Tuesday, August 12, 2014

What do our Movies Say about Us?

When archeologists dig up an old culture, they are able to better understand that culture by the kind of art it produced. The most notable art America has produced, arguably, is its movies. Movies began to be mass produced primarily in America, beginning with the silent era of the early 1900s. Hollywood became not only the center of American film, but the center of world movie production. What will our movies tell future archeologists about our culture?

If archeologists were to take a sampling of the movies that are being produced at the moment, what they would mostly find are escape themes.  Of 25 mainstream American movies to be released in December of 2013, nine are comedies and six are adventures. There are also two musicals, two cartoon fantasies, a western, a disaster movie, and a documentary. The other three are dramas.

In other words, 22 out of 26 December American-made movies contain escape themes. Typical of these movies are The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, a fantasy about dwarves, dragons, wolves and other creatures;  This is 40, a comedy trivializes a married couple's trials and tribulations with middle age; The Impossible, a disaster thriller about a family on vacation in Thailand when the tsunami hits; and Les Miserables, a movie version of the long-running Broadway musical confection.

Nor did the four dramas that were scheduled for release in December appear to delve very deeply into the human condition from a psychological standpoint.  On the Road, based on the novel by Jack Kerouac, though billed as a drama, is more a quirky adventure of a group of hippies on a road trip in the 1960s. Any Day Now is based on a true story of gay couple and their troubles trying to adopt a child with Down syndrome. While the theme is laudable, it appears to be more soap opera than drama. Only one drama, Flying Lessons, about a young woman coming home to confront friends and family she had left behind, seems to attempt to look objectively and realistically at life in America right now.

If you took a sampling of the entire year of movies for 2012, I suspect the breakdown would be somewhat the same. You would find a predominant number of thrillers, comedies, adventures, fantasies and other escape themes. Among them are stories about men who can fly, who can slink from wall to wall like a spider, who have the resources of a bat are who wear a steel suit that makes them super powerful. And the people who watch such movies are not children, they are primarily adults.

Shakespeare, who is regarded by many if not most experts to be the greatest writer who ever lived, noted that a writer should "hold the mirror to nature." But it appears that those responsible for making our movies-Hollywood's screenwriters, directors and producers-are not interested in holding a mirror to nature, unless it is a distorted mirror.

What they are interested in is producing movies that make the most money. And apparently escape movies make the most money and are the ones that people most want to see. The four highest grossing movies of 2012 are all thrillers and adventures: Marvel's The Adventurers, The Dark Knight Rises, The Hunger Games, The Amazing-Spider Man.

So what does all this say about us? We are apparently a culture that is no longer interested in producing or watching movies that portray realistic themes. We do not value movies that probe the human psyche. Realism seems to be out. Fantasy is in. The more fantastic the story, the bigger the screen, the louder the sound, the better audiences seem to like it.

Likewise films that explore the psychology of their characters are not popular as they once were.  In the 1950s and 1960s films like A Streetcar Named Desire, based on the play by Tennessee Williams, won numerous Oscars and also made money.  If anybody wrote a script like that now, it would be dismissed as sexist and would never find a producer.  We have become a culture that avoids psychology and truth and realism, out of a fear it may put off the audience.

"So what's so good about realism?" we might ask Shakespeare if he were sitting in front of us. "Why hold the mirror to nature?" And I imagine he would reply, "Only by looking objectively at ourselves can we be true others and live a healthy life."

An individual that avoids reality and lives in fantasy is not a healthy individual. And a culture that lives in fantasy and avoids reality is likewise not a healthy culture.

Perhaps that is what future archeologists will say about us.

Why do so Many of Today’s Pop Songs Decry Love?

Pop songs of the 1950s featured primarily male singers and their songs generally extolled the glories of love. Of the top 100 songs from 1950 to 1959, only four were by female singers: Ruth Brown, Patti Page, Mary Ford and Faye Adams.

A hit song of 1951, "Glory of Love," was epitomized by the line, "As long as there's the two of us, we've got the world and all its charms."  Ray Charles in "I've Got a Woman," sings of a woman across town who loves him. "She saves her lovin' just for me, oh she loves me so tenderly. I got a woman way over town that's good to me, oh yeah."  In "Good Golly Miss Molly," Little Richard croons about a girl who is rocking and rolling and inspires him to marry her. "I'm going to the corner; gonna buy a diamond ring."

Of course there were occasional songs of unrequited love, such as "Hound Dog," by Elvis Presley, with its famous line, "You ain't nothing but a hound dog, crying all the time." However, for the most part the songs of the fifties expressed positive feelings, and if they contained negative feelings they were more likely to be regretful or humorous rather than hateful.

In contrast, women dominate the top ten in the 2000s, and most of their songs focus on the men who love them and disappoint them.  Katy Perry, one of the top-selling singers of all time (she had five number-one hits in her album, "Teenage Dream," tying Michael Jackson's earlier feat) almost always decries the regrets and hurts in the area of romance.  In her most recent song, "Wide Awake," she sings of having awakened from a relationship in which she had naively allowed herself to fall in love with a man who shattered her. "I'm wide awake, yeah, I am born again, out of the lion's den."

Taylor Swift, another top-selling singer of the 2000s, winner of the Grammy for the Album of the Year in 2010, among many other awards, is famous for songs about ex-boyfriends. Her most recent album contains a song about a boyfriend who puts her down, cheats , lies and drives her crazy. "I'm never ever ever getting back together!" she exclaims throughout the song.

Lady Gaga sprang to prominence on the basis of a slew of songs proclaiming the toxicity of romance and of men.  In the music video of "Telephone," she goes around killing off men and refusing to answer her telephone calls from her ex.  In "Bad Romance," she sighs, "I want your ugly, I want your disease." Rather than extolling the glories of love, her songs bemoan the pathology of love and the joys of revenge.

Pop songs tell us about the values of the times.  In the 1950s, male singers were adulated and what those males valued were good relationships with women. "The Glories of Love," noted that in love "You have to cry a little, laugh a little," emphasizing the give-and-take of healthy relationships. Most of the pop songs today are by women, and most of their songs seem to value dumping men, who are seen as cheaters, liars, and abusers. 

The emphasis today is not on making relationships work, but on leaving them the minute they don't work. Bad relations have become the norm, not just among pop singers but also among their fans. The current pop songs reflect the values that are borne out by statistics. For example, the U.S. leads the world in divorce rate; here 50 percent of marriages end in divorce. Generally first marriages end in divorce, indicating that young people go into the marriages without a clue about how relationships work. It is generally women nowadays who initiate divorce, and current values that that make men culpable for problems in relationships seem to encourage them to do so.

Pop songs clearly indicate that today's young people are finding relationships difficult.  In the songs mentioned above, the female singers almost entirely blame men for their problems in relationships. There is no semblance of any kind of self-objectivity. It is always easier to blame others for our failures than to look at ourselves. And the male singers are no different.  Bruno Mars, one of the top male singers today, in his song, "I'd Catch a Grenade for You," calls out an ex: "Oh, take, take, take it all, but you never give."

Relationships are difficult because they require people to be in touch with their own feelings and to be able to empathize with the feelings of others. If we aren't in touch with how we are occasionally uncaring to others, we won't be able to understand those who are uncaring to us.

Does this mean that the people of the 1950s had better values than the people of today? In some ways they did and some ways they didn't. The values that encouraged male singers but not female were of course not healthy. But the values that spoke about the ups and downs of relationships and the importance of being willing to work on them were very healthy.

The songs we sing are the products of the feelings we feel. I suggest we pay more attention to what we are feeling than what we are singing.

Why Kill Your Beautiful and Loving Teacher?

When I saw the picture of Colleen Ritzer in November, 2013, like almost everybody else in America, I was stunned. Smiling out from the picture was a 24-year-old woman whose warmth and humanity was apparent, and whose physical beauty shined because of it. And, like almost everybody else, I wondered why.
Why would someone want to kill their pretty, loving teacher?

"To know even one life has breathed easier because you have lived. This is to have succeeded." This was a quote by Ralph Waldo Emerson that Ritzer posted on her Facebook page. This quote seems to say a lot about her.

"She was energetic and compassionate," fellow teacher at the Danvers High School in Massachusetts Charlotte Dzerkacz said. "You couldn't ask for anything more from a teacher or a friend. She cared about every single student and put in many hours after school every day, always thinking about how she could be better and better help students. She was truly a beautiful person. She was "a dynamic and brilliant ray of light," according to the school district's statement. "Colleen Ritzer was everything one could ask for in a teacher -- dedicated, passionate and invested in her students. Our entire community will feel this loss for many years to come."

It is one of those seemingly incomprehensible happenings. How could a 14-year-old student, Philip Chism, murder a person who was almost universally loved? How could he kill the very math teacher who may have taken more of an interest in him at this small Massachusetts school than anybody ever had?  Is this a case of "biting the hand that feeds you?"

Philip Chism’s parents, Diana and Stacy Chism filed for divorce in 2001, three years after being married. He was just 2. The divorce agreement limited Stacy Chism's time with the children due to "physical abuse, sexual abuse, or a pattern of emotional abuse." The decree also asserted the father was guilty of adultery and "such cruel and inhuman treatment or conduct towards the spouse as renders cohabitation unsafe and improper."

At an early age, Philip and his older sister were forced to move, first from Florida to Tennessee, then to Massachusetts. Friends in Clarksville, Tennessee noticed that the boy was quiet and only spoke to people when he was spoken to. "It's kinda like an aura around a person," said Marcus Evans, 19, who lived in his neighborhood. "He didn't like moving a lot . . . family problems may have gotten to him."

As a psychoanalyst, I have experienced how traumatic family discord and instability can be for a child. I have also seen what happens when parents separate and the mother is the victim of domestic abuse, as the divorce decree of Diana Chism contends. Often times when a mother is angry at the father and the father leaves, that anger is taken out on her son. The son at such times needs love and reassurance from both the mother and the father, but he gets just the opposite. The father is hostile and distant, and the mother sometimes treats the son as if he is a miniature version of his father. That is, she treats the son as if he, like his father, is a potential abuser. Sometimes such treatment can end up being a self-fulfilling prophecy.

 A report in the New York Post stated that the Danvers police were exploring a theory that young Chism had romantic ideas toward Colleen Ritzer. "One of the theories going around is that this boy had a major crush on Colleen," a police source noted about suspect Philip Chism. "She was a very friendly, approachable teacher and it is possible he completely misread her affable nature and made some kind of advance towards her," the source told the paper. This theory seems plausible to me. And probably the police developed this theory because of what he told them during their interrogation, which has not been revealed to the public.

I would further speculate that she, being a very empathic person, was drawn to this moody, quiet boy and wanted to be of help to him. She was a dedicated teacher who seemed to love the challenges of teaching. This was a boy who was unused to anybody paying attention to his feelings. He was a boy who had probably become enraged by parents who were angry and neglectful, parents who probably did not have the time or inclination to notice what was happening to him, since they were too absorbed in their own difficulties. The cruel things that can happen inside of families are never visible to the people around them.

When Collen Ritzer reached out in a loving way toward Philip Chism, it most likely did not provoke love, because he had apparently never known love. It provoked the hatred that comes from not having known love, and the jealousy one feels toward a person such as Ritzer, who has known much love and is so obviously happy with herself and able to give of herself. The police theorized that Philip may have reacted in a teen-aged, sexualized way to Ritzer's loving attempt to help him. However, when he followed his teacher into the women’s bathroom, his actions appear to have been planned. He had come to school with a box cutter, mask, gloves and a change of clothes. After he punched her and slit her throat, he rolled her to the woods in a recycling bin, pulled off her panties, and molested her with a three-foot stick.

The rage that came out was undoubtedly directed at the wrong person. It had probably been engendered by his mother, father, older sister or by the generally traumatic situation of his childhood. In psychoanalysis we call this a transferential reversal. He treated the eager and naïve young teacher the way his father or mother had most likely treated him when he was a tender young boy. In my therapy work I have found this to happen more than people realize. Nobody realizes how much rage a boy may have inside him until it unexpectedly explodes one day.

And so one of the most beautiful human beings who ever lived was extinguished on a sunny afternoon in Danvers, Massachusetts. It seems as if it is always the kind-hearted person who takes the fall for life's miseries.

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

10 Ways to Beat the Holiday Blues

Holiday depression is painfully real for many people. Others suffer from SAP (Seasonal Affective Disorder). One of my clients described it best:

"From Thanksgiving to New Years I feel as if I've dropped into a black hole. I see all these people with cheery smiles and ruddy faces and it actually makes me sick. I have to try to fake a smile and force a cheery comment, but that only makes me feel more isolated. I guess the season reminds me of my childhood Christmases, which were always horrible. My parents were always drunk and seemed to always stage their worst fight of the year on Christmas. And as the youngest in the family, I was made to feel that if I had any complaints, I was being a baby. So I learned to internalize my feelings, especially during the holidays."

Like my client, a great number of people suffer from depression during the holidays, often because of depressing memories, and they seem resigned to it. But there are things you can do to not only diminish your funk but even make the holidays an enjoyable experience.

One: Talk to somebody. Talk to a friend, a family member, a therapist, or a dog. Talk to somebody who can hear you without judging you. Better yet, talk to somebody who shares the same funk. When you talk to somebody, you relieve the depression and you form a bond with another person.

Two: Do something completely different. Plan a trip to an exotic place-Tibet, Morocco, a tropical forest in South America. Join a tour where you can meet other people. Or, if you can't afford that, do something different where you live. Look for local activities that interest you-a candlelight service or sing-along at a church; a walking tour; an online chat festival. Do something that distracts you from your negative thinking and inspires you.

Three: Volunteer. In order to stop feeling down on yourself, use the time to help people who are less fortunate than you. Volunteer for a soup kitchen, a toy drive or a hospital. There is nothing that can raise your spirits more than giving of yourself, and you might just meet other people who are similarly inclined.

Four: Take a friend to Christmas events. If you're someone who dreads being single or alone at holiday events, take a friend to the office party, to Thanksgiving dinner, or to Christmas and New Year's celebrations. You'll feel better knowing you have someone at your side, someone to talk to when nobody else is paying attention to you, and someone to commiserate with afterwards.

Five: Set your boundaries. Know your limits and stick to them. Only attend the events you want to attend, and stay only as long as you want to. Don't hesitate to drop by for a minute or two and then announce that you have a crowded holiday schedule. People will understand that it's a busy time of year and will respect you for setting your boundaries. And knowing your stay is temporary will ease the stress of being places you don't necessarily want to be.

Six. Try laugh therapy. Laughter, as they say, is the best medicine. It is known to be a release of anger, and physiologically it sends endorphins into your body, giving you a sense of well-being. Get hold of your favorite funny movies and spend the holidays watching them. Even better, invite a like-minded friend to watch them with you.

Seven. Work on your novel. Use the holiday period to do something creative or useful. If you have an unfinished novel on our computer files, get it out and start revising it. Or do other creative projects such as redecorating your apartment, learning a new piece on your keyboard, or writing a diary. Or clean out your basement and organize your closet. You'll feel better if you do.

Eight. Get some exercise. Exercise, like laughter, releases endorphins and raises your spirits. Do something you've never done before, such as ice skating or skiing. Go to a gym, take a walk in an interesting section of town, wander through a park. You may not feel like it, but do it anyway. You'll be glad you did.

Nine. Take Risks. You may have a strong desire to stay home and avoid potential pitfalls; but this only exacerbates your depression. Try to step out of your comfort zone and take some risks. Make it a point to do one thing a week that arouses anxiety. You may reach out for an old friend, go to a party, or talk to a stranger at a museum. Even if you don't get a positive response, you'll feel better about yourself for having braved a rejection.

Ten. Make resolutions. As New Year's Day approaches, make some constructive resolutions. Promise yourself to drink less, to finish projects, to begin doing yoga or therapy. This will get you out of the funk and give you hope. There's nothing more curative than hope.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Why is nobody allowed to criticize feminism?

A while back I posted a question on a forum to which I belong. “Has feminism gone too far?” Underneath the headline I wrote a brief statement describing ways in which feminism as a social movement had overstepped its original goal of establishing equal rights between men and women.

No sooner had I posted this message than I was hit with numerous hostile replies. One woman inserted a picture of a long pole and said, “I wouldn’t touch this post with a ten-foot pole.” She implied that anybody who started a thread questioning feminism was simply trying to stir up trouble. Other replies had similar hostile attitudes and made similar assumptions about me, all directly or indirectly implying that I was prejudiced against women, up to no good, a narrow-minded bigot, a secret misogynist. or just plain antiquated. And all I had done was ask a question.

This has happened on many occasions in almost the same way. Hence, it has become clear that there is an unspoken rule to the effect that nobody is allowed to criticize feminism. Feminism has become a modern holy cow. The question is why? Why are we not allowed to criticize feminism?

Feminism was one of the most powerful social moments of the 20th Century, a movement that resulted in vast changes in our values. We are allowed to examine other movements that brought sweeping changes, such as Communism or Islam or Socialism. Why should feminism be any different than other movements?

When I posed this question to a “feminist” professor, she replied. “Feminism isn’t like other movements. It’s a direct response to discrimination against women that went on for hundreds of years. Any criticism of feminism is seen as the beginning of the end of feminism and the return to discrimination.” Her response helped me to understand that feminism has become more than a social movement. It is a crusade.

Movements can be looked at objectively. Crusades cannot. When I said to her, “I don’t necessarily agree that women were discriminated against for hundreds of years; it depends on how you define discrimination,” her reply was, “Then you’re blind.” If I disagreed with her, there was something wrong with me--that was her underlying message.

A wall has seemingly been set up that cannot be crossed. Anybody who crosses it is viewed as a villain. Feminists believe anybody who crosses that wall is a prejudiced person who doesn’t “get it.” I believe, on the contrary, that there are always two sides to every question and to every movement, and both sides need to be heard. I also believe that it is harmful to society and to each individual in a society when the values we live by cannot be questioned.

When we cannot question the values we live by, we feel oppressed. When we feel oppressed, our emotional and physical health suffers. When our health suffers we are only partially alive. I say, let’s pull down the walls. Let’s have open discussions. Let’s have a truly egalitarian society.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Tragedy grows in Brooklyn as questions emerge.

“When we walked into [his] house as kids, there was just a very eerie feeling in the air. It was not a nice place.” This is how a neighbor remembered going into Levy Aron’s family home in Brooklyn when he was a kid. What happened in that home?

Paul J. Browne, the chief spokesman for the Police Department stated a neighborhood woman told him that Aron had tried to lure her son into his car a year ago. How many children had he lured before? How many had he wanted to lure?

Parents on the block didn’t want their kids to go near him, said another neighbor, Chaim Lefkovitz, 39. A family acquaintance, Lee Vogel, 21, said, “There was something strange about him. You know when you see Charles Manson, he has that look in his eye? Levy had that look.” Why hadn't someone done something about him before?

Levy Aron, a 35-year-old loner who still lives in the same house with his father and uncle, confessed last week to kidnapping and murdering Leiby Kletzky, an eight-year-old boy who got lost while walking seven blocks from his day camp to meet his mother. Various reports since then have raised more questions than answers.

Aron said in his confession he saw Kletzky standing around in Borough Park, an Orthodox Jewish neighborhood in Brooklyn. He asked if he needed a ride somewhere and the boy, who was autistic, went with him. Did his autism make him susceptible?

Aron said he attended a wedding later that day, but witnesses say they didn't see the boy there. What did he do with the boy? The following day went to work. What did he do with the boy? Police say they saw rope marks on the boy's remains. Was he tied up that day? Aron said he suffocated the boy with a towel, then cut the boy's body up and put it in a dumpster. For some reason, he wrapped the boy's feet in plastic bags in his refrigerator. Why did he keep the feet?

At his arraignment Aron's lawyer, Pierre Bazile, asked for a psychiatric exam, pointing out that Aron was hearing voices and having hallucinations. During the proceedings, Aron giggled. These are all symptoms of schizophrenia. Why had his schizophrenia never been diagnosed and taken care of?

Recent research has linked schizophrenia with childhood abuse. Other research has shown that kids molested or abused during childhood often end up becoming molesters or abusers themselves. Leonard Shengold used the term, "Soul Murder," to describe severe abuse. Monsters, this research suggests, are not born, but made by monstrous childhood conditions. When a man has had his soul murdered as a boy, does he look for another susceptible boy on whom to displace his murderous rage?

Leibby Kletzky, the only boy among four sisters, was described by family friend Schmuel Eckstein as "a great kid. He's an angel." What would his future have been?

Aron dreamed of singing on American Idol, but his profile on MySpace listed only one interest, a movie called What is Love? Had Aron ever known love?

Questions arise about two tragedies in Brooklyn. One happened to a boy who grew up in a twisted house on Second Street. The other happened when that boy became an adult and met another boy in Borough Park. Tragedies that bring up many questions, but few answers. Meanwhile a family and a community must find the guts to go on.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Sports Therapy: The Women's Cup of Soccer

Some people try to raise their sagging spirits by drinking spirits. Some people try to do it by playing the lottery and hoping they win. Some people try to raise their spirits by squashing other people’s spirits—displacing their anger on their spouse or children. These, of course, are all dubious and harmful ways.

On the other hand, the Women’s World Cup of Soccer has given us a totally healthy way to raise our spirits.

From USA’s miraculous last-second comeback game against Brazil to the championship final between the USA and Japan, which Japan won in a last-second comeback, women’s soccer has made our spirits—and Japan’s—soar.

The game against Brazil was one of the all-time classics of international soccer. No movie script could have been written with more drama. The USA women were down 2 goals to 1 and the game was in the last minute of extra time. They were also down a player, due to a penalty. The announcers were sadly lamenting the imminent loss when all of a sudden Megan Rapinoe flew down the left side of the field and kicked a last-second, desperate but beautiful ball in front of the net and Abby Wambach leaped into the air and headed it into the net.

And then when the two teams each took turns kicking penalty shots USA goalie, Hope Solo, whose beauty and feistiness has made her the face of the Women’s team, made a lovely, athletic dive to stop one of Brazil’s penalty shots. That gave the USA the margin of victory.

After this game a short video appeared on Youtube by a 22-year-old video-maker named Robby Donaho, celebrating the victory by showing fans all over the country going crazy. These fans, young and old, male and female, were jumping and running about and screaming at the top of their lungs. Yes, their spirits were obviously high.

More than that, the USA Women’s Soccer Team demonstrated how to hang tough through hard times, something we all need to learn. At one point in the game against Brazil, Hope Solo swooped down and seemingly stopped a penalty shot. But a referee blew her whistle and claimed that one of the American players were off side. So just when it appeared USA had accomplished a major triumph, Brazil was allowed to kick again, and this time they prevailed.

The call was very controversial and might have caused another team to brood. Maybe another team might have hung their heads and cursed their fate and been unable to play their best. But this didn’t happen to the USA. They never gave up trying their best, and in the end they not only endured, they won.

In the championship game, it was Japan that scored at the end of the game, and Japan that won on penalty shots. And so Japan got its first World Cup and helped rebuild the spirit of Japan, a country that has suffered greatly since the Tsunami of March 11.

People say, “It’s just a game.” But sometimes an athletic competition is more than a game. Sometimes it is a psychological antidote to all that is wrong in the world—from war to tsunamis to individual personal anxieties and depressions.

Call it Sports Therapy.