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Posts tagged "Leslie Jamison"


Leslie Jamison on Self-Forgiveness and Shame

The most recent edition of Image features a lovely interview with Leslie Jamison. We can’t stop writing about her, especially after her extraordinary talk at our conference this year in New York. In the interview, she discusses a number of other concerns—the fear that our feelings are clichés, that privilege and difference inhibit resonance with […]

Angels in the Architecture: A Defense of Repetition

A while back, an acquaintance asked me if I was “still writing for that website,” by which she meant Mockingbird. The question was delivered with a smirk that I interpreted as vague condescension from someone I know to be more into DIY than grace. I assured her that I was, in fact, still writing for […]

2019 NYC Conference Book Table

Many thanks to all who attended and helped pull off the 12th annual Mockingbird conference in NYC! For all who couldn’t make it, and also those who could, each year we like to put together a virtual book table, with the various recommended readings and resources written by our speakers and guests. (Last week we […]

Sobriety as More Than Deprivation

Incredibly pleased to announce that the final addition to the speaker line-up at our upcoming NYC Conference (4/25-27)–our ‘mystery guest’–is none other than Leslie Jamison, author of The Empathy Exams and The Recovering: Intoxication and Its Aftermath. Needless to say, her work has served as a mighty source of inspiration these past few years, and it is a rare privilege to host her. She’ll be joining us on Saturday morning, April 27th, and to celebrate, here’s a favorite passage from The Recovering, a book which details, among (many) other things, her relationship with addiction:

Leslie Jamison by Beowulf Sheehan

For a long time, I’d believed that sincerity was all about actions lining up with belief: knowing myself and acting accordingly. But when it came to drinking, I’d parsed my motivations in a thousand sincere conversations–with friends, with therapists, with my mother, with my boyfriends–and all my self-understanding hadn’t granted me any release from compulsion…

I didn’t know what I believed, and prayed anyway. I called my sponsor even when I didn’t want to, showed up to meetings even when I didn’t want to. I sat in the circle and held hands with everyone, opened myself up to cliches I felt ashamed to be described by, got down on my knees to pray even though I wasn’t sure what I was praying to, only what I was praying for: don’t drink, don’t drink, don’t drink. The desire to believe that there was something out there, something that wasn’t me, that could make not-drinking seem like anything other than punishment–this desire was strong enough to dissolve the rigid border I’d drawn between faith and its absence. When I looked back on my early days in church, I started to realize how silly it had been to think that I’d had a monopoly on doubt, or that wanting faith was so categorically different from having it.

When people in the program talked about a Higher Power, they sometimes simply said “H.P.,” which seemed expansive and open, a pair of letters you could fill with whatever you needed: the sky, other people in meetings, an old woman who wore loose flowing skirts like my grandmother had worn. Whatever it was, I needed to believe in something stronger than my willpower. This willpower was a fine-tuned machine, fierce and humming, and it had done plenty of things–gotten me straight A’s, gotten my papers written, gotten me through cross-country training runs–but when I’d applied it to drinking, the only thing I felt was that I was turning my life into a small, joyless clenched fist. The Higher Power that turned sobriety into more than deprivation was simply not me. That was all I knew. It was a force animating the world in all of its particular glories: jellyfish, the clean turn of line breaks, pineapple upside-down cake, my friend Rachel’s laughter. Perhaps I’d been looking for it–for whatever it was–for years, bent over the toilet on all those other nights, retching and heaving. (pgs 303-4)

Click here to pre-register for our NYC Conference!

On Our Bookshelf: From the Déjà Vu Issue

If you get déjà vu scanning this list, it would be no surprise…you may have encountered some (but perhaps not all!) of these titles on this site. As compiled for the latest issue of The Mockingbird, these are the books we’ve been reading and re-reading this summer: The Recovering: Intoxication and Its Aftermath by Leslie Jamison: […]

On Praying in the Bathroom, and Giving Up on Self-Control

Leslie Jamison’s book The Recovering: Intoxication and Its Aftermath uses a broad scope of material to construct the experience of addiction and attempts at recovery: through personal memoir, research into historical figures, and reflection on the methods and theories associated with treating substance abuse. There are many, many reasons to read this book, and none […]

A Great Insight

I imagine it’s a common experience: Whether in Bible studies, or from the pulpit, or in one-on-one “discipling” relationships, Christian ministers often feel pressured to come up with something genius, something that will knock the spiritual socks off whoever it is they’re ministering to. If you say just the right thing, maybe you can save […]

The Mockingbird, No 8: The Mental Health Issue!

At long last, the eighth (!) issue of The Mockingbird is now available. Click here to get the one issue…or here if you’d just like to go ahead and subscribe. (If you’re already subscribed, help us out and spread the word on social media!)

To whet your appetite, here’s Ethan’s Opener and the Table of Contents.

The Itch

8coverThere is a group of people whose entire lives have disintegrated because of an itch.

They share a rare, controversial illness called Morgellons Disease, where strange fibers grow beneath the skin, causing severe itching, which leads to more fibers, and more itching. The scientific term is formication—the sensation of insects crawling under the skin. While rare, Morgellons also happens to be extremely contagious.

Scientifically speaking, however, the disease does not exist. While it remains all too real for the sufferers involved—and for their loved ones—doctors are adamant that Morgellons is a figment of the imagination. They diagnose it as “delusional parasitosis,” a form of mental illness.

The essayist Leslie Jamison writes about attending a Morgellons conference in Austin, Texas. Sitting in a room full of anxious-maybe-delusional hypochondriacs, she fully expects to be able to suss out the real from the imagined. But she can’t. In fact, she kind of becomes one of them. The itch she has come to write about becomes an itch she’s pretty sure she has, too. “Itching that starts in the mind feels just like itching on the skin—no less real, no more fabricated—and it can begin with something as simple as a thought.”

After reading this I was itching for weeks! Can you feel it? Jamison argues that Morgellons, real or not, reveals the kinds of lines we draw between sickness of the body and sickness of the mind. But she goes further than that: when it comes to caring for those who are sick, we prefer bodily ailments. We prefer external agents of harm—germs, bites, viruses—because they are justifiable.

If someone is sick in the mind, though, the agents of harm lie within. Mental illness shows us an uglier side of illness: a person not only dependent upon outside help, but inwardly self-sabotaging. Rather than extend empathy for these crazies, we opt instead for moral litigation: only if someone hasn’t colluded with their misfortune are we willing to invest our care. Otherwise, no deal—which is precisely where Morgellons sufferers find themselves. Beyond the purview of doctors. Beyond the care of loved ones.

Jamison goes on to say that mental illness is a barb to the American understanding of self-reliance.

The abiding American myth of the self-made man comes attached to another article of faith—an insistence, even—that every self-made man can sustain whatever self he has managed to make. A man divided—thwarting or interrupting his own mechanisms of survival—fails to sustain this myth, disrupts our belief in the absolute efficacy of willpower, and in these failures also forfeits his right to our sympathy…

Jamison wonders if this fractured soul should not warrant more, not less, of our care. It also sounds an awful lot like a Romans 7 self—the kind in a perpetual state of civil war. Theologically speaking, this is the human being whose willpower is bound. Contrary to the American myth Jamison references, this divided self is the signature of Christianity’s across-the-board, sweepingly low anthropology: you are at odds with God, and at odds with yourself. Paradoxically, this sobering take on the human species is also the beginning of loving them.

Negotiating the divide between sick and well has proven to be the chief challenge in putting together a “mental health” issue. While we are quick to note the brain science, the aberrant trends reported by the APA, we simultaneously deceive ourselves about the ‘normal’ people, the mentally stable, i.e., me. In an effort to cover mental illness, we hoodwink ourselves about whom exactly that term defines. The Bible lays a wider net than the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual; as Nathan says to King David, “You are the man” (2 Sam 12:7). You, in fact, are the liar, the worrier, the narcissist. That line on the spectrum, which so nimbly dictates who is healthy and who is ill? Look closer. It is right there inside you.

I don’t mean to play down the diagnosable disorders with which many of us live. It is to say, though, that our diagnoses often prohibit the inclusive understanding of illness that might, in turn, include us. Jesus is perpetually doing this, flipping the script on who is and isn’t “ill.” The ones who “don’t need a doctor”—the ones who find themselves mostly capable, mostly virtuous, mostly sane—are for Jesus the ones who most desperately do need a doctor. Their virtue has obscured their need. For Christ, there is no distinction. If there’s a madhouse, we should all be living in it.8faces

In the small town of Geel, Belgium, there are no madhouses. Geel has been the subject of articles and books for centuries for its revolutionary care of the mentally ill. Instead of cordoning them off, Geel citizens became famous for welcoming them into their homes, making them part of the family. The families who host these “boarders” do so on average for 28.5 years! What characterizes the success of Geel’s system, which has been around for over 700 years, is the unconditional acceptance given to its residents.

Lulu Miller, of the podcast Invisibilia, tells the story of one middle-aged boarder in Geel who habitually twisted the buttons off his shirts, forcing his host mother to sew them back on every night. When a visiting American suggested that she perhaps use fishing line instead of thread, the host gave a surprising response:

That’s the worst thing you could do…I will never use fishing line because this man needs to twist the buttons off. It helps him to twist them off every day…Accept these odd behaviors, don’t try to make them go away.

Geel provides us with an alternative to the usual classifications between what’s crazy and what’s sane: grace. As opposed to the world of solutions, for which these boarders have received caseworkers and medications and cognitive behavioral fixes, Geel gives them the opposite. They have “let go of the mission to cure.” Sounds crazy to me.

In the modern framework of “mental health,” it is radical to ask what might be healed by the radicality of grace. But, let’s ask it: what might be healed by the radicality of grace? This is where we plot our course in this issue. As you might have guessed, it isn’t light fare—the landscape of the human psyche tends to prompt questions about our lives we’d naturally evade. But Jesus asks these questions. As the Great Physician, he gently addresses the wounds we’ve long kept covered. But in doing so, he also administers healing. He shows us that our wounds are carried in his.

In this issue we cover everything from self-help to suicide. We have psychopathic children and their pathological parents; we have pathological churches run by pathological pastors; we even have pathologies of pathologies! We have great interviews with “Ask Polly” columnist Heather Havrilesky and self-justification gurus Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson. Poems from the masterful Gray Jacobik. And so, so much more.

So, welcome to the cuckoo’s nest! There’s no need here to be anyone but you—we wouldn’t want it any other way. And if you need someone to sew your buttons on for you, we know just the person.

Ethan Richardson, Editor

Contents

Opener

The Epidemic by DAVID ZAHL

The Confessional

Mockingbird Asks Polly: Our Interview with HEATHER HAVRILESKY

Confessions of Parental Recidivists by BRIAN & DEBBIE SOLUM

For the Record: Cures of Yore

Overmedicated, Under God: Help in the Age of Antidepressants by ETHAN RICHARDSON

A Poem by GRAY JACOBIK

Justifying Our Lives Away: A Q&A with CAROL TAVRIS & ELLIOT ARONSON

Schemers, Clingers, and Frank Lake’s Schizoid Self by SCOTT JONES

For the Record: Bookshelf, Non-Self-Help Reads, Mental Health at the Movies

The Laws of the Megachurch by JOEL GREINER

A Poem by GRAY JACOBIK

The Psychology of Attachment in Our Relationship with God by BONNIE POON ZAHL

For the Record: Know Thy Bias!

A Word of Acceptance: An Interview with JOANNA COLLICUTT

Notes from the Funny Farm by KATHRYN GOURLEY

A Poem by GRAY JACOBIK

How to Cope with the Modern World: A Short Guide by WILL MCDAVID

Life in a Dark Place: A Sermon by DAVID BROWDER

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Empathy for the Deserving: The Morgellons Dilemma

Leslie Jamison’s book of essays, called The Empathy Exams, has a lot to say to about the reaches (and limits) of human love and compassion in their modern expression. The second essay in the collection, called “Devil’s Bait,” is about a group of sufferers who share a rare, controversial illness called Morgellons Disease. With Morgellons, […]

Crossing Off Checklist Item 31

One of this year’s books to come upon my shelf is Leslie Jamison’s The Empathy Exams, which won the Graywolf Press Nonfiction Prize, and received a glowing review from our friend, Mary Karr, who said it shows well “how empathy deepens us, yet how we unwittingly sabotage our own capacities for it.” The title story […]