Bacon on the Bookshelf

Savory picks for the free range reader

May 20, 2018
by jenniferpuryear

”I Am A Warrior”

Thank God for the people who survive their harrowing childhoods and live to tell their warrior tales. Thank God for the novelists who imagine courage in the worst of circumstances. They inspire us – the truth tellers – for truth and bravery take many forms. Mary Raymond returns to Bacon today with a compelling account of two hot current reads featuring heroines who transcend dire family circumstances – Educated, by Tara Westover (New York Times bestselling memoir) and My Absolute Darling, by Gabriel Tallent (debut novel). These reads horrify – enlighten – enrage – and embolden.

Tara Westover will be speaking to a big crowd at Lipscomb University in Nashville this Monday night, May 21st, at 6:30 – there’s plenty of room, no ticket required, please join us if you’re in town!

From Mary:

My high school U.S. history teacher once told me that one of the world’s most avoidable tragedies was getting stuck waiting somewhere without a good book to read. I think our class only made it up to somewhere around the Teapot Dome Scandal that year before school let out for the summer, but by then I already knew she was a wise woman. She delighted in the democratic institutions of libraries and public schools while simultaneously demanding that her students work hard to earn these free gifts. She understood that learning how to learn would help us make better sense of the world around us – and of ourselves.

I think it’s a safe space to reveal this here on Bacon on the Bookshelf: I read all the time. Sometimes I pick a book that seems like it will appeal to me, and I just slog my way through hoping at some point I understand why the critics raved. Sometimes I read to attempt to chip away at my own ignorance about a new topic of interest. And sometimes I stumble upon a book that transports and touches me so deeply I keep thinking about the characters long after their stories have closed. I have read two such books in the past six months: Gabriel Tallent’s debut novel My Absolute Darling and Tara Westover’s memoir Educated. Both books tell the stories of young girls coming of age with survivalist fathers who are dismissive of education, modern medicine, and anyone who doesn’t share their apocalyptic world views.

My Absolute Darling asks a lot of its readers.

There are graphic depictions of physical, psychological, and sexual abuse throughout the novel. Interspersed with this violence are frequent, near reverent meditations on the northern California landscape which provides the setting. I suspect that this is as much to offer the reader a respite as to reinforce that this is the only environment where Turtle Alverson, the novel’s fourteen-year-old heroine, feels self-assured and secure.

Turtle lives alone with her father, Martin, who comes across as a cult leader with a following of one. He is intelligent, handsome, charismatic, and terrifying. He has taught his daughter all the skills she needs to survive a future apocalypse but merely shrugs when Turtle’s teacher Anna voices concerns about her academic struggles and lack of socialization. Turtle senses that she must protect Martin from Anna’s interest without raising his suspicions about where her fealty lies. She has spent her lifetime loving a father who purports to keep her safe from a dangerous world by starving her of any of the resources which would allow her to question her own loyalty to such a violent man.

She is slowly waking up to the reality that she will have to run away from Martin while struggling to form an identity apart from him. Tallent reveals Turtle’s inner conflict in stages, and the crescendo comes when she meets Jacob, a teenage boy whose eyes meet hers with open admiration and affection. She knows that it is not safe to let anyone into her world, but she is mystified and delighted by Jacob’s loving family, his easy self-assurance, and his uncomplicated offering of friendship and love. She learns too late what it will cost her to try to leave Martin, and the damage he inflicts on those around her reinforces her own worst beliefs about herself.

Tallent reveals Turtle’s conflicting feelings about her father with the limited emotional language of someone for whom love has always been divorced from security. Turtle’s wound of self-hatred never fully heals, but her journey is one of the most honest and moving depictions of fighting to escape an abusive relationship I have ever read.

In Educated, Tara Westover relates the story of growing up in rural Idaho in a large family of Mormon survivalists.

Her father reacts to the fatal standoff at nearby Ruby Ridge by redoubling his efforts to keep his family entirely off the grid. He largely succeeds: Tara is nine years old before she is issued a birth certificate. Tara and her sister and brothers don’t attend school, instead working alongside their parents as they all prepare for the coming Days of Abomination. Their work in construction and scrapping is dangerous, and Tara witnesses her siblings experience severe burns, concussions, and lacerations which are treated only with her mother’s herbal remedies.

While Gabriel Tallent allows us to witness Turtle Alverson’s conflicted emotions about her life with her father, Tara Westover accepts her parents’ teachings without question. She has small windows into life outside her family’s sheltered existence when she visits her maternal grandmother or participates in musicals in a nearby town. Even so, this exposure to even marginally different social customs and religious values serves only to reinforce her devotion to her family’s way of life. Like Martin Alverson, Tara’s father has the intelligence, confidence, and bunker mentality of a cult leader, and the echo chamber of his family’s cloistered lifestyle offers no countervailing views.

For Tara, the impetus for change comes as she experiences escalating physical abuse at the hands of her older brother, Shawn. Her parents rarely intervene, but after one brutal episode her brother Tyler tells her candidly: she must leave for the sake of her own safety. He offers her the same exit strategy he has taken: gain admission to Brigham Young University and leave the family behind.

Here Tara lets us see the positive byproduct of being raised in an environment where nothing comes easily. She has the tenacity to teach herself how to take the ACT and keeps going even when she suspects the whole idea is arrogant fantasy. Tyler explains to her that BYU will accept her even without a high school diploma if she scores well enough on the test and indicates that she has been homeschooled on her application. Remarkably, she scores a 28 on the ACT and gains admission to college at the age of sixteen.

Her first year at BYU exposes her to an entirely new world, but her fight for survival continues. She works multiple jobs to pay the bills, struggles to learn how to write papers and prepare for exams, and feels isolated from her classmates who practice a less rigid form of Mormonism than her own. Tara doesn’t fall in love with learning right away, but she begins to question her father’s teachings for the first time when she realizes how his inaccurate understanding of the events of Ruby Ridge robbed her and her siblings of exposure to the wider world.

Initially she enrolls mainly in music classes because she believes that becoming a choir director is an acceptable career choice for a woman. However, as her world broadens with each new class, she wonders if there is something wrong with her for being drawn to “unwomanly” subjects. Though she never finds the words to pose this question directly, her Jewish history professor speaks to her inner conflict with advice which will become a guiding principle: “First find out what you’re capable of, then decide who you are.”

She barely trusts his faith in her but accepts his offer to participate in a study abroad program at Cambridge anyway. There she meets another professor who encourages her interest in historiography. She recognizes her own editing of history when she rereads journals from her childhood where she has written about her loving older brother Shawn. With time and distance, she understands that her coping mechanism of shutting off all emotion has made her an unreliable narrator of her own history.

As Tara gains confidence in her academic abilities and begins to feel less like an alien in the world, her connection to her family slowly unravels. As the years go by and they sense that she no longer accepts their teachings as gospel, they cut her off and accuse her of blasphemy. She continues her education and attempts to heal herself, make sense of the world, and examine the limits of family obligation.

After completing her undergraduate degree at BYU and earning an MPhil from Trinity College, Tara was ultimately awarded a PhD in history from Cambridge.

Tara and Turtle stayed with me long after I finished reading their stories. Daughters of survivalists, they both brought impressive survival skills to the world. Forming one’s identity is challenging for everyone, but most of us have the benefit of relying on a diversity of voices as we figure out who we are. It took tremendous courage for these young women to develop positive senses of self-worth when their formative years only offered a feedback loop of negativity. When concerned teachers and friends helped them understand what they were capable of, they had the opportunity to reject limiting narratives and discover their own beautiful potential.

*      *      *

Mary Raymond

Mary’s cat Mavis is a believer in the importance of a good education, but never at the expense of a better nap.

*      *      *

If you need a moment of 80s Badassery this morning to supplement Mary’s Survivalist post: turn the volume up to 11 and enjoy Patty Smyth. The video is a little kooky (is it meant to be a play on “Cats”?) – but the attitude is just right.

*      *      *

Top image copyright here.

May 17, 2018
by jenniferpuryear

Hope Remains

I don’t feel great in the fearsome months of May and December – do you? (Speaking as a person who’s wound pretty tight already.) I’m grateful that mental health gets a lot more attention than it used to.

Matt Osborne returns to Bacon today with a feature on Mental Health Awareness Month and the provocative, heart-wrenching work of artist Derek Hess. (You can find Hess’s work on album covers – and at the Louvre.)

by Derek Hess

From Matt: 

Each year, May is Mental Health Awareness Month in the United States. In May of last year, visual artist Derek Hess posted to his Facebook and Instagram accounts a different daily image that reflected on his life with dual diagnosis. The purpose was to bring attention to persons living with mental illness and addiction issues, and to show that despite the feelings of darkness and hopelessness, “there is a light that can be reached and it is not a life sentence, it’s chronic, but does not have to be fatal.”

Derek now has collected and published these images (along with a great deal of additional, related material) in a new book entitled 31 Days In May: A Visual Journey of Mental Illness and Addiction.

Derek’s longtime business partner has described the book, and the intent behind it, this way:

What started off as self-exploration quickly turned into a personal journey for many dealing with their own mental health and addiction issues. Topics such as loneliness, relationships, depression and suicide are beautifully and painfully depicted throughout this book with the hope that it not only helps alleviate some of the stigma surrounding mental illness, but also helps to educate readers.

For those of you who may be unfamiliar with Derek Hess, he is a Cleveland-based artist who cut his teeth designing promotional flyers for bands that he booked to perform in the Cleveland area. He subsequently expanded into posters , album covers, fine art prints, book collections, a clothing line, and inclusion in the permanent collection of The Louvre.

Derek is an artist of relentless intensity and consistent integrity. To borrow a Spinal Tap reference, Derek’s work is always on 11.

Derek is also, as noted above, a person living with dual diagnosis, meaning that he has been diagnosed both with a mental illness (bipolar disorder) and a substance abuse disorder (alcoholism). Dr. Joseph Calabrese, a professor of psychiatry and a mood disorder program director, writes in the forward to 31 Days that “[a]fter studying the diagnosis and treatment of serious mental illness for 38 years, I have never met a person who had more insight into the lived experience of serious mental illness than Derek Hess.”

Fortunately for us, Derek has chosen to share his insight and lived experience, first online, and now in book form in 31 Days.

31 Days and Darkness Visible

William Styron’s Darkness Visible: A Memoir of Madness likely always will be the preeminent examination of the personal journey through mental illness.

Derek is a visual artist, so in his book, naturally, the images take precedence. Yet there are parallels with Styron’s memoir. There are winged figures throughout 31 Days, which call to mind Styron’s quote of Baudelaire: “I have felt the wind of the wing of madness.”

“Forsake” by Derek Hess

Derek annotates his May 3 image (“It’s Time”), which represents the suicidal ideation that often results from mental illness, as follows: “You are always looking for the exit.” Styron similarly notes, “because there is no escape from this smothering confinement, it is entirely natural that the victim begins to think ceaselessly of oblivion.” Derek’s May 5 image (“Sunshiny Day”) represents the burden of the person with mental illness who must continue to interact with the rest of the world: “[Y]ou still have to wear an ‘Everything is OK’ mask.” Styron makes the same observation: “[The sufferer] must, despite the anguish devouring his brain, present a face approximating the one that is associated with ordinary events and companionship.” For the May 13 entry (“Ex-ed II”), Derek notes that during the more acute episodes of mental illness, “[e]verything is amplified, including your lack of self-worth. You literally feel the pieces fall apart.” Styron comments on the “general feeling of worthlessness,” and notes that “[l]oss in all of its manifestations is the touchstone.”

And for a final comparison, Derek’s May 18 entry (“The Spiritual Death”), depicts a winged figure with a hole in his chest, Derek having drawn the hole much darker than any other portion of the image. Derek explains that this represents “an execution of my soul.” Styron likewise described his depression as a condition in which “faith in deliverance… is absent,” the “pain is unrelenting,” and there is a “hopelessness… that crushes the soul.”

From Darkness into Light

The images Derek shared in 2017 (and that now are collected in 31 Days along with the companion pieces) are difficult to view and process. Yet they are extraordinary in their honesty and viscerality. Derek is renowned for a reason. I will not attempt to describe the images. I will say simply look at them, look at them again, and then look at them again. They seize the eyes, then the heart, then the soul.

There are angels and cherubs, hearts and souls, garbage and gravestones, rain and blood, arrows and lances, skulls and bones, birds and nudes, oceans and icebergs, bombs and bear traps, scaffolds and crosses . . . and at the end, in the May 31 image, bandages and light.

This glimpse of hope at the end, despite the gravity of the images that have gone before it, does not ring false, for we know that Derek, the author of these dark images, survives. Derek found the means to recover, and now as part of that recovery, he opens himself to us. His work stands as a source of understanding and hope, and serves to dispel the stigma associated with mental illness and addiction.

Derek Hess

Again, from Dr. Calabrese’s forward:

Derek shares his experience by role-modeling recovery and rejecting the bias that is associated with these illnesses [i.e., mental illness and addiction]. He has learned that there should be no guilt or shame associated with these illnesses, as would be the case for those diagnosed as having cancer or some other malignancy.

And that seems to be the takeaway of 31 Days  mental illnesses and addictions, despite their unique challenges, are illnesses like any other in that they are painful and often debilitating, trying for the sufferer and those around him or her, mysterious in origin and agency, and indiscriminate in their choice of quarry… yet also like other illnesses, the full panoply of responses and outcomes is available for them. They can be recognized, accepted, accommodated, managed, coped with, stared down, fought, and, on occasion, felled in battle.

In 31 Days, Derek gives us this truth. There is darkness, and there is pain, yet as Derek tells us from his own experience, “hope remains within reach, even in situations overwhelmed by struggle.”

I will work to keep that thought with me this May and beyond – “hope remains.”

*      *      *

Matt, Mary, Isabel, Eloise Osborne

*      *      *

On purchasing the book, from Matt: For the time being at least, the book appears to be available only directly from Derek, either at his website (http://derekhess.com/portfolio-items/31-days-in-may/), or on his current book tour. Derek originally sold the book through a GoFundMe page, with a portion of the proceeds going to two national mental health organizations – Hope for the Day and Mental Health America. Similarly, a portion of the sales from the tour will be donated to the local mental health organization of each hosting venue’s choice. (Unfortunately for you Bacon locals, the tour itinerary currently does not include a Nashville stop.)

*      *      *

I would encourage you, Bacon readers: talk to your doctor if you’re self-medicating with alcohol. Ask your closest girlfriend if she knows a good counselor. Or ask me.

*      *      *

One final thought: this post brings to mind the great children’s classic, Sylvester and The Magic Pebble, by William Steig. Have you read it? It is about many things, including – perhaps – despair and depression.