Thursday, February 07, 2013

Cold-Blooded Kindness

A mixed review for Cold-Blooded Kindness by Barbara Oakley.  It seems to be two books, either of which would be fine, but they don't go together well.  One book is the story of Carole Alden, who shot and killed her husband.  The event attracted controversy because of the accusations she made against him after - that he was not merely abusive but torturing, she feared for her life.  Sadomasochism, chastity belts, dozens of poorly cared-for animals that Carole had rescued, her odd but dramatic artistic talent, previous spouses and lovers all around, and a neat division among the people who knew Carole whether she was a perennial liar and professional victim versus a battered woman terrorised by an abusive, drug-addicted loser. Tabloid stuff.

The other book is an examination of the neuroscience and recent research about related topics:  pathological altruism, the brain mechanisms of certainty, addiction, deception and belief, gender tendencies, pain and pleasure, empathy, violence, development.  Oakley was editing a book on pathological altruism at the time, and thus was able to discuss these issues with experts as they came up in her narrative about Ms. Alden. That topic has its own controversies, as many other notable figures in these fields do not believe that altruism can ever be pathological, and some of the other topics are caught up in gender issues about victimhood and believing victims, and whether Lenore Walker's research was shoddy. This second book is also fine for what it is, and structuring it around a story perhaps made it more readable.

But narrative giveth and narrative taketh away.  No actual story is going to line up nicely with the topics one wishes to discuss.  Reality tends to be messier than that, and Oakley even acknowledges in her closing chapters that Carole Alden isn't that great an example of pathological altruism - she's just a convincing liar who needs to feel like she's rescuing people and animals.

Several of the Amazon reviews suggest that Oakley's other book, Evil Genes: Why Rome Fell, Hitler Rose, Enron Failed, and My Sister Stole My Mother's Boyfriend should be purchased instead.

Sidelight:  I remember from early feminism that a great deal was made of the virgin/whore dichotomy in portrayals and perception of women.  However many people oversold the case and found it everywhere, it is worth noting that there is a good deal of truth in the observation.  Because of that, I always found it odd that something very similar happened in the attribution of entire innocence of victims, especially female victims in later feminism's discussions.  I understand that also has been superseded by other feminists who want to stress the escape from victim-thinking.  I won't be called on to sort all of this out, but I want to note that an unshakable faith in the credibility of female victims is to simply take the previous stereotype of virgin and put a new robe on it.

Which makes me wonder in turn whether the stereotypes were driven equally by men and women.


Texan99 said...

I'd put it slightly differently. In our urge to pigeonhole all women as whores or virgins, we'll ignore whatever contradictory evidence makes us uncomfortable. In the case of female victims, we'll go so far as to decline to treat them with respect as autonomous agents, if that's what it takes to excuse them of any wrongdoing so we can shoehorn them into the "virgin" category.

It's not really "virgin" any more; it's more "purely virtuous woman." Not so long ago that meant "totally virginal or otherwise nonthreatening sexually," and it still means that in some circles. But in others it merely means "conforming to orthodoxy" of various sorts, typically progressive notions of what women are or should be allowed to be. In sexual terms, that could mean a woman who embraces total freedom of sexuality, or at least freedom of sexuality within prescribed modes that uphold progressive norms.

So what's become of the "whore" category? I think it now contains only Sarah Palin.

SJ said...

Could it be that this author had a thesis, and the closest headline-grabbing name she could use was a case that didn't quite fit the thesis?

Who was deceived about what in the Alden case? Was there a single victim and a single perpretator, or mutual harm done between the pair?

I don't know.

bs king said...

I read Evil Genes, and I'll say I'm not sure her skills at tying anecdote to data are that great. Everything in the book was pretty interesting, but it didn't flow very well.

Her sister was pretty seriously wacky though.