Showing 1 - 10 of 17 annotations contributed by Glass, Guy

The Center Cannot Hold

Wells, Kenneth

Last Updated: Jul-31-2018
Annotated by:
Glass, Guy

Primary Category: Performing Arts / Theater

Genre: Theater

Summary:

This is an opera based on Elyn R. Saks’s best-selling book The Center Cannot Hold.  Subtitled “My Journey Through Madness,” the memoir recounts the author’s struggle with schizophrenia.  Here, Saks has collaborated with composer/psychiatrist Kenneth B. Wells on the opera’s libretto.  

The librettists utilize the device of having three different singers portray Elyn.  One manifestation, the “Lady of the Charts,” represents her when psychotic.  The others are Elyn as a law student and the present day Professor Saks as a law professor.  Another dramatic device involves the use of a chorus to embody the protagonist’s schizophrenic delusions.  At the height of her paranoia, as Elyn sings Beethoven’s 5th Symphony in an effort to keep herself together, the chorus recalls the Symphony’s opening notes by singing “Elyn must die.”  

The opera opens with Elyn as Professor Saks reflecting on her childhood. Even then there were signs of the illness that, to quote a famous poem by William Butler Yeats, ensures “the center cannot hold” in Elyn’s life. During the first act, Elyn, a Yale law student, becomes psychotic in front of her friends and is hospitalized. In a Connecticut hospital she is put in restraints and treated by various mental health professionals. She imagines she hears demons threatening to kill her.  Elyn’s diagnosis and condition overwhelm her parents, who have been called by the hospital.  

In the second act, Elyn works to reintegrate her fragmented mind.  She is determined to get back to law school.  She is released from the hospital. She finds an antipsychotic medication, with fewer side effects, that she can live with. She resolves to devote her career to mental health law.  At the conclusion of the opera, Elyn anticipates graduation.  She has been instrumental in winning a class action suit against the use of restraints in psychiatric patients.  Her parents, friends and doctors proclaim their pride in her accomplishments.

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Annotated by:
Glass, Guy

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: History

Summary:

Victorians Undone is no ordinary history book.  If you have ever felt dissatisfied by a sterile biography, wondering if its subject actually possessed bodily functions, look no further.  Here, British historian Kathryn Hughes undoes centuries of sheltering the reader from the unseemly by putting it on full display.  While the very term “Victorian” evokes an image of propriety, it was also a time of population displacement from the country to cities where “other people’s sneezes, bums, elbows, smells, snores, farts and breathy whistles were, quite literally, in your face”  (p. xi). The author seeks to rectify the imbalance by creating a history that puts “mouths, bellies and beards back into the nineteenth century“ (p. xiv), which she hopes will “add something to our understanding of what it meant to be a human animal“ (p. xv) during the Victorian Era.  

The book consists of five essays, each following a part of the body of an historical figure. In the first, entitled “Lady Flora’s Belly,” we learn about the tragic saga of Queen Victoria’s lady-in-waiting.  Did Flora’s protuberant abdomen conceal a tumor or a baby?  It was harder to find out than one might think.  Most women went through their lives without ever exposing their private parts to anyone but their husband.   Medical consultation when unavoidable might be conducted discretely, by post. 
 

Other essays focus on George Eliot’s hands, Fanny Cornforth’s (the lover of Dante Gabriel Rossetti, the Pre-Raphaelite painter) sensual mouth, and the beard that Charles Darwin’s grew to hide his eczema.  The book concludes with the gruesome tale of the dismemberment of Fanny Adams, an early case study in forensic pathology. The term "Fanny Adams" soon came, in navy slang, to mean unpleasant meat rations.

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The Black Monk

Tibaldo-Bongiorno, Marylou

Last Updated: Feb-20-2018
Annotated by:
Glass, Guy

Primary Category: Performing Arts / Film, TV, Video

Genre: Film

Summary:

As the film opens, George Anderson tells us he has been advised to treat his anxiety by going “to some island to rest.” We see him arrive by ferry in Staten Island where he has arranged to spend several weeks at the beautiful home of his father’s best friend.  There, he renews his friendship with the friend’s daughter, Maggie.  We discover that George, a filmmaker, dropped out of medical school, and that Maggie is now a doctor.  We learn from the start that, though they have not seen each other for ten years, there is a longstanding mutual romantic attraction.   

One day, while walking around the house’s lush gardens, George suddenly and improbably sees a monk.  We are made to understand this is not the first time this has occurred, although at this stage George still recognizes it as a “mirage.” However, when the monk foretells a “grand brilliant future” for George and entrusts him with a divine mission, George is inspired.  He becomes obsessed with attending church, and we learn he has not been sleeping.  In his religious fervor he calls Maggie “disgusting” because she performs abortions.
 

Maggie becomes aware that something is not quite right.  We learn too that George enlisted in the army and resigned under suspicious circumstances. Other details about his past are mysterious.  The relationship between George and Maggie intensifies. Meanwhile, a friend warns Maggie that she has witnessed George saying peculiar things about a monk and smiling inappropriately.  Finally, in Maggie’s bedroom, George has a full-fledged psychotic episode as he hallucinates the monk in front of her.  She accuses him of “becoming schizophrenic,” and begs him to see a psychiatrist.  He responds by accusing her of trying to drain him of his inspiration, packs up his belongings, and, despite her entreaties, leaves.    

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Spy of the First Person

Shepard, Sam

Last Updated: Jan-30-2018
Annotated by:
Glass, Guy

Primary Category: Literature / Fiction

Genre: Memoir

Summary:

Spy of the First Person is a short semi-autobiographical narrative about a man with a debilitating condition.  He spends most of his time sitting in a wheelchair on his porch, goes for tests to the Arizona campus of the Mayo Clinic, and has a “handicapped sign hanging from the rearview mirror of his car” (p. 15). The man’s illness is unnamed, but we learn that his motor skills are grossly impaired: “His hands and arms don’t work much.  He uses his legs, his knees, his thighs, to bring his arms and hands to his face in order to be able to eat his cheese and crackers” (ibid).   

The story is told from various, shifting points of view.  At times we are in the head of the protagonist.  At other times, the perspective is that of a nosy neighbor who peers at the sick man through binoculars, hence the book’s title. There is a parallel narrative about an elderly couple and the wife’s gradual decline in health.  The Southwest plays such an important role here one might even say that it too is a character. 
 

There are also frequent shifts of tense.  It is not always clear whether we are in the past or present.  We alternate between the central character’s fantasies, memories, and observations. The effect of intertwining voices and tenses is reinforced by the brevity of the chapters, many no longer than a paragraph.  The overall impression is that while he may no longer have full control over his body, the man has retained an active (one might say overactive) mind.
 

Spy of the First Person
concludes as the man’s children take him to a Mexican restaurant.  The vivid description of a meal shared with his loved ones provides a sharp contrast to the inner thoughts that provide the bulk of this book.

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This Way Madness Lies

Jay, Mike

Last Updated: Oct-17-2017
Annotated by:
Glass, Guy

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction — Secondary Category: Visual Arts / Visual Arts

Genre: History

Summary:

This Way Madness Lies was published in partnership with London’s Wellcome Collection for the exhibition “Bedlam: The Asylum and Beyond,” which ran from September 2016 - January 2017 and was curated by Mike Jay and Bárbara Rodriguez Muñoz. It is a book that was meant to accompany the exhibition, yet which, by virtue of the substantial text and reproductions, can stand alone.  

The book traces the history of treatment of the mentally ill by following the colorful story of Bethlem Royal Hospital from its antecedents in the Middle Ages up to the present.  Its sway over the public imagination evidenced by its appearance in everything from Jacobean Drama to “Sweeney Todd,” Bedlam has truly attained archetypal status.  An archetype, yet also a real functioning hospital.  Sections of the book entitled “Madhouse,” Lunatic Asylum,” and “Mental Hospital” chronicle the facilities designed respectively during the 17th/18th, 19th, and 20th centuries, and explain how they reflect changing notions of madness in each era. 
 

The first structure was visually grand but lacked a foundation, a metaphor for what was going on inside: “a façade of care concealing a black hole of neglect” (p. 39).  It became a tourist attraction along the lines of the zoo, with nothing preventing the public from gawking at and taunting the inmates.  While its replacement gave the impression of being more functional, conditions proved equally squalid.  On the other hand, 19th-century Europe and the United States saw asylum reforms, as well as the medicalization of madness as an “illness” and the ascent of psychiatry as a branch of medicine.  Finally, in 1930, the buildings still in use in Monks Orchard, a suburb of London, were constructed.


By contrast, we learn about treatments elsewhere, most notably Geel, Belgium.  There, for centuries, as an alternative to being warehoused in psychiatric hospitals, the mentally ill have been successfully boarding with townspeople. 
 

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Annotated by:
Glass, Guy

Primary Category: Literature / Poetry

Genre: Biography

Summary:

Robert Lowell: Setting the River on Fire is “a study of genius, mania, and character” of American poet Robert Lowell (1917-1977).  It is meant to be neither an autobiography nor a critical study of Lowell’s literary output, but a study of an artist and his lifelong battle with Bipolar I Disorder, and an appreciation of how his art and illness were inseparably linked. The author, Kay Redfield Jamison, is a distinguished psychologist who has been quite open about her own struggles with the same disease, and whose lifework consists of exploring the link between Bipolar Disorder and creativity.     

Eschewing a purely chronological approach, Jamison divides her work into sections entitled “Origins,” “Illness,” “Character,” “Illness and Art,” and “Mortality.” In the first, she traces the history of mental illness within the poet’s illustrious Boston family.  We learn that Lowell’s great-great-grandmother was institutionalized at McLean Asylum for the Insane, which was to be the site of several of the poet’s own hospitalizations.  “Illness” is a clinical case study in prodromal childhood symptoms that progress to full-blown manic episodes. We follow the progress made by 20th century psychiatry from psychotherapy and ECT to Thorazine, and, finally, with the introduction of Lithium, to the possibility of prophylaxis against recurrences.
Later, in “Illness and Art,” Jamison brings her thoughts about creativity and art to full fruition by discussing what her research reveals about writers and artists.    

Appendices include diagnostic criteria for Bipolar Disorder, and an explanation of how Lowell’s psychiatric and medical records were made available by his daughter for the benefit of this volume.  

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Annotated by:
Glass, Guy

Primary Category: Literature / Literature

Genre: Memoir

Summary:

James Rhodes is a British classical concert pianist who is known for his iconoclastic, pop-inspired performing style.  He is also an outspoken survivor of childhood sexual abuse who is equally frank about his struggles with severe mental illness. Rhodes’s memoir Instrumental is a tribute to the healing power of music.  Indeed, music quite literally saves the author’s life; it is only when a friend smuggles an iPod loaded with Bach into his psych ward that Rhodes regains the will to live.   

Rhodes does not mince words.  We learn that he was violently raped by a gym teacher on a regular basis for five years from the age of five. Left with severe internal injuries that produce wracking pain, he requires multiple surgeries.  He soon also develops dissociative symptoms, drug and alcohol addiction, self-injurious behaviors, and chronic suicidal ideation. Barely able to function, he endures many tumultuous years during which he abandons the piano.  The author’s subsequent journey from physical and emotional fragmentation to wholeness through music provides the substance of his book.
 

The preface to Instrumental is designated “Prelude,” and the ensuing twenty chapters, labeled “tracks,” all correspond to musical works.  (All twenty tracks may be listened to, for free, on Spotify.) In addition, as if to assure the reader he is in good company, Rhodes offers psychological profiles of famous composers.  We learn, for example, that Bruckner suffered from a morbid obsession with numbers, and that Schumann, after throwing himself in the Rhine, died in an asylum.  

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Annotated by:
Glass, Guy

Primary Category: Literature / Plays

Genre: Play

Summary:

Evan Hansen, an awkward, lonely high school senior, struggles with Social Anxiety Disorder. On the advice of his therapist, he pens supportive letters to himself: “Dear Evan Hansen, Today is going to be an amazing day, and here’s why.  Because today all you have to do is be yourself. But also confident.”   

Connor, another loner student, picks up one of Evan’s letters and, several days later, commits suicide.  When Connor’s parents find the letter, they take it to be their son’s suicide note.  Instead of dissuading them, Evan concocts an account of a close friendship with the classmate he barely knew, creating an email trail. Connor’s family swallows the story.
 

As Evan gains the attention he has always craved and comes out of his shell, he finds that he cannot stop himself.   He founds the “Connor Project,” an organization dedicated to preserving his “friend’s” memory where he shares his musings on social media:  “Have you ever felt like nobody was there?  Have you ever felt forgotten in the middle of nowhere?  Have you ever felt like you could disappear?  Like you could fall, and no one would hear? ...Well, let that lonely feeling wash away…Lift your head and look around.  You will be found.  You will be found.”  Once Evan’s postings go viral, the Connor Project becomes a veritable industry, with a budget, and fans who look to it for inspiration.  As the stakes rise, the Project can flourish only by being fed more lies. 

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Psychobook

Rothenstein, Julian

Last Updated: Nov-30-2016
Annotated by:
Glass, Guy

Primary Category: Literature / Literature — Secondary Category: Visual Arts /

Genre: Photographs with Commentary

Summary:

The subject of Psychobook is psychological tests, both classic tests and newly created ones. Oversized, with more pictures than text, it is truly an art book.    

Psychobook begins with an introduction by Lionel Shriver, a journalist and novelist, which proves to be a very personal indictment of psychological testing.  There follows a more even-handed historical essay by Oisin Wall, a curator at the Science Museum in London.    

The bulk of Psychobook is comprised of photographs of tests and archival material related to tests.  For example, along with intelligence tests designed to screen potential immigrants, we find images of new arrivals being tested at Ellis Island.  Likewise, we see beautifully reproduced Rorshach inkblots along with pictures of Rorshach and older inkblots that may have inspired him.
 The Thematic Apperception Test (TAT) is a projective test in which subjects respond to images with their fantasies.  Here we see the 1930s originals cut out of magazines alongside updated images especially commissioned for this volume. Each is provocative in its own way.  As an added bonus, a series of photographs of psychotherapists in their offices from the 1930s to the present is interspersed with the content on psychological testing.     

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Annotated by:
Glass, Guy

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Treatise

Summary:

The therapeutic benefits of music are well known, but the theory that music might be harmful to our health, unless it is so obviously loud it injures our eardrums, comes as a surprise.  In this volume, historian of medicine James Kennaway traces the idea of pathological music from antiquity to the present.  The book’s introduction considers whether music really can create illness, whether it be of a physiological or a psychological nature.  We learn, for example, of arrhythmias and seizure disorders that are set off by music, not to mention the so-called Stendhal Syndrome, a psychosomatic reaction to great works of art.

The second chapter describes how, during the 18th century, disease was thought to result from excessive stimulation of the nerves, and how that created a theoretical framework for the “medical dangers of music” (p. 23) as being rooted in the nervous system. The example of the glass harmonica is given. This musical instrument, invented by Benjamin Franklin, had its status elevated when Mozart composed two pieces for it.  However, its success became its undoing, as it was feared the tones would “make women faint, send a dog into convulsions, [and] make a sleeping girl wake screaming through a chord of the diminished seventh” (p. 45). Special gloves were devised so that a performer might, by avoiding direct contact with the apparatus, spare his nerves. 

In the following chapter, Kennaway explores how Wagner dominated 19th-century discourse on pathological music in that his work’s eroticism and novel harmonies were thought to produce neurasthenia (a popular catch-all term for an array of anxiety disorders). Listeners were brought to an unhealthy state of ecstasy, and singers, being driven to the abyss, went insane. Women who had recklessly allowed themselves to become “Wagnerized” were punished with a “lack [of] children, or, in the most bearable cases, men” (p. 74).

Moving into the 20th century, the author describes how ideas about pathological music acquired a political connotation.  In Germany, the perceived threat of avant-garde Jewish composers (eg. Schoenberg) to public health culminated in the so-called Degenerate Music exhibition of 1938. And in  the United States, African American-influenced jazz was credited with the power to “change human physiology, damaging the medulla in the brain” (p. 121).

Finally, the book concludes in the present day with music for brainwashing (e.g. a consideration of whether subliminal messages hidden in rock songs could lead to suicide), and the use of painfully loud or abrasive music as sonic weapons in warfare, or for torture.  The author’s verdict is that the notion of music as bad for your health, though emerging in new forms, is more topical than ever.

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