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Prozac And Prejudice

July 18, 1993

In her review of Peter Kramer's "Listening to Prozac" (June 13), Carol Tavris says that she is "not opposed to (antidepressant) medication on principle," but her prejudice against it is obvious. What is not so obvious is her prejudice against people with mental illness.

Nowhere in Tavris's review do we get a sense of clinical depression as the serious, debilitating, and often life-threatening illness it is. Instead we are told that many people "do not have an 'illness' of depression: they have a coping strategy that is not rewarded in contemporary society"; we are asked if we want "a brave new world in which no one suffers from miserable moods or chronic complaints." In earlier days mental illness was considered a punishment from God; now, those who would take antidepressant medication are emotional lightweights who can't stand discomfort and have no understanding of the complex issues involved in this decision.

The reality of antidepressants is not the spectacular transformations Kramer is intrigued by, or the many people Tavris fears will be lining up in the future for "a pill to help them adjust to existing social institutions." The reality of antidepressants is hundreds of thousands of ordinary people who made an incredibly difficult choice, took medication for a time, and came through it restored to themselves--idiosyncrasies, imperfections, character flaws and all--but no longer ill. Most do not speak about it--for a variety of reasons, but to a great extent because of the intolerant and fearful attitudes expressed in this review.

Tavris believes she is protecting us, but what she is really protecting is her own world view--and the fact that her life's work will have to be modified and re-evaluated, now that science has changed the nature of her field.

KAREN MATHEWS, LOS ANGELES

FROM HUNCHBACK TO MARINE

Re: "Lon Chaney" (June 20):

By coincidence, L.A. Marine Corps Combat Correspondents are currently preparing a tribute on what Lon Chaney did for the U.S. Marines. Chaney's horrible Phantom of the Opera and his contorted Hunchback of Notre Dame straightened up into a magnificent pro sergeant in MGM's "Tell It to the Marines." His happy chest-out, easy carriage was a model emulated by generations of Marine NCOs. The pride he showed radiated 360 degrees. We shall present the Southern-California-created image in slides at our national conference in Hartford in September.

The "Tell It to the Marines" still (above) from the Marine Corps Museum in Washington, D.C. demonstrates. It was shot at the San Diego Marine Base in 1926 during the film's making. Chaney's proud sergeant makes even actress Eleanor Boardman look woebegone. The General is Base Commander Smedley Butler, Congressional Medal of Honor winner, and he looks less "Marine" than Chaney. But there may be a reason for Butler's unease. Behind the camera, Hollywood types were running around shouting, toting reflectors and megaphones, taking over his command.

JULIAN "BUD" LESSER, VP, L.A. CHAPTER, MARINE CORPS COMBAT CORRESPONDENTS

IN THE BEGINNING WAS THE VERB

In the article "The 13th Annual PEN West Literary Awards" (Book Review, May 30), David Kipen apparently felt he had to spice up his story with some odd verbs. Did you borrow him from the Sports section? The Nonfiction award "led off," Gunn "took home," Lammers "nabbed," Powell "collected," Woolley "copped," Moraga "snagged," Franzoni "bagged." I guess "went" (used for Anaya and Tolkin) was too mild a verb, and "bestowed" too pretentious to be used more than once.

May I suggest other verbs for Kipen if you ask him to do the 14th PEN awards? Perhaps grabbed, confiscated, commandeered, wrested and a few others (the thesaurus is not handy at the moment) may enhance his coverage next year?

ABRAHAM HOFFMAN, RESEDA

A PAINFUL MEMORY

Your review of a new book about the "boy wonder," and president of the University of Chicago, Robert Hutchins, brought back painful memories. ("Robert Maynard Hutchins, A Memoir," June 6).

In 1947 hundreds of us crowded into a small neighborhood movie theater, the Trojan, located on Jefferson near USC, to hear a talk by Hutchins. We were an eager group, mostly first- and second-year college students enrolled on the GI bill. We were a young, enthusiastic group, veterans who had somehow survived the war and were now happy to attend college. (The government paid us $75 a month if single and $90 a month if married, plus costs of books and tuition.)

We were a poor group, too, many of us still wearing Army trousers and shirts. Clothes were scarce and expensive. Jobs paid $1 an hour and most of us worked half-time to make it through college.

To our utter chagrin, Hutchins spent two hours denouncing the GI bill, saying in effect it was wasted on most students, and it was a tremendous boondoggle! Our applause was weak and we were stunned when he finished his speech.

So Hutchins believed in only a true elite.

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