In my first few weeks of high school in Australia, I remember a classmate messaging me something inflammatory on MSN Messenger (the equivalent of AOL for Americans). Though I don’t recall the exact phrasing of it, I know it was akin to: “Go read the Koran you….” The message was particularly strange because it came from someone who pretended to be friendly towards me in our interactions during lunch breaks.
This is the transcript of my comments at the Post-Truth Initiative, which was hosted by the University of Sydney. I delivered them on November 20th, 2017 during a segment focusing on Truth and Power. Square brackets include clarifying context.
Power is often ill-defined when it relates to the truth. Some strains of philosophy and their intellectual offspring huddle together to claim that power controls the production of our discourse. That is, those in power have a monopoly on what a society considers true.
So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed by Jon Ronson, Audible, (March 31, 2015).
A fair few people know the case of Jonah Lehrer, a once popular up and coming author who populated best-seller lists with his pop psychology explainer books. Lehrer fell from grace to disgrace after journalist Michael Moynihan discovered that he had fabricated Bob Dylan quotes in his supremely popular Imagine: How Creativity Works. After a seven month whirlwind of events including Lehrer’s loss of status, credibility, and a growing infamy, Lehrer was offered the opportunity to speak at the Knight Foundation’s annual Media Learning Seminar for journalists. There, he decided, would be a good time to apologize for his misdeeds — which also included columns for the New Yorker in which he had recycled his language and words.
Since digital media was all the hype at the time, the event organizers elected to set up a screen which would broadcast the live tweets of reactionaries witnessing Lehrer’s apology in real time. All one needed to do was use the hashtag #infoneeds.
Lehrer’s apology began successfully enough. Sympathetic tweets, which Lehrer also had access to via a smaller display at his eye level, filled the screen. As the speech progressed, the tidings changed. Soon, the disgraced author had to suffer a public humiliation — while trying to apologize. Starting with an innocent enough: “Jonah Lehrer boring people into forgiving him for his plagiarism.#infoneeds,” the sentiment of the messages quickly intensified. Tweets began to fill the screen insulting Lehrer and representing a mob type justice that was once handed out centuries ago in our town squares and small knit community lives: a public shaming.
In his book, So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, journalist Jon Ronson recounts Jonah Lehrer and other public shamees experiences dealing with internet hordes and mobs who have destroyed lives through their viciousness and social media shamings. He tells the tale of other famous cases such as Justine Sacco’s — the woman of the infamous “AIDS Tweet” and explores the dynamics related to public shaming, recounting the horrific effects that the shamings have had on their victims.
Ronson takes the reader on an interesting tour of the ecosphere around the phenomenon. Starting with documented cases hundreds of years ago in small-town New England, to the News of the World controversies and their victims, Ronson also explores companies that focus on creating public images and profiles for individuals who’ve had their lives ruined by shamings.
He also delves a little into the psychology surrounding the phenomenon. Though he gets close, Ronson never truly provides an answer for why exactly social media “annihilations” (as he calls them) occur. Ronson speaks with numerous psychologists and also manages to cast considerable doubt on the validity of the famous (and accepted as true) “Stanford Experiments” conducted by Phillip Zimbardo.
In an exploration of public shaming and its effectiveness, he highlights the story of judge Ted Poe from Texas, who employed shaming tactics to those convicted in his courtroom. Poe would assign assorted punishments like forcing individuals charged with manslaughter to carry signs stating similar things to: “I killed two people while drunk-driving.” Did Poe’s methods work? Apparently so. Ronson tells his reader how Poe boasted of the success rate of his actions.
Social media has acted as a great equalizer. Even the most obscure person today can tweet at Donald Trump and receive hundreds of thousands of likes and retweets. Social media in a way empowers the little guy. But it also allows easy access to pile-ons. One can easily attain sanctimonious pleasure from logging on and throwing their input towards the latest public annihilation.
But there is one distinct difference to what Ted Poe did in the courtroom and how social media pile-ons work — it is a distinction which Ronson spends a deserved amount of time highlighting: Individuals shamed by Poe’s tactics were often convicted criminals while the targets of social media hunts today are often individuals who have merely transgressed socially acceptable norms. They are not criminals in any way.
Social media has acted as a great equalizer. Even the most obscure person today can tweet at Donald Trump and receive hundreds of thousands of likes and retweets. Social media in a way empowers the little guy. But it also allows easy access to pile-ons. One can easily attain sanctimonious pleasure from logging on and throwing their input towards the latest public annihilation.
This is my first Jon Ronson book. I know that he is a popular author yet I have only viewed a single TED talk by him. An alluring aspect of Ronson’s writing is that he weaves a story, complete with sympathetic characters who have made tiny to large mistakes but then suffered out of proportion consequences through the hands of social media — notably, Twitter. In this way Ronson uses some of the literary critic and English professor Jonathan Gottschall’s ideas fromThe Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human. In his book, Gottschall points out that good non-fiction writing often consists of storifying a series of events so that they read like fiction, complete with pitiable protagonists and a cast of characters.
As an aside, a reader gets the distinct impression that Ronson is in some way atoning for his previous participation in public shaming. He tells us that now he is more aware of their effects, he will be more careful in how he engages in them from now on.
Highly entertaining, accessible, and easy to follow, So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed is a good candidate for a compelling read or listen. Through it all, however, I found that Ronson missed one answer, an answer I was led to believe was coming but never arrived: the why. Though he approaches its periphery with thoughts about “feedback loops” towards the end of the book and how they propel online shaming, I felt he missed the deeper questions of why do human beings engage in public shaming and similar behaviors? Are these behaviors evolutionary impulses? Why do we ostracize and punish those who we perceive have transgressed acceptable norms? They are questions that I’ll have to look elsewhere to find the answers to.
We find ourselves living in an age where free speech is considered by many as a concept that only right-wingers care about. “You think free speech is important?” I’m asked. When I respond, “Yes,” eyebrows are raised, shoulders tilt away, and through the forehead of my interlocutors I envision some panicked calculations in their minds: Is he a bigot or a Dinesh D’Souza 2.0? Maybe he’s not hateful or right-wing, he just doesn’t know how it’s used to disempower minorities. And then I’m left thinking: How did it come to be that free speech is seen in the mainstream as only a concept conservatives, demagogues, and right-wingers champion — and one no sane liberal or even left-leaning person could defend?
I first realized how good we are at pushing away the insignificance of our existence while creating a PowerPoint at 2:30 a.m. in a second-floor office in New York City with my colleague. I paused and mentioned to her then: “Is this what you want to be doing?” hinting, vaguely, at some grand philosophical questions. In a delirium of coffees and Turkish food and half a day of screen time, she smiled at me — and turned back to her computer. Why are you thinking about this stuff? her face had conveyed.
The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature by Steven Pinker, Viking Penguin, (2002) 434 pages.
On Twitter, I once saw a cultural anthropologist refer to Steven Pinker’s toenails as “magical” when accosting an evolutionary psychologist who had angered him. Some time later, on another scroll session, I saw a sociologist and gender/ masculinity/ post-colonial theorist very politely say to another professor: “Hi Diana, I remember discussing my view that Evolutionary Psychology was more of a cult than a serious field of study. I was too generous then.”
Finding the exchanges quite funny, I began to ponder why many disciplines have such a disregard and contempt for the new sciences and its practitioners. Is it concern about the mainlining of racism and sexism from the academy into our culture, noble goals to be sure, or something else? It just so happened that I was halfway into Steven Pinker’s The Blank Slate when I encountered these Twitter battles. Needless to say for those who’ve read the book, the exchanges reflected familiar patterns.
I know I’m behind the curve, Pinker’s book has been out for 15 years now and has probably been usurped by many other works that have tackled the same areas. So this is not really a conventional review, there have been many of those since the book was published. It is rather a small recap of a few ideas Steven Pinker laid out and how they are still relevant.
The book is, after a 60 or so tedious pages of more biological and neurological level explanations of the reasons humans have innate characteristics — denoting innate traits as probabilistic, importantly, not deterministic — an assault on ideas many people still hold in this world: The Blank Slate (The mind has no innate traits), The Noble Savage (society corrupts people; we are born pure, unselfish), and The Ghost in the Machine (a soul which exists independently of our biology). After showing these beliefs are not true, Pinker meticulously lays out why they were promulgated through the academy and have seeped into the mainstream and why many continue to cling onto them when most evidence points to the contrary.
I know of the omission of biological reasons for human behavior in some parts of the humanities and social sciences, but a large chunk of my wonder at this book was in discovering how bona fide scientists (or “radical scientists” as Pinker calls them) were responsible for ignoring and obfuscating the results from the new sciences and the mistreatment of its participants. For example, Stephen Jay Gould whom I considered a stalwart of popular science, took part in a campaign with Richard Lewontin to discredit E.O. Wilson’s Sociobiology by lumping Wilson in with eugenicists and social darwinists. Pinker also tells us of the anthropologist Margaret Mead — the same person who said something as uplifting as “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.” — consciously neglecting the effects of genes on human behavior and denigrating the proponents of the new sciences, but telling her daughter in private that she credited her own intellectual talents to her genes. The protests, slanders, and libels Pinker reports by activists and scholars that were heaped onto individuals who dared to explore the roots of human nature are, read a decade and a half later, as disturbing as they are prophetic.
What was the impetus for these actions from otherwise educated individuals and (radical) scientists? One can speculate. A charitable understanding is because they feared (and their disciples today fear) perpetuating inequality. Pinker wrote on this point:
“To acknowledge human nature, many think, is to endorse racism, sexism, war, greed, genocide, nihilism, reactionary politics, and neglect of children and the disadvantaged.”
And, because, as Pinker puts it after informing his reader that the new sciences picked the worst decades to come into fruition:
“Rather than detach the moral doctrines from the scientific ones, which would ensure that the clock would not be turned back no matter what came out of the lab and field, many intellectuals, including some of the world’s most famous scientists, made every effort to connect the two.”
This is a tricky area and frankly I’m surprised that Pinker’s name has remained untainted after the publication of his ideas. Acknowledging human nature today, from sex differences, violence, mating, human potential, and genocide seems like a sure path towards slurs of “academic racist/sexist,” and the belief that you’re trying to justify inequality. But I suppose his reputation is a testament to how careful he was in rebutting every fallacy and gut reaction that one might have from accepting human nature — and showing us that rejecting it can actually lead to policies and concepts which further propagate suffering.
I did share some concerns with the radical scientists, though: If nurture is nearly not as responsible for human behavior as people assume, doesn’t this leave us with a deterministic view of society — where we accept violence and warfare as intrinsic to humanity? People deserve to be wherever they end up? And won’t this view lead to nefarious and ill-gotten pseudo-justifications of superiority and a dangerous slippery-slope?
But Pinker handles these knee-jerk reactions by showing that industrial-scale atrocities can occur from believing we are Blank Slates as well. They are not the domain of one ideology; as Pinker notes: “though both Nazi and Marxist ideologies led to industrial-scale killing, their biological and psychological theories were opposites.”
Take the Nazis: A leader gains power and implements a plan to decimate an entire population whom he believes is conspiring against his people, and because he considers his “race” to be genetically superior. One might pause here, perhaps like the radical scientists and their followers did, and ask: “Well, isn’t it better to believe and enforce that we are all the same? To deter these things from ever happening again?” Pinker then offers his rebuttal: Mao and Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge, who exterminated far more than Hitler did, explicitly endorsed the Blank Slate view of humanity. Believing that all individuals are born equal in tendencies, traits, and talents leaves an adherent of this view to wonder why is it exactly that some do better than others. Class, hidden wealth, cheating, scheming, etcetera are all answers offered in response. Those who were believed to be bourgeoisie carried a permanent stigma in post-revolutionary regimes and were persecuted for being “rich peasants” and privileged.
This is why non-communist intellectuals, the educated classes, and the bourgeoisie were so severely targeted — and often sent to the Killing Fields. Because of the belief that they were reaping privileges not afforded to their countrymen. According to historian Paul Johnson writing on the Khmer Rouge in Modern Times: A History of the World From the 1920s to the Year 2000,
“There was to be ‘total social revolution.’ Everything about the past was ‘anathema and must be destroyed.’ It was necessary to ‘psychologically reconstruct individual members of society.’ It entailed ‘stripping away, through terror and other means, the traditional bases, structures and forces which have shaped and guided an individual’s life’ and then rebuilding him according to party doctrines by substituting a new series of values.’”
To Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge’s system, society had been corrupted and had to be rebuilt. Consider their slogan implying that it is learned culture that infects us — and that we are born pure (the Noble Savage):
“Only the newborn baby is spotless.”
Given all this, I should hope the question of “Why is this book still relevant?” begins to answer itself. Ideas related to the Blank Slate are still pushed out in our popular culture, media, and even policy. From parenting, to the results of sex-differences in life, to violence, Pinker points out that many notions that society holds as true are contrasted by discoveries in fields such as behavioral genetics. From his preface:
“I first had the idea of writing this book when I started a collection of astonishing claims from pundits and social critics about the malleability of the human psyche: that little boys quarrel and fight because they are encouraged to do so; that children enjoy sweets because parents use them as a reward for eating vegetables; that teenagers compete in looks and fashion from spelling bees and academic prizes; that men think the goal of sex is an orgasm because of the way the were socialized. The problem is not just that these claims are preposterous but that the writers did not acknowledge they were saying things that common sense might call into question. This is the mentality of a cult, in which fantastical beliefs are flaunted as proof of one’s piety.”
Today, if one looks around, similar beliefs which abrogate our shared human nature and attribute our actions to culture, socialization, and society are plenty. The belief that only by representing men and women in equal parts in all fields can we cure sexism. The belief that it is our society which shapes what we find attractive. The belief that good parenting can control nearly all facets of how a child turns out. The belief that violence is learned. The belief that image and media representations construct our reality (and the only way to break that control is to fight back with representation).
The chapter titled “The Arts” was particularly refreshing. I have walked through both the Museum of Modern Art in New York City and the Louvre in Paris. Only one of these museums left me questioning if I just could not see the merits of its exhibits, or if I simply wasn’t appreciative enough of the theory or artistic intent behind the pieces.
I note my visits not to brag but to mention that I wish I’d read Pinker’s words, “The postmodernists equating of images with thoughts has not only made a hash of several scholarly disciplines but has laid waste to the world of contemporary art,” before I’d taken a stroll inside the MOMA. Change images and what is represented, and change thoughts, some artistic movements think. But Pinker offers this as a contrast:
“Once we recognize what modernism and postmodernism have done to the elite arts and humanities, the reasons for their decline and fall become all too obvious. The movements are based on a false theory of human psychology, the Blank Slate. They fail to apply their most vaunted ability — stripping away pretense — to themselves. And the take they fun out of art!”
I can hear the savants cringing already. But what Pinker points out is that human beings have specific, universal (and not culturally) limited tastes for what we consider admirable. No amount of theory explaining why and how hegemonic power structures dictate what society controls as “beauty” is apt for describing why I or many others find some modern art… bland.
It strikes me as troubling that there are still those of us who are willing to believe that it is mostly culture and society which shape the individual — and that by focusing only on fixing our systems can we alleviate human suffering. On the contrary, we need a fuller understanding of human nature in all its details. What is more concerning is that this book came out 15 years ago and yet we are still bogged down in the conversations that Pinker spent a considerable time in rebutting (the Penguin version is about 430 pages of text).
Though long (and old), The Blank Slate is important reading for anyone who does not want to live in a fantasy world. One where the only engine powering human behavior is society while millions of years of evolution are discounted because they at times offer some truths that are often misconstrued as inconvenient. Human nature and our behavior are wondrous and fascinating subjects, and we cannot get to their core if we reject vast amounts of replicable findings about their genetic and evolutionary components.
In 1979, after the Islamic Revolution of Iran, more than a hundred thousand woman took to the streets to protest the compulsory veiling that was to be enforced under the new Khomeini regime. Mothers, nurses, and students — women from all walks of life — gathered to voice their displeasure at the new policy. But the protests were marred by violence. A group of devout men opposed the stance of the objectors and proceeded to stab some of its female participants after they refused to stand down.
How Mumbo Jumbo Conquered the World: A Short History of Modern Delusions by Francis Wheen, Harper Perennial, (2004) 312 pages.
Post-truth, post-fact, post-reality. You don’t need a lengthy introduction on the state of the world. You just need to take a look around: A man who wavers between imbecile and potential despot sits in the highest office of the land; the far-left in the academy enjoys titillating itself with concepts of postmodernity; the GOP engages in a demagogic post-truthiness, while its black sheep of a relation (first name “alt”) is busy sending the mainstream media into tizzies by co-opting “OK” signs as white supremacist on 4chan, making memes, and blaming Jews for everything.
I am a minority and I prohibit you from culturally appropriating my native culture. I was born in India, thus, I prohibit you from stealing my culture, eating any foods that are representative of that region and engaging in my practices. But wait I have a reason. I have several: Since the British colonized, destroyed, and brutalized us for centuries, since they stole our dishes, customs, and foods and there is a long history of oppression of my people, you should respect our perpetual marginalization. And you brazenly engaging in my traditions subverts the struggles of those actually ingrained in them — like me.
She used to be the kind of woman that drank orange seltzers when she was sick, thinkin’ it was good for her on accounts of the Vitamin C, without actually checkin’ how much of the vitamin was in the can. That was until I met her. I changed that. It’s not really the Vitamin C that’s good for you. I know it from my work at the pharmacy. It’s the zinc. That’s what’ll save you. It’ll heal you up right on quick. But she didn’t know that. She didn’t know a lot of things till she met me. But now she does. I’m good for her. I always tell her that. I always have to remind her of that. Every night. My darlin’, Maureen.
I guess I should go down and check on her. I’ll do that right now. Though she just keeps starin’ at me sometimes. It makes me angry she does that. That ain’t right. What kind of respect is that?
Sometimes he lets me read the papers. You know, so I have an idea of what’s goin’ on in the outside world. I wait for that day every week. Just so I can feel close to being real again. I don’t know why, it just makes me feel that way. When I see the angry face of a man on the front page, printed in all color, throwin’ a flamin’ bottle at someone, I feel like I know what’s goin’ on. I sniff it when he gives it to me. I feel connected. I rub it with my fingers and cherish the brittle and smooth texture. I comb through the pages as fast as I can in the times he gives me. I try to absorb it all, all the words, suck it all in in one swoop.
But then he takes it away from me. He always does. He doesn’t let me keep them at all. When he snatches it away from me, he gets a glint in his eye. Like he enjoys takin’ things from me. I can’t think straight. He always tells me every night that he’s good for me. He tells it to me every night. When he gives me a bowl of cold rice, with shredded pieces of chicken and some peas in that heavy glass bowl. He always tells me how good he is to me. How he cares. But then he takes it away from me when I’m not even done eatin’. He snatches things from me and takes them away and he gets a glint in his eye when he does it. Just like when he takes me every night.
I remind her of that when I get home from work everyday. I do good things for her. I work hard for her. But everyday I have to remind her of that. I walk around in the bunches of stupid, uncarin’, self-obsessed pieces of filth everyday for her. They all babble on about what their plans are for the weekend, what their little Beverly did, who Kennedy really is, what they think, what they want, what they need. I want it to end. I want them to end. But I don’t care. I do it all for her. And every night when I get back to mine, I have to tell her. I have to tell her that I’m good for her. Every night. Sometimes it gets annoyin’. But it ain’t her fault. She doesn’t know better. Yet. She will eventually.
And I’ll help her to it. Every night I have to tell her, “I’m real good for you, and you’re real good for me.” But she just stares. She’ll understand it eventually. By God, she had better. She’ll understand. Just like she found out it’s not really the vitamin C that makes you better, it’s the zinc. And that was because of me.
I should not have thrown that rice at him. Or try to run out past him. I know it now. That was my mistake. He’s big, so strong. But I need to leave. He’s real mad at me now. I think he mixes somethin’ in the food. He calls it minerals and supplements and tells me that it’s good for me. But it makes me feel all woozy all the time. Even in the water and juice he sometimes gives me. Makes me feel all woozy so I can’t think or run straight. He does it so I can’t fight back. And maybe so I’ll believe what he’s tellin’ me. But I have a tiny person in my head that’s yellin’ at me sayin’ to not listen to him. I gotta keep her alive. I think I do. But every time I drink somethin’ or eat somethin’ he gives me it feels like I’m killin’ that person in my head. But it’s all I’ve got. I can’t go hungry. I can only for a little while but after a few days the pinch in my belly gets so tight that it dulls its way up my chest and spreads itself over my body. I can’t handle that for long.
But then he always shows up. With the chicken, rice, and the peas, and with that glint in his eyes, lookin’ all excited. I eat it and start to feel more woozy. And then he takes me. Every night he takes me. And after that he always tells me how I’m good for him. And he’s good for me. I can’t even remember how long its been down here for me. But now I have somethin’ in here. Finally. Somethin’ that I have over him.
Tonight she tried somethin’. I was down in her room with her, watchin’ her eat her peas and chicken, gettin’ excited, when she threw it in my face. She tried to run past me. I got mad. I showed her. I can’t believe she would do that to me. After everythin’ I done for her. I feed her and love her every night. I can’t believe she would do that to me. The only thing I look forward to is spendin’ time with her when I’m at the house. It’s all I look forward to. All I dream about. Sometimes, when I think of her too much I walk into the bathroom and touch myself. I know mama used to say that the Lord’s watchin’ when I do that. But I hope he forgives me. It’s because I love her. And it feels so good. I love her for sure. But she has to learn. She has to learn I’m good for her. I’m big and she’s little so it doesn’t matter. I might not let her have the paper this week. Just to show her. She’s gotta understand that I’m good for her. She will eventually. Just like she understood that it’s not really the vitamin C that’s good for her. It’s the zinc.
He wraps it usually. But one time it broke. I think it did. And maybe there is a God because he gave me somethin’ that I can use over him. It’s been a few months but I can feel somethin’ growin’ inside o’ my belly. I haven’t told him yet. I’ll hold it over him. Maybe I should have prayed more to him. My Momma always used to tell me I wouldn’t go to heaven if I did some nasty things. I wonder if she thinks what I’m doin’ now is nasty. But I can’t help it; I don’t want to do it. He makes me. I wonder if God cares. I prayed in here to him for the first few weeks. Prayed everyday and tried my darnded hardest to remember them verses those preachers used to teach us.
Everyday I prayed that he would save me. But he didn’t listen. I guess he did now. It must have been him that broke it and made this grow in my belly. Or maybe it was just chance. It was probably God, though. I’ll never get into heaven if I think like that.
She’s been actin’ kinda funny. When I was down there earlier feedin’ her she just kept starin’ at me. Starin’ like I was some Lucifer. Can you believe it? After all I do for her and after all the months she starts actin’ funny. That ain’t right. That ain’t right at all. I just know it.
So I says to her, “what you lookin’ at me for like that?” And she has the nerve to say nothin’ back. Just keep on starin’ at me with them fat eyes. No respect. Isn’t a wife supposed to treat her husband with respect? Well, I ain’t her husband yet. But that just ain’t right. I think I’m gonna marry her soon. I’ll ask her soon. I even have the ring. It’s mama’s ring.
I can see the little changes in her when I deal with her that makes me think that somethin’ funny’s up. But I’m not sure. I’m runnin’ out of what I put in her food. I need to get some more. But I have to be careful. I play nice with them all over there in my place of work. But I have to be careful. I smile, put on like I’m a good fella. I mean I am one. I am a good fella because of how I treat her. Maureen. I treat her really well. I feed her every night. I bring her a paper once a week. I love her every night. See, I am a good fella.
But tomorrow I need to make sure I bring home some extra of that stuff. It’s not really one thing, but it’s a combination of things that I mix up together. I knew goin’ to college was good for something. I felt sick when I was there. Sick for five years. But I feel good now. Because I got me a good job, and I got some knowledge on how to do some things too.
Yes. For sure I know now. I know that somethin’s growin’ inside of me. At first I thought it was God playin’ a nasty trick. Like he was playin’ with my thoughts and feelins’. I don’t know why God does that sometimes. I think it’s a test. A test to see if I deserve to be in heaven. It’s too hard though. I cry for a lot of the day in my room. I try not to but it’s hard though. But whenever I hear him clompin’ around upstairs I always make sure to stop cryin’. I always do and I always will. I’ll never give him that pleasure of seein’ me cry. Besides, he gets angry with me when he sees me like that. He always reminds me how he’s takin’ care of me and how good I am for him. And also more importantly how good he is to me. How much he cares for me. How much he loves me. But I’ll never give him the pleasure of seein’ me cry.
I was the most intelligent one in my class. Smartest of the lot of little ones. It was all too easy for me. God, I want a little one of my own. A little Graham or a little Maureen. I handled them equations that the teachers sent at me. No problem. It was an all white school. Thank God for that. None of them other types was allowed in. I think that’s why I learnt so good. The teachers always used to tell me how successful I would be.
And I am successful. Because I went off to college. How many can say that? And now I found someone that I love. And she loves me too, I think. Or at least she’ll come to love me in the end. She’ll just have to change her mind and I’ll have to show her. I’ll have to tell her everyday.
My mama doesn’t know about her. I don’t think it’s a good idea if I do tell her. Or maybe I should. She might be happy if tell her. But then again she ain’t been happy with me for the past couple years. She used to smell pretty bad but she doesn’t no more. It’s because of what I put on her. I knew my education and my job at the pharmacy is good for somethin’.
Oh God I can hear him comin’ down them stairs. His weight makes em’ creak real loud. Here he comes, oh God.
“Hey, Maureen. You hungry? I got you a paper.”
I try not to stare at him too much. I know he got real angry at me last time when I just kept on starin’ at him. I do it so I can show him that I ain’t scared o’ him. I ain’t like that. He thinks he can just scare me by bein’ so big and all.
“You lose your hearin’ down here or somethin’? You hungry or what?”
My belly rumbles but I ain’t sayin’ nothin’. I just stare at the ground. But I gotta think of the baby too. Oh, but I’m hungry. Still, I ain’t gonna say nothin’.
“All right suit yerself.” He’s still standin’ in the same spot. I can feel his eyes on me. Oh God, I wonder if he can tell my belly’s got a bump. He can’t find out. I gotta figure somethin’ out first. I gotta find a way to use this. I don’t wanna look up at him. If I do he gets all excited.
“So how was yer day?”
I don’t want to talk to him. But I know if I don’t, he’ll get angry. “What’s the matter? Ain’t you gonna say somethin?”
I can feel the anger in his voice. It’s bubblin on up. He usually gets like that when I don’t talk to him or show him any respect. He gets scary.
“Nothin, Graham,” I say back to him. “I was just thinkin bout some stuff I read in the paper. When can I… when can I read it again?”
He doesn’t answer for a couple of seconds. I can hear him lickin’ his lips, like he does when he gets all excited. Oh God.
“You can read it again when you start eatin’ the food I make for you.”
I don’t know what to say to that. I don’t wanna eat the food he makes for me. It makes it easier for him to have his way with me and do those things to me.
“When can I have a bath?” I ask him, just to change the subject of what’s goin’ on. So he doesn’t make me eat the food he’s been preppin’. But God, I am so hungry.
I can hear him lickin’ his lips again. “Take off yer skirt,” he says. I just keep lookin’ down at the ground. I have to.
“What’s the matter? You lose your hearin’ down here or somethin’?”
I think somethin’s wrong with her. Maureen. Really wrong. She keeps on throwin’ up and she looks real skinny and all. God, I love her so much. But she looks like she’s in some real trouble. I wonder if I should talk to momma and ask her for what she thinks? But I ain’t talked to her in a while now. And she doesn’t say much either. I don’t think she’d be happy with what I’m doin’ to Maureen. But she doesn’t understand. None of them would understand if I was to tell them. They just don’t understand how much it is that I love her. I think I’ll ask them people that I work with. But then again, they are so annoyin’, always talkin’ about stupid things that don’t matter to no one and nobody. Who cares about what they have to think? No, she’ll be fine. Maureen will be all right. I think tonight I might give her the paper.
But I’ll only do it after she eats what I made for her. I don’t understand why she doesn’t want to eat what I make for her. I put a lot of thought into that food I make. Takes a long time to fix up the minerals and supplements I add to her food. I gotta be real careful with it—if I mess up the proportions then it could be real bad. Maybe I should lay off them supplements for a few weeks. Maybe it’s that what is makin’ her sick and throw up all the time. Yeah, I think I’ll do that. Just for a little while.
Here he comes. Clankin’ on down the stairs. Makin’ em’ creak real loud. Oh God. I’m so hungry. I haven’t eaten in so long. But I can’t eat what he gives me. It makes me feel so woozy in my head. I can tell he’s gettin’ madder and madder at me. He doesn’t like it when I don’t listen to him and don’t do what he wants me to do. He always says that I ain’t showin’ him any respect.
“I got you some food here if you want it,” he says.
I don’t say nothin’. I need to eat though. I’m so hungry.
“What’s the matter wit you? Ain’t you hungry? You ain’t been eatin’ nothin’ down here.”
I’m not gonna say nothin’. I just need to figure out how to use this against him. This bump that I have in my belly. This little life. This present that God gifted to me to use against him.
“I didn’t put any minerals and supplements in it. I reckon you need a little break from them. Sometimes too many minerals and supplements can be not good for you either. I figured it out. That’s probably why you’ve been throwin’ up so much all these past few weeks. It’s yer favorite: chicken, rice, and peas. You want some?”
Thank you, God. Thank you for keepin’ this a secret from him and not lettin’ him find out.
“What’s the matter, Maureen? Didn’t you hear me? You hungry or what? You losin’ your hearin’ down here or somethin’?”
I look up to stare into his eyes. The glint isn’t there. Maybe I’m safe for now.
He’s holdin’ the paper too. He must have recognized that I saw it because he says, “That’s right, darlin’, I even got you the paper.” He smiles, puts down the paper and food, and comes at me and wraps me up with his thick arms. I can smell him. Smells like Dettol, sweat, and ham that’s been left outta the ice box for too long. I have to smell him almost every night. I can feel it comin’ up. The water in my stomach. I need to find a way to leave. I need to get away. The little voice in my head, she’s tellin’ me to run away.
“Come on, Maureen, go on. Eat some.” I nod.
“I promise. It ain’t got no minerals and supplements in it. I promise. See how much I care about you? See how much I think and worry about you? I had to work real hard to figure it out but I think that’s it. Too much of a good thing can be bad as well. See how good I am for you? See how much I love you?”
I know if I don’t say nothin he’s right in his mind to get mad and angry at me. If I don’t show him any respect. So I say to him, “Thank you, Graham.”
“No problem, darlin. No problem.”
It took a while for me to call him by his first name. He used to tell me all the time that he expects me to call him by that name. I didn’t even know him. But he made me call him by it, and if I didn’t say it real sweet like I really cared for him he would get real angry at me. I practiced it, though. I practiced and even if I hate him and want him to rot in hell, whenever I say his name it comes out nice and sweet like I really do care for him.
He lays the bowl down in front of me. It’s a heavy glass bowl. There’s a spoon too. That’s nice. I hold off but I can’t help it no more, the smell of it is too much. I start shovin’ the food into my mouth. And he’s right. It tastes a little different now. It doesn’t have that odd taste to it. Oh God, it’s so good. I’m nearly finished it all. I have a few bites left.
“All right, darlin’, that’s enough,” he says. “Don’t want you to get all sick again from eatin’ too much, don’t you agree? Huh, Maureen?”
“No no, darlin’. That’s enough.”
He always takes it away from me before I finish. And he likes takin’ it too. What I’d do for those last two bites. At least the rice, chicken, and peas don’t have the minerals and supplements in it. I hope so. My mouth is dry. I need some water soon.
“You wanna read the paper, Maureen?”
I look up and into his eyes and suddenly I’m scared. I used to think that after a few weeks I would not be scared no more. But when I look into them they still scare me. Especially when they have that glint in them. Like they do now.
I think I’ll ask her to marry me soon. I mean I’ve been treatin’ her so well. I already have the ring. Maybe next time I bring her the paper and some food I’ll do it. I’m so nervous about it. Wish I could talk to my mama about it. But I don’t know if she’ll even approve. She always used to tell me when I was little that I would get the prettiest of girls in the town. Maureen is pretty all right. Just in her own way. Just thinkin’ bout how pretty she is gets me excited. She used to be a little better lookin’ before she met me though. Or before she started livin’ with me. It’s all right. It’s what my mama said happens to people when they get comfortable with someone. She said they kind of let themselves go a lil’ bit. Like it don’t matter to them anymore. But maybe I ought to find a way to make her eat more. She just ain’t eatin’ a lot. Yeah. I think tomorrow I’ll do it.
I’m gonna ask to marry her. I already have the ring. It’s the one mama used to wear. But now I’m gonna put it on Maureen’s finger tomorrow. I mean she has to say yes. After all the nice things I do for her and how kind I am to her. How good I am for her. I stopped tellin’ her that every night. I think she knows now. She doesn’t say much. Just stares at the ground and sometimes stares at me.
I can hear him clompin’ around upstairs. I hear him all right. I’ve been eatin’ good. I feel good. He said he was gonna stop puttin’ those minerals and supplements in my food, and I think that he has. The food don’t have that different taste anymore. But I wish he gave me more than rice, chicken, and peas. I asked him once. Must have been nigh on two months ago when I asked him. He got real mad. Real angry. I was scared. He told me that what he gives me has all three groups of food or somethin’ like that. He told me rice, chicken, and peas was all someone needed to eat to survive and be healthy.
I can feel it in my belly. He has to know by now. I’m lucky he only asks me to take off my skirt. Otherwise I think he’d know for sure. It’s amazin’ what God is capable of doin’ with all his powers and abilities. He created this little thing inside of me.
Amazin’. I used to think he was not real. I used to pray to him everyday to save me from down here for the first couple of months. But he didn’t do nothin’. But now he has. I was wrong to doubt him. I wouldn’t have gotten into heaven if I kept thinkin’ like that. And now he gave me this present.
Here he comes, makin’ them stairs creak on his way down. Oh God.
“Maureen, darlin, how you doin’ tonight? Hungry? I got you some more food. No minerals and supplements. I promise. Got a lotta water here for you as well. See? Don’t I look after you? Don’t you see how good I am you?”
He’s just lookin’ at me right now. I can tell. He’s not movin’. Just standin’ at the bottom of the stairs. Lookin’ at me.
“God, you’re beautiful,” he says. I don’t say nothin’.
After a couple moments, he says, “What’s the matter? You lose your hearin’ down here or somethin’? I said you’re beautiful. You’re supposed to respect it when people say nice things to you.”
“I’m… I’m sorry, Graham. Thank you. Thank you.”
“Aww, Maureen, don’t get scared. I was only complimentin’ you. Just sayin’ how beautiful you is.”
If I don’t say anythin’ I know he’ll get mad. “Th-thank you, Graham.” “Well, go on, here’s your food and water. No minerals and supplements. I promise.”
He walks over and lays the bowl and glass down next to me. I grab it and start eatin’. He keeps lookin’ at me, lickin’ his lips.
He’s watchin’ me eat. Just watchin’ me as I chew on them peas, and rice, and chicken. Not sayin’ anythin’.
I have two bites left. What’s the point. He’s gonna take the bowl away. Snatch it from me. Like he does every time.
“Go on,” he says. “Finish it.”
I look up into him. He’s smilin’ at me. And that scares me the most of all the times I’ve been scared of him.
“Go on,” he says again. “Finish up your food. It don’t have the extra stuff so it’s fine.”
He keeps lookin’ at me and smilin’. I eat it slowly. Not sure if he’s playin’ some nasty trick on me. I look at him between each bite. He’s still smilin’ at me. Oh God.
“There you go, darlin’. See much I care bout you? How good I am for you?” I nod.
He comes closer and I can smell the sweat and Dettol on his body. Oh god. He’s smackin’ his lips and starin’ at me. I don’t know what to do. He just keeps lookin’ at me.
“Maureen,” he says, after a good minute’s passed. “Maureen I need to ask you somethin.”
I look up from the floor and to him. He’s on one knee. Oh God.
“Maureen, I know this life here we have ain’t much. But… but… will you marry me?”
I don’t say nothin’. What am I supposed to say to that. That person inside o’ my head tells me to be careful. And suddenly, somethin’ starts bubblin in my stomach. Like someone’s left a big vat of water in it and then forgo to turn off the heat. It just keeps bubblin’ and boilin’. And I know if I don’t say nothin’ he’s gonna be madder than anythin’ ever before.
So I say to him, “I’m pregnant, Graham.”
His eyes shine. I’ve never seen that before in his. Usually I just see a nasty glint or emptiness. But I’ve never seen what’s in them now. They’re lit up. Like them little lights people put on in Christmas. He’s just starin’ at me and I don’t know what to do because I got the glass bowl in my hands and he keeps lickin’ him lips. Like he’s unsure of what to do.
“Maureen!” he yells. He comes over and puts his head up against my belly and starts cryin’. I think he’s cryin’. Oh God. I don’t know what to do. God. Please tell me. Please. “Maureen! A baby. A new little one! Maureen! Us together. It’s perfect. Marry me, Maureen, marry me.”
I taste the food comin’ up outta my stomach. Oh god. I have to do somethin now. The person in my head, she tells me. So I do what she says. I smash the glass bowl over his head as hard as I can swing it. It shatters.
There’s glass everywhere. I shove him off me and run. Run up the stairs. They creak under my footsteps. I’m feelin’ light headed but I can’t stop now. I can’t stop. I come out in a hallway. I don’t remember this. Don’t think I was conscious. It’s been months. I go left and run into an end. No way out.
Oh God. Oh God, he’s comin’. I go the other way. There’s a kitchen. And a door. I try to open it but I keep fiddlin’ with the chain on the inside. The blood comin’ out of my hands makes it slippery.
Oh God, he’s angry. I keep fiddlin’. Just through this door. Through this door and to the other side. I can hear him creakin’ up the stairs. Real slow though.
“Where you goin, Maureen? Huh? Ain’t I been treatin’ you good? Real good?
Just because you get off your vitamins and minerals don’t mean nothin. I BEEN TREATIN’ YOU REAL GOOD.”
So much blood on the chain. It keeps slippin’ out of my hand. Oh God, just give me this one more favor. I’m feelin’ woozy. Please God. The chain clicks out and I yank the doorknob. Light flashes me. It’s so bright. I can’t see nothin’.
“Maureen! This ain’t right! MAUREEN!”
He’s here. I have to do this. I gotta go outside. But it’s so bright I can’t see anythin’. I have to now. I gotta trust that person in my head. Otherwise I’ll be down there forever. Forever in his basement. I have to do it. I have to trust God.
I step outside and close the door behind me. And start hobblin’ forward. There’s nothin’ around. Nothin’ I can see. Oh God. I can’t see any other houses. No one else is here. There’s just grass and a river. But I see somethin’ in the distance. I can’t see well. Some buildins’. I need to run there.
Oh God. I need to go. If I don’t I’ll be back down there. I can’t handle that. I need to use this.
I hear a strange squeakin’ sound. It’s gettin’ closer but I can’t tell from where it’s comin’.
“Hey Lady. You alright? You’re bleedin?” It’s a little boy’s voice. Maybe nine or ten. I can’t see out here. Oh God. It’s too bright. Ridin’ a squeaky little bicycle, I think.
“Help me. Please. Help me.”