HOLT UNCENSORED #111
by Pat Holt
Tuesday, November 30, 1999:
VIOLENCE IN SOCIETY: SOME USEFUL BOOKS
'WHAT TO DO WHEN THE POLICE LEAVE'
'THOSE BONES ARE NOT MY CHILD'
'SOME MOTHER'S DAUGHTER'
'A DOOMSDAY READER'
VIOLENCE IN SOCIETY: SOME USEFUL BOOKS
Violence breaks out so often and unexpectedly in modern society that Bill Jenkins, a professor of speech and drama at Virginia Union University, decided to write a book about the lessons he learned when his son was killed late one night at a local restaurant.
At 16, William Jenkins had been at work on the second night of "his first 'real' job" when three people attempting to rob the restaurant started shooting. William was killed instantly.
"My family and I desperately wanted some guidance through the first days of our loss," Bill Jenkins writes, "but none seemed to be available."
So Jenkins, comparing notes with others who have lost friends and family through homicide, suicide and accidents, and working with the Richmond, Va., Victim/Witness Program, has written and self-published an invaluable guide, WHAT TO DO WHEN THE POLICE LEAVE: A Guide to the First Days of Traumatic Loss (WBJ Press, http://www.willsworld.com ; 122 pages; $10.95 paperback).
All the expected advice is here - how to talk to reporters, notify family, form a quick support group, attend to funeral arrangements, stay in communication with police and be prepared for "grief beyond your control."
But so are the tips that could only come from one who's been there. "Consider putting off limits" such things as cleaning the dead person's bedroom or dirty clothes, says Jenkins, because when everything's laundered, "the smells disappear. This is something people rarely think about," he adds, "but you may want to have those smells around for some time yet, preferring to let them fade away naturally."
What "normal" shock feels like, how eating habits change, what to do when scam artists and burglars inevitably come looking, how to work with medical examiners, lawyers, insurance adjustors, victim assistance officers - and especially children of all ages - are explained in sympathetic, careful detail.
Jenkins is not the best writer in the world, but he may be one of the wisest. He not only begins where the reader begins, with news more horrible than anything ever contemplated; he keeps our eye boldly focused on finding a "transforming resolution."
Nobody understands more than Jenkins that "accepting a situation doesn't mean liking it." Nor does acceptance mean "that [the perpetrators] could ever repay the debt that they owe you." It does mean, he says, that "you are no longer going to let them influence your feelings or control your life, no matter what happens." That could be the first step toward transformation, something that awaits everyone.
"One of the things which I decided the very first day after William's death was that I wanted only good things to come out of this tragedy," he concludes. "I can now say that there are MANY good things which outnumber this one bad thing. And though I would trade them all to have him back with us safe and sound, it is my hope and prayer that this book will be one more triumph of good over evil and order over chaos, and that it will in some ways help you as you begin your walk with grief." So it does.
It is of course a sad comment on American life that a book like this is "popular" - published in June, it's already in its second printing. But what a relief to know that when something like this is needed, Jenkins is the guy who wrote it.
THOSE BONES ARE NOT MY CHILD
Perhaps the worst effect of violence in society is the feeling that perpetrators are all around us - that every windowless van, every passer-by on a darkened street, every child who's late coming home from school is a reminder that no one is safe.
This is the theme of Toni Cade Bambara's often magnificent novel, THOSE BONES ARE NOT MY CHILD (Pantheon; 848 pages; $27.50), which she was writing at the time of her death in 1995. Her editor, Toni Morrison, helped bring the unfinished work to publication, and one senses Morrison's sure hand in a Prologue that takes off like a rocket.
The story is about one family's experience during the Atlanta child murders of the early 1980s, when more than 40 black children were killed. If you feel this is a depressing subject that couldn't possibly be absorbing or gripping, welcome: From page one, Bambera puts us "on the porch with the broom sweeping the same spot, getting the same sound," as we wait for a 12-year-old child to return home from school.
At 3:15, "your ears strain, stretching down the block, searching through schoolchild chatter for that one voice that will give you ease." Tension builds so fast that we turn the pages without knowing it, desperate to see if the daughter is safe but admiring Bambera at the same time for so deftly, so surely, so invisibly setting the narrative hook.
And if you think there's not much new to learn about these sensational murders (didn't Wayne Williams turn out to be the serial killer? didn't black parents in Atlanta form a citizens group that worked well with police?), get set for some big surprises. I didn't know, for example, that "from the start, the prime suspects . . . were the parents," and that as the murders mounted up, news stories referred to "the gentle killer" because the man or woman had "washed some of the victims, laid them out in clean clothes, and once slipped a rock under a murdered boy's head 'like a pillow,' a reporter said. Like a pillow."
The media form one of the many secondary culprits behind the scenes as we follow the story of Marzala Rawls Spencer, an African American mother who's terrified that her son is missing and makes the mistake of going to the police.
Although a citizens group (STOP) and a police Emergency Task Force have been formed to deal with increasing murders, the questions Zala is asked ("Are [all your children] natural siblings? . . . They all have the same father?") make it clear what kind of person has always been considered suspect by Atlanta police.
It's the old Ripped Lid Syndrome (my term) once again: A crisis not only remains unresolved, it rips the lid off existing systems to reveal inept and warring factions within. The Task Force staff is not made up of homicide detectives but community relations personnel who, like authorities from the FBI to city hall, worry that "serial murder panics the public" and try to keep black parents quiet about it.
Soon we witness entire systems of historical and political power through the black parents' lens. We see how racial imbalance can feed on itself for generations when Zala learns, for example, that "damn near every Black mayor elected in the South had to go through an OK Corral duel. The [white] high sheriff wouldn't surrender up the keys or the roster or the requested letter of resignation, and/or he'd threaten to arrest, tar and feather, or lynch the duly elected Blood if he or she showed up to take the oath of office or insisted on appointing a new police chief."
As you might expect, a novel of this size has a tendency to sprawl in too many directions at once, to lose the urgency that started it off with bang, to get lost in one barrage of unnecessary detail after another and sometimes founder in surprisingly amaturish writing.
But each glimpse inside families trying to act responsibly in what is to them an irresponsible system is fresh, compelling and important. The surprises are many in "Those Bones Are Not My Child," and perhaps the most significant is the knowledge at book's end that one will never look at the police, the media, city governments or daily violence the same way again.
SOME MOTHER'S DAUGHTER
If the parents in the Atlanta child murders were considered prime suspects, consider what happens to prostitutes when they report incidents of rape and assault to police. "Because we are women who have been criminalized and labelled immoral by the law," writes one, "whoever wants to [can] presume we are unworthy of protection."
But it is the message of the International Prostitutes Collective that "attacks on sex workers are common not because prostitution is intrinsically a violent job but because violent men know they are more likely to get away with physical attacks on a woman who is a prostitute."
And thus as we learn in SOME MOTHER'S DAUGHTER: The Hidden Movement of Prostitute Women Against Violence (Crossroads, email@example.com; 180 pages; $10 paperback), what happens to prostitutes has a very real effect on the way all women are treated, especially by police and government agencies when attackers and murderers threaten from in the shadows.
Often blamed for being attacked because of the work they do and the streets they walk, the sex workers who contribute to "Some Mother's Daughter" believe that the same language they hear from police is used to support similar biases many police officers share about all women.
It's because prostitutes are left unprotected, these writers say, that police still ask women who attempt to report rape and assault: Why were you walking on that street? Why were you wearing that dress? What were you doing so late at night?
In two separate sections on violence against prostitutes - one in Great Britain, and one in the United States, "Some Mother's Daughters" offers eye-opening surveys of prostitutes' experiences involving child custody, racism, lesbian rights, pimps (most don't use them, we learn) and assault.
The surprises are many. Here we find evidence that sex workers have been an important force in movements to protect all women from violence in the streets, to galvanize witnesses who would not usually come forward in murder trials of serial killers, to collect and publish data proving the worth of decriminalized (as opposed to legalized) prostitution and to protest against the existence of draconian classes for "Johns."
In these classes, men who have been arrested for seeking sex with prostitutes are given the chance to have the crime erased from their records if they agree to attend - it's something akin to traffic school but with a nasty twist. The fact that such classes show pictures of penises rotting away from sexually transmitted diseases demonstrates the authors' point that society's understanding of prostitution and what to do about it has been stuck in the Dark Ages since - well, the Dark Ages.
A DOOMSDAY READER
If violence in the streets seems more prevalent than ever (of course some mayors and law enforcement agencies say the reverse is true), surely what might be called "organized" violence has gotten worse as it builds up to the new millenium.
If he had written only about contemporary examples of end-of-the-millenium violence - the annihilation of the Branch Dividians, the mass suicide of Jonestown and Heaven's Gate followers, the poison gas terrorism of Aum Shinri Kyo in Japan and the bombings of such diverse terrorists as the Unabomber and Timothy McVeigh - folklorist Ted Daniels would certainly have helped shed new light on the modern version of apocalypse.
Daniels does all that in A DOOMSDAY READER (New York University Press; 252 pages; $XXXX), but he also startles and shocks in his quiet way by showing how "millenarians" - those who hope to participate in "a sudden and dramatic change in the world order" - range from environmentalists such as Earth First! founders and followers to the participants in the Manhattan Project and the author of "Mein Kampf."
George Bush was "demonized by conspiracists as a tool of Illuminist plots" when he invoked the millenarian promise of a "New World Order," says Daniels, because he came close to "the millennium's strange attractor" - the idea that some kind of "terminal drama of all creation" is coming that will "provide the ultimate meaning to our lives."
Often a prophet leads the way to revelation that in turn inspires personal conversion to an apocalyptic vision, Daniels explains. Describing millenarianism from the Hindus and Buddhists to the Montana Freemen and "The Turner Diaries," he shows the patterns and cycles of human needs seeking resolution through a realistic understanding of the sad and often tragic course of history.
It's fascinating to read "A Doomsday Reader" with the thought of the potential Y2K crisis in mind: If the Internet is a revolution and the individual at the laptop has experienced both revelation and conversion on the way to a new vision for the millenium, isn't it uncanny that humanity has created its own technological apocalypse called Y2K?
Dear Holt Uncensored:
Phil Anderson wrote: ". . . why is it that even when one goes to a local library and asks about a certain book, the reference librarian makes a few quick key strokes on their [sic] computer and - voila! - up pops Amazon.com to give a complete readout of book, author, price, publisher and whatever else one needs to know about said book? .
"Is Amazon.com now the generic reference for reference librarians of our fair land?
"To the uninitiated library user peering over the reference desk, this tells that person that Amazon.com must be the oracle of knowledge for all libraries and librarians. Surely there must be a better and more neutral source of book information available and readily useable for libraries, one that is visible to the borrower and one that is not a screaming advertisement for this elephantine corporation that appears to be displacing the independent bookstore and book seller on a daily basis."
Well, actually, THIS reference and acquisitions librarian uses Amazon.com to verify, not to advertise or to subliminally suggest. I also use Barnesandnoble.com and chapters.ca for the same reason. Why? The only other quick 'n' easy verification sources I have available are an electronic version of Books In Print and OCLC. But, if the book is recently published, or is published in some other country, neither source is of much help.
Geez, Phil, your un-named librarian is just trying to get the basic facts for you. It doesn't mean that the black helicopters from the UN are coming for you.
Livingston Lord Library
Dear Holt Uncensored:
Concerning Amazon.com employees being overworked; I have an Internet bookstore (used and rare) and receive a number of orders from Amazon.com through their "Out-Of-Print" department. But over the past two months, I have received several orders from them that were never fulfilled, i.e. they ordered the book, I confirmed to them that the book was available and never heard from them again.
One time they ordered a book, never sent payment, then asked why I never sent the book!
Anyway, it is sad that they do 'out-of-print' orders for people that could just as easily go to http://www.bibliofind.com and http://www.abebooks.com (just like amazon.com does) and order the book themselves, directly from the dealer, without the "middle-man" markup and the long wait.
Dear Holt Uncensored:
Holt Uncensored #110 quoted the following from Alex Beam's column in the BOSTON GLOBE: "The landlord of the Barnes & Noble superstore on Route 9 in Chestnut Hill has put the 19,000-square-foot space on the market. This means that the store has failed to achieve its purpose in life - destroying the TGIF-approved, family-owned New England Mobile Book Fair."
Writing from Newton, home of this departing and little-missed Barnes & Noble, I want to provide HU readers with a little more background.
The closest big bookstore to the Chestnut Hill B&N--the successful bookseller that most likely drove it away--is a Borders. It's less than a mile west on Route 9, much closer than the New England Mobile Book Fair. Borders succeeded because it was there before B&N, had a better location, and is simply a better bookstore.
New England Mobile has long been one of Newton's joys. But it's a more enjoyable place to shop than 15 years ago because its management has made a painful effort to become customer-friendly--no doubt under pressure from other large stores. The business seems to be as successful as ever. I have a hard time complaining about national chains competing unfairly against it, furthermore, because New England Mobile pioneered the practice of demanding a wholesaler's discount from publishers and then selling direct to readers below other retailers' prices.
One last, minor point: Beam's mysterious phrase "TGIF-approved" refers to the name of his column as it appears on Fridays.
J. L. Bell
Dear Holt Uncensored:
Just wanted to give you another example of how indie booksellers are contributing to their communities during the holidays. I'm privileged to work for Davis-Kidd and Joseph-Beth Booksellers, located in Tennessee, Kentucky and Ohio. This year, we are creating new libraries -- or refurbishing old, neglected ones -- at senior citizen's centers or non-profit, low income retirement homes in our communities. We have created a commemorative holiday ornament, which we give to our customers as a "thank you" when they make a donation of $10.00 or more or contribute any book to the "Giving Back" campaign. When a customer chooses to donate a book, we sell that book at a 20% discount. All cash donations are put into a "house account" for the seniors organization and, when they come in after the holidays to buy books for their library, they will receive a 20% discount from us on their purchases.
We also support children's causes, such as "Angel Tree" and "Storybook Christmas" in our markets by providing space for a tree and providing books at a substantial discount. The "Giving Back" campaign, however, will become a holiday tradition for us and we love the idea of providing books, audio tapes and other materials to senior citizens. In addition to our customer's donations, our owner, Neil VanUum will make a matching donation on behalf of the entire company, several publishers are contributing large print books and audio tape libraries and -- most special -- our booksellers are contributing their own hard earned money to buy listening machines for books on tape for their selected organizations.
Throughout the year we give time, money and display space to arts organizations (two of our stores support local arts organizations through donated box office space and facilities), literacy organizations, community groups that support the homeless and hungry and a host of other causes. In fact, hardly a day goes by that we do not have some type of non-profit, community organization benefiting from our commitment to doing good and being "more than just a place to buy books". Use this information in any way you choose. Just thought I'd share!
Dear Holt Uncensored:
Jumping on Robert Levinson's thread, I'd [like to offer another story about] M is for Mystery. When Kim, the manager, heard that the San Jose Cambrian Library had picked my novel, "Murder in the Marais," for their mystery discussion group, he suggested that since I'm local wouldn't they like the author to come down and join the discussion? The library group invited me and I spent a great evening with them - not to mention Kim and his wife Laura giving me a lift there and selling my books as well.
Every time [the owner] Ed sees me, he tugs my sleeve and asks when the next Aimée Leduc investigation will appear and would I please hurry up. How's that for an wonderful indie in an author's corner?
Dear Holt Uncensored:
As a result of my job (developing web sites for authors), I have had to e-mail Amazon.com several times to correct information about my clients and their books. I must say that despite my personal dislike of the company's attempts at global domination, I am thoroughly impressed by the speedy and helpful way Amazon.com customer service representatives respond to e-mail. A lot of companies don't bother answering e-mail in a timely fashion or at all. Sure, the working conditions sound stressful, but nobody's forcing these folks to work in Amazon's employ. A $10-an-hour customer service representative can probably find a more laid-back environment elsewhere at a comparable salary. Regarding the stock options, as a former low-level employee of an internet company, I know all too well that the traditional 250 share options given to drones are never gonna make anyone rich.
Dear Holt Uncensored:
The description of the Amazon.com workers' break restrictions and other "motivational" techniques remind me more of Harlan Ellison's short story, "Repent, Harlequin! said the Tick-tok Man." In this story, if you were late, that amount of time was taken off of your life. Everything was run by the clock. Maybe Amazon.com would have more efficient workers if they threaten to shorten the lives of their workers by the amount that they are late, behind and so on.
Actually, if working conditions are as bad as reported, Amazon.com is doing that anyway.