How Parents Became Cool

TV Finds Teens Like Their Moms And Attempts to Flatter Both

After she is caught stealing designer sunglasses, Hanna, a popular blond teen on the new TV series “Pretty Little Liars,” shares a heartfelt moment with her understanding and fashionable single mother. The two agree to put the shoplifting incident behind them.

Informing the scene is a new insight that is reshaping the way Hollywood portrays the modern family: Teens like their parents.

Teens and parents on the upcoming ABC Family series ‘Pretty Little Liars’ (2010) seem more like siblings than parent and child. Hanna Marin (played by Ashley Benson) and her mom share a moment.

For decades, TV has depicted teens as angst-ridden and rebellious, and parents as out-of-touch and unhip. Then network executives realized that popular shows that tapped into the defiant-youth subculture were losing viewers. Now, teen shows tend to be more like ABC Family’s “Pretty Little Liars,” an emotional drama premiering in June about teens caught up in the disappearance of a popular classmate.

This less-defiant generation is influencing plots, changing what types of shows get made and prompting networks like MTV that have long specialized in youthful rebellion to rethink their approach. The new, more-sanguine shows still broach racy topics like sex, drug use and teen pregnancy, but they appease parents by always presenting consequences. Parents typically have prominent roles and just as many tawdry story lines as the teens—and look almost like older siblings.

Market research documenting the shift has influenced new programming at the ABC Family network, owned by Walt Disney Co. In a study of more than 2,000 children conducted by Experian Simmons, a unit of Experian PLC, 75% of 12- to 17-year-olds said they get along with their parents, and 72% said they like spending time with their families. In a June 2007 study, 93% of teens said they had a good relationship with their mothers—an estimated 15 to 20 percentage points higher than two decades ago, according to Frank N. Magid Associates.

These days, parents and teens are also watching the same shows, and in many cases they are watching together. “American Idol” is the most popular show on broadcast TV among viewers 12 to 17 years old, attracting about 1.4 million per episode. Fox’s musical comedy “Glee,” about outcast kids in a high-school glee club, mixes music by Rihanna with Neil Diamond, AC/DC and the Rolling Stones to bring in both children and their parents.

The new ABC Family show “Pretty Little Liars” features students at fictional Rosewood High School. On a recent afternoon at the Warner Bros. studio in Burbank, Calif., Aria Montgomery, a 16-year-old character played by actress Lucy Hale, sat in a fluorescent-lit classroom packed with rows of desks, green chalkboards and cluttered bookshelves. Pulling out a copy of “To Kill a Mockingbird,” Aria exchanged a furtive glance with Mr. Fitz, the dashing young English teacher she recently made out with. Earlier, Aria was in her room with her mother, Ella, whom the script describes as “attractive, well-read and liberal.” They “relate to each other more as friends than mother and daughter,” the script says.

Effects of Mobile TV

At a time when laptops and mobile devices make it easy to watch TV outside the confines of the family room, catching subversive TV behind closed doors no longer feels like adolescent rebellion, says Stephen Friedman, general manager of Viacom Inc.’s MTV. It used to be “all about nihilism and doing anything your parents were against,” he says.

The all-around happy children on ‘The Brady Bunch’ (1969-1974) dutifully obeyed their parents even if they couldn’t avoid innocent mischief in their suburban Los Angeles home.

With a cadre of original series developed for teens and their parents, once-flailing ABC Family has become one of the 10 most-watched cable channels, ahead of MTV, with an average of 1.5 million total prime-time viewers, according to Nielsen Co. In addition to teens, the channel attracts an average of 407,000 18- to 49-year-old women during prime time—a sign mothers and daughters are watching together, Disney says.

ABC Family’s top-rated series, “The Secret Life of the American Teenager,” about a girl who gets pregnant the first time she has sex and must raise a child, attracts about 3 million viewers per episode. That compares with 1.3 million for MTV’s highest-rated series “The Hills,” which follows a glamorous group as they gallivant around Los Angeles, and 2.2 million for the CW network’s “Gossip Girl,” about privileged young Manhattanites, according to Nielsen.

In addition to “Pretty Little Liars,” based on a popular book series for young adults, ABC Family also is about to launch “Huge,” a scripted drama about obese teens at weight-loss camp.

Born in the 1990s, teens today are part of the generation marketers call “millennials,” raised with the modern parenting style that emphasizes coddling over curfews, says Susan Newman, a social psychologist and author. “We’re a culture of ‘yes’ parents, and we’ve done a lot of hovering and smothering that’s brought us closer to our children.”

These are the original “helicopter parents,” adults in their 30s and 40s who are excessively involved in their children’s lives. These parents tend to avoid exerting parental control, try to stay connected through technology, and share interests like fashion, music and television with their kids, researchers say. They may wear the same J. Crew styles as their teens, buy the same drinks at Starbucks, and go to yoga or a sushi bar together. They are tolerant of racy content on TV, preferring to watch it with their teens and discuss it later, rather than let the kids find it on their own.

Out of Sight, Out of Mind By the 1990s, teens were ignoring their parents. ‘Party of Five’ (1994-2000) wrote them off entirely, following the five Salinger siblings in San Francisco after their parents are killed in a car accident.

Whether not spanking kids or rewarding them when they lose a soccer game, “society has essentially realigned itself to cherish the child,” says Jack MacKenzie, president of the Millennial Strategy Program at Frank N. Magid Associates. “Is it any wonder kids love parents who treat them that way?”

Kelly Peña, senior vice president of research at Disney Channels Worldwide, travels the country observing how families watch TV. She says she sees more families enjoying the same shows—even if the kids are watching online and the parents are watching a TV set.

Based on this information, the Disney Channel crafted a family sitcom targeted at young teens and parents, “Good Luck Charlie.” The April 4 premiere was watched by nearly 5.7 million viewers, including 1.4 million adults—more than double the cable network’s traditional prime-time lineup.

TV has long been an outlet for rebellious youth, starting with Elvis Presley’s and the Beatles’ performances on “The Ed Sullivan Show,” to MTV and the moneyed, over-developed high-schoolers of “Beverly Hills, 90210.” Through most of those years, parents have been clueless, uncool and usually on the sidelines. In the 1990s, Fox’s “Party of Five,” about a group of orphans living in San Francisco, dispensed with the parents altogether.

Crew members of ABC Family’s new television show, ‘Pretty Little Liars,’ set up a shot at a taping on Wednesday.

But over the past couple of years, executives at ABC Family say they have noticed a change. Fewer teens were watching glitzy, aspirational series like “The Hills” on MTV and “Gossip Girl” on the CW and audiences for the network’s quieter shows have grown. The network now has almost 100 million subscribers, up from 81 million in 2001.

The CW has a median age of 32 so teens’ viewing habits “are not quite as relevant to us,” says Dawn Ostroff, CW president of entertainment.

MTV noticed something was off when “The Hills” started attracting fewer teen viewers and more 18- to 24-year-olds in recent years. At the same time, a bloc of more-family-friendly afternoon programming dubbed “PAW” (for “Parents Are Watching”) brought in solid ratings. “It was a wake-up call,” Mr. Friedman says. “Five or 10 years ago, MTV would never have done shows like that.”

‘Parental Control’ Adjusts

MTV recently reworked “Parental Control,” a reality dating show in which parents set their teenagers up on blind dates, to show more amicable relations between the generations. Parents are less confrontational now, and more scenes take place in family dens rather than in studios. The network currently is conducting a study that asks teens for their views on “rebellion.” The findings will influence programming decisions.

In 2001 Disney paid $5.2 billion to purchase ABC Family and other assets from Saban Entertainment Inc. and News Corp. (which also owns Fox and Dow Jones, publisher of The Wall Street Journal). Once known as the Family Channel, part of TV evangelist Pat Robertson’s Christian Broadcasting Network, the channel came with a stodgy, conservative image. Disney bought it to reach “the young adult viewers between the Disney Channel audience of kids and families, and the broader adult audience served by ABC,” says Anne Sweeney, president of Disney-ABC Television Group.

In the early days, ratings and advertising revenue were dismal. The contract stipulated that the word “family” remain in the network’s title—a built-in turnoff to the cool clique—and analysts predicted ABC Family would be one of the costliest blunders in the tenure of former Disney chief Michael Eisner.

Under Paul Lee, president of ABC Family and a former chief executive at BBC America, ABC Family commissioned extensive research on “millennials,” asking what the word “family” meant to them. The results were unexpected. Respondents said they liked spending time with their families. “Initially, everyone expressed concern [about the name] except the audience,” Ms. Sweeney says.

The network began airing reruns of the popular WB network series “Gilmore Girls,” about a single mom and her teenage daughter, and “Smallville,” which follows the adventures of Clark Kent before he became Superman. It adopted the tagline “A New Kind of Family” and began to develop original, scripted series aimed at teens and mothers.

Recently, ABC Family recruited Winnie Holzman, creator of the ABC network’s 1990s teen favorite “My So-Called Life,” to return and co-write the upcoming series “Huge” with her 24-year-old daughter, Savannah Dooley. “I’ve had a couple other writing partners, but writing with my mom is the best experience. We draw on the same stories, like the same things and are just so much alike,” Ms. Dooley says.

“Optimistic and bright works for us,” Mr. Lee says, of the types of shows the ABC Family network is developing.

Amy Chozik, Wall Street Journal


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The Rake’s Progress

A virtuoso ladies’ man and stealer of secrets. The skills were related.

In 1935 Adolf Hitler renounced the limits on German militarization that had been imposed by the Treaty of Versailles following World War I. Hitler publicly introduced conscription to vastly increase the size of the German army; more secretly he launched a massive rearmament program. An alarmed Soviet Union, desperate to learn the plans of this potential enemy, dispatched an intelligence officer, Dmitri Bystrolyotov, to Berlin. Bystrolyotov had already proved himself a deft operative, one particularly skilled at seducing women who had access to valuable information. But as Emil Draitser shows in “Stalin’s Romeo Spy,” Bystrolyotov’s latest assignment tested even his vaunted skills.

The agent’s target was a female SS officer whose face had been disfigured by fire in a childhood car accident. Dorothea Müller was “embittered and unpleasant to deal with,” Mr. Draitser says, and she was a fanatical Nazi Party member who had been entrusted with the safekeeping of military-industrial secrets. Flattering her appearance was out of the question, so Bystrolyotov embarked on a campaign to flatter Müller’s devotion to the Führer. Posing as a dashing, dissolute Hungarian count, he engineered a series of encounters with Müller, astonished her with his ignorance of the Nazis’ glorious policies and became her eager student.

A romance began, and when at last Müller “was completely under his power as a lover,” Mr. Draitser says, the count proposed marriage. But a complication stood in the way: An aunt who had (supposedly) subsidized his life in Berlin was cutting him off. Marriage was out of the question, he said, until his finances were secure. Then a solution surfaced: A friend of the count’s said that there was a lot of money to be made on the stock market if Müller would provide them with inside information about military industrial orders. She agreed; the hook was set.

Bystrolyotov’s seduction of the disfigured SS officer is just one in a bounty of improbable tales recounted in “Stalin’s Romeo Spy.” Mr. Draitser has consulted Russian, British, French, Czech and American archives in his research, and he has seen Bystrolyotov’s partially declassified KGB file. But the author has also relied on the spy’s own unpublished memoirs, which seem to have been responsible for some of the more credibility-straining elements of the story. There is no doubt, though, that Bystrolyotov was a remarkable spy even by the standards of an era when much of the world was crawling with intelligence agents.

Handsome, fluent in several languages, fortified with false passports, Bystrolyotov moved effortlessly through tense capitals, stealing secrets and sending them back to Moscow. Somehow romance seemed to play a role in his missions even when his target wasn’t a woman with information he needed. When he once “handled” a British Foreign Office clerk—who knew secret codes but who was also constantly drunk and in a crumbling marriage—Bystrolyotov kept “Charlie” on track by bedding the man’s unhappy wife, cheering her up. Another time, Bystrolyotov arranged for his estranged wife, who had worked alongside him, to begin an affair with a French intelligence officer in Locarno, Switzerland, and then even to marry him, ensuring that Bystrolyotov would have regular access to the house—and to the safe where the Frenchman kept sensitive cables.

Of course, being a productive contributor to the Soviet cause offered no protection from Stalin’s purges—as Bystrolyotov learned first-hand in 1938, when he was arrested in Moscow. After severe beatings he confessed, falsely, to committing treason against the Soviet state and was sentenced to 20 years in the gulag. He was later offered the possibility of early release, but he insisted on having his case reopened so that he could prove his innocence. For that audacity he was repaid with the most brutal treatment of his time in prison. He was finally freed in 1954, the year after Stalin’s death. “Now he was an old man,” Mr. Draitser writes, “totally unemployable and incurably ill.”

Mr. Draitser, who worked as a journalist in the Soviet Union before being blacklisted and moving to the U.S. in the 1970s, met Bystrolyotov in 1973—the year before his death. The old spy regaled him with anecdotes from his life and recalled his fruitless efforts to publish his memoirs. The editor of a literary quarterly scolded him for lines such as “I drew my pistol,” telling Bystrolyotov: “You can’t write that. A Soviet intelligence officer acts only in a humane way.” In the U.S., Mr. Draitser taught Russian and continued to write, but he never forgot, as he puts it, “the most remarkable man I had ever met.”

In the glasnost era and after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Bystrolyotov—who had been expunged from Soviet history—became known again, at least in Russia. Mr. Draitser resolved in 2002 to write his biography. As the work progressed, Mr. Draitser says, he became convinced that telling the spy’s story was “an urgent order of the day. While I was doing my research, an ex-KGB officer”—Vladimir Putin—”became the country’s president,” and Russia began “sliding back to its Stalinist past.” One feature of the regression: “the revision of history and attempts to whitewash the KGB’s bloody role in it.” Dmitri Bystrolyotov, to Mr. Draitser’s amazement, has in recent years been resurrected as a Stalinist wartime hero—with no reference to his imprisonment or to his disillusion with the Soviet dream.

It is impossible to read “Stalin’s Romeo Spy” without reflecting on the cruel and capricious nature of totalitarian regimes and without noting that, however good a spy may be, espionage is only as effective as the ability of political leaders to sort through the information they are handed. Bystrolyotov did his part to keep his country abreast of behind-the-scenes maneuvering by the European powers. But in June 1941, when equally adept Soviet spies alerted the Kremlin to the likelihood of a German invasion, Stalin ignored their warnings. The rest was a miserable history.

Mr. Rubenstein is the Northeast Regional Director of Amnesty International USA and the author of “Tangled Loyalties: The Life and Times of Ilya Ehrenburg.”


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Bing Crosby, Beyond His Greatest Hits

Bing Crosby wasn’t the single most important figure in 20th century popular music—and, in particular, the most influential singer of the great American songbook—it’s difficult to know who would be. He cast a giant shadow over the entire landscape of American music, touching upon the pop icons who followed him (Frank Sinatra, Elvis Presley and the Beatles all paid their respects) and into the worlds of jazz, rhythm and blues, and country music. There’s even a famous calypso record dedicated in his honor.

The impact of Crosby (1903-1977) upon American culture was enormous—a sea change that was both musical and technological. He was the first major pop vocalist to incorporate the swinging rhythms and improvisatory essence of the new American music called jazz into his singing, which, in turn, allowed him to bring a hitherto unheard casualness and intimacy to American pop. He also was the first vocalist to fully fathom the equation of the new electronic media: electrical recording, radio and sound film. His mastery of these forms empowered him to become the biggest musical star of the Depression and World War II eras—and an inspiration for generations of performers and singers, including Sinatra.

Tune In

Listen to clips of songs by Bing Crosby from “The Bing Crosby CBS Radio Recordings (1954-56)”

Heard today, Crosby’s warm, mellifluous baritone is still as engaging and moving as ever. If Crosby is less a part of the discussion than he should be, it’s partly the fault of the organizations that control the rights to his performances. While the estates of Sinatra and Presley have taken steps to make sure the catalogs of these iconic artists remain accessible, the only Crosby music that has been readily available in the three decades since the singer’s death were Christmas albums and basic greatest-hits collections.

That situation, at last, is starting to change. In the past few months, more of Crosby’s music—particularly from the harder-to-hear later portion of his career—has been made available than ever before in the compact-disc era. Bing Crosby Enterprises has supervised the release of six individual packages (one a two-CD set) from as well as an epic seven-CD box from Mosaic Records, “The Bing Crosby CBS Radio Recordings (1954-56).”


Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra

Not all the new releases are equally valuable: There’s a sappy singalong album (“On the Sentimental Side”) and a lackluster pair of ethnocentric concept sets (“Return to Paradise Islands” and “El Señor Bing”). These are strictly for completists, although all three are graced with extraordinary bonus tracks that are more exciting than the main event. By contrast, “Bing on Broadway” gives us Crosby doing excellent songs in excellent voice, on tracks compiled mostly from the same radio recordings that make up the Mosaic box. The 1977 “Seasons” is especially welcome; this was Crosby’s last album, recorded in London shortly before his death. (Copies of the LP frequently change hands on eBay, some advertised by their sellers as being autographed by Crosby—which would be a neat trick, since it was released posthumously.)

The “CBS Radio” box is an extraordinary mother lode of previously unreleased Crosby: 160 songs that no one has heard unless they were listening to the singer’s daily 15-minute radio series of the mid-1950s. (Although some of the tracks were, shortly after the singer’s death, released with an overdubbed orchestra.) It’s an amazing amalgam of everything from ancient tunes Crosby remembered from his childhood (“They Didn’t Believe Me”) to a variety of contemporary hits that were then on the jukebox, even such unlikely items as mambos (“Cherry Pink and Apple Blossom White”) and country songs (“I’m a Fool to Care”). Pianist Buddy Cole and his trio provide all the accompaniment; Cole borders on the annoying when he switches to electric organ, but on the bulk of the tracks he helps Crosby keep everything light and highly swinging.

The biggest revelation in the package is a session recorded with an eight-piece traditional jazz band probably arranged by clarinetist Matty Matlock. Crosby is totally in his element here, doing 12 songs from the jazz age—his impetuous youth. The singer enters “Yes Sir! That’s My Baby” almost completely a capella, backed only by drummer Nick Fatool’s rimshots—an amazingly difficult opening. You can tell Crosby’s senses of rhythm and pitch are both highly developed, and the dozen songs are a rare example of Crosby actually calling attention to his technique. He’s never sounded more loose, buoyant and, particularly on “Sometimes I’m Happy,” full of contagiously good spirits. Much about the session suggests that Crosby might have been thinking of releasing these tracks commercially, but if so he abandoned that idea in favor of his masterpiece Dixieland album, “Bing With a Beat,” the next year.

The other essential new release is “So Rare: Treasures From the Crosby Archive.” This double-disc package was compiled with hardcore Crosby collectors in mind, but the music is of such a high quality that even newcomers to Der Bingle will find much to enjoy. The set starts in 1931 with two songs from Crosby’s breakthrough broadcast, and continues up through the war years (a beautiful reading of “Over the Rainbow”), into the Eisenhower era and a fascinating group of movie and show tunes from the 1960s. “So Rare” ends intriguingly with the live “That’s What Life Is All About,” from one of his final concerts. In a spoken introduction he compares the song, partly written by the singer himself, to Sinatra’s “My Way” and Sammy Davis Jr.’s “I Gotta Be Me.” Normally, it’s hard to stomach these high-blown anthems of self-celebration, but “That’s What Life Is All About,” more than “My Way,” is reflective and inwardly probing, even self-deprecating and, for once, not merely a victory lap set to music. Besides, if anybody had earned the right to take a bow, it was Bing Crosby at the end of one of the great careers in American music.

Mr. Friedwald writes about jazz for the Journal.


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Child of Impressionism

“In my view,” the great French director Jean Renoir (1894–1979) wrote in his autobiography, “originality and success are strangers to one another; but I also hold that originality, despite appearances, will end by making itself felt, and that easy success is soon forgotten.” The now-towering reputation of his glittering social critique “La Règle du jeu” (“The Rules of the Game,” 1939) suggests that he was right. An acute observer of human nature, Renoir knew that audiences are both lazy and intensely curious. His own curiosity yielded dazzlingly inventive films—melding irony and ebullience, nature and modernity, realism and artifice.

The Renoir retrospective currently at BAMcinématek has been offering a chance to view celebrated masterpieces, but also to reassess the filmmaker’s sophisticated late work and several underappreciated movies he made stateside during the 1940s. His Hollywood projects weren’t all realized to his satisfaction, but they are probingly original. The critic André Bazin wondered: “Why not suppose that for Renoir it was less a question of adapting himself to Hollywood than of developing himself, of at once mastering a new way of thinking and feeling and creating an adequate means of expressing it. In our belief that ‘The Rules of the Game’ incarnates the avant-garde of the cinema of 1939 . . . we have made Renoir a prisoner of our admiration.”

Adrienne Corri, right, in Jean Renoir’s ‘The River’ (1951).

A child of Impressionism, Renoir absorbed the generous worldview—the reliance on observation, love of nature and vision of the world as a unified whole—of his father, Pierre-Auguste Renoir. But he brought to cinema his own superb eye, love of drama and ceaseless desire to experiment with moving images. His early silent films flirted with obvious theatricality while already showing a striking visual style, but as he seamlessly made the transition to sound, his work was marked by groundbreaking realism and subtle artifice.

Renoir’s World War I experiences in the cavalry, infantry and air force helped shape his two most profound achievements, both antiwar films. “La Grande illusion” (“Grand Illusion,” 1937) powerfully captures the shared humanity of men including a working-class prisoner of war determined to break free (Jean Gabin), his aristocratic comrade (Pierre Fresnay) and their chivalrous captor (Erich von Stroheim). A darker current runs beneath the sparkling dialogue, flowing deep-focus shots and naturalistic yet magical beauty of “The Rules of the Game,” in which a hunting party’s casual brutality anticipates an equally thoughtless murder. Its truthfulness was bitterly received by a society unable to face its own disintegration.

In 1941 Renoir took refuge in the U.S. with his future second wife, Dido, escaping growing pressure from Nazi cultural institutions. Though frustrated by the industry’s passion for homogeneity, he often maintained his typical working methods, such as location shooting and unorthodox casting. His favorite film made for a Hollywood studio was “The Southerner” (1945), a radiant tribute to the American landscape. Gracefully paced and starring two appealing young actors (casting against type, Renoir selected Zachary Scott, who usually played gangsters, for the male lead), it follows a family of struggling tenant farmers. In Renoir’s sensuous vision, soil, crops, sun and rain are stirringly tangible.

During the 1950s Renoir entered another period of rich invention, working in India and once again in Europe. With “The River” (1951) he launched an exploration—often collaborating with his cinematographer nephew, Claude—into the possibilities of color film. He avoided laboratory effects such as color filters, but emphasized a limited range of pure tones, carefully selecting what he placed in front of the camera. This approach yielded glorious results in “Le Carrosse d’or” (“The Golden Coach,” 1952), a harlequin-hued tribute to rollicking show business and baroque music’s ornate contrasts that is both a comic delight and a bittersweet meditation on the relationship between art and life. As a charismatic commedia dell’arte star, Anna Magnani wonders: “Where is truth? Where does the theater end and life begin?”

Similar questions haunt the laundress-turned-dancer in “French Cancan” (1954), another Technicolor tour de force. Its compositions and palette effortlessly evoke the paintings of Renoir’s father, as well as those of Toulouse-Lautrec, Degas and Manet. “Renoir is Impressionism multiplied by the cinema,” Bazin wrote.

Two late works confirm Renoir’s unflagging experimentation: “Le Testament du Docteur Cordelier” (“The Doctor’s Horrible Experiment,” 1959), a perversely humorous made-for-TV adaptation of “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” in which the evil alter ego echoes Charlie Chaplin, and the not-to-be-missed “Le Caporal épinglé” (“The Elusive Corporal,” 1962), a starkly eloquent return to the theme of the POW bent on escape. The series concludes with the estimable new-wave director Jacques Rivette’s film of Renoir chatting with one of his most marvelous actors, “Portrait of Michel Simon by Jean Renoir or Portrait of Jean Renoir by Michel Simon or The Direction of Actors: Dialogue” (1967). Renoir viewed audiences, like actors, as his collaborators—and his multifaceted artistry invites an enduring collaboration.

Ms. Jones is a writer living in New York.


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Sleep: Loss

I used to think that the only thing worse than having insomnia is having insomnia next to someone who falls fast asleep and stays soundlessly so till morning.

That was my life for 16 years. I lived with a man who slept, yes, like a baby. There were nights, many nights, when I literally wanted to steal his sleep — slip beneath his eyelids and yank it out of him; a kind of middle-of-the-night “Chien Andalou” moment, minus the surrealism. Instead, I spent the equivalent of at least a tenth of our relationship lying awake or reading in bed. In the end, that I happened to be deep asleep when he first went into cardiac arrest next to me now seems beyond irony. If I had not taken half a sleeping pill that night four years ago, might I have been awake and saved him?

I can no longer remember the sound of his laughter but I clearly recall what he looked like while sleeping, his head propped on a scrunched up pillow, his muscular arms, his breath blown in warm puffs from the corner of his mouth, the place where Popeye’s pipe would go. I suppose this is the upside to insomnia. I clocked a lot of time studying Steve in repose. 

I went to see a minister a few days after his death, which was as swift as it was inexplicable — he had been only 43 and remarkably fit, with no history of heart problems. Neither Steve nor I were religious but I wanted to talk to someone. She was wonderful; she did not bring up God or heaven or anything. She was more like a doctor, explaining a diagnosis. “Suffering a devastating loss is like suffering a brain injury,” she said. She spoke really slowly, which I appreciated. “You walk around like a zombie. You can’t think straight. You feel drugged—”

Sometimes you are drugged, I thought to myself.

To be safe, I started keeping a notepad inside the medicine cabinet. “Yes, you took an Ambien at 11,” I would jot, answering a question I knew I would ask myself when I woke four hours later. Or: “2 X @ 3,” meaning two Xanaxes at 3 a.m. — no wait, maybe it was 3 in the afternoon? I don’t remember now.

In those early days of grief, short on sleep, forgetting to eat, I felt as though I were in a liminal state, not quite alive myself, which made me feel remarkably close to Steve. During that same period, I was continually having amazing encounters with strangers — people who would pop up and offer help, whether at the post office or grocery store, or just say something kind. At the time, I never doubted that they were embodiments of him.

One day I met a man with the name of an angel. He was French. His accent was so thick, it sounded fake. We got to talking and I told him what had happened. “You’re going to be fine,” Emmanuel said right away. “Something bad always leads to something good.” He spoke from personal experience. His partner had died six years earlier. But he did not use that word died as he told me his story. Nor did he say passed away, a euphemism I had come to hate. Instead, Emmanuel said, “When my partner disappeared….” I knew this was not a case of poor English, a bungled translation. Still, I had to say something. “You said ‘disappeared’ —“

He nodded.

“That’s exactly how it feels for me, too.”

One might think that for someone who has lost a partner or spouse, nights would be hardest, loneliest. For me, this was not the case. I was used to being alone at night, the only one awake. I didn’t even have more than the usual trouble sleeping after the first few weeks. I suppose this was partly because Steve and I had never been bedtime cuddlers or spooners, so I was not missing something I’d once had. That said, it was a long time before I was able to take his pillow from his side of the bed. I did not dare. The night after he died, I found that a sliver of light from a streetlamp shone through the blinds just so and cast a single yellowy tendril across his pillow. It was the opposite of a shadow. Which is as clear a definition as I can come up with for the soul.

With morning, the light was gone, and I found the days empty and agonizing. It would take about three years for this feeling to pass — a thousand days, give or take — people who had been through this told me. As it turns out, they were right. What no one said is something I discovered on my own: A thousand days is a thousand nights is a thousand chances to dream about him.

Usually it went like this: Someone digs up his corpse and initiates C.P.R.; he revives in an instant, no problem. I see him walking, talking, a latter day Lazarus with a flat-top and a beautiful body and a crooked grin. Back from death but unchanged by death, with one crucial difference: He does not recognize me. It is I, not he, who has been transformed.

For awhile I tried going on dates — dinner, a movie, that kind of thing — I met a few nice guys. But I could not disguise my lack of interest. There was one man I saw for about a month. His name was, you guessed it, Steve. Even though we had been intimate from the start, we didn’t end up spending the night together until the fourth week. I can still picture the moment when he turned over to go to sleep. His back, illuminated by moonlight, reminded me of the disappeared Steve’s.

That was the last time I tried that. Now I send them home or, as the case may be, leave myself. Insomnia is my excuse: I would rather not-sleep in my own bed, I explain. This is not altogether true. I would like to stay but can no more imagine falling asleep with someone else than I can falling in love again.

Curiously, though, the reverse sometimes occurs: I will be with a lover, before I make my exit. I will have him wrapped in my arms and we’ll be talking in the aimless, dreamy way that lovers do, like two analysands to an unseen Jung. A pause stretches into a long lull and I hear that unmistakable change in breathing. He has fallen asleep, and improbably, I feel responsible, as though I, of all people, possess the arms of Hypnos. It seems like a small miracle. But here’s the rub: As I draw him closer and nuzzle his neck, I cannot help remembering what the Greeks so wisely knew: The god of sleep has an identical twin, Thanatos, the god of death.

Bill Hayes is a writer and photographer. He is the author of “The Anatomist: A True Story of Gray’s Anatomy,” “Sleep Demons: An Insomniac’s Memoir” and other works.


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Traveling a Primeval Medical Landscape

The world was young, leafy green and overrun with dinosaurs so many eons ago that stories from prehistoric times are mostly fantasy and supposition. But the medical world was exactly that young, primitive and full of unusual creatures barely a century ago, giving historians ample fodder for true stories stranger than any fantasy.

Few of them surpass the biography of the man often credited with founding modern American surgery: William Halsted, professor of surgery at Johns Hopkins, and lifelong drug addict. Gerald Imber’s new biography is the first retelling of Halsted’s story in many decades and a particularly expert and thought-provoking narrative.

Halsted was born in New York in 1852, the not especially promising son of a wealthy family. A mediocre student, he wandered through Yale leaving behind no record of ever borrowing a book from its library.

He chose medicine not from any affinity for the sick and the suffering (and suffer they did back then, with filthy hospitals, no antibiotics and primitive anesthesia). Rather, the cabalistic secrets of the anatomy lab drew him in, and he fell in love with the complex structures of the body’s interior and their arcane nomenclature.

As Halsted completed surgical training in New York, giant scientific revolutions were remodeling his field. These included rapid improvements in anesthesia and clear demonstrations of the paramount importance of hygiene. Halsted was wildly enthusiastic about both developments.

His obsession with cleanliness was to serve him well through his career. But his enthusiasm for the new anesthetics was his undoing. One of the most effective local anesthetics in those days was cocaine, and within a few months of testing it on himself he had a bad drug habit.

He also soon acquired the addict’s other bad habits: he lied, missed work, made endless excuses. Finally, a medical paper he published on cocaine anesthesia was such gibberish that his career in New York was effectively over.

But Halsted, still only 34, was undaunted. After a long European vacation and a stint in the 19th-century equivalent of drug rehab, he took a train down to Baltimore, where friends secured him a job at the new Johns Hopkins hospital.

Unfortunately, his cocaine addiction had been “treated” with morphine and, unknown to all, he arrived in his new life in the grips of a double-barreled addiction.

Dr. Imber, a plastic surgeon and clinical assistant professor of surgery at Weill Medical College of Cornell University, makes the intense strangeness of Halsted’s subsequent career a gripping story.

As a surgeon, Halsted was extraordinary; he soon advanced to chief at Hopkins and pioneered treatments for breast cancer, hernias and gallstones. His knowledge of anatomy and his meticulous technique meant lengthy operations but negligible complication rates, even though antibiotics were still decades away.

Halsted the addict, however, was a mess. He would disappear for long stretches (his summer vacations routinely lasted five months); no one knew quite where he went. His behavior was erratic; friendly to colleagues and patients one moment and hostile the next, he would bow out of operations at the last minute, and his residents pretty much ran his service without him. “The Professor” was often missing in action.

Some advocates for drug legalization cite Halsted as a prime example of the functioning addict. Dr. Imber does not disagree: “The story belies the conventional wisdom concerning long-term drug use.”

Certainly, in the unregulated Wild West of 19th-century medicine Dr. Halsted functioned, much as Nero functioned as a Roman statesman. Whether either could function in our world of sober professional accountability is still grist for debate.

Another travelogue through the primeval medical landscape is provided by Molly Caldwell Crosby in “Asleep,” the story of epidemic encephalitis lethargica, one of history’s great unsolved medical mysteries.

The epidemic began during World War I and spread around the world, in lockstep with the influenza pandemic. Patients would simply fall asleep. Some died in their sleep. Some awoke months later, healthy. Still others awoke but were left with lasting neurologic problems.

This disease has made a previous literary appearance: The patients in Oliver Sacks’s “Awakenings” suffered from encephalitis lethargica before they developed end-stage Parkinson’s disease. Children were often left with bizarre behavioral disorders. (Ms. Crosby includes the grisly story of a little girl who survived encephalitis only to develop a self-mutilation syndrome and pluck out both eyes and most of her teeth.)

Many of the great neurologists of the early 20th century cut their diagnostic teeth on this epidemic. All suspected it was somehow related to the flu, but without brain imaging or sophisticated blood tests they could offer only learned guesswork. Ultimately, the epidemic fizzled out, and sporadic cases now occur only very rarely.

Ms. Crosby, a journalist, tells her story through case histories of the afflicted (among them J. P. Morgan Jr.’s wife, Jessie, and Ms. Crosby’s own grandmother). She has given herself an immensely difficult assignment: describing a puzzle without a solution requires preternatural narrative control. Unfortunately, in this instance the confusion among the experts is only compounded by Ms. Crosby’s own painful lack of medical expertise.

She tries to compensate with style and color, including a great deal of breathlessly atmospheric scene-setting and ominous verbal drumbeats. (“Dying of encephalitis lethargica would not prove to be the tragedy; surviving it would.”) But we crave an answer to the mystery, and instead all we get is a wordy circular slog in the primitive muck.

Abigail Zuger, M.D., New York Times


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Fish versus Flax

Q. How does flaxseed oil compare with fish oil in nutritional benefits?

A. Flaxseed oil and fish oil are believed to have similar nutritional benefits, but it takes much more flaxseed oil to obtain these possible benefits, said Dr. Sheldon S. Hendler, co-editor of the “PDR for Nutritional Supplements,” the standard reference in the field.

The strongest evidence, from studies of omega-3 fatty acids in fish oil, is for a reduction of triglycerides, a form of fat found in the blood. Other possible benefits include anti-inflammatory activity; action against blood clots and arterial plaque; and protection of the neurons and retina.

Both oils contain omega-3 fatty acids. In fish oil, the major ones are EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid) and DHA (docosahexaenoic acid), while in flaxseed oil, the major one is alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), a precursor of EPA and DHA, which is converted to those fatty acids in the body.

The possible health benefits are mainly attributable to EPA and DHA, Dr. Hendler said. “The most studied effect is their ability to lower abnormally elevated serum triglycerides, a risk factor for cardiovascular disease, particularly in those with diabetes,” he said.

The recommended amount of EPA plus DHA for this condition is four grams daily, about one teaspoonful, Dr. Hendler said, but it takes 40 grams, or about three tablespoonsful or more, of ALA to produce four grams of EPA and DHA in the body.

C. Claiborne Ray, New York Times


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