American Blood by Ben Sanders

American Blood by Ben Sanders (Minotaur Books, 2015) 339 pages

AB Sanders

I bought this book because I thought it would be interesting the read a thriller/crime book written by a New Zealander about events in New Mexico, specifically Santa Fe and Albuquerque. I did wonder why a writer from New Zealand would think that New Mexico is filled with raging drug dealers and gangs who go around terrorizing everyone and murdering and torturing as they liked. Then I realized the answer: Breaking Bad. People probably think that show is some kind of documentary.

My own memories of central New Mexico are different. My memories of Santa Fe involve Georgia O’Keefe landscapes and colorful bluffs. My impressions of Albuquerque are of the pastel blues and reds of the highways (yes, the highways) and sharing an elevator and breakfast with Britney Spears at the Doubletree hotel downtown, after I caught her show at the big mall across town (now, there’s a story…she was really small and talkedreallyfast, like that).

I didn’t spend a lot of time in either place looking for drugs or bad guys, but I’m sure the area is a lot less violent than Sander’s book makes it out to be. The blurb mentions the book and movie No Country for Old Men, but the country in this book has no old men at all: I doubt anyone of the crooks who bother people or the cops who chase them could possibly survive long enough to reach old age.

That’s not to say that Sanders is not a good writer, or that the book is unbelievable. The book moves right along, and you can blast through it. Many scenes are dialog-heavy, and the chapters are only a few thousand words long. There are three main point-of-view characters: the hero, a local narcotics police woman, and one of the main bad guys. The hero is Marshall, an ex-Special Forces and New York cop who ends up in witness protection in Santa Fe. The book blurb says he is “racked with guilt” and “seeking atonement” but I didn’t see any of that in the book itself. I think old Marshall is just the kind of action junkie that drives books like this forward. It could probably be a series (the story ends with that possibility) with Marshall Grade as Jack Reacher, but no human could survive the risky business that Marshall indulges in day after day. (In fairness, the action takes place over a bit more than 48 hours, so maybe this mayhem only happens occasionally.)

The local narc is a woman named Lauren Shore who drinks a lot because she lost her son Liam when he chased some burglars from the house and they shot him (page 17 and 270). Welcome to vigilante America, the book seems to say: this is the greatest country in the world, but you aren’t safe in your own home unless you’re packing heat at all times.

The third POV character is Rojas. He’s in it only for the money, and betrays his boss when the boss (Leon) assassinates a wounded comrade instead of risking taking him to the hospital. Then they chop several people up in the basement and dissolve them in acid. This is instead of, you know, putting them in the secret room with Alyce Ray and rest of the women they have captured because they might be witnesses, or just because they liked the way they looked (seriously: that’s all on page 329). But I had a hard time swallowing Rojas’s sudden attack of squeamishness.

The three main characters are joined now and then by a federal marshal who is Marshall’s witness protection contact and an assassin from New York who is sent out to see if Marshall might be around. The fed’s main role seem to be to help the heroes when it would be absolutely impossible to believe that one man (or woman) could take out four or five really bad folks. It’s fun, but often resorts to the old James Bond problem: the good guys always kill the bad guys, but the bad guys always tie the good guys up because they don’t want blood on the carpet or whatever. 🙂

The New York bad guy is “the Dallas Man” who is sent to wipe out a rival gang and find Marshall for the NY mob, if he’s around. He is, and this cold-blooded killer has a young daughter who he calls right after a hit. At first I found this touch repulsive, and then I kind of liked that this reptilian killer could have any emotions at all.

What happened in NY that sent Marshall out to New Mexico for protection? He went undercover as a fake crooked cop and was forced to either blow his cover or ignore a great injustice (to reveal more would be a major spoiler). The story is told in chapter-section flashbacks that occur at an increasing pace as the book goes on. I almost missed them because the “2010” header to flag flashbacks is only regular text that has been bolded. They are on pages 74, 149, 176, 214, 239, 258, and 273. I liked that device, and writers can learn a lot about pacing and handling back story from Sanders.

Sanders writes well too. I flagged some really nice passages: “One of those mornings when she woke and it was nearly twelve. Still dressed and laid diagonally on tangled sheets, her feet at the pillow and a thin stripe of sunlight across the darkened room.” And this: “She went into the bathroom and looked at herself in the mirror, finger-combed her hair. She put an inch of water in the glass that stood at the basin and knocked it back like a shot.” Both of these are on page 60, and haven’t we all had a morning or two like that?

The biggest issue I had with the book was the reason that Marshall risks his life over and over to help a missing local girl named Alyce Ray. Alyce’s photo reminds him of someone in New York (a lover) the book reminds us over and over, but I’m not sure that’s a good enough reason to blaze a path of destruction up and down I-25. Speaking of I-25, I checked most of the geographical clues about New York and New Mexico and they show that, if Sanders has never been to either place, the Internet can make you an expert on a lot of things.

But I didn’t get the whole thing about Marshall and Stella beer (page 4 and 309). I know it’s big in New Zealand, but I can’t recall ever seeing anyone sipping one in a dive bar anywhere. If you want someone not to know where you come from by the beer you drink (the supposed Stella reason), get a Bud Light.

Also, please don’t have a character named Marshall and other characters who are New Mexico Marshals. My eye ground to halt every time I saw that in print: is that one “l” or two? Marshall or the Marshal?

Bottom line, if you want to find new ways to kill (cutlery—forks and spoons—play a major role on pages 80 and 201) or find out addresses with social engineering (page 238), all wrapped in a well-written package, this is the book for you.

Behind the Shock Machine by Gina Perry

Behind the Shock Machine: The Untold Story of the Notorious Milgram Psychology Experiments by Gina Perry (The New Press, 2013) 341 pages

BTSM Perry

Usually I cruise bookstores and look for the new books, then read (most) of them and write them up here—well, this year I have. I find that if I don’t read a new book right away, I’m probably not going to get to it, or read only a bit and stop.

But there are exceptions, like this week’s book. This book was published a few years ago, and I bought it a year ago today as a used book (it looked like new) at the new Changing Hands bookstore in Phoenix. Oddly, I bought it with the first book I posted an essay on: What we See When We Read. But this book sat in the “unread” pile until recently, when my friend Jacques suggested more books about people and fewer about the multiverse and AI, the usual abstract stuff that distracts me from everyday life.

Many people have heard about the Milgram experiments at Yale in 1961-1962, and William Shatner (yes: Captain Kirk himself) played the scientist in a TV movie from 1976 called “The Tenth Level” (this film gets a whole chapter in the book, starting on page 272). Volunteers are duped into thinking they are helping people learn (!) by administering increasingly powerful shocks to people they have just met, shocks that are greeted with cries of pain from the “learner” in the next room. At what point would ordinary people refuse to go on to the maximum shock voltage? How many would continue to the bitter end, even if the other person lapsed into silence and presumably had been injured or could even be dead?

I’ll get to that, but first some details. The short version is that social psychologist Dr. Stanley Milgram devised an experiment to test “obedience” in subjects (almost exclusively male) when they were told to deliver shocks to fellow “volunteers.” The shocks were actually in thirty (!) levels, delivered in 15 volt increments, up to 450 volts. The switches were usually grouped in fours and labeled, all the way from “slight shock” through moderate to “very strong” and “intense” and on to the last two switches, labeled simply “XXX” (page 51). The “teacher” went over word pairs with a “learner” and shocked the learner when a wrong answer was given later (the whole word procedure is on page 154).

(Yes, I know there’s more to electrical shock than voltage: what about current? I also don’t expect most people to have experienced a 120-volt AC house current shock, which is not easily forgotten, and is at the low end of Milgram’s range!)

If the “teacher” hesitated a tall, thin man in a gray lab coat (white was considered too medical) would deliver instructions in a bland tone, like “Please continue” or “You must go on.” I found it hard to believe that these could be said so mechanically, but in the film, that’s exactly what happens. Naturally, I wondered what would have happened if the man in the lab coat looked or spoke differently, but the mild assurance of the man, who clearly knew what he was doing, had the desired effect: hit the switch!

The experimental results were considered so controversial, for many reasons, that when a film was made of the actual procedure during the final trials in May of 1962, the movie was only screened at university libraries and never released to the general public. (You can find the whole 45-minute Penn State version online, but it tries to load Java: be careful! There are shorter clips other places.)

Why so careful? Well, Milgram claimed that 65% of his subjects went all the way to final XXX level. Coming on the heels of Nazi atrocities during WWII and the public trial of Nazi officer Adolf Eichmann in 1961—his defense was famously that he was “only following orders”—it was naturally wondered if anyone would obey orders to hurt others, or only heartless Nazis (page 110). The idea that 65% of postal workers, welders, teachers, office workers, and so on—just ordinary, everyday Americans—could be put in a position of blind obedience to an authority figure (and a civilian scientist at that) struck many as enormously troubling. Even when the “victim” told them he had a heart condition, the subjects apparently had no problem zapping people they had just talked to moments before.

But this is where this book comes in. Are almost two-thirds of us really sadistic monsters who would gladly torture someone we just met when told to? Is the veneer of civilization really that thin? Or is there more to the story?

Of course there is! The book is not so much about the experiments themselves, although they are presented and followed up through interviews with participants, but about what Milgram revealed and kept hidden about his results (page 9).

Like what? Well, among other things, Milgram ignored findings that did not conform to his preferred interpretation of blind obedience. There were actually 24 “conditions” to the full range of experiments, all listed in an appendix (starting on page 304). Some had groups making decisions to shock or not, others had “teachers” just reading the word pairs and another doing the shocks, and so on. Most had 40 participants, but some had as few as 15. In contrast to the results that Milgram chose to publish, the raw results were wildly variable. Some versions had as much as 100% compliance (when the group had to decide) and others as few as 15% or even zero (in some cases, the conditions were reversed, so 100% “success” equaled 0% “obedience.”

The final condition tested people who were knew each other (page 310), such as friends or relatives. Only three of the twenty people went to 450 volts, or 15%. Another set of trials shifted the scene from collegiate New Haven to working-class Bridgeport without much difference in results, although those variations were not as extensive.

I wish the book had included pictures of the lab and the “shock machine” itself, but these are easily accessed online.

What are the implications of Milgram’s experiment? What does it say today about the lives and actions of ordinary citizens? Well, I think we now know that people can easily be manipulated to do things they would not ordinarily do, and that power is enormously corrupting. An experiment from 1971, the Zimbrano Stanford Prison Experiment is even more disturbing in many ways than Milgram’s work.

One other thing I found intriguing was the mention of the TV show Candid Camera (pages 15, 22, 105, and 135) and the role of laughter in the experiments (page 250). The TV show (by Alan Funt) featured things like talking mailboxes (“Hey, buddy, there’s not enough postage on this…”) and people’s reaction to them. At the end, Funt would come in and go “Smile! You’re on Candid Camera!” and that was supposed to make everything better. A Candid Camera example is here.

The subject (the duped “teacher”) often laughed at odd times during the procedure, especially after the “learner” cried out in pain. Why? No satisfactory answer ever comes out in the book, and although it apparently struck Milgram as odd as well, he never followed up on it (page 268). To me, this laughter is similar to the little snickers nervous people often pepper their conversations with when they are among strangers. It is an indication that the laughing person is trying mightily to please people who might otherwise be judgmental or even just distant and aloof. In my mind, this calls into question any of the ties Milgram later tried to make to Nazis (as in his book about the experiments). I doubt many death camp officers nervously laughed when the prisoners suffered pain. Nazis operated on a “whole ‘nother level.”

But it is clear from Perry’s book that, even some fifty years later, Milgram’s experiment still bothered people who went through it (page 96 and other places).

Becoming Nicole by Amy Ellis Nutt

Becoming Nicole: The Transformation of an American Family by Amy Ellis Nutt (Random House, 2015) 279 pages

BN Nutt

A couple of months ago, in September 2015, I posted an essay on a book by Melvin Konner called Women After All: Sex, Evolution, and the End of Male Supremacy. That book explored some of the implications of how and why human embryos start as female, but then develop into about 50-50 males-females at birth. I wrote there that “[t]he real point of the book is how male treatment of females has jeopardized any warm feelings women as a group might otherwise have for the male of our species.” This intermittent bad blood is almost always due to the male feeling of privilege and superiority over women.

As the Women After All book points out, the first thing people say about us when we are born is “It’s a boy!” or “It’s a girl!” When that initial judgment is questioned, some people can’t deal well with the consequences. (Full disclosure: I have a relative who was born a female, but 90% of the people looking at her today would identify her as a male: she worked on an automotive assembly line. But, to me and the rest of the family, she is just who she is.)

I read that book because gender issues have always been something I have been interested in. I picked up this book on my way to Vermont in October and read it because I have also been fascinated by people who claim to have been born into the wrong type of body for the gender they feel inside. Contrary to what you might expect, given the superior position given to males in our society, these transgender transformations tend to be more from male to female than female to male. I wonder if this has anything to do with the whole “we start out as female embryos” thing but, as far as I know, no one has studied this aspect of the phenomenon.

Now, they are those who think all instances of male gender discomfort are scams on the part of boys and men to scheme their way into ladies’ rooms (this argument has actually been made during elections when transgender use of rest rooms has been on the ballot). I have no idea what some otherwise sober (mostly) male politicians think goes on inside the women’s rest room, but I have been assured by many conversations with women and personal visits that it’s not much different than what goes on in the male version.

But I digress…this book, written by Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Amy Ellis Nutt, is about one of a pair of identical male twins, one of whom insists, almost from birth, that she is a girl and not a boy, a female and not a male. It sounds odd; indeed, impossible. How could two fetuses inside the same womb be so different in spite of complete genetic identity? After all, identical twins are essentially clones of each other. (There’s a possible answer in this book, but it’s really beyond the scope of this essay.)

Twins Jonas and Wyatt, born October 7, 1997 in Gloversville, NY, were adopted by Wayne and Kelly Maines, although the twins were blood relatives, from a family member facing hard times (page 11). Even as babies, the twins were very different, with distinct personalities (page 22) and appearance (there are many color photos in the book). The dad was a typical upstate New York kind of guy: do-it-yourself hunt/fish/camp. But Wyatt came to Wayne and announced one day, shortly after the twins turned three, that “I hate my penis” (page 23).

In Wyatt’s mind, he was not a boy named Wyatt, but a girl named Nicole. For years, the parents resisted this idea, only giving in to half-measures like softer looking clothing (no dresses!) and colors while hoping that their son would “grow out of it.” This family tension, reflected in the subtitle, drives most of the book, and reminds readers that this journey is not an individual one alone, but the transition of an entire family (the Kardashians would no doubt agree regarding Caitlin Jenner).

There are the usual visits to specialists and psychologists (page 82). Oddly, Wyatt excels at baseball (at least, when compared to his “male” brother) and loves shotguns and explosions. But his greatest fear at around age 10 is “going to high school looking like a guy” (page 83).

Most of the book is a year-by-year chronicle of the twins’ experiences in school (including the trauma of restroom use) after they move to Maine (yes, the Maines are in Maine). The early primary grades are done without detailed dates, but once the twins start fifth grade (page 121) and turn ten, the book becomes specific enough to chart the twins’ lives grade after grade.

There are the usual struggles with bigots and the resulting bathroom protests (pages 109, 115, and 131). Yet time after time, according to the book, when you ask the other kids, they all agree: “Wyatt is a girl.” It’s not like children inspect each other’s genitals as they enter a bathroom, after all. If you dress, talk, and act like a girl, then you’re a girl. Case closed. (I should note that it’s usually male parents who object to transgendered children using their gender-preferred rest room. I’m not sure why. As for the kids who tease and harass them, I’m not sure this means much: kids will tease and harass anyone they can anytime they can.)

This book is probably the closest you will come to understanding and appreciating the transgender family experience without living next door to one and knowing them first hand. The book ends on a note of triumph when Wyatt has sex reassignment surgery and become Nicole (page 253).

The ending of this book is absolutely perfect (page 262-263). Nutt relates a letter sent to the family about a conversation in a third-grade classroom at the twin’s old school. “We have a girl in our school who is transgender,” says the boy.

“What’s her name?” asks the girl.

“How is she a boy and a girl?” asks another boy, apparently with a different priority.

“Well, she has the brain of a girl and her body is like a boy body,” says the teacher. “But she lives like a girl and when she is grown up she will have surgery to change her body to match her brain.”

“I remember her name,” says the boy now. “She’s Nicole.”

“Oh, I know Nicole. She’s cool,” says the girl. “I didn’t know she’s transgender.”

“It isn’t a big deal,” the boy observes.

“As long as she’s happy,” the girl concludes, and that’s a good place to end things.

For those who still feel adrift in this new world of fluid gender identity, the book includes a section on sources (page 265), resources (page 278), and terminology (page 275).