For our unit on Eula Biss and Claudia Rankine, English Honors students had to write an essay in response to a memoir of our choice. I chose James Comey’s memoir “A Higher Loyalty” due to my interest in politics and how the current administration chooses to handle issues.
James Comey was the FBI director for four years, and had many years in the federal government beforehand. His memoir A Higher Loyalty is an effective book when it comes to establishing his core values. The book takes the reader through his life and his journey through the federal government, conveying that his core values that are conveyed are a need for justice, honesty, leadership, and respect.
Very early in the book, Comey establishes how he became interested in the justice system through an encounter with a home invader. Due to this near-death experience, Comey began to think about how he wanted to look out for what is right and make sure that justice was always served. He came to a realization that “Standing for something. Making a difference. That is true wealth.” (Comey, 13) Comey also expresses his distaste for people who he considers to be bullies early on, describing his experiences with the mob and subsequently, his experiences in the White house. I thought it was a very interesting callback when, near the end of the book, Comey compares Trump and his team to the Italian Mafia, saying, “… In the blink of an eye, the president-elect was trying to make us all part of the same family and that Team Trump had made it a ‘thing of ours’”(Comey, 222). Comey does a good job of describing Trump’s manipulative and intimidating tactics and effectively establishes a common theme through the book.
I thought that one of the most compelling ways that these core values intersect was honesty and a need for justice. In the second-to-last chapter, “Tests of Loyalty”, Comey describes how Trump very clearly lied about having the biggest crowd in history show up for his inauguration. He describes it as “…deeply disconcerting to those of us in the business of trying to find the truth”. It is interesting to me how different Trump and Comey are as people, and how Comey tried very hard to not have to be seen as someone who supported Trump’s lies, illustrated in multiple ways; the most famous possibly being when Comey attempted to blend into curtains in order to avoid hugging Trump at a public event.
Another way that Comey’s values intersect in a compelling way are leadership and respect. Throughout the book, Comey pays homage to former leaders of his that influenced him and made him better. For example, in the beginning of the book, he describes his manager, Harry, from when he worked at a grocery store in high school as “… one of the finest bosses I ever had.” (Comey, 34) This shows how he still respects his boss from a seemingly meaningless job and took everything he taught him to heart. Something that is interesting to me is that all of the bosses and leaders that he demonstrated respect for was that they all treated him like equals. He also talks about how Trump is subpar as a leader compared to President Obama, due to the way he actively used intimidation tactics to get what he wanted, rather than being respectful and patient.
A Higher Loyalty is a very effective book written by James Comey. It shows how Comey holds a great deal of respect for those who came before him and values the truth above all else. Overall, it is a great representation of him as a person and showcases his values in a very clear way.
For the same unit, Honors students wrote an essay comparing two authors, Eula Biss and Claudia Rankine, who have published books of lyrical essays. Citizen (Rankine) and Notes From No Man’s Land (Biss) both examine the issue of race relations in America.
I found that parts of Section VI from Citizen and “Is this Kansas” from Notes from No Man’s Land shared some striking similarities; both focus on how the media demonizes people of color while being very forgiving to white people.
A similarity that Biss and Rankine’s books share is the way that they both touch on the fact that white people commonly either patronize black people or paint them as villains. The beginning of Section VI from Citizen focuses on news coverage of Hurricane Katrina. The Hurricane Katrina portion of the chapter is, I believe, is a comment on how the reaction of people in power to the hurricane was extremely unempathetic and distant, kind of patronizing the people affected due to their race and economic status. An example of this is the Barbara Bush quote that Rankine utilized, “And so many people in the arena here, you know, she said, were underprivileged anyway, so this is working very well for them,” (Rankine, 85) Bush had recently toured the evacuation camp in the Astrodome, and this illustrates very well her distance from the situation, seeing that those people’s houses were destroyed and they had nothing to go back to in New Orleans. The hurricane did not “Work well for them”. The phrase “Have you seen their faces” is also repeated throughout the essay. I interpret this as Rankine’s way of commenting on how the media didn’t see the people affected as the hurricane as people, they saw them as victims, as children. This is similar to the commentary from Notes from No Man’s Land which said that black people are either portrayed as “… victims or villains-children or savages” (Biss, 139) This is a theme in Biss’ book in general, white people taking people of color’s land and claiming that they are improving on it while simultaneously kicking them out. This is not a new phenomenon by any means, early “pioneers” claimed that the Native Americans didn’t know how to utilize the land and that they were helping out.
Another theme that ties Biss and Rankine’s work together is the observation that white people often get far less harsh sentences for worse crimes than black people. For example, in Rankine’s essay “In memory of James Craig Anderson”, she describes how the media did not describe the white people who murdered Anderson as gang members or hoodlums, they described them as teens or young men. This is in spite of the fact that one of the people who murdered him said “I ran that n****r over” (Rankine, 94) Clearly, this was a race-motivated hate crime and the media still had sympathy for the murderers. This is similar to how in No Man’s Land, Hurricane Katrina victims taking resources that they needed to survive were demonized and made to look like violent criminals by the media, some saying that looting is where they “draw the line” (Biss, 138). However, when a tornado hit Iowa City and white people were looting convenience for beer, the media did not hesitate to talk about how “curious passerby took advantage of the chance to swipe a few free beers…” (Biss, 143). This is a clear illustration of how the media favors white people and does not make them take responsibility for their actions a lot of the time.
In their books, Biss and Rankine both comment on how the media has a clear bias when representing situations involving white people vs black people. The media demonizes people of color for minor misdemeanors or even just trying to survive, while creating sympathy for white people who committed horrific crimes.
“All Apologies” from Notes from No Man’s Land vs Section I of Citizen
Apologies are complicated. Do people apologize because they genuinely feel bad, or do they apologize because it’s the socially acceptable thing to do? While both Notes from No Man’s Land and Citizen explore this concept, Rankine explores it more in proximity to race, while Biss explores it more generally.
Section one of Citizen is an introduction to Rankine’s identity and sets up the rest of the book. At the very end, she describes an experience in which she is screamed at by a trauma therapist due to her race. After the therapist realizes what a big mistake she has made, she apologizes profusely, saying “… oh, yes, that’s right. I am sorry. I am so sorry, so, so, sorry”. (Rankine, 18) Although the therapist apologizes, it is clear what her preconceptions of people of certain races are. She cannot take back what she has done, and what she did clearly left a lasting impression on Rankine because she wrote it in her book. This contributes to the larger theme of “sometimes sorry isn’t enough”. Biss expresses similar ideas in her chapter “All Apologies”. In this chapter, Biss discusses how apologies can often feel hollow due to the severity of the crime or the excuses that the offender made. She also discusses how, again, sorry is not adequate sometimes. An example from Biss’ personal life is something her brother said: “‘You always do that,’ he told me, ‘and then you think you can just apologize. If you were really sorry, you wouldn’t do it again’”(Biss, 193) Biss also discusses the complexities of apologizing for somebody else. She uses the example of a boy sexually harassing her and someone of his same race having to apologize because “it might have been my cousin” (Biss, 194) This raises the question of who is meant to take responsibility for people of the same group’s actions? Should the group take responsibility, or is it on an individual basis? Rankine describes microaggressions against herself in section one that were due to people having preconceptions about black people. For example, a mother says “I’ll sit in the middle” (Rankine, 12) on an airplane to her daughter because she didn’t want her daughter to sit next to a black woman, presumably. Judging people by erroneous preconceptions of their race or other identities is a trend that’s always been around and probably will always be around.
Both Biss and Rankine explore not only the futility of apologies in their books, they also discuss identity and individuality. While everyone is unique, people will judge others based on preconceptions they already have, and this was a big part of both Biss and Rankine’s books.
In English, after reading Citizen by Claudia Rankine, we wrote essays based on interviews of people that had a different identity than us. I chose to interview a non-observant Jewish person. For my image, I chose “Watching and Waiting” by Margaret Keane partly because I’m a big fan of Keane’s work, and also because I thought it was fitting with regards to the content of the essay.
You are running through the neighborhood, playing tag with your boy scout troop. It’s a hot Arizona summer’s day, and the sun is glaring down like a sweltering spotlight. The bottoms of your shoes feel like they’re about to melt and stick to the burning pavement.
Suddenly, your glasses fly off your face and bounce under a cactus. As you crouch, peeking at your glasses lying so close to the spikes, the tallest boy in your troop comes up behind you.
“Go get your glasses,” he says, smirking and making a pushing motion.
At this moment, you don’t really think anything of it, but now, decades later, you can’t help but think about how blond this boy was. How the sun reflected off of his hair, almost blinding you.
How many seemingly joking comments he made.
Maybe he had seen you going to the synagogue with your father, or maybe he had seen you and all of your friends going to Hebrew school.
Now, you don’t think you have outward indications of your identity, other than your love of bagels and dry sense of humor. In fact, you jokingly refer to yourself as “Jew-ish”. Even so, you consider yourself lucky that you have never been the victim of a crime. It’s been thirty years since you’ve been observant but recent events have made you consider how fortunate you are.
When you saw the news from Pittsburgh that fateful Saturday, it made you wonder too much.
Would this have happened if 2016 was different? Well, you know that those feelings were always there, bubbling under the surface, even sometimes erupting, but did the leadership of the country influence what happened? And…
The presidential response to this event makes everything so much worse.
When the figurehead of the country you to build walls made of iron and lock the doors with thick steel chains in a statement that goes against the very fundamentals of your people’s beliefs, it makes everything so much worse.
The fact that you can’t seem to find a way out of the dizzying labyrinth constructed of hatred with gunfire around every corner makes everything so much worse.
When all of the thoughts and prayers have been said, and everyone unaffected moves onto the next tragedy, forgetting about this one, it makes everything so much worse.
It makes you think. Anti Semitism is not always outright acts of violence. Sometimes it’s just simmering, on a low boil, so subtle that you almost can’t detect it. But even simmering water can burn you.
It gives you understanding for those who didn’t take direct action in the 1930s and 40s in Germany when the unimaginable happened.
What would you do? If you had been put in that scenario?
The thought of this makes you bite your nails to the quick, makes everything seem far too bright.
It feels like the contrast has been turned all the way up, emphasizing every little detail and flaw, every subtle imperfection.
You don’t like thinking about this.
Would you have the courage to aid those in need?
Could you now?
How could you just stand by and watch your people, your blood, suffer?
You’d like to think you would help,
Stared in the eye by reality,
You don’t know.
Social and Civic Responsibility Research Paper
For my research paper, I wanted to do a topic that is important to me. Because I have a strong interest in psychology and want to pursue a career in that field, I chose representation of mental illness in the media. In my paper, I analyze both good and bad portrayals of mentally ill people and explain where stigma against mental illness originated.
How Pop Culture Influences Mental Illness Stigma
Mental health representation in media has been a growing issue for years. And while it is progress that it’s being discussed and represented more often, sometimes inaccurate or demonizing portrayals of more stigmatized disorders (oftentimes Antisocial Personality Disorder or Dissociative Identity Disorder) can be more harmful than no representation at all. Stigma against mentally ill people is not a new phenomenon at all, however; it is a centuries-old trend that sadly is perpetuated to this day through popular culture and people in power.
The word “stigma” is defined as discrimination against someone due to socially unacceptable characteristics they have. Although mental illnesses like anxiety and depression have become less stigmatized as the public becomes more educated on psychology and mental health, there is still a heavy stigma around more “scary” mental illnesses like Antisocial Personality Disorder (commonly referred to as sociopathy/psychopathy), Dissociative Identity Disorder (known commonly as multiple identity disorder), and schizophrenia. These are seen as more dangerous due to inaccurate portrayals in media like movies, the news, and online content.
Mistreatment of the mentally ill has been a problem since long before movies were invented. It stems back centuries, and societies had countless ways to interpret and counteract mental illness. One that seems to reoccur through history is trephination, a procedure in which a hole is drilled into a patient’s head in order to release evil spirits (Farreras). People who were subject to this procedure commonly died within months, but some lived for years. Stephen P. Hinshaw, P.h.D, a professor of psychology at UC Berkeley, writes in his book The Mark of Shame,
There has been little in the way of a middle ground: The behavior patterns have tended to prompt perceptions of either subhumanity (with consequent fear and banishment) or, more rarely, superhuman status (with attendant awe and reverence) Lacking is the belief that people with mental disorder are part of the mainstream. (Hinshaw 127)
These historical patterns show how no matter what society or time period we choose to examine, mentally ill people have always been seen as the out-group, or not human, even. This extreme mentality is even reflected today in popular culture, whether it be movies like “Split” or “Psycho”, mentally ill people are often seen as entities separate from the typical person. A specific case of someone with mental illness who was treated unfairly was Vincent Van Gogh. Van Gogh suffered from some form of mental illness that people today continue to debate to this day. His mental health issues continued to worsen, accumulating in the event that most people associate him with, the removal of his ear in 1888. His mental illness led to constant ostracization from his neighbors in the French town of Arles, accumulating in a petition in 1890 wherein the townspeople refer to Van Gogh as a “lunatic” and that he “…does not enjoy his full mental abilities…”. The treatment of Van Gogh shows how when people didn’t know how to deal with someone, their automatic response was to cast him out rather than actively try to help him get better.
Today, negative views against people with mental illness are perpetuated and reinforced by popular culture like movies and tv shows. An example of a movie that many psychologists are critical of in terms of its inaccurate portrayal of mental illness is “Split” (2017). In “Split Is Based on Myths About Dissociative Identity Disorder,” Bethany L. Brand, P.h.D, a clinical psychologist with a particular expertise in trauma, states that “Split portrays [people with DID] as terrifying monsters that pose a threat to their communities. This stereotype is contradicted by research. People with DID are not violent monsters.” Generalizing an entire group of people who are nonviolent the vast majority of the time as unstable and violent is incredibly harmful to not only people with DID, but to the general public’s view of people with mental illness as a whole. If someone didn’t know anything about DID before walking into the movie, after watching it they would permanently have an unfair bias against those with DID. Another issue Brand had with “Split” was the way the therapist was portrayed:
She clings to her (or Shyamalan’s) notion that people with DID have overcome normal human limits by harnessing untapped brain power. Lacking in clinical judgment and common sense, as well as ignoring professional boundaries, Dr. Fletcher goes alone and unannounced to Kevin’s subterranean home because she suspects he is in crisis. This boundary-less behavior is the opposite of what DID experts recommend. Rather than becoming overly fascinated with DID, experts advise therapists to keep clear boundaries and set limits with DID patients.
Representation of therapists and mental health professionals has always been something that pop culture struggles to get right. The problem with this is that writers don’t do their research and oftentimes default to the stereotypical Freudian sitting on the armchair with a Rorschach test, spewing psychoanalysis. However, portraying a mental health professional as wildly irresponsible and impulsive is much more harmful than the stereotype of the psychoanalyst, due to the fact that psychologists are already seen as less credible than professionals in “hard” sciences. A Netflix show that was widely criticized for its representation (or lack thereof) of mental illness was the infamous Thirteen Reasons Why. This show follows the main character, Clay, as he listens to the tapes that Hannah Baker, a girl who committed suicide, left behind. As the title suggests, the tapes outline the reasons why she committed suicide. Not only did the show not have any consultation from a mental health professional (Serani), it did not mention mental illness or depression a single time in the first season. It also directly contradicted every piece of advice ever given by mental health professionals concerning portraying suicide in movies or tv shows; the suicide itself was shown in a very graphic way and the whole show was centered around what was essentially a character’s suicide note. Portrayals of mental illness in mainstream media are oftentimes inaccurate and go to show that the writers of movies or TV shows have biases against people with mental illness and/or don’t care to do any research on how mental illness works.
Traditional media is not the only medium that can demonize and spread misinformation about people with mental illness. In his Youtube web series The Mind of Jake Paul, specifically the video “The Dark Side of Jake Paul,” Shane Dawson explores the possibility that popular Youtuber Jake Paul has Antisocial Personality Disorder. In the aforementioned video, Dawson speaks with Kati Morton, a psychologist, about APD. Although some may not take online videos as seriously as traditional media, the impact that they have cannot be ignored. Dawson’s demographic is mostly young teens, an impressionable audience. Also, since the audience feels like they know the creator personally, they have a high level of trust in them that makes it likely that they will take whatever the creator tells them to heart. There are multiple issues with how the information in this video is presented. First, ominous music is edited over the video, accompanied by shots of violent imagery dispersed through the interview. This automatically primes people to view the information presented by Morton as disturbing or frightening. Another problem with the way the information is presented is how Morton herself speaks about APD. Throughout the video, she uses phrases like “dangerous” and “creepy” to describe people who suffer from APD. In fact, at 13:50 in the video, after discussing how people with APD tend to be manipulative, Morton says, laughing, “Isn’t it creepy, it’s so creepy. We’re gonna have to take a shower after this.” This language is wildly unprofessional, and a mental health professional of all people should not describe a group of people as “creepy”. Due to the fact that people who are fans of Dawson’s videos most likely view Morton as a credible source, this will lead to her negative views and biases being spread. With the video having over 22 million views, this is an issue not to be taken lightly. Morton is also not an expert on APD. She is a family and marriage counselor, and even admits that she is not an expert in the video itself, stating “[insert quote here]”. Her lack of expertise becomes increasingly evident as one realizes that she is reading out of a textbook. Another issue with this video is that it led to many people self-diagnosing as a sociopath. A few of the thousands of comments on the video include “After watching this I believe I am a sociopath”, “Started this video to watch Jake’s dark side… Now I’m thinking I might be a damn psychopath”, “‘You don’t care about other people, you don’t care about anything as long as it didn’t affect you’. Really? I think I’m sociopath now. I thought I just don’t want involved to other people business”, and “Bruh now I’m out here wondering if I’m a sociopath”. These are only a few of the many comments of a similar vein on this video, and the fact that there are no disclaimers within the video that warn against this kind of behavior is extremely irresponsible on the part of especially Morton, who should know better. The editing of this video and the language used only serve to perpetuate misinformation, spread stigma, and ultimately endanger impressionable people.
Something important to keep in mind is the impact on mentally ill people that stigma has, as well as the general public. According to Patrick W. Corrigan and Amy C. Watson, both professors of psychology, mentally ill people “ internalize these ideas and believe that they are less valued because of their psychiatric disorder. Self-esteem suffers, as does confidence in one’s future” (Corrigan and Watson). Since mentally ill people are already statistically at a disadvantage when it comes to being employed and finding a home, losing confidence is incredibly detrimental to them. Corrigan and Watson also compare self stigma and public stigma; the former being a sense of worthlessness inflicted on oneself, possibly due to the latter, which is a negative bias held by the general public. There are three possible reactions to self-stigma: a feeling of worthlessness, righteous anger, or indifference. While righteous anger may be helpful for mentally ill people to be motivated to make a difference, the amount of people who feel worthless due to stigma can’t be ignored. Someone who had an experience of both public and self-stigma was Milly, an anonymous writer who submitted to the organization Time to Change an essay titled “Before I had them myself, I feared people with mental health problems.”. Milly writes,
When I was in my late teens, I remember sitting in a pub when a gentleman came up to my friend and I. He was drunk, cheerful and a little creepy, but not at all threatening. We spoke, he left soon after and the conversation continued until we were approached again; this time by a woman, with a warning that the man was a schizophrenic and we should stay away. I am ashamed to admit that at the time I felt fear.
The fact that she did not feel fear until she was warned that the man was schizophrenic shows how stigma can alter someone’s perception of others significantly. Before she was alerted of the man’s mental health state, she did not see him as a threat, but once she knew, even though he was gone, she was afraid. Millie also has had issues with public stigma herself; she states that she suffers from anxiety and depression and has had people make unfair assumptions about her because of this. This is sadly a common phenomenon, and without question leads to self-stigma. The impact of the media when it comes to perpetuating public stigma may be the most important factor of all. According to Kismet Baun, the Senior Communications Advisor at the Canadian Mental Health Association, “Studies have shown that exposure to even just one single shocking media image (one movie or reading one article) of violent mental illness seemed to increase the expectation that those labeled as mentally ill are particularly likely to do physical harm to others and to make the media consumer more fearful of those so labeled” (Baun). These studies show how even a small amount of harmful media can have a negative impact on how people view the mentally ill. If even one movie that portrays mentally ill people as dangerous can have such an impact, the large amount of media that demonizes mentally ill people is a serious contributor to stigma and can’t be ignored.
Although there are many inaccurate portrayals of mental illness in mainstream media, that doesn’t mean that all portrayals are inaccurate and harmful. In fact, there are quite a few accurate portrayals of mental illness in popular culture. An unexpected example of an accurate representation of an anxiety disorder is in “Iron Man III” (2013). In the movie, the main character, Tony Stark suffers from panic attacks that stem from the attack on New York in the first Avengers film. According to Travis Langley, P.h.D, a professor of psychology, “Fiction can help people contemplate real world mental health issues. ” (Langley). The fact that this was the first time a hero in a Marvel movie suffered from mental health issues was a landmark and opened up discussions about panic disorder and PTSD. It’s important to have representation of mental health in a way that shows mentally ill people as just people and that doesn’t define them as a character. At the end of the day, Tony Stark is still portrayed as a strong, complex character and that does not change in this movie. Another movie that is widely regarded as being a good portrayal of mental illness is A Beautiful Mind (2001). This movie focuses on John Nash, a mathematician who suffered from schizophrenia. According to a group of students at Ohio State University, A Beautiful Mind is a “great and accurate example of what is it like to live with schizophrenia and has the ability to educate individuals about what is known about this disability” (OSU). Although this movie may not have been entirely accurate to what Nash actually went through, it is widely praised for its accurate portrayal of schizophrenia; his symptoms became apparent in the main character’s early 20s and he experienced delusions. Something else this movie was praised for was the accurate depiction of how cruel treatment for schizophrenia was in the early-to-mid 20th century; treatment included electroshock therapy among other practices. Accurate depictions of schizophrenia are somewhat rare in pop culture, and the fact that this movie is true to life is important because it portrays schizophrenia in a tasteful and accurate way.
Mental illness has always been a stigmatized subject, and it’s not surprising that pop culture only further perpetuates stigma. However, it is essential that if mental illness is portrayed in movies that it’s represented accurately and not in a demonizing way. Some productive representations exist, but there is still a lot of progress to be made. In order to stop repeating history, people must be more informed because, essentially, stigma stems from ignorance.
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