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Tue 31 May 2011
Posted by Christina under AIG, money, movie review, movies, Spitzer, Wall Street
In a recent discussion in City Journal on the HBO movie “Too Big to Fail” I wonder how the producers missed the chance to explain why AIG imploded:
As a Wall Street veteran, including stints at AIG, S&P and briefly, Lehman, I felt that “Inside Job” was overly simplistic, and that both films missed the boat big time on AIG.
The story started a few years earlier, when Spitzer ousted AIG CEO Hank Greenberg, which caused stock analysts to downgrade the company immediately, necessitating a scramble to increase reserves. Everyone on Wall Street knew that without Greenberg AIG was a Leviathan without a head. The gambling spree in the credit default business proved this.
Unlike his successors, Greenberg always knew where every position and dime was, every minute, and would not hesitate to get out of any business that threatened its financial integrity.
I’m not defending the company’s ethics, before or after Greenberg, but I do think ordinary Americans would feel less helpless if they had a more complete picture of the events.
But having spent most of my career trying to educate the average American about finances, I must report that they just don’t want to know. If someone else is getting 30% annual returns, they want it, too. The hardest thing is defending a conservative investment strategy to the greedy investor, who will just take his money elsewhere for better returns, damn the risks.
These movies do nothing to encourage citizens to take responsibility for their own actions. It’s easier to keep blaming the “big swinging dicks” and feel bitter and victimized. If everyone had to read the text book for the Series 7 Securities exam — not even take the test, just read it — the financial crisis wouldn’t have happened.
I have lots of friends with Ivy graduate degrees who were stunned, absolutely shocked that their stocks weren’t guaranteed investments, despite signing prospectuses.
Both films ended by delivering the grim news that the financial crisis further consolidated the banking industry and made its leaders richer than ever. This is all true enough. But I wonder why American high school students learn so much about sex — pro or con — but few graduate knowing the difference between a stock and a bond?
Tue 17 May 2011
I never wanted to revisit an unpleasant dorm experience at University of Rhode Island in 1979. But in my alumni quarterly, I read this very important, very long article on the prevalence of gay harrassment on campus, without hearing from someone who’d gone through something like me.
My story is in the comments section at the end of the piece.
In a related vein, City Journal’s Bruce Thornton discusses “How Assimilation Works” — or doesn’t in the state of California:
In the comments section I write:
I took an English Phd level course at my east coast alma mater twenty years after graduating. The course turned out not to be about the literature of California, as professed, but a political screed.
The reading list was given over to accounts of minorities’ victimization at the hands of the white man — certainly part of the story, but not the only one.The only representations of white culture further enforced the concept of white privilege.
Completely lacking were John Steinbeck’s field workers, Tom Wolfe’s cultural reportage of surf culture and the LSD 60s counter-culture, Po Bronson’s brilliant reporting of the Internet revolution, Christopher Isherwood’s documentation of the Nazi era Jewish diaspora, which created Hollywood. In other words — anything that would give students insight into the real world they were about to enter.
The history of Mexican and Native American persecution is part of the California story, but there is so much more, and so much brilliant writing students missed out on because of the need to highlight victim politics.
Incidentally, bullying of minorities is pronounced at this state university campus. I wonder how much of this has to do with the fact that multiculturalism has been so embraced by the faculty that the poor, working class and lower middle class “non-minority” students who sit in class, and are told over and over that they are the root of all evil, lash back in frustration. They cannot speak up in class, so feeling marginalized themselves, bully in private. This is no excuse for bullying — we are all responsible for our own behavior.
Sat 19 Jun 2010
Therese Borchard struggled with manic depression during her college years, but went on to earn a master’s degree and establish a stellar career in journalism and book publishing. But the hormonal shifts of motherhood, a geographic move, as well as the switch from sociable on-site office work to an isolated, home-bound freelance life, created a perfect storm of factors for mental illness to burgeon once more.
After a harrowing, months-long stay in an institution, she returned to home and children and went on to become the author of the hit blog, Beyond Blue on Belief.net, where she shares her continuing struggles with anxiety and manic depression, from her own particular Catholic perspective. This year she published her memoir, Beyond Blue: Surviving Depression and Anxiety and Making the Most of Bad Genes, along with The Pocket Therapist: An Emotional Survival Guide, which offers concise techniques to help anyone living with a chronic illness get through the demands of a day.
I interviewed her for Working with Chronic Illness on how she manages to work, raise a family and keep her manic depression under control.
CG: What are your biggest challenges in navigating your health condition, your job and your home life?
TB: I suppose my biggest challenge is managing my health in a way that I can concentrate enough to meet my work deadlines. Fortunately, my schedule is flexible enough that I can write extra blog posts on a day where I’m feeling good, and bank them for the days my head isn’t good for anything. But I’m always nervous to commit to a meeting in person, because I don’t know how I will be feeling that day. So I fake it as best I can. I’ve had to do that a lot lately with the publicity efforts for my books: I’ve had to plaster a smile on my face and spit out nice sound bites all the while I am thinking that I wish I were dead.
What is a typical work day like?
I drop off the kids at school at 8, and usually work out for an hour. From 10 to 2 are my golden hours, where I try to get the posts written, or follow up on a story I was supposed to write for other magazines and newspapers I write for. If it’s sunny outside, I will take 20 minutes and eat outside, because it’s crucial that I get that sunshine and fresh air. By 2:30 I usually need to pick up the kids, start homework, get organized for lacrosse practice, etc. My work window is fairly small, so I try to get as much done as possible in the hours they are at school. And two days usually go to doctors’ appointments, blood work, and therapy.
What, if any accommodations do you/your employers make for yourself? (I know you have to stop yourself from overwork sometimes!)
My editor, Holly, is very understanding that things like Twitter tutorials and SEO (search engine optimization) training can sometimes activate my inner energizer bunny that I want at rest. It’s difficult, especially in the blogosphere, not to make my writing my life and tweet all hours of the day. I need boundaries between work and home life. I try my best to shut off my computer when I’m not working, and to leave it closed during the weekend. I find that when I ignore my sensitivity to online chatter, that I will have to invest a lot of time into getting myself well again … so I try to be as prudent as possible.
Your blog is about coping with mental illness, so your employers knew of your condition. But your illness is “invisible” — you look super healthy, you run, etc. Did they really know what it entails, how hard it is, that it could ever become overwhelming?
That’s a good question. I think Holly is as understanding and empathetic as any editor could be. And the manager editor, Michael Kress, and the editor-in-chief, Ju-Don Roberts, too. They want me to publish the real stuff – like the video where I sobbed and said depression wasn’t always pretty – as that is what best speaks to people in the throes of depression. So if I can’t stay as up on current events or celebrity gossip as some of the other bloggers, they are fine with that. Sometimes I need to write pieces a few weeks in advance, to give myself a little time of rest in a depressive cycle. That’s not a great formula for search engine optimization—as you want to write on all the hottest search terms—but if the content is authentic and resonates with folks, that’s what is important.
You started out with great qualifications, a masters degree, a magazine career and book publishing. After you had your kids and a breakdown (no connection there!) — you had to rebuild. Can you detail those challenges a bit? How did you negotiate with your prospective employer?
All I can say is I had to take it in very small steps. I was unable to produce anything for about six months. Every time I sat down to write, it was awful. I would just cry and cry.
So I relied on my great aunt’s advice to just take it very slow, one step at a time. I first signed up to be a writing tutor at the Naval Academy, because I wanted to see if I could concentrate for three hours a week. Getting through some of those first papers was more challenging than getting my masters degree. But, at the end of that, I had the confidence to ask an editor if I could have back my assignment of bi-weekly columns. Twice a week I had to come up with something coherent on paper. That was quite a challenge, too! But together, the tutoring and bi-weekly column, gave me the self-assurance to pursue “Beyond Blue,” the blog, and then later, “Beyond Blue,” the book.
Negotiating is VERY hard, especially when you are feeling so unsure of yourself. What I did was to speak with anyone I could who might have information that would help me negotiate. I then pretended I was them … my friends who had just gone through this and came out with favorable working agreements. I told myself that it wasn’t me who would be doing the talking, but my friend, and that somehow made it easier.
Thu 22 Apr 2010
Posted by Christina under book review, Exhale, families, Uncategorized
In 2002, the renowned author Ann Hood lost her five year old daughter Grace to a rapid, freak, strep infection. A novel, The Knitting Circle (2004) and a memoir, Comfort: A Journey Through Grief ( 2008) stand as testaments to that loss, and are gifts to everyone who has or will suffer in kind.
CG: Some people who have lost a child have found books helpful and cathartic. But to a great extent, words failed you immediately after Grace’s loss. Why do you think some people are helped by reading/writing of others experiences, and others not?
AH: As a professional writer, writing was impossible because I could only view it with a writer’s eye. I think journaling or writing your own loss story can help healing if you are not constantly editing, reviewing and dissecting like a writer would.
CG: What, if anything, has changed for you since publishing the Knitting Circle, then Comfort – finally addressing in words what was unspeakable. Have you had a great response from those in similar situations?
I’ve received literally thousands of emails expressing the very thing I hoped the books would accomplish: validating the feelings of grief. You are not crazy. You are not alone. You are heartbroken.
CG: You open the book with the comments you are forced to endure: people telling you what to do, how to respond to your tragedy. But some bereaved parents judge those who kept their distance after hearing of a still birth. Others prefer to be left alone, like a wounded animal, fearing the force of their rage will make them incapable of monitoring a response. If there was one thing you could tell the world to do for a person who has lost a child, what is it, if anything?
Don’t presume to know what we are feeling. When someone says ‘I can imagine how you feel,’ — it’s almost insulting, though not intended as such. It is true that losing a child is one’s worst fear. And it is unimaginable. Better to listen to how we feel than to tell us how we must feel, or how you would feel.
CG: You’ve written of the intense joy you experience while holding your new adopted Chinese daughter, Annabelle, while concurrently, and equally intensely, still feeling the anguish of losing Grace.
AH: Every day I am struck by feelings of joy beside my grief. Even in small things: laughing with a friend, the satisfaction of completing a project, a beautiful day. Yet all of it is juxtaposed against losing Grace, against her absence. C.S. Lewis wrote about the death of his wife: her absence is like the sky. It covers everything.
Ann Hood’s new novel, The Red Thread, will be published by W.W. Norton in May.
”I have been there. I am the one woman standing in the street on a Thanksgiving afternoon, screaming and pulling out my hair. That is my mother coming out the door, yelling my name. That is me, running from her, running down the beautiful street where houses wear plaques announcing how old and important they are. That is me making that sound which is both inhuman and guttural and the most human sound a persona can make: the sound of grief … That is me running, zigzagging, trying to escape what is inescapable: Grace is dead.”
Copyright 2008, Ann Hood, Comfort, A Journey Through Grief.
Wed 8 Jul 2009
For the world to listen. The tide is finally turning against the unfettered fertility quest, with the sad public examples of Octo-Mom, and Jon and Kate’s marital nosedive. Finally, last month, in British Cosmo, Cameron Diaz said it: Maybe there’s just too much emphasis on having babies. Maybe if women weren’t under such constant pressure to reproduce — “shunned” was the word she used for the childless — it wouldn’t feel so terrible when it doesn’t happen.
In the British press the single, childless-for-now star has drawn more raves than rants:
The U.K. Telegraph calls Cameron Diaz ”the height of responsible citizenship” – for remaining childless. Hear hear!
In this month’s Exhale, I praise the forthright star and give a rave review to Pamela Jeanne Tsigdinos’s new book, Silent Sorority:
Summer Reading Roundup
Some Fresh Food for Thought, plus some Old Chestnuts to bite into – try not to break any teeth!
In books, as well as in blogs, I often find our friends across the pond speak more realistically about fertility issues than we Americans, with our unfettered optimism. (Babies for everyone! IVF at 90!)
Beyond Childlessness, Rachel Black, Louise Scull, Rodale Press, 2005
I have read several books on unintended childlessness, none offered the depth of comfort and shared experience as this one. The authors are two women — one single, one married to a man who forbid a family without making his preferences clear before marriage — who sought out and interviewed other women in their situation, and let them tell their stories themselves.
This book is head and shoulders above any other “fix the problem” or memoir anthologies on childlessness, because it ventures where others dare not go. Well-meaning books like the husband and wife-authored Sweet Grapes sugarcoat some of the ugly truths.
Other books on childlessness say “it’s no use going over whose fault it is.” Actually, there’s a lot of good in that. One of the authors, Rachel Black, has worked out with her husband that when she/they are faced with the ubiquitous and painful question, “Do you have children/why not?” She says “My husband didn’t want them.” Childless women are demonized and ostracized, and assumed to be selfish. It was his decision, let him take the responsibility socially. She also made him get a vasectomy, so he wouldn’t reproduce with someone else, should their marriage fall apart under this incredible strain, and move on to a younger woman.
This book also exposes what an arduous and punishing route adoption can be – especially in Britain. Adoptive parents must be rich, young and healthy — a hundred times more qualified than a natural parent. One interviewee commented on the British government’s stress on keeping adoptive children in touch with their biological families. “If they’re that keen to keep in touch, why are they not looking after the child themselves? This constant having to keep in touch, we couldn’t actually break free and be our own family, and have a proper, intimate family life, there were always going to be people looking over your shoulder, who you’re answerable to.”
Silent No More
If you haven’t ordered Exhaler Pamela Jeanne’s Tsigdinos’s Silent Sorority yet, here’s a teaser:
“You should never, never ask a woman when/if she’s going to have kids. If she’s already been trying for a while, it will feel like a knife to the heart. It forces her to either tell you more than she wanted to or to lie. Because if she had wanted to talk about having kids in the first place, she would have.”
“Telling a woman who has lost a baby that ‘it wasn’t meant to be’ is not compassionate. It’s merely a way of easing your own discomfort by dismissing ours. Minimizing our pain, be it offering ‘solutions’ or explanations only serves to make yourself feel better while inflicting further hurt on us … It’s hard to contemplate the randomness of the cruel universe, where bad things happen to good people, and it may make it easier for them to sleep if they can convince themselves that there is a reason for it, and we must’ve deserved it. Telling us you know what we’re going through because it took you X months to get pregnant minimizes our feelings. You had a happy ending. We may not.”
“I’ve been stripped down and made new on this journey. I’ve become utterly vulnerable, and forced to see the world differently. I’ll never have the kind of optimism that some people have that anything is possible, that it will all work out in the end.”
“I have had to take responsibility for my life in a deeper way than I ever had before. And because we live in a society where so few seem to take true responsibility for themselves and for those around them, it is very lonely. We don’t live in a world that really embraces soul-searching, and so much of this journey has been about soul-searching for me. I think a lot of the bad and unsolicited advice and glib responses to infertility (like “just adopt” or “it wasn’t meant to be”) are because people are so uncomfortable with pain and the possibility of pain with no resolution. We can’t take away the pain. All we can do is transform the response to it.”
Adapted from Silent Sorority: A (Barren) Woman Gets Busy, Angry, Lost, and Found, Copyright 2009, Pamela Mahoney Tsigdinos. www.silentsorority.com.
Pamela Jeanne’s memoir is the first honest empty-handed one-person take since:
Why Don’t You Have Kids? Living a Full Life Without Parenthood,
By Lesley Lafayette
This book, published in 1994, is a bit dated — not in the essential common sense and truth of its pronouncements, but in that the boldness of the author’s opinions. They would be entirely unacceptable in today’s family-at-all-costs universe.
I found it extremely reflective of my own experience, though it won’t be to everyone’s:
“Looking back, I can see now that my desperate desire to have a baby came not from some internal biological drive, nor was it the result of thoughtful introspection and practical planning. It was my response to a hysterical society, a culture that stripped me of my intrinsic worth and told me point-blank that to fail to reproduce was to fail.”
“…there was no opposing view, no voice of reason, no organization or group to provide a dialogue.”
On giving up the baby quest: “I stopped beating myself up. You’ve heard the old joke about hitting yourself on the head with a hammer because it feels so good when you stop? It does.”
Writes the author, “I know what it is to obsessively grieve and despair because I did not fit in to what society deemed as the norm, what my peers and the media and even my government saw as acceptable and ‘fulfilled.’ I know what it feels like to be alone, to be different, to be isolated, to be ignored.”
She begs the mass media to: “Have some characters who don’t even want kids and enjoy a happy life nevertheless. Have someone opt for an abortion occasionally rather than turn wistful and blushing about her pregnancy as if she drank a cup of Instant Mommy, as if all the problems of the world will be solved when she has her baby.
“The fact that more than a million abortions are performed each year in this country is a testament that not every pregnancy is a wanted one. Writers should be free to portray real life and not the sugar and spice that conservative advertisers force upon them … tell the truth.”
She describes taking part in a T.V. talk show on women and childbearing where she was the only dissenting voice in a panel of “talking uteruses” – including a woman who, with grown children in their 30s, had an egg-donor baby at 52.
“Each and every one of them … had one goal and one goal only in her life: to produce an infant as quickly as possible, spending whatever money she had and all of the time it might take – even going into debt and emotional quicksand if necessary.”
Lafayette’s opinions would be unacceptable in today’s media environment. The trajectory of the book leads towards a directive to embrace a “Child Free” identity – to form groups and make friendships with others similarly situated. It’s a great idea, but my concern is that this further segregates the Child Free/Childless from mainstream society, when what is needed is mutual respect, interaction and consideration.
The Child Free Network she began but seems to have distanced herself from has a spotty web site that seems to have drifted from the author’s original worthy aims, degenerating into snarky commentary about “breeders.” There are articles complaining about other people’s “noisy, stinky” kids. This is certainly disappointing. Still, the original book is an honest, interesting read to balance today’s fertility-centric media message.
Thu 4 Jun 2009
Award-winning, Best-selling Rhode Island Authors to Speak at Ocean State Writers Conference
View a slide show of the event (which like the entire conference, was a smashing success) here: tp://picasaweb.google.com/Peter.Leviten/URIWriterSConferenceWritingAboutTheFamily#
All Providence-native Priscilla Warner ever wanted was a mother “in a black sheath dress and a single strand of pearls, who could discuss the Vietnam War intelligently at cocktail parties.”
What she got was “A whacked-out artist in army fatigues, blouses made of flour sacks, and black patent leather earth shoes.”
New York Times best-selling author Priscilla Warner (my sister-in-law) will be speaking about the challenges of writing about her mother (my mother-in-law), the renowned Providence artist, 80-year old Riva Leviten at the Ocean State Writing Conference to be held at the University of Rhode Island Thursday June 18 through Saturday June 20. An excerpt from her upcoming memoir ran recently in More magazine. http://www.more.com/4298/2742-a-portrait-of-the-artist/2.
Warner will be speaking on a panel I’m moderating titled Writing and the Family, at 10:30 a.m., Saturday, June 20. She is the co-author of the New York Times best-seller, The Faith Club, in which she grappled with writing about her father’s often confusing attitude towards his family’s religion. A religious Jew, he first sent her to Providence Hebrew Day School, then, abruptly, the Quaker Lincoln School, where she was made to sing Christian hymns.
Now out in paperback, The Faith Club garnered Warner and her co-authors a spot on The Today Show, write ups in USA Today and a world publicity tour. www.thefaithclub.com.
Warner will be joined in talking about the challenges of writing about, while continuing to honor, our families by North Kingstown resident Padma Venkatraman, author of Climbing the Stairs. The much-acclaimed novel is based on her parents’ experience in World War II era colonial India, and was named winner of the 2009 Julia Ward Howe Boston Authors Club award. The literary society is the oldest author’s club in the nation.
Says Venkatraman, “Most other novels about Indian Hindus tend to confuse the issue by describing customs and ignoring the spiritual truths that the religion is actually about.”
A research scientist with the Oceanography Center at URI, Venkatraman first considered writing the story as a memoir. “I felt that fiction would liberate my story to highlight its three most important threads – Hindu spirituality and philosophy, the debate between nonviolence and violence which took place in my family, and providing the colonial perspective on World War II. I felt that a memoir would tie me down - as a scientist, I have a nonfiction reporting voice I wanted to break away from, cleanly and completely.”
Says Venkatraman, “The novel’s central question is of violence versus nonviolence. I want people who read it to see its relevance in America today, rather than merely reading the story as historical fiction set in India.”
PEN-award winning writer and Providence-native Patrick Tracey, author of Stalking Irish Madness: Searching for the Roots of My Family’s Schizophrenia, agonized over writing the story of his two sisters who “dropped down the elevator shaft” of schizophrenia in early adult hood. He feared exposing their personal struggles, but was compelled on a quest to find a cause for the illness that plagued his family for generations. He ultimately found it in Ireland’s history of oppression and starvation at the hands of the British.
The haunting yet uplifting memoir was chosen – among thousands – as one of the Best Books of 2008 by Slate magazine, and was recognized by the National Alliance on Mental Illness as the book most helpful to families dealing with mental illness. Tracey’s memoir received national publicity, including write-ups in USA Today and a lengthy NPR interview, which can be found at www.stalkingirishmadness.com.
(p.s. Tracey moved the audience to tears and sold out his supply of books.)
These are just a few of the writers who will be featured at the Ocean State Writers Conference. Many of the events are free to the public, for a full schedule and registration information see: http://www.uri.edu/summerwriting/
Mon 1 Jun 2009
Was It All a Lie?
The disintegrating company’s news Googles into my inbox like jagged rocks tumbling down an avalanche. The plunging stock price, the sell-offs of prized divisions and landmark buildings. Witnessing the end of my old employer is like attending the funeral of a highly dysfunctional, but much beloved family member.
Reading the outrage of the press lynch-mob, however justified, is like watching distant relatives and far-removed acquaintances — who didn’t even know the deceased yet lived off his largess — spit on his coffin.
The quickest way to isolate yourself socially is to say that you worked for AIG and that it was a great company. “This never would have happened,” I told people with conviction last fall, “If Spitzer hadn’t forced Hank Greenberg out. It’s been brain-dead ever since, it was a one-man company.”
In ousting the CEO of nearly four decades in 2006,, Eliot Spitzer did exactly what George W. Bush did in Iraq. Launched an attack against a regime that had long played by its own rules, decided to knock out a leader without investigating what the consequences might be. Without knowing enough about how the financial world works to foresee the disastrous outcome. You can’t take out a leader without a secession plan. In acting prematurely and without foresight, Spitzer made things infinitely worse for the entire world.
All Is Greenberg
“You’ve got a company, AIG, which used to be just a regular old insurance company,” President Obama explained on his famous Tonight Show appearance. “Then they decided–some smart person decided–let’s put a hedge fund on top of the insurance company and let’s sell these derivative products to banks all around the world.”
But the President was wrong. AIG has never been an ordinary insurance company. As Ron Shelp wrote in Fallen Giant: The Amazing Story of Hank Greenberg and the History of AIG, within the company and among Wall Street analysts, A.I.G. has always been an acronym for All Is Greenberg. John Wiley put out the book in late 2006, soon after Mr. Greenberg was forced from the helm. I recommend the just-released updated version as a backgrounder for anyone wondering how a company they may not have heard of until last fall came to be so powerful.
AIG was an invisible country, with its own rules. I’m not saying that was t a right or good thing, but it was the reality that the average person didn’t know, not because the information was hidden, but because they didn’t want to.
P.S. — To those working in the business, the blow-up wasn’t completely unanticipated. In 2002 I was writing of the threat of a Hedge Fund blow-up in the London Review of Books. In a piece titled, “Everybody Knows” speaking of the Long Term Capital Management bail-out of 1998, “It will happen again, and there will be pain.”
Related links: http://www.christinagombar.com/doc.php?doc=war-zone&p=1
Sun 15 Feb 2009
Posted by Christina under book review, childless women, chronic illness, Exhale, families, family values, fertility treatments, financial medicine, health, health care, Living Without Parenting, memoirs, Obama, Wall Street
Nadya Suleman has had extensive plastic surgery to resemble another famous mother, Angelina Jolie. While her octuplets have turned into a national freak show and blog snark-fest, it’s not hard for me to follow her logic.
In the third issue of Exhale I discuss “Octomom” as a natural product of a deregulated fertility industry, and highlight a memoir by another mother whose judgement was questioned.
Today, you have to explain your decision not to utilize the new technology if you have even the vaguest desire to have children. Why suffer the stigma of being different in an increasingly conformist society, where being married and childless is seen as more odd than being a never-married parent, a single mother of many?
From a front-row seat, I saw how the sexual revolution impacted my parents’ generation, who came of age and married in the fifties. It hit like a hurricane, breaking apart marriages, spawning a generation of latchkey kids, sending women to conciousness-raising groups and out into the work-force. In the same way that the pill ushered in both the sexual revolution of the sixties and the feminist resurgence of the seventies, the fertility frenzy has impacted society of the nineties and aughts; the outside of the envelope is being pushed further and further out. The business world, education system, dating conventions and even family pecking order rely heavily on the idea that the fertility industry is a safety net. When I started a new job at 35, I was warned, off the record, not to get pregnant the first year, then brightly advised: “That’s what we have our fertility benefit for.”
But it doesn’t work for everyone; it didn’t for me. In my recent interview on Belief.net, sparked by my last month’s Exhale column, I wonder if the answer isn’t advising young women to freeze their eggs, but rather, retuning society to make it easier economically for young women to start their families at more appropriate ages: http://blog.beliefnet.com/beyondblue/2009/01/christina-gombar-an-interview.html.
The Right to Reproduce?
Nadya’s case raises the very uncomfortable issue of whether or not having as many children as she wants, by whatever means, is as much a feminist issue as abortion rights. In the Guardian, Jennifer Block wonders if it’s not time to “take a close, hard look at our healthcare priorities. While we have the technology and expertise to keep a 1.5-pound premie (Suleman’s tiniest) alive outside the womb, standard American maternity care is resulting in poorer and poorer outcomes for the vast majority of mothers and babies.”
Birthing versus Parenting
“Any fool can have a child.” Our new president’s words, not mine – said on the campaign trail, speaking to an African American audience. Properly raising children, President Obama says, is another issue entirely. Perhaps for their own safety, it’s a blessing that Nadya Suleman’s children will be living in a fish bowl.
In a blog post titled, “They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?” author Karen de Balbian Verster discusses her dilemma after witnessing the abuse of one of her daughter’s playmates. She also sites an alcoholic woman who boasted of abusing her dog, but succeeded in adopting a Chinese infant.
De Balbian Verster asks: “I wonder why we as a society allow people who are unfit parents to become parents in the first place? It’s a slippery slope, I know, but shouldn’t there be some conditions in place before one has a child? Things like another parent, mental health, financial stability? It seems like too little, too late to worry about these things after the child has been starved in the basement, burned by cigarettes, or sexually abused. But since we can’t seem to ban assault rifles, I’m afraid licensing parents must remain a futuristic concept.
An “Unfit Mother” Reflects
Polio survivor Anne Finger was told she was unfit to give birth: it was dangerous, she was disabled, she was unmarried. Her 1990 book, Past Due, a Story of Disability, Pregnancy and Birth tells what happened when she defied standard advice.
After suffering polio as a toddler, Finger grew up subject to one butchering operation after another in the vain attempt to bring life back to her atrophied leg muscles. Because of her horrendous experiences with the medical establishment, when she decided to become a mother, she eschewed traditional medicine and chose midwifery, despite the fact that she was an atypical, and potentially high risk obstretric patient. The midwife miscalculated, the labor went on too long, and her son wound up inhaling his own fecal matter. Death, or a life sentence of severe disability was predicted by the angry medical establishment that she finally reverted to.
Despite her son’s full recovery, Finger’s trauma – first under the knife of post-polio childhood surgeries, then a well-meaning midwife unequal to the task of her complicated delivery, and finally, the shaming of the medical establishment – scarred he.: Her thoughts, during those terrible days when her son struggled for life: “I do know that if he dies, I will think that technology is the monstrous, inhuman, a mad scientist’s creation; and if he lives, I will think it a miracle.”
One could as easily apply these words to the current fertility industry frenzy: “I have the places where I draw my lines about what I would and would not do; and other people … people I respect, have different lives. But I’m aware too of how social pressure can work to keep people in line: how when a technology is available it becomes harder and harder not to utilize it. If you’re over 35 and pregnant, you have to explain your decision not to have amnio, justify yourself.”
Overfertility in the Age of The Feminine Mystique
Richard Yate’s dark 1960 novel, Revolutionary Road, is now a gripping movie starring Kate Winslet. While the narrative is one of over-fertility rather than infertility, the story throws into dramatic relief how fragile and tenuousness is this largely taken-for-granted business of birth, for the child, for the mother. How destructive, yet somehow inescapable, the issue of maternal identity – for better or in this case, for worse.
Blogs and Bits
This British site for involuntarily childless includes U.S. news, coping strategies, and personal stories. A good resource for those who wind up without.
Wed 4 Feb 2009
Therese Borchard's Beyond Blue
My interview in Therese Borchard’s blog, Beyond Blue, reached 3 million subscribers through Belief.net, and was picked up worldwide. I argue that women without children wouldn’t feel so depressed if society were more accepting:
Mon 1 Dec 2008
Posted by Christina under chronic illness, families, family values, financial medicine, health care, Living Without Parenting, mental illness, Pat Tracey, schizophrenia, snake oil, Stalking Irish Madness
Elaine and Austine Tracey in the 1960s
Stalking Irish Madness has been named one of the Best Books of 2008 by Slate magazine: http://www.slate.com/id/2206635/pagenum/all/
Years ago when we lived in New York city, my husband and I spent four or five hours every Sunday night delivering sandwiches to homeless men. The vast majority were Viet Nam War vets, out of work and homes because mentally ill. Most were clean, quiet, polite, grateful. A few – like the 6’3” drag queen up in Times Square – were angry, swinging at the air, arguing with unseen enemies.
“Schizophrenia,” we said to each other in whispers, gingerly extending a brown bag pre-packed with chicken salad sandwich, yogurt and an apple, which the drag queen snatched before stalking off in high heels, muttering.
Recently we travelled up to Brookline Mass, where our friend Pat Tracey gave a reading to promote his book, Stalking Irish Madness: Searching for the Roots of my Family’s Schizophrenia. All four of his sisters — including the two affected by with the mental illness, were there.
I was struck by how normal they seemed. When one has a chronic condition, whether physical, mental, or a combination of both, it’s easy to fall into black and white thinking – the “normals” and the afflicted.
Eighty percent of chronic illnesses are invisible, and you’d be hard put to sort out at first glance which two of the four Tracey sisters were afflicted. Michelle, who has bi-polar schizo-affective disorder, is as effusive and articulate as her twin Seanna, who is “normal.” Austine, once catatonic, merely appeared shy and sweet. There were no verbal histrionics, no talking to invisible people, no bursts of anger.
Said Pat, “Maybe the worst thing about this illness, worse than the altered reality and the hearing of voices itself, is the stigma attached.” The “crazy” label that compounds the isolation, and against which the ill often respond with frustration and anger.
I live with a completely different illness, but I had the same response when it first invaded my life. The reaction from bosses, some of my family and friends, if not my husband, was not compassion, but anger: Stop this nonsense right now! The worst probably came from myself — anger that I was ill, that my life had changed so drastically, that people distanced themselves from and condemned me for having a physical condition I hadn’t asked for, and had as yet no control over.
Of schizophrenics, Pat said, “Maybe these people are on a different wave length. Maybe instead of being thought crazy, they ought to be honored. A millennium ago, they were thought to be seers, shamans. Now they’re picking through garbage cans. Prisons are full of schizophrenics.”
Pat reports that, in addition to famine leading to gestational malnutrition — the roots of his own family’s illness date back to the Great Irish Famine — war is a big trigger for schizophrenia.
One in a hundred people have the disease – that’s five million Americans. Yet there’s so much shame around it. Why? Rather than accept chronic illness as a fact of life, there is always that push for a miracle cure. A well-meaning woman in the audience was eager to inform Pat — who did extensive scientific research for his book — that a certain component of vitamin B would cure his sistsers’ ills. They’ve been affected over 30 years, and subject to every possible medical treatment. Their conditions have been stabilized, not cured. The fact is, the vitamin therapy works for about one percent of people who hear voices.
“I think the best cure for schizophrenia is understanding from the family, and love.”
I’d also like to add – adequate financial resources for good health care. Austine and Michelle are both fortunate enough to benefit from residency in good state-funded group homes, not far from where their “well” siblings, Elaine, Seanna and Patrick live in the Boston area. They were clean and well-kept.
For 30 years, the eldest Elaine, who never had children of her own, but who Pat describes as “the matriarch” has been the primary caretaker of the afflicted sisters. Without such understanding, I shudder to think where Michelle and Austine might have wound up. The Traceys expemplify the kind of family values I can get behind.
I’d also like to add – adequate financial resources for good health care. Austine and Michelle are both fortunate enough to benefit from residency in good state-funded group homes, not far from where their siblings, Elaine, Seanna and Patrick live in the Boston area. They were clean and well-kept.
For 30 years, the eldest Elaine, who never had children of her own, but who Pat describes as “the matriarch,” has been the primary caretaker of the afflicted sisters. Without such understanding, I shudder to think where Michelle and Austine might have wound up. The Traceys expemplify the kind of family values I can get behind.