In the fall of 1971, I was a sophomore at Tufts University in Medford, Massachusetts, studying, among other things Italian language and literature. Hoping to improve my fluency, I attended a weekly “Italian Table” held in one of the school’s dining halls, where conversation was held exclusively in that language. It was there that I met a charming and intelligent young man named Shukri, who told me he was newly arrived from Tripoli, Libya, and wondered if perhaps I would be kind enough to show him the sights in Boston.

I agreed, but when I showed up for his “tour,” he rather arrogantly informed me that there really couldn’t be anything of interest to see in a city that was, what, perhaps 400 years old? He admitted that he was just hoping to get me to agree to a date with him.

While I had my misgivings (including the fact that I was a closeted lesbian), he was, as I said, both charming and intelligent, and so I agree to go out with him. On our very first date he told me that he had worked for OPEC, where his special talent was pricing oil to maximize both sales and profits. I asked him what he was doing in the United States, a country he seemed to disdain. He launched into a diatribe like nothing I had heard before, about how amazingly stupid my country was, how they had invited him, a patriotic Libyan and profound enemy of the U.S., to come here to study — for free! — at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy. Why, I asked him, if he hated the U.S., had he agreed to come here? His response was, “Learn things, wear blue jeans, date pretty girls? Why not?’

Thus began our year-long relationship. Shukri loved to tell me about how much he loved his homeland and how much he despised the Italians who still colonized his country when he was born. He told me, with tears in his eyes, of his first day of school, of how he, part of the first generation of Libyans allowed to get an education after Libya’s liberation from colonial rule, marched to school through streets lined with people who shouted encouragement or ran up to him to press candies or coins into his hands.

His feelings of love for his country and culture were obviously profound, although his interpretation of his Muslim religion probably wouldn’t have sat well with Muslims holding more fundamentalist views. For example, when I asked him why he drank hard liquor — wasn’t that against his faith? He explained that Allah was great, all-loving and all-powerful, and that he by committing a little peccadillo was giving Allah a chance to demonstrate his magnanimity by forgiving his sin.

When I asked him how he felt about being dedicated to a country ruled by a madman, he replied that if one were a small, relatively powerless country, constantly threatened by larger, more powerful countries, might it not be prudent for the leader of the weaker country to seem more capricious, less predictable, and hence more dangerous?

On occasion he would order me to show up wearing a “nice dress,” and he would take me to a party at the Fletcher School, where I would juggle his cigarettes and drink, and listen to the amazing array of diplomats, military officers, teachers, and government workers who would mingle and exchange ideas. Shukri’s roommate, when I knew him, was a U.S. Air Force officer, a Mormon from Utah. Regardless of how much Shukri railed against the U.S., he was living cheek-by-jowl with Americans, and even dating one.

Why am I sharing my reminiscences of my long-ago dalliance with a U.S.-hating, Muslim Libyan? Because long after I knew him Shukri Mohammed Ghanem went on to become prime minister of Libya, and while he was in that office, he worked to “thaw” and improve Libya’s relationship with the United States.

Shukri Ghanem in 2010 (Photo by Υπουργείο Εξωτερικών)

Shukri Ghanem in 2010 (Photo by Υπουργείο Εξωτερικών)

Many Trump conservatives would probably agree with the 28-year-old Shukri that the U.S. was “stupid” to let him into our country and educate him for free, but would they be right? If Shukri never came here, would he have worked to improve Libya’s relation with us? This idea that keeping all of our potential enemies out of our country makes us markedly safer ignores the reality that to know a country and its people is the only way to begin to build bridges. As the Buddha, Siddhārtha Gautama, said, “Hatred never ends through hatred.”

Tagged with: , ,
Posted in International Relations, Politics

The Coming Zombie Apocalypse

The Coming Zombie Apocalypse

Lately, I find myself worrying about the imminent zombie apocalypse.

It began when my partner introduced me to the American Movie Classics (AMC) cable channel series, The Walking Dead (based on the series of graphic novels by Robert Kirkman, Tony Moore and Charlie Adlard). It is a well-plotted show, with lots of interesting characters, but I have trouble abandoning all reason so that I can enjoy it.

You see, the zombies are dead. They are rotting, decomposing. They have this compulsion to feast on living flesh, but as is established fairly early in the first season, their insides are rotting, too. In other words, they cannot digest the food they eat. It does them not one bit of good to eat the living. The zombies gobble someone up and then the meat just rots inside them.

Anyone with a basic understanding of human biology knows that the process of breaking down food fuels the necessary activities that must go on inside a human body to sustain life or in order for it to function in any way, shape, or form. But these zombies only eat for fun (not profit), they do not breathe, they are, on a number of levels, rotting away. But they do not fall down and decompose entirely. Instead, they run around — and I do mean run: The contemporary zombie doesn’t just lumber after you at a speed that is just slightly faster than a living person crawling on his belly.

I am perturbed by the sheer absurdity of this conception of zombies. In order to watch or enjoy the show, I have to park my intellect and reason by the door.

I went online to see what other people were saying about issues like this, and what I found concerned me on an even more profound level. I encountered, for example, one man explaining that “Zombies can run faster than us, ‘cuz they don’t have to breathe — they never get out of breath.”

It does not seem to bother this person that respiration is necessary to fuel the muscles that enable us to run. No breath equals an extremely short sprint, followed by complete collapse. Anyone who has ever experienced anaphylaxis (which tends to interfere with things like respiration and maintaining blood pressure within a functional range) can tell you that if you do not have adequate blood pressure or breath, well, you sure as hell ain’t gonna run very far.

There are even Web pages that answer pressing questions that may trouble people, such as:

  • Are Zombies Real?
  • Do you think zombies are a threat?
  • If zombies ruled the world, how would I survive?

Other commentators have found other aspects of the series troublesome. Perhaps the most famous gripe is summed up in this photo:

Who mows lawns after the zombie apolcalypse?

I suppose that I should also worry that people may confuse zombies with the chronically ill. We, too, lumber, occasionally mumble or seem out of it, and are regarded as being little more than a burden on society. I guess we’re not quite the affliction posed by flesh-eating automatons, but I’m sure there are those who might want to argue the point.

But the most troubling aspect of the zombie craze for me, a child of the 60s and the original Star Trek, is that in the era of science fiction, a story had to make some kind of sense, had to possess some kind of internal logic or consistency. Once upon a time we feared having a mouth and being unable to scream. Or that space aliens would disable non-essential electricity for a half hour to get us to listen to their warning about the follies of our ways. Heck, even Gremlins came with specific instructions, and the plot of the movie demonstrated the consequences of ignoring them.

My fear is that the rise of zombies as the monsters du jour reflects the ascendance of polarized and passionate irrationality. Just today I heard that still another Republican (this one an obstetrician-gynecologist!) had stepped forward to assert that, yup, women’s bodies really do have a way to halt rape-related conception. Representative Phil Gringey (R-Ga) did admit that Todd Akin was not entirely correct in his earlier comments on the issue, but then Gringey explained that even in non-rape situations, women may require a glass of wine and an admonition to “Just relax” before they are able to ovulate and then conceive. (That explains why no children were conceived prior to the discovery of fermentation. “No wine, no kids!” as the grape-stomping cavemen used to say.)

To be fair, I shouldn’t just point out the GOP’s irrational ideas. We have liberals who are certain that a major cause of school shootings is violent video games, even though the research that has been done doesn’t really support that conclusion.

And we have NRA spokesman Wayne LaPierre, who reduced the complex and difficult subject of how to prevent gun violence to a statement that is a model of oversimplification, namely, “The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.”

This is national discourse that is basically on the level of grammar schoolyard taunts. What is the world coming to? I know that that is the lament of every aging generation, but at the moment, it seems like a reasonable question.

Zombies free yard work jpg

Photo credits:

  • The first and third photos used in this article were created using Make your own Road Construction Sign. Thank you to!
  • The second photo used in this article was taken from Urlybits. It’s become an Internet meme — I am not sure who created it.

Copyright © 2013 by Candace L. Van Auken. All rights reserved.

Tagged with: , , , ,
Posted in Medical knowledge, Politics, Social issues, Women's health

One More Thing

The day after I published Friday’s blog post (The Thing I Don’t Get), I took a second look at the image from Facebook that set me off. For those of us with non-eidetic memories, here it is again:

Guns dont abortion clinics do

When I glanced again at that arch bit of political posturing, something really obvious whacked me right between the eyes. Appearing on Facebook only a few weeks after the horrendous grade-school shooting in Newtown, Connecticut, I could only view the image as suggesting that abortion is a worse crime than what happened that day to those 20 children, 7 adults, and one suicidal shooter.

To me, that image says, “Yeah, yeah, yeah, so a couple of dozen people got killed, abortion is the real crime here.”

To which I say, “Huh?”

Paul Hill, holding poster

I know that there are hardline anti-abortion advocates who feel that, for example, murdering a doctor who has performed abortions — even in the middle of Sunday church services — is okay. Most “pro-life” advocates would eschew murder or bombing in the furtherance of their cause.

However, I feel that, even if a person poses as a reasonable, law-abiding moderate on the issue of abortion, by posting that particular image on his or her Facebook page at this time, that person is implicitly creating a moral hierarchy in which outright murder of unarmed children is a lesser crime than a first-trimester abortion.

And that is deeply troubling.

Tagged with: , , ,
Posted in Politics, Public health

The Thing I Don’t Get

Someone I knew in high school posted this image on Facebook, along with the comment, “Thoughts?”

Guns dont abortion clinics do

I know that abortion politics is one of those swamps that we are advised to stay away from, but I have a problem with the whole life-begins-at-conception position.

Back when I was in graduate school, I knew a man whose brother had leukemia. As it turned out, only two family members, my friend and his father, were a match who could donate blood products weekly to keep the sick brother alive.

Perhaps surprisingly, the brother’s father simply refused to do it. There was no way that he was going to have to go to a hospital every week and make the donation. I don’t know whether he was callous or incredibly busy, but either way, he refused to do it. That left my friend, who was gay, as the only possible person who could make the blood-related donations that would keep his brother alive. It meant that he couldn’t move to a city to study art and begin a more open and enjoyable life. He was stuck in a rural, antigay town for ten years to help keep his brother alive.

Here’s the thing I don’t get: There exist no laws that could have forced the father to donate blood products weekly, just as there are no laws that say, for example, that if I need a kidney and you have a compatible one to spare, I can make you give it to me. If my friend’s brother would be allowed to die, or if I could die for a lack of your kidney, couldn’t the brother’s father — or you — be said to be a murderer for letting it happen?

Note that it’s also been said that over 40 people watched Kitty Genovese be stabbed to death in New York City a half a century ago, but as far as I know, no one went to jail for not doing a thing to stop the murder.

How come people put their energy into opposing a Supreme Court decision that says that a woman has the right to control her own body, that she does not have to carry a first-trimester fetus to term against her will? They seem more concerned about the rights of a few thousand cells that might never make it to term than they do about the flesh-and-blood, living-and-breathing, thinking-and-feeling people around them.

How can a society that lets a father allow his son to die lest he be inconvenienced by having to go to a hospital for an hour once a week turn around and tell a women — even a woman who has been raped or a child who has had her innocence destroyed by a family member — that she has to carry to term a fetus she never asked for and doesn’t want?

Congressman Barney Frank once quipped that someone who is “Pro-Life” believes that life begins at conception and ends at birth, but I have this sneaking suspicion that those who have a knee-jerk opposition to abortion never really pondered what he meant by that statement.

It seems like every week some town votes down funding to educate its children — the ones who have already been born, that is, and those desperately anti-abortion legislators are famous for voting against things like Headstart or school lunch programs. I don’t get it. How can they pretend to care about fetuses but make it clear that they do not give a damn about the children who are already here?

It’s not like I think abortions are wonderful. I don’t think I’d have had one, but that’s my personal opinion, based on my personal morals and untroubled by the vicissitudes of real life. Personally, I think that most abortions are a tragedy, but I cannot stand in front of an incestuously raped nine-year-old and tell her or her parents what to do. I cannot tell a woman who wasn’t exactly raped (but who didn’t consent) that she should drop out of medical school and work in a diner to support the child I’ll force her to carry to term.

Pro life cartoon

I’ve seen so many unloved, even hated, children, who grow up to be hate-filled and destructive to themselves and others. A child who grows up in a home without love and support can be worse off than a child who grows up on the streets.

Don’t tell me that you’re a Christian — show me. If you spew hate or intolerance or rain down judgments like summer sunshine, you’re not a Christian, or a Muslim, or a Jew, or a Hindu, or a Buddhist, or especially a UU. If your faith does not soften your heart and open your mind to the suffering of others, then it’s got no place in such discussions.

Isn’t it too bad that we couldn’t sit down without our affiliations or slogans or Bibles and just talk about these issues like real, live people? I hope that day comes — and soon.

Reference for Barney Frank quotation: Pierce CP. To Be Frank. News. 2 Oct 2005.

Copyright © 2013 by Candace L. Van Auken. All rights reserved.

Tagged with: , , , ,
Posted in Politics, Public health, Women's health

Nightmare on psychotherapy street

Books I read do not usually give me nightmares, but Sybil Exposed did.

That is not hyperbole. Debbie Nathan’s new book gave me actual nightmares — something I almost never have.

Long ago, when I was in graduate school studying psychology, I was known to say that the problem with a condition like multiple personality disorder (MPD) was that if a psychologist or psychiatrist suspected that a patient might have such a condition, it would be nearly impossible not to imagine the potential gold mine (books, movies, publicity) the patient could provide.

Well, it turns out that in the case of one of the most famous cases of MPD, that is exactly what happened.

Photograph of Dr. Cornelia Wilbur, Shirley Mason's psychoanalyst

Dr. Cornelia Wilbur,
in later years

Ambitious, domineering, failed-chemist-turned-psychiatrist Dr. Connie Wilbur meets highly suggestible patient Shirley Ardell Mason, who has both undiagnosed/untreated pernicious anemia and a monstrous crush on her new therapist.

When the two of them run into a flamboyant journalist (Flora Rheta Schreiber) who is comfortable with bending and twisting the truth, Sybil is born. It is hard to resist entirely the inference that some kind of lesbian passion — repressed or not — helped fuel the folie à deux between Dr. Wilbur and Shirley Mason. However Flora Schreiber, at least, should have known better.

The fact that the three of them incorporated their venture as “Sybil, Inc.,” reveals just how baldly the lure of money and fame fueled their collaboration.

Photograph of Shirley Ardell Mason

Shirley Mason,
as a young woman

The one person who tried to derail the Sybil juggernaut was Shirley Mason. At one point she composed a cogent, carefully thought-out, five-page confession, which she gave to Dr. Wilbur and which, years later, turned up among Schreiber’s papers. In it, she admitted to having created her many personalities in an effort to please the doctor.

Dr. Wilbur, employing the circular reasoning popular among Freudian psychoanalysts, explained that the strength of her patient’s denial of the existence of multiple personalities was undeniable proof of their veracity.

Shirley Mason also strongly resisted Wilbur’s efforts to get her to create the alternate personalities, many of which were named for the imaginary friends that populated her lonely childhood. It took years of “truth serum” and other strong barbiturates (enough for Mason to form a monstrous addiction that required hospitalized detoxification), plus Wilbur climbing into her patient’s bed (?!) to administer electro-convulsive shock “therapy,” to wear down Mason’s amazingly robust connection to reality.

Sybil book cover

Sybil, fiction
presented as fact

Why am I so disturbed by this old story when all of the protagonists are long dead? Because MPD begat the wave of people uncovering “repressed memories” of their parents doing things like roasting babies in the back yard. And that hysteria, in turn, led to the social climate that landed a bunch of child care providers in jail for committing crimes that were impossible and for which there was no evidence.

If you are not familiar with the day care provider cases, here are links to information about them:

But there is another aspect of the Sybil story that is tragic: It is also an excellent example of a woman with a very real autoimmune disease (pernicious anemia) being diagnosed as having a psychiatric disorder. This is all too often the way that women’s health issues (especially autoimmune diseases) are handled by the medical system — both then and now.

As much as I enjoyed Toni Colette’s brilliant and funny turn as a woman with multiple personalities, it is important for the public to understand that real cases of MPD/DID are extremely rare — if they exist at all.

I highly recommend Sybil Exposed to anyone who has the stomach to read it. It is as gripping as any fictional page-turner, but the story it tells is ultimately far more horrifying.

Note: This column began its life as a book review I posted on Goodreads.

Reference: Nathan D. Sybil Exposed: The Extraordinary Story Behind the Famous Multiple Personality Case. New York: Free Press (Simon & Schuster). 2011. ISBN: 9781439168271.

Copyright © 2011 by Candace L. Van Auken. All rights reserved.

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Posted in Autoimmune diseases, Ethics, Psychology

Pretty? Ugly? Or both?

Many years ago I visited a couple living on top of a mountain in the wilds of Maine. The husband had the reputation of being somewhat eccentric — if I recall correctly he was building a garage out of beer bottles, and on Sundays he played music at full blast out of huge speakers to, as he explained it, “educate the valley.”

Anyway, there were two kittens scampering around this couple’s living room, and the man snatched up one by the scruff of its neck and bellowed, “This is ugly!” Then he managed to corral the other kitten and announced, “And this is pretty!” Unable to see any difference between the two kittens, I murmured something like, “They both look nice to me.”

Two tiger kittens. Photo by 7prime

Which one is pretty?

“No, no,” he admonished energetically, “you don’t understand!”

Only at that point he looked a bit perplexed and amended his previous statements, “Wait a minute, I was wrong. This is pretty, and this is ugly.” It wasn’t that his esthetics were fuzzy, he was trying to tell me the kittens’ names. One was named Ugly, while the other was named Pretty, but since you couldn’t tell them apart, it was hard to know which was which.

I was reminded of that conversation recently. I watched the Emmy awards last month, and one of the women who was honored at the event came up onstage wearing a dress with a deeply plunging neckline. I have long assumed that women wear dresses like that to show off their cleavage, but in this case, what the neckline revealed were a whole bunch of ribs.

So, how did the press describe her appearance that evening? They used words like: “Lovely.” “Beautiful.” “Smokin’.” “Hot.”

Statue of emaciated buddha. Photo credit: Cea

Emaciated Gautama Buddha,
ready for the red carpet?

[As an aside, when I went to find a representative picture of this woman taken at the awards show I could not find a single one that showed what was so obvious on television. At first I wondered if my memory had exaggerated what I’d seen, but then I noticed a number of comments about her like, “looks to be in need of a cheeseburger” and “too skinny.” I suspect that air brush artists may have worked overtime on the photographs that were taken that evening.]

So is the Biafran look incredibly hot or a shameful thing to be airbrushed out? If she’d shown up inebriated, the press would have been all over it, but her state of emaciation was not noted in any write-up of the event that I’ve seen.

Meanwhile, it was only a week or two later that I heard a couple of television’s talking heads discussing whether or not New Jersey Governor Chris Christy was “too fat to be president.” Among the arguments marshaled was that his weight represented a “character flaw,” or at least a deficit in “impulse control.”

I cannot imagine them sitting down to discuss whether, for example, Michele Bachmann might be “too skinny” to be president. No, this kind of discussion is reserved for people who are obese or overweight.

As I listened to this, I thought, “Great. Another group that it’s now okay to hate.” Given that it was only five minutes ago that lesbians and gay men were in that position (and still are, in many parts of the country), it’s an issue to which I’m sensitive.

Photograph of NJ Gov. Chris Christie, taken by Bob Jagendorf

New Jersey Governor Chris Christie

And when times are hard, many of us seem to derive a kind of comfort in making negative judgments about other people.

There is this idea abroad in the land that people who maintain a healthy weight, exercise regularly and eat a “good diet” cannot become sick — except with cancer. So, when people see a person who is obese or obviously not exercising or who is eating comfort food, they line up to take shots at him or her.

Meanwhile, one of the dirty little secrets about autoimmune diseases (which disproportionately affect women) is that most people who are chronically ill end up being overweight. Yes, there are chronically ill people who are as skinny as an Emmy-award-winning actress, but they are in the minority. For most of us, chronic illness brings along with it, weight, obesity.

The first couple of times I had people with idiopathic anaphylaxis or with inflammatory arthritis tell me that they wouldn’t take various medications to control their attacks or pain because they didn’t want to gain weight, I assumed that they mustn’t be all that ill. Since then I’ve come to understand that for some people, staying svelte is worth risking their lives. Come on, they can see how that actress’s emaciation is handled, and how that governor’s obesity is treated. They got the memo about how this society works. It’s bad enough that they have an incurable, life-threatening disease, but they refuse to add to that the social stigma of the side-effects of the medications they need.

Book cover: 'Unbearable Lightness,' by Portia de Rossi.

And many people want to believe that it’s “getting fat” that makes people sick. They don’t want to understand that an incredibly lean, healthy, energetic person can become overweight or unable to exercise because of chronic illness. It’s hard enough for a healthy person to find the motivation to exercise regularly, but when you add to that the pain and exhaustion that comes with chronic illness, it can be almost impossible.

I thought that Portia DeGeneres (nee: de Rossi) did an excellent job of explaining what it’s like to be caught in the pressure cooker of impossible Hollywood expectations in her book, Unbearable Lightness: A Story of Loss and Gain (Atria, 2010). I wish that someone could write as eloquent as book delineating the many aspects of the hell that is chronic illness.

I don’t know whether or not Christie’s obesity is the result, directly or indirectly, of some physical or emotional problem, but I think that assuming that obesity is a character flaw is both cruel and unfair. Anyway you look at it, it’s a pretty ugly thing to do.

Photo credits:

Copyright © 2011 by Candace L. Van Auken. All rights reserved.

Tagged with: , , , , , ,
Posted in Chronic illness, Women's health

Bachmann’s 6-6-6 economic plan

WATERLOO, IA — Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) told Fox News that she is offering a better alternative to the 9-9-9 plan proposed by Herman Cain. Dubbed the “6-6-6 Plan,” Bachmann feels that it is the first viable roadmap to prosperity offered by any of the 2012 Republican presidential candidates.

Photoshopped image of Michele Bachmann wearing a tin hat

Tuesday, October 11, 2011, at the Bloomberg-sponsored Republican Economic Debate she had stated, “Herbert’s plan is dangerous because if you turn ‘9-9-9’ upside down it reads ‘666.’ The devil is in the details.” During an interview on Fox News this morning, she was asked to expand on her assertion.

“I don’t mean this as anything negative about Herschel Cain, other than the fairly obvious fact that he may actually be the anti-Christ,” explained Bachmann, adding, “That may sound harsh, but in Anoka, we’re plain-spoken people. If we believe something, we don’t hold back.”

The presidential aspirant went on to outline her own approach to bringing the country back from the edge of an economic abyss. “My plan is simple and is guaranteed to work. In the Abrahamic religion, an offering of one or more lambs was made to expiate sins. Well, in today’s United States, we have at least six things we need to apologize to God for: loans to solar-panel manufacturer Solyndra; the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell; Elizabeth Warren’s new federal consumer protection agency; Occupy Wall Street; Obamacare; and the defeat of the House Republican Plan for America’s Job Creators authored by Eric Cantor.”

Sacrificial lamb

Warming to her subject, the congresswoman continued, “If we select six appropriately sinful people to sacrifice to God, it goes without saying that we will enjoy at least six years of economic prosperity.”

FOX & Friends co-host Gretchen Carlson interrupted Bachmann, saying, “Surely, you are not suggesting that we sacrifice people, as though they were animals?”

“Not just any people,” responded Bachmann. “I know this sounds extreme, but don’t you think that a burning pyre on the Washington Mall with Congressman Barney Frank, former Senator Christopher Dodd, MSNBC talking head Rachel Maddow, President Barrack Hussein Obama, Current TV’s Keith Olbermann, and that old blowhard Newt Gingrich piled on it would produce an incense pleasing to the Lord?”

In response to incredulous looks from co-hosts Brian Kilmeade and Steve Doocy, Bachmann commented, “Have you heard a better idea from the other candidates? Perry’s economic plan amounts to ‘Drill, baby, drill,’ even though the oil and gas industry has been eliminating jobs as their profits soared. Romney says that we should pour even more money into military hardware — as if we needed to get ready for yet another war. And McCain has his stupid 9-9-9 plan.”

Not hearing a reply from her startled interviewers, Bachmann continued, “So there you have it. Atone for six sins by sacrificing six sinners, and we are guaranteed a minimum of six years of prosperity: 6-6-6. It’s the first really fresh idea to come out of the Republican Party in a very long time, and if elected, I promise to implement it right away.”

Copyright © 2011 by Candace L. Van Auken. All rights reserved.

Tagged with: , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
Posted in Economy, Politics
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