...The Great Pretender, by Susannah Cahalan: This book is the follow-up to Cahalan's New York Times best-seller, Brain on Fire. That book, a memoir, was about how an auto-immune disease caused in Cahalan psychotic breaks that nearly led to her institutionalization, until a doctor correctly diagnosed her. The Great Pretender takes Cahalan's lingering fear from those scary months and applies it to the story of David Rosenhan, a Stanford professor who in the 1970s published a famous study: "On Being Sane in Insane Places." Rosenhan doubted psychiatrists could correctly diagnose schizophrenic patients so he and eight others, many of them grad students at Stanford, faked symptoms and were admitted to the nation's leading hospitals. The study chronicled the days that followed their admittance, and how hard, how very very hard, it was for some to prove their sanity once they'd been labelled "insane." Rosenhan's study upended psychiatry, led to more robust classifications within the DSM, and is still taught today, in almost every Psych 101 course.
Problem is, neither Rosenhan nor his study were quite what they appeared to be. That's the work of the second half of Cahalan's book, one that is, yes, bloated with unnecessary digressions, but one that blends memoir and history and the modern-day implications of that history into a narrative I keep thinking about, even as I write this. The big question Cahalan poses is the same one that animates Ken Kesey's One Flew Over the Cuckoo Nest:
Who is "normal" and who is "not"? And to what degree are such labels actually helpful in society?
...Bully. Coward. Victim: The Story of Roy Cohn: My introduction to Cohn came through Tony Kushner's Angels in America, the epic play that altered my thinking on what drama could do when I read it in college. Cohn does not come off well as a fictionalized character. He doesn't fare much better here, in Bully. Coward. Victim, the documentary of his life that HBO just released.
It's fascinating all the same. Cohn, if you don't recall, was a lawyer who came to prominence during the Red Scare. He argued on behalf of the government that Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, two native New Yorkers, were Soviet spies who gave the U.S.S.R. the information to make the bomb. The couple was convicted, sentenced, and then executed in 1953. Cohn then worked for Senator Eugene McCarthy and, the documentary argues, pushed McCarthy during his infamous Commie-hunting hearings to positions ever more extreme and paranoid. After that Cohn became a power broker to moneyed New Yorkers, in the media, in Democratic politics, and at Studio 54, where he danced almost every weekend and where he represented the owners of the disco, as their attorney.
He was in the closet, and the identity he spent his life refusing to acknowledge informed his pugnacious and frankly evil persona. Even his friends, even his family members, say he was terrible man. But he had power, and that drew people close, whether it was Chuck Schumer or Barbara Walters or Donald Trump, whom Cohn groomed as a real estate baron. Trump called Cohn his mentor.
The final act of the documentary is Shakespearean: how Cohn's career dissolved, how he died, and then later still the release of information about how he comported himself during the Rosenberg trial, how unethical he was, how criminal.
The film is directed by the granddaughter of the Rosenbergs, which some might see as a conflict of interest but others might see as a lasting justice.
..."Billy on the Street" with Lin-Manuel Miranda: My daughter and I can't wait to watch Hamilton on Disney-Plus this weekend. We went down a bit of a Miranda Google hole a few nights back and came across this ridiculous bit from Funny or Die. I love Billy Eichner and Miranda plays along the whole time. Just as good as the Miranda interview is Eichner and Tiffany Hadish prowling the streets, looking for a third witch for their Hocus Pocus remake. Watch them both, then Hamilton. It's the perfect quarantined 4th of July.
...A new citizen: Wednesday I got word that Janis Shinwari became a U.S. citizen. The news made my week. I got to know Shinwari when I did a story on his life and that of Matt Zeller, the Army intelligence officer whom Shinwari saved from death during a Taliban firefight in 2008. Shinwari was not a soldier in name but an Afghan interpreter for U.S. forces. Still, he fought alongside Zeller and ultimately saved not only his life but the lives of four other Americans. Zeller and Shinwari became close, inseparable, "brothers," they said. Then Zeller's tour ended and he left Afghanistan, working as a CIA contractor. Shinwari sent him ever-more distressing emails. The Taliban figured out who he was, then figured out where his family lived. Shinwari pleaded with Zeller to get him and his young wife and young children out of Afghanistan.
Only Zeller couldn't. The U.S. government saw past Shinwari's valor and saw instead a foreign name and probable Afghan threat. It took years, it took pleading with John McCain, it took cashing in every last cent of political capital Zeller had to get Shinwari and his family to the States. But they got here, thanks to a special immigration visa. And when Zeller set up a GoFundMe to help pay for Shinwari's rent and ease his family's transition to the U.S., Shinwari refused the cash.
“What about Ehasan? And Habib? And Maiwand?” Shinwari said. These were other translators both men knew, whose lives were in as much danger as Shinwari’s but who were still in Afghanistan. So Zeller and Shinwari established a non-profit called No One Left Behind, whose goal is to get Afghan and Iraqi interpreters who worked alongside U.S. forces to the States.
The story I wrote—about the above but also how the Trump administration has tried to kill the special immigration program that allowed Shinwari into the U.S.—was perhaps the most meaningful of my career. I plan to cover it again in Season 2 of the podcast. Shinwari talked with NPR about what citizenship means, and everyone from Nikki Haley to David Petraeus congratulated him.
At last, Janis Shinwari is not just a hero but an American hero.
Shinwari takes his oath Monday as a naturalized U.S. citizen, in a ceremony in Fairfax, Virginia.
Happy 4th! I'll be back next Friday.
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