Monday, February 28, 2005

I would rather have a free bottle in front of me... 

A large, older man with suspicious looking scars on both of his temples came in. He was being guided around by his helper/handler and was very docile but a little vacant, so I concluded, probably a little bit melodramatically, that he had been lobotomized. While I was pondering the medical history of this possible relic from the dark ages of psychiatry I got an e-mail, like a sign from above, from the Morbid Fact Du Jour. The e-mail was all about Walter Freeman, the doctor who popularized the procedure in the United States. By all accounts, he was a dour, emotionally frigid Calvinist (is that redundant?), who, thanks to his Calvinist work ethic, tirelessly performed thousands of the surgeries himself. Sometimes he would perform as many as 10 an hour in an assembly line like conditions, and even took his act on the road in a camper that served as a mobile hospital. Even after the field of psychiatry abandoned lobotomies for drug therapies, even after the procedure was widely discredited for its horrible side effects and unacceptable mortality rates, he continued to perform the procedure, convinced of its efficacy. Ultimately, over 50,000 patients in the United States were lobotomized. Lobotomies were not always an operation of last resort for the criminally insane, either, but performed on children with behavioral problems, rebellious teenagers, depressed housewives and alcoholics.
Perhaps its cost effectiveness – the operation cost only a couple of hundred dollars while institutionalization cost thousands – contributed to its popularity as a treatment.

Scientology, for all of its bizarre beliefs, predatory financial practices and popularity among flaky Hollywood types, was created as an alternative to the outrageous abuses and procedures of the field of psychiatry in the 1950s. Last night while watching the Oscars, which was only bearable because of the miracle of Tivo, I commented how surprised I was that no actor has thanked Scientology in one of their rambling, effusive acceptance speeches. When is Scientology going to be given some sort of ‘lifetime’ achievement award by the academy? E wondered aloud how many times over the years the statuettes have been inserted vaginally (or rectally).

Lobotomy Hall of Fame:

Rose Williams – Tennessee’s sister, believed to be the inspiration for the emotionally fragile Laura Wingfield of The Glass Menagerie. The operation reduced his sister to an infantile state, and she had to be institutionalized the rest of her life. Williams never forgave his parents for consenting to the procedure, and may have become alcoholic because of the tragedy.

Rosemary Kennedy – mildly retarded, but at 23 was beginning to become rebellious, promiscuous and difficult to handle. Rather than operating on her brain, couldn’t they have just sent her to the Magdalene laundries along with all of the other ‘bad’ Catholic girls?

Frances Farmer – Exquisitely beautiful, but controversial, eccentric, a bit of a hellcat and a seriously hard drinker. She was arrested after violently resisting the police when she was pulled over for driving under the influence. Paraded about and humiliated at the police station, she remained defiant and uncooperative and listed her occupation as ‘cocksucker’ on her arrest form. I’ve always kind of admired that. Her mother blamed her subsequent breakdown on world communism.

In Literature and Cinema:
Randle Patrick McMurphy in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest.

Narrow Escapes:
Catherine Holly, in Suddenly, Last Summer. In lieu of his sister, Tennessee Williams gets to save another beautiful girl from being forcefully lobotomized, but only in his art. A psychiatrist played by Montgomery Clift is under great pressure to lobotomize patient Catherine Holly (Liz Taylor), because her aunt has promised to donate a large sum to the hospital if he does. He evaluates Cathy and discovers that she isn't delusional - her aunt just wants to silence her from every speaking about that terrible thing she saw happen to Violet's son last summer. Apparently, Louisiana is NOT the place you want to be involuntarily committed.

Am I leaving anyone out? I thought that Benjy, the retarded narrator from The Sound and the Fury, belonged on this list, but then remembered that he was castrated, not lobotomized.

Thursday, February 24, 2005

Betty Butterfield, Interrupted 

This video clip is about the funniest I have seen in a long time. She's like a country fried Liz Taylor circa the photograph on the cover of Hollywood Babylon, around the time when John Belushi cruelly imitated her choking, self administering the Heimlech manuever and then continuing her meal on SNL. Betty Butterfield is what Liz Taylor's character in Tennessee William's Southern Gothic classic Suddenly Last Summer might have become after menopause, a couple of nervous breakdowns, four or five divorces and a near deadly bout with valium addiction. Lucky for Liz's character, Montgomery Clift was there to rescue her from her Aunt Violet's schemes to lobotomize her so she could never, ever speak of that terrible thing she saw happen to her cousin Sebastian that summer before. Speaking of inappropriately prescribed lobotomies, too bad poor little Rosemary Kennedy wasn’t also spared that fate. Her father whisked her away to the clinic while her mother Rose was away for the weekend to have her lobotomized. I've read ample descriptions of her behavior and samples of her letters and she didn't seem all that retarded to me - certainly not dangerous and menacing enough so to warrant a lobotomy. She did have that Kennedy libido, however, and was sneaking out and running around, which put her at risk of shaming the Kennedy family with a pregnancy or disease. Although the surgery turned her into a drooling vegetable, (much like Tennessee William's emotionally delicate sister, on whom he based the character Laura Wingfield of The Glass Menagerie) it did cure her of her promiscuity, which is what seemed to have concerned her father the most. I wonder what her mother, the long suffering Rose, thought of the whole thing. Speaking of Rose, my colleague over at The Well Dressed Librarian has the best phrase for enthusiastically expressing his affirmation. Instead of the tired old 'Does the Pope wear a funny hat?' or 'Does a bear shit in the woods?' he asks, 'Did Rose Kennedy own a black dress?'

Back to Suddenly Last Summer...I just ordered the DVD for the branch. One of my colleagues is fighting the good fight on our AV Selection Committee and managed to get the DVD on the list. Every member of the committee seems to have joined the committee for the sole purpose of pushing his or her own special agenda and/or questionable taste on the patrons of the system, so much so that often only very odd and inexplicable choices make it on there. One old unrehabilitated Leftie will only propose obscure documentaries about labor struggles in Latin America and other 3rd World countries, while another has affinity only for crap from the 80s, which is how Curly Sue, The Pickup Artist and the first season of Fresh Prince of Bel Air made it on this month's list. Another one put The Olympiad, Triumph of the Will and The Boys from Brazil. If you take out the message, I'm actually a big fan of Leni Reifenstahl's work, but come on. Usually I would just sit around ineffectively complaining about all of this, but I've decided to take action and join a selection committee of my own to make sure that the right materials get in the collection. I've also put in an application for a promotion. I'm not sure why - maybe it has something to do with E switching our Secret deodorant to the new "Ambition" scent.

Friday, February 18, 2005

I forgot my mantra again 

About five feet away from the reference desk I heard a man talking to himself in a breathy whisper. There was a rhythmic, repetitive quality to what he was saying, as if he were counting off a rosary or chanting a mantra. When I subtly leaned over to listen I discovered he wasn’t saying Hail Marys but “I’m going to kill myself, I’m going to kill myself, I’m going to kill myself, I’m going to kill myself.” Occasionally he would shake his head and laugh with manic cheer, but then he would start up again. I nervously kept an eye on him the rest of the evening, worried that he was going to stop abruptly, look over at me and say, “I'm going to kill my - Wait, not myself, YOU.” Anyway, if "I'm going to kill myself" is indeed his mantra, then he needs to have a serious discussion with his guru.

Wednesday, February 16, 2005

Bring in Da Funk! 

Because rain and damp release odors embedded in the clothing, skin and hair of our patrons, there has been a lot of airborne funk at the library. By funk I do not mean the awesome power of a fully operational mothership, but smells that would trigger even Linda Lovelace’s gag reflex. The other day while I was poring through my indispensible field guide for working in the library, the DSM IV, I found a fascinating disorder called Taijin Kyofusho I discovered it in the body dysmorphic section, which reports that it seems be a peculiarly Japanese cultural phenomenon. People who suffer from it are incapacitated by a paranoia that their body odor is offensive to others. Maybe the disorder will catch on here, sort of the way that manga has. I would like to infect certain patrons with it, in any case.

I've been preoccupied by smells even more so than usual lately because of a wonderful book that I'm reading called Jacobson's Organ and the Remarkable Nature of Smell. The author, Lyall Watson, focuses on the different attitudes existing on smells among cultures, which may even have a biological root. Although bathing and cleanliness are their national obsession, the Japanese have far fewer sweat glands than Europeans and emit much less body odor. In fact, 90 percent of Japanese have no detectable underarm odor because they have almost no sweat glands there. Men there can even be disqualified from military service for emitting underarm odor. Japanese noses are sensitive - they complain of Europeans having bata kusai, or ‘butter stink,’ an odor that Europeans emit from eating dairy. Japanese can detect it and find the odor extrememly distasteful.

The French, not known for their bathing or arm pit shaving habits, seem to go the other way - they believe their underarm odor is alluring and that is has an aphrodisiacal effect. French men call their underarms ‘spice boxes.’ A French novelist describing his femme fatale character wrote, “The scent of her underarms easily uncaged the animal in men.” They're not comletely off base: underarm sweat contains all sorts of sex pheromones, powerful signals that cause profound changes in peoples that smell them. After dances, girls in rural Austria give their beaux apple slices that they had placed under their arms while dancing to increase their desire for them.

Watson describes how smells act as telegrams, powerful messengers that can influence behavior, attitude and emotion in plants and animals, including humans, even though our sense of smell is practically vestigial compared to most creatures. Smells’ influence on our behavior is often subversive because much of it is unconscious and unexpected. A highly recommended book.

Monday, February 14, 2005


One winter night at closing time a male patron refused to leave. I was the only librarian on duty, and this patron had come to my attention earlier for hawking and spitting repeatedly in one of our large potted plants. Not only was what he was doing completely disgusting and unsanitary, there was a taunting, confrontational quality to his actions. He made sure to do it only when my back was turned, as if we were playing a game of Mother May I. Even if I couldn't see him I could still hear him 'watering' the library's plant, and when I finally caught him in the act I told him to knock it off or I would have him thrown out. He behaved the rest of the evening until it was time to close. Despite my making several announcements about the library’s impending closure he remained settled comfortably in a desk upstairs, looking as if he were not planning on leaving any time soon. After beseeching him with several “Sir, we’re closing and you must leave now!” we flicked the lights like it was last call at a bar and he got up. He was the only patron left and he dallied putting his things away and meandered toward the exit. Then he but suddenly turned around and planted himself by a chair at the door. He sat down by the door, glaring and sizing me and the two female pages up with this malevolent leer that said, “I’m going to first rape you, and then you, and then you.” I didn’t want to be the kind of hysterical ninny to overreact and call 911 but this time I was really scared. I looked around for weapons to defend us with and the best I could come up with was a stapler and the Physician's Desk Reference to throw at his head (it is dangerously heavy). Right before I picked up the phone to call the police he got up and skulked out the door.

Since we have no security guards stationed here and practically an all female staff, I really feel defenseless at times, especially at night. To improve my peace of mind E gave me a month unlimited pass to a Krav Maga studio. Krav Maga is an Israeli martial art. It’s specifically geared for street fighting and has no philosophical grounding or artful form. It’s all about eye gouging, biting, groin smashing; in other words, disabling your attacker by any means necessary. I went to my first class on Sunday. I spent an hour punching, kicking and kneeing a bag at its groin level. I LOVED IT, but I today my arms are these dangling, useless appendages of discomfort. I feel like I lifted a burning car off a child in one of those displays of freakish strength that people claim to have in times of emergency, the phenomenon that Dr. David Banner was studying when he had his little accident in the laboratory. I can’t wait for my next class. Even if I never have to use it, this will get my ass in shape.

Tuesday, February 08, 2005

If you like a book, don't meet the author. 

Or don’t read his or her biography. Raymond Chandler’s advice could not be sager in the case of many authors of beloved children’s classics. (Celebrities on the children’s book bandwagon take note) Lewis Carroll, Hans Christian Anderson and J.M. Barrie (despite the utter fabrication that is Finding Neverland) had very bizarre, suspect aspects to their lives. After discovering certain dark truths about them, you find yourself wishing you could expunge the details from your memory so you can continue enjoying their stories in innocent peace without the disturbing subtext of their personal lives.

Even when I was little, however, the stories of Hans Christian Anderson sickened me with their sadism and misogyny. One of his nastiest tales is The Red Shoes, about a little girl who pays the ultimate price for her frivolity when she wears red dancing shoes because she prefers them to her plain, but sensible, wooden clogs. When she dons the shoes she forgets to pay attention in church and begins to dance with joy because they are so beautiful. Soon she finds she cannot stop dancing because the shoes are cursed! She dances night and day and the shoes fill with blood from her feet. She is about to die of exhaustion when a 'kindly' executioner takes pity upon her and chops off her feet. Even the amputation is not severe enough of a punishment for the girl’s sins of vanity and materialism. When she finally truly, thoroughly repents in church after hearing the beauty of the choir, Little Miss High and Mighty Fine Airs dies in shame of a broken heart. She then ascends to heaven, where no one cares what kind of shoes she wears. What a beautiful story. And his classic taleThe Little Mermaid? The price the mermaid pays for for exchanging her tail for feet (and it’s implied, what goes in between them, which she desires so she can have a complete relationship with her beloved prince) is that her every footstep is agony. Each time she walks it's as if she is stepping on knives. Disney left that part out for some reason. And don’t even get me started on The Little Matchstick Girl, which gave me nightmares when I was a little girl.

A recent biography of a children’s author that you don’t want to miss, though, is Jean Nathan’s The Secret Life of the Lonely Doll. Nathan chronicles the tragic, bizarre life of Dare Wright, the author of the best selling children’s classic The Lonely Doll, and it is riveting and offers great psychological insight into the creative processes of the author of the classic children's series. Born in 1914 to a socially prominent but unhappily married parents, Dare was whisked away by her mother after her parents divorce when she was 4. Dare never saw her father again, but developed an eerily close relationship with her mother, Edie, a narcissistic society portrait painter who treated Dare as little more than an extension of herself. Edie kept Dare isolated from other family and children during her childhood. As Dare grew older they would attend parties and take long trips abroad, accompanying each other arm in arm likeSebastian and Violet Venable. People often mistook them for a lesbian couple. Although the biographer doesn't believe the relationship was physically incestuous, at night the mother and daughter would sleep together, Edie hugging Dare tightly like she was her own living doll. Their life together was rich in fantasy, filled with dress up and make believe games. They would spend the days absorbed in creative endeavors like painting, photography and dress making in a world of their own making. Her mother took a lot of photographs of Dare when she was an adult posed in the nude.

Elegant, refined and beautiful, Dare had many suitors, but she could never leave mama for any of them and seemed to have suffered from retarded emotional growth and a chronic case of frigidity. (One beau reported that when he tried to kiss her she thrust a doll between them, warding him off like the doll was a crucifix and he a vampire.)

As a young woman, Dare did achieve independent success as a photographer. After a brief stint as a fashion model, Dare began working on the other side of the camera and became a photographer of some acclaim. She then created The Lonely Little Doll series, children's books illustrated by photographs about a little doll named Edith (Dare's mother's name). Edith is terribly lonely until two bears, a daddy and a baby, show up one day. Although the books are charming and were incredibly popular, they have a creepy, inescapable eroticism running throughout them. Edith’s lacy panties are almost always visible and her hair is often mussed in a sexy ‘bed-head’ style. There is an undeniable S&M bondage element in the series as well. A recurrent theme in their adventures is for Baby Bear to lead Edith astray. Disaster ensues and Papa Bear has to rescue them from their foolishness. He always punishes Edith with a good spanking over his knee, her lacy panties provocatively visible. Edith also gets tied up a lot in her adventures. Despite the blatant eroticism, the books obviously resonated with little girls. The series was wildly popular, among the top selling children's books in the 50s and 60s.

Tragically, Dare was unable to heal herself through her art, although the psychodymanics that play out in her work are fascinating. When her mother died, Dare, in her sixties, found herself adrift and lost. Alone in her New York apartment/studio, she retreated into alcoholism and fantasy. When she would venture outside of her apartment she often stationed herself like a bag lady on a bench in Central Park, her mangy blonde wig askew, surrounded by vagrant suitors. She was trustingly childlike and would often bring homeless men home to stay with her, asking her horrified maid, “Isn’t he so handsome?” Her friends were helpless to stop her descent. After she was raped and beaten by one of the vagrants she had taken in (Nathan surmises that this was Dare's only sexual encounter), her decline accelerated and she eventually had to be hospitalized permanently. She died two years later in the hospital at the age of 86.

Saturday, February 05, 2005

Shine on, You Crazy Diamond 

The other day a homeless man with wild eyes approached the reference desk and asked where the Bibles were, a big tip off that he was schizophrenic. I’ve noticed that many schizophrenics, or at least the ones who frequent the library, seem preoccupied by religion. I've read that this has something to do with their brains' overabundant production of the chemical dopamine, which causes schizophrenics to infuse every object and event with either mystical meaning or paranoid significance. They come to the library to seek answers in religious literature or propound on their persecutory or conspiratorial theories. Because of deinstitutionalization, or at least the way the process has been carried out, and other complex societal forces and conditions, many mentally ill homeless camp out at the library because they have no other place to go.

Usually as soon as schizophrenics open their mouth I can identify them by their spiel. Without preamble, they launch into a monologue about how they are receiving messages from Jesus or government agencies or the Kennedy’s. If they are paranoid schizophrenics, they will say that those agents are conspiring against them. (I actually find the Kennedy's very sinister myself.) Their chatter is as recognizable and telltale a symptom of their disease as the visible symptoms of psoriasis or Kaposi Sarcoma or the chicken pox.

One patron told me one night that he instantaneously knew that his son was schizophrenic when he called him and announced, "Dad! I made a great discovery! Jesus and Hitler were the same man!"

After we had three paranoid schizophrenics in a row talk at the reference desk about receiving radio transmissions in their heads from the CIA, my colleague commented, “What is the deal? Do they all read from the same manual?”

A recent article in Psychology Today explains why:

Because the addict's dopamine-driven salience system keeps telling her that something very important is happening, ordinary events appear intensely meaningful. That police car? That song on the radio? That man with a cigarette walking by? They must be part of a massive international conspiracy.
Kapur calls it "biased inductive logic"--a top-down effort to explain the feeling that everything seems important. The cognitive parts of a schizophrenic's brain create the paranoid tale in an effort to explain the constant red alert blaring from the dopamine circuits, using any stimuli available. This is why delusions are culturally appropriate. African schizophrenics may fear they've fallen under the spell of a shaman, while Kapur's patients in Toronto think that the Mounties are after them.

From Conspiracy Theories Explained. Psychology Today, Nov-Dec, 2004

I led the patron who asked for the Bibles over to them. He was intimidatingly large and I’ll have to admit that, especially in light of the the kicker incident, I was a little wary of leading him back to the stacks alone. After I showed him the shelf of Bibles and I was in such a hurry to get back to my desk that I tripped. I would have probably taken out a shelf of books but the patron gallantly caught my arm, steadied me and asked with great concern, “Are you all right?” After ensuring that I was fine he took a stack of Bibles and parked himself next to a man reading the newspaper. Like an old-time evangelical preacher, he began to preach hellfire and brimstone while he pounded on one of the open Bibles. My manager told him to keep it down and he quieted himself and read softly outloud for a while.

Later, while I was trying to give directions on the phone to a woman when he stood behind me and shouted to the other librarian if we had anything on Star Trek, specifically the movie that he had seen but no one else has seen.

“This movie was so cool! It was like you were actually in it. Do you have that one?”

My colleague said that our Star Trek movies were all out but that we did have some Star Trek books and showed him where. He took a stack, sat back down and proceeded to have a conversation with Spock, or at least his rendering on the cover of one of the books.

“Remember when you did that, Spock? That was so BAD ASS.”

He suddenly started making strange sputtering noises as he had these violent, jerking tics, like a windup toy self destructing, or Bugs Bunny right after he drank Dr. Jekyll's potion. He began staggering around in circles until he finally made his way out the door. I was glad that he left on his own accord so I wouldn't have to, especially after he had been so kind to catch me after I tripped.


Caller Mandy: So my boyfriend, he is like really pressuring me to have more anal and I don’t want to because it hurts. Exhales cigarette smoke loudly.

Dr. Drew: Mandy, I don’t know why you would let him do something that causes you physical pain. That’s your body’s way of – Hey, Mandy! Do you mind not smoking while I talk to you?

Adam: Yeah, Mandy. Smoking while you ask a doctor a question is like violating yourself with a crucifix while talking to your priest.

Tuesday, February 01, 2005


I spent this morning squatting in front of the copier trying to extract pieces of a jammed sheet of paper with a pair of tweezers. This is a very delicate procedure that requires the steady hands and focus of a sapper, or at least a proficient Operation player. If the paper breaks off in the gears of the machine the Xerox man must be summoned. He is usually stretched thin and sometimes cannot make a service call until 48 hours later or more. Not having a copy machine in a library is bad any time, but it is disastrous during tax season. Like Anne Frank, I believe that people are basically good at heart and that they will do the right thing as long as it's convenient. If our copy machine is out of order, however, certain people feel justified in ripping pages out of books and magazines, and, during tax season, which we are in the midst of, stealing our master tax forms. Missing tax forms will push our more delicate, less stable patrons over the edge, and if I suggest that they sign up for the library internet and print the forms out from the IRS website they will look at me in puzzled hurt like I've just told them to go fuck themselves.

While I was trying to pull the pieces of paper out, I overheard a conversation between two patrons waiting for the internet that made concentration difficult:

"Here this bitch is, a known murderer and bad check writer, and they're hassling me?"

"That's not right, man."

"And the police are telling me to calm down? I mean, what the FUCK."

"They don't know anything."

"I just want her out of my apartment. We're so fucking through."

"Crazy whore."

My hand then slipped, ripping the paper and making it completely inextricable so I gave up and called the repairman.

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