Silver Rights

News, thoughts and comments on civil rights and related issues.

Friday, October 10, 2003  

A Dangerous Woman is an almost perfect novel

Almost perfect novels are rare, so it is always an unexpected pleasure when I discover one. Mary McGarry Morris' A Dangerous Woman is one of those finds. I consider it close to perfect becauses Morris mines the turf she has chosen to write about expertly and exquisitely. She depicts people the way they are and society the way it is. Not how either should be, but how they are. That is the penultimate achievement in writing fiction.

Martha Horgan thrives on routines or falls aparts. For her, everything must fit into patterns. Pencils and pens, books and lunch money had to be aligned just so on her desk when she was in school. Everything has a ritual. Before saying anything she considers significant, she must tap her chest several times and take a certain number of breaths. She believes in telling what she thinks is the truth -- even when doing so will serve no beneficial purpose. She is chronically unable to distinguish between what really matters and what doesn't.

As if these traits were not enough, Martha hates children, a characteristic bound to get a person in trouble in most societies. Perhaps it is because, in the atavistic way they have, they sense her difference from normal people right away and question her or mock her immediately. That results in mutual tormenting that has a 32-year old swatting four-year-olds or throwing rocks at adolescents while walking down the street. Most of the residents of her Vermont town consider Martha, a difficult, even evil, person to be avoided.

Though it is never named in A Dangerous Woman, Martha's symptoms match those of autism, most likely the condition known as Asperger Syndrome. Unable to find any useful treatment for the disorder, Martha's rich aunt, Frances, has given up on resolving her problems. They coexist in a lifestyle characterized by Martha's surliness and punctuated by Martha's ungovernable tantrums.

The status quo changes when Martha runs away from home after one of her emotional explosions. She obtains a job at a drycleaners and a room in a boarding house. And, for the first time, Martha has a friend -- Birdy, the manager of drycleaners. Martha becomes a model employee in an environment where routine is key. No one fills out tickets as accurately or remembers to collect the free shirt coupon as well as she does.

However, Martha's achievement is short-lived. Her affection can be as overwhelming and suffocating as her contempt. It is not long before Birdy colludes with the owner of the cleaners in getting rid of Martha. They falsely accuse her of having stolen money from the till. Chastened, Martha returns to her aunt's house. But, she doesn't give up. Her obsessiveness will not allow her to. Birdy is forced to change her phone number to unlisted after Martha calls her relentlessly, sometimes hundreds of times each day. Martha also stalks the woman she considers her only friend and sends her an avalanche of letters through an intermediary. Totally out of touch with the way the world works, Martha believes she can regain Birdy's trust by telling the truth: The real thief is Birdy's boyfriend, Getso.

The ultimate tragedy of the novel could not occur without the normal problems of normal people intersecting with Martha's special problems. Together, they form a combustible mixture. Frances' life is disrupted when her longterm paramour's alcoholic wife makes a sudden recovery. Birdy's impressive ability not to see what she does not want to see about her lover is challenged by Martha's intrusions. The fuse for Martha's meltdown is Colin Mackey, a down-and-out writer who needs love and a patron, but not in that order. Any of these three people could prevent the worst from happening. They have the ability to control their actions Martha lacks. But, none of them do. Instead of an emotional rescue, the interactions of the characters lead inexorably to a violent climax.

The only aspect of A Dangerous Woman I find wanting is the back story. I would like to know more about the Horgans, the 'white trash' family Frances left behind in her Cinderella-like transformation. Were there other Horgans who had symptoms similar to Martha's? Did poverty mask autistic syndrome behaviors in a class people expect little of?

I believe we have become too used to perceiving physical and mental illnesses through the lens of 'disorder of the week' movies. Such offerings often strip the conditions of their complexity. Mary McGarry Morris is too fine a writer to reduce a serious illness that prevents most of its sufferers from being able to function in society to pabulum. No one gets off easily, including Martha. The reader spends as much time thinking, 'Oh, God! Don't do that,' about her as he does mumbling, 'poor, poor thing.' Martha's inability to 'see' other people's interests is just as annoying as their casual cruelty to her. Morris has created one of the most frustrating -- and memorable -- characters in contemporary literature.

posted by J. | 11:26 AM

Tuesday, October 07, 2003  

In the news

  • California recall election is on
  • Well, it is here. Today, Californians get an excellent opportunity to make complete fools of themselves.

    LOS ANGELES - Many voters showed up early as polls opened Tuesday to make a decision unprecedented in California history: whether to recall the governor. As he voted, Arnold Schwarzenegger thanked a mob of reporters for "getting the issues out."

    Although more than 2 million people had already voted by absentee ballot, officials were expecting lines to form throughout the state, especially because polling places were consolidated to accommodate the short time officials had to prepare for the vote.

    Secretary of State Kevin Shelley declined to estimate the turnout because this election has no precedent, but his office reported last week that a record number of voters for a gubernatorial race - 15,380,526 - were registered for Tuesday's vote.

    Confronted by a ballot several pages long, voters were asked to choose the ending of a saga that has captivated the nation for months: whether Gov. Gray Davis becomes the country's second governor to be recalled, and if so, who among 135 candidates should replace him. Also on the ballot were two propositions.

    Recent polls suggested that a majority of voters favored dumping the governor, and that Schwarzenegger was the leading replacement candidate.

    The celebrity factor is what is really being decided in this race -- which never should have occurred in the first place. Political scientists who have studied the topic believe the massive name recognition of just about any public figure guarantees him millions of votes, just because he is a celebrity.

    Schwarzenegger's ability to buy ads and attract reporters -- and to an extent, control their access to him like only an experienced movie star can -- is part of a larger political trend, said University of North Carolina journalism professor Phil Meyer.

    "Classic election theory holds that [political] parties are the most important determinant in voter choice," said Meyer, who specializes in polling and politics. "But in the last 30 years or so, the media has become more important. Whoever spends the most on media [or attracts it] has the better chance of winning."

    Schwarzenegger's popularity also allows him to get away with things that other candidates might not be able to get away with, suggested Fairfield University professor James Simon.

    "Everybody already knows him, and most people seem to like him," said Simon, who worked on the failed presidential bid of Michael Dukakis. "He's promising everything to everybody, and they believe him even though it ain't going to happen."

    If Arnold Schwarzenegger, a third-rate actor with a penchant for humiliating women, becomes governor of one of our most important states, their theory will have been proven.

  • Malvo faces Muhammad in court
  • There appears to have been an effort to turn the trial of serial sniper suspect John Muhammad, which begins next week, into a media circus. Prosecutors had co-defendant Lee Boyd Malvo brought to court to answer questions that could have been resolved through his attorneys, last week.

    MANASSAS, Va. - Prosecutors at least temporarily withdrew their motion Tuesday to summon sniper suspect Lee Boyd Malvo to testify in the case against fellow suspect John Allen Muhammad.

    At a hearing in Prince William County Circuit Court, Commonwealth's Attorney Paul Ebert said it's still possible that they will change their minds and call Malvo to testify. Muhammad goes on trial next week.

    Malvo last week invoked his Fifth Amendment rights and refused to answer questions about his relationship with Muhammad. Malvo's appearance at the pretrial hearing brought the two suspects into the same room for the first time since their arrests one year ago.

    After Tuesday's hearing, Muhammad's lawyers said Malvo's appearance was a stunt arranged by prosecutors to set up a confrontation between the pair and stir media interest in the case. During Malvo's 10-minute appearance last week, the pair made eye contact but showed no visible reaction to each other.

    Malvo was summoned to the courtroom last week to determine if he would testify. The judge in the case had deferred a final ruling on whether Malvo might be required to answer certain questions until Tuesday's hearing.

    Though no drama occurred as a result of having the two defendants in each other's presence, I would not be surprised if additional efforts to generate friction and, thereby, news, occur. The case has been a political football since it was taken away from Montgomery County, Maryland, prosecutors and handed to those in Virginia. I expect the Virgininians to exploit it as much as possible.

  • Alabaman targeted for axing Confederate holidays
  • A mayor in Alabama is catching hell for doing what many Southern leaders are afraid to -- put an end to Confederate holidays that cost their cities, counties or states money.

    PRATTVILLE -- Prattville Mayor Jim Byard is taking some heat in the wake of cutting four paid holidays in this year's budget, mostly over two Confederate holidays that were axed. The mayor has received more than 40 e-mails and telephone calls from people saying his move threatens Southern heritage.

    The Web site posted a message inviting comment and providing a link to the city Web site listing the mayor's and City Council e-mail addresses. The site invites people to respond to the "slimy, sellout mayor" to voice their opinion in an effort to reinstate the holidays.

    The City Council accepted Byard's proposal to cut the paid holidays in an effort to save money. The days are Confederate Memorial Day, Jefferson Davis' Birthday, Presidents' Day and Columbus Day.

    . . .The four holidays in question were given to city employees in 2000. Employees now have nine paid holidays. Decreasing the holidays should save $200,000 a year.

    Yes, I realize that two of the holidays are not Confederate. However, it is the refusal to subsidize Confederate holidays that has led to the outcry.

    posted by J. | 11:47 AM