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ROCKSTARS, MEDICINE, AND MUSIC: LAUREN RISSMAN, MD

Updated: Apr 19



Music and medicine - an unlikely combination - seem to be mixing in my recent life.


Lauren Rissman, MD, works at the Division of Pediatric Critical Care and Pediatric Palliative Care, Advocate Children’s Hospital in Illinois. When I read her cogent article "Good Enough" published on the A Piece of My Mind page of the April 11 online Journal of the American Medical Association, I felt an instant, heartfelt connection with her because we are obviously observant, thriving, and persisting sister feminists, albeit from a different generation.


Lauren's (yes, she asked me to call her that -- a first in my long life, coming from a "prestigious" doctor!) article is worth a read. Women will surely resonate with her personal insights during and after a high-pressure, high-stakes medical consultation with a number of other staff and a fellow attending doctor. As well, her article may enhance men's understanding and compassion (if not empathy, which takes a farther reach from men to achieve) for the experience of many women working in typically male professions...even today.


Last October I participated in a fabulous online poetry crafting class taught by the animated, hilarious, insightful, talented, and encouraging Alyse Knorr, Associate Professor at Regis University. In a private email discussion I was surprised to learn that discrimination against women in the literary and poetry-teaching/publication world is clearly still evident, but we did not discuss the details (likely because it would further exhaust and depress us both to do so).


I chafe on this website in the introduction to my section on Women in Music and Poetry about centuries-old, evident misogyny and sexism by male musical fathers and husbands who overtly or covertly controlled and limited womens' careers as pianists and composers.


One of the most egregious of offenders was Gustav Mahler. Therefore, sheepishly, I admit I am enamored by the sublime "Adagietto" fourth movement of his Fifth Symphony (conducted by my favorite conductor, Myung-Whun Chung; listen for the rare, amazing, and heavenly musical sigh), but I can barely stomach reading the following report:


On 19 December 1901, Mahler wrote a 20-page letter to Alma, in which he set out to his wife his plan for a future life and requested that she abandon her composition work:


"How do you imagine both wife and husband as composers? Do you have any idea how ridiculous and subsequently how much such an idiosyncratic rivalry must end up dragging us both down? How will it be if you happen to be just "in the mood" but have to look after the house for me, or get me something I happen to need, if you are to look after the trivialities of life for me? - Does this mean for you breaking off your own life, and do you think you will have to do without a high point of being which you cannot live without, if you entirely give up your music in order to possess - and also to be - my own?"


Actually Mr. Mahler - it will be just fine. (Not to make light of a complex life, but as a brief aside here, Wikipedia says that Alma was "musically active from her early years, (and) was the composer of nearly fifty songs for voice and piano, and works in other genres as well. 17 songs are known to have survived." After marriage Alma had an affair, Mahler sought one session with Sigmund Freud, then did eventually take an interest in Alma's compositions and publish five of her leider.)


Incidentally, fabulous pianist and composer Clara Schumann (1819 -1896) stands out for her times. She bore eight children and raised seven. While she was evidently a woman of certain economic well-being and privilege in those days, I wonder how many dishes washed or floors swept, or for that matter, diapers changed, 'ole Robert managed to do before he died 40 years earlier than Clara?


Bringing us up to date regarding another aspect of women in music, my recent informal google research revealed that of some 2200 symphony orchestras existing in the US today, 3% have a permanent female music director/conductor and there is now not even one in the top 25 orchestras. No - not one. When women have "made it" as conductors and music directors, "it can be a nightmare" says Simone Young, Sydney Symphony's chief conductor. (And also, no, not one Black music director/conductor in the US either.) Of the 1,443 composers employed on the top-grossing US movies made between 2007 and 2019, just 25, or 1.7 percent, were women (and I could go on).


No wonder that many professional women are led to exhibit the "imposter syndrome" more than men. We are never quite sure enough of ourselves, though at least in the past 75 or so years we have made economic and emotional progress to become our own persons. We have also become more visible as well educated individuals - spirited, intelligent, and accomplished in our careers and lives, yet we still sometimes or often wonder if we have been "feminine enough" or are truly qualified?


Yes, many more of us have stopped trying to restrain our vitality and personalities in order to sound and look and act like men, hoping to be perceived of as benign, and to "fit in" or to be heard. Yet we sometimes contort ourselves to be who we are not.* We often use too many exclamation points in our writing and we suggest things instead of state them. While I've been advised that a courteous "no" is a complete answer needing nothing more, I find it impossible to use that one word without embellishing it with the conditional tense and using softening, accompanying words.


Too, women are still punished and kept in the dark by men withholding needed information or attempting to humiliate us in efforts to become better in our studies or at our craft and art. It's a more subtle form of gaslighting that tries to make women think that we are craxy and actually tries to drive us crazy. Some men try to make us think we are "less than" and incompetent while at the same time they try to make us incompetent.


I well remember the day around 1986 when as Deputy Attorney General II in the State Attorney General's Office, I was assigned my first jury trial. Before that I had practiced 12 years but only non-trial administrative and regulatory law. In that role I had prosecuted to levy financial penalties or probation, or revoke the business license of one person at a time in administrative court where the rules of evidence and procedure are disciplined, but lax. I had also practiced transactional law which does not involve trials, but contract or regulation review, negotiation, or writing.


To avoid muffing what promised to be an intense, embattled multi-week civil jury trial as my first ever, I wanted to attend a prestigious three-week trial preparation seminar held in Boulder by the National Institute of Trial Advocacy (NITA). After advocating my cause to my supervisor, Gene as I remember his first name, including volunteering to bring back and pass on written materials and hold lunch-time report seminars for the lawyers in my section, he somewhat disdainfully asked: "Why do you want to attend that Ann, when you have been an attorney for 12 years already?" To ask for what I needed and wanted was thus made to look like incompetence.


Seriously?????


As if pursuing regulatory law or managing a case against one licensed person in an administrative law forum would have automatically translated into being able to manage what ended up to be a four-week multi-defendant Superior Court jury trial.


Not only that, but I had seven prestigious people to defend, from a university president to a department chair and two professors. To boot, defense of my case ended up involving and juggling19 boxes of documentary exhibits containing some 25 years of tenure evidence, with only the assistance of one second-year law student intern as my "second chair." He wasn't offered to me; I had to recruit him and get approval to do so.


But the import of this case went even further.


Had I lost, one or more of the defendants' personal assets could have been jeopardized by a money judgment. That's because a possible finding of intentional discrimination under the civil rights and employment law at the time would mean that a punitive (vs. compensatory) damage award would not have been paid by the university employer nor by any private insurer. In other words, a defendant might have lost up to and maybe including her home!


I often wonder if my supervisor had been one of my defendants, would he have been comfortable being defended by me, a first-timer, considering the above facts? And might Jung have opined (based on his mirror theory) that my supervisor's disdain and attempt to humiliate me was simply an internal recognition of his own lack of trial know-how and confidence that as a man, he just could not consciously face?


I did win my personal "case" with my supervisor, attended the NITA seminars at the State's expense, won my jury trial by a 10 to 2 jury vote (patently frivolous lawsuit to begin with!), returned exhausted to my office, and was thereafter ignored by my supervisor. I left the Attorney General's Office some months later to open a sexy lingerie and corset/wedding gown design retail boutique down the street, re-discovered music and poetry after I retired - and I never looked back.


When Lauren graciously responded to my reach-out email regarding her courageous article where I briefly mentioned my corollary experiences long ago in the legal world, she responded back: "Rockstar."


I hope Lauren, Alyse, and my younger sisters - and each one of them is a rockstar - never look back either. They make my experience and advocacy for women in the past and present, more than worth it

***

*Upon reading my blog an accomplished young businesswoman and fabric artist/seamstress wrote: "I read your blog, loved it, and wholeheartedly agree!  I had a meeting with a business lawyer just today and despite my feminine appearance and extremely feminine business, I felt the urge to deepen my speaking voice and use stronger/more masculine mannerisms and gestures, in order to be taken more seriously in a law firm filled with male attorneys. And after the meeting I had to analyse WHY?!? Why do women have to "code switch" to begin with, why do some of us still feel that we are trying to navigate a "man's world?" (I call it "shape-shifting" to fit the context in a continuing patriarchal society.)


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Apr 14
Rated 5 out of 5 stars.

Yes, no doubt so much female talent overlooked or stifled by the prejudices and constraints of the times! 😪 Thanks for this Ann - Gaili

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rhapsodydmb
rhapsodydmb
Apr 18
Replying to

Thank you Gaili for your blog visit and warm comment. It means a lot! In music love, Ann

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