I did attend university and do you know how much time I’ve spent sitting alone in my room twirling rubber bands? At least as much time as I’ve spent attending university.

She reveals that she and her husband (who she thinks is on the autism spectrum) are happily married but have always lived in separate apartments. That seemed strange to me but I can’t blame her husband for not wanting to live with her. She sounds insufferable.

Her reaction to criticism of her book did nothing to improve my impression of her. In response to accusations that the book is damaging to autistic people she said “I didn’t write it for them.” Sounds like she could use some lessons in empathy and theory of mind.

When she heard that people who didn’t appear to have read the book were leaving one star reviews of it on Amazon, she tried to get them taken down. Suck it up, Buttercup. You put your writing out there and people are free to criticize it. People leave reviews of books they haven’t read or finished all the time and proof of purchase has never been required. She claims that those people who are objecting to quotes from her book don’t understand them because they haven’t read them in context. Well, I have read them in context and it doesn’t make them any better. I’m sure if those people read your book, they would be more horrified, not less.

Within the autism community there’s a big divide between autistic adults who are deemed to be high functioning and parents of autistic children who are deemed to be low functioning, mainly over the issues of wanting a cure for autism and how those parents talk about their children. I feel like I’m more sympathetic to parents of autistic children than most but I still draw the line somewhere and Judith Newman crossed it.

Still, I’m glad I read this book. In addition to the good aspects of it I mentioned before it’s inspired me to start working on a story of my own of a similar nature ( I got the original idea for it from Life, Animated, another memoir written by the parent of an autistic boy that has a similar theme to To Siri with Love.) I’m not rich or famous like Judith Newman is (it’s a shame that it’s usually only the people with power, prestige and connections who get their voices heard) so my story won’t be as widely read or acclaimed as hers is but it also won’t be as widely criticized. I’ll try to write about autism in a more accurate and sensitive manner than she did.

Book Review: Juniper: The Girl Who Was Born Too Soon

via Daily Prompt: Viable

I’ve been meaning to write some reviews of books I read in 2017 and this prompt made me think of the book Juniper: The Girl Who Was Born Too Soon. It’s a memoir written by the parents of a girl who was born prematurely. The age of viability is considered to be 24 weeks. Juniper was born at 23 weeks, 6 days.

The story is told from the alternating perspectives of Juniper’s mother and father, Kelley and Thomas French. Although they have some different perspectives and experiences and the chapter titles indicated who was writing, their voices are similar enough that at times I mixed them up (Obviously that wasn’t an issue when they were describing experiences like being pregnant or jacking off,) Both of them are journalists and both of them are good writers. The thing about memoirs is that you can’t just have a good story, you also have to be a good writer for it to work. A few months ago I read a memoir by T-Boz, one of the women from that band TLC ( She has Sickle Cell Disease and my friend has a daughter who has Sickle Cell Disease so I was interested in learning more about it) and while her story was a compelling one, the book sucked because her talents lay in singing, not writing.

With Juniper we have two people with an interesting experience to share and a talent for writing, resulting in a good book that I enjoyed. Aside from the fact that I came close to being born prematurely, premature birth is not a subject I have any personal connection to but they wrote in a way that left me feeling emotionally affected and as though I was right there in the NICU with them.

Since Juniper was born right on the cusp of viability she would need intensive interventions to survive and even with intensive interventions there was a good chance she would die anyway. If she survived there was a good chance she would be seriously disabled. Not long ago doctors wouldn’t have even considered treating a baby born at Juniper’s gestational age and today many hospitals still refuse to do so. Juniper’s parents were offered the options of trying to save her through machines and tubes and surgeries or letting her die naturally. They chose to try to save her.

Juniper weighed one pound, four ounces at birth. She was described as being tiny, translucent and resembling an angry old man. All of her veins were visible and her heart could be seen beating beneath her chest. She ended up spending seven months in the NICU. It was an emotional roller coaster of an experience for her parents.

Although having a micro-preemie was distressing and terrifying and it’s not something they ever would have chosen, they also acknowledged that it was a transcendent experience and found beauty in it. They saw the beginnings of human life in a way that not many people get to. Looking in on their daughter’s incubator was compared to being let in on a secret.

Through all the harrowing times where the threat of Juniper’s death was ever present, in addition to the fear and distress there was love and care and tenderness-from Juniper’s parents, from her doctors, her nurses, her relatives and friends of the family. Juniper couldn’t be held much in the early days because she was so fragile but her caretakers found other ways of connecting with her, of making her feel safe and loved. Bruce Springsteen music was played in to her incubator. Her father read Harry Potter to her. The first chapter of the first book is called “The Boy Who Lived.” Ultimately Juniper was the girl who lived.

Of course not all premature baby stories end as happily as Juniper’s did and when a premature baby is born there’s no way of knowing exactly how things will turn out so the treatment of micro-preemies raises ethical questions. These ethical questions are raised periodically throughout the book. A woman says to Kelley regarding the intensive interventions that are being employed to save Juniper’s life “Wouldn’t it be better to vaccinate 1,000 children in Africa?” Kelley replies “Better for who?” I applaud Kelley for that response. Personally I would have been tempted to respond by slapping that woman.

For a book that deals with such a serious issue, it contains some hilarious moments. I was cracking up when Tom described the awkwardness of being handed the Ass Masters series to masturbate to in the fertility clinic. Just like Juniper has an interesting birth story, she has an interesting conception story. Although Kelley gave birth to Juniper, she is not her biological mother. Juniper was conceived using the donor egg of a friend of the Frenches.

The book also gets in to the story of how Tom and Kelley became a couple. It’s a story that involves infidelity, selfishness and some questionable life decisions. It doesn’t put either of them in a very good light and while I don’t think writers should be afraid to reveal unflattering details about themselves when it adds to the story, I have to question the wisdom of revealing these particular details when I don’t think they added much to the story of Juniper. If they were looking for material to pad their book, I wish they’d covered the time period between when Juniper went home from the hospital and when she was four years old, which is where the book jumps to in the epilogue.

Today Juniper is thriving. In fact, on the website for the book among reviews calling it a tender, fierce, breathtaking miracle that expands our understanding of being human, there’s a review from Juniper that reads “My butt is on the cover. That is why this book is special to me.”

 

Thirteen Reasons Why

Thirteen Reasons Why is a popular and controversial Netflix series that deals with the issue of suicide, which in a way is also popular and controversial. It’s based on the book of the same name.  I’ve read the book and seen the show so I figured I should share my thoughts on them.

Since my reviews tend to get long winded I’m going to start by answering three important questions in the most succinct way possible.

Is Thirteen Reasons Why a good book? No

Is Thirteen Reasons Why a good show? Yes

Does Thirteen Reasons Why glorify suicide? Yes

The story was an interesting one and it held my attention the whole time so I’ll give the book that much but Jay Asher is just not a good writer. It’s a good thing he had a decent editor. At the end of book the original ending of the story before the editor changed it was printed. It was so bad and ridiculous I found myself cringing in second hand embarrassment.

Movies based on books are almost never as good as the books but in my experience shows based on books tend to be better than the books. I wasn’t all that impressed with the book Orange is the New Black (although compared to Thirteen Reasons Why it’s a masterpiece) but I love the Netflix series (although I think it may have jumped the shark at season 5.) The series added all kinds of intriguing details and scenarios that weren’t in the book.

While I wouldn’t say I loved the Netflix version of Thirteen Reasons Why, I did like it.  Just like the Netflix version of Orange is the New Black, it touched on all kinds of details that the book just barely skimmed the surface of. Most notably we got to know the suicide victim’s parents and they filed a lawsuit against the school.

The lawsuit angle raises the question of how much responsibility other people have for someone’s suicide both legally and morally. Obviously the suicide victim is the one who chose to commit suicide and no one else forced them in to it but if you actively encourage someone to commit suicide, it seems pretty clear to me that you’re responsible for their death.  Recently there was a news story about a girl who was charged with manslaughter for encouraging her boyfriend to commit suicide and I agreed with that verdict.

What’s less clear is how responsible you are for a suicide victim’s death if you don’t encourage them to commit suicide but make their life a living hell.  In Thirteen Reasons Why this is what the school bullies did to Hannah. The story also explores the ways in which well meaning people who love the suicide victim can contribute to their death, not only through their actions but through their inaction. Most of the people on Hannah’s thirteen reasons why tapes were people who treated her cruelly but the main character, Clay,  had treated her kindly and cared about her.

There has been much concern that Thirteen Reasons Why glorifies suicide and I’ll get to that shortly but there was another aspect of it I found concerning that I haven’t seen anyone talk about. There’s a scene where Hannah and Clay start making out and Hannah freaks out and tells Clay to go away. He does so. It’s later revealed that Hannah told Clay to go away because she was scared but she really wanted him to stay and it’s suggested that if he had, maybe she wouldn’t have committed suicide. Clay regrets listening to Hannah and leaving the room rather than continuing to touch and talk to her.

I wouldn’t want anyone to get the wrong idea from that scene and think that it’s okay to continue to touch and talk to someone who’s asked you to stop. If someone has asked you to stop touching and talking to them, the proper thing to do is to listen to them, even if you suspect they really want you to continue. In this world of rape culture it is so important to take people at their word and not do anything to them that they haven’t consented to. I’m not going to say that the show glorifies rape or touching people without their consent though because Hannah’s rape and her witnessing of someone else’s rape factor heavily into her decision to commit suicide.

I do think that Thirteen Reasons Why glorifies suicide, not because it makes suicide seem pleasant or admirable but because it sends the message that suicide is a way to be noticed, to get your voice heard, to make the people who wronged you feel bad about what they did, to make them suffer for it.  The people who wronged Hannah didn’t seem to feel bad about what they did or realize how much they’d hurt her until she killed herself. They also were not held accountable for their actions until she killed herself.

For people who are not depressed and who are respected and treated well by their peers, I think the message this story sends is a good one and that it has the potential to influence their behavior in a positive manner. If you hold the social power, you should use that power to be kind to others, rather than to be unkind because you never know what kind of a battle someone is fighting or what effect your actions could have on them. Yet I have serious concerns about the effect this story could have on a depressed, tormented, socially rejected adolescent. Those are the people who feel powerless and this story presents suicide as a way to gain power.

Another criticism I’ve seen of Thirteen Reasons Why is that it portrays suicide as a revenge tactic and that stigmatizes people who commit suicide. There was certainly an element of revenge to Hannah’s suicide but I did not get the impression that was her sole or even her primary motivation for ending her life. Her suicide scene was graphic and maybe if I hadn’t heard about it beforehand I would have been shocked and horrified by it but I’d heard so much criticism of it beforehand that it ended up not being as graphic as I was expecting it to be.

I had a lot of sympathy for Hannah but I did not find her to be an entirely likable character. However, I do not see Hannah’s flaws as a flaw in the story. I don’t think someone needs to be a perfect angel in order for their suicide to be a tragedy or for us to mourn the loss of them. The truth is that if someone is suicidal or suffering from mental illness, there’s a good chance they will behave badly, that they’ll do things that others find hurtful and off- putting. That does not mean the suicidal person is a bad person.

It is often said that suicide is selfish. I don’t think that’s a fair criticism because while it’s true that suicide is devastating to the surviving loved ones, the mind of a severely depressed person can convince them that they are so horrible and such a burden to everyone around them, that they are doing their loved ones a favor by killing themselves.

I can personally relate to this story on multiple levels. I’ve never attempted suicide and I’m not sure that I’ve ever been truly suicidal but I have been severely depressed and had thoughts of wanting to die. I wasn’t bullied or ostracized by my peer group much as a child or an adolescent but I was as an adult.  The bullying did not make me suicidal but it did damage me emotionally. I’m not sure that the people who bullied me realized how badly they were hurting me or that they thought of what they were doing to me as bullying.

I’d like to say that I’ve never bullied or been cruel to anyone but that would be a lie. The truth is that when I was in high school my friends and I played a cruel prank on a girl who was emotionally vulnerable. Our prank did not result in the girl’s suicide but I know that it could have. In fact when the teachers found out about our prank we were required to write a play to show that we learned our lesson and I proved that by writing a play about our prank that did result in a suicide attempt. A few years later there was a news story about an adult who played the same kind of prank on a teenage girl and it resulted in her suicide.

The prank I participated in was not something I ever would have done on my own but people tend to be influenced by their peers and to do cruel things in groups that they wouldn’t do individually.  This was an extensive prank that went on for months and there were times when I did feel guilty about my participation in it but I always brushed that guilt aside. I told myself it was just a silly prank so it wasn’t really bullying and surely it wouldn’t hurt her that badly and if it did she deserved it because she”d been mean to me and she wasn’t a very nice person and….we can always think of ways to try to justify cruel, bullying behavior but at the end of the day there really is no justification for it.

As I said before, you never know the kind of effect your actions will have on someone else, whether they be acts of kindness or acts of cruelty. Something that seems insignificant to you could have a profound impact on someone else. At the end of the day, unless you’re a psychopath, you don’t want someone else’s blood on your hands so play it safe and don’t be an ass.  If you see someone being an ass to someone else stand up to them and reach out to the victim.

As Thirteen Reasons Why proves, cruelty and indifference to cruelty can have devastating consequences. I can only hope that the predominant consequence of Thirteen Reasons Why will be a decrease in cruelty in the real world, rather than an increase in suicide.

Book Review: Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson

Just Mercy is the true story of a lawyer’s work to win justice for those who have been failed by our justice system, especially death row inmates.  For as long as I can remember I have been adamantly opposed to the death penalty. I think it is inhumane, abhorrent and has no place in a society that calls itself civilized. When I read this book I needed no convincing that the death penalty is wrong and should be abolished but if I did need convincing it surely would have swayed me.  I feel that anyone who reads this book and still thinks the death penalty is acceptable is much more of a monster than any of the death row inmates profiled in it.

One of the reasons I am opposed to the death penalty is that there is the possibility of executing someone who is innocent and death is irreversible.  I assumed that executing an innocent person is rare but that one innocent person executed is one too many. I assumed that when an innocent person was placed on death row it was the result of a terrible mistake. This book showed me just how wrong I was in that regard.

It’s said that one death is a tragedy, a million deaths is a statistic. This book presented both the horrifying death row statistics and the horrifying individual stories of death row inmates. For every nine people on death row that are executed, one is exonerated. The story that gets the most attention in this book is that of Walter McMillian. He was put on death row for a murder that there was no evidence he committed and plenty of evidence he didn’t.

Over a dozen people could vouch that he was at a fish fry when the murder took place. Another criminal who was a notorious liar was coerced by the police to claim he’d seen Walter at the scene of the crime in exchange for a lightening of his own sentence. The story he spun made no sense and was full of holes but the police were feeling pressure to solve the case and Walter was an easy target because he was a black man who’d had an affair with a white woman. The town where Walter lived, where he was unjustly condemned due to the color of his skin, was a town that took pride in being the setting of To Kill a Mockingbird.  Apparently the irony was lost on its residents.

The death penalty is disproportionately applied to African Americans, who are condemned by juries that are disproportionately white. Other groups of people who are vulnerable to the death penalty include the poor, the mentally ill and the intellectually disabled. When you look at capital punishment in that light it seems like a form of eugenics.

There are a lot of great quotes in this book. Regarding the classicism inherent in our justice system, Stevenson says the system treats you better if you’re rich and guilty than if you’re poor and innocent. He says capital punishment means those without the capital get the punishment. So much depends upon a good lawyer and those who can’t afford to hire a good lawyer end up paying with their lives.

McMillian’s story is just one of many horror stories in this books. There’s the story of the woman who gets 10 years in prison for three bad checks to buy her children Christmas presents, the woman who is sentenced to life in prison for supposedly killing a stillborn baby that she couldn’t afford prenatal care for, all those children from abusive homes who are sentenced to spend the rest of their lives in prison for non-homicidal crimes.

The saddest case of all is that of Jimmy Dill. He was an intellectually impaired man from an abusive home who was imprisoned after being involved in a shooting. When the shooting victim died nine months later as a result of poor medical care, he was sentenced to death. Bryan tried repeatedly to get Jimmy’s sentence overturned but ultimately he was unable to. On the night of his execution Jimmy spoke with a stutter to tell Bryan how grateful he was to him for trying to save his life. As Bryan listened to Jimmy speak, the tears rolled down his cheeks. As I read his account of Jimmy’s last words to him, the tears rolled down my cheeks.

The other part of the book that made me cry was the story of Avery Jenkins, a mentally ill death row inmate who had been severely abused as a child. Bryan had learned that his own career, education and socioeconomic status could not protect him from racism. Because of his skin color, a policeman had treated him like a criminal for listening  to music in his car in his own neighborhood.  When he entered the courtroom as a lawyer the judge would assume he was the defendant on trial. When he went to meet with Avery at the prison he noticed a car full of racist symbols and slogans that referenced cotton picking. When he entered the prison a guard made sure Bryan knew the truck was his. He then proceeded to talk to him in a threatening, aggressive manner and subject him to a humiliating strip search even though it was against protocol.

Avery experienced psychotic episodes and his speech was often incoherent. Every time Bryan met with him he would ask for a chocolate milkshake and Bryan would have to tell him he was sorry but it was against prison regulations. When Bryan appealed Avery’s death sentence in court he talked about the horrific abuse he had endured in foster care.  The next time he went to meet with Avery at the prison he was surprised to be greeted by the guard in a friendly manner and not to be subjected to a strip search. The guard told him that he’d listened to what he’d said about Avery’s experiences in foster care. He said that he’d been abused in foster care himself and he hadn’t thought anyone had it as bad as he did. He also said that on the way back from the hearing he had bought Avery a chocolate milkshake.

Ultimately Just Mercy is a book that is as touching and uplifting as it is shocking and horrifying. Amidst all the misery, cruelty and unjust treatment, there is compassion, insight and mercy. Mercy and compassion are ultimately what are needed to fix our broken justice system. Bryan Stevenson would tell you that our broken justice system is a symptom of our broken selves. Through his work with the incarcerated, Stevenson came to realize that we are all broken. Sometimes we are broken by our own choices, sometimes by circumstances we never would have chosen but we have all hurt and been hurt by others. He realized that his motivation for doing the work that he did was his own brokenness  He wanted justice for his clients and would do anything to get it for them but although the ways in which he and his clients had been broken were different, he could not pretend that their struggles were disconnected from his own.

Of all the great quotes in this book, the one that spoke to me the most was “Each of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done.” If you lie, you’re more than just a liar, if you steal, you’re more than just a thief and if you kill someone you’re more than just a murderer. Too often when someone commits a crime, I see and hear others speak of the accused in scathing categorical terms, as though the second they emerged from the womb they grabbed a physical or metaphorical weapon, committed a heinous crime and that is the sum total of their life.

And that’s where my own brokenness comes in. I’ve never been incarcerated but I’ve done plenty of things in my life that I’m not proud of and I’d hate for anyone to reduce me to those things. I spent 6 weeks in a mental hospital diagnosed with a mental illness I didn’t have. Walter McMillian spent 6 years in prison for a crime he didn’t commit.  The other day I was walking through the city reeling from an encounter I’d had with a stranger that had made me think bout how different my autism made me from everyone else, how hard it made my life, how it caused people to make false assumptions about me.  I saw a mural on a building that featured a picture of a woman along with her name. She was listed as being a mural painter, an architecture major, a former prison inmate and an advocate for prison reform.

The sign also said that the U.S. contains 5 % of the world’s population but 25% of its prisoners. Black people are similarly overrepresented in the prison system in proportion to their population.  I’ve come to realize that sometimes the difference between those who are imprisoned and those who are free does not come down to a difference between their behavior or their morality but a difference between the shade of their skin color and the size of their bank account.

Bryan Stevenson says that we seek to to crush, imprison and kill the most vulnerable among us, not because they are a threat to public safety or beyond rehabilitation but because we think it makes us seem tougher, less broken. We’d be better off using our brokenness as a source of compassion and mercy.  The measure of a society’s character and commitment to justice is not how it treats those who are rich, powerful and respected but how it treats the most vulnerable. We all suffer when members of our society are treated poorly and we all benefit when mercy is shown, for all of us need mercy at some point and mercy is a healing transformative force that allows us to see things we would not see otherwise.

A common argument in favor of the death penalty is that some people deserve to die and some people don’t deserve to be shown mercy. Stevenson says mercy is most potent when it is directed at the undeserving and that the question is not whether people  deserve to die but whether we deserve to kill.

The answer to the question of whether we deserve to kill is a resounding no. The answer to the question of whether I would recommend this book is a resounding yes.

Book Review: A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara

 If you need further proof that we’re haunted by the ghosts of our past, you’ll certainly find it in A Little Life. My feelings about this book are very mixed. I was torn between thinking it was tragically beautiful and thinking it was tragedy porn. I decided it is tragedy porn but it’s well written tragedy porn with literary merit.

Jude Fawley of Jude the Obscure is regarded as one of the most tragic characters in literature. Well, when it comes to tragedy, Jude Fawley has met his match in Jude St. Francis, the main character in this novel. This Jude was abandoned in a dumpster as a baby. Throughout his entire childhood and adolescence he is horrifically physically, emotionally and sexually abused by many people, several of them people he trusted to care for him. When he grows up he attends a prestigious college, becomes a successful lawyer and finds a group of good friends. A law school professor and his wife legally  adopt him as their own child (this professor lost his own son to a devastating disease when he was a little kid.  Pretty much everyone in this book experiences great tragedy in their lives.)

Yet Jude remains a tortured soul who is left with many physical and emotional scars as a result of the abuse he endured. The man who deliberately ran over him with his car left him partially crippled and his condition worsens over time. Throughout his life he endures traumatic flashbacks to his past. He suffers from low self esteem and has relationship issues with his friends, his lovers, his adoptive parents, his co-workers and his doctors. He has trouble opening up to people, believing that he’s deserving of their love and trusting that they’re not going to abandon him. To cope with all of this he regularly engages in self mutilation.

The tragic events don’t end with his childhood either. The poor guy just can’t catch a break in life. As you may know from my previous book reviews, I’m pretty morbid in my tastes in literature. Not only do I have a high tolerance for tragedy in literature, I have an appreciation and a craving for it. Yet even I have my limits and this book pushed me past them. I can only endure so many graphic descriptions of childhood sexual abuse and self mutilation before it becomes overwhelming and I start feeling nauseated.

I think the harsh realities of life should be depicted in literature and I certainly don’t want them sugar coated in order to avoid making the reader uncomfortable. However there’s a difference between tragedy that is plausible and endemic to the story, and tragedy that is artificially manufactured to create melodrama. There’s a difference between tragedy for the sake of illustrating a point or a truth and tragedy just for the sake of tragedy. Too often it felt like this book fell in to the latter categories.

Yet overall I did like A Little Life.  It was well written and it was emotionally gripping. It provided a lot of good insights, reflections and food for thought especially on subjects such as the nature of trauma, grief and friendship. I could feel the pain of the characters to the point that it became my own pain. Jude is such a tragic, vulnerable character, one that generates a lot of sympathy and compassion. Sometimes you just want to reach through the pages and hug him, to take away his pain, to convince him that he’s a good, valuable person who’s worthy of love and happiness.

Of course as the reader you are powerless to do that. Unfortunately the characters in the book who love him and try desperately to help him are also powerless to do that. There’s this notion that love is all you need, that love is always enough, that love can overcome anything. Unfortunately that’s often not the case. Sometimes the victims of trauma will struggle with and be devastated by their trauma for the rest of their lives. Sometimes the loved ones of the trauma victim will struggle with and be devastated by the pain of desperately wanting to save someone who cannot be saved.

There’s also a tendency to want to sort people who have suffered severe abuse and trauma in to two separate categories, two distinct dichotomies: those who were able to overcome their demons and achieve success and those who succumbed to their demons and failed at life. As Jude proves, it isn’t always that black and white. One person can fall in to both categories. Jude is very successful in some areas of life but struggles greatly in other areas as a result of his past. He is both a victim and a survivor.

Usually when a character commits suicide, it is at least somewhat surprising to the reader. I was not the least bit surprised by Jude’s suicide. I would have been surprised if he hadn’t committed suicide. When I read about it rather than being shocked by something I didn’t see coming, I sarcastically said to myself “Oh darn, and here I was thinking they were all going to live happily ever after.”

As saddened as I was by Jude’s suicide. I couldn’t help but consider it a miracle that he lasted as long as he did and I couldn’t help but feel glad that he had finally been relieved of his suffering.

 

Book Review: The Circle by Dave Eggers

This is my favorite book I’ve read so far this year. It’s about a woman named Mae who gets a job at a powerful internet company called The Circle that’s rather Google-esque and Facebook-esque. At first it seems like her dream job and everything is perfect. This is a company that really seems to care about the well being of its employees, that goes above and beyond to make sure they’re happy, healthy and having a good time.

There are all kinds of lavish parties and social events, special interest clubs, visits from celebrities, exquisite food, fancy decorations, comfortable dorm rooms in which employees can spend the night on campus and doctors to check up on the employees. The Circle even agrees to put Mae’s ailing father on her healthcare plan. Yet there’s also a dark side to The Circle and working there gets very stressful.

There’s a lot of pressure exerted on Mae to get perfect scores on her customer service reviews, to get lots of views, smiles and zings ( the equivalent of likes) and to rise in the company’s PartiRanks, which is based in her performance in those areas. Then there’s the pressure exerted on Mae to participate in The Circle’s social events, especially those that match up with her interests and experiences (her supervisors know all about her interests and experiences since they’ve searched through her social media profiles.)  In their efforts to connect people from all over the world together, to make information readily available to everyone and of course to grow their business, The Circle becomes very controlling and overbearing. They are invested in the lives of their employees not just in the workplace but outside the workplace as well and the boundary between the two soon becomes very thin.

Some of Mae’s family and friends resent the intrusion on their privacy and at first Mae does as well but after her supervisors admonish her for going kayaking without posting about it on the internet she quickly becomes brainwashed to the point that she agrees to go transparent, meaning she wears a recording device that broadcasts almost every second of her day in real time for the world to see. With the help of her supervisors she develops three central tenets to represent The Circle : Sharing is caring, secrets are lies and privacy is theft.

After that the novel becomes rather Orwellian. It is a novel that is both creepy and hilarious. What makes it so creepy is that as ridiculous as everything that happens in the novel is, it doesn’t seem all that far fetched. With the way things are headed in the real world, someday living in a society that resembles the one in this book doesn’t seem entirely out of the realm of possibility.

I’m a big fan of the internet and an avid user of social media but I recognize its inherent creepiness and I’ve noticed the levels of creepiness steadily increasing as time goes on. It’s gotten more invasive, more in you face, more stalker-y. Things that used to be private are now public.

It always freaks me out when right after I’ve read or talked about something on the internet ads geared towards that subject start popping up everywhere. No matter how many times I tell the internet that I don’t want to give it my phone number so that it can secure my account or my location so that it can serve me better, it won’t stop asking me for it. I think the use of the like button and emjois has become rather excessive.

There were several instances in this book that reminded me of my own real life encounters with the internet. When one of the founders of The Circle introduced a kind of universal social media profile with one log in across all social media sites I was reminded of something I encountered on WordPress called Gravatar. I asked a friend of mine who had it how she got it and she said she had no idea what I was talking about. Apparently she had been signed up for it without her knowledge or consent because the internet is creepy like that.

In this book multiple tragedies occur as a result of the invasive cyber crazed dystopian society The Circle is creating but the leaders rationalize the tragedies and continue on in their quest to take over the world. Maybe Mae couldn’t have been expected to realize that her ex-boyfriend would be driven to suicide as a result of her having The Circle and the networks of people connected with them track him down and pursue him after he’d gone off the grid to escape their influence but I thought it was foolish of her not to realize he would be horribly distraught by it.

At the end of the book the mysterious man who has been pursuing Mae throughout the novel reveals himself to be one of The Circle’s founding fathers. He tells Mae that The Circle has gotten out of control, that it’s become different than what he planned, more than what he bargained for, that it’s a destructive force that must be stopped. At first I thought that Mae might listen to reason and prevent The Circle from reaching ‘completion’, that the book might have a happy ending. Being the morbid thing that I am, I was disappointed because I wanted it to have a “He loved Big Brother” type of ending.

Luckily for me, it did end up having that kind of ending.  It ended the way I originally predicted it would, in the best and most (in)appropriate way it could have ended.

When I went to review this book on Goodreads and post my review on Facebook I was asked to give the book a star number rating. Then I was asked to review a number of places I had visited recently, places that had been tracked through my Facebook activity. That’s exactly the kind of thing that happened in The Circle.

Some More Books I Read This Year

A Dog’s Purpose ( W. Bruce Cameron)- If reading about a dog dying once isn’t sad enough for you try reading about a dog dying over and over again. That’s what happens in this book as the dog keeps getting reincarnated as a different dog with a different purpose in life. In addition to the sad moments there a lot of funny and sweet moments. It’s not great literature by any means but it’s an entertaining, big hearted book that shows all the ways in which dogs enrich our lives and we enrich theirs. Any dog owner or dog lover will be able to relate to and appreciate the story.

 

A Dog’s Journey (W. Bruce Cameron)-This is the sequel to  A Dog’ Purpose and it’s more of the the same except the dog’s owner is more psychologically disturbed this time. Eating disorders and suicide attempts come in to play. It’s not surprising that the girl has issues since her mother is one of the worst fictional narcissists I’ve ever encountered and a real piece of work. In most of the dog’s incarnations it’s a big dog but in this book he becomes a little dog with attitude at one point. That was his funniest incarnation. I was also amused by the dogs’ opinions of and interactions with cats in both books.

 

The Turner House ( Angela Flournoy)-  I chose this book in honor of Black History Month and I was pleased with my choice.  This book did a great job of portraying racism and the African American experience (not that as a white person I can ever fully understand that experience) but it was about so much more than that. It was about poverty, urban decay, addiction, mental illness, physical illness, family function, family dysfunction, the ties that bind us and the ties that sever us.

This book goes back and forth in time focusing on the lives of various different members of a 13 child family. It pays particular attention to the man who is in therapy because he’s seeing a ghost (called a haint) and his sister who’s struggling with a gambling problem. Meanwhile, all 13 of the siblings are arguing over what to do with the family house now that their sick mother is no longer living in it and it’s putting them in to financial debt.

By the end of the novel the house situation is not resolved and it’s not made clear whether or not the haint is real but I was satisfied with the ending.  It ends with a family gathering and it has a “Circle of life” feel to it. Regardless of whether or not the haint is an actual ghost, it’s made clear that the ghosts of our past will always haunt us and regardless of what happens to the Turner house, it’s clear that home is where the heart is.