Thursday, February 11, 2010

Crazy Like Us: the lecture

So, I was walking by Lyon Books on my way to the post office the other day and they had a poster in the window advertising a lecture and signing by author Ethan Watters for his new book "Crazy Like Us: The Globalization of the American Psyche." Readers of Laurie's blog know that she's recently posted about the book. She heard the author interviewed on Talk of the Nation and we'd both been looking forward to reading the book. We've had several great conversations about the topic in the days that followed. Little did we know that Ethan Watters (@ethanwatters1 on Twitter) came from Chico and was doing a signing here until Providence sent me by the bookstore window (and habit and predisposition had me looking in the window like the child in the candy store.)

Laurie and I are also eager to have breaks from the recent tragedy, so we were both very excited for this event. Now, I don't have a book review to give on it yet because we just bought it about 2 hours ago. The evening started with a lot of people filing into Lyon Books, all of whom seemed to know each other except for us. There were probably a couple dozen people there.

The topic of the book, as I understand it (again, I haven't read it yet) is that America seems to be exporting the manifestations of our versions of mental illness. For example there's a case in China of a girl who died from anorexia, but the Chinese version of the disorder did not include fat obsession or a few other things which I'm not remembering off the top of my head. China, in dealing with the rather dramatic news story which involved a 14 year old girl dropping dead in a public square, turned to the available information on the disorder which was studied most extensively in America. Chinese newspapers printed information of the illness and after that not only did anorexia skyrocket in China, but for the first time the manifestations included fat obsession and the other symptoms I'm not remembering off the top of my head.

There are stories in the book, I'm told, of drug companies referring to other nations as "10 year behind America" or "15 years behind America" as in how their mental illnesses are evolving toward our manifestations of those mental illnesses. Also there are accounts of importing illness in times of great tragedies like the tsunami and the Haitian earthquake (the latter was mentioned tonight but happened while the book was already at press.) Watters encouraged us to imagine a reversal and how bizarre that would seem to most Americans: if, for example, a shaman came to New York after 9/11, knocking on doors and telling people that they need to do a certain ritual to release the spirits of the dead. Another phenomenon mentioned was, how in Victorian England, hysterics manifested in women in a very specific (and dramatic) way.

Also in the book is mentioned the different grades and recovery rates of schizophrenics in other cultures, which I guess there are some in which schizophrenics do a lot better (the waggish cynic in me thought "Boy, you'd think schizophrenics would do best in a schizophrenic culture like ours.") But that got me wondering if it worked in reverse, if someone with, say, hysterical misery in America went to another culture and integrated, would that person then find their hysterical misery manifesting in the way that happens in that culture. Because, in the manner of the brutish capitalist culture I sprung forth from, I could instantly imagine a whole industry of relocating people with mental illness to places where the illness manifests differently, much like asthmatics moving to Arizona. Watters said he didn't know of many examples aside from a psychotic breakdown a lady from America had in a Mexican jungle where her hallucinations were distinctly religious in Mexican themes. Which suggests to me, my kneejerk diagnosis, that it may not work the other way. Which is a manifestation of our imperialistic culture. A rather ugly one at that.

So, he signed our book and we came home. It was a lovely evening out. I think both Laurie and I agree it would be nice to do things like this more often.

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