Book Review: An Important Book with a Horrible Name about Marijuana, Mental Illness, and Violence by Alex Berenson

Tell Your Children: The Truth About Marijuana, Mental Illness, and ViolenceTell Your Children: The Truth About Marijuana, Mental Illness, and Violence by Alex Berenson

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

“Should psychiatrists speak out about what they were seeing to discourage cannabis use, I asked? Simpson said that in Colorado, psychiatrists had tried and failed. ‘We’ve put it out there, and the community is not receptive.’ At this point, his job as a physician was to try to deal with the wreckage, ‘treat what comes in the door.’

“What did he think would happen in five years, I asked? What would the Denver Health emergency room be like, especially if cannabis continued to grow in popularity?

“Simpson had a three-word answer: ‘It’ll be busier.'” (page 139)

This passage comes a little more than halfway through the narrative of Tell Your Children: The Truth About Marijuana, Mental Illness, and Violence, a poorly named book that should nonetheless be required reading for lawmakers considering full legalization of recreational marijuana and parents who think their kids smoking weed is no big deal. The book makes its case primarily with data and studies from around the world that evidence a tie between marijuana use and psychosis, and between psychosis and nightmarish violence. The author, a former New York Times reporter, doesn’t avoid stepping on toes or burning sacred cows, and that’s because he’s convinced of the connection between marijuana, psychosis, and violence. The evidence he presents is both convincing and alarming.

“Based on his data and later findings, Andreasson says he believes that cannabis is responsible for between 10 percent and 15 percent of schizophrenia cases. Few people develop schizophrenia solely because of smoking, he thinks. But many who would not have become sick do so because marijuana pushes their vulnerable brains over the edge.

“‘Without cannabis, few people would develop the disorder,’ he says.” (page 56)

Before going any further, it’s important to understand where Alex Berenson is coming from in writing this book. In the introduction, he tells us how he has always held a more liberal stance on marijuana, didn’t think of it as a dangerous substance—if you want to use it, go ahead. But then he had a conversation with his wife, a psychiatrist, about a frightening case of violence and she commented on the fact that the perpetrator was “of course” high and had been smoking pot for much of his life. This comment caught Berenson off-guard, and the subsequent conversation led him to start digging into the scholarship around marijuana use and mental health. He didn’t set out to write a book. What he found in the process of research convinced him to write a book.

It turns out that the connection between marijuana use (especially if started young or done frequently over years) and psychosis has been well-documented—to the point that ethical standards prevent researchers from testing the effects of cannabis on people with a history of psychotic disorders because of “the known link between the drug and psychosis” (page 171).

There is a lot of information in this book. Berenson goes through study after study, many of them from Europe. He points out the work that has been done in the UK, where marijuana is hardly used compared to in the US and Canada. He touches on the chemical and brain science aspects, the distinction between CBD (non-psychoactive) and THC (what gets you high), and explains the problem with the term “medical marijuana”. He points out that the concentration of THC in today’s marijuana is much higher than it was in the 60s or 70s, and that through other cannabis products like edibles, users are often consuming straight THC, so they’re getting even higher doses of the chemical than they would from smoking it.

Most of the book is data reporting and science, but in the last few chapters, he focuses primarily on examples of horrifying violence carried out by people in some state of psychosis who either had a history of near constant marijuana use or had just ingested more THC than they ever had before. He waits until the end of the book to tell those stories, because he knows the typical response would be something like, “That’s a freak case. That’s not typical.” Berenson is convinced if marijuana use continues to increase, this sort of violence will become typical.

Whether or not he’s entirely right, I think he’s onto something. I’ve always had philosophical and theological problems with getting high (1 Corinthians 6:19–20), and with my base-level understanding of brain science, I’ve also thought: if something gets you high, that’s probably because a chemical is getting past the blood-brain barrier that isn’t supposed to, so you’re probably doing damage to your brain.

I read about half of this book on my daily commute through Denver, on a bus where the stench of weed is almost constant and it’s common to encounter people who couldn’t exactly be described as lucid. I know at least two people personally who have had psychotic breaks while using, though none to the extremes described in this book (thank God). A lot of what Berenson wrote rings true and makes logical sense.

I gave the book five stars because I really do think it should be required reading—maybe for everyone. It’s a necessary check against the “marijuana is harmless” message that we hear all the time. But this book really, really, really needs a bibliography and the title is terrible. If they republish it under a new name (which they should), they need to go with something like “Seeing Through the Smoke.”

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Book Review: Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking by Susan Cain

Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop TalkingQuiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking by Susan Cain

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Neuroscience, the psychology of social conditioning, cultural paradigms, groupthink, the makings of successful businesspeople and leaders—all of these things come together in Susan Cain’s ultra-deep dive into introversion. Cain digs into studies, conducts her own on-the-ground research, and delves into her own experience as a consultant and, wait for it, introvert to expose what might be/probably is happening inside introverts’ brains in those contexts where they seem withdrawn and the others where they seem on fire.

As an introvert, I found this book both fascinating and confirming. Cain’s discussion of high-reactivity, elevated sensitivity, and sensory overload matched up with my own experience. A lot of the observations she shares in terms of balancing commitments with your available social energy are things I’ve learned on my own, particularly over the last few years.

Although the title may lead you to think this book is a constant slam on extroversion, it’s not. Cain points out the ways that modern Western society elevates extroversion and the blind spots that come with it (just because someone is the loudest person in the room—and thus, has everyone’s ear—doesn’t mean they have the best ideas), and she shows how making room for quiet people to contribute in a way that suits their temperament is beneficial for all. She also delves into how introverts can pass for extroverts and how sometimes that’s necessary, whether to get ideas into the world or accomplish a particular goal.

Quiet is a medium-length book as nonfiction goes and it’s rich with information, but it’s not dense and boring. Cain’s writing pairs a wealth of anecdotes with insightful information that frequently sparked my neural lightbulbs. And she writes to the everyday reader. Anyone who’s an introvert or extrovert or ambivert (i.e., everyone) and wants to better understand how they operate in the world—and how others of different temperaments operate—should pick up a copy.

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Book Review: The Far Field by Madhuri Vijay

The Far FieldThe Far Field by Madhuri Vijay

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Quietly devastating. That’s how I would sum up The Far Field. Vijay’s prose isn’t flowery or ornate. It tells the story simply, going back and forth in time as we follow the main character, as a child always close by her mother who doesn’t fit in the world she occupies and as a young woman after her mother’s suicide, trying and failing to find her own place in the world. She leaves home on a search for a man who used to tell stories to her and her mother, and the closer she gets to finding him, the more complex, ugly, she finds the world to be.

How do you know who you can trust? How do you know whose words you can believe? What is the actual truth and who has the power to decide whether the truth is declared as such or covered up with a stench of lies?

When you leave home and have a life-changing journey, can you ever fully share it with those you left behind? Why do people willfully leave everything they know?

The Far Field doesn’t blatantly ask these questions, but it pokes at them through the actions and observations of its characters. It’s not a fast-moving novel; it’s not plot-driven, but it flows steadily and just when you start to feel like nothing is happening, the story takes a jarring turn.

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Book Review: A Woman’s Place by Katelyn Beaty

A Woman's Place: A Christian Vision for Your Calling in the Office, the Home, and the WorldA Woman’s Place: A Christian Vision for Your Calling in the Office, the Home, and the World by Katelyn Beaty

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I don’t want to feel like a burden. Try to imagine a man saying this—especially about his career—and it’s almost humorous. Try to imagine a woman saying it, and it seems like a mantra of femininity (page 215).

If you’re a working Christian woman, you’ve probably felt the tension. I know I have. There’s a sense in many Christian circles that for women, work is just a temporary thing you do until you get married and start having babies. Last fall, in a mostly good conversation with my older brother, he challenged my super-single self by telling me that being a wife was a calling, so if I had a strong sense of calling in another arena, that might be an obstacle to having a relationship. While I know his intentions were good in telling me that, the underlying assumption of his statement—that being a career-oriented woman is inherently incompatible with being in a marital relationship—is a symptom of a cultural paradigm that devalues the work of women out in the world and limits women to work within the home and family.

Enter Katelyn Beaty’s A Woman’s Place. This book has been on my list since it came out in 2016. I follow Beaty on Twitter and I found the book’s premise compelling. The premise: That God calls all women to work in some way and that work is a way of embodying the image of God.

A Woman’s Place tackles the cultural and historical factors that influence how we in the church see women and work in today’s western society. Key to her discussion are the Industrial Revolution, which separated work from the home (previously, men and women performed their trades out of their houses), and various philosophers and theologians who’ve reinforced the idea that women are somehow less than men. She also makes the point that the ability for a woman to not work for pay and instead just stay at home, keep house, and raise children is dependent on a certain amount of socioeconomic privilege. If you’re poor, you do what you have to do to survive; poor women have always worked.

At the same time that she elevates and supports the work of women outside the home, Beaty also affirms the work of wives and mothers within the home. Work is not just what we do to make a living. “Work happens whenever we interact with the created world, laboring to make it fruitful and beneficial to ourselves and others,” Beaty writes on page 89.

I love to work. I always have. Since my first summer job as a teenager, I’ve enjoyed going to a workplace (or my computer) to accomplish specific tasks. I’m the rare person who doesn’t light up about the weekend and dread Mondays. I look forward to getting back to the office or wherever it is I’m working. Ambition could easily be my middle name, and it has nothing to do with the paycheck. It’s the sense of purpose and the ability to look back at a job well done and say, “I did that.”

Because I enjoy working, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about what it means to be a Christian in the workplace, though not necessarily what it means as a woman—that question comes more into play within the context of the church (Beaty touches on this phenomenon). Beaty’s book wasn’t groundbreaking for me, but it put many of my thoughts into words while highlighting a lot of different people, groups, and initiatives that have done or are doing good work in the arena of faith and work for women Christians.

If you’re a working Christian woman, I highly recommend that you read this book. If you’re a Christian man who wants to better understand your own call in the workplace or the different obstacles that working Christian women face in the church, you should read this book. If you’re a church leader who wants to better serve women, you need to read this book.

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Book Review: And the Mountains Echoed by Khaled Hosseini

And the Mountains EchoedAnd the Mountains Echoed by Khaled Hosseini

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is a difficult book to describe in a nutshell. Beautifully written, but not fast-paced, it’s one you sink your teeth into and relish. Only nine chapters, but they’re long and told from different perspectives as you travel from Afghanistan to Paris to Greece to California and elsewhere. Hosseini doesn’t just tell a story — he truly weaves it, pulling at different threads until they come together in a tapestry meditating on the human condition and how we hurt the very ones we love the most. If you start this book, stay with it until the end. The last pages made my heart well with a sad kind of joy that only a master storyteller can achieve.
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Book Review: All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr

All the Light We Cannot SeeAll the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

“All the Light We Cannot See” is a rich, evocative novel set during World War II. The third person narrator primarily follows two characters: a blind French girl whose father is a locksmith at a museum in Paris, and an orphan boy who is part of Hitler Youth and then conscripted into the Nazi military due to his mechanical gifting, particularly with radios. Doerr is a master of showing, rather than telling, and creates a world with as much texture as the real one. His characters are three-dimensional, conflicted, believably inconsistent. And the story that he weaves between them is equally heart-warming and heart-wrenching, stirring contemplation about how we fit into the world we’ve been given and what it means to have a choice regarding how to live our lives.

It’s only August, but this will probably be the best book I read all year.

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If you’ve read this book, I recommend reading this interview with the author.

Book Review: A Fifty-Year Silence by Miranda Richmond Mouillot

A Fifty-Year Silence: Love, War, and a Ruined House in FranceA Fifty-Year Silence: Love, War, and a Ruined House in France by Miranda Richmond Mouillot

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Miranda Richmond Mouillot was young, romantic, and naive when she set out to retrace her grandparents’ story, one she imagined to be like a fairy tale, full of love but with stars crossed that tore the two apart. What she found was much more complicated.

Mouillot’s grandparents were Jews in France during Nazi occupation in World War II. They successfully escaped to Switzerland where they stayed in refugee camps. Her grandmother was a doctor; after the war, her grandfather worked as an interpreter in the Nuremberg Trials.

Mouillot grew up in the United States, and as a child did not associate her grandparents with each other. They were never in the same place at the same time, and whenever her grandmother was spoken of around her grandfather, he scoffed and said something hurtful. When her grandfather decided to sell a ruined house in France — bought by her grandmother; the deed was in her name — a spark ignited in Mouillot to find out exactly what had happened between her grandparents. That’s what this book is about.

Written in smooth, vivid prose, A Fifty-Year Silence, tells the story of Mouillot’s efforts to solve her grandparents’ mystery while also finding and living a life of her own. It’s a beautiful book that makes the time period real to the reader. This isn’t just another book about World War II. It’s the story of real people with real lives who lived through a real, horrifying time in France and Switzerland.

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