On Edward Dolnick’s ‘The Seeds of Life’ and artificial wombs.

On Edward Dolnick’s ‘The Seeds of Life’ and artificial wombs.

Juvenile_Smooth_Guarding_Frog_(Limnonectes_palavanensis)_maybe-_(6967250574)Among the smooth guardian frogs of Borneo, females croon to the males, attempting to woo a mate.  This is abnormal for frogs: usually females are serenaded.  But males of this species are the most devoted parents – they guard the fertilized eggs and carry tadpoles from pond to pond after they hatch.  Whereas the females simply lay eggs and leave.

Because male smooth guardian frogs contribute most to the next generation, they are more discerning than females when choosing a mate.  Unclaimed males might be surrounded by strident singers, each striving to win his affection.

Do smooth guardian frogs tell myths?  If their myths are anything like ours, they probably exalt female creator gods whose eggs – sans any contribution from the males – burst forth with heroes.  Or even entire worlds.

Human myths purposefully invert the workings of the world.

*

Among humans, females contribute most to survival of the species.  Females undergo nine months of gestation and perhaps years of breastfeeding for every child.  From the first, they pour huge amounts of energy into their offspring.

But human males – especially after the switch to agrarian lifestyles, at which point our minor sexual dimorphism made a large difference in how many calories each individual could procure – fancied themselves to be more important than females.  So we told stories in which men were the stewards of existence.

From Edward Dolnick’s The Seeds of Life:

9780465082957In ancient Egypt, the creation of new life – indeed, the creation of the entire universe – was emphatically the province of males.  Females played a subsidiary role or (in the case of the gods) no role at all.  Creation myths told of male gods who, as one historian writes, “gave birth to their spouses, their children, other humans, animals, cities, sanctuaries, shrines, perpetual offerings, earth, and the planets themselves.”

One papyrus manuscript records the boasts of the Sun God, who first created himself out of nothing – we are not told how – and then took matters into his own capable hands, masturbating the universe into existence.  “I created on my own every being … my fist became my spouse.  I copulated with my hand.”

In human myths from around the world, male gods act as solitary progenitors.  Yahweh creates the world alone.  Then Adam gives birth: a rib is taken from his body to make Eve.

The male leader of the Greek pantheon births a child: Athena springs forth from Zeus’s head.  In some variants of the Ramayana, Ravana creates Sita with a sneeze.

(Did the originator of this myth know anything about reproduction?  How could you imagine birthing a child through a nostril?)

Even among mortals, human males often imagined themselves to be the more important parents.  Obviously female bodies could carry new life, and male bodies could not.  So the men created myths in which female bodies were replaceable – in their telling, sperm was essential.  Women were not.

From Wendy Doniger’s Women, Androgynes, and Other Mythical Beasts:

51W-viAy4OL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_In Hindu mythology the instances of unilateral female creation are by far outnumbered by unilateral male creation.  The male seed is fertile in itself, particularly the seed of a great ascetic who has kept it within him for a long time and is therefore “one whose seed is never shed in vain” (amogharetas); that is, he engenders a child every time he sheds his seed, no matter where he sheds it.  Even an ordinary man’s seed is basically the source of life, as is evident from the Upanisadic tradition; in Dharmasastra, too, the seed remains more important than the womb.  The seed shed by a powerful male may fall into any of a number of womb substitutes (a pot, the earth, a river, or somebody’s mouth) and produce an embryo.

*

In The Seeds of Life, Dolnick describes the experiments that finally led Europeans to understand that both parents produce essential gametes.  In the late 1700s, Lazzaro Spallanzani sewed silk pants for male frogs as a form of full-body contraceptive device.  When frogs ejaculated inside their sperm-retaining pants, eggs would not become embryos.  After the pants were turned inside out and rubbed across the jellied clumps of eggs, tadpoles grew.

Spallanzani also performed the first artificial insemination of a dog.  He was a Catholic priest.  Priesthood was different in those days.

rogersShortly after I finished reading The Seeds of Life, we discussed Pattiann Rogers’s “The Rites of Passage” in jail.  This poem opens with the initial cleavage of a fertilized frog egg, followed by its development into a blastula and the formation of organs until

that one definite moment

When a fold of cells quivers suddenly for the first time

And someone says loudly “heart,” born, beating steadily,

Bearing now in the white water of the moon

The instantaneous distinction of being liable to death.

We talked about the almost magical border between nothingness and life – J. said, “When I had my son, I didn’t even want to tell anybody for months, I was worried they’d laugh, they’d say, like, you, you’re just gonna fuck it up.”  And S. said, “I dunno, man, my kid was born, and I was just like, damn.  I made that!”

The thing that hurts these men most is that they’re not there for their kids.

Then we talked about embryology.  I told the men, briefly, about Spallanzani’s experiments.  Then told them that, although I’ve never touched the genitalia of any non-human animal, I used to work next to a man who collected sperm from horseshoe crabs.  He wore gloves.  The supine crabs scrabbled for his arm with their little claws.

*

Although early European doctors thought human females contributed nothing to a child other than a fertile field for growth, they were concerned that feminine misbehavior could corrupt poison the filed and corrupt a fetus.  From Rebecca Kukla’s Mass Hysteria:

419Nh3Un2WL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_The seventeenth-century textbooks are particularly concerned about and often organized around the possibility of deformed births, with a special focus on the dangers of the impure, permeated womb.  Sadler’s book, for instance, is organized primarily as a list of ways in which the womb can fail to maintain its purity and its integrity–the womb here leaks and ‘weeps,’ and various ‘corrupt humours’ flow in and out of it, making nothing more ‘perilous’ to the body than the ‘ill-affected womb.’ 

Many of the works go into elaborate detail, describing and often visually representing famous cases of monstrous births.  Monstrous births could be the product of weak seed or impure blood, of conception during menstruation, of the woman fertilizing herself with her own seed (!), or, most importantly and consistently, of maternal ingestions of sights and substances that could pollute or deform the womb.  In justifying the need for careful knowledge and monitoring of the maternal body, in the preface of his book, Sadler warns us: “From the womb come convulsions, epilepsies, apoplexies, palseys, hecticke fevers, dropsies, malignant ulcers, and to bee short, there is no disease so ill but may proceed from the evil quality of it.”

They thought that if a pregnant female gazed upon an impure sight, or had an impure thought, the child inside her would be irrevocably damaged.  Which implied the converse.  If a baby was born wrong – mentally or physically disabled – it was proof that the mother’s mind was foul.  Kukla reports that “lascivious thoughts could produce hermaphrodism and other obscene monstrosities.

Children needed to be protected from their mothers.  Otherwise women’s lascivious thoughts would cause a decline in the human race.

For years, doctors recommended that women not breastfeed their children – mothers could exert a harmful influence through their milk as well.  A mother who was good and pure would produce healthful milk, they thought, but most were not.  After all, sex itself was sin.  And children were rarely engendered without sex.  To minimize risk, mothers should feed their babies with commercially prepared substitutes instead.

These doctors would have been thrilled to read in the news, as I did the other day, that modern researchers have come closer to developing an artificial womb.  Children can be kept safe from the perfidies of maternal imagination!  And though it’s not quite unilateral male creation, this “fluid-filled biobag” is akin to the womb-replacing baskets and jars of ghee of Hindu myth.

lamb

*

And yet.  A belief that men convey the stuff of life, with women serving solely as a fertile patch of earth, need not lead to misogynistic behavior.  Some cultures have used the same mistaken mythologies to create more egalitarian worlds.

Again from Dolnick’s The Seeds of Life:

Common across many cultures, too, even today, is a belief that it takes many acts of sex to create a baby.  “Many of my New Guinea friends feel obliged to have regular sex right up to the end of pregnancy,” writes the scientist Jared Diamond, “because they believe that repeated infusions of semen furnish the material to build the fetus’s body.”

. . .

Many South American tribes go a step further: not only is the developing baby built up from new batches of semen, but it is best if several different men make a contribution.  All those men are considered the child’s father.  Among the Bari people in Venezuela, for instance, “a good mother will make a point of having sex with several different men, especially when she is pregnant,” one historian writes, “so that her child will enjoy the qualities (and paternal care) not merely of the best hunter, but also of the best storyteller, the strongest warrior, and the most considerate lover.”

*

Biology isn’t destiny.  Not even our beliefs about mythology force us to behave any particular way.  A world that is good and fair would be compatible with many myths.

 

******

post-script: Shortly after this essay went up, the O.E.D. online’s “word of the day” was “murk,” which includes a misogynistic quote from the early 1400s that fits these themes perfectly.

From Prick of Conscience (1425): Man … was consyved synfully With-in his awen moder body … Par duellid man in a myrk dungeon And in a foul sted of corupcion.

As best I can tell, this would be rendered in modern English as “Man was conceived sinfully within his own mother’s body, and then he dwelled in a murky dungeon (her womb) in a foul state of corruption.”

Male writers have long seemed to channel their jealousy at women’s ability to create life into a hatred of women.  If men have no wombs, we’ll call wombs corrupt!  Although, did you look at that picture of the womb-replacing “bio-bag”?  Less murky, sure.  Totally exposed to the light.  But it also looks nightmarish.

 

On romantic failure.

On romantic failure.

singularity-valentineMy first collegiate relationship survived almost the entirety of freshman year (ending via phone call the day before my birthday). The second held out through four months of sophomore year. The third, two months of junior year. And the last person with whom I had any appreciable romantic success during college dated me for about two weeks, just before graduation.

The half-lives of my romantic entanglements seemed to be dwindling inexorably toward zero. I feared that the duration of any future relationships would be measured in hours… or minutes… or seconds. How quickly might one progress from a first kiss to “I don’t particularly want to see you again”?

Instead, I passed through a singularity. My next relationship has held out for a decade and still seems to be going well.

Not that I deserve too much sympathy for my past failures. I was less than ideally suave.

naked-singularityI laughed aloud (while grimacing in recognition) at this passage describing a first date from Sergio De La Pava’s A Naked Singularity:

On Her Job:
“Plastic surgery? Really? That’s interesting.”
“Very lucrative.”
“It seems like a mostly New York/L.A. type thing right?”
“What do you mean?”
“Is actual plastic involved?”
“Sometimes. Why?”
“Well otherwise the term would seem to be a slap in the face at the type of person who becomes a patient.”
“I don’t think I have any idea what you’re talking about.”
“You know, like there’s surgery for when something is actually wrong and then there would be plastic surgery for plastic, superficial people who can’t cope with their nose.”

On Misunderstandings:
“No I didn’t mean to imply that at all.”
“Right.”
“I’m serious. What kind of a hostile lunatic would purposely insult their dinner companion? I was just trying to be funny.”

Trying – and failing – to be funny. Well, not failing, exactly. I think that is funny. But De La Pava’s protagonist, like my own younger self, was insufficiently careful in considering the audience for his jokes.

So De La Pava’s protagonist returned home alone. Perhaps he then whiled away the evening reading some erotically-charged literature… like this eyebrow-raising article from the newsdesk at Science. Decidedly the most fescennine piece of writing I’ve stumbled across in some time. Each weekday morning I bring the kids to the YMCA to play while I check my email and do some typing, and I blushed while reading in the snack room.

So obviously I’ll share it with you now.

From Virginia Morell’s Science news article:

He did not penetrate her, but did ejaculate, and [she] then licked her back clean …

Which seems quite racy even knowing that the pronouns refer to a male macaque and a female sika deer.

Unfortunately, the article then alludes to violent rape porn – maybe this appeals more to all the Fifty Shades of Gray fans than it does to me. A kinky set of male fur seals has taken to pinning king penguins, thrusting for minutes (with, um, likely penetration), and, in a gruesome S & M twist, devouring the object of affection.

Just like rape culture in frat houses – or the White House – each assault makes future violence more likely. From Matt Walker’s BBC Earth article on the seals:

seals“Seals have capacity for learning – we know this from their foraging behavior for example,” explained de Bruyn.

So male seals may see each other coercing penguins, then attempt it themselves.

That might explain why the number of incidents appears to be increasing. “I genuinely think the behavior is increasing in frequency.”

15798589947_7b6d029ae8_zIt’s unfortunate that our press so rarely uses accurate language when describing violence against women… or against penguins, for that matter. “Coercing” sex is bad, but what these seals are doing is not coercion. Similarly, the word used for 45’s behavior toward women should not have been “groping.” The appropriate word is “assault.”

(A bit of linguistic mincing might be appropriate sometimes… like when describing the crabs who forcibly trigger asexual reproduction of anemones. Although the process sounds violent – “the crab tears the … anemone into two similar parts, resulting in a complete anemone in each claw after regeneration” – the crabs are acting calmly, and, besides, these anemones live only on crab claws and do reproduce this way.)

monkeydeerIn the case of the deer-humping macaque and those penguin-molesting seals, scientists have documented that low status individuals are the most likely to assault other species. The same principal holds among orangutans – only low-status males assault females.

Yet another indication – as if all the pomp and bluster and Twitter bullying and gold-plated doodads weren’t enough – that 45 is a pusillanimous individual at heart.

Because, after all, consensual behavior is more fun. Contrast those dour seals with the ribald joy of W. H. Auden’s “The Platonic Blow”:

We aligned mouths. We entwined. All act was clutch,
All fact, contact, the attack and the interlock
Of tongues, the charms of arms. I shook at the touch
Of his fresh flesh, I rocked at the shock of his cock.

If only those low-status seals – or our low-status president – calmed their desires with some Auden! We’d live in a world with fewer traumatized women (and penguins).

Or, if you’d rather get your kicks from prose, might I proffer this passage from Victor Pelevin’s The Clay Machine Gun (translated by Andrew Bromfield):

710579MGT2L._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_.gif“And you talk, talk …”
“Of what exactly?”
“Of anything at all, just talk. I want to hear your voice when it happens.”
“By all means. To continue that idea… Imagine that everything which a beautiful woman can give one adds up to one hundred per cent.”
“You bookkeeper…”
“Yes, one hundred. In that case, she gives ninety per cent of that when one simply sees her, and everything else, the object of a thousand years of haggling, is no more than an insignificant remainder. Nor can that first ninety per cent be subdivided into any component fractions, because beauty is indefinable and indivisible, no matter what lies Schopenhauer may try to tell us. As for the other ten per cent, it is no more than an aggregate sum of nerve signals which would be totally without value if they were not lent support by imagination and memory. Anna, I beg you, open your eyes for a second… Yes, like that… yes, precisely imagination and memory. You know, if I had to write a genuinely powerful erotic scene, I would merely provide a few hints and fill in the rest with an incomprehensible conversation like the… Oh, my God, Anna… LIke the one which you and I are having now. Because there is nothing to depict, everything has to be filled in by the mind. The deception, and perhaps the very greatest of a woman’s secrets… Oh, my little girl from the old estate… consists in the fact that beauty seems to be a label, behind which there lies concealed something immeasurably greater, something inexpressibly more desired than itself, to which it merely points the way, whereas in actual fact, there is nothing in particular standing behind it… A golden label on an empty bottle… A shop where everything is displayed in a magnificently arranged window-setting, but that tiny, tender, narrow little room behind it… Please, please, my darling, not so fast… Yes, that room is empty. Remember the poem I recited to those unfortunates. About the princess and the bagel… A-a-ah, Anna… No matter how temptingly it might lure one, the moment comes when one realizes that at the center of that black bage… bagel… bagel… there is nothing but a void, voi-oid, voi-oi-oooid!”

On human uniqueness and invasive species.

On human uniqueness and invasive species.

We like to see ourselves as special.  “I am a beautiful and unique snowflake,” we’re taught to intone.

Most of the time, this is lovely.  Other than the U.S. Supreme Court, hardly anyone thinks you should be punished for being special.  Of course, the Court’s opinion does matter, since the ignorant claims of five old rich white men have an inordinate sway in determining how U.S. citizens will be allowed to live.  And they, the conservative predecessors of our lockstep quartet (soon to return to a quintet) of hate machines, oft feel that the beautiful snowflakes should melt in prison.  In McCleskey v. Kemp, the court decided that statistical evidence of injustice should not be admissible as evidence; they would only consider documentation of deliberate bias in individual cases.

snowflake
Unique when you are on trial, now orange & a number.  Photo by Joel Franusic on Flickr.

Which means, for instance, that if a police force decides to systematically harass black drivers, and winds up stopping hundreds of black drivers and zero white drivers each month, they’re in the clear as long as each black driver stopped was violating some portion of the traffic code.  At that point, each black driver is a unique individual lawbreaker, and the court sees no reason why their experiences should be lumped together as statistical evidence of racial injustice.  Adolph Lyons, after being nearly choked to death by an L.A. police officer, could not convince the courts that the L.A. police should stop choking innocuous black drivers.

Lovely, eh?

So it can hurt if others see us as being too special.  Too distinct for our collective identity to matter.

At other times, we humans might not feel special enough.  That’s when the baseless claims get bandied about.  For instance, K recently received a letter from Stanford’s Graduate School of Education pontificating that “Only humans teach.”  A specious example is given, followed by the reiteration that “Only humans look to see if their pupils are learning.”  Which simply isn’t true.

But people feel such a burning desire to be special – as individuals, as fans of a particular sports team, as people with a particular skin color, or as people who follow a particular set of religious credos – that an ostensibly very-educated someone needed to write this letter.

That’s why the occasional correctives always make me smile.  For instance, research findings showing that other animal species have some of the skills that our sapiens chauvinists oft claim as uniquely human, or other data indicating that humans are not as exceptional as we at times believe.

Consider our brains.  For many years, we thought our brains were anomalously large for the size of our bodies.  The basic rationale for this metric was that more brain power would be needed to control a larger body – this seems tenuous if you compare to robots we’ve created, but so it goes.  Recently, a research group directed by Suzana Herculano-Houzel counted how many actual neurons are in brains of different sizes.  Again comparing to human creations, computer scientists would argue that more neurons allow for more patterns of connections and thus more brainpower, somewhat comparable to the total number of transistors inside a computer.

As it happens, no one knew how many neurons were in different creatures’ brains, because brains are very inhomogeneous.  But they can be homogenized – rather easily, as it happens.  I did this (unfortunately!) with cow brains.  These arrived frozen and bloodied; I’d smash them with a hammer then puree them in a blender till they looked rather like strawberry daiquiri.  For my work I’d then spin the soupy slushy muck so fast that all the cell nuclei pelleted on the bottom of centrifuge tubes, ready to be thrown away.

brains
After a spin in the blender, all brains look the same. Photo from Wikipedia.

Alternatively, one could take a sample of the soup and simply count.  How many nuclei are here?  Then stain an equivalent sample with antibodies that recognize proteins expressed in neurons but not the other cell types present in a brain: what fraction of the nuclei were neurons?  And, voila, you have your answer!

Gabi et al. did roughly this, publishing their findings with the subtly anti-exceptionalist title “No relative expansion of the number of prefrontal neurons in primate and human evolution.”  We have more neurons than smaller primates, but only as many as you’d expect based on our increased size.

zombie-starfish(Perhaps this leaves you wondering why gorillas rarely best us on human-designed IQ tests – as it happens, the other great apes are outliers, with fewer neurons than you would expect based on the primate trends.  Some of this data was presented in a paper I discussed in my essay about the link between “origin of fire” and “origin of knowledge” myths.  In brief, the idea is that the caloric requirements of human-like brainpower demanded cooked food.  The evolutionary precursors to gorillas instead progressed toward smaller brains – which happens.  The evolutionary precursors to starfish also jettisoned their brains, making themselves rather more like zombies.)

Perhaps all these brain musings are an insufficient corrective.  After all, humans are very smart – I’m trusting that you’re getting more out of this essay than the average hamster would, even if I translated these words into squeaks.

So let’s close with one more piece of humility-inducing (humiliating) research: archaeologists have long studied the migration of early humans, trying to learn when Homo sapiens first reached various areas and what happened after they arrived.  Sadly, “what happened” was often the same: rapid extinction of all other variety of humans, first, then most other species of large animals.

All the Neanderthal disappeared shortly after Homo sapiens forayed into Europe.  There are reasons why someone might quibble with the timeline, but it seems that Homo erectus disappeared from Asia shortly after Homo sapiens arrived.  The arrival of Homo sapiens in Australia brought the extinction of all large animals other than kangaroos.  The arrival of Homo sapiens in South America presaged, again, a huge megafaunal extinction.

On evolutionary timescales, we are a slow-moving meaty wrecking ball.

27435263990_8f7566831d_b.jpg
Bad as we are, we can always get worse. My country! Picture by DonkeyHotey on Flickr.

And our spread, apparently, resembles that of all other invasive species.  This is slightly less derogatory than the summation given in The Matrix – “[humans] move to an area and … multiply and multiply until every natural resource is consumed and the only way [they] can survive is to spread to another area.  There is another organism on this planet that follows the same pattern.  Do you know what it is?  A virus.  Human beings are a disease, a cancer of this planet.” – but only slightly.

Upon the arrival of Homo sapiens in South America, we quickly filled the entire continent to its carrying capacity, and then, after the invention of sedentary agriculture – which boosts food production sufficiently for an area to support more human farmers than hunter gatherers – resumed exponential population growth.  Although the switch to an agricultural lifestyle may have been rotten for the individual actors – the strength needed to push plows makes human sexual dimorphism more important, which is why the spread of agriculture heralded the oppression of & violence against women throughout human history – it’s certainly a great technology if our goal is to fill the world with as many miserable humans as possible.

We’ll be passing eight billion soon, a population inconceivable without modern farming technologies.  And likely unsustainable even with.

Not, again, that this makes us unique.  Plenty of species are willing to breed themselves into misery & extinction if given half the chance.  Almost any species that follows r-type population growth (this jargon signifies “quantity over quality”) – which oft seems to include Homo sapiens – is likely to do so.  My home town, wolf-less, is currently riddled with starving, sickly deer.

On horror, healing, and Joanna Connors’s ‘I Will Find You.’

On horror, healing, and Joanna Connors’s ‘I Will Find You.’

amsal_pbDuring a recent writing class, we discussed Bonnie Jo Campbell’s “The Trespasser” (reprinted in American Salvage, in case you’d like more). We’ve been discussing a lot of literature themed around addiction and recovery, and in this short story a family walks into their summer home to find the wreckage left by a quartet of trespassers who broke in and used the place as a meth lab.

The family — especially their thirteen-year-old daughter — feels violated.  Their belongings rearranged, their kitchen charred, a mattress ruined, their sense of security shattered.  But the piece doesn’t dwell on the family’s reaction.  Instead the story presents, through a series of contrasts to the thirteen-year-old’s life, the horrors that may have led one of the trespassers — a sixteen-year-old girl, violated in turn by the men she was with, who stayed alone in the house to hide in a closet and shoot up until the family arrived — to make the choices she did.

There is a sense of forgiveness to the piece.  Because, yes, the sixteen-year-old’s actions were wrong.  She should not have broken in to the house with those men.  She should not have stolen methamphetamine they were cooking from them.  She should not have stayed living in another family’s home, rearranging their possessions, dragging comforting items to a closet, dragging a mattress — emblematic of her own violation — outside.

And yet.  Campbell presents the ways in which that sixteen-year-old trespasser has already been punished, brutally so, before she committed her transgressions.  She did wrong.  Perhaps some punishment would be appropriate.  But she was punished, arbitrarily so, by the universe at large.  Born into a life where she was violated by her mother’s boyfriends, burned by cigarettes, treated as worthless so long that she may have begun to believe it.  Those preemptive punishments were quite likely the reason why she committed her later crimes.

It is human to want vengeance against people who hurt us.  It is especially human to want vengeance against people who hurt those we love.  But something that’s often missing from our criminal justice system in the United States is an acknowledgement of the punishments already doled out to innocent children, punishments that harmed their developing minds and may have increased the likelihood that they’d be tangled up in future crimes.

71O975JXqtLJoanna Connors’s I Will Find You is a hard book to read — a beautifully-written exploration of a bleak topic — but she presents this contrast perfectly.  If you can handle reading a detailed, nuanced investigation of a sexual assault, I highly recommend it.

Connors was hurt.  Connors, as best I can tell, is hurt.  The psychological effects of torture can linger for decades, and sexual assault, despite the inappropriate term (personally, I far prefer using the phrase “violative assault” to better distinguish it from sex, but then people sometimes don’t know what I’m talking about), is an act of torture.

She was, from the perspective of a prosecutor, the perfect witness.  She was educated, sober, unacquainted with her assailant… and a white woman assaulted by a black man.

All those characteristics make it easier for the state to win a conviction.

(A quick note: though she was harmed, Connors was a witness, not a defendant.  That’s how our judicial system treats the victims of sexual assault.  At least that’s better than the old system, in which Connors’ husband would be considered the defendant because his property — his wife — had been tarnished through unauthorized use.)

Indeed, Connors’s assailant was convicted, was sentenced to many years, and eventually died in jail.  A rarity, as most of us now know.

But Connors’s pain did not go away.  A corrections officer at one of the prisons where her attacker was held told her — in an attempt to cheer her — that her attacker was probably brutally abused while incarcerated.  That particular prison, the correction officer acknowledged, had a well-deserved dismal reputation.

Hearing that the man had suffered more did not help Connors heal.

And so Connors decided to learn about her attacker: What was his life like?  Why had he ruined hers?

Indeed, the innocent child who would grow into the man who raped her was wretchedly abused.  Connors could not interview her attacker — he had died in prison before she began this project — but she met with the man’s siblings.  One wondered what he had done to be born into a life of such misery.

Everyone in the attackers’ family had been raped.  Repeatedly.  Connors cried alongside the attackers’ sisters.  I was stupid, I deserved it, each said in turn.  The exact words with which Connors had castigated herself after she was assaulted.

Those words were not true in Connors’ case.  And they were not true for the attackers’ sisters.  No one deserves to be tortured.

And, in contrast to the outraged response from her family and from the criminal justice system after Connors was assaulted, no one cared about the crimes perpetrated against the attacker’s family.  Connors does not belabor this point.  She was white, well-educated, graced with the sobriety that comes easily to those with no childhood demons to escape — she received justice.

Others, who through no fault of their own were born to uncaring, abusive, impoverished parents, did not.

On self-immolation.

On self-immolation.

A lovely young woman from my home town died recently.  Another suicide.  Recent college graduate, Fulbright scholar, compassionate, and sufficiently clever that no one realized the pain she was in.  My wife has the good fortune of working with many wonderful students, but it’s awful that some of the best & brightest pour their all into making sure that no one knows to offer help.

I try to be upfront with people — especially the young students I volunteer with — about the workings of my own mind.  That my own mind is wired such that the world often looks bleak.

depression_by_thecruelone-d48z40t
Depression by sensum on Deviantart.

Part of the misery of growing up with depression, after all, is the mistaken assumption that you alone are broken.  Most people you see from day to day are either not sick that way, or have found ways to accommodate their troubles.  Otherwise you wouldn’t be seeing them out & about!  This is the same reason perusing social media often makes us feel worse about our own lives.  There is “positive selection bias.”  People chose to post pictures and experiences that make themselves look good, and the algorithms choosing what lands at the top of somebody’s feed aggravate the problem.  Other people are getting married, running marathons, cavorting on the beach, birthing beautiful babies!  And nobody’s clicking “like” for your kid’s screaming tantrum video on a day you got sacked.

In my writing, I try to address the philosophical problem of suicide in a non-hokey yet life-affirming way.  It’s true, there is a lot of pain inherent in being alive.  Watching a toddler cry while teething triggers in me a panoramic vision of generations upon generations of teary-eyed kids who’ve suffered the same.  And for secular, science-y types, there isn’t even an externally-imposed meaning to life that would make all that suffering seem necessary.

If things get bad enough, then, yes, the idea of nothing might sound like a step up.  This is described in a darkly comic passage about optimism from Primo Levi’s If This Is a ManAnd I think it’s important to remember, when reading this, that Levi pressed on until he was quite old.  Knowing that he could end things gave him the strength he needed to persevere:

Primo_LeviIt is lucky that it is not windy today.  Strange, how in some way one always has the impression of being fortunate, how some chance happening, perhaps infinitesimal, stops us crossing the threshold of despair and allows us to live.  It is raining, but it is not windy.  Or else, it is raining and is also windy: but you know that this evening it is your turn for the supplement of soup, so that even today you find the strength to reach the evening.  Or it is raining, windy, and you have the usual hunger, and then you think that if you really had to, if you really felt nothing in your heart but suffering and tedium — as sometimes happens, when you really seem to lie on the bottom — well, even in that case, at any moment you want you could always go and touch the electric wire-fence, or throw yourself under the shunting trains, and then it would stop raining.

Knowing Levi’s history — the fact that, despite all the horrors he’d seen during the Holocaust, he did choose to live, adds power to the final phrase.  He didn’t need to stop the rain.  He needed only hope, the knowledge that the rain could be stopped.

Knowing about David Foster Wallace’s life is also what adds so much power — the other way — to my favorite passage from The Pale King.  I love the accountant’s description of heroism; if you’re interested, I’ve written about it here.

Given our world, I imagine I’d feel compelled to write about suicide even if I personally did not suffer from depression.  The death rate in the United States is rising, largely driven by acts of self violence… and that’s even if you consider our epidemics of suicide and drug overdose as separate phenomena.  There’s a compelling argument to be made that these stem from the same root causes, in which case the problem seems even more dire.

The risk isn’t distributed equally.  Like the beloved young woman from the introduction to this essay, suicide takes many of our best and brightest.  It also claims the lives of many who’ve already made tremendous sacrifices on our behalf — the suicide rate among returning veterans is heartbreaking.  We, as a people, are doing far too little to help them.  I’ll include more about this next week when I write about David Means’s Hystopia.

51PqvC8KySL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_.jpgI found myself thinking about the problem of suicide — again — while reading Robin Coste Lewis’s Voyage of the Sable Venus.  Her poetry powerfully investigates racial and gendered violence, but I was struck by a strange allusion she chose for “On the Road to Sri Bhuvaneshwari.”  Lewis watches as a buffalo is forced to sniff her stillborn calf during a trip to India, then parallels this tragedy with her own venture into motherhood years later.  Given that my own family is expecting another child, it was a scary poem to read.

The lines about suicide come early in the poem.  Here Lewis is being driven around Uttar Pradesh, a state in northern India.  She will visit a temple celebrating one of the fallen fragments of Shiva’s wife — according to myth, pieces of her body were scattered during Shiva’s grieving, and the sites where they fell became sacred:

I sit behind the driver, admiring

          his cinnamon fingers, his coiffed white beard,

                   his pale pink turban wrapped so handsomely.

                             Why did it take all that?

I mean, why did She have to jump

          into the celestial fire

                   to prove her purity?

                             Shiva’s cool — poisonous, blue,

a shimmering galaxy —

          but when it came to His Old Lady,

                   man, He fucked up!

                             Why couldn’t He just believe Her?

I joke with the driver.  We laugh.

This is such a strange passage because Lewis, who has a master’s degree in Sanskrit and comparative religious literature, is substituting the suicide of Sita, Rama or Vishnu’s wife, with that of Sati, Shiva’s wife.  In a book about racial violence, this is a striking reversal.

To a rough approximation, Shiva is most often venerated by darker-skinned Indians, people who have suffered racially-motivated injustice at the hands of lighter-skinned north Indians.  Shiva is often depicted as an exceedingly grungy god — he chills in cemeteries, his hair is tangled in dreadlocks, he believes in austere living.  In mythology, one of Shiva’s most famous worshipers is Ravana, the scholarly vegetarian south Indian king who is the villain of the Ramayana.

Kalighat_Shiva_mourns_SatiAccording to mythology, Shiva’s wife did commit suicide.  Although Sati loved Shiva, her family thought he was beneath them.  He lived like a dirty hippie!  They didn’t want that grunge-ball to come visiting.  And so, when Sati’s family threw a big party, they didn’t invite Sati or her husband.  Sati, ashamed that her family would slight the man she loved, committed suicide.

This isn’t a story about which you’d write “Why couldn’t He just believe Her?”

But Sita’s suicide?  She was married to Rama, a north Indian prince, but then Ravana, angry that Rama had assaulted Ravana’s sister, kidnapped Sita in retribution.  Rama then gathered an army of monkeys and went with them to destroy the south Indian kingdom.  If you think of The Iliad, you’ve got the basic gist.

Sita lept into the flames because her husband, after rescuing her, considered her tarnished by rape.  Because she had lived away from him, she was no longer fit to be his wife.

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From Sita Sings the Blues.

Here’s Rama’s reunion with his wife:

          As he gazed upon [Sita], who stood so meekly beside him, Rama began to speak, as rage simmered in his heart:

          “So here you are, my good woman.  I have won you back after conquering my enemy in battle.  Whatever there was to be done through manly valor, I have now accomplished.

          “I have wiped clean the affront, and so my wrath is appeased.  For I have eliminated both the insult and my enemy at the same time.

          “Today, my manly valor has been witnessed.  Today my efforts have borne fruit.  Today, having fulfilled my vow here, I am once more master of myself.

          “You were carried off by that wanton [Ravana] when you were left alone, but now, through manly action, I have expunged that affront brought about by fate.

          “What human purpose can man serve if his spirit is so feeble that he will not wipe clean through his own blazing energy an insult he has received?

          “The leaping of the ocean and the razing of [the South Indian kingdom]–today those praiseworthy deeds of [Hanuman, the most powerful monkey,] have borne fruit.

          “Today, through their valor in battle and their beneficial counsel to me, the efforts of [the monkey king] and his army have borne fruit as well.

          “And the efforts of [a south Indian defector], who abandoned his evil brother and came to me of his own accord, have likewise borne fruit.”

          As Rama was saying these words in that fashion, Sita, wide-eyed like a doe, was overcome with tears.

          But as Rama gazed upon her, his anger flared up once more, like the raging flame of a blazing fire drenched with melted butter.

          Knitting his brows on his forehead and glancing at her from the corner of his eye, he spoke harshly to Sita there in the midst of the monkeys and raksasas.

          “In wiping away this affront, Sita, I have accomplished all that a man could do.  In my wrath, I have won you back from the hands of my enemy, just as, through his austerities, the contemplative sage Agastya won back the southern lands that had been inaccessible to all living beings.

          “Bless you, but let it be understood that it was not on your account that I undertook the effort of this war, now brought to completion through the valor of my allies.

          “Instead, I did all this in order to protect my reputation and in every way to wipe clean the insult and disgrace to my illustrious lineage.

          “Since, however, your virtue is now in doubt, your presence has become as profoundly disagreeable to me as is a bright lamp to a man afflicted with a disease of the eye.

          “Go, therefore, as you please, [Sita].  You have my permission.  Here are the ten directions.  I have no further use for you, my good woman.

          “For what powerful man born in a respectable family–his heart tinged with affection–would take back a woman who had lived in the house of another man?

          “How could I who boast of my noble lineage possibly take you back–just risen from Ravana’s lap and gazed upon by his lustful eye?

          “I have recovered my reputation, and that is the purpose for which I won you back.  I do not love you anymore.  Go hence wherever you like.”

(Note: I replaced the term “raksasa,” occasionally, with “south Indian.”  This isn’t entirely accurate.  The word “raksasa” is often translated into English as “ogre,” a race of fantastical shape-shifting creatures, and it would be foolhardy to believe that there is a literal correspondence between this myth and prehistorical events like the conquest of south India by invaders from the north.  But I’m of the belief that it would be equally foolhardy to believe there is no connection between mythology and real-world events.  If you’d like to see the original Sanskrit text of this scene, it’s available here, and my previous essay touching upon the racial implications of the canonical Ramayana is here.)

In traditional mythology, Shiva’s wife did not commit suicide after claiming to be pure and being disbelieved by her husband.  That was Sita.  The wife of the light-skinned oppressor, not, as Lewis alludes, the wife of the dark-skinned oppressed people’s god.

(Another note: according to the myth, Sita survived jumping into the fire — it refused to burn her because she was pure at heart.  Rather than launch into an analogy comparing this to the tests used during the Salem witchcraft trials, I’ll just say that she was briefly accepted back by her husband, then kicked out again, and successfully committed suicide several years later by leaping into a temporary crevasse.)

I agree that the story of Sita’s suicide is more powerful.  Even now, here in the United States, one reason so few sexual assaults are reported is because many victims feel ashamed.  There is a fear that friends, family, and lovers will consider a victim of sexual assault to be damaged.  Tarnished.  Many victims fear that others’ reactions will only aggravate the initial trauma.

They’re often right.  Look what happened to Sita.

Agni_pariksha

It’s unlikely that this underreporting problem will go away until prevailing attitudes about sexuality change.  And, yes, even now the victims of sexual assault are at much higher risk of suicide.

Which, if you’re thinking about it: please wait.  Talk to somebody.  The world’s not perfect.  But it gets better.

On asking first.

On asking first.

consent_is_sexy_mugI still frown every time I see the sidewalk chalkings / posters / coffee mugs / t-shirts that read “Consent Is Sexy.” I really thought that slogan would’ve faded away by now.

Traditional sexual practices in the U.S. are bad, sure. The standard shown in movies and advice books is for both parties to act wordlessly. Move slowly and if you reach a point where you’re about to do more than the other person wants, he or she will stop you. Many dating guides even stress that this gradual approach will often lull a partner into doing more than if you’d started by asking bluntly.

The guides are probably right. But that doesn’t change the fact that it’s bad. If you’re trying to be a good human, the goal shouldn’t be to trick people, using passion or momentum or the exigencies of the moment, into sharing physical affection.

(Although the dating guides don’t usually mention “sharing,” or even “physical affection.” The word “conquest” is more common. Trickery does seem more reasonable if you frame the whole dance as an adversarial interaction between the two parties. But that’s a rotten way to live.)

lg00691Indeed, most of my collegiate relationships began with watching a movie with someone, gradually snuggling during the film, then, with a turned face and a smile, kissing. No words.

I pretty clearly failed at being a good human. I followed that same wordless progression with someone who was not interested. I did apologize … eventually. As in, years later. Not until I’d read a depressingly large number of books and research articles about violence against women as part of research for my book. I realized that I, too, was part of the problem.

Sure, I stopped when she said “No thanks.” But the onus of uncomfortable speech shouldn’t be placed on the person who wants to do less than the other. Speaking up is hard. In a way, I was lucky in that I was attracted to someone confident enough to say “No,” because I’d probably feel worse about myself now if things had gone on and I learned only later that it wasn’t what she wanted.

The frequency of serial offense certainly suggests that much if not most sexual assault is perpetrated by predators intending to pressure their victims into unwanted behavior … but a culture in which everybody acts wordlessly makes their predation easier. My own collegiate behavior was abetting them.

Whoops.

So, I’m all for the “ask first” campaigns. Underwear with “ask first” printed on them — great! I should’ve been talking more beforehand. Everyone should be.

ask_first2

 

But that’s not what the actual words “Consent Is Sexy” convey. This slogan means something like, “Saying ‘Yes’ Is Sexy.” And that’s not really a message that people need. There’s already quite a bit of cultural pressure toward sexuality. I don’t think the best way to fix things is a slogan that, subconsciously at the very least, conveys that sexy people agree, sexy people submit, sexy people say yes.

Sexy people ask. Growing up, I didn’t. This was rotten. I should’ve done better.

But, look, saying “No” is sexy, too. Sometimes you’re just not interested. And that’s fine!