Darkness Visible

“I’d feel the horror, like some poisonous fogbank, roll in upon my mind.” William Styron

For years I have pondered the mystery of my father’s alternating cycles of depression and elation that governed his life. I wondered what was at work to give rise to this strange and sad mix of horrible and wonderful days. I have read countless accounts of the various explanations for what is known now as bipolar disorder and the equally numerous treatments that attempt to alleviate it.

One of them was William Styron’s account in Darkness Visible of his battle with the storms of depression. The other day I noticed it on my bookshelf and decided to read it again. Styron describes his depression as “a disorder of mood, so mysteriously painful and elusive in the way it becomes known to the self—to the mediating intellect—as to verge close to being beyond description”

He begins with an account of a trip to Paris in the winter of 1985 when he realized that the melancholy that had dogged him for months was descending into a “siege” that rendered him practically speechless and socially inept.

After he returned to his home in Connecticut he became bedridden, unable to write, with suicidal thoughts and a degree of suffering that was indescribable. In time he was hospitalized where its seclusion and the support of his family and friends enabled him to recover.

In my father’s case, neither psychoanalytic therapy, the drugs available at that time, electroshock treatment, or the best private "rest homes" gave him any lasting relief. Would the newer drugs and treatments available today have made a difference? Perhaps they might have made it easier for him to manage the furies more effectively or put them at a greater distance.

However, I am not at all sure about this and I remain a skeptic about the current views of the brain mechanisms that may be responsible for bipolar disorder. Yes, he may have had some kind of chemical imbalance, but I saw the world in which he grew up, the way his mother and father treated him, and how he had to spend his working days in the family business. It was never a placid situation. There was no escaping the world he brought with him but neither could he escape the one he had to live through during each and every day of his relatively brief life.

Styron also attributes the source of his depression to his early years where his father battled “the gorgon for much of his lifetime, and was hospitalized …after a spiraling downward that in retrospect I saw perfectly resembled mine.”

After reading Darkness Visible, I asked myself if Styron’s account of his descent into madness helped me to better understand my father’s torments. I confess it didn’t, although many readers wrote to him to say how grateful they were for describing so clearly their own battles with depression.

The only thing that ever helped me was an experience I had as a young man, after having my wisdom teeth removed. He was with me when I was recovering from Sodium Pentothal (so-called truth serum), the anesthetic used then.

Its aftereffects led to a period of uncontrollable crying that I was fully aware of but could do nothing to stop. I said to him then that I finally understood why he couldn’t do anything about the demons that descended upon him.

But that was an atypical experience as Sodium Pentothal is rarely used today. And yet it taught me why it is so difficult to grasp the essence of this illness that plagues so many people today. As Styron notes, “To most of those who have experienced it, the horror of depression is so overwhelming as to be quite beyond expression.“


The Attack

We are only the children of a ravaged, despised people, fighting with whatever means we can to recover our homeland and out dignity. Nothing more, nothing less.

In Yasmina Khadra's novel, The Attack, there is a suicide bombing at a child’s birthday party in Tel Aviv. Nineteen people are killed, including many of the children. Sihem, the wife of a highly respected Arab surgeon (Amin Jaafari) is identified as the bomber.

Amin cannot believe his much-loved wife was the culprit. He spends days and sleepless nights trying to find out why and how she did it. His life turns into a nightmare of drink and struggle.

Eventually he comes to accept it but that calls into question every assumption he had about his wife and the work he is doing as an Israeli citizen.

And once you’re flat on your back, you realize that your life, your whole life—with its ups and downs, its pains and pleasures, its promises and failures—hangs and has always hung by a thread as flimsy and imperceptible as the threads in a spider’s web.

We are frequently reminded of what Israel has done to his homeland, their brutality, inhumane violence, total destructiveness.

We’re in a world where people tear one another to pieces every day that God sends. We spend our evenings gathering our dead and our mornings burying them. Our homeland is violated right and left, our children can’t remember that the word school means…Our cities are being buried by machines on caterpillar tracks.

Possessing nothing more to hope for Amin returns to the hospital with his convictions as his only allies.

We could spend months and years striving for mutual understanding, and neither of us would ever be willing to listen to the other.…the only battle I believe in, the only one that really deserves bleeding for, is the battle the surgeon fights which consists in re-creating life in the place where death has chosen to conduct its maneuvers.


Black Dogs

Turning points are the inventions of storytellers and dramatists, a necessary mechanism when a life is reduced to, traduced by a plot, when a morality must be distilled from a sequence of actions, when an audience must be sent home with something unforgettable to mark a character’s growth. Ian McEwan

On their honeymoon is the south of France June and Bernard Tremaine set out on a walk in the countryside. Both are devout Communists, agree on most everything and much in love. While Bernard stops to look closely at some caterpillars, June continues on her way.

Soon thereafter, two large, black dogs confront her. We learn later that the Germans left them to terrorize the villagers. June managed to ward off the dogs, but the encounter changed her life.

It became a mystical experience, turned her away from Communism and acquired a somewhat religious epiphany. In spite of their love for one another, June and Bernard never lived together again. June settled in a bergerie in the south of France; Bernard returned to England and ran successfully for Parliament.

McEwan’s tale is narrated by their adoptive son, Jeremy, who spoke frequently with both of them. The novel recounts their now-differing views on science, religion, and politics.

I believe McEwan intended June’s encounter with the black dogs as a metaphor for a fundamental feature of the human condition. He sums it up at the end:

I came face to face with evil. I didn’t quite know it at the time, but I sensed it in my fear—these animals were the creations of debased imaginations, of perverted spirits no amount of social theory could account for. The evil I’m talking about lives in all of us. It takes hold in an individual, in private lives, within a family, and then it’s children who suffer most. And then, when the conditions are right, in different countries, at different times, a terrible cruelty, a viciousness against life erupts, and everyone is surprised by the depth of hatred within himself. Then it sinks back and waits. It’s something in our hearts.


The Nightingale

If I have learned anything in this long life of mine, it is this: In love we find out who we want to be; in war we find out who we are

Once I started Kristin Hannah’s The Nightingale I couldn’t put it down. It was one of those books you chance upon once in a while. The book surprised me. I had no idea who Kristin Hannah was, although she has apparently written over a dozen books. A friend picked it up at the bookstore, I started reading it, and at once decided to download it.

The book is about two sisters and their father in France during World War II. Those horrible years in France--how the French survived, the resistance some of them displayed and the role of collaborators--has always fascinated me, as have the inescapable moral issues.

Vianne, the oldest of the two sisters, lives with her husband, Antoine, and daughter in a village south of Paris. She is quiet, reserved, hard-working. Isabelle is impetuous, short tempered, a rebel. When their shell-shocked father returns from World War 1, everything changes. He is no longer the kind, serious scholar. Now he is angry, prone to drink, and harsh.

After his wife dies, he kicks his two daughters out of their apartment and sends them away to a Catholic school. Isabelle escapes from one school after another. Antoine is drafted into the Army and in time is captured, sent to a camp. Vianne struggles to get by in their country home.

Her clothing was as worn and ragged as that of most Parisians, and the clatter of wooden soles rang out. No one had leather anymore. She bypassed long queues of housewives and hollow-faced children standing outside of boulangeries and boucheries. Rations had been cut again and again and again….

Food is scarce, there is no heat, a German solider comes to occupy their home, then another after Vianne accidentally kills the first one. The second soldier is mean, lusts for her. Meanwhile, Isabelle joins the Resistance and becomes a hero after escorting downed English and American pilots across the Pyrenees numerous times.

On this cool October morning, her life would change. From the morning she boarded this train…she would no longer be the girl in the bookshop…From now on she was Juliette Gervaise, code name the Nightingale.

Later Vianne gains the cooperation of a Catholic nun to save children in the Sister’s school. The War goes on, the hardships increase, finally the Americans arrive, the Nazis are driven back, Antoine escapes from the camp, Isabelle is captured, somehow manages to survive and both Antoine and Isabelle return to their home when the War is over.

Those are the major occurrences in an otherwise rich and beautifully written novel. Hannah has that rare story telling gift.

In reading The Nightingale, I came to realize that fictional depictions of World War II are far more revealing than the non-fiction books I’ve read. The experiences, dangers, thoughts and emotions of the people seem to me much truer to what the experience must have been like.

I am reminded of a statement George Eliot wrote, “Art is the nearest thing to life; it is a mode of amplifying experience and extending our contact with our fellow man beyond the bounds of our personal lot.”


Gravity Payments

Perhaps the most striking illustration of economic inequality in this country is the pay gap between C.E.O.s and workers at their company. Gretchen Morgenson writes (Times 4/10/15) that despite federal regulations most companies fail to report this measure.

She cites an academic study that reported the C.E.O pay as a multiple of the average worker ‘s pay increased “from an average of 20 times in 1965 to 295.9 in 2013!”

Acknowledging that their estimates are imprecise, two labor economists, Dean Baker and Nicholas Buffie, have nevertheless calculated pay gaps in specific companies. They found that the Walt Disney had the widest pay gap in 2014. Their CEO received $43.7 million last year, while the median worker received $19,530, a C.E.O. worker ratio of 2,238!

Microsoft was next on the list. Their C.E.O. pay package last year was $84.3 million, 2,012 times the estimated median employee earnings of $41,900 at Microsoft.

And so it goes, down the list of enormous compensation for C.E.O.s and comparatively modest salaries for their employees. Is it any wonder public companies fail to report the C.E.O. pay ratio comparison with their workers. While efforts have been made to require them to do so, not surprisingly the rule met an avalanche of opposition.

Occasionally you read about a company that significantly increases the salary of the people who work there. The most recent example is the decision of Dan Price, the founder of Gravity Payments, a credit-card processing firm, to raise the salary of even the lowest-paid clerk to a minimum of $70,000.

A company spokesman said the salary of 30 of the 70 employees will double. The average salary at the company is $48,000 a year. So with one exception, the salaries of all the employees will increase. The exception is the salary of Dan Price who will pay for the wage increases by reducing his own salary from nearly one million to $70,000.

How many other C.E.O.s would be willing to follow suit? Clearly there aren’t many, a sad commentary on the state of capitalism in this country.

So who would have believed that Dan Price’s policy of guaranteeing each of his employees a minimum salary of $70,000 would cause the backlash it has? At least, I never imagined the controversy it has produced as described in Patricia Cohen’s article in the Times (7/31/15).

First, several long time clients withdrew their business because they didn’t agree with Price’s new policy. Others left because they anticipated a fee increase, in spite of assurances there wouldn’t be one. In addition, other companies in the Seattle area complained it made them look stingy.

Then employees started to leave because long serving staff members only received small or no raise. A few others left because of burnout, they simply didn’t much like Price or because it shackled high performers at the expense of less motivated staff.

Worst of all, Price’s older brother and Gravity co-founder filed a legal suit that threatened the company’s existence. Price simply didn’t have the money to pay the eventual legal fees. So he would had to scramble or consider borrowing heavily.

Even though the new minimum $70,000 salary plan generated many new clients, a great deal of publicity, and thousands of job applications, the effort to deal with all this was exhausting and distracting.

Price’s original goal had simply been to take a stand against income inequality in the only way he could. He had no idea of the brouhaha it would give rise to or that it would affect his personal life and financial condition so greatly.

Note: Dan Bertolini is the only other C.E.O. that I know about who has taken a somewhat similar action. I quote his example from an essay I wrote on economic inequality.

“It was a breath of fresh air to read that Mark Bertolini, Aetna’s C.E.O, announced (New Yorker, 2/2/15) that his lowest paid workers would receive a substantial raise, as well as improved medical coverage.

Even more remarkable was the reason he gave for the decision. He framed it in terms of the growing economic inequality in this country, mentioning Thomas Piketty’s influential Capital in the Twenty-First Century and that he had given a copy to each of his top executives.

Bertolini also said it wasn’t “fair” for a company as successful as Aetna for its employees to be struggling to get by, while his senior personnel were paid lavishly.

Companies are not just moneymaking machines. For the good of the social order, these are the kinds of investments we should be willing to make.

I suspect that an employee who is paid more will work harder, remain in the company longer, be absent from work less often, and, in turn, that the company’s productivity and profits will increase. Bertolini’s decision is an investment with an immediate and highly beneficial outcome for his company, as well as its many workers.