"I wake up every morning in a house that was built by slaves," stated First Lady Michelle Obama at this year's Democratic National Convention. Her wor"I wake up every morning in a house that was built by slaves," stated First Lady Michelle Obama at this year's Democratic National Convention. Her words seemed to come as a surprise to many, those who had either forgotten or had never known that black hands enslaved by white masters built the iconic edifice of our democracy.
As we come to the end of an extraordinary eight years of the nation's first President of color while witnessing the continued systemic racism that pervades every corner of our collective American culture, as we engage in open, honest dialogue about white privilege, how black lives matter, and denounce the wretched anti-immigrant language spewed by politicians and political candidates, we must also acknowledge and work to overcome the continued ignorance of our nation's darkest and ugliest history- a history that has led us inexorably to the painful circumstance of contemporary racism.
In his breathtaking novel The Underground Railroad, Colson Whitehead demonstrates the earth-shattering power of an artistic voice to carry the legacy of the past into our now . He takes what we know to be true, but breaks free from the confines of history to create a brilliant work of fiction.
Cora is a young woman enslaved on the Randall cotton plantation in Georgia, like her mother and grandmother before her. She is the voice, the eyes, ears and body by which the reader witnesses and suffers the brutality of slavery- the rape and beatings, the whippings, torture and murder of the men and women who make up her community, however transitory and temporary it is. Cora “had seen men hung from trees and left for buzzards and crows. Women carved open to the bones with the cat-o’-nine-tails. Bodies alive and dead roasted on pyres. Feet cut off to prevent escape and hands cut off to stop theft.”
Cora's mother escaped years earlier, leaving her young daughter—a betrayal and an abandonment that burns deep in Cora's heart. Knowing the horrors that await a captured runaway slave, escape is only a fantasy, until Cora meets Caesar, a new arrival on the plantation. Caesar tells her about about the free north where he once lived and the way out of their imprisonment, by way of an underground railroad. He convinces her to flee, and we as readers are led from the nightmare of plantation life to the heart-stopping tension of escape.
The Underground Railroad takes on a hallucinatory affect, as Whitehead makes literal the metaphorical network of safe houses that ran from the southern United States north into Canada in the 19th century. In reality, it was neither underground nor a railroad, but in this author's vibrant and vital imagination, the underground railroad is an almost faerie tale-like system, complete with stations and conductors hidden just beneath the scorched earth of slavery.
Chapters of Cora and Caesar's escape alternate with the stories of other characters in the world they are fleeing, most notably the slave hunter in pursuit, Ridgeway. Ridgeway tracked but never found Cora's mother, Mabel, and this failure drives him to pursue Cora from state to state in a near-frenzy of diabolical hatred and determination.
The surreal nature of the narrative makes the reality of slavery even more present and vivid. It is hard to grasp, and yet essential that we do, our recent history and how it continues to shape our present. Colson Whitehead has written a bold and terrible, beautiful and mythic novel that will hold you from the opening pages and not release you, even after you come to its end. Highly recommended. ...more
There are books that meet you at just the right time, when you most need and are open to their messages. I can well imagine encountering the warm TexaThere are books that meet you at just the right time, when you most need and are open to their messages. I can well imagine encountering the warm Texan embrace of Brené Brown's brand of social psychology at other times of my life and being turned off by its fierceness, volume and confidence. I may have looked askance at the cult of Brené Brown, with legions of devotees who discovered her through her TED talk gone viral, read her previous works, taken her Oprah-endorsed self-actualization workshops, or listened to her CD series on vulnerability and shame. Rising Strong is in fact my first encounter with Brené Brown's work. It was pressed into the hand of the person who gave it to me as a gift last Christmas, the bookstore clerk assuring him it was a life-changing read, and now I will be the one to press it into everyone else's hands.
So yes, let's just get it out there: the subtitled theme of Rising Strong, this triumvirate of Reckoning-Rumble-Revolution is schticky and looks like pop-psychology gone wild. It will likely turn off others who rely exclusively on data and peer-reviewed research to support social science theory and prescriptive methodology.
What I came to love about Brown's narrative is the marriage of research and inspiration, her ability to take grounded theory and apply it to art-the art of emotion, the art of knowledge, the art of faith.
What is this book about exactly? It's about surviving hurt, acknowledging shame, embracing vulnerability, learning how to tell our stories, and getting back up to do it all over again, with courage and determination.
The emphasis on personal narrative touched me deeply. As a writer, I believe we are wired for story and my greatest healing has come by turning to the page, not only in telling my own stories, as I do when spilling my guts in my journal, or constructing a personal essay that is meant to reveal more universal truths, but in creating fictional worlds with characters who are born of my heart, my emotions, and in a tangential way, my experiences. So Brown's insistence that we use the physical act of writing out our narratives as a way to achieve truth and emotional release resonates deeply. Only in writing our stories can we examine what's real and what isn't, when we've conflated nostalgia with memory, when our memories have failed us and we fill in the gaps with drama or denial, where there is room for change or a different way of looking at the past that has shaped us.
There are too many components of this book that touched me, made me nod or tear up with recognition, made me turn to my partner and read aloud. Just too many. Here are a few: The destructive nature of comparative suffering. The phenomenon of "chandeliering", when we've packed down hurt so tightly that a seemingly innocuous comment can send us straight up to the chandelier with an emotional reaction well out of proportion to the situation. The need to sustain our creative souls. The idea that everyone is simply doing the best they can and recalibrating your responses accordingly. Creating boundaries to access compassion. Courage is contagious. Hope as a learning process, not a fly-by emotion. Embracing regret as a path toward empathy and how trauma leads to shame, and unacknowledged shame prevents us from being vulnerable.
Although I found many of the anecdotes that led to the development of theories and the concrete plans for personal engagement a bit trite, the approach to change Brown offers—like both hands extended to lift the reader up—is ripe and right, with practical, actionable guidance.
... addiction is not a sin or a choice. But it's not a chronic, progressive brain disease like Alzheimer's either. Instead, addiction is developmenta
... addiction is not a sin or a choice. But it's not a chronic, progressive brain disease like Alzheimer's either. Instead, addiction is developmental disorder—a problem involving timing and learning, more similar to autism, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), and dyslexia than it is to mumps or cancer.
The phone rang during a station identification break. Caller ID was enough. I answered, saying, "I know. I'm listening. My mind is blown." It was early July and journalist-advocate Maia Szalavitz was being interviewed by Terry Gross on WHYY's Fresh Air. The next day I went to my local bookstore to order Unbroken Brain. It was backordered. Weeks. When it finally did arrive last week, I carved out time each afternoon to read, writing notes in my journal, in the book, sharing the parts that made me gasp or tear up with my partner, who has struggled with addiction since pre-adolescence.
The theories Szalavitz's posits in Unbroken Brain (and to those reviewers who criticize her lack of empirical data and research citations, you apparently missed the THIRTY-FOUR pages of Notes in the index, printed in 6-point font) are the result of thirty years spent researching and writing about addiction. Woven into this distillation of addiction and treatment is the author's own experience with heroin and cocaine abuse as a young woman in the 1980s that nearly ended her life more than once.
Unbroken Brain is an examination and take-down of current theories and approaches to addiction, from the lack of moral fiber and addictive personality character disorder that is at the heart of the 12-step program treatment approach (which decades of research has debunked—there is no "addictive personality" type) to the notion that addiction is a disease like cancer over which the person with addiction has no choice or control. And regardless of our supposed empathy for the "victims" of a disease, we—as family members, partners, and a legislative and judicial system—regard substance abuse as a sin and criminalize the behaviors, punishing the person instead of providing treatment. What we do know is that it is possible to identify children at risk of developing self-destructive habits and intervene with positive coping mechanisms at an early age, providing individuals with learning tools long before "rehab" becomes necessary.
By accepting addictive behaviors as development disabilities and learning disorders, Szalavitz (and really, the neuroscientists, psychologists, addiction therapists, social psychologists, and psychiatrists behind the research she presents), demonstrates how we can begin to focus on the causes, not the symptoms. We can advocate for humane, empathetic treatment that will allow people with addiction to find new ways to cope, replacing destructive addictions with healthy behaviors. Addiction is learned behavior and can be unlearned.
Addiction is a result of complex genetic, environmental and developmental factors and therefore there is no one-size-fits-all approach to treatment, but Szalavitz makes a strong and data-supported case for Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, as well as the HARM reduction methods used to keep addicts safe from HIV and AIDS by providing sterile needles, the decriminalization of drug use—which places an emphasis on treatment instead of punishment—and using 12-step methods as support but not treatment, as has been the default for decades. She also details what enabling is, and what it isn't, and shows that tough love and punishment only serve to tear down what few reserves people with addiction have. Compassion, consistency, love, and support work in service of behavioral change. Threats and ultimatums and shame do not.
Unbroken Brain goes broad and deep into all aspects of addiction, from causes to treatment, from neuroscience that includes epigenetics and neurodiversity, to the very political nature of the American criminalization of addiction, which is fueled by Jim Crow racism and social stigma. Yet Szalavitz writes in an inclusive, generous, conversational style, threading her own narrative in with each chapter. Her life becomes the beacon we follow to ground us in this journey of new understanding.
“With addiction, the vast majority of people do recover,” Szalavitz says. “And that’s a really important thing for people to realize. The reason I called the book Unbroken Brain is that your brain isn’t broken. You’ve learned something that is problematic.”
Highly recommended for anyone who deals with addiction or has a person with addiction or an associated mental disorder such as depression, obsessive-compulsion, manic-depression, or a learning disorder in their lives. I found it to be a release from despair and a source of hope. ...more