Liquid Conspiracy by George Piccard

This post originally appeared on I Read Odd Books

Book: Liquid Conspiracy: JFK, LSD, the CIA, Area 51 & UFOs

Author: George Piccard (can’t find a current site or blog for Piccard so if anyone knows if he dwells online, let me know and I will update this)

Type of Book: Non fiction, conspiracy theory

Why Do I Consider This Book Odd: Conspiracy theory is always odd and this is no exception.

Availability: Published by Adventures Unlimited Press in 1999, I purchased this from my local amazing strange book source, Brave New Books, but they are revamping their online store, so for now, you can get a copy here:

Comments: Okay, this book and others like it are why I decided to ax I Read Everything and make it just an occasional sidebar to this site. You see, I read so much faster than I write and when I take too much time to discuss a book after I have read it, with some books it feels like I have forgotten huge chunks of the content. This happens especially with scatter-shot conspiracy theory like this because at some point, most of this stuff eventually covers the same ground. I mean, I will always know Icke’s alien lizard theory from James Shelby Downard’s mystical topography but unless you are a conspirator rock star, it can be hard to keep things straight unless you discuss the book within a few days of reading it. In order to give my first odd love its due, I need to just focus on the weird, you know?

And this book is wonderfully weird. And in some ways it makes sense and in other ways I can see how I lost the thread of how all of this held together, but Liquid Conspiracy explains an interesting theory, to some observable level of success, though it was all a bit mutable. It’s supposed to be mutable, though. It’s liquid, you see. But give Piccard his due, as he has a pretty interesting theory on how things work behind the scenes and under the surfaces.

Now, if you think the “liquid conspiracy” in this book refers to copious amounts of acid, you are not alone, because that was my first thought too, that all of this revolved around LSD and its impact on JFK, the CIA, etc. But really, Liquid Conspiracy refers to the information Piccard claims he received from a man called Kilder, a man who worked for the RAF during WWII and in his capacity as some sort of governmental flunky managed to find out who the men behind the curtain are and what they want to do. It is, as referenced in the book, a “Grand Unification Theory of Conspiracy.”

The elderly Englishman contacted Piccard with his information and unloaded it all before he died and Piccard did his best to verify it. Luckily, Kilder had a photographic memory (one day I will go off on a rant about how it is eidetic memory does not mean what people think it means and how it is often more than not a relatively useless trait, but that day is not today) and wrote a lot of things down. Of course, the skeptic in me is always immediately ready to snert when a clerk in some governmental agency is able to get the lowdown on the conspiracy controlling the world because, you know, it’s a damn conspiracy and you’d think they’d be a little more careful in how they disseminate their evil plans, especially when they know they have a clerk with a photographic memory who has access to their nefarious plans, but all I can do is give my head a shake, refuse to approach this with reason, relax and enjoy the show. I advise that you do the same.

Relax… Because here it comes. The Liquid Conspiracy features all the usual players in conspiracies that control the world. The Knights Templar, the Knights of Malta, the Masons, the Illuminati, the Rothschilds, Adam Weishaupt, the Federal Reserve, the Catholic Church, Skull and Bones, Nazis, aliens, Communists and on and on. You’ve likely heard it all before or read it on websites that are generally nothing but a wall of Geocities text with a series of eyes in pyramids blinking at you when you reach the bottom of the page. And really, it’s nothing new. There are men behind the curtain, lots of them, some with competing interests but all with a common goal of keeping us, the common men, so distracted from their goals that they keep us in chains and we wreck our interests as they keep all the power and the money away from us.

But the conspiracy Kilder shared with Piccard is that all of the forces that seek to control the world entered into a pact.

The Knights, the Elders, and the aliens made a pact. The conspiracy–its character subtly changed with their recent collaboration–made its final plans for the coming One World Order. The dangerous union of the Freemasons, the Illuminati, and the Templar Knights and the Roman Catholic Church with the support of the Grey aliens, brought to an end a fifteen hundred year struggle. These rival groups came together to put aside their previous animosities and to forge an invincible power.

And why not. Why wouldn’t the Masons, the Illuminati and little green–er–gray men join together? In unity there is strength, right? The proof for this alliance is what Piccard calls “The Breakfast with the Kingmakers of ’45.” Present at this breakfast were representatives of all the major conspiracies, twelve entities in total, and it was then they merged together to form a sort of perpetually moving, form-fitting, Lycra-blend conspiracy.

The new conspiracy was an entity unto itself. Using ritual magic and technologies still never spoken of, the attendees initiated an incredible device. A poltergeist of sorts, an ever-evolving energy form which would transfer power inner-dimensionally, from thought to reality. This curse (and I use these terms with reservation, for there is no other terminology to describe it) would grow, mutate, and adapt to the desires of its masters. The will of the secret world government would come to manifest physically. Still, actual temporal involvement was absolutely required. But with the aid and intelligence of their psychic contraption, their desires faced no opposition in the realm of the feeble masses.

So, it’s not just the aliens and the Trilateral Commission and the Masons and the Illuminati and the greasy soul of Prescott Bush we got to worry about. It’s a device that can… I don’t know… control our minds and adapt our reality on behalf of all these combined conspirators. Yeah, this is one helluva theory. All based on the photographic memory of some British clerk and who am I, in all seriousness, to argue with that.

You think I am being sarcastic? Well, maybe a bit, but for me conspiracy theory in a very real manner is not dissimilar to religion, an attempt to explain that which seems hidden, mysterious, beyond comprehension. There is a gossamer thread that runs from being very suspicious about the Federal Reserve to believing that there is a bizarre cabal that uses an inexplicable “psychic contraption” to blur things so we cannot see how they are perpetually working behind the scenes. One is a reasonable but at times paranoiac topic, the other is an attempt to create a story to force the world into a mechanism that to them makes more sense than the randomness that often surrounds world events, and it is all too easy to start with one and end up wallowing in the other. Human beings like believing strange things. It is a part of who we are as a species.

I mean, is a “psychic contraption” uniting the Bilderbergers and the Catholics and the aliens really that more outlandish than a talking bush afire or immaculate conception or some awesome guy rising from the dead? Of course that’s up to the individual but atheist though I am, I recognize that wacky beliefs fuel the world and I have always wondered why some wacky beliefs make the cut for widespread belief and some don’t. I suspect it is personal salvation and a sense of a larger presence looking out for us in a positive manner, something that most conspiracy theory lacks, but the cynics among us might think that makes conspiracy theory more believable.

But an angel Moroni brought Joseph Smith golden plates and a British clerk named Kilder remembered a bunch of fantastic stuff, wrote it down and shared it with Piccard and there isn’t a whole lot of proof for either happening so all you can do is decide whether or not you believe. I don’t believe either, mainly because I lack of capacity for belief but conspiracy is amazing to me in the same way religion is because I love seeing what it is that make people believe and how beliefs evolve. Conspiracy is a religion, pure and simple, a religion without a savior, and in a way, that makes it all the more amazing. So yeah, I give this no credence but I don’t have to because I love it for what it is, not for its truth or reality.

So back to Piccard. After chapter one, the rest of the book becomes his version of world events filtered through the lens of his take on the conspiracy controlling the world, and even without this filter, this book is a good conspiracy primer because it covers pretty decently a lot of territory, from Operation Paperclip to LSD as a CIA means of mind control and how it influenced the Kennedy administration, the JFK assassination, Area 51 and UFOs, MK-ULTRA, Jim Jones, the general complete anomaly that is the state of Ohio and AIDS. This is just a small sample of what this book discusses and like I said, if you remove the whole Liquid Conspiracy you still get an excellent overview of conspiracy and high weirdness in general. I could spend a lot of time dissecting the weirdness but this is not new weirdness outside of the Liquid Conspiracy. All that is different is the interpretation of the forces behind it. So if you are new to conspiracy, you could do a lot worse than begin your trip into this cloudy place of utter paranoia reading this book.

So I say read it. I haven’t been able to find out much about George Piccard online and that’s a shame that this guy may have petered out at some point, but this kind of thing gets exhausting for men who are not made of stern and lunatic stuff, like Alex Jones. But even as a side player in the madness, I think Piccard deserves a look.

Apocalypse Waiting to Happen by Dr. John Coleman

This post originally appeared on I Read Odd Books

Book: Apocalypse Waiting to Happen: The Plagues That Threaten Us All

Author: Dr. John Coleman

Type of Book: Non-fiction, conspiracy theory, disease

Why Do I Consider This Book Odd: Well, I bought it at the marvelous Austin book store, Brave New Books. That’s a good clue as to potential oddness. The content cinched the deal.

Availability: Published by World in Review Books in 2009, you can get a copy here:

Comments: Take this statement for what it’s worth but it took me forever to write this discussion because I came down with a case of the flu that will not go away. If I were paranoid, I would be very concerned.

Man, I am definitely going to have a good time examining this book in close detail because it combines all the best things I have come to love in lunatic screeds predicting the end of the world, but before I begin, I have to say that books like this make me long for the days of ‘zines. Really, this book is a long form ‘zine, or maybe a very long newsletter. This book should have been written on an electric typewriter, single spaced, no margins, hand-written corrections in the margin and mailed to everyone who signed up for it. This book took me back to those days long past, wherein the only way one could get a hold of a strangely-spelled, interestingly-reasoned screed was to wait impatiently by the mail box.

If you are of the right mind, this book will amuse you to no end. Because when you pick up a book that is ostensibly discussing the diseases that could mark the end of the world, and the disease “Guillain Barre” is spelled “Guillane Barre” on the cover and in the table of contents you find a chapter called, “The Terrible Toll of NRSA,” you know you are in for one hell of a time.

There are moments of complete coherence wherein you think, “Hey, Dr. Coleman may be on to something, though he seems like he may be overstating it.” Then there are moments of utter lunacy wherein you think, “What sort of doctor is this guy anyway?” I still have not been able to determine what his doctorate is in, or if he is an MD, but the little bit of research I did showed me that Dr. John Coleman is a man who should have already been on my radar because he is a conspiracy theory Renaissance Man. Sometimes I am disappointed in myself but I comfort myself with the knowledge that my new Kindle and I will rectify my Coleman deficiency as soon as possible.

So, in just the cover and the table of contents, I already know this book’s content is going to be a bit iffy and my suspicions are played out in the text. This book is ostensibly a treatise on the diseases that could potentially end mankind as we know it, and it takes all kinds of very interesting turns while offering some information that turned out to be more or less factually correct when I looked into it and some that is simply the stuff of conspiratorial dreams (and that is a statement anyone should take advisedly because though I am deeply interested in illness as a topic, I am a liberal arts sort of gal, not a scientist).

It’s hard to buy into the alarmist nature of the book but all conspiracies are alarmist and I wouldn’t have it any other way, but I knew I was in for a ride when I read this (and from here on out, just know I am not going to enter the traditional [sic] when there is a grammar, spelling or structural problem in Dr. Coleman’s text because it would become tiresome):

The cardinal sin being committed against God and man by the spiritually wicked men in high places is the destruction of mankind through so-called “natural means.”

Okay, so I now know Dr. John Coleman is going to look at this via a Christian filter of the Apocalypse, which is just fine with me because as an atheist I don’t have any dog in that fight but it also means I will be able to dismiss some of what he considers proof. We also know that we might venture into the idea that some of these diseases threatening us are not natural in origin. Hoo boy, I am very excited now. You should be, too.

Despite the fact that I know that very excellent conspiracy awaits me, I have to say the hands-down best parts of this book are all the left turns that come out of nowhere. The sort of shifts in content that make you shake your head and wonder if you missed a page or something, and realize no, it’s not you. The quote I give above is at the top of page 2. Dr. Coleman then spends three paragraphs discussing disease and how it is that the death toll of disease far outweighs casualties of war plus some fear of Socialist government, which was sort of a “What?” but still mildly topical in context, then :RECORD SCRATCH:

This book is not about politics per se, so I will confine my remarks to posing the question that so badly needs to be asked: What in God’s name are our soldiers doing in Iraq and Afghanistan?

No matter how tragic the Columbine School and the Virginia Tech massacres of April 20, 1999 and April 16, 2007, they cannot be viewed as anything other than sad and terrible occurrences. What is so savage about it all is that the victims were not allowed by law, to defend themselves.

Okay, so we now know this is going to be a roller coaster of weirdness. We now have a pretty good window into Dr. Coleman’s mind: the government is going to kill us with disease, governmental action that Dr. Coleman does not like will be called Socialist and he is pro-gun to the extent that he thinks high school freshmen should carry them to school. And if it sounds like I am mocking Dr. Coleman, maybe I am a little, but mostly I have mild affection for people with mindsets complete different than mine because without them this website would be basically a shill for Eraserhead Press. And, it has to be said, I have been known to harbor one or two wacky ideas myself…

Of particular interest to me was Dr. Coleman’s take on the Clinton presidency refusing to destroy all of the smallpox samples housed with the CDC:

In 1996 the World Health Organization demanded that all existing stocks of smallpox viruses be destroyed. At first the United States was vociferous in its demands, that all nations possessing stocks of the virus join the U.S. in destroying such stocks. All of a sudden, having gotten a taste of what it is like to be mass killers in Serbia and Iraq, the governments of Britain and the United States did a 180 degree turn. “We are not going to carry out our previous decision” (to destroy the smallpox hoard), said Clinton “just in case the U.S. may need them in the future.” This startling announcement came on April 22, 1999. Mark the date well. Future historians will trace the start of the coming apocalypse to this date.

Having read enough Richard Preston to ensure I lost sleep, I have a different take on the U.S. refusal to destroy their smallpox stocks. You see, disease is a form of mutually assured destruction and nations talk a big game about getting rid of disease stocks and nukes but such stores are preventative measure to keep other countries from using disease as a form of warfare because they know we could just return the favor. Moreover, in the event a country launches a dirty bomb against us and we don’t have samples of the disease to make a vaccine, we are sitting ducks. Unpleasant, but true. Stocks of nukes and stocks of disease make for better diplomacy in a world wherein seats of political power are occupied by egoists and madmen. Interestingly, before declaring Clinton the worst sort of bastard for reneging on the U.S. promise to destroy smallpox stocks, Coleman, who has already shown little use for dictatorships and Socialism in general, declares:

When apprised of Clinton’s decision not to destroy our stash of deadly smallpox viruses, Mikhail Shurgalis, Russia’s spokesman on the treaty, denied his country has any stocks of smallpox. Iran and China also deny holding any Biological Warfare stocks.

Okay, I don’t think Dr. Coleman is twisting facts and ideas to suit his particular hobbyhorse. I think riding his hobbyhorse gives him a strange myopia. Does he really trust Iraq, Russia or China’s word on whether or not they destroyed their smallpox stores? And say Clinton had believed them and sometime in our lifetime we found out those nations in fact had their smallpox stores and we had destroyed our disease deterrent as well as the means to make a vaccine? Policy in such matters is cloak and dagger to be sure but not nearly as straightforward as Dr. Coleman seems to think. “Oh, China and Russia say they no longer have smallpox viruses? That’s good enough for us. Those countries have never given us cause to doubt them before,” seems to be the reasoning where disease stockpiles are concerned. Would such a naive approach work in nuclear disarmament? Probably not.

The overall structure of Dr. Coleman’s book makes some level of sense and as a rule, I can see where he is coming from as this sort of conspiracy is nothing new – the government wants us sick and covers it up, the government accidentally makes us sick and covers it up. Many people exhibit this manner of thinking, notably Jenny McCarthy, and it was therefore not that surprising to see it in action here.

Autism in children may be the result of vaccinations. British doctor, Stephen Walker, was the first to discover a possible link between child vaccinations and autism on June 3, 2006. This has led to speculation among medical researchers that there must be a common factor somewhere, but discovery of what that factor is, remains beyond reach. Are we being used as human guinea pigs?

Well, we might be, but not via vaccinations. Stephen Walker has come out and admitted he cannot prove a link between the MMR vaccine and autism and as of right now there is not a single link between vaccinations and autism.

But Dr. Coleman is all too willing to go that extra step in the course of his paranoia despite the fact that one of his own sources has backed down from his initial findings:

We know now vaccines injected into children weaken their immune system and leave them vulnerable to other diseases. Could it be that the grand design is to make children vulnerable to infectious plagues, which will then sweep millions of people to their deaths in far greater numbers than the Black Plague of the 14th Century? After all, didn’t Bertrand Russell say that there had to be a return of the Black Plague. Vaccinations have become the chic way of allegedly warding off terrible diseases, but what we are learning through research into such illnesses as chronic fatigue syndrome is that the more prevalent the inoculations programs are, the more there is a growing incidence of strange and exotic diseases, which hitherto, were unknown or only occurred in limited numbers.

It’s actually extremely questionable that vaccines weaken a child’s immune system when the end result is that children with these vaccinations do not develop mumps, measles, German measles, whooping cough and all the myriad childhood diseases that made children die left and right. And if you don’t get Dr. Coleman’s riff about Bertrand Russell and why his musings on the Black Plague are de facto evidence of anything sinister in the government to sicken people, it’s discussed in the book and evidently in some of his other books and I will touch on it more in a bit. But yeah, it’s conspiri-tastic. And bless Dr. Coleman for associating vaccines with the word “chic.” When I get my next flu shot I better get a Chanel bandaid. I also dispute the idea that CFS is new or burgeoning as it is a disease that most commonly afflicts women and the annals of medical history are crammed with depictions of sickly, easily tired, wasting, neurasthenic women. CFS has been around for a long time but like most auto-immune illnesses, there is still very little known about it.

But don’t get me wrong. I love conspiracy theory but I have no issue discussing where it falls short and can be dangerous. Hell, the conspiracy about vaccines has led some to believe that Jenny McCarthy’s anti-vaccine advocacy has a body count. So while I am largely amused by Dr. Coleman and quite interested in reading more of his books, the fact is, he sort of doesn’t mind mixing it up in a way that makes it hard to swallow even the passages where he gets things right. The government is at fault, Bertrand Russell is somehow behind it, and that’s all well and good because heaven knows Russell could stand to be taken down a peg or two posthumously. But given all the conspiratorial bends this book takes, the following was… shocking… and upsetting to a liberal gal like me:

The incidence of all strains of hepatitis, A-G, is very heavy in Central and Latin America and India, and immigrants from these areas are not screened when they are arrive in the U.S., so that there is a vast pool of infection — a veritable reservoir of hepatitis in our midst. In California the situation has become so serious as to border on panic as more and more people are discovering that they are infected with hepatitis C. Yet, in spite of the terrible dander, concerned citizens who demand medical screening for immigrants are called “racists.”

Terrible dander, eh? One would think a panic about an infectious disease that reduces lifespan would be more than a dander but maybe I shouldn’t nitpick that. Instead let me nitpick facts. In the United States, the vast majority of people who currently have Hepatitis C contracted the disease before blood was tested for the diseases as a matter of course in refined tests to find the disease, which was developed in 1990. Since accurate screening began, the number of people who contract Hepatitis C has fallen dramatically. In the current climate, the top causes for Hepatitis C transmission are via risky sexual and drug usage behaviors. Because Hepatitis C is blood-borne, there is some risk from food-handlers, and to be blunt, no one really knows all the potential methods of transmission but blood seems to be the most reasonable risk.

But as a whole, it is, in fact, racist to say that people from Central and Latin America and India who have Hepatitis C are more likely to become drug abusers and engage in unprotected sex, and statements like this one, a statement Dr. Coleman makes several times in the book, is a rallying cry for people who desperately need to cling to something to prove motive behind their race hate. Moreover, most people well-versed in epidemiology will tell you that we have far more to fear simply from legal travel. A disease like Hepatitis C is small beans compared to the capacity for a super-flu to spread and cause a pandemic because of the ease of rapid air travel. Immigrants with Hepatitis C are the least of our troubles.

But the weird statements don’t stop there, and it would be disappointing if they did:

In a sense, HVC [Hepatitis C] is worse than HIV because there is no indication at the onset of the disease that one is really ill.

Well, actually, there isn’t a whole lot at the beginning of HIV contraction that lets you know you’ve contracted the disease. Obviousness of infection and delay of symptoms are actually a common trait of both conditions.

Then there are the delightful statements, like this one:

It is more desperately urgent, that we defend our liver!

Ignoring the implication that we are all sharing a single liver, I shouted a comma-less variant of this exhortation the day I stopped drinking.

Now here is why Dr. Coleman is such an excellent conspirator: He lays out interesting information that may or may not link together ideas but never really follows through, which is one of the hallmarks of excellent conspiracy:

A horrific outbreak of the Black Plague occurred in 1348, dislocating the wage and price structure producing major economic and political conditions and social crisis, and carrying away millions of people. We are presently living in the middle of economic and political conditions closely paralleling those of 1338, which fit in with the predictions of Ziegler who said a great plague would come by the year 2020. This also confirms the expectations of Hecker who said that each succeeding plague would be more virulent that the last. In 1347, famine in parts of Europe, notably in what is now Italy, helped the spread of the Black Plague. Compare this with Africa today, where millions are dying from starvation and AIDS.

Actually, Dr. Coleman rides off the rails with the AIDS comparison because despite the sheer horror of AIDS, the fact remains that it does not kill with the rapidity of yersinia pestis. A person with AIDS can live a very long time and the way the disease is spread is more selective so while it is a pandemic in parts of Africa, it is not even in the same class of rapid-death disease spread we are discussing when we talk about Black Plague. But this is a tantalizing passage because Dr. Coleman is not talking about Nostradamus-styled predictions. Phillip Ziegler is an excellent source for information about the history of the Black Death and it would have been nice if Dr. Coleman had told us how the economic and political conditions today closely parallel those of 1338 because having read Ziegler (admittedly many years ago), I don’t see the correlations. The Hecker he is referring to is J.H. Hecker and I know nothing of his work so I don’t know if Hecker is a good source, but this could have been such an interesting section if Dr. Coleman had laid out for us how we are looking at a political climate and social climate that could result in a plague. I think such conditions are here. I’ve read enough writers like Laurie Garrett to know that things could become quite dire quite quickly if conditions were right. I just want Dr. Coleman to better explain his alarmist utterings.

And I gotta tell you, his section on MRSA, though he calls it “NRSA” in his table of contents, was damn informative. I have family in the medical community who have echoed that MRSA is a nightmare, that once a hospital has a MRSA contamination, getting rid of it is dicey, that unions prevent some hospitals from removing from service nurses who test positive as being carriers for MRSA via the nose tests, and that in many cases, surgery is a crap-shoot (and if you ever read much about prion diseases, you will fear surgery for the rest of your life, believe me). I had to have a steel plate put in my ankle two years ago and I recall the weird things people told me to do after surgery. One nurse told me that after surgery that I needed to go home and run the hottest water I could stand over my incision, no matter what the doctors said. I didn’t because it would have hurt like 20 bastards in a bastard boat but I always wondered if she told me this because she felt this was a deterrent to MRSA. The parts about MRSA are as jumbled and use as interesting grammar as the rest of the book but here Dr. Coleman was on point and his paranoia, while perhaps overblown and strangely stated, was not out of bounds when healthy teenagers are picking the infection up in locker rooms and dying from it.

And then there are other sections where he starts off strong, with cogent, well-thought out points, but then he just veers off course, falls down the mountain and crashes in the valley below. In an excellent paragraph explaining what he failed to explain in the passage about the Black Plague, Dr. Coleman explains in detail how poverty, overcrowding, and crappy government in Brazil have led to a perfect storm for AIDS that could lead to a complete pandemic. Then he follows that with this:

The monsters in the Club of Rome and those running the Global 2000 mass extermination program are well pleased with their work. Barring a change of plan – – which appears totally unlikely – – billions of people will die of AIDS this decade. If Lord Bertrand Russell and H.G. Wells were alive today, they would look upon AIDS as a providential gift, a dream come true.

Dr. Coleman explains earlier in the book what the Club of Rome is and why Bertrand Russell and H.G. Wells are among history’s greatest monsters (they evidently are a part of a plot to kill off “useless eaters”) but I’m weary, the explanations are suitably lunatic and until I read his books on the topics themselves, I will not discuss them, but I wonder why, in the face of actual evidence of wrong-doing that causes problems in the here and now we have to ascribe these ills to the machinations of two dead Brits, one so priapic he barely had time to manage his sex life with decorum, let alone plot to destroy the world a century after his death.

Dr. Coleman’s information about AZT, the drug used to treat AIDS is another instance wherein Dr. Coleman may have been presenting excellent information but the fact that he thinks that Bertrand Russell was a part of a cabal to kill off the world makes it hard to know if AZT is the poison that Dr. Coleman says it is. That’s one of the few times conspiracy theory makes me unhappy – when conspiracy folk may have an excellent point but you can’t trust in it because of all the lunacy that accompanies it. A very basic Google proved that AZT is not in fact the miracle drug I had initially thought it to be. But it is… unsettling that many of the voices who bring us dissenting information are as untrustworthy in their own way as the the standard sources of news.

His take on flu viruses, especially H1N1, was timely but also unnecessarily alarmist:

According to a top scientist for the United Nations, who examined the outbreak of the deadly Ebola virus in Africa, as well as the victims of HIV/AIDS, concluded that H1N1 possesses certain transmission vectors that suggest that the new flu strain has been genetically manufactured as a military biological warfare weapon.

He goes on to cite “scientists,” who are evidently working for the UN, who say that H1N1 was a human-engineered disease, which doesn’t pass the basic skeptic sniff test. The H1N1 virus subtype has been identified for almost a century, both the avian and swine infections. I can only assume that the horror of it creating a Spanish flu-type pandemic (which was caused by the avian H1N1 virus) is one of the reasons people feared this disease so much and as I have begun to note, fear is the cause of most conspiracy. However, unless anyone can give me the mechanism by which they think this known disease was mutated to make it similar to Ebola, I call shenanigans. I can only assume that the reason anyone would link H1N1 to Ebola is because the former on occasion and the latter always cause a cytokine storm in the sufferer. But the cytokine storm was an element of the 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic so again, we’ve known for almost a century that cytokine storms can happen in flu and it would be hard to say that a flu that causes a cytokine storm is anything new.

The conspiracy continues, and this seems especially odd since Dr. Coleman understands in Brazil how poverty, overcrowding and bad government contribute to the spread of disease:

…I believe that Swine Flu will return with a vengeance once the creators of the virus have finished their new genetic model and it is once again released to run amuck throughout the world. Certainly there have been several major pandemics in the U.S. (poliomyelitis, Spanish Flu and Avian Bird all proven or suspected). With Swine Flu, there should have more than likely been well over a thousand fatalities. But what was the actual count? The only fatality was a child. Of course that has changed but why is it that so many more deaths occurred in Mexico than anywhere else. Other races, even other Hispanics, appear to contract a much milder form. Was this due to the lack of medical facilities and the state of the slums around Mexico City and other major cities? But if one looks at Rio de Janeiro and its infamous “favelez” slums –far worse than anything found in Mexico — the theory does not hold up.

Well, the epicenter of the Swine Flu outbreak occurred in Mexico City, not Rio. Had it started in Rio, would we wonder why people in Mexico City slums didn’t fall as fast or as often? No. Where a disease begins is hit the worst. North and South America had time to react and the disease spread simply didn’t occur the way some panicked epidemiologists suspected it would, exactly as what happened with recent outbreaks of SARS and Avian Flu. And as a whitey white white, I got H1N1 and have never been sicker so I am unsure where the idea that other races are less affected comes from – the people who died in the U.S. were not in slums nor were they uniformly of Mexican descent. My anecdata and the actual data simply do not bear out Dr. Coleman’s beliefs.

And it spirals down the rabbit hole from there, with incendiary insinuations that the WHO sat on information about the outbreak of Swine Flu in Mexico, the WHO may have started the outbreak and bizarre and completely unscientific assertions that it is impossible for “four different viruses from three different animals” to mutate into a single disease.

And that’s the worst part of this whole thing, the sour note at the end of this symphony of sickness: Dr. Coleman has interesting points that are made suspect or outright overshadowed by some of his more lunacy-laden beliefs. I haven’t read anything else by Dr. Coleman – maybe he has a line on information that will completely redefine how I think about Bertrand Russell – but there is enough truth in so much that is terrible in medical history that I really don’t need to know about the Club of Rome or a plan by H.G. Wells to believe terrible things have happened and have been covered up. The presence of such whackadoodlery taints the points that Dr. Coleman could drive to town and take to dinner. Hell, I consider myself a skeptic but still believe Edward Hooper’s research that indicates that AIDS is a zootrophic condition that jumped from simians to humans as a result of the development of an oral polio vaccine in Central Africa. That’s some hard core conspiracy right there but it doesn’t require a cabal of long dead elites – just the hubris of a few men who hid the bad things they did and a compliant and easily redirected medical community and press that would not and still refuses to look hard into the issue.

So, I can’t really recommend this book unless you, like me, like nothing more than out-there conspiracy and stories of disease. I think Dr. Coleman’s works, however, are going to appear here again soon, because I have had ill-will for H.G. Wells after discovering he was a plagiarist of the worst sort. I really want to believe Dr. Coleman that Wells was indeed a terrible, terrible man. But there are far better books that make the case for conspiracy and illness. Tackle one of those first before reading this. But I intend to start reading Dr. Coleman’s works apace. He seems a man who will offer a ton of insanity with a few ounces of clarity and frankly, a few ounces of clarity combined with the entertainment of good conspiracy are worth it for me.

The Source by Isis and Electricity Aquarian

This post originally appeared on I Read Odd Books

Book: The Source: The Untold Story of Father Yod, Ya Ho Wa 13 and the Source Family

Author: Isis Aquarian with Electricity Aquarian

Type of Book: Non-fiction, memoir, history, religion, counter-culture

Why Do I Consider This Book Odd: Well, it’s released by Process Media, Adam Parfrey’s newest publishing venture. So that’s a good clue to oddness. And while the topic is compelling, I suspect that this book will be of most interest to people who are vinyl-heads, seeking information about fringe music from the 1970s.

Availability: Published by Process Media in 2007, you can get a copy here:

Comments: As I mentioned in my entry about the Books I Thought About Most in 2010, when I finished this book I made flippant references to it in my Twitter and my personal blog. Someone directed Isis Aquarian to the entries and she wanted to discuss the fact that I called the Source a Jesus Freak cult and how I was in error. I clarified in detail the reasons I referred to the Source as both but I never heard back from her. Maybe she thought me too dense to deal with. It doesn’t hurt for me to remember that my blog will trigger a Google alert beyond my 200 readers in my personal blog and show my snark to people who don’t know me well enough to understand my snark is generally followed by some measure of sincerity.

But though I will explain myself here on the whole “Jesus Freak cult” comments and how, while they were flippant, they are apt and not necessarily insults, the reason I found this book fascinating is that as a person who is, for the most part, utterly faithless, I found myself deeply interested in the people who created a life as Father Yod’s acolytes. As I read, I felt a strange feeling that I can only assume is akin to longing, a sense that my faithlessness costs me dearly, though ultimately there is not a damn thing I can do about it. I will, however, be brutally honest that I did not listen to the CD that comes with the book. Largely, the music Ya Ho Wa 13 created, as well as the voices of Father Yod’s followers, didn’t interest me that much, but the fact is, this is a very pretty, interactive book, with tons of pictures of intensely attractive people from the early 70s. Those looking for a very immersive experience will find much to love in this book. As I was writing this discussion, Mr. Oddbooks picked up the book and began flipping through it and remarked that it was one of those books that is as much art as it is a conveyance of words and information.

Isis Aquarian, whom Father Yod appointed the record keeper for the Source Family, reconstructs the life of the group from beginning to end, using recollections from members interspersed with her own text to tell the compelling story of a man who was an interesting mixture of father, lover, trickster, and guru and the stories of those who followed him. Make no mistake, as interesting as the Source Family was, this book at its heart discussed a charismatic authoritative sect, and Father Yod was, any trickster tendencies aside, largely a benevolent charismatic authority, and that is why I feel comfortable dissecting the everloving hell out of this book. When charismatic leaders are malignant, there really is no room for discussion. There is no way to talk about charismatic religious authorities like Roch Theriault without talking about the manner in which naive and impressionable people are ripe for the picking by psychopathic and delusional madmen. There is no discussion other than the depths of suffering the followers of such people experience. That is not the case here. There is a tendency to assume all cults are negative and while I feel comfortable discussing the Source Family as a cult, it was not a malignant cult – though there were some alarming signs for me – nor was Father Yod a mirror of the sorts of men the popular imagination thinks of as cult leaders.

And though I definitely loved looking at all of the beautiful people in this book and found some of the stories in this book amusing, Father Yod is why we are here because it seems to me that it is nothing short of astonishing that so many years later, the vast majority of those who were members of the Source Family remember Father Yod with nothing but fondness and love for the lessons he taught them. Yet even as Isis Aquarian told the story of Father Yod and his family, she shows how even though he was their spiritual leader, he had definite feet of clay.

So let’s talk about Father Yod. He began life as Jim Baker in 1922 and even before he became Father Yod, he had an epic life and was sort of a badass. He served in the Marines in WWII, became a martial arts expert and worked for a time as a stuntman in Hollywood. When he died, Father Yod was on his virgin hang gliding mission and in the group, he had many wives who bore his children. In the 1960s he began to follow fellow travelers into a more natural lifestyle, becoming a vegetarian and opened the Source Restaurant on the Sunset Strip, serving vegetarian fare to hippies (and the Source Family emphatically rejects the label of “hippie” for themselves), burnouts and superstars.

Father Yod became interested in many different branches of philosophy and religion, especially the Vedic traditions, combining them into a world view that had a decidedly Christian flavor (for example, Father Yod updated the Ten Commandments for his followers in anticipation of the coming of the new age and many elements of the cult were reactions to the Judeo-Christian ethos). The cult that built up around Father Yod happened almost accidentally. Young women were strongly drawn to him, as were young men, and the reasons varied from person to person. Some felt he was a paternal figure. Some wanted to be his lover (The Source Family was not anti-gay but the few homosexuals who were a part of the group in the early days were on the outside because the group emphasized the natural and mystical power of the male-female union). Some thought that in his presence they had found a man who would help them find the answers they sought. If you are age 40 or younger and look at the cover of this book and immediately think, “Dumbledore!” you are not alone. I suspect there is an archetype we all have of the Magus, a man imbued with strength, mysticism and moral wisdom and Father Yod fit that archetype. Father Yod’s physical appearance was one of strength and comfortingly paternal to me, and to many of the women in the Source Family, he was sexual force, as well (as is Dumbledore, if you read slash fan fiction and really, you shouldn’t…).

As people were ever increasingly drawn to Father Yod, the members of the Source Family developed a communal lifestyle, living in succession in two large mansions in the Los Angeles area, the Mother house and the Father house. At some times, the family swelled to over 100 members, and despite cramped quarters, the members of the group split work, sharing duties running the restaurant, keeping up laundry for all the members, cooking, cleaning and from the descriptions Isis and other members of the commune give, it worked relatively well. In order to achieve some level of privacy, some members created plywood cubbies that sound for all in the world like those compartment Japanese hotel rooms. Despite close quarters, the Source Family came up with creative and labor-intensive means of dealing with needs for privacy and the infrastructure problems so many people sharing one house caused.

Father Yod also maintained an inner circle of 14 women, the council of women, and as an inversion of the idea of Christian submissiveness, the Source Family promoted a female-centric community and women’s liberation. Of course, Father Yod’s word was important but as he evolved his message he took counsel from his council of women. Although, and I will discuss this later, Father Yod at times made it hard for women to remain in monogamy with a chosen man and the sexual rules of the commune had a decidedly uneven effect, women ostensibly chose their own men and had a strong voice in the commune. Women gave birth at home (and I had no idea home births were illegal in California at the time), breast fed their babies at a time when that was outre and children were homeschooled. The Source Family had a close relationship with another Jesus sect but as too often happens in sects led by charismatic leaders, minor differences caused fractures. And despite the fact that the Source Family lived a relatively healthy life, deep troubles began.

Despite being clean people, when you have 100 people in one house, bad things can happen. A staph infection ran through the commune and sickened a baby and when that child was taken for emergency care, the authorities descended up on the family. Because the group was afraid that the authorities were going to take the children, Father Yod decided to beat a retreat to Hawaii, a decision that had he lived longer, might have proved the undoing of the Source Family, as the locals in Hawaii were hostile to the “hippies” to the point of threatened violence, they had little experience doing the fishing and farming they would need to survive and Father Yod sold the Source restaurant when he left LA. That restaurant had been the primary source of income for over 100 people and without it, the cult suffered financial woes. Father Yod smuggled vans to Hawaii that had not been paid for, and he also smuggled the family’s cat. The drugged cat was taken onto a plane, stuffed into the dress of a female member who pretended to be pregnant – the cat was later eaten by a mongoose, which means this book also gets the “Oddbooks List of Books that Feature Dead Cats” tag. The situation degenerated so bad for the family that they ended up descending on the welfare office near them and more or less forcing the Hawaiian infrastructure to pay for them to leave (evidently there was a fund that Hawaii would use to return US citizens to the mainland if they did not have the money but the sheer number of tickets the family would require was problematic).

Some of the family returned to San Francisco for a bit then returned to Hawaii. It was there that Father Yod was killed during his maiden voyage hang gliding at age 53. Actually, he was severely injured and did not seek medical help, as the group largely did not put much faith in medicine, and was taken back to their home and died. There was a minor controversy concerning his death because Father Yod believed the soul took three days to leave the body and specific death rituals needed to be performed over his body. Since he died in an accident, authorities were concerned that his body was not immediately turned over to the coroner. When another member of the Source Family died in a hang gliding accident a year or so later, several members of the Source Family, including Isis, were arrested for failing to immediately turn his body over to authorities. They were later cleared of charges.

It is a testament to Father Yod’s message that the family struggled on after he died, but eventually, without the charisma of their leader to bind them together, members moved on and most of them moved on to have very interesting lives. But as I read this book, I felt a bit uneasy because I consider myself to have been victimized by a dopey religious cult – the Southern Baptist Church – and elements of the way the Source Family lived set off my “oh-no” meter. So let’s discuss that. First, to clarify, Jesus Freak now is a terrible appellation, akin to calling someone a “holy roller” or similar and it may have been a pejorative 40 years ago but I know many Jesus Freaks reclaimed the word and didn’t accept it as an insult. When I think of Jesus Freaks, I think of what the term meant by those who called themselves Jesus Freaks: adherents of the Jesus Movement who espoused a counter-culture lifestyle, with an emphasis on back to the land, social justice, communal living, and rejection of contemporary dogma. Many of these groups had a profound musical element to them. The Source Family was Christian in origin, though they carried cards professing Sikhism and the beliefs of the group had a synthesis of many Eastern religions and Egyptology. However, the core of the group appears to me to be Christian, though not as evangelical as some Jesus Freaks were, and their close association with a Jesus Cult and the way that Father Yod recreated Biblical commandments makes me lean towards thinking the group Jesus Freaks. Mileage varies and my terminology is just my interpretation and should not be read as an assertion of an absolute truth.

However, the cult aspect of it is where I got uneasy. Of course, the word “cult” today has almost without question a negative bias though that is just connotation after years of malignant sects doing grave damage. Objectively, a cult is a group of people whose beliefs and actions seem strange when compared to more mainstream customs. Nothing nefarious or unhealthy in that and the Source Family falls largely within that definition. But the group also exhibited some of the more exploitative and damaging elements of a group built around the theories of one man. Here are some of my observations:

1) The Source Family was centered around a charismatic leader who “love bombed” people, resulting in the center of the religious experience being the leader and not the religion. In fact, even after reading this book so closely that I can quote passages of it, I have a hard time explaining the core mission of the Source Family, the core beliefs but I know a lot about Father Yod. Magus, who left the cult in early days, described a descent from a innocent beginning to an almost “Aleister Crowley type megalomania.”

2) There was an inability to leave with impunity or finality. Some people did indeed leave, but the problems were there. Magus says he was shunned when he left. When Rhythm left, the whole of the group went to fetch him back to show him that they loved him. But the end result was still that his desire to leave was not respected. When Galaxy was returned home to her parents by the police, Father sent an adult man to fetch her back then marry her so that her parents could not interfere.

3) The Source Family showed some disregard for family ties, making Father Yod the only real connection some members often had. For example, fetching back the underage Galaxy from her family using deception interfered directly with the relationship between parents and their minor-age child. Paralda described how Father Yod interfered in her marriage to Omne soon after he married them, pressuring her to have sex with him. Few people lived or worked outside the Source Family, ensuring the primacy of the relationship with Father Yod.

4) The tenets of the Source Family changed to suit the needs of a charismatic leader. One of Father Yod’s commandments was that nothing should come between a man and his woman… until he found women he wanted more than his then wife, Robin/Ahom. Quick evolutions of matters of faith are alarming especially when they seem to revolve around the sexual needs of the leader of the sect (and though Father Yod may not have begun with the idea of having sex with so many women, some of whom were underage, it did happen and many elements of group belief sprang up making Father Yod’s sexual belief a group belief.)

5). Father Yod created new identities for members, often based on his interpretation of their personalities. Not only did everyone get new names, some several times, but Father Yod also would revoke names to tamper with the idea of identity, as when everyone was called a number for a brief period of time. This was one of the fine line reservations with me as I can see both sides of the argument on diminishing the self and of course some religions emphasize selection of a new name, as Catholics select a new name during church rites. But Father Yod picked his acolytes new names and changed them again when he felt like it.

6) The Source Family exercised sexual control over its members. Men were given a very strict manner in which they could have sex – tantric sex – and if a man could not control the need to ejaculate for a specified period of time, he was looked down upon. Men who could “hold their seed” got all the women, entrenching their place in the The Source Family. But even though these rules created a group of men who could not attain a regular lover and helpmate, Father Yod would assign women to service and take care of these pariah men because their labor was needed in the cult and they could not afford for them to leave if they began to feel too alienated. The tension between have and have-not men was always there because the men without lovers felt they needed to work on themselves because the lack of a sexual partner was seen as a spiritual failing.

7) Members seldom had any control over money. Communal living is not that unusual, but when only a handful of people control the bank account for over 100 people, it can be a very negative thing.

8) The group substituted Father Yod’s common sense for their own. Though clean people, close quarters created a staph infection that ran through the group that was not treated medically and led to problems, the most obvious being Anastasia and her baby. Anastasia had a staph infection in her breast yet continued breast feeding, as the group did not approve of bottle feeding. Her infant fell very ill with staph but did not immediately receive medical care because Father Yod taught the rejection of conventional medicine. The child almost died and Anastasia almost lost her breast. Two children died in the cult. One baby who was clearly failing to thrive evidently never received any medical care before she died, or if she did, it wasn’t mentioned in the book. One of Magus’ sons became very ill with an ear infection and the treatment Father Yod recommended was to shine colored lights on the boy and chant for him. On a more ridiculous level, Father Yod told people to stop wearing their glasses in order to build their eye muscles. Father Yod proclaimed the group for a while would only eat fruits and vegetables whose colors reflected the rainbow. To have followed any of this indicates that Father Yod’s magnetism was more important than common sense.

9) The group had to operate in secrecy, though I openly admit that in a climate where home births were illegal and breast feeding was seen as odd, some secrecy was needed. However, this secrecy set up an us versus them mentality that created hardship. When Anastasia’s baby almost died and it looked like child protective services were going to act because the children in The Source Family did not go to school, there were home births that were illegal at the time, overcrowded living, etc., the answer was not to address these issues openly with either a legal stance to change law or an attempt to work with authorities. Rather Father Yod uprooted the group from LA, sold the restaurant that supported the group, and sent people to a remote Hawaiian island with little support because he hoped there would be little interference from the authorities there.

10) Most alarming to me was that towards the end of his life, Father Yod was beginning to trip down the old eschatology lane, positing about the end of the world, how it was coming soon, and how the family needed to be ready to survive and lead the survivors. That… Of all of the sort of wacky, new age bad decisions that came about, this was the most disturbing to me. Whenever any sect begins to assign an approximate date for the end of the world, it ushers in all kinds of problems.

Yet after reading all of this, still having the capacity to be flippant meant that I didn’t feel like I was reading a small scale People’s Temple that got averted by a tragic hang gliding accident. Despite my innate abhorrence for religion and my admittedly bizarre aversion towards spirituality in general, I found myself wishing I had, in my youth, been a part of something like this. I had a similar feeling when I watched the series Big Love, a feeling that being a loner was definitely working against me and that sister wives might be nice. But then I realized how completely unsuited I am for such a life, channeling Charlie from the movie Metropolitan, who, like me, wouldn’t want to live on a farm (or commune or conjoined houses in Utah) with a bunch of other people. Part of it may have been that the Source Family was a group that reveled in natural pleasure and enjoyed beauty and displays of flashiness and only became ascetics when circumstances forced such behavior, but that was not the whole of it because as a near hermit, I don’t care that much for the physical world and other peoples’ involvement in it.

So how come I find myself wishing I could have a talk with Father Yod and hear what he has to say? As a person allergic to authority and spirituality, why did I find him so deeply interesting? I think, at the end of it, I liked Father Yod because he knew he was not god. He may have been a man who had an enormous ego. He might have enjoyed being followed more than leading, and he definitely had all kinds of issues with his libido (and, frankly, I think he introduced tantric sex as a means of controlling himself and to prevent descending into a priapic orgy, and you can take that about as far as you want given my degree in armchair psychology), but even as this book showed how he had feet of clay, I don’t think Father Yod ever lost track of that himself.

This scene from when a group of men from The Source Family arrived in Hawaii, deeply influenced my belief about Father Yod, showing me his humanity in the midst of what could at times be fawning adulation. This passage comes from Zinaru, who arrived at Kauai to be met with a bowl of magic mushrooms:

It was around this time that a lot of discussion on YHVH began, and there was a shift in Father’s deep commitment to spiritual development and observance of natural laws to seeing himself as the Avatar–the actual incarnation of God. I noticed the women around him reinforced this direction in his perceptions, maybe because this God incarnate status for Father stimulated their own egos and reinforced their own special position as “wives of God incarnate.”

Back to our arrival day in Kauai. After about 40 minutes, the effects of the mushrooms were becoming very strong and it was suggested that we all go take a walk. About 20 of us followed a trail through the property and up the closest hill. Some Family members wanted us to observe the “Sleeping Lady,” a description that local Hawaiians had given to a group of gently rolling hills visible from the highest point on our land.

Due to our brisk walk up the long hill and the blood circulating rapidly in our bodies, the power of the mushrooms really began to peak. Father began to speak, and it was obvious that he was very affected psychologically. Father made a comment about the power of nature while we observed the “sleeping lady.” The sun was starting to go down, and we all stood for a moment in silence appreciating the tropical beauty, our surroundings, and the power of nature.

It was then that Father said in a soft voice, “I am not God. I am only a man.” Immediately Makushla [Father Yod’s wife, sort of a first wife among equals] said, “No, no, you are God,” and several women agreed. And he said, “No, I am just a man trying to understand God.” He continued. “I am nothing. I am just a man. I am not sure what to do, really.” Father turned and looked me in the eyes, and I could see he was deeply moved emotionally. I saw his insecurity manifest in his eyes in a way I’d never seen before. He dropped all pretense and was deeply humbled by his augmented state and honest self-perception.

This passage was the most important in the book, I think. It showed me that Father Yod was a guy with some interesting insights who got caught up in an echo chamber and in his moments of extreme clarity, he was under no illusions as to who he really was: a man searching for truth, a man who ended up with many people relying on his judgment, and a man whose responsibilities hung heavily on his shoulders.

And that makes for compelling reading, learning all about this man via the words of others, as well as learning about the people who tell the story. There is a whole lot I can’t really touch on because this discussion is already too long, like the affront Father Yod’s perspective on the name of the creator must pose to Jews, and the band Ya Ho Wa 13 didn’t interest me much. But I hope this discussion shows how deeply interesting this book is. Not only is it quite pretty (the pictures of a time past are amazing — Sunflower bears a striking resemblance to Mr. Oddbooks before he cut off all his hair and I wish more information was given about Snow, the beautiful albino girl who drew my eye in every picture she appeared in), but with the CD, and the participation of so many past members of the Source Family, this book is a well-documented look at a complex man who lived an amazing life during a turbulent time in America. I recommend this muchly.

Mutants by Armand Marie Leroi

This post originally appeared on I Read Everything

Book: Mutants: On Genetic Variety and the Human Body

Author: Armand Marie Leroi

Type of Book: Non-fiction, genetics

Why Did I Read This Book: I initially thought this would be a good fit on my site for odd books because Amazon recommended this book when I purchased a book about carny culture. This book is not about “mutants” in the vulgar parlance wherein the term has come to mean “freaks” and as a result, it really is a better fit for this site. But the reason I read it initially was because I thought it far stranger than it was.

Availability: Published in 2003 by Penguin Books, you can get a copy here:

Comments: I am decidedly a liberal arts kind of woman. I managed to cram enough science into my head to make it (barely) through college and then promptly forgot all of it. Much science seems like magic to me, a sentiment that makes me sound really dumb, but I’m okay with that (though I do need to mention that I understand how magnets work). So it was a little bit of a shock when I realized this was not a book about carny folk and old side-show acts that featured “freaks.” I was intimidated by the book and put off reading it.

When I finally picked this book up and gave it a try, it was a marvel at how accessible this book made biology and genetics to a non-science person like me. Moreover, it was an engrossing book, as well. Biology in the micro is a dramatic thing and as Leroi makes the science clear enough that even I can understand it, he shows the drama that takes place in our genetic code. I wish this book, clear and elegant, had been my college biology text. I sure would have enjoyed the class a lot more.

This book really did lay out for me the logic in genetics, and how it is that genetic mutations help us “reverse-engineer” the body, giving clarity to genetic function that we might lack if the mutations did not exist.

Gain or loss, both kinds of mutations, reveal something about the function of the genes that they affect, and in doing so, reveal a small part of the genetic grammar. Mutations reverse-engineer the body.

Until reading this book, the concept that parts of an embryo develop in stages, that limbs develop at a different time than organs, didn’t really occur to me. And the fact that they do develop at different stages explains how it is a person can have a terrible mutation that affects their legs or arms but have a perfectly healthy heart. This may seem so elementary to others but to me it really was a revelation. Moreover, it was also sobering to realize how many mutations never come to light, as the mutation prevents life. It was quite interesting, seeing it from that perspective, that mutations that seem quite catastrophic to the person who is born without limbs, in terms of genetics are not that profound as they don’t threaten life.

Limbs have an extraordinary knack for going wrong. There are more named congenital disorders that affect our limbs than almost any other part of our bodies. Is it that limbs are particularly delicate, and so prone to register every insult that heredity or the environment imprints upon them? Or is it that they are especially complex? Delicate and complex they are, to be sure, but the more likely reason for the exuberant abundance of their imperfections is simply that they are not needed, at least not for life itself. Children may grow in the womb and be born with extra fingers, a missing tibia, or missing a limb entirely, and yet be otherwise quite healthy. They survive and we see the damage.

Despite what I was expecting from the title, Leroi discusses genetics in a manner that is nothing but respectful. He makes it clear that in a sense we are all mutants.

Who, then, are the mutants? To say that the sequence of a particular gene shows a ‘mutation’, or to call the person who bears such a gene a ‘mutant’, is to make an invidious distinction. It is to imply, at the least, deviation from some ideal of perfection. Yet humans differ from each other in very many ways, and those differences are, at least in part, inherited. Who among us has the genome of genomes, the one by which all other genomes will be judged.

The short answer is that no one does.

He also discusses the social implications of misapplying genetics, a section that was at times hard to read, and I will come back to how hard it was to read in a moment. In the meantime, here’s an example of what Gould would have called the the mismeasure of men:

Ever since Linnaeus divided the world’s people into four races – Asiaticus, Americanus, Europaeus, Afer – skin colour has been misused as a convenient mark of other human attributes. Linnaeus distinguished his four races not only by the colour of their skins but also their temperaments: Asiaticus was ‘stern, haughty, avaricious and ruled by opinions’; Americanus ‘tenacious, contented, choleric and ruled by habit’; Afer, seemingly devoid of any redeeming virtue, was ‘cunning, slow, phlegmatic, careless and ruled by caprice’. What of his own race? Europaeus, Linnaeus thought, was ‘lively, light, inventive and ruled by custom’. This was the beginning of an intellectual tradition that, via the writings of Arthur, Comte de Gobineau, the nineteenth-century theorist of Aryan supremacy, culminated in the most systematic chromatocracy that the world has ever known: apartheid in South Africa.

In amongst all this interesting and amazing (or at least to me) information in this book, there were some chunks of information that kept me thinking long after I stopped reading. One is that there is some belief and evidence that aging is, in fact, the result of genetic mutations that don’t manifest until we age or are, in fact, slow-progressing diseases. This was very interesting to me, the idea that perhaps one day death will seem as much a disease as cystic fibrosis. Also interesting was the idea that the most common trait among women who lived an exceptionally long life was being childless. Having children ensures your genetic code sustains itself in generations to come but giving birth requires much of a woman, so much in fact that the fewer children a woman has appears to lengthen her life (but in my soft science mind, I wonder how much childlessness has to do with increased education and social status, both of which are linked to decreased childbirth rates so bear in mind that it’s hard to show any direct causation). Of course, as a childless woman, this was very relevant to my interests, but I suspect in this book there is something that will be relevant to your interests as most of us have a family member with a condition caused by a genetic mutation, be it a mild or major issue, and we all certainly are getting older.

And almost as fascinating was Leroi’s examination of genetic mutations in history. This part of the book reminded me much of some of Jan Bondeson’s books, a respectful yet entertaining look at the various genetic mutations that affected body hair and skin color. I’ll never get tired of reading about the hirsute family in Burma.

But unexpectedly, there was a section of this book that has haunted me. I would suspect that most geneticists prefer not to think of or mention Josef Mengele, the mad doctor at Auschwitz who performed hideous experiments on Jews, the worst of his obsessions played out on twins, doing things that even then defied science, like changing eye color or trying to graft people together. Leroi recounts a chilling story easily as creepy as anything I have read in a horror novel. The Ovitz family were sent to Auschwitz during WWII. The family were Romanian Jews, but members of the family had a form of dwarfism, which caused normal body size but short limbs. Specifically, they suffered from pseudoachondroplasia, which is a dominant genetic condition.

The family became performers and despite moving around Europe before the war ended up in Auschwitz after German troops occupied Hungary and the family was captured. Because the family were so much smaller, they were housed together away from the other prisoners and while they were given enough to eat, “they paid for survival by being given starring roles in Mengele’s bizarre and frenetic programme of experimental research.”

As Elizabeth Ovitz would write: ‘the most frightful experiments of all [were] the gynaecological experiments. Only the married ones among us had to endure that. They tied us to the table and systematic torture began. They injected things into our uterus, extracted blood, dug into us, pierced us and removed samples. The pain was unbearable.’

Even after the terrible gynecological experiments ended, the Ovitz family still endured inhumane suffering.

‘They extracted fluid from our spinal cord and rinsed out our ears with extremely hot or cold water which made us vomit. Subsequently hair extraction began and when we were ready to collapse, they began painful tests on the brain, nose, mouth and hand regions. All stages of the tests were fully documented with illustrations. It may be noted, ironically, that we were among the only ones in the world whose torture was premeditated and “scientifically” documented for the sake of future generations…’

But as horrible as all of that is, that was not the creepy part.

The Ovitz family walked the the tightrope of Mengele’s obsessions for seven months. Once, when Mengele unexpectedly entered the compound, the youngest of the family, Shimshon, who was only eighteen months old, toddled towards him. Mengele lifted the child into his arms and softly enquired why the child had approached him. ‘He thinks you are his father.’ ‘I am not his father,’ said Mengele, ‘only his uncle’. Yet the child was emaciated from the poor food and incessant blood sampling.

When I read this book the last damn thing I expected to read was a passage wherein Mengele showed a doting affection towards a child he tortured. If anything, that made the man more of a monster, for had he unyielding hatred for the Jews he tormented and tortured, his behavior could in a terrible manner make sense. That he felt fondness and saw himself as a sort of uncle to a Jewish dwarf toddler makes him all the more inexplicable to me.

I think this is one of those books that has a passage that will stay with all readers. You just have to read it and determine what that passage is. I recommend this book and hope others read it and let me know what they think.

Darkness Walks by Jason Offutt

This post originally appeared on I Read Odd Books

Book: Darkness Walks: The Shadow People Among Us

Author: Jason Offutt

Type of Book: Non-fiction, paranormal, paranormal squick

Why Do I Consider This Book Odd: I tend to think most examinations of the paranormal are odd, and this one was no exception.

Availability: Published by 2009 by Anomalist Press, you can get a copy here:

Comments: Oh, lord help me, I love books like this. I love reading people’s accounts of the bizarre and how they filter their experiences through their own beliefs and fears. This book satisfied several book urges of mine at once. Paranormal tales, people telling their own stories, high pathos and low humor. Despite the fact that I had to create a category for this book called “Paranormal Squick,” that is not the fault of the author. Offutt structures this book in a manner wherein he categorizes the stories people have to tell. This book is not an advocacy – it is mostly Offutt’s attempts to sort and label people’s experiences. At no point does Jason Offutt attempt to say that he has a line on an explanation of Shadow People and since he does not have a specific advocacy, the at times horribleness that can come from books about paranormal were not his fault – but more laternon why I got a definite squick from a few of these stories, squick that could be avoided with a judicious application of science and reason.

According to this book, Shadow People are not really ghosts. They are a phenomenon that have occurred in various cultures yet are hard to pin down, definition-wise, as they manifest in various ways and impact people differently. In America, they’ve only really started being discussed in earnest in the last couple of decades but parapsychologists like Brad Steiger believe that Shadow People have always been around. They generally appear as black, opaque, and two-dimensional. Many report having seen Shadow People with red, glowing eyes. Most reports of these entities are negative, as in the person who saw the Shadow Person was scared or felt dread. There were some reports of the Shadow People as a sort of Watcher element, looking over people but not in an evil or negative manner, but the vast majority of Shadow People are reported to be negative entities.

Offutt, who got lots of examples of people’s experiences with Shadow People via his website, divided the stories he was told as best he could, categorizing them in obvious ways, like benign Shadow People and negative or demonic Shadow People. But he also has less obvious categories, like Shadow People wearing hats and Shadow Animals. In the face of the amorphous quality of the experiences and the varied details, Offutt does a pretty good job sorting it all out.

Offutt, who clearly has a belief in the paranormal, does his level best in one chapter to discuss the science of Shadow People, though the science chapter invokes quantum physics, which never fails to evoke a serious eye roll from me because it is, no matter what any True Believer says, a theory attempting to explain a theory and as such is not doing anyone much good as a solution (and Richard Feynman admitted that no one really understands quantum mechanics, so take it to the bank that all those people using quantum anything to explain ghosts, psychics and prosperity theology likely have no friggin’ idea what they are talking about). And to be frank, the other science sources Offutt uses generally back my guffaws but it is interesting to think about string theory and how it could explain seeing Shadow People.

In those ten pages of science, Offutt discusses the most likely explanation for the vast majority of Shadow People sightings: sleep paralysis, which in my mind also edges into the hypnagogic tendency to see and hear things that are not there when one is in a state where one is not entirely awake. But then Offutt starts to discuss archetypes, which is not really a hard science, but rather a soft science, as psychology is a very uneven science at best. So don’t put a whole lot of faith into any of the science in this other than people see things and experience things when they are asleep and just waking up.

And, without belaboring the point too much, it is my assertion that 99.75% of everyone who experiences a paranormal event in the middle of the night says immediately and without any hesitation that what they experienced was not sleep paralysis or hypnagogia. It was too real, the terror too palpable, the vision too clear. But it is my belief that almost all the Shadow People and Animals discussed in this book can be explained via sleep paralysis, hypnagogia and the often overlooked alcohol. In fact, the book contains perfect examples of people refusing to entertain the idea of sleep paralysis or hypnagogia (the latter is not a topic Offutt discusses in depth in the book, just to be clear). Here’s one example from a woman who claims she was attacked by a Shadow Person:

One possible explanation for her experiences is sleep paralysis, but Cathy quickly dismissed this possibility. “I know that sleep paralysis is something that many people would think happened,” she said. “All I can say to those is, unless you have actually been attacked in this way, I wouldn’t chalk other people’s experience up to that. Having experienced this, I know that I was attacked by something.”

So yeah, know that as you read this, Offutt doesn’t really try to force people into a reasonable frame of reference – and I don’t think he should have as letting people’s stories tell themselves is a fine approach – and that seldom does anyone who experiences Shadow People want to consider the idea that these things could have happened for any reason that is not supernatural. (And if there is a heaven, I wish it would preserve me from ever again reading this argument, that until one experiences something one cannot judge the experience. It is a plea in earnest from people that we take them at their word and I am sympathetic to a point but extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. “Take my word for it because you haven’t experienced it” isn’t extraordinary evidence.)

Only a handful of sightings reported in this book were positive. Most of the people who saw the Shadow People were scared, but not terrified. But a few were outright terrified, felt the shadows were demonic entities, or that their safety was in peril. And this is where I come to my sense of Paranormal Squick, because any point of view that rejects outright reasonable explanations and embraces a frame of mind that causes them terror and fear is squicky. As I said above, Offutt does not advocate this position. He simply relates the tales but in these tales lies the squicky sense that if people would embrace notions other than an evil presence out to hurt them, their minds, hearts and lives would improve.

Take this disturbing example from Anne Williams from Australia, who was “roused at 3:00 a.m. one day” by a Shadow Person. She felt a presence standing over her, saw a figure that sounds a lot like descriptions of the Grim Reaper. Suddenly Anne felt pinned to the bed, locked down in fact. Then it gets really bad for Anne:

Anne lay on her back, trying to scream as the figure leaned into her. “I felt that it shoved its arm down my neck and was choking me, as nothing came out of my mouth,” she said. “Like no noise. I could not even hear myself scream, but I was.”

Tears ran down her face, soaking her pillow as she tried to scream but couldn’t. “I was trying to get up, which I could not,” she said. “I felt that it was trying to scare me to death.”

Anne invoked the name of God and drove the Shadow away for the night but it returned the next night. She prayed again and again it left. It returned again much later but finally disappeared. Though this woman was eventually rid of her Shadow Person, she was absolutely terrified when she experienced what she experienced and felt she was in peril. The belief that there is a shadowy, not entirely definable presence out to hurt you, rather than accepting that sleep paralysis combined with hypnogogia was likely the best explanation for this experience, left this woman in a state in which she was terrified.

Then take the case of Pat. He has seen Shadow People his entire life and sees them during the day as well as at night.

“I have seen these things in various places and they seem to have been following me around everywhere,” Pat said. “The feeling of pure evil is what scared the crap out of me because there were other instances in my life growing up where my mother or I also felt that strong feeling of pure evil. They have followed me most of my life.”

Although Pat tries not to think about these Shadows, he can’t truly stop. “I’m still curious to what exactly they are and why they are following me around.”

This is utterly heartbreaking to be sure, to spend one’s life feeling as if one is being tracked and stalked by Shadow People with evil intent. And maybe Pat has undergone all kinds of processes before he immediately settled on the notion that he is being stalked by evil supernatural entities. But if so, that wasn’t presented in his story. I really want to know if Pat or his mother ever underwent cognitive tests to see if they process visual stimuli in a manner that might cause them to see Shadow People. Have either undergone psychiatric testing to see if there is some sort of disorder that would cause them to feel a sense of paranoia that evil is stalking them. I wonder if both were exposed to some element in their homes together that could have permanently altered their cognitive processes. There are a lot of questions people should ask before settling on the idea that events are paranormal but often, those questions get pushed aside in the horror of the moment and you end up with a young man like Pat who has spent a life feeling as if true evil was just over his shoulder. Maybe Pat has done all of this. Maybe the paranormal is the only option left to explain these events but I wish I knew more about him.

This book is full of examples of people who are scared, terrified, uneasy and sure that evil lurks and no real sense that much was done to explain those terrible feelings without immediately focusing on the paranormal. That is squicky to me, the idea of people suffering when there could be a very reasonable explanation of what happened to them.

Then, in the midst of all the terror, there was this inadvertently hilarious gem from the chapter on Shadow Cats and other animals.

Max and his cousin sat in the darkness on the back steps of the house. The sounds of laughter poured from inside the house, a party for Max’s uncle nearing full crescendo. As they sat in the tungsten glow from windows that bathed the yard in a dissipating yellow, they could make out the fence that lined the property.

But Max and his cousin wished they hadn’t. “We noticed a Shadow creeping along the fence,” Max said. “I guess it noticed it was being watched and stopped. It was hunched over like it was trying to be covert.”

The boys stared at a black, cat-shaped Shadow in curiosity, but the curiosity quickly faded into terror. “It turned its head to look at us,” Max said. “It had bright yellow eyes. As soon as it looked at us, it turned and ran into the shadows.” They ran inside.

What was the creeping Shadow in the back yard? Max didn’t know…

I’m gonna venture a guess that the creeping Shadow was a neighborhood cat stalking small bugs attracted by the yellow light. The slinking cat noticed there were humans on the back porch and the yellow light reflected off the cat’s already amber colored eyes and made the eyes seem like they were glowing yellow. The cat, realizing there were drunk humans nearby (no one said they were drinking but the idea of a raucous party lends well to the idea that a beer or two may have been consumed), slunk off into the shadows. So… two paranormal-impressionable young men who may or may not have been drinking saw a cat-shape hunched over near a fence line late in the evening, illuminated by yellowish light and immediately assumed it was a terrifying visage of a Shadow Cat. Oh my…

Despite moments of low humor, or maybe because of it, this book is well-worth reading. I appreciate that Offutt wasn’t pushing an agenda, that he let people tell their stories as they interpreted them, and while I was troubled by the fact that people lived in terror rather than examining the ideas of sleep-paralysis or investigating to see if there was a carbon monoxide leak in their rooms, none of that was Offutt’s fault and is an unavoidable by-product of almost all paranormal examinations. All in all, as a skeptic I got to recreate in my head explanations for some of the tales and as a person drawn to tales of the paranormal, I got to wallow in the weirdness. A win-win.

And how can I be both a skeptic and a lover of the paranormal? Though I am a skeptic in all matters paranormal, my mind is still strangely open. Mr. Oddbooks and I had a sustained paranormal experience that lasted for several years and still, from time to time, manifests. We tore each experience apart and could never find any explanation that did not venture into the realm of the paranormal. Mr. Oddbooks is a computer programmer. He is a man ruled by the rational. And I am an atheist who to this day cannot really reconcile the idea that a spirit might have attached herself to us. For if I don’t believe in god, souls, or the afterlife, how could a benevolent soul have come into my life? I am to this day challenged theologically by what happened to us.

But it must be said that when we experienced paranormal activities, we did everything we could to explain them rationally. First, we determined we were still sane (relatively speaking). Then we checked air vents, made sure there was no gas leak, tested sound, determined if there was anything in our environment that could create specific odors. We determined whether or not neighbors were home when certain events occurred. We wondered if our home was accessible to a prankster. We even grilled each other. We mulled every possibility. We could never find an active cause for the activity. But more importantly, we never determined a passive cause for the activity. We never once felt the activities at night. We did not hear voices or smell odors as we were about to fall asleep. We did not waken in the night to be confronted by phenomena. All the events and things we experienced happened during the day, when we were awake and active. The events occurred in multiple dwellings. One of my experiences happened when I was surfing the web and I could have been in a borderline hypnagogic state. Other than that, we were always clear minded, awake, alert and physically active when the events occurred.

But because the experience was overwhelmingly positive, I don’t worry too much. The feeling we had after the events was of comfort, that the Universe is largely benevolent and that there was a force we could not understand that was looking out for us. This is a huge stretch, I know that, to assign such feelings to something we cannot explain, and this is a gray area for us. We ultimately decided that the sense that there was maybe a spirit looking out for us in no way affected our common sense or provoked us into to feeling anything but a warm sense of kindness. The experience did not lead us to think we are bulletproof nor did it cause us to alter our behavior so settling on the idea of a benevolent spirit in no way harms us but also in no way makes us feel powerful. Perhaps one could argue that false comfort is a bad thing but in this case I tend to disagree. So in a sense, it is easier for me than the people who feel they have been attacked or stalked by evil because it seems as if it may be less important to explain lovely experiences than those that terrify you. But having been in a position wherein I could not then (nor can I now) explain what happened, I have a decided preference for looking at all options and exhausting all possibilities before settling on the paranormal. I don’t think I’ll ever have an answer but I keep hoping I will one day and I think that desire to find some explanation is why I continue to read books like this, even when I suspect they will end up worrying me or making me laugh.

So if you have an interest in this sort of thing, you can do much worse than reading Offutt’s work. I think I will be checking out other titles from him. Here’s hoping your holidays are calm and free of malignant spirits, unless you are a Scrooge and need a Marley to come and set you right.

You Had Me At Woof by Julie Klam

This post originally appeared on I Read Everything

Book: You Had Me At Woof: How Dogs Taught Me the Secrets of Happiness

Author: Julie Klam

Type of Book: Non-fiction, memoir, book about animals

Why Did I Read This Book: I saw this book on an endcap at Borders and the dog on the cover just shouted out to me, “Buy this book, buy it now!” Googly-eyed animals suck me in every time. The dog on the cover reminded me of my long lost Daisy (her Christian name was Daisyheadmaisy), a bug-eyed cat who began my love for creatures with bulging eyes.

Availability: Published by Riverhead Books in 2010, you can get a copy here:

Comments: This is going to be one of those insufferable reviews wherein I process my reactions about a book using examples from my own life. In this case, I really can’t help it. While Klam is a dog-woman, I am a cat-lady and generally one would think the two might not have a lot in common. But a rescuer is a rescuer and people who love deeply creatures with googly eyes are cut from the same cloth, and that cloth is one that talks a lot about its experiences. It was fascinating to see the lessons Klam learned rescuing dogs and how they were at times eerily similar to the lessons I have learned, but I think the lesson that is the most universal is that loving animals makes you a better person. Yeah, there’s a lot more to this book than just that sappy reduction, but it just make me feel sort of warm inside to realize that my eventual impression that Klam is a good egg was further reinforced.

Klam rescues Boston terriers (I thought the little dogs were pugs of some variety but no, they are Boston terriers and I sort of want one now…) and in the course of rescuing dogs that were not well cared for, that were abandoned and had behavioral problems, she came to a lot of conclusions about her own life after interacting with the animals she saved.

Like me, Klam got her first real pet relatively later in life. Klam’s first Boston terrier, the love of her dog life named Otto, came into her life when she was 30. Well, Otto didn’t come into her life – she sought him out after a dream and Otto proved to be her animal soul mate. And while Klam says within six months of adopting Otto she grew up, I think rather that adopting Otto proved to her that she was far more capable of selflessness and responsibility than she thought, traits lacking in a lot of adults.

…I had practically restructured my life for Otto, without even realizing it. I didn’t order spicy foods because he couldn’t eat them, and I always ordered enough for two. If he got up during the night, I got up and took him out. If he had an accident on the floor, I gave him Pepto-Bismol. I never resented anything I had to do for him… It took time but my relationship with Otto made me realize that if you love someone, you’re more than willing to compromise to meet their needs–whether it be more nights of roast chicken than you would ordinarily choose, skipping an evening on the town, or not watching a television show with a barking dog.

My first real pet came to me when I was 24. Adolph, the most epic cat who ever lived. I had no idea how to care for him at first and fed him yucky food until he developed crystals in his urine. Even after I put him on a strict premium diet, I would give him small plates of whatever I was eating. I knew he didn’t want any, he knew he didn’t want any, but he needed to know he had the right to decide, and he always refused. I fashioned a bizarre pillow for him out of a half-empty kleenex box, or rather he took over the box when he realized he could set his head into it and nestle neatly into the kleenex. I was not as noble about cleaning his messes as Julie was with Otto as Adolph was a bad cat and frequently did very gross things on purpose – ask me one day why I cannot eat guacamole – but I too learned that if I could share a space with that cat and so quickly adjust my life in ways that seemed absurd, I was less set in my ways than I thought. I also came to understand that I was never likely to be a good mother – I am, in fact, far better with animals than people.

I loved reading Klam’s experiences with pet psychics and her attempts to determine if she could become a psychic herself. It was a thing of humorous beauty, but I admit I approached pet psychics after a rescue. You see, we couldn’t determine if Patchwork Sally’s kittens were still alive out in the nasty field where we found her (she was lactating when we grabbed her). The pet psychics all assured us they were dead but we found them all alive and that was when we really wished we could communicate with animals because that was a trapping mission that redefined frustration. But it was a nice comfort to know that another reasonably sane person wondered if she could indeed walk with the animals, talk with the animals. Klam’s lesson? It’s always a good idea to try new things because in trying to be an animal psychic, she learned she loved telling the stories. My lesson? I will always end up in a field during a Texas rainstorm searching for lost kittens even if verified psychics tell me not to bother.

Sadly, Otto passed away when Klam was pregnant. She later felt that Otto had been looking over her during her pregnancy, and I often felt like Adolph lasted longer than he should have because I descended into the weakest place in my life the last year he was alive. Immobilized by a leg break that exacerbated a prescription pill addiction, my husband and I spent a year in hell as I pulled myself out of the hole, and Adolph was my constant companion the entire time. I came back better and stronger than I could ever have hoped, and I always wondered if Adolph could sense we would be okay, that he didn’t need to stay here as the cord that held us together. Of course, I romanticize him at times, as did Klam with her Otto, as she searched through puppy pictures to see if maybe Otto was reincarnated in another dog. But luckily Julie found dogs who answered her emotions, dogs whose lives she made so much better. I already had rescued hundreds of cats before Adolph died, and had lost precious cats before he died so I guess I had a slight emotional advantage but like Klam and her Otto, I wonder if there will ever be another Adolph. The answer is no, but I still wonder (and hope) anyway.

And while I am not going to touch on all the lessons Klam learned because I think you should buy this book and read it for yourself, her experiences rescuing dogs with a rescue group closely mirrored the nonsense I encountered in my rescues. Owners who didn’t tell the unvarnished truth when surrendering animals, citing the continual “My kid has allergies!” excuse when really it was “I haven’t put an ounce of effort into training this animal/I resent even minimal vet expenses/I found an animal I like better/I procured this animal knowing I would need to change my lifestyle but am too much of an asshole to change/My boyfriend told me to get rid of it.” Oh yes, they promise to help with expenses and then you never hear from them again. Note to all who genuinely need to relinquish an animal for legitimate reasons: Irresponsible pet owners have ruined it for everyone. If you tell a rescue group that you will donate money to the cause, you will be surprised how quickly the group will respond, not out of greed but because I don’t know a single rescuer who has not spent so much money on animals that even a tiny donation given in earnest doesn’t make them feel like their efforts are at least appreciated.

So much of this book was a reminder to me of my own time in rescue: watching as Klam got her dog legs and learned how to negotiate with dogs that needed more help than others; reading as she suffers the heartbreaking loss that we all feel when we feel responsible for not doing enough to prevent harm from coming to our animals even though, as we all know, accidents happen; the deep bonds we develop with animals as we learn about their personalities and they learn about ours.

The part of the book that made me cry the hardest (and I began to cry when I read the dedication Klam makes to her husband because I too am married to a man who would never say no to an animal in need) was the chapter about Dahlia, an older dog for whom life had been very unkind, a dog who was not particularly attractive and whose personality seemed blunted.

There was something about her expression, her eyes, that reminded me of Migrant Mother, Dorthea Lange’s famous portrait of a farm laborer in the dust bowl of the Depression. The woman, Florence Owens Thompson, was thirty-two in the picture, but she looked to be in her mid-fifties. Maybe Dahlia was younger than she looked: maybe she’d been beaten down by life, too.

Yet, as Klam and her husband did not see the magic in Dahlia, their daughter Violet did.

I felt very sorry for Dahlia, but I wasn’t in love with her. But someone in the family was. Violet would sit by Dahlia in her bed, set up tea parties for the two of them, and sing long, made-up songs about Queen Dahlia and the magical fairies of the enchanted wood. She read Dahlia books and selected videos for Dahlia to watch. Paul and I looked on, trying to figure it out. Dahlia was the least charismatic animal either of us had ever come across and yet Violet saw her as the belle of the ball.

Kids are smart like that. But the reason Dahlia’s story resonated with me so well was because I knew what would happen the moment Klam mentioned that Dahlia’s tummy seemed bloated. The vet wanted a sample of Dahlia’s urine because they thought she had Cushing’s Disease. Yeah. The second Klam speculates maybe Dahlia is younger than she appears, we were on the right track, but then with a swollen belly? Oh yeah. You know what’s about to happen if you’ve been in the rescue game any length of time. Cue the puppies. Though when the inevitable started happening, Klam was sure it was Dahlia preparing to die. She woke in the middle of the night with a strong feeling Dahlia had died but instead found two little creatures in Dahlia’s bed. And like all of us who have had this scene go down in our homes, she realized that the vet in question was probably an idiot and that the trite saying that all life is a miracle is true, especially when it is unexpected life. Since Dahlia was an older dog, Klam also ended up doing that marvelous thing every rescuer will end up doing at some point – she bottle fed the puppies until Dahlia’s health was sorted out to the point that she could reliably nurse.

Then Klam did the thing that has most assuredly won her a place in the heaven where happy dogs go – she kept Dahlia together with her two puppies, Wisteria and Fiorello. Dahlia had likely had her babies wrenched from her in all her previous pregnancies yet despite her history and her age, had been a doting mother. The puppies were closely bonded. Klam wanted them to remain a family, an idea that many people dismiss, but having seen what happens when cats who are siblings or parents-offspring are permitted to remain together, often the bond is visible even to people who do not know the cats are related. Dahlia got to stay with her puppies until she died, and passed knowing her puppies were with people who love them. That seems like an extraordinarily sentimental and presumptive thing to say because who really knows what animals think? Except you do know. The instincts that drive humans drive animals too. They don’t want a flat-screen TV or the latest smart phone, but like humans, animals want their offspring safe and happy.

This all reminded me of pretty Sweetness, a cat who surprised us with stealth kittens. She had been a stray in Dallas. My mother fed her and begged me to come and get her when Sweetness showed up with a litter of kittens. So we drove four hours one way in a poorly air conditioned truck in the Texas summer and fetched Sweetness and her kittens (well, four were hers – mom, in her zeal, grabbed a completely unrelated kitten who was at least four weeks younger than Sweetness’ other kittens). Sweetness’s kittens went to the Austin Humane Society and found a home, but since Sweetness had not finished lactating yet, we held onto her for a couple of weeks. We would get her spayed, then take her so she could get a new home, too.

Sweetness was a large, strange girl. She liked humans but loathed all cats, even her own children once they became old enough to qualify as cats. She mostly wanted to be left alone. She over groomed her stomach, she sounded cranky, she looked cranky. We felt she would be happier in a home without other cats. We made the spay appointment with our vet (whom I also later judged to be a moron), but the appointment got screwed up and we brought her home, intact. We rescheduled the appointment in two weeks and before that date came, we noticed Sweetness was resembling a bowling pin. Surely not. Surely we had not transported a pregnant cat across county lines. But we had. She gave birth before the spay appointment came due and gave birth to the most superlative litter of kittens I have ever known. We kept the runt, Clementine, because she seemed fragile and because the Humane Society was up to their eyeballs in black kittens, and the rest went to the Humane Society. I still miss The Goose and Portnoy. But after that litter, Sweetness made it known to us that she wouldn’t mind staying if we would leave her alone, so we did and she would come to see us periodically for attention, then would slink off to her hiding places. She proved to be so nervous that we knew being at a shelter would have made her miserable and would have broken her odd spirit.

Sweetness could be kind to her grown baby but she mostly wanted to be left alone and her reclusiveness made it hard to know when she was ill. She developed renal failure and passed way in 2009. And while she never really liked the other cats, she was a part of their extended family. In fact, it was Tabby-mama, dancing around outside whatever room Sweetness was in, that alerted us to her being ill. Tabby was bereft when Sweetness died. We all were. But we took a certain amount of comfort knowing that all of her babies, including her foster kitten, all went to wonderful homes and that her silly girl Clementine is here reminding us of her, for like her mother, she has no use for other cats and is extremely nervous. But that didn’t stop Tabby-mama from tailing her for days after Sweetness died to make sure Clementine would be okay without her mother.

Also, Sweetness smelled like Fritos, as did Klam’s beloved Otto. One of many little cross-species coincidences. In one scene, Klam describes picking up her dog Moses and singing Cole Porter’s “Cheek to Cheek” as she danced with him. We sing a very bastardized version of this song to Noodle, our most defective cat.

Noodle, you’re my Noodle,
And I love you so much I can hardly speak.
‘Cause you’ve got too many toes on your four feet. (Alternate last line: Even though you have a tendency to leak.

And clearly, like Klam, I like telling the stories from my Island of Misfit Cats.

This was just a great book, pure and simple. I loved as Klam discussed the people she worked with to rescue dogs, the merely whackadoodle and the outright creepy and negligent, yet she never became shrill and overly judgmental. I loved reading as her family negotiated their way around new dogs, and how the dogs reacted to one another. I was especially grateful that Klam didn’t sugar coat the fact that some of the dogs just weren’t… her kind of dogs. But that never stopped her from doing her best for them, and that is how it should be. Klam respected deeply the individual dignity of each dog she encountered, beginning as a neurotic mother to Otto and becoming a source of salvation to Dahlia.

That she very clearly tells stories that will resonate with all animal lovers should be clear from the amount of remembrances she evoked from me. This book, humorous and touching, bordering on sentimental in a way that makes sentimental work without cloying stickiness, was simply amazing. I read it in one sitting. I think you should read this book and then maybe go volunteer at your local SPCA or rescue groups and then tell the stories of the animals you meet. See what lessons you learn and how they correspond to Klam’s. I tend not to read heartwarming books but I am very glad I read this one.

A Mind Apart by Susanne Antonetta

This post originally appeared on I Read Everything

Book: A Mind Apart: Travels in a Neurodiverse World

Author: Susanne Antonetta

Type of Book: Non-fiction, psychology, genetics, eugenics

Why Did I Read This Book: As a person who buys books with an almost indiscriminate abandon, I often find books on my “to-be-read” shelves and have little memory of buying them so I am unsure what initially drew me to this book. I read it after I found it when I was searching for a completely unrelated book. I tend to like narratives about mental illness so that was likely why I bought this book.

Availability: Published by Penguin Group in 2007, you can get a copy here:

Comments: Sigh… I think my love of books about mental illness and interesting mental states is pretty well established even though I have not been running this particular book site for even a year yet. I tend to cut books on these topics a lot of slack because people who have unique mental states also have a unique approach to writing. Sometimes you have to dig deep to come away with gems in such books, dealing with odd narrative streams or difficult prose, but more often than not gems are there. I suspect that for many Antonetta’s book has some gems, but overall, I found her narrative not worth all the digging. The structure of the book was often disjointed and rambling to the point that I found myself reading out loud in order to force myself to pay attention, and also to give the words some additional clarity. And worse, I often had no idea, even after reading aloud and concentrating deeply, what it was that Antonetta was trying to convey.

None of this should have been a surprise to me, really, because the first paragraph in the preface tells the reader very clearly that this is not a book written with us in mind, that this is a book that simply exists in its own right and it is our duty to make sense of it however we can.

I am asked, What is this book. And I want to say, Books are like children. They are what they are because they are not something else.

I find this to be the worst sort of speciousness. I suspect this may seem overly harsh, but everything is what it is because it is not something else. Evidently, the appallingly ugly light fixture in my dining room is like a child because it is what is is because it is not something else. And I guess I can say a disjointed, unclear book is a disjointed, unclear book because it is not a well-organized, coherent narrative?

Antonetta, a woman self-described with bipolar disorder, finds comfort discussing aspects of her mental illness with friends and those relationships sustain her. This is not a memoir of mental illness, though the approach is intensely personal and often involves a lot about Antonetta and those she knows. Rather, it is a book that makes assertions about the natural selection involved in mental illness, how the mentally ill may be responsible for shaping a surprising amount of the world, and that any genetic attempts to eliminate people who have mental disorders, autism or similar – the neurodiverse minds among us – could be disastrous for the entire world.

Yet despite this being a book with such a specific theme, the personal descriptions and her personal life were a large part of the book and the descriptions of her mind and the minds of her neurodiverse friends bordered on exotica. Though this is definitely, as Antonetta explains, “a book about different kinds of minds,” it is also a book about minds that call out to be understood in a way that eludes this book. I often felt underwater reading, as so much is hurled at the reader without a context outside of the ideas in Antonetta’s head. Little she says helps enable us to put these unique minds she knows in a thoughtful perspective. For example:

I e-mail N’Lili–who’s a many-head, or a man with different people inside him–up to three or four times a day. They are married to my cousin. I write them separately and together: in response they might say THIS IS US OR THIS IS VICKI OR ANNIE ASKED ME TO ASK YOU SOMETHING, LOVE PEG. WE ARE CHILDREN, they say, though they live in an adult male body

Then there is this:

[Discussing an e-mail with a friend who has Asperger’s] We talk like this a lot. Do you feel the number five is brown? Can you hold it when it comes to you, unassuming in its brownness? How does everyone resist the lusciousness of others’ minds, moving around us, with us, all the time, like a gallery of veiled art.

I think that Antonetta’s approach to her neurodiversity and the neurodiversity of others is a lovely trait. She sees neurodiversity as something that is necessary in life, possibly a function of evolution, providing necessary differing mindsets important to the arts and sciences. But part of this makes me nervous because for every person like N’Lili who functions and embraces his or her dissociative disorder as a form of neurodiversity, there is a woman like my roommate in psych lockdown who is jumping from one consciousness to the other, in a state of terror, unable to work, fearing homelessness and further alienation from her family. For every person who wonders if five is brown, there are people for whom mental illness, or neurodiversity, is a nightmare from which they will never wake.

I know Antonetta knows this fact. She has suffered and still does. And I’m glad she came out the other side with this sort of mindset. But I think I resent the idea that mental illness is a “lusciousness” because for many of us, mental illness is not an evolutionary step in natural selection but is a condition that drags us down and keeps us down. I assert that there is no “normal” mind, and we all have to find our own path through mental illness. But for me, mental illness has prevented me from doing what I want in the world, not served as alternative to regular thinking that enhanced the world around me. I suspect most people who have walked this path tell stories similar to mine.

But it is an interesting thought, that neurodiverse people, exhibit a form of natural selection. That people in the autism spectrum may be uniquely suited to the sciences. That bipolars show an amazing tendency toward producing art and literature. In fact, neurodiverse people may have played some key roles in developing the modern world.

Different minds create new memes, as necessary for the freshening of culture as new genetic combinations are vital to the freshening of the species. Bipolars–“restless and unquiet,” as one correspondent put it–may have helped with the spread of human culture, migrating frequently and often into new territories

Not entirely sure if I buy that but I also don’t know enough evolutionary psychology to argue with it. It’s hard to argue with the idea that diverse mental states create excellent art. It’s almost a cliché. But it’s true in a lot of respects, and Antonetta states outright that she sees the gifts as well as the challenges of mental illness and I respect that. But the examples she gives of bipolar artists is mostly a list of the damned.

The painter van Gogh was bipolar, as were Virginia Woolf, Georgia O’Keefe, Sylvia Plath, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Gioacchino Rossini and hundreds of other artists.

“Spring and Fall, to a Young Child” is one of my favorite poems and it contains the line from poetry I quote most often in my life: “It is the blight man was born for, It is Margaret you mourn for.” But would you really have wanted to have lived Hopkins’ life, with his manias that caused him to dehydrate himself to the point of illness, the deep unipolar horrors that he faced most of his short life? Would you really have wanted to live the lives of either Plath or Woolf, with the anorexia, the suicide attempts, the rages, the final desperations? It is a subjective point, to be sure, that such suffering is worth the art it creates, but who really would have wanted to be Sylvia Plath, alone, terrified, angry and willing to die, tucking towels under the door and opening windows in the childrens’ room so they wouldn’t inhale the gas? I am reluctant to grace mental illness with any sort of sanctity because while we get to enjoy the fruit borne from madness, the lives of those whose minds burned them out are often nothing any of us would want. Yes, I wish there was a cure for all mental illness and I know the best most of us can do is cope however we decide to cope, but I am uneasy as hell as seeing the bright side to any of this. “Yay, we got some poems before Plath gassed herself!” is not the way I want to look at this possible form of natural selection. That the world benefited from the sufferings of Ernest Hemingway, Anne Sexton, Abbie Hoffman and Edgar Allan Poe is, for many of us, a cold comfort when we realize we know how much misery they felt.

And this is a side note to this book but as a writer who lost my spark after years of struggle, depression and despair, I can tell you emphatically that being alive is better overall than writing my old brand of disturbing fiction. Perhaps I lacked talent and that is why I do not mourn my lost gifts, but I often fear that people who need treatment and can benefit from it won’t try because there is a party line that to be creative is to suffer and to risk pills means risking the spark to create. I have no idea if madness spawns great art – there have certainly been enough artists who were not mad – but the idea that it does sanctifies what seems like unnecessary suffering.

And as engaging as I found parts of this book, it began to slowly fall apart in subsequent chapters. Points are made over and over in different chapters, the focus of the chapters were at time fuzzy and at other times, Antonetta’s logic made no sense to me at all. For example, Antonetta follows the trial of a teenage neighbor who killed another little boy and we spend a lot of time reading about her reactions to the whole thing – the murdered child’s parents, the absence of support for the defendant and other musings that didn’t really play much into what I thought was the thesis of this book – the positive benefits of natural selection for forms of mental illness and the need to accept the neurodiverse without condemnation.

She relates to the testimony of how unkempt the defendant was, seeing parallels between his lack of self-care and her own. She feels a sense of sadness that the only person the defendant, Kyle, likely loved was his grandfather. But then she hits us with this:

What we had, with my neighbor Kyle’s tucked chin, cartoonish face: a boy who collected enough weapons to power a desert army and rare poisons, who taught himself as a teenager how to do a particular type of autopsy peculiar to the East Coast, studied Nazi killing, all with the intent to kill a child. My child as easily as anyone’s, I imagine, half a mile from his house.

What we had to explain him: ADHD; possibly poor parenting; possibly too little touch; a personality disorder that no doubt hundreds of thousands of people have; evil.

Then we have this:

…Kyle stands as a koan or theological knot unto himself, but he’s like one of those theologies that tell you that trying to understand the nature of the Trinity is like trying to carry the ocean with a small bucket, so I can’t go any farther than this; as Augustine said of evil, “Do not seek to know more than is appropriate.”

It is impossible to have had my mental health history and not read every book on the topic with intensity. So perhaps the average person may not have the incredibly visceral reaction I did to these passages. I try not to use the word evil because it is often a cop-out, an easy way to dismiss the need to understand things that are hard to comprehend. That Antonetta, who wants understanding of the lusciousness of the foreign mind, the mind that is not like others, yet approaches the issue of extreme mental illness and psychopathic fixations that led to murder with the word evil filled me with despair. The complex mind cuts both ways. If we are to accept the art and science that comes from neurodiverse minds, then we must make ourselves understand the destruction that comes from them, too. The madness that creates a body of literary work and the madness that causes one child to murder another are different sides of the same coin and you cannot spend one side without spending the other, and cheap words like evil to comprehend difficult situations do no one any good.

This book is not wholly without redemption. Though I clearly have taken exception to Antonetta’s use of the word luscious when describing chaotic minds, I always love accounts of how people with minds like mine describe what is going on with them. Some of her descriptions of her head resonate with me.

It’s a noisy, busy place in my head, at least most of the time.

Right now my mind’s in a phase of of furiously narrating in a you voice: you’d better put that back in the refrigerator, you need to try to sleep now. It’s kind of irritating, like having a mad mother on the inside of your ear. It doesn’t bother me much, any more than a cat who won’t stop meowing might. Minds, in my experience, are messy, loud places.

The type of discord in her mind is different than mine, but I am familiar with the sort of head that never stops talking to itself.

However, it’s interesting to me the sort of disconnect present in this book. Antonetta’s main theme of this book seems to be to discuss how people who are neurodiverse should be accepted as a positive force by those who find them foreign. Yet she seems shocked when a reviewer on Amazon comments that Dawn, a friend of Antonetta’s who wrote a book about her autism, seems utterly foreign. Antonetta says:

How strange to think of Dawn and me and all of our kin as aliens, as a different kind of human being, as if we’ve branched off like Neanderthals, or the hominids who lived 18,000 years ago and were nicknamed the hobbit people.

Surely Antonetta understands that neurotypical minds see people with autism, bipolar or unipolar disorder, or any kind of mental illness, to be alien. Isn’t discussing the ways that the neurodiverse differ from others one of the main themes in this book. Antonetta goes on tangents like this often, seemingly disingenuous to me. As I read over Antonetta’s tales of her youth, her journals, her reminiscences of the girl she once was, I felt odd with some of her statements in this book because it seems she was hyper aware of every terrible thing that her mind did to her, that she had plenty of language to discuss her turmoil even as a teen, she was completely aware how different she was from others around her, even from her own parents. So why the surprise that she and others like her are misunderstood and seen as the other by those with “normal” brains?

I think I lack a certain depth at times because I am rabidly unconcerned with how I became the person I am. I don’t care if I am this way because I inherited just the wrong genes, because evolution needs people like me, or if I was spoiled environmentally, and this lack of depth is why books like this annoy me more than they should. However, my distaste for investigating my own mental origins aside, this had the potential to be a very interesting book, discussing some thorny and fascinating topics. It just got too garbled in the execution. Antonetta’s presentation is all over the map, with ground already covered being covered again and again in a fragmented manner, with inconsistent conclusions, and far too much time dithering over “whither” when her fears for the future and conclusions seemed faulty to me. Her at times fey writing style was also not to my tastes. I don’t regret reading this book but I don’t think I will ever read it again. It was a lot of work to figure out what Antonetta was driving at, and I was left with a book that did not have much resonance with me when I finished it.

A Wolf at the Table by Augusten Burroughs

This post originally appeared on I Read Everything

Book: A Wolf at the Table: A Memoir of My Father

Author: Augusten Burroughs

Type of Book: Non-fiction, memoir

Why Did I Read This Book: Because I quite like Augusten Burroughs. Full stop.

Availability: Published by Picador, you can get a copy here:

Comments: I put off reading this book because there was a mild, teeny-tiny literary kerfuffle when A Wolf at the Table was released. Some critics took exception to a scene in the book wherein there is a violent outburst between Burroughs’ father and his older brother. Burroughs remembers bringing his brother a gun and begging him to kill their father. Some people felt this scene was created from whole cloth, and brought up some evidence to back their belief. Evidently, Burroughs exaggerated some scenes from his book Dry. He admits to making up a terminally ill woman who was doing her best to die sober. It raised all the usual thorny subjects about memoirs, the name James Frey was invoked and it was disheartening.

Then Augusten Burrough’s older brother, who wrote his own book about his life with Asperger’s, explained it for everyone. You see, the fight did happen. The conflict was real. And little Augusten did come to him with a gun – a pellet or bb gun, and begged him to shoot their father. In the eyes of a child, it was a life or death conflict and Augusten was telling truth as he understood it as the child who experienced the trauma. Other issues of veracity came up with the book, but all of them are issues I understand and can explain myself, so I am unsure why critics didn’t clue in. Maybe they all had really good childhoods.

I think that the debacles many avid readers experienced with J.T. Leroy and James Frey have caused a lot of people to reject the idea of a subjective truth. We want the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth without remembering that a robotic recitation of objective truth can at some times be impossible and that the subjective truth is often all that matters when you are reading about a person’s life. I hope this desire to force all memoirs to come from a place of universal knowledge and total recall ends soon. Regardless, the brouhaha, even though it was resolved, made me put off reading this book longer than I should have. I guess I feared that there might be some tiny part of the book that would not seem subjectively true to me and I love Augusten Burroughs. I felt it risky to read this book lest I find some egregious fault with him.

That certainly was not the case, as it turned out. This book was utterly true to me even down to the smallest details. Like the rotting deck. The sick animals that never got treatment. The alienation and loneliness punctuated by violent and psychotic melodrama. All of this is true to me because even now, as an adult, I know that things that seemed like a threat when I was a child were probably no more than tense minutes, but the child who perceived it all is still in me and resents the everloving hell out of anyone who dares suggest that it wasn’t that bad or that I am misremembering. I should have read this book and responded to it much sooner.

Because I often respond very personally to the books I discuss here, it probably won’t be a surprise to regular readers if I do it again. I feel very comfortable talking about the time when I went psychotic and had to go to inpatient lockdown. I openly discuss my prescription pill addiction that almost destroyed my marriage and could have cost me my life had I not been very lucky. I talk about my life as an adult with a candor that I worry will hamstring me terribly should I ever again need a day job. But I find it very difficult to speak in detail about my childhood.

Mostly, I have a hard time discussing it because nothing ever changed much and it is a topic that can get boring – human misery is a jail and not much happens in day-to-day life in jail. I also tended to block a lot of things, living in my mind and I can’t recall what it felt like to be a child alone and without recourse the way many writers can. I also think much of my childhood is still humiliating to me so I prefer not to recall it in lots of detail. But mostly, I don’t talk about it because I have some half-brothers out there somewhere. We know we all exist but beyond that we know nothing much about each other, and if they ever Google me and find my book reviews, I don’t want the first things they find out about me to be the graphic details of the depths of my loathing for our late father.

But unless I simply say, “Hey read this book because I say so!” I don’t know if I can discuss this book unless the memory of my own father is invoked because while the details are different, the emotions and reactions Burroughs revealed in this book were dangerously close to some of my own.

Augusten Burroughs’ father John was a college professor who seemed well-liked by his peers. However, his family knew a far different man. He terrorized his wife. He terrorized his son. He treated family pets with a psychopathic disregard for their pain. He didn’t like his son even talking in his presence. He turned his son’s life into a living hell, likely exacerbated the mental illness his wife suffered from, and generally behaved in a predictably unpredictable manner. The only thing one could expect when reading this book was that John would continually do things that seem unthinkable and sickeningly bizarre to people who are unfamiliar with abusive sociopaths.

My father wore the same mask that Augusten Burroughs’ father wore. I recall reading critics who felt that Burroughs was stretching the truth about the description of his father. John had severe psoriasis that caused his skin to be red and flaky, making him bleed through his clothes. He had a mouth full of rotting teeth. His overall appearance to Augusten was repellent and fearsome, but some wondered how it was a man who looked so terrible could hold a job in academia, as if academia doesn’t harbor some very strange physical specimens. I can recall too the extremity of my own father’s appearance and that never once cost him a job or hindered his work life.

Indeed, it seems impossible to anyone who has never known a sociopath that they could be so dreadful in action or even appearance yet thrive and paint a picture of themselves that utterly defies what those close to them understand about them. Burroughs explains this mask very well.

I thought of the few times we’d gone to the university together and how he’d taken me around and introduced me to his colleagues. He’d seemed like such a dad that I’d wondered what was wrong with me to always feel so suspicious of him. I remembered thinking how, in the light of day out in the world, my father was just like anybody’s father. But as soon as I was alone with him again, Dad was gone and dead was there in his place.

Even if Burroughs recalls some of the details of his life with his father through the lenses of a child or an unreliable narrator, this bafflement of a child who wonders why the clerk at the supermarket gets a charming, polite dad but the kid gets a nasty, bitter, cruel dad reads utterly true to me.

Burroughs also conveys very well the shrill, brittle tendency that children emotionally abandoned by parents experience, that horrific need for kindness and concern that, if left unchecked, can result in us becoming pests to those who give us crumbs of kindness.

I was just not accustomed to large, grown people asking me if I wanted to share in what they were doing. The moment had been thrilling. I had to run away, because there existed the very real danger that I would run to him, leap right up into his arms, and smother him with kisses, like some icky girl. Fleeing had been an act of self-preservation, not shyness in this case.

I think, in some ways, this passage explains why I am a hermit. Because even as an adult with a happy marriage, I feel a strange chasm in me that I know will never be filled. I often think I keep people at an arm’s length because I fear I will show too much need or will reveal too much about myself via thoughtless enthusiasm. You can recover from a terrible childhood, but no matter how much therapy you receive, no matter how much you genuinely change, there is a fine web of emotional distress that covers you from head to toe and which shows itself at odd and sometimes embarrassing moments.

This entire book is filled with quotes that were statements full of “aha!” for me because they had kernels of truth to them about my own condition and the contents of my mind.

…I never smiled when I was alone. Why would I?

Very few unhappy children smile much unless they have a parent whom such smiles placated. Nothing annoyed my father worse than the sight of me smiling and I grew into an adult who never smiled much until I began to shake off the emotional detritus my father left behind.

People believe in God because they can’t face being alone. It didn’t scare me to think of being alone in the world. It scared me that I wasn’t.

It was a comfort to read this particular bit. I always wondered why, in a family of believers, I ended up an atheist. I suspect this may be as good an explanation as any. I like being alone, my husband’s company being the main exception. Aloneness suits me. I used to feel sick when my father came home from work as his presence meant walking on eggshells, it meant being unable to make noise, it meant not being able even to chew in a manner that he found acceptable. I spent all my time in my room when I was a child, reading, staying out of the way. It became a habit, all the reading and all the quiet. Now I can be alone with no worries of my mental peace being interrupted. I think God or god or deity of any kind would disturb my hard won solitude.

The prospect of a family vacation created extreme anxiety in Augusten, an anxiety that rings all too familiar to me.

I developed a rank, metallic taste in my mouth, always the precursor to illness. My throat felt raw, like I’d been howling. And my joints ached, skin tender to the touch.

Sickness was how my body responded to anxiety.

Oh god, do I ever know what this means. I came to understand that I am not a hypochondriac, which is what I thought I was for many years. I finally now understand that the crushing anxiety that plagued me as a little girl and which still plagues me now knows more than I do. It knows when I can handle situations and when I cannot. So when I cannot cope, my anxiety thoughtfully makes me sick. Severe headaches, stomach cramps, body aches, general malaise. Anxiety shuts me down. It happens less and less as I get older but as Mr. Everything can attest, it still happens. The force of anxiety cannot be ignored. It can give you fevers. It can make your throat so sore you feel like you have strep. It protects you, in an abusive, sick way. I think once I no longer get sick when I feel upset, I will know the claws of the past no longer are running themselves down my skin.

There is an anger so powerful that the fist must go through the wall. It is not humanly possible to contain or manage this kind of anger.

Yet there is a kind of anger that goes beyond even this. Where you are lifted so high by your fury that for an instant you hover, suspended; the fist does not go through the wall. You hold your breath and wait, you hang, you float. This is where I found myself and I laughed.

And I continued to laugh.

And again, anyone who has seen me collapse laughing when things have gotten as bad as they can get may now know why. Because you get to the point to where not even the catharsis of violence will save you. All you can do is laugh the howling laugh of the damned. That Augusten Burroughs knows this, I think, leaves me with little doubt that he experienced everything in this book, filtered through the eyes of a frightened child, the haze of an alcoholic adult, and the gaze of a man who has hopefully transcended the past.

I think this is a fine book but I have no idea if you should read it or not. If you don’t know what I know, maybe it won’t be worth it to you. Because I think, at its heart, this is less a memoir for me than a book of kinship, a description of what it is like to be small and terrified, held in thrall to a mentally ill and at times despicable parent, to never feel peace, to watch creatures you love die (or in my case disappear entirely without a trace) and have nothing you can do about any of it. I felt a great connection with Burroughs, as if finally there might be a person on this planet who could hear the story of my own life and nod and not pepper me with questions as they tried to understand how a man can be a monster to his family and a kind, a polite family man to strangers.

My Booky Wook by Russell Brand

This post originally appeared on I Read Everything

Title: My Booky Wook: A Memoir of Sex, Drugs and Stand-Up

Author: Russell Brand

Type of Book: Non-fiction, memoir, drug abuse

Why Did I Read This Book: Because Mr. Everything and I went to see Get Him to the Greek and loved it. Also, someone somewhere told me that given my grudging (borderline psychotic, actually) affection for the late Sebastian Horsley, Brand’s memoir would be up my alley. Then a friend online revealed her mother was reading My Booky Wook when she passed away due to brain cancer (true story). So yeah, I had to read it.

Availability: Published by HarperCollins in 2009, you can get a copy here:

Comments: Increasingly I find myself questioning my decision to review all the books I read. Because I read voraciously and indiscriminately, I often find myself discussing books that were neither amazing enough to praise nor terrible enough to lampoon. Middling books that were entertaining enough when I read them but really meant little other than the entertainment they offered during the moments as I was reading them are hard to discuss. I mean, I guess I could become a reviewer who routinely just tosses 500 words or so out there and calls it a day but why bother. There are hundreds of sites like that already. And my will to go on at length forbids such brevity. But it’s problematic even beyond not knowing what to say because when I can’t find much to discuss, I put off writing and the books stack up. So it’s a quandry. If I don’t review everything, I’ll take it easy on myself and just review when I want to and if I force myself to review everything I procrastinate. Maybe I just need to man up. I don’t know

(I do know I will not review another Stieg Larrson book even though I love them all and want to discuss them. The search strings that led some people to my review of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo filled me with angst and loathing. I almost want to take the review down so that when I check my site stats I don’t have to see how it is that people never stop trying to rake the dead over the coals.)

Anyway, My Booky Wook is not as annoying as Dandy in the Underworld. Brand can turn a phrase very well. At times he is clever. And he does not openly embrace a lack of substance and wallow in nihilism. He doesn’t seem like he is a rip-off of someone else. It doesn’t suck. But overall, it’s a biography about Russell Brand. I mean, he’s entertaining and all, but he’s a comedian who had a drug and sex problem. He likes bosomy women. He did some really terrible things as an addict and owns it in his amusing way. It is what it is. If you find yourself stuck in an airport for a 5-hour layover and this book is for sale at one of news stands, you should definitely buy this before you buy the latest thriller or horror title. Honestly, this isn’t an amazing book but you won’t regret reading it. But if asked to write a substantive review for your online review site, you may find yourself saying very little in a whole lot of words.

Okay, synopsis: Brand is born. His parents separate. His mom has cancer twice. His dad is a cad. He loathes his stepfather. He is an obnoxious kid using obnoxiousness to shield his tender heart and he grows into an obnoxious adult. He flounders in University. He develops drug problems. He has issues with what in the old days was called sexual continence. He gets a job with MTV and goes from obnoxious to insufferable. He goes to rehab. He pulls himself together. The end.

While this book is not going to be a classic memoir – truly, there is no danger of it surpassing the memoirs of Nabokov, Fox, Dickens or Orwell – Brand has a brave capacity of knowing himself and showing himself at his worst. There are moments in the book wherein you finally understand some of what makes Brand an interesting man outside of his appalling hair. He certainly doesn’t pull any punches with what he chooses to present about himself and as a person who is a notorious head case in my own right, I can appreciate this. And at times, he has a startling depth to his words, and I say startling because having listened to interviews with him, he didn’t initially strike me as a man with hidden depths. But he has them and he presents them very well.

For instance, he summarizes the compelling force behind most comedians – that sense of being a complete loser and adopting a clown persona to compensate:

This is… the reason why stand-up comedy is the perfect career for me. Not just because I’m constantly scribbling notes inside my own mind to deal with the embarrassment I perpetually feel, but also because I’m always observing, always outside. It’s a perfectly natural dynamic for me to stand alone in front of thousands of people and tell ’em how I feel. The fact that I’ve managed to make it funny is bloody convenient, because I can’t think how else I would make them listen.

His thoughts on the driving forces behind addiction were also not only surprising coming from a man with such dreadful hair, but were also eloquent and right on the nose.

All of us, I think, have a vague idea that we’re missing something. Some say that thing is God; that all the longing we feel–be it for a lover, or a football team, or a drug–is merely an inappropriate substitute for the longing we’re supposed to feel for God, for oneness, for truth. And what heroin does really successfully is objectify that need…

It makes you feel lovely and warm and cozy. It gives you a great, big, smacky cuddle, and from then on the idea of need is no longer an abstract thing, but a longing in your belly and a kicking in your legs and a shivering in your arms and sweat on your forehead and a dull pallor on your face. At this point you’re no longer under any misapprehension about what it is that you need: you don’t think, “Nice to have a girlfriend, read a poem or ride a bike,” you think, “Fuck, I need heroin.”

Brand’s ability to mix humor into the darkest of his discoveries was nice. In this passage, he is discussing a therapy program while he was in sex rehab:

In the next program, “Wanky-Wanky,” we addressed the subject of sexuality. As the title suggests, this episode was a little more juvenile than its immediate predecessors, but still interesting nonetheless. The question was, “Is your sexuality constructed by environment and experience or is it innate?” I examined this issue by wanking a man off in a toilet. In conclusion, your sexuality is innate.

He then goes on to recount a sexual encounter he engaged in for a television program he was working for at the time – I can’t recall if it was MTV or not. Regardless, he ended up in a bathroom stall with a pretty foul man while the whole awkward, smelly thing was recorded by a camera crew. It was funny, Brand’s description, but it also created a mental parallel for me, however inappropriately, with scenes Peter Sotos described in Selfish, Little. Oh yes, Brand reaches completely different conclusions about jerking off old, fat men in public toilets, but the sense of darkness, degeneracy and a life out of control in the worst sort of way resonated nonetheless.

Brand also understands and explains well why addiction may serve a purpose above and beyond that which degrades us:

For all the damage it had enabled me to do to myself and my career, heroin had also provided a degree of sanctuary. Marianne Faithfull once said that heroin had saved her, because she was suicidal and it kept her alive.

And don’t I ever know that feeling, that as bad as things had become, they could have been so much worse.

I think I’ll leave this review with a quote from the beginning of the book, another stinger in which Brand expresses himself not elegantly but humorously and with a lot of clarity:

…I realized that the outer surface of what I thought was my unique, individual identity was just a set of routines. We all have an essential self, but if you spend every day chopping up meat on a slab, and selling it by the pound, soon you’ll find you’ve become a butcher. And if you don’t want to become a butcher (and why would you?), you’re going to have to cut right through to the bare bones of your own character in the hope of finding out who you really are. Which bloody hurts.

So… All in all, it’s a memoir by Russell Brand, a man who essentially gets paid in movies to behave as he once did, which may require a lot of skill. I don’t know. As I recited back these quotes, I realized that I don’t understand why I am not giving this book an unreserved hurrah. I think you can do a lot worse than read this book. But maybe it’s because I don’t feel a lot of connection to Brand. Maybe you need a closer affinity to the person writing words that offer redemption, even if it is redemption mixed with spitting at hookers, heroin, manic insanity and lots of humor. Maybe that’s it. I just don’t think I feel Brand. That’s not his fault and this is a good book despite my lack of connection.

Also, Russell Brand loved and was inspired by Bill Hicks, and no matter how much of an asshole his drug addiction made him, loving Bill Hicks makes anyone a good egg. Brand is a good but irritating egg. So, I feel okay saying that this is a good book to read and I may read the next book out there by Brand. I’ve read books for worse reasons than that the author liked Bill Hicks. I think we all have.

The Covert War Against Rock by Alex Constantine

This post originally appeared on I Read Odd Books

Book: The Covert War Against Rock

Author: Alex Constantine (and yeah, I am submerged in his site right now, reading about Duncan and Blake – brb after I have fallen off the deep end entirely)

Type of Book: Rock and roll, conspiracy theory

Why Do I Consider This Book Odd: It posits unusual theories about the deaths of famous rock stars.

Availability: Published by Feral House in 2000, you can get a copy here:

Comments: Okay, by now, if you’ve spent any time reading here, you’ll know I am highly skeptical of much conspiracy theory despite the fact that I can’t ever read enough about it. Yet, even as a skeptic, I have a conspiratorial bent to me, depending on how much my belief is beggared. I think there was a covert CIA plot to kill JFK. The more and more I read about the death of RFK, the more uneasy I am about whether or not Sirhan Sirhan acted alone and if his current mental state is due to organic schizophrenia. So embracing such ideas means that a little part of me believes that elements of the American government could want specific celebrities dead. And while some of this book seemed unlikely to me, some of it that hit my belief-o-meter. I’ll need to read more and research more before I can completely buy into some of this content, but there was a lot of information in this book that had the ring of truth to it.

I was surprised at how much of this I knew before reading this book – I’ve clearly absorbed more conspiracy than I thought. Very little of it was new, yet I am surprised by my reactions at the parts that were new to me. I mean, I always suspected there was much more behind the deaths of Bob Marley and Peter Tosh than just cancer and a gun shot, respectively. I mean, when the CIA decides to destabilize an entire country, it isn’t too much to believe that they would also take steps to assassinate reggae musicians who, through their charisma and music, were overt leaders against American political control. Did Bob Marley really get cancer via a copper wire put in boots given to him by the son of a head of the CIA? I tend to think maybe not, but then again, I also live in a world where dissidents get killed via ricin in an umbrella gun.

But the part of this book that was the most new to me was the section about Tupac Shakur. I recall clearly when he died but I thought little of it. He had seemed like a gangsta to me and gangstas sometimes get shot. I didn’t (and mostly still don’t) listen to rap and knew little about the man, to be honest, but the media portrayal of him painted a picture that substituted itself for real information about the man and his death. Constantine’s research into Shakur’s death revealed a completely different picture of Shakur for me, and pointed to very sound reasons why there might have been a conspiracy to kill him. That Shakur was the heir apparent to an activist family, one of whom escaped from prison and defected to Cuba, the way the shooting occurred, the seeming lack of police attempts to solve the murder, all make it seem as if there were some sort of conspiracy to kill Tupac and obfuscate the investigation.

Aside from the belief that Mama Cass Elliot may have been the victim of government-sponsored assassination, there was not a single case in this book that I could say, “Pants!” to (Cass Elliot died of an undetected heart defect, nothing more, nothing less). Whether or not you think the government killed John Lennon, Phil Ochs, Jimi Hendrix or Jim Morrison, Constantine raises interesting questions about time lines, government interest in these performers and details that were blurry then and blurrier now. (Actually, I did invoke underpants when I read Constantine refer to Donald Bains’ The CIA’s Control of Candy Jones. I found the book so lacking in anything approaching proof that I didn’t even want to keep the book once I discussed it here. Candy Jones was a victim of her own sad mind and the utter incredulity of Long John Nebel, not the MK-Ultra program or the CIA or anything else.)

Of all these deaths presented in this book, it was Michael Hutchence’s that affected me the most. Born in 1970, neatly sandwiched between the deaths of Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin, I was too young to be as interested when most of the stars in this book died, or, in some cases, I was not alive yet. But INXS was a band I adored as an adolescent and young adult. I recall seeing INXS perform on their tour for Listen Like Thieves. Terrence Trent D’Arby opened and despite being in nosebleed seats, my friends and I danced and danced, thrilled to be there. Shabooh Shoobah and The Swing are two of my favorite pop albums ever. His death just seemed so unlikely – death by auto-erotic asphyxiation? Really? The information Constantine presents about elements of Hutchence’s death, important details that never made the public airways, genuinely make me wonder about Hutchence’s demise.

All in all, this was an interesting book. It took itself seriously and as a result, I took it seriously. Constantine certainly knows his conspiracy, and he can write a tight sentence. I think the chapter on Tupac Shakur and Biggie Smalls is worth the price of admission, and the chapter on Marley and Tosh was a welcome double feature. I don’t buy all of the content in this book but it raises a lot of questions, which, when you are dealing with content of this sort, is often the best anyone can ask for. I mean, I still think Mark David Chapman acted alone, but just because he beat the government to John Lennon, that doesn’t mean the government did not want him dead. This the oddbooks corollary to “just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they aren’t out to get you.”

(However, aside from Mama Cass and Candy Jones, this book did strike a major discordant note with me. Maybe rock conspirators can help me out. Constantine asserts that Joan Baez claims she is a survivor of ritual abuse via the Monarch Project. However, the sources he uses combined with his specific verbiage do not support that Baez ever said she was a victim of ritual abuse. Though he says Joan makes this claim, his actual sources never verify anything except she is a vocal opponent of torture and that she has been in intensive therapy. So I fired up the ol’ Internet to see what I could find out.

After several hours spent online reading lots of assertions that Baez survived the Monarch Project (and cringing as the sites pinged my anti-virus software), all I could find were people saying that because her father worked for Cornell, the supposed site of many government mind control experiments in Ithaca, and because she wrote a song called “Play Me Backwards,” which has lyrics that can be interpreted as the words of an abuse survivor, Baez was a victim of mind control. I could not find a single source with a direct quote from Baez indicating she was a victim of the Monarch Project. Those sites that claim she says such a thing use her song lyrics as a de facto admission on her part, which in my mind is hardly the same thing.

More troubling is that the longer I read, the more familiar the phraseology the sites used became. In fact, I began to think there was a single source that asserted Baez was a victim of the Monarch Project, likely based on the fact that she once lived in Ithaca and wrote a disturbing song, and endless others cited that first source. See for yourself what I mean. Google “joan baez ritual abuse.” Soon the phrase self-described victim of ritual child abuse will become very familiar, as all the sources for this information seem to be revisiting one original source that I cannot run to ground. If the belief that Baez was a victim of such abuse is stated outright by Baez somewhere and I missed it, I would love it if someone would direct me to the source. That she has been through intense therapy and speaks out against torture is not enough proof in my books. Interpretation of song lyrics is not enough proof either. Baez has worn her beliefs and attitudes openly for years, speaking out about injustices. If she was a victim of the Monarch Project, I would expect there to be a direct quote from her saying so, not innuendo about song lyrics. So if it is out there and I densely overlooked it, please direct me to it. Leave a comment here, or e-mail me. Some of you send me some pretty interesting e-mails so if anyone knows the answer, I think one of my readers might.)