Category Archives: psychology

Books about psychology.

Review 126: Supersense

Supersense by Bruce Hood

Like many of you who are reading this, I can’t throw books away. Even thinking about it makes me uncomfortable, so there is no way I could possibly hold a book over a garbage can and just let it drop. Ugh.

I don’t know why this should be, to be honest. I mean, they’re just books, right? Paper and ink that anyone can buy. And not even special books – first edition, author-signed, sold to me by my beloved grandmother on her deathbed.

NOOO!! Take it down, Jimmy, take it down!!

I would be hard-pressed to throw away even bad books. Mein Kampf, Dianetics, A Series of Unfortunate Events – I would save even these from the trashpile. Not because they’re worth reading, but because they’re books.

I’m not a squishy, sentimental man, either. I can tell dead baby jokes without flinching. I’ve participated in the burning of an American Flag. I’ve flipped off the White House (it was the Bush era – I couldn’t NOT flip it off), and if you give me a photo of the Pope, I’m pretty sure I can tear it up on live TV.

So what is it about these mass-produced blocks of paper that instills in me such reverence? This question is part of what Bruce Hood discusses in his book Supersense, appropriately subtitled, “Why we believe in the unbelievable.”

Hood is a psychologist by trade, and this book is an investigation into why we persistently believe in things for which we have no evidence. This can range from religious adherence and the firm belief in things like “holiness” and “sinfulness” all the way to haunted houses, superstitious behavior, and the belief that evil acts can somehow “taint” a physical object. In one demonstration that he refers to throughout the book, Hood offers a cardigan to his audience. It’s a nice enough sweater, perhaps a little out of date, but clean and it looks comfortable. It’s the kind of cardigan you might wear on a chilly autumn evening and think nothing of it.

The Wests? Naw, they're fine people. Perfectly normal.

Then Hood tells the audience that the sweater belonged to Fred West. For those of us who are not from England, Fred West is one of the most notorious serial killers of the last century. Over a span of twenty years, he and his wife tortured, raped and murdered at least twelve girls, two of whom were their own daughters. They’re very well-known in England, and as soon as people found out that the nice comfortable cardigan had belonged to Fred West, no one wanted to touch it, much less put it on. Even though there’s no rational basis to believe so, many people believed that there was some kind of contamination linked to the sweater, and feared that Fred West’s evil would somehow transfer to them.

As someone who tries to be rational as much as possible, I have found myself wondering why I hold on to beliefs that I know are fundamentally irrational. I wonder it even more when I watch the news or surf the internet and see how many people believe in things like “healing energy,” homeopathy, guardian angels, magic spells and the like. “What century are we living in?” I ask myself as I curl up into a ball and weep. The Enlightenment was only two hundred years ago – why are we backsliding?

Thinkers and scientists such as Richard Dawkins believe that this kind of fundamental irrationality is a learned trait. Parents pass it on to children, who then pass it on to theirs. Dawkins even goes so far as to consider bringing your child to church to be “child abuse,” and believes that if only we can break the chain of superstition, a new Age of Reason will emerge.

Waiting 200 years and counting....

Hood disagrees, and he makes a pretty compelling case. He doesn’t argue for the existence of the supernatural at all in this book, but rather the sense of the supernatural – the Supersense, as he calls it. This is the feeling that someone is watching us, the belief that one object is somehow more “special” than another, identical object. It is the reason we plead with our computers when they don’t work, why we anthropomorphise so many things is our world, and why we revere the remains of saints and shun the sweaters of murderers. It is a sense that there should be a supernatural world out there, even if we can’t prove it.

Hood believes that the origin of this supersense is in the way our early minds develop as infants. In that very early stage of life, we try to make sense of the world as best we can. Babies are little scientists, testing reality against their observations again and again, and coming up with hypotheses about how the world should work. This need to understand the world is hard-wired into our brains as part of our “mind design,” and not only can we never get rid of it, it may be essential to our development into fully-formed human beings.

A smiling sun is not always a good thing.

By testing children and how they observe the world, Hood tries to see how the mind develops from birth onwards, without the years of cultural indoctrination that Dawkins and those of similar opinion decry. These tests show how children expect reality to behave, and what happens when their expectations don’t match their observations. He looks at how children imbue the world with life and purpose – the Sun, always smiling in children’s drawings, exists to give us light, trees to shade us and the grass is there for us to play on. This endowment of purpose, or telos, if we’re going to be philosophical and pompous, is something we continue to do even into adulthood.

The more we learn about the world, the more we find out that it doesn’t follow the common-sense rules that we laid down in our infancy. It’s hard to accept, for example, that we aren’t the end product of evolution – even worse, evolution has no end product in mind. What’s more, after our brains went through years and years of classifying the world into neat little categories such as “living/non-living; intelligent/non-intelligent; plant/animal,” it’s jarring to know that we’re only 5% of the way off from chimpanzees and 50% off from being bananas!

Children intuit the world as they grow, and that is part of the mind-building process. This is the architecture of our minds. More often than not, it produces a rational picture of the world and how it works, but not always – the trade-off is that some supernatural ideas come along for the ride. While the mind-building process does prepare us to exist in the greater world, it also makes us fundamentally irrational beings. Some people are more able to overcome this irrationality than others, but even the hard-core skeptics may find it difficult to put on the sweater of Fred West, or have trouble not smiling when they’re in the presence of the sweater of Fred Rogers.

Ahhh... I feel better.

In a way, this book was both a disappointment and a relief. I have always hoped that one day humanity would rise above its irrationality and start appreciating the world for what it is, instead of wasting time looking for things that just aren’t there. But if Hood’s hypothesis is correct, that’s never going to happen. As long as we are human, there will always be a streak of the irrational in us. Try as we might, we will always have superstitions, strange beliefs, and we will always be looking for things that we cannot see.

And of course, perhaps this is a good thing. This irrationality is what gives us passion, it’s what connects us together as a species and as societies. This belief in the sacred, for example, is what gives rise to shared values in a community and a shared sense of what is important and what is forbidden. Without it, we’d be a species of Lex Luthors – fundamentally selfish, sociopathic and without the ability to connect to others.

NO.

On a personal note, it means that maybe I don’t have to be so hard on myself. I mean, being rational is great and all, but when you get to the point where you find yourself thinking something like, “Yeah, what is the big deal about incest?” then you know that it’s time to give the prefrontal cortex a break. And instead of beating myself up for not being able to completely disavow all the goofy little supernatural things that I cling to, perhaps I can just accept them as part of what makes me who I am. I know there’s nothing truly special about my books, but the supersense tells me otherwise. It may not be right, but at least it gives my life a little more color.

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“If it’s true that our beliefs can be supernatural but unconnected to religion, then it must also be true that humans will not necessarily evolve into a rational species, because a mind designed for generating natural explanations also generates supernatural ones.”
– Bruce Hood, Supersense
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Bruce Hood on Wikipedia
Supersense on Amazon.com
Bruce Hood’s blog

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Filed under Bruce Hood, children, nonfiction, pseudoscience, psychology, science

Review 123: Nineteen Eighty-Four

Nineteen Eighty-four by George Orwell

Gods, where do I even start with this?

As with To Kill a Mockingbird, I read this during Banned Books Week for two reasons. First, it’s on the ALA’s list of top banned or challenged books, and second because it’s really, really good.

As with all the books I read, there’s always a little part of me thinking about what I’m going to say about the book once I finally decide to write about it. Sometimes I start composing in my mind, coming up with the pithy words and phrases that have made me into the international book reviewing superstar that I am.

This time, however, I could barely concentrate for the cacophony in my head. There’s just so much going on in this novel that doing it any sort of justice would probably require writing a book that was longer than the book that it was analyzing. And as much as I love you guys, I’m not about to write a whole book about this. Probably because I reckon better minds than mine already have.

Art by Party9999999 on DeviantArt

Regardless, it’s hard to choose where exactly to go on this one. There are so many political, sociological, psychological and philosophical threads to pick up here that no matter what I write about, I’m pretty sure I’ll get responses about how I didn’t mention the solipistic nature of Ingsoc and its relationship to the philosophy behind modern cable news network reporting strategies. Don’t worry, guys – I got that one.

I suppose two big things came to mind while I was reading it this time, and the first of them was inspired by the previous book I read, To Kill a Mockingbird. In that book, Atticus Finch talks a lot about bravery. To teach his son about what it truly means to be brave, he gets him to take part in an old woman’s struggle to free herself of a morphine addiction before she dies – an excruciating process that is more likely to fail than to succeed. But she does it anyway. Atticus says to his son about bravery, “It’s when you’re licked before you begin but you begin anyway and you see it through no matter what. You rarely win, but sometimes you do.”

The question in my mind, then, was “Is Winston Smith brave?”

I really want to put this on a t-shirt....

It’s a hard question to answer, really. By Atticus’ definition, you could say that he is. A member of the Outer Party that rules the superstate of Oceania, Winston Smith is a part of a greater machine. He works in the records department of the Ministry of Truth, diligently altering and “rectifying” the data of the past to bring it into alignment with what the Party wants to be true. His is a world where there is no such thing as objective truth – the truth is what the Party says it is.

A good member of the Party sublimates his will to that of the Party. What Big Brother wants, she wants. She has no love but love for the Party and no dreams but to do what the Party wants of her. A good Party member doesn’t have plans or hopes or dreams. He doesn’t ask questions or idly wonder if things could be different from what they are. A good Party member doesn’t think. He is born, lives, consumes, and dies.

Winston, however, cannot be a good Party member. He wonders why the world is the way it is, and begins down a road to assert his own identity as a human being. He knows full well that he will fail, that in the end he and the woman he loves will be delivered into the hands of the Thought Police, and he is appropriately terrified. But he goes through with it anyway. He keeps a diary of his thoughts and actively tries to join an underground movement that is determined to overthrow the Party and Big Brother. He declares himself willing to undertake acts of heinous treason, all in the name of resistance against the Party.

The new faces of the Party. DOUBLEPLUSGOOD!!

And in the end, he fails, just as he knew he would. So does this make Winston, a man who is so far in character from Atticus Finch, a brave person? Well, yes and no.

He does meet Atticus’ definition of bravery – persisting in what you believe to be right, even in the knowledge that you will probably fail. Winston puts his own life on the line multiple times, committing Thoughtcrime of the highest order. But is he doing it for some higher ideal, or is he doing it for more selfish reasons? Flashbacks to his younger days suggest that Winston Smith was an unrepentantly selfish child, who was willing to disregard the dire straits of his own mother and baby sister in order to get what he wanted. Could we not say that the adult Winston does the same? That he is more interested in freedom for himself than for others? Is his rebellion against Big Brother political or personal? He claims that he wants to see the world changed and freedom brought to all people, but how far can we trust a mind that’s been well-trained in Doublethink?

This, of course, gets right back to the Big Question of why people do the right thing, when it might be so much easier and profitable to do otherwise. Atticus Finch could have let Tom Robinson swing, thus saving himself and his family a whole lot of trouble, just as Winston could have just given up and emulated his neighbor, Parsons, becoming as good a Party member as possible. Neither man could do that, though, because is was not in their nature to do so. It was impossible for Winston to continue to live the way the Party wanted to and, given time, he may have been able to reach beyond meeting his own personal needs and seen to the needs of his greater community.

Unfortunately, we never get the chance to find out, as the Thought Police eventually get tired of watching him and take him in. To his credit, he does hold out to the last extreme before he betrays Julia in his heart, so perhaps he is brave after all.

How adorable....

The other thing that came to mind while I read was the modern use of the word “Orwellian,” and how it falls vastly short of what is depicted in this book. It gets thrown about any time a city puts up a few CCTV cameras downtown, or a business decides to put surveillance cameras in their store. It comes up when we put RFID chips in passports and credit cards, or when we think about how much data Google can hold about us. The word brings to mind a sense of constant surveillance, never being able to move or act without some government or corporation knowing what we’re doing.

While the concept of the two-way telescreens in this book certainly are a logical extension of surveillance culture, to call a customer database or red light cameras “Orwellian” is like calling a Bronze-age chariot a Ferrari. It betrays an incredible lack of understanding of what exactly is going on in the world that Orwell has built. We may be watched by these people, but in comparison to the average citizen of Oceanea – prole or Party member – we are still remarkably free.

Freedoms available to us. Not these people.

There are still freedoms available to us that people like Winston never had, and couldn’t understand even if they were offered. We can protest, we can voice our disagreements, we can channel our energies into whatever pursuit we choose, or not channel them at all. We have the freedom to decide who we want to be and how we want to live, at least within the limits of a well-ordered society. We do not live in daily terror that we might be abducted from our beds, our lives ended and our very existence erased from record and memory. Honestly, I think a few security cameras pale in comparison to the horror that is Oceanea and the world of Big Brother.

There is so much more to talk about with this book. I find Newspeak fascinating, and its foundations both amazing and terrifying. The idea that a concept can only truly exist if there’s a word for it brings to mind those “untranslatable” words you find in every language. For example, there’s no equivalent to the English “miss” in Japanese, as in “I miss my mother.” Does that mean that people in Japan are incapable of missing people? Of course not, but the underlying theory of Newspeak suggests otherwise. Once the party reduces the English language to a series of simple words with no nuance or subtlety of meaning, the idea goes, Thoughtcrime will be literally impossible. After all, how can one wish for freedom if the concept itself is impossible to articulate?

Then there’s the idea of the mutability of the past. The way the Party exerts its unbreakable control over the population is by virtue of the fact that they control all media – newspapers, radio, television, publishing of all sorts. If the Party wants to, say, claim that Big Brother invented the airplane, all they have to do is revise all relevant media to reflect their desired past, and then replace and destroy anything that disagrees with them. With no evidence that Big Brother didn’t invent the airplane, all that’s left is fallible human memory, and those who do think they remember the “right” version of the past will eventually die anyway. Whoever controls the present, the Party says, controls the future. And whoever controls the past controls the present. By remaking the past, the Party guarantees that they can never be gainsaid or proven to have erred in any way.

Even Big Brother would crumble before 4chan....

Fortunately for us, Big Brother never had the internet to contend with. As anyone who’s been online for a while knows, nothing on the internet ever goes away. Ever. The words of any leader or influential person are all there, in multiple copies, all of which can themselves be copied and distributed in mere seconds. While it is possible to fake a photograph, the awareness of that possibility, as well as the technology to suss out the fakes, are just as available to anyone who wants them. Even in cases where there are disputes about the past, or re-interpretations of past events, it is impossible for one version to systematically replace all others. While this sometimes results in competing versions of the past, the one with the most evidence tends to prevail.

Continuing in that vein, the understanding that the Party controls all information about itself leads to a very interesting question that’s not addressed in the book – is anything that is not directly witnessed by Winston Smith true? We are led to believe, for example, that there are three world powers – Oceanea, Eastasia and Eurasia – which are locked in a state of perpetual war. The nature of this war and how it serves the interests of these three nations is laid out in Goldstein’s Book, which is the text of the Revolution that Winston and Julia want to join. But here’s the thing – Goldstein’s Book is an admitted fiction, written by the Party as a kind of honeypot to bring suspects through the last stages of their Thoughtcrime. So we have no proof that the world of Nineteen Eighty-four actually is laid out the way it appears.

Is this the real world? GO TO ROOM 101, CITIZEN!

The Party could in fact dominate the world, using the pretext of war to keep the world’s citizens terrified, needy and compliant. On the other extreme, Oceanea could just be Britain, turned in on itself like some super-accelerated North Korea, its borders sealed and its citizens kept in utter ignorance of the world outside. We don’t know. We have no way of knowing, and neither do any of the characters in the book. Even the Inner Party members might not know the truth of their world, and wouldn’t care if they did.

One more thing, and I’ll keep this one short – Doublethink. The ability to hold two contradictory ideas in your mind, believing in both of them simultaneously and yet being unaware that there’s any conflict at all. Knowing, for example, that last week chocolate rations were at thirty grams, and at the same time knowing that this week they had been raised to twenty. All I can say here is to look at the health care debate in the United States. Here’s a fun game: see how often someone says, “We have the best health care in the world,” and then see how long it takes before they tell us that health care in the United States is irrevocably broken. Your average politician and pundit does this kind of thing all the time and, in accordance with the basic principles of Doublethink (also known as Reality Control), they immediately forget that they had done it.

No! Not Obamacare! Do it to Julia! DO IT TO JULIA!!! (Art by Scott Sullivan on Flickr)

This game is much easier if you watch Glenn Beck for half an hour. You’ll be missed, Glenn.

There is just so much to be gleaned from this book. Probably the most important is this – the world depicted in Nineteen Eighty-four is certainly not an impossible one, but it is unlikely. The people of that world allowed the Party to take over for them in a time of crisis, and in that sense this book is a warning to us all. It is a warning to keep the power that we have, and to resist the temptation to let a government decide who we should be.

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“I understand HOW: I do not understand WHY.
Winston Smith, Nineteen Eighty-four

George Orwell on Wikipedia
Nineteen Eighty-Four on Wikipedia
Online comic adaptation
Nineteen Eighty-Four on Amazon.com

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Filed under classics, dystopia, ethics, existentialism, fiction, futurism, George Orwell, language, made into movies, morality, philosophy, politics, psychology, totalitarianism, truth

Review 119: Wyrd Sisters

Wyrd Sisters by Terry Pratchett

A king is killed, usurped by a weak man and his overbearing wife.

A ghost haunts the castle, waiting for his son to come and avenge him.

On the highlands, three Witches hold their meeting, plotting the future of the kingdom.

I think Granny would not appreciate this image....

Sound familiar? It should. These are some of the most enduring tropes of English literature, and they’re all thanks to a singular playwright. Wyrd Sisters is Terry Pratchett’s tribute to some of the blood and gore and guts, tragedies and twists of Shakespeare’s great plays.

In fact, this book encapsulates my three favorite Shakespearean works – Hamlet, Macbeth, and King Lear. Yes, they’re all tragedies, but that shouldn’t surprise any of you by now. They plumb the depths of humanity to try to find glimmers of hope and bravery and redemption, and everyone usually ends up dead, but dead with a true sense of purpose. In this book we have, respectively, a king murdered by his own family, a woman who pulls the strings of the usurper, and a bloody great storm.

Anyone have some Purell?

Verence, the king of Lancre, has been assassinated. An accident, everyone says. He tripped and fell down the stairs, landing on his own dagger. Funny, that. But the new ruler of Lancre, Felmet, is not so steady in his convictions. He sees the blood on his hands, although he didn’t do it. He’s absolutely sure he didn’t do the deed. Anyone who says he did do it is likely to be shorter by a foot or so by morning. And his wife wasn’t there either. She didn’t hand him the knife. The point is that Verence is dead, long live the King, and now everyone can enjoy the easy life of a royal couple.

However, as so often happens in these things, complications arose. The dead king isn’t allowed to go away. He is confined to unlife as a ghost, unable to contact or interact with the world of the living – except in very small, nearly unnoticeable ways. As his murderers rule over his kingdom, Verence exercises his ectoplasm and plots a way to bring Felmet down. The king’s infant son was stolen after the assassination, you see – brought by a dying man to the home of one of Lancres witches, where he passed the infant to the three women there, and begged them to care for it.

Huh. Actors.

They did what some people would think would be the exact opposite – they gave the child to some traveling actors. As alarming as that might seem, they thought that a traveling troupe would be a much better place for a child to grow up than with three of the greatest witches of Lancre.

And that would seem to be the end of it, really. The king is dead, with no one to contradict the original version of his death. The infant son of the king is stolen, never to be seen again. By all rights, the kingdom should move on. Assassination, of course, is perfectly natural in Royal circles, happens all the time. The kingdom shouldn’t even blink.

But it does. Not only does the kingdom blink, it is furious. Not the people, mind you. The people barely notice a new king, except for the parties and the slight increase in executions. The Kingdom. As a body is an amalgam of cells, a Kingdom is the whole of its people and history. Felmet hates the new kingdom he has acquired, with its gorges and trees and people you couldn’t bully no matter how hard you tried. He hates the Kingdom, and the Kingdom hates him for it. A Kingdom, you see, is like a dog. It doesn’t care if its master is a good man or an evil man, so long as he cares for the dog. Felmet actively detested the land and its people, and in return the larger entity that was The Kingdom hated him right back.

In the meantime, Felmet’s Fool, formerly the Fool to Verence, is showing him how words have power, and how that power could help break the animal kingdom he ruled. Cutting the trees down, for example, might be called “horrible” or “terrible” by the people – and the kingdom – of Lancre. But call it, “Planned deforestation for industry growth,” and that’s a whole new story.

"Senior citizen"

Words have power, Felmet learns. The Fool eventually goes on to demonstrate the true power of words to the king.

Liar. Usurper. Murderer.

Words like that have a wondrous effect.

And then there are the Witches, who are a threat to Flemet, in his own mind. He can’t kill them, he can’t torture them. But he can change how people think about them, and so he decides that a play is the way to go….

It gets a little complicated after that, but rest assured, it’s a kicker. Felmet is insane, and his wife is worse. Their plan to destroy the witches of Lancre goes beyond what the Puritans of Massachusetts could ever have come up with – altering their very natures by altering perceptions. And fate sticks her fingers in all over the place, as the Witches try to restore a true leader to Lancre – even if the true leader doesn’t even know who he is.

Oh, what Shakespeare could have done with Granny....

Not only does this book showcase one of Terry’s best characters – Granny Weatherwax – but it takes an interesting look at the way we can alter our perception of things merely by altering what we call a thing. Words shape the world, whether we want them to or not, and the right word in the right ear can shift the balances of history. As with so many of his other books, Terry gives us a profound philosophical insight and shows it to us as something we knew all along.

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“Oh, obvious,” said Granny. “I’ll grant you it’s obvious. Trouble is, just because things are obvious doesn’t mean they’re true.”
Granny Weatherwax, Wyrd Sisters

Wyrd Sisters on Wikipedia
Discworld on Wikipedia
Terry Pratchett on Wikipedia
Wyrd Sisters on Amazon.com
Terry Pratchett’s homepage

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Filed under assassinations, death, Discworld, fantasy, ghosts, good and evil, humor, madness, revenge, Terry Pratchett, witches

Review 110: Johnny the Homicidal Manic & SQUEE!

Johnny the Homicidal Maniac and SQUEE’S Big Giant Book of Unspeakable Horrors by Jhonen Vasquez

I’m putting these two together, because they really do form one larger piece – the craft of an artistic mastermind. Although perhaps “mastermind” isn’t the best word to use here. What do you call the person that they lock up when they’re about fifteen because they keep saying things to their teachers like, “The human body has ten thousand miles of blood vessels in it and I can feel my hate for you coursing through every one?” Or the guy who buys a dog, takes care of it, feeds it, loves it, and then one day realizes that the dog has been spying on him for the CIA for years and buries it in his backyard? Or the angry hobo who lurches up to your car as you wait at the stop light, a bucket of dirty, grey water in one hand and a rotten squeegee in the other and proceeds to molest himself with it, afterwards demanding that you gave him change, quote, “For the show.”

You thought I was kidding about the dog....

That kind of guy. What would you call him?

Whatever it is, welcome to the world of Jhonen Vasquez. Strap yourself in.

Johnny the Homicidal Maniac is the story of Johnny C., known to his very few friends simply as Nny. Nny is rail-thin, yet something of a fashion plate, and lives in a broken-down house with two evil Styrofoam doughboys, a dead bunny nailed to a wall, and a gateway to a creature of infinite evil somewhere in one of the many basements of the house.

In his free time, Johnny kills people in horrible and graphically interesting ways.

Not because he’s a bad person, necessarily. He does have the wall to feed, after all – a wall that has to be continually painted with fresh blood, lest the Evil come out of it. But he is, by his own admission, “quite horrendously insane.” He murders for many reasons, the Evil Wall aside. He murders the people who feel superior to others (while at the same time feeling that he is superior to them). The kills the smug and the self-possessed, the materialistic and the bored, the lowbrows and the posers and the jerks who seem to infest every corner of his world. And while he does kill with great glee and abandon, he occasionally takes the time to wonder if what he’s doing is worth it. If murder is all that his life has become. If maybe it would be better off to just end it all and kill himself.

Fortunately – or not – he has The Doughboys to keep him company. Two Styrofoam figures, painted by Nny, which talk to him constantly. One urges him to live and kill to his heart’s content. The other presses him to commit suicide and leave this world behind. Whichever wins will be freed from his plastic prison and reunited with his evil master. As a balance to them is Nailbunny, which is pretty much just what it sounds like – a bunny rabbit that Johnny bought from the pet store and then one day nailed to the wall. Nailbunny (or at least its floating head) is the voice of reason in Johnny’s life, urging him to be suspicious of the Doughboys and all they want. Despite his nihilistic view of the world, Johnny discovers that he does indeed have a purpose in life. Just not a very good one.

Yes, Nny, show us "wacky"

Johnny is, naturally, hard to sympathize with. Part of that comes from his almost cavalier attitude towards killing, but more than that, he’s rather adolescent in his view of the world and how it works. Like so many teenagers, he has yet to grow a buffer between himself and the world, and cannot differentiate malicious acts from merely thoughtless ones. He feels every barb and every sting like hooks in his flesh, and the only way he is able to deal with it is through murderous rage. Reading it as an adult who remembers his teen years, I can certainly see where Johnny is coming from, but at the same time I wish he’d just grow up and learn to live in the world like the rest of us.

Which is a statement for which Johnny would no doubt gleefully murder me.

One of the major themes of these comics is conformity and humanity’s need to follow each other into the abyss. Hypocritical characters dressed in all the latest fashions snub people who are slaves to public opinion. One of the worst offenders, a recurring character named Anne Gwish, embodies the modern Goth poser who shuns everyone while despairing that no one talks to her. Johnny’s world is filled with these people and they all need killing. Even people who don’t deserve death might end up falling to Johnny. In one of my favorite stories, “Goblins,” a man who was chosen at random is strapped to a truly terrible machine, and faces his impending death with enviable conviction.

Johnny the Homicidal Maniac reads like an extended teenage revenge fantasy, if a highly philosophical and entertaining one. Eventually you figure out that, as Vasquez himself says, “He’s not a loser, he’s simply lost.”

No. Don't do it. Life is too... oh, go ahead.

Themes of identity and social connection continue in the book SQUEE’S Big Giant Book of Unspeakable Horrors. Young Squee (whose real name is Todd) is Johnny’s neighbor and is featured in the very first JtHM story. Squee is a pitiful child, with parents who resent his very existence and a school that is constantly trying to crush the spirit out of him. Squee lives a life of unending terror as he’s beset by nightmares, aliens, his cannibalistic grandfather, openly hateful parents, and a world that never seems to make sense. It is his young burden to have to live in a world created by Jhonen Vasquez.

Somehow, though, little Squee manages. Manages to get himself locked into an insane asylum, yes, but manages nonetheless.

The second half of the book features Vasquez’s filler strips – one or two-page stories of pain, heartbreak and horror. Poor Wobbly-Headed Bob tries to convince the rest of the world to accept that he’s smarter than they are, and can’t understand why they want to kill him. True Tales of Human Drama are just that – dramatic, probably human and god I hope they’re not true. Happy Noodle Boy is a free-form anarchistic story, allegedly drawn by Johnny himself, and I can never manage to finish one. My favorite filler strips are the Meanwhile…. strips, one of which features two elementary-school crossing guard children enacting the final battle between two entities of pure evil. Another depicts a first date gone horribly, horribly awry as a case of gastrointestinal distress engenders one of the best attempts to save face I’ve ever seen. A horrible, lying vampire, the revenge of the pinatas, and a case of childhood attachment issues gone horribly wrong, these are some of my favorite works in the whole series.

Good old Ludwig van B. Perfect for any occasion - even mass murder.

The work of Jhonen Vasquez certainly isn’t for everyone. Even his famous animated program, Invader Zim, is a little weirder than most people are willing to accept for a children’s show. It rewards patient reading and careful attention to the artwork. Which, I might add, is distinctive and disturbing and wonderful. Vasquez has created a style that’s cartoonish and yet horrible, in which childlike glee can be rendered next to heart-stopping horror, and we can perfectly believe that they exist in the same world.

It’s strange, horrible and funny all at the same time. If you’re interested in something out of the ordinary, I can definitely recommend this.

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“I suggest you seek some alternate source of sympathy, Nny. You tried to kill that girl. She liked you, and you tried to kill her. That was impolite.”
– Nailbunny, Johnny the Homicidal Maniac

Johnny the Homicidal Maniac on Wikipedia
Squee! on Wikipedia
Jhonen Vasquez on Wikipedia
Jhonen Vasquez’s website
Johnny the Homicidal Maniac on Amazon.com
SQUEE’S Big Giant Book of Unspeakable Horrors on Amazon.com

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Filed under afterlife, childhood, comic books, death, demons, existentialism, good and evil, graphic novel, horror, humor, Jhonen Vasquez, madness, morality, murder, philosophy, sins

Review 56: Tales of a Wounded Healer


Tales of a Wounded Healer by Mariah Fenton Gladis

It’s not often I get to review a book written by someone I actually know. The last time was back in aught-six, when I reviewed my uncle Ron’s book, Faster, Smarter Digital Photography, which he co-wrote with M. David Stone (and which all you photo buffs should run out and buy right now). This book is by his wife, my aunt Mariah and is, needless to say, a little different.

The book wasn’t what I thought it would be. What I thought it would be was an account of Mariah’s life, especially her struggles with ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease. You see, nearly thirty years ago, she was given two years to live. Even now, most of those with ALS only survive three to five years, so to come this far is an extraordinary feat. Indeed, she does go into detail about how she discovered that she had the disease, and what course it put her life on. (As a note, there’s one passage where she describes my uncle Ron’s reaction to hearing the diagnosis – “Pack your bags, we’re leaving. You’re not dying and we have a life to live.” My overriding thought at that point – “Damn, my family rocks.”)

But this book isn’t about my aunt, or her own personal struggles. In fact, once she gets through giving us her CV of Trauma, as it were, we don’t really hear that much more about it unless it’s germane to the topic she’s addressing. Which, as you read on, makes a lot of sense.

Mariah is a therapist, specializing in Gestalt Therapy – a kind of active, experiential therapy method that postulates that the mind and the body are inextricably interconnected. Healing cannot take place simply by talking about it – there must be thought and feeling and emotion and movement involved. As near as I can tell, which is why I put the Wiki link down there, in case I screwed it up. This woman, who has been dealt a hand that, let’s face it, has the potential to be utterly crushing, has spent her life making sure that other people are able to be healed. In learning to face the Bad Shit in her life, she’s been able to help others face the Bad Shit in theirs through what she calls “Exact Moments of Healing.”

“Bad Shit,” by the way, is my term. It saves space.

Before I go on, let me come clean on this much: I have never been to therapy, counseling, or anything of that nature. So anything I think I know about what goes on there is purely speculation.

One of the biggest views of people going into therapy is that there is something Wrong with them. Something that must be, somehow, fixed. In this book, Mariah takes the opposite position – the people who come to her are not people who have problems that must be eliminated. They are people who are trying to be better, but can’t. Because, and this is a kicker, your problems can’t be eliminated. Not ever.

We’re all, in some way, broken. We’ve all been hurt, blocked, abused, kicked, pushed and shoved to one degree or another. Some of us more, some of us less, and usually not in ways that we entirely understand. And as much as these life experiences suck ass, they’re part of who we are. They’ve made us who we are, for good or for ill. The problem comes when we cannot fully understand these traumas for what they were. We don’t know how to deal with them, so they block us up and mess with our heads.

What I got from reading this book is that the way to become free of these psychological millstones is to confront them, understand them and accept them. Fold them into your life, give them their due, and then – and this is important – don’t let them keep you from being who you want to be.

Now, this is really, really, really hard. Gods know it’s hard. Most of us never get that chance to look our demons right in the eye and say, “I know you. And I accept you. Now sit down and shut up.” The idea of Perfect Moments of Healing is that, through counseling, these opportunities can be created. In her workshops, Mariah has re-created the people and situations that generated the traumas that held her subjects down. She goes into great detail about a variety of different cases, and they’re all powerful. With the help of her groups and her students, she’s allowed people to confront the horrors of war, abusive adults, indifferent parents and crumbling marriages, and given them a chance to unburden themselves of the shadowy terrors that had been keeping them from enjoying their lives.

An interesting facet of her therapy is the focus on self-love. No, not that kind, you gutter-brains. The other kind. The really, really hard kind, where you look at yourself, bumps, love handles and all, and say, “I love who you are.”

Damn, I got finger cramps just typing that.

But it’s important to her therapeutic method that her subjects understand that they are indeed worthy of being loved by others, as that is probably one of the most basic needs a human being has. People who’ve been abused or traumatized or just plain on the pokey end of the Stick of Life have a hard time understanding that, so she reinforces the idea again and again through the book. Maybe, if you’re really lucky, it’ll sink in. I still have some work to do….

For those of us who aren’t so fortunate as to be able to have Mariah figure out how to stitch us back together, she does offer good news – a Perfect Moment of Healing is available to you outside of the therapist’s office. By remaining aware of how you’re feeling, what you’re thinking and what you want to become, you can find moments in life to come face-to-face with your personal traumas and accept them for what they were – something bad that happened to you a long time ago. Something that does not need to define who you are now.

These moments aren’t easy to come by, I reckon, and if you have some real hard-core Issues in your past, a professional is still the best way to go. But there are always chances out there. I’ve taken a few myself, from time to time.

One time, inside Chris’ brain….
“Okay, here’s the situation. Now what do we want to do?”
“Run like hell.”
“And we’re not going to do it because…?”
“….”
“Right. Now let’s get in there.”
“But I-”
“Shut up, trust me. Get in there.” 

So to speak.

Anyway, enough of my babbling. I’m probably mangling what is a very interesting, insightful and thought-provoking book. And I’m not just saying that because the author is Family. I’m saying it because it did make me think, and it’ll continue to do so. I saw myself in there a couple of times, and I reckon you will too….

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“You get to travel through this lifetime once. Although the way can unfold, and the terrain can change dramatically, by chance or by choice, to me what matters most is that the road you choose be one where your heart and soul feel a belonging, and the freedom to reach and breathe.”
– Mariah Fenton-Gladis, Tales of a Wounded Healer
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Tales of a Wounded Healer on Amazon.com
The Pennsylvania Gestalt Center for Psychotherapy and Training
ALS/Lou Gehrig’s Disease
Gestalt therapy

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Filed under Gestalt therapy, Mariah Fenton-Gladis, psychology, therapy

Review 44: Shutting Out the Sun


Shutting out the Sun – How Japan Created its own Lost Generation by Michael Zielenziger

One of the things you learn about Japan when you get here – and you learn it pretty quickly – is that there can be a vast difference between the appearance of Japan and the reality of it. The faces that people show you, or even that the city shows you, is not necessarily their true face.

Take Kyoto as an example: it prides itself on being a city of traditional culture, the touchstone of all that is Truly Japanese. When you first see it, though, you think, “Really? Because it looks like a big ol’ jumbled-up city to me.” And it does – aside from the temples, which remain more or less relegated to the edges of the city, the vestiges of Old Japan have been swept away in favor of concrete and glass. Kyoto Station is a glimmering lump in the middle of the city, and Kyoto Tower, as many have said, is a stake through its heart. But ask anyone and we’ll say, “Kyoto is a beautiful city.” Because that’s the way it’s supposed to be.

This is how it is to live in Japan. There is a gulf between the true nature of things and the way we want them to be. For someone born and raised here, this kind of thinking is taught from birth, and without the ability to divide oneself in twain, life in Japanese society can be very difficult. These two states have names, too – tatemae is the face that you present to the world, the one that everyone expects of you. Honne is your “true self,” the feelings and thoughts that you hold in reserve so as not to cause conflict with the greater society around you.

The origins of this dichotomy are unclear, although there are those who attribute it to a culture with roots in collective agriculture. If your life and the lives of everyone in your village depends on getting the rice crop in, you have to learn to hold back certain feelings or desires for the good of the group. You sublimate yourself into the group structure, because that’s what has to be done. So, tatemae isn’t a lie, or a deliberate performance designed to deceive people. It’s a bargain between oneself and society – “This is what society needs me to be? Fine. I can be that.” What remains is honne, the inner self that society cannot touch, but can never see.

So what happens when someone can’t hold up their end of this social contract? What happens when the modern world makes demands of people that this ancient compact can’t handle? Well, that’s when things start to go wrong….

For many years, this bargain between the individual and society worked, mainly because society kept up its end of the deal. People were protected, employed, and given a place in the world, whether it was the feudal culture of the Edo era, the wartime mobilization of the 30s and 40s, or the indomitable Japan Inc. of the post-war years. As the world progressed, however, it soon became evident that the old ways weren’t enough. Japan needed to change, or face stagnation and irrelevance.

In this book, Zielenziger tries to figure out how Japan got into the state it’s in – a decade and a half of stagnation, with no end in sight, and the very real possibility of a slide into graying irrelevance by the middle of the century. To do so, he looks first on the human scale, at the people who have given up on Japan’s social contract – the hikkikomori.

Like so many other things Japanese, the hikkikomori phenomenon is said to be unique to Japan. Not quite agoraphobics, not quite dropouts or depressives, the hikkikomori are people – usually men – who have given up on the world. They usually live in a single room, often in the homes of parents who enable their hermit lifestyle, and refuse to come out. They sit in there and read, or watch TV, or think. They see no place for themselves in the outside world, and so they give up on it. The men that Zielenziger interviewed suggested that the outside world was too much for them. In many cases they were bullied by others – a pattern of social control that is unfortunately ingrained here – or they simply looked at their parents and thought, “Is this what I will become?”

An American child, faced with the knowledge that he doesn’t fit with the rest of the world, will probably see it as an opportunity to shape his own identity. A hikkikomori sees it as a personal failure. He knows how Japanese society works, and rather than blame the world for not accepting him, he blames himself for not being able to fit in. Thus, retiring from the world is seen as the only option available, other than suicide. Some hikkikomori spend years in their rooms, refusing to speak even with their parents, who – often out of a sense of shame or the nurturing love known as amae – support their boys’ choice of lifestyle.

At the other end are the people who give their identity over to an outside source. In more dangerous cases, this outside source might be a cult, like the Aum Shinrinkyo group who carried out the deadly sarin attack against the Tokyo subway in 1995. A more benign manifestation, however, is brand mania. Zielenziger talks to women who identify themselves through the brands they buy. These people will spend money they don’t have in order to get a bag from Louis Vuitton or Gucci or Chanel. They distinguish themselves with their brand identity, willingly giving up their own in the process. In a country where one can no longer trust the government to look after your best interests, or the media to tell you the truth, or business to give you a job, putting all your faith in Louis Vuitton – with its worldwide reputation for quality – seems to be a good idea.

It’s a nation in crisis, according to Zielenziger. It’s a country that’s gone from feudalism to full modernity in only a century and a half, but the culture hasn’t changed nearly as much as the country has. It’s a bustling, 21st-century nation built on a foundation that was laid in the 17th century, and things are starting to fall apart. It’s a country that puts society before the individual, but that premise is cracking under the weight of a world that values individuality. It’s a place where responsibility is distributed and accountability doesn’t exist, where mistakes go unexamined lest they bring shame upon those who made them, and where the past is a thing that can be easily ignored if it troubles you. Zielenziger believes that the underlying social structure of Japan is holding it back, leading the entire country to another withdrawal from the world. Much like the hikkikomori that no one likes to talk about, Japan may one day find itself alone and isolated, not knowing its place in the world and not knowing how it can get back to what it used to be.

The book is quite a read, going from small one-on-one interviews to historical and sociological analyses, but it is overwhelmingly negative in tone. Zielenziger isn’t wrong, necessarily, but he is of the mind-set that Japan is irrevocably screwed and that only Western cultural intervention can save it.

He lays the hikkikomori problem – and the problem of parasite singles, NEETs, and all the other dysfunctional youth – at the foot of Japan’s collectivist culture, as well as the intense bond of amae that exists between the parent and child. While he doesn’t say it in so many words, he does imply that the traditional social structure of Japan is simply incapable of keeping Japan competitive in the modern era. He believes that Western values, especially those stemming from Christianity, are what Japan needs to survive.

The bit about Christianity seemed to come from left field, but he does make a case for it. Christianity, he believes, places the onus of salvation on the individual. It is a person’s works (or faith) that ensure his place in the afterlife. This focus on one’s personal responsibility, and ultimate judgment, fosters a Self that is harder to suppress. From that strong sense of individuality, a culture can foster more competition, thereby preventing stagnation.

There’s a long, not entirely interesting chapter on Korea that he uses to illustrate this point. Unlike Japan, Korea – once called “The Hermit Kingdom” – found itself facing economic turmoil and got themselves out of it. Not because Korean ways were better, but because they knew that if they stuck to their traditions they’d be screwed. Korea is a nation strongly influenced by Christianity, and the individuality that Christianity fosters, suggests Zielenziger, is what gave Korea the courage to risk social turmoil for the betterment of their nation.

There may be something to this, but I doubt that adopting Christianity en masse will save Japan from Zielenziger’s dire future. Honestly, it was tough to stay objective while reading this, mainly because of the gulf between what I see, having lived here for the better part of a decade, and how Zielenziger describes the place. If I didn’t know better, I would have read this and thought that Japan was a zombie nation, populated either by hermits or soulless consumers. From what I’ve seen, I know that this is not the case.

Granted, I haven’t completely immersed myself in the culture, mainly because that’s an extremely difficult thing for a non-Japanese to do. Most of the people I talk to are my students, and people with the desire and the resources to study English are probably not an accurate cross-section of the country. So I don’t claim to have any more insight into the Japanese mind than Mr. Zielenziger does, but from my experience it seems that all hope is not lost. Yes, the government is a faceless bureaucracy, the media is completely complacent and the corporate community that once offered jobs for life has vanished. But Japan has proved resilient in the past, adapting to great changes that were thrust upon it from the outside. And a quick look at Japanese history shows that, when the times need it, people emerge to challenge the established order.

That’s what Japan needs now. Someone – or, more effectively, a group of someones – to stand up, stick out and risk themselves for the betterment of their country. It won’t be easy – revolution never is – but it needs to be done. Perhaps one day, instead of shutting themselves in their rooms, there might be young men and women who take to the streets and show Japan that there is value in the individual. I hope I get to see it.

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“To survive in Japan, you have to kill off your own original voice.”
Kaz Ueyama, Shutting Out the Sun
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Michael Zielenziger on Wikipedia
Michael Zielenziger’s Homepage
Shutting Out the Sun on Amazon.com
Hikkikomori at Wikipedia
Amae at Wikipedia

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Filed under identity, Japan, Michael Zielenziger, nonfiction, psychology, society

Review 22: House of Stairs


House of Stairs by William Sleator

Young adult fiction must be a really tough genre to wrap your head around, for a writer. You have a story that you want to tell, and you have to tell it in such a way that it is simple enough for your target audience to read, yet engaging enough to keep them reading. The themes have to be familiar enough for them to understand and relate to, yet unusual enough to be interesting for them. Go too far in the wrong direction and you have a failure. So how does a YA writer do it, balancing all those issues, while still writing a good book?

Damned if I know. I’ve never managed to write a decent book for adults, much less young ones.

Fortunately, there are plenty of talented writers who can write for young people, and one of those is William Sleator.

A YA writer who specializes in science fiction, Sleator has written his fair share of strange, fantastic and sometimes disturbing books. Of all the ones I’ve read, this book is probably the one that creeped me out the most.

The setup for this story is simple. Five sixteen year-old orphans – two boys, three girls – are put into a giant room, with no visible walls, ceiling or floor. The only structures in this room are stairs and landings. Nothing else except for a small machine with flashing lights and odd sounds that dispenses food.

That’s it.

The five characters are very different and very interesting. First we have Peter, a scared boy, uncertain of his surroundings in the best of times, and utterly overwhelmed by being dropped into this bizarre place. He’s afraid of everything and everybody, and finds solace only his the strange trances he drops into, in which he is with an old orphanage roommate, Jasper, feeling safe and protected. As an interesting aside, it wasn’t until I was much older that I figured out Peter’s sexuality. It wasn’t that thinly veiled, either. I really don’t handle subtlety well, I think….

Lola is not a showgirl. Sorry, had to put that in. Lola is a tough, street-smart girl who has no tolerance for stupidity or cruelty. She’s had to learn a lot in her time, and doesn’t look to others to decide what she should or should not do.

Blossom is a fat little girl who is the first to figure out how to use the food dispenser (in a rage at it, she sticks out her tongue, and out pops a food pellet – but more on this later). She is cunning and devious, much sharper than people would give her credit for being. If anyone is truly dangerous in this crowd, it is her.

Abagail is a mousy girl, pretty in her own way, but with very little in the way of self-confidence. She tends to latch on to other people and question her own thoughts and actions. She does have compassion, however, though not the means to make her compassion a reality.

Finally, Oliver is the other boy of the group, and he is all that Peter is not. He is strong and confident and good-looking. For a while, Peter thinks that Oliver is his old friend, Jasper, and subsequently Peter is devoted to Oliver. A certain power structure evolves when it is discovered that of all the people, only Oliver can bring Peter out of his trances. Oliver has power, and he is not afraid to use it.

These five kids are trapped in this house of stairs. None of them know why they’re there, they only know that they are. They soon discover that the food-dispensing machine will only give them food under certain conditions. In the beginning , they are forced to repeat a series of actions and movements, that evolve into a kind of dance, hoping to get food from the machine.

From there it gets only worse. They soon discover that the dance isn’t enough. The infighting that comes naturally becomes essential to their survival, for only when they are cruel or greedy will the machine start flashing its lights and entice them to dance. The question then becomes whether or not the kids will do as the machine wishes, and how long they can hold out against it. Or if they will.

This book is disturbing to say the least. It levels some pretty harsh accusations about human nature, not just regarding the kids in the house of stairs, but also regarding the people who put them there. The kids are there for a reason, and not a good one. The whole setup (which is thoroughly, if somewhat clunkily, explained at the end) is about conditioning, and changing people’s personality through stimuli and reinforcement to make them behave as desired. Because it demonstrates people, young people in particular, behaving in a manner that displays the truth of their nature, this book has often been compared to Lord of the Flies, and rightly so.

In its way, it’s even more disturbing than Lord of the Flies – at least the kids in that book had been left to their own devices, as terrible as they were. In this book, the horrors that these five teens go through are part of a deliberate state-sanctioned experiment in human conditioning – a kind of horrible, Pavlovian Breakfast Club. Such is the nature of that experiment that the two children who resisted the conditioning were actually regarded as failures. Upon reflection, the people pulling the strings are far more frightening and disturbing than these poor, manipulated children.

If nothing else, the lesson to be learned from this story is simple – be a human being. There are some things that are too important to sacrifice for something as simple and petty as food and acceptance. We must never allow ourselves to be beasts. We have to be human. This has relevance today, when we are debating the ethics of torture – is it a necessary evil that we must tolerate if our society is to survive, or is it an offense against our humanity? If we allow ourselves to be fooled into thinking that an evil act is somehow the right thing to do, then we have lost a very important part of ourselves.

Of course, it’s also about science, but the message here is less dire – we must not allow science to lose its humanity. In this book, a strange future with a monolithic state government, science is entirely utilitarian, with no moral qualms about putting minors through psychological torture. The good news is that, at least as of this writing, science errs on the side of ethics. Modern science certainly has its moral gray areas, but the majority of scientists out there would never consent to run an experiment such as this. I hope.

The last line in the book is one of the more frightening ones in literature, right up there with the last line in 1984. It’s a blunt reminder of everything that has happened in the book, and a pointed summation of everything that Sleator has been trying to say – that humans have a base nature, that we can be manipulated, and we will, given the right circumstances, allow others to shape who we are. His message to his readers – teenagers like the ones in this book – is to refuse to submit to such control. Good advice for them, and for us.

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“You… you’re not going to… to go along with it, are you?”
– Peter, House of Stairs
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William Sleator at Wikipedia
House of Stairs at Wikipedia
House of Stairs at Amazon.com
Operant conditioning at Wikipedia

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Filed under behavioral conditioning, children, morality, science fiction, survival, teenagers, William Sleator, young adult