Non-Fiction

Review of “Knowing the Enemy” by Mary Habeck

Knowing the Enemy: Jihadist Ideology and the War on TerrorThe world over seems to be in a miserable state at the moment. Watch the news for any given amount of time and you will most certainly hear about Islamic extremists instilling chaos in some part of the world.   One could even argue that Jihad and terror have become buzzwords in the media, but with little wonder considering how groups like Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) or al-Qaeda openly claim responsibility for attacks in the name of their religion, attacks such as those in Tunesia, Nigeria or Yemen, for example.  In fact, Tunesia could be considered a place that is volatile to extremism, given the March attacks made toward the Bardo national museum in the capital city of Tunis, to which responsibility is now being claimed by ISIS-inspired militants; Yemen is another hot spot for such activities, what with al-Qaeda fighters freeing hundreds of inmates in an attack on a prison in the port city of Al Mukalla, one New York Times article recently reports; and let us not forget the recent deadly attack made toward a university in Kenya by al-Shabab islamists, where at least 150 people were killed. All of these recent events are but a small fraction when considering the majority of terror-related news that seems to be streamlining the “front pages” of many news outlets in the west.  What does all of this mean, though?  What is a simple man, living a simple life, suppose to make of all this turmoil and carnage?  What is the point to the bloodshed and beheadings that act as trademarks to their systematic design?  It is with questions like these in mind that I take to the book Knowing the Enemy: Jihadist Ideology and the War on Terror, by Mary Habeck.

Habeck, an associate professor at John Hopkins University, writes an analysis on fundamentalist Islam in her 2006 Yale University Press book, in an effort to make sense of the attacks led by al-Qaeda extremists on the World Trade Center in September, 2001. Her research about jihadist ideology reveals an archaic form of right-wing thinking, where the word of three texts — the Qur’an, the hadith, and sira, which are a series of “sacralized biographies” about the life of the prophet Muhammad, which give insight into his “calling” as a political and spiritual leader — serve as the basis for their fundamentalism. In many ways, the life of Muhammad serves as the “model for the acquisition and use of power,” deeming these sacred texts as the guidelines for “defensive and offensive strategies of Islam at every stage of this global confrontation [known otherwise as jihad] over a very long time” (qtd. in Habeck 138). For example, one way of thinking derived from these texts lies in the concept of jahiliyya (ignorance), in that everyone is ignorant and blind in the world until they become enlightened by Islam, as the state of the Arab world was before Muhammad brought his message unto the people (Habeck 65).

Not everyone agrees with the interpretations these jihadists make of the sacred texts. As a matter of discourse, Habeck makes several references to this, reiterating throughout the book such assurances as:

the jihadist commitment to offensive warfare, their belief in terrorizing entire populations, their views on prisoners of war and booty, and their deliberate targeting of innocents have not found widespread support among the vast majority of the Islamic world (133).

This could be as much as to prevent any liabilities or offense for her scholarship and thesis, as it is to convey the truth of the matter.  For example, many scholars believe that jihadists never give “full interpretive weight” to the circumstances relating to the past, but instead pull loosely from the texts to meet and satisfy their own agenda. This blatant show of abuse towards interpreting these texts implies their desire to manipulate and control their followers, which Habeck believes is “one of the most important aspects of the current conflict, for the struggle over who controls the Qur’an and hadith is, in many ways, the key to the upheaval in the Islamic world” (53). She furthers her argument for this point when she writes, ” For many Muslims who take their religion seriously, the willingness of the jihadis to selectively ignore a thousand years of interpretive work and the traditional exegesis of the people of knowledge is a serious affront to their understanding of Islam” (55). This is creating an internal conflict within the Islamic world, where both fundamentalists and liberally-oriented modernists are claiming the sacred texts to be the “true voice of Islam” (42). The result has turned out to be a bloody conflict, with tensions and animosities running high from every direction.

Regardless the religion, this is generally the reaction made toward fundamentalism by more moderate and intellectually-oriented people in a given society.   Christian fundamentalism has a tendency to have a similar effect — picking and choosing– on many of its believers.  As one blogger from the Huffington Post puts it, “Few [Christian] fundamentalists care about the early church, the Gospels, the Catholic traditions, Augustine, Arian heresies, encyclicals and councils. Rather, they blend Southern Conservatism, bastardized Protestantism, some Pauline doctrine, gross nationalism and a heavy dose of naive anti-intellectualism for a peculiar American strain of bullshit” (McElwee). Whether it is preaching a right-wing agenda through sermon or picketing in protest over gay-rights, Christian fundamentalists seem to only listen to themselves.  As Habeck reminds us in her book, jihadists are no different: they pick and choose what they want to believe, which tends to be the more militant side of Islam (43).

Her argument toward jihadist ideology in a modern sense is not entirely clear, though.  As would be expected of a book covering a topic such as this, her argument attracts a lot of criticism. One reviewer from the website The American Thinker bluntly states that “Habeck’s scholarship is half-baked, meaning literally half done.” He goes on to justify his case: “After making it clear to us that jihadism has deep and historical roots in Islam, Habeck feels compelled to proclaim that jihadists have perverted ‘traditional Islam’ to suit their purposes, have moved contrary to the flow of ‘modern Islam’, and are heterodox in their condemnation of all of those who oppose… But repeating these statements time and again in conclusory fashion does not make it so, and she provides almost no source material or analysis of how the jihadists are in fact heterodox” (Yerushalmi). The book does maintain a repetitive feel at times, especially when considering some of the facts used in several of the chapters to discuss the historical roots of Islam fundamentalism. While the interpretations from such revolutionary thinkers like Ahmad ibn ‘Abd al-Halim Ibn Taymiyya (1263-1328), ‘Abd al-Wahhab (1703-1792) and Sayyid Qutb (1903-1966), to name a few (Habeck 18), are made clear early on in the book, she continually adds these thinkers’ ideals back into her dialogue, drowning out any discourse about the differences existing between modern jihadist groups.  Nevertheless, her book provides many insights into the topic, and I can see how parallels to what is happening in the Middle East exist with the fundamentalism she discusses. In fact, I noticed passages all throughout (see pages 64, 145, 148-149) that seemed to hint at the beginnings of such groups like ISIS, a fundamentalist group that did not rise to power until several years after her book was written.

Given her expertise on the subject, I was curious to know what her take is on the current volatile condition in the Arabian peninsula due to ISIS, so I pulled up an article she co-authored with Thomas Donnelly, a research fellow from the American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research, in the conservative magazine The Weekly Standard. There, they analyzed the current administration’s means of dealing with the Middle East thus far (as of January, 2014). They write that given the actions of the administration in their handling of the Benghazi attacks, the enemy is still largely misunderstood. “We still don’t understand the enemy,” she goes on to add, “more fatally… we do not understand the nature of the war.” That we don’t understand the enemy; that these al-Qaeda linked groups only reorganize and start anew once western intervention has packed up and gone home; that the terror network is more globally connected now than it was in the 80s and 90s; that, despite our “ebbing interest” in the region, the Middle East still maintains an interest in the United States, for better or worse: all of these facts weigh heavily on the decisions being made by the Obama administration during this political conundrum. Habeck and Donnelly make an interesting observation that has relevance to today’s understanding for the situation in the Middle East: “In sum, the state system — illegitimate and brittle as it has been — that largely defined the balance of power in the Middle East since World War II is in flux” (Habeck and Donnelly). It would seem that the writing is on the wall, as the proverbial saying goes, but with the Obama administration taking a passive approach to Middle Eastern affairs — furthermore, partnering with nuclear-ambitious Iran to negotiate settlements when America’s most influential ally, Israel, fears for such an act to happen and may take matters into their own hands — there is little that could be done to thwart the shifting balance of power that seems to be happening at the moment. The United States has always acted in some way to keep “the worst from happening in the Middle East” (Habeck and Donnelly), but the restraint shown by the current administration leaves the mildly complacent international community to ponder, “what are we to do now?” Many nations have an interest in the Middle East, for whatever reasons there may be, political or economic, so these nations are left to “reshape the international system to [their] liking” (Habeck and Donnelly).   Whether this is a good move for America and her interests in global affairs, especially since many Middle Eastern players like Saudi Arabia, are at risk of finding more compliant bedmates, only time will tell.

For all my purposes, this book has done a thorough job in answering many of the questions that I have had about the Islamic conflicts that seem to be growing in scale in the Middle East. One thing stands for certain, these jihadists have many enemies and their agenda is grandiose in every means, but it is a real one, a threat to any who think differently from them. They are more than just a small band of violent people who have murdered innocent people, rather they believe that they are “honored participants in a cosmic drama” where the fate of the world will be played out to its ultimate end, victoriously or not (Habeck 163). Habeck, along with many other western scholars (see Samuel Huntington’s article) see a “clash of civilizations” taking place around the world, where an either-or mentality motivates jihadist groups like al-Qaeda to lash out at non-believers and to destroy them (162). How long this will last is hard to say, but if history has shown us anything, it is that totalitarianism seldom lasts for long. The only problem is that history has a tendency of repeating itself.

Works Cited

Habeck, Mary and Thomas Donnelly. “The Unmaking of the Middle East.” the weekly Standard 19.18 (20 Jan. 2014). Web. 07 Apr. 2015.

Habeck, Mary. Knowing the Enemy: Jihadist Ideology and the War on Terror. New Haven: Yale UP, 2006. Print.

McElwee, Sean. “Five Things Christian Fundamentalists Just Don’t Get.” [Blog]. The Huffington Post. The Huffington Post.com, Inc., 08 Jun. 2015. Web. 11 Apr. 2015.

Yerushalmi, David. “Knowing the Enemy: A Book Review.” The American Thinker. American Thinker, 9 Sep. 2006. Web. 07 Apr. 2015.

Further Reading

Huntington, Samuel P. “The Clash of Civilizations?” Foreign Affairs 72.3 (Summer 1993): 22-49. Web. 06 Apr. 2015.

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Am I really “reading” an audiobook?

1188223_microphoneWith a busy semester work load ahead of me, my son demanding more of my attention, and my regular household responsibilities — the usual routine stuff — I find that I have little time for some of the more personal pleasures in my life, such as this blog; but, I imagine this is the case with most writers. It is about time management and priorities, after all. If I am not able to create, I can at least consume. Several months ago, I discovered the Overdrive Media Console app, which allows one to borrow and download audio- and eBooks from his or her local library, if such a service is rendered. When it comes to reading, I will always prefer a physical paper or cloth book over an eBook, but the audio format is proving to be most valuable during this busy time.  In fact, these book types are helping to fill what is otherwise a void in my reading habit. With my earphones jacked into my Samsung, I can listen to the audiobook while I do the dishes, for example, or while I drive the car to go to class (a word of caution here, though, as it is easy to be distracted), instead of listening to the radio which offers nothing worth listening to. I have also listened to my audiobook in the evenings, while I was bringing my son down for bed. I have found that there are many moments in my day which are lost to mundane tasks that can otherwise be supplemented with the narrations of an audio book reader. As a result of this discovery, I have read four novels in just under a month, which is quite an incredible feat for me.

But, this begs the question, am I really reading? This is a point I feel I have to ask myself, because it is not the same experience listening to an audiobook as it is to read the words off of the page for myself. Yet, the narrations are read out loud, using vocabulary from the text that is otherwise often excluded from any normal conversation or dialogue, words that one typically only finds in written form, so the narrator remains true to the text of the book. Another point about audio books worth mentioning is that I am just as involved with listening, taking in every word, the same way I would be committed to visualizing with my eyes the words that emerge from the page. The added advantage to this is that I can do other things, tasks that don’t require so much of my mental capacity to concentrate, while “reading” my book. A level of concentration is still needed, though, to register and process what I am listening to. In some cases, I miss certain points in the reading that I have to backtrack to in order to follow along with the narration, a part of listening to an audiobook that I don’t see any differently from jumping back a page or two to reference a point previously mentioned. This is one of the only drawbacks that I am noticing about “reading” an audiobook — that other senses are always competing for my attention, something that you may know from my previous posts can be problematic, what with my absent-mindedness, especially while driving. In fact, I drive a lot slower when I listen to an audiobook than when I do not. I usually reserve the audio book for any type of extended driving I have to do. If I am on the highway, the audio book comes out; it stays off if I am driving in town. The last thing I need is an accident.

The dangers of listening to audiobooks aside, I don’t feel like retention for what I am “reading” is a problem, as I am focused on the book being narrated, the reader’s voice often compelling and pragmatic. I have found myself adventuring with genres of books that I previously invested little of my efforts into. My focus in reading has often been with fiction, but I do not feel the same elation from listening to an audio work of fiction as I do with actually reading one. This is partly because of the figurative nature of literature that I enjoy so much, savoring an author’s use of symbolism and metaphor the same way a taster might relish a gourmet delicatessen. Non-fiction, the books I find myself listening to more, delves into another literary form on its own, one comprising of fact and personal account. While these works can take on creative twists in their own way, the primary purpose is to convey information about their given subject matter, so an author’s tone and use of syntax is arranged differently. I don’t think a book like The Satanic Verses with its fragments and colloquialisms would work as effectively in non-fiction form (or in an audio format, for that matter). After all, the poetic license afforded to a work of fiction like Rushdie’s novel is what gives fiction its unique appeal, something I feel I enjoy more when I have the chance to sit down and explore it more thoroughly, flipping back to previous pages to encounter the beautifully written prose over and over again. With audio books, this is not as easy to do. “Reading” an audiobook is solely for the sake of listening and learning in my opinion. Since the beginning of the year, I have read: two biographies — one about Jack London, the other regarding Carl von Stauffenberg; one band biography about Metallica; and a survey on the cultural history of rabies. The next in line is the autobiography on Gandhi.   All of these books have been easy to read because they are presenting information in more of a chronological manner. Fiction gets easily lost in the mental traps of its protagonists, so much so that it is easy to lose place, especially if multiple points of views are being expressed. I don’t know how an audio work of literature, say The Brothers Karamazov by Dostoyevsky, would “read” if I were to listen to it. I don’t know that I would want to experience a classic work like this in audio form, anyway.

I guess I answer my question. While I am listening to someone else read aloud what has already been written, I am still encountering those same grammatical forms that distinguish writing from the dialogues of conversation. My concentration is still focused on the material as it is being presented to me, whether it be from the monologues of one reader or the voice-overs of each “character” in the book, much in the same way a radio theatrical production was done in the olden days — a form of reading, I might add, that I don’t really like, nor should the book include any musical score set to fill the space between chapters or to heighten dramatic effect. I prefer a single reader over many — a quietly edited book, if you will — since this is what mirrors my own mental voice as I read a physical book. When I allow my eyes to skim across the lines of words on a page, taking in their meaning and relating these words to one another, I don’t imagine the voices of children or women playing out their roles; rather, their voice is my own. Nor, do I imagine some underscore of violins amplifying the dramatic mood of a scene. The only thing that occupies my mind while I read are my thoughts. I am glad to have this technology to allow me to enjoy a good book, even if I do not really have the time to do so in any other form.

Image source: McNally, Victoria. “Recording your Audiobook, part 1: Setting up.” Bookworks: The Self-Publishers Association. WordPress.com. 04 Mar. 2013. Web. 15 Dec. 2014.

Review of “Proof of Heaven: A Neurosurgeon’s Journey into the Afterlife” by Eben Alexander, M.D.

Proof of Heaven: A Neurosurgeon's Journey Into the AfterlifeWhile I was in graduate school, my dissertation supervisor recommended that I read her book on trauma and psychoanalysis (no surprise there).  It was a good recommendation for the direction my thesis was going, and I learned a lot about psychoanalysis from it. But, by the end of the book, I noticed something that immediately peeked my interest.  In her final chapter, she wrote about her experiences as a victim of the London city bombings back in July of 2005 and the dissociation that came from it.  She was traveling on one of the buses when a bomb planted by a suicide bomber detonated near her.  She wrote a few months later in the closing chapter of her book about having survived the attack:

“I can talk about the bag, blown open, like the picture of the one on top of the bus, with smoke and white yellowy sick oozing out all over it.  And yet, how to talk about such a near encounter with death, about you and me in the carriage?  So near and yet, I was so far away.  I climbed out of my body when the explosion happened and hovered somewhere above my head, looking on as the film unrolled.  As I write, it is just over three months now and I am no nearer to working out what this has meant, or how I explain it, least of all what I think or feel about you” (Campbell 189).

The you in this narrative would appear to be the terrorist responsible for the bombings, and this is her way of dealing with her situation.  This story reveals how she copes with the anger she feels toward her would-be attacker.  She later goes on to write:

“I feel cemented to my seat alongside the crowd, bearing witness to your death drive as some kind of avant-garde, awe inspiring act.  And so I reject that narrative; I don’t want you up there as some avenging angel.  Who wants to live with that kind of fear or hate?  Besides, I don’t want to write about, or be read into, being your victim” (189).

What immediately drew me to her story was how up-close-and-personal she was with death; and here was a woman whom I spoke with on a weekly basis for help with my dissertation.  I felt empowered by her story, empowered by the fact that she lived to tell about it, so when I encounter stories like hers or Sonali Deraniyagala’s (I wrote about her memoir a while ago), I feel compelled to try to make the most of my own life because of them.

But it isn’t easy for people like Campbell or Deraniyagala to simply go on living.  The trauma they experienced makes that difficult for them.  The dissociation Campbell felt immediately after the bombing had a lasting impact on her body, both physically and psychologically.  It will be a moment she will have to deal with for a very long time. Near-death experiences (NDE) like hers are not so uncommon, though.  In fact, one could say they happen all the time.  Films like Hereafter (2012), directed by Clint Eastwood,  or Flatliners (1990), by Joel Schumacher, are good examples showing the ways mortality and NDEs captivate our imaginations.

A near-death experience, I imagine, is a very subjective thing when you stop to consider the circumstances involved with such an experience.  Some people describe their moments with crystal-clear depictions for what happens to them, while others fail to find the words to describe theirs.  A simple search online for the testimonies from people who’ve undergone NDEs will reveal one thing for certain:  a lot of religious rhetoric about having “found God” or about having “spoken to Jesus” or possibly even about “Hell really existing” persists around this topic.  Whether Campbell spoke with God during her out-of-body experience or if Deraniyagala saw Jesus Christ helping her out of the tsunami waters remains to be seen (they never disclosed this information in their narratives); however, no matter what way you look at such experiences, it is difficult to ascertain the universal truth to anything other than what may (or may not) be considered an overly emotional reaction to having cheated death.  Unfortunately, the subjective nature of the stories that come from NDEs, in my opinion, aren’t adequate enough to prove, much less to validate the existence of a higher power, no matter what level of educational and professional experience a person on this planet may have.

Enter Eben Alexander, M.D. with his book Proof of Heaven: A Neurosurgeon’s Journey into the Afterlife.  I was intrigued by this title for one reason — a learned man of science experiences a near-death situation and writes a book about it.  I assumed the book would hold some potential for an empirical inquiry into such a narrative, which the author moderately attempts to do, yet as most of these NDEs go, it falls short by making claims that are unsubstantiated with anything other than a feeling, however overwhelming it may be.  Alexander goes through great efforts to describe different perspectives during his time in coma, using names for these unearthly realms like “Gateway,” “the Core,” or “the world of the Earthworm’s Eye-view.”   It seems clear to me that this man struggled to find a concrete way to describe his situation, maybe even getting caught up in the rhetoric of a Christian dominated theme.  After all, have the Christians not preached the fire and brimstone version of Hell and the splendor and magnificence of the pearly gates of Heaven for over six hundred some odd years now?  It would be easy to jump on that bandwagon after coming out of a seven-day coma, especially if what happened was emotionally moving.  No doubt, it was.

I must give some credit to this man’s story, though.  While I personally do not buy into his visions of the afterlife, that does not mean that the tension created by his having contracted an extremely rare and severe case of E. Coli bacterial meningitis “out of thin air” (Alexander 24) is not compelling.  On the contrary, his situation is a dire one, filled with dramatic moments that his family no doubt had to deal with.   Being in coma is no laughing matter, and this story illustrates well the strain such situations cause a family to go through.  But, like so many other critics of the book, I don’t believe his hypothesis on the afterlife, which is unarguably the sole reason he wrote the book.  As one critic for Scientific American wrote, “The fact that mind and consciousness are not fully explained by natural forces… is not proof of the supernatural. In any case, there is a reason they are called near-death experiences: the people who have them are not actually dead” (Shermer).  In the end, he is a neurosurgeon who went into coma due to a unique illness, experienced a NDE because of it, and seeks to lay claim to a universal truth that will undoubtedly be true only to him.  Until I have my own NDE and experience similar things for myself, I remain the skeptic that I am.

Works Cited

Alexander, Eben. Proof of Heaven. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2012. Print.

Campbell, Jan.  Psychoanalysis and the Time of Life. London: Routledge, 2006. Print.

Shermer, Michael. “Why a Near-Death Experience isn’t Proof of Heaven.”  Scientific American. Scientific American, Inc., 19 Mar. 2013. Web. 10 Nov. 2014.

Review of “On Killing” by Lt. Col. Dave Grossman [Audio]

On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and SocietyThere’s something primal about the act of killing another animal. An instinct set deep within the psyche, killing an animal takes a considerable toll on a person who may not be hardened by experience to the act, as if one is ever prepared for such a thing. Not long ago, I came across a pigeon in our backyard that had been mauled by a cat, but had lived through the experience. I’d say I scared the cat away while it was playing with its prey; otherwise, I think the cat would’ve finished what it had started. So, here I was watching this bird. The pigeon could not fly, nor could it really walk; it simply flapped frantically on the ground, afraid of anything and everything that came within its line of vision. I fetched my neighbor who was in his driveway, and we watched it, contemplating what to do about the bird. We decided it best to put the poor animal down. He fetched his air-rifle, while I put on garden gloves and picked the injured bird up. I was mesmerized by the rapidity of this bird’s pulse, its rigid body anticipating the next move to come. I watched on, as my neighbor returned, aimed his rifle, looked at me to see if I was ready and pulled the trigger. I have never felt worse about a single moment like the killing of that bird. I was miserable the whole day, as I tried to rationalize what my neighbor and I did to the bird. It was in pain, for sure. The cat did a number on its wing, almost severing it from its body, and the bird’s eye had been clawed. The cat was toying with its food; I didn’t cause this, yet I couldn’t help but wonder about what I had done that afternoon. Was I wrong for having put the bird out of the misery it had endured from the cat that ravaged its body?

I hunted when I was younger. Born and raised in a small rural community in the Midwest, I have known from an early age what it is like to shot guns for recreation and survival. Like my father taught us, a deer tag in one season was lucrative for us, as it beat the prices for the meat we would pay to buy beef from the local butcher, had we not hunt for ourselves. A deer tag meant filling the freezer with venison that would last the whole winter, and that alone saved my family a lot of money to be spent on other things. Hunting literally fed the family for us. It wasn’t a sport done to collect trophies; my father made sure that I understood that. This was where meat came from. This was his life lesson parted onto me. So, why did I feel remorse for this pigeon?

I vividly remember the pace of the bird’s pulse, even to this very moment as I type out these words, and that was what affected me the most. Quite literally, I felt the life of this bird fade away. I watched the glean of its eyes vanish into lifelessness, and the experience touched a nerve. It was the closest moment I have ever had with death. It was physical, and I felt it. I don’t feel ashamed for having ended this bird’s suffering. The cat would have killed it, had I not interrupted its playful banter. I recall feeling after the shot, though, that this animal deserved every right to live and breath as the next animal, as myself, and I played a part in taking that right away, albeit for what my neighbor and I rationalized to be a good cause — to end its suffering. Nevertheless, it bothered me, because living is a powerful thing, a thing we can easily take for granted, getting caught up in our daily affairs. Working to earn money to buy things and goods to make our lives easier, to occupy our time:  all of these seem only as mere distractions from what really matters — to simply live for the sake of living.

Understanding the Act

For this reason, the book On Killing by Lt. Col. Dave Grossman, published by Back Bay Books in 2003 (first published in 1995), is an instrumental lesson on the psychological costs of killing another animal, moreover another human being. This one-of-a-kind book, a study about killing, written from the expertise of a trained psychologist and U.S. Army Ranger, reveals several narratives from veterans who were forced into situations in Vietnam and other conflicts that have left them struggling to come to terms with their deeds ever since. Not only does the book seek to expose the effects that militaristic and behavioral conditioning have played on soldiers as they trained to become something their conscience would not willingly allow them to become, it also recognizes how killing became more efficient as a result of psychological conditioning, where soldiers often didn’t even realize it was happening, thus overstepping the moral dilemmas that often set in.  As combat situations have escalated throughout the twentieth- and twenty-first centuries, so too have the reparations for becoming more effective in killing taken a major toll on veterans in such conflicts, more-so than veterans from wars like World War II and Korea. The author argues that military conditioning comes with a price; the more hardened the soldier is made to killing, the more likely they are to suffer for their deeds later in life.

In On Killing, Grossman tells us that the military has made their rate of fire against enemies more accurate and efficient, upwards to a 93 percent kill-ratio, in comparison to times before when posturing, or firing over the enemies’ heads to scare them away, was more typical of the battlefield. Each modern battlefield became more proficient, as behavioral studies revealed more ways to refine, reward and hone conditional aspects to learning. Killing becomes muscle-memory to a soldier who repeatedly drills the process of shooting human-shaped targets over and over again on a range. But, this is an important point in his book. This military training is controlled, highly regulated and with severe consequences to anyone who breaks the rules of engagement. This reward/punishment system, he argues, is what keeps veterans who learned to kill and who may have had to kill in a time of conflict from doing so outside of the line of duty. The same principles can be found in law enforcement.  The responsibility to keep these trained skills at bay is a testament to this type of positive and negative reinforcement.

The premise of the book is welcoming, as it seeks to explain that killing and death are integral to life, a natural part of it, and our understanding of this back in the ol’ days was all the better for it. While reproduction and sexual relations, all of which pertain to creating life, have been studied extensively for several decades, this book’s author argues that death is seen moreso as a taboo subject, one that is often coveted in ritual, a process not openly discussed. Therefore, it is a subject that scholars have yet to fully recognize and understand. It is important to remember the olden ways of living, he argues, where families were readily open to slaughtering their own livestock, teaching and instilling the lesson of respect through the ritual of the slaughter, while showing children where their food came from. Now, we hide the process of the slaughter behind the façade of super markets, shopping centers that shrink wrap slabs of meat within little Styrofoam trays, neatly trimmed and blood-free. The process has been taken out of our daily lives, and no one is made to feel uncomfortable or squeamish by the acting of killing another living thing. This comes with a price.

Dealing with the Consequences

Grossman warns the reader that by recognizing the act of killing as a shameful process, a taboo to be avoided, we are thus instilling and harboring a morbid fascination for it. As Hollywood and the video game industry produce violent media outlets that encourage and reinforce in similar ways what the military has taught its soldiers, young people look on with a deep sense of intrigue, innately recognizing the power that comes with taking a life. Going to the movies to see desensitizing violence on the big-screen only reinforces the act. Here, we bring our families with us, buy popcorn and candies, and laugh or cringe often at the folly of the weak protagonists who allow themselves to be victimized. The sensation for more extreme and brutal violence is only made worse, building on what previous films had done in order to heighten the experience. Compounded by this association with our loved ones being near watching with us, violence on the big screen emboldens us, makes us crave the rush that comes from the horror of it all.  While the soldier on the range learning to shot targets that appear human in form is conditioned through discipline and punishment, no one reprimands us for cheering as a head is severed from the body of an evil-doer on the big screen.

The interactive nature of video games is much worse. Most people screen what their children see at the movies, with enforced rating systems in place to keep inappropriate content away from impressionable minds. The accessibility to video games, however, remains an issue. While most retailers only sell age-appropriate games to children, there are still parents who buy the latest games, not knowing that those games are violent and aggressive in nature. I remember watching a woman buy God of War III for her son, no more than 10 years old, in the checkout line in front of me once while at the store. If you know anything about this game, you would have had the same reaction I did at the moment, watching this unsuspecting mother buy this game for her boy and his friend. They were giggling with excitement about playing it when they got home. Games like these reinforce acts of violence through achievements — the more head shots in a first-person-shooter, for example, the more prestige. Combine this principle with leadership boards linked to social-networking websites, and the behavior is further reinforced. Grossman goes on to cite some very fascinating studies about the impact incarceration has on keeping extreme violence at bay, the prison system serving as a deterrent to some degree, much in the same way the military instills discipline in its own soldiers. But, this is a problem of considerable degree, not a solution to it. The point should be to keep people out of prison, not placing them there for having committed an act of violence to begin with.

I feel this is an important book, because it reveals what the psychological consequences of killing are. Post-traumatic Stress Disorder is a major theme throughout the book, and it describes many situations from the perspective of interviewed veterans who suffer from PTSD, offering insight into a disorder and its severe consequences over a person’s psyche. The problems addressed in this book are very real, and Grossman handles the topic maturely, even engaging the families of people who know someone who’s been placed in a position to kill. Returning soldiers from Iraq or Afghanistan often faced such situations, and this book is devoted to helping family members and spouses understand and attempt to relate to what their soldiers went through when faced against their enemy. Taking a life, regardless of whether it is a pigeon or a human being, is a serious matter and should be regarded and taught as such, not as some estranged act that we should downgrade and shun. By doing so, we only enlarge the gap to understanding what killing does to a person, the consequences of which our society would do well to acknowledge, to help with understanding the repercussions for such acts. This book is well worth the time.

Review of “Wave” by Sonali Deraniyagala [Audio]

WaveI don’t know what compelled me to download this book to read it.  I remember how shocking it was to learn about Sri Lanka and many of the other islands devastated by a tsunami caused by the Sumatra-Andaman earthquake on 26 December, 2004.  I remember the shock and awe from watching  the news that Christmas holiday, as footage revealed beach-front homes being washed away in a matter of minutes.  One video that I remember was taken from the vantage point of a two-story building in the center of some town, where survivors of the rapidly advancing flood waters took cover in elevated places, watching and filming the street below as it channeled this massive and forceful current of muddy, oceanic water — cars and felled trees floating through the street with the slightest of resistance.  The vehement water took no notice to obstacles, destroying virtually everything in its path.  Those people caught in the aftermath, who weren’t drowned or killed by the suddenness of the tsunami, were displaced from their homes, traumatized by the experience of the Indian ocean assaulting the beachfront like an angry god, a conqueror, laying claim to the island for itself.

I think this is what intrigued me, lured me even, to Sonali Deraniyagala’s memoir of those events.  I remember watching in disbelief as that force of nature devastated most of the coastal regions throughout that part of the Indian ocean and Indonesia.   Knowing this, and finding this book available at the library for download only set my curiosity in motion.  I had to read this book.  I wanted to know about this survivor, about what she endured, what she went through.  Reading the plot synopsis could have never prepared me for the vivid imagery of her experiences there in that beachfront hotel as the tsunami struck.  Nothing could have prepared me for the overwhelming account she tells of the ocean yanking her free of the jeep she rode to escape in with her family.  No — nothing could have warned me of the deep and awful pain of her loss, as she realizes that both of her parents, her two sons, and her husband — all of whom she was on vacation with for the holidays — would be lost to her forever.  This book, this memoir, has revealed something to me that no Gothic story could ever do:  ghosts do exist. They haunt through the memories of those who have suffered terrible and tragic loss from sudden and traumatic experiences.

I can understand why this heart-wrenching book was disliked by some readers, as this book is not for the faint of heart.  It is emotionally draining to think about her loss, and I feel this has a lot to do with the way the book has been seen by some readers.  To date, the social media website, Goodreads, reveals that this book was rated with 3-stars or less by 26 percent of readers within its community, from a pool totaling 4,917 people.  When singling out a few of those negative reviews, one reader saw it difficult to relate to the author, in saying that, “Wave is compelling, and extremely well written, but is just page after page of pain” (Greg).   Another reader confessed that “it’s hard to make a negative comment about this book without coming across as hard hearted…but I found it really hard to empathise with the author as she came across as cold, selfish and spoilt [sic]… I would hope that most people wouldn’t be as callous as she” (Avidreader).  Another commenter agreed with this reader, stating how, “I kept wondering throughout this admittedly well-written memoir how the thousands of others who lost families with less means made it through their grief…. I really liked and enjoyed the writing, but didn’t have much sympathy for the author because of this” (Lisa).  Some even go so far as to attribute Deraniyagala’s lack of empathy for those around her in the earlier parts of her memoir, when she was clearly in shock from her experiences, as a sign of her stature and wealthy status, what with her being a learned economics scholar from Cambridge and Oxford universities.  While I cannot attest to how this book will affect you, good reader, should you decide to pick it up and read it for yourself, I can say that the brutal honesty Deraniyagala writes in this book is not to appeal to you, as readers, in some way, but it is more for herself.   This memoir is about healing; it is about coming to terms with grief and living with those ghosts that haunt her.

Compound the loss of her entire family to that fateful Sunday morning with the traumatic experience of facing near death, herself, and you find this book is about expressing that which she cannot bring herself to express.  Throughout much of the memoir, she is reluctant to tell anyone of her experience, of her loss, for fear of letting too much reveal itself.  She doesn’t want to recall those painful memories, doesn’t want people to get too close to her, to pity her.  As Deraniyagala writes, “I am in the unthinkable situation that people cannot bear to contemplate.”  And she is right.  How can anyone imagine such a surreal tragedy?  How could anyone possibly endure such  terrible loss and still remain a sane person?  How can we as readers relate to her experience and say we truly understand her situation?  Unless you have personally suffered too, there is no way to do this.  If you read this book, you are merely along for the ride.  This is her struggle with grief and the trauma of her survival when all others failed to do so; you might even add a dash of survivor’s guilt because of this, as a few points in the book tend to reveal.

The imagery she weaves all throughout the memoir is haunting; the memories of her boys, of her husband, resonate all throughout the book, intermingling with her attempts to reminisce the life she once had.  Yet, she can never return to those moments before the tsunami.  As one critic for the New Yorker wrote: “‘Wave’ is really two stories in one.  The second story is about remembering the life of a family when they were happy.  The first is about the stunned horror of a woman who lost, in one moment, her past, present, and future” (Cole).  We get both experiences running parallel throughout the story as Deraniyagala asks herself questions like “Was I their mother?”  She tells us about other moments — intensely, emotionally rich moments, where she reveals insights into her previous life and what it was like to return to it:

I’ve pushed away thoughts of my children’s everyday hurts and fears, suggestions of their frailty and tenderness.  It’s easier to remember my boys with humor or to recall their cheek.  But now as I dare to peer more closely at them, they emerge more whole.

For years I’ve told myself it’s pointless to cherish my children’s personalities and their passions, for they are now dead.  But here in our home I am surrounded by proof of it all.  I unlock my mind a little and allow myself to know the wonder of them.

Deraniyagala repeatedly confides in her memorial to her family such revealing moments, where she seeks to come to terms with herself and the past she once had with her family.  The details she includes, ranging from the mud still on the doormat that would have been from her husband’s boots to the sounds of distant laughter resonating throughout a room, sounds from a time before the wave changed everything, seems to suggest what Cathy Caruth reveal as the enigmatic and confounding nature of trauma, in that we have not only confronted death, but we “hav[e] survived, precisely, without knowing it” (original emphasis, 64). Flashbacks from moments in the past return to haunt a survivor, often repeatedly, making it incomprehensible, she argues, to understand one’s own survival.  Linking this to Freud’s theory on the life and death drive, Caruth tells us that it is not the incomprehensibility of survival that creates an imposition for death, but a traumatic ‘awakening’ to life (64).  As a survivor, realizing one’s near-death experiences often leaves a person with little to no preparations for such moments, and the impact of this, the “failing to return to the moment of a [person’s] act of living” changes the future for that individual.  For Deraniyagala, her grief for the loss of family is what keeps her from moving on; it is the source of her personal trauma.  Her memories frequently haunt her, and the fact that she wrote this book nearly 9 years after-the-fact is a sign that she is still coming to terms with her loss but is nevertheless learning to live again.

There are moments in her writing where Deraniyagala tells us about shying away from or  utterly avoiding people who inquire about her family.  Only her closest friends know about her situation, and through them, she sees her boys grow older, the daughters of her London friends, an example of this.  She dreads their birthdays because the pain of knowing they’re no longer alive is too tormenting, always referring to each in the tense “would be.”  Whenever she is placed on the spot and someone asks about her family or her parents, she attempts to get out of answering their questions, a point she motions in the book as having caused a “pickle” when seeing the person a second time around.  “How are your parents?”  She would be asked, to which her response was “they’re fine,” always afraid to go into anymore detail than this.  But, this changes by the end of the book.  She confesses that it may have been the mojitos that loosened her up to reveal what she does, but she confides in a stranger, an inquisitive old Jewish man, asking about her family life, and this moment, much like the writing of this very book, is what reveals to us that she has found peace within herself and can move on with her life.  She tells us that it is becoming easier for her to live with the memories of her two boys and her husband, and that there is life beyond suffering.  One only has to endure to learn it.

I will be thinking about this woman’s story for a long time to come.  The use of the personal pronoun I not only makes it Deraniyagala’s story, but it makes it my own, and I cannot help but mourn the loss of her family with her, while celebrating the time I have now with my own.

Works Cited

Avidreader. Community Reviews [Comment]. Wave by Sonali Deraniyagala.” Goodreads.  Goodreads, Inc., 2014. Web. 29 Mar. 2014.

Caruth, Cathy. Unclaimed Experience: Trauma, Narrative, and History. Baltimore: John Hopkins UP, 1996. Print.

Cole, Teju. “A Better Quality of Agony.”  The New Yorker. Conde Nast, 28 Mar. 2013. Web. 29 Mar. 2014.

Deraniyagala, Sonali. Wave. New York: A.A Knopf, division of Random House, Inc., 2013. Digital Media Library. Audiobook. 17 Mar. 2014.

Lisa. Community Reviews [Comment]. Wave by Sonali Deraniyagala.” Goodreads.  Goodreads, Inc., 2014. Web. 29 Mar. 2014.

Review of “Birth School Metallica Death: Volume 1” by Paul Brannigan and Ian Winwood [Audio]

Birth School Metallica Death, Volume 1: The BiographyReminiscing about Metallica

There was hardly elbow room, that’s how packed with metal fans the open-air arena was — people with attitudes and a passion for good hard music.  The summer night was electric.  The anticipation for the Metallica Load tour to Indianapolis, Indiana, on 02 July, 1996, was unprecedented in our teenage minds.  Songs like “Sad but True” and “Wherever I May Roam” were on the tips of our tongues, waiting to be screamed out in unison with James Hetfield and other fans alike.  This 1996 tour was set at a time in Metallica’s career where their fan base was firmly and internationally in place.  I didn’t know a single person who had never heard a song off of the Black album, the frequency of “Enter Sandman” on Indy’s X103, the favored radio station for hard rockers at the time, contributing to this.  In fact, this was how my friends and I learned that Metallica was coming to Deer Creek.  We immediately went to the local Ticketmaster at Kroger’s and bought four tickets.  Like every metal fan going to their first concert, we worshiped those tickets on the altar of metal, and we banged our heads in acceptance of their awesome goodness.  The day finally arrived.  I had a car, so we all drove to the concert in my 1978 olive green Chevy “the beast” Malibu, listening to Master of Puppets and Ride the Lightning all the way to Indy, which was a good three hour drive for us.  This little road trip mentally prepped us for the energy and excitement of seeing Metallica live, on stage, at the Deer Creek Music Center for the first time.  How could we have had any idea for the sheer magnitude of such an experience?

Aaron was the only one who had been to a concert before.  He had gone to see Pearl Jam, which as a band compared in no way to the show we were about to see.  Rumor had it that Metallica put on an epic show, that they knew how to entertain their audience.  We were about to find out.  The opening act was setting up their stage as we entered the arena.  Jerry Cantrell, known for his part in Alice in Chains, opened for them, which was a pleasant appetizer, but it did nothing really to prep us for what was coming.  Our thirst could only be quenched with songs like “Metal Militia” or “Whiplash.”  Cantrell, a musician of some renown even, didn’t really stand a chance.  It was a great experience seeing him perform live, but it was just not what we were there for.  Finally, everyone cheered for Cantrell and his exit.  The stage went dark.  The night had settled upon us, and Black and White Rock Handsthe crowd was buzzing with energy.  The smell of pot and booze was everywhere, the open-air pavilion doing little to clear out the heavy cloud looming over all of the smokers looking for a fix just before the show.  Out of the darkness, Hetfield’s voice bellowed loudly into the night, “So fucking what?”  Signs of the horns were held high by everyone in the crowd, as the stage lights flared into existence and metal filled the air, revealing the only thing between us and the stage to be a sea of long conditioned hair waving in perpetual motion set to the razor-edged rhythm of fast-paced guitar rifts and drum percussions.  The rumors were right; what a great show that was.

Getting to know the Band

Birth School Metallica Death, Volume 1 is the coming-of-age story of the band that I worshipped as a teenager.  It is safe to assume that by this point the band really needs no introduction in this review.  If you, good reader, don’t know who Metallica is, then I recommend picking up the Master of Puppets album (1986) to listen to “Welcome Home (Sanitarium)” or the Black album (1991) for a sample of “The Unforgiven” to get a feel for what this band is like.  Hell, any song off of any album will be telling for their style of music.  The moment I learned about this biography, I jumped at the opportunity to read about the metal band that I followed so diligently during my teen years.  I downloaded an audio copy of this book with the same enthusiasm I had those so many years before when I waited in line at the Ticketmaster.  Metallica was about more than simply banging heads and marching around angrily.  It was about having a release for that anger, for being different, for being ourselves.  It meant knowing that we weren’t alone, that we were fans, belonging to a like-minded collective — a legion really — of people who saw in Metallica a way of fitting in, but, most of all, it was about being cool.  That Metallica, themselves, were much the same as their fans only made them all the more influential, all the more important to us.  We could relate to them some how.  It was part of being a teen to like them, at least in the circles that I ran around with, especially during the 90s when music and popular culture were taking a darker, more burlesque, more sinister theme. This had its appeal.  The decadence of the 90s was marked and inspired by musicians like Trent Reznor, Marilyn Manson, Maynard James Keenan, Till Lindemann, Rob Zombie and Jonathan Davis, amongst others.  If it wasn’t dark, it simply wasn’t.  The undertones surrounding the 90s were dystopic; the millennium was approaching its end, and people were feeling jubilant (or morose) about the end of days.

Metallica always knew how to stand out from the crowd, though.  This biography, written by Paul Brannigan and Ian Winwood, music journalists both, sets that clear.  This book helped to explain a lot of the emotions I was experiencing for the band in the early 90s when the Load album was released.  Like so many other fans felt, Load took some getting used to.  The rifts were milder, more melodic, not the same high-tempo rifts as their previous works.  Many saw this album as a break away from the thrash metal scene that Master of Puppets and And Justice for All so skillfully represented, and it disappointed fans, including myself.  As Lars Ulrich states in the biography, which has been paraphrased here, thrash metal was a scene they ultimately wanted to distance themselves from.  There was no future in it for them (qtd. in Brannigan and Winwood).  It had been their desire to perform first and foremost for themselves that makes Metallica the remarkable band that they are, but I failed to see this back then.  The only thing that I knew was that they were changing their approach to music, maturing as performers even, and I felt betrayed by what I failed to understand.   I eventually came to love songs like “Until It Sleeps” or “Outlaw Torn.”  In fact, I listen to the Load  album with a great appreciation for many of its songs now.

Brannigan and Winwood reveal how this wasn’t the first time fans felt disappointed for a move Metallica made in their own interest, what with the song “Fade to Black” on the Ride to Lightning album, the second to be released by the band in 1984.  This song broke from the head-banging, stage-diving, moshing traditions that were often associated to thrash metal concerts, and some fans immediately distanced themselves from the band for it.  Metallica stuck it out, though, and played the song, regardless of reactions from their fans — and more importantly, from the reviews that followed.  While their passion for the music they wrote is clear, the turbulence that came with being a rock band filled with adolescent emotions amidst the public eye takes a different toll on their music, especially as they were seen breaking away from normal conventions, a point the biography captures well with personal anecdotes from band members, music journalists, producers, and other friends to the band.

Keeping a Distance

One thing the band sought to keep its distance from was the drama that was often associated with stardom.  In fact, the band didn’t really make a major name for themselves until almost a decade after their founding with the release of the Black album by Elektra Records, the first major label to back up their name.  Before this, Brannigan and Winwood remind us that they had a lot of great reviews.  They were even adored by fans on the British metal scene and their West coast home front, but they were striving to move away from the same gigs.  They toured arduously with bands like Ozzy Osbourne, serving as the opening act, in order to get as much stage time as possible.  But, while Metallica was focused on playing smaller venues and opening acts, building a name for themselves with fans who identified with their simple image, hair metal bands like Motley Crue, Def Leppard and Poison showed off the glamor and glitz that came more typically with being rock stars of the 80s (notice the comparison between the two bands here):

Picture of Metallica

Copyright Megaforce Records, Inc.

Picture of Poison

Like night and day, we see from the two pictures above how Metallica appears dressed in little more than their jean jackets with torn off sleeves and long hair; no adornments of any kinds, as opposed to Poison, who dresses themselves in leopard-skin prints, tight-fitting leather pants, head bands and other such accessories that were typical of the 80s hair metal genre.  We need no audio samples to tell from these two pictures how differently each group was to one another.

Lars Ulrich and James Hetfield, the two original founding members of Metallica, sought to keep as much distance from these types of bands as possible.  From reading the biography, one even gets the impression that Ulrich and Hetfield loathed these other bands.  And with good reason.  According to one anecdote in the book, Ulrich and Hetfield were promoting their up-coming concerts by personally handing out flyers to people in one club, while band members from Motley Crue were flaunting their lifestyles around with chics at their table.  When it came to performing, Brannigan and Winwood make it clear to the reader that Ulrich and Hetfield were all about work first, then play.  The performance, not the “show,” was what mattered.    The fact that they made it to billboard charts without the aid of MTV or any radio airplay in America is a testament to the hard work they invested into the promotion of their music.  Ulrich, the more ambitious of the two, was always looking for connections and leads to promote their name,  the book revealing quite a holistic look at the groundwork being laid during their earlier years.  But, for all it was worth to keep the band’s name away from drama, it was an inevitable part of their careers as rock stars that it should find them.

The relationship with Dave Mustaine, who later went on to create the band, Megadeth, is an example of such drama.  His excessive drinking and thirst for satisfying his ego, a true rock star’s calling card, was one of the earliest friction points in the band, his lifestyle a contradiction to their hardworking mentality. Ultimately, he was replaced by Kirk Hammett, who has since been the band’s lead guitarist (Brannigan and Winwood).  The book tells us how this happened midway through a tour, with Mustaine sent packing back to California, while Hammett flew overhead en route to where the band was to replace him.  Another account that led to the inspiration for “Fade to Black” was a robbery of their equipment just outside of Boston while touring for Kill ‘Em All.  This set-back was a major burden on their financial situation at the time.  On the verge of entering into recording for Ride the Lightning, their profits from sales were fully devoted to financing this label, even to the point of living modestly.  At the time, Metallica was a band that set themselves apart from other bands like them, holding to a discipline and rigor unlike any other in the industry, but they weren’t really making much money doing it.  While there are a number of reasons to attest to this, one can definitely say that things started to look up for Metallica once Cliff Burton, the sought-after bassist from San Francisco, joined them, creating for the band a unique harrowing sound that helped to make a more professionally driven Metallica as a result.  They knew what they were making was good.  In fact, his baselines are  what made him one of the greatest bass players the heavy metal world at that point had ever known.  Regrettably, he is the source of Metallica’s third mishap with unwanted drama.  While in Sweden on their And Justice for All European tour, Cliff Burton was crushed in an accident as their bus’s driver lost control of the vehicle due in part to black ice on the early-morning road.  Band members had little time to mourn, though, as business is business, and they departed on their Asian tour scheduled to take place as originally planned, only four weeks after his death.  This forced them to move on, and fans were largely sympathetic to them all for it.

About the Book

This biography is worth the read if you are looking to learn more about an international band that established its roots first in hard work and self-image.  Without having that sense of what they themselves wanted from their music careers, they would have ended up like many other metal bands of the 80s, distant memories of an iconic era.  Instead, Metallica challenged many of the conventions that defined heavy metal at the time and paved the way for many bands to follow in their wake.  By setting their own ambitions around their commitment and passion for heavy metal, instead of catering solely to their fan base, they were able to withstand the test of time and have become one of the planet’s most influential bands.  Birth School Metallica Death: Volume 1 is an excellent look at not just the founding of one of metal’s most famous bands, but at the making of a genre of music that has since never looked back.  If you’re a novice to the metal scene and would like to learn more about what this subculture has to offer, especially from the vantage point of the 1980s, then this book is a great start.  Volume 2 of this biography will be set from the Black album (1991) onwards and is pending release “in autumn 2014” (Perry).

Works Cited

Brannigan, Paul and Ian Winwood. Birth School Metallica Death: Volume 1.  Philadelphia: Da Capo Press, 2013. Audiobook.

Perry, Andrew. “Back to Black: Birth School Metallica Death, Volume 1, by Paul Brannigan & Ian Winwood, review.” The Telegraph Telegraph Media Group Limited, 20 Nov. 2013. Web. 13 Mar. 2014.

Review of “Rabid: A Cultural History of the World’s Most Diabolical Virus” by Bill Wasik and Monica Murphy [Audio]

Rabid: A Cultural History of the World's Most Diabolical Virus

One fine afternoon, while walking with my son through the woods just down the road from where we live, we meandered our way down an overgrown path, just off the logger trail, to a hunting lodge,  where I found a sign posted outside the makeshift cabin warning of Tollwut, which means “Rabies” in German.  When I asked my father-in-law about the warning, he said it was something to watch out for in these parts of northern Bavaria where I live, just on the outskirts of the Steigerwald.  Curiosity about the disease seized me from that point on, where luck would have it that Bill Wasik and Monica Murphy, husband and wife, journalist and veterinarian, wrote a book about the disease.  Rabid: A Cultural History of the World’s Most Diabolical Virus was published by Viking Adult in 2012,  so I downloaded an audio version of the book from the Overdrive digital library to indulge my inquisitiveness.  What I found was a comprehensive and engaging look at the historical, the cultural and the empirical nature of this disease.  And it was a damn good read, too.

About the Book

Wasik, a senior editor for Wired, writes jointly with his veterinarian wife, Murphy, of accounts of attacks made on hapless, unsuspecting victims bitten by all manner of creatures, ranging from dogs to raccoons to bats, some with grueling imagery.  Yet, the book does more than recount these gruesome struggles for survival; it illustrates, rather effectively, how rabies as a virus has captivated our imagination over the centuries when scientific scrutiny offered no insight on the terrible nature of this illness, where people would often mistake its symptoms for demonic possession instead.  Wasik and Murphy take the reader on an exploration through pages of medieval texts, revealing how the virus has become more than that, but an inspiration for myth and legend.  One reviewer wrote that the book was “rather slow” during the earlier chapters where the authors build up their case for this mythical association, what with their “[description of] the potential for rabies as the disease that significantly contributed to vampire and werewolf legends,” but later yields that the “pace of the book picks up”  once Wasik and Murphy begin looking at the earlier works of  microbiologists and how the book directs its focus more on the scientific, microbial aspects of the disease (Boury).  It is safe to assume that with this review being published in the Journal of Microbiology and Biology Education, the reviewer may be a bit bias toward the more scientific inclinations of the book.  I do agree with her, though, when in the end, she concludes that “this book was both educational and entertaining and worth reading” (Boury).  I feel this book is well balanced  and offers a little something for all readers about the many facets of the disease.

While the book offers clear descriptive accounts for the symptomatic features of the virus, what with hydrophobia, the fear of water that is typically associated with patients or victims of the illness, there are a few areas I feel it could have been more convincing, namely in its attempts to tie rabies to some of today’s own popular culture.  I couldn’t help but feel that the authors were trying too hard to link the virus to popular themes seen in today’s media.  Yes, it ambitiously ties the associations of the disease found in many primeval texts to such folkloric myths as the werewolf and the vampire, which are the more convincing parts of the book, but it takes this even further still by linking rabies to the zombie narrative.  As it is referenced in the book, though, the zombie is somewhat suspect in having its origins rooted anywhere in the history of rabies, a redeeming point I must give back to the authors.  Be not mistaken, I do find the book’s rational for the werewolf myth to be very informative, especially in the accounts told in the earlier chapters of the book for the dog and its role as man’s best friend and servant, but also for being one of the predominant species that carries rabies in the world, thus revealing where a deeply rooted fear for the animal comes from.  Equally, the association made to the vampire and the appearance of the bat as one of the main carriers for the disease by modern science explains some of the myth stemming out of the nineteenth century, where closely linked ties between victims who would fall ill from the bites of bats were more than abundant. A hat tip to Bram Stoker with regard to this one.

About the Disease

The grim accounts told in the book to illustrate these points linking the disease to its mythical counterparts are not for the squeamish, but they do serve to show how those victims could easily be seen as that of the mythical monster, transforming upon a moment’s notice into a raging, uncontrolled beast, on account of the incubation period of the virus in the body.  Losing all control over themselves, the onset of hydrophobia would drive these victims into a raging frenzy, biting haplessly into the air, uncontrollable spasms racking the body as the nerves’ synopsis fail to inhibit their receptors, causing the victim to die rather terribly without the aid of a vaccine to reduce their symptoms.  An example of what rabies does to animals — namely dogs — may be found in this KOAT Action 7 News video, reporting on a case of rabies in a Valencia county animal shelter in New Mexico.  As the report indicates, footage in this video may be sensitive to some viewers.

 Regrettably, the 12 dogs in the kennel were euthanized as a result of the progressive state of the disease.  There was little that could be done for them.

Like any compelling analytical survey does, the book delivers a full account for the historical development of its topic, in this case the vaccine as it was developed in the 19th century by Louis Pasteur, a French chemist and self-taught microbiologist.  The trials and tribulations as Pasteur set to discover what he did not know about rabies at the time is one of the more remarkable parts of this book.  At one point, Wasik and Murphy account for why trained medical professionals from the 19th century  had such a profound lack of understanding for the disease, given that all the folklore and myth loosely based around the disease had undoubtedly compounded and misconstrued the truths behind the virus and its symptoms, so much so that 3rd century Grecian philosophers and their observations of rabid dogs were more telling about how rabies really was over these learned medical practitioners, some 1,500 years later.  It wasn’t until the discovery of the virus as a microbial organism that the dynamics for our understanding of rabies changed for the better.

Still, the modern world is not safe from this virus, as it kills many animals and even people from less stable regions around the globe each year.  In more remote regions  where government bodies lack an adequate infrastructure, rabies remains a deadly disease, to which even the Center for Disease Control and Prevention acknowledges its danger.  The book discusses in its later chapters several threats that occurred across urban spaces in the United States during 2008 and even an outbreak of rabies amongst dogs on the island of Bali, where “the island’s first attempt to combat the outbreak was an unsuccessful culling campaign in which 100,000 dogs were killed” (Belford).  With these incidents happening as recently as 2010, there is little doubt to the magnitude this disease can have on an isolated population, whether it be an inner-city or an island.  One thing the book does well is that it ends with a hopeful look at what is being done in rabies research.

Raising Awareness

Regardless of the breakthroughs that have happened in the way we understand the virus, though, it still poses a threat to anyone who may be bitten by a rabid animal.  If someone is not immediately treated after having been bitten, the results could be terminal, grueling and painful.  The book does not offer a cure for the disease, but what it does offer is awareness.  For all of the book’s strengths — what in its ability to show the disease’s influence over our imagination — and its weaknesses — making associations it, itself, acknowledges as border-line ridiculous — it tells a compelling story of a disease that has haunted man with his tamed natural instinct for countless years.  The book has certainly got me thinking about that walk in the woods I frequently take.  While it hasn’t deterred me from going outside to enjoy nature, I remain vigilant to the signs that are out there, knowing that deep down there’s more to this virus than its own pathological origins.

Works Cited

Belford, Aubrey. “Dog-Loving Bali Tries to Tame Rabies Outbreak.” New York Times.  The New York Times Company, 29 Sep. 2010. Web. 08 Mar. 2014.

Boury, Nancy. “Review of: Rabid: A Cultural History of the World’s Most Diabolical Virus.” Journal of Microbiology & Biology Education 14.1 (2013): 139-140. PubMed. Web. 08 Mar. 2014.