Tag Archives: Psychology

The Stanford Prison Experiment (2015)

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What happens at Stanford, stays at Stanford. Just when you were starting to feel good-ish about humankind, a movie like this comes out and reminds you what dicks we can be. It’s an important lesson, if not a pretty one, that for some people, the adrenaline rush of power for the sake of power is enough to make them do pretty much anything.

In 1971, real life psychologist and sociologist Philip Zimbardo (played here by Billy Crudup) put out an ad in the paper offering $15.00 a day for male college students to be participants in a social experiment. On paper, it seemed like an easy way to make money. The boys were screened for any psychological and health problems and instructed to play ‘guards’ and ‘convicts’ in a faux prison environment- the basement of Stanford university.

The experiment would serve as a commentary on the dynamics of a environment where guards were given some degree of power over prisoners, and question whether the penal system is more detrimental than it is beneficiary. The ‘guards’ were not allowed to hit the ‘prisoners.’ he ‘prisoners’ were safe in a controlled, essentially benign (if creepy and weird) environment. At least that’s what they were told. If you know anything about the real-life scenario that inspired this movie, you may be aware of how fast the shit hit the fan.

Most people who assume that the reason prisons get so out of control with riots and mishaps and guards and convicts kicking the crap out of each other is (a, we aren’t exactly dealing with regular people in these criminals, and criminals, as we know, can have propensity for violence and (b guards are less likely to view men or women who have committed illegal acts as human and deserving of good treatment. It’s the same psyche as conservatives who complain that prisons are ‘too good’ for convicts. They screwed up, right? The should be paying the price. One bread-and-water meal a day and hard labor all the way, baby!

But these were regular college students. They had no criminal record, no prior psychological challenges, no reason to hate or despise each other. That’s why it came as such a surprise to Zimbardo when one of the youths Christopher Archer (Michael Angarano,) took charge in the worst possible way. Adopting a persona he learned from “Cool Hand Luke,” Archer coerced his fake prisoners and twirled his nightstick (why did they give them nightsticks anyway?) occasionally stopping his twirling long enough to beat someone senseless.

Zimbardo, fascinated with the monster he had created, allowed the experiment to go on far longer than it should have, even after two ‘prisoners’ (Tye Sheridan and Ezra Miller) suffered nervous breakdowns. Like the omnipresent Big Brother, Zimbardo watched the youths operate with a hidden camera, and later wrote a book about how ‘regular’ people can be convinced to commit unconscionable acts though mob mentality, ‘The Lucifer Effect,’  which later became this movie.

I watched this movie convinced of two things, 1., that Christopher was an undiagnosed sociopath (he smiles glibly and rattles off his stupid “Cool Hand Luke” accent even when the ‘experiment’ becomes a hostage situation) and that 2. Zimbardo was probably a latently homosexual sadomasochist, achieving a hard-on at the mere mention of defrocked boys being slammed against walls. There is an often-seen look on his face as he watches events unfold that goes beyond the realm of scientific curiosity and into flat-out arousal.

It is only when actual sexual degradation is achieved that he has a change of heart and cancels the experiment. But before that: boys forcing other boys to defecate in buckets and being locked in the dark, claustrophobic ‘Hole’ (kind of the real life version of Roald Dahl’s ‘The Chokey’)- all okay.

“The Stanford Prison Experiment” is a stimulating watch that should be viewed by sociology students and people interested in the human mind. The whole cast is good (with the possible exception of Olivia Thirlby as Zimbardo’s much-younger girlfriend, who didn’t impress me) and it achieves a kind of slow-burn as the situation gradually becomes a swirling shit-storm of unintended consequences.

I do think the film was a little long at just over two hours (perhaps it could have been cut down by ten minutes or so.) If ‘Lord of the Flies’ interested you on a psychological as well as a literary level, and you are interested in apparently normal people acting in group mentality and doing awful things that wouldn’t otherwise be carried out with a clear conscience, this is the movie for you. It’s not a horror movie. It’s barely even a thriller. Just a crazy real-life story about impressionable college kids going absolutely apeshit in a secluded environment. In Stanford, where no one can hear you scream… It’s a movie best left for a certain audience, but a worthy watch all the same.

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Clean, Shaven (1993)

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Writer/director Lodge Kerrigan’s Schizophrenic protagonist, Peter Winters (Peter Greene,) doesn’t say an intelligible word for the first fifteen minutes or so of “Clean, Shaven.” He seems to be in a perpetual state of great agitation, guided by voices in his head and his own determination to find his young daughter, Nicole (Jennifer McDonald.) It is clear he is in no position to care for a child, but in a sick, sad way, we want to invest in him, even as we suspect him of unspeakable atrocities.

“Clean, Shaven” is not a pretty movie. It portrays the hellscape of a psychotic break in an immediate, confrontative way that has rarely been touched upon in the world of film. Peter has a psychological obsession with removing his body hair. He cuts himself to the quick, nicks his scalp with bloody results, and at one point peels his own fingernail off before the appalled viewer.

All this is shown in agonizing close-up, as Peter embarks on a tormented journey to find his daughter, who his mother (Megan Owen) put up for adoption years before. Peter’s auditory hallucinations are brought to life in the form of jarring sound mixing. There’s nary a relaxing or cathartic  moment in “Clean, Shaven,” so determined is it to capture daily life from a madman’s perspective. In harsh contrast to a movie where every element of character and backstory is offered up under no uncertain terms, “Clean, Shaven” leaves nearly everything to subtext and the shadowy recesses of the imagination.

We see the events much in the distorted, kaleidoscopic way Peter would see them, without context or explanation. Meanwhile a less-than-savory detective (Robert Albert) is on Peter’s trail, and the manhunt leads to a ugly confrontation where no one will emerge unscathed.

“Clean, Shaven” is supposed to be an extremely accurate clinical depiction of a person suffering from a psychotic disorder. I wouldn’t know. I’m fortunate enough to not have faced a Schizophrenia diagnosis in myself or a loved one, though anxiety disorders are all too well known for me. For viewers who get subversive pleasure from watching the dark side of the human mind offered up on film, “Clean, Shaven” may prove to be a rare delight.

For what it’s worth, Peter Greene gives an unforgettable turn as the deeply disturbed Peter Winters. He slips so imperceptibly into the skin of someone suffering form a severe mental illness that he could just as well be a loon on the street, not an actor getting paid to portray the terrifying illnesses that can beset the mind. Every tic, every twitch, every seemingly misplaced whisper and mutter seems so real you could be watching a documentary about mental illness rather than a piece of fiction.

The ending leaves the viewer to puzzle out what it all meant, rather than offering easy explanations. The best way to describe the film altogether would be harrowing, but also sometimes tedious. It is hard to truly care about the characters in a movie when next to nothing is revealed about them. Take Peter’s mother, Gladys. She seems distant, even cold, and her only act of maternal concern is bullying her son into eating a sandwich she has fixed when he comes by looking for his daughter.

But was she a devoted mother at one time, before psychosis took her son from her? Does she love him, even now? There’s a distinct lack of heartfelt monologues, emotive testaments to  the character’s relationships. “Clean, Shaven” is as uncomfortably clinical as an instructional film on Schizophrenia. Lodge Kerrigan provides a lean, mean, ice-cold critique on what being psychotic might feel like; like Michael Haneke, he doesn’t exactly endear his characters to us; unlike Haneke, he doesn’t revile them either.

They are what they are, and Kerrigan doesn’t sentimentalize them or make them appear to be any more or less than than that. They’re there, and they’re hurting. Anything else that might be gleaned from their personality is strictly subtext.

“Clean, Shaven” is worth watching at least once by film fans, for it’s unflinching realism and sharp observation. It’s not for everyone; to say it is not a popcorn flick would be putting it mildly. There’s no easy answers, it fearlessly plumbs the depths of the lead’s insanity. The premise will ensnare you, but it is Greene who will haunt you for days with his wracking portrayal of psychological torment.

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One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey

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If you are among the multitude of viewers who have seen Milo Forman’s 1975 film adaptation of this novel, you probably know how this story of a fun-loving rebel who bucks the system and butts heads with the tyrannical Nurse Ratched plays out. Upon reading the Ken Kesey novel, however, one comes upon deeper dimensions within the original source material; namely, the added perspective of Chief Bromden, the physically imposing, profoundly introspective, and perpetually silent American Indian.

For those who haven’t read this book or seen the movie, an overview- Bromden is a Schizophrenic inmate in a section of a mental institution lorded over by power junkie Nurse Ratched, who rules with an iron fist. Ratched controls the ward with quiet fear-mongering, politely menacing intimidation, and calm, calculated mind games. Her rule is much like that of a totalitarian state, a metaphor the novel seems all too aware of- everything is for the wretched men’s own good, of course and initially reasonable-sounding requests wheedle and nettle at the patient’s sanity while Ratched invariably comes out on top.

Hulking half-Indian Bromden knows all about Ratched’s power plays; he’s been there longer than almost anyone. He’s seen patients come and go, have their brains fried to a crisp during extended bouts of electroshock therapy or be rendered obsolete vegetables through sadistic and unnecessary lobotomies. But Bromden, who has been playing the role of a deaf-mute for years, and thus learning the darkest secrets of the clueless patients and staff, who are none the wiser, never counted on Randle P. McMurphy.

McMurphy, an amusing ne’er-do-well, a redheaded rapscallion who takes the ward by storm, is exactly what the institution needs to bring up their spirits and make them question their docile obedience of Nurse Ratched. A hellraiser from square one, he fights Nurse Ratched’s authority every chance he can get, and although at first his mad scramble at rebellion seems arbitrary to the meek patients, his free spirited independence is infectious, and begins to creep over the whole ward.

Chief Bromden seems more like a lawn decoration of a character in the movie, lingering in the background while Jack Nicholson  as McMurphy (suitably mischievous, but definitely not redheaded) takes the center stage. In the book, he is a fascinating and vital protagonist. I’ve always liked characters that were introspective and quiet, considered to be fools and reacting mildly to the insanity around them. Bromden is always thinking, always assessing. The joy of his character is that we get to see into this silent man’s thoughts. ‘One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest’ deals with a multitude of themes, including the fascism, gender roles, racism, industrialization, and the woes of a life half lived, ruled by sterility and quiet timidity.

Chief Bromden is Schizophrenic, so he often seems like a bit of an unreliable narrator, prone to sporadically ranting about thick waves of fog rolling over the ward, things shrinking and growing before his eyes, and the inexhaustible evils of the ‘combine,’ or society as a well-oiled, malevolent machine. Other times he seems sharp, bright-eyed, and impossibly wise. The supporting residents of the mental faciity presented in this novel are unique and arresting without seeming improbably quirky or kitschy, always a concern in books dealing with extreme mental illness.

If there’s one thing I would point out in this book that I wasn’t crazy about, it’s the portrayal of minorities and particularly women. While Chief Bromden is a strong, admirable, and likable character, Nurse Ratched’s ‘black boy’ minions are total fucking assholes who speak in jiving pigeon English. McMurphy repeatedly refers to the men as ‘coons’ and although his behavior isn’t exactly condoned, it isn’t treated as unacceptable either. He even refers to Turkel , the kindest of the ‘black boys,’ as an ‘old coon’ at one point. I know, I know, Kesey’s portrayal of bigotry is historically accurate, but it’s also discomforting for a modern person to read.

The fact that the racist language doesn’t get chided or sternly corrected by the author or any of the characters throughout the book is probably part of the reason it was banned and challenged multiple times since it’s publication. And censorship isn’t right. This book has many good qualities that overshadow it’s racially sensitive content. Many parents don’t like books that don’t spoonfeed their kids political correctness and pat moral lessons. My main issue was with the women in the book. The only remotely redeemable female characters were prostitutes for Chrissakes,come to relieve our poor stuttering Billy Bibbitt of his virginity. Ken Kesey seems to have some rather barbed things to say about women’s lib and us ladies in general beneath his story of the epic struggle between a gargantuan she-bitch and a rabble of cowed, frightened patients.

But never mind. Good writing is good writing, and ‘One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest’ got it. Often lyrical, sometimes beautiful, the book observes our complacency as a society as well as our habit of overlooking life’s outcasts. Powerlessness is a continuous theme- the black aides, given shitty jobs and generally crapped on by society, torment the patients, while Nurse Ratched bullies them all into quiet submission. Ironically, many of the patients are here by choice. If men would choose this hell, what awaits them in the outside world? What horrors have they escaped in their home lives, their jobs and their families? Anyone whose seen the film adaptation know that things don’t end well here. But the book is a worthy read even for those who already know the film’s story.

The Tricky Part by Martin Moran

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Memoirist Martin Moran has a skillful touch when it comes to prose, but “The Tricky Part” is so disturbing and sad that it will probably end up being a read-only-once book for most people. What makes “The Tricky Part” different from most sexual abuse stories that feature heavily in books and TV and get paraded around the media is Moran’s ambivalent feelings toward his molester. It also makes it a whole lot more interesting than the average pervs-messing-around-with-kids book.

When Martin was twelve, he was an eager-to-please, bright-eyed boy who had his whole life to discover sex and intimacy all in due time. His camp counselor, Bob, took all that away from him. And yet… and yet what? Martin fell for Bob. He was a quite willing participant in a ‘relationship’ (a love affair only in the loosest sense) that lasted several years. Of course a twelve-year-old child cannot consent to sex with a thirty-something-year-old-man, but Martin believed he had something special with his abuser. He loved him. He hated him. He was so fucking confused and he sook out his attention like a moth to the flame, even when it was destroying him.

He felt like Bob’s one and only, even when there was a harem of young boys slipping in and out of Bob’s designated love nests under Martin’s nose. After a fraught adulthood rife with dysfunction and sex addiction, Martin decided to seek out his abuser. This is his story. The first half of this book can be a little hard to read because of the graphic depiction of pedophilia, but it articulates 12-year-old Martin’s confusion and desperation well. This isn’t just a tawdry ripped-from-the-headlines abuse story, it strikes the reader as extremely brave and cathartic for Moran to write.

Moreover, it is interesting to see how Moran got a career in musical theater and came to balance his childhood Catholic beliefs with skepticism and new-age curiosity. Martin is an extremely interesting person, though you can tell he’s been through the ringer emotionally and sexually. You might not agree with everything he does (trying to fuck a fifteen-year-old boy in the men’s lavatory anyone?) and his continual dishonesty to his lover, Henry, is as heartbreaking as it is reprehensible (I’d be so done with him for cheating on me multiple times with guys he didn’t even like, let alone want an intimate relationship with; but Henry never seems to give up on Martin.)

However, you can’t help but feel for Martin. I don’t think his continual abuse at the hands of Bob is an excuse to cheat on his lover repeatedly, but it helps you understand the heartbreaking compulsion that overtakes him again and again. It’s like what Atticus FInch said in “To Kill a Mockingbird.” You step into someone’s shoes and walk around in them. Books help you do that, which is part of what is so great about them. You look at someone’s action from the outside (like Moran’s infidelity) and you go “wow, that’s dickish” but looking inside his mind by reading something he wrote helps you understand.

The second half of “The Tricky Part” is more about Moran’s therapy and gradual healing, which is easier to read psychologically but can get a little wordy in terms of mental health and dream analysis. Despite the transitions between Moran’s childhood and adulthood the two pieces of the book fit together pretty well. It will come as a relief to hear less about Bob in the later chapters. He is truly a monstrous human being.

This book will twist your gut. It will break your heart. It might even make you laugh sporadically. It will make you wish Martin had castrated his abuser for the emotional damage he eked out, rather than forgiving him his transgression. But bloody revenge, as good as it might feel at the time, does not salve the soul like forgiveness does. Forgiveness isn’t just ‘letting it go’ or ‘pretending it never happened.’ It’s healing. And Martin needed all the healing he could get. He couldn’t just be two broken halves of a whole his entire life.

“The Tricky Part” isn’t my favorite memoir, but it’s one of the rawest and most honest. Martin Moran lays bare his soul all to see. There’s nothing not brave about that. I recommend this book to those interested in the effects of childhood sexual abuse and readers of memoirs in general.

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The Music Never Stopped (2011)

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Sentimental but sweet, like biting into a candied confection you haven’t tasted since the idyllic days of your youth, “The Music Never Stopped” is elevated beyond ‘disease of the week’ territory by terrific lead performances. Good storytelling leaves the viewer with a genuinely warm n’ fuzzy feeling, while J.K. Simmons’ development not only as a father, but as a man is inspirational without being too maudlin.

Henry Sawyer (Simmons) is a traditional dad and husband who provides for his wife Helen (Cara Seymour,) but is completely incompetent in handling anything to do with the management or the upkeep of the house. After many years of marriage, Henry still needs his wife to decide for him if the milk in the fridge is bad and can’t fathom the idea of Helen getting a job.

Henry and Helen have a son, Gabriel (Lou Taylor Pucci,) who has been absent for almost twenty years after having a fight with his father and running away from home. One fateful day, Henry and his wife get a life-changing phone call- Gabriel has suffered a brain tumor that destroyed his short-term memory and is lying disoriented and confused at the hospital.

Left reeling by this news, Henry initially grapples with feelings of resentment and bitterness at the prospect of seeing his son. But when it is revealed that music from the time period he broke away from his father’s interests and eventually, ran away from home help Gabriel retain memories, Henry really steps up to be the father his son needs.

Music is an extremely important component in the lives of the Sawyer family, and “The Music Never Stopped” features a fantastic old-timey folk-rock soundtrack. Initially it seems somewhat silly that Henry would take Gabriel’s decision to break free from Henry’s musical interests so badly.

But it is also important to understand that it wasn’t just Henry’s music Gabriel was rebelling against- it was his whole way of life. Henry’s politics, socioeconomic beliefs, lifestyle- Gabriel was rejecting of these in favor of the new groove that was sweeping the young people of America at that time While Henry’s thoughts and feelings were becoming old hat, Gabriel was becoming what Henry feared and hated- a hippie.

In many ways this is a standard story- there’s a mother who just wants everyone to get along, a gruff dad, a medical crisis, and even a Doctor (Scott Adsit) who exists merely to say “no, this can’t be done.” There is a sweet romance between a kind woman (Mia Maestro) and a disabled man that never goes beyond chaste PG-13 kisses. The character of music therapist Dianne Daley (Julia Ormond) is never anything more than a stock inspiration to a desperate family who’s prayers are answered in the form of good, hard science.

However, the outstanding performances of the three leads (Simmons, Pucci, and Seymour) have  to be taken into account. You know you probably shouldn’t be moved by the somewhat predictable story, but the filmmaker hits all the right notes so that somehow you find yourself falling under its spell.

Director Jim Kohlberg incorporates genuinely heartbreaking moments into the script (such as the reunion between Gabriel’s adolescent girlfriend (Tammy Blanchard) and the addled adult Gabe,) and both Gabriel and Henry’s points of view are served well, instead of using them as an opportunity to put down a certain set of political beliefs.

Adapted from Oliver Sacks’ essay “The Last Hippie,” “The Music Never Stopped” is tender and bittersweet, an example of somewhat formulaic film-making hitting it’s mark. I’m totally looking forward to seeing J.K. Simmons play the asshole jazz teacher in “Whiplash,” for which he won an academy award. This man is one of the most incredibly versatile character actors in Hollywood!

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Nobody Nowhere: The Extraordinary Autobiography of an Autistic by Donna Williams

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There are so few books about Autism Spectrum Disorders written from a female perspective, especially of those few published in the 80’s and 90’s, when Autism was still considered a mysterious malady and high-functioning ASD and Asperger’s had barely even entered the picture.

And although it would be unfair and inaccurate to apply autobiographer Donna Williams’ insights about her condition to all diagnosed youngsters (with all due respect, the diagnosis of Autism was barely skimming the surface of Williams’ issues,) “Nobody Nowhere” is an emotional roller-coaster with the heart-grabbing readability of the best fiction.

Donna was born to an abusive and negligent middle-class family and early into childhood it was apparent that something was very ‘off’ about the little girl. Donna records her attempts to be like ‘everyone else’ culminating in channeling the character of Carol, a mirthful but shallow persona; her struggles with her cruel mother and older brother and her painful school days.

She takes us through trials and failures, relationships with good men and bad, and her gradual journey to self-insight and recovery. At no point does Donna blame her fraught relationship with her mother as a ‘reason’ for her Autism Spectrum Disorder (Donna did not know she had Autism until her late twenties and merely feared she was ‘mad.’)

Instead she speculates that a world lacking warmth and a real sense of family taught her to be independent and took her on an important journey. In the meantime, the abused and dejected Donna dabbled in self-destructive behavior including self-mutilation and deliberate self-soiling, and was repeatedly treated like crap by guys who saw her as an easy target. However, she also recounts experiences with kind people, even complete strangers, who attempted to offer support to this wild troubled girl through her times of turmoil.

I you can get through the two introductions at the beginning (dry!,) “Nobody Nowhere” is actually a involving read. I helps if the reader has an interest in abnormal psychology and/or Autism, but author Donna Williams had a truly fascinating (if singularly unfortunate) early life. While many of her ‘symptoms’ are most definitely not typical for the majority of Autistic young people, one must remember that Donna is ultimately not representing anyone but herself in this intense life story.

I wouldn’t recommend this book as a manual for ‘understanding’ Autism (though I would not necessarily recommend any one book for understanding Autism,) but I would heartily suggest it for building upon what you know about the disorder and also early trauma as well as child psychology in general.

I was saddened to hear about Donna Williams’ breast cancer on her personal blog. I felt almost like I was hearing bad news about a friend, though of course I had never met her. I was also angry. How much bad luck can one person get? ( I am not referring chiefly to her Autism but instead to her  abusive upbringing and her emotional issues, which I consider related yet separate.)

On the other hand, she’s apparently married to a good man and feels content with her sense of self. I wish the best for Donna and I will read her other books (“Somebody Somewhere,” this book’s sequel, and “Like Color to the Blind”) when I get a chance.

Against Medical Advice by James Patterson & Hal Friedman

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As a sufferer of severe OCD, stories about the disorder have been of interest to me throughout my life. Although I wished that the boy who actually had the disorder, Corey Friedman, had written the book instead of his father (writing in his son’s voice) and bestseller James Patterson, I have to admit that they did a good job of bringing Corey’s voice to life. In this case, Corey was doubly unlucky- instead of just suffering Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, he was also afflicted with a particularly extreme case of Tourette’s Syndrome. His woes began, like me, when he was five years old, when he began to tic daily, a cycle that included shaking his head violently, breaking his teeth by biting down on them with brute force, and tearing his muscles with jarring bodily movements.

Corey’s life came to a stand-still as his body began to turn against him. As he grew into a troubled teen, he found that more often than not psychiatric medications had drastic side effects, and the only ‘medication’ he could really count on was alcohol. Corey went to various therapist’s and tried various meds, but his devastating illness wouldn’t yield. Eventually, he found he had to fight ferociously for his life.

This is a heartwrenching story but also an inspiration to those who suffer from mental disorders, because Corey eventually beat his illness. I loved the subject matter of this book but sometimes found the writing a little underwhelming. It seems like Corey’s dad has to explain his son’s behavior and apologize for him in a overblown way. It also features a lot of cliche and hyperbole typically attributed to the young adult genre, i.e. ‘my face burned, my heart ached’ that I think should be cut back on. Hal Friedman often tried too hard to speak in a ‘teen voice,’ which could be just plain awkward at times.

Despite these setbacks, this is really a good read, especially for someone like me who has been on a ton of medications throughout their life. Your body gets used to the medicines to the point where they don’t even take effect anymore. It’s true, I’ve lived it. Then you go through the hassle of going on a new medication that might make you sleep all the time, etc. Except in Corey’s case, the symptoms were much more severe. This book made me realize how lucky I was when for years I felt like the most wretched person in the world because of my uncontrollable thoughts.

This book has it’s drawbacks, but it tells a good story poignantly. I was disappointed to find out that ‘Med Head: my Knock-Down, Drag-Out, Drugged-Up Battle With My Brain’ was just an adaptation of this book written to appeal to teens rather than a separate work written by Corey himself, as I thought it was at first. It was obvious Corey had a good mind beneath his ticcing, twitching, ineffectual body and I really wish him the best as he begins his normal life free of the symptoms that plagued him for years.

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Up High in the Trees by Kiara Brinkman

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Told through the eyes of a highly unusual eight-year-old boy coping with grief and the disintegration of his remaining family members, Up High in the Trees is a poetic first effort by Kiara Brinkman. Sebby has a highly sophisticated, personal, and unique voice unusual for his age group, and the story is told an undetermined amount of time after his mother is struck dead by a car in the night. Sebby, like any young boy bereaved of his mother, struggles with his loss, and his dad takes him to the summer house to recuperate, only to fall into a deep depression in which he is unable to take care of himself, let alone his bright, inquisitive son.

Many people have speculated that Sebby is on the Autism Spectrum, probably high-functioning Asperger’s, and many passages (including his sensitivities to light, color, and sound) seem to hint at this. He is never diagnosed, which is just as well, but even for a precocious boy with Asperger’s, Sebby’s voice seems highly unlikely at times. Often he seems like a psychology graduate channeling their inner child rather than a true eight-year-old. However, if you get past the initial humps (Sebby seems too sophisticated for a little kid, the other characters are a bit too thinly defined) Up High in the Trees is a compelling read.

The chapters are short and often abstract, like a fragment of a passing thought or dream. That makes it very readable, since you can read a chapter or two on a bus ride and finish them in no time at all. Sebby often fails to engage with others, living in a gauzy world where he retraces his mothers steps and treads among her memories. He and his mother shared a private world together, and now his siblings and dad are flummoxed by his failure to grieve in a normal way. What is the ‘normal’ way to grieve, anyway? Hankies and tears? Hugs and sentiments? Sebby is removed from planet Earth as most know it, preferring to chase memories of his mother than other kids.

He finds solace in an old camera, which he uses to take pictures of life as it is- without Mother. I really rooted for the reconciliation of Sebastian and Katya, a slightly older Russian immigrant. I couldn’t figure out why he was so mad at her. She was was protective and kind and even forgave him when he bit her on the shoulder! Instead, Sebby pursues friendship with Jackson and Shelly, two under-supervised ragamuffin kids who seem to engage in a lot of risk-taking activities.

I would like to read anything further that Kiara Brinkman writes. In this flawed but well-done novel, she explores being wired different in a neurotypical world, bereavement, and the meaning of family. Sebby’s brood fray and very nearly fall apart, and I guess that not all was well before his mother’s death, either.  But almost unraveling is what eventually puts them together and makes them stronger as a family. I hope you can derive inspiration from this brief but effective read.

Julien Donkey-Boy (1999)

“Julien Donkey-Boy” is an occasionally emotional, mainly tedious foray into the art of Dogme 95, laden with grainy visuals and non-existent plotting. It recalls the much better film “Buddy Boy,” which came out the same year. “Buddy Boy” director Mark Hanlon knew how to engage your interest and make you care about his main character, despite his shortcomings.

Julien is a 20-something paranoid schizophrenic played by Ewen Bremner, one of the most underutilized character actors of today. Julien lives with his equally disturbed father, younger brother, and sister, who he has impregnated before the film’s beginning.

Uncomfortable yet? The whole movie works to make the viewer feel discomfort while also invoking sadness and emotion. At this it is only moderately successful. The dialogue is often random and directionless. The experience of the film is akin to having hundreds of puzzle pieces of differing shapes and sizes, none of them fitting together in the least.


While watching, you come to a crossroads- should you spend a indefinite amount of time trying to put together the pieces, or should you leave the goddamned thing for somebody else to solve? The visuals of “Julien Donkey-Boy” are willfully awful, presumably shot on a home video camera bought from the bargain bin of Best Buy for a total of five dollars.

Ewen Bremner does an excellent job as Julien, but although Julien isn’t innately evil or unlikable, it’s hard to emotionally invest in his plight. In fact, the movie has its meaningful moments, but most of what is has to say isn’t particularly innovative or profound, and it’s hard to feel many emotions other than bewilderment and disgust.

Meanwhile, “Julien Donkey-Boy” functions more as a curiosity item than a movie, with famous filmmaker Werner Herzog playing Julien’s gas-mask wearing, cough syrup- guzzling father, who offers to pay Julien’s younger brother (Evan Neumann) ten dollars to dance with him in his dead mother’s dress. Meanwhile, Julien’s sister Pearl (Chloe Sevigny) prepares to have her brother’s baby.

The film is dedicated to director Harmony Korine’s schizophrenic Uncle Eddy, and although I hate to criticize a personal film-making project (unlike the soulless Hollywood money grabbers I love to have a go at), I must. “Julien Donkey-Boy” is hard to sit through and willfully incoherent, like a cross between a David Lynch throwaway project and a bad acid trip. It is one of the few movies I can honestly say had very little point, and isn’t that a shame? Not for the majority of sober filmgoers.