A Perfect Funeral

Dear CF,

Until today, I thought a good funeral was a contradiction in terms. I’ve been to sad funerals, anonymous funerals, bodiless services, wakes. And they were all good-hearted (and often godly) approximations at comfort, noble attempts to fold the ruptures death imposes into a bigger, more meaningful story. 

Today I went to a perfect funeral. It was the Platonic ideal of funerals. It held more beauty and humor and honesty than I thought an event could hold. I didn’t know religion, or people, or music, or communities could do this. Honestly? I’m shaken in my faith.

It helped that the deceased was queen of the dames. I caught her just as she was retiring. She offered to be on my dissertation committee if I worked on a specific text. I kept that text in just so I could hold her to her promise when the time came, which it didn’t. I wish you, by the way, that you could have seen her house and her long white hair.

She was the grande dame of my department—a brilliant scholar, an active committee member and a gently, nonsensically dedicated teacher. We were pretty sure we were her life. (She’d stay in her office for eight-hour stretches talking to undergraduates about their thoughts, their feelings, their love lives… whatever they wanted her to hear.) She loved the work and the people, and it seemed pretty clear, from her time commitments, that the department was her world.

Well, we weren’t. It turns out she helped shape a Jewish community 25 years ago and was the first of their “statesmen” to die. The rabbi said he had been a rabbi under her guidance for some years. When everyone laughed (there was a lot of laughter at this funeral), he said, surprised, that  it hadn’t occurred to him to use that as comedy.

I wish I could tell you everything everyone said, because it was long, but every single eulogy was, well, perfect. Her husband spoke last. He is in his late 80s. I expected a wreck, but he was small and good humored. He said he went to ask her what he should wear to a funeral before remembering. And that the cedar waxwings were back, and how much they liked looking at their shiny feathers, and that we should look them up, and that he went to tell her that as well before remembering. He said when she died, the rabbi, who was there, said that a great light had gone out. He felt this too, he said, but he felt something just a little different—the way he did the day the music died. “Things go on in the world just the same,” he said, “but the music is gone.” The woman who spoke just before him was a former student named Nora. He ended by saying, “anyway…. Nora didn’t mention that she used to babysit quite a bit for us too.” And stepped down.

That’s it, really: I’m wrung out from both the sadness and the rightness of it and startled out of my sighing tolerance towards religious practices (mine, and others’) to learn that living and dying and mourning can be done right.



Why Sapolsky’s Take on Schizotypal Personality Disorder and Religion is Problematic

Dear CF,

BoingBoing posted one of Robert Sapolsky’s (Stanford neurobiologist and author of Monkeyluv, The Trouble with Testosterone and Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers) lectures on schizophrenia and schizotypal personality disorder today. It’s an hour long, but makes for pretty interesting listening if you have the time to give it. In this installment he starts off speculating about the possible selective evolutionary advantages of schizophrenia, which—unlike cystic fibrosis and sickle-cell anemia, which protect heterozygotes (carriers, usually with one good copy of the gene) from cholera and malaria, respectively—hasn’t been thought to confer any kind of selective advantage.

He suggests an advantage exists, and that it lies in schizotypal personality disorder—sufferers who display milder schizophrenic symptoms and are labeled “half-crazy.” A group of scientists studying adoptive and biological schizophrenics in Denmark discovered, after interviewing all the parties concerned over a period of (I think ten years) that many relatives of schizophrenics display this attenuated version of the disease, which he characterizes as “movie-projector syndrome.” These people tend toward the antisocial; they prefer isolated occupations and are guilty of “metamagical thinking,” a near-schizophrenic kind of mental process that protects the sufferer from ostracism by successfully channeling odd or schizophrenic qualities into their proper contexts.

I haven’t tracked down his lecture on schizophrenia itself yet and I’d like to, because that definition of schizotypal personality disorder is rhetorically a bit too pat and makes it easy for him to (for example) retroactively ascribe it to shamans, witch doctors, medicine-men and religious founders generally. Anyone who thought he heard a burning bush talk or believed he was talking to a man who’d risen from the dead (or indeed claimed to have risen from the dead himself) would, today, be diagnosed with schizotypal personality disorder.

This is clever, of course,  but it’s the argumentation I’m objecting to. I realize this is just a lecture, but it’s disappointingly poor logic from a defender of rationalism. To suggest that a newly developed (and rather hazy) diagnosis, rooted in a spectrum of sane vs. insane behaviors and defined only by a list of symptoms that have a priori been categorized as “schizotypal” or “insane,” can be applied to someone thousands of years ago who has precisely those milder “insane” symptoms is a textbook example of petitio principii, begging the question. I have developed this definition, it says, and look! someone a thousand years ago fits it!

(The difficulty lies, I think, in locating the definitional limits of schizotypal metamagical thinking. Is there any irrational or metamagical belief that wouldn’t be automatically classified as schizoid/schizotypal? Is it a matter of cumulative weight? Sapolsky mentions that 50% of Americans believe in UFOs, but wouldn’t (I assume) classify half the population as half-crazy. Is it then a matter of authorship—it’s one thing to hold an irrational belief that’s been culturally transmitted, another to create an entirely new one of your own? I think he’s getting at the latter, and suggesting that your evolutionary “fitness” depends on your ability to persuade other, more rational creatures of the truth of your idiosyncratic vision.)

Having established (which he hasn’t, at least not in this lecture) that important religious figures in different societies were schizotypal, he uses this to prove that in fact people who suffer from schizotypal personality disorder actually wield a hefty amount of power and had no trouble reproducing and passing on their genes. No data is cited to support this, and he dismisses the fact that many religious figures (both in shamanistic cultures and mainstream religions) were proscribed from marrying and asserts that indeed schizotypal personalities (unlike their schizophrenic counterparts) were and are reproductively quite successful.

I’m skeptical about both retrospective claims for a couple of reasons. One, I’d be interested to see hard statistics on the reproductive success of major religious founders. It seems to me that anecdotally, at least, they fall into two extremes: celibacy or some version of cult-leader polygamy. Two, the line he draws between schizotypal and schizophrenic is the second case where he uses the conclusion to prove the premise. His argument goes thusly:

  1. Schizophrenic people are not reproductively successful and can’t behave appropriately according to context.
  2. Schizophrenics are therefore ostracized from society.
  3. People with schizotypal personality disorder are milder cases that can channel their putative schizophrenic experience properly (for example, they’ll have an epiphany in church, not on a street corner).
  4. Schizotypals are not ostracized from society.
  5. Therefore, because religious founders who claimed to converse with bushes, etc., were not totally ostracized from society, they must be schizotypal personalities.

This is logical and historical nonsense. Read more of this post