More things in heaven and earth

 

I am watching it. I am compelled, and I should not be writing of this while I know so little, while so much is unexplained. But that is my life, my “subjective” reality: the unknowing. And not knowing doesn’t stop me from writing or doing my job.

I am four episodes into The Leftovers, an HBO series adapted from a novel by Tom Perrotta which is set in the aftermath of a rapture-like event in which 2% of the world’s population has inexplicably disappeared. October 14th of 2011, is a 9/11-style shorthand for a mass “departure” that scientists can’t explain. This results in a social malaise that recalls P.D James’ Children Of Men. In that novel (also made into a film), the world’s population has become sterile for similarly mysterious reasons, and in the aftermath an aging (and therefore dying) population is variously depressed or psychotic. Cultists speculate that mankind is being punished; that its hubris, perhaps manifest as a privileging of science, is to blame.

In Leftovers, the focus is not so much on a failure of science as it is that of mainstream religion. Major denominations are nowhere to be seen. A baby Jesus replica is stolen and later desecrated by the acting out daughter of a local police chief of a grim, middle-American town. Baby Jesus is later returned, but significantly, the response is indifferent, and the police chief ultimately dumps the rejected figure on the side of a road. Meanwhile, cultists are represented by a group call the Guilty Remnant, a name reduced to the letters GR until episode two. This tidbit of withholding is typical of the series thus far, which parallels the air of unknowing by minimizing exposition, thus keeping viewers in the dark, and not just about the headline departure, but also about personal details. I am gripped, but optimally frustrated—the essence of suspense, I suppose. Four hours in, I am yet to understand the following: why do all the followers of GR smoke (an ironic play on ‘don’t waste your breath’?) Have the departed transformed into dogs or birds, creatures of either violence or passivity, as is also suggested? Why do the dreams of some enter those of others, as indicated by the profusion of nightmares featuring strangers and foreshadowed events? Why is the police chief estranged from his kids and his wife? It seems implicit that something happened, and whatever it was, it happened before the departure.

It’s just a story, after all: a good one that promises more about meaning; perhaps how religion, ostensibly exiled, has a defiant, parting comment on humanity. The stories of those who enter therapy are good stories also, and the details are likewise often obscured; divulgence of truth, not to mention meaning, is delayed. It is a feature of projective identification, a primitive defense yet more ubiquitous than most imagine, that individuals communicate in fragments: through play, language that is reduced to slang, idioms and inside jokes; by ‘acting out’ infused with terse revelations; by somatic displays that medicine can’t explain. Symbolic expression, via the articulate, coherent use of language, has broken down, though it may repair and unfold over time. Unpleasant emotion is dissociated, replaced by a standard of flatness and baffling obsession. When something has happened that is traumatic and not understood, life goes on, promise onlookers. It goes on with ritual, structure; with substitute things to do that mark time but also betray, in pieces, an epistemological drive.

The police chief of Leftovers loses his bagel in its inadequate incubator, and he’s not gonna take it lying down. He bemuses colleagues by not giving up on the search: for his bagels, for that baby Jesus. He finds the bagels also, eventually, through a semi-violent dissembling of machinery. They were stuck in back of the toaster, trapped in a secret passage, burnt. As the chief pulls them out, he sits back, moping over burnt food, dead…something. He is mildly relieved, having discharged energy from a nagging mystery. He is also depressed, aware that mysteries will keep coming, and that unfolding reality may yet be horrific. “Say it! Fuckin’ say it!” he later cries towards the wife who won’t speak, won’t explain. But she wants to leave him, she writes, giving an answer. It’s not enough. He pleads to know why. About everything.

 

Graeme Daniels, MFT

 

 

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Interruptus

 

A hypothetical dialogue (believe it or not) about a crisis:

 

“What’s the point in talking about it. It’s not gonna solve anything”

“What’s the point of checking out that person at the gym. You’re married, right?”

“Yeah”

“Well, that’s not gonna solve anything, either”

“Yeah, but…”

“What?”

“It’s different”

“How?”

“Seriously?”

“Seriously, put it into words”

“Well…I dunno, it’s…when I’m looking at someone I’m…I don’t know how to say it”

“You’re blocking. You know but you stop thinking, and you act instead”

“Right. You’ve said that before. I’m…wait, acting?”

“You’re acting on something, a feeling”

“…yeah, you know what it is—this is interesting—I think I am solving something, in a way. I mean, when I do that stuff I’m taking care of business, if you know what I mean. It feels necessary. It’s…”

(pause)

“…you want me to say the rest?”

(sigh) “Maybe, I…now I lost my train of thought”

“Interruptus”

“What?”

“Forget it”

“Oh, I get what you’re saying, I think. Well, I mean—okay—I’m expressing my sexuality, right? Jeez, that sounds weird putting it like that. Finishing, I mean. I’m…(laughs) I don’t know why this is so hard to say. I’m used to…I guess I can’t control myself, or it seems like…I just can’t turn it off, ya know?”

(pause)

“Or on, in another sense. Again, it seems like—”

“Yeah, okay, I get it. You’re not gonna say it for me. I need to use the words, give it meaning because…Gawd, I wish you’d explain again why that’s so important. (pause) Awright, so again, I can’t just turn off my sexuality, right? That’s the problem. It’s there…all the time. Waiting”

“True”

(pause)

“Okay…(shrugs)…so?”

“But so is the rest of you”

 

Graeme Daniels, MFT

 

 

 

 

 

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How do I…?

How do I…?

  A question that emerges after the story has been told, the problem outlined. A man doesn’t trust himself: he has a plan to stop doing what he’s been doing for a long time, perhaps his entire life. He’s determined; the stakes are higher than they have ever been before, which usually means that others will be affected. Guilt will be key. The guilt stems from the prospect of failure, a background of it, and the implicit knowledge that there is something inside that demands expression.

 How do I…?

 As a therapist, I attend to the question on its own terms, responding with an outline’s semblance. First I mimic the crowd, who also knows the story, the history of the problem, and the stakes. Those stakes are reiterated. Regular reminders about the consequences of problem behavior: the impacts upon self and especially others; the damage to health, career, family. To hear some, you’d think that nothing more than such interventions are called for in the prevention of self destruction. I think that therapy supplies the subtext: people care; the man, despite himself, and despite the observations of some, cares also Further, reality can be cruel. Fate is indifferent.

 Implicit is the call for fellowship. The man in question has been isolating, not talking to others, getting lost in himself. Where is the accountability? I ask. I’m quick to explain: I don’t mean he should answer to me, or that he owes anything to anyone. At an early stage of therapy, I avoid stepping into dynamic roles wherein lines of authority are unconsciously laid. I mean something subtler; having something like structure, containment—that there is someone to speak to, to be honest to, when mania has run its course.

 How do I…?

 Continuity. How do you keep it up, your motivation? A woman changes her mind, doesn’t want what she wanted last month, has forgotten what drove her in another mood; what seemed different. The next twisting, turning switch must be explained while the past is denied. A therapist is memory—an aspect of containment. Something changed. Why? The question doesn’t compel answers as much as it does thinking, the protraction of curiosity, and slowing down. Very little has to happen “right now”.

 How do 1…?

Needs. A subset of the why question: why do people do what they do, especially if what they do generates guilt? Why doesn’t guilt itself motivate change? Why doesn’t remorse always do what courtrooms think it should? People do what they do in spite of guilt, in spite of shame, guilt’s less confident twin. Truth—that something within—hurts; it hurts self and others, and it always will. It needs out. It needs to be released, titrated in the spirit of compromise, for if it can be discharged without anyone knowing, then no one gets hurt.

 How do I…?

 Hope. When continuity has broken down; when the relapse once cast as a mere change of mind has returned the individual back to square one, a knowledge of pain lingers. The day after is another appointment. The fellowship, in all likelihood, is still there. People still care. The questions are still worthwhile. Curiosity is resilient. The therapist is in his office, waiting.

Graeme Daniels, MFT

 

 

 

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AB1775 goes to the Supreme Court

 

I thought it was done. You might have thought I was done writing about it, at least. I thought the battle of AB1775, a droplet in the public consciousness, was over, and that our side had lost.

Our side is comprised of therapists, mostly, and a few of our clients. Everyone else—police, politicians, parents’ groups, the public at large, I guess—thought it a piece of legislation that was long overdue. Ever since 1980, when the original Child Abuse and Neglect Act (CANRA) was passed, everyone seemed to think it common sense and only too right that creators and distributors of child pornography ought to be prosecuted, and not only prosecuted, but outed by psychotherapists who hear of these pornographers’ behaviors in their offices.

Then something interesting happened. Thirty plus years later someone noticed that users, or viewers of child pornography were not being reported. Or, therapists weren’t sure if they ought to report these people, because the Civil Code didn’t stipulate as such. So, here’s what happened: A lawyer or two for the California Association of Marriage and Family Therapists (CAMFT) decided to write a law (AB1775) with the help of law enforcement, and send it to the California legislature for a rubber stamp. The law inserted the words “streaming”, “download”, and “viewing” into a section outlining criteria for reporting child exploitation. The law was indeed rubbed stamped—a 72 to zero vote. Most of CAMFT’s thirty thousand-deep membership learned of the bill’s existence a month prior to its passing, in a newsletter release pertaining to legislation CAMFT was supporting.

The law went into effect Jan 1st, 2015, but before long it was being challenged in court by, among others, my friend and colleague, Don Matthews, in a law suit aimed at Kamala Harris, then the attorney general of California. The plaintiffs asserted that child porn users in general do not perpetrate ‘hands on’ or direct contact offenses; that those who voluntarily (a crucial point here) seek therapy do so because they want to stop the behavior and are thus seeking help. The plaintiffs’ case in Matthews v. Harris (there are two other therapists on the suit) was struck down in Superior court, and again in appeal, leading many to think that AB1775 was here to stay. But this week we have news that the California Supreme Court has decided to review the case once again. I hope they will consider the case differently than previous judges have.

Here’s a review of opinion: Superior Court judge Michael Stern upheld the law, finding that no constitutional right to use child porn existed, and that viewers of child porn can have no reasonable expectation of privacy, given their (likely) awareness that such behavior is socially unacceptable and criminal. Court of appeals judge Roger Bern echoed that possession is not a right and added that requiring therapists to report possession is not significantly different from requiring therapists to report those who create child porn. Judges further contend that reports to authorities may block the proliferation of child porn, and finally, that just because child porn users haven’t directly harmed children in the past doesn’t mean they won’t in the future.

Well, where to start. Firstly, it’s frustrating that judges would predicate their assessment of therapists’ obligations on whether a client or patient’s disclosures are of criminal behavior, the criminality of which is presumably understood. How is it possible that no one has explained that there are numerous crimes, including heinous ones like murder, that therapists are NOT legally obliged to report to authorities if the disclosures pertain to past events? Therefore, the criminality itself, known or otherwise, of a disclosure, is clearly NOT sufficient grounds for a confidentiality violation, and never has been.

Well, what about children? Isn’t the salient factor in the disclosures targeted by AB1775 the harm aimed at this protected class of citizen?

Yes. However, there are two problems with this “shouldn’t protecting children be our top priority” argument. The first is my own idiosyncratic (perhaps) bias: if we were to persecute everyone whose consumption of products enabled the exploitation of children, then we’d be exposing large sections of our internationally-reaching consumer society. To isolate one industry is not judicious discrimination; it is scapegoating, and (especially with respect to teen pornography) staggeringly hypocritical. The second problem concerns something else that is little considered: that lawyers and clerics, two occupational classes that hear their fair share of child porn disclosures, are exempt from the requirement to report child abuse, including child porn use. Lawyers simply do not appear on the Civil Code’s list of mandated reporters. Priests and other clerics do appear on this list, but are exempted from reporting through the loophole of code 11166 (c) if disclosures are made within a “penitential communication” (i.e.: a confessional)

So much for “shouldn’t protecting children be our top priority”

Next, if we think reports to authorities will block the proliferation of child porn, can we check that supposition given that the law has now been in effect for two and a half years? I’ve made some effort personally in this area, calling child protective services offices, plus an internet crimes task force based within the San Jose Police Department. My efforts have not yielded results. Officials have either not returned my calls, or not known the answer to my questions, or they have passed my questions on to other officials, who also do not answer my calls. No one seems able to even estimate how many reports have been made of child porn use in the last two years, whether in response to the new legislation or not. Also, with respect to blocking proliferation, how does that work if, like most of the electronica we purchase, the child porn is being produced and disseminated from overseas? Has California’s law dented the child porn industries of Thailand or Russia in any way that is discernible?

Finally, with respect to Judge Bern’s last point, since when do we persecute people on the basis of what they might do? If you get picked up by police for committing a relatively minor crime, are subsequent punishments justified because they seek to prevent a presumed escalation of criminal behavior?

Wait. The voices of immigrants, people of color–two classes of people that are slightly more popular than users of child porn–are suddenly in my head. Of course we persecute people on the basis of what they might do.

 

Graeme Daniels, MFT

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Love and hate and Don Juan

 

It was all a fantasy, an act, and yet it seduced because it seemed so real. It even took off from the stage at one point, crossing some invisible plane, whooping and dancing with harsh laughter, helicoptering over a star-gazing audience. There will have been more special effects in Don Juan in Soho than in the original, 14th century legend, but the essentials of a drama that has inspired the likes of Moliere, Byron, Camus, and Mozart are unchanged.

Patrick Marber is the playwright who has turned Don Juan into a twenty first century rogue in west end London. He appears currently as David Tennant (of Doctor Who fame), transformed from his sexy nerd sci-fi persona to that of a lusty, unfettered snake. His Don Juan is a self-confessed “child”, unapologetically seeking pleasure, while decrying the envy and hypocrisy of those whose outrage implies they wouldn’t want what he has. I was drawn to see the play because the main character was described in press releases as a sex addict, which is the fashionable term these days, replacing that of libertine, womanizer, or more plainly, sinner. Religion and morality have been the traditional lenses via which Don Juan has been criticized or admired. My profession, and specifically, the corner of it that treats sex addiction, has afforded sex addicts something like empathy while retaining our fascination, and it is this fascination that prevails in Don Juan, even as the seduction subsides, and tragedy unfolds with Reaperish inevitability.

And yet, what is most fascinating about Don Juan in Soho is not his seductions of women (only one such exercise is captured in full flight), or even his masterful manipulation of important male characters in the play, such as his long-suffering and devoted man-servant, and his curmudgeonly but foolhardy father. Ultimately, what I found most fascinating was his seduction of the audience, including me, though like a proud would-be target, I found myself resisting the supposedly irresistible, and feeling separate, even haughty, as the audience cheered and whooped along with the Don Juan specter.

This seduction is for audience sympathy, through a complex display of honesty, entitlement, defiance, and counter-provocation. As Tennant’s DJ argues that he’s not a rapist (“I don’t grab pussy”), I hear echoes of a familiar rationale. The libertine/addict claims he is not hurting anyone, contrary to the claims of others, like (in DJ’s case) his man-servant, or more ominously, the claims of brothers of a jilted bride. He points out that all involved are chronologically adult, and thus responsible for themselves, and anyway, have derived pleasure from his sexual behaviors, which is Don Juan’s all-justifying raison d’etre.

To those who disagree, or who seek to penetrate his hidden depths, DJ exudes contempt, even if they are, like his man-servant (Stan), people he values and cares about somewhat. DJ’s seeming need of Stan is not only endearing, it tugs upon suspicion that he, like the addict as he/she is understood by modern psychology, has needs that are not encompassed by physical pleasure, but merely symbolized by it. Needs for attachment. For love. For distance. Of course, DJ will never say or admit as much, and this will be his downfall, everyone says. So, besides his pursuit of sex, he alternates between acts of subtle supplication (for attachment), and efforts to subvert the wholesome.

A Kleinian analyst would have a field day watching this play. From start to finish, DJ seems most drawn to seduce those who are innocent—those whom he’d find deluded, or hypocritical. He is a child seeking pleasure, and thus wants to suckle and be suckled, but he also bites and seeks to destroy that upon which he projects his ambivalence. He callously drops the woman whom he’d married just two weeks prior to the play’s action, and whom he’d diligently seduced over the course of a year (just for the challenge, apparently). In the play’s most entertaining sequence, he hits upon the bride of another man in a hospital, hours after having been responsible for the groom’s injuries following a boating accident. Even more improbably, DJ seduces the bride while being fellated by another woman whom he’d met only moments before this scene.

His aggression isn’t exclusively directed at women. He is misanthropic, not merely misogynist, as some suggest of Don Juan. Those who highlight the latter listen selectively, and are gender-centric in their outlook. DJ delights in hoodwinking his rich father, on whose aristocratic fortune he depends. His enactment of remorse for his father’s benefit reminds me why sex addicts enter therapy, because I often hear about the pleasure’s aftermath of guilt, or even more so, of the shame of being exposed. When DJ seduced me, he did so because he revealed his darker, unrepentant side, and I rarely hear the level of honesty that DJ otherwise exhibits.

He temporarily, at least, torments a homeless Islamic man, who resists DJ’s attempt to bribe him into making blaspheming remarks. Ostensibly, this scene illustrates again the libertine’s distaste for the wholesome, for he thinks them false. But the Islamic man shows his “integrity” by refusing to blaspheme for the reward DJ offers, and as a result, DJ rewards him anyway. A secondary purpose of this and another scene I won’t detail might be a politically correct subtext: Christendom is oppressive, harboring of sex offenders, and repressive of sexuality in general, the protagonist declares. But DJ and his playwright live in 2017, and theater-goers are progressive-leaning, so author and actor are more careful with Muslim sensibilities.

Amid his two or three soliloquy/diatribes, DJ expands upon his political/philosophical outlook: he rails against men in power, makes allusions to modern race politics, the aforementioned quotables of Donald Trump, now so etched in the public mind that the lines mocking them draw instant recognition and approval. DJ, we are led to believe, is a relative hero: in 2017, he has an advantage over his medieval ancestors, because today it is less offensive to be merely promiscuous, even if that promiscuity is extreme. The audience for Don Juan in Soho ultimately applauds the protagonist and is saddened by his demise: partly because he’s clever and attractive, but more importantly because he seems democratic—meaning, he will fuck anyone, of any color, religious, or class background. Because he isn’t hateful.

But that’s incorrect, actually, because Tennant’s DJ isn’t entirely honest. He is a child, but he’s not a lover. As the Kleinian lens teaches us, children can be hateful, and may remain in that hateful state throughout their lives. And maybe that’s okay, we might quietly, reservedly suggest—as long as that hate is understood, exposed or tempered by notions of justice, for example. So, Don Juan from Soho is hateful, and maybe that’s okay with his audience, because the things he hates—the people he hates—are those whom his audience hates also.

 

 

 

 

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In praise of fantasy

There’s a case to be made that acting out results from a failure of the mind. By acting out, I refer to an umbrella term, comprised on the one hand of behaviors deemed unhealthy or destructive by mental health principles, or a leaking, in another sense, of mental nuclei, into the atmosphere, into the psyches of others. Why? Because the purpose of acting out is to express something.

Fantasy is not a form of acting out. Not really. Fantasy, writes author Michael Bader, has a compensatory function; it replaces behaviors rather than fuels them. It serves repression while simultaneously illustrating its failure. This is an important idea, this paradox, especially for those who fear imagination, and wonder what it will stir and then collapse. Are violent fantasies really dangerous? Perhaps, for those few individuals whose minds overflow with impulse; whose minds cannot contain energy and contradiction. For the unimaginative, thought informs behavior, as if there were no division between thought and action, and therefore no room for choice. And that’s a two-fold problem with addiction: it squashes both choice and imagination.

Voyeurism offends for several reasons. One reason is that voyeurism is an uncreative, passive act. It is the lazy expression of a frightened audience, living vicariously through the actions of others: heroes and villains, playing out love and hate. Sex and violence are traditionally forbidden acts, except in defined contexts, and so literary and visual arts must follow rules, identify and exhibit the right contexts, stylize the choreography versus capturing mere reality, and assume some manner of moral stance. Stylizing violence has been easier, somehow: its artifices are well-contained in sports, in movies and in television, and if a culture has had many victories in the realm of violence (many wars it has won, for example), then there are many heroes to celebrate, thus dignifying annihilation. The plight of victims can be observed also, but it makes for lesser entertainment. Note the absence, for example, of an all-encompassing novel or film about the holocaust*, as there is no way to give it a happy ending.

The term happy ending has a crude sexual meaning. Part of my work is with clients (mostly men), whose sexual imaginations have been lost to the world of that bastard genre, pornography. Fantasy is effortful. Relative to spectating, it fatigues, relies too much upon a sexuality that is within oneself. To these men, I often pose the question, “what happened to fantasy, to imagination?” Some gaze back at me with quizzical expressions, querying my naïvete, and wondering if I can possibly understand the scope of their loss. The loss relates to broken memory, a reliance upon a visual record, and a breakdown of narrative, leading to a stolid, joyless experience of images. There is fear: an unconscious, neurotic belief that memory can’t be held, and that dreams drain away. A kind of hoarding seems like the answer to an empty core. I find myself discussing compromises: a negotiated plan involving restrained double-takes in public, a looking away from visual cues, or a measured duration of concentrated looking.

We look away, consistently, from that which we should examine. We gaze longingly at that which merits only a glance.

*a paraphrasing of filmmaker Stanley Kubrick, who abandoned his early nineties film, Aryan Papers, declaring the project too depressing, too big, for cinema. He further noted that Spielberg’s Schindler’s List, which seems to cover much of the holocaust story, is actually a tale of exceptions—those who survived.

Graeme Daniels, MFT

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Addictions and trains

 

Most of what you need to know about addiction is contained in the film Trainspotting, which now has a sequel, Trainspotting 2 (the title is the only thing about it that’s banal), which opened here in March after a January UK release. The story takes place in Edinburgh, Scotland, twenty years after the action of the first film. Mark Renton (Ewan McGregor) returns to town after years living in Amsterdam. Mark’s return is half-heartedly redemptive: he seeks reunion with Simon, “Sick boy”, from whom he’d stolen money twenty years earlier, and from Daniel, “Spud”, whom he’d abandoned to continuing heroin addiction. Though seemingly healthy and well-adjusted, Mark is adrift, suffering from a recently diagnosed heart condition and a mid-life crisis: he is jobless and divorced, and still wearing on his sleeves the guilt of his past mischiefs.

It’s as if they never went away. One of the melancholic themes of Trainspotting 2 is the terrible slide of time. It has drained away and yielded nothing that lasts or has meaning. The music they liked in 1995 seems only slightly different now. The nightlife of pubs and clubs looks and sounds more or less the same, only now Mark and the others are older, flabbier and more vulnerable. In some ways, Mark is just like he was in the first film. He is thoughtful, capable of remorse and caring behavior, despite a self-centered core. He saves Spud from a suicide attempt, and agrees to help Simon with his darkly comic scheming, which has moved on from petty drug dealing to more creative territory: blackmailing of Johns with the help of a Bulgarian prostitute (also Simon’s girlfriend); a later plot to pilfer credit cards from drunken patrons of a Glaswegian, unionist pub*.

There are moments that mirror the joy and reckless spirit of their earlier days. Mark and Simon remind me of how I am with certain friends: nostalgic for a past when hair was darker, waistlines were trimmer, and the circles beneath eyes betrayed fewer miles. While fooling the foolish, dashing from danger, inhaling powdery fuels and then slumbering on mornings after in messy bachelorhood, Mark and Simon reenact their twentysomething fantasies (actually, Simon never really left them) and fall into old patterns. Ever looking for quick success, they devise plans to start a brothel, securing an EU loan on the pretext of resurrecting a derelict pub of alleged historical significance. Meanwhile, they overlook predictable flies in the ointment. Firstly, Simon is arrested for his blackmailing exploits, which leads Mark to seek a lawyer on his behalf, which in turn leads Mark back to his old girlfriend, Diane, who is now a lawyer willing to help, but who will charge a sizable fee. More ominously, they proceed with their plans unaware that Begbie, a former nemesis, has broken out of jail and is on the path of revenge, having also been ripped off by Mark in the first film.

The reunion with Diane affords Mark a glimpse into the life of someone from his past who trod a different path. She is someone who grew up, avoided addictions, the emptiness of modern life, plus the enduring bitterness resulting from a diffuse cultural malaise. This is where the title comes in, sort of. The original Trainspotting featured numerous commentaries on vacuous yet consuming lifestyles; on an oblique vision of Scotland in the late twentieth century; on class, gender, sex, and history. Trains and the obscure hobby that is trainspotting are metaphors for life bypassing the mediocre. That reverie continues twenty years later. For the benefit of Veronica, Simon’s Bulgarian girlfriend/prostitute, Mark reprises the “choose life” beat poesy that informed the friends’ once vital and anarchic spirit. This is a fuck-life speech that decries all that is shallow and false in the modern world, and thus posits drugs and/or intoxication as one’s “only friend”. Such diatribes invariably lead to relapse or just continued use, which leaves casualties. Mark gave his friend Tommy his first hit, and Tommy contracted AIDS and died. Simon, more thick-skinned than Mark ordinarily, once sobbed over a crib, staring down at his dead infant daughter—neglected while he languished in a nearby squat, doped-up and out of it. For what it’s worth, Mark has largely managed to stay clean in the years since, unlike Spud or Simon. As he counsels Spud, who is trying once again to kick heroin, and who extols the virtues of another detox as his chosen solution, “it (the addiction) is in your mind, not your body”.

All is going to its sloppy, unlikely plan until a chance meeting finds Mark and Begbie sat in adjacent toilet stalls in a nightclub. The ensuing chase is a mad duel, made barely plausible by Mark’s relative fitness and Begbie’s…well, his plain madness. As a villain, for me, Frank Begbie makes Darth Vader look like Ward Cleaver. He’s right up there with Hannibal Lecter and any one of Tarantino’s baddies as one of the scariest heavies of 90’s cinema. As he recognizes Mark’s voice in the bathroom stall, the theater audience audibly shuddered. The protracted chase takes up the latter third of Trainspotting 2, interspersed with glimpses into Begbie’s sad psychology. Here, actor Robert Carlisle out does himself, adding depth to the violent sociopath whose frothing vitriol in thick Scots dialect makes subtitles necessary. After he breaks out of jail, Begbie returns to his wife and son, a comparatively effete teenager who wants to go to college, and whom Begbie forcibly enjoins into a burglary only to discover that the mild-mannered boy has gentler aptitudes. Ultimately, Begbie is contrite, and delivers a sad farewell message to wife and son just prior to one last showdown with Mark and the boys. It’s one of those I was never raised to show my feelings laments that occasionally inspire patriarchal dinosaurs into therapists’ offices. The awkward scene nonetheless softens him, and elicits sympathy amid his later defeat.

And defeat is a core theme in Trainspotting 2. Another one of the boys’ asides is a fond recollection of seventies footballers, reprised from a similarly musing passage within Trainspotting. George Best, the focus of this rapture, is literally the first public figure and athlete I became aware of as a small child. Gifted, with a cartoon hero’s name and Paul McCartney looks, Best was the golden boy of British sport in the early-to-mid seventies, but a taste for night life and too much booze addled his career, which declined over the second half of that decade. By the time I emigrated to the US in 79’, Best had emigrated also, to collect a late-career paycheck playing soccer for Americans who barely knew his name. In the ethos of Trainspotting, Best tops a list of sad, one-time legends whose addictions collapsed talent and fame.

If only the boys could be more like Diane, whose diligence and relative normalcy enabled good fortune, a reaching of her personal potential. Happily, not all of the boys are without hope for something real or normal. Ironically, it is Spud, the likeable loser of the three Scots lads, who discovers a latent talent: he writes. He writes well, and furthermore writes the kinds of stories I couldn’t write, because I haven’t lived dangerously, which is less entertaining, apparently. The price of normalcy, perhaps. People enjoy drunken stories, but don’t necessarily understand addiction. Recently I listened to a loved one suggest that recovering addicts were not so worthy of admiration as many seem to think. Why should we celebrate someone who once caused a lot of damage and pain, simply because they later curbed bad habits so they could live a civilized life, just like the rest of us have all along? The argument presumes the capacity to choose, but choice is elusive for some. Sometimes I envy those with bad habits, because bad habits are fun and generate good stories, like Trainspotting, and Trainspotting 2. The thing is, I chose life and potential, and I’ve got work tomorrow.

  • Unionism: in this context, it pertains to the politics of Northern Ireland, whose centuries old conflicts pit Catholics against Protestants. In the film, Mark and Simon’s impromptu song, “1690” lampoons a hate song about the Battle of the Boyne, in which William of Orange conquered Catholic Ireland

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