Merve Emre is is an Associate Professor of English at the University of Oxford and author of Paraliterary: The Making of Bad Readers in Postwar America. In her latest book, The Personality Brokers, she creates a critical portrait of the Myers-Briggs Indicator, a personality test conceived and developed by Katherine Cook Briggs and Isabel Myers Briggs, an unconventional mother daughter team with no formal training in psychology.
“Better than a horoscope…less reliable than a heart monitor.” That’s how organizational psychologist Adam Grant describes the Myer’s Briggs indicator. Yet, the majority of Fortune 100 companies, and major universities along with the federal government use this people-sorter to assign students and employees to one of 16 discrete types.
In a discussion with friends about the test’s creators, we decided that those who hadn’t taken the Myers Briggs would give it a shot. And those who had would take it again, for good measure. The founders and keepers of the Myers Briggs Indicator insist that type doesn’t change, not over time, not over circumstance. As a person who has taken it multiple times over the last few decades, I could attest to that. Could.
But this most recent exercise revealed that within the last year, my personality type had made a significant shift. I have always sensed that these kinds of tests feed our egos in a way that steadies our faith in them. But I wasn’t prepared for the level of bewilderment that accompanied these test results. It was like waking up to a different eye color. Then I became intrigued. How did this happen? In what ways am I different? And more importantly, why am I so fascinated with myself?
Katherine knew that we all seek an answer to the fundamental question, “What makes me, me?” Her first sincere attempts to understand personality began in 1897 with a set of experiments she designed to turn her daughter into a genius. She conducted behavioral drills with Isabel in their living room, the “cosmic laboratory of baby training.” And Isabel impressed the neighborhood mothers when she began speaking full sentences at two, learned stenography at twelve, published short stories at 16, and at 17 was accepted to Swarthmore College.
Then In 1923, Katherine discovered a schematic for sorting personalities. She read Carl Jung’s Psychological Types in which Jung theorized that every person was primarily extraverted or introverted, intuitive or sensing, thinking or feeling. The work captured Katherine’s attention for several years, not only helping her to not only understand herself but inspiring her to seek a broader application for the betterment of society.
It was Isabel who would go on to adapt Jung’s schematic and craft the Myers-Briggs Indicator to help employers identify the traits of their employees. She pitched hard, making use of family connections, and successfully selling the test during a time when employers wanted increasingly specialized and productive workers. Throughout the 1950s and 60s, the Myers-Brigs Indicator attracted interest from the Educational Testing Service in Princeton, New Jersey and from UC Berkeley’s Institute of Personality Assessment and Research, who administered the indicator to Truman Capote, Normal Mailer and other prominent writers and artists.
By 1980, the year Isabel died, it is estimated that over one million other people had taken it. By 2012, sales of personality tests were bringing in about $20 million a year, and Myers-Briggs had become a household name. Emre’s cultural history deftly reveals the a-typical nature of its creators. They were affluent autodidacts, homemakers, published writers and zealous crusaders for self-actualization. They shaped the personality-assessment industry with an indicator that has become an icon. But how would they type?
Originally published October 18, 2018 in the Aspen Daily News
Written under the influence of Michael Pollan
To be more creative, to expand our connections with the people in our lives, to free ourselves from self-defeating thoughts, to be happier. Can psychedelics play a role in our personal well-being? Michael Pollan, a self-described “square,” separates truth from myth, becoming a chronicler and participant in the exploration of this question. How to Change Your Mind documents the suppression and potential therapeutic future of psychedelics. And here, as in his previous two best-sellers, The Botany of Desire and The Omnivore’s Dilemma, Pollan combines history with politics and personal reflection on the healing potential of the plant world, specifically magic mushrooms.
The book points to some of the damage done by Harvard psychologist Timothy Leary and other counterculture leaders, who successfully branded psychedelic science as part of the hippie movement. Within the moral backlash toward that era, this association partly ensured the drug’s criminalization. But not before scientists discovered an amazing potential to treat addiction, alcoholism, anxiety, depression and the distress facing patients with a terminal diagnosis.
Over the last two decades, medical centers along with the U.S. government, are allowing new research into the study of psilocybin, the active ingredient in LSD, to treat these conditions. Pollan also reports that “the practice of microdosing — taking a tiny, ‘subperceptual’ regular dose of LSD as a kind of mental tonic — is all the rage in the tech community.”
Modern technology, specifically fMRI scanners, confirm a similar brain activity between people meditating and those taking psilocybin. LSD molecules resemble serotonin and can breach the neurotransmitter’s receptors. Not everyone’s reaction is the same, and Leary’s major contribution was an emphasis on the effects of personal expectation or “set” and guided circumstance or “setting,” which some argue should include a trained therapist.
However, almost all reports of psilocybin-induced experience share what Pollan calls a “plane of consciousness,” that was new to him and felt truer than everyday reality. Why should this experience prove so helpful? As Pollan explains it, disorders that are the result of mental and emotional “grooves” in our thinking have become “default.” Experiences with psilocybin have the ability to create new cerebral connections that release us from “rigidity in our thinking that is psychologically destructive.” He provides intriguing examples, such as a study involving terminal cancer patients who felt lasting relief from their anxieties around death.
While Pollan does not argue for the arbitrary legalization nor for the recreational use of psychedelics, he does argue that our anxieties around them lack merit. He also expresses hope that the drugs will be more widely available, not only those suffering from addiction and trauma, but also for the middle aged, whose “habitual thinking…is nearly absolute.” What Pollan personally sought was an opportunity to “renovate my everyday mental life,” and found that his experience gave him a greater and lasting sense of openness and appreciation of life.
As always, Pollan’s work is highly readable. And to my mind, the author once again suggests (to quote Botany) the plant’s ability to restore “a kind of innocence to our perceptions of the world.'' Here he creates another provocative opportunity to wonder at the unique power of nature and its relationship with the human condition.
Originally published September 6, 2018 in the Aspen Daily News
Successful French hip-hop artist Gaël Faye was born in 1982 to a French father and Rwandan mother who lived as expatriates in Burundi, a country in the Great Lakes area of Eastern Africa.
Faye describes the bulk of his creative work in music, screenplays and fiction as rooted in poetry. He began writing poems at an early age, anchoring himself to their composition throughout his abruptly uprooted adolescence, and then expanding his small works into song and prose.
He has recently emerged as a dexterous talent, winning numerous literary prizes, including the prestigious Prix Goncourt des lycéens for Petit Pays, published 2016 in France and selling over 700,000 copies. Sarah Ardizzone translated Faye’s novel into Small Country, now published in over thirty countries worldwide.
The book opens just before the first democratic election in 1993 of Melchior Ndadaye in Burundi, bordered by Rwanda, Tanzania and the Congo. There, life is fairly carefree for ten-year-old Gabrial, living with his expatriate French father, Rwandan mother and little sister Ana in the capital of Bujumbura.
Ten year old Gabriel (Gaby) and his pack of mischief making friends sneak beers, gossip about girls, avoid Francis the bully, sell stolen mangoes and sneak Supermatch cigarettes. Faye’s inspiration for these characters comes from a lyric he wrote days before the civil war. Pili Pili sur un Croissant au Beurre; it’s a song of privilege and boredom and from a child who does not yet understand what the future holds.
The 1993 assassination of Melchior Ndadaye will come just three months after his election in a military coup that begins a ten-year civil war, killing over a million Hutus and Tutsis in mutual prosecution of physical difference. The violence will monstrously spread, propelling Rwanda into genocide rooted on an accepted colonial concept of ethnicity. Faye writes, “A glowing, uninvited ghost is showing up at regular intervals to remind us that peace is merely a brief interlude between two wars...we didn’t know it yet, but the hour of the inferno had come, and the night was about to unleash it’s cackles of hyenas and wild dogs.”
Small Country explores the grief that accompanies a boy plunged from the familiar into the horrific. Gaby first steadies himself by writing poetic letters to his French pen pal Laure. He befriends an elderly widow with large bookshelves, immerses himself in reading instead of following friends into guerilla warfare. Eventually he must make the worst of choices. It’s an ambitious character development, and at times Faye loses a little authenticity, attempting to balance seasoned expository with the naïve perspective of a boy.
Faye’s own boyhood was lost to war, and he followed his mother to France where he describes being so filled with injustice and the shock of a new culture that he didn’t unpack his suitcase for months. Like Gaby, he was a child traumatized by the evil that passed though and transformed Africa. He writes, "Genocide is an oil slick: those who don't drown in it are polluted for life."
Within that darkness, Gaby loses not only freedom but identity, abandoning his former self in order to survive. Faye illuminates the brutal struggle of refugee experience through what at times can feel like disjointed memoir. Yet, he delivers a perspective not often shared about the Rwandan genocide. The story is slow building and deeply moving, told in simple beautiful language, and a worthy eye-opening read.
Originally published July 26, 2018 in the Aspen Daily News
Folk, a bewitching debut novel from Zoe Gilbert, 2014 winner of the UK’s revered Costa Short Story Award.
When I was twelve, I sought out the kind of fiction that led me down magical paths, places where powerful incantations held sway in mysterious other-worldly planes. In recent years, I’ve gravitated toward the kind of writing that teaches me something new or challenges my sense of what literature should be. Fantasy fiction hasn’t been my go-to. Yet, I was easily caught in the dark net cast by Zoe Gilbert, a PhD student of mentor Alison MacLeod in South-East London, and 2014 winner of UK’s revered Costa Short Story Award.
This unique award is judged anonymously, with the names of the competing authors withheld throughout the process. Gilbert’s short story Fishskin, Hareskin received the highest number of public votes and is now one of the separate yet interconnected stories contained in her bewitching debut novel, Folk.
Zoe Gilbert has conjured an eerily beautiful world, an un-happily ever after place, drawn from old tales from the Isle of Man, where “moonlight reaches down between branches” and kites strain and wood quivers. The briny air is rich with the scent of sodden thatch, salt sea-fog and cobnut shells. A fiddle mourns for lost loves where wild enchanted characters inhabit a land tethered to sub-pagan ritual.
At times this book languishes in a way that detracts from its narrative. However, Gilbert triumphs with some simply infatuating prose. She spins ancient myth like a true Solomon, recounting a world, unreal yet more real than our own.
And while the pursuit of supernatural storytelling is to create a universe far far away, these constructed worlds cannot help but reflect a kind of hyper-reality, shining light on our own existence, how are we the same, what are we missing? Take the story of Verlyn, a character born with a wing for an arm and sadly defined by that peculiarity. Verlyn’s tale illustrates our misunderstanding of difference and the resultant fear that blinds our ability both to understand and to love.
In Prick Song, ancient ritual prescribes village girls to fire ribboned arrows into a thick gorse maze which young suitors compete to retrieve. Bloody scratch marks earn the boys kisses on their stinging lips, but the proceedings turn grim when a battle ravaged victor is burned alive.
In Water Bull Bride, Gilbert conceives a water bull as Minotaur, who disguises himself as a man so to capture and seduce a bride. Underwater he elicits a sexual appetite in her that cannot be quenched by mortals.
A new mother who is preoccupied by hares wraps her strange offspring in the skins of childhood pets. A young boy named Hark lives behind a waterfall and uses his ox-voice to answer villager’s questions. Each of their stories can stand alone; together they hint at the passage of time, culminating in a deep and strangely beautiful sense of place.
When I finished Folk, I found myself sadly staring at the cover, then out the window, wishing I could return to Gilbert’s mythical land called Neverness, that my bare feet touched a verdant forest floor or that I might shake hands with a less (more?) human being. There’s something incredibly appealing about erasing the sharp angles of contemporary existence, and there’s a sense of loss in the return to hard boiled reality.
This is not a title that will be to everyone’s taste, but lovers of fantasy fiction will admire Gilbert’s work, and I imagine that some soon to be fans will like it too.
This review originally appeared in the Aspen Daily News on April 12, 2018
The Hainish Cycle series by Ursula K. Le Guin
Burning Your Boats: the collected short stories by Angela Carter
A Guide to Being Born by Ramona Ausubel
Tender Morsels by Margo Lanagan
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