On vengeance and Ahmed Saadawi’s ‘Frankenstein in Baghdad.’

On vengeance and Ahmed Saadawi’s ‘Frankenstein in Baghdad.’

We are composite creatures, the edifice of our minds perched atop accumulated strata of a lifetime of memories.  Most people, I imagine, have done wrong; remembrance of our lapses is part of who we are.  And most of us have been hurt; those grievances also shape our identities.

We struggle to be good, despite having been born into an amoral universe and then subjected to innumerable slights or traumas as we aged.

Goodness is a nebulous concept, however.  There’s no external metric that indicates what we should do.  For instance: if we are subject to an injustice, is it better to forgive or to punish the transgressor?

There are compelling arguments for both sides, and for each position you could base your reasoning on philosophy, psychology, physiology, evolutionary biology …

Intellect and reasoning can’t identify what we should do.

A wide variety of cooperative species will swiftly and severely punish transgressions in order to maintain social order.  Misbehavior among naked mole rats is generally resolved through bullying and violence, which ensures the colony does not lapse into decadence.  (As with humans, shared adversity like hunger generally compels threat-free cooperation.)

Archaeologists suggest that the belief in vengeful gods was coupled to the development of complex human societies.  The Code of Hammurabi prescribed immediate, brutal retribution for almost any misdeed.

The compulsion to punish people who have hurt us arises from deep within our brains.

But punishment invites further punishment.  Every act of revenge can lead to yet another act of revenge – the Hatfield and McCoy families carried on their feud for nearly thirty years.

Punishment is fueled by anger, and anger poisons our bodies.  On a purely physiological level, forgiving others allows us to heal.  The psychological benefits seem to be even more pronounced.

But forgiveness is hard.  Sometimes people do terrible things.  After her mother was killed, my spouse had to spend her entire afternoon prep period on the phone with a family member and the prosecutor, convincing them not to seek the death penalty.

The attack had been recorded by security cameras.  Apparently it was horrifying to watch.  The assailant’s defense lawyer stated publicly that it was “the most provable murder case I have ever seen.

And incidents in which dark-skinned men hurt white women are precisely those for which prosecutors typically seek the death penalty; after my mother-in-law’s death, the only national news sites that wrote about the case were run by far-right white supremacists trying to incite more hatred and violence toward innocent black people.  (I’m including no links to these, obviously.)

At the time, I was working on a series of poems about teaching in jail. 

Correction (pt. ii)

My wife’s mother was murdered Saturday –

outside at four a.m., scattering birdseed,

smoking a cigarette, shucking schizophrenic

nothings into the unlistening air.

Then a passing man tossed off a punch,

knocking her to the ground.

He stomped upon her skull

till there was no more her

within that battered brain.

Doctors intubated the corpse &

kept it oxygenated by machine,

monitoring each blip of needless heart

for days

until my wife convinced

a charitable neurologist

to let the mindless body rest.

That same afternoon

I taught another class in jail

for men who hurt someone else’s mother,

daughter, or son.

The man who murdered,

privacy-less New York inmate #14A4438

with black hair & brown eyes,

had been to prison twice,

in 2002 & 2014,

caught each time

with paltry grams of crack cocaine.

Our man received a massive dose

of state-sponsored therapy:

nine years of penitence.

Nearly a decade of correction.

Does Victor Frankenstein share the blame

for the murders of his creation,

the man he quicked but did not love?

Or can we walk into a maternity ward

and point:

that one, nursing now, will be a beast.

Are monsters born or made?

My mother-in-law is dead, & our man is inside again,

apprehended after “spontaneous utterances,”

covered in blood, photographed with

a bandage between his eyes.

And we, in our mercy,

will choose whether

our creation

deserves

to die.

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Victor Frankenstein becoming disgusted at his creation. Fronts-piece to the 1831 edition.

I have always stood firmly on the side of Frankenstein’s creation.  Yes, he began to kill, but misanthropy was thrust upon him.  The creature was ethical and kind at first, but the rest of the world ruthlessly mistreated him.  Victor Frankenstein abandoned him in the laboratory; he befriended a blind man, but then the man’s children chased him away.

Victor Frankenstein’s fiancée did not deserve to be strangled – except insofar as we share blame for the crimes of those we love – but I understand the wellspring of the creature’s rage.

In Ahmed Saadawi’s Frankenstein in Baghdad, a junk dealer’s attempt to honor the anonymous victims of Iraq’s many bombings gives rise to a spirit of vengeance.  The junk dealer acts upon a grisly idea – most victims could not receive proper funerals because their bodies were scattered or incinerated by the blasts.  But what if many stray pieces were collected?  An charred arm from Tuesday’s explosion; a ribcage and lower jawbone from Wednesday’s; two different victims’ legs from Thursday’s.  The city is so wracked by violence that there are plenty of body parts to choose from.  And then the junk dealer could take his creation to the police and say, Look!  Here is a body, victim of the attacks.  Here is a dead man we can honor properly.

In truth, the junk dealer’s plan was never terribly well thought out.  Once he completes the corpse, he realizes that using his creation as a locus for lamentation would be no better than all the empty coffins.

And then the corpse springs to life, seeking vengeance on any and all who wronged its component parts.  In the creature’s words (as translated by Jonathan Wright):

“My list of people to seek revenge on grew longer as my old body parts fell off and my assistants added parts from my new victims, until one night I realized that under these circumstances I would face an open-ended list of targets that would never end.

“Time was my enemy, because there was never enough of it to accomplish my mission, and I started hoping that the killing in the streets would stop, cutting off my supply of victims and allowing me to melt away.

“But the killing had only begun.  At least that’s how it seemed from the balconies in the building I was living in, as dead bodies littered the streets like rubbish.”

Soon, the creature realizes that the people he attacks are no different from the dead victims that he is composed of.  He can chase after the terrorist organizations that orchestrate suicide bombings, but the people in those organizations are also seeking revenge for their dead allies.  The chain of causality is so tangled that no one is clearly responsible.

Car bombing in Baghdad. Image from Wikimedia.

United States forces have been inadvertently killing innocent civilians ever since invading Iraq … an attack that was launched in retribution for the actions of a small group of Afghani terrorists.

Some people thought that this sounded reasonable at the time.

To seek vengeance, we need someone to blame.  But who should I blame for my mother-in-law’s death?  The man who assaulted her?  That’s certainly the conclusion that the white supremacist news sites want me to reach.  But I sincerely doubt that this poor man would have hurt her if a prosecutor hadn’t ripped him from his friends and family, condemning him to ten years within the nightmarish violence of America’s prisons, all for participating in a small-scale version of the exact same economic transaction that allowed Merck to become a $160-billion-dollar valued company.

Do I blame the racist white legislators who imposed such draconian punishments on the possession of the pure amine form of cocaine, all while celebrating their pale-skinned buddies who snerked up the hydrochloride salt form?

Do I blame myself?  As a citizen of this country – a wealthy citizen, no less, showered with un-earned privilege – I am complicit in the misfortunes that my nation imposes on others.  Even when I loathe the way this nation acts, by benefiting from its sins, I too share responsibility.

I have inherited privilege … which means that I also deserve to inherit blame, even for horrors perpetrated well before I was born.

Forgiveness is hard, but revenge would send us chasing an endless cycle of complicity.  The creature in Frankenstein in Baghdad is flummoxed:

In his mind he still had a long list of the people he was supposed to kill, and as fast as the list shrank it was replenished with new names, making avenging these lives an endless task.  Or maybe he would wake up one day to discover that there was no one left to kill, because the criminals and the victims were entangled in a way that was more complicated than ever before.

“There are no innocents who are completely innocent or criminals who are completely criminal.”  This sentence drilled its way into his head like a bullet out of the blue.  He stood in the middle of the street and looked up at the sky, waiting for the final moment when he would disintegrate into his original components.  This was the realization that would undermine his mission – because every criminal he had killed was also a victim.  The victim proportion in some of them might even be higher than the criminal proportion, so he might inadvertently be made up of the most innocent parts of the criminals’ bodies.

“There are no innocents who are completely innocent or criminals who are completely criminal.”

Header image: an illustration of Frankenstein at work in his laboratory.

On the value of religious misinterpretation.

On the value of religious misinterpretation.

David Kishik begins his lovely theological meditation The Book of Shem by pondering the inverted grammar that opens Genesis.  Instead of a typical subject verb direct object construction, the first sentence of the original Hebrew text is arranged adverb verb subject direct object.

Wrote Kishik, “This is an odd grammatical construction, not only in English (compare ‘Yesterday walked Joseph’) but also in Hebrew.”  Odd, although not totally outlandish.

Kishik questions whether the grammar was actually strange, however.  What if the book of Genesis opens with a perfectly normal sentence that is intended to convey a bizarre idea, instead.  The first word, which everyone presumes to be an adverb, might instead refer to a power above even Yahweh himself (“Bereshit” in Hebrew, commonly rendered as “In the beginning” in English). 

We would have something like:

InTheBeginning created (a) god, the heavens and the earth.

It seems implausible that Kishik, or anyone, would consider this translation to be what the original authors of Genesis intended.  Even if the translation itself were more plausible, this interpretation is divorced from the actual religious practices that treat Genesis as a foundational text.  Religions use the book, but no religion is defined by a text alone.

It might seem bizarre for InTheBeginning, the mysterious pre-civilized force, to be mentioned only once, at the moment when he creates our Lord.  But Kishik pursues this idea through an entire arc of environmentally-conscious speculation.  If InTheBeginning created Yahweh, then Yahweh’s formidable jealousy becomes comprehensible.  We can understand why Yahweh might compulsively, almost tic-ishly, appraise the quality of his own creations: … and God saw that it was good.

Kishik begins by misinterpreting Genesis, but this allows him to make interesting discoveries along the way.  He concludes that, just as InTheBeginning was a pre-human, pre-lingual force able to create God, there must be a symmetrical post-human, post-textual void for the world to return to.  Although God made a covenant (Genesis 9:11) promising not to destroy the planet, He does not possess total control.

God will not kill us.  But he may not be able to save us.  We humans might destroy this world ourselves.

Indeed, we’re well on our way.

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I was raised in a mostly secular household, and I’m still wary of mysticism (despite my own belief in free will).  I’m quite obviously an outsider to every religious tradition.  But religions shape the way most humans approach the world, so it behooves all people, myself included, to learn and think deeply about them.

Even outsiders must occasionally appropriate the right to critique these texts.

It’s important to understand their standard interpretations.  But, even from the perspective of an outsider, a lot of nuance can be revealed through assiduous misinterpretation.

Kishik’s The Book of Shem, although obviously nonstandard, is an enlightening, pleasurable read.

Or consider John-Michael Bloomquist’s “The Prodigal’s Return,” a poem about teaching in jail, which includes the line:

                  I think Christ died for us

to forgive his father, who until he became a man

and dwelt among us had no way of knowing

what it was like to be Job


In the standard interpretation, Jesus was sacrificed so that God would forgive us humans.  This is a very traditional myth, with variants told by many human cultures across the globe.  Wrathful deities must be appeased through the intentional, unwarranted sacrifice of something good. 

In The Iliad, the Acheans praise Zeus by slitting the throats of a whole row of young men kneeling in the sand.  Abraham bound his son on the mountaintop; the boy survived that day, but a lot of the story’s power comes from the original audience knowing that this sort of sacrifice was common.  They would have realized how close Abraham came to plunging down the knife.  There are numerous stories about the need to murder beautiful virgins to appease volcanoes, or to ensure good harvests, or to bring back rain.

Even though Jesus’s sacrifice makes sense within the framework of traditional mythology, it seems jarring within the context of Christianity, which purports to worship a kind, merciful god.

Within Christianity, it actually makes more sense for God to incarnate himself and suffer greatly so that we humans would forgive Him.  He created this world, and this world causes us to hurt.  Until He feels some of the hurt that He has subjected us to, his apologies would seem insincere.

Loneliness, hopelessness – God subjected Job to these in order to win a bet.  He subjects nearly all humans to these travails as a matter of universal design.  He needs to know the cost that we pay.

After hanging from the cross, He could look to Job and say, I understand how you might have felt.

This is not what the original authors wanted the Bible to convey.  But we’d have a better world if it were.

John-Michael soon learned that being inside a jail – even as a visitor, there to read poetry for ninety minutes and then leave – was miserable.  But he kept going for an entire year.  The people in jail are suffering on behalf of all U.S. citizens – which meant, on his behalf – so he needed to suffer too.

Psychiatry students were once encouraged to ingest many different medications, so that they would understand what the compounds they’d prescribe felt like.

Shared experience – especially painful experience – can bring us together.

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The author(s) of the Ramayana intended for Rama to be the greatest possible man.  Within their philosophical framework, Rama is unambiguously good.  The story is a triumph of the hero.

But it’s helpful to look at the myth with modern eyes and willfully misinterpret it.  When we read the story now, Rama seems flawed because his world was flawed.

Near the end of Rama’s saga his path is blocked by the ocean.  His wife is held captive on an island kingdom; Rama feels helpless, trapped on the shore.  And so he threatens violence against the very waters:

Now, launching a powerful assault, I shall with my arrows dry up the ocean together with its fish and sea monsters and its masses of conch and oyster shells.

This lord of the ocean, abode of sea monsters, thinks that, because I am endowed with forbearance, I am weak.  To hell with forbearance for people like this!

Fetch my bow and my arrows, which are like venomous serpents, for now in my fury I shall convulse the imperturbable ocean.

This passage was translated collaboratively by Robert Goldman, Sally Sutherland Goldman, & Barend Nooten.  And it is troubling to see Rama, the ideal man, threaten physical violence to ensure that the world conforms to his desires.  Goldman and Goldman include the following footnote:

This episode, in its rendition by Tulsi Das, is the setting for his famous verse about how certain things and creatures, including sudras and women, only perform when beaten.  This verse has been the subject of critique and controversy among members of the women’s movement and Dalit advocacy groups in contemporary India.

If we castigate Rama for his words, we are clearly misinterpreting the text.  Rama is good within the text, because this behavior was good within his world.  A man, head of the household, was allowed to beat his wife or servants if they did not meet his expectations.  

Most people would find it difficult to read Rudyard Kipling’s “White Man’s Burden” with a straight face now.  But, in another revealing misinterpretation, proponents of the Dravidar Kazhagam movement have found parallels between the Ramayana itself and a Kipling-esque tale of colonial conquest and oppression.  In the Ramayana, light-skinned north Indians execute a south Indian king, subjugate the local populace, and install their own ruler.  (I’ve written about this interpretation previously, here.)

Hinduism itself, along with the oppressions of the caste system, seems to have reached south India in this way.  The original conquest probably occurred around the time that the Ramayana was composed, although the spread of Hinduism was not yet complete even many centuries of years later, when Kipling’s British white men arrived to make matters even worse.

In Ants Among Elephants, Sujatha Gidla writes that:

When I asked my mother and my uncle about our ancestors, they started with their grandparents’ generation, the earliest one they’d known.

Their grandfather and grandmother were born in the late 1800s in the Khammam district, within what later became the state of Andhra Pradesh, where they lived as part of a nomadic clan.  Their clan did not practice agriculture.  They subsisted on fruits, on roots, on honey, on whatever they could catch or snare.  They were not Hindus.  They worshiped their own tribal goddesses and had little to do with society outside the forest where they lived.

When the British cleared the forests for teak plantations, my great-grandparents’ clan was driven out onto the plains, where the civilized people, the settled ones, the ones who owned land and knew how to cultivate it – in a word, the Hindus – lived.  The little clan, wandering outside the forest, found a great lake and settled around it.  There was no sign of human life for miles and miles.  They took up farming.  The land around the lake was fertile and gave them more than they needed.  They called their new settlement Sankarapadu, after one of their gods.

But soon the civilized people took notice of them.  They were discovered by an agent of the local zamindar – the great landlord appointed by the British to collect revenue in that area – who saw the rice growing in their fields and levied taxes, keeping the bulk of what he extracted for himself.

But that was not enough for this agent.  He and his family and his caste people moved nearby and set about stealing the land by force and by cunning.  They loaned the clansmen trivial sums at usurious rates to buy small necessities such as salt, seeds, or new clothes for a wedding.  Unable to pay off these debts, the villagers gave up their land acre by acre.  My ancestors, who had cleared and settled the area, were reduced to working on their old fields as laborers.

This is what has happened to tribal peoples in India who try to settle down and cultivate land since time immemorial.  It still happens to this day.  What set Sankarapadu apart was that the Hindus who usurped all the fields around it did not settle there themselves.  That’s because the village is surrounded by fetid swamps filled with poisonous snakes, scorpions, and thick swarms of mosquitoes.  The landlords settled on safe and elevated ground several miles away in a village called Polukonda.

In the forest, my great-grandfather’s clan had had no caste.  But in Hindu society everyone is assigned a place in the caste system.  Certain castes traditionally own land, and others have to work for those who do.  For those who must work, the caste you are born into determines the kind of work you do.  There are priestly castes, carpenter castes, potter castes, barber castes.  The more impure a caste’s traditional occupation in terms of ritual law, the lower its status.

When the people of Sankarapadu entered Hindu society with no caste of their own and the most impure occupation of all, that of landless laborers, there was no question where their place would be: at the bottom, as despised outcastes.  Outcastes are also called untouchables because they are supposed to be so ritually unclean that the slightest contact with them will defile even low-caste Hindus.  Untouchables cannot share meals with others, much less intermarry with them, and are made to live apart from the rest of the village in a segregated colony on its outskirts.  Sankarapadu became the untouchable colony of Polukonda, albeit an unusually remote on.

The Ramayana was not meant to be a story of oppression.  But this misinterpretation has value, because it helps us understand the widespread biases of the author’s world — biases that persist to this day and still cause horrific suffering and violence.

Anachronistic critique will invariably lead us to misinterpret religious texts.  That shouldn’t stop us.  I’m curious to know what the old stories would mean if the world were as good as it could be.

On drinking.

On drinking.

In our poetry classes, we’ve had a lot of guys doing time or awaiting trial for domestic.  As you might expect, their troubles are often wrapped up with alcohol.  Nobody wants to think of himself as the kind of dude who’d hit his partner, but booze saps self-control.  Sober, we feel angry; drunk, we lash out.

Screen Shot 2018-05-24 at 7.20.19 PMWe began a recent class with Dave Johnson’s “Dave Gibson Makes His Way Down.”  Johnson teaches poetry in probation office waiting rooms, and he cares deeply about the ways so many of us struggle to be good.  His poem opens with the line,

image         Seven Sundays in a row he fell

         on his knees at the altar

         of Rocky Creek Presbyterian.

Each week, the protagonist of Johnson’s poem slips again.  He drinks then he repents.  At church, he’s “shaking his head / crying for forgiveness.”  But everyone knows that it won’t last, until one day his wife has had enough.  He staggered home drunk; she sewed him up inside a rug.

         And she beat him blue.  He swore he’d never

         drink anymore, and she beat him.

         And then he swore he’d go to church every Sunday.

         And she still beat him.

         He told her he’d love her forever.

         She kept on.

         And he said he’d repent.  She beat him harder.

         And he said he wanted to die.

         She beat him.

         And he said he’d never repent again.

         She stopped.

A man in class – back inside after only nine days out because he drank the night before a visit with his parole officer – hung his head.  “I should send this to my wife,” he said.  “I’m always telling her, I’ll stop, I’ll stop.  But then I hit that bottle.”

Apologizing isn’t enough.  We have to make sure we won’t apologize again.  “Sorry” doesn’t mean much if you have to say it again and again.

And, yes, it’s still mind boggling to me that MDMA and psilocybin – two low-risk chemicals that can help turn somebody’s life around – are illegal whereas alcohol, one of the world’s most dangerous drugs, is openly shilled with flashy television ads.

waterThen we read two poems by Raymond Carver.  “Woolworth’s 1954” has long been a favorite of mine – a man slips into reverie while he’s out walking with a buddy and the buddy’s young kids.  The man thinks about when he “was sixteen, working / for six bits an hour” as a stockboy in a department store.  An older man was training him; Carver writes,

        Most important memory

         of that whole time: opening

         the cartons of women’s lingerie.

         Underpants, and soft, clingy things

         like that.  Taking it out

         of cartons by the handful.  Something

         sweet and mysterious about those

         things even then.  Sol called it

         “linger-ey.”  “Linger-ey?”

         What did I know?  I called it

         that for a while, too.  “Linger-ey.”

Poets play with the difference between private and public language.  Some words mean almost the same thing no matter who hears them.  When I write “of,” chances are there are few strong associations in your mind that would cause you to misinterpret my intent.

But many words feel very different from one person to the next.  When the New York Times printed poems alongside photographs they inspired last summer, I brought them in to jail.  I had no idea that a line from Ada Limon’s “What It Looks Like to Us and the Words We Use” would jolt the men out of reading.

         And how we stood there,

         low beasts among the white oaks, Spanish moss,

         and spider webs, obsidian shards stuck in our pockets

But “shard” is slang for methamphetamine, apparently, and once the idea of meth has wormed into their brains, it’s hard to shake away.  That’s the whole problem with addiction. 

Blue_Crystal_Meth
A shard of crystal (in this case, meth).

For Carver, the private meaning of “lingerie” is safer.

        Then I got older.  Quit being

         a stockboy.  Started pronouncing

         that frog word right.

         I knew what I was talking about!

         Went to taking girls out

         in hopes of touching that softness,

         slipping down those underpants.

         And sometimes it happened.  God,

         they let me.  And they were

         linger-ey, those underpants.

         They tended to linger a little

         sometimes, as they slipped down 

Raymond_CarverCarver thinks back to those bright early years, when everything felt charged with possibility.  Dangerous, but navigable.  Undergarments “kicked free / onto the floor of the car and / forgotten about.  Until you had / to look for them.

But his past is gone.  He’s grown up, made mistakes, worked crummy jobs and started drinking.  He has more freedoms now – a house to take dates to, instead of fumbling in the car – and yet fewer possibilities.  Those women he knew have grown up too; they have families and responsibilities.  Or they’ve died.  Some of us find less luck than others. 

Carver is left lamenting his mistakes, knowing that some things he’ll never fix.

Then we read Carver’s “Fear.”  One man read the first half of the poem, but when he reached the line “Fear of my children’s handwriting on envelopes”, he paused, blinked, started again, and found he had no voice.  We sat in silence for about ten seconds, then he said, “Yeah, that one got me.  Somebody else is gonna have to read the rest of this.”

He was too broke for bail and had spent almost a year inside (waiting on a case that would wind up dismissed when the witnesses didn’t show), and each week said something to me about his daughter, seven years old, living a state away, whom he hadn’t seen in years.  On his good days, he’d tell me, “When I get out, I’m gonna get myself on a bus, go up and see her.”

On his bad days, he’d say, “I don’t know if she’s gonna want to see me.  Cause it’s been years, you know?”

After reading the poem, I thought we’d use “Fear” as a writing prompt.  “Jot down five things,” I said.  “What are you afraid of?” 

This was a terrible writing prompt.

Seriously.  Only two people wrote anything (“I’m afraid of being killed by an ex / I’m afraid of dying broke / I’m afraid of dying alone”).  It can’t feel safe to write about your fears in jail. 

Mea culpa.

But some of what the guys said while telling me that they couldn’t write was heartbreaking.  Like the guy with the seven-year-old daughter he wanted to visit:

I’m afraid that when they let me out I’m not gonna want to go, cause I’ll have forgotten how to live any place but here.

Or another guy, who said that his first grandchild was born while he was stuck there.

The only thing I’m scared of is that I’m gonna drink again and my daughter won’t let me see my grandkid.  Because she says that if I get back to drinking, she won’t let me around.  I’m an alcoholic, and I’m a mean alcoholic.

And yet, the week before he left, he told me, “When I get out, first thing I’m gonna do, I’m gonna walk down to that liquor store and buy myself a beer.”

At the end of class I told him, “I don’t have anything against drugs, you know.  But some of us, some drugs, we just don’t mix well.  So I wish you’d go, maybe buy that grandkid a present, go down to see her instead of buying yourself a drink.”

“I know, I know … but it’s something I told myself, to get me through this time here.  That I’d get out, and when I got out, I’d get to have a beer.”

“I mean, if it’s just one …” I said.

“Yeah, but I’m an alcoholic.”

 

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 undeserved forgiveness and global warming.

CaptureI wish there were more essays focused on philosophy in Freeman Dyson’s collection Dreams of Earth and Sky.  I thought all his remarks on morals and philosophy were nuanced and compelling.  His essay “Rocket Man,” for instance, is very powerful.  This essay discusses Wernher von Braun, a German scientist who helped develop Nazi weaponry during WW2 and was later hired by the government of the United States for our space program.

Many people felt betrayed that the U.S. would hire Von Braun after his participation in evil.  He aided in the war effort, sure, but more damningly he knew about and did not resist Nazi atrocities — slave labor under brutal conditions was used for the program he led.  And yet, after the war ended, he was allowed to pursue his dream of launching humankind into space.

Dyson, in articulating his philosophical stance, describes his own contribution to atrocity during that conflict: the bombing of civilian Dresden.  To me, this acknowledgement of personal culpability lends a lot of power to his reasoning.  He knows that, if Germany had won the war, it could’ve been him rather than Von Braun who was condemned as a war criminal.

With that in mind, here is Dyson’s stance:

“In order to make a lasting peace, we must learn to live with our enemies and forgive their crimes.  Amnesty means that we are all equal before the law.  Amnesty is not easy and not fair, but it is a moral necessity, because the alternative is an unending cycle of hatred and revenge.”

One of the t-shirts I rotate through while volunteering with the local running teams is an Amnesty International shirt given to me by my sister.  It has the text an eye for an eye leaves the whole world blind along with a cartoon schematic of two faces with an x-ed out eye each that overlap Venn-diagram-style to yield a fully-blind Earth.  So, sure, I’m predisposed toward excessive mercy.  I do realize that the human brain is wired to desire vengeance: seeing bad behavior punished helps us resolve lingering malaise, especially when the initial bad actions were perpetrated against ourselves or those we love.

But it’s hard, the idea of balancing retribution and forgiveness.  I’ll write more about my own conflicting views on vengeance when I finally type out an essay on Jon Krakauer’s Missoula — despite my hippie-esque views on the potential for rehabilitation and redemption, the way Krakauer’s book is written it’s hard not to root for the perpetrator in the book’s central case to receive the harsh punishment that the victim’s family is pushing for (I know, I know… I already posted an essay about Missoula and didn’t discuss this at all.  It’s always difficult knowing how many bleak thoughts I can cram into a piece before it becomes unreadable). 

Or, from more recent developments in the news — even though I’m a runner, and with numerous marathoners amongst my friends and family, I don’t feel good about the mentally-ill kid being condemned to death (I suppose this isn’t recent anymore, not by the time this will be posted.  And it’s odd for me, re-reading this now — a lot of people are upset that major news outlets have speculated about the sanity of the terrorist who murdered all those people in South Carolina but didn’t extend the same doubts to the terrorist who murdered & maimed all those people in Boston.  Whereas I think it’s pretty clear that perpetrators of both crimes were not getting the psychological support they needed). 

My main objections to the death penalty are related to the fact that our judicial system is so broken.  Coerced confessions and planted evidence have been used to condemn many innocent people to death [http://www.innocenceproject.org/].  That’s not the case here — the kid is guilty.  The magnitude of suffering he inflicted means he should probably never be set free.  But I think you could reasonably argue that life imprisonment would be more effective deterrence against further terrorism than the death penalty / martyrdom.  The death penalty ensures that the case will return to national prominence at least one more time [http://www.bostonglobe.com/metro/2015/04/16/end-anguish-drop-death-penalty/ocQLejp8H2vesDavItHIEN/story.html].  And I think there’s something to be said for rising above the brutality of others.

Even though it’s unsettling, I think Dyson’s philosophical stance on this type of issue is admirable.  And the way he reasons toward it in his essay is compelling.  His piece culminates with this thought:

“In the end, the amnesty given to [Von Braun] by the United States did far more than a strict accounting of his misdeeds could have done to redeem his soul and fulfill his destiny.”

But even though I enjoyed the philosophical essays in Dyson’s book, and always enjoy personal narratives from scientists who were friends and colleagues with the founders of quantum mechanics, the essays grounded in biology often seemed strange to me.  I wrote previously about my nonplussed reaction to Dyson’s comments on plants, photosynthesis, and evolution.  The points he raises in his essay “The Question of Global Warming” seemed equally confusing.

Capture
Graph of recent carbon dioxide averages.  See more at the ESRL home page.

The basic issue is this: Dyson presents a graph from the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration that shows atmospheric carbon dioxide versus time.  There’s an overall positive slope, and that’s what everyone thinks is bad, but there are also annual wiggles up and down.  Dyson interprets these wiggles as indicating that plant growth each year (primarily during spring and summer) takes up approximately 5-10 ppm of carbon dioxide per year, and then plant decomposition (in fall and winter) releases most of that back into the atmosphere.

Dyson then uses these numbers to approximate a residence time for any one molecule of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere — since this is a random process, the most sensible measure to use is the half-life, the length of time at which there is a 50% chance that our chosen molecule has been incorporated into a plant.  The number he comes up with is 12 years, which sounds very low.  Even if you make very generous assumptions, like 10 ppm being taken up each year, selected from a total of 300 ppm, you’ll get a half-life equal to [ log (0.5) / log ( 29 / 30 ) ], which is over 20 years.

Then there’s an addendum in which Dyson explains that his number comes from uptake without replacement.  My calculation above is based on choosing 10 ppm one year, then letting a year pass, plants decompose, there are again 300 ppm to choose from next year.  Whereas Dyson bases his calculations on the idea that we would develop genetically-modified plants to trap carbon, so the first year you’re choosing 10 ppm out of 300, the next year 10 out of 290, the next year 10 out of 280…

I have two objections to this.

The first is about math: is half-life is still a useful number to measure under this regime?  If you’re hoovering up carbon dioxide, wouldn’t you rather deal with the arithmetic number that tells you how many years it will take to get atmospheric levels down to where you want them?  In other words, just measure how much needs to go away, how much you can get rid of per year, and divide the two.  Who would care about the identities of each particular molecule if you were solving the problem that way?

CaptureAnd my second objection is related to ecology: even if you develop one or more fancy new varietals of carbon-trapping plants, why would you postulate no replacement of atmospheric carbon dioxide?  Unless the plan is to raze all our existing plantlife, bury it, and replace everything with the new species (even though I’m pro-GM plants, this sounds a bit unwise to me), every winter will bring more rot.  Our old plants will behave the same.

While I appreciate Dyson’s point that global warming is a very complicated question, and that it’s extremely upsetting for a trained scientist to hear dogmatic claims about deadlines and thresholds when it’s clear that atmospheric science is sufficiently complex that no one really understands what is or will be happening, I think he does these nuanced views a disservice by pairing them with concretely-stated, specious biological claims of his own.

Yes, global warming is not well understood.  Yes, economic discounting (valuing a cost you have to pay now to fix something more highly than a cost you’d have to pay later) is appropriate to use: we might have fancy new technologies to help us by then, or might have triggered a new international conflict that kills us all.  Discounting is an appropriate mathematical tool to help us plan for uncertainty.

But I would have been much happier to see Dyson make these points without invoking seemingly-unworkable schemes, because I think the strange details distract from a lot of the really good philosophical points he makes.