Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘health’

05 JUNE, 2014

Van Gogh and Mental Illness

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“One feels as if one were lying bound hand and foot at the bottom of a deep dark well, utterly helpless.”

Around the time that Tolstoy was tussling with depression and his spiritual crisis, on the other side of Europe another creative icon was struggling with the darkness of his own psychoemotional landscape. As he was painting some of the most celebrated and influential art of all time, Vincent Van Gogh was combating his anguishing mental illness — frequent episodes of depression, paralyzing anxiety and, according to some accounts, the symptoms of bipolar disorder — which would eventually claim his life in 1890, shortly after his 37th birthday.

Van Gogh’s most direct and honest account of his psychoemotional turmoil comes from the letters to his brother Theo, originally published in 1937 as the hefty tome Dear Theo: The Autobiography of Vincent van Gogh and later excerpted in My Life & Love Are One (public library) — the same wonderful 1976 gem that gave us his thoughts on love, tracing “the magic and melancholy of Vincent van Gogh.” The title comes from a specific letter written during one of the painter’s periods of respite from mental illness, in which he professes to his brother: “Life has become very dear to me, and I am very glad that I love. My life and my love are one.”

Dutch newspaper report from December 30, 1888: 'Last Sunday night at half past eleven a painter named Vincent Van Gogh, appeared at the maison de tolérance No 1, asked for a girl called Rachel, and handed her ... his ear with these words: 'Keep this object like a treasure.' Then he disappeared. The police, informed of these events, which could only be the work of an unfortunate madman, looked the next morning for this individual, whom they found in bed with scarcely a sign of life. The poor man was taken to hospital without delay.'

In one of the early letters, Van Gogh expressed an aspiration that remained significant for him throughout his life:

Let us keep courage and try to be patient and gentle. And not mind being eccentric, and make distinction between good and evil.

It’s also a thought bittersweet in hindsight, given the self-compassion it implies for being eccentric. Years later, that very eccentricity would be interpreted as madness by his neighbors, who would evict him from his house and lead to his checking into an insane asylum.

Meanwhile, his bouts of depression, when they descended upon him, were unforgiving. In another letter to Theo, he writes:

I am so angry with myself because I cannot do what I should like to do, and at such a moment one feels as if one were lying bound hand and foot at the bottom of a deep dark well, utterly helpless.

'Self-Portrait with Straw Hat' by Vincent van Gogh, winter 1887/1888

But underlying his deep despair is a subtle sense of optimism that carries him and enables him to continue painting despite the mental anguish:

This is my ambition, which is founded less on anger than on love, founded more on serenity than on passion. It is true that I am often in the greatest misery, but still there is within me a calm, pure harmony and music. In the poorest huts, in the dirtiest corner, I see drawings and pictures. And with irresistible force my mind is drawn towards these things. Believe me that sometimes I laugh heartily because people suspect me of all kinds of malignity and absurdity, of which not a hair of my head is guilty — I, who am really no one but a friend of nature, of study, of work, and especially of people.

Like artist Maira Kalman, who asserted nearly a century and a half later that work and love are the two keys to a full life, Van Gogh begins to see his work as his unflinching sense of purpose, his salvation:

How much sadness there is in life! Nevertheless one must not become melancholy. One must seek distraction in other things, and the right thing is to work.

Having at one point subsisted primarily on bread, coffee and absinthe, he embraces work as life’s highest reward, worth any sacrifice:

I believe more and more that to work for the sake of the work is the principle of all great artists: not to be discouraged even though almost starving, and though one feels one has to say farewell to all material comfort.

'Self-Portrait with Bandaged Ear,' 1889, painted shortly after he sliced off his own ear

But in reflecting — as Kurt Vonnegut memorably did — on what makes life fulfilling, it seems that rather than conveying a conviction to his brother, Van Gogh is trying to convince himself:

I have nature and art and poetry, and if that is not enough, what is enough?

And yet, Van Gogh ultimately sees his psychological struggles not as something to negate but as his artistic truth, as a vital part of his honest experience, which is the necessary foundation of great art:

Do you know that it is very, very necessary for honest people to remain in art? Hardly anyone knows that the secret of beautiful work lies to a great extent in truth and sincere sentiment.

Complement My Life & Love Are One with Kierkegaard on creativity and anxiety, then revisit Van Gogh’s never-before-revealed sketchbooks.

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21 MAY, 2014

Children’s Endearing Letters to Judy Blume About Masturbation, and the Beloved Author’s Response

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“Dear Judy, I want to ask you a very important question…”

In 1879, Mark Twain delivered a brilliant satirical lecture about masturbation, mocking the cultural hypocrisies around a practice so prevalent, so natural, yet so condemned. Nearly 130 years later, science writer extraordinaire Mary Roach traced the perilous religious roots of these hypocrisies. But the most poignant reflections on the subject come from those that suffer from such stigmas most acutely and with the least social support available: children. It’s no surprise, then, that kids whose parents and teachers either don’t address the subject or shroud it in censorship and condemnation would look for solace elsewhere.

Generations have found such solace — as well as a comforting sense of being less alone and less abnormal in their unwitting normalcy — in the books of beloved author Judy Blume, who has tackled many timelessly tricky subjects in her young-adult novels, including masturbation in the 1973 classic Deenie. But Blume addresses the subject directly in a chapter of the wholly excellent Letters to Judy (public library) — the same wonderful vintage compendium that gave us children’s moving letters to Blume about being queer.

Judy Blume signing a copy of Deenie (photograph by Mariah Jasmine Bonifacio)

In one letter, 13-year-old Nikki sends an itemized list of questions that might appear amusing at first glance, but is, upon closer inspection, emblematic of a profound cultural failure — a failure to inform, and an implicit failure to comfort by normalizing the very thing that is so natural and common yet so capable of instilling a soul-shattering sense of isolation in children made intentionally unaware of this prevalence:

Dear Judy,

I read your book Deenie. You wouldn’t believe how happy I was to know that I’m not the only person to do what Deenie does. You are the only person who has ever mentioned anything about this. So could you please answer my questions.

  1. How did you find out about this?
  2. Is it a kind of disease?
  3. How did I know to start doing this?
  4. Am I weird?
  5. How many other letters have you received saying that other people do this (if any)?
  6. Approximately how many people do this?
  7. Is what I do going to harm my insides (like by not letting me have children)?
  8. Am I a fag?

I hope to hear from you very soon. Please!

Blume targets the source and addresses the parents who make such anguishing and unnecessary spirals of anxiety possible, relaying a story at once heartening in showing that kids will always find a way to pursue their curiosity, and heartbreaking in revealing the outrageous acts of censorships of which adults are capable in their efforts to curtail that boundless curiosity:

When you are choosing books about sexuality for your kids make sure that there is an honest discussion of masturbation included. Chances are, they’re not going to want to talk about it with you, but just finding out that it’s okay will be a relief for them.

A young man wrote that he didn’t get a good night’s sleep during his adolescent years. He tried to train his mind before he went to sleep to think about mathematical problems. He tried to concentrate on them so he wouldn’t have erections, or worse, wet dreams.

When Then Again, Maybe I Won’t was published I met a woman who told me that her son had been given a copy for his twelfth birthday. She read the book first but before giving it back to him she cut out two pages. “How did you do that?” I asked. “With a scissors,” she said. When I asked why she had cut out those two pages she told me that she didn’t think her son was old enough to read about wet dreams or masturbation.

Last year I met her son. He is twenty-four now. I asked him if he remembered the book. “Sure,” he said. “And I always knew that my mother had cut out those pages even though she told it was a printing error. So I went down to the public library and I read the rest of the book there.”

Another 13-year-old, Jolene, speaks to the precious gift of Blume’s books in pulverizing that sense of isolation and aberration:

Dear Judy,

I have read all of your books. They helped me not to be afraid and they answer my questions. I thought I was different but I’m not. In your books are things I would never bring out in the open with my mother. Like in your book Deenie — she touches her special place. Well, I do that too, but I always thought I was the only one.

14-year-old Barbara is on the same page:

Dear Judy,

My mom and I have a very open relationship. But the one thing I cannot bring myself to mention to anyone is masturbation. I know (and your books helped me to understand) that it’s not bad. Just something about it is really embarrassing.

In this heartbreaking letter, 12-year-old Heather offers another account of the traumatic and toxic cultural narrative purveyed to children about one of the body’s most natural physical experiences:

Dear Judy,

I want to ask you a very important question. Okay, I’ll start from the beginning. When I was little, about four or five, I started touching my special place. And I got a nice feeling. I had a baby-sitter during this time. Her name was Donna. And she knew that I touched my special place. She said that if I kept touching it, it would get big, then it would bleed, then it would fill with pus and pop! Then I would have to have an operation. So I stopped touching it.

When I was going into sixth grade I started again. And one day this stuff came out of me. My mom said it was discharge and that it’s normal. But I’m scared to even touch my special place now. I think it will pop. This is serious. I told my mom and she told me that Donna was just lying but I’m still scared. Can you explain what happened? Please answer this letter as I am very scared.

Blume addresses the all too pervasive issue:

Yes, there are still myths about masturbation! The stories that Donna told Heather were frightening and destructive. A grown man wrote that his adolescent years were “a quiet hell of silent suffering.” He said that he thought it was the fact that nobody ever talked about masturbation that led him to believe that he was the only disgusting, degenerate pervert in the world.

I never heard the word masturbation when I was growing up. Yet at twelve I knew I had a special place and that I could get that good feeling by touching it. I talked about it with some of my friends, who had also discovered that they had special places. I never found anything relating to my early sexuality in books, so there was some comfort in finding out from my friends that I was not alone.

For an added delight, complement Letters to Judy with Amanda Palmer’s tribute to Judy Blume, from the altogether fantastic collaborative record An Evening with Neil Gaiman & Amanda Palmer:

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16 MAY, 2014

Artist Matt Freedman’s Courageous Visual Diary of Cancer

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A graphic chronicle emanating honesty and humor — our two greatest weapons in the face of helplessness.

Graphic nonfiction is becoming an increasingly compelling medium for using comics to tackle serious subjects. Meanwhile, the visual arts are being enlisted in exploring the most private nooks of mental health, with projects like Bobby Baker’s visual diary of depression and children’s drawings of living with autism. Now comes Relatively Indolent But Relentless: A Cancer Treatment Journal (public library) — a remarkable visual chronicle by New York-based artist, writer, and curator Matt Freedman, who was diagnosed with a rare form of cystic carcinoma in the fall of 2012, an aggressive cancer that had already spread from his tongue to his throat and lungs by the time it was detected. Before beginning the grueling treatment, Freedman, who teaches in the Visual Studies program at my alma mater, the University of Pennsylvania, received a blank sketchbook as a gift from his colleagues and students. Over the course of his reality-rupturing experience, he proceeded to fill it up with simple sketches that emanate incredible honesty and humor — perhaps our two greatest weapons in the face of helplessness.

Freedman writes in the preface:

I was facing about seven weeks of radiation and chemotherapy. If I completed just four pages a day, I would fill the entire 240-page book by the time I was done. That looked like a good trade: a notebook filled with words and pictures in exchange for simply living through an unavoidable ordeal…

Completing the process and completing the book took much the same underwhelming commitment: day-to-day incremental progress that led to final results that were impossible to imagine at the beginning.

From trying to figure out what might have caused the cancer (was it the mouthguard he had made, which “sort of worked, but not really, and not for long” and which his dog licked every chance she got?) to grappling with the inevitable why me anger (“I believe I am average and that only average things can happen to me.”) to surrendering to the anguishing anxiety of the uncertain outcome, Freedman rigorously recorded the psychoemotional roller-coaster of his two-month radiation therapy.

He began each of his daily sketches like he did his treatment: with no guarantees, not knowing where things would go. Fittingly, the unpolished rawness of his sketchbook style mirrors the reality of his experience — sometimes frantic, sometimes uneventful, sometimes dark, sometimes hopeful, often messy, always imbued with the courage of simply showing up for life and its unforgiving curveballs. What emerges is not a grand philosophical epiphany but a tapestry of details, reminding us that life often happens in the small moments between the big news, the diagnoses, the traumas and the triumphs.

Relatively Indolent But Relentless is stirring and beautiful in its entirety, and draws as close to delightful as its subject allows. It comes from indie publisher Seven Stories Press, who also gave us graphic artists’ reimaginings of the literary canon.

via Steve Heller

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