Wishful Thinking about Mental Illness

In the wake of the Parkland school shooting, we hear a lot of references to mental illness. But many accounts confuse mental health and personality disorders with serious, crippling mental illness. Because we are unclear about what constitutes serious mental illness and what is some other behavioral issue, our country is conflicted about what and how much to do for whom. So we do very little, and usually too late. I know; my brother suffered from schizophrenia, and I have seen how difficult it is to get care for those who are seriously ill.

D. J. Jaffe, in his book Insane Consequences: How the Mental Health Industry Fails the Mentally Ill, goes through the cold hard facts of America’s mental health disaster in a way everyone interested in public health policy should read. His own sister-in-law suffers from a mental illness, and he has experienced first hand the insane maze of ineffectual systems that our country has amassed in the past 60 or 70 years that do not do what we want them to do. They don’t help us care for our mentally ill brethren the way that science and social programs could be doing it. And every year it gets worse. Mr. Jaffe points out where it is all going wrong and some ways it might be improved. It is an impressive volume of information. He gives us many facts we don’t really want to hear, but need to.

Wishful Thinking

There is an overwhelming desire in the American public to believe that any obstacle can be overcome, that with enough grit and determination, each of us is capable of vanquishing demons. We applaud wounded Iraqi vets and victims of the Boston Marathon pressure cooker bombing as they struggle to manage their new prosthetic legs. We hold up images of the amazing handicapped athletes at the Paralympic Games and say, “See? Anything is possible. You can do anything, no matter what life has thrown your way.”
This wishful thinking fuels the supporters of the NRA to believe that an armed English teacher can fight off a determined mass shooter with an assault rifle. They want to believe that a series of interlocking and complex regulations involving fifty states as well as federal agencies regarding background checks, will combine with vigilant and well funded social workers and local police (whose usual duties involve chasing shoplifters and ticketing speeders) to stop the next angry would-be shooter. Not to mention arming teachers. They want to believe that something can be done that will stop this horrible epidemic of shootings and still allow them to keep easy access to firearms. In reality, even people as mentally ill as my brother are seldom admitted to hospitals except for 48 or 72 hour holds. And people as ill as my brother would likely never have the logical planning ability to plan an attack such as those we’ve seen at schools. In the meantime, people dealing with anger issues or other behavioral issues that seem to drive many of these shooters would seldom be caught by existing background checks.
It is wishful thinking that also fuels the so-called recovery movement in mental health circles, a movement that holds that anyone, even the most severely psychotic individuals afflicted with schizophrenia, can recover, given the right cocktail of medications, special diet, yoga for stress relief, faith in God, and/or the latest computer training program. Close all the psychiatric hospitals, they say. Perhaps hearing voices is simply another way to experience the world. Perhaps people like living in filth under highway overpasses and on subway grates in the dead of winter. They are entitled to live as they want, to have the freedom to follow their own dreams. Most memoirs or other personal narratives I have found about dealing with a mentally ill family member reinforce the recovery/anything is possible belief system. They were stories written about the lucky few who did recover; this is what we all want to believe will happen. Unfortunately, that result is achieved by very few.
We don’t like it when reality does not comply with our dreams.

My Family’s Story

When my brother was released from the New York State Psychiatric Hospital in Wingdale, New York, back in the early 1990’s, I thought the hospital administration had simply made a mistake. I thought that, unlike everyone else the hospital was releasing in the deinstitutionalization effort, my brother was still profoundly ill, too troubled for me to care for him in my home (he alternately thought he was James Bond or a recently scalped Mohican Indian, and had threatened to rape my daughter) yet unable to take care of himself. Surely the authorities would see their error and move him to a facility where he could be cared for humanely. It certainly didn’t need to be an enormous brick Dickensian hospital with bars on the windows—this was the 21st century, not the 19th—but he should not be on his own.
Over the next 20 years, I learned otherwise. Many of the mentally ill people released from hospitals—or, as the years passed, who were never admitted to hospitals—were just as confused and delusional as my brother. Our country had crossed through the looking glass; anyone who should have been helping to reopen appropriate facilities was, instead, reciting platitudes about self-directed care and consumers adhering to medication schedules as if schizophrenia was like having high blood pressure. Take this little pill every day and you will be fine.
Many people do respond to medication, but only if first — they actually get treatment,  and second– also with a great deal of community support. Perhaps 50% of people diagnosed with a serious mental illness can achieve a modicum of recovery this way. But not the rest. And without adequate psychiatric care, hundreds of thousands of Americans are sentenced to a cruel cycle of crashing, ER visits, release, and decline, till returned to the ER – or to jail.

But how do we relate to these cold statistics? Clinicians and researchers can recite statistics and probabilities all they want. The problems families like mine face are personal. It is personal when your brother is released from the hospital and you find him hours later in the bathroom, blood all over the place, trying to cut the radio out of that spot in his head just behind his ear. It is personal when a loved one cannot care for him or herself, and no one will help, and when you fear what they might do next.

So if not quite anything is possible; what should we do?
With knowledge, such as that compiled in Mr. Jaffe’s book, we can approach an approximation of that mythical anything if we build the right mix of that knowledge and humane care into our mental health policies. And the first step in finding the right care is to face the truth about what is possible and how to achieve it. The Iraqi Vet who can walk with her prosthetic leg is happy to have the prosthesis. She knows it is not the same as a real leg, but she is thankful for it. She doesn’t pretend she doesn’t need it. (And no one tells her to just hop.)Care for people with mental illness is like that. With the right mix of medicine and supervision, many more of the people currently suffering might have a much better life. And for the most seriously ill, comfortable supervised long term housing would make their lives much, much better.

Follow up
Mr. Jaffe’s book goes through many of the obstacles and wrong turns and some of the possible avenues of recourse, that can be followed to take better care of the approximately 10 million people in the USA unfortunate enough to be afflicted with serious mental illnesses like schizophrenia or serious bi-polar disorder. So if you want to understand what happened to our mental health system, and what can be done about it, read Jaffe’s Insane Consequences.
For a personal account of my family experience, read my book, Shot in the Head, a Sister’s Memoir, a Brother’s Struggle.
Also consider reading Surviving Schizophrenia, by Dr. Fuller Torre, which is out in a new, up to date edition. It is the bible of knowledge about the American mental health care system.
And/or watch Dr. Stephen B. Seager’s two documentaries:
Shattered Families, the Collapse of the American Mental Health System, and
Roadmap, Making a Mental Health System That Actually Works

Learn more about the health problem afflicting 10 million Americans that no one want to deal with. It will not just go away on its own. And wishing won’t make it go away. We have to face it, with a mix of remedies tailored to the type and severity of illness.


Speak up!

Two sly tricksters arrived in town and convinced the emperor that they were tailors who would weave him the most beautiful of fabrics, for the most beautiful clothes in the world. The magic of it was that only people competent in their current jobs would be able to see the fabric in its full beauty.
The newcomers set up huge looms and made a great show of weaving. When the tailors produced nothing but thin air, however, no one was willing to admit that they saw no fabric, because they thought others would judge them incompetent to hold their current position. (They were afraid they’d be fired.)  Even the emperor’s most honest and respected old minister was afraid to admit he could see no cloth, so the tricksters were not exposed.  It was not until the Emperor was in an elegant parade, dressed only in his birthday suit, that a child called out, “Why is the emperor not wearing any clothes?”


So now what?

Most of us don’t know any emperors. I don’t recall meeting up with any on the east side of Detroit, where I grew up. But the emperor of the old days has been replaced by the immensely powerful and wealthy President of the United States, a man-who-would-be-king, who tries to live like the royalty of old. (gold gold gold.) And just like the emperor in our story he believes every ridiculous conspiracy theory or any other nonsense exposed by tailors or Fox News. And just like the courtiers in the story, the Republican leadership is so afraid of losing their jobs that they won’t admit what is smack in front of them.
The tailors – the ones who have fed the emperor all the nonsense and stoked his ego, are expert at their craft. Whether Steve Miller, the Breitbart folks, or Putin’s buddies, they have zeroed in on their target—this man who can hardly even read—and have tailored their message so that he hears what he wants to hear. The team has now set up their looms and imaginary yarn in the West Wing and has been weaving up a storm.
The President has become so wrapped up in his ego, allowing himself to be surrounded only by flatterers and yes men, that there is no one left to ask the difficult questions, such as, “Have you really thought about what will happen if there IS an all-out war against North Korea?” Or, “But what will happen if we throw 10 million people out of our country? Can we even do it?” Or “What is the point of a lifetime cap on Medicaid? Are we going to take anyone who is very ill and has reached their cap and throw them off onto one of the remaining ice floes and let them die?”
The child, in the old story, is someone who didn’t know anything about being competent in his current job. The child sees a man with no clothes on. Period. How about if everyone in our country would do that? We should open our eyes, see that our emperor is naked, and do something to stop him, not join him in the naked parade.

Back at the palace 
The old fairy tale doesn’t tell us what happened after the emperor got some clothes on and went back to his palace. I have to assume that his ministers wondered to themselves, why they did not speak up. Our elected representatives have the responsibility to take action when they see that something is wrong. If they don’t, we’re left with a naked man leading the parade.
The old fairy tales and fables always ended with a pithy moral. I was trying to think of a way to synthesize the wisdom of the Emperor’s New Clothes into some truism we could copy down on yellow stickies and post onto our PCs and refrigerators. Unfortunately, I’m not Aesop, and I can’t refine this into one phrase.
I guess I keep coming back to this. Being the naked emperor, laughed at all the way down the street, is a sad state of affairs. But having one lead our country followed by insecure yes-men and potentially causing the collapse of our social safety nets, accelerating the collapse of our ecosystem and potentially starting World War III, is devastating. I think we can all agree that we’d all like to keep our clothes on, and we should try to make sure that happens.


In my 30 or so years working in the corporate world, I was always thankful that I had escaped any sexual harassment in the workplace. Many times I faced gender bias on getting a job or getting promotions, but I was never actually assaulted at work. I felt terrible for the women who suffered at the hands of powerful men, emboldened by their positions to take advantage of the women. But that does not mean I escaped the curse. As the Twitter hashtag #me too revealed, if you ask any woman, chances are she will tell you a story of how she or a relative or friend was sexually harassed or assaulted.
In my sophomore year of high school, a fellow student began to follow me around school and asked me out repeatedly. I politely declined and asked him to quit following me. Instead, he followed me everywhere. He lived on another bus route, but he began taking my school bus in the afternoon and often walked behind me the three blocks from the bus stop to my home, then stood outside calling my name.
Junior year, senior year… Some evenings he would call me on the phone every 15 minutes, all evening long. My parents reported the situation to the police over and over again. They also spoke to the boy’s parents, who apologized and placed a lock on their home phone. But the boy kept following me and calling. It was horrible, unnerving to see that guy everywhere I went.
When I left for college 200 miles away, he transferred his interest to my younger sister, sitting outside the house in our rhododendron bushes and calling her name. One night she awoke to a man in her room, his hand over her mouth, telling her to be quiet. Our 80 pound yellow mutt, Charlie, had heard a strange noise, though, and came barking into the room. The intruder jumped out the window onto the porch roof and was gone. The police never figured out who it was. We were pretty sure we knew.
“Well, lucky you have a good dog,” the police said. “And the main thing is, no one was hurt.”
Six or seven years later, it was the start of the fall semester of another sister’s sophomore year at the University of Illinois, Champaign-Urbana. A stiflingly hot, August day, she had spent many hours moving into a house she planned to share with three friends near the campus. That evening a thunderstorm was approaching, and at dusk her roommates all went out to watch the thunder and lightening move in across the corn fields. My sister, though, sweating profusely after a day of lugging around boxes, begged off the adventure. She put in another hour or so of unpacking, then lay down in the near 100 degree heat in her second story bedroom to rest. She fell asleep lying on top of her sheets, wearing only her underwear.
She awoke some time later to a hand across her face and a man on top of her. He had probably broken into what looked to him like an empty house, to rob stereos and anything else that looked interesting. Once in the house, he decided she looked like a nice plum to pick. He managed to pull off her underwear and was close to penetration when she fought him off.
And then he pulled out a gun. “Stop fighting or I’ll shoot,” he ordered, aiming the gun at her head.
When she continued to struggle, he pulled the trigger.
She cringed.
The gun misfired.
She took advantage of the attacker’s surprise to run screaming into another room, and he climbed back out the window he’d gotten in through.
It would be hours till her roommates got home. The phone was not installed yet, and no curtains had even been hung. Sure that the intruder would return to retrieve his pillowcases full of loot, which were lying in the hallway where he had abandoned them, my sister sat alone for hours in the dark at the kitchen table holding a butcher knife, not collapsing into tears until her friends returned home.
When the police finally arrived, they determined that nothing had actually been stolen, so they were not really interested in pursuing the incident. They made a few half-hearted efforts to find her attacker, but gave up after a few weeks, so there was no arrest, no trial. “You shouldn’t have had the window open,” they said. They told her, basically, that there was no harm done, “at least he didn’t actually rape you,” and she was lucky the gun misfired.
We called her Wonder Woman and gave her silly Wonder Woman gifts, trying to emphasize how great it was that she stood up to the man; that she’d fought him off. The truth, of course, is that she’d have died on the spot if that gun hadn’t misfired. Her attacker was holding it inches from her head. The episode still haunts her; her counselor tells her she suffers from PTSD.
My sisters and I never saw our attackers put on trial. We spoke up. We tried to get justice. Police, family and friends all knew that sexual assault had happened, but no one was punished. I am excited at the new energy in the feminist sphere. #metoo and #timesup are both powerful movements. But I fear that few, if any of the many sexual harassers outed in 2017 will ever be brought to a criminal trial, much less found guilty, and even less likely punished with jail terms. Yet I know deep inside, that nothing will change significantly until the perpetrators of gender harassment are punished through the penal system.

Turner and Labrie

Consider two famous recent cases, where two perpetrators of sexual assault who were actually arrested and found guilty in a trial, got little in the way of punishment.
Late one evening in 2015, tourists in Stanford, California came across a young white man molesting a woman who lay unconscious on a sidewalk. They rushed to stop him, then held him till the police arrived. The next spring, a jury found Brock Turner—described in newspaper accounts as a freshman swimmer at Stanford University—guilty of three felony counts: assault with intent to commit rape of an intoxicated or unconscious person, penetration of an intoxicated person, and penetration of an unconscious person.
His sentence? Despite calls from the prosecutor for a strong one, in June of 2016, Judge Aaron Persky sentenced him to only six months in prison for this violent crime. When he was released in August of 2016, he had spent less than 3 months in jail.
“I think you have to take the whole picture in terms of what impact imprisonment has on a specific individual’s life. And the impact statements that have been—or the, really, character letters that have been submitted, do show a huge collateral consequence for Mr. Turner based on the conviction,” the judge is reported to have said at the sentencing hearing.
Had the woman he raped not suffered a huge “collateral consequence?”
“An outrage!” many media outlets proclaimed. People marched and carried signs. The internet and 24 hour news channels were filled with calls for change. Was this the case that would finally get people to approach sexual assault as a crime? After all, this young man raped a woman who was lying unconscious on the sidewalk.
But wait—another young, white, privileged sex offender had been released just a month before Turner’s sentencing, also after doing very little prison time. On August 28, 2015, Owen Labrie, a high school senior, was convicted of sexually assaulting a female classmate about a year before, at St. Paul’s Prep School in New Hampshire, an elite, church-affiliated school. He had been on trial for felony rape, which could have carried up to 20 years in prison, but the jury acquitted Labrie of that, instead assigning the lesser charge. The victim wasn’t identified by name in official documents because she was only 15 years old at the time of the sexual assault.
Labrie and his buddies, upperclassmen at the school, had been playing a game of conquest, competing to see how many freshman and sophomore girls they could deflower. He had convinced this girl that he really cared about her and so managed to earn a notch for his belt.
Before sentencing, Labrie’s mother, Denise Holland, submitted a letter to the judge asking for probation only, for her son. She wrote that Labrie had become despondent and suicidal as “so many years of dedication and hard work dissolved before him.” The judge seemed sympathetic to the mother’s pleas but said he couldn’t ignore what Labrie had done to the young girl. And then he sentenced him to only six months in prison. When he was released in May of 2016, like Turner, Labrie had served only about half of that.
For speaking out, the young girl was harassed on social media for years, called all sorts of terrible slurs. And for this he served only a couple of months in prison.

It is hard to believe, reading about these cases, that so much attention was placed on how a long sentence would damage these young men’s futures. The judges were completely drawn into imagining how these “otherwise promising” young men would suffer. Yet it was Turner who branded himself as a criminal, when he chose to take advantage of an unconscious woman. And LaBrie had turned his back on his own future when he chose to act the sexual predator.
There is something about a young, well-to-do white man that seems to beg that the courts consider his “promise.” But what sort of promise do these men hold, anyway? As far as I can tell, it is the promise of future sexual assaults on other unsuspecting young women. It is certainly not a promise for a future career as a scientist, college professor or priest.
At least, in these two cases, the men were found guilty of something. They will have to register as convicted sexual offenders for the rest of their lives. (One of them has reopened his case to try to get that requirement lifted.) The presence of a corroborating witness in one case and the age of the victim in the other demanded that something be done. Still, a few months in jail for possibly ruining the lives of these young women?
And although the perpetrators were arrested and found guilty, the pathetically weak sentencing is only half of the insult to these women. After stepping forward and filing charges, the women were tried by the jury of public opinion, and found by many of them to be almost as guilty as their rapists.The internet is full of vile comments about them, which anyone can find as a matter of record. No wonder so many women don’t get up the courage to speak up until many years have passed and they are perhaps in a more powerful position, or until they find strength in numbers.
Recently, women of the Air Force Academy have come forward to report that not only were several women raped by their colleagues over the past several years, but also that senior officials did little or nothing to punish the men. The women, meanwhile have been subjected to terrible hazing and mistreatment, in punishment for speaking up, ratting on their peers. Several female Air Force cadets resigned, rather than be subjected to the daily abuse. The perpetrators have gone on to graduate.

Both my sisters are still haunted by their experience of waking up with a strange man on top of them. The Air Force cadets and women of our armed services who have been assaulted and then tormented for speaking up, have seen their entire life changed. The victims of Turner and Labrie likely still relive their experiences, as well. Their lives will never be the same; their peaceful, happy futures were stolen by fellow cadets, Turner and Labrie, and unknown men who crept in windows in the middle of the night.

The U. S. in 2016 and 2017 has seen an explosion of complaints about sexual misconduct. Millions of women and men wrote and spoke and posted about Bill Cosby and Hollywood moguls and high level politicians harassing and even assaulting women and girls. But after a period of time for the outrage to die down, how much will change? Despite more than a dozen accusers, Bill Cosby’s trial ended in a mistrial.
Will Donald Trump or Charlie Rose or Matt Lauer—and on and on—ever face legal repercussions for their alleged misconduct? Or will powerful men continue to take advantage of attractive young women, and escape, even if found out, with little more than a slap on the wrist as punishment? Only days days after Matt Lauer was fired, I already heard a news commentator wondering aloud about how the accused men could be helped to salvage their careers. The speaker—on a radio news program—seemed full of sympathy at how an otherwise “brilliant career” was now damaged. Bah! What about the women who gave up on their careers because of the harassment and general hostility they faced in the workplace? Women who decided it wasn’t worth it, and went back to their hometown.
After all the revelations about these famous men, Labrie and Turner’s names have been almost forgotten. They are a stark reminder, though, that accusations are one thing. Appropriate punishment is something else. Somehow when it comes to the trial, there always seem to be people who convince themselves that the women are probably exaggerating. Or that they likely had consensual sex then changed their mind and decided to take some man for all the money she could get. Or who just don’t want to damage some “promising” man’s career for something that they consider “no harm done.”
What we see is that whenever the public is drawn into a highly publicized sexual assault case, there is some outrage for a while, but there is no institutional change. The Hollywood led outrage is stronger than most I’ve seen, but will it change anything? The perpetrators are seen as tragic aberrations of otherwise fine, upstanding young men who would never do something like this. Or successful men who just made some minor error in judgement. Turner and Labrie have gone on with their lives. The high profile sexual assaulters will likely talk their way out of prison terms. I hope a few cadets will lose their commissions. But their victims and the many other victims, like my sisters, likely wake up in the middle of the night from time to time, shaking and trembling with dread.
“I believe that you are not the angel as portrayed by your counsel and the letters of support submitted on your behalf,” the Judge told Owen Labrie at his sentencing. “But neither are you the devil as portrayed by the prosecution.”
Was Labrie a devil? An angel?
I say, it’s not a relevant question. Neither he nor Brock Turner was either mythical creature. Devils and angels are religious/imaginary terminology, and do not belong in a judicial proceeding.
But speaking of angels and such, why are churches all over our country not speaking up? The tendency to believe the man, even against multiple accusations, or to minimize the trauma to the woman, is part of a general attitude—like “separate but equal.” No real harm done…

To my mind, if they are not part of the solution—whether they are churches or corporate CEO’s or judges—they are part of the problem. #times up on sexual assault.
And #timetodotime. Women will never achieve social and workplace equality if men can assault with impunity. Let’s make sure these men are convicted and actually sent to prison for their misdeeds. This means it can’t be just women who are outraged. Upstanding men, too, must speak up. And together we must demand trials and suitable sentencing.

Niagara Falls

The glaciers are melting! In great, huge sheets, huge chunks fall from the enormous northern icecaps and crash into the sea. No, I am not describing the Arctic in 2018. This is about 12,000 years ago, the end of the last, great Ice Age, and the mountains of snow and ice are receding northward through the mountain valleys they had carved many years before, when they were in the ascent.

And why am I telling you about Niagara Falls?  Keep reading. It has something to do with the #metoo movement.  Pretend I’m Rachel Maddow with an offbeat story that suddenly makes sense.

As the glaciers melt, torrents pouring from their southernmost boundaries gradually collect into huge pools that become the Great Lakes. And on the eastern edge of these lakes, huge torrents rush along what will become the Niagara River. Rushing, churning, the frigid waters pour over the edge of the Niagara Escarpment, a cliff of hard rock, at what is now Lewiston, New York, about seven miles east of the current Niagara Falls.
Almost immediately the water of the newly-formed falls begins to cut into the cliff over which it pours. But below the flowing water is sedimentary rock, made of layers of harder and softer substances, a little like layers of a cake, with frosting or jelly a different consistency than the cake layers it separates. The highest underground layer of rock, the layer at the top of the cliff and directly under the flowing water, is made of a type of stone called Lockport dolomite – a very hard, erosion-resistant material. The underlying layers of rock (those that support the dolomite), however, are mostly soft. Gradually, the rushing water from the river above the falls pushes its way down through cracks in the dolomite layer and into the layers of softer rock below.
Moving water is an insistent knife. It pushes at and carves through the softer stone until the pressure of the water pushes one section, then another of the soft under-layers out from the face of the cliff and into the falling water. When these soft layers are sheared off by the water pouring over the escarpment, the support for the top layer of harder dolomite is gone. With nothing left underneath to hold up the top edge of the cliff, crash! the dolomite layer collapses under its own weight and falls to the base of the cliff at the bottom of the falls, where the cascading water pounds down on the rubble, wearing it slowly away. Thousands of years pass. This seeping, pushing, and crashing repeats and repeats, and little by little the soft under-layers of the cliff continue to shear away behind the falls. The dolomite at the brink of the falls continues to collapse as its support is removed, and the falls move slowly upstream.  Today, 12,000 years later, the escarpment that we saw Marilyn Monroe and Joseph Cotton looked out over, in the movie Niagara, has moved more than seven miles upstream from its original location, and in the process it carved out the Niagara Gorge – a seven-mile canyon.Horseshoe-Falls-49345
The Falls continue to move slowly upstream today.  But the process is mostly invisible. Years and years go by, with no visible change, until suddenly, the erosion of the under layer reaches a point where it can no longer support the top layer, and a huge chunk of rock collapses. This is why visitors to the Falls now see a huge pile of rubble at its base. That is how the many caves that modern tourists visit were created. Seven miles in 12,000 years… The erosion in the  lower, softer stone layers has been slow but steady. But up top, what is visible to the eye, happens in sudden bursts. One day, the Niagara Falls tumble over the cliff at a certain point, and the next moment several feet of the top stone layer suddenly crack off and crash to the foot of the cliff.

application to today
Human history is like the Niagara river. Changes happen invisibly, little by little, until suddenly, in what seems like overnight, their effects can be seen. It’s a little like watching your children grow. I remember when my second child was born. My older daughter was almost five, and when she came to visit us at the hospital, I was startled at how large her hand was. Up to this point, I had thought she was so little, my baby. But after a couple of days of getting used to my new 6 ½ pound second child, Charlotte looked almost all grown up.
That’s what it feels like when I think of the evolution in our national and international political systems, religious/spiritual institutions, social mores, etc. If I try to line up today with fifty years ago, when I was a young college girl, I am surprised beyond belief. At what point did all the all male business and professional schools become coed? And in my personal life, at what point did my daughter go from toddler to small child? From adolescent to adult?

This is what we are seeing today with the #metoo movement. Women have been pushing on the boundaries for years now. Civil rights legislation got us in the door and into well paying factory jobs and white collar management ranks. But persistent harassment from male peers has sent many women running for the nearest exit. Maybe now, something will happen that is positive. Maybe now the rocks will crack, tumble and sheer off.  Let us hope so. Let us all be that insistent, shearing knife. Let us all demand, No more. Let us help our most needy women peers get the satisfaction they need in order to continue working. And let us work tirelessly to bring punishment to their tormentors.

We may see a female president yet.


High Heels and Pants Suits

I’m hobbling onstage in my first pair of two-inch heels to sing with the St. Rose school choir for the Monsignor’s 50th anniversary celebration. If I slip the painful shoes off while I’m up on the riser, I’m afraid one might fall down to the floor below, and I’ll be left missing a shoe, which will really look stupid when we process out. So I have to stand for over an hour in the agony of pointy-toed, two-inch heels with paper thin soles. The balls of my feet are on fire! And this is just the beginning. My feet will hurt not only during choir concerts, but also at dances, my prom, high school graduation, college graduation, both of my weddings, my sisters’ and friends’ weddings, job interviews, and long airport corridors while traveling on business.

247anoukpat_black_sideI remember hurrying through airports with my audit team in the early 80’s, before working women started en masse to wear sneakers and socks with their suits on the way to and from work. (During a subway strike in NYC, they took to carrying their dress shoes with them and changing into the silly high heels when they got to the office.) But before that, we were all hobbled, like ancient Chinese women. My skirt didn’t let me take long strides, the shoes hurt, and it was very difficult to keep up with my male traveling companions. How was this supposed to help me compete as an equal?
I wore blue and white saddle shoes to St. Clare of Montefalco elementary school, and on Sundays, black, low-heeled, patent leather shoes with little straps that slid back behind my heel so they looked more like women’s pumps. At Good Counsel Academy we had to wear hideous gray oxfords; and at White Plains High School it was either black flats, Keds with no socks, or penny loafers with a shiny dime in the slot. But all those comfortable shoes of my childhood and early adolescence segued with puberty into white high heels for graduations and weddings, black pumps and sling back high heels for job interviews and daily work wear, and beige and pink high heels with open toes that went with my dressy beige and pink suits, respectively. Reebok cross-trainers and brown boots with felt liners were saved for times I could breathe and be me.
At work, as an accounting manager at American Can Company or at the various banks where I spent most of my career, none of the men around me were putting off walking over to someone else’s office because they just couldn’t bear to put their shoes back on. I tried Dr. Scholl inserts and tried to convince myself that Naturalizer pumps did not look like old lady shoes, but it was no use. It seemed I could either look good or feel good, but never both at the same time. Whether making a presentation to the board or joining colleagues at a business dinner, my square toes would sit crammed into a little triangular space, heels up, my weight thrust totally to the balls of the feet, which sat on a paper-thin layer of leather or imitation leather. I felt every bump, every whack of my weight hitting the cement floor, even with the thin layer of carpeting stretched over it in most office buildings. Misery!

And then I discovered pants suits. Not only did this mean I could wear trouser socks instead of panty hose, which invariably developed a run moments before a big meeting. And not only were pants warmer in the winter than the silly knee length skirts that have been in style most of my life, but with pants suits I also got to wear low heeled shoes. Amazing! I found black loafer-like shoes with almost round toes, heels about one inch high and soles at least a quarter of an inch thick that not only looked great with a pants suit, but I could walk in them for more than two blocks without feeling like my toes were caught in a vise.
When people on TV and radio and in the newspapers discuss the progress of women’s rights, they love to point to Hillary Clinton running for president, or some of the other high profile women of achievement. These are great; it is wonderful that young women now have successful role models in all areas of public life. But I find it disturbing that so little is said about the persistent little discriminatory holdovers that hang in here, there and everywhere.
For example, when was the last time anyone spoke or wrote about what Barack Obama or Donald Trump wore? (except for that long tie of his.) How many hundreds of digs have been made about Senator Clinton’s pants suits? Yet if she wore a skirt, someone would say it was too short – her legs are too heavy for that length, or she’s too old to wear a skirt above her knee – or some pundit would decide that the skirt was too long, making her look dowdy. When was the last time anyone called a male politician dowdy? We don’t use that word with men. Men may dress casually, or they may dress “conservatively,” but no one ever calls them dowdy. Mrs. Clinton has discovered what many businesswomen have discovered over the past 20 or so years: pants suits are fabulous.
If this were a female dominated world, she could wear red when she’s feeling energetic (or wished she felt energetic) and pale blue when she’s feeling pensive. But we live in a male-dominated society where anything identified as female is scorned as silly, useless, off tangent, pointless fluff. In her concession speech, Mrs. Clinton said, “I know there are still barriers and biases out there, often unconscious.” She probably wasn’t talking about shoes and panty hose, but it’s all part of the larger picture.
I can deal with all that. I can deal with trying to wear an attractive, stylish suit when I think it’s important to dress well. Suits, hair and even makeup are fine. It’s those high-heeled pumps that I can’t stand. Many women dress to highlight their good looks, instead of to look powerful. Some of them even waste the opportunity and wear stilettos with pants suits! What foolishness! How can anyone look powerful hobbling along in three-inch stilettos?
Men dress to look powerful. They know that a well made suit and tie is a uniform that lets everyone know that someone is a powerful man. He knows a lot about a lot, and he’ll make all the decisions. When a woman dresses in a navy blue pants suit with very little jewelry, her hair short (not “mannishly” short, God forbid, but still, short) the heels as low as she thinks she can get away with, people who aren’t aware might think, she looks like a man. What they’re really feeling, probably, is that she is not dressing to the stereotype of a woman dressing to attract a man. Mrs. Clinton is dressing to help us focus on her message, not her looks. New York’s Senator Gillibrand has modified her dress since she entered the Senate. Gone are the fuzzy pink suits of her Representative days. Now she, too, wears dark suits and low heeled shoes–not sneakers, but a little lower heeled.
Dressing to highlight the aspects of womanhood that men find attractive has historically been a highly effective and adaptive way to go. Up to recently, the only way a woman could assure herself of a comfortable life was to attract a successful man. In this old world, dressing to highlight shapely legs and narrow ankles made sense. But why do that to stand in front of crowds talking about the economy?
In his famous Dress for Success, the bible for all us women entering the professional workforce in the early eighties, John T. Molloy told us all to wear suits. Wearing a suit, especially in traditionally male fabrics and the jacket similarly tailored would help get us the respect we wanted as professional businesswomen, and not be confused as secretaries. No clunky jewelry. No pastel colors. Wear a blue or gray or black or possibly a beige suit with a white or very pale blue or pink  blouse and a little bow tie or small scarf made of the same material popular for men’s ties. Back then, we were told never to wear pants suits, as they would make us look too masculine (ie. Emasculating, every man’s worst nightmare.) Of course, as time went on, we dropped the silly bow ties, and gradually pastel colors and pants (and reasonable shoes) became OK.
So I when I go to a business meeting I wear pants suits, and low heeled shoes. And I doubt if anyone cares or notices. But my feet feel great.


Memoir of caring for a sibling with Schizophrenia

Using prose, poetry, emails and family photos, Shot in the Head a Sister’s Memoir, a Brother’s Struggle, is a mixed genre memoir by Katherine Flannery Dering that follows her family’s efforts to care for her younger brother, who first exhibited signs of schizophrenia at age 16. It is a personal tale of trying to make sense of our country’s disintegrating system of care for mental illness, while dealing with the aftermath of her loved one’s struggle.

It has earned 4.5 out of 5 stars from 19 ratings and 12 reviews on Goodreads and a 4.8/5 stars rating on 25 reviews on Amazon.

“enlightening and educational work!” New York Journal of Books


Here are links to three web  pages with more information:

Click here for:    Publisher’s information about Shot in the Head

This is a direct link to  Amazon Reviews, (which were great) The book is on sale for the gift buying season.

This site provides several pages of information, including where to buy the book, some reviews, information about the book’s cover art, and additional pictures and information about the family:  www.shotintheheadbook.com

September 11, 2001


One beautiful September morning, as I was driving to work, crossing the Hudson River on the Tappanzee Bridge, I caught sight of the Twin Towers off to the south, shining in the sunlight. I should be down there at that seminar, I thought to myself.
In August, I had signed up for a breakfast seminar scheduled for this morning in New York City, touted as, “How to Manage your Investment Portfolio: an Update for Busy Community Bankers.” Among my many responsibilities as chief financial officer at Provident Bank, one was to manage the bank’s investments. This seminar sounded like a perfect review. I called and reserved a spot and taped the postcard invitation onto the side of my computer screen as a reminder: 8 AM, September 11, 2001, World Trade Center, Windows on the World, the restaurant on the top floor of one of the towers.
Three weeks went by, and my workload piled up. One of my best people quit for another job that did not require so much overtime. The HR department was slow to find a replacement, and I was working till 8 or 9 o’clock most evenings. The date for the seminar approached. I would have to get up by 5 AM to catch a train into the city for a breakfast meeting. Then I’d have to come back to my office and catch up on mounds of work. The seminar looked less and less appealing. I called to cancel, tossing the invitation into my wastebasket.
As I drove into work that day, I thought sorry I’m missing it, but I just can’t be two places at the same time. A few minutes later, crowded into the break room with a crowd of staff and coworkers, I stood in front of a TV, watching the towers collapse. About sixty of us huddled around the white Formica tables and turquoise plastic chairs, in a room that generally held about a dozen people. Many of us knew people who worked in those buildings. Marissa, my accounting clerk, ran from the room crying, “My sister!”
Suddenly panicked, I rushed to my desk and called my daughters, worried until I could hear their voices. Loretta was safe. She worked evenings, and was still in bed in her apartment in Queens. “Huh? What are you talking about?” She flipped on her TV.
A tide of co-workers ran to their desks, the same thoughts in their minds. The circuits jammed; I didn’t get through to my older daughter, who lived and worked in Manhattan, for nearly an hour. Many of us didn’t reach loved ones till much later in the day. All day long, we’d wander in and out of that break room, watching the endless loop of planes crashing into the second tower and each tower, in turn, pancaking into rubble.
When I returned home across the bridge that evening, a pillar of smoke rose from the south. Over the next few weeks, I mourned with all Americans the senseless tragedies of that day.
But as time has passed, and as I’ve tried to comprehend what had happened that sunny morning, I keep remembering the TV news clips that showed Afghan people, many of them women, whooping with a high decibel trill and dancing in the streets with glee. They had almost gotten me, I kept thinking. What had I ever done to them? What had any of the people in those buildings done to them? Aside from the violence of the terrorists that day, though, I kept thinking about what life was like for those women of the Middle East.
Afghan cities had been almost as modern as Istanbul only a few decades before. Afghan women had gone to school and become doctors and teachers and accountants. Before the revolution in Iran and the decades of civil war in Afghanistan, many women in those countries had even stopped wearing the traditional headscarf. Now they were shrouded from head to toe in black shapeless robes. Swept up in a tide of Islamic fundamentalist reform, they were forbidden to leave their homes without a brother or husband to look after them. They were not allowed to work, even if widowed. They could be stoned to death for even the suspicion of adultery or anything that would “dishonor” the men of their family. And as wars have raged through Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria, as well as Africa, women have continued to bear the brunt of the suffering, often kidnapped and raped with impunity by Taliban and ISIS extremists.
How did their society devolve so precipitously? Why did it devolve in this way? It seemed they had chosen to make women the scapegoats for all the problems the people of their society faced. As the months have gone by, the question in my mind has changed to, is it happening here? TV and newspaper pundits debate how best to protect our U. S. cities from further terrorism; I ponder how we might protect U. S. women from fundamentalist slavery.
Women in the West have come a long way since the Civil Rights Legislation of the 50’s, 60’s and 70’s. Could we lose the rights we’ve gained over the past fifty years? And might fundamentalist religion be behind the loss? Might it already be behind some of our problems?
Although women today make up 46.3% of the U. S. labor force, and 50.6% of management, professional and related occupations, we make up only 15.4% of Fortune 500 corporate officers. And we make up only 6.7% of the top earners at those companies. For many years we’ve made up a large percentage of the recipients of MBA and LLD degrees. It’s been over fifty years since the enactment of equal employment legislation. Still, women hold only about 14.8% of Fortune 500 company board seats, and often it is one lonely woman working with eight or ten men, where she is pressured to fit in, unable to truly express herself. Of the companies that make up the top 1,000 U. S. companies, only 22 have a female CEO.
Even more distressing, however, is the rise of violence toward women. Rape is epidemic. Yet our society elected an admitted sexual molester. Achievements in women’s civil rights, such as the right to control when or if to become pregnant, are threatened. Insurance policies cover Viagra—an unimportant extra, but many do not cover women’s birth control—often a necessity. The right-leaning Supreme Court–many of its members influenced by conservative religious beliefs–is poised to reverse Roe v. Wade.
There are many lessons to be learned from the violence and suffering on and after September 11, 2001. Of course a primary lesson is an awareness of the need to protect ourselves from violent terrorists.  I have learned how fragile women’s rights are. With knowledge comes power. Studying history can help us make better choices, hopefully to protect the rights women have gained in the past century and to further women’s road to equality.