Educating Ourselves about Violence

IMG_2992I’m at a loss to say whether Educated: A Memoir, Tara Westover’s highly-celebrated account of her escape from a fundamentalist, survivalist, home-schooled upbringing in Idaho to earn a Ph.D. from Cambridge University, is a good book. What I can say without hesitation is that it’s a disturbing book. It took me awhile to get through it, actually. I was reading it at night before I went to sleep. I had barely started it when I was overcome one morning by dizziness and nausea as I got out of bed. The feeling subsided as the day wore on, but it returned the next morning, and if anything, was even worse.

I don’t remember now how long it took me to figure out what the problem was, and I still can’t be certain that I was correct. I believe, however, that the problem was that I was reading Westover’s extended and graphic descriptions of serious head injuries just before going to sleep and hence planting the suggestion in my mind that I had suffered a similar injury.

Whether my guess was correct or not, the dizziness and nausea, disappeared when I stopped reading the book. I was afraid to pick it up again and didn’t for a long time.  I wouldn’t have picked it up again except that it was the selection of a reading group I was hoping to join. The thing is, there isn’t much to it but these extended, graphic descriptions of injuries. It is essentially a collection of such descriptions strung together with accounts of Westover’s physical and emotional abuse by various family members, and, toward the end, thin filaments of hope as she gradually extricates herself from a web of nightmarish familial relationships.

The book assaults the reader. I’ve never read anything like it before, and I hope never to read anything like it again. I couldn’t get through even a few pages without feeling as if I had been physically throttled, or worse. Here’s just a brief snippet of the one of the many descriptions of head injuries. The Westover family, at the father’s insistence, had set out after dinner on a twelve-hour drive from Arizona, where they had been visiting, back to their home in Idaho. It isn’t clear how the accident happened, as Westover had fallen asleep.

I looked around. Tyler had twisted his upper body so that he was practically climbing into the backseat, his eyes bulging as he took in every cut, every bruise, every pair of wide eyes. I could see his face but it didn’t look like his face. Blood gushed from his mouth and down his shirt. I closed my eyes, trying to forget the twisted angles of his bloodstained teeth. When I opened them again, it was to check everyone else. Richard was holding his head, a hand over each ear like he was trying to block out a noise. Audrey’s nose was strangely hooked and blood was streaming from it down her arm. Luke was shaking but I couldn’t see any blood. I had a gash on my forearm from where the seat’s frame had caught hold of me” (pp. 50-51.)

….

I don’t know how we got home, or when, … Once inside, I watched Tyler spit streams of crimson down the bathroom sink. His front teeth had smashed into the steering wheel and been displaced, so that they jutted backward toward the roof of his mouth.

Mother was laid on the sofa. She mumbled that the light hurt her eyes. We closed the blinds. She wanted to be in the basement, where there were no windows, so Dad carried her downstairs and I didn’t see her for several hours, not until that evening, when I used a dull flashlight to bring her dinner. When I saw her, I didn’t know her. Both eyes were a deep purple, so deep they looked black, and so swollen I couldn’t tell whether they were open or closed. She called me Audrey [Westover’s sister], even after I corrected her twice.

Mother didn’t come out of the basement for a week. Every day the swelling worsened, the black bruises turned blacker. Every night I was sure her face was as marked and deformed as it was possible for a face to be, but every morning it was somehow darker, more tumid. After a week, when the sun went down, we turned off the lights and Mother came upstairs. She looked as if she had two objects strapped to her forehead, large as apples, black as olives. (pp. 52-53).

There’s a lot more of this stuff. There’s a second car accident under almost identical circumstances, with equally serious injuries described at similar length and in similar detail.

Westover and her brothers are repeatedly injured in their capacity as employees of their father’s scrap metal business and their injuries are described at similar length and in similarly graphic detail. Westover’s father isn’t cavalier about occupational safety. That would be putting it too mildly. He is outright contemptuous of it. He seems, in fact, diabolically to court disaster.

One of Westover’s brothers, and then later, her father, accidentally sets himself on fire. We get extended graphic descriptions of both those injuries as well. Here is just a little snippet:

I don’t remember what I saw when I first looked at my father. I know that when Mother had removed the gauze that morning, she’d found that his ears were so burned, the skin so glutinous, they had fused to the syrupy tissue behind them. When I walked through the back door, the first thing I saw was Mother grasping a butter knife, which she was using to pry my father’s ears from his skull. I can still picture her gripping the knife, her eyes fixed, focused, but where my father should be, there’s an aperture in my memory. (p. 281.)

You think I’m exaggerating when I say the book is little more than such descriptions of injuries. I’m not. There are so many violent incidents in the book it’s impossible to keep track of them. There are car accidents, motorcycle accidents, falls, impalements, immolations, assaults. The variety of accidents and injuries staggers the imagination.

Westover’s father never carried any of the heavy pieces of metal that littered his scrap yard to a sorting bin. He just “chucked” them “with all the strength he had, from wherever he was standing” (71) … . He orders Westover into a bin of scrap iron that he’s about to dump in order that she can help to “settle it” — as he’s dumping it… ! There’s the “Shear” that Westover’s father acquired for cutting large pieces of scrap metal that was so obviously “lethal” that one of Westover’s brothers called it “a death machine”… . There’s the forklift and “old cheese pallet” that Westover’s father insists on using instead of a “man lift with a basket” (157)… .

The book is generally well written. But why write such a thing? Westover can’t possibly have wanted to relive those experiences. Did an editor put her up to larding the book with gore on the assumption that readers would like it? I was happy for her at the end after it was clear that the rest of her life was going to be better than the portion she had shared in her memoir. Yet I found the book as a whole deeply disturbing

Clearly, it resonates with many readers, however. It was a best seller and has catapulted its author to fame and fortune. It was nominated for numerous awards. The New York Times listed it as one of the ten best books of 2018. Time magazine named Westover one of the most influential people of 2019. President Obama included it in his summer reading list.

Part of the reason for the book’s success is undoubtedly that it dovetails so neatly with the liberal-elite world view. Young woman caught in a world of violence, racism, sexism, separatism and religious extremism, extricates herself from these evils through — education!

There isn’t much in the book, however, about Westover’s education, and what there is runs like a parallel narrative that rarely seems to connect in any meaningful way with the story of Westover’s violent and abusive childhood and adolescence. Westover’s story deserves telling. It could have been told, however, in much less graphic detail. A couple of extended descriptions of accidents would have sufficed. An account, for example, of the first car accident could have been followed by “…and then later, there was a second accident.” The fist burn description could have been followed by “…and then later my father also accidentally set himself on fire, only this time, the burns were even worse than those my brother had suffered.”

It is almost as disturbing to me as reading the book itself to realize that, based on the book’s success, the public clearly has a taste for such gore. Of course I’ve known Americans love violence. The whole world knows that. I had naively assumed, however, that intellectuals were in the minority of consumers of violent entertainment.

James Gilligan, a forensic psychiatrist and author of several excellent books on violence, writes in Violence: Reflections on a National Epidemic that all the serial killers he has worked with were abused, either emotionally, or physically, or both, as children. This abuse was so severe, he argues, that their only defense was to deaden themselves emotionally. They feel very little. “This absence of feeling,” he writes, “is described consistently by murderers throughout the world and throughout history….Many murderers,” he explains, “find that the only way to feel alive, since they cannot feel anything emotionally, is to feel physical pain. So they attempt to induce such feelings by cutting or otherwise injuring their bodies” (p. 39).

Well, that’s us, isn’t it? That’s the U.S. Our culture is so bullying, so punitive, so insensitive, so inhumane, even for those in its upper echelon, it has reduced our capacity to feel. We use violent entertainment to shock ourselves into feeling something, anything, even fear and revulsion, just to reassure ourselves that we are alive and capable of feeling. That’s the only explanation I can think of for the success of Westover’s relentlessly horrific memoir.

Westover may be a great writer, but Educated is not a great book. There’s too little in it that is edifying and too much that’s profoundly disturbing. Westover was ultimately very lucky. If you persevere through the book, you’ll be happy for her. I can’t recommend you do that, though. My recommendation, contrary to President Obama’s, is that you don’t read the book at all.

If you have a taste for violent reading, read Gilligan, and in particular, his Preventing Violence (Prospects for Tomorrow). There’s plenty of gore there, but lots of humanity and wisdom as well. More importantly, while Westover’s book is an account of how one woman escaped from an intolerably violent environment, Gilligan’s books offer a way out for all of us from our intolerably violent culture.

(An earlier version of this essay appeared in the August 14, 2019 edition of the online political journal Counterpunch.)

 

When Bad Things Happen to Good Academics

I wonder sometimes what makes people go bad. There doesn’t seem to be any logic to it. James Gilligan, a forensic psychiatrist who has worked with serial killers, writes that nearly all of them have been abused as children. That makes sense to me. I’m inclined to think that people are like other animals, that if they get what they need when they’re young, they grow up to be well- adjusted members of their species. We know how to make an animal, a dog for example, vicious: simply mistreat it. My understanding is that that works on pretty much any animal. If it gets what it needs when it’s young, it will turn out to be a fine adult. If it doesn’t it won’t, it’s that simple.

I like this view, not simply because it’s humane, but also because it’s optimistic. It gives us a formula for wiping out cruelty and intolerance. We just need to work to ensure that people get what they need. We need to make sure that parents don’t have so many financial worries that they cannot be sufficiently attentive to their children, or worse, that they end up taking out their stress on their children. We need to make sure that every person, every job, is accorded respect, that people are treated with dignity, etc., etc., and eventually cruelty and inhumanity will become things of the past. That’s a tall order, of course, and perhaps it’s idealistic, but it’s something to aim at anyway. There was a time when people said things such as poverty and hunger could never be wiped out. But we’ve made great strides in eliminating them, and have even eliminated them completely in parts of the world. It’s widely believed now to be a question of will, not of practical possibility. If we want to eliminate poverty and hunger, we can.

I like to think that the same thing is true with cravenness and cruelty (meaning that it can be wiped out if we have the will to do so) and generally, I do believe it. But sometimes I’m confronted with examples of what seems to be completely gratuitous and inexplicable viciousness from people whose lives to all outward appearances anyway, would seem to be pretty cushy, people who give no evidence (no other evidence anyway) of having been abused as children. The mystery of why some people go bad gives me a certain sympathy with John Calvin, and others who believe in predestination, or the view that some people are just inherently bad. I don’t really believe that, but in my weaker moments, I wonder if it might not be true.

There are just so many variables. Is it not enough to have loving and attentive parents? Can having been picked last for a team in gym class cause a wound that festers for years leading finally to generalized suspicion and paranoia as an adult? Can one slight on the playground explain a vicious and unprovoked attack on a colleague years later?

My mother once said that in her experience, religion made good people better and bad people worse. (Both her parents were ministers in the Assemblies of God church.) The same thing, sadly, seems to be true of academia. I don’t believe there is a better life than that of a tenured academic. Hardly ever in human experience are the stars aligned so perfectly as they are in the lives of tenured academics. Teaching of any sort is fulfilling but most teaching doesn’t come with the job security and other material benefits routinely accorded to the tenured academic. To be paid to teach, not to mention to read, and write, well, it’s like winning the lottery.

I had some wonderful teachers when I was in college. This led me to believe that teachers were, in general, not simply wiser and more learned than the average person, but also kinder, more considerate, more understanding and tolerant. This made sense to me because they had what appeared to be wonderful jobs. How could anyone not be happy with such a life, I asked myself, and how could anyone who was happy fail to be anything but nice?

Since then, however, I have learned that two kinds of people enter academia: (1) well adjusted people, people who are basically kind and decent, sympathetic and empathetic, people who love to read and sometimes (though not always) also to write, people who like people in general and like to think that in their own small way they are doing something to better the human condition, and (2) maladjusted people who like to use their learning as a club with which they can intimidate others, people who suffer from varying degrees of paranoia, people possessed of a messianic zeal to single-handedly save humanity from what in their fevered imaginations they believe to be the ravages inflicted on it by the forces of evil they take to be embodied in the form of despised colleagues, people who spend more time plotting to undermine and even publicly humiliate these colleagues than they spend on teaching.

There is almost no way to check the damage the latter sort of academic can cause once he or she becomes tenured. They sit plotting and poisoning the air in their departments until they retire, and they do not generally retire until very late in life because they thrive on conflict, a kind of conflict that it is hard to find outside a professional context. When, as sometimes happens, I’m confronted with the spectacle of the damage such people can do, the havoc they can wreak in an otherwise harmonious community of scholars, the pain they can cause to colleagues for whom they have conceived a pathological dislike, I have a certain sympathy with the anti-academic element in our vociferously anti-intellectual society. Academics are not really the plague that they are increasingly represented as being, but there is, lamentably, a sizable contingent that gives the rest of us a bad name.

The Logic of Limiting Violence

"Handgun," Oil on Canvass, Hall Groat II

“Handgun,” Oil on Canvass, Hall Groat II

The issue of gun control is once again in the news, thanks to the mass shooting in Connecticut yesterday. All the putatively-lefty pundits in the main-stream media are trotting out their tired arguments in favor of stricter gun control laws in what ought to be clear to anyone with live brain cells is simply part of the circus (as in “bread and circuses”) that poses as political discourse in the U.S. The problem, is not the easy availability of guns, it’s the increasing numbers of people whose murderous rage has ceased to be metaphorical. That is, the problem, I would argue, is not the supply of guns, but the demand for them.

We experienced the same revival of the public debate on gun control last July, when there was a mass shooting in Colorado. “In our country,” wrote Gail Collins then in The New York Times, “the mass shootings come so frequently that most of them go by virtually unnoticed. Did you catch the one last week in Tuscaloosa? Seventeen people at a bar, hit by a gunman with an assault weapon.

“People from most other parts of the industrialized world find the American proliferation of guns shocking,” Collins goes on to observe. She neglects to mention, however, that the differences between the U.S. and the rest of the economically developed world are far more profound than can be captured in the single issue of gun control. Yes, most other countries in the economically developed world appear to have more restrictive gun control laws, but those laws cannot alone explain the discrepancy in levels of gun-related violence here and there. After all, at least some of these countries have more liberal drug laws than we do, yet drug addiction there is still less of a problem than it is here in the U.S.

The real difference, or the distinction that makes a difference, is that the wealth in the other economically developed countries is less polarized. (see James Gilligan, M.D.’s Violence: Reflections on a National Epidemic on the relation between wealth inequality and violence). These countries have extensive social welfare systems that in many instances have eliminated poverty and have provided free higher education and free health care. My point is not that these countries tend to have a better handle on just who is mentally ill and what kind of treatment they need. My point is much broader than that. It’s that these societies are more humane. When you know that no calamity that could possible befall you would cause you to end up destitute on the street, that no illness or educational ambition could bankrupt you or indenture you for the rest of your life and that the reason you don’t have to worry about these things is that your neighbors, your fellow citizens, are deeply committed to the view that no one should have to worry about these things–well, that makes you feel pretty good about humanity, pretty happy to be a part of it.

Norway had a highly publicized mass murder last year, but part of what made it so disturbing to Norwegians was how unprecedented it was. Norwegians, unlike Americans, are not used to mass murders. Life in Norway is pretty good. Life in Scandinavia in general is pretty good. Road rage, for example, is unknown there. I know. I lived there for eight years. Scandinavians take life a pretty leisurely pace and can afford to. They don’t become violent when someone, intentionally or unintentionally, cuts in front of them in a line. They don’t trample one another to death trying to get at a limited supply of deeply-discounted flat screen TVs. No murderous rage seethes just below the surface of society.

I moved to Denmark in 1990 along with my then boyfriend who was what one could call a gun enthusiast. He joined a gun club in Copenhagen and was surprised to learn, from one of the other members, that it was, in fact, possible, despite Denmark’s highly restrictive gun laws, to buy a gun on the black market in Denmark. Yes, he was told, there were a few bars, in what Danes considered the seedier part of Copenhagen, where a gun could be procured after a few discrete enquiries. The thing is, there aren’t many Danes out there making such enquiries.

Danes are pretty happy. Most Europeans, at least Northern Europeans, not to mention Canadians and those in Australia and New Zealand, are pretty happy compared to most Americans, and there are obvious reasons for this. It’s not merely that they don’t live with the fears nearly all Americans live with. It’s more fundamental than that. It’s not the absence of the fears, but the reason for their absence that makes the difference. They have a much more positive view of human nature than we do. They think people are naturally empathetic and sympathetic, that they want to make a positive contribution to the larger social whole, that they are generally kind and decent and ought never to suffer any more that is absolutely unavoidable. It’s a happier thing to be a human being in such a society.

That, if you ask me, is the real reason for the levels of gun violence, and indeed, violence more generally, in American society. The availability of guns doesn’t, after all, explain the levels of violence in the media, in movies and television.  We have a taste for violence in the U.S. that is unknown in the rest of the economically developed world. Why? Because we have been raised to view human beings as contemptible, as having to prove they are “worthy” of help before we will give it to them. We have a taste for violence because we hate one another and hate ourselves for being part of such a contemptible species.

Or maybe it’s just that we’re butt stupid. It ought to be obvious to anyone that the real problem with gun violence in the U.S. is the social and economic conditions that have created an apparently inexhaustible demand for guns, a demand that would be met no matter what the laws concerning the sale of guns. There’s no logic behind what passes as political discourse in this country. Perhaps we should have more restrictive gun laws. I’m not opposed to that in principle. That’s not the place to start, though. If we are serious about reducing gun violence, we need to figure out what’s driving masses of people to want guns and then begin working to eradicate that.

The painting above is by Hall Groat II. Other paintings by Hall Groat may be viewed on the “Daily Painters” website.

This article is an edited version of an article that originally appeared in Counterpunch on July 23, 2012.