Nearly Forgotten Nazi Medical Brutality

Lilac Girls

By Martha Hall Kelly

Since World War II ended more than seventy years ago, memories of it are fading from living minds, what with the last of the longest lived survivors nearing the end. The horrors of total world war are not something people can afford to forget, nor the terrors of authoritarian rule, scapegoating, and racism. Fortunately, you can read about all this in history books and personal chronicles. You can experience the suffering of the war and the oppression and murdering by the Nazis on a more personal basis through the pages of historical novels and memoirs. Here, too, in these volumes you can learn about people, persecutors, victims, and rescuers, who sometimes get lost in formal histories.

And therein lies the virtue of Martha Hall Kelly’s novelistic treatment of life in Ravensbrück, a Nazi concentration camp imprisoning women (the majority Polish, classified as political prisoners) exclusively, and where the Nazis conducted medical experiments secretly on healthy prisoners. These experiments, involving the efficacy of sulfonamides (the first antibiotics) in treating battlefield wounds in which subjects were operated on to introduce objects and infectious bacteria, resulted in the crippling of scores of women and the deaths of some from infection or by execution. When the war ended, these women, who were Polish, were left to fend for themselves, as the West German government would not pay for their rehabilitation. Then, in stepped socialite and former actress Caroline Ferriday. A francophile who had been collecting and shipping items to orphanages before and during the war, she took on the task of having these women, thirty five in total, all Polish, brought to the U.S. for treatment. Further, she helped force the West German government to compensate these women. You’d think all this would have earned Caroline Ferriday a page on Wikipedia, but no.

Kelly’s telling features Caroline Ferriday, Kasia, a composite character representing the Polish women, and the real Huerta Oberheuser, the female camp doctor who conducted the experiments and also participated in prison executions. Kelly tells the story by switching from character to character, until the end when the women and Ferriday meet up and Kasia confronts Oberheuser long after the war. Most chapters end with a cliffhanger to keep readers moving forward at a quick clip. While Kelly’s style is somewhat featureless, the incidents prove so dramatic, and often emotional, that they speak for themselves and move readers without authorial fireworks.

Lilac Girls puts the horrors of authoritarian government and the twin concepts of super race and racism on full display. That people can treat each other savagely and murderously is no secret. But that there are people with enough compassion and drive to step in as saviors, that’s inspirational and holds some hope for us humans. w/c

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Joan of Arc in the 21st Century

The Book of Joan

By Lidia Yuknavitch

The Hundreds Years’ War, a conflict between a French faction supported by England and the House of Valois, was notable for its length, spanning generations, for the scorched earth tactics employed by the Burgundians/English, and for the myth arising around a young child savior, Joan of Arc. In Lidia Yuknavitch’s dystopian novel, Joan finds herself resurrected in the person of a girl who rather than deriving her powers from religious visions obtains them as a result of her oneness with dirt, that is the Earth, encompassing all its powers of creation.

In the beginning, Joan misuses her power as she wages a war of total destruction again an evil, insane, charismatic Jean de Men. As the mythic Joan fell into the hands of Burgundians, so Jean de Men captures Joan. Similar to Joan of Arc, de Men puts her on a showy trial and executes her by fire at the stake. The result, of course, is the opposite of his intension and Joan becomes both legend and hope encapsulated in a book engraved by electrocautery on the skin of Christine Pizan. Christine knows a secret, that Joan did not perish, and it’s Christine’s mission to defeat de Men and allow Joan to use her powers of fecundity to restore the world, much as it was those supporting Joan of Arc to use her to produce an independent France.

Yuknavitch conjures some pretty striking images, particularly of Jean de Men’s domaine, a suborbital city, CIEL, in the sky populated by a class of horribly mutated humans, white hairless beings devoid of sexuality, unable to reproduce themselves, who exit to exit, and who scribe their existence on their skin and skin graphs that hang from them like robes. CIEL hovers above a burned over world, one denuded of vegetation, a ball of brown dirt. Underneath that bare surface, ragtag groups of survivors exist, many of them awaiting a savior they know will return with the power to make things whole again.

Now, to enjoy Yuknavitch’s novel, readers have to put logic aside, because her world is quite fantastical. It defies logic, much in the way destroying your own planet by polluting it and ravaging it with wars does, and by restricting, subjugating, and punishing those who give and nurture life does. In this regard, Yuknavitch makes a dramatic point. Unfortunately, if things get too out of hand, too much like she envisions here, there will be no savior at the ready to put things right again, at least not for millions of years. w/c

Is Trump a Sociopath?

Confessions of a Sociopath: A Life Spent Hiding in Plain Sight

M. E. Thomas

First, you may be wondering, what the heck is the difference between a psychopath and a sociopath? Essentially, they share the same characteristics. However, the degrees are different. For instance, both have a problem with remorse and guilt, which relates to conscious. A sociopath might realize faintly that an action is bad but does it anyway and feels almost no regret in doing so. A psychopath doesn’t even see an action as good or bad and whether good or bad takes neither pleasure (except, perhaps, for the gratification of control and the like) nor feels no remorse about it. Neither are by nature lunatic killers, like in the movies. They are, though, cunning and manipulative. For more on sociopathic traits, see this piece from Psychology Today.

Well, there can’t be too many sociopaths among us, can there? It’s rare, isn’t it? Phd Martha Stout (formerly of the Harvard clinical faculty) in her book The Sociopath Next Door estimates the number to be around four percent in the U.S. population. Measured against the current American population that means about 13 million Americans are sociopaths. Further, the percentage climbs to atmospheric levels for those in positions of power (remember Albert Dunlap, anyone?).

Now, you might think that sociopaths would stand out like sore thumbs, given how antisocial and cold they sound. You would be wrong. Even knowing their traits, you will probably find it hard to tell them from most “normal” people. Why? Because, unless they are completely unhinged and raging (sound like anybody we know?), they blend in very well. Credit that to an ability to mimic real emotions and acceptable behavior. Which brings us to this quite good and illuminating book, Confessions of a Sociopath. Truly, it is book written for our times.

Pseudonymous Thomas writes a combination memoir, primer, and polemical on the sociopath, debunking the idea they are inherently criminals and postulating their benefit to society. It boils down to self-awareness and adherence to external stops as substitutes for wanting emotions, both of which Thomas possesses, gained through personal failure followed by dispassionate self-examination.

Thomas, a law professor by trade, is a first-rate writer. She benefits from superior powers of observation that she displays often in relating her personal story and that she employs to project just the emotions people expect of her in various situations. She states often and illustrates her central motivation: power and control. And time and again, she relates the effort required for a sociopath to blend into a society of empaths, her term for those fully equipped with emotions. In her case, to blend and succeed she has constructed what she calls her prosthetic moral compass.

Halfway through, she sums affairs up succinctly: “What is it like being self-aware without a self-construct [self-identity]? Much of my self-awareness is the result of indirect observation of the effects I have on people. I know I exist because I see people acknowledging my existence…. Sociopaths are like dark matter in that we typically keep our influence hidden, albeit in plain sight, but you can certainly see our effects. I watch for people’s reactions to me so I am able to understand, ‘I make people feel scared when I stare at them this way.’ My awareness of self is made up of a million of these little observations to paint a picture of myself, like a pointillist portrait…. That is why my prosthetic moral compass has been so useful to me, in helping to define me and restrict my behavior; my personal code of efficiency and religion have, for the most part, kept me on the straight and narrow.”

Her story ranges over her childhood, her somewhat dysfunctional parents, the benefits of her strict religion (she is Mormon), her dissolution into failure, her critical self-examination, and her resurrection. Along the way, she picks and chooses research to support her arguments about sociopathy and the place of the sociopath in society; that is, integrated. Naturally, as you read along, much of what she’s done will put you off. Nonetheless, you end up with, if not a liking for her, at least a bit of admiration. You certainly will end up with an improved understanding of how a sociopath thinks, copes, and exerts influence (or manipulates) those around him or her.

And why would this be important? To understand that sociopaths, apart from a handful, are not raging maniacs and probably exercise influence and control beyond their rather scant numbers. Because while comprising only around four percent of the total population, their representation in the professions, government, and corporate leadership is probably far greater, considering the attributes for success in these endeavors.

Approach Ms. Thomas’s book an eye opener worthy of your time, especially with you-known-who at the American helm. w/c

Jack Reacher vs. the Opioid Crisis

The Midnight Line

By Lee Child

Many Americans realize that opioid use, both legal and illegal, is out of control in the United States. Fact is, the U.S. is the most opioid drug addled country in the world. And while the drug in its various manifestations runs rampant in the general population, it’s even greater among American service members, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse. Many factors contribute to this, among them vigorous and unscrupulous promotion by pharmaceutical companies, physicians lacking proper training in and understanding of pain management, and insurance companies unwilling to pay for non-drug alternative management of pain. So great is the problem that the preeminent American tough guy moralist and dispenser of one-man righteous justice can’t ignore it. Unfortunately, even Reacher can only but call it to the attention of his large fan club and hope that they will make their voices heard in devising workable solutions before thousands more die needlessly from overdosing on medicine chest drugs.

This, then, is to say that Lee Child’s new outing for Jack Reacher, The Midnight Line, is not only among his best but also among his most significant for dealing with an issue plaguing every state in the union, and particularly the American military.

Reacher finds himself in a small town in Wisconsin. There, he notices a class ring in the window of a pawn shop. Not any ordinary class ring, but one from West Point, his own alma mater. Understanding what it takes to earn that ring, what it symbolizes, he decides to reunite it with its owner. In his own special laconic and logical way, Reacher tracks the ring from Wisconsin to Rapid City, South Dakota, and finally to Mule Crossing, Wyoming, a fictitious town smaller than the smallest town not only in Wyoming but in all of the U.S., Van Tassell (which, maybe by coincidence is roughly halfway between Rapid City and Laramie, like Mule Crossing). What Reacher discovers is pretty much as described at the opening of this review: Vets mistreated and left to fend for themselves, while being preyed upon some infuriatingly nefarious characters that extend beyond the scope of the always resourceful Reacher. w/c

The Biggest Killer in History Could Kill Again

The Great Influenza: The Epic Story of the Deadliest Plague in History

By John M. Barry

Humankind likes to think it is in control and rests comfortable in that thought. When something unknown and uncontrollable strikes, panic ensues. Just that happened when influenza struck the world in 1918, a world already weary of the first total world war, a war that led to a near suspension of democracy in the United States as Woodrow Wilson and his administration prepared to enter the conflict. John Barry not only tells the story of a disease raging rampant across the U.S. and the entire world but how humankind’s own deadly squabbling and compulsion to control, restrict, and distort information contributed to worldwide panic and, probably, millions of unnecessary deaths. His is at once a tale of terror, inspiration, and caution. It’s one that readers should pay particular heed to in light of the demoralizing beating truth and honesty are taking today in American society.

To truly appreciate the 1918 influenza, readers need an understanding of biology, chemistry, public health practices, medical practices, and the political and social milieu of the period. While a lot to ask, what makes Barry’s history so brilliant is how he weaves all these disciplines into the story to the point where you acquire a basic working knowledge of virology and bacteriology, in addition to a greater appreciation of modern medical science.

Barry begins with the state of medical practice and education and scientific research a century before the great influenza attack. Indeed, what a sorry state it was with no standards in sight. Over time, though, and with great skill and insight, dedicated, curious, and exacting people wrought the kind of modern medical world familiar to us today. It arrived just in time to face off with the influenza plague. What will strike you in particular is just how small the research community was, concentrated in a few institutions in the U.S., especially Johns Hopkins and the Rockefeller Institute (now Rockefeller University) and a few men and a woman, among them William Welch, Simon Flexner, Oswald Avery, William Park, Anna Williams, and a handful of others. Little known today, except to those involved in medicine and research, you learn just what giants they were and how they contributed a modern life we take for granted today.

You can’t fathom influenza without understanding something of virology and bacteriology. Barry does an excellent job of explaining and illustrating how viruses and bacteria work and how researchers isolate these organisms and devise methods for combatting them. Concomitant with this knowledge is an understanding of public health policy and techniques, which Barry threads throughout the story.

In many ways, the early part of the 20th century proved a perfect breeding ground and killing field for influenza as the Great War caused great concentrations of soldiers in camps, ports, ships, and battlefields in less than healthful conditions. As readers will learn, the times accounted for an accelerated dissemination of the influenza virus and its mutations. What also contributed to the disease, especially its capacity to strike raw terror into the hearts of people so overpowering and crippling that sister would not help sister or brother brother, is that the American government, from Washington straight down to local districts, lied to the American people about the severity and cause of the health crisis, and enlisted the media of the day to participate, all in the name of patriotism and the drive to focus and marshal resources on entering and fighting the Great War. In other words, something we find ourselves confronted with again, manipulation of our free press. Along with from 50 to 100 million deaths, two other casualties of the Great Influenza were Truth and Trust.

If you have never read this book, there’s never been a better or more important to change that. Needless to say, highly recommended. w/c

That Old Time Religion Explained

Pentecostalism in America

By R. G. Robins

Faith healing (deliverance), speaking in tongues (glossolalia), end time predictions (Revelation), God working full-time on the planet, what is this stuff and who are these people who embrace these, and more, as pure gospel? They are believers who pretty much, with variations, accept Jesus Christ as Savior, as Baptizer in partnership with the Holy Spirit; that Christ is healer and that He is returning as King. They have produced interesting, colorful, and to more rational minds, outrageous preachers and leaders, such as Aimee Semple McPherson, Oral Roberts, Pat Robertson, and many others whose names aren’t nearly as well known, as least not to the population at large. Additionally, they comprise a substantial group in their various iterations, approaching 15 million in number. And while historically concentrating their efforts on spiritual and salvationist affairs, since the 1960s, they have and are asserting themselves in the secular social, economic, and political world. Reasons enough to become familiar with their history and belief systems.

Robins makes some cogent observations regarding this throughout, but non clearer of what is happening currently than this in the latter portion of the study: “Americans of more liberal persuasion … welcomed the sweep of post-civil rights changes as the arc of progress, a vital widening of participatory democracy, personal liberty, and social justice. But conservatives responded with outrage and alarm. Taken together, these trends introduced a new source of conservation solidarity: the conviction that an unholy alliance subsumed under the general heading of secular humanism has laid siege to Christian America, placing the spiritual and political foundation of the nation, indeed, the very fabric of society, at risk.”

In this monograph, Robins, himself raised among what some used to call (perhaps still do in certain quarters) shouters, introduces readers to Pentecostal origins, beliefs, branching, organizations, and entry into secular society as warriors against the humanistic ideas of modernity. In other words, worthwhile reading for “nonbelievers.” As an extra inducement, Robins prefaces the study with a personal introduction that recounts his young years most will find unexpected and entertaining. w/c

Review: 2017 National Book Award Winner

Sing, Unburied, Sing

By Jesmyn Ward

National Book Award for Fiction and recent MacArthur Genius Award winner Jesmyn Ward explores family bonds and racial prejudice and oppression in Sing, Unburied, Sing. Racism permeates the patch traversed by Jojo and his sister Kayla, his grandfather Pop and dying mother Mam, and his self-absorbed mother Leonie and his white father Michael, the pair not much older than children, and brings forth his murdered uncle Given, and another thirteen-year-old boy Richie, killed on the prison farm of Parchman (Mississippi State Penitentiary). Both Given and Richie, visible to Jojo, seek but can never find the release of justice, both stark and brutal reminders that post-racial America exists merely as a rhetorical phrase fronting a myth. As grim as this sounds, and as shocking as the family’s odyssey proves, Ward does find hope in the familial bonds of Jojo, Kayla, and Pop.

The story is about two journeys, one in real time and the other through recent history. Leonie solicits her white friend Misty, who has an imprisoned black boyfriend, to retrieve Michael from Parchman with her, where he has finished his term for cooking and selling meth. She thinks it’s a good idea to bring along her children, Kayla, a toddler, and Jojo, thirteen. As readers learn, she isn’t much of a mother, so bad and absent that her children can’t call her mom. She works but her passions are Michael, longing for Michael, and getting high. The burden of caring for the children fall to Pop and Mam, who now lies in bed, wracked by pain as she dies of cancer. Fortunately for Kayla and Jojo, Pop knows how to care for his family. As Jojo and Kayla share a special bond, so do Jojo and Pop. Pop teaches him how to live on the farm, the secrets of the woods and the animals, and of survival. He’s a man who has seen and experienced much pain in his life, including having served a term as a teen in Parchman. Slowly, over time, he tells Jojo the story of Richie, which is the tale of black oppression summed up in the short, brutal life of a thirteen-year-old boy. It’s a story Pop can barely finish, because, as readers will eventually learn, the ending is so horrifying.

Needless to say, the auto trip proves excruciating for the four, partly because Kayla becomes sick during it and nobody but Jojo seems to care or know how to comfort and help the child. When they eventually pick up Michael, the return trip devolves into something even more harrowing. Before getting Micheal, Leonie and Misty stop over at their lawyer’s house, Al. When you are dirt poor, as these people are, you get the Als of the world, representation by a drug addled wasted white man. He sends them off with crystal meth, and wouldn’t you know it, only hours out of prison, a cop pulls them over. Leonie, out love perhaps, desperation for certain, swallows the meth and what results nearly costs the travelers their freedom, and Jojo his life. It’s a scene straight out of a worst nightmare.

As if this wasn’t enough, Leonie possesses the ability envied by her mother, of seeing the dead. Perhaps this is supernatural, but it’s more likely the pain of losing her brother Given to murder. Suffice to say here that against all good advice, star athlete Given thought his white teammates regarded him as he regarded him, as brothers. In the end, his trust and misreading of race killed him as surely as the bullet. Let’s leave it for readers to discover the circumstances on their own. Leonie believes she sees him, voiceless, observing all her bad deeds. Jojo possesses this ability as well. It manifests when they pick up Michael from Parchman and Richie hitches a ride to find his old benefactor, Pop, whom he knows as River. What is little, perpetually a child Ritchie seeking? He’s wants the one person he felt ever acknowledged and cared about him. There’s much sadness here, but none sadder than Ritchie and what he represents.

While many will think, no, this isn’t a book for me, it, in fact, probably is a book for you, and especially for people who will never know about it. Because it is a story that needs telling and feeling on a visceral level, with the right among of openness to receive and acknowledge it. Strongly recommended. w/c