Caitlin Doughty's Smoke Gets In Your Eyes

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(originally featured in Bitch Magazine) Caitlin Doughty’s memoir begins with an elderly man and a pink plastic razor. “A girl always remembers the first corpse she shaves,” she writes. “It is the only event in her life more awkward than her first kiss or the loss of her virginity.”

Doughty is a Los Angeles-based mortician and death theorist. She best known for her organization and blog, Order of the Good Death, described as “a group of funeral industry professionals, academics, and artists exploring ways to prepare a death phobic culture for their inevitable mortality.” Between that and her YouTube series, “Ask a Mortician,” she is widely recongized as a vocal proponent of demystifying our collective cultural experience with mortality.

Doughty’s debut memoir is an unapologetic account of the intimate (and often graphic) experiences of her first few years working in the American funeral industry. She focuses mainly on her job at a busy San Francisco crematory, where she began as an inexperienced 23-year-old fascinated with death. Carefully balancing a razor-thin line between humor and vulgarity, she recounts everything from moldy human remains to cleaning up molten body fat to loading stillborn babies into the crematory retort. “Appalling? Absolutely,” she writes. “But if I let myself be sucked into the sorrow surrounding each fetus—each wanted but wasted tiny life—I’d go crazy.”

While reading, I often found myself unsure whether to laugh or cringe—and that’s the point. “There is nothing like consistent exposure to dead bodies to remove the trepidation attached to dead bodies,” Doughty writes. “What happens to a culture where all decomposition is removed? We don’t need to hypothesize: we live in just such a culture. A culture of death denial.”

With this book—and her efforts with Order of the Good Death—Doughty hopes to help “pull the shroud off our death ways.” The goals are to make death more a part of life, to reintroduce the concept of families taking care of their own dead, and to develop healthy, secular ways to deal with our mortality. Her writing evokes both the bluntness of Jessica Mitford’s 1963 exposé, The American Way of Death, and the dark humor of Mary Roach’s 2003 Stiff, while taking the informally-designated “death” genre to the next level with a blend of history, personal narrative, science, humor, and advocacy.

“A culture that denies death is a barrier to achieving a good death,” she concludes. “Death isn’t happening to you. Death is happening to us all.”

Review: What Will It Take to Make a Woman President?

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(originally featured in Bitch Magazine) In her introduction to this collection of interviews, Marianne Schnall admits that her endeavor began with a slightly different question—one raised by her then 10-year-old daughter, shortly after Obama was elected: Why haven’t we ever had a woman president? “It is these types of questions, often out of the mouths of babes, that can wake us up out of a trance,” writes Schnall. “Many inequities have become such a seamless part of our history and culture that we may subliminally begin to accept them as ‘just how it is’ and not question the ‘why’ or explore the possibility that circumstances could be different.”

Schnall confronts these cultural assumptions by posing a series of provocative questions to a series of equally provocative subjects—Maya Angelou, Gavin Newsom, Nancy Pelosi, Sheryl Sandberg, Gloria Steinem, to name a few. She includes men and women, democrats and republicans, and a variety of races and ages—a selection which illustrates the importance of framing the lack of American women in leadership roles as a humanist issue, not just a concern specific to a portion of the population, even if that portion is more than half. “Women bring a different perspective to each and every conversation because we have a different set of experiences,” says journalist Pat Mitchell, who points out that global issues are “too complex to expect men to figure it out all by themselves.”

Despite the diversity of Schnall’s interviewees, they unanimously agree that all women leaders face the same set of challenges, namely an unforgiving media, a lack of role models and resources, and the influence of a society that frames self-promotion and drive as unattractive, unfeminine qualities. “Women have to be taught that ambition is ladylike,” says Senator Clair McCaskill. Or better yet, that antiquated ideals of what is “ladylike” or feminine need to be redefined—a process that starts at home. “Most girls don’t grow up thinking that they want to be out there in the rough-and-tumble of politics,” says political strategist Donna Brazile. “You’ve got to give women the tools they need in order to believe that they can be successful when they get there.”

The general consensus is that we are on the brink of huge shift, one largely foreshadowed by Hillary Clinton’s primary race in 2008. Much of the book actually reads like a love-letter to Hillary, one that both reveres her courage and begs her to run in 2016. The interviews are bound by this underlying sense that Hillary made a huge crack in the glass ceiling, allowing most of those interviewed to believe a woman president can and will happen in their lifetimes.

“Are we ready for a woman president?” Schnall asks each of her subjects. A resounding: yes, but not without action. “I feel hopeful that you and I will act,” says Gloria Steinem. “It’s not automatic…It means recognizing that the voting booth is the only place on Earth in which everybody’s equal—so using it.”

Kate Zambreno's Heroines

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(originally featured in Bitch Magazine) Kate Zambreno has declared herself the “literary executor of the dead and erased.” Zambreno’s blog, Frances Farmer is My Sister, is part of an online discourse around how women writers have been historically perceived. Her latest book, Heroines, is part memoir and part encyclopedia of these forgotten women writers, a union in which she believes herself to be a part.

Zambreno’s narrative is a series of fragmented histories. The bulk are rich and devastating biographical accounts from what she calls her “invisible community,” comprised of women like Zelda Fitzgerald, Vivien(ne) Eliot, and Sylvia Plath, among others. While Zambreno has a soft spot for the “erased wives,” she constructs a broad community built around women writers whose legacies were repressed. “Who gets to be remembered?,” she asks. “Whose writing is preserved and whose is not?” Her intent is to illuminate these writers’ achievements, otherwise buried in the shadows of a husband, a mental illness, or a suicide.

Zambreno takes us inside the unique struggles of women writers and ultimately reveals that little has changed. The skeleton of this book is her own literary identity crisis. “I have two selves too,” she writes. “The me that lectures women on literature where husbands oppress their wives, and the me that secretly lives that life.” She struggles throughout to reconcile her marriage to a writer with her own writerly goals, affirming that love and ambition are often doomed to a perpetual binary.

Duality seems to be at the core of Zambreno’s text: husbands and wives, writers and characters, novelists and novelties. She takes the corset off a world in which women have historically been expected to be muses instead of artists, often ostracized or ridiculed for attempting to cross that divide.

One of her central arguments is that there is a critical bias against women who write autobiographically. “Memoir is a woman writer’s forbidden and often avoided content,” she writes. The charge is often narcissism—one rarely leveled at male writers of the same genre. “he can write the autobiographical, but his work is read as aspiring to something greater.” Zambreno disputes these claims and encourages women to embrace the literary self-portrait, if anything to claim ownership of themselves as characters before someone else takes that liberty.

Toward the end the autobiographical takes a backseat and Zambreno speaks frankly to her readers, advising them to tell their stories in any format available. “The only way our narratives will be told is if we write them ourselves.” This book will leave you with a sense of urgency to preserve your own fast-disappearing history.

Suicide in Lee Hirsch's "Bully"

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[featured in the American Association of Suicidology's student newsletter, June 2012] Lee Hirsch’s documentary Bully is a heartbreaking and necessary film that illustrates the impact childhood bullying has on individuals, families, and communities. Hirsch follows the personal stories of three different teenagers, revealing their painful daily struggles with mental and physical abuse from their peers. These images are both disheartening and provocative, inspiring profound empathy for these characters and frustration toward a system that seems unwilling to help their plight.

Hirsch was inspired by his own childhood experiences being bullied, and used his film to give kids and parents a voice to talk about their experiences. “Bullying is something that your generation and my generation of folks didn't think about, didn't talk about,” he told NPR’s Robert Siegel. “It was wrapped with shame, it was wrapped with silence.”

That statement, coincidentally, could also apply to suicide, a subject that plays a large role in Hirsch’s narrative. The film opens with the tragic story of 17-year-old Tyler Long’s 2009 suicide. Hirsch interviews Long’s parents, who talk about their son’s childhood and his longtime struggle with bullying—the catalyst, they believe, that led to his untimely death. “We know why Tyler did what he did,” his father says. “It was the mental abuse and not-so-physical abuse that Tyler endured.” Long’s suicide is a prominent storyline throughout the film, along with the suicide of 11-year-old Ty Smalley, whose death inspired Stand For The Silent—a program through which Ty’s parents educate students about the effects of bullying and what they can do to help end the silent epidemic.

These cultural connections between suicide and bullying are not uncommon. Bullying has received a lot of attention recently in relation to adolescent suicide, especially in the case of LGBT youth. Bully relies heavily on this cause-and-effect relationship to bolster its anti-bullying agenda. The documentary’s message seems to be: bullying is bad because it can have fatal repercussions. While this may be true, Hirsch neglects to address other factors that may have been present in the two suicides he references—namely depression and Asperger’s syndrome—thereby oversimplifying suicide and the variety of circumstances that can lead to self-inflicted death.

This perspective is a bit cursory and a whole lot potentially hazardous. The film repeatedly implies that suicide was the single reason anyone “took notice” of the bullying issue, and that it requires something as extreme as a suicide to affect change. These presumptions could lead Hirsch’s intended adolescent audience to believe that suicide is the direct and ultimate result of bullying, a way to get noticed, and a way to solve the problem.

Various scholarly studies have established a link between bullying and adolescent suicide, but not without acknowledging that bullying first inspires anxiety, depression, and aggression amongst its victims. Hirsch’s film shows this, but neglects to say it—a technique that may communicate the reality to adults but would likely slip under a teenager’s radar. The most telling moment might be when Alex, a 13-year-old boy who is relentlessly abused by his peers, talks to his mother about his classmates. She asks if it makes him feel good when they punch or kick or stab him.

“Well, I don’t know,” he responds. “I’m starting to think I don’t feel anything anymore.”

A statement like that should pave the way for a discussion about depression, but the film avoids the topic, despite many obvious indications.

Bullying is clearly a serious and under-represented issue that deserves attention and respect. Hirsch’s intentions are admirable, and the film will likely educate a variety of people about the severity of this issue, with which adolescent suicide is legitimately bound. Bullying was likely one of many factors in these suicides, and turning a tragedy into an educational tool is not a bad impulse—one often used within suicide prevention—but doing so without taking into account all of the factors is disadvantageous and, at worst, harmful. On the upside, two of the characters’ stories end on uplifting conclusions, leaving the audience with some hope. Overall, the film carries an optimistic message: kids should rally together against bullying, stand up for themselves, and support each other. Hopefully this message speaks the loudest and inspires the positive change this film can achieve.

What It Means To Be An Archie

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[featured in the American Association of Suicidology Student Newsletter, December 2011] The recently released mockumentary, Archie’s Final Project, opens with an upside-down home-recorded image of a sun-drenched suburban ranch house. Enter Archie, also upside-down, holding the opening titles on placards that are right side up. This scene sets the pace for the whole film: the world may be chaotic, but the message is clear, so listen.

The 2009 film, originally titled My Suicide, follows a teenage Archibald Williams as he documents his unpredictable relationship with teen suicide. The journey begins when he declares to his film class that he plans to kill himself on camera for his final project. After his bold statement chaos ensues and the typical suicide intervention protocol follows suit—removal from school, mandatory counseling, and eventually prescription drugs. Archie’s public cry-for-help opens the conversation about suicide among his peers and his unfolding documentary records the variety of ways in which suicide affects every teenager individually.

All of this is presented through Archie’s lens—both figuratively and literally. Much of the film is Archie’s footage and the erratic style mimics the random ebb and flow of adolescence. The adult figures are portrayed as insensitive and dense—a guidance counselor unconvincingly recites a standard intervention strategy to Archie and hands him a lollypop. In contrast, the kids are emotional, impulsive, and convinced the authority figures have little clue as to the scope of the problem. The dichotomy between these two groups is visceral, and in many cases, true. While the film mocks some tried and true suicide prevention efforts—including an interview clip of the late Edwin Shneidman reciting the famous “suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem”—it does so with a mission. The filmmakers have clearly done their research and what results is a message illuminating the tough reality that a monumental chasm often separates adolescence and everything that comes after.

In essence, this film is about connection. We see Archie transform and start to heal as he connects with people through his project—his peers, a depressed love interest, a frank psychologist who shares Archie’s fondness for film history, and a long-time artistic hero. He claims a few times throughout the film that the camera is his only friend, but the camera is the vehicle that hooks him up to the outside world; the project that threatened to end his life actually ends up saving it.

AFP has had a slow but steady influence. The film has spent the past couple years independently touring the festival circuit and picking up awards all over the world. After a recent U.S. tour AMC picked the film for distribution, which led to the December 6th DVD release, but the film’s greatest presence has been online. AFP has infiltrated suicide prevention within social media venues. The revolution began with a Miami teenager who posted a video on the film’s facebook page declaring he was an “Archie.” A slew of similar videos followed and marked the beginning of the IamAnArchie campaign, in which teenagers are encouraged to join the effort and share their own experiences and feelings through videos, photos, and testimonials posted on social websites like Facebook and Twitter.

Similar social media efforts like the Trevor Project and Postsecret are part of a new wave of virtual youth suicide prevention focused on connecting teenagers not only with support services, but also with other teenagers. What is unique to these programs is that kids are able to commiserate with other kids around the world experiencing similar feelings and struggles. The internet allows them to communicate on their own terms, and the social venues provide an infrastructure mediated by the larger organizations, linking kids to a bigger movement outside of themselves. Being an “Archie” means being part of a reciprocal message—putting yourself out there and realizing you are not alone.

An Exclusive Love, Johanna Adorján

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“What do people do on the morning that they know will be their last?” Johanna Adorján’s lovely and haunting memoir “An Exclusive Love” (Norton) follows this question into an exploration of her grandparents’ enigmatic double suicide. The narrative is structured around the author’s imagined reconstruction of the last day her grandparents were alive. Although much of this day is fictionalized, she builds the events and interactions out of minute details from the interior of their Danish home, as well as a vast recollection of her grandparents’ idiosyncrasies.

Woven in and out of this imagined day is Adorján’s own very real search for the truth about her grandparents’ lives and deaths. The pair had survived the Holocaust and, like many others, hid those memories away in an attempt to lead normal lives. The author interviews various family members and friends, revisits photographs and letters, and travels to Hungary and Denmark and France in an effort to prod the mystery they left behind.

Her prose often reflects this poignant pursuit: “I walk around Budapest, trying to imagine the city as it once was. Here and there the eastern bloc has left behind ugly brown box-shaped buildings that now accommodate hotel chains, but if you narrow your eyes and let everything blur slightly you can guess at the past.”

Like most memoirs about suicide, Adorján’s is pulled along by a loose set of unanswered questions surrounding her grandparents’ death. She imagines their conversations that day, the tying up of loose ends, the rationalizing of self-murder. The fact that these questions will remain unanswerable allows them to hover over the story, truly embodying the baffling nature of suicide bereavement.

Underlying Adorján’s personal search are the fascinating cultural implications surrounding the increased suicide rate among elderly Holocaust survivors. While not explicitly addressed, the nature of this paradox complicates the author’s emotions toward her grandparents’ self-destruction.

"At any point in life there are always just three possibilities: you can do something, you can do nothing, or you can kill yourself. Is that an idea to give one strength? Because it makes everything, even bad times, seem to be a free choice? Did the idea of determining her own end make my grandmother feel better? Did it give her the certainty that she would never again be at anyone’s mercy?”

Throughout the narrative she admits anger, confusion, sadness, but she never once allows her emotions to take over. Adorján maintains a cool distance from her emotions and her subject matter, allowing the reader to willingly tag along for her journey without being led—especially into sentimentality.

Unlike many memoirs, this story generally points outward toward her grandparents’ experience as opposed to structuring a more inward focus on herself. She is reflective enough establish her credibility, but she doesn’t overburden the narrative with self-exploration. In this work Adorján is the guide, asking all the right questions and maintaining a striking sense of objectivity. She places more of an emphasis on “why did this happen” than “why did this happen to me.”

One intimate personal thread she returns to throughout the piece is the uncovered set of similarities between her and her grandmother. It is clear Adorján has an intense emotional connection and admiration for her father’s mother. As her investigation reveals more and more of their shared ideals and eccentricities, she discovers a fulfilling—and rather sad—kinship, of which she never realized the full extent.

This book is an honest and evocative portrayal of one writer’s search toward the elusive truth about her grandparents’ suicides. Despite the shadow of their deaths, this story is very much a tribute to their rich and complicated lives.