middle of our life’s journey, I found myself in a dark wood.”
So begins one of the most celebrated and difficult poems ever written, Dante’s
“Divine Comedy,” a more than 14,000-line epic on the soul’s journey through the
afterlife. The tension between the pronouns says it all: Although the “I”
belongs to Dante, who died in 1321, his journey is also part of “our life.” We
will all find ourselves in a dark wood one day, the lines suggest.
That day came six years ago for me, when my pregnant wife, Katherine, died
suddenly in a car accident. Forty-five minutes before her death, she delivered
our daughter, Isabel, a miracle of health rescued by emergency cesarean. I had
left the house that morning at 8:30 to teach a class; by noon, I was a father
and a widower.
A few days later, I found myself standing in a cemetery outside Detroit in the
cold rain, watching as my wife’s body was returned to the earth close to where
she was born. The words for the emotions I had known till then — pain, sadness,
suffering — no longer made sense, as a feeling of cosmic, paralyzing sorrow
washed over me. My personal loss felt almost beside the point: A young woman who
had been bursting with life was now no more. I could feel part of me going down
with Katherine’s coffin. It was the last communion I would ever have with her,
and I have never felt so unbearably connected to the rhythms of the universe.
But I was on forbidden ground. Like all other mortals, I would have to return to
the planet earth of grief. An hour with the angels is about all we can take.
Soon after, I went for a walk in the upstate New York village where Katherine
and I had been living. I ran into the priest who had assisted at my college’s
“You’re in hell,” she said to me.
I immediately thought of Dante, the author I had devoted much of my career to
teaching and writing about. After a charmed youth as a leading poet and
politician in Florence, Dante was sentenced to exile while on a diplomatic
mission. In those first years, Dante wandered around Tuscany, desperately
seeking to return to his beloved city. He met with fellow exiles, plotted
military action, connived with former enemies — anything to get home. But he
never saw Florence again. His words on the experience would become a mantra to
“You will leave behind everything you love / most dearly, and this is the arrow
/ the bow of exile first lets fly.”
Nothing better captured how I felt the four years I spent struggling to find my
way out of the dark wood of grief and mourning.
And yet Dante could write “The Divine Comedy” only because of his exile, when he
accepted once and for all that he would never return to Florence. Before 1302,
the year of his expulsion, he had been a fine lyric poet and an impressive
scholar. But he had yet to find his voice. Only in exile did he gain the
heaven’s-eye view of human life, detached from all earthly allegiances, that
enabled him to speak of the soul.
At the beginning of “The Divine Comedy,” just as he finds himself lost in the
“selva oscura” — the dark wood — Dante sees a shade in the distance It’s his
favorite author, the Latin poet Virgil, author of “The Aeneid,” a pagan adrift
in the Christian afterworld. By way of greeting, Dante tells Virgil that it was
his “lungo studio e grande amore” — his long study and great love — that led him
to the ancient poet.
Virgil becomes Dante’s teacher on ethics, willpower and the cyclical nature of
human mortality — illustrated by his metaphor of the souls in hell bunched up
like “fallen leaves.” Virgil is his guide through the dark wood, just as “The
Aeneid” gave Dante the tools he needed to curb his grief over losing Florence.
“The Divine Comedy” didn’t rescue me after Katherine’s death. That fell to the
love of my family and friends, my passion for teaching and writing, the support
of colleagues and students, and above all the gift of my daughter. But I would
not have been able to make my way without Dante. In a time of soul-crunching
loneliness — I was surrounded everywhere by love, but such is grief — his words
helped me refuse to surrender.
After years of studying him, parsing his lines and decoding his themes, I
finally heard his voice. At the beginning of Paradiso 25, he bares his soul:
Should it ever happen that this sacred poem,
to which both heaven and earth have set hand,
so that it has made me lean for many years,
should overcome the cruelty that bars me
from the fair sheepfold where I slept as a lamb,
an enemy to the wolves at war with it …
I still lived and worked and socialized in the same places and with the same
people after my wife’s death as before. And yet I felt that her death exiled me
from what had been my life. Dante’s words gave me the language to understand my
own profound sense of displacement. More important, it transformed this
anguished state into a beautiful image.
After Katherine died, I obsessed for the first time over whether we have a soul,
a part of us that outlives our body. The miracle of “The Divine Comedy” is not
that it answers this question, but that it inspires us to explore it, with lungo
studio e grande amore, long study and great love.
an associate professor of Italian at Bard College,
is the author
of the forthcoming memoir “My Two Italies.”
as Newtown, Conn., joined the list of places like Littleton, Colo., and
Jonesboro, Ark., where schools became the scenes of stunning violence, the
questions were familiar: Why does it happen? What can be done to stop it?
The questions have emerged after all of the mass killings in recent decades — at
a Virginia college campus, a Colorado movie theater, a Wisconsin temple — but
they took on an added sting when the victims included children.
The fact that the Newtown massacre, with 26 killed at the school, along with the
gunman, was the second deadliest school shooting in the country’s history —
after the 32 people killed at Virginia Tech in 2007 — once again made this
process of examination urgent national business as details emerged from Sandy
Hook Elementary School.
This painful corner of modern American history does offer some answers: Many of
the mass killers had histories of mental illness, with warning signs missed by
the people who knew them and their sometimes clear signs of psychological
deterioration left unaddressed by the country’s mental health system.
The shootings almost always renew the debate about access to guns, and spur
examination of security practices and missed warning signals in what were
Research on mass school killings shows that they are exceedingly rare. Amanda B.
Nickerson, director of a center that studies school violence and abuse
prevention at the University at Buffalo, said studies made clear that American
schools were quite safe and that children were more likely to be killed outside
But, she said, events like the Sandy Hook killings trigger fundamental fears.
“When something like this happens,” she said, “everybody says it’s an epidemic,
and that’s just not true.”
Dylan Klebold, 17, and Eric Harris, 18, may have earned singular infamy with the
killing of 12 other students and a teacher from Columbine High School, in
Littleton, Colo., in 1999, but there have been others who breached the safety of
American schoolhouses over the decades.
In 1927, a school board official in Bath, Mich., killed 44 people, including
students and teachers, when he blew up the town’s school.
Even before Columbine in the late 1990s, school shootings seemed to be a
national scourge, with killings in places like Jonesboro, Ark., and Springfield,
Ore. In 2006, a 32-year-old man shot 11 girls at an Amish school in Nickel
Mines, Pa., killing 5 of them.
Often in a haze of illness, the schoolhouse gunmen are usually aware of the
taboo they are breaking by targeting children, said Dewey G. Cornell, a clinical
psychologist at the University of Virginia and director of the Virginia Youth
Violence Project. “They know it’s a tremendous statement that shocks people,”
Dr. Cornell said, “and that is a reflection of their tremendous pain and their
drive to communicate that pain.”
After 14-year-old Michael Carneal opened fire on a prayer group at Heath High
School in West Paducah, Ky., in 1997, it came out that he had made no secret of
his plans. “He told me, once or twice, that he thought it would be cool to walk
— or run — down the halls shooting people,” a friend from the school band
testified later. Five Heath students were wounded; three were killed.
But some experts on school violence said Friday that it was not so much the
character of the relatively rare schoolhouse gunman as it was the public
perception of the shootings that transformed them into national and even
international events. Dunblane, Scotland, is remembered for the day in 1996 when
a 43-year-old man stormed a gym class of 5- and 6-year-olds, killing 16 children
and a teacher.
Over the years there have been some indications of what warning signs to look
for. The New York Times published an analysis in 2000 of what was known about
102 people who had committed 100 rampage killings at schools, job sites and
public places like malls.
Most had left a road map of red flags, plotting their attacks and accumulating
weapons. In the 100 rampage killings reviewed, 54 of the killers had talked
explicitly of when and where they would act, and against whom. In 34 of the
cases, worried friends or family members had desperately sought help in advance,
only to be rebuffed by the police, school officials or mental health workers.
After the deaths in Sandy Hook on Friday, there was new talk of the need to be
vigilant. But there has also been talk of the sober reality that it is hard to
turn the ordinary places of life into fortresses.
Dr. Irwin Redlener, who is the director of the National Center for Disaster
Preparedness at Columbia University and has worked on school violence issues,
said there were steps that could be taken to try to limit school violence, like
limiting entry, developing an explicit disaster plan that includes strategies to
lock down schools and pursuing close ties with the local police.
“Unfortunately,” he said, “random acts of severe violence like this are not
possible to entirely prevent.”
Watching the Manhattan skyline shimmer over Jamaica Bay had
always been one of the charms of life in the Rockaways. But now, when the Empire
State Building winks on each night, those lights feel almost like a punch in the
It felt that way to the two women caked in the sandy silt that still blankets
most streets here, as they trudged up Rockaway Beach Boulevard on Saturday,
pushing shopping carts they had dug out of wreckage piled beside the boarded-up
The women, Monique Arkward and her neighbor Eyvette Martin, pushed the carts
more than 40 blocks from their battered bungalows to St. Francis de Sales
Church, where they had heard — by word of mouth, since phones hardly work here —
that they might find bottled water, batteries and some measure of warmth.
“We’re living like cavemen,” Ms. Arkward said. “It’s like we’re forgotten. It’s
like they say, ‘O.K., when we get to them, we’ll get to them.’ ”
The Rockaways, a narrow peninsula of working-class communities in Queens, have
become one of the epicenters for the simmering sense of abandonment felt in
still-darkened areas of New York City, and out into the suburbs and beyond,
including large swaths of New Jersey and Long Island, where the lack of power
was made more problematic by persistent gas shortages.
Around the city, particularly in places already sensitive to the afterthought
status conveyed in the Manhattan-centric characterization “outer boroughs,” the
accusations of neglect seemed colored by a growing belief that the recovery from
Hurricane Sandy has cleaved along predictable class lines. That sentiment was
captured in a much-publicized street-corner confrontation over the weekend when
residents shrieked their frustrations at Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg as he
visited the Rockaways on Saturday.
“It’s all about Manhattan,” said Nora McDermott, who lives in the Rockaways, as
she stood in a relief center on Saturday. “It was unbelievable, to see Manhattan
get power,” she said. “Was I surprised they got it quicker? Not really. But I
was like, ‘Damn.’ ”
Echoes of that thought abounded in places like Red Hook in Brooklyn, Gerritsen
Beach in Brooklyn, and New Dorp Beach on Staten Island, where thousands are
struggling to rebuild their lives without electricity — and, residents insisted
with growing vehemence, sufficient help from leaders — even as the rest of the
city powers up and moves on.
At the Red Hook Houses, a public housing complex of nearly 3,000 apartments,
power was still out on Sunday.
For almost a week now, Mario Davila, 64, who is in a wheelchair and lives on the
third floor of one building, has eased his way downstairs for cigarettes and
food from Meals on Wheels, a step at a time, one hand on the railing and one on
his chair, and then waited for his brother to help him crawl back up. Across the
East River, he knew, the elevators were once again ferrying passengers.
Mr. Davila said he wished they were as lucky as those residents.
As the storm sent the waters of Shell Bank Creek on the westernmost edge of
Jamaica Bay overflowing into Gerritsen Beach last Monday night, Jennifer Avena,
35, and her three children and Labrador mix swam nearly 10 blocks through
chest-deep water to refuge at Resurrection Church.
A week later, she still felt on her own, as she photographed the contents of her
house on Sunday, throwing out each destroyed item.
Her own neighbors, Ms. Avena said, were the few who were helping.
Tensions also remained high across Staten Island, where the storm’s impact was
particularly deadly and where criticism of the official response has been vocal.
Though electricity had been restored to 160,000 customers, according to
Consolidated Edison, another 19,000 remained without power.
“We’ve made good progress,” said John Miksad, Con Ed’s senior vice president for
electric operations. “But I know for those 19,000 customers that are still out,
In New Dorp Beach, mounds — some as high as 10 feet — of debris, vintage dolls,
mattresses, photographs, teddy bears and Christmas decorations piled outside
nearly every home on Sunday, awaiting dump trucks. The roar of generators filled
John Ryan, 47, had salvaged just two books from his collection. He bristled at
the mayor’s assertion that the city is edging back to normalcy. “It’s completely
unrealistic,” Mr. Ryan said. “I think he should go house to house and see what
the war zone is like.”
But down the block, Orlando Vogler, 26, had a different sentiment. As he stood
next to a bonfire fueled by pieces of his destroyed furniture, he said that the
situation had improved over the weekend. “It’s finally starting to come
together,” he said. “Now you see hundreds of volunteers coming down the street.”
In New Jersey, Matt Doherty, the mayor of Belmar, described the conditions as
“third world.” He said the borough of roughly 6,000 year-round residents was in
need of more blankets and “heavy duty” clothing.
“We’re in the Dark Ages here. It’s really back to basics,” he said Sunday. “It’s
almost like camping outside in November. People are doubled up in blankets,
sweaters, sweatshirts, socks. Residents are living in their living rooms,
sleeping in front of their fireplaces.”
Every one of the over 115,000 residents of the Rockaways and Broad Channel is
still without power, according to the Long Island Power Authority, which
services those areas. And it will be several more days before the
seawater-soaked substations along the Rockaway Peninsula are repaired or a
workaround is in place. The substations power neighborhoods like Belle Harbor
and Breezy Point, a community largely of firefighters and police officers where
over 110 houses burned down on Monday night.
But even once the substations are repaired, each flooded house must be certified
on a case-by-case basis by a licensed electrician before it is deemed safe to
flip the switch, said Lois Bentivegna, a LIPA spokeswoman.
Even though some residents acknowledged the risks of living along the ocean, the
contrast between Manhattan’s thrumming power lines and the snail’s pace of
recovery was hard to bear.
At an American Legion hall in Broad Channel, Paul Girace, 66, stewed as he ate a
meal of bow-tie pasta and canned beans provided by relief workers on Saturday.
“They got electricity already?” Mr. Girace said. “It’s par for the course. Who
is the population of Manhattan? The wealthy people. Who screams in Bloomberg’s
ear? The wealthy people.”
George Wright, 61, agreed. “You know Manhattan is going to get turned on first,
because let’s face it, this city operates from Manhattan,” he said. “They can
dry that out and get it going. Over here, it got ripped to pieces.”
Near Shore Front Parkway, Bobbi Cooke, 51, and her sister Gwen Murphy, 62, who
are caring for their disabled sister in a darkened apartment, had run through
their stash of lighters, batteries and candles.
Without electricity, Ms. Cooke said, they could not use A.T.M.’s to get money to
buy what little food was available.
But what she said she was most desperate for were answers.
“Since the day it happened, and afterwards, we’ve all had to fend for our
selves,” Ms. Cooke said. “We need to know when we’re going to have gas, light,
electric. Everywhere is getting something but us.”
“We’re totally knocked out of the world,” she said.
Ms. Murphy joined in. “We’re like an orphan,” she said. “It’s like we don’t even
Emotions, frayed after almost a week of desperation, darkness
and cold, approached a breaking point on Friday as the collective spirit that
buoyed New York in the first few days after Hurricane Sandy gave way to angry
complaints of neglect and unequal treatment.
Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, facing criticism that he was favoring marathon
runners arriving from around the world over people in devastated neighborhoods,
reversed himself and canceled the New York City Marathon.
The move was historic — the marathon has taken place every year since 1970,
including the race in 2001 held two months after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks,
and was projected to bring in $340 million.
For days, the mayor, who is often reluctant to abandon a position of his,
insisted on going ahead with the race, saying it would signal that the city was
back to normal.
He changed his mind as opposition became nearly unanimous. Critics said that it
would be in poor taste to hold a foot race through the five boroughs while so
many people in the area were still dealing with damage from the hurricane, and
that city services should focus on storm relief, not the marathon. A petition
from some marathoners called on other runners to skip the race and do volunteer
work in hard-hit areas.
But the mayor liked the parallel to Sept. 11 and saw the marathon as a symbol of
the city’s comeback. He talked to former Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani on Friday
morning; Mr. Giuliani said to stick with his original plan.
Within the mayor’s inner circle, though, there were concerns. Some advisers
worried that the criticism could steal the focus from Mr. Bloomberg’s
well-received performance during and after the storm, and could damage his
legacy in the way that the city’s botched response to a blizzard had done in
Behind the scenes, there were also concerns about what the world would see:
images of runners so close to neighborhoods that had been battered by the storm,
at a time when gasoline remained in short supply and mass transit was still not
Police Commissioner Raymond W. Kelly and Deputy Mayors Howard Wolfson and
Patricia E. Harris all argued for calling off the event.
The mayor, virtually alone in saying the race should go on, finally relented and
canceled it after a conversation with Mary Wittenberg, the marathon director,
late Friday. “This isn’t the year or the time to run it,” she said.
Patience also wore thin in other parts of the New York area amid lines that were
once again painfully long — lines for free meals, lines for buses to take people
where crippled subways could not, lines for gasoline that stretched 30 blocks in
Hand-lettered signs in hard-hit areas struck a plaintive note: “FEMA please help
us,” read one in Broad Channel, Queens. In Hoboken, N.J., one was addressed to
Gov. Chris Christie: “Gov. Chris — where is the help $$$$”
Ethel Liebeskind of Merrick, N.Y., echoed that idea as she stood in the
storm-tossed ruins of the house she had lived in for 26 years. “This is as bad
as Katrina,” she said, “and they got global attention. The South Shore of Long
Island should be treated the same way. Don’t forget us on the South Shore of
Long Island. We need help.”
There was more grim news on Staten Island, where rescuers pulled two bodies from
another house in the Midland Beach neighborhood, about two miles from the
Verrazano-Narrows Bridge. Neighbors who had been hauling their ruined furniture
and trash to the street watched as two body bags were taken out of a house on
The two victims were not immediately identified. They brought to 41 the official
count of people who died as rampaging wind drove a wall of water into the city
on Monday night.
On Staten Island, which even in good times is often referred to as the city’s
forgotten borough, desperation and anger were especially intense.
David Sylvester, 50, returned to his house in Midland Beach — he had left it
after the mayor issued evacuation orders for low-lying areas, and it burned down
when a power line shorted out during the storm — and criticized the government
and relief agencies for not arriving fast enough.
He said that not until late Thursday afternoon did anyone from the Federal
Emergency Management Agency stop by, and then the man said he should make an
appointment. “First he told me to go on the Internet,” Mr. Sylvester said, “and
I said, ‘Where should I plug it in?’ ”
The secretary of homeland security, Janet Napolitano, visited Staten Island and
defended the federal government’s response to Hurricane Sandy, saying relief
supplies were close by before the storm and were ready to be delivered once it
Staten Island, she acknowledged, “took a particularly hard hit.” She said 1.6
million meals and 7.1 million liters of water had been “positioned” before the
storm to be distributed afterward in New York. She said 657 housing inspectors
were already at work in New York and 3,200 FEMA employees had been sent to the
Other government officials asked for patience, even as they imposed new
restrictions: Governor Christie announced an odd-even gas rationing system in 12
New Jersey counties.
Still, there were some promising developments. Mr. Bloomberg said that “most” of
Manhattan would have power again by midnight Friday, although he said that other
parts of the city that were still dark — and where electricity comes from
overhead lines — would have to wait “a lot longer.” New Jersey Transit started
running partial rail service, more of the Metro-North Railroad system came back
to life and the Staten Island Ferry started crisscrossing the harbor again.
Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo said the city had made “great progress,” with service
restored to about half of the two million customers who lost electricity during
the storm. But his morning briefing hinted at the realities of disaster recovery
as he leavened encouragement with caution.
He said that turning the power back on in Lower Manhattan would be a “big step
forward” for transportation serving the area, but he also said it “did not mean
that every light” would work, because electrical systems in some buildings had
He said that ports would reopen and that tankers carrying gasoline were on the
way, so the gas shortages would diminish. He also said he had approved waivers
so that fuel tankers would not have to register or pay state taxes, as they
normally do — moves he said should speed the distribution of fuel to gas
stations. But he offset that announcement with a sober warning: ““It is not
going to get better overnight. It is not going to be a one- or two- or three-day
February 4, 2012
The New York Times
By SERGE F. KOVALESKI
PUEBLO, Colo. — On a summer night not long ago, Maureen White
sat alone in her living room staring at a DVD she had avoided watching for
On the screen was her older brother, Richard Paul White, the person who taught
her how to ride a bike and who tried to protect her from their mother’s abusive
boyfriend when they were children. He was confessing to murdering six people.
Toward the end of the videotaped police interrogation, Ms. White reached for a
razor blade and began to slice her left leg.
“I felt such rage and anger and so many emotions I did not know what to do,”
said Ms. White, 34. When she was done, she needed dozens of stitches and
Mr. White, 39, will spend the rest of his life in prison for three of the
murders, to which he pleaded guilty in 2004. Ms. White, whose life has always
been fragile, is still struggling.
Like relatives of other violent criminals, she has found herself ill prepared to
deal with the complex set of emotions and circumstances that further unhinged
her life after her brother’s crimes. Under treatment for anxiety and depression,
among other conditions, she has nightmares about serial killers and snipers. She
is startled by loud noises and gets nervous around strangers.
And for more than a year after viewing the video, she continued to cut herself —
something she had never done before.
“By cutting myself,” she said, “I wanted people to see on the outside how ugly
and bad I feel on the inside.”
In a society where headlines of violence are almost commonplace, the families of
the perpetrators are often unknown and largely unheard from. But now some
relatives have decided to share their stories. In interviews with members of
numerous families of varying social and economic status, siblings, parents,
partners, cousins and children of convicted killers recounted the hardships they
have experienced in the years since their relatives’ crimes.
In the flash of a horrifying moment, they said, their lives had become a vortex
of shame, anger and guilt. Most said they were overwhelmed by the blame and
ostracism they had received for crimes they had no part in.
Yet many of these families stay in close touch with their imprisoned relatives.
Nat Berkowitz, the father of David Berkowitz, the New York City serial killer
known as the Son of Sam, said he regularly talked to his son on the phone more
than 34 years after his arrest. “I am 101, and it still goes on,” he said.
A Cousin’s Livelihood
On Nov. 5, 2009, 13 people were killed and 32 others wounded at Fort Hood, Tex.
By the next day, the repercussions had reached a small law office in Fairfax,
Va. The head of the firm, Nader Hasan, is a cousin of Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan,
the man accused of carrying out the rampage, and the two had grown up together
“Our phones went completely quiet, dead,” Mr. Hasan, 42, a criminal defense
lawyer, said at a large oak table in his impeccably neat office, where a
painting of the United States Capitol hangs above a fireplace. “It was
devastating since we relied on referrals. I lost dozens of prospective clients,
and it still happens.”
Internet accounts reported that the two men were relatives. An interview Mr.
Hasan gave to Fox News soon after the shooting in which he said his cousin “was
a good American” created an impression to some that he was condoning what his
cousin was accused of doing.
Soon after, Mr. Hasan said, a father in a custody dispute he was handling filed
an appeal to a lawsuit against Mr. Hasan in which he referred to him as “the
cousin of the Fort Hood shooter.” The appeal argued that Mr. Hasan should be
removed as guardian of the two children in the case and highlighted his link to
The petition was dismissed, Mr. Hasan said. But during the first few months
after the shooting, he said, he felt such humiliation that he was loath to
appear in court. “We got continuances on a lot of cases until the next year
because I did not want to be seen in the courthouse since I felt so
embarrassed,” he said.
The discomfort crept into his personal life. When he returned to a local school
where he had been a volunteer assistant wrestling coach since 2000, he said, he
was asked to leave because of his connection to the Fort Hood violence. He
By March 2010, Mr. Hasan’s situation was improving. Referrals were on the rise,
and his wife was pregnant with their first child. But he was agonizing about
staying silent about religious extremism. With a lawyer friend, Kendrick
Macdowell, he formed the Nawal Foundation, named after Mr. Hasan’s mother, and
set up a Web site to encourage moderate American Muslims to denounce violence in
the name of Islam. It was not an easy thing to do.
“There was a tremendous amount of family pressure on him to do nothing public,
to not remind the world we are related to the Fort Hood shooter,” Mr. Macdowell
Late last year, Kerry Cahill, a 29-year-old woman who lost her father in the
shooting, contacted Mr. Hasan to discuss the foundation, whose message she
liked. They met at his home for several emotional hours. She said that Mr. Hasan
was very apologetic and that she sensed he was burdened. She recently accepted
his invitation to sit on the foundation’s board.
“We are both angry at the same thing,” she said.
A Lover’s Remorse
Debra Kay Bischoff was not the woman who arranged for Ronnie Lee Gardner, a
career criminal with a history of escapes, to get his hands on a gun in a Salt
Lake City courthouse, a weapon that he used to kill a lawyer and wound a
sheriff’s bailiff in a failed escape.
But for the nearly 25 years that Mr. Gardner was on death row for that 1985
murder until his execution, Ms. Bischoff, who is his former girlfriend and the
mother of two of his children, felt a sense of responsibility for much of his
violence, including a previous killing of a bartender.
Ms. Bischoff cites her decision around 1982 to move from Utah to Idaho with
their daughter and son to get away from Mr. Gardner and start a new life. Though
she loved him deeply, she said, he had become terrifying to her.
Nonetheless, Ms. Bischoff, now 52, said: “I felt such remorse leaving. What if?
What if I hadn’t? He lost it because he lost us, the only people who ever showed
In a letter she sent in June 2010 to the prison warden and the state parole
board pleading for Mr. Gardner’s life about two weeks before his execution, Ms.
Bischoff wrote, “You see, he opened his heart to us and then we broke it, and I
honestly believe it was too much for him to take and he reacted in violent ways
to release his anger and hurt.”
That Mr. Gardner died by firing squad — a method he chose over lethal injection
— has left her with an even heavier conscience. And she says she has misgivings
that her husband of 27 years knows how deeply she loved Mr. Gardner.
“I never did get over Ronnie, and I don’t know it ever ended with him,” she
said, adding that she is pursuing a bachelor’s degree in social work and
volunteering at a youth program, all to help troubled youngsters so that they
may have a better upbringing than he did.
Ms. Bischoff, her husband and the son she had with Mr. Gardner, Daniel, 31, live
in a one-story house they built next to potato and grain fields in a
middle-class neighborhood in Blackfoot, Idaho. Soon after the execution, Mr.
Gardner’s brother Randy and his daughter with Ms. Bischoff, Brandie, were
allowed to observe the bullet wounds in his chest to make sure he had died as
quickly as the authorities said he would.
“To look at his face and chest has haunted me,” Randy said. “I have night sweats
As for Brandie, 34, who works at a bakery earning $8 per hour, the fact that her
father had been absent virtually all her life has left her bitter and
distrustful of men.
“I wanted to be a daddy’s girl, but I did not have a guy to raise me or a first
guy to love, and that affected my relationships with men,” said Brandie, who had
an eight-year marriage that fell apart. “I have kept myself walled off so I
won’t get hurt again by any man.”
Brandie was in alcohol rehabilitation by the time she was 14, she said, and more
recently was charged with felony domestic battery after fighting a man while
drunk. “I have been destructive like a tornado because I have been so mad,” she
said. Soon after the execution, Brandie said, she attempted suicide by downing
large quantities of pills and washing them down with beer. She ended up in the
hospital for about three days.
Less than a month later, she was drinking Jack Daniel’s and swallowing more
“The last time I tried to kill myself, honestly, I felt like I was done,”
Brandie said, standing in a bedroom of the worn bungalow she rents on a
tree-lined street in Idaho Falls. In her hands was a plastic box containing some
of her father’s ashes.
A Brother’s Fears
Ever since Aug. 18, 2005, Robert Hyde has been leery about what perils may lie
outside, beyond his home near the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque.
That was the day his older brother, John, long plagued by mental illness,
embarked on a homicidal spree that spanned about 18 hours and left five people
dead in scattered parts of the city, with two police officers among the victims.
Mr. Hyde had never known his brother to be violent or cruel. He understood that
John, who like himself was adopted but from different biological parents, had
been paranoid and odd, but he did not think John was prone to violence. Knowing
now that John had descended into such savage behavior has changed the way Mr.
Hyde perceives people.
“The world is darker to me now; I am more nervous when I go out,” Mr. Hyde, 51,
said as classical music softly played in the living room of his modest Pueblo
revival-style house. “Who knows who else is out there somewhere who could change
so drastically?” he said. “Maybe anyone could.”
The first time Mr. Hyde traveled after the shootings, on a trip to a lake with
his girlfriend, they feared that others there might assault them. “It was
paranoia,” he said. “It was a degree of post-traumatic stress.”
Then there was simply the matter of his last name. He was self-conscious when it
was called at a doctor’s office. His son, he said, a high school senior when the
shootings occurred, endured nasty taunts from fellow students: “Are you going to
go Hyde on me?”
Not long after John, now 55, was arrested, he told his legal guardian that he
wanted to kill Mr. Hyde and their cousin Christian Meuli, a recently retired
physician. “I was so scared John was shrewd enough to escape that I was prepared
to flee from my home,” said Dr. Meuli, 60. For the next four years, he carried a
3-by-5 index card on which he had written phone numbers and other critical
information he would need in case he had to disappear.
Mr. Hyde used to work in the field of substance abuse research and now makes a
living selling antiques and other collectibles. He has devoted time to speaking
about the need for better access to quality behavioral health care and greater
communication between providers. He says he believes that could have made a
difference in his brother’s mental health and possibly in preventing the crimes.
“I have tried to get more involved in this issue, but I don’t have the power,”
Mr. Hyde said. “My last name is a hindrance.” A Sister’s Guilt
In 2003, life looked promising for Danyall White, another sister of Richard Paul
White. After a difficult childhood, everything seemed to be falling into place.
She was studying to be a court reporter at a school outside Denver and had a job
answering phones for a pay TV provider.
For about a year, though, her brother had been telling her that he had killed
women throughout Colorado. But Mr. White, then 30, often “said off-the-wall
things,” she recalled. She dismissed the morbid claims as fantasies.
One day Mr. White told her that he had fatally shot a close friend by accident,
another tale that she considered imaginary.
That was until he showed her a newspaper article about his friend’s death. The
article said it might have been suicide, but Ms. White, imagining the guilt the
victim’s parents might feel, decided she should inform the police about her
brother’s claim. He was arrested on first-degree murder charges. Soon after, Mr.
White confessed to killing five women he believed to be prostitutes (though the
police found the bodies of only three of them).
Now, Ms. White is grappling with her own guilt. “It wasn’t just the guilt of my
brother being behind bars, but the guilt of watching everybody’s life falling
apart because of what I did, the phone call that I made,” said Ms. White, 37.
“Some of my family shunned me, and it ate away at me.”
Soon enough, Ms. White said, she found “a friend and confidant” who never left
her side: alcohol. For several years, her days were soothed by Jack Daniel’s and
dozens of bottles of beer.
After the arrest of her brother, Ms. White abandoned her studies and was
dismissed from her job because, she said, the company told her it could not
assure her safety against colleagues’ threats and insults.
When her ailing mother died, Ms. White could barely function. She said life’s
toll since turning in her brother had led her to attempt suicide four times.
In 2010, Ms. White entered an alcohol rehabilitation program and says she had
been sober for 20 months before briefly relapsing recently. “I told no one in
rehab who I was, that I was R. P.’s sister,” she said. “In sobriety, I have
realized that I was taking responsibility for someone else’s actions. A lot of
the guilt has subsided.”
February 25, 2011
The New York Times
By BOB HERBERT
Lynda Hiller teared up. “We’re struggling real bad,” she said, “and it’s getting
harder every day.”
A handful of people were sitting around a dining room table in a row house in
North Philadelphia on Wednesday, talking about the problems facing working
people in America. The setting outside the house on West Harold Street was grim.
The remnants of a snowstorm lined the curbs and a number of people, obviously
down on their luck, were moving about the struggling neighborhood. Some were
The small gathering had been arranged by a group called Working America, which
is affiliated with the A.F.L.-C.I.O., but the people at the meeting did not
belong to unions. They were just there to talk in an atmosphere of mutual
What struck me about the conversation was the way people talked in normal tones
about the equivalent of a hurricane ripping through their lives, leaving little
but destruction in its wake.
Ms. Hiller had come in from Allentown. She’s 63 years old and still undergoing
treatment for breast cancer. Her husband, Howard, who was not at the meeting,
had been a long-distance truck driver for 35 years before losing his job in
2007, the same year Ms. Hiller received her diagnosis. Mr. Hiller thought at the
time that with all of his experience he would find another job pretty quickly.
He was mistaken.
“He looked for two years,” Ms. Hiller said. “He applied every place he could,
sometimes four or five times at the same company. He went everywhere, to every
job fair you can think of, to every place where there was even a mention of an
opening. But for every job that came available, there were 20 people or more who
showed up for it.”
Last fall, Mr. Hiller took a part-time job as a dishwasher at a Red Lobster
restaurant. “It’s a job,” Ms. Hiller said. “It’s not fancy. It’s not truck
And it was not enough for them to keep their home. Ms. Hiller lost her job at a
bank when she became ill. With both paychecks gone, meeting the mortgage became
impossible. The Hillers lost their home and are now living day to day. “If my
husband can get 30 hours of work in a week, then maybe we can pay some bills,”
Ms. Hiller said. “If he can’t, we can’t. We’ve downsized our lives so much.”
The meeting was in the home of Elizabeth Lassiter, a certified nursing assistant
whose job is in Hatfield, Pa., about 45 minutes north of Philadelphia. She
doesn’t earn a lot or get benefits, but it’s a big step up from last year when
she was working part time in Warminster and for a while had to sleep in her car.
“Back then I was working for a nursing agency and they kept saying they didn’t
have full-time work,” she said. Until she could raise enough money for an
apartment, the car was her only option. “I needed someplace to lay my head,” she
said. “It was very hard.”
These are the kinds of stories you might expect from a country staggering
through a depression, not the richest and supposedly most advanced society on
earth. If these were exceptional stories, there would be less reason for
concern. But they are in no way extraordinary. Similar stories abound throughout
the United States.
Among the many heartening things about the workers fighting back in Wisconsin,
Ohio and elsewhere is the spotlight that is being thrown on the contemptuous
attitude of the corporate elite and their handmaidens in government toward
ordinary working Americans: police officers and firefighters, teachers, truck
drivers, janitors, health care aides, and so on. These are the people who do the
daily grunt work of America. How dare we treat them with contempt.
It would be a mistake to think that this fight is solely about the right of
public employees to collectively bargain. As important as that issue is, it’s
just one skirmish in what’s shaping up as a long, bitter campaign to keep
ordinary workers, whether union members or not, from being completely
overwhelmed by the forces of unrestrained greed in this society.
The predators at the top, billionaires and millionaires, are pitting ordinary
workers against one another. So we’re left with the bizarre situation of
unionized workers with a pension being resented by nonunion workers without one.
The swells are in the background, having a good laugh.
I asked Lynda Hiller if she felt generally optimistic or pessimistic. She was
quiet for a moment, then said: “I don’t think things are going to get any
better. I think we’re going to hit rock bottom. The big shots are in charge, and
they just don’t give a darn about the little person.”
Computers may be good at crunching numbers, but can they crunch feelings?
The rise of blogs and social networks has fueled a bull market in personal
opinion: reviews, ratings, recommendations and other forms of online expression.
For computer scientists, this fast-growing mountain of data is opening a
tantalizing window onto the collective consciousness of Internet users.
An emerging field known as sentiment analysis is taking shape around one of the
computer world’s unexplored frontiers: translating the vagaries of human emotion
into hard data.
This is more than just an interesting programming exercise. For many businesses,
online opinion has turned into a kind of virtual currency that can make or break
a product in the marketplace.
Yet many companies struggle to make sense of the caterwaul of complaints and
compliments that now swirl around their products online. As sentiment analysis
tools begin to take shape, they could not only help businesses improve their
bottom lines, but also eventually transform the experience of searching for
Several new sentiment analysis companies are trying to tap into the growing
business interest in what is being said online.
“Social media used to be this cute project for 25-year-old consultants,” said
Margaret Francis, vice president for product at Scout Labs in San Francisco.
Now, she said, top executives “are recognizing it as an incredibly rich vein of
Scout Labs, which is backed by the venture capital firm started by the CNet
founder Halsey Minor, recently introduced a subscription service that allows
customers to monitor blogs, news articles, online forums and social networking
sites for trends in opinions about products, services or topics in the news.
In early May, the ticket marketplace StubHub used Scout Labs’ monitoring tool to
identify a sudden surge of negative blog sentiment after rain delayed a
Yankees-Red Sox game.
Stadium officials mistakenly told hundreds of fans that the game had been
canceled, and StubHub denied fans’ requests for refunds, on the grounds that the
game had actually been played. But after spotting trouble brewing online, the
company offered discounts and credits to the affected fans. It is now
re-evaluating its bad weather policy.
“This is a canary in a coal mine for us,” said John Whelan, StubHub’s director
of customer service.
Jodange, based in Yonkers, offers a service geared toward online publishers that
lets them incorporate opinion data drawn from over 450,000 sources, including
mainstream news sources, blogs and Twitter.
Based on research by Claire Cardie, a former Cornell computer science professor,
and Jan Wiebe of the University of Pittsburgh, the service uses a sophisticated
algorithm that not only evaluates sentiments about particular topics, but also
identifies the most influential opinion holders.
Jodange, whose early investors include the National Science Foundation, is
currently working on a new algorithm that could use opinion data to predict
future developments, like forecasting the impact of newspaper editorials on a
company’s stock price.
In a similar vein, The Financial Times recently introduced Newssift, an
experimental program that tracks sentiments about business topics in the news,
coupled with a specialized search engine that allows users to organize their
queries by topic, organization, place, person and theme.
Using Newssift, a search for Wal-Mart reveals that recent sentiment about the
company is running positive by a ratio of slightly better than two to one. When
that search is refined with the suggested term “Labor Force and Unions,”
however, the ratio of positive to negative sentiments drops closer to one to
Such tools could help companies pinpoint the effect of specific issues on
customer perceptions, helping them respond with appropriate marketing and public
For casual Web surfers, simpler incarnations of sentiment analysis are sprouting
up in the form of lightweight tools like Tweetfeel, Twendz and Twitrratr. These
sites allow users to take the pulse of Twitter users about particular topics.
A quick search on Tweetfeel, for example, reveals that 77 percent of recent
tweeters liked the movie “Julie & Julia.” But the same search on Twitrratr
reveals a few misfires. The site assigned a negative score to a tweet reading
“julie and julia was truly delightful!!” That same message ended with “we all
felt very hungry afterwards” — and the system took the word “hungry” to indicate
a negative sentiment.
While the more advanced algorithms used by Scout Labs, Jodange and Newssift
employ advanced analytics to avoid such pitfalls, none of these services works
perfectly. “Our algorithm is about 70 to 80 percent accurate,” said Ms. Francis,
who added that its users can reclassify inaccurate results so the system learns
from its mistakes.
Translating the slippery stuff of human language into binary values will always
be an imperfect science, however. “Sentiments are very different from
conventional facts,” said Seth Grimes, the founder of the suburban Maryland
consulting firm Alta Plana, who points to the many cultural factors and
linguistic nuances that make it difficult to turn a string of written text into
a simple pro or con sentiment. “ ‘Sinful’ is a good thing when applied to
chocolate cake,” he said.
The simplest algorithms work by scanning keywords to categorize a statement as
positive or negative, based on a simple binary analysis (“love” is good, “hate”
is bad). But that approach fails to capture the subtleties that bring human
language to life: irony, sarcasm, slang and other idiomatic expressions.
Reliable sentiment analysis requires parsing many linguistic shades of gray.
“We are dealing with sentiment that can be expressed in subtle ways,” said Bo
Pang, a researcher at Yahoo who co-wrote “Opinion Mining and Sentiment
Analysis,” one of the first academic books on sentiment analysis.
To get at the true intent of a statement, Ms. Pang developed software that looks
at several different filters, including polarity (is the statement positive or
negative?), intensity (what is the degree of emotion being expressed?) and
subjectivity (how partial or impartial is the source?).
For example, a preponderance of adjectives often signals a high degree of
subjectivity, while noun- and verb-heavy statements tend toward a more neutral
point of view.
As sentiment analysis algorithms grow more sophisticated, they should begin to
yield more accurate results that may eventually point the way to more
sophisticated filtering mechanisms. They could become a part of everyday Web
“I see sentiment analysis becoming a standard feature of search engines,” said
Mr. Grimes, who suggests that such algorithms could begin to influence both
general-purpose Web searching and more specialized searches in areas like
e-commerce, travel reservations and movie reviews.
Ms. Pang envisions a search engine that fine-tunes results for users based on
sentiment. For example, it might influence the ordering of search results for
certain kinds of queries like “best hotel in San Antonio.”
As search engines begin to incorporate more and more opinion data into their
results, the distinction between fact and opinion may start blurring to the
point where, as David Byrne once put it, “facts all come with points of view.”
Beginning in England in the 17th century, the European world was stricken by
what looks, in today's terms, like an epidemic of depression. The disease
attacked both young and old, plunging them into months or years of morbid
lethargy and relentless terrors, and seemed - perhaps only because they wrote
more and had more written about them - to single out men of accomplishment and
genius. The puritan writer John Bunyan, the political leader Oliver Cromwell,
the poets Thomas Gray and John Donne, and the playwright and essayist Samuel
Johnson are among the earliest and best-known victims. To the medical
profession, the illness presented a vexing conundrum, not least because its
gravest outcome was suicide. In 1733, Dr George Cheyne speculated that the
English climate, combined with sedentary lifestyles and urbanisation, "have
brought forth a class of distemper with atrocious and frightful symptoms, scarce
known to our ancestors, and never rising to such fatal heights, and afflicting
such numbers in any known nation. These nervous disorders being computed to make
almost one-third of the complaints of the people of condition in England."
To the English, the disease was "the English malady". But the rainy British
Isles were not the only site visited by the disease; all of Europe was
The disease grew increasingly prevalent over the course of the 20th century,
when relatively sound statistics first became available, and this increase
cannot be accounted for by a greater willingness on the part of physicians and
patients to report it. Rates of schizophrenia, panic disorders and phobias did
not rise at the same time, for example, as they would be expected to if only
changes in the reporting of mental illness were at work. According to the World
Health Organisation, depression is now the fifth leading cause of death and
disability in the world, while ischemic heart disease trails in sixth place.
Fatalities occur most dramatically through suicide, but even the mild form of
depression - called dysthemia and characterised by an inability to experience
pleasure - can kill by increasing a person's vulnerability to serious somatic
illnesses such as cancer and heart disease. Far from being an affliction of the
famous and successful, we now know that the disease strikes the poor more often
than the rich, and women more commonly than men.
Just in the past few years, hundreds of books, articles and television specials
have been devoted to depression: its toll on the individual, its relationship to
gender, the role of genetic factors, the efficacy of pharmaceutical treatments.
But to my knowledge, no one has suggested that the epidemic may have begun in a
particular historical time, and started as a result of cultural circumstances
that arose at that time and have persisted or intensified since. The failure to
consider historical roots may stem, in part, from the emphasis on the celebrity
victims of the past, which tends to discourage a statistical, or
epidemiological, perspective. But if there was, in fact, a beginning to the
epidemic of depression, sometime in the 16th or 17th century, it confronts us
with this question: could this apparent decline in the ability to experience
pleasure be in any way connected with the decline in opportunities for pleasure,
such as carnival and other traditional festivities?
There is reason to think that something like an epidemic of depression in fact
began around 1600, or the time when the Anglican minister Robert Burton
undertook his "anatomy" of the disease, published as The Anatomy of Melancholy
in 1621. Melancholy, as it was called until the 20th century, is of course a
very ancient problem, and was described in the fifth century BC by Hippocrates.
Chaucer's 14th-century characters were aware of it, and late-medieval churchmen
knew it as "acedia". So melancholy, in some form, had always existed - and,
regrettably, we have no statistical evidence of a sudden increase in early
modern Europe, which had neither a psychiatric profession to do the diagnosing
nor a public health establishment to record the numbers of the afflicted. All we
know is that in the 1600s and 1700s, medical books about melancholy and
literature with melancholic themes were both finding an eager audience,
presumably at least in part among people who suffered from melancholy
Increasing interest in melancholy is not, however, evidence of an increase in
the prevalence of actual melancholy. As the historian Roy Porter suggested, the
disease may simply have been becoming more stylish, both as a medical diagnosis
and as a problem, or pose, affected by the idle rich, and signifying a certain
ennui or detachment. No doubt the medical prejudice that it was a disease of the
gifted, or at least of the comfortable, would have made it an attractive
diagnosis to the upwardly mobile and merely out-of-sorts.
But melancholy did not become a fashionable pose until a full century after
Burton took up the subject, and when it did become stylish, we must still
wonder: why did this particular stance or attitude become fashionable and not
another? An arrogant insouciance might, for example, seem more fitting to an age
of imperialism than this wilting, debilitating malady; and enlightenment,
another well-known theme of the era, might have been better served by a mood of
Nor can we be content with the claim that the apparent epidemic of melancholy
was the cynical invention of the men who profited by writing about it, since
some of these were self-identified sufferers themselves. Robert Burton
confessed, "I writ of melancholy, by being busy to avoid melancholy." George
Cheyne was afflicted, though miraculously cured by a vegetarian diet of his own
devising. The Englishman John Brown, who published a bestselling
mid-19th-century book on the subject, went on to commit suicide. Something was
happening, from about 1600 on, to make melancholy a major concern of the reading
public, and the simplest explanation is that there was more melancholy around to
be concerned about.
And very likely the phenomena of this early "epidemic of depression" and the
suppression of communal rituals and festivities are entangled in various ways.
It could be, for example, that, as a result of their illness, depressed
individuals lost their taste for communal festivities and even came to view them
with revulsion. But there are other possibilities. First, that both the rise of
depression and the decline of festivities are symptomatic of some deeper,
underlying psychological change, which began about 400 years ago and persists,
in some form, in our own time. The second, more intriguing possibility is that
the disappearance of traditional festivities was itself a factor contributing to
One approaches the subject of "deeper, underlying psychological change" with
some trepidation, but fortunately, in this case, many respected scholars have
already visited this difficult terrain. "Historians of European culture are in
substantial agreement," Lionel Trilling wrote in 1972, "that in the late 16th
and early 17th centuries, something like a mutation in human nature took place."
This change has been called the rise of subjectivity or the discovery of the
inner self and since it can be assumed that all people, in all historical
periods, have some sense of selfhood and capacity for subjective reflection, we
are really talking about an intensification, and a fairly drastic one, of the
universal human capacity to face the world as an autonomous "I", separate from,
and largely distrustful of, "them". The European nobility had already undergone
this sort of psychological shift in their transformation from a warrior class to
a collection of courtiers, away from directness and spontaneity and toward a new
guardedness in relation to others. In the late 16th and 17th centuries, the
change becomes far more widespread, affecting even artisans, peasants, and
labourers. The new "emphasis on disengagement and selfconsciousness", as Louis
Sass puts it, makes the individual potentially more autonomous and critical of
existing social arrange-ments, which is all to the good. But it can also
transform the individual into a kind of walled fortress, carefully defended from
Historians infer this psychological shift from a number of concrete changes
occurring in the early modern period, first and most strikingly among the urban
bourgeoisie, or upper middle class. Mirrors in which to examine oneself become
popular among those who can afford them, along with self-portraits (Rembrandt
painted more than 50 of them) and autobiographies in which to revise and
elaborate the image that one has projected to others. In bourgeois homes, public
spaces that guests may enter are differentiated, for the first time, from the
private spaces - bedrooms, for example - in which one may retire to let down
one's guard and truly "be oneself". More decorous forms of entertainment - plays
and operas requiring people to remain immobilised, each in his or her separate
seat - begin to provide an alternative to the promiscuously interactive and
physically engaging pleasures of carnival. The very word "self", as Trilling
noted, ceases to be a mere reflexive or intensifier and achieves the status of a
freestanding noun, referring to some inner core, not readily visible to others.
The notion of a self hidden behind one's appearance and portable from one
situation to another is usually attributed to the new possibility of upward
mobility. In medieval culture, you were what you appeared to be - a peasant, a
man of commerce or an aristocrat - and any attempt to assume another status
would have been regarded as rank deception. But in the late 16th century, upward
mobility was beginning to be possible or at least imaginable, making "deception"
a widespread way of life. You might not be a lord or a lofty burgher, but you
could find out how to act like one. Hence the popularity, in 17th-century
England, of books instructing the would-be member of the gentry in how to
comport himself, write an impressive letter and choose a socially advantageous
Hence, too, the new fascination with the theatre, with its notion of an actor
who is different from his or her roles. This is a notion that takes some getting
used to; in the early years of the theatre, actors who played the part of
villains risked being assaulted by angry playgoers in the streets. Within the
theatre, there is a fascination with plots involving further deceptions:
Shakespeare's Portia pretends to be a doctor of law; Rosalind disguises herself
as a boy; Juliet feigns her own death. Writing a few years after Shakespeare's
death, Burton bemoaned the fact that acting was no longer confined to the
theatre, for "men like stage-players act [a] variety of parts". It was painful,
in his view, "to see a man turn himself into all shapes like a Chameleon ... to
act twenty parts & persons at once for his advantage ... having a several face,
garb, & character, for every one he meets". The inner self that can change
costumes and manners to suit the occasion resembles a skilled craftsperson, too
busy and watchful for the pleasures of easygoing conviviality. As for the outer
self projected by the inner one into the social world: who would want to "lose
oneself" in the communal excitement of carnival when that self has taken so much
effort and care to construct?
So highly is the "inner self" honoured within our own culture that its
acquisition seems to be an unquestionable mark of progress - a requirement, as
Trilling called it, for "the emergence of modern European and American man". It
was, no doubt, this sense of individuality and personal autonomy, "of an
untrammelled freedom to ask questions and explore", as the historian Yi-Fu Tuan
put it, that allowed men such as Martin Luther and Galileo to risk their lives
by defying Catholic doctrine. Which is preferable: a courageous, or even merely
grasping and competitive, individualism, versus a medieval (or, in the case of
non-European cultures, "primitive") personality so deeply mired in community and
ritual that it can barely distinguish a "self"? From the perspective of our own
time, the choice, so stated, is obvious. We have known nothing else.
But there was a price to be paid for the buoyant individualism we associate with
the more upbeat aspects of the early modern period, the Renaissance and
Enlightenment. As Tuan writes, "the obverse" of the new sense of personal
autonomy is "isolation, loneliness, a sense of disengagement, a loss of natural
vitality and of innocent pleasure in the givenness of the world, and a feeling
of burden because reality has no meaning other than what a person chooses to
impart to it". Now if there is one circumstance indisputably involved in the
etiology of depression, it is precisely this sense of isolation. As the
19th-century French sociologist Emile Durkheim saw it, "Originally society is
everything, the individual nothing ... But gradually things change. As societies
become greater in volume and density, individual differences multiply, and the
moment approaches when the only remaining bond among the members of a single
human group will be that they are all [human]." The flip side of the heroic
autonomy that is said to represent one of the great achievements of the early
modern and modern eras is radical isolation and, with it, depression and
But the new kind of personality that arose in 16th- and 17th-century Europe was
by no means as autonomous and self-defining as claimed. For far from being
detached from the immediate human environment, the newly self-centered
individual is continually preoccupied with judging the expectations of others
and his or her own success in meeting them: "How am I doing?" this supposedly
autonomous "self" wants to know. "What kind of an impression am I making?"
It is no coincidence that the concept of society emerges at the same time as the
concept of self. What seems most to concern the new and supposedly autonomous
self is the opinion of others, who in aggregate compose "society". Mirrors, for
example, do not show us our "selves", only what others can see, and
autobiographies reveal only what we want those others to know. The crushing
weight of other people's judgments - imagined or real - would help explain the
frequent onset of depression at the time of a perceived or anticipated failure.
In the 19th century, the historian Janet Oppenheim reports, "severely depressed
patients frequently revealed totally unwarranted fears of financial ruin or the
expectation of professional disgrace". This is not autonomy but dependency: the
emerging "self" defines its own worth in terms of the perceived judgments of
If depression was one result of the new individualism, the usual concomitant of
depression - anxiety - was surely another. It takes effort, as well as a great
deal of watchfulness, to second-guess other people's reactions and plot one's
words and gestures accordingly. For the scheming courtier, the striving burgher
and the ambitious lawyer or cleric of early modern Europe, the "self" they
discovered is perhaps best described as an awareness of this ceaseless, internal
effort to adjust one's behaviour to the expectations of others. Play in this
context comes to have a demanding new meaning, unconnected to pleasure, as in
"playing a role". No wonder bourgeois life becomes privatised in the 16th and
17th centuries, with bedrooms and studies to withdraw to, where, for a few hours
a day, the effort can be abandoned, the mask set aside.
But we cannot grasp the full psychological impact of this "mutation in human
nature" in purely secular terms. Four hundred - even 200 - years ago, most
people would have interpreted their feelings of isolation and anxiety through
the medium of religion, translating self as "soul"; the ever-watchful judgmental
gaze of others as "God"; and melancholy as "the gnawing fear of eternal
damnation". Catholicism offered various palliatives to the disturbed and
afflicted, in the form of rituals designed to win divine forgiveness or at least
diminished disapproval; and even Lutheranism, while rejecting most of the
rituals, posited an approachable and ultimately loving God.
Not so with the Calvinist version of Protestantism. Instead of offering relief,
Calvinism provided a metaphysical framework for depression: if you felt
isolated, persecuted and possibly damned, this was because you actually were.
John Bunyan seems to have been a jolly enough fellow in his youth, much given to
dancing and sports in the village green, but with the onset of his religious
crisis these pleasures had to be put aside. Dancing was the hardest to
relinquish - "I was a full year before I could quite leave it" - but he
eventually managed to achieve a fun-free life. In Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress,
carnival is the portal to Hell, just as pleasure in any form - sexual,
gustatory, convivial - is the devil's snare. Nothing speaks more clearly of the
darkening mood, the declining possibilities for joy, than the fact that, while
the medieval peasant created festivities as an escape from work, the Puritan
embraced work as an escape from terror.
We do not have to rely on psychological inference to draw a link between
Calvinism and depression. There is one clear marker for depression - suicide -
and suicide rates have been recorded, with varying degrees of diligence, for
centuries. In his classic study, Durkheim found that Protestants in the 19th
century - not all of whom, of course, were of the Calvinistic persuasion - were
about twice as likely to take their own lives as Catholics. More strikingly, a
recent analysis finds a sudden surge of suicide in the Swiss canton of Zurich,
beginning in the late 16th century, just as that region became a Calvinist
stronghold. Some sort of general breakdown of social mores cannot be invoked as
an explanation, since homicides fell as suicides rose.
So if we are looking for a common source of depression on the one hand, and the
suppression of festivities on the other, it is not hard to find. Urbanisation
and the rise of a competitive, market-based economy favoured a more anxious and
isolated sort of person - potentially both prone to depression and distrustful
of communal pleasures. Calvinism provided a transcendent rationale for this
shift, intensifying the isolation and practically institutionalising depression
as a stage in the quest for salvation. At the level of "deep, underlying
psychological change", both depression and the destruction of festivities could
be described as seemingly inevitable consequences of the broad process known as
modernisation. But could there also be a more straightforward link, a way in
which the death of carnival contributed directly to the epidemic of depression?
It may be that in abandoning their traditional festivities, people lost a
potentially effective cure for it. Burton suggested many cures for melancholy -
study and exercise, for example - but he returned again and again to the same
prescription: "Let them use hunting, sports, plays, jests, merry company ... a
cup of good drink now and then, hear musick, and have such companions with whom
they are especially delighted; merry tales or toys, drinking, singing, dancing,
and whatsoever else may procure mirth." He acknowledged the ongoing attack on
"Dancing, Singing, Masking, Mumming, Stage-plays" by "some severe Gatos,"
referring to the Calvinists, but heartily endorsed the traditional forms of
festivity: "Let them freely feast, sing and dance, have their Puppet-plays,
Hobby-horses, Tabers, Crowds, Bagpipes, &c, play at Ball, and Barley-breaks, and
what sports and recreations they like best." In his ideal world, "none shall be
over-tired, but have their set times of recreations and holidays, to indulge
their humour, feasts and merry meetings ..." His views accorded with treatments
of melancholy already in use in the 16th century. While the disruptively "mad"
were confined and cruelly treated, melancholics were, at least in theory, to be
"refreshed & comforted" and "gladded with instruments of musick".
A little over a century after Burton wrote The Anatomy of Melancholy, another
English writer, Richard Browne, echoed his prescription, backing it up with a
scientific (for the time) view of the workings of the human "machine". Singing
and dancing could cure melancholy, he proposed, by stirring up the "secretions".
And a century later, even Adam Smith, the great prophet of capitalism, was
advocating festivities and art as a means of relieving melancholy.
Burton, Browne and Smith were not the only ones to propose festivity as a cure
for melancholy, and there is reason to believe that whether through guesswork,
nostalgia, or personal experience, they were on to something important. I know
of no attempts in our own time to use festive behaviour as treatment for
depression, if such an experiment is even thinkable in a modern clinical
setting. There is, however, an abundance of evidence that communal pleasures
have served, in a variety of cultures, as a way of alleviating and even curing
The 19th-century historian JFC Hecker reports an example from 19th-century
Abyssinia, or what is now Ethiopia. An individual, usually a woman, would fall
into a kind of wasting illness, until her relatives agreed to "hire, for a
certain sum of money, a band of trumpeters, drummers, and fifers, and buy a
quantity of liquor; then all the young men and women of the place assemble at
the patient's house," where they dance and generally party for days, invariably
effecting a cure. Similarly, in 20th-century Somalia, a married woman afflicted
by what we would call depression would call for a female shaman, who might
diagnose possession by a "sar" spirit. Musicians would be hired, other women
summoned, and the sufferer cured through a long bout of ecstatic dancing with
the all-female group.
We cannot be absolutely sure in any of these cases - from 17th-century England
to 20th-century Somalia - that festivities and danced rituals actually cured the
disease we know as depression. But there are reasons to think that they might
have. First, because such rituals serve to break down the sufferer's sense of
isolation and reconnect him or her with the human community. Second, because
they encourage the experience of self-loss - that is, a release, however
temporary, from the prison of the self, or at least from the anxious business of
evaluating how one stands in the group or in the eyes of an ever-critical God.
Friedrich Nietzsche, as lonely and tormented an individual as the 19th century
produced, understood the therapeutics of ecstasy perhaps better than anyone
else. At a time of almost universal celebration of the "self", he alone dared
speak of the "horror of individual existence", and glimpsed relief in the
ancient Dionysian rituals that he knew of only from reading classics - rituals
in which, he imagined, "each individual becomes not only reconciled to his
fellow but actually at one with him".
The immense tragedy for Europeans, and most acutely for the northern Protestants
among them, was that the same social forces that disposed them to depression
also swept away a traditional cure. They could congratulate themselves for
brilliant achievements in the areas of science, exploration and industry, and
even convince themselves that they had not, like Faust, had to sell their souls
to the devil in exchange for these accomplishments. But with the suppression of
festivities that accompanied modern European "progress", they had done something
perhaps far more damaging: they had completed the demonisation of Dionysus begun
by Christians centuries ago, and thereby rejected one of the most ancient
sources of help - the mind-preserving, life-saving techniques of ecstasy.
· This is an edited extract from Dancing in the Streets:
A History of Collective
Joy by Barbara Ehrenreich,
One in three adults say they suffered regular acts of 'emotional abuse' as
children, with many admitting they were terrified of their parents when growing
up. The disturbing findings, to be revealed in a report published tomorrow, have
led to claims that the issue of emotional abuse has been ignored by society - to
the detriment of a generation which has grown up with low self-esteem and
'Too often emotional abuse is not taken seriously when enormous damage is being
done to individuals and to society,' said Mary Marsh, chief executive of the
National Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Children, the charity publishing
the report. 'We urgently need to address the scale and impact of emotional
maltreatment on the current generation of children. Parents who emotionally
abuse children systematically destroy their sense of worth and identity.
Children can grow up in despair and loneliness, constantly on edge - like being
trapped in a cage.'
The NSPCC interviewed almost 2,000 adults and found that of those who regularly
suffered emotional abuse, 33 per cent said it went on through their childhood.
Six in ten said the abuse gradually stopped only when they got older or left
More than half who claimed they were regularly abused said they had been
habitually shouted or screamed at, while almost one in fi ve said they were
often left afraid of their father or mother. A similar number said they were
often called stupid, lazy or worthless. One in 20 was regularly told: 'I wish
you were dead.'
Despite such prevalence, there is concern that abuse often goes ignored - the
charity found those working with children intervened to stop it only in one per
cent of cases.
As part of its Be The Full Stop campaign against child abuse, the NSPCC will
tomorrow call on the government to encourage greater awareness of the problem.