Brain Pickings

Animal Madness: How Deciphering Mental Illness in Our Fellow Beings Helps Us Become Better Versions of Ourselves

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“To selflessly love another creature is to be open to loving other humans, who are animals as much as pandas, cows, or Shih Tzus.”

One of the two dogs in my life has a decided fear of the dark and a paralyzing phobia of storms — quite literally: he goes catatonic, except for his uncontrollable trembling, his eyes the wide-gaping opening to a bottomless well of terror. My other canine companion is the most angelic yet most anxious creature I’ve ever encountered, capable of obsessively licking her paws for hours on end, trying to self-soothe against the unbearable weight of the world, her eyebrows permanently moulded into question marks that seem to perpetually ask when the other shoe will drop. Because, in her mind, it’s never a question of whether it will drop — only the anguishing inevitability of when it will.

If this seems like far-fetched anthropocentrism, a field of science that has been gathering momentum for more than 150 years strongly suggests otherwise. That’s precisely what Senior TED Fellow Laurel Braitman explores in Animal Madness: How Anxious Dogs, Compulsive Parrots, and Elephants in Recovery Help Us Understand Ourselves (public library). Braitman, who holds a Ph.D. in history and anthropology of science from MIT, argues that we humans are far from unique in our capacity for “emotional thunderstorms that make our lives more difficult” and that nonhuman animals are bedeviled by varieties of mental illness strikingly similar to our own. With equal parts rigor and compassion, she examines evidence from veterinary science, psychology and pharmacology research, first-hand accounts by neuroscientists, zoologists, animal trainers, and other experts, the work of legendary scientists and philosophers like Charles Darwin and Rene Descartes, and her own experience with dozens of animals spanning a multitude of species and mental health issues, from depressed dogs to self-harming dolphins to canine Alzheimer’s and PTSD.

Braitman with Mac, the Sardinian miniature donkey she raised while growing up

Braitman’s journey begins with one particularly troubled nonhuman animal — Oliver, the Bernese Mountain Dog she adopted, whose “extreme fear, anxiety, and compulsions” prompted her, in the way that a concerned parent on the verge of despair grasps for answers, to explore whether and how other animals could be mentally ill. Considering the tapestry of evidence threads she uncovered during her research, she writes:

Humans and other animals are more similar than many of us might think when it comes to mental states and behaviors gone awry — experiencing churning fear, for example, in situations that don’t call for it, feeling unable to shake a paralyzing sadness, or being haunted by a ceaseless compulsion to wash our hands or paws. Abnormal behaviors like these tip into the territory of mental illness when they keep creatures — human or not — from engaging in what is normal for them. This is true for a dog single-mindedly focused on licking his tail until it’s bare and oozy, a sea lion fixated on swimming in endless circles, a gorilla too sad and withdrawn to play with her troop members, or a human so petrified of escalators he avoids department stores.

Every animal with a mind has the capacity to lose hold of it from time to time. Sometimes the trigger is abuse or mistreatment, but not always. I’ve come across depressed and anxious gorillas, compulsive horses, rats, donkeys, and seals, obsessive parrots, self-harming dolphins, and dogs with dementia, many of whom share their exhibits, homes, or habitats with other creatures who don’t suffer from the same problems. I’ve also gotten to know curious whales, confident bonobos, thrilled elephants, contented tigers, and grateful orangutans. There is plenty of abnormal behavior in the animal world, captive, domestic, and wild, and plenty of evidence of recovery; you simply need to know where and how to find it.

Braitman is careful to acknowledge that such a notion is likely to unnerve our notions of human exceptionalism and offers a wise caveat:

Acknowledging parallels between human and other animal mental health is a bit like recognizing capacities for language, tool use, and culture in other creatures. That is, it’s a blow to the idea that humans are the only animals to feel or express emotion in complex and surprising ways. It is also anthropomorphic, the projection of human emotions, characteristics, and desires onto nonhuman beings or things. We can choose, though, to anthropomorphize well and, by doing so, make more accurate interpretations of animals’ behavior and emotional lives. Instead of self-centered projection, anthropomorphism can be a recognition of bits and pieces of our human selves in other animals and vice versa.

She later adds:

We’ve inherited a bias against identifying with other animals that isn’t useful, and it’s high time we discarded it.

It’s worth noting that while Braitman is very much interested in how understanding mental illness in nonhuman animals can help us better treat our own, her approach isn’t one of self-interest but one of genuine compassion for the inner worlds and anguish of our fellow beings. In fact, there’s an undercurrent of the opposite aspiration — an effort to use what we do know about humans, who are, at least linguistically, far better-equipped to articulate their psychoemotional conditions, to understand those of animals and alleviate their anguish. Underlying this is the subtle suggestion that such an osmosis of understanding between species can foster greater understanding among our own species by making us better, more empathetic versions of ourselves and who we are to one another.

Oliver

To be sure, Braitman’s journey to this insight is far from a smooth and Pollyannaish one. She returns to Oliver, who jumped out of her fourth-floor window one warm May afternoon, after gnawing a hole through the mesh wire of the screen and squeezing his 120-pound body through it. Though he survived the fifty-five-foot fall rather miraculously, it was the beginning — or, rather, the reveal — of his lifelong struggle with mental illness.

Braitman had always dreamt of a Bernese Mountain Dog to call her own, but such purebred pups ran for around $2,000 each — a cost unthinkable to Braitman and her husband, whose respective jobs in an environmental conservation nonprofit and a government geological agency placed them in exactly the income bracket one would imagine. When a local breeder offered them Oliver, an adult dog, for free, along with some tempered story of why his previous owners could no longer keep him, it seemed like a deal too good to be true — but having fallen in love with Oliver at first sight, they did what the lovestruck do and dismissed the warning signs. Braitman writes:

We’d fallen for Oliver at first sight. It felt more like a physical sensation than a conscious decision. It certainly wasn’t rational. We brought him home that same afternoon… It wasn’t until a few months into our relationship with Oliver that his truly bizarre behavior started to manifest. But once it did, it spread like spilled molasses: sticky, inexorably expansive, and difficult to contain.

She recounts the first serious red flag, discovered by sheer serendipity one day after she and her husband left for work:

I said goodbye to Oliver and locked the house, only to realize as soon as I reached my car that I’d left the keys in our apartment. As I headed back up the block to our building I heard a plaintive yowling — not feline or human and not from the National Zoo, a few blocks away. It was a bark that sounded like the squeak of an animal too large to squeak (this was before I knew any elephants), and it was coming from our apartment.

When I stepped onto the front porch the barking stopped and was replaced by a loud skittering sound. As I climbed the steps to the top floor, the crablike skittering got louder. It was, I realized, the sound of Oliver’s toenails on the wooden floor as he sprinted back and forth along the length of the apartment. When I opened the door he was panting and wild-eyed. He bounded up to me as if I’d just returned from a months-long expedition, not a five-minute trip to the car. I picked up my keys, walked Oliver back to his dog bed, petted him a bit, and then got up to leave. When I reached the sidewalk I sat on the porch and waited. After about ten minutes of quiet, I stood up in relief. Then suddenly, after only a few steps, there it was — the yowlingsqueakbark. Again and again and again. I looked up and saw Oliver’s giant head pressed against our bedroom window, his paws on the sill. He was looking down at me with his tongue lolling. He’d waited to bark until he saw me leave the porch. I was already late for work. As I walked down the sidewalk I kept turning around. Oliver had moved to the living-room window so that he could watch me walk farther down the street. The barking increased when I turned the corner, and the whole drive to my office I could hear it inside my head.

Illustration by Wendy MacNaughton for 'Lost Cat' by Caroline Paul. Click image for details.

As Oliver’s Rube Goldberg progression of destruction and self-destruction hastened over time, Braitman found herself tangled in the age-old quest to understand what goes on in the minds of animals and the often unpredictable relationship between their thoughts and their actions. Turning to Charles Darwin’s pioneering studies of animal emotion, Braitman points out how radical his proposition in The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals was, less than two centuries after Descartes had advanced the notion that animals are mere automata — thoughtless, emotionless moving machines, driven by emotion alone. Braitman writes:

Darwin described surliness, contempt, and disgust in chimps, astonishment among Paraguayan monkeys, love among dogs, between dogs and cats, and between dogs and humans. Perhaps most surprisingly he argued that many of these creatures were capable of enacting revenge, behaving courageously, and expressing their impatience or suspicion. A female terrier of Darwin’s, after having her puppies taken away and killed, impressed him so much “with the manner in which she then tried to satisfy her instinctive maternal love by expending it on [Darwin]; and her desire to lick [his] hands rose to an insatiable passion.” He was also convinced dogs experienced disappointment and dejection.

[…]

He went on to document grief-stricken elephants, contented house cats, pumas, cheetahs, and ocelots (who expressed their satisfaction with purring), as well as tigers, whom he believed did not purr at all but instead emitted “a peculiar short snuffle, accompanied by the closure of the eyelids” when happy. He wrote about deer at the London Zoo — who approached him because, he believed, they were curious. And he talked about fear and anger in musk-ox, goats, horses, and porcupines. He was also interested in laughter. “Young Orangs, when tickled,” reported Darwin, “. . . grin and make a chuckling sound” and “their eyes grow brighter.”

Next came another scientist, the Scottish physician William Lauder Lindsay, whose experience made him particularly well-suited for the job of understanding emotion in nonhumans. Lindsay, who had been appointed medical officer at an asylum for the insane in an era when mentally ill humans were treated like animals, went on to argue in a seminal scientific paper published in 1871 that “both in its normal and abnormal operations, mind is essentially the same in man and other animals.”

But perhaps the greatest champions of the twentieth century were two women — Jane Goodall, whose work with chimpanzees helped shift public perception of the emotional and cognitive range of nonhumans, and Rachel Carson, whose writing was key in galvanizing the modern environmental movement. Today, one of the leading scientists working to understand — and advocate for — the psychoemotional experience of animals is neuroscientist Jaak Panksepp, who too began his career at a mental institution for humans. Braitman points to a particularly remarkable video of him tickling a few chubby rats into laughter:

She explains the importance of Panksepp’s research:

After decades of research, Panksepp is convinced that most animal brains, from Oliver’s to a ticklish mouse’s, likely have the capacity for dreaming, for taking pleasure in eating, for feeling anger, fear, love, lust, grief, and acceptance from their mothers, for being playful, and for some conception of selfhood, an argument that might have seemed painfully unscientific just forty years ago. Panksepp believes that emotional capacity evolved in mammals long before the emergence of the human neocortex and its massive powers of cognition. He is careful to say that this doesn’t mean that all animal or even mammalian emotions are the same. And when it comes to complex cognitive skills, he believes that the human brain puts all others to shame. But he is convinced that other animals have many special abilities that we don’t have and this may extend to emotional states. Rats, for example, have richer olfactory lives, eagles have impressive eyesight, and dolphins can sense the world via sight, sound, sonar, and touch. These abilities may translate into more and different feelings associated with their various sensory or cognitive experiences. Panksepp believes that rabbits, for example, may have bigger or different capacities for fear while cats may have larger capacities for aggression and anger.

Citing other scientists’ research on everything from compassion in chimps to altruism and morality in bonobos, Braitman frames the scope of the broader inquiry and its cultural significance:

A number of recent studies have gone far beyond our closest relatives to argue for the possible emotional capacities of honeybees, octopi, chickens, and even fruit flies. The results of these studies are changing debates about animal minds from “Do they have emotions?” to “What sorts of emotions do they have and why?”

North Pacific Giant Octopus by photographer Mark Laita. Click image for more.

This line of thinking, Braitman points out, is neither surprising nor far-fetched — after all, emotions evolved to help our survival, be it by signaling danger and evoking the proper flight response or by incentivizing us to bond and mate with the appropriate creatures. They most likely co-evolved with consciousness as the two phenomena honed one another, which means the evolutionary chain is strewn with emotional experiences. We, as a culture, are slowly coming around to recognizing this — take, for instance, the landmark Cambridge Declaration of Consciousness signed in 2012 by an impressive roster of prominent scientists, seeking to establish definitively that mammals, birds, and even creatures like octopi are conscious and capable of experiencing emotions. Which brings us back to Oliver. Braitman chronicles his descent into the dark night of the soul after his fall:

As I watched Oliver’s disturbing behavior grow more intense, his nightly relentless paw licking, for example, or his frenzied concern over being left by himself, I puzzled over what was going on in his mind. Like so many other animals, he was a furry enigma. And yet discovering the particularities of what he was actually thinking didn’t matter that much when it came to helping him. The reality of Oliver’s raw, self-inflicted sores and my inability to distract him from making them worse was enough to tell me that he was too focused on something that was doing him harm. On one particularly bad evening, he gnawed on the base of his tail until he’d made a hole the size of a tennis ball.

[…]

Despite our efforts to help him, Oliver’s anxiety at being left alone only increased in the years he lived with us. His storm phobia reduced him to a shaking, inconsolable mess, and it took him hours, sometimes days to recover. We’d taken him to a veterinary behaviorist, given him first Valium, then Prozac, then both. We practiced behavioral modification and training in an attempt to manage his anxiety. We played him recorded sounds of storms to desensitize him to thunder and jingled our keys even when we weren’t planning on leaving the house. We took him on long walks, then long hikes. We tried to socialize him with other dogs. We gave him toys and treats. We gave him affection. We thought about getting him another animal companion and then decided against it. We tried, and failed, to give him certainty.

Oliver’s story isn’t one with a happy ending — he does eventually manage to stray from the vigilant humans staffed to ensure his safety. After his death, Braitman’s grief — one of the most profound human experiences — only deepens the human-nonhuman similarities she had been exploring. She reflects:

Losses and disappointment can do that if you’re lucky. Before you know it your pain has welcomed the world. That’s what happened to me, anyway. One anxious dog brought me the entire animal kingdom. I owe him everything.

Plunging back into the muddy waters of understanding animal consciousness, she turns to another parallel between the human and the nonhuman experience — our history of diagnosing it. Diagnoses, she points out, have a tendency to come and go like fashions. In the Victorian era, for instance, conditions like “mortal heartbreak,” “nostalgia,” and “homesickness” were frequent diagnoses on the spectrum of neuroses — and we’ve applied them just as systematically to animals over the centuries. Braitman cites the particularly common trope of 19th-century newspaper reports on “mad” elephants. She quotes from one such article, published in The New York Times in 1880, recounting the story of an Indian elephant who had begun killing local villagers and demolishing buildings:

[The elephant] was not merely wild — it was “mad,” and as cunning and as cruel as a mad man. But insanity itself is a tribute to the animal’s intelligence, for sudden downright madness presumes strong brain power. Owls never go mad. They may go “silly,” or they may be born idiots; but as Oliver Wendell Holmes says, a weak mind does not accumulate force enough to hurt itself.

Illustration for the fairy tales of e.e. cummings by John Eaton, 1965. Click image for more.

Braitman illuminates the deeper, more systematic tragedy this story speaks to:

[Most of these elephants] were not physically ill but more likely reacting against poor treatment and abuse. These mad elephants were newsworthy, not simply because they smashed buildings or cars or trampled people but because they expressed themselves in often spectacular ways — choosing particular individuals on whom to vent their anger or exact revenge, biding their time until they found the right, most devastating moment to act. Captive elephants have been known to suddenly explode into violence, going after their handlers, grooms, or trainers. This is so common that, since the nineteenth century, expressions like running amok came to characterize just this type of event. These accounts were commonplace in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries and still appear in the twenty-first.

Citing the story of Tip — the 18-year-old Asian circus elephant sentenced to death in 1894 on account of his explosive temper — Braitman underscores how irresponsible and blind to our own accountability labels like “mad” can be:

He was deemed mad not because he was rabid or demonstrably insane but because he acted violently toward the men who sought to control him, keep him in chains, and diminish his sensory, social, physical, and emotional world to a small barn. His badness caused his madness, and his madness cemented his badness. Tip was a victim of the human tendency to punish what we misunderstand or fear. New York of the 1890s was a world in which elephants killed men out of vengeance and spite, and insanity could leap from animal to human. How Tip was treated for his behavior, his increasingly restrained world, and his eventual execution reflected the anxieties of the people around him who fretted about the causes of madness and just who was susceptible.

One particularly curious 19th-century human diagnosis, eventually applied to animals, was that of “homesickness” — an ailment considered on par with physical illnesses like scarlet fever and tuberculosis, and “thought to weaken, kill, or even inspire suicide.” The Civil War produced five thousand diagnoses of homesickness, with 74 of the afflicted men believed to have died from the condition. At the height of colonialism, when new species from conquered lands were being brought to Europe and America in zoos, circuses, and other forms of human entertainment, many animals soon began exhibiting the same symptoms as humans suffering from homesickness.

John Daniel

Braitman tells one particularly moving story — that of the gorilla John Daniel, who was first separated from his gorilla mother and then from the young woman who had bought him from a department store, with the intention of making him a part of the family and treating him as a human child. He soon became a London celebrity. But as he was reaching adulthood, it became clear to John Daniel’s human mother that she couldn’t provide for him the life that a large, free-roaming silverback gorilla needed. She set out to find him a worthy home. Nothing in her native England seemed suitable, so when a representative from a private park in Florida began courting her to send the now-famous young gorilla there, it seemed like the right fit. But she was swindled — the man turned out to work for a New York circus. It was too late — John Daniel had been sent to America, where he quickly succumbed to unspeakable gloominess. Braitman writes:

The loneliness and isolation John must have felt inside his cage at the Garden was probably crushing. First he’d been separated from his gorilla mother, then he had been raised like a hairy human child and, at four years of age, would have been developmentally like one. What John Daniel felt when he was taken from [his human parents] is likely similar to what a human child of the same age would feel upon being separated from his parents and the only home he knew, to sit in a cold room with only the gaze of strangers to keep him company. John responded to English. He had culture. He knew a gorilla version of love and affection. He also knew a gorilla form of sadness.

Soon both circus-goers and the press reported that the young gorilla was literally dying of loneliness.

Three weeks later, he died. New York Times reporters attributed his death to homesickness and poor care. Others speculated he died of pneumonia. Braitman notes the inextricable link between the physical and the psychological:

Both things may be true, as John’s immune system was likely weakened by his loneliness and isolation. In the weeks before his death he had refused food and would crouch on his iron bed, covering himself with a blanket, facing away from the front of his cage and the crowds who came to see him. By the time the wife of one of the circus performers began to spend time with him, putting warm compresses on his forehead and giving him the attention he craved, it was too late. A [circus] employee who knew John said that he had been treated like any ordinary museum specimen and this was the problem: “I think myself that he might have lived if allowed to stick to his former habits.”

But though John Daniel’s story is a tragic one, Braitman cites it as a cautionary tale that reminds us how vital it is to ensure better, happier alternatives — something only possible if we acknowledge, then seek to understand, then begin to alleviate mental illness in nonhuman animals. In the epilogue, she writes:

One of the most encouraging aspects of animal mental illness is that, against all odds, many creatures thrive, or at the very least, exhibit the kind of behavior that looks a lot like resilience.

'Coney Island Whale' by Sophie Blackall from 'Missed Connections.' Click image for details.

Her ultimate message is one of optimism and thoughtful advocacy. She recounts a visit to Baja, Mexico, where she encounters a mother whale and her calf — a poignant and beautiful antidote to everything our history with whales should point to. Braitman captures the transcendence of the experience beautifully:

Mass killings at the hands of humans were fundamental events in their natural history. Their choice to approach us in what was once a watery killing field is a fundamental event in ours.

We can call the whales’ behavior resilience or recovery, or we can anthropomorphize it as a kind of human-directed forgiveness. At the very least, the whales are doing something that seems a lot like the expression of affectionate and playful curiosity. Watching a free-living calf swim out of the depths with his mother and, on her urging, look into my eyes while I looked into his is one of the most powerful and mystifying encounters of my life. I believe this is because it was born of choice. Unlike an aquarium beluga, a zoo-dwelling panda, or my neighbor’s Chihuahua, who may make eye contact because there is nowhere else to look, because they hope to be fed or because they fear me, the Baja whales looked at me with, I’m convinced, something like the same wonder and curiosity I had for them.

[…]

I thought about our encounters with other animals and wondered what we might do to make these interactions more like those between the humans and whales of Baja. Could we affect the mental health of both captive and wild animals for the better, not simply by striving to do no harm but by seeking to rectify our mistakes?

Reflecting on the many stories and multitude of research, Braitman brings the journey full-circle, back to Oliver, her oracle of compassion:

The weight of all these accumulated stories convinced me that we should pay closer attention to the mental health of other creatures — because what is good for them is so often good for us. Many people have already taken on this responsibility, and the resulting observations — of monkey executives, nervous dogs, relaxed rats, demented sea lions, and more — have quietly influenced how we think about our own unraveling minds and what we might do to stitch them back together again.

Trying to understand Oliver also led me to be a bit kinder to myself and the humans and other animals around me. When we feel kinship with a pig or a pigeon, really feel it, we can’t help but share a bit of that affection with our own animal selves… To selflessly love another creature is to be open to loving other humans, who are animals as much as pandas, cows, or Shih Tzus. This is why I never trust an animal rights activist who is misogynistic or thinks that Homo sapiens are, at heart, more rotten than any other species. Human rights activists are animal rights activists by default. The reverse should also be true.

Ultimately, Braitman reminds us that our choices shape the world we live in and the responsibility embedded in them is to be addressed with equal parts self-compassion for our human fallibility and compassion for the beings with whom we share not only a planet, but also an emotional reality:

It’s simply that falling short is the human condition, and some problems cannot be taken care of by hoping.

This should not let us off the hook. There are many structural elements of our lives with other creatures that cause needless suffering and could easily be done away with. We could stop teaching elephants to paint, dance, and play soccer, and casting chimps in commercials and giraffes in feature films. We could close our nation’s zoos, or at the very least stop deluding ourselves that it’s our right to see exotic wildlife like gorillas, dolphins, and elephants in every major American city. We could stop trying to convince ourselves that keeping animals in cages or tanks is the best way to educate and inform one another about them, especially since it often costs the animals their sanity. We could instead turn these zoos and other facilities into places where people might engage with animals, domestic and wild, who often thrive in our presence, creatures like horses, donkeys, llamas, cows, pigs, goats, rabbits, and even raccoons, rats, squirrels, pigeons, and possums. We could exchange the polar bear pools for petting zoos and build teaching farms, urban dairies, and wildlife rehabilitation centers where city-dwelling children and adults could volunteer or take classes on cheese making, beekeeping, gardening, veterinary science, wildlife ecology, and animal husbandry.

We could also stop leading the sorts of lives that cause large numbers of our pets to end up on psychopharmaceuticals. We could spend more time walking and playing with them and less time on our phones, checking email and watching television. We could stop bringing animals into our lives that deep down, we know we cannot care for, and we could recognize, in them and their crazy behavior, our own unhealthy habits reflected back to us…

We could also, and most important, make a lasting peace with Darwin’s belief that humans are just another kind of animal, different only by degree. This kind of change will not be easy or fast. It will take the self-transformative power of chameleons, the resolve of mules, the fortitude of migrating whales

Animal Madness is a moving, pause-giving, and ultimately optimistic read in its entirety. Complement it with Jon Mooallem’s magnificent exploration of our complicated relationship with wildlife.

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Maurice Sendak’s Rarest Art: His Vintage Illustrations for William Blake’s “Songs of Innocence”

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“On a cloud I saw a child, and he laughing said to me…”

J.R.R. Tolkien famously asserted that there is no such thing as writing “for children”. Decades later, Maurice Sendak (June 10, 1928–May 8, 2012) would come to echo this belief — and yet he remains one of the best-loved and most influential children’s book authors and illustrators of all time, a patron saint of storytelling for young minds. From his heartwarming early collaborations to his most famous stories to his lesser-known and lovely posters, Sendak’s style is decidedly, unmistakably his own — but like that of any creative artist, it is also an assemblage of his influences. Chief among them is the art and poetry of William Blake, whose sensibility reverberated through Sendak’s work, beginning in his dawning days as an insecure young artist and crescendoing in his final posthumous love letter to the world.

In 1967, when Sendak was thirty-nine and at the peak of his career, he received an unusual assignment that moved his heart unlike any other — a chance to finally pay homage to his great creative hero. It was small and noncommercial, but he took it: The London publisher The Bodley Head wanted to publish a Christmas keepsake commemorating the company’s 80th anniversary, featuring seven poems from Blake’s Songs of Innocence. For each of them, Sendak was asked to create a single, exquisite line drawing. The slim booklet, simply titled Poems from William Blake’s Songs of Innocence (public library), was published in a limited edition of 275 copies, none of which were for sale — instead, they were given away as holiday gifts to the authors and artists The Bodley Head represented, and to a handful of other friends of the press.

The book is considered the rarest of Sendak’s published work — so rare that it’s practically impossible for even art historians to get their eyes on a copy for scholarly work. Only a handful are known to survive today, a couple of which signed by Sendak.

As a great admirer and nascent collector of Sendak’s work, and a generally stubborn person, I knew I had to track down a copy after I first heard about this rare masterpiece. After a dogged hunt, I finally struck gold — not just any old copy, but one of those ultra-rare signed ones, with a small, infinitely delightful original drawing alongside the inscription on the front free endpaper.

In the interest of cultural preservation and scholarship, I am delighted to share a glimpse of this treasure — my great hero paying homage to his great hero. Although the feeble digital screen does absolutely no justice to the vibrant analog humanity of this masterpiece, to know that it reaches the eyes and souls of others in even a small way, that it isn’t being sucked try of its aliveness by archival death, is good enough for me. Please enjoy.

Complement with Sendak’s final gift, My Brother’s Book, where Blake’s influence is at its most pronounced — at once his farewell to the world and his last love letter to his deceased partner, Eugene Glynn. Then, dive into the Sendak archive.

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How We Grieve: Meghan O’Rourke on the Messiness of Mourning and Learning to Live with Loss

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“The people we most love do become a physical part of us, ingrained in our synapses, in the pathways where memories are created.”

John Updike wrote in his memoir, “Each day, we wake slightly altered, and the person we were yesterday is dead. So why, one could say, be afraid of death, when death comes all the time?” And yet even if we were to somehow make peace with our own mortality, a primal and soul-shattering fear rips through whenever we think about losing those we love most dearly — a fear that metastasizes into all-consuming grief when loss does come. In The Long Goodbye (public library), her magnificent memoir of grieving her mother’s death, Meghan O’Rourke crafts a masterwork of remembrance and reflection woven of extraordinary emotional intelligence. A poet, essayist, literary critic, and one of the youngest editors the New Yorker has ever had, she tells a story that is deeply personal in its details yet richly resonant in its larger humanity, making tangible the messy and often ineffable complexities that anyone who has ever lost a loved one knows all too intimately, all too anguishingly. What makes her writing — her mind, really — particularly enchanting is that she brings to this paralyzingly difficult subject a poet’s emotional precision, an essayist’s intellectual expansiveness, and a voracious reader’s gift for apt, exquisitely placed allusions to such luminaries of language and life as Whitman, Longfellow, Tennyson, Swift, and Dickinson (“the supreme poet of grief”).

O’Rourke writes:

When we are learning the world, we know things we cannot say how we know. When we are relearning the world in the aftermath of a loss, we feel things we had almost forgotten, old things, beneath the seat of reason.

[…]

Nothing prepared me for the loss of my mother. Even knowing that she would die did not prepare me. A mother, after all, is your entry into the world. She is the shell in which you divide and become a life. Waking up in a world without her is like waking up in a world without sky: unimaginable.

[…]

When we talk about love, we go back to the start, to pinpoint the moment of free fall. But this story is the story of an ending, of death, and it has no beginning. A mother is beyond any notion of a beginning. That’s what makes her a mother: you cannot start the story.

In the days following her mother’s death, as O’Rourke faces the loneliness she anticipated and the sense of being lost that engulfed her unawares, she contemplates the paradoxes of loss: Ours is a culture that treats grief — a process of profound emotional upheaval — with a grotesquely mismatched rational prescription. On the one hand, society seems to operate by a set of unspoken shoulds for how we ought to feel and behave in the face of sorrow; on the other, she observes, “we have so few rituals for observing and externalizing loss.” Without a coping strategy, she finds herself shutting down emotionally and going “dead inside” — a feeling psychologists call “numbing out” — and describes the disconnect between her intellectual awareness of sadness and its inaccessible emotional manifestation:

It was like when you stay in cold water too long. You know something is off but don’t start shivering for ten minutes.

But at least as harrowing as the aftermath of loss is the anticipatory bereavement in the months and weeks and days leading up to the inevitable — a particularly cruel reality of terminal cancer. O’Rourke writes:

So much of dealing with a disease is waiting. Waiting for appointments, for tests, for “procedures.” And waiting, more broadly, for it—for the thing itself, for the other shoe to drop.

The hallmark of this anticipatory loss seems to be a tapestry of inner contradictions. O’Rourke notes with exquisite self-awareness her resentment for the mundanity of it all — there is her mother, sipping soda in front of the TV on one of those final days — coupled with weighty, crushing compassion for the sacred humanity of death:

Time doesn’t obey our commands. You cannot make it holy just because it is disappearing.

Then there was the question of the body — the object of so much social and personal anxiety in real life, suddenly stripped of control in the surreal experience of impending death. Reflecting on the initially disorienting experience of helping her mother on and off the toilet and how quickly it became normalized, O’Rourke writes:

It was what she had done for us, back before we became private and civilized about our bodies. In some ways I liked it. A level of anxiety about the body had been stripped away, and we were left with the simple reality: Here it was.

I heard a lot about the idea of dying “with dignity” while my mother was sick. It was only near her very end that I gave much thought to what this idea meant. I didn’t actually feel it was undignified for my mother’s body to fail — that was the human condition. Having to help my mother on and off the toilet was difficult, but it was natural. The real indignity, it seemed, was dying where no one cared for you the way your family did, dying where it was hard for your whole family to be with you and where excessive measures might be taken to keep you alive past a moment that called for letting go. I didn’t want that for my mother. I wanted her to be able to go home. I didn’t want to pretend she wasn’t going to die.

Among the most painful realities of witnessing death — one particularly exasperating for type-A personalities — is how swiftly it severs the direct correlation between effort and outcome around which we build our lives. Though the notion might seem rational on the surface — especially in a culture that fetishizes work ethic and “grit” as the key to success — an underbelly of magical thinking lurks beneath, which comes to light as we behold the helplessness and injustice of premature death. Noting that “the mourner’s mind is superstitious, looking for signs and wonders,” O’Rourke captures this paradox:

One of the ideas I’ve clung to most of my life is that if I just try hard enough it will work out. If I work hard, I will be spared, and I will get what I desire, finding the cave opening over and over again, thieving life from the abyss. This sturdy belief system has a sidecar in which superstition rides. Until recently, I half believed that if a certain song came on the radio just as I thought of it, it meant that all would be well. What did I mean? I preferred not to answer that question. To look too closely was to prick the balloon of possibility.

But our very capacity for the irrational — for the magic of magical thinking — also turns out to be essential for our spiritual survival. Without the capacity to discern from life’s senseless sound a meaningful melody, we would be consumed by the noise. In fact, one of O’Rourke’s most poetic passages recounts her struggle to find a transcendent meaning on an average day, amid the average hospital noises:

I could hear the coughing man whose family talked about sports and sitcoms every time they visited, sitting politely around his bed as if you couldn’t see the death knobs that were his knees poking through the blanket, but as they left they would hug him and say, We love you, and We’ll be back soon, and in their voices and in mine and in the nurse who was so gentle with my mother, tucking cool white sheets over her with a twist of her wrist, I could hear love, love that sounded like a rope, and I began to see a flickering electric current everywhere I looked as I went up and down the halls, flagging nurses, little flecks of light dotting the air in sinewy lines, and I leaned on these lines like guy ropes when I was so tired I couldn’t walk anymore and a voice in my head said: Do you see this love? And do you still not believe?

I couldn’t deny the voice.

Now I think: That was exhaustion.

But at the time the love, the love, it was like ropes around me, cables that could carry us up into the higher floors away from our predicament and out onto the roof and across the empty spaces above the hospital to the sky where we could gaze down upon all the people driving, eating, having sex, watching TV, angry people, tired people, happy people, all doing, all being –

In the weeks following her mother’s death, melancholy — “the black sorrow, bilious, angry, a slick in my chest” — comes coupled with another intense emotion, a parallel longing for a different branch of that-which-no-longer-is:

I experienced an acute nostalgia. This longing for a lost time was so intense I thought it might split me in two, like a tree hit by lightning. I was — as the expression goes — flooded by memories. It was a submersion in the past that threatened to overwhelm any “rational” experience of the present, water coming up around my branches, rising higher. I did not care much about work I had to do. I was consumed by memories of seemingly trivial things.

But the embodied presence of the loss is far from trivial. O’Rourke, citing a psychiatrist whose words had stayed with her, captures it with harrowing precision:

The people we most love do become a physical part of us, ingrained in our synapses, in the pathways where memories are created.

In another breathtaking passage, O’Rourke conveys the largeness of grief as it emanates out of our pores and into the world that surrounds us:

In February, there was a two-day snowstorm in New York. For hours I lay on my couch, reading, watching the snow drift down through the large elm outside … the sky going gray, then eerie violet, the night breaking around us, snow like flakes of ash. A white mantle covered trees, cars, lintels, and windows. It was like one of grief’s moods: melancholic; estranged from the normal; in touch with the longing that reminds us that we are being-toward-death, as Heidegger puts it. Loss is our atmosphere; we, like the snow, are always falling toward the ground, and most of the time we forget it.

Because grief seeps into the external world as the inner experience bleeds into the outer, it’s understandable — it’s hopelessly human — that we’d also project the very object of our grief onto the external world. One of the most common experiences, O’Rourke notes, is for the grieving to try to bring back the dead — not literally, but by seeing, seeking, signs of them in the landscape of life, symbolism in the everyday. The mind, after all, is a pattern-recognition machine and when the mind’s eye is as heavily clouded with a particular object as it is when we grieve a loved one, we begin to manufacture patterns. Recounting a day when she found inside a library book handwriting that seemed to be her mother’s, O’Rourke writes:

The idea that the dead might not be utterly gone has an irresistible magnetism. I’d read something that described what I had been experiencing. Many people go through what psychologists call a period of “animism,” in which you see the dead person in objects and animals around you, and you construct your false reality, the reality where she is just hiding, or absent. This was the mourner’s secret position, it seemed to me: I have to say this person is dead, but I don’t have to believe it.

[…]

Acceptance isn’t necessarily something you can choose off a menu, like eggs instead of French toast. Instead, researchers now think that some people are inherently primed to accept their own death with “integrity” (their word, not mine), while others are primed for “despair.” Most of us, though, are somewhere in the middle, and one question researchers are now focusing on is: How might more of those in the middle learn to accept their deaths? The answer has real consequences for both the dying and the bereaved.

O’Rourke considers the psychology and physiology of grief:

When you lose someone you were close to, you have to reassess your picture of the world and your place in it. The more your identity is wrapped up with the deceased, the more difficult the mental work.

The first systematic survey of grief, I read, was conducted by Erich Lindemann. Having studied 101 people, many of them related to the victims of the Cocoanut Grove fire of 1942, he defined grief as “sensations of somatic distress occurring in waves lasting from twenty minutes to an hour at a time, a feeling of tightness in the throat, choking with shortness of breath, need for sighing, and an empty feeling in the abdomen, lack of muscular power, and an intensive subjective distress described as tension or mental pain.”

Tracing the history of studying grief, including Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’s famous and often criticized 1969 “stage theory” outlining a simple sequence of Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, and Acceptance, O’Rourke notes that most people experience grief not as sequential stages but as ebbing and flowing states that recur at various points throughout the process. She writes:

Researchers now believe there are two kinds of grief: “normal grief” and “complicated grief” (also called “prolonged grief”). “Normal grief” is a term for what most bereaved people experience. It peaks within the first six months and then begins to dissipate. “Complicated grief” does not, and often requires medication or therapy. But even “normal grief” … is hardly gentle. Its symptoms include insomnia or other sleep disorders, difficulty breathing, auditory or visual hallucinations, appetite problems, and dryness of mouth.

One of the most persistent psychiatric ideas about grief, O’Rourke notes, is the notion that one ought to “let go” in order to “move on” — a proposition plentiful even in the casual advice of her friends in the weeks following her mother’s death. And yet it isn’t necessarily the right coping strategy for everyone, let alone the only one, as our culture seems to suggest. Unwilling to “let go,” O’Rourke finds solace in anthropological alternatives:

Studies have shown that some mourners hold on to a relationship with the deceased with no notable ill effects. In China, for instance, mourners regularly speak to dead ancestors, and one study demonstrated that the bereaved there “recovered more quickly from loss” than bereaved Americans do.

I wasn’t living in China, though, and in those weeks after my mother’s death, I felt that the world expected me to absorb the loss and move forward, like some kind of emotional warrior. One night I heard a character on 24—the president of the United States—announce that grief was a “luxury” she couldn’t “afford right now.” This model represents an old American ethic of muscling through pain by throwing yourself into work; embedded in it is a desire to avoid looking at death. We’ve adopted a sort of “Ask, don’t tell” policy. The question “How are you?” is an expression of concern, but as my dad had said, the mourner quickly figures out that it shouldn’t always be taken for an actual inquiry… A mourner’s experience of time isn’t like everyone else’s. Grief that lasts longer than a few weeks may look like self-indulgence to those around you. But if you’re in mourning, three months seems like nothing — [according to some] research, three months might well find you approaching the height of sorrow.

Another Western hegemony in the culture of grief, O’Rourke notes, is its privatization — the unspoken rule that mourning is something we do in the privacy of our inner lives, alone, away from the public eye. Though for centuries private grief was externalized as public mourning, modernity has left us bereft of rituals to help us deal with our grief:

The disappearance of mourning rituals affects everyone, not just the mourner. One of the reasons many people are unsure about how to act around a loss is that they lack rules or meaningful conventions, and they fear making a mistake. Rituals used to help the community by giving everyone a sense of what to do or say. Now, we’re at sea.

[…]

Such rituals … aren’t just about the individual; they are about the community.

Craving “a formalization of grief, one that might externalize it,” O’Rourke plunges into the existing literature:

The British anthropologist Geoffrey Gorer, the author of Death, Grief, and Mourning, argues that, at least in Britain, the First World War played a huge role in changing the way people mourned. Communities were so overwhelmed by the sheer number of dead that the practice of ritualized mourning for the individual eroded. Other changes were less obvious but no less important. More people, including women, began working outside the home; in the absence of caretakers, death increasingly took place in the quarantining swaddle of the hospital. The rise of psychoanalysis shifted attention from the communal to the individual experience. In 1917, only two years after Émile Durkheim wrote about mourning as an essential social process, Freud’s “Mourning and Melancholia” defined it as something essentially private and individual, internalizing the work of mourning. Within a few generations, I read, the experience of grief had fundamentally changed. Death and mourning had been largely removed from the public realm. By the 1960s, Gorer could write that many people believed that “sensible, rational men and women can keep their mourning under complete control by strength of will and character, so that it need be given no public expression, and indulged, if at all, in private, as furtively as . . . masturbation.” Today, our only public mourning takes the form of watching the funerals of celebrities and statesmen. It’s common to mock such grief as false or voyeuristic (“crocodile tears,” one commentator called mourners’ distress at Princess Diana’s funeral), and yet it serves an important social function. It’s a more mediated version, Leader suggests, of a practice that goes all the way back to soldiers in The Iliad mourning with Achilles for the fallen Patroclus.

I found myself nodding in recognition at Gorer’s conclusions. “If mourning is denied outlet, the result will be suffering,” Gorer wrote. “At the moment our society is signally failing to give this support and assistance. . . . The cost of this failure in misery, loneliness, despair and maladaptive behavior is very high.” Maybe it’s not a coincidence that in Western countries with fewer mourning rituals, the bereaved report more physical ailments in the year following a death.

Illustration from 'The Iliad and the Odyssey: A Giant Golden Book' by Alice and Martin Provensen. Click image for details.

Finding solace in Marilynne Robinson’s beautiful meditation on our humanity, O’Rourke returns to her own journey:

The otherworldliness of loss was so intense that at times I had to believe it was a singular passage, a privilege of some kind, even if all it left me with was a clearer grasp of our human predicament. It was why I kept finding myself drawn to the remote desert: I wanted to be reminded of how the numinous impinges on ordinary life.

Reflecting on her struggle to accept her mother’s loss — her absence, “an absence that becomes a presence” — O’Rourke writes:

If children learn through exposure to new experiences, mourners unlearn through exposure to absence in new contexts. Grief requires acquainting yourself with the world again and again; each “first” causes a break that must be reset… And so you always feel suspense, a queer dread—you never know what occasion will break the loss freshly open.

She later adds:

After a loss, you have to learn to believe the dead one is dead. It doesn’t come naturally.

Among the most chilling effects of grief is how it reorients us toward ourselves as it surfaces our mortality paradox and the dawning awareness of our own impermanence. O’Rourke’s words ring with the profound discomfort of our shared existential bind:

The dread of death is so primal, it overtakes me on a molecular level. In the lowest moments, it produces nihilism. If I am going to die, why not get it over with? Why live in this agony of anticipation?

[…]

I was unable to push these questions aside: What are we to do with the knowledge that we die? What bargain do you make in your mind so as not to go crazy with fear of the predicament, a predicament none of us knowingly chose to enter? You can believe in God and heaven, if you have the capacity for faith. Or, if you don’t, you can do what a stoic like Seneca did, and push away the awfulness by noting that if death is indeed extinction, it won’t hurt, for we won’t experience it. “It would be dreadful could it remain with you; but of necessity either it does not arrive or else it departs,” he wrote.

If this logic fails to comfort, you can decide, as Plato and Jonathan Swift did, that since death is natural, and the gods must exist, it cannot be a bad thing. As Swift said, “It is impossible that anything so natural, so necessary, and so universal as death, should ever have been designed by Providence as an evil to mankind.” And Socrates: “I am quite ready to admit … that I ought to be grieved at death, if I were not persuaded in the first place that I am going to other gods who are wise and good.” But this is poor comfort to those of us who have no gods to turn to. If you love this world, how can you look forward to departing it? Rousseau wrote, “He who pretends to look on death without fear lies. All men are afraid of dying, this is the great law of sentient beings, without which the entire human species would soon be destroyed.”

And yet, O’Rourke arrives at the same conclusion that Alan Lightman did in his sublime meditation on our longing for permanence as she writes:

Without death our lives would lose their shape: “Death is the mother of beauty,” Wallace Stevens wrote. Or as a character in Don DeLillo’s White Noise says, “I think it’s a mistake to lose one’s sense of death, even one’s fear of death. Isn’t death the boundary we need?” It’s not clear that DeLillo means us to agree, but I think I do. I love the world more because it is transient.

[…]

One would think that living so proximately to the provisional would ruin life, and at times it did make it hard. But at other times I experienced the world with less fear and more clarity. It didn’t matter if I was in line for an extra two minutes. I could take in the sensations of color, sound, life. How strange that we should live on this planet and make cereal boxes, and shopping carts, and gum! That we should renovate stately old banks and replace them with Trader Joe’s! We were ants in a sugar bowl, and one day the bowl would empty.

A Perseid meteor over Joshua Tree National Park (Image: Joe Westerberg / NASA)

This awareness of our transience, our minuteness, and the paradoxical enlargement of our aliveness that it produces seems to be the sole solace from grief’s grip, though we all arrive at it differently. O’Rourke’s father approached it from another angle. Recounting a conversation with him one autumn night — one can’t help but notice the beautiful, if inadvertent, echo of Carl Sagan’s memorable words — O’Rourke writes:

“The Perseid meteor showers are here,” he told me. “And I’ve been eating dinner outside and then lying in the lounge chairs watching the stars like your mother and I used to” — at some point he stopped calling her Mom — “and that helps. It might sound strange, but I was sitting there, looking up at the sky, and I thought, ‘You are but a mote of dust. And your troubles and travails are just a mote of a mote of dust.’ And it helped me. I have allowed myself to think about things I had been scared to think about and feel. And it allowed me to be there — to be present. Whatever my life is, whatever my loss is, it’s small in the face of all that existence… The meteor shower changed something. I was looking the other way through a telescope before: I was just looking at what was not there. Now I look at what is there.”

O’Rourke goes on to reflect on this ground-shifting quality of loss:

It’s not a question of getting over it or healing. No; it’s a question of learning to live with this transformation. For the loss is transformative, in good ways and bad, a tangle of change that cannot be threaded into the usual narrative spools. It is too central for that. It’s not an emergence from the cocoon, but a tree growing around an obstruction.

In one of the most beautiful passages in the book, O’Rourke captures the spiritual sensemaking of death in an anecdote that calls to mind Alan Lightman’s account of a “transcendent experience” and Alan Watt’s consolation in the oneness of the universe. She writes:

Before we scattered the ashes, I had an eerie experience. I went for a short run. I hate running in the cold, but after so much time indoors in the dead of winter I was filled with exuberance. I ran lightly through the stripped, bare woods, past my favorite house, poised on a high hill, and turned back, flying up the road, turning left. In the last stretch I picked up the pace, the air crisp, and I felt myself float up off the ground. The world became greenish. The brightness of the snow and the trees intensified. I was almost giddy. Behind the bright flat horizon of the treescape, I understood, were worlds beyond our everyday perceptions. My mother was out there, inaccessible to me, but indelible. The blood moved along my veins and the snow and trees shimmered in greenish light. Suffused with joy, I stopped stock-still in the road, feeling like a player in a drama I didn’t understand and didn’t need to. Then I sprinted up the driveway and opened the door and as the heat rushed out the clarity dropped away.

I’d had an intuition like this once before, as a child in Vermont. I was walking from the house to open the gate to the driveway. It was fall. As I put my hand on the gate, the world went ablaze, as bright as the autumn leaves, and I lifted out of myself and understood that I was part of a magnificent book. What I knew as “life” was a thin version of something larger, the pages of which had all been written. What I would do, how I would live — it was already known. I stood there with a kind of peace humming in my blood.

A non-believer who had prayed for the first time in her life when her mother died, O’Rourke quotes Virginia Woolf’s luminous meditation on the spirit and writes:

This is the closest description I have ever come across to what I feel to be my experience. I suspect a pattern behind the wool, even the wool of grief; the pattern may not lead to heaven or the survival of my consciousness — frankly I don’t think it does — but that it is there somehow in our neurons and synapses is evident to me. We are not transparent to ourselves. Our longings are like thick curtains stirring in the wind. We give them names. What I do not know is this: Does that otherness — that sense of an impossibly real universe larger than our ability to understand it — mean that there is meaning around us?

[…]

I have learned a lot about how humans think about death. But it hasn’t necessarily taught me more about my dead, where she is, what she is. When I held her body in my hands and it was just black ash, I felt no connection to it, but I tell myself perhaps it is enough to still be matter, to go into the ground and be “remixed” into some new part of the living culture, a new organic matter. Perhaps there is some solace in this continued existence.

[…]

I think about my mother every day, but not as concertedly as I used to. She crosses my mind like a spring cardinal that flies past the edge of your eye: startling, luminous, lovely, gone.

The Long Goodbye is a remarkable read in its entirety — the kind that speaks with gentle crispness to the parts of us we protect most fiercely yet long to awaken most desperately. Complement it with Alan Lightman in finding solace in our impermanence and Tolstoy on finding meaning in a meaningless world.

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