Thursday, 18 September 2014

Canada's demographic shift: Concordia profs work to ensure healthier & happier longevity



By: Beverly Akerman

Canada is growing much greyer. In 2011, as baby boomers began crossing that 65-year-old threshold, the Census reported almost 15 per cent of us were seniors. By 2031, one quarter of Canadians will fit that bill. Centenarians are the country’s fastest growing age group.

This demographic shift has major social, medical and financial repercussions. For instance, within a generation, the number of Canadians with dementia will more than double, to 1.1 million people, and the cost of their care will rise from today’s $1.5 billion to a projected $153 billion.

How will society deal with these huge challenges? Concordia experts are looking at these issues from multiple angles.

Investing in planning

Patrik Marier
Patrik Marier, a professor in Concordia’s department of Political Science, is also scientific director of the Centre for research and expertise in social gerontology in Montreal.

As a professor in Concordia’s Department of Political Science, Marier’s research focuses on the policy implications of our changing demo­graphics. These days, he’s analyzing the implications to pension, health care and labour policy, and working on a book about Canada’s preparations for aging populations.

“A large cohort of seniors have in­comes barely above the poverty line,” he says. “And a substantial number of baby boomers carry impressive amounts of debt into retirement.”

Gender defines another worrying pension issue, Marier adds: women tend to have more career interruptions than men and therefore are more than twice as likely to rely on the Guaranteed Income Supplement.

Yet it’s a complex issue. Governments in Canada and elsewhere are certainly aware of the potential future crunch on pensions. Marier, the holder of a Canada Research Chair in Comparative Public Policy, feels we’re not necessarily headed toward a disaster. “We must take care not to frame the issue as a crisis, a tsunami,” he says. “Public authorities should act on the challenges, but need to understand that adjustments are already taking place. For example, the data show people are already retiring later.”
As our population ages, we are looking towards overwhelming numbers of people with dementia, yet are not prepared for this. We have an obligation to provide them the best possible quality of life. 
Charles DraiminCharles Draimin, professor and chair of the department of accountancy at Concordia’s John Molson School of Business, notes that a segment of the Canadian population is no longer forced to retire.
Charles Draimin, professor and chair of the Department of Accountancy at Concordia’s John Molson School of Business, concurs. “In the early ’80s, the Quebec government changed the laws on mandatory retirement, and Ontario followed suit about eight years ago,” he says. “As a result, people are no longer forced to retire except for spe­cific, highly physical occupations like police officer or fire fighter.”

The situation varies across jurisdic­tions, Marier points out. “In general, populations in the eastern provinces are older than western ones, and federal health care transfers don’t take into ac­count there are more older people per capita in Nova Scotia than in Alberta, for example.” This makes the current health care funding formula “unfair,” he says, and describes “huge ongoing de­bates” about the effect of aging on health care costs. “A higher number of older people will most likely increase health care expenditure, but upcoming seniors are also healthier than those in previous generations.”

Louis Bherer is scientific director of Concordia’s PERFORM Centre (see the sidebar) and also serves as researcher and lab director at the Institut universitaire de gériatrie de Montréal. He agrees that 60 is the new 40 — which delays retirement age. When he started in the field as a graduate stu­dent about 15 years back, Bherer recalls that 65 was considered the start of being considered old in neurosciences re­search. “Now 75 is the geriatric cut-off.”


Nonetheless, the concern for the pop­ulation’s retirement income remains real, as a significant portion of pension­ers have relatively small incomes and one quarter of the retired population lacks any pension savings outside the public plan. As well, public pensions in Canada were designed to replace only a fraction of the median wage of a working person. Draimin points out that when German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck offered pensions to German work­ers over 65 in 1888, few people lived long enough to qualify. Yet with life ex­pectancy now nearly 86 years old, “the length of the modern retirement has effectively doubled. While still young enough to save for it, people should probably be finding out what they’d have to invest to approach 90 per cent of their pre-retirement income,” he advises.

Marier believes we need to prepare better. “People spend far more time buying a new car or fridge than on the financial decisions related to retire­ment,” he says. “People need to ask questions and they need to know what to ask. Don’t be shy.” He recommends The Naked Investor: Why Almost Everybody but You Gets Rich on Your RRSP (2007) by John Lawrence Reynolds as a resource.

Quality of life matters

Kim SawchukCommunication studies professor Kim Sawchuk helps fight the attitude by younger generations that older people don’t have a clue about digital technologies.
We live in the digital age. We also live in a time of digital ageism, an attitude that assumes younger people have a natural fluency with digital media their elders lack, and a major reason seniors are often left out of research on new digital technologies.

Kim Sawchuk, a professor in the Department of Communication Studies, is working to counter digital ageism. Sawchuk holds a Concordia University Research Chair in Mobile Media Studies, a Canadian first, and directs the Mobile Media Lab, which is dedicated to interdisciplinary research in “mobili­ties,” the movement of people, objects, capital and information, locally and across the world.
From earlier work with seniors and cell phones, Sawchuk understands that seniors are extremely heterogeneous: “There are differences, for example, between someone who is 60 and not yet retired, someone recently retired and those retired 20 years or more.”

She explains that culture, language and social and kinship networks are at least as significant as age on technol­ogy use and practice, and that limits on access can be related to incomes, or simply to the realization “we have too much stuff” to manage in our lives.

“We need to understand how people decide what they want and need. We need to value those as well, those who are sceptical: every new technology is not absolutely necessary,” Sawchuk says. The Mobile Media Lab provides digi­tal learning to seniors groups based on their requirements. “We ask seniors what they want to learn and do, and then we help them access that knowledge.”

Sawchuk describes a recent flash mob at Montreal’s Place Alexis Nihon orga­nized with Ressources ethnoculturelles contre l’abus envers les aînées and the Contactivity Centre in support of World Elder Abuse Awareness Day, June 15. “It was fantastic to see the reaction of these 50 seniors dressed in purple who participated, and then put up their intervention on YouTube. They were a force taking over the public space and putting their perspective on aging, using new media, into the virtual world.”

She has other ongoing projects with many seniors’ organizations. “At Concordia, we’re being encouraged to make what we know, and the studies we’ve done, relevant to the real world. And that’s a good thing.”

Taming regret

Carsten WroschThe research by psychology professor Carsten Wrosch has shown that when seniors are trained to write about their life in a positive light, rather than focusing on regrets, they feel better about themselves.
In a society that extols persistence as a goal-seeking behaviour, for an older person, knowing when to abandon a goal can be an equally valid path to well-being. For a young person seeking a lover or a job, persistence in the face of adversity makes sense.

Yet Carsten Wrosch, a professor in Concordia’s Department of Psychology, says that for some of the intractable problems of older age, “Giving up, quitting or abandoning goals, or finding some other goal to focus on can be the most adaptive response.” Especially if the person’s circumstances can’t be altered.

Wrosch is director of the Personality, Aging and Health Lab, affiliated with the university’s interdisciplinary Centre for Research on Human Development, which unites top researchers and train­ees from six Quebec universities in the study of development over the human lifespan. A major research focus is the long-term study of aging. The Montreal Aging and Health Study has followed about 200 older adults for a decade. Last year, the study received a third Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR) grant of close to $1 million.

Wrosch says research shows that re­grets — such as being unable to walk or no longer able to do the groceries — can lead to excessive rumination and even depression, and increase one’s vulnerability to disease. Wrosch has demonstrated these psychological states — and their alteration — are reflected in measurable health-relevant biological processes such as levels of cortisol (reflecting stress) and C-reactive protein (related to inflammation states). “What I’m really interested in is pre­venting this downward spiral through self-regulation, a life-management approach,” he says.

One such approach taken in his lab, pub­lished in the journal Psychology and Aging, experimented with directed writing: coach­ing seniors to write about their life regrets by “making social com­parisons, silver lining and positive reframing” — basically, making real­istic comparisons with others in the same situation, as opposed to lamenting the loss of an ideal state. Results show marked decreases in the intensity of regrets and improved outcomes, including better sleep.

“Our research is a pathway to helping older people deal with regrets over the intractable problems of aging,” he says. “The ultimate goal is to discover mecha­nisms that can contribute to helping older adults enjoy a happier and healthier life.”

Training your brain

Karen LiOne of the research projects conducted by Karen Li, a professor in Concordia’s department of psychology, found that playing computer games along with fitness training helped improve seniors’ condition.
One road to such a happier and healthier life is keeping our bodies — as well as our minds — in shape.

That’s one area being examined by Karen Li, a professor in Concordia’s Department of Psychology. Li is in­terested in executive functioning, an umbrella term for those cognitive skills harnessing mental control, organization and self-regulation. She explains execu­tive functions are closely tied with areas of the brain that shrink more rapidly as we age.

Li and her team at the Laboratory for Adult Development and Cognitive Aging test older and younger adults as they use executive functions to multitask by com­bining cognitive and motor activities. “We measure how much a person sways while balancing on one foot and com­pare that with the increased fluctuations they might exhibit while simultane­ously listening to words or doing mental arithmetic.”

As cognitive tasks increase in diffi­culty, older adults show a greater drop in performance than younger adults. “That suggests that in older age, what used to be an automatic physical task — balancing — requires more attention and cognitive resources. Avoiding a loss of balance has practical implications for healthy, independent living,” she says.

So how to strengthen these cognitive functions? “A growing number of studies show that aerobic fit­ness training, even with a mod­est physical improvement, can lead to improved executive functioning,” she says. “Social engagement is also an important source of mental stimulation.”

Li’s work has also established that brain training with computer games can be a useful add-on to more conven­tional forms of physical therapy/fitness training. Together with Louis Bherer and other Concordia researchers at the PERFORM Centre, Li’s latest projects involve older adults with (and without) mild hearing impairment. In popula­tion studies of age-related conditions, hearing loss is associated with increased falling. Li hopes that brain-gym in com­bination with aerobic fitness training will better elucidate this link and, ulti­mately, be used to decrease falling.

She’s also keen on an ongoing proj­ect, funded through CIHR, involving the Toronto Rehabilitation Institute. Healthy young and older adults and older adults with hearing loss walk on a treadmill in a virtual reality simula­tion of crossing a six-lane street. As the subjects are challenged with listening tasks, their walking is measured using motion-capture technology. The goal is to simulate a real-life multitasking situation in a safe environment to un­derstand how hearing loss and mobility decline are linked.

Music to their ears

Laurel YoungMusic therapy assistant professor Laurel Young recently received awards from Wilfrid Laurier University and Temple University in Philadelphia for outstanding contributions to the field.

Laurel Young, an assistant profes­sor of music therapy in Concordia’s Department of Creative Arts Therapies, may have one solution. Young is an ac­credited music therapist with clinical experience in geriatrics and dementia, palliative care and other areas of physi­cal and mental health.

Prior to her music therapy training, as a university student Young had the op­portunity to play music in the locked dementia units of a long-term care fa­cility. “I could also awaken those who were very withdrawn,” she says. “I knew I needed to understand more and that’s why I decided to pursue training as a music therapist.”

Young’s initial interest in research came out of an internship where she worked with dementia patients at Toronto’s Baycrest Centre for Geriatric Care. While there, she investigated the use of music to stimulate object recogni­tion. It was clear that music stimulated memory and interpersonal connection. “The science is just starting to catch up with the anecdotal experiences that music therapists have been talking about for years,” she says.

She expanded her bio-psycho-so­cial health perspectives into the area of singing and health, yet her passion for working with seniors remained. “With almost all dementias, the music func­tions of the brain remain intact. Most individuals retain a sensitivity to music, and have the ability to participate in a wide variety of music experiences,” she says. “Research has also shown that both these attributes may be enhanced, even as other capacities deteriorate.”

Creative arts therapies won’t cure de­mentia, Young says, but by decreasing agitation, stimulating cognition and fa­cilitating meaningful interactions with others, they can significantly improve quality of life for many patients.

She describes a case where the hus­band was institutionalized and hadn’t spoken for many years. The wife usually visited daily, sharing in much of his care. Young would see this couple in a small music therapy group. Singing gentle songs on guitar and touching the man’s hands, she was often able to rouse him from his languor.

When Young discovered that the couple’s song was Let Me Call You Sweetheart, the results were revelatory. She would sing “Let me call you sweet­heart,” and the husband would finish the line with “I’m in love with you,” and then look at his wife. Here was a wom­an, Young explains, who for years didn’t know if her husband was aware of her presence or anything she did to help him. When the husband acknowledged his wife in that setting, it was moving and meaningful for them both.

“Music is a distinct domain of func­tioning in the brain that seems to serve a variety of purposes, but we are still discovering its full potential,” Young maintains. “My theory is that if the music functions of the brain are so important, shouldn’t we be trying to maintain these functions to the fullest possible extent?” She believes using creative arts therapies in this way is “not just fun and enjoyable, but clinically indicated.”

As our population ages, we are looking towards overwhelming numbers of people with dementia, yet are not physically, financially, or psychologically prepared for this, Young warns. We have an obligation to provide them the best possible quality of life.

In future, she hopes, “We may be able to understand how music works when other forms of communication have failed, to discover a way to capitalize on this in creative, functional, and mean­ingful ways. These people will be us — if we live long enough. How will you want to be treated?”

–Beverly Akerman is a Montreal writer.

Adapted from the original, published here.

Monday, 11 August 2014

Some thoughts on The Goldfinch and Donna Tartt's writing


Vanity Fair has a July 2014 article summarizing the critics: "It's Tartt--But is it Art?"


Much of my reading time the past month has been devoted to the oeuvre of Donna Tartt. I was turned on to her work through my book club, which assigned the 2013 Pulitzer-winning The Goldfinch (easily 200 pages too long, making me suspect Tartt never had a darling she was able to kill). I then turned to the other two of her tomes, and read them in sequence: The Secret History (1992), and The Little Friend (2002).

There is no doubt that Ms. Tart is a magnificent talent; as Laura Miller put it in her 2002 review of The Little Friend, Donna Tart definitely has "the hoodoo"...she creates great characters and dynamite atmosphere. BUT...while I read her thinking "Wow, this is a great writer," I finish the books without being able to call them great books. Ayelet Waldman put her finger on the problem with this book, in particular, and all three of Tartt's books, generally: "one day, in the middle of writing the book, she got up, went to work, and suddenly decided to just type the words, 'The End,' at the bottom of the page." The books just aren't satisfactory (The Little Friend being the least satisfactory of the three). The amount of time we invest just isn't rewarded with enough of an epiphany at the end.

And I say this as a reader who would LOVE to love her books, a reader desperate for a new literary immortal, a WOMAN immortal, especially. The main problem, as I see it, is that Ms. Tartt writes atmosphere, character, and dilemma, but she frustrates the reader, sometimes by just going on for unnecessary pages and chapters, but ultimately because she hasn't found themes that resonates deeply enough for me.

May she, one day soon, find her grasp equal to her reach. To make it into Steinbeck, Victor Hugo, Dickens, and Harper Lee territory, she has to write about justice and injustice, plain and simple. A good long--and, especially, an overlong--story simply isn't enough.

I look forward to learning what you think about Donna Tartt's writing...

PS Coincidentally (?), the word "Goldfinch" appears on p. 365 of The Little Friend.

PPS Other reviewers have taken the name Harriet to refer to Harriet the Spy. Why not Harriet for Harry Potter, I'd like to know, especially given the nickname Boris gives Theo in The Goldfinch (Potter)?

Wednesday, 18 June 2014

FREE sample of a great summer read...


Hi there

There are so many wonderful books by so many incredible writers. I know I can't keep track of them all. So, since I'm a Montreal writer with a great book you may not have heard of, a book that might be your perfect summer read, I thought I would take this opportunity to tell you about it, and offer you a free sample.

The FREE story is here: http://bit.ly/zXV1ne; “Pie” won Gemini Magazine’s first flash fiction contest. I hope you enjoy it; it’s a story that has deep resonance for me.

THE MEANING OF CHILDREN is an award winning collection of 14 short stories, most of them published in CanLit magazines (The Antigonish Review, carte blanche, Descant, Exile Quarterly, The Nashwaak Review, The New Quarterly, Windsor Review, etc. etc. etc.).

It won the David Adams Richards Prize from the Writers Federation of New Brunswick, the Mona Adilman Prize for fiction on Jewish themes (a JI Segal Award), and made the 2011 CBC-Scotiabank Giller Prize Readers’ Choice Contest Top 10.





The Paperback is $14.40 and the E-book is $5.08 $2.99

"Beverly Akerman’s collection of stories THE MEANING OF CHILDREN manages to capture with both wit and wisdom the effervescence, the indignities, the curiosity, and the fear that are part of a child’s eye view of the world. This book is teeming with wit and quality observation."
~ JI Segal Award Jury

"A keen, incisive vision into the hidden world of children as well as intimate knowledge of the secret spaces that exist between the everyday events of life. A work with a brilliant sense of story…Magical, and so refreshing for me to read. I absolutely loved it and I hope it goes on to do marvellous things. Yours is a luminous talent."
~JoAnne Soper-Cook, Author and Judge, the Writers Federation of New Brunswick's 2010 David Adams Richards Prize

THE MEANING OF CHILDREN was favourably reviewed by The Globe and Mail, The Montreal Gazette, The Rover, and The Western Star, among other places...here are a couple more comments (many more, including the incredible Readers' Choice comments, can be found here):

“This isn’t the invented childhood of imagination and wonderment…[here] children both corrupt and redeem: each other, family relationships and the female body.”
~Katie Hewitt, The Globe and Mail

“Akerman holds up our greatest fears, not to dwell on them, but to marvel at our commitment to life, especially to passing it on to others.”
~Anne Chudobiak, The Montreal Gazette

“A collection of 14 short stories which covers the range of experience from the point of view of children, mums, and also aging parents as well. It’s all there in this lovely little book, short stories about life in a family that might just resemble yours. A wonderful gift for mother’s day, perhaps more long lived than the usual cut flowers.”
~Anne Lagacé Dowson, CJAD Radio journalist (Interview: http://youtu.be/djOXwJasZes)

Anyway, that's my spiel. Hope I haven't bent your ear too much and that you have a wonderful summer. 

And thank you for supporting great books and their writers!

Best wishes,

Beverly Akerman

PS THE MEANING OF CHILDREN would love to make your college or university syllabus!


Sunday, 11 May 2014

The Meaning of Children to be featured at The Literary Gathering Book Club June 5th





Moved to see my book on the reading list of The Literary Gathering, "a monthly book club for stimulating our minds and our taste buds." Meetings take place in Hamilton, ON. The theme for their June 5th meeting is "Short and Sweet." Hope you enjoy it, ladies! Intriguing list of books read...they've been meeting since monthly since September 2007.

Friday, 28 February 2014

Doodnaught not first Canadian doctor to rape his anesthetized patients

2014-02-28-justice9017_640.jpg

Tuesday’s sentencing of anaesthesiologist George Doodnaught--to a decade in jail for sexually assaulting 21 women under his care during surgery--should have been good news. But then I read this comment from the presiding judge, Ontario Superior Court Justice David McCombs: “There are no reported Canadian cases in which an anaesthesiologist sexually assaulted sedated patients in an operating room during surgery.”

Wait a minute, I thought. As Columbo might have said, one thing bothers me. With Google doing the legwork I discovered, though the judge was technically correct--there are no reported stories of an anaesthesiologist sexually assaulting his sedated patients—this has happened before, not long ago, and in my home town. It’s the story of the Montreal plastic surgeon who sexually assaulted his anesthetized patients, and was let off the hook because society doesn't believe the victims.

In April 1995, Quebec’s College of Physicians found Dr. Marc Bissonnette guilty of sexual assaulting a female patient who was under anesthetic on the operating table in his clinic. The assault had been witnessed by her mother and aunt who testified in the criminal trial they had gone to the plastic surgery clinic on July 6, 1993 to take the woman home following a breast implant replacement operation. Finding the door locked, they gazed through the partly shaded window which gave onto the ground-floor operating room. They testified they saw the doctor exposing his penis, then having sex with their unconscious daughter/niece.

Unfortunately, the Quebec Court Judge hearing the criminal case, Pierre Brassard, rejected the mother’s and aunt’s testimony, citing inconsistencies. He opted instead for Dr. Bissonnette's version: that the patient pursued him and managed to entice him into having sex with her right before her surgery.

Because, you know, preparing to have your breasts carved up is such a turn-on.

Apparently, Judge Brassard said the doctor could hardly be blamed for succumbing to the patient’s wiles, because she was that kind of woman: the kind of woman who testified that she had had sex with a bartender after knowing him for only a few months.

The judge’s comments astounded the women of Montreal, and the case kept on astounding.

Three months later, while making some repairs to his mother’s roof, Bissonnette fell and was partially paralyzed. He was so disgusted with the media by then that he forbade the hospital treating him to comment on his condition.

The College fined Bissonnette $6000 and suspended him from practice for two years.

By March 1996, his paralysis partially remitted, Bissonnette was again conducting surgery full-time, albeit from a wheelchair, this time at Maisonneuve-Rosemont Hospital. “Before he was charged, he had an impeccable record,” said Dr. Pierre Masson, the hospital's director of professional services.

No use letting one small hitch spoil a perfect record.

The Crown appealed the criminal acquittal and lost. Both the College and the anaesthesiologist appealed the College disciplinary committee’s ruling. As a result, the fine was struck but the suspension extended to five years.

Fortunately (read unfortunately), Marc Bissonnette, like Doodnaught a true serial sexual predator, couldn’t help but continue preying upon those most vulnerable to him: his patients. And so, finally, following complaints in 2002 and 2003, he was banned for life from practicing medicine by Quebec’s College of Physicians in 2010.

Judge Brassard retired from the bench. In 2005, his son Alain, a well-known criminal lawyer, died in a car accident after going through a stop sign, bouncing off an oncoming car, and hitting a tree.

I have a daughter. And I like to think that, within her lifetime, sexual equality will wax as sexism wanes. But that will never happen if we don’t remember—and hold to account—the ones who cannot credit the words of those assaulted and victimized by sexual predators. And that is so whether the survivors are women or men, boys or girls. And whether the abusers are priests, colonels, university footballers, doctors, pig farmers, or judges.

Again and again, we are forced to endure those in positions of authority who hear reports of abusers's earliest misdeeds discounting the complainants--their stories have "inconsistencies," they wouldn't make good witnesses, they are young, powerless, poor, drug-addicted, or just plain flakey.  

They say justice is blind but we don't have to be.

Unfortunately, those who forget history--including the history of rapists and their survivors--condemn us all to repeat it.

Friday, 21 February 2014

Who the hell is Katherine Monk, and what is she doing reviewing movies in my Montreal Gazette?

 

I know newspapers are dying but do they have to speed up the process by eliminating local writers and stuffing their pages with cheap crappy content from their wire networks??

That's what I found myself asking this morning when I read Katherine Monk's take on the new Kevin Costner flick, 3 Days to Kill. Sent the following to the Montreal Gazette. We'll see if they publish it. I'm not holding my breath, which is why I'm including it here:



“Who the hell is Katherine Monk, and what is she doing reviewing movies in my Montreal Gazette?”





It wasn’t the first time I’d had that thought on reading Monk’s movie reviews, but this morning, as I read the sidebar titled “Costner Clunkers,” cheek by jowl to her truly execrable take on Costner’s 3 Days to Kill, I finally had to write back. Seriously, a sophomoric McDonald’s metaphor throughout because the director’s name is McG? Where—and what--is Monk’s beef?

Costner may have made some bad films, but the guy has made a phenomenal 56 of them in a career that started in 1979, according to Wikipedia. His oeuvre has been recognized by a slew of awards: BAFTAs, Golden Globes, Primetime Emmys, and two Oscars--best actor and best director--for Dances with Wolves. Not too shabby, by any normal person’s reckoning. Yet all Monk could find time to mention were Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, Waterworld, The Postman, and 3000 Miles to Graceland?




Let me prod Monk’s memory: Kevin Costner is a bona fide Hollywood star. His movies are iconic, among the best of his (and my) generation. These include the aforementioned Dances with Wolves (a $15 million blockbuster where most of the dialogue took place in Lakota!), The Big Chill (which Monk weirdly labels a clunker because his scenes, probably all flashbacks, ended up on the cutting room floor), and the absolutely perfect Field of Dreams (who can ever forget the chill chased up the spine by his whispered “If you build it, they will come?”)

Costner was also magnificent in No Way Out, The Untouchables, Bull Durham, JFK, The Bodyguard, and Thirteen Days. Westerns, romances, historical thrillers, docudrama, and baseball. Actor, director, producer. That is quite the range, totally ignored by Ms. Monk.



Yes, I’ll admit, the quality of Costner’s pics is also highly variable, from iconic through magnificent to, admittedly, at times, downright lamentable. But in a career cruising up on 35 years in length, how could it be otherwise? You try things and sometimes they don’t quite work out. Through it all, he has maintained a gentlemanly aura, truly amazing in a world where “there is no such thing as bad publicity” remains a mantra. Here’s hoping his next reel will push him into Clint Eastwood territory.

Coming shortly on the heels of Philip Seymour Hoffman’s sordid passing, I feel Monk’s tunnel vision on Costner’s career is doubly sad: it underlines how we only seem to appreciate our great performers when they are taken from us, and it is also echoes the many changes The Gazette has undergone in the past few years. I often disagreed with John Griffin’s reviews, but at least there was a thoughtfulness, a depth, to them. They reflected my Montreal reality in a way that Monk’s--and Jay Stone, another Postmedia wire service parachute--do not.

In our wired reality, if I wanted to read a collection of ahistorical clichés masquerading as reviews from a Vancouver Sun writer, I could read the Vancouver Sun online. When I want to know what a savvy Montreal film critic thinks of Costner’s latest work, I should be able to find that in my Montreal Gazette. Head office may believe that gutting quality locally derived content is required in today’s sad business context, but as a long-time Gazette reader, I must tell you it only hastens the circling of the drain.

(By the way, Monk slammed the film, which I haven't seen, yet still, mystifyingly, rated it 3 stars; Rotten Tomatoes gives it 28%...they also have a post on Costner's 10 best films you might enjoy. It's reviews like hers that now send me to Rotten Tomatoes, rather than The Gazette, when I want to find out about new films.)


Monday, 20 January 2014

Downton Abbey Season 4, Episode 3: Rape culture and the slimy slope of situational ethics (please see Note 1)




SPOILER ALERT: conjecture on the season 4 plot appears in the last paragraph of this post. (Not that most of us probably couldn’t see it coming…)

Anna and Mrs. Hughes in episode 3

Last night’s episode of Downton Abbey was even darker and more troubling than the previous week’s violence. And that’s because, in this latest installment, action tantamount to rape is advocated by those we have taken to be “the good guys.” That we are beguiled into viewing it as justified only makes us complicit, bringing us one step lower on the slippery descent into situational ethics.

Episode 2 featured two major skirmishes in the battle between the sexes: Green’s rape of Anna, and Edna’s “seduction” of Tom. The contrasts between these acts are multiple, from the genders of the perpetrator/victim, through location of the event, and the style of depiction: man vs. woman, downstairs vs. upstairs, explicit violence vs. implied non-violence. And the reactions Sir Julian Fellowes cultivates within us, the viewers, when faced with each of these despicable acts, are also very different: fear, horror, and tears vs. vague unease.

Tom Branson

Both victims are among the most attractive and sympathetic members of the cast, haling from among the virtuous lower classes. There is also the aspect of their relative blamelessness: though Anna had no reason to believe ill of Green (beyond the tingling of Bates’ spidey sense), it’s hard to avoid the impression Tom should have known he was playing with fire in rekindling a relationship with Edna. The two attackers also issue from among the poor, albeit the undeserving, non-virtuous kind (they’re also clearly the less attractive member of each doomed couple).

In both sexual attacks, the sympathetic natures of the victims are taken advantage of in order to gratify the perpetrators’s needs--for sex, power, and, in Edna’s case, as a gambit to improve her social situation. Can a man be raped? Episode 2 makes a clear case for the affirmative.

Edna Braithwaite

But it is episode 3 that I find more alarming, and specifically the scene where Mrs. Hughes confronts Edna on Tom’s behalf. But first, let’s backtrack a smidge: having plied Tom with whiskey and slipping into his room, Edna approaches Tom the next day, demanding he commit to marrying her if their encounter results in a pregnancy. Tom refuses to accept the premise of the question (a neat lesson also stressed in West Wing, Season 7, which I’ve been watching recently). Conception, Tom tells Edna, isn’t that simple. Edna challenges Tom: so he regrets their encounter?

Tom, in his sad sappiness nearly a fit heir for the dopey Lord himself, responds: “I am already full of regret. There is nothing but regret in me” (though I’m guessing it was something quite other than regret that issued from him on the night in question).

Later, in London, Lady Mary recognizes Tom is in difficulty. When he refuses to open up about his problem, she advises to find some way of unburdening himself. Which sends Tom to Mrs. Hughes, the one person in whom Anna has also confided.

The stalwart Mrs. Hughes, believing herself partly to blames for Tom’s situation—for having she assisted in, albeit grudgingly, Edna’s return to Downton as a ladies maid. She subsequently confronts Edna on Tom’s behalf, but not until she’s discovered the Mary Stopes book Married Love, a sensation at the time, in Edna’s room.

Dr. Mary Stopes

According to Mrs. Hughes, possession of the book means Edna had planned the whole thing, and that she must have known all about preventing pregnancy. Unfortunately, Fellowes—and, by extension, Mrs. Hughes, are mistaken on this. The version of Married Love available online only hints at methods of contraception—primarily douching, presumably, and possibly condoms:

It should be realized that all the proper, medical methods of preventing undesired pregnancy consists, not in destroying an already growing embryo, but in preventing the male semen from reaching the unfertilized egg cell. This may be done either by shutting the semen away from the opening of the womb, or by securing the death of all (instead of the natural death of all but one) of the two or three hundred million spermatozoa which enter the woman…To render inert the ejaculated spermatozoa which would otherwise die and decompose naturally, is a simple matter, now familiar to every intelligent physician and layman.2

How to do this, Stopes writes, is “knowledge…easily obtainable” elsewhere. Apparently, one of the commonly used fertility regulators of the time was “half a lemon, partially squeezed out and then inserted in the vagina to cover the cervix like a cap.”3


But I digress.

My point, finally, concerns the lengths to which Mrs. Hughes appears prepared to go in her attempts to foil Edna’s plan:

Edna: What proof have you got?

Mrs. Hughes: None, at the moment. But if you persist in your lie, I’ll summon the doctor and have him examine you.

Edna: You can’t force me.

Mrs. Hughes: Oh yes, I can. First, I’ll lock you in this room. Then, when he’s arrived, I’ll tear the clothes from your body and hold you down, if that’s what it takes.

A forcible gynaecologic examination? Does that sound far from rape to you?

In the face of Mrs. Hughes’s determination, Edna folds. And we, let’s face it, are stoked. Because a devil, for once, has got her comeuppance.

Edna: He still seduced me. You can’t change that.

Mrs. Hughes: You made a man drunk and climbed into his bed. You call that seduction? Because I don’t.

Edna rushes out. To Tom, Mrs. Hughes allows she was bluffing, that a doctor’s examination at that point would have found nothing.

But haven’t we, too, been seduced? Seduced into accepting the threat of a near-rape as a justified response to Edna’s aggression. 

Ethel Parks
And finally—SPOILER ALERT—having watched the entire fourth season, may I say that another Downton character could have used the lemon treatment, and that it is not a coincidence that Fellowes’s choice of the names Ethel, Edna, and Edith is not, thematically speaking, a coincidence.
Lady Edith



Notes

1This is not a summary of the episode. For an excellent recap of episode 3, please see Robin Kawakami’s Wall Street Journal blog piece, here http://blogs.wsj.com/speakeasy/2014/01/19/downton-abbey-season-4-episode-3-tv-recap/

2 Stopes, Mary Carmichael. Married love or love in marriage. New York, NY: The Critic and Guide Company, 1918. Available online at

3 Short, R.V. “New ways of preventing HIV infection: thinking simply, simply thinking.”
Philos Trans R Soc Lond B Biol Sci. 2006 May 29; 361(1469): 811–820. Published online 2006 February 3. doi:  10.1098/rstb.2005.1781