Archive for the ‘Book Reviews’ Category

Cover, Snutt the Ift, by Helen Ward. Available from Little Pickle Press

Every once in a great while a perfect children’s book comes along. Snutt the Ift: A Small but Significant Chapter in the Life of the Universe, published in America by Little Pickle Press, is one of those books. Written and illustrated by Helen Ward and originally published in the United Kingdom as Wonderful Life, the book relates the story of a small space-traveling animal who finds himself far from home and lonely. And then something wonderful happens.

Author and illustrator Helen Ward's studio

I won’t spoil it for you, but it truly is wonderful. Ward tells her story in spare, delicate, and evocative prose, but that’s just the start. She creates a fantastical watercolor world of blossiblums, butterflings, and whishgrass in her illustrations that young children will almost recognize. That slight dissonance provides a great springboard for discussions about the single greatest unspoken question of the book: Has Snutt found us? Does the dissonance in names and images reflect earth through the eyes of a small, weaselish scientist? Or is this another planet entirely?

The book also provides a way to introduce children to the natural world–how are butterflies like butterflings? How are they different? Just what kind of animal is Snutt? What kind of flowers does he discover? Do we have any here? You and your child will have many happy hours exploring along with Snutt.

All in all this book is a happy combination of poetic art and artistic copy, the kind of thing that can happen when an enormously talented writer and an enormously talented illustrator happen to share a body. Snutt’s story is printed using soy inks on recycled paper (to keep our wonderful corner of the universe wonderful). This is a beautiful, gentle book, just right for a bedtime story.

Author and Illustrator Helen Ward


Be sure to enter the grand prize drawing for NINE Little Pickle Press books including the two foreign-language titles. What a great gift for some lucky child. Just sign up for the newsletter at http://www.littlepicklepress.com to automatically be entered. While you’re there, look at all the award-winning books. Good luck!

Tomorrow Snutt explores the Circle of Friends blog–catch up with him there.

Writing Prompt: One of the things that Helen Ward does well is play with perspective–readers are shown Snutt’s world from a dizzying variety of angles. Conversely, Snutt’s perspective–his view of his surroundings–remains consistent. It’s one of the things that helps readers to understand his character. Choose a character you know well–it might be someone in your writing, or someone in your life–and look at the world through his or her eyes for a few minutes. In what ways is this person’s perspective consistent with yours? In what ways is it different? Why?

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Reading and reviewing Sybil Exposed, by Debbie Nathan, has gotten me thinking about a passage in my life when my family was grappling with the question of reality and what constitutes it. I was in my late twenties when, through one of the flukes which proves that truth really is stranger than fiction, my sisters, my brother, and I all learned that our past had been essentially a construct. The people who told us this were the people who had done the constructing, so there was no chance of misunderstanding or misinterpretation. They acknowledged what they had done quite openly.

Saying it like that sounds clean and logical, like unmaking a past and remaking another one was a simple thing. The reality was that it was devastating. Until I went through that experience, I don’t think I ever really understood the degree to which the past shapes us–and how important knowing and understanding that past can be. Nor had I ever considered how frightening it can be to have what one has been raised to believe is truth revealed to be false.

The question of recovered memory and how much credibility it has lay at the heart of our experience–as it should have. Recovered memories may indeed be fragments of the past that have been, in the words of a friend of mine, “misfiled,” and come to light in the course of responsible therapy–or even everyday life. And then there are “recovered” memories, which can be created or stimulated by improper therapy, leading questions, or pressure.

The very nature of the abusive relationship complicates the issue further. As my own counselor explained, “Child abuse can only survive in an atmosphere of secrecy.” The successful abuser is very, very good at looking very, very good. He or she often goes to extreme lengths to discredit victims–often doing so even before the victims speak. It’s a survival mechanism. Often they don’t even have to work very hard at it–abusers choose the vulnerable–my uncle repeatedly moved indigent women with small children into his home. When the women reported the abuse–and some did–they were discredited. After all, they had moved in voluntarily, hadn’t they? They had substance abuse issues, didn’t they? They left their children with him, didn’t they? The sad truth is that some did. Maybe they weren’t good mothers–and that made them perfect for my uncle. And when those reports came in he had only to present his good friend the sheriff as a character reference. Those children never had a chance. In cases like that it’s easy to see why the pendulum swung so  far the other way, with child advocates insisting that no report of abuse, however fantastical or unlikely, should ever be questioned. Successful abusers are exactly those people “who would never do a thing like that.” Often they talk loudly about what they would do to anyone who “hurts a kid.” The successful abuser has learned to call what he or she does by another name–it’s “discipline.” It’s “a game.” Or, all gods help us, making a child “fit for heaven,” or it’s “love.”

It comes back to one central question, “Whom do we believe?” That question alone is incredibly complex, because abusers aren’t the only ones who learn to call the abuse by another name. So do their victims. In my own family, we children would sometimes talk about the scary, hurting, shaming stuff, but we’d always finish up with, “But they loved us,” as if somehow that made all the bad stuff all right. And when we started to hear stories about sex abuse we were very resistant to the idea. In my own case, I can say that in part my resistance was because of my own memories. If I acknowledged that my father was a child molester, then I had to at least look at my own experience in that light, and doing that meant that I would have to act. The very idea of acting was terrifying–my dad was very, very good at looking very, very good. He had amazing personal presence, and had an absolute gift for using shame and guilt to silence dissent. And he loved us. Broken as he was, I never doubted that. He absolutely loved us. Acting would mean hurting him, and losing the one structure upon which I had been told I could depend, my family, or at least a large part of it. The victims of abuse can be the loudest is defense of their abusers.

And so it comes back to the central question–credibility. And that’s terrifying for a anyone confronting the question of abuse. The simple fact is that the people closest to the situation, those people who “should know,” often don’t, precisely because they have been living in a distorted universe for so very long. Having that universe shattered was probably the most terrifying experience of my life. It left me vulnerable in unimaginable ways. My mind filled with fog. I forgot faces. I had no idea what was true, and what was false. I forgot huge parts of my history, and those I remembered I wondered if I had “made up.” Fortunately, I had been a journal writer for years, so I had them for reference.

But all of that did nothing to address the central issue of  how to understand my family. And I wasn’t alone.  At the time I was dealing with the worst of this I lived close to my eldest sister, and so we were able to help each other–sharing memories, offering support, and for a while, when things were the worst, living in the loft of her condo. Given what was happening in our heads, the one thing we knew beyond the shadow of a doubt was that neither of us trusted our memories. My sister had taken journalism in college, and for a while worked as a reporter. It sounds funny to say that journalistic ethics saved the day for us, but they did. When our own sense of the past and our own memories became suspect, when we were first grappling with the idea that no one could be deemed above answering a question, we fell back on the journalistic principle of two independent sources. We decided that, while we wouldn’t necessarily discount a claim that had less, we would only act upon claims for which we had two independent sources, or which the abuser acknowledged. There were a surprising number of them, largely, I suspect, because in many cases abuse had been inflicted under the name of something else. The issue was less what had happened than it was whether or not it was harmful. Those claims were the ones upon which we based our new picture of our family.

The other stories, the ones that we only got from one source, we evaluated based on our new family picture. Did the story fit into the pattern we had? How consistent was the story? Did it stay the same over time, or did it become bigger and better–or worse? Did the story seem to fit what we were coming to understand were our facts, or did it seem to advance an agenda? Did it fit with the provable facts of our lives–where and how we lived at a given point in time? How was the story presented, as a long-term memory, or a recovered memory? Most of all, did the actions of the people in the story ring true with their actions in the rest of their lives? In the end, while we might decide that a story seemed likely, even though there was only one source for it, we never based our actions on a story for which we had less than two sources.

In my own case, that means that even though I have some pretty bad memories, I stop short of saying that my dad molested me not because I doubt my memories, but because I am the only person who remembers the instances in question, and because at the time I was very young. I think it’s quite likely, given the family history and the patterns of behavior that that’s exactly what was happening, but there must always be room for doubt not of what I remember, but of why my dad was doing what he was doing. So did my dad molest me? I don’t know. I think it’s possible, maybe even likely. But I cannot be certain.

Those external guidelines helped us to find our way at a time when we were absolutely lost. Having a counselor who was less interested in spectacular claims than he was in helping us understand our new reality was key. And ultimately, realizing that we would never have answers to every question was vital. In the end, healing meant knowing what we could, understanding what we could, and making peace with the ambiguities.


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Sybil Exposed

Debbie Nathan
Simon & Schuster, 2011
In 1973 the world met Sybil, a woman who, as a result of horrific childhood abuse, has been forced to split herself into 16 distinct personalities. After years of therapy by the heroic Dr. Connie Wilbur Sybil is reintegrated into a 17th, complete personality, and goes on to live a happy and productive life. The book is billed as non-fiction, and was initially presented as a case history.

An absolute ban on communication with “Sybil” was instituted upon the book’s publication. Among other things, all of “Sybil’s” psychiatric records were sealed. Whatever fact-checking or due diligence was done by psychiatrist Connie Wilbur and writer Flora Rheta Schreiber had to suffice; Sybil met the world as a fait accompli, which demanded the public accept it as true in its entirety. After all, why would anybody make up a story like this?

In 1973 the world met Sybil. Who the world did not meet was Shirley Ardell Mason, the woman whose life the book Sybil purported to document. Sybil Exposed, by author Debbie Nathan, sets out to rectify this. Though Wilbur’s psychiatric records either remain sealed or were destroyed upon her death, Flora Rheta Schreiber’s were donated to the John Jay College of Criminal Justice and, after the death of Shirley Mason, the records were unsealed. It is these records, combined with records and interviews of those who knew Mason throughout her life, that form the basis of Nathan’s thesis: That Wilbur’s “treatment” (which included enormous, ongoing doses of Sodium Pentothal combined with barbiturates and hallucinogenics followed up by leading and suggestive questioning was in large part responsible for the “personalities.” Mason herself seems to have understood the “personalities” as ways for identifying certain emotions and actions, rather than as discrete people, and indeed at least once wrote Wilbur a letter (which has been preserved) trying to set the record straight. She argues that she is not multiples, but one person, and requests that her therapy focus not on unnecessary “fusion,” but on exploring why she has felt it necessary to tell such stories. Wilbur interprets the letter as “denial,” and sessions proceed as before.

Nathan provides evidence that Wilbur and Schreiber both had their doubts about the multiple personality disorder diagnosis, but found it professionally and financially advantageous to first create, and then maintain the fiction. In short, it is not an exaggeration to say that no matter who or what Shirley Mason may have been, Sybil was born in a marketing strategy meeting.

And therein lies the seeds of one of the fascinating and troubling passages in American cultural history. Sybil provided “proof” that children may suffer horrific abuse, repress the memory, and the recover it in therapy–and that such memories are always true. This idea was the basis of the Satanic Daycare furor that devastated so many lives–including that of Shirley Mason herself. When her “therapy” begins she is a functioning, productive woman. In short order she is a basket case of nerves and drug addiction, isolated from her support system and completely dependent on Wilbur. After Sybil is published she spends the rest of her life in hiding.

In short, Wilbur and Schreiber, between them, take a bright, troubled, artistic woman and reduce her to a professional patient, and then isolate her from those who might have been able to help. It’s a readable, thoroughly documented record of a woman who was arguably destroyed by the very woman she should have been able to trust the most–her therapist.

Sybil Exposed is available in bookstores and on Amazon in hardcover and kindle editions.

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I saw Rachel Maddow interview Nicolle Wallace a few days ago. They talked about It’s Classified, Wallace’s latest book which was, according to her, partially inspired by the events of the last presidential campaign. “Hey,” I thought. “I watched that campaign.” And so I picked up the book, expecting, I think, that I would see a thinly-veiled rehash of the campaign with a twist–McCain/Palin won.

I got more than I was bargaining for. Wallace’s book may have been inspired by the spectre of a Palin vice-presidency, but if so inspiration quickly gave way to invention. Vice-President Tara Meyers is a tragic figure, a woman who has survived not by brilliance but by outworking everyone else–and by allowing her husband to build a world around her that both conceals and compensates for her debilitating mental/emotional condition. Exactly what this is readers are left to guess, but what is crystal clear is that it’s triggered by stress–and that the stresses of Tara’s new role as Vice-President have triggered it, big time.

It’s Classified posits–somewhat improbably–a Washington in which a woman occupies the Oval Office, another is Secretary of Defense, a third–from the rival party–is Vice-President, and the President’s estranged husband’s mistress is the Vice-President’s communications director. In this story, men tend to be domineering brutes, absent, or gay. With such an overtly female leadership team I expected at least a little sexism among the “silver-back” congressmen, maybe a little bitterness, and certainly some gender-based spin contributing to Tara’s downfall–and it would have been so easy, given that her condition seems to turn her into a caricature of a Welfare Queen–lolling around eating junk food, reading romances, watching daytime TV, and throwing tantrums.

But the end, when it comes, is ironically triggered by a failed interview Tara gives, followed by what would seem to be an entirely appropriate response to a national threat she must give in the President’s absence. While the pretext for the investigation that seeks to determine if the national threat level was raised to deflect attention from the disastrous interview seems a bit thin, particularly in light of the fact that Tara seems to perform well under stress this time, things quickly spiral out of control.

Wallace’s book is clearly written by someone who has spent a lot of time in Washington. And, while the plot is intriguing, it rather steps on its own lines. Tara Meyers is given a free pass for behavior that arises from her mental condition, and is put under investigation for the one time she actually performs admirably in a non-media-related capacity. I have to bow to Wallace’s expertise in this area, but I would have found it more credible had she been given accolades for her performance, particularly in today’s “better-safe-than-sorry” environment.

All in all I found the characters a bit flat, when it would have taken very little to create a bit more complexity. For example, the President is an idealized figure of the “dress for success” woman, wise, strong, analytical, able to put aside all personal emotions for the good of the country, generous enough to wish her husband and his mistress well. Meyers, on the other hand, is a caricature of a “womanly” woman–driven by her emotions, not terribly bright, and dependent on her man to keep the big bad world at bay. In contrast to the President’s tall, lean body she is short, curvy, and prone to fat. Indeed, at more than one point Wallace has her characters refer to the President as the “head” of the administration, and Meyers as its “heart.” The third central figure, Dale, seems curiously ambiguous. Her inner landscape is virtually non-existent. She seems to feel no shame or guilt or even unease for having had an affair with the President’s husband, and indeed seems to take it for granted that the President will harbor no ill will against her for it. Wallace does a nice job of contrasting her inner view of herself with Meyers’ view of her–Dale sees herself as somewhat plain, and notes at one point that she needs to have her hair attended to, while Meyers sees her as everything she herself is not–tall, elegant, and perfectly groomed.

For a Washington insider, Dale seems curiously willing to accept people at face value–she becomes friends with a man she hardly knows, and immediately begins to spill the beans about her work worries. Likewise, while she says that she doesn’t trust Ralph, the President’s chief of staff, she meekly follows his directives without taking any real steps to protect herself. One of the most telling scenes in the book occurs when she is complaining to her new friend about the circumstances of her life. He notes that she refuses to accept responsibility for the results of her own actions, and tells her that though she portrays herself as a victim, in reality many of her problems arise as a natural result of her own actions. The scene is powerful, and it seems to hold an important key to understanding Dale’s character. Regrettably, Wallace doesn’t follow it up with any indication of growth. Dale cuts off contact with her friend, who later apologizes for having spoken out of line to her.

It’s Classified is an interesting book, partially because of its context, partially because it was written by a woman who, like the best writers do, writes what she knows. But I find myself wishing that there had been just a little growth, that the events of the book hadn’t fallen  on such very barren soil. You can find It’s Classified on Amazon in hardcover, kindle, and audio versions.

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