Tuesday, March 11, 2003

This article from NYTimes.com
has been sent to you by dgraubert@yahoo.com.

we need to meet this guy! (no kidding)

anyway, hope you don't mind all my emails, believe it or not i'm restraining myself :)


Smart-Mobbing the War

March 9, 2003

You can find America's new antiwar movement in a bright
yellow room four floors above the traffic of West 57th
Street -- a room so small that its occupant burns himself
on the heat pipe when he turns over in bed and can commute
to his office without touching the floor. Eli Pariser, 22,
tall, bearded, spends long hours every day at his desk
hunched over a laptop, plotting strategy and directing the
electronic traffic of an instantaneous movement that was
partly assembled in his computer. During the past three
months it has gathered the numbers that took three years to
build during Vietnam. It may be the fastest-growing protest
movement in American history.

On the day after Sept. 11, Pariser, who was living outside
Boston at the time, sent an e-mail message to a group of
friends that urged them to contact elected officials and to
advocate a restrained response to the terror attacks -- a
police action in the framework of international law. War,
Pariser believed, was the wrong answer; it would only
slaughter more innocents and create more terrorists.
Friends passed his letter on to more friends, it replicated
exponentially, as things tend to do on the Internet, and
Pariser woke one morning to find 300 e-mail messages in his
in-box. A journalist called him from Romania. ''I've
received this from five different people,'' he said. ''Who
are you?''

Almost simultaneously, a recent University of Chicago
graduate named David Pickering was posting a petition with
a similar message on a campus Web site. By Sept. 14,
Pickering's petition had 1,000 signatures. On Sept. 15 it
reached Pariser, who got in touch with Pickering and
proposed that they join forces, with Pickering's petition
posted on a Web site that Pariser set up as a conduit for
responses to his own e-mail. They called it 9-11peace.org.
On Sept. 18, 120,000 people from 190 countries signed the
petition. By then, the server was beginning to crash.

By Oct. 9, when Pariser finally lugged four copies of the
petition to his local post office -- one each for George W.
Bush, Tony Blair, Kofi Annan and the secretary general of
NATO -- it was more than 3,000 pages long, with more than
half a million signatures. There was no response from the
White House, which had already begun the war in
Afghanistan. But Pariser had happened upon an organizing
tool of dazzling power. ''It was word of mouth,'' he says.
''This is why this system of organizing works.''

In the fall of 2001 the idea of a measured response to the
attacks along the lines of a criminal-justice model was a
distinctly minority view. Only one member of Congress,
Barbara Lee of California, voted against the war
resolution. The petition created a network for the war's
isolated and beleaguered opponents that let them know they
were not alone as history rolled over them.

A little more than a year later, the pressure of a war with
Iraq has turned the underground spring into a genuine
social convulsion. At the end of 2001, Pariser was
appoached by another dot-org that had been watching the
heavy traffic on his Web site -- a group called moveon.org,
started in Berkeley in 1998 by married software
entrepreneurs, Wes Boyd and Joan Blades, to stop the
impeachment of Bill Clinton. Pariser joined them as a
consultant and merged the two sites. Last fall moveon.org
caught the growing wave of antiwar feeling and its
membership doubled, so that it now counts almost 1.3
million worldwide and 900,000 in this country. Moveon.org
became known as the mainstream of the growing movement,
joining a larger coalition called Win Without War, whose
name seems expressly designed to ward off any charges of

Moveon.org organized meetings around the country between
members and politicians, calling for tough inspections as a
rational alternative to war, and its influence began to be
felt in Congress. Its Political Action Committee raised
more than $700,000 for Paul Wellstone's re-election last
October after the Minnesota senator voted against the Iraq
war resolution, and when Wellstone died in a plane crash,
moveon.org used its database to raise $200,000 for his
replacement on the ballot, Walter Mondale, in just two

All this electronic activity went largely unnoticed by the
press. The nationwide antiwar rallies on Oct. 26 and Jan.
15 were dominated by far more radical groups, like
International Answer, that had gotten out in front of the
protest movement, turning out a core of of activists under
the perennial anti-American slogans. But as fall turned to
winter and the threat of war frayed nerves across the
country, moveon.org formed a tactical alliance with the
radical groups, with which it had nothing in common other
than opposition to war in Iraq. ''We've changed the way
that we do organizing in the last eight months,'' Pariser
told me. ''One of the things is to move past e-mailing and
phone calls and get people back out on the street and use
the Internet as a backbone for catalyzing that.''

Last November, at the European Social Forum in Rome,
antiwar groups chose Feb. 15 as a day of continent-wide
protest. The American wing of the movement learned of the
plan through e-mail from European antiwar groups like Stop
the War Coalition and Attac France. United for Peace and
Justice decided to sign on in December, though organizing
here only started on Jan. 9, a mere five weeks before the
date set for the demonstrations. To anyone who hadn't been
paying attention -- not least, those in the mainstream
media -- the hundreds of thousands who braved the cold near
the United Nations on Feb. 15, and the several million more
around the world, came as a revelation.

But popularity has a history of killing American protest
movements. When history refuses to bend to their will,
frustration leads the majority to drift away, while
grouplets in the vanguard grow more extreme in their ideas
and their tactics. On the left in particular, from the
Popular Front of the 1930's to the antiwar mobilization of
the 60's, mass movements have a way of self-destructing in
factional fights just when they've begun to acquire a
national following. These are old ghosts, and 22 is young
for anyone to have to figure them out.

When Pariser had his 90 seconds onstage at the Feb. 15
rally, he seemed to literally bounce on his toes in the
frigid air, unable not to smile. ''For each person who's
here, there are a hundred who weren't able to make it,'' he
told the throng that filled First Avenue from 51st to 72nd
Street. ''I know -- I get e-mail from them. They're
ordinary, patriotic, mainstream Americans.''

Eli Pariser seems to exist so that patriotic, mainstream,
duct-tape-buying Americans can't dismiss the antiwar
movement as a fringe phenomenon of graying pacifists and
young nihilists. He has a copy of the Constitution on his
bookshelf. He says things like, ''It's not the internet
that's cool -- it's what it allows people to do.'' He is
unfailingly polite and thoughtful, careful to acknowledge
what he doesn't yet know, and only the way he holds his
face away and fixes you with a sidelong look as he speaks,
a gleam of challenge in his eyes, tells you that this is an
ambitious and slightly cagey young man.

Pariser says that when he was 5 he picketed in his own
driveway in rural Maine with a sign that said, ''Nature's
great -- don't take it away.'' He descends on his father's
side from Zionist Jews who helped found Tel Aviv, and on
his mother's from Polish socialists. His parents,
co-founders of an alternative school and amicably divorced
when Pariser was 7, were Vietnam protesters. But an
interesting generational split inverts the 60's order of
things: the son is less rebellious, less estranged from his
country, than the parents. His mother used to argue with
him to do less homework, and after Sept. 11 his parents
couldn't understand why Pariser insisted on calling himself
a patriot.

In 2000, after graduating from Simon's Rock College in
western Massachusetts, Pariser and a handful of friends
toured the country for three months in a renovated school
bus, recording the stories of ordinary people in order to
find out what makes Americans tick politically. The idea
was yet another Web project (americanstory.org -- it hasn't
happened yet), but the effect on Pariser was much larger:
in the midst of a national campaign that left most people
bored and disenchanted, he found that opinion polls and
political rhetoric didn't come close to doing justice to
Americans' beliefs. ''There's all this gloss and spin and
whatever, and then there's actually what people think,'' he
told me. ''Even when we talked to people who are racists,
pro-gun folks, I couldn't make myself dislike them just
because of their political views.''

Internet democracy solves the problem of how to focus
political activity in a vast country of extremely busy and
distracted citizens, because what keeps so many Americans
busy and distracted these days is the Internet. In late
February, my in-box received a forwarded message

with the subject line ''Virtual March: Heading to 200,000.
SEND FAX~a5646u63431t0~.'' The ''Virtual March on
Washington'' was a campaign that Pariser and moveon.org
held on Feb. 26: more than 1 million Americans around the
country, moveon.org reports, flooded the Washington offices
of their elected officials with antiwar messages, timed by
electronic coordination so that phone lines wouldn't jam
up. Internet democracy allows citizens to find one another
directly, without phone trees or meetings of chapter
organizations, and it amplifies their voices in the
electronic storms or ''smart mobs'' (masses summoned
electronically) that it seems able to generate in a few
hours. With cellphones and instant messaging, the time
frame of protest might soon be the nanosecond.

Dot-org politics represents the latest manifestation of a
recurrent American faith that there is something inherently
good in the vox populi. Democracy is at its purest and best
when the largest number of voices are heard, and every
institution that comes between the people and their
government -- the press, the political pros, the
fund-raisers -- taints the process. ''If money is what it
takes to get attention, we'll do that,'' Pariser says.
''But we'll do it the grassroots way.''

Pariser says that he and other organizers are less
political propagandists than ''facilitators'' who ''help
people to do what they want to do.'' Even the structure of
moveon.org -- more than a million members and only four
paid staff members -- embodies the idea that a simple and
direct line connects scattered individuals and the
expression of their political will. With an interactive
feature on the Web site called the Action Forum, members
regularly make suggestions and respond to the staff's and
one another's ideas. Automated reports are generated by the
server every week, moveon.org's staff looks at the
top-rated comments -- and somehow, out of this nonstop
frenzy of digital activity, a decision gets made. And, in a
sense, no one makes it. Dot-org politics confirms what
Tocqueville noticed over a century and a half ago: that
Americans, for all our vaunted individualism, tend to
dissolve in a tide of mass opinion.

Behind the stage at the Feb. 15 rally, Pariser made a point
of introducing himself to Dennis Kucinich, the
boyish-looking Democratic congressman from Cleveland who is
running for president on an antiwar platform. Kucinich has
followed Pariser's rise, and he declared: ''Eli has proven
we're in a new era of grass-roots activism. The basis for
human unity is not just electronic -- the human unity
precedes the electronic, and then is furthered by it. Eli
represents 'the advancing tide,' which Emerson said
'creates for itself a condition of its own. And the
question and the answer are one.' ''

The spirit of Emerson was on First Avenue, and it hovers
over the new antiwar movement as it has infused so much
protest politics in American history. There is a very old
American type of protester -- think of Emerson's friend
Thoreau, or of John Brown -- who sees politics as an
expression of personal morality.

Part of the success of the Feb. 15 demonstrations, and of
the movement itself, lies in the simplicity of the message.
L.A. Kauffman, a staff organizer at United for Peace and
Justice, the coalition of more than 200 organizations that
endorsed the rally, designed leaflets and banners reading
''The world says no to war.'' The slogan says nothing about
oil, or inspections, or Israel -- or Saddam. ''It's not a
paragraph of analysis,'' she points out. ''It's not a
lengthy series of demands.'' The simplicity allows groups
that have nothing else in common politically -- that might
even be opponents -- to work together.

Leslie Cagan, a founder of United for Peace and Justice
(which is only fourmonths old) and a veteran antiwar
activist, says that in 1991, during the gulf war, the
ideological infighting was much more bruising. The attitude
in this movement, for now, is to submerge political
disagreement. ''We all see what a nightmare this war would
be,'' she says. ''That's bigger than any of the differences
between us.''

When a group like International Answer -- whose leader,
Ramsey Clark, has defended many of the world's dictators,
including Saddam -- calls for a day of protest on March 15,
United for Peace and Justice doesn't base its decision
about whether to join based on the politics of the original
sponsor. A leader of the most mainstream coalition in the
movement, Win Without War, of which moveon.org is a part,
is urging members to participate in the Answer

This strategy of openness is unquestionably the best way to
increase numbers in the short run. But it has its perils,
and inevitably it forces ideological choices even when the
movement seeks to avoid them. In the planning for Feb. 15,
for example, a Bay Area coalition of groups refused to
include Michael Lerner, a rabbi and editor of Tikkun
magazine, among the speakers because he had publicly
criticized one of the groups, International Answer, for its
anti-Israel views. The coalition's policy was to exclude
anyone who had attacked a member group -- which meant that
the peace movement had to choose between Lerner and Answer.

The night before Feb. 15, at the midtown offices of a labor
union where rally leaders were making last-minute
preparations, Bob Wing of United for Peace and Justice told
me: ''Anti-Semitism is not tolerable. I don't think it's a
huge problem, but it is a problem and something to be aware
of. But we're not talking about thought control -- we're
talking about making this as big as we can.'' When I asked
Leslie Cagan whether pro-Saddam speakers would have been
allowed on stage, she said, ''We try not to edit them.''
Pariser put it this way: ''I've always been a real believer
that the best ideas win out if you let them happen. I'm
personally against defending Slobodan Milosevic and calling
North Korea a socialist heaven, but it's just not relevant
right now.''

The strongest tendency at the Feb. 15 rally (and in the
movement generally) was not anti-Americanism or
antiglobalism or pro-Arabism; it was simply a sense that
war does more harm than good. A young woman from Def Poetry
Jam shouted: ''We send our love to poets in Iraq and
Palestine. Stay safe!'' The notion that there is little
safety in Iraq and, strictly speaking, there are no poets
-- that the Iraqi people, while not welcoming the threat of
bombs, might be realistic enough to accept a war as their
only hope of liberation from tyranny -- was unthinkable.
The protesters saw themselves as defending Iraqis from the
terrible fate that the U.S. was preparing to inflict on
them. This assumption is based on moral innocence -- on an
inability to imagine the horror in which Iraqis live, and a
desire for all good things to go together. War is evil,
therefore prevention of war must be good. The wars fought
for human rights in our own time -- in Bosnia and Kosovo --
have not registered with Pariser's generation. When I asked
Pariser whether the views of Iraqis themselves should be
taken into account, he said, ''I don't think that first and
foremost this is about them as much as it's about us and
how we act in the world.''

For now, clarity and a sense of righteousness have created
the most potent American protest movement in a generation.
What isn't clear is how the new movement will sustain
itself once a war begins. Ask movement organizers about
their planning for the next few crucial weeks, with a war
seemingly imminent, and the answers are very vague. ''We
don't think a month in advance,'' Pariser says. ''We can
capture the energy of the moment better at the moment'' --
a notion echoed by Wes Boyd, who explains that moveon.org's
great strength is flexibility and speed, not
''scenario-planning.'' L.A. Kauffman of United for Peace
and Justice says, ''If war does break out, you are going to
see a global day of action like you've never seen.''
Pariser and other coalition leaders stay in touch with
their European counterparts, e-mailing every few days, but
for now the movement seems to be trying to catch up with
its own success. Other than the demonstration planned for
March 15, no mass mobilization was scheduled as of last

After an invasion, moveon.org's Wes Boyd believes the
movement may become more polarized. Perhaps groups like
ANSWER will continue to oppose American foreign policy in
its totality, while moveon.org's membership will turn its
fund-raising power to Democratic presidential politics. A
number of potential Democratic antiwar candidates have
started to emerge, including Kucinich, Gov. Howard Dean of
Vermont, former Senator Carol Moseley-Braun of Illinois and
the Rev. Al Sharpton. While Pariser is too cautious to
declare any political ambitions of his own, the party would
be foolish not to pursue a young activist with his talents.

In the yellow room on West 57th Street, Pariser's bookcase
is heavy with fiction that tends toward large, bleak
visions: Orwell's ''1984,'' DeLillo's ''Underworld,'' David
Foster Wallace's ''Infinite Jest.'' The literature seems
out of tune with Pariser's optimism about democracy and his
own temperament. Pariser says he read them to experience
bleakness vicariously ''because my life was good. It was a
way of kind of seeing what it's like to not be happy.
There's a part of me that's drawn to kind of big stories,
sort of epicness -- this sense of this sweeping narrative.
If I want to get an instant adrenaline rush, that's the way
that I do it -- thinking about my work now: this is huge,
we've got so many people and there's such big stakes.''

George Packer, a frequent contributor, last wrote for the
magazine on the prospects for democracy in a post-war Iraq.


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Repress Yourself

February 23, 2003

You've been in therapy for years.You've time-traveled back
to your childhood home, to your mother's makeup mirror with
its ring of pearl lights. You've uncovered, or recovered,
the bad baby sitter, his hands on you, and yet still,
you're no better. You feel foggy and low; you flinch at
intimate touch; you startle at even the slightest sounds,
and you are impaired. Hundreds of sessions of talk have led
you here, back to the place you started, even though you've
followed all advice. You have self-soothed and dredged up;
you have cried and curled up; you have aimed for
integration in your fractured, broken brain.

This is common, the fractured, broken brain and the
uselessness of talk therapy to make it better. A study done
by H.J. Eysenck in 1952, a study that still causes some
embarrassment to the field, found that psychotherapy in
general helped no more, no less, than the slow passing of
time. As for insight, no one has yet demonstrably proved
that it is linked to recovery. What actually does help is
anyone's best guess -- probably some sort of fire, directly
under your behind -- and what leads to relief? Maybe love
and work, maybe medicine. Maybe repression. Repression?
Isn't that the thing that makes you sick, that splits you
off, so demons come dancing back? Doesn't that cause holes
in the stomach and chancres in the colon and a general
impoverishment of spirit? Maybe not. New research shows
that some traumatized people may be better off repressing
the experience than illuminating it in therapy. If you're
stuck and scared, perhaps you should not remember but
forget. Avoid. That's right. Tamp it down. Up you go.

The new research is rooted in part in the experience of
Sept. 11, when swarms of therapists descended on New York
City after the twin towers fell. There were, by some
estimates, three shrinks for every victim, which is itself
an image you might want to repress, the bearded, the
beatnik, the softly empathic all gathered round the
survivors urging talk talk talk. ''And what happened,''
says Richard Gist, a community psychologist and trauma
researcher who, along with a growing number of colleagues,
has become highly critical of these debriefing procedures,
''is some people got worse. They were either unhelped or
retraumatized by our interventions.'' Gist, who is an
associate professor at the University of Missouri and who
has been on hand to help with disasters from the collapse
of the Hyatt Regency pedestrian skywalks in Kansas City,
Mo., in 1981 to the United Airlines crash in Sioux City,
Iowa, in 1989, has had time to develop his thoughts
regarding how, or how not, to help in times of terror.
''Basically, all these therapists run down to the scene,
and there's a lot of grunting and groaning and encouraging
people to review what they saw, and then the survivors get
worse. I've been saying for years, 'Is it any surprise that
if you keep leading people to the edge of a cliff they
eventually fall over?'''

Based in part on the findings that encouraging people to
talk immediately after a trauma can actually emblazon fear
more deeply into the brain, researchers began to question
the accepted tenets of trauma treatment, which have at
their center the healing power of story. In Tel Aviv, three
researchers, Karni Ginzburg, Zahava Solomon and Avi Bleich,
studied heart-attack victims in an effort to determine
whether those who repressed the event fared better in the
long run. ''Repression'' is a word that radiates far beyond
its small syllabic self; it connotes images of hysterical
amnesiacs on magic mountains or mist-swaddled Viennese
streets. But in experimental psychology, as opposed to
psychoanalysis, repression has far more mundane meanings;
it is used to describe those who minimize, distract, deny.
Is it possible that folks who employ these techniques cope
better than the rest of us ramblers? In order to address
this question, Ginzburg and her collaborators followed 116
heart-attack patients at three hospitals in Israel with the
aim of assessing who developed post-traumatic stress
disorder and who went home whistling. Ginzburg's team was
particularly interested in exploring the long-term effects
of a repressive coping style; some earlier research
demonstrated that those who deny are, in fact, better off
in the short term. But there remained the larger questions:
What happens to these stern stoics over time? Do they break
down? Do memories and symptoms push through? Ginzburg's
team assessed its subjects within one week of their heart
attacks and then seven months later. During the first
assessment, the team evaluated, among other things, the
patient's general coping style using a series of scales
that reflect the tendency to avoid and to deny. The
researchers defined repressors as those who exhibited ''a
specific combination of anxiety and defensiveness'' as
measured on the self-reported scales.

They found that those patients who had high anxiety and low
defensiveness -- in other words, those patients who had a
lift-the-lid approach to their experience, thinking about
it, worrying about it, processing it -- had a far poorer
outcome than their stiff-lipped counterparts. Specifically,
of the stiff-lipped stylers, only 7 percent developed
post-traumatic stress disorder seven months after the
infarction, compared with 19 percent of the voluble ones.

The Israeli study hypothesizes at one point that repression
may work as a coping style because those who ignore have a
uniquely adaptive perceptual style. Repressors, others
posit, may be protected by their presuppositions regarding
-- and subsequent perceptions of -- stressful events,
meaning that where you see a conflagration, they see a
campfire, where you see a downpour, they see a drizzle.
Still other researchers suggest that repressors are good at
repressing because they can manipulate their attention,
swiveling it away from the burned body or the hurting
heart, and if that fails, they believe that they can cope
with what befalls them. They think they're competent, those
with the buttoned-up backs. Whether they really are or are
not competent is not the issue; repressors, Ginzburg
suggests, think they are, and anyone who has ever read
''The Little Engine That Could'' knows the power of
thinking positively when it comes to making it over the

George Bonanno, an associate professor of psychology at
Columbia University Teachers College, has found similar
results in his many inquiries into the role of repression
and avoidance in healthy coping styles. And, unlike the
Israeli researchers, Bonanno has used scales that go beyond
self-report to determine who's repressing what and how that
person fares. For instance, in a study of bereaved widows
and widowers, Bonanno used a technique called verbal
autonomic association. He had people talk about their loss
while he looked at autonomic arousal (heartbeat, pulse
rates and galvanic skin responses). What he saw: a subgroup
of mourners who consistently said they weren't distressed
while displaying high heart rates. ''These are the
repressors,'' Bonanno says. ''And these people, the ones
who showed this pattern, had less grief over time and had a
better overall life adjustment, and this has been
consistent across studies.'' Bonanno has recently completed
a study involving adolescent girls and young women who are
sexual-abuse survivors. ''The girls who chose not to talk
about the sexual abuse during the interview, the girls who
measured higher on repression scales, these were the
repressors, and they also had fewer internalizing symptoms
like depression and anxiety and fewer externalizing
symptoms like hostility and acting out. They were

Bonanno pauses. ''I've been studying this phenomenon for 10
years,'' he says. ''I've been deeply troubled. My work's
been in top journals, but it's still being dismissed by
people in the field. In the 1980's, trauma became an
official diagnosis, and people made their careers on it.
What followed was a plethora of research on how to heal
from trauma by talking it out, by facing it down. These
people are not likely to believe in an alternative
explanation. People's intellectual inheritance is deeply
dependent upon a certain point of view.''

George Bonanno works in New York City, while Richard Gist
works in Kansas City; the doctors have never spoken, but
they should. They share a lot. Gist told me: ''The problem
with the trauma industry is this: People who successfully
repress do not turn up sitting across from a shrink, so we
know very little about these folks, but they probably have
a lot to teach us. For all we know, the repressors are
actually the normal ones who effectively cope with the many
tragedies life presents. Why are we not more fascinated
with these displays of resilience and grace? Why are we
only fascinated with frailty? The trauma industry knows
they can make money off of frailty; there are all these
psychologists out there turning six figures with their
pablum and hubris.''

Gist, who speaks with a Midwestern twang and knows how to
turn a rococo phrase, also insists on plain figures to back
up whatever he says. According to Gist, meta-analyses of
debriefing procedures, a subset of trauma work that
encourages catharsis through talk, simply do not support
the efficacy of many of the interventions. Both Gist and
Bonanno say they believe that the accepted interventions,
like narrative catharsis, remain in use for pecuniary,
political and historical reasons, reasons that have nothing
to do with curing people.

And the history of these reasons? The trauma field is broad
and might have begun at any of a number of points: there
was Freud, who originally believed that female hysteria was
caused by childhood sexual abuse, only to abandon the idea
later in favor, perhaps, of something less jarring to
Victorian sensibilities; even before Freud, there was Jean
Martin Charcot, who posited his patients' fits of hysterics
to be somatic expressions of buried traumatic memories. But
for modern-day purposes, the trauma industry seems to have
started sometime in the early 1980's, when the women's
movement asserted that post-traumatic stress disorder did
not belong to Vietnam veterans alone; it belonged also to
the legions of women who were abused in domestic
situations. Mostly middle-class, well-educated women seeing
private therapists began to whisper their stories, stories
that contradicted the dominant belief in most psychiatric
textbooks that incest occurred in one family per million.
And yet here were Ph.D.'s and Ed.D.'s and Psy.D.'s and
L.C.S.W.'s hearing that no, it happened here, and here, and
here, behind this bedroom door, in this dark night, under
the same shared suburban sky where we do not live safely.
Thus, from their very inception, incest accounts were
subversive stories, and their telling became acts of
political and personal rehabilitation. Silence, as far as
sexual abuse was concerned -- and this quickly radiated out
to all forms of trauma -- was tantamount to toxic
conformity. Only speech would save.

It makes sense, therefore, that the tools deployed to help
survivors were largely verbal and emphasized narrative
reconstruction. Trauma (the word means ''wound'' in Greek)
is seen as a rupture in the long line of language that
constructs who we are. The goal of treatment has
traditionally been, therefore, to expand the story so that
it can accommodate a series of unexpected scenes. By the
early 1990's, neurological models of broken narratives were
being developed. Dr. Bessel van der Kolk, for instance,
hypothesized that repressed trauma has very specific neural
correlates in the brain. The event -- say, the rape, the
plane crash -- is isolated, flash-frozen in a nonverbal
neural stream, where it stays stuck, secreting its
subterranean signals of fear and panic. The goal of trauma
treatment has been to move memories from nonverbal brain
regions to verbal ones, where they can be integrated into
the life story.

This, to my mind, is a beautiful theory, one that blesses
the brain with malleable storage sites and incredible plot
power -- but whether it's true or not, no one knows. More
to the point, whether it's true for all people, no one
knows. While storying one's life is undoubtedly an
essential human activity, the trauma industry may have
overlooked this essential fact: not all of us are
memoirists. Some of us tell our stories by speaking around
them, a kind of Carveresque style where resolution is
whispered below the level of audible language. Then again,
some of us are fable writers, developing quick tales with
tortoises and hares, where right and wrong have a lovely,
simple sort of sound. If we are all authors of our
experience, as the trauma industry has so significantly
reminded us, we are not all cut from the same literary
cloth. Some of us are wordy, others prefer the smooth white
space between tightly packaged paragraphs. Still others
might rather sing over the scary parts than express them at

Here's the question: at what cost, this singing? Jennifer
Coon-Wallman, a psychotherapist based in Lexington, Mass.,
asks, ''By singing over or cutting off a huge part of your
history, aren't you then losing what makes life rich and
multifaceted?'' I suppose so, but let me tell you this.
I've had my fair share of traumas -- I'm sure you have, too
-- and if I could learn to tamp them down and thereby prune
my thorny lived-out-loud life a little, I'd be more than
happy to. Go ahead. Give me a lock and key.

Girvani Leerer of Arbour-H.R.I. Hospital in Brookline,
Mass., doesn't necessarily agree with my lock-and-key
longings. ''Facing and talking about trauma is one of the
major ways people learn to cope with it. They learn to
understand their feelings and their experiences and to move
out, beyond the event.'' On the one hand, Gist told me,
referring to the work done in Israel, ''Ginzburg's study,
despite its limitations, is right on and has done us a
great service.'' On the other hand, Dr. Amy Banks, a
faculty member at the Jean Baker Miller Training Institute
at Wellesley College, says: ''Ginzburg's study is
interesting, but it's weak. It's saying repression is
useful for repressors. Is repression useful for those of us
with different styles? I doubt it. I think it's probably

Banks's sentiments ultimately win out with doctors and
patients, professionals and lay people. ''The Courage to
Heal,'' a book by Ellen Bass and Laura Davis about trauma
and talk, has sold more than 700,000 copies. Dr. Judith
Herman, the director of training at the Victims of Violence
Program at Cambridge Hospital, in her updated book ''Trauma
and Recovery,'' continues to advocate narrative and
catharsis. And a quick scan of trauma Web sites shows that
plebeians like you and me are still chatting up a brutal
bloody storm.

Beyond the general reactions, there are some specific
methodological criticisms clinicians have with the Ginzburg
study, one of which is its implicit comparison of
sexual-abuse survivors to heart-attack victims. Banks says:
''Trauma that happens at the hands of another human being
has a much greater psychological impact than trauma that
happens from a physical illness, accident or even natural
disaster. There's a bigger destruction in trust and
relationships. And to further complicate things, sexual
abuse usually happens over time, in a situation of secrecy,
to what may be a preverbal child. A heart attack is a
public event that involves fully verbal adults who have so
much more control over their world.'' Yes and no.
Certainly, sexual abuse has an element of shame that
medical events don't tend to carry. But as Ginzburg notes
at the start of her study, a heart attack is ''a stressful
life-threatening experience.'' The death rate is high, the
rate of recurrence higher still, and if that doesn't do it
for you, consider the symbolic meaning of the heart, that
central valentine in its mantle of muscle. Consider the
fear when it starts to fibrillate, and then the pain, and
afterward, you'll never trust that tired pump again. In
both sexual abuse and devastating medical events, the sense
of self is shattered, and this commonality may unite the
disparate traumas in essential ways.

And yet clinicians still resist the relevance of the
Ginzburg findings. Bononno says, ''We just don't want to
admit they could be true,'' and that's true. The repression
results appear to insult more than challenge us, and this
feeling of insult is almost, if not more, interesting than
the findings themselves. We are offended. Why?

Alexis de Tocqueville might know. In 1831, when he came to
this country, he observed as perhaps no one has since its
essential character. Tocqueville saw our narcissism, our
puritanism, but he also saw the romanticism that lies at
the core of this country. We believe that the human spirit
is at its best when it expresses; the individualism that
Tocqueville described in his book ''Democracy in America''
rests on the right, if not the need, to articulate your
unique internal state. Repression, therefore, would be
considered anti-American, antediluvian, anti-art and
terribly Teutonic. At its very American best, the self is
revealed through pen and paint and talk. Tocqueville saw
that this was the case. So did Emerson and Thoreau and of
course Whitman, who upheld the ideas of transcendentalism,
singing the soul, letting it all out.

But the resistance to repression goes back even further
than the 19th century. Expression as healing and,
consequently, repression as damaging can be found as far
back as the second century, when the physician and writer
Galen extended Hippocrates's theory that the body is a
balance of four critical humors: black bile, yellow bile,
phlegm and blood. Disease, especially emotional disease,
Galen suggested, is the result of an internal imbalance
among these humors, and healing takes place when the
physician can drain the body, and soul, of its excess
liquid weight. Toward this end, purging, emetics and
leeches were used. Wellness was catharsis; catharsis was
expression. It's easy to see our current-day talking cures
and trauma cures as Galenic spinoffs, notions so deeply
rooted in Western culture that to abandon them would be to
abandon, in some senses, the philosophical foundations on
which medicine and religion rest.

To embrace or even consider repression as a reasonable
coping style is a threat to the romantic ideals so central
to this culture, despite our post-modern sheen.
Postmodernism, with its pesky protestations that there is
no ultimate history or total truth, inadvertently ends up
underscoring just these things. We're still all Walt
Whitman at heart. Our response to the research illuminates

And of course, practically speaking, there are real reasons
why we would not want to embrace the current findings. Our
entire multimillion-dollar trauma industry would have to be
revamped. There are in this country thousands of trauma and
recovery centers predicated upon Whitman-esque expression,
and sizable portions of the self-help industry are devoted
to talking it out. While there wouldn't be a countrywide
economic crash if repression came back into vogue, there
would be some serious educational, political and medical
upheavals. Federally financed programs would go down. Best
to avoid that. Best to just repress the thought.

What would therapy look like if repression came back into
vogue? Here's Dusty Miller. She lives and works in
Northampton, Mass. She's well into her 50's, with blue eyes
and moccasins. Her office is small and spartan. On the wall
there is a picture of Audre Lorde and the words ''When I
dare to be powerful -- to use my strength in the service of
my vision -- than it becomes less and less important
whether I am afraid.'' Miller knows this to be true.

Before Miller was a psychologist, she was a patient. Before
she was a patient, she was a victim, visited nightly by her
father, who she says physically and sexually abused her,
and this for years and years. At Cornell, where she was an
undergraduate, Miller went into therapy, first to be told
in the early 1960's that her memories were wishes and then
to be told in the 1980's that they were true and that her
job was to be Nancy Drew, shining a flashlight into all the
dark places.

Which is what Miller did in the 1980's. She went back over
and over the memories of trauma and got sicker and sicker.
''After many therapy sessions I'd be a quivering ball, and
then I'd leave the office and take my credit card and go
out and spend $500 on clothes I didn't need.'' A year or so
into her recovered-memory therapy, Miller developed
chronically aching joints and a low-grade fever. She could
barely move, she was so fatigued. Months passed. Snow fell.
Skies cleared. Miller knew she had to make a change. She
had gone back to her memories for healing and wound up with
a chronic disease. ''You know that saying 'It has to get
worse before it gets better'?'' Miller says to me. ''Well,
I used to believe that, but I don't anymore. That just
leads you to fall apart. And you know the saying 'It's
never too late to have a happy childhood'? Well, guess
what? It is.''

So she quit her Nancy Drew therapy. One day, she told her
therapist, ''I'm not coming back anymore.'' Then what did
she do? Among other things, she took up . . . tennis.

Yes, tennis. Keep your eye on the ball, stay inside the
bright white lines and hit hard. ''Tennis was so grounding
and taught me so much grace and helped me to regulate my
anxiety. It was tennis, not talk, that really helped.''

Miller's own self-styled ''cure'' fueled her work as a
clinician. She began to consider directing her clients away
from their traumas and toward the parts of their lives that
''gave them more juice.'' She found that it worked. With
trauma survivors, Miller now never begins a group session
by asking, ''How are you feeling?'' ''Oh, my God, that
would just be a disaster,'' she says. ''All I'd get was,
'Terrible, fearful, awful.' Instead I say, 'What strengths
do you need to focus on today?''' In one session, Miller
hands out paper dolls and bits of colored paper. Trauma
survivors are told to glue the colored paper onto body
parts that hurt or have been hurt, ''but then,'' Miller
says, ''we don't stop there. We turn the dolls over, onto a
fresh side, and participants use the same bits of paper to
design a body of resilience.''

Miller's form of psychotherapy emphasizes doing, not
reflecting. The actions at once block and dilute memories.
She, along with other colleagues, has started a trauma
resource treatment center in western Massachusetts for
low-income women and their children, predicated in part
upon the virtues of repression. At the center, there is a
kitchen full of utensils, so women can stir and chop
instead of sitting and talking, a computer room where women
can type up resumes and query letters and, maybe best of
all, an attic full of professional clothes so if a job
interview is landed, the woman can don a second skin, a
sleek suit, a pair of pumps. It's exhilarating.

Miller tells me: ''I worked with this woman named Karen,
who said she was a sexual-abuse survivor and a
schizophrenic. She had been in so much therapy and told her
story so many times, and it reinforced her feelings of
being sick. She'd been terribly infantilized by the mental
health system, a system that tells women to recover by
walking around clutching teddy bears and crying.'' Miller
pauses. ''With this woman, we never asked her about her
past. We saw it would be bad for her. Instead, we put her
right on the computer. And then, when she'd learned the
computer, we had her do some research work for us,
interviewing. And it was incredible.'' Miller stares up at
the ceiling, recalling. ''Karen did so well with the work
we gave her. She learned to send e-mail, and that thrilled
her.'' Consider this: teaching a schizophrenic sexual-abuse
survivor how to press a button and hurl the self through
space with cyber-specificity. Who wouldn't feel empowered?

''And then,'' Miller says, ''the feds came out to inspect
our program like they do every year or two, and everyone
had to go around the room and say, you know, like, 'Hi, I'm
Dusty Miller, psychologist.' And when it was Karen's turn,
instead of saying, 'Hi, I'm Karen, I'm a schizophrenic
sexual-abuse survivor,' she said, 'Hi, I'm Karen, and I'm
the lead ethnographer for the Franklin County Women and
Violence Project.' I was so proud of her. We got her to
stop telling her story, and she improved. There were tears
in my eyes.''

And today? Karen is feeling better several years later. She
has earned enough money at her part-time job to buy a
''used used car,'' and she sings in a community chorus. ''I
think she sings mostly peace songs,'' Miller tells me, and
what are peace songs, really, but pleas and wishes,
pictures of perfection, the wreckage wiped away. Karen,
schizophrenic, sexually abused, rarely discusses her
memories anymore; she looks to her future, not to her past.
Who wouldn't be happy to hear that? And yet, who wouldn't
worry as well? Will the trauma treatment of the future be
something simplistically saccharine, down by the riverside,
or maddeningly upbeat? Or will the trauma treatment of the
future be done in small square rooms where no tears are
allowed, where the ceiling is lidlike, the walls the color
of clamp?

Within the expression-versus-repression debate lurk
ancient, essential questions and the oldest myths. In the
fifth century B.C., Socrates claimed that an unexamined
life was not worth living. Score one for the trauma teams.
Around the same time, however, Sophocles described how a
raging Oedipus, on a quest for knowledge, gouged out his
own eyes when he finally learned the terrible truth; he
would have been better off never asking. Score one for the
Ginzburg findings. Who's to say which side is right, and
when? There are times when a person would be better off
diverted; just get a job, for God's sake, we want to say to
the endless explorer who keeps reliving and revising the
painful past. But then there are those folks with mouths as
stern as minus signs, their faces like fists; they could
use a little expressive therapy, for sure. In the end, we
may need to parse repression, nuance it, so that we
understand it as a force with potentially healthful and
unhealthful aspects. Freud once defined repression quite
benignly as a refocusing of attention away from unpleasant
ideas. Of course there are times, in an increasingly
frantic world, when we need to do that; repression as
filter, a screen to keep us clean. So turn away. But run
away? Therein lies the litmus test.

If you're breathless, knees knocking, and life is a pure
sprint from some shadow, I say go back. Slow down. Dwell.
As for the rest of us, let's do an experiment and measure
the outcome. Let us fashion our lids; let us prop them
proudly on top of our hurting heads.

Lauren Slater is the author of ''Opening Skinner's Box:
Great Psychological Experiments of the 20th Century,'' to
be published by W.W. Norton in 2004.


Monday, March 03, 2003


The Sound of Fury

March 2, 2003

Something about Stephen Adly Guirgis reminds you of a baby.
A lumbering, hairy baby for sure, and a little unkempt,
too, the kind of baby who generally looks as if he could
use a shave and a good night's sleep. But with his soft,
handsome features, dark, puppy eyes looking out from under
a mop of salted-by-gray black hair and a manner that seems
naturally chastened, he gives off the sense of being
unformed, all potential, as if he's waiting for experience
and maturity to dawn on him. He's 38.

Guirgis (pronounced GEAR-giss) is the kind of guy who
survives on intermittent trips to the deli for coffee and
cigarettes. He lives in a three-room apartment on the far
West Side of Manhattan, and at the moment, he's sitting on
the floor (because I'm in the only chair), wearing a
football jersey and soiled jeans, with a plastic foam cup,
an ashtray and a sandwich wrapped in wax paper. There's a
desk with a Mac on it, and a wide-screen television across
the small room. In the bedroom next door is a mattress on
the floor. The kitchen is an unholy mess, and he has no
satisfying explanation for why he seems to be using the
counter for a laundry basket.

''I'm not organized,'' he says.

This is the overgrown kid
who may be the best playwright in America under 40.

''There's a line in 'Our Lady,' a character who quotes St.
Paul,'' he says, referring to ''Our Lady of 121st Street,''
his latest play, about a neighborhood reunion in Harlem.
''He says, 'When I became a man, I put away childish
things.' And all my characters are loaded with their
childish things. And that's because I'm loaded with my
childish things.''

You may not have heard of him till now, but Guirgis already
belongs on the list of accomplished young American
playwrights that includes Suzan-Lori Parks and David
Auburn, the last two winners of the Pulitzer Prize. And his
improvement curve is steeper. He has been a playwright for
less than a decade; seven years ago, the director of his
first play (a one-act that was handwritten on a yellow pad)
had to explain what a rewrite was.

Unschooled as a writer, he has never been associated with
any of the prominent theaters that yearn to take young
playwrights under their wings (though he has now been
commissioned by the Manhattan Theater Club and the South
Coast Repertory in Costa Mesa, Calif.). Instead, he has
become the voice of the scruffy, scrappy LAByrinth Theater
Company, an ensemble that includes Philip Seymour Hoffman,
John Patrick Shanley, Daphne Rubin-Vega and John Ortiz, who
goaded him into writing and then coalesced around the work
he produced. As a playwright, he seems to have come out of
nowhere, a baby born full grown.

In fact, he came from New York, the son of an Irish
Catholic mother and an Egyptian father, and in his work, he
is making a bid to become a kind of city laureate. His
plays teem with ethnic variety, but the demographic they
most consistently represent, and to which he evidently
belongs, is of a different sort: that of the perpetually
overwhelmed, those who feel they are helpless against the
forces of their lives, drowning in their own

Tormented as they are, his characters don't know what to do
about it but yell. They don't have the discretionary income
or the navel-gazing impulse to take their troubles into
therapy. They are alert for a scam and a quick buck, the
kind of New Yorkers who don't take nothin' off nobody, who
scrap for the tiniest victory, who glare with menace when
jostled on the subway. You don't find them in the theater
audience much.

But one of the most affecting qualities of Guirgis's
writing is the bond he creates between his characters and
the people who do go to the theater, who do go to therapy
to assuage their anxieties. This is, after all, the kind of
person Guirgis has become. When he was growing up in
Manhattan, he says, he and his friends never liked the rich
kids, the preppies; nonetheless, Kenneth Lonergan's play
about them, ''This Is Our Youth,'' ''really affected me
because 15 years later I could have empathy for the kids in
my neighborhood that I hated.'' This is the compassion that
surfaces in his work, and at a time when all New Yorkers
are united by taut nerves and a sense of vulnerability, his
plays seem especially pertinent.

''I've lived my entire life in New York, and it informs
everything,'' Guirgis says. ''Sept. 11 reinforced for me
that whatever I'm writing about, it better be something
that really matters to me because we don't know what's
going to happen tomorrow. And for me it's stories about
people in pain in New York.''

To this point Guirgis's work includes only three
full-length plays, but each has been a leap from the last.
''Our Lady of 121st Street,'' the newest and fullest, is a
knockout, a bruising comic group portrait of the graduates
of a Catholic school who, 15 years later, gather for the
funeral of a favorite teacher only to find that her body
has been stolen. After a brief run in the tiny LAByrinth
space in Chelsea last fall, commercial producers raised
$750,000; this Thursday, in the middle of rather grim
economic times Off Broadway, it opens at the Union Square

''I read the first act and thought it was the most
extraordinary piece of writing I'd seen in years,'' says
Robyn Goodman, a veteran producer who committed to the
project before Guirgis even finished the play, which, in
typical fashion, he did at the very last moment. ''I didn't
even ask where the play was going. I didn't care.''

Guirgis's previous play was ''Jesus Hopped the A Train,'' a
philosophical jailhouse drama set at Rikers Island, where
the legal system mishandles two prisoners -- a serial
killer who has found God and an angry street kid with a
cause. It was well received in New York, but even more so
in London, where it was nominated for an Olivier Award, the
London equivalent of the Tony. And his first play, ''In
Arabia We'd All Be Kings,'' a grim slice of life in and
around a divey Times Square bar, opens in London next

This sudden success has allowed a perennially penniless
Guirgis to earn some money writing for television and to
get an assignment to write a film about death-row inmates
wrongfully convicted. In January, ''Jesus'' was performed
in Chile, and he was received there as a celebrity. None of
this seems to have altered his self-flagellating frame of

''I was a guest of honor in Chile, giving press
conferences, being feted, looking forward to the opening of
my play at the Union Square, followed by the movie and all
this stuff,'' he says with emphatic disbelief. ''You know
-- top of the world. And I was miserable.''

Guirgis is at his best when his characters get their dander
up, which they often do. They are not retiring folks. They
are angry people who are conflicted about the righteousness
of their anger, which makes many of their rants not only
moving but hilarious. Like the legless white priest in
''Our Lady'' who admits to a black penitent that he doesn't
much like black people, they have a measure of
self-knowledge, but not always self-control.

In ''Jesus Hopped the A Train,'' for example, a street kid
named Angel has been arrested for shooting a cult leader --
in the behind. As Angel tells his lawyer that he did it to
avenge a friend who was brainwashed, his magnificent
high-decibel screed could easily be a manifesto for the
frustrated, the powerless, the disenfranchised of New York.
To hear the full melody, you have to imagine the following
sprinkled with obscenities:

''My friend Joey should be doing what you're doing! He
should be a public defender, or a drug counselor, helpin'
the people, whatever. But where is he? He's out! Gone! And
why? Why is he not here? Why? Do you believe that Reverend
Kim is the actual Son of God? That a man deported from his
OWN country and convicted of tax evasion in THIS one could
even SPEAK for God, let alone BE God? That a man who STEALS
people, has them selling flowers on the street, gettin'
rich off them -- look me in my eye and tell me that a man
like that should be allowed to do what he's doing! With a
government approved tax-exempt status and a full police
escort? Where's my mother's full police escort when she
gets off the subway from work after midnight and has to
walk home alone? Where's Mother Teresa's Lexus? And how
'bout you? You a public defender, and if you're any good at
lawyering at all, you could prolly make a lot more money
working someplace else, right, right? But you don't do
that, do you? So where's your mansion? Where's YOUR
Frappuccino, swimming pool, mistress, Son a God wonderland?
He stole my friend. I shot him in the. . . . Now I'm in
jail, and he's eating banana cream pie in some plush
hospital bed reading his Wall Street Journal.''

Indeed, in Guirgis's plays, character after character has a
moment of detonation in which the fury at being dealt a bad
hand erupts. The stories involve physical violence, but
onstage the only violence is verbal, in the volume of the
dialogue, the intensity of the frustration.

To hear just about anyone tell it, Guirgis has this
frustration in himself, and though he admits to having ''an
explosive temper,'' it is mostly inner-directed. As a
writer, he is a world-class procrastinator, with an acute
fear of being held accountable for how he fills the blank

''He's always second-guessed himself as a writer,'' says
Hoffman, who has become Guirgis's chief interpreter. ''He's
a real writer, one of our great writers, and what I want
him to believe is that he has a responsibility to the
theater community and the company to keep writing. I want
him to believe he's responsible for that talent.''

The playwright John Patrick Shanley, also a member of
LAByrinth, says that Guirgis's plays are about ''the
reunion of various issues he's keeping aloft'' and that
when he's writing ''he lives in a dynamic where he keeps
the pieces in his head as long as he can without reunifying
them.'' This is what makes him crazy. ''I lived with him
for two weeks when he was allegedly working on 'Our Lady,'
and all he did was clean,'' Shanley says. ''He'd go into
tirades about his own character, about what a loathsome,
worthless person he was, and this went along with his
constantly eating cookies. So he'd begin to look worse as
his environment became more pristine.''

Guirgis cops to all this, though on first encounter none of
it is apparent -- not the rages, not the sulks, not the
obsessive binges on food, alcohol or other, not so legal,
vices. Instead he is almost supplicating and compliant,
calling up an hour before an appointment to say he's
running late, but that he'd be able to get there sooner if
he could use your apartment to shave in.

''I think I know what it is,'' he says of his
procrastination. ''It's fear. The many flavors of fear.''
And his mounting success, of course, means mounting
expectations. ''I remember after 'Arabia', I was afraid to
write 'Jesus,' and after 'Jesus' I was afraid to write 'Our
Lady,' but the real fear, whatever the circumstances, when
you're in a good place or not, is of just showing up for
the day. It's a mysterious thing. I don't understand why
it's not a given that when I get out of bed I'm going to
jump up and brush my teeth and get in the shower, because
it seems to me that a lot of people, that's what they do in
the morning.''

Guirgis, who calls himself a ''lost'' Catholic, talks about
himself as being in a spiritual crisis, revealing precisely
the sort of personal angst that his characters carry
around. ''When I was a kid and I'd be in trouble,'' he
says, ''I'd ask God to help me, and then once the fire was
out, I wouldn't talk to Him anymore. When I got older, I
began to find I needed some help spiritually, just to
function. Why? The honest answer is, like, 12-step stuff.
And 'Jesus' had to do with my struggle with the third step,
which is turning your will and your life over to the care
of God as you understand it. But the thing is, when you get
the help, you start to believe in the way of living that
embraces that, and then here comes, you know, the
responsibilities that go with it: To be a good person, to
not steal, to be honorable in your relationships with
women, with friends, to treat yourself lovingly. That's a
lot of responsibility.

''So your options are to forget the whole thing and go back
to the existence without any spiritual connection. Or
embrace the spiritual connection, but then you've got to
deal with the burden of living up to the admission policy.

Guirgis is one of those people to whom good stories seem to
happen. Good storytellers usually are, but even so, his
background is unusual. His mother grew up in Newark, the
daughter of a deaf alcoholic printer. She stood up to his
rages, often to shield her mother and sister. It was a
loving but difficult upbringing, Guirgis says, and ''she
grew up in a household terrified of intimacy and
marriage.'' Nearly 40 and still single, she was
volunteering as an adviser to foreign exchange students
when a grateful Egyptian told her to call his family if she
were ever inclined to go to Cairo. She was, and she did,
and there she met the student's brother, who was in his
40's and assumed to be a confirmed bachelor. Three days
later they were engaged.

In 1963, they moved to New York, where they lived on the
Upper West Side and sent Stephen and his younger sister to
Catholic school -- the Corpus Christi School on, yes, West
121st Street. It was later, at the Rhodes School, a private
academy where he was on scholarship, that the profligacy
began. ''I remember the first day of school, I was smoking
a cigarette somewhere outside, and someone opened a vial of
blow and dipped both ends of the cigarette in it and said,
'Here, man, it's better this way.' That was the first day
of school. It was the beginning of a lot of lost years.''

Guirgis attended the State University of New York at Albany
and became a famous campus character. Over the seven and a
half years it took him to graduate, he got to pursue his
interest in acting and to meet John Ortiz, a fellow student
six years his junior. It was Ortiz who in 1993 invited him
to audition for a new acting company.

The LAByrinth company was begun as Latino Actors Base, LAB.
Though it has since grown into a multiethnic group that
produces original material, it continues its original
function: that of a theater ''gym,'' a place where actors
work out, offering one another classes in technique,
workshopping plays written by members.

Guirgis was one of the first non-Latinos admitted, and he
immediately knew he had found a home. But it wasn't until
1995 that, at Ortiz's urging, he began to write. His first
effort was ''Francisco and Benny,'' a one-act about two
neighborhood guys sitting on a stoop and debating the
relative virtues of partying and planning for the future, a
characteristic Guirgis dichotomy. Its four performances
were a turning point, both for LAByrinth and for Guirgis

''Everybody laughed at the stuff that was intended to be
funny, and then when the play got serious, it got quiet,''
Guirgis says, still with a note of amazement. ''People
seemed to be having a theater experience that was good.''

These days, everyone who knows Guirgis seems to be
simultaneously exasperated by and in love with him. This is
especially true of the members of the LAByrinth, who are
also his closest friends. He drives them all nuts with his
self-immolating predilections, as well as with his habitual
procrastination. It took a grievous confrontation with
Hoffman to squeeze the second act of ''Our Lady'' out of
him at a time when the actors were already in tech
rehearsals for act one.

''I'd see him at his desk at 3, 4 in the morning,'' says
John Gould Rubin, the lead producer on both ''Jesus'' and
''Our Lady.'' ''And he'd be sitting there, staring at the
screen endlessly, and he wouldn't have written anything.
The tension would get higher and higher, and I'd want to
hit him, and he'd be like, all sad, like 'How can I control
the muse?' I went through every resource I had to conjure
stuff out of him, and I always failed. It's a Zen thing,
like it's only when he gives up and acquiesces to the
futility of inspiration that it happens. He writes
everything at the final moment out of a complete despair.''

Until that moment comes, says Liza Colon-Zayas, a LAByrinth
member, ''he has these outrageous excuses.'' One day not
long ago, Colon-Zayas says, he showed up at a LAByrinth
class for which he was supposed to have written scenes,
''and he told us all, with tears in his eyes, that he had
to take his mother to the emergency room.''

He was lying.

This kind of foolish desperation is, in
many ways, at the heart of Guirgis's work. Last fall, as
opening night for ''Our Lady'' approached and the play
wasn't done, he was bicycling home from a meeting with
Hoffman, who had unmanned him with a tearful and pleading
sermon about the strain he was putting on their artistic
partnership, not to mention their friendship. Somewhere on
10th Avenue, a truck gave an unnecessary honk, startling
him and almost throwing him off. It sent him into a
murderous rage.

''And I started screaming,'' he says. ''And I chased the
truck for five blocks, ready to fight, until I caught up
with it at a red light.''

At that point, he says, he caught himself. ''At the light,
I just sat down on the side of the road and sobbed for like
half an hour.''

The people in ''Our Lady'' have that in them: the woman who
has never got over a heartbreak; the detective whose son
was raped and murdered on a playground; the man trapped by
the guilt of having, years ago, accidentally beaned his
little brother with a brick. Indeed, Guirgis's plays are
compendiums of the things that can go wrong -- in a moment
or a month, accidentally or by our own hands -- in lives
that might not be so great to begin with.

''The thing is, that kind of anger is always misdirected;
it's always chasing the ghost of something,'' he says.
''But there's so much in the world to get angry about; it's
easy to hook into it.''

Bruce Weber is a theater critic for The


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