The Coddling of the American Mind by Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt

coddling of american mind

For anyone who works with or parents a young person who has entered college starting the year 2013, you will have noticed a difference from those who started at any time prior.  There is a rate of anxiety unlike any generation that has preceded it – and it is compounded by parents who perpetuate the sense of fragility that these students have by continuing to overprotect them and college administrations who do the same.  Why?  The researchers who have written this book give explanations based on the following 3 “untruths” that get perpetuated by these parents and college administrators:

  1. What doesn’t kill you makes you weaker.  (Actually – it makes you stronger.  But we still strive to shield our young from any and all potential harm.  This of course deprives them of the opportunity to learn how to cope with adversity.)
  2. Always trust your feelings.  (NO!  Our feelings are often inaccurate.  We need to explore and learn and find that there really isn’t a ghost hiding under the bed, and that girl over there looking at us might not hate us, but might just be shy herself.  We need to look at facts, not at just our own perceptions.)
  3. Life is a battle between good people and evil people.  (This may be the most dangerous of the untruths, creating the us-vs-them mentality that informs the current toxic discourse on college campuses today.  There is so much more intolerance of opposing views and so much less ability to have civil conversation about anything at all controversial that even professors are shying away from anything that may smack of real import in their classrooms.  This is actually a threat to education itself.)

The book expounds upon these ideas, given fascinating – and often appalling – examples of real incidents on college campuses and some high schools where these theories and ideas have come about.  They also expound upon what might have caused this situation and what might improve it.

As someone who not only has children exactly this age and who works professionally with students at a college, I fully appreciate the message of this book.  It is a harsh statement about how restricting free play time, scheduling so many activities, making the college application process so all-consuming that it has to start in preschool (!) — this takes away from a persons ability to develop normal self sufficiency.  There is no room for failure from which to learn valuable life lessons.  And when we don’t learn how to fail, we don’t learn that we can ever be wrong – and that is quite dangerous.

This is an outstanding book that I have to recommend as a MUST READ!

Hunger by Roxane Gay

hunger

This memoir by Roxane Gay — an author, celebrated feminist, and educator — is the story of her experience as a person going through life extremely fat.  She reveals early on that she had been raped at the young age of 12 years, and, sadly, did not feel able to tell anyone about it for years.  Her way of coping was to eat in order to gain weight, to make herself unappealing so that she would protect herself from letting that ever happen again.  Unfortunately, it also had an impact on everything else in her life as well.

While the book does tell the story of her life, regrettably it does so in a very rambling, stream-of-consciousness sort of way that is extraordinarily repetitive.  There are segments that wind back around to prior themes and scenes that are repeated over and over again, much like her thoughts.

Nevertheless, it is also extremely enlightening and enables the reader to really understand and what it means to be in the shoes of someone who, as she describes, takes up the space that she does.  Her descriptions of having to research restaurants in advance to assess the seating situation, for example, is something that I might not have appreciated.  Because of her size, she cannot feel comfortable in most chairs with arms, nor in most booths that have a fixed distance between the seat and the table.  Hence, she checks that there will be seating that can accommodate her before she will go to a particular restaurant.  Sometimes, when she doesn’t, and she has to sit in a chair with arms, she sustains bruises that cause her pain that can last for days.

This broke my heart.

There is a daily onslaught of taunts, sidebar commentary from strangers, suggestions – people even taking items out of her shopping cart at the supermarket!  Having to endure the humiliations that people throw at her, both intentionally and unintentionally is both unfair and relentless.

So while the writing and probably more so the editing of this book is not ideal, I think the author is incredibly brave in sharing her experience with all of us.  I think it is important for people to understand how it feels to walk in her shoes so that we can all be a little kinder to those who are different sizes than we are.

 

 

Killers of the Flower Moon by David Grann

killers of the flower moon

In the late 1800’s, the Osage tribe was forced onto what was thought to be a no-man’s land in Oklahoma.  At first, they lived there in poverty, but made the best of things.  When it was discovered that oil lay below their land, however, the Osage people quickly amassed a huge amount of wealth.  This brought with it, as it often does, great tragedy.  By the 1920’s came what has been called the Reign of Terror, during which many Osage tribespeople were killed for their inheritances because of this new wealth.  Worst, however, was the breadth of the corruption and cooperation among the law enforcement and the justice system at the time, mainly because of the overriding racism toward Native Americans.  It took Agent White, of the newly formed Federal Bureau of Investigation, under the helm of a young J. Edgar Hoover, to uncover the underbelly of the evil of what was going on – and still there was mystery around what really happened.

The story written about here is complicated.  It is a fascinating one, highlighting the development of crime investigation, as it was really at its infancy when these killings started.  It is also one of historical details, illuminating the beginnings of the FBI and how it began as an agency under J Edgar Hoover.  Really, though, it is another horribly shameful example in the history of our country, where racism enabled evildoers to perpetrate crimes with impunity against a group of people — similar to what we see today, sadly.

The writing of this story was a bit choppy and at times confusing; however, I imagine that combing through the years worth of documentation that the author had to search through, organizing all of the details into a linear pathway was a monumental feat.  Moreover, while telling this story more like a novel might have been a little more readable, it might have taken away from the credibility of the story.   The true beauty of this story, I feel, is that the author is honoring the poor victims of this ugly era by relaying this story as authentically as possible.  (The photos included really add to this in a huge way as well.)

To all you historians, this is especially for you.

 

 

The Forever Letter by Elana Zaiman

forever letter

Rarely have I had the opportunity to review a book written by someone I know – what an intimidating responsibility this is.  Lucky for me, I found this book by Elana Zaiman – a woman I grew up with and whose path randomly crossed mine so many times over the years – very engaging and helpful.  So much so, that I’m contemplating writing a few Forever Letters of my own.

The “forever letter” is an outgrowth of the ethical will, a will or letter that expresses your thoughts, wishes, stories, or apologies to anyone of significance in your life.  Elana’s rationale is that when you put pen to paper,  you can pour out your heart, but at the same time think through exactly what you want to say to a special person in your life.  Many of us can write things we cannot say – whether they sound too corny or make us cry too much or feel too awkward – and sometimes we feel the other person may not be able to hear what we have to say directly from us without reading it in a letter.   In addition, having something written allows for someone to potentially keep it with them long after you are gone.

Elana has traveled around the country,  giving workshops on this subject and peppers each chapter with anecdotes about individuals grappling with the complex issues these letters raise.  How do I transmit to my children the values I hold dear without leaving too restrictive a “commandment” when I die?  How can I express anger at a parent for their absence but not sever a tie with them?  Is it too late to apologize to my sibling after all these years?  There is a lot of emotional baggage that is dragged out of storage when you are talking about these types of letters and writing them, actually putting these feelings into words that are permanent can have lasting effects.  This must be done very thoughtfully.  And each chapter is therefore written with this in mind, giving examples and prompts and guidelines to encourage the writer to be reflective and mindful, but also loving and honest in the writing of these letters.

Elana includes a lot of personal vignettes, her own forever letter that she received from her father that triggered her understanding of the impact of these letters, and her forever letter to her own son.  These are powerful and allow us into her life in a very intimate way.  She shares her own vulnerabilities – mistakes and successes – and allows us to see her not just as a rabbi, spiritual leader, and speaker, but as a human being with a deep emotional life and normal human frailties.  Likewise, she emphasizes that these are components of the best forever letters.

If you are contemplating such a letter – or if you’ve never heard of one! –  this is a compelling book for you to read!

Why We Sleep by Matthew Walker, PhD

why we sleep

After hearing Dr. Matthew Walker interviewed on NPR, I immediately bought it and read it cover to cover – and enjoyed it every bit as much as the interview itself.  Dr. Walker has devoted his career for the past 20+ years to the science of sleep and has amassed a great deal of knowledge on the structure of sleep, the benefits of sleep, the medical and psychological consequences of a lack of sleep, and societal costs of our communal lack of sleep.

What is most impressive about this book is its readability – it is science-based but not full of jargon.  Dr. Walker describes each study that supports each of his claims about sleep, but he does so in a very clear and concise way so that any lay person reading the book can understand how the study group compares to the control group in each experiment and how the conclusions were made.  He also intersperses stories and anecdotes that engage the reader so that it is not just a preachy lecture but rather a mind-opening presentation of scientific ideas based on fascinating data.

His conclusions are many and of utmost importance.  Sleep is critical to our health and our ability to learn and retain memory.  Even getting less than 7 hours of sleep a night can have a detrimental effect on our health, increasing our risk of diabetes, heart disease, cancer, and infections.  It can have an affect on our memory and ability to learn – particularly in adolescents, whose school start times are early in the mornings (which doesn’t jive with their later circadian rhythms).  It can also increase risk of depression and anxiety – no wonder there is so much more of it now than there ever was before!

What causes us to sleep less?  We have electric lights that keep us awake longer into the evening/night.  We work earlier in the morning and then later into the night and then have activities and entertainment later into the evening/night.  We have electronic devices which have blue light/back lighting that send messages to our brains that inhibit melatonin that tells our brains that it is still daytime, so our brains don’t think it’s time to go to sleep yet.  All these contribute to later bedtimes.

So what to do?

I’ll suggest you read this book to find out.  There are great suggestions about sleep hygiene, treatment for insomnia (against medication, but supporting CBT), important lifestyle suggestions and some major public health recommendations.  The one suggestion emphasized the most?  To maintain a consistent sleep schedule throughout the week (including the weekend)!

 

Choke by Sian Beilock

choke

Why would an accomplished, experienced athlete competing for a spot in the Olympics suddenly flub an event?  Why would an A student who has aced all the practice SAT tests get a mediocre score when it really mattered?  That is, why do people choke?  This is what Dr. Beilock examines in the course of this fascinating summary of psychological research done by herself and others on this subject.

The book reviews what is happening when a person “chokes” both behaviorally and neurologically.  It appears that overthinking a situation can actually interfere with the automatic responses that training leads the body to perfect.  Once your attention is drawn to the specific mechanics of a behavior (kicking a soccer ball, playing a piano concerto), what would be done automatically very smoothly is now pulled apart and diverted by the brain’s other areas becoming involved.  Gradually, the book builds into suggesting what can be done to offset the possible risks of choking or remedies for people who have choked and need to get back onto a path of success.  Not surprisingly, these can include focusing on the goal, meditation, writing down one’s anxieties and worries just before a performance/test, and practicing (although this is a gross over-simplification of her findings).

What makes this book readable is the inclusion of many anecdotes.  Dr. Beilock uses both famous legends from sports history and stories from her own personal experiences from people she’s met through her work to enhance the narrative of the book.  This both engages and clarifies and makes the reading fun.  I found the psychological experiments remarkable and often surprising as well.

And for those of you who might be going on interviews sometime soon – well, there are tips for you, too.  And they are really not what you would expect!

A very interesting read for anyone interested in psychology or sports or really being successful when it counts!

 

Becoming Nicole by Amy Ellis Nutt

becoming nicole

This is a beautiful, heart-wrenching story that is told with a clinical detachment that is utterly unfortunate.

Nicole, who begins her life as Wyatt, an identical twin to brother Jonas, feels from day one that she is a girl.  Already identifying with female characters in movies they’d watch, she, before even turning 3 years old, told her father that she “hated her penis.”  She consistently yearned to wear girls’ clothing and to play with girls’ toys and fortunately for her, her mother, Kelly, was sensitive to her yearnings and did what she could to support her.  Wayne, her father, had a much harder time accepting this side of her and while he loved her, he took many years to mourn the loss of the second son he thought he had.  Finally, though, he did come around and rallied to her support and both parents fought for her legal right to use the girls’ bathroom in her school (although it did not save her from being horribly bullied by a boy in her school throughout middle school, egged on by his nasty grandfather).   Nicole and her family bravely fought to set legal precedents to protect future trans children from prejudicial and ridiculous harassment because of gender identity, at least in certain states.  Hopefully, they will lead others to continue the fight for equality for these people who only want the freedom to be who they are inside.

The only benefit of the “clinical” aspect of the writing is that there are segments of the book devoted to the scientific evidence for brain differences in transgender individuals.  I think that in addition to being extremely interesting from a clinical point of view, it also fuels the argument that these people are not going through “phases,” nor are they “seeking attention” as they are often erroneously accused of doing.  It gives more objective data for those who cannot just support people for who they believe they are – rather it gives medical justification for those who require this.

On the other hand, it is a shame that the writing could not be as beautiful and as engaging as the story itself was.  There was certainly the material there to work with.  The characters were certainly heroic and beautiful, the setting was pure Americana, and the story was definitely dramatic, culminating with a huge and wonderful courtroom win.  The only tragedy was that the telling of this young woman’s triumph was so terribly dry.

I hope that Nicole and her family know how much we all admire their bravery and hope that she and they do not have to fight any further for her to be accepted for who she is.