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Losing Your Glasses

February 22, 1987|JONATHAN KIRSCH

Psychology is the dominant religion of the late 20th Century, a system of belief that claims to explain the workings of our minds, our civilization, our destiny, but only rarely manages to make a difference in the real world. Indeed, evidence of the limits of psychology is all around us: The "bag ladies" and sidewalk derelicts are only the most dramatic examples of the inability of the psychological establishment to understand--must less "cure"--the varieties of behavior that are called mental illness. That's the anguishing contradiction that informs and animates I'm Not Crazy, I Just Lost My Glasses by Lonny Shavelson (De Novo Press, Box 5106, Berkeley, Calif. 94705: $12.95, plus California sales tax and $1 shipping). Shavelson, a photographer with a compassionate spirit and an acute sense of social observation, has attempted to go beyond the clinical euphemisms, to penetrate the abstract phenomenon of mental illness, and to look unflinchingly in the human face of madness.

Shavelson's method is simple, straightforward, and powerful in its impact. He interviewed 39 men and women who have been "in and out of mental institutions"; then he worked with each subject to compose a first-person statement based on the interview transcript; and finally he photographed each subject in stark, sometimes harrowing, always evocative black-and-white portraiture. But this is not an Arbusian freak show: "Here there is . . . no exaggeration of features or setting by shocking proximity or lenticular distortion," explains photography critic and historian A.D. Coleman in his introduction to Shavelson's book. "The revelations that occur here are . . . largely conscious and deliberate--not so much booty looted by the photographer as gifts offered to him, and through him, to us." Shavelson allows each man and woman to tell us something intimate and unguarded about the reality of mental illness. In the most literal sense, then, these mentally disturbed men and women speak for themselves.

Thus we encounter a paranoid schizophrenic with a wry sense of humor ("My fondest memory was thinking I was a trout, having sex with this waitress who was another trout") and a sharp social conscience ("Poverty is the most painful symptom of mental illness"). And there's a middle-age survivor of 37 electroshock therapy sessions whose malady started at Yale in 1947, when he "got to reading Nietzsche" and ended up in the college chapel "without clothes . . . and screaming at the icons." He explains. "I'll say this--if this President of the United States is sane, in contact with the reality of this world, then I'm happy to be insane. He has his phony Christianity, but he hurts people, cutting disability funds." One woman attributes her attacks of hysteria to her difficulties in achieving orgasm. "I remember people used to say, 'Dossie, you need to love yourself more.' Masturbation is how I learned to have orgasms, and that gave me the self-confidence to take control of my life."

Shavelson seems to have found some rather personable and engaging victims of mental illness, men and women whose insight allows them to inject a healthy dose of irony and even social satire into their confessions. But Shavelson does not neglect the more troubling manifestations of mental disorder. And so we also meet a disturbed young man who is wired to his Walkman and to his elaborate Star Trek fantasies--"Kirk's always in command . . . I rarely let go of my emotions until I'm sure somebody can take my anger without falling apart . . . If I lose control of my Command I'm lost"--and a black woman whose hallucinations resulted in repeated hospitalizations: "Even my mother's called the police on me. That hurts."

"I'm Not Crazy, I Just Lost My Glasses" is not an especially pleasant book to read and contemplate, nor was it intended to be. But the book is a compelling one; Shavelson has aspired to create a work of art and social science, and he succeeds at both enterprises. "I wanted to find a way around this insane public view of what crazy people are about--to slip by the media-propagated images of droolers, screamers, freaks, drugged-out zombies, psychotic killers and mind-scrambled lunatics," Shavelson writes in the Afterword to his book. "The people who were willing to risk personal exposure in this book offer us the chance to hear the voices inside the experience of being 'crazy.' "

A local poetry magazine has published what may become a little classic. Recently, while browsing through the stacks at J. Roth Bookstore in West Los Angeles, I happened to pick up a copy of the fall, 1986, issue of Shirim: A Jewish Poetry Journal (Hillel Macor, 900 Hilgard Ave., Los Angeles 90024: $3; two-issue subscription, $5).

This modest publication--composed on a typewriter, inexpensively printed and staple-bound--is a showcase for three notable Southern California poets and writers: Marcia Falk, Kate Braverman and Deena Metzger. Each is a Jewish woman and an accomplished poet, although each approaches her Jewishness and her poetry in a different way. Their poetry--and their self-revelatory introductory essays--are consistently intriguing and original, and occasionally brilliant. What's more, this serendipitous issue of Shirim succeeds in bringing together three important voices that speak eloquently of our time and our place--it's a collection that I intend to keep.

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