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Autonomy and Intimacy in Romantic Relationships.

Psychiatrist and author Peter Kramer. His book, "Listening to Prozac" was a bestseller. His new book is about relationships: "Should You Leave?: A Psychiatrist Explores Intimacy and Autonomy -and the Nature of Advice" (Scribner) Kramer is an associate clinical professor of psychiatry at Brown University and writes a monthly column for Psychiatric Times.

32:38

Other segments from the episode on September 8, 1997

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, September 8, 1997: Interview with Peter Kramer; Interview with Rick Bragg; Commentary on the coverage of Princess Diana's death.

Transcript

Show: FRESH AIR
Date: SEPTEMBER 08, 1997
Time: 12:00
Tran: 090801np.217
Type: FEATURE
Head: Peter Kramer
Sect: News; Domestic
Time: 12:06

TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

In his bestselling book "Listening to Prozac," Dr. Peter Kramer examined the new anti-depression drugs and their impact on mood, self-image, and personality. His new book speaks to a question that is likely to plague you if you're having serious problems with your spouse or companion.

Should you put more energy into trying to make the relationship work? Or, would you be better off just pulling out? Dr. Kramer's new book is called "Should You Leave?" In trying to help puzzle through that question, Kramer examines the larger issues of autonomy and identity within intimate relationships.

Kramer is an Associate Clinical Professor of Psychiatry at Brown University and has a private practice in Providence. He says it often seems that he could fill his entire practice with people who say they've fallen out of love. I asked him what he thinks that says about marriage today.

PETER KRAMER, PSYCHIATRIST, AUTHOR, "LISTENING TO PROZAC," AND "SHOULD YOU LEAVE?": I think marriage is hard. I think marriage is difficult in the United States and I think out requirements for our own happiness are very high -- the notion that we should be self-fulfilled is very important to Americans so that the sort of bumps in the road that have always, I assume, occurred in marriages, and the sorts of disappointments that might have been resolved with turning outside the marriage are related to expectations within the marriage. People really want the marriage to do many things.

GROSS: You could have probably gotten a book contract for just about any subject after the success of Listening to Prozac. You've chosen to focus this new book on marriages and the question of whether you should leave it or not if you don't think it's going well. And also in there is your dilemma about how much advice you should give to people on that question.

Why did you make that the focus of your next book?

KRAMER: I think it was a perverse decision in some ways. I think I'd been stung a little by some of the reviews of Listening to Prozac which, you know, got 99 percent rave reviews, but there was that one percent that said this is not doctorly; that had some comments about the topic. And I think I had a perverse interesting in writing something yet more popular and showing that I could do even that seriously and complexly.

I think the other stimulus is that the sort of patient who interested me in Listening to Prozac -- the person who was unassertive, loyal, in a way too good for the culture -- continues to interest me. And that is the kind of person who gets into certain kinds of trouble in relationships; that is, who maybe bonds too strongly; doesn't share the American mania for autonomy.

And the question about whether one can be an exception in this culture -- whether one can stick too long with a marriage and yet make it work -- I think interested me. I supposed there's some other reasons as well. I think in the back of my mind, I had had some other books in mind relating to other patients -- the kind of patient who comes in, a young college student say -- who seems not to understand how the culture works.

You'll have a very attractive young man or woman who's never had a date, and I had in mind sort of a, I don't know what in the pre-AIDS era would have been maybe called: "how to get laid" -- you know, that there was some sense that there are standard ways of negotiating this culture.

And I think I was wondering as a therapist whether -- you know, whether we can use that knowledge; whether it's appropriate say to someone, you know, rather than analyze the unconscious motivations behind failure, to say: "you know, maybe you're just missing something fairly obvious about how people behave in this culture. Maybe you can't be quite as urgent in a relationship as you tend to be."

And I think that question has a long history within psychoanalysis.

GROSS: A lot of your book is about the kind of conflict between wanting autonomy and wanting to couple. And those things are sometimes really hard to do together. I'd like for you to expand on that a little bit. You even give a test to tell...

KRAMER: Right.

GROSS: ... if you fit into that category. It's a good one.

KRAMER: I think normal human beings have trouble holding onto themselves in groups; that we are created to be communal animals at least to some extent influenced by leaders or companions. The test is really Maury Bowen's (ph) test which is if you're a young person and you go home to the family, how long can you remain yourself? Or if you're the parent, how long can you remain yourself in the face of this returning student?

And the answer is probably gauged in minutes. You know, I think if you do well for 15 minutes, you probably are highly autonomous. And the question is: is that a test of maturity? I think that's a question that's been debated since World War II is really what is maturity.

And Maury Bowen, one of the great and founding family therapists, thought that the absolute measure of maturity, what he called "differentiation of self," which was the ability to remain oneself in the face of group pressure, which of course is a very appealing idea post-war.

You know, in face of totalitarianism; in the face of McCarthyism -- looking at movies like "High Noon" of "The Oxbow Incident," there's an American ideal which is the autonomous self, the highly-autonomous self. And of course, it turns out to have roots that go back to Thoreau and Walden and maybe back to the Declaration of Independence. We're a very autonomous country. And I think not being overwhelmed by the other is a measure of how mature we are; how well we're gonna function in complex situations.

On the other hand, I think it is very hard to build relationships purely on this ideal of autonomy.

GROSS: On the other hand, have you come to think that it's a sign of maturity if you know how to compromise and to bend in a relationship; not to sacrifice your identity, but to bend.

KRAMER: I think there are elements of maturity that this definition centered on autonomy misses that maybe even losing one's self is a quality of maturity; the ability to enter and leave, to oscillate, I think that passion is a human good and to say that maturity is, in a sense, the opposite of the ability to be passionate, seems to me wrong. And that those patients or people who come in and say: "look, I don't want only to be more autonomous. I want to get lost in the relationship. I want to trust another person more than it's reasonable to trust. Can I get away with it?"

I think, well, that might be dangerous to advise, but it's hard not to be sympathetic to that if one understands love to be a reasonable human wish.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Peter Kramer and he's the author of Listening to Prozac. Now, he has a new book called "Should You leave?: A Psychiatrist Explores Intimacy and Autonomy and the Nature of Advice."

I'm wondering if you come across a lot of couples where one person is very bendable and isn't very autonomous the way that would be defined, and the other person is, so that one person remains fixed and the other person kind of bends to enter the sphere of the spouse and then comes to resent it.

KRAMER: I think that is the typical marital problem of the era, is that women are taught to enhance mutuality to make relationships work; to find pride in the husband's achievements. And the men are taught to go out and be world-beaters. And when you change that relationship a little -- when you also emphasize some greater level of autonomy for women, you create trouble.

And I would say useful trouble because one of the problems with advice is, I think, if one advises autonomy, the person who's already strong, autonomous, maybe somewhat unfeeling and uncaring, hears that message very well. And if you emphasize connection, the person who already is giving everything hears that message very well.

And I think that's an inherent danger in advice at the moment. We really want the messages to go against temperament. You want to say to the person who's highly autonomous it's all right to give a little; it's all right to accept some other person's goals; it's all right to make sacrifices for the sake of the relationship which has an inherent value.

There's something about relationship that make it an entity with some inherent value of it's own. And you want to say to the person who's giving too much: "look, the way to make this relationship work; the way to demand mutuality, is to be yourself very vigorously."

You know, I think this book cuts a little against the American grain in saying there are limits to autonomy. But of course, there are people still, many people, and maybe it's mainly women, to whom one ways to say: "yes, you need to be more autonomous -- not just for your own sake, but for the sake of the relationship as well."

GROSS: I think there's a related question to this that you raise in the book, and that is -- well, you know, I think that like if you're in a relationship, the person you're in a relationship with is almost like a mirror. And their sense of who you are is constantly reflected back at you. And if their sense of who you are emphasizes your own insecurities or your own flaws, that you're constantly looking into a mirror, that emphasizes the negative aspects of you.

And even somebody who loves you can be capable to emphasizing those parts.

KRAMER: Yes. I think we become possessed. One of my teachers, Leston Havens (ph) talks about possession as a danger in relationships, and that the stronger person -- the conventionally stronger person in the relationship -- almost takes the strength of the weaker person, reflects back her, let's say, inadequacies, and walks around the world looking for all that anyone else can see extremely competent and married to an incompetent spouse.

And I think that is one of the dangers of relationships: that people get swallowed slowly.

GROSS: My guest is Dr. Peter Kramer whose new book is called Should You Leave? We'll talk more after a break.

This is FRESH AIR.

My guest is Dr. Peter Kramer, author of the bestseller Listening to Prozac and the new book Should You Leave? About intimacy and autonomy in relationships.

I'm wondering if in relationships that you have discussed with patients, have you seen people be able to change? Have you seen somebody who, for instance, is the bending kind of person, the more pliant person, who reshapes the personality to suit the relationship and is in a relationship with somebody who's more fixed and autonomous -- if the more pliant person can ever change and become more autonomous within that relationship?

In other words, do you think that relationships and individuals can change? Or whether more from that a person has to walk out?

KRAMER: Yes, I think people change. I certainly have seen people change. And I think an interesting question is: what is change? What counts as change? I think one thing that certainly does not count as change is doing something tentatively or occasionally, so that the flexible person or maybe even abused person who occasionally asserts himself gets slapped down. But if one can be assertive, even in small ways, very persistently, I think that gets noticed, taken into account. It alters the whole form of the relationship.

Almost always, people come in and say: "I have to leave the relationship because I've tried and the relation -- I've already tried, and the relationship -- the other person -- won't budge."

And what I find lacking, you know, what I doubt -- the fictive attitude I cast on that claim -- is that I think people very often don't understand, from my point of view anyway, how persistent change has to be. Maybe the change doesn't have to be very great, but it has to be carried out in a persistent way.

And I think part of what goes on in therapy is not only self-understanding, but is something like coaching. It's helping the person do it again and again and see where it has to be done in small ways.

GROSS: I guess the same is true of the other side, too -- if you feel like your partner needs to change; that they're hurting you in a certain way or doing something damaging within the relationship; that if they just kind of change a couple of times and say "there, I've changed," that they're fooling themselves, yeah...

KRAMER: Yes, we're -- you're skeptical.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

KRAMER: We've been hurt. This wonderful writing by Vickie Hearn (ph) about crazy horses, where she talks about what you need to do to train horses -- and you know, there are horses, she claims, who are hard to manage because people have been too nice to them in inconsistent ways; and that if the trainer tries to be nice again, the trainer's going to get kicked or thrown.

And what the trainer has to be is firm and consistent. And I think, you know, that there's some analogy. I don't want to put horse-training too much on the level of changing your spouse, but I think there's something similar that goes on in relationships which is: you need to give signals firmly and consistently and to have enough faith in yourself to do that.

I think that very often, people come in and say: I want my spouse to change or my partner to change, and the therapist thinks, well, maybe if you changed consistently, that would be adequate. Maybe the partner would change or maybe your needs would change.

I think that the philosopher Stanley Caveles (ph) whom I turn to a lot in the book, and he really emphasizes how often what we need is not the fulfillment of needs, but a change in our needs -- and then the external world becomes adequate.

GROSS: You suggest that if you're in a relationship that's having trouble, instead of trying to change the other person which is usually somewheres between difficult and impossible, change yourself; change the way you're interpreting the problems within the relationship. Give me an example of what you mean there.

KRAMER: Well, first, I want to say that I hope I don't say anything too strongly. My, my...

GROSS: I know. You have this whole fear -- I mean, a distaste for giving advice and for writing a self-help book. And I know that's true and I'm -- I'm trying to talk about this without it sounding too pat, because you don't mean it to be pat and it isn't pat. Yeah...

KRAMER: It goes beyond a distaste to I think a view of how the world is, which is that the world is very complicated; people are very...

GROSS: Crazy.

LAUGHTER

KRAMER: ... particular -- they're particular in their individuality. Their needs are not standard. And that what is good advice one day is probably bad advice the next.

GROSS: Yeah.

KRAMER: You know, that being said, I think running against the grain is very important. I write in the book about a young man who seems a little obsessional and prissy, I would say, and who feels his girl friend is a little beneath him, because she isn't quite as intellectual as he is. But when you look a little more closely at their interactions, she's always undermining him by saying something that shows she's really quite smart; that she has his number.

And the advice I seem to want to give him in that story, and it's not clear whether I give it or not, is he has a particular, you know, sort of superior wish for pristine apartments -- for not wanting too much overstuffed furniture in a room.

And the advice I give him is almost to just let her decorate the living room; you know, that there's some sense that going against one's own temperament is difficult; it allows some growth which, if you actually do end the relationship later, is something you can take with you.

That -- one argument for changing yourself is: well, if the relationship doesn't work, having grown in some aspect is something that goes beyond the particular relationship.

But in addition, you know, it may be that one appreciates, one comes to appreciate the less obsessional qualities; the quietness; the messiness of the partner and to understand that this partner, you know, the wife or girl friend in this case, really has some aspect of reality; you know, is in touch with some aspect of reality, but he isn't.

And I think that is what change often is. It's some persistent attempt to go against the grain of temperament or personality and be a bigger person.

GROSS: When someone comes to you and they are perplexed by this question: should I stay in this relationship that's having trouble? Or should I leave? What's your approach to helping them decide? You're not going to tell them what to do. Will you offer any advice? And if not, what's your kind of larger approach to helping them figure out what the best answer might be for them?

KRAMER: Well, I think broadly, the application is the -- I think largely the approach is this application of multiple perspectives.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

KRAMER: I don't give advice, by and large. On the other hand, I think my view of psychotherapy is that it is trying to do something, oh, almost prissy in itself if it's trying to stay away entirely from social norms.

I think if someone is very giving and self-sacrificing, and the other partner is clearly taking all the time, that is -- a certain point, and maybe that point is early, the therapist or adviser has to say: "look, this guy's a bit of a jerk" or, you know, "tell me why the following is not the case?" -- and present society's external view of what is equitable in a relationship.

And then the patient can come back and say: "yes, but you don't see all the other things that he does for me. You don't see what my own shortcomings are." That, I think, begins the discussion, although very often that objection has to be followed by saying: "well, I think I do see those things and I still think the relationship's inequitable."

I really feel patients are done a disservice by too much neutrality. At a certain point, they have to be confronted with alternative stories about how this relationship adds up.

GROSS: So as a psychiatrist, you don't want to give advice -- "you should do this; you should do that" -- on the other hand, you do say that you lean in the direction of reconciliation in a relationship. Why?

KRAMER: Well, I think therapists in general lean toward reconciliation. People who've looked at this and interviewed therapists, a couple of therapists, find that. I think there are a number of reasons.

One is: we value complexity; that a complex relationship is a place where a person can grow and even if the person intends or ought finally to leave, that growing in an area where you're paralyzed; where the other person seems very powerful; where there's a lot of inertia -- that that is exactly the greenhouse for growth; that growth -- that instead of leaving and doing the same thing again, you must change.

Because what is the point of making the same mistake again and again? The -- you know, the whole point of change has to be some kind of change in the self that you can take with you.

The other thing I think is just observational; that it looks like second and third marriages are not especially better than first marriages. And if they are, they're better because the spouses in the next marriage are willing to make compromises; they're willing to be more empathic; they're willing to do without or experience some loss of self.

And if those same things were done in the first relationship, it might have worked. I think -- and of course, the divorce rates for second and third marriages are very high. The length of average second or third marriages is very short.

So there's a lot to be said for working with first marriages. And I want to say here: I'm not talking about openly abusive marriages. I'm not talking about what are obviously marriages of convenience where a young person leaves an abusive family by marriage and enters a relationship without much thought and then uses that relationship as a stepping stone to enter the world.

I'm talking about serious relationships where people are obviously fairly well matched. And the, you know, the problem is maybe persistent, but small, subtle, workable.

GROSS: Peter Kramer's new book is called Should You Leave? We'll talk more in the second half of the show.

I'm Terry Gross and this is FRESH AIR.

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

Back with more of our interview with Dr. Peter Kramer. His new book Should You Leave? examines the question most people have who are in a troubled relationship. Is it better to put more energy into making the relationship work? Or to just end it?

Kramer is also the author of the bestseller Listening to Prozac, about the new anti-depression drugs.

Part of your new book Should You Leave? about relationships relates a lot to your earlier book Listening to Prozac. And there's a really interesting chapter about mood swings, depression, and relationships. And you say that sometimes when a marriage is having trouble, what you have to do is treat one person's depression and that the depression might really be the source of the trouble.

KRAMER: If you look at the objective data, surveys of people in troubled relationships show that half of the women in troubled relationships meet standard strict criteria for depressive disorder. And that depression is 25 times as prevalent in both men and women in troubled relationships. And this doesn't count people who enter the relationship when depressed and are no longer depressed. And it doesn't count mania; and it doesn't count more subtle forms of depression.

So that just on a statistical basis, it would seem that many, many troubled relationships have one or the other partner, with a mood disorder or some very substantial change in mood. And in particular...

GROSS: Go ahead.

KRAMER: ... well, I would say also that this issue just impassions me; that for some reason that I can't quite explain, I'm very frustrated by being a Cassandra who sees one partner to be depressed and yet hears from the people in the marriage that the marriage just isn't working for some entirely other reason. So that people will come in and say: "our values are different. We're not communicating. We don't enjoy time together."

And I'll say let's discuss this again after we treat your or your spouse's depression, because I know that those issues -- many times I've seen those issues just fade away when the depression is treated. And I'm not especially advocating medicine as the treatment for depression. It could be medication. It could be a psychotherapy that focuses on depression, rather than marital discord. It could be both together.

But that depression is a terrible limitation of perspective, and that when the depression is treated, people just see the relationship differently.

GROSS: Speaking of depression, it's been about, what, four years since the publication of Listening to Prozac. So you've had a few more years of observing Prozac, observing the people who take it. It's only been on the market since 1987, so you've had just about twice as long to see it now as you did when you wrote the book.

Has anything fundamentally changed in your view of Prozac's usefulness in treating people with depression over the short- or long-term?

KRAMER: Yes, I think the sexual side-effects are certainly more prominent. It's clearer that people have delayed ejaculation, orgasm, or a decreased sexual interest on these medicines. I think the book was early in pointing that out, but I think it's much clearer than it was when I wrote the book.

I think there -- something else I mentioned in the book has become clearer also, which is some people sort of burn out on the medicines; that the medicines start being less effective over time. I think there are biological reasons for that which people know more about; and there are treatments for people for who -- who seem to develop tolerance to these medicines. I think that's a whole important area.

And I think my worries about the medicines have in some ways increased. I am worried that these medicines are being used very long-term, and within the field, the length of time for which anti-depressants are prescribed has increased very rapidly. That is, people used to be treated for six months at a time, then for a year. And now, some people are kept on indefinitely.

And we really don't know whether these medicines, even though they're good in the short-term, in some ways increase the liability to mood disorder in people. We just don't know what it means to push these biological systems very hard in a given direction. I would say although nothing very bad has been discovered about these medicines on a statistical basis or in research over a few years, I am quite worried about the extent to which they're used and the length of time for which they're prescribed.

You know, it should be said in parallel that the reason that they're prescribed for long periods of time is that there also are more worries about depression and its effects. It really looks as if depression damages the brain in some ways and that you don't want people to be depressed.

GROSS: So do you find yourself prescribing Prozac any more or less than before? Or prescribing it for different intervals of time than you did a few years ago?

KRAMER: I still tend to prescribe it fairly late in the course of treatment. I think I'm slower than most doctors. I like to do psychotherapy for a while if I can. I think I'm stuck in the same bind all doctors are, which is that if a person has had multiple episodes of depression or very dangerous depressions, I find it hard to take people off the antidepressants.

I do. I try to take them off slowly. That's something else that has been written about a lot over the last few years, which is that there are some withdrawal syndromes from these medicines. I try to take them off slowly to try to fool the brain and not have it witness abrupt changes in the levels of neuro-transmitters.

And -- but I do like to take people off and see how they do on intervals without medication.

GROSS: So it sounds like, as a doctor, you're really working with a fairly high level of uncertainty with the new antidepressants...

KRAMER: Yes.

GROSS: ... 'cause there isn't information about the real long-term.

KRAMER: Yes, and I think that is always the case. I think you can't keep a medicine off the market 20 years to see whether it has long-term effects experimentally. And anyway, in 20 years, there'll be some other medicine that on theoretical grounds ought to be much more effective. So you're always working with new medicines whose long-term effects have to be gauged in part from animal studies, in part from theoretical considerations.

I do think something is missing in the American system, which is the requirement for long-term followup on the part of the drug companies or maybe the federal government as their proxy. The requirements to market a drug often are quite reasonable as regards medicines like antibiotics that are used for a few weeks, or asthma drugs that are used intermittently. But as regards to medicine you might take every day for many years, there are not adequate requirements for what's called post-marketing research.

That really, the drug companies who are making enormous profits from these medicines ought to be spending large amounts of money seeing what their long-term effects are and what their effects are on special audiences like the elderly and children, for whom the drugs are not initially tested before they're marketed.

GROSS: I realize this is probably none of my business, but have you ever tried Prozac either for clinical reasons or just out of curiosity to see what impact it would have on you so you'd understand more about the drug?

KRAMER: No, no, I haven't. And I think my interest, in some ways, isn't Prozac so much as what these different elements in psychiatry -- individual therapy, couple therapy, and medication -- tell us about the modern self and what our eagerness for certain psychiatric solutions tells us about the culture.

I really think of myself much more as a writer and a cultural critic than I do as a specialist in medication.

GROSS: Dr. Peter Kramer is the author of the bestseller Listening to Prozac. His new book about intimacy and autonomy in relationships is called Should You Leave?

Dateline: Terry Gross, Philadelphia
Guest: Peter Kramer
High: Psychiatrist and author Peter Kramer. His book, "Listening to Prozac" was a bestseller. His new book is about relationships: "Should You Leave?: A Psychiatrist Explores Intimacy and Autonomy -- and the Nature of Advice." Kramer is an associate clinical professor of psychiatry at Brown University and writes a monthly column for Psychiatric Times.
Spec: Media; Authors; Health and Medicine; Drugs; Psychiatry
Please note, this is not the final feed of record
Copy: Content and programming copyright 1997 WHYY, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by FDCH, Inc. under license from WHYY, Inc. Formatting copyright 1997 FDCH, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to WHYY, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission.
End-Story: Peter Kramer
Show: FRESH AIR
Date: SEPTEMBER 08, 1997
Time: 12:00
Tran: 090802np.217
Type: FEATURE
Head: All Over But the Shouting
Sect: News; Domestic
Time: 12:35

TERRY GROSS, HOST: Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Rick Bragg says he thinks he's best at writing about people in trouble -- about misery; about crack-invested high-rises; welfare hotels; natural disasters.

He's now based in Atlanta and writes about the South for the New York Times. He grew up in rural Alabama. His parents separated before he was born. His mother was poor and didn't buy a new dress for 18 years so that her children could have school clothes.

In fact, although she thinks of herself as a failure, he thinks she's responsible for a lot of his success. Much of his new memoir is about her. It's called "All Over But The Shoutin'." Here's a short reading about the South Rick Bragg grew up in in the '60s.

RICK BRAGG, NEW YORK TIMES REPORTER, AUTHOR, "ALL OVER BUT THE SHOUTIN'": "It was as if God made them pay for the loveliness of their scenery by demanding everything else -- if the grimness of it faded for a while at dinner on the ground at the Protestant churches where the people sat on the springtime grass and ate potato salad and sipped sweet tea from an aluminum tub with a huge block of ice floating in it."

"The pain eased at family reunions where the men barbecued 24 hours straight and the women took turns holding babies and balancing plates on their knees, trying to keep the grease from soaking through on the one good dress they had."

"The hardness of it softened in the all-night gospel singings that ushered in the dawn with the promise that 'I'll have a new body, praise the Lord, I'll have a new life;' as babies crawled up into the ample laps of grandmothers to sleep across jiggling knees."

"If all else failed, you could just wash it away for a little while at the stills deep in the woods or in the highly-illegal beer joints and the so-called "social clubs," where the guitar pickers played with their eyes closed, lost in the booze in the words of lost love and betrayal. They sang about women who walked the hills in long black veils, of whispering pines and trains."

"If was the backdrop and the sound track of our lives. I was born into it in the summer of 1959, just in time to taste it, absorb it, love it, and hate it, and know its secrets. When I was a teenager, I watched it shudder and gasp and finally begin to die -- the pines clear-cut into huge patches of muddy wasteland and the character of the little towns murdered by the generic subdivisions and generic fast food restaurants."

"The South I was born in was eulogized by pay-as-you-pray TV preachers, enclosed in a coffin of light-blue aluminum siding, and laid to rest in a polyester suit from Wal-Mart."

GROSS: Rick Bragg refers to "pay-as-you-pray" preachers in that reading. Later in his memoir, he explains that his mother gathered the children around the TV Sunday mornings to watch the televangelists. I asked Bragg about his impressions of those shows.

BRAGG: One thing that you will absolutely get shot for where I grew up is making fun of anybody's religion. And for people who couldn't afford to go to church or -- and believe me, there are people who can't afford to go to church; for people who didn't want to go for a lot of reasons, these preachers brought the Word into their living rooms.

And my mom liked to hear it. I think it was comforting to her. She liked to hear the singing. I think it was a connection for her. For my brothers and I, it was alternating torture and -- you know, we didn't want to be sitting in front of a television listening to a TV preacher. We wanted to be running around outside throwing rocks at each other.

But she'd -- she didn't really make us, but she would bribe us. For instance, you know, she would cook up a great breakfast on Sunday, and we knew that to get that great breakfast, we were gonna have to listen to a little preaching.

GROSS: Did you mother have any interest in going to an actual church? Or, were you very far away from it?

BRAGG: Well, as I said in the book, my mom was very, very proud. My mom, you know, gave everything that she had to us. And she never really had church clothes. And I think she had interest and I think she, you know, she may yet go some day again, but -- and she has been, you know, later in life. But it's one of those things that I don't talk a whole lot to my mom about because I think it's intensely personal.

About two or three times a decade, she'll preach to me a little bit, and I'll listen to it and see some value in what she's saying. She's just trying to keep me from going to hell in a hand-basket. That's all. But it's a personal thing to her, and we just don't talk a lot about that.

GROSS: You write some about your father in this book. And your father was a drunk and often a brute. And he -- and your parents were separated by the time you were born. He didn't even come to see you 'til you were nearly two years old.

You say in this world, strength and toughness were everything, and that it was common, acceptable, not to be able to read, but a man who wouldn't fight -- who couldn't fight -- that was the pathetic thing; to be afraid was shameful.

Now, you did read -- you loved to read and read quite well. But how did you measure up in that other category of fighting?

BRAGG: No, I read and fought, too. I'm no kind of Renaissance man. But I had fist-fights in the parking lot of the Hardee's hamburger joint and had fist-fights on the playground at Roy Webb Elementary (ph) and Williams Junior High School. And I won some of 'em and I lost a bunch of 'em.

It might not be very progressive, but if somebody insults you, however they insult you down there, you're expected to knock 'em down.

GROSS: Well, you say your father taught you that if you're playing baseball and the batter got a hit off of you, then you should throw the next pitch at his head.

BRAGG: Yeah.

GROSS: So when your father taught you something like that, did you think: "oh, yes, well, I'd better do just that."

BRAGG: Oh, yeah. And I was -- you gotta understand, I was five or six, you know. I mean, we were playing with plastic bats or with tree limbs, and he'd, you know, we'd -- and he thought that was perfectly acceptable. And I did it. I did it later in life, too.

The reason that I included that passage in the book is because I had just come back from six months in New York. And I remembered how on such a regular basis there would be a cuss-fight on the street corner, you know, between a vendor and someone who short-changed him; or just, you know, these, you know, people screaming at each other face to face.

Well, that just doesn't happen where I come from. It doesn't happen. If somebody insults you or someone screams at you, and you're of their gender, then you knock 'em on their ass. And seems a whole lot more civilized to me than standing screaming obscenities at each other.

But I'm getting old now, and it hurts a lot, so I try to avoid it when I can.

GROSS: I'm wondering how your home life has affected the kind of stories you gravitate to as a reporter. You write in your book that you write mostly about people in trouble; about misery.

BRAGG: I think it gave me an understanding of it. I -- when I sit in the living room of someone who is obviously a little embarrassed to have you sitting there, you know, on their furniture; a little embarrassed to have you, you know, standing in their kitchen and a bug goes across the floor.

I wish sometimes I could just tell them, and often I do tell them, that I grew up just like this and I understand it and I'm not going to treat it like I'm on some kind of safari. I mean, the one thing I've always thought I was pretty good at was writing about these folks, and I think it is because I understand them.

There's not that much difference in growing up in a little bitty house out in the country and growing up in a housing project in New Orleans or Memphis or Birmingham. It's the same level of poverty. It's just different flavors of it. And I meant that I, you know, I cut folks a great deal of slack. I don't romanticize poverty. There's nothing romantic about being poor.

But there is dignity in it, and some of the most dignified people I've ever met had their toes poking through their shoes. And I think a lot of reporters who didn't grow up poor still -- you know, they have the same compassion and understanding for it. They just approach it from a different way. I don't think I'm any -- really any better at it than anybody else.

The difference is that I, if someone rushes over and closes the door to their kitchen when you walk into their little bitty apartment or maybe it's a project or a house, I kind of understand why they do that. They don't want you to see the level of how poor they are.

GROSS: How old were you when you started to read newspapers?

BRAGG: I think I probably started to read them when I was eight or nine. I would read the sports page. We didn't take a paper. The local paper was a weekly, the Jacksonville News. And we would get it a few days late.

You know, a paper would go to one person's house and they'd read it. Then they'd come over to your house to bring you some tomatoes or cucumbers or something, and they'd bring the paper. And that's how the paper would get passed around. We got a lot of use out of that paper.

LAUGHTER

But when I was probably 11 or 12, 13, and started, you know, playing sports badly, I wanted to read the sports page and I read the sports page of the Anniston Star -- which is a great small newspaper in northeast Alabama. It's in my home county.

And you know, I didn't read the editorial page and I didn't read the front page, but I would read the sports page and the comics. And the sportswriting that I read was really beautifully written and it really evoked these images with games and these heroes. And I think I fell in love with it partly because of that.

GROSS: Well, Rick Bragg, I want to thank you very much for talking with us.

BRAGG: No, it's my pleasure. It was fun.

GROSS: Rick Bragg writes about the south for the New York Times. His new memoir is called All Over But The Shoutin'.

Dateline: Terry Gross, Philadelphia
Guest: Rick Bragg
High: National Correspondent for the New York Times Rick Bragg. He's written a new memoir about growing up poor in Alabama, "All Over But the Shoutin.'"
Spec: Books; Authors; Rick Bragg; The South; All Over But the Shoutin
Please note, this is not the final feed of record
Copy: Content and programming copyright 1997 WHYY, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by FDCH, Inc. under license from WHYY, Inc. Formatting copyright 1997 FDCH, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to WHYY, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission.
End-Story: All Over But the Shouting
Show: FRESH AIR
Date: SEPTEMBER 08, 1997
Time: 12:00
Tran: 090803np.217
Type: FEATURE
Head: Death of Diana
Sect: News; International
Time: 12:55

TERRY GROSS, HOST: In the United States, Princess Diana's funeral was televised by all the major networks and cable news operations without commercial interruption -- but not without other types of interruptions, as TV critic Bianculli points out.

DAVID BIANCULLI, FRESH AIR COMMENTATOR: In terms of global impact in TV coverage, lots of media people have compared Saturday's funeral of Princess Diana to the 1963 funeral of John F. Kennedy. In terms of sudden deaths and of charismatic and idealistic world figures cut down in their prime, the comparisons make sense.

But in terms of television, they couldn't be more different. In 1963, network coverage of the JFK assassination and funeral was what brought network TV news of age. The lengthy, somber coverage gave Americans a shared experience, a chance to mourn, a common place to gather around and deal with their grief. But there was no cable then and no PBS -- only CBS, NBC, and ABC.

In 1997, American TV viewers waking up very early Saturday morning had a lot more places to turn for funeral coverage. In addition to the three major networks, there was Fox, which had a big presence because of Rupert Murdoch's Sky News channel in England. And on cable, there was everything from CNN and MSNBC to the Arts & Entertainment Network.

Now, A&E may have been the most improbable place to turn for funeral coverage, but from start to finish, it was also the best. A&E had the very good sense to import and transmit the live news feed from Great Britain's BBC-TV. Of all the networks I watched, and thanks to my wall-to-wall TV sets, I was watching them all at the same time, only the BBC coverage matched and respected the somber tone of the occasion.

Every network had pretty much the same images, but only the BBC announcers knew what they were talking about without deferring to guest experts. And only the BBC announcers knew that not speaking was often a lot better than speaking.

More than any other network, the BBC gave us natural sounds and the sound of silence.

(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP, BBC BROADCAST OF DIANA'S FUNERAL)

UNIDENTIFIED BBC BROADCASTER: It's only a few minutes now until, here at Kensington Palace, we shall see the start of the funeral cortege, the coffin of the princess draped in the royal standard, with flowers from members of the family, drawn by six horses, come down this road -- just the horses of the King's Troupe and the bearers who will carry the coffin when it reaches Westminster Abbey.

Very silent now.

BIANCULLI: The American networks, on the other hand, didn't know when to shutup. ABC was the worst offender, but CBS, NBC, and FOX were almost equally guilty.

The only place American TV distinguished itself was before and after the event, when news magazines and cable specials put everything in perspective. The night before the funeral, for example, Barbara Walters had a long and revealing interview with Elton John on ABC's 20/20. While the MSNBC series "Time and Again" provided the best perspective of all. It showed vintage NBC footage of the funerals of Winston Churchill in 1965 and Lord Mountbatten in 1979.

Diana's funeral coverage will be added to that archive -- with Elton John singing a revised "Candle in the Wind;" and Charles Spencer giving an amazingly brave speech on behalf of his sister and her children; and with those unforgettable closeup images of the envelop atop Diana's casket. The envelop had one word, handwritten in childish block letters. The word was "Mummy" and when I saw it the first time, I cried.

And with about a billion other people watching that same image, I'm pretty sure I wasn't alone.

GROSS: David Bianculli is TV critic for the New York Daily News.

(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP, "GOOD-BYE ENGLAND'S ROSE")

ELTON JOHN, SINGER, SINGING: Good-bye England's rose
May you ever grow in our hearts
You had the grace, the place to sense
Where lives were torn apart

Good-bye England's rose
From a country lost without your soul
We miss the wings of your compassion
More than you will ever know

And it seems to me you've lived your life
Like a candle in the wind
Never fading with sunset when the rains set in

And your footsteps will always fall here
Along England's greenest hills
Your candle's burned out long before
Your legend ever will

UNIDENTIFIED BBC BROADCASTER: The melody familiar, but those words, of course, have never been heard before.

GROSS: From the BBC coverage of Princess Diana's funeral.

Dateline: David Bianculli; Terry Gross, Philadelphia
Guest:
High: TV critic DAVID BIANCULLI on the coverage of Princess Diana's death.
Spec: Media; Deaths; Princess Diana
Please note, this is not the final feed of record.
Copy: Content and programming copyright 1997 WHYY, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by FDCH, Inc. under license from WHYY, Inc. Formatting copyright 1997 FDCH, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to WHYY, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission.
End-Story: Death of Diana
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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