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


to die.


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 memory (part 2).

Read part 1 here.

Note: not the actual wedding I attended.
Note: not the actual wedding I attended.

Midway through spring, we found ourselves in Chicago for a wedding.  K was asked to be best man, and since N was (is) still breastfeeding, she and I had to tag along.  I’m not a big fan of weddings, but I did sneak in a lovely conversation with the groom’s younger brother.

He, the younger brother, is an artist (music, film, theater) who recently started working on a degree in journalism.  During our chat he mentioned that he’d become interested in memory after a traumatic head injury — he found it fascinating / alarming that there is a gap in his own mental records for the swath of time before and after that incident.  I didn’t ask, but it’s possible this incident inspired his foray into journalism; I can imagine written records taking on a newfound importance for someone subject to an involuntary lesson in the fragility of biological memory.

Part of why I don’t care much for weddings is the perpetual bustle — it’s hard to finish a good conversation because there’s always something else about to happen, somewhere else you’re supposed to be standing.  Next time, perhaps, if we remember, we can finish talking about this.

One thing he did have time to say, though, was: “Memories are physical things, right?  They exist in your brain.  I was wondering whether someone could analyze a brain and learn what memories are there.”

I rattled off only a partial answer before he was whisked away for photographs.  My answer, as it happens, was incorrect as to the current state-of-the-art for mind reading — I’d recently seen this press release titled “Scientists crack piece of neural code for learning, memory.”  After reading it, I had the impression that the group was able to visually inspect a region of the brain and know which of two memories had been encoded, either if you hear a high-pitched sound, move right or a similar memory instructing a rat to move left instead.

3461234232_19b63c79d7_oWhich seemed believable to me; yes, that’s a very hard problem, but if the group was investigating only a single, simple type of memory, one that was always stored in the same part of the brain, and was attempting to differentiate between only two choices… well, yes, it still seemed difficult, but at least they’d know where to look.  The impression I have is that data recovery from crashed computer hard drives is difficult primarily because any given piece of information might be stored in a variety of places, and that the major calamity isn’t usually that your documents, pictures, etc. are lost, but that the pointers, the addresses for where each document, picture, etc. is stored, are lost.

And computers are devices we designed!  Attempting to recover data from a brain, a system in which we don’t really know what the data would look like even if we knew where it was, sounds many orders of magnitude more difficult.

Still, I’d read that press release and thought one tiny piece of the puzzle had been solved.  That post-mortem visual inspection could unveil one particular binary known-to-be-present memory.

I was wrong.

Before typing this post, I downloaded the actual paper (Xiong et al.’s “Selective corticostriatal plasticity during acquisition of an auditory discrimination task,” although I should warn you that it isn’t open access) and attempted to puzzle through what they’d done.  I’m still shaky on the details, so my apologies if I make any mistakes in this ensuing description.

A flat slice of some poor rat’s brain showing the auditory cortex.

They modified a small population of brain cells to respond to light.  After shining light on these cells, they recorded the responses in another part of the brain — the cells in your brain look something like squids, with a head region that collects signals and tentacles that reach out to send those signals somewhere else, and as best we know memories are encoded through the pattern of linkages between those squids… er, cells — as a measure of the link between those brain regions.

After training a rat to move left when it heard a high-pitched sound, they expected the cells in a “we respond to high pitches” brain region to have stronger connections to / more & more powerful tentacles reaching into the “we move left” brain region.  And, yup, while they were training each rat they took occasional breaks to shine light onto the modified cells, and they did observe stronger signals in the “move left” brain region.

They could also distinguish between a brain slice from a dead rat that had been trained to associate “high-pitch / move left” from one that had been trained to move right with the same strategy: shine light on the pitch recognition region, look at signal in the movement region.

My mistake, then, was thinking they could assess synaptic strength visually — I thought they were inspecting brain slices under a microscope to determine what memory was there.  Their measure for signal strength was “local field potential,” though, which sums the contributions of many cells… so it seems possible that they could have arduously traced out the tentacles from each cell in their pitch region to see how many were reaching into each movement region.  Which would obviously be a huge pain — the brain is messy, and those tentacles are very small — but it seems feasible.

And, sure, I hadn’t realized they were using rats whose neurons were modified via viral infection… although it seems like visual assessment could be done using unmodified cells.  With the caveat being, of course, that making a 3D model showing all the outcroppings of every cell in even a small region of the brain would be incredibly difficult.

Anyway, this seems to be the current state of the art for learning what memories were stored in the brain of a deceased rat.  For humans, we can do even less.  If you happen to have a few heinous memories tucked away, don’t worry; if you die soon, those memories will die with you.

Of course, these fields are advancing all the time.  If you take too long to die, all bets are off.


GolgiStainedPyramidalCellp.s. Synaptic strength isn’t just a measure of the number of tentacles… to elaborate on our metaphor, those tentacles also froth forth with little bubbles of neurotransmitters, and the quantity of those waiting bubbles can change, the density of receptors on the next cell in line can change, etc., and all those changes (and more!) seem to play a role in memory formation.  A perfect 3D map of where each neuron’s axons reach to, where each neuron’s dendrites are grasping from, wouldn’t be enough.

And even if we could obtain all that, a full list of every synaptic strength, we’d still have to puzzle out what all the information means.  How do those connections result in an image of your grandmother’s basement?  A narrative of your youth?  No one knows.  So your horrible secrets will probably be safe even if you die a very long time from now.  Unless you forget to burn your diary.  Then future sleuths could simply bypass your encrypted brain.  And wouldn’t you feel silly!