Mad in America

 

For as long as we can all remember, insane asylums (to be totally un-PC) have been a staple of horror movies. They come up as haunted locations almost as much as houses do. And there’s a very good reason for that. Because the history of mental health care in America is not only very dark, it’s shockingly so in ways you might not expect.

It’s normal to hear of old remedies for illness that just don’t make any sense. Remedies that are far worse than the illness they’re supposed to treat. But what about when torture isn’t just a result of unfortunately misguided medical practice, but the actual aim itself? Believe it or not, torture of various kinds were once thought to ameliorate mental health issues for the very fact that they were so traumatic. Shock treatment and lobotomies are of course described in detail, but near-drownings, the inducement of extreme fear, unnecessary teeth pulling, and other incredible things feature here as well. Combine this thought process with a period in history when eugenics was thought to be a legitimate thing and you have a recipe for true horror. This book isn’t a horror story in the traditional sense. It doesn’t explore the ghosts that haunt particular institutions. But it does lay out the history of mental health and describe ghosts of a more metaphorical sort, ghosts that might still haunt us today.

My only real complaint is that there’s a lack of information here about what was considered mental illness at different points in history. There’s no way that these things could have been the same that they are now. It also tends to focus disproportionately on specific illnesses, like schizophrenia, without really describing much about what these illnesses are. It’s frustrating, but doesn’t seem to make the book any less interesting.

We can only progress and move forward from learning from the mistakes of the past, and this book is full of the most unbelievable mistakes you may have ever read about. If it weren’t so damn sad it would be hilarious. As it is, it serves as a very important reminder of the past that we shouldn’t dare ever forget.

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Roe v. Wade: The Abortion Rights Controversy in American History – An Anti-Review

Hey look, another book review that will probably generate a lot of controversy! Bring it on Strangers, because I’m not going to get into that debate here; this is just about the book itself. Now I will say that I am pro-choice, and I’m not going to pretend I’m not. But my reasons for that don’t really apply to this discussion, and just because I’ve chosen a side also doesn’t mean I necessarily think a book like this should (without at least explicitly presenting itself as such), even if it agrees with me. It’s quite obvious that this book is pro-choice, and it cites some pretty horrifying facts of misogyny from times past (or present, who am I kidding?). It’s just that I think we learn the most effectively when there’s been care to equally represent both sides. Otherwise what are we doing but just congratulating ourselves on our so very enlightened view of things? The truth is, this book presents itself as explaining to us the history of this controversy, NOT the history of one side of the argument. That would be ok too, but if you picked this book up based on its title I imagine that’s not necessarily what you’re looking to learn here. I’m interested in the debate and I’m interested in facts. The opinions I end up landing on are based as much as humanly possible on facts rather than gut emotion. So I am going to have to fault this book for being somewhat misleading.

Once you get that out of the way, there are two reactions I have to this. “Holy shit this is fucking dry,” and “Wow, that’s fascinating!” This book is yet another victim to a great topic bogged down by just plain boring writing. Such a loaded topic should be at least a little fun to read, shouldn’t it? I don’t mean all-out sensationalism, but at least try to match the wild ride that is online arguments. Just, of course, with more information and fully researched points. Just because we want to learn while we read doesn’t mean we don’t also care about enjoying ourselves while we do it. Otherwise we’d probably sit in on an actual class that covers these sorts of things.

I wonder if I’m being unfair here by suggesting that this book be both unbiased and riveting. But I really don’t think I am. The documentary Lake of Fire proves that this is possible. This movie made a point to not try to sway its audience, but to portray both sides equally, in both all their glory and all their horror. The filmmaker’s efforts in my opinion were entirely successful. And it was one of the best damn movies I’ve ever seen. I think the fact that it was unbiased made it far more interesting, because not only does it really make us think, but it doesn’t shield us from the ugly side of our chosen side. And the ugly side is important, not just because it’s sure to get a rise out of us. Let’s not pretend that either group is a bunch of angels, because they’re not. If we don’t face the facts, and if we’re just not interested in the whole truth, then isn’t it a total waste of time to even bother? I really feel this book could have proven its point here by being entertaining, so because this means it falls short on two levels, well, just damnit.

I’m not being a hypocrite either. Obviously I’m not particularly interested in an unbiased recounting of slavery, or Nazis, or serial killers. But the difference is that society as a whole is pretty much done weighing in on these things. Opinion is now fact. It’s no longer a valid opinion that racism and murder are cool. But as much as pro-life people annoy the shit out of me, the fact remains that their opinion, at the time of this writing, is still valid. I don’t agree with it, but if so many people feel that way, shouldn’t we find out why? Besides, it doesn’t do much good to poke holes in an argument you don’t know much about.

And this was all written by the time I got to page 46.

I’m not in the mood to summarize what I’ve learned here, mostly because I just don’t feel like it’s a whole lot. There’s almost just too much information, it’s so complicated (legal stuff always is), and based on other reviews I question some of its accuracy. Misogyny in the past was very dark! Opinions about abortion, inextricably tied to opinions about women’s place in society, oscillated constantly with changing social issues such as war and women’s suffrage! Goddamn do I wish I cared more about the details. Keep in mind, I’m reviewing this from a layman’s perspective. I’m not a literary expert or an expert on this subject. Most likely you won’t be either, which is why my relatively uneducated, overly simple everyman opinion is so valid here. I’m NOT enjoying this book. And I’m starting to question how much longer I’ll keep trying to before I give up and try replacing it with a different one on the same topic.

What I AM learning, or maybe just bringing more to the forefront of my mind, is that “interesting” and “boring” almost don’t exist. They’re only in the mind of the beholder, more influenced by presentation than the qualities of the subject itself. It’s a moving target. Whether you care or not about a topic has everything to do with how the way it’s been presented so far relates to your personality. My personality would rather watch well-informed people fight about this on Facebook. I’m not as highbrow as I’d like to be. So with that, I’ll leave off here for now. If it works out in the end, I’ll update with a real review.

Rather just watch the movie? Check out Lake of Fire.

African-American History for Dummies

So you all know by now that I’m a Canadian who loves American history. But American history just isn’t complete without making sure we get the black perspective on it as well. And you just can’t learn everything there is to know about black people by watching The Cosby Show. You still won’t know what the jazz is all about!

So here we are, once again taking on a Dummies book to get as complete an overview as possible in order to better understand the content of books that focus on more specific portions of this subject. And it really does take us all over the place. It’s not just about slavery and civil rights but about sports, literature, and the media. The contributions of black people to American society are not just huge, but 100% necessary. America just would not be America without them, so as far as I’m concerned the American History section of my bookshelf isn’t complete without a copy of this book either.

I like how this book is actually organized in two different ways. There’s the chronological way, which starts with an overview of various African cultures, then moves into the slave trade, slavery itself, the civil war, and the civil rights movement. But then equally important are the separate sections discussing different aspects of black culture such as education, religion, and the media. This book has the typical issues that are unavoidable in other For Dummies books and others like them that have such a huge mass of information to cover in a relatively short amount of space. It inevitably goes into a few subjects you just don’t care about (personally I don’t give two shits about sports, no matter what color the people playing them) and leaves you really wanting more on the subjects you do. It’s hard for me to say which part was my favorite, but I suppose I could say it was the part about movies. This is the kind of book that may be slow going for you if for no other reason than you’re tempted to stop and refer to the other media it references, so that you end up spending half your time youtube-ing and downloading music and movies to really be able to grasp just how influential these works are. I spent AGES on The History of Jazz listening to so much music I should have gotten a university course credit for it all. I didn’t stop to explore the works mentioned in this particular book, but I am fully intending to, and the Part of Tens included in every For Dummies book is a great reference to turn to if your thirst for the subject still isn’t satisfied.

So I don’t feel satisfied by this, I really don’t. But we need to understand that with books like this, the very point is that you’ll catch the bug and want more. If they covered everything it would take ten years to read them. No, these are just very large appetizers. If they’ve done their job they just leave you hungry for other books with a more specific focus, so that in the end your knowledge of these fascinating subjects becomes a huge multi-course meal. Yum!

Rather just watch the movie? Check out The Butler.

Other recommended reads: Twelve Years a Slave, Black Cargoes: A History of the Atlantic Slave Trade.

The Last Gasp: The Rise and Fall of the American Gas Chamber

My first impression of this book is not good. It comes across as very a dry and intellectual study that discusses capital punishment on a scientific, social, historical, and psychological level. So it seems far more scholarly than accessible. It’s also undoubtedly biased. I’m not saying I agree or disagree with the author’s views, but my own biased opinion is that we may get the most out of our reading experience if we’re just given the facts and left to come up with out own uncolored opinions. This is of course not to say that you can’t learn from this book. Here are your Strange Notes:

Chapter One

-In 1846 Claude Bernard discovered that carbon monoxide kills by displacing oxygen in the blood.

-The study of things that kill people is very dangerous for animals, especially dogs for some reason 😦

-Eugenicists were the first people to popularize the idea of gas for killing people, and their ideas were surprisingly popular. It hadn’t really caught on yet what a sinister idea this eugenics stuff was. Fun fact – Eugenics is where we get the word euthanasia.

-While people 100-150 years ago searched to find a more humane way of carrying out capital punishment, they didn’t want the method to be too humane, or they feared it wouldn’t work enough as a deterrent. For this and a few other reasons, lethal injection was rejected by a New York commission in 1878. Gas was considered, but it was generally thought the technology wasn’t advanced enough yet and so electrocution won out.

-Many 19th century Americans really hated poor people. They lumped them together with criminals and the mentally handicapped as problem of society best dealt with by simply getting rid of them. Preferably by gas.

-The SPCA in the early 20th century euthanized a shit ton of animals with gas in an effort to prevent the spread of disease.

-Eugenics greatly influenced the Nazis. Big shocker, there.

-Late 19th century and early 20th century society was surprisingly upsetting.

Chapter Two

-Poison gas (chlorine) was used in war for the first time by the Germans, in April 1915 in Flanders during WWI. 5000 people died. It was the beginning of chemical warfare.

-Before this, stink bombs were not just a nasty prank but a nasty weapon of war. Too nasty, apparently, for use even in the American Civil War. No, they thought it more polite to just shoot and hack their opponents to pieces. Apparently fields full of rotting corpses smelled good back then.

-The British responded to the Germans’ use of gas by their own poison gas weapons and protection such as gas masks. A goth fashion trend was born.

-The rest of the allies joined in, and suddenly this whole chemical warfare deal was in full swing.

-The British invented the gas chamber as a way to test different poison gases. Somehow, they actually managed to get volunteers to sit in the thing.

-When America joined the war in 1917, they weren’t prepared for what was being called “the chemist’s war.” They had to get their shit together quick, and everybody pitched in. They did a fabulous job. It scared the shit out of the Kaiser and he surrendered.

-After the war, the leftover gas was dumped into the ocean.

Chapter 3

-Well, the war was over and the government and the people thought they wanted to shut this deadly industry down. But the guys running it said NOPE! and fought to have it continued. Surprisingly, they won, because they argued that it would make sure nobody would fuck with America and because such new technologies can always find nifty uses during peacetime. Though I have the feeling at least a tiny bit of this had to do with them not wanting to lose their jobs. Firefighting masks were invented, bugs were fumigated, and things just marched along.

-Poison gas became so prevalent for its use as a pesticide that this was not good news for food or the environment. Propaganda told people that it was not only totally safe, but even good for you, which must have led people to wonder if they had won the war by loving their enemies to death.

-in 1921, after years of industrial use, it was suggested that lethal gas should be implemented as a humane form of execution. Nevada was the first to establish this with the Humane Execution Bill, signed on March 28, 1921. The idea was to put prisoners to death while they were asleep, and with a dose of gas so high that death would happen quickly.

-Meanwhile, a bunch of really boring political and industrial things went on with these gas companies, and the deaths they caused got overlooked because, hey, there are non-white people trying to get into the country! The horror!

-Hey, maybe we should start using this gas stuff to scare the communists that are obviously absolutely everywhere.

-None of this is making any sense.

Chapter Four

-Nevada got to try out their new execution law 5 months after it was enacted. The case was two men who shot and killed an old man. It was Chinese-on-Chinese gangster violence. Because people were totally racist and viewed Asians as “the yellow peril,” they thought this was just dandy. These became the first two guys “eligible for execution under the world’s first lethal gas statute.” Fun fact: Among the many inevitable appeals, their own lawyer appealed because he thought they had a “racially inferior mental ability” making them unable to tell the difference between right and wrong.

-The gas chosen was hydrocyanic acid.

-Eventually one of the two men succeeded in having his life spared. The other did not, as well as a Mexican-American prisoner who had been condemned to death afterwards in January 1924. Then the night before the execution, the Mexican-American was also spared.

-The first execution by HCN gas took 6 minutes. There was no autopsy (unusual) because opening up his body was thought too dangerous.

-The news went around the world and soon enough reached the very interested Hitler.

-Hitler’s idol was Henry Ford. Huh.

Chapter Five

-Well, execution by gas had some bugs to be worked out. One of the things they did was to totally rebuild the shitty “death house” where the executions would take place.

-The second execution, and the first to take place in this new execution chamber, was in 1930. This time instead of gas spraying into the room, 10 cyanide eggs were dropped into sulfuric acid and water to create HCN. The execution was pronounced a success. However they were hiding that it took a while for the prisoner’s heart to stop beating.

-More states started to consider this method of execution. Arizona was the first to adopt it, in 1933. Then came Colorado, which was full of the KKK, so there was a lot of lynching there and they were ready for a change.

-Colorado’s gas chamber was state of the art, and became famous. It was probably huge in Germany.

-The first guy to get executed by gas in Colorado, William Cody Kelly, insisted he was innocent but he didn’t have the $200 it would have cost to prepare a trial transcript. There was a woman willing to help him out but they didn’t want it to get out that she was FDR’s wife’s buddy. So Kelly was screwed. It took him 30 seconds to die. They said it was the most humane execution ever, and the cheapest at 90 cents. It became famous.

-More executions happened, more states adopted the method, and more improvements were made to the system. The world paid attention, particularly, of course, Germany. This was all despite a ton of debate over how humane this method really was. A lot of people were pretty horrified.

Chapter Six

-A lot of people work for a lot of big companies and have ties to the Nazis and it’s all very shady. But I wouldn’t be surprised if shit like that was still happening now. Moving on….

Chapter Seven

-America geared up for WWII. That’s about all.

Chapter Eight

-The Nazis start using gas to “euthanize” mental patients. They progressively get more and more evil. This is of course an extremely important part of history, but I do wonder a little what the use of gas to murder people in Europe has to do with American capital punishment. The Nazis were undoubtedly influenced by this, but maybe this book should have been retitled.

-It was argued that the Americans had known all along what was being done in Germany, and the government was urged to act on this by bombing Auschwitz and/or the railroad line leading to it which carried the jews there. But they didn’t. They thought it was not practical, because air support was needed elsewhere and they didn’t want more retaliation from the Germans.

-The American chemical company IG Farben was implicated in the German gassings and fought to hide the evidence.

-American hypocrisy is not lost on us.

-Bigwigs at the American chemical companies mentioned above got in trouble at the Nuremberg trials.

-I go cross-eyed with boredom.

Chapter Nine

-So everybody was pretty icked out by all the deaths in Germany, so many countries abolished the death penalty in the 50s. America did not, but feelings toward it were mixed for various social and political reasons.

-American executions in the 50s were dramatically down from where they were in the 30s.

-A condemned criminal, Caryl Whittier Chessman, becomes famous and starts a political shitstorm with his writing. After eight stays of execution he was finally put to death on May 2nd 1960 at San Quentin prison in California. He received a reprieve, but it was too late. The execution had already begun. The world was pissed.

-On May 23rd 1960 it was announced that Karl Adolf Eichmamm, Nazi war criminal, was “arrested” (illegally, ie kidnapped) in Argentina. He was executed on May 31st 1962. Everybody was reminded of the Holocaust.

Chapter Ten

-The number of executions dwindled, as the number of states who used it. In 1967 the execution of Luis Mongue became America’s last for a decade.

-On June 29th 1972 the US Supreme Court decided that the death penalty in all forms in which it was then performed was unconstitutional. There’s a lot of detail behind this I don’t care to go into. The debate became a big thing in the 70s. 34 states responded by passing new capital punishment laws. Rhode Island became the only state with the gas chamber as its method of execution. But nobody was ever put to death and the death penalty was abolished there in 1979.

-Ronald Reagan was very pro-capital punishment and suggested lethal injection as a more humane way to do it.

-In the case of Gregg vs Georgia the supreme court had another look and decided that capital punishment in itself was not against the eight amendment. After almost ten years of nobody being put to death, Gary Gilmore ended the streak when he was executed by firing squad in Utah on January 17, 1977. The guy actually demanded to be put to death.

-Texas and Oklahoma became the first states to adopt lethal injection.

Chapter Eleven

-On October 22, 1979, Jesse Walter Bishop became the first person to be executed by gas since Luis Mongue.

-States start to realize that lethal gas is a shitty way to die, and switch to lethal injection.

-Fred A. Leuchter, a consultant on execution methods, is exposed as being a Holocaust denier and Hitler fan.

-On October 4, 1994, the district court a San Fransisco ruled that execution by lethal gas was unconstitutional. They had finally realized that it caused death by suffocation and caused the victims to suffer.

Chapter Twelve

-Walter LaGrand, a German national, became the last person to be executed by gas on March 3, 1999. Germany was pissed and the International Criminal Court found in their favor.

 

My conclusion? That was boring as fuck. I’m relieved that it’s finally over so I can be put out my misery. NEXT!

 

Other strange reads: Edison and the Electric Chair, Doctors From Hell

Twelve Years a Slave

You can read Black Cargoes and learn quite a lot about slavery in America, but there’s nothing quite like a first hand account written by someone who didn’t just learn about it, but actually experienced it. Though it’s not jam-packed with a wide array of facts, it’s something very special, as long as you go into it fully understanding the context in which it was written.

First of all, this memoir was written around 1853, so the language is not in the modern style that we’re used to. Though obviously this isn’t particularly difficult to understand, it does tend to slow me down a bit. Solomon Northup is also not a writer, and his style can come across as very formal and even awkward at times. He is however, a talented and brilliant man not afraid to stand up for himself, far smarter than me or almost anybody I know, and this, along with the fact that this is a first-hand account from an outsider-turned-insider, kept me going until things REALLY got good. The part that first brought this book to life for me was the description of Christmas among the slaves, and you can really feel the joy he describes as it seems to jump off the page and you can’t get the picture of Solomon with a huge smile on his face and wistful eyes out of your head. The moment is magical. It’s obvious that what he says about it is true, it is a slave’s most favorite part of the year, and their excitement is tangible. I loved reading his detailed descriptions of those days more than any other part, and even if I had found the earlier part to be dry, these memories would have easily made the whole thing worth it.

Of course this book is not dry though, not when you consider that all the facts related here are absolutely true. And towards the end as the wheels get in motion towards restoring Solomon to freedom, the suspense builds for the reader nearly as much as it did for him as he waited to learn whether he would ever meet his family again or live out the rest of his life as a slave. His story is brief, but detailed and honest, and definitely a worthy investment of time.

Other suggested reads: Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl.

The Worst Hard Time

This book is so beautifully written, so gut-wrenching, that despite the endless storms you just can’t look away. Timothy Egan expertly paints an intimate portrait of those who lived through the dust bowl and their families. You’ll feel connected to them and their towns across the span of these last eighty years, and you’ll feel the same relief they do when it finally ends. Because as good as this book is, it does convey the same feeling of never-ending hopelessness that living in the dust bowl would spawn. By the end you’re desperate to come up for air. There’s almost no relief through descriptions of more pleasant places and times, and it can really begin to wear on you. Though who could blame the author if his intent was to completely immerse you, as much as writing can, in what these people are feeling?

For those unfamiliar with the dust bowl it can be hard to imagine that houses piled high with dust and air that necessitated the use of masks existed in America and not in a third world country. But it happened, and it happened at the same time as the depression, compounding it into what really can be called the worst hard time. Considering that the dust bowl was a man-made disaster we must also consider that something like this can happen again, and if we’re not careful it surely will. This book is an important example of why we need to learn from the past and that the earth does not exist for us, it exists with us and despite us. A more haunting example there may not be.

Video accompaniment: The Dust Bowl – Ken Burns

Carny Folk

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The golden years of the side show are over. Freak shows still exist, but they typically focus more exclusively on the “self-made” types of freaks, the ones who have an unusual talent and/or aren’t afraid of pain. I think these are awesome and I’d love to go to one one day. But there’s a certain mystery about the old shows that still holds our fascination. I bet you’d kind of love to go to one, wouldn’t you? Well this book just might be about the closest you’re going to get.

Here is an all-star group of bios of famous freaks, from the earliest days of the side show to the most contemporary. And it’s very eye-opening. Contrary to what many people must imagine as a horrid and undignified existence of abuse, most of the freaks were adored celebrities in their day, earned very large salaries and were not ashamed of what they did. In fact the majority of them absolutely loved to entertain and be part of such a fun and amazing community of people. Working as a freak show exhibit could even be empowering as it allowed them to support their families and themselves, and challenge popular opinions about their deformities.Tattooed ladies and gentlemen showed off their beautiful works of body art, armless entertainers lit and smoked cigars, and the fat ladies felt not one bit ashamed. When you think about it, there really is something almost idealistic about the whole thing, and it makes you love the whole institution even more. There’s no reason to feel pity for them or guilty for being entertained by them.

Even after outrage towards sideshows became mainstream, many fought for the right to continue performing. Protesters who thought they were helping them in effect were trying to take away their only opportunity to earn a living, as well as something they deeply loved. These attempts are surely what has lead to the decline of the classic side show as well as the revamped versions of it we see today.

The few entries about freaks who did not enjoy side show living, who did it only out of necessity for a short period of time, are also treated here with a tremendous amount of respect. It always gets stressed that they didn’t want to be known for their participation in it, and focus is placed rather on what was really important to them and their families.

All of the entries show these people for who they really are, detailing their personalities, talents, and interests. They’re all laid out in full three dimensional detail, just as they should be. It would be unfair to describe only the reason they were on display, because there was so often much more to what they did than people might assume. We’re lucky here, because things things may not always have been so obvious to those who saw the shows in person.

As much truth as can be found here, this is not presented in a sensational way. It’s simply honest and dignified. The truth is after all always more interesting than fiction, contrary to what banners often displayed. Also included in this book are profiles of impresarios from P.T. Barnum to Jim Rose. On the other hand, missing is a history of side shows themselves, and you feel its absence, however that’s not really the point. It’s a matter for another book, and one that would be at least as good as this one. Any suggestions from all you Strangers is appreciated!

Other recommended reads: You tell me!