Sunday, January 25, 2015

turning history on its head: Severed: A History of Heads Lost and Heads Found, by Frances Larson

Liveright/W.W. Norton, 2014
317 pp


Severed: A History of Heads Lost and Heads Found caught my eye while I was reading the "Briefly Noted" book section of The New Yorker sometime back.  The idea that someone would write about the severed head's significance in the history of  "the civilized West" appealed to my fascination with the strange so I knew I had to read it.  After finishing the prologue about the history and fate of the head of Oliver Cromwell, I knew I'd found something deliciously different here -- and that I had to finish this book in one go.

Sadly, the spectacle of  beheadings has come back into our lives full force with the public executions by radical terrorists in the Middle East after 9/11.  In her chapter titled "Deposed Heads," the author notes that only a month after the beheading of Daniel Pearl in 2002, the video made by his captors started circulating on the internet, and four months later the Boston Phoenix published a link on their website. When in May, 2004, engineer Nick Berg met the same fate, it only took days for the "unedited" video to be made available -- this time by Reuters, then picked up by US news networks. The online footage of the actual beheading
"remained the most popular internet search in the United States for a week, and the second most popular throughout the month of May, runner up only to 'American Idol.' "   
Even worse, the Dallas Morning News printed a photo of one of the terrorists holding Berg's severed head (although thankfully with face not visible),  saying that their decision followed "interest generated in the blogosphere," and that "not one of the 87 letters"  they'd received about it "called for these images not to be printed."

And now with the advent of ISIS,  beheadings are once again in the public sphere, "a piece of theatre designed to create power and cause fear" with "maximum visibility, maximum resonance" as well as its power to encourage "maximum fear."   The author notes that
"by searching Google for the latest execution video, the people watching also have their part to play."
As someone who didn't follow that herd, while it's hard for me to believe that in this day and age there are people who freely choose to watch someone's murder online, it is a known fact that audiences have been  drawn to executions for centuries, "ready to enjoy the spectacle."

But even outside the sphere of public beheadings and executions, the author uses her book to draw the reader's attention to the very human fascination with human heads.  Over the course of several chapters, she chronicles the history of shrunken heads, of heads taken as trophies, of severed heads as objects of power, about the fascination of heads used in art, the heads (and other body parts) of saints used as relics, of the study of heads and pseudoscience (phrenology, etc) and in real science (as tools for medical students), and finally, in a chapter called "Living Heads," which in part, explores the scientific (and other) attempts to determine how long the head lives after being severed, as well as the fascination people have with keeping their head alive so a body can be reattached when science has advanced beyond its current capabilities.

Ms. Larson writes very well and immerses the reader right away. Sometimes it's obvious that she's adopting a sort of tongue-in-cheek, funny attitude toward her subject, but most of the time she's quite serious. The book is easily accessible, very reader friendly and each chapter includes not just facts, but strong analysis as well.  I think a chapter on "decapitations in literature" to go with her chapter about art would have been a strong addition.  My only complaint is that the first time she made a statement and I went to look for endnotes, there weren't any.  I'm one of those readers who enjoy noting down sources as they appear -- and even though she has a sizable bibliography at the end of the book, it was incredibly frustrating not to know an exact source of information as it was given in the text.  I was also a little disappointed at her disclaimer at the beginning of her section on sources where she writes that she intended the book as a "popular account" so did not cite names in the text.  She also notes that "detailed notes" are available at her website, but jeez -- stopping my reading to go look online (even with Ipad next to me) is a lot to ask a person to do. Other than that  not-so-minor quibble,  it's definitely a book worth reading on what is to me a fascinating and sadly relevant topic.

Friday, January 16, 2015

He Wanted the Moon: The Madness and Medical Genius of Dr. Perry Baird, and his Daughter's Quest to Know Him, by Mimi Baird

Crown, 2015
272 pp

arc -- my thanks to LibraryThing and to the publisher for my copy

Mimi Baird was just a little girl of six when her father, Dr. Perry Baird, a successful physician with a thriving practice,  was taken away by two state troopers while having lunch at a country club one day in 1944.  He wasn't under arrest, but rather the police were there to escort him to Westborough State Hospital in Westbourough Massachusetts.  Dr. Baird was no stranger to "mental institutions," having already "been held" at three others before Westborough, and he suffered what was then called "manic breaks," now recognized as serious bipolar disorder.  Using a combination of hospital/medical records, statements from Baird's friends, her own recollections and a treasure trove belonging to Dr. Baird, including his own manuscript that he wrote while hospitalized, Mimi Baird has put together a book about her father and his illness, relating how it affected her and her family especially since 1944 was the year he stopped coming home. Her father had always meant to publish someday, and now Ms. Baird has been able to fulfill his wishes some decades later. 

Since this book hasn't even been released yet, I won't be going into any great detail here about its contents, leaving that for interested readers to discover.  I will say that the very best parts of this book come from Dr. Baird's own writings while hospitalized at Westborough and later Baldpate, a private hospital in Georgetown, MA. In many ways, what he describes while in Westborough begs a comparison to the action in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (complete with his own Nurse Ratched) both in terms of "treatment" and in the idea that the most important priority of those in charge is to get the patients to conform. He writes about being bound in straitjackets (from which he constantly attempted to escape), wrapped in cold wet sheets, and other standard regimens for the mentally ill that were extant at the time.  Even more interesting though is how the reader can actually witness Dr. Baird's deterioration, not just in his worsening handwriting as described by his daughter, but in how his accounts of what's going on with him do not even come close to matching what his medical records say. As his conditioned worsens, he becomes delusional, and just how much so becomes quite clear while reading through his writings. But the book goes well beyond the medical aspects to reveal just how much stigma mental illness in the 1940s carried in normal society, and even in the personal sphere, where in this case, Dr. Baird's wife Gretta was told to "try to forget him", and in so doing, would never talk about her husband's condition, not even to her children. 

As much as I enjoyed reading Dr. Baird's personal account, considering that this book is in part a daughter's "quest to piece together the memoir and the man," her narration can sometimes come off as kind of cold and detached.  There's a particular line in here where Ms. Baird talks about her mother naming her "the ice queen," and sometimes that iciness comes through onto the page. While there are a few moments of pure admiration and love that come shining through, sometimes I think the tone is  much more matter-of-fact  than one would expect from the feelings of a daughter devoted to her recovering her father's life story. 

All in all, I enjoyed reading this book. I can't actually speak to being in Ms. Baird's shoes, but I appreciate the fact that it must have been extremely tough for her to have to relive what her father suffered. On the flip side, I'd say that having people who remembered him so positively and with such affection must have been a blessing to her.    I do have to comment about the fact that Ms. Baird is very open and honest about the editing of her father's work to make it more readable and concise. First of all, perhaps it might have been a more honest and gutwrenching account if even small portions could have been left unreadable, so that readers might have a better feel for Dr. Baird as his mental state eroded at times; second, I am always a little uncomfortable when I read that editors mess with primary documents like Dr. Baird's manuscript, since I'm of the opinion that these types of sources should  always stand on their own with no alteration whatsoever. 

Definitely recommended -- this book is already garnering some pretty high ratings and readers seem to be loving it.