Archive for ‘FREUD’

June 27, 2011

the carousel

by Megan Abbott

A few months ago, I wrote a piece for a magazine about Forest Hills, my neighborhood in Queens.  In the first draft, though, I lost the thread and started writing about something else entirely—about Forest Hills, yes, but also my own hometown, and the way many of us move from place to place but, like the well-worn chestnut, “wherever you go, there you are.”

After moving to New York City16 years ago, I gave little conscious thought to my hometown, Grosse Pointe, Michigan. But, for reasons still unclear, I ended up setting my new book, The End of Everything, in a barely fictionalized version of Grosse Pointe. And, in talking about the book in recent weeks (a recipe for unbearable self-absorption!), I’ve had this puzzling new access to its continuing resonance for me. The way, for better and worse, it shaped me, and lingers with me.

Eventually, I scrapped that first draft and ended up writing about my favorite Queens wig shop (truly!). What appears below—none of it ended in the final piece other than a few phrases. But I guess I kind of wanted to put the piece somewhere because I wonder how many of us feel the same strange tug of our hometowns? And if we remain in them, does that tug become more about a past time rather than a place?

*                *                *

It’s a time machine. That’s what it is. Dusty afternoons, dew-struck mornings, I can jump on my bike, pedal a few blocks deeper into the heart ofForest Hills,Queens, and I am transported back. Many years later and a half a country away. I’m age ten again, with a ten year old’s wonder and restlessness, riding my ten-speed through the soundless streets of Grosse Pointe, Michigan, a time and place trapped in amber, tripped to life again here.

When I was 22 years old, I fled my serene suburban homestead with the desperate urgency of one exiting a burning building. Also the hometown of novelist Jeffrey Eugenides, who set Virgin Suicides here, Grosse Pointe is a place of lovely stasis. The historic home of auto barons, it remains seemingly untouched by the woes of the Motor City on whose back those barons built the magnificent Georgian and colonial homes that still strut along Lake St. Clair. A lake large enough to seem an ocean, its white Yacht Club tower seeming to pierce the sky.

It is a place once known, in ways staggering to my bored adolescent self, as the Paris of the Midwest. (Alas, my family lived near the freeway, the number of digits in our address the key social indicator—we were three digits away from the Lake, and therefore, three digits too far.)

courtesy of Grosse Pointe Historical Society

At age 22, I moved to my dream locale, New York City. The vision in my head was plucked straight from Woody Allen’s Manhattan, and I imagined eating Chinese food and watching Marx Brothers’s movies in bed with Woody, the cityscape glittering from our penthouse window. And it was (is) nearly as wondrous as I expected. I do not, often, find myself strolling the East River at dawn, the cityscape glowing miraculously in the background (and a penthouse does not lie in my future). But I do enough.

Six years ago, however, in need of more space, I found myself living in Forest Hills, Queens, a tidy neighborhood in an outerborough, famed as the former site, until 1977, of the United States Open, which took place at the West Side Tennis Club.

Situated a few blocks from Queens Boulevard, a thoroughfare of delicious tackiness—dollar stores, nail salons, wig shops—lies Forest Hills Gardens, the most exclusive part of Forest Hills proper. Designed in 1908 by Fredrick Olmstead, the landscape architect responsible for Central Park, the Gardens were patterned after a traditional English Village, in Tudor and Georgian style. Each house was built from standardized pre-cast “nailecrete” panels, fabricated off-site and lifted into place by crane—as if an elaborate dollhouse, model train set. Sometimes, it even feels as though it’s a stage set constructed precisely for me. To propel me back.

Two years ago, I bought a bike—my first in two decades. Riding under the heavy oak and hawthorn trees, I’ve come to know the Gardens well. The wrought iron streetlights, the exposed timbers and sloping gables of the homes, straight out of a fairytale.

Soon enough, riding past all these sights, I’m in Grosse Pointe again, its sugar maples and pin oaks draping above me. It’s the classic Freudian “uncanny”—utterly familiar yet marked by some element, some tiny thing, that renders it not. If I turn that corner ahead, maybe I’ll pass the Witts’s bright white house, or see the cherry blossoms carpeting Mrs. Wilson’s front lawn. Orl come upon my own gabled childhood home, which I haven’t set eyes on in 13 years.

Riding, there comes upon me that uncanny feeling that if I pedal far enough, in just the right way, I’ll find myself not only in Michigan but also 10 years old. that everything is the same. The one thing that’s not—the uncanny element—is me. Like dreaming your way back into your childhood, it’s the same, only different. Or you are. And that’s everything.

May 18, 2011

remembering, repeating

by Megan Abbott

Almost back to back this morning, I heard the news that Philip Roth had just been awarded the Man Booker International prize and that one of the judges—author and publisher Carmen Callil—had withdrawn in protest. According to The Guardian, Callil said that Roth “goes on and on and on about the same subject in almost every single book. It’s as though he’s sitting on your face and you can’t breathe.”

I think Philip Roth takes up more shelf space in my apartment than almost any other author. I have a complicated love for both him and his work that seems to mirror my feelings for Sinatra and Freud, except I never grow weary of Sinatra and Freud and never, ever feel the need to defend my complicated love.

With Roth, however, I am sometimes frustrated, even bored. I have, after reading some of his books, said things similar to Callil’s comments. How many times, Mr. Roth, must I read about the older intellectual in sexual thrall with the beautiful, brilliant young woman a fraction of his age?

There is a wonderful quote that I am going to butcher by a writer whom I can’t recall now. It says something to the effect of every writer has one story to tell and he tells it over and over. And I have to admit, it feels true to me. But maybe that’s the kind of writer I am drawn to.  But the authors I love The other authors on my shelves that take up similar amounts of space are Faulkner, Fitzgerald, Ellroy, Salinger. And certainly the same could be said of them.  The plots may change, the time period, the arc of the tale. But something at the core remains, some irresolvable issue or obsession that can’t help but sneak it.

I’m distinguishing here from authors who recycle plots, etc. Instead, I’m talking about recurring themes, dynamics, obsessions, fixations that seem to form the spine of many of their books and other times just seem to push their way in as if the writer can’t control it.

The risk of an artist returning to touchstones is an insularity of world which I sometimes find in Roth (that suffocating quality Callil cites does resonate with me; Roth’s Manhattan, for instance, seems trapped in amber at times). But when these authors discover a new way into their obsession, a new vantage point, or a new subject that may ultimately lead us back to their recurring story—it can be their greatest achievement.

Because, after all,  we are drawn to these authors to begin with because something about their story feels like ours.

James M. Cain may have written a half-dozen books dealing with the unstoppable lure of sex and money and the dark corners it drops us down, but, as discussed here before, when he becomes fascinated with the restaurant business (Mildred Pierce), or insurance (Double Indemnity), or taps his own love of opera (Serenade), the tale is reinvigorated even as it may follow the same deep treads he’s set down before.

Roth’s fascination with the glove industry or diamond business have produced some of his most exquisite prose ever. The vitalizing energy of American Pastoral seems to come from him wanting to use his alter ego, Zuckerman, to tunnel us into a very un-Roth-like pair of characters, an all-American straight-arrow and his beauty queen wife and what happens when their lives unfurl. His hero, Swede Levov, simply wouldn’t do the things Zuckerman and so many of his other heroes would. As a result, everything changes, and yet feels too like we’re returning to many of his fascinations—American success models, the family romance, Jewish identity and Roth’s own, often-blinding nostalgia for post-WWII-pre-counterculture moment—but from a new place. Which changes everything for us. And it’s thrilling.

But I guess I’m not really writing this post to talk about Roth. I guess I’m wondering how universal this feels. Are all writers writing variations on the same story? (Story, not plot–though I know there are writers who do that too!).  Is in fact what sparks writing is the desire to work through something? If so, it’s likely he or she doesn’t really want to work through it because then it would be over, and they don’t want it ever to be over.

For myself, I have trouble stepping back and looking at my books in concert. I don’t think I’d want to see what elements, obsessions keep returning across the books. Because once you see it, then what might happen? What would be left?

May 4, 2011

keep your eyes on it

by Megan Abbott


I spotted him on the street, his eyes glittering with energy. He said he thought we were going the same place, and we were.

A man met us in the lobby. You won’t be able to talk about what you see, he saidNot until we say so.

The floor numbers flickered as we rode up the soundless elevator in the sleek, buffered building in Soho, a few steps from one of the noisiest stretches of Broadway but a world away.  

It all felt  big-ticket, plush. My shoes looked pretty scuffed. But I wasn’t there to admire the creamy white walls, the sun-struck lobby, the chrome and leather offices filled with dark-haired men with sharp eyewear and complicated wristwatches.

I was there for a job.

But it wasn’t what it seemed, not by a mile, and I had no idea what I was getting into until it was too late. Until I was peering over the edge into something dark, strange, irresistible. Who was I to say no?

About six weeks ago, I got a dream assignment—to write a story set in my favorite time and place: Los Angeles, 1947. The epicenter of my imaginative life. And it was to be for an anthology titled L.A. Noire, to be published on June 6 by Mulholland Books.

The building in question was the headquarters of Rockstar Games, the developer/publisher behind such phenomena as Grand Theft Auto and Max Payne. I’d been invited by the editor of the anthology, the wonderful (and dashing) novelist/artist Jonathan Santlofer. Then, for an hour or more, I sat with fellow contributors Hard Case Crime wunderkind Charles Ardai and crime novelist Duane Swierczynski in a conference room and watched embargoed goods, a preview of a new videogame, L.A. Noire, developed with Team Bondi, which will be released on May 17.

Set in a hauntingly rendered Los Angeles of 1947, L.A. Noire requires its players to solve a series of crimes, most of which interweave fact (the Jeanne French-Red Lipstick Murder) and fiction. Aaron Staton of TV’s Mad Men (Ken Cosgrove, the blonde prepster and author of “Tapping A Maple On A Cold Vermont Morning”) portrays the lead police detective.

The accompanying short-story anthology is meant to compliment the game, a series of tales by authors including Lawrence Block, Joe Lansdale, Francine Prose, Joyce Carol Oates and Andrew Vachss, all set in this phantasmagoric world of 1947 Los Angeles.

I admit I am no gamer (lacking even the most fundamental skills). More to the point, though, I have an inherent suspicion of attempts to recreate 1940s Los Angeles, which, to me, must meet the exacting, sleazy, riotously violent and startlingly romantic standards of the Bible of my 1940s Los Angeles: Ellroy’s Los Angeles Quartet.

But watching the game that day, and the young man playing it for us, was quite an transporting experience. Burrowing past the venetian blinds-sheets-of-rain-bourbon-in-desk-drawer kitsch noir we all know so well, this Los Angeles is qualitatively different.

First, it’s in color.  It’s a sunny, sprawling yet infinitely sleazy realm, radiating so much of the haunted LA-ness I could ever have wanted: the pastel-drenched buildings, the low, dry courtyard apartments with their brooding eucalyptus, their flat sorrows and the off-screen sounds of bottles rolling and someone crying softly, somewhere.

It was uncanny, watching the game, engaging with it. It was different from seeing 1940s L.A. in a movie, its inherent “movie-ness,” and different too from the way an Ellroy novel can pitch its inky darkness through the front-most reaches of my head. It was different because it was happening and we were part of it. We were in the game, all of us. Questioning suspects, driving along Sunset, walking in the LAPD’s Old Central, passing Clifton’s Cafeteria, gazing up at the luminous white of City Hall at night. Of course, we were “in it”—that’s the special beauty of videogames. But the “it” this time was the luminous simulacrum.

But there was a different kind of uncanny too. Apparently, L.A. Noire makes use of a new MotionScan facial recognition technology.  The idea is to capture more  of the characters’ (actors’)  nuances. To look, essentially, more natural. More as we experience one another in life.

In the case  of L.A. Noire, the game depends on it, on how well we can read faces, detect lies. As we guide the police detective-hero, we need to be able to penetrate suspects and witnesses, to consider their body language to try uncover what they may have to hide. And when they are lying.

But watching it, and sometimes guessing correctly and other times not, I was struck by the most uncomfortable feeling. It was something in the way the suspects’ eyes moved, darted, vibrated, blinked, averted … mine. They seemed to be looking at me, and not looking at me, at once.

It reminded me of the term “uncanny valley,” which is a term coined by roboticist Masahiro Mori  (and relies heavily on Freud’s “The Uncanny“). It refers to, as I understand it, the point at which an almost-human object causes humans to be instinctively unnerved. The closer a robot (or prosthetic limb, or puppet, cyborg, etc.) becomes to being lifelike, the more the tiny elements that don’t seem lifelike—a slight stiffness in the gait, eyes that don’t quite focus on your eyes—we become unnerved. Mori called this plunge “the Uncanny Valley,” the precise point at which a simulation of life becomes so perfect it’s terrifying.

Frequently quoted in discussions of the uncanny valley is this line from C.S. Lewis’s The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe:

when you meet anything that’s going to be human and isn’t yet, or used to be human once and isn’t now, or ought to be human and isn’t, you keep your eyes on it and feel for your hatchet.

In the case of L.A. Noire, the feeling for me was magnified. Not only did these characters (many assayed by actors I was sure I recognized even when I couldn’t name them—because they looked like themselves, and yet not precisely) enact stories (famous 1947 crimes) I knew so well, but that had been, just slightly,  fictionalized. The same but different. Real but not real.

But there was this: I know this world through books, through movies, through driving through Los Angeles and finding the remaining haunts—battered tiki bars, peeling-leather-boothed bars, the sleek deco lines of the Pacific Dining Car.

Except this time, the police detectives, the victims, the criminals, the killers—were looking back at me. Were telling me things to see if I believed them. Were lying to me and seeing if I could tell.

The experience was powerful and made me understand something about the allure of games I hadn’t before. As much as one might believe technology distances us from ourselves, from each other, it might in fact do the opposite. Facing a game that plugged into my deepest imaginative life, any distance I had left from that time and place felt very nearly effaced.

Sitting there that afternoon, I came to recognize—those uncanny eyes flashing on me, looking straight into my own eyes—how intimate and personal games can be. How they can seep into your head, tug at things, make you feel. How there are times in all our lives when everything we thought we knew was not exactly what we thought at all. And how we may not be either. (And, within that gap, that particular valley, lies all kinds of unwanted revelation.)  How we make our own worlds and invest them with ideas of truth, permanence. But that’s a fiction too.

(My story, “The Girl,” is excerpted here.)


April 18, 2011

the shadow knows: an appreciation of lois duncan

by Megan Abbott

In the process of writing my upcoming novel, The End of Everything, I had this strange experience of return. All my books prior were set in the past, a time before I was born, and were set in milieus (organized crime, Hollywood, gambling, party girls), I’d likely never have known otherwise. To find me, or my life, in them, one would have to look very hard, at least I would. But, about two years ago, I decided to try my hand at a book set in a world I knew, in a time and place I knew.

The book is from the point of view of a 13 year old, specifically a 13 year old in a Midwestern suburb in the 1980s. Writing it, I found myself drawing on all the sense memories of that time, especially my late elementary school years, many of which were spent in the home of my best friend, Meg.  She had two older teen sisters and a teen brother and I remember as far back as age nine or ten trawling their cluttered, shag-carpeted bedrooms. The whole upstairs of Meg’s house made of pale blue wood panels, all kinds of alcoves and niches and built-ins into which treasures could be tucked. We found Playboy hidden in the eaves her brother’s room and, always, fat glittery paperbacks (with those sinister, tantalizing keyhole covers) of V.C. Andrews stuffed under her sisters’ pillows.

I never read much young adult fiction, and there certainly weren’t a fraction the number of YA novels as there are today (nor the array of options within them). As a result, with the notable, stirring exception of Flowers in the Attic (and, of course, Judy Blume), I jumped to adult books, which promised a peek into the grownup world for which I was unprepared (sex ed courtesy of John Irving and Irwin Shaw).

But there was one author whose books utterly entranced me. I’m not sure how old I was when I first read Lois Duncan, but I do know I first found one of her books—either Summer of Fear or Stranger with My Face—doing one of my grade-school prowls through Meg’s house, arrested by the covers (remember those painted covers of so many novels then? Of long-haired girls with limpid eyes and mouths arrested with fear, confusion, suspicion, longing?), reading breathlessly the plot description on the back. And I remember it was exactly these covers (above and below) that fixated me.

Duncan’s books felt dark, strange, taboo—much like V.C. Andrews. Except when you read V.C. Andrews, you feel the frantic, sexed crazy on her. And her world is very foreign from yours (I didn’t know any girl imprisoned in the attic of a mansion, starved and tortured and whipped by mother and grandmother, dangerously beloved by her own very handsome brother), which is part of their appeal. It’s total, compulsive, dirty fantasy.

The heroines of Lois Duncan, however, were girls I knew—prettier than me, more comfortable in their skin (at the start), with an easier way of navigating life—but definitely a part of my world. Yet everything that happened to them was bewildering, terrifying, perilous, thrilling—in short, everything I wanted. Astral projection, witchcraft, voodoo, ESP, possession, patricide.

Both Summer of Fear and Stranger with My Face, I now see, bear similarities to the female gothic novel, in particular the pulse at the center of those novels: the Dark Other. In Summer of Fear, the heroine, Rachel, realizes that Julia, her mysterious witchy cousin from the Ozarks, aims to steal Rachel’s her best friend and boyfriend but her whole life. In the end (cue V.C. Andrews and the entire Freud playlist), we learn Julia’s true goal is not Rachel’s boyfriend but Rachel’s father (“You mean—you can’t mean—you plan to marry Dad!”).

In Stranger with My Face, teenage Laurie Stratton is haunted by the presence of another, someone who looks just like her. Laurie—whose dark features never matched her family’s sunny ones—turns out to be adopted, permitting full play of pre-adolescent and adolescent fantasies of orphanage and mysterious ancestry—and a reason for feeling different, out of place. When her dark double first appears, it’s a moment that, for me now, gives me the same spiky shiver and horror I experienced when first reading Sara’s magnificent Come Closer:

‘Can you see me?’ asked a voice by my bed.

I opened my eyes. The moon had risen now above the level of my window, and the room was very dark. …

‘Are you the one with my face?’ I whispered.

‘I came first,’ she answered with a little laugh. ‘It’s you who have my face.’

‘Who are you?’ I asked her.

‘You must know that. We are two sides of a coin. We floated together in the same sea before birth. Didn’t you know I would be coming for you one day?’

There was a movement by the pillow. I felt the air stir against my face, and something as slight and soft as the breast feather of a gull brushed my forehead.

These dark doubles call to mind Jane Eyre’s Bertha Mason and Daphne Du Maurier’s Rebecca and seem to serve just the same function. These shadowed women do what the heroines can’t—they get angry, they shout, they fight, they demand things. They demand to be heard. To want things and take them. To go mad.

The retrospective quality of both books also mirrors the narrative structure of Rebecca (the narrator beginning that book, famously, with her dream of return to the house where everything happened, everything changed forever), to similar effect. These are books narrated by someone a few years past the events but changed by them forever (I now, just now, writing this, wonder if that was in my mind with The End of Everything, which begins similarly).

There is not even space enough to talk about what was my favorite Duncan novel, Daughters of Eve, the tale of a charismatic teacher and her young protégées—a Jean Brodie for the post-feminist 1980s.

No supernatural elements here—the complexities of female power and powerlessness laid bare and one for the most shocking murder scenes I’ve ever read in any book. I never forgot it.

The endings of these books, when happy (as in, order restored, threat expunged), have the dreamlike, haunting, unreal happiness of the endings of Carrie or the original, masterful Nightmare on Elm Street. Or any fairy tale at all. You can’t have a happy ending after you’ve torn the seam that separates light from dark, the world we live in from the world we know, under our skin.

Next up: My interview with Lois Duncan and our book giveaway.

Highly recommended: Lizzie Skurnick’s essays on Summer and Stranger.



April 13, 2011

Trauma & Recovery (or lack thereof): a list of books that inspired CLAIRE DeWITT

by Sara Gran

One big theme in the Claire DeWitt books, my forthcoming detective series, is trauma and how we recover from it. Although “recover” isn’t the right word. If there’s one thing I’ve learned about trauma, it’s that nothing is “recovered.” Trauma is a destructive process, not a creative one. When bad things or big changes happen, nothing ever “goes back to normal,” and to strive towards that is, in my opinion, to guarantee yourself a big mess. The old “normal” is gone and it’s never coming back. Even if you can rebuild your house, you will no longer be the same person living inside it. Much of Claire DeWitt & the City of the Dead is about how we create that new world, and how we can free ourselves from the stagnation that comes from trying to cling to the past. (But it’s also a page-turning mystery thriller so BUY IT, OK? I promise, it’s not all, like, deep and shit. I hate those books!)

I’ll be posting more about the books that inspired CLAIRE DeWITT as we lead up to the release (June 2–holy shit!). I’ll start with  list of books I’ve found useful, as a writer and a human, about trauma:

When Things Fall Apart; Pema Chodron. You’re probably heard of this book–it’s sold like a million copies, for good reason. Chodron, a Tibetan Buddhist nun, gives very good, practical advice on how to get through a crises. I think her most important teaching here is to stop looking for solid ground. When the world is falling apart around you, literally or metaphorically, our first inclination is to MAKE IT STOP. But in the effort to do so, we can cling to some really dumb stuff in our futile search for something to rely on. We glom onto stupid ideas, join cults, or just hang out with idiots. One of the great Buddhist teachings, in my very humble opinion, is that there is nothing to rely on. The nature of life is change. The good news is, if you come to terms with that, you can be happy anyway! Yay life! Yay Buddha! Thanks!

Persephone’s Return: Tanya Wilkinson. This is one of my favorite books of the past, say,  thousand years. I’ve always been oddly obsessed with the myth of Persephone, the Greek Queen of the Dead, which Wilkinson uses to illustrate how trauma changes us. Before Persephone was Persephone, she was a girl named Kore (which basically means “girl,” from what I gather). Then she was kidnapped by her uncle, presumably raped, and made to spend half of every year as the Queen of the Dead. She went on become an important goddess, but she never got to be Kore again. She was Persephone now. After traumatic experiences, I think that people are fundamentally changed. You never get to go back to being Kore. Persephone knew all kinds of things Kore never could have imagined. You can take that knowledge as shameful and try to pretend you don’t know it and keep calling yourself Kore. Or you can be grateful for the knowledge you’ve learned among the dead, and become Persephone. This is just one of many stories Jungian analyst Wilkinson uses to illustrate different ways trauma can change us. But it doesn’t have to change us for the worse. Nothing makes an event like, say, a terrorist attack, “worthwhile,” but given that these experiences are a normal part of our lives, it behooves us to mine them for gold rather than let them beat us down–and I am not putting down anyone who has let life beat them down or up a little or a lot, only trying to point out that for some us, sometimes, a better way can be possible. As Wilkinson says, victims are not responsible for their own betrayal, but they are responsible for their own recovery.

The Boy Who Was Raised as a Dog; Bruce Perry. Terrible title but a great book by a compassionate psychiatrist specializing in childhood trauma. Although the author talks a lot about biology, hormones, and all that other shit that frequently drives me up the wall (I don’t agree that humans a basically a big bag of chemicals, although dear reader, believe as you choose), he does so from an interesting and useful place–rather than prove that our emotions are determined by our body’s whims, he argues that our emotional experiences can alter our body chemistry, and that understanding this can be useful in helping severely traumatized children (and all of us!) move forward. For example, in a home for naughty teenaged boys (what we used to call a J.D. hall), he gives some of the boys simple, side-effect free blood pressure medication to help them control their overheated fight-or-flight mechanisms. He isn’t limited to biological effluvia, though–he has a lot of insight into how to help children (and adults) who have lived through the unbelievable. Fascinating and wise. I would like to write an appendix to this book about how yoga and other mindfulness practices can affect these same flight-or-fight hormones, which is why I’m such a big fan of Street Yoga. DR. PERRY I AM AVAILABLE TO WRITE YOUR APPENDIX call me.

The Unsayable: Annie Rogers. I’ve spoken often about this book by Lacanian analyst Annie Rogers. Jacques Lacan was a follower of Freud who believed, among other things, that, our subconscious lives in our language. Rogers was herself an abuse survivor who found help through analysis. Her previous book, A Shining Affliction, is also a knockout. What interests me so much about Rogers work is how she always looks for, in her words, “the unsayable;” what isn’t said, what isn’t revealed, what we don’t exactly know–and often it’s these very hidden items that are writing the story of our lives. This book deals specifically with how these currents affect certain traumatized girls she’s worked with; sadly, though, the story isn’t confined to young women, and this book would be equally fascinating for all demographics. (By the way, in this very list you can see the conflict/dynamic between Freud and his two number one sons, Jung and Lacan, which was also a big inspiration for the Claire DeWitt books–more about that in another list!)

Wrong Place, Wrong Time: John A. Rich. I’ve talked before, but maybe not here, about this moving and deeply compassionate book on violence among young inner-city men. Rich, an M.D., takes the time to study and prove something many of have suspected: the greatest source of inner-city violence is the trauma caused by inner-city violence. Trauma=hypervigilence=thinking the world is out to get you=more violence=trauma again. Rich has an enormous respect for the young men he spends time with–he listens to young men in the inner city in a way that I’m sorry to say I just haven’t seen before in a mainstream work of nonfiction. Although the political and sociological causes of this violence are of course also important, I don’t think a political analysis can cut quite to the heart of the problem like a psychological analysis can. I think it’s true about inner-city violence, I think it’s true about most human violence, and I think it’s true about most human problems in general: I don’t believe that our problems will solved by a political or sociological or economic solution. I believe that going forward, our problems will be solved by psychological, spiritual, and emotional solutions. And yes, they can be solved, if you want them to. And you choose not to solve them, we will live in the same idiotic shit of fighting, violence, and stupidity forever. It’s all up to you! More good news!

These are the books I’ve found useful. If anyone has other books on trauma they’ve liked or learned from, please let me know in the comments, I’d like to hear it!

 

April 2, 2011

More thoughts on Peeping Tom: fathers, sons, and the maternal gaze

by Sara Gran

I’m not really interested in exploring gender differences too much–I haven’t found gender to be a useful indicator of anything important about a person, like their honesty, loyalty, integrity, bravery, sense of humor, or the desire to stop the car at yard sales and fruit stands. So I’m going to use as many qualifiers as I’m legally allowed to in the following sentince: I have observed that some men, in many cases, have very different psychological relationships with their parents than some women. Most women I know talk about their parents, especially their mothers, pretty much all the time. We talk and talk and talk about our parents and all the ways they screwed us up and everything they did wrong and everything they did right and how much we love them anyway. Or in some cases, don’t.  And then we get over it and do what we want to do. The men I know almost never talk about their parents, especially their fathers. And when they do, it’s usually in a fairly neutural tone. I can’t think of a time when a straight male friend ever said: “My mother’s scarcity issues have really affected my  ability to manifest,” or “my father praised me for my intelligence but their was always an edge to it,” or “my grandfather beat my mother and so she overcompensated by smothering me.”  There are of course exceptions, but most of my male friends, when they talk about their parents at all, say things like, “My father was a banker,” or “my mother did the best she could,” or “it wasn’t my father’s fault.” I’ve never heard a woman say that.

But these men seem far more haunted by their parents, especially their fathers, than my female friends. Many of my male friends seem to be stuck in a kind of living dialogue with their parents, even long after those parents are gone. It sometimes seems as if their choices in life are determined by a reaction to a specter of these parents, a kind of poltergeist created from the very repression of criticism I’m talking about that knocks around and tells them what to do. And I think this possible-maybe-trend (again, there’s no intent to make a sweeping generalization here) is reflected in Peeping Tom. Mark is haunted by his father’s presence–almost literally, as he lives in his father’s house, has his fathers’ books on the shelves, and watches his father on film. But his father is never quite there. In the filmstrips Mark has of him he’s out of focus (Michael Powell himself played the father, creepily enough) and his voice is given a bit of an echo-y, ghostly, quality.  Helen, Mark’s love interest, lives with her mother (or at least in the room across the hall–I was a little unclear on the specifics) in close quarters: her mother is with her nearly all the time and the two are obviously close. But Helen’s mother doesn’t seem to have much of an influence on her. Mark’s father is long gone, but his influence is, obviously, far more strongly felt. And of course, for either gender, dead parents seem to haunt us more than the living. Maybe it’s harder to talk back to the dead.

Interestingly, Helen’s mother is blind. I don’t think a women would have written it that way. There is a strange way a mother has of looking at a daughter sometimes that can cut to the bone. Many woman friends, in our endless conversations about our parents, have described this to me as a kind of judging stare. It’s when a woman is doing something normal and she looks up and her mother is looking at her with that look and suddenly what she’s doing doesn’t seem normal anymore; it seems like what she’s doing is clumsy and wrong and suddenly she is not real and not solid and empty inside. I’ve only ever seen this mentioned in one book, a strange little Jungian book called Descent to The Goddess, which I still haven’t finished. This is a thing between adult women and their mothers, not children. I’m not a mother and I don’t quite get what this look is all about. I’m not sure it’s as bad as it seems. Maybe it’s more of a projection of daughters than a gaze of mothers. But I don’t think a woman writer or filmmaker would have imagined a blind mother; I think she would have made Helen’s mother sighted, and watching, watching, always watching as Helen and Mark’s courtship progressed. And always, always judging, and never finding Helen just quite exactly right.

By the way, I only watched a few seconds of this TED conference video, but it seems to be a real-life Raising Cain/Peeping Tom. Hasn’t this guy ever watched a DePalma movie?!? (“It wasn’t a box!”)

March 9, 2011

More thoughts on Raising Cain

by Sara Gran
Hand-colored photograph of Carl Jung in USA, p...

Carl Jung

I had an experience a week or so ago that I’ve been thinking about a lot: I was taking to a friend when the friend turned to me, with a particular angry look on his face, and proceeded to say something in a very specific kind of pissed off, sputtering tone. The moment passed, my friend’s annoyance passed, and whatever I’d done to cause it apparently passed as well. It wasn’t at all a big deal. But this moment really stuck with me –and in fact kind of shook me up–because I realized I’d experienced this exact same moment, with a different person, about a year before. And that two years ago, I’d had the exact same moment with another friend. Same facial expression, same tone of voice, although entirely unrelated people talking about unrelated topics.  I think there’s some strange psychology at work here–either I am, subconsciously, pushing people to recreate this moment with me, or I am abnormally attracted to people to are attracted to this moment, or, well, who the hell knows? I think we all have experiences like this, although they’re certainly easier to identify in other people than ourselves: the friend who always goes for the unavailable object of desire, the cousin who spoils every good job opportunity.  We have compulsions to repeat ourselves in ways that we don’t understand and don’t usually like. (When we wrote our V.C. Andrews essay Megan explained to me about some of the Freud behind this, but of course I’ve since forgotten it all, so maybe I can persuade her to do it again.)

As a writer, too, my compulsions have become apparent to me (sometimes painfully so!)–those little moments and plot lines and characters that I keep repeating, without meaning to, in my work. I think everyone who makes art in some way knows the feeling–you get a new idea and you go and you do the new idea and you put all this time and effort into it and the when it’s over you realize wait, this wasn’t a new idea! This was the same idea I’ve had for twenty years in a new outfit! I just rewrote The Bird’s Nest AGAIN!

So I was thinking about how this plays into Raising Cain. One thing everyone noticed in the comments that got me thinking was that both within the movie, and within the context of DePalma’s other movies, there’s obviously an amount of repetition here that seems well past the normal boundaries. And I wonder if in some ways he wasn’t playing with this experience, or intentionally diving into it. And–I was about to say “incidentally,” but now I think maybe this is actually the central thing here–I do suspect that’s how we exorcise these repetitive demons–by diving into them, instead of fighting them.

This reminds me of something I’ve read a number of times, although I have no idea if it’s true: James Joyce’s daughter was schizophrenic, and he took her to see Jung. Joyce said to Jung, hey, you’ll understand her, there’s nothing wrong here–she’s just like us, using this ocean of symbols and images to make sense of her world. And Jung said Well, no, it’s not the same thing, and here’s the difference: you’re diving. Your daughter is falling.

So I wonder if DePalma was falling, and decided, wisely, to turn around and dive.

 

March 7, 2011

Raising Cain: Official Brian De Palma film club meeting!

by Sara Gran
Cover of "Raising Cain"

Cover of Raising Cain

Even after two watchings it’s hard to say for sure what was real and what was dreams in this Hitchcock homage (or deconstruction, for lack of a better work). As in many DePalma movies, time is disjointed and not particularly sticky, both in terms of the action and in terms of cause and effect. Clocks are everywhere here, but they confuse more than clarify; likewise childhood events (and the people who inflicted them, supposedly long gone) are front and center. Janet Maslin might have said it best: “Raising Cain is best watched as a series of overlapping scenarios that may or may not be taking place in the real world.” On the second watching, things were far more clear, but I’m not sure if that’s the point. Like my favorite V.C. Andrews novel, My Sweet Audrina, this isn’t a movie interested in plotting things out on a timeline and straightening them about. It’s about throwing a bunch of ideas, images, and obsessions into a pool and diving in.

There’s a lot in here from my favorite Hitchcocks, and some other favorites as well–Carter (John Lithgow), a child psychologist, has multiple personalities due to childhood abuse (Psycho). But in this case, the abuse was intentional–Carter’s father, the Norwegian Dr. Nix, was a child psychologist (Spellound) at an “institute for child development” (Oh, DePalma and his institutes!). Dr. Nix intentionally tortured his children into developing split personalities. Now Carter lives in the Bay Area (Vertigo), where he’s a stay at home dad in a nice suburban community (Orson Wells’ The Stranger), until–well, until all kinds of stuff happens. Carter’s father, Dr. Nix, who may or may not be dead, needs more children for his experiments, so Carter and his multiples/siblings/aspects go about taking some, which means killing their parents. Meanwhile, Carter’s wife Jenny runs into an old flame, Jack. In a long sequence that drifts in and out of dreams, hallucinations, and reality (Nightmare on Elm Street), Jenny and Jack make love in various places (or don’t), Carter catches them (or seems to), and Carter kills Jenny (or doesn’t).

The attention here is on Carter and his father–but I found myself most interested in two minor characters. The first was Carter’s own daughter, Amy. Carter has a video-camera baby-monitor set-up via which he can watch Amy, and we can watch him watching Amy. Remember, Carter was tortured by his father into developing multiple personalities, and now his father wants Amy to experiment on. Watching Carter and Amy through the video monitor is creepy and terrifying because of what could happen–but nothing really does. Carter, as far as we see him, is a great dad. And in the end, the personality that rises to the top of Carter’s psyche is the mysterious Margo–a Kali-ish kind of mother figure who will (and does) kill to protect children. What exactly did happen to Amy–did Margo and Carter protect her, or did the other personalities have their way with her?

The other character who really entranced me here was Frances Sternhagen as Dr. Lynn Waldheim (Spellbound again), a  doctor who’d worked with Carter’s father. In a beautiful long tracking shot, Dr. Waldheim explains the story of Dr. Nix to two policemen as they walk through a municipal building to the morgue, veering off into wrong turns at every chance.  I can’t say what it was about her, or her character, or the story–but somehow, in some sense, she was the lynchpin that made this all come together.

I also want to say this: for reasons I don’t understand, the near-to-final scene of John Lithgow, in an elevator, wearing a wig, a trenchcoat, and no shoes, holding up a bag of groceries to cover his face, is one of the most disturbing things I’ve ever seen. I don’t know why John Lithgow’s feet are so terrifying but trust me, they are.

February 18, 2011

Brian DePalma Film Club: The Fury

by Sara Gran
Cover of "The Fury"

Cover of The Fury

The Brian DePalma film club officially commences NOW (!!), with a discussion of a strange little gem from the seventies, THE FURY. As per our previous discussion, a lot of DePalma’s best and worst is on display here; the interest in supernatural abilities, the Hitchcockian psychosexual stuff, the fascination with power/powerlessness. Amy Irving (Gillian), surreally beautiful as a teenager with psychic abilities, is psychically linked to Robin, a teenager who also has strong abilities.  Robin is kind-of sort-of kidnapped by a government agency that wants to use his powers for evil. And so Robin’s father (Kirk Douglas)  goes to look for him and et cetera and …well, let’s cut to the chase: DePalma’s strong suit in general, and in this movie in particular, is not a cohesive well-thought out plot. So let’s just say there’s two young, attractive, highly sexual/sexualized psychic teens both preyed on and protected by a cadre of older, not wiser, folks.

A few recurring DePalma interests are exalted here. One is telekinesis. This was made after Carrie, and it feels a bit like–well, I’ll call it a second-course movie. Writers & filmmakers, I think you’ll recognize this feeling: you write a book (or whatever) on, say, mourning doves. And you think you’ve explored mourning doves from every angle, but when you’re done, somehow, you’re still just not done with the doves. You’ve got doves on the mind. So, even though you swore it’s the last thing you would ever do, you write another book about doves. (Does that make sense to anyone but me?) This is not at all a bad thing. Some of our best work is the second course! Regardless, DePalma’s interest in the supernatural seems focused on its use as a tool of power, rather than as a tool of, say spiritual enlightenment.

Another recurring DePalma image on display here is, hmm, let’s call him the Very Very Bad Man. Maybe someone can help me with this, but someone wrote something (that’s the part I need help with!) about David Lynch and noted that in nearly every Lynch film there’s  a man who is completely insane and entirely out-of-control, and derives oodles of power from such. Think of Dennis Hopper in Blue Velvet, or Mr. Eddy in Lost Highway (“I’m sorry about that, Pete, but tailgating is one thing I cannot tolerate”).   DePalma’s films often have a man–the Very Very Bad Man–who could be related to those men, although he is a bit more controlled and takes less of a center stage: John Lithgow in Blow Out, “The Indian” in Body Double. In The Fury the Very Very Bad Man is a skinny, sleazy little character who works for the institute and helps them ensnare the lovely Amy Irving. He only shows up for a few scenes but you can practically smell his evil through the screen. But these two men are related, I think–cousins, if not brothers.

Another recurring theme here is the use of sex as a weapon and a tool of control. In any DePalma movie, is there ever an expression of sexuality that isn’t evil (well, maybe at the end of Body Double)? Robin’s handler at his special institute uses sex to control and confine Robin. But–and this is another DePalma theme–in the end, Robin is pushed too far. His father finally finds him, but the sweet boy his father has worked the whole film to rescue is gone. Robin has become a monster–manipulative in the psychological sense, in that he brattily insists on getting his way, but also literally, as he uses his powers to send people flying around the house.  It’s a big cheesy, corny, predicable–and deeply heartbreaking–finale. The special effects are, by today’s standards, silly and distracting, and Robin himself has become a bit of a cliche. But that’s exactly what’s so heartbreaking–Robin was brought to life so beautifully early in the film, and his relationship with his father was so real and honest, that the tragedy of Robin is exactly that–that he has turned into a cliche, a selfish little brat who cares about no one but himself. And ultimately, I think that’s the point.

Incidentally, there’s a lot of great actors in this film: John Cassavettes as a bad guy (Roger Ebert: “Cassavetes always makes a suitably hateful villain (he plays the bad guys as if they’re distracted by inner thoughts of even worse things they could be doing).”), Denis Franz as an ill-fated cop partnered with, drumrole Bill’s partner from Henderson’s Home Plus from Big Love (A stupendous bit of star-spotting by my boyfriend, by the way!).

All in all, an interesting bridge between seventies DePalma and eighties DePalma. I think next up will be ladies’ choice–and since Megan’s the only lady around here (ba-dum-DUM), that means her!

What did you think? His best or his worst or neither? Share your thoughts below and newcomers, don’t hesitate to jump in!

February 17, 2011

fancy panties and wolves: meet Karolina!

by Megan Abbott

Today, we welcome a special guest, novelist and screenwriter Karolina Waclawiak. I first discovered Karolina through “Safe As Houses: An Ode to Britain’s History in 1:12 Scale,” a fascinating piece she wrote for The Believer, where she serves as assistant editor.

The essay tells the story of the elaborate special dollhouse created by famed architect the famous architect Sir Edwin Lutyens for Queen Mary in the 1920s. The greatest craftsmen and artists of the day participated in the effort, contributing everything from a working lift and a 1923 Silver Ghost limousine to a fully stocked wine cellar complete with 1,200 thimblefuls of champagnes.

Best of all, the house includes a 171-volume library of rarely-seen, original short works written exclusively for the dollhouse by world- famous writers, from Arthur Conan Doyle to Thomas Hardy (Virginia Woolf declined to participate). The piece was haunting, lovely, like peering through the glowing windows of the dollhouse itself.  And we’re lucky enough to have Karolina herself here today….

When Sara and I started the blog, we conjured the idea of having guests, when they arrive, answer a questionnaire, and Karolina kindly complied:

  1. what is your greatest fear? Wasting time.
  2. what is your favorite way of spending time? Being outside and taking everything in. I like to observe locations and I use that in my writing. I’m a very visual person and writer.
  3. what is your most treasured possession? My lime tree and blood orange tree. I live in Brooklyn now after a long stint in Los Angeles so it’s necessary for me to be able to have some memory of it in my house at all times.
  4. when and where were you happiest? Yikes. I’ll let you know when it happens.
  5. what is your greatest indulgence? Fancy panties
  6. where would you like to live? Somewhere where the temperature never dips below 65 degrees and never hits above 75 degrees. Let me know if you’ve heard of such a place and I’ll be there tomorrow.
  7. what is the quality you are most drawn to a person? Curiosity.
  8. how would you like to die? I’m not sure exactly but it should warrant a Dateline episode.
  9. what is your secret superstition? I’m afraid of cats crossing my path. My Polish father taught me to make a scissor cutting motion after one does and spit three times. I’ve done it in front of many people so I’m not sure how secret it is.
  10. what was the best dream and worst nightmare you ever had? I used to have two recurring dreams as kid. One was awesome. One was terrible. The awesome one was based on the movie Fortress. I frequently have dreams based on movies I’ve seen. Anyway, it involved me swimming in caves. I know it’s supposed to be “best dream” and it’s from a movie about a kidnapping but trust me, constantly revisiting cave pools is pretty awesome. Worst, same dream era – I’d say age 12 – I’m wandering through a burning city where packs of wolves were being deployed to find all the children and kill them. I was alone in the city and trying to find my way out, everything was grey or on fire. Somehow I would always stumble out the other side of this place and onto my neighborhood street where it was fall and all the bright foliage was so beautiful and formed perfect lollipops of colors but they always started melting. It was the basis for the first short story I ever wrote and after I wrote it I never had the dream again. I would like to know what they both mean.
  11. what song do you most hear in your head? Upside Down by Diana Ross
  12. what do you read/watch/listen to when you are feeling badly? Oh man, Morrissey for sure. And the Magnetic Fields. I like to wallow.
  13. what do you consider to be the greatest elixir/restorative? Walking. Being in nature. Sun on your face. Everything my mother always says works. It works. Oh and sex, but she told me that too.
  14. what’s something you never told anyone? I live in an unhealthy haze of nostalgia.

Follow Karolina at @believekarolina on Twitter.