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.

October 11, 2012

Speaking trip to University of Illinois College of Law!

I had a great time today speaking on lawyer ethics and social media to students at my legal alma mater, the University of Illinois College of Law, and the East Central Women Attorneys’ Association. I focused on three areas where lawyers occasionally get into ethical trouble on social media: client confidentiality, false or misleading statements or conduct, and using other people. The turnout was good and the students and fellow lawyers were a great audience. I got to recommend two good books to them: “I Know Who You Are And I Saw What You Did,” by Lori Andrews, and “The No Asshole Rule,” by Bob Sutton, which I wrote about here.  As a bonus, I got to catch up with my moot court partner from law school, who invited and introduced me! After my talk, she provided me with encouragement to reread the first volume of Marcel Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past, which I read with another bookloving friend in the legal profession a few years ago and, sad to say, found a bit of a slog.

Time to think about #fridayreads on Twitter, which I like to, but don’t always, participate in. I currently have two books going as rereads: the beautifully and honestly written “Minor Characters,” by Joyce Johnson, a memoir focusing on her relationship with Jack Kerouac, which I’ve reread several times but not for quite some time, and a title published by Europa Editions, “Clash of Civilizations Over An Elevator in Piazza Vittorio,” by the Algerian-Italian writer Amara Lakhous. The latter left me lukewarm the first time around, but after reading others’ more enthusiastic reviews on The Europa Challenge Blog as well as Lakhous’s more recently published “Divorce, Islamic Style,” which I loved, I’m eager to give his first one another chance.

April 22, 2011

Story and memoir: truth or not?

I love to read a good memoir, so the proliferation of stories on books published as memoirs that get exposed as less than truthful is really bugging me.

Most recently, 60 Minutes and other sources, including the very fine writer Jon Krakauer, have cast doubts on the veracity of Greg Mortenson’s bestselling “Three Cups Of Tea,” written with professional writer David Relin. Outside Magazine has an interview with Mortenson on the scrutiny of his story.

Mortenson’s message remains compelling and persuasive: resources from the US and other democratic powers would be far more beneficial and effective if they were spent on facilitating education, particularly for girls, in nations such as Afghanistan and Pakistan, instead of on military operations. Unfortunately, the publicity surrounding the disappointing possibility that the book fudges some facts does nothing but detract and distract from the message.

I can think of at least two possible reasons for memoir writers to be less than truthful in telling their stories. First, it’s uncomfortable to include less than attractive aspects of yourself and your actions in your life story. Second, maybe you think your story just isn’t interesting enough, and would improve with some fiction added.

Fibbing is dangerous, and I don’t see how either of these reasons can justify not telling the truth. If you don’t want to write your life story without changing the unattractive aspects, or if you think you could make it a better story by changing it, why not just publish it as fiction? If neither writing it truthfully, meaning as it really happened, nor writing it as fiction appeals, why write it at all?

I don’t understand why there seems to be a significant segment of readers who think that it’s no big deal if a writer’s work, billed as nonfiction, contains fictional elements. Are these the same people who think it’s no big deal if a witness in a trial, or a prospective juror, who’s sworn to tell the truth doesn’t do so? Why is this NOT a big deal?

Loving a good story as I do, I disagree that a story presented as nonfiction improves when its author adds some fiction (and thereby transforms the whole story into fiction). For me, the appeal of a memoir is that I want to read about what someone actually did, what actually happened to the person, and how the person was transformed by those actual experiences.

I know, and other reasonable readers know, that nobody’s a saint. It’s heartening to read a first-person account that includes unattractive behavior and mistakes on the part of the storyteller, because that’s part of what makes a story universal: we all make mistakes, and we all have some unattractive behavior in our background that we’d like to make sense of, atone for, or otherwise get beyond as part of our personal journey through life. The best memoirists show us, as part of their stories, how they came to make the mistakes they did and then how they recognized and learned from their mistakes. One good recent example is Mary Karr’s “Lit.” Jon Krakauer himself provides another good example in “Into Thin Air,” in which he’s as hard on himself as he is on anyone else. Both books are extraordinarily compelling.

Just as with witnesses in trials, when I learn that memoirists have painted themselves as more virtuous than they really were, or exaggerated events in their lives, I’m not only disappointed but also starting to wonder what else they didn’t tell the complete truth about. Ultimately, fibs always come back to haunt people who didn’t tell the truth and always diminish their stories and messages.

I think that’s even worse for the memoirist who just fudged a little bit than it is for the one who made up a story from whole cloth and presented it as the unvarnished truth.  The latter deserves to be branded as a liar. The former may very likely be a basically goodhearted person with a good message and a good story who unwisely gave in to fear, or insecurity, or a desire to sell more copies, or bad advice, told a story that was mostly, but not entirely, true, and, when the fudged facts are discovered, gets tagged in the same category as the latter writer.

I’m hoping that Mortenson’s detractors turn out to be mistaken, because the story he told is inspirational and his message, I believe, worthy. In the meantime, let’s withhold judgment until he’s spoken further and all the facts are out.

Among many other good posts on this topic, Salon.com has a good essay by Thomas Gladysz, “Before Greg Mortenson and Three Cups of Tea,” about Margaret Bohme’s 1905 bestseller, “Diary of a Lost Girl,” published as the memoir of a young girl forced into prostitution but ultimately exposed as fiction. Radio New Zealand’s Kim Hill recently interviewed James Frey, author of the controversial bestseller “A Million Little Pieces.” Among other things, Frey said “the idea of a memoir in America as it is marketed and published and sold is a bunk idea…it’s just something people slap on the sides of books to sell them.” And The New Yorker has an interview with its staff writer James Stewart, a very fine and thoughtful writer who’s also a lawyer and has a new book out, “Tangled Webs:  How False Statements are Undermining America.” In it, Stewart discusses the harm that the breakdown of the public commitment to telling the truth under oath is doing to our society.

What do you think about less than truthful memoirs? How about not telling the truth under oath? Are these okay? Not a big deal? Is everyone really doing it? I don’t think so, but I’d love to hear what you think.

December 16, 2010

Three food books for 2011

Filed under: Books and writing,Cooking,reading — Helen Gunnarsson @ 12:01 am
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Dos Hombres, a Mexican restaurant in Colorado Springs, recently tweeted a quote from the writer Laurie Colwin:  “One of the delights of life is eating with friends, second to that is talking about eating.”  The quote, from the foreword to “Home Cooking,” her first collection of essays on food, continues “And, for an unsurpassed double whammy, there is talking about eating while you are eating with friends.”  Colwin was a wonderful storyteller, and I can well imagine that she told and listened to many wonderful stories about food and many other matters over good meals with her friends and family.

This week I wrote about Laurie Colwin and her books as part of my Read This! series in which I recommend books that I really, really love and want everyone in the world to read.  As Christmas approaches, with opportunities and occasions for those very delights of life about which Colwin wrote so many lovely essays, I’m still thinking about her, as well as about some other writers’ wonderful books on food that I posted about last week.  

During the end-of-the-year holidays, it’s traditional not only to make and share special foods and meals with family and friends but also to look forward to the New Year and make plans and resolutions.  Why not take some time to include some reading plans for the year to come?

Inspired partly by rereading Laurie Colwin, here are three books from my reading list that I hope to get to in 2011.  All are well-known as landmarks of culinary writing, and all three writers had colorful and fascinating lives–a storyteller’s dream.

1)  My Life In France, by Julia Child and Alex Prud’Homme.

2)  The Art of Eating, by M.F.K. Fisher.

3) Italian Cooking, by Elizabeth David, which Colwin particularly recommends–or any of David’s other books, none of which I’ve read.

What foods are you making and sharing for the holidays, and are there any food books on your reading list?

November 26, 2010

More on story from Lynda Barry and Harvey Pekar

I thought I’d exhausted my postings on artist Lynda J. Barry, but another subscriber has alerted the Yahoo! discussion group for Lynda to a Thanksgiving Day announcement from her publisher, Drawn And Quarterly of Montreal, that it will publish *ALL* of her comics, starting next fall.  Above the publisher’s announcement is the very first comic of Barry’s that I remember reading as a college student, which instantly intrigued me and remains among my all-time favorites.  The D&Q announcement is wonderful news for all of us who love Barry’s cartoons.

Today, Barry conducts workshops and has published books such as “Picture This!” aimed at encouraging people to rediscover their creativity and tell their stories through writing and drawing.  Harvey Pekar, about whom I posted last week, wrote of his growing fascination with comics and story during the 1960s, after he met comic book artist R. Crumb.  In his graphic memoir, “Quitter,” Pekar said he observed that underground comics frequently took the bohemian life style as their subject and started wondering why no one had written about subjects more ambitious than hippies and superheroes.  Comics, he wrote, which were simply words and pictures, “were as good an art form as any that existed….Why couldn’t comics be about the lives of working stiffs?  We’re as interesting and funny as anyone else.” 

Pekar held onto his idea and ultimately made it a reality in his “American Splendor” comic books, which acquired a cult following.  By telling his story, Pekar, a career file clerk who had acquired a habit of quitting things in his youth, achieved greatness.

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