Archive for ‘Jung’

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 17, 2011

the deep bottom drawer: an interview with lois duncan

by Megan Abbott

I’m just beginning to realize the flickering presence Lois Duncan’s books still play in my imagination, decades after discovering them.

Most of my reading life, age nine to twelve especially, seemed to be in search of books that somehow conveyed for me, as movies did, a world as dark and tangled and mysterious as the one I glimpsed in my fevered girl head. These were books of shadows, books where the every day—banging school lockers, fights with siblings, sprawling out on the carpet and watching TV—could, at any moment, give way to darkness, beauty, terror, a Grimm’s fairy tale of precipice-peering and descent. The same things I found, and clung to, in true crime and noir.

It was not until a few years ago that I discovered her non-fiction recounting of her daughter’s (still officially unsolved) murder and its aftermath, Who Killed My Daughter?, which is wrenching, unforgettable book. It’s hard to talk about such a personal book, written by a grieving mother, in objective terms, but, to try, it’s also a fascinating book as Duncan undertakes her own investigations, both traditional and untraditional, including working with a psychic.

Now, with the reissuing and updating of ten of Duncan’s YA books, including my favorites, I was fortunate enough to interview the author herself last week. On a personal level, there’s something deeply satisfying and more than a little uncanny about it because, as with so many interviews, I came to feel I was revealing (or at least realizing) as much about myself (maybe more) as the author herself was. Most of all, though, I came away feeling deeply inspired by her path as a female author with such a long career in a famously punishing business. The author of 50 books, she has endured countless “revolutions” in publishing and never let any of it stop her from creating, from experimenting, from, well, telling the stories she wanted to tell.

Speaking via a series of emails, we began by talking about the new editions. She told me how exciting it was for her to update the new editions, adding, “I’ve been astonished to realize how well the characters and plots have transcended the years. All I really had to do was tweak the stories in order to change hair styles and dress and give my protagonists access to the technical toys of today—cell phones, computers, digital cameras, etc. That gave me a sense of power. It was like rebirthing my children and being able to provide them with wings.”

The interview followed:

Megan: I am a tremendous fan, and have been since I first found your books in the early 1980s, as a young girl in suburban Michigan. It’s a big thrill to see these reissues and to get to revisit these wonderful books and also, somehow, the 10-year-old me who so savored them.

One of the things that strike me now, re-reading them, is how they managed to mingle the everyday (family chores, pesky siblings) and identifiable with the strange, the paranormal, darkness itself. I think it can speak to young girls’ sense that they want to be invited into a book (e.g., a heroine they feel is like them), but they also want to visit murky places. Explore, uncover the unknown. Was that “mix” one of your aims when you wrote them? How could you be sure the darker themes would be speak to readers?

Lois Duncan: I wasn’t sure. And, at first, my editors weren’t either. A Gift of Magic (my first novel that involved ESP) was rejected seven times before Little, Brown daringly published it. The other publishers were certain that young readers would not be interested. I get great satisfaction from the fact that the book, originally published in 1971, has never gone out of print and becomes more and more popular.

As far as my style goes—I think the fact that the books involve “normal” kids in “normal” life situations creates a realistic format that the average reader easily relates to. As paranormal events begin to occur, the viewpoint character finds them just as bewildering as the reader. Then, as that character begins to accept them, the reader does so also, because he or she is following the same thought process.

Megan: That makes so much sense, and explains the uncanny quality—everything feels so familiar except something is off, something is just slightly askew, and the heroine must push further, pursue. Her pursuit mirrors ours.

I’ve been thinking a lot about how powerful “doubling” appears in your books, especially Summer of Fear and Stranger With My Face. Reading them now it feels like the double almost serves as this valve or outlet for the heroine. She does some of the things the heroine would be afraid to do (and feels things—like anger—that the heroines may not feel comfortable expressing). These doubles get what they want, or nearly do. In Stranger, Laurie, ironically, starts to make positive changes in her life (dumping her spoiled boyfriend and his mean clique) after the dangerous double enters her life—as if the double empowers her in some strange way.

Do you think teen readers (or teen girl readers) might especially respond to this idea of a double, someone like us but not quite?

LD: This reminds me of when I was in my 40s and teaching magazine writing for the Journalism Department at the University of New Mexico. I was hired on a fluke. The professor who was scheduled to teach the course became ill, so the chair of the department, my personal friend Tony Hillerman, asked me to fill in for a semester. Tony knew I’d never been to college and didn’t care; he just knew I’d written successfully for magazines for years. The original professor never returned, and someone else replaced Tony as Chair and automatically kept me on. I discovered I loved teaching writing and started to get worried that my deep dark secret, (no college!) might be discovered, so I began taking courses under my married name, Lois Arquette, hoping I could get a degree before someone “outed” me. In the course of that endeavor, I took a juvenile literature class where they were studying “Lois Duncan books.” My fellow students were excitedly writing A-plus papers about how many of my books were based on Greek myths. I had never even read those myths!

Often the reader finds in a book what that reader is looking for, which may not be at all what the author meant to put there. The author-reader relationship is a two-way street. The receiver who interprets the story is as important as the person who created it.

Megan: I think you’re so right about the reader-writer relationship. I think one of the gifts of your books is the way readers keep finding the things they need in them. And that your books deal with so many primal, eternal themes—especially ones that speak to young people, like identify confusion. And I also think that’s why the reissues make so much sense. Your books don’t seem “trapped in amber” at all. As you say, it was mostly the “accessories” that needed updating. I wonder if some books from the 70s and even the 80s might require more “corrections” in terms of the strength of the female characters. You really give so many of your female characters a great deal of power, to take action, to drive action. To save themselves, in many cases, even if part of that means finding the right person to join their efforts. Was that important to you, as a woman? A mother? Or did it just come naturally?

LD: It came naturally. I came from a family of strong women.

Megan: What did you enjoy reading as a young woman? And did that influence you and/or your writing?

LD: I read (and wrote) a lot of poetry. I loved books about magic—The Wizard of Oz, The Chronicles of Narnia, etc. Animal stories like Black Beauty and My Friend Flicka. And the family-oriented series books that were so popular back then—the Louisa May Alcott books, the Little Colonel series, etc. Actually, I read everything I could get my hands on.

But, remember, I didn’t have much choice about what I read. That was an era before YA literature existed and readers leapt directly from children’s books to adult novels.

When I started writing teenage novels I followed that
same pattern. My first book, Debutante Hill, was published in 1957 and the editor made me revise it because I had a young man of 19 (the “bad boy” in the story) drink a beer. I continued writing gentle, sticky-sweet romances until I got sick of them and decided to try writing the kind of books I wished I’d had access to when I was in junior high and high school— books that were exciting, suspenseful, and kept readers on the edges of their chairs.

My break-through book was Ransom, (Doubleday, 1966). It was about five teenagers who were kidnapped by their school bus driver, and one of them actually got shot. That book is still in print and selling well today!

Megan: Ah, so you wrote the books you wished you had been able to read, and we’re all the luckier for it!

In terms of that pre-YA era, do you think that the publishers (or parents) at that time simply didn’t want to believe interests of young readers might be more complex, reflect more curiosity about the unknown? Or was it merely a lack of awareness of the market?

Given how dark and mysterious even fairy tales beloved by children are I often marvel at the notion that young adults might want only want sweet romances or adventure tales.

LD: I have no idea. I understand the craft of writing, because it’s who and what I am. The commercial world of publishing, both in the past and today, is an ongoing mystery to me. Fads are constantly changing.

When I wrote my YA ghost story, Down a Dark Hall, in 1974, it was returned to me for revisions because the victims were female and the ghosts were male, and my publisher thought feminists would object to that. When I changed the ghost of poet Alan Seeger to Emily Bronte, all was well.

Killing Mr. Griffin has been banned in certain places because of complaints from parents who (not having read the book, just going by the title) thought it would cause children to kill their teachers. Yet those are often the same parents who encourage their children to read the Bible without the slightest concern that the story of Cain and Abel might encourage them to kill their siblings.

I’ve had rejected manuscripts, yellowing in the bottom drawer of my desk for years, which I’ve then brought out, resubmitted to the very same publishers, and had snatched up, because they fell into a currently popular niche in the market that hadn’t existed when I previously submitted them.

Megan: It’s that instinctual quality that so comes through in the books, which feel organic rather than targeted, “packaged.” I actually read very few YA books as a young girl. So many seemed only interested in issues like popularity, cliques, a particular view of young love. But yours were so different—-mysterious, haunting, murky, exciting, so much more my experience of adolescence.

And they also seemed to present female relationships that were so much more complex than the usual rivalries-over-boys, homecoming queen tales.

My favorite was Daughters of Eve, which I read so many times it became dog-eared. I’d never read anything like it. The charismatic teacher and her protégées. (I now think it’s probably played a role in the book I’m finishing now, all these years later, which is about a cheerleading coach and her squad!).

What inspired you to write that book?

LD: I was inspired to write it because I wanted to write something different from anything I’d done before. The idea I got was that I would have a fanatical, charismatic adult exerting influence upon vulnerable kids who looked up to and respected that adult. I wanted it to be in a setting where other adults such as parents wouldn’t be aware of what was happening. My first idea was to have it a church youth group with the adult a charismatic male Sunday school teacher. I actually wrote five chapters and then it struck me that if Killing Mr. Griffin was being challenged by parents who thought it would make their kids violent, those same parents would claim this new book’s purpose was to keep their children from going to church. So I started over and used the same theme but steered clear of religion.

Ironically, when it was released in 1979 it was challenged by feminists who thought it was anti-feminist and by anti-feminists who thought it was feminist. I was trying to walk a nice gray line but people who feel strongly about a subject don’t want a gray line. They want it to be all black or all white.

Megan: It seems like so much of your career you’ve had to defend your writerly choices, both within publishing and without. Or perhaps “defend” is not the right word. It seems as though you had to confront many doubts that what you were writing would speak to readers, despite all evidence of the contrary. Something in your work unsettles, provokes, stirs—and I think it’s that power that also speaks to readers across generations.

I wonder if, given some of these obstacles you had to overcome in terms of publishing the books you wanted to write, if you faced any such resistance when you wrote Who Killed My Daughter?, your book about your search for the truth about your daughter’s murder. It is such a moving, powerful, painful book.

LD: My books are not nearly as controversial as many, and you can’t please everybody. A writer has to develop a hide like a rhino. If we allow ourselves to get upset every time a book is challenged we’d all be basket cases.

Mostly I’ve just written books that I wanted to write, and if publishers wanted them, great, and if they didn’t, the manuscripts went into that “deep bottom drawer,” to be pulled out, perhaps re-polished, and resubmitted at another date.

Who Killed My Daughter? was accepted by Delacorte within four days. My (then) agent was stunned, because she’d told me the book would never sell because it had no ending. I knew differently—that book was destined to be published. I also knew that I hadn’t written it myself; what I did was channeling. I sat down at the computer, placed my fingers on the keys, and “took dictation” from some ethereal source that wanted Kait’s story to be told. It’s the one book I’ve ever written in which I never altered a word. Even my editors couldn’t find a thing they wanted changed. It fell onto the pages exactly as it was supposed to.

Megan: I think that rhino’s hide is part of what I’m talking about—it feels like it comes from your internal sense that what you were interested in, the stories and characters that engaged you, would engage others.

That feeling is so strong in Who Killed My Daughter? It makes sense to me that it was a “channeling” for you, because one of its powers (its urgency, its intensity) is the feeling the reader has that it came from some deep internal (unconscious?) feeling or instinct that there was no other way to tell the story. It had to be like this.

I read on your website that you are writing a sequel now. If so, is the process different? How so?

LD: Very different. The first book was written with my heart, the sequel with my brain. The sequel will be a step by step account of our family’s personal search for Kait’s killers after the police washed their hands of the case.

Megan: I imagine you are still hearing from those affected by the original book.

LD: Constantly. In fact, we’ve heard from so many other families in similar situations that my husband and I created and maintain the Real Crimes website to help keep those other cases from becoming buried. I interview the victims’ families and help them word their stories, and Don links the documentation, (crime scene photos, autopsy reports, excerpts from police reports, etc.) That page has become a valued resource for investigative reporters and true crime shows. We do this pro bono as a way to give Kait’s short life meaning.

Megan: The responses I’ve seen to your book and to the website from families in similar situations, must feel so gratifying—though I’m sure unbearably frustrating too, to see other families suffering the same way and trying to keep investigations going.

LD: It’s heartbreaking. But don’t get me started on a diatribe about the flaws in the Great American Justice System.

Megan: Yes, it’s true. The response to your book shows the power of writing, to be sure.

So, last question, and the one writers sometimes hate to answer. Among your novels, which is your favorite and why?

 LD: Over the years I’ve written 50 books, which include among other things adult fiction and non-fiction, poetry, text for pre-school picture books, humorous books for elementary age children (Hotel for Dogs, News for Dogs and Movie for Dogs in particular), lyrics for a book/CD of original lullabies, and a couple of biographies. Choosing my favorites among so many “apples and onions” would be impossible.

But if we limit it to YA suspense novels, I think it would probably be Stranger With My Face. I find the subject of astral projection fascinating, and I think that novel is also one of my best written.


Megan: Well, I just want to say you’ve fulfilled a big girlhood dream of mine, this opportunity to speak with you. Your books meant so much to me, and revisiting them has been a gift. I can’t thank you enough.

LD: Thank you, Megan. This interview has been fun for me. You’ve asked some in-depth questions that caused me to really have to think.

Visit Lois Duncan’s website or follow her on Twitter.

Excerpts from “A Visit with Lois Duncan,” a 35 minute DVD, created specifically for classroom use, can be viewed here

Click here for The Shadow Knows: An Appreciation of Lois Duncan.

 



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 4, 2011

dream (il)logic

by Megan Abbott

Now and again, I go through phases—frequently as a result of poor (yet legitimately pharmaceutical) choices—of bad dreams.

I am in the middle of such a phase (including an especially terrifying one involving angry squirrels). And it’s a real drag right now because I’m revisiting one of my favorite true crime books, the highly contested Black Dahlia Avenger by Steve Hodel. A retired LA cop, Hodel  devotes hundreds of pages to proving that his father, George Hodel, is not only the killer of Elizabeth Short, AKA “The Black Dahlia,” but possibly scores of other women in Los Angeles in the 1940s (and earlier, and later).

I have conversations with folks about this book at least every few weeks. It seems there are many of us who are haunted by its particular blend of truthiness, utter throw-the-book-across-the-room implausibility and the humming ring of real, and deeply haunting, truth.

Going back to bad dreams, though—well, this book gives me very bad dreams. It’s a disturbing, exotic and strange world George Hodel lived in—doctor, lothario, friend to surrealists, decadent. And Steve Hodel renders it well.  (Do read Craig McDonald‘s wonderful Toros and Torsos novel and the book Exquisite Corpse: Surrealism and the Black Dahlia Murder for more on this world.)

The point is, I cannot possibly read this book before I go to sleep.  Instead, I am watching Larry Sanders, or reading The Believer’s first-rate film issue (more on that in the days to come). But it reminds of conversations Sara and I have had about the possibility of “directing” our own dreams (and about lucid dreaming). Can one “will” bad dreams away—or more pointedly set the stage for good ones?

This is all a long (sleepless) way of saying, speaking of surrealism, I got a postcard in the mail from my dad:

The caption is “Gadget Dance, 1936,”  and it’s Depression-era timestamp is significant. But the main thing is, I smiled very widely when I got it, and have placed it above my computer.

This picture, like so many of those Busby Berkeley musical numbers from the 30s, are sometimes what we think of when we think of dreamscapes. So my goal tonight, is to dream my way into this.

Personally, I want to be the washing machine girl in the back, with the balloon bubbles. (Who can tell me what the girl behind the oven and next to the radio is supposed to be? Jack, I’m asking you!).

February 20, 2011

playing cards

by Sara Gran
Reversible tarot card

Image by Wm Jas via Flickr

I’ve been thinking a lot about cards this week. Cards occupy this weird liminal (I know I use that word too much) position that I love. Playing cards care used for gambling, but also for stage magic–which when you think about it isn’t really a given, although it’s so common as to seem so. Why cards, for either or both? Is it coincidence, or do cards contain a natural trickster-ish element that makes this inevitable? Gambling and legerdemain (possibly my favorite word) are combined in card cheats and in three card monte, which always seemed a little magic to me.  When I was a kid I would watch the three card monte dealers on Broadway, hypnotized into trying to find “the lady” (I remember them hiding a red Queen and calling it “the lady”). Their slight of hand skills were amazing–most of them cheated, but I think some of them didn’t need to. They just couldn’t be beat. Even if they were “cheating,” what a skill! Gifted men, dealt a bad hand in life.

People also tell fortunes with playing cards: I don’t know how to do that, but I do read tarot cards. Even if you don’t believe in any metaphysical ability of the cards, they’re useful as little Rorschach ink-blots to bounce your subconscious off of.  Or you could think of them as little paper dolls that you can use to tell yourself a story and see what happens. I bet you’ll be surprised. And I bet you won’t doubt their metaphysical ability for long.

There’s also business cards, those little bits that seem like a piece of themselves someone left behind, and in the old days people had calling cards, which they would leave so you’d know they’d been there. When you read old novels it’s easy to get confused by the elaborate rituals of dropping off calling cards here and there and the heavy significance of each one. In a magic spell, you can sometimes use someone’s business card as a substitute for the person themselves, and do to the card (the microcosm) what you’d like done to its owner (the macrocosm). There’s also credit cards and ATM cards and ID cards, each of which has magical properties of its own–credit and ATM cards can be turned into money and ID cards can tell a story (Illinois, 25 years old, blue eyes…). Credit cards can also tell a story, which is why American Express cards come in green, gold, and the coveted black.

Not only do cards themselves seem to hold a trickster-ish position but in playing cards, the trickster is built-in in the form of jokers. Jokers can be assigned a variable meaning or left “wild,” i.e. undefined, unformed, chaotic, pure potential. There isn’t much that’s left wild these days, so if you get a wild card, in cards or in life, appreciate it. These days were taught to fear the unknown–the wild–but remember: that’s where all the best stuff comes from. Including us.

A cautionary tale comes from what used to be my favorite short story, Pushkin’s Queen of Spades, although I haven’t reread it in years. I do remember though, that the story agrees with me: cards are strange little things.  Read it yourself, play some cards, and see what happens.

January 31, 2011

Appendix A

by Sara Gran
Screenshot of Steve McQueen from the trailer f...

Image via Wikipedia

Funny little addendum to yesterday’s post: yesterday afternoon my boyfriend and I went to the last matinee of the Film Noir Festival in SF. After the movies, we stopped and got a bite to eat, which we didn’t finish, so we wrapped the leftovers up to take home. We go to the car, get in the car, start driving, turn a corner, and something comes flying off the car. Me: “What was that?” Boyfriend: “I don’t know.” Me: “Did you leave our food on top of the car?” Boyfriend: “No. Oh, wait…”

So boyfriend makes a u-turn, swings back around to the corner, and then, without fully stopping the car, opens the driver door, reaches out, and snatches the bag of leftovers (which were not in such edible shape, but I don’t like to litter). Which of course is another of those strange recurring movie images, although one that’s less common lately–the hero-driver swoops in and picks up his package without stopping the car. I’d never had that happen in real life before!

You’ll be happy to know, though, that the flan was saved.

Tags: , ,
January 18, 2011

Shadows

by Sara Gran

I have become obsessed with Robert Bly‘s A Little Book on The Human Shadow. Bly describes the Shadow as those parts of ourselves, dissaproved and unloved by our parents, peers, society and self, that we’ve stuck into a great big bag and tried to forget about. So you might put, say, your anger, or your kindness into the bag–two qualities that many interepert as “weaknesses.” You think they’re gone, but they’re not gone. They’re in this big bag of crap you’re dragging around with you everywhere! And when the things in your bag, which are after all living things, start to poke and prod at you, you’re likely to project that experience outward, and think it’s that guy over there who’s poking you. Bly suggests that because a lot of us have put qualities we associate with the “other” gender in that bag, our projections might likewise land on that “other” gender. So a man might “project his witch” onto the women in his life, or a woman might project what Bly calls her “giant.” So you think this other person is out to get you,

because you know SOMETHING’S poking you all the time, but it’s not the other person at all–it’s your own witch, trying to tell you hey, buddy, you’re been ignoring me since you were five but I’m still here, and I never stopped growing! We have things to do together and you’re ruining it!

One way to find your shadow is to find the things that irrationally piss you off in other people. The key is the emotional charge, and the degree to which you’re willing to admit complexity. That person who is so awful maybe isn’t. Maybe that’s your Shadow.

“A human being who has. . .absorbed the shadow gives the sense of being condensed,” Bly writes. He says that people who have absorbed their shadow have a thick, viscous quality. People who are fighting the shadow might therefore be scattered, fragmented, brittle.

Earlier he says, “If we have given away thirty parts of our self, we will then eventually feel ourselves diminished in thirty different ways.”

January 4, 2011

bird on a wire

by Megan Abbott

On Christmas Eve, I saw Black Swan, which I thought was pretty extraordinary, and I’m still working it all through in my head. Stylistically, it’s sort of an unholy union of unholies: Roman Polanski, Dario Argento and the brightest work of Brian De Palma (Sisters, Carrie)–which may sound like a  nightmare to some, but for me is kind of the Big Dream.

I’ve heard some dismiss the movie as “over the top,” which is a criticism I’ve never really understood. If I didn’t seek out heightened realities in movies, I wouldn’t be going to many (and I love movies). Moreover, I think “over the top” or histrionic or all those criticisms are frequently code for something else–and might have to do with a certain discomfort in movies about women, about women’s bodies (in ways that aren’t situating them solely for ornamental display), about what used to be called “female hysteria” (or just “hysteria,” since the word itself derives from “womb”).

(It’s interesting to set it alongside director Darren Aronofsky’s last film, The Wrestler, in this regard–an explicitly kitchen-sink-realistic rendering of the male body facing self-imposed abuses for the sake of a different kind of performance.)

It’s an expressionistic movie, which is one of my favorite kinds. Before I saw it, my friend Reed told me that he thought many of the film’s naysayers were making the mistake of judging it as a film about dance or as some realistic depiction of the ballet life and finding it lacking. But the movie has no interest in realism, or objective realities. The world of the movie is the world of someone’s head, not someone’s life.

There’s so much to swim in in the movie:  split selves … driving, mutilating perfectionism … an arrested sexuality. But Black Swan is also, and perhaps mostly, a movie about an artist, and I think it might be kinda revelatory about that. In A.O. Scott’s piece in the Times, he refers to it–by way of praise–as an “overheated, wildly melodramatic rendering of an artist’s struggle.” How do I create this (e.g., this performance, this painting, this book)? I can only do so by becoming it. It’s a process of brutal self-annhilation and transformation. It requires, depending on how you look at it, utter self-erasure (“I’m no longer me, I am IT.”) or complete self-absorption (no movie in recently memory has so stunningly depicted the egotism of the artist–there is no world in the movie but in the dancer’s head. It’s the only thing that matters.).

And so it’s also about aesthetic risk. Natalie Portman’s emotionally fractured dancer pushes her body beyond physical limits to make it correlate with the beautiful chaos in her head. She feels herself as the “black swan” and wills herself to become it, to manifest it. The flesh resists but finally submits. And it is, as Scott writes, a kind of “liberation in self-destruction.” And the movie takes those same aesthetic risks, walking a tightrope between art and kitsch, between psychological complexity and camp. But if it didn’t risk the fall, it would lose all its incantational magic.

This is, admittedly, dark stuff. It makes us squirm under our skin. And makes us maybe even want to make fun of it, that nervous giggle we get when we see something very internal, secret, private laid bare out there. But Black Swan also warns us sneakily of the dangers of that, of repression, restriction, compulsion. You hold them down, they come back bigger, badder. The movie asks us to, even at great risk, release ourselves.

January 2, 2011

The Dark Woods

by Sara Gran

I love this bit from the Bill Moyers/Joseph Campbell talks. Anyone who hasn’t seen the POWER OF MYTH interviews–I think you can watch them gratis on Netflix, or at least rent them–needs to watch this today, or your life will continue to make no sense and confound you at every turn.

MOYERS: But aren’t many visionaries and even leaders and heroes close to the edge of neuroticism?

CAMPBELL: Yes, they are.

MOYERS: How do you explain that?

CAMPBELL: They’ve moved out of the society that would have protected them, and into the dark forest, into the world of fire, of original experience. Original experience has not been interpreted for you, and so you’ve got to work out your life for yourself. Either you can take it or you can’t. You don’t have to go far off the interpreted path to find yourself in very difficult situations. The courage to face the trials and to bring a whole new body of possibilities into the field of interpreted experience for other people to experience – that is the hero’s deed.

(picture by me of Armstrong woods.)