Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Hidden Injuries

On this snowy day, I have finished two non-fiction books that I feel compelled to recommend:
  • Falling Into the Fire: A Psychiatrists's Encounters with the Mind in Crisis by Christine Montross, and
  • Exit Zero: Family and Class in Postindustrial Chicago by Christine J. Walley

The title of the first says what it is almost fully, and in so doing conveys both its strengths and weaknesses. It falls into the subgenre of medical memoir. Its explanatory framework rests heavily upon the Cartesian dualism of mind and body even as it describes syndromes and disorders that call that distinction into question. And yet the anecdotes are told with a fundamental empathy for the patients, such that even though the emphasis is on Montross's own diagnostic and ethical conundrums, the basic fact of the patient's suffering never drifts from the authorial gaze. In so doing, there is no trace of the narcissistic messianism of the healer, nor little dwelling in the equally narcissistic morass of self-doubt. As such, the book provides a glimpse into an extreme state of being human that otherwise could not be accessed, short of an in-patient stay in a psychiatric ward. Reading this book is likely preferable to staying in a psychiatric ward--a judgment that sounds like faint praise, but should be read instead as testament to Montross's ability to convey authenticity of experience through her prose.

Walley's book fits into a much smaller subgenre, that of academics born into the working class using the tools of their scholarly discipline to look back on their upbringing, while also using the experience of that upbringing to critique the stereotyped images of working-class life prevalent in both academic literature and popular culture. Pierre Bourdieu's Sketch for a Self-Analysis may be the first example of such a work. Walley's book may be the first of its kind insofar as the author is both American--the degree to which the discourse of class in the United States is stunted and confused becomes clear through contrast to this book--and a white woman who is not the daughter of immigrants--among the many confusions in U.S. class discourse, which Walley ably takes apart, is its conflation with the dynamics of race and migration, and so it is that, what few accounts there are of traversing the path from proletariat to professoriat become tales either of assimilation or of the enduring power of racial-caste barriers within the precincts of privilege. If there are other examples of this type of book, they can likely be found in Walley's extensive bibliography: Any failure to undertake a literature is mine, not hers.

Unlike Bourdieu, Walley is an anthropologist by training, and so she is not gripped by the sociologist's compulsion to quantify and demonstrate generalizability and statistical significance, though facts and figures can be found in the endnotes to buttress her arguments. In this "autoethnography," as she refers to it at times, it is not so much that the stories speak for themselves as that from the stories one can discern how different people who took part in the same story could draw often widely divergent conclusions. And from the stories one can, if one is so inclined, draw different conclusions than Walley.

The "leftist trainspotter" in me wonders, for example, about the details of the political activity alluded to during her years as a graduate student at NYU in the 90s, even as I admire the acuity of her perception of the class origins of many (not all) New York radicals:

'As a graduate student in New York, I would myself come to romanticize a certain brand of left-leaning politics that ... I valued for the paths it provided to talk openly about class in the United States. I also deeply admired the political conviction of some activists and intellectuals that I met around the city and their commitment to forging a more just world. At the same time, I became increasingly uneasy that although "Class" (with a capital C) was spoken about overtly, there was often little self-reflexive attention to other class dynamics: why, for example, were so many of the "radicals" I knew in New York individuals from middle-class or upper-middle-class backgrounds, many of whom were deeply concerned with differentiating themselves from their own suburban upbringings? Why was there such a distressing lack of knowledge of actual working-class people? When many such activists did know working-class people, I discovered, it tended to be individuals who shared their own political viewpoints, confirming their own view of working-class perspectives, rather than acknowledging such perspectives might be part of a kaleidoscope of opinions, or perhaps even a minority one, within working-class neighborhoods.' (111-112)

One can reflect on those observations very fruitfully without necessarily sharing her subsequent dismissal of all U.S. politics, including radical politics, as "a kind of gladiatorial battle between differing factions of the middle and upper middle classes"--though even that judgment partakes of more than enough truth to be discomfiting.

There is little to explicitly link these books other than the happenstances that both their authors are named Christine and that I completed them both on the same day. But both speak of a kind of hidden injury: Walley, quite explicitly, of the "hidden injuries of class," a phrase she borrows from Sennett and Cobb, and argues convincingly extend all the way down "to the cellular level" and "the chemistry of our bodies". (A judgment I am compelled to agree with every time I reach for my asthma inhaler.) The hidden injuries of which Montross speaks are the psychological lesions to which one may or may not have genetic or neurological predispositions, but which take shape through the emotional lacerations human beings inflict upon one another.

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