New Yorker Short Fiction discussion

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10Nov14 Primum Non Nocere, by Antonya Nelson

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message 1: by Matthew (new)

Matthew | 42 comments Mod
The new issue of the New Yorker is out every Monday morning. I'll post some thoughts and questions after I read it!


message 2: by Matthew (new)

Matthew | 42 comments Mod
1. The title, "Primum Non Nocere" is a version of the Hippocratic Oath that means, "First, Do No Harm." In what ways does the title relate to the story?


message 3: by Matthew (new)

Matthew | 42 comments Mod
2. Aside from the title, Primum Non Nocere, there are two other foreign phrases: ad Astra per aspera (Latin: to the stars with difficulty) and qu'est-ce que c'est (French: what is this, on the Paycho Killer shirt). Is there some common thread running through the foreign phrases? (And what kind of psychologist's husband wears a Psycho Killer shirt?)


message 4: by Matthew (new)

Matthew | 42 comments Mod
3. The most interesting character, I thought, was Claudia, the mother. While there is a cliche of the crazy psychologist, here the mother falls to the opposite extreme. Too sane? In flashback, we learn how she reacts when she finds out that her husband the sex addict has fallen off the wagon and cheated on her -- she doesn't get angry at all, and treats it like an illness. She is honest to a fault, even if it might hurt others. And she always agrees to take the toughest cases -- the most psychologically screwed up, even though it means that she regularly attends funerals when her clients commit suicide.

Extremely sane rationalist, or crazy masochist who is constantly harming herself through her life choices? You decide.


message 5: by Matthew (new)

Matthew | 42 comments Mod
4. Early in the story, Jewel compares herself to her older brother Robby, who had been "more trouble." By not providing a challenge to her mother, she felt she was "disappointing as a result: she gave them no occasion to rise to."

By the end, however, she concludes that "the only way to truly hurt her mother . . . was to hurt herself. To turn the blade, for example, a hundred and eighty degrees."

Are these two views consistent, or has Jewek charged her viewpoint 180 degrees by the end?


message 6: by Matthew (new)

Matthew | 42 comments Mod
Thanks for the thoughts. Here are a few more centered on Joy, the uninvited house guest:

5. When Jewel finds Joy in the kitchen she is immediately upset that she is by the phone, so Jewel could not "surreptitiously dial 911." But when Joy goes to the bathroom, Jewel uses the occasion to call Zachary, not the cops. What has changed for Jewel?


message 7: by Matthew (new)

Matthew | 42 comments Mod
6. We learn that Joy initially liked Claudia because prior therapists had medicated her for bipolar disorder. Claudia disagrees and took her off the medication. What did Claudia think was wrong with her? Does the home invasion show that Claudia was wrong? Or confirm that she was right?


message 8: by Matthew (new)

Matthew | 42 comments Mod
7. There is a lot of implications of "attention seeking behavior" and it is never completely clear how much of Joy's mental illness is just for show. From the beginning, Joy is described as "dressed like a homeless person, like a Ren Faire lady." Real or pretend? She shows off her body modifications. She is not wearing underpants. Standing over her mother is described as "a cry for help" or to "teach her a lesson." Not an actual psychotic episode. How much of her illness is Joy faking?


message 9: by Matthew (new)

Matthew | 42 comments Mod
Larry wrote: "I was struck by this paragraph in the story:

"'What you're going to learn,' her mother had told Jewel more than once,'is that no one ever gets beyond high school. It's all high school for the res..."


This line struck me also. It seemed like a direct rebuke to the "It gets better" campaign, encouraging gay high school students not to commit suicide, because "it gets better" after high school. It doesn't surprise me that a therapist who believes the polar opposite of "It gets better" would also have to attend numerous funerals due to suicide every year.

In terms of backstory, the one who I feel we learn least about is Zachary. If I told you that we were going to read a story in which one of the characters is a "sex-addicted stepfather," you would probably have an idea about what the story is about that is completely irrelevant in "Primum Non Nocere." Irrespective of her reasons for not calling 911 (why would finding out the visitor is under treatment for mental disorders instead of a jilted lover make you LESS likely to call the cops?), when she has the chance Jewel calls Zachary, so she clearly feels safe with him. You say that Zachary is "cowed" by Claudia, but I don't really see that. He is generally happy to do what she says, but it doesn't stop him from cheating or wearing a "Psycho Killer" t-shirt. He just strikes me as easy-going.


message 10: by Matthew (new)

Matthew | 42 comments Mod
8. Several weird things happen at the end of the story. The first is the appearance of Claudia with a hitherto unmentioned character -- Lester. Claudia calls him "Lester," he corrects her to "Dr. Lester" (assumedly a colleague), but then Jewel intuits that he is actually one of her patients (which doesn't mean he isn't also a doctor). What is up with Lester? Why would Claudia be giving one of her patients a ride? My first thought is that they were having an affair, but there was no real evidence of that. But without any further details, we don't really know what to make of his two or three lines of dialog.

What does Lester add to the story?


message 11: by Matthew (new)

Matthew | 42 comments Mod
9. The instigating event that brought Joy to the house is that Dr. Claudia pawned her off on a colleague. Early on, Joy calles her a "tease" for "pretending to be her friend. Joy's main complaint is that Claudia "handed her off to some new chick." But, by the end, Joy seems to get what she wants -- Dr. Claudia is her therapist again, even if there has to be security in the room.

Why did Claudia -- the queen of the "hard cases" -- hand off Joy to a new chick? And why, after the home invasion, did she take her back?


message 12: by Matthew (new)

Matthew | 42 comments Mod
Larry wrote: "An interview with Antonya Nelson about this story can be found here: http://www.newyorker.com/books/page-t..."

I generally don't like reading what an author says about her own work until I'm done making my own conclusions. Here, for instance, she adds the extra-textual fact that in her mind, Claudia was initially a psychiatric patient of Jewel's father. This is consistent with the idea that Claudia is "also crazy" in her own way, but I think takes away some of the intended ambiguity into Claudia's issues.


message 13: by Matthew (new)

Matthew | 42 comments Mod
Larry wrote: "Does "Magic" the cat have symbolic significance? She's missing and Jewel exposes herself (leaving doors/windows open) to allow the cat to return. What's that about?"

Some of the facts, I think, have instrumental uses in the story. The cat escaped as a reason for leaving the back door open. (Just like not having a cell phone is a reason to not be able to call the cops immediately.)

Beyond that, the interesting part about Magic is how it exposes the dishonesty of Claudia's "honest" realism. '“He’s old,” her mother had told her, matter-of-factly. “Cats go off to die when they’re old.”' This may be true in general, but it is unnecessarily harsh, and untrue in this case. There are lots of ways to couch the truth. ("He may come back and have years left, but we have to be prepared for the other possibility . . .") But Claudia seems to mistake eternal pessimism for "realism."


message 14: by Matthew (new)

Matthew | 42 comments Mod
Larry wrote: "Tattoos figure prominently in the story. They are also the source for the magazine art work. I'm sure they are not there for no reason. What do tattoos on Joy and Zachary meant to relay to us?"

Tattoos, I think, represent the intersection of "self-harm" and "attention seeking." Especially Joy's more "extreme" tattoos that include branding and zippers. Zachary's tattoos scream "Look at me!" while Joy's scream "Help!"

With the background information that Claudia was her first husband's patient, and Zachary's tattoos, ease in talking to Joy, and sex addiction, one wonders if the pattern continued and Zachary began as Claudia's patient as well.


message 15: by Matthew (new)

Matthew | 42 comments Mod
Larry wrote: "Why did Claudia pawn Joy off on someone else? Claudia's supposedly the therapist that is unafraid of the difficult cases. Perhaps Joy was too much of a challenge for Claudia. Joy was her "Professor Moriarty". Perhaps their relationship got too intense. It's clear that Joy's acting out got her what she wanted, though, the restored therapy relationship with Claudia. "

The other alternative is that she dropped Joy for the same reason that she took her off the medication -- she concluded that there wasn't anything really wrong with her.

The home invasion (and subsequent need for security) would then have proved her wrong -- Joy really was hard-case-crazy, and therefore worthy of working with again.


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