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A Divergent Review

  • Posted on August 18, 2014 at 10:00 AM

I can’t remember for sure, but I think my initial reaction to the buzz about Veronica Roth’s Divergent was, “Not another dystopian novel!” I didn’t pay much attention to the hype; then again, I rarely ever do. Besides, I rarely have the time to devote to leisure reading, so I tend to stick to books that I know I’ll like—it’s not like there aren’t enough of those to keep me entertained for the next few decades.

At some point, I caught on to the premise of the story. Tris, the main character, is different in a world (or what’s left of it) that considers difference a bad thing. Sounds familiar, doesn’t it? Except, this story is set in the remnants of Chicago after a cataclysmic war. If you know anything about contemporary Chicago, then you know its population is full of diversity and probably couldn’t get over being different in any foreseeable future, no matter how devastated that future might be. If the movie is any indication, then this attribute of Chicago is at least partially recognized in Roth’s vision because the movie shows at least some of the racial differences that can be seen in contemporary Chicago. The cultural differences, however, have been sacrificed for the sake of survival. In their place, new differences have emerged, dependent solely on the dominant nature of the individuals: intellectuals, self-sacrificing servants, compassionate agriculturalists, honest judges, and courageous warriors.

Based on the movie (I still haven’t gotten a chance to read the book), I’d have to say that I fit most closely with the Erudite or intellectuals. It’s not because I’m power-hungry, as they prove to be in the movies, but because, especially through my young adulthood, I have usually valued my intellect the most. I can be selfless, I can be brave, I can be kind, and I can be honest. In fact, I try to be all of those things most of the time. But if I had to choose just one, then I would go with intelligence, because I like to solve problems by thinking them through.

Based on the issue of conformity, rather my lack thereof, I would be divergent as it’s described in the movie. Then again, so would most of the people I know. Whether that’s a reflection of the people I know or whether it’s a reflection of the impracticality of the faction ideal, I don’t know. Still, the idea that nonconformists are perceived by those that hold down the status quo is very familiar.

The world is full of people in the here and now that view difference, divergence, and non-conformity as threats to their way of life, even when the people who are different, divergent, and non-conforming don’t actually have anything to do with their life. That is very true to human nature and that fear is the source of the most violent, dangerous aspects of human nature. Ironically, it’s also those parts of human nature that Erudite Jeanine embraced—that and the desire for power.

Giving the selfless the responsibility to govern and administer was a wise allocation of human resources, if a rather futile one. The people who want power the least are those who are going to treat it most responsibly, but they are also the least likely to hold onto it. This is why, despite our best efforts and our best claims about public service, we haven’t been able to create a government or nonprofit sector that consistently serves and protects the interests of all of the people. Unfortunately, these sectors tend to fail the people who are in the most danger the most frequently, because they are inevitably those with the least power.

In the movie, the solution is for a few brave souls to stand up, challenge the power-hungry destroyers, and save the day. In reality, it’s rarely so simple. Government bends in the face of power, especially the power of the most powerful of its own people. The least powerful are in the most danger, precisely because they lack the power to make the government bend towards them. In a democratic state, the only defense we have is to stand together; weaving what power we have into a stronger tapestry than any of us can make for ourselves. By working together and fighting for and with each other, we show those in power that we have enough power that we’re worth bending towards. This isn’t accomplished by separating into factions, but by uniting under a banner of freedom and equality, regardless of the differences that make us “divergent.” Therein lies our power.

Review: What Patients Don’t Say If Doctors Don’t Ask

  • Posted on July 19, 2013 at 10:00 AM

What Patients Don’t Say If Doctors Don’t Ask by Dr. Manon Bolliger, ND, is a book written by a doctor for other doctors advocating a new approach to medicine that questions some of the basic, underlying assumptions Western societies have made about health care.

This first thing that should be clear from this opening statement is that I, as a lay person, did not understand everything in this book, and I certainly didn’t understand the book well enough to actually have an authoritative opinion as to whether Dr. Bolliger proved her premises or not.

I can, however, say that Dr. Bolliger supported her premises well enough for me to say:

  1. The book is well-researched and well-supported.
  2. I am prepared to question my own assumptions about health, wellness, and my preferred approaches to treatment.

The second thing that should be clear from this opening statement is that this book will open your mind, if your mind is willing to be opened, to some intriguing and insightful questions:

  1. The book identifies areas worthy of further research;
  2. But, the book also questions the validity of some of our basic assumptions about how research should be performed and what the goals of that research are.

I’ll put it this way: I approach science with a carefully thought-out degree of skepticism, because:

  1. I think we, as human beings, have to question our abilities to actually conduct unbiased inquiry, when significant amounts of evidence indicate our perceptions are shaped by our biases, and therefore we are not unbiased observers.
  2. I think scientists betray themselves and their discipline, as well as revealing their own biases, when they present theories as facts, which is done frequently, often based on pretty ludicrous assumptions, when dealing with “big issue” scientific inquiries, like global warming/climate change, evolution, and facets of human nature.

So, when I read this book, I read it with a mind that is open to its concepts. I also read it with the hope that I would, in its pages, discover how to get the kind of medical treatment I wanted from the health care facilities available to me.

Unfortunately, this book is very much written with the doctor in mind, which means that I’m not going to be able to go to my doctor armed with the knowledge to convince him that not only should I be diagnosed with fibromyalgia, unless he has significant reasons to question the validity of the diagnosis, but that this condition should be treated as a whole, not merely as a collection of symptoms.

Fortunately, this book has both reinforced my reservations and made me further question some of my own assumptions with regards to health care, so I’m formulating a long-term plan that will, hopefully, not only help me to become symptom-free, but also help me to become truly healthy. And there is a difference, which is one of the things this book is about.

If you’re interested in being healthy and you’re willing to open your mind to new ideas, I highly recommend this book. Beware, however, that without a background in medical science some of this is probably going to go over your head.

Review: Joyful Noise

  • Posted on July 23, 2012 at 8:00 AM

Surprise!  I wasn’t expecting to do another review quite so soon.  I wasn’t expecting to have anything to review for this blog’s audience.  Then, I watched Joyful Noise with Queen Latifah (who plays Vi Rose) and Dolly Parton (who plays G.G.) and knew I had another review.

Now, going into this movie, I didn’t expect the topic of autism to come up.  Yet, when Walter, the son of Vi Rose, appeared I had to wonder.  His behavior, even in the brief snippet in the car, seemed familiar.  Then, at the table, it seemed likely, but I still wasn’t expecting for them to come out and say it.

Then, in trying to explain away his apparent rudeness to Randy, a new-comer to their party, Vi Rose says, “There’s really nothing you can do when he’s like this.  This is Asperger’s Syndrome.”  The young man sits down, striking an accepting and friendly tone of behavior, and interacts on with him on Walter’s terms—and makes a connection.

Of course, this kind of interaction is not what the movie is about.  The movie is about a church choir (and the people within the choir) trying to give their struggling town something to cheer about by competing in a national music competition.  It’s also about how Randy and Vi Rose’s daughter fall in love.  Still, this extra element adds unexpected depth and weight to the storyline.

For a good fifteen minutes, Walter doesn’t appear again.  But when he does, he talks about how it feels to be the outcast, to not understand the social cues that drive our intensely social world, and how it feels to be bullied.  Randy makes a few missteps—the alien metaphor is used, unfortunately—but overall the scene shows once again how well they connect and what it means to connect—when to accept limits and when to push/encourage someone to do something they enjoy.

The scene that really gets me, though, is when Walter tells his pious mother that he hates God, because God made him “this way.”  He also confesses that he wants to be normal for his mother’s sake.  She says, “When someone don’t fit into a neat little box, the answer ain’t to squeeze them in even harder.  You build a bigger box.”

Part of the reason this scene struck me was because it shows how our actions often conflict with our beliefs.  Vi Rose believes what she says.  She means what she says.  But, at the same time, Walter’s feelings don’t come from a vacuum.  Often our actions are shaped by in-grained prejudices we may not even be aware of, and that’s the case in this story.  Vi Rose loves her son.  She’s proud of her son.  At the same time, she’s embarrassed by him.  She fumbles to explain him—the scene at the dinner table, for example.  All these behaviors send signals about the way she sees him to him and to others, signals that belie her words of love and acceptance.  She’s completely unaware of what she’s doing, of course, which is why she’s so surprised to hear that message translated back to her by her son.  She doesn’t mean it, but she lives it and it shows.

We all need to take care that our actions don’t belie the words of love and acceptance we shower on our children, because our actions speak louder than our words.

Review: A Cup of Comfort for Parents of Children with Autism

  • Posted on July 18, 2012 at 4:19 PM

I received an unexpected package a while back.  One day I went into class and a box was waiting for me, care of my graduate school advisor.  Inside were two books and a card.  Apparently, my advisor had talked with a former student and I came up in the conversation.  The former student, who is also the mother of a child with autism, sent me two collections in which her writing on her experiences raising a child with autism had appeared.

A Cup of Comfort for Parents of Children with Autism, edited by Colleen Sell, and published in 2007, was one of the two books.  Mostly, the writer was trying to make a connection—and she succeeded.  I’m reviewing the book because it’s just part of what I do.

First, though, I must caution my readers.  I don’t review a whole lot of memoirs and have yet to review an essay collection on this site, mostly because I avoid them.  Early on in this beautiful mess, I received (and purchased) many memoirs.  Most of the stories were dark, degrading, desperate attempts to find a cure for their child’s autism—some even claiming to have succeeded.  I got jaded on memoirs like that pretty fast.

So, when making any kind of recommendation, especially when a book promises “Stories of Hope and Everyday Success,” part of what I’m looking for is a break from this effort to capitalize on the darkest possible view of autism.  I strongly prefer books that challenge the preconceived notion that autism is some horrible thing that is done to unwitting families—a malignant force.  In my experience, prejudice and stigma is the much stronger, much more pervasive malignant force.

I started with the writer’s story, of course, and responded to her.  (You can find Leaving Literalville on page 176, and it’s a very good essay, highly recommended.)  I have since gone back and read the whole thing.

I was pleasantly surprised by how well the promise of this book was fulfilled.  Most of the stories were written by parents who had come to see the value and worth of their children, and had either always cherished them just as they were or had come to do so.  Of course, there were a painful few who boldly claimed they still needed to cure their children—and that seems to rather discredit their claims of acceptance and value, but, then again, it’s impossible to know whether these parents have thought about what that cure might cost their child.

What should a reader get from such a book?  Tears, smiles, laughter, joy, a sense of renewed hope and a feeling that accomplishments are possible.  Yup—it’s all there.  Most of the stories were fresh and compelling.  A few dragged.  A few seemed like the writers’ were trying to force what they really wanted to write about within the confines of the anthology’s objective.  But, mostly, I would say the book was a success.  A few stories surprised me.  Others made me wonder.  Overall, I found most of them familiar and uplifting—or at least not depressing.

One of the things I really and truly love about this piece, however, is the wide selection of points of view represented.  It seems most of us gravitate towards those we agree with, and there are some pretty compelling reasons for that, but in order to grow we need to be challenged.  We need to look at things through different eyes, at least for a while.  That, of course, doesn’t mean we don’t have to like what we see.  We don’t have to get comfortable in that point of view.  But the people we disagree with deserve to be heard, too, and maybe if we all did more listening (or, in this case, reading) we’d be able to work together much, much better.  Imagine what we could accomplish then!

Review: Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close

  • Posted on July 9, 2012 at 8:00 AM

This movie about the problems a child, particularly a child with neurological differences, has in processing events that, in the mother’s words, just don’t make sense.  A little boy loses his father, whom he identifies with and who understands him, to the 9/11 attacks.  A year later he finds a key; keys unlock something; and he thinks if he can find what the key unlocks he can hold onto his father for a little longer, maybe forever.  The unspoken message is that he hopes, by fulfilling this mission, he can make sense of his father’s death.

But his father’s death doesn’t make sense.  Some things don’t, no matter how hard we try to make sense of them.  As human beings, we have to live with the nonsensical.  But some of us struggle with that more than others.

I never endured a significant loss and I never lived anywhere quite as busy and overwhelming as New York City.  As a child, I wasn’t nearly so conscious of my own anxiety or my sensory overload.  Yet, I identify with the little boy in this movie as he struggles to overlay order on chaos, as he tries to make sense of the nonsensical, as he clings to what provided him with comfort and understanding, as he fights against his own limitations, and as he experiences the world with a heightened sense of determination.

I also get the mother, who isn’t quite like her son, who has been left without the interpreter that helped her to meet his needs, and her determination—and struggle—to fill in the large gap left by her husband while dealing with her own grief and loneliness and confusion and pain.

But there is another side of this.  A side that could give advocates fits.

This movie could be perceived one of two ways:

  • It skirts the implications of an Asperger’s diagnosis by focusing on the experiences of the main character without labeling them.
  • It abdicates its “responsibility” to make a conscious point concerning the limiting effects of diagnostic politics in providing appropriate care and support to those who need it.

As a writer, I understand why it would be important to skirt the issue of autism.  For one, unless you live it, it’s very difficult to research well enough to satisfy the critics among those who do live it.  Somebody’s always going to find fault with your portrayal, even if you are intimately familiar with autism, because you’re not intimately familiar with their autism.  Second, by labeling the experiences of a character, you tend to distance viewers who don’t identify with the label from the character’s experiences.  Third, by labeling a character, you label your movie in a way that dominates the story.  So, I can certainly empathize with the decision not to label the character.

On the other hand, involving people with the appropriate label can minimize criticism of your portrayal while also grounding the character in reality.  Labeling the character also validates the truth that stories about people who are labeled in a similar manner are worth telling, which also validates the humanity of those who share the label.  Finally, by labeling a character you challenge people’s preconceived prejudices that people who carry the label are “other” and therefore they cannot be identified with.  So, I can certainly empathize with those who are disappointed in the choice not to label the character.

Perhaps more importantly, the choice to almost label the character brings up an entirely new issue.  According to the main character, the tests for Asperger’s were inconclusive.  By what the movie shows, the child was challenged with a disability.  He faced barriers to his goals that consisted of the combination of his own neurology and a world designed not to accommodate his neurology.  Over the course of the story, he had to face and overcome (or not) those barriers himself.  Yet the movie doesn’t address how the lack of a label prevented the boy from accessing services that could have helped him.  The movie didn’t address the unfairness or inadequacy of services, which it could and arguably should have done.

So, while I applaud the story, I can’t help but be disappointed in the lack of a conscious attempt to address the failure to effectively support this family—at least, to acknowledge that supports, accommodations and other services could have benefited this family.

Review: Waiting for Superman

  • Posted on May 20, 2011 at 1:14 PM

Waiting for Superman is a thought-provoking documentary.  Artistically, I think the filmmaker did a good job of creating a narrative arc and providing a dense piece, full of information.  However, I would caution any viewer from “buying” the message entirely.  The film was full of information; some of that information was factual and some of that information was opinion.  The danger is that much of the opinion was presented as facts.  It’s difficult to sort the two out without extensive research, so the entirety should be viewed with skepticism.

One thing I find very important in this film is that they stress how essential good teachers are to the education of children, but how the system—including, but not limited to the teachers’ unions and politicians that keep bad teachers in their positions—is dysfunctional.  That focus, that differentiation is very important.

Before writing this, I read quite a few scathing critiques.  Not surprisingly, many if not all of these critiques were written by people who have a vested interest in the status quo.  I would recommend against “buying” their messages as well, for much the same reason.  Facts and opinions are not the same, and yet both sides present their opinions as if they were facts.  This is unethical and it is not done in the best interests of the recipients of these services, namely the children.  Furthermore, over-simplifying and filtering an opponent’s message in order to set up a straw-man—which is what most of the critiques I read did—is unethical and logically fallible.  We’re talking Critical Thinking 101 here, so it’s especially sad that it was done by our teachers and administrators who should know better.  Finally, while these critiques occasionally would admit the problem is real, none of them offered a solution besides pushing forward with what we know doesn’t work.  These people are barriers to change and, for the sake of our children, change is necessary.

That does not mean that the changes proposed in the film are as solid and successful and inclusive as the makers of Waiting for Superman would have us to believe.  The narrator of the film referred to “every child,” meaning that even poor children and children “lost” in the worst neighborhoods should have access to a top-quality education.  And that’s fine.  I’m on-board with that message.  BUT that message does NOT include every child.  This film failed in addressing the needs of every child with the filmmaker’s choice to exclude special education from the discussion and from his documentary.  The discussion of quality education must address the needs of all children!  That not only includes the poor performers, but also children with special educational needs that require educational services other children do not need. 

Granted, that issue is not the point of the documentary.  However, it is my opinion that it should not be a separate issue.  Successful schools are schools that can meet the needs of all their students.  Changes in education cannot exclude the needs of children with special educational needs, including those who are behind due school failure and those who need special services to succeed in any school setting.  We must acknowledge that “what works” for many children will not and cannot work for ALL children.  There is no single SOLUTION.   This presentation, this complete absence of all things special education, damages the credibility of the entire documentary in my opinion; and yet, reading so many negative critiques of the film that offer no solutions, no alternatives, and no change leaves me feeling that we’re right back where we started.  It was even in the film.  This dialogue is not about the kids.  Instead, it’s about the adults, each with their own bias and their own self-interest and their own ideas.

Review: The Boy Who Could Fly

  • Posted on January 25, 2011 at 12:44 AM

Recently, I came across two movies I watched a long time ago with my cousin in my Netflix recommendations.  One of those movies was The Boy Who Could Fly, which I decided to make a priority when I realized—from reading the Netflix blurb—that it was about a boy with autism.  I hadn’t remembered that.

In retrospect, that’s understandable.  Though the character in question, Eric, is non-verbal and socially aloof, there are no other autistic traits that make him stand out as on the spectrum.  Perhaps that is a failing of the writer or the actor, but the diagnosis of autism is also questioned in the movie itself, so it might have been intentional.

This movie is a surprisingly complicated drama with a popcorn-flick feel.  The story starts with the relocation of a mother and her two children after the death of the father.  The family is struggling and the boy next door proves to be a heart-warming distraction for the girl, Milly.  While the mother struggles with re-entering the workforce and the brother struggles with a neighborhood bully, the girl befriends this boy whose odd behavior sets him apart from his peers.  This is encouraged once it becomes apparent that the boy is willing to connect with her in a way he’s never connected with anyone before.  Of course, the boy has problems of his own, including the looming possibility of forced institutionalization and the semi-neglect of his drunken uncle, who is his legal guardian due to the tragic deaths of both the boy’s parents.

There are things I really liked, like how the teachers made an effort to include Eric, even though it required effort.  I like how they show a balance between the forces that respect Eric and those that do not.  But there was also little resistance to the ablism that persisted throughout the movie, and that I didn’t like so much.

One scene I really like is when Milly, by chance, discovers that connecting with Eric has a lot to do with following his lead, much the same way he connected with her by following her lead.  I don’t know whether this was realized by the movie makers, but it was clear from the story—at least to me, but of course I’ve done that myself with my own children.  This is spoiled, however, when Milly tries to make Eric perform like a trick pony.  When he fails to perform, she tells him “Don’t do this to me, Eric,” as if his unwillingness to perform is an intentional effort to humiliate her.  She never seems to realize that she is doing anything wrong to him.

So, it’s iffy.  I don’t love it.  I don’t hate it.  It has potential that could have been better realized, but it’s also a movie from 1986.  If that seems like an excuse, so be it.

Still, I’m trying hard not to be disappointed.  Is there no place in society for a boy who can re-ignite our ability to dream?  Find out for yourself.  Me, I think there’s room for a sequel.

The Black Balloon: A Review

  • Posted on June 4, 2010 at 2:10 AM

The Black Balloon is an award-winning Australian movie that is, on the surface, one portrayal of autism through a non-autistic brother’s point of view.

When taking The Black Balloon with that premise in mind, it’s a movie I found to be both honest and challenging.  The movie takes risks, which I like from an artistic standpoint.  It has a solid, not-too-subtle message of acceptance at its core, which I like from an advocacy standpoint.

If taken outside that premise the movie can be problematic.  This movie is biased.  Charlie, the brother with autism, is not the viewpoint character.  Nor is he the main character.  While he is not dehumanized, The Black Balloon does not tell Charlie’s story.  For some viewers that’s going to be frustrating.

At face value, Charlie seems to be “the problem” that the plot intends to solve.  Thomas, the non-autistic brother (also the viewpoint character and the main character), starts off the story seeing Charlie as the problem that needs to be solved.  This can be hard to watch.  There is violence between these brothers, which can be hard to watch.  There is violence between the parents and the children, which can be hard to watch.  Charlie’s autistic traits are emphasized to the point of stereotyping, which can be hard to watch.

But—and this is a very important but—that bias is not the movie-maker’s bias; it’s Thomas’ bias.  This movie is about transforming Thomas’ perceptions of his brother.  It’s about Thomas’ journey as he grows towards acceptance, reaches for understanding, and builds an appreciation for the person Charlie is.

If I had to classify The Black Balloon, I would not call it an “autism movie” or an “advocacy movie” or even a “prejudice movie,” though there are elements of all of that within this movie.  The Black Balloon is a coming-of-age movie, in which Thomas must come to terms with his brother as he is as part of growing up.  So, while there is stereotyping in the movie, it is because for most of the movie the viewpoint character sees his brother as his autism, not because that is how the movie-maker’s envisioned Charlie.

Another thing that makes this movie problematic is my concern that viewers who have no direct experience with autism might mistake this portrayal of one autistic character as a portrayal of autism as a whole.  Obviously no movie can do that, but that doesn’t stop people from internalizing a movie and using that movie as their basis for understanding. 

Yet, despite the hard-to-watch parts and the risks of further stereotyping, the movie resonates with me.  I have a great appreciation for the parents’ struggle to provide opportunities for both their children.  I have a great appreciation for the mistakes the parents make.  I have an appreciation for Thomas’ struggle to come to terms with his own life and all the people within it.  And I have a great appreciation for the subtle way the movie-makers showed Charlie as an outsider looking in, even within his own family.  I liked how they showed that there was a person behind the stereotype—a person who wanted very much to be included in his brother’s life and for his brother to take part in his life.

Overall, I would consider the movie to be very well-done.  It’s a story with a point, but the focus was on telling the story, not on telling the point—which is very much appropriate.