On power and species.

On power and species.

At track practice, a pair of high school runners were arguing.  Knowing that I’ve completed twenty-two years of schooling, they figured I could resolve their debate.

“Coach Brown, who would win in a fight, Superman or The Hulk?”

I stared at them blankly.  I knew a bit about Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, which helps to understand The Hulk, but I’d never read a Superman comic.  Superman didn’t sound like an interesting hero: he seemed too powerful.  Even The Hulk is more interesting within the context of a complex campaign, when he might become enraged and wreck his own plans, than in a single fight.

I failed to provide an answer, and the kids went back to arguing.  (“Superman could just turn back time to before The Hulk got enraged, then smash him!”) 

And I resolved to read a Superman book, to shore up this gap in my education.  Astounding, isn’t it, that Stanford would allow me to graduate without knowing anything about the paragon of the DC universe?

I chose Grant Morrison’s All-Star Superman.  And was pleasantly surprised – although Superman is indeed too powerful for the risk of danger to provide narrative tension, he’s still sad.  He doesn’t get the recognition that he feels he’s due; his powers leave him feeling isolated and alone; during the 24-hours when his girlfriend becomes his equal due to a magic serum, she spends her time flirting with other heroes. 

Doing great work can feel hollow if nobody appreciates it.

Midway through the series, Superman meets two other survivors from his native Krypton.  He expects that they’ll congratulate him on how well he’s kept his adopted planet safe.  Instead, they’re disgusted by his complacency.

Superman, in turn, feels disappointed by his brethren.  Within the world of comic books, characters who view their powers as conferring a responsibility are heroes; those who think that power gives them the right to do whatever they want are villains.

Homo sapiens are not as intelligent as the new arrivals from Krypton.  We are smaller, slower, and weaker.  Our tools are less technologically advanced.  If they chose to cull our kind, we could do nothing to resist.

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I recently had the opportunity to read Luke Dittrich’s New York Times Magazine article on the Puerto Rican macaque colony that was traumatized by Hurricane Maria.  (I’ve written previously about Dittrich’s investigation into the history of “Patient H.M.” and unethical behavior among MIT memory researchers.)

This particular colony of macaques has been studied closely for years.  Researchers have voluminous observational data from both before and after the hurricane; they’ve stored many tissue samples as well.  The hope is that this dataset could unveil the biochemical consequences of trauma, and elucidate traits that allow some people to weather trauma more effectively than others.

With clear insights into the specific pathways affected by trauma, we might even be able to develop drugs that would allow humans to stave off PTSD.  Or cure it.

Macaques have long been used as subjects for medical research.  We’ve developed several vaccines that prevent AIDS in macaques, but unfortunately the differences between SIV (simian immunodeficiency virus) and HIV meant that some of these vaccines increased human susceptibility to the disease.  Whoops.

An image attributed to the Primate Research Laboratory at the University of Wisconsin – Madison and disseminated in 1992.

Macaques are highly intelligent, social animals with approximately 93% the same DNA sequences as us humans.  For immunology research, they’re kept in wire cages.  They can’t touch, don’t really get to move around.  But that’s not so bad compared to the nightmarish psychological studies that have been conducted on macaques in the past.  Dittrich’s article summarizes a few of Dr. Harry Harlow’s experiments.  Harlow named several pieces of his research equipment, such as “The Pit of Despair,” a small box devoid of light or sound in which children could be trapped for months on end, or “The Rape Rack,” which shouldn’t be described.

“[Harlow] found that the females who had endured the trauma of both the Pit of Despair and the Rape Rack tended to become neglectful or even severely abusive mothers.

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We’ve conducted studies on humans who have been traumatized.  By surveying hurricane survivors, we’ve found that many suffer from PTSD.  But one drawback of these investigations, Dittrich writes, is that “the humans in these studies almost never become experimental subjects until after the traumatic events in question, which makes it hard to gauge how the events actually changed them.

If a researcher interested in how trauma affects individuals or societies were to dream up an ideal natural laboratory, she might imagine a discrete landmass populated by a multigenerational community that has been extensively and meticulously studied for many decades before the traumatizing event.  Even better, it would be a population to which researchers would have unfettered access – not only to their minds, but also to their bodies, and even their brains.”

We are to macaques as Superman is to us.  We are stronger, smarter, technologically superior.  We can fly into space; macaques have done so only at our whims.

In “St. Francis Visits the Research Macaques of Modern Science” by John-Michael Bloomquist, we eavesdrop on a conversation between the saint and Miss Able, the first primate to leave our planet.  St. Francis asks about her experience of the voyage; she tells him “The Gods did not let me see anything, the damn cone didn’t have a window.

The capsule and couch used by one of America’s first spacefarers, a rhesus monkey named Able, is displayed at the National Air and Space Museum. Able and a companion squirrel monkey named Miss Baker were placed inside a Jupiter missile nose cone and launched on a test flight in May 1959.

We are indeed like gods among macaques, but we have not elected to be heroes.  Instead, we’ve ravaged their ancestral lands.  We’ve wracked their children with twisted nightmares that they could not wake from. 

Even the Puerto Rican macaque colony that Dittrich writes about – some individuals are permitted to live out their days in relative peace, but this is a breeding center.  If you’re developing an HIV vaccine, your lab’s macaques will die; for a few thousand dollars each, this colony will furnish replacements.  According to their website, they maintain “an available pool of rhesus macaques in optimal condition for research.

We humans are like gods, but, unlike Superman, we’ve chosen to be villains.

On genetic inheritance and sexual assault.

On genetic inheritance and sexual assault.

How does evolution work?

Each child receives genetic information from its parents.  Some of this information conveys distinct traits.  And some of these traits increase the chance that an individual will have children of his or her own.  If those children are also good at having kids, the underlying genetic information will spread.

The DNA sequences that evolution enriches don’t necessarily make a creature better – in fact, they often accomplish the opposite.  A gene that made its bearer 10% happier would not spread through the population.  Happy people are less fearful and more likely to be die in tragic accidents.

800px-JH_Dolph_Cat_Mouse(Infection with Toxoplasma gondii seems to make mice happier.  The parasite produces a rate-limiting enzyme for dopamine synthesis to increase the chance that Toxoplasma-infected mice blithely stroll along and get eaten by a cat.)

All that evolution “wants” is for a gene’s bearer to have children who have children who have children, and so on.  This necessitates survival, yes – you can’t have kids if you’re dead, and in many species, orphaned children are less likely to ever have kids of their own.  But evolution doesn’t need a gene’s bearer to be clever – brainless starfish evolved from a bilaterally symmetric forebear that did have a brain.  Evolution doesn’t need a gene’s bearer to be nice – bullies seem to have plenty of children, and sexual assault is an instinctual mating strategy in many species, including ducks and orangutans.  Maybe humans, too.

So, who controls which genes are passed on?

In most species, whichever parent puts the most effort into raising children gets to choose.

prumIn The Evolution of Beauty, Richard Prum describes the experience of tropical birds, like manakins, who live in regions where food is plentiful.  The female parent raises children entirely on her own – males reside elsewhere in fraternal performance troupes.  And so the female birds have absolute say in deciding who will and will not fool around.  The females visit large numbers of males and decline most of their overtures.  Why should she settle for anything less than the absolute sexiest gentleman in the forest?  She’ll find him eventually, and since he never helps any of his children’s mothers with child-rearing, she knows he’ll be available.

Male smooth guardian frogs protect their fertilized eggs and young tadpoles.  Large choruses of females will surround and serenade each available male, hoping to sway his desire.  Since males do all the parenting, they are very selective.

That’s the usual system – you do the work, you get to choose.

It’s a nice idea.  After all, choice means the ensuing activity is consensual, and the opportunity to consent is sexy.

Unfortunately, in many species, others attempt to subvert mate choice.  You know – those ducks.  Orangutans.  Humans.

meanMyriam Gurba’s Mean is alternately comic and horrifying.  In a chapter titled “Omnipresence” (after the trauma, danger seems to be everywhere), Gurba writes:

A stranger chose me to rape.

There was no nepotism involved.

Basically, I got raped for real. (I’m being cheeky here.)

Stranger rape is like the Mona Lisa.

It’s exquisite, timeless, and archetypal.

It’s classic.  I can’t help but think of it as the Coca-Cola of sex crimes.

 

You never predict that rapists are lurking in the sun, sky, and trees.

 

In The Evolution of Beauty, Prum writes:

prumOf course, it has long been clear that sexual coercion and sexual violence are directly harmful to the well-being of female animals.  But the aesthetic perspective allows us to understand that sexual coercion also infringes upon their individual freedom of choice.  Once we recognize that coercion undermines individual sexual autonomy, we are led, inexorably, to the discovery that freedom of choice matters to animals. 

Sexual autonomy is not a mythical and poorly conceived legal concept invented by feminists and liberals.  Rather, sexual autonomy is an evolved feature of the societies of many sexual species.  As we have learned from ducks and other birds, when sexual autonomy is abridged or disrupted by coercion or violence, mate choice itself can provide the evolutionary leverage to assert and expand the freedom of choice.

Many of the trappings of human civilization exist solely to subvert mate choice.  Powerful males did not want human females to exercise sexual autonomy, because what if she picks someone else?  And so men made marriage, Biblical commandments against both adultery and thinking about adultery, and a propensity to murder (or, on contemporary U.S. playgrounds, heckle) loose women.

Human males wanted to control the flow of genetic information without doing the work of parenting.  Just like ducks, whose females evolved corkscrew-shaped vaginas because only those individuals with complicated genitalia could exercise free mate choice amidst generations of rape culture.

Rape culture isn’t specific to Homo sapiens, after all.  It’s a disease of any species in which those who don’t put in the work decide they ought to make choices for others – and nobody stops them.

(Humans do perpetrate more sexual violence than other species, especially violence against non-humans.  Interspecies sexual assault strikes most people as outlandish, unless it’s being done on our behalf.  Farms, puppy mills, and zoos are major assault factories.  We assent to forcible fertilization because it produces large-breasted chickens, cute puppies, and caged “wild” animals for our screaming children to ogle.)

Not all species rape.  In some, coalitions of females defend each other.  In others, males enforce fairness.  Those who believe in justice can punish interlopers, providing females with the right to choose.  Feminism isn’t the exclusive provenance of females.  Injustice hurts everyone, and anyone can feel aggrieved by it.

On elephants.

On elephants.

During springtime each year, my spouse tells a lot of people that high school prom is a blast … as long as you’re not a high schooler. Many teachers attend, nominally as chaperones, and they don’t have to worry about who they’ll leave with or what they’ll be doing afterward. (Shucking earplugs and going to sleep.)

Prom_crowded_dancefloor

We go to the local high school prom most years. My spouse greets her students and compliments their attire: you clean up well! The boys on the cross country and track teams shake my hand and compliment my attire: you clean up well, coach!

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The most magical night of our lives … every year.

At times, briefly, I am allowed to dance. (My only formal dance training was in preparation for the South Asian Students’ Association spring show during college – I was part of a Dandiya Raas set to “Chale Chalo” from Lagaan – and my preferred style of dancing still involves a lot of leaping.)

raas
Yep.

Each year’s prom is themed, with decorations prepared by junior members of the student council. My favorite was 2012’s “prom-apocalypse,” with fake flames and wreckage. Coincidentally, I prepared the same style of decoration for a fundraiser when I was my high school’s National Honor Society president. The kids here were inspired by the end of the Mayan calendar; our dance was held in December, 1999, when the newspapers were rife with reports of people hoarding cans or turning blue-ish from ingesting too much anti-microbial silver.

I also convinced a d.j. buddy to put together some music for the event, like a track splicing Britney Spears’s “…Baby One More Time” with Marilyn Manson’s “Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This).”

Despite having hated being in high school, I love the corny tropes involved. Like, okay, film noir about drug deals gone bad? Eh, seen it. But set that same noir in high school, you get Brick, with charming lines like “She knows where I eat lunch.”

This year, though, prom is circus-themed.

“Oh, cool,” I said. “Like Cirque du Soleil?”

“No. Like, elephants in cages.”

We won’t attend. It seems an especially bizarre choice of theme now, when even Ringling Brothers, after 145 years of torturing elephants, has announced that they’ll stop. They will, of course, continue to torture other species.

Ringling_Bros_and_Barnum_&_Bailey_Circus_Gunther_Gebel-Williams_1969.jpg

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As humans have learned more about animal cognition, we have steadily revised our claims as to the features of our brains that make us special. Once upon a time, we claimed that our superiority came simply from our very large brains; we contrasted ourselves to dinosaurs, whom we claimed (erroneously) had brains no bigger than walnuts.

Elephants have the largest brains of any land animal.

Later, we realized that sheer brain bulk does not equate with intelligence – actual neuron counts would be far more informative.

Elephants have three times as many neurons as humans.

We once posited that “tool use” separated humans from other animals, until we learned that chimpanzees, crows, and others use tools too.

We claimed that only humans understand death. Touting that no other species buries their dead, we claimed that only Homo sapiens have the emotional intelligence necessary to understand narrative. Other animals are trapped inside an eternal now.

This, too, is false.

Three_elephant's_curly_kisses

In elephants, the hippocampus – the brain region implicated in processing narrative emotional memory – is enlarged relative to humans. They routinely visit sites where friends or relatives died. They caress the bones of their lost. After violent encounters with a brutal species of hairless ape, elephants can suffer post-traumatic stress disorder for years. Their children require the guidance of elders to learn behavioral norms.

Like human children, young elephant males who grow in broken communities run wild.

female-elephant-341983_1280.jpg

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We humans have treated elephants abysmally, not in spite of their magnificence, but because of it. When a small, flamboyantly-dressed circus tamer can break an elephant’s will so completely that the creature will perform in the center of a jeering crowd, we receive proof just how powerful humans are.

61m03HD3UQL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Elena Passarello writes of our dominance over nature in her essay “Jumbo II,” which interlaces two histories: that of elephants brought to the United States, and our ability to harness electricity.

From the beginning, the elephants were tortured: placed in small zoo enclosures (Passarello: They gave “Old Chief” to the Cincinnati Zoo, which shot him by the end of the decade. Two days after, Cincinnati’s Palace Restaurant added “elephant loin” to its dinner menu.), beaten by circus trainers until they learned to do “tricks,” condemned to death for unexpectedly dangerous behavior during musth.

As our technological prowess grew, electricity was put to ever new uses. Electricity could light our streets! It could power our factories! It could execute the condemned!

The histories of elephants and electricity in America merge in 1903. In Passarello’s words:

[Electrocuting an Elephant] is a minute-long, live short of the first elephant – and the second female of any species on the planet – to be condemned to electrocution for her crimes.

In the yards around Coney Island’s Luna Park, the condemned elephant places each foot onto a copper plate. Once ignited with over 6,000 volts of alternating current, they smoke beneath her planted feet. The smoke rises around her body, her trunk goes rigid, and all five tons of her list forward.

And, from Ciaran Berry’s poem, “Electrocuting an Elephant:”

…though it changes nothing,
I want to explain how, when the elephant falls, she falls
like a cropped elm. First the shudder, then the toppling
as the surge ripples through each nerve and vein,
and she drops in silence and a fit of steam to lie there
prone, one eye opened that I wish I could close.

I could not bring myself to watch the video footage to verify this description, but I am glad her eye was open. We humans behave better when we believe we are watched. And our behavior, in the past, was not good enough.

Even now, we make mistakes. If we want a world with elephants, the money from ecotourism is not enough. Those who have been born to wealthy nations – beneficiaries of a long history of exploitation and violence – should devote funds to repairing some of the damage we’ve inherited.

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On PTSD and David Means’s ‘Hystopia.’

On PTSD and David Means’s ‘Hystopia.’

When my family plays sports, every game is vaguely reminiscent of Calvinball.  The rules are amorphous.  Peculiarities of the landscape are considered features of play.  And, if you’re losing, tackling often seems as though it ought to be allowed.

calvinball
The first Calvinball.

Recently we were playing a soccer-esque game with a good friend who, unfortunately, lived through atrocious violence.  She was winning, I thought, although it is often difficult to know.  Less contentious was the fact that I was losing.  Time for a tackle!

If you saw a tickertape of her thoughts during the game it might’ve read fun fun fun TERROR!

I apologized profusely.  As someone who has not been exposed to horrible trauma, I am at times blithely unaware of the delicate tightrope walked by others.  There is at times a fine line separating play from something that will trigger the fear.

hystopiaIn Hystopia, David Means tells the story of a Vietnam veteran who returned from combat, wrote a fantasy novel about a pharmacological cure for trauma, then killed himself.  The novel — which transpires in a Man in the High Castle-esque alternate reality — is bleak.  The novel within the novel is even bleaker.

The doomed writer is young, a sensitive kid named Eugene Allen.  And one striking feature of the novel within the novel is the way Allen couches fantastical wizardry in scientific-sounding language.  This gives readers a sense of how ardently he wants his imagined cure to be plausible.  Writing that a spell could cause selective amnesia would make clear that his mind, the writer’s, would be forever filled with horror.  But by writing that a pill could do it, it was possible for Allen to imagine his own salvation.

It’s true that Allen’s use of scientific terminology is often flawed.  His education was interrupted by the war — at an age when I was in college, he was experiencing the peculiar blend of boredom and terror that characterizes modern war, watching his friends die, trying to murder strangers who were trying to murder him in turn.  Allen knows that the world ought to be scientific, but he was never given an opportunity to learn the details of what that means.  And so the text is peppered with words that he thinks will give his world the appropriate atmosphere, like in this passage where a government agent is daydreaming about the beach during a meeting with his supervisor:

It was the only memory he had, everything after that moment — leaving school — came up blank and here was Klein, he was still talking, pressing, asking him what he was thinking about, so Singleton said, “The Credo, sir, I was thinking about the Credo,” while in his mind he was running out of the Corps building and Wendy was waiting, arms wide, and then he was on the beach with her, applying lotion as an excuse to touch her back, two fingers pressed together tracing the lovely line of her spine to where the taut band of her bikini bottom stretched over a slight gap that absorbed sunlight like antimatter.

It’s a vivid piece of imagery, and, given what readers know about Allen’s education, it hardly matters that the combination of scientific-sounding words punctuating the passage make no sense together.  His essential point is made.  Unlike Tolkien, who returned from combat after World War I and composed a trilogy with dragons and elves and spells, veterans returning from the Vietnam War to the U.S., a country obsessed with science, technology, and progress, could not so easily slip into magical fantasy.

There are many passages that would fit either type of novel — magical or faux-scientific — like the following in which a character explains to his amnesiotic girlfriend that cold water will trigger her memory’s return:

What we want to do is get more of you back, to take you into the water and get you in the cold — not much, just a bit — and start to get some of your memories back.

c47d16ddbb9d3a069a113951dfbaba8bIt’s easy for me to imagine a mystical world in which wizardry could be counteracted by immersion in cold water.  It was nothing but water, after all, that Dorothy used to defeat the Wicked Witch.  And the type of memory loss Allen imagines is quite similar to that of ancient mythology.  Shortly after using an old military hand signal, a soldier who’d been cured of his PTSD finds himself thinking that his faculties will come back to him when he needs them:

Back behind the wheel she drove quietly and carefully and continued thinking, he guessed, about her father’s chances.  At least the old man could remember his combat training.  Some said — and this might just be one more of the countless rumors, of course — that the mechanics, the fighting techniques, the useful stuff could never be lost, because it was somehow entwined into your sense of destiny (something like that).  It was all tiresome.  Rumors appeared around a context of need; they were nothing but a formation of an idea around a precise desire.

This resembles the legendary monkey Hanuman’s memory loss in the Ramayana.  Back when the monkey knew how powerful he was, he took advantage of his abilities.  He was a menace!  He had to be stopped!  But, like a returned-soldier-turned-government-agent, his powers might be needed in the future.  He needed to forget that he’d been trained, without forgetting the training itself:

          Having obtained boons Hanuman became highly and powerful and accelerated in himself.  He became full like ocean, O’ Rama.

          Having become powerful, the best of Mongoloids, started committing offences against Maharsis in their hermitages.

          He broke the sacrificial ladles and vessels and also the heaps of banks belonging to the ascetics.

          That powerful Hanuman did all this type of jobs.  He was made invulnerable to all kinds of weapons by Siva.

          Having known this all the Rsis tolerated him, the son of Kesari and Anjana.

          Even though prohibited by his father, Hanuman crossed the limits which enraged the Rsis of the lines of Bhrgu and Angira and bestowed curse upon him.  O best of the Raghus.

          That you will be unconscious of the prowess endowed with which you torment us.  You will be conscious of your power only after being reminded of it.

          Thereupon, having devoid of prowess and glory, he used to wander in the hermitages silently and decently.

There is a long tradition of magical speculation about treating warriors with selective amnesia.  But Allen couches his speculations in faux-scientific language in order to give himself hope.  By writing that way — especially within the alternate reality Means created for him — he could more easily imagine an escape from his own pain.

Other features of his writing reveal Allen’s youth.  His language is playful, but much of the play revolves around reversing clichés, in lines like “I was thinking how alive I am because I’m lucky” and “I believe that man’s drinking under the influence of driving, Rake was saying, pulling the car over to the shoulder.

DavidMeans4These untrained features of Allen’s writing further Means’s message: kids were yanked from their lives & sent overseas to murder and be murdered instead of developing into adulthood.  Many never returned.  Of those who did survive, many were sufficiently traumatized by the experience that their lives were never as successful as they would’ve been.

Even now, several wars later, our soldiers return to a world where few efforts are made to care for them.  We make token expressions of gratitude on Memorial Day without structuring our world to actually accommodate those who have sacrificed on our behalf.  The suicide rate among veterans is heartbreaking.  The number of homeless veterans is heartbreaking.  The number of veterans whose only institutional care comes from the criminal justice system… that’s heartbreaking, too.

The phrase “Thank you for your service” doesn’t mean much unless we’re willing to change our world such that returning veterans actually feel thanked.  Hollow words aren’t helping much.

On Bryan Stevenson’s Just Mercy.

On Bryan Stevenson’s Just Mercy.

9780812984965Bryan Stevenson’s Just Mercy was published over a year ago, but the queue at my local library was incredibly long.  I didn’t get to borrow the book until last week.  Three days later, I was done — if I didn’t have parenting duties to attend to, I assume I would’ve finished within a day.  It’s a phenomenal book, one for which I would’ve been happy to skip class during my student days.

If you haven’t read it yet, you should.  To help you out, why don’t I slather this post with helpful links?

Even if you’ve read Just Mercy, maybe you’d appreciate a link directing you to the “Get Involved” page of the Equal Justice Initiative.

While reading Just Mercy, I felt teary-eyed many times … as early as page 11, when Stevenson describes his experience visiting a death row prisoner as a law student.  At the end the visit, the gruffly manhandled prisoner took great efforts to cheer Stevenson.  Many emotionally-charged scenes appear throughout the book.

One of the most powerful occurs during a judicial hearing for a wrongfully-condemned man.  Stevenson received three days in court to present the evidence that the condemned man was innocent and only a blatant miscarriage of justice had led to his conviction, being sentenced to death, and spending six years on death row.  The State’s judicial team must’ve been shocked by the preponderance of evidence of the condemned man’s innocence, and was clearly shocked by the number of supporters who came to observe the trial — there was little security on the first day, but on the second day black visitors were denied entrance to the courtroom and forced to file through a metal detector and past an intimidating police dog.

For visitors who’d suffered police abuses in the past, this was too much.  Stevenson describes consoling an elderly woman who broke:

          “Mrs. Williams, it’s all right,” I said.  “They shouldn’t have done what they did.  Please don’t worry about it.”  I put my arm around her and gave her a hug.

          “No, no, no, Attorney Stevenson.  I was meant to be in that courtroom, I was supposed to be in that courtroom.”

          “It’s okay, Mrs. Williams, it’s okay.”

          “No, sir, I was supposed to be there and I wanted to be there.  I tried, I tried, Lord knows I tried, Mr. Stevenson.  But when I saw that dog–”  She shook her head and stared away with a distant look.  “When I saw that dog, I thought about 1965, when we gathered at the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma and tried to march for our voting rights.  They beat us and put those dogs on us.”  She looked back to me sadly.  “I tried to move, Attorney Stevenson, I wanted to move, but I just couldn’t do it.”

march to montgomery 471-030814.jpg

          As she spoke it seemed like a world of sadness surrounded her.  She let go of my hand and walked away.  I watched her get into a car with some other people I had seen in the courtroom earlier.”

. . .

I arrived at the court early the next morning to make sure there were no problems.  As it turned out, very few people showed up to support the State.  And though the metal detector and the dog were still there, no deputy stood at the door to block black people from entering the courtroom.  Inside the courtroom, I noticed one of the women I’d seen leave with Mrs. Williams the night before.  She came up to me and introduced herself as Mrs. Williams’s daughter.  She thanked me for trying to console her mother.

          “When she got home last night, she was so upset.  She didn’t eat anything, she didn’t speak to anybody, she just went to her bedroom.  We could hear her praying all night long.  This morning she called the Reverend and begged him for another chance to be a community representative at the hearing.  She was up when I got out of bed, dressed and ready to come to court.  I told her she didn’t have to come, but she wouldn’t hear none of it.  She’s been through a lot and, well, on the trip down here she just kept saying over and over, ‘Lord, I can’t be scared of no dog, I can’t be scared of no dog.’

          I was apologizing again to the daughter for what the court officials had done the day before when suddenly there was a commotion at the courtroom door.  We both looked up and there stood Mrs. Williams.  She was once again dressed impeccably in her scarf and hat.  She held her handbag tight at her side and seemed to be swaying at the entrance.  I could hear her speaking to herself, repeating over and over again: “I ain’t scared of no dog, I ain’t scared of no dog.”  I watched as the officers allowed her to move forward.  She held her head up as she walked slowly through the metal detector, repeating over and over, “I ain’t scared of no dog.”  It was impossible to look away.  She made it through the detector and stared at the dog.  Then, loud enough for everyone to hear, she belted out: “I ain’t scared of no dog!”

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          She moved past the dog and walked into the courtroom.  Black folks who were already inside beamed with joy as she passed them.  She sat down near the front of the courtroom and turned to me with a broad smile and announced, “Attorney Stevenson, I’m here!”

I hope this passage helps convince you what a powerful book Just Mercy is, because it cost me a lot to include it.  I do a lot of my work in the snack lounge at the YMCA while N plays in the childcare room, and tears were dripping from my eyes while I typed this passage.  I must’ve looked ridiculous.  And yet, my suffering is small change — think what it must’ve cost Stevenson to write this.  Think what it must’ve cost Mrs. Williams to live it.

Stevenson also describes his work to enact sentencing reform for children.  Before Stevenson’s efforts, many children were condemned to die in prison, even children whose rash actions had not resulted in anyone’s death.

K & I would be fools to organize our lives the way we do if youths weren’t incredibly malleable.  The entire motivation for education is that it’s possible for people to learn and improve.  I think all people, at all ages, are capable of surpassing their past, but this should be blatantly obvious with children.

And yet, if not for the efforts of Stevenson and his team at the Equal Justice Initiative, many children would still be condemned to death in prison for mistakes made at thirteen or fourteen years of age.  Even his team’s eventual victories are bittersweet because so much suffering has occurred … and still goes on today.  From Just Mercy:

          Ian spent eighteen years in uninterrupted solitary confinement.

          Once a month, Ian was allowed to make a phone call.  Soon after he arrived in prison, on Christmas Eve in 1992, he used his call to reach out to Debbie Baigre, the woman he shot.  When she answered the phone, Ian spilled out an emotional apology, expressing his deep regret and remorse.  Ms. Baigre was stunned to hear from the boy who had shot her, but she was moved by his call.  She had physically recovered from the shooting and was working to become a successful bodybuilder and had started a magazine focused on women’s health.  She was a determined woman who didn’t let the shooting derail her from her goals.  That first surprising phone call led to a regular correspondence.  Ian had been neglected by his family before the crime took place.  He’d been left to wander the streets with little parental or family support.  In solitary, he met few prisoners or correctional staff.  As he sank deeper into despair, Debbie Baigre became on of the few people in Ian’s life who encouraged him to remain strong.

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Solitary cell at Alcatraz.  Photo by Wally Gobetz on Flickr.

          After communicating with Ian for several years, Baigre wrote the court and told the judge who sentenced Ian of her conviction that his sentence was too harsh and that his conditions of confinement were inhumane.  She tried to talk to prison officials and gave interviews to the press to draw attention to Ian’s plight.  “No one knows more than I do how destructive and reckless Ian’s crime was.  But what we’re currently doing to him is mean and irresponsible,” she told one reporter.  “When this crime was committed, he was a child, a thirteen-year-old boy with a lot of problems, no supervision, and no help available.  We are not children.”

          The courts ignored Debbie Baigre’s call for a reduced sentence.

It’s hard to read something like that without wanting to reach out to somebody unfairly stuck in solitary.  If you’re near Bloomington, you could volunteer with either New Life New Leaf or the Midwest Pages to Prisoners Project.  If you live elsewhere, you could look for volunteer opportunities in your area or donate to Stevenson’s Equal Justice Initiative.

Bryan StevensonBecause, as Stevenson describes beautifully in his book, we all have an incentive to reach out and help others.  By setting aside time to put the needs of others first, we have an opportunity to be our full selves.  In Stevenson’s words:

It took me a while to sort it out, but I realized something sitting there while Jimmy Dill [an intellectually disabled man with a deep stutter and a rotten childhood who shot someone during a drug deal.  The victim survived.  But then, nine or ten months later, after being abandoned by his wife, the shooting victim fell sick and died.  Which let the state charge Dill with murder and seek the death penalty, since Dill had not yet been tried for the shooting] was being killed at Holman prison.  After working for more than twenty-five years, I understood that I don’t do what I do because it’s required or necessary or important.  I don’t do it because I have no choice.

          I do what I do because I’m broken, too.

. . .

          We have a choice.  We can embrace our humanness, which means embracing our broken natures and the compassion that remains our best hope for healing.  Or we can deny our brokenness, forswear compassion, and, as a result, deny our own humanity.

I hope some of what I’ve written convinces you to read Just Mercy.  (Did you miss the last few links?  Here’s one more!).

I’d like to end this post by mentioning that Bryan Stevenson is an excellent candidate for inclusion in the Heroic Human Rights Workers trading card game.

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Lydia Cacho, a personal hero. Photo by Steve Rhodes on Flickr.

I’ve previously mentioned that Lydia Cacho, who has been tortured by murderous cartels for her efforts to fight sex slavery, ought to be featured on a trading card.  When I finally set aside Just Mercy for a few minutes to go jogging, I spent a while thinking about what their card game should be like.

I think the game will turn out nice.  It’ll take a year or more to put together, because I’m unfortunately working on too many other projects at the moment, but here’s a sketchy description:

Theodoor_Rombouts_-_Joueurs_de_cartesIt’ll be a cooperative game for a few human players.  There’ll be a central deck with dystopian events & circumstances drawn from our world, things like human trafficking, innocents sentenced to death, police brutality, politicians engaging in politics as usual, etc.  And the players will use decks they’ve put together (subject to certain cost restraints — if you’ve added too many pricey, powerful cards, you’ll be required to fill out your deck with zero-cost public defender cards) to save the citizens of the world.

Maybe that sounds too sledgehammer-y moralizing, but I’m fairly certain that the Ferretcraft team can take the idea and make it fun.  It’ll need trigger warnings and all, what with the bleak, scary things that would have to be included — there are, of course, bleak and scary things described in Just Mercy and Cacho’s Slavery, Inc. — but I think it’s acceptable to depict horror for good ends.

In any case, it’s very clear that the Bryan Stevenson card is one you’ll always be happy to see.

On witchcraft and mass psychogenic illness.

On witchcraft and mass psychogenic illness.

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Because she is N’s best friend’s grandmother, I recently had the pleasure of meeting the researcher who first proposed that the Salem witchcraft trials were inspired by ergot poisoning of rye crops.  And that, of course, is one of the papers I read while researching mass psychogenic illness / conversion disorders / violence against women.

Does it seem controversial to throw that last categorization in there?

Here’s a quick summary: mass psychogenic illness is typically diagnosed when people exhibit strange behavior and those who are making the diagnosis do not know why.  If an episode involves more women than men, that’s considered an indication of mass psychogenic illness — even for contemporary diagnoses, actually, although we now know that women & men metabolize many small molecules differently, which means that equal ingested dosage will often result in higher blood levels for women.

Maybe you read about the recent episode in New York (if not, I’d recommend another lovely article by Susan Dominus, “What Happened to the Girls in Le Roy”).  Teenagers started twitching.  Mostly young women were affected, environmental analysis identified no known toxins, doctors decided it was mass psychogenic illness.

There are non-psychological reasons to believe that certain episodes of strange behavior, tics, convulsions, etc., would affect primarily women, but ever since the diagnosis of “hysteria” was first proposed (in which the womb forgets that it’s supposed to reside near a woman’s belly and begins to wander her body, eventually latching onto the brain and causing her to act strange) the medical community has assumed that most women’s problems are in their heads.

Which isn’t to say that strange behavior like tics, convulsions, etc., cannot have an exclusively neurological cause.  It can.  There are physiological problems that can be caused solely by the brain — usually the initial onset is accompanied by high stress — and, unfortunately, the symptoms also recursively change the brain.  It’s a little bit silly to try to distinguish between psychological and physiological problems, what with the brain also being part of the body, but with conversion disorders an ailment that began as thought will eventually become detectably imprinted in matter.

In case you’re interested, here’s a nice open-source reference by Ali et al. discussing this loop.

Despite my reflexive distaste for most of Malcolm Gladwell’s pithy summaries about how the world works — I’ve read enough social psychology papers to know that the findings are often much weaker than they seem when filtered through popular writing — that lovely phrase “the tipping point” seems very appropriate when thinking about mass psychogenic illness.  There are two stable equilibria that you could roughly designate “acting strange” and “acting normal,” and at some intermediate point they transition sharply from one to the other.

Here, I can draw a graph for you, using tarantism as a model case.  Tarantism, you ask?  People thought that spider bites would be fatal unless those bitten began to dance… so circa the 1380s, every summer there was wild, obscene dancing from Italians trying mightily to stave off death.

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It’s the fact that the amount of dancing in turn contributes to the likelihood of more dancing, that lends the situation a tipping point.  All else being equal, a world in which not many people are dancing will result in little dancing in the future, a world full of revelry will produce more rambunctious behavior.

And there’s a point in the middle, when a small number of people have been affected, that could just as easily swing one way or the other… by next week the “danger” may have passed, or there might be a tremendous outbreak of tarantism.

(Also, my apologies to any math people out there … I realize that this is a nonstandard way to represent an ODE.  I’ve been working on a post about the uncertainty principle and trying to think of ways to use basic math to convey a decent “feel” for complicated equations.  Which is difficult, and is made even more so by the fact that I am so out of practice; since beginning my thesis research project, I’ve never had professional reasons to use anything more complicated than statistics.)

To reach a tipping point, though, there have to be many people experiencing similar levels of stress, along with whatever else might be needed to initiate a conversion disorder.  Which is why I think it’s reasonable to think that outbreaks of mass psychogenic illness are a symptom of pervasive violence against women.  They tend to occur primarily amongst people who have limited opportunities for self-expression: overworked schoolchildren, prisoners, convent residents, and women living in restrictive societies.

Salem_Witch_trial_engravingAnd it is of course possible for other factors to contribute.  That’s the main message I took away from Caporael’s ergotism study — for young women living in puritanical New England, who believed that witchcraft was a very real threat, it wouldn’t take much to push them over the edge.  Exposure to a psychedelic drug could potentially do it.

Which isn’t to say that lysergic acid makes people condemn their compatriots as witches.  Like most drugs, its effects are dictated largely by the mindset of whomever ingests it.  I think this passage from Ronald Siegel’s Intoxication (a somewhat strange book discussing drug use by a variety of animal species) phrases this well:

“Violent people are often intoxicated but the violence is usually rooted in the personality, not the drug.  People may panic under the influence of LSD or any other drug that makes them feel different. . .”

Caporael addressed this in her paper — the idea that neither ergot alone, nor a belief in witchcraft alone, would have resulted in the trials — and suggested that the paucity of similar accusations during that time period lends further credence to the ergotism hypothesis.

“The Puritans’ belief in witchcraft was a totally accepted part of their religious tenets.  The malicious workings of Satan and his cohorts was just as real to the early colonists as their belief in God.  Yet, the low incidence of witchcraft trials in New England prior to 1692 suggests that the Puritans did not always resort to accusations of black magic to deal with irreconcilable differences or inexplicable events.”

Altogether, it’s a nice little paper.  Plus — and this is something I didn’t realize when I first read it — it’s a single-author Science paper written by a twenty-something year-old graduate student based on research she’d done as an undergrad.  The only publication I have from my undergraduate research is an author contribution buried somewhere in the middle of a long list of researchers… for an article that landed in Blood.  Somewhat lower tier than Science.

Ergot growing on rye.

In fact, my only real objection to Caporael’s paper doesn’t address the underlying research.  It’s that I believe the ergotism hypothesis lets the perpetrators of the Salem witchcraft trials off too easily.  Hearing that the accusers might have inadvertently ingested psychedelic drugs (for months!) might make their actions sound less heinous.

And, look, we’ll never know for sure.  Salem’s inhabitants might’ve been under the influence of lysergic acid for that whole time period.

But I think it’s worth pointing out that similar abuses have occurred in the absence of any confounding psychedelics.  Outbreaks of a wide variety of diseases in Europe caused people to blame and murder their jewish neighbors.  Outbreaks of a wide variety of social strife in the United States caused people to blame and murder their black neighbors.  Even the Stanford Prison Experiment documents how easily an imposed worldview can bring forth evil.

If those Stanford students had been indoctrinated from birth to believe in witchcraft and an omnipresent Satan striving to destroy their society, they probably could’ve been convinced to start dunking their classmates in order to identify the witch.

My brother & me. Luckily no one accused us of witchcraft; given our garb, I doubt we coulda beat the rap.
My brother & me. Luckily no one accused us of witchcraft; given our garb, I doubt we coulda beat the rap.