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Wednesday, August 8, 2018

What I'm reading (#41)

When I went public about four years ago on my other blog, Skeptophilia, about my ongoing struggles with depression and anxiety, it was not out of any desire to make myself the center of attention.  Hell, half of my anxiety revolves around people judging me, or even looking my way in social situations; baring my soul to the world, especially about something so deeply distressing to me, was a huge step.

The reason I did it is that I wanted to do what I could to help remove the stigma of mental illness.  I have a chemical imbalance in my brain; it is not my fault, nor is it something that I could fix by "thinking positive thoughts" or "going for a walk in the woods" or "looking at the wonderful things in life."  As far as the last one goes, for the last fifteen years especially, I've had a pretty great life.  I'm married to a wonderful woman, my kids are doing well, I've got a nice home in a place I love, a steady job that (despite its frustrations) is important and rewarding, and finally -- a dream of forty years' duration -- my fiction is being published (nine novels and counting!).

None of that affected the depression in the least.  The good things didn't lift me up; the depression pulled me down despite everything that was going right.  Worse, it made those things seem unimportant, worthless, or (worst of all) temporary.  Okay, things are pretty good now, my depression said.  Just wait.  It'll end soon.

My depression is now being managed by an antidepressant and has been ameliorated by therapy, but the truth is, I'm never going to be cured of it.  Accepting that has brought a kind of peace, and a determination that other people suffering the same way come to the same understanding -- and get help.

So when I picked up Jenny Lawson's book Furiously Happy: A Funny Book About Horrible Things, I knew I was going to relate to it.  Lawson is a fellow sufferer from depression and anxiety, and the similarity of her experience to mine was apparent from the second page of the foreword:
[A] few years ago... I fell into a severe bout of depression so terrific I couldn't see any way out of it.  The depression wasn't anything new.  I've struggled with many forms of mental illness since I was a kid, but clinical depression is a semiregular visitor and anxiety disorder is my long-term abusive boyfriend.  Sometimes the depression is solid enough that I mistake it for the flu or mono, but this instance was one of the extreme cases.  One where I didn't necessarily want my life to end, I just wanted it to stop being such a bastard.  I reminded myself that depression lies, because it does.  I told myself that things would get better.  I did all of the normal things that sometimes help, but I still felt hopeless and suddenly I found myself really angry.  Angry that life can through such curveballs at you.  Angry at the seeming unfairness of how tragedy is handed out.  Angry because I had no other emotions left to give.
So Lawson went to her blog, The Bloggess, and started writing about what she was going through.

The result was an outpouring of support and "me toos" from her readers.  Ultimately, that experience led to her writing Furiously Happy -- a poignant, brilliant, and often hysterically funny account of one woman's life of dealing with mental illness.  (If you doubt the last bit, I can tell you that I was sitting in bed reading, and kept guffawing so much my wife finally said, "What on earth are you reading?"  I told her -- and when I was done, gave it to her to read.  The result was many muffled snorts of laughter when she thought I wasn't listening.)


 
[Click the image above if you'd like to purchase the book from Amazon]

Let me put this bluntly: you need to read this book.  Even if you do not have depression or anxiety yourself, someone you know does.  Current statistics are that 7% of Americans have experienced one or more bouts of serious depression in a given year.

Lawson's decision to write this book was a major act of courage -- and a gift to the rest of us.  There are episodes in it that will have you howling with laughter (the footnotes alone were enough for me to have that reaction more than once), and chances are, there'll be a couple of scenes that will have you reaching for the kleenex.

As for me: I said "amen" more than once while reading this book.  Its description of what people with depression and anxiety go through is spot-on.  It's time we remove the stigma from mental illness -- and Jenny Lawson has taken a huge step toward realizing that goal.

Friday, August 3, 2018

What I'm reading (#40)

A few weeks ago I borrowed the book Portrait of a Killer: Jack the Ripper -- Case Closed by Patricia Cornwell from a friend.

l've had a morbid fascination for Jack the Ripper ever since I first heard about him when I was a teenager.  The idea that someone could kill between five and seventeen victims -- how many were Jack's doing, and how many either copycats or simply the result of the horrific violence that was commonplace among the poor in London in the 1880s and 1890s -- is still a matter of conjecture.  The "five canonical murders" -- Mary Ann Nichols, Annie Chapman, Catherine Eddowes, Elizabeth Stride, and Mary Jane Kelly -- were all of poor women working as prostitutes in the Whitechapel area of London.  The killings started out horrid and ended up nothing short of appalling -- the last two were mutilated nearly beyond recognition.

Despite the efforts of the police, Jack's identity was never determined.  This, of course, has led to a plethora of theories -- guesses would be a better term -- about who he was, ranging from known murderers like Seweryn KÅ‚osowski and Thomas Neill Cream to Prince Albert Victor, Duke of Clarence -- the son of King Edward VII.  All of them have points for and against, and some are clearly more preposterous than others.  None, unfortunately, fits with everything that is known about the Ripper murders.

But Cornwell says there's one that's different.  In Portrait of a Killer, she makes a case that all of the canonical murders, plus that of Martha Tabram (which occurred before that of Mary Ann Nichols) and several afterwards, were the work of artist Walter Sickert.

Sickert was, apparently, a strange man, and had a fascination himself for the Ripper murders.  He deliberately stayed in an apartment that had allegedly been home base for Jack at some point (how he could have known that when no one knew who Jack was, I have no idea).  He drew and painted several scenes related to the murders, and many of his other paintings have macabre, grotesque, and violent themes.


[click the image above if you'd like to purchase the book from Amazon]

Cornwell lays out the evidence carefully, making a thorough case for Sickert being Jack.  However, it must be said in the interest of honesty that her conclusions have been called into serious question -- historian and Ripper scholar Stephen P. Ryder has taken Cornwell's argument apart piece by piece, with the strongest evidence against being that there are multiple witnesses who claimed to see Sickert in France when several of the murders took place.

The bottom line is, we probably will never know for certain who Jack the Ripper was.  In fact, I always bring him up in my Critical Thinking classes when we discuss the concept of "sufficient evidence" -- and that, as frustrating as it is, there are times we have to say "We don't know, and probably never will know."  That notwithstanding, Cornwell's book is fascinating reading; even if she's wrong about her central premise, she provides a unique and lucid window into the sordid life of Whitechapel in the 1880s and 1890s.  And her descriptions of the victims themselves are poignant and sympathetic.  It's worth a read just for that alone -- whether or not her favorite theory about the Ripper's identity is correct.