Law and Conversation

November 30, 2012

Mantel’s memoir and mental health

In Hilary Mantel’s 2003 memoir, “Giving Up The Ghost,” she describes her harrowing, physically devastating, decades-long struggle with endometriosis. Doctors failed to diagnose it for years, suggesting that she must be pregnant; that her pain was imaginary; that it was caused by stress, caused in turn by (unfeminine and therefore inappropriate) overambition; prescribing powerful antidepressants that left her unable to read or concentrate and, later, antipsychotic drugs; and hospitalizing her for mental illness. Finally, in surgery motivated at least in part by a concern that she might have cancer, her ovaries and uterus were removed, and with them, of course, any hope of having a child. All of this, before she was thirty.

Until reading Mantel’s book, I had no idea how serious endometriosis could be. (I should note that I’ve done no research of my own on the condition.) In a small number of women, she says, endometrial tissue migrates throughout the body, growing, forming scar tissue, and causing problems wherever it happens to be – not only in the pelvic region, but also in the chest, in the legs, or in the head, for example. Mantel says she spent days when she was too tired to move. “I had known days of my life when everything hurt, everything from my collar bone down to my knees.” The migraine headaches from which she continues to suffer are probably the result of “a hormonal disarrangement” which, she says, frequently accompanies endometriosis.

Though this memoir is an eyeopener about endometriosis, what I found particularly memorable was how Mantel passionately highlights the deep prejudice against women, against sick people, and against sick women that, sadly, were harbored by a number of doctors and nurses whom she encountered back in the 1970s, when she was treated. “The odd thing…was that the staff [of the hospital where Mantel had her hysterectomy/ovariectomy] were inclined to treat the patients as malingerers….Young girls with flaky cervixes were probably no better than they should be, and anything in the pelvic inflammatory line attested to a vibrant sex life.”

Mantel’s description of her treatment after going to see a doctor because her legs hurt so much, before she’d been diagnosed with endometriosis, has a frightening ending: she accedes to being hospitalized and treated with antipsychotic drugs that turn her into a zombie. “It was in the nature of educated young women, it was believed, to be hysterical, neurotic, difficult, and out of control, and the object was to get them back under control, not by helping them examine their lives or fix their practical problems…but by giving them drugs which would make them indifferent to their mental pain—and in my case, indifferent to physical pain too.” Before her hospitalization, her psychiatrist, Dr. G., suggests that if she insists on persisting in studying law, instead of what he thinks would be a far better fit, working in her mother’s dress shop, she should be in a back office preparing the paperwork for real estate transfers.

Handling real estate transfers, while less glamorous than appearing in court to try or argue a high-profile or high-priced matter, can be quite complex and is certainly as important to a lawyer’s clients as any other matter. (See my article in the June 2011 issue of the Illinois Bar Journal on conducting residential real estate closings.) But Dr. G.’s suggestion to Mantel is transparently based on his own misconception that preparing deeds and other real estate closing documents is easy, mindless work, suitable for a female (read, an inferior being who doesn’t understand her place and proper behavior in the world).

While this doctor’s ignorance of what it takes to practice law is understandable, his arrogance in thinking he knew what members of another profession do is unpardonable. Even more so is his incompetent treatment of Mantel for a psychiatric condition that she never possessed. Topping that, when he visits her in the hospital and learns from her that she’s written a short story, he says forcefully that he doesn’t want her writing. Why? His answer reveals that he doesn’t really know, since he can think of nothing more to say than simply “Because.”

Now, looking back on her treatment, Mantel writes “I think, in retrospect, that it would have been better if I had denied that I had pains in my legs, if I had taken it all back, or brightly said that I was well now.” Neither she nor we can know what her physical condition would be if she had – she did not make clear whether removing her ovaries and uterus were necessary given the severity of her condition – but she still struggles with headaches and other unpleasant effects that resulted either from her condition or the treatment she received. But if you’ve glanced at literary news lately, you’ve probably noticed that Hilary Mantel just won her second Man Booker Prize in 3 years – an honor without precedent – for “Bring Up the Bodies,” the sequel to her first Booker winner, “Wolf Hall.” (That’s what inspired me to read her memoir; I’m partway through “Wolf Hall.”) Lucky for her and those of us who love her books that she didn’t follow doctor’s orders; perhaps it’s also lucky for her distinguished literary career that she dropped out of law school.

The outrageous medical treatment Mantel received occurred in the 1970s. For a doctor’s perspective on the dangerous but still not uncommon phenomenon of a physician’s reaching an erroneous conclusion and administering inappropriate treatment through stereotyping a patient and ignoring facts that do not fit into the stereotype, see Jerome Groopman’s thoughtful and well-written “How Doctors Think.” Read Mantel’s memoir for a really good story and a reminder why, whatever our occupation, we should all take some extra time to try to understand what’s going on with a person before making a snap, uninformed judgment.

August 12, 2011

Crime fiction, Giller Prize, CLE

Despite its popularity, crime fiction isn’t generally a genre that attracts me. Even though I’ve practiced only civil, not criminal, law, it’s just always seemed too much like reading about work in my free time. By its nature, any crime fiction novel involves an investigation, which is common to any legal matter, criminal or civil. Often lawyers are involved. And then there are the gory details–sometimes more, sometimes less.

But Sarah Weinman has an article in The Wall Street Journal that explains what its devotees see in it. Reviewing a new translation of French noir novelist Jean-Patrick Manchette‘s “Fatale,” Weinman writes “One way crime novels become classics is by channeling the social concerns of the day. Raymond Chandler’s novels were indictments of moral corruption, pre- and post-World War II, while Dashiell Hammett countered Jazz Age excess with a decided anti-capitalist bent. These works offered a window into how the world really works, not how we wish it did.”

Weinman’s analysis makes sense to me, and it’s helping to convince me to plan on reading some noir in the near future. Reading some intriguing reviews and mentions of noir such as Jean-Claude Izzo’s and Carlo Lucarelli’s works on The Europa Challenge Blog, which are published in translation by Europa Editions, is strengthening my resolve. Crime fiction always includes strong stories and place settings, both of which I love. And I’ve observed that doing or reading something outside my usual routine on a regular basis almost always reinvigorates me.

Speaking of the Europa Challenge blog, after noticing a tweet yesterday about the forthcoming announcement of the longlist for the ScotiaBank Giller Prize, which annually recognizes the (arguably) best Canadian novel or short story collection published, I wondered (via tweets) whether some of the many Canadian booklovers might establish a Giller Prize Challenge Blog along the same lines as the one for Europa Editions books, which, in turn, was inspired by The Complete Booker blog.

The Giller Prize has been awarded only since 1994, so there aren’t as many to choose from–and those with far more expertise in CanLit than I pointed out that the quality of some of the winners has been controversial. So I proposed (also by tweet) that if someone does decide to establish a challenge blog, extending the reading challenge to books that made the shortlist–to expand the choices, not to challenge participants to actually read all of them (unless they really wanted to). As on the Europa Challenge Blog, participants could choose to read 4, or 7, or 14, or any other number, for various levels of satisfaction.

Toronto literary critic Steven W. Beattie responded by linking to a recent post of his own criticizing the method for selecting Giller contenders. Follow him, @bookgaga, @janetsomerville, @jadeperreault, @lawartsculture, @GillerPrize, and, of course, @MargaretAtwood, among many other bookloving Canadians, on Twitter for incisive tweets about CanLit and more. Please follow my fellow bloggers over at The Europa Challenge Blog, too!

I was thrilled to learn this week that several of my articles that have appeared in the Illinois Bar Journal will be included in materials for upcoming CLE seminars in Illinois and Oklahoma. “Tech tools for solos” and “From Sheepskin to Shingle,” both of which appeared in the September 2009 issue of the IBJ, will be part of the materials for an Oklahoma Bar Association seminar on the basics of law office technology, while “Unbundling Explained,” published in the October 2010 IBJ, will be included in the materials for a webinar from the Illinois Institute of Continuing Legal Education on Limited Scope Representation. I had a lot of fun writing the lead article in the current (August 2011) IBJ, “To Tweet Or Not To Tweet: Twitter For Lawyers,” since as part of my preparation I got to talk to and quote a number of lawyers I follow on Twitter.

Are you reading or planning to read anything that’s unusual for you?

May 20, 2011

Judging books

Filed under: Books and writing,judiciary,Law,literary prizes — Helen Gunnarsson @ 10:20 am
Tags: , ,

Big literary news this week: as hoped, expected, and predicted by many as a long overdue international recognition, Philip Roth has won the Man Booker International Prize.

But an interesting angle has overshadowed the substantive news.  One of the three judges, Carmen Callil, resigned in protest immediately before the announcement.

As reported in many media outlets, Callil complained that Roth’s oeuvre is the literary equivalent of the emperor’s new clothes. “He goes on and on and on about the same subject in almost every single book. It’s as though he’s sitting on your face and you can’t breathe.” Callil predicts that 20 years from now, nobody except literary historians will read Roth.

Obviously the two other judges disagreed. One, Rick Gekoski, said Roth began with a masterpiece, “Goodbye, Columbus,” and has only gotten better and better in more than half a century since.

The Guardian has a slew of articles with interesting bits and angles on this story, including one highlighting all 13 authors shortlisted. Callil did an interesting interview on the Australian Broadcasting Company’s “The Book Show” shortly before the three judges met to vote on the prize.  Among other things, Callil said that being a judge had enriched her reading life in part because she’d read so many writers in translation as a result. The Guardian says that Callil will deplore this year’s prize’s failing to “celebrate” any of those writers in her own explanatory essay, to be published tomorrow. She expressed no opinion on Roth, though she and Koval did titter a bit when Koval brought his name up.

I haven’t read, or wanted to read, much Roth. “Portnoy’s Complaint” lost me early on–I’ll just say I left while the main character was in the bathroom 😉 . I did stick with a much later Roth work, “The Human Stain,” and, to my enormous surprise, found that I liked it.

I’m looking forward to reading Callil’s essay in tomorrow’s Guardian. Reading of her disappointment that the prize failed to “celebrate” a writer in translation, I can’t help thinking that the only way around that would have been if it had been awarded to one of those writers, i.e., her choice, I suppose. Several were on the shortlist, which certainly seems to me to be an unequivocal celebration, or recognition, of their worth. The other contenders, who included Philip Pullman, Anne Tyler, and Marilynne Robinson, are also very fine writers. Only one of those 13 marvelous writers could win–that’s just the way the prize is structured. But isn’t it a huge honor to have made the shortlist?

What do you think of Callil’s resignation? Being a lawyer, when I hear the word “judge,” even in the context of a literary award, I naturally think of the courts. Three judges for such a weighty award, selecting from among thirteen finalists, seems too few to me. In my home state of Illinois as well as in the U.S. federal courts, three judges typically sit on appellate panels. If the decision isn’t unanimous, the dissenter doesn’t resign from the panel, but may write his or her own opinion that’s released for public consumption along with the majority opinion. Appeals from that decision go to the supreme court, which has more decisionmakers–seven in the case of Illinois’s supreme court, nine in the U.S.

I wouldn’t suggest authorizing dissents or appeals, but shouldn’t the Man Booker International Prize consider adding a few more judges next time around? I’ll volunteer my service!

UPDATE:  Callil’s Guardian essay is here.

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