Overdose Caused Marilyn Monroe’s Death – Suicide Still a Doubt

August 16th, 2016

 

#Overdose #Suicide #MarilynMonroe

John J. Hohn, Writer and reviewer

John J. Hohn, Writer and reviewer

This is the second installment of an interview with Author Gary Vitacco-Robles. In earlier posts, we reviewed Volume I and Volume II of his definitive biography, Icon: The Life, Times and Films of Marilyn Monroe. In this installment, the author responds to our questions about the star, her psychological profile and her legacy among those who remember her today.

When asked, most people remember the more sensational images and episodes from Marilyn Monroe’s life. There is her famous nude photo taken in 1949 for which she was paid $50 that appeared in 1951 in the Golden Dreams calendar – tame by current standards. She was Norma Jeane Baker when it was taken but published in 1951 after she had gained recognition as a rising star. Original negatives of the shot go for six million and higher at auctions today. Back in the 1050’s, photos feminine nudity were euphemistically marketed as photographic studies. Marilyn broke through the hypocrisy with her exultant, fully nude photograph that Hugh Hefner used as a centerfold for his inaugural issue of Playboy.

Among those who were of voting age at the time, the scandal over her alleged affairs with John F. Kennedy and Robert F. Kennedy come quickly to mind.

Although it was staged without public viewing in mind, her rendition of “Happy Birthday” at the birthday party for President John F. Kennedy made an indelible imprint on many.

Finally, movie file aficionados still ponder how one so beautiful, famous and wealthy could die at her own hand. Drug over dose deaths have regrettably become commonplace. Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Amy Winehouse, Prince, and Michael Jackson – among the more famous.

Putting the weight behind of his research behind his thoughts on Marilyn Monroe’s death, Gary Vitacco-Robles responded to our direct question about the matter in a recent interview.

Do you agree with the judgement that Marilyn’s death was an accidental overdose?

Gary Vitacco-Robles = Author and Biographer

Gary Vitacco-Robles = Author and Biographer

The level of barbiturates metabolized in Marilyn’s liver suggests that she consumed about 45 Nembutal and nearly 20 chloral hydrate. This large dose of two medications suggests an intentional overdose and her awareness that it would kill her. There is, of course, the possibility that the overdose was accidental. Marilyn experienced severe mood fluctuations consistent with a Bipolar Disorder diagnosis. The disorder is marked by episodes of mania or hypomania and episodes of depression. At times, an episode can be mixed, having symptoms of both mania and depression.

We know Marilyn was irritable on her last day, she was struggling with insomnia the entire spring and summer; her insomnia was chronic since the mid-fifties. Marilyn’s erratic presentation on the set of Something’s Got To Give, her inability to concentrate, her memory disturbances, her paranoia, all can be linked to her mood disorder. Keep in mind, she wasn’t being treated with a mood stabilizing drug. Most of what was prescribed for her were sedative drugs, and lithium, an early mood stabilizer, was experimental at the time.

We didn’t know as much as we do now about Bipolar Disorder at this time in history, and didn’t clearly understand that it was on a continuum; we clearly knew of the manic psychosis state on the continuum of the disorder. And we also didn’t know about the brain chemistry related to severe depression; depression was believed to be a reaction to stressors and an inability to cope effectively. Hypomania can also involve impulsivity, racing and irrational thoughts.

Marilyn Monroe Iconic Publicity photo for The Seven Year Itch

Marilyn Monroe Iconic Publicity photo for The Seven Year Itch

I believe Marilyn might have been in a hypomanic or mixed episode in the end. Studies of near fatal suicide attempts that required medical intervention reveal that in about 25% of the cases, the person did not have suicidal thoughts or impulses five minutes before the attempt. About 70% report none an hour beforehand. Marilyn’s Bipolar Disorder certainly placed her at a higher risk for an impulsive suicide; the massive amounts of drugs prescribed by her internist, Hyman Engelberg, also placed her at high risk. From the spring of 1962 until her death, I was able to track over 700 units of medications. He concurrently prescribed Nembutal and Chloral Hydrate, contraindicated drugs, if taken together, can result in death.

Another high risk factor, is her Borderline Personality Disorder. This little understood disorder can manifest impulsive behavior such as the person taking her life to reduce emotional pain. In a Borderline crisis, a person might attempt suicide to express emotional pain and to cry for help or even set up a suicide attempt in order to be rescued.

Ralph Greenson (Marilyn’s psychiatrist, was clearly overwhelmed in his role, experienced counter-transference and abandoned all professional boundaries. His controversial treatment techniques were highly ineffective, and in fact, exacerbated Marilyn’s condition. His efforts very likely had an opposite effect than intended. Of course, Borderline Personality Disorder was introduced into the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual for Psychiatric Disorders nearly 20 years after Marilyn’s death, but it was described and studied since the late 1930s, and Greenson’s letters and recorded observations demonstrate that he noted Marilyn’s symptoms of the disorder.

The praise, adulation and affection for Marilyn never really got through to Norma Jeane. What prevented Norma Jeane from accepting Marilyn as her creation and recognizing the praise that was offered was for Norma Jeane as the artist who created Marilyn Monroe, just as, say, Lucille Ball could with her immortal Lucy?

Marilyn’s traumatic background impacted her by creating feelings of inferiority, shame, and worthlessness. This is the insidious nature of childhood neglect, physical and sexual abuse. She constantly looked for external validation and had very little ego strength. She was extremely resilient but nonetheless emotionally damaged, deeply and profoundly

Icon" The Life, Times and Films of Marilyn Monroe - Volume I Book Cover

Icon” The Life, Times and Films of Marilyn Monroe – Volume I Book Cover

damaged, and the treatment she received, though state of the art for its day, was ineffective, perhaps even harmful. She wrote of feeling “subhuman”, as if she was “not existing” or unworthy of existing, and she constantly searched for feedback that reinforced this negative and self-defeating belief about herself.

It was challenging for Marilyn to believe she was worthy of the adulation; at times she felt as though the fame and success was happening to or focused on someone else. Marilyn also wrote of feeling this way about Miller genuinely loving her.  Her journals show she feared he would learn that she was unworthy and he would fall out of love with her.

Around the time she prepared her debut performance at the Actor’s Studio, she had a revealing dream that not only demonstrated her insecurity about acting, but also her insecurity as a worthy person. The dream depicts that her talent was a mirage, that she was empty inside, filled with sawdust, and everyone would eventually know she was unworthy. She would eventually disappoint everyone and they would reject her. This lack of identity and feeling empty is common in Borderline Personality Disorder, common among those with severe early childhood abuse and neglect histories.

Most don’t think Marilyn’s appearance at the birthday party for President John F. Kennedy was a credit to her. As time has passed, most think she demeaned herself? What is your opinion?

I don’t believe the footage had ever been intended for release to the general public. It was a private party for a particular crowd with many in-jokes; it was the entertainment field’s love-in for their liberal president, the first since FDR. The birthday gala wasn’t a televised event for the networks. It was only until later that the footage appeared in documentaries. It seems an appropriate performance for that particular crowd on that particular night. The audience was comprised of liberal, progressive Democrats making donations to the party.

Icon: The Life, Times and Films of Marilyn Monroe, Volume II - Cover

Icon: The Life, Times and Films of Marilyn Monroe, Volume II – Cover

I believe the organizers of the event commanded the quintessential Monroe persona for the performance, and she delivered what was intended. This was a political fundraiser, each admission cost between $500 and $1000, and she was the pièce de résistance. Her Jean Louis gown was nearly a recreation of the many diaphanous illusionary gowns the designer had made for Marlene Dietrich. We may think of the dress as somewhat scandalous, but Dietrich had been wearing very similar ones in concerts throughout the 1950s.

Every vocal nuance and physical gesture was premeditated, as we know from the rehearsal, so the organizers, director and producer were fully aware of what Marilyn’s performance was intended to be. Now, how much was generated by her and how much was directed, is a mystery. Photos show her in conversation with those organizing the event. I suspect that it was completely scripted and staged and not spontaneous. The only departure from the script may have been the dress which surprised the organizers who allegedly believed Marilyn would wear a high-neck black gown. Marilyn reportedly made the change in secret.

Marilyn was performing a characterization, a parody of her film persona. It seems contrary to the image she wished to convey as a serious actress at that point in her career, but I don’t think she realized the performance would become viral and iconic. Keep in mind the raw footage of the event reveals the crowd going wild. We hear the vocal roar . . . the crowd is loud and responsive throughout the performance. We hear a collective laugh at “Mr. President” in the Happy Birthday song. The audience applauds wildly during the “Thanks, Mr. President” song with acknowledgement of his achievements. Photos of the president’s box with Marilyn in the foreground demonstrate joy on the faces of the Kennedy family members in attendance, especially Ethel Kennedy. Other writers have noted that Jacqueline Kennedy was conspicuously absent. And the President, appearing immediately after Marilyn’s performance, seemed pleased and amused.

If people can remember the evening was the equivalent of an office party for those attending, the context puts Marilyn’s appearance in perspective.

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Marilyn Monroe – Causes of Tragic Suicide

August 7th, 2016

#sexualabuse #MarilynMonroe #sexsymbol #suicide

John J. Hohn, Writer and reviewer

John J. Hohn, Writer and reviewer

Marilyn Monroe is arguably the most well-known celebrity of all time in the entertainment industry. Her achievements as an actress have earned her recognition and honors throughout the world. The popularity of her films, thanks to the availability of DVD versions and streaming services, ranks high against the many legends of the movie industry. The surge in the number of readers visiting this site in response to the reviews of the two volume definitive biography, Icon: The Life, Times and Films of Marilyn Monroe by Gary Vitacco-Robles attests to a sustained high level of interest in the star. Given the reaction to the reviews, we are pleased Author Vitacco-Robles has consented to answering a questions questions for our readers. What follows is the first of four installments of an interview with the author.

Why do you think Marilyn Monroe is so well remembered? Why does she stand out from so many others who were clearly very talented, beautiful and dedicated?

My thesis about Marilyn is that she is a psychological, cultural, and spiritual phenomenon. Her childhood situation and its impact on her attachment challenges, her family history of mental illness, and death by suicide makes her a salient subject to educate the public about childhood abuse & neglect and mental health issues. Culturally, Marilyn impacted us in the 1950s and 60s and endures as an icon; subsequent to her death, each decade and each generation reinterprets her life.

Gary Vitacco-Robles = Author and Biographer

Gary Vitacco-Robles = Author and Biographer

Spiritually, Marilyn engenders empathy and compassion in those born in the generations following her death who project their own subjective interpretations onto her extraordinary life. She recognized this quality in herself and once said, “People don’t see me; instead they see a mirror. Marilyn continues to symbolize the American dream. She rose from poverty, worked hard, and succeeded against the odds, never losing sight of her humble beginnings and relating to those who also struggled. She was honest about her limitations; studied acting at the height of her fame; and had a deliciously appealing self-deprecating humor.

Marilyn’s legion of predominantly male biographers was seduced by her physical beauty and complex nature, but completely overlooked what I had seen as so obvious. She was a resilient survivor of abuse and mental illness who became a goddess, a legend, and an icon. She inspires young people today, and her tragic death does not mar this image. By revealing her vulnerability and humanity, Marilyn endures as a beloved American treasure. Part of her enduring appeal may be the empathy her pain and life experiences evoke in each of us. ‘I knew I belonged to the public and to the world,’ Marilyn wrote, aware of the emotional chord she struck in her audience, ‘not because I was talented or even beautiful, but because I had never belonged to anything or anyone else.’”

Marilyn Monroe, Actress

Marilyn Monroe, Actress

Marilyn was a rare constellation of circumstances that makes her so intriguing to each subsequent generation. She was a unique personality with a specific background and psyche drawn to a career that brought her to the public’s awareness. She emerged at a watershed time in American history, the post-war era, on the brink of a sexual revolution, when roles were rigid.

Marilyn was the underdog, American’s parentless “orphan”. Mid-twentieth century media was different. Despite her great gift of managing the media and promoting herself in her early years, Marilyn knew how and when to withdraw. During the Arthur Miller years, the peak of her success and fame, she fled to New Year and Connecticut and lived a rather private life.

There are infinite possibilities for a similar constellation of factors for another personality to resonate so deeply to the public, however, I cannot identify a current example.

You have refrained, quite admirably, from expressing your own judgements about the people who came and went in Marilyn Monroe’s life. Surely you have opinions about those who were most supportive to her and those who made her life more difficult. Would you care to be more specific now? What’s your opinion of Dr. Ralph Greenson, for example? Lee Strasberg? Paula Strasberg? Any others? 

People are rarely all good or all bad, and even in unhealthy relationships marked by abuse, there can still be loving feelings. The two are not always mutually exclusive. As a therapist, I can be objective and see various perspectives; however, at some point, one can identify egregious acts. Also, writing about individuals who are long deceased is challenging; they are no longer present to interview. I diligently worked to unearth various versions of events and presented each, usually concluding what is most likely or least likely, or presenting what facts remain and allow the reader to draw a conclusion.

Icon: The Life, Times and Films of Marilyn Monroe, Volume II - Cover

Icon: The Life, Times and Films of Marilyn Monroe, Volume II – Cover

Greenson was over his head in working with Marilyn. Although well-intentioned, he could also be grandiose and self-serving. Marilyn was also a most challenging patient, but he needed supervision, and he turned to his office male, Dr. Milton Wexler, who was himself investigated for slapping a female patient with Borderline Personality Disorder. This act makes me question the supervision Wexler provided; Wexler admitted his behavior.  It was Wexler who encouraged Greenson to virtually adopt Marilyn into his family. Greenson fostered dependency and failed to empower Marilyn. He assessed her as damaged, fragile, and needy. He wanted to rescue to her, parent her, protect her. In the end, he knew he had failed and felt very guilty. His daughter said he had never lost a patient to suicide and never really recovered.

Lee and Paula Strasbergs were opportunists, but I also believe they loved Marilyn. Marilyn could be vulnerable and elicited both rescue and protective impulses in others. At times, Marilyn surrendered her power and autonomy to others and projected onto them her fantasy of protector. There is an interactive feedback loop in these dynamics on the part of both Marilyn and others. The Strasbergs also recognized a talent in Marilyn and believed they were helping her achieve her goal. They were gurus. Marilyn, insecure and believing them to be experts, became dependent upon them; Lee needed a gifted student to succeed as Stella Adler had found in Marlon Brando. He took some credit for assisting Marilyn achieve her dramatic success in Bus Stop. Marilyn’s celebrity, in turn, promoted Strasberg’s Actor’s Studio, and she participated in fundraisers until her death. I often wish Arthur Miller would have supported an ongoing created relationship between Marilyn and Milton Greene.

In ICON, I explored Marilyn’s many supportive relationships often overlooked. Until her death, she maintained a close relationship with the mother and sister of Fred Karger, her vocal coach in 1948 and the first man with whom she certainly had a sexual relationship following her divorce. There are many others: Norman and Hedda Rosten; Ralph Roberts; Rupert Allan; Allan Snyder; Xenia Checkov, the widow of an acting coach; Sam and Anne Shaw and their children; Inez Melson, her mother’s legal guardian.

Tour work with childhood victims of emotional abandonment and abuse clearly provided an overlap with your interest in Ms. Monroe. Can you expand on that for readers, please?

For thirty years, I have worked with children in the child welfare system who have survived trauma (sexual and physical abuse and neglect) as well as adults with chronic and persistent mental illness. My fellow clinicians who work in the mental health field might see ICON as the longest biopsychosocial assessment summary in history.

Icon" The Life, Times and Films of Marilyn Monroe - Volume I Book Cover

Icon” The Life, Times and Films of Marilyn Monroe – Volume I Book Cover

My first position as a therapist was in a program specializing in trauma-informed treatment of youth and families who had survived physical/sexual abuse and neglect and children with sexual behavior problems. I became licensed as Mental Health Counselor in Florida in 1997 and became a Nationally Certified Counselor in 1998.

I intended this research and writing project to serve as a diversion from my clinical work as a licensed mental health counselor and program manager of an outpatient clinic, however, I selected a remarkable subject who only brought me closer to my work.

Marilyn Monroe began her life as Norma Jeane Baker and survived a childhood marked by complex trauma; she was raised in foster homes and an orphanage as a result of her mother’s psychiatric instability and her father’s abandonment.  She battled major depression and bipolar disorder during a time when she had limited treatment options. She survived domestic violence and suffered from endometriosis which resulted in chronic pain and the inability to have children. Marilyn was also the first public figure to openly discuss childhood sexual abuse during a time in history when the topic was minimized, if not denied by the culture at large.

Marilyn also appears to have experienced the symptoms consistent with Post-traumatic Stress Disorder and Borderline Personality Disorder. Marilyn is an illustration of many of the children & adults I have served over the years. My professional expertise and experience allowed a perspective missing in former biographies of Marilyn. I believe it is impossible to accurately depict this woman without the context of her mood, personality, anxiety and substance use disorders. Today we have an abundance of information about early brain development, early childhood social and emotional well-being, and behavioral health issues that allow us to better understand Marilyn and her unique constellation of issues which resulted in the trajectory of her life and early death.

As mentioned earlier, this article is the first in four installments. Please watch this site for related posting of our interview with Author Vitacco-Robles.

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Marilyn Monroe – A Definitive New Biography by Vitacco-Robles

July 15th, 2016

#MarilynMonroe  #Movies #Hollywood

John J. Hohn, Writer/Reviewer

John J. Hohn, Writer/Reviewer

Marilyn Monroe is an enigmatic figure in the history of the entertainment industry. Half a century has passed since her death, yet she is remembered today as if she were yet alive. Her story has evolved into legend. Breathtakingly beautiful, talented and charismatic, she begins her career in the heyday advent of the movie industry. The widescreen CinemaScope technology and stereophonic sound present her on the wide screen as sensual, alluring and innocent – the undeniably seductive child-woman somehow untainted by the world. She was so compelling in her portrayals that two of her more successful films (Some Like It Hot and The Misfits) were produced in black-and-white. Other glamorous stars preceded her, but none secured the same lasting impact.

Marilyn Monroe is both the product and the victim of twentieth century America as the country moves into new-found affluence after World War II. The age is witness to the rise of materialism, the redefinition of sexual values, the questioning of the place of women in society and the leaderless rebellion of youth against the established order. Monroe’s name is associated with some of the elite of the era, Carl Sandberg, John F. Kennedy, Robert Kennedy Frank  Sinatra and Clark Gable among others.  It would only follow that many would try to exploit her memory for personal advantage. Over 600 books have been published about her. Many accounts distort the collective memory to such an extent the task of untangling and clarifying Ms. Monroe’s story takes on monumental dimensions.

Unassailable Credibility . . .

Gary Vitacco-Robles = Author and Biographer

Gary Vitacco-Robles = Author and Biographer

Gary Vitacco-Robles was not one to be deterred from the challenge of making certain truth would prevail. His two volumes, Icon: The Life, Times and Films of Marilyn Monroe, Volumes I and II constitute the definitive biography of the great actress. (See the earlier review of Volume I click here on this web site.) That Vitacco-Robles cares, and cares deeply, for his subject is clear. His compassion and sensitivity are never more obvious than when he addresses the less-than-glamorous episodes in her life. Readers can expect to be impressed with the depth of his research. Every scene is filled with poignant detail. His credibility is unassailable and thus the power behind his narrative flows from genuine empathy for his subject.

Volume II covers the turbulent years from 1956 to 1962, the year the star died of a tragic, accidental overdose. By 1956, Ms. Monroe has gained star status. The Seven Year established her securely as a box office draw. Successes followed including The Prince and the Showgirl, Bus Stop, and arguably the greatest comedy of all time, Some Like It Hot. The world comes to know the screen persona of the actress. What becomes central to the spiritual and psychological plight for Ms. Monroe is that the world does not know her for who she truly is. “Do you want me to be Marilyn?” she teases one guest. In private the actress finds the adulation, addressed as it is to a characterization, void of the affirmation she desperately seeks. She struggles with depression, the anguish of bipolar emotional swings and the unfulfilled yearnings with their roots in a deprived and abusive childhood. Vitacco-Robles has the professional credentials to state his own analysis, but he remains objective and quotes other authorities who knew Ms. Monroe whenever he wants to write about her tormented mental state. Throughout, the author is even-handed and balanced in presentation; neither apologist nor critic. He treats the actor’s professional growth in the same manner. Monroe’s contemporaries observe that she is at the height of her talent and growing as an actress at the time of her death.

Marilyn Monroe in the  Iconic Publicity photo for The Seven Year Itch

Marilyn Monroe in the Iconic Publicity photo for The Seven Year Itch

Several persons emerge from the author’s narrative as major influences in the star’s life. Arthur Miller’s emotional withdrawal from her while they are married leaves readers questioning the depth of artistic sensitivity. Joe DiMaggio’s devotion to her throughout her life is moving. Lee and Paul Strasberg seem to thrive on keeping Marilyn dependent rather than helping her move toward a more autonomous self-sufficiency. Readers may also conclude that Psychiatrist Ralph Greenson is guilty of cultivating a dependency. Monroe was on the verge of firing him at several points.

Approaching Ridicule . . .

Surprises await also. Ms. Monroe’s performance of Happy Birthday at JFK’s party can be seen on You Tube today. It may appear to be spontaneous. Not so, however.  It was rehearsed and she was very nervous before the performance. It was suggested that she appear in a more modest formal gown, but she decided to surprise the President and those attending with something of  her own choosing. The dress she selected was sewn on her. She wore no under garments. Emcee Peter Lawford, who was instrumental in bringing Ms. Monroe and JFK together in his home, built his introduction of the actress on a belittling patter that approached ridicule.  The “audience roared,” the author reports, when she crossed the stage.. Her seductive presentation borders on travesty, especially in the face of the rumors that were flying about her and the President. Public values were very much in transition at the time, but even today, many would see her act as an affront to the decorum expected in the presence of a head-of-state. “That was poor form on her part,” Mort Viner, Dean Martin’s manager said. Many would agree. The President, in acknowledging her performance, observes with humorous sarcasm that he enjoyed being serenaded in such a “wholesome” manner and the line drew a laugh from the crowd. Sarcasm is always a mixed message. Audience members may have roared at her appearance but for the most part it was at her expense.  One wonders whether she realized at some level that she may have discredited herself. At the very least, she was not well served by those who rehearsed her. Nothing highlights the dichotomy between the performing Marilyn and the private Marilyn as much as this short historic appearance. The author does not report that private Marilyn drew any satisfaction over how her performance was received. “I  liked it,” she said in response to a direct question about the party by reporters afterward.

Her Own Glittering Mist . . .

Arthur Schlesigner, Jr., JFK’s biographer, made a journal entry that speaks for most when he wrote, “I do not think I have seen anyone as beautiful. I was enchanted by her manner and wit, at once so masked, so ingenuous and so penetrating. But one felt a terrible unreality about her-as if talking to someone under water. . . . One never felt her to be wholly engaged. She receded into her own glittering mist.”

Icon: The Life, Times and Films of Marilyn Monroe, Volume II - Cover

Icon: The Life, Times and Films of Marilyn Monroe, Volume II – Cover

Vitacco-Robles, as an author, refrains from moralizing and passing judgement. Readers, however, will find the story he has presented as moving and tragic, so much so that one may feel Marilyn Monroe’s legacy looms much larger than her artistic achievements. Her performances will attest through the ages to the depths of her enormous talent. Given her kindness to others, her generosity and her forgiving nature, she stands, however, for so much more. It is not too difficult to imagine that she would have done everything within her power to make certain no child would ever again experience the horrors that she endured during her early years. Her memory needs to be invoked in every effort to assure a better world awaits the birth of every child than the dreadful circumstances she was born into. The psychological damage and painful disorientation of her early years remained with her throughout her life. It crippled her, locked her in “her own glittering mist” as she searched for fulfillment and true happiness. Her life is proof that no amount of fame or fortune can compensate for the loss of the nurturance, love and affirmation every child needs to establish a thriving, healthy sense of self and a belief in his or her essential worthiness.

Turning to conditions under which Ms. Monroe worked, the author provides insight into the workings of the major Hollywood studios. Marilyn Monroe was a money maker for them but she was never treated with the respect she deserved. Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton were driving the studio into bankruptcy with their self-indulgent behavior and shoddy performances on the set for Cleopatra. Yet they were coddled and catered to. Ms. Monroe may have had problems with punctuality and keeping her commitments to appear but her performances were always exceeded expectations. Yet she was ostracized and threatened with termination. The harsh uncharitable treatment kept her mindful of her the painful abandonment and abuse she experienced as a child.

Vitacco-Robles’s writing style is sturdy and straightforward. There are moments when the author could have moved his story along more efficiently had he used footnotes to provide background data. On occasion the central story all but surrenders to detail and the trail of the narrative fades. The author includes an appendix that provides a synopsis of each of Monroe’s films. Extending the practice to include background information on some personalities and events would have served equally as well. These are the minor shortcomings of an impressive work of unflinching objectivity. Marilyn Monroe’s talent and memory deserved a biographer who brings to his task a dedication and skill that is worthy of her as a subject. Vitacco-Robles had done just that. He has paid her the highest possible tribute in completing this most memorable biography.

This review initially appeared in somewhat condensed form on the web site bookpleasures.com

Thanks for visiting my web site. Look for an interview with Gary Vitacco-Robles to follow this review. While you are here, please let me invite you to check some of the other pages of my site. Please feel free to enter your comments on this or any other feature in the area provided below.

Islam after the Arab Spring – Shelly Culbertson reports in “The Fires of Spring”

May 29th, 2016

#islam  #arab   #muslims  #middleeast

John J. Hohn, Writer/Reviewer

John J. Hohn, Writer/Reviewer

Islam is a mystery to most of Americans.  We walk about with the muddled impression that it’s a religion; or no, it’s a political system; or no, it’s a nation somewhere out in the middle of a dessert. The depth of our ignorance and fear has been plumbed by Donald Trump who won wide approval for promising to keep Muslims out of the country. Ours is a democratic republic, however. If we are to save it, it behooves us to become better informed. An excellent place to start is The Fires of Spring by Shelly Culbertson released in April, 2016 by St. Martin’s Press.

Ms. Culbertson, a policy analyst for the Rand Corporation, has focused her career on studying  the Middle East. She has advised the U. S. Statement Department and other governments. The Fires of Spring is at once a travelogue and a commentary of her findings in the post-Arab Spring, a period of protest and violence that resulted in the deaths of thousands, toppled governments, vicious civil wars and possibly the largest mass immigration in modern times. Culbertson’s writing style is unpretentious and straightforward – a joy to read. Her reporting is objective, all the more laudable given the complexity of the issues and the political cross-currents of the region.

Objective and Insightful . . .

Most of the information Americans receive about the Middle East and Muslims is provided by our mass media, primarily television. Perhaps it is a misuse of the term, but the approach most networks take is phenomenological. Nothing in depth or by way of explanation. Viewers are treated to a splash of violence as protestors are gunned down in the greets or panorama of horror at the plights of the refuges and starving souls caught up in the turbulence of revolt and civil war. This is one reason why Culbertson’s work is so very important. Her objective, insightful narrative provides a counterbalance to predictable offerings from popular media.

Shelly Culbertson, author and  analyst

Shelly Culbertson, author and analyst

Culbertson builds her presentation one country at a time, beginning with Tunisia and moving through Turkey, Iraq, Jordan, Qatar and Egypt in that order. Each country, all with Muslim majority, emerges with challenges in common and with problems that are unique to each. The struggle everywhere is characterized by movement, however gradual, toward more democratic forms of government. Equality and tolerance are issues in all the countries, especially  with regard to women, economic classes and distinct ethnic or religious groups like the Kurds or Christian Copts. Progress can be made without violence. Tunisia, for example, is proud that it moved through the turbulence of the Arab Spring without bloodshed. Syria and Iraq, by contrast, have been racked by wholesale slaughter of innocent people.

Culbertson’s narrative builds on the interviews with leaders and intellectuals of the countries she visits. The extensively quoted texts create immediate credibility. Commentators reflect on their own experience as witnesses to the upheaval. Their accounts are often moving and poignant. To her credit, Culbertson, does not attempt in-depth explanations of the political and religious differences that drive protest and resistance alike. She seeks, instead, the common ground in what many still see as an East-meets-West confrontation.

Different Banners . . .

History is key to understanding. For generations, the peoples of the region lived peaceably and tolerant of their diversity as Arabs of the Ottoman Empire. Ottoman rule was autocratic. It set the model of the dictatorships that came to power after World War I. This critical event – the collapse of the Ottoman Empire – brought with it a profound loss in the wake of Turkey’s defeat. No longer Ottoman Arabs, the people of the region lost their identity, a loss deeply spiritual and psychological in scope. Inhabitants fell back on what was left to them; namely, tribal, religious, and ethnic identities to set themselves apart from the masses. (See Edward O. Wilson’s The Social Conquest of Earth which argues the sense of belonging and identity is DNA deep in humans.) As one expert suggests, “Identity under the Ottomans was cultural and religious, but never political.” With the political structure crushed, a vacuum was created and cultural identity was all that remained.

The Fires of Spring - Book cover.

The Fires of Spring – Book cover.

To put this in perspective, the American reader needs only to imagine what would happen if our Federal government was  peeled away. Without the over-reaching, transcendent identity we all enjoy,  our nation would reshape itself into multiple communities organized by the very things that make us different. States and cities would polarize. Boundaries would be created. Transgressors would be driven off, jailed or lynched. Stronger states would bully weaker. There would be no appeal to The American Way of life. We would group around different banners. Protestants. Catholics, Agnostics, Jews. Blacks. Whites, Hispanics. Asians. The list is endless. Tolerance would be completely dependent upon the good will of the people. Maintenance of communal identity, however, would override altruism. Those differing with us would be regarded as lesser humans, just as minorities in our communities experience racism and antisemitism today. Identity is reinforced as much by rejection of those who are different as it is by inclusion of those who are similar. Members inculcate the values of their community as a critical developmental step in coming to know who they and maturing into fulfilled human beings. This is essentially what happened in the Middle East. When the Ottoman Empire failed, inhabitants turned to their ethnic, tribal and religious bonds to form communities.

Emergence of ethnic, tribal and religious differences caused conflict as communities formed around values held in common. Western leaders arbitrarily redrew the map for the people whose roots extended back for centuries. Colonial rule replaced the Ottoman governance. Colonial powers saw the Arab population as inferior and finally ceded to pressures to grant independence. The new countries, boundaries drawn without regard for social, economic, cultural, or ethnic differences, were held together by dictatorships, the only form of government known to the citizens. Under dictatorship countries stagnated economically and culturally. Arab youth are the driving force for change. They want a better life.

Strong-man tradition .  .  .

Surging interest in oil from the West served usually to make matters worse. Exporters of oil wanted political stability to lessen the threat to their supply and the infrastructure required to transport it. They backed leaders who maintained order. If that was a strong dictator, so be it. Wealth introduced by international trade was not often distributed equitably nor did it help move the masses toward democratic reforms.

The Muslim world today is divided between those who insist that nothing new can be introduced into the faith of Islam and those who insist that answers lie not in the past. There is no separation of church and state in Arab countries. God governs though the those enthroned or in office. To believe in law is to believe in God. To obey the law is to obey God.

The Ancient City of Istanbul

The Ancient City of Istanbul

Government and religion as one is very difficult for many in the West to grasp. The only thing that comes close in this reviewer’s experience might be living as Catholic in the middle of last century. No major family decision was made without consulting a priest. Catholic moral code was puritanical and primary. Martyrdom was revered. Children were indoctrinated before they reached the age of reason. Free-thinking was discouraged. Faith was exulted as superior to reason. Doubt was sinful. Ritualized self-mortification was part of worship. The self was unworthy. Catholicism, in short, was a way of life. A minority in the U. S, and never been as strongly entrenched as Islam, Catholicism has yielded to the democratic and secular influences of a pluralistic society. Islam in the Middle East, however, is dominant as a way of life for the majority. Pressure for change is weaker.

Extremes of the Crisis .  .  .

Liberal and secular thinking is slowly breaking down some of the traditional practices in Islam society. The extremes of the crisis show up in the barbarism of ISIS and others. Violence is how these groups present their challenge to contemporary liberal thinkers. Middle ground is hard to fine. The most recent constitution adopted by Egypt, for example, recognizes only Islam in creating a state that excludes non-Arabs. Missing almost entirely is the humanist base of most Western constitutions.

The Fires of Spring is a huge first step toward creating better understanding. Culbertson’s reporting on the status of women in Arab countries is also a plus and adds depth to her book. Customs vary from country to country and Culbertson, as a female reporter, was very successful in interviewing women of the region. Westerners, who often regard the dress and social regimentation of woman as demeaning, will be surprised to find the women of the region are not universally opposed to all their culture imposes on them. Pride in their own traditions, especially in the face of secular pressures from the West, has many embracing many aspects of their customary roles. Doing so does not necessarily mean they must forsake the goal of equality.

Not to be overlooked are the author’s moving impressions as she strolls the streets of the ancient cities, seeks out the poor in the slums, and describes the timeless beauty of the vistas of these legendary lands. Her descriptive passages are poetic. The First of Spring is contemporary non-fiction at its best. Mission accomplished, Shelly Culbertson.

This review was originally published in somewhat condensed for on the bookpleasures.come web site.

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The Honeymoon – A biographical novel of the life of George Eliot

May 6th, 2016
John J. Hohn, Writer and reviewer

John J. Hohn, Writer and reviewer

 

#georgeeliot #marianevans #engishlit

George Eliot’s Silas Marner was required reading in English lit when I was a sophomore in high school in the 1055. Written in the previous century, there was no way we guys would admit to liking the book. It was so old. Nothing in the days of George Eliot had any bearing upon our current time. Richard McCormack was our teacher, a gentleman through and through. We nicknamed him “Silas” because of his affection for Eliot’s novel. (I wonder if he ever found out.) By the time I began teaching sophomore high school English in 1962, a profession I undertook thanks to men like McCormack and my senior year teacher Richard Bisbee, Eliot had been dropped. Thorton Wilder‘s The Bridge of San Luis Rey had taken its place along with Hawthorne‘s Scarlet Letter (“How come she had the baby if she wasn’t married, Mr. Hohn?”) and an abridged version of Melville‘s Moby Dick.

I suppose the change was for the better. Kids took to the new selections readily. But I remembered McCormack and Silas Marner. My senior year in college, I represented my school at the annual Minnesota English Majors Convention and delivered a paper on George Eliot’s Middlemarch which is revered today as one of the great novels of the English language. I hoped I could produce a copy of my paper in preparing for this post, but alas, it vanished somewhere along the way. Prof Stephen Humphrey* helped me prepare the work for presentation. At the end of the conference, he said, “Your ending was especially strong.” I was surprised. He had never seen the ending. I had gone over most of the paper with him on at least two occasions. But the ending,  I had written it in my pajamas the morning of my presentation.

Prof had reason to be pleased with my ending, or at least relieved. The year prior, a senior with the first name of Paul  presented a paper on Shakespeare‘s King Lear at the convention and pretty much embarrassed Prof and the school by failing to draw any conclusion in his report or resolve it with closing remarks. “That’s it,” Paul said unapologetically as he stopped without abruptly with his unfinished paper.  To this day, I thought Prof should have checked Paul’s work. But then he never checked mine to make sure I finished it. I can only guess that Prof trusted us as scholars to do our utmost. Why I postponed writing the last two-and-a-half pages until the very last minute mystified me for years. Now that I write frequently, I have come to realize that I learned a great lesson from the experience.

Cinch Everything  up . . .

George Eliot - Marian Evans

George Eliot – Marian Evans

Much of writing is exploratory, a poking and probing in the hope that the ideas just beyond my reach are viable and worth my time to run down. Once into a piece, however, I know that it must go somewhere, not ramble along like this posting is at the moment. I have learned patience. It is important to yield to impulses, apparent non sequitors that actually do lead somewhere after all. Some become sequitors, but like so many random articles throughout the house, all the ideas need finally to be rounded up to a conclusion. Readers expect closure. Sustaining ambivalence can lead to madness. So, as a piece feels as it wants to close, as I find myself exhausted of whimsy and inspiration alike, I try to embrace everything that found its way onto the screen (yes, the screen; not the paper – ah technology). Then, like a draw string on a large plastic bag, I cinch everything up. Pull it together with a knot of finality and pitch it out — out in front of others for their judgment.

I’m not there yet with this posting.

Prof Stephen B. Humphrey was a major influence on my choice of the teaching profession also. Students admired him. He taught courses in the modern novel and in modern poetry. Both were favorites. We called him the “silver fox,” hardly original, but word reached us that he was pleased. His choice for his class of an early novel was The Way of All Flesh by Samuel Butler. Anthony Trollope also worked his way into the syllabus, although I can’t recall which of his novels we read (a bad sign, I’d say). Trollope, however, was cited by George Eliot as one who had tremendous influence on her and she said Trollope’s Barchester Towers inspired her to write Middlemarch, which brings me  full circle and back to the real topic of this post.

I was pleased recently to note that a new book has come out on the life of George Eliot. Richard McCormack would be pleased,. may he rest in peace. Dinitia Smith’s wonderful new book The Honeymoon, recently released, is a biographical novel of the life of Marian Evans.

Whisperings . . .

Dinitia Smith, Author

Dinitia Smith, Author

The Honeymoon opens with Evans as a wealthy widow at age 60. Evans gained fame as a novelist under her chosen nom de plume, George Eliot, during a time when women writers could not expect to be well received. Johnnie Cross, an elegantly handsome bachelor of 39, moved gracefully among the better circles in London society. Never much of a ladies man, whisperings drifted about whether he might be a “Nancy man” in the terms of day. Johnnie kept a secret certainly, one few knew. He withheld it from Evans even after they married.

Author Dinitia Smith sets up her biographical novel with the two unlikely newlyweds starting their honeymoon in Venice. Readers sense immediately that something is going very wrong. The stench of the canals, the sweaty, sneering gondolier taking them to their hotel, brown knots of feces bob in the water, all register with Evans. The canal is an open sewer – hardly a romantic setting.

When they arrive at the hotel, the manager recognizes Evans as George Eliot, the famous novelist, and the anonymity she hoped would keep their time together private is shattered. Cross becomes angry. He begins pointing out the sites of the city to his bride. He is so obsessed with the task that his wife cannot coax a smile to his lips. The next morning, she awakens to find him still in his evening dress (they slept in different rooms) which he insists on wearing to the beach regardless of how inappropriate his apparel may be. When he wades into the water fully clothed, Evans pleads with him to return to shore. The honeymoon is turning into a nightmare. With the irony of her title established, author Smith leaves the newlyweds and backtracks to explain how this mysterious state of affairs came about.

The Honeymoon = Book Cover at Amazon

The Honeymoon = Book Cover at Amazon

Marian Evans was born on the estate that her father manages for the wealthy owners. She and her father were very close. Very bright, Evans’ finds herself at home in the company of some of the greatest liberal minds of the time. Her androgynous physical appearance leaves her yearning for love, especially after her father dies. Free love is in fashion among the literati of England. Evans yields to several men, but as they have other alliances, she is abandoned, heart broken and lonely. Seemingly resigned to her fate as a single woman, she begins to write, first for periodicals and eventually publishes a novel which becomes popular and favored by critics. She meets George Lewes, who is married, and the two leave for the continent where they set up household and pass as husband and wife – a la Mary Godwin and Percy Shelley a generation earlier.  Lewes becomes the love of Evans’ life. Smith presents their relationship with poetic sensitivity, a fulfilling relationship for both of them.

Evans is devastated when Lewes dies,. She returns to London to find whatever comfort she can among friends who include the greatest minds of the time. Her novels are praised by Turgenev, Ruskin, Dickens and Spencer, to name a few. One who attends her during her grief is Johnnie Cross.  He pledges his love to her and vows to devote himself to taking care of her. Evans has misgivings because of their age difference, the awkwardness likely in any physical intimacy and sends Cross away. He persists, however, and she eventually agrees to wed and the stage is set for the honeymoon.

The Honeymoon is compelling, compassionate biographical novel, a story best told by a woman of Dinitia Smith’s abundant talent and insight. The author describes her protagonist’s experience in finding the joy of her own writing voice as “. .  . arriving at the point where the words became a melody, took on life, filled the page, became, finally, a symphony.” The phrase could only come from another writer, one who knows the joys of gaining entry to the flow a piece, and the same phrase applies to The Honeymoon as Smith demonstrates her mastery of the language. Her phrases flow. They entrance. She slips into her heroine’s thoughts so unobtrusively readers do not recognize the change in perspective. Evan’s thoughts and feelings pour out onto the page with stunning authenticity. Smith transports her readers with the sights, sounds, scents and textures of her scenes. Marian Evans’ life story is well worth the read. The author’s style in presenting The Honeymoon is a masterpiece of contemporary writing – a study in itself.

Fifty-five years have passed since I delivered my paper on Middlemarch. There something very reassuring in realizing George Eliot’s work remains under discussion and that she as an author still commands the attention that she deserve.

* An internet search produces nothing on Stephen B. Humphrey except notes on the theater named after him on the campus of St. John’s University. Prof was very self-effacing. It is a credit to St. John’s that they honored him by naming the theater after him. Nevertheless, somewhere amid all the historical photos, one would hope to find a photo of Prof.

This review first appeared in bookpleasures.com in a somewhat condensed version.

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Black Panthers at War – General Patton’s African-American Tankers

April 23rd, 2016
John J. Hohn, Writer and reviewer

John J. Hohn, Writer and reviewer

Mention the Black Panthers, and anyone born after World War II will probably recall the political party that was founded as part of the Black Power movement in the 1960s. Less likely is that anyone recalls a group of African-American G. I. tankers who fought under General George Patton in his armor campaign in Europe in 1944 and 1945. In The Black Panthers at War, author Gina M. Dinicolo mentions the men of the 761st tanker company adopted the name “Black Panthers” for their group, but history proves that the designation did not stick. By contrast, consider the legendary African-American fighter pilots of the Tuskegee Airmen. The Red Tails made history escorting allied bombers on raids into Germany. Or the Red Ball Express. African-American drivers kept the allied forces supplied as they pushed across Europe. Their commitment and endurance completing 36 hours stints in the cab garnered recognition and praise.

Institutionalized Prejudice . . .

African-Americans were relegated to support functions for the most part in World War II. As cooks, truck drivers, mechanics and logistical support, few were exposed to combat. Author Dinicolo points out that the prejudice against blacks was institutionalized in the years leading up to WWII. Army manuals stated that the performance of black Americans was expected to be less than that of whites. Her introduction focuses on the racial tensions and violence that were part of life in the U. S. during the years leading up to the war. The prevailing prejudice was blacks did not possess the skills or the willingness to fight. The armed forces remained segregated during World War II, but the demand for manpower dictated that blacks were needed on the front lines. They would go into combat, however, as a black unit, perhaps led by a white officer, but black throughout the ranks.

Cover: The Black Panthers at War

Cover: The Black Panthers at War

Nobody today doubts the ability or willingness of African-Americans to perform valiantly in combat. Viet Nam dispelled that final shard of ignorance and bigotry. Writing of the 1940s, the theme of lowered expectations of minorities is carried out through the final chapter of Black Panthers at War. One chapter is dedicated to baseball legend Jackie Robinson who was court marshaled on a charge of being disrespectful toward a fellow white officer. Robinson was acquitted but left service because the charge. Aside from detailed reporting of the frequent incidents of discrimination within the ranks and among the civilians, the author does not expand her perspective beyond the context of the time in which the action she reports took place. Her book adds little in helping readers understand the nature of prejudice and its implications as the conflict and misunderstanding continues through to the present day.

Dinicolo makes an all-out effort, however, at claiming the tankers’ share of fame and recognition, but her story drops several rounds short. It fails to enshrine the heroism and sacrifice of the men it is all about. Dinicolo’s flaccid prose doesn’t create a sense of tension and eminent danger. By attempting to provide the points of several men in the 761st, her narrative becomes diffuse and superficial. Her prose doesn’t excite much empathy or compassion. The battle scenes are not dramatic, with little sense of challenge or urgency. She relies heavily on mundane modifiers to lead readers. Economy of expression is sacrificed to stating the obvious.

For example: “Germans would kill anyone trying to take the town.”

Dusk becomes “A shortage of daylight . . . “

“Enemy fire resulted in a series of tremendous explosions.” (What else?)

As an author, she’s not in the battle, not with her troops.

Well Grounded in the Facts . . .

Gina M. Dinicola, Author

Gina M. Dinicola, Author

Dinicolo follows several men from enlistment to the battlefield. She is well-grounded in the facts about their training and the battles in which they participated. But her ultimate failure to identify with her subjects becomes evident when she refers to the infantry as “doughboys,” a World War I nickname long out of use by World War II. Dinicolo compounds the gaff by shortening the nickname to “doughs,” a title of her own creation never to be found in print or film about WWII.

A model for any writer in undertaking a military history of any group is Band of Brothers by Stephen Ambrose. Ambrose captures the Esprit de corps of his company, provides insight into his subjects without resorting to lengthy biographical sketches, and holds the readers by organizing his story around various themes, whether the conflict with the officers in training or the horror of post traumatic shock syndrome. Readers realize the Ambrose’s intention. Dinicolo, on the other hand, adds too much to the mix, almost as if she is compensating for a lack of dramatic focus. The men of E Company in Band of Brothers may, in the final analysis, simply have been another group of guys – white guys – caught up in a war like thousands of others their age. Ambrose found the unifying heart to their efforts. The same story could have been written about nearly any other company in the U.  S. Army at the time, but E Company is proxy for all of them. Readers take their experience as representative of all the G. I.s.

The same opportunity was available to Dinicolo. But she relied more upon the 761st being African-American to set them apart. Otherwise, their experience was much like any other company in the conflict. with the extraordinary exception that they faced prejudice, derision, and bigotry and served anyway. They fought for a county that treated them as second-class citizens. What Dinicolo fails to develop is why these brave black men fought. Blacks in the United States did not see World War II as a white man’s war. They saw it as every man’s war. A war against their country, inequality notwithstanding. A war for democracy. A war against tyranny, injustice and the exploitation of others – conditions of life that African-Americans endured in varying degrees in the U. S.

Blacks Harbored No Doubts . . .

Black Panthers at War chronicles the achievements of very brave and talented soldiers. Any criticism of the work about them should not detract from the magnitude of their accomplishments. That said, any student of World War II and the history of racism in America will find it hard to avoid being disappointed in Dinicolo’s work. Blacks, after all, harbored no doubts about their ability. What they achieved is not the greater because white America thought they were less than capable. Astonishment on the part of any is indicative of prejudice. In an ideal world, their accomplishments would never have been set apart because of race. Instead, they would be recognized for their extraordinary valor, tenacity, skill and drive.

A byproduct of finding one’s rightful place in a society is that achievements, more often as not, go unnoticed. Being part of the crowd carries some assurance of anonymity. Dinicolo never claims the record of the 761st is exemplary because of the racial mix of the company. On the other hand, she does not establish the dynamics of the group or the heroic dimensions of their achievements on a scale that makes them any more exceptional than what others experienced and survived. The same could be said of Ambrose’s Company E. The difference between the two groups is not race but the way in which their stories are told. Black Panthers at War is rich in subject matter. Too bad so little is explored at any depth.

This review first appeared in bookpleasures. com, a web site in somewhat shorter form.

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Blending Families Successfully – Destined to be a Classic

January 30th, 2016
John J. Hohn, Writer and reviewer

John J. Hohn, Writer and reviewer

Blending Families Successfully, by George S. Glass, published in 2014, deserves much more attention than it is getting for all the wisdom brimming between its covers. Dr. Glass is a board-certified psychiatrist with years of experience in counseling parents and individual clients. In Blending Families, he gets out from behind the desk very quickly and speaks to his readers directly in an authentic conversational tone. The result is a genuinely warm, caring guide through the stormy passages following the collapse of a marriage and all the goes into starting over again.

Blending Families Successfully is the second book to be reviewed on the web site. She my earlier post on The Overparenting Epidemic.

Second Marriages Fail . . .

The rate at which first marriages fail has dropped over the recent decade, but the percentage ending in divorce is still very high when measured against historical norms. Worse yet, as Dr. Glass points out, second marriages fail at a greater rate than first marriages. One major contributing reason is that remarried couples clash over how the children of the new family are to be guided and raised. Glass begins his examination of the reasons behind these failures by focusing first on the difficulties the newly divorced parents face. Any reader who has lived through divorce will feel right at home with a chapter entitled “How Did I Get Here?” Most will recognize that awful feeling of having lost direction in life and contact with the true self. Glass knows. He shares of his own experience, from the many years he continued as a single parent through to his own remarriage and the blending of the family to include his children and his wife’s, and (yeah, get this) their own new baby. Within a few pages, most readers will very much in touch with the author and sense his presence.

George S. Glass, MD - Author

George S. Glass, MD – Author

“Divorce can render even the most secure person a mess,” Glass declares in an early chapter. A great deal of trust goes into every act during the normal day of a married couple. It may be as simple as trusting that the bills will be paid or the car serviced. But when a couple separates, the to-do list is refreshed right from the start. Going to a PTA meeting brings back painful memories have attending with a spouse. The future is not clear any more. Or as Glass observes, “It (divorce) creates vulnerability were it may have not ever existed.” Alarming and realistic as that description may be, it is a comfort to those who have suffered the mental disorientation and anguish that accompany the loss of marriage. The author knows all about what lies in store. He knows what it takes to get through it all.

Children Come First . . .

Glass focuses on the children of the broken marriage. “No matter how chaotic, unhappy or disinterested their parents may have been, children, particularly younger ones, prefer an intact family. . . . More than that, it (divorce) almost always comes as a shock to them and one they will always remember as an event that changed their life.” The author cautions against dismissing the children’s concerns. The suggestion that they may be better off after the divorce than if they continued in a household where strife ruled is often a statement of denial. Continued concern for the welfare of the children is a must. As the author writes, “In my practice, I can often date the onset of an individual’s loss of self-esteem, lack of motivation or poor performance in school to this point in their life, when a divorce changed everything.” In a later chapter, he reminds readers, “They (children) need time to grieve the end of their biological family before they can move on and greet a new life.” Bringing a partner into the home to share the bed while the children are there and have not had a chance or the time to adjust is a serious mistake, one that will lead children to believe they do not count.

Dr. Glass takes an almost avuncular tone in some of his advice. “If you fall in love – or think you have – too soon after the divorce it probably means you haven’t examined yourself sufficiently.” Don’t be in a hurry, he admonishes. Get to know yourself first, the new person who emerges with renewed self-assurance and strength.

Blending Families Successful - cover

Blending Families Successful – cover

The most frequently visited posts of this web site over the years have been articles concerned with step-parenting. (The click here for the most recent of those earlier posts.) The amount of correspondence this column has received attests to the ongoing challenges and rewards to blending a family. Glass, again, insists on being realistic. He writes, “Life as a step-parent can run the gamut from the best experience in your life to the worst, and quite often it provides both.” The line brings to mind a man who remarried when his own children had left home and took on the role of stepfather to a seven-year-old stepson. “Things went well between us,” he said, “because I played with the little guy – a lot. There was no need for discipline, and when there was, his mother handled it. One evening, after he had graduated from college and moved away, my wife and I went to visit him and he invited us to go out for dinner. At the end of the meal, he said, “You know, I have always loved my dad. We stayed in touch all through everything that happened. And that was great, but what you guys, you have been my parents. I am so proud of what he said.”

As mentioned earlier, what makes Blending Families Successfully so very comfortable is the author’s reporting on his own experience. But the book goes well beyond the story of his blended family. The selected episodes and the words Glass shares from his work with clients are especially poignant. Readers draw comfort from the realization that others have lived through the same painful, confusing passages. Non-judgmental and compassionate, Dr. Glass gives direct advice. No psycho-babble. The advice is laced with understanding. Go slowly. Be patient with yourself. Glass knows current trends and fads. He offers advice about dating, when to introduce children to a special other, how to manage expenses after the marriage, relations with former spouses, how to communicate with the ex, and many other areas of concern.

This reviewer, thirty years into his marriage and blended family, found the book full of insight and sound advice from trying to save a failing marriage  through starting over, remarriage and from there on to the end of your days, Blending Families Successfully belongs on your bookshelf. To be read, certainly, but also to be retained as a reference, as a guide, as a comfort. Glass is a name that should become synonymous with blending families as Dr. Spock is with raising children. Blending Families Successfully is destined to become a classic. Counselors everywhere should make it available to the clientele.

This review initially appeared in somewhat condensed form in bookpleasures.com, a web site dedicated to reviewing books.

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Michael Sears’ “Saving Jason” Doesn’t Raise the Bar

January 22nd, 2016
John J. Hohn, Writer and reviewer

John J. Hohn, Writer and reviewer

Saving Jason by Michael Sears is a faced-paced, contemporary mystery that most readers will find hard to set aside. Sears covers all the bases for the genre in this, his fourth novel. Jason Stafford, his hero, is a wealthy New Yorker with a tragic past. His first wife, a model (of course), was murdered, leaving him to raise their autistic son who carries his father’s name. Stafford himself is an ex-con, having done time for some shady brokerage dealings. He handles his wealth with ease, and upon his release from prison finds himself another model to take up with. She becomes pregnant and he gets on board again with an old boss at Becker Financial who pays him seven figures just poke around and make sure nothing is beginning to smell like trouble in the firm.

Stafford encounters a suspicious aroma in the small brokerage firm, something to do with penny stock, which true to its name, usually sells for less than a dollar a share and is not subject to oversight by the Securities Exchange Commission (SEC). Stafford’s boss, Virgil Becker, is not convinced anything is out of line but gives his super snoop free rein to follow his instincts. Stafford checks in with the firm’s compliance officer to make sure that he is not at cross-purposes with them. The courtesy puts him in the presence of yet another beautiful gal, who despite her svelte looks and manner, is really a tough cookie who runs a tight ship. She’d rather Stafford just stay out of her way.

Michael Sears, Author of Saving Jason

Michael Sears, Author of Saving Jason

Stafford, however, is his own agent. Compliance be damned. The trading activity in penny stocks bothers him, although on the surface everything appears completely legit. He quickly discovers that there is more than what meets the eye to the suspicious transactions. Nosing about, he gets chased out of a Long Island pasture by two bull bison, his life threatened by thugs he doesn’t know and stalked by a politically ambitious District Attorney who insists Stafford knows more than he is letting on. Truth is, Stafford doesn’t know all of what’s going on. His investigation is spelling trouble for everyone including Virgil Becker who’s arrest in a sham publicity stunt by the DA but scandalous enough to put Becker Financial in play as a takeover. It’s a perfect storm and Sears orchestrates everything magnificently.

In the middle of everything, Stafford maintains his relationship with his pregnant girlfriend. She’s a physical therapist and a looker that might have a guy consider throwing his back out. Marriage is not in the wind, not with an independent contemporary New York City woman. She helps Stafford care for his seven year old autistic son, and it is the relationship between the father and the son that becomes the soul of the story. Sears is at his best with it. The crusty, cynical exterior to Stafford gives way to a genuinely caring, nurturing father. The son, referred to as “the kid,” is realistically depicted with just the right touch of humor and a large measure of compassion and understanding – and endearing picture of both.

Saving Jason - Book Cover

Saving Jason – Book Cover

To escape the threats and harassment, Stafford and his son are taken into the witness protection program. They are whisked out the wide open spaces of the southwestern dessert. The plot, complicated as it is, bogs down a bit as this point, or perhaps it’s Stafford’s own boredom at being so far away from the action that makes it feel that the story has come to a standstill. But wait. Whoever wants a piece of Stafford is on to him and his son. They are found in hiding and are forced to move — just what the book needs to keep the story going. And if being charged by bison seems a stretch, or a throttle-to-the-firewall chase of semi-trailer tractors (Stafford had never driven one before), how about a herd of javelinas (forty-pound stubby wild dessert pigs) charging the shooter drawing a bead on Stafford. The little buggers knock the guy down. He misses his shot, and to top it off, the dude breaks his leg in the attack so he can’t continue in pursuit. Javelinas have been known to attack, but the timing on this is too contrived. Sears charges on with detailed machinations that have one hacker genius cause the stock market to drop. It’s fiction, right? The concepts and the terminology are all there, but bank ownership of penny stocks on margin and an artificially induced drop in the market to trigger margin calls? Sorry. (Too much for this retired stock broker.) Authors fail anytime a reader is forced to recognize that a story is fiction

None of the credibility issues matter, however. Why? Because Michael Sears can write. He has Stafford coming off as a well-rounded, completely credible protagonist. Sears’ narrative is fresh, sensitive, full of humor and human understanding and thoroughly engaging. Saving Jason is a very entertaining novel by a writer who has the capacity, talent and the insight to produce a classic. For all of its charm, however, Saving Jason slides under bar rather than forcing it to be raised.

This review first appeared in slightly altered form on the web side bookpleasures.com.

Thanks for visiting my web site. While you are here, I invite you to look through some of the other pages and reviews. Feel free to enter a comment in the space below. Watch for my next entry.

Helicopter Parenting – Overparenting an Epidemic

January 13th, 2016
John J. Hohn, Writer/Reviewer

John J. Hohn, Writer/Reviewer

Helicopter parenting is the term for it. In The Overparenting Epidemic, George S. Glass, MD and David Tabatsky cast a wide net. The authors want to engage parents in an examination of their own parenting practices. Toward that end, the authors gently guide readers with self-assessment exercises and oblique anecdotes about some of the outlandish things others have done. They want readers to buy into the possibility that, yes, they too might be guilty of overparenting.

Because of the amount of time Glass and Tabatsky spend on explaining the syndrome, it is obvious he realizes most parents will not see themselves in the mirror that is being held up to them. Parents with unruly, self-absorbed, disobedient children seem overly confident that their approach is the right one. They know. Everyone else is unenlightened. Perhaps they have formulated their helicopter parenting style in reaction to the way they were raised and that adds unlimited energy to their quest. The outsider, even if a family member, can only guess at what drives them. The subject of raising children is one of those volatile issues that almost never gets discussed.

Parents of today are the progeny of the boomer generation, a generation that has enjoyed the highest standard of living, even at lower economic levels, than ever before in our history. An era of technological abundance challenges parents today in a manner none could anticipate twenty years ago.  A boy’s father years ago could help his son fix an electric train. Doing so provided an opportunity to be together and bond. A father today cannot be expected to repair a handheld device that puts television, games, a camera and a telephone into a child’s shirt pocket.

The authors give a quick history of child raising theories from Victorian times through the current time. Dr. Spock, the oracle of the mid-twentieth century, is cited by Glass as often misunderstood. They also provide a summary of the parenting styles; i.e. authoritarian, authoritative, and permissive.

"The Overparenting Epidemic" by George S. Glass and Book Cover

“The Overparenting Epidemic” by George S. Glass and David Tabatsky-  Book Cover

Overlooking the phenomenon of self-deception, they offer a multiple choice instrument to help a parent-reader identify his or her parenting style. This is all very helpful material, but the cure only begins with the diagnosis. Commitment to making a change is the next step, and it may involve profound adjustments in how an adult sees the parenting role. Deep personal reflection, no small undertaking in itself, is part of the process. Some parents pour too much of their own well-being into succeeding at raising their child. To compensate for their own unfulfilled aspirations, some raise the bar too high for their youngsters. The consequences are never apparent in the moment. Children are to be delivered into adulthood as stable, productive, secure, happy individuals. With the finish line always in the future, denial comes easy. Until that day arrives, the parents know best, for good or ill, and push ahead ignoring the signs that common sense might tell them that they could  be taking the wrong approach.

Helicopter parenting is not by definition permissive. It can be authoritarian, restricting children from activities their peers enjoy. No TV with parental approval. DVDs likewise. No fast food. The parenting style can be intrusive. The American culture is gross and course, and children need to spared from experiencing it. Parents become directive at school, at scouts, on the pee-wee sports field.

Parents can be permissive in some areas and non-negotiable in others. An uncle reported that he called his brother’s family during the Christmas season to extend his best wishes. “The boys liked their toys,” his sister-in-law reported.*

“Can I just say ‘hello’ to them?” uncle inquired.

“Hans. Dillon. Your uncle wants to talk to you. Come to the phone.”

A long pause.

“They said they don’t want to talk to you.”

“What the hell was I supposed to do then?” the uncle concluded in relating the event. “Tell her that she should put her little punks on the phone to teach them politeness and concern for others?”

George S. Glass, MD - Author

George S. Glass, MD – Author

“Their mother fixed three meals for six people when we were there,” a grandfather reported. “A separate meal for each boy because the mother knew that neither one would eat what was placed on the table for the adults. They also would not eat what the other wanted. Then, finally she set the meal for the adults. Whatever happened to ‘clean your plate?”

To counter the energy driving parents in their mission, Glass admonishes over-protective parents to “let go.” The regrettable truth is the message may not be enough to bring about the changes to help both parent and child find every day a happier place to be. Too many parents are driven to make up for the perceived failures of their own parents. They establish their own approach out of their own feelings of insufficiency and low self-esteem. Their children will do so much better. The tragedy is, of course, as children attain legal age, the unhealthy entanglement goes on and on. Glass, himself, suggests at one point that parents may need their own twelve-step program to disengage from an obsessive and damaging parenting style.

The damage done, as mentioned earlier, will become more apparent as the children move through adolescence and into early adult life. Those who have not learned who to relate to others, even if it means insisting on traditional conventions of polite behavior in the home, will continue to find it difficult to connect with others. “I might as well not bothered,” an aunt reported. “I hadn’t see those two girls in at least a year. There I was, in the hone, and they didn’t so much as say ‘hi,’ let alone give me a hug. They walked right by me as if I wasn’t there.”

Children who grow accustomed to having parents jump in and save them from failure or a difficult relationship often grow up expecting rescue rather than fending for themselves. They may have difficulty handling the complex feelings of failure when it occurs in real life — and failure is part of life. Glass urges parents allow children the freedom to experience life within the manageable dimensions of childhood, even if it means occasional disappointment and failure. The doctor has a contemporary message that echoes Kahlil Gibran, Your children are not your children. They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself. They come through you but not from you.

Author David Tabatsky

Author David Tabatsky

Children who are not taught to respect boundaries and the property of others may find it difficult maintaining proper decorum as adults. “The minute they entered the house,” one man reported, “my grandsons disappeared. We found them when we heard them jumping up and down on our bed in the master bedroom. Imagine! When I was a kid, you didn’t go into a parent’s or a grandparent’s bedroom, let alone jump up and down on it. ‘Get off the bed,’ my son ordered. They stopped jumping but they didn’t get off the bed. They sprawled out on it and looked at him. He didn’t say another word. I guess that was good enough for him. They didn’t obey him and he didn’t insist on it.”

Estrangement of grandparents from grandchildren often results when the family elders lose patience and find they cannot agree with the way the home is being run. “The inmates are in charge of the asylum,” one grandmother remarked in grim humor. At its most destructive, the rift can carry through to creating distance between the parents and the grandparents. “When they finally left,” one grandfather reported, “I needed to get massage therapy to take the knots out of my upper back. I was that tense. You can’t tell anyone what your really think, you know.” A conflict in values is the most difficult to resolve. It often results in limiting contact and remaining distant.

Author Glass appeals to parents to use common sense. He realizes that helicopter parenting is as damaging for the adults as it is for the children. He urges parents to take a minute and consider what they are doing. The chapters toward the end of the book give advice that is tailored to the various scenarios that can be found in the home of parent who does not let go, use common sense, and trust that their child has all the resources necessary to him or her to deal with the day-to-day world.

The weaknesses in the book lie not in the message but in the delivery. The book needs to be tighter. Examples of overparenting abound, to the point of numbing redundancy. Rhetorical questions are over used. Readers will consider Dr. Glass’ analysis and recommendations because of his experience and credentials. They don’t need to be goaded into thinking by a barrage of rhetorical interrogatives.

Most readers will get past these shortcomings because the book is timely and important. Glass avoids jargon and psyche-speak to produce a work that is clear in its message. Dr. Glass is preeminently qualified as the author and his work should prove to be an important guide to parents everywhere.

*Quoted statements are fictitious and for illustrative purpose. They are not from the author’s book.

This review initially appeared in somewhat reduced form in bookpleasures.com.

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Elephants, Mankind’s Last Innocence Endangered

December 28th, 2015
John J. Hohn, Writer and reviewer

John J. Hohn, Writer and reviewer

When Cecil, a magnificent twelve year old male lion, was killed by Walter Palmer, a dentist from Minnesota, the world took note. Finally, a cowardly act so outrageous in its cruelty gave rise to an outcry from thousands. Perhaps now, in the anger and grief, attention will be focused on the barbaric slaughter of the animals of the wilds of Africa. One person who has taken up the cause in a persuasive and powerfully eloquent manner is Mary Baures. A psychologist, Baures pours her clinical knowledge and compassionate nature into her book, Love Heals Baby Elephants: Rebirthing Ivory Orphans. Her depiction of the plight of the elephants and rhinoceros is impassioned, poetic, poignant and compelling. She describes Cecil’s death in a manner worth repeating to keep the horror of Palmer’s cruelty well in mind.

His (Palmer’s) Zimbabwe guides tied a dead animal to the back of their vehicle and lured Cecil, a beautiful, black maned lion with twelve cubs to protect, out of a safe area in Hwange National Park. They chose him because he was massive, a warrior with big black chunks of dreadlocks. They shined a spotlight on Cecil to blind him, then Palmer shot him with a bow and arrow. Cecil was injured from the first shot but escaped and fought to live forty-four hours while the crew tracked him and killed him. The team . . . tried to destroy the GPS tracking collar, probably visible when they led him out of the park and into the spotlights before the kill. Palmer butchered an Oxford University research subject ….

Author Mary Baures

Author Mary Baures

To drive her point home that Palmer is typical of the sport hunters who are the scourge of the savannas that are home to the beasts of the wild, Baures at one point observes. “Palmer’s treatment of his victims mirrors those of serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer.”

Baures also mentions Jimmy John Liatuad whose obscene pictures depicting him standing two-thumbs up on his kills, including an elephant and a rhino, should inspire a boycott of his Jimmy Johns restaurant chain. Liatuad is a coward, a bully and a mindless killer.

Baures’ plea is all the more powerful because she brings her trained eye to her subjects. She cites examples of creatures working out of a sense of compassion for one another. Baboons, in one situation, drop mangoes from the tree tops to an orphaned baby elephant so that it can survive. In another, a hyena protects an orphan baby elephant from attack by a pack of her own kind. Her descriptions of the nurturing and rebirthing of the tiny orphans is especially moving. The newborn of the elephants, like humans, take much longer to reach maturity than other mammals. The horror of seeing the mothers slaughtered in front of their eyes is traumatizing, just as it would be for a human child. They need to recover physically and psychologically. Most, tragically, do not. Only about one-third of the orphans are ever rescued. Some die after rescue because of the severity of their injuries and the shock of seeing their mothers butchered. Those who do recover must learn to trust again, most of all the humans, representatives from the same species that killed their mothers. The miracle is that the tiny creatures, with the support, nurturance, and affection of the rest of rescued herd, eventually learn to accept others again, find a home and learn to play among the their new found friends. Eventually, and probably with greater discernment than most humans, they find a way to accept the attention and love of their human keepers.

We have stepped outside of nature . . .

Men are capable of outrageous cruelty toward their fellow beings because we have stepped outside of nature. The author quotes Albert Einstein observation that the task for humans “is to widen ‘our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature.’” The enormity of our crimes against our fellow beings is staggering. “Fifty years ago,” the author reports, “there were 450,000 lions. Now (2105) there are only 23,000.” At one time, three million elephants roamed the African savannas. Their number has been reduced to 30,000. Yet the slaughter continues.

Elephants at the water hole. Once they numbered 3,000,000, Poachers and reduced their number to 30,000.

Elephants at the water hole. Once  3,000,000 strong, poachers have reduced their number to 30,000.

The ivory trade funds organized crime who attack with helicopters, off-road vehicles, rocket launchers and rapid-fire semi-automatic weapons. To prevent detection, they use gun silencers and sedation to capture their prey who they butcher in the field and leave the caucuses to rot, often with their babies clinging by the remains, vulnerable and alone. Baures supports her statements with facts. She writes, “The illegal wildlife trade is the world’s fourth largest criminal activity, with annual profits of $20 billion.” She reports that 1,200 rangers from thirty-six countries have been killed in the line of duty. Rangers are charged with the task of protecting the wildlife in their area.

Baures’ reporting is balanced. She justifiably rails against the cruelty, insensitivity and horror of the hunting and harvesting body parts. She balances her righteous condemnation with insight into the wonder and awe of the creatures she observes. Elephants have brains four times as large as human brains. Their capacity for memory is not a myth. They exhibit psychic abilities far beyond those known to most humans. They have an inspiring capacity for love, compassion and sharing affection. One event report was especially moving:

Mystical knowing . . .

When Lawrence Anthony, the elephant whisperer, died in March 2012, thirty-one elephants from two herds arrived after traveling 112 miles. The marched in a solemn line for hours to pay their respects. . . . They were led by Nana, the matriarch, and had not been to his (Lawrence’s’) reserve at Thula for a year and a half. They continued their grief vigil for two days before heading back to the bush. Their knowledge of his passing speaks of the mystical knowing of elephants. (Reviewer’s note: Nobody told the elephants of Lawrence’s death.)

“They are loving,” Baures writes, “wise and peaceful. Perhaps the telepathic abilities of elephants come from their rootedness in the Earth and their collective sense of self.”

“Unlike us,” the author observes in a later passage, “they don’t conceive of themselves as separate from other creatures or from the vast universal mind. Love melts away the boundaries between self and other creatures and may explain elephants’ extraordinary knowing.”

“You are our last innocence,” Baures writes.

A young elephant, probably an orphan. Look at the eyes of the intelligent animal.

A young elephant, probably an orphan. Look at the eyes of this intelligent animal.

Readers are urged to buy the print versions of Love Heals Baby Elephants because of the many wonderful pictures included in the text. This reviewer found the Kindle format too confining and lacking in detail when viewing the photos. The book has a casually rushed feel to it which is completely understandable. Given the Palmer horror, the time was at hand to get the word out. The flow of the book is almost conversational. Also, the title is a bit misleading because the book is not confined to discussing only elephants. Wait until you read about the ostriches Pea and Pod and the great fun they have playing among the behemoths of wild. The plight of the rhinoceros also falls within the author’s concern. Black rhinos have been driven to near extinction in malicious harvesting of their horns in the false belief that powder made from them is an aphrodisiac. (The horns consist of tissue much like fingernails, with no food or  medicinal value.) Ms. Baures has a straightforward, easy to read literary style. While her subject at times becomes somewhat technical, her explanations are in the language of a layperson and easy to follow. Her poetic nature shines in passages, some planted like gems and set out as pleasant, insightful surprises for the reader.

Years ago, Rachel Carlson wrote Silent Spring which became a bestseller. Mary Baures deserves that same recognition for the power of her compassionate message. Hopefully she will be as instrumental in forcing a long overdue change and that as humans everywhere we grow in our awareness that we are sharing our Earth with our fellow creatures. They deserve our respect and compassion. We diminish ourselves every time we forget our relationship with them.

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