Law and Conversation

January 20, 2014

Martin Luther King Day, Father Pfleger, and stories

Getting to hear the remarkable Fr. Michael L. Pfleger speak on violence last week at a meeting of an organization of lawyers and judges to which I belong was especially timely given that today is Martin Luther King Day in the U.S. I can’t adequately summarize everything he said–you need to listen to him yourself–but, among other things, he emphasized the importance of good schools and education for every young person and said that we as a nation must “come to terms with our love affair with guns.” I couldn’t agree more.

Fr. Pfleger is an eloquent, direct, and dynamic speaker whose message deserves wide dissemination. You can read more about him and watch a number of his speeches on the website of Chicago’s St. Sabina Parish, where he is pastor. Be sure to check out St. Sabina’s main page, too, which has other links of interest.

Several rather disparate books I’ve read in the past few years came to my mind on this holiday honoring Dr. King:

1) Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, a remarkable memoir that takes the 21st-century reader inside the life of a 19th-century slave. The link takes you to a site with the free text.

2) Martha Washington: First Lady of Liberty, by Helen Bryan. This well-written and carefully researched biography is not only a fascinating story of its subject but also a detailed study of slavery that demonstrates what a deeply sick system it was and what profound and long-lasting effects it had for our country. A bonus for me was noticing that the author, whose job was quite difficult because her subject deliberately left so little documentation for posterity (Martha burned every scrap of correspondence between herself and George that she could find), is a lawyer.

3) Let the Great World Spin, by Colum McCann. The book as a whole did not quite work for me; it consists of several stories of people in New York City that the author links with 9-11-01, and I did not find that the link was strong enough to call the separate stories a novel. But McCann writes really well. His depiction of the violence and despair in New York’s inner city is realistic and heart-rending.

The speeches of Martin Luther King, Jr. are, of course, tremendous. CNN has a story of some that are often overlooked or overshadowed by the more famous “I Have A Dream.”

How inspiring and hopeful that one man could effect such change in our country through determination and nonviolence.

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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.

May 4, 2012

New graphic novels

At a recent bar association function I was delighted to meet another lawyer who also loves comics and graphic novels. He was familiar with all of the writer/artists I mentioned, of course, and shares my esteem for Lynda Barry, who, in my view, is absolutely brilliant, and Alan Moore, whose “Watchmen” was my Best Book Read In 2011 (and was recommended to me by yet another lawyer).

Coincidentally, shortly afterwards I learned of two new graphic memoirs that have just come out, each from an artist I think is amazing: “My Friend Dahmer,” by John Backderf, and “Are You My Mother?” by Alison Bechdel. Each author draws or used to draw a weekly comic strip. Backderf’s is “The City,” a hilariously incisive strip that appears in a number of alternative publications; I’ve also seen his art in The Wall Street Journal and other publications. For 25 years, Bechdel drew “Dykes To Watch Out For,” which, I can attest, you didn’t have to be a lesbian to enjoy.

I can’t wait to read both memoirs. The “Dahmer” of Backderf’s title refers to THE Jeffrey Dahmer, the serial murderer/cannibal who himself was killed after he’d been in prison for a few years. Backderf knew him long before then, in high school in Akron, Ohio. They didn’t stay in touch, as he explained in a recent interview with Q’s Jian Ghomeshi, and he was as shocked as anyone when Dahmer’s atrocities hit the news in the 1990s. In Bechdel’s first graphic memoir, “Fun Home,” which was nominated for a National Book Critics Circle Award and won several others, she tries to make sense of her father’s concealment of his homosexuality. In her new one, she turns to her relationship with her mother.

In other comic/graphic novel news, from Canadian law professor Kate Sutherland’s Twitter stream comes this account of European legal proceedings with respect to one of Herge’s classic volumes of The Adventures of Tintin: Tintin au Congo. One of the many great comics of the mid-20th century, Tintin reflects the prejudices of his time as well. That particular installment includes matter that is outdated and appalling to our 21st century minds. As I’ve previously noted, so, of course, did many other notable publications of that era, including not only comic books but also, to name just a few examples, Edgar Rice Burroughs’s Tarzan and Venus series, Margaret Sidney’s “Five Little Peppers Midway,” and Edward Stratemeyer’s “Tom Swift” series.

As I’ve written, I never lost my childhood love of comic books. A few years ago, I discovered their history and how they’ve grown up into graphic novels. If possible, I love them now even more than when I was seven years old. Some contemporary graphic novels that I’ve found outstanding include Marguerite Abouet and Clement Oubrerie’s Aya series (Yay! Volume 4 is coming out in English in just a couple of months!!), set in the Ivory Coast, David Small’s “Stitches,” Guy DeLisle’s documentary-style books on Pyongyang, Shenzhen, and other places, and Craig Thompson’s “Blankets.”

Comic and graphic novel fans, what are your favorites, and what recently published graphic novels are you recommending? I’m always interested in adding to my TBR list.

August 29, 2011

Three Cups of Tea, or Three Cups of Deceit?

If you’ve read “Three Cups Of Tea,” the bestselling memoir by Greg Mortenson and David Relin that professes to tell the true story of how Mortenson tried to climb K2, the second-highest mountain in the world, in Pakistan, failed, got lost on the descent, was rescued, vowed to build a school for the children in his rescuers’ village, and did so, you ought also to read the e-book, “Three Cups of Deceit,” by Jon Krakauer.

“Three Cups of Tea” is a compelling story with a convincing message: that it would be far more beneficial for everyone if the US and other countries used their resources to build schools and otherwise facilitate the education of children, especially girls, in countries such as Afghanistan and Pakistan than to provide military assistance to this or that faction opposing this or that objectionable government.  It’s inspired not only huge sales and a similarly best-selling sequel, “Stones For Schools,” but millions in donations to the Central Asia Institute, the foundation Mortenson set up for his schools project.

Like many others, journalist, author, and climber Jon Krakauer read Mortenson’s book, became enthusiastic about his message, and donated to CAI. Then, he says, people associated with Mortenson and CAI started giving him information suggesting that Mortenson’s story was not all that it seemed.

Krakauer, who is personally familiar with the terrain Mortenson wrote about through his own climbing travels, started investigating, and, in April, published his e-book. As his title suggests, Krakauer presents a case that Mortenson took far more than poetic license with the facts and actually fabricated significant portions of his story. He also quotes sources who question CAI’s fiscal management.

CAI characterizes the stories from “some media outlets,” including CBS’s “60 Minutes,” as “cherry-picked, manipulated, and misrepresented.” The organization notes that an investigation and a lawsuit are pending. A suit filed in the federal court for the Northern District of Illinois alleging, among other matters, fraud (H/T: JenandthePen), was voluntarily dismissed shortly after filing, but another suit remains pending in Montana, though news reports suggest that CAI is no longer a defendant. Mortenson recently filed a response denying that grounds exist for a class action. In the meantime, Krakauer is posting post-publication updates on the byliner.com website.

Read both of these books, be on the lookout for responses from Mortenson and CAI and resolutions of the legal matters involving them, and make up your own mind. Here’s what I’m wondering: if Mortenson did deliberately fabricate portions of his book, which was classified as nonfiction and marketed as a True Story, is that a problem? Or everyone does it, no big deal? And if Mortenson made up parts of his story, does that damage his message’s credibility?

UPDATE, September 13, 2011: Mark Fowler, a lawyer in New York who tweets as @rightsofwriters, has written a very interesting and thorough post on memoirs and the law on his excellent blog, Rights of Writers.

April 26, 2011

Two Questions from Lynda Barry

Filed under: Books and writing,graphic novels,memoirs,storytelling — Helen Gunnarsson @ 8:37 am
Tags: , ,

WordPress today called my attention to a 2008 post from Mikkelina’s Thoughts on Two Questions from the artist Lynda J. Barry.  Having been a fan of Barry for 30 years, I’ve sung her praises here a number of times. I keep finding more and more to love about her work, including the panels Mikkelina has reproduced on her blog. Perhaps more writers should use the term she coined for One! Hundred! Demons!, “Autobiofictionalography,” I wonder? Time to go look for her latest book, Picture This: The Near-Sighted Monkey Book, I say.

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