Snow in September

One of the trendy things when I worked in United Methodist youth camp was “Christmas in July.”  Although not quite six months out, the idea was to inject some fun when it was starting to feel too hot out and, as evangelizing efforts go, to talk about Jesus.  The origins of this tradition predate me, actually.  Even secular camps were using the idea in the mid 1930s.  By introducing the mystery of the unexpected, I suppose it might’ve helped to deal with camper homesickness, a perennial problem.  It worked, in my experience, because nobody was really thinking about Christmas in July.  It was a ploy.  Just after the summer solstice, Christmas would have to wait until after the winter solstice to materialize.  Now this past week we observed the autumnal equinox.  I usually write a post about that, but I’ve been kind of distracted lately.

Over the weekend I had to head to a big box home goods store.  I prefer to visit our local independent hardware store, but they don’t carry lumber and I needed some.  I walked in to find the store decked out for Christmas in September.  This was just a bit disturbing.  It’s not even Halloween yet.  In fact, it’s not even October!  For many people in temperate regions autumn is their favorite season.  Harvest themes, apple and pumpkins, turning leaves, falling leaves, and Halloween.  Putting on the occasional sweater for the first time after a long and hot summer.  Big boxes are leaping past all that to get to your Christmas bucks, even while you still have to mow the lawn when you get home.

Okay, so I’m not the only one to grouch about the premature appearance of Santa Claus and the extreme commercialization of Christmas.   I know that Bethlehem is called “Christmas City,” but as we wandered to the Celtic Festival underway downtown, people were sweating in the eighty-degree heat.  The leaves have begun to turn around here, reminding us all that Halloween and Thanksgiving are coming.  The holiday season.  I enjoy it as much as anybody else, but I don’t want to rush it.  I suspect the internet has accustomed us to instant gratification.  You want it?  If you can type it and click on it, it can be at your doorstep in two days.  You don’t need to wait for Christmas to catch up any more.  Meanwhile our landfills overflow with the stuff we throw away from Christmases past.  Christmas in July I think I get.  Christmas in September is just a little too much.

Flipping

The mind-blowing book I mentioned last week is here unveiled.  I discovered Jeffrey Kripal’s work years ago, and have subsequently had a few conversations with him.  The Flip: Epiphanies of Mind and the Future of Knowledge is a challenging and necessary book.  In a way that only full-time academics can, Kripal examines the large picture.  When I say “large” I mean cosmic in scale.  He does so through the lens of the humanities and, especially, religious studies.  If anybody’s going to make religious studies cool, it is he.  The world is full of weird things.  If we’re honest most of us will admit to having had strange things happen to us.  Often we’ll filter them out or explain them away, but at other times we will stop, scratch our heads, and wonder what just went on.

The Flip is not a book of such anecdotes (and I, along with the author, am willing to take anecdotes seriously).  There is some strange stuff in here, but there is also a lot of science.  Historically the humanities, as understood by ancient Romans, included what we would call sciences.  Humanities, in other words, were attempts at understanding the world.  Today religious studies is among the humanities while science is separated out into STEM.  Kripal takes science seriously.  In fact, much of what he discusses here is the application of quantum physics to the macroscopic.  (I’m probably not explaining this well, but then, I guess you’ll have to read the book!)  In other words, science and the humanities need to come together again.  It’s not either/or, but both/and.

Holding out a hand across the aisle is uncomfortable.  Religion has done a great deal to disgrace itself of late, and it’s no wonder respectable folk want to keep their distance.  To understand what we are, however, requires a willingness to admit that humans are both deeply intellectually curious and deeply religiously inclined.  We can be both.  In fact, it is unlikely we can be any other way.  Anomalous occurrences aren’t generally welcome in religious studies any more than they are in the sciences.  That doesn’t stop strange stuff from happening.  This little book of big ideas uses that disjunction to lead the reader into spaces where the future might faintly be discerned.  Wide-ranging and provocative, this book needs to be read.  It is a strange world where two different approaches to knowledge so often decline to speak to one another.  Here they do, and their conversation is mind-blowing.

Grasses and Bans

It’s been so busy that I didn’t realize it was Banned Books Week until yesterday, when there was but one day left (today).  I usually make a point of reading a banned book during this week, but I suppose I read so many of them normally that the observance might lose its edge.  But that’s just an excuse—in this world of uber-corrupt governments, preventing censorship is a sacrament.  We’ve seen just this week how dictators try to silence those who expose them.  Banned books, whether we like what they say or not, should be available for reading.  This is an amazingly bipartisan holiday.  Some places have banned the Bible, to which true believers in the principles of Banned Books Week would respond “Even books we might disagree with should be made available.”  Censorship seeks to cut off discussion.

Although I won’t finish in time, after work yesterday I quickly grabbed my unread copy of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass to begin to make up for my oversight.  Leaves of Grass has been called America’s homegrown Bible and it has an almost religious following, as it has for decades now.  Poetry has a way of moving people that frightens autocrats.  It taps into something that skirts around our conscious mind at times, opening up possibilities that censors would rather keep closed.  Over the past couple of years books of poetry have again begun to appear on the New York Times Bestseller list.  People read to be moved.

One element banned books tend to have in common is that they’re honest, even when they’re fiction.  Honesty is a source of great anxiety for many.  We don’t like to let our true selves be seen because, truth be told, we feel vulnerable.  Banned books take us into uncomfortable places.  And sublime places.  Not all books are great literature, of course.  Even I have been known to part with a book after reading it because it simply didn’t speak to me in the way I like to be spoken to.  Still, I’m loath to give such a book a negative review.  It didn’t speak to me, but it spoke to the author and the publisher, obviously.  It is a voice that deserves to be heard.  That’s what Banned Books Week is all about—defending the right of human expression.  I may not finish my banned book by the end of today since weekends tend to be busier than many work days.  Still, I’m looking forward to my encounter with America’s other Bible.

Book Signing

Okay, so I’ve got a book signing for Holy Horror coming up at the Moravian Book Shop in Bethlehem.  And they’ve advertised it in the local paper.  I’m humbled and honored by this, especially since I have no local following.  When I go to the website of the newspaper, The Morning Call, ads pop up on the top, bottom, and center of the page, obscuring the event.  I take this as kind of symbolic.  Life is crowded.  We seem to have turned the corner to autumn around here with nights being distinctly chilly.   After the languorous heat of summer when even thinking about winterizing seemed to add another layer of insulation over already too warm body, now we suddenly have to try to fit it in among an already crowded schedule.  At least I don’t have to commute too much any more.

I’m trying to get ready for the book signing, but I don’t really know what to do.  Perhaps I should try to get some business cards printed up.  Maybe I should think of some catch-phrase to use if anyone actually buys a high-priced book.  What should I wear?  Working at home can make you feel like a recluse sometimes.  I don’t have enough money to be considered eccentric, but I don’t get out among hoi polloi much either.  If most people have as much trouble as I do clicking off the ads to get to the event underneath, those who swing by the table are likely to be few.  Still, I’m looking forward to meeting local horror film fans.  They are, in general, a surprisingly cordial bunch.

After Nightmares with the Bible I’m going to focus on trying to find more mainstream publishers.  The reason is simple: academic publishers tend to be overpriced.  I’ve worked in publishing long enough to be able to decode pricing schemes.  There is a logic to them, even if at times it feels like you’re being overshadowed by pop-up windows.  To get a wide readership you need a pretty big platform, and getting a following on any form of social media takes the one thing I don’t have enough of.  Time.  You see, just the other day it was summer and we felt like we were baking.  Now the equinox has plunged us into the days of getting the furnace cleaned and operational and looking at the prices of insulation and shaking our heads.  Somewhere under all of these pop-ups are ideas waiting to be written down.

Time To Meet

I feel compelled to state up front that this wasn’t the mind-blowing book I was writing about in yesterday’s post.  One of the perks of working in publishing is the occasional offer of a free book.  (It’s not as generous as you might think, so when one is offered I always say “thank you.”)  The Surprising Science of Meetings, by Steven G. Regelberg, isn’t exactly “mind-blowing.”  The realization that some people make a living studying meetings was certainly, well, surprising, but the corporate world is all about returns on investments and boring stuff like that.  We all hear of companies that value innovative and exciting ideas, but most of us know the feeling of being desk drones parked behind a soulless monitor all day.  At least I’m no longer confined to a cubicle.

The academic world I once knew was the stimulating environment of learning for its own sake.  The academy has followed the business world to its own form of perdition and as Rogelberg points out, there are millions of meetings any given day.  Many of them are poorly run.  This book is for those who want meetings to flow more effectively, to better the bottom line.  Still, I found the chapter on servant leadership particularly hopeful.  I couldn’t help but wonder if Rogelberg was aware that servant leadership was something that developed in the church, out of the effort to imitate the way Jesus was said to have led his flock of disciples.  The point was not to aggrandize himself (this is a chapter 45 and his ilk should read) but to help others to be their best.  This is the kind of leadership—rare, to be sure—that the church has always, at least vocally, promoted.

It didn’t take long for ecclesiastical organizations to start running like businesses, however.  The bishop became a boss rather than someone who reluctantly had the crozier forced into his (or her) hand.  I’ve always believed you should have to take a pay cut to become a bishop.  That would immediately weed out most of the climbers.  In fact, if servant leadership is really the ideal, and the good of the company is really the goal, pay cuts should be expected as you climb the corporate ladder.  Can you imagine a business world where workers were well compensated, and those who really had vision sought promotion because their motivation wasn’t their own bottom line?  It’s an intriguing idea, to be sure.  I’d like ponder it more, but I’ve got a meeting to get to.

Book Magic

Something happens to you on a long bus ride, reading a mind-blowing book.  Part of the transport—literally—is that you’re captive for an hour or two and your book is your boon companion among snoring strangers.  Another aspect is the earliness of the hour.  Days like yesterday, when I have to commute to New York, involve awaking at 2:30 a.m.  The day is cast very differently when your timing shifts back by a few hours.  It’s almost mystical.  The largest portion of the transformative experience, however, is the book itself.  I’ve begun commutes with a book that I quickly realize is a mistake, but since I’m not a quitter, I soldier through it to the end anyway.  On yesterday’s commute the book was one of those that caught my imagination and flew it like a kite from the rear of the bus.  Arriving in Manhattan before six a.m. added to the feeling.  The city’s a very different place that time of day.

Not everyone enjoys reading, I realize.  My late stepfather once had a job as an elevator man.  Not the kind dressed in livery at a big-city hotel, but as an operator in an antiquated building in Oil City, Pennsylvania, where you had to pull the metal gateway  physically across the door and wait until the floor leveled before opening it again.  I didn’t get along with my stepfather, but one day I went to visit him in the elevator.  It wasn’t a busy building.  He sat on a stool, staring straight ahead.  For hours at a time.  Not a man prone to meditation, I knew he had to be bored.  I asked if I could bring him something to read, at least.  He declined for fear of missing someone’s call signal.  It was one of the most frightening scenarios I could imagine.

The clock in the Port Authority read 5:49 when we pulled in.  The day seemed full of possibilities.  I caught the 4:30 home, but the magic was gone.  The book had moved on to more technical things.  Traffic was bad, and there’s a world of difference between reading while the bus moves and trying to do so when it’s caught in traffic.  The commute out of New York City is normally a nightmare, and yesterday traffic didn’t flow freely until we were nearly through New Jersey.  My book was still my companion, but rather more like when a conversation ebbs after an intense discussion.  There was the worry of getting home, taking out the garbage, and trying to stay awake until a reasonable hour.  The book would still be there tomorrow, but I wouldn’t be the same.

Sleepy and Hollow

Call it nostalgia.  (“It’s nostalgia!”)  What with major expenses rolling in like the longer nights—a major plumbing job followed by the roofers back again to fix another leak—I try to accept my joys in inexpensive doses.  I’ve written before about how “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” caught my childhood imagination.  My brothers and I, growing up in quite humble circumstances, were collectors.  Not having much money, the collecting tended to be of free stuff, much of which drove our mother crazy.  Bottle caps, believe it or not, could be had for free from the openers on vending machines that dispensed genuine glass bottles.  We had bags full and the aroma was wonderful.  We had baseball cards—which were cheap and would now be worth something had they been kept—by the boxful.  And we collected stamps because they came free in the mail.

Yes, even bills used to have stamps.  The Legend of Sleepy Hollow stamp was released for Halloween in 1974.  I don’t recall how I heard about it, because there was no internet in those days.  I knew, however, that I fervently hoped one would come so that I could add it to my collection.  It never did.  In fact, I never actually saw the stamp itself.  When we moved house my childhood philatelic ambitions met an abrupt end as those endless childhood collections (which included metal slugs dropped from trucks rumbling out of the local steel mill and fossils found by the river under the bridge where those slugs pinged) were simply thrown out.  I would never see the coveted stamp, and now we use email.

It took many years—decades now—to occur to me that the stamp might be available online.  I guess I had pictures of the price tag of that upside-down airplane stamp in mind as I navigated to a vendor who was asking less than a dollar for a mint copy of a ten-cent Sleepy Hollow stamp.  Gritting my teeth between plumbing and roofing bills, I finally clicked “check out.”  With postage ironically costing more than the contents, still I felt giddy.  This was a piece of childhood on a simple slip of sticky paper.  I am not a stamp collector.  I will likely never be.  I do have vivid memories of bags full of aromatic bottle caps, and shoeboxes groaning with baseball cards, and cheap albums with common stamps.  They’re long gone.  But on my desk I now have a small piece of memory from many years ago, and  I have to wonder if I’m the pedagogue or his headless haunter.

Mouse Trap

The other day a friend asked me about theodicy.  Not in so many words, of course, but the question was distinctly familiar: why would an all-good, all-powerful deity let good people suffer?  My response, hurried as it had to be, coming as it did on a work day, was that this was the classic question that had led to the dismissal of much belief among those raised in the Christian tradition.  It is, if you will, the Achilles heel of the non-biblical unofficial trinity of omnipotence, omniscience, and omnipresence.  The answer typically given is that people have only a limited view and, given that we can’t see the whole picture we’re in no position to judge a being who can.  That got me thinking about the whole picture itself, and whether there is such a thing already in place.

As a young person learning to think theologically, I had to spend hours discussing with peers and teachers what this might mean.  Time, they would assure us, does not affect God.  The Almighty stands (metaphorically) outside of time and therefore understands how all of this will come out.  And the final result will be good.  The orthodox would then chime in that an eternal Hell was necessary to punish sins that, in comparison, lasted only a short time, comparatively.  This would raise the question of justice again, and whether or not we were all marionettes in a puppet-show that really excluded free will.  You see, the other answer to the question of theodicy is that if humans have free will a deity can’t force us to do good.  Humans, they reason are responsible for making the good suffer.

With the weather turning cooler, we caught a mouse the other day.  Decades ago I opted for a humane trap since it seems unspeakably arrogant of me to kill another sentient being who’s simply trying to find food and stay warm.  From the perspective of that mouse, I must seem terrifying.  I’ve caught it in a metal trap.  I’m a hundred times its size.  It has no idea what I’m thinking.  When I catch mice I try to talk to them reassuringly.  It’s got to be disorienting to find yourself going from “o wow, peanut butter!” to “I can’t get out.”  If that mouse is thinking of a higher power I know that I can’t see much of the larger picture.  My view is local, compared to that of larger intellects than mine.  Still, I don’t want that mouse to suffer for being what it is.  I didn’t create it, but I do want to set it free to let it find its place in both space and time.

Early Light

There are times when the Internet’s asleep.  Okay, well, so maybe that’s overstated, but if you have my hours you’ll quickly find the things you can’t do online well before 9 a.m.  For example, just the other day I wanted to check out one of my accounts that I only vaguely understand.  It’s with a company my employer contracts with, and it has an innocuous name that tells you nothing about what it really does.  Still, I had to check in.  After looking up the password, and going through the usual 18-step confirmation of my identity (it didn’t recognize my laptop), I landed on a page stating that it was the routine maintenance period for the website, and would I be so kind as to check back in later.  This is not an isolated incident.  In fact, I often awake around 3 a.m. to find that my laptop’s also doing routine maintenance, although I’m using it nearly every day at that time.  Smart tech, indeed.

You see, the ultra-early riser has a different view of time than the rest of the world.  After about 4 p.m. I don’t have the sharpness that was evident twelve hours before.  Oh, I can still function, but it’s on auxiliary power.  No warp drive that late in the day.  I realize I’m the weird one here.  After visiting friends and family and staying up to the obscenely late hour of 10 p.m., I’ll take an entire week to get back on track with days passing in a fuzzy haze of timely confusion.  I’ve been trying to break the habit for over a year now, but I still occasionally have to go into New York City, and those days require ultra-early awakening.  Knowing such a day is coming up, my body doesn’t want to be vulnerable to that shift.  So I wake up naturally when many others are just getting to bed.

This is mid-day for some of us.

The problem with this is that if you have to get some business done before work hours, many websites are undergoing their maintenance.  They don’t want to be interrupted when I’m actually alert.  There’s a lot of talk about diversity these days, but the person trapped in the early rising net is not a protected category.  It is frustrating to have people say “why don’t you just go back to sleep?” when you can’t.  I’ve gotten used to all that.  The early bird, they say, gets the worm.  That depends, however, whether the worm is on the Internet or not because, believe it or not, the Internet slumbers in the middle of the night.

Moral Compass

Recently I was introduced to The Poor People’s Campaign, in its most recent iteration.  I was drawn in because I was raised in a poor family and have struggled to make up the shortfall my entire adult life.  Those raised in middle class (and above) households often don’t realize that when you start below zero, in a humanities-based career it may take literally decades to catch up, if you ever do.  There’s no safety net and there’s no inheritance.  You begin with years of higher education debt and sub-standard pay in your profession.  But I digress.  The Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for a Moral Revival is non-partisan and it is about more than just the poor.  It’s about restoring true morality to our political system.  Organized by the Rev. William J. Barber II, it has had some success in presenting the plight of the poor to a congress that has largely failed to care.

Politics is full of dirty money and lobbying to the point that many people are cynical and convinced that morality has no chance of survival in this city set on a hill.  The pony and puppet show in a White House run by an entrenched narcissist shows just how far concerns for justice are from the aims of our government.  Barber and his colleagues actually read from the Bible (which, it turns out, advocates justice) rather than just saying that they do.  Compared with Martin Luther King’s 1968 campaign by the same name, The Poor People’s Campaign today is smaller, but growing.  More and more citizens with a conscience realize that our government requires rescue if any semblance of fairness is to throw its hat into the political arena.  We’ve become the victims of to government’s bread and circuses, but without the bread.

The most disturbing aspect of our current political spectrum is the complete lack of a moral compass on the side of politicians who cynically use issues to win elections only for personal enrichment.  We have an Oval Office occupant who refuses to divest himself from his own business interests while using his position to increase his own wealth.  Others in his party follow suit.  The Poor People’s Campaign is non-partisan because corruption easily crosses the political aisle.  At least one party seems to be aware that the poor really do suffer even as the White House tells them tax breaks for the wealthy will make everything better.  When a government proposes “camps” for the homeless to get them off the streets, we should see that we’re clearly in trouble.  And unless someone sounds the alarm the wealthy will never bother to take notice. 

Ambling through Amityville

I may be a week too late for Friday the 13th, but I just finished rereading The Amityville Horror.  One of my current projects required my paying close attention to what was and was not claimed, and although it doesn’t count towards my Goodreads goal, I just had to do it.  I noticed, as also occurred to me when rereading Gerald Brittle’s The Demonologist earlier, that the second time through raises more questions than the first.  The book has been demoted from nonfiction to novel over the years, but it seems pretty clear that Jay Anson believed it to be based on actual events.  He could’ve been wrong, of course, but with a long list of documentary writing credits to his name one does have to wonder.  Anson died just a year after the film came out.

When the movie was released I was still in high school and what everyone was saying about how scary it was kept me out of theaters.  (That, and lack of funds.)  It’s hard to imagine now, but there weren’t even VHS options in those days, especially for those of humble circumstances.  As a result, I was well into adulthood before I saw the cinematic version.  Reading the book, however, is an attempt to pry open the question of what might’ve happened at one of the most famous “haunted houses” this side of the Atlantic.  I’d just read a headline that the house had been sold again, and such was the impact of this story that a simple property transaction is now considered news in some circles.

Controversy permeates this tale.  I suspect that’s because it made a lot of money.  The search for the truth is often compromised by lucre—just look at the White House and try to disagree.  The usual rendering is that the Lutz family, in financial trouble, concocted a story that would bring in big bucks.  Such accusations came, of course, once the story did indeed prove valuable.  The second highest grossing film of 1979, The Amityville Horror held records for the highest grossing independent film for a decade.  Add to that the estimated book sales of 10 million copies and you have a nice retirement account laid up.  Those levels of remuneration are enough to corrupt any narrative.  Still, it’s clear that many people wonder what really went on at the house on Ocean Avenue.  I sat down with the book again and I have to admit that I’m no wiser on the question for having read it again.

Pay Per View

One of the things editors can teach academics is that the latter should pay more attention.  Especially to the world of publishing.  An erstwhile academic, I learned to go about research and publication in the traditional way: come up with an idea that nobody else has noticed or thought of, and write about it.  It is “publishing for the sake of knowledge.”  (Yes, that is Gorgias Press’s slogan, and yes, it is one of my hooks—marketing, anyone?)  The idea behind this is that knowledge is worth knowing for its own sake.  Researchers of all kinds notice details of immense variety and there’s always room for more books.  Or at least there used to be.  The world of publishing on which academics rely, however, is rapidly transforming.  Money changes everything.

The world has too many problems (many of them generated by our own species) to pay too much attention to academics.  Universities, now following “business models” crank out more doctorates than there are jobs for employing said wannabe profs, and those who get jobs pay scant attention to knock-on changes in the publishing world.  Just the other day I was reading about “pay per use” schemes for academic writing that, unsurprisingly, came up with the fact that most academic books and articles lose money.  If someone has to pay to read your research, will they do it?  Especially if that research is on a topic that has no obvious connection with the mess we’re busy making of this world?  Probably not.  Publishing for the sake of knowledge is fast becoming a dusty artifact in the museum of quaint ideas.

For those still in the academic sector that means that research projects now have to be selected with an economic element in mind.  “Would anyone pay for this?” has to be one of the questions asked early on.  The question has to be answered honestly, which requires getting out from beyond the blinders of being part of the privileged class of those who are paid to think original thoughts.  Academia has followed the money.  A capitalistic system makes this inevitable.  How can you do business with an institution that doesn’t play by your accounting rules?  And academic publishers, which have difficulty turning a profit due to low sales volume, are bound to play along.  This situation will change how we seek knowledge.  More’s the pity since some of the things most interesting about the world are those that nobody would think to pay to view.

Fearing Hubris

I’m afraid of hubris.  You see, my academic career was not exactly distinguished, and as an editor you’re encouraged to keep to the background.  Still, when you write a book you need to promote it a little, which is one of the things I learned as an editor.  I was equally parts embarrassed and pleased to see the bookstore display for my upcoming book signing in Bethlehem.  I mean, although I wrote Holy Horror for a general readership, the publisher tends more toward academic books and their pricing, so this is not an inexpensive purchase.  Those who write are nothing, however, without readers.  Those chosen for interviews are writers who’ve made a sales impact or who have a university behind them.  When it’s just me, it feels like maybe I’m trying to ascend Olympus on my own initiative.

I was in the Moravian Book Shop to purchase Neal Stephenson’s Fall; or, Dodge in Hell.  I’ve fallen a bit behind on Neal’s work, largely because Goodreads challenges are measured in numbers of tomes read.  I was pondering this, book in hand, when I noticed—there I was with my own display.  You see, Holy Horror was meant as a guilty pleasure read for those of us who like the scary time of year.  The book price is the scariest part about it, however.  I feel a profound gratitude when anyone actually buys it.  Since there are now copies available on sites such as eBay, I’m guessing some who’ve read it want to recoup a little of the cash outlaid.  While all of this is happening, however, I know that I have to learn the art of book promoting.  Still, it feels like that self-promoting I was warned against as a kid, an unseemly thing.

Writing is a form of conversation.  When I’m in a room with a bunch of other people unless I’m the teacher I have trouble making myself heard.  I’m soft-spoken by nature.  I suppose it’s obvious, then, why a book signing feels hubristic.  Perhaps it’s appropriate for a book about fear to engender this sense of discomfort.  Entering the conversation has always been difficult for me.  At the same time, as the beneficiary of so many books, I feel compelled to give something back.  My insights, if such there be, won’t rock the world.  As I think of myself signing books, I wonder what I could possibly say to someone who’s willing to pay that price for something I produced.  If you’re going to try to climb that mountain, you’d better think about what you’ll say when you meet the gods at the summit.

Paradoxical Psychology

In college I took enough psychology courses that I could have minored in it, had I simply declared it.  Focused on ministry at the time, this declaration never happened.  My own psychological issues (who doesn’t have them?) show up, I suspect, to those skilled at spotting such things, and friends sometimes suggest books I might enjoy reading.  As a result I recently finished Paradox and Counter-Paradox by Mara Selvini Palazzoli, Luigi Boscolo, Gianfrancro Cecchin, and Guiliana Prata.  Attempting to summarize the study would necessarily over-simplify what is clearly a very complex topic—what used to be called schizophrenia—but the basic idea can be explained.  These psychoanalysts worked as a team to help patients with (since it was the 1970s) schizophrenia.  Realizing that the basic mental processes are developed within a family, their practice used group therapy to treat families rather than singling out the “sick individual.”  This book is an account of the methods they used.

Seeing schizophrenia as a family issue rather than an individual one, the therapists saw the identified patient as often a child trying to keep family expectations in order.  The psychoanalyst team called this a “game” played by families seeking homeostasis—the perceived state of balance between members to assure that things stay the same.  The psychotic member enables this to happen and families, as recounted in some of the cases, clearly try to manipulate the situation to keep this strange and awkward balance.  The doctors used paradoxical (thus the title) scenarios to treat such families and reported a good rate of success.  The focal point of their work was often not on the “sick” member, but on the group dynamics which led to the sickness.

The idea is a fascinating one.  We are all members of families (with some exceptions), and the way our group functions is, for the most part, acceptable.  Dysfunction, however, sometimes leads to psychosis, which, according to these authors, is a state of affairs best treated on a family scale.  While it may be easy for me (having grown up in a clearly dysfunctional family) to see this, I sometimes wonder at how widespread mental issues really are.  Our species lives a highly unnatural existence for evolved beings.  Our work together in family units often leads to conflicts, overt and subtle.  Children—often the identified patients here—can see such things much more clearly than we frequently suppose.  Afraid of the consequences, they learn to play the game to keep the situation stable, if untenable.  There’s great insight here, even if the book is a touch outdated; our learning about the human mind is never-ending and it makes perfect sense to pay attention to the context when wondering about the results. 

Unwished Inheritance

When I mentioned my book Holy Horror to someone recently, she asked “Have you seen Hereditary?”  I had to allow as I hadn’t.  I have to struggle to find time to watch movies, and I’m generally a couple of years behind.  Surprisingly, Hereditary was available for free on Amazon Prime, and I finally had the chance to terrify myself with it.  Perhaps it didn’t help that I’d been reading a book on schizophrenia at the time (as will be explained in due course).  Hereditary is one of those movies that is impossibly scary, up until the final moments when it suddenly seems unlikely.  In this respect it reminded me of Lovely Molly and Insidious.  All three also feature demons.  Using a child to accommodate the coming of a demon king brought in Rosemary’s Baby and the Paranormal Activity franchise.  (The genre is notoriously intertextual.)

While demons can make movies scary, what really worked in Hereditary was the sense of mental instability and the lack of a reliable character to believe.  The Graham family is deeply dysfunctional.  Mix in elements of the occult and dream sequences and you’re never certain what, or whom, to believe.  As with many of the films I examine in Holy Horror, the realms of religion and fear are interbred.   While the Bible plays no part in Hereditary, the matriarch’s “rituals” pervade the family following her death.  In a family of females, where a male demon seeks expression through possession, an obviously challenging dynamic is set up.  It works out through a series of disturbing images and manipulations.

Watching the family disintegrate becomes the basis of the horror.  Then possession comes into play.  As in most films concerning possession, deception and misdirection are used.  A demon named Paimon is seeking to take over the one male heir.  This ties the movie to The Last Exorcism, where the same demon under a different name seeks to propagate through Nell Sweetzer.  Unlike many possession movies, the suggestion that possession is actually involved comes late in the script.  This revelation underscores the the misdirection of attention that focuses on Annie Graham’s struggle to cope with reality.  Her sleepwalking and threats to her own children as well as the suggestion that they are but miniatures being manipulated by a larger, more powerful entity, keep the viewer off balance throughout the story.  Intelligent and provocative, Hereditary assures me that tying to analyze such films, while perhaps a fool’s errand, is an enterprise unlikely to be soon exhausted.