Box Office Schadenfreude? Nolte, ‘Selma’, and ‘American Sniper’

by JC Schildbach, LMHC

Full disclosure: I have not seen either ‘American Sniper’ or ‘Selma.’

An interesting item turned up in my news feed earlier in the week. And by “interesting” I mean “simplistic and misleading.” That item was John Nolte’s “Box Office: ‘American Sniper’ Breaks Records, ‘Selma’ in Death Spiral” on Bretibart.com. You can see the whole piece here: Nolte’s faulty stats prove America loves LBJ, hates Oprah

In the article, Nolte argues that Americans are refusing to see the movie ‘Selma’ because it “lies about race,” and the public is just plain tired of “race hoaxes.” In contrast, Nolte says that honest folk are rushing out to see ‘American Sniper’ because “God, family, and country are box office bonanzas.” God apparently makes a cameo in ‘American Sniper’ but refused a starring role in ‘Selma,’ after its makers reportedly told God that they absolutely refused to include anything about family and/or country in their movie.

Nolte’s earth-shattering evidence for ‘Selma’ being dishonest is that the film portrays President Lyndon Baines Johnson inaccurately. And, while I grant that, from my understanding of the film’s content as compared to actual history, Nolte has some support for this point, can anyone really imagine that historical inaccuracies are a major factor in the decisions of American movie-goers?

“Honey, I’d really like to go see ‘Selma’ this weekend.”

“Well, I’m all for going to see a movie, but I hear that ‘Selma’ isn’t historically accurate in its portrayal of LBJ.”

“Is that so?”

“Yes, it’s true, unfortunately.”

“Those bastards!! Why would they do such a thing?”

“I don’t know. I think maybe they just hate white people.”

“Well, then we should just go see ‘American Sniper’!”

“I think it’s our duty as good citizens.”

One might note the weirdness of a Breitbart adherent championing the cause of a president who, by today’s standards, could only be considered an ultra-liberal Democrat. It’s also rather odd that Nolte labels ‘Selma’ as a “race hoax” despite not contesting anything else about the content of the film or its portrayal of events beyond LBJ’s lack of support for the Civil Rights Movement.

This is not to say that I think we should just ignore historical inaccuracies in films, but rather, that people need to understand that “based on true events” means that there are going to be elements that are altered for dramatic effect. Certainly, having discussions about such issues is worthwhile, much like the discussions that have been raised in regard to the accuracy of the portrayal of the main character in ‘American Sniper,’ which Nolte says is about “warriors…properly honored and honestly portrayed.”

I can't stand this victim mentality.  We're the real victims here.

I can’t stand this victim mentality. We’re the real victims here.

At any rate, Nolte gloats about how ‘Selma’ is tanking at the box office, compared to all other Oscar nominees for Best Picture that are still in theaters, and that ‘Selma’ is really getting trounced by ‘American Sniper.’

The problem is, that, aside from the resounding box office success of ‘American Sniper,’ none of what Nolte says is entirely true. Nolte has to cherry-pick box office statistics about fluctuations in ticket-sale-percentage to make his arguments appear true.  For instance, Nolte’s statistics about ‘Selma’ experiencing a downturn in sales/sales percentage is only true if you look at the ‘three day weekend’ (Friday, Saturday, and Sunday).

However, since Nolte claims that the Oprah Winfrey-produced movie about MLK allegedly tanked over “the Martin Luther King, Jr. 4-day weekend,” (Friday, Saturday, Sunday, and Monday) many of his claims become rather shaky, some outright false. That is, while it’s true that, following the Oscar-nomination announcements, many of the other Best Picture nominees enjoyed larger percentage increases in sales than ‘Selma,’ when the whole 4-day weekend is considered, ‘Selma’ actually increased it’s box office draw by 22% over the previous weekend, rather than experiencing a drop in sales, as Nolte contends, with over $5 million in business on MLK Day alone. So, it seems that plenty of people, although not record-box-office-numbers of people, did decide to celebrate MLK day by going to see ‘Selma.’

In further contrast to Nolte’s claim that ‘Selma’ is in a “death spiral,” ‘Selma’ was the fifth-highest grossing movie in the U.S. whether you look at the 3-day or the 4-day weekend. Currently, ‘The Grand Budapest Hotel’ and ‘The Imitation Game’ are the only films among the Best Picture contenders other than ‘American Sniper’ to have earned more total money than ‘Selma,’ with ‘Selma’ likely on the way to besting ‘The Imitation Game.’ But I guess actual earnings are not a metric that fits in with Nolte’s imposed reality.

And although Nolte crows that ‘American Sniper’ is now the top-grossing MLK Day weekend movie of all time, and highlights its box office dominance compared to last year’s MLK Day weekend top-grosser, ‘Ride Along’, Nolte doesn’t mention that the previous all-time earnings record-holder for the MLK Day weekend is ‘Paul Blart: Mall Cop’, a movie rife with historical inaccuracies.

I’ll leave it to you to ponder why, at the end of his historically/statistically semi-accurate movie-earnings rant, Nolte later tacked on a brief paragraph urging his readers to go watch the PBS Civil Rights Movement documentary ‘Eyes on the Prize’, or Spike Lee’s ‘Malcolm X’ or ‘Do the Right Thing’, just as I’ll leave it to you to contemplate the strangeness of a man gloating over a movie about a sniper earning more money than a movie about a black Civil Rights leader who was assassinated by a man using a scoped rifle.

Until next time, see whatever movies you want—and don’t be afraid to think critically about them, or to learn more about the events portrayed, or to question the accuracy of statements made by people who really should see a therapist about their anger toward Oprah.

The Great MLK Day Snack Experiment

by JC Schildbach, LMHC

My wife, M–, or Ms. M– to her students, is a Montessori-certified preschool teacher, and darn good at it. Each year in the lead-up to MLK Day, she teaches a (age appropriate) unit on Martin Luther King, Jr. that is largely built around discussions of treating people fairly, and all that good, old Golden Rule stuff. I absolutely love this exercise and the stories that come out of it.

The lessons typically start off with a “circle” (full-class lesson time) involving the ‘snack experiment.’ In this exercise, the class is divided in half, or roughly in half. Usually, the division runs along gender lines, as that’s the easiest split to make, and one that the children will easily grasp. It also speaks to other forms of false divisions in our society, but I don’t think they get into all of that.

Anyway, depending on the age and temperaments of the children, there may or may not be an advanced warning that circle time involves an exercise in fairness and feelings. Each year, M– switches whether the boys or the girls get the snack at the outset of the experiment. For 2015, the girls got the snack first.

The group with the snack is encouraged to go ahead and eat the snack, while nothing is said to the group without the snack about whether or not they’re getting anything.

Inevitably, the group without a snack starts into fidgeting, and then a bit of grumbling, about why they aren’t getting the snack. Or they start asking if they’re going to get a snack at all.

Most often, there is also some hesitation on the part of those who have received something to eat, or at least from some of them, about whether or not they should be eating before everybody has been provided with a treat.

MLK blue

M— sits silent for a while, then starts the discussion. She asks, essentially, how everyone is feeling right at that moment.

The hands start to go up—usually from the slighted group. This year, the big word among the boys was “disappointed,” since the first respondent used that word, and it apparently sounded pretty good.

“I feel disappointed.”

“I feel mad…and disappointed.”

“I’m angry…and disappointed.”

“I’m disappointed…and sad…and mad.”

The side that got the snack sometimes has to be encouraged to give some input, which usually starts with some hesitant, and sheepish remarks.

“I feel good.”

“I liked the snack.”

It can take a little goading to get some other responses. But this year, the big breakthrough came from one of the older girls who raised her hand and said, “I don’t like it. I’m not happy. Because ( ) is my friend, and { } is my friend. And if they’re not happy, I’m not happy.”

Before long, other girls were joining in, offering up their thoughts on why it’s better when everybody gets a snack, and how it’s more fun when everybody gets to join in, why it’s hard to be happy when others are deliberately deprived of that same happiness.

When those empathetic thoughts start to come out, there is the beginning of a transformation throughout the class. Even without a treat, the snackless start to feel happier, realizing that others care about them, and are sticking up for them.

Of course, balance is inevitably restored. The snackless become…the snacked? Okay, let’s just go with ‘the hungry are fed.’

The discussion continues on, the children offering up sentiments that are occasionally amusing, occasionally profound, and sometimes both.

And, this year, the discussion was closed out when the youngest boy among them, after being prompted several times to raise his hand if he wanted to share his thoughts, finally did so. Then, talking through full cheeks, said, “I want more crackers.”

Happy MLK Day!

Sylvia Frumkin’s Place

by JC Schildbach, LMHC

I’d venture a guess that many who enter the mental health field, as with any potentially dramatic profession all the way from police to executives, do so with visions informed by Hollywood. One of the main Hollywood portrayals of the mental health worker is is that of the therapist/psychiatrist as a well-compensated genius, ensconced in a plush office, treating the worried well or other “eccentric” or “neurotic” types, while constantly being admired by clients for one’s observational skill and ability to call forth ‘breakthrough’ moments. The other end of the spectrum is the heroic social worker who, through sheer tenacity, overcomes all the problems an impoverished neighborhood can throw at her, overcoming multi-generational patterns, and very recent traumas, to really, really make a difference in the lives of an entire community.

Many in the field are drawn to books by Yalom, or Rogers, or perhaps even some acolytes of Oprah, who tell us that just by listening and accepting our clients, or by throwing the right bit of tough-love advice a client’s way, true transformation will take place, and clients will make huge leaps forward, forever changing their lives for the better.

Susan Sheehan’s “Is There No Place on Earth for Me?” is perhaps the perfect antidote to the pie-in-the-sky visions of one’s brilliance and dedication making all the clinical difference in the world. It balances out the ideas about the wondrous gift of therapy with the reality of chronic and severe mental illness, and its resistance to ‘ah-ha moments’ and dramatic progress. It pushes past that “we don’t need no medications” mantra, which can, in fairness, apply to a lot of mental health issues.

“Is There No Place on Earth for Me?” was first published as a four part series in The New Yorker in 1981, then published as a book in 1982. For it, Sheehan won the Pulitzer Prize for General Non-Fiction in 1983. A new edition of the book was released roughly a year ago, including a new afterword by Sheehan. On reading about the re-issue in the online version of the New York Times in January of 2014, and having never read it before, I put it on my ‘to read’ list, and eventually checked out an old edition from the library.

Frumkin cover

The book, written from the perspective of a journalist, and not of a therapist trying to convince the readers of the efficacy of particular approaches to treatment, is involved in ways that few case studies can be. Sheehan spent over two years with Sylvia Frumkin (not her real name), a woman diagnosed with schizophrenia. Sheehan had a great deal of access not only to the information on Frumkin’s treatment and behavior during the period when Sheehan shadowed Frumkin, but also to family members and others, getting a great deal of background on Frumkin’s life prior to her diagnosis, and the progress and setbacks that took place before Sheehan had ever met her.

Having had numerous contacts with clients diagnosed with schizophrenia, or suffering from other forms of psychosis, most often from a distance, it took me a while to get through the book. That is, the kinds of delusions, rants, and flights from treatment that plague Frumkin and those trying to help her, and which Sheehan documents in detail, were familiar to me—of course, with Frumkin’s behaviors being particular to her own case. Still, it was like trying to read about many of the most frustrating aspects of work during one’s down time.

For the uninitiated, I imagine the book is much more compelling, rather than overly familiar, and thus, somewhat draining. In discussing “Is There No Place on Earth for Me?” with colleagues, I’ve most often likened it to Kafka’s “The Trial”—a book that is deliberately tedious in its depiction of a bureaucracy more intent on sustaining itself than serving any clear purpose—although, that comparison probably has much more to do with what I bring to the reading of Sheehan’s book than to what she has documented in such depth of detail. Also, I don’t think the mental health system—either now or at the time—is deliberately set up to be frustrating…it just frequently is, particularly for those most in need of help.

In addition to capturing the daily details of the behavior of a (this) client with schizophrenia, Sheehan also does a masterful job of explaining, simply and concisely, some fairly complicated legal, medical, and treatment-related concepts. For instance, Sheehan outlines the concept of “least restrictive” forms of treatment, both the bane and the beauty of our mental health system, which has been around since well before the current lack of options made it so completely mandatory.  In doing so, she answers that most familiar of questions about why we can’t “just lock up” people suffering from chronic forms of mental illness who can become rather taxing to a variety of public and private resources.

The most fascinating elements of Frumkin’s story to me, though, were the ‘side treatments’—pointless, and sometimes dangerous, programs that Sylvia was subjected to. Without going into a great deal of detail, the treatments ranged from moving in with a relative and his family who believed that all Frumkin needed was a good dose of Jesus and discipline to overcome her laziness and wicked ways, to a doctor who felt that manipulating the insulin levels of patients to extreme degrees could cure them of schizophrenia.

Ultimately, what works for Frumkin (or worked back around 1980) is what still works for clients today: a small number of medications that prove effective in treating schizophrenia, as well as (to greatly simplify things) a structured environment and supportive professionals. Unfortunately, said medications can lose their effectiveness over time, or the side effects can become increasingly detrimental to the clients. It is also quite common for clients to simply quit taking their medications, feeling them unnecessary or viewing them as the root cause of various forms of discomfort or other troubles in their lives. In addition, the structured environments can only be maintained for as long as clients are compliant with treatment, and as long as the treatment remains effective, and as long as funding and various programs allow. On top of that, anything from the restructuring of institutions, to changes in law and other policy, to the career changes of providers, to differences of opinion between providers and family members, can lead to new doctors and other providers making changes, sometimes rather arbitrarily, to a client’s medication regimen or support systems. In Frumkin’s case, alterations to her treatment and medications were made numerous times, in the most haphazard of fashions, often by doctors and other providers who seemed ignorant of her case history, or of how the medications work.

One might also note that this book was written back before the U.S., under President Ronald Reagan, decided that people with chronic mental illness enjoy the freedom that homelessness brings. So, Frumkin’s movements within the system are relatively easy in terms of her various forays into decompensation leading to fairly quick, and relatively long-term inpatient placements, with step-downs to semi-independent housing, and other supports that are much rarer today (and for most of the last three decades).

Ideally, Sheehan’s book would be taught in graduate schools, or maybe at earlier levels, by instructors who are familiar with the clinical aspects of schizophrenia; the current and historical treatments for it; and the current and historical state of affairs with regard to mental health facilities, available inpatient beds for clients with mental health issues, and legal and systemic complications to accessing those beds or other program options.

To be clear, it is necessary, as therapists, or in other capacities in the mental health field, to come equipped with a belief that we can make a difference. Without a bit of the dreamer in us, we would never head down this path to begin with.

But it is also necessary for providers at all levels to understand just what they are up against, particularly given that almost all providers in the mental health field will end up doing at least a round or two in the public mental health system–from practicums/internships to early jobs to entire careers–where the most challenging of clients often end up by default—frequently after being abandoned by families and other support systems, including insurance companies.

Frumkin’s family, as dysfunctional as they are, and as frequently detrimental to her treatment as they can be, at least hang in there to the extent that they can—which I imagine was at least somewhat less difficult when hospital beds and supported living options weren’t at such a premium as they are today. In the end, though, this isn’t a story of a family hanging together and triumphing over a terrible disease. It’s the story of a debilitating mental illness, and the toll it takes on the client, as well as those around her, and the wildly inconsistent efforts by a variety of people and systems to help her cope.

Welcome to Sylvia’s Place.

Merry Elvismas!

by JC Schildbach, LMHC

Well, it’s Elvismas time, pretty baby.  And the snow is fallin’ on the ground…

In years past, I held Elvismas parties each year on Elvis’ birthday (January 8), as well as “Departure Day” parties, on the anniversary of Elvis…leaving us.

I won’t get into all the gory details right now, but will say that I do hope to get the house put back together enough to where I can get the shrine, or a version of it, put back up.

In years past, my dear friends over at Creepy Cult (see their web site–under construction–here: Creeps;  or their Etsy page here: And Creeps;  or their Facebook page here: And More Creeps–all with plenty of nifty things) would print up postcards for me on the occasions of the parties–at least when I got them the artwork on time and they had extra space on a print run to fit them in–because they’re cool like that, and because I’m cheap like that.

Elvis consumed

The image above is one such postcard from all the way back in 1993, when I devoted a bit more of my time to doing design work–if you want to call it that.  Elvis had a twin brother, Jesse, who never got to see the light of day; and Elvis easily had enough cool for at least two people.  So the image addresses that concept, along with Vernon Presley’s story that on the night of Elvis’ birth, he saw a powerful omen–the sky ringed in blue.

Peace, y’all.

2014 in review

The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2014 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

The concert hall at the Sydney Opera House holds 2,700 people. This blog was viewed about 14,000 times in 2014. If it were a concert at Sydney Opera House, it would take about 5 sold-out performances for that many people to see it.

Click here to see the complete report.

A Christmas Wishbone

by JC Schildbach, LMHC

Christmas morning, I found myself cleaning the remains of a chicken and stuffing out of the Crock Pot, to make way for the roast I was going to crock—which I suppose made it a crock rather than a roast.

As I scooped stuffing from the pot, and rent that flightless bird’s flesh from its bones, I came across a fully intact wishbone. I paused in my work, rinsed the wishbone, and set it on the kitchen windowsill.

Not quite a partridge in a pear tree, but you take what you can get.

Not quite a partridge in a pear tree, but you take what you can get.

Continuing on with the operation, packing the chicken and stuffing away, neat and tidy in Pyrex containers, then prepping the roast…er, crock…the tradition of wishbones rolled around in my head. I’m not talking about the origins of the whole wishbone thing—where it came from, who was first to practice it, but rather, the more personal memories around it.

I can’t say as I have a whole lot of specific personal memories around wishbones. I know if mom was cooking a chicken, then there would be at least a minor squabble around who would get the wishbone—or, perhaps more accurately, when somebody found the wishbone, there would be a minor dispute around who would get to break it with the lucky discoverer. If one of my older brothers came across it, there would be inevitable teasing, just to see if they could get a rise out of one or more of us.

And then there was that time I won the wishbone-breaking contest and was rewarded almost instantly with the new bike I had wished for, and then felt bad because I could’ve wished that my cousin Brad’s hypochondria would be cured instead.

Okay, that never happened.  I don’t even have a cousin Brad.

I thought on how I had witnessed my kid and her best friend, when they were probably about seven years old, engage in the wishbone-breaking contest immediately on finding one during dinner, despite my having never taught/explained it to my kid. There is, perhaps, some lesson in there about kids picking up all kinds of things beyond the specifics of what their parents teach them, but I’m not really sure what to make of that, or its importance. Weird things permeate the culture? I failed in this particular instance of ensuring that I was the one to pass a bizarre superstition on to my offspring?

I briefly entertained the question of whether two people could conspire to wish the same thing, thereby increasing the chances of the wish coming true. After all, so long as they didn’t speak of it afterward, they couldn’t truly know what the other had wished. A wishbone technicality would still invoke the magic—right?

At any rate, as soon as my wife got up from her mid-morning nap, and got herself a cup of coffee, I presented her with the wishbone. She immediately grabbed hold.  I warned her she needed to think on her wish. She closed her eyes briefly, then gave me the nod.

It was on.

After a few seconds, she remarked on how the wishbone was too wet (from its days packed in chicken-fat-soaked stuffing at the bottom of a crock pot) and not likely to break.  She relaxed her effort. There was a brief pause where I hadn’t quite processed what she said or did, and continued on with the match. Then, just as I followed her lead, conceding that the wishbone was, perhaps, too saturated to complete the fight, she resumed the pull, and…snap. She won. Was it a brilliant strategy, or dumb luck? I didn’t ask, just conceded. Victory was hers.

Victory is hers!

Victory is hers!

I like to believe she wished for something like I wished for…you know, that silly garbage about another year of relative happiness, good health, and enough stuff.

Still, I daren’t ask. Because maybe she did wish for that same silly garbage. Or maybe she wished for world peace. Or maybe she wished for a new bike.  Or maybe something much better…or much worse.

But whatever it was, I don’t wanna jinx it.

 

 

The Old Normal

by JC Schildbach, LMHC

Just how the hell does anybody on a regular Monday-to-Friday workweek ever get anything done?  I mean, aside from work work?

For the entire month of November, and the first few weeks of December, I was on a Monday-to-Friday, 8-to-5 schedule. This was only the second time in over 20 years that I had been on such a schedule—the previous time being the training period for a new job, just like the most recent episode of “normalcy” was.

I was commuting at the same time as everybody else (read: taking almost three times as long to get to and from work as the trip should actually take). I was having lunch at the same time as everybody else (god help anyone who only has a half-hour at noon to try and get out to procure some nourishment—thankfully, I only had to do this a few times, and had a full hour for lunch).

I was doing my grocery and other shopping when everyone else was—either on my way home after work, or on the weekends—when the stores are at their peak crowdedness.  Navigating a single aisle at the grocery store, waiting for people to make their decisions and get out of the way, or waiting for them just to notice they were blocking the entire aisle by hanging onto a corner of their angled grocery cart while staring at a wall of spaghetti sauce, was trying.  And forget all of those little errands—running to the post office, for example—the extra-long lunch-hour or Saturday morning lines—uggh!

Everything seemed to take much longer than it should have. Everywhere seemed so much more crowded than it needed to be.

I felt crushed by this tyranny of scheduling normalcy, this chronometrically-imposed and enforced bottlenecking. Just how do people do this, day in and day out? How do they ever get anything done beyond the extra-slow commutes, and the added imposition of everybody else doing the same damn thing at the same damn time—or at least trying to?

Aaaaagh!  I feel like a stretched-out, messed-up face pinned down by a floppy clock!

Aaaaagh! I feel like a stretched-out, messed-up face pinned down by a floppy clock!  Or is that a decapitated, vomiting swan, wearing a fake beard pinned down by a floppy clock?

I forced myself through the daily tasks I absolutely had to complete, and blew off the rest for the weekend, and then blew them off again, as if maybe this next week I wouldn’t feel so tired after spending most of my waking hours devoted to work and the process of getting there and back.

Weekends felt short. By the time I felt rested and started in on that to-do list, the to-do list was necessarily pared down a great deal, with Sunday evening and Monday morning hanging over my head–sending me into to-do list despair.

I suddenly understood the asshole-ish behaviors of driving a bit too fast and recklessly to get that parking spot, the feigned ‘oh-I-didn’t-see-you-and-that’s-why-I-let-that-door-swing-shut-in-your-face-rather-than-chancing-you-getting-ahead-of-me-in-that-long-f***ing-line,’ the impossibly tight closing of the gap between one’s own car and the one just ahead to prevent anyone from merging and making the commute take even nine seconds longer. I suddenly understood these behaviors. I did not engage in these behaviors. It seems it would take years of this ‘regular workday’ harshness before one would be pushed to such extremes.  But I was just a tourist here in normal-land. I knew I would be leaving before long. I didn’t have to act that way.

The particulars of the situation helped me appreciate what I had experienced for so long, in terms of scheduling and work. When my kid was little, I was self-employed, working out of the home. All that time, getting her to and from school was a pleasant walk or a short drive—a little break in the work day.  I could attend to tasks at my own pace, except in the few ‘busy seasons’ when all hell broke loose and I had to hunker down for a few weeks or a month, working every waking minute, except for those quick trips to the school and back.

Later on, when I angled toward jobs in the mental health field that required shift work, it was so much easier to work all night, or in the evenings, and take care of all those other daily tasks when very few others were. There were several periods when I was allowed to knock out 40-hour workweeks in three days, leaving the rest of the week free—or for much of that time, free to go to grad school or work a second job. At any rate, I wasn’t tied to the same schedule as the bulk of the rest of the working world.

I’m now back to a bit of the old normal—a work schedule that helps keep me from needing to move about too much in the peak hours of the work-imposed world. I’m thankfully off of graves—not that I hated that—but it takes a toll, especially when you’re trying to spend some normal day hours with family and friends, and working occasionally at a second job that takes place during the day.  I’m back to having a few weekdays and a weekend day off, a schedule of four tens–and with no second job sapping hours from my days off.

I’m trying to get back to where I can spend my days off getting some stuff done—like writing on a sort-of-regular basis, or getting back to those projects around the house that are perpetually sidetracked or shelved. But I’m also having to undo a number of bad habits and weird practices that still linger after years of being up all night most nights, and sleeping during the day. Hell, I started writing the rough draft of this just before 2 a.m. since I fell asleep early and then couldn’t stay asleep through the night.

Still, the adjustment to the new schedule isn’t nearly as rough as the adjustment to the ‘normal’ world of the rest of the day-walkers. I’m settling in to something of the old normal—awake and working during the days—just not always when the rest of you humans are clogging everything up.

While I enjoyed the training I was doing, it wasn’t really all that fun visiting your overcrowded, poorly scheduled world, and I definitely wouldn’t want to live there.

Thanksgiving Greetings from an Ingrate

by JC Schildbach

With all apologies to the wonderful people among my family and friends who have prepared some amazing holiday meals over the years…

Thanksgiving is one of those holidays that I’ve had to learn to love…or like a lot…or maybe just kind of like. As a kid, Thanksgiving didn’t have the obvious benefits of other holidays—like Halloween (monsters and candy), Christmas (presents and flashing lights), New Years Eve/Day (getting to stay up late and listen to the top-whatever countdown of the year’s/decade’s/history of rock’s top hits), July 4th (explosions, fire, and kickass food prepared with fire). I could go on, but I don’t know if even adding fire could really make Thanksgiving all that interesting.

Way back when, the only really good thing about Thanksgiving was getting a four-day weekend, which was pretty weird, anyway. I mean, really, why put the holiday on a Thursday? If it was a celebration of Thor, that would be cool. Hey, maybe that’s the key to making Thanksgiving interesting—Thor. Well, probably not.  But so far the best thing anybody has come up with is to add in a bunch of football games, which, as far as plans for making things interesting goes, is shaky at best.

And, sure, I liked turkey-based art projects. And I liked watching the parade with the giant balloon cartoon characters, but then there was that whole thing of having to sit through multiple marching bands and other weirdness and commercials in between the giant, inflatable cartoon characters. How much patience did these people expect 8-year-olds to have? And let’s face it, not even Ethyl Merman loves a parade, no matter how enthusiastically she belts out that musical lie.

Overall, Thanksgiving just felt like an excuse for adults to make kids put on clothes they should never have to wear outside of a church, forcing them to be itchy and bored for hours on end, while waiting for a meal of foods nobody really wanted to eat anyway. I blame Thanksgiving for tilting me toward a mild obsession with mashed potatoes. Peppermint Patty hollering, “Where’s the mashed potatoes?” is something I relate to entirely too well.  My anxiety over the thought of attending a Thanksgiving dinner that has all the usual stuff, but no mashed potatoes…unreal.

As far as the rest of the Thanksgiving fare goes…Turkey—sure, that’s fine, I guess. Cranberries—I like them well enough now, but as a kid, I just couldn’t help but think they tasted all wrong. They were berries, but they weren’t really sweet. They just should have been different somehow. And speaking of sweet-and-should’ve-been-different, there are those damn sweet potatoes. Who wants to eat that? It’s brown sugar and something that’s kind of like a potato, but kind of like a carrot, and squishy, and…uggh, I don’t even wanna think about it.

And then there’s green bean casserole. Actually, I quite like green bean casserole. But nobody in my family ever made the stuff.

All the appeal and excitement of a traditional Thanksgiving meal, straight out of the box.

All the appeal and excitement of a traditional Thanksgiving meal, straight out of the box.

On top of the conspicuous absence of green been casserole, there was always some heinous cornbread dressing—choick full of eggs. Did I mention that I’m allergic to eggs? So, yeah, it’s great to have a meal that involves plenty of unappealing food, including at least one awful food with plenty of deadly toxins—toxins aimed only at me!! Haven’t you people heard of Stove Top? It’s much easier to make, and much less deadly.  While we’re, on the egg tip…there were always weird, unappealing things like Waldorf salads, slathered in eggy mayonnaise.  There were pumpkin pies and pecan pies–eggs, eggs, eggs!!

And, well, just forget the rest of that food, okay?  I’m already in danger of going fetal here.

Since I’m an adult now, more or less, and I get to make at least part of the decision about what’s going to happen on holidays, we eat out on Thanksgiving—every Thanksgiving since 2010. This started out as a matter of practicality. I had been doing shift work for a few years already at that point—jobs that involved round-the-clock coverage, with holiday time off at a premium.

So, doing the whole, make-a-big-meal-and-then-take-off-for-work, or work-all-day-and-then-come-home-for-a-meal thing wasn’t exactly conducive to Thanksgiving harmony, especially when my wife had to take the lead on the meal with little support (hey, I took care of the shopping), and I would either be at work or asleep prior to going to work. Accepting invitations to other friends’ Thanksgiving meals was also complicated by my work schedule—so the wife and kid might go to a friend’s holiday meal without me (which was fine with me, but my wife felt bad about it).

To be sure, my wife is an amazing cook. But traditional American cuisine, and traditional American holiday cuisine, is not her forte’. She made some wonderful holiday meals (that whole incident with the Reynolds roast-in turkey bag not withstanding), but wasn’t always able to tell if things had turned out successfully, since the things she was making were a bit foreign to her. And given her highly-self-critical nature, no amount of reassurance was going to make her happy. So, forget it—let somebody else stress about the meals.

Most years, Thanksgiving out involves just my wife, my daughter, and me—although last year we had the pleasure of booking a party big enough to get us a private room at Preservation Kitchen—which is a pretty amazing place—and which was my favorite Thanksgiving meal since we’ve been doing the restaurant thing. I spent the bulk of the meal sampling beers (after a dirty gin martini opener) and conversing with a second grader. And since he and I have a similar sense of humor, it worked out pretty darn well.

I’m guessing most U.S. citizens feel obligated to be involved in some family-oriented, meal-centric Thanksgiving hassle, because that’s what you’re made to do growing up. But I’ll be damned if I’m going to let some weird sense of obligation ruin a perfectly good (if boring) holiday, that should be about things we’re thankful for. I’ll just say, I’m extremely thankful to be able to blow a few hundred bucks on a nice meal out, rather than blowing a few hundred bucks on a bunch of stuff that we now have to prepare ourselves amidst a bunch of other logistical complications.

Today, we’re hitting Palomino in downtown Seattle. Haven’t ever eaten there. Maybe I’ll post an update so you’ll know if it was at all satisfying. Maybe I won’t. I refuse to feel overly obligated by all this.

So, Happy Thanksgiving, everyone! If you’re eating at somebody’s home, be nice to the hosts and steer clear of conversations about religion, politics, and the Great Pumpkin. If you’re eating out, tip well—really, really well.

Honey Boo Boo Needs Some Real TLC, Not Abandonment

by JC Schildbach, LMHC, de-commissioned ASOTP

Not quite a month ago, The Learning Channel (TLC) announced plans to drop production of its ‘reality’ show, Here Comes Honey Boo Boo, as well as shelving an entire season that has been completed, but not aired. The reason? “Mama June” Shannon was photographed out and about with her former beau, convicted sex offender Mark McDaniel. Even worse, a few days after the original story broke, a photo surfaced showing June, Mark, and Alana “Honey Boo Boo” Thompson together.

McDaniel was convicted of “aggravated child molestation” for sexual contact with Anna Marie Cardwell, who is June’s daughter, and Alana’s half-sister. McDaniel served a ten-year sentence for the molestation, having been released from prison in March.

Now, I’m not a big fan of Here Comes Honey Boo Boo.   I’ve seen occasional clips on other shows, and watched most of one episode when I came across it while flipping channels. But in that episode, I saw that the family was accepting of Alana’s uncle, who is gay, without making a big deal about it. And, despite my unease at the general weirdness of the child pageant circuit, the family members seemed to enjoy each other’s company. And then the show concluded with Honey Boo Boo climbing up on a chair and sticking her butt in the air to fart loudly, which, strangely enough, served as the lead-in to a very somber, ‘feed the children’ infomercial.

At any rate, speaking of the weirdness of the child pageant circuit, having seen a few episodes of Toddlers in Tiaras, the TLC show that spawned Honey Boo Boo’s spinoff, I am disturbed by what can only be described as the sexualization of little girls on that show. The contestants are small children who are essentially treated identically to adult beauty pageant contestants—made to wear too much makeup, with piled-up hairdos, wearing a variety of—I guess you’d call them revealing, although that sounds weird when talking about children—dresses and bathing suits, while performing routines involving dance moves that I pray the girls don’t understand the origins/meaning of.

I’ve had offender clients specifically mention Toddlers in Tiaras as a kind of ‘gateway’ form of visual stimulation leading to seeking out even more exploitative material. And, while such ‘gateway’ comments are often spoken with the intent to limit the personal responsibility of those clients—the whole ‘society is sexualizing young girls, what am I to do?’ complaint—it is somewhat difficult to view the show without thinking, ‘Wow—pedophiles must really enjoy this.’

So, while I could start shaming Mama June for putting her daughter in the beauty pageant circuit, or for taking up with a man who molested one of her daughters; instead it seems a better course in all of this would be for TLC to invest some more effort and money in the show, and maybe take it in some completely different directions—maybe even directions that would involve some actual learning.

Broken portrait of an exploited family unit--Anna Marie, Mama June, Honey Boo Boo, and Mark McDaniel.

Broken portrait of an exploited family unit–Anna Marie, Mama June, Honey Boo Boo, and Mark McDaniel.

That is to say, it’s very odd to have a show built on the highjinks of a family that is portrayed as a bunch of unsophisticated rubes chasing a weird dream, and then to turn around and cancel the show when the matriarch of the family does something that shows she really doesn’t understand what’s at stake in a particular situation. According to Anna Marie’s own statements to the media, June minimized McDaniel’s behavior, telling Anna Marie that McDaniel wasn’t all that dangerous because Anna Marie was McDaniel’s only victim.

Such a statement is a big red flag that Mama June just might be buying a whole lot of lies from McDaniels—the kind of lies that offenders tell all too frequently. ‘It was just the one time;’ ‘I was drunk;’ ‘It was a mistake;’ ‘The victim did X first;’ ‘I paid the price/did my time;’ ‘I won’t ever do that again;’ etc, etc.

I don’t know what kind of treatment McDaniel may or may not have received in prison. But unless McDaniel has developed some understanding of his own behaviors, and unless Mama June has been educated on exactly what McDaniel did, how he did it, how he justified it to himself, what kinds of things Mama June needs to look out for in McDaniel’s behavior (preferably coming from McDaniel’s own confession); and unless she’s been given instruction in what McDaniel’s behavior means for the safety of her other children, and how to reduce risk (risk can never fully be eliminated), then it’s a little hypocritical of TLC executives to cut her off, claiming that it is in the best interest of the safety of the children involved.

And just for context, here’s the statement issued by the network at the time of the show’s cancellation: “TLC has cancelled the series HERE COMES HONEY BOO BOO and ended all activities around the series, effective immediately. Supporting the health and welfare of these remarkable children is our only priority. TLC is faithfully committed to the children’s ongoing comfort and well-being.”

Great, TLC, but where’s the support? I’ve seen many mothers of victims continue on in relationship with the men who molested those women’s children. And a supportive and appropriate relationship with an adult partner can actually reduce risk for re-offense. However, that risk isn’t (generally speaking) reduced when the offender is allowed back around likely victims, particularly without the partner being fully informed as to the nature of the offender’s behavior, and how to provide adequate support for the offender and for other family members. But maybe TLC executives are just looking at this as another example of the stereotypes they’re comfortable promoting–of poor, Southern folk accepting child molestation as a routine part of life.

It is potentially extremely damaging for victims of molestation, like Anna Marie, to see their mothers return to relationship with the offender, or to, in any way, be given the impression that they are being treated as secondary to the perpetrator of sexual violence. It definitely sends some disturbing messages about who is being given priority, and where the concern of the mother lies. It is possible to mitigate that damage, but only with some very involved, professionally-guided therapy.

I don’t want to over-simplify things here, but a major reason for women to continue on in relationship with offenders is economic. I don’t have any idea if McDaniel has any real way of providing for June’s family, but since TLC just cut off the family’s current main source of income, they are increasing Mama June’s likely reliance on someone who can provide support—and at a time when the person June is in relationship with is an offender who is very much putting Honey Boo Boo—that “remarkable child”—at risk.

So, again, why not take the show in a new direction? A learning direction? I don’t mean to advocate for making an offender a reality TV star, but TLC could at least build in scenes to Honey Boo Boo’s show, or maybe a spinoff, that follow McDaniel through treatment, and through all of the difficulties he now faces as a convicted offender trying to rebuild a life outside of prison, in conjunction with Mama June’s exposure to McDaniel’s treatment process.  The audience could see scenes of June attending sessions with McDaniel—scenes of McDaniel explaining his ‘offense cycle’ to June, of McDaniel explaining his actual offense to June, of June going through a chaperone class where she learns just what limits need to be placed on McDaniel and his contact with June’s children.

And what about making sure Anna Marie’s okay? How about, instead of channeling any income to McDaniel, any money involved in a standard TLC reality-star fee, over and above the cost of his evaluation and treatment—funded by TLC—goes to Anna Marie to make sure she can get some ongoing treatment herself?  Perhaps let Anna Marie gain some economic benefit from the exploitation she’s already suffered? She’s had various media outlets contacting her to ask how she feels about the man who molested her being released from prison. How about making sure Anna Marie’s not being re-traumatized by all of this? After all, how many victims of molestation really want the molestation being made public, and then want to have to address it, with complete strangers, for the purposes of having it blasted out all over the airwaves and the Internet?

Of course, TLC doesn’t have to do anything in this case. Perhaps TLC executives were grateful that a scandal of this sort came around when Here Comes Honey Boo Boo was pulling ratings of less than half of its peak performance, just so they had a good excuse to cut their losses. Then again, TLC could really do some good in this case. TLC could truly support the “health and welfare” of their child stars. TLC could really help advance public discourse on offenders, offender treatment, and victim advocacy.

Or TLC could just leave Mama June, Honey Boo Boo, and the rest of the clan dangling—dangling over a cliff where falling means families torn apart and potential acts of child sexual abuse—and move on to whatever other ‘reality’ show goofballs America wants to laugh at, until ‘reality’ creeps in and undoes them as well—leaving TLC to cut its losses, abandon its ‘stars,’ and run.

 

Dropping Keys, Dropping Letters

by Jonathan C. Schildbach, LMHC, waning ASOTP, reforming soul-eater

An eighth-season episode of The X-Files was built around a “soul-eater”—a person who could draw the disease out from others into his own body, eventually vomiting it out. The concept of the soul eater is based in various forms of folklore involving a range of ideas about curses and cures, and the ability of some to take away those things that most harm or most sustain a person. Unfortunately for this particular soul eater, the demands of those who knew of his powers began to overwhelm his ability to process and expel the disease. He existed in a perpetual state of deformity and misery.

I like the soul eater as a metaphor for the work done by many people in “the healing professions.” In this field, many of us work at building a skill set that allows us to help extract the mental and spiritual toxins in others. Ideally, those receiving help will find a way to vomit out the toxins themselves. Yet, such toxins are in no short supply, and many who are most in need of help thrive on a constant diet of disease coupled with a willingness to let others take on the burdens of that disease. It becomes far too easy for helpers to end up like the suffocating soul eater, awash in the illness of others.

In the professional parlance, we call all that business of being overwhelmed by the problems of others “secondary trauma.” There’s a tendency to assume that, as trained professionals, we are able to recognize and address our own forms of distress. But, like many people in positions of suffering, particularly those who are considered high-functioning, it is entirely too easy to soldier on without addressing our own needs. We know how to address all this, and yet we often don’t, or we often address it in an unhealthy fashion, assuming it will pass in time. We take on more than we can handle, and think nothing of it. Whatever doesn’t kill me makes me more convinced I’m strong enough to take it.

Hey--eat any good diseases lately?

Hey–eat any good diseases lately?  The X-Files’ soul eater.

I bring this all up by way of saying that I’m in the midst of a career shift—not out of the helping professions, but into some different channels in the same field.

In particular, last night I dropped off the keys to the office where I’ve been serving as an ASOTP for the last year-and-a-half, at least temporarily distancing myself from a particular portion of the field that I have been involved with for over seven-and-a-half years—the treatment of sex offenders.

The change was forced by way of making a shift in my full-time employment in crisis services. As I write this, I am deliberately allowing myself only some small bit of awareness of the insanity of my professional life over the past several years. Yes, I have been working full time in crisis services, while also working anywhere from zero to ten hours per week with sex offenders. Such arrangements are not unusual in the helping professions—where we are pushed to learn our craft in rigorous, unpaid positions, while also attending school and working a paid job just to stay afloat. The habits of overextension established while in graduate school can extend out into professional life, and feel totally normal, even as we are pushed toward deformity and misery.

Currently in a break from a years-long pattern of toxic soul-eating, and ready engagement with secondary trauma, I realize I’ve become numb to plenty of very bizarre things. Running plethysmography assessments, I can sit through audio scenarios of sexually violent behaviors, paying them as little attention as if they were overplayed Top 40 hits from yesteryear piped over a grocery store or dentist office sound system. I’ve become entirely too comfortable asking people about their masturbation habits, and pressing them when I think they’re lying (only in the course of assessments, of course—well, mostly). Fortunately, I haven’t become so numb that I’ve lost all awareness of the twists and turns of my mind, although I frequently find myself stumbling in otherwise polite conversations when frighteningly dark and vulgar jokes spring to mind—an entirely appropriate coping mechanism in certain circumstances and with particular people—but definitely nothing you want to spring on friends of friends who don’t even have the most limited of contexts for understanding where such thoughts could come from.

And all of that was on top of 40-plus hours per week of run-of-the-mill crisis intervention, suicide prevention, utilization management…

So, if I want to mix in some metaphors, I can say I’m now a ronin—a samurai without a master—an ASOTP without a CSOTP—which, really just makes me a guy with an expensive piece of paper that says I’m an ASOTP until next September, but which conveys no real ability to treat any offenders unless and until I take on another master/CSOTP. Weighing the massive number of hours I still have to accrue across assessment, face-to-face treatment, and supervision, in order to get the full credential myself, I think this may be it for my involvement in offender-land.

I’ve dropped off the keys; and, with no further action, the letters, too, will drop—as will the level of…expulsion required of me on a regular basis. Sure, I’ll still do what I can to draw out various forms of mental/spiritual disease when that is required of m—but hopefully now in more manageable, fun-sized portions.