Cromwell, the Nobody Who Gets Things Done

New York Times, April 5, 2015

Episode 1: Three Card Trick

"Wolf Hall," the novel, begins in blood: the young Thomas Cromwell being beaten within an inch of his life by his own father. "Wolf Hall," the BBC miniseries that began on Sunday night on PBS, begins in shadow: Cromwell the consigliere (Mark Rylance) scuttling out of darkness, blowing out a lantern and whispering into his master's ear.

It's hard to remember an epic protagonist who makes a more diffident entrance or whose face so resists illumination. Twice, over the course of this first episode, Cromwell is referred to as "nobody." But the implicit thesis of Hilary Mantel's novel is that the creatures of shadow do as much to advance history—and shed blood—as the creatures of light. If not more. So even though we look back on the English Reformation and see a pageant of playing-card figures—Henry VIII, Anne Boleyn, Thomas More—Ms. Mantel has another gambit in mind. She wants to strain all that Tudor madness through the guarded, gray, ironical gaze of a bureaucrat.

Cromwell is the guy who gets things done, often without your knowing it. He's quiet, sheathed, nocturnal. A watcher, gathering all available data for purposes not yet determined. And yet, over the course of this handsome, dark-grained, faithful adaptation, events tear a hole in his mask of anonymity, and we see that not only does he suffer but, better than anyone he serves or opposes, he also grasps the consequences of his own actions, good or bad. And in the tortured moral landscape of "Wolf Hall," that may be enough to make him a hero.

According to the Vitruvius quote that forms the epigraph of Ms. Mantel's novel, "There are three kinds of scenes, one called the tragic, second the comic, third the satyric." It's hard to glimpse much in the way of Satyricon so far—even King Henry can't do much more than kiss his beloved's breasts—but sex is the only reason you could want the very woman you can't have and then move heaven and earth to have her. The English Reformation may end in spirit, but it begins with a king's glands.

Which brings us to the comic side of the equation. Humor, against all odds, is percolating under this bleak world from that opening scroll of exposition: "And Henry is not a forgiving man. ..." Cromwell, being our guide and surrogate, tends to score most of the laughs. (I particularly liked the bit when, having driving his bête noire Thomas More (Anton Lesser) from a dining room, he croons to the host, "You must give me the recipe for this sauce.") There's a comic arc, too, to his first encounter with King Henry (Damian Lewis). "Do you want a king to huddle indoors like a sick girl?" Henry snaps. "That would be ideal," Cromwell answers, "for fiscal purposes."

"Master Cromwell," the king declares, "your reputation is bad."

"Your Majesty can form your own opinions."

"I can. I will."

The mutual seduction has begun.

Oh, but it's a treacherous business, loving a prince. Just ask Henry's wife, Queen Katherine (Joanne Whalley), soon to be cast off for her underperforming womb. Ask Cardinal Wolsey (Jonathan Pryce), who loses house, wealth and position because he can't bend the pope to his sovereign's will.

Why would someone as canny as Thomas Cromwell check into that heartbreak hotel? Because, when it comes down to it, he wants to be more than an observer—more than the "butcher's dog" to Wolsey's "butcher's boy." As he explains to his wife, "I don't want to spend my life dealing in conveyances."

Cromwell's ambition, though, isn't the usual bourgeois striving but a kind of displaced revenge against his own powerlessness. In that sense, the beating he took from his father has never healed. He may forbear to take a hammer to Dad's skull, but he won't necessarily be forbearing with his political enemies—any more than he was on the battlefields of his mercenary youth.

Indeed, the one area where Mr. Rylance's performance falls short for me is in conveying the character's menace, for Cromwell carries with him both the history and the imprint of violence. People get nervous around him, except for Mary Boleyn (Charity Wakefield), who gets turned on. A boy in Wolsey's household says he looks like a murderer. His past, much as he tries to slough it off, looks increasingly like a prelude.

Which leads us, finally, to tragedy—the element sewn right into this God-abandoned world where fathers turn on sons ... where reading a Bible in your native tongue gets you burned at the stake ... where a man leaves a healthy family at home and comes back that night to find them all dead from sweating sickness.

In the midst of life, the characters of "Wolf Hall" are in death—and sometimes in some weird suspension between the two. Well before her demise, Cromwell's daughter is fitted out for the afterlife in a pair of homemade angel wings, and in the episode's most chilling moment, Cromwell's wife appears to follow him out into the hallway only to vanish when he glances back.

But where tragedy really lives is in Mr. Rylance's haunted eyes. They glimpse the skull beneath every skin—his own included—and still they watch and still they wait. Just like us.

Fraught symbols: 1) Cromwell tells Wolsey he once held a snake in Italy "for a bet." (When asked if it was poisonous: "I didn't know. That was the point of the bet.") That nicely sets up Cromwell as the self-designated handler for the Vatican vipers. 2) The three card trick that gives the episode its title is a shell game designed to separate fools from their money, but it's also a useful metaphor for the political con game and a veiled swipe at the Holy Trinity.

Machiavelli would be proud: 1) Wolsey: "In every emergency, look to see if there is some advantage for your prince." 2) Cromwell: "A strong man acts within that which constrains him."

Credulity check: At a time when simply having the Tyndale Bible in your possession was a capital crime, isn't it hard to believe that Cromwell would have the book sent straight to his house? And then talk about it so freely in front of his wife? Those would have been burning offenses for everyone concerned. (In the novel, Cromwell at least keeps the Bible in a locked chest.)

Speak now, friends. For those of you who've read the book, is this the evocation you were hoping for? For those of you who haven't, are you able to follow all the cross weave of intrigue? Which characters do you want to see more of? And what element of Tudor England makes you happiest to live in the present day?

Till next week. ...

Cromwell Shows Us His Two Sides

New York Times, April 12, 2015

Episode 2

Leo McKern, is that you?

I ask because, until Hilary Mantel published her Tudor books, the best-known pop-culture representation of Thomas Cromwell was McKern's floridly villainous turn in the film "A Man for All Seasons" (1966)—a performance worth reviewing only because it shows us Cromwell as we used to "know" him: snarling, humorless, mendacious, intent on bullying a saintly man into martyrdom.

By contrast, here are some things that the Cromwell of the "Wolf Hall" miniseries does over the course of Episode 2: denounce mean monks; soothe addled monarchs; hum Italian ditties; and cuddle with a kitten and bunny rabbit. When, of course, he's not cuddling with his absurdly cute retinue: a son, nephew and ward who combine in age to somewhere under 60. (As Rafe, Thomas Brodie-Sangster looks only a hair older than when he was playing Liam Neeson's stepson in "Love Actually.")

The whole business can feel like a Nixonian rehabilitation campaign, except that Episode 2 also shows us a Cromwell (Mark Rylance) who scares his own family, worms his way onto the Privy Council and makes time with his dead wife's married sister (a middle-aged clasp that is, curiously, the miniseries' first incursion into sex).

Nor does he pass up on the cold dish of revenge. When his old mentor, Wolsey (Jonathan Pryce), dies on the verge of imprisonment, surrounded by enemies, Wolsey's caretaker confesses, "I prayed God to send vengeance upon them all." "There's no need to trouble God," says our hero. "I'll take it in hand."

So if Cromwell is being rehabilitated before our eyes, he isn't exactly being let off the hook, and his moral compass isn't becoming any easier to define. "I'll say this for you," says King Henry (Damian Lewis). "You stick by your man." But which man? Wolsey dies with Cromwell's name on his lips, but his old protégé is miles away, ostensibly attending to the cardinal's affairs but attending just as sedulously to his own.

And when Wolsey's enemy Anne Boleyn (Claire Foy) puts out the call, Cromwell comes running. She's heard that he's "a useful support to employ," and she has just the job for him: finding the artist behind a (rather prescient) poisoned-pen drawing that shows Anne sans tête. But this seems to be just a pretext for ladling a particular message in his ear. "This will happen," she declares. "I mean to have him."

Afterward, Johane (Saskia Reeves) is full of curiosity about Lady Anne.

"Tall or short?"

"Neither," mumbles Cromwell.

"They say she dances well."

"We didn't dance."

Ah, but you did, Thomas. And if it's not yet apparent who's leading and who's following, it's pretty clear that Boleyn and Cromwell, the blacksmith's son, are forged in the same smithy. They see everything and stop at nothing, and their motto is the same: Once you've figured out what needs to be done, find the straightest path there.

But even as they practice their dark arts, they are half-consciously planting the seeds of a democratic future. In the words of Bonvisi (Enzo Cilenti): "A world where Anne can be queen is a world where Cromwell can be ..."

The sentence trails off, but Cromwell has his own ideas on the subject. He's only waiting for the next call, and sure enough, he's summoned to Greenwich for impromptu augury. The king has been visited in dreams by his late brother, Arthur—"pale, thin, a white fire around him"—and to Henry the vision has only one possible meaning: "He's come back to make me ashamed for taking his kingdom, using his wife."

The other consultant in the room - Dr. Thomas Cranmer (Will Keen) - is an academic by nature who falls back on hard-line theology. Cromwell's genius is to embrace psychology. Arthur, he declares, doesn't want to shame his brother. He wants Henry to "to become the king he would have been."

"Now is the vital time," adds Cromwell. "Now is the time for you to become the king you should be. The sole and supreme head of your kingdom."

It's as if the biblical Joseph, instead of prophesying drought and famine, had assured the pharaoh of decades of prosperity. It's a brilliant, seemingly off-the-cuff performance that leaves the bedazzled Henry murmuring, "I understand it all now."

To my mind this scene is the pivot upon which the whole series rests: two men seizing their separate chances, and in the same moment an entire country forking away from its presumed destiny.

But toward what? That's the question these men must answer, and it's not clear that Henry has the capacity to answer it himself. I would have guessed on paper that Damian Lewis was miscast in this part, but his quality of unstable gentleness now seems to me ideal for Mantel's conception. This Henry is both conscious of his power—look at the offhand way he extends his arm, waiting for Cromwell to unsleeve him—and profoundly unconscious of it. "Anne says she'll leave me," he moans. "Says there are other men. Says she's wasting her youth."

A more self-aware monarch would realize that he's the one man Anne would never leave (any more than Cromwell would). It's emotion that drives this Henry, not sex or power. And so many emotions—some irreconcilable (Wolsey versus Boleyn), none erasable—that he can't even sort them all out. Only two things are certain: He will never stop loving the people he has loved, and he will never be more than a step away from hating them.

Fraught symbol: Wolsey's turquoise ring, passed along to his consigliere, Cromwell. Stripped of religious connotation, does it confer power or doom? Or does it simply refract the ambition of the man who wears it?

Best line: Johane, continuing her Boleyn inquiry: "Are her teeth good?" Cromwell: "When she sinks them into me, I'll let you know."

Machiavelli would be proud: "Part of the art of ruling, perhaps. Know when to shut your ears." (Bonvisi)

...Other thoughts
Hilarious dinner party at the Mores. Awful food, a hooting fool, a pet monkey and a tipsy Alice More (Monica Dolan) demanding to know why Cromwell won't marry again. "You've got everything below in good working order, haven't you?"

A sign of how tangled the royal web was: Anne Boleyn's knitting circle harbors not one but two future queens of England. As Jane Seymour, Kate Phillips has the kind of helpless, unfortified face that makes you wonder how she'll survive another day, let alone ascend to the throne. Watch out for the ones that cry!

Nice trick to have Cranmer make his entrance, Cromwell-style, from the shadows. Like our hero, he's learned the trick of being invisible when it suits.

Speak, "Wolf" watchers. Are you rooting for Cromwell? Are you rooting for anyone? Isn't it amazing to contemplate how much the world depended upon a woman having a boy child? Aren't you feeling a little sorry, sight unseen, for Princess Mary, "the talking shrimp"? (Yeah, I know she grows up to be Bloody Mary.) And ... from certain angles, doesn't Mark Rylance resemble Dan Hedaya?

Next week!

Thomas More Follows His Principles Straight to the Torture Chamber

New York Times, April 19, 2015

Episode 3: 'Anna Regina'

More, More, More ... how do you like him?

Do you prefer the pained idealist of Robert Bolt's "A Man for All Seasons," marching toward martyrdom with melancholy eyes and perfect diction? Or the creepy, stringy-haired guy who intones Latin while, a few feet away, one of his heretic-prisoners writhes in a nasty device called Skeffington's Daughter?

That scene of torture—the opening tableau of Episode 3—gives us the clearest possible sense of where Hilary Mantel stands in the ongoing debate over Thomas More's character.

In her rendering More is not a saint but a fanatic, enslaved by an idea, and in defense of an idea, human beings are ultimately expendable. When asked to justify strapping the Tyndale follower James Bainham (Jonathan Aris) to the rack, More answers that, to save the man's soul, "I would have had him whipped, I would have had him burned with irons, I would have had him hung by his wrists."

God, in short, justifies all means. But which god? The god of More? The god of Tyndale? Or the god of the Turks, invading infidels who are knocking on the gates of Vienna and causing Western Europe to quake (not for the last time) at the thought of Islamic aggression?

Bainham may recant his beliefs under torture, but he reclaims them in dramatic fashion by publicly reading from an English-language Bible. "I couldn't live with what I'd done," he tells Cromwell (Mark Rylance). And here at last is a believer that "Wolf Hall" can live with—a man who sacrifices only himself.

Even as his funeral pyre is being prepared, Bainham groans, "I cannot unbelieve what I believe."

Contrast that with the steely pragmatism of Anne Boleyn (Claire Foy), who believes people should say "whatever will keep them alive." Or Cromwell himself, who may sympathize with the Protestant reformers, but is frankly impatient with their methods—and incredulous that Tyndale won't take the expedient tactic of supporting Henry's divorce.

"You'd think he'd bend a point of principle to make a friend of the King of England," says Cromwell. "But no. Tyndale and More, they deserve each other, these mules who pose as men."

In Cromwell's eyes, purity is no virtue, and flexibility no flaw. If anything, elastic principles are the best and truest response to human complexity. Oh, sure, he might "serve the Sultan if the price was right" (More's phrase ) but, having made that choice, he would serve his prince all the more effectively for knowing how the world works.

That's how he can see through the "prophetess" Elizabeth Barton (Aimee Ffion-Edwards) to the network of corrupt priests and political players behind her. And when Harry Percy (Harry Lloyd) has the temerity to lay a pre-existing marital claim on Anne, Cromwell doesn't "beat his skull in," as Anne's uncle, the Duke of Norfolk (Bernard Hill), advises. He merely sets the young man straight with this minor masterpiece of Realpolitik:

"The world is not run from where you think it is. From border fortresses, even from Whitehall. The world is run from Antwerp, from Florence, from Lisbon. From wherever the merchant ships set sail off into the west. Not from castle walls but from counting houses. From the pens that scrape out your promissory notes.

"So believe me when I say that my banker friends and I will rip your life apart. And then when you are without money and title, yes, I can picture you. Living in a hovel, wearing homespun, bringing home a rabbit for the pot. Your lawful wife Anne Boleyn skinning and jointing that rabbit. Yes, I wish you all happiness."

And just in case Harry needs another nudge: "I will come and drag you out of whatever hole you're cowering in, and the Duke of Norfolk will bite your bollocks off. I do hope that's clear, my lord."

It is indeed clear. And what better way to seal off the threat than with that ironic and deeply unfelt "my lord"? Times have changed, and the "son of an honest blacksmith," to use Henry's romanticized phrase, is now giving marching orders to landed gentry. Cromwell, says Queen Katherine (Joanne Whalley), "used to be a moneylender. Now he writes all the rules."

But he can do that only so long as the King allows it. Herewith the cost of putting your faith in men: They turn on you. One man in particular. "Everything that you are," crows Henry (Damian Lewis), in an unconscious echo of Wolsey's words, "everything that you have will come from me."

As if to dramatize the peril of that position, Anna Regina, in the course of being crowned, prostrates herself on the cathedral floor, with her neck exposed and her arms outstretched—a Christ-like pose that uncannily prefigures her ultimate end. In this moment, she has achieved all she ever wanted, and she has never been more vulnerable—to fate, to genes, to a monarch's whims. With a chill, we recall Henry's romantic conceit: "I hunt only one hind." He has captured her now, and his mercy is all she has to depend upon.

Fraught symbol: In Calais, Edward Seymour (Ed Speleers) unwisely plays chess with Cromwell and quickly finds his queen captured. "How did you do that?" Jane, his sister, may soon have cause to ask the same question.

Best line: Mary Boleyn (Charity Wakefield) reveals that Anne is selling herself to Henry "by the inch" and "wants a cash present for every advance above her knee." "She's got long legs," replies Cromwell. "By the time he reaches her secret part, the nation will be bankrupt."

Machiavelli would be proud: With the House of Commons set to take up a bill declaring Henry supreme head of the Church in England, Cromwell has the brilliant notion of staging the vote in full view of the king. All it takes is the monarch's baleful eye to send a solid majority of MP's scurrying over to the "Aye" side. If he were around today, Cromwell would be stuffing most of Congress into his back pocket.

Other things ...

  • Nice touch giving Anne turquoise earrings to match the ring on Cromwell's finger.


  • I recently described "Wolf Hall" to a friend as Showtime's "The Tudors" without the bare breasts. I stand slightly corrected: There is the briefest flash of bosom from a brothel window, but this series remains as averse to sexual display as Cromwell's Puritan descendant, Oliver.


  • If you have problems imagining dowdy Katherine of Aragon as the plum she was in youth, just think back to Joanne Whalley's earlier career and the gorgeous figure she cut in "The Singing Detective" and "Scandal." (If you've seen her more recently in "The Borgias," you know she's still gorgeous.).

So, "Wolf" watchers ... To whom are you warming currently? Knowing the gender of the child in Anne's womb, are you able to summon any pity for that cool customer? Or are we already shoving her aside in favor of her successor? Wasn't that "talking shrimp" Princess Mary (Lily Lesser) a little prettier than you were expecting? And were you surprised to learn it was illegal to marry your dead wife's sister? (In fact, it remained illegal in England until 1907.)

Next week!

Cromwell the Serpent Makes an Appearance

New York Times, April 26, 2015

Part 4, "The Devil's Spit"

The more effectively historical fiction does its job, the more it blurs the lines between the known and the imagined. Watch Peter Shaffer's "Amadeus," and you'll come away thinking Salieri spent his life sticking pins into Mozart. Watch Arthur Miller's "The Crucible," and you'll think the Salem witch trials could have been averted if John Proctor had received more lovin' at home. Watch "Wolf Hall," and you'll think Thomas More (Anton Lesser) could have sidestepped the executioner's blade if only as a teenager he had returned a lad's wave.

That encounter with the young Thomas Cromwell is, of course, fictional, but it's so pointedly inter-cut with the scene of More's execution that you'd be excused for concluding that, if More had just asked that lad up for a beer, the course of English history might have changed.

But then, that would have required both of those boys to change—or at least to merge their stations—and from the looks of things, that wasn't going to happen. Even in youth, More was a creature of the mind, lofting his thoughts to the stars, and Cromwell was a boy of the streets, wading through the muck and mire of the real.

Now it's possible that, in his rise to power, Cromwell (Mark Rylance) found time to gaze from balconies or, heaven help us, play on a recorder, but that's not where his value lies. He is, to quote Bishop Fisher (Richard Durden), "a ruffian." Or worse, if we're to believe King Henry (Damian Lewis): "Do you think I've promoted you for the charm of your presence? I keep you because you are a serpent."

That metaphor calls us back both to Genesis and to the previously told story of Cromwell's handling of snakes in Italy, but it also speaks to his serpentine finesse, which is superbly on view as he takes apart the conspiracy behind the prophetess Elizabeth Barton (Aimee Ffion-Edwards). One by one, he calls the guilty parties to justice in a cross-cutting sequence that recalls the famous climax of "The Godfather." With this key difference: Cromwell the assassin never raises his voice or rises from his chair. His only weapon, really, is omniscience ("Everything they do now, they do under my eye"). He shows his enemies how much he knows about them, and once they have accepted his mastery, he gives them their marching orders: "Grovel." "Fall ill." "Take to your bed."

This is the Cromwell the world expects (and fears): a man of deeds. So what happens when he encounters a man of ideas? For a time, nothing but stasis. The young Cromwell, on first meeting More, asks him what he's reading and receives this dismissive answer: "Words, just words." (Nearly identical to the reply Polonius gets from Hamlet.). But when the interrogator Cromwell encourages More to think of an oath to the king as mere "words," More's take on the concept reflects their altered relationship. "Ah," he sighs. "Just words."

By now it's clear: Words are More's currency. He can, at times, devalue them. ("If I say no to your oath, I put my body in peril; if I say yes, my soul. So I say nothing.") He can, at times, give them supremacy. ("All I have, all I won, is the ground I stand upon. That ground is Thomas More.") But words are his to wield, and that makes him an agony to his adversary. "Do you know what I hate most?" says Cromwell. More is "writing an account of today for all of Europe to read, and in it, we'll be the fools and oppressors and he'll be the poor victim with the better turn of phrase. He wrote this play years ago, and he sniggers every time I trip over my lines."

This can be read as one more dig at the hagiography of Robert Bolt's "A Man for All Seasons," in which More really does have all the best lines, but it also gets to the basic tension of tonight's episode, which could easily be subtitled "Plato vs. Machiavelli"—or, if you like, "Idealism (With All Its Horrors) vs. Pragmatism (With All Its Corruptions)."

It's no accident that the title of More's best-known work, "Utopia," literally translates as "nowhere." As the learned son of a knighted judge, he is both ferociously ambitious (as Cromwell has noted) and profoundly abstract. That's what allows him, in Hilary Mantel's rendering, to persecute heretics without a thought to their suffering, and that's what prevents him from bending when the political winds start blowing in a different direction.

As for Cromwell, he doesn't lack for intellect or culture. He's multilingual, a biblical scholar, and pals with artists like Hans Holbein (Thomas Arnold), but he doesn't believe ideas matter, unless they can be converted into deeds. In this regard, his intellectual soul mate is his frenemy Anne Boleyn (Claire Foy), who has made the tactical error of giving birth to a daughter and then miscarrying her next child. For the first time, notes of panic register in those agate eyes. "I won't die," she declares. "I'll give the king a son, and I won't die." We know, of course, that neither of those statements is true. And maybe, just maybe, she's beginning to know that herself.

Fraught Symbol No. 1: The trail of blood leading to (and away from) Anne. Hard not to hear the after-echo of Norfolk's prophecy: "She'll spit blood!"

Fraught Symbol No. 2: Cromwell compares his boss to a tamed lion. "You can pet him. You can pull at his ears if you wish. But all the time you're thinking to yourself: Those claws. Look at those claws."

Most self-exposing simile: The Duke of Norfolk (Bernard Hill) likens a 20-year marriage to "placing your person inside a grizzled leather bag." Wonder if his wife would have used the same analogy.

Machiavelli would be proud: Intuiting that More will reveal himself more freely to someone he despises, Cromwell makes a point of sending Richard Riche (Bryan Dick) alone into the prisoner's cell. Or maybe Cromwell just intuits Riche will say anything to have More beheaded.

Other stuff ...

  • Loved seeing Cromwell pose for his now-famous Holbein portrait. If you revisit the actual painting, you'll see how Cromwell's actual face—in direct contrast to Rylance's—repels both sympathy and empathy. No wonder it took centuries to restore his reputation.


  • "Wolf Hall" has no shortage of world-class actors. In Part 4, Mr. Lewis was particularly good at conveying Henry's anguish over his lost child, and Mr. Lesser, without chewing a single piece of scenery, managed to (temporarily) erase memories of Paul Scofield. But I hereby grant thespian honors to Monica Dolan, who, in a few minutes of screen time, turns Alice More into a living, breathing, wounded thing. Though writ small, it's a performance that rivals Wendy Hiller's work in "A Man for All Seasons." (And what a brilliant line: "You've always been good to us. I wonder why.")


  • Finally, a tip of the hat to Ms. Mantel for titling an entire book after a place that the reader never, over the course of 600-plus pages, visits. Of course, she takes us there in the succeeding book, "Bring up the Bodies," and so has "Wolf Hall," the miniseries. Expect wolf howls before too long. (And remember how Count Dracula interpreted the sound: "Children of the night. What music they make.")

Questions: When is Mark, "that little sneak," going to come to plot fruition? Aren't you longing for more of the catty, unloved Jane Rochford (Jessica Raine)? What was with that strange fever-dream vision of Cromwell's dead wife weaving? ("If I stop to think how I'm doing it, I won't be able to do it.") And what is it about Tudor dress that makes every man look more virile?

See you at the Hall!

Cromwell the Serpent Makes an Appearance

New York Times, May 3, 2015

Part 5, "Crows"

Remember that dumb line from "Love Story"--"Love means never having to say you're sorry"? Turns out that's pretty much the modus vivendi for King Henry VIII (Damian Lewis), and it comes with a corollary for everyone else: "Love me, and you'll be sorry."

Exhibit 1: Katherine of Aragon (Joanne Whalley) who goes to her death with Henry's name still on her lips and earns this epitaph for her troubles: "We'll lay her to rest in Peterborough. It will cost less."

Exhibit 2: Anne Boleyn (Claire Foy), who comes close to being immolated in her bed, only to see her husband grieve over the surrounding arras. ("Oh, this was a good piece.")

Exhibit 3: The king's trusted adviser Thomas Cromwell (Mark Rylance), who begs Henry not to unhorse Cromwell's son in a jousting tournament and gets this blasé reply: "When you're thundering down at a man, you can't check."

Kings have always been kings, but Henry's new quasi-papal status seems to have made him more changeable and less anchored than ever before. When Cromwell tricks Imperial Ambassador Chapuys (Mathieu Amalric) into acknowledging Henry's new queen, that should qualify as a diplomatic coup. But when Chapuys presumes to make direct overtures to Henry, our man-boy king sniffs a different kind of coup and goes mental on Cromwell. "What would a man like you know about the honor of princes? You think you are the king and I am the blacksmith's boy! Don't you? Don't you?"

It's an attack of such heat and ferocity that, in defense, Cromwell can only cross his wrists—as his blacksmith father once advised him to do after grabbing a hot iron. "Confuses the pain," said Walter, but in this case, the gesture, with its evocations of the cross, seems more designed to quell a demon.

Cromwell's enemies are crowing over his humiliation, but the next day, the King taps him on the shoulder, and off they go for one of Henry's patented non-apology apologies. First some distraction: idle talk of going "down to the weald" to talk to ironmasters. Followed by affirmation: "You are my right hand, sir." Followed by a declaration of need: "I cannot live as I have lived, Cromwell. You must free me from it. From Anne."

And what choice does Cromwell have? As Wolsey's cheerful ghost reminds him: "The King wants a new wife. Fix him one. I didn't, and now I'm dead."

It's a peculiar conundrum for Cromwell, who prides himself, as we've discussed, on knowing what lurks in every mind and heart. (Surely that's why Hilary Mantel refers to him constantly as a godlike "he," with no antecedent.) But what good is all that omniscience without omnipotence?

"You think I have everything," Cromwell complains, "but take Henry away, I don't have a crumb." Crumb, as it turns out, is also our hero's nickname—a constant reminder that he can be brushed off whenever his master chooses.

And such a master! Morphing from alpha male to keening child and no more infantile than when he is screaming "I am not an infant!" Stung by any threat of emasculation and yet willing to emasculate himself to get out of his second marriage. ("I was seduced, practiced upon. Perhaps with charms, with spells. Women do such things.") His volcanic temperament is perhaps best exemplified in the scene where Anne begs him not to joust again. Smiling, he beckons her forward, and then, when she is in sonic range, hisses, "Why not geld me while you're at it?" (In effect, she already has. Hence the fury.)

With his towering size and his gift for duress, Mr. Lewis is fully up to the character's barometric swings—and a good thing, too, because Henry, initially a marginal figure, has become the axis on which this whole mad enterprise spins. He's power without knowledge. And maybe the only one who can survive in this world—for now—is the blankly enigmatic virgin Jane Seymour (Kate Phillips), who has neither knowledge nor power and has somehow turned that into a singular asset. She prospers because no one can be sure what's inside.

Fraught symbol: The pelts! In a show called "Wolf Hall," it's no surprise that animal hides confer status. Recall the mangy stole that sagged from Thomas More's neck in his waning days, and now contrast that with the robust pelt that adorns Cromwell—no longer a consigliere but a councilor—as he holds court behind his desk.

The World According to Norfolk (Bernard Hill): The good duke's strategy for dealing with Princess Mary: "I'd go upcountry, and if she would not sign her oath, I'd beat her head against the wall until it was soft as a baked apple." To which the weary Lord Chancellor (Tim Steed) replies: "Thank you for that."

Machiavelli would be proud No. 1: Cromwell passes on advice to his son about jousting that seems ideally suited for political sparring: "Sit easily in the saddle as though you're going out to take some air. Carry your lance loose until the last moment. And above all else, defeat your instincts to survive."

Machiavelli would be proud No. 2: Cromwell to Stephen Gardiner (Mark Gatiss): "Do your worst, Stephen. Put your men on the road. Lay out money. Search Europe. You'll not find any talent I possess that England cannot use."

Other stuff ...

  • Either my eyes are being acculturated, or "Wolf Hall" is growing more lushly beautiful with each episode—as Cromwell himself ascends the court hierarchy. The side view of Jane standing before a mirror has the feel of a lost Vermeer.


  • With her almost obscene mocking of royal customs and even childbirth, the character of Anne's dwarf-fool (Sarah Bennett) is clearly meant to be a subversion of Anne herself, but I confess to a little queasiness at seeing an actual person enact the conceit.


  • Another confession. The chaos surrounding Henry's near-death in the jousting tournament was almost too much for me. Boleyns rushing in from nowhere (like the crows of the episode's title) ... threats raining down ... the Duke of Norfolk pulling an Al Haig and declaring himself regent ... Cromwell pounding on the king's breastbone in some kind of Tudor CPR ... well, I had to hightail it back to the book to grasp all the cross-currents. Anyone else have trouble?

And while I'm in an inquisitive mood: Are you ready for the endgame? Sufficiently primed for those masked Wolsey defamers to get their comeuppance? (The constant flashbacks to that long-ago court masque make it feel like original sin.) Wouldn't "The Concubine Wore Yellow" be a great thriller title? And isn't telling Cromwell to "be very secret" like telling the sun to shine?

The end draws near!

In Finale, King Henry's Masque and Anne's Little Neck

New York Times, May 10, 2015

Part 6, "Master of Phantoms"

"It was a play," gasps Harry Norris (Luke Roberts). "You can't ... you can't seriously...."

Oh, but Thomas Cromwell can. Because if there's one message ringing out loud and true from "Wolf Hall," it's that playacting is serious business indeed.

Start with that ill-fated masque that sent a make-believe Cardinal Wolsey to hell—and consigned its four actors to Cromwell's personal revenge inferno. I've always thought there was a touch of patness to this device: a tidy way for Hilary Mantel to predestine the fates of four men who, in real life, may simply have been random collateral damage. (To take down a queen, you have to take down the men standing in your way.) But the revenge scenario does feed nicely into the show's central mystery. Who are we behind our masks? And what happens when they're stripped away?

No one better understands the importance of playacting than Anne Boleyn (Claire Foy), who has borrowed a gesture from Queen Esther—hands clasped to her breast—to dramatize her purity of heart. It's a gesture that works on King Henry (Damian Lewis), but when she tries it on Cromwell (Mark Rylance), he sees it for what it is. And with that, Anne's mask falls away for good, and out comes her authentic self. Curling her hands around her throat, she whispers: "I only have a little neck. So it will be the work of a moment."

Ms. Foy has been a redoubtable presence throughout the show, but she splendidly conveys Anne's terror in her final minutes. Condemned by her government, betrayed by her family, she goes to her death bare and unfriended. Even her execution is a bizarre form of theater: the headsman skulking around the platform like a mustachioed villain, the audience gasping like groundlings at each ripple of stagecraft.

But what of the husband she leaves behind? He has already written—no surprise—a play. "A tragedy," he declares, pressing it on Cromwell. "My own story." In which, of course, he is exculpated of any wrong.

As Mel Brooks once reminded us, it's good to be the king—if only because you can let your mask slip without consequence. In one of Sunday night's most telling epiphanies, we learn that the audience member laughing the loudest at Wolsey's theatrical humiliation was Henry himself. Which would also make him a sinner against the cardinal's memory, just like the four make-believe demons whom Cromwell has sent to their deaths. And yet with no one to challenge him, the king can slip on a new mask and become Wolsey's chief defender, piously lamenting the way Anne "practiced against" the poor fellow.

In the show's final scene, Henry embraces Cromwell for a job well done, and we can see, in his undisguised face, a man engorged with joy at his own deliverance. Henry will walk away a happier fellow, but Cromwell fatally won't.

That's partly because, in Anne, he has lost his truest soul mate. Think about that strange dream vision of her body being dragged the length of his dinner table. She smiles as she watches him raise his dagger--an equal partner in his Dance of Death.

Note, too, how in the moment of her arrest, Anne calls Cromwell "the man I created." "He created you in turn," retorts her uncle, and one can't help but think that, in an alternative universe, these two would have made an unbeatable team, ruling their nation with the firmest of hands and without a trace of illusion. But in the world of Tudor England, as Anne says, "Those who've been made can be unmade."

Until Sunday night's episode, I think, a Cromwell apologist could have written off his actions—even his prosecution of Thomas More—as a kind of hard-edged Realpolitik, anchored to an innate sense of justice. No longer. As we watch Cromwell fasten his web around the lovesick musician Mark Smeaton (Max Fowler), we see an inner rot take hold. "I need guilty men," he says to Norris. "So I found men who are guilty. Though not necessarily as charged."

That's a distinction with a difference, and a sign that the moral order has changed. For the younger Cromwell, violence was self-preservation; now it's a means of erasing truth. (Note the cool way in which he threatens to gouge out a prisoner's eyes.) For the younger Cromwell, self-knowledge—the ability to dispense with masks—was the path to wisdom; now it's the road to damnation. Better than anyone else, he understands what he's capable of and what the consequences will be. "Life pays you out," he reminds us.

Which leads me to one minor reservation. Mantel is currently writing the last volume of the "Wolf Hall" trilogy, and I can't help but wish this superb production had waited to incorporate that final strand. The story, as it stands, is "complete" enough, but it lacks the full arc that Cromwell demands. We need to see him go to his end, not for the sake of retribution but for the sake of reckoning.

All the more reason, then, to applaud that final shot, where Cromwell is visually decapitated by the king's embracing arm—a head floating on royal ermine. The shadows of Cromwell's impending death have already gathered around him, and those melancholy eyes see nothing but doom.

Fraught symbol: The Tower of London, where a queen can wait either to be crowned or beheaded—one event leading ineluctably to the other.

The World According to Norfolk (Bernard Hill): "I'll do slaughter!" he bellows, trying to calm the trial he's presiding over.

Machiavelli would be proud: Cromwell sets things straight for poor Mark: "We'll write down what you say, Mark, but we don't necessarily write down what we do."

Other stuff ...

  • It's strange that Jane Seymour (Kate Phillips) registers more powerfully off screen than on. She's the enigma toward which a nation now bends for salvation. Anne is undeceived: "Tell her from me: God sees her tricks."


  • A powerfully human moment for the doomed dandy Francis Weston (Jacob Fortune-Lloyd). "It's just I thought I had another 20 years ..."


  • Tip of the hat to Jane Rochford (Jessica Raine) for educating us about "the French fashion," a venerable term for nonprocreative sex. (But what did the French consider "the English fashion?")

Speak for the last time, my friends. Did you enjoy your wolves? Did the example of the Boleyns make you feel better about your own family? Did the example of the royal court make you want to eat with your hands? And who could have guessed that the little red-headed girl bouncing on Anne's knee would even make it to her fourth birthday, let alone become ... You Know Who. Chalk it up to survivalist genes.

Enjoyed our game of thrones, friends. Exeunt wolves!

Who is Louis Bayard?

Salon.com, September 22, 2006

Our inn had a guest book that should have been rated X.

I spotted them almost as soon as we walked in. Four small clothbound volumes, stacked on the bedside table. Guest books, I thought. Except they didn't announce themselves as guest books. They had coated paper and velvety exoskeletons, and instead of being centered on the table, they were shoved against the wall, like a pile of old paperbacks you're embarrassed to admit you've read.

But there was no concealing them in the rustic, foursquare, Norwegian-style redwood cabins that make up Deetjen's Big Sur Inn. It's the kind of place that makes a fetish of its openness. Everything subsists in an eternal murmur of water: the river out back, the Pacific coast down the hill. And if you close your eyes and ignore the vaguely human sounds from the adjoining cabin, you can make believe you're the only ones there, the only ones who were ever there.

But it's harder to do so with those guest books staring you in the face. Here suddenly was tangible evidence of past presences, of couples just like Don and me, coming here for similar purposes, to launch or celebrate or save relationships—the same thing that happens every minute at every resort in every corner of the world. And so when I opened one of those clothbound volumes, I expected nothing more than the usual guest-book banalities, those guarded, impermeable expressions of cheer that I've come to dread: "Had a lovely time ... Couldn't have asked for nicer weather ... Can't wait to come back again!"

But the first line that caught my eye was "My lover's cock is still hard inside me."

And instantly arose the image of a woman (why a woman, necessarily?) straddling a panting male body and, in that first post-coital moment, stretching toward the bedside table, snatching up the clothbound volume, groping for a pen, recording—on the spot—an instantaneous stenography of sex.

I began flipping the pages.

"Last night I tied Jenny to the bed ... She was stretched out naked. Fingers and toes touching the corners of the bed ... She was a little nervous but I could tell she was excited. I started very slowly, gently massaging her from the soles of her feet to the tips of her fingers ... Jenny smiled up at me and licked first just the top, then the underside, then sucked the whole length into her mouth ... She sucked and licked me hard, until after a couple of minutes I couldn't hold back anymore. With my hair pushed against her nose, I came in her mouth."

Before long, Don was sitting next to me on the bed, and we were both reading. We read about Sean and Kelly: "Our carnal desires come to the surface, clean and unabated by the trivial business of caring for our home ..."

We read about BR & TN: "We came, and came again ..."

About T. & S.: "We fucked our brains out ..."

About W.: "The bed was soaked, and I came six times ..."

No, these were not the usual guest-book entries. These were graphic obeisances to sex. Sex was the continuous, encompassing force. It was the sickness and the cure, the all-extinguishing act.

"The smell of the fire and fresh sex mixes and fills the room. We lie naked—spent and silent ..."

Don and I read and read. And after a while all that sex seemed to spill off the pages and into the room, and pretty soon there was no containing it. The cabin could no longer confine it. One couple sprinted down to the beach to make love in a driftwood castle. Another ran into the woods to perform the rare "Mexican cartwheel," leaving in their wake new generations of couples seeking new habitats to achieve the same geographical proximity.

Nothing was off limits. "I recommend highly the Buzzard's Roost hike," wrote a woman named Sarah, "with fellatio at the top of the mountain. (Cunnilingus, of course, would work also, but I wasn't in the mood.)" To which her paramour, Todd, chimed in: "Having been the recipient of said 'fellatio' at the 'peak' of Buzzard's Roost, I must tell you that one just has to let go. Be not concerned about your fellow hikers. They will understand. Four Germans happened upon us mid-couple and merely hiked on."

Four Germans. It sounded plausible and mystical at the same time. And somehow in the act of contemplating these German hikers—wondering whether they blushed or took pictures, whether they talked about it over dinner or never brought it up again—I began to believe that everyone here was, like the Germans, an accomplice to sex, a witness or an actual participant in acts he or she had never before imagined.

Sitting at dinner that night in the Deetjen's restaurant, I found myself staring at the other diners. Two young women seated against the roadside window. An older woman in a poncho, chatting ebulliently with her daughter and son-in-law. A grizzled, salt-cured man wrapping his large hands around a wine bottle. I studied all of them, trying to decipher their covert language: the casual crossing of feet, the lingering of a hand on a menu. What were they going to do when they stumbled back to their moonlit cabins? What fantasies were they even now—in the dark chambers of their minds—preparing to enact?

My head resounded with new knowledge: A wet vagina never lies ... Pour benedictine on lover's privates, aka wet pussy, and lick her to heaven ... Spend more time munching on your sweetie's coochie.

And as soon as dinner was over, I was back in the cabin with the guest books spread across my lap.

"The lovers were naked and busy for hours. Then off to a great spa for a perfect hydrotherapy ..."

The more I read, the more I realized we were all part of the same text, all working feverishly to hold up our end. The sexual pressure was terrific. Even Sarah, the champion fellator, admitted that reading these entries had made her "a little competitive." And Jason of Toronto said, "It's like going to bed with a thousand ghosts."

Maybe that spectral presence explains why people hadn't always succeeded here. Some confessed to making up segments of their story. A hapless guy named Steven admitted that he and his honey had "eagerly prepared for this moment with essential oils and body lotions" before passing out "like cats in a sunbeam."

He attributed their failure to the food, the wind and the babbling brook outside. I have a different theory. Another ghost lurks in these environs, and he is a well-known card. Travel up the highway a quarter-mile and you can even see his shrine, tucked away in a grove of redwoods: the Henry Miller Library.

Yes, the great balding, thick-lipped, bespectacled sensualist trod these very same grounds, and to judge from the diaries at the inn, his spirit still walks abroad. We might have known. He told us as much: "All those yearning looks I bestowed on the buildings and statues, I had looked at them so hungrily, so desperately that by now my thoughts must have become a part of the very buildings and statues, they must be saturated with my anguish."

Yes, Miller's anguish and yearning have trickled down the streams of Big Sur; they have filtered up through the roots of redwood trees; they have washed out in great diasporas on the crests of the Pacific Ocean.

Miller is watching over us. He is steering our hands and pelvises, doing all the things he couldn't do while he was still alive. He is performing Mexican handstands, scandalizing German tourists. He is straddling Lance and Nora; he is caressing Diana and Brian. He is goosing Rob, the mild-mannered husband who laces himself up in a corset, cinches his waist "to the size of a lipstick tube," pulls on a pair of full-length black gloves and belts out musical numbers.

And don't think it ends there. Miller's anima longs even for the inanimate. So it was that, on the morning of our departure, I awoke to find the entire landscape eroticized. Enormous yucca plants, thrusting their hard green bodies to the sun. Vagina-red camellia bushes, the size of small trees. Incense-bearing wisteria, jamming their long, probing fingers through the apertures of a trellis. And wafting through it all, the cool, damp ejaculate of fog.

Henry Miller's ghost is writing us, if we will only let him.

To be sure, some people have resisted. The guest books contain long stretches of bad New Age poetry and innocuous instructions like "Everyone go out and buy an English bulldog, they will truly touch your spirituality."

Even as you read these messages, though, the Dionysian urge burbles up inside you and you think: English bulldog. Yes, an English bulldog might do quite nicely. And suddenly everything seems possible—if not to you, then to someone else.

But when it came time to add ourselves to the roll call, Don and I stayed within the realm of the known—and behold, it was good. This is how we signed off: "DM & LB. 4/2/00."

And there we let it rest. What happened that night is strictly between us and the ghosts. But like all the other guests at Deetjen's, we left behind some simulacrum of ourselves. Look for us when you arrive—we're the ones hovering genially in the eaves. Strain your ears for our whisper. Listen for our call.

Hello, young lovers. Whoever you are.

Open the closets on Capitol Hill

Salon.com, October 7, 2006

Silence about gay politicians is a relic of an era when gayness meant secrecy and shame. It's a disservice to gay people, to voters, and to the politicians themselves.

In 1960, when Gore Vidal ran for Congress, his Republican opponent tried to spread word that Vidal was a homosexual. This was not, strictly speaking, news. Vidal had written one of the first explicitly gay novels in American literature ("The City and the Pillar") and had never been at great pains to conceal his private life. But in trying to fan the flames that Vidal himself had ignited, J. Ernest Wharton ran up against a strange conundrum. The same media outlets that would have jumped all over a heterosexual scandal turned strangely mum the moment homosexuality entered the picture. For the New York Times and the Associated Press and Time magazine, this was the love that could not speak its name.

And still can't. In the swirl of controversy surrounding former Rep. Mark Foley and his overtures to congressional pages, one thing has been clear all along: Foley's offenses have nothing to do with being gay, everything to do with being a pedophile. And one thing is emerging with new clarity: The mainstream media's treatment of gay politicians is essentially unchanged from when Gore Vidal ran for office 46 years ago. This long-standing policy of nondisclosure can now safely be called a disservice—to gay people, to voters, to the politicians themselves, to everyone. It must change.

Since Foley came to Washington in 1995, his sexuality has been, as they like to say, an open secret. For those of us working on Capitol Hill at the time (I was a Democratic communications director), it was common knowledge. And yet, outside of the alternative or gay media, you would have been hard-pressed to find a newspaper or wire service or radio or television network willing to mention it. Even during Foley's abortive 2003 U.S. Senate bid, when rumors about his private life reached such a pitch that he felt obliged to dismiss them as "revolting and unforgivable," the mainstream media refused to do what they had done so gleefully in the case of Gary Hart or Bill Clinton. By common consent, and with an almost audible sigh of relief, they eschewed the bedroom bivouac, the morning-after stakeout, the bimbo safari. They crept back into the night, like skunks at a garden party.

This bizarre reluctance to positively identify Foley as gay—a reluctance so uniform as to qualify as a code of conduct—has been explained away as chivalry, as delicacy, as respect for privacy. It is none of these things. It is an inherited squeamishness, the relic of an era in which homosexuality meant secrecy and shame.

That era has passed, despite the fondest wishes of some conservatives, and it is time that the American media—and, yes, the closeted culture of official Washington—awakened to that fact. It is time, in short, to end the hypocritical double standard that shields gay politicians from the implications (and the promise) of who they are. Let the doors open wide.

Do I mean "outing"? Yes—within limits. I hold no brief for those hysterics on the far right who want every homosexual working in the Republican Party to be called out by name—as a precursor, presumably, to being expunged. Nor do I think that gay congressional staffers forfeit all rights to privacy simply by virtue of their jobs. But I do believe that every man or woman who courts public office must be held to some public standard of honesty—of coherence.

A few years ago, during consideration of the Defense of Marriage Act (which was against gay marriage), some opponents of the bill caused an uproar by threatening to publicly identify the gay members who supported it. (Foley was one. So was Arizona Republican Jim Kolbe, who is openly gay.) Behind these guerrilla tactics lay a certain implacable justice: A gay legislator who voted for anti-gay legislation deserved to be impaled on his own hypocrisy.

And yet even commentators sympathetic to gay concerns cried foul. The process of coming out, they declared, was too private, too personal, to be adjudicated by strangers. We were asked to show a little sensitivity for these trembling GOP homosexuals, freshly foaled, still finding their legs.

The decision to come out is personal. So is the decision to run for office. Why should the second choice be privileged over the first? Why should homosexuality be privileged over heterosexuality? Why should a same-sex partner (Foley has apparently had one for many years) be any less a subject of discussion than a wife or husband?

The answer is as dismaying as it is obvious. Some 33 years after the American Psychiatric Association removed homosexuality from its list of mental illnesses, our mainstream media persist in believing that something unnatural, something embarrassing, something other adheres to the condition of being gay. Or else—and here I'm bending over as far backward as I can go—they believe that equating a gay relationship with a straight relationship is simply too controversial a statement to make in the pages of a major metropolitan newspaper or over the airwaves of a major commercial network.

They are wrong. Worse, they are patronizing. An America that, by and large, accepts gay musicians, gay actors, gay authors, gay talk-show hostesses, the gay children of politicians and even the occasional gay politician can be trusted, I believe, not to blanch at the prospect of one more. And if, in fact, a candidate's sexuality proves to be a deal-breaker for voters, then let the deal be broken. Better to be shown the door than smuggled through under a cloud of pretense.

If Mark Foley had been forced from the closet, would it have prevented him from hitting on teenage pages? Likely not (unless the constituents of his Florida district had voted him out). But a little plain-spokenness might have torn some of the veil of secrecy in which he was shrouded. It might have broken House leaders of the old pernicious habit of treating a gay member's private life—in all its aspects, licit and illicit—as something to be shoved under a rug. And it might have allowed us to talk about Mark Foley's sexuality and Mark Foley's sexual offenses as the separate issues they really are.

A year before Gore Vidal ran for office, Allen Drury published a novel, "Advise and Consent," in which a dashing young senator, Brigham Anderson, is blackmailed for a long-ago gay affair. Anderson, in the way of most common gay characters of that era, chooses suicide over exposure, at which point the Senate majority leader (if I'm recalling the movie version correctly) announces that Anderson's shame should "die with him."

It's amazing to think that nearly a half-century later, we are all reading from the same script. Mark Foley's sexuality was considered his "shame." And until events forced their hand, the House leadership and the mainstream media were fully prepared to let it die with him. The shame is theirs. Open the closets.

What Mary Cheney should expect while she's expecting

Salon.com, December 7, 2006

Forget morning sickness and weight gain and get ready for nine months of right-wing hand-wringing and embarrassed silence.

Now That You're Pregnant

Congratulations—and welcome to your politically inconvenient pregnancy! Though you may not look pregnant yet, chances are you're starting to feel it—from every side. Whether it's just bruised emotions you're experiencing, or every silent stab of hypocrisy, your body is gearing up for the months of evasion, pulpit thumping and embarrassed silence to come. Try not to think too far ahead. For now, just sit back, relax and enjoy the beginning of one of the most intellectually upending adventures of your life.

What You Can Expect at This Month's Checkup

The day you first announce your pregnancy to the world will probably be the longest you have experienced since you were outed by the Democratic presidential candidate. Your first prenatal visit, by contrast, will be a piece of cake. You can expect tests, procedures and data gathering. You can also expect plenty of questions—for example, "Who's the dad?" "No, really, who's the dad?" "Did it hurt?" "I'm not turning you on, am I?" "Does your mother have to be in the room, too?"

What You May Be Feeling

It's important to keep in mind that every woman's pregnancy is different. Yours is more different than others.

Physically

Fatigue and sleepiness Food aversions Absence of menstruation Nausea, often triggered by the sight of Nancy Pelosi

Emotionally

Many first-time lesbian mothers who are daughters of right-wing zealots report feeling subtle ostracism and alienation from once-loyal friends. Their reactions will almost certainly vary, but may take the form of "They're deliberately bringing a child into the world without a father, leaving a great gaping hole" or "They're shortchanging this child from the start" or "Love can't replace a mother and a father" or "Mary and Heather can believe what they want ... but what they're seeking is to force others to bless their nonmarital relationship as marriage [and to] create a culture that is based on sexual anarchy instead of marriage and family values." In certain cases, you may be accused of conceiving a child "with the express purpose of denying it a father."

Relax. These reactions, in addition to being verbatim, are normal and fully to be expected from the community you have been slavishly courting for so much of your life.

What You May Be Concerned About

My mother used to write lesbian love scenes in novels, but now she's embarrassed by the thought of women getting it on or even holding hands. She does not laugh at jokes like "Heather Is One of Two Mommies."

Every parent of a parent brings his or her "issues" to the grand adventure of pregnancy. Suffice it to say when your mother holds that little bundle of joy in her hands and slips on the pink tutu she has personally picked out for her, all her qualms about you and your athleticism will vanish.

My morning sickness lasts several hours and is eased only when I throw up on pictures of Hillary Clinton. Is this normal?

First-time mothers must seek solace where they find it. Most doctors frown on coating actual people in vomit, unless it is purely involuntary.

My partner wants to build our own crib using two-by-fours she personally portaged from Home Depot. She's extremely strong and handy, but I worry about splinters.

It is common for the nonpregnant half of a same-sex couple, who is often relegated to the role of baster holder, to feel left out, "a third ovary" during these exciting months of pregnancy. Encourage her, as much as possible, to take on whatever home-improvement projects catch her fancy. Closets are a safe bet.

My dad's boss, whose election and reelection I worked for quite strenuously, says he believes "children ought to be adopted in families with a woman and a man who are married." He also said that "studies have shown that the ideal is where a child is raised in a married family with a man and a woman." Should his comments concern me?

Only if you were thinking of Dad's boss while you were earning your $100,000 salary stumping for him. If you were just thinking about Dad and all the good he would do for America, there is no reason whatsoever to take his employer's remarks personally.

Ann Coulter wants to be my doula.

No.

What It's Important to Know

You and your partner live in Virginia, which, thanks to the legislators of your own party, does not recognize the legal status of same-sex couples. If you decide that at some point your partner should have a legal relationship to your child—i.e., something more formally binding than "There's Mommy Heather!"—you might consider moving to one of the handful of jurisdictions that acknowledge your legal rights as a couple and family.

Caution! These jurisdictions tend to be under the sway of "blue" legislators. Approach individual residents of these jurisdictions with care. They may appear sympathetic (unless they have read your book—small risk of that). They may refer to you and your partner as a "couple" and regard your child as "your child." As a price for their tolerance, however, they may expect you to reexamine certain issues—e.g., your implicit countenancing of same-sex-marriage amendments, your silence in the face of outrageous discrimination against gay parents, your collusion with some of the most virulent homophobes in America's history, etc. Feel free to abstain from this soul-searching, which is a hazardous exercise during any stage of a pregnancy and should not be rushed into without proper medical consultation. If necessary, consult Dr. Frist.

Above all, avoid unduly negative feelings about yourself. Live optimistically. A recent study found that seeing the bright side reduces the chance of delivering a preterm or low-birth-weight baby.

What's the bright side?

Your baby will be too young to serve in Iraq.

Really?

Probably.

Attention, all you memoir fabulists!

Salon.com, March 7, 2008

In light of recent scandals, we will now require arrest records and stool samples from all autobiographers. And can someone fact-check the Gospels?

EREWHON PUBLISHING INTEROFFICE MEMORANDUM

TO: Editorial Team
FROM: Corporate Counsel
SUBJECT: Facts and memoir

Many of you have commented on the recent scandals surrounding fraudulent memoirists—particularly Misha Defonseca, the Belgian who manufactured a Holocaust past, and Margaret Jones, the white Sherman Oaks, Calif., woman masquerading as a half-Native American barrio gangsta.

In response to public outcry, Erewhon Publishing has instituted a stringent new "cards on the table" policy. In the future, every memoirist will be required to provide evidence of his or her dysfunction: arrest records, needle tracks, urine and stool samples—and in the case of Martin Amis, dental bills.

Scary relatives must provide DNA evidence of kinship. Wish-fulfillment detectors will be distributed to editors on an as-needed basis. In the meantime, Erewhon Publishing has instituted a comprehensive fact checking of our back catalog. While still in its preliminary stages, our review has already uncovered troubling inconsistencies in the following memoirs:

"The Bible"

In the Gospel According to Luke, Jesus was conceived during King Herod's reign. However, the census that brought Joseph and Mary to Bethlehem took place in A.D. 6, 10 years after Herod's death. Who, then, ordered all the young male children of Bethlehem to be massacred, per Matthew? Can someone straighten this out?

Nativity accounts are problematic as well. Luke mentions shepherds and a birth in a manger; Matthew and Mark don't. Matthew mentions three Magi and a flight to Egypt; Luke and Mark don't. Matthew 12:30: "He who is not with me is against me." Mark 9:40: "He that is not against us is for us." Luke 9:50: "He that is not against you is for you." New corporate policy on quotes: When in doubt, leave it out.

Suggest omitting the Book of John entirely.

"The Travels of Marco Polo"

We have learned that the original book was written in French, a language Mr. Polo did not speak, by one Rustichello de Pisa. Please change author credit.

Questions have also arisen as to whether Mr. Polo even went to the Orient. At least one contemporary accused him of hanging out at Black Sea ports, soaking up traders' stories and "making shit up." We recommend a disclaimer footer on every page.

"Story of a Soul" by Saint Thérèse

Spectro-analysis of the manuscript reveals that Thérèse originally referred to herself not as "Jesus' little flower" but as "Jesus' sweet-lovin' woman."

"The Adventures of Buffalo Bill Cody"

According to zoologists, the animals that Mr. Cody killed in excessive numbers are not buffaloes but bison. We recommend a global search-and-replace, up to and including author's name.

"The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas"

Written by someone else. Please change title.

"Out of Africa" by Isak Dinesen

Contemporary accounts suggest that hunter Denys Finch-Hatton may well have been gay, thereby complicating his suggested romance with the author. One possibility: Refer to him, wherever necessary, as the author's "bestest pal." Insert the word "wistfully" at regular intervals.

"The Diary of Anais Nin"

Sex researchers state categorically that no woman can have so many orgasms at the same time, particularly with her head at such a pronounced angle to the bistro floor. Please cut every orgasm count by a factor of 2 or 3.

"The Diary of Anne Frank"

Why is Mrs. Van Daan always running the vacuum cleaner? Is that plausible?

"Speak, Memory" by Vladimir Nabokov

The author loses his first butterfly at Vyra, Russia, finds it again 40 years later in Colorado. Average life span for a butterfly is 20 to 40 days. Suggest changing "butterfly" to "giant tortoise."

"Pentimento" by Lillian Hellman

At Mary McCarthy's suggestion, all instances of "a" and "the" have been thoroughly vetted. Thirty-three have been removed.

"Song of Myself" by Walt Whitman

Reviewers have flagged the following line:

Do I contradict myself?
Very well then, I contradict myself ...

This is the kind of factual defiance we will no longer accept from our memoirists. Please change second line to: "Sorry."

Gay marriage, so what?

Salon.com, May 16, 2008

Maybe I should be more grateful, but the California Supreme Court hasn't told me anything I don't already know.

Hey, straight world? I think I'm finally over you.

I know. As a gay man, I should be more grateful. This very day, the California Supreme Court has ruled that same-sex couples have a constitutional right to marry, and unless a higher court intervenes, boy couples and girl couples will soon be lining up for marriage licenses and holding big honking receptions on the Golden Gate Bridge or the Santa Monica Freeway or whatever nightmare visions are currently haunting the Concerned Women of America. And all this is big news, and welcome news, and a lot of dedicated people, gay and straight, have worked very hard to bring it about.

But here's the deal. The California Supreme Court hasn't told me anything I don't already know, and it hasn't told you guys anything you necessarily want to hear.

Or maybe it's just we hear different things. For gay Americans, the issue of marriage speaks to our identity. For many years—too many to count, really—we were told our relationships were unworthy of legal recognition because they were too different from marriage; now we're told our relationships are unworthy of recognition because they're too similar to marriage—so very similar that they might kill off marriage altogether.

This is more than a bait-and-switch operation, it is an injustice, and one that gay couples live through every day. And that's how we tend to see this issue: through the context of our lives. By contrast, many straight Americans see gay marriage—how could they not?—through the prism of politics. From the moment the California Supreme Court announced its decision, presidential campaigns kicked into overdrive, crafting carefully parsed statements that would reassure the faithful without alienating the undecided, while party apparatchiks and mainstream media fell over themselves trying to answer the all-consuming question: How will this affect the presidential election?

We know what to expect in the months ahead. GOP operatives will be cranking up as much hysteria as they can around "Mr. and Mr. Smith," and Democratic operatives will be trying, in the same breath, to crank it down. One side will be launching get-out-the-vote operations to save marriage; one side will be asking us (silently or aloud) why we had to bring up the subject now. Couldn't we have waited till December?

It's all very familiar, the parts we're supposed to play, but I'm tired of mine. I'm tired of being a scare tactic; I'm equally tired of being a ball-and-chain. I'm tired of being told by one side that I'm a threat to their kids and by the other that I'm a threat to their candidate.

And God help me, I am tired of turning on the TV or opening the newspaper and seeing this issue illustrated by the same stock footage of two men or two women in matching tuxes—as if the right to marry were just the right to have a bitching wedding.

The wedding trope is particularly nonsensical because, for several generations, gay couples have been showing America how marriages can be created without benefit of weddings. You may have seen us. Signing onto mortgages and joint checking accounts. Hosting barbecues, buying cars, planning for retirement. Starting families or not starting them. Wondering where the years have gone. Without any blessing from the state, we've married each other; we're just waiting for the rest of America to catch up.

And when the election's over? We'll still be here. Come up and see us sometime.

Crying foul on Martina Navratilova

Salon.com, June 29, 2009

The tennis star's legal woes remind us that even gay icons have some growing up to do about same-sex marriage

A famous multimillionaire athlete falls in love. He invites his new girlfriend to live and travel with him; he registers hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of property and assets in her name; he lavishes her with gifts, assures her of his undying love and even goes so far as to marry her in a private ceremony. Eight years later, the athlete has cast his wife out of his life, denied her every financial claim and left her with little more than the clothes on her back.

Here's a question. Would any court in the land deny this wife restitution? And in the court of public opinion, would anyone take the side of a husband so stingy and unfeeling?

Let us now switch the husband's gender. He is now a she: a lesbian tennis star willing to use the legal system to extract herself from another unhappy relationship. This makes the case more complicated, to be sure, but it does nothing to alter the injustice. And, if anything, the outrage should be greater.

In the past week, Martina Navratilova has been sued by a former lover, Toni Layton, who claims she was unceremoniously dumped and is now owed millions of dollars in damages and spousal support. Layton claims she and Navratilova had agreed "to evenly share all funds and assets earned and obtained by either while together." These assets apparently include four multimillion-dollar homes.

By now, the suing of athletes by ex-lovers has become a staple of tort law, but unlike Roberto Alomar or Michael Jordan or Chris Bosh, Navratilova is able—and has been willing- to take advantage of a legal double standard that is both sexist and homophobic. And the gay community should be first in line to oppose it.

I say this with some regret because I have enormous admiration for Navratilova. She is one of the two or three greatest women ever to play the game of tennis. She has transformed society's understanding of athleticism. And she has been candid and unapologetic about her sexuality at a time when most gay athletes, male and female alike, still have to be dragged from the closet.

But her current legal troubles remind us that even gay icons have some growing up to do when it comes to gay relationships. We cannot know whether all the assertions in Toni Layton's lawsuit are true. We can say, however, with some certainty that the two women lived together as a couple, that they celebrated their relationship in a ceremony in New Hampshire, that they shared property and assets, and that Navratilova is much the wealthier of the two. If this were a no-fault heterosexual divorce, the law would unequivocally side with Layton, awarding her alimony and some division of property.

But the law, of course, still has different standards for same-sex relationships, and Layton has been forced to file a "domestic partnership" lawsuit in the deeply inhospitable legal climate of Florida, which has traditionally taken a dim view of alternative lifestyles. Barring a settlement, then, Navratilova stands to emerge from her most recent long-term relationship with little more than bad press and some whopping legal fees. If, that is, she can convince a court that her relationship with Layton doesn't rise to the contractual level of heterosexual marriage.

This stratagem is not new to her. In 1991, Navratilova's ex-lover Judy Nelson sued her for $7.5 million in spousal benefits—or, as the slavering tabloids used to call it, "galimony." To buttress her case, Nelson argued that the two women had engaged in not one but two marriage ceremonies and had filmed a video will together.

Nelson also got vocal support from another Martina ex, Rita Mae Brown. In her memoir, "Rita Will," Brown writes that her sympathies shifted toward Nelson during a pretrial hearing in which Navratilova's lawyers argued (Brown's words) that "Martina and Judy had had a contract for sex," which "amounted to prostitution and therefore was against public policy." By demoting same-sex relationships to the level of a roll in the hay, Brown argued, Navratilova "could inflict colossal damage on every gay person in the United States."

Brown's motives in entering the case were suspect—she had famously shot out the back window of Navratilova's BMW after a quarrel, and she herself enjoyed a brief liaison with Nelson—but politically she was on target. The only way Navratilova could escape her financial (not to mention moral) obligations was to argue that her gay relationship did not carry the same legal standing as a straight relationship.

What was cynical then has become indefensible now. Martina Navratilova can no longer cast herself as an apostle for gay rights while using a homophobic legal code to deny her ex-partners alimony. This is more than bad behavior, it is bad precedent. And it comes at the worst possible time.

Very soon—sooner than anyone could have guessed—gay marriage will become the law in much of the land. A great deal has been written about whether straight America is ready; less has been written about whether gay America is ready. Not just to be held to the same contractual standards as heterosexual couples but to believe (after years of being told otherwise) that their relationships really are of equal standing. And to go on believing it when those relationships collapse.

In reporting on Toni Layton's lawsuit, Britain's Daily Mail used the following headline: "Martina Sued for Millions by 'Wife.'" I hope and expect that those archly condescending quotation marks will one day disappear, but it is the job of the gay community to make them go. If we want our relationships to be taken seriously, if we want the legal sanction of marriage, we must be ready to stand by our contracts and our obligations—no matter how expensive or inconvenient it is and no matter what example is set by our culturally designated "heroes." Equality has its blessings. It also has its price.

John Edwards' scorned confidant spills

Salon.com, January 30, 2010

"20/20" turns ex-aide Andrew Young's confessional into a hoary Victorian melodrama with a sex-tape finale

Speaker 1: "I love you. I really love you ... I will never abandon you."

Speaker 2: "I fell in love with him ... I truly believed that we were going to do great things, and he was my ticket to the top ... I became his sole confidant."

Given the crush of recent news coverage, you won't have any problem believing the first speaker is John Edwards. Your task now is to figure out the second speaker, who is also the person to whom he directed the aforementioned remarks. Is it:

A) Soon-to-be-ex-wife Elizabeth?

B) Mother of most recent child Rielle?

C) Disgraced ex-aide Andrew?

As anyone who sat through last night's "20/20 soft-pornathon can attest, the answer could very well have been A or B, but it is in fact C.

And maybe that's everything that need be said about the quasi-erotic and not-so-quasi-erotic ties that bind political leaders to the young men who champion them and sacrifice their egos for them and work 16 hours a day for them, and even their example pales alongside that of Andrew Young, who pretended to be the father of his boss's mistress's child despite already being the married dad of three kids. And who, to keep that deceit alive, actually dragged his family across the country with the mistress in tow and paparazzi snapping at their asses the whole way.

War-scarred Bob Woodruff was the correspondent assigned to this tale of staffer gone mad, but wouldn't the job have been better handled by George Stephanopoulos? Who, like Young, knew a thing or two about mopping up the sex spoor of charismatic bosses? How easily they would have bonded over man-tinis at the Matchbox, comparing their respective exit strategies. Unkind memoir? Check. Moral rearmament? Check.

But with Woodruff in the interviewer's seat, the whole thing played out like the hoariest Victorian melodrama. Meet John Edwards, millworker's son, champion of "One America." Meet ailing wife Elizabeth, rising from her deathbed to put her husband in the White House. (Anyone who still believes "20/20 is capable of journalism had only to look at the computer-induced tears welling up from Elizabeth's still photos.) Meet evil temptress Rielle Hunter—not her original name!—using New Age wiles and Internet familiarity to seduce Edwards under the guise of being his "videographer."

And now meet Andrew Young, the "little known but loyal aide" aspiring now to disloyalty and great renown through the publication of his tell-all book, "The Politician." Not to begrudge Young his royalties, but you'll save yourself a few bucks and a few hours by committing the following allegations to memory.

  • Edwards and Hunter's favorite song was "Steady As We Go" by the Dave Matthews Band, and they made love in Elizabeth's bed while she was gone.


  • Edwards tried to arrange a fake paternity test that would absolve him of being the father of Hunter's child.


  • To help Edwards cover up said child, nonagenarian heiress Bunny Mellon sent checks totaling hundreds of thousands of dollars inside boxes of chocolate.


  • Hunter, heavily pregnant and on the lam with Young and his family, rejected room after room at a Hollywood, Florida, hotel because each one lacked "the right energy." She settled finally on the penthouse suite.


  • Elizabeth, still under the impression that Young was the father of Hunter's baby, left him the following phone message: "You and your concubine and your entire family can stay out of our lives."


  • Modern people still use the word "concubine."


  • Politicians and their spouses still leave messages and record acts that can be played back later.

Which brings us to, oh yeah, the sex tape, ticking like a dirty bomb beneath the whole "20/20 episode. According to Young, the tape was made just a couple of months before the 2008 Iowa Democratic caucus, and it shows a "visibly pregnant" woman wearing Hunter's jewelry and having intercourse with a man—well, here it's worth quoting Young's revealingly prim description: "I can't speak for the other body parts, but it's definitely [Edwards'] face."

Could the North Carolina senator have been so stupid as to record his own extramarital sex? (Not even Bubba went that far. That we know of.) Would his lover have been so scatterbrained as to leave it in a house she shared with Young and his wife?

Barring any viral outbreaks, we have only the word of the chastened Youngs, whose remorse came chiming out like church bells at the end of their "20/20 pilgrimage.

"Are you sorry?" nudged Woodruff.

Mrs. Young: "I'm sorry that we lied to ourselves, to the people of America. And I'm sorry that we helped a person that we found out was not the person that we devoted ourselves to."

Mr. Young: "I am so sorry for my part in this."

I was a bit sorry, too, to have lost an hour of my life to them. And I was left to ponder why we still care so much about the sexual misconduct of a politician who was not even a heartbeat away from the presidency. Or the vice-presidency. Or the ambassadorship to Burkina Faso. Why does this story have such hellacious legs?

Is it because no one has been willing to stay in character? Edwards began as a rather asexual, grinning millionaire populist; he's now an oversexed hick, searching for grace in the wilderness of Haiti. The saintly Elizabeth, bearing her cross through 14 stations of Oprah, is now, thanks to the deconstruction of Mark Halperin and John Heilemann, a staff-terrorizing harpy flashing her mastectomy scars. Rielle Hunter, emblem of a love so lowly that Elizabeth dared not speak her name, has subsided into a silence that, in the context, looks suspiciously like dignity. (Except that she's now obtained a court order requiring Young to turn over all photos and videos belonging to her.)

Then there's the child. A very young girl named Quinn, who deserves a much better welcome into the world than she's received.

And I can't help but feel that this whole fetid business deserves better. The ideal interpreter, in my mind, is not "20/20 or the National Enquirer (which first broke the story) or the New York Times editorial page but a sensitive novelist on the order of Curtis Sittenfeld, who can roam through the hidden psychic corridors and explore scenarios that our current journalistic and political discourse can't accommodate.

The possibility, for instance, that John Edwards never believed he could be president and never particularly wanted to be. That he genuinely loved his wife—even as he was sleeping with another woman, even as he was imagining a life after his wife's death. That he may one day cherish his youngest daughter more than anything else in his shrinking world.

In the absence of direct testimony, none of this can be posed as anything but questions. But it's safe to say a sex tape is the last place to look for answers.

My antidepressant gets harder to swallow

Salon.com, April 5, 2010

I take it every morning, right after I brush my teeth. A single white pill, with the letters F and L stamped on one side, the number 10 on the other. It's so small it nearly disappears into the folds of my palm. You could drop it in my orange juice or my breakfast cereal, and I'd swallow it without a hitch.

And, for the last three years, I have been swallowing my Lexapro—and everything that comes along with it. And, apparently, I'm not alone.

Between 1996 and 2005, the number of Americans taking antidepressants doubled. According to the Centers for Disease Control, antidepressants are now the most commonly prescribed class of drugs in the U.S.—ahead of drugs for cholesterol, blood pressure and asthma. Of the 2.4 billion drugs prescribed in 2005, 118 million were for depression. Whether the pills go by the name of Lexapro or Effexor or Prozac or Wellbutrin, we're downing them, to the tune of $9.6 billion a year, and we're doing it for a very good and simple reason. They're supposed to be making us better.

Which leaves a quite massive shoe waiting to drop. What if these costly, widely marketed, bewitchingly commonplace drugs really aren't fixing our brains?

The implications are troubling, and not just for the pharmaceutical industry. In a study published last January by the Journal of the American Medical Association, scientists conducting a meta-analysis of existing research found that antidepressants were unquestionably "useful in cases of severe depression" but frankly not much help for the rest of us. "The magnitude of benefit of antidepressant medication compared with placebo," the study's authors concluded, "may be minimal or nonexistent, on average, in patients with mild or moderate symptoms."

In other words, antidepressants work, but only because we believe they're working. If we're not seriously depressed and we're taking a tricyclic or a serotonin reuptake inhibitor or a norepinephrine booster, we'd fare about as well with a sugar pill. Which means that antidepressants are, to borrow the phraseology of Newsweek writer Sharon Begley, "basically expensive Tic Tacs."

And so, like millions of Americans, I'm left with the problem of it: that little white pill that travels down my gullet every morning. What is it really doing down there—up there? What if it's not doing anything? Is there any good empirical unassailable reason that I should be swallowing it day after day after day? If I stop believing in it, will it stop working?

More than half a century has passed since the first antidepressants were prescribed, but it's fair to say that the opposition to them coalesced in the 1990s, with the explosive sales growth of Prozac. As critics like David Healy and Ronald W. Dworkin warned that Big Pharma was medicalizing sadness for profit, the widespread usage of ironic terms like "happy pills" conjured up visions of smiling zombies wandering through sinister dreamscapes. Eric G. Wilson, in his overwrought "Against Happiness," actually envisioned a day when antidepressants would "destroy dejection completely" and "eradicate depression forever."

Looking back, we can see that both critics and advocates were working from the same premise: that these drugs change us in some fairly profound way. (Even pro-drug Peter Kramer, in his bestselling "Listening to Prozac," worried about the cost of making people "better than well.") But as researchers like Irving Kirsch and Guy Sapirstein are increasingly finding, the truth may shade more toward the comic end of the spectrum. Far from transforming us, antidepressants are leaving us pretty much as they found us. Emperors in gleaming new clothes.

The more I ponder my experience, the less surprised I am. I turned to medication because I couldn't stop crying in public places—Starbucks was a popular spot—or imagining my death. (Crucially, I never got around to planning it.) And because I realized that although I was meeting life's core requirements, I was not always exceeding them. And because, after a couple of years of sessions with an empathetic therapist, I came to believe that my wiring really had shorted out, that some form of grayer matter had fastened itself to my brain and was hard at work, siphoning away my joy.

I remember watching the camcorder footage of my son's first birthday party and being shocked by the sight of myself, staring back at the camera with sad eyes. Depression had always been a sporadic companion, but in my 43rd year, it began to take up permanent residence. I felt like I was walking around on rotting floorboards. I cried. I lost my temper on the flimsiest of pretexts. I saw myself dead.

At which point medication seemed like a reasonable alternative. Before another week had passed, I had secured a low-dosage prescription for Lexapro, prescribed not by my therapist but by my primary-care physician. (Even that's not quite true. It was the doctor who was taking my doctor's patients while she was on vacation.)

"Who's going to monitor this drug?" my partner asked.

"Um ... you? Me?"

When it came to Lexapro, all my responses had the same interrogative lilt. If someone asked me how I was feeling, I'd say, "Better, I guess?" When asked if I would recommend Lexapro to others, I'd say: "Maybe kind of?"

This was the most surprising part of the whole experience: that the transformation or malformation I had expected to feel never quite arrived, that in the course of ramping up my serotonin levels, I should remain so freakishly myself.

It is, in fact, one of the amusing side effects of living in the age of pharmaceuticals that you can always compare your lack of progress with those nearest and dearest to you--in this case, my mother. Not a lunch goes by that one of us doesn't say to the other:

"How's the Lexapro working?"

"I don't know."

Agnosticism, I've found, is a common refrain among my medicated friends. We're feeling OK, thanks. Is it the pill? Natural cycles? A good week at work? The fact that the sun is shining? Not always apparent. The only thing we're really clear on, honestly, is our side effects. Nausea, nightmares, hypomania, agitation, headaches, decreased sex drive, decreased sex performance ... the list is exquisite in its variation. My first two nights on Lexapro, I lay for hours on the precipice of unconsciousness, unable to take the last plunge. To fall asleep, I had to get a prescription for Ambien, which I then spent another week weaning myself off. To this day, the prospect of sleep holds a mild terror for me that it never did before.

Oddly enough, the side effects are often the pills' best advocates. If we're feeling that crappy, we figure something of great moment is happening inside us. What's harder to accept is the alternative explanation—that, when it comes to depression, we're still wandering in the dark. As Charles Barber, author of "Comfortably Numb," argues, scientists don't really know how antidepressants work. "They change the brain chemistry, but the infinite spiral of what they do from there is very unclear."

So if you don't know how something works, and you can no longer credibly claim it does work (even some industry spokesmen are beginning to qualify their claims), you're not left with much of a fallback position. The placebo effect is real—the body actually does heal itself when it believes it is being healed—but it is founded on faith, and in the wake of the JAMA study, it's becoming harder and harder to maintain that faith except through a rather larger act of denial.

Of course, even the most ardent critics of antidepressants caution strongly against sudden withdrawal. (Those side effects suck, too.) And few scientists will deny that drugs help people with severe unipolar depression. But what of the rest of us? Should we find some way to make ourselves believe in our little white pills again? Or should we find other things to believe in? Should we, in fact, begin to rethink our relationships with our brains?

I don't bring much in the way of ideology to these questions. I've always felt that the rise of Prozac and its ilk at least had the salutary effect of removing the stigma attached to depression. Reconfigured as a chemical condition, it could now be owned and acknowledged and treated. But by translating it from the personal to the pharmacological, we may have left people even less empowered to combat it.

It's bracing to see how depression is treated in other countries, where the relationship between drug manufacturers and physicians isn't quite so hand-in-glove. Great Britain's National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence, for example, recommends that, before taking antidepressants, people with mild or moderate depression should undergo nine to 12 weeks of guided self-help, nine to 12 weeks of cognitive behavioral therapy, and 10 to 14 weeks of exercise classes. They should, in short, work on themselves before they can be worked upon.

Unfortunately, as Barber notes, that's work, and not always pleasant. If we are to be honest with ourselves, we should admit that the drug companies aren't the only ones who want that pill. We want it, too. If every last antidepressant were to vanish from the market today and a new one were to appear tomorrow, promising greater benefits than before, which of us would not line up? There is, after all, a strength in numbers, whereas grappling with yourself—your self—is a lonely business.

But it is, finally, a necessary one. The little white pill sits in my palm. In the glare of the bathroom light, I give it a good hard searching look. And then once more I clap it in my mouth and swallow it down.

Maybe, as one team of researchers has suggested, it's the triumph of marketing over science. Maybe, as Samuel Johnson once said of second marriages, it's the triumph of hope over experience. Maybe I'm just weak.

I will say only this: I no longer count on Lexapro to make me well. Which is to say I no longer fret if I miss a day or two, I no longer rush to the drug store to get my refills, and I place far more importance on getting my life in order: regulating my alcohol consumption, getting a decent night's sleep, exercising (I'm not the only depressive who's become an amateur triathlete) and, corny as it sounds, pausing at intervals to ponder my blessings. And also appreciating the ways in which my brain and body regulate their own climate through such time-honored techniques as the crying jag. Which is no less effective for happening in the middle of a busy Starbucks.

Three years and however many dollars later, can I honestly say Lexapro has made me a happier person? No. Has it usefully complicated my thinking? Maybe. In my pre-pill days, I regarded happiness as a form of grace, descending upon me whether or not I was worthy of it. Now I think of it as something that, however elusive, is there to be sought. Swallowing a pill every morning is not, in my mind, an act of obedience but a tiny spark of volition, a sign that I'm willing to find the light wherever it's hiding. My Lexapro may be no better than a Tic Tac, but it's a daily reminder that I won't take depression's shit lying down.

Miss Universe and the death of the beauty pageant

Salon.com, August 24, 2010

Last night, I watched a two-hour commercial, and a beauty pageant kept breaking out.

Which is to say that, somehow, amid the interstices of skin- and hair-care commercials and NBC fall-show previews (repeated as insistently as Buddhist chants) and distance-learning courses in hair styling (from chief sponsor Farouk Systems) and running spigots of advertorials for Las Vegas attractions (Sushisamba! Minus 5!), the high solemnities of the 2010 Miss Universe competition were prosecuted efficiently and relentlessly and, yes, joylessly.

Do you remember when beauty pageants were entertainment? A hoot and a holler and a half? Gay men crowded around the TV set with their boy and girl pals and laughed at all those fire jugglers and hula dancers and rhythmic gymnasts and all the glib horrors that came tumbling from their cherry-red mouths, and look, there WAS Bert Parks dragging his ponderous ass down the Atlantic City runway, and we could laugh because it was our game, too. We were in on it, living in the same gap between aspiration and reality.

And then something happened. Miss America became a serious thing and began to boast about the scholarships it funds and the lives it improves, and today, it's rotting on unremunerative perches like TLC (though it will be broadcasting its 2011 edition on ABC). In marked contrast, the Miss USA-Miss Universe franchise has refused all along to fret about whether its contestants could carry a tune or spell their names or build latrines in Burkina Faso. It has remained a principality of the flesh, where the currency is two-piece bikinis.

And to judge from last night's iteration, that carnal philosophy has reaped its reward. Miss Universe is in the pink: stinking with ad revenue, sprawling across a two-hour expanse of network television. The whole enterprise should be neon with triumph, and yet it's every bit as gray as an annual report. For that's exactly what it is. A celebration of a company and the man behind it. The man whose International Hotel is shown at regular intervals thrusting toward the Vegas sky. The man known simply to the outgoing Miss Universe as "Meester Trump."

Oh, yes, the Donald is weighing in at every commercial break, reminding us that this is his franchise and promising new ministries of Eros. "The most incredible women in the world," he announces, "will show off the sexiest swimsuits you can imagine.... These women would scorch the Sunset Strip." And, just to make sure we're awake: "This is live TV, and anything can happen."

A lie almost touching in its transparency. Nothing very large can happen on that stage that hasn't already been dreamed up behind Trump's Morpheus mask. Oh, sure, a batch of Elvis impersonator/gymnasts can burst in on the swimsuit competition, and the somnolent piano man John Legend can find himself abruptly surrounded by women in evening gowns, but the evening's only real wild card is co-host Bret Michaels, whose customary doo rag and earrings have been tastefully accessorized with a shiny-lapeled tux and open-collared shirt.

If, in your hunger for entertainment, you entertain fantasies of him being strangled by Miss Zambia's coconut bra or, at the very least, dragging the contestants through a panty-twisting contest just to prove their love for him ... alas, in these skank-free precincts, the wildest thing Michaels can do on this stage is leer at the cue cards and inform Miss Jamaica that "Ja makin' me crazy." (And yet ... and YET ... isn't his horndoggery preferable to the preening ethnic pronunciations of co-host Natalie Morales, who, in a just world, would be scalded in habanero juice after saying "MEH-hee-ko" for the fifth time?)

Bret understands, and so do we. This is business. There's no room on the balance sheet for lust. Or camp. Or grunge. Or even beauty. Miss Universe subsists on a steady diet of press releases, on promises of an "incredible journey" that will be undertaken by "molten hot" women.

In fact, these women do what beauty queens have always done: present themselves like waxed fruit. And indeed, if you spend enough time with them, you find yourself eyeing them for bruises and gray patches. The two young sex-starved heterosexual males who watch Miss Universe with me begin the night in a general mood of welcome and graduate steadily into Ruskinesque discrimination. Miss Ukraine is flagged for her protruding "babyback ribs." Miss Australia, who looks as though she's just been carried off in triumph from a field-hockey game, is dismissed as "a very poor version of Jennifer Aniston." Miss Thailand has her gender questioned. Even I am forced to admit that the wildly sensual Miss Ireland has a disproportionately plump lower lip.

Oh, yes, we become jaded—all the sunless tans, all the lettuce-devouring teeth—but we beat on, don't we? Waiting for those moments of bald fiction. ("I'm having so much fun that I keep forgetting this is actually a competition ... I like trying different foods ...") Those slips of the mask. (The cold rage of Miss France, captured just moments after her elimination.) And, of course, those passing squiffs of unlicensed humor, which tend for some reason to cluster in the "demanding final question" segment.

"Many airports are using full-body scanners," croons judge and retired medicine woman Jane Seymour. "How do you feel about going through a scanner that can actually see through your clothes?"

Miss Ukraine's reply is obscured in translation, but no language barriers deter Miss Philippines, who, when asked to recall the biggest mistake of her life, declares that she has never made one. Even if this were true, it ceases to be, and she is left a waif-shouldered fifth.

The judges (who include Sheila E, looking worthy and philanthropic, and skater-android Evan Lysacek) are congratulated more than once for their hard work, as if they really were building latrines in Burkina Faso. They can at least be credited with anointing the evening's most unqualified knockout: Jimena Navarrete, or, as she is known to Bret Michaels, "the hotness that is Mexico."

And with the pinning of the tiara, the show comes in under two hours, and Trump Organization can close its books and pass out its bonuses and write off its after party. A job well done.

But what's this? Natalie Morales, seeking to recover her journalistic bona fides, rushes toward the new Miss Universe, shouting: "What is going through your mind right now?"

Forgetting, in that moment of panic, that Miss Universe speaks no English, that what is going through her mind is of no concern either to her or to the corporate endeavor of which she is part, that the business of beauty is now the business of Trump, Miss Universe makes no reply, but her silence has a bottom-line urgency all its own: Faster, pussycats. Shill, shill.

The best "Christmas Carol" ever

Salon.com, December 25, 2009

Let's see. America is pulling out of a recession. The military-industrial complex is humming along. Healthcare is far from being reformed. We might as well pretend it's 1984.

And in that case, let's pause and pay due homage to a movie that many of us either missed or overlooked the first time around. A television movie, of all things, that through some convergence of inspired casting, rich production values, and deep but unfussy textual fidelity became the definitive version of a beloved literary classic.

Only we're just now figuring that out.

When you ask ardent Dickensians to name the best version of "A Christmas Carol," they will invariably close ranks around the 1951 Alastair Sim adaptation. I was one of those partisans myself. I turned up my nose at Reginald Owen and Albert Finney, I scoffed at Michael Caine and Patrick Stewart, I rolled my eyes at the mere mention of Bill Murray and Kelsey Grammer, I resisted even the myopic charms of Mr. Magoo. It was Sim or nobody.

It helped, of course, that Sim's was the version I had grown up with and the version that, with its chiaroscuro stylings, seemed closest to the dark spirit of Dickens' rather unsentimental original (and John Leech's original drawings). Best of all, it had Sim himself, whose magnificently expressive face could, as needed, explode toward heaven or sag to the very pits of hell. (Surely, Dr. Seuss took a good hard look at the Scottish actor's puss before sketching the Grinch.) For many Dickens lovers, it's impossible to hear a line like "There's more of gravy than of grave about you" or "You were always a good man of business, Jacob," without hearing Sim's inflections, delivered in a voice that reminded one colleague of "a fastidious ghoul."

Yes, I was a Simmian down to my sinews, until I sat down last year to watch the film in the company of my 8-year-old son—and experienced a rude shock. There was no question that Sim's work held up, but—how do I say this?—for the first time in the film's nearly 60-year existence, I felt I was watching an old movie.

The print was muddy. The supporting cast abounded in the Old Vickery that characterized so much postwar British acting: that rather plummy relish in the thespian's craft that, in the case of Kathleen Harrison's housekeeper or Miles Malleson's Old Joe, becomes too much of a not-always-good thing. Scene after scene, from the Cratchits' Christmas dinner to the flashbacks of Scrooge's youth to the scroungers trolling through Scrooge's clothes, seemed troweled on just a bit too hard, as if the filmmakers were afraid we'd miss the point. (As if we could miss the point.)

But what troubled me the most, I think, was that my son, a movie lover, was left unmoved by the whole enterprise. That hit me where I lived. As a writer who drew enough inspiration from Dickens' story to write a novel in homage, I've always believed that "A Christmas Carol" must, above all, entertain. If the vehicle is reduced to no more than its message, we might as well boil it in pudding and bury it with a sprig of holly through its heart.

So it became a point of honor to find a version of Dickens' classic that would resonate for my son and his generation, just as Sim's film had once done for me. I won't say I searched high and low, exactly, but there's a lot of both high and low in the Scrooge canon. At least a dozen stage productions of "A Christmas Carol" sprang to life within a year of the book's 1843 release. The first film version was a 1901 British silent called "Scrooge; or, Marley's Ghost." Eight additional films appeared between 1910 and 1928, starring once-esteemed theatrical actors like H.V. Esmond and Russell Thorndike and Seymour Hicks. Hicks, in particular, made something of a career of Scrooge, trotting him out more than 2,000 times on the stage, then convoying him to the silent screen in 1913, then dragging him back 22 years later for a talkie version.

It's easy to see Scrooge's allure as a part. Given the chance to be both villain and hero in the space of 90 minutes and to leave an audience gulping on its own humanity, most actors will slay every grandmother they ever had. Which is to say that on television, radio and stage, Scrooge has been essayed by the likes of Lionel Barrymore, Ralph Richardson, Fredric March and Basil Rathbone. More recently, Shakespearean veterans like Derek Jacobi and Simon Callow and Michael Hordern have had their crack at him, and with producers now spinning out endless gender- and race-based variations, James Earl Jones, Cicely Tyson, Vanessa Williams and Susan Lucci have stepped nervously into the old template. Did I mention Vic Damone and Buddy Hackett?

In short, "A Christmas Carol" has spawned a thick tangle of camp and classicism. And who would have guessed—and who could not be pleased—that the actor to emerge most gloriously from the morass would be a West Virginia native and Marine Corps veteran best known for playing homicidal U.S. generals?

An actor, moreover, who came to Scrooge at a peculiarly vexed moment in his own career. In the late '60s and early '70s, George C. Scott rode films like "Petulia" and "Patton" and "The Hospital" to a position of lonely and bitter pre-eminence. He was, like Brando, a force of nature disguised as an actor. And like Brando, he had a genuine and visceral loathing for his own gift. To make matters worse, he had a fondness for alcohol, a knack for antagonizing directors and fellow cast members, and a volcanic persona that made him nearly impossible to cast.

And so, after his glory years, Scott's filmography descended with alarming speed into the bizarre ("The Day of the Dolphin," "The Savage Is Loose"), the hokey ("The Formula," "Firestarter") and the occasional bit of indentured servitude ("The Hindenburg"). By 1984, his greatest triumphs were more than a decade behind him, and even his truest and bluest fans could scarcely imagine him salvaging his career by climbing into Ebenezer's old nightshirt. Certainly not at the behest of a hack director like Clive Donner, whose recent oeuvre had included the likes of "The Nude Bomb" and "Charlie Chan and the Curse of the Dragon Queen."

I actually remember groaning when I read that long-ago TV Guide listing: George C. Scott IS Ebenezer Scrooge, or some such nonsense. I knew, or at least I thought I knew, exactly what I was in for. "A very special television event," in which Scott would swallow every scrap of scenery within reach and would himself be swallowed by oblivion.

But something else happened. At some point in preproduction, Scott and Donner and adapter Roger O. Hirson decided they were going to make not "A Christmas Carol" but "The Christmas Carol."

Whereupon fact gives way to speculation. Did the filmmakers go straight back to Dickens? To the book that so many people think they've read without actually having read it? Did they realize how shadow-laden it really was? Did they set out to show us that what we "knew" about Ebenezer Scrooge was wrong?

Well, here's what we can say about the makers of the 1984 "Carol." They trusted Dickens' language to carry the story. They drummed up enough financing to create a persuasive depiction of early-Victorian London, right down to the bonnets and fenders. And they chose an uncommonly fine supporting cast. Edward Woodward, soon to be a transatlantic star courtesy of the network drama "The Equalizer," makes possibly the sexiest-ever Ghost of Christmas Present. Roger Rees, fresh from Dickens duty in the miniseries of "Nicholas Nickleby," brings winningly shy accents to the historically bland role of Scrooge's nephew Fred. And David Warner, too often cast as a slot-eyed villain (like the manservant-thug in "Titanic"), transforms Bob Cratchit into a true proletarian, a man who doesn't so much espouse goodness as depend on it.

Thanks to the work of these players, we grasp something of what Dickens was trying to get across, that virtue is eternally at war, that it can give way at every point. As a result, scenes that were once soppy-saggy with tears turn strangely bracing. In the hands of Susannah York, for instance, Mrs. Cratchit's lament for Tiny Tim becomes a plain, true, helpless expression of grief, all the more moving for its restraint.

Well, Cratchits and ghosts come and go, one might argue, but every "Christmas Carol" must rise or fall with its Scrooge. And on this point the 1984 version most emphatically ascends.

We can talk, if we must, about George C. Scott's technique. Start with the accent: not an immaculately Streepian production but an internalized Englishness that commands from the first note. There's the lovely underplaying of Scrooge's villainy, which has lured many an actor into the slough of hamminess. The charm of the closing scenes, in which Scrooge's newfound joy seems to be stealing up from behind him and grabbing him by his collar.

But in my mind, this particular Scrooge rises to greatness in the graveyard scene, where the sight of his name on a gravestone prompts the famous cri de coeur: "I am not the man I was! I will not be the man I must have been! ... I will live in the Past, the Present, and the Future. The Spirits of all Three shall strive within me ... Oh, tell me I may sponge away the writing on this stone!"

Here it is: the dreaded "moral," in which all of Dickens' didactic chickens come home to roost. But in the hands of the classically trained Scott, it is the wail of a wasted soul. And not just a soul. With due respect to the motion-capture technology of Jim Carrey's 3-D theme ride, what makes this scene so riveting is that we're watching a real face—a face like a ruined abbey—and a lived-in body and a burnt-out voice. A human being with a history of passion.

Scott, unlike Alastair Sim, was a tragedian at heart. And perhaps it's not too much to suggest that, at some half-conscious level, he used Scrooge's dilemma to relive the tragedy of his own life: the missed opportunities, the squandered potential. Hadn't he once supped at the table of the gods? Hadn't he once had the force and imagination to play King Lear, Prospero, James Tyrone, Willy Loman? Where had it all gone? And how?

Charles Dickens wrote "A Christmas Carol" quickly—in six weeks, in a fever of inspiration. He said afterward that he felt the Cratchits "ever tugging at his sleeve, as if impatient for him to get back to his desk and continue the story of their lives.' And it is because the Cratchits and the other characters were so real to him that they remain so real to us. "A Christmas Carol" succeeds not because of its message (which Dickens recycled to markedly less effect in his later Christmas tales) but because, through all its supernatural agentry, we feel ourselves in the presence of flesh and blood. And that is just what George C. Scott, in his last great performance, gives us. An Ebenezer Scrooge with hands, organs, dimension, senses, affections. A Scrooge who, when you prick him, bleeds.

My antidepressant gets harder to swallow

Salon.com, April 5, 2010

I take it every morning, right after I brush my teeth. A single white pill, with the letters F and L stamped on one side, the number 10 on the other. It's so small it nearly disappears into the folds of my palm. You could drop it in my orange juice or my breakfast cereal, and I'd swallow it without a hitch.

And, for the last three years, I have been swallowing my Lexapro—and everything that comes along with it. And, apparently, I'm not alone.

Between 1996 and 2005, the number of Americans taking antidepressants doubled. According to the Centers for Disease Control, antidepressants are now the most commonly prescribed class of drugs in the U.S.—ahead of drugs for cholesterol, blood pressure and asthma. Of the 2.4 billion drugs prescribed in 2005, 118 million were for depression. Whether the pills go by the name of Lexapro or Effexor or Prozac or Wellbutrin, we're downing them, to the tune of $9.6 billion a year, and we're doing it for a very good and simple reason. They're supposed to be making us better.

Which leaves a quite massive shoe waiting to drop. What if these costly, widely marketed, bewitchingly commonplace drugs really aren't fixing our brains?

The implications are troubling, and not just for the pharmaceutical industry. In a study published last January by the Journal of the American Medical Association, scientists conducting a meta-analysis of existing research found that antidepressants were unquestionably "useful in cases of severe depression" but frankly not much help for the rest of us. "The magnitude of benefit of antidepressant medication compared with placebo," the study's authors concluded, "may be minimal or nonexistent, on average, in patients with mild or moderate symptoms."

In other words, antidepressants work, but only because we believe they're working. If we're not seriously depressed and we're taking a tricyclic or a serotonin reuptake inhibitor or a norepinephrine booster, we'd fare about as well with a sugar pill. Which means that antidepressants are, to borrow the phraseology of Newsweek writer Sharon Begley, "basically expensive Tic Tacs."

And so, like millions of Americans, I'm left with the problem of it: that little white pill that travels down my gullet every morning. What is it really doing down there—up there? What if it's not doing anything? Is there any good empirical unassailable reason that I should be swallowing it day after day after day? If I stop believing in it, will it stop working?

More than half a century has passed since the first antidepressants were prescribed, but it's fair to say that the opposition to them coalesced in the 1990s, with the explosive sales growth of Prozac. As critics like David Healy and Ronald W. Dworkin warned that Big Pharma was medicalizing sadness for profit, the widespread usage of ironic terms like "happy pills" conjured up visions of smiling zombies wandering through sinister dreamscapes. Eric G. Wilson, in his overwrought "Against Happiness," actually envisioned a day when antidepressants would "destroy dejection completely" and "eradicate depression forever."

Looking back, we can see that both critics and advocates were working from the same premise: that these drugs change us in some fairly profound way. (Even pro-drug Peter Kramer, in his bestselling "Listening to Prozac," worried about the cost of making people "better than well.") But as researchers like Irving Kirsch and Guy Sapirstein are increasingly finding, the truth may shade more toward the comic end of the spectrum. Far from transforming us, antidepressants are leaving us pretty much as they found us. Emperors in gleaming new clothes.

The more I ponder my experience, the less surprised I am. I turned to medication because I couldn't stop crying in public places—Starbucks was a popular spot—or imagining my death. (Crucially, I never got around to planning it.) And because I realized that although I was meeting life's core requirements, I was not always exceeding them. And because, after a couple of years of sessions with an empathetic therapist, I came to believe that my wiring really had shorted out, that some form of grayer matter had fastened itself to my brain and was hard at work, siphoning away my joy.

I remember watching the camcorder footage of my son's first birthday party and being shocked by the sight of myself, staring back at the camera with sad eyes. Depression had always been a sporadic companion, but in my 43rd year, it began to take up permanent residence. I felt like I was walking around on rotting floorboards. I cried. I lost my temper on the flimsiest of pretexts. I saw myself dead.

At which point medication seemed like a reasonable alternative. Before another week had passed, I had secured a low-dosage prescription for Lexapro, prescribed not by my therapist but by my primary-care physician. (Even that's not quite true. It was the doctor who was taking my doctor's patients while she was on vacation.)

"Who's going to monitor this drug?" my partner asked.

"Um ... you? Me?"

When it came to Lexapro, all my responses had the same interrogative lilt. If someone asked me how I was feeling, I'd say, "Better, I guess?" When asked if I would recommend Lexapro to others, I'd say: "Maybe kind of?"

This was the most surprising part of the whole experience: that the transformation or malformation I had expected to feel never quite arrived, that in the course of ramping up my serotonin levels, I should remain so freakishly myself.

It is, in fact, one of the amusing side effects of living in the age of pharmaceuticals that you can always compare your lack of progress with those nearest and dearest to you--in this case, my mother. Not a lunch goes by that one of us doesn't say to the other:

"How's the Lexapro working?"

"I don't know."

Agnosticism, I've found, is a common refrain among my medicated friends. We're feeling OK, thanks. Is it the pill? Natural cycles? A good week at work? The fact that the sun is shining? Not always apparent. The only thing we're really clear on, honestly, is our side effects. Nausea, nightmares, hypomania, agitation, headaches, decreased sex drive, decreased sex performance ... the list is exquisite in its variation. My first two nights on Lexapro, I lay for hours on the precipice of unconsciousness, unable to take the last plunge. To fall asleep, I had to get a prescription for Ambien, which I then spent another week weaning myself off. To this day, the prospect of sleep holds a mild terror for me that it never did before.

Oddly enough, the side effects are often the pills' best advocates. If we're feeling that crappy, we figure something of great moment is happening inside us. What's harder to accept is the alternative explanation—that, when it comes to depression, we're still wandering in the dark. As Charles Barber, author of "Comfortably Numb," argues, scientists don't really know how antidepressants work. "They change the brain chemistry, but the infinite spiral of what they do from there is very unclear."

So if you don't know how something works, and you can no longer credibly claim it does work (even some industry spokesmen are beginning to qualify their claims), you're not left with much of a fallback position. The placebo effect is real—the body actually does heal itself when it believes it is being healed—but it is founded on faith, and in the wake of the JAMA study, it's becoming harder and harder to maintain that faith except through a rather larger act of denial.

Of course, even the most ardent critics of antidepressants caution strongly against sudden withdrawal. (Those side effects suck, too.) And few scientists will deny that drugs help people with severe unipolar depression. But what of the rest of us? Should we find some way to make ourselves believe in our little white pills again? Or should we find other things to believe in? Should we, in fact, begin to rethink our relationships with our brains?

I don't bring much in the way of ideology to these questions. I've always felt that the rise of Prozac and its ilk at least had the salutary effect of removing the stigma attached to depression. Reconfigured as a chemical condition, it could now be owned and acknowledged and treated. But by translating it from the personal to the pharmacological, we may have left people even less empowered to combat it.

It's bracing to see how depression is treated in other countries, where the relationship between drug manufacturers and physicians isn't quite so hand-in-glove. Great Britain's National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence, for example, recommends that, before taking antidepressants, people with mild or moderate depression should undergo nine to 12 weeks of guided self-help, nine to 12 weeks of cognitive behavioral therapy, and 10 to 14 weeks of exercise classes. They should, in short, work on themselves before they can be worked upon.

Unfortunately, as Barber notes, that's work, and not always pleasant. If we are to be honest with ourselves, we should admit that the drug companies aren't the only ones who want that pill. We want it, too. If every last antidepressant were to vanish from the market today and a new one were to appear tomorrow, promising greater benefits than before, which of us would not line up? There is, after all, a strength in numbers, whereas grappling with yourself—your self—is a lonely business.

But it is, finally, a necessary one. The little white pill sits in my palm. In the glare of the bathroom light, I give it a good hard searching look. And then once more I clap it in my mouth and swallow it down.

Maybe, as one team of researchers has suggested, it's the triumph of marketing over science. Maybe, as Samuel Johnson once said of second marriages, it's the triumph of hope over experience. Maybe I'm just weak.

I will say only this: I no longer count on Lexapro to make me well. Which is to say I no longer fret if I miss a day or two, I no longer rush to the drug store to get my refills, and I place far more importance on getting my life in order: regulating my alcohol consumption, getting a decent night's sleep, exercising (I'm not the only depressive who's become an amateur triathlete) and, corny as it sounds, pausing at intervals to ponder my blessings. And also appreciating the ways in which my brain and body regulate their own climate through such time-honored techniques as the crying jag. Which is no less effective for happening in the middle of a busy Starbucks.

Three years and however many dollars later, can I honestly say Lexapro has made me a happier person? No. Has it usefully complicated my thinking? Maybe. In my pre-pill days, I regarded happiness as a form of grace, descending upon me whether or not I was worthy of it. Now I think of it as something that, however elusive, is there to be sought. Swallowing a pill every morning is not, in my mind, an act of obedience but a tiny spark of volition, a sign that I'm willing to find the light wherever it's hiding. My Lexapro may be no better than a Tic Tac, but it's a daily reminder that I won't take depression's shit lying down.

Having kids made me a movie wuss

Salon.com, August 28, 2010

This Friday marked the premiere of a movie called "The Last Exorcism." It is a faux cinéma-vérité documentary about a deeply troubled teenage girl racked by demons. It may be a piece of art or a hunk of trash. It may spin interesting new variations on the possessed-girl template, or it may be the holy water sprinkled on the genre's corpse. None of this will matter because I won't be watching.

Any more than I'll be watching, in the weeks to come, "Let Me In" (severely bullied boy seeks help from a neighboring vampire girl) or "Case 39 (12-year-old girl's parents try repeatedly to murder her, to the point of stuffing her in an oven). Or putting "Kick-Ass" on my Netflix list or, except under great duress, escorting my kids to the latest Harry Potter movie. And my reasons have nothing to do with esthetic principles, of which I have few. It's just that, after 10 years of parenthood, I have become ridiculously, intractably, humiliatingly averse to seeing children in peril.

It doesn't matter if the children look like mine. It doesn't matter what age they are, what gender, race, nationality. It doesn't matter whether I'm watching it happen or reading about it or just thinking about it. In every instance, my critical carapace falls away, my scaffolding of reason collapses, and I'm defenseless in a way I haven't been since ... well, since I was a child.

And I don't think it's getting better.

I first became aware of the problem in 2001. My older son was then a little over a year old, and for a grown-up treat, my partner and I called in a babysitter and went to see "A Beautiful Mind," thinking it would be the uplifting story of a genius mathematician who struggles with schizophrenia. Which it was. Until the moment when John Nash (Russell Crowe) leaves his baby in a bathtub and turns on the water and walks out of the room.

He's convinced that his imaginary friend Charles is watching the baby when in fact no one is there. The water's rising ... the baby's crying. An ancient suspense device, I told myself, traceable to the days of penny dreadfuls and serialized melodramas. And how little its provenance mattered in that moment! A cold ribbon of sweat welled up from my temples and dribbled down my face and gathered in my collar bones. My skin prickled. My heart beat like Judgment Day. Get ... the baby ... out of the bath.

The jitters of a new dad, you'll say. I assumed the same thing, but no amount of parental experience would make it go away. Just a couple of years ago, I went to see "Slumdog Millionaire," thinking it would be the uplifting story of a young man who finds salvation in a game show. Which it was. Until the moment when a boy (not our hero) is chloroformed into unconsciousness and then blinded with a scalding spoon. A few seconds of screen time, no more, but I watched in a vise of horror until I couldn't watch anymore. And even when I closed my eyes, all I could see were my boys being overpowered, sedated, maimed in exactly the same way. All I could feel was how easy it would be to do this very thing to them.

Where are they now? I asked myself. (With their aunt.) Do I need to go there? (Of course not.) Will anything bad happen if I stay here? (Don't be silly. It's just a movie.)

It's just a movie. But it doesn't have to be a movie. And it doesn't have to be a boy. A few years back, I was standing in a Barnes & Noble in Chelsea, reading the opening pages of "The Lovely Bones." On one side stood my brain, sallying forth on a stream of prose, pausing to note the charm of the voice, marveling at how fleetly a young girl's rape and murder could be narrated. On the other side was my body, absorbing each act of violence as if it were a toxin. Before I'd even finished the first chapter, my stomach had twisted itself into a knot so agonizing that I had to toss the book down and walk away.

But it's all make-believe, you'll argue. And I'll answer: Of course it is. And I'll answer: No, it's not.

Because everything that happens to a child on the screen or on the page belongs, however remotely, to the realm of the possible. Which makes it, to a certain kind of parent, a physical insult: cell deep, impervious to logic. Indeed, of all the adjustments I anticipated in becoming a parent—less sleep, less sex, more alcohol—this is the one I never saw coming. That, in looking at other children, I would be forced to see my own. That every child's death, imaginary or no, would diminish me.

It was particularly embarrassing for me because, from the start, I had refused to be one of those fear-shackled parents. I wasn't going to give my kids ID bracelets. I wasn't going to file their fingerprints with the local police station. I wasn't going to fill their heads with pointless horror stories. When the time came, I would let them roam the block and walk to school by themselves, and to anyone who objected, I would point out how statistically rare stranger abductions are and how important it is to nurture our children's independence. None of that nanny-state brooding for me. I was going to be Rational Dad.

And how swiftly that pose evaporated every time I entered the darkened room of a theater!

One could argue, I suppose, that art's function is to break down our brain's defenses, the better to usher us toward catharsis. But whenever I see a fictional child abused or stalked or wounded or murdered—or even just betrayed in some irretrievable way—it isn't catharsis I experience but a chain of sawed-off nerve ends.

The only comfort I can derive, honestly, is knowing that, in my sheer wussiness, I have company. There's a small chance I'm legion. To extrapolate at least from my friends and family members, there's a long and winding trail of books and movies that parents dance around as if they were unexploded ordnance. "The Kite Runner"? Nope. "A Map of the World"? Sorry. "The Orphanage"? Pass. "Precious"? Uh uh. "Bastard Out of Carolina"? Try again.

But that policy of avoidance can take us only so far once we realize that terror and death are woven into the entertainment vehicles specifically targeted at our kids. I don't know that I've seen a more dumbfoundingly sadistic movie than "Dumbo"; "Pinocchio" isn't far behind; "Bambi" is a close third. A friend of mine stopped reading the last installment of "Harry Potter" because she had a sudden epiphany: "It's all about grown-ups trying to kill kids." Which is the subject nearest and dearest to the hearts of the brothers Grimm. Hansel and Gretel, we may recall, aren't wandering through the woods because they got lost but because their parents left them to die.

In his famous book, "The Uses of Enchantment," Bruno Bettelheim argues that the very darkness of these stories allows children to move past their own terrors, symbolically conquering them through the use of surrogates. I would argue that the fear of losing children is something that parents cannot move past—can scarcely even imagine—because nothing lies on the other side of it. No wisdom, no purpose, no progress. The end of children is the end of everything.

So I guess that's why I hate seeing kids in peril. But when I speak of this squeamishness, I'm always at pains not to paint it as a higher arc of sensitivity or as an implicit rebuke to non-parents. ("You can't know our pain!") On the contrary, I consider it deeply regressive: an inability to distinguish truth from illusion that would qualify as childlike if it weren't so lacking in a child's wonder.

And the end product isn't always recoil; sometimes it's just a recasting of old artifacts in a strange new light. A friend of mine, rereading the "Little House" books with her daughter, was astonished to find that the treasured storyscapes of her childhood were now festering with dysfunction. How poor the Ingalls girls were! How hard and peripatetic their lives! Pa was no longer the beloved patriarch of memory but a shiftless ne'er-do-well, exhibiting all the signs of ADHD. Why couldn't he just keep it together? Earn a decent living?

Something similar happened to another friend when she reread the Pippi Longstocking stories with her daughter. She couldn't get past the fact that Pippi and her friends were wandering alone, unmonitored, undefended. Where were the parents? (Her daughter, by contrast, reveled in Pippi's strength and resourcefulness.) Still another friend, watching a scene of mass carnage in "Jaws" more than 30 years after its original release, found her eyes snagging for the first time on ... a baby. Abandoned on a dock. Barely visible at frame's edge and seemingly unnoticed by anyone -- except by my friend, who could see nothing else. Why was nobody moving the baby to safety? Where the hell were the parents?

The incompetence or, worse, the plain aching absence of mothers and fathers is a time-tested staple of storytelling. But for some parents, I think, it's also a constant reminder that we will one day come up short. Seeing a movie like, say, "The Sixth Sense"—which, for me, is really about a mother trying valiantly but fruitlessly to shield her son—can be painful beyond endurance because it reaffirms that we will never be, in ourselves, sufficient. We won't always, we can't always, be there to save our kids when the ghosts come calling, when the sharks strike, when something hidden steps into the light.

Which raises the not-insignificant question of who really needs to be protected in those darkened movie theaters and living rooms and bedrooms. Who is at greatest risk? God knows we've seen—in newspapers, on TV, on the Internet—any number of field guides for shielding our kids from sexual content and violence. (The best, least excitable one I know is Jane Horwitz's "The Family Filmgoer.") If I had my way, there would be at least as many guides for shielding parents. "Thirteen": You'll want to kill yourself afterward. "The Pursuit of Happyness": It's a long, long road to the happyness. "To Kill a Mockingbird": Who lets their kids walk alone in the woods at night? "The Cat in the Hat": Where the hell are the parents?

In one regard, at least, I'm not a helicopter dad. Having sat with my sons through many a book and movie and TV show, I now believe they can safely accommodate much (though not all) of what Hollywood and the publishing industry can throw at them. It's me I'm not so sure about. My kids, being kids, have an innate knack for finding tracks of light in the darkness. My gift is something opposite: to see where the tracks end.

Miss Universe and the death of the beauty pageant

Salon.com, August 24, 2010

Last night, I watched a two-hour commercial, and a beauty pageant kept breaking out.

Which is to say that, somehow, amid the interstices of skin- and hair-care commercials and NBC fall-show previews (repeated as insistently as Buddhist chants) and distance-learning courses in hair styling (from chief sponsor Farouk Systems) and running spigots of advertorials for Las Vegas attractions (Sushisamba! Minus 5!), the high solemnities of the 2010 Miss Universe competition were prosecuted efficiently and relentlessly and, yes, joylessly.

Do you remember when beauty pageants were entertainment? A hoot and a holler and a half? Gay men crowded around the TV set with their boy and girl pals and laughed at all those fire jugglers and hula dancers and rhythmic gymnasts and all the glib horrors that came tumbling from their cherry-red mouths, and look, there WAS Bert Parks dragging his ponderous ass down the Atlantic City runway, and we could laugh because it was our game, too. We were in on it, living in the same gap between aspiration and reality.

And then something happened. Miss America became a serious thing and began to boast about the scholarships it funds and the lives it improves, and today, it's rotting on unremunerative perches like TLC (though it will be broadcasting its 2011 edition on ABC). In marked contrast, the Miss USA-Miss Universe franchise has refused all along to fret about whether its contestants could carry a tune or spell their names or build latrines in Burkina Faso. It has remained a principality of the flesh, where the currency is two-piece bikinis.

And to judge from last night's iteration, that carnal philosophy has reaped its reward. Miss Universe is in the pink: stinking with ad revenue, sprawling across a two-hour expanse of network television. The whole enterprise should be neon with triumph, and yet it's every bit as gray as an annual report. For that's exactly what it is. A celebration of a company and the man behind it. The man whose International Hotel is shown at regular intervals thrusting toward the Vegas sky. The man known simply to the outgoing Miss Universe as "Meester Trump."

Oh, yes, the Donald is weighing in at every commercial break, reminding us that this is his franchise and promising new ministries of Eros. "The most incredible women in the world," he announces, "will show off the sexiest swimsuits you can imagine.... These women would scorch the Sunset Strip." And, just to make sure we're awake: "This is live TV, and anything can happen."

A lie almost touching in its transparency. Nothing very large can happen on that stage that hasn't already been dreamed up behind Trump's Morpheus mask. Oh, sure, a batch of Elvis impersonator/gymnasts can burst in on the swimsuit competition, and the somnolent piano man John Legend can find himself abruptly surrounded by women in evening gowns, but the evening's only real wild card is co-host Bret Michaels, whose customary doo rag and earrings have been tastefully accessorized with a shiny-lapeled tux and open-collared shirt.

If, in your hunger for entertainment, you entertain fantasies of him being strangled by Miss Zambia's coconut bra or, at the very least, dragging the contestants through a panty-twisting contest just to prove their love for him ... alas, in these skank-free precincts, the wildest thing Michaels can do on this stage is leer at the cue cards and inform Miss Jamaica that "Ja makin' me crazy." (And yet ... and YET ... isn't his horndoggery preferable to the preening ethnic pronunciations of co-host Natalie Morales, who, in a just world, would be scalded in habanero juice after saying "MEH-hee-ko" for the fifth time?)

Bret understands, and so do we. This is business. There's no room on the balance sheet for lust. Or camp. Or grunge. Or even beauty. Miss Universe subsists on a steady diet of press releases, on promises of an "incredible journey" that will be undertaken by "molten hot" women.

In fact, these women do what beauty queens have always done: present themselves like waxed fruit. And indeed, if you spend enough time with them, you find yourself eyeing them for bruises and gray patches. The two young sex-starved heterosexual males who watch Miss Universe with me begin the night in a general mood of welcome and graduate steadily into Ruskinesque discrimination. Miss Ukraine is flagged for her protruding "babyback ribs." Miss Australia, who looks as though she's just been carried off in triumph from a field-hockey game, is dismissed as "a very poor version of Jennifer Aniston." Miss Thailand has her gender questioned. Even I am forced to admit that the wildly sensual Miss Ireland has a disproportionately plump lower lip.

Oh, yes, we become jaded—all the sunless tans, all the lettuce-devouring teeth—but we beat on, don't we? Waiting for those moments of bald fiction. ("I'm having so much fun that I keep forgetting this is actually a competition ... I like trying different foods ...") Those slips of the mask. (The cold rage of Miss France, captured just moments after her elimination.) And, of course, those passing squiffs of unlicensed humor, which tend for some reason to cluster in the "demanding final question" segment.

"Many airports are using full-body scanners," croons judge and retired medicine woman Jane Seymour. "How do you feel about going through a scanner that can actually see through your clothes?"

Miss Ukraine's reply is obscured in translation, but no language barriers deter Miss Philippines, who, when asked to recall the biggest mistake of her life, declares that she has never made one. Even if this were true, it ceases to be, and she is left a waif-shouldered fifth.

The judges (who include Sheila E, looking worthy and philanthropic, and skater-android Evan Lysacek) are congratulated more than once for their hard work, as if they really were building latrines in Burkina Faso. They can at least be credited with anointing the evening's most unqualified knockout: Jimena Navarrete, or, as she is known to Bret Michaels, "the hotness that is Mexico."

And with the pinning of the tiara, the show comes in under two hours, and Trump Organization can close its books and pass out its bonuses and write off its after party. A job well done.

But what's this? Natalie Morales, seeking to recover her journalistic bona fides, rushes toward the new Miss Universe, shouting: "What is going through your mind right now?"

Forgetting, in that moment of panic, that Miss Universe speaks no English, that what is going through her mind is of no concern either to her or to the corporate endeavor of which she is part, that the business of beauty is now the business of Trump, Miss Universe makes no reply, but her silence has a bottom-line urgency all its own: Faster, pussycats. Shill, shill.

Can James Franco write? Yes, but...

Salon.com, October 18, 2010

In the old days, by which I mean last week, no one expected an author to look hot. If you had bathed within the last lunar cycle, if your body compared favorably with Winston Churchill's, if your eyes, nose and mouth were all in roughly approximate position, you got a pass. An affirmative-action, hey-he-shaved-and-brushed-his-teeth pass.

Now who should come along to screw it up but James Franco, whose short-story collection, "Palo Alto," comes with an author pic so ridiculously dreamy, so full-lipped and chin-carved and chestnut-haired that I'm already wondering how I can scan it into my next book jacket. "Yes," I imagine responding to e-mail queries. "That's exactly what I look like. Which is why I don't do public appearances anymore. The fans get so damn grabby."

Envy, then, is a prime consideration in confronting Franco the Writer. It's not enough that he should be Salon's Sexiest Man Living of 2009. Or an artist with a solo exhibition in Tribeca. Or an extremely well-compensated and (when occasion demands) competent movie actor. Nooo, James Franco is now making a play for the New York Times Book Review and the monthly Book Sense list and the Barnes & Noble 100 and all those places where homely, unsocialized men and women once held sway.

Snark is the default response but not, I am sad to say, the honest one. Because to the question of "Can James Franco write?", the short answer is yes. And so is the long answer, but with the qualification that a writer's subject is as important as his method and that, having dwelt so lovingly and hatefully on his boyhood, James Franco may now be advised to leave it behind.

"Palo Alto" is a suite of interconnected stories built around the tumult of coming of age, as Franco did, in Palo Alto, Calif., in the early 1990s. (We know how far we've gone back because of the strategically inserted signifiers: Guns N' Roses, "Schindler's List," Gulf War.) These aren't the dead-end working-class kids of Springsteen's discography but kids of privilege, living in the precincts of Stanford and Lockheed Martin, smart enough to drop literary allusions but shooting blanks when it comes to ambition. White or Hispanic or mixed-race, they shun black company but worship black music, and they smoke and get stoned and drink their parents' whiskey and vodka, and the boys call each other "bitch" and "faggot" and compete to see who can have sex with the most girls.

They're lonely kids, bored and angry—"I hate everything," declares one—and their feelings get "computed in strange ways," with the end product usually being cruelty. Is there any eye more merciless than a teenager's? "She walked crookedly and had a funny-shaped ass, like a heptagon ... His shorts hung to his fat knees and he had them in all ugly colors ... Her face was like her ass, flat and wide. Her cheeks stuck out farther than her temples and they hung like the jowls of a St. Bernard."

And when mere cruelty falls short, putting the hurt on someone is the next best bet. Violence is, in fact, the blood-seed from which each of Franco's stories blossoms forth. One boy runs his grandfather's car into a wall; another plots to assassinate the football player who assaulted him; another is savagely beaten over a Civil War assignment. A girl's brief flirtation with a handsome teenager ends when he is drawn into a gang fight. Teddy defaces library books; Ryan runs over a librarian. Bone meets bone, ennui erupts into mayhem, and when you come to a story titled "Killing Animals," you can be certain it's not a metaphor.

In "Palo Alto," destruction is the only way kids can make connections, their only chance to feel alive. Victim and victimizer find a bloody transcendence. "I kicked Sam in the shin and he fell to the ground holding his leg. I felt awesome ... He roared like a boar, long and angry, and then he started stomping on my ribs. Quick, hard stomps. My ribs bent, and my lungs were jolted, and there was a sucking-in sound. I stayed rolled up and he stomped me."

Read between the lines, and you'll be able to pick out Franco's influences: Raymond Carver's tight-lipped stoicism; the sun-streaked disaffection of "Less than Zero"; a grueling gang-bang sequence that harkens straight back to Hubert Selby Jr.'s "Last Exit to Brooklyn." It's a heavy freight of angst, all told, so one is grateful for the periodic flashes of humor, which come usually at the expense of some adult. The high-school history teacher, for example, who recreates the Anne Frank story on top of the machine shop in the storage room. "At the end Mr. Tyson busted through the door dressed like an SS agent. He was pretty convincing."

Franco can be a wag when he permits himself and, like many actors-who-write, he excels at dialogue. In one particularly lively sequence, a boy tries to persuade his friend that every children's-book character is gay.

"Cat in the Hat?" I said. "Gay. The Grinch? Gay. Hungry Caterpillar? He turns into a butterfly, gay!" Now Fred was thinking about it. I continued, "The Runaway Bunny, the bunny in 'Goodnight Moon,' the Velveteen Rabbit, Peter Rabbit, all gay. All rabbits are gay."

"No."

"They're sensitive, but different, but also like boys, but then also not."

He thought, and then said, "Yeah, I guess they are."

"The little boy who flies around naked in 'Night Kitchen,' and Max from 'Where the Wild Things Are, gay!'"

"Bullshit, Max isn't gay."

"Bull true, he dresses up in his little white wolf suit, so gay. And then he tells his mom to fuck off ..."

"That's not gay ..."

"... and then he goes to an island and hangs around with a bunch of monsters who party with him all night, dancing and parading him around on their backs."

"That's so weird, but I think it's kind of true," said Fred.

"All little-kids' stories have to be like that. They have to be all soft and gay, so that the moms are okay with it."

Fred sat there, and then he said, "I want a wolf suit."

"Yeah, me, too," I said.

Shorn of its profanity, the whole exchange might have nestled comfortably into Franco's breakout show, "Freaks and Geeks." But if Judd Apatow is Franco's spiritual godfather, this book's true habitat is the creative-writing seminar, where Franco has communed with the likes of Mona Simpson and Gary Shteyngart and where, through trial and error, he has learned how to make a work of fiction pass muster with the MFA gods. "Palo Alto" is, by direct consequence, sad, sensitive, concerned at all times with its authenticity and uncontaminated by plot (even, at times, incident). Above all, it forebears to judge its teenage protagonists, blaming their behavior instead on that venerable bete noire of literary intelligentsia: the burbs.

"Fuck into this," one of Franco's kids scrawls on a mailbox. "Born into this." Born, yes, into these wide, tree-lined streets with their spotless mailboxes and Scotts Lawn Care yards. A plain of anomie. If these kids were growing up now, they'd all have My Chemical Romance ringtones and they'd be slamming each other on Facebook and uploading manifestos onto YouTube. But this is still the early '90s, so all they can do is drink and smoke pot and argue and drive somewhere and drive somewhere else, and the effect finally isn't cumulative but reductive.

That's partly because Franco hasn't developed the ventriloquial skills to differentiate his voices. Narrator after narrator speaks in the same clipped, bruised tone, and you don't even notice when a girl takes up the story thread because her diction is no different from the boy who preceded her. The only thing that gathers, finally, is a pool of self-pity. "It can be so boring being you sometimes ... We're stopped for no reason except that the night is still going and we're drunk, and who wants to go home, ever, and this spot is as good as any to just sit in the shadows and let life slow ... This world sucks, and even if you are high it only lets you escape a little bit, it lets you escape enough that you know there could be something better, but it won't let you into that place."

As insights go, these don't vault much higher than "The Breakfast Club," but they do suggest that James Franco has enacted the teenage mind-set rather too well. The narcissism, the grandiosity, the contempt for maturity, these he has made his own, and for his epigraph, he has approvingly (and, OK, pretentiously) quoted Proust: "Adolescence is the only period in which we learn anything." But the Proust who wrote that was a middle-aged man, capable of setting his youthful experiences in a wise and, at times, ironic perspective. That's the artist's task, and that's the task that Franco, for all his ability, hasn't risen to here. He's a grown-up afraid of grown-up wisdom.