May 18, 2008

Weekly Geeks #4 and Trish's Classics Meme

The fourth Weekly Geeks is up, and here's what Dewey says:
"Choose a political or social issue that matters to you. Find several books addressing that issue; they don’t have to books you’ve read, just books you might like to read. Using images (of the book covers or whatever you feel illustrates your topic) present these books in your blog."
It took some thinking for me to decide what to write about. I considered environmental issues, particularly endangered species (partially because I'm reading a book on that topic at the moment), but Debi already covered that perfectly. And pussreboots did a great job posting about gay and lesbian rights.I considered picking other kinds of discrimination, but then something else crossed my mind. It's a delicate issue, but I didn't want that to stop me from writing about it. So here we go.

I'm concerned with the way "normality" is being defined in increasingly narrow ways. I really don't want to sound like a radical (or even worse, a scientologist) who'd deny support to those who genuinely need it. But I think that there's too much pressure for people to be "well-adjusted", and too many things whose causes are social being blamed on individuals. I worry about lively and curious children and teenagers being labelled "hyperactive" and medicated. I worry about people living in societies that privilege individualism and lifestyles that result in isolation being told that there's something wrong with them when they feel lonely or sad, and then being fed antidepressants. I worry about the pathologization of grief, sorrow, loss, enthusiasm, joy, the natural confusion of both growing up and being grown up.

But enough blabbing, and on with the books. I picked two books I'm interested in reading and two books that I've read.

The first is The Loss of Sadness by Allan V. Horwitz and Jerome C. Wakefield. I was hesitant about this one at first, because there's a fine line between refusing to pathologize things excessively and neglecting to help people in need, but that Amazon says makes the book sound quite balanced and very very interesting:

"In The Loss of Sadness, Allan V. Horwitz and Jerome C. Wakefield argue that, while depressive disorder certainly exists and can be a devastating condition warranting medical attention, the apparent epidemic in fact reflects the way the psychiatric profession has understood and reclassified normal human sadness as largely an abnormal experience. With the 1980 publication of the landmark third edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-III), mental health professionals began diagnosing depression based on symptoms--such as depressed mood, loss of appetite, and fatigue--that lasted for at least two weeks. This system is fundamentally flawed, the authors maintain, because it fails to take into account the context in which the symptoms occur. They stress the importance of distinguishing between abnormal reactions due to internal dysfunction and normal sadness brought on by external circumstances. Under the current DSM classification system, however, this distinction is impossible to make, so the expected emotional distress caused by upsetting events-for example, the loss of a job or the end of a relationship-could lead to a mistaken diagnosis of depressive disorder. Indeed, it is this very mistake that lies at the root of the presumed epidemic of major depression in our midst."

This pretty much sums up what I was trying to say.

Next: Girl, Interrupted by Susanna Kaysen. I remember watching the movie and being very impressed with it, but that was many, many years ago. I've been curious about the book for quite some time, though, and again I like the sound of what Amazon says: "Kaysen's account goes further and questions the standard notions of sanity and insanity. Her plausible voice allows the reader to accept a world where time is distorted, chaos reigns and questions are left unanswered, capturing perfectly the sense of helplessness and frustration felt by these women. (…) Girl, Interrupted is a credible and creditable chronicle of the lives of women in the 1960s who, through the ignorance and narrow-mindedness of society, were contained and monitored for not fitting into the "norm", the mainstream. "

Now a book I've read: One of the many things Eden Robinson's superb novel Monkey Beach is about is how Lisa Marie, the protagonist, is taken to a psychiatrist and diagnosed with mental illness. Lisa Marie is a member of the Haisla tribe of British Columbia, and growing up, she was very close to her grandmother, who instructed her in the traditional Haisla ways. These include belief in omens, ghosts and the spirit world. Lisa Marie's parents, more attuned with mainstream culture, worry that the fact that she shares these beliefs is a sign of mental illness. I personally don't believe in ghosts or spirits or omens, but I think that there's something very, very wrong when these beliefs, which have been a fundamental part of several cultures for as long as there have been human cultures, are taken as a symptom of mental illness. This is a good example of the possible tragic consequences of both excessive pathologization and cultural insensitivity. As you can imagine, being told she's crazy doesn't make Lisa Marie's life any easier.

And last but not least, Life After God by Douglas Coupland. No, I am not including this book just because it's one of my favourite books ever. It has to do with the topic in an indirect but extremely important way. Life After God is the most powerful and touching description of the weight of loneliness I have ever read.

Just one more thing: I know that this is about books, but I have to say that some of the best examples of stories about this topic I've ever seen were movies, namely Garden State and Thumbsucker. And Thumbsucker is based on a novel, so in a way it counts.

And now it's time for Trish's Classics Meme:

1. My favorite classic is:
The Adventures of Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain, Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll, To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee, Breakfast at Tiffany's by Truman Capote, The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger and On the Road by Jack Kerouac (these are modern classics, I know, but I think they count).

2. The classic I had the toughest time finishing is: Dubliners by James Joyce. I tried. I really did. I can appreciate his writing, but he just leaves me indifferent. Also, I had trouble with Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë (sorry Trish!). I was 14, though, and that might account for it.

3. I would someone who doesn't read a lot of classics or who doesn't generally like classics because: 1984 by George Orwell. I am sure that there are people who don't like this book, but I have a hard time imagining how or why. The reason why I'd recommend it: it's not only gripping but it remains very relevant.

4. To me, a classic book is a book that: A lot of people have said "stands the test of time", and that was also the first thing to cross my mind. But then I started thinking that there are many, many reasons why some books stand the test of time while others are forgotten that have absolutely nothing to do with literary value. Sometimes it's just that they were declared canonic by the right people at the right time. Another thing that crossed my mind was this: a classic is a book that still feels relevant, that deals with themes we can still identify with no matter how many centuries later. But the thing is, that is probably true of most books. Yes, the circumstances change, but basic human concerns remain more stable than we like to admit. So the short answer is: I don't know.

5. The type of relationship I have with classics is: curiosity. I don't feel that I have to read them, much less that I have to like them, but I am curious about them, and I do want to read them to see if I can come up with a better answer to #4. Why these books? Why not others?


  1. Amazing post, Nymeth!! I have no idea what I am going to do for the challenge, but I love yours. I saw Girl, Interrupted too, and thoroughly enjoyed it, a few years ago. It gave me a lot to think about, in terms of 'fitting in', and how we (or society) wants people to be normal, because we don't know what to do with abnormality. Like the book with the Haida girl, sometimes it is cultural, also. and then the pressure from the other side, how do we fit in when we don't feel normal? Now you've got me thinking!! Thanks for the post, Nymeth. It really is a good one.

  2. This was a very enjoyable post, Nymeth. I agree wholeheartedly with your thoughts on normalcy and sadness. I hadn't heard of The Loss of Sadness, but would now like to read it.

  3. What a brilliant topic!

    You've made me want to go and read Girl, Interrupted.

  4. I love your thoughts on this topic so much Nymeth! I was thinking of doing my Weekly Geeks post on children's mental health and you've hit some of the points that have come up with me over the years. One of the things that have always bothered me is that kids are given medication so easily...I remember interning at the psychiatric hospital (that I'm going to work at!) and the doctors would put almost every child on medication when it was obvious to me that sometimes they were just sad and had every right to be because of their horrible home situation. No one bothers to look at where some of these children are coming from and what they have to face at automatically becomes something abnormal with the child that needs to be treated. Thanks for the links to the books...I'll definitely be checking some of those out! Oh...and I love Garden State and Thumbsucker by the way...they really are great examples of people just experiencing emotions yet being passed off as abnormal.

  5. An excellent choice of subject (and another one near and dear to my heart). Here are a two more recommendations for books on topic:

    "The Snake Pit" by Mary Jane Ward; it's an older one and out of print but worth the effort of tracking it down. (It was also made into an excellent movie)

    "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" by Ken Kessey (another book and film combo)

  6. I'm thinking that one of your favorite books, Middlesex, also fits into your category! Calliope really struggled with what was "normal" and the constraints of that definition. Great topic!

    Wuthering Heights was not an easy read for me (at least not the first OR second time around), but it got me thinking about literature in different ways and allowed me to appreciate it in different ways. That tends to happen when I have to do a lot of research and critical thinking about a book--I tend to attach myself to books that I probably wounldn't have normally (Mrs. Dalloway also comes to mind).

    I love your short answer "I don't know" I also read classics out of curiousity--trying to figure out what makes a book a classic. I think a lot of times it is canonical if nothing else. Thanks for playing. :)

  7. Brilliant topic, indeed! And what a host of good-looking books. Thanks for opening my eyes to some new titles. :D

  8. A really fascinating post. Thanks. I basically agree with you. I'm sure it is a fine line to drawn, between what is actual illness and what is not, but that doesn't mean people shouldn't be trying.

    Your comment about children touches me personally. My son was born at 27-weeks and one of the things the developmental psychologist told me was that he is likely to have a shorter attention span and matching issues due to his prematurity (I think he probably does). She went on to say that we must make sure we don't let teachers at school when he gets there label him as ADD or ADHD because odds are it will be his prematurity issue instead, but some symptoms may look the same. Because they aren't prematurity experts they will diagnose his actions incorrectly. I'm really conscious of this as he gets closer to school because the last thing I want is doctors trying to medicate him for something he doesn't have.

  9. Oh Nymeth, thank you so much for this post! You really got the tears flowing, because in a way it's such a personal issue. I don't usually talk about it (though I may make allusions to it), but Gray is one of those kids that people just see as abnormal. On the surface, he really can appear bipolar. We were lucky enough to be sent to a seminar about the emotional issues of gifted children a few years back though, and we gained such an understanding of the little guy. This hyper-emotionalism is just a piece of Gray's unique personality. It can be very hard to deal with at times, and the source of the greatest joy at others. Unfortunately for Gray, many people just don't understand. One of the big points that Dr. Webb made at this seminar, and that he's even written a book about, is how often gifted people are misdiagnosed with things like ADHD and bipolar disorder.
    Sorry, I didn't mean to babble just really touched me with this post! Thank you!

  10. Very interesting topic, and an important one!

    Did I ever tell you about the first time I read 1984? It was about a two years ago; I was taking a class with a visiting professor called "The Sociology of War." This professor was from Russia, and when we got to the section of the course focused on totalitarian states, he had us read 1984. He said he'd looked over several non-fiction texts, but this was the one that really captured what such a society was like. It was such a neat, but very sad, reading experience!! So if anyone ever tells me that they don't like that book, I feel I have a great retort.

  11. A great post, and a terrific topic. And thanks for reminding me about Life After God. I used to read and re-read this book constantly in college, but my copy got lost somewhere along the way. It'll be interesting to see if it still holds up after a few years.

  12. Susan: Thank you, I'm glad you liked it. And yes, not only do we not know what to do with abnormality, but we don't know how to define it. And in the meantime people's lives are made so much worse.

    Robin, thank you. I'm glad you agree!

    Kirsten, thanks!

    Alessandra: I made myself want to read it too :P

    Chris: I really love your attitude, and this is an example of why you are the perfect person to be working in this field. I'm so glad you're being given a chance to make a difference at last. And you're absolutely right, how can those kids be expected to be happy under those circumstances? It would be worrisome if they WERE happy, if they were numb, if they had no emotional reaction to what is going on in their lives.

    pussreboots: Yes, how could I forget One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest! I haven't read the book (yet) but the movie is awesome. I will look for The Snake Pit too. Thanks so much for the recommendations!

    Trish: Good point about Middlesex! I know what you mean about critical thinking increasing your appreciation of a book. It has happened to me too (although sometimes no amount of critical thinking and analysing will do the trick, e.g., Dubliners :P)

    Andi: I'm making it my mission to get more people to read Monkey Beach :P In fact, next time I have a giveaway, it will be with that book.

    Kerry: Yes, it really doesn't mean we shouldn't try. And it's great that the developmental psychologist was so careful about warning you that that could happen...sometimes the parents just aren't told at all and the child ends up medicated.

    Debi, you didn't babble on, you shared your personal thoughts, which is something I really appreciate. I said this the other day and I'll say it again: your children are so lucky to have you. Sometimes parents are so obsessed with their kids being "normal" and "fitting in" that they end up making their home life as much of a hell as the outside world is. A home should be a place where a child feels completely accepted and loved for who he or she is and safe and at ease, and you certainly do that for your children.

    Eva: That really is a great retort. I haven't read any non-fiction on totalitarian states, but I really can't imagine any other book capturing it quite as powerfully as 1984 does.

    Mary_M: thank you. Life After God is one of those books I return to regularly. My life has changed a lot since I first discovered it, and yet I still feel so close to it.

  13. Nymeth - great post . . . I was sitting at my students' graduation today and thinking how many of them are just trying to so hard to do what is expected of them by parents, friends, spouses, children - and it made me a little sad that they aren't just trying to be who they are. Then one student stood up and said she was a little eccentric and off the wall and she was happy to love herself that way. . . . we need more people who accept themselves and others for that. Thanks for this topic and for the books about it.

  14. Everytime I see you talk about 'Life After God' it strikes me how different people really are. I love Douglas Coupland, read almost all of his books at this point, but I consider 'Life After God' my least favourite. But, since you enjoy it so much, I still tell my friends to read it when they ask me about Coupland. Just because I didn't care for it doesn't mean they should avoid it entirely. Yes, I am off on a tangent.

  15. You put your thoughts about normality so well. I completely agree with you. In my job I sometimes run into situations where people want to label certain behaviors as abnormal and yet they really aren't when it gets right down to it. Sometimes I think it is easy to think of ourselves as abnormal and we end up worrying more because current societal pressures or ideas make us think so.

  16. Andi: We definitely do. It's hard to find the courage to be yourself when you are pushed in so many directions at the same time - especially when you're young.

    Kailana: Yes, people really are very different. No worries about being off on a tangent - tangents and side comments are always most welcome. Life After God is a book that seems to polarize opinions. The people who love it are really passionate about it, and the ones who don't don't care for it very much at all.

    Literary Feline: "Sometimes I think it is easy to think of ourselves as abnormal and we end up worrying more because current societal pressures or ideas make us think so." Yes, definitely. And those pressures are subtle and hard to escape, even when you do become aware of them.

  17. Wow...your ability to cut through to the heart of an issue is remarkable. Thank God that there are medications and other forms of therapy available for people that in times of need, but when those same tools are used to make classroom management easy or to "normalize" behavior to kind of mythical "standard" - it breaks my heart. It's encouraging to know that there are people like Chris out there fighting for kids in crisis situations, maybe we are beginning see that the pendulum is starting to swing back the other way.
    Oh, and count me as one of the folks who loves "Life After God" (and I've added Monkey Beach to the list)!
    I like your take on "classics" - I think the idea can be valuable as a descriptive tool, but at some point it became a genre of its own and that misses the point altogether.

  18. Great post, Nymeth! I so agree with your views! The list sounds great too! Thanks for bringing these up! :)

  19. This is such a heartfelt post Nymeth and I totally agree with you. In a (global) society that pushes children into certain molds of what passes for normality, it is indeed sad that children aren't allowed to go through the motions of well, growing up and instead given drugs at an early age or even labeled for that matter as sick.

    I've seen Girl, Interrupted and was also moved by it. I'm sure the other books you mentioned are worthy reads as well.

    The Snake Pit is one of my favorite books when I was in highschool. I read it outside the required reading list. It is old indeed but I found my mom's copy of it way back then.

  20. It's interesting you picked a similar topic to me ish. I decided to be brave and talk about my self harm which is the other side of the coin to what you have posted about sort of. It is very easy in society today to label yourself with various mental issues, people throw around the terms depression and anorexic etc very liberally when they just mean someone is a bit blue or missed a couple of meals. Part of it is down to societies ideas of what is normal behaviour with the distinctions being very open and vague. Interesting post thanks!

  21. Ken: Aw, thank you :) A tool to make classroom management easy. That's very well put, and it's unfortunately so often true. And yes, I'm very glad there are people like Chris out there! yay, you love Life After God! You know, you should tell me what your top 5 favourite books are, and I should read the ones among them that I haven't...because it really seems that we have very similar taste.

    Melody, I'm glad you enjoyed this post :) And that you agree too!

    Lightheaded: I really need to find myself a copy of The Snake Pit. Bookmooch, here I come! (Btw, the other day I was checking there stats and there are many more members in the Philippines than really should join :P)

    Rhinoa: Your post was indeed brave. And yes, the two issues are related. It seems to me that in some cases the more people are told there's something wrong with them the nearer they are to being pushed over the edge.

  22. Nymeth - I definitely agree. My evil ex was always telling me I was damaged and had major pschiatric problems which just made things worse. I am kind of glad he cheated on me with one of my friends and broke up with me after 3 years. It was perhaps the best thing that ever happened to me!

  23. Rhinoa: That must have been very hard to go through, but it's funny how sometimes a seemingly bad thing turns out to be the best possible thing that could have happened. Now you're with Alex who sounds like a lovely guy and who obviously makes you very happy :) I had a boyfriend who tried to convince me I was crazy too, and who'd say that being hurt at the incredibly insensitive things he said and did to me was just another sign of my derangement. Good riddance to them, I say :P

  24. wow! your second paragraph is just so powerfully written. i was trying to find the one line that i liked best to respond to, but it's all so good! i have the same concerns, but i had never really been able to put them into words.

    i haven't read any of the books you've listed - yet.

  25. What an amazing post! I so, so, so agree with the overzealous pathologizing of EVERYTHING in our society. As you say, there are still people who need help, but pathologizing behaviour just because it makes someone uncomfortable or upsets the social order a bit just infuriates me.

    As for the books, I adored "Monkey Beach". A greatly overlooked novel, I think. Glad you like it!!

  26. I read and reviewed Girl, Interrupted.
    Maybe you want to read my review?
    (Shameless plugging, I know.)

  27. This is a great topic, and not an easy one to write about, either. I agree with a lot of what you wrote, but I also have misgivings. Like you said, it's not about denying people help when they need it, but rather, how we can determine if people do need help or not. (Over)Medication is not always the answer.

  28. Alisonwonderland: Thank you :) I hope you enjoy the books!

    Melanie: yay, another Monkey Beach fan! It IS overlooked. All the people I know who've read it loved it, but the trouble is finding people who've read it.

    Alessandra: Not shameless plugging, I did want to read it. So thanks for the link!

    Chayenne: I see that side of the question too, and I understand why some would decide it's better to be safe than sorry in some cases. But picking the safe route can also do harm. It's really not easy. Here's a link to an article on this issue that I find very interesting. I wish I had included it in my main post, but I had completely forgotten about it: On Being Sane in Insane Places.

  29. I thought I left a comment here, nd I came to see what you'd said, but my comment isn't here after all. I guess it didn't save!

    I just added the Coupland and Monkey Beach to my wishlists. I like Coupland but haven't read Life After God.

    Girl Interrupted was a better book than movie, I thought. I hope you'll enjoy reading it.

    One of the problems I have with the over-prescription of psych meds, aside from the fact that they're often given to people who don't need them, is that doctors play down how troublesome the withdrawal from them is. I've seen people just up and stop psych meds because they don't like how they feel, and go into a terrible withdrawal. I've also seen kids put their kids on psych meds and fail to monitor how the kids use them. This leads to two big problems. First, some kids just sell their meds for recreational use. Second, I've seen kids go into a bad withdrawal, even a psychotic episode, from not taking the meds for a few days, which then leads to the parents telling the doctor the meds aren't working well, which leads to an increase in the dosage. I have seen a few kids who had nothing wrong with them become regular mental health patients because of this sort of cycle. They're all adults now, no meds at all, functioning really well.

    And beyond what can happen to kids, I know adults who are on anti-depressants or anti-anxiety pills long term simply because they thought they needed them temporarily and then found the withdrawal so difficult that they stopped trying to go off them. Sometimes it's that they try to go off too fast, feel crazy, and assume that means they need them, when it's really withdrawal. Sometimes, they just feel afraid of experiencing the withdrawal and so stay on the medicines.

  30. Dewey, you're not the first person to tell me that recently...I hate it when blogger starts acting up :/
    I hadn't thought of the fact that those meds are often addictive, but you're right, and that just adds a whole new layer of problems to this issue.

  31. I'm not looking forward to the day I need to come off the antidepressants I'm on now. I need them and I'm so glad to have them, but I've heard the withdrawl is awful. I've done awful before and I know I'll survive it, but I hope I don't need to change meds any time soon.

    I hadn't considered the withdrawl aspect while thinking about this topic, but I think it's a major one and well done Dewey for bringing it up.


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