State of Mind Blog

Updates on Murray’s Writing

Sexual Abuse and Institutions

When the scandal about Catholic priests in Boston abusing children burst onto the front page all over America, an outrage against certain institutions began fomenting. 

Immersed in the world of the psyche, I have wondered about how institutions, unwittingly, provide opportunities for predators, and even indirectly promote predation within their own ranks. I also wonder about the predator. Do they enter institutions with the aim of using them to provide access to victims? Or is there a mysterious systemic complicity that induces or releases predatory behavior within the stated mission of the institution, whether religious worship, education, sports training, artistic enterprise, or summer camp?

Once active within an institution that systemic complicity seems to evolve an identical, contralateral view of the abuse: both perpetrator and executives of the institution prefer to regard the abuse as mitigated, causing minimal harm. And both sides take on the addict’s self-exonerating delusion: that the abuse will stop, will not go on, will not be repeated. Both sides fear and protect themselves—institutions and abusers—from exposure. And, perhaps accelerated by the protective shield adopted by the institution, the abuser repeats and repeats again. Active pedophiles are often serial abusers.

No one knows when or how pedophilic desire arises within an individual. Is it an outlier of sexual preference that arises much like the more common sexual proclivities? The defining difference is that pedophilia cannot be construed in most societies as leading to consensual acts. Pedophilia involves serious power dynamics that perforce makes the adult authority figure an abuser and the child a subordinate victim. Non-offending pedophiles, perhaps a much larger albeit anonymous group, recognize the intractable dynamic between themselves and their potential object, and, therefore, they resist pursuing that implicit desire because they too view it as immoral, illegal and harmful to children. Active pedophiles abandon those strictures, even inverting them, and become committed to engaging sexually with minors.

I wonder if the transition from having the desire and then acting on it begins like a drug addic’ts initial trial of a psychoactive substance . The thrill of the dare is quickly followed by the joy of the intoxication. Taking the next dose seems to derive from that sense of daring and ecstatically enhanced mood. The ignominy associated with taking drugs weakens and even may disappear under the euphoric effects of intoxication. Might this be similar with pedophiles: that the first offense results in such intense sexual gratification that the ignominy of abuse and molestation melt into a justifying and rationalizing defense. Active pedophiles, as NAMBLA has argued, invert the idea of abuse into its opposite: enlightened initiation. Active pedophiles may come to view their prey as psychologically adult, thereby denying children their innocence and vulnerability. They may regard a child as acquiescing, consenting or even seducing.

When institutions discover a pedophile has abused a child under their roof they may conduct internal investigations, though rarely relating their findings publicly nor even informing parents of their findings. When the abuse incidents reach some level the institution regards as rampant they may find methods to silence parents such as buyouts and/or threats (the family will suffer disgrace, the family will be ex-communicated). Convinced by a remorseful offender that he is duly and permanently chastened, the institution may allow him to remain and might order him into treatment (e.g., a ballet company sent one of its offending regisseurs into psychotherapy for a month, then back to work). Institutions place a protective seal against disclosure to guard its reputation. Scandals about institutions harboring an abuser result when an outsider publicly broadcasts an accusation. Cleaning house is not always a priority.

By now we have learned how state universities, Catholic dioceses, the Boy Scouts, and the US Olympic Committee harbored spectacularly rampant predators while also shading and protecting them. The abuses that occur in such large and prestigious institutions are astounding both in number and in duration. Despite the resultant outrage, there remains this very serious and disturbing question:

How can our society address the kind of implicit but potent collaboration between offenders and their hosts, the inexorable abuse and its coverup that permit such promiscuous offenses to continue to occur?

Covid and Dragons

covid, fear, virus

Fear has many eyes ….and, for every saying about fear there is its opposite. For example: “fear arises from ignorance.” But we know that from the cavalcade of anti-vaxers, armed with disinformative conspiracy theories, they have no fear. Belief in the nonexistence of Covid-19, or belief that it is no more dangerous than the common cold, creates a complacency, a fearlessness, in the face of severe illness and death. They all deserve to ride on the old Alfred E. Newman slogan, “What, me worry?”

In older times plagues called forth dragons. The idea that a dragon comandeered a most valuable treasure or imprisoned a most beautiful princess or guarded a most sacred object offered an object lesson on human wish fulfillment. That a person, armed with little more than righteous confidence, could triumph over such an implacable and powerful monster gave hope that mere wishing could vanquish the unvanquishable.

Our 45th President seems to personify that person. His flaunting of all moral standards, his supreme disregard for historical or juridical or constitutional truths and laws, has positioned him in the forefront of collective, wishful, magical thinking. Even Covid could not stop him or give him pause or deter his base of avid, rabidly wishful followers.

The anti-vaxers and anti-maskers have constructed a monster out of science, medical evidence and common sense as a nonsensical rapture, as if a pseudo-science, crafted out of unreal and de-bunked, fraudulent data, will save them. Will save them from the fantastical dragon they have contrived.

“Science persuades by  demonstrating natural truths through verifying experiments.”

The willing immersion into and even proselytizing  for an anti-science health system is not new. Ancient health practices, such as those by Hippocrates, were based on actual healing experiences and continued through the period of the Roman empire, not to fail to mention that indigenous peoples elsewhere experiment with plants and plant extracts. All these relied on the observed success (or failure) of natural experiments.

The early Christian church asserted that divine knowledge (as promulgated by church leaders relying on divine instruction) was the only acceptable source for medical truths. Studying nature was ruled a sin, a heretical repudiation of God. Science was precluded.

Mesmerism, a treatment for many ailments, enjoyed great popularity in the eighteenth and 19th centuries. Its practice was founded on the discovery of magnetic physics, which became mutated by fantastical belief into a kind of spiritual magnetism applied not to iron but to humans.

Hypnotism derived from these routes, is now formulated as an interpersonal exchange based on psychological dominance and submission with directives implanted by suggestion.

Christian Science, still an active anti-science belief system, held considerable sway in its first decades near the beginning of the twentieth century. It offers hope in dire medical circumstances but may interfere with effective, evidence-based treatment.

The politics of persuasion, which all false belief systems probably emerge from, is a phenomenon deeply embedded in the evolution of human psychology. Science persuades by demonstrating natural truths through verifying experiments. We are persuaded when results appear real, tangible and capable of repetition by others.

But persuasion to a false belief, especially one that challenges an accepted norm, relies on the power of a contrary alternative. Repudiating a social norm can feel heroic, revolutionary, and exquisitely triumphant. Herein lies the power of exceptionalism, of daring to stand outside and apart, to thumb one’s nose even while inhaling through it a potentially crippling and even fatal virus.

Do we let the dragon roam free? And rely on heaven to help us?

“Lets go Brandon!”

PANZIL Unleashed

Panzil The Wolf-Be Wanna-Be Dragon

In 1997 I was struggling with an illness in my family while agonizing over a book I had been writing about severe cases of schizophrenia. My friend, David Gordon, seeing me distressed, suggested I take a break and write a children’s book. David was an artist and longed to illustrate one. So we teamed up and produced this book about a young dragon, Panzil we called him. Panzil was born into a fen of retired, rather feckless dragons whose fierce powers no longer had any traction given the horrific weapons humans have developed. So the dragon colony stayed hunkered down in their inaccessible den. But Panzil realized that he was naturally anti-violent and a vegetarian as well. And he wanted to use his dragon powers to do good in the world and to realize his true identity. The book opens with Panzil deciding to leave his parents and venture out into the world.

First Panzil enlisted the advice of old Doctor Warlock, an ancient but very wise dragon. Panzil wanted to know in what ways he could transform his ferocious dragon powers into positive ones. Doctor Warlock gave him a brief lesson, startling but effective, and Panzil was ready to set off.

“A second book, Panzil Saves Christmas, was completed in 2017.”

Fearing that his appearance, his dragon looks, would instill terror in any living thing that he encountered, Panzil devised a ramshackle disguise and, with some temerity, set out to do good.  And, indeed, he soon found an opportunity to save an entire forest and all its animals from a potentially disastrous forest fire. Panzil’s search for his true identity was well rewarded by his efforts. His is a heartening tale of self-realization, a lesson for young readers and an exciting, as well as humorous, story.

Panzil was intended to become a series of books about his adventures, each with a moral for children. A second book, Panzil Saves Christmas, was completed in 2017. It is a book about saving the planet from the climate crisis. Unfortunately, David Gordon passed away only weeks after completing the illustrations. Panzil Saves Christmas will be released soon.

PANZIL The Would-Be Wanna-Be Dragon is available for purchase HERE:

And at the Apple iBooks store.

It will soon be available at Amazon as well.

Dragon Devolving

From earliest childhood I have pondered the origin of the idea of the dragon—this outsized, monstrous creature with a body composed of amalgamated features of the most terrifying animals: serpents, lions, eagles, raptors…

Dinosaurs might have served as the model for these gigantic monsters construed as dragons. But, since dinosaurs died out 66 billion years ago from the impact of an enormous meteor, and the earliest human ancestors date from 11 million years ago, it is unlikely that there was ever any human experience with living dinosaurs. There was surely contact with mammoth size animals during the migrations of modern humans across the globe. These animals went extinct from human hunting perhaps somewhere around the time that dragon myths began to appear.

“…the promise of mastering the beast still resonates.”

Dragons generated mostly inglorious myths about their abhorrence of humans and, also, the desire for humans to vanquish them. For centuries various cultures promulgated stories of heroic defeats and destructions of dragons.

Today dragons have undergone a media-created program of taming, perhaps inspired by the dramatic taming of wild horses or even of the eons-old domestication of dogs snd cats. Making feral creatures subject to human will may have fostered the grand idea of the social mastery of beasts of prey.

The appeal of the dragon lives on. Powerful, ferocious, extremely aggressive— the promise of mastering the beast still resonates. Just check popular media.

Inescapable Terror

murray schane state of mind

I remember a sandwich board man marching along Woodward Avenue in Detroit, his sign reading: THE END IS NEAR!” Well, now it seems like the end time might be approaching. We are nearing the point of polluting the atmosphere and all ecosystems that for many, if not all, life could end; we are on a perfervid course toward animal extinctions that could end with our own; we are struggling with a global pandemic that seems unabating; terrorism and wars persist and fuel possibly greater wars and even atomic warfare; and there is the possibility of a Trump re-election.

Our great psychological defense, no doubt sparked somewhere in our brains, is denial, the persistent refusal to face facts, to accept a non-disputable reality. Denial is usually the first reaction to news of impending disaster, including one’s own demise. As a defense denial serves to remove potentially destabilizing emotional paroxysms. It may keep a pilot focused on rescue efforts as his plane is hurtling toward earth. Denial can extend for long periods when the dreaded reality remains uncertain. We see hundreds of people massing to super-spreader events aware of COVID but denying any personal vulnerability. Denial as a large-scale defense operates by social processes that cause herding effects in groups, even nations.

Vulnerability is potentially a terrifying experience, a coordinated juncture of conscious awareness and emotional sensation. Our cognitive functions, a forebrain-centered action, can often override the emotional upheaval produced by activity in a deeper (sometimes called primitive) part of the brain, the amygdala. But a collusive interaction between these brain functions can create a sense of vulnerability, which can be seriously terrifying. Denial is a cognitive switch that can down-regulate the vulnerability function and provide a sense of surcease. Socially transmitted denial can extend the cognitive-emotional truce that will obliterate vulnerability and harden every participating individual’s experience against vulnerability.

Freedom from care is a universal desire. No one seeks to truly suffer. But no one fares well alone, isolated. We naturally, as determined by evolutionary selection, seek and join groups. We are genetically social beings. Which means we participate in groups by choice or by circumstance. A crowd suddenly triggered by fear will find that emotion spreading rapidly like fire, all brains linked suddenly as one and the crowd begins to stampede. In that melee there survives little regard for the other as the crowd rushes forward, trampling any who fall.

Denial flows through social groups, even mere families, as the maintenance of social ties supersedes the emergence of full recognition of a denied reality.

And so we have people crowding into bars and weddings and Trump rallies unmindful of the lethal potential that awaits them. Denial of the virulent infectivity of COVID-19 remains in full force. The people in that crowd could mindfully march into a fusillade of real bullets believing none could hit them.

And that is how we often face inescapable terror.

Death and Taxes

murray schane state of mind

When I was eleven years old I was taken to the hospital for an elective appendectomy. It was my introduction to the American healthcare system.

Last week I filed my 2019 income tax forms, paying times what Trump paid in 2017,  thus interacting yet again with our tax system.

Between these two events many decades of living have intervened. Inevitably my involvement with these systems will terminate with death.

Such thoughts give pause—or a rear-end kick—now that a global contagion rages on, climate damage is threatening to result in massive animal and plant die-out, politics appear to be leaning so far right that bizarre, paranoid conspiracy theories and science disbelief are seizing population sectors, human inequalities seem to be increasing, the Amazon rainforest, our carbon dioxide world control center, is being desecrated, international contentions and small wars rage on……it’s a disquieting time. Millions are now living in lockdown and warding off fears—about sickness and economic disaster— with televideo binge-watching and social media and digital converse. Yet they, we, are still isolated or actually alone.

 

“…science, too, as a narrative form”

 

The human brain evolved over many thousands of years primed for expansive and formidable adaptation. Creativity and the search for novelty has pushed us through barriers that are physical, social and even psychological. But we are burdened and limited by the things we cannot narrative. Being fundamentally narrative beings, animals that can not think or dream or imagine without enclosing all that in explanations or stories or theorems or even mathematical formulas that codify narratives. Science rescued us from levels of ignorance and mythologizing that would have held us back, even as we seek explanations and thrust forward leading with our craving for novelty and our inherent creativity. But science, too, as a narrative form. Even our ever-expanding knowledge of the universe is delivered as a narrative, from the first book of the Bible and farther back to the ancient Greeks and farthest back. But where is our narrative brain, our great evolutionary prize, leading us?

When I was given ether as the anesthetic for my appendectomy at age eleven, I woke in a torrent of terrifying hallucinations, like a dream that was more real than any nightmare. I was spinning in a centrifugal whorl, being pulled and stretched further and further as I spun in what seemed like endless space. As the spin increased its speed the tearing and stretching, like some medieval torture, became increasingly painful and frightening. I awoke screaming and thrashing like a wild animal chained. That experience has never left me. Probably induced by the neuropsychological effect of ether, that hallucination ensured my belief in the creative potential of the human mind as well as the narrative impulse that shapes all experience.

Which takes me back to the present. Poised what seems like a very steep precipice, America could topple into the kind of ruthlessly manipulated, re-narratized, information bounded and controlled form of governance that almost every country has, at one time or another, immersed inself in.

Which takes me back to death and taxes. Is the drive to massive disorder that seems now threatening, inevitable.? Does Rome have to fall again and again? Is a new dark age due to befall us, we who brought it on?

Give ourselves a break. Do us all some good.

 

Children of the Pandemic

murray schane state of mind

As a toddler during World War II, playing in our comfy living room in Detroit, I was unaware of the fear and anxiety that permeated the adult life around me. Not just the threat of war possibly arriving at our shore, but the knowledge that my parent’s families in France were possibly subject to the horrors of the holocaust. And word of their fate, their actual status, was unavailing.

When the news came home, after the war had ended, both parents were devastated, my mother especially. She had saved up during the depression years to bring her parents to live in the U.S. They came for a year in 1938, but, unable to speak English and missing their younger children, they returned to Paris in 1939. Paris fell to the Nazis in 1940. Then, on a hot July day in 1942, the French police, eager to please their Nazi overlords, undertook the mass arrest of Jews in the infamous Vel’ d’Hiv’ roundup. Among those 12,000 were my mother’s parents and two of her sisters, ultimately sent to be murdered at Auschwitz. That news devastated my mother.

I cannot measure the effect of living as a child through those tense and grievous early years. Perhaps it’s one reason I ultimately became a psychiatrist. I know I had an especially keen sense of empathy for the suffering of my patients. But I also retained the kind of clinical objectivity that perhaps replicates a child’s eye-view of adults in despair: closely observed and felt, but yet socially distant.

Now, locked in self-quarantine with their parents and with no live interaction with peers, children are subject to the pressured environment around them. The major impact originates from two perspectives: one is the emotional temperature of the caretakers, principally parents, and other co-inhabitants. The stress that the adults (and older siblings) experience inevitably impacts children, the way they witness and observe and experience the behavioral tone in the home.

A second impact derives from the way parents and others directly interact with children. Isolation with children at home continually day in and day out creates issues about relating to and tolerating children who are also unused to extended contact with parents. Discipline and caretaking become redefined merely by force of the conditions of constant contact.

Children are as adversely affected by the social containment forced on them as are the older family members. And children’s tendency to react to conditions forced upon them is not seasoned and reasoned by the rationales available to adults.

 

“[T]he mounting effect of stress on children may result in problems in adaptability on a scale we have never seen before”

 

Fear and anxiety are emotionally contagious. Groups of people are genetically programmed to spread anxiety and panic under massed conditions. Social isolation, though tempered by the reduced number and familiarity, is none-the-less a condition where mood is readily caught and embedded, transferred between each other. Empathy, so much a human trait, when paired with the brain’s flight-or-fight reactivity can overwhelm even the most mature and affectively restrained person.

The coronavirus crisis is a stark example of rapidly spreading panic, exemplified by the enormous surge toward stocking toilet paper. The problem for children is that their capacity to self-soothe and to temper emotional flare-ups is not fully or adequately developed. Children react intensely. Nor can they accurately delimit or correctly interpret the emotional messages coming at them from the adults in the room.

The problem is further extended by the neural plasticity that allows for adaptation to new conditions as well as acquiring new adaptive patterns. Living under stressful conditions affects the neural development of the brains of children and creates adverse patterns of brain-based behavior, mood and social interaction. Stress, experienced directly or vicariously, can reset multiple neural pathways in the developing child’s brain.

With the likelihood that the coronavirus crisis will force sustained social isolation, the mounting effect of stress on children may result in problems in adaptability on a scale we have never seen before.

This, of course, necessitates that parents and intimate caretakers of children are tasked with the need to contain their own emotional lability and to develop methods to assuage the effects of stress on their children.

We are living in an endangered new world, not one only threatened by the mounting effects of climate change, the extinction of critical animal species, the uncertainty of politics, economics, and global relations, but under the siege of fear, anxiety, and endemic stress due to the coronavirus terror.

“Oh brave new world…”

The Passover Lesson That Can Save us All

 

 

 

 

The central tenet of the Jewish holiday, Passover, is the celebration of God’s deliverance of the Jews from slavery. But that deliverance came because the Jews were warned to paint their doors with the blood of a sacrificial lamb so that God’s wrath would spare the Jews of the slaughter of their first-born sons. That was the final plague Moses proclaimed against the Egyptians. The pharaoh’s refusal to free the Jews when faced with this tenth, terrible plague forced God’s hand. But the Jews had to act on God’s instruction, on faith that their sons would be spared. Yet, again, fleeing the attack by Egyptian soldiers, they gathered at the edge of the sea, acting on the belief that they would somehow cross it. And God parted the sea, allowing the Jews to pass, then folded the sea back, drowning the pursuing soldiers.

A very dramatic story, one braced against the grim history of the holocaust. But what is the lesson here? First is the recognition that the entire Passover legend is based on no traceable truths. There is no evidence that Jews were enslaved in Egypt, that almost a million escaped and journeyed through Sinai eventually to found Israel. Passover marks not only divine interventions but also the willing faith of the Jews and their daring decision to follow divine instruction and act accordingly.

 

“The denial of susceptibility rages even as proof of the contagion mushrooms exponentially.”

 

Deliverance from slavery resonates with the experience of pestilence. It is fitting that that deliverance was wrought by ten plagues. But slavery was the greater plague.  Hitler viewed the Jews as a global pestilence to be eradicated. The very idea of pestilence has pursued Jews at least from the time of the diaspora, after the sack of the temple and the genocide inflicted by the Romans in 60 AD. Almost everywhere in Europe where plagues occurred, and they occurred regularly, Jews were often blamed and punished. These reprisals, though obviously racist, represented attempts to secure deliverance from pestilence.

Today the coronavirus has arrived as a massive plague that spreads because of the core of human civilization—the instinctive trend toward socialization. We can now remove most traces of mythologization. COVID-19, like most viruses, exists in the natural order that ties them to the great evolutionary chain which all living things partake in.

Deliverance from this pestilence requires action faithful to belief in the scientific theory of contagion. Like the enslaved Jews of ancient Egypt, apocryphal as that story may be, people today must act on the recommendations offered by science.

Yet the tendency to assert blame on others, invoking racial and xenophobic slurs, has once again emerged. The denial of susceptibility rages even as proof of the contagion mushrooms exponentially. The allocation and the hoarding of medical resources recapitulate ideas of special privileging. Our democratic society is back-sliding, falling prey to eons-old fears framing one against the other.

The major preventative, physical isolation, also creates social isolation. But this preventive measure feels like an ancient enslavement, an imprisonment. But it is an act we must follow, as the Passover story reminds us, in order to find deliverance. And we must do it generously and faithfully.

We will prevail. Only save ourselves from the worst.

 

 

Your Brain on Social Isolation

murray schane state of mind

Social isolation is human despair. We evolved down from primates who were all blessed and sometimes cursed with group membership. Simply put: no (hu)man is an island.

The strangest, and some ways most disturbing, example of social isolation I ever experienced was as a senior officer on a Coast Guard ship were I was sent for a very brief tour. It was during the Vietnam war and I was serving in the Public Health Service. A requirement of that service was to do a 3-week junket providing medical coverage for a small sector, in the North Atlantic —the Sea of Labrador—as part of America’s commitment to NATO.

“Now as the coronavirus is forcing unprecedented isolation and physical as well as social distance many of us will suffer its potentially debilitating effects.”

This was not a case of physical distancing but true social distancing. As Lieutenant-Commander I was second in rank, the first being the ship captain. Tradition requires that he live and dine alone in his cabin. From the moment the ship sailed out of Governor’s Island, NY, I was perpetually seasick. But I had to show up at the head of table at every meal as officers are served in order of rank and I had to be present so everyone else could be fed. At least that is how it was explained to me.

The overwhelming feeling of isolation was probably partly my own fault. I tend to be shy and diffident. In the company of those mostly younger officers committed to a life of service at sea whose talk was mostly about experiences and interests that I did not share, And I missed my family, my home, my life that seemed far and foreign on that little cutter ship. I felt utterly alone. And virtually and actually at sea. Being seasick added a physical sense of detachment and inwardness.

Now as the coronavirus is forcing unprecedented isolation and physical as well as social distance many of us will suffer its potentially debilitating effects. While these may seem merely psychological, there is scientific evidence that such distancing from almost all face-to-face forms of usual and customary engagement can involve significant biologic changes.

Science, the craft that people have forged always collectively, now is demonstrating that isolation disturbs brain function and radiates to affect the health of the whole body. Indeed, isolation can be its own form of trauma.

Humans, born to the longest period of abject dependency of any species and dependent on conspecifics across the lifespan to survive and prosper, do not fare well, either, whether they live solitary lives or they simply perceive they live in relative isolation.” Perceived social isolation is called loneliness….[It] is a risk factor for, and may contribute to, poorer overall cognitive performance, faster cognitive decline, poorer executive functioning, more negativity and depressive cognition, heightened sensitivity to social threats, a confirmatory bias in social cognition that is self-protective and paradoxically self-defeating, heightened anthropomorphism, and contagion that threatens social cohesion. These differences in attention and cognition impact emotions, decisions, behaviors, and interpersonal interactions that may contribute to the association between loneliness and cognitive decline and between loneliness and morbidity more generally.”

While the perception of isolation begins in the brain and spreads within it to compromise mood and cognition, its effects also extend to the endocrine and cardiovascular systems through downward connections from the brain. General inflammatory processes are also set up and reflect back on brain function. Ultimately even micro brain structures are altered.

As the coronavirus crisis continues we can expect these potentially devastating effects to begin to appear, worse in those who mental conditions that can be exacerbated by isolation. And that group is very widely and commonly distributed: from people with major psychiatric illnesses to those with depression, anxiety, trauma histories and even PTSD, ADHD, autism, and dementia. One group, male survivors of sexual abuse, is among the potentially vulnerable and, as I include myself among them, I have posted a blog on the MaleSurvivor.org site. So, almost everyone will be affected to some degree by a prolonged state of social isolation. Add to this the lack of adequate or sufficient medical care, as well as economic hardship, and the disaster will expand even further.

This is a time when mutual support will become critical, now, fortunately, more available than in the past through internet connectivity. We must lean on one another and we also would benefit from support from authorities we humans have always relied on—our societal leaders. One of the greatest failures of our current national leadership is our president who seems innately incapable of broadly experienced empathy. Truth leavened with compassion and understanding is the best medicine in any crisis.

We need that now more than ever before.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

How to Write a Children’s Book

murray schane state of mindPanzil. How did I think of that?

I can blame my late friend,  David Gordon, who coaxed me into writing a children’s book. He was a graphic designer and he let me use his back office and his dining room during a dark time in my life, a time when one of my children was suffering from a debilitating illness that was worsening. One afternoon, as I was at the keyboard trying to write about deeply troubled patients, David put his hand on my shoulder and said, “Why don’t you write a children’s book? Something I could illustrate.”

Here I was, a psychiatrist past my twentieth year in practice, a would-be want-to-be writer, but the idea hung in the air like a fly that suddenly rushes past you, then flies out of sight.

Days later, as the fly was buzzing around me, I thought about the horror movies I liked to watch as a boy, shielding my eyes with nervous, cupped hands. All of those films were about creatures, werewolves and gorilla women and Frankenstein and Dracula and the invisible man. All of them secretly yearning to be rendered good somehow, to be rescued.

Of course, I identified with all of them. One of the struggles of my childhood, probably the main one, was defining who I was and who I was going to be when-I-grow-up. Every child’s task is to achieve a sense of self, the person it first begins to recognize through what Lacan called the Mirror Stage. Soon it accrues the qualities assigned by others — I was shy, quiet, regimented, dreamy, fearful, smart. So I was told. And hanging all through my childhood was some future self which I could not identify. I wanted to be a writer because I loved books. Not so much that I loved to write but that I liked the idea of being a writer of books.

My father’s dream for me, doubtless the fulfillment of his dream for himself, was for me to be a doctor. He was quite vocal about that, though never insistent, always subtle. He believed I had all of the qualifications to become a doctor, that I was a doctor incarnate.

So here I was years later, a few years after his death, a doctor, And I was writing a children’s book.

 

“He will live according to principles of being and doing good.”

 

I thought up a little character, a young dragon, born to be bad, but who tries to undo his heritage. He will rescue himself, even defy his parents and all he came from. The image of this young dragon came to me with a pre-determined name, the Yiddishy-sounding Panzil. That name rang out to me like a call from some Transylvanian swamp. A place where dragons might dwell. A dark, dank fen.

David loved the idea and the name. He immediately began sketching.

The thrust of the story became Panzil’s efforts to throw off the burden of evil deeds and evil intent and the fierce dragon powers that for centuries personified hellish intent. Panzil, though, is naturally good perhaps because he is young. But also because, seeing all the old destructive power of dragons now seriously out-moded, he is determined to reverse all that. He will live according to principles of being and doing good. He will go out into the world to liberate himself.

Panzil required some library research to discover the myriad of characteristics that cling to the concept of a dragon. Dragon history is ancient, multicultural, and, at times, seemingly credible. A dragon is a lurking, lone predator often guarding some treasure or holding a hostage like some mercenary devil.

Our first draft, despite the truly inspired illustrations, did not read quite right. The text required a few editorial consultations to give it a voice that speaks to children. Having gleefully turned out the first book, David and I envisioned a series of sequels — how Panzil might save Christmas from climate change; how Panzil could protect endangered species; how Panzil could restore the balance of available water supply. And each episode would serve as Panzil’s lesson to children.

Panzil, the do-good little dragon.

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