Category Archives: Fathers and Daughters

Fathers and Daughters

I know coming on the heels of a fan poem for The Phantom of the Opera, the first line of this fan poem for Fathers and Daughters comes off as a little distracted, but it’s such a good line, I had to steal it. The performances of Kylie Rogers, Amanda Seyfried and Russell Crowe are unforgettable in this film – the story of a girl who needs her father back, to feel brave enough to let herself love again. This poem, based on the 77th Psalm, is especially close to my heart, and is dedicated to those who have lost loved ones too soon, too suddenly, too young.

My father promised me – just let me stand here, please.
My father sang to me – just let me answer, please.
In the panics of childhood, I reached for him.
My eyes stiffen with salt by night, it won’t stop.
I don’t want to be told that’s ok.
I dwell on his absence, strain against the loss.
I have nothing to say for myself, no pride.
You forced me to feel with my whole heart again.
I recoiled from the pain, I had no words.
I could lose myself in his memory,
the world we made maps onto the world entire.
This is the song I pull to myself in the cold.
Let it speak to my heart, for I ask myself,
will the love that was real never touch me again,
can no one bear to hold me through the night?
Is the warmth of my childhood erased from life,
are the promises kept by the dead unmade?
Can my father still leave me, in memory, too,
would he blame me for running from hope and fear?
In my heart I believe I have let him down,
and he hid his face from my gaze in shame.
I try to bring him back before my mind’s eye,
when I hear his works held up as an example.
I recite the smallest things he said to me,
and read aloud from his last masterpiece.
He taught me how to see and feel and do.
Where else can his daughter turn for faith and truth?
My father’s joys, to me, were miracles.
The wider world acclaimed him, too, in time.
He came back, when he seemed lost to me forever,
he never changed to me, never gave up.
The way my body needs the touch of water,
the way the senses tremble at the thought,
my whole heart thrilled when we both sang this song.
The way the sky withholds and then pours down.
The way round thunderclaps reverberate.
That was how his laughter filled my soul up.
The clattering ignition launching satellites –
that was how he typed his book about us.
His readers shared our triumphs, laughed and wept.
He wrote the way a navigator writes,
and sought uncharted places in the heart,
where things so near we miss them can be found.
My father led me here – somehow he knew,
this song was sent to bring me back to you.

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Filed under Acting, Dream Ensemble, Fathers and Daughters, Music, Poetry

Navigating with schizoaffective disorder

An intake psychiatrist once tried to tell me that “schizophrenics don’t get depressed.” That surprised me, since I had been in treatment for unipolar depression and schizophrenia for about ten years at the time. It also puzzled me, because I find schizophrenia pretty depressing in its own right, apart from and on top of other things that get me down.

He referred me to a neurologist who offered a differential diagnosis replacing both my psychiatric labels with the much simpler PTSD within the first 15 minutes of our time together. Needless to say, her offer didn’t carry much weight. I already knew I had PTSD, and I had learned the hard way what happens when I go off my antipsychotic and antidepressant for any length of time.

So I switched to a traditional couch-style counselor for a melange of symptoms ranging from breakthrough paranoias to lingering questions about my past. We talked very freely about big ideas in the history of psychiatry and clinical psychology, but when I brought up Freud the conversation went south pretty fast, so I dropped him, too.

Now I rely mostly on self-help books and peer reviewed journal articles for ideas about my mental health. Sometimes I get good leads on an angle from the cinema, too. Mad to Be Normal in particular introduced me to R. D. Laing’s penetrating insights into schizophrenese and the family dynamics of young adults who are on the verge of slipping into catatonic schizophrenia.

Although popularly considered part of the anti-psychiatry movement, Dr. Laing wasn’t against treating schizophrenics – he just found it counterproductive to keep them vegetative 24/7 in inpatient care. He distrusted the drugs that were available in his day because they were such overwhelmingly strong tranquilizers that they left most patients unable to cope with the simplest of interactions, making interventions like talk therapy virtually impossible. He recommended listening attentively to the content of schizophrenics’ delusions, and reading between the lines to decode the drivers of their descent into madness.

Although much has been gained over the years in terms of insight and compassion that has benefited patients, that sense of existential loss that comes with insight into having a mental illness is still a hallmark of patients’ experience with their initial diagnosis. And films like The Soloist, Mad to Be Normal, A Beautiful Mind, and Fathers and Daughters bring some of that anger to the screen in ways that are at once triggering and cathartic for me.

A 19th century social worker and theologian I’ve been reading lately named Bernard Bosanquet warns against succumbing to this kind of anger, popularized in the romance novels of his day, in a lecture series he gave at the University of Edinburgh from 1910-1912:

“There is hardly a morbid romance but founds its pessimism on … what it calls justice – some proportion .. between the given wants and fortunes of man .. the reiterated ‘Why’ – ‘Why should A be at a disadvantage when B is not?’ – and we feel it to be wholly discordant with the temper of stronger souls in whom we delight to recognize the ready welcome of differentiation and the insight that even the call for endurance is an opportunity. Justice as thus demanded is a principle of compensation for being what you are .. [as opposed to] accepting the whole involved in the differentiation, to transcend his apparent limits.”

That’s pretty stern medicine for our day and age. But I like the way he writes about the difference between our gut feelings and our best judgment, and I think that applies here, too: “You cannot anywhere, whether in life or in logic, find rest and salvation by withdrawing from the intercourse and implications of life; no more in the world of individual property and self-maintenance than in the world of international politics and economics; no more in the world of logical apprehension than in that of moral service and religious devotion. Everywhere to possess reality is an arduous task.”

I think it’s natural to get angry when we feel that we have failed ourselves, and mental illness frequently brings that feeling to bear on adults who find themselves falling far short of childhood expectations. When we fail, Bosanquet tells us, we confront the absolute head on. “It is only by the conjunction of what is quite beyond us with what is deep within us that the open secret of the Absolute confronts us in life, in love, and in death.”

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Filed under A Beautiful Mind, False controversies, Fathers and Daughters, Music, Poetry

Fathers and daughters

This movie hit me like a ton of bricks. Be warned, you need tissues.

Like much of Russell’s work, it’s a story about family and loss. And like A Beautiful Mind, it deals with schizophrenia, or more specifically, bipolar schizoaffective disorder. More about that later. What’s not often done in movies that deal with mental illness and loss, is to recognize that much of what’s lost to mental illness, you can’t get back. There are no Hollywood endings in psychiatric care. And that’s something this movie gets right. The wrenching cost of separation isn’t softened in any way.

Even in the flashbacks to a period in Jake’s life when aggressive psychiatric care hasn’t totally removed him from his daughter’s world, there is a palpable distance between reality and memory, between the present and the imaginary, that is painful to register – even without spoilers. On a second viewing it is well nigh unbearable.

This poem is addressed to Jake’s imaginary presence later in his daughter’s life, if the imaginary can have a presence to whom we can address our thoughts, our anger, our despair. If the imaginary can choose whether to stay, or to fade away.

(If you) go to where the need is greatest,
go and hang on the bell.
Say to the weary gatekeeper
you have no trade to sell,
that you’ve come to meet the wretched
without a tale to tell,
that you’ve come to take the measure
of that near place called hell.

(You can) tell him you know no magic,
have nothing to conceal,
say that you don’t trade in secrets,
have no cards left to deal.
Show him your fancy credentials,
you haven’t come to steal.
Admit that they furnish little,
there’s no wound you can heal.

(And then) he’ll tell you about the curfew,
he’ll show you to your chair,
the locals will take no notice,
except perhaps to glare.
This is the spot, make no mistake.
You’ve finally gotten there.
The loudest hoot and drown out shouts
with laughter coarse and bare.

But who have you come looking for,
what is there here to see?
Which of these forgotten strangers
once bounced on your knee?
What if she only begged you now
to go – and leave her be?
What if your music angered her
with love’s relentless plea?

Would you know how to make your way
back up the winding stair?
Would you remember sunlight, stars,
forgiveness, hope and prayer?
Would you relent, or would you stay,
and try to make her care?
Would you return, or pass your days
drowning devil-knows-where?

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Filed under Fathers and Daughters, Poetry