Wednesday, March 30, 2016

In Defense of the Introvert

This was published March 29, 2016 in JSTOR Daily
We’ve all met them. They’re about two or three feet tall and clinging onto the legs of an adult, usually those of their mother or father. I’m talking here about shy children. Despite their existence in our midst, we have come to treat them as suspicious, unknowable, and secretive. They’re the ones secretly sticking pins into dolls, voodoo-style.
As the mother of a shy child, I felt unnerved by the reactions of adults around me to my daughter’s quietness. She was happier hiding inside my coat than belting out show tunes or piping up at dinner parties about the wonderfulness of the food. When she was almost three years old, I took her to a child psychologist to discuss her shyness. So many adults in my orbit had told me they felt she was “too shy for her age” or that she wasn’t “outgoing enough.” They worried on my behalf that she was “too clingy” and wasn’t giving them enough eye contact. There were grumblings about Asperger’s or autism.
After several visits with the child psychologist, I discovered that my daughter’s introversion caused her no distress, but it drove the adults around her crazy. By shining a light on the adults in her orbit, I was able to see their—and my—limitations, and was finally able to put the issue into perspective.
I began to observe some of the adults that my daughter came into contact with. The ones who expected her to speak like an adult were bound to be disappointed. When she was three, I remember someone asking her benignly how she was. She remained silent and stony faced. She had no idea how she was. She just was in that way children just are.
And this is where I want to make a larger point, one that has been made in books like Susan Cain’s Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking: Children should be allowed to be introverted. Being quiet is not an illness needing a cure. Pushing a child to conform to the stereotype of the precocious youngster who talks like an adult—a norm seen in many TV shows and children’s films—is not a healthy societal norm.
Society’s desire to foster an extrovert nature in children comes with serious consequences: In the United States, shyness in children is now being seen as a disorder. And the minute a psychological state is defined as a disease, it opens the door for drug companies to find pharmaceutical treatments. The American bible of psychiatric disorders, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), which is regularly updated and used by mental health professionals across the country, now lists “severe, prolonged crying or tantrums,” “shrinking away from other people,” and “extreme clinging and not being able to speak in social situations” as symptoms of Social Anxiety Disorder, which can be treated with drugs.
If I had seen a child psychologist in the US, instead of the UK where I was living at the time, my daughter may have been prescribed a drug from a group of medications called Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors such as fluoxetine (Prozac). Or she may have been given one of a number of antidepressants currently used on children. Medicalizing shyness is becoming more frequent as the symptoms of a normal and healthy introversion are being interpreted as symptoms of a pathology. The drugs that are commonly prescribed to treat the symptoms of social phobia have side effects, some of which are depression, which in turn can lead to suicide. Is this where we want to be pushing our quietest children?
Despite the fact that children tend to outgrow shyness, we continue to medicate against it. Later in life, shy children gravitate toward intellectual careers, often choosing scientific fields. As the respected developmental psychologist Alice Sterling Honig wrote in the peer-reviewed journal Young Children, “Inhibited children avoided dangerous activities and social situations, conformed to parental demands, and were minimally aggressive.” What’s so terrible about that? In a 30-year study of children first seen in a psychiatric clinic for being shy, withdrawn, or hypersensitive, it was found that these children were less likely as adults to develop schizophrenic illnesscompared to children seen for other reasons.
So why are we so afraid of being confronted by children whose response to strange people or situations is one of quiet observation? It seems to me that we are pathologizing seriousness, sensitivity, and a healthy scepticism in children, when in fact we should be doing the opposite. A society that takes an almost unhealthy glee in violence, whose news channels peddle fear, and whose reality TV shows bask in humiliation (while brashly advocating fame, pleasure, and getting rich) is a society that needs the quiet people to step back, think about things, and put them into some kind of perspective.
Author and academic Christopher Lane, in his book Shyness: How Normal Behavior Became a Sickness, believes that there is a sinister link between the medicalization of shyness and the drug companies who promise pharmaceutical salvation from social anxiety, even when displayed in children. When a group of psychiatrists rewrote the DSM in the 1970s, it grew from a thin, spiral-bound handbook to a 600-page tome as the list of disorders and their treatments grew and grew. The growth of this doorstop is not only a metaphor, but also a physical reminder of the medicalization of psychiatry. Lane argues that by pathologizing certain disorders—shyness among them—Big Pharma is able to capitalize on and make money from the human condition.
Over the past eight years, during which I have watched my daughter grow, I have realized that being the gregarious and outgoing mother of a child who is so different from me is actually a gift. I have never seen her as a miniature version of myself. I have never seen her really as mine. I have always seen her as a distinct person who is on loan to me. By allowing her to flourish at her own pace, in her own way, I hope I have also encouraged her to hone the skills needed to find out who she is, to carve her place in the world.
We don’t need more medication for children; we need less homogeneity and more acceptance of differing norms. Whether they are quiet or loud, introverted or extroverted, every child deserves to occupy a space created by him or her and for him or her. They do not need drug companies to turn them into replicas of the adult population, many of whom are also medicated. Allowing children to be who they need to be is difficult and takes time. And, of course, time is money. Sticking a pill down a child’s throat is quick and easy. But who ever said the easy road was the right one, especially when it comes to raising healthy children?


Hidden Shyness in Children: Discrepancies Between Self-Perceptions and the Perceptions of Parents and Teachers 

Merrill-Palmer Quarterly, Vol. 51, No. 4 (2005), pp. 437-466 
Wayne State University Press

Perceptual Determinants of Gaze Aversion by Normal and Psychotic Children: The Role of Two Facing Eyes 

Behaviour, Vol. 69, No. 3/4 (1979), pp. 228-254 

The Shy Child 

Young Children, Vol. 42, No. 4 (1987), pp. 54-64 
National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC)

Friday, March 18, 2016

Film Review: In Jackson Heights

Gentrification Nation: Frederick Wiseman’s In Jackson Heights

In Jackson Heights
Frederick Wiseman’s In Jackson Heights gives voice to the victims of gentrification.
Frederick Wiseman’s films rely on subtlety. Long and expansive explorations, they allow the viewer time to take in the minute details that make up conversations, connections, and actions. The 86-year-old director has spent most of his career filming the inner workings of institutions, and does so with the painstaking thoroughness of an archivist or an archaeologist. The small preposition in the title of Wiseman’s forty-third film, In Jackson Heights, is crucial. Without it, the film would be about the multi-ethnic area of Queens, New York, but what Wiseman is saying here is, “Come with me as we go inside”. Faces, surfaces, stories, past tragedies, present inequalities, and future uncertainties are excavated by this poet-archaeologist and in them is revealed the beauty of our shared humanity. A broken baby Jesus in the local Articulos Católicos shop is cradled like a real baby before being whisked off to be fixed, Hindu gods radiate technicolour splendour during a Hare Krishna service, and fruits and vegetables in the local markets are as much symbols of a home left behind as they are sustenance for a new life in America. Even eyebrow threading takes on a meditative quality while women perform the quick movements like dancers. Nothing is too mundane or banal for Wiseman’s eye.
In Jackson Heights takes us inside the innermost sanctums of mosques, Catholic cathedrals, Holocaust survivor services, halal butchers (replete with the throat-cutting of live chickens), council offices (with saintly telephone receptionists taking angry calls), meetings of gay seniors, immigrant support groups, taxi driver training classes (where people who have never seen a map are taught to read one), transsexual support groups and a strange musical performance involving the earnest tickling of china bowls in a Laundromat – and dozens more.
Underneath what seems like a loose structuring of these disparate strands of society lies an absolute control of the material. The film is bookended by wide shots of Jackson Heights: it opens with a bright tableau of the area on a spring day and closes at night on the fourth of July with fireworks going off in the background over Manhattan. Fireworks that, like Manhattan itself, are both beyond the reach of the protagonists and yet within their view. Individual tales of immigrant struggle, pain, loss, and frustration play out within the larger context of community. The personal and the political are never far from each other, and Wiseman doesn’t lose sight of the constant threat just under the surface of these people’s lives: gentrification. Nor does he bash us over the head with his ‘message’. It’s there for those who take the time to look.
A GAP store has moved into the area offering 70% discounts. It has swallowed up eight small businesses. A local mall with fifty family-owned shops looks like it will be the next casualty of property developers. One Colombian gentleman who has had his business there for twenty-two years complains that he and others like him have “no political representation”. He goes on to list the people who should be out there fighting his case, such as state senators and representatives, but they are all in jail or involved in scandals. Another restaurant owner tells a couple of young activists that his staff is made up of older women who have been working for twenty years as waitresses, “How can I tell them they have no work when the time comes? These new corporations, all they want are bonitas,” he says. What Wiseman does with such a light and sympathetic touch is show us what is at stake when individuals lose out to corporate money and interests. The loss is so much more than financial. They are forced to give up their sense of belonging, shared histories, and hope—the very qualities that make us human. When big businesses move in, the organically forged common ground between sex workers, Bangladeshi vegetable sellers, lonely senior citizens, Latino beauticians, and the seemingly endless variety of human beings who meet in the cramped public spaces of large cities are lost forever. Every scene in the film is played out in a public or a shared space, and the importance of these environments is paramount. Towards the beginning of the film, members of a group of gay seniors are discussing whether they feel comfortable meeting in the community centre of a synagogue. Dialogue ensues about space and belonging, which are at the heart of this film. It is as much about the surface of where a journey begins as it is about the soul of where we find ourselves.
In Jackson Heights pulses with life and complexity. We hear tragic and terrible stories like the Mexican woman who stands up in front of an immigration support group to tell the tale of her daughter being lost in the desert for fifteen days as she tried to cross the border into the United States. The woman often stops and searches for the right word, allowing us to see how all our stories are constantly searching for the right words and the right ears to hear them. There is the older man who worked for a cleaning company and had recently been fired for no reason, who confesses to feeling hopeless but tells his story with such dignity that one does not want to believe in his hopelessness. There are tales of discrimination and a repeated trope of a child killed by a garbage truck, and yet for all the sadness within the individual struggles, there is comfort to be had in community—albeit a community on the verge of being eaten up by developers.
The other strand woven deftly into the fabric of film are the stories of Julio Rivera and Edgar Garzon, two gay men beaten to death by skinhead sympathizers in Jackson Heights. Rivera was killed twenty-six years ago and Garzon eleven years later. Their memories are very much alive in this film as we see the planning of the Gay Pride Parade and the meetings of gay and transgender inhabitants of the neighbourhood discussing their enduring challenges. The Jackson Heights councilman, Daniel Dromm, is a colourful presence throughout the film, walking in the Pride Parade in his suit and tie and a rainbow feather boa.
True to Wiseman’s style, there is no narration or voice-over, no talking head interviews, no questions from behind the camera, artificial lights or trickiness. Wiseman carefully constructs the feeling of time passing—there are three nights and three days over the 190 minutes—by editing his material to resemble lives unfolding. He has famously written bout his editing process: “Cutting a documentary is like putting together a ‘reality dream,’ because the events in it are all true, except really they have no meaning except insofar as you impose a form on them, and that form is imposed in large measure, of course, in the editing.” Although most people today consider Wiseman a spokesperson for the cinema vérité crowd, he didn’t like this term, preferring to call his films “reality fictions”.
In Jackson Heights is an epic poem in which the heroic deeds have been replaced by the normal lives of people who sometimes finds themselves in heroic or tragic situations. It is a reminder that to be human is not always to be greedy, ugly and shallow, which is what we are told on the continuous loop of 24-hour news, reality TV shows, and celebrity gossip. Instead Wiseman takes this opportunity to show us that despite our flaws we are capable of kindness and beauty and connection. I am grateful to Frederick Wiseman for capturing this side of us, albeit fleetingly, but captured nevertheless for all the world to see.
Appeared in Litro

Tuesday, March 01, 2016

An Interview with Sarah Hepola for Litro Magazine

Blacking Out and the Female Experience: An Interview with Sarah Hepola

Blackout, Sarah Hepola’s memoirs of her alcoholic past, is published by Two Roads. Author photo © Zan Keith.
I meet Sarah Hepola, the author of Blackout: Remembering the Things I Drank to Forget on a sunny sidewalk in downtown Missoula. With the Montana Book Festival in town, the café I had suggested for our interview is packed.
“I saw this cool building yesterday,” she says, pointing towards the Art Deco silhouette of the Florence Hotel.
The questions I have for Hepola about her years of hard drinking and her determination to get sober will have to wait while we walk the few blocks.
The Florence is no longer in business. In place of steamer trunks and railway magnates, there is a small café selling home-made chocolates. We order coffees and contemplate the empty red leather sofas and chairs, taking our seats kitty-corner to each other near the fireplace. She kicks off her shoes and makes herself comfortable.
The previous evening I had seen Sarah Hepola in a black cocktail dress speaking at the Book Festival alongside Kate Bolick, author of Spinster: Making a Life of One’s Own. That these two women should be talking sex, feminism, alcohol abuse, Tinder, and Internet dating in Missoula, the town that provided the setting for Krakauer’s excoriating exploration of campus rape and cover-ups feels meaningful. It seems to me that Missoulians, like hundreds of college-town inhabitants across the US, are finally facing that uncomfortable intersection of booze and sex.
I can’t resist asking Hepola whether she has read Krakauer’s Missoula: Rape and the Justice System in a College Town. 
Her response is instant and she flicks her palms upward: “Oh my god, that book was a shit show of drinking!”
We talk about the axis of drunkenness and sexual assault, tiptoeing around it, aware that in Hepola’s words, we are walking on a “loaded minefield”. She admits to being disappointed at Krakauer’s reluctance to make a connection between the levels of alcohol consumed by students involved in the sexual abuse cases at the University of Montana and the murkiness around the idea of consent. I tell Hepola that I had naïvely never really given the idea of consent and its relationship to booze much thought until I read Blackout. The idea of consent was always secondary to desire when it came to my choice of sexual adventures, but conversations on campuses today don’t seem to feature desire and pleasure much; they feature “consent” and “rights”.
When Hepola writes in Blackout that “We can drink however the fuck we want,” she does so knowingly nodding towards the paradox that while drinking however we want, we also often reap the rewards of some pretty unwanted behavior from ourselves and those around us. Hepola is good at holding two slightly opposing thoughts in her head, which is exactly what is needed for this conversation: drinking to excess can make you vulnerable; because you are vulnerable does not give anyone license to abuse you—whether you are male or female. Yet, out in the real and virtual worlds these two thoughts have become divisive rather than inclusive.
Susan Brownmiller has recently been called a “slut-shamer” and “victim-blamer” across the Internet for saying that women “think they can drink as much as men, which is crazy because they can’t drink as much as men.” The Twitterstorm over this has been fierce. This is the very same Susan Brownmiller whose seminal 1975 book Against Our Will: Men, Women and Rape brought an awareness of sexual abuse to the forefront of the agenda of second-wave feminism. How can this be?
Sarah Hepola tells me how in the 1990s while she was at the University of Texas it was important for her to “drink, dress, and fuck like a man”. This felt empowering to her, as it did to many of us who were young and sexually active at that time. And this bravado among women has continued to the point where it is considered a right. Yet, drinking like a man when you are, like Hepola, a petite five-foot-two, is exactly what led to her blackouts, to her “losing the narrative” of her life—which is presumably what Brownmiller is referring to. A false sense of empowerment in Hepola’s case led to an extreme vulnerability and a deeply ingrained addiction. Acting like a man can be seen as liberating, yet more often than not, it serves as a reminder of the power that is still wielded by men in our society. Drinking and fucking like a man are not the same as drinking and fucking as a man.
Hepola thanks me when I tell her that reading passages such as “I needed alcohol to drink away the things that plagued me. Not just my doubts about sex. My self-consciousness, my loneliness, my insecurities, my fears” was like a synthesis of hundreds of conversations I have had with female friends throughout my life. I go on to say that the examination of her ambitions as a writer, her fears of sobriety and her sexual desires and their limitations resonated profoundly with me. Blackoutwhile being seen and sold as a book about getting sober, is at heart a feminist book. When I put this to her, she sits up straighter. She admits to being surprised that more feminists didn’t use her book as an opportunity to discuss the muddy waters of consent and sexual politics that she explores with such acuity and honesty.
She acknowledges that there is a link between her own drinking and blacking out and the expectations on young women to perform sexually and professionally. And it is a connection that feminists in the blogosphere and in print have not wanted to confront. “I think feminists see my book as a general good, but they don’t want to have to untangle so much mess,” she trails off. The messiness of sex so often gets in the way of logical arguments.
But it is exactly that mess that interests me, I tell her, finally getting to the question I have been dying to put to her: “Where do you think feminism is today?”
“Now you’re getting serious,” she laughs. She slides her feet under her and pauses, “There just isn’t one answer,” she replies, telling me that she is writing on this very subject and is also finding it hard to pin down.
We agree that at the moment, feminism feels fragmented, as if the personal and political arguments of the 1970s have been pulverised and sprinkled throughout the Internet, throughout the fractured dialogues around gender equality. The problem with writing about feminism now is that the plurality and inclusivity that groups like the UK’s Southall Black Sisters or Boston’s Combahee River Collective struggled hard to achieve in the 1970s make it difficult to speak about one coherent political body. While we can applaud the fact that women of all races, religions and sexual orientations have carved out their own platforms within the feminist movement, I can’t help but feel that despite this huge gain, something has been lost.
“Within feminism there has been a distinct shift away from the collective towards the individual,” I say, testing out this thought on her. This shift coincided with the Thatcher-Reagan double whammy of privatisation and the emphasis on personal wealth and agency. Feminism, despite its communally-oriented origins is not immune to the thrust of rampant consumerism and its focus on satisfying one’s self. Hepola relates the consumerism of 80s feminism with the Carrie Bradshaw phenomenon when “brands and shopping ruled”.
I ask her about her own trajectory as a feminist and she admits to coming to it in her early 30s after conversations with other women, like her Salon colleague, Rebecca Traister, and editing the site’s feminist blog at Salon starting in 2007.
“I went into a silent panic,” she says. But adds that this is where she opened herself up to feminist dialogues. “Sexism revealed itself through the conversation around Hillary Clinton running for president against Obama. It was a big national feminist awakening.”
When Hepola first started working at Salon, she was told to “keep feminism out of the headlines”. But now it’s a “click word”.
I can’t decide if being a click word is good or bad.
Hepola also talks about her route to becoming a feminist in the introduction to Blackout. But true to the way her mind seems to work, her awakening arrived with a pile of very real contradictions: “Activism may defy nuance, but sex demands it. Sex was a complicated bargain to me… It was hide-and-seek, clash and surrender, and the pendulum could swing inside my brain all night: I will, no I won’t: I should, no I can’t.” I tell her how much I like the way this passage gets to the heart of the consent debate.
“Feminism today is about identity politics and consent. We didn’t use the word consent in the 80s, and now it’s everywhere,” she exclaims. But even this seemingly straightforward word has its problems, which Krakauer probes to some degree in Missoula and which Hepola also dissects in Blackout: “I drank to drown those voices, because I wanted the bravado of a sexually liberated woman. I wanted the same freedom from internal conflict my male friends seemed to enjoy…. My consent battle was in me.” When your consent battle is within you, how can it be legislated for? It can’t. And this is the problem.
“OK,” I say, “You can’t talk about campus hookups and booze-fuelled nights without coming to porn.”
She throws me a knowing look. “Yes, porn.”
Hepola feels that the connections between drinking to excess, porn, and sexual violence are not linear or causal ones, but much more subtle. Many young women are drinking to excess before having sex, “so that they can be porn stars” to the audience of young men around them, some of whom expect them to be liberated to the point of accepting any sort of sexual act. After all, what college kid wants to look like a prude?
“In the ’90s porn seemed to become ubiquitous,” Hepola says, uncurling her legs. “And now, all of us single people have unwittingly signed up to this idea that we should all be sucking each others’ genitals on a hookup!” She pauses. “In our society alcohol is socially acceptable, but if you had to take heroin in order to have sex, people would see that as toxic.”
According to the Canadian researcher Simon Lajeunesse, most boys have sought out online pornography by the age of 10. If your formative sexual experiences are with porn actors rather than girls your own age, then surely this is having an effect on your view of women and their sexuality? Hepola goes on to tell me about a male friend who asked her to look at various porn sites and give him a report. Finding a lot of the stuff made by men “horrifying”, she admits to falling for the “clichéd softer, gentler” porn made by and for women. “I found I really liked watching two women,” she says, sounding surprised at this, or maybe surprised at how easily she is revealing this to a stranger. The simple act of watching was interesting, as the visual stimulus allowed her to “get out of my head and into the abandon.”
But getting off on porn as a thirty-something woman and as a nine-year-old boy are very different realities. When your selfhood is being formed and your empathy is still being developed, surely this is the wrong time to be watching women being finger-fucked towards fake climaxes. And if young women are drinking themselves to a state where they physically and emotionally cannot resist doing things they might not want to because of the pressures coming at them, then further questions need to be asked.
In our search for equality, women have gained much ground. But, read Hepola and Krakauer’s books and look at what’s going on around you and tell me there isn’t something more than a little off with the porn-booze-sex Venn Diagram. For most people drinking is fun. As is exploring desire for the first time and tasting freedom from parental supervision with a few beers and some impromptu sex. But what I am seeing around me doesn’t look like much fun.
As Hepola says, “We are drinking away our inhibitions and along with this our judgment.” How and when did parties get so scary that one of the prime goals for the female guests is to disappear through the rabbit hole of alcohol-fuelled oblivion? Is sex for college-age men and women so alienating that the only way to perform it is to do so while semi-conscious? These are the questions I can’t seem to shake. And ones that Hepola looks at forensically through the lens of her own life in Blackout.
Sarah Hepola and I end the interview accepting that although we have questions, there is not one simple answer that would be applicable to the wide range of women out there. “Maybe the questions are good enough”, she says before slipping her shoes on. But as I watch her open the heavy doors of the Florence Hotel and step out into the dazzling Montana sunshine I can’t help feeling unmoored by this axis of self-inflicted oblivion and sexual vulnerability. An axis that feels like it has something to tell us about where young men and women are today with their drinking and sex lives. Like Mr Jones from Dylan’s Ballad of Thin Man, I know something is happening but I don’t know what it is. This is great in a song, but doesn’t feel so good in real life.
Blackout: Remembering the Things I Drank to Forget is published by Two Roads and is available in paperback for £8.99.