Law and Conversation

January 2, 2012

Looking back on 2011 and forward into 2012

2011 was a great year for reading for me. I focused even more than I have in past years on reading critically and with purpose. That meant I read more books, and better books, than when I’ve read more haphazardly.

I like to keep a running list of the books I read, the better to remember them (which writing about them on this blog also helps me to do). My personal Best Book Read In 2011 was the graphic novel “Watchmen,” by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons. Other books I enjoyed greatly included several by Alexander McCall Smith; Scottish poet Jackie Kay’s memoir, “Red Dust Road;” Suzanne Collins’s YA blockbuster, “The Hunger Games;” and Anthony Trollope’s masterwork, “The Way We Live Now,” which had been on my TBR list for at least a couple of years.

One book I especially enjoyed wasn’t even my idea to read. Knowing of my passion for Laura Ingalls Wilder, an intuitive friend surprised me with a gift at the end of 2011, Kristin Kimball’s “The Dirty Life.” Ever wonder what it was REALLY like for Laura to live with Almanzo and build a life on the farm together? After reading Kimball’s memoir of meeting, moving in with, and marrying her farmer husband, I think I have a pretty good idea (and, like Kimball’s husband, I bet Almanzo and, for that matter, Laura, had smelly armpits, too).

One of my resolutions last year was to read a nice, juicy biography. I had two in mind: Maynard Solomon’s “Beethoven” and Benita Eisler’s “O’Keefe and Stieglitz.” Alas, they’re still sitting on my nightstand, unread. But I kept that resolution by reading another thick biography I’d had for several years: Mary S. Lovell’s “The Sisters: The Saga of the Mitford Family.” Lovell’s book was a good read about an interesting family, but I found myself agreeing with a discerning friend who described it as having “lost its moral compass.” To her, and to me, the author seemed rather too enthralled by the faded glamour of the unrepentant Diana Mitford, in particular, who married Oswald Mosley, an M.P. who became the leader of the British Fascists and, with Diana, was imprisoned for much of World War II because of their open sympathy for Hitler. Scandalous Women has more about the Mitford sisters.

Another aspiration of mine in 2011 was to read a Dickens novel. I’m sorry to say I didn’t keep that one. But in 2012 I hope to make amends by reading both Claire Tomalin’s new biography of Dickens and a Dickens novel I haven’t read before, since both were under our Christmas tree. I’m excited!

I did something new in 2011 that I plan to continue in 2012: I became a guest blogger on The Europa Challenge Blog. It was pure serendipity that I peeked at my Twitter stream one evening and saw Marie’s tweet inviting fans of Europa Editions publications to participate on this fan blog. Having already read several Europa books, I had no hesitation about accepting. Initially, I signed up for the fairly conservative four-book Europa Ami challenge level. But I like a bit of competition, so I pushed myself and surpassed the 7-book Europa Haver level, reading 8 new Europa books in all—which doesn’t count the several I’d read before accepting the challenge. For 2012, Marie has renamed the levels with a wonderful continental café theme. I’m starting out cautiously, signing up for the 4-book Espresso level, but I’m quite confident I’ll be able to reach at least the 6-book Cappuccino mark. As a lawyer, I love finding and thinking about the legal issues in the books I read. In Europa’s books, I’d particularly recommend Alberto Angela’s “A Day in the Life of Ancient Rome” for its brief discussion of Roman legal proceedings, Peter Kocan’s “The Treatment and The Cure” and “Fresh Fields” for his depiction of Australia’s treatment of the mentally ill who have committed crimes, and Jane Gardam’s wonderful “Old Filth” and “The Man in the Wooden Hat” for her portrait of a marriage from both spouses’ respective points of view.

What are your New Year’s resolutions?

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December 26, 2011

Peter Kocan’s “Fresh Fields:” mental illness and the law

Challenge ButtonNews from the Mental Health Summit at the University of Chicago as well as the Chicago News Cooperative’s excellent coverage of mental health services cuts in Illinois in the pages of The New York Times coincided with my reading Australian writer Peter Kocan’s autobiographical novel, “Fresh Fields.”

In 1966, as a teenager, Kocan tried and, fortunately, failed, to assassinate Australian labor leader Arthur Calwell. Though he was found to be a borderline schizophrenic and sentenced to life in prison, most of which he spent in a mental hospital, he was pronounced cured and released from custody after ten years. He began writing in prison and is now an acclaimed writer, having received a number of literary awards as well as obtaining advanced degrees.

In “Fresh Fields,” Kocan depicts the descent of a fourteen-year-old loner into insanity. The youth, as the author refers to him throughout, didn’t seem fundamentally abnormal to me (though I’m no mental health expert). Rather, his mental unhinging seems to occur as a gradual result of his extremely limited socialization.

Kocan makes the dysfunctionality of the youth’s family clear in his first few paragraphs. The youth, his mother, and his younger brother are fleeing their home and the abusive Vladimir, who is his mother’s husband or partner and may or may not be the youth’s father. Kocan refers to the youth’s mother only as “the woman,” and she has no more than minimal dialogue and interaction with him. Though the youth is only around 15, his mother apparently doesn’t think it important for him to go to school. She pushes him to get a job and support himself, since she evidently can’t. He gets and loses a series of jobs due to his complete lack of experience and missteps that a more experienced and wiser person would never make. The hard knocks he’s gotten, coupled with the absence of any meaningful human relationship or social interaction, cause him to retreat into himself. He becomes increasingly obsessed and identifies with Diestl, a soldier character in a German movie about the aftermath of World War II who is alone, wounded, and bitter. By the end of the book, it’s clear that he’s going to explode.

“Fresh Fields” is the prequel to Kocan’s two novellas, “The Treatment” and “The Cure,” which I reviewed earlier on The Europa Challenge website. His stories and personal history, together with a number of articles I’ve written for the Illinois Bar Journal on mental health law, make me wonder to what extent isolation causes people to develop mental illness, or dementia. (From there, it’s a short step to wondering whether solitary confinement for misbehaving prisoners is ever a good idea.) If only more positive socialization were the answer for all who suffer; unfortunately, it’s clear that there are many other factors that cause or contribute to mental problems, some (but not all) of which can be alleviated by counseling, some (but not all) of which can be alleviated by drugs, and some (but not all) of which may be alleviated by more socialization.

You can read more about Kocan in Patrick Bryson’s paper, “Lunatics and the Asylum: Representations of ‘The Loner.’” We in the U.S. are not alone in having difficulty in funding and framing our mental health care system; see Inside Story for more about Australia’s mental health care problems. And NPR had a story recently about how to hold violent psychiatric patients accountable without punishing them for being sick.

Though it still carries a stigma, mental illness has touched most people’s lives. I admire Kocan and all those who are bringing their experiences out of the closet.

September 23, 2011

Mental health and criminal justice: The Treatment and The Cure

Challenge ButtonI posted a review of Australian writer Peter Kocan’s “The Treatment and The Cure” over on The Europa Challenge Blog this week. Kocan’s work is a worthy addition to the canon of literature dealing with the treatment of mental illness – the criminally insane, in particular. He knows what he’s writing about: he himself was sentenced to life in prison for attempting to assassinate the Australian Labor Party leader in 1966, when he was 19. After spending around ten years in a prison asylum, he was released. Since then, he’s made a career as a writer and has won major literary awards in Australia. Hope you’ll click on over and have a look at my review. Even better, read Kocan’s autobiographical book for yourself. It’s a compelling, and chilling, story.

Treatment of the mentally ill has a long and sordid history. In recent years, some judicial systems have tried addressing offenders with mental illnesses through setting up specialty courts, which I wrote about in the April 2008 issue of the Illinois Bar Journal. Kocan’s narrator doesn’t appear to be mentally ill at all; he describes a system in which, from his point of view, treatment in the form of medication or electroshock sessions is administered more for punishment, or on whim, than for therapy.

Other memorable stories of mental illness include Joanne Greenberg’s “I Never Promised You a Rose Garden,” Sylvia Plath’s “The Bell Jar,” and the movie based on Sylvia Nasar’s biography of Nobel laureate John Nash, “A Beautiful Mind.” Ken Kesey’s “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” of course, is a classic novel about a prison mental hospital made into an equally classic movie with a superb performance by Jack Nicholson.

What are you reading this weekend?

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