Tuesday
Mar122013

IVAN T. SANDERSON, THE SAUCER INDUSTRIAL COMPLEX, AND MY SEARCH FOR CONSTANCE LOIS JESSOP

 

On June 26th, 1951, the Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS) began airing the first-ever regularly scheduled color television program.  The World is Yours! featured British explorer/naturalist Ivan Terrance Sanderson trotting the globe and educating American youngsters on the culture and wildlife of various exotic international locales.  Sanderson was a Scotsman by birth, but you would never guess it based on his flawless received BBC/public school accent.  He left home at the age of fifteen, with the blessing of his parents, and it seems as if he spent the rest of his life accumulating cocktail party anecdotes involving dangerous African safaris, bizarre scientific investigations, and his time as a clandestine officer for The Crown during WWII.  His charisma was legendary, and he was known for befriending any person he found remotely interesting from obscure scholars to cultural luminaries, including novelist Ian Flemming to name just one.          

By the late 1940's Sanderson had gained a reputation as a semi-famous public intellectual and broadcaster whose published works on his exploratory adventures were praised for their thorough attention to detail and the quality of his personal sketches and illustrations.  (example below)

 

In some ways Sanderson broke the mold of the writer-adventurer, which by the mid-40's was a familiar archetype in the popular culture in part due to the rise of cheap men's magazines which recounted war stories and near-death encounters with various wild beasts.  The New York Times highlighted  1937, reviewing his book Caribbean Treasure:

Mr. Sanderson is manifestly not out for personal glory.  He does not pretend that his visits to Haiti, Trinidad and Surinam were in any way heroic -- even though some of his experiences would scare a city dweller out of a year's growth.  He does not try to fit himself into the popular conception of an explorer as "something bronzed and half-sarved pounding through the primeval beneath a solar topee, and clad in breeches and riding boots."  He wears tennis shoes, a pair of ratting pants, a thin gray or khaki shirt and some kind of hat.  For him the jungle is as safe and friendly as the Arctic seems to Vihjaimur Stefansson, unless the traveler is careless enough to get lost in it.

His quest to demystify that which mankind had not yet conquered, his desire for notoriety and public acceptance, and an increasing interest in the UFO/flying saucer phenomenon -- which had been the subject of national news coverage in the U.S. since the Kenneth Arnold and Roswell affairs in the summer of 1947 -- pushed his research projects and pubic image to the fringes of science and popular culture.  Sanderson had a deep sympathy for the UFO witnesses who were routinely ridiculed in the press, and by the mid-1950's had joined the ranks of a growing association of journalists and academics committed to taking UFO-related activity seriously.  

His most well-known case study, which brought the erudite and worldly Sanderson into the heart of Appalachia, was given the pulp moniker "The Flatwoods Monster" incident of 1952.  It is now one of the most notorious close encounter tales in ufology.    

 

    (original news report)

  

(eyewitness holding artist rendering of Flatwoods Monster)

When he arrived in Braxton County, West Virginia, Sanderson was ostensibly on assignment for the North American Newspaper Alliance, which had been buying his pieces for a few years.  There are contradicting reports on his visceral impressions of the region.  One account that has him referring to the state using the coinage "vile vortex" remains unverified and if actually uttered, probably did not reflect his attitude toward the people he interviewed while working on his investigation.  One only has to listen this radio program recorded in 1953 to get a sense of the affection he felt to the eyewitnesses with whom he talked.  

 

 

 

Part of Sanderson's appeal in the public eye was his romantic demeanor and bohemian sartorial choices.  One may have even had the impression that he was some sort of proto-hippie figure.  Yet Sanderson was a political conservative in the English tradition.  Which brings us to the next chapter of the story.  

I had been looking for a way to add my own contribution to serious Fortean/paranormal literature (and  I'll point out right here that Sanderson had always been a disciple of Charles Fort's since he had the privilege of seeing him lecture as an young adolescent), and while searching for a unique subject on which to focus my attention I started randomly sending FOIA requests to various federal agencies.  All of them were shots in the dark and most turned up nothing of interest.  But after requesting any information the FBI might have on Sanderson, I was sent the following file (free of charge!)

 

 

Now, my knee-jerk leftism kicked in immediately after I read the memo.  1957, though the height of the Mccarthyism was behind the country, was a tense and politically charged moment when the public's tolerance for dissident ideologies was tested and often found wanting.  Sanderson was surely aware of what such an accusation could do to a person's reputation and ability to maintain a livlihood, and I could not understand what was going through Sanderson's mind when he decided to inform on fellow ufologists based mostly on speculation.  Letter campaigns to congressmen must be the most innocuous and polite form of political activism, but for some reason Sanderson saw a national security threat in NYSIB.  

Once my anti-capitalist indignation ran its course I was able to pause and give Sanderson the benefit of the doubt that he wouldn't have made the call to the FBI unless his concerns were genuine.  After all, he had worked in the intelligence community and was possibly trained ferret out such sleeper agents.    

I filed a follow-up FOIA request with the FBI to get ahold of any other files or memos pertaining to the NYSIB. One would imagine that the relevant field offices would have sent at least one undercover agent to a meeting or two of the group.  The response I received after a month of waiting was that the one file I had in my possession was the extant of what their public records office could track down.

Dismayed, I began the process of deep Googling and searching academic databases for any other clues.      

Sanderson and his Lemur, Katta

 

If one puts "New York Saucer Information Bureau" into Google's main search engine every single hit is in reference to this article from a 1961 issue of the Journal of Borderland Research written by one C. Lois Jessop.  Who is described as having worked in some capacity for the British government in Malta in the 1930's and 40's and also as the "secretary" (whatever that means) for the NYSIB.  The article itself is certainly interest-piqueing, and for whatever reason my bullshit detector was not alerting me to the obvious signs of Fortean fabulism.  So instead of putting the matter to rest to focus on a different project, I attempted to track down the National Geographic article Jessop references that supposedly mentions the school children disappearing in the cave system.  Lucky for me the magazine has digitized its whole back catalogue for armchair researchers and I was able to corroborate at least this one "fact," which convinced me to dig up more info on Jessop. Seeing as her last name was not spelled int the conventional manner, with an "o" in place of a "u," I figured that any info available would not be too difficult to track down.

Not surprisingly, considering my only training in research methods comes from an undergraduate history seminar, I came up mostly empty-handed.  I was able to determine, using a combination of Fortean message boards and Ancestry.com, that her full name was most likely Constance Lois Jessop and that she emigrated to the U.S. in the late 1940's.  I found one possible former Manhattan home address, and also found that somebody with her exact name was a donor to campaigns of Republican Party candidates throughout the 1980's.  

My hunting and info-gathering has now hit a wall.  Although I'm not giving up quite yet.  I have a feeling that there is more to this story than what I can piece together at present.  

And don't worry, I'll let you know what I find.              

 

P.S.  If you know something that I don't about all of this, please get in touch!  I'm eager to hear anybody's thoughts on this.

Tuesday
Nov272012

Wither the Scoundrel? A Discussion with Aaron James on Assholes

One of the pleasures of working in a bookstore is being able to see the stacks of soon-to-be-released titles piled up in back rooms and anticipating the reactions of certain regular customers to the more provocative covers and subject matter.  Lately, there has been a lot of talk about assholes in the publishing world.  Linguist Geoffrey Nunberg has been all over the place promoting his new book Ascent of the A-Word, an etymological treatise on assholes and other obscenities, tracing their  modern origins to the military during both world wars.  He identifies "asshole" as a word that originally had a fixed meaning in Army and Marine Corps ranks as a hyper-officious superior, but which gained a more nebulous definition as it exploded into the popular culture of the 1970's.  By 2012, of course, almost everyone can cop to having said or thought the word in reference to another person.  

Aaron James, professional philosopher at UC Irvine, offers us a deep meditation on the asshole type in Assholes: A Theory, put out by Doubleday.  Make no mistake, this is a genuine work of academic philosophy, but an emminatley readable one.  Dr. James, in a decidedly un-asshole move, agreed to an interview.

-- Tristan Dufresne

Almost Always Books:  Why did you want to publish a monograph on an obscenity, and how did you choose "asshole" as your focus?

Aaron James:   I wasn't interested in obscenities per se.  It just occurred to me, one day while surfing, that "asshole" was the kind of concept that could be defined.  So I got wondering what the definition would be and with considerable tinkering came up with one that fit the main exemplars I could think of. The book later seemed to be a good way of doing real philosophy that would appeal to a broad audience.
     
On the other hand, I am *now* very interested in obscenities, or what I call "foul language," which I am (at the moment) dividing up into three main categories: (i) vice terms (like "jerk" or "asshole"), (ii) pejorative terms (for instance, racist terms such as "wop" or "yankee," which claim to refer to a group of people), and (iii) slurs ("four eyes" or "dickhead," which I see as metaphors that lack a conventionalized meaning).  I'm now knee deep in meta-ethics and the philosophy of language, but quite unwittingly; I started out just thinking about "asshole" and saw a lot of connections with bigger issues about the nature of ethics and language.  Such is life as a philosopher, I suppose.  You just follow your nose.
--
AAB:  I know the book is still new, but I was wondering what the academic response to your book has been so far (in print or otherwise).  Particularly from other philosophers.
 
Aaron JamesI've run the proposal by a lot of professional philosophers and almost all of them like it.  Some quibble with details, but all happily and laughingly agree I've done for "asshole" what Frankfurt did for "bullshit."  Which is a nice compliment, because that is pretty much what I was trying to do, whether or not I've got everything exactly right.  I thought, you know, Frankfurt nailed down bullshit, and I'm a philosopher, so I guess its my job to nail down assholes.  That is what got me working on a definition in the first instance during a summer in which I was also surfing a lot.
--
AAB:  The concept of the "asshole" that you are arguing for in the book is summed up in your words as a person "who systematically allows himself to enjoy special advantages in interpersonal relations out of an entrenched sense of entitlement that immunizes him against the complaints of other people."  This is a type that we can all recognize in our lives I'm sure, and you identify many subtypes of the "asshole" as well.  But is the "asshole" a modern type, or has it existed through out history under different names?

Aaron James:  I'm not completely sure.  It does seem that fellow aristocrats in a feudal system, say, could be assholes to each other, even if they certainly weren't expected to see anyone else as an equal.(Different moral expectations were thought to apply to people further down in the hierarchy, however.) We can say that such people were sorely mistaken, because all persons are in fact equals from a moral perspective. Yet it doesn't quite seem right to say that aristocrats in such a system all count as assholes simply because they treated people lower on the social rung as less than.  The larger ideology does seem to provide some general kind of excuse, or extenuating circumstances, or something.  
Even so, there's no such excuse in a democratic society that does by its nature presume that all citizens are equals before the law, in the political system, and perhaps in the larger system of socio-economic cooperation.  In that case, we could explain why the concept of the asshole has the currency it now does as partly a reflection of the fact that we live in an era in which a kind of democratic egalitarianism is widely assumed.  
       
Anyway, these are the kinds of things I think about when I waffle around on the world historical question.
--  
AAB:  I like how you identify the "asshole" proper as occupying a unique moral terrain.  Their offenses usually do not warrant drastic or punitive action, but they can be troublesome enough to ruin one's whole day.  Does this knowledge now allow us to handle the "asshole" differently on a day-to-day basis?

Aaron James:  Yes, that knowledge is supposed to help.  It does help me anyway.  Once we've identified why our day is ruined--because we have not been recognized as the equal we are--we're at least in a better position to address our need to be recognized.  We can find recognition in other ways, in the comfort of understanding friends, or in a form of protest that publicly affirms our worth.  That means, in turn, that you don't have to expect as much from the asshole by way of listening, that you can *expect* him to be disturbing in these ways.  His assholery isn't then as much of a surprise or an occasion for violent reactions; it is easier to go with the flow.  It is *only* easier, and still taxing, of course.  Even on the rare occasion when I've managed an encounter with an asshole perfectly, I've still found the rest of the day soured.  The upside is that you can say to yourself: "this is just that lingering sourness; it too shall pass."
--
AAB:  As you get down to the nitty-gritty of your argument, you find it helpful to distinguish for the reader between the "asshole" and the "psychopath."  While the psychopath only "feigns moral action," the "asshole" is driven by a genuine moral framework, just a distorted and solipsistic one.  I was hoping you might argue against the utilitarian stance that it shouldn't really matter what is in their heart of hearts if they are behaving like psychopaths.

Aaron James:  Thanks for the hard-core philosophical question!  Utilitarians only care about welfare outcomes, regardless of how those outcomes come about, and so regardless of how people are motivated in action (except insofar as motivation causes greater or lesser happiness).  But that means utilitarians can't distinguish between the psychopath, who lacks moral concepts and so isn't motivated by them, and the asshole, who does have moral concepts and is motivated by them.  Both have to be treated as raising the same regulatory problem, a problem simply of how to get people to conform to rules that promote welfare, according to whatever incentives or sanctions get them to comply.
 
But this seems wrong!  We feel very differently about the psychopath and the asshole, from a moral perspective.  The psychopath is arguably just a problem of social control, like a rabid dog, or a wild animal.  The asshole, on the other hand, is properly *resented* for his failure to recognize others as equals.  Or at least we don't have to be ambivalent about resenting an asshole in the way we easily can be ambivalent about the psychopath who was severely abused or neglected as a child.  There's still a big philosophical question about how exactly to characterize that difference and whether or to what extent it turns on an underlying difference in motivational capacity.  But as long as that *is* the big philosophical question, we are assuming that utilitarianism is false: we aren't just concerned with the production of happiness.  To say that happiness is all that matters, as the utilitarian does, just seems to be inadequate as moral accounting.
--
AAB:  Are "assholes" inherently reformable?

Aaron James:  Yes and no.  Yes, in the sense that chances of reform are better for the asshole than for the proper psychopath, who may have no road back to moral concern.  The asshole at least has moral concerns.  On the other hand, once the asshole is entrenched in a perverse use of those concepts, with reinforcing and self-sustaining habits of mind, chances of reform might still be pretty slim.  Is there always at least a fighting chance?  Maybe, but it seems wrong to me to answer that reform is always in fact psychologically possible.  It seems better to say that there's *always room to hope* for reform, however long the odds seem, just because we never really know what the odds of reform are.  We just don't have that kind of ability to predict the future state of people.
--
AAB:   At different points during my reading of your book I was struck by the thought that the profile of the "asshole" you sketch  might fit very well into the upcoming DSM-V as a diagnosable personality disorder.  Would such a move by in the spirit of your own analysis?

Aaron James:  Yes, although I'm told that the new DSM will absorb the closest category, "narcissistic personality disorder," into some more general diagnostic kind.  That is at cross-purposes with my project of identifying and distinguishing things as things of different kinds.  I'm not sure this is a problem with the DSM, though (though it may well be).  Philosophy isn't just therapy, and each can have pretty different taxonomic needs.
--
AAB:   Do you curse in everyday conversation?

Aaron James:  Of course!  But usually not when better words will do.  (Often there aren't better words.)
--
AAB:  When's the "douchebag" book coming out?

Aaron James:  Oddly enough, I'm not clear enough about the douchebag to know how the book would go.  I leave the job to those with good ideas.
Friday
Sep092011

Oh, You Brute! My Interview w/ Ramon Glazov

 

Mr. Ramon Glazov, Australian journalist and literary critic/iconoclast is a writer I have recently discovered through his inflammatory pieces for the eXiled online magazine.  He has entertained some of my questions on a strange array of literature-related topics.

-- Tristan D.

AAB:  In light of the recent court case in France surrounding the publication of a negative book review, and considering the obvious pleasure you take in eviscerating those literary titans you don't respect, I was wondering if you might make an argument for the art of the hatchet-job book review, and its place in literary culture.

RG:  Well, here in Australia, and I think the US as well, its "place in literary culture" is very, very marginal. 

We still have this weird, Victorian double standard about hatred. You get called "snarky" if you pan almost any writer, unless they're a very easy target. No one bats an eyelid if you attack Camus or Kipling, because they're out of fashion. (In Melbourne, I even knew these Žižekian film critics who thought they were geniuses for shitting on Tim Burton and Zack Snyder.) But if you aim higher -- if you suggest still-fashionable writers, ones worshipped by postgraduates, can be just as perniciously stupid -- it's considered "snark."

On the other hand, no one really talks about the opposite of "snark"; that is, sluttiness. There's this idea implicit in our culture that zero-star reviews are less fair, less "considered," than five-star reviews. I call it the Amazon.com syndrome. You'll notice on that site that when a book has star ratings, the number of five-stars always outweighs the number of one-stars. Even that number -- five -- is rigged against negativity, because it leaves you with three positive options and only two negative options. It happens in high(er)brow publications, too. Pick one at random -- the New Yorker, the Australian Book Review -- and read through a stack of, maybe, twelve. I'll bet you the number of unconditionally negative reviews is far, far smaller than the number of unconditionally positive reviews. And I don't have a problem with unconditionally positive reviews, per se -- just with the fact that slutty reviewers aren't called out on it as much as "snarky" ones.

Another thing I noticed. Last year, 
someone from The Guardian blogged that masturbation was "literature's last taboo." It didn't seem right and it got me thinking: what is our society's real last taboo?

I'd say it's hatred, or hating -- everyone does it, but no one's comfortable admitting it. And we've got all these Victorian euphemisms just to say we hate something or someone: 
"Camus isn't my thing... Camus was never my thing... I'm not a huge fan of Camus... I have huge issues with Camus... I can't say I'm really into Camus... Camus? Well, suit yourself... I don't quite understand where Camus is coming from."
And those are just the Gen-X/Gen-Y ones. The baby boomers still go on about "anger" and "indignation" (the stuffiest euphemism for hatred ever devised) and call an outburst a "J'accuse" if they're on the same side as the hater. Even "snark" is basically a euphemism.

So, I think my generation is just as bad as all those Victorians who said "limbs" instead of "legs," and hung silly drapery over all their furniture, and treated female sexual arousal like some chav-borne disease. Only, for us, it's hatred. We don't treat it as a natural drive -- like sex -- something neither good nor evil. To us, it's more like a perversion, even though everyone does it. And we try to deter it, from Kindergarten on up, in all these weird, subtle ways, just like the Victorians did with masturbation and so on.

 

AAB: I would like to explore this notion of hate as a taboo.  I suppose the argument against snark and negativity is that creative people often make themselves extra vulnerable to hurt feelings be exposing their inner lives to the public, and that perhaps most of them don't deserved to be slapped around by critics.  That being said, there was a time, at least in America, when literary figures regularly showed up on the gossip pages of major newspapers because of crazy antics (Norman mailer stabbing his wife or beating the shit out of Gore Vidal for example), and I think that sort of rockstar behavior drew big audiences to good works of poetry and prose.  But when the prose itself is hateful, it tends to not be that intersting.  Unless I'm missing something.  


RG:  I think to understand why it's such a taboo, you have to look at the rhetoric that gets thrown around: hate is "counter-productive," or "unconstructive." Sometimes I meet people who confuse my criticism -- my attacks on windbags like Vollmann -- with a more general kind of anti-intellectualism; they accuse me of promoting "barrenness." I dread being photographed some day, next to an empty fruitbowl.
As I said, it's a very 19th Century way of thinking: hate is bad because it's (supposedly) sterile and doesn't lead to reproduction -- or, in this case, the proliferation of books and the growth of the publishing industry. A lot of so-called "creative people" are really quite industry-minded. This can be a good thing; and you want to be industry-minded yourself, play hardball -- naive writers who think publishing's a meritocracy rarely get in print. But it's wrong to mistake "snarky" criticism -- criticism with high standards -- for some kind of illiteracy. The big cliche you hear in creative writing workshops is: "Don't be one of those people who say 'I don't read books.'" Strange, because I've never met "one of those people." And yet workshop culture's biggest bogeyman is non-consumerism, "barrenness."

But when I consider it, hate, fear and desperation are really very creative emotions -- they concentrate the mind even better than amphetamines. It's love, contentment, and high self-esteem that make people slack (unless we're talking about a truly alien mind, like Wodehouse).
Suppose you had a poetry contest where the losers were branded like cattle, or made to crawl through broken glass, or forced to eat ten kilos of dog food, or clubbed with cacti then sprayed with cat piss (after signing all the relevant consent forms, of course). Suddenly, you'd have a living art form -- something watchable enough to attract the Colosseum crowd. And I think there'd be a vast improvement in the poems themselves; there'd be real emotion in the act of writing. You'd have verses that truly meant something, even if that something was: "Please don't let them waterboard me! Not with the Dromedary camel piss -- please!"
The audience would be at the edge of their seats, grinding their teeth, clawing the armrests. The poems themselves would really enter the public consciousness -- something every contemporary poet wishes would happen to them (and wishes in vain).
It'd be far more interesting than going to the usual wigger-slams, watching five dreadlocked MFA honkies in a row reciting bad extended metaphors about how lovestruck they are (which seems to be all they slam about). My idea is far more Darwinian than that -- imagine a contest with real stakes.
The winner shitting in the loser's mouth -- that's the CPR poetry needs!

As for Gore Vidal, I think his prose was far more glorious and brutal at its peak than Mailer's fisticuffs ever were. The City and the Pillar demolished that entire decaying Hemingway genre of macho war novels; that's my theory on why Mailer hated him so much. It was a novel with a gay protagonist who was also a red-blooded Virginian boy, written in the most unrepentantly masculine prose imaginable ("Bob was strong but Jim was stronger."); in one scene, you've got Hollywood fairies praising For Whom The Bell Tolls and calling it "beautiful, pure and true" (that's how it runs in my memory). It was a book that screamed: "Hey, Americans! Know all those homoerotic war novels you enjoy so much? Well, they're homoerotic for a reason!"
Of course, twenty years later, Terry Southern wrote The Magic Christian, with that scene where the billionaire rigs a boxing match so the fighters mince around and cat-scratch each other, until the audience blacks out in shock (which, to me, sounds suspiciously like contemporary US politics.) And sixty years later, Sacha Baron Cohen would do the same thing in Bruno, only with cage-fighting. But Vidal did it first, and he did it to the entire American Book-of-the-Month Club audience. He started out as a young WWII novelist, a fresh-faced veteran, and everyone expected him to write more weepy, homoerotic novels about innocent young Yank boys dying in battle -- but he pulled the rug from under them, just like Bruno, just like the billionaire in Magic Christian.
So Mailer hated him because he had balls -- enough balls to make that whole late-Hemingway school look sexually suspect, to devour it from within.

 

 AAB:  My parents both met in Grad school while getting their MFA's and I essentially grew up in the creative writing program at Florida International University, and so I have to take issue with your description of MFA honkies at slam-poetry events, because in my experience, no group of writers are more snobby about the supposed unsophistication of slam poetry than third and fourth-year MFA candidates. 
 
That being said, let's talk about creative writing as a vocation, and specifically as an instituionalized vocation.  In my opinion, MFA departments, much like the university system at large (in the States), seem to be more likely to pump-out professors than globe-trotting tortured artists.  (Which isn't a de facto bad thing).  The American culture journal N+1 somewhat recently ran an article on the bi-polarity of the fiction writing/publishing world.  That is, there exists two major segments of the American fiction market, the MFA universe and the New York commercial publishing universe.  And ne'er the two shall meet, apparently.  The article made clear that the one recent glaring exception was David Foster Wallace, who seemed adept at straddling the line.  This, of course, is all a prelude to me hoping to provoke you into some sort of diatribe on how DFW has ruined the english-language novel.  In your article for the Exiled on DFW, you identify him as part of the Pynchon-school of prose stylists.  So I'll end my provocation with this:  if Pynchon had gone to the Iowa Writer's Workshop, he would never have aquired the sensibilities and ecclectic interests that make him, in my mind, the only living American novelist who hasn't at one point or another in his career re-treaded the same material.  Your thoughts?

RG:  I hate Pynchon's writing for exactly the same reason I used to hate watching Darkwing Duck as a seven-year-old. You remember that show? It had all these characters with hyper-literate names like "Tuskernini" and "Taurus Bullba" [how many non-Russians would get that reference?] and it was always cleverish and intertextual.
But the funny thing was it wasn't funny. You could watch entire episodes without laughing -- without finding a single joke that worked. It's like the whole thing was written by a panel of really crusty Continental Lit professors at Yale, guys with barnacles growing out of their jackets. The writers didn't really care about humour -- otherwise they'd be working on something inspired like Pinky and the Brain. All they seemed to care about was inserting references for people to "get."

That's the problem I have with a lot of "postmodernism": it comes with a more insidious kind of snobbery than you'll find in earlier, "modernist" writing; this whole blending of "high and low." Postmodernist writers don't seem to think that genre art can hold its own -- to them, "low" art exists solely to be uplifted by "literature" and copious injections of theory. You can see this in Infinite Jest, where DFW compares the queue outside a methadone clinic to a ballet performance. He doesn't do a very convincing job, either; it's the same gentrifying cliche you always hear about football, how it's "like ballet." But Wallace's groupies -- all the Zadie Smiths of the world -- see this as a sign of genius, this very calculated 1-1 mix of "high" and "low."


With modernism, you had writers like T.S. Eliot, who were quite open about their belief that the working classes were inferior. But postmodernists are more like gentrification yuppies; they've tricked themselves into thinking they love diversity, but all they do in every neighborhood they invade is jack property prices up, push out the working classes and replace the methadone clinics with fucking San Churro outlets and American Apparel stores.


And it's amazing how snobby people are about genre stuff; even in the 21st century when we're all supposed to be enlightened and tolerant. You still meet individuals who go completely cold when you mention the word "Sci-fi," but loosen up if you call it "magical realism." They won't openly admit to hating genre fiction, 'cause then they're fucked, argument-wise, but the prejudice is still there.

AAB:  In a previous conversation that we had, you told me that your opinion of High Theory is not a very positive one, that it sucks the marrow out of political discourse.  Are you one of those Alan Sokal types who are emabarassed by the academic left within the humanities? 

RG:  No, I think it's a fraud on both sides. The Right isn't really afraid of theory; they only used it as an excuse to chop education spending, at least before the GFC. Now, of course, they can just chop everything and call it "austerity."

I don't lose much sleep over the idea that people are going to stop seeing things in terms of "true" or "false" or "good" and "bad." Everyone still sees literature like that; they just have more convoluted ways of expressing themselves. A lot of overeducated people say "problematic" when they really mean "wrong," but it's the same concept. Maybe in twenty years, they'll have an even more timid way of expressing that concept; "problematic" will feel like it's biting off more than it can chew.

Anyway, the really big sophists are on the Right; compared to Rupert Murdoch, Derrida was an amateur.

 

P.S. (The interviewer would like to point out that Darkwing Duck is awesome, and it made me laugh as a kid, so there!)

Friday
Apr082011

Who Done It? An Interview With Michelle McNamara

In 1827 Thomas De Quincey, the former eater of opium and literary rockstar of early Victorian Britain, published an essay entitled "On Murder as Considered One of the Fine Arts."  It was a piece of satire to be sure, and one that deftly employed a Swiftian mechanical rationality to argue an obviously insane point -- that one can find aesthetic pleasure in certain acts of grotesque violence.  The essay certainly made me re-evaluate, if only for a moment, my own interest in the lurid non-fiction I had been reading since middle school.  While most authors working in what is now termed "True Crime" at least attempt to play the role of journalist within the narrative of their books, not many of us True Crime literature consumers tend to think of it as journalism proper.  Which I'm sure can't be a positive characteristic of this community of readers.  Luckily, the smart and talented blogger Michelle McNamara, whose website True Crime Diary is quite phenomenal, has injected some much needed investigative objectivity into a genre that seemed to be dying a slow, tabloid death.  She was also nice enough to answer some questions on the topic.

-- Tristan D.

 

Almost Always Books (AAB):  An observation I have made, being an avid consumer of True Crime literature, is that the fanbase seems to be devoid of snobs.  The people I know personally who identify as True Crime aficionados certainly recognize the literary merit of, say, In Cold Blood, but are just as likely to laud any number of trashy trade paperbacks they have read.  Why do you think this is?  Or is the community you are plugged into different from the one I am acquainted with?

Michelle McNamara (MM):  Interesting observation, and true in my experience as well.  I certainly toggle between high and low myself.  I think the reason for this is that True Crime fans are drawn primarily to the story, the facts and details that make up a particular case, and if those are compelling enough the quality of the telling doesn't matter as much.  I've been just as engrossed in reading rather dry court transcripts of a murder case as I have been reading the more literary crime nonfiction.  Sometimes a particular case seizes you and won't let go.  My experience in being obsessed with a specific case is that I'm greedy for facts; it's certainly better to be carried along in an artful way, but I'll sift through garbage for the relevant details if I have to. 

AAB:  From my perspective, your blog (less so than the podcast of yours I've listened to) is weighted slightly more toward the forensic/cold-case file side of True Crime than the psychological/narrative side.  Am I misreading this, or does this reflect your own interest in amature detective work?

MM:  I would definitely say I lean toward the cold case, unsolved side.  I'm not so interested in examining the psychology of a known notorious criminal, like a Son of Sam or someone like that.  This might be because I don't feel qualified to do that.  Also, my interest is in how technology, particularly the Internet, allows everyday citizens to solve crimes.  I'm drawn to cases that aren't so high profile, that are maybe even a little neglected, but which have enough evidence and clues that anyone with a will and an Internet connection can try to piece together the puzzle.  That's exciting to me.  It feels like the difference between looking forward or looking back.  I get why people would be interested in the psychology of a criminal, but it's more interesting to me to be presented with a puzzle and given the opportunity to try and solve it.  

AAB:   A few studies conducted in the mid-1990's found that an individual's increase in the consumption of true crime news reports could be correlated to a decrease in said individual's understanding of the actual prevalence of crime.  To quote historian Joy Wiltenburg, "In all periods, discourses and rituals of crime, rather than direct experience of criminal acts, are the key determinants of crime's cultural impact."  Being an author well-entrenched in such reportage, does this bother you? 

MM:  Yes.  It bothers me that people seem to think their children are vulnerable to kidnappers at every corner, without understanding that how they cook their eggs, or fence their pool, is roughly a thousand times more dangerous.  I try as much as possible to stay away from sensationalism or fear-mongering in my own reportage.  On a personal level, I think my husband would say that being steeped in crime stories all day has made me jumpy and a little suspicious.  There's probably not a sound in the night now where I won't shake him awake and whisper, "What was that!?"  

AAB:  The historic significance of True Crime as a genre (or perhaps "criminal anecdotes" is a better term here) has been its ability to reflect back to society the ever-changing relationship between the individual, power, authority, and discipline.  While the earliest written accounts that scholars point to as examples of proto-True Crime (16th Century) heavily equated crime and biblical sin, and were usually written from the perspective of the victim.  This obviously shifted over time and by the 19th century it was secularized and more importance was placed on the criminal mind.  Do you find that the current state of True Crime is significantly different than it was 5, 10, 15 + years ago?

 MM:  I think it certainly seems more prevalent, with the proliferation of true crime news shows, etc.  I'm not sure I know exactly how it's different than just a few years ago, but I'd say two points come to mind.  There's simply so much more information available now than there used to be.  People whose interest has been piqued by a particular case can now find whole websites devoted to it.  Also, I think it's probably true that we live in a much more insecure time.  Perhaps people seek out crime stories to confirm their sense that the world is an unstable place that's falling apart.  Or maybe it's a "it could be worse for me" scenario. 

AAB:  A couple of informal surveys done by publishers and bookstore owners found the audience for mass-market True Crime to be overwhelmingly female.  As a male myself, I don't feel comfortable ruminating on why this might be.  Any thoughts?  Feel free to represent all women everywhere.     

MM:  Ha!  I get asked this a lot.  I think about this a lot.  Yet, I don't have a good answer.  I know for myself that an interesting dichotomy is that I cannot at all stomach visual images of violence.  Even on network crime dramas, I will walk away if the tension builds and I think blood is coming.  Yet, I have no problem reading accounts of horrible violence.  I guess my sense is that maybe that first inability to handle violence is my more stereotypical "female" side, and the other side is the female who's not at all in touch with brutality seeking to know that side of life, what people are capable of?  

If I really wanted to cause trouble I might suggest that women are more naturally nosey.  I know I am.  Start a sentence with, "The woman disappeared..." and I won't be able to let it go.  Who?  Where?  What?

AAB:  My own interest in True Crime books was sparked when I read Bully by Jim Schutze.  This was subsequently adapted into a pretty terrible film by Larry Clarke.  And when I think about it, I've seen a string of really bad True Crime movies recently.  Am I missing something or is it really hard to make quality cinema out of True Crime?

MM:  I can think of some examples of hits rather than misses --- Bonnie and Clyde, Boys Don't Cry, Monster come to mind.  I had mixed feelings about Zodiac.  I admired the film, but I felt the perfect attention to period detail was overly clinical and almost distracting.  It felt like in getting everything to look right, some vital but underlying truths about the case were presented wrong.  Most well-versed Zodiac sleuths don't feel Arthur Leigh Allen is a viable suspect anymore, for example.  I don't know.  I have one foot in Hollywood, having written TV pilots and screenplays in the past; my husband is in entertainment.  My feeling is that movie making is tremendously hard, and when all the variables come together, and the final product is good, it's nearly a miracle.

I also think this is an example where the real story is often just so compelling that fictionalizing it falls short. The same way I would always prefer a compelling nonfiction book over a fictional one, I prefer a great documentary over a feature.  There have been so many terrific crime documentaries.  The Thin Blue Line, Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills, The Staircase, Dear Zachary...

AAB:  Do you ever find yourself second-guessing your own motives when you consume or write about True Crime?  Like perhaps you are acting on undesirable prurient impulses?

MM:  Yes.  But I try and remember the origin of my interest in crime.  A neighbor was brutally murdered just blocks from my house when I was 14.  I wasn't titillated, but horrified.  I couldn't imagine a world where everyone could move on and this violent madman was still roaming the streets (still is, by the way, her case was never solved).  I feel most guilty when I look over a case and start thinking about ways to frame it into a story.  These are real people; their pain is tremendous.  I'm absolutely disturbed when I see true crime websites with animated blood dripping across the screen.  It's pretty easy to tell those who, for lack of a better term, "get off" on murder rather than have a real desire to see justice.  I find that abhorrent.  I'm not being naive or disingenuous --- I realize my blog isn't about fruit flies, or Civil War heroes.  There's an element of mystery and drama to the stories I cover.  But the overriding motivation remains sharing cold case stories, finding answers, and seeing those responsible put away.

AAB:  What sort of plans do you have for your blog and podcast?  

MM:  I've been doing more traditional reporting lately, interviewing people, etc, and I intend to expand on that.  The podcast will become more regular, probably monthly.  I have two or three cases that I'm pretty immersed in that could become a longer form story, whether in a magazine or what, I don't know.  For now the blog experience feels like a good one.  I get a lot of great feedback from people, and I love getting tips from readers about what cases to cover.  One of the most gratifying aspects of True Crime Diary is that often a story is still a mystery when I write about; weeks, months or even years later new information is developed, and sometimes the perpetrator is caught.  I wish that kind of closure for all the cases I cover.
Saturday
Mar192011

Leaps and Bounds: A Conversation With Mike Dash

As a pale-faced, unfit youngster I devoured all sorts of books, but none as much as compendiums of factoids, anecdotes, and intellectual bitlets.  My favorite of such almanacs and lexicons were those which covered "Mysteries of the Unknown" or UFOs, or nefarious bureaucratic conspiracies.  Around age 12 I first heard the name Charles Fort (1847-1932) while attempting to locate a copy of his infamous work The Book of the Damned.


       Fort was a fairly successful writer of short fiction who befriended, and was simultaneously mentored and admired by Theodore Dreiser early in his career.  But Fort was barely able to support his wife and himself on the inconsistent salary that his middle-brow stories garnered him.  In search of inspiration Fort spent endless, tedious hours pouring over periodicals archived at various New York and university libraries.  He began to accumulate thousands of reports and accounts of scientifically anomalous phenomena and published them in the form of four controversial books.  Fort seemed to be playing the role of both curmudgeon and critic.  He felt that the scientific community of the 1920's was constricted by dogmatic methodologies and would unsatisfactorily explain away the sort of strange events of which he was now a scholar.  

Fort's books were chaotically written and without much cogent analysis.  But in a thematic/stylistic sense it worked.  Topics covered included poltergeists, alien beings, live frogs raining from the sky, strange disappearances, and parapsychology.  He even coined the phrases "Teleportation" and "Ectoplasm."  

Though he was admired by some in the literary establishment, such as Dreiser who stated "To me no one in the world has suggested the underlying depths and mysteries and possibilities as has Fort.  To me he is simply stupendous."  He was not so well thought of by such luminaries as H.G. Wells who slammed Fort as "one of the most damnable bores who ever cut scraps from out-of-the-way newspapers."  But regardless of his reputation while he was alive, today there are numerous individuals, some cranks and some serious researchers, who claim the moniker "Fortean" with pride.

With that bit of historical biography taken care of, I'd like to settle into the real topic at hand, my all-time favorite piece of Forteana:  Spring-Heeled Jack.

  

Spring-Heeled Jack was a truly bizarre character in British history.  Beginning in the 1830's, London and the surrounding areas were plagued by sensationalistic reports of a devilish figure, often clad in oilskin masks and chain-mail, capable of inhuman jumping and breaths of blue flames.  There has been a plethora writings on this strange apparition.  Was he a human with a twisted sense of humor, a demon, or something all together more mysterious?  More than a few eyewitnesses claimed to have seen these feats first-hand.  Some young women reported being assaulted by Jack to the London Metropolitan Police. 

 Historian Mike Dash (a PhD in history and serious Fortean scholar) has put together the most comprehensive study to date on the legend, and being a true sweetheart, humored me by answering some burning questions I've had locked in my mind for years.  

--Tristan D.

Almost Always Books (AAB):  The legend of Spring-Heeled Jack has gone through many phases.  From prankster, to demonic bogeyman, to penny-dreadful anti-hero, to extra-terrestrial; but I suppose I would like to know if you think that his appearances constitute a truly significant historical event in the sense that culture or society at large felt reverberations or otherwise was impacted by Jack?

Mike Dash (MD):  Significant'  would be pushing it a bit; 'insignificant', on the other hand, would be a slight understatement. There's plenty of evidence that plenty of people were genuinely terrified of Spring-heeled Jack, but those most affected by him were children or (anecdotally) servants - by which the newspapers of the day meant the uneducated masses. There's no proof that there were significant reverberations in "society at large," and I think the scare was at least in part a pleasurable one – people enjoyed it, enjoyed the gossip and the shudder, at least so long as they weren't out late at night somewhere not very well lit.

The initial terror of 1838 was over relatively quickly, too; by mid-century Jack had been largely forgotten and accounts of him became increasingly inaccurate and distorted. His appearance as a villain, and, later, as an anti-hero in various penny dreadfuls did more to preserve the name and the idea than anything.

AAB:  At one point in your 2005 article on Jack you mentioned that newspaper readers in the 1830's were primarily of the upper-classes, well-educated, and thus did not take the stories of Spring-Heeled jack seriously.  They would however speak derisively of "servant" classes as being susceptible to such panic.  When one speaks contemporarily of Spring-Heeled Jack induced mass hysteria is one being hyperbolic?

MD:  It certainly wasn't mass hysteria. That's a term that gets bandied about a lot, but really it applies only to a fairly narrow and readily-defined collection of conditions that include supposed medical symptoms. What happened in 1837-8  – and occasionally thereafter – is better described as an urban terror. Even "mass panic" would be pushing it a bit. Jack's name was widely known by February 1838, and a lot of people were scared of meeting him, but there was no real panic involved. Just lots of slightly apprehensive Londoners.

AAB:  Your research is impressively thorough especially when it comes to comparing first-hand eyewitness accounts with subsequent descriptions of Jack's super human abilities.  Your conclusion in this respect is that both the "spring" in Jack's heel and his ability to spew fire from his mouth were either false memories, misunderstandings, or fictitious additions by later authors.  Why do you think it has taken so long to establish this?  Just our collective desire to believe in the seemingly impossible, or just lack of interest/effort on the part of other researchers? 

MD:  Laziness. Well, laziness and incompetence, actually.  It's quite easy to unearth contemporary reports of Spring-heeled Jack today, thanks to newspaper digitisation, but even when I began my research way back in 1982 it took me all of three minutes to throw up some new material from the Times that cast completely fresh light on the story. All that was required was a quick look in the Times Index. Which no one before me had ever bothered to do.

This was a revelation at the time. I think that there's a natural tendency, when one reads something as labour intensive to produce as a book, that the author must have done at least the obvious, easy work of research before writing it. I certainly used to assume so myself when I was a kid – which I suppose made readings of popular Fortean books scarier than was strictly necessary. So the Spring-heeled Jack saga was an object lesson to me that that is not always the case. In fact, in the world of Forteana, it's not even usually the case. Part of it, a small part usually, is to do with money – believers' books sell a lot better than sceptical studies, as my publishers learned to their considerable cost – but most of it is because the sort of people who work in this field haven't got a clue how to do research. It's not even that they simply can't be bothered to do it – they actually don't know how to go about, where to find information, or even how to read between the lines of the stuff they do have to hand.

I don't entirely blame other writers for this, let me add. I used to be that way myself. And I've read enough runs of Victorian era newspapers, with their endless massive blocks of 6pt print, not to wish a similar fate on anyone else.

AAB:  In the same article you also suggest that the Jack legend fits rather neatly into a slew of similar anomalies world-wide, and that "the ideas of a devil on earth and of a spring-heeled man are deeply rooted in a number of different cultures."  Seeing as the vast majority of the Spring-Heeled Jack antecedents, parallels and successors are concentrated between 1803 and 1945, do you think there was something about mid-to-late modernity that could provoke such phenomena?

MD:  Well, since I wrote, we've managed to push the earliest know reference to a Jack-type story back to 1677, and the most recent accounts come from only a couple of years ago. But I do think Jack's agility is central to his ability to scare us. It's not only that he's a creature of the night - he can also turn up pretty much anywhere. On your third floor bedroom window ledge, for example. What was that odd scratching sound you thought you heard just now, anyway...?

AAB:  Much of the archival research you conducted involved you pouring over the records of the London Metropolitan Police force.  In your opinion, did the police consider Jack a threat to public safety?

MD:  Not at all. The police didn't even believe in "a" Spring-heeled Jack - they thought the scare was being driven by a number of copycats and pranksters, some of whom were a limited danger to some women. They were probably right, too. One of the oddest realisations I've had as a result of all the research that I've done is that the long winter nights were really, really boring in Victorian times. No TV. No radio. No computers. No electronic games. In fact, no organised sport outside the odd game of cricket and some cockfighting. No social media.  Most people didn't even read that much, and only the middle- and upper classes had pianos or much music. It's really amazing the number of people whose idea of a fun time was to hang around in the freezing dark just so they could jump out on unsuspecting passers-by pretending to be ghosts. Literally hundreds of these sorts of cases made the papers, and those are just the ones that came to public notice. There's a PhD thesis in it, I reckon.

AAB:  In terms of the true identity of Spring-Heeled jack it seems obvious at this point we will never actually know whom the responsible individual(s) were.  Does this disappoint you?

MD:  Yes, but it doesn't surprise me. It's like the Jack the Ripper industry, really. I've long thought that it the real JTR ever is unmasked, the massed ranks of Ripperologists are going to look at each other and let out a collective "who"? It's something that become clear to me around the time that Peter Sutcliffe was arrested for the Yorkshire Ripper murders, and it emerged that while he actually was on the police card index, he was languishing somewhere down among the fourth division of suspects. You sort of doubt, if he'd not been caught, that any 22nd century true crime writer would have picked the correct name from the tens of thousands of potential killers, even if he'd had full access to police records. And, in the case of Spring-heeled Jack, there's the added problem that there may very well never have been "a" Jack at all. I do believe someone probably did assault Jane Alsop, the best known of Jack's victims, but even there there's evidence that the attack was nowhere near as dramatic as Jane made it out to be when she was questioned at the police court. If, as the police suspected, the assailant in question was a drunk, it's even possible he didn't know himself that he was "Jack" by the time he'd slept off his hangover. I find that pretty ironic.

AAB:  As a segue into the topic of Forteana, which I understand you have been writing on since your college years, what has led you to spend decades researching Jack?  Nerdy obsession?

MD:  One reason I understand how the Jack phenomenon "worked" in 1838 is that I was terrified of Spring-heeled Jack for years myself – having first encountered him in World of Wonder magazine when I was only 11 years old, and not nearly as critical or sceptical then as I am now. Hence some of the comments above about how easy it is to assume that writers on the subject have done their research. So to begin with researching Jack was probably a way of exorcising that demon. But I also love doing research - there's something very satisfying in digging out material that nobody else even knows exists. And Spring-heeled Jack had never been researched properly by anybody else, so it was comparatively easy to make those sorts of discoveries at first. Now I'm driven on by the knowledge that – with the help of a group of half a dozen really able collaborators – there's a chance to produce a body of work that might turn out to be the most comprehensive investigation of any Fortean phenomena ever made. So that's what drives me on. That, plus it's endlessly challenging and fun.

AAB:  I know that you hold a PhD. in history, and that you have published some really wonderful books on more conventional topics, but I must ask if you have felt any hostility from the academic community because of your association with "fringe" publications and subject matter?

MD:  That probably would be true if I was actually a university academic, but I'm not and never have been. A lot of "proper" historians do look down on popular nonfiction, and with some reason, because most of it doesn't meet normal scholarly standards. But my own limited experience has been that genuine academics can be pretty generous if you write a book that they do consider properly researched. I've had some rave reviews in academic journals for two or three of my books, and just the other day someone told me that Batavia's Graveyard had been cited in the Economic Journal, of all places. One or two have even been willing to admit that a lot of academic historians lack the skill of writing narrative, even though it is, or ought to be, an important tool for any history don to master.

Anyway, aside from a couple of sarcastic comments about Borderlands, mostly from people who hadn't read far enough to realise how sceptical it actually was, the only book of mine that's been really controversial is Thug, and that's less to do with me than it is to do with the ongoing argument between people like me, who go into archives and read the actual records, and those (mostly cultural scholars rather than historians) who just "know" that the whole episode was a product of ignorance and prejudice. They're entitled to their opinions, I suppose, but I find it hard to take such criticism seriously when – by their own admission – the people attacking my work haven't visited a single archive or read a single document in the original. That's not to say everything "original" is also "authentic," obviously, but in this particular case there's plenty of material in the archives that at the very least needs to be explained away. If the Thugs never existed at all, for instance, how were the Thug informants that the British cultivated able to point out the spots where well over 1,000 dead bodies were buried? 

I could go on, but it's not exactly your primary focus, so I won't. You probably recognise the type, though. There are plenty of people like that around in the Fortean and Skeptical worlds as well.

AAB:  In the introduction to your most Fortean tome, Borderlands, you state; "Because if only half of one percent [anomalous/paranormal activity] actually occurred, the chances are  that some sciences will be revolutionized and some histories re-written."  Do you still hold out hope that this half of one percent will be authenticated in some way?  Or does that not really matter to you?

MD:  Not really. The real problem, as I pointed out in that book, is really twofold. First, there's an almost complete – well, make that absolutely complete – absence of reliability in this field. I'm not talking about whether or not witnesses are telling the truth – what I mean is, who really cares if remote viewing, say, is a genuine phenomenon if it's not also a reliable phenomenon. No one sensible is going to base anything expensive on an RVer who's 60% accurate, say, which is why I find it very hard to credit reports of expeditions heading off into the Congo in search of the crash sites of downed Soviet bombers identified by remote viewing. The second problem is that the phenomena that would require rewriting of science are less likely to be genuine for precisely the reason that, to be true, they'd have to be breaking three or four of the fundamental rules of physics. Poltergeists are the best example here, perhaps. I concluded Borderlands by pointing out that there's something really interesting going on there – why are reports of polts so similar across the ages when reports of common or garden ghosts vary so dramatically? But in the end you have to ask yourself what's more credible: that a spectacular refutation of Newton is going on right under our nose, and has been for millennia, or that kids played the same sort of tricks in ancient Greece as they did in mid-nineteenth century America, or 1970s Enfield?

AAB:  Do you believe that self-proclaimed skeptics like, say, James Randi, are misguided in their intellectual approach to anomalous/paranormal phenomena?  Is their orthodox positivism impeding their ability to be open minded to the strange and unexplained?  

MD:  The further I go on my own journey, the more sympathetic I get to Randi and Phil Klass and their ilk. They're certainly right to point out that science is not fundamentally close minded, and that the greatest rewards and the greatest fame in those fields go to those that can shatter a paradigm or overturn conventional orthodoxy. And they have some good ideas, not least Randi's offer of a million bucks to anyone capable of reproducing genuine psychic phenomena in controlled conditions. I can also see that it's maddening for them to deal with people who can't be moved – ever – by pure reason. But in the end I can't help thinking they're also missing the point, which is that it's the very strength of belief in these sorts of subjects that's worth studying – not so much the phenomena themselves.

If I might be allowed to quote my own book – Borderlands – before I go: "To what extent are we, ourselves, the phenomenon?"

 

P.S.  Mike Dash has written a number of non-Fortean books that are quite astounding in both prose style and quality of research.  He also maintains a pretty awesome blog.