Psychiatry, prison-camp manufactured Chinese goods, and racist tales from Nebraska. What a grab bag today. Let’s dive in!
Nobody’s Normal: How Culture Created the Stigma of Mental Illness, by Roy Richard Grinker
published January 26, 2021 by W.W. Norton
Only recently did mental illnesses brand the whole person, not just his or her behavior, with what[‘s…] called a “spoiled identity.”
How and why did we start classifying mental illness as something to be ashamed of instead of what it actually is – just illness, like any other of the physical variety? That’s what I hoped to understand more about in this book by anthropologist Roy Grinker, who draws on his family’s long work lineage in psychiatry and his own work in cultural history.
And it did answer that, to some extent, with a detailed but mostly very readable look at the history of psychiatry.
Capitalism is the recurring villain throughout, and although this wasn’t entirely surprising, the many insidious ways it’s involved and has affected mental illness and public perception of it in the West were. I didn’t expect a lot of the connections but once he made them, they’re impossible not to see.
It’s also one of those books packed with lots of illuminating side stories, including one I was already aware of, but the way it’s told here was excellent – about the Kelloggs and how they developed their bland granola and cornflakes to discourage masturbation, essentially. (Great to have in your arsenal of trivia!)
My interest did flag a bit eventually though. It’s not dense but can get a bit dry. But the last chapter or so, covering some of the progress that’s been made very recently in being more understanding and accommodating of people with neurodiversities, even in major corporations’ hiring practices (and in Berlin brothels!) was a final highlight. The looks at how mental illnesses manifest and are interpreted in different cultures was another highlight throughout. We think that our framing of certain illnesses is definitive when in reality it’s cultural perspective.
Made in China: A Prisoner, an SOS Letter, and the Hidden Cost of America’s Cheap Goods, by Amelia Pang
published February 2, 2021 by Algonquin
The reasons Chinese suppliers subcontract to forced laborers lead straight to global consumers: to us and the way we buy. In our ceaseless search for the cheapest and the most current design, technology, flavor, or appliance, we reward the companies that offer the lowest prices and sell the latest trends.
In 2012, Oregon mom Julie Keith found a letter stuffed into an unopened package of Halloween decorations that had been sitting in her garage for years. Written in English interspersed with Chinese characters, it purported to be from a prisoner in a Chinese labor camp, suffering under egregious human rights violations in the name of “reeducation”.
Keith, stunned, gets the letter to international human rights organizations, US customs, and the media, and eventually the story unfolds of Sun Yi, a Falon Gong religious practitioner, and how he ended up in the laogai system– forced labor camps that are supplying untold amounts of cheap products to the west.
Investigative journalist Amelia Pang alternates chapters between Sun’s story of his life before the camp and what landed him there, the horrifying conditions he endured inside, and the persecution that continued even after his eventual release, with chapters providing background and context for China’s manufacturing practices and systems of political and religious suppression under the Communist government.
It’s basically bad news all around. The far-reaching implications of US consumers’ obsession with plentiful, dirt-cheap products have made it impossible for any company using normal paid labor to profit, thus the rise of laogai, where prisoners are sometimes worked literally to death. Worse, even when reports are made, “the US government is demanding an impossible burden of proof to ban products from China,” and often it’s only the specific product, not everything from a supplier, or else companies quickly change names — techniques and strategies for circumventing are rife.
And when you think it couldn’t get more horrifying, wait: “there is mounting evidence that laogai camps not only supply free labor for China’s enormous manufacturing sector, but also organs for the nation’s transplant industry — which is estimated to be worth a billion dollars.” China’s current human rights violations with imprisonment and disappearances of the Uighur Muslims are ominously implicated here.
I’m certainly glad I read it, but I didn’t like the way the history and contextual chapters were written. Maybe because I have little to no background in this area, and it threw a lot of information at you. It might be more easily digestible and meaningful if you’re already better versed in these areas.
Pang does something a lot of these investigative journalism books don’t actually succeed in doing by including an entire actionable section of things you can do to hold companies and suppliers accountable and try to shop better and smarter yourself. This was incredibly helpful, because I admit that after finishing Sun’s story and understanding something of the massive extent of this problem, I felt overwhelmed and defeated, like this is a problem too big and tangly to tackle. But there are steps to be taken to become a more ethical consumer, and they’re completely doable, if the scope of the issue still remains broad.
You’ll Never Believe What Happened to Lacey: Crazy Stories About Racism, by Amber Ruffin, Lacey Lamar
published January 12, 2021 by Grand Central
Lacey Lamar is the big sister of comedian and Late Night with Seth Meyers writer Amber Ruffin. She still lives in their hometown of Omaha, where she’s faced with an unbelievable range of racism. Amber attributes it to Lacey’s petite and cute qualities, so that people feel like they can spew whatever racist shit pops into their head to her, among other related bad behavior. Amber lives in New York, where racism of course obviously exists but not the unabashed and specific midwestern variety Lacey deals with, leading to Amber’s horror (and sometimes delight) over the crazy stories Lacey has.
Amber mostly tells them, many stemming from Lacey’s workplace experiences, as well as stories about their family and childhoods. It’s a mix of ups and downs — the two are bright and hilarious and it’s fun to spend time with their voices, but the stories range from awful to harrowing.
And there are so many, just SO MANY that it underscores the magnitude of America’s problem. Lacey encounters racism from coworkers, doughnut shop employees, white people with black spouses or adopted children, teachers, administrators, security guards, bosses, and of course, police. I felt so distressed sometimes reading it and then remembered that someone else had to live this. Still has to live it so much that they can’t even fit all of their stories into one book.
My issue with it is that, despite having lots of delightful photos, it would probably work better on audio and I’m not a fan of this recent trend of writing “books” that are automatically intended for audio. Or, if that wasn’t the case, then these two deserved a better editor. The stories are organized by topics and themes, but there are repetitions of information and details that could’ve been easily and elegantly cleaned up by a decent editor or copy editor and instead make it feel a jumbled mess sometimes. Or like in one instance when their sister’s name is used early on but with no hint who she was until 50-odd pages later. Elsewhere the writing could’ve used tweaks for clarity, whereas that’s probably managed through tone and inflection in an audio version.
But the stories speak for themselves, and some are unforgettable. Not in a good way. This is information I’m glad to have, disturbing as it is to know, and good on these two for making it palatable and effective through humor and their own special brand of storytelling.