John Cameron Mitchell’s Anthem Homunculus, Continued

You will find spoilers here. And some chaos. Depending on your preferences, you might not want to read this until you’ve finished Anthem Homunculus, John Cameron Mitchell’s musical dystopian drama full of heart, delivered via podcast, like an old radio play.

Photo by Matthew Placek

I interviewed Mitchell for a piece in Psychology Today, about brain stuff at the heart of his new project, Anthem Homunculus, I didn’t want to give away revelations of the plot, so I’m doing that here. More importantly, my conversation with Mitchell was pretty juicy, on the topic of the brain, but also about making art in the time we’re living through. So I’m sharing some of that here.

Mitchell finds a lusty way to assert a literary lineage for his work. His protagonist, Caean, is trying to seduce Jairo, a lover of Walt Whitman who will become his boyfriend. “Whitman actually kissed Wilde,” he tells Jairo. “And Wilde kissed André Gide, who kissed Forster, who kissed Christopher Isherwood, who kissed Jean Genet, who kissed William Burroughs, who kissed me.” So, basically, kissing Caean will be like kissing Whitman–and all of them.

“But nobody kissed James Baldwin,” Jairo replies. He’s not a character who lets shit go.

“I would have kissed James Baldwin,” Caean replies. Jairo, who’s South African–literate in both race relations and shade–accuses him of being a sex tourist. And then kisses him. Anthem revels in contradictions like this on. We’ll get to that. But first, a little more about Caean’s brain tumor–again, played by Laurie Anderson. It’s really not possible to announce that fact enough.

The tumor gives Caean hallucinations. In our interview, Mitchell said something that sounded a description of what I’m always playing with in my writing: “Everything is real if it affects you. If hallucinations affect his life, they’re as real as life.”

It’s an idea Mitchell has been exploring at least since high school:

I was always obsessed with the brain. In fact, my very first short story in highs school was called “The God Eye.” It was a woman who worked in Renassiance fair who had a stroke, and one of her eyes would randomly move aroudn. She decided that God was making that eye was trying to try to tell her stuff–that’s somebody she should talk to, that’s something she should do. It was random movements of the eye, but she decided it was her God eye. Interestingly when I presented the script to a couple of oncological neurologists, both of them pointed to Julian Jayne’s book The Bicameral Mind. The spot that I actually had located my tumor coincidentally was the part of the right brain that James posited was The Language Center for the God Voice. His hypothesis was that before written language, we had fewer connections between the bicameral brain, and hte right side being the more morality, poetry, and ethics. He posited that this was a language center for early man, and we would get auditory hallucinations from there–i.e., a God voice. So weirdly, all of these things coincided with a guy who has a tumor who speaks to him, gives him hallucinations, and demands to be called God. It was a happy coincidence.

Art by Or Gotham

Now, for the spoiler. Caean’s is no ordinary tumor. It’s a teratoma. We don’t learn the fullness of its extraordinariness until episode 7. A teratoma is a tumor composed of other body parts, usually hair, bone, and muscle.

Rare variations of a teratoma–fetiform and fetus in fetu–can develop a creature very much like a fetus, including organs, limbs, sometimes even a spine. Caean’s teratoma is a fetiform, “a term that has been given to a rare form of teratoma that resembles a malformed fetus.” If you thought Anthem was fantastical or science fiction, like I started to, take a breath, like I’m doing now. Fetiform and fetus in fetu “tumors” are real. They generally grown in the lower spine or behind the belly. As Mitchell told me, “Caean is the first pregnant man.”

As the story develops his tumor continues to grow body parts, including two living brains. There’s a question about whether he can live with it, even though it’s giving him hallucinations, sometimes apparently transporting him to other dimensions, where he has difficult conversations with his brother, who died when they were kids, pretty much destroying his family.

There’s a question about whether the tumor / God / Laurie Anderson could survive outside his body. His neurosurgeon (played by Marion Cotillard) is atwitter with the scientific possibilities. “Originally this was a Hedwig sequel,” Mitchell explained, “the myth of the other half became internal. A fetiform teratoma, which is the more developed kind, which neurologists told me or generally more like clones than parasitic twins. I think the parasitic twin is sort of a very rare thing. But the whole idea of your other half being inside you and being kind of a fucked up or perhaps a neglected part of me was just fascinating to me.”

It’s a punk move to turn a brain tumor into a fetus–inside the first pregnant man–to push one of the slipperiest questions in the history of science: What is life, anyway? Queer artists known for their revolutionary politics aren’t supposed to go there. The question belongs to the religious right. It’s dangerous, used to police women’s bodies and shut down abortion clinics. But punk doesn’t care. It’ll wrap a cultural conundrum inside out. That’s what Mitchell does.

People are afraid right now. We’re afraid of our government. We’re afraid of each other. We’re afraid across divisions like left and right, but we’re also afraid among like-minded people–afraid of saying, or thinking, the wrong thing. It’s exhausting and debilitating. We could use a dose of punk humor to help us out of this mess. “I’m from a generation that grew up with AIDS. The other was anybody who could contract AIDS. The idea of being othered is deep in my soul,” Mitchell commented. “And very much a part of my work. My work is very nuch about creating communities of outsiders, in order to be loved, but also to make work that can be useful to the mainstream, or as many people as possible. I like things to be entertaining.”

To make things–to contribute something useful to a culture in crisis–requires all kinds of risks. One of the many risks Mitchell takes is through loving parody of woke activist culture, but he contextualizes that parody. His affectionate toward the characters he presents as well-intentioned but misguided.

So you can see in my piece I get a little annoyed with people, in their good intentions to redress harm and create restorative justice and even restitution, they feel the need to focus so much on categories and identity.” For Mitchell, a better question than “what you are” is “What do you got? What are you brining to the party?”

“Part of my work is about understanding differences,” he explained, “but also trying to reduce them, trying to find things in common. And I do it through art. There’s a line the character shouts out, ‘People who read fiction have more empathy than people who read the news. I read that on Huff Po, and it really moved me.’ We are getting to a point where the  we less we believe in those facts the more these stories are important.”

Mitchell is eloquent on hot topics that seem to be eating our culture alive from the inside (perhaps like a talking tumor?). As an artist, he’s got a lot to say about appropriation, censorship, political debate, and even Milos Yiaonnopoulos (a character he plays on television). I’m going to end this piece with Mitchell’s wisdom–or what may feel like provocation to some. If it does provoke, I think he’d agree, one of an artist’s jobs:

I’m a storyteller, you know, and I will write a story about a character who is not like me because I want to understand, because I want to feel. I want my actors to add to that story. Tell me what they know. The character of Jairo is the guy from South Africa. I’m like talk to me. Where did you come from? Is this interesting to you? How about this line about colonization? How about this line about midwestern woke, you know where they street is called Dodge and they renamed it after another non-slave? He laughs at that–at lazy activism.

He’s like, but let’s talk about it. Let’s create characters that are not us. Others might say this is appropriation, or that  all fiction is suspect. But we all know we all know the objections to appropriation, which is in effect is an objection to lazy art.  It’s kind of plagiarizing more than appropriation.

I’m not a censorship guy, but  there’s a lot of stupid and and lazy stuff. I don’t think it needs to be shut down. I don’t think it needs to be pulled from publication. I think it needs to be discussed, challenged, parsed,  loved hated, you know, whatever. It’s like all out on the table, you know, and so I do get annoyed when people’s responses to injustice is imitating the actions of the oppressor: censorship, policing, separation, dividing and conquer. You know, Jeb Bush, who’s hoping to sneak in next, and Trump, are laughing, as liberal people are tear each other apart. They’re loving it.

There was a line that was cut–‘the arch conservative and the arch liberal both got shit on by their dad. The difference is the conservative thought he deserved it.’ They’re both reacting strongly against somebody who messed them up. Another line is ‘It’s the, unloved who change the world.’ Trauma, unfortunately, is the agent of change. But my change tends to be more towards seeking commonality, as opposed calling out, canceling, shutting down, censoring. For the power of good. Making as opposed to erasing, alternative as opposed to criticizing.

It’s easy to criticize everything right now. It’s very hard to create an alternative. It’s lazy activism to just say, ‘shut them down, cancel their book contract. Even Milo Yiannopoulos, who I abhor (and who I play on The Good Fight), had a point about censorship. He’s a toadie to the right and an opportunist and repulsive. But he also was right about certain Ivy Leagues and universities shutting down dissent or discussion of complexity.”

 

 

 

 

 

What Is Somatics? Interview with Sumitra Rajkumar

Sumitra Rajkumar

Over on my Psychology Today column–The Elusive Brain–I promised a follow-up on my column about somatics and trauma. Readers had lots of questions. This is Part 1 of my interview with somatics practitioner Sumitra Rajkumar. Stay tuned for Part 2, where we get nitty and gritty.

As a practitioner, how do you describe somatics to somebody who’s curious and doesn’t know much about it?

In somatics therapy, we tend to regard the body as the self. Emotions are produced in the body as sensation and interpreted by the brain as stories about how we feel. This gives us our sense of self over time. But, even that isn’t such a straightforward dialectic. Thought, emotions and sensations are all interconnected and influence one another.

Somatics holds that many of us humans, especially in post-industrial, late capitalist societies, mistrust our physical self and rely heavily on thinking and rumination, so we walk around in a kind of psychosomatic split, like stressed out heads on sticks, forgetting we are part of natural life, that we have an animal life. Traumatic events or pressures in our personal history can reinforce the split and make us feel quite unsafe in our bodies too. We may have adopted survival strategies that might have saved our lives at one point but then stick around and replay in our bodies as emotional habits that make us feel limited in our choice of how to be, especially when we’re under stress. Often our emotional responses can catch us by surprise or threaten us and we become reactive and less centered in ourselves, less integrated, less intentionally us.

Somatics in practice. Copyright generative somatics.

Somatic therapy engages all those elements through a combination of conversation, physical practice involving breath or movement and also a practitioner’s contact with the body’s connective tissues through table bodywork to open into more range of motion and mood, more choice in emotional reaction, more life.

The goal is for people to actually embody what they long to be, to be who they are more wholly, to heal that split caused by traumatic events or what can be the trauma of living in a very power differentiated society. It’s about transforming to be more alive and act more aligned with one’s values and purpose. And to do all that with a body based intuition as well not just cognitive self-understanding.

The form of somatic therapy you practice has a political dimension. How does that work? How is it different from therapies that focus primarily on the client or family? 

Politics is key to the somatics that I practice. You could call it a politicized somatics. I’ve been trained by generative somatics (lower case intentional) in the Bay Area. I get contracted to teach their courses, engage in their strategy considerations, and receive ongoing guidance and supervision from them.

The moment we have a political awareness that tells us that systemic as well as interpersonal power differentials are a key factor in the shaping of human consciousness and social relationships, then therapy itself has no choice but to adapt to that. But that awareness seems to be missing in a lot of therapy. A lot of therapy is individualistic. The message is to go it alone, go fix yourself and then return and be more useful to the social grind of capitalism. Keep that crazy away. That attitude can be tinged by a lot of sexist, racist, ableist and classist values that we embody as a society too. Therapy can be ahistorical when it focuses on the individual and the family as the only sites of shaping and transformation, rather than acknowledging the impact of society in the shaping of self and relationship.

A politicized somatics regards individuals in dynamic relationship to other humans and to social forces through history. They are connected to collective bodies that they are a part of, whether family or community or society or even larger, seemingly abstract social forces that organize how we relate like patriarchy, racism and capitalism. I mean that the latter are not just abstractions but are very concrete in shaping people’s bodies, internal development and their relationships, sometimes through generations.

Human beings have also shaped and created and changed society, so a politicized somatics regards the client as a social actor or agent of her own and other’s transformation, interpersonally as well as structurally. In fact, generative somatics focuses its work with people who are invested in collective action towards social justice, either as individuals or as groups and organizations, people who are accountable to one another and to changing unfair practices and structures.

So much of personal trauma comes from an abuse of power—a violation of the body interpersonally, as in intimate violence or the deep stress to physical and emotional health that comes from intersections of poverty, racism and inequality. The words “trauma” and “trigger” are bandied about a lot these days, and sometimes for good reason. Many of us are living in an increasingly traumatizing world and are more reactive and defensive within it. But we also internalize unjust social values and norms and the self-judgment or shame that can come from them and so people can also feel victimized and triggered in a way that is out of proportion to their actual access, ability, position and agency.

In that sense, somatics is a key factor in social movement building itself. Not to be cheesy, but it really is about reclaiming hope and love in action and social movement. Like in the David Bowie and Queen song, “Under Pressure,” which I think is a great summary of somatics. “Love dares you to care for the people at the edge of the night. Love dares you to change our way of caring about ourselves.” That’s it really, isn’t it? Of course David and Freddie would have the ultimate prayer of love.

I know learning somatics happens largely through practice—for both practitioners and clients—and I’m looking forward to getting concrete about that in Part 2 of this interview. In the meantime, how did you become interested in somatics? What kind of training was involved in becoming a practitioner?

To start off, I found myself having to learn it as part of my job. I was hired as a political education coordinator in an organization called Social Justice Leadership that trained organizers in leadership development and political strategy. They were into connecting personal and social transformation. They were also in partnership with generative somatics, which, as I’ve said, is where I got and continue to get my training and support.

Initially I was skeptical of somatics. I was concerned it might just be some hokey New Age thing, some bland and typical Orientalist American appropriation of healing modalities from around the world. I really got hooked when I realized how deep, pragmatic and effective somatics was, how it acknowledged its syncretic and at times yes appropriative lineage, but leveraged these for change rather than being stuck and made small by those contradictions.

I noticed how much people felt impacted by the work and how it seemed to support collective group dynamics to be more communicative, less conflict averse, more connected and resilient and therefore more brave and drama-free. We need to build democratic power in this country to push back against incredibly repressive and unequal forces in structures and in individuals who embody those structures too. We need to build each other up to embody more transformative values.

Arguably, I’m still in training. My main teachers whom I should shout out are Staci Haines, Spenta Kandawalla and Richard Strozzi, all of whom are incredible human beings and mind-blowing teachers. It’s hard for me to express how grateful I am to them. There are many others I’ve learned from and practiced or taught with. Most of us have been all up in each other’s tissues, so to speak. I’ve trained alongside them to develop my skills as a practitioner and body worker. I’ve also had my own one on one work with practitioners over the years and I try to stay connected through supervision. As a practitioner, I work mostly with community organizers and social justice workers. I teach generative somatics courses sometimes, but really I love to be a student whenever resources allow me to do so.

As a practitioner, I abide by key frameworks such as the arc of transformation, which leads people through a process and practice of self awareness of default habits and conditioned tendencies and into opening and shifting towards a more intentional way of being, an embodied selfhood that is more congruent with their values and social purpose.

Centering is the foundational, building block practice of developing eased up internal room and a home base to return to in the body when we’re thrown off by life or react out of proportion, which happens often, whether we’re traumatized or not. We center through building awareness of muscles and breath and mood in a given moment, inviting people to notice how we habitually hold ourselves, feel or react and move, how that connects to the conditioned stories we tell ourselves about who we are. At the same time, we encourage them to imagine and slowly feel their concrete embodiment of seemingly abstract concepts like a sense of dignity in their bodily length, a capacity for connection in their physical width and time, pace or wisdom in their depth. They acknowledge their mood and connect to their purpose or what they care about or long to embody. When repeated as a practice, this provides an internal structure for a body to come back to and slows down reactions over time. It’s a way of getting people’s actions to be more congruent with their values. The elements and principles of centering also extend to other practices in pragmatic social skills like centered boundaries, requests, and offers or centering in transition or coordination, for example.

These practices and others that a practitioner guides a client in don’t really stand as isolated ones but build on one another as part of the arc of transformation, which can almost be like a plan or a program for a person seeking somatic healing to embody what they long to. We keep training and re-training bodies that the discomfort of feeling more is not necessarily dangerous and that it gets us feeling more of what we really want out of ourselves.

Somatics is relational in its healing. Most people want to trust more, to cherish their own worth, to love better, to be more loved, to be more at ease and worry less, to imagine more for themselves and society. Most have to feel more in order to do that. Some feel too much and in that case long to regulate their emotions more. Feeling can be scary or at least that’s what we’ve been told, or have experienced through violation or violence, and often believe. Traumatic symptoms can make feeling terrifying and unwieldy. So there’s all of that to contend with.

On top of that, you really don’t have to do any of this as a human—you do not have to delve into feelings. Many of us live our whole lives that way, feel safer that way. It’s a choice. It all depends on how much of yourself you want more of and that you want others to engage with more meaningfully. Hence the practice to gently build a home base in the body, to retrain some of those psycho-biological pathways, to gradually shrink our little smoke alarm amygdalas or warning signals in the brain so we can have access to more of who we are and our purpose, even under pressures and extreme duress.

Then there’s bodywork, the crux of somatic opening work, which involves a practitioner working with the connective tissues of a client, softening up any historical protectiveness and armoring, allowing for more release and possibility in the tissues. It’s not massage but happens with the practitioner applying contact while a client is lying down. It can involve breath patterns and conversation as well. There’s active collaboration between practitioner and client while the body is in what we call a more limbic state, more emotionally open. People can have a lot of emotional and physical sensation and memory rise up during bodywork. It opens the body up to more of itself. As Staci says, it’s about working through the body, not on the body. Staci is coming out with a book soon about all of her wisdom on this and the wisdom of many others doing this work. It’s going to be phenomenal. All of us in the field, especially those who have experienced her teaching in courses, are really excited for it.

Overall, somatic practitioner training and development involves a particular development of perception that is part cognitive, aware of interpersonal and structural power dynamics, and very intuitive and sensory. It’s also about getting yourself out the way so you can tune in to bodies and assess the emotional life happening under the skin. It involves training this intuitive listening just as much if not more than one’s cognitive understanding and also cultivating one’s own healing and embodiment as a practitioner.

I regard myself as a student in a very young, syncretic field that has to maintain humility and humor and experiment rigorously in order to do justice to people who seek out emotional healing. I also try to study a range of psychological and philosophical traditions alongside political theory. You’ve been to my office—you know I like to read. I think those of us interested in the lineages and innovations of somatics at this moment in history or in how we galvanize humanity towards becoming a better species-being, as Marx would say, need to stay smart and rigorous and funny and loving all at once to become a collective body that’s a healing force to be reckoned with. I personally like to practice a balance of irreverence and irony with sincerity and principle. It’s solid goth punk witch stuff. I engage wonder and compassion as best as I can with no gurus or silver bullets.

Copyright: Jason Tougaw

Gerald Edelman Scans My Brain: A Fantasy

 

Sometimes when I write, the combo of daydreamy thinking and poking at a keyboard conjures fantasies I never knew I had. That happened a lot when I was writing The One You Get. That’s partly why I wrote an eight-hundred page draft–five-hundred pages too many. A lot of the fantasies got cut. Sometimes I like to retrieve and update them. They feel like a record of somebody I used to be. I wouldn’t have this fantasy now. It would have morphed. Note: I realize comparing myself to Einstein is both fantastical and arrogant. But all the self-help books for dyslexic people reassure us that we’re like Einstein! The reality is I was grasping–really graspoing–for any distinction that would help me escape the world I found myself in as a kid. That grasping lasted well past childhood.

***

I’m worried because my butt’s asleep. We’re taking a field trip to the aquarium at Scripps–the famous science place near Torrey Pines.

If you grow up in San Diego, you just call it Scripps, even though so many places are called Scripps, including the hospital where I was born. This is because a philanthropist named Ellen Browning Scripps used a lot of her money for good in the early part of the twentieth century.

Diane’s in the seat next to me. She keeps holding her cupped hand to my ear to whisper as we bounce on our bumpy green vinyl seats. “Crispin smells. Look at him. You can tell from here.” Crispin is all the way at the back of the bus, but I can’t look because I’m trying to think my butt awake, to prove I’m not paralyzed. I keep picturing everybody filing off the bus, Diane trying to push me into the aisle or squeeze past me, yelling, “Mr. Warfel, Jason is paralyzed. Mr. Warfel. Mr. Warfel.” I keep wondering why Mr. Warfel is taking us. He’s not even our teacher anymore. But everything has been new since the divorce. Stanley isn’t around to call me a faggot; Aaron no longer chases me with baseball bats.

The bus slows. We’re in a Eucalyptus forest. You can smell clean lemon. “We’re here, we’re here,” kids begin to chant. “We’re here.”

“Hold your horses,” Mr. Warfel says. “It’ll be a few minutes before we reach the aquarium.” The aquarium, we’ve been learning, is one of the most advanced in the world, right here in San Diego. Some of the most famous scientists who study the ocean work here. Mr. Warfel has arranged a private tour .

The bus comes to a stop in front of a flat-roofed building made of gray-beige concrete interrupted every ten feet or so by vertical strips of tinted glass. The entrance is three revolving doors, same tinted glass. “Okay, single file and wait in line by the doors,” Mr. Warfel says. Kids rise and walk, row by row. My butt tingles and prickles , but I can move my legs. I must be walking funny, but even Diane, right behind me, says nothing. She never says nothing, so there must, to my amazement, be nothing to say.

I descried the Scripps Research Institute from memory. It’s way more elegant than I seem to have noticed as a kid.

Before I know it, we’re filing through the black glass doors, which revolve so fast they almost push you. From behind the bar where he works, without knowing it’s really happening, Stanley daydreams this spectacle, with a secret eye buried in a dark spot on his soul. The scene, set to a Pink Floyd soundtrack, “We don’t need to education / We don’t need no thought control,” registers as an itch in one of his internal organs.

Inside, the lobby is the same brown-grey concrete. We can no longer stand single file because the room is too small, so we form an egg-shaped mob. For some reason I’m in front, with my best friend Paul on one side and Diane on the other. Mr. Warfel faces us, wearing that loose, bright-colored shirt he bought on a trip to Kenya. “Let’s just wait a few minutes for our guide,” he says. “I’m sure he’ll be here in a minute.”

We’re a bored mob. It wouldn’t occur to us to register Mr. Warfel’s nervous glances toward the hallways on either end of our egg. It’s hard to imagine those halls leading to aquariums big enough for sharks, but it’s hard to imagine aquariums big enough for sharks even existing, so what’s the difference?
Paul whispers in my ear, “Did you notice Diane is acting weird.” Little whispers like this are starting to rise from our egg-mob like little puffballs.

“Quiet down,” Mr. Warfel says. “Here he is.”

A man nearly as tall as Mr. Warfel, with deep black hair, thin on top and swept over his skull, dressed in a three-quarter length lab coat, emerges from one of the hallways. I’m not good at telling right from left, so I have a game to figure it out. The hallway is on the same side as the scar on my stomach, which is on the right. But if I’m facing the hallways, does that make it right or left? I’m concentrating on the problem hard enough not to see the confused squishy face Mr. Warfel makes when the man in the coat approaches. “Hello, I’m Dr. Gerald Edelman,” he says. “I’ll be leading the demonstration today.” Mr. Warfel says something to him in a whisper. The man in the lab coat must feel Mr. Warfel’s warm breath clouds on his neck, on his ear. Right ear or left?

For the record, I have never met Gerald Edelman. This is a fantasy.

I catch only the last few words of the man in the lab coat’s reply: “just fine, you’ll see.” Mr. Warfel adjusts his position so that he is standing directly beside the man and announces, “Okay, class, this is Dr. Gerald Edelman. He is the Director of The Neuroscience Institute and Founder of the Neurosciences Research Foundation. He’s a very famous scientist. In fact, he won the Nobel Prize, the biggest prize a scientist can win. So listen carefully to what he has to say.

“Thank you, Mr. Warfel, for that introduction. Now, kids, follow me. We’re going to learn something about our brains today.”

Our brains? Our egg-mob wrestles with this one. Our brains? What about sharks? We’re in the wrong building. We’ve been hijacked by a neuroscientist. Even Mr. Warfel is confused.

We line up behind our two tall dark-haired leaders, because it’s the only thing we can do. We don’t need no education. Stanley would say we  definitely do not need no thought control. He tried really hard to get my mom to keep Aaron and me from going to school. Maybe this was the day he was so worried aobut.

Behind the bar, Stanley feels a pinch in his gall bladder. We march, single file down the hallway from which Dr. Edelman emerged. Is it right or left? It feels like a good idea to memorize the way out. The hall’s dimly lit and curves like it’s leading to a cave in the building’s core. Teachers leave them kids alone. Stanley’s small intestine seizes. Finally we reach a set of double doors made in that same brown-black glass. “This way,” Dr. Edelman says, holding the door, ushering us . Hey, teachers. Stanley’s liver convulses like a fish laying on a hot pier with a hook through its jaw.

The room is full of equipment painted beige, with black control knobs and colored lights with long words spelled out beneath them. We reconstitute our egg-mob, and Mr. Warfel joins it. Dr. Edelman stands next to a machine that looks like a hair dryer for aliens from the future who want to take over the planet. It has a black leather seat, stirrups, a harness of body belts, and a beige dome big enough to be pitch black inside. “Now, where is Jason Messin?” Dr. Edelman says. This is still my name, despite the divorce.

Nobody says anything until Mr. Warfel puts a hand on my shoulder. Every now and then he’ll touch me like this. I want to crawl on his shoulders and run away with him when he does. But this time, the touch is  more  push than comfort, a hand that says with gentle force, “I love you, but you must do this, even though walking out of the egg mob and toward Dr. Edelman is scrambling your insides until they’re nothing but hard chunks of yellow yoke better for eating than walking or talking or sleeping or running. You must go.”

With Mr. Warfel’s hand as my guide I take four slow steps forward, until Dr. Edelman’s hand on my other shoulder. Right or left? This hand spins me right round until I am facing my classmates.  I don’t see them, though–not even Paul or Diane. I see red and white stripes, a curve of light reflecting blonde hair, blue tennies with white laces, a plaid triangle with a pearly button at the tip. I see Mr. Warfel’s knees, and I can’t tell if they’re really shaking or if they look that way because I am.

“Take a seat,” Dr. Edelman says, shifting my body to face the alien hair dryer. “Just climb right up. This is going to be a lot of fun,” he says, grabbing me by the waist and lifting me into the hair dryer. Plop. My butt, I notice, is awake now. “I’m going to fasten these straps around you, but don’t worry. It’s just to keep you still while the fMRI does its job.” I hear a series of snaps, like seat belts and the whir of the dome descending. Then it’s all black. I’m alone, pure ether. For a second this feels like relief, but then I start seeing strips of pink ribbon in the black. I want to run, like I do in my dreams, run so hard that chaos drives out the panic, like a Dungeons and Dragons warrior vanquishing a monster.

“This machine,” I hear Dr. Edelman say from outside the dome, “is called an fMRI—Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging machine. This is a special treat, because it will be several years before the device is even invented and several more before it is widely used. You are seeing something no one has ever seen before, something that doesn’t even exist yet. We use the device to examine brains in motion. Take a look at that screen,” he says. “That’s Jason’s brain. It’s a very special brain. But, then, every brain is very special. Some might call Jason’s brain Dyslexic, but that wouldn’t be quite right. See how the brain has these two identical hemispheres—right and left?”

“Yes,” the egg-mob says. I hear Mr. Warfel’s voice in it, deeper than the rest.

“Well, everybody’s two hemisphere’s work a little differently. We’re born with unique brains, and they become more unique as time passes. The more we live, the more our brains develop their own patterns. These patterns make us who we are. Mr. Warfel noticed that Jason was having trouble with reading. When I look at these scans, because I’m trained to read them, I can see that Jason sees, and probably hears, feels, tastes, and smells, a little differently from most of us. Einstein thought this way too. You might call it ‘creative perception’. A person like Jason, or Einstein, might look at a picture or a sentence and see something altogether different from what we see. In Jason, this talent has been developing since he was a fetus in the womb.

If you had a record of his brain activity from the time he went through the birth canal—when he fed from his mother’s breast in Del Mar; as he lay in the back seat of the gold-brown car and listened to his mother and father scream at each other; as he lay in the crib breathing his dad’s second-hand pot smoke; the moment he first set eyes on his stepfather Stanley; and every time Stanley dunked him in freezing water after he wet the bed—if you had all this data, you could chart the development of his unique brain functions. You could see neurons that went unused either branching to form new, more active synapses or simply dying. You could see the cortical activity required to learn complex tasks, like crawling or walking, transferring to subcortical regions as walking and talking became automatic behaviors. And, of course, that’s just the beginning.”

“Now, kids, think about some of your own experiences. These work for you just like Jason’s do for him. They shape your brain. You may not understand all this now, but just think about one thing. No two brains are exactly the same, and every brain changes constantly. Now, give it up for Jason Messin for helping us with the demonstration.”

The egg-mob applauds. They have seen my brain. I may be Messy mess messed up Messin, but perhaps that doesn’t mean exactly what we thought it did.

***

In the real world, Neurobiologist Gerald Edelman, the Director of The Neuroscience Institute and Founder of the Neurosciences Research Foundation, both in at the Institute in La Jolla, California, won the Nobel prize for his work on immune systems in the 1970s. His Theory of Neuronal Group Selection (TNGS), or Neural Darwinism, is the most influential explanation of brain function in decades. Edelman’s theory explains the unique synaptic patterns that undergird each person’s mind, and ultimately identity, according to the tenets of natural selection. Certain neuronal patterns or groupings, he argues, get reinforced or selected, because they are, for a variety of reasons, more functional than others.

A baby’s brain starts out with more neuronal connections than an adult’s. The synapses fire too much and too often, making it difficult to sort through all the stimulus. So, experience and biology converge to produce a limited set of functional responses. They number in the billions, of course, and they remain dynamic throughout the life of the organism, but the limits are important. They enable us to perceive and act as individuals. There are three important brain functions that drive neuronal group selection.

According to TNGS, each brain’s system of networks is uniquely sculpted to link an organism’s traits to each other—so that a reluctance to display emotion, a tendency to perceive shapes oddly, a vigilance for potential threat, and empathy for insects are traits embedded in each other. It makes no sense to name one a deficit and another a strength because they shape each other. To enhance or quiet a trait, the network as a whole must be taken into consideration.

Nanny, Who Was Also Midge, Who Was Also Jessie Magdalene

 

Jessie Magdalene MacDonnell
April 13, 1922 – October 1998

The MacDonnell house is average in size for Nova Scotia. Its two stories are chopped into six tiny bedrooms, a kitchen, bathroom, and sitting room—a tight fit for Daniel, Bridget, and their thirteen children. Even the cliff on which the house teeters and the jagged cove below are standard. Scots who settled this spot three generations ago, the MacDonnells tend toward square jaws and pronounced noses, thick dark hair, narrow brows, and deep set eyes.

But their youngest, Jessie Magdalene, is different, more delicate, like she has been sculpted from the raw materials of MacDonnell genes, scraped and smoothed so that her jaw became a gentle curve rather than a point, her nose definitive but not obtrusive. Her hair is just as dark and thick as theirs, but its curls shine and bounce instead of tangling. Where their skin is rugged pale, hers is soft pink. The almost-transparent blue eyes they all share are inched forward on her brow, just enough to transform character into undeniable beauty. She is as quiet as the rest of them, but she lacks the physical stature that propels her parents and siblings through their world. Her way is less clear.

Jessie Magdalene, born three days earlier, on April 13, 1922, will grow up to be Midge. In 1960, a reporter from Coronet magazine writing a feature on her husband, jockey Ralph Neves, will say of her that, “caught off guard, her eyes are haunted.” She wasn’t born with the ghosts, but she had room for them in the empty space where what was carved out would have been.

One night that April, the house is dark, until the fire starts to blaze in one of the bedrooms, lighting the hall outside and even the kitchen at the other end in jittery oranges. A candle toppled onto the sheets of Alice’s bed, in the room she shares with her sister Florence. Daniel, a fisherman, is at sea. He hasn’t met his newest daughter. By the time Florence is able to find Bridget, pluck her infant sister’s lips from her breast, and get back to Alice’s room, there is so much fire they can’t see the bed. Alice is unmistakably there, among the flames, but nobody hears her scream. The eleven remaining kids form an assembly line, filling pots of water, carting them from the kitchen, and dousing Alice’s bed. After twenty minutes of this, the fire is out, but Alice is dead. The smoke killed her, and her charry body makes it hard to believe she hasn’t suffered. If pain is extreme enough, Bridget heard a priest say once, it tries the soul. Such trials separate the saints from the sinners. At thirteen, Alice was the third child. Now Jessie Magdalene is the youngest of twelve.

Two nights later, Daniel’s ship is navigating the mouth of the harbor, when a twelve-year-old apprentice on deck sharpening knives spots what he will later describe as a night rainbow emerging from the MacDonnell house. “Come quick,” he calls the other seven members of the crew, “come quick.” It turns out there is no hurry. The tunnel of ethereal light swirls and glitters like God for a solid two hours while the crew lets the little ship drift. “Jesus, Mary, and Joseph,” Daniel says, “you can’t tell if it begins in Heaven and spills into my house or the other way round.”

Daniel doesn’t find out the night rainbow was Alice’s soul until he arrives home. When he meets his new daughter, he can see a glint of the swirling tunnel in her eyes. Some of that ether spilled into them, planting a playful eeriness. Jessie Magdalene discovers her fate. She will carry whatever haunts other people.

 

This is a deleted scene from my memoir, The One You Get: Portrait of a Family Organism.

Bowie’s Duet with Himself

I made my first infographic. Or a stab at one. My students are making some, so I thought I should try it too. My students didn’t know Bowie’s “A Space Oddity.” I tried to hide my shock. But now they know a lot about it.

Bowie recorded “A Space Oddity”  in 1968. It was his first real hit record–in 1969 in Britain and 1972 in the U.S. Famously, it tells the story of Major Tom, a fictional version of an early astronaut. In 1961, the first human, Russian Yuri Gagarin, traveled to space and orbited the earth. After that, the Americans and the Russians entered a “space race,” vying for a series of firsts, including getting a human to the surface of the moon.

Bowie wrote his first hit in response to the space race–and Stanley Kubrick’s film 2001: A Space Odyssey.* I started my infographic to test a hypothesis: Bowie used the eeriness of the first humans in space as an early experiment with performing as a persona. Throughout his career, he’d become famous for his theatrical personas, including Ziggy Stardust, The Thin White Duke, and Alladin Sane. I learned from Chris O’Leary’s detailed analysis of the track that it was originally written as a duet. When he recorded it, Bowie turned it into a duet with himself.

Through the process of composing the infographic, I became more convinced the song is a duet between Bowie and Bowie. But the experiment is more complex than I imagined at first. The second line of colored bars represents the song’s narrators, or personas. Blue is the operator at Ground Control, and pink Major Tom “floating in his tin can.” The purple bar represents a second hypothesis. After Major Tom sings “Tell my wife I love her very much, she knows,” the persona shifts. At first it seems obvious that Ground Control sings the heartbreaking second half of the verse: “Your circuit’s dead, there’s something wrong / Can you hear me Major Tom?” But what if both narrators are singing? What if Major Tom is singing along with Ground Control? While Ground Control addresses these panicked messages to him, Major Tom joins in. “She knows” might signal the fact that his wife knows he loves her AND that she’s heard the news that something has gone horribly wrong. This is interpretive speculation, but if it’s true, the double narrators amplify the deep sadness of the story. Major Tom sings with full awareness that nobody on earth can hear him.

Throughout his career, Bowie was reverent about well-crafted pop songs; he also loved to experiment with form. You can already see that with “A Space Oddity.” The verses are catchier than the chorus. We get two full verses and a bridge before the chorus even comes in. Bowie is subtly upending the logic of the traditional pop hit, partly to emphasize the dialogue, or duet, between Ground Control and Major Tom. Some of the complexities of the method become clear when you examine his various approaches to the vocal. The melody evolves from verse to verse. The first begins low and mysterious. After the first few lines, he doubles his voice, alternating harmony with singing the same melody in two octaves. The higher parts presage the higher, more emotive vocal of the B verse. In the C verse, the harmony continues for the first half, but then fades, with an intimate delivery of the line “Tell my wife I love her very much.” After this, the vocal is doubled again–this time in unison, duplicating the same melody. There’s a full two minutes of music after the final verse. As the vocal fades, his duet with himself feels unresolved as it’s overtaken by the chaos of the instrumental outro. Like Major Tom and Ground Control, we don’t know what’s going to become of the astronaut in his “tin can,” but the signs are not good.

*A literary note: Kubrick’s title is a play on Homer’s The Odyssey. He takes the classic tale of a warrior’s journey and gives it a bleak, futuristic twist. Bowie substitutes the soundalike, “oddity,” a wry contribution to literary history in keeping with his various outsized personas.

Acknowledgements

Chris O’Leary’s analysis of “A Space Oddity,” on his blog Pushing Ahead of the Dame, Bowie Song by Song, helped me understand the structure of the song. I got inspiration for the form of my infographic from Ethan Hein’s “track analysis” of Childish Gambino’s “This Is America.” 

Check out the song yourself. If you have other interpretations, I’d love to hear about them in the Comments section. Watching Bowie perform it is pretty moving.

A couple of quick announcements: There’s a giveaway in effect for The One You Get. If you enter, you have a chance to win a free copy. Everybody’s favorite online behemoth bookseller is also offering a discount.

Also, this really nice review of The Elusive Brain is just out, in Choice magazine:

The elusive brain : literary experiments in the age of neuroscience

Tougaw, Jason. Yale, 2018

Tougaw (Queens College) ably surveys an array of contemporary literary forms that in one way or another emphasize the brain, among them “brain memoirs,” “neuronovels,” and “neurocomics.” In each chapter, he focuses closely on key passages from a small number of representative works in each form: e.g., Temple Grandin’s memoir of autism; Jonathan Lethem’s Motherless Brooklyn, a first-person novel narrated by Lionel Essrog, who suffers verbal outbursts and bodily tics brought on by Tourette’s; and Ellen Forney’s graphic memoir Marbles, which illustrates her attempts to cope with her diagnosis of bipolar disorder. Collectively, such works—and Tougaw, for that matter—make a case for “neurodiversity”: i.e., what some consider a crippling condition can at times be used to great advantage (e.g., Essrog, a detective, is able to glean clues and interview more capably because of his condition). Fundamental antecedents discussed in Tougaw’s volume include the works of Oliver Sacks, whose psychiatric profiles provided starting points for efforts by Lethem and others. Tougaw knows his literary history, and he is expert at citing lineage (e.g., Cervantes, Sterne, Poe, and James for the neuronovel). This is a brilliant, readable work of scholarship.

Summing Up: Highly recommended. Upper-division undergraduates through faculty.

Psyched

I have a new column on Psychologytoday.com, The Elusive Brain: Literature and Culture in the Age of Neuroscience. I’ll be writing about what literary writers contribute to conversations about the brain, mind, psychology, consciousness, and mental health. I’m pretty excited about it.

Jimsom Weed

My mom and her friend Voly, eighteen to her sixteen, got a recipe for jimson weed tea from this guru beach bum named Al. “He just got out of the loony bin,” Voly whispered to Cathy. My mom has always hung out with guys more than girls. She just gets along with them.

“The stuff is all over, just off the beach,” Al said. “You see it poking out of people’s fences. This tea is gonna blow your minds.”

Three hours later, the tea drunk, Cathy’s in her room in her house on 19th Street, hiding. Her friends call the house the mausoleum, because it’s a tall stucco rectangle that isn’t even tiny bit beachy. A yellow circus truck pulls into the driveway, a grinning clown as big as a car painted on its side. Thirty men with machine guns rush out of the car and surround the Mausoleum, climbing its sides like ants. “Cathy, open up,” Doug says, knocking. “Cathy, Voly’s mom called. Let me in. I’m coming in.”

The room appears empty. Doug pokes around and spots Cathy in the closet, all wrapped around herself, a fetus, her head swallowed by the dangling bottoms of blouses and skirts and pants. “Cathy, get out of there. Voly’s in the hospital.”

“Voly, get in here,” she says to him. “They’re almost here. Get in here. They’re on the walls, right outside the window. I don’t know what they’re waiting for. Voly, I mean it.”

“Cathy, I am not Voly,” he says. “Midge,” he calls downstairs. “You gotta see this.”

“Voly,” is all Cathy says.

“Cathy, listen to me,” Midge says, “Voly is not here. He’s in the hospital, getting his stomach pumped. We know about the gypsum weed.”

“Cathy, how are you feeling?”

“How do you think? They’re gonna kill us.”

“Should we go to the hospital?” Midge asks Doug.

“Nah, just let her sweat it out.” Doug walks to the closet. “Listen, Hon, take your head out of those clothes and talk to me.”

She decides to trust him, for a second. She pokes her head out and reaches an arm toward him. As her finger grazes his leg—poof, he disintegrates—leaving just a pile of dust on the floor. The circus militia finally storms through the windows. They stand around the room with their guns and make Cathy stay in the closet, a gun to her head, for several hours.

Seeing that Cathy hasn’t moved, and that she seems to be sweating it out, Midge and Doug go to bed. Just after four in the morning, they hear a slam, a screech, and the sound of a body stumbling. When they get to her room, Cathy’s outside, on the tiny third-floor terrace, trying to climb off it. “Cathy, get in here. Now,” Midge says.

“They’re almost here,” Cathy says, in tears. “They’re going to kill Bruce.”

“Who?”

“Bruce is one of the circus guys. He helped me. He made sure they didn’t shoot me. The cops are coming to kill him. We’ve gotta get out.”

Doug pulls Cathy inside, puts her on the bed, and talks. Eventually she sleeps. At 7:30 am, Midge pokes in. “Cathy, you’re going to school. Get up.”

“Okay,” she says.

Ten minutes later, checking on the status of things, Midge finds Cathy in her brother Craig’s closet. “I can’t find any of my clothes,” she says.

“Jesus Christ,” she says, to Doug, who’s too far away to hear. “Look at her. This child cannot go to school.” Cathy spends the day at home, with resigned Midge. Her first bout of paranoia fades, but the experience stays with her, close to consciousness, for the rest of her life. Five decades later, hospitalized and drugged, she’ll experience a nearly identical hallucination, this time with doctors and nurses in the role of the captors.

 

An outtake from The One You Get: Portrait of a Family Organism

A Couple of Announcements

My essay about my enduring crush on the life and writing of Christopher Isherwood is out today on Literary Hub.

My book The Elusive Brain is out now, with Yale University Press.

“A remarkably sane book. Tougaw’s analyses show a supple and adroit mind at work.”
—N. Katherine Hayles, author of Unthought: The Power of the Cognitive Nonconscious

“This excellent book on the relationship between the brain and experimental literature weaves together original and compelling intellectual strands that ultimately have much to say about not only contemporary neuroliterary work, but also about our present moment. With rigor and originality, Tougaw paves the way for a new type of thinking that will push the boundaries of multidisciplinary investigation.”—Sebastian Groes, University of Wolverhampton, UK

“Through his astute analysis of the literature that has come in the wake of neuromania, Tougaw deftly undermines the schisms that usually plague debates about psyche, soma, and world to reveal the complex ambiguities in both the science and the art of the brain.”
—Siri Hustvedt, author of A Woman Looking at Men Looking at Women

The Elusive Brain is a stunning book that does more than bridge literary studies and the neurosciences. This book uses contemporary literature and culture to explore the deepest questions raised by 21st century understandings of the brain and the nervous system. Readers of literature, cultural studies, philosophy, psychology and neuroscience will be fascinated by this interdisciplinary study of the brain, self and culture.”
—Victoria Pitts-Taylor, author of The Brain’s Body

“Tougaw’s provocative deep dive into the burgeoning genre of literature informed by brain science — from ‘neuronovels’ to autistic autobiographies and beyond — should be of interest to anyone concerned with the essential questions of what makes us human, how we narrate our own experience, and the shifting boundaries of brain, mind, self, and society.”
—Steve Silberman, author of NeuroTribes: The Legacy of Autism and the Future of Neurodiversity

 

Top Ten Family Deaths–Real, Near, and Imagined

10. 1959. Thirty years into his career as a notoriously reckless jockey, my grandpa, Ralph Neves, survives a severe brain injury, his life saved by surgery and a metal plate where a portion of his skull used to be. This is his third near-death experience.

9. 1922. Nanny—Midge to her friends—was born Jessie Magdalena MacDonnell, in Nova Scotia, the youngest of thirteen kids. Three days after her birth, her sister Alice died after a candle caught some sheets on fire. Bridgett, Nanny’s mother, saved her sister Florence but couldn’t reach Alice in time. Daniel, her father, was a fisherman, was at sea, just returning home. He and the crew saw a tunnel of glittering light shining from the vicinity of the house up through the heavens.

8. Ca. 1940. Ralph was riding in the cavalry, preparing for war, somewhere near Stockton. He fell off his horse and suffered a spinal injury, nearly dying for the second time. Nanny, who’d refused to marry him before this, spent months nursing him back to riding shape and followed him to the altar.

7. 1968. My mom and her friend thought it would be fun to try gypsum weed. You could pick it right from people’s yards. She ended up in her closet, hiding from the FBI agents she was sure had climbed to the roof, ready to storm in and kill her.

6. 2003. Summer died with heroin and meth in her blood. We don’t know much more than that. She’d been our neighbor as kids and moved in with my family during high school. We shared a room and a bed.

5. 2011. They found my father’s body in a drugstore parking lot. After decades of surviving as a junky, the toxicology report found no heroin in his blood. They found a lot of alcohol and other drugs. He was looking for heroin, but nobody would give it to hm.

4. 1982. Nanny and I find my mom after my aunt (and maybe some others) have bandaged her wrists. The blood seeps through the bandages and the misery through her tears.

3. 1977. Our Black Lab Mona “went to live on a farm” after she dug up 100 hits of acid buried on our property, became psychotic, killed some angora rabbits, attacked some cops, and terrified by grandmother with her furious fangs.

2. 1968. Nanny and her boyfriend Doug drove my mom to Tijuana for the abortion. At the last minute, she refused. So I didn’t die, but I can’t help imagining what would have become of my fetus if my mom had gone along with it—which would have been a rational thing to do.

1. 1936. Ralph, a nineteen-year-old wunderkind, behaves badly on the track, eager to win $500 and Bing Crosby’s gold watch. He’s thrown, rushed to the hospital, and pronounced dead. The mood is solemn at the track after the announcement—until Ralph shows up, in his hospital gown, running around the infield, bloody and battered. A doctor friend had decided to try a shot of adrenaline, for the hell of it.

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