Law and Conversation

January 24, 2013

Elena Ferrante is my #FridayReads AGAIN

I’ve written before of how powerful I’ve found the novels of the pseudonymous Italian writer Elena Ferrante. When I noticed her latest book, “My Brilliant Friend,” on my local library’s new books shelf, I had to check it out, even though I had several others in progress at home (nothing new there).

Like Lucy Maud Montgomery’s much-loved classic, “Anne of Green Gables,” Ferrante’s novel is the story of two young girls who develop a lifelong connection. But unlike Green Gables and the lovely, bucolic landscape of Prince Edward Island, Elena and Lila live in a gritty, unattractive part of Naples, and unlike the friendship of kindred spirits Anne Shirley and Diana, the undercurrents of Elena and Lila’s relationship are dark and powerful, so that Ferrante could aptly have named her novel “My Brilliant Frenemy.”

I’m about 1/3 of the way through this book and can hardly stand to put it aside. Much as I loved L.M. Montgomery’s books as a teen, Ferrante’s characters’ depth seems far more real and intriguing to me. It will be my first Europa Editions book this year, counting toward my proposed Cappuccino Challenge levelof 6 Europas.

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January 15, 2013

Crazy clients? Read Elena Ferrante’s Days Of Abandonment

James Wood reviews Elena Ferrante’s novels in The New Yorker, so now seems like a good time to paste the review I wrote of one of that Italian writer’s novels for The Europa Challenge Blog.
I once heard a lawyer with years of experience in family law assert that everyone who gets divorced is “crazy” for at least a year afterwards. By inviting us inside the head of her divorcing narrator in “The Days of Abandonment,” the pseudonymous Italian writer Elena Ferrante lends support to that view.
Ferrante’s books are tough reads. Having “pre-read” this one and discovered that some graphic and extreme unpleasantness was in the offing, I was tempted to bag it and return it to the library.
But graphic and extreme unpleasantness can’t be a dealbreaker if you’re going to read 21st century literary fiction. I’m glad I didn’t succumb to my momentary impulse, because Ferrante’s tale of the thoughts and actions of 38-year-old Olga, the narrator, in the wake of her husband’s leaving her for a mistress half his age and only just out of her teens, blew me away, as Alice Sebold’s cover blurb promised.
“One April afternoon, right after lunch, my husband announced that he wanted to leave me,” Olga tells readers at the novel’s outset. In the wake of that “it’s not you, it’s me” declaration, Olga describes how behind her outward calm, “a wave of anguish and rage was growing that frightened me,” particularly once she learns that there’s another much younger woman behind her husband’s departure.
Her circumstances bring back the desperation and deterioration of a similarly bereft neighbor from her childhood, “La Poverella.” Olga remembers her mother and associates remarking “when you don’t know how to keep a man you lose everything.” Like La Poverella, Olga tries to hold it together and to get her husband back. Neither is within her power.
Olga’s unflinching description of even her most unflattering thoughts and actions are part of what make Ferrante’s story so compelling. Early on, in a flashback to her college days, Olga remembers “As a girl I had liked obscene language, it gave me a sense of masculine freedom. Now I knew that obscenity could raise sparks of madness if it came from a mouth as controlled as mine.” And indeed it does: she gets into a riproaring fight with her husband, and, with the children in the next room, lets him have it with both barrels, as Marie notes in her review. “Speak like what? I don’t give a shit about prissiness. You wounded me, you are destroying me, and I’m supposed to speak like a good, well-brought-up wife?…What words am I supposed to use for what you’ve done to me, for what you’re doing to me?…Let’s talk about it!…[I]n order not to disturb the gentleman, not to disturb his children,, I’m supposed to use clean language, I’m supposed to be refined, I’m supposed to be elegant!….”
Describing her descent into deep, self-destructive depression, Olga muses “What was I? A woman worn out by four months of tension and grief.” When a series of unrelated and grim crises hit at once, she realizes she must pull herself together, but she has such difficulty in doing so that she gives her preteen daughter a sharp paper cutter and instructs her to prick her with it if she perceives that her mother is becoming “distracted.” Confused and repulsed, the child asks how she will know whether Olga needs a prick. Olga responds, “A distracted person is a person who no longer smells odors, doesn’t hear words, doesn’t feel anything.”
Her daughter does have to prick her, the crises get resolved—though not all happily—and Olga begins her climb out of depression and back to normal life. Throughout Ferrante’s taut storytelling, we feel Olga’s emotional and even physical pain. Even in translation, Ferrante makes every word in every sentence count. I’m looking forward to reading “My Brilliant Friend,” her newly published Europa novel, which I have at the top of my TBR list.

December 12, 2012

R.I.P. Mary Lee Leahy

Filed under: Law,lawyers,women — Helen Gunnarsson @ 10:08 pm
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I am very sad to learn that Mary Lee Leahy, a lawyer in Springfield, Illinois, who had many cases before me when I was an administrative law judge at the Illinois Human Rights Commission, passed away today. She was not only a lovely person but a wonderful lawyer with a long and distinguished career. You can read transcripts of interviews in which she recounts some great stories from her practice online at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum in Springfield. My deepest sympathy to her family.

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.

April 17, 2012

Kate Sutherland on Adrienne Rich

Filed under: poetry,women — Helen Gunnarsson @ 12:01 am
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Such a pleasure to hear the CBC’s Michael Enright interviewing law professor Kate Sutherland–one of my absolute favorites on Twitter–on the work of feminist poet and essayist Adrienne Rich, who recently died at the age of 82. You can still listen to it, either on podcast or through the CBC’s website.

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