Betsy Robinson, author of funny literary stories about flawed people, is a perpetual seeker of truth.

From books to music to theater and fine art, from online TV to DVDs, this blog takes a look at current culture through a spiritual perspective — with a touch of humor.

Materials under the "review" tag are a mix of free review copies (books, DVDs, etc.) in exchange for a review, to library copies, to materials and tickets I've paid for.


A Really Bad Hair Day (Feb. 13 blog)

The Art of Collapsing (Feb. 6 blog)

Life is only temporary says Evan Handler (Jan. 28 blog)

The New World of Finance (Jan. 28 blog)

All about growing up in a cult (April 16 blog)

Fierce Giving (Jan. 8 blog)

(Copyright © 2008-2014 Betsy Robinson. All rights reserved)

Notes from a Crusty Seeker

Mad Men … Lost People … and Coming Clear

August 21, 2010

Tags: compassionate wisdom, healing, review

I came to the TV series Mad Men late. Although I'd heard about it from friends, it wasn't until a few months ago that I began borrowing the first three seasons from the library. I thought I'd be interested in it because of my background in advertising. My father was an account executive, my mother was one of the first female copywriters, and briefly toward the end of the seventies, I entered the family trade as a secretary and production assistant (material I put to good use in my novel Plan Z by Leslie Kove). But none of this prepared me for the kind of euphoric, sometimes shattering, shock I felt watching this show.

I grew up one town over from where Don Draper lived in the suburbs. Betty Draper's missing gynecologist when she gave birth (Dr. Mendelowitz) was my mother's doctor and my own first experience of that kind of exam. Although we weren't remotely WASPy, I grew up in Draper terrain; my family was dysfunctional, to put it mildly. But until watching this remarkable series, I never realized that our dysfunction was simply a microcosm of a cultural dysfunction. Namely the world of advertising in the late fifties to 1965 (as of the last episode in season 4, which I'm watching on iTunes). My family was symptomatic of a culture where self-medication through nicotine and booze was the norm; where everybody lied and manipulated and pretended to be who they were not; where it was assumed that men would treat women like throw-away objects; where women accepted it … until they didn't. (I remember the first women's liberation march down Fifth Avenue, but I'm time-leaping. Maybe the show will get to that.)

My father actually took the leap from the skyscraper shown in the opening graphics of each episode. In the graphic, Mad Man Don Draper never hits ground, but believe me, unless he starts being honest with himself, he will be blown to smithereens on impact.

I watched the latest episode ("The Rejected") last night — the one where Don Draper's secretary, Alison, who he slept with when he was drunk, confronts him. It was the first time anybody in the show called him what he is: "a drunk" who can turn on the charm at will and take no responsibility for what he does when he's drunk because he can't even remember it.

I was thinking about all this this morning as I sat next to the Lake in Central Park hearing the voices of an angelic choir singing Bach's Fugue in D Minor across the water in the echo chamber of the tunnel at Bethesda Fountain place. I love that piece of music. It sounded like the Swingle Singers' arrangement that I listened to as a teenager, so when I got home, I pulled out the album and listened to it on my record player for the first time since I switched to CDs. This music won a Grammy in 1963. If anybody in Mad Men listened to music, they might be listening to this now.

But it makes sense that, except for one self-consciously liberal and rebellious character, these mad men and women don't listen to music. Lost people, in my experience, don't hear, don't listen to anything that might interfere with them being lost, might call them back … to be found. In this world of sanctified lostness, nobody calls a drunk a drunk—unless he literally pees in his pants, in which case all the unnamed drunks laugh and kick the pee-er out as an unfortunate case who can't handle his liquor.

In a way, watching Mad Men has called me back, has helped me be found, even though I haven't been feeling particularly lost. The series has given me a bird's eye, compassionate perspective of my family that I never had before. Everybody is…was…is so afraid of being known. And at the same time, we long for the sensations of it. What a funny species we are.

But thank God for music. Bach called me back this morning. I hope the mad men and women will have some moments of hearing. Every episode of Mad Men ends with a piece of music for the audience's ears only. Selected by series composer David Carbonara, each song or composition is so astonishingly elegant, articulate, and honest, that could the characters hear it, there would be no more story … because they might cease being lost.

Thank you, David Carbonara, for ending each episode with a heartbeat. And thank you, writer and series creator Matthew Weiner, for being so fiercely honest about the dishonesty of lostness.


  1. August 22, 2010 1:03 PM EDT
    Betsy, congratulations on escaping that background. It's a miracle our culture is as good as it is today, given that Mad Men seems at least partially a truthful depiction of our past. My wife and I watched the first two seasons (Netflix since we don't have TV) and had real espect for the quality of the work. But after the first or second episode of season three, we decided we'd had enough. My wife (youngster) was born in 1963 into a Long Island wasteland and found Mad Men's explication of the America that birthed her just too bleak, too depressing, no light at the end of the tunnel. I'm old enough to remember the early 60s but come from a culture that had entirely different sorts of dysfunctions. Still, I had no interest in continuing with the series, despite the quality of the production... that's just not enough anymore. I guess I want more than lost people who show no signs of coming clear. Actually, I like darkness in my entertainment, but I also look for the cracks where the light gets in, because I want to connect with authors/artists whose worldview is balanced. I didn't get that from Mad Men. It's great that it helped you feel compassion for your family, and feel more found. And I'm with you on that final point: grateful for beautiful and soulful music, literature, and art to point us toward the sublime.
    - Brent Robison
  2. August 23, 2010 6:07 PM EDT
    I couldn't agree with you more. Though I'm only 27 and wasn't around when this was actually happening, there is such an honesty about this show that it eclipses the other television programs that are trying to be like it. Every single component of this show is a perfect puzzle piece to the next, allowing the audience to at once, be nostalgic for times gone by, thoughtful of the progress that's occurred since then, and engaged in a show that means more than idle entertainment on a Sunday evening.
    - Ryan

Selected Works

Big Moose Prize-winning novel
a funny, sometimes sad, story of negotiating life without a clue

New on Kindle--a funny book for foodies who are committed to self-change through self-awareness
an epistolary memoir ... sort of
A funny and moving little book for anyone who's had a mother or struggled with being human.
anthology of stories and plays
includes Darleen Dances and stories below

1-act play

short story
the problem with worrying about the future

true story
Why I don't believe in death.

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