Thursday, March 29, 2012


For fifty years (since 1961) I’ve tried to understand cases like that of the death of Marie Heavyrunner, not just because of knowing many members of that particular family (though that’s part of it) but because suddenly I was on the Blackfeet reservation and in the middle of things, including the history of the area. Heavyrunner is the name of the peace chief who was shot by cavalry in a winter massacre. But maybe because of the books I read or because of my humanities teachers in high school or because of my college courses, I want to know how things like Marie’s murder could happen. I am less interested in punishment than in causes.

Many people avoid such tragedies. Since they are “unsolvable,” why do more than read about them in the newspaper and shake one’s head? But I went to the U of Chicago Div School to learn how to think, was a transcriber at the U of Chicago Law School where I learned more, and now that I’m back next to the rez, I’m reading books that are finally beginning to pick the locks of the human brain. One of the most recent and most helpful is “Who’s in Charge? Free Will and the Science of the Brain,” by Michael S. Gazzaniga.

Originally I was after Gazzaniga’s work (split brain research, which works with patients who have had the connection between the two sides of the brain cut to prevent epileptic seizures) because of the “neuronal work platform” he identified in the left brain half. In this book I think it is now called “The Interpreter,” which is a little problematic since that summons up an earnest person hunched at a table with earphones listening to Chinese and speaking English. There is no person. There is a nexus of nerves that receive processed information from smaller nexuses (nexi?) all over the cerebrum where each sorts input from the senses and pass the result to the “Interpreter,” which decides what to do about it.

At the same time I’m reading “Madness and the Criminal Law” by Norval Morris, a brilliant and humane man who taught at the law school but is now deceased. This book (I got it used for a few dollars on the Internet) addresses the problem of what to do with someone like “Stormy” whose act is so abhorrent and out of the ordinary (not an accidental death and not an incidental victim) that it could be defined as madness. This is the book in which Morris first invents the “Brothel Boy” who is convicted of murder and hanged, which raises many questions for Morris’ avatar, Eric Blair, who wrote under the pen name of George Orwell. It is clear that race and culture are powerful forces which provide varying assumptions to “the Interpreter.” For instance, the boy is retarded and knows no other life than being a servant in the brothel where he was born. To the English, this might be a mitigating factor. In Burma at the time this amounted to “who needs him?”

These two authors, Morris and Gazzaniga, devote their lives to understanding human suffering and how humans should be held responsible for what they do. This is an old discussion and yet it is renewed and invigorated now more than ever because of new tools for studying the brain, new understandings of how culture develops and evolves, and an entire reframing of the cultural arrangements for wealth, sex, and violence. You can pull Leschi into this context.

I was half-listening to the radio yesterday, one of those mid-day discussion programs on NPR that tries to be sane. A diplomat was trying to assess the impact on the present anguish in Syria of the Arab League, which has appealed to the tyrants not to kill their own people. The diplomat said, “This is a new idea to the Arab nations. For centuries and centuries those tyrants have killed their own people in great numbers and didn’t think it is important to worry about. They think it is their entitlement.” Later in the day I was hearing discussion about the bill to give all Americans entitlement to health care -- indeed, obligatory health insurance. I think part of the bill relates to mental health care, a particularly sharp issue when it comes to PTSD which sometimes causes delusions in which former soldiers kill their loved ones.

Everything is related. Up to a point. In the meantime, I learn about how to sort out such matters and I keep my focus by thinking about the reality of where I am. I’m not an interpreter -- yet. I’m only beginning. Nothing else seems very important. I try to look at it all “as though I were a Martian” with as few preconceptions as possible, but no one really achieves that -- just a far higher awareness of how hard it is to understand other people, especially those that society stigmatizes and rejects, even crushes because “who needs them?” If I were serving a congregation, a little delegation would come to urge me to turn to other topics. I know this from experience.

And yet the centerpoint of my reflections is liturgy based on the idea of “the liminal space” which I take to be something like the “neuronal working platform” which is also identified as “the interpreter.” The evolution of human brains and the evolution of culture seem to be rooted in the ability of the brain to evolve, especially in terms of social relationships. It appears now that it is not the size of the brain that makes us human but that all these small complexities of brain systems, guided by one big brain system and mostly unconscious, can reconsider its assumptions in order to survive. This is better done in “liminal space.” But there is genetic evidence that some people are born wanting to prevent change and others come equipped with a yearning for change.

As Gazzaniga and his crew look at brains and the evidence about them (there are many teams working in many places) they see the uniqueness of each person’s brain. The “little gray cells” develop molecularly, electrochemically, in response to what happens to them. Some people are missing one or more little processing centers or their sensory equipment doesn’t pick up the same information or they learned their basic assumptions in one culture but then were transported to another one. In a sense that happens to all of us since the culture changes around us.

In the 19th century if a man killed his mother, maybe in a rage or maybe out of greed, he would probably be hung like Leschi and the Brothel Boy. We don’t do that now. One of the things that has changed is that in the West we are reluctant to kill people. In addition, since this was a case of people defined as Native Americans, the story would be either romanticized or demonized, seen as somehow apart from the rest of society. I’m resisting that. I am out-of-step with most of today’s American culture.

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