News & Politics

AlterNet Writer, Novelist and Trump Critic Jeff Gillenkirk Dies of Heart Attack

A prolific talent whose life and work will be missed by many.

Jeff Gillenkirk was a fine journalist, writer, novelist, communicator, husband, father and friend. He was also a close friend of mine and of AlterNet's. Jeff had a heart attack and died on Tuesday, November 22. The obituary, penned by New Orleans journalist Jason Berry, Jeff's oldest friend, along with the legendary investigative reporter Mark Dowie, is below.

The painful, sad irony is that just before he died, Jeff wrote the popular AlterNet article published November 20, "The New PTSD: Post-Trump Stress Disorder" (reposted below Dowie's obituary). Always sensitive to trends and to what people were feeling, Jeff described how PTSD was keeping him up at night and how therapists are dealing with their patients' overwhelming sense of fear and panic attacks about the future. 

Basically Jeff Gillenkirk was as good as they come: committed, savvy, calm, creative, and someone you could always depend on. Our hearts go out to his longtime partner Katie Kleinsasser, his son Lucas, and his stepdaughter Hazel, as well as his brothers Ron and Mike and his sister Karen.

A memorial service is scheduled for December 28 in San Francisco, details to come. (If you are unable to find the time and location, email [email protected], and we will tell you when we know.) —AlterNet executive editor Don Hazen

***

Jeff Gillenkirk, Journalist, Novelist and Media Consultant

by New Orleans journalist Jason Berry, with Mark Dowie

Jeffrey Gillenkirk, a novelist, media consultant and chronicler of the Chinese town of Locke, died Tuesday, November 22, of a heart attack while teaching a third-grade class in San Francisco. He had recently become a substitute teacher after learning of the severe shortage in the school system.

Gillenkirk, 67, was coauthor, with the photographer James Motlow, of Bitter Melon: Stories from the Last Rural Chinese Town in America (1987), which won the Commonwealth Club Silver Medal for best California history. The New Yorker described it as, "A picture history and collective oral memoir of a century or so in the Sacramento Delta."

A native of Rochester, New York, Gillenkirk graduated from Georgetown University in 1972 and worked in Washington D.C., as a journalist at Psychiatric News. He moved to Los Angeles for several years and began freelancing. A piece he did for America, the Jesuit magazine, caught the attention of New York governor Mario Cuomo, who offered him a speechwriting job. After several years on the governor's staff, he returned to California when his wife Adrienne Kane, a physician, took a job in San Francisco. The couple, who later divorced, have a son, Lucas, 23.

Gillenkirk wrote for California Magazine, West Magazine, the New York Times, the Washington Post, the San Francisco Chronicle, the Los Angeles Times and AlterNet. He also worked as a media adviser for a coalition against the death penalty and as a campaign staffer for Barbara Boxer in her first election to the U.S. Senate.

In 1982, for Mother Jones, he and Mark Dowie published an investigation of Peter McDonald, chairman of the Navajo Tribal Council, considered the "most powerful Indian in America." McDonald was subsequently removed by his own Tribal Council, convicted in federal court and served time for fraud, extortion and bribery.

In 2002, Gillenkirk fell in love with Katie Kleinsasser, a consultant for Planned Parenthood and other nonprofits. As the relationship blossomed, they formed Your Message Media. In addition to journalism and writing fiction and nonfiction, Gillenkirk had a career in direct marketing, crafting fundraising copy for Craver, Mathews, Smith and Associates and other agencies. Clients included Mother Jones and Greenpeace.

In 2010 Gillenkirk published a novel, Home, Away, about a divorced Major League Baseball player determined to rebuild ties with his son. USA Today called it "a great baseball story." The Times-Picayune called it a "star of a novel." Reviewer James Bailey called it "the best baseball novel to hit the shelves in several years."

"He was a gifted writer, generous with his time," said Bruce Rutledge, the publisher of Chin Music Press in Seattle. "Every time he called, we'd banter about family or baseball before getting into the nitty gritty of editing. He spoke about his poor brother, a Cleveland Indians fan, in all those years they were losing."

In 2011 Gillenkirk released Pursuit of Darkness, a scalding satire of Washington D.C. that asks: Could vampires take over the government? They already have—and they want more than your vote. 

He made continued trips to Locke and wrote a play, Ten Thousand Steps, about an elderly Chinese woman whose life encapsulates the history of the town. Bitter Melon is now in its sixth printing.

In addition to his partner Katie Kleinsasser, his son Lucas and his stepdaughter Hazel Rose Kleingrove, Jeff Gillenkirk is survived by two brothers, a sister, and nieces and nephews.

***

The New PTSD: Post-Trump Stress Disorder

by Jeff Gillenkirk, AlterNet

Having uncontrollable thoughts about the election? You may be suffering from post-Trump stress disorder.

Anguishing yet again over election results in the middle of the night, I finally realized I’m experiencing something similar to PTSD. Check out this definition from the renowned Mayo Clinic: 

"Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a mental health condition that's triggered by a terrifying event—either experiencing it or witnessing it. Symptoms may include flashbacks, nightmares and severe anxiety, as well as uncontrollable thoughts about the event."

Let’s call this PTSD post-Trump stress disorder, triggered by the election, to the most powerful office in the world, of a man who’s espoused wholesale exclusion of Muslim immigrants, deporting millions of undocumented immigrants, repealing Roe v. Wade, abolishing the Environmental Protection Agency, and encouraging Japan, South Korea and Saudi Arabia to develop nuclear weapons, among other polarizing proposals. While post-Trump stress in no way equals the level of trauma experienced by combat veterans in Afghanistan, Iraq or Vietnam, this is an experience shared by tens of millions of Americans right now. 

“Before the election, at least half of my psychotherapy clients in San Francisco were exhibiting enormous anxieties around the issues of bullying, sexual exploitation, racial and ethnic stereotyping and threats of violence associated with the Trump campaign,” observed San Francisco psychotherapist Deborah Cooper. “Now that he has actually been elected, my entire practice is experiencing this as a traumatic event.”

In addition to the classic PTSD symptoms listed above, the Mayo Clinic cites irritability, angry outbursts or aggressive behavior, overwhelming guilt or shame, depression, self-destructive behavior such as alcohol and substance abuse, trouble concentrating, trouble sleeping, and being easily startled or frightened. Sound familiar? You’re not alone. Calls to the San Francisco Suicide Prevention hotline shot up 30 percent in the first five days after Trump’s election. “Some are wondering if they’re going to have the same health care,” director Courtney Brown reported. “Others are wondering if they’re going to still be allowed to be in the country. The only comparable incidents have been 9/11 and the Loma Prieta earthquake,” she said.

For some, Trump’s threats of violence to protesters, admission of sexual assaults against women, and bullying and intimidation of political opponents and the press have raised the specter of past political traumas: the assassination of John F. Kennedy in 1963, and his brother Robert in 1968; the 49-state landslide loss of South Dakota Senator George McGovern to Richard Nixon. The fact that more than a dozen Nixon campaign operatives served time in jail for campaign finance violations and political dirty tricks—and Nixon himself resigned in 1974—provided some solace, but the shock remained.

And then there was the 2000 electoral stalemate between Al Gore and George W. Bush, ultimately decided by a 5-4 majority of the U.S. Supreme Court rather than the will of the people. The epically misguided invasion of Iraq and subsequent horrors in the Middle East as well as Brussels, Paris, Madrid and other terrorist-targeted centers, followed. 

The first step in treating PTSD, psychotherapist Cooper says, is to admit you are suffering from trauma. “This is a time to reach out, feel the validation that others are experiencing similar things, and then figure out what we each can do individually about it, both emotionally and with action. Some need to take to the streets, some to the couch.” One thing Cooper warns against is trying to cope with the election as something normal. “This is not normal.”

For those contending with suicidal thoughts, San Francisco Suicide Prevention suggests additional steps.

  • Take compassionate, caring actions to support others. Help a friend in crisis, or a stranger in need, or volunteer to assist others in a cause that you care about.
  • Limit your interaction with things that might aggravate your stress. In its survey on stress and the 2016 election, the American Psychological Association found that adults who use social media are more likely to be stressed out by the election than those who don’t. Unplug for a while.
  • Call the Lifeline: 1-800-273-TALK (8255). Available 24/7, it’s free and confidential.

For those seeking a more political solution, there’s labor songwriter Joe Hill's exhortation, "Don’t mourn, organize!”

Don Hazen is the executive editor of AlterNet.

Sign Up!
Get AlterNet's Daily Newsletter in Your Inbox
+ sign up for additional lists
[x]
Select additional lists by selecting the checkboxes below before clicking Subscribe:
Activism
Drugs
Economy
Education
Election 2018
Environment
Food
Media
World