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Author Interview: Blair Sorrel

Today, Feathered Quill reviewer Barbara Bamberger Scott is talking with Blair Sorrel, author of A Schizoid at Smith: How Overparenting Leads to Underachieving.

FQ: I have to believe that “baring your soul” as you did in A Schizoid at Smith had to be a difficult decision. Did you ever have any doubts about whether to share/how much to share with your readers?

SORREL: Difficult yes, but I felt the very best use of my writing was to describe the daily challenges living with this condition. I was hellbent on an honest depiction hoping to preclude it or at least flag the symptoms. And if I wasn't prepared to do so warts and all, it wouldn't be instructive. Personal chagrin aside, I had no intention of sugarcoating matters. My greater trepidation was my siblings' reaction to the often unflattering descriptions of our parents. It was airing our dirty laundry in public, after all. In our tell-all age, transparency has greater receptivity than prior eras which means greater hope for earlier intervention. Their Greatest Generation, renowned for bolstering personal responsibility, would see a character disorder like mine as deviancy. And their boisterous adherence to pulling yourself up by your bootstraps—well, you can't if you don't have any. To date, the response has been overwhelmingly supportive. My early readers knew something was awry so at least we could put a name on it.

FQ: You talk openly about being diagnosed with SPD. Would you tell our readers a bit about the disorder? I suspect many people have not heard of it.

SORREL: Not usually a joiner, I'm with your readership as I hadn't heard of it either. My clinician, Selma Landisberg's, icebreaker, "Schizoids are people who detest being around other people," is apt; they do keep their distance. Social indifference is the pervasive feature but anxiety determines the magnitude of impairment. Some schizoids have aversion without the angst and could participate comfortably in body if not mind. In recent news, psychiatrist Park Dietz made a telling distinction regarding the Pittsburgh synagogue shooter post-tragedy. He assessed Robert Bowers with SPD, not schizophrenia, delineating that "a personality disorder is a maladaptive pattern of relating to the world," not a mental illness.

FQ: When you were diagnosed with SPD, was it, in a sense, a relief knowing that there was at least a name attached to what you were experiencing?

SORREL: At the time, it felt like the lowdown on a terminal illness. My clinician leveled that it could take many years of treatment to surmount this lifelong character disorder. I knew I had high anxiety but what then presented was a major depression. She goaded me to keep going into offices ("Why can't you focus?" from HR) and getting clobbered ("You can only expect to hold a job for a year” from Ms. Landisberg). Thelma Shapiro of the N.Y.S. Office of Disability advised against inside work, suggested more assistance with concentration, and prevailed on me to become a freelance writer. Freelance often became free as schizoids will encounter greater difficulty in meeting deadlines or receiving payment (any interaction that puts you in a closer relation to others). Fortunately for them, the far better option of remote work now exists.

FQ: I live right down the road from Smith College, so I have to ask, have you made it back to Northampton? Would you consider doing a book signing in the area?

SORREL: I was in Northampton pre-pandemic for a mini-reunion at Fitzwilly's; it was the very same cast of characters age-enhanced. The English exchange student, Jenny, wanted to rekindle her formative Smith experience while on a Thanksgiving layover with her original host family (I stayed with my "big sister" DeeDee and her Honorary Summa Cum Laude homie husband Paul). We sat at a table we might have shared in our college years when we could have been mistaken for a Club Med ad and now appeared more like an AARP editorial spread. The book is under consideration there and I suspect that I will return to, ahem, sign my life away.

FQ: I assume from your website that music still plays a very important role in your life. Who or what band is your latest favorite?

SORREL: I never tire of the classics and am stuck in a ’78 groove, I'm afraid. After all these years, no one approaches Jimi Hendrix. I can listen to his lesser-known jams with the same ardor as if hearing them for the first time. Some years back, I stopped at a head shop and bought a Purple Haze tee shirt and a Jim Morrison placard (his New Haven arrest photo). The owner, a contemporary, looked at both items and remarked, "Wish I could bring them back to life." The book gave me a chance to vivify these front men, portray their relatable vulnerabilities (Lennon's mediocre report cards, Jimbo's estrangement from his family, Carlos' open fly) as well as to rejoice in their unparalleled outpouring, my long term "special friends."

FQ: You have an interesting link on your website to an article on “Why the Music We Love as Teens Stays with Us for Life.” Would you share with our readers a bit about the music that saw you through your teen years and how it helped you navigate life? Why do we all seem to cling to (or perhaps love would be a better word?) the music we loved as teens?

SORREL: Rock and roll symbolized counterculture and an energetic, pulsating repudiation of the older generation, racial barriers, and sexual taboos. The music exemplified individualism and independence with a zestful appeal to teenagers generally and probably even more so for a more marginalized, vulnerable one like me. We rejoiced when The Lizard King sang "higher" in "Light My Fire" on the live Ed Sullivan Show when he was instructed not to. Rockers gave us scruffy before ’90s Grunge, had gorgeous girlfriends, groupies aplenty, and got busted. And the best part of all, the 'rents hated them. What could be more cool quotient?

I loved rhythm and blues, the melding of gospel, blues, and jazz, that harmonized the African-American struggle. Like most innocents, I didn't fathom that songs the Stones, Cream, Jeff Beck and others were crooning were covers of lesser known black artists.

The book was written on the reminiscence bump from teens to the early twenties when we experience our flagship firsts. Our musical tastes are formed and recall of these songs is far more enduring than those of any other period of our life. The tune tweaks an emotion akin to the experience itself which is simply put how hearing a ditty takes you back in time to the airing and setting. RockingTributes lets you chronicle your songs and flashbacks. We created a template where you can store those musical memories.

And if you want more fabulous Nona Hatay images of Jimi Hendrix, Tina Turner, Janis Joplin, or George Clinton, please visit Rock and Soul Collectibles.

FQ: Did composing this work give you a sense of hope for yourself and others?

SORREL: While fulfilling, the book hasn't been the catharsis others have intimated. Maybe because I’ve become privy to firsthand reader accounts of a withdrawn kid entering therapy, starting to date, or leaving the homestead. What parents must understand is that not listening is a child's only defense against overwhelming verbal abuse. It's learned as readily as the ABCs (which by the way is sung making it more memorable) and becomes a lifelong habit. What social withdrawal - and I am referring to impaired schizoids not mere loners - really portends is enfeebled kids and lifelong dependency. They may never leave the nest! Some schizoids have difficulty making eye contact, reading body language, or speaking intelligibly. I have observed fogged out individuals and suspect that via such early hazing and fear over time through successive firings, they will become homeless or dead.

FQ: How have your current charity/community-based endeavors improved your general outlook?

SORREL: Since I was frequently unemployed, I volunteered to structure my time and gain a much-needed perspective. I quote a social worker I met at the Volunteer Referral Center in Manhattan who spoke about the plight of schizophrenics when I stopped by to peruse their books for pro bono "gigs." My seven-year-long "Dollarwise Dilettante" column for Free Time Magazine evolved from my canvassing Manhattan for free or discounted cultural and retail opportunities which abound. During the weekends, I would assist local animal rescue groups setting up, monitoring, and dismantling their exhibitions in addition to regular fostering, phone tree for In Defense of Animals, and attending demonstrations.

FQ: Does your advice to “fellow schizoids” presage the development of study groups or workshops?

SORREL: I don't envision meetups but Quora has regular online forums which I have quoted in the memoir. Social skills can't be taught and may outweigh job skills (which can be taught). Maybe an online crash course on body language would be a great primer, ie. washing the dishes = time to go home. Holding the door open = ditto and doubly so. Wouldn't it be ironic if they made special (flesh and blood) friends at such venues?

FQ: I see you're “a lifelong animal lover.” Do you currently have any pets? Or perhaps volunteer at an animal shelter or find other ways to get involved with animals. Would you share with us? There are many animal lovers here who would love to hear a little more!

SORREL: They rescue us! I have cats and unfortunately have learned not to divulge the head count. I assist with fostering, feeding, and trapping ferals and strays. Reading a NY Post piece about a dog's tragic electrocution in the West Village evolved into StreetZaps which taught outdoor and indoor electrical safety for pedestrians and dog walkers alike (freestanding non-conductive is the safest contact for you, your pet, or child). My "Watch Where You Walk Your Dog" flyer made it into the N.Y. Press as "Best Homegrown Public Service Announcement" (2003) and my "Have a Heart, Always Honk before You Start" public service ad to honk or bang on the hood of your car flyer appeared in the New-York Historical Society's Petropolis exhibit that same year. I like to go where no one has been.

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