Archive for June, 2011

Chief Inspector Armand Gamache is the second fictional Canadian I’ve encountered this week.

I don’t take my mystery selections lightly – I’ve spent too much time anticipating brilliant denouements and being let down by conclusions of dazzling stupidity and gaping holes. I take great trouble to look online for positive reviews and recommendations among reader communities, especially before starting a new series. Unfortunately, that kills spontaneity and I no longer just pick a mystery on a whim. The last time I did that, which was a while ago, I was thoroughly disappointed.

Still Life is quite a stunning debut. I am intrigued by Chief Inspector Gamache, by the charming French-Canadian village setting of the Three Pines, and its singular residents. In the book, 76 year old former teacher, Jane Neal, dies in what seems on the surface to be a hunting accident. The key to the mystery is a painting, Jane Neal’s work, hence the title Still Art. The novel is entirely engaging and, well, I buy the conclusion.

A wonderful thing about fiction is that one can base it on real life, twist true episodes to make them interesting, or even reproduce smart quotes. Fact can parade as fiction, in the depths of fiction, and very few people need know. A non-fiction writer, however is obliged to stick to the facts and not fantastic peregrinations of his mind.

And there he found himself, holding a worn copy of Being. He’d read Being when it first came out a few years before. The title always reminded him of the day his daughter Annie had come home from first grade with her English homework which was to name three types of beans. She’d written ‘green beans, yellow beens and human beans’.

– From Still Life

That was a delicious little titbit right there. Did an Annie really write about human beans?  Or did Louise Penny think that up?


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This week I was introduced to a Canadian Toddler, Caillou (pronounced kye-you), via a board book – Caillou Bad Dreams. Caillou does not have hair and Chouette Publishing says:

Caillou stands for all children. He doesn’t have curly blond hair, a carrot-top, brown hair, glasses, or ethnic features, because he represents all children. We wanted to make Caillou universal so every child could identify with him. And they do! Caillou’s baldness may make him different, but we hope it’s helping children understand that being different isn’t just okay, it’s normal.

In this book, Caillou wakes up scared and crying one night because he has a bad dream. He calls for his mother who rushes to comfort him. She cuddles and rocks Caillou and when he is feeling better, she tucks him in and returns to her bed. After this episode, Caillou wakes up every night and his mommy rocks him to sleep every time he wakes up crying. Except when one night, daddy comes. Daddy, however, does not rock Caillou like mommy does. Instead, he asks Caillou to rock his tired teddy bear to sleep and goes back to his own bed. Caillou cries a bit , but soon feels comforted by teddy’s cozy hug that reminds him of mommy. He soon feels better and falls asleep. The assumption is that he stops having bad dreams.

Mommy is sweet, but daddy is smart, isn’t he? An adult version of Caillou, might look into how mommy and daddy react when they hear their son calling out for them (or for mommy) in the middle of the night.

But tonight, mommy was very tired. She hadn’t slept for four nights in a row. She looked at daddy sleeping beside her, shook him gently and said, “Maybe you should try comforting him today. I had a long day at work. I am really tired.” Daddy was tired too. He said, “But Caillou asked for his mommy.” Nevertheless, he got up and shuffled slowly next door.

Or maybe Caillou’s mother was angrier and grumpier. Or maybe not.

This time, Caillou’s daddy jumped out of the bed. “Wait”, he said to mommy who was getting ready to go comfort Caillou. “Today, I’ll handle it”. “But”, mommy said, “he asked for me.”. “He is getting into this habit and knows you will go to him every night if he cries for you. You didn’t let me go yesterday, but today I’m going to take care of this.” Daddy took determined steps towards Caillou’s room.

My 2 year old loves Caillou Bad Dreams. But no amount of coaxing can make him sleep in his own bed with teddy. Maybe it’s time daddy worked his magic.

Update: Caillou has been quite a happy discovery for me and my son. He has enjoyed watching Caillou take a road trip, pick strawberries and apples, and celebrate his birthday. I am still not sure I understand his baldness though, because everyone else in his family is white and has a mop of red-brown hair, so his ethnicity is quite obvious.

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Dehumanization certainly opens the road to acts of abuse, but in an important preceding step, the enemies are recognized. They are marked to be dehumanized. What propels us to decide to be the aggressor?

According to Tanaka Yuki, author of Hidden Horrors: Japanese War Crimes in World War II, the modern Japanese army had great potential for brutality from the moment of its creation for two reasons: the arbitrary and cruel treatment that the military inflicted on its own officers and soldiers and the heirarchical nature of Japanese society, in which status was dictated by proximity to the emperor [emphasis mine].

…It has often been suggested that those with the least power are often the most sadistic if given the power of life and death over people even lower on the pecking order, and the rage engendered by this rigid pecking order was suddenly given an outlet when Japanese soldiers went abroad…it is easy to see how years of suppressed anger, hatred, and fear of authority could have erupted in uncontrollable violence at Nanking.

The Rape of Nanking

Rigid hierarchies and resulting pecking orders can be responsible for much stifled fury and the subsequent haste to dominate and abuse when one rises even just a little bit on the ladder. One of my graduate school papers dealt with this subject, especially in the context of the status of women in traditionally patriarchal societies, where women are often complicit in abuse targeting women.

In patriarchal societies, men are valued above women, younger or not, with the consequence that the mother, together with her daughter, are the lowest members in the pecking order of the family. However, her status receives a pleasant boost with the arrival of the daughter-in-law, who takes her place as the ‘lowlife’. This system has often been blamed for the vicious cycle that often, but not always, leads to conflict laden relations, if not abuse, between female in-laws.

As female solidarity deteriorates in this mad rush for scarce power, not only does the status of women suffer, but society as a whole pays the price.

Further reading: Brown, J.K. 1997. Agitators and peacemakers: Cross cultural perspectives on older women and the abuse of younger wives. In A. Sev’er (ed.). A Cross-Cultural Exploration of Wife Abuse. New Jersey: Mellen.



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He [Man] is the only one that gathers his brethren about him and goes forth in cold blood and calm pulse to exterminate his kind. He is the only animal that for sordid wages will march out…and help to slaughter strangers of his own species who have done him no harm and with whom he has no quarrel. ..And in the intervals between campaigns he washes the blood off his hands and works for “the universal brotherhood of man”–with his mouth.

– Mark Twain

Aggression, cruelty, and, indeed, genocide, are likely to weigh much less on our conscience, or not at all, if we conceive of the enemy as subhuman, soulless, animal. And this may well be why it is important to study dehumanization, for it (dehumanization, not the study of it) helps overcome subconscious barriers that keep us from committing murders, especially on large scales.

“We must kill the  Tutsi cockroaches” – Hutu radio station broadcast before 1994 massacre of Tutsis

The Nazis were explicit about the status of their victims. They [the Jews] were Untermenschen — subhumans — and as such were excluded from the system of moral rights and obligations that bind humankind together. It’s wrong to kill a person, but permissible to exterminate a rat. To the Nazis, all the Jews, Gypsies and others were rats: dangerous, disease-carrying rats.

Less than human: Why we demean, enslave and exterminate others

The public burning of a Negro would soon be known as  a “Negro Barbecue” reinforcing the perception of blacks as less than human.

Without sanctuary: Lynching photography in America

“You have never killed anyone yet, so today we shall have some killing practice. You must not consider the Chinese as a human being, but only as something of rather less value than a dog or cat”

– Japanese Second Lieutenant Ono to Japanese privates during ‘desensitization exercises’ practiced during the war against China, Rape of Nanking

And so, since the link between abject dehumanization and extreme ruthlessness has been well documented, I do not have the need to make the case for it any more than I already have. It has also been established, by Mark Twain and many others, that human beings are certainly capable of mass slaughter. Of fellow human beings, I might add. Scales may vary, and so may intensities, but we are always horrified to hear of murders.

But what of the tortures that precede these murders? We seem to have a singular preference for causing extreme torment and anguish among those that we do intend to exterminate. To annihilate is not enough, to excruciate is essential. These behaviors, are often characterized as unimaginable and unspeakable. And yet, when one examines the annals of torture, the details are quite similar: death by stoning, death by being thrown (as when babies are thrown), or being thrown to savage animals, being buried alive (and then stoned), being burned to death, mutilating and/or cutting off various body parts -finger chopping, yanking out finger and toe nails, being subject to various (unimaginable) medical experiments, and rapes – rapes, mutilation and forcing family members to rape one another, in front of one another. As I read the litany of cruelties that the Nazis performed on the Jews, that the Chinese performed on the Japanese, that people all over the world performed on people all over the world, my mind goes numb and unfeeling. For they don’t seem real, they don’t seem possible, nobody I know seems capable (enough to commit these acts), and they seem completely unimaginable. And yet, when we read about the murders, the tortures, the rapes and the mutilations in another part of the world, we find them unimaginable yet again. The human mind is endlessly amazed by its own capacity for cruelty.

The Rape of Nanking, written by journalist Iris Chang, tries to challenge the eerie silence that surrounds the Rape of Nanking – a brutal massacre carried out by the Japanese army in December 1937, when more than 300,000 Chinese civilians in Nanking were tortured and murdered. And yet, despite the death toll exceeding the immediate deaths from the Hiroshima/Nagasaki blasts, the atrocity is not openly discussed, does not find a part in history textbooks, and has been silently wiped from public memory.

I hadn’t heard of the Rape or this book. In fact, I first came across a reference to this book in another book The Woman Who Could Not Forget: Iris Chang Before and Beyond the Rape of Nanking- A Memoir written by Iris Chang’s mother after Iris’ suicide. The memoir suggests a link between Iris’ research and work on the Nanking massacre and the depression which ultimately cost her her life. Iris Chang left behind a 2 year old son.

Chang asks an important question in her book:

“What keeps certain events in history and assigns the rest to oblivion? Exactly how does an event like the Rape of Nanking vanish from Japan’s (and even the world’s) collective memory?”

Chang writes that a curious set of circumstances that arose post World War II led to the Nanking massacre being forgotten, or the story being hushed up by perpetrators, victims and spectators alike. With the end of the war, China, the Soviet Union and North Korea emerged as its post-war enemies, and the United States realized that forging an alliance with Japan would be a good strategy to challenge Communism. Chinese victims were silenced by the curtain of isolation imposed by Communist China. Japanese wartime conspiracy and conception of loyalty to its imperialistic government led to a stifling of any expression of remorse and little wartime reparations.

The Japanese government continues to deny the Nanking Holocaust.

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