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Tuesday 31 July 2012

Media: Mass Murder and the Creation of Celebrity

Memorial in Port Arthur, Tasmania

Take a clipboard and go out on any street in Canada. Ask 100 people the name of the perpetrator of the 1989 murder of female engineering students at the Ecole Polytechnique in Montreal. These killings happened many years ago now, so most will not know, any more than they could name the prominent starlets of that year. But some will remember.

Then go back and ask them to name any of the victims. Compare the numbers.

Next, visit a public relations firm. Total up the column inches devoted – worldwide - to the life and habits of the perpetrator of the more recent Montreal case involving the dismemberment of a student there. Ask them how much it would cost – and what one might have to do – in order to get that much coverage. Compare the amount of coverage to that given Jessica Simpson, or Paris Hilton, or any other media figure of the day.

We live in a celebrity-obsessed culture and, with the advent years ago of all-news channels, in one with a profound hunger for news content. Ask many people what they most want and they will say they would like to be famous. Ask what they fear, and many more will say a life of insignificance.

We see reality shows and wonder “What could possibly motivate someone to go on that program when they know they will eventually be ridiculed and humiliated?” But we know the answer to that question. In large part, these programs are a shortcut to fame and an escape route from obscurity. You have appeared on television, therefore you exist.

Descartes, by contrast, was unambitious: choosing to believe that he existed by the mere fact of being able to think. People Magazine had apparently not yet begun publishing when he espoused this view.

There is one strategy in our culture that appears to be an even more certain path to media stardom: Kill a number of people in as dramatic a manner as possible. Attention is immediately riveted upon these perpetrators and they are, for a time, the darling of the news shows, complete with special graphics signaling the upcoming presentation of yet one more irrelevant tidbit about their lives and upbringing. Their stories and points of view are often made into movies.

After the mass murder in Norway I read a piece about it on a prominent news site and counted 17 mentions of the killer’s name. Today, googling his name (within quotation marks, to increase the likelihood that the results are truly about him) turns up over 5 million results.

Several years ago I visited Tasmania, where in 1996 a disturbed gunman killed 35 people at a tourist site. The discussions of this event, in print and by Tasmanians, were notable in that the name of the perpetrator was seldom mentioned. I was informed that this was a conscious act on the part of citizens and media (following an initial period in which the Australian media publicized the individual). They would not elevate the perpetrator to a position of fame. In part, the sense was that such an aberrant act did not entitle the person to publicity. But there was also a hint of another motive: to reduce the appeal of slaughter as a self-aggrandizement strategy. The killer himself had been quoted as saying that his motive was to do something that would make everyone remember him.

In the coverage of the recent slayings at a Batman screening in Colorado, the investment in hair dye, body armour, and symbolism seems to have paid off in much the way the perpetrator must have imagined. His name is a household word. His survival and eventual trial means that the coverage will continue.

In the inevitable media discussions of this crime, mental health providers often figure prominently, burbling on about possibilities while carefully avoiding saying anything specific that might later turn out to be incorrect. Much is made of upbringing, of mental health issues, about the killer’s perceived slights by others, and, most of all, about the possible causal influence of violent films such as the one playing on the screen behind the real-life carnage.

But what is seldom discussed, perhaps because of the discomfort it might provoke, is the possibility that one of the effects of the massacre, a media circus, is in fact one of the causes as well: the slaughter is motivated, in part, by the desire for fame, the most certain of all outcomes.

I don’t suggest that all of these massacres are designed with notoriety in mind. I’m sure that some are the product of rage or delusion and that not a thought is given to the news coverage that will ensue. Even in these cases, though, the media firestorm surrounding prior shootings in a sense places massacre on the table: Other people go and shoot up the workplace; if you aren’t contemplating that, how aggrieved can you really be?

Nor would I argue that this is the sole cause of any individual massacre. I have no doubt that early childraising, character disturbance, the fictional media’s obsession with violence, the easy availability of firearms, life setbacks, and multiple other factors all play a role.

But in a number of recent cases it is difficult to understand the nature of the event without reference to the likelihood of subsequent publicity. Why otherwise the shiny military/superhero uniform in Norway, the mailing of body parts to political parties (and to a school near my office) in the Montreal case, the declaration by the Colorado shooter that he was portraying a comic book villain. (The ultimately pathetic nature of all of these aspects must surely have been invisible to the perpetrators.)

So what should be done? Should we pretend these killings don’t happen, and impose a media blackout? Obviously not. Should we ban discussion of the perpetrators, shrouding them thereby in romantic mystery? Probably counterproductive. I don’t have good answers. But I do have a few suggestions.

  1. We should ask ourselves how much we actually learn – in a way that enriches or preserves our lives or the lives of others – from the endless news coverage of these events. If not, why are we watching or reading? Is it possible that we are using the deaths of others as personal entertainment? Does this improve or degrade us?
  2. Avoid making it profitable. When you purchase the paper that day or surf to that news site, ask yourself whether you are not demonstrating to the media your thirst for this type of entertainment. The material is produced for a reason: demand. We cannot end this demand, and it is probably futile to try (this rant included). But we can avoid contributing to it ourselves.
  3. Mental health providers can ask how much they can really contribute to a sane, helpful discussion of the event. Then, when asked by media to comment, we can act accordingly. We might also decline to participate when the outlet is one of the more sensational variety. (Though finding an outlet that does not participate in the creation of celebrity would be difficult.)
  4. Reporters could follow the (eventual) Tasmanian example, and limit the degree to which they publicize perpetrators. One measure alone might suffice: to avoid mentioning the person’s name more than once in any news piece. It is probably impractical to eliminate the name altogether, but reporters could limit the degree to which it is made a household word.
  5. It is true that perpetrators sometimes have a form of mental disturbance, but this cannot be used as an explanation for their behaviour. The vast majority of individuals with mental disorders contribute immensely to their societies despite their difficulties and are not violent in any way – and yes, this includes the psychotic (who account for very few of the mass slaughters in any case). Attributing the event to the difficulty is a bit like saying the possession of two hands is the cause of theft, given that so many burglars are so equipped. So perhaps a degree of sophistication in coverage is called for, including the willingness to examine the role that reportage itself may have in the encouragement of these crimes.
  6. If there is a lack of willingness even to consider these measures, perhaps we should acknowledge the truth: That repetitive, obsessive news coverage is not, in fact, informational in nature. It is a particularly pornographic form of entertainment. Perhaps those involved in providing the publicity sometimes sought by perpetrators would be willing to change the title on their business cards, from “Journalist” to “Entertainer.” 

Tuesday 24 July 2012

Careers at the Boundaries

How do you find a career that suits you?  By giving up.
"Hmm, architecture might be fun..."

Ask a career-searcher to sit down and list all of the jobs she can conceive of. Invite her to take three hours, or a day, or three weeks to do it.

The career that will best suit her still won’t be on the list.

People tend to think of job categories. “Let’s see.  Pilot.  Nurse.  Salesclerk.  Lawyer.  Teacher.  Politician.” The larger the category, the more likely it is to appear on the list.

The ideal career path usually isn’t a category. It’s a rare position that the person may never have thought about before.

The ideal job for most people is one that lies at the intersection of two or more interests or talents. It doesn’t fit in any one category.

The cousin of a friend had a great interest in music. So she wanted to be a classical musician. A hearing problem got in the way, so the path was blocked. She also had an aptitude for mathematics, so she became an accountant. But that did nothing for her musical interests.  She could feel her interest waning.

Eventually she combined her interest in music with her ability to handle money and finances, and she became a fundraiser for a symphony orchestra.

If, at 20, she sat down and wrote a list of all the jobs in the world, “fundraiser for the symphony” would never have appeared on the list. It simply would not have occurred to her as an option. But it was her destination.

Another friend has an tremendous interest and ability in mathematics – and a love of art. He has become a mathematics professor with a special interest in the mathematical analysis of artworks regarded as “masterpieces.”

Think about the people in your own life who love their jobs. Chances are, they do not have the standard job in their category. In fact, if they were simply a “generic” nurse, or police officer, or teacher, they wouldn’t like the job at all. Their love springs from the intersection of interests.

This sounds discouraging. It’s often said that we are unlikely to arrive at our destination unless we know what it is. How do we move toward our ideal career if we have no idea where to find it?

Inevitably, the process must be a bit less linear than we might like. We need to step back, forget all about finding the perfect career, and simply explore.

We might, for example, create a list of all of the jobs that vaguely interest us – knowing that none of them will be the answer and that most would bore us to tears eventually. The point is not to strike the jackpot, but to identify the themes underlying our interests. “Hmm, seven of these involve music.  Ten involve working with finance.  Four involve travel.  Six involve planning social events.”

By identifying themes, we can begin exploring options out there in the real world. What are all the jobs associated with an orchestra? Where are all the places that accountants work?

There are other strategies, of course. But when I’m talking with someone who is exploring the options for their future, this is one of the exercises I return to again and again.

Tuesday 17 July 2012

A Visit to The School of Life

A jet lagged shopper

One of my favourite authors is Alain de Botton, who wrote The Architecture of Happiness, The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work, The Art of Travel, and many other erudite and beautifully constructed meditations on the human condition.

De Botton specializes in relating philosophical ideas to the minutiae of everyday existence. For example, in his recent book A Week at the Airport (for which he spent, as the title suggests, a full week within the confines of Heathrow) he considers the impact of the architectural space of Terminal 5, the ways in which people relate to one another there, and the sense of an airport as a transitional zone between modes of existence.

In 2008 de Botton and several colleagues founded The School of Life in London England (at 70 Marchmont Street; near Russell Square tube station). On a recent visit to London I stopped in to visit with Zoe Langdell, the School’s Retail and Bookings Manager.

The School’s storefront is a smallish space in the Bloomsbury area. It sells books by de Botton and his colleagues, bits of stationery, cards, and various desktop accoutrements to suit the reflective and literary life. It’s a great destination if you happen to be wandering the streets for which the Bloomsbury Group (Virginia Woolf and friends) was named.

The shop, with Zoe Langdell.
The store, however, is only a small part of what the School aims to provide. The main idea is to provide a forum for psychological and philosophical discussion. To this end, the School provides a meeting space below street level where it offers prominent speakers most evenings of the week. Some recent classes include “How Necessary is a Relationship” “How to Live in a Wired World” and “How to Stay Calm.” 

In addition, each Sunday night at a larger hall nearby the School offers nontheistic “Sunday Sermons,” unabashedly adopting the church’s idea of a weekly dose of thought to a more secular age. Zoe told me that these sermons routinely sell out the hall’s capacity of 500 people.

The School also offers “Intensives”, day-long or weekend programs on a variety of topics. Here the School really stretches itself beyond what we might think of as the expected format of self-helpish presentations. For example, in late summer they offer a weekend seaside holiday with a renowned photographer. They also offer a picnic with a guided discussion based on Thoreau, a walk through London with a musician to discover naturalistic sounds, and a drinks-and-storytelling evening.

If you find yourself on a holiday in London, a visit to the School to shop or attend a program would doubtless be a highlight.

Why do I care?

A few years ago Changeways Clinic developed PsychologySalon, conceived as a means of getting psychological ideas out of the clinic and into everyday life. The idea was hatched before I knew about  The School of Life, but when I heard a CBC interview on the School I was immediately interested. The projects seem to share a roughly similar idea.

Our strategy has been to develop public presentations and interactive sessions in which people can explore issues and their own ways of reacting to the world. At first we offered talks through UBC at Robson Square. More recently we have been partnering with Vancouver Public Library, which provides us with broader event promotion and enables us to offer the programs at no charge. (Our series for 2012 is now finished, but we will offer additional talks at VPL in 2013.)

PsychologySalon is a small venture compared to The School of Life, with its daily in-house talks, Sunday sermons, and weekend intensives. We hope to build it up into something bigger, but as it is our presentations attract 100 to 200 people. We also plan to develop full-day programs for the public. The School of Life is an inspiration to us, though frankly I doubt we will ever match their scope.

The School of Life’s How-To Series

Interested in The School of Life? Visit their website at

As well, the School has developed a publishing arm (not entirely unlike Changeways Clinic, which puts out therapy guides for professionals under our own imprint). In the past few months they have released a set of six “How to” titles; the series is edited by de Botton. I’ve read two of them and plan to get through the others in coming months. They don’t seem to be available through Amazon or in Canadian bookstores just yet, but they are coming. The titles include:

  • How to Change the World by John-Paul Flintoff
  • How to Find Fulfilling Work by Roman Krznaric
  • How to Think More About Sex by Alain de Botton
  • How to Thrive in the Digital Age by Tom Chatfield
  • How to Stay Sane by Philippa Perry
  • How to Worry Less About Money by John Armstrong

The books are short, attractively presented, and emphasize practical advice. Just the thing to offer as a birthday present for yourself or someone you care about.

Tuesday 10 July 2012

Process: Express Your Admiration to the Client

It’s a common experience. The client tells us their story, their life situation, the challenges they face. We, the big experts, are supposed to help them see that the situation is truly manageable, and assist them toward a solution.

Implicitly, we are supposed to be more capable than they are.

But instead we develop the uncomfortable sense that the client is doing better than we would. “If I was in the same situation, I don’t think I’d be holding up as well as she is; it’s amazing she’s still standing.”

There are several fears associated with expressing this admiration:

  • The client is coming to see me because I’m the big expert, the genius who could cope with anything. If I express my admiration I will reveal that I don’t have all the answers.
  • The client is already feeling fearful and overwhelmed by the situation. If I express admiration, I will implicitly suggest that the situation really is dire, and that perhaps it’s even worse than the client realizes.
  • I will reinforce the client’s suspicion that perhaps they really can’t handle the situation, and their existing coping will fall apart like a house of cards.

These are all reasonable ideas. But they have flaws.

Therapists are not, in fact, all-powerful geniuses, and a part of the therapeutic task is to help people overcome their belief in and need for such beings. Revealing ourselves as merely human is actually helpful, not harmful. Further, clients LIVE in their difficult circumstances – they are already abundantly aware of the daunting nature of their problems. And expressing our admiration for their existing coping points out a strength that the client may not be conscious of having.  

So in most circumstances it is entirely appropriate to express full admiration for the client’s ability to handle the events of their lives, despite the difficulties that may have led them into treatment.

By doing so we redirect their attention from their sense of incapacity and weakness to their actual strength. We also break through the all-or-nothing presumption inherent in the idea that “I can’t cope!”, pointing out that, in fact, “I am already coping, and perhaps I can learn to cope even more effectively.”

“Joan, I have to tell you that what you’ve been through sounds utterly overwhelming. And you’re still at work, still getting out of bed each morning, still holding it together. You don’t need to learn how to cope, you need to teach it to others! But maybe working together we can think how to fine-tune it so that your sleep is better, your social life keeps going, and you bring about the changes you need to make so this doesn’t happen again.”

Tuesday 3 July 2012

Process: The Negatives of Positive Client Goals

In the last few posts I’ve been focusing on agenda-setting at the outset of therapy.

Eventually our clients may come up with one or more positive goals (things to move toward, rather than away from).

  • Become physically fit.
  • Let go of the grief for my father, who died 12 years ago.
  • Forgive myself for the car accident that injured my niece, and move on.
  • Become able to ask someone out on a date.

Parrot the client’s goal(s) back to them, and they may say “Sounds good” and mean it. But if you both just dive in, you may soon find the tide turning beneath you, pulling you away from the intended destination. What’s going on?

Often there are unexamined downsides to what sound like perfectly good goals. Though the client may not hold them in consciousness, they will act as brakes on the process anyway, causing slow progress or apparently inexplicable therapeutic sabotage.

David Burns recommends conducting a “paradoxical cost-benefit analysis” at the start of therapy. He has quite a specific set of ideas in mind here, and if you get the chance to hear him speak about them at a workshop or conference, you should take him up on it. I will paraphrase here.

A cost benefit analysis, as we all know, involves tabulating the advantages and disadvantages of taking a given course of action, such as quitting a job we hate. We list all the considerations, rate how important they are, and add up the positives and negatives.

A paradoxical cost benefit analysis is, in effect, a one-sided brainstorming exercise in which we come up only with the disadvantages of the course we have already nominated.

“So John it sounds like you’ve decided you want to let go of this grief over your father, but hang on a minute. You haven’t done this so far. You beat yourself up for not moving on with your life, but there are probably some good reasons why you keep the grief alive. Maybe we should look at those.”

John may look slightly betrayed. We pushed him to name a goal in the first place, now we’re pulling back. And he may or may not be able to think of any good reason to keep grieving. If he comes up with anything, we should write it down, preferably where he can see it. If he doesn’t, we can start making nominations. This is where our understanding of the client (our formulation) comes in.

“Well John you had a really great relationship with your father, and his final illness was an awful experience. You know we can’t bring your dad back. If you resolve your grief you’ll be happy and cheerful and your father will still be dead. What does that look like? It might feel to you like you’re betraying him, like he never really mattered to you. 

“Plus, you mentioned that your sister has never gotten over it either. The two of you are both there, stuck in that place. If you get over it, you’ll be abandoning her too, won’t you? She might resent you, or feel that she’s the only one who ever really cared. In a way, you have to keep grieving to convince her that your father mattered to you.

“You’ve also said that if you could get over this, you’d go to graduate school like you planned years ago. Graduate school is quite a commitment. Maybe you’ll fail, maybe it’ll turn out you don’t like it, maybe it’s not for you. You know, some dreams are best left as dreams. If you let go of your grief, it puts you on the highway to some of your greatest fears.”

This sounds somewhat cruel and perverse, but the point is to bring the reluctance to achieve the goal into awareness so that it can be dealt with. Perhaps John could decide to work on his father’s grief and put off any decision to enter graduate school. Maybe he could talk to his sister or suggest that she too seek help. Perhaps he could think of other people who cared for his father but who have moved on, or ask what his father would have wished for him: Perhaps there is another way of honouring his memory apart from being crushed.

Until we examine these forces, movement toward the client’s stated goals is likely to be inexplicably slow. Once these roadblocks are removed (if they can be), progress can often become very swift.