All Hail the All-Father

Book review Song of the Vikings: Snorri and the Making of Norse Myths by Nancy Marie Brown

Song of the Vikings book cover
Song of the Vikings book cover

So, a few weeks ago we saw the new Loki movie—excuse me—Thor movie and I was like, by Odin’s beard! It has been too long since I read up on Norse mythology (which according to my records was in 2011)! I came home, hopped on to the website for my local library and found this book.

Song of the Vikings is an interesting read because it links a few different vectors of Norse mythology. There is a little bit of the myths themselves (we learn about the time Loki got down with a horse, for example, and why gold is otter’s ransom), but more than the myths, Brown lays down the saga of Snorri Sturluson and how the myths came down from the Vikings to the present. In many ways, this is more instructive than the actual content of the myths.

Snorri Sturluson is one of the most influential dudes you have (probably) never heard of. He is the author of several works: The Prose Edda, Heimskringla, and Egil’s Saga. The Edda is perhaps the most well-known of his works, even though no one knows what an “edda” actually is. Some think it might be “the book of Oddi,” (Oddi being the name of a place Snorri lived), or maybe something like “the art of poetry.” It could possibly even be given the cheeky translation of “the art of great-grandmother’s old-fashioned songs.” The Prose Edda (yes, this is in contrast to another author’s Poetic Edda) is the primary compendium of the stories we recognize as Norse mythology. Not only is this mythology awesome, but it has been called “the deep an ancient wellspring of Western culture.” So, if you are not an uncultured lout, you should listen up and learn yourself some Norse business.

Snorri lived in Iceland during the late 12th and early 13th century. Iceland at this time was kind of the way you might imagine it to be. People then and there had plots of land where they might graze cows or goats. There was, of course, a lot of fishing, and exceptionally well-situated landowners might have access to a hot spring. Families were brought together under chieftains, who were not exactly elected, but who could not govern if they did not have the confidence and might of the people behind them. Positions of power were typically cemented through family ties, but people were also respected for being well-versed in the law or for being great poets. Another cultural force at this time was Christianity, which was a surprise to me. There were churches in Iceland during this period and the church was gradually becoming more influential among the people.

In this climate we have Snorri. He was born to a fairly influential family and was a foster son to Jon Loftsson of Oddi, the “uncrowned king of Iceland.” Snorri became educated and grew up to be influential in his own right. He was the chief over some choice chieftaincies and he even became the lawspeaker at the allthing—essentially the most law-knowing and well-versed guy at the annual Icelandic assembly. He was also a great poet and he loved writing about the gods, especially Odin, who was, in Snorri’s opinion, the best god. While most people at the time favored Thor, Snorri seems to have considered him a dumb meat-head, eschewing Thor for Odin and his cleverness and skill in poetry. It should be noted that poetry was not then, as it is today, seen as a sign of femininity. Manly men went on raids and also traded verses to exhibit their keen wit. Vikings love poetry; it is manly business.

an image of Snorri Stuluson
Snorri himself, fat and sassy

Although Iceland was, at this time, an independent commonwealth, the Norwegian king had designs on the land. Snorri, in his quest for more power and influence, spent several seasons at the Norwegian court getting to know the young king and apparently glad-handing with everyone there. Snorri was also semi-obsessed with the concept of kingliness and what it meant to be a king. His first visit to Norway inspired his work Heimskringla, which is a saga about Norwegian kings. Snorri was concerned the Norway’s young king (then 16) was missing out on vital information. He worried that kids these days were losing the ability to understand poetry—that most influential of arts. Heimskringla goes a long way to explain the old stories of the gods; understanding these stories is the key to understanding poetry, and as such, all the important literature of the time. Nordic poetry was fond of kennings, which is basically referring to something by calling it something else. Brown includes this example to illustrate the importance of knowing one’s stories:

“The noble hater of the fire of the sea defends the woman-friend of the enemy of the wolf; prows are set before the step brow of the confidante of the friend of Mimir. The noble, all-powerful one knows how to protect the mother of the attacker of the work; enjoy, enemy of neck-rings, the mother of the troll-wife’s enemy until old age.”

Brown comments “As the translator of this stanza notes, the audience needs to know five myths and the family trees of two gods or it’s nonsense.” The majority of verses were similarly oblique (if the poet had any level of skill).

The main concept I got from Song of the Vikings is that almost everything we know of Norse myth came from one guy: Snorri Sturluson. It seems obvious that Snorri’s personal biases would have been woven into the myth, but I wonder how much? One thing that comes to mind is the duality of fire and ice, which runs through a lot of the myths (the creation myth, for one). Iceland would have been a place where snow and lava clash, but that would not be true of Norway and Sweden, where the myths originated. Did Snorri come up with this imagery himself because he was a storyteller or was this idea already part of the world of myth? I wonder how the myths would be different if not told by Snorri? We know that he was a big fan of Odin. Would we know that Odin traded an eye for wisdom?

The last chapter of the book deals with how Norse mythology became a part of our present culture. For a long time, the stories were essentially lost. After Snorri’s death, Iceland was annexed into Norway, Christianity became more prominent and, you know, paganism was not really on the rise. The church even tried to change the names of the weekdays to silly things like Third Day and Midweek Day (instead of Tyr’s Day and Odin’s Day, also known as Tuesday and Wednesday). I thought it was interesting that the Germans later (by later I mean 1700-1800s) reclaimed Norse mythology as their heritage. They took it up so fiercely that it essentially inspired modern German nationalism. During the early 20th century, any non-Germans who were interested in Norse myth were suspected to by Nazi sympathizers. Yes, this includes J. R. R. Tolkien, who was hugely influenced by Norse mythology.

Tolkien has probably done more to propel Norse myth into modern Western (American and English, at least) consciousness than anyone. As a professor of English, he started a club to focus on Nordic literature and he fought to get Norse myth into the syllabus. He felt that the Norse mythology was of great import to the English canon than Shakespeare, which is quite the claim.

Now, of course, the Norse gods are very much in pop culture, especially with movies like The Avengers and comics and the rest of it. Although, I think mythology is general is having quite the renaissance. Greek and Roman myth is getting treatment in things like Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson and Camp Halfblood series, as well. I would be interested in see an analysis regarding what draws us to mythology. Is it just that it makes for great storytelling? Is it something more?

I’ll conclude with a quotation from Snorri. He states in the Edda, “But these things [lore] have now to be told to young poets … but these stories are not to be consigned to oblivion.” Thankfully, they were not and it seems like they will not be consigned to oblivion any time too soon.

If you are interested in Norse mythology, here are some suggestions for further reading:

Anti-Vaccine Rhetoric Makes Me Want to Smash Things

Every time I see another argument against the apparent evil that is vaccines, I feel the urge to smash faces or throw heavy things around. Vaccines are widely recognized as being a good thing. But you don’t have to take my word for it, I’ll be referencing peer reviewed research in this post. Everything I have cited here is available for the public to read—nothing is behind a paywall. If you think I have misrepresented a statistic or study, feel free to politely let me know.

This week, I saw this blog post [edit: literally a minute after I posted this, that blog link stopped working. I’m not sure if it will come back up later or not.] from a site called feelguide.com making the rounds. The post claims that the lead developer for the human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine, Dr. Diane Harper, regrets her involvement with the vaccine. The author of the posts states:

“Dr. Harper made her surprising confession at the 4th International Converence on Vaccination which took place in Reston, Virginia. Her speech, which was originally intended to promote the benefits of the vaccines, took a 180-degree turn when she chose instead to clean her conscience about the deadly vaccines so she ‘could sleep at night.’”

A deadly vaccine? That sounds pretty alarmist to me. I won’t quote all of the source of this claim at length, but it can be distilled into the allegation that the risk for cervical cancer (which HPV can cause, along with a few other varieties of cancer) is already low, the HPV vaccine is not going to significantly lower the incidence rate of HPV, and that over 15,000 girls have “reported adverse side effects from Garsasil” (Gardisil is one brand of the vaccine).

I would like to take these claims one at a time.

Claim one: The risk for cervical cancer is already extremely low.

My first comment on this issue is that regardless of how infrequent a form of cancer surfaces, it is still a disease that kills people. Why would the scientific community not want to inoculate people against it if they could? Should we rank cancers by order of importance and research only the most prevalent?

Here are some actual statistics. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and Prevention reports that in 2010, 11, 818 women in the United States were diagnosed with cervical cancer and 3,939 women died from it. To put that in perspective, the population of the United States is about 317 million. That comes out to about one in 250 people being diagnosed with cervical cancer annually. No, that does not sound like a lot, but it is statistically significant. One in 250 means that, on average, someone you know will be diagnosed with cervical cancer in any given year.

Claim two: The HPV vaccine is not going to lower the prevalence of HPV.

First of all, I think it is important to understand how prevalent HPV is. Human papillomavirus is the most prevalent sexually transmitted infection in the United States according to the CDC. To return to my flippant comment about ranking the most important cancer to research, HPV is actually the biggest STI! And there is a vaccine for it! Why would we not want that? Okay, I know, the claim is that the vaccine is not helping. Fortunately, there has been research done on this.

A study published this year in the Journal of Infectious Disease found that for females aged 14 to 19, the prevalence of HPV dropped from 11.5 percent to 5.1 percent. That means that the rate of HPV was halved! If cutting the prevalence of HPV in half is not statistically significant, I have no idea what would be. Half is huge. Researchers everywhere would make burnt offerings to the gods to get results like this.

Claim three: Thousands of girls have reported adverse side-effects from Gardasil.

This one is tricky to address because to know if thousands is a significant proportion of the girls and women being vaccinated, we have to know how many people were vaccinated in total. Additionally, we do not know what kind of side-effects they allegedly experienced. There is a serious order of magnitude difference between having a vaccine make you feel kind of funky for a few days and a vaccine sending you to the hospital.

I am going to have to go ahead and say that I do not know where this claim originated and that I do not know how to refute it at this time. However, I will say that several studies have found the HPV vaccine to be safe and effective. A study from earlier this year states that “safety monitoring data continue to indicate that HPV4 is safe.”

I have one other comment I would like to add about side-effects. Many people who experience side effects from vaccines are statistical outliers. A lot of the most powerful stories from the anti-vaccine camp are from people who personally experienced problems, but it is important to keep in mind that the vast majority of people who get vaccinated are totally fine. For example, I got the HPV vaccine and had no problems. I didn’t go on to tell people I had no issues because it is a non-story. No problems is what you expect. I also think that having a particular negative reaction to a vaccine means you have to be anti-vaccines. My boyfriend is seriously allergic to penicillin, but he still thinks vaccines that use penicillin are a good plan for other people.

The Origin of the Comments by Dr. Harper

After reading up on some statistics, I wanted to know where these comments from Dr. Harper originated. Like I said, the blog post that ran the story only linked another blog post, which also did not have any proper citations. It seems odd to me that a scientist who works in immunology would turn around and say that the use of the vaccine was keeping her up at night.

It turns out that this story has been making the rounds on the internet for a few years now. The nature of Dr. Harper’s comments seem to be a misquote, at best. ScienceBlogs has an extremely thorough debunking of the issue. If you are interested, it is probably best to read the whole thing, but I will try to faithfully represent the gist of it.

First, the author speaks to the venue where the remarks were made: “What’s not mentioned is that this particular article is that the 4th International Public Conference on Vaccination was a conference held by one of the oldest and most established antivaccine groups, the National Vaccine Information Center (NVIC). That’s the group founded by Barbara Loe Fisher, the grande dame of the antivaccine movement, the woman who was antivaccine before it was fashionable to be antivaccine.”

Second, this story started in 2009. It’s 2013 and for unfathomable reasons, it is still going strong.

Third, the author explains that Dr. Harper was “selectively quoted” by a reporter with a known anti-vaccine bias. He also goes on to explain that some of Dr. Harper’s other speculative statements were combined with the primary quotation to create an alarmist tone.

What have we learned?

If you think vaccines are dumb and that science is a bunch of bullshit, then this post probably didn’t change your mind, but hopefully it at least made you think. If you made it this far, I am willing to admit to you that this was primarily written as a cathartic activity; seeing anti-vaccination posts just makes me so mad. There are safe, effective vaccines out there for so many diseases. It is irresponsible to spread misinformation about them. Anti-vaccination rhetoric is actively harmful.

One more quotation on this issue before I let it be. This one is also from the CDC:

“This report shows that HPV vaccine works well, and the report should be a wake-up call to our nation to protect the next generation by increasing HPV vaccination rates,”said CDC Director Tom Frieden, M.D., M.P.H. “Unfortunately only one third of girls aged 13-17 have been fully vaccinated with HPV vaccine. Countries such as Rwanda have vaccinated more than 80 percent of their teen girls. Our low vaccination rates represent 50,000 preventable tragedies – 50,000 girls alive today will develop cervical cancer over their lifetime that would have been prevented if we reach 80 percent vaccination rates. For every year we delay in doing so, another 4,400 girls will develop cervical cancer in their lifetimes.”

50,000 preventable tragedies because of this foolishness. And Rawanda is trouncing us in vaccination coverage. Need I say more? GET VACCINATED!

New Voices from Oz

 

Oz Reimagined book cover
Oz Reimagined

Oz Reimagined is a great collection of short stories on the topic of, of course, Oz. There are 15 stories collected from notable writers in science fiction and fantasy, all accompanied by a cool illustration. What I particularly enjoyed about this anthology was that the stories were so diverse. If you enjoy Oz, or re-tellings, or fantasy in general, you should give Oz Reimagined a try (and if you don’t want to commit to all the stories, you can buy them individually on Amazon).

The stories in this collection were all inspired by the original written canon of Oz books (not the movies or subsequent adaptations), so you find characters like Jack (who has a pumpkin head) and Ozma (child queen and erstwhile boy, Tip). Some of the stories deal with Dorothy and her life after her original visit to Oz. Sometimes she is an Ambassador (which is a much less dry story than it sounds), sometimes she returns as an adult. Some of the stories focus on the Wizard and some of them don’t feature Dorothy or Oz the Great and Powerful at all, instead focusing on the people of Oz.

Many of the stories take a darker turn, which I suppose is to be expected when you ask authors to work off a story that is pretty solidly for children. One of the more cynical stories that particularly resonated with me was about Oz’s reality television show Wish. The show was orchestrated by Oz’s witches and the story is told from the perspective of a jeweler. Wish turns out to be the social event of the season and it is revealed that it is actually part of a plan to orchestrate a coup against the Wizard. Another story that hints at the, perhaps, surveillance-state nature of Oz is about a munchkin who works as a window washer in the Emerald City. One of his buddies dies on the job, despite all the safety measures that are in place. When he comments to some friends saying that something about the whole situation seems “off,” a flying monkey he works with brings up the fact that the friend had been working to unionize them.

One of the other stories that I thought was totally unexpected was one called “The Veiled Shanghai.” In this story, Dorothy is a fourteen-year-old Chinese girl (Dorothy is her English school name and she lives on Kansu Road) who unwittingly facilitates the May Fourth movement via her actions in the Veiled Shanghai—a place where carrots are magically sweet and that is ruled by a wicket warlord. What I liked about this story was that it used the Oz mythos to describe real events. The story ascribed a magical impetus for the May Fourth movement. I have to admit that this movement is not something I know much (ahem, anything) about, but I like the concept of using stories like this to explain history.

This collection is full of cool stories, but I don’t want to spoil them all. There is a riff on One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest, a cyberpunk version of Dorothy and Oz, a story about a Zeppelin, and one about a young L. Frank Baum meeting the girl who would show him the Kingdom of the Air (which inspired the Oz stories, of course). There were a lot of stories; I enjoyed all of them. They all offered fresh takes on the Oz mythos without overlapping. I think some of the reason for this is that the source material is so vast. The other part of this is that there are so many ways to interpret an older version of Dorothy or to characterized the other denizens of Oz (and there are a lot of them).

I was giving some thought to why the dystopian views of Oz appeal to me so much. I don’t know if it’s simply that our era is so jaded and cynical (is that too much of a generalization?) or if it’s that the original Oz is so squeaky clean that it’s impossible, from a writer’s perspective, to avoid corrupting it in some way. But I think the Oz story was ripe for reconsideration. The way that Oz’s society is set up naturally lends itself (if I may be so presumptuous) to dystopian interpretations: four cultures who all live in their own isolated areas of the country, an autocratic ruler who doesn’t let anyone see him, a capital city that literally shines (seriously, nothing is that clean on its own). And if you think about the movie, you have that road and no one else is travelling on it. What are the people of Oz doing all day? Obviously not traveling. Perhaps, like so many police states, travel is strictly regulated. Okay, I will stop with this line of thinking because I am clearly talking myself into a story of my own!

I’ll end with some book recommendations. I hadn’t heard of a lot of the authors featured in this collection, but at least half of the stories made me want to look them up to see what else they had written. Here are some book selections if you’re looking for something to read after you’ve made it through Oz Reimagined. Oh, and I won’t bother recommending the original Oz stories or Wicked because come on, you can find that in two seconds of Googling.

  • Rosemary and Rue (October Daye, Book one) by Seanan McGuire has the kind of cover that generally signals something I don’t want to read, but I really liked her story in Oz Reimagined, so I guess I will have to take that advice about not judging books by their covers. This book is billed as urban fantasy and its main character is a half-human, half-fae changeling. So, what could possibly go wrong?
  • David Farland is the author of a cool cyberpunk story that made it into Oz Reimagined, but it looks like his books are fairly fantasy-based (although he has a lot of books and I can’t promise that I’ve comprehensively gone through them). The Lair of Bones is book one of his Runelords series, and it sounds like some pretty good fantasy.
  • This recommendation isn’t actually out yet, but it sounds super good and it’s from the author of the Oz has a reality show story. How the World Became Quiet: Myths of the Past Present, and Future by Rachel Swirsky sounds like it is going to be a great read.

Based on a True Story

The walls here are soft, not like a blanket but like one of those boards that you can stick pieces of felt to for telling stories to children. Maybe one day I’ll stick some felt animals on my wall and tell the story of Noah’s Ark. Their felt figures stacked haphazardly above the boat. Dinosaurs crying for help from the expanse of the soft, grey sea. But maybe kids all have tablets now and they don’t use felt anymore. It doesn’t matter. There are no children here.

Anyway—it is soft. Soft and a muted grey color flecked with whites and reds like a man’s suit, I guess. Not a lot of men here either. Not really anyone in suits. But it’s the kind of thing you can imagine being suiting fabric. Or maybe one day I’ll just tear it down and wrap a soft, grey cloak around myself. It will be a toga or a sari or a cape. You can’t make a suit without needles, scissors, other sharp objects.

Everything is grey here, not just the walls. The only other thing I can really see from my designated space is the ceiling and that’s filled with grey too. Grey tiles with pounding, fluorescent lights interspersed between them, washing out any other colors. At first, the lights made my head hurt, but I guess now my head has grown used to it and doesn’t hurt, or it perpetually hurts and I’ve just accepted this as the new normal. It’s hard to say.

There are other people here too. I can hear them and sometimes they visit them or they visit me and we talk about how grey it is and how you can almost see out the window if you stand in the right spot. There’s a small balcony area, but no one is allowed to go out there. My neighbor said that they are afraid we might jump. She said it like she was joking, but I don’t think she really was. Her eyes weren’t joking.

They give us meaningless work to complete. It piles up and then I look at it and write notes about it. I even call people sometimes. Then I pile it up for someone else. I guess that’s how work works. I didn’t know that before, but here it is true.

It feels like I’ve been here for years, but it’s hard to say at this point. Maybe it was only a week, a day, an hour, a minute. Time is stretching out across the sunny spot on the floor to warm its belly like a housecat.

You know in the movie version of The Wizard of Oz? It starts out in black and white. Being there feels like being stuck on the bleak Kansas prairie. All grey. I understand why Dorothy was glad to leave (but not why she was so eager to go home). When I leave, it’s like I’m suddenly in Oz and like Dorothy, I’m overcome; the color outside is so blinding, so brilliant in comparison to the grey expanse inside.

I head to the restroom and say goodbye to my coworkers. I check my email once more, turn off my computer, and grab my purse. It’s finally 5 o’clock. Work is over for today.

 

A Cult I Had Never Read about Before: the Independent Fundamental Baptists

Book cover of I Fired God
I Fired God

Book Review: I Fired God: My Life Inside—and Escape from—the Secret World of the Independent Fundamental Baptist Cult by Jocelyn Zichterman

This book has quite the audacious title. How do you fire God? Or, as my boyfriend quipped, “Does she have the authority to do that?” Given the author’s experience with religion, I can definitely appreciate her position. This book is part autobiography and part memoir and part political call to action. Jocelyn Zichterman (neé Janz) recounts her abusive childhood, her attempt to find her place in the world as an adult in the Independent Fundamental Baptist (IFB) church/cult, her subsequent liberation from the IFB, and career as an activist. As someone who just can’t get enough of reading about cults, the people in cults, and people managing their post-cult existence, when I saw this book on the new shelf at the library, I had to check it out.

The opening part of the book deals with Zichterman’s abuse at the hands of her father and, later on, brothers. It is inherently hard to read about abuse for me, especially when it goes into detail about the unpredictable nature of their father, Bart, an IFB pastor and expert misogynist, and the times he tortured animals and beat his children bloody with a dowel. However, I appreciate the impact of these events and how they establish a context for the author’s actions later on. They also make it clear that Zichterman has a real, tangible reason to fear her father, and other people in the IFB who enable his behavior.

I had a hard time getting into the narrative at first because it started out feeling really clunky. The chapters were organized into vignettes and each one had a subheading. It felt more like reading blog posts or journal entries than a cohesive story. But as the narrative progressed, I found my irritation waning. I think that it seemed so difficult to read at the outset because the author was describing events from a time when she didn’t have a full understanding of herself, but the narrative became more confident and mature as the author did. I think it can be difficult to recount events from a time when the mind isn’t fully mature, fully settled. Trying to get into a prior mindset (from childhood, or before a major life change—like leaving your religion-based worldview) makes for awkward tellings, no matter how skilled you are. For comparison, I find that when I try to discuss how I used to feel when I was growing up Mormon, I can’t really articulate myself fully, likely because I have my brain engaged on more levels than I did then.

Zichterman recounts an absurd amount of incidences that indicate that women in the IFB have zero standing. The men who run this cult view women on the same level as children. They also describe the need to keep women under men’s “umbrella of protection,” which means that fathers are responsible for girl-children until they marry, at which point husbands are responsible. The whole cult (I will take Zichterman at her word that it is a cult) seems to be based on giving misogynistic, sociopathic men an outlet for dominating and totally gaslighting women.

The descriptions of how women in the IFB are treated highlight some awful behavior, but the true purpose of this book, and one of the main themes running through it, is that groups like the IFB cultivate an isolationist stance, distancing themselves from government and regulation. This this is a huge detriment to its members and is prohibitive for anyone who wants to leave. Like many religious groups, the IFB does a deplorable job of educating kids. The IFB preaches isolation—public schools will convert your children to Satanists, the government is just waiting to round up fine, Christian folk for execution, and calling the police is a sure way to make God mad—and as such, almost everyone is homeschooled or goes to a private, religious school. Homeschooled kids in this group use study booklets that blatantly ignore basically everything we know about history and science, and instead focus on the fact that the Bible should be our main source of information. Kids are left to work on these booklets independently, with minimal supervision. Sometimes, they aren’t supervised at all, as was the case for Zichterman and her siblings one year.

Another of Zichterman’s main issues with the education system is that these home or private schools feed into IFB “colleges” like Bob Jones University or Northland Baptist Bible College, which Zichterman herself attended. These schools do not have accreditation, so their degrees are literally meaningless. When the author and her husband who had graduate-level degrees from these schools were trying to escape the IFB, they found that her husband couldn’t get a job anywhere because his degrees were unaccredited and completely useless. This means that anyone who wants to educate themselves and get out has essentially no recourse. The cult leaders are actively keeping people ignorant (and making money) by feeding members into this system.

This steady stream of misinformation is, in fact, state-approved. In Wisconsin, where the author grew up, all parents who wanted to homeschool their children had to do was submit a form. These schools and “colleges” also receive federal funding either through voucher programs, or more directly.

Zichterman makes the case that none of this should be legal. I Fired God highlights the profound unfairness of abuse and how it continues to affect the lives of its victims long after the abuse has supposedly ended. Not educating children properly is abusive. It limits their options. Zichterman argues that freedom of religion should also be freedom from religion and it is impossible to free yourself from such a religion when everything you see or do is controlled by it. Everyone should receive an education that enables them to make it on their own if they so choose. Of course, that is what the leaders of cults like this fear. They know that if people were not kept entirely ignorant, they wouldn’t choose to stay in such conditions and live these lives. This book is part of Zichterman’s campaign to fight back.

Ultimately, I did enjoy reading this book. I like getting perspective on how other people live and it is insane to hear about such systemic abuse even within my own country. I really support Zichterman’s cause; I think that having more regulation and robust education for everyone would solve a lot of problems. I sympathize with people in this situation and I hope that change will soon be enacted. If you like reading about fringe religious movements, people breaking out of oppressive systems, or women overcoming hardship and becoming activists, then you will probably enjoy this book.

One other thing that I want to add: if you don’t want to commit to a whole book, this 20/20 episode features Zichterman, her cause, and an expose on the IFB.

What should you read after you’ve finished I Fired God? Here are some things that I’ve read or have been meaning to read that play well with this subject:

  • Quiverfull: Inside the Christian Patriarchy Movement by Kathryn Joyce. I read this book a few years ago and really enjoyed it. It deals with the Quiverfull ideology, which stipulates that parents should have a “Quiverfull” of children. That means people shouldn’t use birth control and just accept however many children God wants to give them. The IFB subscribe to this mindset and it is another way in which women are subjugated.
  • Write These Laws on Your Children: Inside the World of Conservative Christian Homeschooling by Robert Kunzman. I’ve had this book on my radar for a while, but have yet to read it. Now I want to read it a lot more. This book deals with exactly what Zichterman is concerned about: people homeschooling children with little or no oversight.
  • Escape by Carolyn Jessop. Zichterman recounts seeing an interview on television featuring Carolyn Jessop and realizing, for the first time, that the IFB was a cult. Jessop is a former member of the FLDS (fundamentalist, polygamist Mormons) and her story has a lot of parallels with Zichterman’s. I haven’t read this particular FLDS memoir, but I have read Lost Boy, Favorite Wife: Escape from Polygamy, and Shattered Dreams, which are all written by survivors/escapees from the FLDS sect.

Zimbabwe, America, and the immigrant experience

Book Review: We Need New Names by NoViolet Bulawayo

We Need New Names

I can’t quite recall where I first heard about this book, but I have been hearing about it a lot lately. I discovered that We Need New Names is definitely not being over-hyped; it is awesome. This is probably the first work of Africa-related, contemporary fiction I’ve read since Achebe’s Things Fall Apart in high school and it made me feel like I’ve been missing out on something profound and interesting.

This book is beautifully written. It is just full of amazing imagery. I’m not inclined to gush about such things, but as I was reading this book, I just wanted to drink up all the language and become drunk from it because it was so heady. Even though the story is told from the point of view of a child, the language isn’t necessarily puerile. Darling, the narrator, doesn’t use lots of sophisticated language, but her thoughts are really succinct and what she says makes the reader picture everything. For example, when speaking about the heat she says, “The sun keeps ironing us and ironing us and ironing us,” which is something I can relate to with the heat wave happening at the moment.  In another chapter, Darling is watching a funeral and comments of the cemetery:

“[It] is mounds and mounds of red earth everywhere, like people are being harvested, like death is maybe waiting behind a rock with a big bag of free food and people are rushing, tripping over each other to get to the front before the handouts run out. That is how it is, the way the dead keep coming and coming.”

Not all the imagery is morbid, of course, but this example stood out to me because it’s such a mature observation even though it is rooted in kid-logic.

As to the plot (which is, I suppose, what people want to hear about in a review), the book is told from the perspective of Darling, a girl who lives in Paradise—a shanty town in Zimbabwe. Her observations about life are folded in among vignettes of playing with her friends: Bastard, Godknows, Shbo, Stina, and the pregnant Chipo. Darling dreams of moving to America, a place where everyone has enough food and is rich, and she knows that one day she will because her Aunt Fostalina lives there. The second part of the book focuses on Darling’s life in America (specifically, in “Destroyedmichygen”) and how she copes with the reality of living in the US, works through her identity, and relates to others. The result is both a poignant view of life in modern Zimbabwe and of the immigrant experience in America.

The first half of We Need New Names made me realize how little I know about Zimbabwe specifically and Africa in general. From the way the story is told, the reader can gather that Zimbabwe used to be ruled by a king, but then it was taken over by white colonialists. The colonialists were eventually ousted by the native black people, who were then deposed by another group of black people. That is an extremely rudimentary understanding, but clearly this isn’t a book about politics or history; it’s about one person’s experience in Zimbabwe. I feel like I should be able to at least put names on some of these movements or governments, but I don’t have any in my head. I think that reading up on modern African history is definitely going to be on my to-do list.

The second half of the book was, in a way, more relatable, just because I am American and Darling’s experiences were easier for me to digest, even though they were through the eyes of someone new to the country. I briefly taught English as a second language when I was a teacher, so I was able to appreciate some of the observations about learning (or improving, more accurately) English. In one scene, Aunt Fostalina is on the phone trying to order something from Victoria’s Secret, but she is not being well-understood. Darling comments about how you can practice what you want to say beforehand, but the words still come out wrong, concluding “English is like a huge iron door and you are always losing the keys.” This is such an amazing way to conceptualize all language learning, but especially English learning.

Something incidental to the story, but that I really liked, is the concept of a “talking eye.” Essentially, this is when you look at someone in a way that says something, like when a little dog wearing a pink jacket tries to get attention from Darling and she gives it a talking eye that says “No, dog, you don’t even know me like that.” Or you could give a talking eye that says “Don’t even think about it,” or “Get over here.” Bulawayo has managed to name something I didn’t know I needed a word for.

We Need New Names is stuffed with observations about life both in Zimbabwe and in America. I really enjoyed Bulawayo’s take on the world and I feel like my worldview has definitely been expanded (which is the point of reading in the first place). There is a lot more in this book that I haven’t discussed because I know I can’t just talk about a whole book, but if anyone who has read it would like to discuss it with me, I would love to talk about it! I will definitely be keeping my eye out for future works by NoViolet Bulawayo.

What should you read after you’ve finished We Need New Names? Here are some things I am thinking of picking up that have similar themes:

  • Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie seems to be focused on immigration in a similar way to Bulawayo’s work, but centers on a teenage couple from Nigeria. The woman in the couple manages to immigrate to America, but the man is unable to do so. Adichie won the 2002 Caine Prize for African Writing for one of her previous novels.
  • A Contellation of Vital Phenomena is the debut novel of Anthony Marra. This story is set in Chechnya, another place I don’t know enough about.
  • The Fear: Robert Mugabe and the Martyrdom of Zimbabwe by Peter Godwin looks to be a pretty solid work on the modern political situation in Zimbabwe. If, like me, you know want to know more about Zimbabwe, this would be a good pick.

 

Dreaming Is Free: Its Aftermath Is Not

The book cover for Dreams and Shadows
Dreams and Shadows

Book Review: Dreams and Shadows: A Novel by C. Robert Cargill

I loved reading this book; I guess we can start with that. Like most books I’ve been reading lately, I spotted this on the “new” shelf at the library. The cover looked really cool and the description sounded good, so I went for it. I know we’re not supposed to judge books by their covers, but I think it’s okay to do so sometimes, especially when the cover is awesome and the text is awesome too.

I would describe this book as probably urban fantasy or, perhaps, a modern fairy tale. And yes, it’s a fairy tale with all the nasty, brutish implications of one told by the Brothers Grim, not the Disney adaptation. I know I am not the first person to say this, but it definitely reminded me of a Neil Gaiman novel—it’s kind of American Gods-esque. Like all great fantasy, it deals not just with the fantastical, but also with how humankind’s fantasies reflect its true nature. I’ll get into that in a minute.

Before we go any further: a summary. The first part of Dreams and Shadows alternates between two characters. There is Ewan who is kidnapped by fairies as a baby and replaced by a changeling who wastes no time compelling Ewan’s parents to kill themselves. There is also Colby, the son of an alcoholic, negligent mother who encounters a genie. Part of the excitement of reading this book was that I immediately knew that the characters were going to cross paths (because, duh, that is how stories work), but I couldn’t wait to find out how. Ewan and Colby are both eight years old during the first part of the story (with the exception of the part of the exposition that involves the changeling) so even though they are operating in realms that would seem illogical to adults, they inhabit this madness readily.

Ewan is being raised by the fairy folk of the Limestone Kingdom (near Austin, Texas—and when was the last time you read a fantasy set in Texas?) and is being slowly transformed into a fairy. Unfortunately for him, he is not being turned into a fairy just for fun, but he is the tithe child. Fairies, it is explained, have an ongoing pact with the devil that requires them to sacrifice one of their own every seven years in order to maintain their longevity. Rather than sacrifice their proper kin, they often steal children, turn them into fairies, and sacrifice them as soon as they’ve turned.

Colby meets the cursed genie (djinn, to be more accurate), Yashar. Yashar has an interesting backstory that involves a jealous vizier, the genocide of the djinn, and years of lonliness. He selects Colby for wish-making because djinn are unable to survive unless someone remembers them. Although Yashar is reluctant to grant Colby’s wish (cursed djinn, remember?), he does eventually grant it. Colby, somewhat unfortunately, wishes to “see everything.” By everything, he means all the supernatural things that no one else sees. This wish is eventually what makes him cross paths with Ewan.

I won’t go into the rest because I don’t want to ruin it, but suffice to say, Colby and Ewan do cross paths. Colby also wishes to become a wizard in what I found to be a hilarious display of child-logic. One thing I will also say about the progression of the narrative is that I appreciated Cargill’s inclusion of faux-scholarly texts on the matter of the fey. There is a series of excerpts from the work of Dr. Thaddeus Ray, Ph.D. Some of them explain different types of fairies (djinn, for one), or fairy custom (like the tithe). The best explained where fairies came from. Fairies are essentially the result of whatever ambient emotion there is to be found in an area. If a city radiates misery and hatred, fairy folk are created who feed off these emotions. A region full of goodwill is likely to engender fairies who feed on those emotions instead. In this way, the fey are a true reflection of humanity. Miserable people beget miserable creatures.

One of the themes that I found in Dreams and Shadows is that monsters aren’t the real monsters; people are. When Colby first meets Yashar, the djinn, he asks if monsters are real. His response was to tell Colby:

“Monsters are real. Very real. But they’re not just creatures. Monsters are everywhere. They’re people, they’re nightmares … They are the things that we harbor within ourselves. If you remember one thing, even above remembering me, remember that there is not a monster dreamt of that hasn’t walked once within the soul of a man.”

So, even though most of the villains in this story are fairies, we must remember that the fairies are, effectively, created by humans. It’s easier to understand and contextualize our own humanity when we see it in another group of beings.

Another piece of the ‘monsters aren’t the monsters’ trope is Yashar’s behavior. After Colby and Ewan meet, the local fairy council decides that Colby and Yashar have to go because they pose a threat to the tithe child, Ewan. Yashar’s response to the fact that Ewan is going to be brutally murdered for the sake of the Limestone Kingdom: “You’ve got to be kidding me.”  Yashar displays a much higher degree of humanity than almost anyone else in the story, despite being a djinn.

But don’t worry, this story isn’t preachy, I just like analyzing literature. Dreams and Shadows is also hilarious. One of my favorite exchanges is between young Colby and Ewan. Colby finds out that Ewan has never seen Aladdin because he’s been busy being raised by fairies. When Ewan thinks Colby is an idiot for not knowing something basic about fairies, Colby shoots back, “At least I’ve seen Aladdin!” Cargill does a great job of representing what children find to be critically important and incorporating it into the story. Another part that I laughed out loud over was Colby wishing to be a wizard. Yashar insists that he can’t “just make [Colby] a wizard.” Colby just keeps wishing, insisting that Yashar promised he would grant any wish as long as they left the Limestone Kingdom and Ewan behind. Obviously, describing jokes out of context is not that funny, but trust me, there are some pretty funny bits in this story.

There is a lot more to this story than I’ve written about here because I don’t want to spoil it. I really loved this book and it was one of the best fantasies I’ve read in a while. If you’re looking for a modern, hilarious, but poignant story, definitely check out Dreams and Shadows.

Panic: A Retrospective Essay

I remember the first time I had a panic attack.

Of course, at the time, I wouldn’t have called it that.

I was four years old—maybe even three, who knows—and my parents, still married, drove me to my grandparents’ house in San Clemente to stay the night. I don’t think I had ever slept somewhere without my parents before then. Or if I had, I lacked the capacity to note the difference.

We came in through the garage, passing my grandfather’s workbench, and entered the house. We placed my duffel bag and stuffed animals in the spare bedroom. My parents made their farewells, probably looking forward to some time to do whatever it is parents do without children.

I walked into the living room, finding my grandparents sitting on the sofa. My grandfather looked at me and with a pinching hand motion said, “Bug, bug, bug.” It was something he always said to me (and my sister, later on) as kids, but I have no idea why. Just then, I started crying, screaming perhaps. It’s difficult to retroactively judge one’s level of volume.

I don’t think it was my grandfather’s bugs that provoked me, but to all observers that seemed to be the case. I knew that wasn’t it. It wasn’t that my parents were gone. It wasn’t being in San Clemente. I just panicked.

“Do you miss your mom and dad?” my grandma asked. I sobbed out a “no.” An interrogation followed. Was I hungry? Bored? Did grandpa bother me? No, no, no. None of those things. I couldn’t explain it, I was just upset.

I wish I could remember what eventually calmed me down. I suppose it was just time and possibly a popsicle. I think my parents came back to get me. It was not to be my first sleepover.

I was 26 when I was actually diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder. Why it took that long, I have no idea. I had seen at least two therapists as an adult before I met the one who gave me a proper diagnosis. After my parents’ divorce, there was talk of therapy, but I insisted that I didn’t need it. Why anyone would listen to the opinion of a distraught seven year old, I can’t explain.

Anyone can have panic attacks, not just people with disorders. The human brain is equal opportunity that way. A true panic attack—not just stress or general anxiety—includes a series of biochemical reactions. The nervous system, trying to be helpful, I’m sure, leaps into action when someone feels stressed. In a normal, non-panicked brain, the parasympathetic system would then step in, take the nervous system’s keys and call a cab, but sometimes, the parasympathetic system is not a very responsible friend. In the case of a panic attack, no one is around to tell the nervous system, “Go home, you’re drunk,” and the brain is unable to calm down.

I think everyone experiences panic a little bit differently. For me, my brain feels loud. Not that my thoughts are loud, but whatever is happening in my head is drowning out other noise, other stimuli. My music will be on, but I’ll only halfway hear it. My boyfriend hugs me but I only halfway feel it. I get hot, like I’m on fire from the inside out and my skin will be the last thing to ignite. I feel at once like I want to sleep, or cry, or just start running and never turn back around.

These feelings are highly problematic for me. When I’m not absolutely losing my shit for no reason at all, I consider myself an intellectual person. I make a living based on my ability to use my head, to think critically. Since watching Star Trek: The Original Series, I like to pretend I’m a Vulcan (or maybe just half-Vulcan. Spock is only half and he does alright). When a panic attack hits, I lose all control. I feel like a goddamned idiot for freaking out. I usually have no idea what precipitated it, which makes it even harder to understand.

This happened to me again today. I woke up feeling okay, I guess. But within an hour, I felt myself feeling moody. I attributed it to general stress. I moved in with my boyfriend just a week ago and the intervening seven days had been quite full. My things weren’t totally organized, and I assumed that was stressing me out. Admittedly, this is a dumb reason to be stressed, but it’s better than no reason at all.

We started cleaning up. I was vacuuming and my boyfriend was moving things out of the way to make it easier for me. For some reason, this irritated me. I felt myself getting frustrated and then I chided myself for it. What a dumb reason to be upset. He was helping. We finished vacuuming. I headed to the closet where the last of the boxes were hiding. I started rearranging things, pulling out boxes and piling up blankets, but I was not okay. I was freaking out. I could feel it.

I sat down. I was burning up. I knew I was having a panic attack, but I wasn’t sure why. “I’m so stressed out right now,” I told my boyfriend. “How can I help?” was his response. I love him for it and I hate myself for being mad and telling him there was nothing he could do and that I just had to deal with it. I angrily went back to my piles.

I pulled some things out of a a box. I stopped. Why was I upset? I sat down, too hot. I leaned my head against some of my fingers and Kirk (the aforementioned boyfriend) kissed me, once again asking what he could do. “I feel like fire,” was all I could say. “Take one of your pills,” was his suggestion.

I have anxiety medication, but I hate it. One time I took a pill and I slept for five hours and felt like shit after. I reminded him of this. “Take a quarter,” he said. “I don’t have time to sleep all day!” I angrily returned to my box and my piles.

I can’t deal. I feel like crying, or maybe screaming. Anything. I go to the bedroom, strip and throw myself onto the bed. I hold a large pillow against my face, trying to smoother the rest of the world. In this state, I feel like I can’t deal with existence. I said this out loud once and people thought I meant to kill myself.

I don’t explain it that way anymore.

Kirk comes in and pretends to be one of the kitties, meowing and pushing his head against me. Normally, I think, this might make me laugh. Instead, I swat at him with the hand that isn’t securing the pillow against my face.

I cry a little.

I breathe and try to stop berating myself.

 

 

 

I start to cool down.

Eventually, I reposition myself so my head is only half under the pillow. I take deeper breaths.

I start to tune back in to the rest of the world. I hear the fan whirring quietly as it steadily sends cool air in my direction. I feel it collide with my skin. My bra feels uncomfortable because it’s so hot and because I’m lying on my side. I realize that I left music playing in the other room as my brain remembers how to decode sounds. Suddenly, the pillow feels heavy against my face. I don’t need it anymore.

My cat jumps onto the bed as I am coming back into myself. She meows and meows. She’s always meowing her little meows. She rubs against me and licks me. Cat things. I pet this entity of fluff a few minutes, taking deeper breaths and feeling generally like a human again.

I walked back into the other room, finding Kirk at his computer.

“I’m sorry.” I kissed him.

“You don’t need to apologize.” Whether or not I need to, I still feel like I should. Loosing control like this makes me feel embarrassed. When I come back around, I feel like an alcoholic sobering up for the first time, realizing what’s happened. Making amends is a critical step.

I wish I could say I know it won’t happen again so I could wrap things up with a “We’ll look back at this and laugh!” and be done with it. But I never know when I am going to have a panic attack. Even when I am managing my life reasonably well, these things just happen.

Earlier today, when I was coming to terms with being a member of humanity again, I thought about this. About how to explain it and about my history of freaking out. I’ve never really written about it before. I decided I should. I’m sure other people have written about this issue, and probably even more people have experienced it but lack the capacity or willingness to write. So here is mine.

Logic by Any Other Name

Book Review: Logicomix: An Epic Search for Truth by Apostolos Doxiadis and Christos Papadimitriou

I heard about this book via friend who thought I might be interested in learning more about logic and I finally decided to get it from the library a couple of weeks ago. Logicomix is a graphic novel about Bertrand Russell who was one of the first mathematicians/philosophers to devote himself to the study of logic as the underpinnings of math and philosophy.

Logicomix has several narrative threads: it is a frame story with a meta component, which sounds ridiculous, but is actually quite easy to understand thanks to the artistic conventions used. The book opens with one of the authors, Apostolos, discussing the somewhat crazy decision to discuss logic, of all topics, in graphic novel format. Apolostos introduces his creative team and his friend Christos who is responsible for injecting a little more logic into the narrative. The authors discuss some general ideas for the narrative while walking through Athens (where they work). Then, the frame of the main story is introduced. The reader first meets Russell when he is in the United States (Russell was English–the grandson of a Prime Minister, in fact) to speak to a group of isolationists who are protesting to keep the US out of World War II. Russell agrees to advise the protestors by discussing logic, providing the frame for him to narrate his life and achievements to date. This is occasionally interrupted by the meta layer of the narrative, in which the authors discuss a controversial choice or attempt to clarify certain things for the readers. Russell sketches an outline of his early life, his work and frustrations in university, his quest to understand and build upon the “giants” of the field, his personal life, and his publication of Principia Mathematica with Alfred Whitehead. The narrative also includes some very basic introductions to logical concepts, like set theory.

Graphic novel is an interesting narrative choice for discussion the foundations of logic. I expect that this medium was chosen because it is a way to connect readers with a topic they might not have otherwise investigated and because it is an effective way to introduce readers to Russell as a person in addition to some of his ideas. A book on logic and Russell’s life would probably be too dry for most readers, but Logicomix manages to straddle entertaining and informative quite well. Personally, although I enjoyed Logicomix, I think I am one of those odd people who would probably prefer the dry, no-pictures text version of learning about logic. It was hard for me to remember who the major logicians were by sight (they would pop up at conferences and such) and I don’t feel like I really got that much logic out of it. However, I will admit that my dissatisfaction with the amount of actual logic may be because I am already casually familiar with concepts like set theory, which Russell explains is based on Boole’s work. And any good librarian knows about Boolean operators, so this was not one hundred percent new.

Despite all that, I did learn some logical concepts from reading Logicomix. Russell was obsessed with the concept of mathematical concepts requiring concrete definitions and rules. He felt that there was no way to move forward with mathematics until its foundations were strong and definite. This lead directly to his work on Principia Mathematica, which occupies a significant section of the narrative. Set theory was what Russell saw as the key to mathematics. Sets are groups of objects and the way sets are organized and understood is what Russell focused on. Russell is later criticized by his student, Wittgenstein, who claimed that all Russell accomplished was to establish a series of tautologies. Wittgenstein later went to work on logic as it relates to semantics (at least, that is how the text made it sound); he also expresses in the novel, “The meaning of the world does not reside in the world,” and seemed to develop a somewhat mystical bent in his work. Russell and Wittgenstein’s works also lead to major philosophical players like Gödel. There is also an interesting (but somewhat too briefly covered for my taste) treatment of these philosophers working in Europe leading up to World War II. Logicians were divided along pro and anti-Nazi lines and some of them used their work to justify the Third Reich and the extermination of the Jews, which I found alarming.

Finally, an overt theme of the work is the intersection of logic and madness. The authors discuss the concept throughout the work and they seem to conclude that a certain degree of madness seems to be inherent for people interested in logic. I can’t recall if the text specifically alludes to this, but this link seems to suggest that people who have turbulent minds are more likely to want to impose order on the world around them, which seems to be the case for Russell. Ultimately, both Russell and Wittgenstein come to the conclusion that while logic is important, it isn’t everything. Wittgenstein states that “The things that cannot be talked about logically are the only ones which are truly important” and Russell explains that human life isn’t logical, so people should not use logic to justify things like the Nazi regime, for example. Leaving the story here, as the authors point out in their meta section, makes it sound like logic was a failure: Russell and Wittgenstein admit that it isn’t everything, and Continental logicians are using it to kindle a genocide. However, one of the authors, Christos points out that logic actually won the war. People like Alan Turning leveraged it to create early computers and crack the Nazi codes, which of course lead to modern computing, et. al.

I enjoyed reading this and I will admit it was quite interesting. It was cool to read about a specific slice of history in comic book format because it gives you a better sense of the period (showing the aesthetics, etc.) and it was probably easier to follow than starting out cold with a textbook on logic. Overall, it made me want to read a lot more about logic, set theory, and Bertrand Russell, which is probably the main aim of the book. In which case, it can definitely be considered a success.

 

Scientology, Comparative Religion, and Fun with Cults

Book Review: Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief by Lawrence Wright

Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief by Lawrence Wright
Going Clear cover

There is so much to say about this book that it’s hard to know where to begin. I love reading about cults/people who survived cults/wacky religious beliefs and the rest, but this is my first read on Scientology. Up until this point, my main exposure to the subject was via South Park (I’m not proud). Going Clear spans nearly 100 years of history, beginning with L. Ron Hubbard’s birth in 1911 and ending with Paul Haggis’ (the work’s protagonist, such that it can be said to have one) departure from Scientology and the subsequent uproar in 2010-2011. This book is packed with information and there are a lot of people who were interviewed and who played parts in the narrative (it has more characters than a George R. R. Martin novel). Some of the people involved are introduced early in the book as young people involved in Scientology and show up again later as adults, which I found hard to keep track of–I didn’t know I’d have to manage all the people!–but I don’t think you need to remember exactly who everyone is (other than a few power players) to appreciate the absolute insanity of a lot of the things that happen.

Going Clear is meticulously researched. It draws on interviews with lots of current and former Scientologists, court documents, medical records, and the writings of L. Ron Hubbard and other parties. The book is also peppered with footnotes to the tune of “[person’s name]’s attorney denies that X happened” and “The church denies that [person] ever did Y,” which makes one wonder what kinds of behavior that anyone’s attorney would admit to, but that is another matter. The title of the book, Going Clear, refers to the first step in being a Scientologist. When one becomes “clear,” one is free of malicious engrams and is able to work towards being an Operating Thetan (OT). Various people throughout the book are described by their Scientology levels; OT VIII is the highest level that anyone other than Hubbard has ever had access to (Hubbard supposedly penned several more levels, but no one has seen them). Operating Thetans are supposed to have amazing mental powers that can prevent sickness, bend others to one’s will, and basically a certain level of telekinesis. At least, OT levels are described this way. There is as yet no one on the record demonstrating these amazing powers, which of course makes one question why people keep on believing in it, but of course, we could ask such questions about any number of movements.

The book opens with Paul Haggis, that archetypal, directionless young person of the 1970’s who finds Scientology. People like Haggis were attracted to Scientology because of its idealism, they state that they’re working toward “A civilization without insanity, without criminals and without war, where the able can prosper and honest beings can have rights, and where Man is free to rise of greater heights,” as stated by Hubbard himself. This narrative that Scientology is actively working to improve the world seems at odds with basically everything that happens to individual Scientologists in the book, and yet, they all kept stating that they were in it for this ideal; they thought they were really helping. Haggis is the bread in this Scientology sandwich. After his introduction, the reader doesn’t hear about him again until much later in the book when he begins questioning Scientology.

L. Ron Hubbard’s (the L is for Lafayette) early years, when examined from the perspective of Scientology as it is today, are quite revealing. Wright traces the development of some of the themes of Scientology back to Hubbard’s youth, which I think is one of the most interesting aspects of the book. Analyzing modern “religions” and charismatic leaders is so different from tracing the history of someone like the Prophet Muhammad because there is actually a record of what people did and one can draw conclusions about how that influenced their later work. One of the formative experiences of Hubbard’s life was traveling by boat from Seattle to Washington D.C. via the Panama Canal. Hubbard was taken in by Commander Joseph C. “Snake” Thompson on the trip, who was “of the US Navy Medical Corps. A neurosurgeon, a naturalist, and a former spy, Thompson made a vivid impression on [Hubbard].” Thompson also schooled Hubbard on Freudian theory, which doubtless had an impact on Hubbard’s later preoccupation with pyschiatrists and psychologists. There are so many anecdotes (and fabrications, which Wright compares to evidence and accounts from other people) about Hubbard’s early life  that it is difficult to choose what to discuss in a short review, but I will mention that Hubbard briefly served in the US Navy during World War II. He insisted he was a hero and I’m sure this also was a part of his choice to later make Scientology a maritime venture. He was also connected with several people on Hollywood, and it seemed that he was fascinated with society there, but he never made it big, which I think was also a factor in the later choice for Scientology to court celebrities so seriously.

Dianetics was Hubbard’s first effort and producing a work that would define a movement. It quickly became popular because it capitalized on the public’s interest in psychology and psychotherapy, but it supposedly offered people the tools to treat themselves without any actual academic or scientific grounding. Although its popularity burned brightly, it burned out quickly when people realized that Dianetics didn’t actually enable them to do fantastical feats with mental powers. Hubbard, an autocrat at heart, decided that Dianetics had gotten out of hand, and choose to rebrand it as Scientology. He is quoted as saying “I’d like to start a religion. That’s where the money is.” Shortly after Scientology began, Hubbard moved to England with his family (well, his new family, Hubbard had three wives and seven children throughout his life). Soon, Hubbard became paranoid that “British, American, and Soviet governments were interested in gaining control of Scientology’s secrets in order to use them for evil intentions.” To combat this, he bought three boats, gathered up his staunchest believers (who all signed billion year contracts, yes, billion since Scientology subscribes to reincarnation) and founded the Sea Org, which came to be what is essentially Scientology’s clergy. The Sea Org is when, it seems to me, that the real abuses of power began. Parents were separated from their children, abandoned at various ports, and in one case, representatives were caught up in a popular uprising in Morocco. At this time, many of Scientology’s procedures were codified, like the RPF rundown, which involved locking up a dissenter in a room with no contact for several weeks. The practice later evolved to include making such people stay in confinement for years, in some cases, and do labor while there.

There are a lot of tragic events described in Going Clear, but I want to spend some time looking at Scientology from a comparative religion perspective, with a focus on similarities between Scientology and Mormonism (full disclosure: I was raised Mormon). Later in the history of Scientology, when they were back on land, Hubbard was working to get a film made. The script was shopped around and an offer for $10 million came in (at the time, a record sum for a script purchase). Upon investigation of the buyers, they learned that the  buyers were mormons and “Hubbard figured that the only reason Mormons would buy it was to put it on the shelf,” which is probably true. I find it interesting that Mormons would want to suppress a Scientologist message, considering that the movements really have a lot in common as modern religious movements. There are a lot of parallels to be found between Joseph Smith (the founder of Mormonism) and L. Ron Hubbard. Smith was a known huckster and treasure hunter before starting Mormonism, as Hubbard was a prolific science fiction writer before Scientology–both had a flair for the fictitious. Hubbard also took multiple wives (to say nothing of mistresses) without divorcing, although a few wives isn’t much compared to Smith, they are both outside cultural norms. I would also make the argument that Scientology’s doctrine of spirits being sent to Earth as punishment by a more powerful force has some parallel to Mormonism’s concept of there being a “war in heaven,” which Satan lost and God won. Except in the case of Mormonism, the losers weren’t sent to Earth for punishment, they went straight to hell. Both movements also have a period of being on a journey early in their  history. The Mormons, of course, were hounded out of New York and across the Midwest, finally taking a long trek to what is now Utah to escape persecution. Hubbard sailed the Mediterranean and Carribean for several years with his Sea Org to escape what he perceived as persecution. Although the early periods have a lot in common, I will admit that the later histories diverge. Mormonism doesn’t have the forced labor of the RPF (although young people are required to serve missions under extremely spartan conditions) and it also seems to have found a broader appeal than Scientology. However, as comparative cases they are interesting to consider in the context of the development of modern, American religions.

Although there are many differences between contemporary Mormonism and Scientology, some of the tactics they use have similar roots. One line from Going Clear regarding a Sea Org member who wanted to leave explained, “Most of those who fled were torn by conflicting emotions. On the one hand, they were often frightened, humiliated, and angry. They desperately wanted a life outside the organization.” Many people who leave Scientology quickly realize that they don’t know much of the real world, and many of the people who joined as young people or who were born into the religion lack a formal education and haven’t graduated high school (which reminds me of fundamentalist Mormons–the ones that practice polygamy and live in compounds). Scientology is described as being completely consuming. While Mormonism allows people to have lives outside of church, they pack the week so full of church functions that people often find it difficult to do much else, it truly can be difficult to figure out what one’s life is after the organization. Another tactic used by Scientology is “disconnection,” which is the practice of encouraging Scientologists to cut themselves off from anyone or anything that isn’t related to Scientology. This ensures that Scientologists are so emotionally and socially invested that leaving involves a total social suicide. Mormons operate in similar ways. As the good people of Reddit’s exmormon community will tell you, families do disown members who leave Mormonism with alarming frequency.

Comparing Mormonism and Scientology is both part of my fascination with cults and also a way of validating my own experiences. Something about seeing similar tactics documented in other cults (I will go ahead and call it a cult) makes me feel a little less foolish. Obviously these strategies work. We have seen all sorts of movements rise and fall and maintain zealous members using these strategies. Some parts of Going Clear hit close to home, but there were just as many things totally outside of my experience that were absolutely tragic. It’s hard to know what to write about this book because there is just so much to tell; so many stories, so many lives ruined or people’s emotions and sense of self destroyed. This is probably not my best review because I did react very emotionally to this book. I appreciate non-fiction work on religious movements like some people are into horror. It produces that “can’t look away” fascination. I marked a lot of sections in this book that I wanted to talk about, but instead I’ll leave you with this. Be rational for your own self. Be compassionate to other people and then maybe they won’t feel such strong needs to find meaning and acceptance in cults. Read this book because you will be horrified and sad and feel like you want to punch someone.