All That Glitters

“My uncle wants to come,” Jasmin announced as she sat in the hard wooden chair by my desk, looking worried. She was almost due, and as her obstetrician, I was seeing her for what she hoped might be her final prenatal visit. She wanted to know how many people could be present in the delivery room at the hospital for the birth.

I nodded encouragingly -so far, only her husband and mother were expected to be present.

“Uncle Jonathan used to be one of my favourites when I was younger.” She smiled at the memory. “He was so smart!” She sighed and looked down at her lap. “He was –is,” she corrected herself, “a professor of Philosophy at the university.” She stared at something behind me for a moment. “I was so impressed that he had even published a book… I remember trying to read it,” she added, rolling her eyes for effect, “but it was too abstruse for me in those days.”

I smiled at the idea of anything being too difficult for her -she was a PhD candidate herself, although not in Philosophy like her uncle. “You seem a bit concerned that he wants to be present for the birth, Jasmin.”

She shrugged and glanced nervously at her lap again. “I haven’t seen him for a while,” she admitted. “We… we kind of fell out a few years ago.”

I sat quietly and waited to see if she wanted to explain.

“He… I mean, I don’t like the way he treats his wife –treated…” she qualified her tenses again. Then she sent her eyes over to explore my face to see if she should explain further. “Even Mom was upset with her brother…”

I tried to keep my expression neutral, but I suppose she could see my curiosity.

“He expected her to have a meal ready for him when he came home…” Her eyes never left my face, but had perched on my cheeks as if they were resting. Waiting. “She had to do all the work around the house, you know. He always said he was exhausted from lecturing and writing at work.”

I nodded again, but she could sense I was trying not to judge.

“Mom said it was abusive…” she said in answer to my unasked question. “I… I refused to believe her at first. I always knew he was arrogant, but if anybody deserved to be arrogant, it was him. He was such a brilliant thinker… is, I mean…”

Jasmin seemed genuinely conflicted. I could see it was difficult for her to accept what she saw as imperfections in a childhood hero.

And yet, any hero-worshipping can be fraught, can’t it? I discussed some of the ramifications of this in a previous essay entitled Life’s Fitful Fever , but I continue to be intrigued by the subject…

We all have subsurface faults that could weaken our glossy reputations if exposed. After all, each of us is a book of stories, only some of which we prefer to read -even those exemplary figures we choose to pedestalize.

None of this is a surprise, of course, but it is sometimes important that it be reconsidered in times like this when we are busy tearing down statues of people whose past is not as monolithic as we once assumed -or, at least, not as we wanted to remember it. An essay by the British philosopher Julian Baggini in Aeon provided an interesting counterbalance to our resurgent iconoclasm:

‘Praise Immanuel Kant, and you might be reminded that he believed that ‘Humanity is at its greatest perfection in the race of the whites,’ and ‘the yellow Indians do have a meagre talent’. Laud Aristotle, and you’ll have to explain how a genuine sage could have thought that ‘the male is by nature superior and the female inferior, the male ruler and the female subject’.

‘We seem to be caught in a dilemma. We can’t just dismiss the unacceptable prejudices of the past as unimportant. But if we think that holding morally objectionable views disqualifies anyone from being considered a great thinker or a political leader, then there’s hardly anyone from history left… However, the idea that racist, sexist or otherwise bigoted views automatically disqualify a historical figure from admiration is misguided. Anyone who cannot bring themselves to admire such a historical figure betrays a profound lack of understanding about just how socially conditioned all our minds are.’

Historical revisionism is an interesting phenomenon: the belief -no, the assumption– that our present day ethos is, by default, the gold standard against which to compare all other eras, and all other societies. But, ‘why do so many find it impossible to believe that any so-called genius could fail to see that their prejudices were irrational and immoral? One reason is that our culture has its own deep-seated and mistaken assumption: that the individual is an autonomous human intellect independent from the social environment… The enlightenment ideal that we can and should all think for ourselves should not be confused with the hyper-enlightenment fantasy that we can think all by ourselves. Our thinking is shaped by our environment in profound ways that we often aren’t even aware of.’

‘Accepting this does not mean glossing over the prejudices of the past. Becoming aware that even the likes of Kant and Hume were products of their times is a humbling reminder that the greatest minds can still be blind to mistakes and evils, if they are widespread enough. It should also prompt us to question whether the prejudices that rudely erupt to the surface in their most infamous remarks might also be lurking in the background elsewhere in their thinking.’ And yet, ‘Many blindspots are remarkably local, leaving the general field of vision perfectly clear. The classicist Edith Hall’s defence of Aristotle’s misogyny is a paradigm of how to save a philosopher from his worst self. Rather than judge him by today’s standards, she argues that a better test is to ask whether the fundamentals of his way of thinking would lead him to be prejudiced today… But there is a very important difference between the living and the dead. The living can come to see how their actions were wrong, acknowledge that, and show remorse. When their acts were crimes, they can also face justice.’

But, as Baggini summarizes in his essay, ‘The dead do not have such an opportunity, and so to waste anger chastising them is pointless. We are right to lament the iniquities of the past, but to blame individuals for things they did in less enlightened times using the standards of today is too harsh.’

Memories of that visit with Jasmin re-surfaced after I read the article.

“Is Jonathan’s wife going to come to the birth as well?” I remember asking.

She stared at her lap briefly. “No, unfortunately she passed away last year.”

I could see it really bothered her, but I sat in silence for a moment. “Were you two… close?”

She nodded and then sighed as she looked at me again. “I just don’t understand, though,” she suddenly blurted out. “The two of them seemed happy, you know… Happy. Content with each other…” She took a deep breath as she tried to expunge the thought. “I suppose he was just a man of his time –is, I mean: his attitude is fairly typical of that era, I think…” Then, after she considered it briefly, she added “But I don’t know how she could stand it: being a slave in the house, I mean.”

She kept scanning my face to see if I agreed -after all, I was probably the same age as Jonathan. Subject to the same biases, the same unrealistic expectations of a wife.

It was my turn to sigh. “You said the two of them seemed happy…”

She nodded. “They loved each other.”

I smiled. “Then perhaps she, too, was a woman of her time, Jasmin.”

She thought about that for a while and then her whole demeanour changed. “I… I hadn’t thought of it that way.” She smiled and sent her eyes to my face to thank me. “I’ll introduce you two in the delivery room. I think you’ll like him,” she said and winked at me as she stood to leave.





This Thing of Darkness

We all walk the earth in egg-shell armour at the whim of Nature. There is little of any of us that will not break if chaos strikes, or heal without a scar. You’d think that, given our fragility, we would opt for conciliation or compromise, and yet more often we challenge those who are not us, and seek to conquer those we cannot otherwise convince to join. It has become a point of honour not to yield, and so we glorify those who suffer grievous injury for causes dear to us, and our stories magnify their deeds, and exploit their hardships. We call them heroes…

But not all who suffer are our heroes, even though they may also have demonstrated equal courage for their positions, or found themselves inadvertently damaged in the crossfire of our wrath. We call them victims -if we notice them at all -and often deny guilt, even if we do.

Despite Steven Pinker’s contention in his The Better Angels of Our Nature that violence has been diminishing ‘over long stretches of time’ and that ‘today we may be living in the most peaceable era in our species’ existence’, I am still troubled by the violence that continues around us. Of course he may be correct in pointing out a lack of current, or at least, local internecine wars that would affect our daily lives, and suggesting that our improved communication systems highlight and magnify our knowledge of more distant conflicts without our having to experience the trauma ourselves. So, is it our arguably decreasing experience of violence that makes something like domestic cruelty stand out? At any rate, when this form of abuse seems all too apparent around us, it is impossible to ignore. Immoral to accept.

And often hidden beneath the more obvious traumatic injuries are the long-term effects. Of course we have all read about the ramifications of continuing abuse, and about how difficult it is to know whether the injuries are purposefully inflicted or the accidents they are often claimed to be, but what about the often more subtle and cumulative effects of traumatic brain injury?

Two articles caught my eye when I was trying to learn more about the subject. The first was an op-ed in the Los Angeles Times of a few years ago: ‘In recent years, medical science has uncovered the high risk and devastating effects of traumatic brain injury, or TBI, among U.S. combat soldiers and athletes, especially football and hockey players. What if a vastly greater population were also suffering these effects: women and children living with the consequences of domestic violence?’

At that time, ‘There [were] few empirical studies on the prevalence of TBI among women and children affected by domestic violence. But evidence so far strongly indicates a silent epidemic, with major public health ramifications. A 2001 study found that 67% of women seeking emergency medical support for injuries stemming from domestic violence had symptoms related to TBI, and 30% reported loss of consciousness.’

A more recent article, with links to this op-ed was in the online Conversation: ‘The statistics are terrifying: In Canada, one woman is killed every week by her partner, globally, one third of women will suffer violence at the hands of someone they love in their lifetime.’

The article was written by Paul van Donkelaar, a professor in the Faculty of Health and Social Development and a neuroscientist at the University of British Columbia. He goes on to ask, ‘But what if survivors […] are also dealing with the effects of a traumatic brain injury along with the fear and trauma of finally having escaped a long-term abusive relationship? […] the impacts of this injury can be devastating — ranging from headaches, double vision and nausea to difficulty concentrating, remembering things and completing simple tasks. It’s also clear the effects tend to be worse when the trauma occurs repeatedly over time, with symptoms lasting for months to years.’

And, ‘Unlike athletes who have suffered a sport-related concussion, survivors of intimate partner violence also quite often experience emotional difficulties such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression and anxiety.’

‘[…]the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, reports each year, 2.3 per cent of women over the age of 18 experience severe physical violence including “being slammed against something” or “being hit with a fist or something hard.” Furthermore, up to 90 percent of survivors of intimate partner violence report head, neck and face injuries at least once and typically on multiple occasions.’

Although I’d like to hope that we live in somewhat different conditions from our neighbours to the south, ‘Assuming similar percentages in Canada, this translates into approximately 276,000 women per year who will suffer a traumatic brain injury as a result of intimate partner violence.’

One of the many disturbing things about this trauma is the possibility of subsequent cognitive deficits -some of which may be severe, and because they may have occurred years before, difficult to remedy, let alone reliably assign attribution. As the author of that op-ed in the L. A. Times, Maria Garay-Serratos, wrote of her mother: ‘For as long as I can remember, my mother took aspirin every day, complaining of unbearable headaches. Sometimes she locked herself in the bedroom with the lights off, asking me to take my siblings outside because she couldn’t tolerate the noise. As she got older, her naps grew longer and her sensitivity to light and noise intensified. By her 50s, her memory had begun to fail.

‘On the day she finally asked me to take her away from my father, I found her in a worse state than I had ever seen her. She could barely stand. She was crawling from room to room while my father ignored her. […] When all the tests were finished, the neurologist told us my mother was suffering from moderate to severe Alzheimer’s disease. The head trauma had been so great and so consistent that there was little they could do.’

Unfortunately, it’s all too easy to focus on simply treating the physical symptoms -and, of course, rescuing the victim from further harm. This is obviously important, and yet woefully insufficient; there is also a need to be alert to problems that seem temporally unrelated. The link to head trauma may be more evident with events like automobile and athletic or combat injuries, but less so in a woman who escaped from an abusive relationship years ago.

Maybe Pinker really has spotted an inexorable trend towards less violence in our society. In the meantime, however, I think ongoing surveillance and counselling for the effects of head trauma might help the abused victims to live a better life while we await an actual treatment for what we now call CTE (Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy). Oh, and an effective prevention strategy, too -in case those better angels lose their jobs…