Ramblings

Little Women

A brown haired girl dressed as Jo March.
Me in my Jo dress, age ten.

Yesterday Steve posted that he’d seen the new Little Women movie and liked it, and I wrote that I had too much to say to respond on my phone.

Reader, I hated it. I hated it so much I almost walked out, but I’ve never done that, even when I should have (I’m looking at you, The Godfather, and Empire of the Sun–both are, I understand, great movies, but I didn’t understand the former and I had a terrible, terrible cold with a runny nose and a total of three tissues during the latter). As mine is a minority report, I feel I owe you some explanation for my dislike, but indulge me while I report a bit on my Louisa May Alcott background first.

When I was in third grade and my friend in second, we decided in September to go as Little Women for Halloween. We both got the book from the library, and every night we’d call each other. “I’m on chapter five. What chapter are you on?” (It will surprise no one that I was a competitive reader as a child.) In one of the few times in my life that brown hair has really paid off, I got to be Jo. My friend fluctuated between Amy and Beth, and her mother found some teenaged girl to be Meg and escort us around.

I’ve since read Little Women many times. I’ve read most, though not all, of Alcott’s other books, including all her children’s books (my favorite is an Old-Fashioned Girl, though Eight Cousins and Rose in Bloom are also good–the Little Women sequels are dull, and Jack and Jill and Under the Lilacs are nearly unbearable). I’ve read some of her blood and thunder stories (as she called them) and an unintentionally hilarious novel called Moods in which the heroine is deciding between marrying a character based on Emerson and a character based on Thoreau. She chooses the former and is miserable, but it’s clear that marrying the Thoreau guy would have been miserable, too. I have toured Orchard House, where she spent most of her life, first growing up and and later taking care of her parents, for the real-life Jo never married. Alcott spent most of her adult life supporting her family, including her parents, as her father was, well, misguided would be the kind way to put it.

I’ve also seen four the the five film adaptations of Little Women, missing only the miniseries.

My grandmother used to tell me that whenever her mother, my great-grandmother Hazel, saw her reading Alcott, she’d say, “I don’t know how you can stand all that moralizing.” It’s a good question. Moralizing is, on the whole, not what we call in librarianship an appeal factor for most people. I find it unbearable in other books, although in the 21st century, it rarely shows up in any genre outside Christian fiction. But for those of us who love Alcott, the moralizing is integral: it is part of the appeal. There is a scene early on in Little Women where Marmee gives each of the girls a copy of The Pilgrim’s Progress, each bound in a different color of leather. Who would not want such a thing?

“Girls,” said Meg seriously, looking from the tumbled head beside her to the two little nightcapped ones in the room beyond, “mother wants us to read and love and mind these books, and we must begin at once. We used to be faithful about it; but since father went away, and all this war trouble unsettled us, we have neglected many things. You can do as you please; but I shall keep my book on the table here, and read a little every morning as soon as I wake, for I know it will do do me good, and help me through the day.

Modern film adaptations, knowing how poorly this sort of thing goes over, tend to replace the moralizing with political speeches. That’s not historically inaccurate–the Alcotts were abolitionists, and they hung out with a crowd that was fighting for the progressive and civil rights issues of its day. Thus in the 1995 adaptation with Winona Ryder, you get Marmee (as portrayed by Susan Sarandon, surely a political choice if there ever was one) discussing the evils of corsets, and in the current version, Laura Dern’s Marmee speechifies from time to time on the evils of slavery and the rights of women (and gets schooled briefly by a black woman in a scene I’m still trying to decide if I find token or not not). And Amy–in perhaps the most unbelievable scene in the movie–delivers a lecture on women and property.

I don’t think you could do a completely faithful film adaptation of Little Women that anyone would want to watch, and so my issue with the current version isn’t its diversions from the text. Nobody, but nobody, ever represents Professor Bhaer as he is in the book–much older and much more German, in what I suspect are horrifically stereotypical ways. The book has never done a good job of convincing anyone that Jo marrying him is a good idea, but, as my mother once said, Alcott doubtless had to make character she herself could imagine leaving her father for–in other words, someone as similar to him as she could imagine.

What bothers me about the new movie (you were wondering if I would ever get there, I know) is the lack of chronological order. As a general rule, I’m not a fan of chronology–while we are all forced to live that way, few of us think about our lives that way, drawn back ceaselessly into the past as we are. But Little Women is nothing so much as a coming-of-age story: when it starts, the girls are girls. By the end, they are little women. The effect of the flash backs and flash forwards is to rob many of the most poignant scenes of their poignancy and to rob us of our understanding of the shifting alliances among the sisters.

Would a viewer who had never read the book fully understand the drama of the pickled limes, as portrayed in the book, or the betrayal Jo feels when Aunt March chooses Amy over her? The advantage to chronological order is that you see growth over time: you age as the character does, whether over the course of seven Harry Potter novels, 500 pages of Little Women, or two hours of a film. To disrupt that growth deprives the viewer of the chance to watch a life unfold in real time.

Most people I know loved this Little Women, so clearly there’s much to be said in its favor. But I’ll let others do that, and let this minority report stand as is.

Dear Elizabeth Wurtzel

Where and when I read Prozac Nation

I’m so sorry I never got to write to you. I thought about it a million times. I wrote about you (or rather about your work) in one of the earliest posts on this site, back when it was just a website where I hand-coded html files and then ftped them to my site, hosted by my local ISP, via a 28.8 modem.

It was about Bitch, a book I still love, despite its messiness. It occurred to me the other night that you were quite possibly the first person to say that Hillary Clinton should have said, back in the day, “yes, I am a bitch, so what?”, thus predicting a debate we’re still having about how angry women are allowed to be.

I quoted you on Bob Dylan and the sound of redemption back when I was pregnant, an assessment I have always agreed with.

I once stayed a night or two in an apartment building on the Upper West Side that I am almost certain was the one you grew up in, but I didn’t ring what I thought was your mother’s buzzer to find out because I’m not a jerk.

I bought More, Now, Again on my next trip to New York a couple of years later, just after it came out, because I saw it in a display in a bookstore I walked into, and I hadn’t seen it here yet at home.

I thought about writing you so many times to say what Prozac Nation meant to me, to tell you it was the first thing I read about depression that reflected how it truly felt to live inside my head, to say how it allowed me to be depressed and angry and love rock and roll and be all the things William Styron wasn’t, because though Darkness Visible was a beautiful book, he was an old man whose life I couldn’t imagine, whereas you were like someone’s cool older sister, just six years older than I am, the kind of person who’d be home from college on winter break when you were over at your friend’s house and who might magically talk to you or play you some music or tell you what to do with your hair. But then I didn’t, because I didn’t get around to it, and because I figured you got a million letters like this a day, and who needed one more?

Then you wrote that piece about copyright for the Wall Street Journal and I thought about writing you to tell you how wrong you were, because I’m a librarian and I have opinions about copyright. But I didn’t get around to it, and then months had passed, and I had a little kid by then, and what was the point.

Earlier this week I learned that you’d died. I was looking at the books session of the New York Times online because I have to give a talk about the best books of 2019 and I figured I’d kill some time on the desk by looking at their lists, and there it was — Elizabeth Wurtzel, ‘Prozac Nation’ author, is dead at 52. It was so stark. I told myself not to cry. I read the Times obituary, and then I read all the other remembrances and obituaries I could find, and then I came home and got out my copy of Prozac Nation, which I stole from my mom’s house one summer because I liked the cover image, and I looked inside the cover, because I used to have this thing of writing down where and when I’d read and reread a book, and I saw the first entry: On the road, August 1996. A few months later I’d slide into my first major depressive episode, or at least the first one that was identified as such to me. How did I know?

I wish I could write to you now just to tell you of that discovery. I started rereading it that night, and on almost every page there was a sentence that made me wish I could write to you about something. Yes, yes, me too, me too, me too. And God, yes, what a beautiful sentence that is.

I’m sorry I never got to do that.

Love,

Laura

The Rev. Dr. Dr. Judith Crossett, Professor Emeritus

Edited and slightly expanded, these are the extemporaneous remarks I made about my mother at the 2019 University of Iowa Department of Psychiatry retirement party last month.

My mother was working on her dissertation for a PhD in English when I was born but was already casting about for something else to do. At her postpartum exam, she decided to become a doctor. How she came to that decision is her story to tell, but after she had me she finished her dissertation, got her PhD, and then she went back and took all the pre-med requirements she’d missed as an English major. She started medical school when she was 32 and I was three-and-a-half. She became a single mother halfway through med school when my dad died by suicide when I was five-and-a-half, but she finished, did her residency, and went on to the career you’ve heard about.

There were not a lot of female medical students in the early 1980s, when my mother was in medical school. I believe her class was only about 30% female. As you know, med school classes are now routinely over 50% female. There were even fewer mothers, if any, and I would warrant she was the only single mother in her medical school class. As a child I knew many people whose parents were doctors, but I knew only one other doctor mother.

And yet it was a cool way to grow up. I got to spend a lot of time at the hospital and check out all the nifty equipment. Once I volunteered to let everyone look in my ears through a new machine that required you to lie on a table while they lowered a giant piece of machinery down on you—all the medical students were too scared to try it out.

One Thanksgiving when I was six or seven my mother was on call, so we spent Thanksgiving at the hospital. That meant I got to eat at the hospital cafeteria—which, as you may know, means you get to choose your dessert first, and you get the mashed potatoes that come out in a perfect circle from an ice cream scoop. The nurses let me draw on the white board, which was a novelty back then, and type a story on the computer, another novelty in the mid-1980s, and they made me popcorn. I got to sleep on a Murphy bed, which I am afraid means my mother, whose bed it was supposed to be, got no sleep at all, as I was a restless sleeper and kicked in my sleep, but I had never slept in a bed that folded out of a wall.

I could tell many more stories like that, but I didn’t just come here to talk about being the daughter of a psychiatrist: I also came because I am a psychiatric patient and have been for twenty-two years. I have what we now call treatment resistant depression. But I have been lucky, as all your family members have been and will be lucky. When I was twenty years old and it was 8 pm on Christmas Eve and I needed to talk to a psychiatrist, my mother was able to get Dr. Barbara Struss on the phone to talk to me, and she was able to get me an appointment with her for the morning of the day after Christmas. Because of my mother’s connections (and income), I have been able to see, often on short notice, such amazing practitioners as Dr. Struss, Dr. Sharon Koele, Dr. Peggy Baker, Dr. Laurie Kenfield, and many others.

But not everyone has those advantages—in fact, most people don’t. And some people don’t have any access to those doctors and services at all. I know that because I work at a public library, and I see those people every day. We had a patron who was terrified she was going to look up child pornography. She would call us multiple times a day asking if this or that site contained child porn. She lost her job at a big box store—unsurprisingly—for obsessing over this question. We see paranoia, depression, obsession and compulsion, anxiety, and other hallmarks of psychiatric illness from people who don’t have jobs, much less health insurance or connections, every day. While it’s true that the Free Mental Health Clinic may help provide excellent training to medical students and residents on helping just such patients, its real purpose is to help those patients—those patients that we—or our insurance industry—have decided are not worthy of our help. I’m very proud that my mother had a role not only in founding it but in ensuring its success over the years.

In addition to being a very privileged psychiatric outpatient, I’ve also on two occasions been a psychiatric inpatient. Now I know from talking to my mother that in reality your psychiatrist spends more than five minutes a day on your case: in addition to talking to you, they talk to members of your treatment team, write daily progress notes, and keep a close eye on what is happening to you. But what it feels like when you’re an inpatient is that your doctor talks to you for five minutes a day and that’s it.

But your nurses! Your nurses are there when you wake up in the morning. They are there when you go to bed. They’re there when you wake up in the middle of the night and can’t sleep. They’re—[interruption due to applause, so I’m not sure what I was going to say next]. Basically, the less money you make on the psych ward and the more time you spend with patients, the more respect you get from those patients.

My mother started her speech by quoting the maxim that every encounter is therapeutic. It can be, and it should be, if you choose to make it so. I know that she’s been making that the case for patients here for decades, for, as I always tell her, whatever she felt she may have lacked as a medical student and a resident by not having started out life wanting to be a doctor, by not having majored in biology or chemistry, I think that she more than made up for for her patients by having lived and experienced life. She has been a better doctor because of being a single mother, not despite it. I’m very proud of her today and always.

Statement to the Iowa City Community School District Board

Thank you for the opportunity to speak this evening, and for the hard and unglamorous work that you all do as school board members. My name is Laura Crossett, and I’m a 1988 graduate of Lincoln Elementary, a 1994 graduate of West High School, and a librarian at the Coralville Public Library. I live in Iowa City, and my son attends kindergarten at Mark Twain Elementary.

Every morning when we get to school he goes over and rings the buzzer and says “Hi, it’s me, Peter,” and every morning, Whitney Wessling, the amazing secretary at Twain says “Hello, Peter.” He’s an anxious kid, and this is one ritual that helps him know it’s okay to go into school every day.

I have seen Whitney show that same level of individual care for all the students at Twain. In the midst of handling phone calls and incoming messages from parents, teachers, and staff, she still knows which kids might not have gotten breakfast if they’re late, and she always knows who needs a hug.

Secretaries, janitors, physical plant workers, groundskeepers, and food service workers aren’t just automatons making a machine work: they are human beings doing difficult, demanding, essential work for which they are rarely recognized, and as such they deserve a say not only in their wages but also in the conditions of their employment, including sick leave, vacation, grievance procedures, and all the other so-called “permissive” topics in collective bargaining agreements — topics that have historically been bargained in good faith for the past 40 years.

Saturday you released a statement noting that “the board and administrative team’s intent to protect and preserve prohibited and permissive items was not conveyed clearly” in meeting with the secretaries’ union. I would call that a drastic understatement: a document that reads “The District proposes to remove the following articles from the negotiated agreement: payroll deductions, union rights, employee hours, seniority, discipline and discharge, sick leave, leaves of absence, vacation, health provisions, safety provisions, grievance procedures, wages and salaries” could hardly be clearer in its intent to strip these employees of everything but a pennies per hour pay raise.

You have apologized for your error. I hope that means you plan to return to the bargaining table ready and willing to include those items in the next collective bargaining agreement and that you will soon come to the table with the janitors’ and food service workers’ unions with that same good faith. The people who make our schools run deserve no less.

Martin Luther King Jr. Day 2018

I organized the second annual Martin Luther King Jr. Day celebration at my library. You can see some video of the whole thing, thanks to participant Meghann Foster. Here are my opening remarks.

We are about to hear again the words of one of the most famous speeches in American history, a speech given on a hot August day more than fifty years ago. We often think of this speech as a culmination, but in fact it was merely a milestone along the way to a goal we have not yet achieved.

A year after Dr. King’s speech, over a thousand northern college students, including University of Iowa student Steve Smith and Shel Stromquist, who is here today, went down to Mississippi to try to register black voters. You can read more about the intimidation and harassment they faced — harassment that black Mississippians faced every day — in our display about Freedom Summer.

The voting rights for which those young people fought in the summer of 1964 would not be codified into law for another year, in the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Today we see everywhere attempts to roll back the rights that law won.

The struggle for civl rights is not over: black people today are still disproportionately poor and disproportionately in prison; people with disabilities still too often do not receive the accommodations due to them by law; LGBT people are still too often the recipients of harassment and violence; immigrants and refugees face a precarious situation when they reach our shores.

Today is a day to celebrate but it is also a day to renew our commitment to a more just world. I hope you will share your dreams with us on the paper provided on our craft table. I hope you will take pride in our diverse community by welcoming as a neighbor someone who may not look like you or live like you. I invite you to share with us how you define yourself, where you come from, what languages you speak, and what religion you practice on our poster boards. And I invite you to check out the work of the many organizations represented here today who continue in Martin Luther King’s work for peace, for the poor, and for a world free from prejudice and discrimination.

I’d like to thank the many people who made this day possible: all our readers, David McCartney at the University of Iowa Special Collections and Shel Stromquist for loaning us items for the Freedom Summer display, and many library staff members, especially Kate Dale for creating the demographic posters and Erika Binegar for helping plan the event and finding the quotations. Kate and Erika also organized our displays of diverse books for readers of all ages.

One final note before we begin: Dr. King’s speech was made many years ago, and some of its language now sounds dated to our ears. Dr. King uses Negro where we would say black or African-American; he speaks of men where we would say people and of Christianity and Judaism where we would include Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, atheism, and many more. As our understanding of human diversity expands, so does our language.

And now, without further ado, I’d like to introduce our readers: ?

Mitch Gross from the Coralville Public Library Board and the Coralville City Council
Greg Hearns from the Iowa City Federation of Labor
Meghann Foster from the Coralville City Council
Rabbi Esther Hugenholtz from the Consultation of Religious Communities
Lata D’Mello from Monsoon United Asian Women of Iowa
Rod Sullivan from the Johnson County Board of Supervisors
Shel Stromquist, UI Professor of History Emeritus and Freedom Summer veteran
Kingsley Botchway from the Iowa City Community School District Equity Department
the Reverend Bill Lovin from the Consultation of Religious Communities
Newman Abuissa from PEACE Iowa and the UI Center for Human Rights
Senator Bob Dvorsky from the Coralville Community Food Pantry
Fatima Saeed* from the Eastern Iowa Center for Worker Justice

*Fatima was unable to make it, so I ended up reader her part

2017

2017 was the year that people started telling you to call your senators. If you had already called them, you should call them again, and again. It was unclear how many times you needed to call them, or whether any number of times would be sufficient. It was possible that you could devote your life to calling them and it would not be enough. And indeed, how could it ever be, when the news kept coming, fast and terrible?

It was the year I began to be afraid to look at news alerts on my phone and yet could not look away from them. It was the year that the question on my psychiatrist’s diagnostic survey about how often you felt something awful might happen no longer seemed as though it belonged on a psychiatric questionnaire. Awful things were happening every day—US citizens were denied entry into their own country; refugees were turned back at the gate, white men gunned down scores of people gathered in public places and marched with burning torches; women seeking legal medical procedures were told by the government that had legalized those procedures that they were no longer available. Who in their right might did not believe that something awful was about to happen?

It was the year when information began to disappear, when data scientists began to save things we had always believed our government would keep secure, when librarians began to wonder if government information was something we could still tell people to rely on.

It was the year I lost my keys and my driver’s license, when cash was stolen twice from my wallet and medication from my home, the year I lost six days of my life to a psychiatric ward and another to an accidental overdose on antipsychotics, the year I went to get an abortion and learned I’d already lost the pregnancy.

It was the year that my mother moved into my house with all her earthly possessions and the year my son started kindergarten and an SSRI.

It was the year my son ripped up books and broke windows, the year I wore long sleeves all summer to hide the bite marks on my arm. It was the year men were everywhere found to have harassed and groped and raped women and when others began to pontificate on the nature of toxic masculinity or argue that the crimes of some men should be overlooked in order to preserve the good work they had done, and I began to wonder if it would be possible to raise a white son not to do these things. It was the year that people yelled a lot and the year that I began to lose my faith in the ability of words to convince people of things.

The other day I found one thing that survived the year: a book called Ant and Bee and the ABC, an English book for “tiny tots” that once belonged to my mother. In it Ant and Bee lose their hats and go looking for them in a place called Lost Things Found in Boxes. There is a box for each letter of the alphabet, and they look in each in turn, looking for their lost hats, but there lost hats are not there. Not in Box J with the jack-in-the-boxes or box E with the elephants; not in box Q with the queens or box L with the lions. Spoiler alert: their hats are in the last box, the box that comes after all of the alphabet, a box called Box Funny Things. In the end, they get their hats back and give them to each other, because Ant’s hat fits Bee better and Bee’s hat fits Ant’s better, and they go on to have many other alphabetical adventures in further books.

My house is still full of unpacked boxes. Perhaps when I unpack them I shall regain some of the things I have lost: for of course the last thing that came out of Pandora’s box was hope.

On Garrison Keillor

There are a lot of Garrison Keillor haters on my Facebook feed. I knew that was true even before he was cut loose by Minnesota Public Radio due to allegations of sexual harassment, but needless to say the past few days have been a Keillor-haters festival. I keep almost posting “I hope all you Keillor haters are happy now,” but I try not to get into arguments on the internet.

Let me be clear: I write this not to excuse his actions nor to doubt them. It is not particularly surprising that a man has made unwanted advances on a woman, particularly a man who has been married and divorced as many times as Keillor has, particularly a man with the kind of status he has achieved. If the past few months have taught us anything, it is that such behavior is the rule, not the exception. That powerful and popular men are now being taken to task for it is amazing and gives me some faint hope that perhaps the men who are not so powerful or so popular but whose actions are every bit as egregious as those of Harvey Weinstein, Louis CK, or Matt Lauer may also see justice, although I have my doubts.

I write here not to defend Keillor’s actions — or really to say much about them at all, except that I strongly suspect MPR has more information than has been made public.

I write instead to defend the work. If you hate Garrison Keillor, you should stop right here, for I doubt anything I say will convince you otherwise. But in dismissing his work you are also dismissing mine, for so much of what I know about writing, about storytelling, about loyalty, about humor, and about love comes from his work.

I heard Garrison Keillor on the radio before I knew what a radio was. When I was very young we lived in a town without a supermarket, so once a week my mother and I drove twenty miles to get groceries and do other errands of the sort one could do in the city. These trips were largely dull for me, for what two or three or four year old enjoys going to the dry cleaner, the grocery store, and the state run liquor store? (The last of these was particularly dull, with its harsh light and its rows upon rows of bottles.) But as we drove back to Mount Vernon, my mother would listen to a man telling stories on the radio. Gradually I began to recognize his voice and to know a bit about the place he talked about and the people who lived there. The first monologue I remember talked about a dentist who had let his teeth go bad to make his patients feel better.

Later we moved to that town with the grocery store (the store I still shop at, in fact), but we still listened to the man on the radio. In grade school my best friend and I acquired — perhaps by stealing them from my mother or grandmother — the first set of tapes of Lake Wobegon monologues, and we listened to them over and over and over, particularly Spring, as “Me and Choir” was our hands-down favorite. Ninety percent of what I know about comic timing comes from that single monologue (for the remaining ten percent, I’ll give credit to “Alice’s Restaurant”).

To this day she and I can quote entire scenes from those stories and cap each other’s quotations. They are a shared language as sacred as any sacred text. In junior high we attended the 4th Annual Farewell Performance in Iowa City. In high school my mother took us to see the short-lived interlude, American Radio Company of the Air, before Keillor came to his senses and brought A Prairie Home Companion back.

In college I met a woman who could quote from A Lutheran’s Guide to the Orchestra while waiting around for orchestra tryouts. She organized a group of us to go down to New York City to see one of the December performances at Town Hall each year. When I got back to the Midwest for break, I’d go visit my old friend in Minneapolis and we’d see the show at its home at the Fitzgerald Theatre in downtown Saint Paul.

There were many years when the show was not as good as it once was, years when l listened largely for the music and years when I cringed at some of the skits (“Ruth Harrison, Reference Librarian,” I’m looking at you). But even then there’d every now and then be a glimmer of some of the magic of “Storm Home” or “Gospel Birds,” some of the sad majesty of “The Royal Family,” some of the family dynamics that make “The Tollefson Boy Goes to College” so perfect and so poignant.

Keillor is at his best in front of a live audience. His books fall flat, even when he reads them out loud — he needs that interaction of talking to people from an empty stage, looking out at them past the bright lights in the dark. Sitting in those audiences is a privilege I’ll never forget; listening (and listening again and again) to the recordings is something that never fails to bring me back to the seasons of my childhood, the way that leaves collaged themselves around you in the fall, the way that snowflakes caught on your mittens in the winter, the way the world seemed open and full of possibility in spring.

Early this week I posted Claire Dederer’s stunning essay “What Do We Do with the Art of Monstrous Men?” Her questions are my questions, and her answers are mine. I don’t know. I don’t know. I don’t know.

But I do know that if it hasn’t happened to you yet, it will: you will love a man’s work and learn that its creator has done a terrible thing. And then you will have to figure out what to do.

I don’t defend my conduct. I explain it,” said Oscar Wilde. I cannot defend Keillor. But perhaps I have explained a little about what his work has meant to me.