The power of conventional narratives and the great lie

In Confessions of a Sociopath M. E. Thomas describes manipulating bureaucratic sexual harassment structures in a way that reminds me of Francine Prose’s Blue Angel. That novel is about a college freshman who sleeps with her creative writing instructor, thinking that he’ll get her book published, and then alleges sexual harassment when he doesn’t. The school’s bureaucracy largely rallies around Angela’s dubious claims. I wouldn’t argue that Angela, the female protagonist (or antagonist) is a sociopath, but the novel itself is good and the story about what happens when people of bad will have access to institutional structures designed around imagined goodwill.

I sent a note to Thomas about Blue Angel, and she replied that many “well-intentioned people having access to institutional structures designed around imagined ability to ascertain the real ‘truth’ of a situation and accordingly enact justice.”

She’s right, and that theme keeps showing up in various novels and nonfiction pieces. “What happened to Jamie Leigh Jones in Iraq?” is one; the whole story is worth reading and difficult to excerpt, but I will note this:

As it turned out, I found smoking guns, but not of the sort I was expecting. The next morning, I started looking through the filings posted online on PACER, the federal judiciary’s Web site. There I found expert witness reports filed by KBR, psychological evaluations of Jones conducted by workers’ comp companies, medical records, and much of what later came out at trial about her many previous rape claims and complicated mental health history. The trial record was so at odds with Jones’s public story that I was simply dumbfounded.

As best that reporter can say, Jones probably fabricated a rape story and in doing so tapped into a powerful narrative about sexuality and about the way evil corporations (and men) try to abuse and suppress women. Her case is at the very least much more complicated than that and at worst she made up her story. But powerful narratives have a way of overriding specific particulars that don’t support the narrative.

Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn does very well in playing out the way a media circus creates heroes and villains based on limited information. Like Blue Angel it’s also a lot of fun. Both also contain an element of terror: what happens if you’re the one the narrative turns against. There must be others.

Philip Greenspun’s review of Divorce Corp. is also relevant:

What is important is a story and it is always the same story: “There is a victim and a victimizer. Then you need a third person, a rescuer, which is sometimes an attorney and sometimes a judge.”

We’ve got these stories in circulation and almost no one is publicly fighting back against them.

Summary Judgment: Confessions of a Sociopath — M. E. Thomas

Confessions of a Sociopath came from Tyler Cowen’s recommendation, and it’s the perfect book to get from a library: I learned from it but am unlikely to want to re-read it. There isn’t enough depth to justify purchase but there is more than enough to justify reading. Like Cowen I would read this as closer to a novel or memoir—which is usually a way of saying “I make shit up but don’t want to admit it”—than a work of strict nonfiction.

Confessions of a sociopathI kept hoping for more lascivious content but the author appeared at first to have led a sedate life in that respect, perhaps due to her affiliation with the Mormon church, although there is a late chapter on this subject. Her sex life is dealt with in a way that seems decorous by modern standards, despite her affairs with women.

This passage in particular stood our as characteristic of the way people can attack the modern tendency towards explicit rules:

While she [a somewhat unattractive, insecure supervisor] regularly billed as many hours as humanly possible, I exploited our [law] firm’s non-existent vacation policy by taking three-day weekends and weeks-long vacations abroad. People were implicitly expected not to take vacations, but I had my own lifelong policy of following only explicit rules, and then only because they’re easiest to prove against me. She could sense that I flouted this and other unspoken rules with little consequence by a quick look at my time sheets and my less-than-formal office attire.

Explicit rules can often be turned against the people who aren’t following them. Working around governments and universities has given me special aptitude for figuring out what the explicit rules are and how people break them, because explicit rules are often impossible to follow completely, or following them completely is stupid in the real world, or both. Nonetheless our present bureaucratic world is rife with rules created by well-meaning bureaucrats, and those rules are ripe for exploitation by anyone who takes the time to read them.

Confessions of a Sociopath demonstrates how people acting in bad faith can activate biases and bureaucratic institutions for destructive ends; Thomas tells stories about repeatedly manipulating people and institutions through sexuality and sexual harassment claims and innuendoes, and in this she is in some ways recapitulating ideas from Francine Prose’s Blue Angel, although that novel is about a straightforward though misunderstood quid pro quo gone bad.

Thomas has an unusually direct understanding of her own apparent condition in a way that many professionals don’t; this section shows something important about professors—Thomas is a law professor—and why people (like me!) want to be them, and something important about Thomas:

People are often surprised to learn that I teach less than six hours a week, less than eight months out of the year. In many way it’s a dream job for someone inherently lazy and unable to do grunt work like me, but eventually I’m sure I’ll get bored of it too. After I do, I don’t know what, but I’m sure things will work out. They always do.

Being a law professor doesn’t appear to be a particularly challenging job from a teaching perspective, since the professor is continually repeating information mastered long ago to students with no familiarity, in an environment in which the professor has absolute power over the student but not vice-versa (sample moment from the book: “They can try to fight me, but in that classroom I am God. I write the test. I give them the grade”). The professor is part of a legal regime that prevents lawyers from existing save through credentialing from other lawyers. People who want an honest test of their skills sell to markets; people who can’t handle an honest test of their skills go to school.

To be sure school does sometimes offer honest tests of skill and imparts important skills but that appears to be the exception, not the rule, based on my experiences on both sides of the desk. It’s not clear how to make utility and intellectual interest the norm instead of the exception.

The distinction between social and personal power may be relevant here; as the authors of the linked paper say, “social power [is] power over other people and personal power [is] freedom from other people.” Sociopaths appear particularly good at the latter, since they don’t appear to care what other people think except to the extent it affects them.

I am not convinced that we aren’t seeing huge selection bias problems with sociopaths, which limits broadly applicable ideas. Note that I wrote this sentence before re-reading Cowen’s linked post above, in which he said essentially the same thing.

The editing is good and the book moves; few sentences or ideas are essential in and of themselves.There could have been more and/or better research citations, but the stories were consistently entertaining, and challenging; she describes seeing a struggling baby opossum in a pool and then, instead of helping it as most of us would have, drowning it. That’s towards the beginning of the book and the opossum story dares us to keep reading. Its placements in this blog post is not an accident, given that my overall impression of the book is positive.

Blue Angel — Francine Prose

Francine Prose’s Blue Angel (2000) bears more than a little resemblance to Richard Russo’s Straight Man (1997), which isn’t bad—both are smart, funny novels that use English departments as a launching rather than end point to explore politics, society, and life. Bad novels become mired in their time and place; good novels transcend them by making a particular time and place a metaphor or microcosm for something bigger. Sure, it’s easy to mock academic (or business, or families, or any number of other social configurations) life, as structure can easily ossify and become stultifying, but using these structures as a base instead of destination helps transcend them, as both Blue Angel and Straight Man do. From similar beginnings, however, Blue Angel and Straight Man diverge based on their protagonists’ decisions, and in Blue Angel the choice eventually leads to a hilarious and astonishing Kafka-esque tribunal scene.

Blue Angel is based around two theoretical premises: the fundamental imbalance of knowledge between novelists teaching creative writing and know-it-all, under-literate students taking said classes. I feel confident making the second generalization because I was one of those students—now I’m not in the classes but am otherwise similar. The second premise involves sexual politics and power, or lack thereof—while it’s wrong, wrong, wrong for professors to sleep with students, Blue Angel implies that it’s not always the professor who has the power. In addition, a plot point involving the latent sexual tension in many relationships is irresistible as a device in novels where very little else is otherwise at stake. And what kind of tension is going on in Blue Angel? Is it gender, power, class, or something else? They intersect and morph, much like in The Bonfire of the Vanities, and Prose leaves the battle lines deliciously ambiguous. I can’t remember who said it, but I read that one way of propelling a novel is to get two people who shouldn’t sleep together to do so and then see what happens.

This used to be easier, when sex outside of marriage was completely taboo and divorce led to societal suicide and extreme social censure. Now you have to go a bit further. Marriage plots don’t work nearly as effectively when most people aren’t virgins when they marry and quickie, no-fault divorces mean that a bed decision can leave you back in the same fundamental position you once were six months after accidental nuptials. Ian McEwan exploits the cusp of this revolution in On Chesil Beach, but writers who set stories in contemporary times have to deal with contemporary mores. Prose does effectively through the hothouse atmosphere of an English Department, where Ted Swenson finds that he’s teaching “[…] every Tuesday afternoon, [when] Swenson’s job requires him to discuss someone’s tale of familial incest, fumbling teenage sex, some girl’s or boy’s first blow job, with the college’s most hypersensitive and unbalanced students, some of whom simply despise him for reasons he can only guess: he’s the teacher, and they’re not, or he looks like somebody’s father.”

Is Swenson trapped? If so, by what, or whom, except himself? It’s not obvious, and Swenson is aware of the dilemma: “But like convicts who love their shackles, nearly all [professors] chose not to escape” Blue Angel and Straight Man imply one can leave this vast, masturbatory game if you have sufficient ironic distance to survive, perhaps tempered with the unpleasant realization that you might be too weak, timid, or self-satisfied. The game is more serious and less serious than it appears, depending on the narrator’s mind at any time, and this is made more difficult when writing teachers aren’t performing the first part of their jobs and have reasons—in Swenson’s case, “[…] once more he’s [Swenson] siphoned all his creative juices into a brain-numbing chat with a student. He’s ruined the day for writing, and his punishment is to face yet another of the problems with not writing, which is: how to kill all that time.” The reality is that Swenson isn’t a writer: if he were, he wouldn’t complain about writing, he would simply be doing it. In an interview Robertson Davies discussed how he produced innumerable novels while working as a publisher and, later, while teaching. Swenson is, like many of his students, simply making excuses.

He’s also not so different from Ruby, his daughter, than he’d like to think, though she is underdeveloped and a mere figure. This might be intentional, as recriminations over her place haunt the conversations between Swenson and Sherrie; perhaps this strained distance is the norm for parents and their children rather than the exception. There are some other problems than the portrait of Ruby—for example, as so often happens in novels, the scenes involving computers are poorly done. Ruby also says, “The Women’s Studies Department had to threaten a class-action lawsuit before they’d even investigate.” This makes no sense, because there is class or group of people to file suit—only a single organization or entity. Granted, it could be the character’s mistake, but Blue Angel doesn’t show this to be the case. Elsewhere, however, Prose nails details, as when Angela Argo, the improbable temptress, takes a class in “Text Studies in Gender Warfare.” Blue Angel could recursively be an assigned text in such a class, given its minute reading of the bizarre sexual politics overlaid on the wider culture in tun overlaid on whatever biological human instinct hides under the veneer of modern discourse. References to churches, religion, and Jonathan Edwards peter out towards the end of Blue Angel, which is a shame because they offered a rich vein of allusions for a novel with more than a little secular sin and, it implies, mindless persecution instead of the high-minded search for justice and truth that the university is supposed to cultivate. Blue Angel is far deeper than its premise suggests, and its self-aware humor gives it enough heft to bite into a situation that could easily degenerate into silly farce.

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