Monty Python’s Parrot Sketch is a master class in Gaslighting. And as absurd.
Let’s pretend we’ve all lived under Commie rocks in North Korea our entire lives, and look at this famous comedy sketch afresh. See what it can teach us about Gaslighting. Shall we?
If Gaslighting is driving/convincing another person they are insane or cannot trust their own senses, thoughts and feels, then the Shop Keeper (Michael Palin) is the Gaslighter. And the Customer (John Cleese) is the Gaslightee.
Cleese returns to a pet store where he recently purchased a less than alive parrot. Cleese confronts Palin, who is sneaking a smoke behind the register and pretending to close. Cleese stops him, and explains his dead parrot issue. Palin’s Shop Keeper drives Cleese from polite customer to a ranting, shouting maniac, banging the parrot on the counter. All by simply denying that the parrot is, in spite of all proof, dead. A frustrated Cleese leaves after being offered a slug, and Palin moves into a song about wanting to be a transvestite lumber jack.
As the John Cleese in this exchange — no matter what you say, no matter how much you beat that dead parrot — you will never be in the right. And the best you’ll ever get out of this argument is the offer of a slug.
Michael Palin does not care that he sold you a dead parrot, he will do and say anything to convince you the parrot is not dead, drive you crazy trying to prove the parrot is dead, and maybe offer you a slug for your troubles. All he cares about is being a transvestite lumber jack. And, to him, you’re the thing stopping him from that dream of cross-dressing lumber jacking. And he feels no pity in making you pay for his dissatisfaction with his life. It’s YOUR fault!
There’s not much we can do about the parrot death-denying shopkeepers of the world. They will continue to sell dead parrots, and will persecute anyone who calls them out on it. It’s not their fault they never got to be a lumberjack. It’s clearly yours. No matter how much you wish them well in pursuing their Canadian dream. You’re the one annoying them with a dead parrot!
As the unfortunate purchasers of a dead parrot, the best we can do is look for that inner Graham Chapman to show up and declare our situation “entirely too silly.” Listen to that voice! He’s right. It is entirely too silly to lose your mind over a dead parrot. Everyone knows it’s shuffled off its mortal coil and joined the choir invisible. That it is an ex-parrot.
So what can you say to your Shop Keeper? How many times must you beat a dead parrot for someone who does not care whether they sold you a dead parrot to begin with? You don’t. Say nothing. That’s all you can to protect yourself from the crazy-making, Gaslighting Shop Keeper, apart from accepting the slug.
Just remember, it’s not your fault they never became a lumberjack in heels. It’s all too silly to continue. So don’t.
“A Shame Narrative,” my therapist called it. I call it “Ermergerd this is impossible I can’t think about it without getting agita and crying. I should probably wash all the baseboards or nap.” Then I stumbled on the picture above, and I realized I had found a safe way to approach my Shame.
Trauma therapy is beyond what I’ve ever experienced in therapy over about twenty years. It’s good I have that basis in self-knowledge, Mindfulness, and Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. But trauma therapy is the big leagues. It’s definitely scary. And it can be draining.
The two most important parts are an empathetic, well-trained therapist, and my desperate desire to manage the constant nightmares and other paralyzing affects of CPTSD on my life.
I won the Irish Sweepstakes in therapists. She pegged me fast. She asked about where I feel my pain in my body. And used my interest in meditation to develop a regular practice of body scans before, and sometimes later in a session. She took the bare pieces of my story, my responses to the scans and stimulus –such as the Pixar short “Float” 🥰😭😭😭😍 — and came up with Shame.
And she’s right. I’m not sure when it started, but I was very young. Possibly under 4. It’s this drop in the heart, and a burning, twisting sense of being powerless, unlovable, and utterly alone in a pitiless, dark, lonely void where no one cares, and I don’t matter at all in this world.
She said, we can use my story of those feelings to help provide a “Portal” to slowly reach through to my trauma. And then I get to write a Trauma Narrative. Huzzah? But the approach makes so much sense because the feelings around those memories are too raw for me to even go near. Even while they break into my daily life as nightmares, intrusive thoughts, flashbacks, or my (over or under) reactions to triggers.
But how to approach my Shame? I’ve always felt that, as long as a person experiences real, unconditional love at some early point — through a grandparent, teacher, mentor, etc — then that person will always hold that feeling. And they will have a chance. I’ve had a lot of mentors and teachers in my life, but the first and best was my Dad.
Dad loved mentoring young people. And he had many “adopted” kids. Mainly my cousins and his former students, ending up the Best Man at many marriages (six times in the case of one unlucky-in-love student who called him Dad). He was both professionally succesful, and never lost that bit of 1st Sargeant he learned in the frozen hell of the Korean war. Dad served in Truman’s Desegrated Army. It equipped him with the ability to work with and inspire others of any type. So long as you didn’t play “grab ass.” He questioned his young acolytes and listened, and questioned some more. He was genuinely interested in the thoughts of people, especially young people.
And he had that same interest in me as a growing human being. Usually we’d be doing an activity. Sky watching, driving around following the local grocery stores’ free samples schedule (Dad could usually old-lady-flirt his way to extra samples), and during art lessons. But the best times were fishing, like in the picture above.
I’ve found my way to get to the Shame by viewing my gnawing doubts, fears, anxieties, and self-loathing from the point of view of the girl my Dad saw. Dad dubbed me “Loney.” (Lone-ee) When I look back at myself as Loney, I have more sympathy and compassion for myself. I see the curious, dark eyed girl he saw and loved. And I can cast that into my future that he never saw nor will.
If I view myself as Loney, it’s a step removed from recording Jessica’s feelings of Shame. It’s my way in through that “Portal” described by my therapist. Slowly, the idea is to increase my understanding of and exposure to the most delicate pieces of myself, my experiences, my Shame. But I feel I can do that if I remember Loney and carry my father’s love for Loney in my heart.
Late February in the Northeast: The snow hasn’t time to thaw before the next storm. I’m not even trying to clear it off. I have stacks of forms to fill out, and tax records to organize. There they sit. My yoga and meditation practice were interrupted by rebellions in my sinuses and lungs. My routine is reorganizing around three separate forms of weekly Zoom therapy (Trauma, speech pathology, and vision) and PT. It’s the longest month of the year, despite what the lame-stream calendars say.
So, how not to go full Nicholson? How/where/what to do to dig out? If you struggle with depression, anxiety, or the effects of (C)PTSD dysregulation — or are simply feeling overwhelmed — I’m here to say “Do the Easiest Thing.”
When I’m literally and mentally snowed under a growing mountain of stuff I have to do, stuff that keeps me able to do those things, and the stuff I enjoy doing — it may as well be Everest. Yet it always comes back to me doing The Easiest Thing.
Let me explain. Amongst the blizzard of crap I’ve read over the course of the Pandemic regarding mental and physical health, one suggestion has stuck. Do the Easiest Thing that helps. Look around. Where are you? What can you do with the least effort and/or the least time to lift yourself up? Sounds easy, but it’s taken many a rock bottom fall for me to begin adopting this practice.
Let’s talk about the sorts of Easiest Things I do and don’t mean. Absolute #1 thing not to do? Don’t doom scroll social media. Do not read the comments on an innocuous-looking post about local vaccination sites. Don’t get into a pitched internet or personal argument. That’s not helping. Don’t do it.
That doesn’t mean your phone is off limits. But unless you open that demon device with a clear intention, best to steer clear.
Which leads me to My Easiest Thing. Music. Specifically — 🥁🥁🥁 eye rolls ready? — I listen to Morrissey/The Smiths. There’s something about his unfailing pop instincts, mixed with with that voice, and his witty/intelligent/alt-culture outsider lyrics that picks me up. He would never insist I be happy, and he shares his everyday struggles and loves and losses in a voice that always croons, floats, yodels, and growls to me afresh.
Before long, my mind gets caught up, and my body follows. I may start to sing, get up and dance, until I feel well enough to do the next easiest thing: like the dishes! All while bopping about and singing “lalalalala interesting drug!” Heck, I may wipe down the counters. I may even make or at least prep for dinner! Or sweep the disgusting floor!
Suddenly, I find myself singing in the shower. And — while hours may have passed, and I didn’t necessarily get to anything particularly pressing — I wasn’t staring at the wall or a screen. What I did was simply give myself a completely healthy mood boost that made slightly more difficult tasks seem within reach.
To be honest, sometimes that mood boost may only lead to teeth brushing or playing with doggo. But heaven knows I’m not miserable now. And that’s my bigger point about The Easiest Thing.
And that one thing, that playlist, is simply a way to bring me to present, back to at least the steady kick of Sister I’m a Poet. From foot tapping, to standing and moving isn’t too far to go. It’s just a foundation of feeling better that allows me to build up to tasks that require more effort, concentration, or presence.
You can take your own progression at any pace you please. Your easiest thing may be a shower. Or a phone call. Or having a coffee or tea break. I choose music because it only takes opening Spotify and pressing play. It also lasts, and gives my mind and body a little something to groove on.
Of course, I’m writing this because I hit another bottom, and resorted to My Easiest Thing. Hopefully, in a week or so, I may be back to my yoga, cleaning schedule, or that mountain of paperwork, or that Everest of snow (w/an assist from the sun🤞🏽). Maybe eek(!) out another blog.
Then I’ll stumble and fall, because that’s what I do! But I can fall right back into the arms of my favorite music.
What’s your Easiest Thing? How do you keep picking yourself up when you’re snowed under? Leave a comment, let me know. And ya know, maybe pour something out for Spring to hurry along.
I don’t know when all these words were first used, but I know they need to go.
1) Wheelhouse: Is this like a mill? Saw mill? Grain mill? Was some miller like “Yo. I’m Mr. Wheelhouse now. And whole grains are not in my house that has a wheel.” ?
2) Inflection Point: As far as I know, inflection is saying “This is my house,” versus “This is MY house.” But now everything has an inflection point. Relationships, social movements, Covid. This is MY Covid. This IS my Covid. THIS is my Covid. This is my COVID. Kill ME.
3) Problematic: It’s not difficult. It’s not complex. Complicated. Hard. Thorny. Controversial. A bad idea. An annoyance. Troublesome. A Pandora’s Box. A fault in our stars. An asshole. A jerk. Buttholery. Nope. Problematic. And it’s just the first cringe-worthy, stabby step in becoming…
4) Cancelled: Cancel/cancelled. Apparently this is a thing that people on Twitter do that makes other people on Twitter mad. Until Twitter cancels their account. And then you can’t read JK Rowling, I lose a favorite character on The Mandalorian, and folks can’t eat certain sammiches. “Cancelled” should solely be used for awesome TV shows corporate couldn’t handle. Notably Firefly, Futurama, and Hannibal. *
5) #Blessed: The religious humble-brag. “God loves me so much more than you that he’s given me a heated swimming pool.” If 2020 has taught us anything, it’s that the world and the Universe don’t give a shit about us. Assholes get Covid. Good people get Covid. Hell, why we’re at it, the fact that Covid exists at all should be proof enough that there is nothing looking out for us except each other.
Friends, we’ve reached an inflection point in the English language. And as social movements are problematic, and not in my wheelhouse, I’d consider myself #Blessed if we could all help cancel these linguistic abominations of 2020.
– JL ✌🏼💚🖖🏼
*Furthermore, it unites Chads. And we can’t have Maher and Tucker agreeing.
It’s never a great day when you have to tell someone you’ve been sodomized. I feel bad saying it in this forum because it may get somebody down. But that’s why I need trauma therapy.
Rarely do we ever become so intimate with anyone that we can say “I was drugged and raped…er, sodomized.” And it’s rarer that the recipient of that info knows what to do with it. Today I met someone I hope knows what to say. It was my first day of trauma therapy.
This entire delve into better treatment for my trauma related injuries and illnesses began with a talk with my PCP. I was frustrated, and considered untreatable by two clinics in a row. Now, mind you, this is in bumblebuck, methtown, USA. I had good treatment at Thomas Jefferson in Philadelphia. But twenty years of mindfulness and talk and CBT? Sure, I learned a lot, but I needed more.
So, a neurology referral from my PCP for a doctor who deals specifically with domestic and sexual violence seemed ideal. And it did open up new avenues of treatment of both my physical and mental self. Now I have my PT I do at home daily, weekly speech pathology and vision therapy to deal with those pieces. But ideally, my goal was to get in with a trauma therapist.
I finally had my first Zoom session with her today. It was exhausting. Left me tired, shaky, and shaken. Because the sodomy is part of my extended history of trauma, I need to share it. Along with reporting the physical, verbal, and emotional abuses of X, etc.
Even I don’t want to talk about these things. But for the first time I’m approaching therapy honestly. I love to please and charm, but — while it might let me temporarily deal with social situations — it’s not any way to deal with therapy or complicated and difficult subjects.
So I began hard work today. Deal with every abuse, every injury mental or physical, so that maybe I can heal. I cannot survive anymore with my emotions a raw, raging nerve. And boy, believe me I try. I’ve become a yoga addict, I meditate, I keep a journal, I eat healthy. I generally shower. Do my hair. And that takes hours: just to feel normalish and OK.
So, this trauma therapy is a new thing. I’m still not quite recovered from my experience of my session today. And it will occur every week. Along with the speech and vision. And the check-ins with my neurologist’s assistant. As a beautiful heart I know through social media told me, she prays for strength. Wish the Force be with me, friends. This ain’t easy.
Anger dominated 2020. Yes, there is sadness, fear, anxiety, and loneliness, but rage ruled the US this year. Rage over Coronavirus, rage over the deaths of black Americans. Under a leader consumed in the fire of rage, we only speak in anger. But whose anger matters? Depends on how much you matter.
Sometimes described as “anger turned in on oneself,” Depression is the sense that you are the problem. You don’t have the rightbe angry. My abuse taught me that I didn’t deserve to be angry. That I was so worthless, I had no right to feel what I felt. Or to even think as I thought. As a consequence, that anger has built to Vesuvian proportions. And then I blow. Only recently, have I even begun to address this issue. Only recently have I realized I have a right to be angry at all.
2020 was also a year of skyrocketing suicide and overdose deaths — Deaths of Despair. The only way to prevent those deaths involves breaking down the barriers in social status that keeps the voices of the desperate and despairing from ever being heard.
The only forum I have to express my anger is this blog. I am literally nothing in the grand scope of human value based solely on money. What status my earlier work has gained is losing its lustre over the years. And I can barely speak what is in my mind and my heart. But I HAVE to write now.
I hope 2020 is the low point in American life that brings attention to those of us slipping through the gaping holes in our social safety net. We live with the end results of 40 years of “Trickle On Economics.” And the attitudes that accompany it. The poor are poor because they want to be. The government should have no role in mental health, or any healthcare. The ruinous war on drugs. The “tough love” of the 90s — a time that fully endorsed the shaming a 22 yr old woman who was seduced by a President, while those with mental health and drug and alcohol issues were locked out from their families. And now, Poverty and Food Insecurity has reached the lower rungs of what remains of our Middle Class. The Sheriff is knocking on the door to evict. The Repo man. The mortgage companies. While our government does NOTHING to help.
If you still think that you are beyond the “trivial” fears for food or shelter, you are holding onto the greatest American lie. That with hard work, and persistence, things will work out. The world is random, and you’re as subject to the whims of fortune as much as anyone. I hope you’ll never know how much.
I have persisted in trying to help myself. I’ve encountered sexism, and the stigma of poverty and mental illness in every area of my life. And meet a general attitude of “I’m alright Jack. Screw you,” at the best of times. At the worst, silence. And I know I’m not the only one who is barely keeping it together. But that doesn’t help anyone.
I practice the self care. I practice meditation, mindfulness, and yoga. I eat healthy. I get outside when I can. I find ways to make do. And, yes, I am grateful for what I do have. I’m not some Main Line lady keeping a Gratitude Journal whilst holding a vase and wondering if it brings me joy. I’m thankful I have 194$ in food stamps for the month, and somewhere to live. How small and meager must that which I’m grateful for become? “I’m grateful I found rubber glue to fix my shoes.”
I have had enough of those who pretend to be there to help. Especially in mental health care. As an experiment, I joined a Facebook group of psychiatrists and psychologists. One man suggested that I had “sand in my vagina” and that I might be pregnant. Another woman accused me of not wanting to work. Ya know, because having $1.11 to your name is SO MUCH FUN! Constantly begging reluctant providers to sign forms to allow me to keep Medical Assistance and SNAP, filling out paperwork to prove I’m poor and need help. This is such a joy I should put it in a gratitude journal!
In the end, I was kicked out of that forum when I mentioned how easy it would be to include those providers’ statements in Google reviews of their businesses. Silly me.
I know my voice means nothing. I know I mean nothing. I know I’ve been taught that. And, literally had it banged into my head. To the extent that I have traumatic brain damage, and crowns for front teeth. I know that everything I say is construed as an attack by those I love. I know I’m annoying and getting in everyone’s way. That no one knows how to handle me. And even my interests are considered beneath contempt. I mean, you know your thoughts are worthless when an interest in history is tantamount to criminal behavior.
Yes, I’m angry. And very sad. And problematic. But I know, simply as a human being, that I am worthy of better treatment. I’m simply not important enough to be cared about. And I’m not alone. So be truely grateful you can become infuriated by a state wide restaurant restriction. Be thankful that a late Amazon delivery is your main cause of distress. Or maybe look deeper, and see what’s really upsetting you.
All this time I cling because I have no one else to go to. I have no where else to go. Submit or literally be left in the cold. That’s what’s enraging me. Too bad I’m not important enough for it to matter.
I belong to a high risk group. Not for Coronavirus, the other Pandemic. The Pandemic Nicholas Kristof wrote about in WhoKilled the Knapp Family? This killer Pandemic has lowered the life expectancy of Americans by a full year. The best name I’ve found to describe this American holocaust is “Deaths of Despair.”
Deaths of Despair include suicides, and deaths from drug or alcohol related causes. They were at record highs before the first case of Covid-19. And, as moratoriums on evictions end, states struggle to provide extra Unemployment Benefits, and millions of Americans stare down a bleak and uncertain future, you’d think mental health professionals would be in high gear to help. And you’d be wrong.
We are not humane. We are barely a society. But don’t tell your therapist. The United States is none of your business. In the face of the articles, the facts, the statistics, mental health professionals stare into the face of human misery, and tell you to keep a gratitude journal. You must give up your personal convictions and accept that you are both responsible for your own happiness, but you have no control over the world.
I do take the time to be grateful. It is useful to think about pleasant moments to break the interminable limbo of loneliness and suffering, to mark time during the Pandemic. And my eyes cannot stop searching for beauty amidst the squalor, the violence, the pain. But humanity has limits.
Eli Weisel, author of Night, recounts his first experience of the Auschwitz death camp as a young teen. The babies disappearing into wreaths of smoke. The disinterested SS guards indicating “Left” to slave labor until death, and “Right” to women and children condemned to the infernos. He and his father were ordered “left.” His mother and sisters, “right.” He speaks of the death of the boy he once was, yet still inhabiting his body. And he marks the death of God in his heart. His eventual resentment for the father he must work harder to keep alive. And his feeling of liberation upon his father’s death.
Weisel’s story represents the second chapter of Anne Frank’s diary. The two were about the same age when they were sent to the camps. And while everyone loves to quote a 15 yr old girl’s belief that all people are essentially good. Nobody seems keen to acknowledge that she and her family died a pointless death of unimaginable, dehumanizing suffering. That all young people want to believe in goodness, to imagine their future as beautiful, full of love and the standard of happiness due to all human beings, and their own power to cause change. That’s simply what young people believe.
If Anne Frank had continued her diary, it may well have read much more like Weisel’s tale. Or the tales of North Korean camps where human beings fight over a piece of corn in human feces. Or of the Chinese who were reduced to hoarding dead babies for food during the Japanese occupation and civil war.
But not here. Never here. Not in America, the nation that helped to liberate both Europe and Asia from those two brutal regimes. The country to which the poor, repressed, war weary and hungry have turned for 300 yrs. Here we are responsible for our own success. Here we are the guardians of our own happiness. Here, to fail in any respect, is your fault.
I think of upper-middle class ladies “decluttering” their homes by holding objects in their hands to see whether they still “bring joy.” While most of us make do with duct taped appliances, buckets to catch leaks, wood glue, broken screens, and only throw a thing out when it’s ticked you off enough.
If you are fortunate to have a place to put your things: an apartment, a home. If you can afford food from the grocery store, or use the discounted canned goods store, or a small garden, or a food bank.
I saw a phrase recently that captured the dilemma many Americans find themselves in now. “The rent eats first.” It describes to what extent people will go without enough or any food to avoid homelessness. What objects bring you joy in your group shelter? Your street corner?
Placing responsibility for happiness on the individual in crisis mirrors the American insistence that access to good schools, child care, healthcare, decent pay for one’s labor bear nothing on an individual’s ability to achieve in life. It’s all on you.
This insistence lives beside the common therapeutic response I have heard for the last four years. And has endured throughout the Pandemic, the mass economic ruin, the constant march of new names — George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Jacob Blake, Ahmaud Arbery — the anger, the violence, the hurricanes. The man at the top who blames his failures on a former President, a would-be President, and a woman who ran for President. He takes no responsibility. So those of us in crisis? We must bear the responsibility.
And worse: we are told we must accept that we have no control. I thought “We the People” were this nation’s true governors. That the folks in the halls of power were “public servants.” And I don’t even see an exclusion of the mentally ill among our Constitution’s rankings of whose lives matter. Three-fifths a white life if you’re black, no vote for most citizens, but nothing about PTSD.
The conventional wisdom of not placing one’s happiness in the hands of another was written by Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius. Yet he took on the happiness of others as his duty. He was the Emperor. He spent decades fighting a virulent contagion in the Empire. His wisdom is acknowledging that, yes, we should not tie our happiness to the approval of others, and that even he had limits to controlling life. But he also recognized his responsibility as a leader to protect, to ease suffering, and foster the happiness of the millions of Roman citizens that lived as far as England, North Africa, and all the way to Iraq. The dinarii stopped at his traveling writing desk.
Instead, America’s mental health system has fully embraced Trumpism. If you are struggling, if you are sick, if you are in crisis, it’s your fault. Following the “lead” of President “Blame Obama,” I have endured “therapy” that has asked me to empathize with racists. To understand their fears. I asked for another therapist immediately, and was soon ejected from the program under threat of being physically restrained and committed.
That’s modern therapy. It’s the male doctor who told me that who was President should be the least of my concerns. That instead I should work on my “anger issues.” I don’t know if he realized how much he challenged my commitment to nonviolence in that moment. My friend calls that feeling “stabby.”
I often think of the episode of The Walking Dead in which Rick is forced to behave like the”Walkers” (zombies) in the show. He and his son have been kidnapped, and one man is attempting to rape his boy. So he uses the only weapon he has left, and tears the throat out of his son’s would be rapist with his teeth. He was reduced to the tactics of the non-human to fight the human.
It’s not a far step from Eli Weisel’s feeling of freedom upon the death of his father by SS batons. The journey from human being to beast is not far. The crushing powerlessness that poverty and violence mixed with mental illness causes cannot be alleviated by “just following orders.” The casual indication of “Left” and “Right” to the gas chambers echoes the “it is what it is” policy of the US government. And reminds me of the grey, back-stabbing, fluorescent lit hell described by C.S. Lewis.
Government policies are harming my mental health and sentencing myself, with millions of others, to a life of powerlessness, loneliness, and eventually to crisis and despair. I have every right to be concerned over how public policy affects my life. I didn’t give up my rights when I entered therapy, or fell into poverty, or needed government assistance.
The step from “gratitude” journals, being told to accept you have zero control, while being tasked with responsibility for a spiral into crisis, to fighting other human beings for a piece of corn stuck in human shit is not that far. And it’s no wonder so many Americans are opting out of that false choice by taking their own lives. It’s the one act of personal freedom left to far too many.
The mental health community is on the hook for its embrace of Trumpian notions of dehumanization, fear, and lack of empathy. It reflects his dog-eat-dog worldview, and lack of concern. It belies more about the death of society and values more than any evangelical Christian’s concerns. It’s a betrayal of the social compact that demands our rights end where another’s begin. And violates the one rule above all others, to love and treat others as you would thyself, no exceptions.
A society is a living thing. But we can only access the benefits of living together, if we also accept our responsibility for one another — for the whole. American society is dying. And it is a death of despair.
“This Woman Went to Jail After Walking Dog Without Leash”
“He who acts as his own lawyer, represents a fool.” It’s an adage as old as the Pyramids: never be your own lawyer. Our Founders agreed, and they were mainly lawyers. James Madison enshrined the right to legal representation in the US Bill of Rights as the Sixth Amendment to our Constitution. But, I’m finding that is not necessarily the case across the US. And — surprise — it’s mainly the poor who suffer as a result.
The body-cam video above shows a 34 yr old woman with mental health issues, being restrained in a chair, tied, hooded, and repeatedly tased by police officers for having her service dog off leash.
When I first saw this video, I saw myself being tased in that chair. One look at me is enough to confirm that I’m poor. I try my best, but home haircuts, cheap tees, and the worn out knees in my thrift store jeans tell the tale. I am also disabled due to mental health issues.
I have learned to fear nothing more than the human race. After living with abuse, experiences of sexual violence, and more than twenty years of sustained loss, my personal safety causes me constant anxiety. And then came Covid.
What do you do when you can’t go out in public but need some form of recreation and chill? Me? I fish. I’m not concerned about “catching.” It’s called “fishing,” and by sticking a pole in the water you can sit in nature, enjoy the the day, still social distance, and feel good. In fact, my governor made a point of leaving fishing and hunting among our allowed activities during our lockdown.
But, as it seems with every single thing or place I enjoy, there’s always that person. You know the one. Maybe it’s the person at the grocery store who raves about masking while you wait to check out. Maybe it’s the jerk who throws something during your peaceful protest. One thing that person is, often as not, is an officer of the law.
Quick rewind: I left therapy late last year after a traumatic experience at my mental health clinic. I determined to take a short break and find a new therapist after the winter. Like in March. Ha. Ha. Recently, however, my benefits were expanded to include tele-medicine, including psych and therapy.
So, I was already destabilized when Covid hit the Northeast. My friends’ suggestion: socially distanced fishing! One member of my four person party brought 4 cans of Sierra Nevada. One for each member. He was caught by a Park Ranger, and issued a ticket for consumption on county property. His fine, an educational $398. And the officer made off with the unopened beer.
Taking responsibility for bringing the beers, the beer-bringer paid his fine. Then, three weeks later, I recieved my citation certified mail. This wasn’t my first encounter with a shake down artist in that park either. The previous year a woman claimed my dog bit her son, and asked for cash to take him to urgent care. She didn’t want to call the cops or make a report. So I left.
Needless to say, I will NEVER return to that park. I began having panic attacks just thinking of leaving the house for anywhere or anything. I felt marked and terrified. I have CPTSD. That’s how the traumatized brain works. But, as the anti-shutdown protests began to include assault weapons, and scary stories and videos of anti-maskers circulated, I grew more terrified.
I feel robbed. I was robbed of any sense of security in that park. Eventually, I went to a privately owned pond by permission. And then again to a spot belonging to family.
But the saga of the ticket is ongoing. I have no transportation due to my disability. Eventually I was able to arrange to plead not guilty, without paying a bond, and have a Zoom trial (per the ADA). But I can’t find legal representation.
And that’s what’s tearing me apart now. I have no income. It is possible that I may face contempt of court and imprisonment if the judge finds me guilty. That would mean I’d lose every benefit I do have, including the insurance that pays for my medication that keeps me stable and Zoom therapy, which I recently began.
I’ve appeared before municipal courts before, and I had a public defender. Easy peasy. No problem. Ticket tossed. I’ve appeared in Camden County New Jersey’s traffic court to challenge tickets. I was represented by a public defender. Mind you, Camden, NJ has a high poverty rate, and used to be the leader in murders in US cities. I got off without a point on my license. But I can’t get anything here in my semi-rural area.
Catch-22 true: I can get a lawyer if I do end up in jail for my inability to pay a fine. But, as we all confront Covid, the Black Lives Matter movement, and economic devastation, Americans are all suffering. And it’s all about the $$$.
Mental health issues, including substance abuse, have spiked from the beginning of the year. Leading to even more deaths of despair in a nation that lost an entire year of life-expectancy to mental health/addiction before Covid touched our shores.
And, of course, there’s the police. Whatever your opinion of the protests, let’s be real. Most folks don’t like cops or law enforcement.
My greatest fear is that I will end up like the woman in this video. Because folks with mental illness BEHAVE like they have a mental illness. If you push the right buttons, anyone can “go crazy.” But if you start at “crazy,” it’s a short step, not a drive, to out of control.
I appreciate that the Americans with Disabilities Act compels all government agencies to make accommodations for the disabled. In my case, it’s a Zoom trial. And I appreciate the kindness of the officer who came to check on me when I was reaching crisis levels.
I’m still clinging on by my finger tips, but without legal representation, and in light of all that is convulsing this nation at this moment, I guess I’m OK. I have shelter, and SNAP, unless a criminal charge or prison stay ends that. But I have been living in a state of quasi-crisis for months.
I want this over. I want a lawyer. I want to not feel afraid for my person everywhere I go. I want the world to see in the woman in that video the truth about the treatment of the mentally ill in America. I don’t want for one instant to co-opt the significance of George Floyd or Breonna Taylor’s, or the countless other black Americans’ lives lost.
But in a nation where the President doesn’t have to respond to a Congressional subpoena. Where the wealthy throw money at problems, and blame poverty on the poor. Who see our suffering as our just punishment. I’ll simply quote a statement made in complete sincerity to me today by an attorney, “All individuals are treated equally under the US legal system.” I may be crazy, but I’m not stupid. And I don’t believe the American people are either. We all know the score. The legal system is rigged, and not for We the People.
I’ve been aware of Kanye West since the early 2000’s. I love his music. He ranges all over the spectrum: jazzy here, thoughtful there, big and slickly produced, to spare and minimalist. He’s that rare musical artist who is talented, prolific, and generally knocks it out of the park.
But I never paid attention to the gossip. He wants to be called Yeesus or Yeezy? So? Prince changed his name to a symbol. Old Dirty Bastard changed his name to Big Baby Jesus. There’s even a Madonna. He was “eccentric.” But now he’s the punchline to a joke.
When I first started hearing the name Kardashian, I wondered if everyone had gotten into Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. Cardassians were the often charming, but authoritarian and genocidal race that played the bad guys in the series.
My knowledge of celebrities is fairly slim. I don’t care who Brad Pitt married. But as time wore on, it became clear that Kanye was a troublesome celeb. One of those artists whose fans love and defend, haters hate, and everyone else stands back, stares, and judges.
And then he revealed that he had been diagnosed with Bipolar disorder (manic-depression). And he went from “eccentric” to “crazy.” His long and winding talk. Microphone grabbing. His image of himself as a Christ-like figure. His recent forays into MAGAdom, and now his Presidential bid. This is what the “manic” part of “manic-depression” means. This sort of behavior.
It strained on his marriage. His wife, Kim staunchly standing by him. Insisting he get help. I never thought much of her before. But as a wife and mother, living with someone with a mental illness became part of her identity. And she’s done as well as could be hoped. She’s an awesome wife.
Of course they are both massively wealthy and enormously privileged, but they write large the very real, and largely hidden world of living with mental illness. Whether you’re the “Kim” or “Kanye” in your own situation, you know how it goes.
Of course, when I get upset — deleting social media posts, and apologizing to my loved ones — no one is snapping my picture. My family doesn’t need to issue public statements, or fear a bad makeup day photo will go viral. But our suffering is as real as the Wests’. And I can’t help but thank them for their frankness regarding both their insistence on privacy and their life in public.
The fact that folks are waking up to the reality and pain of the lives of the Wests has changed the conversation. Kim called for “compassion” in recent Instagram posts regarding her husband. And she’s absolutely right.
Kanye harms Kanye, and his loved ones suffer for and with him. He’s not affecting you. It’s not as though he were the President of the United States. That would be a matter of concern. But Kanye is hurting himself. And his family is hurting with him.
Does a heart attack victim need to apologize for having a heart attack? Would you bother their family because a member had heart disease? Would you stand back and say: “That’s what he gets for drinking whole milk?”
Mental Illness is as funny as a heart attack. You could sit in judgement on a heart attack victim’s way of life, diet, smoking. But then you’re a jerk.
So, don’t make fun. Don’t call Kanye “cray-cray” or “nuts” or “batshit crazy” or say “he had it coming.” Kanye West has had a series of heart attacks. Just like any other human being who suffers from mental illness, and the effect on their loved ones is the same.
So, enough about Kim & Kanye. They’re not hurting you. Just remember that when your family with a drug/alcohol problem, Bipolar disorder, PTSD, depression, or anxiety has an episode, treat it like a heart attack. There is a lot of support out there for grieving families, and those who live with mental illness. Take advantage of it.
And please, remember to give those of us who share Kanye’s diagnosis or live with mental illness the room and compassion just to be without expectations. No one wants to be crazy.
We only miss something when it’s gone. But now the end is near for my three-part series on Joker. We’ve viewed this film through many lenses. What else lurks in the crushing, taut, shocking, and riotous abandon of this film?
By the end of Todd Phillips’ Joker (2019), the entire city is on fire, and anyone with a credit card is fair game for a mob of clowns. With a little help from an angry white man. Can you think of a better metaphor for our current dumpster-fire “society?”
Shootings by white males is a part of our society now. And Joker had to address that. We all remember the Aurora theater shooting during a showing of Christopher Nolan’s 2008 Dark Knight, with Heath Ledger as Joker. Ledger had recently committed suicide, and there were rumors that the shooter was dressed as the Joker.
Christopher Reeves will always be Superman. But Joker changes with the times. He can be Jack Nicholson or Mark Hamill. The Joker has to stand in relation to the culture he inhabits.
The power of Joaquin Phoenix’s Oscar-winning toure de force deserves a lot of credit. But he doesn’t bear all the load. How does this film with an angry, white male lead make a Joker that works for our current culture?
First, down play his whiteness: give him zero sense of privilege to show his feelings and use the white clown-face as an anonymous symbol. Make him completely alone, poor, mentally ill, beat up, abused, betrayed, and a bit too old: everything no one wants to be. You can also surround him with black women who at least tolerate him. Make him apolitical. And then question his masculinity. Bam! 👊🏼
Look around at the faces in this movie. Who is his therapist? His psychiatrist? Who decides he’s not a threat to her kid after reading Art’s card when he breaks into laughter on the train? Who is his imaginary girlfriend? Who does he dream laughs at his jokes when he does open mic? In whose eyes does he search for recognition? A black woman’s, in the form of his neighbor Sophie (Zazie Beetz). Ah. The elusive black female vote.
Now let’s look at the white males in this film. There is his co-worker Randall (Glenn Fleschler channeling Pete Boyle), who’s fond of making fun of Gary (Leigh Gill), the little person they work with. Randall had pushed a hot gun on Art as a “favor.” Midst owning “If You’re Happy and You Know It” in a hit performance to a children’s cancer ward, Arthur drops the gun. Randall tells their boss that Art had asked him about buying a gun. Betrayed, Art lies that the gun was a part of his act. There goes Art’s job.
On the train home in full clown, Art’s laughter boils up over three finance bros rapey treatment of a young woman. She leaves. But, unable to find his card, he becomes the immediate target of these blue-balled, drunken jerks’ ruffled sense of privilege. They rush him. He tries to fight back, but one punch and he’s down. Then a bullet hole explodes through one of the bros’ chest, and we see Arthur, gun in his left hand. He shoots the second of group down. Then wounds the last whom he pursues on the train and onto the platform where Art is at home, and his fleet feet soon bring him into range of his victim.
After this first burst of violence, Art runs to a public restroom. Echoing Buffalo Bill’s famous dungeon dance in Silence of the Lambs (1991, Jonathan Demme), his arms begin moving as on invisible strings, his dancer’s feet begin a graceful step. He curls into his body then pushes out in a ballet that ends with him standing, arms wide, head high, viewing himself in the mirror, at last, as Joker.
The only white woman in the film is his dreadful Mom, Penny Fleck (Frances Conroy). She tells him, “I thought you had to be funny be a comedian,” when he discusses his dreams. And persists in calling a grown man “Happy.” When he finally learns that she writes to Thomas Wayne constantly for help for “their son” who is a “sad boy,” he searches deeper. Did Wayne force her to sign fake adoption papers? Is Wayne really his Dad? He finally discovers she had been a patient at Arkham Asylum for the Criminally Insane, a record search reveals that he was neglected by his mother, who let her boyfriend abuse him to the point of brain damage and left him tied to a radiator. He decides she needs to learn about the thin and twisted line between “mother” and “smother.” With a pillow over her face.
And what about Dad/Thomas Wayne (puffed up with rich, male outrage by Brett Cullen)? Wayne appears on TV, reveals that the train bros worked for him, calling them “family.” But the report of a clown shooting down Beavis, Butthead, and Eric on the subway has already captured the minds of the mad as hell citizens of Gotham.
Wayne pours oil on the fire by declaring, as only rich white men can, “What kind of coward would do something that cold blooded? Someone who hides behind a mask. [Like Bruce Wayne/Batman?] Someone who is envious of those more fortunate than themselves, yet they’re too scared to show their own face. And until those kinds of people change for the better, those of us who made something of our lives will always look at those who haven’t as nothing but clowns.”
Soon everyone but Arthur is wearing a clown mask, and protesters hold signs like “WE ARE ALL CLOWNS!” “WAYNE IS NOT GOTHAM!” and, my fave, “KILL THE RICH!” Arthur walks through the crowds, beaming. Amazed at what he has caused. He ducks into an exclusive, black tie, screening of Charlie Chaplin dancing on roller skates in Modern Times (1936) because these people are unselfaware and awful.
Disguised as an usher, Art smiles at the screen in joy for a moment. Then, spotting Thomas Wayne, he follows him to the men’s room. Arthur introduces himself to Wayne, addressing him as “Dad.” But Wayne pulls no punches, calling Penny Fleck an “insane woman,” and then punches Art in the face. So much for paternalism.
Now completely alone, but still tuning into Murray Franklin’s (Robert DiNero) late-night show. “Check out this joker,” Murray quips in his monologue. He plays a painful clip of Arthur’s open mic performance. The light seems sucked from Art’s eyes. His dream came true. Murray acknowledged him, but played him for a clown and a joker. More betrayal! Like Smeagol and Gollum. Art is gone, only Joker remains.
Art’s also got some negative attention from a detective duo now. After climbing into his refrigerator doesn’t work out, Art picks up the phone. This time it’s a booker for the Murray Franklin show. So he books for Thursday, and prepares. And the gun will be part of his act.
On the big day, while a mass clown protest is taking place downtown, our boy puts on the flourishing touches. Stabs Randall, who came by to get their “stories straight” about the gun. But Art opens the door for Gary, who can’t reach the latch, to escape. Kissing his head he whispers “You were always nice to me.”
Cue the Gary Glitter! Yeah, he was a pedo, but there’s a reason why every stadium used to play “Rock and Roll Part 2.” After tracking his swaggering catwalk to the elevator, Art turns to camera, green slicked hair, full makeup. Dressed in the dark reds, sickly yellows and teals of his world. And Joker is cool! And kinda sexy. Now out and rocking, he thrusts, jumps, twists, turns and shakes his way down that damn staircase. Until the detectives spot him.
After a mini French Connection chase, with his speed, Art’s reaches the train. Where everyone is dressed like a clown. Finally, his essential anonymity, ability to navigate tight spaces, and years spent on that train become superpowers. He disappears in the crowded car, pulls a classic fight starting fake out. And a cop shoots the man Art set up.
Pure rage spills out of the train. A crowd of clowns pile on the cops, kicking and punching. Joker dances a happy little Vaudeville jig as he passes with a light-hearted wave.
Now, all that remains for Arthur is Murray. Art didn’t conjure the increasingly violent mob outside. They projected what they wanted on him. The man with nothing to lose, this nobody, symbolizes everybody, and the anonymity, freedom. For Art, this is his chance to be seen, and to set the record straight at last. As he told his therapist, “For my whole life, I didn’t know if I even really existed. But I do, and people are starting to notice.”
But I promised we’d talk about gender and masculinity. There is a man not in the film but is magically everywhere. Frank Sinatra. Several of his famous, Capitol and Nelson Riddle recordings, and the later Stephen Sondheim hit “Send in the Clowns,” play a big league role in Joker.
Frank Sinatra said he founded his singing style on the tragic black female jazz icon Billie Holiday. Billie Holiday was a torch singer. Perhaps the first to become famous to white audiences. She sang about heart ache, loving someone who doesn’t love you, loneliness, being left by your lover. And so does Frank.
When Sinatra began, he was young and pretty. Big hair, big blue eyes. He was the first Beatle or Presley. I have from first hand that the guys back in the day all called him what? Gay. But as he grew physically, through his film work, learning his developing voice, taking charge of who he worked with, while encouraging the idea that he was mobbed up, Sinatra earned a manhood pass for singing torch songs and playing a tap dancing sailor.
Frank Sinatra: the first of the famous, international playboys of 20th Century Pop. And that includes Pavarotti. But, while both men maintained their compassionate side, in other ways they acted like pigs. Which made it OK for a mobster to cry to “Vesti la Giubba” or “It Was a Very Good Year.”
But, while the film gives Art a case of the not-gays in his delusional relationship with his neighbor, Joker is noticeably more effeminate. He coyly asks Murray to introduce him as “Joker” because that’s how the late-show host introduced his video clip. He twists and grins, batting his white eyelashes.
Thin and lithe, he twirls his way onstage, flicking a cigarette butt, and taking a long time to kiss the Not-Dr. Ruth guest. Settling himself, he stares for a moment before commenting that this was how he always pictured being on Murray’s show.
Going full Blanche DuBois in mannerism and lilt, while maintaining that inscrutable face beneath the makeup, Art works his way round to his point. Joking about a mother losing her son to a car accident. Reprimanding the crowd for deciding what’s right and wrong, funny and not.
He confesses to the subway murders, launching into a manifesto. Claiming that Thomas Wayne’s “crying over” these guys on TV was the only reason anyone cared about them. He insists that if he were dying on the street, people would step over him, though he’s just like them. Like any other person you see everyday in the city. Everybody and nobody.
He shreds the notion that he killed out of any political motive. Announcing, “I killed those guys because they were awful. Everybody is awful these days. It’s enough to make anyone crazy.” Adding, “and they couldn’t carry a tune.”
Turning on Murray, he lashes out, “Have you seen what it’s like out there, Murray? . . . Everybody just yells and screams at each other. Nobody’s civil anymore. Nobody thinks what it’s like to be the other guy. [Facebook?] You think men like Thomas Wayne ever think what it’s like to be someone like me? To be somebody but themselves? They don’t. They think that we’ll just sit there and take it, like good little boys! That we won’t werewolf and go wild!”
As Murray struggles to regain control, Art plunges forward, insisting Murray is awful because he only invited him on the show “to make fun of me.” Snarling, “You’re just like the rest of them.”
Drawing himself in like a cat, he unloads over Murray’s attempts to shut him down, “What do you get when you cross a mentally ill loner…with a society that abandons him and treats him like trash?…I’ll tell you what you get! You get what you fucking deserve!”
A gunshot. Murray is slumped back in his seat, bullet through his head. Arthur, still holding the gun, blinks, looks confused, then skips away.
As he rides in the back of a police car, his makeup a mess, Art stares out the window at the looting, fires, and violence with an awed smile.
The car passes a theater where Thomas Wayne, his wife, and son — and future Batman — Bruce hurry from a theater showing Zorro The Gay Blade (1981, Sam Medak). A man in a clown mask corners them, shoots Wayne and his wife, tearing off her pearls, while young Bruce stands in shock, blood splashed on his face.
Headless of what happened to the Wayne family, the cop driving the car shouts to Art, “The whole city’s on fire ’cause of what you did.”
Art smiles, dancing flames reflected in his eyes, “I know. Isn’t it beautiful?” Recognition at last.
But life has one more surprise for Arthur. A hijacked ambulance slams into the cop car. Anonymous clowns gather around the wreck. Seeing Art, they reach down, pull him from the car, and place him on its hood. Bleeding and dazed, Art recovers consciousness. Touching his fingers to the blood, he pauses, then paints himself a wide grin with his own blood. He stands and bows to cheers. Someone did pick him off the street as he was dying after all.
He can now rely upon the kindness of strangers.
Joker sucked the charged out the story of a character that has always represented white, male violence and insanity by making Arthur both everyone and no one. His makeup became a symbol. His anonymity a super power. A nobody becomes a somebody, and gets some kick ass revenge. I can’t imagine a more satisfying story. It worked for Luke Skywalker.
And thanks to the combined insanity, creativity, meticulous craftsmanship, performances, etc of Joker, we get a cautionary tale for our own world. A tale of the failures of run-away capitalism, toxic masculinity, racial and class divides, and the dangers of ignoring the weakest and most desperate among us. Ultimately Joker makes a plea for civility, kindness, understanding, and tolerance.
What did you think? How about the final scenes? How much of the movie, if not all, took place in Arthur Fleck’s damaged mind? And, does it ultimately matter?
Let’s celebrate the end of my tenure in clown town. Come on, grab a Rock ‘n Rye, and sing like it’s 2 am, and you’re the last guy on the karaoke machine at the Triangle Tavern on 9th and Passyunk.