Introduction: Reflection and Healing through Morrison’s Jazz and Dante’s Purgatorio

Borderline Personality Disorder

A pervasive pattern of instability of interpersonal relationships, self-image, and affects, and marked impulsivity, beginning by early adulthood and present in a variety of contexts, as indicated by five (or more) of the following:

  1. Frantic efforts to avoid real or imagined abandonment.
  2. A pattern of unstable and intense interpersonal relationships characterized by alternating between extremes of idealization and devaluation.
  3. Identity disturbance: markedly and persistently unstable self-image or sense of self.
  4. Impulsivity in at least two areas that are potentially self-damaging (e.g., spending, sex, substance abuse, reckless driving, binge eating).
  5. Recurrent suicidal behavior, gestures, or threats, or self-mutilating behavior.
  6. Affective instability due to a marked reactivity of mood.
  7. Chronic feelings of emptiness.
  8. Inappropriate, intense anger or difficulty controlling anger.
  9. Transient, stress-related paranoid ideation or severe dissociative symptoms.


“When the woman, her name is Violet, went to the funeral to see the girl and to cut her dead face they threw her to the floor and out of the church. She ran, then, through all that snow, and when she got back to her apartment she took the birds from their cages and set them out the windows to freeze or fly, including the parrot that said, ‘I love you.’”

Jazz, Toni Morrison, page 1


I’ve started out this blog post with those two excerpts partially because they’re relevant in some way to what I’m doing, and partially because I really don’t know how to begin this course (and by extension, this post). For a bit of context, the course is a directed study that I am doing with Beth titled “Reflection and Healing through Morrison’s Jazz  and Dante’s Purgatorio” and is intended to combine the research I have done so far on Jazz and Purgatorio (I only have one published post related to that research, but Erin Herbst has published some really great ones that you can look at if you would like to learn more) with the journey towards healing that I have embarked on during the past year. By the end of the semester, my final paper will consist of a finished personal statement that is both a requirement for graduation and for applications to MILS/MLS graduate programs (Masters in Information and Library Sciences/Masters in Library Science – schools will generally have either one or the other, but they’re basically the same thing).

The writing I am doing for this course (most of which will be published on the blog) is reflective writing, meaning a combination of academic and personal work. Although the goal of the class if to complete a personal statement, I hope that by reflecting on the two literary works in conjunction with my personal journey I will be able to understand certain themes within the two texts that will assist me in future research of the topic.

The purpose of this post is mostly to introduce to the blog what I will be contributing this semester, but I do want to briefly discuss the two excerpts and why they are relevant here. The first is the definition of Borderline Personality Disorder as stated in the DSM-V. I began having severe mental health problems during the fall of 2016 (the first semester of my sophomore year). It wasn’t the first time the mental illness presented itself to me, but it was the first time that I (after a couple months) understood that what I was experiencing were symptoms of an illness. I began seeing a therapist in November 2016, and a psychiatrist the following month (however I had to stop going to the first psychiatrist I saw in December, for reasons that will most likely come up in a later post). I was misdiagnosed quite a few times, but eventually the doctors agreed that I “fit the bill” for BPD. Thus, I think it most appropriate to begin a discussion centering on healing by giving the reason for why a healing process became necessary in the first place. Addressing the second excerpt above taken from Jazz, the quote, which is on the first page of the book (i.e. the beginning of the journey that the narrator takes the reader on), is somewhat of an explanation for why a healing process became necessary for the characters in the novel. Though it specifically discusses Violet’s actions, the quote encompasses/references events that initiated the process of healing in others simply by revealing the necessity for healing to happen. The quote’s subtext sets the stage for the rest of the novel by addressing fears of abandonment, instability, impulsivity, intense anger, and the emptiness that can be felt in the parrot’s “I love you.” I’m not trying to say that the book is a metaphor for BPD. But the book can be read entirely as a process of healing for both the individuals in it and for larger groups of people that are trying to heal from the trauma of the past. I have not included a quote from Purgatorio, but to briefly relate how that text fits into this whole projects I want to point out that one is sent to Purgatory when the have committed sins in the eyes of God but have otherwise lead a life that deserves salvation. The soul climbs up to the next level of the mountain when they have completed their sentence on the previous level. This process continues until the soul reaches the top of the mountain having repented for the sins they committed on earth. They are then sent to Paradise for the rest of eternity. Although Dante takes a very different approach in the Commedia, the journey the soul takes up the mountain can be considered a process of healing through self-reflection. I’ll talk more about Dante in the future though.

I think I’m going to leave it off here for now as the post is getting pretty long. I intend to do more analysis in later posts that don’t spend half the time giving a bunch of exposition. I would like to conclude with a quote from The Dialectical Behavior Therapy Skills Workbook. DBT skills have become some of my most helpful tools throughout this healing process, so to conclude a discussion explaining the pain and fear that generally lead to one to seek help, I think it appropriate to close with something that provides hope despite the pain and fear felt both before and during a journey towards healing.


Exercise: Focus on a Single Object

Focusing on a single object is the second mindfulness skill that will help you concentrate in the present moment. One of the biggest traps of being unmindful is that your attention wanders from one thing to the next, or one thought to the next. The purpose of this exercise is to maintain focus on whatever it is you’re observing.

Instructions

To begin, sit comfortable and take a few slow, deep breaths. Then, without touching the object, begin looking at it and exploring its different surfaces with your eyes. Take your time exploring what it looks like. Then try to imagine the different qualities that the object possesses. What does the surface of the object look like? Is it shiny or dull? Does it look smooth or rough? Does it look soft or hard? What else is unique about the way the object looks?

Take your time observing the object. Now hold the object in your hand or reach out and touch the object. Begin noticing the different ways it feels. Is it smooth or rough? Does it have ridges or is it flat? Is it soft or hard? Is it bendable or rigid?

Continue exploring the object using your five senses. Continue to breathe comfortably. When your attention begins to wander, return your focus to the object. Keep on exploring the object until your alarm goes off or until you have fully explored the qualities of the object.

“Basic Mindfulness Skills.” The Dialectical Behavior Therapy Skills Workbook: Practical DBT Exercises for Learning Mindfulness, Interpersonal Effectiveness, Emotion Regulation & Distress Tolerance, by Matthew McKay et al., New Harbinger Publ., 2010, pp. 68–67.

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