Witch Craze: Salem Witch Trials (Part Two)

One aspect that makes the witch craze especially frightening is how justified the perpetrators felt in their actions. Consider this instance, from Windsor Connecticut in 1651. As part of militia training, villagers were participating in a mock battle. One young man’s gun fired accidentally and the bullet struck a man next to him in the neck. The man bled to death. The young man whose gun fired was thought to have acted carelessly, and he was sentenced to six months in prison, for the accident. But that didn’t satisfy the people. The element of randomness troubled them. What were the chances that the stray bullet happened to hit a man in the neck and kill him? There had to be a reason, they thought. This tragedy remained the talk of the town, the local gossip, for years. A consensus of suspicion eventually landed on a woman the deceased man had boarded with and was indebted to, and three years after the man’s accidental death, that woman, nowhere near the field the day of the mock battle, was found guilty of orchestrating the event by using supernatural witch powers, called maleficium, and she was executed.

Again, this sounds cruel, and it was, but the event that deeply troubled the community now felt explained and the town felt healed. Often times a single case of witchcraft would be the extent of the damage, but what happened in Salem, in 1692-3, would be an example of a panic outbreak. Panic outbreaks occurred in larger towns, still small enough to have the intimacy of people knowing each other well with shared histories of feuding that spanned generations but so large that an entire network of supposed witches could be “discovered” before an accusation landed on someone so well connected to many upstanding citizens that the accusations were refuted by the community, which is how panic outbreaks eventually came to an end.

The play you read in school, The Crucible, was written by Arthur Miller in 1952. He researched what happened in Salem extensively, but his play was a fictionalized version, as you probably learned. He wrote The Crucible as a commentary of events happening in the 1940’s and 50’s, here in America, during the second “Red Scare,” also known as McCarthyism, named after the senator who led accusations of communism against fellow leaders. When we reflect back on real events we tend to create or stress story elements out of those events, a clear beginning, middle, and end with good characters paired off against bad. What really happened in Salem?

Many books have been written from that time and into the present. The Enemy Within describes what happens in Salem in its second section, after describing the phenomenon in Europe. Theories on what happened have changed over time, and The Enemy Within describes some of these different theories. The most effective way to learn from history, I find, is to immerse yourself in the time and in the thinking of the time and attempt to understand what happened from that perspective. Two important points are the extent that witchcraft was believed to be a real power, the ultimate source of which was the devil, impacting people’s lives, and the duty people felt to root out this evil for the good of society. None of this is meant to excuse the twenty murders of innocent people that occurred in Salem but to understand.

To say what happened in Salem began with the circle of girls who were the initial accusers is imprecise, because “witchcraft” was already present in Salem with suspects and accusers and probably even trials since the town’s beginning but also because it suggests the girls plotted the events that would follow. More likely the girls played with some sorcery thought to be the stuff of witchcraft; something like the Ouija board game sold at stores children will play at slumber parties except here with a heightened sense of the power involved and therefore increased guilt and fear of discovery. This guilt and fear may have led to some of the physical affliction the girls experienced that were interpreted as bewitchment. Some of these physical afflictions may have spread through a group hysteria and some of it may have been mimicked as a form of peer pressure within the circle. There may also have been some outright fakery with or without much sense of the danger and damage they were putting on those they accused. As John Demos says in the book, “the strictness of Puritan life was hard on adolescent girls, for that matter it was pretty hard on the adults.”

The children involved had no power to put supposed witches on trial and imprison or execute them; the adults did that, but the girls’ symptoms were unquestionably dramatic and frightening to witness, and coupled with widespread belief in witchcraft lack of intervention would have seemed irresponsible. Was anyone as certain as John Proctor was portrayed in The Crucible that the girls were all pretending? Probably not. Surely some suspected so but they wouldn’t have known it the way we would know it now and that combined with the worry they’d be next suspected and accused, which could mean death, would have pressured them to go along. Like in Europe, the developed pattern was that guilt was assumed along with accusation and those accused could be spared death by naming other witches seen at meetings. This served to give credibility to the accusations and spread accusations wider and wider. People knew instinctively who to blame, usually women of poor repute, usually older, sometimes widows who were left land by deceased husbands—a woman who owned land would be targeted because her land was coveted. This was an element of the complex motivating factors that directed suspicion; possibly not fully conscious but the jealousy and resentment of a woman, alone, past her child bearing years and thus of less value to the community (a common, possibly universal, value judgment of the period), and possessing land resulted in the genuine feeling that the woman must be under the devil’s influence. If she were outspoken, atypical of how women were expected to behave, that was another powerful factor in her drawing suspicion. While men and women were accused, mostly women were accused and the men who were accused were usually the husbands or sons of accused women. Misogyny was a clear factor in the witch crazes, both in America and in Europe.

In the book special attention is given to Rebecca Nurse. She was admired by the community. When first accused she was ill. Her friends went to break the news to her. Before they could she told them that she’d heard about the girls’ affliction and that she’d been praying for them. Rebecca Nurse was brought to trial but she had forty people in the community willing to vouch for her high moral character. These are forty American heroes, as they risked accusation by taking a stand for their friend. She was found not guilty, but the announcement of the verdict sent the girls, present for the trial, into fits. The jurors reconvened and brought back a guilty verdict. She was hung as a witch July 19th, 1692. A monument was erected in her honor in 1885. I think the author gives Rebecca Nurse special attention because her case was unique in how many risked everything to stand with her, but I feel like it’s important to remember that all the victims of the witch trials were as innocent at Rebecca Nurse.

No sudden realization of the wrongness of the trials brought them to an end. Rather questions that had been along since the beginning got asked by more people, reservations were voiced more loudly. For instance, spectral evidence, which meant an accusation from someone afflicted that they were being poked or prodded or otherwise troubled by the spirit form of someone, became unreliable to officials, but not because they doubted affliction was taking place. Spectral evidence became inadmissible because it was decided the devil could have been impersonating innocent people, who weren’t actually witches. Belief in witches didn’t go away, but public opinion had turned. People were tired of the hanging, partly because more and more people known well and liked were being accused. Trials continued, witches were jailed, even sentenced to death. Three were given a reprieve a mere day before they were scheduled to be executed, their graves already dug out of the frozen ground. More were jailed that spring but these were released by the end of the summer. And the panic was over.

Much of the initial reflection on what happened was deeply personal, involving new feuds and court cases to recover lost property. Notable apologies included Anne Putnam, who made special apologies to the family of Rebecca Nurse. Jurors expressed regret. Through the first half of the 1700’s various reparations were ordered paid to help “the families as were in a manner ruined in the mistaken mismanagement of the terrible affair called witchcraft.” Several of the circle of girls went on to lives of “dissolution and profligacy.” One, probably Abigail Williams, was never sane again, and may have not been all along.

“Witch-hunts, like most large social and historical phenomena, invariably show a pattern of multiple causation; in scientific language, they are overdetermined.” The author presents many of these theories. For example, a link was discovered that many of the accusers had spent time in frontier lands and were subject to fighting with Native Americans, having lost family members in wars or skirmishes, and one, Mercy Short, was a captive of the Wabanaki for several months. Salem was also divided into different factions, there were the interior old-style farmers and people closer to the sea more involved with trade, “the Village” and “the Town,” respectively. Division between these two factions went back decades. The accusers tended to come from people closer to “the Village” and the accused came from people living closer to and trading with and benefitting from trade with people from “the Town.” In this interpretation, witchcraft provided a means for struggles, actually based on these divisions, to be fought on a stage that belief in witchcraft provided. As Arthur Miller, the playwright, said of The Crucible, his aim was to spotlight “the primeval structure of human sacrifice to the forces of fanaticism and paranoia that goes on repeating itself forever as though imbedded in the brain of social man.”

Wow! This is why, I believe, the story of Salem and the witch trials remains so fascinating to us today. Witchcraft is mostly gone, as a superstitious belief, but the way we struggle and seek answers to why we struggle outside ourselves but within something close to us, within our community, remains. Another way to put what Arthur Miller said is to say that the witch hunts of Europe and Salem weren’t about witches as much as they were an expression of something even deeper in humans that seeks that enemy within. In fact, the book opens with a time when Christians were sought out and punished in many of the same ways and for similar invented crimes as Christians fifteen hundred years later would hunt and punish witches for committing.

The last section of the book describes some more modern examples of incidents in American history, the Red Scare of McCarthyism, and others, which I’ll let you read about on your own, and asks how these incidents resemble the witch trials of Salem and how they’re different. The common thread I see is that desire for a relationship with what troubles us. We’re troubled by our own perceived weaknesses and faults and tend to find those faults and weaknesses in others, this is known as projection, and blame others to evade self-blame. It’s uncomfortable to peer in, to think, What am I doing I can change? How am I responsible for this or that trouble in my life? So we tend to first look outwardly, but we have to look where there is a relationship. It wouldn’t make sense to blame my problems or struggles on what’s happening on Mars. We have to have that intimacy with our enemies for that blame to land. All of that is okay, as long as it remains only an instinct. As long as it’s only an instinct we can take it out and look at it and think about it, and then decide not to give expression to it. The history of Salem is a sad case of people failing not to give expression to that instinct, but imagine all the times people did and still do avoid giving expression to it. Think of ways that instinct tries to emerge in you, on a much smaller scale, and let the lesson of Salem be a teacher in your life to help you find better solutions. I can think of examples in my life. When I’m leaving late for work, all the sudden everyone on the road is driving too slow and making me wait for them. They’re witches! No, of course the real solution is for me to leave for work with plenty of time to get there. Then the traffic is the same but I can listen to my audio book and enjoy my drive. I changed my behavior and made my life better, but it’s not magic—I’m not a witch!—I some days fail and blame everyone else for my failing to leave for work on time. I can only strive to do better in life, but lessons from history, like the lesson of the Salem Witch Trials, offer perspective to help me in that aim. I think your interest that began with The Crucible will do the same for you. I hope this book and accompanying book report will complement that interest.

Part two of a book report I wrote for my niece interested in The Crucible.

Greg Metcalf is the author of Flowers on Concrete, a novel, Hibernation, a YA thriller, and the memoir Letters Home: A WWII Pilot’s Letters to His Wife and Baby from the Pacific. All are available as paperbacks and as Ebooks at amazon.com. He has three other completed novels, unpublished to date. His short fiction has appeared at Boston Literary Magazine, Metazen, and Toasted Cheese.


Witch Craze: Europe (Part One)

Old world Europe, from early A.D. to the fourteenth or fifteenth centuries, had what we would consider “superstitious” beliefs. They weren’t superstitious to the people of that time. The world was being discovered through careful observation but the information wasn’t being introduced to most people. People spread across the continent of Europe made sense of the randomness of their daily lives as best they could. A common desire among people is for order and control. You may have discovered this in your own life. You enjoy structure. You like that dinner comes around the same time every day. You like that you and your friends all gather at the same spot before school or at the same table for lunch. You’re driving now, you like the consistency of traffic lights! Our world is very organized. Fun as it is to occasionally deviate from that, that order is something we count on.

People then desired that same consistency. Their lives were probably day after day the same: they fed the animals, fetched water, cared for the plants in the fields. The stakes were high, because they were isolated in their parts of the area. Within a certain village there would be people they believed had special powers, “cunning folk,” they were known as. Cunning folk could mix together a strange brew of ingredients and offer them as cures for various ailments. People took them and sometimes got better, sometimes didn’t. The potions may have helped, they may not have had any effect. Either way, cunning folk provided people with the illusion of control over their lives, which gave them comfort. Say you were worried about a test and there was a girl in your school who you believed had magical powers to help you get a good grade. You might study hard for the test, but not wanting to leave anything to chance, you might ask for her help. The same way you believe this girl can help, she believes she can help. Maybe she gives you a magic tea to drink before the test or an amulet to wear during the test. If you get an A, you might give her a gift as thanks. If you get an F, you might blame her.

People in old Europe treated cunning folk like that for all the important aspects of their lives. Most of these important aspects of their lives involved life itself, the life in the animals they depended on for milk and food, the life of their plants in the fields, the life inside them in the form of pregnancy. People blamed the cunning folk when crops failed or a cow died or a woman couldn’t get pregnant, which allowed them the illusion of control over the harsh randomness of life, but they rarely got too angry because they respected the power of the cunning folk and felt dependent on them to turn their luck around. Cunning folk would also curse certain people, believing they had the ability to follow through with these curses, so if misfortune struck someone cursed would feel wronged. Under extreme conditions, the people may have turned on someone with these powers who they felt wasn’t helping enough or was acting against them and even killed them, but this would have been rare. Cunning folk were accepted and life was like that for many centuries, but around the 15th century something changed.

Christianity had become the primary religion and the church was working out philosophical paradoxes, or trying to. One was “the problem of evil.” This “problem of evil” is a philosophical paradox you’re likely to read about or think about: if God is all powerful and benevolent, why is there evil in the world? Well, there’s no real answer, that’s why it’s called a paradox, but the answer provided says a lot about the thinking of a period of time. If you recall from Little Book of Thou, there was a chapter on “the insight of duality.” This way of interpreting the world led to the thinking that God was all powerful and benevolent and the answer to the problem of evil must have been an opposing force of evil, in the form of the devil. The devil was no match for God in terms of power, so the devil worked in a sneaky fashion by corrupting people and getting them to do his bidding. Imagine in this fresh context how “cunning people” supposedly capable of making cows sick or women infertile or crops wilt and die might be perceived. They came to be viewed as in league with the devil as witches. All of that ill feeling for cunning people that came when they didn’t help or when they cursed people now had an avenue for retaliation. When misfortune struck, witches could be blamed and there was now justification for punishing them.

Change didn’t occur suddenly; the resentment over years in areas hit particularly hard by flood or drought that led to hard times intensified. The structure of society, the controlling parties, now had both the power and the perceived justification to exact punishments on “cunning people” whose inaction or action led, again in the thinking of people, to misfortune: suddenly sick or dying farm animals or a woman’s infertility etc. These punishments could be just fines but also prison sentences and even executions. In some ways, the community felt healed. Evil had been rooted out, eliminated, and normalcy seemed returned to the community.

This was sad enough, people generally eccentric, usually women, being singled out and killed—really sacrificed—to sustain the illusion of control over a random, sometimes harsh, existence, but the way of finding witches often led to “panic outbreaks.” Panic outbreaks occurred because guilt was usually assumed and discovered witches were questioned to gather information: who else was at your meetings with the devil? Naming names would sometimes spare the lives of the accused. Other times naming names would only minimize the torture before death. Records are imperfect but through the various “witch crazes” of Europe estimates are 50,000-100,000 people were executed for witchcraft with many more imprisoned. This is the culture that travelled to America with the early colonists.

Part one of a book report I wrote for my niece who is interested in The Crucible. Part two coming soon.

Greg Metcalf is the author of Flowers on Concrete, a novel, Hibernation, a YA thriller, and the memoir Letters Home: A WWII Pilot’s Letters to His Wife and Baby from the Pacific. Available for purchase as paperbacks and Ebooks, at amazon.com. He has three other completed novels, unpublished to date. His short fiction has appeared at Boston Literary Magazine, Metazen, and Toasted Cheese.

Negotiating No

A woman is clearly struggling carrying bags or boxes. A man offers to help. She says, “No thanks. I got it.” It’s obvious (to him) that she wants the help but has no reason to trust the stranger offering it. So the man starts convincing her he can be trusted. How does he do this? With the same words a man the woman was right not to trust would use. “It’s no problem. You really look like you’re struggling. Let me help.” What the man is doing is treating her “no” as negotiable. If he is successful, he ends up helping her, he proved he really did just want to help, but he also made her “no” negotiable. So her “no” in a future similar situation might be easier to negotiate into a yes, which will probably again turn out fine, but predators also look for women whose “no” can be negotiated into a yes. (I got this from Gavin de Becker’s book, The Gift of Fear, in the intro he states that most sexual assault throughout history has been perpetrated by men against women, so that’s how he’s going to express it, so I did the same.)

I one time saw a woman moving into my apartment complex carrying boxes into her apartment. She was struggling with a large one and I offered to help. She told me no. I felt kind of rejected. I obviously could have been of help to her. Then I realized, What the hell were you asking? To follow her into an enclosed space. Reasonable for her to choose to instead struggle a bit with boxes than let a stranger into her apartment. Another time, just a few weeks ago, this woman at the laundromat had a kid in one arm and was trying to push her cage of laundry out the door to her car. So I held the door open for her. Then another guy came out of nowhere and one-upped me by saying, “I can get that for you,” and taking hold of her cart and pushing it out for her. She appreciated his help, but I thought that was a boundary not to cross, at least not without making sure she was cool with him touching her stuff.

I realize I picked two examples where I was kind of thoughtful. I can think of lots of times I’ve tried to negotiate a no into a yes, though. People do it all the time. And people are successful at doing it all the time. I would even say it’s something we do with a lot of positive associations. As men we’re raised on movie tropes of men persevering when initially rejected by a woman, so we’re taught to try to negotiate no into yes. Women watch those movies, too, so they learn to create a barrier out of no that is meant to be broken through by the “right” guy. Even the title of this blog post was originally going to be “negotiating no into yes,” which initially felt provocative and even vicious. Then I immediately realized it would sound like a self-improvement advice column.

I’m not sure what the answer is, because if there were magic words you could use to convince a woman your offer to help was sincere, predators would just use those magic words. They already are using the words that work to get them what they want. What was frightening reading The Gift of Fear by Gavin de Becker was how typical the early exchanges were between predators and their female victims.

What Makes Us Girls

Young girls mature into women under the male gaze. This probably feels like intense scrutiny, how much so and what influence this has on ego development will vary widely, but this isn’t an experience men have with anything close to the same degree or frequency. Lana del Rey writes from the perspective of someone affected by an especially piercing male gaze. This is my interpretation.

Watch me in the swimming pool, watch me in the classroom, bathroom, slipping on my red dress, putting on my make-up

The lyrics partly stand out because I know my niece is a fan. For Christmas, she got me a copy of Honeymoon. It felt a little odd to get a CD with a Parental Advisory Explicit Content warning on the cover from my fifteen-year-old niece, but I love that she’s a fan. Because Lana del Rey’s song lyrics I find troubling don’t offend me, they don’t make me like her less, and they don’t make me think she would be a bad influence on my niece. Her lyrics aren’t misogynist, they wouldn’t be if I wrote them; they reflect the misogyny still influencing us. They’re insights, whether through characters, her author persona, or her personal reflections, into how misogyny potentially affects young women.

The last track of Born to Die particularly makes me think of my niece listening, “This is What Makes Us Girls.”

Sweet sixteen and we had arrived, walking down the street as they whistle hi hi

They feel they’ve “arrived” at the age of sixteen and the confirmation of their arrival is being cat-called on the street. But the line I find haunting is: running from the cops in our bright bikini tops, screaming ‘get us while we’re hot, get us while we’re hot.’

Get us
While we’re hot

They’re running from cops but the subtext is hard to ignore. They’re perceiving of themselves as objects under men’s gazes, being wanted gotten, aware, already, that these same men think of them as having a brief shelf life of ‘being hot.” What makes them girls is this common experience. I hope my niece grows up with that influence feeling less pronounced, but I don’t see any drawback in her being exposed to honest writing from someone who seems to have grown into a woman with that influence pronounced. It can only broaden her life perspective and if she does identify it will help her feel less alone. My niece is probably never going to choose to share with Uncle Greg her experience of becoming a woman under the male gaze and it’s not a subject I can broach with her, but she knows I like Lana del Rey, so maybe she thinks her uncle Greg gets it. Maybe one day she’ll read this blog and know I’m on her side.

David Foster Wallace: Where an Obsession Begins

I tell people to check out David Foster Wallace but always qualify it with “but be careful where you start,” which isn’t very specific, so I’m listing his books in a recommended reverse order.

9. Infinite Jest

I posted a review of I.J. I’ll link below but just for fun I dug through and found a line that I often think of and giggle. The dad of two of the characters moves a bed and is complaining about how dirty the floor is and says, “Under what presidential administration was this room last deep-cleaned, I’m standing here prompted to fucking muse out loud.” There was probably a lot of context that made that stand out as so funny. Here’s the review: https://myfreesentences.wordpress.com/2015/08/20/infinite-jest-brilliant-and-hilarious-tedious-and-self-indulgent-five-stars/

8. Everything and More: A Compact History of Infinity

D.F.W. studied math, as in super high level math theory, and wrote about infinity. I read every word of this book and understood hardly any of it. But the opening was interesting. He talked about how a word, like “chair,” can be repeated until it stops denoting, which is that weird feeling you can give yourself by picking a word you’ve known since you were three and wonder why it’s called that. Why do we call chairs chairs?

7. Brief Interview with Hideous Men

This was the first book of his I read, and I actually listened to it. The second story was “Forever Overhead,” which remains my favorite short story. If this collection hadn’t included that story, I might have stopped here. I don’t recall liking very many of the others, though I intend to try them again at some point.

6.The Broom of the System

I enjoyed this book. It doesn’t seem like his other stuff, though. He hadn’t hit, yet, on the unique style that makes him him. It’s definitely worth reading, I just wouldn’t say you’re getting the best sense of him from it. The best parts were these supposedly terrible short stories students had written and the teacher of this class describes the stories to his girlfriend and the stories are actually bizarre but kind of awesome, as summarized by the character.

5. Girl with Curious Hair

This is a story collection. Little Expressionless Animals was fantastic. Here and There I also really liked. Some were, like Infinite Jest, great in parts but tedious at times, overall. The last story, Westward the Course of Empire Takes Its Way, felt like a precursor to the approach he would take to Infinite Jest. That’s probably the only thing he wrote that is close to like I.J.

4. A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again

This is a collection of six essays on a variety of subjects, a report on a tennis player trying to make the pro tour, a piece on the movie Lost Highway being made by David Lynch, where he discusses Lynch’s earlier movie, in depth, Blue Velvet.

The probably most relatable essay is his report on taking a cruise, which is the essay the collection is titled after. This includes the line, “Temperatures were uterine.” He describes the cruise as being sad and inducing despair: “It’s more like wanting to die in order to escape the unbearable feeling of becoming aware that I’m small and weak and selfish and going without any doubt at all to die. It’s wanting to jump overboard.”

As I mention in my review of Infinite Jest, his writing is dotted with insights, either through characters or through his author persona, that feel like they must have been drawn from his mental illness, a combination of anxiety and depression, that led to his suicide in 2008, but I’ve never read anyone that’s made me laugh out loud more while reading.

3. Consider the Lobster

Another essay collection. The title comes from an essay he wrote about lobster, which poses ethical questions about how we treat the animals we eat with such thoughtful consideration to both sides, and he did eat meat, I would recommend anyone who’s thought about this issue, which is most of us, give it a read. And what’s even cooler is he wrote it while covering a lobster fest for a food magazine. It’s available online. A few others stood out, in these politically polarized times as thoughtful and careful looks at both sides, one on the politics of usage dictionaries, which was surprisingly entertaining, another covering John McCain’s 2008 campaign, and another piece on a right-wing radio talk show host.

2. Oblivion

The reason I always tell people to be careful where they start is because David Foster Wallace is so dense in his writing style, if you hit on something not to your interest you’re likely to be overwhelmed. The stories in Oblivion, more so than the ones in Girl with Curious Hair and much more so than the ones in Brief Interviews, were all enjoyable. Mr. Squishy was a story about the marketing strategy for a snack food, which presents the idea that the market will push healthy foods but then turn and then use the exhausting pressure they are responsible for to push unhealthy foods as a break from the pressure.

Antitrend Shadows they’re called. “…the rather brilliantly managed stress that everyone was made to feel about staying fit and looking good and living long and squeezing the absolute maximum productivity and health and self-actuation out of every last vanishing second…”

(skipping some stuff. This leads to the turn for the snack foods push even though they’re unhealthy)

“(the snack foods) said or sought to say to a consumer bludgeoned by herd-pressures to achieve, forbear, trim the fat, cut down, discipline, prioritize, be sensible, self-parent, that hey, you deserve it, reward yourself, brands that in essence said what’s the use of living longer and healthier if there aren’t those few precious moments in every day when you took a few moments of hard-earned pleasure just for you?”

(then skipping some more really good stuff, there is a description of) “ads that featured people in workout clothes running into each other in dim closets where they’d gone to eat (these snacks) in secret, with all the ingenious and piquant taglines that played against the moment the characters’ mutual embarrassment turned to laughter and a convolved espirit de corps.”

Then there is Good Old Neon, which is narrated by a character who has committed suicide because he felt like a fraud, which is obviously tempting to take as very autobiographical, which maybe is unfair, but either way is a fantastic story of a human being under extreme duress from dealing with issues we can all relate to, to some degree, that everything he presents to the outside world hides who he really is deep inside, of course also aware how cliché and banal he is for fixating on this when everyone does. A hero on the internet read the entire story and posted it on youtube if anyone would rather listen.

1. The Pale King

Initially I swore I would never read this. It’s an unfinished novel, at about 500 pages, and while no one could guess how long it might have been, it sounds like from the notes left behind it would have been a second Infinite Jest type of length. Most of the chapters introduce characters who will work together at an IRS facility. Chapter two is a guy on a plane studying for the CPA exam and getting constantly distracted by everything around him. Boredom as a form of anxiety is one of the big things he was exploring. He was taking classes on taxes as research. Another chapter was a character who broke out into sweats if he started to think about sweating, or if he started to think about thinking about sweating, which left him in a pretty much constant pickle. D.F.W. broke out into panic sweats in high school, according to his parents, so again there was likely an autobiographical element to that character. He’s also in the book, in an author foreword that starts on page 68, where he claims the book is actually nonfiction. He apparently was hired at an IRS company but his name David Wallace was common enough that he got mistaken for a different one. To keep that from happening again he started using his middle name and somewhere he writes, I have to paraphrase because I couldn’t find it, “once you pick a nom de plume you’re kind of stuck with it, no matter how pretentious it sounds.”

There were also odd chapters, like one about a kid who devotes his life to doing stretching exercises with the goal of being able to kiss himself on every part of his body. (He’s going to worry about the back of his head later.) And another one about a guy who decides to record a month of TV on twelve channels and then watch it over a year. And as they’re discussing endlessly the logistics of accomplishing this, there is one character who keeps breaking in and asking, “Why, though?”

If you can take it for what it is, the last writings of honestly one of the greatest writers to have ever lived, which sounds ridiculous but is accurate, and not focus on what it isn’t, The Pale King is just a super fun read. I bought it for my sister as her introduction to David Foster Wallace. She hasn’t read it, yet.

It should go without saying but I’ll say it, this is all just one reader’s opinion on his books. And it’s worth noting that this reverse order is closer to the order I actually read them in. I went from Brief Interviews to Infinite Jest and worked my way down this list reading Pale King second to last and Oblivion last. Which could also mean I largely learned to read him as I read him. It will be interesting to reread Brief Interviews and see if I enjoy it more the second time.

How Obama’s Blackness Led to Trump

The Persistence of the Color Line by Randall Kennedy has a subtitle different from the one I gave to it as I was reading, which I used as the title of this post. Racial Politics and the Obama Presidency is the real subtitle, but I think that’s only because the book came out in 2011.

The book begins with the feeling in the country that the election of our first black president signaled the end or at least the beginning of the end of racism in America. Then it suggests that race influenced how Obama was perceived and evaluated and the author presents this as happening on both sides. From the introduction:

Racial liberals supported Obama more than they would have backed an ideologically similar white candidate while racial conservatives opposed Obama more than they would have opposed an ideologically similar white candidate.

At one point in Obama’s 2008 campaign, Obama launched an anticipatory attack on McCain, by preparing the public for a racialized line of attack from McCain. Including they would remind voters not to forget he was black. Randall Kennedy criticized that: “If you are going to indict someone for the social crime of racial wrongdoing, you should be careful about doing so, which means identifying with specificity the misconduct to which you object. Obama did not do that.” The author also credits McCain. “McCain’s record on racial matters is considerably less impressive than what one would like to see in a leading American statesman. Running for the presidency, however, and to the dismay of allies, McCain imposed upon himself a code of conduct that precluded taking full advantage of his opponent’s racial vulnerability.”

Randall Kennedy’s ability to objectively analyze all angles comes through clearly in his in-depth look at the case of Gates, the black Harvard professor neighbors reported for trying to break into his own home, July 16th, 2009. Gates reacted strongly to being approached, feeling his blackness was the cause, which was unfair to the police officer, Crowley, responding to the call. Although Crowley then overreacted by arresting Gates for disorderly conduct, a charge later dropped. [This is the author’s opinion but I agree. Police officers are trained to control situations for public safety but need to recognize instances when their presence is the instigating factor in a volatile situation and defuse that situation by exiting the scene. Gate’s reaction was extreme but understandable. So let him yell at you, let him yell about your mother. It’s not personal.] Kennedy called the beer summit that followed “lamentable,” but thought Obama’s response was fair. “The first black president must simultaneously address supporters who will be tempted to see racial bias in opposition—whether or not bias is actually present—and detractors who will be tempted to see opportunism in all complaints against racial prejudice—whether or not the complaints are justified. Obama seeks to appease the latter more than the former. He is deeply hesitant to claim that a criticism of him is in any way racially discriminatory. He is keenly attentive to the reality that racial discrimination is often hard to identify clearly and that the very effort to make the identification is often politically costly.”

He follows this case with the simple, generic case of a black customer in a store being treated rudely by a white cashier. Couldn’t the white cashier be dealing with personal issues or just a jackass to everybody? Of course. Couldn’t the white cashier, maybe, be a closet racist who treats black people rudely but hides his or her tracks? Also of course. “The problem, though, is still more complicated. People who engage in racial discrimination not only hide their prejudice from observers; they also often hide their prejudice from themselves. Many who engage in racial discrimination believe with all sincerity that they do not.”

As I said, this book came out in 2011, so the author never connects any of this to the rise of Trump but everything about it felt predictive of the 2016 election outcome. I think Obama had little to do with that, but our response to Obama, to his blackness, had a lot to do with it. Obama was just doing his hard job of being president, reading his daily briefings and making the best decisions he could for the country. And the vast majority of Americans aren’t racist and didn’t evaluate Obama based on his blackness. What I do think happened is people in agreement with Obama pointed at those opposed by finding the few whose criticisms were racially based and lumping them together. Meanwhile those with legitimate criticisms of Obama sincerely believed that his supporters were missing what was going wrong because they were overly sensitive to his blackness. All of this set the stage for Trump’s rise.

Obama avoided the fate of other black leaders, like Al Sharpton, who developed a reputation of always making everything about race, which creates an aggressive-cried-wolf perception among people. This racial sensitivity fatigue leads to the wrong-headedness of believing everyone else’s racial sensitivity couldn’t be sincere but must be the result of “political correctness” going too far, which led to misreading Trump’s racist and hateful, and essentially dull, rhetoric as refreshing. We were ready for a black president and we were ready for a woman president. What we couldn’t handle was a black president followed by a woman president. That was going too far.

The title of the post is provocative because these are disheartening times, for me and many. Those who think we’re overreacting to Trump’s presidency will criticize it, I imagine, but to be clear, all I said is that this subtitle for this book came to my mind. Nowhere have I ever suggested Trump voters are racist. That’s absurd. I don’t lump Trump voters all together and hope Trump supporters don’t lump all of us in protest of Trump together. In a close election myriad factors swung the result. This reaction to the perception that racial sensitivity is political correctness going too far is one of those factors that did swing this election. As Van Jones said on election night, “I know it’s not just about race, there is more going on than that, but race is here too and we got to talk about it.”

The Stigma of Suicide (A Pale King Metaphor)

We have a lot of compassion for people feeling suicidal but often too little for those who have taken their own lives. With good intentions, we use phrases like “giving up” or “throwing your life away.” The goal is to remind the living that their lives have value, but the result is a pressure on those struggling to persevere as they suffer emotional turmoil. They feel guilty for not appreciating life, the way others do but really the way emotionally healthy people enjoy life, which exacerbates their anguish.

David Foster Wallace voluntarily left this world, also leaving a novel-in-progress. They found close to six-hundred pages of completed, publishable chapters and notebooks of ideas and free write chapters all bundled under the title The Pale King. I think of the passion and dedication and perseverance required to do all that work and I don’t think of someone for whom “giving up” or “throwing his life away” fit. This was someone who recognized the value of his life but was driven by inner turmoil to the escape suicide seemed to offer during a moment of crushing despair. The Pale King isn’t proof of his value but works as a metaphor. The Pale King isn’t evidence his life had value, each of our lives has that. We don’t need accomplishments—not books or children or jobs we enjoy, not even relationships with other people—to have lives we value; we just need to each find our unique way to make our mysterious presence resonate.

From what I’ve read, David Foster Wallace didn’t discuss his mental health much, publicly, but according to an interview his parents gave, after his death, he suffered from panic sweats in high school. The Pale King includes a character who agonizes over starting to sweat and how starting to think about starting to sweat will make him sweat but trying not to think about starting to sweat is too much like thinking about starting to sweat and so he starts to sweat—we’re talking visibly dripping sweating sitting in a lecture kind of sweating. Often his characters experience occasional bouts of mental anguish, which doesn’t make those characters him but it seems likely he was drawing on his own experience. In Infinite Jest there was a line that people don’t jump out of buildings to die, they jump out of buildings because the building they are in is on fire and then they die.

The existence of The Pale King, what we have, makes me think of the many times David Foster Wallace must have rescued himself from his severe anxiety and depression and from the brink of suicide rather than the final time he didn’t. We’re indoctrinated to the idea that life is a gift, which translates to an obligation when our troubles feel insurmountable and unending. Life isn’t a gift or an obligation. Life is an opportunity for discovering our reason for choosing to be here. This is the beauty of a human life, is that we know we’ll die but we don’t let that marginalize our time here. We celebrate it. This is easier for some than others. The message to those feeling despair and tempted by suicide shouldn’t be “Don’t do it,” the message should be “Delay. Seek help.” This is why suicide guards on bridges are proven effective because delaying suicide increases the likelihood that the person will seek help. (That bridges often don’t have them despite how cheap they are to install reflects the stigma of suicide. The Golden Gate Bridge, a suicide destination for some twenty people annually, still doesn’t have one.–See link below for an older blog about The Bridge, if interested–People don’t understand the point of them because they can’t believe someone wouldn’t simply find another way, but suicide is an impulsive act. Even when suicide follows a period of despair, within that period suicide was resisted, delayed, and then committed impulsively. Sometimes a delay of twenty minutes can result in a change of perspective that might prevent suicide.)

I understand the temptation of the flip side. He was in the middle of a great book. How could he not finish it? Even on the selfish level of me wanting to read it, I can feel angry. On the less selfish level of America needing his voice now more than ever, I can feel angry. I can imagine his friends and family, who loved him, experiencing grief and think, Why? But I just don’t go there. Not because I think having empathy for him is the right response, this isn’t the equivalent of “being politically correct,” but because I do have empathy for him. I’ve glimpsed what maybe he was feeling because his immense talent as a writer showed me characters experiencing anguish utterly unknown to me as an emotionally healthy person. So anger just isn’t my response. It would be wasted anger, anyway, except worse than wasted because it would feel directed to people living who are experiencing those levels of anguish and would be internalized as a threat: Don’t do it because we’ll think less of you afterwards, which would add to their struggle.

These are just my opinions and I’m not an expert. Thinking about suicide isn’t a sign of a problem. Typically people will think fleetingly about suicide, this is actually life affirming. We’re reminding ourselves we’re choosing to be here. Contemplating suicide could be a sign of a problem. Seek help, now, and acquire coping skills so that if an impulsive moment comes delaying will be easier. Avoid keeping a gun in the home. Call this number, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-8255

I’ve touched on this subject in both my review of Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace and in my review of The Bridge. I’ll link both below.



Links below from wordpress. Thank you for reading.


By the Discretion of the Judge

Apparently our judges get a great deal of discretion during sentencing. This went viral when a judge recently reduced the sentence of a convicted rapist to three months in jail. People were justifiably appalled, but according to the research Jon Krakauer did for his book Missoula, judges have this discretion in rapes where there is no accompanying physical injury to not require convicted rapists serve any jail time at all. This obscenely ignores the emotional trauma of being the victim of a rape. And is really just obscene enough to stand without comment.

Where Men Win Glory: The Odyssey of Pat Tillman, also by Jon Krakauer, included an incident that occurred when Pat Tillman was nineteen. It turned out to be a regrettable moment in his life that he used to motivate himself to be a better person, which he successfully accomplished, so I don’t love describing it with him gone. Long story shortened from the book, he basically put a younger kid in the hospital and knocked teeth out and was still at it when cops dragged him off the kid. He was no bully. He mistakenly thought a friend of his was being bullied by a group, so he picked out the biggest guy from the group he could find and started fighting him. As happens with vigilante justice, he misread the situation completely and had actually picked out a guy who wasn’t even in the group. (Besides not realizing his friend had actually approached and antagonized the group first.) He could have been convicted of felony assault which would have cost him his scholarship to ASU but the judge reduced the charges to a misdemeanor.

A friend of the boy Pat Tillman beat up, Erin Clarke’s comments are worth copying out: “At the time I didn’t agree with the sentence at all. It seemed like the judge was more worried about Pat losing his scholarship than what happened to Darin.”

Later she heard on the radio Pat Tillman had been killed: “I remember the air being sucked out of my lungs. He was the first person I knew who had died in the war, and that morning the war suddenly became very real to me. What I take from Pat Tillman is that you are not who you are at your worst moment. After what Pat did to Darin, it seems like he really turned his life around and became quite an honorable person. That judge held Pat’s future in her hands. She had the power to send him down one path or another, and she decided to make what turned out to be a really good decision. She said ‘I’m going to believe in you—I’m going to believe you’re going to take this opportunity and do the best you possibly can with it.’ And you know what? It sounds like that’s what he did. I don’t think there are many people on this planet who would have done as well with that kind of second chance.”

I couldn’t agree with everything she said more because I know what a heroic and honorable life Pat Tillman lived. But the judge made what turned out to be a really good decision. The last sentence of her statement might be cynical but is probably accurate. How many people take these second chances and do good with them and how many shake off a close call but continue to live with huge entitlement issues? If the Stanford rapist turns out to do something wonderful and selfless with the rest of his life we might all say his judge made what turned out to be a good decision, but none of us think he’s a very likely candidate for living an especially honorable life.

So what are judges going by? Pat Tillman’s judge believed in him, but what’s her track record? Maybe she just believes in the good in everyone that comes before her and gets burned by most people on the planet. What did the judge see in the Stanford rapist? Maybe he felt pity for a young man who enjoyed cooking out and having prime rib, just like the judge does, but doesn’t anymore since what happened. Whereas a young man who cooks out and has hamburgers and hot dogs like most of the population of the country the judge wouldn’t relate to as well and therefore wouldn’t have his empathy invoked.

My two problems are we all like the idea of second chances for people. In fact, we’re rather obsessed with people making it on their second chance. But second chances after minimal or no consequences for the initial mistake probably don’t show improved behavior as often as we like to think. My second problem is I’ve lost a lot of faith in our judicial system. I grew up believing judges were impartial, which meant purely objective, above making decisions based on partisan leanings. I’m rather embarrassed that I held onto that as long as I did since learning it at age eight, probably. In the same book, I learned Bush’s 2000 election was helped along by a 5-4 ruling from the Supreme Court on a Florida recount decision. Sandra Day O’Connor, one of the five, had stated on several occasions she was eager to retire and didn’t want a Democrat to nominate her successor. That doesn’t prove she didn’t cast an impartial vote but, like I said, I’ve lost faith in the impartiality of our judicial system.

I suppose this blog would be better if I could end with an answer to it, but I don’t have one. Maybe one problem is the huge swings in sentencing. A person can get from no jail time to twenty years in jail for a conviction of rape. Maybe judges shouldn’t get that much discretion. Maybe we should be more clear that court TV isn’t court at all. Court TV is third-party arbitration. These TV personalities have all the discretion in the world and most kids and probably a lot of adults think that’s court, which it’s not. Maybe we should do close studies on how judge’s discretion correlates with race or gender. I know not everything is about race and gender but a lot still is about race and gender.

There might also be a sense that what happened to the victim of a rape or an assault can’t be undone. What’s about to happen to the person convicted of the crime can be done or undone, right then by the judge. Presumably judges get to be judges because they’re capable of handling that pressure moment fairly but maybe we’re terrible at deciding who gets to be our judges. Maybe there’s too much inconsistency. Maybe we don’t give enough consideration to how these instances of light sentencing leave victims feeling victimized again. And not just the specific victim but anyone who’s been victimized and people who worry about being victimized in a society where people convicted can receive such light sentences. That may explain why the Stanford rapist case went viral. People weren’t reacting to how that didn’t seem fair. They were reacting to how that wasn’t fair based on circumstances in their own lives, either traumas of their pasts or their biggest fears.

Where Men Win Glory: Reviewed

So many tragic missteps led up to the completely avoidable death of this great man. Not even so much the actual fratricide because that tragedy commonly befalls soldiers in wars and I can’t begin to fathom the mixture of confusion and fear and adrenaline that must go on during a fire fight. More upsetting and easily preventable were the decisions before combat took place: splitting the group, forcing them to make a destination for no tangible reason. Then all the misinformation about what happened intentionally spread by lies of omission. This seems to be the practice of this age. They know the truth is eventually going to get out, but they withhold it and let the lies and the misinformation do the work they need done. Then by the time the true story breaks, it’s too late to have the effect they worried about it having. (Which is partly the fault of the media and, let’s face it, us, which includes me, for sure.)

Somehow one of the slights that really bugged me that didn’t get much page time was his very clearly stating his final wishes weren’t to involve a chaplain or a military service. Those were his religious beliefs and they were ignored and not just ignored but openly disparaged by that one guy, whose name I don’t recall now after finishing the book.

But what’s cool is this story, as maddening as it was to read many details, is more than anything about an inspiring person in Pat Tillman. I only knew going in that he gave up his football career to join the Army, but there were so many additional little things you discover about him reading this book that you admire and can then emulate moving forward in your own life.

Anomalisa: Achingly Beautiful, at times Dull: Such is Life

Review/Analysis includes spoilers but no ending spoilers.

On a business trip from LA, Michael Stone arrives at the airport in Cincinnati, a city with a zoo, featured as being zoo-sized, and chili one has to try, it only takes an hour to have chili.

Everyone has the same voice. Everyone has the same face, except these aren’t faces, quite, they’re masks. Everyone wears the same mask. Michael checks into the Fregoli hotel before a convention where he will lecture on his book: How May I Help You Help Them? About genuine interaction with people and how it can boost sales.

After a call home to his wife and son, whose voices are the same, he calls up an old girlfriend in town, also with the same voice. (The voice of Tom Noonan, who played “Sammy” in Charlie Kaufman’s last movie, and my personal favorite movie of all time, Synecdoche, New York.) They meet in the hotel bar. He left her inexplicably eleven years ago, she wants to know why, but his answers are vague about psychological problems, of his, which quickly turn to accusations of how she changed. She storms off. Back in his room, he catches a unique voice in the hall and chases down Lisa, a woman in town with a friend to hear him speak. The three have drinks. Lisa stands aside on the way back up to the room and it’s Emily, the woman with the same face, same voice, who is on Michael’s arm, but he invites Lisa into his room for a night cap.

Lisa goes but argues that everyone usually likes her friend, Emily. Why does he like her? He thinks she’s extraordinary. Why? “I don’t know, yet. It’s just obvious to me that you are.”

During a long intimate talk the word “anomaly” comes up, a word she learned when she read his book. “I feel like an anomaly,” she says. “Before I knew there was a word for it, it made me feel bad to be different, but now I kind of like it. Sometimes.”

They spend the night together, which includes some of the most graphic sex you’ve ever seen in a movie. Something about the intimacy between two animated puppets making love is flat shocking. But in the morning, Michael finds fault in how Lisa eats, her fork taps her teeth, she talks with her mouth open. Her unique voice starts to morph into that other voice that is everyone else’s but his.

Unless you have handy knowledge of the catalogue of psychological ailments or did a google search on your phone you probably missed, as I did, that the name of the hotel, Fregoli, is also the name of the actual condition Michael Stone has, where he can’t differentiate people. The clever set up of the movie, though, is that we identify with the world Michael Stone sees, in the beginning. The cab driver going on and on about how much there is to see in Cincinatti. The bell hop’s rehearsed chat on the elevator ride up to his room. But really it’s Michael Stone who’s missing the sincerity in these exchanges. The cab driver does know about his city’s unique charm, the chili is cinnamon and chocolate flavored and served over pasta. The bell hop’s body language demonstrates real care in how Michael’s flight went. “You’re safe now,” he tells him.

Everything in the movie is there for a reason. When Michael orders room service he gets the salmon and a salad, but the same voice he always hears reads back to him the dish with all its flourishes and sauces. There is a depth to the world Michael is missing. But this is the world we’re also missing. Michael hears a fresh voice and meets Lisa and we’re as glad as he is for something unique. In the morning, after their night of intimate connection, we learn what isn’t a surprise, Lisa’s voice morphs into that everyone but him voice because this wasn’t a surreal world where everyone has the same face and voice, this was a character failing to maintain connections with people’s unique selves, with the depth present in the world.

Why is Lisa so surprised Michael shows interest in her? Everyone usually likes Emily, she says, because Emily appears to be like everyone else. We look for that conformity, for people wearing those familiar masks, and then want to peer past them and find individuality. When this stops working, when we fail to find individuality, we see nothing but masks and blame the world for not containing the individuality we’re failing to find. The failure is ours, as it clearly is Michael Stone’s.

The difference between humans and sheep is sheep don’t go around accusing the other sheep of being sheep. We are all unique snowflakes. You are but so is everyone else, but like snowflakes we have to look awfully close to find out we’re different because we’re mostly all the same. What we tend to forget, what Michael Stone forgot, is that our sameness is as much a part of the beauty of being human as our individuality is.

In the line I quoted above Lisa says it made her feel bad to be different until she found out there was a word for it. Her individuality needed to relate to the community outside of it. Then she could like being different, but only sometimes. Because she still had that desire to fit in.