by Pat Holt

Tuesday, May 16, 2000:


To New Readers: "Holt Uncensored" is a free online column about books and the book industry written by former San Francisco Chronicle book editor and critic Pat Holt. You can subscribe or "unsubscribe" by clicking here.


1. Giving the Unconscious a Little Boost
2. The Key
3. The Breakthrough


1. Giving the Unconscious a Little Boost

If you haven't heard of the phenomenal Belleruth Naparstek and her latest breakthrough in the audiotape field, let me take you back about ten years to the cluttered kitchen table of this Cleveland psychotherapist and social worker.

It's 4 o'clock in the morning in 1989. On one side of the table, Belleruth has stacked orders for the audiocassettes she makes for individual cancer patients at a Cleveland hospital. On the other side she has a home-recording device that is both primitive and practical.

Naparstek started making tapes of guided imagery "to give the unconscious a little boost'' for her clients some months before. By now she has perfected her method of using images that are specific to each patient's memory of positive childhood experiences - and of the disease that is attacking their bodies.

"One woman remembered walking with her beloved father on the beach,'' Naparstek says today. "It was a vivid scene she could re-experience as sensually today as she did then. I described the feel of her little pudgy hand in his big, warm hand; the waves lapping at her ankles; the sand squishing between her toes; the smell of the ocean spray; the hot sun on her back and little hat; the foamy surf; the breeze playing with her hair."

Guided imagery tapes were not new at the time, but most of them "stayed pretty visual," says Belleruth. "I had learned by then that the more the image is felt by all the senses, the more the body takes hold of it. The child felt safe walking with her father that day, and when you feel safe, you're more likely to experience love and gratitude.

"It's that combination that seems to make a difference throughout the body. There's a little joy in it, a deliciousness, a feeling that you're happy to be alive. This diffuse loving feeling is good for everything -- blood pressure, antihistamine responses, pain. It's a biochemical event in the body: When you feel it, your biochemistry changes.''

Belleruth had spent many hours interviewing the patient, whose name was Bonnie, about that memory - and just as long talking to oncologists about the way Bonnie's body was battling her cancer at the cellular level. "It's important to know the mechanics of the disease - how it progresses, how the body naturally wants to fight it," says Belleruth.

"But it's also important to know what that disease feels like from the patient's point of view, and what the symptoms are, which sometimes you wouldn't know from looking at the cells. For example, you wouldn't know that the biggest complaint of multiple sclerosis patients is just bone-weary fatigue. Or that there are cyclical emotions the disease will feed - depression, self-hatred, impatience. Obsessive worry with a heart patient. Depression and self-hatred with cancer patients."

The problem with customizing each tape for each individual was that "I never knew what it was going to sound like until I wrote it out." This meant hours of writing a script that was tailored to each patient's medical and emotional profile.

Any imagery that evokes love and gratitude, says Naparstek, will heighten the body's reparative function. "Of course, Bonnie didn't know that. She just liked the image,'' recalls Naparstek. "Her mother, a tough customer, a ferocious cleaner of things, was imagined vacuuming her cells with zest, and that worked, too.''

Which brings up the aggressive approach toward visual imagery at the time. "Books and other tapes were encouraging people to imagine your natural killer cells beating up on your cancer cells. Some people liked that very warlike imagery, but a lot couldn't bear it," she says.

"If you have autoimmune disease, which means the immune system is beating up on your own tissue, it might not be a bad idea to use imagery that involves letting yourself be kinder, more forgiving and gentle, not so relentless in pounding away."

So here is Belleruth in the wee hours, herself pounding away at one of the many scripts she has promised severely and terminally ill patients. "The tapes were extremely popular," says Belleruth today, remembering her exhaustion during many dead-of-night recording sessions, "but I hadn't planned on a damn career."

Nevertheless, who could not brighten at the way Bonnie, who had been given 6 months to live, astounded everyone during chemotherapy treatments by rarely experiencing the pain, nausea or exhaustion usually associated with the procedure. "She did lose her hair," recalls Naparstek, "but her quality of life remained for a good 2 and a half years."

2. The Key

Eventually Belleruth hit on a better way to make the tapes. Instead of customizing each of the scripts, she created a framework of discovery in which patients could fill in their own imagery. Using interactive rather than passive narratives, she learned to invite patients to engage the mind-body connection through symbols of deep personal importance.

So let's skip over the next decade, during which Naparstek closed her practice as a therapist and founded Health Journeys, an imprint of audiocassette titles published by Warner Books on topics ranging from diabetes, asthma, HIV and heart disease to multiple sclerosis, depression, addiction, lupus, stress, pain, grief, headaches, pregnancy, self-confidence, sleep, stroke and rheumatoid arthritis.

Belleruth's silky, soothing, supportive voice has made this series as much a work of literature as a health-care tool. With the subtlest of suggestions she encourages listeners to call up moments "when you felt a lot of love and gratitude . . . perhaps you can remember holding a baby, breathing in the scent of soft hair, and feeling velvety skin on your cheek . . . Or maybe it's a time you ran a triumphant race, enjoying the smooth and easy motion of your own body . . .''

Approaching disease and other problems as a way to open up untapped resources in mind and body, Belleruth's tapes have sold over a million copies and made her website, http://www.healthjourneys.com , one of the most popular places for links, FAQs and healthcare advice on the Web.

3. The Breakthrough

Then three years ago, Belleruth began research on a post-traumatic stress tape that nobody thought could be done. She sat down with Vietnam war veterans at a VA hospital in Cleveland and listened to the horrors they had bottled up for years - and the nightmares, alcoholism, drug addiction and suicidal tendencies that had come along afterward.

These vets, like survivors of rape and domestic violence whom Naparstek also interviewed, had found that support groups helped them to face and relive the trauma but not alleviate the pain that went with it. "Guided imagery allows people to get under the trauma, to use that part of the brain that isn't damaged," she says.

Shame, fear, self-hatred and guilt had become so constant and so familiar to these survivors that they had barricaded their emotions against all outsiders. One vet told Belleruth about having to choose between killing a Vietnamese girl and being discovered by the enemy. "He sat next to the girl for an hour, trying to decide," she said. "In the end, he slit her throat. The girl's ghost lives with him today."

So the framework for the post-trauma tape is very different from other Naparstek tapes. First, the background music created by Steven Mark Kohn - usually gentle and calming - has a slight tension to it, introducing an air of expectancy and wonder. "You know immediately that this tape is more of a journey than of discovery," she says.

Naparstek's comforting and velvety voice introduces us to a "warm and gentle presence beside you" who, "radiating love and protection and support," turns out to know us "in a deep and true way." This is a guide Belleruth invented, "because I knew most people who had survived life-threatening trauma wouldn't take this journey alone, and I wanted to make it safe." So here is a presence who "accepts you as you are," no matter how much we may loathe ourselves, and who beckons us to follow on a journey that will "explore your own broken heart."

This is a landscape as emotionally war-torn as any other physical battleground, and considering the guilt, fear and shame that has resided here for so many years, we welcome every image - some of them deliberately heavy-handed - that the narrator can conjure up.

We walk through "crumpled piles of shattered dreams," "ragged heaps of lost innocence," "crusty outcroppings of old guilt and self-blame," while our guide "acknowledg[es] with you the chill wind of loneliness that howls through this place."

Listening to the tape, one thinks of of the relief that combat veterans and survivors of rape and domestic violence may feel at the prospect of facing their demons at long last. Belleruth's voice is so exquisitely compassionate, her narrative so poetic, that what might be terrifying in any other venue feels right and true - never easy but destined, somehow, and finally here.

Like something out of Dante we feel we are truly walking through "the territory of your own pain," afraid but unshattered when "startling geysers of terror, suddenly bursting forth at unexpected times, [are] announced by a loud crack as they break through the surface, and then [are] gone as inexplicably as they appear."

Of course, one needn't be a combat veteran to be familiar with this terrain. Anyone who has experienced trauma - a childhood injury, a car accident, a fire, a mugging, an assault - can feel the immediate and enormous power of these images. If nothing else, all the horrors one has fought to control and hide from everyone, perhaps for a lifetime, are understood with validation and compassion, possibly for the first time.

Soon the tone shifts ever so subtly. "You notice you can explore this harsh landscape with steady courage, like the survivor that you are," Belleruth tells us. Moving into the "center of your heart," we are called to remember "that this is your oldest home, the part of you that can never be destroyed, the exquisite core" where ancestors, allies, old friends and teachers help us find and reclaim the "shattered pieces" of self we thought were lost so long ago.

The tape is so unexpectedly moving that even the most hardened of Vietnam vets who labeled guided imagery "sissyish" - and this tape in particular "a white lady's thing" - have become Naparstek's strongest supporters. Meanwhile she has amassed legions of doctors and other healthcare workers behind her, not to mention the VA hospital system itself, as well as pharmaceutical and health insurance companies, all sending the tapes to clients and patients.

Perhaps the success of the trauma tape is the result of Belleruth's many returns to trauma survivors to make sure she's chosen the right track. "These are the most skinless people of any group I've worked with. They are so vulnerable I wanted to test this tape far more than I have any other, and it's a good thing: At the Rape Support Group, several women told me to get the word 'penetrate' out of there. Even a 'shaft of light' set off all the wrong bells."

At the Center for Prevention of Domestic Violence, participants told Belleruth they wouldn't listen to a tape that told listeners to sit down and let people [the ancestors and teachers] approach them. "They had too much experience with people physically coming at them in the wrong way. They said, 'If somebody's approaching me, I'm not sitting down. If they're standing, I'm standing.' "

The vets said much the same thing. "I don't want anybody coming at me from behind," they told Belleruth. "Even in a circle, that would terrify me. I want to see them coming.' So I changed the circle into a parade - and a very gentle parade at that."

This new aesthetic of the healing journey draws for its references from classical literature as well as Jungian archetypes. It elevates what used to be dismissed as a lightweight pop-psych/self-help/New Age genre to an emerging art form, and bless that Belleruth's heart, it's saving lives as well.



Dear Holt Uncensored:

Taylor Bowie is not always successful in buying up store inventories of used-book dealers. I am the proprietor of a used bookstore that received a proposition from Taylor Bowie, on behalf of Alibris, to buy some of the "low-end" books we were having trouble selling. (So that's the famous Alibris stock that will bring more customers in! I thought.)

He offered to pay 25 cents on the dollar for these books and said he would "write a check right now." When I informed him that I didn't want to sell any part of the inventory to Alibris, he told me that Alibris represented the wave of the future. I felt somewhat pressured at the implied message that if I don't put myself out of business, Alibris will. I don't think Taylor Bowie means to pressure book dealers he approaches, but it does feel like it.

A Reader

Dear Holt Uncensored:

So I guess it is old news that Alibris is directly linked with Ingram's website iPage. IPage now offers the chance to search for an out-of-print book while checking Ingram's inventory. The book can then be purchased electronically with a $3.95 "handling" charge for Ingram. All costs go directly into the store's Ingram account. The Alibris name is spread all over the iPage.

Michael Kelley

Dear Holt Uncensored:

I've never purchased through a rare book dealer before, but it is certainly something of interest to me, so I thought I'd do a little experiment and see how the various online dealers stacked up on an outrageously rare book -- e.e. cummings's art book entitled, "CIOPW" from 1931. There was only one printing of 391 copies of the book, each autographed on the title page in watercolor by cummings. I saw it for the only time in person at the University of Michigan's stacks a long time ago. Whenever I've been browsing in a rare book store over the past two decades I've inquired about it, never with any luck.

Well, isn't the Internet a wonderful thing. Here's the results of my search:

ABE- 5 copies Alibris- 2 copies Bibliofind- 3 copies Amazon- I don't think they've ever heard of it.

Wowee! The prices range from the mid-$600s all the way up to $1,750, but they do exist. Pretty damn cool! It would seem from this incredibly non-scientific reseach that ABE is the leader. If they have 5 copies of THIS book, imagine what else they have. Alibris for all of its bluster is way behind.

Just a bit of fun here. Maybe someday I'll actually get to own this wonderful work. No time soon, I'm afraid :-(

Larry Bram
Teaching Strategies, Inc.

By the way, CIOPW stands for charcoal, ink, oil, pencil, and watercolor. Cummings called himself "an artist and a poet" (artist came first), but this is his only volume of published artwork.

Larry Bram, Larry@TeachingStrategies.com
Teaching Strategies, Inc.
http://www.TeachingStrategies.com Washington, D.C.

Holt queries: Thanks for sending that fascinating piece of detective work. It would help us to know who charged what (if Alibris charges substantially less than booksellers listing on ABE, it would be the leader in many people's minds.) Would you mind adding that?

Larry Bram answers: Here you go (of course, quality may have a big impact on price as well):

ABE: $648 (Duobooks), $795 (Arundel Books), $850 (The Bookshop), $1500 (William Reese), $1750 (Compase Rose).

Bibliofind's 3 listings are the 3 lower-priced ones from ABE ($648, $795, $850).

Alibris: $850, $895.

On the surface (although I'd be fascinated to know if this is true), it appears that Alibris is marking up the price of at least one of the available copies of this extraordinarily rare book. It would seem odd that they have one copy (the $895) that no one else has access to.

Dear Holt Uncensored:

In Delray Beach, Florida, Hand's, on main street, sold books. They also sold stationery and office supplies. When "Tropic of Cancer" was published, before the book came out, I ordered it, and the woman who ran the book side had never heard of Grove Press, "Tropic of Cancer" or Henry Miller. You didn't have to read Publishers Weekly to know the book was coming. I knew about it from the New York Times Book Review, or The New Republic.

Later, when Vagabond Press published "Screed," Hand's took a dozen copies, but didn't reorder them when they sold out. This was my fault. When people asked me where they could get a copy, instead of sending them to Hand's, I sold them a copy, out of my musette bag. B. Dalton or Waldenbooks opened in the Delray Mall, and they took some. But same deal there. I cut into their sales by giving copies away.

There was a B. Dalton and a Waldenbooks at the mall in Boca Raton, and the mall in Boynton, but Hand's survived, as a bookseller, by having the office supply and stationery sideline. Greeting cards. A convenient location.

When John Bennett and I made a bookselling tour, for "Screed," "Black Messiah," and the "Vagabond Anthology," in Seattle, Portland, and Eugene, Oregon, most of the small bookstores John remembered from the small press heyday had gone under, or specialized, and were Marxist, or feminist bookstores. The feminist bookstores weren't interested in the Henry Miller number or "Black Messiah."

When I published "Evil Genius" myself, I tried to sell it, in bookstores. The individual managers of chain bookstores didn't make buying decisions, by then. Computers made them. Based on the track record of your last book. How much your publisher was spending on publicity. One well-known independent bookstore in Coral Gables said they didn't take books on consignment. I told them I was not selling them on consignment, I was selling them with a 40% discount, full return privilege. Like any publisher. The manager wouldn't look at the book. Too small press.

I had better luck placing self-published books and pamphlets in head shops and surfer hang-outs than I did in bookstores. I wasn't writing the kind of midlist titles they could hand-sell to their customers, by word-of-mouth. Or I'd have had a midlist publisher.

For me, the kind of writing I am doing, an independent bookseller is no different from Borders, Barnes and Noble, or Amazon.com. Books-a-Million, for that matter. A remainder shop. I did better with a booth at Fantasy Fest '86 in Key West, or at Miami Book Fair International. But I didn't do well enough to pay for the booth. The demand for self-published, or small press books is inelastic. And so small as to be vanishingly remote. People don't want them, and nothing you can do will make them want one.

Henry Miller and Anais Nin were successful later in life, based on work they had done earlier, and I figured recognition would catch up with me, if I persevered. But Judson Crews ended up eating out of Dumpsters, publishing his poems in xeroxed editions of 25 copies. That could be my fate. It's the fate of most small press, or self-published writers. Who aren't writing "What Color Is Your Parachute."

I have started serializing my books, online, daily, at The Daily Bugle, http://www.thedailybugle.com/ . Part of what they are about is the consequences of doing that. The necessity of doing that, in a heathen culture that doesn't want the books it needs. But also what happens when you do that. What results. It's an experiment. I am performing vivisection on myself.

I looked something up (BSO, or book-shaped object?) and got a hit on your site. Bookmarked it, and started reading the columns in your archive. Readers do that with me. Readers interested in the place of a writer like me in an industry like books. I figure they will do it at work, some of them. Read what I write every day. Go back and read what's in the archive, when they discover me.

Do you know about online journals, and weblogs? People write every day and post it at their Web site. They have a page of links to other journals they are reading. They refer to each other's journals. Are characters in each other's ongoing story. The journals are uncensored. Personal. Informed. I like reading them, and like thinking I have an audience, out there on the alps of night. In small towns, or neighborhoods within big cities.

The Web is a neighborhood. Not a village. A neighborhood within a big city. An enclave. Which you can participate in from a small town. I don't know if my work will percolate up from the underground to the mainstream or not, but I keep writing publishers, and agents, about what I'm doing. If you write what I do, an agent isn't going to be interested in it any more than a computer, until it has already crossed over. Then you can get an agent. When the legwork is done.

Jack Saunders

Holt responds: I clicked over to The Daily Bugle and found daily musings and serialized fiction about a character named Art (Home) Brew and his adventures "not in the mainstream" but very much "in the maelstrom" of what still might be called alternative literature. This combination of shortish journal entries and story creates what Jack Saunders calls "the paranoia-critical method: I write, I send it out, I write about what happens to it, and how what happens makes me feel." It's not quite as narcissistic as that (though close), as the quickie narratives provide often fresh observations about old issues (pornography, middle-class life, existentialism). Whether it's worth daily viewing is up for grabs, but in terms of inventing an Internet genre (cyber soap opera? commentary fiction?) Saunders has a point: On Earth or the Internet, if you don't fall into a clearly defined genre of writing, you're very much on your own.

Dear Holt Uncensored,

I wonder if you or any of your readers have information, tips, and strategies for keeping Borders out of one's hometown. I live in Ithaca, NY (erstwhile "most enlightened" city), and we may soon have this battle on our hands. Although citizens successfully fought off Wal-Mart five years ago, our current city government has sold land to an out-of-town development company (Widewaters) for big box development. There is a Citizens' Action Group organizing against the development of this land, which is in a flood plain and was intended to be a park. NY state law doesn't require Widewaters to reveal their intentions for the development, but Borders is almost a sure bet in this university town. I welcome any information about how to organize politically against Borders and other chain bookstores.

Sara R. Ferguson
The Sage School of Philosophy
Cornell University