During the notorious summer lull in “serious” books, I have found a number of interesting articles to feed my brain in recent weeks on topics as varied as depression, divorce, subjectivity, sex, and motherhood. These essays—and their subjects—overlap and bump into each other in surprising ways, even reminding me how and why the issues compel, and remain irresolute….
Earlier this month, Peter D. Kramer, clinical professor of psychology at Brown University and author of the books Listening to Prozac (1993) and Against Depression (2003), published an important essay in The New York Times‘ Sunday Review, “In Defense of Antidepressants,” in which he takes on negative media attention directed toward the use of antidepressants:
“My own beliefs aside, it is dangerous for the press to hammer away at the theme that antidepressants are placebos. They’re not. To give the impression that they are is to cause needless suffering.”
In the article, Kramer writes at length about how drug trials are carried out and the potential blind spots, as well as successes, the methods produce—and how this has contributed to misperceptions about the effectiveness of antidepressants.
For anyone interested in more debate on the subject, The Times showcased a range of letters a week later, “Sunday Dialogue: Seeking a Path Through Depression’s Landscape,” prompted by a Letter to the Editor earlier in the week by Warren R. Procci, president of the American Psychoanalytic Association, in which he refers to “the high-stakes battle involving pharmaceutical companies, health care providers and patients.”
I certainly cast a skeptical eye on pharmaceuticals and their intentions, but I agree with Kramer: the backlash against antidepressants is dangerous. Antidepressants are a valuable tool, along with psychotherapy (not in place of), for improving the lives of people suffering from depression, and, in some cases, saving them.
Another Kramer pops up in the same NYT, this time in the Magazine where Heather Havrilesky (author of the memoir Disaster Preparedness) recalls the iconic divorce drama “Kramer vs. Kramer” from 1979 (three years after my own parents divorced), contrasting it with the sunny face current pop culture puts on the subject: “The Divorce Delusion: ‘A Joyful Kabuki Mask to Obscure The Anguish of Marital Bliss Gone Sour.’” I remember the sense of awkward disconnect watching the original movie on television in the early 1980s while visiting my father. With a few twists this was a version of our life. Unlike Billy Kramer in the movie and Heather Havrilesky, as she recounts in this piece, my sister and I were not left behind when mom left dad. But summers with my father involved some of the same emotions. My father wished to have his children full-time, an aching pain that was replicated on the screen as Dustin Hoffman’s Ted Kramer suffered when Meryl Streep’s Joanna Kramer returned to reclaim their son.
In fact, there are some unexpected overlaps between Peter Kramer’s arguments (above) and Havrilesky’s here on the subject of Joanna and Ted Kramer, rendered so well by Meryl Streep and Dustin Hoffman. The same prescriptive isn’t right for everyone; and a deeper look can reveal more detailed information, and even a different outcome.
“The notion that there’s some ‘right’ choice for every life challenge fits neatly into the control-freak-mind-set of our current moment. We’ve developed a real talent for transforming neutral or negative events into triumphant rites of passage. This may represent Oprah’s most enduring legacy: the relentless conviction that even the most unpredictable, unmanageable problems can be stuffed into the familiar packaging of ‘catharsis.’ Rather than acknowledging residual pain or lingering trauma, we’re urged to embrace each story as a wake-up call or a breakthrough on the road to self-fulfillment.”
Havrilesky dissects how much change we’ve seen in social mores since the Kramer-era, and how much more visible family troubles have become:
“Infidelity, a love child (or two), dalliances with prostitutes, lewd online behavior; we’ve watched so many spouses bounce back from hell that maybe we’re beginning to believe that there’s no trauma so great that it can’t be quickly metabolized into a courageous determination to sally forth against the storm.”
Havrilesky points out that…
“‘Kramer vs. Kramer’ would most likely get panned today as a depressing Debbie Downer of a film. But watching it again as an adult left me with a satisfying sense that I endured something profoundly sad and emerged with a new feeling of resiliency. …[S]ometimes the urge to reshape a tragedy into a story of hope just undermines the hope therein. We don’t need to reimagine every disaster as a tale of heroism.”
And perhaps there is even something cathartic about resiliency.
Publisher and cultural critic James Atlas, “The Art of the Interview,” writes in The New York Times about the recent Katie Roiphe interview with Janet Malcolm in The Paris Review. Atlas, Roiphe, and Malcolm all engage with how subjects construct themselves—and how journalists shape this process—in interviews. I am almost always a fan of The Paris Review’s author interviews, and this one is noteworthy in how it was conducted. Rather than tape-record the author’s words (which the author later has opportunity to revise), Roiphe and Malcolm shared an email exchange—our modernized version of an epistolary relationship.
Sharing a page with Atlas, is Erica Jong (known for her seminal novel, Fear of Flying, in which she coined a lasting term, in language I won’t repeat here, about “zipless” encounters). In her recent NYT article, “Is Sex Passé?,” Jong writes…
“Sex is discombobulating and distracting, it makes you immune to money, politics and family. And sometimes I think the younger generation wants to give it up.”
A week later, we find an interview with Erica Jong and her daughter, writer Molly Jong-Fast, in The (London) Guardian, “Erica Jong: Sex and motherhood,” where they banter about generational shifts in attitudes towards sex—the looseness of the ’70s has given over to the “prudishness”of the early 21st century.
In the earlier piece, Erica Jong sees “signs that sex has lost its frisson of freedom,” wondering if sex is “less piquant when it is not forbidden.”
“Punishing the sexual woman is a hoary, antique meme found from “Jane Eyre” to “The Scarlet Letter” to “Sex and the City,” where the lustiest woman ended up with breast cancer. Sex for women is dangerous. Sex for women leads to madness in attics, cancer and death by fire. “
Katha Pollit has a down-to-earth, yet fiery, reply (“No, Erica Jong, Sex is Not Passé“) on The Nation blog, including…
“Jong worries that young women are too stuck on monogamy, but not to worry: There’s plenty of infidelity, and rising rates of it among younger women. Cheating on your spouse is one thing that is never going out of style.”
Erin Gloria Ryan (“Younger Generation Totally Over Sex, Proclaims Someone in Older Generation“) weighs in from Jezebel, with Brenna Cammeron summing up on The Huffington Post:
“Liberated sex didn’t stop being exciting — it just stopped being news.”
Lots more to explore here (see also the announcement below for Anna Fishbeyn’s show “Sex in Mommyville“) . . . but this discussion ties right in with the novel I should be revising instead of navigating the sex-culture-generation wars . . . COUNTRIES OF LOST THINGS, in which sex is a tool, a sign of love, a sign of betrayal, an escape, an excuse, a wound—a liberation or a weapon? A walk through Grand Central sets off a surprising chain of events, where the subjects of depression, sex, and motherhood share the page again.
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~ Erica Jong writes on “Guns and Madness,” in her January 2011 blog post on The Huffington Post. ~
~ Judith Warner examines the issues behind medication, migraines, and the responsibilities of public office in today’s NYT, “Me, Michele and Our Migraines.” ~
“Is our problem with Representative Michele Bachmann’s migraines that she has them, or that she takes medication for them?”
“There’s an enormous stigma attached to mental health problems, and migraines, with their association with depression and anxiety, their well-known link to stress and their history of being dismissed as a disease of neurotic women, very clearly carry the taint of psychiatric illness. …. There’s perhaps as great a stigma now about taking medication for a brain-related disorder as there is about having that disorder in the first place.”
And we’re right back where we started…In Defense of Antidepressants….
~ Anna Fishbeyn’s wonderful show “Sex in Mommyville” (which I wrote about here in February) will be performed next week at The Manhattan Repertory Theatre. Check it out! ~
~ Part 4 of “My Father’s Guns” coming soon. ~