Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Although Bloomington was a college town, Indiana remained a typically American bastion of complacent parochialism, of brutal commercialism, indeed of anti-intellectualism and jingoism...I hasten to add that on the whole my high school years in Indiana were not unpleasant, thanks to the native friendliness of most Midwesterners...It's just that many, many things lay beyond the pale in Indiana. The bigotry and the hypocrisy were far less unnerving to me than the proud and cheerful ignorance - an all-American trait which continues to appall me to this day. Our government's military adventurism and capricious acts of repression around the world, our own disproportionate responsibility as American consumers for the degradation of the global environment, the murderous corruption of our "war on drugs", the ongoing domestic war against freedom of speech, and all the other rather unremarkable failings of a given nation at a given time - well, not many Americans waste much thought on them. I did not have all the experience to comprehend all this twenty years ago. But I knew that I was missing something. There had to be more than this.*
Let me begin by saying this:

Go now and purchase Ethan Brown's Shake The Devil Off.

If you have a hard time with the subject matter - and if you've been living in this city for any length of time in the past four years, you most likely will - skim through it if you can, read it in small doses if you feel you can take that, and send it to anyone who asks you how New Orleans is.

What is needed now does not only consist of the visual record of what was done to this city as a result of the levee breaches, it must also consist of constantly letting the rest of our country know that the decisions that were and are still being made at the highest levels of our government are affecting all of us who are Americans. Willful, blissful ignorance of those problems will not cut it anymore.

Yes, there is the exploration within the book of a horrible crime: the murder and dismemberment of Addie Hall and the subsequent suicide of her boyfriend and killer, Zackery Bowen. But the context of it all is important, the context being that the ongoing failure of our government and our military institutions to fully own up to and treat the many cases of post-traumatic stress disorder that are coming up in our latest crop of war veterans and the chaos of life in post-8-29-05 New Orleans shortly after residents began returning to the ruined city culminated in a perfect, internal storm for Bowen, a veteran of tours in Kosovo and Iraq. His anguish and his feelings of having nowhere else left to turn (evidenced by, among many other things, the message of "Please Help Me Stop The Pain" emblazoned on a wall of the apartment where the murder occurred) led to Hall's and his deaths.

What makes this book required reading for everybody out there, however, is this:
At every level, we're a "you're on your own" society. It is one of the perversities of the "you're on your own" style of governance that it applies largely to those who most need and most deserve the government to work for them: people such as Iraq vets and Katrina survivors. That the apocalyptic fall of Gustav and Ike climaxed with a financial collapse in which the Treasury Department initially proposed a $700 billion bailout to purchase troubled, mortgage-related "toxic assets" demonstrated just how topsy-turvy the country's priorities have become (economist Nouriel Roubini rightly described the bailout as socialism for the rich and well connected). I became fascinated with Zack's story - and New Orleans itself - in part because I believe that Katrina was about much more than the end to any national pretense of an engaged or effective Bush presidency (the president's approval ratings never recovered after the levees broke in 2005) or even the fall of a great American city. I believe that the "wrecking crew" (to borrow Thomas Frank's great phrase) of incompetents running critical government agencies like FEMA; the passage of unpopular legislation in the wake of national shocks (such as the Patriot Act after 9-11, or President Bush's post-Katrina suspension of the Davis-Bacon act, which sets a minimum pay scale for workers on federal contracts by requiring contractors to pay the prevailing or average pay in the region); and the "you're on your own" style of governance represented by Katrina's aftermath was not exclusive to New Orleans - it could be seen across the nation.**
The fourth anniversary of 8-29-05 is coming up.

Mr. Obama and everyone in the federal government now has a required reading assignment from me, as do the Louisiana state governments and this city's officials.

Otherwise, we must wash our hands of them all and send the message to them that they are all on their own.

Update, 9-1: The Gambit's Blog of New Orleans has just posted parts 1 and 2 of an in-depth interview with Ethan Brown, whose book was excerpted in this week's Gambit. Go read.


*William T. Vollmann, "Afterword to Danilo Kis's A Tomb For Boris Davidovich", from Expelled From Eden
**Ethan Brown, Shake The Devil Off


GentillyGirl said...

Sinn Fein Darlin'.

ethan said...

Thanks for such a great review.

I'm really honored like you like the book and more importantly that you think that it should be sent to "anyone who asks you how New Orleans is."

I'm a newcomer here, obviously, and I strive to get this very complex city right when I'm writing about it. So I'm glad you think that I got it right and that the book is worth sharing with folks outside the city who want to know what's happening here..

Thanks again!


Maitri said...

"His anguish and his feelings of having nowhere else left to turn (evidenced by, among many other things, the message of Please Help Me Stop The Pain emblazoned on a wall of the apartment where the murder occurred) led to Hall's and his deaths."

I'm divided about this. True, access to mental health care is crucial to proper functioning and I wish cultures like mine would own up to the fact that going to see the shrink does not mean you're crazy.

Yet, my dad experienced some really crazy things in Kuwait and if there ever were a classic sufferer of PTSD, it's him. But, I don't see him unraveling, painting the walls with pig blood, shooting up his family and friends and taking the world down with him.

Modern American life has to be a mixture of personal responsibility and social net, as I mentioned in my post on your healthcare panel. Not either or none. It's easy to blame the outside world for everything until, at some point, you just have to stop, talk with yourself and balls up. If you feel you just cannot, it is our duty to help you find a way. For our wellbeing and yours.

Leigh C. said...

Hey, not everybody is going to be experiencing those symptoms after a war or a traumatic event...but for those who do experience them, there ought to be fewer constraints on those seeking help who are in the military, for instance. In cultures such as yours, Maitri - and, to some extent, for many problems such as drug addiction and spousal abuse in mine - these are still problems that nobody wants to acknowledge and get treatment for due to the stigma associated with getting that help.

At the same time, there is still so much we don't know about why some people seem to be more susceptible to these disorders than others, so there might be some fear on the part of the patients to come into a situation in which they might feel like guinea pigs. I have most certainly gone into treatment situations for my own depression that have been less than optimal for me - when someone is found who is a great help, they are worth their weight in gold. When they aren't helpful, it is devastating.

In other words, I agree that the decision to get help ultimately lies within...but the environment in which one can seek that help could also use some major improvements.

And hell, Addie Hall herself could have used some serious therapy due to her past history of being sexually abused.

We are in a city of hurt, and some of us are faring better than others. I certainly wish that these two had fared better.

Ethan: I thank you for putting what everyone is going through here in terms of the crime situation into a context that those who have not been here at any point during this time can understand. While I get that not everyone in this country will suddenly stand up and quit condemning New Orleans as an anomaly that probably shouldn't be rebuilt, the mirror you have constructed through your prose in this book ought to at least spur some dialogue and push some people to open their eyes. You've made a valuable contribution with this book, and I echo Morwen in including you under the Sinn Fein banner in that respect...

...but I have to tell you, for me it was a harrowing read. I was torn between having to put it down occasionally to breathe and wanting to finish it all the same because it was almost imperative that I do.

Perhaps I'll send MY copy on to the president. ;-)

ethan said...

Thanks, Leigh.

And I should strongly add--especially for those who haven't read the book yet--that what I set out to do telling Zackery's story is answer 'how did this happen?' not 'who can we blame for this?'

In order to shed as much light as possible on what led Zackery to commit this horrific crime, I searched through military records and police reports and interviewed his friends, family members and those who served with him in Iraq and Kosovo.

What emerges is, I think, a fairly complex picture with no simple answers. Zackery had traumatic experiences in two wars, was given a discharge from the Army that I and military experts I consulted with believe he did not deserve, and then came home to New Orleans only to ride out Katrina in the Quarter with a girlfriend with whom he had an extraordinarily abusive relationship.

I describe all of these experiences not to provide excuses for what Zackery did to Addie or to deflect blame away from Zackery for the murder--I simply want readers to understand what led to the crime itself.

Anyway, thanks again to Leigh for the great post and to everyone else out there please do not hesitate to let me know you think of the book (though I know that won't be a problem in New Orleans!)


swampwoman said...

I can't wait to read this

Sophmom said...

Wonderful review, Leigh. I already wanted to read it. Should've bought it Saturday.

In response to your discussion with Maitri in these comments, y'all both make excellent points. I want to add though that often mental illness manifests with an inability to recognize oneself as ill as a primary symptom. But for that, it would all be so much more manageable.

Maitri said...

"I describe all of these experiences not to provide excuses for what Zackery did to Addie or to deflect blame away from Zackery for the murder--I simply want readers to understand what led to the crime itself."

Ethan, that we discard our soldiers after what they've done for this country is horrible. And then to be thrown into another horrific situation. I can't wait to read your book. The book was mentioned at the beginning of the Bob Edwards radio show this morning but I had to go in to work and couldn't listen to the rest of the show. Were you interviewed? Congratulations on the mention!

One more thing: On "The bigotry and the hypocrisy were far less unnerving to me than the proud and cheerful ignorance - an all-American trait which continues to appall me to this day." Why go as far as Indiana for this? How about the Northshore of Lake Pontchartrain or even Metairie?

I'm finding that there are a lot of people up here who know it and get it and have volunteered down there, even if they don't want to talk too much about it. Perhaps talking about it will make it real, and then what do they do? That's the fear.

Leigh C. said...

Sorry, Maitri, the first quote is actually from an essay by William T. Vollmann, who spent his high school years in Indiana. I just finished his reader, entitled "Expelled From Eden", and that passage, in tandem with the one I highlighted from Ethan's book, was meant to serve as notice that we have always had this problem AS A NATION - and it will keep going on as long as there are plenty of folks staying silent, like the ones of whom you speak, and folks who are comfortable and complacent in their ignorance.

Which is also why I hope people can look past the murder-suicide and see it in a much greater context of how unhealthy we all are mentally, to varying degrees, and how that is impacting our foreign and domestic policies as well.

Maitri said...

Don't want to sound all hopeless about it, especially today, but if we don't care if the people next door gets healthcare or not, either through abject self-centeredness or because we're just so stretched thin as a nation that we cannot think beyond ourselves and our immediate own, why would we care about soldiers who fought for us or New Orleanians?

And yet, those who volunteer and give and love. This nation befuddles me.