Girls & Sex by Peggy Orenstein

Girls & Sex: Navigating the Complicated New Landscape by Peggy Orenstein (Harper, 2016) 301 pages

SAG Orenstein

Last time, I looked at Nancy Jo Sales’ American Girls, so this will be a good comparison of books dealing with similar content read more or less back-to-back. I have to say, I liked Orenstein’s breezy style a lot more than Sales’ more formal and “this is really a serious issue” approach. Also, as I mentioned, Sales’ book has chapters organized by age, from 13 to 19, which suggests boundaries that, in my experience, are more in the eye of the beholder than deeply embedded in reality.

I read this book because I liked Orenstein’s Cinderella Ate My Daughter book from a few years ago. Here, the author, as parent of a young girl, examines the whole “Disney princess” culture and the potential negative effects this “little girl as royalty” might have on girls as they grew up.

Orenstein’s book has chapters organized by theme. So one chapter investigates whether girls today are encouraged to consider themselves as sex objects (only when they want to be, the chapter title suggests) while another explores if the term “virgin” has any meaning when sexual activity, even for very young teens, is much more adventurous that it was not too long ago.

Instead of an age progression based on social media and technology use, Orenstein uses conversations with girls of many ages (but still mainly teens) to structure chapters revolving around sex, from hookups to coming out at a young age as a lesbian to friends and parents. Orenstein does not form judgments often, except perhaps when it comes to the role of alcohol in campus rape scenarios. She doesn’t moan when girls report that being known as a “prude” or a “virgin” might be just as shameful as being called a “slut” (p.3).

In fact, the book begins with a plea on the part of a well-endowed high-school girl that it should not be her (and other girls’) responsibility to “dress to control the boys” (p.9). Why should it be? she asks. Why isn’t the school and the boy’s parents doing more to have boys control themselves? It seems a pertinent question when 100% of girls report being sexually harassed (p.11) and most girls have resorted to wearing shorts under their school uniform skirts because the boys will not refrain from grabbing at the hems and lifting them up. Why aren’t boys encouraged in ads and on TV to wear tight shorts and expose their midsections in freezing weather (p.12)?

As Orenstein points out on p.14, Bruce Jenner, covered in Olympic sweat, used his body, but Caitlin Jenner, covered by a corset from “Trashy Lingerie,” displayed it. And many times, what girls are encouraged to do is to use their bodies to please boys, through sexual activity. Girls in middle school will strip on Skype for their boyfriends, because this remote display was one way to be a “bad girl” without the risks of “real sex” (p.23).

You can find the same kinds of perhaps surprising or even shocking statistics here as in Sales’ book: the new second base is masturbating the boy’s penis while he fingers the girl (p.47), 12-year-olds routinely ask health teachers if they should spit or swallow (p. 48), the concern about queefing (look it up: it was on South Park…p.63), girls are pressured to shave their public hair about the age of 14 (p. 67), and do on.

On the other hand, Orenstein does a very good job of dealing with the perils of date rape and campus drinking. She ties a lot of it in to the concerns about what the book calls “the number”…that is, how many sexual partners are too many (p.98). The book says that the average number of partners a girl has in college is seven. (p.105). But like many averages, a few really high or low numbers might skew the results.

This book goes places where the other book did not travel much. There is a long section on a “Purity Ball” where fathers take their daughters to dances and exchange vows of virginity until marriage vows are exchanged (p.84 on). Like the author, I got a bit of a queasy feeling about this strident display of rejecting all forms of intimacy. If there’s anything that perpetuates the view of a female as the possession of a man, it’s the idea that these girls have to be chaperoned by their fathers (or another close male relative) until they can be safely handed off their husbands (and later, their sons).

There are also long sections on women who have been raped (p.130) and gay sexuality (p.142). The age when girls came out as gay has dropped from about 25 in 1991 to 14-16 today (p.148). One issue I had is that Orenstein tends to split the stories up as she goes through her narrative, so a woman goes on a date on one page, gets drink ten pages later, then wakes up naked more pages later. Some schools have begun teaching “refusal skills” so that fewer women will have unwanted sexual activity (the FBI definition of rape) and still feel compelled to say (as the woman on p.197) to the boy, “Thanks, I had fun.”

The book ends with a frank discussion of how modern society is failing to give women and girls the tools they need to succeed in their relationships. Girls are still more likely to learn “what feels good” when they are touched not by themselves, but from someone else (p.205). There is more consideration in ordering a pizza for a couple (“Ok, you don’t like anchovies…”) than there is about sex (p.207).

Orenstein is not afraid of tangling her sex talk with politics. Once we decided to teach only abstinence in schools, we lost all chance of teaching our children to be responsible at the same time. We expect teens to break rules, but not the ones regarding the denial of their sexual natures (p.221).

On the other hand, I have a hard time agreeing with people that women who post naked photos are “empowered” by their sexuality. I say this because I think the female body has been so fetishized in modern America that an objective appreciation of the nude female form is all but impossible today. I think that a woman (or man, for that matter) should be able to walk down the street naked if they want too and not be at risk of any harm. But we are a long way from that, I think. At this point, I’ll be happy enough to hear about a boy covering a drunken girl with a blanket and staying with her until she sobers up.

American Girls by Nancy Jo Sales

American Girls: Social Media and the Secret Lives of Teenagers by Nancy Jo Sales (Knopf, 2016) 404 pages

AG Sales

I actually bought this book when it came out in February and read it sometime in March, I think. But for many reasons, it just percolated up to the top of the pile recently. One reason is that I wanted to talk about it in contrast to Peggy Orenstein’s Girls and Sex, but that will have to wait until next time at the earliest.

I raised one daughter who is now a wife and mother, and my wife Camille teaches K-8 Art (yes, from kindergarten through 8th grade, and she’s watched many a child, boy and girl, grow up and mature along the way). So I didn’t really read this book to find out “all about modern girls” or whatever. I just wanted to see how an author’s perception of the role of social media in the lives of modern American teenage girls corresponded to my personal experiences and the tales I heard my wife and other teachers relate—I promise there will be no titillating details.

For those who came for the “secret lives” promise in the title, the main point the author makes is that teenage girls often live rich lives that remain hidden to their parents, although not necessarily to other parents or the authors of books on social media and teenage girls. I was much the same way when I was a teenager—horrified of my parents finding out something that my friends’ parents knew already—because they caught us doing it. 🙂

I did struggle a bit with the overall organization of the book. A 20-page introduction introduces the reader to the new world of social media in high school and on college campuses, mentioning well-known incidents of sexual and drinking photos posted at Syracuse and ASU. Although I Knew a bit about the problems of early teens “sexting,” a lot of the newer apps like Yeti were new to me. (By the way, in case you’re wondering, I already knew that Facebook was all but obsolete among teens in general, thanks to talks with my wife’s students. Why use anything your parents know well? Are you crazy?)

After the crash-course-social-media introduction, the book is organized into seven chapters spanning the years from 13 (naturally) to 19. A short conclusion chapter ends the book.

I found the structure a bit limiting in letting the reader try to fit together the anecdotes into a coherent whole. And I already knew that some girls in some places at 14 are way ahead of (or far behind) other girls in other places at 16 (although these differences have become more homogenized than a generation or two ago: thanks, MTV et al). If anything, modern social politics has delayed entry into adulthood until after college or beyond, and, as a result, marriage and children come later and later as well. I don’t have to read a book to tell you that many of the kids I went to high school with got married right out of high school (17-18). Only about 50% went to college, and that was in Westchester County in NY.

The rigid structure all but forces Sales into unacknowledged “themes” for each chapter. After all, girls in college at 19 don’t need to watch YouTube videos on how to apply eye makeup like they do at 13 (or 9, if you want to freak out a bit). I did compile a sort of informal list on Sales’ main concerns for each age group:

13: the tech itself. (How many “likes” did I get?) Girls in this chapter deal with 50-100 texts a day (sounds low to me). The Internet traffic is 35% porn, and most kid’s first exposure to on-line porn starts at 6 (p. 13: still the giggly-looky stage…but still), usually through an older sibling or by a Google search gone wrong. (I still recall being absolutely shocked that a middle-school’s computers had no porn blocker…I hope they do today). But no matter: the boys go directly to the girls with “Send noodz” texts, and the girls often produce their own porn just to have some measure of control (p.41). If you want shock, you can ponder the 12-year-old Australian girl’s “I Love COCK” shirt (p.49)

14: The theme here is “Appearance”…it’s all about clothes, makeup, and accessories. There is a lot of Internet celebrities and following them, imitating them, obsessing over them. Sometimes, the girls themselves ARE them. Page 83 has a nice image of a flummoxed dad helpless to understand his daughter’s Internet fame: she won’t do the dishes but she has 100,000 followers on YouTube?

15: The theme shifts to bullying (p.128). About 50% of girls need to “manage their reputation” and for the first time issues of gay/lesbian come along (p.140). Another topic is who-is-cheating-on-whom (all that built-up sexual tension has to go somewhere).  I have to say, bullying is one place where schools I know about are really alert. But stamping out a negative storm of shaming texts is always a problem. For the first time, we meet cutters and other forms of self-harm (p.169).

16: There theme here is “Love” in all its teenage…I was going to say “innocence” but by now it should be obvious there is more innocence on a reality show like Lock Up Raw than there is among teenage girls today. The book relates the 2013 incident in California (p.205 on) where “Uncle Jim” abducts Hannah Anderson. But the usual pervert story is stood on its head when the rescued Hannah, after Jim’s death, becomes an Internet star and brags of her sexual conquests (p.207-208). At 13-14, I think, girls are not often aware of their effect on boys and men (maybe especially men). By 16, however, most know just what they are doing.

17: Love is so 16-ish, don’t you think? As we phase out of high school and into college, the theme is now dating (or rather, the lack thereof) and hooking up. Yes, why date when you can look at a hot guy online and have sex that night, or afternoon, or whenever? And if he doesn’t call, well, why would you want him to, silly? Free love has always been around (p.233), so what’s all the fuss if some of us like it?

18: Now we confront drunk sex and the rape culture. I don’t need to say much here: the case of the California swimmer from Stanford is all over the news. What should be the punishment for fingering a passed-out girl? Should he get points (as someone said) for “not having raped anyone before”? All I can say is it’s as bad as they say.

19: A sobering look at STDs and the risks all this sex talk and action might involve. I have to admit I found the last two chapters a bit depressing (not that Hannah was really uplifting).

So what’s Sales’ conclusion? Well, whether we’re “misunderstood youth” or their well-meaning elders, the author points out that we all manage to grow up. What we want, in the end, is some feeling of intimacy with someone special. The means might change, but as long as the end is satisfying to the partners, people will be all right.

Full Service by Scotty Bowers

Full Service: My Adventures in Hollywood and the Secret Sex Live of the Stars by Scotty Bowers with Lionel Friedberg (Grove Press, 2013) 286 pages

FS Bowers

Last time I checked, Scotty Bowers was still going strong at 92 (he was born July 1, 1923, so he’s not quite 93 just yet as I write this). This is a good thing, because once Scotty goes, the number of people who can testify first-hand about the wild and crazy days of Hollywood between the end of World War II and the late 1980s, when fear of AIDS made everyone a bit nuts (or become porn stars), will be greatly diminished. And Scotty was not just a witness, he claims to be one of the movers and shakers of what is sometimes called “Hollywood Babylon” (which Kenneth Anger wrote a famous book about).

This book probably only exists because you can’t libel dead people. And almost everyone famous in this book has been long gone. Shocking, I know, the thought that they had sex, sometimes with people they weren’t married to, and of the same sex…and a LOT of it…but get over it.

Trigger warning (I actually know what those are): If sexual topics upset you, or if the very idea that people, men and women alike, are having sex makes you turn away because the whole thing strikes you as sort of icky, then you might want to stop now and read about war or violence or something safer. On the other hand, I’m not the kind of person who thinks that you have to use a certain vocabulary (or not) to talk about sex, so you might be disappointed in that regard also.

This book made me think about things I hadn’t pondered for years. I thought about how my father had fought in the Pacific like Scotty Bowers, although my father fought for the Army’s 77th Division on Guam and Okinawa and Bowers fought for the Marines on Guadalcanal. My father, however, rejoined his family in White Plains, NY (where they had moved from outside Scranton, Pennsylvania) while Bowers stayed in Hollywood after the occupation of Japan ended. I always wondered why my father came back, until he told me much later that he didn’t trust his stepfather, a drunk who abused all his children, with his mother. When my grandparents’ family moved to Rockford, Illinois, my father had married my mother and stayed in New York. At least, my father always said, the war got him out of the coal mines. Next time anyone tells you how wonderful and vital the coal industry is, talk to me, and I’ll tell you what my father thought…you could ask my grandfather, but he died in the mines in 1917.

Back to the book, I promise.

Scotty Bowers—real name George—gives most of what you need to know about his life before coming to Hollywood after WW II on pages 15-17. Born on a farm, the family moved to Chicago in the 1930s and George became Scotty in 1934 when this very good-looking boy of 11 (the book has lots of photos) began hanging around with a girl who had Scottie dogs. People would say “Here come the Scotties” (p. 43) when they strolled by, and, after the girl was gone, people still addressed him as “Scottie.” So the name stuck (and his mother never cared for George in the first place, says p. 18).

After Pearl Harbor in December 1941, young men (and not-so-young-men: they took a lot of older people then than they do now) had two choices: sign up or wait to get drafted. My father waited, but Scotty and a close buddy signed up for the Marines. The Marines were picky, then and now, so there was a bit of extra prestige that went along with being a Marine, even back then.

(I can’t resist telling this story about that…my father-in-law’s cousin, also age 92, told me that even after he signed up for the Navy, the Marines tried to claim him, a big farm boy from North Dakota, thinking he was with a pool of draftees when they all reported for duty. No, no, he told them, I want the Navy…and he told me “There was no way I was hitting the beach and getting killed…I wanted to stay on the ship where the food was better.” And the Marines really couldn’t touch him.)

OK, I’m only going to talk about the book now, I promise/promise.

After the Marines, Scotty took a job pumping gas at a gas station in the heart of Hollywood: on the corner of Van Ness at 5777 W Hollywood Boulevard. It’s not long before he was offered twenty bucks for certain “favors” of a sexual nature. Of a homosexual nature. Now young Scotty, like many farm boys and service members, was not naïve about such matters (which should probably include high school football players and, come to think of it, just about everyone). However, Scotty’s philosophy about such things was years ahead of his time:  “if it feels good, do it” said the 1960s. (Actually, those days it was closer to the Victorian undercurrents that stated “do what you want, but don’t scare the children or horses.”)

At the station, Scotty started pimping for his veteran friends, many of whom were in great need of ready cash. Another friend parked a big RV behind the station, which Scotty then used as a bedroom for his “customers.” Eventually, he moved on to bartending, another good occupation if sex is what you’re looking for, or peddling.

Business was booming throughout the 50s, 60s, and 70s, because in pre-cell-phone days, gas stations and phone booths were places you could make and take calls without the people around you paying too much attention. Even after Scotty got married and had a child, he does not want to give up his bisexual lifestyle, and he was lucky enough to have had a wife who was fairly comfortable with this relaxed arrangement.

In the book, Scotty claims to have had sex with folks are varied as Edith Piaf, Spencer Tracy, Vivien Leigh, Cary Grant, and the abdicated King of England Edward VIII (the Duke of Windsor). He also hung around with or arranged partners for Tennessee Williams, Charles Laughton, Vincent Price, Katharine Hepburn, Rita Hayworth, Errol Flynn, Gloria Swanson, Noël Coward, Mae West, James Dean, Rock Hudson and J. Edgar Hoover. And this is not even a complete list (well, it almost is).

Not much in the book surprised me, and many of the stories have already been told one way or another. Actually, I was kind of surprised that the Vatican, of all places, has one of the most extensive collections of porn in the world (p. 179). Sex researcher Alfred Kinsey is cited as the source of the story, as is the claim that ex-King Farouk of Egypt was in second place. I guess, to some people then (and now?), this mattered.

The party pretty much ended with the death of Rock Hudson from AIDS in 1985. Suddenly, sex could not only ruin your career, it could end your life. The last fifty pages or so of the book are a sort of sad lament for days gone by. But at some point in everyone’s life, doesn’t it always come to that? It hasn’t happened to me yet, I don’t think…but maybe my reading and writing like this is a kind of warning…:-)

Science of the Magical by Matt Kaplan

Science of the Magical: From the Holy Grail to Love Potions to Superpowers by Matt Kaplan (Scribner’s, 2015) 246 pages

SOTM Kaplan

This book starts out with a lot of promise. The whole point is that a lot of the things that we once thought of as magical (the result of magic) are now shown by science to be factual (the result of things being the way they are). But somewhere in the middle, this early promise sort of peters out and readers are left with the feeling that a lot of the material is just there to fill out a book. For me, this happened somewhere between the readings of animal livers in ancient Rome (which was very good) and the investigation of gateways to the underworld (which was sort of “okay, so?”).

The solid science of the first part of the book gives way to a lot of speculation in the second part. Now, none of this book’s content could be written without at least some speculation, of course, but when the word “science” appears in the title, it would be nice to have as much science throughout the whole book as possible. After all, there aren’t any Roman Empire priests still around to ask and have them say “Why, yes, that’s exactly what we were looking for when we pulling those hot, steaming livers from those freshly sacrificed sheep…”

Kaplan investigates nine major areas to explore the current science surrounding certain “superstitious” practices. These are Healing (does praying help?), Transformation (into berserk warriors or the opposite gender), Immortality and Longevity (Holy Grail helps?), Supernatural Skies (does weather bring disease?), Animal and Plants as Omens, Guides, and Gods (do wolves and ravens know something we don’t?), Prophecy (oracles and liver readers), Beyond the Grave (actually, near death more than ghosts), Enchantment (psychedelics and love potions), and Superhumans (fire walkers and towel driers).

Some of this stuff reminds me of things I’ve seen on Mythbusters (can you raise your internal temperature mentally?). But a lot of it was new to me, and rather fascinating. Kaplan has an east style, although he can sometimes stretch a paragraph of real material into a couple of pages. Feel free to flip to the good parts.

Which is what I’m going to do here.

Although it isn’t directly related to praying and healing, the first things I got form the book (page 16) was about the Ancient Egyptians and eye makeup. We all know the kohl-heavy, overly-done-up eyes of King Tut and others, men and women alike. But only priests of Horus and Ra and their good buddies got to wear it. Recently, modern science has shown that the mixture of calcium and lead, if just right, protects against various eye disease common in North Africa and the surrounding deserts (page 17). Who wouldn’t worship a god whose followers were all obviously healthier than the people who worshipped some other (false) deity?

On page 22, we learn that researchers like to keep lab mice in cooler temperatures (room temperature for us: 68 to 72 degrees F) than the mice would prefer (in the mid-80s). This slows the mice’s metabolism; they eat less, poop less, and they have to clean the cages less frequently. But the mice prefer it warmer, and when given a choice, all migrate to warmer cages instead of cooler ones. And, as it turns out, the warmer the mice are, the stronger their immunity systems are. So mice, sick or not, react differently when cool or warm. This fact, of course, has enormous implications for, say, cancer treatment research done on chilled mice (page 24). This result is so new that it hasn’t been widely circulated, but maybe Kaplan’s book will help.

In the next chapter, Kaplan discusses how the “bear-serker” warriors of the Vikings might have spiked their beer with mushrooms or other psychedelics to ward off pain and ignore wounds (page 37). There are lots of hints, like traces of plants in Viking graves (page 40), but no smoking gun has been found yet. I think they were just nuts.

The most interesting thing I found in Chapter 3 on immortality was the new research into ageing and calorie deprivation. It was long known that, within limits, a restricted input of calories—less than 1200 per day instead of 2000 or more—had measurable health benefits. Animal studies showed increased life spans as well. One thing I did not know was that a substance called Rapamycin (page 70) can fool the body into thinking calories are scarce, even when they aren’t. Sounds great: eat all you want and still starve yourself to health and longevity. Ah, but rapamycin suppresses the immune system, and that can offset the supposed benefits. But Kaplan suggests more research might find a way forward, and low protein intake might be the key (page 73).

(As an aside, I’ve always thought that ageing was related to nutrition and exercise. People don’t slow down and eat differently because they age, they age because they stop eating right and aren’t as active as they should be. I am in the midst of a life-long—well, for almost 40 years now—experiment to prove that. I’ll let you know how it turns out.) 🙂

The next chapter deals with things like full moon effects (“lunatics”) and the Viking sunstone that always found the sun, even through thick clouds. This chapter really didn’t drag me in, and most of it was inconclusive when it came to the “science” anyway.

Chapter 5 had a fascinating exploration of the relationship between ravens, wolves, and Odin (yes, I know a lot of this book involves Northern European lore and “magic”). Odin, the big Viking god, had two raven buddies named Hugin (“thoughtful”) and Munin (“mindful”). Odin was so closely associated with these ravens that people called him Rafnagud, the Raven God. He also had two wolves around named Gore (“greedy”) and Freke (“voracious”). It’s clear from the names that the scavenger ravens are the brains, and the vicious wolves the brawn, of the operation. But why the raven and wolf mix?

Page 102 reports studies done in Yellowstone Park, showing that ravens and wolves often cooperate to find game. The ravens would follow the wolf pack, hoping to have some yummy leftovers to feast on when the wolves were done with dinner. In fact, the ravens had a hard time finding kills places by the rangers without the wolves to guide them. Not only that, but the ravens would circle over weak and vulnerable prey, waiting for the wolves to follow them to a good place for dinner (page 103). Odin appears to come in when early humans learned the whole raven-wolf trick and began stealing kills from the wolf pack (of course, the wolves became dogs and had their revenge).

A last word on livers…what could a Roman priest learn about the future by carving up a sheep and examining the liver? Plenty, as it turns out. On page 133, Kaplan suggests that the appearance of the liver could tell an invading army a lot about the state of the food and water in the area. Kaplan goes to a butcher to find livers and see if it is possible to tell diseased from heathy livers, and it is. But again, we really have no idea if we’re on the right track or not. The Roman priests have guarded their secrets well…

In A Different Key: The Story of Autism by John Donvan and Caren Zucker

In A Different Key: The Story of Autism by John Donvan and Caren Zucker (Crown, 2016) 670 pages.

IADK by Donvan and Zucker

In the medical and social sciences, as in the “hard” sciences like physics and chemistry, the impact of a new article or book is often measured by how many older materials you no longer have to read. For example, once Einstein formulated that energy is equal to mass times the speed of light squared, a lot of people didn’t have to read all the literature speculating on the relationship of mass to energy (except if the detailed history of science was your main area of interest).

In the same way, people who are interested in the current state of things and people on the “autism spectrum” (as it is now called) and how they got that way can start and stop right here, with this book. This book is stunning in scope, yet eminently readable, and even as gripping in places as any suspense novel. Anyone who has a friend or relative that has been diagnosed (or, even worse, self-diagnosed or diagnosed by amateurs) as having autism or Asperger’s syndrome (which no longer exists, technically) should read this book. But even if you know one of the 4.5 people out of every 10,000 who are autistic (or is it 60 out 10,000 (p. 421): a rate more than 10 times higher?), this book will enthrall you.

I was surprised to find, as of the book’s publication in early 2016, that the person who was autism case #1, ground zero for the autism explosion, was still living in the same small town where he was born in 1933. The book’s first and last of its ten parts concern Donald, and it obviously helped that his parents were rich and respected and thus able to keep their strange son from being institutionalized all his life (but for a brief interval early in life (p.18) at a place called the Preventorium). The town is very supportive of their odd resident, and everyone soon learns that Donald’s quirks are not to be greeted with ridicule, but with bemused understanding and a shrug.

It might be best to briefly outline the content of the ten sections of this sprawling book. It closes with an Epilogue (p.547), a very helpful autism timeline (p.553), complete notes (p.563), a full bibliography (p.617), an authors’ note (p.643), acknowledgements (p.645), and very good index (p. 653). But please don’t think this is a dry, academic tome. The authors are award-winning TV journalists, and they know exactly how to keep your attention and keep the action moving briskly.

As I said, Part 1 covers Donald from the 1930s to the 1960s, and how one doctor finally decided he was looking at a new phenomenon. Dr. Leo Kanner’s name rhymes with “honor,” but with his Austrian accent, people thought they were taking to “Dr. Lee O’Conner” (p.26). But in Part 2, things pick up with the “blame game” (1960s to 1980s) when Dr. Bruno Bettelheim (his doctorate was in art history) decided that autism was the result of “refrigerator moms” who did not love their children enough (p.78). Several books, and TIME magazine, agreed, putting understanding their neurological differences back to square one. Trying to “talk” autism away with adult psychotherapy did not work well, and Bettelheim resisted all attempts to give his studies on a firm statistical basis (p.119).

Part 3 (1970s-1990s) takes autistics out of mental institutions and details the early steps of autism-specific researchers and organizations to help these unfortunates with scientific methods and evidence. These early efforts were fragmented: for example, east coast and west coast researchers did not always cooperate. Support on the west coast often depended on actors with autistic relatives (p.179) who could call the governor (former actor Ronald Reagan, for one) and ask him to sign legislation offering family aid.

Part 4 covers the behaviorist treatment of autism from the 1950s to the 1990s. Behaviorists, controversial even today, treat brain processes as “black boxes” and don’t really care what goes on inside, as long as what comes out is socially acceptable (many autistics have little sense of sexual shame or personal privacy). Those researchers often used cattle prods (!) to enforce acceptable use of the toilet and other “behaviors” (p.197). It wasn’t long before some parents and groups became convinced that these therapists were acting even more out of control than their children. In 1988, the Autism Society of American adopted a position against “aversive techniques,” even for parents with children who were at risk of self-harm at home (p.220). Nevertheless, is some difficult cases, there is little alternative.

Part 5 shifts the study to London from the 1960s to the 1990s. Researchers there tried to determine the “prevalence rate” and figure out who was “really” autistic, as opposed to just very odd or obviously brain damaged. Should there be 9 questions to answer, or 22 (p.284)? Here were the first hints of genetic causes and that the “extreme male brain” (autism is still a predominantly male disease) might be involved (p.304).

Part 6 covers the rise of the idea of an autism spectrum (1970s to 1990s). Here is the first mention of the work of Dr. Hans Asperger in Austria before and during World War II. He mainly worked, from 1938 to 1944 (p.316), with socially awkward yet verbally advanced children who hung around with adults instead of peers. These “Little Professors” loved routine and often fixated on corners of knowledge (like dinosaurs, or trains) which they explored to amazing depths (and before you could Google everything!). The resistance to anything German or relating to Nazis kept Asperger’s work under wraps until 1981. Initial acceptance of Asperger’s work had to deal with accusations of former Nazi cooperation in 1994 (p.327) and a devastating find in 2010 that the good doctor had helped to condemn these “handicapped” children to the early “work camps” with other mental defectives and Jews (p.339). By 2013, Asperger’s no longer existed as a separate condition.

Part 7 covers a weird interlude during the 1980s and 1990s when “facilitated communication” promised to give a voice to severe autistics (p.347). Eventually shown to be wishful thinking, this era also saw the rise of people who blamed autism on herpes, zinc, or inflammation of the gut (p.378).

Part 8 covers the appearance and importance of Temple Grandin on the scene (1980s to 1990s). For the first time, parents could talk to someone who could express how it actually felt to be autistic (p.403). This period also saw the release of the movie Rain Man in 1988. On the big screen, autism became something that did not seem to be so terrible, at least not all the time and in all cases (but in the end, “Rain Man” goes back to the institution, where he feels comfortable). Grandin’s biopic (Grandin is brilliantly played by Claire Danes), released in 2010, made the condition appear almost chic (p.434).

Part 9 covers the measles vaccine hysteria that still grips some people today. If not the vaccine itself, it must be the mercury used to increase its shelf life (p.449). The doctor who started the whole controversy in England later moved to the USA, made lots of money, but eventually had his day in court and lost (p.483) in 2007. Which made no difference to his supporters. But the simple fact that California, which quickly eliminated the mercury from vaccines, saw no decline in autism rates over a 5 year period, should put this theory to rest once and for all. People old enough to remember losing playmates to whooping cough or measles (which can be a nasty disease) or scarlet fever, and not so long ago (like the 1950s) do not understand what a great boon to humanity as a whole vaccination is.

No summary like this can do justice to this outstanding book. If you care about what your friends and neighbors might be going through, please read it for yourself.

 

Too Much of a Good Thing by Lee Goldman, MD

Too Much of a Good Thing: How Four Key Survival Traits Are Now Killing Us by Lee Goldman, MD (Little-Brown, 2015) 344 pages.

TMOAGT Goldman

One of the things we are finding out (see the March 2016 issue of Discover magazine) is that, as a species, homo sapiens isn’t a unique type of animal. What we are is the sole survivor of a large group of similar species who might have lived in the same place at the same time in Africa. We survived and they didn’t because our species was more than likely better at four things than all the competition. Ironically, the very traits that let us prevail when climate change, animal migration, warfare, and other forms of environmental stress tested our species are now the biggest threats that we have to endure far into the future.

Goldman’s book is the first I’ve seen to systematically explore some of these characteristics. He focuses on four things (and as a doctor, I trust him to be able to judge these kinds of things). These four things once helped us, but now hinder us as civilization replaces the wilds our species grew up in. There are three possible outcomes to the situation humanity finds itself in (p. 6): first, everything can keep getting worse until our children’s children’s children down the line no longer live long enough, or remain healthy enough, to raise enough people to keep the species going. Or, we can radically change our lifestyles enough so that we are able to counter the negative effects of these four things and continue, as a species, to make progress (although some might not be able to make the journey). Finally, we can take advantage of new scientific discoveries to either counter these four things genetically (through genetic modification) or treatments designed to counter their effects as we live our lives.

Before going on, just what are these four things Goldman focuses on? Here they are, as I would translate them (from p. 4) into all their simple glory:

  1. Hunger
  2. Thirst
  3. Fear
  4. Blood clots

Of course, there has to be a bit more about how these four basic characteristics, obviously critical to the survival of any individual in primitive surroundings, have become as much as liability as a benefit in modern civilization.

Let’s look at the list again and add some details:

  1. Hunger: We are still genetically a species that is programmed to eat and eat and eat when food is available in order to stock up on calories in the form of body fat to get us through the lean times between feasts and good harvests (I’ve read elsewhere that without fertilizers and irrigation, 4 out of every 10 crop years were utter failures). But now we’ve eaten ourselves into a world where half of the people in it are overweight, a significant portion of those are downright obese, and “lifestyle diseases” like heart disease and weight-related diabetes are rampant.
  2. Thirst: Our need for water, and the related need to replace the salts we shed through urine and sweat, makes us crave salty foods to the point where we are all at the risk of high blood pressure (HBP). This in turn elevates our risk of heart attack and stroke (the same process essentially causes both).
  3. Fear: We were and are a violent species, understandable enough when we had to fend off lions and tigers and bears (oh my!), but civilization has allowed most of us to turn our violent tendencies onto each other and assign peacekeeping tasks to police and armies. As a result, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and the related mental distress caused by bottling up much of our impulsive rage are making “normal” life hard for those we rely on the keep violence from spreading everywhere. I wrote about this type of thing before, in 2015 (Deep Violence by Bourke).
  4. Blood clots: Our species benefited in a violent environment by being able to stop bleeding quickly, before we all bled to death from a deep scratch. But this ability also can complicate our normal aging process, especially when coupled with high blood pressure (see #2 above). Fast clotting was even more critical in the days before hospital births, when bleeding to death was a frequent complication for women who had just delivered (this still occasionally happens, even in a modern hospital).

One thing struck me as strange when I read Goldman’s book. I was amazed at how many of the things we take for granted as leading to a “healthy lifestyle” were only discovered recently. For example, a cardiology textbook in the 1940s defined a blood pressure of 200/100 as high, but “mild” and “benign” (p. 110). Walk into any doctor’s office or ER today with that blood pressure and your next stop is likely to be the hospital and a heart monitor.

President Franklin Roosevelt died on 19 April 1945 of a stroke, but what killed FDR was really his high blood pressure (p. 88). FDR was 63 years old, an age considered very old back then, but not even of normal retirement age today (FDR had been US president for 13 years by then: how many presidential candidates are over 63 in 2016?) . Oddly, the effects of his high blood pressure were masked somewhat by his polio and the resulting inability to walk at all or stand (with hip braces) for any period of time.

But by 1945, the years of stress through WW II and the Depression had taken their toll. In 1931, before he became president, FDR’s blood pressure was 140/100. By 1937, as war clouds gathered, it went to 162/98, and then to 200/108 by D-Day in 1944 (p.166). At his fourth inauguration, in January of 1945, Roosevelt only spoke 500 words and was never seen on his feet again. At Yalta early in 1945, FDR was at 260/150, or “off the charts.” His doctors belatedly recommended a low salt diet (!), but by the time he complained of “a terrific pain in the back of my head” and died, his blood pressure was at 300/190 (p. 117).

Bottom line: always, always, always have the nurse or doctor take your sitting blood pressure in each arm, after five minutes of rest (p. 108). If they don’t, they’re taking shortcuts that put you in peril.

One more short take: as late as 1990, 1% of women died in childbirth in the poorest parts of the world, and 1 in 300 (one-third of all childbirth deaths) were the result of uncontrolled bleeding (p. 161), mainly as a result of unfortunate placenta separation (it turns out that much depends on where the attachment is made in the first place).

This book will teach you many things and, if you’re anything like me, scare you enough to make real changes in what you do and eat each day. (Last night, I went to a drive-through craving a burger and found they had just added to calorie count to their menu. Instead of the burger with 1150-1650 calories (plus the fries!), I ordered the simple chicken sandwich at 650 and fed the fries to the dogs. You have to start somewhere.)

(In a couple of weeks, I’ll talk about a little book I found called The Wandering Falcon that acts as a kind of counter-balance to the whole “what would we do without modern civilization?” line of thought.)

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).