sex and murder

helter skelterThis spring I ended up reading two books on eerily similar topics. Well, the fact that the subject matter — accounts of spectacular criminal trials — overlapped is not that much of a surprise, since I love true crime. Both proceedings, 40 years apart, garnered excessive media attention because of the suggestion of sex-fueled ritual murder.

Recommended by a friend of a friend, Helter Skelter is the story of what has come to be known as the Manson Family murders. The title refers to the Beatles song from which cult leader Charles Manson derived the harrowing philosophy of racial warfare that led him to order the killing of at least 11 people in the Los Angeles area in the summer of 1969.

The book was penned by prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi, who managed to get Manson convicted of all of the murders committed by Manson’s cult — even though he wasn’t present at any of them. Bugliosi indicted Manson on charges of conspiracy, a legal technicality that allows for co-defendants to be convicted of crimes that any of the group did; he just had to convince a jury that Manson had control of his disciples.

That turned out to be easier than you might think, because Manson wasn’t reticent about the power he cultivated and wielded. He never admitted outright the command to kill, but he told Bugliosi plenty about his “Family,” the term Manson used for the followers that he assembled, lived with, and directed in orgies at a ranch in the hills west of Los Angeles. And the Family members were equally frank about their slavish loyalty to the man they considered “G-d,” or “Jesus Christ.”

Bugliosi didn’t take any chances, though, and he tells with fastidious, fascinating detail how he shaped the case that put Charles Manson behind bars, where he remains to this day. The thoroughly compelling account is only slightly marred by the fact that Bugliosi writes himself as the only competent character on both sides of the legal team; the LAPD detectives in particular come across as buffoons, while Bugliosi saves the day (by doing their work as well as his).

Overall, though the book is great, one of the best non-fiction accounts I’ve read in a long time. I highly recommend it — though perhaps not, as I read a good deal of it, alone, late at night, in a house that backs up to a wooded expanse. The Manson Family, as it turns out, selected their victims pretty much at random, and I was irrationally sure I was next.

waiting to be heardThe other book I tackled was not of the same quality. But that wasn’t really the point: As soon as I heard the release date for Amanda Knox’s book (April 30, timed to coincide with her first post-prison interview), I went to the Brookline Public Library’s online catalog and requested a copy. I got it on May 7, and I had read it by May 9. Like many, I followed the infamous case — the four-year journey of a murder conviction that was ultimately overturned — partly because it was portrayed as so lurid, and partly because I just love the genre.

Waiting to Be Heard is not great literature, but it is a good read. In November 2007, 20-year-old Amanda Knox had been in Perugia, Italy, for just five weeks when her British roommate was found brutally killed in the villa that the two shared with two other Italian women. Knox and her boyfriend of one week were later arrested, tried, and convicted of the murder — which conviction was overturned in 2011, leading to their release. The book is the story, told with help from a ghostwriter in a voice that I can only imagine actually approximates Amanda’s own, of those years.

The narrative is marked from the beginning by her defensiveness about almost every action that led to her arrest, somewhat understandably since they were all, to a one, used against her in the trial. And they were the actions of an immature young woman, just barely not a teenager anymore. Knox is as staggeringly naive as Manson was creepily controlling. I can understand a college student with no conception of police tactics or criminal investigations, leading to wince-inducing efforts to cooperate with an increasingly hostile prosecutor. However, Knox also expresses shock — shock! — that the family of her murdered roommate seems angry at her when she first encounters them in a courtroom after her arrest. The police, the media, fine — but the victim’s family thinks I’m guilty, too? And it’s not entirely clear that her years in prison did much to disabuse her of that naiveté. But maybe that’s a blessing. I was genuinely disturbed, when, before the verdict her retrial, she wrote a list of things to do if she received a life sentence: stop writing letters homeask family and friends to forget mesuicide? But the end of book makes clear that Amanda Knox will find her way again.

Since I always do in my true crime stories, I’ll weigh in here, too. Manson: guilty; Knox: not guilty. Manson in all likelihood was precisely the monster he was made out to be, while Knox simply couldn’t have been the sex-and-drug-addicted femme fatale as she was portrayed.

the art forger

the art forgerI heard about The Art Forger through Quail Ridge Books, the independent bookstore in Raleigh, N.C., where I used to live. I still get the store’s weekly emails, which have great book recommendations from the owner and its staff, as well as from other independent booksellers. I go back and spend too much money whenever I’m in Raleigh (which is sadly not too much these days, since my aunt and uncle moved away).

The book was published by Algonquin, a local company whose books Quail Ridge often highlights. The review caught my eye because the story, while fictional, is based around the Gardner heist.

In 1990, two men dressed as police officers bound and gagged security guards at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston and made off with 13 works of art that are now worth more than $500 million. More than 20 years later, none has been recovered, and the investigation had pretty much hit a dead end. In the last six months, however, the FBI has announced that it knows the thieves’ identities and has renewed its publicity about the case in an attempt to get leads on the artwork.

I visited the Gardner during my first trip to Boston with my mom more than 10 years ago, and I was absolutely captivated by it. The eponymous owner was an art collector in the late 19th and early 20th century, and she built the museum, meant to emulate a 15th-century Venetian palace, in order to house her collection. Her will stipulated that the art was to remain as she had arranged it (which was not at all as a professional curator would today); after the theft, the rule was interpreted to stand, so empty frames hang in their places as a constant reminder of the crime.

the concert by Johannes vermeer, one of the works of art stolen from the gardner museum

the concert by Johannes vermeer, one of the works of art stolen from the gardner museum

The poignancy of the loss, combined with the eccentricity of the space and its founder, made me a little obsessed with the museum, and after my visit I read three or four books about the heist. Naturally I had to read this one, too.

It took me less than 24 hours (of course, it was Shabbat, so I didn’t have my usual phone/computer/Netflix distractions): It’s quite the page-turner — if a little hard-boiled and at times downright cheesy.

Because of a mistake in her past involving a former lover and fellow artist, Claire Roth is persona non grata in the Boston art world when she is approached by a local gallery owner to forge a painting — a Degas, and one of the masterpieces stolen from the Gardner Museum. Eager for her reputation’s rehabilitation, Claire reluctantly agrees in exchange for her own show at the gallery and the promise that the original painting will be returned to the museum where it belongs (the forgery will be sold as the original to an unscrupulous collector). In the process, though, she begins to suspect that the original Degas may itself be a forgery . . . and so the fun begins.

Part of the fun for me was that the story takes place in Boston, so I actually knew where most of the (fictionalized) action takes place. Plus, Claire volunteers teaching art at a juvenile facility — so my favorite topic of criminal justice policy gets a little shout-out — but this is less character development than plot device.

But even non-Bostonians and those who aren’t fascinated by the heist or by crime/criminal justice will likely enjoy this quick read. Check it out from your local public library!

a visit from the goon squad

a visit from the goon squadJennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad is the first work of fiction I’ve read since June — and it’s as good as everyone has said it is. I tore through it in about a weekend, and I feel like I can’t say enough good things about it. Read it!

Parts of the book were first written as short stories for various publications (Harper’s, Granta, The New Yorker, etc.), and indeed each chapter could be a stand-alone tale, with minor characters in one story becoming the protagonists of the next. The title is a reference to an observation made by an aged and ailing musician, overruling objections to his idea for a tour to promote his final album: “This is reality, right? You don’t look good anymore twenty years later, especially when you’ve had half your guts removed. Time’s a goon, right? Isn’t that the expression?”

That is expressed in this Pulitzer-Prize-winning novel, about a cast of the characters wondering how they got from point A to point B. (The two parts of the book are in fact “A” and “B,” and the last album of the aforementioned musician is “A to B.”) Amazingly, even while they make, in some cases, horrifying choices, Egan is able to make these characters incredibly sympathetic and compelling. (I will note a trigger warning: There is a short scene of sexual assault, unfortunately told from the perspective of the perpetrator, which survivors may find upsetting.)

The stories center around Bennie Salazar, a washed up former musician and record executive, and his assistant, Sasha Grady. As the setting moves back and forth through time, between the 1960s and the 2020s, we also meet Sasha’s uncle Tim; Alex, a man she dates only once but who will later become one of Bennie’s employees, long after Sasha’s been fired; and Sasha’s college friends, one of whom will eventually become her husband, with whom she’ll have two kids. Then there’s Bennie’s high school friends, one of whom introduces him to Lou Kline, a music mogul who will become Bennie’s mentor; Lou’s many wives and kids; and Bennie’s first wife — and her boss and her brother, whose lives intersect via a has-been (though still young) movie star. In one of the more obscure links, the young Samburu warrior that one of Lou’s kids meets on safari in Kenya grows up to marry Bennie’s ex-wife’s boss’s daughter, who also becomes Bennie’s assistant after he fires Sasha. But the characters can’t see all of these connections, much as they are unable to see their own paths between A and B.

As I began thinking of making this next point, I almost started with: “The novel feels timeless until the last two chapters,” which take place in the 2020s. But that seems patently silly, as the stories, told in a non-linear way and from different perspectives, of necessity are grounded in very specific points in time for the reader’s understanding. I think I was responding to the jarring feeling the chapters in the future inspire. Egan is clearly doing her own connection from point A (2010, when the novel was published) to Point B (2021 and beyond, when the novel’s storyline ends). As with many of the other stories, we as readers are able to see how the characters get there (in this case, to a dystopian future), since that path is based on current events in the post-9/11 world and the security and surveillance state.

But technology predictions always make me stifle a giggle, as they’re hardly ever accurate. (Flying cars are just two years away, according to Back to the Future Part II!) Luckily, Egan’s strong writing and character development carries the day, so even as readers stumble through the completely phonetic language of her future’s quasi-text messages, we can see the significance of the academic work of that same future, where, as one character explains to another, the “ethically perfect state . . . doesn’t exist and never existed”:

Her new book was on the phenomenon of word casing, a term she’d invented for words that no longer had meaning outside quotation marks. English was full of these empty words — “friend” and “real” and “story” and “change” — words that had been sucked of their meanings and reduced to husks.

Despite the assessment that we all go the way of these words, the novel nevertheless ends on a hopeful note. Introduced as a young naïf at the beginning of the book, at its end Alex watches a younger version of himself, also new to New York, fumble with the keys to her apartment.

The goon squad visits us all in time, but in the meantime, we live.

the implosion conspiracy

2216003For some reason I’ve been really interested in Julius and Ethel Rosenberg for quite a long time, and I’ve been wanting to read a book about their trial. But unlike a lot of subjects, I was finding it hard to find the definitive work on this topic. So one day when I emailed the rabbinical school list about something unrelated, I also asked if anyone had recommendations. One of my classmates responded extremely enthusiastically with an endorsement of Louis Nizer’s The Implosion Conspiracy, which he read decades ago and still remembered vividly. It must be out of print now, because I was only able to find a copy on Amazon Marketplace (but for $0.78!).

To be honest, the book wasn’t exactly what I was looking for. However, it was a great read, and I definitely recommend it to the fellow Rosenberg-obsessed. Nizer was a lawyer, and he approaches his subject via an in-depth look at the trial itself. His perspective is that the truth can be found in the record.

He writes (somewhat pompously), “My objective was to know every inch of the thousands of pages of the records, as if I were going to write the briefs; and every word and authority in the briefs, as if I were going to argue the appeals; and every word of the many judicial opinions, as if I were going to write a critique for a law review; and every book I could find for or against the verdict, as if I were going to review each one for the Sunday Times; and every newspaper reference I could find, as if I were an editor preparing an editorial; and every person I could find who touched their lives or deaths, as if I were a reporter on a Pulitzer-Prize mission.” Indeed, his account, published in 1973, is incredibly thorough.

Nizer acknowledges in his introduction the “strong feelings” that the case engendered. In 1951, the Rosenbergs were convicted of passing information about the atomic bomb, being built under the auspices of the Manhattan Project in Los Alamos, N.M., to the Soviet Union. Just after the war, there was a certain amount of camaraderie (pun intended) in the United States with the Russians, who had been just about pulverized in their defeat of the Nazis on the eastern front. But by the time the Rosenberg case went to trial, the cold war had started, and communists (which the couple indisputably was) were viewed with considerable suspicion. Sen. Joe McCarthy would begin his infamous hearings just two years later, right about the time the Rosenbergs were executed for their espionage. Add to this opposition to the death penalty; horror at the fact that the chief government witnesses were Ethel’s brother and sister-in-law, whose damning testimony allowed them to escape more serious prosecution; and the possible role of anti-Semitism, fairly common in the mid-20th century — and one might think that the case would have hinged on some less quantifiable factors than Nizer claims. During sentencing, the judge himself made the following extreme statement:

I believe your conduct in putting into the hands of the Russians the A-Bomb years before our best scientists predicted Russia would perfect the bomb has already caused, in my opinion, the Communist aggression in Korea, with the resultant casualties exceeding 50,000 and who knows but that millions more of innocent people may pay the price of your treason. Indeed, by your betrayal you undoubtedly have altered the course of history to the disadvantage of our country.

Pres. Eisenhower cited a similar concern when he denied clemency a few months before their execution.

But this account provides almost none of that context or how it might have influenced the outcome. However, I now feel as though I lived through the trial and the appeals. In fact, I probably now know more than what most of the public did at the time, given how much of the testimony was embargoed because of national security concerns. In one of the few moments of levity in the book, the judge asks the public to leave, only allowing press to stay, because of the evidence about the atomic bomb about to be presented; I think today the press would be just about the last group allowed to hear such privileged testimony.

the rosenbergs in a rare embrace, but one so characteristic of their deep love for each other

the rosenbergs in a rare embrace, but one so characteristic of their deep love for each other

I finished the book over two Shabbatot, during one of which I was sick, so I just stayed in bed all day reading. Even though I knew the outcome, I cried at the end. The Rosenbergs were executed just over two years after their conviction, lightening speed when compared to today’s process. Through a practical deus ex machina, the legal team was able to get a stay of execution ordered by one U.S. Supreme Court judge, William Douglas, on the day after the Court’s summer recess. It initially seemed that the Rosenbergs would gain months of their lives while the appeal based on the stay made its way through the lower courts. However, exhilaration turned into shock and despair when, in a completely unprecedented move, the Court was called back for a special session and vacated the stay. The Rosenbergs were executed by electric chair a day later — on Shabbat, despite the pleas of their lawyer for respect for their Jewish heritage. Even more horrifying, Ethel had to be electrocuted three times after it was discovered she was still alive after the first course.

Since I’ve practically read the trial transcript, I’ll weigh in on the verdict. From the book’s account of the trial, it certainly seemed like Julius Rosenberg was involved in espionage activities. However, the government’s case was pretty weak, based on circumstantial evidence and verbal testimony (and absolutely no physical ties). As a juror, I think I would have had trouble concluding that the government had made its case beyond a reasonable doubt. Indeed, based on evidence released decades after the trial, it is clear that he was indeed a spy for the Soviet Union, but it is not at all clear whether what he passed on helped the Russians in their quest for the bomb, or whether he even passed on anything at all about the bomb.

Ethel’s involvement was always dubious, and the government had even less of case against her. In the years since the trial, her role has pretty much been completely debunked (her brother having admitted in 2001 that he gave false testimony about her involvement). She almost certainly knew of her husband’s activities but did not participate in them in any substantive way.

Ages 10 and 7 when their parents died, the Rosenberg sons were adopted by their foster family, the Meerepols. The father Abel was a poet and song-writer who wrote under the pseudonym Lewis Allen; his most well-known work was the anti-lynching poem “Strange Fruit,” made famous by Billie Holiday.

The affair would ultimately claim another life. Upon hearing the Supreme Court’s decision to vacate Justice Douglas’s stay, the Rosenbergs’ lawyer, Emmanuel Bloch, called the warden at Sing Sing: “Please tell Julie and Ethel I did the best I could for them. Tell them I will take care of the children. Tell them I love them. Tell them . . . ” and then collapsed into a chair sobbing. He died of a heart attack, at the age of 52, six months later.

a world apart

This week I was assigned Cristina Rathbone’s A World Apart: Women, Prison, and Life Behind Bars as part of my Foundations of Prison Ministry class. I was only required to read parts, but I ended up tearing through the whole thing. It helped that I had a snow day on Tuesday.

The book hits close to home (it looks like I’m calling Boston home now!) because the author lives in Jamaica Plain, a neighborhood just a few miles away from mine. Plus, the subjects of the book are women incarcerated at nearby MCI-Framingham, a women’s prison, where I mentor an inmate who is in Boston University’s College Behind Bars program. I visit her as part of an interfaith initiative between Hebrew College and Andover Newton Theological Seminary, the CIRCLE Prison Justice and Ministry Program.

Rathbone’s relationships with the five women whose stories constitute the majority of the book developed over five years — and were only the result of years of initial litigation for access to the prison. As she notes at the outset, she has just about only been in MCI-Framingham’s visiting room. But despite the considerable efforts of the powerful Massachusetts Department of Corrections to keep her out, Rathbone presents a comprehensive picture of life on the inside (in so far as any outsider can tell, I suppose).

The importance of the book lies in the fact that, Rathbone notes, “women behind bars are startlingly unlike their more violent male counterparts. Predominantly incarcerated for nonviolent, drug-related offenses, they are frequently mere accessories to their crimes: girlfriends, wives, or lovers of drug dealers, even leaseholders of apartments in which drugs are stashed. Almost all have serious drug problems themselves, and about half are victims of domestic abuse.” It stands to reason that life inside a women’s prison would be different, too.

If the stereotypical male experience in prison is working out, illegal procurement of weapons and drugs, physical violence, and trying to escape, the stereotypical female experience is eating junk food, illegal procurement of underwear and personal hygiene products, gossiping, and trying to see children. But sex is the great unifier: It turns out that almost everyone, in both environments, sleeps with a fellow inmate or a guard.

The book alternates between the stories of a handful of women and the history of women’s incarceration in the U.S. I found the latter only of passing interest, in part because how little effect the past has had on the trajectory of how women now fare in the criminal justice system. The first women’s prison, Mount Pleasant, opened in 1838 on the grounds of the infamous Sing Sing prison, and it was closed in 1850. MCI-Framingham, which opened in 1877, is the oldest running women’s prison in the U.S., so its history could be instructive. But it falls into a depressingly rhythmic pattern: A reform-minded woman takes over and institutes changes aimed at true rehabilitation, and then a (usually male) higher-up decides that the programs and practices are self-indulgent and replaces the reformer with a traditionalist. And then a reform-minded woman takes over again . . . The regularity of the ups and downs made me wonder whether a permanent revolution will ever be possible.

rug hooking class at MCI-Framingham, 1948; photo via Framingham Public Library

rug hooking class at MCI-Framingham, 1948; photo via Framingham Public Library

In Rathbone’s account, MCI-Framingham, probably like many prisons in the era of government budget shortfalls, has very little in the way of programming. She writes: “Its website indicates a long list of programs available to the women of Framingham . . . but when you take into account the diversity and breadth of its population, it remains a fact that each women at MCI-Framingham has access to fewer programs, and therefore to fewer privileges and less prison-earned ‘good time,’ than most male prisoners in the state.” Indeed, Rathbone’s analysis is that the sexism of our society is reflected in the prison system: Men get disproportionate resources. But women in prison have disproportionate need, in part because of past abuse, drug addiction, mental illness, and their responsibility for children.

Sidebar: For what it’s worth, I should note a criticism of this analysis: Our class discussion on the book was led (in the absence of my professor) by Rev. Joyce Penfield, executive director of The Blessing Way, a Rhode Island institution that provides “spiritual guidance for reentry & recovery.” She argued that per capita, women get vastly more resources than men: There are more programs in men’s prisons, but they constitute 94% of the country’s prison population. I’m not sure that this changes the experience of scant resources that the women in Framingham report, but I feel compelled to mention this disagreement. And Penfield even went further, suggesting that her experience in the Rhode Island penal system is one of plenty where women are concerned.

Most compelling, as is so often the case, are the stories Rathbone tells. These are women you want to root for: None of them ever had much to begin with, were given pretty short shrift in life, and are now facing just about the steepest uphill climbs you can imagine. Most heartbreaking were the struggles with child-rearing. As women are most often the primary caregivers in our society, so too are they in prison. And they seemed to spend most of their energy behind bars monitoring the often insecure living situations of their kids. Unlike the majority of incarcerated men, each woman could not rely on her children’s other parent to do the care-taking in her absence.

Somewhat mystifying was Rathbone’s treatment of sexual relationships at the prison. She devotes a number of pages to the prevalence of these illicit affairs (physical touch between inmates and just about anyone is forbidden), both between prisoners and between prisoners and guards. Such contact is commonplace, even rampant, for all the same reasons that it is on the outside: One of the women in the book, who resists such affairs for most of her time in prison, even witheringly notes that her fellow inmates just replicate on the inside the same problematic relationships they had on the outside. Her cellmate hooks up with almost every officer that is interested, while another woman is involved in an abusive relationship with a fellow prisoner. And these relationships, like everything else in jail, are commodities. What’s lacking, to my mind, is a discussion of the question of whether carceral relationships can ever be truly consensual, particularly between inmates and guards. Rathbone only talks very briefly about allegations of rape in that institutional context — but devotes an entire chapter to a now-defunct web site that seeks to connect men to incarcerated women (ultimately called “Jail Babes” but originally and unfortunately dubbed “Jail Bait”). Maybe that says something important: As Rathbone begins her book, “Life in a women’s prison was full of surprises.”

let the people in

final-let-the-people-in

When asked what she would have done differently if she’d known she was to be only a one-term governor, Ann Richards grinned and said, “I would probably have raised more hell.”

While I was at the ashram, I read Jan Reid’s Let the People In: The Life and Times of Ann Richards. I laughed with delight at the introductory chapter, and I cried with despair at the ending — at both endings. There was the end of her rather short political career in 1994, and then there was her death in 2006 from cancer.

My introduction to this bawdy, loud, wonderful lady was during her second and failed race for governor. As I wrote for my introduction when I was asked to speak during the feminist fishbowl, “Salem has identified as a feminist since 1994, when as an impressionable 16-year-old she watched Ann Richards lose her re-election bid for governor of Texas to one George W. Bush.” I remember feeling like the world was going to end that fall — and then being sure of it six years later in the fall of 2000. But here we all are.

And thank goodness for that, because the world that I live in is one that Ann Richards helped to create. As Reid notes,

Her greatest accomplishment was to bring to positions of responsibility and power in Texas the women, African Americans, Latinos, Asian Americans, gay men, lesbians, and disabled persons who had been so long denied. Because of that, state government centered in Austin will never be the same. Whatever party wins the elections and controls the appointed boards that keep the bureaucratic agencies and institutions of higher education running, democracy in Texas is better because she won.

Ann Richards was born near Waco, Texas, at the end of 1933, and she was almost immediately ill suited to her time. She was a wife (to David Richards), mother (to Cecile, Daniel, Clark, and Ellen), and teacher because that’s what women did; she was honest even in her lifetime about how those roles made her just about go out of her mind with boredom. Even when she served as chief of staff for Sarah Weddington (before the latter went to D.C. to argue Roe v. Wade before the Supreme Court), Richards had to negotiate a special arrangement with her boss to leave work early be able to cook dinner for her family. On the one hand, we should all be able to so organize our lives to spend more time with our families. On the other hand, of course Richards’ demanding job did not excuse her from her unpaid work, as it did her husband. Indeed, even as she began to field requests for appearances all over the country, Richards answered a phone call from Midge Costanza, the highest ranking woman in the Carter administration, with the breezy, “Hi, Midge, what do you want? I’m cooking David’s supper.”

ann richards at the 1988 democratic national convention

ann richards at the 1988 democratic national convention

Richards rose through Texas politics as a campaign volunteer, political staffer, county commissioner, state treasurer, and then governor. (Her career is a good reminder that it wasn’t so long ago that Texas was not the monolithically Republican state that it’s now considered to be.) Her spunk brought her to the attention of the national scene even when she was just a local politician, but she became a star during the 1988 Democratic National Convention in Atlanta, where she gave the keynote address. She “talked Texas” and delivered the now well-known zinger about the Republic presidential candidate: “Poor George, he can’t help it. He was born with a silver foot in his mouth.”

In 1990, Richards’s first race for governor, against millionaire businessman and good ole boy Claytie Williams, is one of the most amusingly horrifying tales in Texas history — and is chronicled brilliantly in Molly Ivins’ book Molly Ivins Can’t Say That, Can She?, a collection of the columnist’s political coverage, from which Reid draws liberally (no pun intended). Richards became the first female governor of Texas since 1924, when the wife of a former governor was elected. (They are still the only two women to have held that office.)

As Reid tells it, Richards tried to do too much: Her inauguration speech included 15 massive projects as top priorities. She made progressive headway in many, but ultimately, she would preside over the largest expansion of the criminal justice system in the country, doubling the number of incarcerated persons in Texas. In so doing, she did pioneer a revolutionary model of drug and alcohol treatment for non-violent offenders (she herself was a recovering alcoholic and drug user). And in her defense, she inherited a state prison crisis that had been broiling since the early 1970s, when an inmate brought a federal case against the state for violation of the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments. Adding pressure to the impetus for change were several high profile killings, most notably the Luby’s massacre in Killeen in 1991 and the siege on the Branch Davidians in Waco in 1993. But the number of executions on her watch reached 48, and her only acts of clemency in four years were two 30-day stays. It is an indelible stain on her legacy that by the year 2000, Texas had the largest prison population of any Western democracy.

The book suffered slightly, not from its subject, but from its writing, which swung between not enough repetition and too much. The text was full of awkward segues that didn’t properly introduce new characters, and recurring characters were not given enough context to remind the reader of his or her significance. But as the author touched on a subject and later returned to it, entire passages (as for example, on the history of prison reform in Texas) would be repeated almost verbatim.

But Reid was a friend of Richards (and his wife was in her employ for more than a decade). The reader can’t help but feel his affection for her. Oddly enough, he refers to her as “Ann” throughout; it’s hard to tell whether this is simply familiarity, but it is certainly not customary in biography.

It is indeed easy to root for Ann Richards, who said on her inauguration: “Today we have a vision of a Texas where opportunity knows no race, no gender, no color — a glimpse of what can happen in government if we simply open the doors and let the people in.”

joseph anton

Joseph Anton, you must live until you die.

So Salman Rushdie tells his alter-ago – the psuedonym, a combination of the first names of Conrad and Chekhov, respectively, and how he is referred to by his British protection officers – as he embarks on what turns out to be a 13-year journey under a death sentence decreed by Ayatollah Khomeini of Iran on Valentine’s Day in 1989. In this book full of irony, it’s no small irony that the man whose fatwa called for the killing of the London-based Indian expat – for blaspheming Islam in his novel The Satanic Verses – died a few years later while the writer lived on.

First, a confession: I’ve never read anything of Rushdie’s until now. I read an excerpt from this book when it was published in The New Yorker in September, and I was hooked. I tried to read Midnight’s Children a few years ago, and I just couldn’t get into it. It might be time to try something again.

The memoir of his life under the fatwa – with digressions into his child- and young adulthood – is told in the third-person, which is jarring at first but quickly becomes natural. The choice reflects Rushdie’s alienation from himself during this trying period of his life. He is forced to chose the cover name so that the members of the Special Branch of the Metropolitan Police (in charge of personal protection in the United Kingdom) who are his constant companions during the first nine years of the fatwa can refer to him without raising suspicion about his identity; to his extreme dislike and irritation, the men on his detail shorten the name to Joe. Rushdie in other ways ceases to become Salman: He is denounced as Rushdie the apostate (by a large part of the Muslim world), Rushdie the self-aggrandizer (by one of his ex-wives), Rushdie the ungracious (by the British press). His life almost ceases to become his own — and is certainly no longer his intellectual property, as plays and movies and articles and books and stories are written about him and the fatwa. And his new world narrowly circumscribed by what he is “allowed” to do.

Rushdie writes movingly of the pain of those years. Two marriages collapse under their weight, as well as numerous friendships and relationships with colleagues. His interaction with his then eight-year-old son is severely curtailed. For the first few years, he must move every few months, and he is constantly in search of new accommodations. He is almost always afraid – less for himself than for the risk he poses to his loved ones and colleagues. While none of his family is harmed, a foreign translator of The Satanic Verses is murdered and another is almost fatally shot. His publishers face death threats, bookstores carrying his books are bombed. It is for these casualties that Rushdie feels unrelenting guilt.

But Rushdie himself has more than his fair share of trials. Support for free speech — the main issue at hand, as he sees it — does not always come from where he expects, and he feels the betrayal of his colleagues acutely. But he is not always able to confront his accusers (whether erstwhile colleagues or new enemies), which leads to the intermittent, unsent, and often hilarious letters that appear in the text. “It was a time,” Joseph Anton reflects, “where comedy had to be found in dark places.”

The British government in particular is upsetting in its silence and its general inaction on the fatwa. Under house arrest, Rushdie feels like a prisoner, and the resulting depression leads to long periods of writer’s block. His second wife, whom he married just before the fatwa, is breathtaking in her betrayal. But lest the reader began see the author of The Satanic Verses as martyr (another mistaken identity), Rushie is also unflinchingly honest about his own shortcomings: the tactical errors he made in his own defense, the affairs he had (he cheated on three of his four wives).

salman rushdie with the satanic verses in 1992

History plays a large role in this part of Rushdie’s life. He had the misfortune of being targeted by Iranian extremists when U.S. and U.K. citizens were Hezbollah’s hostages in Lebanon; both countries ask for his silence at various times out of fear for their safety. On the other hand, as Rushdie notes at the end of the memoir, he had the fortune of not being this target in the internet age, when the more rapid spread of information might have raised the risk of his detection. (One of the more interesting motifs throughout the book is the development of technology: It begins with him composing drafts of his work on a typewriter and ends with his purchasing of a laptop. The scene of his first encounter with a cellphone is hilarious.)

The book also brought up for me, as a future clergy member, the danger of being on the wrong side of history: For various reasons, stakeholders who by all rights should have been vociferous defenders of free speech were   In addition to politicians and writers, many religious leaders condemned The Satanic Verses on the basis of “offense to Islam,” including the chief rabbi of the United Kingdom, Immanuel Jakobovits, who went even further, declaring that “both Mr. Rushdie and the Ayatollah have abused freedom of speech.” In one of his impossible letters, Rushdie rightly condemns his “making false moral equivalences.”

For indeed as Jews well know, in the words of Heinrich Heine: “Where they burn books they will in the end burn people too.”

why have kids?

First: I don’t know whether I want children. I’ve never felt a strong desire for children. I have felt pressure from my mom and from (what I perceive is, more on that below) Jewish tradition. I’m mostly undecided, and I think I could be okay not having kids. I do wonder though, if it were socially acceptable, whether I would just decide not to. Which is strange to me, since I am not usually ruled by others’ expectations. I think part of it is the fact that relatively few people choose not to have kids, so I wonder if I’m missing something. I also wonder how to know that I won’t regret that decision. Deciding to become a rabbi has only intensified my anxiety about this issue: I don’t know any rabbis without children.

Over the holidays I read (on my Kindle app on my iPhone) Jessica Valenti’s Why Have Kids? A New Mom Explores the Truth About Parenting and Happiness. It’s a short and quick read, and it in no way answers its own question. I was left with the overwhelming feeling that there is no rational reason to have kids. People do it because they want to, because they are expected to, because they were faced with an unintended pregnancy — all valid reasons. But it’s not necessarily going to make you a happier or more fulfilled person (at least not for a long while).

The book is divided into two parts: LIES and TRUTH. The first category includes “Children Make You Happy,” “Breast is Best,” “‘The Hardest Job in the World'”; the former, of “‘Bad’ Mothers Go to Jail,” “Smart Women Don’t Have Children,” and “Women Should Work.” Obviously, some of these are provocative, but Valenti does manage in some way to take on some of the sacred cows of motherhood. Much of the book draws from first-mother accounts, and the stories, quite frankly, are horrifying — and played into my worst fears. The standout in the book is her (unfortunately ill-formed) argument for the need in our country to move from individual to community parenting — thus requiring us to advocate for “government and workplace policies that honor parenting for everyone.” That’s a world into which I would want to bring children. Valenti just doesn’t really offer a way to get there.

Interestingly, related issues were raised last Shabbat in a Jewish context; at Temple Beth Zion, a congregant, the aunt of one of my classmates, gave a d’var Torah about the Biblical imperative to procreate, from the weekly parshah, Bereshit. In the first account of the creation of humans — the only humans at the time — in Genesis 1:28, G-d tells them, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it.” The talk was intensely personal, and it deeply resonated with me.

At my request, she sent me a copy of her d’var. Speaking from her perspective as “a Jewish woman who chose not to give birth or be the primary raiser of children,” she talked about her struggle with that decision and her exploration for its validation in Jewish tradition. She grew up in a different time, when women were told that being a mother was part of having a full life. (I’m actually not sure that things have changed that much, though perhaps the messages are less explicit.) She began to speak with women older than she and discovered that this might not be the case. After much agonizing, she related, “I felt at the end of the day that primary parenting is a huge responsibility and a lot of work that, while potentially quite wonderful, was not one of the major life works that I wanted to take on.”

She explained that she made that decision with the belief that it was in opposition to Jewish law and practice. At the time, she identified as a secular Jew, so whether there was support for her choice in Jewish tradition was not of import. When she became more religious mid-life (when having children was no longer an option), she began to explore what Jewish texts actually have to say on the issue. There are in the Tanakh examples of women who do not have children — most notably Dvora – which is to say nothing of the men and women who cannot have children. She also cited the story of Jacob’s reaction to Rachel in her despair over not having children; a 15th century rabbi interprets it as anger at her forgetting her basic worth as a human being.

Wrapping up, she asked, “What does it mean to be a mensch (human) in regards to procreation and the domination of the planet by human beings in the 21st century? What is our holy work and what is our holy work today as we explore our connection back to the very first mitzvah — of procreation?” Citing the writing of Rav Kook (the first chief rabbi of British Mandate Palestine) on the issue — his view is that procreation is not mere instinct but pursuit of divine goodness, to be found everywhere — she concluded,

From my point of view this means that procreation originally set the precedent for human holy activity that now includes all activity that nurtures the human race.

Oh my God! I forgot to have children!Thus, her work as a mentor and advocate for Jewish women is her holy work — born of the Biblical mandate to “be fruitful and multiply.”

This decision weighs on me, and it’s something I’ll continue to wrestle with as my window for having children continues to close because of my age. The d’var giver joked that she didn’t want to have the realization of a woman in a t-shirt she saw: “Oh my God! I can’t believe I forgot to have to have children!” Like her, I want “to make an active, intelligent decision about whether or not I [am] going to give birth and raise children.”

riddle, wrapped in a mystery

Trigger warning: One of the books reviewed here contains a brief episode of sexual assault, which I allude to in my review.

I had originally planned to pair the first book in this post, Gabrielle Hamilton’s Blood, Bones & Butter: The Inadvertent Education of a Reluctant Chef, with another book that I read at about the same time, before I left D.C. in May. However, I just finished Deborah Feldman’s Unorthodox: My Scandalous Rejection of My Hasidic Roots, and I think it’s a better fit with the former.

Both are memoirs (my favorite genre) written by women who struggle in becoming who they are, Hamilton’s journey less purposeful than Feldman’s. Both women suffered by my curious googling after finishing their stories.

At the end of April, while in New York for a conference, I met my friend Megan (and another friend of hers) for dinner. They had chosen Prune, Hamilton’s small East Village eatery. Both had read her memoir. After the fantastic (although not so vegetarian- or kosher-friendly) food, I decided to check it out. I don’t eat most of the food that Hamilton loves or prepares or writes about, and my mouth still watered. She has a simple aesthetic as a cook: To use simple, real ingredients to make delicious food. Even a non-foodie like me knows how rare that is. I remember and still think about some of the dishes she describes, and I wonder if they are really as good as she says — and if I’ve wasted years being a vegetarian and then observing kashrut.

Two quick asides about the cover: First of all, I had no clue that the art was an upside-down chicken head. Seeing the digital image in this post now makes that mistake seem ridiculous (it took my husband to disabuse me of the notion that it was an odd kind of shellfish mentioned in one of her recipes), but I think it was hard to get the distance necessary to discern the image correctly at a book’s usual distance from one’s face. The second thing is the endorsement by Anthony Bourdain. He proclaims, “Magnificent. Simply the best memoir by a chef ever. Ever.” This never failed to make me giggle each time I resumed the book: How many chef memoirs are out there? (Yes, yes: probably more than I know.) But more to the point, Anthony Bourdain wrote his own memoir about his professional life as a chef. I am not running to check it out from the library, because it is clearly at most the second best memoir by a chef.

Hamilton came by her style — and her success — the hard way. The book takes the reader from her childhood in rural Pennsylvania, where her cooking education began in her mother’s kitchen, to her teenage years in New York as a coked-out waitress, to college and graduate school, and back to New York, where she worked terrible catering jobs until she started Prune. The story finally ends in Italy, the mecca of good food, where her husband’s family lives (more about that later).

Hamilton is a great writer. Her graduate work was in creative writing, and she tells wonderful stories. She also has the distance from most of the events of the book to be able to make them coherent and shape them into a larger narrative (perspective which Feldman lacks, but more on that below). What was missing from Hamilton was explanation and motivation, particularly for some of her more unorthodox (see what I did there?) choices. After a lot of turmoil in her childhood (her parents’ divorce, financial troubles), Hamilton struggles to make it to and to stay in college. And then she dispatches her four years there in mere sentences — and is then suddenly off to graduate school, with nary an explanation for her choice of post-undergraduate education. She is also by then in a relationship with a woman, who follows her to Michigan and returns with her to New York.

Her foray into restaurant ownership is just as, if not more, mysterious. As Hamilton tells it, a neighbor happens to drop by to ask if she wants to see some real estate he owns. Her catering jobs leading to no foreseeable career, Hamilton essentially decides to buy the space, once home to a failed restaurant, on the spot – but with no indication that she has ever before considered this step. Just as suddenly, the restaurant is not only up and running – again, without explanation of how she started the business, which by her own admission she knows nothing about – but hugely successful, with lines, stretching down the street, of customers waiting for Saturday and Sunday brunch.

And! Hamilton is by this time pregnant with her second child. The father of both is an Italian doctor whom she started seeing while still living with her girlfriend, each without knowledge of the other. The reader is again offered almost nothing to understand this choice. Please note: I generally believe that folks do not owe others explanations of their sexuality, but as this is a memoir, and the choice, unusual, a fuller exploration seems warranted, especially in light of her clear ambiguity about the relationship with her children’s father.

Hamilton never lives with him, though they co-parent. This decision, however, seems less by design and more by inertia – like the pregnancies. She falls for the doctor after he cooks her a delicious, authentic Italian meal from scratch; indeed, the attractions of his extended Italian family in Rome, his mother’s cooking, and their rural villa in Puglia seem more compelling than he himself.

Later in their relationship, he attempts to cook the wooing meal for her again but forgets a key step in the process, rendering the homemade pasta disappointingly edible. Hamilton feels similarly about his family as their charms began to wane, the Roman apartment becoming cramped and hot, the food becoming predictable and uninventive, and the villa becoming provincial and isolating. The book ends with the impending dissolution of her relationship.

Curious about so many unanswered questions, I googled Hamilton for more information. The (perhaps unsubstantiated) gossip indicates that her divorce was less about her growing disaffection for the Italian side of her chosen family than the fact that she was having an affair with her sister’s husband. A potential second affair – and I use that word carefully, since there is no evidence that the parties involved either time had open relationships – combined with the bafflement about her life’s trajectory – ultimately made the story end for me on a sour note. I don’t know know what to believe about her experience, and that seems odd in a memoir.

Since I started by judging Hamilton’s book by its cover, I begin by judging Feldman’s by its name. As my husband pointed out as soon as he saw me reading it: “I’m sure it’s a great read, but that title is terrible. Did the editors have a contest to see who could come up with the most clichéd name in the shortest amount of time?”

Unorthodox was featured in Lilith magazine along with several other books about women’s experiences with Orthodox Judaism. Feldman grew up a Satmar Hasid in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn speaking only Yiddish; was given the minimal high school education – complete with the daily hour of “English” that allowed the religious school to maintain state accreditation – as befits a girl in that community; was married to a man chosen by her family at age 17; and became a mother at age 19. She left her husband a few years after her son was born.

Feldman’s telling makes it clear from the outset that she simply doesn’t belong in the world of her family of origin. She wants to read books in English – and sneaks into the public library to get them, hiding them in her room – and instinctively feels that the Hasidic approach to mental illness (from which bother her uncle and her father suffer) and to sexual assault (of which she is a victim), of not seeking professional help from the outside world, is troubling. She is fated to leave the community, as her mother did years before. She feels it instinctively and deeply, and from her position on the other side, that feeling certainly seems to have been validated.

The book begins with Feldman sitting down to a meal with her estranged mother, to whom she hasn’t spoken for years. Writing a book about her experience requires brutal honestly, she figures, and she wants to start with answers from her mother. But this beginning seems only to serve to burnish her credentials as a writer – she’s telling us she set out to be honest, so what follows must therefore be so! – because we’re aren’t actually privy to what her mother says. It’s only later in the story that we discover, along with Feldman when she watches the documentary Trembling Before G-d, about queer folks in Orthodox Jewish communities, that her mother is gay.

The memoir is a quick read, and I zoomed through it, especially when I realized that tales of her married sexual life were forthcoming. (Yes, I am that prurient.) That part of the story did not disappoint: Her marriage begins with a year of physically and emotionally painful attempts to actually have sex, a problem made worse by the fact that everyone in the small community knows about and weighs in on the saga as it occurs. Whatever the root cause of the difficulty, it is also exacerbated by the profound lack of sexual education in the community: Feldman recounts the story of her neighbor, whose husband’s haste, force, and ignorance on their wedding night caused her colon to rupture when they inadvertently had anal instead of vaginal intercourse. Feldman and her husband are similarly clueless. It’s lurid details like this, along with many others, about religious doctrine and anti-Israel rallies, about arranged marriages and purity laws, and that make this a fascinating glimpse into a notoriously insular community.

As the narrative winds down with her decision to leave her husband and Hasidism, she describes the difficulties that this will entail, particularly in gaining at least joint custody of her son. But, in a bizarre omission, nothing of her preparations or the legal battle are recounted. The book ends with her and her son in a new apartment, but we have no idea how they got there.

And so I googled Feldman. Unsurprisingly, the book has come under vitriolic attack by the Satmar Hasidim she describes. And unfortunately, at least some of their objections seem to be warranted: One of the more gruesome accounts in the book (which I do not need to recount here; it will be immediately obvious) was revealed after the book’s publication to be dubious as best. She also omitted the existence of a little sister, and the timeline of her mother’s abandonment has been called into question. Custody of her son was won only after she hid with him at various friends’ houses for several months and survived protracted legal action by her husband’s family.

Unlike Hamilton, Feldman ultimately comes across as young a naïve – she’s writing mere months after her departure, and she is scathing in her indictment of almost everyone in her family. As I finished the book, I wondered whether time would allow her to take a more charitable – or at least more balanced – view of their actions, and if she might end up regretting some of her words.

the unlikely disciple

In mid-May I tore through Kevin Roose’s The Unlikely Disciple: A Sinner’s Semester at America’s Holiest University. It was recommended to me by my friend Michelle, who knows from good memoirs, her (and my) favorite genre: She reads two or three books a week! (When I ask how she has the time to do so, she says, “I don’t watch any television.”)

Roose was a student at Brown University and a writer’s assistant to A.J. Jacobs, he of the extreme lifestyle challenges, when work on Jacobs’ The Year of Living Biblically took him to the mega-church of Dr. Jerry Fallwell in Lynchburg, Va. There he met students from Falwell’s Liberty University, became intrigued by his brief interaction with them, and the rest is this book. Roose takes a leave of absence and enrolls at Liberty during the spring semester of 2007.

I spent most of the book alternately laughing and shuddering at his description of the self-described “evangelical liberal arts college” and its students (both of which hit pretty close to home for me) and marveling at Roose himself.

I kept having to remind myself that Roose was only 19 when he attended Liberty. He approached the experience with incredible self-assurance and a true desire to understand what for him was pretty much “the other side” in our nation’s ever more vicious culture wars. He did everything that his classmates did — and almost always enthusiastically. He takes the requisite creationism course (though it completely baffles him); he finds a “devotional” buddy (someone with whom he studies the Bible outside of class); he sings in the choir at Falwell’s church; he prays every day; and, in one of the book’s most hilariously uncomfortable parts, he even goes to a self-help group for men who are struggling with masturbation (forbidden according to the school’s sect of Christianity).

I generally found Roose extremely thoughtful and open-minded about these experiences (sometimes to the horror of his liberal family, especially his aunt and her female partner). By far my favorite part was his reflection on his experience of daily prayer. He struggles at first to do this authentically, because he’s not sure that he believes in G-d. So he begins by articulating his hopes for his family and friends, and he comes to find that — non-belief in G-d notwithstanding — he actually enjoys the opportunity for reflection. One day his prayers for a friend motivate him to write a letter of encouragement to that friend, which was received with gratitude at a difficult time in that friend’s life. This book was an unlikely impetus for my own reflection on prayer — but I certainly felt motivated by Roose’s thoughts.

As Roose himself acknowledges, one of the reasons his experiment has success is because he is a straight, white, (at least nominally) Christian man. He thoughtfully reflects on this privilege on more than one occasion: in his interaction with one of the few black guys in his dorm, harassed for dating a white girl, then as one of his roommates because more outspokenly and virulently homophobic as the semester progresses, and then when he hosts a Jewish friend from Brown for a weekend. Unfortunately, Roose falls short in considering the experience of women on campus, except insofar as he and his friends date them. I would have appreciated his delving into a little deeper into the attitudes towards and expectations of women as evangelical Christians (besides how to date Christian men). By giving ink to only that aspect of the female experience at Liberty, Roose is as reductive of women’s roles as Liberty (presumably) is.

liberty university, lynchburg, va.

There is also the issue of the book’s subtitle: Liberty as presented is hardly a “holy” institution; no place as obsessed with demonizing gay folks, or home to such casual racism, could be described as such. In fact, one of Roose’s takeaways is that the students at Liberty are in the main similar to their counterparts on the other side of the culture war: Good-hearted people struggling to find a way to live out their values in the world — and just as flawed as anyone else. (Yes, many students at Liberty engage in the taboos of drinking, drugs, swearing, and premarital sex.) And a “sinner”? While that’s likely how the adherents to Fallwell’s brand of Christianity might characterize Roose, I was consistently struck by his earnestness and sincerity.

Coincidentally, Roose is at Liberty during two historical events: the massacre at Virginia Tech in nearby Blacksburg, and the death of Dr. Falwell. Both provided interesting windows into the university’s culture. The reaction to the Tech shooting is hardest for Roose to comprehend, as the campus ultimately settled on a this-is-part-of-G-d’s-plan-and-therefore-must-have-happened-for-a-reason interpretation of events, which attitude enfuriates Roose.

And in a turn of events that Roose couldn’t have scripted better, he ended up conducting the final print interview of Falwell’s life. Unsurprisingly, he finds Falwell to be neither the monster nor the saint that he is usually considered — but just an ordinary guy, even a decent human being. There was a time when I might have found this hard to understand, but after living in North Carolina for three years and witnessing the love locals have for Jesse Helms, a similarly polarizing national figure, I get it.

As Dostoevsky writes, “In most cases, people, even wicked people, are far more naive and simple-hearted than one generally assumes. And so are we.”

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