A Hell of Mercy by Tim Farrington

This post originally appeared on I Read Everything

Books: A Hell of Mercy: A Meditation on Depression and the Dark Night of the Soul

Author: Tim Farrington

Type of Book: Memoir, psychology, mental health, spiritual

Why Did I Read This Book: Not long ago, I reached a place of acceptance wherein I will no longer battle my darkness. It’s a choice that is so intensely personal and specific that no one who suffers from depression should look to my decision as any sort of guidance or advocacy. But because I have decided to simply be a person who is isolated, weird and dark rather than fight it with therapy or medication any longer, I find other people’s mental health voyages fascinating.

Availability: Published by Harper Collins in 2009, you can get a copy here:

Comments: This was an erudite, elegant book and I am glad I read it. As I read it, I found myself questioning decisions I have made about my own brain chemistry, and after reevaluation, I decided my impulse to simply leave my brain alone and let it be, treatable illness though I may have, was the correct decision. Reading Farrington’s journey, his spiritual outlook on life and the chemicals in his brain, served for me, a decidedly non-spiritual person, as a fresh and very nearly inspiring look into how it is all people with depressive tendencies can interpret their disease and their lives without recrimination or guilt. Farrington recounted his life with phrases that all but hit me in the head with meaning, and I had “aha!” moments constantly in this book. There is very little in common between Farrington in me aside from wonky chemical reactions that affect our minds, so the ability of his words to affect me and touch me seem almost miraculous.

So this is an intensely personal reaction to a book, less a review than a discussion of how the book affected me. It would help to bear that in mind as you read, because I really did find myself overwhelmed at times at how eloquently Farrington put into sharp focus all the words I have bouncing in my skull but have been unable to express. This is one of those books I read and think, “I could have written this,” but that is untrue. I could not have written this. I’m not enlightened enough yet and my heart will never be this spiritual. Nevertheless, it was the right book for me to read at the right time.

Farrington conveyed very well not only how it is that we can never truly see mental illness coming, but that being smart enough even to have known it was coming for us would not have been enough and perhaps that is a good thing.

My cluelessness, I see in retrospect, conferred a certain advantage on me. If we were smart, we might never become wise.

And god help me, how many times did I justify myself, sanctify the worst of my tirades as if having brain chemistry problems excused it.

…I came to see depression as my shadow on the path; like the “black dog” of Churchill’s recurrent blues, it was an inescapable presence. My lows could be debilitating, but they also seemed intimately related to my creativity itself and so were slightly glamorous, like Hemingway’s alcoholism and Dostoyevsky’s epilepsy. But my art at this time was self-indulgent stuff at best, and I invoked it much too readily to justify failures of character.

I can’t even begin to explain how many times I have excused my poor behavior because I have an “artistic” temperament and how many times my husband clung to that mental raft every time my rages sent him out to sea. This, more than any other, is the area wherein I feel guilt about being a depressive, and it helps that Farrington explained my own foibles to me so well. Interestingly, about the time I began to reject such thinking is the time I stopped being able to write fiction. I lack the will to investigate this cause-effect very carefully but it does make it very hard to understand the link between what I perceive about myself and who I truly am. Surely my fiction cannot have just dried up because I rejected brain chemistry as a reason to continue acting poorly but you never know. All I know is that when I no longer saw magic in being as wretched as Baudelaire, my words dried up and I started writing about books instead of trying to write books.

But then again, what I had to write back then may not have been worth much. My first novel was a disaster, and Farrington seems to have had similar problems, because the seduction of being mad does not always imply genius, no matter what we try to tell ourselves.

…I ended up writing an incredibly pretentious novel, a sort of first-person anti-Gospel: “My name is Jesus. I am an old man now,” it began. Yikes.

The book was bad, but it was good in the sense of being better than suicide, and after a while the voices faded to a dim roar and I began to write merely puerile bad novels in a more standard fashion…

His description of a time in which he submerged himself into the darkness, searching for answers, will ring utterly true to those who have observed my own depressive antics.

I was living on cornflakes and macaroni and cheese, and I was pretty whacked-out. I didn’t talk to anyone for months and slept on my own eccentric schedule – approximately a twenty-five-hour day, cycling gradually through all manner of weird wake-up times. I had a half-serious theory that I was actually from another planet that had a longer day and that therefore my diurnal clock was unfitted to the Earth’s twenty-four-hour rotation..

Medications never blunted my creativity like they did with Farrington, probably because I am largely unsuited to psycho-pharmacology. That which calms most minds will leave me hearing voices. If it makes a person drowsy, I will be climbing the walls. But his experience is a common one, I think.

Still, one cannot stray far from what passes for normal consciousness in our culture without encountering the guardian deities of medication. At that point in the late seventies, lithium was the state-of-the-art antidepressant, and the perverse simplicity of the notion that a minuscule failure of electrolytic salt lay at the root of my intricate suffering was almost dizzying. I tried it briefly and found what every artist fears from psychiatry to be true: the drug interfered with my writing. I felt blunted and dim on lithium, displaced about three feet from the center of myself, a gray bystander to my essential life.

And have I ever felt that disembodied feeling, a numbness that permits observation but no immersion. A chemical meant to save your life but leaves you separated from all that makes life worth living. My chemical alienation lay mainly in benzos and pams, but I sense the feelings are often similar – not a new self but a novel, wooden ability not to care about the old self.

But much of what Farrington has to say does apply to those with a creative spirit.

Some people go back to school at that point, get their MFA, and eventually teach; some go into business and promise themselves they will write someday when they are financially secure. But I felt my own bridges back to such reassuring normality had burned long since, and, being the melodramatic mystical sort that I am, I went into a monastery instead.

This passage meant a lot to me, grad school dropout that I am. And I am definitely a person for whom bridges to normality have been burned. Some depressives sleep all day. My early depression manifested itself in insomnia that I would dose myself endlessly with pills and booze to try to counteract. My life became centered on a lack of sleep and the side-effects that endlessly chasing sleep causes. This sort of thing does not lend itself well to a 9-5 life and when you fail at job, after job, after job, eventually you just know better than to try any more. I luckily have a partner who takes up the financial slack and I make our domestic lives as easy as I can, a life that makes my sleep issues less of an issue, so to speak. I know there are lots of others out there like me, but they have kids a and firm financial obligations and they cope somehow, but in my case, not even the pressure of needing money overcame the haze of ten Tylenol PMs washed down with some gin. That’s a method of suicide to most people but for me it was just self-medication burning my bridges to reassuring normality. And sadly, there are no convents for atheist girls like me.

It’s not actually such a stretch to consider depression as an involuntary form of postmodern mortification, a salutary humiliation akin to a hair shirt… What if some degree of pained and penitential consciousness, of realized inadequacy in the light of the sacred, is in fact necessary to the full human life? Our depressions, which we labor so to cure before they disrupt our self-enclosed routines, may be nefarious blessings, gestures by our stymied souls toward the conscious embrace of helplessness and suffering.

This, for me, is a key passage, because I know full well to the bottom of my blackened heart, hermit that this disease has made me, that if I do have a soul, depression has softened it. Depression has, beyond a doubt, made me a kinder person. I see a man who probably drinks, asking for money and I give it because I know. I know that but for two strikes of luck in my life – my husband and my capacity to detox and make it stick – I could be standing there because addiction and depression hold each others hands. They switch back and forth, one leading to the other. It is a nefarious blessing, to know that you really are able to say, “There but for the grace of god go I,” and mean it, without any bitterness or arrogance towards those for whom the battle has led them down a far more bridge-burning road.

There are things you simply cannot prepare for. This is not something anyone really wants to hear. We spend our lives preparing; we stake our pride on mastering the troublesome aspects of our world. We study, we practice, we polish and adjust; even our earnest efforts to “go with the flow” and humbly surrender to the processes of a life force larger than ourselves are invariably suffused with a hidden agenda. If we are good, bad things will not happen; if we are good enough, our suffering will end.

When I was in high school, I knew depression intimately but no one really called it that back then. I knew it even if I didn’t have a name for it, the sinking sense that if I did not fight and flail I would sink down into the mud and no one would ever be able to save me. I joined every extracurricular activity I could. I was an honors student. I had a part-time job. I matched my shoes to my outfits and ironed my underwear. I internalized good as “middle class and going places” and I worked so hard to be good. To look good in my own way. To disavow the blackness around my lungs where I sensed my soul should be but wasn’t. I burned myself out being good, and it began to show in college. It really began to show in my 30s. There is no good enough for depression. There is no closet large enough, no shoes that gleam enough, no resume that wows enough. There is no way to prepare. Even as I gave up and went with the flow, the tiny goodnesses I managed to achieve – saving a cat or two, helping a neighbor’s child – were not enough to hold the badness at bay. This, I think, is the hardest lesson depression taught me: there is no way to prepare well enough to prevent the dark days from coming.

My life had always been peppered with black days, days in which taking a shower seemed far beyond my means, days in which I just hunkered down like a wounded beast and endured; I’d had black weeks and even the occasional black month. During a particularly trying time in the early nineties, I’d spent an entire summer staring at the blank cursor on my computer screen, as if at a receding satellite; unable to write a word.

My equivalent of this is spending all day long in bed reading Encyclopedia Dramatica. This is more or less how I spent the summer of 2009. And that is a measuring stick to me. When showering begins to seem like it is too much, too hard and too pointless, I know the depression is wrapping its hands around my neck.

“It is one of the paradoxes of transformation that the closer we get to new possibility, the worse things seem to seem,” Richard Moss writes in The Black Butterfly. In another of the paradoxes of transformation, however, I found no comfort at all in this notion. I was haunting the bookstores, looking desperately for some help, but the spiritual books all seemed like chatter now. The universe had simplified itself into a desert of meaningless suffering, and the wisest words were just marks on the bleached expanse. Joy, compassion, peace and the divine: yadda-yadda-yadda.

I think this sort of depressive nihilism is why I read so precisely the details of the saints, the ones who suffered and starved and found enlightenment through pain because I still am a nihilist myself. I cannot meditate. I know no god. This is not entirely depression’s fault. I never believed in the fantastic, the mystical. Santa Claus was always a man in a beard to me though I put on a good act as a child. I am not entirely sure I have a soul, though I know my dead cat did, and that my dead grandparents did. If nothing else, depression has separated me from any comfort or sense of salvation. But being a person shaped by depression, this bothers me a lot less than it probably should.

Nothing will screw you up more than a team of professionals determined to help you.

Except, perhaps, believing that therapy and medicine can offer us no help at all. The fact that you’re depressed doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re not going through a dark night, but it is just as true, and as crucial to know, that seeking therapy, or taking medication for a biochemical affliction, doesn’t necessarily mean you have subverted your spiritual process or numbed your reality sense with muffling anesthetics.

I sometimes wonder if I will ever return to psychotropics for cures. I let myself have a tiny dose of a relatively inoffensive substance (well, it is inoffensive to me) daily to keep the worst of the anxiety that the darkness causes me tamped down. But it is good to know that I am not the only person left who embraces an approach wherein we manage to keep ourselves whole however we can. Too many shun medications as weak and too many embrace them as all-encompassing panaceas. I hit a point wherein I believed continuing to seek medical answers to my brain problems would probably kill me as I am not that well suited to the trials and physical misery that comes from getting the biochemical solutions right. But even at the worst of it, I think my disappointment stemmed from knowing so many people find the right drug and that after years of experimenting with my brain, it was time to stop. There would be no cure, at least not then or now.

“At the first-order of experiential description,” Denys Turner notes in The Darkness of God, “John of the Cross’s accounts of the sufferings of the ‘dark nights of the soul’ are uncannily similar to what a person will give from the inside of depression.”

As alienated as I am from any spiritual leanings, I still hope that this darkness is but a journey toward salvation but at the same time, I don’t think it is. It has gone on too long, though St. Paul’s dark night of the soul lasted 45 years. Rather, I think that instead of preparing to stave it off, I simply know that it comes and that I need to understand it will come and go when it wants. I don’t think, as much as narratives like this stoke my heart, that this suffering of mine will lead me to god. And this lack of faith is why I read books like this.

It sounds bizarre, but I think the key point in the dark night is basically everything but this death being hell. I was still, silent, perfectly accepting at last, inwardly, only because it hurt so much to move. It didn’t feel good or holy or anything much, but it didn’t hurt. It was not peace, in any positive sense, at least not for a very long time, but it was quiet and painless, and for me at that point, after years of every spiritual effort causing only pain, frustration, dryness and inner noise, that quiet–not Quiet, just quiet–would do just fine.

And that is where I am now. In a place of quiet. I don’t go out of the house much. People set my teeth on edge, which is not a good thing since I have given myself a TMJ disorder grinding my teeth at night. I never talk much, even on the phone, and recently discovered I had gone so long between uses on my pay-as-you-go phone that I lost my number due to inactivity. I am shut off from the world and for the first time in a long while I don’t mind. This quiet for me is not Quiet, but it is peace and I will take what I can get.

It’s been a while since a book spoke to me this profoundly, wherein I could not analyze it in terms of information or literary quality but could only sit and read with awe and understanding. This is an excellent book, through and through.

She and I: A Fugue by Michael R. Brown

This post originally appeared on I Read Odd Books

Book: She and I: A Fugue

Author: Michael R. Brown

Type of Book: Fiction, experimental fiction, memoir

Why Do I Consider This Book Odd: The author and I “know” one another from butting heads in some blogging communities before I lost my will to argue online. We find the other extremely questionable in our approaches in political and social realms (he is an Objectivist Libertarian and I am a Bleeding Heart Liberal, each of us married to our own belief systems in a way that beggars belief to the other). I first encountered the author in a community devoted to stupid behavior online. Two years later, I forget how I did it, but I discovered his full name and the name of his book and to reward me for not being as much of an idiot as he initially judged me, he sent me a copy of the book. So that was a bit odd. Then the book itself proved to be an odd experience, to be sure.

Availability: Published in Petrarcha Press in 2009, you can get a copy here:

Comments: I debated on how to handle this book in my review. I was tempted to go with snark but I can’t. I may not pull any punches but I plan to be as honest and candid as I can while I explain why this book is one of the worst books I have ever read. In a way, being snarky and comedic might be stomached easier because they are easier to dismiss. “Oh, a liberal clown didn’t like my book, lol.” I also tell myself that there is nothing unkind in complete honesty.

So since I am being honest, I need to say outright that this is an awful book. It is awful for many reasons and I am going to discuss all those reasons. It may seem like overkill, but when you don’t like the author, it’s too easy to say, “It sucked, take my word for it.” I don’t want you to take my word for it. I want to give you all the evidence that led me to the conclusions I reached. I don’t want anyone to walk away from this far-too-long review and think I dismissed the book because I would rather be buried alive with a full bladder than ever again read Ayn Rand or listen to one of her devotees go on at length.

This is the longest discussion I have written to date and am putting the bulk of it under the jump.

Prozac Diary by Lauren Slater

This post originally appeared on I Read Everything

Book: Prozac Diary

Author: Lauren Slater

Type of book: Memoir, psychology, psychiatry, non-fiction

Why Did I Read This Book: I love tales of psychiatry and mental illness. I was one of those who was prescribed Prozac in the first wave of the drug’s popularity and like reading about how others responded or did not respond to the drug.

Availability: Published in 1998 by Penguin Books, you can get a copy here:

Comments: I think this book was probably more interesting 12 years ago. I am a pharmacological refugee and on a personal level find tales like Slater’s interesting, but I can also tell you that unless you have tinkered with the chemicals in your brain, unless you have walked down this road, this mild, ethereal and at times random memoir may not have any resonance. As interested as I am in memoirs of people who struggle with mental illness and the drugs used to treat mental illness, there were times I found this book less than gripping.

That is a problem with memoirs. A person’s life is of infinite interest to them but sometimes their life stories do not translate into an absorbing story for others. Couple that with the fact that psychopharmacology has changed dramatically not only since Slater was prescribed Prozac in the late 1980s, but also dramatically since this book was published in 1998, and you can see why this book may lack relevance now. This book almost seems quaint when one considers the intensity of the sorts of drugs available these days.

Slater suffered from a variety of mental illness symptoms when prescribed Prozac and her reaction to the drug was miraculous. She felt like an entirely new person yet felt like she was finally feeling like the person she was meant to be, which brings up all kinds of questions about identity and mental illness. If you have been mentally ill or depressed all your life and you suddenly feel like yourself after taking a medication, who is the real you? That is a question that those for whom medications work ask themselves routinely and it takes a strong writer to ensure this question does not sound like a cliche. Slater just isn’t that strong a writer.

Moreover, there are at times in this book when Slater shows a tendency towards the mystical, and while I understand the sort of miraculous nature of brain meds when they work properly, this book was often too airy for me. And god help me for saying this (or condemn me as the case may be), but the things that made Lauren Slater a mad woman and the things that distinguished her when well simply are not as interesting as some other similar memoirs out there. Marya Hornbacher, Elizabeth Wurtzel, Susanna Kaysen and even Sylvia Plath did it better. With better offerings out there, it is hard to recommend this book. I don’t want to perpetuate the idea that mental illness needs to be entertaining to be valid but it needs to be entertaining in order to make a good book. While what happened to Slater before she was medicated and after were of great interest to her, those experiences are not consistently interesting to the reader.

That having been said, Slater does make some interesting points that resonated with me. I have always been intensely annoyed by the story of Mary and Martha from the Bible and Slater has an intriguing take on how Prozac ended her endless Mary-like navel contemplation and turned her into a Martha who got things done.

According to conventional Christianity then, and probably Judaism too, Prozac is a conduit to sin because it makes you more attentive to the tasks, the tiny things, altogether less transcendent. But perhaps, as Merton might say, the truth is in the tiny things, which is why I have for so long used illness to avoid them. Daily tasks–washing, laundering, banking, baking–they force me to my flesh, to the feel of fingers in repetitive movement, to the sloughings and tickings, the burst of soap bubble, the death of a cell.

Anyone who has ever been so depressed that even taking a shower was difficult for them understands this. But it is still interesting nonetheless to see this struggle, this giving-up in life assigned a higher meaning than simply being so ill one cannot do anything but passively contemplate one’s misery.

I also found interesting Slater’s sense of how Prozac altered her creativity. “I will lose my ability to write/sculpt/paint!” We have all heard that old argument from every person who has ever been so in love with their mental illness that they assign it a specialness that becomes an excuse to keep themselves from getting better. I’ve used it myself.

It’s been almost a year now since I’ve composed a short story or a poem, I who always thought of myself as a writer, all tortured and intense… Basically good writing is intensity, pitch, sex. Raymond Carver used to say that sometimes, when he was deep into a poem, he would look down to find his hand cupping his balls. I’ve read that Prozac reduces the sex drive, so it would stand to reason that it might diminish the by-products of that drive as well…

Though I am no longer a person who uses drugs to pave the potholes in my brain (prescribed, recreational or liquid, as self-medication is so alluring to those with misfiring brains), I also no longer write fiction. I’ve tried and tried and tried but the active steps to being strong mentally have removed fiction from the table for me. I began my book review sites when it became clear that my stories would likely not come back and I needed to find a way to control words in some manner. I think this is an intriguing topic, the idea that all great genius comes from more than a small dose of madness, but Slater doesn’t spend as much time on this as I wanted to read. And in a way discussing the sex element of Prozac shows the age of this book. Since this book was published, we now have Wellbutrin to cut back the sexual side effects of antidepressants. Not that it works for everyone, to be sure, but in 1998 when this was published, SRIs were almost certain death to the libido.

I also appreciated how Slater addressed the idea of diminishing returns on Prozac. No one ever told me either that Prozac could one day stop working, which is a very real problem with the drug. Rather, the failure of Prozac to be a continual cure for my depression was used as prima facie evidence that I am bipolar (believe me, I am unipolar as all hell). That even today the potential that Prozac could stop working, which Slater experienced herself and shared plainly, is not understood or subject to misinterpretation by doctors, which is several different kinds of frightening.

But even though there were some elements of the book I could relate to, the fact is there were too many passages clogged with the mystical, like when Slater found some sort of otherworldly relevance to a street magician singling her out. Then there were just bizarre passages that added nothing to my understanding of Slater’s mental illness or how Prozac helped her. Take this passage, for instance (she is at a spring bath with women who see themselves as eunuchs):

And just for a moment she stood before us, shed of the fabric of water, utterly visible, so I could have maybe have seen the space between her thighs, a cold crotch or a pit of possibility. She faced me, mammoth, the sagging shelf of her breasts, and it was only there I dared to look, at the wizened nipples with dark hairs around them, black-lashed and bloodshot. Ugly.

Pardon me, but what the hell am I supposed to do with this passage and similar passages wherein Slater reveals a horror so unique to her and yet meaningless to me and possibly anyone else? Nice prose, but this is why I think you should read Marya Hornbacher and not this book. Hornbacher makes the unrelatable interesting in a way Slater cannot manage. Passages wherein Slater is made sad by a person’s double chin have nothing to do with her awakening or even point to the inner workings of her mental illness but rather read as jabs against those who were not slim, young and fit, no matter how sound or peaceful their minds may have been. There are far too many passages like this, uninteresting and at times ridiculous looks into Slater’s mind that ultimately made this book tiresome to read and seemed to have no purpose.

And this is just me reacting negatively to the attempted poetry of Slater’s writing, but I cringed when I read passages like this:

And to Susan I also want to say, “See. See me. This isn’t just Prozac. Or all Prozac. I am the girl whose hands are stained with purple juice, who spins over ponds, who is hock and horse as she jumps. I am lather.”

Some may find a lot of poetry and beauty in the above quote. I find it forced and precious and quite a bit of the book is written in this manner. This may be a journal in print but not every journal entry is worthy of publication.

So I guess what I am saying is that this book is not the worst book but not the best ever on the topic of mental illness and psychopharmacology. If you read it, you likely will not find it complete waste of time, but you may not find it wholly interesting and you likely will not experience any greater epiphany than that Prozac worked for some people. You may shake your head at some parts and wonder what the hell Slater was getting at and those may outnumber the times when you feel she completely nails an idea. I don’t think that is a large enough of a return for reading this book, especially when there are so many better books that explore mental illness and its treatment out there.

(When I was looking for a link to Slater, I found this article in which Slater is accused of making up quotes in a book she had published in 2004. I find this interesting, though I take it with a grain of salt.)

1996 by Gloria Naylor

This post originally appeared on I Read Odd Books

Book: 1996

Author: Gloria Naylor (yes, that Gloria Naylor)

Why Do I Consider This Book Odd: God help me, but just bear with me for a moment. Back when I stumbled across the information about Johnny Gosch and the whole Franklin Scandal, I did a search and somehow ended up on the site of a woman called Eleanor White – I can no longer recall the exact link that got me there, but believe me, I got there. Anyway, Eleanor is a person who believes in gang stalking, meaning that organized groups of government entities and private citizens stalk her, breaking into her home, wearing out her clothes, breaking her furniture, leaving mounds of dirt on her kitchen floor, tapping her phone calls, harassing her at work, following her every move and using advanced technology to read her mind. The site had some unintentionally hilarious moments, like when White or someone else posted pictures of some very ratty long johns worn through at the crotch as proof that someone was breaking into their home and wearing out their clothes.

But ultimately, there was nothing funny about any of it because no matter whether or not you believe these people’s claims, the fact remains that they think this is happening to them and some are terrified. Regardless, the first link on the Alphabetical Site list White had on her site was to a review of Gloria Naylor’s 1996. So I had to get a copy. It took me a while to make myself read it. And I don’t even really want to discuss it here because I know that the end result will be a lot of e-mails if not comments from people who genuinely think they are victims of gang or multiple stalkers and will accuse me of being part of the vast conspiracy of people loosening the buttons on their coats, taking their new tires and replacing them with bald radials in order to make them miserable, or beaming thought rays into their brains to inspire suicide. But I read it and by my own messed up, self-imposed rules, discuss it I must.

Availability: Published in 2005 by Third World Press, it is still in print via the publisher’s website or you can get a used copy here:

Comments: I am a grad school dropout. I finished one semester and realized I was just not cut out for it. I was 26 and didn’t want anybody telling me what to read anymore because I just wanted to be left alone with my true crime, my conspiracy theories, my Loch Ness monster photo analyses and my Fay Weldons. I flat out didn’t have the mental discipline it took to get my Master’s, which was no surprise really because as an undergrad, I would stay up until the wee hours after studying to read the books I wanted to read, sometimes faking my way through classes because I couldn’t bring myself to read Beowulf or Mrs. Dalloway. But in that one semester of grad school, I took an African-American women’s writers class and studied Zora Neale Hurston, Alice Walker, Toni Morrison and Gloria Naylor. We read The Women of Brewster Place and Mama Day, the latter being not a great novel, but not a bad one either. And the former, in addition to winning a National Book Award in 1983, was a favorite of Oprah, who starred as one of the characters in the mini-series based on the book.

I wonder if Oprah has read 1996. I wonder what she thinks about this book, about what has happened to Gloria Naylor. Something in me tells me she hasn’t read this book. Nor have most Naylor fans who may stumble across this discussion. I am using large quotes from this book in order to discuss it thoroughly and if it seems like I am ridiculing Naylor or anyone else who believes in mind control or gang stalking, I’m not. But if I don’t use her words and react to them with candor, it will be impossible to show why this book is so shocking and so odd.

Gloria Naylor purchased a dream home on St. Helena Island in South Carolina. She set out to spend her summers there, relaxing away from New York and gardening. All was idyllic except for Eunice Simon’s cats. Her neighbor’s cats routinely dug and defecated in her garden. Visiting with Simon did Naylor no good and relations between the two degenerated. Things came to a head when Naylor put out poison to kill tree rats and ended up killing one of Simon’s cats instead. Yes, as in every book I read these days, there is a dead cat in 1996. Things spiral completely out of control when Naylor loses it in a supermarket and snipes at Eunice, “You bitch.” Simon hears “Jew Bitch” and it’s katy bar the door.

At this point, the book slides completely into speculation on Naylor’s part, a retelling of what she thinks must have happened (and bear in mind, Eunice Simon is a pseudonym, as are most of the names in this book, so trying to research what happened to Naylor is impossible). According to Naylor, Simon’s brother is highly placed in the National Security Agency, and though he is tired of his oversensitive sister, he finds that Naylor has tenuous social ties to Black Muslims and begins to make her life hell on those grounds. Using the anti-Jew sentiment that Eunice misheard in the supermarket combined with anti-Semitism perceived as the aim behind Black Muslim groups, Dick Simon from the NSA not only launches an investigative campaign against Naylor, but he also calls in the local ADL to assist stalking and tailing her.

Naylor’s garden is killed off by stalkers. Her home is broken into. She is followed everywhere she goes. Her computer is hacked. Three students recruited by the NSA to torment her – she calls them The Boys – terrorize her at all hours. A friend who visits her is threatened. She returns to New York and the organized stalking continues. Every few minutes, cars stop and open and slam close their doors outside her apartment. Neighbors let the NSA set up a computer and satellite in their home so that thought rays can be beamed into Naylor’s brain. These thoughts they send her are meant to cause her to try to kill herself. When Naylor fights back against the thought rays via inner strength, the NSA ups the ante and begins to read her thoughts and respond to them in real time via typed words on a computer, a sort of intercranial instant message conversation. Untold amounts of money and man hours are spent on tailing and antagonizing Naylor, who accidentally killed a cat and spoke admiringly of the Million Man March.


I am not going to dither here as others have who have read this book, refusing to comment on the factual truth of the events as Naylor perceives them. Outside of sites on organized and gang stalking, you will find scholars weasel out of dealing with the horror of the content by stating the largely irrelevant: that whether or not you believe Naylor was a victim of organized citizen and government stalking, isn’t this an interesting look at race relations in America, a sober reminder of the potential for a tyrannical police state or a fascinating combination of narrative fiction and speculation? That’s some bullshit right there, folks.

I won’t waffle because it is a condescending move not to state facts plainly because I don’t want to look like I am calling a renowned writer crazy. Yes, race relations are still terrible in this country. Yes, the government is intrusive. And maybe Naylor set off a Jewish neighbor with some ties to the NSA and Naylor was investigated a bit rigorously as a result. But nothing else here that Naylor describes as a fictional narrative of true events is even plausible. There are those who think that the fallout of her dispute with her neighbor caused Naylor to become mentally ill. I have no idea. But this book is full of delusions.

When a person says they are stalked, I can believe them. When a person says they were investigated rigorously by the government, I can believe it. Believe me, I can believe it. We all have stories to tell in this post 1984, post 9/11 age. But when a person tells me that the government has been reading their mind with a computer and a type of satellite, typing in responses to their thoughts in an abusive argument, not only can I not believe it, but it brings into doubt even the rational, reasonable accusations the person made. Given the paranoiac belief that Jews are fueling the attacks against her, reliance that Naylor has genuine understanding of what happened to her is crucial to being able to tolerate this book as much more than an anti-Jewish polemic in which a misunderstood insult in a grocery store can launch the entire force of the Anti-Defamation League in a campaign of terror. But then again, I also think only a True Believer in the utter corruption and complete, almost God-like competence of our government will be able to believe the whole of 1996.

This is gonna be one of my longer discussions so read the rest under the jump.

Sick Girl by Amy Silverstein

This post originally appeared on I Read Everything

Book: Sick Girl

Author: Amy Silverstein

Type of Book: Memoir

Why Did I Read This Book: I find stories of medical drama to be compelling reading, but to be honest, I bought this because I was distracted and reaching for a book about a Munchhausen by Proxy survivor and grabbed this instead and did not notice until later.

Availability: Published in 2007 by Grove Press, you can get a copy here:

Comments: I frequently buy books in error or in haste but this is a book I think I was supposed to read, in a mystical fate sort of way. I’ve had health issues before and have become miserably depressed because of them. I also, despite my time as a comparatively mildly sick girl, still neglect my health something fierce. Reading this book made me realize what a whining sack of crap I can be at times (relativism here – all suffering is relative, truly, but sometimes reading other people’s pain can really help you put your own into perspective). It also made me take some steps to take better care of myself and my spouse. I don’t like being that person, the one is who inspired. It seems cliched behavior, in a sense, to be that breathless and impressionable. I can go so far as to say that I resent being inspired. But this book did inspire me as it infuriated and upset me.

So strong was my reaction to Silverstein’s memoir of her heart transplant, I had a morbid need to make sure she is still alive. She is, but in discovering this, I found online jerkwaddery of the worst sort. Silverstein is beyond a doubt the model heart transplant patient. The average amount of time allotted to a heart transplant recipient is around a decade and Silverstein is, by the timeline in the book, looking at year 21. She is a difficult woman and patient, in that she questions doctors’ advice, knowledge, intent and demeanor, but she also never misses the numerous pills she must take, she eats an exemplary diet, does not drink, and keeps herself in good physical condition by running. But she also makes no apology for her anger and at times irrational outbursts. She speaks openly of her odd and visceral reactions to something as mild as taking Prednisone. She does not hide her bafflement, her sadness and her unreasoning fury and I loved her for it.

But some walked away angry after reading this memoir of a woman showing her reality and rising above some of the worst pain and misery a person can endure. They said that because Silverstein expressed the frustration and pain that comes from being a transplant recipient, she might in some way discourage people from donating their organs. They thought she seemed too unappreciative. Evidently to be worthy of a heart transplant, doing everything to stay alive is not enough. Evidently one must be slavishly grateful to the point that one never expresses a negative thought. Who knew? I tell you what. I’m a donor and I want my organs, should I die and they be worth a dime, to go to someone like Silverstein, someone who may be irascible at times but willing to do whatever she must to make the most of my sacrifice.

Silverstein, who was initially told she had a virus in her heart in her early 20s, documents her time in the bowels of the medical system, a system that is not wholly honest, is willing to shunt off a patient to another doctor when she asks questions and one that is not willing to be open about what a patient can expect. One doctor repeatedly refused to tell Silverstein if there was any way she could manage to give birth to a child. He told her the truth later, that she should not do it, and gave a patronizing excuse as to why he saw fit to deny her this opinion for years, as if she was a child and needed to be shielded from the truth of her life.

The worst parts are the medical mishaps she lived through. Her primary care physician missed the early signs of her condition and responded to her chronically low blood pressure by telling her to eat more salt. A year later, she was on the transplant list. Silverstein experienced a heart specialist who likely would have killed her had she continued listening to his advice. He told her to get up daily and move around while she was waiting for a heart so that she would be in better shape when she recovered. The problem with this advice is that any exertion led Silverstein to v-fib, requiring her to be shocked with a defibrillator in order to get her heart beat back under control. After a couple of days of being subject to the paddles on her chest every time she got out of bed and yet still being told she must continue getting up, Silverstein simply did what she had to do – she stayed in bed against doctors orders, sometimes not even changing her underwear or brushing her hair because the exertion was such a strain on her heart.

Though her family was close and good to her, though she had a loyal fiance who stood by her side through it all, Silverstein writes of the fear, the loneliness, and the sense of otherness that a sick person feels. Moreover, when she interacted with her fellow transplant patients, the sense of otherness was still acute. She followed the rules – she took her meds as required, immunosuppresive meds that made a pregnancy risky, so she adopteda little boy. She eschewed alcohol. She kept up with her health carefully while watching women in similar straits have children and require second hearts, drink wine with meals and die young. Even as stubborn and brave as she is, something many of us dream of doing – running with the bulls in Pamplona – became akin to a torture march for Silverstein. Even watching her adored child play soccer could evoke a sense of alienation and bitterness for what her body had dealt her.

But she still got up every day and did what she had to do. Even when she was so tired she wanted to lie down and just die.

There were moments in the book when I think perhaps Silverstein did not recognize her grace. Her husband is very deferential to doctors and can become disappointed when she becomes angry and rude with doctors who frustrate her. She also described at times too how once she had her transplant and seemed healthy, her husband and others tired of knowing about her condition and the impact it had on her. I don’t know how I would deal with that, the sense that no matter what, I may not have someone solidly in my psychological corner. But she sees her husband, who is actually mostly described in glowing terms in the book, as a counterbalance to her understandable anger and fatigue. In the end, she cuts people a lot more slack than she seems to give herself credit for.

The scene when Amy realized she could not have children and began to sob in a cab bothered me to no end. Her father and stepmother were in the cab with her and her father declared, perhaps under stress, that he did not have to listen to it all, and got out of the cab when it came to a light, his flight forcing her stepmother to leave the cab, too. Silverstein does not carry the anger and resentment such a scene would have imbued in me. When it is later revealed Silverstein had a genetic heart malfunction, a condition is looks like might be plaguing her sister, and not the virus she was initially told, she told her stepmother. Her stepmother’s response was to shut down, to refuse to hear it, to insist it was a virus and Amy was wrong. Again, I have no idea how I would have dealt with this but I suspect anger instead of retreat would have been my path.

I, like many others, thought that once a heart patient gets a transplant, their troubles are over if they don’t reject their heart. I had no idea the number of biopsies they must endure, the number of doctor appointments for the rest of their lives, the constant fear of conditions transplant patients develop. The description of how the severed cardiac nerves in a transplant patient results in delayed heart reaction stunned me in its obviousness and as something I doubt anyone without a heart transplant ever considers. For example, if someone startles you, you feel the cardiac reaction of increased heart beat and quickness of breath minutes later because all you have left to control such reactions is your adrenal system which does not respond as quickly as your cardiac nerves.

But the worst of all of Silverstein’s tale is that the baffled medical community seems to cloak ignorance, understandable though it is, as arrogance. I felt my own blood pressure rise as I read Silverstein’s attempts to maintain her sense of dignity while placing her life in the hands of men who hated admitting they did not have all the answers. When her condition baffled a doctor who had seen her many times, she watched as the curtain went down over his face when he was confronted with the inexplicable. Because her body did not respond as it should (actually, this was good – her body unexpectedly and without known cause reversed artery damage), the doctor’s friendly demeanor left him and Amy felt abandoned as she watched him leave the room.

This was a compelling, frank, naked book. It was not an easy read at times. But I am glad I read it, mistake though it initially seemed to be. This raw memoir of a woman who is happy to be alive but not always grateful for what life entails discusses deep issues of what it means to be sick, how constant pain and fear will affect even the strongest will and how we as a society need to ask ourselves why we are so sold on the cheap, easy inspiration of Hallmark Movies of the Week that we want the chronically ill to be mindlessly grateful for every moment of peace they achieve.

Dandy in the Underworld by Sebastian Horsley

This post originally appeared on I Read Odd Books

Book: Dandy in the Underworld

Author: Sebastian Horsley

Type of Book: Memoir

Why I Consider(ed) This Book Odd: The cover dragged me in – what appeared to be a cute preppy boy standing in front of cubbies with human skulls in them. One of the blurbs on the back was from punk guru Legs McNeil and Horsley himself said, “I’ve suffered for my art. Now it’s your turn.” One of the front page reviews said Horsley had crucified himself as an act of performance art. So it seemed like an odd memoir up my alley – punk, self-referentially amusing, full of drugs and weirdness. At the end, this book was not so much odd to me as so annoying I wanted to vomit and find Horsley and make him eat it, but it started as an odd book and this is where I am reviewing it.

Availability: Published by a Harpers Collins imprint in 2007, you can get a copy here:

Comments: At first, I loved this book. Sebastian Horsley, the heir to a large fortune, had a miserable childhood and was able not to be a huge crying baby over it. The first 50 pages or so were so interesting to me, to the point of being enthralled. Horsley is clever, and he is not fooling himself by thinking he has much in the way of substance, but he is, at least, entertaining. He fills his prose with one-liners that the average pundit would lick dog balls to come up with off the cuff. Take, for example, this snippet:

After a while I grew bored so I started taking potshots at members of my own family while they played croquet. I’m sure I would have remembered if I had hit any of them but in love it is always the gesture that is important. In this my aim is true.

Initially, I thought, “How awesome is he? To admit shooting family members with an air rifle, right after he admits to arson as a child. And he knows what a shallow bastard he is. He is all gesture and no feeling. How refreshing to read the witty words of someone so self-involved yet so self-evolved.”

He similarly thrilled me with his clever unsentimentality when he discusses his parents’ divorce:

When a man steals your wife, there is no better revenge than to let him keep her. There was no discussion with Mother and no discussion with the children. He simply hobbled out of our lives. I barely saw him again.

It was 1973 and I was eleven. It was time for the children to leave home. This was England. The dogs were kept at home and the children sent off to high-class kennels to be trained.

And more of the same, discussing his mother’s nervous breakdown:

The feelings of passive suffering which I had inherited through Mother had cursed me with the gift of deep compassion for others. I have always found this repulsive. The problem with compassion is that it is not photogenic… Mother was eventually thrown out of the loony bin for depressing the other patients. She came home to depress her family instead.

And it goes on, almost every paragraph with at least one bit of Oscar Wilde-sort of pithy humor. These bon mots, coming from a man who is a self-confessed dandy, who values looks and his suits over any sort of depth or emotional honesty, initially are thrilling. You think Horsley is clever. You love his irreverence. You wish you knew him, even though you know he would hate you for your big pores and possession of denim.

I considered him a cross of Oscar Wilde and Sid Vicious with a bit of a Texas beauty queen thrown in for make-up skills. Then, without warning, he begins to wear thin. Very thin. The wit is excessive, the humorous pronouncements tiresome, the irreverence a substitute for innate humanity.

I was reminded of Buddy Cole, a fabulously gay character played by Scott Thompson on the old comedy sketch show The Kids in the Hall. Buddy plays the parlor game about what album, what book and what person would you want on a desert island. He selects a Johnny Mathis and Denice Williams album, the book All About Rhoda and Oscar Wilde.

Initially, Buddy and Oscar hit it off well, but within minutes, the endless pronouncements of wit, the smugness and the lack of substance tests Buddy to the point that he runs Oscar off.

This memoir is that comedy sketch. In fact, watch the comedy sketch and save yourself the time of reading this book.

Don’t Get Too Comfortable by David Rakoff

This post originally appeared on I Read Everything

Book: Don’t Get Too Comfortable: The Indignities of Coach Class, the Torments of Low Threat Count, The Never-Ending Quest for Artinisanal Olive Oil and Other First World Problems

Author: David Rakoff

Type of Work:
Non-fiction, essays

Why Did I Read This Book: Let me be honest. Though they are such completely different people that it is shameful to admit this, I sometimes confuse David Rakoff with John Hodgman. So when I bought this book, I thought I was buying another book written by the PC Guy. It wasn’t until I was into the first essay that I realized, “Hey. This is that guy from PRI! I’ve heard this before. On “This American Life”, I think.” And I was right. So it was mistaken literary identity that led me to this book but then I realized I did know the author and had some small amount of affection for him so I kept reading it.

Availability: Published in Doubleday in 2005, you can find a copy here:

Comments: It feels weird not liking this book as much as I wanted to like it. My vague sense of unease does not come from realizing this book is not the work of John Hodgman. I’ve always found David Rakoff amusing. His calm voice is an aural pleasure, as well as his not quite Canadian but I’m unsure what else it could be accent. I think part of the problem with the book is that I wanted to hear him speak these essays consisting of looks into his life or his mundane but witty observations, though that certainly is not the whole of it. Rakoff’s extremely dry wit comes across better vocally than on the printed page. I think he is the inverse of me – Rakoff likely comes off much better in person. He certainly comes across much better to the ear.

Some of the essays fall flat. There is no way around it. This is certainly a “your mileage may vary” statement, but take, for example, his essay “J.D.V., M.I.A.” wherein he discusses participating in a night-time scavenger hunt in Manhattan. While I appreciate his self-deprecating humor, it is hard for me to tell if the lunacy of the evening did not come across well on the printed page, or if Rakoff was really that filled with ennui and impatience for the whole thing. Regardless, the essay was… not as interesting as I would have liked.

Other essays suffer similar issues. “Whatsizface,” Rakoff’s tale of meeting with plastic surgeons in order for them to tell him what they would do to improve his appearance has all the earmarks of a wonderful over-dinner conversation. As an essay it leaves the reader with a “well, what was the point of that” sensation. One does not know Rakoff well enough, nor is his humor blunt force enough, to make this essay work. “Martha, My Dear,” wherein Rakoff tells of his own craftiness, has the same problems.

A couple of the essays suffer from a je nais se quoi of ambivalence. I have no idea why they didn’t work aside from the fact that they didn’t work. “I Can’t Get That for You Wholesale” is a big ol’ who cares of an article about his experiences in the fashion industry (Lagerfeld’s response to Rakoff – “What can you write that hasn’t been written already?” – while rude had me nodding). “Morning in America” which discusses the television show Good Morning America and the folks who flock to the windows to wave when the cameras pan their way seemed sort of… god help me, pointless. It was meant to be a post-9/11 observational piece but it just doesn’t work. In the hands of a more aggressive humorist, such obvious comedic fodder would have hit the ground running but Rakoff is too dry and too restrained to be able to convey the horror that is Al Roker. And “Beach Bummer” was, forgive me for saying it, a bummer. Sort of boring at that. If it was intended to be a sort of Barbara Ehrenreich piece, it didn’t really hit its stride and if it wasn’t supposed to be a sort of Barbara Ehrenreich piece, I have no idea what it was meant to be because it was not that humorous and the observations were not that interesting.

Please Excuse My Daughter by Julie Klam

This post originally appeared on I Read Everything

Book: Please Excuse My Daughter: A Memoir

Author: Julie Klam

Type of Work: Memoir

Why Did I Read This Book: God help me, but I picked out this book from the store shelves because the dust jacket is a bright orange. It caught my eye. Sometimes, that’s all it takes. Also, I am a fan of a good memoir.

Availability: Published in Riverhead Books in 2008, you can get a copy here:

Comments: Oh sweet sanity, I spent a day just hating this book and hating Julie Klam. Julie, whose less than organized life, initially at least, tells one of those stories where a person, who seems completely incompetent and proud of it, caroms through life, getting glamorous jobs (she was an intern on the Letterman show, worked for a famous agent and spoke to superstars on the telephone daily, interviewed with Barbra Streisand, and ended up writing for VH1’s Pop-up Video, all sort of effortlessly), being thin naturally and having rich parents.

Klam is a woman who self-admittedly had difficulty growing up, but even when her parents cut the financial cord, that cord cutting included a job at her dad’s insurance agency. She had the best clothes, a huge support network and did I mention she is thin and pretty? Yet she had no idea what she wanted to do with her life, sort of embraced her lack of ambition and ran with it for years. She was as foreign to me as a Martian. Her whole life until her early 30s was a refutation to everything I lived. It was like, through the printed page, Julie Klam was shouting, “Hey you! You over there! The short, chubby one who put herself through school on loans and selling shoes, the one who had a job at 14 and has never once worn Halston. My long thin legs and I give the finger to you and your Protestant work ethic!”

Gah, I hated her. I threw the book across the room and ran a hot bath. And spite of myself, I picked the book back up and started reading again. And dammit if I didn’t start liking Klam a little. She’s got a dry wit, a self-effacing humor, and an ability to spin a yarn about the mundane and make it entertaining. She’s also sort of charming. She eventually grew up and found her way in life, and in the process of telling her tale, made me respect her. Most interesting, her story made me think about some of my political and social opinions, one of the last things I expected to happen from the first few fluffy, sentimental chapters.

How People Who Don’t Know They’re Dead Attach Themselves to Unsuspecting Bystanders and What to Do About It by Gary Leon Hill

This post originally appeared on I Read Odd Books

Book: How People Who Don’t Know They’re Dead Attach Themselves to Unsuspecting Bystanders and What to Do About It

Author: Gary Leon Hill

Why I Consider This Book Odd:
There are many reasons, but initially it was the title. It won the Diagram Prize for Oddest Book Title in 2005. It tries to hide, putting only People Who Don’t Know They’re Dead on the cover and spine, but the title page and a deep cultural knowledge of the weird will prevent this odd book from passing as normal.

Type of work:
Memoir, new age, bad science

Availability: Published by Weiser Books in 2005, you can get a copy here:

I have been a cranky Oddbooks as of late. I may or may not be detoxing from strong, prescription substances in a process that gives me the attention span of a gnat. I definitely am wilting in the searing Texas heat. But neither explain really why I have hated everything I have read recently, normal, odd, informative and just plain whacked. However, despite my sense of humor’s death and my meh tendencies, I do not blame my utter distaste for HPWDKTDATTUBAWTDAI on anything but the book itself. Despite its utter insanity, I took no pleasure in any of it.

I fully admit that aside from a grudging admission that I sort of believe in certain paranormal things, sort of, I am not a fan of the New Age aside from its entertainment value to me. However, I tend to cut those who believe in New Age teachings a lot of slack. Unusual beliefs make the world more interesting. But there are times when bad, bad writing combine with bad, dangerous information, and I am left with nothing but snark. If Penn Jillette read this book, he would shit blood.

It’s not like I came into this book expecting to have what little I do know about science validated by New Age squick. This book is supposed to be about combating spirit possession, which defies science too, but you can prepare yourself for a such scientific suspension when you know you are going to have the YES! of something fun, like expelling unwanted human spirits. That didn’t really happen because the book doesn’t live up to its title in any way. But before I spew bile over some of the stupid science and dangerous information contained in this book, let me give you the quick lowdown. The horribly long title would lead you to believe this book is about spirits who don’t know they are dead and take up residence in hapless humans. If only life were that easy. If, out of 182 pages,  30 have anything to do with spiritual possession, I would be very surprised.

When not discussing holistic parapsychology in depth, it discusses the boringly endless wonders of the author’s somewhat demented Uncle Wally. It confuses the hell out of the reader with who is whom and why they are there (it took three re-readings to understand that Ruth and Wally, the main perpetrators of this unique worldview, were brother and sister, that Ardis was Wally’s wife and that Vic and Lorraine were no relation but were introduced to Wally and Ardis by a pastor – if this sentence seems confusing to someone who has not read the book, just bear in mind that the author throws names at the reader with horrible and irrelevant frequency). While the book was completely misunderstanding science and making assertions that make James Randi write entire columns, it also, interestingly, refused to spell Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’ name correctly – umlauts were clearly too good for this book.

If you want a book about spiritual possession, this is not it. If you want a book that mashes together Kirlian photography, a breathless belief that Uri Geller is NOT a con man, vibrational explanations for why Lutherans like to hang out together, astral planes, a complete misunderstanding of human genetics, self-affirmation, a sampling of world religion, multiple personality disorder, using ghosts to explain why capital punishment is a bad idea, and horrible, dangerous exhortations for the very sick to treat themselves, peppered with a few pages of actual possession, then get yourself over to Amazon now.

I am not kidding. This book is that bad. I find this book so troubling because  there are actual five-star reviews of it on Amazon.  Given how much really frightening information is online these days, it is far more likely that someone with cancer will read on the Internet about the wonders of pendulums for locating cancer in the body and find more faith in such bunk than in PET scans than they read that same information in this book.  But that doesn’t change the fact that this book exists at all, and I hate it when the bizarre has the potential to be so damaging.

This book has bad science out the wazoo. For example:

For decades, Kirlian photographs have made visible the human aura through interfacing ultra-low electrical current with the body’s biological life field. Dr. Valerie Hunt’s EMG machines display the electrical activity that exists around our chakras and throughout the human meridian system.


As do Sufis and theoretical physicists, Drunvalo [Melchezidek] believes that everything in the universe vibrates. Hence everything in the universe can be described by its wavelength.


The genes in our body are equivalent to software programs on a disk in a computer. But the behavior of our cells is not programmed by our genes.


Say your perception is that the world is toxic, dangerous and a threat. “Genetic engineering genes” will rewrite the other genes to respond not to the actual environment (which may not be toxic, dangerous and a threat), but to your perception of it.

Bad science doesn’t offend you? How about a really questionable approach to mental illness:

Take Charge: A Guide to Feeling Good is a book Wally wrote and published in 1987. In it he considers, among other things, the likelihood that suicides for which there seem to be no cause may in fact result from the kind of spirit attachment we are talking about.


“It seems likely that today’s still-controversial use of electroshock, or electroconvulsive therapy, for the treatment of acute depression, may prove effective, when it does, for the unacknowledged reason that it drives possessing earth-bound spirits out of the magnetic aura of the subjects being shocked.”

I can’t bear to type it out, but the book quotes Edith Fiore on page 74, listing all the major signs of depression and calling them “common signs of spiritual possession.”

General Batshittery

“Keys were bending in people’s pocket’s,” Wally told me. “Geller had twelve hundred people chanting: ‘work, work, work, work.’ These are words – that change reality.”


For instance, Timestream’s facilities are located in the third plane of the astral world on a planet named Marduk. [Timestream is a spirit group of dead scientists the author claims includes Marie Curie and Albert Einstein.]


The problem with affirmations is that sometimes they work, and more often, they don’t. Robert Williams, who teamed up with Bruce Lipton for the videotape The Biology of Perception, the Psychology of Change, says he knows why this is. We have been talking to the wrong mind.


William James said through Susy Smith “On the astral plane man makes his own environment.”

But worst of all it its dismissal of Western science and its treatment of disease based on Hill’s Aunt Ruth and Aunt Ardis and the people who sold them snake oil. Both had cancer, both refused treatment other than surgery, and both managed, in the luck that the divine lavishes on the feckless, to survive.

From his Aunt Ruth comes this complete over simplification and misunderstanding of cancer and its myriad treatments:

“Cancer is an immuno-suppressive disorder,” she told me. “The treatments they were offering me suppressed the immune system. To deliberately do something that would suppress the immune system when you’re already about to succumb to an immuno-suppressive disorder makes no kind of sense.”

It goes on from there to tout the sort of information that kills people.

Ardis had refused chemotherapy and radiation following her surgery in 1974… Then she and Wally discovered Getting Well Again, a book by O. Carl Simonton, a medical doctor and Air Force Major, who had previously been a salesman whose success he attributed to Napoleon Hill’s classic book, Think and Grow Rich. Simonton’s techniques were based on Positive Prosperity Visualization.

So, after surgery, “I employed his tactics of visualizing at the time PacMan, the TV game? Just visualizing PacMan eating up all those cancer cells,” said Ardis.


Next she (Ruth) and Wally went to Topeka for a conference for the effects of megadoses of Vitamin C on terminal cancer.

At that conference in Topeka, Ruth discovers pendulums and learns to “read” them and diagnose what was wrong in her body. This is discussed on pages 83-84. She later, on page 122, decides she got breast cancer because of mercury in the fillings of her teeth.

“…when I learned about the relationship about the meridians and the relationship between teeth and the mammary glands, I don’t think there is any question that the amalgams in the teeth that related to the left mammary gland had something to do with that cancer.”

Then Ruth’s luck ran out, though she did last 16 years, and her cancer spread all over her body, even into her bones. She died of cancer in 2002, hopefully not in as much pain as it seems she was when in she consulted her pendulum.

Several nights before she’d had excruciating pain in her liver – couldn’t eat, couldn’t sleep, finally at 5:00 in the morning, Ruth asked her pendulum: “Is this a message?” And it swung wide, yes. “And if I get to understand the message, will the pain go away?” It said yes. “And so I started interviewing my liver.”

It is tempting to comment to each of these quotes, but they speak for themselves.  Note also that only three of them had anything to do with spirits invading the body.

I think if one is going to read New Age and books of a religious theme, especially those that are clearly going to be utterly insane, the least they can do is concern themselves with the topic their title says the book is about.  In bizarre non-fiction, one does not expect the best of writing, or even a coherent narrative.  That is why, to the right mind, odd non-fiction can be so fun.  I do not fault this book for wandering around and using two word sentences in awkward places hoping to connote a depth that is not there.  Rather, I loathe this book for pulling a fast one and tricking readers into thinking they are going to read the non-Catholic version of Malachi Martin’s Hostage to the Devil, a truly interesting book about spiritual possession, and for cramming the book full of inappropriate, at least to the stated topic at hand, bullshit about science, health and peace of mind.

My only consolation that this book exists at all is that those who are truly mentally and physically ill will likely not stumble across it in a weakened state and believe they are spirit infested, that Vitamin C can cure and pendulums help treat terminal cancer, or feel morally responsible for their illness because cells can, somehow, mutate to reflect a negative thought.

Shit Magnet: One Man’s Miraculous Ability to Absorb the World’s Guilt by Jim Goad

This post originally appeared on I Read Odd Books

Book Title:  Shit Magnet: One Man’s Miraculous Ability to Absorb the World’s Guilt

Author: Jim Goad

Why I Consider This Book Odd:  1)  Jim Goad wrote it.  If you have been paying attention to fringe and ‘zine culture for the last fifteen years or so, this should be enough said; and 2) The cover sports a pic of Goad praying under a large, behaloed turd.   I love the cover.  A lot.  I have always had a healthy love of all things scatological.

Type of Work:  non-fiction, memoir

Availability:  This book is still in print.  Published by Feral House, you can find it in any number of places.  One of them is Amazon.  Behold:

Comments:  Jim Goad is a lord of political incorrectness and the mind behind one of the most infamous ‘zines ever, ANSWER Me! Though I was aware of ANSWER Me! when I was in college, I never read any of the issues until 1-3 were released in a collection.  Though ANSWER Me! only released four issues, this ‘zine landed Goad into all sorts of unintended consequences that cemented his position as a shit magnet.  Shit Magnet is Goad’s side of all the notorious and, frankly, bad things that have happened to him, it is compelling reading to be sure and much of it is directly related to or stems from ANSWER Me!

Like when women felt violated, or raped as it were, by the infamous “rape” edition of ANSWER Me! and when they could not get the ‘zine removed from the shelves in a Portland store, they went after the stores on obscenity charges.  The stores were found not guilty, but it seemed that most people missed the greater irony of the “rape” issue.  The intent behind issue four was to demonstrate, as Goad eloquently put it, that “radical feminism had become so lost in theory and drowned in self-righteousness that rape had become viewed more of a political idea than a physical act.  Feminism had grown unable to distinguish words from actions to such a degree that the two became switched:  Women felt literally “assaulted” and “violated” by sexist language and imagery, whereas actual rape was viewed as an ideological tool of the patriarchy, almost more of a statement than an act.”  By trying to convict book stores of obscenity because Goad’s language “hurt” them, members of the feminist camp just proved his point for him.

(As an aside, as I was reading Shit Magnet, a news story came on describing how a Habitat for Humanity construction site was robbed.  The woman for whom the house was being built said that the theft was an assault against her and that she felt violated.  This inappropriate use of words describing violence for non-violent acts is now firmly entrenched in the popular mind.)

But it got worse for Goad.  The 1994  White House Shooter, who discharged an SKS assault rifle outside the White House, evidently read ANSWER Me! 2 and found inspiration for his actions.  Francisco Martin Duran read “Can you imagine a higher moral calling than to destroy someone’s dreams with a bullet…?” and decided the way to do this was to shoot impotently near the President’s abode.  Luckily Goad was not used as a witness at Duran’s trial, but the tenuous connection between Goad and Duran was cemented in the media and Goad became seen as a terrorist force.

And then the suicides…  Three seriously disturbed young Britons took a bizarre inspiration from ANSWER Me!, came to the USA, and killed themselves.  These suicides were especially haunting for Goad because one of the girls involved called him shortly before the suicides in order to verify his address (she did not explain why she needed the address nor did Goad ask why but after she was dead Goad received a sum of money that he returned to her parents).  She was silent on the phone and Goad, unable to pull much out of her, eventually terminated the conversation.  Goad empathized with the girl to an almost unbearable level, understanding all too well the impulses behind suicide and wishing he could have done something to stop it.

But while all of this and more show Goad’s role as a shit magnet, the soundest argument for Goad as a weather vane for bad juju happened in the form of Anne Ryan.