Monthly Archives: June 2013

Henry a Psychopath?

Henry+VIIIThe following article is a guest post by Kyra Kramer, author of Blood Will Tell: A Medical Explanation for the Tyranny of Henry VIII.

Henry VIII remains a titan in the public imagination, and a certain amount of sensationalism comes with his notoriety. And by “a certain amount” I mean “a whole big bunch”. The latest headline to trumpet Henry’s infamy popped up on his birthday, declaring “Henry VIII Would Be A Modern Day Psychopath: When ranked against the ‘psychopathic spectrum’, the king – who beheaded two of his wives – scored 174 against a ‘starting’ psychopath score of 168”.

Huh.

Now, I have been “interviewed” by the press. I have had several friends and colleagues who have also been “interviewed” by the press. The biggest takeaway I’ve gotten from those experiences has been that there is nothing on this sweet green earth that cannot be spun, skewed, or stretched to make a story a little more catchy. This is absolutely painful to academics who would murder their careers if they ever misquoted or paraphrased this loosely with someone else’s words; we are left gaping like a landed trout when it happens because it was unfathomable that anyone would do such a thing. Furthermore, when reporters just flat out make stuff up (or get it wrong if you are feeling generous) we are even more gobsmacked because falsifying information or giving non-factual data is anathema to the academic mindset. It usually doesn’t occur to us that a non-tabloid professional would brazenly do such a thing until it is too late and we are staring bumfuzzled at words/thoughts that we did not say being attributed to us.

Therefore, I am not going to critique Professor Kevin Dutton’s findings or the his book, The Wisdom of Psychopaths, until I know more about what it actually says.  I’ll just content myself by stating that the information as it is presented in the article is mostly crap.

It is crap first and foremost because it takes Henry VIII out of historical context. Professor Dutton is a psychologist and I am fairly sure he knows his stuff since he is an honorary affiliate member of Magdalen College, which is part of Oxford University. Nevertheless, psychology is not history. Nor is it particularly adept at looking at the sociocultural context of its subjects. In fact, psychological theories are based largely on “weird” people, i.e  the subject of psychology experiments are usually Western, Educated, from Industrialized and relatively Rich societies which are usually in Democratic countries.

Without a doubt, Professor Dutton would be an expert in finding a psychopath or measure psychopathic qualities/tendencies in modern weird humans. However, Henry VIII was more royal “we” than royal weird. He was Western and Educated, but his country was not particularly industrialized, or comparatively rich, and beyond contestation not a democracy. How does a psychopath test apply to a man who was raised to believe that royalty was appointed by God Himself and the a monarch was divinely ordained on the great chain of being as an inherently better person than all other men? How do you find someone to be egocentric when they have been taught from birth that the King and England are one and the same? How do you judge a person as ruthless that has been carefully schooled in what happens to rulers who fail to be ruthless?

As for scoring Henry VIII “very highly for emotional detachment” … in what decade? Prior to 1535 that man was as emotionally detached as Bella Swan in those odes to dysfunctional co-dependance, the Twilight books. He was devoted to his first wife, Katherina  (that is how she signed her name) of Aragon, and was considered amazingly faithful to her by the standards of his time. David Starkey even called Henry almost “uxorious” in his adoration of his regal wife. When he later wanted to divorce her and try for a male heir he ripped holes in the fabric of European religion and politics to marry Anne Boleyn rather than make an “acceptable” marriage with a foreign noblewoman or princess.

Yeah, that’s really emotionally detached right there.

Even after he became mentally compromised (if the Kell/McLeod theory is correct) in the early 1530s he still focused a great deal of attention on the woman he was in love with. His love for Anne didn’t turn into indifference — it became scalding and implacable hate. He practically set up a shrine to Jane Seymour when she died shortly after the birth of their son. He could not keep a politically expedient marriage to Anna of Cleves functioning because he didn’t love her enough. He went bonkers when he found out his fifth wife, Katheryn Howard, had not been a virgin when they wed. He wanted to be married so much that he all but forced Kateryn Parr to accept his proposal.

Jeeze Louise, how emotionally attached do you have to be to not be a psychopath?

Personally, I don’t think Henry VIII is a psychopath when he is viewed in historical context. If the Kell/McLeod theory holds water, his crimes were largely the result of uncontrollable paranoia and mental deterioration. If the theory is not correct, his actions could just as easily be ascribed to a man suffering from a delusional disorder — which opens another can of worms because how do you determine if a King is feeling “grandiose”? If the King had paranoid delusions, how would that effect his psychopathic score?

I am actually interested in reading Professor Dutton’s book, because armchair evals done by experts fascinate me. But unless the book offers much more compelling evidence than the article suggests I will continue to consider Henry VIII to not be a psychopath.

Then again, some people argue that like Norman Bates Henry VIII was a little obsessed with his mother

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“Dirty Little Secret”: ‘Dandy Entertainment’ or Media Malpractice?

Jodia Arias: Dirty Little Secret

Jodia Arias: Dirty Little Secret

 One of the central themes of my book, The Creation of Anne Boleyn: A New Look at England’s Most Notorious Queen, is how slyly gossip, stereotype, and novelistic invention can creep into the realm of “fact.” It can happen over centuries, as it did with Anne Boleyn, whose political enemies bequeathed to generations of historians, novelists, and film-makers a skanky schemer Anne who to this day has a fierce grip on pop culture.  In 2013, it can happen overnight, as it did last night with Lifetime’s “Jodi Arias: Dirty Little Secret.”

Contrary to some expectations, I’m not going to complain here about the all-too-familiar archetype of the provocative sexual temptress that the movie, playing fast and loose with the facts, tailored Arias to conform to.  This is Lifetime, after all, and skanky females are in vogue nowadays.  So I won’t harp on the (invented from scratch) scene in which Jodi introduces herself to Travis as he takes a leak in the men’s room.  Or her uninterruptedly slutty behavior throughout.  What had me wanting to pitch The Book of Mormon (had I owned it) at the television screen was the movie’s conversion of Travis Alexander from an unabashed and often dominant partner in a mutually escalating sexual addiction (you don’t have to take Jodi’s word for it; just listen to the orgasm-accompanied tapes, which feature—among other things—Travis telling Jodi he’d like to take her into the woods, “tie you to a tree and put it in your ass”) to an earnest innocent who tried to resist the forbidden fruit but couldn’t help but succumb when it was thrust so provocatively in his face. I mean, what man could?

The writers of the film, Richard Blaney and Gregory Small (couldn’t they have found a female collaborator?) have tried to justify this conversion (as far-fetched to anyone who has actually followed the trial as Jodi’s “conversion” to Mormonism) as done out of respect for the feelings of Alexander’s family, who had already suffered not only the loss of Travis but having to listen to him arouse Jodi with his fantasies on the “sex tapes.”  They were not going to repeat that torment! Their responsibility, Small has said, seemingly forgetting that he was writing a movie not concluding arguments at a trial, “was to speak for Travis.”  As for Jodi, “We never really doubted that she was the bad guy” says Blaney.

Well yes, if by “bad guy” you mean “murderer.”  But with a movie like this (“tucked handily,” writes People.com “between the May verdict for the murder trial and the July retrial in the life-or-death penalty phase”) now in the popular consciousness, it’s going to be hard to find a jury who don’t see Jodi as guilty, not only of a horrible murder, but the corruption of an innocent.   “There is no doubt after viewing the film,” writes Sasha Brown-Worsham in Stir, “Travis Alexander was the victim in every sense of the word.”  And by “every” she does mean sexual.  Admitting “the film has Arias manipulating and twisting every turn so that Alexander had almost no choice but to succumb to her charms,” she concludes that “seeing it played out in this way did make me look at Arias differently.”  I strongly suspect that she is far from the only one.  Jodi is now inscribed not only in the book of famous murderesses, but also in the cultural catalogue of libidinous Eves, forcing that apple into poor Adam’s mouth.

People.com calls the film “dandy entertainment.”  I call it media malpractice.

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Tips For Avoiding the Executioner

Jodi Arias on trial

Jodi Arias on trial

This Saturday, June 22, Lifetime premieres “Jodi Arias: Dirty Little Secret,” and I am unashamed to admit I will be watching. I am a compulsive follower of the Jodi Arias trial and media/social media reactions to it. My daughter and husband have been openly disgusted; my all-purpose excuse (for housewives, dance moms, etc.)—“It’s my job to know about our culture”—wasn’t quite adequate to justify my riveted attention to the ravings of Nancy Grace, the bullying of Juan Martinez or the creepily detached testimony of Jodi Arias herself. Lasting much longer than anyone had anticipated, the trial was so repetitive and the commentators so relentlessly anti-Arias that after awhile I could write the script for each day’s proceedings by myself. There was no startling “If the gloves fit, you must acquit” moment; Arias, after a couple of botched attempts at lying, admitted to the murder at the beginning of the trial. The question that remained: Did she deserve to die for her crime?

Arias had no prior record of criminal activity, clearly had serious “personality issues,” and the gruesome murder, rather than a carefully planned stealth attack seemed—to me, anyway—the wacked-out, bursting into chaos of an erotic attachment that had gone over the edge of sanity. Yet trial-watchers seemed as eager for the death penalty had Arias been a cold-hearted, serial child-dismemberer. Why did people hate her so much? It seemed to have more to do with the fact that she did yoga exercises at the police station and applied make-up before interviews than with the crime itself. Over and over, Arias just wouldn’t behave the way people felt she “should.”

Major case in point: the words “I’m sorry.” When interviewed by reporters the evening before her sentencing, Arias—astoundingly—refused every opportunity to break down in tears and beg forgiveness of the Alexander family. One reporter, however, persisted longer than the others: “Why not just say you are sorry?” He seemed intent to wring precisely those words out of her. Rather mechanically and unconvincingly, Arias eventually relented and said them. But then—and this is the point that tells—she went on to explain her hesitation: “It seems like saying those words–‘I’m sorry’ [quote, unquote]–is so inadequate because it doesn’t encompass the scope of the remorse that I feel and what I wish that I could change if I had the chance to do it.”

This is, of course, absolutely true. It may, in fact, have been the truest thing said at the trial or in interviews. To imagine that such horror could be wiped away by those few perfunctory words, by now so Hallmark, so “Love Story” in their sentiment, is to be so dominated by meaningless convention—and the desire that it bend those who resist to their knees—that the true seriousness of the crime is demeaned. “Quote/unquote” Arias had attached to the words “I’m sorry”; she knew the words were pure gesture, and she resisted. It’s the requirement of a parent from a child who has disobeyed, a mantra of submission. And absolutely inadequate, as Arias rightly said. But the same snake that hissed at Arias to speak the greeting card words that would show she was “human” also chewed up the precision and intelligence of her reply into yet another show of her “coldness.”

This had in fact happened many times over the course of the trial, as Arias’s attempts to describe her relationship with Alexander and her shame over the things that they had done together in terms that had a precision of meaning—a truthfulness—for her were continually interpreted as evasions, rationalizations, and, most heinous crime of all for a female defendant, lack of emotion. Why wouldn’t she cry? Why didn’t she break down? How dare she comb her hair and put on lip-gloss before her television interviews!

Jean Harris prepares for court

Jean Harris prepares for court

It put me in mind of the terrible trouble that Jean Harris, who killed diet doctor Herman Tarnower, got into with the jury, press and public for dressing too well, appearing “haughty,” and refusing to exhibit an appropriate level of remorse, when it seemed clear that with her precise grammar and mink hat she was only trying to preserve what little pride she had left. There is abundant evidence that both Tarnower and Travis Alexander engaged in the kind of seductive, vacillating behavior that could drive a precariously poised woman over the edge. This doesn’t mean, of course, that either of them “deserved to die” (another blunt moral mantra that HLN is so fond of.) But it does help explain why both Jean and Jodi each seemed more intent on maintaining dignity, composure, and showing that were not deranged love slaves than on winning the pity of the jury. They were ashamed—Jodi, indeed, seemed more ashamed of the sex acts she and Travis performed than the hideous murder she committed—and couldn’t bear to humiliate themselves further.

Jean and Jodi also put me in mind of another woman on trial—this one almost surely innocent of the crimes with which she was charged—whose “haughty” behavior left her disastrously vulnerable to the condemnation of public opinion. Anne Boleyn, both before and after she fell out of favor with Henry VIII, had a great deal going against her. She had supplanted a beloved queen. She was suspiciously “French.” And she had an irritating habit of speaking her mind rather than obeying convention. She “could not pretend to be a fool or a nonentity,” historian David Loades put it well, “and the self-effacement customary in a royal consort did not suit her style at all…” At her own trial (for incest and treason), she seemed to recognize that this failure to submit played a large role in her downfall. Insisting that she was clear of all charges laid against her, she acknowledged that she was guilty of one thing: failing to tender the king “that humility which his goodness to me, and the honors to which he raised me, merited.” By then, of course, the damage was fatally done.

Dorothy Tutin as Anne Boleyn on trial

Dorothy Tutin as Anne Boleyn on trial

It would have been unthinkable for a sixteenth-century queen, especially one as proud as Anne, to plead for her life from a jury so below her station. But this is 2013, and here is my advice to any woman brought to trial, whether she is innocent or guilty of the crimes with which she is charged: Cry. Beg. Do not try to explain yourself with precision. Do not try to maintain composure. Do not appear too intelligent. Never demonstrate any pride in any aspect of your being. Break down. Intone—and, although it is virtually an impossible task to turn a cliché into a believable emotion, make sure to utter with conviction the conventional mantras that show you have been properly humbled. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry.”

Susan Bordo most recent book, The Creation of Anne Boleyn: A New Look at England’s Most Notorious Queen, was published in April by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

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