Happy Halloween

According to Reuters, the Rev. Fred Phelps’s Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka has been ordered to pay $10.9 million in damages to the family of a U.S. Marine who died in Iraq. Members of the church came to his funeral carrying signs saying “You’re going to hell” and “God hates you” and cheering. A federal jury has ruled that the church and three of its principals invaded the family’s privacy and inflicted emotional distress.

The church believes that the Iraq War is God’s punishment for the United States’ tolerance of homosexuality, and they have demonstrated at about 300 military funerals in the last two years.

The Rev. Phelps’s daughter called the decision a blow against free speech.

Listening to Prozac

I’ve been away at the Billy Club’s Halloween gathering this weekend; I come home today, probably calmer and more in balance. I’ve spent a fair amount of this gathering off on my own, taking walks and meditating and reading. I wrote a short poem (three quatrains) yesterday, and on Thursday night after a long meditation I had what still seems three mornings later like a very good idea for a new opera adaptation.

One book I’ve been reading — as ever keeping up with the very latest in best sellers — is Peter Kramer’s 1993 Listening to Prozac. I have been diagnosed as having a dysthymic personality myself, and I started taking an antidepressant a few years after my brain surgery, to pull myself out of a long dark funk that had developed after the surgery and that I hadn’t been able to shake, despite my recovery going well enough that I was not only working again after eight months but soon making half again as much money as I had been before the tumor. So for me, reading a book like this isn’t just a dispassionate interest in psychology (though there’s certainly that, too); it’s also seeing whether I recognize myself in any of it, and whether it has any useful or helpful insights for me.

The book is about what we can learn about personality and human behavior from watching the effects that Prozac and other antidepressants have on various people. I’ve only read a few chapters so far, but the chapter titled “Sensitivity” in particular contains a lot of stuff that is fascinating as an insight into how our brains and personalities work, and that also seems personally very relevant. The gist of the chapter is that it looks as though a lot of things we think of as personality disorders are maybe better thought of as the normal adaptive behaviors that you would expect from someone who is more sensitive than usual to the pain of loss or rejection; that if someone is experiencing a more acute pain from certain things than most people do, you can only reasonably expect them to develop different coping behaviors from others. If Event X causes a mild, brief feeling of disappointment in one person but three days of intense and crippling emotional pain in another person, it’s only to be expected that the second person will develop more extreme ways of behaving so as to avoid all risk of Event X happening at all costs, and those behaviors might look like a behavioral problem or personality disorder to someone like the first person.

An antidepressant, then, can be thought of as something that lessens that senstivity, with the result that the personality slowly changes, sort of in the way a lifelong limp would gradually disappear if a surgery removed whatever it was that was making it painful to put much weight on that foot. It’s a hypothesis than explains a lot of unusual things about how the drugs work on people.

I can see myself reflected in this chapter in a lot of ways — a number of the patients Dr. Kramer writes about remind me of myself, such as in my shyness and difficulty in approaching other people in certain situations where I fear I won’t be able to take a rejection in stride; the very long time I grieved, and very painfully, for my friend David Sherblom (Dr. Kramer writes about someone who grieved three years for a loved one, which was more or less my situation); the painful feelings of rejection I sometimes experience over things that even I can see are objectively no rejection at all. Over the decades I’ve learned to deal with these painful feelings in more useful ways, and I’m usually pretty good now at not letting the fear of the painful feelings or even the painful feelings themselves govern too much how I behave; I can do a passable imitation of a gregarious person if I need to (and I don’t have to keep it up too long!) or let myself feel emotional pain without feeling driven or controlled by it, recognizing and subverting the negative patterns of thought I can slip into in times of stress.

But it’s also true that it feels as though the effect of the antidepressant I take has been to lessen the intensity of those painful emotions, which is what the chapter is about; and over time, as I’ve grown better accustomed to being sent merely into a mild downer by things that used to send me into a tailspin, I’ve become more confident in certain kinds of situations. It may well be that that’s been because my fear of those downers has lessened as the downers themselves have lessened in intensity.

So that chapter has given me an interesting new way of looking at what goes on within myself.

Help, I’m Being Victimized by Gay People Trying to Exist in My Universe!

Google News reports 74 news articles — 74! — on J.K. Rowling’s comment that she thought of one of her characters as being gay. Many of them are disapproving or even blatantly hostile — headlines like “If Dumbledore is gay where’s the proof?”, “Leave It Alone”, “J.K. Rowling’s Big Fat Mouth”, “Harry Potter Author Plays Dumb, Acts Surprised at Reactions to Gay Character”, on and on.

Barbara Kay in Canada’s National Post wrote — under the headline “Dumbledore has been diminished”, for crying out loud —

There is something very odd though about Dumbledore being singled out from the huge cast of adult characters in the books as having any sexuality at all. Some of the characters in the books are married, many more are single. …

My emphases. In Ms. Kay’s universe, saying that a character is married to someone of the opposite sex and maybe even has children with that person does not say anything about his or her sexuality. Saying that a character had one homosexual infatuation in his remote past, though, is apparently tantamount to rubbing the readers’ noses in his soiled bedsheets. It’s “singling him out.”

Seems to me that Ms. Rowling’s real crime is that she is not cooperating with the desire of people like Ms. Kay to preserve their illusions that everybody normal and decent can be safely and tacitly assumed to be straight.

I love this, too:

However, as a symbol for gay activists eager to inculcate knowledge about human sexuality at the earliest possible age, Rowling’s revelation has been a marketing godsend.

That’s the most important thing about this in Ms. Kay’s mind: When Ms. Rowling says in public that she thinks a gay man could possibly be a wise and positive influence on children, she is enabling child molesters. And Ms. Rowling is supposedly the one saying inappropriate things here.

Ms. Rowling didn’t rub anyone’s nose in Dumbledore’s sexuality, she answered a direct question about how she viewed Dumbledore’s life beyond the borders of the book and she answered it honestly. She never said that she intended the reader to understand that Dumbledore is gay; in fact, she has explicitly said the exact opposite, that her intention is that the average child will see it as a friendship and only adult readers who are sensitive to it will pick up on the hints.

Everyone has the right to create their own delusion and live in it. But when you’re complaining about the mere existence of people like Ms. Rowling who don’t share your delusion, and you’re turning it into some kind of personal attack on yourself — you know, they have pills for that nowadays.

And Don’t Even Get Me Started on What Was Really Going On Between Emma Wodehouse and Harriet Smith

Dave pointed me to Jeffrey Weiss in the Dallas Morning News joining the chorus of Oh no it’s not that I’m homophobic no no no it’s because I care passionately about the nature of literature that I am so very very upset about Rowling saying she thinks of one of her characters as being gay:

With the greatest of respect, I’d like to say something to Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling:

Shut up. Please.

Stop talking about what Ron will do for a living, whom Neville will marry, what kinds of creatures Hagrid will raise.

I’d have a lot more faith in Mr. Weiss’s pose of being equally upset about these other revelations as well if he’d uttered so much as a peep of protest at any of them instead of waiting for the first non-heterosexual tidbit to register his complaints. And isn’t it adorable how he blatantly expresses his hostility toward Ms. Rowling and at the same time pretends to be only doing it in jest? Thus indulging in all the intensely satisfying emotion of homophobia without having to take responsibility for its unattractiveness. Later he even writes “Jo — can I call you Jo?”, making a joke out of a display of arrogance and disrespect. A little problem with passive-aggressiveness, have we?

Then he abandons even the pose that he minded the earlier revelations:

I guess I don’t want you to stop explaining completely. I’d love to know more about what inspired some of the plot details in the books. If you want to dish about how you decided on those particular inscriptions for the headstones, how you came up with the names for the characters, or how you cleverly planned the religious underpinnings of the broad arc of the story – I am all ears.

But telling us that Dumbledore is gay, as you did last week? Why would you do that?

Maybe because it was true? Maybe because some of Ms. Rowling’s fans want to know more about what it was really like for her to write the book? And Mr. Weiss admits that he’s fascinated in all that, too — until it gets to finding out that Ms. Rowling thinks that putting one count ’em one gay character in a series of seven character-rich and increasingly bulky books might be a valid literary choice.

You gotta love this, too:

Based on what you decided to put in the books, I can imagine that Dumbledore once had a girlfriend or that he was so emotionally crushed by guilt that he sealed himself off from romance or that he was one of those rare men for whom romance never really came up …

In other words, Mr. Weiss is angry because Ms. Rowling has not participated in the preservation of his illusion that an author he likes cannot possibly have imagined that a character he likes could be gay.

If it were really a matter of Ms. Rowling inventing a character’s gay orientation after the fact, Mr. Weiss would be free to continue thinking whatever he wanted to think. If a long-lost diary entry revealed that, say, Agatha Christie always thought of Hercule Poirot as a werewolf, or Herman Melville thought of Ahab as a hermaphrodite, you’d think, oh my god, that is really weird, and then you’d go back and skim through a few chapters to see if you’d missed anything. And you’d conclude that if that’s really what he or she thought, there really isn’t any trace of it in the book, and you’d file the fact away under Literary Curiosities and never let it affect how you thought about Death on the Nile or Moby-Dick again.

But that’s not the case here. Remember: Fans all over the Internet have been speculating about Dumbledore for months because there are genuine hints in the last book. And what Mr. Weiss is upset about is that he wanted to be able to read the book without having to pick up on those hints, and now he can’t any more. Because the hints are really there, and now that they’ve been called to Mr. Weiss’s attention, he can no longer go back to not seeing them. He will never be able to read the books again without seeing that thread, and that it was there all along. Nor has Ms. Rowling left it possible for him to pretend to himself that he hasn’t seen it, or that fans arguing that Dumbledore is gay are imagining things that are not there.

The Harry Potter books were a place where he could pretend for a while that a man who isn’t attached to a woman must be that way because he once had a girlfriend or is crushed by heterosexual guilt. A romantic fantasy world where admirable men are much more likely to be asexual by nature than gay. Where he could pretend for a while that gay men don’t exist.

And now the books are not such a haven for him any more.