Friday, May 20, 2011

The messes in our heads

15. Unbearable Lightness: A Story of Loss and Gain by Portia de Rossi

Trigger warning: You might not want to read this book if you are recovering from an eating disorder or have an unhealthy relationship with food.

I was a teenager when Ally McBeal, a quirky show about a duck-face making, man-hunting lawyer become hugely popular, and I was among the people watching it. I was probably also one of many who was wondering whether the show required all of its female cast members to be anorexic. My friends and I compared notes on the cast's clothes: who this time wore a scarf to hide their sinewy neck, and who never showed their arms. I especially remember one picture of Portia de Rossi partying outside filming the show, and her limbs were just bone and looked oddly mangled.

That picture can be found in this book, and its effect is well executed in the context. Heartbreaking.

If you excuse the cliché, Unbearable Lightness is a remarkably brave look into the brain of a person with a severe eating disorder. de Rossi lets the readers know how exactly she felt about her relatives crying because she was so thin, or her best friends pointing out anorexic-looking women at the gym with disdain: she thought that people were simply exaggerating when they worried over her, and she felt happy that she had finally become so thin that people actually had to remark about it. To her, her weight falling to a fragile 82 pounds was a sign of discipline that others were incapable of and besides, in her mind she did not do anything that everyone else around her seemed to be doing. Since the age of 12 she had been modeling and been told to lose weight, and ever since then she would binge on food until she was sick, and then she'd starve herself for the next photoshoot. It was normal to her, and she tells in the book how she was flabbergasted when her nutritionist was absolutely shocked upon hearing about de Rossi's binge eating habits that de Rossi herself considered reasonable.

The book is at the same time amazing in its candidness and how well written it is, but it's also scary. Because of the details that helps the reader to step into the mind of an anorexic, the book also reads as a "Becoming Anorexic for Dummies" book: how many minutes does one need to run before and after going to bed, how many lunges to do while walking normally in your own home, how little to eat and how to obsessively measure each morsel of food... This is not a book for anyone who is recovering from an eating disorder, because although the de Rossi does not glorify her eating disorder, I couldn't help but think, "Oh, she lost 20 pounds that easily?" before coming back to the notion that wait, that easy route is extremely unhealthy!

It's weird at the same time to want to tell everyone about this remarkable book, and yet at the same time not want people to read it, lest they get any ideas...

16. The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat and Other Clinical Tales by Oliver Sacks

Oliver Sacks became familiar to me through Radiolab podcasts, where he would be a guest on shows that dealt with neurological disorders, such as prosopagnosia or obsessive compulsive behavior. The way he talks and has his own little neuroses was quite charming (and he has a wooden box filled with vials containing the elements from the periodic table... how cool is that?), so I started to look into his books. This was the first one to become available at the library.

It's a collection of clinical cases Sacks encountered before the 1990s, all dealing with neurological disorders that go from absolutely fascinating to terrifying. There is a man who had stopped recognizing objects and people, and would only recognize people if they had something on their face or the way they moved that nobody else had; there's a lady who lost control of her limbs if she was not looking at them; an old man thought he was still in his early 20s because he could not remember anything new that happened to him, and so on.

Sacks doesn't just recount these cases and puzzles, but also talks in depth about the hormonal imbalances, medications or any other reasons that may have triggered what he calls neurological deficits, and often he goes back to referring his best-selling memoir Awakenings, which was later made into a movie--simply because the drug L-Dopa used with the patients in Awakenings was helpful in so many of these cases where people got stuck in time, had Tourette's or other compulsive behaviors.

Often humorous, yet sad, these short essays reveal how scary our brains can be.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

The negative side of being positive

14. Brightsided: How Positive Thinking Is Undermining America by Barbara Ehrenreich

What could be wrong with being positive? Always look on the bright side of life, right? Well, yes and no. This book is about movements within the United States that stress being positive over anything else, which then may lead to unpredictably bad results. As an example of this are motivational speakers and consultants, who shamelessly tell big CEOs to get rid of any employees who express negative feelings and do not contribute to a very positive environment. Unfortunately this also means, that these CEOs will get then rid of anyone who says, "But um... looks like if we purchase this company, we are going to lose a lot of money and we'll be bankrupt in a year." And this is what Ehrenreich looks into: when forced positivity takes over looking at the world realistically, which may even lead to large issues such as the financial bank crisis or a war.

The other issue that positive thinking movement promotes is ignorance: many motivational speakers with whom Ehrenreich spoke said that one of their pieces of advice for people is to not watch the news, because it will have a negative effect on their lives. Could it also be that seeing in the news that those starving people all around the world are not able to change their lives simply through positive thinking might not get motivational speakers those desperately needed audiences and money?

The book focuses largely on motivational speakers and the prosper movement of evangelical churches, and how much influence these have within political parties, which in turn may make quick decisions without taking negative feedback into account. The only difference between the motivational speakers and the prosper movement is that the churches will not kick a negative person out of their company, but still the idea is the same: if you have a positive attitude toward life, life/God/higher powers/CEOs will reward you. The churches have even removed crosses from them because they upset people too much...

I have never read The Secret because it has sounded like bull from the get-go to me, and this book pretty much confirmed my prejudice: the book tells people to just "want" things enough, and the items come to them. Nothing is impossible. This has lead to people maxing out their credit cards and getting into debt, because they wanted a Gucci bag. Some people have even stolen goods because they felt like they deserved these items, thanks to The Secret.

It's an odd concept that through wanting something hard enough you will get it, because it focuses almost solely on material goods. What makes a person think that they are entitled to everything on Earth? Also, this kind of thinking puts a lot of pressure on people: what if you are a member of a minority in a minimum wage job with 5 kids, and you can barely feed them and now the youngest needs glasses and you can't afford them? Obviously, you are thinking too negatively about your life and you just need to think positively and want that money in your life, and you shall get it. Then if you don't get what you wanted, I guess it just means that you did not try hard enough. It's your own fault for failing.

It also creeps me out that the concept of prosperity and happiness in the US is, according to Ehrenreich's findings, very much tied to money. Can't people be happy without money and material? Again, no wonder people are maxing out their credit cards. If I just buy this expensive piece of furniture I'll be a better person...

This prosperity/positive thinking stuff sounds to me like something sold to middle-class, fairly affluent people who are not dealing with major setbacks in life and not surprisingly, the prosper evangelists or motivational speakers don't exactly stop at street corners to tell homeless people that if they just changed their attitude they'd get a job and a house.

There's nothing wrong in looking at the bright side of life. It only becomes problematic when one is allowed to think only happy thoughts and disregard all warning signs.