Month: April 2014

Review: Beasts

Beasts: What Animals Can Teach Us About the Origins of Good and Evil

Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson

I’ve long struggled with the language people use when discussing animals. The idea of Masson1-2getting your cat or dog “fixed,” for example, is simply moronic. There’s nothing broken with our animals’ reproductive systems. The problem is that they’re working too good!

That’s like removing the battery from a working clock and saying you’ve fixed it.

It’s not that controlling the reproductive habits of our companion animals is a bad idea. Of course I’m a proponent of spaying and neutering—particularly TNR outreach programs that are doing amazing work throughout the world.

But as a writer I’m also a supporter of the rhyme and reason—the simple logic, if you will—of language. I can accept the phrase “put to sleep” as a euphemism for mercy killing, but “fixed”?

A similar misnomer—and one deserving of far more vehemence—concerns the use of animal language to describe acts of human cruelty. Killers and rapists are commonly referred to as “beasts,” “brutes” or, in the parlance of Hollywood noir, “you filthy animal.”

True, the animal kingdom is a violent world, but even the worst behavior is driven by the need to sate appetites, not for the sake of sadism. At an animal shelter where I worked, we once took in more than two dozen Australian shepherds from a puppy mill in Nebraska. Most of the puppies could be rescued. We were able to socialize, rehabilitate and adopt them out to loving homes.

A handful of others were too sick, malnourished or traumatized to recover and didn’t respond to medical treatment or therapy. They were euthanized, and it was an act of kindness.

There were a few others dogs, however, who had been abused to the point of aggression—dogs with such an inbred fear of people that they couldn’t improve under the best behavior mod training we had to offer.

There was one dog in particular who broke my heart. His life was a perpetual state of fight, flight or freeze—he was unable to flee and freezing wasn’t in his nature. He filled with terrified rage anytime someone approached his kennel, even for feedings. He would fling his body from wall to wall and bash his head against the cage—climbing, jumping, snarling.

When it came time to euthanize him, it took four of us, a net and two vials of tranquilizer to get him sedated. The desperate, implacable fear in his eyes was disarming, and it still troubles me to think of the living conditions and daily abuse that had terrified him so. I hope I never again have to see a creature that afraid.

As we carried his unconscious body to the kill room, I wished that we were injecting toxins into the fucker who ran the puppy mill rather than the dog. It pained me to destroy that animal, but I would have had no guilt or second thoughts of putting that guy to sleep.

Like Dexter, I wanted him plastic-wrapped on my table.

I wiped my eyes after the dog died, and it’s not hyperbole when I say I wouldn’t have shed a single tear if I’d delivered the needle to the mill owner who did this to these dogs.

That’s why I find it odd that when someone commits a heinous act, it is referred to as “animalistic” or “inhumane.” I’ve never known a dog that would abuse people the way puppy mill workers mistreat and exploit animals for profit. Unlike the FBI, animal control doesn’t need a profiler to understand the brutality of its species.

And dog fighting? As far as I can tell, we humans are alone in training and forcing other species to fight to the death for our entertainment.

No, I would say the likes of Michael Vick aren’t “animals,” “beasts” or less than human. To borrow from Nietzsche, I would say they are human, all too human.

Which brings me to Beasts: What Animals Can Teach Us About the Origins of Good and Evil, by Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson, a somewhat academic, somewhat philosophical and all-around interesting book about animals and morality.

Like his previous books, such as Dogs Never Lie About Love and When Elephants Weep, Masson studies the emotional behavior of animals (such as love, grief and contentment) and searches for lessons that can be applied to humans. In Beasts, he is looking at anger and aggression.

The centerpiece of his argument is concise as it is uncomfortable: Humans and orcas have the most complex brains in history, yet of these two, only humans kill members of their own species.

A poignant fact—and an excellent point of entry for a discussion on human behavior. Masson gives us much to think about as he lays out his argument; however, he oversteps from argument to advocacy in places, building off conclusions that seem far from settled.

I’m in agreement with Masson that humans are capable of and culpable for the greatest violence against our own species in the animal kingdom. We even get bonus marks for creativity. Predator drones, IEDs, beheadings, shoe bombs. Who would think to torture and kill other sentient beings in the absurdly original manner that we do?

However, Masson paints a pastoral of nature without humans, and this idyllic view makes it difficult to buy into the author’s argument. I’m reminded of the episode of Family Guy in which Death goes on a date with Amy, the Pollyannaish pet-shop girl whose Disney-fied view of nature causes Death to “terminate” their relationship.

Masson has a complex and sophisticated view of nature, but his conclusions appear to be based more on opinion than evidence. Still, it’s a compelling commentary, and I would recommend it for anyone interested in animals and nature.

I agree that we could learn much about social behavior from animals, but I would take Masson’s conclusions as part of an ongoing discussion and an invitation to further research.

And for further reading, I would also suggest the magnificent and thought-provoking article by James McWilliams, “Loving Animals to Death,” in the current American Scholar.

Review: The Mad Sculptor

I first encountered Harold Schechter in the mid-’90s at the (sadly) now-defunct Twice-Loved Books in Youngstown, Ohio. My friend Todd and I would travel there often, lost The Mad Sculptorfor hours among their three floors of books and playing with the occasional store cat.

You would most often find me in the basement, where the true crime section was wedged into a nook behind the stairs. And you would most often find a Schechter book tucked beneath my arm.

I am not only a fan of crime writing, but an advocate. There is a stigma with the genre that I have always felt was undeserved. Even in progressive-minded bookstores like Twice-Loved (where I was able to order first-edition Aleister Crowley tomes in the pre-Internet age), crime reporting was given only subterranean shelf space.

That’s a shame. Crime writers like Schechter are historians, sociologists, documentarians and cultural commentators, and to be relegated to back-shelf status by the literary mainstream is a disservice to the many great writers (and well-informed readers) working in the genre.

I asked Schechter about the breadth of his work in a 2012 interview:

“You can certainly learn as much about a society by which crimes people are obsessed with at a particular time,” he said. “I think, in a general way, the crimes that become national obsessions, that strike a deep communal chord, symbolize the particular cultural anxieties of the moment.”

In the 1920s it was poisoners; in the ’70s Charles Manson personified the worst fears of the counterculture; the ’80s had phantom Satanists and the ’90s belonged to the serial killer; and today we have the rampage shooter.

But in the 1930s, it was the sexual deviant that haunted and titillated the public.

Enter Robert George Irwin, the subject of Schechter’s new book, The Mad Sculptor: The Maniac, The Model, and the Murder that Shook the Nation.

Irwin was a troubled and talented artist whose stunted psychosexual development (and religious obsession) fueled romantic fixations, violent outbursts, numerous hospitalizations and an attempted self-castration. It climaxed with a vicious triple murder in 1937, made all the more newsworthy because one of the victims, Veronica Gedeon, was a pulp magazine cover girl.

That in and of itself would make for a good read, but Schechter is a skilled storyteller and, more importantly, a devoted historian. His research into the man who would become The Mad Sculptor not only unearthed a traumatic upbringing, but also documented the changing post-Depression personality of the Beekman Hill neighborhood where the murders occurred.

Turns out this neighborhood was home to a series of sensational murders a year prior to Irwin’s massacre.

Weaving a wealth of historical documents into a cohesive narrative, Schechter gives us not only the crime and the cultural mindset, but also the role the media played in the tale, from the earliest indictment of an innocent man through fictional jailhouse confessions and a business arrangement with the Chicago Herald-Examiner so shady that it would make Rupert Murdoch cry foul.

In fact, all of the media coverage (including the persistent “blame-the-victim” approach that made a fuss over Gedeon’s modeling career and her father’s fondness for “French art” postcards) makes today’s television news seem downright ethical (well, almost) by comparison.

If I have one critique of The Mad Sculptor, it’s that we don’t learn much about Irwin’s time in prison. We get factual data, such as how long he lived after his conviction, when he died, and such, but not the in-depth reporting showcased in previous chapters.

But in a time when most movies and many books run far too long (only quantum physics can explain why it takes longer to watch The Great Gatsby than it does to read the book), it’s not really a bad thing to say that Schechter could’ve gone on for another hundred pages or so and I would have been with him all the way.

Schechter had a run in the 1990s that would make any writer jealous, penning best-sellers about Albert Fish, Ed Gein and Depraved, Schechter’s account of H.H. Holmes.

The latter is an example of the literary caste system writ large. Depraved, published in 1994, predated Erik Larson’s The Devil in the White City by nearly a decade. While both tell the story of the same man—and the same crimes—one is relegated to the dusty shelves of true crime while the other is a modern classic and prominently displayed at the front of the store.

This is not a knock on Larson’s book (he did nothing wrong by writing an excellent book and reaping success), but rather an example of the double-standards that sometimes emerge in publishing. I point this out not to get on a soapbox but rather to appeal to readers who may never otherwise stray to the nether regions of the bookstore or think that crime writing isn’t for them:

Yes, you will find The Mad Sculptor in the true crime section, but it is greater than the sum of its kill count.

Yes, Harold Schechter is America’s finest crime writer, but he is so much more.

Let this book be your introduction to another historical viewpoint, and don’t be afraid to drift to those shadowy corners of the bookstore where you’ve feared to tread before. To quote Nietzsche: “I am a forest, and a night of dark trees; but he who is not afraid of my darkness will find banks full of roses under my cypresses.”

Take it from the weird kid who spent hours in those shadowy basement corridors, collecting the flowers of history in the dark.