“Before I Go to Sleep”: The Film

Before I Go To Sleep: Exclusive film stills show Nicole Kidman and Colin Firth in new psychological thriller

Related Posts:

These emotive images depict Oscar-winner Nicole Kidman as a woman who wakes up every morning remembering nothing in the forthcoming film Before I Go to Sleep.

Exclusively released to The Independent, the pictures feature Kidman as 40-year-old Christine Lucas, who believes she is just 27 following a traumatic accident that leaves her clawing for the truth – until one day she is forced to confront new and terrifying truths.

I am certainly looking forward to this movie, to see how it presents Christine’s plight.

“Before I Go to Sleep,” S.J. Watson: We Are What We Remember

 

Related Post:

 

Before I Go to Sleep: A Novel
by S. J. Watson
HarperCollins, 2011
Kindle Edition

A woman awakens, wonders where she is, rolls over—and is shocked to see a middle-aged man wearing a wedding ring and with hairs on his back sleeping next to her. She stumbles into the bathroom, where the hand that grasps the soap doesn’t look like hers. When she looks into the mirror, a middle-aged woman she doesn’t recognize, 20 or 25 years too old to be herself, stares back at her in shock. Then the man from the bed comes into the bathroom. “I’m your husband, Ben,” he tells her, and explains that almost 20 years ago, at age 29, she had an accident that caused amnesia. Every morning he has to give her the same explanation, he says, because she loses each day’s memories when she goes to sleep at night.

The first-person narrator of these events is Christine Lucas, age 47. All she knows about her recent self is what Ben tells her before leaving for work; her own memories seem to end in her early 20s. Alone in the house and wondering what to do, she receives a phone call from a man who says that he is Dr. Nash, her doctor, and that they have been working on trying to improve her memory. She has no recollection of him but agrees to meet with him for coffee. Dr. Nash gives Christine a leather-bound book and tells her that she has been writing in as a possible way to stimulate her memory. Eager to learn something about herself, Christine opens the journal and finds three chilling words: DON’T TRUST BEN.

And so begins Christine’s journey to find out the truth about herself and her past. Each night, before going to sleep, she adds more information to the journal. Each morning Dr. Nash telephones to tell Christine to find the journal in her closet and read it. As she accumulates more information, she finds more questions than answers. And as vague snatches of memory start tantalizing her, her intuition not to trust Ben deepens.

Before I Go to Sleep is a mesmerizing page-turner, the kind that will keep the reader up all night. Who is Christine, really? What happened to cause her amnesia? And who is Ben, the man upon whom she is so dependent? Can she trust her intuition? And what will finally happen when her journal becomes too long for her to read anew every morning? The nature of the novel’s premise requires that the reader occasionally know more than Christine knows as she seeks answers to these questions, and Watson does a good job of inserting the necessary information while at the same time maintaining suspense.

Initially I read this novel on the level of the thriller that it is. But swirling just below the thriller’s surface are aspects of that most basic human question: Who am I? Christine’s drive to discover and reclaim her past is a quest for self-knowledge, for her own sense of identity: “All I want is to feel normal. To live like everybody else, with experience building on experience, each day shaping the next. I want to grow, to learn things, and from things” (p. 155). We need memories to give us a sense of the continuity of our existence. Without the knowledge of our own past, we cannot know who we are in the present. Christine realizes this as she stares at the journal containing the substance of her life: “But, I realized, these truths are all I have. They are my past. They are what makes me human. Without them, I am nothing. Nothing but an animal” (p. 160).

For Christine, finding out who she is involves rediscovering her past life experiences and the lessons she has learned from them. We all create a sense of our own identity by assembling memories of past events into a life narrative that demonstrates how we have become the person we are today. Only by reclaiming the story of her past life can Christine become a unique, independent individual. Christine realizes this near the end of the novel, when she has learned the truth about herself and her husband: “And I will tell him about this journal, that finally I am able to give myself a narrative, a life, and I will show it to him, if he asks to see it. And then I can continue to use it, to tell my story, my autobiography. To create myself from nothing” (p. 274).

This review originally appeared on Metapsychology Online Reviews.

© 2011 by Mary Daniels Brown

Introduction to Life Stories

 

“We live forwards but we understand backwards.”

–Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard (1813–1855)

Even though we may not be aware of it, we all carry within us a story about our lives that describes who we are. We’ve had experiences from which we’ve learned lessons, and from those experiences and lessons we’ve formulated a set of beliefs and values. Someone who has known the pain of being bullied at school, for example, may decide never to inflict the same pain on someone else. The story of being bullied becomes a focal point in his life story to demonstrate why he tries to treat others with kindness and compassion.

Our life story communicates who we are to both ourselves and others. Story in this context does not mean something untrue—“Oh, that’s just a story”—but rather a narrative, a sequence of events that have occurred over time. The longer we live, the more complex and layered our life story becomes.

We construct our life story in order to find meaning in our experiences and to describe how those experiences have made us the person we are now. In Western culture the process of creating a sense of self through building a life story generally begins in late adolescence or early young adulthood (roughly, ages 16 to 22). Young children may rehearse stories of specific events that have happened to them—“Remember the time I fell down Grandma’s porch steps?”—particularly with coaching from parents. Although such remembered stories help youngsters begin to develop a sense of self, children won’t begin to integrate those individual events into a larger, unified life story until they get older.

We communicate our identity through a life story because humans have a natural propensity to compose and tell stories to explain what is happening around them. (See the review of The Storytelling Animal ). This tendency toward storytelling is why conspiracy theories can gain such a foothold in the popular mind: They are stories that arise from our tendency to look for patterns and to fill in the blanks when necessary to make sense of what we perceive. Our love for stories also explains the power of stories in advertising.

Our life story represents a paradox that we all face as we grow up: We want to fit somehow into the society we live in, but we also want to carve out a unique identity, a personal sense of self. Our life story therefore has both a cultural and a personal component.

Where does our life story come from? The cultural component begins early, long before we are old enough to assemble a sequence of events into a coherent narrative. As young children we begin to assimilate unconsciously our culture’s expectations about how we should behave. These expectations include proper behavior for our gender, class, and age. Through religious education and common stories such as fairy tales and popular books we learn to fulfill such expectations as “Don’t talk back to grownups” and “Share your toys with others.”

Our cultural stories provide templates from which we begin to understand how we’re expected to live our lives. The story of Cinderella, for example, explains what happens to daughters once their fathers are no longer around to protect them and offers the solution to the problem: find a Prince Charming to marry and then live happily ever after. Although different cultures offer different story templates, all children begin at a very young age to recognize the life paths they’re expected to follow as they grow up. Just a couple of generations ago boys in the Western world assimilated stories that encouraged them to become doctors, businessmen, or astronauts. Girls, on the other hand, learned stories that taught them they could become teachers, secretaries, or nurses (but not doctors) until they fulfilled their true destiny by getting married and raising a family.

The personal component of our life story emerges as we grow up and attempt to graft our own experiences onto the cultural templates we’ve assimilated. Many individuals never realize that there might be alternative life options available that are not sanctioned by their culture; for them, the creation of a narrative identity involves choosing from the cultural menu of options, and their life narratives reinforce the dominant culture’s patterns.

But people who live outside the normative options of their culture must decide how to narrate their life story. The current movement #WeNeedDiverseBooks attempts to expand the life-story options available by featuring stories that showcase young people of both genders and of various ethnicities, ability levels, and sexual orientation succeeding in diverse pursuits. People who find no cultural models for themselves face two choices: (1) to silence the parts of their identity that are unacceptable to society, or (2) to use their life stories to contest rather than to reinforce dominant social practices.

We continue to build and alter our life story as we have more experiences. Most of us will continue to seek meaning in our lives until we lose consciousness of what’s happening around us. Our life story is an ever-evolving artifact of how one person has interacted with the world over the course of a lifetime.

What Does All This Have to Do with Fiction?

Fiction deals with the intricacies of human nature. All fictional characters have implicit life stories, and thinking about those stories can help us interpret and understand a character’s thoughts, words, and actions. The current emphasis on storytelling in all aspects of life also means that some fiction even explicitly examines the concept of characters’ life stories.

We’ll look at some examples of how life stories illuminate fiction in future posts.

 

“Mr. Mercedes” by Stephen King: The Power of Characters

 

Cover: Mr. MercedesKing, Stephen. Mr. Mercedes
New York: Scribner, 2014
448 pages
ISBN–13: 978–1476754451

I don’t read a lot of Stephen King’s works because I don’t like horror. But I do love mysteries, so when I saw King’s latest book described as a “straight-up mystery,” I went for it.

Technically, Mr. Mercedes is not a mystery—in which the reader tries to decipher clues along with the detective and finds out the killer’s identity at the end—but a thriller—in which the reader knows the killer’s identity early on and watches the killer and the detective play cat and mouse throughout the story. But the book is a straight-up thriller, and it builds suspense by building engaging and credible characters.

King opens the book with a scene of hundreds of unemployed people lining up in the pre-dawn hours before the opening of a job fare. This introductory narration focuses on three people, a young man and the single mother with an infant whom he befriends. In this short introduction we become emotionally invested in these characters, so when the big silver Mercedes plows into the crowd, we want to know how and why. And we want to see this killer caught and punished.

The story then cuts to Bill Hodges, a police detective who had been unable to solve the case of the Mercedes killer before he retired. Now he spends his time drinking while watching afternoon talk shows on TV and playing with the service weapon of his late father, also a police officer. But when he receives a taunting letter from someone calling himself the Mercedes killer, Hodges finds renewed purpose. He begins to use his old investigative strategies to identify and catch this maniac on his own.

Next we meet Brady Hartsfield, the villain, and overhear his thoughts about why he killed all those people and why he wrote to Bill Hodges. We gradually learn more about him as we follow his twisted logic and see how he keeps his inner life under cover while moving through his everyday existence of holding down two jobs and caring for his alcoholic mother.

Both Hodges and Hartsfield could be only mildly interesting stereotypes. Hodges is the retired policeman, the adrenaline junkie, who’s having trouble adjusting to the dull life of retirement and who is haunted by his failure to solve one of the biggest cases of his career. Like many police officers, his job was his whole life. He has drifted away from his only family, a daughter, and feels lonely and worthless. And Hartsfield could be the typical psychopath of literature, with a now alcoholic mother who was widowed young and has lavished sexually inappropriate behavior on her son. He avoids personal relationships with coworkers and spends all of his free time in the computer center he has created in his basement.

But the devil, as they say, is in the details, and Stephen King is a master of detail. His development of both Hodges and Hartsfield is so specific and complex that we come to understand both of these characters as they play out their mutually driven scenario of action and counteraction.

And just as King uses minor characters in the opening scene to draw us into the world of the novel, he provides a few more along the way to advance the plot and to retain our sympathy. There’s 17-year-old Jerome Robinson, Hodges’s neighbor and only real friend, who provides both the computer savvy and the moral support Hodges needs in his investigation. There’s Janey Patterson, sister of the owner of the stolen Mercedes used in the job-fair killings, who also contributes to both Hodges’s investigation and his confidence. And finally there’s Janey’s cousin, Holly, who turns out to be much more resourceful than she originally seems.

Mr. Mercedes demonstrates the power of good character development in fiction. As crime novelist Karin Slaughter has said, “If you have great plot, but nobody cares about the characters, then nobody’s gonna read it.”

Related Post:

Must We Like Fictional Characters?

 

During a recent book group discussion of John Updike’s novel Rabbit, Run, someone said, “I don’t particularly like any of the characters in this book.” I had to admit that I agreed with this assessment, but that truth doesn’t affect my appreciation of the book.

This seemingly casual reference to not liking fictional characters isn’t unusual in book discussions. Last year (2013) saw a protracted kerfuffle in the literary community about likeability when a Publishers Weekly interviewer told Claire Messud, “I wouldn’t want to be friends with Nora [the narrator of Messud’s recent novel The Woman Upstairs], would you? Her outlook is almost unbearably grim.” Messud replied:

For heaven’s sake, what kind of question is that? Would you want to be friends with Humbert Humbert? Would you want to be friends with Mickey Sabbath? Saleem Sinai? Hamlet? Krapp? Oedipus? Oscar Wao? Antigone? Raskolnikov? Any of the characters in The Corrections? Any of the characters in Infinite Jest? Any of the characters in anything Pynchon has ever written? Or Martin Amis? Or Orhan Pamuk? Or Alice Munro, for that matter? If you’re reading to find friends, you’re in deep trouble. We read to find life, in all its possibilities. The relevant question isn’t “is this a potential friend for me?” but “is this character alive?” Nora’s outlook isn’t “unbearably grim” at all. Nora is telling her story in the immediate wake of an enormous betrayal by a friend she has loved dearly. She is deeply upset and angry. But most of the novel is describing a time in which she felt hope, beauty, elation, joy, wonder, anticipation—these are things these friends gave to her, and this is why they mattered so much. Her rage corresponds to the immensity of what she has lost. It doesn’t matter, in a way, whether all those emotions were the result of real interactions or of fantasy, she experienced them fully. And in losing them, has lost happiness.

In response, The New Yorker “surveyed a group of novelists—Donald Antrim, Margaret Atwood, Jonathan Franzen, Rivka Galchen, and Tessa Hadley” in what it called A Forum on “Likeability”. Here are excerpts from their answers, but you should read the whole piece:

  • Donald Antrim: “ I have no problem with liking a character. But if that’s the reason I’m reading, I’ll put the book down.”
  • Margaret Atwood: “This does still come up. It is indeed a ridiculous question. The qualities we appreciate in a character are not the same as those we would look for in a college roommate.”
  • Rivka Galchen: Galchen describes her own quest to find books with “female narrators or characters that were … difficult and entrancing… . I think Claire Messud was talking about something substantive and more mysterious than it might first seem; … “The Woman Upstairs” has, as a central project, an investigation into this dim territory.”
  • Jonathan Franzen: “I hate the concept of likeability—it gave us two terms of George Bush, whom a plurality of voters wanted to have a beer with, and Facebook.”
  • Tessa Hadley: “What’s disappointing isn’t the reader having that reaction, as if the book were real life. Rather, it’s the timidity of readers’ judgements sometimes—their wanting characters to be “nice,” their punitive reaction if the character is headlong, or extravagant, or selfish—particularly if it’s a female character, and a female reader.” But, Hadley admits, this “likeability” thing isn’t altogether under readers’ control.”

The consensus of The New Yorker panelists is that likeability isn’t necessary in a fictional character.

I agree with the panelists. I don’t need to like fictional characters, but, for fiction to be good, I do need to understand them. My understanding requires authors to provide adequate character development. The human psyche is deliciously messy, and good character development therefore must be complete enough to probe the complex, often ambivalent depths of a character’s full repertoire of motivations. Getting to know characters in this way is, after all, why we read fiction.

I also hear people speak of “caring about”—or not—characters, which is not the same as liking them. If understanding characters is an intellectual function—understanding with the head—caring about characters adds the element of empathy—understanding with the heart.

In Updike’s Rabbit, Run, none of the characters is particularly likable. There’s the main character, Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom, whose reaction to every obligation of adulthood is to run. There’s Harry’s wife, Janice, whose main resource for mothering is a bottle of liquor. There’s Rev. Eccles, who tries to pretend that his meddling is motivated by care and concern. And there’s Janice’s parents, who raised their daughter to believe her primary purpose in life is to snag a husband. Yet it’s hard not to empathize with all of them. The best part of Harry’s life is behind him, in his high school basketball career; he has no job opportunities and nothing to aspire to. Janice, with a two-year-old and a ripening pregnancy, faces choosing between single parenthood and a loveless marriage. Rev. Eccles wears the collar but doesn’t really believe what he preaches. And Janice’s parents so the only thing they can do: take in their daughter and grandson, rail against the philandering husband, and finally offer him a job at the family’s car dealership.

Rabbit, Run presents a complicated world in which complex characters try to live out the lives that that world makes available to them. I may not like those characters, but I do understand them. And that’s reason enough to appreciate Updike’s achievement.

For more on the topic of character likeability, see Jennifer Weiner’s piece “I Like Likable Characters” in Slate. She finally comes down on the side of “a library filled with the likable and the loathsome, with froth and fun and hate and spite, with books to suit every hour and every mood,” but along the way she includes links to several additional points of view on fictional characterization.

© 2014 by Mary Daniels Brown

“Silent Snow, Secret Snow,” Conrad Aiken

 

Aiken, Conrad. “Silent Snow, Secret Snow” (1934)

In The World Within: Fiction Illuminating Neuroses of Our Time
Edited by Mary Louise Aswell
Notes and Introduction by Frederic Wertham, M.D.
New York: Whittlesey House, 1947

Related Post:

 

Cover: The World WithinI remember discovering this story in an anthology of American short stories back in high school. I found it absolutely chilling back then, and it hasn’t lost any of its power over the years. The story is widely anthologized, especially in collections of American short stories, so you should be able to find it with a bit of searching. Or you can look for The Collected Short Stories of Conrad Aiken, which is more difficult to find. This link will take you to Google Books, where you can search for the book in a library near you.

 

How does an author write about something “which could not easily (if at all) be spoken of” (p. 244)? In this story Conrad Aiken literarily presents the process by which 12-year-old Paul Hasleman loses touch with reality and slips into a world of delusion. The delusion begins with Paul’s belief that snow has fallen outside and is muffling the postman’s footsteps, but when he looks outside, he sees bright sun and no snow on the street. Yet in his mind Paul sees snow: “this was distinctly pleasant, and came almost of its own accord” (p. 239). Paul instinctively knows that he must keep his vision of snow a secret from his parents, his schoolmates, and the family doctor whom his parents finally call in because Paul seems distracted and engages in extensive daydreaming.

Paul initially thinks of his secret as a treasure that he alone possesses. The secrecy gives his treasure a sense of deliciousness. The secret also gives him a sense of protection from the rest of the world. Soon Paul begins to recognize that he has “another and quite separate existence” (p. 243) from the world of his home and school. He differentiates between “the public life and the life that was secret” (p. 245) and recognizes “the increasing difficulty of the daily return to daily life” (p. 247).

Aiken was an accomplished poet, and in this story he uses poetic devices to portray Paul’s increasing alienation from reality. He uses visual imagery to demonstrate what Paul sees: “The little spiral was still there, still softly whirling, like the ghost of a white kitten chasing the ghost of a white tail, and making as it did so the faintest of whispers” (p. 256). Aiken also uses sound imagery; the heavy, recurring sibilance (s sound) throughout the story echoes what Paul hears. Here, for example, Paul is distracted while the doctor is examining him:

Even here, even amongst these hostile presences, and in this arranged light, he could see the snow, he could hear it—it was in the corners of the room, where the shadow was deepest, under the sofa, behind the half-opened door which led to the dining room. It was gentler here, softer, its seethe the quietest of whispers, as if, in deference to a drawing room, it had quite deliberately put on its “manners”; it kept itself out of sight, obliterated itself, but distinctly with an air of saying, “Ah, but just wait! Wait till we are alone together! Then I will begin to tell you something new! Something white! something cold! something sleepy! Something of cease, and peace, and the long bright curve of space! Tell them to go away. Banish them. Refuse to speak.” (p. 254)

The snowstorm that begins so seductively in Paul’s head turns savage by the story’s end:

The darkness was coming in long white waves. A prolonged sibilance filled the night—a great seamless seethe of wild influence went abruptly across it—a cold low humming shook the windows. He shut the door and flung off his clothes in the dark. The bare black floor was like a little raft tossed in waves of snow, almost overwhelmed, washed under whitely, up again, smothered in curled billows of feather. The snow was laughing: it spoke from all sides at once: it pressed closer to him as he ran and jumped exulting into his bed. (p. 258)

The oxymoron (seeming contradiction) of darkness coming in white waves emphasizes the break from reality as Paul listens to the snowstorm and his mind closes inward upon itself:

“Listen!” it said. “We’ll tell you the last, the most beautiful and secret story—shut your eyes—it is a very small story—a story that gets smaller and smaller—it comes inward instead of opening like a flower—it is a flower becoming a seed—a little cold seed—do you hear? we are leaning closer to you—“ (p. 259)

In her introduction to “Silent Snow, Secret Snow,” literary editor Aswell describes Aiken (1889-1973) as “one of the writers whose work first showed the specific influence of Freud” (p. 237). But readers need not know details of Freud’s theories to recognize the significance of Paul’s experience as Aiken portrays it. As psychiatrist Wertham says in his closing notes on the story, “The description is the better since it is free from cliches of symptoms” (p. 260).

© 2014 by Mary Daniels Brown

“The World Within”: Introduction

 

The World Within: Fiction Illuminating Neuroses of Our Time

Edited by Mary Louise Aswell
Notes and Introduction by Frederic Wertham, M.D.
New York: Whittlesey House, 1947

Cover: The World Within

 

The World Within was one of the first literary collections assembled to spotlight a psychological approach to literature. It couples a literary editor’s introductory remarks with analysis by a psychiatrist.

The literary editor was Mary Louise Aswell (1902-1984), a novelist and editor for Atlantic Monthly, Reader’s Digest, and Harper’s Bazaar. In her foreword to The World Within, which she titled “The Wing of Madness,” Aswell wrote that writer Sherwood Anderson had written in his notebook, ”When I had been working well, there was a kind of insanity of consciousness.” Aswell continued, “Anderson was one of the first generation of writers to be profoundly influenced by the great explorer of man’s consciousness, Sigmund Freud. But the source of his genius, like that of the far greater writers who precede and follow him, was his intuitive insight, as Freud would have been the first to acknowledge” (p. viii). About a writer working at the time when The World Within was published, she said, “As part of his cultural heritage he has the work of Kafka, Joyce, Proust; of D.H. Lawrence, Virginia Woolf, Thomas Mann and the writers of their generation who first interpreted Freud’s revolutionary concepts in the universal, human terms of art” (p.viii).

Frederic Wertham, M.D., (1895-1981) provided the psychiatric analysis for The World Within. He was born in Nuremberg, Germany, then studied medicine and literature at King’s College, London University, before and during the first world war. In England he became interested in Charles Dickens’s writings on social reform. After the war he received his medical degree from the University of Wurzburg in 1921 and conducted postgraduate study in Paris, Vienna, and Munich. In 1922 Wertham left Germany to work with Alfred Meyer at the Phipps Psychiatric Clinic at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland. He became an expert in forensic psychiatry and believed that the environment shapes individual human responses. In 1932 he moved to New York City, where he studied the effects of segregation on the lives of African American children.

Wertham studied psychiatry during the period when Sigmund Freud (1856-1939), a medical doctor, was developing the theories and method of psychoanalysis for the treatment of psychopathology. This same time period saw the beginning of the development of psychiatry as a scientific medical discipline. Freud’s theories came to dominate the field, and for Wertham psychoanalysis was synonymous with psychiatry. In his introduction to The World Within Werthem wrote that after World War I “Freud’s psychoanalysis gained a foothold with a wider audience both inside and outside the psychiatric profession. Freud’s knowledge of literature was prodigious. He explored not only the meanings hidden in the acts of persons but also those in the printed pages of books from the Greek classics to Dostoevsky. He was like an archaeologist who discovers the intact relics of an old bridge, a bridge built of myths and dreams. For the content of every neurosis is an individual myth. No wonder that this kind of psychiatry had in turn the greatest influence on literature” (p. xv). For this reason Wertham’s terminology seems strange to readers of today, for whom psychiatry usually means the use of drugs to treat mental illness.

Wertham also wrote in his introduction “Since ancient times the relationships between psychiatry and literature have been intimate and manifold, although up to the present they have remained largely unformulated” (p. xii). For him, historical myths and legends, such as ancient Greek mythology, represented timeless psychological truths that contemporary psychiatry was particularly suited to formulate: “What brings the science of psychiatry in the psychoanalytic era into such close and fruitful relationship with the art of literature is that psychoanalysis is analysis of a special kind. It does not delve into the mind to isolate disparate elements. Psychoanalysis always aims to relate the detail, the symbol, to the living organism as a whole. It is here that the research of the scientist and the search of the artist find a common ground. Great writers know how to give a unified picture of a whole personality through minute observation of a meaningful expression, a characteristic mannerism, or an unconscious habit” (p. xvi).

The World Within reflects the cultural world view of the time when it was published, a philosophical belief in the absurdity and meaninglessness of the world that had been nurtured by two world wars. Aswell called the time “this age of freedom from certainty” (p. vii). Americans know this attitude best from Holden Caulfield, the protagonist of J.D. Salinger’s 1951 novel The Catcher in the Rye. The literary works of Søren Kierkegaard, Samuel Beckett, Franz Kafka, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Eugène Ionesco, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Albert Camus reflect a similar philosophy. Wertham referred to this time period in psychoanalytic terms: “The social crisis of our time has a close similarity to the emotional state in a neurosis: it is a want in the face of plenty. False ideals are instilled in people: for men, to produce and sell; for women, to reproduce and buy. Against this propaganda promoted by all the mass methods of modern communication, psychiatry and literature uphold the dignity of the individual in a changing world” (p. xxiv). His reference to changing gender roles as “false ideals” foreshadows The Second Sex (published in French in 1949 and in English translation in 1953) by French woman Simone de Beauvoir.

Wertham looked to literature for expressions of societal ills that needed treatment: “Literature is always—directly or indirectly, positively or negatively—a reflection of the deepest conflicts in the real life of the period” (p. xx). But he also looked to literature as a means of treating those ills, since it is in “the struggle on the frontiers of imagination where the progress of society takes place” (p. xxiv).

 

The World Within includes the following works:

  • “The Story of Serapion,” E.T.A. Hoffman
  • Notes from Underground (excerpt), Feodor Dostoevsky
  • “The Beast in the Jungle,” Henry James
  • “The Orchid and the Bee” (from Cities of the Plain), Marcel Proust
  • “Metamorphosis,” Franz Kafka
  • “Silent Snow, Secret Snow,” Conrad Aiken
  • “The Door,” E.B. White
  • “I Am Lazarus,” Anna Kavan
  • “The Headless Hawk,” Truman Capote
  • “Caput Mortuum,” Edita Morris
  • “The Fury,” Robert M. Coates
  • “Mrs. Razor,” James Still
  • “Why I Live at the P.O.,” Eudora Welty
  • “Percy Grimm” (from Light in August), William Faulkner

From time to time I will report here on one of these works.

Do Books with Anthropomorphic Animals Hinder Children’s Learning about Nature?

 

There’s been a lot in the news lately about a study suggesting that children do not gain accurate knowledge of the natural world by reading stories with human-like animals.

Dr. Patricia A. Ganea, of the psychology department at the University of Toronto, and colleagues examined how books that present animals with human characteristics (that is, animals that talk and think like humans) affect children’s learning about the natural world. Here’s the abstract of the research report published in the journal Frontiers in Psychology:

Do cavies talk?: The effect of anthropomorphic books on children’s knowledge about animals

Many books for young children present animals in fantastical and unrealistic ways, as wearing clothes, talking and engaging in human-like activities. This research examined whether anthropomorphism in children’s books affects children’s learning and conceptions of animals, by specifically assessing the impact of depictions (a bird wearing clothes and reading a book) and language (bird described as talking and as having human intentions). In Study 1, 3-, 4-, and 5-year-old children saw picture books featuring realistic drawings of a novel animal. Half of the children also heard factual, realistic language, while the other half heard anthropomorphized language. In Study 2, we replicated the first study using anthropomorphic illustrations of real animals. The results show that the language used to describe animals in books has an effect on children’s tendency to attribute human-like traits to animals, and that anthropomorphic storybooks affect younger children’s learning of novel facts about animals. These results indicate that anthropomorphized animals in books may not only lead to less learning but also influence children’s conceptual knowledge of animals.

A release from the University of Toronto added:

“Books that portray animals realistically lead to more learning and more accurate biological understanding,” says lead author Patricia Ganea, Assistant Professor with the University of Toronto’s Department of Applied Psychology and Human Development. “We were surprised to find that even the older children in our study were sensitive to the anthropocentric portrayals of animals in the books and attributed more human characteristics to animals after being exposed to fantastical books than after being exposed to realistic books.”

Publication of this research has sparked some heated negative responses. In The Telegraph (a newspaper from the U. K.), mother Becky Pugh wrote “Don’t tell me talking animals like Peppa Pig are bad for my kids“:

Indeed, most of our furry humanoid favourites have wisdom to impart – even if their portrayal of the natural world isn’t always accurate. Rupert Bear encourages an adventurous spirit. Winnie the Pooh represents thoughtfulness, humility and companionship. Babar champions deference and respect for your elders. Paddington endorses courage and independence.

Katy Waldman, an assistant editor at Slate, entitled her article “Researchers Want Children’s Books to Stop Anthropomorphizing Animals. That’s a Terrible Idea.” Waldman insists:

Scaffolding familiar traits onto alien subjects is a powerful way to promote learning, one that children do naturally from the age of 12 to 24 months. And imaginative play—the type where you pretend a badger gets jealous of her baby sister—has cognitive benefits: “If you want your children to be intelligent,” Albert Einstein once said, “read them fairy tales. If you want them to be more intelligent, read them more fairy tales.” Just as important, anthropomorphizing is a type of metaphor-making that allows kids to both identify with the characters they’re reading about (so that they more readily apply the text’s lessons to their own life, as in an Aesop’s fable) and practice acknowledging outside perspectives. Reading literature fosters empathy, found two separate studies, one at the New School and one in the Netherlands, and it does so by awakening people to the echoes of themselves in others.

Ganea addressed all the negative publicity in an interview with Cathy Newman for National Geographic:

Your work seems to have struck a negative nerve. “Stop reading Jungle Book and Winnie The Pooh as it ‘humanises animals’, parents told,” was one headline I saw in the London Daily Express. There were others.

People have gone crazy out there. They think we are saying, don’t read books that interweave fantasy with reality. That’s not the message from this. It’s if you want your children to learn more facts about animals, it would be better to use books that are more realistic. Of course parents should read a variety of books to their children. Fantasy is important for their imagination and their cognitive development.

Ganea said that she enjoyed Winnie the Pooh with her own children. “But we also read expository books about animals.”

Other people have been more receptive to Ganea’s message. In the Canadian paper The Globe and Mail, parent Tralee Pearce wrote, “Why you may want to stop reading bedtime stories with cartoony, human-like animals.” She acknowledged that she “may consider adding in a hard-core nature book or two” to her children’s reading list:

This might be even more crucial to consider, as another study found that the use of the outdoors and animals in children’s literature has been on the decline since the 1970s; as more kids are raised in urban landscapes, their books come to reflect that reality.

Maybe this is all a (sad) reflection of our general disengagement with the natural world – and a reminder to parents and educators to sneak in some information about real animals into story time at home and school.

And on the Scientific American blog “The Thoughtful Animal,” developmental psychologist Dr. Jason G. Goldman titled his post “When Animals Act Like People in Stories, Kids Can’t Learn.” Goldman wrote:

The problem is actually more pervasive than it sounds: human adults, at least in the US, are also highly likely to imbue non-human animals with human-like emotions and motivations. It’s a tricky line to navigate. Research is increasingly revealing the fundamental similarities between our species and the rest of the animal kingdom, but there are also aspects of human culture that are, indeed, unique to our species. Is it reasonable to suggest that an animal can feel something complex like pride or embarrassment? We are poised to attribute a similarly complex emotion, guilt, to dogs, but a deeper look reveals that while dogs indeed have a “guilty look,” they probably do not actually realize that they’ve transgressed. If children are routinely exposed to these sorts of anthropomorphic representations of animals, it is no wonder that they grow up to become adults who look at non-human animals as if they are people wearing animal suits.

He added that this research “presents an opportunity for parents and teachers to carefully select books that do accurately reflect the natural world, both visually and linguistically.” And he concluded that books representing the worlds of both fantasy and reality can co-exist. “Maybe let’s just keep them on different shelves?”

“Breaking Bad” and the Willful Suspension of Disbelief

 

We know that time travel is impossible. Yet when we pick up Octavia Butler’s Kindred or Audrey Niffenegger’s The Time Traveler’s Wife, we don’t stop reading when we see characters moving through time. No, we accept that the story the author wants to tell requires time travel, and we allow it to exist in the world of the story.

Contemporary cognitive scientists and cultural anthropologists tell us that our brain is wired to accept and understand stories because storytelling is the primary method by which a society communicates its history, beliefs, and values. (See, for example, The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human by Jonathan Gottschall.) But poet and philosopher Samuel Taylor Coleridge recognized our proclivity for making allowances in the world of stories back in 1817. He coined a term for the phenomenon: the willing suspension of disbelief, or just suspension of disbelief.

A recent experience taught me just how powerful our willing suspension of disbelief can be. I had never watched the popular television series Breaking Bad but had heard from several people how good it was. So, around the time other people were discussing the show’s finale, I spent about a week on a marathon viewing of the complete series. At the root of the series is this question: How could a mild-mannered high school chemistry teacher turn into a meth-cooking drug lord? The key to our believing this seemingly far-fetched scenario lies in the context. We all know that teachers earn a pittance and frequently have to take on a second job to supplement their income. So in the initial episode of Breaking Bad, we’re not surprised to see Walt moonlighting at a car wash and to hear Walt’s wife explain about the credit card they can’t use because it’s maxed out. Still, though, a lot of teachers in that situation don’t turn to crime to solve their financial problems.

But then Walt discovers that he’s dying of lung cancer. Of course the first thing he worries about is that his death will leave his family with no money. Then he faces pressure from the family to undertake an expensive experimental treatment that could prolong his life but is not covered by insurance. Add to these circumstances the facts that his teenaged son, a couple of years away from college, has cerebral palsy and that his wife is pregnant with a second child, and suddenly we begin to empathize with Walt. In this context Walt’s decision to turn his only real skill, a keen knowledge of chemistry, into a way out of his financial predicament seems perfectly reasonable. In fact, not only do we condone Walt’s plan, but we even begin to root for his success—at least at first.

Eventually events spiral out of control, and Walt’s character changes drastically during the many turns of events necessary to sustain the continuance of the series over several seasons. But after Walt’s initial decision, each plot turn follows logically from what has come before. It was only that first willing suspension of disbelief that the writers had to work at. I think that my marathon viewing made me more aware of exactly how the show’s creators manufactured that willing suspension of disbelief than I would have been if I’d watched the early episodes unfold one week at a time. That skillfully contrived early situation sucked me into the story and made me accept Walter White’s transformation from high school teacher to ruthless criminal. It’s all in the context.

© 2014 by Mary Daniels Brown

A University Module on Victorian Literature and Psychology

 

In today’s curation for Literature & Psychology I’ve come across this article:

Escaping ‘Horrible Sanity’: Teaching Victorian Literature and Psychology

Here Serena Trowbridge, Lecturer in English Literature at Birmingham City University in the U.K., introduces the module she teaches on Victorian literature and psychology. The rest of the article, written by one of Trowbridge’s students, describes the experience of this unit of study.

There were no such courses when I was in college back in the dark ages of the 1960s, and this description makes me wish there had been.