Psycho: A Film Review

marion crane

In honor of Halloween, I finally watched Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho…what a disappointment!  Maybe I lack the critical eye or the film warrants multiple viewings, but I hated it!  Well not hate (hate’s too strong a word); I was underwhelmed.

I get it: the masterful cinematography; the way Hitchcock plays with light and shadow and the way mirrors point to our own natural duplicity; the surprising choice of Anthony Perkins, a lanky, boyishly handsome actor with kind eyes and expressive good looks, for the part of deranged serial killer; the shocking and totally unprecedented demise of a main character 45 minutes in; the iconic shower scene that terrified audiences everywhere.

But, I don’t know, the film lacked something for me.  Psycho felt more like a noir (which you’d think I’d like), but the total implausibility of some of the characters’ actions ruined the film’s realism.  I suppose I shouldn’t demand realism from a trashy genre like the slasher flick, a genre which traditionally asks us to suspend our disbelief as we watch the killer miraculously emerge alive after being shot 10 times in the chest or as we observe the female protagonist decide to go unaccompanied (yet again!) into that creaky, darkened old house.

Make no mistake: I love the idiocy and predictability of such conventions.

But in Psycho, Marion Crane’s sloppy crime and overtly suspicious behavior (“What’s wrong with knowing what you want and wanting it in a hurry?” she demands at the used car lot while trying to exchange her vehicle for another) is just a little too distracting.  Can she be anymore obvious?!  Narratively, her endless miscalculations and silly screw-ups build suspense and push our tolerance to its absolute limit.  Who impulsively steals $40,000, skips town, sleeps alongside a highway and refuses to cooperate with a police man who innocently wakes her and, up until that moment, harbors no kind of suspicion against her?!  Certainly, Crane is not good at playing it cool.  And she is certainly not a practiced criminal: she exchanges her car for another at a dingy used-car lot right in front of the police officer who’s been following her.  Does her ineptitude prove she is not, really, a criminal?  Perhaps Crane’s familiarity as a character proves that the potential for criminality exists within us all.

Despite the film’s shortcomings, I did like that Hitchcock’s universe offered no possibility for redemption: though Crane realizes the error of her ways and decides to do right and return the money, she is killed before she can do so.  Interestingly after Crane dies, Norman is our only constant as we are forced to identify with both murderer and victim.  In the end, Psycho seems to suggest that humanity exists alongside Norman Bates as an irreconcilable split-personality, capable of the most incredible good and the most monstrous evil.


Risk = Danger + Possibility

Risk means…

danger of

  1. failing
  2. looking stupid
  3. feeling stupid
  4. embarrassing yourself
  5. making yourself known
  6. being vulnerable
  7. having a panic attack
  8. stumbling
  9. falling
  10. fucking up


possibility of

  1. succeeding
  2. looking awesome/fabulous/brilliant
  3. feeling awesome/fabulous/brilliant
  4. realizing just how silly and baseless all your fears were in the 1st place
  5. feeling stronger
  6. feeling a billion times more confident
  7. stumbling
  8. falling
  9. getting back up
  10. soaring and then aiming higher

So what is more important, the possibilities or potential dangers?

Take a risk.

Be reckless to caution.


The Real vs. Theoretical Self: How to Stop Getting Drunk on Other People’s Visions for You


“To be mature you have to realize what you value most.  It is extraordinary to discover that comparatively few people reach this level of maturity.  They seem never to have paused to consider what has value for them.  They spend great effort and sometimes make great sacrifices for values that, fundamentally, meet no real needs of their own.  Perhaps they have imbibed the values of their particular profession or job, of their community or their neighbors, of their parents or family.  Not to arrive at a clear understanding of one’s own values is a tragic waste.  You have missed the whole point of what life is for.” -Eleanor Roosevelt

When I stumbled across this quote the other day, something about the word “imbibe” struck me.

What was it about this little word that etched itself in my brain?

After giving it some thought in typical nerd, English major fashion, I realized “imbibe” perfectly captures how we take on the values of other people.  We unthinkingly guzzle the psychotic materialism and accomplishment-mania of our capitalist culture like frat boys chugging cheap beer.  9-to-5 work days.  6 figure salaries.  Trendy job titles.  These things are endorsed everywhere from glossy magazines to HBO.  Our parents sustain the myths and, with adult-like practicality, tell us to opt for the higher paying job that will make us miserable.

Flash forward and we suddenly realize we have acquired all these things but are no happier than before.  We are drunk on other people’s visions for us.  Is it any wonder so many of us wake up hung over with no clue as to who we are or what we actually value?

The Real vs. the Theoretical

This is a useful tool for distinguishing your genuine values from your official ones.  According to Brenda Ueland, beloved author of If You Want to Write (which, if you haven’t read, please do…by far the most rousing book on art/creativity/the human spirit I’ve ever read), there are two selves: the Real and Theoretical.

The theoretical self is not who we are but who we think we should be and is a byproduct of years of intense social conditioning.

More than anything, the theoretical self wants to impress other people and craves peer approval.  If the theoretical self were a kid in high school, he’d be the guy who bought a new pair of Air Jordans just to seem cool.

The theoretical self is why we compute our success in terms of hollow, meaningless numbers.  Salaries.  Vacation days.  Busy, planned hours.

The theoretical self is why we feel like life is a race and that, if we stop for even just a moment, we’ll fall behind and have to frantically rush to catch up.

The theoretical self is why we have a fidgety need to always be productive, to always be doing something.

The theoretical self is why we can’t stand vacancies in schedule.

The theoretical self is why we are always pushing and willing and striving.

The theoretical self is why we brainlessly shop to accumulate piles of useless, needless stuff and why we struggle to buy things we don’t want and can’t afford.

The theoretical self is why we spend our lives comparing and measuring and assessing ourselves by the rigid expectations of other people and come up short.

The real self, on the other hand, is real and honest and idiosyncratic and reflects what it is that we truly want.

The dilemma?  For most of us, it’s difficult to distinguish the theoretical from the real.

So how do we disentangle the real self from the vague, hypothetical self we are in theory?

1.  Avoid busyness & carve out time for reflection

Busyness-the insane, restless refusal to sit still of the accomplishment-crazed and success-oriented-will never fulfill you, only drain you.  The only thing busyness does is inflate us with a sense of our own importance.  People who strive endlessly to be busy, who nervously try to schedule a meeting, an obligation, every hour, are desperately afraid of themselves.  It is only in solitude that we can tap our greatest creativity and power.  Empty, trivial conversation.  Endless obligations.  Pointless commitments we take on for the sake of filling hours.  These things only serve to distract us.  Not that we shouldn’t participate in life- we should and absolutely have to-just that most of us place undue importance on outward living, on noisy, chatty socializing, and neglect quietness and solitude.

2.  Ask: “Do I care?”

I’ll give you a personal example:

I’m not usually a flighty, unpredictable person given to sudden impulse or whims of fancy (in fact, I’m more of a Container Store fanatic/hyper-organized nerd) so when I impulsively quit my job last May, no one was more shocked than myself.  At first, I felt exhilarated, like a total badass, for uttering those few simple words- “I quit”-that so many of us only half-seriously dream about.

But as the initial adrenaline wore off, I could hear the theoretical self come around the corner with boxing gloves and clenched fists:

“You idiot!  How could you be so stupid?  What are other people going to say?  How are you going to explain this to the countless people who are undoubtedly going to ask, “So what do you do?”

Rather than revel in my brief respite from tyrannical bosses and claustrophobic, overly air-conditioned offices, I felt guilty, like it was pathetically self-indulgent to take a couple of months off to decide what I wanted to do.  My productivity-obsessed, Puritan work ethic heightened my insecurity:

I was being lazy, I thought, for taking this time to reflect.

had to hysterically peruse Craig’s List ads till I went cross-eyed.

had to obsessively tweak my resume in the cramped corners of cafes till my mind went numb.

had to or I’d never work again.

After all, the longer I waited, the wider that gap on my resume got; the wider the gap, the more likely potential employers would view me as a liability and on and on and on until I somehow convinced myself I was an unreliable, irresponsible, worthless fuck up who would never get a job.  Who, I wondered, would hire me now?

But then, amidst my irrational tailspin of panic and worse case scenarios, I had a moment of clarity: Did I care if I was unemployed?  Did care if I took my time finding another job?

This simple question was enough to bring on a radical shift in my consciousness.  I had been obsessing about landing another position and being “productive” when, if I let myself be totally honest, I didn’t really want another job, at least right away.  Theoretically, I was eager to work, stifled by endless hours of nothing to do, but in actuality, I was emotionally and mentally exhausted from a difficult year of teaching and wanted a break.  I had been so caught up in how others might perceive me, in the person I thought I had to be, that I never stopped to consider what I actually wanted.

So next time you’ve knocked back one too many of other people’s judgments, stop and ask yourself “Do I care?”  Chances are doing so will help you clarify your own values.


4 Things You Didn’t Know About Your Favorite Authors

1. J.D. Salinger Drank His Own Urine

J.D. SalingerRecluse. Eccentric. J.D. Salinger is perhaps as known for his reputation as for his work. When Catcher in the Rye was first published in 1951, it was an instant classic, topping bestseller lists and becoming a sort of misfit’s anthem for angsty teenagers everywhere. But when Salinger found fame too much, he retreated to a wooded hillside in Cornish, New Hampshire where he lived in almost total seclusion until his death more than 50 years later.  An enigmatic figure who fiercely safeguarded his privacy, he refused interviews, demanded his picture be removed from all book jackets, and notoriously blocked Sam Goldwyn and Steven Spielberg from securing the much coveted rights to Catcher in the Rye.

So with only 4 major publications to his credit after 1951, the question remains: what had the legendary author been doing all these years? According to family and friends, Salinger never stopped writing: a reported treasure trove of 10 novels remain locked away in his fire-proof safe today.

When he wasn’t writing, Salinger was dabbling in homeopathy, acupuncture and other forms of alternative medicine. But we’re not talking aromatherapy and scented candles here. Salinger would spend hours searching for the perfect cure to the common cold and even test his “remedies” on his two children, Margaret and Matthew. Rather than use needles for acupuncture, Salinger would use big, wooden dowels (rods commonly used in furniture-making). The pain was excruciating. “It felt like having a blunt pencil shoved into your skin,” Margaret said later.

And that’s not even the weirdest of his home remedies. In her tell-all book, Dream Catcher, Margaret reveals her father made a habit of drinking his own urine. Yup, urine. Urine therapy, the medicinal use of pee, has been practiced through the centuries by everyone from the Romans, who used it as a teeth whitener, to the ancient Hindus, who believed urine was an elixir for the soul. Today, advocates claim urine can cure just about anything from the flu to cancer. But before you go rushing to fill up on your own golden showers, you should know there is little evidence to confirm this interesting, if bizarre, theory.

2. Ernest Hemingway Was Raised as a Girl

Ernest HemingwayErnest Hemingway was a guy with some serious mommy issues. And we can’t say we blame him. Domineering and a bit neurotic, Grace Hemingway had always wanted twin girls. When she gave birth to Marcelline and then Ernest 18 months later, she was more than a little disappointed. Rather than give up on her dreams of matching outfits, Grace enacted her twin fantasies onto Ernest and his older sister. At first, she just dressed him up in Marcelline’s old clothes: frilly dresses, pink bows. But soon, she was forcing them to wear identical outfits and actually telling people they were twin girls. She even went so far as to hold Marcelline back a year so that the “twins” could be in the same grade. Talk about nuts. So persistent was her delusion that Ernest was a little girl that she took to calling him “Ernestine”. Ouch. No wonder poor Papa spent his life trying to prove his machismo.

3. Tolstoy Inspired the Liberation of India

tolstoy & ghandi

Known as one of the greatest novelists of all time, Leo Tolstoy was also a political activist and social reformer. Tolstoyism, as his philosophy would later be known, distrusted all forms of authority but rejected violence as an adequate  means of resistance. In addition to preaching the importance of non-violence, Tolstoy condemned private property and detested material excess, arguing instead that we live by our own labor. And boy, did he practice what he preached. Wanting to lead a simple, monastic life, he became a vegetarian, rid himself of most of his possessions, and-much to the dismay of his wife-relinquished the rights to his work. His radical political leanings made him quite a few enemies: he was spied on by the Russian secret police and, in 1901, excommunicated from the Russian Orthodox Church.

But soon, Tolstoy was champion for the world’s oppressed and poor. In May 1908, Taraknath Das, editor of the underground journal Free Hindustan, wrote Tolstoy asking him to contribute a piece for the paper. An anti-British Bengali Indian revolutionary, Das was an extremist who openly criticized those in favor of gradual independence for India. Tolstoy, of course, refused his request, claiming only passive resistance-not violence- could liberate India from British rule. When in 1909 a young Gandhi came across Tolstoy’s Letter to a Hindu (as it came to be called), it changed his life. Inspired, Gandhi wrote to Tolstoy and the two began a warm correspondence that would last until Tolstoy’s death. “Russia gave me Tolstoy,” Gandhi said later, “It was he who had prophesied that I was leading a movement which was destined to bring a message of hope to the down trodden people of the earth.”

4. Virginia Woolf was on Hitler’s Hit List

Virginia WoolfPlanning to invade Britain in 1940, Nazi officials prepared The Gestapo Handbook for the Invasion of Britain: a top secret manual for the occupation forces which was to be distributed to all soldiers. This frightening how-to guide contained 2 sections: the first, an alarmingly accurate account of British political and cultural life; the second, a list of 2,820 British politicians, artists, writers, and actors who were to be arrested if Germany’s invasion was successful. Coined “Hitler’s Black List,” names listed included Virginia Woolf and her husband Leonard, fellow writers Aldous Huxley and E.M. Forester, Sigmund Freud, and Prime Minister Winston Churchill.

Though it’s unlikely that Virginia and Leonard knew of their presence on Hitler’s hit list, as members of the Bloomsbury intellectual elite, they knew they were in danger. If Hitler invaded, they decided, they would kill themselves.  As they awaited Britain’s inevitable capture, the suicidal couple prepared to meet their fatal end, always leaving an extra can of gas in the garage in case they had to asphyxiate themselves. And in case poisonous gas fumes weren’t enough, Leonard always made sure to have a lethal dose of morphine handy.

Woolf did end up committing suicide, but not because of a Nazi invasion. When her lifelong struggle with depression finally caught up with her, Woolf filled her pockets with rocks, strolled to the River Ouse behind her house and killed herself on March 28, 1941. But the most tragic thing about the author’s death was how the media-like vultures picking a carcass- would distort her legacy. Soon after her untimely demise, the coroner who ruled her death a suicide misquoted her suicide note, telling reporters at The Sunday Times of London that she said-“I feel I cannot go on any longer in these terrible times”-when in fact she had said- “I feel certain I’m going mad again. I feel we can’t go through another of those terrible times.” Who would’ve thought a puny little pronoun would taint our view of her forever?

Convinced she killed herself because of the warthe coroner went on to tell the papers that: “Mrs. Woolf was undoubtedly of an extremely sensitive nature and was much more responsive than most people to the general beastliness of things happening in the world today.”

His commentary brought on an outraged response from Mrs. Kathleen Hicks, wife of the Bishop of London: “Sir,- I read in your issue of Sunday last that the coroner at the inquest of Mrs. Virginia Woolf said that she was ‘undoubtedly much more sensitive than most.’ What right has anyone to make such an assertion? If he really said this, he belittles those who are hiding their agony of mind, suffering bravely and carrying on unselfishly for the sake of others. Many people, possibly even more ‘sensitive,’ have lost their all and seen appalling happenings, yet they take their part nobly in this fight for God against the devil. Where are our ideals of love and faith? And what shall we all be if we listen to and sympathize with this sort of ‘I cannot carry on?’”

Thanks to Hicks’s incensed condemnation, the British public began to regard Woolf‘s suicide as a ‘sign of surrender.’ 

Furious, Leonard sent the newspaper an impassioned rebuttal. But despite his best efforts, the media continued to paint a rather unflattering portrait of his wife as a traitor. TIME magazine even reprinted the misquote in their May 5, 1941 issue a few days later.


How to Conquer Failure

fail betterMost of us conduct our lives in a certain way simply because we are afraid of failure.

We stay in our futile, miserable jobs because to leave would mean to take a risk and possibly invite defeat.  We stay with the wrong person, in the wrong city, at the wrong job because to do anything differently would disrupt our sense of security.  We stay because it is safe; we stay because we are afraid, no, terrified, of failure.

But what happens when we actually do take a leap only to crash and burn?

Maybe we quit our jobs to pursue our dreams and now we’re demoralized, starving, and broke.  Maybe our business folded.  Maybe our dream job turned out to be a nightmare.  Maybe we were idealistic but the real world has us feeling crushed.

Most of us will flinch at the thought of ever taking a risk again.  And why wouldn’t we?  Failure was too traumatic, too heartbreaking, too humiliating, too painful.  We might want to forgo risk-taking forever.  Don’t.  

Risks are exhilarating because they enlarge who we are and what we think is possible.

If we refuse to take risks, if we refuse to be daring and larger, we will never learn or grow.

So how do we move past a major misstep?  There is a value to making mistakes, especially in your 20s.  Here are 4 ways to conquer a big-time “failure”:

1. Be aware of the “present trap”

Realize that most of us are only ever doing the best that we can.  The thing about decisions is that they require us to make a choice based on the limited knowledge we have in the moment.  And the moment is like a mouse trap.  It snaps shut, holds us tight with its big metal jaws, and never lets us go.  It confines us to the present.  When we make a decision, we can peer down the road, but we can never really know where a choice might take us.

In a way, we’re like scientists.  We can use research and prior knowledge to devise a hypothesis but, at the end of the day, we can only come to a conclusion after a few test runs.

Risks, and the mistakes they sometimes reveal themselves to be in retrospect, are just that: test runs.  Life is an experiment.  Have fun and remember: no “failure” is irreversible.  Which leads us to our next point…

2. Forgive yourself

When we fail, we tend to be self-critical:

“I should have stuck it out…”

“I should have known better…”

“Should” is the cruelest, most merciless word in the English language.  Like a rigid schoolmaster, “should” is stern.  “Should” insists there are only 2 choices: a right one and a wrong one.  We should have done A but we did B.  How could we?  Now we are idiots, fools, losers.

After I left what I thought was my dream job, I agonized over the decision for weeks.  Had I made the “right” choice?  How could I have left the steady income/security/perks behind?  If I wasn’t happy teaching inner-city kids for a major non-profit organization, how would I ever be fulfilled?  What the hell was I thinking?!  For me, leaving represented a colossal failure.

For the better part of a month, I was convinced I had made the “wrong” choice.  I kept second-guessing myself.  I felt like Hamlet on steroids.  So what did I learn from all my negative self-talk and nearly paralyzing indecision?

I learned that “should” is a masochistic, blood-thirsty killer.

Every time we tell ourselves we “should” have done something, we are causing ourselves unnecessary guilt.  We are assaulting ourselves.  “Should” loves nothing more than leaving us bloodied and battered.  But can we magically time travel and alter the past?  No.  To think we can defies all reason (not to mention the laws of physics).  “Should” is pointless.  Stop obsessing about the past (even if the past was only a couple of days or weeks ago).  Instead of use “should” to brutalize your already fragile self-worth, find solace in the fact that there is no such thing as a universal “right” or “wrong” answer.  What others view as a “wrong” choice may very well teach us something valuable.

3. Forget other people

Fear of humiliation is a powerful emotion.  In fact, fear of looking stupid keeps us from doing some pretty incredible things.  We care so deeply about how others perceive us.  When we fail, it’s no different.  The first place our mind wanders is to the dreaded, “Oh god, what are they going to think?”

Maybe we did something we knew others would think was totally crazy/reckless.  Maybe we screwed up in a very public way.  Maybe we did something dumb, I mean really dumb.

So what?  Failure is evidence of having tried.  Your piece was rejected for the billionth time?  So what?  You proved that you’re a writer, though not yet a published one.  (And think about it: how many aspiring writers do you know who have never written a damn word?)  Your plan for a big career change backfired?  You proved you’re brave enough to take a risk.

In other words, you jumped.  Now other people are waving from the cliff judging you.

First off, they might not be.  Like children, sometimes we concoct elaborate stories about monsters under the bed when the only things under there are dirty socks.  Our insecurities about what other people “might” think are hypothetical.  In reality, we might be imagining that people are far more critical than they actually are.

Still, there are others who will judge us and make their disapproval known.  Ignore these people.  Excise them like you would a cancerous tumor.  Real friends will support you.

4. Move on

The easiest thing to do when we fail is to succumb to depression.  Self pity is enticing.  We feel bad about ourselves and, suddenly, we can’t escape the lure of the couch.

Yes, the loss of a dream is like the loss of a loved one.  Mourn.  Grieve.  But move on.

Failure is not an excuse for inaction.  If anything, it’s a rallying cry to do something boldly, radically different.  If you’re sending hundreds of resumes into the lonely vacuum of cyberspace and getting no response, reassess your strategy.  Maybe your action verbs need to be energized.  Maybe you’re targeting the wrong jobs.  Or maybe you have to adopt a whole new approach and network and actually meet people.

Either way, do something.  

Failure presents an opportunity to learn something new.

Make your failure useful.