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As of my "maternity leave," here are the stats of the past year: 74 books reviewed 9 guest posts 4 independent bookstores 3 d...

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Playing Dead: A Journey Through the World of Death Fraud

I read a blurb about Elizabeth Greenwood's Playing Dead: A Journey Through the World of Death Fraud in Entertainment Weekly, and I'm always looking for offbeat and interesting works of non-fiction, so I checked this out from the library recently.

Faking your own death is a fascinating way of going about escaping your life -- if that's what you're interested in. In this nonfiction piece, Greenwood looks at the art of death fraud from several different perspectives, including those who commit it, those who have been found out, and those who have been affected by it. How would one go about committing death fraud? Who are the types of people who get caught? What is it like to be the child of someone who faked their death? What is the best way to go about doing this? Greenwood's fascinatios starts from the frustration with debt, specifically student loans, but ends having done a full-scale examination of this process that is both fascinating and surprisingly not entirely illegal. If you do it right.

I can't remember what attracted me to this book at first, but I'm so glad I ended up picking it up. It was a truly fascinating look at something that I had never considered. Faking my own death? No thanks, I like my life too much. However, I can understand Greenwood's point in her over-reliance upon loaned money to be able to get herself ahead. She also points out in her first chapter that a lot of those guilty of committing this type of fraud end up doing it to escape jail sentences, most often for the mishandling of other people's money. Which begs the question of, why did you bother to commit financial fraud if you just gonna end up faking your own death? She also points out from her research that faking one's own death in and of itself is not illegal, as long as you're not trying to cheat the insurance companies or commit other types of financial fraud. She speaks with a few experts in disappearing and comes to the conclusion that if you want to disappear, you can do it – there's really no need to set up an elaborate scheme of pretending that you have died.

Greenwood tells the stories of a few of these people who have committed fraud, and many who got away with it for some time. Often how they get caught are simple, small things – you have a broken taillight but you don't have a new piece of ID or that identification is not real enough. Sometimes you ask for too much money in your insurance policy. A lot of times, however, many people just turn themselves in so as to not live with the guilt. It's all terribly interesting. However, the chapter that looked at the children of those who have faked their own death was particularly sad. One of the stories Greenwood tells is about a young man of 8 years old whose father told him about his plot. The child had to pretend that he didn't know the truth with his mother and his sister, and he had to keep that secret until his father was caught not long after. Another young man who was in his late teens helped his father with the death-faking. Yet another \woman found out in her 40's that her father had faked his death when she was a child. That was heartbreaking – the damage that was wrought upon this woman, thinking her whole life that her father was dead -- only to find out that he was alive up until a year before she discovered the truth.

Ultimately what Greenwood discovers is that it's not worth faking your own death to get out of whatever pickle you were in. You have to leave behind everything that you love, because if you don't, that will be sure to undo you. You have to walk away from your entire life, people and things and money and your favorite pizza place. Every single thing. Through writing this book, she discovered that, no matter how hard things are financially, it's not worth NOT living your life to escape financial hardship.

Thursday, December 8, 2016

True Story: Murder, Memoir, Mea Culpa

The movie "True Story" had been in my queue for a while, so I watched it one lazy night a few months ago. The movie was just okay, but as fans of this blog know, I am madly in love with true crime. So I did some digging, read some articles about the case, then decided to check out the work of Michael Finkel himself, True Story: Murder, Memoir, Mea Culpa.

Christian Longo murdered his wife and three children. He was not only found guilty, but he ultimately admitted to the murders, was sentenced to death, and then was put to death of years ago. The crime itself is disgusting and painful, but what follows is terribly fascinating. After he goes on the run, he assumed the name Michael Finkel while in Mexico, claiming to be the disgraced New York Times journalist. When Finkel finds out about this, he contacts Longo and forms a friendship that spans from immediately after the man's arrest and through his trial. In a way, each man uses the other; Longo for someone to tell his story and Finkel for a way out of his man-made hole into personal and professional redemption. What results is an inter-dependent relationship where each man bares his soul to the other, although one is far from honest with the other.

This book pleasantly surprised me. I picked it up thinking that it was going to basically just be a masturbatory project for Finkel. I was worried it was going to be a self aggrandizement for the disgraced journalist, laying out his woes and finding a way to be redeemed in his career. Surprisingly, I found this to be an incredibly compelling story that didn't necessarily focus on giving Longo the fame he didn't deserve for slaughter and his family, but told a story about a man who is a full-scale narcissist and absolutely off his rocker. I found that I couldn't put this book down because it was so captivating and interesting. I found it to be a treatise on what happens when you get into deep. Finkel was grasping onto straws for anyone who would be outside of his world, and Longo fit the bill. It's just that Longo himself was a liar.

It's easy to be swept up by non-truths when that is what we want to hear and to believe. I believe that Finkel wanted to believe that Longo could potentially be not be guilty, and even though I was reading this book after the man was put to death, it's clear from an outside perspective that he was a liar at best and dangerous at worst. Hearing his version of his family's financial woes was interesting in that it's clear the woes were Christian's fault. While in his telling, it's a series of unfortunate events that happened to him rather than because of him. Since one of the things I happened to study is attribution theory, which is a model for how we attribute outcomes happening either to us or because of us, I was able to pinpoint him very easily. If you are interested in a an intimate and intricate study of how a man's twisted mind works, this is your book. I also appreciated Finkel's personal commentary, and his self examination of his own thoughts on Christian and his work throughout the process of these interviews. He has clearly spent a lot of time examining his own thoughts and biases, which makes for a worthy read.

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Go Ask Alice

I have never read the infamous Go Ask Alice, even though it has obviously been on my radar my whole life. I mean, who hasn't heard of this supposedly-true anonymously written supposed-memoir? I decided to read it one day that I had a lot of commuting to do.

In short, a young girl turns 15, starts keeping a diary, tries drugs for the first time and becomes a fiend. I think the first time she tries anything she drops acid. She thinks it's amazing, and she ends up addicted to everything in the book. She loses her virginity on LSD (if I remember correctly) and it was just the absolute best experience and she isn't sure if sex not on drugs will ever be just as good. She ends up a homeless runaway twice, the first time becoming a successful business owner in San Francisco. (Yes, she is still 15.) She ends up getting put away in a mental hospital and dying soon after the book ends.

If your head is spinning from that "true story," you are not alone, my friends.

This is, inarguabley, the most absurd book I have ever read. You can't seriously buy into the idea that I would actually believe this was the real diary of a young girl, right? This was clearly written by an adult who thinks that she understands how a teenager writes. (Spoiler alerts: she doesn't.) If I want to read something overwrought and completely unrealistic, I would read romance novels. Also, the events are absurd. One day she tries LSD and then she wants to try everything under the sun? She never wavers, feels bad, or questions her choices? She looses her virginity on drugs and says it was the most amazing, wonderful, fireworks-filled experience of her life? Gag me, please.

The most absurd of them all, though, is in the middle of the book when, in the course of four weeks, she gets kissed by her childhood crush, then meets a man who has her try hash which is now totally her thing, she starts selling all kinds of hard drugs for this man and plans to set up a drug shop to support him through medical school, sells acid to middle school kids, then walks in on him having sex with his male roommate and then runs away to San Francisco. YOU HAVE TO BE KIDDING ME. WHAT IS THIS NONSENSE?!?

The most insulting part of this book is the supposed rape that occurs. It's apparently brutal and premeditated, but then nothing else is spoken about it. What I find insulting about this is that it has nothing to do with actual, long-term consequences of dealing with the aftermath of a sexual assault. The end of the section is that she will never ever see those horrible people again. Really? No PTSD? No flashbacks? No panic attacks? No dealing with the issues. It's disgusting.

Would I recommend this book? Only if you want to read something completely and utterly absurd. 

Thursday, December 1, 2016

Obedience to Authority: The Experiment That Challenged Human Nature

This semester I was aiming to read one work book (or 5 journal articles) per week to stay on top of my field. I didn't quite succeed the way I hoped, but I still read a great deal. (See Blackballed, Savage Inequalities, and The Prize.) This is a classic that I should have read years ago: Stanley Milgram's Obedience to Authority.

In the 1950's, a young psychologist has a difficult time wrapping his head around how a large group of people, namely the Nazis, could carry out such heinous orders that involve the death of over 6 million people. Were they horrible people who secretly harbored sadistic tendencies, or was there a greater force at work, namely, obedience to authority? Dr. Stanley Milgram set out to find an answer by creating one of the most famous experiments in the history of psychology.

Two participants are brought into a room, but one is actually working for the experiment (we call this a confederate). They are assigned roles of teacher and learner, the teacher reading a list of vocabulary words that the learner has to memorize. The subject always "picks" the role of teacher. Every time the learner is quizzed and gets a question wrong, he must be shocked by the teacher at progressively higher voltages. As the learner continues to get more wrong, the shocks go up the scale until they reach a maximum of 450 V. How many people will insist on stopping the experiment? How many people will go to the end simply because they are told to? You might be surprised.

Several years back I had a conversation with one of my roommates about this experiment. She swore up-and-down that she would have never got all the way to the end, but I seriously doubt that she's correct about her own estimation. Most people would say they would never go to the end – most people would say they are "good people." However, based on the law of averages, she most likely would have. In fact, knowing her as well as I did, she absolutely would have listened  to and obeyed authority and gone all the way to the end. We all want to think that were special and unique, but the reality is that were are all average. We are all the kind of people would probably go to the end.

This is one of the top 10 most well-known psychological experiments that has ever been conducted. Sure, there were methodological flaws (which every experiment has), but this book lays out not just the initial experiment but the dozens that followed the original. We also know that long after Milgram finished his series, this experiment has been replicated again and again. However, just the replications in this book are astounding. The variations on the relationship between the participants in the experimenter are fascinating, from whether or not you should wear a lab coat, to the location of the experiments, to the proximity of the learner, to more than one experimenter, The results are fascinating. Very few people quit early, and a decent amount go until the end. However, based on the factors altered, the numbers change.

Ultimately Milgram finds that self-proclaimed good people will easily obey authority with and without question. The end of the book breaks down the process of how large scale organizations break down individual members in order to get them to follow authority. I read it completely astounded, only because it made such complete sense that I couldn't believe it. The stripping of the individual's autonomy, The putting in place of authority figures, and the structures in place to get The little guy to listen to those in charge is something that rings true even to this day. It's historically accurate, and contemporary at the same time. This book will never go out of style because it is as appropriate today in 2016 as it was in 1962.