Philippians 4:14

“Yet it was good of you to share in my troubles.”

The verse before this one is one of the great one-liners in all of Holy Scripture. Millions of believers can whip it out like a six-shooter at a gun fight.

And yet at the moment 4:14 speaks louder to me.

It is about what we can do for each other, and perhaps in some sense it makes real the previous verse about what Christ can do for us.  After all, He did say that we should love one another — and love is a verb. It means far more than a nice, warm feeling. It means actively sharing in another’s troubles — empathizing yes, but tangibly sharing resources as well. Paul was after all thanking the Philippians for sending money

Sometimes Christ strengthens us thru the loving actions of others — the active generosity of other people. But sometimes we just need to reach out and say, “Hey, I was thinkin’ about you today. So howya doin’?”

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“I, Tonya” ~ A Review

“Americans want someone to love and someone to hate!”

The above line is uttered by the Tonya Harding character in the new mockumentary I, Tonya.  Tainted figure skater Tonya Harding was clearly a celebrity Americans chose to hate.

I had previously written that Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri was the best movie of this holiday season — and then I saw I, Tonya. I thought it was breathtaking cinema — brilliantly written, directed and acted. Like Three Billboards it is dark humor par excellence — but it differs from Billboards in being a pretty much true story. It pivots on the January, 1994, incident in which Harding’s figure skating rival Nancy Kerrigan was assaulted at Cobo Arena in Detroit during the U.S. Figure Skating Championships. A bumbling assailant whacked her on the knee with a police baton and Kerrigan wailing in pain and shouting, “why, why!” was captured on video.

In spite of the assault Kerrigan made the Olympic team, as did her rival Harding. Of course, during the Olympic trials and the Olympic competition the world was focused on women’s figure skating, and the Olympic ratings skyrocketed. Remember this was the early-90s when 24/7 news and sleazy infotaiment was just ramping up — Inside Edition, Hard Copy and A Current Affair were busy morphing into the insidious TMZ.

At the Olympic competition Kerrigan earned a silver medal — and after a badly botched performance, Tonya finished fifth. In the spirit of the times it seemed like justice had prevailed.  The wholesome, lovely All American girl Nancy Kerrigan bested the conniving villainess Tonya Harding.

It was subsequently revealed that Harding’s abusive low-life husband Jeff Gillooly masterminded the assault. Harding denied prior knowledge and in court was more or less exonerated of helping plan the assault. However, she was convicted of obstructing justice. She served no jail time but was punished by an onerous probation and the stipulation that she could never participate in competitive figure skating again.

In the media and popular myth Nancy Kerrigan became the All American girl on her way to Disney World, and Tonya Harding was forever consigned to a nether world of trashy conniving villains. So why nearly a quarter century later should we care about Tonya Harding enough to bother with a pseudo-documentary that reconfigures her in a somewhat sympathetic light?

For one thing, it’s no longer Harding who is on trial, we are — the celebrity obsessed America that conflates what’s essentially gossip with “news” of very questionable “human interest.”  We are a people who demand heroes and villains — and once someone is cast as a villain the facts be damned, their villainy is forever.

And another reason to care is that I, Tonya makes some powerful statements about the dynamics of victimhood and social class.

At the beginning of the movie we see four year old Tonya being pushed into figure skating by a physically and emotionally abusive mother. Her redneck waitress mom, LaVona Harding, is brilliantly played by Allison Janney. It will likely win Janney an Oscar. Other than Joan Crawford I cant recall any mothers on the big screen being quite so cynical, evil and controlling.  Also, the film strenuously makes the point that the Hardings are lower class — about the level of trailer trash — and that Tonya with her crude mom and home made outfits doesn’t quite fit in.  Lady figure skaters have typically come from upper middle class white collar families.

But little Tonya can skate like a demon and is soon beating girls twice her age — and the tykes that play young Tonya are adorable.

At the age of 16, Tonya starts having an affair with Jeff Gilooly who is three years older. Her mother objects to the relationship but not because Gillooly is unsafe but because he might affect her career and also mom’s control. Like many abused children Tonya turns to an abusive partner. It’s what the abused are familiar with, and from a psychodynamic perspective the abused spend their lives unconsciously trying to rectify the earlier relationship.

The mockumentary narrative is moved forward by a succession of interviews with all the principles: Tonya, Gillooly, her mom, her coach, etc.  Bobby Cannavale at his smarmy best plays cynical Hard Copy producer Martin Maddox and lardy Paul Walter Hauser is hysterical as Shawn Eckhardt Tonya’s bumbling “bodyguard.”  Both he and Cannavale should be nominated for some supporting comedic award.

To this writer figure skating is the most beautiful of all sports and in this film the skating sequences are flawlessly done– and breathtaking.  Harding was the first female skater to perform a triple axel in competition, and seeing it performed on the big screen made my heart leap. Tonya is played by Australian actress Margot Robbie. While athletic, prior to the film Robbie had no significant skating experience. Her performance is Oscar-worthy.  The pain in her narrative cracks the granitic cynical façade of the film thru which light flows. This is a movie that while hysterically and darkly funny was also very moving. The tragic arc of Tonya’s life brought me to the edge of tears.

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The Spot on the Carpet

I have two offices. The one in Orange City is all mine — and I think it’s rather nice — but the one in Longwood, where I work Thurs and Friday afternoons, I share with another therapist. That office’s maintenance leaves a lot to be desired. The landlord provides no cleaning. The carpet was dingy when we moved in four years ago and its only gotten worse.

Now there is a gigantic coffee stain in the office’s group room/waiting area and it’s been there for over a year — no doubt, attributable to one of my partner’s messy court-ordered clients. They tend to be self-centered sociopaths and not terribly concerned about keeping another’s space tidy. This stain is on an industrial type carpet that was already worn and dirty.  When I enter that room all I see is the stain, and I imagine that a new client’s eyes are also drawn to that same spot as well. When I usher them thru that area into my office I do not look at the stain and I try to distract them with small talk in hopes that they won’t look down and see the giant blot.

Several weeks ago I brought a brush and some fluid from home and made the stain somewhat less intense. . . but it’s still there, and every time I walk into that room all I see is coffe-stain brown on dirty beige that fairly screams “Slob!” at me. With my particular form of OCD once you see an imperfection you can never look away.  My particular form of OCD is a companion condition to my Dysthymic Disorder — the sadness that never ends. Very likely, the inability to look away from a problem contributes to the sadness that never ends.

Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD) is a type of problem solving gone awry.  OCD-ers tend to go over and over a problem in their thoughts — spinning and spinning their cognitive wheels like crazed hamsters — but seldom finding any resolution.

Being obsessive about imperfections has its pluses and minuses. Sometimes it motivates me to transcend my innate sloth and to try harder. However, more often than not it just makes me miserable. And if I commit an error or a sin — and who doesn’t– I dwell on that torment as well.

However, another plus is that my obsessiveness makes up for having a fairly average IQ. When I get onto a topic I usually examine it over and over.  I research it in depth. I mull it over in my thoughts like a hound gnawing a good bone.  And I generally tend to savor every morsel of knowledge no matter how far afield. I have a head chock full of irrelevant assorted facts. But having a somewhat synergistic intellect I occasionally stumble upon things tangentially related and I’m able to create an apparently new paradigm — at least new to me.

Age twelve was a big year in my life. It was at the age of 12 that I lost my cognitive virginity. From that tender age on I had an obsessive curiosity about life’s big questions. The truculent onset of sexuality shocked me out of a somewhat idyllic childhood innocence. When I realized that nobody bothered to tell me about puberty, I wondered what else the adults in my life had not informed me of and what other unpleasant surprises might await me.

And so by age 13, I had become an obsessive searcher for knowledge about the world and about life’s big questions. I officially became an agnostic. I did not deny the existence of a Supreme Being but I was skeptical about everything I’d been taught up to that point.

But I digress. This is not primarily about how I became an agnostic at age 13, and then was “born again” at age 36. It’s about the spot on my office carpet, and how I cannot look away from that imperfection or assimilate similar blots that confound the maps in my mind and other folk’s minds about how life ought to be.

One of the occasional “unwelcome blessings” of OCD-ers is that some become highly paid consultants due to their expertise in one particular field. They know more about something than most anyone else in the world. — and industry and government beat a path to their door and pays them highly for that knowledge — they’re wealthy asbergerish nerds of the world. That’s not me.

But sometimes those afflicted with OCD — and the imperfection called sin — change the world. That would be Martin Luther, the stubbornly obsessive Augustinian monk who 500 years ago this past Autumn challenged papal authority — and within a decade the world had changed forever. We know that Luther in his lonely cell beat himself over and over mentally and physically, both literally and figuratively. In his torment he came to realize the impossibility of self-atonement, and in the study of scripture he was led by the Holy Spirit to the doctrine of grace and the completed work of Jesus on the Cross.

And so the spot on the carpet can have an upside.

 

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Hearers, Doers and John 17

“A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”  John 13:34-35

Question: For Jesus-followers is correct doctrine, the ‘right’ belief, aka: proper theology, more important than Christ-like behavior?

My encounters with believers at every level informs me that dogma generally trumps behavior — that checking all the correct boxes in the doctrinal inventory guarantees an E-ticket into The Kingdom more surely than how we treat (love) our fellow man.  Yup, the Pharisees beat the heck out of the Samaritans in every annual Faith Bowl.  At least that’s how I’ve perceived believers around me talking and behaving — not just in person but in books and blogs as well.  Seems to me there are far more “hearers” of the word than there are “doers” (James 1:22).

For me the chasm between belief and behavior was highlighted about two years ago following a split in my home church.  It started innocently enough. One of the members in our men’s group threw out a question for discussion: What is the Gospel? His intent seemed to be for each of us to share what we personally thought was the essence of God’s good news.

Some thought it was strictly the forgiveness of sins — that Christ died for our sins. Others took a broader view. They maintained that the good news was also inclusion in God’s Kingdom and gradually being conformed to being more like Jesus, etc. They did not disagree that that forgiveness of sins was majorly important but just maintained that there was even more to the good news.

Anyway, what ensued were several heated debates followed by a plethora of back and forth emails featuring dueling scriptures — each backing up their points from the Bible. Most of the participants in this debate have a better command of scripture than I, and so in some sense it was enlightening.  However, I followed this back and forth till my eyes glazed over and my interest waned. For me it made about as much sense as arguing the merits of the Porterhouse vs. the Maine lobster when the Surf and Turf was a ready option. It was plain to me that the debate was solving nothing and that the rancor was creating hurt feelings and ill will. However, the controversy did cause me to somewhat rethink what was essential about the gospel for me personally.

The doctrinal debate left pain and anger all around — and in spite of sincere apologies for hurt feelings four families eventually dropped out of the church. Their rationale seemed to be that worshiping and having fellowship with possible apostates or heretics was in some way hazardous to their salvation — and to their wives and children’s salvation as well.

Witnessing the re-enacting of the schisms that have haunted Christ’s Body for the past two millennia was interesting in some clinical sense but personally very painful and discouraging.  Some of the folks I no longer have fellowship with I care about. In some sense we remain friends but we do not meet together to honor Christ.  The five hundred pound gorilla in the room that we dare not acknowledge are the fine points of doctrinal divergence.

For the past month I have been slowly rereading my favorite book of the NT: the Gospel of John. In chapters 13–17 Jesus both demonstrates and narrates His will for us personally and for The Church. In washing the disciples feet He gives us the supreme example of serving (loving) others, and in Chapter 17 He prays for his disciples and for us:

“I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be ONE, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me. I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one —  I in them and you in me — so that they may be brought to complete unity. Then the world will know that you sent me and I have loved them even as you have loved me.”  v. 20-23

What Jesus didn’t say is that we should debate endlessly about the fine points of something Moses or Paul wrote instead of sharing God’s love.  Earlier in His ministry He affirmed the apostate Samaritan “woman at the well” (John 4) and He told a story about the “Good” Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37).  The important point is that Samaritans were looked down on by Jews and fellowship with them was forbidden. That did not seem to bother Jesus — and without endorsing their theology He affirmed them in love.

He didn’t say that we have to have the correct theology and recite the right scriptures in the right sequence for God to be in his heaven and everything right with the world. He told the Samaritan woman that the time was coming when they would worship the Father in both the Spirit and in truth — and that he (Jesus) was the fount  of “living water.” His witness was direct and positive — He was the ultimate Truth, and presumably she was a changed person after her encounter with Jesus.

It is apparent from the chapters of John 13-17 called the “Farewell Discourse” that Jesus’ supreme wish is for us to be both united in love and to share His love with the world thru acts of service. And when Jesus speaks about love He’s not talking about a warm feeling. He’s talking about loving behavior — like washing the the dirty and weary feet of another.  Also, within the same context of the meeting in the upper room Jesus institutes the holy sacrament by which we are to remember Him: communing with Him and other parts of His Body in partaking bread and wine.

It is readily apparent from the Farewell Discourse that love and service should always trump any focus on dogma or doctrine. And John reaffirms Jesus’ wish for us in his epistles: “Dear children, let us not love with words or speech but with actions and in truth.” (1 John 3:18) and in his second letter: “As you have heard from the beginning, His command is that you walk in love.”  2 John 6  And this is insight from the man who knew Jesus better than any other human.

It is personally painful for me to hear Jesus’ words in Chapter 17, and in John’s letters, in the knowledge of how Christ’s Body has been fractured again and again thru focusing on dogma and doctrine to the detriment of Christ-like behavior. We have observed it for two thousand years and many of us have experienced it up close and personal. I believe that in every gathering of believers Chapter 17 of John should be read aloud at least once a month. I believe a solemn restating of Jesus’ supreme will for us, His Church, is far more important than another upbeat praise song.  The Lord’s Prayer is a part of many liturgies and services. It tells us how to pray — John 17 tells us how we are to act as brothers and sisters in our Lord and Savior.

 

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“La tristesse durera toujours!”

No, I don’t speak French.  Even though I am part French, like many Americans my French is limited to a dozen or so words and phrases.  The above quote is Vincent van Gogh’s last words: “The sadness will last forever!”

His birthday, March 30, is World Bipolar Awareness Day.  It was designated March 30 in honor of him. He was most  likely Bipolar Type II — a condition characterized by a lifelong depression interrupted by short spells of hypomania.

Why van Gogh spoke his final words in French is a bit of a mystery.  His native language was Dutch. However, brilliant fellow that he was, he was fluent in German, French and English as well. Another lesser known fact about this monumentally gifted artist was that he studied theology and worked in ministry for a year in a community of impoverished miners.

Another factoid: van Gogh created almost 900 painting and yet only sold one in his lifetime.

In 1890, at the age of 37, during a prolonged siege of deep despair he shot himself in the chest and he died two days later.

“The sadness will last forever!” is a statement with which I can identify.  I have at the very least Dysthymic Disorder: the sadness that lasts forever — and like van Gogh, I am also Bipolar II.

Mood disorders are in my genes. Both of my parents struggled with Bipolar Disorder. My mother had many hospitalizations over the course of her life. Her illness was very apparent. However, my father’s extreme mood swings were likely obvious to only a few. He always held it together enough to continue to work and to perform routine activities.  When he was down he spent most of his free time on the couch dozing or watching TV — and he was generally pleasant but quiet and sad. However, when the pendulum swung he became most uncomfortable to be around for those closest to him. He was very critical and sharp-tongued toward me. He talked much more than usual, slept little, made grandiose plans and generally just seemed too full of himself. Once again, he was fortunate to have enough self-awareness and control to only show this side to those closest to him. I suspect his coworkers and casual acquaintances were clueless.  His moods played out with amazing regularity over a three year cycle that commenced and ended in late Sept or early October.

It is not fun having the eternal sadness of Dysthymia or the roller-coaster ride that comes with being a short-cycling Bipolar II.  However, my personal belief is that God had a plan in shaping my extreme moods. I believe that our disabilities, our shortcomings and our struggles light the path God wants us to tread in relating to others, in loving others, in ministering to others — uniquely ministering as only fellow sufferers can.

Twelve years ago I wrote The Unwelcome Blessing.  The book is a sort of manual for Christians coping with clinical depression. It looks at the problem from three perspectives: clinical, biblical and personal. As best I can tell, The Unwelcome Blessing’s multiple focus is fairly unique. I weave my story in and out of its chapters and I believe telling my story makes the clinical and biblical content more understandable.

Since 2010, I’ve attended Celebrate Recovery (CR).  CR is a Christ-centered 12-step program that focuses not only on addictions but also behaviors such as anger and codependency. Working thru CR’s step-study inspired me to compile an as yet unpublished 12-step workbook Blessings Restored.  It employs most of the traditional 12-steps of every addiction recovery program. However, I modify a few of the steps to adapt them to mood disorders. Though mood disorders and addictions have much in common, they also have essential differences: For one, addictions are somewhat more intentional, whereas one rarely chooses clinical depression or Bipolar Disorder. These are conditions that are largely the result of one’s genetics and physiology.  Even if one accepts the disease model for alcoholism or drug abuse, there remains a strong element of intentionality in addictive behavior.

I identify considerably with van Gogh’s life and struggles. Seeking an understanding of God has been one of my preoccupations since very young, and although I do not have one iota of his talent, I do have a creative impulse, and my art (writing) likely has the same therapeutic function for me as painting did for him. I have not lived in abject poverty as he did, but I think I feel the same sense of isolation and frustration. I’ve published four books and several hundred blogs, but I have had minimal success — maybe I’ve sold 500 or 600 books and over a dozen years that doesn’t amount to doodly squat.

Self-published authors are like graphic artists in that they must rely on their own ability to self-promote.  I’m not able to blow my own horn very effectively and I suspect van Gogh had the same problem. Beyond the numbers that define success, there is the frustration of feeling like one’s work could enrich so many more people than it has if only they could see it. Van Gogh must have wondered why others did not experience the world with the same vibrancy as he and felt alone because of that. I’m in no danger of putting a gun to my chest but it has certainly crossed my mind. Being a psychologist and understanding my bipolar heritage gives me an advantage.  However, the greatest coping mechanism for me is that I can see God’s grace and blessing in my life — and the certain knowledge that He sustains me.

I also believe that the torment of the “sadness that lasts forever” — plus any and every addiction or affliction can be the impetus for a closer relationship with both the Infinite and our fellows voyagers on this journey.

Understanding that, and writing about it, gives me hope.

 

 

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Evil + Nothing = Evil

It is now a month since the Las Vegas massacre. The news has moved on and the tragedy has started to fade from the public’s consciousness. However, it will haunt the survivors and the families of those gunned down forever. The occasional news items now mainly have to do with psychological profiles of the killer, Stephen Paddock — and his apparent lack of motive.

He left no suicide note or manifesto for posterity.  He apparently had no political or religious animus. He didn’t have a grudge against Las Vegas, the Mandalay Bay resort or the country and western singers performing when he started shooting. He destroyed the hard drive of his computer. It seems that perhaps he was being deliberately opaque.

What I have gleaned from the news is that Paddock’s slaughter was very carefully planned. He scoped out other public venues that would be soft targets and ensure a plethora of casualties. Over several years he stockpiled dozens of guns and thousands of rounds of ammo. He also had materials for making bombs.

It is unclear if he had an escape plan, but he must have known that he would have  been quickly apprehended.  However, it did not appear to be a “suicide by cop” scenario — still as police closed in on his hotel room he shot himself.

What we know is that he was successful as an investor and a gambler and that he was somewhat wealthy. One estimate had him being worth as much as two million. He was a college educated accountant who at one time had worked for the IRS. He owned investment properties. There are some reports of gambling losses but he appeared to have no money problems. Shortly before his rampage he wired $100,000 to the Philippines for his girlfriend.

He was not isolated. He had a live-in girlfriend, and a brother in Florida to whom he seemed somewhat close. He was not a loner or overly eccentric. Some acquaintances have described him in positive terms and others have said that he was private or not very friendly. He was 64-years old, but as far as is known, in good health. Had autopsies revealed brain pathology or serious health issues I’m sure we would have heard about them by now.

He drank — and perhaps rather heavily. People describe him as having alcohol on his breath in the morning. Some believe he was suffering from depression. He also took Valium which can can contribute to depression and enhance the effects of alcohol.

His family history (and possibly his genetics) were rather spotty. He was the oldest of four boys who were raised by their mother. His father at one time had been on the FBI’s most wanted list but he had never been an active part of their life.  Also, one of his brothers has subsequently been arrested for having child pornography.

He appeared to have some feelings for others. He seemed concerned about the welfare of his 90-year old mother after the hurricanes. She lived in Orlando — and he made arrangements for his girlfriend to be out of the country when he perpetrated the massacre. He wired her money.

None of what we know up to this point provides a clue to the motives of someone who would murder 58 people in the process of intentionally mowing down hundreds. It almost seems as though Paddock was trying to set some perverse  record for lone-gunman mass murder. He did exceed the Pulse Massacre by nine. Yet, law enforcement, profilers. and the media seem quite puzzled.

People have to discern a motive for heinous acts to feel safe themselves. It has to make some kind of sense. Because of that there will eventually emerge some sort of psychological explanation — but I suspect that it will be highly speculative. He has already been labled a narcissist and I’m sure that will stick. One acquaintance has said Paddock felt that he was superior to other people. But if most alcoholic narcissists suffering mild depression were inherently murderous there would be hardly any people left in this country.

As far as I’m concerned, the explanation for folks like Paddock was provided by M. Scott Peck over three decades ago in a book titled People of the Lie. Peck was a Harvard trained psychiatrist. He was in the Army during the Viet Nam war, and he was assigned to do psychological profiles on the perpetrators of the infamous My Lai Massacre. For those who may not remember, in March, 1968, over 300 unarmed Vietnamese civilians were slaughtered in a rampage in My Lai and surrounding hamlets. The only conviction handed out was two years of house arrest for Lt. Calley, the massacre’s prime perpetrator.

Based on the My Lai investigation and the case histories of a number of his patients Dr. Peck concluded that psychiatry was inadequate in “diagnosing” people who could only be described as “evil.”  These are individuals who dwell in a dark area well beyond the realm of mere sociopaths or narcissists. As a psychotherapist, People of the Lie helped shaped my thinking.  Reading it in 1984, it opened my mind to a previously unthinkable area having to do with Satan and the demonic, and it lent insight about not only some clients but also the nature of reality itself. Many of Peck’s thoughts have been incorporated into my blogs and into my book Satan’s Top Ten Tricks.

Although it can’t be proven, I tend to think that people like Paddock are inhabited by demons, and that this offers at least a partial explanation of the inexplicable nature of their behavior — behavior that goes beyond being merely anti-social into an area that wants to snuff out light — and life itself. I am a Jesus-follower and Jesus devoted a considerable amount of his ministry to casting out demons.  If you consider yourself a Christian and you don’t believe in demons or the devil then you believe in an extra-biblical Jesus and not the One of scripture — not the Jesus who was the light-bearer and life-giver.

Scott Peck eventually participated in a couple of exorcisms and documented the results. It led him to believe in demonic possession. Of course, the scientific community is highly skeptical of anything that smacks of religion, especially Christianity.  Peck’s endeavors in uncovering the demonic were highly criticized both by the scientific community and secular reviewers.

However, I don’t think any better explanation for Paddock’s motives have been offered.  The Archangel Satan’s original sin was that of pride — that of not wanting to play second fiddle to God.  And it’s a skewed demonically inspired pride that motivates men like Paddock to set records for murder. It is the resultant behavior of the spirit of the antichrist.

 

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“Detroit”

The new film Detroit is a mostly true rendition of an incident that occurred during the July, 1967, riots of the metropolis once proudly called The Motor City.  Kathryn Bigelow is a very good director and in this film she continues a legacy established in The Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty.  It seems odd that a woman would be Hollywood’s finest director handling realistic themes involving men and violence.  But that’s the case and in this flick she again succeeds brilliantly.

The crime the movie examines took place at an annex of the Algiers Motel on the night of July 25, 1967.  A number of Detroit policemen supported by Michigan State troopers and National Guardsmen stormed the motel thinking that sniper shots had been fired from this somewhat seedy establishment known for prostitution and drugs.

Inside the motel were a dozen or so people — black men, mostly young, and two 18-year old white girls. What is known is that no guns were ever found on the premises and three youths were shot to death in what appeared to be executions. The movie pivots on the brutal interrogation conducted by a 23-y.o Detroit cop who took charge in trying to find a gun and the alleged sniper. For me, his eager beaver, brutally self-righteous approach brought back bad memories of Lt. Calley and the My Lai massacre from the same era.

Three white Detroit cops and a black security guard were eventually brought to trial; however, as is so often the case, there were no convictions.

This movie is gripping but painful to watch. The young Brit actor Will Poulter is chilling as the racist cop leading the interrogation. John Boyega, another Brit, plays a conflicted black security guard who was also present at the annex.  John Krasinski, the film’s best known actor, plays the defense attorney who effectively casts doubt on the witnesses recollection of the night’s events. The action is underscored by vintage Motown sound tracks. In fact, two of the young men present at the Algiers were in a Motown band “The Dramatics” that later achieved some fame.

Beyond just the trial, the movie raises some troubling questions. Like why the state troupers and National Guardsmen didn’t intervene when it was apparent that the Detroit cops were over the top. Apparently the movie is supposed to convey some sort of message about bigotry.  However, for my money it might as well be a primer on how far we’ve come. Yes, the USA still has racial issues but nothing like 50 years ago.

At one time Detroit was the fifth largest city in this country and the world’s prime  industrial colossus. Today, it has less than half the population that it had in ’67 and many of its finest neighborhoods resemble a war zone with dilapidated burned out buildings and rubble strewn vacant lots. The movie points out that in ’67 Detroit was 40% black and the police force 95% white. Fifty years later Detroit is 82% black — a victim of white flight and an industrial complex that won the World War only to lose the peace to Japan.

The city of Detroit holds some cherished memories for me. I grew up 90-miles south of there in Ohio and my mother’s family had a boatload of relatives in the city.  In the 1950s we would go there once or twice a year and stay a week at a time with one of my great-uncles. It was a lovely, prosperous city back then. My maternal grandmother had three brothers and a sister who lived there.  Frank, Hub and John were all foremen at Ford’s River Rouge plant, at that time the largest industrial complex in the world. Her sister Margaret sold shoes in an upscale store and would note that hockey great Gordie Howe and author Ann Morrow Lindberg were her regular customers.

The 1950s and early-60s was an era of working class prosperity so grand that it is almost mythical today.  A Joe-average hard-working guy with a 10th grade education and some mechanical ability could work his way up from the assembly line to tool and die maker or foreman.  On an hourly wage he could provide a comfortable lifestyle for a stay at home wife and several kids — a new car every three years and every summer a vacation out west or to a lake cottage. That scenario pretty much fit my great-uncle’s families.

Back in the mid-50s Detroit was more than just prosperous — it was also safe.  When I was about 12, and my cousin Larry Murphy 14, we took several buses downtown and then got on the ferry boat to Belle Isle amusement park in the Detroit River. At the end of the day we rode the buses back to uncle Hub’s house on Stopel just blocks over from the neighborhood main drag of Frankel. Today, that same trek would be thru streets resembling a third world city and a parent would be charged with neglect if they allowed their kids to make that journey without adult supervision.

There’s an iconic meme I’ve seen several times on Facebook. It’s four pics: Detroit in 1945 vs. Nagasaki in 1945, and Detroit today contrasted with the vibrant city that Nagasaki is today — so stunning one would never guess who won WW2.  The movie Detroit captures the era when that city’s past was becoming its present.

 

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