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: 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: Fighting for Life by S. Josephine Baker

Fighting for LifeFighting for Life by S. Josephine Baker

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

First of all, Sara Josephine Baker lived an incredible life. Second of all, she has a totally relatable way of sharing her story.

Originally published in 1939, this autobiography tells firsthand the story of a woman doctor (at a time when that brought strange looks) who engineered the saving of thousands of infant lives in New York City slums at the turn of the century and became the first woman to earn a Doctor of Public Health through the program at NYU (because, when she was asked to lecture in the program that only accepted men, she refused to do so unless she could also enroll for the degree, opening the door for other women to enroll as well).

I originally read an excerpted version of her memoir (in Written by Herself: Autobiographies of American Women <– highly recommend). I enjoyed the excerpted version so much, that I almost immediately ordered her book.

The beginning takes a little while to get into, but soon enough, you’re following her to New York as she enrolls in medical school and later sets up her own practice with a fellow woman doctor and then gets involved with preventive public health and on and on it goes, as she steps into different roles and situations and seeks to fill the gaps she finds.

Baker has a no-nonsense style to her writing. Don’t come to this book seeking lyrical prose or a literary masterpiece. Her writing flows, as if she’s sitting and talking with you, recounting her life. I learned a ton — about her, her work, and the world as it was back then (think, women’s suffrage, “little mothers,” Soviet Russia — oh, and baby care).

I thoroughly enjoyed this book and recommend it to anyone who enjoys learning, values the work of women in the world, and is curious about history.

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8 writing lessons I (re)learned through revision

I spent the majority of this week and last wrangling a story. The first 1,600-word draft — written to follow an outline I thought was solid and completed at approximately 6:30 p.m. last Friday (that’s 1.5 hours late to the weekend) — read like a list of events. No emotion, no thought progression. Just, this happened, then this happened, then this happened, then this, and then they got a cool letter. The end.

I’m not sure if the three-day weekend (Happy belated Memorial Day!) helped or hindered the revision process. I returned to the office on Tuesday, looked over Friday’s draft, heard Peter Parker’s editor in my head:

Megacrap
Spider-Man (2002)

And decided to trash it. Back to the drawing boards.

(Almost literally, actually, since my first outline evolved out of a color-coded mess of whiteboard notes.)

Here’s what I (re)learned through this particularly frustrating revision process:

1. If you begin in the wrong place, nothing about the draft will seem right.

When I sat down to write from my new outline, I realized my planned beginning was still wrong (cue fists slamming on the desk) and I couldn’t write anything else until I got that right.

Writing tips for when you're stuck on a story

One of my most-used pieces of writing advice (courtesy of Sarah Dessen) is:

When you’re stuck on a story, go back to the last place things were going well and take a different course.

I apply this to nonfiction on a regular basis and, when I can identify the stuck spot and devise an alternate route, it works like a charm. With this piece, devising an alternate route took more effort than usual, but once I figured it out, the wheels on the bus went round and round and the story got moving.

2. Be willing to go back to square one. 

I was annoyed that I’d written nearly 2,000 words of what I thought was unusable draft, and I was immensely frustrated that I had to outline all over again.

Once I have an outline, I’m usually convinced I have the story figured out. In this case, I was wrong and I was convinced I’d have to trash the entire draft.

But when I re-outlined and started writing, I found that I was wrong again: a lot of what I’d already written was usable — it just needed more narrative around it, more actual storytelling instead of just rehashing events.

Embrace the process. Go back to square one.

3. Get up close with your notes.

If you don’t know which page to flip to for that one quote or anecdote, you haven’t studied your notes enough.

I have this tendency — when a story involves talking to a lot of people at different times about the same thing — to think I know the material inside-out after I transcribe the interviews and read through, highlight, color-code my notes once. This tendency, I’m learning, is actually laziness I have to fight for the quality and integrity of my work.

I need to be as familiar with those notes as I am with my Bible.

When a quote comes to mind that could fit in this section about people’s perceptions of prison inmates, I need to know exactly where in my notes I can find it. If no quotes are coming to mind, I have a lot more studying to do.

4. Take the time to narrow your notes down, so you have a more concise reference that is tightly focused around the same things your story is focused on.

When you’re working with pages and pages of notes, it’s easy to get so overwhelmed by the information, you lose sight of the story.

When I sat down on Tuesday, I opened my notes — on paper and the same document on my computer — and, as I read through them, I copied and pasted what related to my story into a new document. This cut my active notes in half.

Doing this for investigative journalism will be more complicated, of course, but the principle holds regardless of what type of story you’re writing:

Cut your notes down to what is related to the story.

Remove anything you know you won’t use. If you’re so overwhelmed that you have no idea what you will or will not use, keep studying your notes and question whether or not you’ve done enough research.

5. Be patient, but keep pushing.

It’s okay to show signs of exasperation.

Examples:

  • Slamming your hands on your desk
  • Muttering, You have got to be kidding me!
  • Crumbling every sheet of paper you’ve written on in pursuit of this story. Okay. Maybe don’t do that.

But whatever you do — unless you happen to be a verbal processor, which is rare for writers — don’t vent to people.

Venting turns into talking as if you hate the work. You don’t hate the work. You’re just frustrated that it’s not going smoothly. Channel your frustration into the work, and eventually things will move the way they should, even if the movement is slow and clumsy.

6. Kill your darlings. Or at least be willing to.

If you’re a writer, you’ve heard this advice countless times. Like most cliches, it’s been repeated over and over because it’s right.

When a draft is under revision, everything’s on the chopping block. In order to stay, it has to prove it belongs. If a beautiful line, scene, description, word, gets in the way of the story, the only choice is to cut it.

If it’s any comfort, remember this: being willing to cut something — laying that beautiful line on the chopping block — doesn’t mean it will actually be cut in the end. When my new draft started flowing, I was thrilled to discover that a scene I thought I’d lose actually got to stay (points if you can correctly identify it).

7. Keep pushing.

I repeat myself, because the push is a necessary part of the struggle. Without it, you’re not struggling, you’re accepting defeat.

If writing is your job (like it is for me — one post-college life win!), accepting defeat makes you a bad employee. If writing’s not your job, it just makes you a bad writer. Which if you’re actually a writer, you are not okay with. So push on.

8. When you finish the piece to satisfaction (which you will), celebrate the way writers do.

Read. Subscribe to another magazine. Buy a load of books off Amazon. Search for your next story.

And if you need some weekend reading, check out the piece that in some backhanded way inspired this blog post:

Five Thursdays in Prison

This spring, six exercise science students and their professor traveled to New Castle Correctional Facility to gather data for a research project. They left with more than numbers.

Comment if you find the scene I was afraid I’d lose — or if you have writing lessons of your own to share.

Photo credit: Notebook via photopin

Good Reads: Life and the giants we face

This post is part of a series recommending longform, narrative nonfiction (as well as other worthwhile writings).

No two people live identical lives. No two people face all of the same hardships and challenges. Every life has its own giants.

Each story recommended below is about an individual (or individuals) who face or avoid their giants in unique and powerful ways.

The Doctor by James Verini, The Atavist

A Catholic doctor in Southern Sudan is the only surgeon for thousands of miles. Every day, he rises for mass and then works for hours upon hours, treating patients whose bodies have been torn apart, limbs blown off. The doctor could leave, he could go anywhere else to treat patients, but he stays. This piece answers the question of why.

Inheritance, Frontline

If you’ve heard of the Frontline documentary series, My Brother’s Bomber, you’re probably familiar with the story line of this multi-media piece. This piece uses audio recordings, music, video, photography, and the written word to tell Ken Dornstein’s story of wrestling with the loss of his older brother in the Pan Am Flight 103 bombing of December 1988.

The Truth About New York’s Legendary Mole People by Anthony Taille, Narrative.ly

Don’t be distracted by the somewhat clickbait-y title. This piece is a work of literary reported art, rich with detail and fact. All about the hidden population that have made New York’s underground their home, this piece takes the reader into the world beneath, introducing the young mother who’s trying to get her feet under her so she can get her own place and get her daughter back, the woman in her 50s whose underground lair is piled with bags full of recyclables — her livelihood — the father who, when his child comes to visit, rents an apartment for the week so he won’t look like a bum.

What have you read lately that moved or inspired you?

Good Reads: Risks people take for fishing poles, philosophies, and friendship

This post is part of a series recommending narrative, longform journalism and nonfiction pieces.

Is it worth it?

It could be anything. A dive into alligator-infested waters, a move away from everything you know, a climb up a stretch of rock others have labelled unclimbable. Is it worth the risk?

Sometimes, we step up to the forks in life’s road and decide to do what terrifies us, because our decisions shouldn’t be driven by fear. Right? But why do we fear things in the first place? Couldn’t there be a seed of truth buried deep in that overwhelming sense of fright?

These recommended reads all have an aspect of risk. Decide for yourself whether the decisions were worth it.

Unclimbable by Eva Holland, SB Nation

Eva Holland’s knee was in bad shape when she went to the Cirque of the Unclimbables, a trip she’d been anticipating for quite some time. Three Colorado College graduates had just received a grant for a similar trip, also the Unclimbables, when their good friend died in an avalanche. To go or not go? And if they go, how hard should they push?

The Friend by Matthew Teague, Esquire

When Matthew Teague’s wife was dying of cancer, a mutual close friend of he and his wife decided to move in and help. This piece is a heartfelt account of Teague seeing the friend give up nearly everything to meet the needs of him and his wife.

My Dad Tried to Kill Me with an Alligator by Harrison Scott Key, Outside

Lighter and more humorous than the previous two, this piece examines fatherhood through the lens of Harrison’s terrified childhood and, toward the end, his own fathering experience. A fast-paced read that will make you laugh. Unless you’ve decided not to.

And for a fairly accurate (and hilarious) portrayal of the consensus on truth in nonfiction:

Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Truth in Nonfiction But Were Afraid to Ask: A Bad Advice Cartoon Essay by Dave Gessner

No description needed. Just go read it. Seriously.

Good Reads: Missing hikers, recovering communities, and war dogs

This is the fourth in a new series of weekly posts recommending well-written narrative nonfiction/longform articles.

Did North Korea Kidnap an American Hiker? by Chris Vogel, Outside

In 2004, David Sneddon, 24, was capping off a summer studying in China by hiking western China near the Tiger Leaping Gorge. The Mandarin-speaking American was excited to return to the States and finish his college studies, according to emails he’d sent his family, but he never got to his brother’s place in Seoul. Ten years later, he still hasn’t been found, and most evidence points to a kidnapping by North Korea.

Sandy’s Ghost Towns Asbury Park Press Special Report

A collection of stories profiling various New Jersey towns that Hurricane Sandy hit hard in 2012. Each piece gives a taste of local flavor (like Giesela Smith’s crumb cake) and shares the stories and perspectives of residents, what they’ve been through and what they anticipate for the summer.

The Dogs of War by Michael Paterniti, National Geographic

Unsung heroes who are flung in danger’s way unknowingly, war dogs are adopted and trained by the U.S. military for three purposes: patrol, detecting, or tracking. In this piece, Paterniti follows Marine Corporal Jose Armenta and his dog Zenit, as they searched ground in Afghanistan for IEDs, improvised explosive devices, in 2011. The bond between man and dog.

What have you been reading?