My Name is Mahtob by Mahtob Mahmoody

my-name-is-mahtob

Many years ago, I watched a movie called Not Without My Daughter, with Sally Field.  Have you seen it?

It was a true story about an American woman married to an Iranian man and together they had a 5 year old daughter named Mahtob.  They lived in Michigan and were happily married, until he suggested they take a 2-week vacation to visit his relatives in Iran.  This was just after the Iranian revolution during which the Ayatolah Khomeini overthrew the Shah.  Once they were in Iran, it became clear that Sayyed, the father, had no intention of taking his family back to America.  He embraced the law of the land, which claimed that women and children were the property of the man of the family, and he held them hostage, watching their every move and threatening them with their lives if they disobeyed him.  They lived like this for almost 18 months, until Betty, Mahtob’s mother, was able to earn his trust enough to be allowed to go shopping in the market and make secret contact with an underground network of people who were able to help her and Mahtob finally and miraculously escape.

I remember having had nightmares about this movie for months after seeing it.  And now here is the epilogue…

This is the story from Mahtob, the daughter, herself.  She recounts her story, as the daughter of these two very different parents.  She shares her early memories of America, in a very loving home, with tender memories of her father at the start.  She recalls a subtle shift in his attitude toward his culture and religion just before their leaving for Iran.  But the change in his attitude was like a tidal wave once they landed in Iran, and the loving father that she knew essentially disappeared, replaced by a monster, in her eyes – one who beat up her beloved mother, who threatened her mother, and who separated Mahtob from her mother for days at a time.  And that’s when she learned to hate.

What I did not realized was that the story did not end with their escape from Iran.  This mother and child had to endure years of terror, fearing a kidnapping by her father – or worse! – their whole lives.  And the impact spread to everyone around them.

Betty Mahmoody coped by using their experience  to advocate for others in this situation.  She fought for federal laws that protected children against international parental kidnapping, which President Clinton passed.  And she travelled around the country and around the world, personally supporting  many families who were in the same situation that she had been in.

This is a very, very hard book to read emotionally but it is an important one, I believe.  It serves as a portrait of the convergence of mental illness and religious fanaticism, which is a  terrifying combination.

It  brought it all back for me, but it also brought closure as well.  It seemed to have done so for Mahtob herself.

Black Girl/White Girl by Joyce Carol Oates

black girl:white girl

Generva Meade has come from a family who assisted with the Underground Railroad and who is deeply entrenched in the Civil Rights movement, and she is currently assigned, her freshman year, to live with a conservative, religious black roommate at the prestigious Schuyler College where her family has donated founding money.  She is very excited to get to know her roommate, Minette, and is sorely disappointed when she sees that her roommate does not reciprocate this enthusiasm.  In fact, her roommate, she finds, is sullen, angry, and a fierce loner – scorning white and black girls in their dorm alike.  Generva is undaunted, however, and pursues the friendship in spite of the coldness with which every attempt at kindness is greeted.  When Minette becomes the target of hate pranks, Generva is her staunchest protector, even as Minette ignores her help.  And as the year progresses, and Minette’s situation worsens, Generva is also confronting her own family distress, with her mother’s unraveling as her father’s past transgressions are catching up to him (as is the FBI).  The final incident of Minette’s tragedy pushes Generva to face her own past as her family faces theirs.

I rarely listen to books on tape, but this was the result of a very long car ride – and I’m not sure if that tainted my view on this book or not.  It is a difficult story, both emotionally and technically.  There are many tangents, that are later significant but that are sometimes hard to follow.  The story is also steeped in history, shameful and bleak, and had many references to the attempts on the part of many whites who tried to help, but who expect more appreciation than they are deserving of.

The character of Minette is a tragic one.  She is trapped between the world of her conservative, Christian, independent and proud Black heritage and the more modern, socially-focused black girls in her dorm.  She refused to socialize with the other black girls just because they were black like she was, but this left her alone and deeply depressed.  She also refused any help with her studies, even as she was struggling academically, which further plummeted her self-esteem.  As she became the target of racial incidents, it became more and more heartbreaking to see how alone she was.  Generva could not comprehend why Minette would continue to repel her kindness.  It is not entirely clear if Minette’s ignoring of Generva is from a resentment of white privilege or just from her own self-absorption from depression – or perhaps both.

This story had the potential to be excellent, however, it feels like it tries a bit too hard.  The nagging earnestness on the part of Generva that is borne of her own family history and connections and her own wish to rid herself of that white guilt becomes cloying,  At least this reader/listener shouted more than once, “Just leave her alone!”  It is unclear why she would continue to try, when repelled so many times, when she would have had other friends in other groups.  Why did she need to befriend only this one girl?  Was it the challenge?  Was it because she was black?  Was it because her family was so disconnected from her as she was growing up and that gave her so little self-esteem? Was it her own sense of guilt from her family’s activities?

If you are psychologically inclined, you might be interested in reading this, as there is a lot of depth here.  But if you are looking for a quick, entertaining, light read, this is not the book for you!

 

This Is How it Always Is by Laurie Frankel

this is how it always is

This is the poignant story of a loving family: parents, Rosie and Penn, and their 5 boys; that is, they believed they had 5 boys until the youngest, Claude, declared that he wanted to bring a purse to kindergarten instead of a lunchbox. Gradually, it became clearer that Claude was much happier in dresses than pants and identified more with the princess in his father’s bedtime fairytale than the prince.  While his parents and brothers were accepting of this, they were fearful that people around him were not, and they went to great lengths to protect Claude, who eventually called herself Poppy.  As the story unfolds, we learn that while intentions may be pure, our actions may not be in others’ best interests and over-protection can lead to inadvertent harm.

This is a fictional story, but it has all the markings of a story that is true.   Every character is endowed with a dynamic, vulnerable, and big-hearted quirkiness that makes all of them larger than life.  We come to love each member of this family almost as our own.  The story is enriched with some detail of how Claude/Poppy’s experience affects the other members of the family – as it certainly would – and their own struggles with growing and seeking their own identities.  And most genuinely, Poppy’s struggle is not straightforward – she is not sure what her journey will be like or where it will end.  This is the true meaning of a non-binary identity.  One does not have to be male or female.  While this may be hard for  many to comprehend, it is even harder for others to squeeze themselves into one or the other, and I believe because of that, we all just have to get over ourselves and accept the vast space in-between.

I loved this novel, both for the message within and for the beauty of the story on its own merit.  It is a story of a family dealing with a secret that they learn doesn’t have to be a secret.  It is a story of a family learning to cope with difference, which most families have to deal with on some level, as no one is exactly like anyone else anyway.  And it is a story about love and family bonds that keep a family tied together no matter what.

 

Under Pressure: Confronting the Epidemic of Stress and Anxiety in Girls by Lisa Damour, PhD

under pressure

Working exclusively with young women over the past 15 years, I have seen a frightening trend of increased anxiety among them.  There are many explanations of why this is so, but there are few answers as to how to help them cope.  In this concise, articulate, and surprisingly upbeat book, Lisa Damour guides primarily parents in how to gently and supportively help their daughters to confront the sources of their stress and anxiety and in doing so, to combat them.  As she points out, quite aptly, when one shies away from the cause of the anxiety, most often that anxiety only builds.  Significantly, too, Damour does not demonize stress and anxiety.  She points out that without stress, we might not push ourselves to do our best to achieve our goals; likewise, without the anxiety response, we might not be alert to dangerous situations.  Stress and anxiety are only bad when they reach such high levels as to interfere with our normal functioning – that is when we need intervention.

The writing is insightful, readable, and filled with vignettes that engage the reader.  Damour relates experiences with her clients as well as her own daughters, which make the issues she discusses come alive and tangible.  She divides the issues into those that relate to girls in the home, girls in relationships with other girls, girls in relationships with boys, girls at school and girls as they are portrayed in our culture – and each of the stressors that are inherent to each of these realms.  There are helpful tips along the way, lots of analogies, and very wise, concrete suggestions.

One takeaway I loved was her response when a young woman wasn’t sure how to respond to a conflict.  Our culture conditions women to be agreeable and girls are expected to be and generally are particularly sensitive to others’ feelings.  She summarized peoples’ responses to conflict as being either a bulldozer, a doormat, a doormat with spikes (passive aggressive responder), or (the desirable response) a pillar (stands up for herself without stepping on anyone else).  I thought this was a great way to think about how we respond to conflict and and how we can guide others to do so in a constructive way.

I don’t think all of the advice in this book is exclusive to only girls.  Some of it is generalizable to boys as well.   But there is certainly plenty of evidence that girls experience more stress and anxiety than boys and that it is taking its toll on this generation of girls.  Here are, finally, tools to utilize to help them resist this scourge and be resilient.

Educated by Tara Westover

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Deep in the hills of Idaho, among the potato farms and tiny villages, poverty reigns over large families like the Westovers, who cling to their Mormon faith for the little bit of truth that they can believe in.  Dad preaches to his children his beliefs that the government is part of a socialist plot to undermine the Lord’s will and public education is just a manifest of this.  So while the older children might have benefitted from having gone to school, the younger ones, Tara being the youngest of those, did not.  So the kitchen where Tara mixes herbs with her mother and the junkyard where Tara sorts metals with her father and brothers become Tara’s classrooms.   And the random, outdated history or mathematics textbooks that left around the house became her only source of book learning, such as it was. Sadly, her emotional learning was blunted by the abuse at the behest of her brother Shawn, and her ability to survive in her home was made possible only by quelling any feeling or reaction to what was going on around her. When she finally did allow herself to feel, she realized there was just too much rage at her whole family to do anything with it.  This was the face of mental illness and this was the face of her family.

This is the true account of the life of Tara Westover – and it’s truly a miracle that all of the children actually survived, especially Tara.  The severity of the neglect and abuse at the hand of her father (and her mother) is staggering.  It is really not entirely their fault, as they clearly are mentally ill – at least her father is severely so.  The most egregiously violent and abusive one, however, is her brother Shawn, who is viciously violent and his parents repeatedly turn a blind eye to his cruelty.

I find that the one I am most angry with by the end of the book, interestingly, is Tara’s mother.  She has so many opportunities to come through for Tara.  There are moments when it appears she just might finally side with Tara.  That she might stand up against Tara’s father, or against Shawn, and say that Tara may be right in accusing Shawn of acting violently toward Tara, or of Dad having mistreated Tara when she was younger, not having given her opportunities or believed her when she was telling the truth (that she was NOT a whore, as she was so often accused of being).   Even later, when her mother had more financial success and independence and might have had a chance to break free and it might have appeared she’d stand up for herself.  But no, she did not.  Such. a disappointment for Tara.  No wonder there was such heartbreak and fury.

The fact that Tara has achieved the success that she has is miraculous and I applaud her intellect and courage.  I only pray for her that she is able to find the support that will allow her to find kindness toward herself that will allow her to heal from all the hurt.

I thank her for sharing her story with all of us.  It has been so powerful.  Mental illness rears its ugly head in so many ways.  Sadly, the worst is toward children.

 

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

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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.