“THE ALIENIST”— Suffering from Mental Illness


Suffering from Mental Illness

Amos Lassen

“In the 19th century, persons suffering from mental illness were thought to be alienated from their own true natures. Experts who studied them were therefore known as alienists.” This quotation is seen at the beginning of each episode of “The Alienist” and it there to remind us just how early this story takes place in the history of psychology. In the last years of the nineteenth century, science and civil rights alike were both on the verge of exploding; and these both had a serious impact on society in general, especially in the context of law and order and they were was ready for their own revolution.

According to what we see here, the New York Police Department was more concerned with maintaining a status quo which best suited their associates in the church and big industry. This meant a combination of traditionalism, corruption and turning a blind eye to minor crimes. Theodore Roosevelt (Brian Geraghty) was police commissioner in New York at this time, and when young boys started turning up murdered and mutilated (prostitutes and immigrants; definitely low priority cases), he saw that the only way to get the crime resolved effectively was to authorize an unofficial investigation. This was already underway, led by the renowned/controversial “alienist” Dr. Laszlo Kreizler (Daniel Brühl) and his friend from the New York Times John Moore (Luke Evans).

Roosevelt authorized the use of police time in the form of three more forward-thinking individuals, with the challenge that Kreizler solve the crimes before the official (and slack) police investigation could, so as to prove the value in radical approaches. These three were Sara Howard (Dakota Fanning), the first woman to join the police department – albeit as a “typewriter”, though with the mind of a detective – and brothers Marcus (Douglas Smith) and Lucius (Matthew Shear) Isaacson, who relished new scientific investigatory tools such as fingerprints. Thus the “fruitful partnership” is born.

“The Alienist” is a mystery/thriller and a history, and social commentary squeezed into one ten-episode story. The series was based on the 1994 novel of the same name by Caleb Carr. I usually do not have a problem watching adaptations of novels that are not identical to their sources but here it seems there was such determination to adapt the setting and main plot with care that a few minor plot points and characters were squeezed so small that a received insufficient explanations.

The camera is the main character here— episode was beautifully shot. The series is full of gritty and challenging scenes and images and there are issues of child and domestic abuse and anti-Semitism.


“MEN OF HARD SKIN” (“Hombres de piel dura”)— Sexuality and Desire

“MEN OF HARD SKIN” (“Hombres de piel dura”)

Sexuality and Desire

Amos Lassen

Argentine filmmaker José Celestino Campusano is known for a type of brutal realism that often shows “the origins of hidden desires and the energies that influence the nature and machinations of the environments of his stories.” He sees sexuality as the strongest of these energies and while the characters are neither likable or completely unpleasant, they are often divided between those who take charge of it and those who prefer not to take charge. . Those who take charge of it blossom; those who do not remain in a deeper underground.

“Men of Hard Skin” is the story of Ariel (Will Javier), a young and attractive gay man who lives and works on his father’s farm in a rural part of Buenos Aires,  Argentina. The film  focuses on his troubled and troublesome relationship with two older men: his father (Claudio Medina), who refuses to accept his homosexuality, and Omar (Germán Tarantino), a Catholic priest with whom he has a secret love affair.

Omar seduced Ariel as a teenager and continues to take advantage of his innocence and lack of experience with his emotions. Even though this began with a seduction, it is consensual. It is only because Ariel sees no future in the relationship that he decides to end it. The decision is painstakingly hard for him but it also allows him to take charge of his own sexuality and embark on an exploration of his desires, coming out of the shadows that both his father and Omar want to drag him into and where both manifest their own different sexuality.

Campusano is also strong about revealing realities that go beyond sets of rules and conventions. Here he exposes the  alternate realities of rural life and the Catholic Church and in the process exposes the structures in place that ensure their legitimatization. 


“The Nickel Boys” by Colson Whitehead— Two Boys in Florida

Whitehead, Colson. “The Nickel Boys: A Novel”, Doubleday, 2019.

Two Boys in Florida

Amos Lassen

“The Nickel Boys” is the follow-up to the Pulitzer Prize, and National Book Award-winning and New York Times bestseller “The Underground Railroad.” Colson Whitehead brilliantly looks at  American history through the story of two boys sentenced to reform school in Jim Crow-era Florida.

As the Civil Rights movement begins to reach the black enclave of Frenchtown in segregated Tallahassee, Elwood Curtis takes the words of Dr. Martin Luther King to heart: He is “as good as anyone.” Elwood Curtis was abandoned by his parents, but kept on the straight and narrow by his grandmother, Elwood is about to attend the local black college, however, for a black boy in the Jim Crow South of the early 1960s, it took just one innocent mistake to destroy the future. Elwood is sentenced to a juvenile reformatory called the Nickel Academy, where the mission statement says it provides “physical, intellectual and moral training” so the delinquent boys in their charge can become “honorable and honest men.”

But this quite far from the truth. In reality, the Nickel Academy is a hell house of horrors where the sadistic staff beats and sexually abuses the students, corrupt officials and locals steal food and supplies, and any boy who resists is likely to disappear “out back.” Elwood Is stunned to find himself in such a vicious place. He really tries to hold onto Dr. King’s statement “Throw us in jail and we will still love you.” His friend, “Turner thinks Elwood is worse than naive, that the world is crooked, and that the only way to survive is to find ways to avoid trouble.”

There is tension between Elwood’s ideals and Turner’s skepticism and this leads to a decision whose repercussions will be with them throughout time. decades. The boys’ fates will be determined by what they endured at the Nickel Academy. The book is based on the real story of a real school for boys that closed in Florida in 2011 after 111 years in existence. It was  Colson Whitehead’s Nickel Academy is the kind of institution that purports to rebrand bad boys into good young men. In theory it should be a good place for Elwood, a young black man who, although he had planned to attend a nearby college, was caught unknowingly riding in a stolen car. The happenings inside Nickel Academy do not match its public image, and Elwood learns that, no matter how idealistic or optimistic he is, his life is taking a very bad turn. Turner does not share Elwood’s idealism but helps him to survive Nickel Academy. This is a story about of Deep South captivity set in the mid-20th century and filled with horrors more chilling for being based on true-life atrocities.

“Color Me In” by Natasha Diaz— Meanings

Diaz, Natasha. “Color Me In”, Delacorte Press, 2019.


Amos Lassen

Natasha Díaz used her own experience to write this coming of age novel. I is about the meaning of friendship, “young romance and racism and religious intolerance that can both strain a family to the breaking point and strengthen its bonds.”

Neveah Levitz grew up in an affluent suburb of New York City and never thought much about her biracial roots. Her mom is black and her father is Caucasian and Jewish. When her parents’ marriage falters, Neveah she relocates to her mom’s family home in Harlem and is forced to find out  something about blood pressure.  She wants to get to know her extended family, but one of her cousins feels that Nevaeh, who often “passes as white, is too privileged, pampered, and selfish to relate to the injustices they face on a daily basis as African Americans. In the midst of attempting to blend their families, Nevaeh’s dad decides that she should have a belated bat mitzvah instead of a sweet sixteen and this guarantees social humiliation at her very fancy private school. As this happens, Neveah does what she’s always done when things become complicated—she says nothing.

Things changed after she learned about a
secret from her mom’s past and she is feeling the pangs of first love. finds herself falling in love. This is when she sees the prejudice her family faces that she begins to realize she has a voice. She also has to make choices and decisions.  It is so very important that each of us know our background.

change. Nevaeh learns that identity is both beautiful and complicated. As we read, we find ourselves looking at things differently.

Nevaeh’s parent’s separation and she is struggling to find her place in this new reality. She wants to fit in with her mother’s very religious Baptist family who live in Harlem, but she has never the chance or desire to explore her Black identity. Slowly with the help of her extended family, the friends she makes and getting to know her mother better through her old journal, she begins to express herself through oral poetry. She is also initially hesitant to understand her Jewish identity but that that also changes because of the influence of the Rabbi Sarah. Nevaeh is a realistic teenager with faults, who doesn’t know everything, makes mistakes and can’t even understand why she is wrong. Ultimately she owns up her mistakes and tries to correct them as she strives to be better. 

The other characters in the book have their own plotlines. They all influence Nevaeh in her growth, but they have lives and their own issues that are independent of her.

Diaz’s prose shows us the power of Nevaeh, a young woman torn between two worlds, not knowing who she is or where she fits in. She fights against privilege that comes with her skin. It’s filled with strong female characters who challenge Nevaeh’s sense of normalcy. learns about her Jewish faith from her father’s side, and her Baptist faith from her mother’s side, she also catches a glimpse into the reasons behind her parents’ crumbling marriage as she reads through her mother’s old journal. 


“Silence of the Chagos” by Shenaz Patei— Based on a True Story

Patei, Shenaz. “Silence of the Chagos”, translated by Jeffrey Zuckerman, Restless Books, 2019.

Based on a True Story

Amos Lassen

So many books profess that are about cultural identity but few of them ring true. Cultural identity involves the meaning of home and the eternal quest for justice. Shenaz Patel approaches this by using the lives of uprooted Chagossian activists as he shows us the tragic example of 20th century political oppression.

Daily, in the afternoon, Charlesia wearing a red headscarf walks remembering what was “back there”. She remembers Diego Garcia, one of the small islands forming the Chagos archipelago in the Indian Ocean and how with no explanation, no advance warning, and only an hour to pack their belongings, Chagossians were deported to Mauritius. Officials tell her that the island is “closed” and none of them will ever be allowed to go back, there is no going back for any of them. Charlesia yearns for life on Diego Garcia, where during the day, she worked  on a coconut plantation and at nights she danced to sega music. As she struggles to deal with her life on Mauritius, she meets  Désiré, a young man born on the one-way journey to Mauritius. Désiré has never set foot on Diego Garcia, but as Charlesia shares the story of his people, he learns of the home he never knew and about the ruined future of his people.

Joren Molter brings forth “painful nostalgia, lingering memories and the eternal incomprehension of these expelled from a string of lost islands.” 

The story is told in two voices by Charlesia and Désiré. We learn that Chagos. The Chagos are an archipelago that would have been hidden in the depths of the Indian Ocean, if Americans not built a military base to bombard other countries. What really stands out are the two characters and the relationship between political expediency and its all-too-human consequences, between the abstract needs of international security and the concrete needs of the individual, and above all between the rich and the poor.”

The book is about two main characters who have been uprooted from their land and are lost in the world… it tells about the suffering of a people, the Chagossians, who were brutally forced to quit their islands, one of which is being used as a US military base. 

“The Ultimate Fan Guide to RuPaul’s Drag Race” by John Davis and illustrated by Paul Borchers— A Celebration

Davis, John. “The Ultimate Fan Guide to RuPaul’s Drag Race’, Illustrated by Paul Borchers, Smith Street Books, 2019.

A Celebration

Amos Lassen

Here is a RuPaul’s Drag Race “herstory” lesson like no other. Her book celebrates all the queens from seasons 1 to 10 and so much more! Here is the dish on a great reality show and a guide that celebrates all the queens that have attacked  the runway from seasons 1 to 10 and All Stars seasons 1 to 3. This means that all 127 fierce performers are included. Author John Davis also gives the reader an insider’s guide to drag terms, and includes inspiring quotes from RuPaul, and stats and facts on all the “lip-sync battles, the mad fashion moments and the feuds and friendships that make this series so exceptional.”

John Davis is an Australian nightclub DJ and event promoter with loves RuPaul’s Drag Race. Since he constantly works with drag royalty, he has learned the true importance of these performers to mainstream culture as well as to queer history. He can easily recite the chronological order of elimination of every Drag Race contestant while debating the importance of a winner’s sewing skills over comedic ability. Paul Borchers is a New Zealand born, Dutch artist based in San Francisco. He’s been working on a variety of art and commercial projects since early 2000, collaborating with artists from all over the world. Paul is also an illustrator and graphic designer and has created editorial and covers for Rough Trade, Men’s Health, Demon Records, Virgin, Avantgarde Magazine and many more. Recently he has embarked on more animation work and produced animated videos promoting Stephen King’s It and the Justice League for Village Roadshow.

“Homosexuality, Transsexuality, Psychoanalysis and Traditional Judaism” edited by Alan Slomovitz and Alison Feit— Jewish Orthodoxy and the LGBTQ Community

Slomowitz, Alan and Alison Feit (editors). “Homosexuality, Transsexuality, Psychoanalysis and Traditional Judaism”, (Psychoanalysis in a New Key Book Series), Routledge, 2019.

Jewish Orthodoxy and the LGBTQ Community

Amos Lassen

I did not think that I ever would see a book like “Homosexuality, Transsexuality, Psychoanalysis and Traditional Judaism” that so  explores “the often incommensurable and irreconcilable beliefs and understandings of sexuality and gender in the Orthodox Jewish community from psychoanalytic, rabbinic, feminist, and queer perspectives.” But more than that, this book explores how seemingly irreconcilable differences might be resolved. 

The book is divided into two separate but related sections. The first section examines the divide between the psychoanalytic, academic, and traditional Orthodox Jewish perspectives on sexual identity and orientation, as well as the acute psychic and social challenges faced by Orthodox Jewish gay and lesbian members of the Orthodox world. We are asked to engage with them in a dialogue that allows for authentic conversation.

The second section looks at gender identity, especially as experienced by the Orthodox transgender members of the community as well as highlighting the divide between theories that see gender as fluid and traditional Judaism that sees gender as binary only. The contributors share their views and experiences from both sides. They also ask us to engage in true authentic dialogue about these complex and crucial emotional and religious challenges. 

I understand that this book is meant to be of great interest to psychoanalysts and psychoanalytic psychotherapists. As an active member of the Reform Jewish community and a gay male, I found it to be fascinating. I worked to make our religion more welcoming to LGBTQ people so while I did not really read anything new, I am so glad to have all if this information in one place and as a way to opening the conversation.

We have articles from psychoanalysts, feminists, rabbis, and a writers on queer life and theory. They have come together to provide  a crucial conversation with one another. The editors have brought together a group of writers who share their clinical, theoretical, and spiritual resources to bear on questions that have never before been seriously and simultaneously considered.

Here we have an ancient religious and hermeneutical tradition engaging with a very current situation that is changing traditional assumptions about identity.

 “Trying to pretend to be something I am not in front of you all is becoming more trying by the day as I’m not the heterosexual being I portray for you. I wish I could have told you guys everything and I know you would have understood, but deep down, I know our relationship would have changed.” These are the words of a South African teenager who committed suicide while on a trip to Israel with his friends. It is heartbreaking but it is also very real and frightening. It’s crucial that Jewish institutions and leaders give visibility to the conversation on LGBT identities in Judaism, rather than avoiding them. Only through open discussions on the matter will we be able to try to live in an environment in which no teenager will ever be so afraid to reveal their sexual identity that they prefer to death.

Some modern Orthodox communities are slowly starting conversations about “inclusiveness, plain ignorance about the way LGBTQ Jews are harassed or dismissed in communities seems to be one of the main obstacles that queer Orthodox Jews face. But as long as Orthodox leaders frame sexual orientation and gender identity as choices, it can be difficult to advance a discussion on the matter.”

“BEFORE STONEWALL: THE MAKING OF A GAY AND LESBIAN COMMUNITY”— Newly Restored for the 50th Anniversary of the Stonewall Riots

“Before Stonewall: The Making of a Gay and Lesbian Community”

Newly restored for the 50th Anniversary of the Stonewall Riots

Amos Lassen

In 1969 the police raided the Stonewall Inn, a gay bar in New York City’s Greenwich Village, leading to three nights of rioting by the city’s LGBT community. With this outpouring of courage and unity the gay liberation movement had begun.

Before Stonewall pries open the closet door, setting free the dramatic story of surival, love, persecution and resistance experienced by LGBT Americans since the early 1900’s. Revealing and often humorous, this widely acclaimed film relives the emotionally-charged sparking of today’s gay rights movement, from the events that led to the fevered 1969 riots to many other milestones in the brave fight for acceptance.

Experience the fascinating and unforgettable, decade-by-decade history of homosexuality in America through eye-opening historical footage and amazing interviews with those who lived through an often brutal closeted history.

On DVD, iTunes & Prime Video August 6

“Entertaining and enlightening.” -Los Angeles Times

“Funny, courageous and touching.” – Seattle Times

“Intelligent, moving!” -The New York Times

“The personal and profound stories of LGBT Americans that populate this Emmy award-winning film remain timeless, and so does its urgent reminder of the personal and political battles facing the LGBTQ community.”
– Ms. Magazine

“You owe it to yourself to see it.” – Judith Crist, WOR-TV

Narrated by iconic author Rita Mae Brown

Groundbreaking interviews with:
Ann Bannon, Martin Duberman, Allen Ginsberg, Barbara Gittings,
Harry Hay, Mabel Hampton, Dr. Evelyn Hooker, Frank Kameny
Audre Lorde, Richard Bruce Nugent, Jose Sarria
and many more!

Executive Producer: John Scagliotti • Director: Greta Schiller • Co-Director: Robert Rosenberg
Produced by Robert Rosenberg, John Scagliotti & Greta Schiller
87 minutes, color, 1984

About the restoration: The 16mm negative was scanned and digitized at Periscope Films in Los Angeles. The file was then color corrected at Edition Salzgeber in Berlin, who created the ProRes and DCP. Director Greta Schiller supervised the process and approved the new master.


“Alice, Sweet Alice”

A Horror Film

Amos Lassen

 “Alice, Sweet Alice” came out in the mid-seventies  to reasonable acclaim but never quite gained the ongoing momentum of some of its peers. Director Alfred Sole introduces us to Alice (Paula Sheppard) is an unpleasant 12-year-old girl who taunts and threatens her younger sister Karen (Brooke Shields in her debut film role), an overly perfect little dear to their separated parents. During her first communion, Karen is brutally murdered and many see Alice as the culprit. especially those of the audience who are the only witnesses to the crime. The girl’s parents (Linda Miller & Niles McMaster) refuse to believe that their precious daughter could do such a thing though and her mother hides away from the truth while  the father decides to do some investigating of his own.

Young girls make creepy and disturbing villains as we see here. Sheppard does an excellent job of creating a  nasty child on the brink of becoming a teenager with an added dark edge.  which helps you accept what she could be capable of. We meet the grotesquely overweight landlord Alphonso (Alphonso DeNoble) who shows hints of being a child molester and Aunt Annie (Jane Lowry), who is openly cruel to most of those around her, especially Alice. Alice’s mother isn’t perfect either and this makes for quite a disturbing experience. Sole keeps his actors interesting and always watchable.

The film is very stylish with some well composed imagery and the slick use of movement and space. There’s a big twist about an hour into the film which totally turns the film on its head. Things are tied up very effectively and although I didn’t care for the choice of turn the film made, the final act is still well handled so I can’t complain too much.


Set in Paterson, New Jersey where Alice Spages is a rebellious and mentally disturbed young girl who has strange habits like dressing up in a yellow raincoat and mask in order to terrorize her angelic sister Karen. While most of Alice’s actions amount to nothing more than ghoulish pranks, Karen winds up being strangled to death at the local Roman Catholic church by an assailant wearing the same raincoat and mask. There are no witnesses to the murder itself. However, when Alice is seen wearing her veil at the communion which her sister was due to take part in, the police believe that she was the perpetrator.

Their mother Catherine (Linda Miller) refuses to believe that her disturbed daughter could carry out such an act. Her busybody sister Annie (Jane Lowry), on the other hand, can’t stand the mischievous girl and is more than willing to believe this theory. When the latter gets attacked in the tenement stairwell by the same masked murderer, she tells the police that Alice was responsible – resulting in her being committed to a mental institution. Catherine’s estranged husband Dom (Niles McMaster), meanwhile, tries to get to the bottom of whoever is carrying out these violent acts.

While it’s not the horror classic that it has been made out to be in some quarters, it’s certainly an interesting and distinctive effort. There’s a lot of emphasis placed on the close-knit Roman Catholic religious milieu. The film has a sympathetic priest character in the form of Father Tom (Rudolph Willrich). However, it does certainly point out that things can go horribly wrong in an environment so infused with ritual and unquestioning faith.

The stalking and slashing sequences are effectively orchestrated here, with inventive use made of POV camerawork. There’s a realistically messy quality to some scenes that makes them quite shocking, especially the attack on Annie which features a succession of knife blows to her legs and feet. She’s reduced to crawling her way out of the front door of her tenement, leaving a trail of blood for rain to wash away.

Director Sole knows how to generate suspense while developing interesting, unusual characters. Lovers of 70’s films, horror titles in particular, should definitely check out this lesser known film. It has a lot going for it and deserves more attention than it has received.

“Covenant & Conversation: Deuteronomy: Renewal of the Sinai Covenant” by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks— The Final Volume

Sacks, Rabbi Jonathan. “Covenant & Conversation: Deuteronomy: Renewal of the Sinai Covenant”, Maggid, 2019.

The Final Volume

Amos Lassen

“Covenant & Conversation: Deuteronomy: Renewal of the Sinai Covenant” is Rabbi Jonathan Sacks’  fifth collection of Torah commentaries and it completes that project. Rabbi Sacks brings together Jewish tradition, Western philosophy and literature and as he has done in the four previous volumes of “Covenant and Conversation”, he presents with “a highly developed understanding of the human condition under God’s sovereignty.” And like the other volumes,  this final volume of the series contains several concise essays for each parasha of Deuteronomy.

The Torah bridges “past and present, moment and eternity and this is the frame Jewish consciousness.” Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks explores these intersections in regards to universal concerns of freedom, love, responsibility, identity, and destiny. If you have ever read or heard Rabbi Sacks, you know what I am speaking of and if you haven’t read him, it is never too late to have that wonderful experience.

Rabbi Sacks here writes: “With the book of Deuteronomy, the entire biblical project becomes lucid and reaches its culmination. Deuteronomy is the last act of the Jewish people’s drama before becoming a nation in its own land, and it forms the context of all that follows… [it] is in essence a programme for the creation of a moral society in which righteousness is the responsibility of all. The good society was to be, within the limits of the world as it was thirty-three centuries ago, an inclusive if not an entirely egalitarian one. Time and again we are told that social joy must embrace the widow, the orphan, the stranger, and the Levite, people without independent status or means.  It is to be one nation under God.”

The entire “Covenant & Conversation” series consists of multiple essays on every Torah portion. The set has been described by critics as “profound,” “poetic,” “masterful,” “perfect reading for the lay person or scholar.”

Rabbi Sacks says, “I am delighted to have finished this work on the Covenant & Conversation series. I called this series Covenant & Conversation because this, for me, is the essence of what Torah learning is – throughout the ages, and for us, now. The text of Torah is our covenant with God, our written constitution as a nation under His sovereignty. The interpretation of this text has been the subject of an ongoing conversation that began at Sinai thirty-three centuries ago and has not ceased since. Every age has added its commentaries, and so must ours. I hope by reading this series, people are inspired to participate in that conversation, because that is a major part of what it is to be a Jew.”

I see two kinds of books in the world today—- those that you read and just enjoy and those that are total experiences and the latter is exactly what this is.