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.

Links: Goodbye theory, the artists’s lives, coffee, Dr. Strangelove, Divorce Corp., molly, and more

* “David Winters on Elegy for Theory: Bye, Bye, Theory, Goodbye.” Except that undergrad and grad classes on theory are still mandatory in many places and much dubious “theory” still gets cited in conferences or by editors and peer reviewers. Actual death would be an improvement.

* Most writers of books don’t make enough money to live from their writing; notice this: “Together, what these patterns suggest is that few authors are getting rich off of their writing or even earning enough from their writing to quit their day jobs.”

* In keeping with the above: “Entrepreneurs of the spirit;” I’d add that the number of people who write a blog, continuously, for at least a couple years is very small.

* In keeping with a theme: Barry Eisler and Robert Gottlieb debate the future of publishing; in the short term I buy Gottlieb and in the long term I buy Eisler. The challenge is defining the terms.

* “Almost Everything in ‘Dr. Strangelove’ Was True,” which you should remember anytime you see someone working for any branch of government move their lips.

* Divorce Corp: A Movie Review, which is really a society review that should scare you.

* Why is coffee in France so bad?

* “‘I say, Charles, don’t you ever crave…’“, or, the 1200th anniversary of Charlemagne’s death.

* Politicians and cops are essentially indifferent to many people’s deaths, although the story is titled very differently; see also Daniel Okrent’s Last Call.

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