Thursday, May 26, 2011

Mad Perspective on "Next to Normal."

Greetings, citizens.

This week I've decided to offer some input on a rising star in the world of media and madness: the musical "Next to Normal." Although I haven't had the opportunity to watch the show in person, I've heard about it from many sources, read many of the lyrics, and watched several key scenes on YouTube. Admittedly, this does not enable me to give an exemplary dramatic critique of the piece as a whole, but that isn't really my aim here. Rather, I wish to examine how the show succeeds and fails at promoting a healthy understanding of mental health and distress, and I believe I CAN do that from the bits that I have gathered.

The first thing that struck me about this show was its apparent refusal to use the labels of psychiatry: although many telltale behavior patterns are demonstrated, no diagnoses are ever used, and words like "Manic" and "depression" are used sparingly. Psychiatry itself is rather gleefully lampooned, with a rendition of "My favorite things" from "The Sound of Music" being used to list the litany of prescription pills that are thrown at our heroine, among other such jokes. Therapy is given the limelight, and as a general rule I will always take therapy over psychiatry; however, I worry that by presenting it as a clear-cut and in some ways superior alternative to psychiatry, it places therapy on a bit of a pedestal, which is always a problem.

The songs themselves reveal some very deeply felt emotion, and it seems to be handled relatively well; they are very personal, without trying to make too many sweeping generalizations, while still hitting on a few core experiences that often crop up in the consumer (of mental health care) community: the flattened experience of medication and missing the breadth of feeling that came before; the feeling of isolation from not being able to get true understanding from those who are trying to care for you. There is a lot of genuine pathos and I think it goes a long way towards advancing a sense of empathy in the general public for the experience of the "mentally ill." (Here I am distinguishing between those and the "Mad" because they are not always the same).

I see two problems with this approach, though: one, it creates a "double" for the experience of "mental illness," a representation of a lived reality, which invariably presents something less than accurate due to the series of translations it must endure (thought to action, action to vision, vision to thought), while also creating in some viewers an undeserved sense of proximity and understanding as a result. This can cause the representation of the experience to backfire, and instead of increasing actual ability to relate, it can further embed the expectation that the "normal" people have greater understanding and that the "sick" people must submit to their wisdom. I think this sort of thing is difficult to avoid whenever a marginalized group is represented, and the key to overcoming it is an awareness in the production that the problem is there.

And that is where "Next to Normal" really seems to fall short. Although its personal sensitivity is strong, it is just that: personal. It is deeply focused on the inner lives of a small family and two or three other figures whose lives are intertwined with theirs. This is important, do not get me wrong: they craft a message of patience, care and support, where inner demons can be allowed to work themselves out and dealt with to the ultimate betterment of the people in question, and this is absolutely necessary. But, it is only half of the picture: Next To Normal seems critically lacking in awareness of the social aspects of mental health. Although Psychiatry is criticized as an institution, the social schema that Psychiatry supports do not seem terribly represented.

What we get, then, is the message that it is solely up to the people who are suffering and their immediate supporters to "get over" their suffering. We get a lot of good insight into the struggles and triumphs of this process, but we see it in a vacuum: we do not see the social pressures on those who are helping to do less; we do not see the ridicule placed on those trying to make "real life" work while struggling with their suffering; we don't see the day-to-day jargon which dismisses pain and distress so simply, which reifies the "mental illness" model and invalidates so many.
Nor do we see the more direct causes of many forms of "mental illness," the hostilities of our culture: abuse, rape, neglect; all forms of human cruelty, including many so horrible they cannot even be discussed, even here, still go on in the daily lives of millions, maybe even billions at a time, to varying degrees. This callous culture we live in supports these things and in turn supports the destruction of mental health. But, as far as I can see, Next to Normal has no real accountability for this component.

Perhaps it is not Next to Normal's intent to challenge society in so direct a manner; indeed, to do so would probably come off as ball busting and be very poorly received. That kind of diatribe can't be accomplished by anything less than a masterful execution of the Theater of Cruelty, or some other inventive and in ways heretical theatrical creation; Next to Normal is not such a production, but rather part of the "Theater of Psychology." Although it makes use of what might be called "American Magical Realism," it is still essentially realist and has a very "Broadway" feel about it. As such, it is geared to pluck at heartstrings with deeply personal stories, and in this I believe it succeeds.

The question we must ask ourselves, as citizens of the New Mad Nation, is if plucking at the heartstrings of people whose minds are still shut will do us much good.

I suppose, then, my summary in short is that Next to Normal is a good start, though it has a few flaws that I would love to see corrected in future versions or different takes on the concepts, the most grievous being that it over-emphasizes the individual's psychology in dealing with their distress, while undermining the role of social environment. This could possibly be chalked up to its deep focus on the family environment, a smaller and sometimes more vital version of the social environment, however; and in this, they do a very thorough job of examining impact.

Next to Normal is humorous at times, and usually by making fun of the people in power: psychiatry, the "normals," even therapy on a few occasions. I like this. All in all I do hope to be able to pay to see a production at some point, as I believe it does good things for raising awareness of the basic realities of "mental illness" in our culture without reinforcing an overly psychiatric paradigm. Much as I would like to take the world up in a Mad storm, I must concede that such a storm would probably be lost on people who still conceive of mental illness as something that gets you dragged off by men in white coats.

To any of you who have seen this show, if anything about my analysis seems particularly inaccurate, I encourage you to correct me. I would greatly value the input of anyone who has actually witnessed the performance.

Thanks as always, New Mad Nation. We'll see you next week, topic unknown.


Friday, May 20, 2011

Graduation: A Mad Analysis

Greetings, citizens of the New Mad Nation.

It's been two weeks and a day, and things are starting to "settle down" around here - move was successfully completed, apartment checked out of, internet access restored, graduation achieved, and the swirling portal to dimensions of cyclopian horror in the oven has been sealed for all time (or until the Makio Star rises on the full moon, but that only happens like once every couple thousand years...)

In short, we're back.

There's a lot of things on my mind right now, but I think I will start with my planned remarks for this week, and discuss the concept of commencement exercises, looking at the specific example of the exercises at my Alma Mater. We'll be analyzing them from a Mad perspective, of course.

Now, where to begin? I suppose I should mention my commencement, just over a year hence now. The speeches were inspiring to many, but still offended my Mad sensibilities; so much so that I wrote the Dean an angry email on the subject. When I later emailed him on another subject and he responded to that, but not to my concerns about the commencement, I confronted him, and he said he never received the letter. I don't know if that's the truth or not, I really don't, but these days I am inclined to believe he simply didn't care to engage with my criticisms.

I was livid; I felt the speeches, although they carried many run-of-the-mill inspirations, rode largely on the trampling of the already marginalized groups in the community, further deepening our anger and ostracization. This year, the speeches managed to be somewhat less offensive on the whole - if only because our President's speech was primarily just self-serving, self-pitying, and lacked even enough substance to offend - but still carried many of the common themes of ignorance and oppression. They appear in the form of what is asserted and what is left out; what is mentioned and what is ignored. I will here list some of the themes that came up in this year's commencement exercises and explore the problems with them.

1. Family love and support - One thing that college speeches love is to talk about how wonderful families are. Your family helped pay for you to go to school, and your family helped raise you smart enough to make it in school, and your family helped you when you were struggling in school, and your family will continue to love and support you now that you've graduated from school. I suppose some speakers feel that laboring this point will help validate the parents who took the time and effort to be present at commencement, and encourage them to support the school in the future. Others must have nobler intentions, like an honest belief in the goodness and strength of the family unit. For whatever reason, it comes up - a lot.
   And yet never are any of the problems with family mentioned - no nods are given to the graduates who come from abusive families, none to the graduates whose families might not approve of their decision to pursue an academic career. There is no mention of the child whose family loves them for graduating but hates them for being gay, and so can never truly support them; no concept whatsoever of those who do not have a typical family, or any family at all. And I believe it is foolish to assume that none of the above mentioned group have made it through four years of college; people are capable of amazing things, and sometimes the most amazing things happen only when all outside support  is taken away.
    What I am saying is that some people have made it through those four years without relying on their family because their family is unreliable. Sending you to college does not make your family dependable; it means they made a decision to help you do something. Big decision though it may be, it is just one decision, and it must be weighed against an entire lifetime. Moreover, some families did not support their children at all in going to college; some really did have to make it on their own. So when commencement speakers talk of the love and support of the family, they are talking of an idyllic myth; something that many of the graduates may enjoy, or believe they enjoy, but that an undeniable some distinctly lack.
    What happens when a survivor of an abusive home has to listen to a speaker talk for ten minutes straight about how wonderful their family is, and then be forced to applaud for him afterwards, or else risk the stigma of not applauding the speaker and therefore being "other"? The survivor is forced to accept, in a small way, the correctness of the speaker, because they cannot challenge him in any appreciable way; their psyche is thus wounded and their conviction weakened against their abusive background. While some people who have come from this kind of situation may have grown strong and independent enough since leaving their families to not be wounded by this, not everyone has; and even those who have will certainly not appreciate having to listen to the myth of the ideal family being perpetrated when they know so clearly how false it is.
   Never believe that monetary support is the same as love. It could just as easily be manipulation, or even just a sense of obligation on the part of the supporters. We must look deeper. And when speaking of families, we must always be cognizant of the fact that the family is a site of trauma as well as support, and we must be careful to qualify our speech in such a way as to recognize those who have suffered from their families. Of course, the trick here is that by recognizing them, we can all too easily end up ostracizing them, and this is also unacceptable. To whit, the real solution might not be to have a speech about family at all; I can't imagine a terribly successful speech in the form of "Some of you have unsupportive families, and that sucks for you. But the REST of you, wow, you sure are lucky!" True though it may be, it comes off pretty sour.

2. "Our college is a special place." - I don't know if other commencement exercises feature speeches like this, but at mine, there is always someone talking about how wonderful the college is. This is similar to the family issue, in fact it is almost identical: while many people have found the community of the college to be special, inclusive, supportive, and all around magical, others have undoubtedly not. I would be shocked to find out that there were more than a handful of graduating classes in the history of colleges where one of the students had not been raped at the school in question, by a fellow student. And if virtually every class of students has at least one rape survivor (and these are very conservative figures, I believe; statistical evidence to support this would be lovely, to those who know where to find it), then every commencement exercise is obligated to be sensitive to that fact, and to not paint the college as an inherently wonderful place full of inherently wonderful people.
   Like a family, the college may have offered some good things, but it probably came at a high price for at least a few. If not rape, then something else: the Queer Union not liking your "kind" of homosexuality and excluding you; a teacher boldly insulting your spirituality in class and receiving no punishment whatsoever; a general air of disapproval and malcontent from the entire student body, because you are not "chill" like they are. And just like with the lauding of the family, the ritualistic observance of the Alma Mater's sublimity at a commencement exercise tries to force the wronged student to abandon their just complaints; if they don't applaud, they are singled out further still, and regardless, have to listen to the bald-faced lies being told by the speaker and not shout out in contest.
  I understand that it is only natural for a commencement speaker to discuss the school in question; it is the point of departure, after all. But there must be a way to do so that is honest. It is especially perplexing to me, that at the commencement exercises of a class that has spent four years supposedly dedicated to the pursuit and development of knowledge - four years of problematizing every single text presented to us - so much hard fact is simply washed away and replaced with the convenient fiction of the college's greatness.
   Perhaps the problem stems from pure ignorance. Perhaps these speakers are simply unaware that anyone could have a legitimate complaint about the school; perhaps they have chosen not to see the pained and anguished faces, or convinced themselves that those faces, since usually silent, are also irrelevant. Of course, from experience I can tell you a different story: you see, I was often one of those pained and anguished faces, but I was rarely silent. No, it was the others who attempted to silence me; to tell me that my concerns were overblown, that I jumped to conclusions, that we could not hold people accountable for their actions, that we could not be divisive because "we are a community here." The assumption of community is a fiction that people cling to violently; so violently that, when presented with a critique, they will seek to undermine that critique's validity before ever engaging with ti. The great error of our analytical academics is that we never turn that harsh eye on our own community for more than a flickering moment, in response to some infraction of universally agreed upon ethics like hate speech. The results of these conversations are typically foregone, and no real progress is made.
   My point here is that for whatever reason, people do not seem to want to accept that there were serious problems with their school. At the moment of commencement they want to remember it as a haven. I suppose I can understand this desire, for those who are capable, but it is deeply offensive to those who can only remember the entire process as a trial. For myself, there were certainly pockets of goodness, but it was largely an obstacle course and in many ways incredibly disappointing. I will not be looking back on my school as an incredibly wonderful place, and it was disheartening to hear it called that in the commencement exercise - more than making me hear something untrue, which invalidated my experience, these speeches reinforce the erroneous assumptions of others. The practice of commencement is a ritual and has ritual power associated with it, and words said during it that do not go challenged become etched into the memory; people form lasting impressions based on these actions. Speaking only of the college's good qualities - hyperbolized, at that - while completely ignoring the bad, indeed acting as if they don't exist, continues to mire people in the complacency that prevents change from ever taking place.

The vast majority of other themes and ideas can generally be boiled down to one key issue: ignoring the suffering of the students. If their hardships are ever noted, it is typically in passing; it is never treated with any real gravity. And it is noted with gravity, as it was at my commencement, it is only to note something that is somehow "other": the student suffered before the school, but thanks to the school is no longer suffering. These messages are infuriating to those who are suffering more because of the school, and make no mistake that they exist. Beyond this, speeches are generally given with the assumption that the students all follow the "normal" model of existence, whatever that norm happens to be for the school; even at a school where gender fluidity and non-traditional families are embraced, that very act of embracing labels them "normal" in that context. For the students who do not fit these norms, the speeches are hollow and ignorant of their experience, and that dismissive nature continues to push them further off the radar of their fellow and deeper into marginalization.

There's plenty else I could still say about this year's commencement - the subject matter of our President's address was a single blog post he made on the Huffington Post, and our guest speaker made the egregiously bad-taste decision of describing countries without easy access to hospitals as "helpless" - but I think I've ranted enough for now.

Hopefully, next week we will be looking at a media review, this time of a musical: Next to Normal. It is, as far as I know, the only touring musical to ever focus squarely on themes of "mental illness." Should be exciting, one way or another.

As always, thank you for your attention and care. Farewell, citizens.


Friday, May 6, 2011

Finals (no madness)

Greetings, Citizens.

No madness this week - my roommate and I are busy conquering college once and for all.

For that matter there may or may not be a madness next week when we conquer graduation once and for all. Time will tell, I suppose.

Thanks as always,